Tuesday, February 27

Should Zimbabwe be a top cricket team?

The BBC have an article on Zimbabwe's decline as a top cricket team, and that it wouldn't be a surprise if they lost a game to Ireland.

Zimbabwe still have full member status, unlike Kenya, but a loss to Ireland may start people questioning - should they automatically keep full member status in 2009, when Kenya lose theirs? Should they even be playing, given the political pressures put on their cricketers? Or would abandoning the country be even worse?

Europe's new funding agency

The BBC today have an article hailing the arrival of the European Research Council, the new EU-wide funding body for fundamental research.

Later on in the article, it notes the contribution by Lord Sainsbury, then the British Science Minister, who changed policy midflight on the way to a meeting having read the critical views of civil servants and decided to support the agency instead.

Sainsbury was described by Nature as being "simply good at his job". Unfortunately, he quit for reasons of politics, not for science. It's a shame the post tends to go to the best politician, rather than the best person to be Minister for Science.

Wednesday, February 21

How many scientists does it take to change a lightbulb?

More on the lightbulb situation.

The Australians are likely to be followed by a number of other countries, for the simple fact that incandescent lights are so inefficient, and lighting is so widely used. The effect of this is huge: Global CO2 emissions from lighting were 70% of that from all the planets cars (International Energy Agency report, 2006)

95% of the energy from a tungsten light bulb goes in heat - and that is largely heating just the ceiling. And these make up 79% of the global lighting sales.

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs are better. Slightly - they're only 85% inefficient.

So what's the alternative? One is solid-state lighting. The US Department of Energy calculated that if US households were able to use GaN-based LEDs instead of incandescent lighting, they could close 41 power stations.

So what's stopping them? Well, to be commercially viable, GaN-based white LEDs have to be high efficiency, high quality, long life and low cost. At the moment, commercial LEDs get up to around 10% efficient, not even beating fluorescent lamps. Lab produced LEDs have managed to match high-pressure Sodium lamps for efficiency.

Lifetime and reliability is a problem - I've heard rumours that the Chinese had decided to use large numbers of white LEDs for lighting for infrastructure connected to the 2008 Olympic Games, and they are already having to replace large numbers due to failure. Manufacturers claim 100,000 hours lifetime, but tests by Cambridge University have shown this isn't true - the problem often isn't the LED itself, but the wire bonds. Basically, you get what you pay for - expensively produced, well sealed white LEDs (e.g. in silicone) do last a very long time. Cheaper epoxies put more stress on the wire bond, and fail quicker.

So, what's the cost? For widespread adoption of white LEDs, you need about $5 cost per 1000 lumens. The current cost of quality white LEDs? Around $100.

There's a long way to go yet.

Tuesday, February 20

Current Earth status update

Current Earth-Destruction Status

Well, that's a relief.

A picture is worth a thousand lies

...but only if they don't catch you.

Dartmouth Professor Hany Farid writes in Nature (subscription required) on the problem of faked and manipulated pictures being used in journal papers -
It's an arms race, and I can tell you how it will end: they'll win. ... But we can take it out of the hands of the amateurs.

updated 21/02/2007

Aussies turn out the light

No, not on their suddenly dysfunctional cricket team, on incandescent light bulbs.

Since they generate more heat than light (and you don't need much more heat down under), many have called for an end for Edison's product.

Now the Aussies are the first nation to announce they will be phased out.

Glad I'm not an Aussie

It might have seemed the height of improbability that I'd be saying this in January when England were crashing to a 5-0 Ashes humiliation, but right now I'm actually starting to feel just a little bit sorry for Australian cricket fans. The problem they have coming up to the World Cup is that anything other than victory is a failure (while with England, only getting to the semis would be viewed as more of an improvement but a missed opportunity rather than outright calamity, not that I don't think they *can* win, given that they have Pietersen, Collingwood and Flintoff). But right now, Australia have to reverse their form distinctly if they're even going to get to the last four - five losses in a row, six out of seven, and yet another injury.

Injury-ridden, can't stop losing one-dayers, media calling for changes...

Wonder if any Aussie fans are regretting putting the verbal boot in to the English fans a couple of months ago?

Friday, February 16

Destruction down under

Turns out England were just softening them up - the Aussies have just been humiliated by New Zealand, losing by ten wickets. At this rate they won't be the world number 1 team by the World Cup.

The Aussies are noting that they were missing some key players, but that's not an excuse, is it? Maybe the Aussies just peaked too early in the season...

Thursday, February 15

Sarcasm in journalism

I do like it when journalists respond fairly, but sarcastically, to comments by some PR spokesperson who is clearly talking complete rot.

Adrian Pitches' response on BBC News online to a suggestion that wild birds might be to blame for the Bird Flu outbreak in Bernard Matthews' Turkey gulag is priceless:

Presumably, a kamikaze duck had plunged head-first down a ventilation shaft into the sealed hangars containing turkeys.

How do they sleep?

Sometimes you see examples of the sort of low life who manage to stay within the law, despite dooming hundreds, thousands even, to misery, disease and death.

Vulture Funds - those who snap up the debts owed by African countries and then demand full payment - often as much as ten times what they paid for the debt - are taking money that countries have planned for the schools, hospitals, essential infrastructure. Any "charitable" donations these vultures make in return go in large sums into the hands of individuals - probably titled "campaign contributions". They are taking from the poorest on the planet.

How do they sleep?

Wednesday, February 14

Tim Sparke is an idiot. And that's a scientist's opinion.

Tim Sparke is executive producer of Loose Change Final Cut. And he's a complete and utter idiot. As his response to Moonbat's review of his inane documentary shows.


Momentum is conserved, yes. But the theory states the tendency of an object to continue to move in its direction of travel, unless acted on by a net external force

Gravity is a force.

I really can't be bothered with the rest of it, I'm just depressed these idiots are allowed a say when their arguments are so utterly, patently pathetic.

You're entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your own laws of physics. And if he can't even get that right, why bother with the rest of it?

Shame on you, Guardian. Shame. You've probably given poor Dr Goldacre a fit when he's seen this rot.

Tuesday, February 13

Slim Shady to pot the black

Now, this is very weird. What on earth possessed anyone to try it? And... why does it seem to work?

Number 10 petitions

I've noticed the fuss about the number 10 petitions thing.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the petitions are about people wanting the government to tax them less, or be less restrictive towards them. The next highest number are those people wanting the government to go more after people who are not like them (see the justified persecution of toerags who don't have insurance or selfish people with bullbars*, or the less justified ones against 4x4 drivers, or School Run Mums, or cyclists**)

Petitions are easy, you see. Policy is difficult

Basically, people would like to petition the government to provide them with a congestion free road and lower tax. And not have to pay for it. Throw in the moon on a stick while you're at it.

How do you make everything pay its way? Roads might look like just a chunk of tarmac, but they genuinely are fairly expensive things, and have to be paid for some way or another. If you don't tax car drivers to pay for roads then you either have increased council and income tax to pay for roads, or you have really bad roads (which means all the money you saved goes to the garage instead). So then why should others pay for your driving?

The other reason for having taxation on cars is that it is a case of market failure - the car driver does not pay for all the costs caused by their driving, which include the effects of pollution (local as well as global, noise as well as gases) and time loss caused by congestion. Anyone saying such a thing has no place has morally given up their right to complain if someone wants to build anything in their back yard.

And finally, I'm wealthier than average, so it'll price the paupers out of my way. Oh bliss! O Poop poop!

* They designed crumple zones on the front of a car for a reason - to save lives. They designed bullbars to save your life if you run into a kangaroo in the Australian Outback and need a working car to get you to the next town before you die of thirst. People are unlikely to run into large marsupials and die of thirst in suburban England. You don't need bullbars on well-lit urban roads. Besides, they're on the front - if you're such a bad driver you keep running into things you shouldn't be on the road. The only things likely to jump out on the road suddenly are large mammals, and in suburban UK those tend to be children***.
** One note about cyclists - It's February. It's dark. Get lights. Seriously. I mean, you remember to recharge your mobile phone and mp3 player, how hard is it to recharge something that'll help keep you alive?
*** Or cyclists you can't see because they're dressed like ninjas, I suppose.

Rules of politics

One of the major rules of politics you often hear is "pick your fight" - make the arguments something that your party can succeed on.

This week, David Davis has managed to pick one doozy of a fight - one that can portray them as fiscally responsible, protecting civil liberties and democracy and, most startling of all, not being nasty.

The cartoon bad guys in this one are the IT industry, in the form of the director general of the umbrella body "Intellect", one John Higgins.

The story is this - Davis has reiterated that a campaign policy of the Tories would be to scrap the ID card. Therefore, the IT industry would be sensible to bear in mind that should Labour not win the next election, then contracts for ID cards will not be required.

Mr Higgins comes out with the full evil-business-lobby mode, stating that IT companies could build in extra costs to cover this risk - basically insisting that corporate contracts and profits should come ahead of the democratic process.

One question that springs to mind over this - if the IT business lobby is this blitheringly inept, is it because they don't lobby that much, or because they've previously had everything handed to them on a plate?

Sunday, February 11

They haven't, surely. They have?

A morning of rowing, getting ready for the big race next week (except today was the first time we got the whole crew together), which first entailed me taking off my shoes and socks and wading into the river to pull the stages in, as everyone else is too wimpy to wade into a muddy English river in February which has been swelled by snowmelt. For some reason.

Anyway, this meant that I wasn't following the cricket, so imagine my confusion followed by immediate delight when after we'd finished training for the morning, we go to the pub to see on the screen a rather unhappy looking Ponting (I assumed it was Ponting as Ian Hislop doesn't tend to wear green caps or appear on Sky Sports), followed by a distinctly happy as soon to be drunk Freddie Flintoff.

So, I'll be catching the highlights tonight, and enjoying thinking about how all those gloating Aussies who have been declaring England to be hapless and pointless and doomed to defeat forever are now not *quite* so verbal.

Still, pity about the Ashes. Would be nice if one year the Aussies let us warm up with the pointless all-important one-dayers before the Test matches begin. As they get to do when they come to us.

Friday, February 9

Open society

The latest accusations over whether the increasingly authoritarian Labour government are persecuting muslims - regarding the arrest of Abu Izzadeen, reminded me of a quote from Karl Popper

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal."

Is this Labour government being overly authoritarian? Yes. Are they arresting Muslims on flimsy reasons? I suspect so. Are they doing this for political reasons? I don't think so, but I believe they are taking advantage of the arrests for political reasons.

Does Izzadeen have the right to call for terrorist acts, and expect nothing to be done to stop him?


Why should I fight to the death for someone's right to say something when what they are saying is that I should be killed?

My feeling is this - you have the right to live how you wish to live. You even have the right to say how I live is wrong. But you don't have the right to declare that I should die, and that you call for someone to kill me, because of the way I live.

That's why he's got an MBE...

Hooray for Collingwood!

I'd imagine a lot of big-talking Aussies have gone very quiet today.

Oh, and England did it without their captain and our best two batsmen.

Now, if we can just win one of the next two...

Wednesday, February 7

Should physicists spin, or just electrons?

Interesting post on Nanopublic, discussing what means should scientists resort to to get their message across to the public - are the means used by advertisers and PR companies automatically unacceptable, will using them damage our message, or are we neglected a useful tool to get important information across to sections of the public who are increasingly "scientifically illiterate"?

A number of fields, particularly medicine and ecology, already use celebrities to get their message across to the wider public. But certainly, we need to know where the public is. There's no point continuing to lecture in a fashion that would have worked in the early 20th century and thinking that will get the message across. Or, indeed, thinking if you can get a slot on the TV then that is job done.

The problem in some ways is the same as the advertisers have - the market is fractured. In the old days, it was hard to get a slot on TV, but if you got to explain your work on Horizon, that's several million BBC viewers covered. Now Horizon is dumbed down, and the viewers are watching dozens of channels, or even worse looking at any one of millions of websites.

And if I knew how to find them, I'd be a rich advertising executive with a ferrari, not a scientist with a pushbike.

Monday, February 5


Nanotechnology is a field that has, over the last few years, has attracted a great deal of hype, advertising, fearmongering and random declarations of one or another, ranging from promises of wonderful new inventions to a grey goo mass devouring the planet.

So good to see someone getting a debunking of a few myths into the business press (Steven C. Currall in the Feb 1 BusinessWeek).

From a scientist's point of view, I think the critical one may be myth 2 - that the public need to know what something is to form an opinion. As the recent cases over GM food and the Brent Spar furore (where Nature ended up lamenting that "Shell Oil's decision not to sink a used oil-rig at sea is a needless dereliction of rationality") have shown, the public don't need to understand anything to fear something - lack of knowledge and someone else saying it is scary is more than enough. Unfortunately, reasonable estimates based on accurate scientific and commercial knowledge is not as interesting to a journalist courting readership than sci-fi promises and terrifying threats.

Friday, February 2

Look! Up in the Sky!

Pigs! Herds of pigs, sweeping majestically across the sunlit sky! The Devil going to work on a snowplough! My diary says "Sunday" for the rest of February!

Yes, it's true. England have beaten Australia in a game of cricket.

Did I say beat? Beat, thrashed, stomped, wiped the floor with, stuffed solidly, bowled them out! Our opening batsmen gets a century, theirs gets a duck.

Finally, a set of cricketers turn up in England gear. So, as the Aussies would say, Where the bloody hell where you?

Thursday, February 1

Memo to PR department: you're fired.

I suspect someone is going to have trouble at Amyris Biotechnologies, who were set up with a grant from Bill Gates foundation to look into a malaria cure, after this article came out.

To quote:
"This was technology that was really great for the current application of making an anti-malarial drug and we said, great, pharmaceuticals, that's a wonderful model and then we realized, our market is in Africa and they make less than a dollar a day."

So they decided to aim for a more lucrative market as well

Does that give you any negative opinions on the company at all?