Thursday, August 30, 2012

Another (18) bite the dust.

Via Lactia is a research company owned by Fonterra. They are, to the best of my knowledge, well respected in New Zealand Biotech, doing some good science. The news then, that they are losing 18 science positions is not ... encouraging. Rather than generating ideas themselves, they will apparently be looking for science done overseas and using that to advance their interests in New Zealand.

New Zealand has abysmally low levels of research done by industry in the first place. And now Fonterra, one of our largest companies is apparently no longer willing to support basic research into their own industry which is just depressing.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Now we're getting somewhere.

The fluff that keeps getting announced by the Ministry of Everything has been getting me down. There's been some nice things in there (increased recognition of the science etc.) but overall, I don't really think most of it has done or will do much, either for science in New Zealand or for New Zealand itself.
So it's nice to see something that sets a bit of direction and will, I think help: funding. The ministry has released their first round of investment. This is where how you get scientists and innovators interested - show them what you want to work on. It provides direction and will get people thinking about what they want to work on that could possibly contribute to the goals.
The biological industries fund - seems good. There are projects attempting to build on (or save) what we have. And I like the Hazards/Infrastructure section and it's particularly relevant with the whole Christchurch thing - putting thought into how we live as a society is always a good thing. The Energy minerals sections has some good points, there's a decent chunk of money for renewables research and grid storage. The focus on ageing puzzles me a bit in the health/society fund, but it's not a bad thing.
Ideally the fund as a whole could have been bigger, but that's a complaint that could be made no matter what the size. It's unfortunate I think, that they're looking at spending money on researching offshore mining. A couple of the biology projects seem ... overly focused maybe. There's two grants for the "Leather and Shoe Research Association" which at first glance to me seem like they should be being funded by industry. Especially since we don't, to the best of my knowledge, actually have a shoe industry here any more. Is this an attempt to create one or is it to improve the hides we presumably send offshore?
All in all, on the assumption that this is new funding and not old funding shuffled around, it's not a bad start. Not spectacular, but definitely not bad.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Targeted is better.

I don't actually agree with a universal child payment. It's a bit of a waste really. If we're trying to have a poverty baseline under which no one falls then money should be targeted. I don't see the point in giving money to parents who are either swimming in it or even just coping. I'd rather money be spent on those most in need. It's the whole point of have a welfare state - having a safety net for those that need it, not to make life a little bit easier for those who are already coping.
And from a larger societal point of view, giving money to those who don't need it is silly, it takes money out of circulation - it'll get put into a savings account or some such. Whereas if you give it to those who needed it, they'll spend it - more money in the system, better all round. That's not really the point though. The point is that that if it's not targetted, then there's more wastage than there needs to be.


Going through the progress indicators in the Ministry of Everything's "Building Innovation"  progress report. Specifically in the section "growing the innovation workforce: - important to me because I'm going to want a job one day. Preferably one where I get to be a scientist. There's nine points, of which 4 are marked as completed:
  • Lift the profile of science through the appointment of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor
  • Institute the Rutherford Fellowships to provide greater opportunities for early stage researchers
  • Establish the annual Prime Minister’s Science Prizes to acknowledge and reward scientific achievement
  • Maintain internationally competitive personal tax rates that encourage highly-skilled workers to work from New Zealand
Can't say as I'm overwhelmed with optimism. Appointment of a science advisor. Cool. It's done some good - brought a little sanity to the discussion of some topics. How's it's meant to grow the innovation workforce though, I'm not sure. Maybe it's meant to have inspired some sprogs to take up science as a career. Maybe it has. who knows. the Rutherford Fellowships - grand for them that can get them. 10 per year. And it's for early/mid stage researchers. Competition will be - fierce. Same thing with the PM's Science prize - it's for a few people who have done particularly well and while that recognition is a good thing, I don't see how it's grow the workforce. And the last one just completely misses the boat. Very few scientist will look at the personal tax rate and decide that that's the thing that's going to stop them from working somewhere. They will go where the work is interesting. There are larger economic arguments for low tax rates (not saying they're valid arguments) - but it's not going to the thing that innovators will look at and decide to move country because of.
So what's in progress then?
  • Complete a stock take of post-PhD employment opportunities in New Zealand and make policy changes if required
  • Increase investment in engineering studies at tertiary institutions and lift graduate numbers by 500 per annum by 2017
  • Collect and provide better information on career prospects to students and the tertiary sector
  • Highlight the role of entrepreneurship in business innovation through annual Prime Minister’s Business Scholarships
  • Investigate highlighting innovation careers in science, design, engineering and maths to school students and their families
A stock take, that's good, it's easier to make changes when you know where you're starting from. I don't imagine the results of that stock take will be particularly encouraging though. Increasing investment at engineering faculties is probably the high point on this list. I would be nice to see a corresponding increase in the sciences so the scientists can give the engineers new and better things to play with. I don't see how providing information on the limited job prospects to students is going to make things better - surely that will only send more people to study law. Business scholarships - again for a few, the recognition may be nice but it's not something that any researcher is specifically going to strive for. And investigation of highlighting innovation careers? That's not even highlighting science/engineering/design to prospective students. Again it's sounds like they're attempting to take an evidence based approach to building things up, which is good, but I just don't see how anything is going to change that will keep me in New Zealand when I finish my PhD. I would like to stay and be part of an innovative workforce, but it will be availability of interesting work that keeps me here. It certainly won't be the tax rate.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ummm .... okay

From the PM's speech at the presentation of the Transit of Venus Forum report last night:
"The first thing I would highlight is that we have been actively working to lift the profile of science in New Zealand."
Seriously? How? Whilst I'll admit that I'm somewhat biased, in as much as I'm already in the field and am thus possibly less likely to see the reaction of the public to "measures to lift the profile of science".

So there's:
On becoming Prime Minister I established the position of Chief Science Advisor, reporting to me personally, which Sir Peter has filled admirably.
This is something I suspect most people in the science community are aware of. And a limited number of the general public. And whilst it's been a good thing, I'm at best unsure as to it's benefit in lifting the profile of  science in NZ.
I also launched the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, with total prize money of $1 million, because I think our scientists deserve their share of public acknowledgement and acclaim.
Oh? That's nice. If I've barely registered this, I seriously doubt anyone else has
And we are continuing to improve the way the science system operates. Sir Peter’s Forum report highlights some opportunities in this regard and we’ll continue to work on those.
Over the last year, I've seen many pictures, nice diagrams with generic high levels statements about what is being done for science. I've not seen any perceptible change in the general public's perception though.

Someone remind me, I'd like to say something positive about the public perception of science in NZ at some point. It's Friday and late though. And the Malthouse has done me in with Tuatara's Double trouble.

Where's the blue sky?

Back in June there was a forum held in Tologa Bay, aptly, for historical reasons (go look them up, transits, Captain Cook etc), called the Transit of Venus forum. Originally the brain child of Sir Paul Callaghan, it was curated by Sir Peter Gluckman. The idea was to discuss how science can be a part of making society better - I like that part, the recognition that science isn't separate/distinct from society, but part of it.
Anyway. So Sir Peter  distilled the themes that were running through the various discussions and presented them to the Prime Minister last night at a Royal Society gig. Whilst I wasn't there, I did watch what was being said via twitter. It was sort of depressing. The general feeling that emerged whilst the politicians were talking was there there is little place in science in this country for just figuring things out - that's what gives scientist a buzz btw if you hadn't been paying attention. It appears that we must focus on science that has specific outcomes that can be turned into economically viable businesses. Which is just ... wrong.

Someone in the twitter feed linked to this this, which I think is pertinent. There is a crisis of perception, if not here, then approaching. The innovative technology that our leaders want us to go looking for is not generally foreseeable  As in you can't go looking for it. Maxwells descriptions of how electricity work didn't arise from him trying to construct a toaster. Yet toasters arose as a by product of Maxwell understanding and aiding others in harnessing the power of electricity. And the contestable funding model that we have for most science funding in New Zealand supports this idea that you should be able to predict what you are looking for and of what benefit it will be. This is not an approach that leads to new and innovative ideas that can be commercialized. 

And to compound the problem, some of the problems that we are being asked to find problems for already have answers. Apparently we must develop a vaccine for rheumatic fever. Yet we already no that one of the biggest causes is poverty and the lack of adequate housing. There's a solution already there, it's apparently not sophisticated enough. This is not an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff type approach. It's someone standing next to the ambulance at the top of the cliff yelling down to the bottom asking if everything is alright.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

At least we're talking about it.

It's an hour long, but if you haven't done much in the way of reading about David Nutt and the whole Drugs advisory committee saga in the UK from a year or so ago, then it's worth listening to. Professor Nutt is a neuropsychopharmacologist Bit of a mouthful I know. He was also the head of the UK's drug advisory committee who got fired after he came out publicly stating that cannabis and E and a whole bunch of other drugs that are currently illegal are, when you look at the evidence, significantly less harmful to both the individual and society than alcohol and tobacco. He provides a good overview of the saga on this science podcast from the Guardian. Near the end of it he is asked if he thinks there will ever be change, will be ever have evidence based drug policy aimed at reducing the harm to society? His answer is basically when we get the next generation of politicians. it might have been difficult even 10 years ago for him to be talking about drug policy reform. It's nice to see that things have changed sufficiently that we can at least talk about evidence based policy reform - still sad that we're not quite at the point of enacting it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Respect and belief.

So our associate minister of education states that he believes the genesis account of creation in the christian bible to be correct. Not to long after a christian group from South Auckland express interest in running one of the governments new charter schools so that creationism can be taught alongside evolution.
This is, I believe, markedly different from some journalist sneaking around trying to discover dirty secrets about a politician. At a time when religion is in the news, a politician makes a statement about their religous beliefs is, in my opinion, very much putting said beliefs on the table for discussion.Following Banks's interview on Radio Rhema (where he told everyone he believes in genesis) there has been a flurry of twitter conversations expressing either laughter or despair. Personally, I believe I felt both of those emotions.
Then we get this tweet from Banks himself

Who knew so many would be interested & intolerant of my faith? These beliefs are my own and are separate from my Ministerial duties.
Firstly, bringing something like this up, at the same time as christian groups express interest in running charter schools links his beliefs to his ministerial duties as the Assocaiate Minister of Education. It wouldn't if he was the the associate minister of ... say Justice or Corrections.This link also justifies the interest in the public statement of his beliefs.
The other point is the characterisation of the ridicule expressed on twitter as intolerance. It's not intolerance, it's a lack of respect. Intolerance would imply that people are actively trying to prevent him from speaking. There's no censorship police breaking down his door to take his computer away. The police will not be prosecuting. This is as it should be. He is as free as anyone else in New Zealand to talk about his beliefs, everyone is, as they should be, tolerating his expression of belief. What the twitterverse doesn't have is respect for his beliefs.
Now here I need to clarify something. Respect is one of those tricky words, in that it can have multiple meanings. you can say "with respect to" which is a simple acknowledgement. Or you can say "I respect person X or idea Y", which is to say that you acknowledge and admire X or Y. While one can respect the right of a person to have certain beliefs (sense 1) it does not automatically follow that you respect those beliefs (sense 2). It's a a small difference in the words but it changes meanings significantly. I am firmly in the camp that believes that a persons right to belief anything should not be impinged upon. I don't see religious beliefs being exempt from criticism, especially when there is the potential for the beliefs of an individual to unduly influence our secular education system.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Curiouser and curiouser.

So I'm watching a TV series at the moment, by the name of Continuum.  Canadian sci-fi and not a bad one. The premise is that in 60 years or so in the future, the governments have failed and essentially been taken over by corporations. There's some terrorists who escape execution by travelling back in time accidentally taking a cop with them. A chase ensues over the course of the series. So, not bad as far as sci-fi plots go, not hugely original, but well executed.
Here's what I find interesting though, is that the bad guys, the terrorists are "anti corporate". And if that's all they were in the (not particularly dystopic) future, fine, they would just be generic anti-authority bad guys. There are very obvious links being suggested however been the anti corporate terrorists of tomorrow who are willing to blow up thousands to kill 20 twenty people and the grass roots organisation of anti corporate protests today (travelled back in time to 2012 remember).
By itself, possibly something to wonder at. Did anyone else though, notice that the bad guys in the Dark Knight Rises, the latest batman film, were using the language of the 99% protesters? i.e. "free yourself from the oppression of the ruling elite". Continuum is never going to get the exposure that Batman had, it will be interesting over the next year or I think, to keep an eye out and see if this is something that is slowly creeping into the culture or whether I'm imagining it. It's quite possible I am, though I'm wondering what the implications we do get more shows like this*

*No, I'm not suggesting there is some huge arsed bollocky conspiracy afoot.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Discovery opens door to cheaper solar panels | Ars Technica

So the first Auckland nerdnite went smoothly. Had about twice as many people turn up as I expected, which was nice, questions galore for all 3 speakers and interesting talks. All in all a success. It has meant that I've been rather busy though and what time I've had spare I've had to spend in the lab. It's 12:45 am now and I've caught up with maybe 80% of my email. Time for a break.

This has been in my sights for a few days now. Especially since one of the talks at nerdnite was about solar energy in New Zealand and it's associated costs. Basically, a team at Berkley have figured out a way to make significantly cheaper solar panels using a bunch of metal oxides, sulfides and phosphides as the semi-conductors in photo-voltaic cells. Metal oxides haven't been able to be used as semiconductors in solar panels up to now because the semiconductors need to stay in a very specific configuration to be able to allow electric current to flow. The trick, apparently is to have a constant low level electric current running continuously through the cells which keeps the atoms all lined up correctly and allows the current to flow.

Ingenuous.Very cool. And another step along the way to an affordable distributed energy grid.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Electoral review.

So the two main changes to come from the electoral review are that the single seat coat tails clause should be dropped and the party vote threshold dropped from 5 to 4 percent. Neither of these, do I have any problems with.
The coat tail clause, whereby a party will get their full proportion of MP's even if they gather less than 5% of the party vote, provided they have a single electorate seat has been the cause of some oddities in years past. Such as when Act, managed to get 5 seats on approximately 3% of the vote where NZ First managed to get get just over 4 percent and got no seats. It's been the part of MMP that I have been least happy with. If you can win an electorate seat, fine take the electorate seat, that shouldn't then give you a free pass for meeting the threshold that everyone else has to meet. I've heard it said that this will reduce the proportionality of the system since parties with less votes than the threshold won't get any extra MP's that they might have got, despite being below the threshold. I don't think this is an argument in and of itself though, it's a variation on the "there shouldn't be a threshold argument" - i.e. that you think that even if they got less than the threshold that they should get a proportional number of MP's.
There is an argument to be made for having no threshold - true proportionality. It's not necessarily a bad one, but nor is the argument for having a threshold - workability. It's possible that without the threshold we wouldn't get a number of smaller single issue parties getting in, gumming up the works and holding the larger parties to ransom on their pet policy. It's not a given that that wouldn't happen though and I think a threshold is a good way to prevent it. It means that only parties of a significant size, i.e. that have worked up a comprehensive policy platform (hopefully) that covers wide areas of the governments remit will be participating in government. Again, not a given that you won't get a bunch of single issue ideologues, but with a threshold, less likely I think.
Dropping the threshold to 4%, will on average I think increase the level of proportionality and get rid of the ability of a single electorate to dictate the make up of parliament as Epsom have been (knowingly) doing for the last couple of elections.
The interesting part of the review for me is the getting rid of overhang seats - if you get more seats than your party vote entitles you to it won't increase the size of parliament, it'll just limit the number of seats the other parties get. I'm not sure how that will play out and am thus, intrigued.

Is McCarten one of the ABC's?

That's probably a tad unfair. I suspect he's not one of the ABCS (anyone but Cunliffe). I suspect he's more of the disgusted with the whole bloody lot of them commentators. In part though, I disagree with only a small part of his appraisal of the Labour's performance (poor) so far this year. I agree that the general performance of Labours front bench has been lacklustre.  Where I disagree is that while Cunliffe might not have specifically attacked Joyce's performance over the past month (umm.... he's been on holiday for a bit), he's the only Labour front bencher that I have actually registered in the media over the past few months. Specifically with his speeches that have been outlining a coherent world-view which I sincerely hope for thoroughly doubt is shared by the Labour caucus as a whole.
So I don't know why he gets a mention. Odd, as I say. Anyway, the final sentiment expressed is accurate though. Labour need to pick up their game.
Otherwise those Greens will continue to look better and better.
Though if you think about it, that sentiment has been accurate for how long now? A couple of years? If not for teh presence of Cuniliffe, I would have completely given up on Labour quite some time ago. Not that I'm particualrly for them at the moment. I just have written them completely off. Yet.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A laugh a minute (it's that or cry)

It seems sometimes that our police do not go out of their way to cover themselves in glory. If you're worried enough about someone resisting arrest in a violent manner and destroying evidence, to the point where you're willing to get the special tactics group in and go running through a house with armed police then the least you should be doing is having a bloody good look at the floor plans of the place you're raiding. Ignoring the plans is not tactics. It's slapstick. 13 minutes to find your target? And then only with the help of the bodyguard? If there was any truth to the notion that Dotcom had a device ready to wipe all the servers data in minute, then they obviously weren't taking it seriously. Every time there is a court hearing on this, it just looks more and more like another depressing cock up by the police. <sigh>

Thursday, August 9, 2012

And another one.

A speech from David Cunliffe that is. From a few weeks ago yes, but given the recent kerfluffle over the asinine Duncan Garner article, relevant. There is little in this speech to find fault with - I'd possibly disagree with representation of Australian wages being high because the government superficially values the workers - my take is more that it's the miners are loaded and are bumping the average up. having said that, I'm not an economist who follows these things absurdly closely. Apart from that though, no major qualms with this speech.
I have no idea what goes on internally at the Labour party caucus meetings, but Cunliffe in this and elsewhere does not present as someone who is causing trouble and sowing dissent within the party. He presents as someone who is doing the work and is being supportive of his parties leadership. So the two images we have are of unamed party sources backstabbing a fellow party member and a party member who, despite having lost his bid to become leader of the party, continues to work, put forth principled arguments and support the leadership. Guess which of those two roles seems more statesmanlike?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Switch Off

Funnily enough, if you get rid of your TV, stop watching the talking heads and pay a little bit more attention to how statistics and polling works, when you do end up hearing the commentators talk, they sound like complete lunatics. Seriously. A 1% drop in a single poll is, well, meah. nothing,. doesn't mean anything. Yet the pontificaters feel the need to start going on about the front bench not working and legacy factors and other bollocks. And in a months time when he gets 1% back on his approval rating it'll be "finally getting some traction" headlines. The only thing worse than blow hards spewing this nonsense just so they have something to say is having to listen to it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Something new.

I've been something of an amateur beer geek for a while now. Very amateur apparently. I've brewed several beers from grain with a roughly 80% hit ratio. And I've waxed a little lyrical every so often, appreciative of the fact that in the last 5-10 years, it's actually been possible to get good albeit expensive beer in NZ. I'm not griping about the expense mind, it's more of an acknowledgement that I don't get to have as much of it as I would like, what with the limited funds that come attached to PhD stipends.

Recently though, I've come across two websites, one of which, as corny as this sounds, can only be said to have inspired me. Beer for a year regales us with the tales of Alice Galletly, a local novice beer geek who appears to have, by dint of much practice - one different beer a day for 1 year, to have become a serious beer geek over the past year. Serious in terms of experience, rather than demeanour (I've never met her, but her writing has humour). I like the level of dedication and obvious joy that's gone into the project. The only annoyance I have is that I've only come across the blog in the last few weeks of the mission.
And Phil Cook's Beer Diary. A entirely enjoyable read about the many and various brews you can get if you look hard.
After having wasted entirely to much time reading these blogs over the past week, when I found myself in the chiller at the beer shop last night, I found myself turning away from the shelf of Tuatara beer that I've grown rather fond of. Something new I thought. And Dad's been drinking a bit of porter lately, so I grabbed a bottle of Three boys porter. Quite nice it was, dark and chocolatey. I have a sneaking suspicion that my beer consumption might be about to drop significantly, whilst the amount I spend, remains alarmingly the same. It was a nice reminder that it's good to try something new every so often.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I may be mistaken, but

I get the impression that there is a significant overlap between those who think that don't want more intensive housing development in their area, those that think there shouldn't be limits on housing developments at the edge of the city and those who scream loudest when the council puts the rates up. If this is indeed the case, then I would advance the proposition that these people do not actually know how a city functions.
More development/expansion of the city around the edges requires the construction of large amounts of infrastructure that will service comparatively few people. This is ... expensive, the cost per head over the city goes up and rate rise. Intensification with an upgrade of infrastructure gives you infrastructure that services a comparatively greater number of people and the cost per head goes down. Rates still rise, but not as much. And to make the city liveable, you want to put your centres of intensification alongside traffic/public transport corridors.

The one thing that I've found with my 15 or so years worth of living in a city, is that cities change. In some regions the change is slow - Remuera used to be uber posh, now it's still mostly posh. in other suburbs, the change is comparatively fast - Grey Lynn was ramshackle 15 years ago, it's largely expensive in a laid back sort of way now. It's odd, because I do have some sympathy for those that fight the changes in their neighbourhoods but I don't see how you can get around the need to impose major change or end up with a city that shuts people out by dint of being to expensive. There's something to be said for locking some suburbs down, into "heritage" suburbs. Locking all suburbs into the state they are now though can only lead to stagnation though. And the desires of one suburb to remain changeless does not outweigh the needs of the city to accommodate more citizens without raising costs excessively.