Tuesday, October 27

Student branding

Thought this sort of rubbish only went on at US universities. Not that they're keen on students branding each other with coat hangers either.

Friday, October 23

The death of wolf 527F

Science magazine has an article on the death of one of Yellowstone's wolves. In this case, the radio-tagged alpha female of a pack that had 95% of its territory inside of the park, was shot less than a mile from the border, and it appears had no history of predating on commercial livestock.

The way Science tells it, they don't appear to have thought carefully enough about the hunt. While it'd be damn near to impossible to get commercial farmers in that part of the US to accept regularly losing livestock to wolf packs, there's a difference between allowing hunting to control wolves that hang around farmer's land and wolves that prey on elks. In this case, it doesn't appear to have occurred to them that rather than scout around the extensive livestock areas for problem wolves, the hunters would just go to where they wait for the elk to leave the park and gun them down and do the same with the wolves.

In the meantime, a wolfpack that was not affecting livestock, was a subject of intense research, and was a signature animal of the park, has been effectively wiped out.

Monday, October 19

Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and the legal silencing of the truth.

The independent took this article down when the lawyers threatened them for reporting how Trafigura poisoned thousands in the Ivory Coast. Carter-Ruck haven't got to google cache yet.

Toxic shame: Thousands injured in African city

Monday, September 14

Borlaug's gift, and the world that wasted it.

*WARNING* - this post is a downbeat one. Don't read if you've hope for the future.

Agricultural pioneer and US Nobel Peace laureate Norman Borlaug has died. And on seeing the news, my first thought was how we've utterly wasted his benefits.

Yes, his work, a key pillar in the green revolution, has spared millions this century from famine. But ultimately, it has merely moved the famine on fifty years. The millions that didn't die in the 70s, 80s and 90s will die in future decades. Not because of any underlying flaw in Borlaug's work, but because of the way we squandered his gift.

The increased agricultural yield could have been the opportunity to raise the standards of everyone, to increase education and health, to enable people to raise families in a sustainable, higher quality lifestyle, leading to smaller families where all the children go to school and can expect to lead long, productive lives.

Instead it has merely led to a population boom, which will now struggle to feed itself on depleting resources - drained aquifers, tired soil, eroding hillsides.

And that's before global climate change puts the boot in.

Borlaug gave the world a gift. He gave it fifty years breathing space to solve a coming crisis. The world failed.

If we're really lucky, there will be a dozen more Borlaugs out there to save us again, and give us a chance to do things right this time. But they might not be there, and I seriously doubt the world's ability to learn from its past mistakes.

Thursday, September 3

Why is the cricket team playing football?

I have a friend who's a medical doctor who states that nobody over the age of 18 should be playing football.

Given the number of injuries and injury scares they've had over recent years, it does seem quite surprising to me that the England cricket team still think that kicking a football around is a good warm up for a cricket match...

Saturday, August 29

Sky whinge about the BBC

Why exactly is the boss of Sky, James Murdoch, whinging about the BBC, news? Of course he's going to whinge about the BBC - if they weren't there, Sky would be more dominant, be more able to persuade people to give Sky money to watch adverts with some programmes in between, and be more able to force politicians to grovel to them.

As it is, the BBC sits there, providing people with both quality and crap, but not showing adverts (except for their own programmes) as people have already been made to pay in advance.

As standard with many a major businessman these days, it seems, Murdoch appears to view the point of anything - television in this case - is to make someone money. Not for any higher purpose - say, to entertain, educate and inform. And this is why he should never be allowed to become the dominant force in British television.

Thursday, August 20

Killer nanoparticles?

Or just another case of poisoning by inhaling plastic fumes in an enclosed, unventilated space for months on end?

A news item in this week's Nature starts with the journalistic sensation, but boils down to the facts in the end - the victims had been working in quite horrendous conditions, with not just nanoparticles but plastic fumes at toxic levels.

But then, nanoparticles kill is news, total failure in health and safety procedures at a Chinese factory sadly isn't.

Tuesday, August 18

That sinking feeling

I sometimes wonder if, when faced with a continuous production line of sporting greats, others start thinking "oh no, not again".

So how must track cycling teams feel when faced with the prospect that, judging by the Junior World Track Championships, the next Victoria Pendleton may have been found, with the good news that she's not English being followed by the bad news that she's Welsh...

Friday, August 14

Not Tresco time

Yeah, well done, wishful thinkers. You've given a man with a stress-related condition nightmares. Now let him get on with playing for Somerset and living in peace.

Key's happy to do it, Ramprakash is apparently happy to do it, but the cost of asking Trescothick to return to the England fold is too high. There's a difference between wishing he could, and trying to persuade him to when the reason he had to stop still exists.

Thursday, August 13

Coming up easy

Heard a new track recently - Paolo Nutini's "Coming Up Easy". It claims to be a track by a 22 year old Scot of Italian descent, but sounds more like a 70s track that's part Van Morrison, part Marvin Gaye.

Not getting the album yet - reviews suggest that as many of the tracks are misses rather than hits, so may just download the track.

England to right wing US - we have a Cambridge too, you know.

More depressing news from the US, where the increasingly shrill and insane wing of the Republican Party continues to be increasingly shrill and insane.

Threatened with the possibility that US consumers will be given the opportunity of top level healthcare without having to pay for it, they have been opposing it by... well, lying.

Apart from their insane screams that the term "end-of-life care" refers to a panel persuading you to die, rather than the care that you get at the end of your life (i.e. hospice), they are also listing those who "Would be Dead if they were in the UK"

Among them were firstly Teddy Kennedy (not true, the NHS would provide).

Now comes the new one. What better example than a brilliant scientist. With a disability. Declare how the evil British NHS would have abandoned him. Yes, what a great idea that is. Hold up Prof Stephen Hawking as an example...

Tuesday, July 28

Tour de France

I've been following the latest Tour de France, which has been quite an interesting one in its own way. Not as many spectacular attacks on the mountains as in the past (more on that in a moment), but for those Brits of a national bent very good with the performance of Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins.

Cavendish is clearly the most dominant sprinter since the days of "Super" Mario Cippolini, with the added note that Cav doesn't get off his bike in disgust at the first sight of the road going upwards, which means he's not only got a win on a stage that had a significant climb in it, he's also got to win the final stage on the Champs Elysee. And by a huge margin, too - I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd given the peloton a different time to him.

Bradley Wiggins has also done remarkably well - losing 7kg of weight without seriously affecting his power shows he has both dedication and a good team of nutritionists behind him. So credit also to his Garmin Slipstream team and the GB Cycling set up. It's not just the weight loss that has made the difference - Wiggins is now taking the road as purely seriously as he took the track in the past. He's also in an environment that will help him, with the American team he is on having a modern mindset beyond their zero tolerance for drugs. Wiggins was previously on French teams, and has been quote somewhere as disliking their old fashioned methods and a mindset of "it was good enough for Hinault..."

The Tour bosses will be delighted that the TdF has gone the full distance without a cyclist being kicked off for a drugs offence, although the announcement of Giro d'Italia runner-up Danilo Di Luca's failed test did come up in the middle of it. The history of the tour means that some are already pointing fingers at anyone who does well, with debates about Contador's climb of Mt Verbier already circling. As others have pointed out, though, the drugs used in the TdF in the past were often to aid recovery - a one-off performance isn't that astonishing, particularly if the Tour has been almost in truce mode for the GC for several days in advance.

So - a good Tour? Yes. A great Tour? Well, Contador was a bit too far ahead of the rest to make it truly thrilling, although the battle for the podium was close. A clean Tour? I hope it was.

Saturday, July 11

Amarok 2.0. Not good.

Have finally got fed up of my home computer bugging me to upgrade its distribution (still on Mandriva), so I let it chug away overnight. It's now running KDE4 as the desktop - just. I may give up and go onto the low-end / laptop interface instead, as my computer is now seriously ancient.

But my major disappointment is that it "upgraded" the Amarok installation to 2.0. I mean, why? Seriously, why? Amarok 2 isn't finished yet. It isn't even remotely finished. It looks really ugly to me and ill thought out. I mean, what's the most important part of the music player to most people? The tracklist, of course. iTunes know this. Just about every music manager knows this. Amarok2, though - stick it on a third of the screen. If there is a way to give it its old, desired prominence, I haven't found it yet (which is their fail, even if a way does exist, as it should be obvious).

And it's mucked up all my scores. No, not the stars, the scores. It's gone back to its default "up the score everytime you play". Great, so all tracks rapidly end up rated 100, unless I stop playing them before the end. Not the way I want to work it, thank you very much. But can I see how to put in my own scoring script, as I'd done with the old one? No.

I want a music manager that allows me to produce scores to tracks the way I want them, and realised that it's the track info I want to see on the screen. Not lyrics, a big image of the cover of the current track playing, etc. etc. Will have to start looking for the beast. Must be out there somewhere...

Friday, June 12

England's mighty cricket team

Well, a mighty performance by the England cricket team, who swept their opponents aside.

What? No, I'm not being sarcastic. It was a very good performance. Another step to the final at Lord's on the 21st. OK, India weren't that good, but

What do you mean "we're playing India next"? Oh... wait, that'll be the men you're thinking about. I'm talking of the women's team. Who actually are pretty good. And by far the best chance of an England cricket fan having a team to support in the Twenty20 semis and final.

Friday, June 5

Blue nation

Well, I'm sure Cameron must be delighted. Despite containing a certain number of toffs with duck islands, moats, and houses that look like Balmoral which we have no right to ask them how they paid for, the Tories seem to be doing very, very well at the council elections.

Labour are tanking, naturally (deservedly?), but I had hoped the Lib Dems might at least put up a fight. But no.

So it's Tory, Tory, Tory. The rich get richer, the working classes are obsolete. I'd be more depressed if that wasn't what we'd had for 12 years under Labour anyway. Chances of the Tories noticing that laissez-faire free market ideology has caused a major worldwide recession? Not a lot.

Tuesday, May 19

Surveys. What's the point?

Every week, I seem to get a number of surveys emailed to me. These are academic surveys, forwarded by the school office, sometimes administered by the central support centres.

So why are they all so damn useless?

I always get about three questions in when they hit the "Which is the most important, pick one: A, B, C, D". Except I can't do A without B. Or they are so wildly different that it's hard to judge - yes, I spend longer doing A than B, but that's because B can be done quickly but is essential to do my job, while A is, well, essential if I want to do my job well. Which I do.

And then you get the "Rate on a scale of 1 to 5" malarky - which almost invariably has me putting 90% of the stuff at rating 3, one thing which is blatantly obvious at 5, and the rest at 1 because they can't be important as I hadn't heard of them.

Next is the "how did you hear about it" bit. Well, as "it" is a boring one day course I did a year ago, I can't possibly remember. But they don't give you a "I can't remember, it was ages ago" box.

The annoying bit is that these are all online now. At least when they were on paper you could just fill in the bits worth filling in and leave the rest either blank of with "this cannot be answered in multiple choice format" written across it.

But that's not the worst. The worst is that at the end of it - and the reason they're done in multiple choice and "rate 1-5" rather than asking for written opinions - someone will turn these survey results into numbers. And they will then decide that once you have numbers you can graph and plot, that means they have fully and comprehensively understood the situation. This is undoubtedly not true. These surveys are virtually pointless.

Tuesday, May 12

Kelvin Hopkins - a labour MP who might keep his seat

Wonder what exactly Kelvin Hopkins is doing in the Labour party. Or government in general. Present him with a gravy train, and what does he do? Ignores it.

Second home allowance? No thanks, says Kelvin, I'll just get the train in. He barely even claims for food expenses.

Deary me. People like this would give politicians a good name if it wasn't for the strenuous efforts of the rest of them.

Wednesday, May 6

EPSRC back down

Hurrah, following substantial academic uproar, the EPSRC have backed down from their frankly bonkers idea to ban randomunsuccessful applicants for funding.

Reading between the climb-down page is a laugh.

"Constructive feedback from our communities and stakeholders on the new measures indicated that there was significant support for safeguarding peer review by modifying submission behaviour"

We said it was broken, and about as efficient as pulling the names out of a hat. Plenty of academics have also got annoyed at being called stakeholders, but they're not listening.

"...but some concerns regarding the detailed implementation..."

We said they were stark, staring mad and it wouldn't work.

"After careful consideration, we have therefore made the following amendments in implementing this aspect of our published policy".

Yeah, pity you didn't try careful consideration in the first place. Consultation also works. That's consultation as in the real "ask people what they think, then take that into consideration" as opposed to the PR consultation of "ask people what they think, then do what you'd planned on doing anyway".

"Why the change?"

The peasants were revolting

"Has this policy been watered down so much it is ineffective?"

No, but it has been watered down enough that we don't have to worry about hordes of organic chemists showing up outside Polaris House with pitchforks...

But basically, unlucky researchers can still put in one application in the 12 month "ban" period. There will probably be further modification when the research council notices the number of Fellows of the Royal Society they ban under this random scheme. If we're really lucky, they'll notice that the difference between coming 32nd out of 60 and coming 10th out of 60 isn't much at all.

Monday, April 27

Higher Education's dirty secret

Interesting op-ed in the NY Times by Mark C Taylor. In it, he mentions one bit about academia that they don't like to admit too much.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs.

Now, I suspect I won't find myself seeing eye to eye on a number of topics with academics from religion departments, and I'm not sure about some of his suggestions for dealing with the problem (he doesn't mention how to limit and control the centralised bureaucracies, who would undoubtedly argue they should remain permanent even if teaching and research staff were all on fixed term contracts). But the fact is that universities using postgrad students as cheap staff rather than employ technicians, postgrad and postdoc researchers is widespread. So much so, in fact, that a group that wishes to go against this trend will have questions asked about their funding applications. "An opportunity for training" is the mantra that academics have developed to justify having cheap students do the work rather than qualified staff, and they have so convinced themselves of that - even when it is not true - that they question anyone who doesn't act in the same way. So I find myself asking the awkward question - why is it only students who can benefit from new opportunities? Are we postdocs not expected to gain any further knowledge and experience now that we're being paid to do the job?

Tuesday, March 24

Why are journalists so thick?

Well, not journalists, columnists. You would think they need to be smart, as columnists are the ones who are easily replaceable by bloggers - they don't spend time and effort (and money) researching information, collecting new facts together, sifting through the minutae of complex political, legal, financial or criminal evidence as real journalists do. They just spout off about whatever they feel like.

I mean, so do I, but I'm not really expecting anyone to read this, let alone pay for it.

So, given that they don't make the effort to discover new facts, you'd hope that they at least had the decency to use real and accurate facts to begin with.

Latest example - a Guardian columnist chooses to complain about the tendency for Hollywood to cast women as mothers who are not much older than the actor playing the son. No mention, of course, of, for example, Sean Connery playing Harrison Ford's father, as this article is really meant to malign Hollywood for misogyny rather than ageism.

But she does list two examples that make you think she's never seen the films. Firstly, that the actress playing Michael J Fox's mother was the same age as him in Back to the Future. Well, the title is a clue - Michael J Fox's character goes back in time, to a point where his mother and father were the same age as he is now. As it is rather easier to make a young actress look older than an old actress look young, they naturally cast actors who could at least pass for 19. Also not mentioned - that the actor playing Michael J Fox's father is younger than him.

Second example - Sally Field plays Tom Hanks's mother in Forrest Gump. Those who have seen the film will know that Forrest Gump is not played by Mr Hanks throughout, but is played by a young boy for the start of it. Again, as it is easier to make a young actress look older, it makes sense to cast an actress who can play the age of young Forrest's mother.

Tuesday, March 17

Petition to repeal the EPSRC blacklist

In response to the bonkers EPSRC rules blacklisting scientists for not being permanently among the best of the best, there is now a petition at number10.gov.uk.

Not that I expect this will work - the current government has a great history of listening to everyone's views and then doing what it decided to do in the first place anyway, even if everyone else's views were that it was utterly bonkers.

Thursday, March 12

Non-funding council changes the rules

The EPSRC have announced changes in research funding.

This is seriously worrying to me. Not that it may make it harder for me to get funding - it'll probably make it not much harder but perhaps waste a bit less reviewer time. No, this indicates that the EPSRC do believe that their ranking system is really accurate and trustworthy - and thus are not listening to scientists.

The problem is that the difference in quality of grant applications is hard to judge, and that most of them will be in the middle. A really good grant writer will tend to be near the top. A poor and unsupported one will tend to be near the bottom. The majority will be in the middle.

At the point that you are in the middle, the difference between upper middle and lower middle can be tiny - the random number picked by a referee, asked to judge on a project that they have only tangential interest in. Or, worse, the arbitrary down-grading by a referee who has lost contact with a field, misunderstands, or just plays politics to sabotage a rival. So then it's down to luck whether you're in the top half or the bottom half.

Which means an eighth of the middle rankers will hit the bottom half three times in a row, on average. That the EPSRC says that this arbitrary punishment will only hit 5% of researchers suggests that they expect only a third of researchers will put in a third in two years.

This doesn't make it any easier for scientists. But it does make it easier for the bureaucrats.

Friday, February 27

Warne's wishes

Shane Warne appears to be backing Flintoff and Panesar for the Ashes series in the press.

Given that England appear to actually lose more often with Flintoff playing than when he is out injured, and comparing what Panesar has done recently to Swann's achievements, it would appear that wily old Warney still wants Australia to win comfortably...

Cricket - who's number 1?

At this point on the second day of the first Test between South Africa and Australia, I seriously have to wonder if I haven't written off the Aussies too soon.

Oh dear. At the time of writing, SA are 4 for 2 in reply to 466 all out... Still, the Aussies started strong against England in 2005, and we know how that ended up.

Thick skin required

Reading this BBC News article today reminds me how there are still a large number of companies that just have an over-inflated opinion of how good it is to work in their offices.

I mean, seriously - you expect a 16 year old to be thrilled non-stop about working in marketing and logistics?

I'd be worried that a company that supposedly works in marketing has such a poor grip on reality. Firing her has made the company look far, far worse than if they'd kept on
a 16 year old who was getting bored at work.

They also compare facebook to the company notice board - no it's not. It's comparable to a comment made with work colleagues down the pub. Would the company sack anyone who said they were "bored at work" at the pub?

Wednesday, February 11

Science - the funding wars continue

An article from across the pond, this time, where they have many of the same problems as in the UK. Prof. Steve Quake from Stanford University writes in the NY Times about how funding by committee tends to squeeze out some of the more adventurous ideas. The comment on a rejected proposal of “typically bold, but wildly ambitious”, or variants thereof, is probably familiar to many scientists currently seeking funding.

One difference between the US and the UK is that there is a chance that the US - seeing the success of the NIH special awards that Quake refers to in his article - may be creating more opportunities for bold and wildly ambitious research. The UK, however, continues to give the impression of going the other way, with research funding increasingly linked to immediate gains for industry.

Wednesday, February 4

BBC, population control and internet babbling

This Monday, the BBC published an article on the elephant in the room of environmentalism - population control.

Basically, if the planet has a limited capacity then the more people there are the less they can consume each. At some point, there will be a requirement to match the number of people to consumption - and this will not necessarily be peaceful.

So, the article looked pretty sensible and rational, and then I got down to the comments... is the BBC trying to make North Americans look like frothing paranoid bigots, or could they not find enough frothing paranoid bigotry from the English (looking at the standard have your say comments, frothing paranoid bigotry really isn't in short supply in the UK), as the barking mad of the prairies were in full swing - "They're coming for our babies!". Oh dear. Fortunately, reading further down, the Obama-voting regions of the US demonstrated that sense and logic aren't strangers to the New World.

This is why this is such an emotive subject, and one that scientists will struggle with. Scientists are trained to deal in facts. Gather facts, build a hypothesis. If the hypothesis doesn't match the facts, can it be modified to do so? If not, abandon the hypothesis (admittedly some scientists are very loathe to abandon their favourite hypothesis)

However, not everyone is a scientist. Particularly on the internet, the model is opinion first, then find facts to back them up. Stop digging as soon as you find something that looks like a fact, even if it isn't (especially if it isn't, as digging more might damage it). If you can't find one, make it up, although finding one that someone else has made up means you can at least imitate the appearance of scientists by putting cites in. That, sadly, is the model that dominates on comments pages on websites such as the BBC and Guardian.

Sunday, January 4

Mandriva 2009

It's probably not a particularly smart thing to do when I've got a stinking cold, but despite needing to go for a lie down every hour to recover my strength, I thought I'd upgrade my linux distro (I've been using Mandriva for ages, I'm sort of used to it). Upgrading, I thought, would be easy, just a matter of time.

Well, I'd plenty of that. It took a few hours on my broadband, but I just went to bed for the duration. Come back to the computer, it had done, wants a reboot. Great, I reboot (and go to lie down again while it does it). I then come back - and there's no X window. Well, I know what to try - having had another lie down, tea, then a lie down to recover from making tea, I go into XFdrake. Initial tries and changing some options were no good, but when I changed from the generic driver to the NVidia FX driver, it downloaded the driver, added some patches and worked.

So, OK for someone who knows linux (took me about 12 hours to upgrade and get it working, but I was huddled up in bed for about 11 1/2 of them), but that's not really going to attract the Windows crowd to convert...