Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Micro-CHP Grids

An interesting article on the BBC (via here) on combined heat and power micro-grids. Transmission and distribution losses (the long stringy bits that connect your house to the power station) can lose up to 25-odd% of the energy it started with (i.e. to use 1 unit of energy in my house, i have to generate 1.25 units at source, this has to paid for by someone so you get pinged for it in the end) so the idea of closely coupling supply and demand has the potential to have a big impact with little consumer notice.
Obviously, fuel cells fit nicely in this sort of scenario (if you have a convenient gas pipeline) since they are very clean, quiet, modular and generate heat as a waste product.

Who says poetry can't touch people in the 21st century??

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I websurfed, weak and weary,
...Over many a strange and spurious website of 'hot chicks galore',
...While I clicked my fav'rite bookmark, suddenly there came a warning,
...And my heart was filled with mourning, mourning for my dear amour.
..."'Tis not possible," I muttered, "give me back my cheap hardcore!" -
Quoth the server, "404"
via here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Music Genome Project - Pandora

How do you find music given what you already know you like? A lot of web sites at the moment are leveraging the concept of 'tagging' i.e. if i like A, B, C and D and 50 other people also like A, B, C and D and 25 of them also like E who you've never heard of, there's a good chance you'll like E as well. Iterate the algorithm a few times and you'd get some good results.
These guys at Pandora, are trying to analyse the music styles themselves. You give feedback straight into the Java applet that loads on your screen. I have no idea how they deal with the copyright issues, but i like their style.
You can register for free and suffer ads or pay a subscription. Any songs you like, you can save the title and buy the album straight from the website via amazon or the song from iTunes (assuming unlike me, the British banking system doesn't treat you like a homicidal terrorist for wanting a credit card).
I think i'm gonna head home and run it for the night...

More from the blindingly obvious dept...

This just in! NZ should focus on high-quality products with quick turnarounds! Wow... why hadn't anyone mentioned that before? Remember the Knowledge Wave? (or was that a ripple?).
As for the whinging by the manufacturers association that no-one's doing enough research for them... you earn $20 billion between you ya great pillock. Why the hell should the govt redistribute wealth (as research funding) into your profitable enterprises?
Not investing in research is the NZ way of doing business, don't ask for the rest of us to pay for your lack of business investments. The govt should be investing in things that DON'T have a cash revenue stream yet, you know, like things that might be a good idea to be doing in 20 years?
Group chairman Michael Pratt hoped the day would produce a vision for the future, strategies to meet global challenges and a research-and-development agenda.
Wow, that's a busy day Pratt. If only the rest of the country had thought to sit down for a whole day to nut this one out.
It will seek feedback on a draft strategy at the meeting and will follow it up with regional workshops throughout the country next year.
Talk, talk, talk... if you want to actually do something, commit some money and *gasp* possibly make some mistakes, learn something, develop new products...
the Manufacturing Vision Group - hope the workshop will give greater voice to a sector often treated as a poor cousin.
I don't think $20 billion pa counts as poor. See the first paragraph and try thinking for a change. Yeah i know it's hard, it gets easier with practice.

AgResearch gets a funding boost

AgResearch (i've never liked that name, sounds like acckk-research to me) seems to be in the money lately and is spending $100 million on facilities.
"We're talking about major upgrades in Palmerston North, Invermay (near Dunedin) and Lincoln."
I notice he has to remind people where Invermay is - must be a magnet for attracting researchers. Not that palmy or lincoln are exactly high-octane hotbeds (although, all the CRI's seem to be congregating towards there, its almost as if we're re-centralising our de-centralised research operations...).
Doesn't say much about whether the cash is going to go on new equipment or just facilities (i doubt reasonable salaries are even an option) but this quote:
"We're just getting overcrowded," he said. "We've got lots of staff down at Lincoln working in porta-cabins."
just makes you shudder all the way down to the bone.
I wonder if it might have been easier to invest smaller amounts at regular intervals, now why wouldn't that have occured to them? $100 million sounds like a lot (and it is) but science is an expensive business, it is not life-saving cash injections the system needs (or worse yet, business consolidation), but regular, reasonable funding. If this $100 million is designed to last to 2050, it's not really gonna help in the long term and science is the longest of long term investments you can imagine.

Woohoo - I Passed 8th Grade Science!

You Passed 8th Grade Science

Congratulations, you got 8/8 correct!
Could You Pass 8th Grade Science?

Mind you, there's some serious selection bias here: now way i'd have posted a score less than 7!! Nice to know that with 15 odd years of studying science, i'm equal to a gifted 12 year old...

Merck downsizing

In the Pipeline describes the imminent downsizing of Merck, a large pharmaceutical company. The Merck press release is here.
As part of the global restructuring program, the Company expects to eliminate approximately 7,000 positions in manufacturing and other divisions worldwide, representing about 11% of its global work force ...[snip]... also expects to close one basic research site and two preclinical development sites.
Funny how these PR's always say how they are positioning the company for 'now and in the future', they never say 'gee, stellar management bonuses in the 90's didn't incentivise decisions to make sure our company was still around in 20 years, boy, did we fuck up'.
In case your not aware, lots of pharma companys are in trouble, they have a set of wonder drugs that provide most of their income and when these patents run out, they won't be able to compete on price with the generic manufacturers. The theory is that they should have poured a bucket of money into research trying to come up with new drugs but i guess 25 years sounds a long time and hey, how hard can it be to develop a drug that does something useful?, surely it can't be as hard as deciphering my new bonuses scheme... when a research company starts to close its research centres, you know the thinking can't be that deep.
This isn't limited to just big pharma, General Motors, the world's largest car maker is also slashing jobs and has to suffer the embarasment of sending out memo's to it's employees saying they won't be filing for bankruptcy this year and having their bonds rated as 'junk' !!! They have massive legacy contracts from their unions (something like 2 retired workers supported for every current worker) and simply can't make a car as well or as cheaply as Toyota - i guess nobody mentioned that focusing on engineering, cost reduction and oh... making a better car, might just be a good idea in the long run.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Publish or Perish

Imagine, if you can, an industry where you are given something that you haven't paid for, you ask other people to edit and comment on it for you for free and then get to sell the result back to the very people who did the work in the first place and who edited it for you.
You might be thinking 'music industry' at this point, and while i'd agree with you, i am in fact describing scientific publishing - the pinnacle of what can be a long and lonely road in getting some original research done. In case the concept of 'getting published' is foreign to you, i'll describe the major steps:
  1. Academic applies for funding from large govt science funding body i.e. NIH, EPSRC, or if in NZ, FoRST lets you splash out and buy a new pack of BluTack and some paperclips, not expensive paperclips, approved supplier paperclips...
  2. Funding is granted and academic buys people/equipment to do the work
  3. If you're lucky/determined, some novel work is done that is worth sharing with your peers
  4. Write a journal article and send it in to a journal that publishes papers in that field
  5. Journal sends your manuscript to anonymous reviewers for comment and recommendation (typically: publish, publish with minor errors corrected, you must be joking, i temporarily lost the will to live)
  6. Journal combines successful articles together on a semi-regular basis
  7. Publisher of the journal sells the collection to libraries so that people can read them
Pretty cool huh? You get to sit around and decide who gets published and who doesn't and earn several billion dollars a year!
Now we have this inter-webby thing and some academics are starting to ask 'since we subscribe electronically and you have no publishing costs (or at least orders of magnitude lower than they were), why the hell are the subscription fees going up at an astronomical rate?'. Good question.
Bring on the FUD.
The standard response is 'oh yeah?, we do lots of stuff that you don't appreciate, like, forwarding the manuscripts to other academics, and opening their email replies...'. This really is a hornet's nest and to be clear on my position: they are middle-men and deserve to suffer the fate of middle-men through the ages i.e. eventually get cut out of the picture as and when technology allows. Not surprisingly, many not-for-profit publishing houses don't like this nor do their multi-national for-profit brethren.
Check out this from the Royal Society in Britain, yet another reason why i won't join the RSC. This seems reasonable as a third-way, but at the end of the day i prefer the Public Library of Science (where the authors pay for editing but access is completely free).
Can we imagine a day where publishing is as common as a blog entry and we let our peers decide who's good and who's not directly? Getting into a dead-tree edition then becomes something special. Add in some filtering software (i.e. always let me know when A, B or C release something and also whoever they ask to always be told about) and we're good to go. Even with several thousand scientists in a field, it doesn't take that many degrees of seperation before you're covering a significant amount of literature.
This isn't totally academic (no pun intended), China and India will start to rival Europe and the US in technology within a few decades (i doubt before 2050), do you think they're going to want to subscribe to journals at an annual rate that could buy ten research workers? We may find that waiting several months for your manuscript to actually get published is gonna seem antiquated very, very quickly.

Friday, November 25, 2005

TVNZ just not getting it

Am i missing something here?
TVNZ is claiming that they're missing the boat by not forcing everyone to switch over to digital television set-top boxes (here via David Farrar). These guys are debating on whether it is digital or analogue transmission that should go into the future - are they morons or is there some glaringly obvious reason why forcing people into an upgrade for the box that delivers their daily fix of Shortland Street is a good idea?
If you want to see what TV looks like in the future (and by future i mean within 2 years in the rest of world, maybe 5 in Australia) goto onegoodmove, the BBC or Google Video (mentally add a factor of 100 here).
People want to watch programs, not give a flying feck about the medium.
I want my vid's on a plane, an iPod, collated onto my own personal webpage, accessible from anywhere to anything, anytiME I FECKING FEEL LIKE.
Why the hell isn't TVNZ trying to market it's stuff to all those Kiwis OS via the web?? talk about a captive market that even Sky can't compete with and let's face it, even at NZD1 a show, it's not a big deal in foreign currency, i'd subscribe just to see the news and Spin Doctors.
Once again, a complete failure to imagine a world that doesn't revolve around big corporates telling everyone what they should be watching - "people want 18 different camera angles during the rugby, screw the yachting/badminton/table tennis/extreme ironing fans, what good are they anyway" AARRRRGGGHGHGHHH!!!

More on Patents

Just flipped through a copy of Chem & Eng News (chem-geek dead-tree) and they had an article on patent reform going through the motions in Washington at the moment (Susan R. Morrissey, C&EN Washington Chemical & Engineering News, 83(36), September 5, 2005).
The idea I had in my last post about a 'no harm, no foul' sort of licensing scheme was mentioned and apparantly it's called an 'injunction relief'. This is being put forward as an option but it seems as though there are two camps lobbying like madmen:
  1. the computer/software industry wants injunction relief, probably for the reasons i outlined last time
  2. the traditional chemical and pharmaceutical industries see injunction relief as death-on-a-stick
I suppose the arguments revolve on how long it takes to recoup your investment, moving atoms around is a lot more time-intensive than bits.
It does seem to point to an interesting problem in patents: real world stuff vs virtual world stuff.
Could you design a system where the length of time the right to monopolise something is actually something you'd have to prove as reasonable within the application? i.e. a single click purchase idea in Amazon is clever, can be built (i assume) within a few days using tools readily available and hence a reasonable time for monopoly would be say, 12 months. If you can't capitalise on that with your UX in that time, you're screwed regardless and the idea can be quicly spread (copyright on your particular code would still apply, i'm talking back-engineering here). Contrast that with a drug that took a decade to develop and hundreds of millions of dollars to get through clinical trials, you'd need a 20 year timeframe to recoup that kind of investment (and the dead-ends that it is subsidysing, back-engineering a chemical structure isn't that hard, it's finding the structure that works in the first place that is difficult).
Don't know, but wish i knew a patent attourney so i could have a few beers...

CFD clips

Computational Fluid Dynamics - this is the way engineers model fluid flow, i won't even try to explain it except that it divides a system up into 'boxes' and then performs the same calculation on each box (each box has a bunch of parameters associated with it like temperature and pressure) which in turn influences every box around it, repeat the calculation in each box using the new conditions - repeat until you're bored.
Iif you have enough boxes and enough computational power, you can get as much detail as you like. This clip is a truely impressive demonstration on where it's at and with Moore's Law, i can't see it slowing down anytime soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Fuel Cells - How do they work? part I

This is the second installment of my 3 part primer on FC technology. You may recall that i started the discussion with 'Why should i care?' which i feel should be the first question any researcher is asked (and a few times after you've started as well, no good inventing better buggy whips...).
If you're convinced that the idea has merit, a good place to start is to try and understand how they work. This gives you insight into their strengths and weaknesses which is neccesary if you are going to use them in the wild (i.e. electricity markets), which will be my 3rd posting on this topic.

Other people's work (linked here 'cause they have mostly done a better job than i'm going to)
How Stuff Works
Fuel Cell companies often have a 'how does it work' page, although they are of varying quality - Ballard, Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd, Siemens to name just a couple.
Fuel Cell Today
The best mid-level (for tecchy's) overview of FC technology is the Fuel Cell handbook. This publication is produced by the US National Energy Technology Lab (a division of the DOE) with the intention of aiding the community as a byproduct of keeping up to date with developments. It's an excellent resource and they should be commended for distributing it free of charge.Fuel Cell Handbook 7th edition Nobember 2004

To understand fuel cells, you have to grapple with the concepts of thermodynamics.
To cut a long story short, chemical reactions (or systems in general) will always flow spontaneously in the direction that reduces the total energy of the system i.e. a balloon pumped up with air has a lot of energy stored in it (because of all those 'air' molecules being forced so close together) and will try and deflate as soon as it is able OR a piece of coal has a lot of energy stored in it (as bonds between atoms) and will try and exchange those particular bonds with others if there is air (oxygen) available (and a little heat to get the ball rolling).
Both of these examples show that when a pathway exists, chemical systems will always try and minimise their energy, it is exactly the same when water wants to flow downhill, it is just minimising the energy that it posseses (potential energy when it's raised above sea-level).
Fuel cells use the same energy potential as a normal burning process i.e. put a fuel and some oxygen together and if they are able to form new chemical bonds (i.e. combust) they will. This occurs every day in your car engine or a coal burning power station.
The big difference is the next step - whereas a car engine or a power station will use the heat/pressure that has been released as a by-product of the reaction to drive a piston or a turbine to do some work, a fuel cell gets the work done directly because the system wants to change (i could use TD terms here but i find the personal touch useful) and will drag electrons through a circuit to achieve its goal (and in the process do electrical work).
Check out some of the links above to see this in action, it'll make a lot more sense, just remember that the reason the reaction is occuring at all is because the system overall is attaining a lower total energy and has a pathway that will allow it.

This is the reason why fuel cells can be more efficient than combustion engines. Because a combustion engine has to 'push' something that we can then do some work with, it loses some of its total available energy doing this step and hence we can get less out of it to do some work. The fuel cell doesn't have any intermediary steps, it can drive a motor directly during its reaction because part of the reaction is moving electrons around.
It's almost as if the molecules use energy like money and engines have to spend it to get where they want to go and if you have to spend more of your money on say, train tickets, you have less at the end to spend on what you want. Fuel cells are smarter 'cause they make sure they're already where they want to be...

If you're interested in following this some more, the limit of efficiency of a combustion energy is defined by the Carnot Cycle whereas the efficiency of a fuel cell is proportional only to the amount of electrical energy you can extract relative to the amount of energy stored in the chemical bonds (propellar-hat moment: Efficiency = dG/dH).

Next step: how does a fuel cell 'drag the electrons through the circuit' as opposed to just burning?

Splicing and dicing genes - Bacteria Photo

This is really cool! Genes are added and activated to produce desired engineering effects, cool.
I love the image they chose to make ;-)
It was, is and always will be, The Age of Bacteria - S. J. Gould

Stem Cell Research Chaos

If you ever had the misconception that scientists were different from anybody else, then the breaking story of claim and counter-claim between two eminent stem cell researchers should help bring you back to reality.
Hard to tell what's happening here and i doubt the MSM will ever get it straight but it just goes to show honour and prestige can badly influence people's decision making just as much as dodgy bonuses and accounting scams can.
The accusation of harvesting your own lab assistants eggs is disgusting. The pressure on a young PhD/post-doc to stay on the good side of their professor (especially one this big) is hard to over-estimate, it can quite literally be the difference between a career in science and wishing you were doing science. If this allegation is at all true, it's abuse of the highest order. I'm not even sure this kind of abuse has a name.

NZ electricity - Transpower Upgrade

The Transpower upgrade through the Waikato trundles on. Can't add much (i know sweet FA about how electricity moves down wires) except that hasn't 'there is no Plan B' plan already backfired for Air NZ?, why does Transpower paint the picture of 'it's this or old ladies dying during winter'.
I do have sympathy for those (very little) who are part of the 'consultation process' which basically boil down to 'we're doing this, what's the minimum we have to pay you to do it?'.

Hilarious URL's

That's what you get when you're trained to think hexadecimal is good base for counting...

The Power of BotE

Look in awe and be humbled ye ants and yapping dogs.
On 21 November BotE railed mightily against the MS goliath on their pathetic inability to have hotmail work properly in Firefox. Within the week, it is now working perfectly. It's too late of course, the damage has been done!
BotE is magnanomous enough to recognise the possibility that other people may have noticed this and said something but i don't know any of them and so i'm claiming bragging rights.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Nuclear Energy - Guardian Article

This is actually a good article, at least it admits that the discussion is rife with vested interests and dodgy numbers.
Strange how the nuclear industry which famously dumped toxic waste into the North Sea 30 years ago (or is that an urban myth?) is now the environmental champion. Quite a change of heart.
For my money, i think we need at least another 50 years of polluting power generation before the Next Big Thing but only if we actively use that time to develop more elegant solutions and not just ignore it until our grandkids have to deal with it. No prizes for guessing whether i think the second parts gonna happen.
I'd rather deal with GHG problems in a hundred years time than tell poverty stricken Chinese/Indians/Africans that they can't have the same standard of living within 25 years as I do now 'cause we already wasted that opportunity...

I might even vote Green in no IDea NSW

The Greens are asking for tax payer dollars to be restricted from schools that preach ID in their science classes.
Well at least one party has the balls to stand up say that this is crap and shouldn't be taught in science classes, does the fact that it is the Greens imply that the mainstream parties lean in the other direction?
What's really scary is that there are already state politicians that are matter-of-fact described as pro-ID such as Fred Nile (who the heck is he...?). Once the rot sets in at the top, it's pretty tough to root it out. Welcome to the paradox of democracy.

Number Theory - Distribution of Primes

via Reddit, this is pretty cool. Why should a figment of our imagination like counting seem to lead to such beautiful patterns and predictable clusters?
I read somewhere that some mathematicians feel like they are discovering things when they do research, as if mathematics were a field similar to cosmology or archaeology. Hard to argue when you see fractal patterns, bell curves and now number spirals popping up all over the place.

Recruiting at the Fonterra Melbourne Innovation Centre

Job ad here.
They still seem a bit vague on the area of specialty, they've described a list of people that any sizable start-up would need.
Text reproduced below:
World class R&D innovation opportunities in Melbourne

Looking for that ‘once in a lifetime’ career opportunity? Are you one of the best in your field? Excited by the chance to be involved in a start up innovation facility? If so, Fonterra’s new innovation centre in Melbourne offers some outstanding opportunities.

Our new innovation centre in Melbourne will pioneer new applications for dairy in consumer products. The first of its kind in Australia, the Melbourne facility will focus on developing innovative, market leading products that meet consumer’s demand for health and nutrition, convenience and indulgence. It will further position Fonterra and Australasia at the forefront of global dairy research and development.

We have a number of new positions that will be pivotal to our success. Recruitment for new positions will be phased – the initial positions we seek to fill include:
· Technical Managers
· Technologists
· Scientists and Engineers
· Manager, Project Management Team
· Manager - Business Development Projects
· HR Consultant
· Executive Secretary
· Team Leader, Commercial Analysts

If you’re an innovative, energetic, talented individual who is excited by the prospect of being involved in the establishment of a new world class innovation centre, we invite you to come and take part in this exciting development

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Plagiarism in Education

Here's an article in The Guardian that to me, highlights how many traditional workplace practices have been rapidly impacted by the web and the free, instantaneous transfer of information.
From the article (my emphasis):

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "There hasn't ever been a case of the internet providers or a site being taken to court to challenge this.

"I think that the internet providers should put a stop to it because it's amoral. It would be very good practice on the part of the internet providers to support schools in banning it." He adds that legislation to outlaw the selling of coursework online "should be investigated".

a·mor·al Audio pronunciation of "amoral" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (-môrl, -mr-)
- Not admitting of moral distinctions or judgments; neither moral nor immoral.
- Lacking moral sensibility; not caring about right and wrong.
Yes, John, I agree that the internet is amoral, i applaud your openmindedness and suggest that now the answer sheet has been cribbed from your crappy lessons, you and all your lazy-ass teach-to-the-exam teacher ilk get off your arse and design better ways of making sure your students are learning the material (your quote implies that you're barely literate yourself, a testiment to the last 2 decades of the extremely low entry grades needed for teaching college). Here's a couple of suggestions:
  1. talk to them. Assign the grade based on an interview
  2. tell them to download 3 assignments off the web, reference them and critique.
Your knee-jerk reaction to try and legislate to ban something would be amusing if it weren't for the fact you represent a group of people in charge of children's education. No-one that thinks for a living would ever dream of NOT using the internet to look up information/previous work and try and figure out which sources are reputable. Your main problem is that your students are not referencing the work and passing it off as their own. You can't win this game so don't try, come up with a better test.

Victoria continues to have no IDea

The Victorian press seems to be agog over Intelligent Design lately, what is this 3 op-eds in a fortnight?

Here we have another op-ed that begs us to 'teach the controversy' angle in response to an article about the Dover Board of Education trial over the teaching of ID in Kansas schools. And in case you think i'm paraphrasing the sentence reads (my emphasis):
Behe's claim that there are some biological systems that cannot be explained by any unintelligent natural process is clearly one that is open to scientific refutation and many scientists have engaged with him on those terms. I can see no reason this debate cannot be raised in senior biology classes in schools.
The only reasoned response to this request is "get bent, we don't teach astrology, psychic powers, homeopathy or ougee board readings in science class to teach controvesies, i teach the best theories that science has to offer".

The original article was standard MSM waffle but it seems as though the reported actually got in touch with Michael Behe and got the quote (p3):
Contacted by phone, he sounds like a softly spoken scientist interested only in open scientific debate and frustrated that leading evolutionists are not prepared to debate him in open forums. "We are not close-minded," he says. "We welcome debate and robust questioning. That is all we ask."
Which, to put it mildly is a great big pile of crap. There is no 'debate' because the debate happened decades ago i.e. age of the earth, how did your eye form, why does blood clotting take 7 different proteins... yadayadayada - check out talkorigins or the panda's thumb if you wish to see why scientists don't 'debate' these things anymore.
The 'debate' that Behe refers to is "why don't scientists turn up to stacked auditoriums where i can use debating tricks to make them look like morons" and the answer to that is "because all you want to do is make scientists look like morons, not debate any issues and i suspect that you wish to do this so you can sell more books, make more money and ruin a generation of children's education".

Damn it, why am i blogging so much about ID?? It was one of the 3 things i didn't want to waste my time on.
There's actually real science being done in the world, why isn't the media talking about that?

Octopus v Shark...

Great Google vid here of an octopus attacking a shark! Wow! via Reddit

3D Pavement Drawings

These are really cool! via Reddit

You know it's winter in NZ when....

...the electricity supply crisis pops up again.
Ye gods, if i hadn't spent a couple of years in the industry, this article would be gibberish, as it is, it's a hodgepodge of all sorts of conflicting interests all rolled into one giant narrative. Methinks the reporter had a less-than-comprehensive understanding of the NZ electricity market.
The market isn't that complicated, it's the agendas of the different players that give it the illusion of complexity.
For instance, if Comalco gets (some porportion of) its electricity for 3 c/kWh (who knows what it actually costs them, its a confidential deal with them and the gummint, but i can assure you it's a darn site less than a normal home owner) why do they complain that they have to turn off production when prices go too high? They got enough of it cheaper than the rest of us. Crocodile tears...
Residential customers pay 3x the market price for their electricity, they do this so that they don't have to worry about the variation in price, they're buying retail, not wholesale. Why the hell should they turn off their lights if electricity supply is short? They've paid (through the nose) for the right to not have to give a flying £$Q" what the price of electricity is, that's your problem Mr Electricity Worker, you accepted the deal when you started taking my cash.
Comalco has plenty of analysts and engineers forecasting prices and rainfall, they are in the best position to know what they should do, if they start whining (and this goes for all the rest of the 'producers') they are basically asking everyone that paid 3x as much for their electricity to give it to them.
At the end of the day, if you can't handle the market and make a profit - DON'T USE THE FREAKING ENERGY, LET SOMEONE ELSE USE IT THAT CAN!!
If only there was some way of communicating to everyone what resources are scarce and valuable and what ones are cheap.... Oh wait, hang on, it's called a PRICE SIGNAL, surely at least one of your BCom analysts is smart enough to look it up in their introductory economics textbook...

Monday, November 21, 2005

Comment on Uncertain Principles

permalink here.

Another 'why i don't understand america' moment

Because they resemble an Asperger kid.
Some things are done brilliantly, yet others, the things that you'd think would be no-brainers, are constantly screwed up. Take this for instance, a rumour that oil executives may have met with the White House/Cheney as part of the energy strategy bill passed a couple years ago (there's an oxy-moron that the 'pacific solution' creator would be proud of). The only possible reasoned reply to that is... Duuhhh. Of couse Cheney met with them, he was on the friggin board of Haliburton, you think they never invited him over for a golf game? You'd think the administration would be playing defence every day since the damn bill was passed...
You'd think the defenders of the free world (was there a vote on this that i missed or can you just claim outlandish titles? can i be the supreme defender of the periodic table? i've already stolen a logo so i can hit the ground running...) would have a 4th estate that would, you know, sniff out stuff like this and use it to horribly embarass their politicians and make a bucketload of cash by selling the newspapers and movie rights. It's not like they met at the back of the Soprano's restaurant here, THEY DROVE THROUGH THE FRONT GATE!
Good grief, no wonder this country stumbles around like some hideouos Godzilla/Sumo wrestler freak, they honestly have no idea and no-one seems to care.

Why the enviromental movement is in trouble...

An op-ed piece in The Age today.
As David Young says:
The scale of the world's increasing demand for energy needs many solutions
Yet as far as i can tell, he doesn't mention any other than:

Cleaning up coal-fired power is the focus of billions of dollars of research funding around the world. Technology breakthroughs will enable Australia to use its 500 years' supply of coal guilt-free. Even renewable energy is likely to cost less than nuclear power in the long term.
Yes, coal research funding is in the billions, and rightly so because it is a dirty, disgusting way to generate electricity. Technology breakthrough? what technology breakthrough? after billions of dollars, there are NO clean coal technologies - there are cleaner coal technologies but electricity companies will follow the letter of the law (and where possible lobby for more lenient ones), they won't invest in clean air unless forced to.
As to the brilliant statement "Even renewable energy is likely to cost less than nuclear power in the long term" which is stated as some sort of hybrid wish-fact, i see no evidence that nuclear power is more or less expensive - the accounting standards that surround multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects is... obscure, with many costs previously kept off the balance sheet and tacitly transferred to the govt such as waste and site clean-up (& transmission, distribution, short term reserve generation if it has an outage...).
Strangely, i consider myself to be somewhat 'green' yet i refuse to be painted with the same brush as most loony-tunes hippies that think a cost-benefit analysis is a tool of oppression by 'the man'. I suspect that if nuclear energy is the answer you've asked the wrong question but if the best evidence we have points that way then that's where we should go and it's up to us to make it work.
I just hope the earth isn't soley represented by Mr Young and his ilk or else it's definitly doomed, or more specifically and let's be honest here, the poor countries are doomed.

Gaurdian article on patents

here. Says most of the normal stuff but yet another indication that the system needs work. One thing i haven't been able to find out is how the licensing fees work.
Lets say you invent the uber-widget and sales take off and then you find yourself sued by Megacorp for infringing on some obscure piece of code. No-one disputes that your widget is a good thing or that it is novel, only that some minor component in its inards has been patented. What would happen if you just said 'yeah, OK, here's 5c from every widget, we're making a new model for this Xmas and we'll strip that part out within a year or two - or maybe not if we're making enough money and can concentrate on other things'.
What this means is that instead of patent law resembling a mine field that you are pogo-hopping around in, it becomes much less.... confrontational. A 'no-harm, no-foul' kind of arrangement that respects your IP yet allows you to keep innovating. However, if the owner gets to licence the agreement under their terms say, $100 per instance, you are in a winner takes all game and innovation takes the back seat while patent lawyers start telling the ideas people what they can and can't think.
Has anyone challenged the licencing angle or is it just assumed that once it's proved you have the IP you can restrict any use of it that you don't like?

Yet another reason to hate MS...

'cause they won't even make a browser for my Mac that works on their own website! (via Reddit). And hotmail doesn't render properly in Firefox and and if i forward email messages, the tags are actually copied into the message body! no-one can read an email forwarded from hotmail unless i open it in IE!. The only good news is that it forced me to upgrade to gmail, now there's a nice web-mail app.... ;-)

Friday, November 18, 2005

NZ Institute - No country is an island

Interesting post here about raising nz's productivity from woeful to average and how that might help us arrest the slide to the bottom of the OECD (and stop the 25%+ wage differential with Australia from harvesting every other graduate we churn out over the next 10 years).
NZ doesn't have many think tanks that are apolitical, most of them are of the of the shrill-agenda-promotion variety but so far i've found the nz institute reports to be very well balanced, presenting the facts and opinon and leaving the policy making to those that are supposed to make it. I haven't heard anything about their reports being received well or not but i suspect that they are discussed, it's hard to argue methodology/conclusion when it's this well written.

Coloured Bubbles!!

via Slashdot here.
Now this is chemistry... beautiful, nothing beats a bubble as an example of all sorts of fascinating natural phenomena but it tends to get hijacked by the physics crowd, not this though!

What is an education?

North Shore businesses are complaining about skill-less graduates of secondary school and polytechs. Duh... they've been pushing the bums on seats revenue model to breaking point (luckily for us!) for the last decade (coincidently with Labours term of office??).
No education provider should be allowed to release into the wild a child/young adult who can't read/write and is in-numerate - that should just go without saying. It's sad that it has to be said at all. Having said that, education is not just child-hood wordplace training so they can walk out of the classroom and into the plastics factory to operate the Moltor2000 or whatever the hell business thinks 'relevent' training is.
Draw a line down the middle for your minimum standards but i draw mine at the 3R's, an understanding of how to teach yourself new skills in a networked world and let businesses themselves do the specific training. I am still decidedly skeptical of 'community' roles that schools play. Feel free to play sport, kapa haka, yadayadayada but don't forget that these things make for a well-rounded individual and are an addition to the minimum not an alternative.

Auckland gets a windfarm

A Genesis windfarm is going up in Awhitu penninsula. Cool, i like these things, i think they stand on their own as beautiful as any outdoor sculpture and obiously i like the non-carbon Distributed Generation angle. I'm glad to hear that Greenpeace and EECA lined up on the side of Genesis thus highlighting how NIMBY the opposition was.

Oh the irony - Tamiflu and Bird Flu

Now we learn that Tamiflu is implicated in more deaths as a cure than the desease...
See what happens when you let the media lead the charge people?? They've hyped this beyond belief, generated a swarm of Tamiflu panic-buying and now we find that maybe we should have focused on the real problem rather than the knee-jerk response.
Should i hold my breath for the media to say mea culpa?? methinks not.

Sir Humphrey's Spinning Unspin

Sir Humphrey's is taking a while to get up and running and it seems that are..... anti-global warming activists. Great, just what the world needs, more uninformed debate about technical issues that take about a decade to get to grips with probably followed up with some statement similar to '...i'm no scientist sucking on the govt teat but i think its getting colder where i live so this greenhouse gas stuff is bunkum...'.
Go join forces with that powerhouse of NZ intellectual debate 'Investigate' magazine, you've set yourself up well for an invited blog post.
What does the paper say?

Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics
Volume 67, Issue 16 , November 2005, Pages 1573-1579

Regional sun–climate interaction

A. KilcikCorresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail The Corresponding Author

Department of Physics, Faculty of Science, Akdeniz University, 07058 Antalya, Turkey


It is a clear fact that the Earth's climate has been changing since the pre-industrial era, especially during the last three decades. This change is generally attributed to three main factors: greenhouse gases (GHGs), aerosols, and solar activity changes. However, these factors are not all-independent. Furthermore, contributions of the above-mentioned factors are still disputed.

We sought whether a parallelism between the solar activity variations and the changes in the Earth's climate can be established. For this, we compared the solar irradiance model data reconstructed by J. Lean to surface air temperature variations of two countries: USA and Japan. Comparison was carried out in two categories: correlations and periodicities. We utilized data from a total of 60 stations, 18 in USA and 42 in Japan. USA data range from 1900 to 1995, while Japan data range from 1900 to 1990.

Our analyses yielded a 42 per cent correlation for USA and a 79 per cent for Japan between the temperature and solar irradiance. Moreover, both data sets showed similar periodicities. Hence, our results indicate marked influence of solar activity variations on the Earth's climate.

Means that 6% of the variation in temp in the USA (parameter weighting = sqrt(correlation co-efficient) is due to solar radiation and 9% in Japan. Sounds reasonable, you'd expect sunshine levels to have a heating effect and on the order of 5-10% doesn't sound too surprising.
And from the conclusion (my emphasis):

We know that a great deal of effort has been put to determine the effects of solar variability on the Earth's climate, and that, to explain the effects of all relevant factors in climate change, one needs to consider a model on a scale of decades to centuries. For the time being, proposed models are not yet of sufficient accuracy to permit any verification (Rozelot, 2001). This study is more a “heuristic” guide to the determination of the principal factors controlling our climate system. We obtained different correlation coefficients between temperatures and solar irradiance depending on the region considered, although we obtained almost identical periodicities for all data sets. Despite the fact that we only used the three-step running average smoothing technique, we obtained a fairly high correlation. On the other hand, our results suggest that atmospheric aerosols have more dominant effect on the Earth's climate than GHGs. Moreover, the existence of similar periodicities for all data sets point out that periodicities in the solar activity manifest themselves in periodic variations on the Earth's surface temperature with almost identical periods. However, prominence of this influence is suppressed by increasing concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere.
It's hard to tell (unless you are an actual atmospheric scientist which i'm not) whether this is earth shattering stuff or a PhD student writing his first paper (or more likely something in between). I'm sure those chaps over at IPCC have heard of solar cycles so i don't see how this could be surprising. End result? just another paper adding to the mix that may support GHG naysayers - i don't trust my own ability to judge the raw literature, why the hell would i assume Sir Humphrey's can?
Sounds like a selection bias at work here. If you don't want to believe in GHG since you have a position of priveledge that likes emmiting them, you will find and support any evidence in your favour. As to the conspiricy of 'Big Science' (a great little Orwellian tactic that tries to paint science with the same brush as Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco), the only big science that i see is the lobby groups paid for by Big Oil to pour Doubt, Uncertainty and Fear into the argument. Genuine debate is welcome in research (if you've ever seen an anonymous peer review, you will know that punches aren't pulled) but as with most things, the chances of the minority being right is very small - you may be an undiscovered Einstein, but i'm willing to take the bet that you are just plain wrong.
Let me say this clearly - Global Warming may be wrong, i'm hoping it is, but i trust the methodology that reached this conclusion a 1000x more than i trust people that say there is no problem since by and large, they will be inconvenianced by any change in the status-quo.

David Lange's No Nukes Oxford Speech

Massive kudos to Russell Brown at Public Address for getting the transcript and audio of this seminal moment out in the public domain and with a creative commons licence i.e put to music here.
I agree totally with the sentiment expressed here, NZ doesn't need nukes, will not be safer having them around and it is a valid option - if anything is constant in NZ policies over the last couple of decades it is that we prefer a commons agreement whenever possible since on our own, our opinion is worthless. We do not shirk our duty in a conventional sense (limited as our tiny country neccesarily makes it and despite Canberra's shrill yapping as to the contrary).
I do find it strange however that 'nuclear' always means bombs. NZ has become irrational over the peaceful use of nuclear for medicine, research and power generation.
No, it almost certainly doesn't make sense for NZ to want a nuclear power station since we are basically one giant fault line on the pacific rim, but to ban nuclear powered ships (as i understand it, technically they are allowed just not with nuclear weapons onboard and since the US has a neither-confirm-nor-deny policy, that effectively means all ships are banned) is just a bit silly. The NZ public has been conditioned to think nuclear-free is an absence of all 'nuclear' applications. This is stupid, radioactives are used every day in every hospital to cure people of cancer, you don't see many Greenpeace demonstrations outside cancer wards do you?
The nuclear-free stance is deep in the pysche's of NZers and i wonder if even we know what it means, its wrapped up in so much of how we see the world and ourselves, so i dispair of ever trying to explain to someone else...

NZ to host the Rugby World Cup in 2011!

Great news here that NZ gets to host the world cup (the other one).
After getting shafted by Australia in the last bid (will go down next to the underarm bowl as a defining sporting moment between us), the NZ rugby board was rightly raked across the coals for a sub-standard performance.
Nice to see that they have corrected their mistakes and not only bounced back but come up with an excellent result. Well done to those involved, it will be as good as the Amercia's Cup, i only hope the final is in Auckland (but then, given the traffic, how could we ensure anyone gets there on time??)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

$100 laptop makes its debut

The BBC talks about 'the green machine' here.
These are very cool; hand-cranks for power, mesh-networking to allow little grids to develop spontaneously and complete open source software to encourage tinkering and keep the price down. Well done to the MIT crew that developed the concept, got it off the ground and have inspired/shamed some of the industry biggies to come to the party. I hope it takes off in a big way.

NZ science honours

Here in the Herald and the RSNZ press release here.
Well done, but from my end of the career ladder, these look like awards for excellence based on a career that started in the 60's and hence do not count against my current views on NZ science funding.
Even the occasional 'they're doing it right here in NZ' puff pieces that pop up now and again are more accurately described as 'against the odds' success stories. Sci/eng types tend to be fairy statistacally numerate and we'll head off to places where success tends to be expected, not the result of an eloborate funding crap shoot...

Say it aint so Scott...

Scott Adams, author Dilbert, of one of my favorite cartoons ever (i swear he had a webcam pointed at me when i worked in a big company and each joke was merely an edited documentary of my previous day's encounters), seems to have gone off the deep end.

He's written a book (free for download here) that basically scorns everything that science is currently doing. I spent 10 mins skim reading it (that sounds more impressive than it is, the font is so big that 144 pages is about 10 pages of A4 Times New Roman) and it basically revolves around the fact that Scott has trouble understanding the current state of play of everything from string theory to evolution.

The story is set as a conversation between omnipotent-level 5-avatar (sounds like a scientology reference) and a well-intentioned delivery guy. It's very Socratic in it's delivery (but that presupposes the Socratic figure knows WTH he's talking about). Skip to the Science and Evolution chapters if you want a quick flavour of the rest of the book.

I'm not sure what to say about this, anyone that has read his funny book 'The Dilbert Principle' and made it to the last chapter has probably thought 'eccentric' since he honestly believes writing down a wish on a piece of paper ten times every day will make it come true within a couple of weeks. I haven't seen any peer-reviewed studies on this but if it turns out to be statistically significant you'll win a Nobel prize and a million bucks from the Randi foundation, good luck with that...

The only conclusion that i can come up with is Mr Adams now has enough money to do whatever he wants for the rest of his life and has surrounded himself with people that think this is earth shattering stuff. He's in good company Huxley, Tesla, Pauling, Wolfram(?who knows, that guy is smart enough that he may actually be right) have all gone off the deep end.

The only thing i'll say in physics defence of field theory is that if you read enough of the pop-sci (especially Feynman) you'll quickly realise that even they don't 'believe' that their equations are necessarily 'true', since 1900 they've re-defined 'truth' as being 'prediction' i.e. if your model is based on little green dwarfs driving morris minors around on a rolled up 18 dimensional space-time racetrack, knock yourself out - just so long as it encompasses all the known data and predicts unknown facts that can be tested.
I don't like quantum physics or string theory purely on aesthetic grounds (that and a complete lack of mathematical talent) that the disciplines rapidly become mathematical navel gazing with untestable outcomes (we chemists don't get that luxury...) but QT certainly predict outcomes to staggering levels of detail so what the hell do i know?
Truth? who cares, it's prediction that counts, the rest is just philosophy and we all know how well thats been getting on for the last 4000 years.


Over at the NZ Herald premium content blog (an anarchist with a $99 subscription and a devil-may-care attitude to outdated copyright laws) there is an op-ed piece on Television NZ (TVNZ), the 2 channel state broadcaster (NZ has about 3 1/2 analogue channels depending on where you live, what the tallest building is in your area and whether it is raining).
One of the things i have yet to figure out is why these pieces never seperate content from medium. They start a paragraph with a phrase like 'programmes of interest to NZ that may not be commercially profitable..' and end with 'so the govt should invest in a digital TV network like the BBC...' or some such.
These are two completely different questions.
Yes, i believe in protecting your countries heritage and creating that intangible quality of 'shared myths' that seems to somehow lead to people identifying themselves with a particular patch of dirt. This is a good thing. And i would have thought that delivering these messages to as many people as possible in the most cost-effective way would be the over-riding concern.
Hence, screw the expensive infrastructure, deliver it using a dumb network and let people play the programs on their PC, iPod, TV+box, whatever the hell they like. Now if only we had some sort of high-speed dumb network that could deliver all this data right into people's homes.... oh wait, thats right, we do - IT'S CALLED THE INTERNET. Or at least, other countries have the internet, NZ still has a monopolist telecoms company that tries to convince every one that 56k is enough bandwidth for anyone (now why does that sound familiar?).
If you want to be like the BBC, go to their BBC news website, click on a story and watch it play. Wow, just like TV mum....
Now don't get me started on the irrelevence of Maori TV - an (expensive/govt funded) enterprise built on training people for the exciting world of the 1960's... Just think how many Powerbooks and digicams you could have bought for the reporting teams coupled to a cool back end geek network for distribution - throw in user-supplied content and a social filtering/ranking system and with a little luck - the premier content site for NZ going into the 21st century and a talent pool of world-wide relevence. An opportunity lost....

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

This is quite funny...

Google for 'failure' and hit the 'I Feel Lucky' button ;-)

More on IRL's downsizing

In today's Herald. Sad to see my initial thoughts backed up by someone in the system.

Terrorism and Probabilities

This draft is a couple weeks old. I got stymied when i decided to compare death probability by terrorism vs say, choking on food while eating, struck by lightning etc. I found the US National Safety Council website and before you know it, i was happily pondering the multitude of ways that you can die in the US that is a standard check-box for their statistics! Hours of fun for any numerate individual with a sadistic streak ;-)
If anyone actually knows where some good death statistics are, please let me know.
And remember, 100% of non-smokers die too ;-) (i've been looking for ages for 'probablity of death by lung cancer of smokers' - i can only ever find '100x more likely than non-smokers' sort of quotes which are pretty meaningless).

The Age has a columnist that actually goes to the heart of the terrorism 'crisis' by throwing around some statistics (shocking, i know). Strangely, its also in today's SMH, makes you wonder about the impartiality of Australia's media (yeah, right) when they start recycling their op-ed's without even a couple days between them...

The US National Safety Council website.

Comments on Sony's malware

I just got this from a tecchy friend in Aus and it's so good i'm just gonna shamelessly reproduce it here ;-) (hattip to Boyd, make it into a blog post and then teach me how to use trackbacks...)
Ok, the tech world is all over this, but it seems to me that some of my non-tech friends may not have caught this story. It's one of the more interesting blunders from the "we treat our customers like crap and then sue them" recording industry.

Sony BMG have released some CDs (in the US only they claim, but see later) that have "copy protection" built in. In fact, what happens is that you insert the CD and some software is installed onto your Windows (or Mac) machine that comprises a "rootkit" (software which inserts itself into the lowest levels of the OS and then hides, doing something naughty... often used my hackers). This software is designed to prevent copying the CD.

15 days ago, an industry recognized Windows internals guru investigated strange behaviour on his machine and reported on what he found.

The software provided no uninstall option, actively hid from deletion and if you worked around that and deleted the hidden files it broke Windows.

Sony then responded by lying about the product, saying it wasn't malicious and was not a security risk. Oh, and they released an "update" that removed the cloaking but left your computer vulnerable to any website on the net installing any software they wanted on your machine without permission or notice.

There are indications that they have breached other people's copyright in distributing their software. Oh, the irony.

The are police involved in some countries, investigating whether Sony have breached the law.

There's a Trojan (malicious program) that uses the Sony cloaking to hide.

People are using the cloaking to cheat in online games.

Sony then halt production of the CDs. Microsoft and other vendors announce that they will update their security software to treat the rootkit just like any other virus or spyware.

Class action lawsuits have been launched.

Sony say they will recall the CDs, and offer exchanges. But still, removing the software leave the aforementioned HUGE security hole.

And now, a reputable researcher probing machines on the net has estimated that at LEAST 500,000 machines are affected. Personally I think that's a little high, but still... He generated these maps: USA, Europe, Asia

The RIAA (recording industry group) warn that people shouldn't use peer-to-peer networks because you can get all kinds of nasty software from them....

Note this is only affects those who actually have (and presumably bought) a CD, NOT those that download the music. In other words it only affects their PAYING CUSTOMERS.

Yeah, they're winning customers back bigtime.
Bad Sony, very very bad. I hope you get the crap sued out of you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Aussie no IDea story

Defence of evolution by other theologians is a thorny conundrum. Do you applaud that they can see the plausibility of one thing yet ignore their inconsistencies in every other?
Since they MUST have a place for God in their logic, they end up in tortured prose trying to prove the unprovable. Take this sentence from the first paragraph which sets up the rest of the story:
Yet intelligent design is based on a misunderstanding of God's relationship to creation.
This sets up a convenient straw man for the professor to destroy and never state the real issue. Evolution does not need a God, never has, never will. If he's lurking around somewhere touching all with his noodly appendages we can't prove it or disprove it and hence can ignore it since it has no effect.
If you choose to believe in a God, that's entirely your perogitive and good luck with that; the issue at hand is simply that belief is not needed and hence is irrelevent in the discussion.

NZ Herald launches RSS...

...pity they don't realise that people read the on-line edition of their paper despite the quality of most of their articles, not because of them (here).
If you want me to be subjected to your all flashing-all annoying banner ads (since that is supposedly where the money is), let me read something that's interesting like, oh i don't know, your op-ed pages perhaps? Premium content is a flawed business model this century, when are you going to realise this and concentrate on what's important, eyeball traffic? You could spend the first decade of the 21st century building the place-of-first-choice for ANYTHING NZ related, or fade into irrelevency as soon as anything, and i mean anything, comes up to replace you.

NZ Automobile Association takes on Google - with predictable results

The Herald has a story in it's computing section (they say its Technology and Science but who are they kidding?) that the AA has released a map where you can locate all sorts of things relative to where you are. This would have been incredibly innovative if it had been unveiled about 3-4 years ago, as it is, this could just have easily been a google maps mashup and hence has been downgraded from innovative to merely iterative (or even worse a me-too offering). I would politely suggest to the AA that its intellectual property is not the map with the pin icons stuck to it, but rather the database of interesting NZ locations.
My advice? Switch to Google Maps (and tailor your data for mobile access) as the interface to allow more people to use it, give away most of the information and make money off directing viewers to businesses that have a location-dependent element to them i.e. where is the nearest hamburger bar that is rated highly by Metro magazine (the burger bar then flips 20c to you as a service fee). A highly successful and proven on-line revenue option. This scales easily and lets you focus/pour more money into the IP that is actually worth something. You can't beat Google at making cool user interfaces, don't waste your time or money trying.

Direct Carbon Fuel Cell

SRI Intl. are claiming a direct coal fuel cell device and presenting at the FC conference in Palm Springs next week (hattip Reddit although the link is mostly business waffle).
The Reddit link states that it uses no catalysts so my bollocks-detector is clanging away like a madman and i can't find any technical descriptions of how it would work (SRI webpage here). The main problems with a solid-as-fuel are two-fold:
  1. You can't clean up the feed stream. Coal has oodles of sulphur in it and sulphur will poision just about any cheap catalyst (noble metals are immune but they cost too much)
  2. The reaction rates are just too darn low. The diffusion of reactants in will be orders of magnitude slower than if the coal is gasified before use
It does mention a liquid fuel but how (can?) do you melt coal? Perhaps they are pulverising the coal into little bits and mixing with a non-reactive feed, but then, you'd still run into problem 2 and even worse due to the dilution of the feed.
Might be interesting, but i'm throwing this one in the snake-oil basket until some actual facts come out.

Vitamins cured me of HIV...

Here's a stupid 'science' story that's running around the British press at the moment. I'm afraid i lean more towards In The Pipeline than i do miracle cures - after all, what's more likely:
  1. The entire medical world has failed for 25 years to see the connection between vitamins and complete eradication of the HIV virus OR
  2. Mr Stimpson is hamming it up for the tabloids based on a couple of false positives or a false negative ??
Considering Mr Stimpson is refusing to confirm the negative result, i'm gonna go out on a limb here and say it's number 2 and the British press has once again failed to provide any meaningful analysis to a 'miracle cure' story. Here's hoping i'm wrong but i doubt we'll hear any followups over the next 6 months.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The collapse of IRL

Strange things afoot at yet another CRI or whatever the hell their acronym'd with these days. Thanks to the 'censorship is just damage' crew i can even link to the herald editorial thats wails and moans about our poor scientists (is it 10 months since the last one already? how quickly the time goes...) and the IRL press release is here.
I have had the pleasure of interviewing with IRL for a position a couple of years ago. When the scientist who had been working for 20 years introduced his earstwhile colleague fresh out of uni with the ink still wet on his BCom who then stated his interest was 'in the business of science', even i noticed that things could be going downhill (free hint: don't lose your temper in job interviews or imply that half of the people interviewing you are idiots, regardless of the evidence presented...).
I haven't looked this up deeply yet but based on the editorial, things look grim for the same reasons i indicated about GNS. Why close the research centres in NZ's largest city? Do you think everyone around the world wants to work in the sticks? What support services are available on a moments notice? Don't you think there'd be more chance of finding those services in a bigger city? Is their any coherency to science policy in this country?
Commercialisation is a noble goal for scientific research but it is a possible end result of good basic research. You can't just sell off the intelletual property that the crown has accumulated since the 60's without continuing to generate the IP that we'll need in 2020 - come on people it's not rocket science!! NZ science and technology is woefully underfunded and what funding there is chaotically distributed with no thought as to investment.
One of the things that really bugs me about people that hand out other people's cash is that they start thinking it can't be too hard to do my job (every time you hear 'ivory tower' or 'academic' it's likely to be disparaging, not complimentary), however, while i think any scientist who cares to can learn the basics of business in a few months, i doubt you'll find many business types asking around a lab to spend 10-15 years of their life learning my discipline so they can really start doing 'the business of science'.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Energy Challenges out to 2050

Cosmic Variance has a great post here on how we are going to secure our energy demands going into the future. The talk abstract, the powerpoint slide and an audio transcript are here. The abstract alone is a pretty accurate summary of what the issues are. The opening sentence summarises the problems with this area of research:
This presentation will describe and evaluate the challenges, both technical, political, and economic, involved with widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies. (my emphasis)
What technical people forget is that electricity is bought and sold like any other widget (with all the market baggage that comes with that) and that there are huge obvious and non-obvious political agendas at work (an old saying in the electricity game is 'electrons flow according to the laws of physics, money flows according to the laws of politics).
'Pure' research is funded, mostly, by govt since the chance of payoff is on a timeframe of >20 years and the benefits tend to be spread across anyone and everyone. Industry can't work on those timescales or with such a diluted payback, so if we are serious about developing new energy widgets, the funding has to come from govt sources. But if govt is not convinced of the importance, or has been lobbied to protect incumbent players, then all we can do is tinker around the edges (and up to now, alternative energy research has been tinkering) while ignoring something that's not going to happen In My Term Of Office (NIMTOO, a kissing cousin of NIMBY).
Having said all that, i am still very suspicious of anything that is predicted out >40 years since it's just plain stupid to imagine the world will be just like it is now only bigger. Even with that caveat however, what we're doing now (and not doing) is starting to look dumber and dumberer.

Cure through prayer

This in : Family tried prayer to heal son, court told
A trial for manslaughter when a mother and father (David and Catherine Tribble) tried to heal a 4-month old baby through prayer rather than evil anti-biotics. The poor kid died but these two in-DUH-viduals are denying manslaughter.
Bollocks, their as guilty as if they were tossing the poor little guy back and forth like a football until someone dropped him. At the very least, they've proven that NZ can claim to citizens of bewildering stupidity at a level equal with any other country in the world.
I hope they rot in a gaol cell somewhere before they can infect anyone else with their dominant stupidity genes.

Sketching from skeleton up

This is very cool!
via Reddit

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Stupid Patents - Antigravity Device

Now the US is granting anti-gravity patents. This system is broken people, you're strangling the golden goose - fix it!

no IDea in victoria

There is no 'Science' section in Melbourne's 'The Age' newspaper so what is the first article that is listed when you search for 'science'? "Sciene - with just a twist of God'.
Seems like there's a budding ID underground in Christian schools in our neighbour across the ditch. Go to origins if you want to delve into the so-called controversy, what i want to point out here is the column inches devoted to 'balance' in the article, right down to the For and Agin websites listed at the end (i guess having websites puts it in the vanguard of on-line newspapers, i wonder if they do the same for the print edition nowadays?).
After exhaustively catalogueing the number of posts and column inches in BotE so far, i am now able to provide balance myself on the controversy. Being a bit numeracy-minded, i have decided to interpret 'balance' as words for/against: volume-weighted by working scientists as to whether they doubt evolution as the strongest explanation for the natural world they see around them.....
Now, i hope that clears everything up, back to the real science.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Kansas - Rushing headlong into the 18th century

Well, the school board in Kansas has voted 6:4 to re-word the curiculum for teaching evolution (via BBC here).
First up - who cares? The US is sliding in the international tables for research as it moves global. China and India produce 10x the volume of PhD's (each, i think) than the US does and since 9/11 the restriction on H1B visas has forced their graduate slave labour to Europe and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, I care.
Kansas has just consigned a generation of children to be illiterates. The 21st century is not going to be about digging holes in the ground and waiting for stuff to grow, those jobs are low-skill and best done by others that are glad of the opportunity (to earn a living and not get shot at...). Kansas is a test bed with other states hanging on by their fingernails, this could well tip the balance.
What would the world feel like if the world's hyper-power started to slide into a theocracy? We know what happens to theocracies, they turn into basket-case poor countries that root around in the dirt dreaming of past glories and getting pissed off at everyone. Is this what we want for a militarised ultra-'patriotic' country? No checks and balances, let God tell the president what to do and institutions that demand ignorance for the populus and 'consensus' on stupid bits of dogma?
Make no mistake Uncle Sam, the rest of the world is laughing at you. And when we're not laughing we're just a little bit disturbed. Thankfully OneGoodMove lets a little of the 'other' america out so i haven't lost hope completely.

The 'Business' of Science - GNS Science

Here's a great idea, don't worry so much about doing brilliant research or hiring the best brain you can find that wants to live in Dunedin, what this place needs is... a logo change. I can just imagine the wet-behind-the-ears BCom graduate that pitched this idea to his boss at the old ex-CRI Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd.
"Great work weasel-boy, no wonder we pay you twice as much as those science-y chaps, this'll bring the consulting dollars pouring in. You're cost-benefit spreasheet made a pretty compelling case that we can triple our funding in 2 years and this is where it all started..."
Hmmm, a country of 4 million people, a fractured science infrastructure with a grant scheme that seems to have been cut and pasted from the lottery foundation and we tinker with the logo. Great work guys, rest assured that i'll be looking you all up for my next career move.
BTW, what's with the recursive acronym?? GNS Science? Does that expand to Geo. and Nuclear Sciences Science? Just cause you use the word science twice doesn't make you smarter (in fact, as a rough rule of thumb, any subject/discipline that includes the word science in it's title deserves a little skepticism). Can we expect to see GNS Nuclear Sciences in the near future?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My new profile photo

I just saw this jpg on the BBC 'Periodic Tales' webpage and thought 'oh yes, you shall be mine...' as my profile piccy. Cool graphic.
I wonder what the copyright protections are on a spruced up 300 odd year old graphic? (kinda belittles the unifying concept that dragged my discipline kicking and screaming out of the astrology/alchemy tar-pit into the modern world).

What's the point NASA?

Just learned from /. that NASA has decided to ban experiments on the International Space Station until it's finished. Not that anyone would notice, how many more 'what do ant farms look like under micro-gravity conditions?' experiments does the world need?
I've said it before and no doubt i'll be saying it for a long time to come - most manned space missions are pointless PR excercies, if you want to see where the real research is being done, head over to the Mars rover website or any one of the amazing satellite missions going on at the moment.
Discovery, answers, careers made and broken and not least, a $h1t load more questions - that's science. Sending people into low earth orbit or the moon to twiddle their thumbs? PR, spin and a pork barrel of terrestrial proportions.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Infected PC's - who's problem are they?

The Australian govt communications watchdog (ACMA) has started looking for people who have infected computers. This seems to be following on from a successful 'cease and desist' order from Big Pond which evicted 6 customers from its network in April 2005.
This seems a strange reaction from a company to their customers. My position on this is a little more extreme than most - so long as a virus is not affecting me, i don't give a "£$" what it does (disclaimer: i own a mac for home for just this reason, if my work pc goes wonky, i just throw it at the paid professional to get fixed).
In the beginning, when viruses were bad-geek hobbies, you could find your hard drive getting deleted by accident, now however, viruses are written for a reason by extremely competent programmers (i hear russia and eastern europe are a good source these days) who don't want you to clean your hard-drive - YOU'RE NOT THE TARGET! why would they destroy a nice warm host? (aahhh, the biology metaphors are just eerily accurate).
If something that does me no harm, and through no effort on my behalf, is being used to 'do bad things', why is the onus on me to keep on top of it? It's like sueing me because i leave my car unlocked and it keeps getting stolen for use as a getaway car by crims - yes, locking my car might help solve the problem, but i suggest that having better security at your bank might do more good than harrassing me.
In case my rambling has obscured the point, here it is again - viruses and worms are an industry problem. They are exploits of holes in bad software and persist through lax controls. The people best able to deal with PC zombie's are computer programmers, and the best people to fund the effort are those who make a lot of money providing internet services, not little old ladies who use the web for email and surf for recipes.
The analogy is credit card fraud. No-one loses their credit card because someone was able to steal their wallet and make fraudulent purchases (although your credit rating can get tanked...). Yet another copout by the computer industry. Why oh why do they constantly view their customers as the enemy?

Friday, November 04, 2005

how a ICE piston works - this is cool...

i don't know how the guy did this or how to replicate it so i'm just gonna link to it. it's in spanish for the most part but who cares with this thing happening in front of you...

Patents are crap

If you had any doubt before about the dubious nature of most patent applications within the last 10/15 years (think of any 'business practice' or patented DNA segment) then this is just the icing on the cake. As reported in slashdot, a guy is likely to get a US patent awarded on a storyline plot.
Talk about a load of crap, there are no original story ideas, just variations on a few themes (Heinlein speculated somewhere that you could boil them all down into just 3 but i've never been able to find the quote again). You'd think this one would fail the prior existence test (it's basically a rip van winkle plot tarted up to modern times) but given the ineptitude of the patent offices (or rather the constraints they work under given the laws haven't been updated for a half century or so) and the effectiveness of business lobby groups (owner copyright expiring on death+20 years has now increased to something like +75 - Thank You Very Much Disney corp.) i have a sinking feeling that it, or something very much like it, will get through and then the modern marvel of the US court system will be brought to bear on the issue with its trademark glacial rate and non-sensical outcome results that we have learned to love so much.
Patents barely protect innovators as it is, don't cripple the system by extending their reach to stupid limits, fix the freakin' problem at source! Change the law, the rest of the world has moved on from the mid-1880's!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fuel Cells - Why should i care?

I said i was going to post a little something on fuel cells. The wiki entry is here and isn't too bad for an initial overview.
You can talk about fuel cells in a number of ways:
  • The chemistry/engineering of getting them to work
  • The electricity network/markets as they exist right now and how FC's fit into this
  • As an enabling technology for the prophesied 'hydrogen economy' (you may guess my leanings on this one)
Most FC summaries focus mainly on one of these topics and sprinkle in a little of the other two as a way of justifying the major point. Each of these topics is worthy of a post itself - so that's what i'm gonna do.
The bullet points above can just as easily be asking 3 different questions, namely, how do they work? how will they compete/complement? and why should i care?
I'm going to start with the last one, since if you can't convince someone something is worth doing, you should think twice about wasting their time telling them how you did it...

For this post, just visulise a FC as being something that converts a fuel into electricity on a continuous basis. We should care about fuel cells for 2 main reasons as far as i can tell:
  1. They can potentially be far more efficient users of fuel for generating electricity than other combustion methods
  2. They can be readily distributed to where the user's are
Point 1 hinges on the fact that as far as we can tell, economic growth and standard of living both correlate with carbon emmissions (even if you discount Global Warming as an issue, burning coal/nat gas is still emmitting loads of gunk into the atmosphere). If we are to accept that the other 3/5 of the world that doesn't have a first world standard of living are going to catch up in the 21st century, we need to be smarter in how we deliver their infrastructure. There are some truley horrendous estimates of how much coal China is going to be burning by 2050, but given their growth rate, what else can they do?
Point 2 is a little more subtle - something like two thirds of the cost of getting a unit of electricity (kWh) into your house to use is actually the cost of getting it from the power station to your street. FC's (and other technologies) that allow you to generate your power at the point of consumption, are great because they automatically avoid these transmission and distribution losses (which are actually equivalent to CO2 emmisssions at the power station, just because this energy is lost on the way doesn't mean it wasn't generated in the first place). FC's are particularly well suited for distributed generation because some of their attributes include running quietly (it's a solid state device at heart), having few if any (visual or smog related) emmissions and they don't suffer from 'economies of scale' arguments like power stations i.e. they're just as 'efficient' when designed for 1 kW as 250 kW.
If you are looking for an analogy as to how a DG system might work, just look to how the telephone industry has been shaken up by cell phones and the internet, how the music industry is suffering because its business model hinged on mechanism rather than content and how television is changing from 1 channel-1 time-many viewers to any program-any time-parallel viewers. These are all industries that were very mature and have had to deal with a shock to their system driven primarily because customers started to move to the head of the supply-chain rather than sitting around at the end waiting for stuff. A DG electricity system is likely to behave in a similar manner for some part of the market segment over the next 25 years.
How are they fuelled? This is an extremely vexacious issue and one that is often glossed over in FC stories/articles. It is in fact the achilles heel of the whole system. DG stationary power sources that can tap into an existing natural gas network get around this problem but anyone that says 'water is the only product' is pulling a fast one - hydrogen isn't mined, it's made. Making hydrogen in significant quantities is very, very energy intensive and you have to burn loads of fossil fuels to make it. When people talk about a hydrogen economy, they always put in the caveat that the hydrogen needs to be made in a renewable fashion for it to really work. But this is the crux of the issue, there is no current way of making hydrogen sustainably in significant quantities. As for using biomass to turn into hydrogen to run cars... that's stupid, just burn the biofuel directly - it was good enough for Otto Diesel in 1870 and it's good enough now.
So where does that leave us? FC's are a good addition to the tech arsenal since they can more efficiently use the fossil fuels we have in a potentially cleaner way and they are able to be deployed and used in a chaotic and distributed fashion - these two reasons are all that are needed in my opinion to warrant the investment in research that is needed to bring these to market.
Completely emmission free power generation is a problem for my grandkids, i'll settle for >50% efficiency (and that's real efficiency - delta G/delta H, a plague on all your other namby pamby definitions) in my lifetime.

UK abuses anit-terror laws...

Hat tip to Hard News for this link. It seems to be an ironclad law of beuracracies that any law created with the highest of intentions is inevitably used in the most trivial of cases and almost always as a substitute for real thinking. The UK also has Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO's) which are intended as a last resort for, shockingly, anti-social behaviour - think crowds of kids obstructing shop entrances etc (and this sort of thing is hard to imagine unless you've lived in the UK...). Now however, they're thrown around willy-nilly with nary a thought.
  • An old labour party member is physically ousted from the Labour party conference after a single heckle about the Iraq war - under the anti terrorism act
  • Random people executed on the tube - RESIGN Ian Blair, the buck stops at you!!
  • Now more random searches, massive inconvenience and absolutely no recourse through official channels.
This is an erosion of civil liberties big time. Why oh why do those pansy Civil Libertarians get up in arms when someone suggests something reasonable like a photo ID drivers licence and then keep their heads down when something is actually happening that really does threaten the way we live? Police Service or Police State?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Buckball discoverer dies

Richard Smalley, a co-discoverer of Buckyballs has died at age 62. It is such a pity since 62 is pretty much still the prime of your life for a thinker. Buckyballs, and their direct cousins, carbon nano-tubes, have done as much to prompt the nanotechnology bandwagon as anything since.
There's a good wiki entry for bucky's here.
Why are buckyballs and especially carbon nanotubes interesting? Well, from a chemist's point of view, it's as though a whole new candy store just opened in the neighbourhood (and not just a little one, a multiplex, 5 story high one...). A buckyball is made up of the same stuff as diamond or graphite (elements that come in different forms are called allotropes - throw that out at your next BBQ - or not, you might experience the 'oh, chemistry' personal space creation effect) and until BB's were discovered, it was thought that was all there was to it. It's amazing to think no-one had found them before, they are everywhere that combustion occurs, even in a candle, but that is what makes great scientists different from good scientists - they know when to spend a lot of time looking at anomolies in their data.
If you had to pick the dream candidate for a new allotrope in chemistry, you'd probably pick carbon as your first choice (or perhaps silicon). All of life's complexity flows from carbon's ability to form multiple types of chemical bonds (with both carbon and non-carbon atoms) and with up to 4 bonds per carbon, that makes for a huge number of possible structures, in fact, it's pretty much infinite for all intents and purposes.
The field of nanotechnology has coincided with the rise of the buckyball, and more importantly, the carbon nanotube. Imagine if you gave the ancient Greek architects an unlimited supply of steel I-beams and a brief tutorial on statics analysis. I'd bet that we'd have some very cool architecture to look at after 4000 years. Essentially, that's what CNT's are to chemists and nanotech workers, (i prefer the term molecular engineering since it seems to convey what the aims are in research at these scales, but i seem to be alone in this...), giant I-beams with all the complexity of chemistry rolled into one. There is a staggering amount of research being done just to see what can be done or built using these building blocks - everything from a molecular sized car, to creating CNT computer memory devices, to building electrical circuits.
It's a cool field but don't get too excited, regardless of what the scientists say (and we all lie, we have to get grant funding) it's probably not going to change your life within the next 6 months. Over time however, these molecular-sized designed systems will have as much impact as any other technology to date including semi-conductors, biotechnology or the internet. Imagine what the world was like in 1950-odd when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA or during WWII when Turing basically founded computing by himself in Blechley park as something to crack cipher codes. Now imagine trying to tell those people what their discoveries would mean to us in our 21st century day-to-day activity. Funny thing is, progress is progressing. We will do more research in the first decade of the 21st century than we did in the last half of the 20th century. It's hard to keep up....