Sunday, July 30, 2006

now how do they do that?

Poppy caught skulking among guests at Victor

Recently our dog, or rather, Sarah's dog, had a brief everyday-miracle-type adventure. Poppy's a Jack Russell crossed with a miniature fox terrier, and stands at about twenty centimetres. She's about five years old, and has lived in this house of mine for most of her life. When Sarah moved out a few months ago she took Poppy with her. A couple of weeks ago Sarah's daughter moved into her small flat with Courtney, Sarah's four-year-old grand-daughter. It was a bit cramped, and Poppy didn't greatly appreciate some of Courtney's attentions. The other weekend, Sarah took herself off to a friend's house for a bit of respite, leaving Poppy at the mercy of Courtney and her mum. It was too much for her. She did a runner and arrived at my place after about an hour's journey.

To get to my place, Poppy had to pass through a few suburbs, from West Hindmarsh, on to Croydon, or Hindmarsh, depending on the route she took, then maybe to Ridleyton, Brompton, Renown Park and finally Devon Park. More importantly, though, she had to cross some of the busiest thoroughfares of the inner suburbs - South Road, Port Road, Grange Road and Torrens Road - as well as a railway line.

Poppy doesn't go out much. She doesn't like going for walks, and gets enough exercise - she's an energetic dog - running up and down hallways or in the back yard. We're talking about a very tiny dog.

She's had no formal training of any kind and doesn't know how to deal with traffic. I can't help but wonder how close she came to being roadkill.

Of course, the real mystery here is - how did she find her way to my house, via a route she'd never travelled before? How do dogs achieve this and what sense or senses do they use?

According to this site dogs have been estimated as having a sense of smell 100,000 times stronger than humans. I'm not even sure what that means, but does it mean that she was able to follow her nose to 'home' from several kilometres away, in a built up area alive with garden and house and factory and shop and car smells?

It's likely anyway that the olfactory was a factor. Not easy to find anything on the web about this, apart from lots of nasty dog jokes. However, I did find this story about a cat who travelled 1300 miles across Siberia to be re-united with its owner (presumably not via the Trans-Siberian Railway). So that puts the olfactory factor somewhat in doubt.

There's another vital sense, here vaguely called 'the sense of orientation', which perhaps incorporates the sense of smell. Though not a scientific website, this one suggests that wild animals were often migratory and depended on this 'sense of orientation', or 'instinct', over many generations to move them across miles and miles of unfamiliar territory. But what part of the brain is involved, how does the mechanism work?

May have to give up on this one.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

help me, professor Sumner Miller

is it coz i haven't bitten the bullet on the coffee, prof?

I've noticed that a large proportion of the products I consume these days are guaranteed 99% fat free. However, I also can't help but notice that I myself am far from being 99% fat free. Why is this so?


Saturday, July 22, 2006

thermal conversion - coming to a site near you.

CWT - keeping up the pressure

V irritatingly I find that some of my posts, eg this one, preserve the date of my first saving them in draft form, so don't trust these dates, as I sometimes don't complete the pieces for days or weeks.

Just read a fascinating article in the current issue of Cosmos, the Oz science mag, about the commercialisation of a process for turning waste into oil.

Changing World Technologies (CWT) is a company based in Carthage, Missouri, the American mid-west. It's 'the first commercial biorefinery in the world that can make oil from a variety of waste streams', according to its CEO, Brian Appel.

It's taken some time, with many headaches along the way, to make the process viable, but at its heart the technology's disarmingly simple. It's called the Thermal Conversion process - originally called the Thermal Depolymerisation process, which is unwieldy but gives more insight into what's involved. The key to the process is temperature and pressure. The raw material can vary - the technology's incredibly adaptable - but currently it's mostly animal waste, eg tonnes of turkey remains and excrement from a food processing plant involved in a joint venture with CWT. Here's the mag's summary:

A pressurised pipe pushes raw material into a brawny grinder that chews it into pea-sized bits. Dry raw materials such as tyres and plastics require extra water at this stage, but offal is wet enough. A first-stage reactor uses heat and pressure to break down the material , after which the pressure rapidly drops, flashing off excess water and minerals. In turkeys, minerals come largely from bones, and are shunted to a storage bin to be dried into a high-calcium fertiliser.
The remaining concentrated organic soup moves to a second reaction tank where it is heated to 260 C and pressurised to 42 kg/cm (squared). In just 15 minutes, the process can shorten complex long-chain molecules of hydrogen and carbon into rather shorter and lighter molecules of oil.
Next, the pressure and temperature drop and the soup swirls through a centrifuge that separates the remaining water from the oil. The water, which in the case of slaughterhouse waste is laden with nitrogen and amino acids, is stored to be sold as a high-potency liquid fertiliser. Meanwhile, the oil goes into the storage tank to await the next truck.
It's very fuel-efficient, apparently, with only 15% of the potential energy of the feedstock being used to power the plant. It's also just giving a helping hand to 'nature' you might say, as this is just the process that creates oil in the ground over time. The Thermal Conversion process removes the haphazardness and chaos from nature's way, using optimal heat and pressure for depolymerisation to take place.

So how come it's taken so long to come up with this process? Well, some scientists have succeeded in converting organic molecules into oil on a small scale, but there have been many drawbacks to commercial-scale operation. One of the problems has been the removal of water, which requires a lot of energy. Superheating to drive off the water and break down the molecules in one step has proved highly inefficient - CWT's process involves harnessing the water to limit the reactions and then separating it out via centrifuges and rapid depressurisation.

Not that there haven't been enormous teething problems. The enormous stench involved in working with this waste material had local authorities and residents most upset for quite a time, but this has apparently been fixed up. Another major problem was adjusting the plant's pressure, temperature and water levels to a varying supply of waste material. A truckload of bones and feathers will have a very different chemical composition, and will be much drier, than a truckload containing a lot of blood, for example.

There were many other construction problems and delays, too, causing the 'moment' of the plant's commercial viability to be put back months and years. There were also issues around market response and subsidies, and these are ongoing to some extent but have improved in recent months, not surprisingly.

I must admit to a sense of wowness in reading about this - something of a fillip to my jaded nature. One of the most impressive things about the process is that all the products have a solid potential use (as per above quote).

The oil itself is of a type widely used to power electrical generators. It can be sold to utilities for this purpose or further refined into vehicle-grade diesel and petrol. And the fertiliser by-products are apparently of eye-popping standard.

Also the system is flexible enough to be adjusted to take in all sorts of raw materials, including junked car parts once the scrap metal is removed. Hydrochloric acid, for use in industrial solvents, become a useful by-product in this instance.

The technology obviously deserves support, but has struggled for it. Europe has shown rather more interest than the US, where only 3 states have provided incentives to make the process financially worthwhile. Needless to say, the conventional fossil fuel industry is v heavily subsidised.

And what about Oz? We have a company here called Ozmotech which uses a patented process called ThermoFuel to transform waste plastic to diesel. The possibility of thus diverting thousands of tonnes of plastic from landfill should have caught the imaginations [sic] of our leaders. However, no Australian plastics are currently used inthe ThermoFuel process, and it's doubtful if this will change in the foreseeable, as the federal government has proposed a tax on the fuel thus produced.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

la coupe du monde - the last post

Zizou's televised mea not entirely culpa

Well, Italy has won, after scraping through against Oz. A hard graft victory, and a disappointment for a few reasons. First, penalties. I've never liked them. After the last (and first) penalties victory in the final, in 94, I never thought of Brazil as world cup winners - basically, I always thought of that final as a match between Brazil and Italy which one of the teams won on penalties. I suppose I'll think of the 2006 final as the one France lost via this silly penalties procedure.

I recognise, reluctantly, that the pre-final matches need to be decided within a certain time frame - in fact, with the stalemating tactics these days, the tournaments themselves might last four years if all results had to be decided in open play. But couldn't the final at least be saved as a spectacle by insisting on just this way of deciding things? Of course it would mean replays, and maybe second replays, and all the organisational nightmares this entails, but the greatest tournament of the greatest ball-game ever devised deserves such sacrifices. Currently, it's being sold short.

Second, Zidane. Deservedly named the player of the tournament, his demise in extra time is obviously going to be the talking point of this world cup for a long time to come. Usually I'm very down on this sort of thing and generally feel that players get away with far too much foul play, and play-acting, especially in a showcase tournament like this, with so many youngsters and unfootbally people watching, but I confess to rather more mixed feelings about this one, flagrantly illegal though it was. There was no option but to show the red card of course, and I shudder to think of the inspiration Zidane's act will offer to ten-year-old players world-wide, but obviously there was provocation, and if the audio coverage of the game came anywhere close to matching the video coverage, we may well be thinking of it differently.

I would also add that the 'brutality' of Zidane's action is somewhat exaggerated (though of course emulating it would be detrimental to the growth and development of our youth, both perps and victims). These are all strong, fit, healthy young gladiators - though this image might be undermined by their tendency to writhe around in agony for ten minutes after a tap (or attempted tap) on the ankle. Materazzi's pain, if there was any, would've gotten instant relief from the penalty shoot-out moments later (and note that Matterazi was one of the successful penalty-takers, so it's clear he wasn't much hurt by the incident).

Undoubtedly my mixed feelings have much to do with Zidane's brilliance as a player. His tactical midfield control is reminiscent of Argentina's Riquelme, but his changes of pace, his ability to draw players, and of course his explosive goal-scoring potential put him on another plane altogether - and all done with a consumate economy that isn't exactly French but is certainly more French than Brazilian. And yet you couldn't call him workmanlike in the manner of many British or German midfielders. There's an indefinable - hey, let's call it je ne sais quoi - about his style. Finesse, another French word, might best sum it up.

So I want to say something about provocation and mitigating circs, but before that I must speak about technology. There was some post-game controversy about the red card being issued as a result of viewing the incident on a television monitor, in spite of FIFA's insistence that video evidence is not to be used to help with on-field decision-making. The controversy was somewhat damped down by the claim, that, no, the assistant ref saw the whole thing with his own two visual perception devices, and that the technology that transformed this perceptual process into the production of a red card by the principal ref was entirely human.

Well, not for nout am I the proud Secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics let me tell you. We'll never know if the assistant ref's telling porkies, but the fact is, due to public demand, spectators, both at home and in the stadium, get a many-angled view of every incident that turns up, with slo-mo, zooming etc. The officials, however, are instructed to pay no mind to this sophisticated technology, essentially designed to allow viewers to judge for themselves whether the penalty was warranted, the offside rule fairly invoked, etc. It's an impossible situation, and it's only a matter of time before they're caught out correcting their booboos courtesy of a surreptitious scan of the verboten screen. It's the old story of the laws lagging behind the technology, and considering how close the teams are these days, an undeserved penalty is often enough to knock a team out and destroy its morale for four or more years. So let's be sensible - it surely can't do more damage to the game than penalty shoot-outs.

And anyway, nobody's going to convince me that the huge outcry from the crowd and the remonstrations of Buffon after the coup de tete was displayed on-screen didn't influence the assistant ref's 'seeing' the incident suddenly, a couple of minutes after it occurred. I'm sure his adaptive unconscious played its part too - he's probably now permanently convinced that he did see the incident in real time, honour intact.

On the act and the provocation - more and more of the real story is emerging from the gossip-rumour-speculation-jokery, but we'll probably never know for certain all that was said - this exchange probably being only the last of many, the last straw (and note Materazzi's nipple tweak, which prompted the exchange). Zidane himself is claiming that Materazzi's remarks weren't racist, but directed at female members of his family. Materazzi claims mothers are sacrosanct and he doesn't know what a terrorist is, so he couldn't have described Zidane's mum as one, in spite of the evidence of lip-readers. Various videos are being posted showing what an on-field thug Materazzi has been over the years, while on the other side they're consulting case law to see if Zidane can be charged with assault.

Verdict, Zidane guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, but in view of the provocation involved, and bearing in mind that no injury was sustained, a suspended sentence to be incurred. As for Materazzi, guilty of undue oafishness and tattooedness, and gross ignorance of his own terrorist activities.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I can stand the rain

not all bad

For esentially financial reasons I'm rarely able to see films as they come out, but I've been catching up on the occasional oldie with Sarah et al.

Singin' in the rain is one such. For years it wasn't on my must-see-that-sometime list, probably because I was too serious a sausage to sit down to a musical, but I've officially mellowed and the grapevine has kept buzzing.

I must say, on the other night's viewing, it would be easy to slip into all those ecstatic clich├ęs - it was captivating, a sheer delight, a visual feast, one of the greatest musicals ever made. At least of those I've seen, though I prefer Cabaret. The key to its success I think is its lightness of touch throughout, its self-parody, its Hollywood-mockery (combined with Hollywood's highest production values), and above all the driving energy of its ideas and their execution. Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge owes it much, though Luhrman hasn't yet learnt the lesson that, for the wow factor, no amount of editing can make up for real dancing genius and improvisatory ingenuity.

Singin' was made quickly in 1952, immediately after Kelly's An American in Paris,with no great expectation behind it, especially as it wasn't based on a stage work but was cobbled together, storyline-wise, over a few late nights, as a way of providing coherence to a string of old songs from the twenties and thirties. They hit upon the idea of setting the film at the time of transition to talkies, and they've milked the confusion, anxiety and opportunism of the period hilariously. The film was successful enough at the beginning, though largely ignored by the critics, but its mixture of exuberance and cynicism has won it a deservedly higher place than many loftier attempts at this fraught genre. I'm actually looking forward to seeing it again already.

Always like to seek out views fundamentally opposed to mine, and here's an amusing one. But read the reader's comment on it, which is even longer than the review.

Anyway, I thought the number with Cyd Charisse was great. I did have qualms early about the 'great voice for silent movies' stuff, but of course then they worked on showing up Lina Lamont as a nasty piece of work so we didn't have to feel guilty. Thanks, boys.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

another dustspeck on the muckheap of world cup commentary

Hard to avoid commenting on the amazing and in some respects disappointing world cup action, which has been keeping me going through a bout of illness and attendant black dogginess.

Brazil and Argentina are shockingly out, France regained its assertiveness, even its hauteur, towards the end of the match against Spain, and hustled and bustled Brazil off its game. At this level, psychology is a major factor, and I do think that France's thumping win in the 98 final had an impact. They have to be my tip now for winning the cup.

England didn't shine in this tournament, aside from a great Joe Cole goal. In fact, both the Coles distinguished themselves throughout. Too much old-fashioned kick it long and hope, and Eriksson seemed clueless.

The Germany-Argentina game provided the biggest surprise though. A lesson, never get into a penalty shoot out with the Germans. I agree largely with Paul Doyle's summary here. It was a tight game in the first half, with Argentina dominating with superb short passing and close control, though they rarely looked like unlocking the German defence. When they scored early in the second half the game unsurprisingly opened up, and when Riquelme was substituted, Argentina's midfield melted away completely. Even worse, the lumbering Julio Cruz was put on instead of the much sharper Messi. It was like wilful sabotage, or is that 20-20 hindsight? A shame, I thought Argentina the best team.

to george bush

were those who believe in the Word
to burn in hell


for telling knowing lies

would be tough on the poor suckers
but a great leveller


pavlov's cat