Thursday, March 31, 2011

Primordial Soup - gotta love it.

I am continually surprised by people not being aware of the primordial soup experiment. Way back in 1953 Stanley Miller bunged a whole heap of inorganic compounds and what not that were thought to be similar to the composition of pre-biotic earth together and let them stew. And out of it (after a while) came some amino acids and some other organic compounds - things that life are built from. One of his students has just re-run an analysis on the left over soup and revealed, with todays more sensitive equipment, a much bigger variety of organic compounds than was previously detected. It was a cool enough experiment when it was first done. Even cooler now.

As an aside, another thing that surprises me - people asking biologists to explain how life began. Life began in a pre-biotic environment i.e. somewhere where there was no life. Biologists study life, thus, I would think, making them the wrong people to ask. Seriously, if you want to know about how life began (and there are some very convincing models of how it was possible) you should be asking chemists, physicists and mathematicians (information theory and statistical ones).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The price of food.

As much as I've been put out by the increases in food prices over the past few years, I'm not particularly surprised. Feeding the growing population of the globe doesn't appear to something that's on the mind or even in the general consciousness of a lot of people I know. Fair enough that most people aren't thinking about on a day to day basis, the world currently has enough food, though not as much as some people think we do. I do think more people should be aware that it's going to be an ever increasing problem over the next forty years or so.

Nobel Intent has a nice review of the panel from the UK's Government Office of Science: Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability. It covered a few basic facts that I'm sure people are aware of in a peripheral sort of way, but don't seem to connect with things that are actually happening in their lives. Like the rising population. We're currently at roughly 7 billion people. Sometime round 2050 we are going to hit 9 billion. The amount of food that we produce is going to have to increase by 40-50% to be able to cope with that. And it's not all a matter of distribution. There are a variety of factors that interplay here. Yes, we've been able to increase food production over the last 40 years or so, but large amounts of that has been due to the use of methods that aren't necessarily sustainable. We can't really keep on pumping on more fertilizers and expect further increases in food supply. There have to be technological changes just to be able to produce sufficient quantities. There will have to be political changes to even out the distribution so that we don't get mass-famine. Global warming will have to be tackled, if we don't know roughly what the climate is going throw at farmers, production get even more difficult. Population control is going to have to be implemented somehow so that we don't go whooshing on past 9 billion and head on up to 10 or 11.

It's going to be a tricky next 50 years or so. Especially if people continue to not make the connection between what's happening globally and what's happening in their supermarket.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I know I shouldn't be reading the tabloids but....

I can see why people read Garth George columns. I think they are sick and depraved, but I can see why they read them. Jim Hopkins on the other hand, tends to waffle saying pretty much nothing for half a page and then it finishes. Writing for the sake of writing? Possibly when the the writing is a piece of art, yes, but he's usually just waffle. Today's column is a case in point. He takes the better part of half a page (broadsheet - though god knows why, the herald really should be printed in tabloid format) to say that people believe things because they want to rather than because they are true and that it's better safe than sorry. i.e. if someone says something bad is going to happen, even if there is no cause to believe them, we should still heed the warning because it might turn out to be true. <facepalm>

No. Just ... No. I've got a few friends who are probably getting sick of me saying this by now. By that line of thinking, the people who left Christchurch because of Ken Rings predictions should just leave permanently and go and live on a plateau in the middle of the America or Asia. Earthquakes happen all the time. Ken Ring's predictions are no better than chance. Which means that there is just as much cause to disrupt lives and leave Christchurch tomorrow at 6:59 a.m. or any other date and time you want to pick, as there was for whenever it was that he made his prediction. Thus - just leave.

And yet we are continually confronted with columnists in our media who sit there and say "obviously it's silly, but what if?" It's usually followed by a little bit of hand-waving about who to believe and how to find stuff out. Which they obviously haven't done. 5 minutes on google should be enough to show anyone vaguely competent with a computer that all the people who have study earth sciences for a living, most of them for years think Rings predictions are crap and offer numerous debunkings of his methods. Not all of these are in overly technical language either, complaining that they are to hard to understand is evidence of nothing but laziness on the part of the reader - they can't be bothered finding out what people who spend their whole lives research the topic at hand think and thus are happy to give credence to any theory that can throw a few buzz words around and not sound like a complete lunatic.

It would be nice, I think. To have a few more columnists who actually put a bit of time and thought into their opinion pieces. I don't often agree with his interpretation but at least John Armstrong, pays attention to his subject matter, i.e. politics, similarly with Brian Fallow and economics. Brian Rudman, does his homework, why do most of the other commentators in the herald get to spill random bilge all over the place?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The Skeptic in the Room

I found this thanks to Michael Edmonds at Molecular Matters.
He seems to find it funny. It just doesn't quite do it for me though.
More and more, as my ability to bite my tongue slips from me, I find
that, apparently, I am the one coming off like an arrogant jerk. As far
as I can tell, when woo rears it's ugly head, and I either put forth an
argument or ask for justification, I get regarded as close-minded and
intolerant. And the longer it goes on, the more I ask for some logically
coherent justification of my friends belief's, the more I am judged as

I find there's a horrible double standard sometimes
to. Those putting forward the woo feel comfortable in judging me as
dismissive of other viewpoints, without conceding the possibility that
their own viewpoints might be wrong. <Sigh>. Depressing sometimes.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Really? You'd have thought that someone who's a professor of law at a fairly decent university would be capable of a fair amount more subtlety of thought than that which is apparent in this opinion piece. The idea that people sacrificing themselves is in any way an indication of human rights being nonsensical is ... absurd. The Fukushima samurai as they are being called are not, as best as I can tell, being forced to work in unsafe conditions. They are volunteers. They are doing something incredibly brave, something most people would completely understand if they opted out. If, in fact, they were civilians being forced to work there, then yes, their human rights would be being abrogated and there would be ramifications, someone would have to be held responsible for what would definitely be a crime.

To state that those who sacrifice themselves for others demonstrate the pointlessness of human rights because each individual has a right to life to disengenuous at best. The same argument could be used to show that the existence of the armed forces of any country demonstrates the futility of human rights. When someone signs up to the armed forces there is an understanding that their life may be put on the line if necessary, if in the judgment of their superiors it is worth it, to preserve society. This same level of dedication is not asked of civilians, though it does not prevent civilian from offering it. The question of rights doesn't even enter into this.  For Mirko Bagaric, a
professor of law at Monash to get it this so wrong? Appalling.