Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kids: communicating

I used to think the best time to be a father was when the kids were old enough to communicate well with me. But I was mistaken, in several ways.

I found that at each stage of their life, there is a different way of communicating. And it's a learning process for me: how to communicate well at their level, and teach them at the same time. And each level builds upon the previous one.

And in particular, because I'm always learning, there's a richness to be gained all the way through.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Evolution: sex scandal: how rotifers get away without it - more questions than answers

Richard Dawkins discusses the scandal of sex in his book The Ancestor's Tale.

Dawkins originates the concept with John Maynard Smith: that sex itself is an evolutionary scandal. At its simplest, one would expect that sexual reproduction is counterintuitive in a theoretical sense. In an evolutionary context, it is in the individual's best interests to pass on as many genes as possible, yet sexual reproduction requires a halving of the amount of genetic information passed on.

It would make sense if there was some value in sharing the load of passing on genes, such that genetic survival was enhanced if the two parents worked together.

Yet it has been found fairly consistently that the male does much less work - so the workload is not shared to the benefit of the genes.

That is one scandal. The other could be characterised as a scandal within a scandal (Dawkins: a paradox within a paradox). That is, the bdelloid rotifer.

Rotifers are tiny marine organisms (as are many odd creatures). Although many animals have asexual reproduction within a broader repertoire, bdelloid rotifers consistently reproduce without sex. That is, as far as their natural history can be traced - at least 40 million years - there has never been any evidence of two sexes (effectively classifying them as female, and eliminating the concept of a male).

Intuitively, I would expect sexual reproduction to make sense: halving the genetic information passed on would stabilise a population that experiences constant random mutation - as all species do*. This because most mutations are harmful to individual and species survival, but constant melding of genes can spread the load and weed out the unviable outliers.

So bdelloids are a scandal: how can they consistently reproduce, without succumbing to gradual genetic (and thus individual and species) degradation into unviability?

A recent study (reported here) has gone some of the way to unravelling the mystery. In the journal Science, Harvard scientists reported (abstract here) that bdelloids "steal" (absorb) genetic material from a whole host of other organisms. Not just animals: they also found genes from bacteria, fungi and plants. They have "relaxed the barriers to the incorporation of foreign genetic material".

This definitely gives some answers, but opens up many more questions. Including:
1) how do they stabilise as a species despite the absorption of foreign genes?
2) how do they "resist radiation" that affects the genetic information?
3) how does this tie in with the understanding that complex multicellular life developed through the unification of genetic material from diverse basal organisms?

I suspect that these three questions are wrapped up in each other, and I believe this is a highly significant find. I get the feeling we're on the verge of a more comprehensive understanding of how evolution (via genetic information) works.

*What causes mutation? Intuition again tells me this is directly due to radiation, probably mainly solar, which is otherwise beneficial - and still is, I contend. But this is a whole other story.

Dawkins, B (2004): An Ancestor's Tale. Phoenix, London.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Science: New science snippets

New Scientist (right), the weekly British science news magazine, is often an embarassment of riches. When I had a weekly subscription, I ended up with rather a backlog of issues to consume my reading space.

The occasional issue is most welcome; this week's had a number of interesting items, some of which appear here today.

Creationism and science teachers
The US is the only western country for which creationism is a significant issue. Most of the rest of the world is accepting of scientific reason; or more correctly, most of the rest of the world doesn't have a powerful fundamentalist christian lobby voice.
A survey of science teachers (presumably secondary level) from Pennsylvania State University has found some interesting statistics - as well as a fair bit of the bleeding obvious. A quarter of the 900-odd respondents taught about creationism, and about half of those presented it as a valid scientific alternative to Darwinism.
Sixteen percent of these science teachers believe humans were created in the last 10,000 years.
So, half of those who raised the concept of creationism didn't teach that it was valid; and there was a number who thought it was valid, but didn't teach it.
Interestingly, it notes that the amount of class time given to evolution was higher, the more science education the science teachers themselves had. Making a rather good case for science teachers to be properly trained.
The study suggested that less-trained teachers felt less confidence engaging in the subject (ie responding to questions).
However, I strongly suspect that even where science is taught properly, a lot of those teachers would have a somewhat weak grasp of the two fundamental tenets of random mutation and natural selection, let alone the myriad implications that stem from them.

Inbreeding and genetic disorder
A review of studies from Murdoch University in Western Australia examined genetic disorders amongst the offspring of first cousins. This would be a rather surrogate measure, of course, of the effects of inbreeding. The study found a 1.2% higher rate of infant mortality of offspring of first cousins, compared to the overall population. Another such (review) study in 2002 found a similar order of magnitude: less than 3%.

Artificial legs as a boost for runners
Recently was shown a prosthetic foot design that enabled high performance sprinting, notably in double amputee Oscar Pistorius. Claims then made that this unfairly boosted performance - which have now been tested.
Again, a proxy measure was used to determine any advantage conferred: the amount of calories burnt per distance - ie whether it was cheaper to fuel the prostheses.
The answer given was no - it wasn't more efficient. So Pistorius is free to compete in the Olympics - unless some other hurdle appears.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Culture: Speed Racer, what next - Gigantor?

The earliest cartoons I remember are from the sixties: Kimba was my favourite, but before that was Speed Racer and my earliest favourite, Gigantor.

Interestingly, I don't have clear early memories of the American ones, such as Hanna-Barbera and Warners. The former had a string of cartoons, the earliest of which I saw would have been Huckleberry Hound. Warners didn't really figure until the later Roadrunner, with a smattering of Bugs and Daffy before.

The production dates of these cartoons may not have been relevant: in New Zealand, I have a feeling they were rather like a bad day at a train station (running late, and out of timetable order). All seen in black and white only.

Those I particularly liked or remembered - mentioned up top - were all Japanese (although I didn't have a clue at the time). Maybe the American ones were too homogeneous: mostly anthropomorphic animals. Those Japanese cartoons were somewhat crude, but stylistically distinctive. But I'm not sure what appealed to my young mind. Plot? Characters? Unusual situations?

So Speed Racer has been revived for the big screen (following Kimba's conversion to the Lion King). Nothing like the original, of course, which makes me wonder what was there of intrinsic merit that compelled the plundering. Maybe no specific spark is needed, bar the producers' childhoods. Hanna-Barbera's been up too, via Jetsons and Flintstones.

Nothing so far has impelled me to see the big screen versions. Gigantor was my earliest favourite... let's see.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Politics: Australia's election analysed

Some new analysis of last year's federal election has given some interesting insights into the reasons for the change of government.

A team from ANU (Australian National University) conducted the Australian Election Study, reckoned by the Herald to be the most definitive exit poll, and one that seems to have been conducted for some years. It was a postal survey of 1873 voters.

Voter decisions are based on a rather disparate set of reasons, most of which to my mind are far more about bread and circuses than fundamental values or ethics. Sometimes on issues of the day, but like interest rates, they are often issues for which there's little difference between the two sides. Often, too, there is is too much presidential emphasis on the personality of the leaders, which doesn't per se speak to the basic value differences between the ALP and the Coalition. All this seems to result in rather an amount of cognitive dissonance, not just for the aggregate of voters, but for individuals.

Here's some of the findings.

Industrial Relations
This was the most important issue in voting decisions: 70% said it had been important in their decision-making. Of those, 62% disapproved of the Coalitions WorkChoices legislation. Interestingly, 17% of those who disapproved of WorkChoices actually voted for the Coalition.

Global Warming
This was the second-biggest issue. 67% of voters wanted the Kyoto protocol ratified (ALP policy); 8% said no (Coalition policy), while the remainder had some ambivalence. Of those supporting ratification, 30% voted for the Coalition.

Interest Rates
This is an issue for which effective difference between the two sides has eroded over time, as ALP policy has become more economically rationalist, and interest rates are now independently set purely on the basis of their effect on inflation. There remains a marginal difference between the two - the ALP's social justice bent would result in slightly higher rates - but this is not something that most voters could tell if it were possible to subject them to a double blind test. For this reason, where half of the electorate was concerned about interest rates, 47% of those voted ALP, while 42% voted Coalition - simply an attack on the incumbent's record of rate rises.

Prime Ministers present and past

Support for Howard was quite divided, with 49% liking him and 41% disliking him. Rudd had 63% approval, with a nett approval rating of 43 points, compared with Howard's eight points. Rudd's rating was the highest in the 20 years of the survey; Howard's rating was his personal lowest in that time. By contrast, Costello's nett rating was -18, which might suggest a late change in leadership would not have made any difference. However there was no indication how much of a vote-changer this point was. On the other hand, when Keating lost the 1996 election, his nett approval was -15, not as bad as Costello's.

The Election Campaign
The Coalition opted for an extended campaign, which seems to be somewhat typical for a government on its way out. Yet 70% of the electorate had already decided before the campaign; those who made up their mind in the heat of the campaign were pretty evenly split.

In 1996, John Howard made a perverse - and successful - pitch for the "battlers", effectively those less-well-off workers. This time around, 51% of unskilled and semi-skilled workers voted for the ALP, and 37% for the Coalition, effectively the reverse of 1996's result. If you roll in One Nation's temporary electoral success, the "battler" vote had stayed fairly consistently with the Coalition over their four election victories - until this time around. It's plausible that these voters were more convinced by the ACTU's "Your Rights At Work" campaign over the year leading up to the election, rather than the Coalition's scare ads about "union heavies" in the workplace and "union bosses" in the ALP front bench. It was, after all, rather brash of the Coalition to try to tell these people what was happening in their own workplace.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Art obscenity charges

...screams the headline on the front page of today's Herald.

A photography exhibition in Sydney has been closed down, and police are investigating the possibility of charging the photographer and the art gallery.

The issue: photos of a naked 13-year-old girl which can be seen as sexual.

Artists, in turn, screamed censorship ("what about Carravagio?" yelled one).

The photographer, Bill Henson, apparently has a high reputation, and has apparently been doing such subject matter since at least 1995.

What about Carravagio? Of course, in recent years, the issue of pedophilia has rightly become significant, with a renewed fervour in prosecution for both offences of decades ago, and for current accessors of kiddie porn over the internet. So cultural context inevitably plays a big part. And in general the current culture of prosecution is quite understandable. But art?

One of the Herald's articles was a commentary by John McDonald, who says inter alia:
"His pictures are dark and edgy, but it would be foolish to write them off as 'pornography'.
"Pornography, as I understand it, is a form that revels in its own sordidness. It is a commercial product made for the sole purpose of titillation."

In the ebb and flow of debate about pornography, there is one point that is overlooked (in fact I can recall witnessing scarcely any discussion about this ever). That is that once images are released - in any context - they can become pornography in the hands of viewers. What becomes pornography is entirely in the hands of the audience, and out of control of those generating the images.

I remember some years back, a lesbian filmmaker made a film that she aimed at women, stating she was reclaiming pornography and giving control back to women. Yet she had no control of the work once it is released, bar what a very disparate audience will make of it. And there will always be a part of the audience that will take a work pornographically.

So the producer of the work can say what they like, and have whatever intention they claim, but they have no ultimate control over how the audience responds to the work.

This is why, I believe, debate will continue to rage about the issue. The reception of a work is in the hands of the audience, not the producer.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tech: Telecomms present and future, from Paul Budde

Paul Budde's BuddeCom is an Australian organisation that analyses telecommunications markets around the world. He was presenting again at CeBIT this year, and was very worthwhile to listen to, as always. His themes are usually around competition and the legislative environment, and so inevitably he rails against the current Australian regulatory regime, as well as Telstra's special position in dominating the market.

The following are some notes I took from one of his presentations. Many of the figures quoted derive from his organisation's own research, which carries sufficient gravitas for the US government to renew its contract to buy all of BuddeCom's annual cycle of reports - and those reports are many and come with a hefty price tag.

The Australian telecommunications market is still growing, however the rate of growth is dropping (in dollar terms) as it moves from a voice- to a data-based paradigm.

Telstra still has about 65% of the market (70% of the wholesale market), but that share will continue to decline. (Budde noted that growth in the wholesale market was rather stagnant in Australia compared to more mature markets such as the European Union.) The total market grew by 5.2% to $AU36.6b over the last year.

Into the future, he sees an additional channel for telecommunications, including broadband, being via the electricity distribution network. (This is not out of keeping with Optus' prognostications - a year ago, I heard their chief technologist saying something similar.)
He also sees health-related applications - eg diagnosis) becoming a significant part of internet- based traffic - as much as 25%.

Mobile phone penetration has pretty much reached saturation: to 110% of the Australian population, indicating a noticeable number of people appear to have more than one active phone. The Average Revenue Per Unit (ARPU) has stabilised to $46.70 (presumably per month). This will not change significantly due to 3G services - which will reach 8m (45% of the population) by the end of the year - because further market penetration of 3G is hampered by price. And so price drops will have to accompany increased market takeup. Budde commented that the growth in 3G content was handicapped by the great reluctance of existing players to open up their network to third-party content providers.

Budde noted that one of the most profitable mobile operators in the world - India's Bharti () - has very low charges at about $5 per year plus 1c/minute call charges.

He also stated mobile market penetration in Africa - the poorest continent in the world - was at 60%! In fact, he told me later that the actual figure arrived at by his analyst was 80%, but this was based on government figures which he didn't trust, so he discounted it to 60%. Two comments he made to me that help explain this are that a) this was not uniform, and there were quite dramatic differences in takeup between different countries; b) the figure was based on mobile servives - which often amounted to simply a sim card, which owners might take to someone local to rent a phone to make the actual call; c) trelecommunications in Africa is a significant economic tool, and mobile infrastructure may be present even when more fundamental infrastructure such as roads was poor. I suggested it also reflected the fact that mobile infrastructure is often quicker and easier to put in place than fixed lines; Budde didn't disagree with this, of course.
Budde expects the number of broadband services in Australia to go from 4.5m to 5.5m by 2009. An ongoing message of his has been that much of what we call broadband in Australia is actually internet connection at relatively low speeds of 1 MPS or less. However, increased takeup again hits affordability issues, and he felt there was a fair way to go, by international standards. He reckoned it would take a price drop to $39 per month to get takeup up to 80%. Broadband costs _are_ falling, but they're still quite high by international standards.

He expected the telecomms boom to continue to at least 2015, with data overtaking mobile services as the key driver of growth.

Budde also made a point that a gradual drift away from tv- watching is leading to an 'unleashing of minds'. That is, passive entertainment is giving way to passing time in a more self-governing, engaging form of passing time. He mentioned, as an example of this, Wikipedia, which he said represented 100,000 hours of human labour.

I'm not sure about that last figure (I would have thought the number was much higher), but I'm inclined to take issue with Budde's more general point.

It is true, there has been a marked drift away from television, which has the networks worried. And in parallel there has been an increase in the amount of 'viewer' time that has been absorbed by the internet. However, television as a passive medium is likely to be just the ticket for a large number of people, at the end of a day. The drift to net-based entertainment may currently be taking place amongst those people who are less inclined to settle for passive entertainment, and there may be a limiting boundary to that drift of audience. Moreover, it's possible that an admixture of the two may come to dominate (albeit not exclusively) our collective attention. That is, internet-based delivery of passive channels, such as we see with broadcast tv, but with far greater choice of viewing material. And there will always be those who will be happy to do what is easiest of all: turn on an appliance (whatever it becomes), sit back, and watch.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Glucosamine questioned

Choice, Australia's leading consumer advocacy organisation, has characterised glucosamine as a placebo.

Glucosamine, derived from sources such as crustaceans and grain starch, is a widely-used medicine for arthritis.

Choice's research (overview here) was effectively a literature review, taking in studies up to 2005, although it also examined the stated content of a number of products containing the substance.

As a result, Choice expressed doubt that glucosamine is effective for osteoarthritis pain, suggesting strongly that the only benefit was the placebo effect.

Further, they said there's more benefit to sufferers in regular exercise and losing weight.

I have a personal stake in this, having been diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the knee a few years ago. This condition has two outward effects for me: some aching in the knees, and the occasional quite bad twinge when a leg twists about the knee.

The doctor had some x-rays done, and showed me in them a build-up of spurs of cartilage around the knee. He prescribed glucosamine, and said it would help reduce further buildup of the unwanted cartilage that was causing the problems.

So I set out on a course of this over-the-counter medicine, at the dosage that he recommended. However, having been back to a doctor to verify the recommended daily dosage, I found GPs are somewhat more vague on this area than I first thought.

Now glucosamine of itself is an unstable substance, and usually compounded with any of several other substances, including sulphate (as my doctor prescribed), hydrochloride, potassium chloride, etc. But I can vouch that the range of available products is difficult to compare, as they quite frequently don't state their equivalent dosage of the active ingredient. This Choice mentions, perversely stating that some products don't have enough glucosamine sulphate to be effective. This from an organisation that said it wasn't effective anyway.

At one point, not being confident that the doctors were confident of an 'appropriate' dosage, I bought a product that contained a fair bit more active ingredient than I had been taking to date.
Within a few days of bumping up the dosage, the intensity and presence of the osteoarthritis reduced very noticeably. Placebo? I was sceptical, and not optimistic of any change, but was surprised by the result.

I still don't know if it is effective in reducing excess cartilage buildup. The Wikipedia article actually states the opposite - cartilage increase - as a positive effect may occur.

Uncertainty on a number of fronts: effectiveness for pain relief, effect on cartilage, and dosage. Wikipedia's article suggests there remains insufficient scientific consensus, although various international bodies recommend it as a treatment, including recommending the sulphate compound for the knee.

An industry ad in Saturday's Herald responded to Choice: "independent research proves glucosamine helps maintain the normal structure of cartilage in the joints". Also: "Choice Magazine found about 75% of their online members who were arthritis sufferers claimed... benefit from using glucosamine" - although that begs a question of who was motivated to respond.

Meantime, I'm going to keep taking a decent dose of glucosamine sulphate, plus regular swimming, as the best I can do for my knees.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Music: Died Pretty remembered

There's a lot bands (and specific albums) I feel like commenting on from time to time. But this comes with a certain topicality, given Ron Peno's appearance on (a repeated) RockWiz last night.

So I dusted off my Died Pretty best-of for a listen. So criminally ignored is the band that I suspect even I have not listened through the full CD more than a handful of times.

A guitar-oriented rock band with a touch of the psychadelic - not a bad thing in context - Died Pretty's heyday was in the late 80s and early 90s, a time when I was getting my maximum fill of live bands in Sydney.

Although I saw them a number of times, the only memory I can specifically place is a time or two I saw them at the Harold Park Hotel. They had a good reputation (which counted for something), but moreover, they were an exciting rock band: definitely a cut above the normal fare for Sydney bands, but never quite breaking out consistently enough to have unmitigated commercial success or fame.

On stage, Ron Peno always struck me - unfairly, I guess - as wishing he was Jim Morrison. His noticeably short stature was rather un-rock-god-like, however, but his very long black hair added an unexpected oomph to his writhing delivery. Peno and particularly guitarist Brett Myers unquestionably provided the guts of what made Died Pretty great to appreciate and listen to.

A little after this time - mid-90s album Doughboy Hollow - saw the nearest they got to commercial success, but it still wasn't enough, and they faded and broke up. And Peno turned up on RockWiz, singing DC with a decidedly short crop that was inevitably colour-faded and thinning. Still, he came across as a particularly pleasant guest, with a voice that stood out as rather better trained than most rock singers.

Recommended: Blue Sky Day, Everybody Moves, and Sweetheart. Also, a lengthy track called Desparate Hours, which I did not remember from the time, but which opens Out Of The Unknown (The very best of...) with great strength. Still to explore the bonus CD, which includes a cover of Ed Keupper's Eternally Yours.

Great when you're looking for a decent dose of rock that hasn't gone stale.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Evolution: Crocodilians, and clarity of terminology

What is a crocodilian? This came up in one of my kids' home readers - little books that five to eight year olds practice on each night.

You might intuitively suggest crocodilians are the group comprising crocodiles and alligators - fair enough. You might add caimans/caymans and, if you were really knowledgeable, gharials.

Gharial: the lesser-known crocodilian

But from here, we come to a point that is somewhat illustrative of a certain lack of clarity in the common usage of terms. Catalogues, descriptions, narratives of animals frequently refer implicitly to extant species, but are silent on extinct ones. Thus a narrative may be wholly accurate in a current context, but misleading if evolutionary groupings are considered.

This is particularly true in the case of mammals. Most living mammals are, of course, placentals (eutherians, more properly). Some are marsupials (metatherians, which can also be considered placental), and a few are monotremes (non-therians, less correctly prototherians, taking in the platypus and echidna species). Metatherians are placental, but give birth to partly-developed young, while monotremes are egg-layers. But are non-therians exclusively egg-layers? There is divergence even in scientific material. This for another post.

Crocodilians are, correctly, an order of tetrapods in the class Sauropsida (reptiles) - they are the closest living relatives to birds. There is an applicable superorder: Crocodylomorpha.

To its credit, the aforementioned book Crocodilians also enumerated a few extinct species. To wit, Orthosuchus, Terrestrisuchus, and Desmatosuchus. I looked up those three species. They're all from the late Triassic; all united in the Sauropsida class. However, the first two belong to the Crocodylomorpha, while the latter is a bizarre armoured, vegetarian species of the order Aetosauria. According to both Paleos and Wikipedia, on current phylogeny this is a only a sister clade to the Crocodylomorpha.

Interestingly, Paleos and Wikipedia agree on this, but disagree on how they are organised: see Paleos on Suchia and Wikipedia on Crurotarsi. Without tracking all the sources, I'd sooner trust Paleos, although in this case Wikipedia actually gives direct sources for that cladogram. Sometimes such differences are due to different sources that are in disagreement; sometimes they're due to one of the two being updated more recently. To Wikipedia's discredit, the piecemeal nature of its updating structure often leaves details between articles in disagreement.

the now-orphaned Desmatosuchus

So, as I suspected the herbivore Desmatosuchus didn't really belong in that book aimed at children. Pity, because the writers did make an effort. It's possible thinking had changed since it was published, however, the only detail I now have is the book's name.

Incidentally, my 1988 Britannica is silent on crocodilians - at least at the index level.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bruce McCabe on Future Technology

Every couple of years I have the pleasure to hear a talk by Bruce McCabe, and each time he presents a riveting vision of our technological future.

McCabe is a Sydney-based industry analyst who, through his company S2 Intelligence, gives vision to a number of large organisations, including all Australian governments at State and Federal level.

The following increasingly terse narrative is drawn from my notes of his speech, in which he canvassed a number of technological developments that are already present, and will be 'disruptive' [to businesses] in the near to medium term. My comments (or elaborations) are in square brackets. Throughout, I noted that most of these developments have very significant privacy implications. Any errors or omissions, blame me.

The sections below are Video, Storage, Voice, Human Networking, Image Processing, Spacial Media, and Sustainability Monitoring. I leave it to you to surf the sites mentioned; I have not yet had time to go through them all.

Although currently mainly consumer-driven, video over the internet will be increasingly geared to business needs; it will account for 98% of internet traffic in a year or two. Technology is already available that can index the content of video clips, and so that content of videos will become searchable. Use of video will become more structured [and commodified] to the point where they can be treated similarly to text-based objects, including cutting, pasting, and hyperlinking to the middle of a clip. Moreover, there will be automated [computer-, not human-directed] analysis of clips - news in particular. Reuters is starting video news feeds that are directed specifically to machine analysis. Bulletins will be mined for meaning; for example, a report on a given company could be analysed for sentiment, which could feed into automated share traders. (I find this concept particularly insidious, as any automated trading can exaggerate the volatility of share markets, and this mechanism has potential to disrupt markets on flimsy bases.)
Walmart is currently working on a system to automatically all shopper movements in its stores, for use in marketing analysis.
Some (lead) police departments will have all officers video recording their full day by 2010.

Portable devices (phones in particular) will take up Terabyte storage, to the point where by 2025, all movies ever made (including Bollywood) could be stored on an iPod-like device. There will be a very steep curve in the takeup of storage over the next 5-10 years, to the point where people will stop deleting anything: they _can_ keep and index everything, and the [labour] cost of deletion will be too high to be worthwhile.
[Yet according to US-based industry analysts Forrester (see here), the cost of storage equipment and management software currently consumes 10% of IT budgets, and will increase 4% this year. So I would say storage maintenance will remain a significant issue, deletions or no.]

Stress analysers are working their way into call centres. Already two UK insurers are using voice analysis specifically as a component of their risk assessment. Bruce said that Kishkish, a company providing add-ons for Skype, already has a consumer-quality "lie detector" available [which I would suggest is of limited merit]. The US army has just started handing out portable voice analysers that can operate with a variety of Iraqi languages, with an 80% (?) success rate (after baselining each subject with 20 neutral questions).
Links: Kishkish

Human Networking
As LinkedIn is the most successful business networking tool, so other tools will be developed that will automate networking processes, to the point where a social network map could be built simply by analysis of the contents of email boxes. Bruce suggested such tools could be a boon for marketing in areas such as recruitment.
But that's only the beginning. Bruce depicts a point (in a process which has already started) where machines will automatically mine the web for all data about a given person.
There's more. combines machine mining with a wiki - to enable people to add their own comments to a store of information about a particular person. There was a suggestion this will greatly fuel reputation management as an industry.
Links:;;,, LinkedIn

Image Processing
Image recognition married with social processing. There could be great value in marrying computerised image recognition with social processessing - say, having a few people validate an image [or identity-related information]. A California university was mentioned which claims 95% certainty on _partial_ face recognition.
Image recognition is such that by 2009, a service could be provided that tags with location any photo that includes landmarks as significant as a building [? - methinks this is optimistic].

Spacial Media

Disruption is in the chips. At $1 per GPS chip, GPS (and RFID) to become ubiquitious. One billion GPS users by 2016. Further, with expansion totools such as Google Earth, there will be 3D views to every street, to the point where everything now achievable in Second Life could be done in a Google Streetview type environment. This has great applications not only academic (eg museums), but also commercial and intelligence-related. By 2018, asset audits to become obsolete.
Links: Second Life, Google Earth

Sustainability Monitoring
Project Vulcan: carbon emission monitoring, spacially navigated, to the discrete level of buildings, daily updated. Carbon labelling at an asset/product level.
Links: Project Vulcan

Now, much of this I would take as nigh-on achievable with current technology, but so much would rely on the degree of uptake. I discussed this briefly with Bruce afterwards, and he acknowledged that a lot of what he talked about was likely to be taken up in a leadership context, ie by relatively few, key organisations. My point to him was that we never could have foreseen the mobile phone phenomenon: a) how ubiquitous they would become in a relatively short time; and b) how such a mass consumer uptake would fuel a host of technology spurts that might not otherwise have happened without such a gross device commodification.

Bruce also expressed to me a high degree of optimism that the takeup of sustainability and carbon-monitoring technology would be pretty much led by consumer (/voter) demand. My feeling, however, remains that although by now people are dead keen to see something done about global warming, a) they are unlikely to take too much action themselves; b) they (as a mass) may well baulk when gross personal costs or lifestyle changes are at stake.

My imagination was most definitely fired by Bruce's prognostications - as it has been each time I've heard him. But although he can give good outlines of what could be done with technology (with little to no leap from today's capabilities), how it actually pans out is, I feel, still up for grabs.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Govt Carbon neutral? pull the other one

The New South Wales government announced on May 8th its intention to become carbon neutral by 2020. Details available in reports here (may 8) and here (May 9).

The initiative will involve energy savings including:
- cutting energy use in buildings (to achieve a 4.5 star green rating by 2011);
- purchasing only appliances with at least a four-star energy rating;
- using ethanol-blended fuel;
- purchasing green power;
- paper to have recycled content;
- reducing water use;
- using carbon offsets.

The goal is laudatory. Some of the examples actually speak to indirect carbon costs, which is laudatory.

However, carbon neutrality is more of an ideal than a practical, achievable goal. And this government doesn't have a lot of credibility when it comes to far-off announcements. Remember their commitment to free wifi in the Sydney CBD? Abrogated (see comments at this post).

Drastically reducing carbon emissions, yes. But complete elimination is unachievable. This smacks more of a political gesture in the wake of the NSW government's attempts to sell off its electricity resources.

More likely, carbon trading can help this end - which was, it's true, floated as part of the initiative.

And the market in carbon offsets is particularly dodgy, at the moment. It would be far more meaningful for governments to facilitate and rigorously audit the markets for carbon trading and carbon offsets.

But keep trying.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Russian governance is... different

And the new president is... Dmitry Medvedev.

Which leaves us none the wiser as to the future direction of the Russian government from the personal perspective. Ditto the BBC reporter I heard last night, who delved into the new president's background without being able to say very much about him, apart from the fact that he was from St Petersburg (Leningrad, as it was at the time) and a university acquaintance said he was nice.

He had been one of Vladimir Putin's apparatchiks, which is specifically why he got the job. The election was pretty much a rubber stamp, since the institutions contributing to what we know as "democracy" don't exist in Russia or have been repressed almost stillborn. Situation normal in Russia, through at least three major forms of governance over the past 100 years, from the tsars to the Party to the... autocratic leadership they have today.

Putin stepped down simply because he was not permitted more than two terms as president. He had been engineering to take the role of Prime Minister, which he had occupied in the past under Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin was a drunken clown, of course, and would not have been willing or able to maintain a part in politics after he stepped down. Putin is an autocrat and not a drunken clown. And for some reason, all reportage I've heard around this has pussyfooted around the fact that Putin intends to maintain power. I've not heard the western media analyse how much of a power base Putin can expect to maintain in the lesser role of Prime Minister. Maybe that's because they don't know - but undoubtedly that analysis has been done somewhere in both western media and intelligence circles. It all depends how power is wielded in circles of influence behind the scenes. But I can't see Putin stepping back and cruising as Prime Minister. Especially if, as I have read, the Russian constitution only bars more than two consecutive Presidential terms.

To my mind, this business is a good illustration of two points. First, what we see as democratic governance is actually the result of a whole raft of institutions - including judiciary, media, political parties, largely autonomous government authorities and independent non-government organisations - that are taken for granted on a day-to-day basis, yet are vital for the level of governance we do get.

Second, what we see as democratic governance is not an axiomatic outcome of a model of government, but in practice takes on a tinge that reflects the background and character of a nation. That can be tragic at times for a country like Russia.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Memristor": New fundamental electronic component

Hewlett-Packard scientists have announced a new electronic component which they say is a fundament on a par with the transistor and resistor.

According to the Herald article, it was theorised by Leon Chua [in 1971] that there should be a fourth element to a passive circuit (one in which the components consume but do not produce electricity): to go with the resistor, inductor, and transistor, there should also be a memory resistor.

This latter is something that couldn't be derived from any combination of the other three. This component "remembers" the direction of current flow, and "expands in that direction to improve the flow". This last bit I'm not sure how much I understand, but the discovery team leader (Stanley Williams) says it has implications for a computer to be able to remember its state. In other words, it could retain state when power is off, and reboot instantly.

It has also been said that such a [two-terminal] component could be configured in combination to replace a transistor, being smaller and so taking up less space. (This is well beyond my second-year undergraduate electronics, so I can only report it as it's said.)

The team has developed both a mathematical model for this, and a physical example. Published in the 30 April 2008 edition of the journal Nature.