Saturday, December 31, 2011

Awfully sorry. Deal with it.

Awfully sorry people, I'm out and about and I need somewhere to jot a random thought down. You get to suffer through it, brief as it may be.

For the purposes of getting people out and involved in the political process, rather being concerned with their own material wealth or not being arsed getting off the couch in front of TV or a video game: it's an opportunity to be involved in something more than the efforts of a single person. Enjoy life while you're here, sure, but leave a better place for those yet to come. Easy? No, hard. But worthwhile. Will you win all your battles to shape the future? No, but you can influence the shape of things to come. Will you be remembered for your contribution? Probably not. Over the long term, almost certainly not. It's not really the point though is it? If you're not there when people remember (or don't) you, do you really care? The point is gain satisfaction here and now by being involved. Satisfaction is rarely derived from from sitting around waiting.  It is obtained when you set out to so something hard or worthwhile, and succeed at it. Succeeding here is not achieving all your goals and changing the world, the world is to big for that. Success is contributing to our future, at best nudging humanity ever so slightly towards where you think it should go.

That is all. Being out and slightly drunk should excuse any self indulgence in that. I'll try to clean it up tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It's not about the toys.

In years gone by, the hullabaloo surrounding Christmas has generally annoyed me. Not so this year, at worst I've been ... ambivalent. I've put a lot of this down to not having a TV, not listening to the radio much and reading the newspapers, mostly online. And these things are, indeed, part of it.
  Over the past week or so I've begun to wonder if there's been another contributing factor though.
One of the things that annoyed me, was the commercialism. I'm more than happy for Christmas to exist as time to get together with family and have a big slap up meal and generally catch up. It's good not to lose touch with your past and your family are the ones who have known you for longest. When one is extorted for several weeks before hand to buy buy buy and get into the spirit of things, life becomes about putting on a mask of unnatural cheer, stress and stretching your budget to the limit and buy, buy, buy. None of this holds any attraction for me, to be continually bombarded with advertising telling one smile and buy does much to encourage me to everyone to sod off.
As I've wandered around town these past few weeks though, the advertising, both the specifically christmas advertising and the normal day to day advertising has struck me as irrelevant. They feel like relics of a bygone age that haven't quite caught up with the world. I'm quite willing to admit that this is almost certainly a construct of my own worldview placed over top of what the world actually is. I've little doubt that most people regard it all as quite normal. The past year though has been a busy one. Protests around the world have given me hope that societies are beginning to realize that money, while important, should not be the be all and end all of our economies. Fairness is important. There is nothing inherent in a job that justifies one person earning minimum wage while another takes millions for failing to bring greater profits to their company. There is nothing inherent in a person that justifies one living in poverty while another can want for nothing. Life is not all about wanting a newer toy.
And that realizing that life is not all about the toys just make the advertising seem ... pointless. Not everyone has realized this yet. Certainly not the advertising industry (though I do wonder how they will/would cope with a world that is based around need rather than want. The general population as a whole certainly hasn't come to this conclusion yet. It's entirely possible that not everyone will and that our societies will lapse back into a comatose state until everything crumbles around us. I hope not though. I hope that the world continues to wake.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Waking up.

My last post was on Cory Doctorow's prosposing that the reason governments have had trouble interacting with Occupy and various uprisings around the world is that they are a new kind of protest rather than a continuation of the old forms. Things are so flexible now that the organziation part of protests is being subsumed into the background. Governments and media have not yet learned how to talk about protests that are so flexible.

Parrallels were drawn with Anonymous. I'm not sure why, but I ended up listening to this podcast. It's a discussion of Anonymous's recent hack of the security firm Stratfor, a firm that has a great deal to do with the Amercian security industry. there's a quote from a spokesperson for Anonymous, characterizing themselves as an idea rather than a group. Yes, there's something odd about a group that says they are not a group having a spokesperson. Aside from that though, it's a good discussion that illustrates the theory that Anonymous is an idea. Whatever core of organization there might have been, given that anyone can call themselves Anonymous, is now not the whole of the movement.

While the old structured protest organizations are probably not going anywhere, there's a new element in the politcal sphere - ideas that can rise up and become a force, it's not reliant on the individuals anymore. If the idea holds, then it becomes a force. It's almost like the mind of humanity is waking up and beginning to think a little faster.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A synthesis.

There was a president of Harvard University, several years ago, called Larry Summers. He gave a speech reiterating that the reason there are significantly more men than women in the higher echelons of engineering, computing and the sciences was that there could be an innate difference in the distribution of skill between the gender's. i.e. that men might have more really bright sparks but also more idiots, implying that the female bell curve was taller in the middle and didn't extend to the extremes as much. Funnily enough, he got lambasted, roll on the defenders who claimed all sorts of things in Summers defence - like that he was only getting hassled because he was putting forward an uncomfortable idea that might actually be true. I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of entertaining uncomfortable ideas, if one is ever going to get closer to understanding the truths about how our world works one has to. When the uncomfortable ideas have no basis in fact though, they should be tossed.
Anyway. That incident was brought to mind by young Myers. He cites a report published in Science (that starts off with recalling Summers speech), which did cross cultural studies which allowed them to correct for low living standards, innate variability and gender differences, even looking at differences between single and mixed sex schools. Low living standards have an effect, but over a certain minimum income, those effects tend to drop away. The innate differences that are continually suggested by commentators who don't want to entertain uncomfortable ideas (that they have no idea what's going on) disapear completely. Which leaves cultural factors. PZ nails it, I think with:
Biology sets the limits, but culture determines what you do within those boundaries, and clearly, we have lots of room for improvement in intellectual accomplishment; most people aren’t bumping up against the physical limitations of what their brains can do.
And none of that 10% of our brains crap please. Our cultures have more to do with our limitations - an example the original report provides is that only 27% of career people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), in the US are women. In academia it creeps up to 30%, which is still pretty pathetic. There is a significant pool of people who could be doing some really good science right now except for the fact that they have been discouraged or dissuaded. This is something that is pretty difficult to see in my field if you aren't aware of it already or don't have it pointed out. The biological sciences have some of the highest proportions of women in the STEM fields, which probably drags the overall average up - not a good thing, this just means that the other fields are worse than the 27% statistic would have you believe. The idea that males have greater variability in intellectual skills suitable for STEM, is old (1894 apparently) and tired. It keeps getting trotted out though, remember this next time you hear someone blathering one about this possibility at a party or somewhere. And shoot them down. In flames. With burning.
I'm going to have to go read the original report again, but from my initial once over, this is a good example of studying social systems. Find an effect. Find influences on that effect. Control for those influences. Look for other influences, control for those. Repeat. This is what helps us get closer to understanding how we work as a society.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I hadn't noticed that.

Amongst all the kerfuffle of looking at the rankings and portfolios that David Shearer has just divvied out amongst the Labour team, I completely failed to notice which portfolio he'd kept for himself. Apparently, he's kept the Science and Innovation portfolio. Which is encouraging, even though I think it's a silly name for a portfolio. The innovation part of it always seems like it should be part of the economic development portfolio and lumping it with science just makes it seem like it's expected that all our science is expected to be directed towards innovative money making ideas. That's just me being picky though.
It's also encouraging when you look at the portfolios that the top four or five people have : science and innovation, environment and tertiary education, skills and training, finance, social development, economic development and associate finance roles. Yes, finance is always going to be in the top five, but look at the rest of it, I could be completely wrong, but that does look to me like an emphasis on people and places first, whilst not forgetting the economics of it all. I could of course, just be imagining it, we shall have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's going to happen when ...

The kepler telescope, not content with beating the crap out fo astrophysicists theories about how planets are formed, just keeps pumping out new planets. Or discovering them rather. So we've discovered earth sized planets, we've discovered gas giants and even some planets smaller than earth. Most of the earth sized/rocky ones aren't in the habitable zone, some of the gas giants are, but that doesn't really help us. What happens though, when we find a rocky, earth sized planet in the sweet spot of the habitable zone of a sun-like star? At the rate Kepler is going, it's got to happen sometime. I can't find the link at the moment but there are physicists who are measuring the atmospheric composition of exo-planets - when we find it we can even see if it has water/oxygen/nitrogen etc. Are we going to get off our collective arses, get our shit together and actually try and get there?

 

update: And then Kepler really puts the boot in.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sheer unadulterated coolness part 1.

No other way to say it. Mindhacks has a brief article on MRI scans being used to identify the developing white matter of an infants brain while it's still in the womb. It's picking out the paths of some of the water molecules - paths which are constrained by the developing tubes in the white matter. Formation of a brain. Apparently it's not done much because it's a bit tricky to get the little buggers to sit still for it, meaning they get a lot of blurry images. When it does work though ...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Well that's not depressing.

Labour's new shadow cabinet list is out. And it's not depressing. There's a few new faces on the front line. And Cunnliffe is up near the top. Which I hope, I sincerely hope that there will be a strong team leading labour forward. If it degenerates, it's going to be awful. It's nice to see Jacinda up near the top, hopefully it means she'll be around for a while - I've heard her talk and debate and I'm quite having her near the top of the power structure. Shane Jones, past incredibly stupid indiscretions not withstanding, generally appears competent. And I've heard good things about Nanaia Mahuta as well.
Other's I'm sure will commentate more knowledgeably. For now, I'll wish them luck and keep my fingers crossed.

The scientific process at work, example 1:

Seriously, when I get sick of biology, I am going to go and be a physicist for a while. Anyway.
So the Kepler telescope is up in the sky discovering planets orbiting other suns by the dozen. and by the look of it, it's playing merry havoc with theories of the astrophysicists. This is the part of science I think, sadly, most of the general public doesn't see. Most only get to see wide and inaccurate generalizations from individual studies, generally poorly presented in the mainstream press. Which is sad, because this is the interesting bit of science, where what we thought we knew about how things work, doesn't explain what is currently in front of us. So all the astrophysicists, confronted with large planets orbiting closely around stars when they thought that large planets should mainly form further out from stars have to scurry away and try and figure out what the hell is actually going on. End result: a better model and a greater understanding of how things work.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Power.

There have been a few, quite good pieces I've read this week on power. Or more particularly on the complete obliviousness that people with power are capable of having with regards to that power. In the sense that they don't realise they have it. I would suggest that it's a form of the psychologist's fallacy - if you have power, you assume that everyone else has similar power, dismissing events that others construe in the context of power relationships. So sexist comments get waved off a a joke. Or racist comments get waved off as harmless. Whereas people on the other end of the joke don't perceive of it as harmless. Those making the jokes can then get all defensive when it is pointed out that not everyone sees it as a joke - doing so challenges their view of themselves as reasonable human beings. They might well be reasonable human beings, just in possession of power or privilege that they were unaware of. A similar relationship appears to exist between the religious and atheists in the US (and probably elsewhere) as well. Some religious people get offended when objections are raised to religious themes that are run through supposedly secular state governments. They have the power and pointing it out to them challenges how they see themselves and the world.

One of the things about power though, is that it is rarely given up freely. The battles to end sexism and racism, things that we haven't entirely conquered yet, wouldn't have been fought without those with no power fighting for it. In the best case scenario, you'll have some with power who when it is pointed out to them, acknowledge the disparity and will work to change it. There will always be some who refuse to change sadly.

Trying to be aware that the world I live in is not the same world that others of different gender, race or belief's live in is something that I've been trying to do for a few years now. It's one of Socrates better known quotes, with good cause I think:
the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living
Just sayin.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A hodge podge of stuff.

I have to say, I'm feeling quite ... subdued this week. There's been nothing (new) in the political sphere to raise my ire. Indeed, as danyl says, it's feels like the first time in some years that one can almost begin to pretend to feel vaguely optimistic about politics in New Zealand and hope that one day we might have some competent in charge.

There's been ups and downs on the science front. CERN finally got round to officially announcing that we have hints of the Higgs boson coming out of the LHC. There's been rumours floating about for a while now that something had been found. Now it appears that CERN is looking in the right ballpark at least and that there is quite likely something there. Ars Technica even gave a pretty good (simple) explanation of the statistics behind confirming a discovery. Worth a read.

A decent chunk of the delight from that though was beaten to a pulp when the head of the IPCC took the time to note the complete lack of attention to any of the science behind climate change at the Durban talks. One's optimism took a serious blow, compounded by the failure of teh Durban talks in general - a delaying action, putting things off until 2015, when 2015 is the year that we really need to have emissions sorted to prevent some pretty serious temperature rises is not really a delaying action, it's a step backwards. Especially since most of the articles in the scientific literature that I've seen over the past year or so tend to focus on how our current models have been underestimating stuff. <sigh>

Then, just to put the boot in, we have idiots just across the ditch in Ausraaaalia trying to convince people that measles are a good thing because they help our immune system get strong and therefore it's all natural and good and, and, and ... <facepalm>  doesn't begin to convey the lunacy. Especially the bit using SIDS death's stats, linking them (unreasonably, incoherently) to immunizations and then using that as an argument for measles? I'll take an educated guess here and say that if you let measles run rampant, you would have a lot more deaths and a hell of a lot more damage to people.

On the good side though, there might well be whole bunch of quantum effects happening in plants during photosynthesis that I didn't know about before. and it's always a good week when when you run across a whole new set of effects you didn't about in your own field. Very cool.

So all in all, an odd week.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Paul Little: getting it wrong.

In the opinion pages of the Herald today is a column by Paul Little on the current ineffectiveness of the occupy movement in New Zealand. Most of it is observational  and not particularly informative. One part is particularly informative, though not so much about the occupy movement and more about Mr Little.
If you want to inspire me to action, you will have to do a little more than tell me what I already know. You will have to give me a few options for doing something about it, preferably ones with more effect than going somewhere and sitting down.
The apathy displayed by the electorate in the election just gone is not particularly comforting. This is another form of apathy, just as bad and no more comforting. I'm going to take a stab in the dark and assume that Paul Little does not own any major companies, nor the heir to any vast fortune. Which puts him in the 99%. As best I can tell though, Mr Little abdicates responsibility for the society he lives in by assuming that it is someone else's job to inspire him to action. Such an attitude is not one of someone who cares about the world they live in, it is the attitude of a sheep. In the space of two paragraphs he claims that he is well aware that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a bad thing, then argues that it is not his job to worry about it unless someone makes it worth his while. I can't see any difference between this and thinking that the concentration of wealth is a bad thing but not sufficiently bad to actually get worked up about. I presume he is quite happy for the 1% to carry on doing whatever they are doing because he's not doing so badly at the moment.
Possibly we need to add some civics classes to the evening class curriculum. Much is said of the rights of citizens. Those rights come with responsibilities. if you abdicate your responsibilities to the society you live in, you will lose your rights. Rely on someone else to fight for your right because you're not sufficiently enthused yet is leeching.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Aha! Thinking people thinking, it's always fun.

It's always nice when someone else puts into words ideas that you've been trying to formulate for some time. Unless of course you're wanting to use those ideas to make money, in which case you're screwed. In this case however, I'm quite happy about it. I think I first started trying to think about something like this a few years ago when I first heard of Cafe Scientifique. Cafe Scientifique is a fine idea but it's more of a public talk than an forum in which people can develop skills. So when the University of Strategic Optimism put this out (h/t to Alex), the proverbial light bulb lit up. A lot of our science education efforts are aimed towards those still in school. Which, don't get me wrong, is vital. There is nothing that I can see that is directed towards the development of critical thinking skills for adults in the day to day world. If you look to the evening classes at the local schools and short courses at universities, the most intellectual they get seems to be learning a new language, most of them are practical courses - again, nothing wrong with that, but it's tantamount to saying that the adult population aren't or shouldn't be interested in developing skills useful for figuring out how the world around them works.
The optimistic part of me hopes that with a greater understanding of how to break down what happens around us into understandable chunks, we could have a populace that could demand more from a media that currently expects us to only be able to read at the level of a 9 year old. If willing participants could be found, I'd even happily attempt to lead a basic critical thinking tutorial in a pub somewhere that wouldn't mind me drawing all over their windows with a chalk pen. The only problem being that I'm not sure how to go about finding willing participants. I'll keep thinking, with the hope that the UoSO or someone like them will have a flash of inspiration on that front as well.

Big things are made of little bits.

There's an interesting read from a ex-professor of genetics, Steve Jones on The Telegraph. The interest is piqued not so much in that there is conflict between religious students and the teachings of evolution in undergrad biology classes, I know that's been around for a bit. Nor in the bewilderment that people are trying to enter into a profession whilst deliberately attempting to remain ignorant of it's basic underpinnings - as soon as you are aware of the conflict twixt students and curriculum, that one becomes pretty obvious. The interest is piqued by this:
I have tried asking students at quite what point they find my lectures unacceptable: is it the laws of inheritance, mutation, the genes that protect against malaria or cancer, the global shifts in human skin colour, Neanderthal DNA, or the inherited differences between apes and men? Each point is, they say, very interesting – but when I point out that they have just accepted the whole truth of Darwin’s theory they deny that frightful thought. Some take instant umbrage, although a few, thank goodness, do leave the room with a pensive look.
That you can teach each individual part of the theory of evolution and it gets accepted, when it's pointed out that each of the individual parts makes up a whole, it gets rejected. I'm sure there's something deep and profound in there for the purposes of science communication, it's Friday, the day after the first of the Christmas parties though and I haven't got the energy to tease it out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

yeah, no, wait, ummmmm.....what?

So the workers of the ports of Auckland notify management of two one day strikes a week or so apart. The Ports of Auckland respond by locking the workers out and delaying mediation. I'll go so far as to agree with Maersk Line, that that constitutes industrial unrest and fair enough they're running a business, moving business to the more stable Tauranga port is probably a good call for them. For Ports of Auckland management - Tony Gibson is the name bandied about to then blame the disruption on the unions? ummm... what? Not being privy to the inner workings of the negations (or lack thereof as seems to be the case) I can't say who is actually to blame for the industrial unrest.If you lock your workers out for a couple of weeks though, you don't get to blame them for disruptions in the work flow that cause customers to go elsewhere. Yes, the workers had proposed disruptions, but compared to the disruptions generated by the actions of management, they were minor.
I do wonder if this Gibson chap is aware that from the outside, he's looking like a bit of an ass who is costing Ports of Auckland millions in lost revenue and more importantly the Auckland region in lost jobs.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Epic. Just ... epic.

I'm going to use the word epic a lot in this post. I can't bring to mind any other word that accurately describes this. In short, there's a particular type of radiation that we would expect to see coming from areas of the galaxy where stars are being born. No one has been able to confirm it's presence because the radiation from the sun screws everything in the local area of space up. Two space craft were launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2. 34 years ago. Not only are the still operational, but there now on the border of the solar system, and the sun is no longer fuzzing things up quite so much. They're taking readings. And confirming the presence of the expected radiation form stellar nurseries. How is that anything but epic?

We don't do epic things very often. Probably because doing something epic requires a lot of time. In this case 40 odd years (they had to plan and build the spacecraft as well). Someone thought about measuring radiation from the birth of stars 40 years ago. And now it's being done. The voyager spacecraft have been on the border of the solar system for a while now (it's a big border), just the fact that we get to look at the galaxy from outside of our solar system is very very cool. And epic.

I sincerely hope that whoever thought of it is still alive today.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Don't get over it.

There's an article in the Sunday paper today "yes, I'm reading trash on a Sunday morning, sue me) telling nay sayers to get over being tired of being associated with the Lord of the Rings. The hobbit's out soon and some people are expecting an upswing in certain hobbit related tourist activities. I'm probably feeling a little to smug that my first reaction was "sod it, no, they don't have to get over it". I hated being told to get over the whole rugby thing and just enjoy it. I don't see that those people sick of hobbits should have to do the same. Being a New Zealander does not necessarily entail being enraptured with everything anyone in the country does.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Head, meet desk, desk, head.

Almost a week out from the election and I can still be surprised and appalled in the space of a sentence. 
So conversation got around to the election tonight, as it does these days. It appears that someone I know, whom I regard as generally speaking, otherwise sane, voted national to keep Winston out of government. ...  ... ... I. just. don't. get it.  This is someone who apparently would have preferred to vote Labour. The reasoning, if you can it it was thus:
  •  Labour had no chance of winning.
  • Winston looked like he had a shot at getting back into power.
  • If we didn't get National government then Winston would be in charge 
  • Anything with Winston involved would be inherently unstable and therefore bad.
  • Thus, vote National. 
Sigh.
Ignore for a moment the fact that Winston had previously stated that he would be going into opposition rather than forming a government with National or Labour, what would we have got if he had - given Key's flat out refusal to work with Winston, a Labour led government not selling the family silver. If Winston did stick to his word, what would we have if National had got a few less percent - a minority government that operates but has to work for the really big policies like asset sales or mining conservation land maybe? Couldn't have that, no, instead, go out and vote for someone promising to implement policies you don't like because someone else you don't like might make it possible for the people with policies you do like to actually carry them out.

head. desk. head. desk. head. desk.

Seriously. This is as bad as the stories floating around the book of face at the moment of people voting National and not being worried about mining in national parks because they know the Greens will stop them. Fundamental misunderstandings of how to go about getting what you want from this world. 

Initial reaction: passably disturbing.

If you recall, I'm not overly fond of Chris de Freitas. It might not be misconduct but this certainly looks like it goes against the ethos of peer review. Science and in particular, the peer review process relies on  other scientists being overly critical of each others work. If a bunch of scientists can't get papers published, it's normally because other scientists have taken them apart. It looks ... suspicious if a new editor starts, they start publishing, only to not be able to publish when the editor leaves.

I recently organized a meeting with my supervisors and some statisticians. I'm sure there was some eye rolling and muttering but it was a good thing. The first thing the statisticians did was rip (to shreds) our experimental design, these were all people I'm on good terms with and who are chasing the same things that I am. It resulted in a mostly new experimental design that will be statistically sound and will provide a good foundation for what we are actually wanting to do. In science, as in cooking, you want your friends to be honest and your work judged on it's merits, so that you can get better, it's then a lot easier to present to the world.

I would think that if the skeptics climate science was sound, they would have been able to get it published before, during and after the presence of a particular editor. Otherwise one would contemplate the possibility that there is something wrong with either the science or the editors. Or both.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Some random thoughts.

So, I've been having  a bit of a think. Some people consider what I do (systems biology) to be quite complex. It's not. Sure, some of it can take a bit to get your head around and it's not something you'd want to try and knock off in a spare afternoon, but once you get into the topic - not that complex.
Even if it was though, I think there is a general responsibility incumbent upon most academic work to be able to communicate the nature of that work to the public, especially if at the end of the day, they are paying for it. Thus doesn't mean dumbing it down, it means taking a little bit longer and putting a bit more effort into explaining what I do rather than using the language I would use to communicate with other scientists in similar fields. This bit, I've been confident of for some time.
The point is, that people are not dumb, the information they are getting is ... substandard at best. The NZ Herald's reading age is 9. That is, they expect a 9 year old of average intelligence to be able to read it. I'm not getting all dismissive of 9 year old's here, there are probably some quite clever ones about, but seriously, if the medium of communication between the politicians and the public operates at levels comfortable for 9 year old's, is it any wonder that there is a huge disconnect. People are also creatures of habit, if they only ever pick up the Herald, they are never going to expect anything better.
People can follow complex ideas if they are explained well. And the governing of a nation is a complex thing. Someone tells you the free market can solve it all - wrong, it's a complex economic system being shoehorned into a simplistic system. Someone tells you that tax is theft and we should just get rid of it - complex system, simple idea. Someone tells you the police are fascist thugs and if we just got rid of them then we'd all just get along - again simple idea trying to be made to fit a complex system. Yet try an explain an economic system as interactions between humans (rather than self interested rational actors) and I think people would listen.

Two things need to improve - the quality of the information being communicated to the public needs improving and the public need to get over the habitual instinct that a national newspaper can provide sufficient insight into how the  modern world works.  I read fairly widely, I think the information is there. it's not being provided though. The getting people to break their habits though - tricky. Short of setting up evening classes on how to find and read news with a minimum of effort every day, I'm not sure how one goes about this. Not that I'm adverse to setting up evening classes, I'm just not sure how to go about it.

If the communication is there, then public demand for better information will mean that the people who run around NZ pretending to be serious media organizations will either wither away or pick up their game. Either way, we stand a much better chance of people getting involved in the political process. Or at least I hope so.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Twisted election stats.

Bryce Edwards makes a point that everyone needs to remember. It's basic statistics, not that hard to figure out. National did not win the support of 48% of the population. They won 48% of the people who voted. These are two completely different things. The thing to remember is the low voter turnout. I don't think the numbers should be reported the way they are. Of the total possible viote, national won 33%, Labour 18.5% and the Greens 7%. What is truly scary is that the proportion of voters who didn't make it to the ballot box, 31%. The second biggest chunk of voters were too apathetic to get to a polling booth. I've seen a fe people claim that the day just got away on them or they ended up being to busy on the day so it wasn't really their fault they didn't vote. In a word, balls. I'll accept that if you're currently in outer Mongolia for an extended period of time, but randomly being to busy on the day - somewhat pathetic. This happens once every three years, it's not a big ask.
So, what do we do? I would imagine that some of the non-voters just don't connect with any of the political parties. How do we get the apathetic to re-engage with the political process? And I don't just mean voting once every three years. Being involved in the political process is more than that. I'm not saying I'm perfect at this. It's only in the past few years that I've actually started writing to MP's and public servants when they piss me off. I've only been to one major protest/march (the occupy one). I've always voted though and I'd like to think I'm getting better at being involved. At the least I want to get that 31% off their behinds and voting.
I'm thinking it's time that the don't talk religion or politics rule at parties was thrown out. Politics is important. It needs to be discussed when groups get together so that there's not a permanent echo chamber - most of my friends (I think) are probably Labour or Green voters. If they only ever talk to other Labour and Green voters, nothing changes. It's not so much that they need to talk to National voters, it's that we need to be talking to the apathetic voters, pushing them to take a stand one way or t'other and being appalled at people who don't. Politics should be to the fore of interesting/important conversations. I just need to learn not to rant when doing it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

And that folks, was an election. Barely.

Soooo.... how 'bout that election ay? I hosted a party on Saturday night, I hadn't specifically planned that it would fall on the same day as the election, it was just the easiest day to fit into various schedules. It was, I believe, generally well received. As I was pulling the incredibly unhealthy spinach dip out of the oven though I caught a general undertone running through the kitchen part of the party, I think I caught it when I was taking the chocolate filled chilli's out onto the balcony as well. It was, I think, an air of distracted, consternated annoyance. I could have been imagining it all though. Then on Sunday when I sat down with the dirty little rags that New Zealanders are laughingly forced to call newspapers and got a look at the results, it all came back to me. It was mostly as expected. National back in on the basis of no policy and no one liked the leader of the opposition. Banks sadly took Epsom, the only bright part of that being that ACT are now so diminished that he didn't get anyone else in alongside him. I'm beginning to question the rationality of the voters of Ohariu though. And seriously NZ, Winston Peters on 6.8%? What the fuck were you thinking? Seriously. And the whole stupidly low turn out? Pathetic.
On the left, the bright spot was of course the Greens finally breaking 10% barrier. The down side for me was that Mana got Hone in but no one else. I don't have a lot of time for Hone, nor for Minto, their number 2 on the list. Annette Sykes would have been good though. And as much as Sue Bradford polarizes idiots some people, I think she did a lot of good work when she was in parliament - the repeal of section 59 for a start.
Generally disappointing though not unexpected sums it up nicely I think. It's remarkable ho little faith I have in the New Zealand electorate at the moment. It would have been none but they at least kept MMP in the referendum, proving that they're not all entirely oblivious to the true nature of politics. Just mostly oblivious.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Public Idiocy

This is from a day or two ago. It demonstrates, quite well, the perils of opening your mouth in a public forum without thinking about what you are going to say. i.e. it's quite easy to come off looking like a complete tool. I'm not sure where to start on this piece of bollocks, I'm thinking I'll just pull a few of the gems out.
First out of the gate is the fact that billions (not one, many) has apparently been spent on maintaining and running the railways over the years. Which is just ... flat out wrong. No idea's where he's getting those figures from (though it barely warrants the term "figure", given how loose a number that is.
And given that it can't cope with hundreds of thousands of rugby fans in the space of a few hours, is obviously reason not to invest in it so that it can handle day to day commuter traffic <facepalm>.
Then apparently public transport is bad. See what happens in London when you have public transport - the unions get a hold of it and shut it down costing the city millions. Stop. Think about that for a moment. Think some more. Anyone else see where that goes wrong? If it's possible to cost the city millions by shutting it down for a couple of day - then it obviously enables those millions on the days when it's not shut down. 
The population density argument is an asinine one to make as well. If you take the total land area of Auckland and divide the size of the population into it, then yes, we're probably fairly low density. This assumes that we are evenly distributed though. Population natural accumulates around hubs, which is where public transport runs. We've got similar densities to other similar sized cities that actually have competent public transport.
Fair enough he likes his car's (apparently he's the heralds motoring journalist, feeling the need to dabble in politics) but I've never really got why the motorheads object to public transport. Surely the fact that public transport takes people off the roads would be a good thing for the people who actually like driving?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thoughts from occupy.

Two articles springing from the occupy movements caught my eye over the weekend, both from Salon. The first, was a demonstration of excessive brutality from police at a UC Davis rally, followed by what I thought was a spectacular reaction from the crowd, seriously, watch the video at the bottom of the article. I seriously can't imagine what was running through the head the officer who sprayed a bunch of non-threatening protesters with pepper spray. They posed no physical threat, the only thing that I can think of was that he wasn't thinking of them as human. The police dragged the protesters away and were surrounded by a crowd chanting "shame on you". Again no violence threatened and the police slowly backed away. I don't imagine anyone becomes a police officer because of the pay or the glamour, there has to be at least a glimmer of the public service ideal in there somewhere. I can only hope there was a glimmer of realisation in those officers heads that after what one of their senior officers did unthinkingly, that the public they hoped to serves regards them with scorn and disdain.

The other article was written by an American soldier currently serving in Afghanistan. It resonated more with me becuase I've been tring to figure out what the occupy movements next step is. What the soldier is asking for - a citizenry that cares, that is involved with the running of the country and takes the time to understand what is going on - is something that would fix a significant chunk of the worlds problems. Again though, it identifies what we are aiming at, not how to get there. Occupy, as best I can tell, was, in it's first phase, an effort to get the conversation started. "Hi, we're sick of this shit, how do we fix it". Which was/is necessary. I'm sure there will be later phases, but it can't be limited to just continuing to protest. if it remains as just a protest it leaves the ultimate responsibility to fix the problems with the ones who created them. And while those who created the problems might make minor course changes and spruce up the window dressing, they are not going to freely relinquish the position of power they have placed themselves in. So something more has to come of the occupy movement as time goes on. It could very well be that the people on some of the camps have come up with brilliant solutions. if they have though, they haven't been communicated to the general public.
Basically, I don't think the next thing that comes out of the occupy movement is some wonderful new political manoeuvre. Sure, there are problems with our economic and political systems, and we need to start putting suggestions forward for fixing them (Even I've got ideas for these, flawed to be sure, but ideas nonetheless). The major thing we need though is for the population to become engaged. Not just to vote, but to read, to figure out how they are governed and how to participate in that process. Of all the things that are broken in our systems, I think this is the biggest.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Poor poor farmers.

I've always found it odd that farmers tend top side with the party that's big on the whole free market idea. Not that I can see them being particularly chummy with Labour either mind. The user-pays proposal that Labour is fronting at the moment, is something that I can see National gleefully bringing in for pretty much any sector other than farmers. Which is odd. Farms are after all, businesses. Which means they should be incurring the costs associated with running that business. Farmers might not have much in the way of ready cash, but I doubt there's many of them that are actually poor. It's like the capital gains thing - if you own a house, especially if you own an investment property, you are pretty much by definition rich. Everyone who is rich seems to forget that being rich doesn't necessarily mean that you have lots of money floating around, it means that you own a significant amount of capital. If you can't find the cash to live day to day then you are managing your wealth wrong and you need to rearrange your finances (sell something, invest elsewhere etc).
If a business is using a public resource, they should be paying for it. Quite possibly some would go broke, but I'm fairly sure that's one of the tenets of free market economics - that non-viable businesses should be allowed to go under. Not that that's been allowed to happen much, look at the huge tax breaks that mediaworks got or the guarantees the government put behind the investment companies.
And it's here, for me, where the disconnect kicks in. The market is supposedly the best mechanism for making things efficient. Leaving aside the arguments that markets are not necessarily the best at making things efficient if that economics were the be all and end all of life (which they're not), then why should the principles of market economies be applied to government ministries and government owned companies, but not to actual companies, where economics are the primary motivator?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A soupcon of leadership.

Phil Goff should take note, this is how a leader should deal with idiots in their ranks. Own up. Norman denies any involvement of the Greens in the defacing of Nationals billboards. He then finds out that one of them did. Rather than waiting for someone to find out he punishes the idiot that did it and then owns up, showing the electorate that he has dealt with it.
I don't by the way, disagree with the sentiments expressed by the additions to Nationals billboards. If it was a random member of the public, it's still probably illegal, but most people will wave it off. If you are in anyway connected with on opposition party, especially a smaller one trying to establish itself, you'd have to be a sodding idiot to be involved. When caught it potentially damages the cause they're trying to further. I hereby find Russell Normans actions acceptable.

Autism in the womb?

Autism is a disorder that I find quite intriguing, though I think I'm more interested in what is wrong rather than how things gets broken in the first place. It's part of a spectrum of disorders, I'm sure everyone's heard of Aspergers syndrome, a less severe psychological condition on the same spectrum - a lot of geeky people can to a limited degree, identify with some of the associated traits which I suspect leads to a significant amount of self-mis-diagnosis.
We don't know what causes autism, or even exactly what is going wrong in the brain. Some people who are willing to discount all the evidence to the contrary claim it's vaccines, but it takes a significant amount of wilful blindness to believe that these days. This study  doesn't identify a cause. It does however give us a clue as to what might be wrong. It's done on a very small sample size, which is understandable - it's looking at neuron concentrations in certain regions of the brain, which means that you have to wait until people die (making it quite a sad research project as well). Basically though, there are increased concentrations of neurons in a part of the brain that deals with language, social development and emotions. When our body develops, there's actually quite a lot of cells dying. For example, we don't grow fingers, we grow a paddle and the cells between our fingers then die off. When our brains are developing, there's something similar happening. There are a bunch of neurons that are used as a scaffold for other parts of the brain, which are then meant to die off. If these aren't dying then they could be contributing to the excessive neuron density and thus preventing the all of the neurons that would normally be there from integrating properly.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lignite - because the atmosphere needs more carbon.

A while ago, I can't remember where, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, the ex-leader of the Green party pointed out on of the problems with an emissions trading scheme. Primarily that if you allow business to trade back and forth, it doesn't necessarily stop more carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. It was relevant at the time because Solid Energy was in the news with their plans of turning a whole bunch of lignite (really, really low quality coal) into fuel. Businesses can buy and sell credits so as to be able to use this coal, but either way, if it goes ahead, it will still be taking more carbon out of the ground and putting more into the atmosphere and oceans. Any serious environmental policy needs to be directing the development of sustainable power sources, rather than tacitly condone the extraction of more carbon. It's nice to see that the Labour party have finally acknowledged that. The Greens have been banging this drum for ages now though and this one of the areas I actually fully agree them. National sadly still think we've got time for a nice quiet, don't startle the horses (business) approach. So, so wrong.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday.

Morning all. It's Friday. I've spent most of the day in the lab and I'm a bit tired and down anyway. So I offer this instead.

I'm not saying all modern art is pants, but I think there's a reasonable demonstration of why I'm not fond of chunks of it in the last 30 seconds. the first couple of minutes - loverly, the last 30 seconds or so, not so much. There is an element of bias in that statement though - the art that's been around longer is the usually the good stuff, the not so good having been dropped by the wayside. Which is why modern culture is quite often presented as crap by curmudgeons - they've forgotten all the crap stuff and are only remmebering the gems.
I still don't like the last 30 seconds though.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Capitalism - modified.

I came across the Mondragon corporation for the first time this morning via an article on Salon. The article on Salon started off, quite rightly noting that it is possible to criticize capitalism while still celebrating aspects of it. It's still possible to acknowledge that some people (like Steve Jobs) did a lot and probably deserve spectacular remuneration. William Buckley (conservative - he thought the republicans were a bit wishy washy, back when the republicans weren't bat shit insane) thoroughly agreed, and used Thomas Edison as an example. When people create wonderful things, you give them credit (I'm not going to get started on Denis Ritchie here). Buckley also worried that the excessive sums corporate executives were getting - despite in many cases destroying wealth rather than creating anything, would end up damaging capitalism. On current evidence, you'd probably have to agree that he was right.
Which brings us to the Mondragon corporation in Basque, Spain. It's a corporation owned by it's employees. Typical hippie behaviour nothing special you might say. This one corporation owns 256 companies. Each of which is owned by it's employees - 83,000 of them in total. As a whole it turns over 14 billion Euro a year. That, is not a hippie commune running a vegetable garden. I'm intrigued as to how it all works. One eminently sensible bit it has is that the wage scales are set by the employees/owners at each company. So you never get the bit were CEO's end up getting paid hundreds of times more than their lowest employees, which is one of the main problems that Occupy has with Wall St.
As for the arguments about attracting the best people to run the company? I'd say it all depends on how you define the best. If you're looking for people who will make the most money no matter what, then yeah, go find yourself a schmoozy MBA.  Mondragon though, has a bunch of codes of practice which basically entail not shitting all over everyone to make money.
"Co-operation, acting as owners and protagonists; Participation, which takes shape as a commitment to management; Social Responsibility, by means of the distribution of wealth based on solidarity; and Innovation, focusing on constant renewal in all areas"
I'd rather work for slightly less money for a bunch company that stood by those values (especially if I was a shareholder), than someone who uses money as the primary measure of what is worthwhile in life. Capitalism isn't inherently unworkable, we just haven't got it right yet.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A new parasite?

I can't find the link, I can't even recall where I saw it, but I do recall somone making the claim a few weeks ago that evolutionary theory could be applied to everything - not just biology. It's a big call, it's plausible (I think) but it's not one I'd fully endorse until I see some substantial evidence for. Having said that, here's a commentary from George Monbiot that's not inconsistent with the idea.

It draws from the work of Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize winner for economics in 2002) in which he showed that there's a self-attribution fallacy rife amongst our financial classes. i.e those who have succeded attribute it to skill on their part when if you look the industry over time, there stands a very good chance they would have done just as well by flipping coins. In other words, they are lucky, not special.

The other work it draws on is Psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon, who tested senior execs in british firrms, looking for evidence of psychopathy. It's not universal but there's a fair whack of it there. These managers are very good at flattery, exploiting others at the same time as not really caring about them. Monbiot sums it up quite well

"if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you're likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you're likely to go to business school."

Consistent with evolutionary theory? On the surface of it, I'd say yes, it could be viewed that way. Certain traits are selected for (psychopathy), which allow some to succeed though there's a fair amount of chance involved. I'd liken it to the evolution of an (economic) parasitic organism, feeding off the general population, the 1% vs 99% so to speak. The thing with parasites though is that when they start to harm the host, the host either dies or fights back until some balance point is reached. Or lives on, crippled in misery I suppose.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

And now - extreme smiling and waving!

Has anyone else noticed that Key never actually answers anything? I mean, I've noticed, I'm sure many others have. No one in the media appears to though. The general caricature of him is Mr Smile and wave (which I generally agree with), but I can't recall him actually answering any of criticisms the Labour (and others) have laid at his door over the past few weeks. All he ever says is "person X is dreaming/unrealistic/wrong/will hurt business/random thing", he never actually answers the challenge. I suspect he'll go down in history as the man who took smiling and waving to a whole new level of smiling and waving. <random depressing comment about our 4th estate and politicians>. <sigh>.

Well it appears to be working.

Argentina. 10 years ago, as I understand it, it was a bit of a basket case, economically speaking. Now, not so much. Aha! I hear you say, another victory for unencumbered invisible hand of the free market and the Chicago school of economics. Again not so much. As with most articles from Salon, it's worth looking at this one critically (they have their biases), but it's worth a look.
Not so much on this blog, I often lament the lack of evidence based policy enacted by our governments. Admittedly, with economics, it's a hard thing to do given that on the country scale, economics systems exist within a large dynamic global economic system, so it's hard to isolate pieces of economic policy and determine their effect. When you're talking about broad school of though though, we can look at economies that approach either end of the spectrum and start making some general assumption. The spectrum I am talking about here, for the record is the highly regulated government controlled economy versus the completely unregulated free market approach. It's very rare that an economy actually reaches either end of the scale though the ones that are highly government controlled tend to military controlled and somewhat hopeless. Approaching the other end, the less regulation you get, the more emphasis is placed on the free market, the more inequality you get.
Presuming you're gunning for an economy that provides everyone with a baseline standard of living and that the Argentinian story over the past decade is a reasonable case study, then it would appear that what we want is not tight government control, nor overly loose control, but a moderate level of control. Their top 10% only owns 34% of the wealth rather than more than 40%. At the same time they've seen poverty rates drop form ~20% to 2.4%, which is spectacular. Salaries have grown with inflation and social spending increased.
This is not to say that everything is rosy. It's not, they've still got problems, government is always a balancing act though, like sailing a boat, you never get to take you hand off the rudder and say it'll be fine now. The idea that markets the less regulation a market has the better it will be for everyone is getting harder and harder to sell to the general population, which is as it should be, given it's failures over the past few decades. It would be nice if those trying to sell it would stop and look at countries that aren't toeing the line though. Figure out why they are working and push those policies rather than clinging to ideologies that don't work.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sherlock Holmes - Bayesian styles.

Nothing new or overly idiotic from the politicians today so we can look at something fun. This is where large chunks of the people who know me stop reading.
One of the things that I am going to be doing over the next year or so is constructing Bayesian models of gene regulatory networks. Thomas Bayes was a English chap who did everyone a favour and did some very serious thinking about probabilities back in the 1700's. Everyone is, I presume familiar with the idea that if you roll a dice there's a 1 in 6 chance that you'll get a six. If you roll two (non loaded die) then there's a 1 in 36 chance you'll get 2 sixes. You can just multiply the probabilities of the two events together because they're independent. What happens if your two events are conditional though? That is to say, the outcome of the second event is affected by the outcome of the first event? This is what Bayes worked out, how to compute the probability of an event given the probability of second event.

Basically, this says the probability of event A happening, given that event B happens is the probability the B happening provided A happens, times the probability of A happening divided by the probability of B happening. Doesn't sound immediately intuitive, but if we rearrange it slightly you'll see that we get:
Which, if you think about it, describes a pretty basic Venn diagram.
 The probability of A happening is the whole circle. The probability of B happening provided A happens is the intersection of the two circles. It's quite simple in the when you look at it that way. I'll be take the expression profiles of genes and using them as A's and B's. Which, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, will be fun.
So where does Sherlock come in to all this? We (as in humans) are very good at logical fallacies. Not figuring them out, making them I mean. Scientific American had a post a few days ago describing one. Given a description of someone and the a choice of possible occupations, people most often choose statements with two occupations in them, i.e. this person is a musician and an architect rather than just a musician or just an architect. When if you think about it, if being a musician is A and an architect is B, then the chance of being both, is significantly smaller than just A or just B. i.e. not all musicians are architects nor all architects musicians. With Bayes's formula, we can work out those probabilities if we wanted to, which would just show us how wrong we can be. Sherlock didn't make that mistake. And we all know how clever he was.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Look at the slighly bigger picture.

Sciblogs.co.nz has two stories at the moment which fit together quite nicely. One that came through this morning was on coffee and cancer. There was an article in the Christchurch press touting coffee as a beneficial in preventing skin cancer. Which is all well and good, but coffee also contains known carcinogens. So which is it, good or bad? The answer is a common one - it depends. There's a variety of factors that are in play such as the levels of good stuff/bad stuff, and the fact that cancer is a single disease (something that needs to be stressed more often), it's an umbrella term for a diverse bunch of disorders that create similar effects (death) via a variety of mechanisims.

The point being, that when an article comes along that says "Yay! this thing stops cancer", it pays to remember that it's never quite that simple. Which is a point made in this post. Basically, you should trust the science rather than the scientist. Take coffee for example, one study comes out and says it's good, another says it's bad. it's not a good idea to rely on the latest study, different scientists are looking at similar things for different reasons. Before you run out and start overdosing on coffee though, you need to look at the science. Look at as many studies as you can find - how many are bad? how bad is it under what circumstances. What benefits does it give you? then you get to make a judgement call (which of course benefits+taste >> drawbacks)

Most of this is missed when the latest next best thing gets reported. Which is bad becuase if you only pay attention to the latest publicized result, it can lead to people actually thinking scientists are debating whether global warming exists. the odd scientist is claiming that it doesn't, but the science as a whole amkes it painfully clear that it is happening and we've probably underestimated it so far. Or that there is a cure for cancer just around the corner - there isn't, we've got promising treatments for some cancers and have identified numerous risk factors but we're a long way from figuring all out how to solve all cancers. These things become evident when the science is considered but can easily become hidden or confused when individual reports are relied upon.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More numbers.

So a couple of days ago we had the numbers from the budget detailing the split of the Ministry of Social Development's spend on welfare. From a total budget of 23 billion, we had 4.4% on the unemployment benefit, 3.4% on the sickness benefit, 5.8 on the invalids benefit and 8.2 on the DPB. As best as I can tell, these are the benefits that are National proposes scrapping and turning into 3 new benefits. That totals 21.8% of the welfare spend. which comes to roughly 5 billion dollars.

Apparently, ditching the old and creating the new benefits will save 1 billion over 4 years. I'm presuming that that means 250 million a year on average rather than 1 billion a year. 250 million a year, out of a spend of 5 billion dollars gives us roughly, a 4% savings. The full benefit is currently about $230 a week. 4% of that being, 9 dollars. That, to a beneficiary, will make a lot more difference than you think, 2-3 meals a week. More problematic I think, is the putting everyone on the sickness benefit into the job seeker benefit. There's plenty of jobs about if you're a java programmer with 6 years experience. Most people aren't though. And there's not enough jobs there for the unemployed, let alone jobs that will be able to cater to the needs of those currently unsuited to full time labour.

In short, as best I can tell, it's a rearranging the deck chairs, the primary purpose being to use the unemployed as a boogie man to wave in front of the voters to distract them from the fact that jobs are not plentiful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Stoke IPA

Every man and his dog has an IPA out these days. I really wish brewers would put more effort into making a decent lager. Tuatara Helles is still the only really good lager in the country that I'm aware of. anyway, Stoke have recently put out their IPA. And while I'm normally a fan of Stoke, - their Stoke gold is one of the best beers around for the price, Stoke Dark is growing on me and their Rochdale Cider is a step or 3 above most other ciders in NZ, I have to say, of their IPA, I am not a fan. Heavy on bitterness, low on flavour. Then again, it may grow on me, we shall see.

GE for the win.

Okay, technically I'm probably calling this one as a win to early - it hasn't been tested on human's yet. In Nature, we have an article on a group from China that have made transgenic rice that produces human serum albumin, a protein out of out blood. At the moment it's mostly taken from blood donations. So having a supply that we can literally grow is going to break open a supply bottle neck. It has a variety of uses and one of it's big plusses will be infection free. It's only been tested on mice so far, but it appears to be chemically identical to naturally derived human serum albumin so far. Fingers crossed.

Even if it doesn't work, it's still a win though. Just the fact that we are thinking about doing stuff like this is incredibly cool. And there's cooler stuff yet to come.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Interesting figures

There's a post on pundit this morning with some interesting figures in it. From the 2011 budget, a breakdown of social welfare spending :
Sickness benefit: 782.38 (3.40%)
Unemployment benefit & emergency benefit: 1,028.95 (4.40%)
Accommodation assistance: 1,264.23 (5.50%)
Invalid's benefit: 1,346.84 (5.80%)
Student loans: 1,589.68 (6.90%)
Domestic purposes benefit: 1,894.64 (8.20%)
New Zealand superannuation: 9,575.37 (41.30%)

I wasn't aware that superannuation was such a large component and unemployment so small. And it makes the few decades tricky as our pensioner population increases. I'm well aware that increasing the retirement ages disproportionately disadvantages the poor - the better income you have the earlier you can retire. That number is going to increase though.  And with news that Mana is gunning for superannuation for Maori at 60 rather than 65, I can't see that as anything other than irresponsible. (Their reasoning for that is pretty nasty by the way - the fact that Maori die earlier is not a good reason to let them retire earlier, it's reason to try and fix healthcare so they live longer)
And if the unemployment spending is such a small proportion, I don't see how you can reasonably expect to save any money by bashing on the beneficiaries. 4.4% of 23 billion is 1.012 billion. Cut 10 percent out of that and you save 10 million dollars. Which probably less than it would cost in administration to reorganize everything. If nothing else, it makes it quite clear that the unemployed are considered easy targets to vilify and bash by the current government.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

To small to Fail.

I like the idea. It's something that still needs to be fleshed out, it is one of a number of threads that I've seen recently that give me some hope that we're not completely devoid of ideas about how to run the world in the future. Yes, if we gamble economically we stand a good chance of losing some of the time. If those bets are not huge though, they don't threaten the system. Even with failures, if we a seen as small but willing to have a go, I can only see that as a benefit for talented people wanting to try new ideas. Which I would hope, would lead to more talented people and a good chance of winning more than losing.

One of the best signs that I've seen Occupy protesters hold up is "To big to fail is to big to exist". When you're trying to build a sustainable system, I think it's quite a good maxim to bear in mind. If you have an institution (or a bunch of similar ones) that when hit, will quite possibly cause horrendous disruption in an economic system i.e. to big to fail, then it should be limited. No single factor in an economic system should be able to take the system as a whole down.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The gap gets bigger.

In stark contrast to a couple of weeks ago, there are now a number of larger media operations covering the occupation protests. There's a fair number of them who are doing it badly, writing them off as confused anti-capitalists who don't know what they want. Which is silly, with a very small amount of digging you'll find that while they may not have the answers the occupiers are essentially protesting against inequality. Maybe you aren't that concerned, but I think journalists at least should be willing to put a little more effort into their work.

I seriously don't think that there would be many protesters out there who would have a problem with CEO's earning hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars if everyone else was could feed their children and not have to beggar themselves to put their children through school. as things stand though, the gap between the rich and the poor grows and while money is forthcoming to solve the problems of rich, governments do little to try and change the fortunes of the poor. As for our lot, even the things they claim to have done to help like the home insulation scheme) were not their doing. That was a deal the Greens worked out with the previous Labour government if I recall correctly. We're better off here than a lot of the rest of the world, but rather than try and fix the problems, our politcians (yes, I'm looking at Labour to), just coast, assuming everything will get better. Which is a fine recipe for everything getting worse.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Placebo placebo placebo

I went to a quite spectacular music festival a couple of years ago, called splore. It's only on every two years so I didn't go last year. Which is sad. And entirely beside the point. In the little market place there were a few people selling "Power Balance" bracelets. Which are essentially a con. I thought it was quite interesting at the time, given that they were getting people to test them by pushing and pulling them off balance, putting the bracelet on them, pushing and pulling again with miraculous results. They were doing it to to many people for people to be plants. Interesting up to a point. A little bit of digging and the explanations are clear. Forces applied in similar places but in different directions before and after. The longer explanation. The blinded experiment (get the salesman to do the normal routine, don't tell whether the person is actually using the bracelet or not) video showing it's a crock. And then there was the actual admission by the company that there is no evidence that it works (on the wiki page).

Well, he said, it's not the same people, but it's a good rick, why let it go to waste. For a while now, you've been able to get a necklace with gold nanoparticles that will improve your everything by realigning the energy flow of the body. Somewhat implausible if you ask me. This is not to say that there isn't some sort of psychological placebo effect at work. Placebo effects are powerful at altering our perception of things. I'm willing to go so far as to admit that anyone who's taken in by one of these things could perceive that their own performance is better than it was (confirmation bias anyone?). I've not seen anything to say that the placebo effect actually changes an individuals physical performance. And I'm pretty damn sure that these nano particles are not realigning the bodies energy flow to increase performance - in short, I think it's a crock. If you want to convince yourself that you are faster wand stronger with better balance and health, find yourself a lucky piece of sting - it's cheaper.

For now, I'm going to ignore silly stuff like this in favour of sitting in the spring sun contemplating another splore. trust me, it's a much better way to spend a morning.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

ummm.... yes.

Emma Hart offers an entertaining description of her conversational skills. Funnily enough, I think it's a fairly accurate description of mine as well. Maybe not bang on, but close.

Monday, October 17, 2011

See, this is just unncessary.

Students have taken the clock tower. The Auckland university clock tower. I'd say it's got to the point that they feel the only way they will be heard is if they're disruptive (a sentiment I tend to agree with). So they barge into what is theoretically a public meeting - though it's a bit rich calling it a public meeting then barring the people that the meeting will most affect.

All that's fine. It's rather unnecessary of the police to bring in dog units. Do they seriously think that setting dogs on people (or threatening to) is going to solve anything? Short term aim - get people out of the building by threatening violence. Long term fuck up. It's not going to do anything other than piss people off more and set the public against the police. Which is a bad thing. It puts everyone further away from reaching a solution. Those who back the short term use of violence are less likely to then turn around and negotiate given that they have set in their minds that these people are only worth setting the dogs onto - even more worrisome when you realize that these people are educating people they don't think are worth talking to. And those with the grievance will have one more grievance to add to the list which given that they've already said enough, is only going to make them more likely to protest in the future.

These are not terrorists. These are our own people, our own children who are being shut out of their own lives. Talk to them, actually listen to them, include them in the process. I don't like the idea of an us vs them society but it's what we'll end up with if we're not careful.

Statute of limitations

I don't think you get to blame previous governments for not doing stuff when you're six weeks out from completely a full electoral term. It's a bit ... pathetic really. Especially when you try and put a little bit of the blame on the current opposition for not pointing it out during the current term.

Morgan Godfrey at Maui St has, I think, an astute observation. National need to accept responsibility. Not because they put the ship on the rocks but because that's what a government is meant to do - a problem arrives, the government should step up up to the plate and say "this is now our problem and we're going to sort it out".

I could live with this.

I'd even go so far as to tentatively think that it's a good idea for Wynyard Quarter, a satellite Te Papa . One of the worries I've had about the development down there, lovely as the idea of parks on the waterfront are, is that there's nothing down there to draw people to the area. And I'm sorry, but apartments and corporate headquarters won't do it - the waterfront should be for more than just lunchtime office workers and people wealthy enough to afford and apartment on it (I can't imagine apartments down there being cheap even if they do follow the classic Auckland apartment style of small and nasty). Given that so much of the national collection is stored, it'd be nice to have a bit more of it out and on display.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Blame where blame is due

I'm getting a little sick of the people defending the governments response to the Rena oil spill. The gist of the defence appears to be that John key didn't drive the ship onto the reef and therefore it wasn't his fault. Which is entirely not the point. The government/maritime NZ etc aren't being blamed for putting the ship there, that's the captain and navigation officer's fault and their well on their way to being processed. Criticisms of the goverment are criticisms of their response. An entirely different thing. We're an island nation, a lot of our importing/export is done via ship. One would hope that someone in authority would have been looking at worst case scenarios and planning.
It's not the governments fault the ship is on the reef, but once it was there it's somewhat ... pathetic, that it was left for 4 days of fine weather with nothing being done and bad weather that would make doing anything more difficult. Sure, a day maybe, but then everything should have been swinging into action.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I do it for the money ....

It seriously bemuses me that people even think to ask questions like these sometimes. the idea that scientist go into science for the money is just ... ludicrous. In NZ, at least if you're lucky, you can get a job as a scientist with a comfortable income. there's a few rich ones around but I seriously suspect you'll find that they're rich coincidently, rather than having set out to get rich by doing science. Personally, the only reason I can see for doing science is so that you can spend a life figuring out how interesting stuff works. Which is fun. Analogous to Matt Damon's defence of teachers actually.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grandiose Engineering.

I've been waiting for quite some time for the next round of grandiose engineering. By which I mean engineering that pushes the limits. The English in particular, back in the day were quite good at it, mustering thousands upon thousands of men and building trains and huge ships and factories, the like of which had never been seen before - the industrial revolution essentially. Imagine a farmer from 1750 walking into a huge factory and seeing masses of moving steel and hissing steam. It might not be a welcome sight given that it's likely just put a whole lot of people he knows out of work, but it would surely be impressive. We haven't had any for a while. The Hoover Damn was probably a candidate, given the technology of the time. The Delta works in Holland are probably a contender. It's got to the stage where even the 3 gorges dam in China, is just engineering. Sure not easy, but not grandiose. Science fiction has the grandiose in spades, my favourite I think, is the space elevator, even today though we're a while away from being able to build that though.

The American Institute Of Physics is proposing a project, it's definitely inspiring. And it's definitely on the edge of what people convenience of as possible. They think they they are capable of sending robots to the moon, getting them to build solar arrays, collect power and beam that back to earth. In a word, it's a huge project. Expensive, hell yes. Capable of removing a huge swathe of our dependency of fossil fuels though and thus worth a look. As an added bonus, we'd finally have a permanent moon base. It's border-line science fiction.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Four weeks.

It's taken four weeks, 15,000+ people in Wall St, 70 cities around the world, before it's important enough to get into NZ's favourite tabloid, the NZ Herald.  Only in the world section though, even with the local event being completely blatant about getting organised. Four weeks.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cybernetics ho!

Ars Technica is reporting on the development of a brain-machine-brain interface. This is officially very cool. Everyone, I presume is familiar with the idea of a brain-machine interface. It's the ye olde trick of putting some sensors in someone's brain and getting them to control something like a computers mouse, by thinking. It's been done many times before. This time though, their working on feedback coming back into the brain. The idea being that if you're an amputee you could get a new limb that you could not only control but that you could feel things with. The brain could register how much pressure the amputee is using to grip something rather than the amputee having to guess based on sight. Or you could use if for remote controlling mechanical limbs in dangerous environments. Or maybe an exoskeleton. Any which way, it's the beginning of proper cybernetics.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hrm? Wall St? Financial place in NY isn't it?

So Wall St has been occupied for almost 3 weeks now. Here in lil 'ol New Zealand there are obviously more important things to pay attention to. Like someone's strained groin. And even if that hadn't happened, there's plenty of other newsworthy events like the PM getting to spend a gormless couple of hours hosting a radio show. Multiple weeks of protest in the US's largest financial district, that's obviously not very important for a serious newspaper like the NZ Herald which brings you the important stories like whether a non-psychic calf can correctly predict the winner of a rugby game.
If you read much, in NZ you might have found out about the protests a couple of weeks ago. I only found out about them at the end of last week. Not via any decent sized media organization though. Go have a quick search of google news for occupy wall st (the name of the protest). There's a few of the big names reporting on it now - The Guardian, WSJ, ABC. The interesting bit though, is which other publications are making the cut. Patch.com, People's World, WFMZ Allentown(?). It gets worse if you start looking for specifics. Apparently Anonymous have threatened the NYSE website (I'm presuming not the actual exchange it self) - biggest organization to cover that angle? Bloomberg. Then it's people like Death and Taxes, Dissident Times and The Street. None of which I am familiar with. In short, where's the news?
There are some bright spots, but they tend to be coming from the blogosphere. I would recommend this piece from Ezra Klein to give you a little background about what's going on. Unless of course you're already way more in the loop than I am.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A little bit creepy. Possibly a lot creepy.

Facebook have taken a lot of crap over the past few weeks with their interface upgrade. Personally, I don't think the change in the homepage warrants them taking much crap. Their new "seamless sharing" policy however, they deserve large amounts of crap for. They've stepped over the line from making things easier for their users and partners to creepy. And then there's this. There is possibly a case to be made for not censoring rape jokes. It would probably run along the lines of it make it easier to see who the complete assholes who make them are. If I recall correctly though, a while back Facebook was censoring pictures of women breastfeeding because we could see their nipples(!) Which in their view constituted pornography (idiots). Not so much a double standard and more of a wtf? If the later is breaching their terms of service, I don't see how the former isn't.
Here's a wee thought experiment for you: what do you call someone who sneakily follows you around the streets after you've visited them, thinks rape jokes are funny and that the tiniest glimpse of nipple is pornography? Creepy really seems to fit.