Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can't see the jobs.

Paula Bennet got called a hypocrite yesterday, for taking an axe to the welfare system that she took full advantage of as a solo mum. Her defence appears to have been two pronged, that the world is a different place now than it was 17 years ago when she took advantage of it and that she was forced onto the benefit after becoming exhausted from working two part time jobs. I'll give her the first one, the world is indeed a different place now. Largely, I suspect because people like her and her colleagues have decided that user pays is the way to go. The second part though? Seriously, of the hard core money grubbing national supporters out there, how many would tell a single mum exhausted from working two jobs to shut up, get back to work and to stop living on unwarranted handouts because it was her choice to have a kid and the state shouldn't have to pay for it. Very few I imagine. Though I would also lay a modicum of blame for this sort of thing at the feet of the soft core National supporters at the last election as well.

The major problem that I see with these welfare and housing reforms is that they are based on the assumption that jobs are plentiful. There's a piece in last weeks listener (I can't link to it sorry, it's behind a pay-wall) where Bill English justifies cutting housing support on the basis that low rents provide an incentive for low income earners to not get better paying jobs, thus trapping them in a low income rut. A point of view I can't help but find head bangingly stupid. Low rent is not going to stop a low income earner from taking a better paid job. losing a rent subsidy might mean that they would get as much benefit as one would immediately think, but they would be better off. A better paid job that doesn't cover a rent a rent subsidy is not that much of a better paid job. What I believe is stopping low income workers from taking better paid jobs is that there are very few of them around. I spent a bit of time on the benefit last year, I spent time talking to case managers who had numerous jobs (and not even particularly good jobs) that were getting hundreds of applicants. I could understand benefit and housing reforms if there was a huge job creation push running alongside at the same time. There isn't though, which makes this outright punishment of the poor for being poor. I'd go so far as to say that it also means that charges of hypocrisy against Bennett and John "I grew up in a state house" Key are not entirely unjustified.

Brian Rudman can see it. I can see it. Why can't our government see it? I'm guessing they don't want to see it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some viruses are slightly more than useful - they're essential.

I'm not entirely sure how to introduce this article. Carl Zimmer is usually a good read, this article is no exception. It's one of those things that crop up in science every so often that I just find ... cool.
So we know about viruses that write themselves into our genomes, there's a bunch of them, the most famous at the moment being retroviruses. HIV is one. Hepatitis B another. Some of these stick around long enough that they insert themselves stably into germ cells, eggs and sperm. the eventually become Endogenous Retro Viruses, which is to say, they pretty much become part of us. If you go trawling through the human genome, there's bucket loads of sequences that look like they have come from virus in years gone by. This by itself is pretty cool.

Zimmer is talking, briefly, about an ERV that has actually become useful to us (mammals). Syncytin, a gene derived from a virus is an essential participant in the formation of the syncytiotrophoblast, which is a layer of cells fused together that sit around an foetus in the womb, protecting the foetus from the mothers immune system. If you shut down production of syncytin A in mice, the cells can't fuse together, no syncytiotrophoblast is formed and the offspring is lost at the embryonic stage.
So somewhere back in aeons past a virus infected our ancestors wrote itself into our genomes and eventually we found a use for it, a use that is now essential to our development. As I said, very, very cool.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Whether you support the Tertiary education union or not, they have one thing right.

Universities are not-for-profit entities. Of course, their purpose is to make doctors, engineers and the like. However, they must also create citizens, fully-developed human beings who can tackle the social, economic, and ethical dilemmas facing our world. The market may value the former but has little use for the latter.

The TEU obviously believes that they have a role to play in keeping universities not-for-profit. I would go one further and say that this is something everyone should be working towards, not just the TEU. Students past, current and future should be worried about the qualities of their universities, even those who will never set foot in a university should be worried. universities, I think, should be able to interact with the marketplace, they provide a significant amount of the markets workforce. They shouldn't be run as a market place though. Not only the market, but society as a whole loses if education is restricted to only those things that make money. I really don't want to live in a society that is only concerned with training it's youth to make money.

Comparing compensation.

Interesting snippet in Bryce Edwards political round-up today.
'Treaty settlements which now total $1.3 billion are less than the $1.77 billion paid to compensate mainly Pakeha investors in South Canterbury Finance'.
1.3 billion sounds low to me. Worth a look into though. If it's true then it's a nice line to shut anyone in the finance industry up on the odd occasion you met one at a BBQ or some such. It's an interesting comparison more than anything else, given that I suspect most New Zealanders aren't particularly happy about the 1.77 billion SCF bailout. Then again, that's just SCF. how much did all the other finance companies cost us?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Counting the non-voters.

Metiria Turei came out swinging at the Green party policy conference on the weekend, having broken the 10% barrier they no longer want to sit idly by. It appears to be being taken by some as a possible indication of conflict between Labour and the Greens. It might very well be.
it would be nice, however, if the Greens and (especially) Labour took a look at the percentages of the votes that everyone got at the last election. And by everyone, I mean that they should be looking at the second largest block of voters, those who didn't vote. Danyl lays out the numbers and puts forward a couple of possible interpretations. One of the most glaring being that it's not necessarily the case that National has captured the centre of the political spectrum, over the past 3 elections, Nationals vote as a percentage of the total number of potential voters hasn't really improved that much. What has happened is that the number of people who don't vote has increased significantly. These being, if the strategists are thinking sensibly, the people both Labour and the Greens should be going after. Seriously, which is harder, convincing people who think National are doing fine, or getting your shit together (in Labours case, I think the Greens already have theirs together) and convincing a whole bunch of people who are disillusioned with the process that they should at least get minimally involved again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Shoes on a different feet.

Weighing in on the whole Paul Homes racist rant in the herald the other day. Something Morgan Godfrey has just said, specifically: "Imagine if the situation was reversed and a prominent Maori broadcaster slammed greedy Pakeha land thieves". I find it's interesting that this is exactly the phrase our red necks use they complain that someone like Hone Harawira has just said something offensive. You immediately get hit with a barrage of "what if it had been a prominent pakeha that said something offensive like this about Maori?" Well here it is. A prominent pakeha has said something equally offensive, if not more so than anything Hone's said. And the response? nada. From the Herald, we get piss poor non-apologies brushing it off as an part of their duty to "publish the breadth of opinion on major public issues."
All of which I find pretty indicative. At least as far as the herald is concerned. You're Maori, say something racist, get hounded, you're pakeha, say something racist, it's freedom of expression and opinion.

Monday, February 13, 2012

One has to grin.

So the latest attempt to manufacture a moral panic is coming from the dom post, instilling fear of the "hundreds of unfit teachers" in NZ schools.  Appalling obviously. Obviously. NZ's latest statistics watchdog, Statschat (well worth checking out) notes a significant lack of context in the numbers. I'll note the scaremongering, i.e. mentioning the few who actually committed criminal acts and got prosecuted for it.
Anyway. The lack of context in the numbers. There are bad teachers yes. There are bad people in every profession, in every industry. How does teaching stack up against everyone else? Not badly. Per head they get significantly fewer complaints laid against them than the police. And entertainingly, significantly few complaints than journalists. I love having people who crunch the numbers around. Unfortunately, those who use the numbers poorly, will likely never report on it, because they are the ones using the numbers poorly.

Plausibility

Science Based Medicine had a post talking about the plausibility of Applied Kinesiology a couple of days ago (short answer, it isn't). There's a wee snippet early on though, which I think is apt not just for a discussion of plausibility, but for pretty much any discussion about phenomena in the real world.
As best I can tell there is a well described reality, and that reality constrains what is not only probable, but what is possible.  Within the limitations of our current understanding of reality, some processes are impossible, i.e. have zero prior probability.
There are a couple of important points in this so lets break it down a bit. The first assumption is that there is a reality outside of us. "Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away", I think the quote is, Philip K Dick if I recall correctly. If you don't agree with this base assumption, or are going to insist on getting pointlessly philosophical, then quite frankly, go away, there is no point in me talking to you.
If you accept that there does exist an external reality, then the next thing to not is that this reality does not let anything happen. Anything is possible is patently untrue, even in an infinite universe. I would go so far as to not get to picky when people say that in an infinite universe everything that can happen will happen, though I think even that is debatable. Easily debatable. If it is possible for something to happen once or continually, in an infinite universe, it is also a possibility that it will never happen. These things are mutually exclusive.
Anyway, that's not the important bit. The important bit is the second half of the quote. We don't know everything. Dara O'Brien said it well when he said that "Science knows it doesn't know everything. If it did, it would stop". The flip side of this statement is not mean that whatever theory some crackpot comes up with can be true. Technically we might be limited by our current understanding of the universe, but we've been at this figuring shit out thing for a while now and while we can always refine our understanding, we do understand some things quite well. If someone wants their pet theory to be true they must show that either it is plausible within our current understanding of reality or that our current understanding of reality is incorrect or limited. And proving that second one, is hard. Really hard. You have to have some pretty spectacular data to back up claims that show current understanding is wrong. So things like applied kinesiology, homoeopathy, reiki and astrology etc., which are not plausible within the limitations of our current understanding of reality (i.e. given what we know, have plausibility zero) would need to come up with some pretty spectacular data to show that they do work. And given that the only effectiveness any of those things have is no better than placebo, then given what we know, it's very very easy to dismiss them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Education for the poor - more pinga's and better lives all round.

Every so often one of the herald's columnist's surprises me. This time it was Brian Fallow making sense. he advocates, I think, some of the preparation that I've been wittering on about for the past couple of days in response to Joyce's ill thought out opinion piece in the herald a few days ago, i.e concentrate on poverty and bettering education so that we have a work force capable of meeting the needs of new Zealand over the next 50 years or so. There's good evidence to suggest that the quality of early childhood education makes a huge difference in long term success. Admittedly he focuses on it from an economists point of view the "crap, how are we going to make money without enough suitably educated warm bodies around rather than from it being the decent human thing to do. That's to be expected though, he's writing as an economist.

It's just a pity I think the current government lacks the leadership, foresight and intellectual capacity to cotton on to this and actually make plans based on what has been shown to work.

Planners, maths is your friend.

So a lot of developers and construction companies in Auckland think we really need to be opening up a lot more land around the fringes of the city for development and that the idea of intensification of housing is a really bad idea because no one wants to live in apartments and everyone wants to have a back yard. really. You would think construction companies would have some idea of what constitutes a workable city.
in a word, <sigh>. Anyway, this wee report commissioned by the Auckland Council had a section in it figuring out how much land we'd need over the next 30 years. A few quick calculations involving projected population growth and the houses per hectare using low intensity housing, nice grassy sections, space for the dog and the children to run around in twee wonderland - brings us to about 20,000 ha. Which, if their characterization is correct would involve us taking an area two thirds of the current size of Auckland and adding it Auckland. Which is just absurd. They also give us the numbers on what would happen if the new developments were more intense, not quite so much land is used, though it's still a lot.

Not that anyone will be surprised but I really do think this a perfect illustrator of the self interest that is driving the lobbying against tightly controlled city limits. If we did let the developers loose it wouldn't lead to a more liveable city, it would lead to a sparse city with rolling swathes of suburbia and more cars trying to drive into the city. I don't see anything other than intensification both in housing and in commerce around alternate town centres (Henderson, Avondale, Manukau etc) is going to work. It is, I believe what the town planners are currently proposing and I sincerely hope they continue to push those plans.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A contrast.

So yesterday we had Steven Joyce bemoaning the nay-sayers who were blocking our urban sprawl and attempts to dig up everything that we might be able to sell to fund our future. Roger Hansons post today makes Joyce's opinion piece look weak. Compare the two, one wants us to compete, from a distance with the rest of the world at stuff that the rest of the world already does much better and with greater economies of scale than we could ever hope to match. The other takes similar starting examples (dairy and film) and says hey, look, we can do new stuff well, lets look at all the other new things that are going to be happening over the next few years, prepare ourselves for that see what happens.
Weta are a brilliant example. Digital effects attracts skilled people from around the world (it'd be grand if we could use more locals but that requires preparation), highly paid, who stay in the country and spend. Mining attracts highly skilled people from around the world (limited unskilled work, they have large machines for that) highly paid, who come for a few years then bugger off when they've got everything and leave a mess behind to clean up. Which industry improves the lives of the populace more?

Contrasting the two views shows just how weak Joyce's leadership abilities are. The unwillingness to prepare for the future in sustainable ways is just pathetic.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Strawmen.

Steven Joyce, our august minister for Economic Development, Science and Innovation, Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, spends some time vigorously fighting some strawmen in the herald today. He takes to task those people who say
"we want jobs" but then in the next breath say "but you can't do that ... you can't build that there ... you can't expand that ... you can't explore for that there ... you can't live here ... you can't invest in property here - you just can't do that!".
Damn them and their job killing nay saying which will be the doom of our country! Pity for Joyce that the nay-sayers are ... most of the country. With respect to the mining and exploration at least, maybe not the expansion.They are not nay-sayers. They are people who have decided what sort of country they want to live in and are looking for ways (and guidance from the government) to better their lot without compromising what they value. Jobs and economic improvement are not mutually exclusive with maintaining or even ... gasp! improving our environment.
Contrary to what Joyce is saying, we haven't limited ourselves to a small number of types of industry based on what the nay-sayers have said. We have exploited industries that are in demand from the rest of the world. Dairy being the prime example. Most of the country doesn't want mining on conservation land. There's a large chunk who don't want oil rigs just of the coast. In the act of protesting, the people are valuing certain parts of their lives above money. A government that is foiled on one front, stomps it's foot because people are saying they prefer clean oceans to oil derived money is one lacking vision and leadership. It should be looking for other ways to make jobs and money rather than sulking.
Even more entertaining/depressing, Joyce's opinion that New Zealand needs to "the endless debate about which industry will save us and focus on all industries where New Zealand has a natural advantage". First he opines woefully regarding the fact that we've have few internationally successful industries. Then he gives every appearance of wanting to set up just one more big industry to drag us into the future. We shouldn't be focusing on a few no, we should be supporting numerous ventures that are having a crack at many different industries, some of which may fail, some of which will succeed. Try putting more money and particularly effort into education and technological development. Then again, making long term plans to get yourself a well educated, adept workforce would require to much dealing with the world as it actually is rather than as the government imagines it to be (not just the current government either).
Then again, "a lot of the "can't" behaviour is designed to protect a Kiwi way of life that wouldn't be here if those who say "you can't" had applied their rules 50 or 100 years ago.". I presume this is in reference to those fiendish town planners who want to intensify housing in Auckland and limit the expansion of the city into the countryside. If we'd had some people doing some nay-saying 50 years ago, we might not have this stupid sense of entitlement, thinking that everyone should be able to live in a quarter acre section in the middle of our biggest city. In other words we might have had a well planned city with decent public transport making the roads emptier for our businesses to get around and do stuff on. Cities involve large numbers of people in small amounts of space. It requires planning. Not dreaming.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Enough already.

Stop complaining about the weather please. Yes we're having a not particularly summery summer. You however are part of the human race. And if this particular summer is outside of the normal limits of climate variation, then this is part of the climate that you have in in part been responsible for. I am including me in the you, by the way. Part of the reason that I'm not complaining is that I don't see that complaining is in any way useful. It's the weather. Deal with it. The other part of why I'm not complaining is the fact that I know I have contributed to the weather being screwed up, along with everyone else who rides around in cars and doesn't push hard enough for low carbon power generation.

And it's only going to get worse.