Archive for January, 2008

‘Big climate impact’ on UK coasts

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Climate change is having a major impact on Britain’s coast, the seas around the coast, and the life in those seas, a government-sponsored report concludes.

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) says seas are becoming more violent, causing coastal erosion and a higher risk of flooding.

Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere are making oceans warmer and more acidic, affecting plankton, fish and birds.

2006 was the second warmest year in coastal waters since records began.


The Great Koran Controversy: Will Muslim Martyrs Get 72 Raisins Instead of Virgins, & Other Speculations

Friday, January 18th, 2008

According to an Islam tradition, Muslim martyrs will go to paradise and marry 72 black-eyed virgins. But some Koran scholars point to a less sexy paradise. While beautifully written, Islamic texts are often obscure. The Arabic language was born as a written language with the Koran, and growing evidence suggests that many of the words were Syriac or Aramaic.

Specifically, the Koran says martyrs going to heaven will get “hur,” and the word was taken by early commentators to mean “virgins,” hence those 72 concubines. But in Aramaic, hur actually meant “white” and was commonly used to specifically mean “white grapes.”

The exact number of virgins (or raisins) is not specified in Koran, but the number 72 comes from a quotation of Muhammad recorded in one of the lesser-known Hadith. (“Hadith” is an Arabic word meaning traditions.) After Muhammad’s death, several collections of his deeds and sayings were collected to form the Hadith, which is the second most authoritative document is Islam, after the Koran.


My motorcycle trip to Takaka

Friday, January 18th, 2008

New Zealand - South IslandThe day I set off dawned beautifully and it set the tone for the five days I would be out. And, on the sixth day, when I was safely home and warm – it rained. I’m a lucky man, no doubt.

There I am !There were two purposes for my trip from Christchurch up to Takaka and back. One, was to see my friends, Bob and Cynthia and their two girls; Jenny and Marie. Bob and his family had just moved to Takaka in the last month and I was eager to see their new lives on Golden Bay.

And the second purpose was to give myself more familiarity with New Zealand’s South Island in general.

Sharon and I are looking for land here where we might settle. In fact, we have a specific kind of land we’re interested in and we’ve wanted to get clearer about which parts of the South Island might be good candidates.


International webcam fun

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Sharon and Indra 1 of 2I’ve got a web cam here so my wife, Sharon, can see me when I’m working on the computer and she’s got another there so I can see her when she’s at her computer. They are great fun and they give us the sense of being in close touch which is nice over a three month separation.

Sharon and Indra 2 of 2Today, our very feisty cat, Indra, was taking Yours truly in Christchurchan interest in the cam on her end and I grabbed a couple of JPG frames of the fun. It’s a cam I can control from here so I’d been swiveling the lens right and left and he, Indra, thought that was most interesting.

Algorithmic Inelegance

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Complexity in living things is a product of the lack of direction in evolutionary processes, of the accumulation of fortuitous accidents, rather than the product of design.

by PZ Myers in Seed Magazine

Many years ago, I wrote software to supplement my income, and I know well the satisfaction of writing code, seeing it execute, and seeing functionality unfold on the computer screen. There’s something deeply appealing about making logic manifest and producing tools that do intense computational work for you at the click of a button; there can also be something deeply obsessive about being able to hone software to make it more elegant and efficient and, to the programmer’s eye, more beautiful. The designers of software usually aspire to economy of code, clarity in its operation, and powerful algorithms that, with mathematical and logical beauty, do the work of generating a sophisticated result. We tend to look down on the “kludge,” the clumsy addition to fix a problem, or the brute force approach of working case by case to force a desired result (although, to be sure, I’ve seen enough code to know that the awkward hack is ubiquitous).

Now I’m a full-time developmental biologist, and unsurprisingly, I see similar expectations in myself and in my colleagues. We don’t have the power to design embryos, but we do analyze the “code”—the genetic instructions and the operation of the developmental programs that take the egg from embryo to adult. We look for algorithmic elegance and simple procedures that lead to the impressive complexity of form, and sometimes we see it; there is often a kernel of clean, simple molecular interactions that lay down a framework for the organism. However, what we more often see is the action of the invisible hand of evolution: the evidence of random accidents that have been incorporated into the code, of elaborations built of bricolage, a collage of bits and pieces assembled into a larger structure. Life is a collection of kludges taped together by chance and filtered by selection for functionality; it all works magnificently well, but if you look under the hood you are simultaneously appalled by the sheer inelegance of the molecular gemisch and impressed with the accumulation of complexity.

More… (do read on – this is an excellent piece!)

The UK’s new coal age

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

– Everyone is pointing at China these days as the biggest source of global pollution and warming. Especially, with reference to their dependency on coal and the rate at which they are building new coal-fired power plants.

– So here’s a piece coming back from China pointing out some of the hypocrisy of this view. Interesting, to say the least.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

George Monbiot

January 03, 2008

On a green hilltop in Wales — despite huge opposition from local people — diggers have begun excavating what will be the largest opencast coal mine in Britain. Why is this happening? George Monbiot investigates.

As I watched the machine scraping away the first buckets of soil, one thought kept clanging through my head: “If this is allowed to happen, we might as well give up now.” It didn’t look like much: just a yellow digger and a couple of trucks taking the earth away. But in a secure compound behind me were the heaviest beasts I have ever seen — 1,300 horsepower or more — lined up and ready to start digging one of the largest opencast coal mines in Europe. In Romania, perhaps? The Czech Republic? No, in Britain, on a hilltop in south Wales.

The diggers at Ffos-y-fran, on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, are set to excavate 1,000 acres [nearly 405 hectares] of land to a depth of 600 feet [nearly 183 metres]. There has never been a hole quite like it in Britain, and our government’s climate-change policies are about to fall into it.

Everything about this scheme is odd. The edge of the site is just 36 metres from the nearest homes, yet there will be no compensation for the owners, and their concerns have been dismissed by the authorities. Although local people have fought the plan, their council, the Welsh government and the national government at Westminster have collaborated with the developers to force it through, using questionable methods. I have found evidence that suggests to me that a member of former prime minister Tony Blair’s government used false or outdated information to seek to persuade the Welsh administration to approve the pit. But perhaps the most remarkable fact is this: outside Merthyr Tydfil, hardly anyone knows it is happening.


US Announces Revised Plan for National ID Cards

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

– I’m not sure how I feel about this.

– In a perfect world where the laws were fair and the government was truly a representative democracy of the people, by the people and for the people, this might not be a bad idea. I’m thinking here of the idea that if one has nothing to hide, why should one care.

…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln – The Gettysburg Address

– But, other than for idiots and ungrounded idealists, most of us know that’s not the world we live in and things are often made for one stated purpose – and then used for quite another.

– I just finished reading most of a biography about Benito Mussolini by Bosworth. It was a huge tomb; four inches thick. In it, you could see all the things said along the way by the main players as Italy lurched towards Fascism. And what the main players were saying they believed in was inevitably a function of what they thought gave them the best advantage within the current situation. And what they told the people was always what would make the people support them. Mussolini himself began as a rabid Socialist and anti-Church activist and ended persecuting Socialists and being quite cozy with the Vatican. He began as a man of the people and ended up deeply allied with the conservative forces with money in Italy.

– So, in a world where we don’t trust our leaders, we need (just as the U.S.’s founding fathers thought) to possess the means to oppose central authority if it becomes unrepresentative and oppressive. In the U.S., the very bedrock of how the government was originally constituted involved the idea that all citizens should be able to retain weapons in their own homes as a check on possibility of authority gone wrong.

– But when all weapons need to be registered with central authorities and when all people have to carry centralized identity cards, one can feel the chipping away at this ability of the people to provide a check on their government. And it seems it is the governemt that is doing the chipping.

– Does anyone recall a popular movement among the American people in support of National Identity Cards? Mmmm? Nope, I don’t either.

– But, read on good reader and see what you think. Comments welcome.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

By VOA News
11 January 2008

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released a revised plan for phasing in a national identification card program that was set to begin this year.

The department has extended deadlines and made other changes to address the concerns of states about the cost and timeframe for compliance.

Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2005, the Real ID Act establishes national standards for driver’s licenses and other state-issued identification cards. The aim is to make it harder for terrorists, illegal immigrants and others to obtain or counterfeit identity documents.

At a news conference Friday in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the phased-in program gives states greater flexibility in implementing it.

Under the new timetable, people under the age of 50 must be issued Real ID – compliant identification cards by the end of 2014. For people over 50, enrollment may be extended to the end of 2017.

The new ID cards will be needed for boarding a plane or entering a federal building.

The original program was rejected by 17 states in part because it was expensive. But the cost of the new plan has been reduced by more than 70 percent – from $14.6 billion to $3.9 billion. Chertoff estimates it will cost states about eight dollars to make a Real ID license.

Lawmakers called for stricter identification requirements after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Department of Homeland Security points out that the hijackers in those attacks obtained 30 drivers licenses and used 364 aliases.

But critics argue the ID program could put at risk the privacy of citizens, saying it creates a database of personal information that could be hacked into or otherwise compromised.

To the original…

– research thx to LisaG.

Chance to think again about the big questions

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

One of the web sites you will see displayed along the right hand margin of Samadhisoft is The Edge. The edge is a place where some of the world’s best scientists and thinkers come to muse about things. If you call yourself an intellectual and you haven’t yet sampled The Edge, you’ve been missing out.

The Edge was setup by John Brockman who is the author of several books I’ve read and treasured immensely. Two of these are:

The Third Culture

The New Humanists

I can highly recommend John Brockman’s books and the web site, The Edge.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = =

It takes a lot to admit that you have changed your mind about something but dozens of leading scientists, scholars and intellectuals have done just that for a New York-based website that describes itself as an influential online salon for free thinkers.

This year’s annual question posed by asks visitors to the site to submit a short explanation to address the issue of what you have changed your mind about and why?

Previous questions on the site have been along the lines of, what is your most dangerous idea? And, what are you optimistic about?

“When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. And science is what’s on the minds of the world-class scientists and thinkers on Edge,” said John Brockman, the New York literary agent behind the website.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and language expert, said he had changed his mind about whether humans were still evolving. He used to believe people had so isolated themselves from natural selection that evolution had stopped, but now he was not so sure.

“I’ve had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped at the time of the agricultural revolution,” Professor Pinker said.

“New studies suggest that thousands of genes have been subjected to strong natural selection over the past several thousand years, which means evolution is far from over for man.”

More… or

France is healthcare leader, US comes dead last: study

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Profit verses what’s best for the people. Here’s a classic story that reveals the inevitable outcome when the pursuit of profit runs rough shod over all other considerations.

The richest country in the world with the worse health care of all the western industrialized nations.

All of this began, I think, when corporate America began to take over the medical world in the U.S. Corporate profit driven medicine – now there’s an oxymoron.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

WASHINGTON (AFP) — France is tops, and the United States dead last, in providing timely and effective healthcare to its citizens, according to a survey Tuesday of preventable deaths in 19 industrialized countries.

The study by the Commonwealth Fund and published in the January/February issue of the journal Health Affairs measured developed countries’ effectiveness at providing timely and effective healthcare.

The study, entitled “Measuring the Health of Nations: Updating an Earlier Analysis,” was written by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It looked at death rates in subjects younger than 75 that could have been prevented by timely and effective medical care.

The researchers found that while most countries surveyed saw preventable deaths decline by an average of 16 percent, the United States saw only a four percent dip.

The non-profit Commonwealth Fund, which financed the study, expressed alarm at the findings.

“It is startling to see the US falling even farther behind on this crucial indicator of health system performance,” said Commonwealth Fund Senior Vice President Cathy Schoen, who noted that “other countries are reducing these preventable deaths more rapidly, yet spending far less.”

The 19 countries, in order of best to worst, were: France, Japan, Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.


– – – – – – – – – – – – –

A hat tip to cryptogon for this story

About censorship and Al Jazeera in the U.S.

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Al Jazeera LogoIt would be hard to be unaware of Al Jazeera in the U.S. It is, of course, the Middle East news agency. I’d always thought that Al Jazeera was focused on delivering news about the Middle-East to the Middle-East and that the only time their reports surfaced on U.S. media was when major things were going down in their area and they had the best news feeds.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself looking at Al Jazeera here in New Zealand on cable. And even more surprising is how utterly professional they are. Their news shows rival anything that CNN, the BBC or the German DW networks are putting out. When I first saw their stuff some years ago, they seemed small and provincial. They are anything but that now.

So, where are they on the U.S. networks? The answer -is that they simply are not there. They’ve been banned from the U.S. networks by the government.

If they were simply a transparent propaganda mouthpiece for radical Islamic viewpoints, then I could understand, perhaps, this censorship. Though, in general, I disagree with censorship – if folks don’t like something, they are free to tune away from it.

But, the Al Jazeera network isn’t a lot of grainy video of mullahs extolling young Islamic men to become martyrs for Islam and Allah. It is, instead, just another international news network – one that happens to originate in the Middle-East.

We in the U.S. don’t agree all the time with the Germans or the Chinese or even the British, but all of their networks can been found among our cable channels if one goes looking. Frankly, I don’ get the logic for this suppression.

And, the worst of it is, I didn’t even know it was suppressed until I came here and saw it on New Zealand’s cable.

I am impressed with the courage of the New Zealand governmental authorities. They seem so sure that allowing Al Jazeera to be broadcast over the New Zealand airwaves isn’t going to cause the corruption and destruction of New Zealand culture. I wonder what they know that the U.S. folks don’t?

If you want to see Al Jazeera, there are ways to watch it from the U.S. via the Internet. Here’s a link:

Take a look and see if you understand why it’s been banned in the U.S.