Sunday, December 23, 2007

Whaling: credit to Rudd?

The glib summary of recent events in whaling goes as follows: the Australian government protested and planned to closely monitor Japan's intended humpback whale slaughter. Japan backed down, and announced that in the light of international protest - particularly Australia's - it would not go through with plans to kill 50 humpbacks this season.

There's actually several odd meanderings through this saga; the headline information does not give the full story.

First, kudos does have to go to the new government for taking the stand. It's more than the previous Liberal government did - and in fact the hopelessly fractured opposition remnants seem to be yet divided. On the one hand, Liberal leader Brendon Nelson had warned that the government plans endangered Australia's relationship with Japan; on the other hand, Liberal environment spokesman Greg Hunt had been calling for PM Rudd to do more. Nelson's comments were rendered particularly ironic when Japan's backdown announcement cited the desire to avoid harming relationships with Australia.

However, this may be a pyrrhic victory, for two reasons.

First, on BBC radio I heard from a Japanese activist/journalist. She said that Japan didn't currently have the capacity to kill and process 50 humpback whales, so the announced backdown may have been a way to make political mileage out of this situation. On the other hand, they may have been using the initially mooted humpback slaughter as an ambit, always intending to back away so as to lessen the heat on their other activities - the kill of 950 minke and 50 fin whales.

Second is that planned slaughter of fin whales, an endangered species that may number as low as 5000 in the Southern Ocean.

Nobody can seriously believe Japan's whale kill has any scientific merit. Other BBC reports mentioned a) the profusion of whalemeat in Japanese supermarkets; b) the fact that Japanese scientists weren't publishing any peer-reviewed literature (over the past 20 years of "scientific research" slaughter), and c) a Japanese government spokesman who admitted that the "scientific" kill quota's sole intention was to count the number of whales out there. In this latter report, the BBC announcer was incredulous that they had to kill to find out the numbers (that there were); the spokesman made some bizarre claims about needing to kill them to get their ears, but couldn't put forward a coherent reason for needing the ears.

Outcomes count. Good to see we now have a government prepared to do something.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Human evolution is accelerating?

I take the opportunity to make brief mention here of a study from the International HapMap Project (their website here).

I've read rather different takes on their claim that human evolution is speeding up. I have in front of me one article from the New Scientist, and another from the Sydney Morning Herald (sourced from the Guardian).

They quote different authors of the same study, published in the Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences, whose gist is this acceleration.

The New Scientist version (which I would trust more) quotes 1800 genes (7% of the human genome) as having changed through natural selection in the past 50,000 years. Examples of changes given (variously by the reports) include resistance to colder climates and to some diseases, and lactose tolerance into adulthood - for some.

The Herald/Guardian report at least quotes some dissenting views, which tend to revolve around the notion that our manipulation of environment (including built environment and technology) have now sheltered us from the effects of natural selection.

I'm not an expert in genetics, but I remain skeptical, largely for the reason above, but also because it sounds to me (at this stage in my readings) so damn counterintuitive.

One of the authors, paleoanthropologist John Hawks, has at least one blog - possibly several - and he writes here on this study. Sounds like that's preliminary, with more to come.

I'm happy to be proven wrong. There is undoubtedly some philosophical/epistemological debate around this.

11-Aug-09 Update: I would note that recent readings suggest humans are not likely to be up for much further evolution - simply because we mould our own environment, and we are so numerous. Unless there is some global environmental disaster to cause a genetic 'bottleneck', any mutations will get lost in the mix, and will not in any case experience selection specifically for survival.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nippers at Coogee Beach

A letter in today's Herald:

What a wonderful delight to be down on Coogee beach this morning for nippers with my six-year-old daughter.
The excitement of 120 children in that age group screaming with delight as the most comical Santa waited for the right wave to surf on to the beach in his inflatable rescue boat had to be seen to be believed - although it was probably heard as far away as the North Pole. It is difficult to imagine a more quintessential Australian scene.
The whole nippers experience is fantastic for kids - from iconic activities such as flag races, to learning more about water safety as the children get older.
It is so much more productive and fun than sitting on the couch watching cartoons because mum and dad want a sleep in. Not surprisingly there is barely an overweight child involved - and they all had a ball.
James Rosenberg Randwick

My six-year-old daughter was in that same crowd. However, at the time I was looking after my five-year-old (pictured above) in his group; they sure went wild when they saw Santa arrive from the sea, standing up on a rubber dinghy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Evolution: Arthropods

In reading Wonderful Life, Gould's book on the Cambrian explosion (some of the earliest multicellular life forms), I find Gould spending much of his time dwelling on arthropods. It's worth spending time on them, as that phylum (one step below Kingdom - Animal) constitutes most animals in the world: insects spiders and crustaceans in particular.

At first they look quite alien close up, but after a while, patterns emerge. And believe me, there are more alien-looking lifeforms around (eg the Cambrian creatures Opabinia or Hallucigenia). You can get used to arthropods...

The prototypic body is constructed of a number of repeated segments. However, from that basic design, differentiation evolves. Typically, over time, the segments may become fused; further, different segments evolve different functionality - the head in particular, as well as the tail. Each segment begins with a pair of jointed appendages, one on each side of the segment. The appendages are jointed - arthropod means "jointed foot". Each appendage of the prototype is biramous - meaning each has two branches! - typically a leg for walking and a gill. However, this pattern can modify over evolutionary time, leaving at least some of the legs uniramous.
Arthropods have exoskeletons - that is, the skeleton is on the outside - although not what you'd consider bone.
The key to understanding them is how the segments fuse differently, how the appendages specialise, and how the exoskeleton can modify.
Often the segments are fused into three: for example, the head, thorax and abdomen of insects. Typically, the head is composed of several fused segments, and the attached appendages specialise, for example, as antennae or for feeding. With spiders, for example, the actual legs are on the head; in the posterior the walking legs have disappeared, and the gills have modified into oxygen-breathers.
Frequently, there are two pairs of appendages before the mouth and three after. Sometimes (eg in crabs) a carapace has formed over the body; sometimes that carapace is divided - bivalve.
The five major kinds are:
1. Trilobites: extinct marine creatures with three lobes across, and numerous segments
2. Chelicerates: spiders, mites and scorpions
3. Myriapods: centipedes and millipedes
4. Hexapods: mainly insects, typically six legs. By far the most numerous arthropods, with millions of species. Wikipedia aligns them with crustaceans, although Gould united Myriapods and Hexapods as 'Uniramia'
5. Crustaceas: mainly marine, mainly biramous; includes lobsters, crabs, barnacles, and many more.
Although this may seem an odd group, there are enough similarities to unites them; enough to posit a common ancestor.
Gould, Stephen Jay (1989): Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Penguin, London.
Wikipedia: Arthropod (extracted 12-Dec-2007)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Evolution: On Stephen Jay Gould

For over 25 years from 1974, Stephen Jay Gould produced an essay for every edition of the magazine Natural History. A number of these were subsequently re-edited and produced in book form. In his tenth and last book of collected essays, I Have Landed, Stephen Jay Gould explicitly classified (as is his wont) his particular approach to essay writing.

From the beginning, he specifically chose to write for the general (non-technical) reader while avoiding conceptual simplification. This is significant, something few academics do. It exposes an important amount of detail of his subject, evolution, in a way that is approachable for all, yet permits analytical depth.

He further characterises his own writing as intellectual puzzle-solving, although I would say that much of the time he simply elaborates on a specific issue in evolution, worrying the finer detail. He also attempts to posit his treatises within a humanistic context - which is to say he often places the particular point in a wider human context of how scientific discoveries are wrought, and how social context interacts with those discoveries.

Yet most important is his treatment of finer concepts of natural history in non-jargon terms, such that any intelligent reader can see meaning without (indepth) training in the specific science.

I came to his writing by chance, one in a pile of library books once I was already delving into the subject. And his approach supercharged my enthusiasm.

Although he writes for the lay reader, if there is to be active pursuit there is no escaping the necessity to engage in background reading. Biology is the first place to start; included is genetics, paleontology, geology, and some anthropology, amongst other subjects.

It is also helpful to read in parallel. I am currently in the middle of his book Wonderful Life, a history and exposition of scientific discovery of the Cambrian era, close to the beginning of the emergence of modern animal forms. It is certainly a book of wonder, making an engaging narrative of a particularly dry subject like the classification of arthropods ( easily the largest grouping of animals, which includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, trilobites and others). The name arthropod, by the way, refers to jointed legs; the unifying feature is multiple body sections (some fused together in later evolution) with pairs of legs for each section.

However, where Gould sets forth four general groups of arthropods, the consensus-driven Wikipedia lists five - dividing uniramia into hexapods (insects) and myriapods (millipedes and centipedes), and placing the latter group closer to crustacean arthropods.

Part of the problem here is often that evolutionary biology is, well, an evolving subject, as much today as it ever has been, especially with the advent of genetic analysis.

Wonderful Life was written in 1989. A few scant years later, revision had already overtaken the work. A good example is the species Hallucigenia. In one of his essay subsequent to that book, Gould noted that that species had always been portrayed upside down - even as recently as his encompassing book on the matter.

So read a variety of works and authors on the subject - particularly the very recent. Yet having said that, I would be happy to own the full set of his collected works. The concepts are an intellectual challenge and a learning experience, and the books make a very enjoyable read.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Australia's new female Prime Minister

Australia's first female Prime Minister is Julia Gillard.

She's acting PM for a couple of days while Kevin Rudd is at the Bali climate change conference.

Good on her. Hope she gets the job full time.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rudd's no-win horns of dilemma

I can't see him getting out of this with honour substantially intact.

Kevin Rudd's been Prime Minister for a week, and he's faced with two no-win situations.

First, climate change - which I mentioned a couple of days ago. He has indicated his commitment to making headway on emission control, but in the short to medium term, this means substantial pain, since significant industrial restructure is needed.

The way through is tricky and calls for much intelligent planning, and some hard work. That is, formulating a set of strategies (including various incentives and disincentives) that aren't too disruptive in the short term - ie don't savage the government in the next electoral cycle - but lay the groundwork for a substantially changed economy.

There are signs that he remains strongly concerned with tackling climate change. A few days ago he warned that climate change posed a significant threat to agricultural production. This on the back of an ABARE* report that highlighted the decreases in agricultural output that climate change would bring.

However, this also runs up against Rudd's other dilemma: balancing his stated number one objective - keeping inflation under control - against his regrettable election promise of substantial tax cuts.

There will surely be the temptation to slow down on rolling back the Liberals' hated Industrial Relations legislation. This issue now represents a lever of economic control, which Rudd can choose how to operate. Unfortunately. For those on the receiving end.

Ideally, by 2010 we would see an economy in transition, the tax cuts directed (somehow) to productive use for other purposes, and relatively favourable working conditions for those with weaker industrial bargaining power.

One can only hope.

*ABARE: The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics

Friday, December 07, 2007

Autism: Fever effect

Autism is a spectrum disorder. That is, there are autistic people who barely function; then there are those who are "high functioning" - and can manage an independent life. (At least) some high functioning autistics demonstrate superior calculating or memory skills. In previous posts on the subject, I've illustrated how the brain can just... well... be wired differently.

NPR reports on the fever effect: some (not all) autistic children that may be uncontrollable, prone to tantrums and self-harm most of the time, can demonstrate relative lucidity when they have a fever.

Interesting, when you consider that "feverish" people are traditionally seen to demonstrate less lucidity. Again, there are a number of possible suggestions about how autism affects the brain, how fever affects the brain, and how the two interact. This demonstrates how much we have yet to learn about brain functioning.

The full article in the link above gives useful detail on this fever effect.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Climate Change conference: Rudd's hard call

The current Climate Change conference in Bali would test anyone's mettle.

This year's IPCC reports demonstrate the problem is more urgent than previously acknowledged, and carbon emission targets need to be more stringent.

The developed world has four big issues that sound simple, yet are nigh on intractable politically.

First, agreement on targets for developed countries. The European Union recognises the need for greater urgency, and is aiming for 25% to 40% emission reductions by 2020. New Zealand is in line, but the US, Canada, and Japan are likely holdouts. Australia's delegation signalled that it supported that goal. However, PM Kevin Rudd subsequently hedged, saying he will "take advice on whether the targets are workable".

Second, the industrial world has a clear responsibility to support the developing world in meeting targets. The current problem is almost entirely due to the rich nations, both in their industrialisation, and in their decimation of their own wilderness. And from a letter in today's Herald:
"Appealing to self-interest alone will fail as the countries with the best capacity to bring about change face proportionately fewer effects from climate change and have greater capacity to adapt than the countries that are the smallest polluters." - Simon Biddle

So, the challenge lies specifically with the rich countries: in industrial restructuring, and in supporting others with technology and money. I am quite confident political will is going to be thin on the ground. Except with the EU and New Zealand.

Third, China. China has to agree to real emission goals, and this is going to be hard. To make any sense at all, they need to cut emissions, however they can cogently argue that they are not properly industrialised yet, and so should not cut, or should be treated as a developing country. The pragmatic solution lies in treating them as a special case, with a bit of both in the mix.

Fourth, the US. Bush will absolutely remain a holdout, and will only agree to tokenism. That is, aspirational but not real goals. Two of Bush's delegates to the conference (mentioned here) are James Connaughton, one-time energy-sector lobbyist, and current stooge in the Council on Environmental Quality, and Paula Dobriansky, neo-conservative Under Secretary of State and staunch defender of the US's refusal to ratify Kyoto.

What chance do we have? What will Australia do, now that we are no longer as firmly glued to US policy as we were under John Howard?

Rudd is caught in a bind. His election campaign presented two principles that are apparently diametrically opposed: commitment to climate change, and economic [fiscal] conservatism. Quite a big test so soon after taking the reins.

There is one clear answer to that, as demonstrated by the Stern Review: the cost of action is far less than the cost of inaction.

I'm quite pessimistic about seeing an appropriate outcome. It is clear that Stern will be treated as a Cassandra - correct but unheeded. But... there remains hope. We still have the leadership of the EU to look to: I believe they are capable of forging ahead, and waiting for the world to catch up.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Two different meanings for "evolution"

The popular understanding of the term 'evolution' may be correct, but it is not the same as the biological term.

Stephen Jay Gould would have it that we hold in our minds two different sets of concepts when we use the term evolution.

The original use, and the prevailing one in general use, is as a synonym for predictable progress to an inevitable end. Gould illustrates this with quotes from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, discussing star formation. In describing the process, the term evolution is used as if the process, once it kicks into gear, is entirely deterministic - that is, given one set of input factors, the outcome is pretty much pre-ordained. And this is correct; and such determinism underpinned my years of physics training - notwithstanding different rules applying at the extremes, such as quantum levels.

According to Gould, Darwin largely shied away from use of the term, because of this determinism. There are two problems here: biological evolution lacks specific direction and predictability. Yes, it is non-deterministic.

Direction: fit to environment is the key. We can be misled into thinking that we are the pinnacle of evolution, and so all evolution is towards increasing complexity. Gould discusses a type of parasite called dicyemids, that live in the renal organs of squids and octopi. There had been much debate over whether these creatures had always been primitive, or whether they had shed functionality to adapt to their environment, simplifying in the process to little more than feeding and reproduction functions. In 1999, Kobayashi, Furuya amd Holland presented genetic evidence in Nature magazine to demonstrate dicyemids had in fact descended from more complex creatures, in the process becoming incredibly simplified. Evolution is not necessarily about increasing complexity. Progress can be in any direction appropriate to the needs of the environment.

Predictability: Darwin's "descent with modification" occurred, as Gregor Mendel demonstrated in the 19th century, via random genetic mutation. In a static environment, a species' genetic outliers are disfavoured; in a changing environment, those random outliers can be better equipped to handle the changes. Gould's example here is an elephant in Siberia: when the climate turns cold, those elephants in successive generations that are hairier are more favoured to survive.

However, this randomness is such that, were history to be replayed, there is no guarantee that the changes wouldn't play out in a different way. There is no promise of predictability, since results are entirely dependent on what mutations eventuate - and whether the bearers of the altered genes survive whatever mishaps and chance comes their way.

All this is not to deny that increasing complexity has at times been a definite trend in the planet's history. Increased complexity be a survival advantage. Further, evolution has to a significant extent been an "arms race" between predator and prey, between competitors for resources. Arsenal improvements, including lung capacity, musculature, size (in both directions) and functionality have always aided genetic longevity.

It's barely worth trying to eliminate concepts of determinism and direction from popular understanding of the word 'evolution'. But it suffices to understand the different uses in the different contexts.

Summarised from:
Gould, Stephen Jay (2002): What Does The Dreaded "E" Word Mean Anyway? in I Have Landed, Jonathan Cape, London.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Australia is now honest on Kyoto

Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Australia's Prime Minister today.

He'll now be off to the Bali Climate Change conference with new Climate Change minister Penny Wong. The stakes are higher than ever, the urgency greater.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

New Sydney Town Plaza - new City

This in the Herald today: I'd heard the council was buying up the Woolworths Building - or already owned it. They should be close to owning that whole block, for which there had been talk for a while of clearing it. Costly use of a whole city block. Especially if it becomes as lifeless as Martin Place twilights and weekends. But if they can ensure that it is well-used, there's wonderful potential. As a bonus (not a negative) it would throttle traffic on George St. Discourage cars from the city. And that can bring adjacent precincts - eg alongside Queen Victoria Building - to life.

Can work well - if done right. Needs good trams though. (Suggest closing Market around State Theatre for coup de grace.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Evolution: Digging up the past

The book Digging Up The Past (Paul Willis and Abbie Thomas) is a survey of Australia's chief paleontological sites, with a bit of history thrown in. For this, it is a very worthwhile book; the following thoughts emerge.

1) Digging for fossils is not an enviable occupation, despite the glorifying fiction.
Mostly, it seems to largely amount to volunteers laboriously toiling in unpleasant conditions (in Australia at least), only to have someone else identify and name the results of your ardure.

2) How did Australia get so dry? It's not what you think.
Australia once had much more forest and grassland. But it moved north, separating from Antarctica and South America. New Guinea appeared from the sea, and rose - whether through tectonics or volcanic activity. Willis/Thomas state that the very appearance of NG prevented the ameliorating monsoonal rains from the north to penetrate with the necessary strength and frequency.

3) Convergent evolution is an ongoing debate.
Although descriptive passages are probably intended to evoke rather than draw genetic equivalences, Willis/Thomas suggest quite a lot of convergent evolution of types of marsupials that have [been described as having] strong resemblances to placentals elsewhere.
a) There's pause for thought on similar environmental niches [with a macro consistency] can mould common directions. But it must be largely dependent on the stage of development of plant life (which is an environmental determinant for animals), not to say the stage of development of the planet as a whole, including (say) oxygen levels, but excluding cyclical variables such as temperature, ocean levels, etc.
b) the flourishing of mammals (and within that, placentals vs marsupials) may be seen to mirror the great diversification of dinosaurs, albeit over a shorter time.
In other words, there seems to be much pattern-forming, and similarities within those patterns.
c) Humans have fully disrupted this progression/cycle mix - for the entire length of their stay on this planet, at least. One can easily speculate that, were humans to disappear - after having caused this major extinction event - yet another life form would diversify over the planet.

4) The study of marsupials can provide some particular insights into evolution overall, particularly vis-a-vis placentals.

5) Consider the apparently ungainly tree kangaroo (p286). Its ancestor is described as being more so. But again, that is only in our eyes, and all this is part of the process of adaption. For any given environmental niche, over the time that that niche was stable, the extant species would have been ipso facto successful.

6) Herbivore size (p289): The rule of thumb given is that the sparser the food, the larger the species needs to be to eke out survival.

These are just some thoughts arising from the book; this is not intended to be a review. The value in the book lies in the collation of Australian sites of paleontological significance, and the revealing of Australia as a key destination for an understanding of the history of evolution.

Willis, Paul and Thomas, Abbie (2004): Digging Up Deep Time, ABC, Sydney.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Climate Change and the new government

Ministers in the new government have been announced today.

First, there are now two Environment ministries. Peter Garrett (ex-Midnight Oil singer) retains his lead portfolio, but Penny Wong has been given Water and Climate Change. It’s possible to read this several ways – for example, maybe Climate Change has been relegated to a junior ministry, or maybe there’s that much work to put into it. Wong is apparently from a Left faction of Labor, which might be good or bad too. Good, if she will thus be more likely to have the commitment to the issue, or bad that the Left have less power (voice) than the right in the new government. The Australian (formerly the Government Gazette, now somewhat rudderless) paints this situation as sidelining Garrett, although doesn’t specifically back up this assertion in the copy.

Wong’s off with Rudd to the Bali conference.

Another snippet of news today mentions that plans for future coal power stations are likely to be put on hold because of the government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. This from the National Generators Forum. Good news for investment in clean technologies. Australia has plenty of sun to spare.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Behind the puffing and blowing on IR reform

Everyone in politics seems to have something to say about the reform of Howard's unpopular industrial relations laws. For three reasons, all to do with positioning.

On the one hand, there's the same game that happens after every election: the word 'mandate' is bandied about. As Prime Minister elect, Kevin Rudd says he has a mandate, and the reform should simply be passed. Various Liberals agree with him. On the other hand, Liberals such as Nick Minchen and Wilson Tuckey are defending the shards of Howard's legacy.

This, simply because Labor doesn't have a Senate majority. The Liberals do, and will keep it until July 2008, when the new wave of Senators takes office. Thence, it's all horsetrading with the Greens, Steve Fielding, and Nick Xenophon. Nick says he's happy to work with anyone, but that's just because he's angling for wooing from Labor.

The reason the Liberals are even playing the Mandate game is because there is now a fundamental issue at stake: the future of the Liberal Party. Without control of any State governments, there is no great claim to leadership left. It's not (just) about leadership of the Federal parliamentarians, it's about future philosophical direction. This matters particularly because the Liberals are a sometimes ragtag agglomeration of conservatives, right wingers, and "small-L liberals". In recent years, Howard's conservatism has dominated, although factionally the right (who are frequently, but not always, conservative) has dominated.

The inclusion of genuine liberals in a right-of-centre party is rather a peculiarity of Australia's history, not often repeated around the world. It could be said that this provides one of the strengths of Australian politics - maybe even a bastion of the Australian national character. That is, that aspects of tolerance - akin to social progressiveness - pervade both sides of politics, to one degree or another. (And then there's the right wing of the Labor Party...)

That is, if you go with the paradigm of western liberalism... there's not much else on tap anyway.

So various Liberals, in jockeying for position, are running up their banners for ideological leadership at the same time. And in the main it's the Liberal wets that are ready to shuck WorkChoices: Malcolm Turnbull, Chris Pyne, etc. Even Abbott the conservative is jumping off the WorkChoices bandwagon, although one has to wonder whether this is opportunistic or quixotic, as he is definitely no departure from Howard.

Nor is Minchen, who has clearly raised his flag. He and Abbott would single-handedly hold up the hard right of the party.

So when a Liberal talks about the merits of defending WorkChoices or not, the motivation could be to do with their nature, their leadership aspirations, or their ideological aspirations.

For many, there is strong temptation to repudiate Howardism, since the public just did. Whether they do or not depends on who ends up leading, and whether they can counter the traditional strength of the party's right.

Unfortunately, politics in Australia is not fully mirror-imaged. For a long time, the right wing of both sides has been the strongest.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Kevin Rudd comes from a diplomat background, so it's no surprise he said that he talked to the US President, the UK Prime Minister, and the Indonesian President in his first 24 hours as Prime Minister. It's an unequivocal call of direction, which clarity of engagement - the message good or bad aside - bodes well for Australia's international reputation.

Peter Costello was haunted by Keating's ghost, which gave him a lesson on the seizing of power from the backbench, after an agreement reneged: Don't do it. Unfortunately, there's a greater message in those who do it, and ignore prophesy.

The presidential trend in campaigning may not get any better. I suspect it's related to the trend I mentioned a few days ago, to a less partisan electorate over the past 40 years.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ten post-election thoughts

1.We are fortunate to see the end of a government that was mean-spirited, divisive, and dishonest.

2. Contrary to earlier signs, the green vote rather collapsed. Third-party votes tend to suffer at a change in government, simply because part of the electorate wants the change, and another part tries to shore up their end.

3. Australia will now sign Kyoto. It's symbolic, but an important symbolism.

4. I saw no portentiously statesmanlike speeches on the night. That's a shame. Paul Keating will be missed, in this respect.

5. The first reason John Howard lost was because of the reviled industrial relations laws - the so-called WorkChoices. After the 1994 election, he was surprised to find himself with a Senate majority, so didn't need to negotiate legislation through. He got cocky, and brought a raft of unfair laws. Early this year, when he smelled doom, he ameliorated some of the excesses - but it was too late, and the whole pile stank by then. Surprise, surprise, employers had had a field day, and there was a monstrous backlog of complaints that came nowhere close to clearing.

6. The second reason John Howard lost was because he dragged out the election campaign, and inevitably the Reserve Bank raised interest rates. The signs were clear; he could have had the campaign over with by then. The decision on campaign timing was a surprising mistake for such a wily politician.

7. The third reason Howard lost was because he didn't retire from the prime ministership earlier. This was NOT surprising: his sole desire had always been to be Prime Minister, and he wasn't going to give up without a fight.

8. It's likely Kevin Rudd will have at least two terms as Prime Minister. Australia doesn't turf out a government unless it makes mistakes. He's not likely to. His perceived faults are autocracy and brittleness, but these are not present in such measure as to strongly tip the balance. One can only hope all of the front bench grows in the job.

9. The Liberal party will improve in some respects. The two prime leadership aspirants, Costello and Turnbull, are far more progressive than Howard ever was. However, both Costello and Turnbull are not widely liked - at this point. Turnbull is far, far more autocratic than Rudd - not to mention arrogant - so if he succeeds, he could easily doom the Liberals to even longer in the wilderness.

10. Let it never be said that there's no difference between the two sides of politics. Although they have drifted closer together in recent years, there is an important humanity in the left that is lacking in the right, and those who couldn't see it coming in 1996 will have a better appreciation of that now.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Election: The people speak

From the Poll Bludger web site :

NOT SO MAD MAX Says: November 24th, 2007 at 4:00 am...We can regain our soul, our heart and our Country’s self respect.

Follow the Preferences Says: November 24th, 2007 at 6:30 am ...The new issue is of course climate change and The Greens Have total Credibility in this issue, They are being swamped by thousands of highly committed intelligent and educated people and will continue to improve. Their vote in this election will be the second story and will force the ALP to take Global Warming more seriously.

Mad Professor Says: November 24th, 2007 at 8:47 am This is the election to right all the wrongs.
To right the wrongs done to those workers who have had any hope of a fair deal in the workplace totally undermined by the Orwellian ‘Work Choices’.
To right the wrongs done to those poor, wretched people seeking asylum on our shores only to end up in a stinking desert prisons for years.
To right the wrongs done to this planet by an odious and ignorant government sitting on its hands and doing nothing about climate change.
To right the wrongs done to our public education system which has been systematically under-funded, under-mined and vilified.
To right the wrongs done to public health by shifting funding to the private health system, leaving those who are not truly wealthy having to put up with what can only be described as a 3rd world system.
To right the wrongs done to higher education which has seen through years of reduced funding, universities become little more than degree factories peddling their wares to Asian students.
To right the wrongs done to those who dare question an authoritarian regime, who have been subsequently branded as being ‘politically correct’ for asking ‘where is the justice?’, ‘where is the compassion?’ where is the fair go?’.
To right the wrongs to our indigenous citizens who, yet again, have had their lands taken from them, their traditional lives threatened and their life span incrementally reduced to where they are now some of the lowest in the world. Where are their schools, hospitals, opportunities for work? Where are their houses and clean drinking water? WHERE IS THEIR APOLOGY?
I could go on (and usually do!), but for those who have peddled the myths of ’superior economic managers’ leading to Australians ‘never being better off’ then I am afraid we live in separate Australias. Comrades, fellow Australians, this is our chance for a change to right some of the wrongs. All power to the pencil.

scout Says: November 24th, 2007 at 8:54 am ...let us have a more ethical government not based only on fear

Lefty E Says: November 24th, 2007 at 9:34 am ... The Australian people will today demonstrate [they] are more decent than the moral dwarfs they’ve had as a government
...Expect a wave of resignations from the Liberal party over the next fortnight.

(my predictions: Landslide victory for ALP, 95 seats of 150; Howard to lose his own seat; Turnbull to keep his; Greens to get 8 Senate seats.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Election: What will happen and why?

Professor Brian Costar busts some myths about Australian elections.

The core concepts are that polling in Australia is reasonably accurate - particularly because Australia has compulsory voting.

Further: those that haven't yet made up their mind - two days before the election. In the current context, it can't be said the undecided will all fall the same way. In fact, there's every reason to expect those people will split 50-50 (plus or minus) when they mark the ballot paper.

Some final words from Paul Keating (full text here):

"The principal reason the public should take the opportunity to kill off the Howard Government has less to do with broken promises on interest rates or even its draconian Work Choices industrial laws, and everything to do with restoring a moral basis to our public life.

Without this, the nation has no standard to rely upon, no claim that can be believed, not even when the grave step of going to war is being considered. When truth is up for grabs, everything is up for grabs.

Cynicism and deceitfulness have been the defining characteristics of John Howard and his Government. They were even brazen enough to oversee the corruption of a United Nations welfare program. And when they were found out, not one of them accepted ministerial responsibility. Not Alexander Downer, not Mark Vaile and certainly not Howard. What they were doing was letting the cockies get their wheat sold through the AWB, while turning a blind eye to the AWB's unscrupulous behaviour - illegally funding a regime Howard was arguing was so bad it had to be changed by force.

Howard took us into the disastrous Gulf War on the back of two lies. One, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, capable of threatening the Middle East and Western Europe; the other, that Howard was judiciously weighing whether to commit Australian forces against an evolving situation. We now know he had committed our forces to the Americans all along.

If the Prime Minister cannot be believed, who in the political system is to be believed?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Evolution: Selection for Stability

I'll say it yet again: evolution is a very subtle and nuanced subject. An intellectual challenge with some easy misconceptions that are fostered by a careless turn of phrase.

Just last Friday, I was talking to someone who I should expect to know better. He had quite a good knowledge of paleontology, but he was caught up in the most basic Lamarckian thinking. He still misperceived that traits acquired in a lifetime (such as beefy muscles) could be passed on.

Perhaps it's too easy to think the obvious; like a lot of quantum physics, there's a converse, perverse actuality that's counterintuitive. It's plausible that a good specimen breeds good stock, but then that's only by virtue of its genetic material formed before it was born.

With this in mind, it's worth stating the obvious. Perhaps not often and loud, but with enough nuance that the thought sticks.

I've been reading a book called Plan And Purpose In Nature (George C Williams, reference below). It has its controversies, but one lucid point in particular is straightforward:

Natural selection has a core role to play in stability, not just in evolutionary change. Most of the time, selection results in a culling of mutations from a population's optimum.

Williams reports on William Bumpus, who in 1899 observed sparrows killed in a storm. Specifically, he measured their wingspans, and found that among those killed, a higher percentage (than in the general population) had wingspans that were markedly different from the norm. The suggestion is that the sparrow was sufficiently adapted to its environment that at the optimum wingspan it was better equipped to survive storms. At the margins, the wingspans were unhelpful in the environment of the time. Williams: "The process proposed by Darwin is now thought to operate mainly to prevent evolution".

This is the differential action of natural selection: optimisation within a physical range for a stable environment. Outliers are more likely to be culled.

This is the beauty of the process of random mutation coupled with natural selection for a specific environmental niche. That mechanism carries with it the ability to propel a population to adapt to a changing environment. With an important caveat: the population is carried forward (evolves) IF and WHEN environmental changes and mutational changes happen to be sufficiently optimised. As (and if) an environment changes, some outliers will be favoured, and the erstwhile optimum will be out of favour. If the environmental change is too abrupt, the outliers can't propagate quickly enough, and the population dies out.

Continued optimisation for a stable environment is undoubtedly behind the concept of punctuated equilibrium. Stable environments make for stable populations, and it's only when the environment changes that evolution is forced. Anything else is random genetic drift, which doesn't of itself have significant evolutionary outcome, and is certainly not a factor in large populations.

So is this concept of stability sound too obvious? It's still worth holding on to it. Never know when you'll need it, as Gould would undoubtedly have attested.

Williams, George C (1996): Plan And Purpose In Nature, Science Masters, Great Britain.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sculptures by the Sea - Pt II

The People's Choice award for Scuptures By The Sea was won by the Gravity-defying Lift, Plonk, featured in my previous entry on Sculptures. It was my favourite, too, especially for its impossible aspect and its vibrancy.

Here's some more.

Carcutter - Dillon McEwan

This one was my kids' favourite. This is the ant that got away. Up the hill were a few other ants, still at work on a car.

Formal Rags - Joachim van Den Hurk

Someone reading a discarded UN Climate Change convention.

i-sea - Tim Kyle

Monday, November 19, 2007

Election: The final straight

The odds have shortened for a Labor victory this Saturday. The punter's markets are usually better predictors than polls, and they've been short on Labor for some time. A nail in the coffin was one recent bet for $160,000 for a Labor victory, and at 1.2, they're only going to get back $192,000. Still, not bad for anyone with a spare 160k.

I had predicted the sort of form that would come at this time in the electoral cycle. The papers all swing away from blanket support for Howard, the columnists stake their claims for (at least) not being on the wrong side of the public groundswell, and the Liberals start eating each other up.

Moir in today's Herald

True to form, the Terror (Sydney's only remaining tabloid - a Murdoch) screamed out today "Libs at War". It detailed a (largely old hat) litany of Liberal dissent, from the likes of Malcolm Turnbull (only loyal to his own career) and Barnaby Joyce (making all the complaints). Not to mention ex-NSW Liberal leader Peter Debnam saying elsewhere that the Liberals should have ratified Kyoto.

I had made one more prediction: Howard would make one final recant, to seal his abrogation of principle: a watering down of his much-reviled industrial relations laws. Hardly the time for major new policy, but for Howard, this is not about decorum so much as saving his one dream: to remain Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, I recommend the Poll Bludger website. The comments are becoming particularly lively, whilst heavily weighted to poll-analysis types. And Antony Green often hangs out there at the moment. Look out for him on ABC on election night: there is nobody more reliable in the election game.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Scuptures By The Sea 2007 - Pt I

A couple of pieces from this year's Sculptures, on the walk from Bondi to Tamarama. Ended today.

Lift Plonk - Chi Phan

The Obelisk - Keld Moseholm

No, it's not really been taken over by little fat creatures.

More to come.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Election: Media rollovers

The latest poll shows... nothing. The same as ever, in fact: 54 - 46 in Labor's favour. This from the Herald's AC Nielson, to be published tomorrow. The poll ran directly after Monday's Liberal campaign 'launch', but was mostly finished before Labor's [widely-lauded] Wednesday Launch. So either the polls will move further in Labor's favour, or the figures are solidly entrenched.

And most polls do agree with the 54-46 figure; any movements over the four-and-a-half campaign weeks have been within margins of error. The Australian's Newspoll has been significantly more erratic, and the newspaper has been consequentially quite prickly about it.

The Sky News Channel, meanwhile, conducts its own polls by asking its audience for SMS responses. Either there's a fair bit of stacking going on, or Sky News has an audience that is significantly more right wing than any other - including the Murdoch Australian, whose online polls have substantially favoured Labor in recent weeks. Sky's poll results give pretty much reverse figures to everyone else.

And Sky had to take the biscuit recently. The poll question was: "Do you think the Liberals' spending promises may be inflationary?" - and over 50% thought not! A brave call, and quite contrary to both professional consensus and the current popular tide.

Still, Sky calls on commentators who have a spectrum of views, some of which (viz Herald's Mark West) have proven quite perspicacious.

You wouldn't think 'spectrum' describes the Australian's columnists. That newspaper has been pretty solid on election coverage - three pages per day - and much of that gives reign to opinion pieces. Interestingly enough, most of them have toned their rhetoric right down over the campaign period, as if their jobs were on the line if they didn't reflect the election result. Or at least move in that direction. Which they have, to a fair extent. There are few conservative or rightwing columnists left who are willing to stick their neck out for their views at the moment.

Enter the usual suspects: Miranda Devine (Herald), Janet Albrectsen (sp?) and Piers Akkerman - both Murdochs. Even Gerard Henderson finds himself at a bit of a loose end at the moment, and is starting to resort to 'giving advice' to the putative incoming Labor government.

What would you be as a conservative commentator at the moment? Stuck on a limb with a few remaining loonies? Or recanting?

Choices, choices.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A sly dig?

This is a reference to the Tran case, yet another wrongful detention by the immigration department which, under the Howard government, had been markedly over-zealous in its treatment of those they percieved as undesirable.
Those seated, from left to right, would be Vivian Solon, Cornelia Rau, Dr Haneef, and Tony Tran.
This cartoon was published in the Australian today. A rather cutting commentary, and surprising the Australian published it, for two reasons:
1) The Australian - a Murdoch paper - is traditionally a supporter of the Howard government;
2) The Australian has been running a consistent commentary on its electoral polling that the Howard government is seen by the public as better able to manage the economy. As in the above cartoon, touting those perceived economics credentials is rather a clumsy attempt at sleight of hand, whereas all the rest of the Australian's polling shows that:
a) the ALP is significantly further ahead anyway; and
b) the electorate sees other issues - such as climate change - as more vote-changing.

Election quote of the day: Julian Burnside

"I think the Labor leader is a more principled, ethical person than the leader of the Coalition... But I am not completely insane. I think if Labor gets in it would still involve a lot of hard work to get them to implement a really respectable human rights policy" - Julian Burnside QC

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Walk Against Warming 2007

The Walk Against Warming was held around the country today, a chance for Australians to demonstrate their level of concern for the government to get realistic about climate change.
Around 30,000 people made it to the Sydney event (and set at 150,000 people around the country). There was quite a large number of families (lots of children) on the walk, as well as the usual suspects (Greens, Greenpeace, and various environmental and left groups). Not to mention a very large white elephant.

There were also some rather cryptic characters and messages. There was one bloke who carried a... figure... with the message "Don't forget who we fight for". I asked him what it was, and established it was a white devil, but he pretty much ran away from me when I tried to find out what it was about. Maybe he was miffed because my first guess was a white sheep. (Devil was my second.)

There were also several organisations promoting various climate change solutions, including abatement schemes, solar panels, and one who had an unusual offer to install solar equipment in your home (which they would own), at about $78 per quarter. When I pressed for info on the economics of the scheme (too good to be true?), they hedged unfortunately, so I never did manage to work it out. They said they got the solar panels for half price [in bulk], which supplied 80% of a (presumaby average) household's hot water.

It was a pleasant spring day, a festive atmosphere, and good to see so many people. of all types, in common cause.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Election: Preferences even weirder!

Further to yesterday's post, I took a closer look at how the parties are directing preferences in NSW, and came up with a couple of surprises.

For parties to specify where their preference goes, it only matters if one votes above the line - for a single party. Few have the patience to number all [79] candidates in preference order. It takes some time, and you can get it wrong and invalidate your vote. I did that once, and had to ask for a repeat ballot paper.

And those ballots which number all candidates are in practice likely to get counted last, as they are harder to distribute preferences for.

Interestingly enough, I talk to a number of people who number all candidates. I wouldn't say it's because I gravitate towards pedantic people (!), rather I would say it's because I talk to people who choose to take firm control of what little opportunity they have to exercise a voice.

And the surprises?

My understanding of the current times of the NSW electorate is that they are likely to vote for two Coalition candidates, two ALP, one Green, with the last position being up for grabs. In this case, the only two candidates that matter are the third on the ticket for each of the Coalition (Marise Payne) and ALP (Ursula Stevens). I checked the preference tickets for each party, and found two parties that vote against their ideological bent - ie their preferred third candidate between ALP/Coalition does not equate to the sides I assigned them to in yesterday's post.

The first is the Democratic Labor Party - the ultraconservatives that broke away from Labor in the 1950s. They're probably not fond of either side, but they ultimately give their last preference to Labor.

And the other one is... Pauline Hanson's party, which also directs the last one to Labor. Yes, she's not very bright, is she?

In fact, it looks more deliberate than that, as Hanson's party put Marise Payne second to last. Maybe it's another case of preference by snub. Because their last place goes to the top candidate of the Democrat's list. And you'd think the Democrats are relatively harmless. Well, they're really unlikely to get anywhere this time around anyway, since the mood of the electorate has turned substantially greener, and most Australians consider the Democrats not worth thinking about, since they committed political hari kiri a few years back.

I could be wrong about that sixth seat, although I don't think so. If I'm wrong, then the true situation would be that the two main parties get two quotas (senate seats) each, and the last two quotas are a three-way battle between the Payne, Stevens, and the top Green, Kerry Nettle. But Nettle's a Green and an incumbent, and I reckon she's a shoo-in.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Preference deals in NSW for the election

The preference tickets for all parties have been lodged for the Australian Federal Election.

It's not always easy to tell who's on what side, for all those obscure micro-parties that nobody really knows. There's obviously been some arcane horsetrading between some of them, and in a few cases it's clear that one micro-party has been offended by another, and has put them last on the ticket for no better reason.

Of course, you don't have to vote for just the one party. Most people do, because it's easier. But then your preferences get distributed in ways you cannot possibly imagine. It's tedious to number every box from 1 to 79 - but that's democracy, and you have full control of your vote.

It's usually possible to identify each party as fundamentally conservative or progressive, depending on which major part comes before the other. Interestingly enough, many conservatives are more scared of the Greens than the ALP.

For what it's worth, here's the map:

Citizen's Electoral Council
Family First
Pauline [Hanson]
LDP [Liberty and Democracy Party; with tricky preference directing]
Conservatives for Climate and Environment
DLP [Democratic Labor Party, making a Quixotic comeback]
The Fishing Party
Christian Democratic Party [Fred Nile's mob]
One Nation [now without Pauline Hanson]
Non-Custodial Parent's Party [they hate the Greens]
Shooters/Fishing&Lifestyle Party
Group V
Carers Alliance [via a thoroughly cryptic double ticket that ultimately focuses on getting the Liberals' number 3 up]

Climate Change Coalition
Socialist Alliance
The Greens
Group J
Hear Our Voice [with a Quixotic tick for Helen Coonan]
Group P [although they play it quite tricky]
Senator On-Line
What Women Want
Socialist Equality Party [this bizarre party lodged THREE preference tickets, one of which flowed conservative!]

By my count that's 14-11 to the conservatives. And it illustrates some of the truly odd machinations that go on. Prize for sneakiest attempt to disguise allegiance goes to the Carers Alliance. Cutting-off-nose prize goes to Socialist Equality Party, which are directing a third of their preferences in the opposite direction.

You have been warned!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Who are the margins that decide Elections?

An article in the Herald a few days ago had some good insight into the voters who will decide the outcome of the election on November 24.

Mark Davis starts off by saying "If you are reading this article, then..."
a) you are interested in politics
b) you care about the outcome of this year's federal election; and
c) you will have little impact on the outcome...

...because, of course, the outcome will be decided by those who don't know and don't care.

Davis then reports on and analyses some research by Professor Russell Dalton: the Australian Electoral Study.

Voters are divided into four categories:
- Ritual Partisans - identify with one of the two major parties, but doesn't follow politics;
- Cognitive Partisans - identify with one side, and follows politics;
- Disengaged apartisans - no strong affiliation and don't follow politics;
- Engaged apartisans - no strong affiliation and follow politics.

In 1967, most voters were partisan but didn't follow politics. The figures for the above groupings were, respectively: 78%, 17%, 1%, 4%. Hardly anyone was fully disengaged, but few paid attention.

By 2004, there was a substantial change, and far fewer people were fully committed to one side. The respective figures were: 50.5%, 26%, 17%, 6.5%. On the plus side, 32.5% were now engaged, versus 21% in 1967.

In conclusion, electoral volatility had increased from 5% to 23.5%. The downside of this is that a larger number of people will now be swaying in the breeze, susceptible to the most venal electoral bribes.

Anecdotally, I do see a much greater number of people are now saying "what's in it for me?" in formulating their vote. Guaranteed sub-optimal outcomes.

Ideally our political system would encourage people to pay attention to the issues, rather than vote on the basis of who had made the biggest scare campaign, gaffe, or bribe. A tough challenge.

I had advocated Australia's compulsory voting system on the basis that it obliged a larger number of people to [vote and thus] pay attention to political issues, issues that affect their future. Now I'm less sure. Compulsory voting is great for conferring strong legitimacy on the outcome, but it also forces a vote on people who don't really want one, and won't pay attention anyway.

A challenge for which I have no ready answer.

The original article is here, and definitely worth a read.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Neandertals: pale skin

I'm going to do something different, and pull something verbatim.

The radio report suggested red hair/pale skin was of Neanderthal origin, and that the original humans were more like modern Africans: Black hair and dark skin.
(Neanderthal, of course, has been reclassified to Homo sapiens neanderthal, and us as Homo sapiens sapiens. Here's the BBC report from the web (which is slightly different from the [world] radio version):

Some Neanderthals were probably redheads, a DNA study has shown.
Writing in Science journal, a team of researchers extracted DNA from remains of two Neanderthals and retrieved part of an important gene called MC1R.
In modern people, a change - or mutation - in this gene causes red hair, but, until now, no one knew what hair colour our extinct relatives had.
By analysing a version of the gene in Neanderthals, scientists found that they also have sported fiery locks.
"We found a variant of MC1R in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads," said lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona.
Though once thought to have been our ancestors, the Neanderthals are now considered by many to be an evolutionary dead end.
They appear in the fossil record about 400,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful hunters dominated a wide range spanning Britain and Iberia in the west, Israel in the south and Siberia in the east.
Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and displaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago. The last known evidence of Neanderthals comes from Gibraltar and is dated to between 28,000 and 24,000 years ago.
Selective pressure
Until relatively recently, scientists could turn only to fossils in order to learn what Neanderthals were like. But recent pioneering work has allowed scientists to study DNA from their bones.
In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red
Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox
Genetics could shed light on aspects of Neanderthal biology that are not preserved in fossils. These include external appearance - such as hair, skin and eye colour - cell chemistry and perhaps even cognitive ability.
This will help scientists address key questions, such as why we inherited the Earth and not them.
Genes for skin colour and hair colour are obvious early targets for scientists engaged in these efforts.
In modern people from equatorial areas, dark skin and hair is needed to guard against skin cancer caused by strong UV radiation from the Sun.
By contrast, pale skin - along with red or blond hair - appears to be the product of lower levels of sunlight present in areas further from the equator such as Europe.
"Once you go out of Africa, the selective pressure from UV radiation disappears. So any mutation that falls into the MC1R gene is allowed to survive and spread through a population," said Dr Lalueza-Fox, speaking at the Climate and Humans conference in Murcia, Spain.
But people with fair skin are able to generate more vitamin D, which may have given them an evolutionary advantage in northern regions.
Altered chemistry
The latest research suggests that similar adaptations were evolved independently by Neanderthals and modern Europeans in response to similar environmental circumstances.
All humans carry the MC1R gene, but modern redheads possess an altered, or mutated, version of it.
This rare variant doesn't work as effectively as more common forms of the gene. This loss of function alters the chemistry of the cell, producing red hair and pale skin.
In the latest study, the authors retrieved fragments of the MC1R sequence from Neanderthal bones found at Monte Lessini in Italy and from remains unearthed at El Sidron cave in northern Spain. DNA is notoriously difficult to obtain from very old specimens such as these.
"This was a bit like finding a needle in a genomic haystack. I couldn't believe we found it the first time. I asked my friends to repeat the results. Eventually the variant was found in two separate Neanderthals in three different labs," said Dr Lalueza-Fox.
Unique variant
The researchers found that Neanderthals carried a unique variant of the gene not present in modern humans.

Until now, information on hair colour has been sparse
In order to test what effect it had on hair and skin colour, the researchers inserted the Neanderthal variant into a human cell called a melanocyte.
Melanocytes produce the dark pigment called melanin which gives skin, hair and eyes their colour.
The researchers saw the same loss of function in the Neanderthal form of MC1R as they did in modern variants of the gene which produce red hair.
"In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red," Dr Lalueza-Fox told the BBC News website.
To Dr Lalueza-Fox, the observation that the Neanderthal version of the gene is not found in modern humans suggests they did not interbreed with each other, as some scientists have proposed.
Primitive speech
Dr Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, commented: "It's extremely interesting - it makes us understand a bit more about who the Neanderthals were.
"It suggests there may be a propensity towards the reduction of melanin in populations away from the tropics. If the Neanderthal and modern variants are different, it may be a good example of parallel, or convergent evolution - a similar evolutionary response to the same situation."
"Neanderthal genetics is going to give us a lot more information. This is the tip of the iceberg."
In a separate study, published in the journal Current Biology, Dr Lalueza-Fox and colleagues extracted the DNA sequence for a gene called FoxP2 from Neanderthals.
Modern people have several changes in this gene that are absent in our relatives the chimpanzees. This suggests that FoxP2 may have been an important gene in the evolution of language, something which separates us from the great apes.
The researchers found that Neanderthals shared these key mutations in FoxP2 with modern humans, suggesting they had some of the prerequisites for language and speech.
An ongoing project to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome was recently hit by the discovery that samples had been contaminated with modern human DNA.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Refinement of evolutionary theory

A quick summation of evolutionary theory might be in order. Different books tend to make up different equations on what constitutes current thinking, so I might just take the flattened versions, in the main, of Wikipedia.

Darwinism: Evolution by natural selection (I find "survival of the fittest" a particularly misleading phrase - and it's not really used by those in the know anyway). The generally accepted use excludes some misconceptions Darwin had or didn't rule out [not having a handle on genetics at the time], including Lamarckianism, the fallacy that acquired characteristics could be inherited. However, this general use is more strictly neo-Darwinism (below)

neo-Darwinism: Not correctly in current use; refers to refinements of Darwinism to about 1895. Wikipedia redirects this to the following (modern evolutionary synthesis), although there is an extant article on neo-Darwinism if you have the link - here. Incorporates refinements from Alfred Wallace (often mentioned along with Darwin when books are in the mood to be more correct), which specifically exclude Lamarckianism.

Modern evolutionary synthesis: the general basis of evolutionary thought since the 1940s. Genetic variation happens through chance mutation (and recombination in sexual interaction/selection); evolution happens through changes in the frequency of alleles (variants within a species) between one generation and the next, through natural selection and genetic drift. You can see how Wikipedia puts it here.

There's some subsequent argument on the unit of evolution: is it the gene (Dawkins)? The individual? The Species? or the Clade? (Gould seems to argue for some combination or synthesis of these.)

Some books put together an equation, with many incomplete variants such as:
reproduction + natural selection + mutation = evolution

From my readings, I would add some attendant concepts that help round out conceptualisation of evolution.
anthropocentrism - the great barrier to clarity in understanding is our own location at this point in evolutionary time and space. We too easily see things to our own scale and bias. The path to modern human has been, as one writer said "zigzaggy" over a period of time that is impossible to properly place in perspective.
the environmental niche - that is, an environment and its attendant organisms, whether it is isolated or experience some movement in or out of the environment
genetic drift (as mentioned above) - that is, even aside from mutations that are more favourable within the environment, there are changes (mutations) that have no nett effect on the individual or species survivability within that environment. The smaller the population, the more prone to drift, where isolated from other members of the same species and even when the environmental niches are equivalent. Change still happens.
redundancy and multiple use - a great engine for evolutionary change is available when two body parts can fulfil the same function, or one part can serve two functions. For example, a swim bladder in a marine creature that eventually facilitates air-breathing and develops into a lung; or bones in the jaw that help perform rudimentary auditory functions, then over time become exclusively used for hearing.
environmental change - more of a fundamental than most people admit, in my reckoning. Even aside from catastrophes that result in mass extinctions, environmental niches are never static in geological time scales. The whole planet is not static: plate techtonics, over time, affect global and local environments.

On another note, it's too easy to pretend environments don't change, and that without human interference, the planet would be a happy little paradise of biodiversity. That's simply not true - on geological time scales. But on the time scale of human history, it's sad but true: we have rocked the boat far too quickly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Warsaw: No Love Lost

I was thoroughly annoyed with the Joy Division compilation Substance. Not because it overlooked one of my favourites, the perennially ignored Atrocity Exhibition, but because it included a patently inferior version of No Love Lost.

For my money, the best Joy Division album was the canned Warsaw. According to Wikipedia, it was scrapped because the band was "disappointed with the post-production" work. Well, bully. Maybe because it sounded more rock than punk? Too slick? In any case, it is a very solid album, for rock of any type. The anger of punk fused onto some great guitar music.

The track No Love Lost was recorded on at least two occasions. December 1977, later surfaced on Ideal For Living, and, later, the dreadful compilation above. May 1978 was the Warsaw album, finally released in 1994. (To my ears, there was a third recording of this track, also inferior, but I could be wrong.)

Why was the album named Warsaw? I understood it was eponymous - Warsaw was Joy Division's earlier name. But they changed their name in 1977, well before the recording. I guess it was named for the eponymous song, Warsaw.

The tone of the album was more anger than despair, uncharacteristic for Joy Division's work. No Love Lost was the peak of the album: a very long intro that reached a crescendo of guitar fury before the vocals even started, subsequently the two interplaying to great effect.

The version that matters doesn't include the words "no love lost". It's the one whose near-spoken bridge begins "two way mirror in the hall/they like to watch everything you do". Ah yes, good old punk paranoia on a hard rock riff.

I just had to mention this track. No Love Lost is right up there in the pantheon of Great Overlooked Music.

Why did this come up in the first place? My wife was invited to a premiere of the film Control, a biopic of Ian Curtis. I reckoned she wouldn't like the subject matter (and she's no particular fan of rock, punk or new wave), but she came back and said the film was actually very good. So there you go.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Surprising Mike Bailey

Sky News had a debate today between North Sydney candidates Mike Bailey and Joe Hockey.

Industrial Relations Minister Joe Hockey is in trouble.

His opponent Mike Bailey, weatherman(!), comes across as a particularly sincere, thoughtful candidate; Joe Hockey comes across as simply an experienced politician.

The polls don't give a flavour for this.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Unsafe abortions

The Herald reported a study on abortions worldwide, published in Lancet recently. It found that abortions occurred at about the same rate in countries where it was legal as in countries where it was legally restricted.

Inter alia, lead author Gilda Sedgh said that whether an abortion was safe or unsafe depended largely on whether it was legal; there was a higher incidence of unsafe abortions in countries with higher legal restrictions.

Sedgh: "The findings presented here indicate that unrestricted abortion laws do not predict a high level of abortion, and by the same token highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with low abortion incidence."

The report summary also said:"Overall abortion rates are similar in the developing and developed world, but unsafe abortion is concentrated in developing countries. Ensuring that the need for contraception is met and that all abortions are safe will reduce maternal mortality substantially and protect maternal health."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Election: the Green Scorecard

The Australian Conservation Foundation has released a green Election Scorecard. Their press release headline is that both major political parties failed.

The score is:
Liberal/National 21%
Labor 49%
Greens 93%
Democrats 90%
Family First 31%

Now it might seem a tad unfair to say they both failed when Labor is streets ahead of the Liberals. But it should be borne in mind that the election is the only real, major opportunity to have any effect on environmental issues. It's a stepwise change only, with few supsequent gains possible. So it pays to put pressure on Labor while there is that opportunity.

The Greens' score is unsurprising - the difference between 93% and 100% can be ascribed simply to difference of opinion between environmental groups. That the Democrats scored 90% may be a bit surprising. But then, I recall somewhere around 1991 helping out the Democrats (scrutineering for them, even) through The Wilderness Society, who felt that neither main party had sufficient integrity on the issue. This was not too long before the enviromental movement coalesced into the Greens as an actual political party.

That the Scorecard is intended to goad Labor more than anything else can be gleaned from the stats. Although a Newpoll showed that more people were aware that Labor was better at managing the environment than Liberal (39% to 25%), it still means that 61% don't really have a clue. In fact, an earlier poll of marginal electorates showed that those swinging voters who will decide the election aren't actually aware at all which party is better for the environment. And if the political processes haven't filtered through to them by all this time, then they're hardly about to notice a headline lumping togerther the Liberals and Labor on the issue.

Thus, the best tactical move is to put the frighteners up Labor at a time where they should be most amenable to the electorate's concerns.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Election: try the World's Smallest Political Quiz

The election date has finally been announced (24 November), and the "phony" election campaign is over. The government can't spend money on political ads now, nor take any startling new initiatives.

And the first promise the Liberals made was $34 billion in tax cuts over the next three years. They understand well the response to tax cuts, but this cuts across what's been shown (in several surveys) as the electorate's key concerns:
  • economic management
  • industrial relations
  • environment
  • health
  • education

- in that order, I believe. In this context, a tax cut would seem to go against all those - it's called disinvestment. But it's aimed at people who aren't very engaged in the political debate, and at the margins there are people who don't make the connection between tax cuts and disinvestment. (In contrast, the ALP are talking about reinvesting in infrastructure, health and education, while maintaining a budget surplus.)

I mentioned it in passing six months ago, but it's worth making a point of it: the world's smallest political quiz. Ten questions, and it positions you on a two-axis chart, from liberal to conservative, from "big government" to small. It should be enough to allow any swinging voter to see through the bribery, and identify where one's sympathies really lie, and where one's votes should really go.

But if you're not a swinging voter, you probably already know.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Where is the danger in creationism?

Yesterday I had the privilege of talking to a couple of creationists face to face.

They had set up a stall at the Surry Hills Festival. One said he had a degree in philosophy; the other had not done any post-secondary school study. If I recall correctly, both said they had studied evolution for decades. At least one was well aware of Stephen Jay Gould's paradigm-shifting work on punctuated equilibrium.

It's is ipso facto hard to gain traction in a discussion where the perspectives are pretty much orthogonal. Perhaps with more thought I could have established more points at which our perspectives overlap, and can agree or disagree.

They both cherished the fact that their perspective was published in peer-reviewed journals. What journals? "Journal of Creation". Who are the peers? Creationist scientists. (You may view that as oxymoronic, but they adhere to scientific method to a degree. At what stage it becomes non-scientific is a matter of disagreement.)

Of course, their viewpoints aren't given scientific credence, and specific examples wouldn't survive peer review in the wider, fully scientific community.

Or would they?

Three cases demonstrate some of their limitations.

The first is a finding by Mary Schweitzer of blood cells and soft tissue with a Tyrannosaurus Rex bone. Now it made absolutely no sense to me that this could be, but one of the creationists said it demonstrated that dinosaurs didn't die out as long as 65 million years ago. I asked what was the science community's response to Schweitzer's finding. He said they rejected it because their mindset couldn't handle it (well, he would say that, wouldn't he?)

I asked what it said on Wikipedia, but he didn't trust Wikipedia. I looked it up when I got home. In fact, it said Mary Schweitzer characterised herself as a "complete and total Christian", but that she resented Young Earth Creationists hijacking her work, and said they "twist your words and manipulate your data".
(I remain blown away by her finding, and will make further investigations.)

The second example was the Peppered Moth. This is the standard biology textbook case of the moth in England during the industrial revolution, which started out a light colour, but the successful mutations were the ones that had darker colouring, and so were better camoflaged against predators in an environment that rapidly became dirtier, darker, more polluted. The creationist said that Kettlewell was the bloke who made that finding, and his results were subsequently shown to be fraudulent.

Apparently, it is accepted that there were "errors and oversights" in his work. But crucially, subsequent study has confirmed the findings.

Thirdly, discussion came to global warming. The creationist admitted he hadn't formed a viewpoint yet, but noted that a judge in England had found eight errors in the film An Inconvenient Truth.

This brings me to a central issue in the politicised climate of the global warming debate. If there are errors, are they sufficient to invalidate the whole conclusion?

In this case, the answer is no, of course, but the general lack of understanding of scientific method is specifically what enabled vested interests to cruel the general population's appreciation of the urgency of the issue for the past twenty years. Twenty years in which action could have been initiated before it is too late. And it is too late, in the sense of the recent findings that carbon emissions to date are already sufficient to raise global temperatures. Whatever action we take right now.

Al Gore ably demonstrated the gulf between the understanding of the scientific community and that of the wider community, when he noted that in a survey of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific literature, not one paper doubted the issue was real, whereas over 50% of media articles surveyed included expressions of doubt.

This is why I have a serious problem with creationists. The general lack of understanding of scientific method has hampered action on a world-changing issue. At the most generous reading, creationists' selectivity in the use of science, and lack of commitment to objectivity (which - in totality - is key to the advance of scientific knowledge), have only served to perpetuate a level of ignorance that has been very damaging to the world.

I return to the comment in New Scientist that the beauty about science is that it doesn't matter what you or I believe, the world is as it is. Scientific method, over time, uncovers that truth. Creationist dialectics helps keep the truth at bay.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore, Nobel Peace Prize

Congratulations, Al Gore. I've been saying this for the past year, but the issue's been on the table for 15 years, quite clearly. The Nobel Peace Prize is a challenge for the whole world, to action.

Immediate refugees from Climate Change

From Aim High, the newsletter of Australian Ethical Investment (supplemented from Friends of the Earth Australia, whom AIE helps sponsor):

The Carteret Islanders, located off the coast of Papua New Guinea, are amongst the world's first cliamte change refugees. An entire cultural group is facing relocation due to rising seas and flooding.

The Carterets are a scattering of low lying islands in a horseshoe shape stretching roughly 30 kilometres in a north-south direction, with a total land area of 0.6 square kilometres and a maximum elevation of 1.2 metres above sea level.

While the islanders have fought for more than twenty years against the rising ocean, by building sea walls and planting mangroves, storm surges and high tides continue to wash away homes, destroy vegetable gardens, and contaminate fresh water supplies.

On November 24, 2005, the Papua New Guinean government authorised the evacuation of the islands, 10 families at a time, to Bougainville. The evacuation started in early 2007 and this could continue up until 2020, depending on how inhabited the islands remain. However, it has also been estimated that by 2015, the Carteret Islands could be largely submerged and entirely uninhabitable.

There are significant cultural issues in relocating an entire people from atolls to the mainland where different food, livelihood and living conditions will affect the identity of the people.

This situation is but one example of the impacts being felt in our region. It highlights the need for rich countries like Australia to stop harming, by significantly reducing their emissions, and start helping, by supporting adaptation and resilience building in climate affected communities.

The Carteret Islands (also known as Carteret Atoll, Tulun or Kilinailau Islands/Atoll), are part of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and located 120 kilometres northeast of Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean.

All of the islands are on the edge of the lagoon and the population of the Carterets is about 2,500 people. Han is the largest island, with a population of about 1,000. All of the islands have tree cover, except where small clearings have been made for crop gardens.

Impacts of climate change
Salt water intrusion is becoming a growing problem and appears to be a result of climate change induced sea-level rise mixed with the natural variation in elevation of atolls. This natural movement or variation in islands exacerbates the vulnerability of the Carterets to the climate change impacts of sea-level rise because it allows salt water intrusion during times of storm surge behind houses and gardens.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sources, and the value in going offline

A few days without internet access gives quite a different perspective on information absorption.

When I found myself with some research to do and some time to do it, Internet access was kaput. So I spread out a number of books around me: Britannica, Stephen Jay Gould, two evolution primers, two academic books, and an evolution atlas. I also consulted my mother, since she'd done a geology degree some years back.

It's rather different from the lazy person's guide to everything, Wikipedia:
a) Within each source, the information was less well structured, and less lucidly presented. I had to do more work to extract the information;
b) I had a variety of viewpoints in toto, as opposed to ground down and polished within Wikipedia;
c) I found errors in most sources.

Britannica is often dreadfully opaque, and rambles on in whatever fashion it chooses to ramble on about, making it difficult to gain an overview in the context I was seeking. My mother gave the best overview of geology - because the investigation process was interactive. However, as with everyone there are gaps.

Looking through five books for that standard diagram of geological time, I found five different pictures. It's expected that there will be some differences: time periods definitions have traditionally differed between the Europe and the US, and have changed over time. Yet I found actual errors (or egregious omissions) in each one. Except Britannica - because the diagram I found was sparse on detail.

- Wikipedia is certainly less time consuming to consult. Yet although it gives different perspectives, they're not usually well fleshed out; and while the detail is generally good, it lacks the depth of a dedicated work. And you can chase down the sources when necessary;
- Britannica is a substitute for internet access; no more authoritative than Wikipedia (in general), but harder to navigate and less up to date;
- comparing and contrasting different sources can provide extra insights;
- indepth narrative often provides extra insights too;
- trust yourself, and if something doesn't sound right, chase it up rather than accept it;
- consult your mother.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Recovery from mass extinction

Douglas H Erwin (Dept Paleobiology, Smithsonian Institute) - Lessons from the past: Biotic recoveries from mass extinctions

This paper, for a 2000 colloquium, "The Future of Evolution", is essentially a literature review in the area of recovery from mass extinction.

Although it's the extinctions that capture the imagination, environmental and species recovery can be seen as more pertinent, since this defines the pathway to the present.

Erwin characterises two types of extinction event: pulse extinction, which is too rapid to see adaptive organic response, and press extinctions, where the environment gradually turns sour (so to speak) for a large number of existing species, but for which steady adaption to environmental change is possible.

For pulse extinctions in particular, recovery is characterised as gradual expansion from more sheltered environments, best exemplified by deep water (below continental shelf) niches, which would be most resilient to changes in temperature or atmospheric oxygen.

Initial post-extinction fauna typically consists of a limited variety of widespread species. It's not obvious to me whether this is due to opportunistic expansion or good suvival of prevalent species, but the paper suggests the former. However, there's a cautionary note that that shouldn't be taken as global spread.

There is some support for the intuitive notion that more ["morphologically"] complex species suffer more in mass extinctions - ie the evolutionary clock is reset or wound back somewhat. That in itself should give pause for thought.

The paper makes several mentions of "Lazarus taxa" - species which apparently disappear at the event's boundary, only to subsequently reappear. These are often simply an illustration of the gappiness in the fossil record, but Erwin suggests this can often be due to biogeographic differentiation, ie local geography. For example, he says that extinction is less apparent in the southern hemisphere after the K/T event - the meteor in the shallow waters of Yucatan, Mexico.

A couple of minor extinction events are mentioned: the early Jurassic Toarcian event and the Late Cretaceous Cenomanian-Turonian event. In the descriptions given, I see both as bearing putative symmetry with current conditions: both are press extinctions involving marine anoxia (oxygen depletion) during relatively high sea levels and a greenhouse climate. Adaption (by anoxic-adapted species such as bivalves) is suggested rather than opportunistic expansion [by a few remaining species].
Lest this breed complacency, it's worth noting that recovery of the terrestrial (and thus atmospheric) carbon cycle took a mere 130,000 years!

From peak of extinction rates to peak of speciation (diverse and specialised fauna) is at one point set to about 3 million years - but I would find it hard to accept generalisations on this. Some interesting phenomena in the interval include:
- clades on the wane as others gradually take over, which is reversed by the extinction event, simply because of the greater resilience to the specific event. Erwin mentions cheilostome bryzoans taking over from cyclostomes, only to have the latter triumph over the conditions of the event;
- other lineages that survive the event, only to disappear as (re)speciation hits its peak.

Overall, the suggestion is that there is no clear relationship between the magnitude of an extinction and its evolutionary impact. Modelling has shown 80% of phylogenetic structure to survive a 90% overall species loss. That is, most body types survive, and subsequent speciation is only a matter of variants.

Which would bring us back to the question of the Cambrian Explosion: why a short period of evolutionary activity resulted in pretty much all the body types in existence today.