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Preview: It looks different from here

It looks different from here



Irregular postings on science, politics, science fiction, games, comics, history and whatever takes my fancy.



Updated: 2015-09-16T21:58:13.421-07:00

 



Long time no see

2007-10-30T06:27:50.246-07:00

It certainly has been a long time. Last Saturday I went to the 40 year reunion of my year from Ryde High School. It was held 40 years since we stated our Higher School Certificate exams. About 25 or more years ago there was a reunion for the whole school. This reunion has been several months in the organizing. The organizers were able to contact somewhat over half of the individuals on the class list that they were able to get hold of. I was able to provide several leads to help them find some class members that I had ran into over the years.

There were a few classmates that I had been in occasional contact with after I finished Uni but that gradually dwindled over the years. It gradually dwindled down to one and even then I was in more regular contact with her brother who had been in another year at school. Still I bumped into classmates now and then. Usually they recognized me rather than the other way around. The last time was at a food market in Sydney about a year or so ago.

So it was good to see some old faces. Some I recognized easily, some I had to be told. Even in the latter cases it wasn't hard to see the face you knew from school in the face in front of you.

Of course there was the finding what we had been doing since school. Mostly what you could picture them doing, but there were some surprises. The group has been scattered over much of the country and in a few cases overseas. Still more were still in the Sydney district than anywhere else. Some including me came from interstate for the reunion.

One thing I will have got out of this is where those classmates are who are up here in Brisbane. And also where the ones in Canberra and Sydney are. A fair few are now in country locations.

One of the things that happens at events like this is finding out the background behind what happened back then. Why certain people behaved in certain ways. Who had a crush on whom and was too shy to show it back then.

The reunion was held in a large pavilion at Bobbin Head in Kuring Gai Chase National Park a bit North of Sydney. A picnic area with a good view right next to Cowan Creek, an off shoot of Broken Bay. Generally, had a great time.



A part of the solution

2007-10-30T03:29:19.892-07:00

No single thing that we have done has led to our climate change problems. No single thing that we can do will solve them.

One thing that we have to do is use our energy resources more economically. Another is to find energy sources that do not put CO2 into the atmosphere and to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by other sources. We have two main energy requirements, power for electricity and heat, and fuel or power to run vehicles.

We can supply electricity from sources that put no CO2 into the atmosphere. Nuclear, solar, wind , geothermal and hydroelectric are examples of such energy sources.

But we still need energy for vehicles. Internal combustion engines burning hydrocarbon fuels are a lightweight very flexible means of powering vehicles. But so long as we use petrochemicals , natural gas or the like they are a major part of the problem. There are difficulties using electricity in many vehicles. Overall it would be easiest if we could find alternative fuels.

One suggestion is hydrogen. This can be obtained by using electricity and the electricity can come from non CO2 emitting sources. Still hydrogen has problems with storage and with the embrittlement of metals that it can cause. It would be good if we could find a fuel source that removes as much greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as it adds.

This leads to biofuels. The idea is either to raise a crop that we can convert into fuel or to turn organic waste into fuel. The latter can only provide a small part of our energy need but every bit helps. The first can prove a lot more but there is a catch. Tho provide ethanol from corn or sugar cane or oils from soy beans etc. requires the use of a lot of agricultural land. It requires so much that it could seriously effect food production and with many crops we just don't have enough suitable land.

We need a better alternative and there is one. Grow algae in shallow ponds or plastic bags. It requires more than an order of magnitude less land than other crops used as fuel sources.

I was at a talk on research being done on producing algal biomass as a source of fuel. They are getting near. It is not yet economically viable but with current petroleum prices we are not far off. Work is being done to increase photosynthetic efficiency. An interesting possibility is the direct production of hydrogen by algae. This can occur under anaerobic conditions. Another possibility is that processing of the algal biomass can leave elemental carbon behind. This can be ploughed back into the soil in a very effective form of carbon sequestration.

And of course with such a source of fuel we can reduce our reliance on the Middle East. To the benefit of most of the world.

This of course is not the whole solution to our problems but I think it will be a big part of it.



So that's where the difference is

2007-08-13T03:47:29.948-07:00

I was at a very interesting seminar and an interesting conversation afterwards.

When the Human Genome Project was completed everyone was surprised at how few gene there were. Only about 20-25,000 protein coding genes. It was not that much larger than that for much simpler organisms. So where was the greater complexity of humans and other mammals coming from? Where was the coding for the difference between human brains and those of other mammals?

People speculated that more complex organisms had much more complex regulatory systems in their genomes. Also splicing of different transcribed nucleic acid sequences together allows for an expanded proteome (suite of available proteins) from a genome that has not increased in size. The speculation is tha evolution mostly acts by affecting non-coding rather than coding DNA.

Now part of the regulatory apparatus is what are call micro-RNAs. These are short RNA sequences about 20-23 base pairs long. It was thought that there were several hundred and then thought that there were several thousand micro-RNAs in the cells of a given mammalian species.

The talk I went to today was on estimating how many micro-RNAs there were in a given species. It turned out to be a lot. An awful lot. In a mouse they estimated that there were over a million micro-RNAs. Less complicated organisms had an order of magnitude or more less micro-RNAs. And what was really interesting was that humans had over three million different micro-RNAs. Nothing else came close.

Guess what they think most of the extra micro-RNAs in humans are doing? That's right. They are probably a major part of the plan of the brain.

We have known the genetic alphabet for about fifty years. This is finding that there was a whole chunk of the dictionary that was much bigger and more important than we thought it was.



I didn't know it looked like that

2007-06-26T03:06:32.014-07:00

This week the Institute for Molecular Bioscience holds its annual Winter School in Mathematical and Computational Biology. One of the talks was on the Visible Cell project. The aim of this project is to create three dimensional computer graphics models of mammalian cells for use by molecular biologists.

The cell type they have been looking at is the beta cell in the Islets of Langherans in the pancreas. What they have been doing is slicing cells into a lot of fine sections and taking electon microscope pictures of the sections and doing so at various angles. They are then using smoothers to join these sections together in the computer to create models of the cell.

Very impressive! And a lot of the organelles do not look like they to in textbook pictures. These pictures are usually based on single cross sections and can give quite misleading impressions of the three dimensional structures.

The mitochondria are not the little elliptical bodies you thought they were. They are long branching snake-like things. The Golgi apparatus does not look like a stack of pancakes. It is this elegant sparse lacy skeletal structure. The endoplasmic reticulum is similar. The cell is much more crowded than most illustrations would make you think it was.

In most of these cases my reactions were "I should have realized it wouldn't look like the pictures." and "Wow! Neat!"



The nervous system we didn't know we had

2007-04-13T05:30:06.506-07:00

Most people have heard the claim that we only use 10% of our brain. Not many know the origin of this story. It appears to be a garbled version of the fact than only about 10% of the brain's cells are neurons.

Neurons are what we usually think of when we talk about nerve cells. They have long processes called axons and dendrites which nerve impulses travel along. These impulses are waves of electrical discharges. There are gaps between neurons called synapses. Chemicals called neurotransmitters diffuse across these gaps allowing one neuron to activate the next one thus allowing a nerve impulse to continue across the gaps between nerve cells. But a neuron may need a complicated combination of inputs before it will transmit an incoming signal.

The rest of the cells in the brain and in the rest of the nervous system are called glial cells. They have a similar origin to neurons but don't have the axons and dendrites. They act as a skeleton, they insulate neurons from one another and they provide oxygen and nutrients to the neurons. The nervous systems support system.

Or so it was thought. Now it looks as if there is less difference between the glial cells and neurons than we thought there was. While as far as we know glial cells cannot generate the action potentials, the nerve impulses many do have synapses and release neurotransmitters. They are also involved in preventing the build up of released neurotransmitters and regulating the activity .of synapses. They also are involved in controlling the development of the nervous system.

It looks as if glial cells, especially the astrocytes (the most common type in the central nervous system) provide much (most?) of the slow processing aspects of the brain. Things that happen in seconds rather than fractions of a second. As well as the fast processing system provided by the neurons we have a possibly larger slower system intertwined with it everywhere or almost everywhere. A nervous system we didn't know we had.

I recently went to a talk on some current work on this. A very important part for very many people. It looks as if many, probably most cases of chronic pain stem from feedback loops among astrocytes in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. A caution, this is new work and much of this hypothesis is inspired by in vitro experiments on nerve cells. Much needs to be done to confirm this.

Chronic pain is pain which persists after the injury or disease which originally caused it is gone. It is when rather than being the symptom of a disease the pain is the disease.

Pain is transmitted to the brain by parts of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. As I understand it if there are a lot of pain signals coming in it appears that the astrocytes in these regions can get trapped in a feedback loop stipulating each other by the released neurotransmitters glutamate and ATP, especially the latter. In this state they continually excite the pain transmitting neurons even after there are no more pain signals coming in from the body. It's like pushing a throttle forward and finding that it is jammed there and you can't turn the motor off.

If this is correct then there is hope for chronic pain sufferers. We need to find a way to reset the spinal cord. I don't know how and I don't know when we will be able to do this. Not for a while but we should be able to do it.




It's been too long

2007-04-15T02:01:09.363-07:00

since my last blog post. For various reasons I haven't been able to settle down to write one.

But more important I'd been out of work for too long. At last I'm back at work, doing something I find interesting and getting enough money to have a reasonable set of choices of things to do outside of work.

The downside is that I had to move interstate to get this job. For now I'm living in pretty basic accommodation in a hostel mostly catering to overseas students. Ah well, it cuts costs. And I don't mind living in Brisbane.

I'm working as a research assistant for the University of Queensland in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience and the Department of Mathematics. I'm working on model-based clustering, in particular the use of finite mixture models for clustering.

You see ,clustering is answering the questions does this data fall into groups, if so how many and which observations are in which groups. The thing about cluster analysis is that you only have the observations, not the groups that they belong to. For any of them. You have to create the groups, not put the observations into known or predefined groups. That is classification.

Not surprisingly it is a less well defined problem than classification. Usually you create a matrix of distances between observations. (And one of your first decisions is how to define these distances.) Then you put the observations through some algorithm for joining them up into groups. A problem with this approach is that it is difficult to come up with an objective measure of how good the classification that you come up with is.

I'm working on testing improvements in one alternative approach. This is to assume that the results come from a mixture of distributions of specified but flexible forms. You put the observations into an initial clustering and then improve it by iterative methods. In principle this should put the clustering on a better mathematical foundation.

One of the nice things about the job is that I get to go to some very interesting seminars at the IMB. And since I started out in Biology I find some of them very interesting indeed.

Let's see there was the talk on larval development in sponges. Fascinating. The larvae are more structured than the adults. They are more closely related to the rest of the animals than we thought. You see at one time we thought Porifera (sponges) might have developed from protists independently of the rest of the animals.

But here you see a sponge larva. And it looks like nothing so much as a planula, the larval form of such things as hydras and jellyfish. With a couple of interesting differences. One is in the arrangement of the flagella. But the big one is that it is radially symmetrical where a planula is bilaterally symmetrical even though the adult Cnidaria (Hydras, jellyfish, corals, sea anemones etc.) are radially symmetrical. There are a couple of common factors producing developmental gradients both in Poriferan and Cnidarian larvae. The thing is in the Cnidaria one of them runs longitudinally and one runs dorso-ventrally. In the Porifera they both run longitudinally. This suggests some interesting questions about the development of radial and bilateral symmetry in animals.

Things are looking up. Finally!

Coming up soon, the nervous system we didn't know we had.





Bring me the head of ...

2006-09-23T03:22:53.476-07:00

First off, profound apologies are due to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer. He is not responsible for the horrendous mucking around and obstruction and sheer bastardy that Zoe Brain has had to endure from the Australian Passport Office. I'm glad I was wrong.It appears that the main culprit is the Acting Director of the APO, Bob Nash. He is guilty of everything nasty that I suspected Downer of and worse. Some other high ups in the APO might be involved as well but I don't know yet. At most it looks like a few scumbags at the top. The case officer and the counter staff have all done the right thing in difficult circumstances.Zoe has put up a summary of what has happened on her blog.Briefly the Australian Passport Office has been looking for ways to prevent Zoe from obtaining an Australian Passport rather than looking for ways around unintended and unanticipated effects of regulations. The regulations were designed to handle more normal cases of transsexuality. Her case is unusual in two major ways.One is the gender change was not being due to surgery. Although she is on hormone treatment now most of the changes have been spontaneous. This is an extremely rare condition. We can only guess about the cause. It's probably a rare combination of factors.The other is her marriage surviving this ordeal. Marriage has several functions. Not everyone will place a high importance on all of them and a marriage can still be important and valuable if some of them are absent or handled another way.One of its traditional functions was to provide a situation in which sexual activity was socially condoned. There have been religious prohibitions on sexual activity other than heterosexual activity within a marriage.Another function is do act as a public affirmation of commitment by the partners. Another is to act a financial and social partnership.And of course it is supposed to act as a framework for bringing up children.One does not necessarily dissolve an existing marriage if the sexual side of it disappears but the other aspects are still functional. Especially if there are children involved.Zoe and Carmel intend to stay together to raise Andrew. And while the sexual side of their relationship is now no longer functional the rest is. Their marriage still means something to them and they wish to preserve it despite the changes it has been through.The legal situation is clear. The people contracting a marriage have to be of different genders at the time of the wedding. A subsequent change of gender is irrelevantBut there are people trying to make a point about their opposition to homosexual marriage. To make their point they are freaking out about any same sex marriage even such an unusual one as this. This appears to be what is behind the actions of the APO. We had the Acting Director of the APO saying “Under the Marriage Act, we can't have married people changing their gender”. What business is it of his? How dare he try to break up a marriage? His job is to administer the Passports Act. Not to use his office to enforce his idea of what marriage should be. He is supposed to help people get passports not look for ways to stop them from obtaining passports.The APO have deliberately violated the intent of the Law and ended up violating its letter as well. They have asked for irrelevant and intrusive documentation on the pretext of proof of identity. When asked to give reasons for their action they missed the legally required deadline. Their reply was evasive and did not answer the questions. In short they have shown a complete lack of good faith.Fortunately Zoe was able to work around them. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs was much more helpful. They were appalled by the APO's treatment of Zoe. They did the unusual step of issuing a visa on Zoe's UK Passport. In other words they exploited rarely used technicalities to help an Au[...]



We still have a problem

2006-07-31T03:51:09.090-07:00

Last year I posted an essay on Global warming. Since then I've been finding out more about the subject. Nothing that I have seen gives me any reason to change my belief that the problem is real.In my earlier post I covered the evidence that human activity has led to increases in CO2 and the evidence that Global temperatures are increasing. I did not cover in detail the reasons for believing that the current temperature increases are caused by increases in CO2.There are three main lines of argument.The first is the claim that the pattern in space and time of the temperature changes is the one which would be expected from greenhouse gas forcing rather than from solar forcing.The second is the claim that models taking into account human activity are consistent with the observations. Models which do not take into account human generated greenhouse gases and aerosols are not consistent with the observations.The third is the claim that the current warming is unprecedented in the past few hundred years and probably in the past thousand years. That is the current changes are too great to be entirely due to the natural variability of the climate system.I do not regard these arguments as equally strong. The first argument is quite strong, strong enough to carry the case by itself. The third is to my mind only supporting evidence and not conclusive by itself. The second is in between. I regard it as fairly strong but can understand how others might find it less convincing.Solar variability is often proposed as an alternative explanation for Global warming. Solar forcing would act through an increased energy input and greenhouse forcing would act by reducing energy re-radiation. One would expect the patterns of temperature changes to be different for solar and greenhouse forcing.The observed pattern for current warming matches that for greenhouse gas forcing not the one for solar forcing. Temperatures have risen more at night than during the day. They have risen more in Winter than in Summer. They have risen more in Polar regions than in the Tropics. The Stratosphere has cooled while the Troposphere, the surface and the oceans have warmed. These are all what would be expected from greenhouse gas forcing, not from solar forcing. I would say that the fingerprint of temperature changes is sufficient reason to believe that greenhouse gas forcing is the cause of Global warming.It has taken a long time to create models of the climate that reproduce the temperature changes over the past century reasonably well. Models that successfully do this are all sensitive to greenhouse gas forcing and human generated aerosols. They also have to take into account solar variation an volcanic activity. These models attribute about half of the temperature increase in the first half of the Twentieth Century to solar variation and the rest to greenhouse gases. They attribute the temperature increase in the second half of the Twentieth Century to greenhouse gases. There isn't any current increase in solar output.The General Circulation Models used to model climate are very complicated and it would require more time and resources than I have available to check them properly. However they are capable of making predictions. They correctly predicted temperature trends in the Troposphere. Measurements that disagreed with the predicted trends were found to be biased. When the biases were corrected the data was consistent with the predicted trends.Models like these are an area where one just has to trust the expertise and integrity of the people doing the modeling at least as far as the details of implementation go. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a feel for the details. The basic concepts behind the models are more accessible. The models that can be created are constrained by the laws of physics. The models are available for criticism. People who think they are basi[...]



Bastardy pure and simple

2006-07-26T23:48:57.643-07:00

Nearly a year ago I put up a post about the spontaneous sex change that a close friend Zoe Brain was undergoing. Since then she has become much more comfortable with the changes that are happening. She feels much more comfortable as a woman than she ever did as a man. Her appearance has changed. A lot!

Some oddities now make more sense. There is still a lot of medical stuff that doesn't so far.

There has been a lot of support from friends. Most people who know about the situation have in one way or another tried to make things easier for her.

But there have been exceptions.

She will be needing gender reassignment surgery. The operation will be done in Thailand because that is where the best surgeon for her case is.

She is now doing a PhD at ANU. She will need to travel overseas during this.

To do this she needs a new Australian passport showing her current gender. Someone at the Australian Passport Office or more likely above them is being difficult. Her application for a new passport has been knocked back.

They claim she has provided insufficient proof of identity. She has supplied them with all the documentation that their website asks for and more. Before they will issue a passport with a sex different from that on the birth certificate they want want letters from medical practitioners detailing examinations including results of surgery. (Which of course hasn't happened yet.) Simply she doesn't fit into the usual categories and so she is being denied a passport.

It looks as if the culprit is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. The appeal was rejected by “Policy” very quickly. He has changed the policies in ways which make it harder for transsexuals and the intersexed to get passports.

Why? He is rather socially conservative and presumably the idea of transsexuality and intersex makes him uncomfortable. The discomfort is not an evil. What he does because of it is. Presumably he looks down on such things and does not regard transsexuals and the intersexed as persons deserving any respect or support.

He has betrayed his office. His job is to look after the interests of all Australians traveling abroad. The discrimination against Zoe is oppression. As an Australian citizen she is entitled to a passport unless there are very substantial reasons to deny her one. None exist.

He obviously thinks he is right. So does any bigot! It is no excuse. Why he believes he is right is probably moral cowardice, intellectual laziness and lack of empathy for people like Zoe. He is making no effort to put himself in the position of people who don't fit into his neat categories. Like many social conservatives he is seeing choice where there is none.

He definitely deserves a good kicking. If what Zoe is trying to do doesn't work out I think bloggers should put on bother boots and join to deliver said kicking. (Don't do it yet. We're not certain he is guilty and even if he is he should be given the opportunity to change his mind without loosing face too much. The aim is for Zoe to get her passport, not for us to vent our anger.)



Underestimation

2006-06-28T23:00:00.690-07:00

For a classic piece of underestimation of a likely enemy here is an article from a US aviation magazine in early 1941. More than a little bit of wishful thinking here.



Terminology update

2006-06-04T01:43:43.043-07:00

An update to my previous posts on political categories.

There is a term which describes utopian authoritarianism in Western societies. It is populism. I think fascism, extreme nationalism and law and order extremism could all be described as populist movements. Non Western utopian authoritarian movements such as Islamism and Confucianism while they have some similarities (especially Islamism) could not be described as populist.



On the nature of fear and courage

2006-05-27T15:56:48.656-07:00

Fear is an emotion that tends to override all other others and to control our actions. Not surprising, its function is to protect our safety, our very existence. Those among our potential ancestors who did not react strongly to fear tended not to leave descendants.But evolution is a short sighted mechanism and what has evolved in one environment can be quite dysfunctional in another. And it does not take account of an organism's needs other than leaving descendants of itself or its kin. It cares nothing about happiness or morality.We evolved as tribal hunter-gatherers and this has had much more influence on our psychological nature than the comparatively short period since the start of agriculture and then civilization. And before that our ancestors were simply animals. Some aspects of our nature that evolved in the palaeolithic and earlier are dangers or hindrances now. Many of the dangers that we face are different and the best responses are different but parts of our brains don't know that.Fear causes one or other of three reactions – flee, freeze or fight. The trouble is it can be so overwhelming that it can prevent us planning and hence we make an inappropriately simple response that can actually increase the danger. Panic, acting at random might be a good strategy sometimes for an animal. For an entity with a human beings reasoning powers it is a poor strategy which throws away its greatest strength. An example would be fleeing in a straight line when someone is shooting at you or fleeing at all when fighting is the better response. For dangers that we are actually likely to face freezing (“Please don't notice me Mr. Predator.”) almost always makes things worse.Fear can also be out of proportion to the actual danger. Phobias are habitual disproportionate fear responses to certain stimuli. Again in these cases the response to fear can and usually does make a situation worse.And of course we can face situations where danger should be accepted and we should act despite it. As the complexity of a society increases then the variety of possible goals for its members increases. Some of these goals will have dangers attached. Sometimes we know that accomplishing a goal is worth the risk involved but fear overrides our better judgment.But fear is still necessary. Without it we are far too likely to do something that is tempting but stupidly dangerous. The consequences of this can be seen in adolescent risk-taking. This appears to be more due to faulty risk assessment than to any difference in fear reaction between adolescents and older or younger people. But it still makes the point of where we would be without fear.Courage could be described as the ability to act when one might expect fear to interfere with the ability to act. It could be because one is not afraid when others might be or it could be because the fear is felt but overridden. Some might only describe overriding fear as courage and call not feeling inappropriate fears presence of mind or something else.I can think of four kinds of courage according to the type of threat that one is facing. Three are physical, moral and intellectual courage. The fouth there is no phrase for.Physical courage is the ability to act despite the risk of pain or injury or death.Moral courage is the ability to act according to one's conscience despite the risk of disapproval from those whose approval one wants or the fear of bearing the moral responsibility for an action.Intellectual courage is the ability to accept unpleasant truths and to act on them. It is the courage to admit that you might be wrong.I can't think of any phrase that encapsulates the ability to deal with personal and social anxieties.Physical courage is called on most when one is trying to protect others. Sometimes[...]



Of mice, apes and fetuses

2006-05-04T14:43:36.590-07:00

OK, this is my take on consciousness, life, animals, abortions and euthanasia.One issue is what is it that we mean when we talk about human life? Why do we place an especially high value on it? Is what we value human life itself or something associated with it? Are there other life forms that we should value in the same way and to the same degree that we value human life?The other issue is autonomy. What rights do we have to control our own bodies and our own lives? Can we end them whenever we wish? Do we have the right to control our own bodies to the extent that we can expel another life form no matter what the consequences to that life form?Autonomy I'll deal with autonomy in matters of life and death first. The general principle is that one should have control over one's life and one's body. Exceptions have to have strong justifications.For the sake of arguments concerning autonomy I will concede the pro-life position and regard a fetus as a person. (In fact I disagree with this position.) Bearing a child is still a major intrusion on the mother's autonomy. Usually it is a sought and accepted one. Sometimes it is an unsought and resented one.Most of us would agree that we have an obligation to preserve a human life unless there are other factors involved. Some would say that we have no such obligation to a stranger. I think this belief is dangerous to a society, undermining the empathy that is at least part of the basis of the parts of morality concerned with relations with others.Most of us would also agree that there are limits to this obligation. One is not obliged to impoverish oneself, or accept maiming or significant risk to one's life to preserve the life of someone that one feels no bond with other than that of our common humanity.I think that allowing such an intimate use of one's body as is required by pregnancy is beyond one's obligations to another. There needs to be something else involved to create such an obligation.In the case of a pregnancy due to rape there is clearly no such extra source of obligation. A pregnancy due to rape is a continuation of the rape. There is no consent that could be used as a basis for any claim of assumed commitments. An abortion in this case is a form of self-defense. The fetus is the means by which the rapist continues his attack. Most people would agree with this position. The closest analogy I can think of is a human shield used by someone who is firing at you. If you kill the human shield in the process of defending yourself you are not morally responsible for the death of the shield – the hostage taker is.Many claim that consent to sexual intercourse implies consent to any pregnancy that results from it. While this is a defensible position I do not agree with it. It is not obvious enough to use as a basis for any laws. A law should not command an act that a reasonable person could see as immoral. A reasonable person could see preventing a woman from obtaining an abortion as an immoral act and I would see it that way. I might agree with this argument if I saw the fetus as a person but I would not support any laws banning abortion. They have the potential to tear society apart.The claim of autonomy implies that one has the right to choose the time and manner of the end of one's life. In other words one has the right to commit suicide and the right to ask another to help in carrying out a suicide. One does not have the right to demand such help from others.However there are complicating factors surrounding suicide. The most important of these is the fact that many, probably most suicide attempts happen when someone is in an abnormal state of mind. The other is the effect that suicide has on other people especially those close to oneself.Most suici[...]



IEATAPETA day observed

2006-05-05T20:57:50.686-07:00

Most days I try to make meat a fairly small part of my diet. Partly this is for health reasons and partly it is because I do not enjoy having large amounts of meat frequently.

But I like doing so occasionally. And the 15th March is an occasion to do so. It is IEATAPETA Day (International Eat A Tasty Animal for PETA Day). On this day one consumes animal products at at least one meal and preferably at all of them.

This holiday was started by Meryl Yourish as a protest against a PETA campaign comparing the slaughter of chickens to the Holocaust.

I decided that such a worthy enjoyable feast should be observed. Thus meat pies for lunch and grilled Spanish Mackerel for dinner. I will do better next year. (Probably a slow cooked casserole or braise of some ruminant.)

Second Thought: When the time comes would anyone be interested in a Bollito Misto (Northern Italian mixed boiled meats)? I can't think of more suitably and deliciously carnivorous celebratory dish.



Enough is enough

2006-02-21T17:59:20.830-08:00

To those Muslims who are throwing tantrums about the Mohamed cartoons, grow up! You want the rest of us to respect you. Earn that respect.!Respect is something that you pay for in kind. You are not footing that bill.Is your complaint that the cartoons depict Mohamed when most of your co-religionists believe that to do so is forbidden? Are you complaining that depictions of pigs are around in public spaces and at work? If you wish to abide by your religion's prohibitions do so. That is your business. Do not try to impose your religion's prohibitions on the rest of us. Representational art is part of our culture. Pigs are part of our culture. We are not giving them up.Most of us will never convert to Islam. We have good reasons for not doing so, usually better than your reasons for being a Muslim. Most of you are only Muslims because you were brought up as one. (To be fair the same applies to most members of other religions.) Be honest with yourselves and admit that you would probably follow another religion if you had been brought up in it.If you wish to impose Sharia law on me and the rest of my country then you are my enemy. If you condone the acts of terrorists then you are my enemy. There are enough of us who will fight your attempts to impose your ways on us to stop you from succeeding. Believe that!Is your complaint a claim that your prophet was insulted by the cartoons? Violence is not an appropriate response to a verbal or visual insult. Find another way to respond. If you want our respect then either ignore the insult, treat it with disdain or turn it back on the originator. Treating an insult as something not worth responding to and hence treating the insulter as a person of no consequence will gain you respect. Using wit and turning the insult back on the originator will also gain respect. Frothing at the mouth with rage and avenging the insult will not gain respect. You think that you might create fear. Fear is not respect. Don't deceive yourselves into thinking that it is. You will be sneered at behind your backs. We can see the insecurity behind the rage.Being so easily offended is seen by us as a type of immaturity. You say that an insult hurts terribly. That hurt is in part self imposed. Grow a thicker skin! We believe in robust debate. Feelings get hurt in this. But it is necessary. The means of finding out the truth and correcting error must be protected. If we don't do so then tyranny and error will be the result. We are all fallible and it is more important that we seek the truth than that we be right. Learn to live without the certainty of being right or at least accept that others will not and should not treat you as if you were right. They cannot do so without giving up their own integrity. (This does not apply just to you.)To those Muslims who just want to live at peace with others in a state of mutual respect, you aren't my targets. You do have a responsibility to oppose evil promoted in the name of your religion if you can do so without running unreasonable risks. This may not always be possible. Still the ratbags are dragging the name of your religion through the mud.To the people who are oh so sympathetic to the rioter's sense of grievance and so concerned about not hurting the feelings of Muslims, you are wankers and cowards! The rest of us know narcissism when we see it. We know that you are trying to feel oh so virtuous. You need to see Muslims as underdogs that you can support even when they are attacking our culture's basic principles. This society despite its flaws is worth defending. Your sensitivity does not make you better than the rest of us. Your conceit and self-righteousness makes you worse.You belive that[...]



Some further thoughts on political categories

2006-02-05T04:05:28.736-08:00

In a previous post I discussed the effect that one's moral viewpoint had on one's political viewpoint and on one's perception of others. For that discussion I classified political viewpoints by their attitude to institutions that could be seen as sources of authority or embodiments of society. I used a two- way classification rather than a left-right axis.One of the axes was Utopianism. To what extent can institutions that are seen as embodiments of society and invested with authority be used to radically improve society? (The state can be seen as invested with authority without its being seen as a source of authority.)The other axis was the degree to which authoritative institutions were seen as sources of part of one's identity or whether they were seen as merely instruments serving certain social purposes. There isn't a one word label for this axis. This is not exactly the degree of authoritarianism but is often associated with it. If one identifies strongly with nation or state then one isn't necessarily authoritarian but one is more likely to be so.This set of categories usually classifies viewpoints the same way that they would be if you classified on the degree of social liberality and on the degree of economic liberality. The one that I created just focuses on motives rather than on policies.Briefly conservatives identify strongly with authority wielding institutions but regard them as primarily protective and have little faith in the ability of such institutions to create Utopia. Fascists and related movements identify strongly with authority wielding institutions and believe that they can be used to create a Utopia. Pragmatists, classical liberals or libertarians (whatever you want to call them) regard authority wielding institutions more as protective instruments than as sources of their identities and they do not believe in the ability of the state or the like to create a Utopia. Progressives (Here I include social democrats, socialists, communists and what are usually called liberals nowadays.) tend to regard authority wielding institutions as instruments rather than as sources of identity but they see such institutions as a means to build a better world.I want to explore the nature of authority wielding institutions a bit and identify a few more of the Utopian groups.The authority wielding or normative groups that people might identify with fall into two categories. Some are corporate bodies and some are not. Corporate bodies are formal hierarchial institutions that are treated as being persons distinct from their members. Examples are states, professional associations and Christian churches. (A business corporation is a corporate body but is not a source of norms.) Examples of non corporate groups seen as sources of authority that are major parts of many people's identities are nations and the Muslim Ummah. (A nation is a people who consider themselves to be bonded together as a nation. A state is an institution ruling a region. States and nations tend to coincide but do not always do so. When they don't there is usually some trouble.)The progressive camp is quite a grab bag of groups. They vary widely on the acceptability of violence, the degree of private ownership, the amount of involvement of the state in private morality and attitude towards Nature.The communists tend to be callous and quite unscrupulous in their dealings with opponents. Fanaticism is common. They want all or nearly all of the productive capacity to be in state hands. They vary widely in how much they want the state to be involved in private morality. Most of them have a very exploitative approach towards Nature. (They are Utopians [...]



My weird habits

2006-02-05T16:02:24.556-08:00

Since Zoe has tagged me with the five weird habits meme I have to reveal some of my dark secrets.

All right, here are some.

1. I use hand gestures when talking quite a lot, especially when I get excited.

2. Without my realizing it my voice can get quite loud if I get excited. At other times I can be almost inaudible.

3. For some reason people find me or my face memorable. As a result people that I haven't seen for a while or even a long time address me by name when I have forgotten their name. To hide this I get into the habit of not addressing people by name.

4. When going out I often come back just to make absolutely sure that I have locked the doors etc. even when I think I remember doing so.

5. I talk to myself when daydreaming.



What if there's a cheering squad?

2005-12-18T15:44:20.016-08:00

This is an addendum to the previous post.

There is a group that should be the last ones spared if the death penalty is on the books. They are the people who have supporters actively condoning their actions. If these people are spared it should be through the abandonment of the death penalty, not through an act of clemency.

I am thinking of terrorists with supporters claiming their acts were justified and that they should be spared for this reason. If they are spared as a act of clemency then their supporters will interpret this as an admission that the terrorists acts were justified whether those showing clemency had this intention or not. They will take encouragement from this. I am not admitting that the death penalty would act a a greater deterrent than life imprisonment. I don't believe that it would. I think that an act of clemency would become twisted into an act of encouragement by their supporters.

I do not believe that the Australian government is being hypocritical by refusing to seek clemency for the Bali bombers while still seeking clemency for Australians convicted of drug smuggling. Death is an unjustly harsh punishment for drug smuggling. It is not unjustly harsh for terrorist mass murderers. If terrorist murders can be securely imprisoned until they are no longer a threat then I think that this should be done rather than killing them. But they should be seen to receive the harshest punishment that is available. I believe that the death penalty is ineffective as punishment for would be martyrs. I do not like what carrying out the death penalty does to people. But I will not be indignant if the Bali bombers are shot. I just believe that the price is too high. But the price of clemency would be higher. The problem with having the death penalty in the criminal justice system is that counter-intuitively it can play into the terrorists hands. We can be left with an unpalatable choice between giving the terrorists a platform for their martyrdom and giving their supporters encouragement through an act of clemency which they will see as an act of divine support.



Loathsome choices

2005-11-20T02:06:09.060-08:00

Every day somewhere in the World a government through its agents kills helpless prisoners. Sometimes it is the arbitrary commands of those in power. Sometimes it is carrying out the commands of its judicial system. Sometimes it is as part of a war. Sometimes it is as part of a conflict which is not exactly war but not exactly law enforcement either.It is always in at least some respects a loathsome act. But those who order and carry out such acts usually claim that they are justified either to punish a wrong or to prevent a harm. And such claims may be right. Such acts might be necessary and right. But they must always be questioned. There must always be a part of us that is revolted by the necessity if such acts are truly necessary. In some cases the attempt to feel good about killing someone might be worse than the killing itself.No one except pacifists will deny that sometimes we have to kill someone who is an immediate threat to ourselves or another. But the question here is when if ever we can kill someone who is not an immediate threat. Always a more questionable proposition.There are four groups of circumstances in which one might be justified in killing a prisoner. They are as punishment for a crime, in wartime, after a conflict as punishment for acts committed on behalf of a state during the conflict and as part of a campaign against terrorists or other similarly dangerous non state organizations.This essay is primarily an attempt to clarify issues in a disturbing matter. This is and should be distasteful business but it has to be thought about. Of course I will express my positions on them but this is secondary.Criminal justiceThe arguments in favor of capital punishment are the claims that some crimes are so vile that no other penalty is adequate and that it acts as a more effective deterrent and incapacitator than any other punishment. The arguments against capital punishment are claims that either or both of these claims are false or the claim that capital punishment involves paying a price that is too high for any good done or evil prevented.Capital punishment is killing with aggravating circumstances. Some of these are inevitable. Some, I think, are unnecessary and hence wrong. Premeditation is regarded as an aggravating circumstance. Killings don't get more premeditated than an execution. The criminal is kept prisoner for months or years by people intending to kill them. How many murders are as cruel as that? People in favor of the death penalty usually trivialize this, to their discredit. While the delay may be necessary in order to reduce the risk of executing an innocent person it means that the sentence cannot possibly be free of great suffering. Any pain inflicted during an execution is usually trivial by comparison with the suffering inflicted leading up to it. That is unless you deliberately set out to torture some one. An execution is usually a ritual and hence an element of sadism or its moral equivalent, an expression of the importance of the state and hence its agents creeps in. This is not necessary. And of course it could be argued that it is a cowardly act.Even so there are crimes so horrific that I could not say that the criminal did not deserve what happened to him. Serial killers come to mind. Proportionality would suggest that capital punishment if used at all should be reserved for crimes involving premeditation and cruelty comparable to that of the execution. It would suggest that those who use it for lesser crimes such as drug smuggling are evil enough to deserve death themselves. It doesn't matter tha[...]



What does It want?

2005-11-15T01:36:16.913-08:00

The It that I am referring to Is God. Many people claim to know what God wants. They say they know what It wants us to do and why It created the Universe and hence either directly or indirectly created life and humanity. Others claim that there is no way we can know God's purposes. And others like me think we don't know but can make some plausible speculations and can rule out some possibilities.For the sake of this discussion I will assume that there is a God. I regard the existence of God as an open question. It think It exists but I am not sure.What answers are plausible depends on what attributes one believes that God has. Is It omnipotent? Is It omniscient? Is It benevolent? Is It transcendent? Is It immanent? Is It temporal? Is it a person?In various SF stories the speculation has been made that a sufficiently advanced civilization might be able to create a universe. Even if this is true it suffers from the same problem as panaspermia - the speculation that life came to Earth from somewhere outside the Solar System. It just transfers the problem elsewhere but does not answer it.Polytheism and God acting through subordinate entities such as angels simply adds complexity without providing any additional explanatory power over monotheism. Thus I regard a single god as a more useful and productive hypothesis.The gods of ancient religions are ancient despots writ large. Over time in the Mediterranean and the Middle East there was a tendency to magnify the chief god at the expense of the others. This eventually led to monotheism with the other gods reduced to something intermediate between God and man.But the god of the Abrahamic religions still shows His origin. He shows some of the traits of a human despot, easily offended, desirous of praise, arbitrary in some sects and religions. Since his worshipers are trying to praise Him there is a strong temptation to see Him as omnipotent and omniscient and to apply as many attributes to God as they can. There is a tendency to see God as having human emotions.But does this all make sense? Does God have to be someone that we can entreat? Does Its goals have to be ones that require us it interact with It in the here and now? Could they be ones that we fulfill in the ordinary course of our lives? Could they be ones that Humanity will fulfill in some future time when our understanding of It and the Universe is greater.Like many others I do not believe that God can be omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. At least one of these has to go, maybe all of them. I do not believe it is omnipotent and I wonder whether benevolence may be an inapplicable concept.As far as we can tell time and space had a beginning. Thus God has to be, at least in part, outside space and time. That is I believe it makes more sense to regard God as transcendent.Do we have a watchmaker God who created the Universe then left it alone or do we have a God who underpins and maintains the existence of the Universe? The latter feels more likely since it is easier to imagine the possible motives of such a God. This does not necessarily imply an interventionist God. An immanent God does not have to be a puppet master. Thus I believe that the immanence of God is more likely than not. It is certainly hard to see God as omniscient if It is not immanent.Can we regard God as good and can God be the source of morality? There is a bit of a tension between these two propositions. To see God as good, goodness has to exist independent of God. Some people see morality as being whatever God commands. Like most people I wo[...]



Someone's going to do it

2005-10-30T18:05:10.316-08:00

We have changed the genomes of domestic plants and animals through selective breeding. We have modified the genomes of bacteria and plants and animals through genetic engineering. Sooner or later someone is going to modify the human genome. In addition there is the possibility of linking the human nervous system to electronic data storage and processing systems. These possibilities have been addressed in many science fiction stories. We need to prepare to address them in real life.We have to ask the questions, "What can we do? What should we do?".We do not yet know enough to successfully or safely modify the human genome. In addition we do not know the basis of consciousness so modifications to the brain and hence the mind will not be possible for some decades at least.A lot of genetic engineering is pretty empirical. "Replace this gene with that one and we get this result. We don't know exactly how the gene acts." Not good enough when humans are the subjects except perhaps when we have diseases caused by single known genes. Genetic engineering on humans is too dangerous for now. But this will not be the case forever. We will eventually be able to predict the full effects of a given genetic modification.We will be able to safely make modifications to the rest of the body before we can modify the brain. We are rapidly finding which locations in the brain are associated with which functions. This is not the same thing as knowing what is going on in those regions. We are still further from finding which genes are affecting which mental function and how. And of course we need to know what is going on in the brain before we can create anything but crude electronic interfaces for it. But eventually we will be able to create sophisticated electronic interfaces to the brain.But being able to modify humans does not mean that we should. There is the danger that we could treat people as less than human. There is the danger that we might turn them into something less than human. And in the attempt to turn people into something more than human we might create something that is other than human. Should we do this?One argument against modifying humans is that it is unnatural. This argument will be made by many, perhaps most religions. I would expect the same environmentalist groups who oppose genetically modified food to oppose genetic modification of humans. The claim is made that what occurs naturally is some sort of normative standard against which things should be judged. People talk of God's plan or of Nature's wisdom.But can Nature provide normative standards? Species and environments are constantly changing. Why should the current state of a species or an environment be regarded as some sort of ideal standard? Why not what it was several million years ago? Why not what they will evolve into in several million years? Every species that exists does so because other species have become extinct. Yes we should be very careful about the changes that we make but should we try to freeze the world in its present form? We can't. The world changes. And should the changes that would occur without human intervention be preferred to those that are of human origin? After all evolution generally does not come up with optimum solutions. It is restricted by what is available at the time. It comes up with lots and lots of kludges.The it's unnatural argument has been applied to human reproduction with disastrous results. This is what is behind the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control an[...]



We have a problem

2005-09-27T07:50:02.940-07:00

Obviously there is more than a little bit of controversy over the greenhouse effect and global warming. Is the World's temperate rising? Is this due to human activity? If it is rising what will be the future consequences? What can we do about them? What should we do about them?The measures required to deal with global warming are very expensive. They have the potential to do great damage to the economies of countries, possibly creating mass unemployment and poverty. Even if they don't the restrictions on peoples activities involved could be quite irksome. Thus people want to be quite sure that there is a real danger before they make the sacrifices that are necessary.On the other hand if global warming is real the consequences of not dealing with it are potentially catastrophic. The likely damage from global warming is far greater than the damage from an unnecessary attempt to deal with it. At the worst it could lead to the collapse of nations, to mass starvation, to enormous refugee problems, to wars and to huge damage to civilizations. And that is just the potential effect on human beings. The damage to other life forms could be even worse. We appear to be in a human generated mass extinction event. Global warming would aggravate this.The trouble is proving that we have global warming and that it is anthropogenic is not straightforward. The phenomena involved are very complex and we do not and I believe cannot have any single easily understood piece of evidence that clearly says to everyone that global warming is real and humans are causing it. As well it is tangled up with other issues. All too many people are taking a position on global warming because that is the position that those with their politics take.The scientists who first realized that there was a risk of disastrous warming caused by greenhouse gas wanted to get the message across to people who could do something about it - both people in government and the general public. To do so they oversimplified and they under emphasized the uncertainties of their conclusions. In other words they argued like politicians.This succeeded in getting attention and prodded some people into action. It antagonized some others. They were annoyed at scientists who acted and urged others to act as if they were certain of their conclusions. And they could not reasonably be certain until recently. Some scientists were prematurely certain (Well as certain as scientists get.) Others believed that serious greenhouse gas forcing of global temperatures was far more likely than not and given the likely consequences action had to be taken. They believed (unfortunately correctly) that any show of uncertainty about their conclusions would be seized on by opponents as reasons not to act. But the gaps in their evidence and arguments were spotted and skeptics were able to get the ears of many of the public and many politicians and officials, not to mention industry leaders. Treating significant greenhouse gas forced global warming as a certainty had mixed results. But would frankly saying that we needed to act on incomplete information have led to results that were even as good?They had under emphasized convincing industry leaders. Part of this was the belief that if they could convince authorities to pass and enforce the appropriate regulations and convince the public to change their habits then industry would have to fall into line. Part of this was pessimism. They believed that industry leaders were likely to indulge in wishfu[...]



Spotting the embarrassing

2005-08-30T02:00:17.336-07:00

Political classificationsSome of us see morality as something given to us by some authority. Some try to derive it logically from first principles. Some base it on intuitions and feelings.Of course all of us believe that we are right and that those who disagree with us are wrong. Of course some of us have to be wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made mistakes but have in good faith tried to find out what is the right thing to do. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who have made culpable errors that have led to erroneous beliefs about what is right and wrong. Some of us will see some of our opponents as people who know what is right and wrong and simply ignore it. And unfortunately some of us believe that anyone who opposes us must be acting in bad faith. People who believe this have usually stopped reflecting on their own beliefs and do not seek to really understand adversaries. In fact the shrillest attacks on opposing viewpoints seem to come from those who have in large part adopted a viewpoint for personal reasons that they have not examined.What I want to do in this post is to examine what the moral assumptions are that underlie some political positions. Then I want to look at how our moral assumptions can distort our view of our opponents and of the world. I believe that if you cannot see why a reasonable person might disagree with you then your own opinions are on shaky ground. You might still be right but the reasons for your beliefs could be bad ones. If this is so then you can become a liability to your own side and you are likely to make enemies where there would otherwise only be adversaries.I will classify political viewpoints by their attitude to the authority of large scale organizations that can be seen as the embodiment of their society. I will then cross-classify by the degree of their belief in the possibility of using these organizations to improve their societies. I think this classification is more useful than left or right for clarification of adherents aspirations and motivations. This classification is designed as a description of viewpoints within Western societies. Movements in other societies may not fit as well into this classification.The first group are the conservatives. They identify strongly with their nation. They tend to see the state as the embodiment of their nation. They often also identify strongly with other society-wide structures such a church. They tend to see respect for authority and the law as a good in itself, not just as an instrument serving other purposes. They regard the state more as a means to prevent harm rather than as a means to do good. They value what social institutions have created so far and are pessimistic about their ability to radically improve things. They believe that what improvements are possible are generally small evolutionary steps initiated by private individuals. Economically they support mixed economies with the private sector dominant.The second group are the fascists. Identification with nation and state are even stronger than with conservatives. There is often a strong racial aspect to their loyalties. There is a strong emphasis on respect for the authority of leaders but not on respect for the law. They are utopians who believe that they can use the power of the state to radically improve things. Economically they support highly regulated mixed economies with a strong public sector role.The third group are[...]



Suggestion and depiction

2005-08-15T07:20:52.416-07:00

This is going to be a pretty subjective post. It will be mostly about special effects for fantasy and science fiction on television and in the cinema. What I like, what I don't like, what I wish they'd do and why.I would say there are seven prose, non musical story telling media. They are cinema, television, theater, animation, comics, written prose and verbal story telling. The special effects that I am thinking of are mostly for the first two. While I will be focusing on special effects for fantasy and SF in TV and cinema I will make comparisons with other media and genres. (Super-hero and horror stories are fantasy sub-genres.) Some of my comments also apply to historical dramas.Special effects are used in those visual story telling media which use live actors. They are used to give the illusion of something being there or happening. These are illusions of something that isn't available to the producers in real life (at least not yet) either because of cost (huge armies) , because they haven't been created yet (starships), they aren't around on Earth (aliens) or they don't exist (dragons).Techniques available now include pure CGI, CGI traced over real objects, background mattes, models, scenery sets and prosthetics.Special effects are of minor importance in theater. In part because science fiction and fantasy are uncommon genres in theater. Mostly because the resources available for special effects are limited in theater. This limitation is of course one of the reasons why SF and fantasy are uncommon genres in theater.What the theater uses are props. These are objects and effects that the watcher can see are obviously not real but they guide the imagination of the watcher. They are a stylization that the audience and the producer tacitly agree on. The audience suppresses their disbelief in what they see and use the props as cues to their imaginations.This is bit like the way one sees a novel or a spoken tale. These are not visual media but they can contain many cues for the visual imagination. Similarly one hears a comic. It is a silent medium but is rich in cues for the auditory imagination.The distinction between an effect which suggests something and one which depicts it is not a hard and fast one. Look at space ships in a 1950s or earlier movie. There is a definite attempt to make the ship look real. But in many cases they didn't quite succeed. (Often they didn't come anywhere near succeeding.) Even more, look at the creatures. One needs to deliberately suspend one's reactions to the cues that say "This is not real.". The more realistic the special effects, the smaller this effort needs to be. With modern special effects the effort required is much smaller than with older shows. In an older show there were always some things that niggled. Nowadays the illusion is sometimes complete especially in the cinema or in a near future setting.But not quite. There are things that cannot be truly depicted visually but they must attempt to do so. They use stylized depictions that while not strictly realistic tells the audience's imagination what is happening. The best example of this is the depiction of energy weapon beams in space. Of course they would actually be invisible. One can only see a beam passing through a material medium because of scattering, heating or ionization. This won't happen in a vacuum. But they have to be depicted somehow. We just allow the creators some artistic license and don't quibb[...]



Unexpected changes

2005-07-31T18:56:39.383-07:00

Alan Brain has been a close friend for about thirty years. We met at the wargaming group that used to meet at Lindfield. We've shared many interests and activities – wargaming, role playing games, science fiction, a general interest in science and technology, history especially military history. We shared some computer science classes at Sydney Uni. I was there at his and Carmel's wedding. When I lived in Canberra we were frequent visitors to each other's houses.

A bit over two months ago I heard some boggling news from him. Alan was undergoing a spontaneous terrifyingly rapid sex change. The speed of the change was greater than that of any similar change recorded in the literature. The cause was unknown and still is. The known possible causes that were examined were found to be false. There was for while fear that a cancer might be involved. The mood swings associated with this change were unpleasant to put it mildly.

Most of us think of our sex and the sex of those around us as a fundamental part of our identities. We also think of the sex of someone as being clear cut – male or female. The biologist in me knew that sexes were fuzzy sets (no sharp boundaries) but this seemed to be something with little bearing on the life of me or anyone around me. Well this wasn't so.

Fortunately Alan is adjusting to this as well as anyone possibly could -certainly far better than I could have. I found that he always had been slightly intersexed and would have slightly preferred to have been a girl. His sexual identity was not as central a part of his identity as it is with most people. He decided to see the transition as an adventure to look forward to. He believes that he will come out of this feeling better about himself than before. At least once the uncomfortable intermediate stages are passed.

Zoe now thinks of herself as a woman. She is the same person as Alan was but just looks different and dresses differently. Every time we talk it's obvious that the real person hasn't changed. So far I'm still confused and unsettled of course. There is a voice saying "This can't be real." But of course it is.

It has become impossible to conceal the changes so she recently revealed them on her blog and started dressing differently. There has been massive support from her friends. This is going to continue. She is on a difficult but unavoidable path and we're all there to help her. Narrow minded and insensitive dissenters have been savaged. (Attack dogs Tex and Ninme, I congratulate you.)

And then there are the people who are strongly affected by these events but who I haven't mentioned so far. I am referring to Alan's wife Carmel and son Andrew. It is hard for me to imagine what is going on with them. We just have to give them our support too.

Nothing about our friendship has changed. It's been a good and interesting thirty years. I look forward to at least that period further. It will be interesting.