Thursday, 31 March 2005

Death's just another optimisation problem to Engineers

Soon(?) to be published as /book/predator.

Consent, Gutfull, Gutting, Gutted, Hunting, Bill Me, Getting It, Losing It, Ides, March, Foolish, Fools, Mayday

Just read it all. My words can't do it justice.

The Villain Of the Piece

UPDATE : More about The Author.

Picking Up a Stick

I've just picked up one of the unaddressed sticks from Normblog.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
US Army Field Manual TM31-210 Improvised Munitions Handbook. Sorry, no link, you'll have to look it up yourselves.

Picric acid can be used as a booster explosive in detonators (Section VI, No. 13), a high explosive charge, or as an intermediate to preparing lead picrate (Section I, No. 20) or DDNP (Section I, No. 19)....
I wouldn't make being a Fireman a hazardous occupation, but I'd certainly make insurance rates on factories making their equipment go through the roof. Along with the machine tools in them. If they ban Aspirin, there's soap, or flour, or aluminium foil, any of a number of other materials that can be used to make some quite satisfactory bangs.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
That's the definition of a crush isn't it?. It's always with a fictional character we've built in our heads, not the actual person who we don't know well enough. OK, Kim Possible. Green eyes and red hair.

The last book you bought is:
Thomas the Tank Engine Vol 4, along with a dozen other children's books, at a fete. Andrew loves them as bedtime stories.

The last book you read:
Between Silk and Cyanide.
In 1942, with a black-market chicken tucked under his arm by his mother, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe.
What are you currently reading?
The post I'm writing, what else? Apart from that, the proceedings of the 2004 SimTecT Simulations Technology conference, which I've just received on CD.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:
  1. A Facsimile edition of the first version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, from 1768. The medical sections are useless except for amusement, the geographical ones reasonably good for navigation (even if a little dated regarding cities, nations etc), but the rest has much practical help on making ropes, log cabins etc.
  2. SAS Survival Handook for obvious reasons.
  3. A Canticle for Liebowitz - excellent and under-appreciated SF book. Failing that, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a better book, but better known.
  4. Annotated Shakespeares' Complete Works - always wanted to read the lot, never had the time. The best annotation I know of is Asimov's.
  5. US Army Survival Manual FM21-76 - I'm a computer scientist. Of course I'll have a backup, and use it to cross-check too.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
The first three people requesting one in the comments section - because I got this one as a Freebie from Norm. In fact, make that *anybody* who requests one, in the same spirit as his post.

Free Offer of Sticks taken up so far by :
Stephen Waters Casual Blog
The Unchanging Reality

Tuesday, 29 March 2005

Monty Don's Schooldays

From the Times Educational Supplement, an article about Monty Don's Schooldays :
I was kicked out of primary school for putting nettles down girls' knickers and getting more black marks in one term than anyone else had in their entire school career.

So at the age of eight I became a boarder a little earlier than planned. I went to an all-boys school, which no longer exists, with the spectacular name of Bigshotte. The headmaster had been a boy at the school in the 1920s and it hadn't changed from his day. The curriculum was based on Latin, Greek, French, maths, English, history, geography and divinity. There was no science; everything was geared towards the common entrance exam.

Classes were small; the biggest was 12, and it wasn't unusual to be in a group of eight. We were kept busy from morning until night. It was harsh - we were always hungry and cold - but we had 60 acres of woods to play in.

Ian McWhinnie, who taught English and drama, was different from the other teachers. He brought a tape recorder into class and we listened to radio plays he'd recorded. He would play a piece of music and get us to paint a picture of the music and then write a poem about the picture. I took to his teaching style, and Mr McWhinnie nurtured and encouraged me. I wrote poetry and entered national competitions and won them. He put on a play every term and I took part. We did TSEliot's Murder in the Cathedral and I was Beckett.

With hindsight, Mr McWhinnie wasn't a particularly nice man. He had a terrible temper and could be a bully; screaming and shouting at little boys, reducing them to tears. He didn't do it to me because I was his favourite. He was incredibly involved and passionate. His great gift as a teacher was that he took us all seriously. He asked what you thought about things and gave the impression that he really wanted to know. If you did a painting he'd put it on the wall and bring in people to look at it. He was the first person to teach me that expressing yourself through writing, music, painting or acting was something to be treasured.
Monty Don's memory plays him false in only two regards : by 1968, a demountable Science classroom, complete with Bunsen Burners has been set up. I learned about fractional distillation of oil there, by actually doing it.

And Mr McWhinnie (also known as 'Tyrannosaurus Rex') was a pretty good bloke, despite his spectacular temper. With hindsight. Certainly a helluva good teacher. But a dressing-down from him was something that would be etched in anyone's memory, still fresh after 40 years. I speak from personal experience. He really, really cared.

In all other regards - and I do mean *all* - Don's 100% accurate. The Spartan regime, straight out of "Kim". The Boarding-School Porridge. The Cocoa after Prep.

The place was something of an anachronism, a "relic of a bygone era" even in 1967. I learned how to use chopsticks from a boy whose Father was an RAF officer in Kuala Lumpur. But we watched Dr Who on the School TV in glorious Black-and-White - so there's some continuity with today, 4 years into the 21st century.

Don doesn't mention some of the other teachers - such as the very young and wet-behind-the-ears Mr Perham (now the Very Reverend Michael Perham, Dean of Derby Cathedral). Or Mr Black, one of the kindliest men I've ever known. Or Monsieur Guteron, the French teacher with the perpetual sneer on his face - which unbeknownst to any of us, was a souvenir of a lengthy session of torture by the Gestapo, he was a true hero of the Resistance. Something I learned only a few years ago. Major Don (Maths and Science). Mr Weston(History). Or the headmaster, Mr Marshall, and his dachsund, Otto.

And I'm still referring to him as "Don" rather than "Monty Don", just as everyone was known by their surnames - Brain, Chancellor-Senior, Chancellor-Junior, Don... down to the Zygmunds, Senior, Junior, Minimus and Quartus.

Not quite the happiest days of my life - but certainly not far off.

STOP PRESS: I now see that he's now the Right Reverend Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester.

Calling UNIT

From the Sunday Mail(UK) :
ARMED police sprang into action after spotting A DALEK outside Parliament.
As you do.
'Cars were grinding to a halt in disbelief when they saw a Dalek trundling over Tower Bridge.

'And we were mobbed by Japanese tourists desperate for photos.

'But within seconds of the Dalek arriving outside Parliament, armed police officers came running up.

'It's fair to say they were not amused at being invaded by a time-travelling robot. 'They asked us what the hell we were doing, and then marched us as far away from Parliament as they could.

'I can laugh about it now, but it was pretty scary at the time.'
No doubt. Though one has to wonder, how does a Dalek "March"?

Monday, 28 March 2005

Easter Eggs

For those in need of a refreshing pause : A simple but enjoyable Flash game :Chain Reaction. This game can be played in a few spare seconds, or a few hours.
The objective of the game is to get a chain reaction of tiles as long as possible.

For those of philosophical or theological disposition : Sacred Texts On the Web . Everything from the Talmud to UFOs.
Indian Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs [1912]
This collection of Indian folklore, retold for younger readers 'of all ages', includes many stories from the Jataka, a Buddhist compilation of fables.

For the Necromantic Uber-Geek : Installing Linux on a dead Badger.
Default partitioning: /root goes in the spinal cord and brain stem, /swap and /soul go on the left hemisphere of the brain, and /usr, /var, and /home go on the right. If you're working with a badger with damage to one of those areas, you can repartition one or the other brain hemisphere, but as noted in Step 2, using a brain-damaged badger is not recommended and may interfere with successful installation.

Finally, Easter Egg Central. for a list of programmatic Easter eggs and how to find them.
Easter eggs are undocumented bits of code that come hidden inside operating systems, applications, Web browsers, games, and other programs. Easter eggs are usually very well hidden and requires knowledge of arcane, undocumented commands. Click in the proper place, edit the right file, or type in the secret sequence, and you'll be rewarded with anything from a simple scrolling list of the names of the programmers who created the product to a full-blown game you can play.
Hope you like them.

Fedsat's Ground Station

Seen over at CPE Systems, there's a very neat pdf presentation by Andrew Bish on Fedsat's Ground Station.

The presentation is heavy on the graphics. If you want to see what telemetry from a satellite looks like, this is probably the best place to go. There was lots of stuff there that even I hadn't seen before - such as actual downloaded imagery from the star camera.

More on Fedsat in previous posts, or just use the search facility on the left.

Only in Australia

From the Sydney Morning Herald :
Australian astronaut Andy Thomas has attacked the state of Australian space science on the eve of his participation in a historic shuttle flight.

Dr Thomas, a three-time space travel veteran who is scheduled to blast off on May 15 for a trip to the International Space Station, spoke of his disappointment that Australia was not doing more to further space science.

"It's a tragedy Australia is not actively involved in this program," he said from Houston's Johnson Space Centre.

"I don't wear an Australian flag on my flight suit because Australia doesn't support me or sponsor me.

"I don't have the direct support of the Australian Government."

Dr Thomas also lamented a decline in funding for research in Australia and numbers of Australians studying science and engineering.

His comments last week won the support of Australian space scientists and entrepreneurs who called for greater funding for space in the upcoming May federal budget.
I dare say that any other country - any other country - would move Heaven and Earth to have their country's flag on the spacesuit of one of their nationals.

It's not as if private industry is supplying great quantities of largesse for space research either. Or even small quantities.


Sunday, 27 March 2005


Or at least iNTj. That's what I am according to this personality test, based upon Jung and Myers-Briggs.

I've had similar results before, so whether they're correct or not, they're at least consistent.

Under this theory, the 16 basic personality types are:
  • Guardians
    • Supervisor ESTJ
    • Inspector ISTJ
    • Provider ESFJ
    • Protector ISFJ
  • Artisans
    • Promoter ESTP
    • Crafter ISTP
    • Performer ESFP
    • Composer ISFP
  • Idealists
    • Teacher ENFJ
    • Counselor INFJ
    • Champion ENFP
    • Healer INFP
  • Rationals
    • Fieldmarshal ENTJ
    • Mastermind INTJ
    • Inventor ENTP
    • Architect INTP
I suspect that other names for these personality types would be equally accurate, and not nearly so complimentary.
In a sense, Masterminds approach reality as they would a giant chess board, always seeking strategies that have a high payoff, and always devising contingency plans in case of error or adversity.
OK, it's a fair cop.

But it has its advantages when designing safety-critical systems where people's lives are at stake. Multiple levels of defence, not just preventing problems, but implementing lots of facilities for ameliorating and minimising the extent of disasters, no matter how improbable they may seem at first sight. And, all modesty aside, I'm good at foreseeing problems before they occur. Which rather makes up for failings in other areas.

Hat Tip : The Armchair General article on Understanding you local Grognard. A fancy name for Wargaming Maven.

Now back to my fiendishly brilliant plan for taking over the world.

Que Schirra, Schirra

Seen via Rocket Jones, an extremely irreverant and informative website,
Wally SchirraSchirra was named as one of the "Original Seven" Mercury Astronauts on April 9, 1959. NASA announced that the seven men, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Schirra, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, had been selected from among 110 of the nation's top military test pilots to train as astronauts for Project Mercury, the first phase of the U.S. space program, involving one-man suborbital and orbital missions. Schirra, Shepard and Carpenter were from the Navy; Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton were from the Air Force; and Glenn was from the Marine Corps.
Although he's older than Adam (and is the only person ever to crew Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions), he still hasn't lost his whimsical sense of humour. His site also contains a number of interesting things I didn't know, viz;
[Schirra] Blew hatch on carrier deck and wounded right hand from recoil of push button, proving that Grissom did not blow hatch on his flight.
..otherwise his hand would have been wounded too. Right.

Then there's this old joke:
There was one debriefing that was great fun. Jocelyn Gill, a NASA astronomer, was in charge of an experiment that involved taking photographs of the heavens. Dr. Gill was particularly interested in something the scientists call the dim light phenomenon. For this experiment, she had supplied me with very fast film, ASA 4,000, which was loaded into my Hasselblad camera. So I decided that here was a chance to settle the question of the fireflies once and for all.

I knew the fireflies were frozen molecules of vapor vented from the spacecraft, and they were with us constantly in the form of a fuzzy cloud. We could distinguish them from each other, since they reflected the different colors of the spectrum from the sun's rays. They appeared to John Glenn as fireflies. To others taking a quick look, as Tom Stafford did at the moment of rendezvous, they resembled a star field. As I said before, their source was water released in the heat exchange process that cooled our space suits. Another source was urine. "We peed all over the world," I'm fond of saying, despite the groans that come from the audience.

After the rendezvous, when we had some spare time, Tom and I snapped color photographs of the molecular cloud, one every forty five minutes. We logged each shot with a label - urine drops at sunrise, urine drops at sunset, etc. when the photos were processed at the cape, they were beautiful, and I ordered a set of prints. I had them on the table during an astronomy debriefing, mixed with other celestial photos. Dr. Gill noticed one and asked, "Wally, what constellation is this?'

"Jocelyn,", I replied, "that's the constellation Urion."
Schirra is currently a private consultant in Rancho Santa Fe, California, a public speaker and a television commercial spokesman for Actifed, the cold remedy he took on Apollo 7.
A man not to be sneezed at.

Saturday, 26 March 2005

A Guide to Gurus

Seen via Guruphiliac (which has its own post on Guru Websites, Pro and Con) is Sarlo's Guru Rating Service.

These aren't expert programmers, they're the real thing. Or at least, the original. If you thought US TV evangelists were masters of the con game, well, in India the gentle art of separating a fool from his or her money has been refined over thousands of years.

Of course, some are not just original, but genuine. Darn few though.

And on that note, here's a a random Zen Koan.

The North Korean Waiting Game

From the New York Times :
In interview after interview, they spoke of the huge shift in perspective they experienced upon entering China. "When I lived in Korea, I never thought my leaders were bad," said one woman in her 50's, a farmer who had brought her grown daughter to Yanji recently from her home not far from the other side of the border for treatment of an intestinal ailment. "When I got here, I learned that Chinese can travel wherever they want in the world as long as they have the money. I learned that South Korea is far richer, even than China."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader. The woman said her daughter had decided to stay in China, but that she would soon return home, after illegally earning money doing piecework for a factory here.

North Korea's oppressive control of its citizens through policing and propaganda could be felt through the words of another woman. "Until the end of the 1980's, we were convinced we were the greatest country on earth, and in fact, many people still believe this," the woman said. "We've always been taught that other countries are poorer than we are. They say that South Korea is full of beggars and that people can't afford even to send their children to school."

This woman, a rural dweller in her early 40's, said she had never heard anyone blame Mr. Kim for her country's problems. On the contrary, he was "sincerely adored," she insisted, because of an all-pervasive personality cult. "If I had ever had a chance to meet him face to face, I would have been moved to tears," she said. "We really believed that wherever he went, flowers bloomed. And if he or some other high official arrived in our area and said he needed my daughter, well, we would have been honored."

Asked how they felt now, after having seen some of the outside world, each person interviewed said his or her illusions about North Korea had been shattered. "There is no way I can believe my government again," said one person who had been in China only a few weeks. "They spend all their time celebrating the leaders. There is one thing I have understood in China, and that is, as long as there is no freedom, we will never get richer."
The days of the DPRK are numbered, and the quantity is dictated (so to speak) by the cross-border flow of information.

The problem with dealing with North Korea by military means is that the vast majority of its citizens are genuinely convinced that they are living in a "People's Paradise", while the rest of the world is in a state of poverty and barbarism.

State media can show, for example, that of the millions of people in the USA, almost none of them have water buffalos for ploughing - and most don't even have a small vegetable garden.

The border with South Korea is as close to hermetically sealed as it's possible to be. But the border with China has always been more porous. With the expansion of the Chinese economy, the North Koreans along the Yalu now have an opportunity to make comparisons.

Because of the restrictions on travel within North Korea, it will take some time for the information to flow throughout the rest of the country. I can't say whether it will be weeks, months, years or decades. But flow it will, and possibly sooner than we expect. The question is, will the Juche Nomenklatura go out with a whimper, or a bang?

From CBC :
North Korea is ready to go to war with the United States over the North Korean nuclear program, a Thai newspaper quoted a North Korean envoy saying Friday.

From the Korean Herald :
KT Corp., South Korea's largest telecom provider, reached an agreement with North Korean authorities yesterday to set up a fixed-line telephone network within the Gaeseong industrial complex, located just north of the inter-Korean border.

The company expects to start telephone and fax services May 31. That will allow for direct, cross-border telephone calls from either side. However, telephone calls made from Gaeseong will be limited to South Korea and other places within the industrial complex.

From the China Post :
The countless public executions Park Kwang Il saw growing up in North Korea are still vivid in his mind, from the stones stuffed in the mouths of the condemned to halt their cries against the regime to the crack of the three deadly shots ending their lives.
Park said that public executions, staged before entire villages, were common in the North -- whose Stalinist government clutches to power by keeping its people in constant fear of the consequences of questioning the regime.

A condemned prisoner, already brutally beaten up, is blindfolded and tied to a pole, Park said. His mouth is stuffed with a stone to prevent him from denouncing Kim Jong Il's regime.

The firing squad usually fires at least three shots -- at the neck, waist and ankle, he said. The dead prisoner is then wrapped with a piece of cloth before being driven away.

The meeting at parliament was organized by the main opposition Grand National Party, which has criticized the current government's policy of engaging with North Korea to convince it to reform.

"North Korea's human rights problem is not just the problem of the Korean people, but the whole world," said Park Geun-hye, head of the party. "We can no longer just sit and watch this kind of cruelty continue in the North."
The trouble is, we not just can, but will. What alternative is there? But let us not forget the cost of this "waiting game", nor shrink from the first opportunity that comes along to end it. Because some people need reminding.

Friday, 25 March 2005

What's "LEGO" in Klingon?

An e-mail from Edward Lipsett on the sfconsim-l mailing list :
Klingon legoIf you write a computer program that lets you make virtual Legomodels, then build a bunch of virtual Lego starships, then use (an)other program to animate your starships, then write more programs to create special effects, then put them all together to create an animated cartoon, then dub it in Klingon and put it on your website for the world to enjoy, just how geeky are you?
Off the scale, obviously.

For Geek Wannabes, there's, er, this.


I'm Alan E Brain, and I'm a Wargamer.

There, it's out of the bag. I get my jollies out of creating and playing "military simulations", be they they implemented on computer, on cardboard, or even the traditional toy soldiers. (I've had some little design input to all of the systems linked to).

I've also been involved in making non-commercial simulations, over at HMAS Watson, and the Combat Data Systems Centre (CDSC) at Fyshwick, amongst other places.

Unfortunately, I have to keep the two activities separate - gaming WW2 and Space Opera are safe enough, but nothing closer to reality unless doing defence work.

But it seems I'm not alone - the Australian Labor Party is into Wargaming too. From News Ltd :
Recluse former Labor leader Mark Latham will challenge his party's account of his election loss in a book to be published this year.
Mr Latham will set out his version of the campaign in a book by journalist Bernard Lagan to be called The Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy.

It is understood Mr Latham will question the handling by senior campaign officers of two prime election issues: interest rates and his time as mayor of Liverpool.

"There's quite a lot of what he thinks went wrong," a source who has seen the manuscript said yesterday.

"He has a very firm view of what went wrong, why it went wrong and who is to blame. And the party has an equally strong view of what went wrong, and they don't coincide."

ALP figures are aware of the general contents and want to be ready to counter Mr Latham's arguments.

"We war-gamed interest rates. We war-gamed Liverpool Council. He can't say he didn't know they would be issues," one senior Labor source said.
There you go. I've wargamed everything from Gaugamela to Albuera, River Plate to Java Sea. But never have I wargamed Liverpool Council.

I've come close though.

Thursday, 24 March 2005

In Re: Terri Schiavo

A Brain link, and a rather tragic one. My comments over at Rocket Jones from a few days ago.
From what I've read, no MRI or PET scan has ever been performed on the lady in question. There's some serious questions about *this case* that means you can't go by general principles. Ny initial reaction of "For God's sake, let her go in Peace!" has been changed by what research I've done, and I'm not sure now what the position is or should be.

Now it's become a political cause celebre the details and facts about what should have been a difficult but straightforward medical and ethical decision have become blurred by misinformation.
Or, as the Legal Blogger Par excellence, Eugene Volkh said at the time :
I know nothing about the Schiavo matter, and despite that have no opinion.
This is getting Icky. Really Icky.

For those with a stronger stomach than mine, I recommend the University of Miami Ethics Page on the subject.

There's one good thing: the ruckus about the "Big Picture" on great Ethical Issues is unlikely to make any difference to Ms Schiavo.

From Alas, A Blog :
It is true that given the poor resolution of this image, it's possible that some cortical tissue has been spared. But that doesn't matter. Whatever wisps of cortex we might be missing in this image are not enough to sustain behaviors that could differentiate Terri Schiavo from any other vertebrate. All the neural equipment you need to do ocular following and emotional responses is subcortical. All the neural equipment you need to be a self-aware, reasoning, behaving human being is cortical. And since i gather this image was made some time ago, the present condition of the brain can only be worse.

There is no way any qualified brain doctor or scientist could look at this image and suggest that significant recovery of function is possible. The fact that we could have all this discussion on the subject is a triumph of politics over science. Tragic for Terri Schiavo, and really for us all.
The poster's qualifications?
I am not a medical doctor, and I do not evaluate human brain images as part of my daily work. I AM a recent behavioral neuroscience PhD, a research fellow in a neurophysiology lab at a major institution, and I took clinical neuroanatomy in the medical school of my graduate institution as part of my coursework; neurology rounds and clinical evaluations of CAT and MRI scans were part of the curriculum. In addition, the jewel in the crown of my graduate program was a research-dedicated MRI, which meant that many of my peers did imaging work and I had to sit through countless (zzzzzzz) departmental colloquia featuring functional brain imaging. So, no argument from me - I am not the most qualified person to evaluate Terri Schiavo’s status from one small CAT picture on the web; that would be someone who evaluates scans professionally (or at least, regularly). But part of the point of my post was that I don’t have to be - I know how brains work (I mean, up to a point, obviously), I know what healthy ones and sick ones look like, and I know what I’m looking at when I look at a brain image. Schiavo’s damage is so severe that it doesn’t take an *expert’s* eye, but merely an *educated* eye, to understand the basics of her status. That’s why I’m so amazed that her prognosis is being discussed as if it were controversial.

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Red goes Green

Here is the Enemy.

Anyone who's studied the NSDAP - Nazional Socialistiche Deutche Arbeiter Partei, or National Socialist German Workers Party - will be struck by the strong threads of superstition, irrationalism and primitivism contained in their philosophy.

It's one of the reasons why I'm particularly suspicious of a lot of the "green" movement, the "New Agers", the Pyramidologists, Homeopaths and Post-Modernists.
We believe in a resurrection of traditional methods of the pre-Christian past, including naturalism and nationalism, and while these are demonized in our current time, we realize they are necessary to end the decay of our society.
Like the NSDAP, or for that matter, the Green-Left Weekly (the NSDAP without the overt Racism, heavy on the "Socialist" part), not every single one of their policies is evil or undesireable. Some make sense. For the Green-Lefties, some make a lot of sense.

But a gangrenous limb often has parts that are perfectly healthy.

The Green_lefties would no doubt be outraged at being compared to the loathsome Nazis, and with some justice. Some.

But here's a Quick Quiz :
...If you don't want your children, and your children's children to be damned for all eternity as slaves of world capitalism, if you don't want to be made the protectors of Stock Exchange bandits and other blood suckers by your treacherous leaders, if you are on the contrary filled with a fanatical will for freedom, then join the ranks of the ......

Which party is being referred to?

a) Socialist Alliance (Australian Green-Left, 2003)
b) National Socialist German Workers Party (German Nazis, 1926)

And did you have any difficulty coming to the right answer, without looking it up?

Tuesday, 22 March 2005

Those who have Souled Out

...may have done so through We Want Your Soul, Inc
We Want Your Soul, Inc. (WWYS®) is a global private equity firm with nearly 250 million souls under management.

WWYS® generates outstanding returns for its customers by employing cutting-edge proprietary soul extraction, containment and suppression technologies, including but not limited to genetic modification, operant conditioning, and thought control. Our firm's history is long and celebrated, and has allowed us to evolve a global influence in all aspects and at every level of society.
They offer online quotations.

UPDATE: Oh ye Gods, they've got competition.

Monday, 21 March 2005

Crossing Jordanians

From News Ltd :
Australian soldiers drew arms to protect themselves from Jordanian peacekeepers after a Digger blew the whistle on other Jordanian soldiers' sexual abuse of East Timorese boys.

Corporal Andrew Wratten had to be evacuated and Australian commandos sent to protect Diggers in Oecussi, an East Timorese province in Indonesian West Timor, after he told the UN of the pedophilia that occurred in May 2001.

The Australians drew their Steyr assault rifles after being confronted by Jordanians armed with M-16s, in an escalation of verbal threats triggered by the betrayal of Corporal Wratten by a Jordanian officer in the Dili headquarters of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor.

Corporal Wratten, who was working at a fuel dump in the enclave, was told by a group of children that Jordanian soldiers had offered food and money in exchange for oral sex and intercourse.
Hat Tip : Kev Gillett, who remarks
Could've been a good stoush though.

Sunday, 20 March 2005

More Subjects Worth Blogging On

Still busy with work.

We're overdue for an Extinction Event :
After analysing the eradication of millions of ancient species, scientists have found that a mass extinction is due any moment now.

Their research has shown that every 62 million years - plus or minus 3m years - creatures are wiped from the planet's surface in massive numbers.

And given that the last great extinction occurred 65m years ago, when dinosaurs and thousands of other creatures abruptly disappeared, the study suggests humanity faces a fairly pressing danger. Even worse, scientists have no idea about its source.
Of course, the fossil record 60+ million years from now will already show a massive extinction event - one caused by human civilisation. Could this be the usual reason?.... Nah.

Climate of Fear :
In the early 1990s, just as Germany was being hit by severe wind storms, the German media were reporting that the storms were becoming more and more severe. Since then, storms of this magnitude have once again become less common in northern Europe, a fact now ignored by the media. They have also ignored the fact that changes in barometric pressure measured in Stockholm since the days of Napoleon reveal no systematic change in the frequency and severity of storms. Instead, the media are now filled with stories of heat waves and floods. Like the characters in Crichton's novel who incite public fear, the media are now claiming that all kinds of extreme events are increasing in frequency. Using this logic, a drought in the German state of Brandenburg fits together seamlessly with a catastrophic flood of the Oder River and the two events don't contradict each other.
Each individual step in this process may seem harmless, but on the whole, the knowledge imparted to the public about climate, climatic fluctuations, climate shift and climatic effects is dramatically distorted.

Unfortunately, the corrective mechanisms in science are failing. Public reservations with regard to the standard evidence of climate catastrophe are often viewed as unfortunate within the scientific community, since they harm the "worthy cause," especially because, as scientists claim, they could be "misused by skeptics." Dramatization on a small scale is considered acceptable, whereas correcting exaggeration is viewed as dangerous because it is politically inopportune. This means that doubts are not voiced publicly. Instead, the scientific community creates the impression that the scientific underpinnings of climate change research are solid and only require minor additions and adjustments.

This self-censorship in the minds of scientists ultimately leads to a sort of deafness toward new, surprising insights that compete with or even contradict the conventional explanatory models. Science is deteriorating into a repair shop for conventional, politically opportune scientific claims. Not only does science become impotent; it also loses its ability to objectively inform the public.
How the North Vietnamese Won the War :
What did the North Vietnamese leadership think of the American antiwar movement? What was the purpose of the Tet Offensive? How could the U.S. have been more successful in fighting the Vietnam War? Bui Tin, a former colonel in the North Vietnamese army, answers these questions in the following excerpts from an interview conducted by Stephen Young, a Minnesota attorney and human-rights activist [in The Wall Street Journal, 3 August 1995]. Bui Tin, who served on the general staff of North Vietnam's army, received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
Q: How could the Americans have won the war?
A: Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted [Gen. William] Westmoreland's requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.

Q: Anything else?
A: Train South Vietnam's generals. The junior South Vietnamese officers were good, competent and courageous, but the commanding general officers were inept.

Saturday, 19 March 2005


Yet another wonderful blog found today, by looking through my referral list. And that reminds me - I recommend any blogger get a referrals/hits tracker, not so much for the ego-boo, but as a metric so you know what's popular with your readers, and what isn't.

But I mainly use it for finding new sites worth visiting. Someone who reads my blog more often than not has similar interests; so quite often they get here from somewhere else that I'd find interesting.

Case in point : Keats' Telescope, a science blog that has a number of fascinating articles at the moment. Martian methane, the intriguing properties of the human X chromosome, Syria and Lebanon (it's not all Science), unexplained resistance to HIV in European populations, When did Life begin on Earth, that sort of thing.

The author also has good judgement : his prediction that this paper will win an IgNobel is spot-on.

And that reminds me : I must reserve some time in August 2005, for that's when the IgNobel tour of Australia commences.

Friday, 18 March 2005

Subjects Worth Blogging About

Except that I'm rather busy with the intricacies of Executable/Translatable UML (Universal Modelling language) and Formally Provable systems at the moment.

So here they are, without comment. For now.

Israel and the Right of Return :
Since 1949, the United Nations has passed more than 100 resolutions on Palestinian refugees. Yet, for Jewish refugees from Arab countries not a single U.N. resolution has been introduced recognizing our mistreatment or calling for justice for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees forced out of our homes. This imbalance of the world's concern is itself an injustice.

Arab governments instituted policies that led to nearly 900,000 Middle Eastern Jews becoming stateless refugees. Those same governments forced about 750,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants to remain in impoverished refugee camps, refusing them citizenship and denying them hope.

Peace between Israel and the Arab world requires a solution that recognizes that there were two refugee populations. Acknowledging and redressing the legitimate rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries will promote the cause of justice, peace and a true reconciliation.

Al Qaeda Admits Responsibility for 9/11 :
Recently, Al-Qa'ida began a biweekly Internet magazine named Al-Ansar: For The Struggle Against the Crusader War. The second issue featured an article titled, "Fourth-Generation Wars" by Abu 'Ubeid Al-Qurashi, identified by the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi as "one of Osama bin Laden's closest aides." In the article, Al-Qurashi acknowledges that Al-Qa'ida carried out the September 11 attacks. Following are excerpts from the article:
With the September 11 attacks, Al-Qa'ida entered the annals of successful surprise attacks, which are few in history...

Why is the ISS? :
Many Americans have questioned repeatedly the usefulness of the International Space Station, but it stands as NASA's only gateway at the moment to the rest of the solar system. Without the station - or something comparable - it will be difficult if not impossible for U.S. engineers and scientists to do the research necessary to make interplanetary travel possible.

The Prostitution of UK Science Journals :
In the United Kingdom, most of the respected broadsheet newspapers have cut costs and increased circulation by adding a tabloid edition. Some argue that this downsizing has led to a dumbing down of the papers' content. But, in both Britain and America, it is not just the news industry that is shifting to a more sensationalistic attitude. Some scientific journals are abandoning scientific neutrality in favor of policy stances and headline-grabbing scare stories, favoring style over substance.

A prime example is the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which recently published a news story that suggested that Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, had failed to disclose links between the drug and violent behavior and suicide. The story alleges that certain documents detailing the alleged links — and provided to the BMJ by an anonymous source — had not been shared with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and had gone "missing" during the trial of man charged with murder in 1994. In a strongly worded response, Lilly pointed out that the documents had been in general circulation for years. In fact, the BMJ's one example of missing scientific data had been published by Lilly in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in 1992!
Meanwhile, Nature, Britain's premier journal of natural science, has overtly abandoned neutrality in favor of specific policy stances in certain areas, most notably global warming.
Perhaps the most blatant example of this "tabloidization" of science is the recent change in the cover design of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet. For years, its cover featured a simple table of contents. Now, however, it is emblazoned by one extracted quote in a style worthy of Britain's Daily Mirror. For example, its October 1, 2004, issue's cover quotation read, "The prospect that vitamin pills may not only do no good but also kill their consumers is a scary speculation given the vast quantities that are used in certain communities." Yet the journal also ran an editorial comment on the study that pointed out that the elevated risk of death originated from "one trial in an anomalous population of smokers, ex-smokers and occupationally exposed asbestos workers. The other high-quality not suggest increased mortality."
If this trend continues, the scientific and medical communities are playing a very dangerous game. MIT scientist Richard Lindzen once commented, "Science is a tool of some value. It provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed." Yet a troubling number of journals and scientists are doing just that. If the institutions of science do not face up to this problem, we face the prospect of a "post-scientific," relativistic reality. The public that trusts scientists to benefit them deserves much better.

Practical Anagarthics In Our Time? :
De Grey has seven strategies of Engineered Negligible Senescence — replacing cells that are lost, for example, through Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, stopping cells that multiply as in cancer, preventing mutations in chromosomes and mitochondria, the cells’ power plants, removing junk from inside cells and from outside and, finally, getting rid of “extracellular protein crosslinks” which cause hardening of the arteries. Find ways of doing all seven and nobody need ever die again.

“We have a pretty good idea of how to fix all of them,” says de Grey, “and some of the fixes are already in clinical trials. The beauty of it is that we don’t have to fix all of them completely. For example, we don’t have to clear all the junk out of the cells, just enough to stop its ageing effects.”

The Very Special Leftists Who Protect Us All :
The success being achieved to date by a handful of dedicated people who are building and deploying these devices is very impressive. I get E mail all the time from people asking me "What can I do to stop the New World Order?" . Well, this is one thing you can do. You can participate in rescuing your health, your mind, and your freedom by obtaining and deploying these saving inventions. Sources for pre-assembled kits, parts, and finished units are listed in the Goodbye Chemtrails article. Tired of seeing the very air you breathe being poisoned daily with chemtrails by the satanic Illuminati criminals who are intent on eliminating 85 % of the American public? Prefer to wait until they precipitate their next major national convulsion in order to shock and stampede the public into accepting total fascist tyranny which will eventually lead to door-to-door roundups of 'troublemakers' (meaning Americans who resist being inducted into the ranks of mind controlled robots) and their delivery into concentration camps (liquidation camps)? The evidence is clear and compelling for those who are willing to look with open eyes and open minds.

Brain Gender

I was about to use a different title for today's Brain Link, one where the word "Gender" was replaced by a 3-letter word starting with 'S', ending with 'X', and with an 'E' in the middle.

Then I thought "Oh well, there go all my readers overly-protected by various 'innapropriate content' filters", such as are found in all too many libraries, so I piked out. I prefer increased communication over standing on an insignificant point of freedom-of-expression. It saves my energies for more important battles, such as when freedom of expression is more seriously challenged.

Anyway, courtesy of Dr Charles, here's a Brain Gender Profile test over at the BBC.

FWIW* I was exactly in the middle of the Male range - marginally Male or Female in many tests, but off-the-scale-Male when it came to abilities associated with Science and Engineering. And for that matter, length of my fingers.

If that doesn't intrigue you enough to invest a quarter-hour or so of your precious time taking it, nothing will.

* - For What It's Worth

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Life? Don't talk to me about Life

There's a new kid on the blog : It looks different from here, from a mate of mine (I've known him for 33 years), Lloyd Flack.

Lloyd's first post after a brief introduction is reminiscent of Stephen Den Beste in his heyday : long, and full of meaty goodness.
Life! You know it when you point at it but you find it difficult to say just what it is. I am going to try to pin down the characteristics of an entity that make you say "That's alive.". I want to look at other systems that have similar properties but which we do not normally think of as alive. Then I will look at the differences between these systems and systems which we think of as alive.
Reserve at least half an hour of free time, and Read the whole thing.

As for the Introduction :
I am a statistician who has worked on a wide variety of projects. The majority have been environmental, agricultural or medical but I have also worked on some social statistics. I also have qualifications in biology.
Like Computer Scientists, who have to understand at least the basics of the "problem domain" they're working on, be it legal databases or spaceflight, statisticians can't help but "learn by osmosis", absorbing details they need to design experiments and extract meaning from raw numerical data. In summary, He Knows Stuff. Lots of stuff. In detail. About many different areas.
My interests include such things as science fiction (both written and on the screen), role playing games, war games, art, bush walking, good food and wine, comics and reading about all sorts of things.

My knowledge about some of these things is a bit spotty. Other things I have a good layman's knowledge about. Some of the things above I know a lot about. All in all I have acquired information about an unusual assortment of subjects. This sometimes leads to seeing things a bit differently. Ideas about quite a few subjects have been stewing for a long time and now I intend to serve them up.
If he serves up his ideas the way he serves up a Prawn and Papaya salad ( Did I mention he's a gourmet chef? And has a conoisseur's knowledge of wine? ) then we're all in for a treat.

I don't always see eye-to-eye with him : but he's on my list of people who have often been right when I've been wrong, and is always worth listening to.

Now I'm going to stop raving on about it, and go read his article in more detail. Food for Thought. Yum.

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

47 Not Out

Today I had probably the best birthday of my life.

I spent nearly all of it with my 3 year old son, Andrew. The very best bit was him singing "Happy Birthday" and blowing out the candles on my cake. It was the bit about "Happy Birthday, Dear Daddy" as he pointed at me that did it.

Another highlight : Andrew treating me to a ride on the virtual roller-coaster at Questacon. I suspect this was originally part of a superannuated multimillion-dollar Qantas flight simulator. You don't get the full gee forces, but it's good enough to fool your sense of balance. And of course, being "virtual", it can do manouvers that would be far too dangerous to ever implement in reality. Rather like certain scenes in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". Here's an accurate description :
The simulator is a big red box that moves around on hydraulics while the 10 people inside look at a frighteningly real computer simulation on a screen where the front window ought to be.
You hurtle along a rail, down tunnels, uuuuuuuuuup and dooooooooooooown, then leave the rails and go floating through the air towards certain death.

Unless you keep telling yourself not to worry because you are really in a big red box moving from side to side and up and down on hydraulics, it can be pretty harrowing.
Great Fun.

There's another Questacon virtual roller-coaster implemented as a Flash game on the Web. Design your own, then ride on it. At Questacon, you physically move equivalent modules around, before pressing the button that sends the small low-friction metal car careering around your design at an impressive speed. They've yet to mount a TV camera on the car, but I suspect they will, one day.

Highly recommended for any visitor to Canberra.

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Of Mice and Men

From the UK Telegraph :
It will look like any ordinary mouse, but for America's scientists a tiny animal threatens to ignite a profound ethical dilemma.

In one of the most controversial scientific projects ever conceived
Someone shoot the inveterate (accent on the "vet") punster
... a group of university researchers in California's Silicon Valley is preparing to create a mouse whose brain will be composed entirely of human cells.

Researchers at Stanford University have already succeeded in breeding mice with brains that are one per cent human cells.

In the next stage they plan to use stem cells from aborted foetuses to create an animal whose brain cells are 100 per cent human.
At hearings in Washington last October, Prof Weissman argued strongly against a ban on "chimera mice". He believes that the mice would behave like any others, but said that he would monitor the experiment closely and destroy them at the slightest suggestion of human-like brain patterns.
Thereby grossly compounding the original offence.

Not that he has to worry - and he knows that, or he wouldn't have said such a thing. The mouse's brain is still only the size of, well, a mouse's brain. It's not true to say it can have no more intellect than a human foetus of the same size : a human foetal brain hasn't got the wiring, the interconnection of neurones that makes a brain functional. All it has is potential, something the mouse brain does not. The set of reasonable expectations (assuming it develops into a functional organism) runs all the way from a "developmentally challenged" mouse to one that has significant improvement in cognition. Why? Because the phenotype (ie the body of the animal) is derived from the genotype (genetic inheritance) plus the environment. Genetically identical stem cells develop into different bodies in different environments.

Identical Twins are *not* quite Identical. Genetically, yes, they're a clone of two genetically identical individuals. And the environment of the mother's womb will be very nearly identical for both. But not quite absolutely identical. In extreme cases, one can end up damaged, degraded or just plain different due to environmental factors ( mother's drug use, disease ), while the other remains "normal".

Place a human-derived neural stem-cell in a mouse's womb, and it will respond to the rodent chemical triggers it's given during gestation, not the human ones it doesn't get. How it will respond - that's something we don't know, and it is almost certainly very useful to know this. It will teach us a lot about human neural development that we probably can't find out any other way.

But had I been on the ethics committee, I would have done my darnedest to find logical fact-based reasons for what my intuition is telling me: that this is dangerous and ethically dubious. In all honesty, I would have had to recuse myself from judgement, as I'm so prejudiced (as in "pre-judging and liable to ignore inconvenient facts").

I firmly believe that this is a Very Bad Idea Indeed, but it's a case of :
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
The reason why, I cannot tell.
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.
- Tom Brown
I don't have the intellectual honesty and rigour to rise above my prejudices. I do have the minimal personal honesty though to recognise my prejudices for what they are, while still believing that they're justified. I just don't know how to justify them. But enough of me, the important thing is what is about to happen in the Stanford Labs. The more people who know about this, IMHO the more likely we are to accurately determine if this is ethical or not.

I do know this: that had the experiment involved non-human foetal brain tissue - such as from a cow - I would have some qualms, but from what I know could be persuaded that the potential gain outweighs the potential risk. I also know that had the experiment involved using mouse-derived neural stem cells in a human womb, I'd oppose it with all the resources within my power, up to (but not including) violence. As it is, this is uncomfortably borderline.

The use of aborted foetal tissue is another matter - but one that I'm comfortable with. I'm anti-abortion as a method of contraception, but once the deed is done, have no ethical qualms about salvaging the best of a bad situation. If you like, it would be no worse than harvesting transplant tissue from murder victims. The crime is the murder, not the harvest.

Monday, 14 March 2005

Piped Music

It's been too long since the last Brain post, so here's one which illustrates how much we still don't know about how even the simplest of brain functions work. But we're learning.

From the Science Magazine, Nature :
Auditory imagery occurs when one mentally rehearses telephone numbers or has a song 'on the brain' — it is the subjective experience of hearing in the absence of auditory stimulation, and is useful for investigating aspects of human cognition. Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify and characterize the neural substrates that support unprompted auditory imagery and find that auditory and visual imagery seem to obey similar basic neural principles.
Or, in more simple terms, when you recall a piece of music, from a popular song to a madly annoying advertising jingle, you "replay" it. This is not just a subjective phenomenon, the latest data indicates that it's the same parts of the brain that were initially stimulated that at work during recall. You retrieve the data from memory, rather than your ears, and pass it ( computer scientists would say "pipe it" ) through your hearing centres.

There's more on this over at MSNBC's Cosmic Log.
Each listener tagged certain tunes as familiar, and others as unfamiliar. Then the tunes were played while the listener was lying in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. At various points in the soundtrack, the music went silent for 3 to 5 seconds, and researchers watched how the brain responded.

During the gaps in the unfamiliar music, activity in the auditory cortex diminished. But when there was a gap in a familiar tune, the auditory cortex kept working away.

"It's like the brain is still hearing the music," one of the researchers, Dartmouth's David Kraemer, told me today. "It's still activating that part of the brain that's activated when you're hearing the music. ... And it's interesting to note that we didn't instruct them to imagine the silent part. It's something that they just did spontaneously."
It continues :
"It happens to me all the time : 'Yellow Submarine' has to be one of the most recurrent themes," he said. "If you find any way to get it out of your head, I'd be very interested in hearing about it."
That's easy. All you have to do is not think about the word "Elephants" for the next 10 seconds.

Sunday, 13 March 2005

(30 years) Flame War!

Everything you ever wanted to know about Flaming is over at Andrew Heenan's Guide to Flaming. Well, almost everything.

But to prove that Flaming and FlameWars are nothing new, here's the 17th century's equivalent of a Blog entry. A Pamphlet, written during that <sarcasm>delightful</sarcasm> period of European History called the "Thirty Years War".

The pamphlet below is entirely typical of the standard of theological and political debate of the time. One difference : in those days theology and politics were intertwined, and both were blood sports. Within 10 years of the pamphlet being written, a Civil War tore the country, a King was beheaded, a series of Talibaneque Republican regimes were installed, then were replaced by a less extreme Military Dictatorship.

While in Europe, things were really bad.

Flaming in the 17th Century

Hat Tip to Goldsmith, in a comment over at Tim Blair's place.

More Pamphlets of the period are available online and in dead tree editions.

The Long Term View

Recently, I've been blogging about Global Warming and the last 6,000 years or so. And in the past, I've also blogged lightly on taking a Long Term View, not letting trivial matters such as Mass Extinctions distract you from the important stuff.

But even with a tool like SimEarth, it's not easy to understand what's likely to happen in the next billion years. Or even one million.

Consider the following :
The earth of two billion years ago would have been utterly unrecognizable. The planet spun almost twice as fast as it now spins. The moon was about 100,000 miles away. The tectonic plates would have been skidding around on roller skates compared to their present stately movement and on a much hotter and broiling surface of lava, and the sun would have been about 20% dimmer than we see it now ...
Yet if you live in North-East North America, you can journey to Chesapeake Bay and see Horseshoe Crabs - which are basically close cousins (though not direct descendents) of Trilobites of 500 million years ago.

Persistant little buggers, aren't they?

I can still recall when I wandered on a beach in New England, USA, waiting for my Clam Chowder and Baked Scrod to cook at the nearby restaurant, and I found a Horseshoe Crab shell. I'd seen one in the Australian Museum, but to hold it, and touch it... it gave me a new insight into ages past. Thus intellectually fortified, I returned to the restaurant, to try the exotic native cuisine of the area. Boston Clam Chowder is world-famous, but Baked Scrod? It sounded like something that had recently emerged on unsteady tentacles from primeval ooze. (BTW, to non-USAians, it's fish, and not bad. ).


Our present is just a data point, a moment suspended between a billion years past, and a billion years future. How can we comprehend viscerally rather than intellectually what a billion years really means? Let alone 2 billion. So let's try something a bit less ambitious - a mere 200 million. Less than half the distance from now as the Trilobite period was.MegaSquid
In 200 million years the world is a very different place... the pull of the moon has slowed the globe so now a day is 25 hours long... and all the continents have drifted together to form a huge global continent called Pangea II... the centre of that continent is a[n] arid dry desert that stretches for thousands of kilometres...the rest of the world is dominated by one large global ocean, whose weather is so extreme that the whole world is wracked by storms..
Thus goes the narrative from the Discovery Channel's new series "The Future is Wild", which attempts to show how the far distant future may go, with mammals relegated to the same "living fossil" status as the Horseshoe Crab today. It's complete with a menagerie of animals of 5 million, 100 million, and 200 million years hence (including the elephant-sized Megasquid in the picture to the right). Stranger creatures have evolved before now: take a look at a Giraffe. Or consider that some of the closest relatives of Elephants are ... pigs. Let us not forget those aquatic acrobats supreme, the Penguins. A Squid out of water is no stranger than a bird which lives in the stuff.

The definitive book on post-human animals is After Man, which also has some fabulous illustrations.

So where did I find this information? From a Science-oriented meta-blog called The Tangled Bank, thence to Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Lots of good stuff in the Tangled Bank, including informed speculation on when did life begin on Earth, and amusing tales of another Squid out of water. Or rather, Octopus. How did one end up in a snowdrift in Minnesota? One of Life's little mysteries, I'm afraid, lots of hypotheses but no real evidence. Truly, the Universe is an amazing place, full of surprise, wonder and Serendipity.

Saturday, 12 March 2005

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur

Or, "Whatever is said in Latin, sounds profound".

This and many other Latin Phrases for every Occasion are over at the BBC's Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy site.

Rather than give the normal Hat Tip, I'll go into detail. While reading Hospice Blog's Grand Rounds (the best of the week's medical blogging), I was referred to a site with an Oxymoronic title : The Cheerful Oncologist. And it was there that I found the link above.

So if you ever think Life is handing you a Turd Sandwich, go read The Cheerful Oncologist to see things in their proper perspective. The world has a million unknown heroes in it.

Oh yes, previous editions of the Grand Rounds are available.

Friday, 11 March 2005

6000 BC

CO2 vs TimeHere's an interesting piece of data. It's from the Greening Earth Society, whose Mission Statement is as follows :
The Greening Earth Society provides a scientifically-sound perspective on the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2 concentration and global climate change.
Well, maybe. I say "maybe" because it is not just overwhelmingly sceptical about Kyoto and the effect of human activity on global temperature - as sceptical as I am - but because it is completely one-sided. As one-sided as the many sites with the opposite view, which never quote any data which might undermine their preconceived opinion.

The chart on the right comes from an article by William Ruddiman, former chairman of the University of Virginia environmental sciences department, and his research team in Quaternary Research Reviews. It shows an increasing concentration of Methane starting in about 5000 BC, which correlates pretty well with the domestication of ruminant herbivores (cows, sheep, goats), and the start of paddyfield rice farming - two major Methane producers.

Methane is 21 times more Greenhouse-y than CO2. (Source : But the impact is still less than the impact of the additional CO2, because the amount is so much less.

Another source of methane - which might well overwhelm the contribution of cattle and paddyfields - is the swampy tundra exposed by the end of the last Ice Age. This Ice Age peaked about 20,000 years ago, with much of Europe and North America covered in glaciers 2 km deep. It's last gasp was about 7,000 years ago, when the permanent Arctic Ice cap retreated off major land masses.

North America Ice CoverageThe map at the right shows the coverage of Ice over the last 20,000 years, with contours showing how the ice retreated.

The CO2 concentration is more problematic. It doesn't correlate well with human activity, as Humans have been using "slash and burn" techniques for 40,000 years, which radically change the CO2 levels - sometime decreasing them as hungry new growth sucks up Carbon, while the charred remnants of old-growth get buried along with much of their carbon content.

The atmospheric CO2 concentration has been growing steadily in a linear fashion for the last 8000 years. Which again correlates well with the glacial retreat, but not human activity. There's no evidence of a population explosion 8000 years ago, and if anything, we stopped building so many campfires when the Ice retreated.

The article in "Greening Earth" posits that this increased atmospheric CO2 concentration is all that is staving off another Ice Age. It only takes a drop of 2 Celsius to cause one.

They may be right.

On the other hand, there's data over the last 1000 years that shows global temperatures to be more strongly correlated with Solar Output than anything else. The Sun is an unusually variable star for its position on the main sequence, something that might explain why Intelligent life is found here, and not everywhere. Perhaps the best conditions for "growing" intelligent life are a (slightly) variable star to cause Ice Ages (a booster to Evolution), a Double-Planet system to cause tectonic activity (but not too much) (another booster to Evolution) and tides (very important when moving from single-celled to multi-cellular organisms), and a massive Gas Giant or Failed star a long way out to help sweep up asteroids so planets in the "goldilocks zone" where water is liquid don't have their reset buttons pushed too often by Dinosaur-killers. (The Earth-Moon binary system is a double-planet one, though we don't normally think of the Moon as a planet, and Jupiter is an excellent vacuum cleaner of comets - see Schmacher-Levy).

It could be that the situation is considerably worse in the medium term (the next 5-10,000 years) than the Greenhouse Believers state. We may get hit with a double-whammy of increased solar output (which would normally cause the glaciers that should be covering Europe by now to retreat), and increased CO2. Something like this could cause the Methane Hydrate that's buried in the ocean floor to evaporate - then we'd have a *real* problem, with temperatures rising a degree or more in a relatively short time as the oceans fizz.

Certainly I believe that we need more data, and models which explain what the heck has happened over the last 10-20,000 years. Something none, repeat, none, of the current computer climate models do. The ones that Kyoto is based on.

It is my evaluation that the Greenhouse Theory is junk science, to put it bluntly. But that we need to study what the heck really is going on, and do what we can, within reason, to slow down the growth of human-emitted CO2, until we know more about what the cause of atmospheric composition is, and what the effects are. "First, do no harm".

Right now though, we have a big problem, due to politics and vested interests. There are people on both sides of the Greenhouse debate who believe the Greenhouse theory is correct. There are also people, again on both sides of the debate, who believe the theory is completely bogus.

On one side, the "true believers" who look at the evidence, and see Venus in our future unless we get off our backsides. With them are people who think it's all hogwash, but that the Kyoto accords are harmless, and who don't want to risk their Academic careers being terminated for being "politically incorrect". It has happened, and only rarely has a happy ending. You want money for research, you toe the Party Line.

On the other side, you have people who look at the evidence, and see that we don't know nearly enough to make any sane conclusion, but that there's nothing we can do for good or ill that will have much effect in the next 200 years or so. You also have people who are "True Believers" in Global Warming, but figure that a technological fix will be found (as it always has been in the past) and who look at the costs of doing something and say "Let others get pay for it, not me". You want money for research, you say what Big Energy wants you to say.

"Oh, what Fools these Mortals Be!" and all that jazz.

Thursday, 10 March 2005

Calling William Wilberforce...

For once, I'll let the facts speak for themselves.

From the BBC :
The government of Niger has cancelled at the last minute a special ceremony during which at least 7,000 slaves were to be granted their freedom.

A spokesman for the government's human rights commission, which had helped to organise the event, said this was because slavery did not exist.
At least 43,000 people across Niger are thought to be in slavery.

Representatives of the slaves, the government and human rights campaigners had been due to attend the event at In Ates, near the border with Mali.

A local chief had agreed to the release after the introduction of a new law, which punishes those found guilty of slavery with up to 30 years in jail.

Anti-Slavery International had described the ceremony as a historic step forward.

The British-based campaign group said the people who had been due to be freed made up 95% of the local population.

"The government needs to ensure not only that the law is implemented, but that there are the means of support available for former slaves and their children to live their lives in freedom and independence," the group's Africa programme officer, Romana Cacchioli, said before the ceremony was cancelled.

According to a local anti-slavery organisation, Timidria, males slaves are forced to work in farms and tender cattle, while women are confined to domestic duties.

Acting under pressure, Niger's parliament banned the keeping or trading in slaves in May 2003.

In a ceremony in December 2003, dozens of slaves were liberated, many of them shedding tears of joy as they were given certificates showing they were free.
That's 2003, not 1803.

Then there's this :
Assibit, 50, describes life as a slave in Niger, where 43,000 people are estimated to be in bonded labour, as the Timidria organisation which helped her escape wins an award in London.
Assibit was born into slavery - as was her mother, her husband and her five children.

The government says it is trying to clamp down on slavery - and has introduced laws so that slave owners can be punished - but still there are estimated to be tens of thousands of people in Niger in bonded labour.
That's from the 3rd of November, 2004. Not 1804.

But the problem isn't confined to "Deepest, Darkest Africa". Here's some testimony before the US Congress, Dated March 9th, 2005. :
At the job agent’s office in Beirut, my passport is taken away. The agency staff makes me stand in line with a group of women in the same predicament as me. Lebanese men and women pace in front of us, examining our bodies as if we were vacuum cleaners. I am sold to a wealthy woman, who takes me home to her mansion up on the forth floor of a condo building.

My chores seem unending. I wash the windows, walls, and bathrooms. I shampoo carpets, polish floors, and clean furniture. After twenty hours I am still not done. There’s no food on my plate for dinner, so I scavenge through the trash. I try to call the job agency, but the woman who now owns me has locked the telephone. I try to flee the apartment, but she has locked the door.

I can feel the burning on my cheeks as she slaps me. It is night and her kids have gone to sleep. Grasping me by the hair, she bangs my head into the wall and throws me to the floor. She kicks me and hits me with a broom. If I scream or fight back, she will kill me. So I bite my lips to bare the pain and then I pass out. This is my daily routine, the life of a slave.
And from the UK Telegraph :
As though time had turned back at least a century, tribal raiders are swooping on the villages of eastern Congo and carrying off their human booty to slave camps where order is enforced with beatings and amputations.

They come in the cool hours before dawn, their presence announced by the clanging of a cow bell that echoes through the hillside hamlets of the Hema tribe, overlooking Lake Albert in Congo's Ituri district.

Armed with machetes and machineguns, the raiders scythe through the rows of huts, torching their thatched roofs.

Mothers clutching their screaming children run through the flames into the arms of their captors, members of a militia from the rival Lendu tribe.

The fat and the elderly, those unsuited for work on the Lendu farms or in the gold and mineral mines they illegally occupy, are hacked to death.
The United Nations peacekeeping force MONUC recently managed to secure the release of 3,000 slaves after threatening military action against the militiamen holding them.
A little further down the fetid alleyway dividing the line of shelters in Tchomia, Francoise Ndroza is engaged in a similar battle to save the life of her four-month-old son Dieu, ill with acute diarrhoea. She too managed to escape the camp, where she was used as a sex slave - repeatedly raped by her captors on a daily basis.

When she tried to resist they drove a large pestle into her wrist, shattering the bones.

Leopold's regime was ended by outrage in Britain and America. Authors such as Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, whose novel Heart of Darkness was a fictional account of the horrors of Leopold's Congo, joined the campaign. This time the world has offered little condemnation of the foreign businessmen and local militiamen whose greed to exploit Congo's natural wealth has fuelled a war more deadly than any other since 1945.
And from the Scotsman :
Nigerian police found more than 60 children packed into a shipping container in Lagos, and a police said it was believed they were to be sold as slaves or servants.

A woman accompanying the children was arrested after the discovery of the 60-70 boys and girls aged five to 14 yesterday.

Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Intellectual Arrogance

Via Yet Another Weird SF Fan, a thought-provoking (accent on the provoking) article about the imbalance of political viewpoints in Academe. One choice quote:
The reason why various departments in humanities and social sciences do not hire conservatives is the same reason no department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology would ever hire a creationist - they are wrong. Their research method is useless: starting with the conclusions then cherry-picking "evidence" to support the conclusions. That is how creationists operate. That is how conservatives operate. That is not quality work and there is no reason why any department should hire such sub-standard faculty. The important question is how come such ass-idiots ever got hired and tenured in departments of business, economics, religion and law? Isn't THAT the real example of ideologically-based hiring? There is no other explanation for them being hired in the first place. Quality of their work and thought could not possibly have been a cause for their hire.
Here's another quote, this time from David Hume :
"When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities"
I'm with Hume on this one. But you knew that.

So why have I quoted from this article? Because despite the arrogance and (IMHO) at times absurdity, it is thought-provoking, and the blog as a whole has a lot of merit. It's by someone whose had to suffer more than their fair share of fools, gladly or otherwise. Not for those who mind searching for diamonds in a dungheap, but rewarding for those who don't. Besides which, if my whole thesis is that we should have more diversity, I shouldn't just be linking to people I agree with. I'm arrogant, but not that arrogant.

Talking about arrogance, here's another quote, this time from W.V.Mayer.
Arrogance comes in a variety of forms. The arrogance of great wealth, the arrogance of great power, the arrogance of great beauty, and the arrogance of a great master are bearable because they rest on an acknowledged and measurable base. The arrogance of ignorance, however, is unbearable because it is rooted in smug satisfaction with being isolated from the facts of the case.
There's no way I'd call Bora Zivkovic ignorant. To do so would automatically destroy the last shred of any credibility I had. But the "smug satisfaction" label fits, showing that it's not just the ignorant who can suffer from this. A lesson to us all - myself most definitely included.

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

Don't Panic

Today, for your edification and amusement, I present 2 Games:

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Scores and positions in the two different games are interchangeable - you can start in one, then switch to the other, then back again. Which is improbable, but not infinitely so.

These are based on the old Infocom publications, from way back in 1984. I used to have one for the C64 (IIRC), on 5 1/4" Floppy (remember those?). Maybe in the new version(s) I can finally follow Marvin through the sliding doors...

Hat Tip : TramTown. Told you I should have gone there more often.

Monday, 7 March 2005

Tales of Future Past

No, not the classic Moody Blues Album (the one containing "Nights in White Satin"), that's Days of Future Past.

This one's courtesy of Tramtown, an excellent blog I should visit more often.

So many blogs, so little time.

Tales of Future Past is an extensive site, detailing The Future from the perspective of 60-90 years ago.

It's a site full of wry wit and some insight.
Tales of Future Past... those who made such predictions never really considered the effect that such weapons can have on a society even if their use is only a potential, which is particularly odd because the people of the '20s, '30s and '40s had first-hand experience of some of the most nightmarish wars in human history. Meanwhile, those of us who lived through the Cold War were well aware of the prospect of ending up as piles of radioactive brochettes, which tended to put the damper on the best of parties.

Consider the title illustration above from 1915. It depicts the Radium Destroyer; an insect-legged fighting machine of utter destruction sporting a radium death ray capable of laying waste to whole continents faster than an EU directive. Such power blasting wide and free would have even given General Jack D. Ripper pause. And this was supposed to be light reading!
If you want to see the illustration in question, just surf on over there. You won't regret it. For an extra treat, try turning off the graphics - some of the "alt" (alternative text") captions are hilarious.
Beauty I'd always missed
With these eyes before,
Just what the truth is
I can't say anymore.
Sorry, that's the album. But appropriate, nonetheless.

Four More Beers! Four More Beers!

Here's an essential article for Visitors to Australia : A Guide to Ordering Beers.

Australia is about the same size as the continental USA, but with the population of Texas. Or, for Europeans, it's about the same size as Europe from Gibraltar to the Urals, Sicily to Sweden, but with the population of Benelux.

Australia is also a Federation of states. States with quite different histories and climates, ranging from the former Penal Colony of NSW, to the Free Settlers in South Australia, the vast deserts of Western Australia through to the mountainous rainforests of Tasmania.

We all drive on the left - but until recently, road rules were as varied as they are in Europe (or the US), and we still have a variety of railway gauges, from Broad Gauge in Victoria, to Standard Gauge in New South Wales, to Narrow Gauge in much of Queensland.

Similarly, in Victoria and South Australia, "Football" means Aussie Rules. In NSW and Queensland, it means Rugby League. Nowhere does it mean Association Football - "Soccer".

Australia is highly urbanised - more so than Europe, and a lot more so than the US. Nearly 50% of the population lives in just 2 cities - which are a thousand kilometres apart, with not-a-lot in between. Each of the Australian States is basically a single capital city, perhaps 2 or 3 cities less than 1/10 of the size, and a hinterland whose population is best described as "sparse". These city-states treat each other with the same degree of rivalry as the city-states of Medieval Italy. Queenslanders are "Banana Benders", Victorians are "Mexicans" (South of the Border), and to South Australians, the only good thing to come out of Sydney is the Hume Highway.

So the Guide is essential reading, so you know how much you'll be getting. A "Schooner" in South Australia is not the same thing as a "Schooner" in NSW. And a WA "Pot" is a Pint, elsewhere it's half that (if they understand that measure at all).

Now as to which beer to drink... that's best left to another article.

Sunday, 6 March 2005

100,000 Page Views

Please look at the Site Meter to the lower left.

Current Stats for Page Views:
Total 99,684
Average Per Day 258

So sometime in the next 48 hours, it will reach 6 figures.

If you're the lucky 100,000th page viewer, please e-mail me to win a Valuable Prize.

My thanks, anyway. That's the Valuable Prize, I'm afraid.

Saturday, 5 March 2005

How Not to Run a Space Programme

I've blogged before about my opinion that the Hubble is past its use-by date, and is better "mended with a new 'un" than repaired.

I'm still of this view, but it would be nice to see the numbers that confirm my initial analysis. I thought we had them, after all, NASA has stubbornly refused to go along with popular opinion and try a repair. I naturally assumed that they'd done a bit more research than I had.

From SpaceDaily :
NASA officials have claimed they performed a risk analysis before deciding to cancel the last space-shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, but no such analysis was ever done.

Worse, sources told UPI's Space Watch that NASA also has ignored at least one proposal to reduce the risk of sending a shuttle crew to Hubble - in order to justify its decision.

Over the past few weeks, several NASA officials have stated publicly the agency's decision to cancel further servicing to Hubble was made on safety issues alone, not cost.

At a budget briefing Feb. 7, Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space operations, explained how cost was not a factor in the decision to cancel the shuttle servicing mission, which was made public by former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe on Jan. 16, 2004.

"I don't really think from a space operations standpoint ... or in the mind of the administrator it was a matter of cost," Readdy said.

Fred Gregory, the acting NASA administrator, emphasized this position in testimony before the House Science Committee on Feb. 17.

"Cost was not an issue as we evaluated whether (the shuttle) could go to the Hubble," he said.

Instead, these and other NASA officials claimed the decision to cancel the last shuttle servicing mission to Hubble was made after careful analysis of the risks involved.

As Gregory told Congress, "Administrator O'Keefe made a very conscious, deliberate and well-informed decision that the shuttle would not service the Hubble."

When asked by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the science committee, and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., for a copy of that risk analysis report, Gregory agreed to provide it.

Yet, one day later, NASA historian Steve n Dick gave a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, in which he described the process by which that decision was made and revealed that, in fact, no formal risk analysis had been completed.
According to Dick's interviews, risk was the major factor in the discussion, but the officials decided a formal risk analysis was unnecessary. Instead, Dick noted, "The decision was made (by O'Keefe) based on what he perceived was the risk."

In other words, O'Keefe canceled the Hubble mission solely on his gut feeling of the situation. So, the only way NASA can provide the House Science Committee's requested copy of that risk analysis from December 2003 is to recreate it after the fact.

As of Thursday there was no word on whether NASA submitted the requested document.
Now it could be that even a preliminary, informal risk analysis showed that the risk was too high by orders of magnitude, so a full-blown formal analysis was not needed for technical reasons. Frankly, I doubt this is the case, but let's give NASA management the benefit of the doubt. But assuming it is the case, then a quick, 2-day study would reveal this, and would provide the necessary political cover with almost no expenditure. "Gut Feeling" or Intuition is a useful and often valuable tool for analysis, but it should always be checked by logic and numbers wherever possible. Even a small, semi-formal check. Always.

Instead, this looks like arrogance and managerial incompetence of the highest (or rather, lowest) level. It makes O'Keefe look like an arrogant fool - and in this case, appearances aren't completely deceptive.

I wouldn't have made a "gut feeling" decision like this in such a high-handed manner on a project whose cost would exceed $1,000, let alone $1,000,000,000. No competent engineer would have. No competent manager would have.

I still think that the decision is correct, of course, and am fairly confident that the numbers will provide the proof. But I have no delusions of Godhead or Infallibility, and believe that neither NASA Administrators nor Supreme Pontiffs speaking "ex Cathedra" are Infallible either.

What's worrying is that no-one at NASA blew the whistle on this one - if their corporate culture is such that "Intuitive Decisions From On High" even if probably correct aren't always checked as a matter of course, then they're in a heap of trouble. Brown-nosing, and "Crossing Fingers and Hoping For The Best" is no way to run a Church Fete, let alone a Space Programme.

UPDATE : Cumudgeon's Corner and Transterrestrial Musings are all over this.