Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beer yes, IPA? no not really.

This lunchtime I had occasion to try one of Monteith's "Brewers Series". Which I presume is Monteith's attempt at trying to appeal to the surging craft beer market. I can't pass an opinion on the porter, the wheat beer or the ginger beer. If the IPA is anything to go by, they won't really be worth bothering with.

"There’s plenty of rich maltiness from this Pale Ale and higher-kilned malt combination. The Cascade and special New Zealand hops create a fruity aroma with a dose of bitterness to drive home the hop flavour. A beer for the IPA aficionado with a distinctly Kiwi style. Perfect for a moment spent catching up with old mates."

Rich maltiness? More ... lemonadey I would have said. It's Monteith's original with a few extra hops chucked in. "Special New Zealand hops". Which ones? One of the things I suspect Monteith's doesn't get about the craft beer market is that those who take an interest in their beer, take an interest in their beer. Bland marketing blurbs do not help inform the drinker. I suppose you could describe it as hoppy. If your normal beer is the urinary extract of Mustelinae Mustela. It's not as if the big breweries can't do good beer. The Macs seasonal ranges are by and large, good and even their day to day range has some good beers, namely Hop Rocker and the Sassy Red.

It's drinkable, I'll give it that. It's not horrible. With so much other good beer coming out locally though, I don't see why you would bother drinking this. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of craft beer and as such, is but a pale imitation. 3/10 for the beer, 1/10 for effort.

And alcohol sites insisting on entering a birth-date? Please, it's insulting.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nerdnite and stuff.

I've now got the talk titles and summaries in for the next Auckland Nerdnite. There's a talk on why birds aren't any bigger than they are. One on conspiracy theories and why we should take them seriously - not the actual theories but the existence of the theories (and theorists). And one on lasers. Should hopefully, with the lessons I've learnt over the past couple of sessions, be good (seriously, who doesn't like lasers).

 It's also Open Access Week, promoting open access in scholarship. When research is published in open access journals, for those that don't know, it is freely accessible to the public. This is view by many (including me) as a sensible thing. Not only because in many cases it's the public that pays for a lot of the research in the end, but because it makes it easier for researchers to get to and build upon others work.

When Siouxsie Wiles was talking about it recently, she was asked what her role was. it got her thinking about her role in communicating science to the public. After all, having research available to those of the public who are interested is part of the battle. That doesn't necessarily make it comprehensible, thus the suggestion of adding an easily understandable summary of the main findings of papers. Something which I think also has potential. The dense language that scientists use in many papers can be (and is) used badly by many, but it can also be a method of condensing work down to make it more easily communicable to others in the same field. A step back from that in a summary would probably be a good thing both for inter-disciplinary communication and communication with the world at large.

I popped up with my standard question, which I'm almost sick of me asking. That being how do you engage with the adult population who don't really care? And I'm beginning to think there isn't really an answer. The best we can do I suspect, is tell people about the science and why it's absurdly cool. Hopefully some of those people will end up talking to those who aren't engaged and getting them enthused. Or at least curious. Which is partly what I hope nerdnite will do. It's preaching to the choir with the hope that the choir will do the work.

There's a distinct lack of initiatives that reach out to those who don't particularly care about what science is doing. And I can't go and talk to them all, so I talk to those who want to listen and hope they talk to others. It all I've got. And besides, as David Winter says, he “doesn’t quite understand how anyone can do science without wanting to tell the world about it ”. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shouldn't it though?

This "will have 'serious ramifications' for employers"

I see this trope relatively often. In this case, the supreme court in England has ruled that it has jurisdiction and will hear cases related to equal pay compensation claims for up to six years prior to the commencement of the case as opposed to the current six month time limit. And there's a bunch of people muttering about how this has serious implications for employers as if this is obviously a bad thing. Well, yes, it has serious implications for employers who have been screwing their workers. I'm firmly of the opinion that there should be serious implications for employers like that though. Employers acting in a fair and reasonable manner aren't going to have a problem.

The other place this pops up quite often is in conversations about minimum wage. An increase in minimum wage "will have serious implications for employers". If the minimum wage is not sufficient to live on, then employers who only pay the minimum wage are screwing their employees and there damn well should be some serious implications. It's not as if those paying the lowest possible wages actually value their staff, as Chris Rock once said : "Do you know what your boss is telling you when he pays you the minimum wage? He's telling you, 'I would pay you less, but I can't.'".

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

GE for sustainability.

Late last week there we had the reports of engineered algae possibly being used to produce the ethylene for plastic - something that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuel sources. Well here's another use of genetic engineering that could help us with that.

Vast swathes of corn are grown in the US for use in the production of biofuel. One of the problems with this is that parts of the plant that we currently use for producing fuel is the bit with easily accessible sugars for the yeasts that produce the food. This is otherwise known as the edible bit. The rest of the plant, the stalks, the foliage are wasted. The stalks and foliage of the plants contain to much cellulose, a component of the cell walls, made of sugar, that is incredibly hard to break down. As a result there's a lot of arable land being used for fuel production that could otherwise be being used for food production - something we're going to need a lot more of in the coming decades.

A group in Massachusetts has engineered corn so that the enzyme to break down the cellulose is already inside the cell where it can get easy access to the cellulose. On the face of it, it's a silly thing to do, if you have an enzyme in the plant cells that break down cell walls, there will be enzymes inside the cells, crippling the plant as it tries to grow. Which is where they get clever. When the plant is growing, the enzyme is produced in an inactive state. They've inserted a protein sequence called an intein that that excises itself out of a larger protein, specifically one that only works at high temperatures. The plant grows normally, you harvest the edible bits for food and ship the rest off to the fuel processing plant where it is heated, the intein activates, cut's itself out of the enzyme which then goes to work on the cellulose in the cell walls, breaking it down and freeing up all the sugar for the yeasts.

And you get the same benefit that you get with the ethylene producing bacteria, you're not introducing any new carbon into the atmosphere. It's not production ready and even when it is there a number of other factors to consider when trying to make farming more sustainable, but it's an ideal example of how GE technology can help.

Unless of course you consider GE is to be inherently evil.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Go directly to jail.

Well, not quite directly. In 2009 on the 6th of April, after a series minor quakes and a shock of 4.1 on the 30th of March,  there was an earthquake in Italy. People died. In this case though there had been a meeting of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The commission included several geophysicists. In the meeting there had been disagreement amongst the scientists, some thought that the minor shocks might have relieved tension and that no more shocks would be forthcoming. Some disagreed. The conclusion "was anything but reassuring"

A press conference was held ostensibly to report the commissions findings, though in fact to counter the publics unease  being caused by predictions being generated using an unreliable and unproven technique. The press conference reported that the "seismic situation in L'Aquila was certainly normal" and that there was "no danger".

Saying there is was no danger is the only point that I would find fault with the commission. If they had said "no danger other than what there normally is" I don't think I'd have any problems with their press conference. It doesn't follow though that the scientists who concluded that "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded"* should then be held accountable for the deaths caused by people not leaving their homes (supposedly because they were comforted and reassured by the commission).

I've been told that the idea that these scientists are being prosecuted because they didn't predict the earthquake on the 6th of April is stupid. It's not. The people who are finding fault with the commissions public statements acknowledge that the scientists cannot predict earthquakes. "People aren't stupid," he says. "They know we can't predict earthquakes." [1].

So when a commission comes out and says that there is no danger, i.e. that there is no chance of an earthquake then the only sensible interpretation is that there is no danger over and above the normal danger. Yes, the commission could have spelt it out better. To throw your normal precautions to the wind after a lifetime living in the area, because of the commissions statements is an abrogation of responsibility. It requires the assumption that the geophysicists are now capable of forecasting when there isn't going to be an earthquake. Which is the same thing as predicting when they will strike as well. On the assumption that people aren't stupid, if they know that the geophysicists can't predict quakes then the whole argument falls apart.

Which leaves the only reasonable interpretation that I can see being one big blame game that isn't going to help anyone. It might even end up hurting people in the long run by reducing scientists willingness to engage in public assessment of risk.

[1] John Mutter seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who declined to sign the open letter circulated to support the Italian scientists.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Convenience and sustainability.

From the cool file. Plastic is evil right? All those fossil fuels being dug up and used to pollute and kill birds and cute little baby seals? Pity it can be such a convenient material.
How about, instead of digging up all that oil and using it to make plastic, we engineer some bacteria  to produce ethylene and use that to make all our plastics?

The problem with using oil to get the ethylene for plastics, apart from the general littering and it's knock on effects on the environment, is that we are reintroducing a lot of extra carbon into the atmosphere that would otherwise be locked up underground. Which is where it should be if we want our children to live in a world that vaguely resembles the one we have. Using GE bacteria to produce plastics doesn't involve the introduction of any more carbon into the cycle - it both takes up carbon from the cycle and means that we would have to use less of the liquefied dead dinosaurs than we currently do.

And as they rightly point out, there are solutions (probably not perfect - very few things are). We can dispose of the plastics by feeding it to the mushrooms that eat plastic. A bit of tinkering and we can probably make those work even better as well. Convenience and sustainability all in one nice little package. Unless of course the GE is to inherently evil for you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Well that's just ....

I'm not sure how to sum all this up. Farce possibly?
The source of the MSD vulnerability turns out to be Ira Bailey. Source has previously been arrested on terrorism charges.
Keith Ng releases information on said vulnerability exposing gaping hole in MSD's security.
New Zealand National Cyber Security Council is strangely ... quiet.
New Zealand National Cyber Security Coulncil turns out to be part of the GCSB.
GCSB part of the bollocks, over the top raid on Kim Dotcom, a raid which was more suited to taking down an actual terrorist.
Dotcom upon whom the GCSB was eavesdropping had made donations to John Banks.
Current PM refused to read police report that incriminates Banks.
GCSB which PM is responsible for, fails to communicate said PM.


*update: Read Scott Yorke's assessment, he says it much more eloquently than I.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Support vs replace.

I have this picture in my head, of economists of yesteryear, jealous or envious or lacking confidence in their craft or ... something. Eager to bring their craft to the fore they formulated their theories of markets and insisted that everything was market driven. It's wildly inaccurate yes, I know there have been plenty of economists who haven't invested their all in the supremacy of the market. It amuses me though. It's either that or be horribly depressed. And given the continuing move towards a commercial footing of our universities (CEO salaries for vice chancellors etc) it's definitely one or the other. The longer you think about it, the more it's the latter.

Just as the physicists who insist that everything is reducible to a physics problem*, you get economists who insist that everything is reducible to a market. They're both wrong of course.
Markets as we know them are not the creators and inventors of all we see around us. Sometimes they will create something new but for the most part they draw on the knowledge that science has uncovered, the structures that mathematics have discovered. New things are created by people who are interested in how things work, who are interested in tinkering and making things better. Markets are valuable yes, they are tools that can be used to bring the fruits of science to the general population. It a balance though. If you suborn education and research to markets then the markets will lose the pool of innovation that they currently draw on.

Take computers for instance. It wasn't the market that created computers. It was people who were trying to figure out how to compute gunnery tables or break codes. Even the personal computer wasn't created by market forces. It was created by a bunch of geeks in garages who wanted to be able to tell machines what to do. Markets enabled the personal computer to grow, yes, but the seed didn't come from the market. Markets aren't everything, they're a tool, something that should be used to boost and support education, not replace it.

*Some things might be reducible to a physics problem if you had a sufficiently big computer, but the computers big enough for the biggest problems are quite frankly, impossible to build.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The end of a beer

Or at least I hope so. On Friday afternoon I was rather taken with the #momentsofmanhood tag on twitter. It accompanied tweets which were taking the piss out of the prospectus issued by Moa  beer last week. And quite frankly, it deserved it. The IPO/prospectus that it, the beer, when I've drunk it in the past has been good. Overpriced, but good.

The most obvious failing was the complete dismissal of women. As potential investors, as part of the beer drinking community*, as people really. That's bad enough on it's own, something that is enough to make me object to the whole venture on its own. The subtext that I'm going to personally take offence at though is the idea that it's built around the presumption that I, as a guy, am going to think this bleak dismissal of women is something that I would support. Moments of manhood my arse. If there's anything antithetical to my conception of manhood, it's the empty-ness and isolation that things like this embody.  For the record, Hayden Green's piece on this is well worth reading. Even better is Emma Hart's piece (short version - even if the were going for a dom/sub vibe with the silly human ash tray stands, they fucked it up).

This is pretty much a straw that breaks the proverbial camels back. I love the rising craft beer scene in New Zealand and I will continue to support it. I'll drink Heineken or Beck's when  it's free, they lack flavor. They are inoffensive. At best. Steinlager and Stella, not my cup of tea, I don't actually like the taste all that much. I really don'y like Moa's taste in advertising, so I don't think I'll be drinking it again. Even if it's free.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A question.

Very very quiet on the blogging front at the moment. You may have noticed if you're the sort of person who pays attention to that sort of thing. Thing is I've been writing for the past week, My literature review is due in in a few weeks time and it's time to massage that horrendous lump of text that I've been accumulating over the past year into a coherent whole. And to tell the truth, I'd forgotten how consuming writing can be. It's hard, yes, but the ability to get any enthusiasm up about anything else is, well, severely impaired.

So I'm farming my other thinking patterns out to the void. There's a festival of sorts that I'm attending in January, goes by the name of Kiwiburn. A New Zealand version of burning man, only it's in a paddock rather than in the desert. Every year Kiwiburn has a them and this year, since It's the tenth anniversary the theme is "EnlighTENment". Get it? Ten. Subtle isn't it? There's a fairly strong hippie contingent at Kiwiburn and I suspect most people attending will think of this theme in the "spiritual" vein.
I got to thinking though. The age of Enlightenment. The birth of the age of reason, the advancement of society through the use of science. It would be nice to do something to showcase that side of enlightenment. I don't know how to go about it though, the only idea I have so far would be to construct a Foucault pendulum of the power pylon that's on site. And while that would be cool, I don't really see me being able to get permission from Transpower to be able to do it. Myself and a few others are already planning on cutting a mini in half and fitting it out as a mini bar, but I don't really see that as showcasing the ideals of the enlightenment. Any other ideas?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lessons learned (work in progress)

The 2nd Auckland nerdnite happened last night. About the same number of people turned up though it felt like slightly fewer to me. I suspect that was because the seating was actually organised this time as opposed to being a hodge podge of seats and tables jammed in at the last minute like last time. 

I don't think it went as smoothly as the first either. Our first speaker was late, so I delayed the beginning rather than immediately swapping the 2nd speaker for the 1st. In the end it was getting to late so I did in the end, swap them. I really should have done it sooner. The delay ended up making the whole night go to late, which meant that there was a number of people who had to duck out before the 3rd speaker got completely underway - they missed a good talk.

The sound system really needs sorting out. The mikes worked fine when we tested them before hand but kept cutting out during questions and the like. The only solution I can figure for that is to work up a little set of guidelines for the speakers that includes getting them to repeat the questions. 

And I really have to work on my introductions I think. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

An example.

I don't believe for a minute that it will be taken as such, but the debacle around the release of the so called national standards data (NSD) for our schools provides an illustrative example of how science works. Granted, it's not usually carried out in such a public forum but I think it's a fair example. With one major exception.

ScienceNational Standards
-ExperimentSurvey/data collection
-Peer review to ensure coherence
-Publish Publish
-Work is attacked by the scientific communityWork attacked by people who know basic statistics
-Work becomes valued and retained or is found lacking and is forgottenWork is found lacking

Ideally your experimental design gets thrashed about before you start. The NSD equivalent would have been the government listening to the people who study education.  Peer review would have been equivalent to getting some statisticians to curate the data and verify what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from the data. I've argued before that peer review is a basic hurdle, not definitive of good science. Over the years there's been a fair amount of work that's got past the peer review process that really shouldn't have. Wakefields paper linking the MMR vaccine and autism for one. More recently the appalling rats feeding on GMOs out of France. Without that basic coherence check we would have chaos.

Which is amply demonstrated by the current reporting of the NSD. The data is currently being disassembled by a number of people who know their statistics. Result: there's precious little information in there and it does an okay-ish job of reporting something that we already knew, that there is a correlation between poor performance and decile.

The difference being that the chances of the NSD being quietly forgotten and not acted upon is small.