Friday, January 27, 2006

General Menace

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Chinese Walls

[if you read this before and cound not quite see the point, that was because the first link was damaged; it has been fixed; apologies to all who were confused]

Google has decided to filter its China service, in order to censor results and avoid being barred from a lucrative market by the Chinese Government.

Here is the result of a search for Tiananmen Square on images


Here is the result of the same search on Google China

Can you spot the difference?

Thanks to Peter Raitt

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cabbage: Nature's Medicine

This letter from Raymond Richards of Waikato University was published in yesterday's Herald:

As an educator , I am appalled at the news that the Government wastes more than a million dollars a year on mumbo-jumbo in the form of Maori supposed therapies . This Government claims to support a knowledge economy, yet it promotes superstition at the expense of Science .

   Taxpayers fund fanciful ideas such as chanting to treat spirits , rubbing the chest with cabbages to remove curses , and waving sticks to cleanse impurities- while cancer patients languish on hospital waiting lists . Some may have died while they waited .

   This tax-payer funding of so-called alternative therapies is supported by the NZ Charter of Health Practitioners , who can`t wait to get their hands on our money for their own forms of quackery such as homeopathy and magnet therapy .

   When I teach about evidence and critical thinking at Waikato University , this Government`s ignorance and hypocrisy will no doubt enter the discussion.

He has a point. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 was introduced at the instigation of Maui Pomare (who was then Maori Health Officer) with the support of Peter Buck and Apirana Ngata, all of whom were to become leaders of Maori development. Its purpose was to stop "charlatans" who practiced traditional healing methods that did not work and often led to death, while denying Maori access to proper healthcare. The law was repealed in 1962.

Ever have the feeling we are going backwards?

This post is an abortion

or the “I want RU-486” post

Since yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the Roe Vs Wade decision I thought it timely to write about abortion.

It’s a female issue, a political issue, a social issue and a class issue. Some brief research has told me that over 40 million women per year have abortions, it is estimated that nearly half of those are in countries where abortion is severely restricted by law.
George Bush said yesterday to a anti abortion demonstration that the anti abortion movement ‘will prevail’.
The status that a country has on abortion will often mirror the status that women carry in that society – this is what fundamentally concerns me about an ‘anti choice’ president in a supposedly free and democratic country. Conservative forces such as the church and the right will often reduce women to their biological roles, without letting women take control of their sexuality.
Contraception is not 100% foolproof, it should always be used, but it is fallible and most importantly rape is a reality in New Zealand and across the world. Until unplanned pregnancy can be protected against there will be a need for abortion.

In many countries where abortion is illegal women who are wealthy can still access black-market but relatively safe abortions. But abortion related death is a reality for poor women from developing countries such as Latin America and Africa, those of the lower classes cannot defy the law.
Women are having abortions without help or without going to hospital when complications occur. No matter what the anti abortionists say – its happening and abortion laws need to be liberalised and abortion decriminalised and legalised the world over.
Countries like New Zealand should be demanding this for developing countries not just entertaining our own internal argument about abortion.

Abortion highlights the inequality between men and women and until abortions are free, safe and available for all we are not truly equal.
Over the next year New Zealand will have a discussion about the availability of RU-486 in this country. This is a safe and uncomplicated way to have an abortion.
It is vital that this pill is made available only with counselling and support as is required with the current abortion system.
Sexual education, commitment to a partner, free contraception, safe and accessible family planning, contraceptives for men and the protection of abortion clinics are all vital to lowering the rate of abortion and protecting women from unsafe sexual practices and abortions.
It is with pride that I see how far we have come in New Zealand. We will have the RU-486 debate but it concerns me how far we have to go for women to be equal and for women to have control over their bodies.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We still can't see the wood through the trees.

Maungakiekie community board are holding a restorative justice conference to consider the loss of a tree that, the unfortunately named, George Bernard Shaw hacked down last year.
You too are invited to attend the conference to hear the public talk about their feelings with regards to the tree.

The tree, an 11 m high, 100 year old Pohutakawa was a scheduled and therefore protected tree.

The conference will be held here:
Venue: Onehunga Community Centre, 83 Church Street, Onehunga Time: 6pm Date: Wednesday, 25 January 2006

George Bernard Shaw, who is awaiting sentencing for the crime, will be entitled to speak at the conference and so will affected members of the public
If you have been affected or feel that you need to talk about any other tree crimes in the city - please attend.
Stop the tree madness! Now!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

We can't see the wood through the trees

Is ‘Save Auckland Trees’ spokesperson Lesley Max setting herself up to take on Mayor Dick Hubbard at the next local government election in 2007?

Ms Max (MBE) has several strings to her bow as a lobbyist and activist and is also chief executive and co-founder of Pacific Foundation and a committee member of the Brainwave Trust.

To me she has come across as a mad woman but for many Aucklanders the issue of the tree removal from Aucklands Queen Street was one of unification bringing together a united voice against the current council (or possibly just the love of trees). For the Auckland City Council this is another PR nightmare in a long string of council mistakes this term (as well as Khartoum place and Vulcan lane pavers etc etc).

Although it does please me that Ms Max will forever be known as the ‘save the trees lady’ or the ‘crazy queen street tree woman’, I am concerned that she has made a mockery of our cities governance processes and has not acknowledged the processes of consultation that existed before her. I am also worried that she is creating a platform for herself where, if successful, she will only fall flat on her face through ignorance of process and an obsessive interest in outcome (for her benefit).

I am quite astonished as to how the whole tree debacle has been handled. I am taken aback by the rallying that has taken place to save the diseased trees of Queen Street to the extent where activists wished to stop a renovation of Queen Street (that is long overdue). Although I am first to approve of protesting against injustice I feel that this was more a stunt than a campaign against any wrong doing.

I am more astonished that Mayor Dick Hubbard has been such an appeaser and undermined his council, community representatives and his staff by taking the decision back to the council table under pressure from a few groups to save 3 trees.

Auckland city needs leadership and for that controversial decisions, if you can call the Queen Street upgrade controversial, need to be made. This city is stagnant in its inability to be visionary we are desperate to develop our floundering city with no heart. We must demand strong leadership from this council not one that revisits decisions that were made with community consultation and ones that were made over a matter of years not months.

What seems to be clear is that we are unsure as to what consultation means. If you are consulted with you are heard but you ideas and suggestions are not necessarily implemented. This could be for many reasons. The Hobson Community Board (Cits and Rats dominated) was consulted over the Queen Street plan so I don’t buy the argument that this is a left wing bulldozer. What happened were rounds of consultation and information and Ms Max and friends didn’t know about it until it was too late and then made an issue of it – it’s as simple as that.

For a city council, a governance body, this is not good process to change decisions on an emotive whim when they have been through a rigorous process. I have no problem with governors revisiting decisions when new information comes to light but for this decision to be revisited due to a small public pressure only kept alive through the New Zealand Herald, I disagree.

Ms Max has helped to exemplify bad governance. Some would say that she has demonstrated the power of the people to change what is wrong but by ‘saving’ three trees it seems pretty obvious that this was, in reality, a hyped up over the top attempt at getting media attention and to try and by dog whistling a lack of consultation by the council.

The Auckland city council could improve its consultation, it could make it 100 times better but this would mean a rates rise, it would mean staff and publicity which they currently do not have. I would personally pay higher rates to increase democracy, to reach more people, to explain the ramifications of decisions but most would not.

A lot of the consultation is down tihe representative bodies from business associations and community groups which are democratically elected – often consultation is made with people that come forward and are put on task forces and working groups, it is not a perfect model but it’s a model that involves those who really care.

I doubt that this will be the last we will see of Ms Max and I doubt that this will be the last time that Mayor Dick Hubbard undermines the institution of council, his colleagues and his staff. My masochistic side looks forward to the next time, I am interested in how we as a society interpret what is good governance procedure and what is not. I am interested in how we justify to ourselves neglecting process and how we define a good outcome.

In some instances good governance is just as much about backbone as it is about knowledge of process and procedure – Dick Hubbard needs to get one.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

We're doomed, I tell you, doomed

According to Radio New Zealand the NZ Institute of Economic Research, in its quarterly survey of business opinion has found that 71% of firms are despondent about the next six months, after allowing for seasonal variations.

I like the idea that there are seasonal variations in despondency. It reminds me of something I heard about Finland: when news reaches Helsinki that the leaves are turning brown up north, gloom spreads around the saunas as the message is passed on that Winter is coming.

But that is by and by. What I want to know (and The Economist Formerly Known as Jock may be able to help here) is whether there is any historic correlation between forecasts of business confidence and actual economic performance. It seems to me that business is always gloomy about prospects. Farmers, in particular, are always pessimistic; the agricultural economy appears to be permanently on the brink of collapse yet, strangely, you will never see a farmer on a bike.

But why all this despair? For the last few months, the retail market has been so buoyant that just about every shop in Auckland has posted advertisments for staff in their windows, something I had not seen for a long time. Is it all going to go to custard or is this just business despondency as usual?

What is worrying is the possibility that this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that business people will become more cautious, investing less and hiring fewer, because they think bad times are around the corner, thereby slowing the economy.

Perhaps it is time for us all to go out and cheer up a business person. Exude relentless optimism while you shop, comment on how good things are and how you will be spending like there is no tomorrow. Go on, make a shopkeeper happy. Do it for New Zealand.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Latin 'lections

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Global Warming

This week has been a fairly spectacular one in the scientific realm of Climate Change. Two quite impressive articles in Nature are likely to have a significant impact in both our understanding of the climate change phenomenon, as well as its effects on biodiversity. I'll address these articles soon, but first!

I've always been incredibly wary of commenting on this issue, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I don't know a huge amount about it. I mean, I understand the most basic principles, but I'm certainly no climatologist. As opinionated as some people consider me to be, I do try to avoid expressing said opinions until I know what I'm talking about. I guess I've always been a bit old fashioned in that regard; a firm believer in the adage of "read up or shut up". I'm afraid, though, that not many pundits or commentators follow this line. From the debates and commentry I've browsed on the issue, I'd say there was statistically significant correlation between the loudness of one's voice and one's ignorance on the matter at hand. But what's new, huh?

Secondly, global warming is an irrationally emotive topic. I've seen and been involved in some pretty heavy debates, mainly around evolutionary biology, but nothing compares to the astounding level of name-calling, labelling, character assassination and hysteria around global warming. Simply offering up an opinion or a dissenting voice, or perhaps a piece of research, opens one up to the most disturbing amount of lazy ad hominems, from both sides of the alleged 'controversy'.

I need to get a bit of a bug bear off my chest: I hate the term 'global warming'. It can be an incredibly misleading term. While the climate change discourse is grounded in the concept of average global temperatures increasing, on the level of many local, regional, latitudinal and continental systems, temperatures could be predicted to drop as a result of an overall global increase. An oft-cited example of this regional cooling as a result of global warming is the predicted effect of increased global temperatures on Continental Europe due to the slowing of the North Atlantic Drift. Normally, Continental Europe and Britain are kept comparatively warm for their latitude due to the energy that this current brings from the tropical and subtropical areas of the Atlantic. When it meets the cooler waters of the Arctic, the current cools, energy is released from the ocean to the atmosphere in the from of heat, and the water sinks and travels back south again, setting up a kind of energy 'conveyor belt'. With an increase in global temperatures, particularly in the polar regions due to a process known as 'Polar Amplification', a substantial amount of colder fresh water is predicted to emerge into the North Atlantic. Normally, you would expect that because it's colder water it would sink, and thus not affect the warmer currents in the surface layers of the ocean. However, fresh water is lighter than salt water, so it stays on top. This would mean that the North Atlantic Drift is essentially swamped with cooler water much further south, energy is not released into the North Atlantic atmosphere, and the temperatures of Western Europe and Britain essentially drop to match those of Moscow, NewFoundland et cetera. The orange trail of water up the coast of North America in the picture below illustrates the warm temperatures of the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Drift system:

[Click to Enlarge]

So while "global warming" as a phenomenon is a valid term overall, the effects of such a process on smaller scale, essentially the effects that you and I would experience in our own reference frame, are more accurately defined as "climate change". As a superficial paradox, global warming often means locally the opposite.

I am a global warming skeptic. Now, before anyone fires up the flame thrower, let me explain that particular statement; it's time for true skeptics to reclaim that word.

Global warming/climate change is happening. There is too much data clearly showing an increase in global temperatures, both atmospheric and sea, to draw any other rational conclusion. To those who deny the very existence of a warming planet, I have two words: Wilful Ignorance.

There is a lot of data that indicates that, over the last 4.5 billion years, the earth has experienced many global warming and cooling cycles. Many variables have been implicated in these processes: changes in the Earth's planetary orbit, rotation and position of the poles; continental drift and its effects on global ocean currents, meteoric impacts and associated atmospheric distortion and of course the 'Greenhouse Effect', where certain gasses in the atmosphere act as insulators of radiant heat - namely carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur compounds and water vapour. The physico-chemical mechanisms by which these particular substances act has also been elucidated and test quite conclusively.

Further, there is a substantial amount of data which supports the "Anthropogenic Global Warming" hypothesis, namely that the current warming trend our planet is facing is the result, at least in part, of an increased emmission of 'greenhouse gasses' due to the processes of large scale agricultural production and industrialisation.

What the three statements above essentially amount to is this:

*Two statements of fact: (1) the Earth is getting warmer, and (2) greenhouse gasses do lead to increased global temperatures (just look at Venus).

*One reasonably strong correlation: Increases in the Earth's temperature correlated with increases in global greenhouse gasses over the last 160 years.

*One reasonably well supported hypothesis: That the increases in the greenhouse gas emissions and ergo global temperatures are the result of human activity, in particular industrialisation.

It is important to realise that, when you strip away the crap, these data are very compelling. They are presented, as they should be, as a scientific rather than political exercise in the very good book: Climate Change 2001, The Scientific Basis. I would highly recommend at least having a browse.

On the face it then, it seems reasonable and rational to at least tentatively conclude that this idea of anthropogenic global warming is something more substantial than just the rantings of "enviro whacker, Bush hating, anti globalisation, gorse munching, chardonay[sic] slurping (unoaked) Lefties". As you can see, the name calling does get quite absurd.

Of course, the situation just isn't this simple. Along with the two statements of fact, the correlation and the hypothesis come many many many confounding variables. It's these confounding variables that limit our ability to gain much confidence in drawing our conclusions about human involvement in global warming.

Firstly: How good is our data? We are discussing incredibly complex global systems - do our research methods do justice to these complexities? Are our data presenting an oversimplification of what is really happening? Are we properly controlling for other variables that affect our results?

Secondly: What do we know about the relationship, if any, between our current warming cycle and other periods of cooling and warming that have occured in the past? Is the global warming trend that we are observing associated with the Pleistocene/Pliocene Ice Age and glaciations? We know that global temperatures have oscillated wildly in the last 2 million years, especially in the last 200 000 years - could it just be that what we see happening is just the tail end of these processes?

Thirdly: How much do we actually understand about the processes of greenhouse gas production? This particular question has become especially pertinent recently, with an article in this week's Nature that shows that methane (PDF available on request as per usual), probably the most potent greenhouse gas, is possibly being produced by plants under aerobic conditions. Prevailing theory in methane geochemistry holds that the majority of methane in the atmosphere is the result of microbial ecology and leaking natural gas. The recent article, however, hypothesises that between 10 and 30% of the 500-600million tonnes of methane that enters the atmosphere annually is produced by plants - the very organisms that are expected to decrease atmospheric greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) .

This research underscores how much more we have to learn. We didn't even know that plants could produce any methane aerobically, let alone on such a scale. If it is supported by subsequent research, it will in the words of Christian Frankenburg "shake the methane community"*.

The myriad variables surrounding global warming, as well as our limited understanding of the processes involved mean that any inferences and conclusions that we draw are forever tentative. Our knowledge of the processes is burdened with caveats that always need to be considered. when we are aware of the variables, we are able to refine our methodologies and theories in an effort to increase the confidence we have in our results and conclusions.

So why, then, am I a skeptic? The term is a dirty one, in the world of global warming. It brings with it undertones of libertarians and neo-conservatives who are not so much skeptical about global warming, in the true sense of the word, but rather madly and rabidly opposed to it. The term has been hijacked, or in many cases abused, by those who seek to add legitimacy to a position that is rationally and reasonably untenable.

An essay on global warming skepticism at RealClimate shows that true skepticism is the most justifiable position to hold: an unwillingness to form a position or support a proposition until that position is supported by evidence. As we've seen, anthropogenic global warming does have at least some evidence in support of it. It is supported by a generally broad consensus of scientific opinion. There are flaws with the model, and they need to be considered and tested before we can increase our confidence in our position.

It seems that this middle ground, this skepticism, has been lost between an increasingly polarised slinging match. On one side we have the global warming deniers who have disguised themselves as reasonable skeptics, in order to either somehow justify and protect a global energy economy that is potentially causing significant environmental damage, or to fall in line with a political idealogy, or in most cases a mix of the two. On the other we have truly hysterical environmentalists that refuse to accept the plain truth that there are problems with the anthropogenic model, who claim that every climate related issue is the result of global warming, and that Bush is actually to blame. As a skeptic I reject that proposition that Hurricane Katrina is the direct result of global warming, or that the increased hurricane season witnessed in the North Atlantic this year is the result of global warming. I reject them not because they are necessarily wrong, but because they are not based on any real evidence.

It is an increasingly unfortunate situation: One half of the divide place their fingers in their ears and refuse to accept the evidence, the other half place their fingers in their ears and refuse to accept the problems with the evidence. Those that do try to be rational and reasonable about the evidence, the real skeptics, are labelled as the enemy by both.

As heartening as it is that the global community is, at least in part, beginning to listen to the more sane voices, our attempts to 'solve' the 'problem' will always be damned by the conditionality of our knowledge. If it does turn out (and it is still a big if, at this point) that plants are a large contributor of atmospheric methane, then the Kyoto Protocol in its current form is a lame duck. This, combined with the irrational polarisation of worldwide opinion on global warming, means that coming up with an alternative will become increasingly more difficult.

I mentioned there were two articles in Nature on global warming. The one about plants and methane understandably got the most press, largely due to the gloating from pseudo-skeptics about the its implications for our understanding of the process.

The other article, in my opinion, has far greater implications. Its about frogs. Or more accurately, its about the increasingly threatened status of a particular genus of frogs, Atelopus (of which one is shown below), and how the loss of many of its species potentially is the result of global warming. It's not that the temperatures themselves are killing the frogs, but rather the effects that changes in temperatures have implications for the pathogens that cause disease in these animals.

[Click to Enlarge]

In Central and Southern America, a single fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has been identified as the main cause of decline for species within the Atelopus genus. What is particularly baffling is that the conditions that normally favour the spread of the fungus (cold, moist climates) are the opposite of current climate trends the so-called "Chytrid-Climate Paradox"

The authors were able to explain why the frogs were disappearing after the hottest years, and why that rate of decline was accelerating, as well propose a mechanism for that decline, thereby resolving the paradox. The paper was able to show to a statistically significant margin that climate change in the area has led to far warmer nights and considerably cooler days due to the insulation-effect of increasing cloud cover. This stabilisation of the climate, it seems, is preventing a thermal 'refuge' for the frogs, where hot and cold extremes suppress the disease causing abilities of the fungus.

Even more worrying is the data that shows these effects are the greatest at the altitudinal level where the biodiversity of the frogs is the highest, essentially forming an even greater threat to biodiversity.

The frog example is pertinent because it underscores the potential of global warming and climate change to have far-reaching effects on biodiversity, epidemiology and disease and regional eco-systems. It's not just the frogs that are potentially being 'diseased' out by global warming: the nematode parasite of arctic musk oxen is now, thanks to warmer temperatures, able to reproduce in 1 instead of 2 years, throwing the entire parasite-host system out of kilter. The Pine Beetle, which carries the pine blister rust between trees, is also growing and reproducing in half the time.

The global warming phenomenon has fundamental implications for global ecosystems, and not just through the direct effect of changing temperatures on organisms, but also on the relationships between organisms from all niches within those systems. Whether or not humans are the cause of the warming, and a reasonable interpretation of the evidence suggests we at least in part could be, we need to wake up quickly to these implications: the spread of diseases like malaria and cholera could be affected, as well as many bacterial, fungal and protozoan diseases that infect our livestock and crops.

Even more urgent, however, is the need for a resurgence in the true global warming skeptic: a body of people other than scientists who base their convictions on the evidence. The pundits who either ignore the evidence altogether, or positively leak hysteria into every climate related event are not helping. They are producing too much noise, masking the message that we all need to start hearing.*Science Vol 311 (13 January 2006):p159

Friday, January 13, 2006

Food For Thought

News just in: the Philosophy Department at Massey University has teamed up with the Food Science Department to develop the world's first ontological margarine. It will be marketed under the name "I can't Believe it's Not!"

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

What's up, pussy cat? (Publications)

One of the great things about being a University student in the 21st Century is remote access from home to any number of Journals via the University's licence. Normally subscriptions to magazines like Nature and Science cost between USD160 and USD200 a year, for your basic print edition, so it's just great to be able to log in from home, download any number of PDFs and read them at your own leisure.

It's unfortunate that both of these magazines, indeed, many scientific publications, are not made freely available over the internet. I understand the commercial reasons, of course, but there's just something about science that I think means it should be available to everyone, everywhere. As a regular kete were column, I'll talk about some of the absolutely marvellous articles that are printed in at least those two magazines, as well as others that take my fancy from time to time. If any of our readers are interested in having a look at the articles, just leave a comment, or send us an email, and I'll happily forward you the PDF.

Nature this week has a great piece on the Afar region in Ethiopia, which has been one of the key areas for early human (hominid) fossils. The famous "Lucy" was discovered in the Afar region, and this is reflected in the scientific name for her species Australopithecus afarensis, literally "Southern ape-man of the Afar".

Teams have been working in the Afar, which is part of the Great Rift Valley, for many decades now. The area represents a section of the continental crust where the Nubian (to the west) and Somalian (to the east) sections of the African tectonic plate are gradually pulling apart, leading to massive subsidence and geological depressions. The exposure of many strata provides an exceptional opportunity for the 'freeing' of many fossils through a number of sediments, especially during seasonal rains, causing the whole of the rift valley, right through as far south as Mozambique, to be the key to reconstructing early hominids and their ecology. Most of the oldest hominid fossils are found in the Great Rift Valley, including the earliest representative of our own species, Homo sapiens, in the Afar.

The best article of the week, though, is in Science, and it's about the evolution of modern cats. And by modern cats, they dont just mean your moggy, but all modern cats, belonging to the Felidae family.

The cat family are the most successful family belonging to the Carnivora family, occupying every continent in the world except Antarctica. In terms of the study of evolution, though, everyone seems to have this thing for dogs. This isn't entirely surprising, or even unjustified; the single subspecies of wolf Canis lupis familiaris, that we commonly refer to as the domestic dog, represents a massive amount of diversity within a single taxonomic group, produced solely by the process of artificial selection.

But the dog is just one species, and when you look at the whole Canidae family, it really is nothing compared to the cats.

Despite being so well known, the Felidae have remained somewhat of a mystery in terms of their origins, as well as the internal relationships between members of the family: who is more closely related to who? How did they get where they are?

Researchers from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland did a whole raft of genetic analysis using X chromosomes, Y chromosomes, Autosomes (non-sex chromosomes) and Mitochondrial DNA from 37 living species of cats, including some (marbled cat, serval, pallas cat, and rusty spotted cat) for whom no certain place had been found in the cat family tree. The results are quite remarkeable.

[Click to enlarge]

The figure shows the resultant phylogenetic tree for all 37 species of cats. There are some very interesting points to take away from it:

Firstly, after initial divergence from the last common felid ancestor of the Panthera lineage, which would eventually give rise to todays 'Great' or 'Roaring' Cats, some 10.8 million years ago, the Felidae underwent an extremely rapid radiation; within 4 million years, all eight modern cat lineages had successfully emerged and become established.

Secondly, all four of the previous enigmatic cat species are now, quite confidently, placed within the right group: the marbled cat with the Bay Cat lineage, which diverged from other cats very soon (just over a million years) after the Panthera group; the serval with the Caracal lineage of Africa; the pallas and rusty spotted cat with the Leopard Cat lineage.

Thirdly, the closest living relative of the Felidae is shown to be the Linsang, which were originally thought to resemble cats due to convergent evolution. However, it may actually be that some of the resemblances are in fact due to common descent

Fourthly, some very odd close relationships are found between some lineages which, on the face of it, should look to be much more distantly related. For example, for many years, it was thought that the Puma lineage and the Lynx lineage were sister taxa, that is, that the two lineages were more closely related to each other than either were to any of the six other cat lineages. Well, it now looks like this may not be true: the Puma looks to be more closely related to the lineage that led to our beloved moggy than it is to the Lynx.

Have a look more closely at the Puma lineage, and you may be surprised: the Cheetah is found in this group! This means that the Cheetah, found in the Serengeti plains of eastern Africa is more closely related to the Puma of the North American Rockies than it is to the other African cats, the Leopard and the Lion. Similarly, the Puma is more closely related to the Cheetah than it is to the Jaguar of South America.

This also means that the Cheetah is more closely related to your family cat than it is to any other big cat. Evolution sure does work in wonderful ways.

So this genetic discovery leads to a bit of problem: how did these species get to where they are now, given where they came from and who they are related to? How did the Cheetah and Puma get to where they are, given that they're not as closely related to other species within the same geographical area?

The researchers did some biogeographical modelling of possible migrations throughout the world, correlated with changes in sea-levels during periods of global warming and cooling, shown in Figure 2 below.

[Click to enlarge]

Quite fortuitously, it would seem, the putative migrations match, chronologically, the hypothesised time periods when the 8 lineages split from each other. It's quite complex and would take a lot of time to explain, but I'm sure you'll work it out from the graphic.

I love this kind of work. It's great to see genetic research being used with biogeographical modelling to show past movements of organisms as they arise in evolutionary time. Even more exciting is the implications the results have on our understanding of evolutionary processes themselves - how such a diverse range of animals as the cats can be related to each other in ways that seem both improbable, in the case of the pumas and the cats, and geographically impossible, in the case of pumas and cheetahs.

From so simple a beginning indeed.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Why can't we be friends?

Paying the rent

So, twenty 06 begins. Time for some new projects, like this one...

According to the SST, the Real Estate Institute is helping landlords with a database to blacklist tenants. Rental contracts used by property managers apparently include a clause that allows information to be added to the database, so its all legal. Theoretically, potential tenants could just delete that clause by hand, but the landlord might then prefer to rent the property to someone less troublesome.

Any randomly selected bit of information in the database might be accurate but its hard to tell for sure. Tenants can check their entry for accuracy, though the checking process seems to either cost $15 or involve waiting 2 weeks. So basically, if your landlord gets vindictive, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up collecting negative press in the database, you probably won’t even know about it until after you start finding it tough to get another rental, and then it’ll cost you to get it put right. This kind of thing led the NSW government to regulate the databases, including through fines for malicious use by rental agents with a grudge.

Tenancy databases are an answer to an important question: how can an honest landlord tell whether her potential tenant is also honest? Suppose I’m prone to defaulting on my rent. If we’re discussing a rental agreement, why should I tell you that? And if I don’t tell, how will you know? There is a real asymmetry of information between us.

Of course, it goes both ways. A nightmare landlord is big trouble for any tenant that blunders into their clutches, and its just as hard to spot them coming. Tenants don’t have a landlord blacklist though, so its harder for them to spot bad deals when they turn up. In fact, tenants look to be pretty much on their own in such matters.

There is a Tenants’ Protection Association, but they came across in the SST as being pretty useless. They know of bad landlords apparently, but will not publish a list because that would create ‘bad faith’. More constructive methods are preferred and if a tenant queried a bad landlord they would ‘suggest the renter go elsewhere’.

Maybe they were misquoted or something. Its pretty hard to imagine what could be more constructive for the interests of tenants than getting good information to them. A landlord blacklist would be a preventative measure; it would help people avoid conflict in the first place.

The information problems in rental markets suggest that some kind of blacklist makes sense, for tenants and landlords. Properly designed, such a thing could help the market work better. It should be more subtle than a simple blacklist, closer to a full reputation system that allows both sides of the market record and view ratings from previous counter-parties to their deals. The systems used on auction sites are the obvious starting point.

Yeah right, but how could that happen? Well, the Real Estate Institute is the obvious funder of a proper system, but they seem at present to not recognise any role in helping the buying side of the rental markets. They’d probably see things differently if Tenants Protection was to find a way to publish the views of tenants about landlords and their properties.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Come in, Make yourselves at Home.

According to Mäori creation mythology, Täne ascended the twelve heavens and came back to mankind with the three baskets of knowledge, or kete were. These baskets were kete-aronui, holding all knowledge to help mankind, kete-tuauri, the knowledge of the spiritual world and kete-tuatea or knowledge of evil.

When developing this blog, we wanted something different; something that wasn't a constant slinging match between personalities and political ideologies. The anonymity and the pseudonymity that comes with a virtual world has often times led to the eclipsing of the benefits that such a world establishes. Rather than free exchange of ideas, in many cases we descend to personal battles. Rather than instant and rapid dialogue tempered by respect, there is often character assassination. Rather than discussions about ideas, there is the default strategy to simply box those that don't share your position as a moonbat or imperialist or other such label du jour. Don't assume that the contributors here are somehow implying that we are above or immune to such behaviour. We just don't want it to be like that. If you find us doing it, please let us know.

So what can you expect from us and this blog?

Well, firstly, this will be a blog about ideas. We aren't particularly interested in talking in great depth about ourselves, about what we did today or what kind of cereal we had for breakfast. If you look on the sidebar to your left, you will find plenty of blogs that have that as their modus operandi. The contributors all have areas of interest: John in economics, Paul in religion, art and philosophy, Xavier in science, Moxie in education and governance issues and Katie in international and national politics. Over the course of the next while other contributors may be joining us to talk about the things they're interested in.

While we will at times be waxing political, this blog is not partisan. Some of us are, or have been, involved in one political party or t'other at some point, but we will not be discussing that here. Again, if you want a partisan blog, skim to left. There are plenty there.

We're not interested in blog wars, the evils of the MSM, Hayley Westenra's pornographic potential or even...conceptual art projects. Yes, some of us learned our lesson on that one. We are not here to label anyone moonbats, loonie lefties, rich capitalists, democruds, lazy students or selfish rightwingers, and we would appreciate the same. We are here, hopefully, to provide a forum about stuff that's happening, things that are going on, and our thoughts about them. Even more hopefully to provide a forum for your thoughts about them too.

If you find something that interests you, please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions. We want to hear what you think, whether you agree or disagree with our position on the matters. Please remember, though, to treat us and other commenters with respect. We'll try our best to reciprocate and not be hypocrites. We're not going to ban you or block you or moderate comments if you act like a pillock. However, just keep in mind that you are here by the goodwill of the operators of the blog, as all blogs operate, and that your behaviour isn't welcome.

If you want us to link to you, we will be happy to do so if you can reciprocate.

Enjoy your stay,
The kete were team.