Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Americans, evolution, and survey methods

Early this year, the FASEB Journal [Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology] reported a survey of American attitudes to evolution.

Surveys typically show a surprisingly high proportion of Americans don't believe evolution is a fact - New Scientist has in the past reported a worse result for the US than for most developed nations. However, clearly it matters how the questions are phrased, and the overall context of the survey. Drill down, and it is likely a religion-focused survey will elicit sympathetic responses, where many will be reluctant to support evolutionary theory if it means denouncing their religious beliefs. Likewise, if the questions are posited in a rationalist context, people are more likely to want to be seen to be rational, particularly if the questions aren't seen to be placed in direct opposition to their beliefs.

One example of the difference in survey methods: in the FASEB report, a simple examination of three different surveys gave three different measures of whether Americans thought evolution was guided by natural processes or by a supreme being.

Gallup: 13% natural selection vs 38% supernatural guidance
Pew: 25% vs 18%
FASEB: 36% vs 25% on one set of questions; 32% vs 21% on another
[In each case the remainder didn't accept evolution - as it was phrased. Note that Pew Reseach is not a specifically religious organisation.]

A key finding of the FASEB survey - and a central didactic point of the accompanying article - is said to be that people's support for [teaching] evolution is directly related to their level of understanding of science. Stating the obvious, true, and it doesn't address the disparity between the level of acceptance of evolution in America and other western nations. The obvious response is the difference is due to the particular sociological - political, religious, ideological - pressures in that country.

The full FASEB report here; a press report on it here.

A cat playing music

Something that must be reported: a cat that plays the piano.

Apparently, Nora started taking an interest at one year old, and is now four. The owner must be a music teacher: there are two pianos. Nora is self-taught, and although her style is not too complex, it clearly shows intent and appreciation for what the piano does. She plays for short periods a few times a day. Delightful.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Future cloud computing Googlified

Google's official blog discussed cloud computing 10 years hence - far more eloquently than I did recently.

In a nutshell, most computing power will come from web-based services (effectively, Everything-as-a-Service), and our own computing resources will be mere devices that hang off the cloud. Not quite like the dumb terminals on mainframes of yore, though. They rightly see continued exponential growth in the three mainstays of power: processors, storage, and networking (the essential plumbing). Our devices will certainly be powerful - but not a shade on cloud resources. (I see the power in local devices being chiefly used to drive our interaction with the cloud, in the long run.)

They see a great plethora of devices hooked up, many of them far smaller and more specialised in application than our typical laptops/desktops.

They also dare to speculate on the smarts - intelligence - built into "the cloud". Read it all here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Volatile capitalism and the short sell ban

The Australian government has banned short selling on the stock exchange for at least 30 days. Although this mirrors similar actions in ny other countries (including the US, Britain, Canada and Germany), few have extended such a ban beyond financial stocks to all short selling.

The stated aims are to reduce market volatility and to improve liquidity.

Short selling is a way of betting on the market: if you think share prices are going down, sell at current prices that which you do not own, with a commitment to supply the shares later - hopefully you buy them when lower.

All manner of Byzantine financial instruments and transactions have been created over the years to allow people to trade all manner of items in all manner of ways. In some cases, the type of transaction emerged as a way for productive entities to mitigate risk; others have their origins in speculative motives - ie gambling.

There would be valid business reasons for some to sell short, but it's clear that such a ban would have at least a somewhat soothing effect on the current turbulent market. Still, it's surprising that governments would countenance market restrictions that would affect legitimate business - but these are uncommon times. In one of the Murdoch papers, short selling is defended as an aid to price discovery. But there are myriad other ways for prices to emerge - if that's what you want - in a slower, more stable way.

Re-regulation is in the air, and the vultures arbitraging a living (or killing) from a position of extra knowledge at the margins (or simply from a willingness to gamble) are going to find their game stifled. Somewhat.

Elsewhere, analysts and journalists, too, are speculating (here, for example) within their metier. what if the world stops buying US currency and securities? How will China's massive surplus holding of same play out? In fact, they wouldn't tip the bucket (and sell US), because it would hurt them too. China is more likely to gradually diversify over time, which suggests an inevitable weakening of US fortunes. With world trade significantly denominated in US dollars, this too can create turmoil. For this reason, and for the current market chaos, we could quite soon see a scurry of central bankers collaborating in a more formal way to realign the financial stars for the new realities. And because of the clear origins of the current mess in the financial toxins released by America, its status could be irrevokably tarnished. Unless its regulatory hand is clearly brought to bear. If the rest of the world could vote on this basis, it wouldn't be for McCain.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Scientific revolution as one of perspective

Jacob Bronowski discussed some scientific revolutions in The Ascent Of Man. Specifically, those of Copernicus, Newton and Einstein.

(In human terms, Bronowski grouped together as social revolutions the American, the French, and the "English", or industrial revolution.)

Elsewhere, Stephen Jay Gould mentioned Freud's take on three pillars torn down in removing humanity from its pedestal as centre of the universe. Freud listed Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself (this was meant to be about shattering the illusions of the rationality of humans). To that list, Gould added the notion of deep time as something linking the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin.

Bronowski was a mathematician by trade, Gould a paleontologist; this informs their choices.

Copernicus' paradigm shift gives us our cultural use of the term 'revolution'.

Bronowski's characterisations illustrated the revolutionary nature of some of these changes. For Copernicus, the observed movement of heavenly bodies could not not be explained with simplicity from where he was located: the patterns were not related to the observer's perspective. The movements made more sense from a heliocentric perspective, and thus humans were not of or at the centre of the universe.

It's inevitable that the spiritual establishment, the Catholic church, would decry, forbid this challenge to established thought, of which they were the sole arbiters. The challenge to authority it represented was bad enough to invoke punishment and censorship for a long time afterwards. The challenge to humanity's position (in the centre of the universe) was intolerable then as it would be in most ages.

Darwin's dislocation of humanity as a unique creation, to become a mere player - albeit a major one - in a succession and a panoply of species is also destabilising. Even now, the Vatican is unapologetic over its reaction, even as it acknowledges evolution as a validity (being "compatible with the bible").

Bronowski characterises Einstein in intellectual flight as imagining he was travelling on a beam of light - in effect, outside the grasp or capability of human life. Again, a paradigm shift invoked by an imagination that was able to think outside the framework of the human scale.

Those I find easy to identify as revolutionaries are Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein. For each of their breakthroughs, the human scale was an emotional barrier, but ultimately proven a simply inadequate perspective. And in each case, the scientist's conception far preceded scientific verification. Those men were revolutionary because they were capable of extending their thinking towards the universal.

I've referred several times to the significance of deanthropocentrism in the study of evolution. It's not a pure necessity in coming to grips with the very basics, but deep understanding is so much more of a struggle where the effort is not made to remove one's human shackles. As a reward, the ability to displace oneself from the human scale has constant application at all levels of understanding of the field.

I cannot claim these three are the only revolutions in this fashion. And I cannot say we are finished. We may never complete the journey because we may never be able to say we have reached the universal.

But our forward progress has an immediate stumbling block. One of the great barriers to successful stewardship of this planet is our perception of our inalienable right to exploitation of the whole of its resources... even to destruction. The pace travelled so far does not yet seem to fast enough to overtake the perils of anthropocentrism.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Climate Change Australia: 450 ppm?

A ray of hope in a recent comment from the Prime Minister.

Kevin Rudd said 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide is a "necessary" goal. This contrasts with the recent government commissioned Garnaut report, which posited 550 ppm, which would likely lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the critical Greenland ice shelf.

A good signal, although it would still face a rough ride implementing in practice, especially with an obstructionist Senate.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lewis Black on creation; Bronowski on humans

Something to round off the week. A comedian gives a perspective on creationism that is quite apposite - and funny. Lewis Black doesn't need to engage from a rationalist point of view - but it's not a rationalist argument anyway.

In the process he has a dig at the lack of commitment to solar energy.

Don't know the bloke, but he seems all right on the whole. (Again, thanks to Bill for the reference.)

I also watched some of a BBC documentary series from 1973, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man (sic). It's very specifically Dr Bronowski's perspective, and despite the date, I can't fault his take on the emergence of human civilisation. On the basis of what I've seen so far, well worth a wat

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Evolution: clarifying more misunderstandings

Evolution is such a complex dynamic. That it is the intersection, the outcome of the interplay of two separate factors, random mutation and natural [environmental] selection, is sufficient to defeat understanding on the lay level much of the time.

Misrepresentation, such as the depiction of an undifferentiated parade of creatures from fish through to monkey to human, of itself breeds much of the misconception. (two misleading aspects of that parade: its portrayal in terms of modern creatures only, and the lack of bifurcations.)

And without exposure to some of the underlying narratives, it's easy to make assumptions that are unwarranted. I've discussed complexity before (from Gould): how evolutionary increase in complexity of organisms is not a universal trend (some decrease in complexity; some remain remarkably stable over thousands of millenia). Gould discusses this at even greater length in his book Life's Grandeur; there is a more succinct discussion of this at New Scientist.

New Scientist has a whole set of evolution myth-busting articles, worth a scan through. Some of the useful points it makes:

- natural [environmental] selection isn't the only change mechanism - simple genetic drift can result in major changes. This particularly happens with small populations (bottlenecks). New Scientist claims this as the cause of most differences between humans and other apes*.
- adaptions don't have to be perfect. Good enough to survive is enough. Plenty of examples (such as the human eye) are less efficient than they could be (the octopus eye, a case of convergent evolution, developed more efficiently).
- not everything is explicable simply as an evolutionary adaption. The NS article on this discusses male nipples, smell, and behaviours as examples, giving reasons such as unpressured chance, side-effects of adaption, and vistigiality.
- evolution doesn't validate dog-eat-dog selfishness (as some arch-capitalists may posit). 'Survival of the fittest' - not a term from Darwin - is more about fitness for purpose than dominance; co-operative actions can often better favour survival.
- evolution doesn't axiomatically favour survival. The article discusses, inter alia, 'evolutionary suicide'.

That set of articles usefully refines understanding of many other points at risk of debasement by misunderstanding.

* I should note that recently reported claims of a major bottleneck in the human population, reduced to only 2,000 people at 70,000 years ago, have been disputed in a substantial article here. However, this point was not one of evolutionary change in humans, who have been stable as homo sapiens sapiens for a few million years.

Norman Whitfield (1940-2008): songwriter

Billy Bragg's ode to rescuing comfort from desolation:

"Norman Whitfield and Barratt Strong
Are here to make everything right that's wrong
Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier too
Are here to make it all okay with you"
- Levi Stubbs' Tears

I note the passing of Norman Whitfield, a very significant Motown songwriter, helping write the soundtrack to the late 60s and early 70s. He also produced his songs; from one song (Heard It Through The Grapevine) he made two productions (Gladys Knight and The Pips' then Marvin Gaye's) that in 1967 then in 1968 each time gave Motown its biggest success to that date.

He has a particular influence on later-period Temptations, in the process developing Motown's psychadelic/socially conscious strand from Cloud 9 to Papa Was A Rolling Stone, via Edwin Starr, Undisputed Truth and others. The heavier, more distinctive sounds he created didn't always gel with the people in Motown, but it won him awards.

His songs had sufficient cachet to be covered numerous times. Along with the Motown influence in the UK, Whitfield's sound had a big impact there, with songs covered several times by Rod Stewart and Rolling Stones (both before they wimped out, and after).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mugabe's bloody tenacity

Robert Mugabe has brought Zimbabwe, its people and its economic infrastructure, to its knees. He has been the direct instigator of violence, misery and poverty. All in the name of clinging to personal power.

He wouldn't have lasted this long, had it not been for the direct support of the South African leadership for more than ten years. Both South Africa's ANC and Mugabe's Zanu had been at the forefront of liberation struggles in their respective countries, and Mugabe's history still holds a lot of cachet for SA's president Thabo Mbeki.

Now Mugabe has agreed to share power in Zimbabwe with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, whose leader Morgan Tsvangirai was only 28 when the Zimbabwe liberation struggle ended in 1980. He even joined Mugabe's Zanu party.

Surely that is old enough to remember subsequent events: how two parties contested power in the early years of independence, but Mugabe hounded Joshua Nkomo and Zapu and later forcibly merged Zapu party into Zanu. Nkomo's and Tsvangirai's experiences at the hands of Mugabe have in fact been remarkably similar, except that Nkomo's situation is now fully played out (he accepted co-option to avoid further bloodshed by Mugabe, and died in 1999).

In signing the deal, ex-trade unionist Tsvangirai is probably doing what he can to avoid prolonging suffering in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's track record in sharing power is appalling, and any respect he garnered for his role in independence should have been thoroughly crushed by his bloody-minded actions of more recent times. Mugabe stands culpable along with anyone who supports him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Costello: no doesn't mean no?

Despite his protestations, Peter Costello doesn't necessarily mean what he says.

The Herald's Peter Hartcher believes Costello has firmly ruled out leadership, and is set to exit parliament.

Yet there are a few clues that demonstrate Costello is hedging his bets. Cast into the political wilderness after the Liberals lost office, he retreated to the back bench, but has remained in his parliamentary seat longer than expected; longer than he flagged. He has written and just released a book of memoirs, whose prime aim is generally described as being to blame the election loss on John Howard.

And his exact words on his options for leadership? "I will not seek, nor am I being drafted, and I am not seeking it."

He has expressly refused to actively seek the Liberal leadership. But he has avoided refusing to be drafted - so he is leaving his options open. Brendan Nelson is widely regarded as nothing but a seat-warmer; the only other open option is Malcolm Turnbull - who is a devisive figure for the Liberals' parliamentary team, those who actually vote for leader. They could always choose a dark horse. Or Turnbull. But although Costello has made it clear he will not do the numbers, he has not ruled out allowing someone else to run the numbers for him.

Late News: Nelson is to call a spill at the Liberal caucus tomorrow. I would think it is unlikely to resolve anything because nobody is ready to move against him yet. But I could be wrong: Turnbull lost the last leadership ballot to Nelson by only three votes, and oppositions get nervous in their despair.

Update 16-Sept: Nine months - and Nelson's dismal performance - is enough to win over a couple of votes. Turnbull's in. A recipe for disaster, unless he can rein in his arrogance. A tall ask.
What does this mean for Costello? Don't count him out, says the Herald. But in reality, he will slip out, unless Mal botches it big and fast. Which is always possible - much more so than for Nelson.
Fortunately, this is a win for the environment. Nelson flagged recidivism on climate change resistance - which might have been enough to cost him the leadership. Turnbull has been quite progressive by comparison.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The DNA of NY air

A bloke is sampling New York's air to extract the DNA from its microbes.

A 'microbe' is a rather generic term for a microscopic organism. The sample would encompass bacteria and fungal spores in particular, as well as a few other stray strands. Report here.

The scientist is Craig Ventner, who competed against the publicly funded project to sequence the human genome. He states that only about 1% of the organic matter in the air could be cultivated in a laboratory.

A fascinating experiment for one of the most urban centres in the world. Most of the answers would veer into the mundane, but there may be a few surprises, particularly for bacterial DNA, where mutation can be rapid relative to large-scale organisms.

Ventner has apparently uncovered about a million new "genes" from a similar exercise run in the Sargasso Sea (a mass of seaweed in the middle of the Atlantic). That's not too surprising: it is a unique ecosystem. The NY experiment is unlikely to be as productive, but it strikes me as a useful mission.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The role of the virus in evolution, part 2

To summarise:
Viruses have a wide variety of forms and actions. For just about every type of organism from animals to plants to bacteria, there are viruses that infiltrate them. Some viruses attack a broad range of cells; some are specific to specific kinds of cells: tissue tropism defines the set of cells/tissues that a given virus attacks.

Some viruses attack germline cells (those involved in reproduction); some of those (endogenous retroviruses) can insert their own DNA into the germline cell's DNA, which means some viral DNA can end up getting passed on to subsequent generations by the host organism.

Thus we have Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs). The end results could be quite varied. It's feasible that this is the source of much junk DNA (that is, DNA which doesn't fulfill any [known] function in the developmental process). Yet that inserted DNA could be harmful: HERVs are suspected of involvement in a range of auto-immune diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

On the other hand, the recent New Scientist article on viruses (here, called in the print version Welcome to the virosphere) suggests ERVs have also played a crucial positive role in the human immune system's ability to respond to viruses never encountered before.

And HERVs have been linked to gene regulatory networks, which determine which genes are activated and deactivated. Thus they appear to be a key enabler of evolutionary change: "the main difference between closely related species is not in genes themselves, but how they are expressed" (ie whether and when they are activated).

Patrick Forterre, of Paris-Sud University, has been studying DNA mechanisms since the 1970s. His analysis of DNA across the three domains (bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes [organisms with cellular nuclei, ie most of us]), found disparate DNA-related connections across each pair of domains that weren't present in the other. His ultimate conclusion (see this PNAS article for some of the detail) is that at an early point in the evolution of life there was "a period of wild biochemical experimentation"; innovative mechanisms were shared between different life forms through gene transfer by viruses. Forterre posits numerous alternative life systems, of which all that is left is the three domains, plus remnants of the rest surviving in the virosphere. Given that viruses are more abundant than any other organisms, and gene flow is greatest via viruses, "it should not be a surprise that major innovations could have occurred first in the viral world, before being transferred to cells".

In effect, viruses have been "sharing the successful [biochemical] experiments" - those mechanisms that survived in the DNA being the successful ones. Forterre goes further and credits viruses for many leaps in complexity of life, including development of DNA from RNA, and the key innovation of cell nuclei.

Ultimately, the NS article concludes that as species, we are "leaky vessels" of DNA, and that the biosphere can be seen as one "interconnected network of continuously circulating genes - a pangenome".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kane Kramer's media player: the iPod

Apple has revealed the source of the original design for the iPod - in the course of defending itself against a patent claim from elsewhere.

Apple certainly doesn't come out of it untarnished. But the original designer gets some kudos, albeit very belated.

Englishman Kane Kramer designed a media player that he patented worldwide - in 1979. He bills it as the first MP3 player. In fact, MP3 as a format hadn't been developed yet, but it was the first digital media player nevertheless.

The problem with Kramer's vision was that the technology wasn't advanced enough at the time - the player was only good for three and a half minutes of music. Nevertheless, for some time he attempted to market it to investors. But the patent lapsed in 1988 (reports vary as to whether it was due to business disruptions or inability to raise the finances to renew).

And Kramer's design, which you can see on his website, is startlingly similar to what became the iPod. His work was obviously lifted holus bolus by Apple. He was understandably dishearted to see no credit coming to him; more recently, he was struggling in a furniture design business, which he had to close down.

Meanwhile, a US company called Burst, which apparently makes a living by vaccuuming up the patents of others and suing, sued Apple. In defence, Apple contacted Kramer - who was up a ladder at the time - to help them defend.

Apple paid Kramer to go to California, where the matter between Burst and Apple was subsequently settled out of court. Kramer is currently negotiating with Apple to receive some compensation for the (out of patent) use of his designs.

Concurrent with the outline for his media player, Kramer had also described his vision for services for downloading music over the telephone line. He is still involved in industrial design; it's reasonable to expect the publicity is now doing him good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Garnaut report: action, reaction

Garnaut's latest report, accepting of climate change disaster, induced s ome strong reactions from the Herald's economics editor, Ross Gittens. He calls it "the most disheartening government report I've read".

Gittens' view: "aim high and let others beat us down from there rather than aim low and end up lower". Full report here, with details of Garnaut's conclusions and why Gittens disagrees.

Unsurprisingly, activists GetUp! have a similar reaction. They've put up a summary of the Garnaut report; they're also running a campaign to encourage key members of the Business Council of Australia to reiterate their earlier commitment to tackling climate change, and to disavow the BCA's stance. From GetUp!'s front page, you can send message to one of those ten companies.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Garnaut climate report a recipe for disaster

Ross Garnaut's latest climate change report, commissioned by the Australian Government, has recommended low carbon emission targets that would mean the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage area.

Now, a group of Australian scientists, members of the UN climate change panel, have condemned Garnaut for advising the government to accept "social and environmental disaster".

Garnaut had recommended a 10% cut from 2000 levels by 2020. The scientists have called for a 25 to 40% reduction in that time. And you could hardly call them radical environmental activists. More like... scientists, professors, doctors.

Professor David Karoly said Australia would abandon any claim to international leadership if it adopted the Garnaut position.

And Professor Amanda Lynch said Australia needed a strong carbon price to help discourage coal-fired power.

Dr Bill Hare: "Ross Garnaut's report is effectively putting off the cost of climate change to another generation, who will have to deal with a 3-degree rise in temperature".

News report here.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The evolutionary significance of viruses, pt 1

The DNA that makes up the human genome is the blueprint for the biochemical processes that constitute the embryonic development of humans. That's all that is really needed: a recipe for the step-by-step development of a baby. The DNA is a long chain of instructions for the creation of proteins that, in the right order, conduct the chemical processes.

And that human genome contains a lot of DNA that came from viruses.

There's debate about whether viruses are 'living' - but at one level, that's just semantics. They are organisms that cannot survive outside a host, and consist of little beyond a strand of DNA (or RNA) and the mechanism to breach a host cell and use the host to help replicate the genetic material.

Retroviruses are so called because their genome is RNA, and they use a reverse transcription process to make DNA equivalents of that RNA. That DNA can end up being integrated into the host cell's DNA (with the help of an integrase enzyme).

That in itself would have no evolutionary significance, except that it's possible for that DNA integation to happen in any germline cells - that is, one of a successive set of cells that would ultimately create the sperm and egg cells. If so integrated, the inserted DNA would then become inherited.

This is the endogenous retrovirus, ERV, and according to a recent New Scientist article, 8% of the human genome clearly comes from that source, and over 50% probably does.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Personality and music tastes: the unexpected

The BBC reported a study of the link between personality and taste in music.

This has surely been done before, but this particular - extensive - study has thrown up a few surprise results.

The factors measured appear to be: creativity; outwardness, self-esteem, work effort, gentleness and anxiety levels.

If I made a list off the cuff of what traits I imagine would go with particular types of music, quite a few of my stereotypical thoughts would be confirmed. But not all. Some of the results that may counter one's expectations about the general aficionado include:
blues: high self-esteem, outgoing
indie: low self-esteem, not hardworking, not gentle
rock/heavy metal: gentle, creative, at ease
reggae: high self-esteem, outgoing, creative

And classical fans and rock/heavy metal fans have surprisingly similar characteristics: at ease, creative, but not outgoing.

Of course, this is all about gross generalisation; we can all come up with exceptions. But it's interesting to see what happens in the aggregate.

A good example of a confirmation of stereotype: those who like chart pop music are, on the whole, not so much at ease, nor very creative.

Australia to remain a climate change laggard

Ross Garnault, who the Prime Minister has tasked with delivery of a series of reports mapping out Australia's climate change response, has delivered his latest, and the news is not good.

In an outcome that can only be described as strongly politically influenced, Garnault has re-claimed Australia's status as a special case amongst developed nations, and posited only a 10% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Unsurprisingly, industry groups have railed against even this low figure, with one of them wailing that this was equivalent to Australia's entire electricity generation industry. Well boo hoo. That industry could do with radical overhaul anyway, since most of it is coal-fired and so quite carbon-dirty. Unfortunately there are no signs such an overhaul will happen.

The 10% figure could have meaninful context in the Government's lack of control of the Senate, with timing perhaps also being an influencer, as implementation of carbon cap-and-trading was flagged for close to the next election (2010). Rudd doesn't seem to be the kind to relish a head-on stoush, possibly a relic of the nature of Labor's election loss at the hands of Keating, and the subsequent decade in the wilderness.

If John Howard had not been booted out of office, Australia's position would have been even worse - but not by an awful lot, at this rate. PM Rudd has consistently retained climate change high on his list of pressing issues, but that does not seem to guarantee optimal outcomes.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hi Karl, what did you do to NSW's premier?

Karl Bitar was a union member in my office when I was the delegate. Friendly and easy-going, he was compliant in union activities, but showed no specific interest, although he was apparently ex-president of Young Labor (or somesuch) in New South Wales.

About 10 years later, Karl was Secretary of the NSW Labor Party [there are two routes through the machine: via a union or via the party, and he worked the latter while I helped in the former] and engaged in vigorous stoush with both the Premier and the Treasurer. And just today, they've both fallen on their sword. What did you do, Karl?

Last night's news was that the Premier, Morris Iemma, had an exit strategy and would not fight the next election. But the wheels turned much faster, and he's gone. The new Premier is Nathan Rees, and Carmel Tebbutt is his deputy. I met Carmel at university, at the time of my economics masters. I don't remember if she sat in on my seminar, but she had been through the course previously.

Carmel is married to the Federal MP for Marrickville, Anthony Albanese, who is now relatively senior in the ranks. Carmel had been in the NSW ministry (my mother-in-law had some bad reports of her, but then she listens to Alan Jones), but gave it away to focus better on her young kids. But she's been drafted back.

Drafted is the likely scenario for both Carmel and Nathan Rees. Karl had been actively working on it (tell me I'm wrong, mate). Rees' public recognition rate before this elevation was closer to zero than 50% - but he's been in parliament for less than 18 months, which rise can reasonably fit the bill for meteoric. He came up through union ranks, once a garbo (to support himself through university, and later a ministerial "adviser" to several MPs, including most recently... the dumped Premier Iemma. The latter characterised Rees as "bright, intelligent, and street-smart", and in fact personally secured him his parliamentary seat, then quickly gave him the water portfolio. Apparently, Rees at one point cycled regularly from the Blue Mountains to work in the city. Very fit, but a long, hard use of one's time.

The new team is a dead surprise in a factional sense: Carmel and Rees are both from the left; the right usually get to decide the Premier. Karl Bitar was definitely to the right in an ALP sense, but the timing (at least) of the spillage was credited to a couple of less-than-salubrious rightwing MPs, Joe Tripodi (aka Joe Tripod) and Eddie Obeid (the master of self-interest). The flashpoint of the spillage was Iemma's doomed push to spill the whole cabinet in a reshuffle this weekend. Ironically, Rees has indicated he will take a Rudd-like hand in shaping his cabinet - in effect, being freed of the traditional factional formulas that precisely spell out cabinet numbers.

Morris Iemma was quite strongly on the nose for someone who won an election only a year ago. He and Costa were strongly pushing electricity privatisation, and consistently said that it would go ahead, whatever was railed against them. Wrong, maybe - in the short term at least.

Infrastructure privatisation is a dangerous road. Doubly so for electricity generation: it's at the forefront of structural change to battle climate change, because NSW electricity is mostly run on dirty coal (not mine, thank goodness). Electricity generation will be subject to a radically changing regulatory environment. In one sense, selling is a good idea, because dirty generation is doomed. However, they might have been obliged to make very counterproductive promises to potential purchasers, so leading to very suboptimal results in the climate change battle.

Whither to now? Who knows? Comments, Karl?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Senate set to throttle climate action

Last night, the government accidentally won a vote in the Senate to increase the luxury car tax. But the situation was righted today when the the vote was recommitted, and the recalcitrant Liberal Senator fronted up. Reported here.

Treasurer Wayne Swan accused the Liberals of "supporting a tax cut for owners of luxury cars". Well, they would; they're on that side of politics. But in fact, they had earlier committed to being an Opposition of opposition for opposition's sake. Not a recipe for thoughtful outcomes, but it's the normal state of affairs.

The Senate makeup is a recipe for disaster and inaction. For anything to pass, the government needs the support of the Green Senators and Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon. The Greens will support the government more often than not. Xenophon has indicated he's not averse to being onside.

But Steve Fielding of Family First is the reverse. The only representative of yet another one of those parties with a motherhood name that gets voted in mostly thanks to anonymity. He comes from quite a deprived background (a very large family), but turns out to be conservative. He's also quite capable of enjoying the spotlight, and sometimes rather quixotic. He opposed the luxury car tax because it would hurt farmers and tourism operators - never mind that they could claim the tax back. Wayne Swan did nobody any favours by expressing his frustration vociferously to Fielding. Stoking his ego would be the best way to confuse Fielding into voting the right way.

Nevertheless, Fielding is conservative on the whole. Although the ALP government started out last November in high popularity, it has done little to entrench support. I suspect it's rather unlikely they would call a double dissolution election to clear the whole Senate. So the prognosis sounds like a whole lot of not very much happening in the next few years. Which is parlous, given climate change is such a pressing issue. The Senate makeup is a recipe for the worst of outcomes.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Early 70s music: Roger Cook

Roger Frederick Cook perversely released recordings in the early 1970s as Roger James Cooke. He also recorded as Roger Cook; he was heard too on recordings by David and Jonathan and Blue Mink. When I was little, I heard his voice most often on the wildly popular Blue Mink song Banner Man.

But his name endures best as a songwriter behind a large number of hits in the late 1960s and early 70s (usually with songwriting partner Roger Greenaway). And the hits were big and many, from the cheesy (I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing was, after all, originally a jingle) to the sublime (Hollies' Gasoline Alley Bred), through soul (Blame It On The Pony Express), country (Talking In Your Sleep), and, of course, bubbly, throwaway pop (Wacky, Wacky, Wacky). The songs are frequently remembered much more than the bands: Freedom Come Freedom Go, My Baby Loves Lovin', and Softly Whispering I Love You would probably ring more bells than the Fortunes, White Plains, or the Congregation.

The Hollies had a couple of successes with Cook/Greenaway compositions: the abovementioned, and Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress - which one would definitely not pick for a Cook/Greenaway, but it gave the Hollies one of their biggest U.S. hits. Their subsequent album, 1972's Romany was one of their best. Recorded in the Romany sessions was a song called If It Wasn't For The Reason That I Love You. This was left off the album until more recently included as a bonus in CD releases. It stood out on the CD as a well-crafted song; it shouldn't have surprised me then that it, too, was a Cook/Greenaway composition. Probably left off originally because the Hollies wanted a rockier sound, as evinced in much of the rest of the album.

Although Cook continued writing (and some recording) past the early 1970s, that was his time of greatest impact. His career subsequently took some unexpected turns: in 1975 he left England for the U.S. eventually settling in Nashville, where his impact was felt (albeit less noticeably) in country music. Then in 1992 he teamed up for an album with Hugh Cornwall from the Stranglers. Given the relative cred of the two people, it's unsurprising to find this collaboration mentioned on Wikipedia's entry on Roger Cook, but not that of Hugh Cornwall (whose career has not been as lengthy. The music reflected the assemblage: a somewhat odd mishmash.

Roger Cook's website is particularly interesting, as he's accumulated copies of many recordings that he wrote or sang on (I know he's not been exhaustive because he didn't have Nash Chase's version of Today I Killed A Man I Didn't Know, a hit in New Zealand). A mark of his craft as a songwriter is that many of them have been recorded multiple times. He's included extracts of most recordings, which can give interesting insights into the different interpretations given his songs. Many of the covers stylistically mimic the originals, but there is also some good variety in the variants.

Evolution: Bacterial DNA exchange

DNA refers to complex molecules that contain genetic data for all living organisms. The most commonly understood locus for that data is the genomic DNA in the nucleus of each cell in an organism - or in the nucleoid (a somewhat nucleus-like region), in the case of prokaryotes (less complex, mostly single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus per se).

There are various other loci for that genetic data, beyond the core genomic DNA in cell nuclei - for example, mitochondria, viruses and plasmids, for example.

DNA is typically transmitted direct by direct inheritance, sexual reproduction in most more complex organisms, binary fission in more elemental organisms such as bacteria. Yet we see evidence that as well as that "vertical" data transmission, some "horizontal" exchange of genetic data takes place. I noted here that Bdelloid rotifers somehow acquire DNA from a number of sources outside the species.

Bacteria apparently exchange DNA too. A recent paper in the journal Science discusses this (also reported in New Scientist). Two species of bacteria, Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter coli, share about 87% of their genetic material, suggesting they diverged about 100 million years ago (by contrast, humans and chimpanzees share about 94%, having diverged about 6 million years ago). These bacterial species don't normally run into each other in the wild, as they inhabit different animals. But the artificial environment of farms has brought their environmental niches together, where they have both been able to infect chickens and cattle.

Samuel Shepherd and colleagues from Oxford University found one variety of C. coli was carrying more genes from C. jejuni than others studied; in nearly all cases, the genetic sequence in question was unchanged between species. This suggested they were exchanging DNA recently; the scientists' analysis indicated they were converging more quickly than mutation was diverging them.

This is said to be the first concrete evidence that speciation of bacteria is affected by environment in a similar fashion to more complex animals. I find it very surprising that it is a first; intuitively, it makes good sense that environment influences evolution in bacteria just as much as in other living things.

Further, I would be very reluctant to call this species convergence, as the report's authors do. The bacteria's genetic driftage would be a trend, but it would be hard to call it an absolute. I reckon it would be particularly unlikely for species to perfectly converge such that their genetic material is cleanly lined up identically at all points. I'm happy to be proven wrong, but I don't think this will happen. I would posit a randomness to the exchange, similar to the randomness of mutation. (However, at this stage we don't know the speed of the exchange: whether environment or proximity can hasten it to the point of a blur.)

Aside from the exchange of genetic material, the article makes the point that there remains disagreement over the nature of speciation in bacteria, and how the boundaries of species are maintained. My understanding of this issue would related to the nature of species stability in more complex organisms: the fact that sexual reproduction necessitates an exchange of genetic material at each generation would inherently stabilise species, whereas surely binary fission would normally destabilise. Mutations in sexual reproduction have only a 50% chance of being carried forwards, whereas in binary fission (perfect replication or no), any mutations are carried forward at each generation.

So why would bacterial species ever maintain stability? Two possibilities are the DNA exchange mechanism (a stabiliser in the immediate term), and environmental factors over the longer term.

All this is a mere curtain raiser for the role in DNA propagation of... viruses.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Cloud computing - what was it again?

From "where cloud computing is going" to "what is": somewhat back to front. But a recent article (Twenty-one experts define cloud computing) in the Cloud Computing Journal pulls together the thoughts of a number of people, which can be usefully condensed here.

Bearing in mind that although it is evolving from the business environment to the personal, the concepts are similar. Although it might seem that business-level infrastructure needs simply don't apply at the personal level, history has already amply demonstrated the blurring of this demarcation over time.

Cloud computing is all about "elasticity" [Amazon]: with your software, data, environment and resources all available via the internet, you can scale your computing infrastructure on demand, to take effect more or less immediately. This avoids under-utilisation (investing more than you need to) or over-utilisation (choking) inhouse. Ideally, resource needs automatically scale to meet current demand [Markus Klems]. Although in theory this can massively improve resource efficiency, in practice it may just mean overall capacity keeping pace with demand.

Omar Sultan likens it to extreme flexibility with meals. You can cook at home, you can order in, you can change at the last moment, source missing ingredients, feed each family member whatever they prefer to eat.

Resources here can refer to software as much as hardware. At its extreme, it may imply only paying for the amount of use you make of software, rather than buying it (eg MS Office) upfront [Jeff Kaplan]. Some applications are already achieving this, albeit with different funding models. Think Google and Facebook. As opposed to incremental purchase, prepaid or postpaid bills, an alternative, more manageable, payment model can be advertising-based - the true incremental price mechanism.

And it does away with the cost - in both time (hassle) and resources (money) of managing one's computing needs oneself [Jeff Kaplan]. You don't want to, don't need to know how or where the resources are managed - that management has been sufficiently commodified that you trust your service provider to manage your resources better than you would yourself. In fact, your service provider would maintain a similar efficiency by managing the elasticity with the help of outside resources - effectively, service provision for service providers [Kevin Hartig].

An especial appeal to the consumer in this would be to hide the complexities of I.T. [Irving Wladawsky Berger]. Too easily, access to information storage and processing becomes the province of those best in the know. For example, this can marginalise someone who has a very powerful imagination yet is not - by choice or circumstance - computer literate.

But above all, it means portability of one's information and knowledge: that is, the totality of one's computer data, environment, and resources. Any device, anywhere, can be used to access your environment and data. It's all portable. You can hire an end-device (laptop, PDA) by the hour, simply using it as an interface to your electronic world.

Some commentators are saying "what's new about this", which is a fair comment in some ways, but this could also just be hindsight - in 1988, few would have had the imagination to think it could go as far as it is going. Others are saying it's overstated, we won't need or bother with most of this. But it's just imagination they lack...

It is not there yet; half of this is anticipation. But the time will come when we will be able to "just do it", anywhere, anytime, without needing to care about the grinding, quotidian detail.