Saturday, March 31

Tideway tribulations

Talking about my own sport for once - down to London today for the Head of the River Race. My crew were starting somewhere in the lower half, and boating from Thames Tradesmen, so we had to row up a bit, turn downstream and go through Barnes Bridge, then turn into the marshalling area.

That was, shall we say, interesting. The wind had been blowing all day, but the marshalls had looked at the water and thought it was rowable. As the tide changed, we went through the bridge, and the conditions were, shall we say, rather interesting. Despite having throroughly taped up the riggers to hopefully reduce the amount of water that splashed up from them and landed in the boat, we were still left with an inch of water in the bottom of the boat when we reached our marshalling area. Rowing is hard enough as it is without having to haul an extra load of weight down the course, as Cambridge showed in the Boat Race last year.

Never mind, though, we bailed out the excess water (with the help of a polystyrene cup that floated past, along with some boats numbers). Then the race started - with the light shining behind them, the splash of water flying up from the riggers as Leander charged through Barnes Bridge was quite impressive. The crew from Italy and Molesey followed - the Italians losing ground as they looked to be having more trouble with the water than the Londoners. Indeed, rather a lot more - I expressed the opinion that they might sink.

After a few more boats went past, there definitely were sinkers. Pavia CUS from Italy definitely went down (edit - no they didn't. I'd thought that it was crew 26 that went down, someone else had said it was a foreign boat), followed shortly by two more top 40 crews. Further up at Hammersmith Bridge, I later heard, many of the other crews were also suffering, either sinking or being forced to switch crew members from rowing to bailing (at least one of Leander's crews swamped [Leander III], the crew being forced to abandon the boat as the rescue launch had to get them to land and then rescue another crew), with as many as ten crews rumoured to have swamped.

Needless to say, the Marshals stopped the race. One marshal boat went past us announcing the abandonment. I shouted to him asking for marshalling instructions - nothing came back. The crews around us all decided the same thing - they wanted to get back to the boat houses, fast. The boat houses were on the other side of the river - turn and go now.

Suddenly there are 300 plus crews on this stretch of the river heading in all directions. Our novice cox, thankfully, is an instinctively good steerswoman, and somehow threaded us through the carnage into the landing area - we were about the fourth crew back. Our clubs top boat, who were in the top 40, were probably very annoyed at the cancellation, as they hadn't swamped or even had to bail, so had got nearly all the way to the finish. And then had to row back.

Photos have already started appearing of Flickr - here

Also the abandoned Italian boat

Thursday, March 29

Cricket Super 8s

Despite their mounting injury list, which will probably prevent them from winning the whole tournament, New Zealand are still a class side. They overcame the West Indies fairly comfortably in the end, the in form Scott Styris hitting 80 off 90 balls as New Zealand reached the target with over ten overs to spare.

The West Indies are, I fear, in the same league as the already departed Pakistan and India and, I have to say, England. While they have players capable of winning any match on the day, those days are not sufficiently consecutive to put them in with a chance of overall victory.

I'd unimaginatively pick Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand for the final four. One BBC journalist fears this result will result in the semis and final being played in front of nearly empty stadia - the pricing policies of the ICC are looking increasingly flawed.

Was this becoming a snake?

Interesting to see that one of the genuine missing links in the fossil record (where an intermediate form has not been found, as opposed to the artificial borders set up by nomenclature) may have been found - Nature reports on a paper (J. Vertebr. Paleontol. 27, 1–7 (2007)) describing a Slovenia fossil shows evidence of a creature descended from four-legged lizards, but with reduced forelimbs and an elongated neck. In other words, it is part way to becoming something like a snake. Whether this genuinely is how snakes became snakes still isn't that clear - this needs more fossil finds. Unfortunately, snake skeletons aren't the sort of thing that fossilises well.

Ape rights

I see the ape rights issue is back again.

In the BBC report, I liked Prof. Steve Jones' comment
"Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana"

I continue to believe that while animal welfare is a good thing to campaign for, and I certainly agree with the UK decision ten years ago to put strict restrictions on what experiments are allowable on great apes (i.e. it is unethical to treat them as expendable for research), but trying to give individual rights as humans have is not justifiable.

In short, King Louie was wrong - An ape like him can't learn to be human too.

Tuesday, March 27

Clone Wolf

Ten years after the Scots did it with sheep, a South Korean team claims to have cloned a wolf.

As many articles in Western sources have pointed out, many of this research team formerly collaborated with disgraced researcher Dr Hwang Woo-Suk. Doesn't mean it isn't true, though. It does remain to be seen how healthy the wolf is through its lifespan.

Don McPhee

The Guardian has an audio slideshow of the works of Guardian photographer Don McPhee, who died recently of cancer.

As a long time Grauniad reader, many of McPhee's photos became almost icons of the time, particularly his shot of the miner in the party police hat facing up to the line of policemen at Orgreave. But his black and white photos were also particularly good at showing up the stark beauty of the northern landscape, particularly the mix of water, light and buildings.

Ribena Rumbled

The problem of making scientific sounding claims in your advertising is that it is always possible that someone would actually go ahead and test them. Ribena's statement that blackcurrants contain four times as much vitamin C as oranges has now landed them in trouble down under, after two schoolgirls measured the vitamin C in Ribena and found there basically wasn't any. Parent company GlaxoSmithKline state the problem only affected Ribena in Australia and New Zealand

I'm also glad someone somewhere appears to be teaching science to teenagers, rather than just teaching them to pass science exams.

Sunday, March 25

Swing low, sweet Pedalo

England finally manage to squeak through into the next stage of the Cricket World Cup, where they'll face Ireland.

As the BBC pointed out, England have only won three matches against Test playing opposition at the World Cup since 1992. On the other hand, I think New Zealand are good enough to win the whole thing (or at least get to the finals against the Aussies), so losing to them in the first round isn't *that* disasterous. So complete humiliation (i.e. 8th in the Super 8s) should be avoided...

Thursday, March 22

BSc in mumbo-jumbo

Complaints again at what the new universities are giving degrees for.

Nature have an article (subscription required) on subjects regarded by many scientists as pseudo-science being taught as BSc courses.

The BBC have picked up on the story, and quote Prof. Colquhoun of University College London for his dislike of these courses:

He said the teaching of complementary medicine under a science banner was worse than "Mickey Mouse" degrees in golf management and baking that have sprung up in recent years as "they do what it says on the label".

The good Prof is using the freedom of information act to find out what these courses are actually teaching.

There may be an argument for keeping these degrees to one extent - as with the management of golf courses and the knowledge needed for running a large scale bakery, these are work-related levels of knowledge required to run businesses that bring in a significant amount of money - someone needs to do this sort of training, and because John Major got all classless about them being regarded as less rigorous than University degrees, his lot decided to make all the places that used to teach that sort of thing universities as well.

So arguably, if there is a market in something (and there certainly is a market in people wanting mumbo-jumbo to make them feel good), then in a purely business sense people should be trained to exploit this market, and since universities are expected to fund themselves, they should be free to offer courses in exploiting people's gullibility.

But then that's business, not science.

Tuesday, March 20

Cricket continues

I had suspected this stage of the cricket World Cup would be rather uneventful - fat lot I know then. Of course, Pakistan's ability to self-destruct is well documented, but even so you have to be able to put at least some pressure on them, and at that Ireland did very well, for a deserved victory.

The news that Bob Woolmer died the next day was shocking. With England subsiding after the 2005 Ashes, I quite liked the idea of a Woolmer-Vaughan combination in charge of England (although Woolmer-Flintoff would have been disasterous - Woolmer was never an authoritarian, and Flintoff needs someone to lay down the rules, as the pedalo incident showed, and Vaughan appears to be the man laying down the rules)

Those hoping that the British Isles would somehow squeak the full contingent through to the next round (Wales being part of England and Wales, as Northern Ireland is part of Ireland) were always more on the delusional than wishful side (apart from the fact that England could still find a way to lose to Kenya), as South Africa are chokers, not self-immolating exploders. They'll probably find some way to throw it away in the semis or final, but asking them to lose to Scotland - well, it seems the Saffers have decided to treat their batting session as part of a 20Twenty match. As I write in the 13th over, it's all over for Scotland barring the greatest cricketing miracle of the century.

Friday, March 16

The spectre behind a cricket match

Watching the cricket scoreboard update yesterday evening as Ireland snatched a tie with Zimbabwe - quite a good result, even if Ireland's cricketing problems (England&Wales will pinch any genuine international quality players they produce) pale into insignificance compared to Zimbabwe's (there are easily eleven international quality Zimbabwean cricketers who have fled the country for political reasons).

It's hard to separate the sport from the politics when it drives the players - such as Tatenda Taibu (compare his Test batting average to England's recent wicket-keepers) - into exile.

Then this morning there is the news of Mugabe telling his critics in the West to "go hang".

He also accuses the MDC of being sponsored by western countries keen to see him removed from power. Given that Mugabe has turned into a despot, and has turned his country from breadbasket to basketcase, it would be hardly surprising if responsible countries start thinking it would be nice to see Mugabe removed from power in a political fashion.

His anti-western rhetoric isn't going to save him - Africa has noticed. The Southern African Development Community have asked Tanzania, Lesotho and Namibia to mediate the crisis, Mbeki of South Africa has urged Zimbabwe to respect the rights of opposition parties, Zambia's president has expressed concern, and Ghana's president says he is "embarrassed" by the situation in Zimbabwe.

Thursday, March 15

A place that doesn't exist - Somaliland

Looking at international news, it appears that the representatives of the small northern part of Somalia have at least achieved international media attention of a sort, which is some going for an African country in their current situation. e.g. here, here and here

The northern part is known as Somaliland, and the situation is - actually quite good. peaceful, functional, not much of a problem really. Not a bad news story, which is normally all we hear from Africa. And certainly no thanks to us, as we've pretty much ignored them. They've run themselves as a separate country since the south fell apart, and are now looking for international recognition as an independent state.

However, apart from the dangers of IMF and World Bank money changing a stable system should they get recognition, there is the possibility of a bigger sudden change to the system - and such an outside jolt has caused problems for many countries in the past. The geography of Somaliland may not look particularly promising on the surface - something that led the British to take over in the 19th century just to stop anyone else doing so but otherwise pretty much not consider the place worth interfering with - but underneath it appears that it may be lying on a regional oil window reaching south across the Gulf of Aden.

Is this a chance for a stable but poor African country to become as wealthy as, say, the UAE? Or is the interference of the international community going to plunge them into the morass of their southern neighbours?

Cost:$300 Worth: $100,000

The NY Times reports on a teenager who built a spectroscope for $300.

If she wants to do a PhD in the UK after she gets her degree, she may well be eminently qualified...

This is also the sort of competition I'd like to see have a higher profile in the UK. May well exist already, but I'm blowed if I can recall seeing a news story on one.

Lovelock at it again

For every person out there trying to claim that global warming isn't happening at all, or that it has nothing to do with humans, there is at least one out there claiming it will be the worst thing ever. James Lovelock probably cancels out a few PhDs of the former opinion on his own - he apparently believes that the continental US, mainland Europe and China will all become utterly uninhabitable and we'll all end up in the arctic.

As with many of the critics - I really need to see an accurate model that could explain the phenomena he's predicting. And why would the plains of Germany being eight degrees hotter turn them uninhabitable? Tunis is more than eight degrees hotter than Berlin for the vast majority of the year, it doesn't stop the population of the greater Tunis area topping two million. Is there a reason why increased evaporation from the soil won't be compensated at least partially by increased rainfall due to increased evaporation from the sea?

I may not normally agree with Bjørn Lomborg's views on climate, but the quote attributed to him in the NY Times recently is something I can agree on:
Climate change is a real and serious problem that calls for careful analysis and sound policy. The cacophony of screaming does not help.

Gervais like levels of embarassment

Some conversations you shouldn't have where someone can overhear part of the conversation and possibly not get the context.

Yesterday, I was talking with some friends and the discussion got around to people who have said things that may or may not have been discriminatory against one minority or another but got in trouble (or in the case of politicians, had to resign) because they sounded like it. I told the anecdote of a man who nearly lost his job for shouting at a cat - the cat was black, and the man, having found the cat using his hat as a kitty litter, shouted a three word phrase of abuse at the cat that included its colour. The question was, was the man racist for using the colour of the cat in his otherwise generic abuse (he also questioned the likelihood of the cat's parents being married, which on the face of it is probably an accurate reflection of the situation), or is it quite possible for someone to view cats as not deserving of respect but automatically give it to all humans? The problem was - someone heard me say the phrase the man used and thought I was telling a racist joke - I know this because he threatened me before leaving.

So then this sparked off my levels of angst worthy of one of Ricky Gervais' tactless characters - does my telling this anecdote mean that I am also racist, and hadn't realised? Should I have been as unable to bring myself to use the phrase used in the anecdote as I am unable to say out the full name of the hip-hop group NWA? Or am I just tactless, thoughtless and socially inept (which I pretty much knew anyway)

The man in the anecdote, by the way, wasn't sacked, but had to attend sensitivity training. Perhaps I ought to do the same.

Friday, March 9

I am currently listening to Swedish reggae.

No, stop laughing. It's actually rather good. Found them (them being Kultiration) on the music blog Aurgasm, and extra tracks on Last FM. Pity Amazon don't seem to have heard of them, I might have to go to a European website to buy their album.

Thursday, March 8

Wikipedia and universities

Another academic persuading their students to use Wikipedia the right way - write it, don't reference it.

It's actually a reasonably good idea - a lot of students are actually rather lacking in confidence (although there are some who have far too much of it), so persuading them to write something that, to be honest, doesn't really matter that much, but equally could give them feedback quite quickly is a good thing*. Plus it'll mean Wikipedia has a few more in depth articles about things that are actually of some importance, along with the long discussions about the fifth episode in the third season of Pokemon.

*Well, as long as they don't come up against one of the editors who believes a page they've written is theirs alone, and keeps reverting any changes.

Wednesday, March 7

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit!

Or alternatively, get made to look very, very silly indeed in a BBC news story...

Tuesday, March 6

Boris on Universities

Boris Johnson in the Grauniad doing the modern-day touchy-feely hug-a-hoodie Cameroonian Conservative thing regarding Universities and funding - say very nice things about us, hint that they'd like to do very nice things for us, suggest it would be good if other people did nice things for us, but above all don't promise anything (and openly admit as such, since everyone knows that's what he'd do anyway).

Comments on the general thing - a promise to stop carping on about "mickey mouse" courses is a good thing. After all, you can't sit there demanding the universities cater for the free market and then promptly kick up a fuss when they cater to the free market. Besides, the vast majority of mickey mouse courses are from the old polytechnics who shouldn't have been turned into Universities in the first place, and left to do good work in the field of niche training courses (such as surfing studies, golf course management, etc - there's a lot of money in the leisure industry after all)

The top US universities have done quite remarkable things with their endowments. Only Oxford and Cambridge have endowments of any size at all compared to the average US university (indeed, only those two from all of Europe would figure). I rather suspect if the stupendously well rewarded Goldman Sachs brokers did decide to chuck their money at the universities rather than on expensive frivolities (or the retreat in the south of France that they can run away to after their 19th nervous breakdown) then it'll pretty much go to those two anyway.

Smashing the jam jars - well, science is a medium to long term process. If smashing the jam jars then means a bout of politically motivated merry go rounds with the money then it will indeed be a bad thing, as a project could have the cash pulled out from under it part way through. On the other hand, I think one could suggest that there could be better co-operation between certain funding bodies without scaring the horses (or stating anything that wasn't blatantly obvious).

Sale of assets - grief, surely Labour have sold everything that wasn't bolted down, then unbolted things to sell them, then sold the bolts.

And finally:
I still think the main point of a university education is to achieve a personal intellectual transformation

Does this include dressing up in fancy clothes and getting pissed, I wonder?

Too good for them

Some people just don't deserve to have rare cars.

(Yes, I know it's an environmental nightmare at full speed, but I still appreciate the engineering that went into it)

Monday, March 5

Sunday reviews

A busy day for a Sunday - rowing training in the morning, cinema in the afternoon, gig in the evening.

The River Trent is still high (has been all winter - but will this stop them enforcing a hosepipe ban somewhere in the UK in summer? I doubt it), so no water training, particularly since half the trees in Derbyshire seem to be floating past.

Say the film Blood Diamond at the cinema (has been out for a while, but I rarely get to go to the pics these days). A good film, and I have to admit my inherent antipathy for actors who get more famous for being famous rather than being actors (i.e. Mr DiCaprio) got rather over-ruled by the fact that the man can actually act. In some cases, as with this one, rather better than the role is provided - I got the sense DiCaprio was fighting to provide a more realistic portrayal than the Hollywood script would like, trying to portray a man who isn't necessarily having a major change of heart, he's just sticking to the deal he made. Djimon Hounsou has the rather less interesting task of being the noble African - the real hero is often less interesting than the scoundrel. Meanwhile, just about everyone else is getting gunned down in the background, and there are some plot holes that could have done with being filled in.

Musicwise, I went to see the Howling Bells at the Rescue Rooms. The support were a one-man with a guitar act (who's probably very annoyed with his manager for handing him a thankless task - a quiet act to open for an indie-pop/rock band? Who's dumb idea was that?) and a fairly generic seeming indie-rock band of three skinny men with guitars in skinny shirts, with a drummer behind. Howling Bells are in one sense immediately more interesting, even without being less generic with their guitar work, in that they have a female singer who sounds a bit like PJ Harvey. Once the sound engineer sorted the sound (the mics were drowned by the guitars for the first couple of tracks), they took advantage of their most interesting feature, in that you could actually hear her voice - she's not quiet, but against amplified guitars, she needed the mics. There are a couple of good tracks there, nothing astoundingly great, but not bad for a tenner. And they finished early enough that I could get the bus home, rather than fork out another tenner for a cab (hey, I'm in my mid-30s and it was a Sunday).

Friday, March 2

Newspaper reports on newspaper report on penguin on dope

The Guardian, using that standard tactic of the broadsheet press - waiting until the guttersnipes report it, then reporting that they've reported it - get to gossip about how celebrity druggie Pete Doherty (who was once in a band, briefly) decided to get some penguins stoned with cannabis.

Now, penguins are, it has to be said, inherently amusing. Many people, it appears, find the idea of stoned penguins amusing. I am not sure exactly how one would tell a penguin is stoned, given that they tend to waddle and fall over anyway. I suspect penguins can get stoned, since cannabis has very deleterious effects on a spider's ability to make webs - Spiders on marijuana made a reasonable stab at spinning webs but appeared to lose concentration about half-way through. Which isn't really a surprise.

So a penguin on dope is probably one that waddles about, forgets what it was doing, and then feels hungry and goes off looking for fish (which is what it was doing anyway).