Thursday, November 29, 2012

Now this worries me

Has anyone else noticed the change in the background noise of climate change chatter the past few weeks? The prevailing undertone that I've noticed over the past few months is that restricting the change in temperature to 2 degrees is no longer an option.
The past couple of weeks though, the narrative has changed. Now it's we have to prepare for a change of 4 degrees celsius. Which is going to require adaptation. Major adaption. And given the records of various governments around the world in tackling climate change so far, I don't have the same amount of faith that the world bank has in our worlds leadership.
4 degrees looks like its going to be pretty awful. Any thing over that, I'm seriously not looking forward to.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Something to read.

I was listening to the Guardians weekly science podcast last night, they were discussing the Royal Society science book prize short list candidates. Six books, all of which I'd like to have a crack at but for one reason or another (time/money) I'm probably not going to get to. Of the six though, The Information by one James Gleick sounded the most interesting. Alok Jha, the chap who does the podcasts offers a review here.

It reminds me of the History of Computing paper I did way back when I was doing my Comp Sci masters, before I switched to biology. It a spectacularly interesting paper run by a curmudgeonly old chap by the name of Gary Tee. One of those papers that it was sometimes difficult to pay attention in class, but as soon as you walk out, you realize that you've just had another hours worth of really interesting pieces of history dumped in your brain.

The paper started, if I recall correctly, with the revolution of cutting a reed at an angle so as to allow an Abyssinian scribe to easily make either a dot or a dash on the wet clay tablets they were recording production on. And moved steadily through to the code breakers at Bletchly Park in world war II. In other words, it covered a huge amount of ground. I seriously might have to make the effort and track down a copy of The Information.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An odd thing.

Writing is an odd thing. I don't dislike it. When you get on a roll for a couple of hours it can be quite rewarding. It's hard though or rather, consuming. I have been finding that trying to write one thing, in this case, the literature review for my PhD's provisional year reports tends to make a lot of everything else fall by the wayside.

The whole Labour leadership debacle? Can't be arsed. Something interesting come through the science feeds, can't be bothered. Even the news that the Mars exploration teams at NASA have big news coming up in the next week or so barely raised any idle speculation from me. Which is annoying, I recall rather liking being interested by the many and varied things that float past me of an afternoon.

It's least rewarding though, would have to be spending an afternoon sitting, looking at what you've written and not having the foggiest where to start editing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Monkey Cage is back!

And it's still infinite. I speak of course of the Infinite Monkey Cage, a half hour show on the BBC's radio 4. Also, fortunately available as a podcast. Brian Cox you should all know as latest in the line of English science stars presents it with a comedian by the name of Robert Ince. Ince, if you haven't heard him before is, in my (very humble) opinion on of the best comedian's the English have at the moment. Alongside Dara O'Brian, Josie Long and Mark Watson of course.

As an aside, has anyone else noticed that the famous scientist meme is something that the English do quite well - there is always someone in the public eye, someone like David Attenborough or Patrick Moore, all the way back to Robert Boyle.

The Infinite Monkey Cage is a superb half hours distraction, where the occasionally have a crack at the big questions - Art vs Science for example (hint: Science wins, he said with a grin) but more often it's a light hearted ramble through a variety of the interesting aspects of the worlds that scientists immerse themselves in.

Listen to it. All of them if you haven't already.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A reference post.

A month or two ago, there was a study of rats feed GE corn in France. It was widely criticised at the time. Recently it's started being referenced in scary pictures the flick through my book of face feed, upon which I commented. In the comments I was asked to elaborate on my position that a seriously flawed study, which I'm going to do there, because facebook comments are an annoying place to try and lay out something like this. So apologies to those of you for whom this is a rehash.

The study was touted as being a long term (2 year) study as opposed to the more common 90 day test. On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing and it could very well have been. If you were going to do a long term study and report on the incidence of tumours though, I would suggest not using a strain of rats (Sprague-Dawley rats, a particular strain of lab rat) that are highly prone to get tumours after 2 years anyway - that's living a life without being experimented on. Something that has been known about for many, many years.

On top of that the number of rats used in each group was woefully small - 10 rats in each group. This brings a large amount of statistical variability into play. The paper linked to in the last paragraph gave 86%  chance of tumour development for males and 72% for females - without treatment of any kind. If you take 10 rats from a population, getting the results that Seralini did due to chance alone is very very high. To be able to say that any deaths/tumours were the result of the rats diet of GM and GM+roundup corn they would have had to have much, much larger numbers of rats per sample, somewhere north of 60. The best discussion of why the Seralini paper was statistically rubbish, is from Andrew Kniss at weed control freaks. For a detailed discussion of the myriad of other problems with the study, Emily Willingham has a pretty good overview.

The picture the started all this off was using a Russian ban of GM corn as an exemplar. I opined that the ban was political and not based on the science. This I may very well be wrong about. The paper was widely and rightly criticized before the Russian ban though, anyone making a decision based on it's results, especially at the international trade level would have been being disingenuous at best. Which leads me to believe that there was a political or economic motive being it, with the study being used as an excuse.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. GE is not inherently bad. It's a tool to be used when and where appropriate. I've got no problem with people having problems with Monsanto's business practices but Monsanto is not GE and GE is not Monsanto. GE can be used to prevent dietary deficiencies, create drought resistant crops or possibly one day provide sustainable fuels and plastics. Sure we should study the effects GE food has on people, just as much as we should study the effects that non-GE food has on us. The Seralini study was seriously not the way to do it though.

And that's without mentioning the unethical abuse of journalists and press embargoes used to hype the paper to the mainstream press.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Generating trust.

A few weeks ago the Ministry of Social Development story broke - there were kiosks in the Work and Income offices that were open to the public, connected to the departments servers effectively allowing anyone to walk in off the street and access sensitive information that was being held on citizens currently using the service. It was all fairly horrendous.

At some point Ira Bailey got a bit of criticism for attempting blackmail Winz. Brendon Boyle, the head head of MSD said "Mr Bailey had asked for cash in order to tell the Ministry where the problem was.", an idea reiterated by John Key. From where I was sitting it was sounding very much like an attempt to cast Bailey as a criminal.

There are people who do this for a living though. It's not an uncommon practice for companies to pay individuals a bounty for bugs. And there's evidence to suggest that it's a practice that's paying dividends - there are a limited number of bugs in a given product and Google is finding fewer and fewer. Every time one is reported, it is fixed, and the end product becomes more secure. Rather than vilify those who find weaknesses in their systems Google has recognized the value of the time people have invested in finding bugs and have used them to make it's product better. It's a good deal I think, certainly something that would make me more inclined to use and trust their products over a similar product that doesn't have such a scheme attached.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life is ... not bad.

There are some who would take that as a pessimistic statement. It is sincerely not. There is something quite nice, almost relaxing about sitting down with your workmates at 1 in the morning in a bar after a 7 hour shift with a beer and a whisky.
This is after having the best of the Nerdnite's so far yesterday evening, a moderately productive day at work despite an hour or two spent clicking refresh on the American elections results (waves fist angrily at Florida for being so bloody contrary). And the knowledge that I don't have to get up first thing tomorrow, that I can head out to my weekly coffee tasting before getting to spend another day doing some solid science (as well as some writing - it's not all fun and games) and a games evening with the lads tomorrow to look forward to.

My life is not perfect. Compared with many though, I have no cause to complain. And sitting down at the end of a good night behind the bar with a beer and a whisky - puts life into perspective. Mine is most definitely  not a bad one.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Nerdnite Auckland - Chapter 3.

I've been quiet here for the past couple of days. Trying to organise Auckland's 3rd Nerdnite and not be completely frazzled by the time we kick off. Fingers crossed it'll work this time. We've got speakers talking about the relationship between the size and shape of birds, why we should treat conspiracy theories more seriously than we currently do (I'll report back on this one) and lasers.

Seriously, who doesn't love lasers?

Doors open at 6:30pm at Nectar in Kingsland for anyone who feels like sitting back with a beer and listening to something interesting for an evening.

Tally ho. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Weasel words if ever I saw them.

New legislation will require companies making health claims for their products to provide scientific proof to back their claim. Brilliant. Continue reading ... " or traditional evidence to back their claims". What exactly is traditional evidence. Evidence of a health claim, not backed up by science is not evidence. It's story telling.