Friday, March 10, 2006

On fighting terror

by Chris Trotter here.
Nice op-ed. The voice of reason is easily shouted down, but it doesn't make the points any less valid.

Hysteria brigade

Friends of the Earth wins today's prize for irrational fear of the unknown.
Irradiated food zaps bugs and thus probably saves peoples lives from food poisoning. It doesn't creat some half-mango half-demon killing machine.
There's a thing called a geiger counter that tells you if something is full of radiation - look it up on wiki and then get back to me when you find a 'hot mango'. I'll wait with baited breath...

Another winter in NZ - the electricity 'crisis' begins...

Good grief this is embarassing. Another dry year? Again? What have we done to sort this out over the last decade? hhmm SFA would be my guess, although there's been a lot of talk, very little has actually been done.
Start looking out for the softball 'get ready for power cuts' and how all the consumers should start turning off their heaters. Get bent, i say break the "£"£$ thing royally, threaten to oust the govt with a good old fashioned riot and get some commitment to fix the freakin' thing.
NZ is nominally a first world country; food, water, shelter, transport and electricity are the backbone of a modern society. Letting the ball drop for your entire 3 terms in office is inexcusable, I hope Labour gets a right royal shafting for this over the next 6 months.
Don't forget Comitfree if you want to see the hydro levels for yourself...

The only political cartoon you'll ever need

The Age cartoon today.

Blue Pill / Red Pill

German researchers have a device that lets you type by thinking. Very cool.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Energy policy - National and ACT

'Burn more stuff' is easier to remember...
Seriously, the RMA isn't a stellar piece of legislation but its intentions are good. Getting rid of any consideration of context is just this century's version of future-eating. Heaven forbid we actually think for a change. does better science stories

as seen here.
Clustered water is a dung-pile story thats been floating around for years. It's a complete load of bollox. This story actually quotes two real scientists about how crap it is rather than a BSc technician grad from Otago on the payroll.
Bottled water is an evil evil thing. I think i read somewhere that sales of bottled water are something like $100 billion per year. for a one off $20 odd billion, we could provide clean water to every one on the planet and save thousands/millions of lives. Think about that next time you down a super-cool HtoGo...

More conspiricy theories in NZ Herald

Good grief, it must be cut&paste week at the NZ Herald. Now we're on to underarm deodorant causes breast cancer - with studies by Philipa Darbre PhD ! from the UK! at a university!
Let's try Googling for other information (- deodorant corporate websites). We get on the first page and i don't these from a block of cheese so the bollox meter is turned on and ready to fire up. (here) talks about the findings and shock horror, quotes an alternative opinion!

But American Cancer Society epidemiologist Michael Thun, MD, says even if the parabens do promote estrogen-dependent tumor growth, the risk from cosmetic use is "minuscule" compared with other known tumor promoters.

In his editorial, Harvey cited animal studies suggesting that paraben exposure is 500 to 10,000 times less potent as a tumor promoter as taking oral estrogen or being obese.

"The risk at an individual level is tiny, compared to other known risks," Thun tells WebMD
Hhhhmmmm, this kinda puts it in perspective, being fat seems 1000's of times more dangerous than not having stinky armpits.
to give Dr Darbre her due:
"Our research certainly does not prove causality, but we believe that in a few of these tumors the level of this chemical was high enough to promote breast cancer cell growth," Darbre tells WebMD. "We don't know, however, if parabens can cause normal cells to become cancer cells."
So it would seem like the media have done their own little beat up job looking for a headline. If you don't understand 'correlation is not causality', i think i've done a post on it or google for it, its in the top 3 science 'rules'.
A fellow researcher comes up with this gem;
"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of a harmful effect,"
Whilst true, its hard to live your life by this kind of mindset. You'd be left quivering in your home not able to decide if using doorknobs gives you cancer - it might, but the fact no-one's put 2 and 2 together on this one puts it squarely in the 'acceptable risk' category.... here, who states M.D. for gravitas pulls apart a similar email scam running around a couple years ago. Go read it. No bollox bells going off with this one, seems entirely lucid.

Conclusion? Anti-persperants don't give you cancer, or if they do, the risk is 1000's of times lower than all the other ways you're going to die so do up your seatbelt, lay off the junk food and wear a condom.

Once again, the NZ Herald drops the ball on real reporting, it seems perfectly happy to peddle any old pseudo science claptrap that lands in its inbox. Will someone for crying out loud put a scientist/MD on their reporting staff?

The Australian on history education

A cursory look at wiki crusades which seems fairly well written and neutral and.... I'm siding with textbook. Seemed like a bunch of gullible idiots acting out the wishes of a powerful religion with the promise of eternal blessing.
In fact, lets just cut straight to the chase; gullible idiots+religion = terrorism

The Australian: rewriting history since 9/11

Beazley and the ALP GHG strategy

In The Age here.
Lots of words but i don't see any meat on the bones. At least there's an alternative and, as in the states, it seems to be getting more attention at the regional/state level than at a national level. This is crazy, ass-backwards since your environment for the country as a whole is surely as important as anything else. Take home message? It needs to be managed, you know, what politicians are supposed to do for a living? Living in a cave is pointless but so is unrestrained destruction of your habitat, make some informed decisions, put in some pricing policies and get on with it. Now. This year, not 2030. Feel free to change some of this year's policy in the future if shock horror, you got something wrong but for crying out loud, get the ball moving!

Real science vs cargo-cult science

Bubble fusion is a fringe idea and gets some more column inches in Nature (here via Reddit). Bubble fusion is the idea that collapsing bubbles in some solvents (including acetone, the lab chemists equivalent of water!) can create pressures and temperatures sufficient for fusion reactions to occur. This would, quite simply, be amazing and would revolutionise the world. There are serious doubts however but the 'mechanism' of science (which is all science is, it's not the body of facts that have accumulated) is kicking in quite satisfactorily. Let's go through a couple of the salient points:
  1. The work is on the fringe but still got published in major journals. And quite rightly, if it's correct, it will herald a new age (there are angles to consider also in how journals compete to get articles but that another story)
  2. The effect is ameniable to duplication by other researchers. If an incredible effect can be reproduced by independent labs, you're well on your way to a Nobel prize. This editorial is stating that this isn't happening and hence, the judgement is that these guys have fallen for an erroneous set of results. Nothing special, happens to the best of us, error-correction process working normally.
That's about it. Science as a process aint that complicated. If an experiment can't be duplicated, its not science (in the vast majority of cases this is your first criteria. You get subtle exceptions with things like earthquake science, nobody duplicates earthquakes but they are still able to approached scientifically - specifically the concept of falsifiability i.e. tectonic plate theory).
So unless these guys come up with a foolproof way of duplicating their results and getting others to do the same, this is a non-event, there's millions of real questions needing answers and only thousands of scientists, most of us have to do work that is likely to yield results. Tenure is the (theoretical) mode of allowing crazy ideas room to grow ;-)

Drawing parallels and/or contrasts with cargo-cults, creationists and perveyors of magnets/raiki/chi therapy is left as an excercise for the reader.

iPod has left the building

iPods are ubiquitous here in the UK. Maybe they are back home by now but somehow i don't think so. There's something 'haunting' about personal music players, the way they insulate people from the world around them.
Now don't get me wrong, I would love to have one, I think it's pretty cool being able to amuse yourself on the train or a flight with your own music but when you walk down a crowded street and see every second person with those little white cables coming out of their ears... i feel like someone is going to do a donald sutherland on me (think invasion of the body snatchers, the very last scene before the credits).
So i guess for me, there are places where you really are just strangers jammed in together (the tube, a flight, a bus) where you really don't care about anyone else - and then the rest. There's something energising about being 'around' people without being 'with' people and i propose that to be a part of this energy and not merely consuming it, you have to embrace it with all your senses.
If going to a cafe by yourself and reading a book sounds like the activity of a madman, then i guess you don't understand what i'm talking about - move along, nothing else to read here. The place that springs to my mind when i think of this is a) London, anywhere and b) Chapel St in Melbourne. If you've been to either and not felt as though community and vibe are real things to be savoured and appreciated then you're lost to me, i can't even begin to understand how you interact with people on a day to day basis.

This wanders slowly into my post topic: I can't buy an iPod.

Yep, I put it off until I had a long flight coming up when I would really appreciate it and then when i went to the mac shop, they guy said 'only XP or OSX 10.3'. This bummed me out big time, i have a mac at home with iTunes and i have been using it WAY LONGER THAN ALL YOU XP WANABEES and now, i'm old and crusty and need to be shunned by the uber-cool white brigade. I can't even download a patch to run these iPods on 10.2.8, i thought back-compatible was standard these days? Apple won't even back-date 6 stinkin' months!

I tracked down a compatiblity chart from Apple and the best iPod i can get is a special edition U2 pod with colour display. I hate U2, and to think I now have to wear their label just to play some freakin' music... and don't get me started on the competition! I've got a PhD and can't make $hit out of the technical specs they quote. All i want to know is: how many songs does it hold and can i plug it into my stinking Mac? you'd think it'd be on page "£$%"£$ one, but no, it's acronym soup with a side of condescension. Get stuffed if you think i'm risking £200 on a piece of kit that probably won't work and i've got bugger all chance of making work.
Screw you Apple, I love your products but i can't afford to upgrade every year.

PS anyone know anyone with an old iPod they're trying to get rid of? i'll even settle for a black U2 one....

Great Wired article on Diamond Synthesis

This is really good.
A little bit conspiritorial but the underlying science is bang on. I did low-pressure diamond synthesis for my master's degree (using a welding torch of all things!) and I can assure you, making diamonds is legit. The reporter even got the 3 big hurdles right so this is pretty exciting. I've been out of the area for a long time now but it's nice to see that it's been carrying on.

Penn and Tellar cut to the chase...

Everything you need to know about the Patriot Act...
It's stuff like this that keeps me from losing all hope about our US friends ;-)

New crustacean found near Easter Is.

Isn't it beautiful? via Reddit. Original story.
We know less about our oceans than we do about half the planets in our solar system. And that's just plain sad.
The story says that this cute little guy has lost his eyes, with only a membrane remaining. It looks as though he's carving out a niche as a 'mobile anenome' catching small bits of food as they waft past his furry little arms. Giant squid caught on tape, and now this; a great year for oceanographers...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Speaking of mystic incantations...

pontifications about the kiwi dollar continue with the all important obligatory just-so story to back it up. Funny how no-one can seem to see the obvious ahead of time...
Personally, i'm pretty bummed that my savings are now worth less.

NZ Herald on 'Magnet Therapy'

Jeremy Laurance loves it.
It's hard not to agree with this statement:
But when the NHS includes a product in the Drug Tariff, you have to sit up and take notice.
Although this statement is a bit rich:
Professional sceptics of alternative medicine got their comeuppance last week
What's a professional sceptic of alternative medicine? hhhm, i think they're just called doctors.

So if the NHS is paying for magnet therapy, which lets not be obtuse here, means that we're ALL paying for magnet therapy, there must be compelling, irrefutible evidence gathered from double blind trials designed to weed out eroneous factors and placebo effects. What is the evidence?
Ben Goldacre at The Guardian gives it a go with less than stellar results.
Quackwatch sums up most of the literature here and includes a couple of howlers that are peddled.
Lets look at random site A - Herbal Remedies
How do they work? Magnetic energy increases the blood flow to the area, increasing circulation, thus speeding healing and reducing pain and inflammation.
This is bollocks, hold a magnet to your skin, does it go bright red (because of all the blood flowing toward it) ? No. Nor do you explode while having cat scans in hospitals or die doing an NMR in your average chemistry lab. Magnetic fields have little/no effect on you (can get complicated with electric fields however).

The polarities are said to have the following effect:

    North Pole (+): Calming, relaxing effect
    South Pole (-): Stimulating, activating effect
OMFG! I don't even know where to start with this pile of stinking dung... You can't get an isolate magnetic pole - they ALWAYS come in pairs (Maxwell's Equations - go ahead, look it up, i'll wait the 2.5 secs it'll take for you to freak out and skulk back. Don't think i'm insulting you, EVERYBODY takes one look at Maxwell's Equations and tries to skulk out of the room before anyone notices). Chop a magnet in half and you get 2 other magnets, both with the usual compliment of N and S poles. Your bollox meter should be off scale by now.

Conclusion? the only reasonable conclusion to make is that some snake oil merchants have succeded in bilking the NHS out of some serious wads of cash. If you think (some, albeit tiny fraction of) doctors aren't going to decieve people for cash, i've got a bridge to sell you.
Buying magnets to help heal yourself is NOT justified by the evidence, you've become part of the cargo cult.

If you subscribe to the 'what can it hurt?' school of thought, its a small slippery slope to becoming the morons that killed their kid a couple months ago when they decided to pray for him rather than take him to the doctor. Science is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, you don't get to just pick the bits you like.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

If you read pop-sci one book this year...

make it 'Collapse' by Jarod Diamond - it's literally brilliant. It describes how societies can actually 'choose' to collapse. Normally this is because they lack globally relevent data but if you extrapolate the success stories to modern times.... you get some pretty stark pronouncements. There's even a chapter devoted to Australia which is pretty much bang on (and it don't look good).
Interview here via SciTech Daily.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Electricty, Hydro and NZ

In case you're not aware, there's a fair bit of free information available about NZ's electricity market available at
Round ups of prices and in-browser displays of data etc
My favorite is the hydro chart showing where we currently stand compared to a few choice years in the past (records began in 20's ish).

Anyone looking at that chart should be seriously concerned about keeping their house warm this winter if they use electricity.
Also, a note for the non-statistical among us, its not valid to say "we have a 1 in 79 chance of below average inflows" that's a blunt statement concerning a completely random event and only applies to the future. What you want to hear is "based on past data, whenever the hydro situation has been at a similar level for this time of year, we have a ?? % chance of reaching the average".
This statement takes into account that you have had low inflows thus far and thus the chances of having above average inflows for a significant period of time are x%. This is what counts. For my money, I'm guessing you have about 5-10% chance of getting back to average or above average hydro levels from this far down, we're tracking the big drought of 1992 for crying out loud....
It's like watching a car crash in slow motion.... every other year...

Comalco to pare back on electricity use

And fair enough too. We still don't know what they pay for the electricity and I'm damn sure it's nowhere near the 15-odd cents/kWh a residential customer pays. Funny how business loves to take risks to save money but then bleats about how unfair it all is when the dice comes up the wrong way (Comalco is a little special however since it's contract was stitched up in the old ECNZ days).
Take home lesson - if you pay the least, you're the first to get switched off. Don't get suckered with that "we're all in this together" savings crap that rolls around every couple of years - you're subsidising someone else's business!

Trade Me sold for $0.7 billion

Who says there aint money on this newfangled interweb thing?
Congrats to Sam Morgan, a top 20 (?) NZ company founded within the last 5 years and going hyper speed. Way to go.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Slighty confused energy op-ed

at Stuff nz.
Rod Oram is kinda like a NZ trade happy-camper - always ready to pop up and tell you how great things are. He's an adjunct professor at Unitec and contributes to Unlimited magazine (which last time i read seemed only unlimited in its capacity for binding more dribble in one magazine than i would have thought possible - its editors also pontificated about how global warming was codswallop, kinda ironic given the above link) feel free to google for him, he gets plenty of hits.

This editorial is close but still flawed in a number of ways.
Enlightened nations know only a world-wide response will conquer climate change. But whatever their size, they know they can contribute with policies of their own. So the state governments of New South Wales and California, among others, have committed to a 60% reduction in their economies' greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050. About 195 US cities, home to 50 million people, have made similar pledges.
Not sure who believes NSW or California will reduce by 60%... and by 2050? good grief.
To avoid greater climate change, the world has to drastically reduce those emissions. The bad news, science tells us, is that astonishing new technologies such as hydrogen power are largely irrelevant to our response in the next 50 years.
I agree with him here.
"Efficiency is and will remain our greatest source of energy," Richard Bradley, head of energy efficiency and the environment at the OECD's International Energy Agency, told the conference.
This is just so stupid it beggars belief. No amount of 'efficiency' will push $hit uphill. Good grief, it's not an energy source (I expect it's quoted out of context and he is obviously referring to wasted energy thats already being produced) but this is where this piece goes a bit haywire so i can't be sure RO is thinking the same thing.
What Dr Bradley didn't point out was that New Zealand is a glaring anomaly. On average, OECD countries use today one-third less energy to generate $US1,000 of economic activity (at 1990 prices) than they did in 1973. But we use more because we use a lot to process low value primary products and our transport fleet is inefficient.
So? If we're using our hydro resources to generate wealth what's the big deal, we've got bugger all else to do with it, it's a competitive advantage for us. I think RO is getting a little confused about what 'efficiency' means. If rainfall is free, anything I do with it is profitable and thats a good start... could it be more profitable? almost certainly, a more 'efficient' use of your free energy if you will, but the abstractions are starting to pile up.
Elsewhere in the world, energy efficiency is seen as a significant business opportunity, a spur to investment in new and better technology, in New Zealand its is grudgingly seen as a minor tool in reducing the cost of using old technology.
ahhh, probably because they have to build coal or nuclear power stations... NZ isn't that efficient cause our power has been relatively cheap and relatively benign in origin. That's starting to change now and hence much confusion over what 'efficiency' means ensues.
Trading mechanisms are huge drivers of changes in technology and business practices. And they have become big commodity businesses in their own right. Since, the EU started its carbon market a year ago, it has traded two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide credits worth $US60 billion. That's double the value of the entire US corn, wheat and soybean output.
Absolutely agree!
The steep rise in US petrol prices is equivalent to placing a $US250 a tonne carbon charge on petrol. Yet, business and the public did not riot nor inflation soar. In contrast, New Zealand business was apoplectic about a proposed $15 a tonne charge that would have raised petrol prices 4c a litre.
Ah well, some high points and some low - pretty standard when it comes to energy discussions.

Dubya lies caught on tape...

what an odious little man...
here via Pharangula

How Kiwi-esque is that?

Vector looks to Gladstone for CNG supplies

Vector bought out NGC in NZ and became a very big distribution company (Auckland's electricity and the national gas pipeline). It looks to be thinking long term on where to gets it's raw material from alongside Genesis and Contact who both run power stations on natural gas. Good thing too, electricity is... important.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lying liars and the lies they tell

More on the AWB scandal - Downer knew 6 years ago!... but he didn't believe it.
That makes it all better.
You lying piece of crap. Come on Beazley, get a full on, no holds barred commission of enquiry on this and let the paper trail lead all the way to the top.
Johhny, you should be ashamed of yourself.

M$ does the iPod

This is pretty funny.
hhhmmm, can't wait, i've been saving up and I get an iPod this week!! I can't really claim to be an early adopter, not on my salary....