Friday, December 24, 2010

Failure to see the point.

I see this so often in the news, blogs and even in conversation amongst friends sometimes. Someone puts for an argument or a point of view and someone reponds to either a completely different or only partially related point that wasn't made. In this case, where a study finds that the use of alternative remedies is a danger to children primarily due to the abandonment of convential treatment, a professor of complmentary medicine (aside: Exactly how low have Exeter University sunk that they actually have a deparment to study woo) says that "alternative therapies can have side effects, especially in vulnerable groups like children".

Pity it's the BBC reporting on this, I find the quality of their science reporting to be sub-par. I shall have to go look for the actual report now, if I get time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So, I've noticed...

that when my work consists of someone saying "go away and research this for me", it's a lot easier to blog/write, than when work consists of saying "we have this, this and this to do". And it's not just a matter of time. I find that when one is undertaking research, the mind wanders more when you're trying to construct a narrative around what you've found. I'd go as far to say that it's beneficial for the final product, as if a certain amount of mental delinquency in necessary. On the other hand, when I have a set of structured tasks laid out in front of me, the delinquency still occurs, it's just flatter, in the sense that the compulsion to express an opinion is ... gone. It provides short breaks from the tasks, which probably help the brain concentrate a little but in general it feels like it contributes towards the final product less. As to why this is, I can't really say.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Other ways of knowing...

The whole science is not the only way of knowing gambit is something that has bugged me for ages. I've even had it pulled on me before, it seems to be related to the ye olde science doesn't know everything and it's all just a theory gambits that are often used in an attempt to knock science. I find it pleasing therefore to see that a few deconstruction of it have started appearing in the blogosphere.

The best one so far I found is by Russel Blackford at metamagician. The core of the argument is that it is a straw man. There are a variety of tools that people use. Specialized tasks require specialized tools. This is what scientists have, an assortment of methods that are used to figure out what is going in the world around us. Then again, it is also what historians have, a different set of tools, but a set of tools none the less, which are designed for figuring out something about the world.

So there is no problem when science readily admits that its not the only way of knowing things. Pretty much any scientist will admit this, it's only people who are trying to discredit science (usually when a study comes out that completely debunks whatever it is they are doing) who raise this objection. Science is one of the ways of knowing things which falls under the heading of rational discourse. Historians have valid ways of finding out things about history after all. The point that most who advance this argument miss though, is that Just because there is more than one way of knowing things, does not mean that all potential ways of knowing things are. Knowledge gained by revelation is not knowledge. There is nothing to back it up. Whereas the historian will be able to point to the structure of their body of knowledge, demonstrate how their view was arrived at and provide evidence. The can only say "God says so". Halfway between the two (or probably, mostly towards the divine revelation side of the equation) is homeopathy, which can only point to a completely implausible (i.e not rational) and discredited body of work to justify their supposed knowledge.

This definitely goes in the category of responses that I have to remember.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stoke, the new beer in town.

I was initially wondering how I was going to make this not sound like a press release. Now, I figure that should be easy, given that the only background info this beer that I can find is an "article" on the stuff website. A quick peruse of the first paragraphs tells me that particular article is going to be a waste of time. Which is pity, because the beer most certainly isn't. Or at least, the one that I have tried isn't. Ever noticed how reviewers tend to go on about Reinheitsgebot, as if anyone who actually cares about beer isn't painfully aware of them (admittedly, probably because reviewers and marketers tend to go on about them). Pretty much all decent brewers I imagine, are paying some degree of attention to them, it's not really a point of difference anymore. It's a baseline, but it's still possible to make a crap beer with them, the skill of the brewer and the actual recipe are more important.

And the McCashin family, who are brew Stoke, appear to know their stuff. As everyone will soon be well aware (due to reviewers and marketers going on about it), they are the ones who created Macs beer, before selling it to Lion Breweries were it went seriously downhill - even though it got a little better in recent years with the introduction of Brewjolauis and Hop Rocker. The weekend past, I had the opportunity of trying the Stoke Gold. Well worth it people. A dollar or two more expensive than Macs and worth every penny. A good solid body to the flavor. Which admittedly doesn't tell you much. This isn't a review though, it's a recommendation. As in, go and try some. Next payday I'll be popping down to the Kingsland Liquor Center to grab myself a six pack of the Stoke Amber.

I have to admit to becoming ever more satisfied with the state of beer in NZ. The big boys can put out a decent drop when they try i.e. Macs Hop Rocker - even though most of the rest of the Macs range is worth steering well clear of. More to the point, we're getting some decent smaller breweries that are putting out good beer that isn't to hard to find. The Tuatara brewery has been putting out some fine brews, particularly the IPA and the Helles Lager. I just hope they concentrate on promoting the fine beers they currently brew rather than continually bring new ones out. And if the other Stoke beers are as good as Gold, this coming summer should be a fine one.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

mmmmm bacon.....

I am beginning to suspect that it is significantly easier to write about things that annoy me. If I had to guess I'd say this would be because I care. Obviously, if I didn't care, I wouldn't be annoyed by them. There are however, things that I care about that I don't get particularly annoyed by. Again, guessing here, but I'm thinking that it's because no one is trashing those things at the moment. So I figured I should try putting something up once a week about things that I like. Where to start then? I figure I'll start with my 3 descriptors. One piece each week on each of them. One on a piece of science, one on some form of baking/cooking and one on some form of alcohol.

The first piece we have on rotation then is cooking. Or maybe it's more preserving. In particular, bacon. There's a chap called Nigel down in the Hawkes Bay somewhere. I go through phases of reading his blog curious kai, but I've just added it to my rss feeds so I'll be a little more regular in catching them. The method for making bacon works spectacularly. I changed it slightly when doing mine, unrolling a piece of rolled pork loin I got from the Westmere Butchery (pretty much Auckland's best butchery as far as I'm concerned). The couple of time's I've used the maple syrup recipe,
1/2 cup of salt
1/2 cup of maple syrup
1/2 cup of brown sugar
mix them all, rub them into the pork and let it sit for a week or so, turning it over every couple of days, taking it out of the resulting liquid, letting it sit for a day then smoking it with apple wood chips on the barbecue. turns out rather spectacular it does. Mine is a tad salty (but still scrummy) I think, but that'll be because I've only been using a kilo of meat where Nigel's pieces of pork belly look significantly larger than that.

I'll admit, it's not actually cheaper than buying bacon. It is however, a lot more fun. And given that it takes a while and doesn't involve yeast or or random bacteria, it might be a good candidate to accompany the whole day activity that making cheese becomes. The point being, find yourself a spare day and try it. Having planned at least a week in advance.

Good things.

 Life is ticking along nicely. School is finished. I've got a little bit of interesting work on. A couple of job prospects in the offing. Even though today is a tad overcast, summer is coming. I have to say, the mind is wandering. Mostly towards Moehau. Only a couple of weeks now and  I'll have my first trip down to Moehau for the season. Being November and it being a mountain stream, it will probably still be a tad cold for a dip. I'm not entirely sure that will stop us though.

After which of course, I get let loose on the coal range and end up sending everyone to sleep with too much food.

Anticipation builds.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another one to remember.

Thanks to Steven Novella at neurologica/SBM, though I have seen this one before somewhere. Another tool in the argument box I need to start keeping.

"You can't prove it's false -> absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

I have had this one used on me before. It's not actually try though. Or rather it's only true as a universal. As a local statement, it can be but is not necessarily true. For example, "There is an elephant in my house". I search my house looking for an elephant and find no evidence for one. At which point in time I can pretty conclusively say, there is no elephant in my house. In which case absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

If you want to be reeeeally picky, technically I might have a mental disorder that prevents me from seeing elephants in my house. In which case absence of evidence is still pretty good evidence of absence. It might not be proof of absence, but it's pretty good evidence. And I would probably still draw the conclusion that there are no elephants in my house.

From a limited viewpoint.

Had a pleasant long weekend, involving sitting on Mt Eden having fish and chips and cider with a few friends as the sun went down. Rather pleasant it was. At one point, the conversation trundled its way around to rising prices and following that path, onto taxes. As always when these things come up in conversation, I'm not particularly good at marshaling all my thoughts together on the spur of the moment. So I thought I'd give it a go here.

We are all painfully aware that prices are rising, while wages, not so much. One of the group is in the high income bracket, thus she gets taxed the most out of any of us. Her worry, was that new policies released, or at least talked about, by the Labour party were going to result in her paying higher taxes without gaining any material benefit. She did say that she would be quite happy to pay high taxes if she got something for it, such as free health care or education. None of us get that though, so she was a tad unhappy I think at the idea of paying more. If I was someone capable of thinking quickly, I would have like to have raised the following points.

1) We are already getting something for the taxes we pay. A baseline of health care. An educated youth (or at least partly depending on who you listen to). Roads. Local councils. Free health care, free education and the like exist. Examples were given of scandanavian countries that do this. Their taxes though, as best I can tell with a little digging are significantly higher, especially for high income earners. If you take the money that we currently pay for power, water, private health care and education and tacked that on to what we currently pay in taxes I imagine what is spent would be something similar.

2) Recently we had a GST rise. We also had a tax cut. For poor people, these two things essentially cancel each other out. For people in higher income brackets the amount of the tax cut is significantly higher than the the cost of the extra GST. Why should the upper income brackets pay more? Because they want basic services and they can afford it. Yes they might work longer and harder (though I doubt it, they just have better paying jobs, there is nothing inherent in a web designers job that makes that job more worthy than a janitorial position, if anything, it's the other way round) but if you assume that the society as a whole needs certain basic services and that the poor have to pay just as much as the high income earners then you are effectively starving an entire sector of the community. Which is basically saying that poverty is okay, as long as you are not in it.

Basically, it doesn't make sense for an individual to look at the tax they are paying and ask, what am i getting for this? The questions that need to be asked are:
  • what services do we as a society want to fund?
  • are we as a society paying enough to fund those services?
Then you get down to the nitty gritty questions of who pays what. The whole idea of those with more contributing more is that as a society we have the ideal that there are certain baselines under which we do not want the lowest rungs of our society to fall under. If you don't care how low some people fall, then that is a fundamental difference which makes this conversation impossible. If you share the assumption that there should be some baseline, then we need to discuss how society as a whole handles it. Who can contribute what and so forth. I don't think looking at it from the point of view of an individual taxpayer necessarily makes sense though. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Making shit up.

I really wish Keith Ng would write more often. I like his forthwright, easy to read musings on what passes for economics or at least economic spin in this country. He's usually quite good at pointing out how badly people are using statistics in the pursuit of supporting a pre-determined point of view. The idea that you can use statistics to prove anything is a load of bollocks. The notion that you can use statistics badly to support any idea you want has a lot more going for it.

In a similar vein, best post title I've seen this month: Bill English and metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology

Classes in statistics and logic forMr English methinks. And everyone who takes what he says at face value.

Making an argument.

There is a cafe that I attend regularly on Saturday mornings. slightly out of my way, but pretty much the best coffee in Auckland all these sad sad years since Brazil closed. I enjoy it there. The coffee is good. The food is good when I can afford it (not that it's expensive, it's more that I'm usually broke), the music is consistently all over the place and good and there's usually a few interesting characters at the bar.

A few weeks ago now, I was goaded into a conversation by one chap who I believe was playing devil's advocate via the "you can't prove there are no gods/unicorns/fairies" gambit. Easy enough to dismiss with a fairly standard reply (thank you Douglas Adams) that is sufficient for random Saturday morning discussions. Unfortunately, it brought out local conspiracy theorist/woo proponent into the fray. I don't recall how we got onto it, but soon enough we were talking about how he'd had an encounter with a psychic in the Coromandel who "knew things she couldn't possibly know". Don't they all. Anyway, long story short, I ended up trying to explain the logic of causation. i.e. just because he had had a "spiritual experience" doesn't mean that ghosts exists, just that he has had an experience of some sort. i.e A, B, does not imply that if A then B. It was an ... interesting morning, arguing with someone who will not consider that their view might be wrong.

All this comes to mind thanks to a post from Jennifer Rohn. She is a little more understanding than young Carl Zimmer who is currently despairing about the lack of scientific knowledge in the American population. Carl was alarmed by the fact that only 18% of the population could identify the definition of a molecule. And I think Jennifer was quite right in pointing out that this is part of a occupational vocabulary. What I find more alarming though is not that people can't remember definitions, it is that they can't follow through an argument. As in a proper logically constructed argument, not two people ranting at each other. When people can't see how a proposition cannot justify a conclusion. This is not, I think, a problem of science education. Or it is at a step removed. It is covered (badly) in first year classes in informal logic at university level. Even now though, a majority of our population do not go to university. I am beginning to think that all our science outreach programs to schools, should include a philosophical auxiliary class, on how one can reasonably structure an argument to defend a point of view. And maybe one on what science can actually know. Robert Nola would be the man to ask I think.

It doesn't solve the problem of trying to communicate the idea of constructing an argument to the general population though. I'd like to think it's not to late to reach them, given that large chunks of them will be running our societies for the next 40 or 50 years. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Drinking responbily.

Walking to work this morning, I walked past, as I almost always do, a billboard advertising, I think, bourbon. Which bourbon, I can't recall, but that's not important. Down in the bottom left hand corner is a little speech balloon attached to no one, asking us to drink responsibly. I've seen this about for a while. And I've seen quite a few, general degenerative comments about the drink responsibly campaign. The idea behind it is good. I do think however, that it is being gone about the wrong way.

It is generally held, that because it is the alcohol industry behind the drink responsibly tags that are adorning our alcohol advertising, that they don't really mean it because they want to sell as much alcohol as possible. This, I think, or a least hope, is not a particularly well thought out criticism of the people who run large alcohol companies. As much as I disagree with some of their products and marketing (only some mind, some of them are fantastic) I rather hope that the people running these companies aren't stupid. Yes, they've got a bucket load of money to throw at lobbying politician's, but lobbying will only take you so far if the entire population is against you. I am presuming that they will not be wanting a tightly regulated industry. Which makes sense. So efforts have to be made to keep the industry from being regulated. And for this, I imagine the best approach would be two pronged. First, be very nice to the politicians. Secondly, show the community that you're part of it, rather than just a company trying to squeeze as much money out of people as quickly as possible. I'm pretty sure, you make more money by keeping a reign on things and being in a lightly regulated market for 20 years than you do by abusing the market for a few years, striping it of every cent, fucking things up and then being in a tightly regulated market for the next 15. So because it's industry behind it, they don't really mean it, doesn't really stack up. I do however, think they are going about it the wrong way. The right way of course ...

Friday, October 8, 2010

The green wave

The Green Wave in Copenhagen from Copenhagenize on Vimeo.

This is pretty cool. I found this on Neuron Culture over at Wired Science. In Copenhagen they've set the traffic lights up on some of the bike routes so that if you wander along at a steady 20kph (not unreasonable) you get green lights all the way into the city. Which would make biking very attractive, I imagine for anyone living with 4 or 5 kilometers of the city center. If the number of people who drive and live that close to the city center in Auckland is any indication, that would take a fair chunk out of the car numbers heading in every day. Sadly, I don't think it would work in Auckland. To many hills. You'd have to figure out average speeds up hills and down hills and along flats and work that all into the lights, which I imagine would snarl things up pretty spectacularly in some places. Pity the only traffic engineer I know is in south america at the moment, I'd ask him for an opinion.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Breast Cancer

Apparently it's breast cancer awareness month again. Facebook profile pictures started turning pink along with the message that it was to raise awareness of breast cancer. Fair enough, nothing against that, it's visible (I noticed it) and it passes along the message.

Then comes the "I like it" campaign. As far as I can tell, no one knows who started it, I don't particularly care. Apparently it's meant to get women to post, on facebook, where they like to put their purse. the theory being that men being men will think about rude things which will then get them thinking about breasts and eventually, about breast cancer. Which is just ... dumb. Speaking as a web literate male, the first time I saw it, I got as far as the first step, thinking rude things. Second time I saw it, I went, aha, that's someone trying to be clever and start a meme of some sort. Fifth time I saw it, I went meh, whatever, it's not saying anything. A bit quicker maybe, but pretty much the same chain of reasoning that I went down with the "All your base are belong to us" meme years ago. That's cool, oh, it's someone trying to be cool, whatever.

If it's a meme for a meme's sake, yeah, there's a bit of humour, that can be nice. If you're trying to start a meme to get a message across and it has to be continually explained, through 2 or 3 more steps of reasoning, reasoning that there is pretty much no way anyone would arrive at without having explained, then it fails completely in what it set out to do.

You've just written a whole post about it some might argue, thus raising awareness. Look back, this post is about pointless badly constructed ways of getting your message across. Not about breast cancer. Which is only drawing attention away from the cause that the original message was created to draw attention to. Which is ... dumb

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Adaptation and Natural Selection.

A few weeks ago, a chap named George Williams died. He was, apparently a quite famous American biologist. In the 1960's and 70's he was a proponent of the idea that the gene rather than the organism is the unit of selection. A Dawkins predecessor and and anti-Gould.

It's not so much his views that I want to note today. It's the fact that I'd never heard of him. I've been studying biology with varying levels of intensity for a few years now. Admittedly, some of it has been quite specialized, focused on changes in protein structure as a result of changes in nucleotide sequence. The point is though, is that here is this chap, someone who apparently, a huge influence on the way we look at natural selection and I've never heard of him until he dies. I find that a little bit disturbing to say the least. Upon hearing about him, I decided to have a crack at reading his book Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought. And so far, I have to say that I am not unfamiliar with the ideas or the constraints he explicitly places on the language used to talk about evolution. As I see it then, I am aware of his ideas only because I am aware of the current people in the field who continue to expand upon his work. The volume of reading required these days means that is difficult, if not impossible to trace theories from their inception through to their current state and still be able to contribute to the field.

Which is perhaps, obvious to anyone trying to keep up with current research in their field, but also, I think, a little sad.

calm now.

Right. Now that I've had time to calm down, something a tad more reasoned about this Paul Henry fiasco.Then again, it wasn't what Henry himself said yesterday that made me so angry, it was the response from Andi Brotherston, TVNZ's PR person who suggested that I supported Henry's remarks on the basis of me being a New Zealander.

I've had a couple of discussions with people on both sides of the should he go/should he stay debate. They mostly boil down to he has overstepped some mark and thus should vs go firing him is curtailing his right to free speech. I tend to fall into the he should go camp, but I don't think the reasoning has been particularly well enunciated.

Henry has a right to free speech. I'm not sure where the lines are drawn, legally speaking, for hate speech, so I could be wrong, but I'm not sure he overstepped the mark there. Which would mean that legally, he would be allowed to say what he said. Where the should he stay argument falls down is that TVNZ is not required to give Henry a platform from which to speak. removing him from his position as host of a breakfast show, in no way limits him from continuing to say the sort of things he has been saying. thus, firing him does not curtail his right to free speech in any way though it drastically reduces the number of people who might listen. Freedom of speech does guarantee that you will be listened to.

Ellis, TVNZ's CEO finally gets (part of) his response right in this morning's papers. With freedom comes responsibility. With the free reign that TVNZ have given Henry, there comes a responsibility to operate within the ethos of the organization. In this case, it is a state owned organization and has to, at the least, attempt to not transgress the principle the state professes to endorse. In this case, I believe that Henry has crossed the line one to many times for TVNZ to continue backing him or writing his faux pas off as non-PC plain speaking. And thus he should go.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just slightly livid.

Paul Henry. Anyone outside of New Zealand will have no idea. Anyone inside New Zealand knows he's an odious little man, who hosts TVNZ's breakfast program, who can be quite offensive and is quick with a template apology. Still there's no law against being offensive and most of the time he can be dismissed.

Yesterday was a line crossed though. Asking our Prime Minister (who's response was pretty pathetic) if Sir Anand Satyanand was a "real" New Zealander on national TV. Offensive enough, and I think, due cause for TVNZ to let him go. Do they? No. I'm not sure which I find more offensive, Henry's implication that Sir Anand doesn't look like and is thus not a "real" New Zealander or TVNZ coming out and saying that this is what we all think but just don't say.

We know Henry is a dick. But for some PR hack (Andi Brotherston by name) at the state broadcaster to imply that I also agree with this pathetic little racist is just ... infuriating.

It's not often things in New Zealand's public sphere get me worked up. This is one of those times though.

This is not about free speech. There is nothing illegal in what Henry has done. No charges can or should be brought against him. Just because there it is not illegal though, does not mean that the state broadcaster (or anyone for that matter) should meekly accept it and continue to give the man a platform from which to spout. It is possible to disapprove of and refuse to endorse legal statements. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


Via Mind Hacks this morning, a link to an article in, of all places, the wall street journal. An article on ambivalence, which makes me wonder about a couple of things. The meta-question that first occurs to me is to wonder whether I like this because I agree with the idea that a "A certain degree of ambivalence is a sign of maturity" and would like to imagine that I possess both maturity and a certain degree of ambivalence. The answer to that, I think, is probably yes.

The discussion couches ambivalence in terms of being able to see multiple viewpoints and make decisions based on evidence rather than being ideologically driven. As opposed to the more common meaning of ambivalence, being the not caring one way or t'other.

Ambivalence vs ideology then. The next question that springs to mind is how well this trait is represented in various parts of the population. I'm guessing that amongst scientist, it would be relatively high, given that theoretically at least, we are meant to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong. Possibly amongst evangelical ministers or talkback radio listeners, ambivalence might be something that is rarely found. Could there be a change in ones ambivalence as someone gets older? Is there a tendency for older scientists to get stuck in their viewpoints or ministers to question their ideolgy? All interesting questions. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I came across an interesting post by a chap called Douglas Blane a few days ago. It's another post that focuses on communicating science to young people, focusing on the readability of bodies of text that are used in an attempt to communicate. Which is fair enough, this is indeed, something that need to have attention paid to it. What I feel is missing though is the same thing that is missing from most discussions about science communication. It's all aimed at the young. This is not to say that we shouldn't be focusing on the the young. If we can swing it that the next generation of artists, politicians, mechanics and journalists have a sound understanding of what science is, grand. There does, however, seem to be a dismissal (not just in Blane's post, across most of the science communication literature) of attempting to outreach to the current crop of artists, politicians, mechanics, journalists and the like. The suggestion that there is "no point talking to adults because their mind is already made up".

There is no point in talking to Sarah Palin or Christopher Monckton about climate change. Or indeed anything else. These mature adults have made their minds up long ago. The same can be said for many other adults, far less irrational, malign or deluded than this perverse pair. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010


There's an interesting article by Jenny Rohn in the guardian today about perceptions of scientists. It's odd, she talks about societies perceptions of scientists, how, for quite some time, its been accepted that the sterotype is white male boffin. I can't rightly say whether that is the perception or not, it certainly isn't mine. She offers, what I think is a pretty accurate description of scientists, i.e. a varied mix of people ranging from scruffy to trim, most of us pretty focused on work, not particularly out of the ordinary socially speaking. And there is a rough sketch of scientists as they have been appearing in movies for several years, distinctly boffin like.

The interesting bit it think, is that she suggests that the boffin stereotype is what scientists perceive as societies perception of us and that scientists themselves are worried by this. This is where I think she's wrong though. The topic of conversation amongst the scientists I know, is very rarely about how society perceives us as individuals. It is much more about how society perceives science (badly, in the sense of incorrect rather than good/bad) or more commonly, about how the media, be it movies of newspapers portray or represent the actual science itself (almost universally, appallingly).

The concern is not whether we're thought of as boffins or not, but rather how our work is presented and used. Which is as it should be. Though I have to say, I've always been rather fond of the word boffin. Boffin. 

Friday, September 24, 2010


bah. every time I try to write I start with a nice simple idea which I try to generalize a bit that ends up full of caveats and being incredibly general.

For example. I'm thinking about science communication. I try to start exploring the fact that there isn't, as far as I can see, much in the way of science communication aimed at the population in general. There's a bit, slowly increasing that is aimed at teenagers, which is good, but to the general population, there is bugger all.

Fine, I say to myself, I shall expand on that a little. Why should there be such communication I ask myself? Well, for one, we might get slightly fewer god awful stories in the media that leave huge bits of the story out or completely misrepresent the statistics. Which would be nice. Pretty soon though, I realize that while this is something that I think is important, others might not think so. So I rattle off into an exposition about why I should be pushing a view that I think it is important on others. And this pretty soon leads me miles away from what I think I was wanting to write in the first place. By this time of course, I can't quite remember what it was that I was wanting to write and i end up chucking it all in the bin.

At some point in time, I am going to learn how to figure out not to worry about worrying whether I have a right to push my views on others. It's a silly thing to contemplate, especially in a forum like this. I'm not forcing anyone to read this. This is nothing more than an layout out of my views on various matters. I think they're right. Or at least, can be justified. And I'm quite happy to point out the problems in my own thinking. One day, someone might read this and enlighten me as to solutions to these problems. Or not.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

getting the word out.

I am currently doing a bit of work web work for for LENscience, a science communication group that is part of the Liggins Institute. They're good at what they do (though the website needs updating (cue me), which is communicating science to schools, students and teachers alike. And I came across this this morning. Which is another admirable and successful attempt to engage with young people. There numerous endeavours to get scientists and teenagers connecting, which is grand. One of the sentiments that I wholeheartedly agree with is "the majority of today’s teenagers are not destined to become scientists, but they will all be people and citizens." A population base with a sound knowledge of how science works is, I believe, essential to a rational society.

Where then, are the organisations dedicated to reaching the population today? It's all geared towards teenagers. Which might, end up influencing some parents, but it's not really communication of the concepts or of what is happening in science these days. There's Café Scientifique, which might be working in other cities, but here in Auckland, it's something you have to search out. If you don't know it's there, there is nothing.

Randomly out socialising, when my proclivities become known, I get questions. Some of them a painful and dense (isn't it all just a theory?), so I know the interest is there. Maybe not from everyone, but from enough people that I feel ther eis a large gap in the communication of science to the general population. As David Dobbs said:
science has no importance or value until it enters the outside world. That’s where it takes on meaning and value. And that’s where its meaning and value must be explained.
And while I might have a few ideas to if not solve then at least, lessen the problem, I certainly don't have the funds. For now, I think I might just get a t-shirt made with "Scientist" printed on it and try and to sensible answer some of the questions that come my way.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I was about to write something that was rather self absorbed. I'll leave that for a private piece of writing sometime. A few days ago Jerry Coyne, wrote a piece on a question that he gets asked quite often.

I find it sad, that these are not the questions I get asked. The questions I get asked usually revolve around segments that people see on programs like 60 minutes, 20/20 or close up. They are usually about drugs that the government won't fund, sprays that are supposedly causing major health problems, people regrowing fingers or miracle cures that the evil pharmaceutical companies are trying to prevent people from finding out about.

And then one offers the opinion, that, perhaps, one shouldn't be relying on a 10 minute segment from shows that are based around trying to achieve ratings rather than educating people, there's that wonderful slide off into "scientists don't know everything" and "it's just a theory isn't it".

Which just makes me want to scream. I'm not the best at coming up with arguments on the fly. I've spent the past year or so trying to drill some common responses to some of the more common questions into my woeful memory, but I generally prefer to take my time, mull things over, make sure what I'm thinking has some sort of valid structure to it. Which is why I generally refuse to talk science when I'm out socially.

There are exceptions, good and bad. The good being when there are other scientists at the party. I'm fairly lucky with this, my social circle (outside of school) has, randomly, probably a higher percentage of scientists than one would expect to find elsewhere. One can usually be guaranteed that there will be a modicum of logic behind whatever position they advance.

The other side of the coin, is the believers in psychic woo, occasionally blindside me with conversations that start out innocuous and end up with me trying to point out very basic flaws in their thinking. I have to say though, I still have difficulty getting over my incredulity at individuals that in all other resepcts appear sane, who believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The finished cleaver.

Finally got to go through the tempering process and finish my first blade today. It's the fairly medieval looking cleaver. I deliberately left in a lot of the hammer marks and scaling, I thought it looked better. Now it just needs the wooden handle (which I'm hoping to get Dad to do) and a chopping block on which I can use it.

It's sufficiently heavy that if you let it drop from about 3 or four centimeters, it leaves a fairly large-ish dent in a chopping board.
That's as it should be though. As far as I can ascertain, a cleaver should rely on its weight rather than its blade to do the cutting. Cleavers in the western tradition at least.

The heat treating is an interesting process, as was noted today, one of those processes that makes you wonder how on earth someone thought it up. heat up, cool, heat slowly from the back of the blade, then cool again. Large amounts of fun though. Hanging out for when Jon or I can afford the belts for the linisher so that I can finish polishing off the blade and put that through the tempering process.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The science of cheese II

After heating and pasteurizing the milk, which is simply killing whatever is currently living in it, the first step in the cheese making process is to separate the curds which will make up the cheese, from the whey.

To understand what is going on here, we need to understand what is in milk, i.e. what is milk made up of? The important parts of milk, or rather, the parts of it that are of primary concern in making cheese, are water, fat and lactose. Lactose, we'll come to later. For now we need to concentrate on the water and the fat.

Water and fat don't mix. At the level of molecules, water is polar. Which is to say that the charge is spread unevenly over the molecule with one end tending to be positive and the other negative, due to the possible arrangement of atoms with respect to other and the relative strength of the atoms charges.
The end result is that water, being polar, can arrange itself in a comparatively orderly manner with other polar molecules such as water or sugar. That order is disturbed however by non-polar molecules such as fats, which have the charges of the constituent atoms, relatively well spread. The two types of molecule are called, respectively, hydrophilic and hydrophobic.

Yet milk is a mix of fat and water. How does this work? The fat molecules in milk are hidden from the water by Casein. Casein is a very common amphiphilic protein present in milk. And amphiphilic molecule has one end that is hydrophobic and one that is hydrophilic. One end like water, one doesn't.
These molecules naturally clump together into small structures called micelles, small roughly spherical bodies with their hydrophilic portions facing outwards and their hydrophobic portions facing inwards. These small bodies form an ideal place for hydrophobic fat molecules to hide from the water molecules. In addition, all hydrophilic parts of casein are all negatively charged, which keeps the micelles away from each other.

How are the curds separated from the whey then? Acidic solutions, with an excess of H+ donate that proton to the negatively charged part of the casein molecules. This allows the casein molecules to clump together. As more and more of the disrupted micelles clump together, they become visible. These visible clumps are the curds.

The voice of old New Zealand.

the last year or so, I've been reading more and more on the history of my country. I think I'm beginning to pick up Dad's reading habits, histories and biographies. I think it probably started with Richard Stowers Forest Rangers. Belich's The New Zealand War and King's History of New Zealand. I've even been lucky enough to pick up a couple of Hone Tuwhare books.

Every so often though, one comes across a name hasn't heard before and has to add him to the list. I already have Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame on my list, though I'm not sure which ones. I think I want to read one or two of their works, just because they are notable New Zealanders and thus I feel that I really should have, at least, a passing familiarity with their work.

Now, add to my list, A.R.D Fairburn. Getting his works in hard copy appears to be a little beyond my means at the moment, so I'll have to settle for an online version. Which one hopes will be sufficient.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The science of cheese

This is interesting me a bit lately. It started with the idea that when I'm making my mozzarella, I should be aiming to get the pH of the mixture down to 5.2. So, I'll start from the beginning.

What is pH? is a measure of acidity or baseness in chemistry. It is roughly equal to the negative log of the concentration of H30+. H30+, otherwise know as a hydronium ion, occurs naturally in water. Every body thinks water is just H20. And in one sense it is. As with most things in chemistry, there's a little more to it though. Water, is a mix of H2O, OH and H3O+. The last two of these exists in very small amounts, but they are there.
2 H2O is in equilibrium with OH + H3O+
Water molecules are continually bumping into each other, giving away and receiving protons (H+). H3O+ has an extra H+, making the molecule positive, so it tends to give away it's extra H as soon as it can, it becomes a proton donater, an acid. In plain old water, there is, on average, equal amounts of OH and H3O+, which means it all balance out and you get a neutral solution.

When something else is in the solution though, it can disturb the balance. If something occupies the OH molecule, there is nowhere that the H3O+ to get rid of it's extra it's proton. The solution now has a greater concentration of of H3O+ and thus becomes acidic.

All this is important, trust me. Acid has many roles play in the process of making cheese, the next post will show the first of it's roles: curdling the milk.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I think these first few posts are going to questions. Not big, deep and meaningful questions. Little questions, a lot of them food based at the moment. Like, "what happens, chemically, when I put salt on the curds during the cheese making process?" Or, "how does each step of the mixing process contribute to the final baked cake?"

I find more of these questions being asked in my head these days. And it brings home the fact that I don't have the means to answer all of the questions I want to ask. My knowledge of chemistry is sadly lacking. I have the basics, but not the means with to test any surmise that I might come up with. The writing, helps, but I have languished in my learning for so long, focuses only on one field, biology.

There is so much to learn. So little time. And I get tired and distracted so easily. Time that could spent going over basic maths or chemistry or reading important works is wasted with napping and watching amusing yet pointless television shows.


Ad nauseum...

I don't know how many times I've read this article. Not this particular one. This one in general. the one that says you have to write to be successful. The trouble with it is that I completely agree. I just don't. That's even what the two or three blogs that I've set up over the years have technically been for, so that I can practice writing. And then I don't.

I'll admit, there's a couple of things recently that have got me wanting to write a bit more. Cooking for geeks for one. The whole thinking about food scientifically, thinking about the reactions between ingredients, what happens when heat is applied or taken away. That sort of thing. I still don't though.

The writing that I have been doing of late, has been for study. Handwriting, in books. Primarily, I think, because the exams have to be handwritten and I need my hands to be able to cope with it. It is quite therapeutic, I must say. It's helped my retention significantly I think. And it makes one feel as if one were actually doing something. Maybe because I am.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Searching searching searching...

Two more possible PhD projects have turned up. Both at bioengineering. Both involve modeling calcium signaling in cardiac cells. I don't know much more than that about them, so I'm trying to get some time with the supervisors who are going to be running the projects.