Sunday, July 31, 2011

Good news and bad.

Both from Science magazine's news section. The good, being that the annoying lawsuit against the NIH's funding decisions on stem cell research appears to be headed out the door. As far as I can tell, it's essentially been a couple of researchers who focus on adult stem cells packing a sad because now that researchers are also going to be allowed to focus on embryonic stem cells, there's going to be less money for their research. Bad form imho. The bad news is that gene patents might be back. Myriad genetics, the people who have delayed large amounts of work on breast cancer in the name of profit, appealed the ruling of a lower court that had found that genes were not patentable. There was some dissension in the ruling though, I haven't sorted it all out yet, fingers crossed it's not all bad.

Bar staff.

The Amercians, as a people, generally get ragged upon quite a lot if you're outside America. In most cases, deservedly so. One thing, I don't think they get enough credit for is their bar staff. Which is not to say they haven't got their share of shitty hospo people. And the whole paying people by tipping thing, I still regard as asinine. There is though, a certain tradition, though it might be considered somewhat old school these days, that stems from the golden age of booze. People who know how to take care of a bar. We appear to sadly lack these people in New Zealand. Seriously, the best bartender I've seen in the past year was at a bar called Sale St, one of the most god awful bars in the whole city. Get a good bar, great music, great atmosphere nice people, like Ginger Minx and you get bar staff who are quite happy to blatantly ignore customers in favour of their friends. Not a great way to win repeat customers. Then you get places on Ponsonby Road (not my choice of venue, but hey, I'm not the one leaving the country), the wait staff are great, but behind the bars you get 4 people manning a not particularly busy 6 meter bar and you still get people waiting 15 minutes for a drink. That, I'm sad to say, is just incompetence.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Numbers, the economy and our rich people.

The fact that our richest 150 people have increased their net worth by a significant amount has been floating around for a day or so. Something like 38 billion to 45 billion. Which is roughly roughly 20%. Danyl asks the question quite nicely I think. The rest of the economy hasn't grown by anywhere near that much. With the global economy only just coming out of a rescission, where did all that money come from? Tim at Pundit follows up with a nice column, asking if the rich getting richer is what we want to use as our sole method of judging success. Which, personally, I think is a good question to ask. By the way, it's a seriously screwed up method of judging success imho, especially when it means concentrating a set amount of wealth in fewer hands rather than the growth of wealth of everybody. Concentrating the wealth is patently a bad thing, it leaves the poor worse off. Growing the wealth of everybody makes it a meaningless measure. It's only used as a measure by some because it's easy and they're lazy. 

Re: Norway.

Something someone said today about Norway reminded me of this.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Well that's a surprise.

Some good basic science communication from a large New Zealand media outlet. Admittedly, it's TVNZ 7, which is the one that is getting axed very shortly due to various reasons, most of which are stupid. Unlike the channel itself. The genetic modification section is a tad ... light but the rest of it appears alright.

The food show. I don't get it.

I saw an ad for the food show today. Less of an ad, more of a little magazine. I have to say, I don't get it. I'm quite partial to some nice food, I've even been known to be a passably good cook occasionally. And the food show seems to drag all the joy out of it, I don't get why people want to go. I've even been to a couple of them. There's always a few things hidden away that are quite nice, in pretty much any other environment, I'd quite enjoy sitting down and partaking. They are so few amongst so many though and there are so many people trying to see them. It's a crush of people (hordes even), sampling the same basic types of food over and over again, signing up for competitions and walking past the as seen on TV junk stalls.
I don't accept that all these attending have no other time in their lives over the course of a year to dig around the various stores and markets of Auckland and find 99% of what they'll find at the food show. And it's certainly not somewhere to go if you're after that special ingredient, given how woefully overpriced everything is, even if one did subscribe to the idiotic school of cooking which hold that you have to have the absolute finest ingredients possible to turn out a decent dish.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chris de Freitas and the Herald.

Annoying, in a word. Not just de Freitas, I know of him and his views, having sat through a first year geography paper he lectured. It's the amount of coverage he gets in the Herald that annoys me. Quite often prefaced with "the scientific community's overwhelming consensus is that significant global warming is man made". Which is then followed by screeds of de Freitas cheery picking studies and data to say that there is no evidence. Seriously, the Herald needs to get a handle on how to report issues like global warming. It's not a person A says one thing and person B says another and both have equal merit. In this case it's persons A-Y say one thing, person Z is trying very hard to make it look a lot less serious than it actually is. Two issues, one, the Herald should be able figure out where and when someone cherry picking their data to present an opinion. I would have thought that should be in Journalism 101. And if it's too hard because "it's a science story", get a science reporter to cast an eye over it. Secondly, the scientific consensus is overwhelming at this point in time. Yes, technically it might be wrong, but the chances of that at this point in time is very very small. Sure, mention that not everyone agrees if you want to. That needs two sentences at the bottom of an article though, not 2/3 of the page. It's taking it's time, but the BBC is slowly coming to realise this, it's about time our pretend newspaper did as well. /Grump. Lighter note:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tapu misses the point.

There quite possibly is a good case to be made for not banning the burqa. I haven't heard it yet. Tapu Misa's column in the herald today misses the point. She's quite correct in stating that it's demeaning and damaging to women but that we should have the ability to make choices that are not in our best interest. The comparison to Boobs on Bikes and prostitution is telling though. The thing with Boobs on Bikes and prostitution, is that they are voluntary. The individuals involved are not forced to participate. The burqa, in contrast is not usually used voluntarily. Social conditioning, threats from family, friends, members of religious communities, be they mental or physical are commonly used to make women wear the burqa. I'll concede that some probably wear it by choice, but I'm not convinced most do. Banning it is a coarse tool at best, but I've not seen anyone suggest a better one yet. Until such point in time as most of those wearing the burqa are demonstrably doing it by their own informed choice, I've got no problems banning it.
We condemn the action of forcing a woman forced into prostitution, why should we ignore a person forced to make themselves invisible?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

GE, it's a tool, use it where appropriate.

In the Guardian yesterday, a nice argument for using GE crops. It's brief, but to the point. We've got 25 years of data, showing no harm. It can be used to decrease the amount of insecticide and herbicide that get applied to food, it's better for the soil/land. I can understand people looking a little oddly at putting human genes in milk producing animals (though I don't necessarily oppose that) but seriously, why the opposition to putting potato genes into other potatoes?

2nd chances.

I have a rule, or possibly more of a guideline really. When I partake of a new cafe, I generally give it 3 goes before I write it off as being bad or recommend it to others as good. Knowing the sort of shit that hospo workers have to put up with sometimes, I'm prepared to let a bad coffee or inattentive service slip the first time, just in case the staff have had a shit day. And one of the visits generally has to include food. So to be fair, even though it's not a cafe, I've applied the same rule to the new fish and chippy just down the road. My first experience wasn't pretty. I've been back a couple of times since, very basic orders - fish, chips hotdog. The hot dogs haven't been anything special, now that they managed to put them in with the order. Not bad you understand, just nothing special. The chips have been quite large and reasonably good. The fish, I have to say, has been excellent. decent (large even) portions, nicely cooked, slice of lemon. I still haven't been brave enough to repeat the pineapple fritter after the first experience and they appear to have their accounting under control $9 for the basic order which I suppose isn't to bad, when the quality of the fish is taken into account. Still a long way from their claim of the best fish and chip experience in the world, bad not to bad for a local fish and chippy. Certainly better than Morningside.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cool genetics stuff.

Everyone knows we DNA. Or at least I hope they do. Really really seriously hope they do. The devil's in the details. Basically, proteins are the bits in the cell that do most of the work inside cells. Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids. Your DNA has 4 different nucleotides, a set of 3 nucleotides can code for an amino acid. If you do the maths though, each of the 3 positions can have any of the 4 different nucleotides in it. Which gives you 4x4x4 different codes, which is 64 different possibilities. Somewhat more than the 20 different amino acids, so there is some redundancy, as in some of the amino acids have more than one code coding for them. One of the 64 codes acts as a starting point, several also act as a stop code. If you think about it though, which somebody obviously has, you only really need one code for a stop code.
There's a bunch of researchers at Yale, who have removed all the redundancy in the stop codons, so that there was only one stop codon. Which is cool enough. For an encore though, they're trying to get the stop codons that aren't used any more, to code for different amino acids. New ones. As in ones that aren't currently used. So instead of having proteins starting out with 20 different types of amino acids, there would be a starting line up of 21. Masses of new proteins available to do all sorts of new cool things that couldn't be done before. I'm not sure what more I can say to communicate exactly how stupendously cool this is.

Score one for the chemists.

I get the feeling sometimes that whenever anybody actually remembers chemists, the tend to get dismissed (not nastily, just ... ignored) as not quite physics or not quite biology. I think though, that it's quite possibly chemists that make the bigger impact on our day to day lives. Yes, the work of biologists contributes to our understanding of the body and the world around us, gives us medicines when we're sick etc. Physicists are looking at the stars or at very small things telling us how space/time works, possibly giving us new methods of generating energy etc. Things which are critically important. In terms of day to day impact though, it's chemists who are working on things like new batteries. Writing this though, it occurs to me that these guys are probably on the border of physics and chemistry though. It's the physicists who are working on the giant capacitors for powering cars I think, though it's probably team work with a few chemists thrown in. Conclusion: Chemistry has become, I think, one of those things like math. You need somebody who knows what they're talking about in order to make any progress but as a field, it doesn't generally receive it's fair share of kudos.

dirt on the mind

Went to a public lecture this evening, at the planning school at Auckland University. Nominally it was a talk on the Zero Waste, the recycle movement. with a chap from Wales, Mal Williams starting of talking about how the recycle movement in Wales got started pretty much on a shoe string. Passably interesting I suppose. The second chap, Gerry Gillespie, is part of Australian Zero Waste movement, he's started a thing called City to Soil, which is where I thought it started getting interesting. Soil is actually a pretty interesting thing, being composed of a dam site more than just dirt. There's huge numbers of bacterial and fungal organisms bopping round in there, tens of thousands in every square centimeter. And not all of them have been identified. This makes it quite difficult to create soil from scratch, because there are whole ecosystems in tiny spaces that we just can't replicate at the moment. The 3rd speaker was a chap called Max Purnell, a farmer from Waitakaruru who talked about the fact that we're only now beginning to learn how to manage soil correctly, and the way to go about it is not to dump tonnes of soluble phosphates on it like we're currently doing.
If I'd been on to it, I'd have asked a couple of questions at the end. I wasn't though. I'd quite like to know what they thought of some of the GM pest resistant crops. They tend to result in significantly less damage to the soil and less loss of soil, given that you're not mucking around with it quite so much. And while they think it's quite possible to feed the worlds current population sustainably, it would be interesting to see how much correct soil management could contribute to feeding the population that we're going to have in 40 years time (1.5 x what we have now).

The rest of the rest of the evening of course was spent at the wine cellar, watching cartoon's with naughty bits interspersed, making for quite an ... interesting evening.

Monday, July 18, 2011

And now for something pretty cool.

Y'know how every so often you get the grumpy old curmudgeons complaining that the internet is making us dumber? P'shaw, p'shaw! I say. A new study in Science. It appears that while our ability to remember  the content is diminished in the age of Google, we're a lot better at remembering where the information is. And when we know it's not somewhere accessible, memory of content improves. Ha. Memory is an adaptable beast. And how we're using it is changing. Not making us dumber. Pretty cool methinks.

face. palm.

Another example of genius of Steven Joyce's ministry. We have a public transport system that is over flowing, in Auckland at least, rush hour on buses and trains is standing room only. It's a system that has been neglected for years, it can barely cope at the moment that people are flocking to it because of high petrol prices and they decide to cut funding. Obtuse bordering on the obscene. Especially when Joyce's idiotic holiday highway is still having tens of millions of dollars spent on it. <sigh>

Worrisome glimmers.

It's not, given that it was a post on the CGT tax, the tax that worries me. I tend to trust Keith Ng on matters economic, given my limited knowledge of the field, he sounds very much like he knows what he's talking about. And he tends to focus on the numbers and whether they make sense, it doesn't appear to matter if they're coming from the left or the right. Which I like, to the point of almost wishing he would right more often.

No, the worries come about because they are silly. Keith was looking at some numbers that some commentators and politicians on the National party side of things were using or rather completely misrepresenting some numbers to argue against the CGT. It's the use of the straw man argument in politics. It happens on the left of the political spectrum, though not as much, as best I can tell. Or at least not quite so blatantly. In this case we have Steven Joyce (Minister for transport, IT and commuications, what? why is he stepping to the fore on finance? more to say on his various brands of idiocy later) getting a bunch of dubious numbers, running them through some inappropriate models and coming up with staggeringly large sums of debt that the CGT will result in. It's facile, it's creating a fictional boogie man and capering about proclaiming that the end is nigh! Bollocks. There's enough in Labours CGT policy that the right can attack without introducing a scooby doo ghost.

It happens a lot in American politics, the straw man argument. Not so much, but also in English politics. And now it's happening here. This isn't btw, the first time I've worried about this sort of thing. As best I can see, overseas, it's resulted in a massively indebted country that just doesn't function at the highest levels. Combine that with the National government's abuse of process (Internet copyright bill, Christchurch recovery emergency powers) and it all becomes very worrisome indeed. I've argued with friends before that what happens overseas is similar in kind but significantly smaller in degree compared to what happens overseas. Sadly that smallness in degree appears to be a result of our comparative smallness in size rather than any special competence on out part.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


When I was a wee sproglet, I very much wanted to be a jack of all trades, to be able to know how to do everything. Or at least all of the cool stuff. Mother always responded with the full phrase of course - jack of all trades, master of none. So I changed my mind, jack of most trades, master of some. Doesn't roll of the tongue quite as well though, so I'm thinking master orator is out, will have to go for a jack there I think.

Then last week, I came across a couple of pieces of writing on Kiwipolitico, not a blog I normally read, thanks to some commentary on the rants of Ansell and Brash in the midst of their ACT implosion.  The second piece I read, Normalising diversity, was talking about Maori language week. T'wasn't talking about anyone specifically complaining about Maori language week, it was a brief history of Maori language coming to the fore (very brief) and holding a diversity of language as a good thing, part of a diverse skill set that humans can use for the various challenges we face. It finished with a quote from Heinlein that I was rather taken with :
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem,pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Given my sproglet desire to master all the cool stuff, I'm presuming you'll all figure out why I like it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hrm ... dissapointing.

SOBA, a gallant bunch of chaps, appreciators of "Beer for all the right reasons", have lost their fight with the intellectual property office, annoyingly. DB, annoyingly, copyrighted the name Radler for one of their beers. Calling your beer Radler, that's fine, but Radler is a style of beer, not a brand. So when someone else puts out a radler, they get hit with a cease and desist order from DB, which is annoying to say the least. Hayden idly suggests a boycott at the end this post, (worth the read, for a fuller explanation of the idiotic malarkey that DB have embarked upon). I would care to suggest it more ... firmly. Don't drink at DB bars, don't buy DB products at the liquor store until they renounce the stupid copyright on the name radler.

Monday, July 11, 2011

seriously, who saw that coming?

It sort of goes nicely with a post on public address the other day, with Hayden being a little bit sick of the rugby haters. I seriously don't think there are that many rugby haters in NZ. Trouble is, there's quite a few of us who are completely ambivalent about it. As Craig down in the comments said : "general indifference with occaisional flashes of WTF-ness at the amount of corporate welfare central and local government has been spraying around with gay abandon?" To be perfectly honest, I'm getting sick of being labelled a rugby hater/pessimist/sour puss just because I'm not particularly taken with the game, and slightly less impressed that this is what my money is being spent on.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Getting to something interesting in the end.

Telomeres and telomerase are generally interesting features of our genetic make up anyway. The telomere is a small piece of DNA at the end of each of your chromosomes, sort of a place holder to stop the enzymes that read your DNA from dropping off the end when they get to the end. When they do get replicated they can have little bits chopped off the end, which results in shorter and shorter chromosomes. When it gets to short, it can't be replicated any more, making it one of the factors involved in ageing. And when the enzyme (telomerase) that extends the shortened regions gets out of hand, cancer.  The scientist who found them in the first place has been advancing her work. Apart from roles in ageing and cancer, it appears there are correlations between telomere length and numerous other health problems. Not cause and effect mind, but correlation. Pretty cool, I have to say. And it does set the brain wondering about what's going in there.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Quote of the day - Capital Gains Tax edition

goes to Craig Ranapia in the comments of Russell's post about Labours soon to be proposed Capital Gains Tax.

If Labour actually produced a well-designed policy that doesn't have loopholes a half-way competent tax advisor could drive the Death Star through - and the claimed benefits and costing are within coo-eee of reality -- I'll give credit where it's richly deserved.

Sadly, I imagine there are a bunch of halfway competent tax advisors looking for a Death Star at the moment. I like the idea of a Capital Gains Tax. Wealth is not defined with respect to how much moeny you can spend going out to dinner. Farmers might not have spare case to fling around, but a lot of them have significant accumulated wealth. Even if you don't have buckets of liquid cash floating around, if you're able to buy an investment property on top of being able to afford a family home, you're wealthy.

Sadly, I'm not overly confident of Labour being able to not shoot itself in the foot with pretty much anything these days. Fingers crossed I'm wrong. As an aside, I'm fairly sure that the Greens have had a CGT as part of their policy platform for some time now. hrm.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Numbers, handy little things.

It's nice to have some numbers to run along side some of the various claims made in the media. One, which I see various older curmudgeons who haven't really thought about what they're saying making, about MMP is that a major problem with it is that it allows MP's that have been kicked out "to sneak back in". Which is bollocks to begin with, as if the will of a single electorate should override the will of the country as a whole. Even it wasn't bollocks (which it is), we now have some numbers with which to gauge the severity of the problem, compiled and posted at Drunkard's Lamppost. It appears that we have had 21 MP's that held electorates, were defeated and returned via the list. That's over the entire history of MMP, since 1996. Not, I suspect a huge problem. In addition, the argument that the locals wanted to kick the electorate MP out of parliament don't take into account the possibility that some voters were voting tactically, i.e. they were not voting for the electorate MP because they knew they would get in anyway, thus giving themselves 2 local MP's. Which makes it quite possibly even less of a problem.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fact checking the fact checking.

We have a referendum alongside our election coming up. I'm pretty sure I've had a wee rant somewhere on here before about the fact that there hasn't been an option on the ballot to tinker with MMP. Turns out that if MMP is retained in the forthcoming referendum (fingers crossed, fingers really really crossed) then part of the deal is that the electoral commission will be doing an overhaul. Anyway, Graeme Edgeler of Legal Beagle has started fact checking some of the claims that are being made in the media as the MMP issue slowly begins to come to the fore. It's well worth reading, this latest one, offers a corrections, some about some of the historic claims around MMP's introduction. The first one is worth reading as well. Though they can get a little depressing. We've had this electoral system for the better part of 20 years now. It's not complicated. And still we have public figures getting up, pontificating and getting basics wrong. Then again, a fair chunk of what they get wrong is basic political theory like the stupid idea that if the party that wins the most votes gets less than 50% of the vote, they have the first right to form a coalition to govern. <shakes head in a disappointed manner>

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Open Access science on the rise.

A couple of pleasing news items this past week. One is this from Nature, which documents the slow rise of open access. For the uninitiated, open access journals are scientific publications that make the papers they publish accessible to the public freely. Traditionally, journal's charge institutions (like libraries and universities, research institutes) quite significant sums of money for access to the papers that are usually created by the staff at those institutions. Which is a bit silly if you think about it. With the maturity of the web, it's been possible to create open access journals, which, as they mature, will lessen the burden imposed by the fees of the current crop of journals. The other bit of related news, was this post at Code for Life. The Wellcome Trust, Max Planck Institute and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (all big names in the science world) getting behind open access journals can only be a good thing. For researchers and cash strapped institutions anyway. Maybe not so much for the publishing groups currently charging the people doing the science large amounts of money for access to their own work.