Friday, September 30, 2005

Animal Rights Extremists vs Huntington Life Sciences Pt II

Yesterday it was shown that the ARE's are continuing in their efforts to shut down research organisations they disagree with. Their strategy was/is brilliant, threaten the weakest supplier you can find, in this case it was the local nursery that looked after a number of Huntington's employees kids while they were at work. The nursery, understandably, wasn't going to put kids/employees at risk and promptly bumped the Huntington voucher scheme. Another success for unlawful anti-science activists. If you've got a problem with how research is done, protest and lobby lawfully and peacefully, there is no excuse for this sort of behaviour and i hope you get lobbed into the same bucket as every other terrorist organisation out there and treated accordingly.

You can view the video here (but i'm not sure the link is permanent) or if you're too late you might be able to find it in the channel 4 website here. As an aside, after 3 countries, channel 4 news is the best i have ever seen, you probably won't see it from the clips but the hosts are excellent and you know you aren't watching some pre-scripted advertainment, i.e. last night's intro included the comment '...and why is the government not able to use its anti-terror laws on animal rights extremists but can use them on 82 year old labour party members...', when was the last time you saw a TVNZ or TV3 anchor say something like that? Sorry to Australia's SBS, you're now second. And don't get me started on why i can stream news clips from this news show but can't from every other one around the world...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

First Observation of a Giant Squid in the Wild

This has been getting plenty of TV and news coverage but you can actually look at the paper itself here. New Zealand gets a mention as having invested lots of time and effort into finding a giant squid in our backyard but as far as i'm aware, nothing that comes even close to this! I love it when something like this pops up on the pop-sci radar, to think that several hundred metres below the surface live giant creatures that we have absolutely no idea about, how cool is that? The paper describes a feature of these squid which is that their 2 really long tentacles are able to 'zip' together using their suckers to form a single strong, clawed appendage. Keep that in mind while you read that they are obviously a more active predator than thought before. These creatures are fascinating and i hope we hear more about them in the near future. Just goes to show, there's plenty left to discover out there.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Look mum, no hands!

Just saw this post after having a look at Reddit. A cap has been invented that lets a user 'walk' through a virtual landscape, just by thinking about walking! How cool is that. The obvious applications are to help disabled people potentially navigate real objects such as wheelchairs but also to help severely disabled people operate computers and interact with anyone virtually. I have been wondering for a few years how long it will be until we can literally enter the virtual world in such a way so that it is virtually indistinguishable from our actual world. Surely it's just (!) a matter of pinging the right nerves so that you 'feel' all the things you normally feel. I am thinking at this rate of progress, it should be available within my lifetime.
How is that going to effect service based industries like education? or for that matter, going to an office job? if you can interact with people naturally in a virtual office, you can live anywhere (within a convenient time-zone) and 'commute' electronically. Wouldn't it be ironic if the greatest reduction in fossil fuel use comes not from Toyota's whiz-bang cars but from comp sci graduates! This really is the best age to be living in.

Joe's Commercial Law of Triviality

Last post i was lamenting the decision by the NZ Herald to start paying for 'premium' content (and yes, i'll always being inserting quotes since their concept of premium and mine seem to show significant differences). There seem to be a few workarounds in the system but my objective in this post is to see if i can come up with an alternative to ring-fencing content. My main objection is that the fees are ludicrously high and are non-specific in that i have to buy access to everything even though i never read say, the sports section. Joe's Law of Triviality states that people will pay if the payment is specific and the amount trivial, the business side of the equation is that you have to work harder and capture LOTS more readers. What do i mean by trivial? as a guess, lets say half the amount of a coin that 99% of NZers wouldn't stop to pick up if they saw it on the footpath (rumour has it, this is the criteria the treasury uses for phasing out old coins and i see no reason not to use a good idea when i hear one). I don't see many people darting around trying to pick up 5c pieces so lets propose 2.5c as our first Trivial E-Commerce currency. How much harder do you have to work to get a suitable return? Lets do a Back of the Envelope calculation to get a rough idea. I like Russell Brown's Public Address blog and i foresee more and more blogs taking over as the main entry point for getting a summary of the news. How many readers would PA need to secure in order to earn say, 2x the average yearly salary (I think 2x the average salary is enough to aim for in the first instance) ?.
  • Assume PA is published 2/3 times per week for 50 weeks per year giving about 150 blog entries per year.
  • This gives, at 2.5c per blog entry an income of $3.75 per annum per reader
  • If you are looking to earn about $80,000 per year, this would require about 21,333 unique readers.
The funny thing about BoTE calculations is they quickly put meat on the bones of a fuzzy idea. It's not at all unreasonable that a popular blog or regular commentary can draw 20,000 odd individual readers, willing to part with the price of a coffee per year, or that posting 100/150 times per year is an unreasonable output for a full-time job. I for one would certainly pay 2.5c every time to read a number of the columnists on the herald website as well as a few blogs. In addition, since the amount being paid is so trivial, i have no problems with risking a payment to assess a new blog over a half dozen entries.
If this is a viable business model for blogging/commentary, what stands in its way? As far as i can tell, it is the lack of suitable secure micro-payment methods on the web. There is just no way I am going to start sending my credit card details to random sites on the web hoping that i will only be charged NZD0.025. There is PayPal apparantly but i don't know much about that and i don't think it was designed for micro-payments (comments welcome). It's my prediction that when the web is able to routinely manage large numbers of trivial transactions you will see far more information services spring up and that, to the detriment of the traditional newspaper, will be a very, very cool thing.

Correlation and Causality

There are a few hard and fast rules in science that you can pretty much use at all times without fear of contradiction, one of my favourites is 'Correlation does not prove causation'. Essentially what this states (in typically obscure scienc-ese) is that just because event A happened before event B, you can't neccesarily state that A caused B. This sounds obvious huh? but you can find loads and loads of examples where people consistently ignore this basic fact. For instance, we've all heard stories similar to 'my mum had a bad back and then bought a magnetic mattress cover, 3 weeks later, her back felt better'. Feel free to subsitute the exact phrase with variations involving vitamins/horoscopes/alternative medicines.
These people are confusing cause and effect, it is altogether possible that some hitherto unobserved effect of magnetic fields is that it alleviates back pain, far more likely... its a coincidence (or more subtely, a placebo effect). Scientists go to great pains to find correlations and propose a causitive link i.e. observation: people who smoke get lung cancer at a far greater rate than those that don't. hypothesis: smoking causes lung cancer. hypothesis test: if we look at people who smoke and then give up, their chances of getting lung cancer should start to approach the average of the never-smoked as their time spent smoking gets shorter and shorter. This is a predicition based on the hypothesis, and is either true or false, i'm not sure if this has ever been done however, i'm not a smoking expert, but i'd be surprised if it, or something like it, hadn't been confirmed.
If it's true, hooray, your hypothesis gets to live another day while you dream up ever more elaborate tests, if it fails you've got two choices - find a hole in your test or, as will become evident after a number of failed tests, junk the hypothesis i-t i-s w-r-o-n-g deal with it and get onto another, more fruitful, line of enquiry.
This is how science works (or at least, is the ideal it tries to approach, after all, it's done by people who are by and large, just as pig-headed as anybody else you meet with the addition that they may have spent years or decades proposing a theory that is going the way of the dodo. That can be hard to deal with. Or they're science-ho's, people who say anything for a nice fat cheque).
So, next time you find that you have a great day at work every time you rub your belly anti-clockwise when you first get up, keep in mind the phrase 'correlation is not causation'. Of course, if you find that it happens quite consistently, you may be onto something big and perhaps a more formal experiment is in order ;-)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Pay-for-Premium Content on NZ Herald

I was dismayed to see the NZ Herald has started to charge for the 'premium' content on its website. Of course they're welcome to try and make money from their content any way they see fit but i can't help but think they are wasting their position as one of the first web resources most people check on a daily basis. I mean seriously, can't they figure out a better way to make money from all those eyeballs? I much prefer the BBC's attitude, i can see them becoming a one-stop shop for BBC programs (internet TV), information and analysis world-wide. While you can argue about the incentives that a public funded news organisation has vs a for-profit newspaper, i don't think driving people away from your website is going to look like such a smart move in another few years. If you remember, one of the ways i was going to blog about science was to dig deeper about popular science stories in the NZ media, with the Herald being one of the key resources i was counting on. I'm not sure if i can use them anymore but the science isn't going away so i'll just have to be a little more creative in my pop-science links.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Science, the media and the Next-Big-Thing

There's a new column starting on The Guardian newspaper website about Bad Science and about bad science reporting here. This guy obviously has a few issues but i think he's onto something, and i suspect most scientists secretly agree with him. There is a lot of really great science going on out there but 3 column inches of space are not going to do it justice. Couple the space restriction with a reporter who's probably out of their depth and a funding system that demands a scientist insist their research is the N-B-T and how the world will be transmogrified into a glorious utopia within 3-5 years after the patent pending process has had a few kinks worked out. Top 4 things to look for when assessing whether you should waste 2 min of your life reading a newspaper science story:
  1. Does the story point you towards any peer-reviewed studies or does it just say something like 'studies have shown wearing body glitter make you 18% more likeable'? If a story doesn't let you check the original data for yourself so that you can draw your own conclusions, it's rubbish.
  2. Check for dodgy statistics. Just cause excel gives you a squillion statistical functions doesn't mean your average reporter knows what to do with them. One of my favourites is 'doing xyz will increase you risk of abc cancer 400%!' What they fail to mention or put in perspective is that you had a 1 in 10 million chance of this cancer before and now you have a 4 in 10 million chance. Yes, its a 400% bigger chance but lets face it, hardly something that should worry you on a daily basis.
  3. Key phrase 1: 3-5 years away from production (everything is always 3-5 years away, it was 3-5 years away 5 years ago and it'll probably be 3-5 years away in 3-5 years). doesn't mean they're being deceitful, scale-up and getting a result to translate from the lab to real world is REALLY hard and often underestimated at every stage.
  4. Key Phrase 2: Patent Pending. Protecting intellectual property is important but only in the same way as backing up your data. Its not the end-point, its just something you have to do on the way. There are a million ways to get screwed over if you don't protect yourself with patents, once patented, there's only about 10,000.

The 2005 NZ Election

This blogging thing is a little harder than i gave it credit. I had high hopes of analysing the party science policies prior to the election but an overseas conference and a two week holiday in France put paid to that idea. On the upside, the nice man at Labour, David Choat, did send me the url for the Labour science policy on 12 Sept. Since there is very little urgency in looking at these now, i won't go into it straight away. I also see the NZ Association of Scientists has a (mostly) full listing of science policies. I must admit, from what i've seen so far, the gap between policy and outcome seems pretty tortuous so i'm not sure what i expect to achieve. For a good example of what i'd like to do for science policy, see the energy policy analysis by David Haywood, a guest-blog at Public Address. I'm still trying to catch up with the election and how it is going to pan out over the next week or so but i would like to give a big thumbs up to the electoral commission on handling my request for an overseas vote. Very well done, on time and like watching a well designed piece of engineering perform brilliantly.