Saturday, December 31, 2011

Awfully sorry. Deal with it.

Awfully sorry people, I'm out and about and I need somewhere to jot a random thought down. You get to suffer through it, brief as it may be.

For the purposes of getting people out and involved in the political process, rather being concerned with their own material wealth or not being arsed getting off the couch in front of TV or a video game: it's an opportunity to be involved in something more than the efforts of a single person. Enjoy life while you're here, sure, but leave a better place for those yet to come. Easy? No, hard. But worthwhile. Will you win all your battles to shape the future? No, but you can influence the shape of things to come. Will you be remembered for your contribution? Probably not. Over the long term, almost certainly not. It's not really the point though is it? If you're not there when people remember (or don't) you, do you really care? The point is gain satisfaction here and now by being involved. Satisfaction is rarely derived from from sitting around waiting.  It is obtained when you set out to so something hard or worthwhile, and succeed at it. Succeeding here is not achieving all your goals and changing the world, the world is to big for that. Success is contributing to our future, at best nudging humanity ever so slightly towards where you think it should go.

That is all. Being out and slightly drunk should excuse any self indulgence in that. I'll try to clean it up tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It's not about the toys.

In years gone by, the hullabaloo surrounding Christmas has generally annoyed me. Not so this year, at worst I've been ... ambivalent. I've put a lot of this down to not having a TV, not listening to the radio much and reading the newspapers, mostly online. And these things are, indeed, part of it.
  Over the past week or so I've begun to wonder if there's been another contributing factor though.
One of the things that annoyed me, was the commercialism. I'm more than happy for Christmas to exist as time to get together with family and have a big slap up meal and generally catch up. It's good not to lose touch with your past and your family are the ones who have known you for longest. When one is extorted for several weeks before hand to buy buy buy and get into the spirit of things, life becomes about putting on a mask of unnatural cheer, stress and stretching your budget to the limit and buy, buy, buy. None of this holds any attraction for me, to be continually bombarded with advertising telling one smile and buy does much to encourage me to everyone to sod off.
As I've wandered around town these past few weeks though, the advertising, both the specifically christmas advertising and the normal day to day advertising has struck me as irrelevant. They feel like relics of a bygone age that haven't quite caught up with the world. I'm quite willing to admit that this is almost certainly a construct of my own worldview placed over top of what the world actually is. I've little doubt that most people regard it all as quite normal. The past year though has been a busy one. Protests around the world have given me hope that societies are beginning to realize that money, while important, should not be the be all and end all of our economies. Fairness is important. There is nothing inherent in a job that justifies one person earning minimum wage while another takes millions for failing to bring greater profits to their company. There is nothing inherent in a person that justifies one living in poverty while another can want for nothing. Life is not all about wanting a newer toy.
And that realizing that life is not all about the toys just make the advertising seem ... pointless. Not everyone has realized this yet. Certainly not the advertising industry (though I do wonder how they will/would cope with a world that is based around need rather than want. The general population as a whole certainly hasn't come to this conclusion yet. It's entirely possible that not everyone will and that our societies will lapse back into a comatose state until everything crumbles around us. I hope not though. I hope that the world continues to wake.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Waking up.

My last post was on Cory Doctorow's prosposing that the reason governments have had trouble interacting with Occupy and various uprisings around the world is that they are a new kind of protest rather than a continuation of the old forms. Things are so flexible now that the organziation part of protests is being subsumed into the background. Governments and media have not yet learned how to talk about protests that are so flexible.

Parrallels were drawn with Anonymous. I'm not sure why, but I ended up listening to this podcast. It's a discussion of Anonymous's recent hack of the security firm Stratfor, a firm that has a great deal to do with the Amercian security industry. there's a quote from a spokesperson for Anonymous, characterizing themselves as an idea rather than a group. Yes, there's something odd about a group that says they are not a group having a spokesperson. Aside from that though, it's a good discussion that illustrates the theory that Anonymous is an idea. Whatever core of organization there might have been, given that anyone can call themselves Anonymous, is now not the whole of the movement.

While the old structured protest organizations are probably not going anywhere, there's a new element in the politcal sphere - ideas that can rise up and become a force, it's not reliant on the individuals anymore. If the idea holds, then it becomes a force. It's almost like the mind of humanity is waking up and beginning to think a little faster.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A synthesis.

There was a president of Harvard University, several years ago, called Larry Summers. He gave a speech reiterating that the reason there are significantly more men than women in the higher echelons of engineering, computing and the sciences was that there could be an innate difference in the distribution of skill between the gender's. i.e. that men might have more really bright sparks but also more idiots, implying that the female bell curve was taller in the middle and didn't extend to the extremes as much. Funnily enough, he got lambasted, roll on the defenders who claimed all sorts of things in Summers defence - like that he was only getting hassled because he was putting forward an uncomfortable idea that might actually be true. I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of entertaining uncomfortable ideas, if one is ever going to get closer to understanding the truths about how our world works one has to. When the uncomfortable ideas have no basis in fact though, they should be tossed.
Anyway. That incident was brought to mind by young Myers. He cites a report published in Science (that starts off with recalling Summers speech), which did cross cultural studies which allowed them to correct for low living standards, innate variability and gender differences, even looking at differences between single and mixed sex schools. Low living standards have an effect, but over a certain minimum income, those effects tend to drop away. The innate differences that are continually suggested by commentators who don't want to entertain uncomfortable ideas (that they have no idea what's going on) disapear completely. Which leaves cultural factors. PZ nails it, I think with:
Biology sets the limits, but culture determines what you do within those boundaries, and clearly, we have lots of room for improvement in intellectual accomplishment; most people aren’t bumping up against the physical limitations of what their brains can do.
And none of that 10% of our brains crap please. Our cultures have more to do with our limitations - an example the original report provides is that only 27% of career people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), in the US are women. In academia it creeps up to 30%, which is still pretty pathetic. There is a significant pool of people who could be doing some really good science right now except for the fact that they have been discouraged or dissuaded. This is something that is pretty difficult to see in my field if you aren't aware of it already or don't have it pointed out. The biological sciences have some of the highest proportions of women in the STEM fields, which probably drags the overall average up - not a good thing, this just means that the other fields are worse than the 27% statistic would have you believe. The idea that males have greater variability in intellectual skills suitable for STEM, is old (1894 apparently) and tired. It keeps getting trotted out though, remember this next time you hear someone blathering one about this possibility at a party or somewhere. And shoot them down. In flames. With burning.
I'm going to have to go read the original report again, but from my initial once over, this is a good example of studying social systems. Find an effect. Find influences on that effect. Control for those influences. Look for other influences, control for those. Repeat. This is what helps us get closer to understanding how we work as a society.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I hadn't noticed that.

Amongst all the kerfuffle of looking at the rankings and portfolios that David Shearer has just divvied out amongst the Labour team, I completely failed to notice which portfolio he'd kept for himself. Apparently, he's kept the Science and Innovation portfolio. Which is encouraging, even though I think it's a silly name for a portfolio. The innovation part of it always seems like it should be part of the economic development portfolio and lumping it with science just makes it seem like it's expected that all our science is expected to be directed towards innovative money making ideas. That's just me being picky though.
It's also encouraging when you look at the portfolios that the top four or five people have : science and innovation, environment and tertiary education, skills and training, finance, social development, economic development and associate finance roles. Yes, finance is always going to be in the top five, but look at the rest of it, I could be completely wrong, but that does look to me like an emphasis on people and places first, whilst not forgetting the economics of it all. I could of course, just be imagining it, we shall have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's going to happen when ...

The kepler telescope, not content with beating the crap out fo astrophysicists theories about how planets are formed, just keeps pumping out new planets. Or discovering them rather. So we've discovered earth sized planets, we've discovered gas giants and even some planets smaller than earth. Most of the earth sized/rocky ones aren't in the habitable zone, some of the gas giants are, but that doesn't really help us. What happens though, when we find a rocky, earth sized planet in the sweet spot of the habitable zone of a sun-like star? At the rate Kepler is going, it's got to happen sometime. I can't find the link at the moment but there are physicists who are measuring the atmospheric composition of exo-planets - when we find it we can even see if it has water/oxygen/nitrogen etc. Are we going to get off our collective arses, get our shit together and actually try and get there?


update: And then Kepler really puts the boot in.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sheer unadulterated coolness part 1.

No other way to say it. Mindhacks has a brief article on MRI scans being used to identify the developing white matter of an infants brain while it's still in the womb. It's picking out the paths of some of the water molecules - paths which are constrained by the developing tubes in the white matter. Formation of a brain. Apparently it's not done much because it's a bit tricky to get the little buggers to sit still for it, meaning they get a lot of blurry images. When it does work though ...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Well that's not depressing.

Labour's new shadow cabinet list is out. And it's not depressing. There's a few new faces on the front line. And Cunnliffe is up near the top. Which I hope, I sincerely hope that there will be a strong team leading labour forward. If it degenerates, it's going to be awful. It's nice to see Jacinda up near the top, hopefully it means she'll be around for a while - I've heard her talk and debate and I'm quite having her near the top of the power structure. Shane Jones, past incredibly stupid indiscretions not withstanding, generally appears competent. And I've heard good things about Nanaia Mahuta as well.
Other's I'm sure will commentate more knowledgeably. For now, I'll wish them luck and keep my fingers crossed.

The scientific process at work, example 1:

Seriously, when I get sick of biology, I am going to go and be a physicist for a while. Anyway.
So the Kepler telescope is up in the sky discovering planets orbiting other suns by the dozen. and by the look of it, it's playing merry havoc with theories of the astrophysicists. This is the part of science I think, sadly, most of the general public doesn't see. Most only get to see wide and inaccurate generalizations from individual studies, generally poorly presented in the mainstream press. Which is sad, because this is the interesting bit of science, where what we thought we knew about how things work, doesn't explain what is currently in front of us. So all the astrophysicists, confronted with large planets orbiting closely around stars when they thought that large planets should mainly form further out from stars have to scurry away and try and figure out what the hell is actually going on. End result: a better model and a greater understanding of how things work.

Friday, December 16, 2011


There have been a few, quite good pieces I've read this week on power. Or more particularly on the complete obliviousness that people with power are capable of having with regards to that power. In the sense that they don't realise they have it. I would suggest that it's a form of the psychologist's fallacy - if you have power, you assume that everyone else has similar power, dismissing events that others construe in the context of power relationships. So sexist comments get waved off a a joke. Or racist comments get waved off as harmless. Whereas people on the other end of the joke don't perceive of it as harmless. Those making the jokes can then get all defensive when it is pointed out that not everyone sees it as a joke - doing so challenges their view of themselves as reasonable human beings. They might well be reasonable human beings, just in possession of power or privilege that they were unaware of. A similar relationship appears to exist between the religious and atheists in the US (and probably elsewhere) as well. Some religious people get offended when objections are raised to religious themes that are run through supposedly secular state governments. They have the power and pointing it out to them challenges how they see themselves and the world.

One of the things about power though, is that it is rarely given up freely. The battles to end sexism and racism, things that we haven't entirely conquered yet, wouldn't have been fought without those with no power fighting for it. In the best case scenario, you'll have some with power who when it is pointed out to them, acknowledge the disparity and will work to change it. There will always be some who refuse to change sadly.

Trying to be aware that the world I live in is not the same world that others of different gender, race or belief's live in is something that I've been trying to do for a few years now. It's one of Socrates better known quotes, with good cause I think:
the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living
Just sayin.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A hodge podge of stuff.

I have to say, I'm feeling quite ... subdued this week. There's been nothing (new) in the political sphere to raise my ire. Indeed, as danyl says, it's feels like the first time in some years that one can almost begin to pretend to feel vaguely optimistic about politics in New Zealand and hope that one day we might have some competent in charge.

There's been ups and downs on the science front. CERN finally got round to officially announcing that we have hints of the Higgs boson coming out of the LHC. There's been rumours floating about for a while now that something had been found. Now it appears that CERN is looking in the right ballpark at least and that there is quite likely something there. Ars Technica even gave a pretty good (simple) explanation of the statistics behind confirming a discovery. Worth a read.

A decent chunk of the delight from that though was beaten to a pulp when the head of the IPCC took the time to note the complete lack of attention to any of the science behind climate change at the Durban talks. One's optimism took a serious blow, compounded by the failure of teh Durban talks in general - a delaying action, putting things off until 2015, when 2015 is the year that we really need to have emissions sorted to prevent some pretty serious temperature rises is not really a delaying action, it's a step backwards. Especially since most of the articles in the scientific literature that I've seen over the past year or so tend to focus on how our current models have been underestimating stuff. <sigh>

Then, just to put the boot in, we have idiots just across the ditch in Ausraaaalia trying to convince people that measles are a good thing because they help our immune system get strong and therefore it's all natural and good and, and, and ... <facepalm>  doesn't begin to convey the lunacy. Especially the bit using SIDS death's stats, linking them (unreasonably, incoherently) to immunizations and then using that as an argument for measles? I'll take an educated guess here and say that if you let measles run rampant, you would have a lot more deaths and a hell of a lot more damage to people.

On the good side though, there might well be whole bunch of quantum effects happening in plants during photosynthesis that I didn't know about before. and it's always a good week when when you run across a whole new set of effects you didn't about in your own field. Very cool.

So all in all, an odd week.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Paul Little: getting it wrong.

In the opinion pages of the Herald today is a column by Paul Little on the current ineffectiveness of the occupy movement in New Zealand. Most of it is observational  and not particularly informative. One part is particularly informative, though not so much about the occupy movement and more about Mr Little.
If you want to inspire me to action, you will have to do a little more than tell me what I already know. You will have to give me a few options for doing something about it, preferably ones with more effect than going somewhere and sitting down.
The apathy displayed by the electorate in the election just gone is not particularly comforting. This is another form of apathy, just as bad and no more comforting. I'm going to take a stab in the dark and assume that Paul Little does not own any major companies, nor the heir to any vast fortune. Which puts him in the 99%. As best I can tell though, Mr Little abdicates responsibility for the society he lives in by assuming that it is someone else's job to inspire him to action. Such an attitude is not one of someone who cares about the world they live in, it is the attitude of a sheep. In the space of two paragraphs he claims that he is well aware that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a bad thing, then argues that it is not his job to worry about it unless someone makes it worth his while. I can't see any difference between this and thinking that the concentration of wealth is a bad thing but not sufficiently bad to actually get worked up about. I presume he is quite happy for the 1% to carry on doing whatever they are doing because he's not doing so badly at the moment.
Possibly we need to add some civics classes to the evening class curriculum. Much is said of the rights of citizens. Those rights come with responsibilities. if you abdicate your responsibilities to the society you live in, you will lose your rights. Rely on someone else to fight for your right because you're not sufficiently enthused yet is leeching.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Aha! Thinking people thinking, it's always fun.

It's always nice when someone else puts into words ideas that you've been trying to formulate for some time. Unless of course you're wanting to use those ideas to make money, in which case you're screwed. In this case however, I'm quite happy about it. I think I first started trying to think about something like this a few years ago when I first heard of Cafe Scientifique. Cafe Scientifique is a fine idea but it's more of a public talk than an forum in which people can develop skills. So when the University of Strategic Optimism put this out (h/t to Alex), the proverbial light bulb lit up. A lot of our science education efforts are aimed towards those still in school. Which, don't get me wrong, is vital. There is nothing that I can see that is directed towards the development of critical thinking skills for adults in the day to day world. If you look to the evening classes at the local schools and short courses at universities, the most intellectual they get seems to be learning a new language, most of them are practical courses - again, nothing wrong with that, but it's tantamount to saying that the adult population aren't or shouldn't be interested in developing skills useful for figuring out how the world around them works.
The optimistic part of me hopes that with a greater understanding of how to break down what happens around us into understandable chunks, we could have a populace that could demand more from a media that currently expects us to only be able to read at the level of a 9 year old. If willing participants could be found, I'd even happily attempt to lead a basic critical thinking tutorial in a pub somewhere that wouldn't mind me drawing all over their windows with a chalk pen. The only problem being that I'm not sure how to go about finding willing participants. I'll keep thinking, with the hope that the UoSO or someone like them will have a flash of inspiration on that front as well.

Big things are made of little bits.

There's an interesting read from a ex-professor of genetics, Steve Jones on The Telegraph. The interest is piqued not so much in that there is conflict between religious students and the teachings of evolution in undergrad biology classes, I know that's been around for a bit. Nor in the bewilderment that people are trying to enter into a profession whilst deliberately attempting to remain ignorant of it's basic underpinnings - as soon as you are aware of the conflict twixt students and curriculum, that one becomes pretty obvious. The interest is piqued by this:
I have tried asking students at quite what point they find my lectures unacceptable: is it the laws of inheritance, mutation, the genes that protect against malaria or cancer, the global shifts in human skin colour, Neanderthal DNA, or the inherited differences between apes and men? Each point is, they say, very interesting – but when I point out that they have just accepted the whole truth of Darwin’s theory they deny that frightful thought. Some take instant umbrage, although a few, thank goodness, do leave the room with a pensive look.
That you can teach each individual part of the theory of evolution and it gets accepted, when it's pointed out that each of the individual parts makes up a whole, it gets rejected. I'm sure there's something deep and profound in there for the purposes of science communication, it's Friday, the day after the first of the Christmas parties though and I haven't got the energy to tease it out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

yeah, no, wait, ummmmm.....what?

So the workers of the ports of Auckland notify management of two one day strikes a week or so apart. The Ports of Auckland respond by locking the workers out and delaying mediation. I'll go so far as to agree with Maersk Line, that that constitutes industrial unrest and fair enough they're running a business, moving business to the more stable Tauranga port is probably a good call for them. For Ports of Auckland management - Tony Gibson is the name bandied about to then blame the disruption on the unions? ummm... what? Not being privy to the inner workings of the negations (or lack thereof as seems to be the case) I can't say who is actually to blame for the industrial unrest.If you lock your workers out for a couple of weeks though, you don't get to blame them for disruptions in the work flow that cause customers to go elsewhere. Yes, the workers had proposed disruptions, but compared to the disruptions generated by the actions of management, they were minor.
I do wonder if this Gibson chap is aware that from the outside, he's looking like a bit of an ass who is costing Ports of Auckland millions in lost revenue and more importantly the Auckland region in lost jobs.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Epic. Just ... epic.

I'm going to use the word epic a lot in this post. I can't bring to mind any other word that accurately describes this. In short, there's a particular type of radiation that we would expect to see coming from areas of the galaxy where stars are being born. No one has been able to confirm it's presence because the radiation from the sun screws everything in the local area of space up. Two space craft were launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2. 34 years ago. Not only are the still operational, but there now on the border of the solar system, and the sun is no longer fuzzing things up quite so much. They're taking readings. And confirming the presence of the expected radiation form stellar nurseries. How is that anything but epic?

We don't do epic things very often. Probably because doing something epic requires a lot of time. In this case 40 odd years (they had to plan and build the spacecraft as well). Someone thought about measuring radiation from the birth of stars 40 years ago. And now it's being done. The voyager spacecraft have been on the border of the solar system for a while now (it's a big border), just the fact that we get to look at the galaxy from outside of our solar system is very very cool. And epic.

I sincerely hope that whoever thought of it is still alive today.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Don't get over it.

There's an article in the Sunday paper today "yes, I'm reading trash on a Sunday morning, sue me) telling nay sayers to get over being tired of being associated with the Lord of the Rings. The hobbit's out soon and some people are expecting an upswing in certain hobbit related tourist activities. I'm probably feeling a little to smug that my first reaction was "sod it, no, they don't have to get over it". I hated being told to get over the whole rugby thing and just enjoy it. I don't see that those people sick of hobbits should have to do the same. Being a New Zealander does not necessarily entail being enraptured with everything anyone in the country does.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Head, meet desk, desk, head.

Almost a week out from the election and I can still be surprised and appalled in the space of a sentence. 
So conversation got around to the election tonight, as it does these days. It appears that someone I know, whom I regard as generally speaking, otherwise sane, voted national to keep Winston out of government. ...  ... ... I. just. don't. get it.  This is someone who apparently would have preferred to vote Labour. The reasoning, if you can it it was thus:
  •  Labour had no chance of winning.
  • Winston looked like he had a shot at getting back into power.
  • If we didn't get National government then Winston would be in charge 
  • Anything with Winston involved would be inherently unstable and therefore bad.
  • Thus, vote National. 
Ignore for a moment the fact that Winston had previously stated that he would be going into opposition rather than forming a government with National or Labour, what would we have got if he had - given Key's flat out refusal to work with Winston, a Labour led government not selling the family silver. If Winston did stick to his word, what would we have if National had got a few less percent - a minority government that operates but has to work for the really big policies like asset sales or mining conservation land maybe? Couldn't have that, no, instead, go out and vote for someone promising to implement policies you don't like because someone else you don't like might make it possible for the people with policies you do like to actually carry them out.

head. desk. head. desk. head. desk.

Seriously. This is as bad as the stories floating around the book of face at the moment of people voting National and not being worried about mining in national parks because they know the Greens will stop them. Fundamental misunderstandings of how to go about getting what you want from this world. 

Initial reaction: passably disturbing.

If you recall, I'm not overly fond of Chris de Freitas. It might not be misconduct but this certainly looks like it goes against the ethos of peer review. Science and in particular, the peer review process relies on  other scientists being overly critical of each others work. If a bunch of scientists can't get papers published, it's normally because other scientists have taken them apart. It looks ... suspicious if a new editor starts, they start publishing, only to not be able to publish when the editor leaves.

I recently organized a meeting with my supervisors and some statisticians. I'm sure there was some eye rolling and muttering but it was a good thing. The first thing the statisticians did was rip (to shreds) our experimental design, these were all people I'm on good terms with and who are chasing the same things that I am. It resulted in a mostly new experimental design that will be statistically sound and will provide a good foundation for what we are actually wanting to do. In science, as in cooking, you want your friends to be honest and your work judged on it's merits, so that you can get better, it's then a lot easier to present to the world.

I would think that if the skeptics climate science was sound, they would have been able to get it published before, during and after the presence of a particular editor. Otherwise one would contemplate the possibility that there is something wrong with either the science or the editors. Or both.