May Experience Some Slight Turbulence

So, as most of my peeps know I’m going to America on Wednesday. Dragon*Con in Atlanta to begin with, then Washington DC and New York after that.

Just for fun, I thought I’d take a look at where I’m going in Google Maps:

I'm going to Atlanta, Washington DC and New York.

Cool, huh? Looks so.. peaceful.

And then, just because I can, I decided to click the Weather overlay:

My trip, may contain traces of weather...

Fuck. I’m going to be killed by a hurricane called Irene. Of all the bad-arse names for a hurricane, the one that’s going to kill me is called Irene.

 

That’s an aunt, not a killer storm. FML.

Only 58% of Americans ok with homosexuality

Rip & Roll
The Rip & Roll ad campaign. (Image: Qld Association for Healthy Communities)

I’m not sure why, but I’m surprised by this. New figures from the Pew Research Center show that only 58% of Americans think homosexuality should be accepted, not discouraged. WTF?

This MUST be an exception, not the rule, surely? This is 2011, I’d be stunned if less than 75% of people were ok with homosexuality. Perhaps it’s an American  thing, maybe the rest of the world is just more tolerant? I think the recent Rip & Roll controversy in Queensland showed that only a small but vocal fringe element was behind it all. As Dale Leorke wrote on The Drum: “47 anonymous complaints … clearly don’t stack up against a tirade of 30,000-plus Facebook members”. The majority of Australians, to their credit, supported the ad.

I’m heartened by the youth statistics, however. Of adults aged 18-29, 69% of people were supportive. That’s still far less than ideal, but encouraging. Like all cultural changes, this is a generational thing and in thirty years we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Of course, I can’t help giggle to myself a little bit when I see these statistics. You see a study conducted in 1996 demonstrated that homophobic men are more likely to be aroused… wait for it… by gay porn! The study divided heterosexual men into two groups: those with homophobic attitudes, and those who were comfortable with homosexuals. A device was then attached to their genitals to measure arousal, and they were shown straight, lesbian and gay porn videos. Both men were turned on by the straight and lesbian porn. But interestingly – and despite claiming otherwise – only the homophobes showed any arousal from the gay porn.

It’s one study, with a sample size of only 64 people, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Perhaps the 42% of Americans who felt homosexuality should be discouraged are closet gays?

Budget 2011

I did not watch the budget last night. It was that or watching episodes of Yes Minister, and the bureaucratic poetry of Sir Humphrey Appleby GCB, KBE, MVO, MA (Oxon) was a clear winner. I have, however, had a quick look over various summaries and overviews of the budget and formed some observations.

What I like:

Cuts to middle-class welfare. Sorry, but if you have a combined income of $150,00 a year and STILL need government hand-outs, you need to reassess your lifestyle.

A huge focus on skills and training. Apprenticeships getting a $200 million funding boost and a complete overhaul, 15,000 visas for skilled workers and 130,000 new training places.

Money going to health. $1.8 billion for regional health facilities, $16.4 billion over six years for growth money for hospitals. Emergency departments are getting an extra $3.4 billion over four years, and finally mental health is getting some money: $2.2 billion. These are areas that – particularly in the case of mental health – have been neglected for years, and hopefully this budget will turn that around.

Cuts of $4.3 billion to our unnecessarily large defense force.

John Howard has slammed the budget. This has to be a good thing.

What I don’t like:

I am SO happy that the rumored $400 million cuts to the National Medical Research Council (NMRC) didn’t eventuate. However, in April Life Scientist reported on speculation that the rumours were to ‘soften the blow’ of lesser cuts: almost as if the Government was saying “we COULD cut $400 million, so don’t complain when we cut less than that”. And it seems to me that that’s what happened, as funding was cut to Cooperative Research Centres ($33.4 million over four years) and Collaborative Research Networks program ($20.7 million over last two years of forward estimates).  This is a shame, and even more disappointing is that no scientific funding was increased – the Australian Society for Medical Research made a request in January for a three per cent increase funding to the NHMRC.

More than $200 million to expand the National Schools Chaplaincy Program. Seriously, school’s bad enough without the God-botherers indoctrinating children. Separation of Church and State? What separation?

A new program, costing $425 million, that will reward the top performing teachers. I’m not sure this is a good idea. I like that teachers are all supportive and more-or-less ‘equal’. I don’t think this is an area where competition will be a good thing. Plus, I don’t think teachers are slacking off because they’re not paid much – I don’t think they’re slacking off at all. Quite simply, if you want to make money then teaching is NOT the job for you – never has been. That said, I’m all in favour of raising teachers’ salaries across the board.

Conclusion

These are preliminary thoughts. All in all I think it’s a mostly good budget – the cuts have not been too brutal and the bunk projects are fairly minimal. The rush to return to surplus is purely political – as long as the trend is towards surplus I’m happy. So essentially, it’s a fairly boring budget – could be better, could be far worse.

Of Monarchy, Fools and Speech

Last night I saw The King’s Speech and I must admit, it is as good as everyone says it is. Yes it’s in many ways a conventional Hollywood period piece, but it does a number of things incredibly well. It is funny, it is entertaining, it is thoroughly enjoyable.

And it is beautifully filmed.

It’s a movie that sucks you in, makes you believe you’re there. You feel the awkwardness, the nervousness, the joy and heartache of the characters. I was worried it was overhyped, but I’m happy to say it definitely lived up to the hype. Thoroughly recommended.

It did reinforce my anti-monarchist beliefs, though. In Australia, the government can be sacked by someone appointed by someone in the UK. This makes no sense to me, and I fail to see any advantage in it. And I fail to see how ‘divine right’ and birthright are suitable qualities for a head of state.

Which is why I particularly liked UK paper The Guardian’s April Fools Joke. Probably the best paper in the UK, The Guardian has long called for debate about the monarchy, but published on April 1 an editorial pledging “full-throated support for the British monarchy”.

The editorial claims it’s now time to get behind the Royal Family now that “Prince William has shown that he can be a new kind of king”, and “Prince Andrew [has used] his personal connections to plant the seeds of democracy in repressive regimes worldwide.”

“When the time comes,” the paper suggests, “we urge Prince Charles to redouble his focus on his important work in the field of alternative medicine, and to pass the mantle of head of state to his son.”

It’s clearly a joke. The paper even announces a 24-hour live blog of the preparations for the ceremony, asking “What music would you choose for the royal wedding?” and announcing the latest scoops: “For one of the royal wedding cakes, Prince William has requested a concoction of biscuits and condensed milk.”

But the sweetest  part of all comes from here in Australia. Our largest pro-monarchy organisation, Australians For  A Constitutional Monachy, appear to have fallen for the joke hook, line and sinker. They’ve published on their website a triumphant article celebrating The Guardian’s change of tune, offering “a welcome back to the prodigal son.” This endorsement from a leading progressive newspaper, the ACM believes, “will make it acceptable for ALP politicians to admit that they support the existing constitution”.

Brilliant. The King is dead, long live The G-g-g-guardian!

I still think you should see The King’s Speech, if you haven’t already. Alternatively, this is more or less the entire story:

No Carbon Tax rally

Latika Bourke is a brilliant journalist, and in my opinion she’s one of Australia’s top political reporters up there with Annabell Crabb and Laurie Oakes. Today she was reporting from the No Carbon Tax rally in Canberra, and using Twitter to share comments and photos.

What she reported is a worrying reflection of the growing lunatic fringe of Australia.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Reminds me of Right America Feeling Wronged, a documentary by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Alexander Pelosi. During the 2008 Presidential Election, Pelosi follows the McCain campaign and interviews the people that show up to Support the McCain/Palin ticket. Very sad.

Space Shuttles are BIG!

We’ve heard a lot about the space shuttle program recently, after Discovery’s final launch last week. There are two more shuttle launches planned – Endeavour on April 19 and Atlantis on June 28 this year. After that, the shuttles are scrapped and the US will be relying on the Russians for trips to the International Space Station.

But I think it’s nice to have a reminder of the sheer scale involved. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center recently tweeted these photos of the Endeavour being readied for launch.  Here’s the Endeavour being transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where it will be joined to booster rockets and an external fuel tank for takeoff.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a 76 wheel transporter. Credit: NASAKennedy

The VAB is the world’s largest single-story building: it’s 160m tall, 218m long and 158m wide. So how do you get a massive shuttle like that upright, and move it around the assembly building? With a really big winch:

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a winch in the VAB. Credit: NASAKennedy
And here’s a shot of it still on the winch and now joined with the fuel tank and booster rockets. That fuel tank holds 535,000 gallons (2,026,244 liters) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen!

Endeavour is lowered into place next to its external tank and solid rocket boosters. Credit: NASAKennedy

For more photos – including the Endeavour being driven through a shuttle-shaped doorway! – check out Universe Today’s post.

Last year, this brilliant video was made showing the process of moving the shuttle to the VAB and then to the launch.

Incredible!

Images posted to Twitter by NASAKennedy.

Diaspora

Remember the outcry when Facebook changed its privacy settings every 6 weeks? A group of university students decided to make an alternative social network that gave ownership and control of information to the users, and they called it Diaspora. Raising over US$200,000 from Kickstarter, they set about designing and building a network focussed of freedom and privacy.

Central to Diaspora’s operation is the understanding that we all have different groups of people that we associate with, and our approach to them is different. What I share with my co-workers, for example, is different to what I share with my family or with my close friends. With Diaspora, managing that is easy – you can put people in different (fully customizable) ‘aspects’ of your life – Family, Work, Friends, General Public for example. For everything you share you determine which aspects have access to it. Facebook does this as well, but it’s a much less straight-forward approach.

The long-term plan for Diaspora is to decentralize it as well – so you can run it on your own Webhost and you’re not then subject to Facebook’s network. That’s not such a big deal now, but whenever you’re relying on one  company or party there’s always the risk that they can shut you down  – breaches of terms and conditions, for example. With Diaspora being distributed, and open-source, there’s no one organisation that can kill your account. That’s the future, though, at the moment it’s all running from the one spot – http://joindiaspora.org.

I’ve managed to score some invites, so I’ll be handing them out to some friends soon. It’ll be interesting to see how Diaspora goes, given the formidable competition they’re up against in Facebook.

Creationism in Education: The Movie

This is so cool.

The Texas Board of Education is doing a damn good job of, well, destroying education in Texas. Religious right-wing extremists have taken over the board and are spearheading a strong push to get young-Earth creationism taught as fact. They have tried to get the history textbooks changed to show that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Joseph McCarthy was right and his allegations that everyone in the whole world was a Communist were true. They have tried to get the Separation of Church and State removed from the curriculum. In 2009, they ammended the science curriculum to cast doubt on the existence of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific concensus.

An even bigger problem is that Texas is the biggest  market for textbooks, and therefore holds significant influence over publishers. What Texas insists on could dictate what is taught in other states across the US as well.

This is the cool part: a team is doing a documentary on the situation, which will help raise awareness of what’s going on. Like all film projects, it requires money – so they started up a Kickstarter project. Kickstarter is a crowd-funding site that lets people pledge money towards a project – software development, film, craft, anything really. Initially asking for US$10,000, they very quickly made more than that and they now hope to get the film scored and maybe entered into international film festivals.

This is a really cool project, and it’d be great to see it come to fruition. They are still accepting donations, and the more money they get the better the film will be!

Astrologers, I’m Waiting

Here’s the story, folks. In early January, the BBC ran a live television program over 3 nights called Stargazing Live. It was a great show, hosted by hilarious comedian Dara O Briain and mega-brain particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. It was a kind of introduction to amateur astronomy, encouraging viewers to go outside and look up. It rated quite well, too, with 3.6 million viewers.

But during one segment, explaining the orbits of the planets, an off-the-cuff joke potentially got the presenters in hot water. After joking around by aligning all the planets in a line on their model solar system, Dara cleared the air and said “Let’s get this straight once and for all, astrology is rubbish” still laughing at Dara’s mucking around, Brian replied, “in the interests of balance, because we’re on the BBC, I should say that indeed Dara is right, astrology is nonsense!”

This passing joke – clearly an unscripted, throwaway line – went largely unnoticed by, well, everyone. Except, of course, astrologers. They were incensed at the vile attack on their pseudoscience. “I was furious with indignation,” writes ‘respected astrologer’ Angela Cornish. She wrote a very heated email to the British Astrological Association and The Advisory Panel on Astrological Education (APAE). You can read it here, along with a very detailed response from another astrologer, Deborah Houlding.

Why is Cornish so angry? She’s mad because Brian and Dara “had the audacity, on prime time TV, to try and discredit a subject they clearly know nothing about”. I’d have to say, though, that if “astrology is rubbish” is their attempt to discredit it, it’s a particularly piss-weak effort. I’ve made more of an effort to discredit astrology when I blogged here and called it a scam, and when I responded on Mamamia in the comments. Where’s my angry email, Angela?

What I love, though, is the conspiracy theory and media paranoia that Houlding suffers. She writes “[media outlets] are part of the desperate chase for promotion, seeking to profit from the exaggerated public attention that simplified horoscopic astrology attracts at this time of year”. Yes, she’s really suggesting that Dara’s comments were a deliberate plot to stir up controversy and increase viewers. Nevermind that, on a science program, they were simply stating the overwhelming scientific consensus. Deborah’s right in that every year TV stations and magazines trot out the same astrological claptrap – What Does Your Sign Say About This Year – and no doubt people eagerly pore over them to see if they will find True Love this year or strike it rich with Good Fortune. But to look at that clip in context and say it was motivated by that new-year astrological interest is imbecilic and ludicrous. “It is no mere coincidence … that Brian Cox made his outrageous and inflammatory remarks in a program which aired on the 3rd January,” she whines. The show aired in early January for a number of reasons, all of which were astronomical, not astrological. Uranus and Jupiter were in conjunction, there was a partial solar eclipse, and the Quadrantids meteor shower was at its peak. Even the BBC can’t change astronomic events just to take a vague stab at astrology.

To astrologers, the BBC has a clear agenda and Brian Cox is at center of it. Last year, during his excellent Wonders of the Solar System program also shown on the BBC, Cox was again talking about Jupiter:

Jupiter is so different to our planet – you know, a big ball of gas, half a billion kilometres away – it’s difficult to see how it could have anything to do with us at all. But despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can, in fact, have a profound influence on our planet and it’s through a force that, well, surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together – gravity … Jupiter has the most powerful gravitational field of all the planets, and it’s the gas giant’s gravity that can directly influence the orbits of asteroids and other wandering space debris … it can deflect stuff onto a direct collision course with our planet.

That’s it – again, hardly worth making a fuss about. One little statement of scientific consensus – scientific fact – in a science program. But all this has got the astrologers so wound up, they’ve got a petition going. They’re trying to get as many believers as they can to click a button, or even write in to the BBC (with a copy-and-paste letter template) calling for ‘fair representation’ for astrology in the media. Again, I’m upset – where’s my petition?

Cos I’ll make it easy for all you astrologers. All you have to do is show me three scientific studies, in peer-reviewed scientific journals (proper science journals, not Astrologer’s Weekly), that prove comprehensively that astrology works. Three double-blind, randomized large-scale studies. If astrology is as good as you claim, that should be easy to do, right?

Astrologers, I’m waiting!

Brisbane Freight Depot Flooded

I just got these photos from our freight handlers. This is a freight depot in Brisbane, after it got flooded. I’m looking at these photos thinking there must be TVs, computers, important documents and all sorts of things now ruined by the water.