Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Forget MC Hammer, meet PFC Hammer

Ok, so most people have forgotten MC hammer. Anyway, here’s a feel-good story (courtesy of WEIT) about PFC Hammer, a cat adopted by U.S. Troops in Iraq:

In 2004, a tiny Egyptian Mau kitten wandered into U.S. Army headquarters in Iraq. Dubbed PFC [Private First Class] Hammer, he became a ratter, morale booster, and important stress reliever to the soldiers. When the battalion was set to ship back to Colorado, Staff Sgt. Rick Bousfield contacted Alley Cat Allies and Military Mascots for help in getting PFC Hammer back to the States. PFC Hammer was vetted and quarantined before traveling to Colorado Springs, where he took up permanent residence with Staff Sgt. Bousfield…

And my favourite bit:

…When Hammer was being carried to Bousfield, he heard Rick’s voice and began purring and kneading the arm of the transporter. As it turns out, he remembered his Army buddy after all.

Read the rest of the story here.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Ireland demonstrates democracy (and itself) at its finest

Well done, Ireland. I am proud of my semi-adopted nation (by residency/marriage). This is what democracy is all about. The whole of society being given a clear mandate to determine its values.

No party politics. No politicians feeling like they have a mandate to implement unpopular decisions just because they managed to get elected. The voice of the people, making a clear statement that they are pro-equality.

Rest of the World, the bar has been raised.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

UNSW sunset

The UNSW campus may not be the most beautiful in the world but it does a good job with sunsets.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Slash sets the rock world on fire (again)

I’ve previously raved about Slash’s albums, Apocalyptic Love and Ain’t Life Grand. Well, he’s done it again.

Weighing in with a bargainiferous 17 tracks, World On Fire is Slash (and friends) at his very best, especially the first few songs. With 17 of them, you would expect there to be some bum tracks on there - but there aren’t. An iTunes screen capture says it all, really:

If you only buy one album this year, I recommend this one.

Monday, 11 May 2015

HMS Beagle Replica (and this one's not lego)

Reading Darwin’s Beagle blog on Friday, I was struck by a thought as I saw the picture that the author had posted and read Darwin’s first sentence (having arrived back at the Beagle after several days exploring in-land):

“We arrived on board a little after noon; found the Beagle with her masts up, fresh painted & as gay as a frigate.”

That thought was: wouldn’t it be cool if someone reconstructed a replica of the Beagle.

Well, they are! At the Museo Nao Victoria in Chile. You can track progress at the official HMS Beagle Replica website. It’s slow going (having started a couple of years ago) but coming along:

In fact, the Flickr is showing more progress:

Construcción de la réplica del HMS Beagle 321 (1) Construcción de la réplica del HMS Beagle 321 (9)

I can’t quite tell what the plans are once it’s built, and whether it will sail around the world or stay in Chile. A Google Translate of the “Inicio” page says:

Replica 1: 1 HMS Beagle under construction in the city of Punta Arenas - Chile adds a range of activities, is a powerful attraction for the city and the region of Magallanes and can become a landmark worldwide for being the first time you rebuild this legendary ship. The project was established as a multidisciplinary dynamic platform covering tourism, science, education and training The scale replica of HMS Beagle will have navigation capability and this replica reproduces the characteristics that had the HMS Beagle along his second voyage (1831 - 1836), is a private project, so far, no state resources and counts as one form of financing with the resources generated by ticket sales museum admission. The project employs eight people directly, will occupy 240 tons of local wood, and has an estimated 24 months to complete term.

I think that means that it will be seaworthy but whether we’ll have to go to Chile to visit it, time will tell.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Easy, tasty chicken & chorizo minestrone

I like cooking that essentially consists of chopping stuff and then adding it to the pan in the right order. This recipe hits that nail firmly on the head. It also fills the kitchen with delicious smells. It got the cats interested, anyway.

If in Australia, make sure you get a continental chorizo for this recipe, not the inferior “chorizo primo” that seems to be common.

Serves: 4; Cooking: 30 mins


  • 1 chorizo sausage, finely chopped.
  • 1 brown onion, finely chopped.
  • 1 carrot, peeled & finely chopped.
  • 1 courgette (zucchini), ends trimmed, finely chopped.
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed/grated.
  • 400g can diced tomatoes.
  • 500ml chicken stock.
  • 1 large chicken breast. Cut into chunks if very large.
  • 110g risoni pasta.
  • 40g spinach, finely shredded. (I put in a bit more, roughly torn, which seemed fine.)
  • Lemon zest, to serve.
  • Crusty bread, to serve.


  1. Heat a large saucepan over a high heat and cook the chorizo for about 5 mins to brown and release the tasty oil. Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon.

  2. Add all the veg (onion, carrot, courgette & garlic) and cook, stirring, for 5 mins until the onion softens.

  3. Add back the chorizo, plus tomatoes, stock and chicken. Bring to boil and then simmer for 10 mins or until chicken cooked.

  4. Remove the chicken and coarsely shred. Return to the pan with the pasta. Cook for 6-7 mins until pasta is tender.

  5. Remove from heat. Stir in spinach and season with salt and pepper.

  6. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with lemon zest. Serve with crusty bread. Yum!

Avoiding measles vaccination does not just put children at risk of measles

If you know anyone who is still undecided about, or opposed to, vaccination, please point them to the latest evidence in the journal Science: Measles vaccine protects against other deadly diseases.

The first paragraph sums it up nicely:

“Measles kills about 140,000 people worldwide every year, but the millions of kids who have survived the disease aren’t in the clear. A new epidemiological study suggests that they remain susceptible to other infections for more than 2 years, much longer than researchers anticipated. The results bolster a hypothesis that the measles virus undermines the immune system’s memory—and indicate that the measles vaccine protects against other deadly diseases as well.”

Basically, it seems that the measles virus kills of large number of immune memory cells - the ones that give you a faster, stronger immune response to repeated infections. This means that even if measles itself does not kill you, there is a good chance that it will have “reset” your immune system to something approaching a newborn, removing a whole suite of previously acquired immunity.

This helps to explain why child mortality rates drop much more than would be expected following the introduction of measles vaccination (e.g. this study): not only are deaths from measles and direct measles-associated infections reduced, deaths from other infections are reduced too.

Even if you don’t care about herd immunity and your obligation to the rest of society, get your children vaccinated.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

WTF, Britain?!

This could be an audioblog post today, in the form of The Bugle, episode 292, as it sums up my feelings about the recent UK General Election. And that feeling is:

What The F#@k, Britain‽

Hopefully, the Labour Party will now get someone decent in charge. I can’t help but agree with Andy Zaltzman’s reading of the situation: people had a last minute change of heart on the basis that they could not imagine Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.

Following the LibDem coalition shenanigans, all three major parties have now shown that they cannot be trusted to keep promises in power. Therefore, you cannot really be sure what policies you will get, whoever is voted in. On the other hand, one thing you can be sure of is who will be PM, at least to start with. However odious the Tory policies may be, David Cameron can at least hold his own on the international stage. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, is embarrassing to watch on any stage.

In an ideal world, politics would be all about policies. (Which is probably why so many people were too ashamed to admit to the pollsters that they were going to vote Tory.) Sadly, this is not an ideal world. When it comes to a leader, it’s not just the ideas that matter. Personality counts. Charisma counts. With Miliband, Labour had someone who had all three. Then, for reasons that remain a mystery to me, they elected his brother as leader. Hopefully, the country won’t suffer too much as a result.

My other hope is that Lib Dem supporters will stop punishing the party for one bad mistake on tuition fees. I know that they let people down, but no more than Labour or the Conservatives have done in the past. 27 of their lost seats went to the Tories. Really, people?

At least Nigel Farage will be departing along with Nick and Ed, even though that’s only because the UK electoral system is so unrepresentative. With any luck, UKIP will now wither and die. (I'm not feeling lucky.)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The British Humanist Association Voting Guide

Having moved overseas, I’m no longer registered to vote in the UK election. This is probably just as well, as I’m not sure that I really want any of the politicians on offer. However, they are the only politicians on offer, and one of them is going to lead the country. Therefore, if you’re eligible to vote then, as the British Humanist Association said in a recent email:

However you vote, just make sure you vote!

Democracy is an important value for humanists.

Democracy is a vital part of good politics: the enterprise of free individuals having their say in how they want their society governed. In the UK, general elections for the Westminster Parliament are an opportunity for citizens to exercise their democratic freedoms. After all, democracies function at their best when as many of us as possible make use of the right to vote.

Of course, you’ll read up on all the different issues and weigh up the ones which matter most to you. But whoever you decide to support – or however you feel about the state of politics in Britain – we would urge you to go out and vote for the vision of our future you believe in on Thursday 7 May.

If you are still undecided, here’s the BHA’s guide to what the parties stand for with respect to some important humanist issues:

Despite their cowardly u-turn on tuition fees after the last election, I think that the Libdems would still have my vote. I’m not sure that I trust them but then I don’t trust the others either, more’s the pity. The Greens would be a close second, I guess. No prizes for guessing who I would not be voting for.

You can’t vote for what you will actually get, but you can vote for what you actually stand for.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Two (very) good eggs at Two Good Eggs

I’ve blogged before about a mighty fine brunch at Two Good Eggs in Surry Hills. Yesterday, we went back for the first time since then and I am happy to report that nothing bad has happened to the place in the intervening year.

This time, I went for a special of “Chorizo Hash Brown Stack” (or something to that effect). I don’t often take photos of my food but sometimes it is so handsomely presented that it’s hard to resist. Today was one of those times (even if the resulting photos is a little blurry):

It tasted as good as it looked, with two perfectly cooked eggs. A year is too long to wait between visits, so I’m aiming to find an excuse to go back a bit sooner next time.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

I'm sorry sensitive types but hate speech *is* still free speech

There appears to be a worrying trend spreading through supposedly liberal circles: the notion that free speech should only be free when it doesn’t offend anyone. This quickly morphs into a notion that “hate speech” does not count as free speech and should therefore be censored at will. It’s nonsense and it’s dangerous.

There are certain places where one can and should be expected to be sheltered (as much as possible) from overtly offensive material, which constitutes harassment or bullying. These include workplaces and schools and are the reason behind equality and diversity laws. In essence, there are places that cannot (or should not) be avoided. A functional and free society does well to protect people in these places.

There are other places - the media, events, debates, private homes etc. - that can easily be avoided. In these places, anything goes when it comes to ideas that can be expressed. If you propagate hostile, bigoted or offensive ideas then you expose yourself as someone who is hostile, bigoted or offensive. However, those offended have no right to stop you and it is dangerous to give people the authority to do so.

Ironically, it is frequently a call to protect “oppressed minorities” that nominally lies behind calls for censorship. Just as secularism is the only true protection for religious freedom (even if it reduces religious privilege), freedom of expression is the only true protection for minority groups, even if it subjects them to occasional offence. Once there is precedent to censor due to offence, the door is open for the majority to silence the minority whenever they disagree.

Not only is it dangerous, it’s unworkable. After all, who gets to decide what’s sufficiently sensitive to be censored? Pretty much every idea is offensive to someone, including lots of really important stuff. Evolution, climate change, sexual equality, homeopathy: you name it, someone will be offended by your views on it. So what should we do? Never criticise any idea, no matter how bad you think it is? Unless you want to live under a dictatorship, this is no way for society to function.

I sometimes wonder if free speech suffers from the same thing as vaccination. In modern democracies, we’ve got pretty good at it and so the dangers of not having it are getting forgotten. Rather than look back at how crappy things were - or look to other countries where the poor and oppressed are far less fortunate - come people focus on the relatively rare times when things go horribly wrong and then brand the whole exercise as dangerous. Those who cry "hate speech" too quickly are the anti-vaxxers of free thinking.

Free Speech at Universities

The free speech versus hate speech issue is particularly tricky at universities, I think. This is because a university is a microcosm of the real world. There are parts of it which must be inclusive and “safe”, namely lectures (excluding lectures about certain ideologies), assessments and university policies. They should be places where everyone is welcome and no one is discriminated against. However, universities are also melting pots of cultures and ideas, and places for people to develop and challenge (and sometimes change) their thoughts and beliefs.

As long as their views are not being officially endorsed by the university, individual students (or staff) or groups should be free to declare and discuss any idea, however controversial or potentially offensive. This includes cartoons of Mohammad, or anything else that might really upset certain people.

If you are offended, it is your responsibility to remove yourself from the situation and/or grow a thicker skin; it is not the university (or society)'s responsibility to remove the situation from you. Only if you cannot (fairly) remove yourself from the situation, should the authorities step in: and this is precisely what equality and non-discrimination laws are for.

The way to combat bad/offensive idea is by expressing - and explaining - your opposition, not by trying to shut them up. Who knows, you might even convince them to self-censor or even change their mind altogether, which is surely a much better outcome all round.