Monday, April 22, 2013

You call that an argument.

Worst argument against the Labour/Green energy sector reform goes to Colin Espiner:
"It's a long time since the Max Bradford power reforms of the early 90s. I remember them well - I covered them as a young reporter. There's little doubt turning electricity into a private commodity and setting up an electricity marketplace has led to higher power prices for residential consumers. And also lower prices for industry.
The reforms did make the whole industry much more complicated and possibly didn't work as intended. But that doesn't mean unpicking them is either desirable or even possible without creating far more upheaval than it's worth. "
In other words, the power industry has had a free ride for the past couple of decade and we're about to hand a decent chunk of that easy money to private investors. We shouldn't try to fix the imbalance because it's really really hard.

Since when has it been written that politicians are only allowed to tackle the easy problems?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sorry, what?

I have to admit to being taken somewhat by surprise. This, at a casual glance appears to be actual policy coming out of Labour. Yes, it's coming from the Green's as well, but that's not surprising, they've had actual policy policies for quite sometime.

The idea of a central buyer works for the pharmaceuticals industry - or rather, it works for us in curbing some of the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry. It's not perfect, but it's significantly  better than any alternative that I'm aware of. It'll be interesting to see how the idea of a central purchaser works for the electricity industry stands up to the economists and the pseudo-economist blogoshpere.

Another one or two of these and I might actually begin to consider the possibility that Labour could conceivably,at some point in the future, maybe get their shit together.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

I was asked for an opinion yesterday on a report by TV3 on a new diet proposed by a researcher in Auckland. Quickly following that in the conversation were references to a chap by the name of Dave Asprey, aka the bulletproof exec and a surgeon by the name of Peter Atia who runs a website called the eating academy. Both of these appear to be body hackers - customizing their diet and finding what works for them.

As far as science reporting goes, TV3 is probably one of our better media organizations, which means that I have exactly zero faith in them to not over hype the result of a single study. Despite this, my response to the TV3 report was, I believe a statement of there being insufficient research (that I could find) regarding the work the researcher proposed or the actual diet.

As for the bulletproof execs site - I am somewhat more dubious. This guy is a body hacker. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. More power to him. Fair enough, his website documents his story, and even better his story is scattered with references to actual research. The science around nutrition is incredibly complex though. And my impression of the science referenced is that a lot of it is very specific, very focused, on small sample sizes and over limited time frames. Asserting recommendations at the level of diet from these is ... troublesome. My level of respect drops even further when there are references to causes and cures for autism, a fundamental misunderstanding or misrepresentation of epigenetics, and the site is selling a book suggesting that you can improve your babies genes whilst it's still in the womb (not to mention using the heading "Darwin was wrong" in a discussion of genes - Darwin didn't even know about genes for fucks sake - sorry, this one always bugs the crap out of me when it gets trotted out).

As for the Peter Atia website - I offer no thoughts, I haven't the time nor the inclination to look at it in depth. Though I will add that the fact that it's a surgeon writing it is no redeeming feature. Doctors can, but don't necessarily make good scientists. And over the years I've seen some doctors come out with some right clangers - surgeons being amongst the worst. Suggesting we should give them more credit because of a medical degree is similar to the logical fallacy presented in many arguments - the appeal to authority. As with pretty much all topics where I am able to offer an opinion, I will go and look at the other work related to the topic at hand that then individual has done and assess them based on that.

Look. These body hackers have found something that works for them. Using dribs and drabs of cherry picked studies and using them to back up their products - scientific, it is not. I'm not, in other words, throwing the baby out with the bath water. There might very well be something to the diets they propose - indeed, I would suggest that at the very least the actual diets they propose could very well deserve closer examination. The fact that they are referencing relevant science is to be applauded - the fact that they can't get some of the basic details right when they are using that science is being used to back up products, not so much. Read these body hackers blogs - take ideas from them and try them, see what works, what doesn't for you as an individual. It could be described as a process that takes inspiration from the scientific process (yay!), but without major work, it remains the experience of an individual (or small group of individuals) rather than solid science.

And yes researchers are beginning to look seriously at various diets and the consequences of different foods types on our health - I work with some of them and have have participated in at least one study looking at effects of given diets (as a subject). It's likely that our knowledge of nutrition and health is barely scratching the surface and a lot of what is currently considered common knowledge is at best woefully incomplete. My best guess at the moment given how diverse we are as a species, is that the answer is a damn site more complex than anyone who is selling something wants you to believe. Me, I'm eating a vaguely healthy diet and waiting for the Cochrane review.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The big dreams are hidden

There is a need for projects that require exceeding our current abilities. When we are pushed, we can achieve great things. A prime example I think, was the space race. What the Americans especially pushed themselves to do when confronted by the possibility of Russian dominance of space was quite simply, awe inspiring. It was expensive yes, but the benefits that flowed from it far surpassed the money that was put into it. The political will faltered and now NASA seems to remain, perpetually 20 years away from putting a man on Mars.

It's not that these projects don't exist any more. They do - I'm thinking here of the various plans currently being formed to bring asteroids into earth or moon orbit and mined. The SpaceX challenge got us privately owned space flight. And I'm not just talking about space exploration. There are groups that would see us use our knowledge and abilities to decrease human suffering. There are projects aimed at bringing sustainable and non-polluting electricity and refrigeration to large areas that currently don't have it. The thing to notice though is that they all tend to be privately led rather than public ventures.

I'm not entirely sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the plus side, thing are getting done. On the downside though, these things are not in the public eye. Our societies are not looking to the better worlds that we can build. In the debates about climate change the general response of governments has been to submit to the primary source of activity, unfortunately in this case, opposed to any activity at all. It's as if the governments of the world have opted to follow rather than lead.

And it's not that it's not possible financially, for governments to lead the way. The choice is one of the distribution of funds. As much as I would like humanity to be striving outwards into space, I think it applies just as much to other projects - reducing the effects of poverty, living sustainably or making lives longer and better.
When someone says, “We don’t have enough money for this space probe,” I’m saying, “No, it’s not that you don’t have enough money. It’s that the distribution of the money that your spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow. You remember in the ‘60’s and 70’s, you didn’t have to go more than week before there was an article in LIFE magazine about, “The Home of Tomorrow,” “The City of Tomorrow,” or the “Transportation of Tomorrow.” All that ended. After we stopped going to the moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming.
-Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on the defunding of NASA. 
The big projects are there, but because the governments are involved any more the public doesn't see them. Which means that we end up with the problems of everyday life as our focus, they become our life rather than problems we have to solve so as to be able to create a better world.

Thus ends my somewhat maudlin reflection for the day.