Thursday, February 12, 2009

Victorian Fires

I left Melbourne late January for a conference in QLD, and returned on Saturday around 7pm. It was cool leaving the airport building, almost chilly. Only when I got into the taxi and heard the radio did I realise the hell that Victoria was enduring.

Growing up in country QLD, I was never comfortable living in a land so prone to bushfires with their mercurial nature and eerie ability to destroy life. Still, I stand completely speechless.

Countless articles, photos and stories. Too many, too depressing:

General article by The Economist.

First hand account.

Those who stayed to fight the fire.

Opinion piece by The Australian journalist Gary Huges who was almost caught in the fire.

Story of survival.

The US sending fire experts.

Two articles blaming green policies

Times like this, I'm glad I don't have a TV. I don't think I could handle watching anymore of this. I've read enough articles, seen enough photos.

I tried to donate blood yesterday, but apparently they've been swamped with offers (that in itself, is telling of the situation). However, donations are still needed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


There's an old school of thought that says people only help others to make themselves feel good. Pessimistic, yes. For years I've assured myself that I would give more money to charity if I had more. I found myself saying "I just need to make a little more", and sure, as a PhD student, one may argue that I could definitely make more before I donate. But I'm on a pretty good scholarship nowadays. Besides, I just spend the bulk of my income on drinking and wacky t-shirts (though they are cool, and chicks dig them).

So two years ago I decided if somebody was doing something to raise money for charity, I would donate to them - of course, under the condition that it's for a charity I believe in. What sort of charity do I believe in? I've been giving that some thought for a few years now, and I think have a not-so-hazy answer, but that deserves another entry .

I'll admit it. Donating money made me feel good about myself. Some of that wore away when I found out a few months later that the charity had supported causes I didn't believe in, but I'm sure the bulk of my donation went to a good place. Peter Singer, who I wouldn't normally agree with, I wager, argues in this good NY Times piece that more people, particularly the rich, need to give to help this world. Wouldn't that be nice.

There's another school of thought: people don't act rationally, but instead act emotionally, and then to try it support it rationally. I don't agree with this completely. And the bulk of economists, to my limited understanding, believe strongly that people act rationally overall, even when it appears to the contrary. They justify this with game-theoretic arguments such as winning people's trust and benefiting from good deeds later on. Hence, this time of year makes economists feel rather uncomfortable, according to Ross Gittins from Fairfax.

Why give? Isn't it more efficient to spend the money on yourself, and be happy from that? Regularly, yes. But as Gittins points out, this overlooks our original premise: giving makes both the recipient and the giver feel happy. And there's something in that.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Expensive tastes

Apparently, it's all in the price:

Dr Rangel gave his volunteers sips of what he said were five different wines made from cabernet sauvignon grapes, priced at between $5 and $90 a bottle. He told each of them the price of the wine in question as he did so. Except, of course, that he was fibbing. He actually used only three wines. He served up two of them twice at different prices.

The scanner showed that the activity of the medial orbitofrontal cortices of the volunteers increased in line with the stated price of the wine. For example, when one of the wines was said to cost $10 a bottle it was rated less than half as good as when people were told it cost $90 a bottle, its true retail price. Moreover, when the team carried out a follow-up blind tasting without price information they got different results. The volunteers reported differences between the three “real” wines but not between the same wines when served twice.

Nor was the effect confined to everyday drinkers. When Dr Rangel repeated the experiment on members of the Stanford University wine club he got similar results.

Humans are a strange bunch.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Hollywood science advice

Apparently, some Hollywood stars aren't that intelligent:

Hollywood star Nicole Kidman and a host of other celebrities have been criticised by scientists for spruiking the benefits of various remedies without having solid evidence to support them.

The Aussie actress along with fellow Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and fashion designer Stella McCartney are among those targeted for making claims about the benefits of everything from certain brain-based workouts to face creams and what to eat.

Wow. I'm in complete disbelief. I would have sworn anybody married to Tom Cruise was a genius. And surely naming your kid "Apple" is a smart move?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Food Shortage

An interesting, though long, article on global food shortage, and consequently, higher food prices. Why the food shortage? One reason is that countries like India and China are eating more meat, which naturally requires somewhat more grain to produce. Another reason is that crops traditionally grown for food like maize are now being grown for bio-fuels.

In theory, the increase in food prices will benefit places that export more food than they import - this includes many poor countries as well as middle-America. However, this is only in principle, and the lower rungs of such places will still suffer. It would appear that the halcyon days of cheap food are behind us.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

We is getting dumber

The poor spelling I witness in first-year maths tutes makes me cringe (how bad their maths is another story altogether). I'm amazed we're still among the top ten countries in one education ranking:

In reading, Australia ranked equal sixth, while in 2000 it ran second behind only Finland. Australia now falls behind Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand.

Australia now ranks equal in reading to Ireland, Liechtenstein, Poland, Sweden and The Netherlands.

In maths, Australia ranked equal ninth last year compared with equal eighth in 2003 and second in 2000, now falling behind Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and Macau.

The science questions changed between 2003 and last year, making it difficult to compare results, but Australia ranked equal fourth last year behind Finland, Hong Kong and Canada.

Well done, Finland, again. And how it pains me to tie with Ireland in reading. You'd be after wanting to read that book there, lad.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Karl anti-coal

It's not that I'm pro-nuclear power, I'm just anti-coal power for our base power needs. If such a thing as "clean coal" was feasible, I'd be all for it. However, Dr Karl thinks "clean coal" is a furphy:

Scientific commentator and broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki, who is running for the Senate on the Climate Change Coalition ticket, today said clean coal technology was physically impossible.

Dr Kruszelnicki said the major parties were lying to the Australian people when they claimed carbon dioxide could be removed from the burning of coal and then compressed and stored underground or underwater.

He said this would require one cubic kilometre of compressed carbon dioxide to be stored every day.

"That is the volume of compressed carbon dioxide that we have to get rid of - not every 10 years, not every year, but every single day," Dr Kruszelnicki said.

"It's just not technologically possible.

"It is simply a furphy, it's a porky pie to cover up the fact that there is no such thing as clean coal."

Underground thermal energy accessed in South Australia could provide 100 per cent of Australia's baseload electricity for the next 75 years and then be supplemented by other renewables, he told reporters.

"If we tried really hard we could have all of the electricity in Australia made without carbon by 2020 using a mixture of renewable energies including hot rocks and the wind and the waves and the sun."

There you have it. According to Dr Karl "clean coal" is a fool's dream. But hot rocks? Intriguing, but feasible? All the electricity in Australia originating from one source? That's a lot of energy wasted (as heat radiating from powerlines). Time will tell.