Sunday, January 29, 2012

And again.

Another case of taking a single study and presenting it as the final word in the feild.

In the sunday herald (yes i'm reading the tabloids, I forgot to bring a book) Deborah Coddington has just had a go at a study out of Otago which places a large amount of blame for obesity on the market, rather than individual choice. Apparently, this is yet another case of academics being patronizing and silly.

Two things. Firstly, this one study is not the final word on obesity. This is not a study published by everyone who studies obesity. Where is the harm in wating a bit and seeing how the rest of the research community rates this study.
Secondly, it was once common sense that the world was flat. Testing common sense assumptions to see if the world actually works that way is one of the most important things scientists do. And common sense is quite often wrong.

Coddington lays all the blame for obesity at the door of the overweight, dismissing any thought that the market might play a role. So what if the study has got it at least partially right? There's numerous instances were our behaviour differs from what we say we would do. And we are not responsible, self interested, self aware actors in a sea of commerce, we're part of the ebb and flow. I suspect that I'm quite aware of the marketplace around me, it doesn't make me immune to it. Especially given that it's a system built around catering to needs.

The single study from Orator might not have got it perfectly right, but I wish media voices Luke Coddington's would make an effort to see the world as it is, not as they would like to imagine it is.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Toodling along.

To be honest, I'm finding it difficult to write much this week, I'm just to entirely pleased with the world at the moment - post kiwiburn (something I would like to write about but am having difficulty with the words). The upshot being that nothing is really getting me worked up at the moment. the herald almost managed it with an appalling journalistic abuse of statistics, but even that I am letting pass today.
Something worth looking at though, is this. A lot of the work that I've done/read over the years has focused on the genetic side of tracing evolutionary paths. I don't get to read to much on the palaeontological side of things. So it's nice to be able to go to a talk from a (as best I can tell) very well respected fellow from the Natural History Museum and listen to a talk on how we got here. The other side of the equation. If you're in Auckland (or Wellington) I would suggest going to listen. I've already booked 7 tickets.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Innate diifferences in ability due to gender - unlikely.

So I just got back from Kiwiburn (seriously, one of the best, happiest weekends I have had in a long long time), which has left me suffering from a certain amount of attention/concentration deficit deficit today.

Quickly browsing over the mass of articles in my feeds though, I came across this, a quick review of another paper (this was the last one I came across) that is blowing the whole gender stereotypes in the maths and sciences out the window - i.e. the idea of innate differences between men and women is looking harder and harder to defend with any amount of integrity. Only take a moment or two, and worth a quick read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One hell of a disconect.

Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation - YouTube
"There is a disconnect between what science knows and business does"  This is the phrase that stuck with me after watching this. I'm going to summarize it, but seriously, go and watch this.
So we're all aware of the disparity between the incomes of executives and workers. In many of the cases that come to light, the rewards are just ... insane. The common sense rationale that is used to justify these excessive rewards is that greater rewards inspire better performance and thus greater prosperity for the company. Which makes you wonder why CEO's can receive millions when their companies are losing billions.
That aside, in this TED talk, Daniel Pink presents research from the Federal reserve and the London School of Economics that shows that contingent monetary rewards, for intellectual (as opposed to mechanical) tasks actually decreases performance. As he says "There is a disconnect between what science knows and business does" . And it's a huge disconnect, the high salaries being blatantly damaging to our economies as well as our well being as a society.

It pretty much removes any defense of stupidly high salaries there could possibly be. They just can't be justified.

It's finding out cool shit like this about how we work that would seriously tempt me to have a crack at some of the softer sciences.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

That's not very productive.

Last year, the Auckland Tertiary Education Union (TEU) went to the extreme of offering to forgo a pay rise in exchange for keeping certain conditions in their collective contract. Stuat McCutcheon, the vice chancellor wished the TEU members to relinquish control of conditions governing research and study leave, the criteria on which eligibility for promotions are judged, and disciplinary guidelines. The TEU obviously regard these things as important - "the core conditions being defended by academic staff are not privileges or perks, they relate directly to ensuring quality education and research at the university.” So why would the university administration propose such a thing? In a separate but related conversation, the VC offered non union staff a pay rise and said "administrative efficiencies and realise the productivity gains that will follow from the changes to the employment agreements".
Administrative efficiencies? hell yeah. Offer any academic a more streamlined method of taking care of the administrative work and they will get on board so fast the boat will likely tip over. Administration is something academics generally hate, they much prefer to spend time on teaching and research. Which is why they're academics in the first place.
Productivity gains though? What pray tell are productivity gains? In an educational environment, one has to assume that that means better education for the students. If academics are insisting that they do it, it's obviously important, if it wasn't, they wouldn't be wanting to do it. So why attempt to take away those conditions? I can't really see any sensible reason for it. Auckland university consistently ranks in the top 100 universities in the world. Which is brilliant, but it is there because the teachers and the researchers believe they have an environment conducive to good teaching and good research. And correspondingly, the degrees the students earn are worth more. Start removing facets of academia from the control of people familiar with them and willing to do the work and who knows where we'll end up. I doubt it will be in the top 100 though.
Then we have Peter Gluckman - he's one of the countries top scientists, runs the Liggins instutite up at med school and is the PM's science advisor. In December he gave a speech on how to push our economy forawrd. Here's a hint - you don't do it by cutting every possible corner to make things as cheap as possible. Nez Zealadn being where we are, has to struggle to retain our high tech companies. Gluckman suggests that the way to retain them, is to have their R&D functions "so embedded within the city that it cannot move". He even offers suggestions as to how to go about doing that (emphasis mine):
We have to build a city and a country that really values knowledge and science and entrepreneurship. We need technology parks, we need an intertwining of researchers, in the public and private sector, we need a world class university sector and a vibrant knowledge based ecosystem. Without that I fear for the future. 
You don't get a world class university but cutting costs and removing pieces of academia that the academics feel is crucial to their role. If you want a world class university where academics are allowed to flourish - give your academics the best conditions (which doesn't just mean pay), let them talk to their colleagues around the world. They university becomes and attractive place and you get the option of hiring some of the best teachers in the world. Removing conditions that academics think essential - you get fewer people talking, fewer coming and fewer options. Yes allowance have to be made for the fact that academics are interested parties, but these people spend their lives studing how things work (how education works included), I imagine they have some fairly pertinent insights as to how things should be run.
This is, in short, an economic decision. I want New Zealand to do well. I accept what Peter Gluckman has to say about stimulating our economy. And I think the universities should be aware of both their position in the greater scheme of things and the fact that they are of no use to society if they don't treat their staff well. Treating their staff well is only going to increase the benefitis for their studesnts and society as a whole. The unviersity is the staff. The university is the students.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yup, still the same.

I've been reading Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" today. Thomas Paine btw, was one of America's founding fathers, a revolutionary who stirred up the populace and helped create a new nation. There's a passage in it that I think is still relevant today.
Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am
inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of
reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions.
Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who CANNOT
see; prejudiced men, who WILL NOT see; and a certain set of
moderate men, who think better of the European world than it
deserves; and this last class, by an ill-judged deliberation, will be
the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other

It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of
sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to THEIR doors to make
THEM feel the precariousness with which all American property is
possessed. But let our imaginations transport us for a few moments to
Boston, that seat of wretchedness will teach us wisdom, and instruct
us for ever to renounce a power in whom we can have no trust. The
inhabitants of that unfortunate city, who but a few months ago were
in ease and affluence, have now, no other alternative than to stay
and starve, or turn out to beg. Endangered by the fire of their
friends if they continue within the city, and plundered by the
soldiery if they leave it. In their present condition they are
prisoners without the hope of redemption, and in a general attack for
their relief, they would be exposed to the fury of both armies.
Little has changed, people now get buffeted by economic forces rather than men at arms, but the men at arms in days of yore were driven by men who wished to wield economic power. I haven't quite finished Common Sense pamphlets were a little longer back in the day, a mere 40 or 50 pages rather than 2 or 3. It's worth reading though, Paine was a good writer and a lot of parallels can be drawn between the struggles he was facing and those which the world is currently facing. I have decent chunk of respect of the American founders, they got some things completely wrong (slavery for one) but given the world they lived in I think they did reasonably well. They set out to make a better world and succeeded.
It was Thomas Jefferson I believe, another one of Americas founding fathers who said "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance"and I think he was right. It's just that sometime in the last 50 or 60 years, the Americans stopped being vigilant.

Never ending

"Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression" Official Trailer from max good on Vimeo. via Streetarse.

I'm not sure if this would be interesting to see or not. It could very well end up being an exercise in watching sheer bloody mindedness. The vigilante chap who's wandering around painitng over graffiti seems so confident and sure of himself, that he's in the right, and ... pleased that the graffiti artsits will never stop him. It's not clear from the trailer whether he thinks that he can stop the graffiti artists. If he does, he's in for a lifetime of dissapointment.

And seriously, how repugnant is the guy who says that graffiti conveys the impression that decent people do not control the streets? Very is the answer. Guess who gets to determine who is a decent person or not in his world? Betcha it's him and that decent people are people like him who only behave exactly how he wants people to behave. I'm not entirely sure I could stomach watching more than that few seconds worth of interview with him.

I believe Streetarse is right, in that the Auckland City Council should watch this sort of thing, try to understand street art rather than dismiss it and insist that we should only be looking a official committee approved art or advertising. Kingsland for one would be a much poorer place without our street art.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The price of alcohol.

I've thought, for quite a while now, that a minimum price for alcohol would be, on the whole, a good thing. I'm not a fan of drinking to get drunk. Yeah, getting drunk, it's a pleasant side effect, but if that is the goal, then you're doing it wrong. My theory is that you should be drinking because you like the taste. I know taste is subjective, but some of the cheap alcohol, primarily beers and spirits - ick. I used to, but I can't really see why people choose to drink Lion Red, Steinlager or Vladisvostok cheap arsed vodka. My theory was that a minimum price would raise the quality of the product, if there was no way to charge less, then there would be less incentive to try and make it as cheaply as possible. If you had to pay the same amount for Lion Red as for Stoke or Macs (neither as good as Tuatara, but still good), seriously, who would buy it? This of course, is reliant on the difference in price not being returned to the manufacturer, something that could be problematic.
The usual reason given for pushing for a minimum price, is that it would reduce alcohol consumption across the whole of society and thus reduce problematic drinking. Dr No, shows us why it's always a good idea to think things through.
The main problem I have with my theory, was that a minimum price would hit the poorest in society hardest. Turns out if you think about a minimum price, there are other, more serious problems with it. Most of the studies used to show that a drop in societal drinking levels will reduce problematic drinking rely on numerous assumptions - few of which have actually been verified. The biggest one assumes that heavy drinkers are just as likely to reduce their drinking as someone who's not a particular heavy drinker. If you think about it though, a heavy drinker is going to be more attached to their booze and thus are more likely to attempt to compensate for increased prices. Which means, amongst the poor, increased pressure on food, bills and rent budgets, i.e. it would just make things worse.
Combine that with the fact that the extra money probably would go back to the manufacturers or liquor stores rather than going towards improving the quality and I think the minimum price argument gets shot down in flames. Or at least until we get some proper studies done that aren't based on a bunch of unsubstantiated assumptions.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Waking up.

My last post was on Cory Doctorow's proposing 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 organization 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.

Parallels 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 American 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 political 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.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Occupy. A difference in kind, not degree.

Cory Doctorow is an author/blogger type chap who quite usually talks about copyright laws - he's a fan of liberalizing them. He gave a talk at the latest Chaos Communication Congress, talking about "the information war to come". It sounds a bit grandiose, but it's worth a listen, he is, as usual, a thought provoking speaker. One observation he made, near the end in the questions, was how with the advent of occupy we're seeing a new type of activism, a change in kind rather than a change in degree of activism. And that it is largely due to the development of networks and communication technology. Sort of obvious right?

One of the charges that has been laid (continuosuly and stupidly) against the occupy movement is that they don't have a set of concrete goals, there's no leadership structure, no central point of contact. Cory suggests that this is becuase we don't have a vocabulary for talking about movements of this sort. 10, 20 years ago, activists had to spend most of their time organising, stuffing envelopes,actually doing the work of communicating with the movement that they were trying to build. Which means that the movement had to be very focused, if you didn't have a very focused goal, after bringing the organisation together, you would find that some people disagreed with some of the goals, you'd end up with schisms, people going home. So over the years, we've constructed the way we talk about protest movements as being organised with specifc goals.
So, Occupy comes along. We get coordinated action across multiple cities - something that previously wouldn't have been possible with out large scale organization. Now, with the ease of computing and communication, no where near enough effort has to be put into the operation of the communication channels. So we can have an Occupy to protest a range of issues. If some disagree on some of the issues, then they can communicate that easily and wander off to the side to have another little Occupy. Which means that we're beginning to see a new type of protest movement - that difference in kind.

The other example he used was Anonymous - I can see the parallels in the nature of the organization that he's talking about. It's an interesting line of thought. And another good reason to be opposed to the idiot copyright laws that continue to laws around the world, which, while they would eventually be routed around, are just going to slow this sort of thing down. It would be better for all concerned if we figured out our new vocabulary for talking about these things rather than dithered about trying to figure out if we're allowed to talk about it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Noticing things.

Over the past year or so in the skeptic blogosphere there's been a couple of stoushes regarding the amount of sexism in the community. I don't tend to hang out, physically, with any particularly overt skeptics groups, so I'm not exposed to it anywhere other than online. Again, even online there's not many places I see it, the sites where I read the comments tend to be smaller communities where we get the odd loon, but they're not usually many put downs based purely on gender.
One of the things I have been trying to be very aware of for a while now is the fact that pretty much by definition, my world is not like everyone else's. So when I see the depths to which some/large numbers of people can sink, it gets rather depressing. Like reading a column written by Garth George but worse. A lot worse. There are glimmers of hope, like this. It's good summation of why "it was just a joke" is one of the more pathetic excuses around. The presumption that I make here, is that those who make these stupid sexist rants are not currently aware of only aware in a limited fashion, that what goes for them, does not go for other people.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


There appears to have been quite a few people dying lately in various accidents - on the road and off. Possibly because it's summer and there are more people out doing things. The thing that made me notice though, was the fact that the were almost all "living the dream"
Romanian conservationist : living the dream
Rotorua truckie: top guy doing what he'd been born to do (drive trucks).
Wanaka teen: lived life to the full.
And that was just in today's paper. I know people try to speak well of the dead but it's rather grim - it could almost give the impression that it's dangerous to be happy doing whatever it is that you do.

For your edification.

Or more probably for your amusement as you laugh at my inane ideas. Criticisms would be welcome though. I'd like to bring a few disparate items that have got me thinking. Honeybees, Internet busting legislation and it's alternatives, and the occupy movement. Bear with me.
So, the problem with pretty much any system of government that we have is that they're all open to abuse. Leaders are an essential part of all systems and leaders, sooner or later are open to making accommodations. Here in New Zealand, we've managed to avoid the excesses, but overseas, money eventually worms it's way into whatever system of government is in operation somehow.

There was some work done recently on how hives of honey bees reach a decision. Deciding where to form a new hive that sort of thing. There are parallels with It's remarkably similar to the activity of neurons in our brains (or, at least in primate brains, I'm assuming that means ours as well) during decision making. An interesting thing that. From their research, the researchers generalized 5 suggestions
  1. Create groups with mutual respect and shared interest
  2. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group thinking
  3. Seek diverse solutions
  4. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate
  5. Use quorum responses for speed, cohesion, and accuracy
The one that leapt out at me there was was number 2. Two other things bring to mind the minimization of the role of leader. One of which is the recent occupy movement with their general assemblies. This, I will happily admit is the weak point of this theory. As much as leaders are discouraged in the occupy movement, it is still possible for a general assembly to be led. Of the people I know that were heavily involved with Occupy Auckland, all of them left as certain groups started to acquire excessive influence. Something that could possibly be controlled for, but then every form of government has something that must be controlled for.

The other movement that springs to mind, is the open source movement where the effort is again communal, with those initiating the project offering guidance. This did come to mind because I'd just finished reading this. There's a bill going through the American congress at the moment, theoretically to stop online piracy, but it's appeared ready made, probably directly form the motion picture association. It's pretty draconian and if passed, will severly damage quite a few internet based businesses, There's law makers from both sides of the aisle getting a little nervous about it. And one of them is creating an alternative, using an open platform they've vreated. Not in the sense of it's structure, but in it's product. It's a wikipedia type thing where legislation can be viewed and commented upon by anyone as it is created. Which, given the amount of badly written legislation we have, is, I think a grand idea, many eyes catching mistakes and uninteded consequences before it even gets to parliament.

And now he finally gets around to the point. What I'd like to see, just to see how it goes, is a system where leaders are de-emphasized, citizens debate the issue in cells, the decisions of the cells bounce back and forth and eventually decisions get made - like the bees or neurons. And topped off with legislation that is open to all in it's construction. Open source democracy running mostly at the level of the citizen. There would be problems I'm sure, but it would be interesting. I suspect it would make it harder for money to work it's way into the system.

This is of course, entirely whimsical, I'm just interested as to how such a system would play out. Curious. Besides for it to be implemented even on a small scale would require ... leadership.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

There. That. That's the proper attitude.

Currently reading an article in the herald, paper copy sorry, no link atm. Spokesperson for the food safety minister Kate Wilkinson says claims that ministry staff will start warrantless raiding and searching homes is nonsense. Steffan Browning from the Greens makes the observation that it's not good enough. The fact that the legislation says they can, is appalling, even if they don't. It gives them more power than the police, which is just wrong in so many ways. Points for Mr Browning.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Something to add.

I came across this a while ago. I've not found time to write about it but I think it deserves it. It's an interesting argument, one which I think has some validity. I've got something I'd like to add to it though.
I don't dabble much in the atheism/religion debates that flit back and forth across the internet. Most of the things that I would say are said better and more often by others. In case you're wondering, I generally fall pretty firmly into the camp of Blackford, Watson, McCreight, Myers, Coyne, Cristina, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and occasionally Dennet camps. Every so often, they'll write something I disagree with, but for the most part, I think they're reasonable sensible. i.e. religion is a)nonsense and b)not worth the damage it causes. Theology, the misnamed intellectual defense of religion is empty.
We use science to come closer to understanding how our world works. The article is quite right in that R.A Fisher and various other statisticians over the years have laid down a framework for looking at data and constructing experiments that work. This is the key point - it works. There are philosophers that claim there is no need to conduct randomized double blinded trials. That data gathered by observational studies can be equally as valid as properly constructed experiments. Speaking from experience, I can tell you this is just plain wrong. The statisticians have done a lot to enable scientists better understand the world. Philosophers, not so much. So it's understandable that a lot of scientists ignore philosophy.
I don't think they should though. If you only want to do science, then no, you don't need to pay attention to philosophy. If you want to participate in the rest of the world and apply scientific principles to our societies, then a familiarity with philosophy is incredibly useful. The trouble being that large large chunks of philosophy is filled with complete bollocks, which is understandable, it doesn't have the same self control mechanisms that science has. For example, ethical analysis - useful, most of the work on Artificial Intelligence - bollocks. Start comparing what philosophy says about the world with how you can see the world works, and you can start picking out what is useful and what isn't.
So where does this come back to the atheist/religion debate? Theology. I've read read a fair whack of philosophy. some of it useful, some of it not, some of it just completely pointless. Theology, I read some, not as much as the philosophy, but enough. It's all pointless, empty. Science can ignore philosophy simply because it works. Philosophy can't ignore science, when it does it ends up being useless. Both fields can ignore theology, it's neither right nor useful.