Friday, August 26, 2005

Anti-science success in the UK

The animal rights activists here in the UK have a decidedly militant fringe. They have successfully harassed a company to the point where they have given up. Now, the debate on using animals in medical research is pretty touchy but i don't think there is ever a reason to steal the remains of someone's family, spray paint cars, throw bricks through home windows and harass the friends of employees. The real worry is that now one company has folded who's next? Who gets to decide which science is OK and which scientists get harassed for years on end? I research industrial chemistry, should i be worried that some anti-industrial chemistry ecogroup is going to take direct action on behalf of past injustices and firebomb my car? Violence is never the answer and if you've resorted to using it, you lack any moral conviction your argument may had to start with.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Labour/National Science R&D Policies

I thought i'd at least try and see if there was anything on their websites discussing Research & Development policies, you remember, Knowledge Waves and Innovation Cultures, that sort of thing. Sadly, i can't find anything on the Labour website, there is no specific policy area shown (i even tried looking under Education) and searching for 'science' comes up with a few puff pieces (and the two URL's i tried both came up 404...) but nothing mentioning policy. In case Labour has forgotten, the taxpayer pays a fair bit of cash to the CRI's (or whatever they're called this year) and they deserve to know what the govt expects for their cash and as a scientist, i'd like to see some coherency on their funding policies and in what areas they think NZ should excel (and conversely which areas we decide to not pursue). In desperation, i've emailed my enquiry for a URL direct and i just hope i don't end up on a spam list somewhere.
Sadly, exactly the same problem over at National's webpage, i managed to find the minister responsible for Science/CRI's at least, a Dr Paul Hutchison and fired off an enquiry.
I can't say that i'm impressed with either of the websites - full of clutter and very 'busy'. It looks like they've used the same media strategy as all their other advertising. I think this misses the whole point of have a detailed website, if someone turns up and wants to do some analysis you should be able to allow a search into some detailed policy. Basically we've got some glorified brochures on-line - aaahhh, takes me back to mid-90's when the web was young (and functionally useless for most people)...

Scary stuff going on in the UK

A man was shot on the tube by the police shortly after the 7/7 bombings. The information that was accepted at the time painted the guy as extremely suspicious. The real facts are starting to be uncovered (nothing beats the BBC for real news) and it is emerging that he hadn't done anything remotely suspicious and that in effect, the police targeted and executed a member of the public. This is really scary. The way the media has been spun and the way the events are unfolding are reminding me of the way John Howard manipulated the 'Children Overboard' affair in Australia. The primary defence being that he wasn't made specifically aware that the children weren't thrown in the water prior to the boat sinking (or cynically, no-one was able to prove that this statement was false). The political execution of this affair was flawless and i am throwing out a prediction here that not only will the police commissioner refuse to resign, he will confuse and dissemble the exact timing and detail of what was said to who and when to the point where the facts are of academic interest only to the news cycle. The end result will almost certainly be that the police have executed a member of the public on the London tube who's only crime seems to be living in a block of flats that was under surveillance, and no-one will be held accountable. This is very scary stuff and i for one am starting to get very, very worried about the people who are supposed to be in charge.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Peak Oil

Am i the only person that thinks high oil prices are a good thing? Today's NZ Herald has an alarmist op-ed piece by Mr Kevin Moore, energy spokesman for the Direct Democracy party, on a current buzzphrase: peak oil.
Any finite resource (and most agree that oil is finite for all intents and purposes) that is consumed must run out eventually. Hence if you look at a graph that combines oil usage and oil discoveries over time you should see a curve that goes up, reaches a maximum and then starts to decline, hence 'peak oil'. I guess 150 years ago, you could have had 'peak kauri trees' or 'peak buffalo' in the USA. So why should we be concerned with peak oil? The theory is that society is going to start crashing down around us pretty soon after we reach the 'peak oil' point in time (i should mention here that there are many estimates on just when this peak occured/will occur, a small change in one of many initial assumptions can have a dramatic effect on the result) due to the resulting collapse of energy resources for things like electricity, transport and manufacturing. In this post, i'll consider the points raised by Mr Moore and then see if i can learn a little more about him and his political party on the web.

From memory, energy usage derived from oil in nz, is about 40% transport, 40% electricity and 20% other. Hence, if you want to make a big impact on NZ energy consumption, the easiest places to start are electricity and transport, so i'll mainly focus on those two.

From a market perspective, economics places less value on things when they are plentiful and eventually higher value on the same thing when it is scarce. The value (read: price) should tell people that unless they really, really want it, go find something else or figure out a way to make the same thing cheaper. This is the 'price signal' that economists love to talk about and it is indeed a powerful signal that change should happen. However, the market can sometimes/often deviate from perfection and there is a time delay between the signals and the behaviour. Soemtimes the signals aren't allowed to develop i.e. govt regulations or the behaviour carries on longer than it should i.e. dotcom/housing bubbles. In addition, if something doesn't easily have a price tag (or a discoverable price), economics is not so good at adding the pluses and minuses and coming up with a conclusion i.e. the Tragedy of the Commons, a topic so important it deserves its own post, and from what i can tell, sorely overlooked in the practice of economics.

So a good place to start might be to wonder if peak oil and prices are changing rapidly based on new information. People have known about the lack of new oil discoveries but haven't been worried until now since they could still buy their oil quite cheaply. If China and India start to want oil as much as the rest of the developed world, they might be prepared to pay more for it. If we can't produce more of the stuff, the price will go up. This seems to be happening.

If things get more expensive, you would also expect behaviours to change i.e. cars that have bad fuel efficiency (low km's per litre) such as V8's or SUV's, should start selling less and more efficient/smaller cars should start selling more. Apparantly this behaviour is being observed in the US (and as a small car owner in the UK I am laughing my arse off at people moaning about petrol prices!). It's worth mentioning here that fuel efficiency in America peaked in the mid-80's and has declined ever since. Let me type that again slowly, i t p e a k e d i n t h e m i d - 8 0 ' s.
Sounds like price signals haven't been too clear in the US for a long time.

So should i be worried if petrol costs more? The only thing that counts is how much it costs me to get where i'm going. If petrol costs 3x as much and my car gets 3x the mileage, how am i worse off? Toyota has started producing petrol/electric hybrid cars that supposedly have twice the fuel economy. Sounds like a suitable response from the market to me. There's also a credible argument that can be made about medium-density living and public transport being more likely once people can clearly see the trade-off between long commutes and living centrally.

Will society collapse? i'm going to assume that mostly we're talking about cars and electricity. I don't see any impending doom from a transport perspective, how about electricity production? There are many ways that you can get a magnet to spin past some copper wires but the most common ways involve burning oil/gas/coal, using rain fall in hydro dams or using nuclear processes. Rain fall is mostly finite, NZ has a problem with nuclear and if we run out of oil we can always burn coal (NZ has plenty of it). The big problem here is what do we value more, keeping the lights on or not generating carbon dioxide? i think the important thing here is to realise that we have moved on from the peak oil question and moved into one on poss/prob climate change which deserves it's own post.
In addition, high prices force us to reconsider what we are doing with our current supplies of electricity. Comalco for instance uses huge amounts of electricity to make aluminium, in essence, it is turning rainwater into metal. If it can't sell that metal for a price that others are willing to pay for the same electricity, perhaps to make excellent computer programs, why are we letting them do it (i suspect that they have multi-decadal price contracts locked in when electricity supply was guaranteed at the whim of govt officials)? when is their contract due to be renegotiated? if we choose not to renew it, theres a bucketload of electricity/energy available for use across NZ (i belive it's on the order of 10-15% of our current installed capacity!).

My final point with respect to electricity is that higher prices make other things more worthwhile. Don't just think solar and windmills, NZ has plenty of geothermal opportunities but the technology needed to dig 5 km holes in the ground hasn't received the same attention as sucking up liquids, burning coal or splitting atoms. All the energy you need is 5-10 km under your feet, if we desperately needed it, we could figure out how to get it. There's also lots of other ideas that will only be useful if oil costs $150 a barrel.

My biggest complaint with energy doomsayers (and based on what i've written up to now leads me to believe they are doomsayers) is their sad lack of imagination. They must honestly believe that we already know and can do everything that is possible. It reminds me of the story about the scientist who projected the population of London from 1850 to 2000 and then wondered what all those people were going to do with the horse-crap that they would generate. The analysis of population growth was OK, but assuming nothing else would change in the meantime is foolish. Who knows, 50 years from now, we might have solar fusion reactors in geo-synchronous orbit beaming energy directly into satellite dishs scattered around the country ala Isaac Asimov. The reality is likely to be stranger than anything i can dream up.

Science is like any other choice, it can't do all things at the same time and priorities are often set by govt mandate (since the only real employers of scientists at academia, government and industry and industry often has timeframes of 5-10 years or less). being around at a time when great change can happen is exhilirating!

Who is Kevin Moore? How much attention should i give to his views? A quick google on 'Kevin Moore nz' shows up a lot of stuff on the Direct Democracy website. Since it's in the public domain, he must be comfortable with what it has to say.

This website reveals that within the next year or two (at best):

  • Oil extraction from wells will be physically unable to meet global demand (the evidence is from the oil industry itself).
  • Alternative energy sources like nuclear and natural gas will fall far short of compensating for expected shortages of oil. There is simply not enough time to convert over to them.
  • Massive disruptions to transportation and the economy are expected from about 2005-2007 onward as the global decline of petroleum begins.
This sort of stuff is alarmist and i disagree with all 3 points for the reasons mentioned already, and since it is nearly 2006 and i hardly think massive disruptions are occuring, i'm tempted to think this party is prone to hyperbole and exageration to push its own views.

I'll have a quick look at their Research and Development policies since its the area i can at least claim i have a qualified opinion on. All formatting is their own.
Whereas New Zealand could have had the benefit of a myriad of skills and talents, some of them bordering on genius, these have been lost to other countries or simply suppressed.
Suppressed? That sounds ominous and just a little conspiracy inspired.
New Zealand as a country must invest in these individuals and their specialised fields and ensure that where possible a positive result on our investment is returned to the New Zealand people and not, as is often the case, sold back to us by foreign companies who recognised the potential of New Zealand's own inventions and discoveries. An example of this is the late Len Southward who developed seamless welded exhaust tube during WW2 he couldn't get the idea patented so subsequently it was pinched off to the USA and now manufactured all over the world.
NZ has as much right as anyone else to do stupid things. If an inventor can't get anyone to make money with his idea, kudos to the Yanks for putting their money where their mouth is. The fact NZ doesn't commercialise it's ideas is cause for concern but only because we're being stupid, not because foreign companies are evil.

Direct Democracy will also create at least four more 'innovation park' centres similar to that in Ruakura, Hamilton; the objective being to make maximum assistance and support available through the centralisation of expertise.

"If you will not listen be silent and I will teach you wisdom" (Job 33:33)
Try telling Bureauc-rats this.
I don't see how calling government employees, who by and large are probably doing the best they can, 'rats' is going to help bolster your arguments. I stopped reading at this point, once i got to the religous quotations that seems to be trying to tell me shut up and do what i'm told, i lost patience. This party, and Mr Moore by extension, seem to be idiots prone to generalistations, hyperbole and conspiricy theories. I've wasted enough of my time thinking about him and shame on the NZ Herald for putting this claptrap on their site, is this the best they can come up with for contributions?

Energy policy in NZ is a very important topic, it dominates the news every time we have 4 weeks of uninterrupted winter sunshine across the country, but to demean the issues involved with purile analysis like this is an insult. It's too important to be a fringe topic dominated by a loud and from i can tell, strangely bizzare, minority.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Blog Description

I'm not sure what i intend to achieve with this blog, probably nothing but i can't find anyone else that seems to have the same sort of interests as me writing anything from a NZ perspective, hence, i'll give it a go. Who knows, it may evolve into something very interesting over time.
To start with, most of these posts will be unapologetically analytical. One of my aims is to demonstrate how i (as a member of the social class 'scientists') look at topical issues, others are likely to be Back of the Envelope (science shorthand for rough, rule of thumb calculations aimed at seeing if something is believable without expending too much effort) discussions of science issues making the headlines in NZ.
I'll also mention a couple of things about myself now so that you can understand the starting points that my posts will rely on. First up, i'm not sure if i'm left wing or right wing politically. I believe that markets are good at optimising to a relatively efficient place, but i'm realistic enough to see that they often don't. In the words of Keynes "Markets can stay irrational far longer than you can stay solvent". Where possible, i believe that the individual should be allowed to make their own choices in life, and be responsible for the eventual outcome, but then again, i don't believe a society should abandon the bottom 5-10% of its population, that would not be a pleasant place to live. I've taken a quick quiz at Political Compass a few times over the years and i consistently score in the same place - balanced evenly between left/right wing and about half-way down the authoritative/libertarian axis. Based on what i've described above, that sounds about right. Also, and this is a biggie, i am an atheist. I don't care what you happen to believe in, your right to freedom of religion is ok by me but i will not under any circumstances accept that morality stems from a religous foundation. Many of the topical debates about cutting edge science (and some that we thought had been sorted out decades ago) rapidly polarise into a debate about 'ethics' which is code for religous values. In line with my belief in letting an individual decide their fate, i refuse to be bound by your belief system, if your beliefs do not allow something, feel free to excercise your right not to do it, but there is no way on earth i'm going to allow you to curb my rights at the same time.
Anyway, i hope my posts will be neutral enough that these things won't be an issue, but science 101 says that your assumptions need to be listed right out in front so everybody can see 'em.