Friday, April 29, 2011


It's easy to get jealous of the physicists sometimes.  Jorge Cham talking with and animating  physicists Daniel Whiteson and Jonathan Feng. Well worth a watch.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Battlefields of a nation.

Then there is this. It's an old post, from 2006 by a professor of Maori Studies at Victoria which I found via Maui St. I like this post because it's one of those ones that make you stop and re-examine something that you take for granted. In this case, the battlefield that birthed our nation, Gallipoli. It's something that we've been told time and time again. Dr Keenan however, makes the case that if we became a nation on battlefields, then they were here, mostly, but not solely in the Waikato. It's a view that I have to say, I have quite a bit of sympathy for after reading Belich's New Zealand Wars and King's History of New Zealand (both excellent books well worth reading btw).

Wine and marketing.

I have to say, I found it hard to believe that anyone found this to be news. That the people assessment of quality is bound up in not just how a piece of wine or food tastes, but in how much it costs. It's why you can get oohs and aaahs when you tell some people that you buy your flour for your pasta at Sabatos (good, posh, expensive food shop) and you get an insincere "oh, that's nice" when you tell them you got the same flour at the bulk food store around the corner for about a 3rd of the price. With wine at least, the other side of the coin is that what the experts say is a good wine is not what the punter is going to think is good. Experts tend to have access to the rare and expensive wines, to which their palates become accustomed. The average punter though, has a palate accustomed to the wines that they can afford, give us something rare and unusual and we're just as likely to go ick as we are to exclaim as to it's magnificence. Which puts a bit of a kibosh on the whole good wine/bad wine thing. Once you get over a certain threshold of quality, it's not good or bad, it's dependant on what the individual is accustomed to and likes. Price tends to become an indicator of who can afford what rather than an indicator of quality.  The same, I imagine, goes for food.

Gah! To many tabs open. Thus, monkeys.

And they're mostly cool things that I've found over the past week or so that I want to write at least a little bit about. First up then, monkeys. We all know that monkeys are, by definition, cool. There's a couple of people at McGill University in Canada though that have found analogs of the various patterns of human alcohol use amongst Vervet monkeys. There are the alcoholics (who, amongst the monkeys at least, drink themselves to death quite quickly), there's the heavy steady drinkers, the moderate drinkers and the teetotallers. I can't find the links atm, but there's studies that have shown that there is a genetic factor in alcoholism, but the 3 regions in the human genome that are relevant have quite a few genes in them, making it difficult to isolate the set of genes that influence ones predisposition towards alcohol. Given that we've got something like 80% genetic similarity with vervet monkeys, one can only hope that the human regions are conserved in the vervet genome. If it is, we'll have a model to study the regions in and be able to find out what role our genes do have in alcohol consumption.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

via the book of face.

Fortunately, not something that I have to use very often. Goes equally well for sexisim. Now I'm wondering how I can turn it to my own ends with arguments against vaccines or global warming or arguments for homeopathy. -"that thing you just said?, yeah, the one about water having memory? that's stupid". Doesn't quite work as well when I play the conversation in my head.

Yet more leaks.

Wikileaks has come out with another stunner crop of leaks. There's a good round up via the Guardian (and what does the herald world section lead with at the moment? Syria-fair enough, and a royal wedding story. And they wonder why people think they're crap). I've had a look at some of them, way to much to go through myself, I'll leave that for others. What I've read so far though. The depravity of it is insane. It's bad enough that this sort of thing was going on. Closer to home, it's worrying are hints that several of our politicians and military have knowingly lied to the NZ public about the involvement of the NZ SAS in the handing over of prisoners for torture. I imagine others in the NZ blogosphere will be digging as we speak. I sincerely hope that if evidence is found, that NZ is not so apathetic as to let these things lie. Goff, Key and Mapp are names I've heard. If they have been knowingly lying about this sort of thing, at the very least they will deserve to be hounded from office.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Privledged ideas are a bad thing.

Freedom of speech, is not what a lot of people appear to think it is. The bloggers at Skepchick  often posts on the anti/vaccination kerfluffle. Recently they started a petition to attempt to get a CBS to remove an advertisement playing on a large video screen in Times Square. One of their commenter's suggested that by opposing the anti vaccinationist's PR, that they were proposing that the AV's freedom of speech should be curtailed. As best I can tell, it appears that some people either they haven't really thought about what they are demanding or they believe that freedom of speech privileges whatever they want to say over other ideas in the marketplace.

It should be noted that not all speech is protected. Good luck yelling fire in a movie theatre when there isn't one and then try and find a court that won't convict you of something. By the same token, if the information you are distributing is both provably wrong and dangerous, a case can be made for it to be removed for public safety reasons. Invoking freedom of speech does not mean that your opponents are not allowed to point out the flaws in your argument. Your opponents also have the right of free speech. And your ability to speak freely neither guarantees you to the right to an audience nor does it mean that what you say is not open to being critiqued. Last year, Paul Henry got kicked off NZ breakfast television, essentially for being racist. People claimed that his freedom of speech was being impinged. It wasn't. No one stopped him from saying anything. All that happened was he was no longer provided with an audience. If that is censorship, then TVNZ is censoring any cab driver who thinks people should hear his opinion by not giving them a nationwide platform from which to spout them.

Similarly, I often read criticisms of stridency and aggression leveled against people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They are criticized when they attack the positions of the faithful, of specific religions and religion in general. I have not yet seen however, a satisfactory justification for the ideas of religion to be exempt from critical analysis, indeed, I've seen at least one good justification as to why they shouldn't be exempted. In this case, the issue is not freedom of speech but the privileging of certain ideas in the public sphere. Some ideas may be sacred to certain groups of people, but if they are put into the public sphere, they are fair game. It's the only way we as a race can advance, if we open every idea about what we are and what we think to scrutiny. As Richard Feynman (the Dude of Science) said:
Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. - Richard Feynman.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nothing twisted in upon nothing.

The headline of this article: "The science of why we don't believe science", immediately caught my eye when I saw it a few days ago. It's taken me a few days to get around to reading it though. It started to make a lot more sense when on page 3, I figured out who the author was. Chris Mooney. Up until that point, I'd been scanning through looking for the new insight this was going to be reporting. Something new and interesting, related to something that worries me considerably sometimes, namely the public comprehension of science. Then I figured out the author was Mooney. For those that don't know, Mooney is a battler in the whole religion/atheist battle that rolls around certain parts of the blogosphere. He's an atheist who continually critiques what people like Harris, Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens and PZ are doing, his theory being that they are all to confrontational, that what they are doing is hurting atheism and that when someone tells you about their magic sky fairy, you shouldn't call them up on it, you should smile and "be nice". This despite the fairly significant upswing of people in the US and the UK identifying as atheist. This, despite the huge popular success of the books that the 4 horsemen have written over the past decade. Lots of people buy their books. Not many people buy Mooney's books.

So here is an article about people not believing in science. Or at least being unwilling to change their beliefs in the face of the evidence. There is something to this, but nothing new is presented in the article. He links to one social science paper which I haven't had time to go through so I don't know how well it supports his point. Near the end of page four, we get "All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in
some situations. The question then becomes: What can be done to
counteract human nature itself?"
Funnily enough, it boils down to : "be nice". There may (or may not) be something to this approach he's advocating when it comes to vacine or global warming denialists. I've found that those who are convinced in these things are generally beyond convincing otherwise, no matter how nice you are. I would have thought a better approach would be to present your arguments to those who are not yet entrenched, those who are undecided and sod those who refuse to accept the possibility that they are wrong. Or perhaps I'm just being belligerent today.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Practical hand signals.

I have been known to gesticulate wildly occasionally whilst trying to get a point across. I am now wondering whether I should formalize my gesticulations.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A fine distinction.

I'm trying not to be to picky here, seriously, I'm trying. Given the NZ Herald's penchant for being almost complete distortion of science stories, today's front page story isn't too bad. Which is not to say that it couldn't have quite easily been better. Technically, I suppose they have it right when they say there is a change in the DNA. The way they've written it though makes it sounds as if whole swathes of it are being re-written. Which it isn't. What they are reporting on is an epi-genetic change. See, DNA doesn't just operate all by itself. The presence or lack of various proteins can influence which parts of the DNA get used at any particular time. Or markers can added on to make various sections of the DNA more accessible (acetylation) or harder for the machinery of the cell to access (methylation). They are control mechanisms that operate on the DNA - thus, epi, from the Greek, meaning on or above. If the changes that the study has found are in the methylation or acetylation of the DNA then yes, I suppose you can get away with saying that's it's a change in the DNA. Given that most people are sufficiently familiar with the idea of DNA though, I think that it would have been easy enough for the article to have made the distinction in about a paragraph.  It's not a completely horrible article, it's just lazy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

It's monday!

Which means the National hasn't done anything to piss me off and Labour hasn't done anything to make me horribly depressed yet. So, I get to rattle on about some cool biology. Though I'm not entirely sure whether this is classed as physics or biology. Every so often, you'll see some actual reporting in the tabloids when we get an outbreak of MRSA at a hospital. Or as they prefer to call it "superbugs". MRSA is short for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. S. aureus is a nasty bug which can cause anything from acne through to pneumonia, meningitis or toxic shock syndrome.

For years, it was easy to fight of with penicillin. The cell walls of bacteria are made up of lipids. Lipids, being molecules with hydrophobic tails form a single membrane by creating an two interlocking layers of themselves, which hides the tails on the inside. Penicillin binds to a protein in the bacteria which assembles this interlocking layer. And when a bacteria can't construct/fix it's walls it does. The introduction, overuse and improper use of penicillin led to a bit of an arms race, with some bacteria producing enzymes which cut the piece of penicillin that binds to the bacterial protein, letting it continue working. Various other anti-biotics have been made over the years, targeting various parts of the bacteria but eventually, there is usually a strain of bacteria that finds it's way around the mechanisms. MRSA is a strain of S. aureus that has found it's way around almost everything we've been able to throw at it.

Rather than targeting the internal workings of cells, the next plan of attack has been to used charged peptides that directly attack and cut the membrane leading to bacterial doom. There are problems with this approach, expense for one, specificity for another (making sure the charged peptides hit only bad bacteria, not other cells). Last week, Ars Technica brought me news of a paper in Nature Chemistry by Nederburg et al. They have made some biodegradable nanoparticle thing-a-ma-bobs which happily enter the body and target gram positive bacteria, including MRSA and some nasty fungi as well. The particles degrade into alcohol and CO2 leaving the red blood cells and the like alone. In mice at least. As always, there's probably a while to go before any testing in humans, but still.

I leave you all to ponder exactly how cool this is. Hint: If you don't include the word very, you're wrong.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Politics: stop. think. then engage.

Via the book of face, I came across a new group on the New Zealand political spectrum today. They're called the no confidence party. Which, given the lacklustre quality of our politicians at the moment, at first sounds like a grand idea. There's a few problems though. Going through their statements of intent. The first point is fine. If people want to waste their vote by voting no confidence that's their business, I've got no problem with that. And given that our political landscape is dominated by a bunch of ideologues (seriously, who else would use urgency to help a broken city and use it to put copyright legislation through, it's offensive) who haven't quite figured out this whole "internet thing" yet and a bunch of idiots who couldn't oppose a wet paper bag without imploding on them selves, I can see the attraction.

The problems start in their 3rd statement of intent though.  "if an MP fails to represent their constituent, the No Confidence Partywill act as the constituent's representative" If an MP fails to represent their constituent, the constituent should be taking it up with the MP. And if that fails, with the press. To have a 3rd party come in and attempt to mediate something like this is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the citizen. And I'm not comfortable with that. Still, it's not a fatal problem.

The 4th and 5th statements are problematic though.
4. Any bill before parliament that does not have the support of the
people will not have the support of this party. For example, the 86% of
people who disagreed with the anti-smacking bill and the majority of
people who disagreed with the lifting of the GE moratorium will have
their voice correctly represented.

5. Any petitions, commissions
and enquiries previously ignored by government will be re-presented to
the people upon request and reactivated in order that remedies may be
provided for the people to benefit.
A couple of things. If you are advancing the idea that no bill should be passed into law without the support of majority of the voting public, then you are forgetting large chunks of history and advocating a method of governance that makes the oppression of minorities very easy. If government worked like this, then women wouldn't have got the vote until probably the 1960's or 70's. It would probably still be legal to discriminate on the basis of race and sexual orientation. Governments of the day put these through without the support of the majority of the population. I would hazard a guess that not being able legally to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation has made life a lot easier for a lot of gay people (not perfect, better) and has played a significant role in normalizing the acceptance of homosexuality. The point being, that sometimes you want governments to take the lead. Which is why it's important to be part of the process - to be able to push the government to take the lead in the direction that you want it to go in. There is a hint here in reference to the anti-smacking bill that referenda should be binding. Which is a bad idea. Look at how badly some of our recent referenda have been worded. Then look at the mess California is in with binding referenda that have forced the state to provide more and more services while specifically prohibiting the raising of taxes to fund those services.
Secondly. the idea that petitions, commissions and enquiries should be binding on the government, i.e. that the government should be held to account for not enacting the recommendations is dangerous.  These things are tools. A petition is a method of making your representatives aware that there is a significant constituency that is concerned about an issue. The representatives then have to choose where and how to weigh that in the decision making process, there are other factors involved, it should not be binding. A commission is a fact finding mission. Get a group of people to go away and investigate something, comeback with ideas which are then weighed as part of the decision making process. An enquiry is a fact finding mission after the fact. Send someone to go and get the facts, comeback and decide what to do. Long story short - the politicians are the ones who should be weighing up a variety of factors and making decisions, that's their job.

And finally, anyone who refers to the repeal of section 59 as the anti-smacking bill immediately get categorized as someone who is happy sailing along with whatever line the media is trying to frighten people with rather than someone who has actually thought about what they are doing. The repeal of section 59 removed from parents the defence of "discipline" when they have effectively abused their children. Calling it the anti-smacking bill was the media scare line to try and provoke outrage. Anyone using a badly worded referendum that essentially asked the government to do what it was already doing and then getting shirty about the government not changing anything obviously hasn't thought enough about what they are doing. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More cheese.

Ages ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the processes involved in the formation of cheese. Which was fun. The next step, I think, should involve traversing the life of cheese from creation to storage and hence to cooking. Alton Brown, the host from Iron Chef America has a rather spectacular we show called Good Eats. It's pretty much the only American cooking show (apart from Iron Chef America) that I care to watch. Way back in series 2 he has just the program I've been looking for, creation, storage ... fondue <grin>

The science of chocolate.

Not really though. I had been recommended a video on the science of chocolate and I though oo, that'll be fun, I'll write about that. I watched it. It was vaguely informative and generally annoying. I think it was the narrator.

So instead, you get a link to something much more interesting. Via ArsTechnica there is a report regarding a study which is suggesting that THC doesn't just act on cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors are involved in the response to pain, which is one of the reasons that cannabis is good as a painkiller. They all help with the psychoactive effects.  There's another receptor that is triggered by doses of glycine and if you have mice that don't have the cannabinoid receptors there is still a pain response mediated, they think, through a glycine receptor on neurons. If you up the THC levels, you also get more of the glycine receptors being activated. They then went and had a look at the structure of the glycine receptor and the structure of THC, finding a bit on the surface of the glycine receptor that THC can interact with. So they modified a bunch og THC molecules to see what would happen. One of them still caused the glycine response, but stopped it working with the cannabinoid receptor. So potentially (there's still a lot of work to be done, all this was done in mice) we have a modified THC molecule which still acts as a painkiller but doesn't get you high. Not so good for potheads, possibly brilliant for people in pain.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

High intensity farming done right.

Those people who have to listen to me have an occasional rant in person should be familiar with my preoccupation with the planets food security situation over the next 40-50 years. Sometime around 2050 we should be hitting 9 billion or so, which means we have to increase our food production by about 50%. Which is huge. Especially since, as far as I can tell, we've pretty much reached the peak of what we can do with pumping fertilizer  and current pest control methods. I'm pretty sure that if this problem gets solved, it's going to have to be a multi-part solution. Some form of population control so that we don't continue growing, I think genetic engineering will be a tool that we should be using to make farming more sustainable - less fertilizer, less pesticide/herbicides. Then there is this. It's something worth looking at at least. Indoor intensive growth, low footprint, no pesticides, high yield, efficient use of water. My primary question is whether it's sustainable, i.e where are they getting the soil/nutrients from? And how expensive is it? It's not much use (at the moment) if it doubles the price of vegetables, though with decreased transport costs, I don't think it would.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

which to colonize first?

Cool visual from the astronomers. The only one not in a row is our sun with the little black dot being Jupiter for scale. The others are all the exo-planets that have been found with their corresponding suns.

More cool stuff.

I think I've mentioned somewhere before that I don't think biologists are neccesarily the people to ask about the origin of life. Primarily due to the fact the biologists study life and life originated in an environment where there was no life. For that sort of thing you want chemists, mathematicians and information theory people. There are of course other problems that occur after life began. Life as we know has DNA that is transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins, some of which are then needed to help DNA be transcribed into RNA. How did that clever little loop start.

There's a scientist in Germany who goes by the name of Aniela Wochner. Her group have shown that it's possible to have RNA create RNA. We've known about this for a while but it's generally been complex RNA that has been capable of producing simple RNA. This time it's an RNA molecule that is capable of producing complex RNA molecules. Which is very cool. It doesn't show that this is how self replicating life started. It does show that it was possible that it started from a bunch of nucleic acids getting together for a bit of a party though. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

One for the road.

My mother, bless her little cotton socks, is convinced that I'm an alcoholic, that alcohol is evil and destroys lives. It makes for interesting conversations sometimes. It's something that would probably make me pay a lot more attention to the research done on the effects of alcohol - at both a societal and individual level - even if I wasn't already quite interested in the production of and the effects of consumption.
My current line of thought, given New Zealand's somewhat unhealthy relationship with alcohol is that it should be expensive. Price controls are crude tool that affects lower socioeconomic groups more than the higher ones. Given that most of the population is not rolling in money though, it seems like it could be reasonably effective. The best course of action of course, would be to change the country's attitude to alcohol, but I don't quite see how we go about it.

Anyway. In the spirit of giving me something to think about, a bunch of chaps and chapettes from Helsinki crunched some numbers after the country cut an average of 33% off the taxes on various alcohols when next door neighbor Estonia joined the EU. They came up with this. They collected cause of death data from Statistics Finland and broke it down by age group. They then looked at alcohol related deaths - deaths either directly caused by alcohol such as alcohol poisoning or alcohol attributable disease like cirrhosis of the liver or deaths that had alcohol as an as a related factor such as accidents or suicide. They corrected their  data for seasonal variations in the death rate and then looked at mortality in the years before and after the price cuts. They're up front about the problems inherent in using alcohol sales as a measure of consumption - the fact that it doesn't take into account binge vs normal drinking. Though given the Finns ability to figure out who died from alcohol poisoning, I imagine the data is somewhere for the amount of alcohol consumed, combined that with hospital admissions for overdoses and the like, factors like that could be dealt with. At this stage though, I think sales is a sufficiently accurate metric.

So what did they find? There are a few age groups (males 40-49, male and female 50-69) where the price reduction resulted in an increase in alcohol related mortality. There was essentially no change in the younger groups and a decrease in alcohol related mortality for women 40-49 and people over 70 in general. It's intriguing, neither the increases or decreases were huge. It doesn't pretend to look at other effects of alcohol on society. In terms of alcohol's ability to kill however, it's interesting. It will be interesting to see what the long term trends tend to be in Finland - especially if they can teases out with a little more detail the causes of the decrease in mortality rates in the older generations. If we're lucky it could help us understand what it is that alcohol does that is good for us. Like a lot of things, it's not good or evil, it's how we use it.

Herttua, K., Makela, P., & Martikainen, P. (2009). An evaluation of the impact of a large reduction in alcohol prices on alcohol-related and all-cause mortality: time series analysis of a population-based natural experiment International Journal of Epidemiology, 40 (2), 441-454 DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyp336

High energy particle physicist - lucky bastards.

Lots of interesting things popped up in my rss feeds today, so a veritable onslaught of things to write about/blog posts to follow. Which probably means about 3.

Everybody has heard of the LHC. Fewer, and I hope most, will also have heard of the tevatron. The tevatron is the LHC's older and smaller sibling. They've been looking for the Higgs boson for a while now, though they haven't found it. As I understand it (high energy particle physics isn't really my forte), because the tevatron is smaller and thus operates at significantly lower energies, each collision is less likely to produce a Higgs boson and thus, significantly longer for a statistically significant number of them to accumulate.

Anyway. They still haven't found the Higgs boson. They have found something they didn't expect. It's a provisional result, as yet unpublished and in the process of peer review. I am rather looking forward to publication if it passes review,  it'll be a fox in the chicken house for the physicists. Lucky bastards - having something they didn't expect to figure out and new theories/models to generate. With the tevatron going (though sadly not for much longer) and the LHC just ramping up, they are going to be drowning in data - and hopefully new discoveries for some time to come.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I would hope that pretty much everyone I know has heard young Mr Minchin profer forth this tale of an evening in a North London apartment. He's just released an animation to go with it. No biggy if you've heard it before, a nice introduction if you haven't.
I don't think I would be trying quite so hard to hold my tongue so often if I had his way with words.  

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Please take some time to think about what you just said.

I wasn't going to write anything serious today. Then ...

I've got a friend, lets call him Richard, primarily because that's his name. Most of his his politics fall on the right side of sensible, by which I mean he's obviously thought about it all and is capable of backing his random statements up. He made a comment on the book of face yesterday about the hobby horse of the day, the tupperwaka.  Two things here,  1)Whoever came up with tupperwaka - nicely done. And 2)don't worry this is not another rant about the tupperwaka and the general lack of planning that we are prone to when spending large amounts of money. 

Anyway. Further down the exchange, someone he knows came up with a gem when talking about taxes:
If I stick a gun under your nose and say "Give me
your cash", it would obviously be theft. If the govt does it, they are
doing it to provide "communal se...rvices".
I can't do it under the pretext of providing a service. That would be
coercion. But the govt can. There is no moral difference.
<facepalm>. Seriously? I can only imagine that this line of thinking comes about from a them vs. us type mindset when thinking about the government. There is a huge difference. The government is not a separate group of people outside of society ruling over us. If it was, we'd have a problem. The government is our means of governing ourselves as a society. Being a member of society is not just a matter of an individual having rights. Everyone who wants to be considered part of society needs to acknowledge that
there are also responsibilities involved. No, we weren't given the option of joining or not joining when we were born. When we become adults though, we have the option of leaving and finding another society more to our liking.
The government, in taking taxes, are acting as our agents. In redistributing those funds, they are acting as our agents. If someone doesn't like the way things are happening, they have the opportunity to convince others and if a sufficient number of them agree, things change. The fact that you can't convince a sufficient number of people that we shouldn't be paying taxes does not make it theft. It means that society does not at this point in time believe that is the right course of action. There are two legitimate courses of action here. 1) shut the hell up. 2) try and change things - lobby, run for parliament, civil disobedience, whatever. To label tax as theft though demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the underpinnings of a working society and it pains me. Not as much as having to listen to people talk aliens visiting ancient nomad desert cultures thousands of years ago like in the cafe this morning, but it pains me nonetheless.
The other gem this chap produced was the view that the current government hasn't really done any damage to the R&D environment in NZ, but I'll save that for sometime next week when I can go find a few sources to back me up.

The important questions in life.

It's Saturday, time for something a tad more light hearted than usual.

Raphael. Definitely Raphael.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The sad distortion of original sources.

I'd like to link a few things here. Yesterday, the Herald, bless it's little tabloid heart, printed an article stating that scientists had confirmed a link between living close to motorways and pre-term births. As with any science reporting in the herald, I took it with a shipping container of salt and moved on. It popped up again in my reading today on where Jim McVeigh pointed out the various problems with the supposed finding in the article. Even better, these were problems that the authors themselves had identified - you tend to get more pre-term births in lower socio-economic groups and you tend to get more people from lower socio-economic groups living next to motorways.

Even at this I probably would have usually hrmmed in a disapproving tone and moved on. A week or so ago though, I read a Ben Goldacre at Bad Science, in one of his usual superbly written columns, opined that it would be quite good if we could get the newspapers to link to the original source in their online editions. Not only would this have the effect of allowing people easy access to follow up stories they found interesting, it would also give punters such as me a little more confidence in their reporting. It's not that I would go and look up every link they provided, it's the knowledge that I could if I wanted to that would be comforting. Some of the science reporting in the Herald could very well be good reporting. I've caught it out a sufficient number of times now though, that I just don't trust it. This could fix that. Not, of course, that I think they would ever do something like that. Removes to many opportunities to scare their public.

The plastic waka.

This wee post comes courtesy of a facebook comments thread that is getting wildly out of control. And it's getting wildly out of control, because there are two opposing school of thought. One, given that it's my school of thought, is of the opinion that the last minute addition of a plastic (with a canvas overlay(?)) waka to the waterfront is a) a waste of money, b) tacky. The other school of thought, as best as I can tell, is that there is nothing overtly maori on our waterfront and now that someone has come up with this idea we might as well get on with it.

A couple of things.
If this had been something that had been planned for sometime, then yes, fair enough, get on with it. To the best of my knowledge though (I've done a little digging, not much) it isn't. It's a shoddy last minute addition to the construction program, that in the space of what, a week?, has become vitally important. So important that no one saw fit to mention for the last 4 years of planning. And sitting in a bar somewhere yaking to mates about "y'know, they really should put something maori looking down on the waterfront" doesn't count. It's not that we don't have time to change the situation (we don't, but that's not the point), as far as I (and I presume the general public) am concerned, just putting the thing up is the change in the situation.

And if we're worried about looking mature as a nation, last minute "oh we should have something maori looking there" is not the way to do it. Yeah, fine, have a waka on the waterfront. Personally, I think it's a grand idea. If you're going to to something like this though, you should do it well. The shortsightedness is not on the part of the people who are opposing this. It one the part of the people who want to rush stuff through at the last minute with bugger all planning and assume that it'll look alright in the end. That's how we almost ended up with a stadium on the waterfront. That's how we ended with bucket loads of tiny tiny apartments making the inner city look crap. That's how we ended up with glass monoliths with facades instead of heritage buildings. By not stopping and actually planning. Last minute additions make us look less mature "-they obviously didn't think about that, did they", not more mature.

And even if you're going to write Shane Jones of for his (so far) one huge cock up as an MP (and it was a large one), he does have a point, if it's that important, why were the public not informed, where were the calls for tender on what is apparently such an important project. More importantly, the goevernment money is being redirected from other maori initiatives, what is missing out? Is it healthcare, is it education? We have no idea.

The worst comment in the entire article, I'm afraid, comes from Pita Sharples, which is odd, he's normally a lot more onto it - "We've got to celebrate New Zealand while we're dealing with the earthquake and while we're dealing with the downturn in the economy. We've gotta have some happiness, we've gotta celebrate and stand up and say who we are." The idea that the economy is in the doldrums and that we need something to celebrate to make us happy after the earthquake, fine. To suggest that we then celebrate a last minute, not very well planned marketing ploy for maori business dumped on Auckland's waterfront for the duration of the world cup is ... borderline offensive - are we that pathetic as a nation? Then again, given our media, that's probably a quote taken horribly out of context.

It's not what you think it is.

Breast cancer isn't breast cancer. Or rather it isn't a single disease. It's a whole collection of different problems that are collected under one heading because they all originate in the same place. Oncologists have known this for some time, I'm not sure the general populace knows. The cool bit is that, now with quick and comparatively cheap genome sequencing, it's beginning to be possible to differentiate between which set of problems an individual patient may have. Which means that treatments can be targeted a lot better than they have been in the past. A research group in Missouri have just finished sequencing the genomes from the tumors of 50 breast cancer patients. There's a quote there which is apt: "The more we learn about breast cancer, the more complicated it becomes. The amount of genomic variation was quite large. Of all the 1700 mutations found only 3 were common to 10% of the patients, most of the mutations were patient specific. There were a few genes identified that were commonly (though not universally) broken. All of which gives one hope. As we find out more, it becomes more complex, but as it becomes more complex, we understand it better.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Highly entertaining clues as to why you might be wrong, yet quite ... astute. It's quite a good rule of thumb. In fields that I'm not overly familiar with, it quite similar to the rough guide I use internally when trying to come to some provisional opinion. Summarized it goes something like: Who is this everyone who says this? Even if everyone does say that, doesn't necessarily make them right. Take chain emails and facebook warnings with a truckload or two of salt. If it's cutting edge, again with the salt, you're into speculation territory. Scientists/professionals get paid to spend their lives studying shit, there's probably a consensus and that's a good place to start. Technically, they might all be wrong, but it's highly unlikely. And declaring large chunks of science to be wrong, without the backing of some spectacular evidence and a decent chunk of aforementioned professionals - bad place to be.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Holiday highway opposition.

A local Warkworth resident, a chap called Bob Scott, had an opinion piece in the herald today. He had what I thought, a well reasoned argument against the holiday highway between Puhoi and Warkworth. If we have a government that is willing to spend $1.7 billion on a highway of marginal economic benefit, while denying Auckland funding for the economically beneficial inner city rail loop, while claiming that budget cuts must be made to help rebuild Christchurch and that Auckland is the economic powerhouse that is going to lift our economy, surely there is a case to be put. I would laughingly suggest that our media should be bringing this sort of thing to the publics attention but we all know that's not going to happen. I would have thought that with Scotts argument for reducing the cost by fixing the black spots and saving ~40 lives/year, it would have been perfect fodder for some opposition spin doctor type person to at least come up with a catchy sound bite and stir things up a little. Sadly, that requires having an effective opposition party.

As an aside, where, one wonders, does one go to check numbers like the 40 people/year being killed on a particular stretch of road. It sounds high, it would be nice to be able to check.

Black and white

Sometimes, when PZ writes, it's informative, sometimes it's amusing, sometimes it's him being an ass (usually in an entertaining manner). Every so often though, he pulls something together that is just ... I'm not sure. One of his commenters describes it as beautiful and horrific. I think I would agree.