Friday, July 31, 2009

How to be a writer

Heard an interview with a "writer in residence", whose mission seemed to be to encourage people to write that [first] book, and he had various tools of encouragement.

One thing he said: writers should do three things: read lots, write lots, and re-write lots. To all you budding writers: don't forget the other one or two of those that you're forgetting...

Technology enables rare books

Fed up with not being able to get hold of that out-of-print book?

A new partnership shows a model for future access to rare (or small-run) publications - using three different aspects of technology.

The University of Michigan is running a project to digitise its collection. It has partnered with Amazon to offer access to their collection of 400,000 rare, out-of-print books. Amazon had already bought a print-on-demand company called BookSurge; Amazon itself acts as an aggregation point for millions of titles, and its high profile will best enable sharing of the University's collection.

The way of the future: an aggregation point plus a demand publish service, plus the archival content. Cool.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Burning ice: impending danger

Russian permafrost offers up both hope and danger in this warming world.

It is a great preservation medium, not of fossils so much as DNA from unfossilised specimens (with tissue that hasn't degenerated and been replaced by seeping rock). Such finds, unfortunately, would only go back through the last few ice ages, up to about 700,000 years versus 65 million years for the dinosaur extinction.

But there is also a vast store of carbon fuel trapped within the permafrost, in a form known as methane clathrate: molecules of methane trapped within ice crystals. The tone of a recent New Scientist article was thrilled with the possibilities for this potential energy source, but strangely muted about the danger to the planet: it will accelerate global warming on release - methane being far stronger a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Clathrates are a delicate form of methane: if gas is extracted or gets loose, pressure can destabilise neighbouring crystals for a chain reaction: a "methane burp" that in releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gas, can also generate landslides and tsunamis.

There are three possible eventualities: permafrost clethrates are released as the planet warms, the deposits are exploited for fuel, or they stay in the ground. Perversely, if the planet warms and they are to be released anyway, it's better to use the fuel. On the one hand, methane molecules warm the atmosphere at 20 times the rate of carbon dioxide molecules. On the other hand, burning methane generates only half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.

Therein lies the reason for the article's gleeful tone. We should be restructuring away from fossil fuels, but if the planet warms as expected, the methane gets released anyway.

You can read the full article here. Unfortunately it doesn't include the photos of burning ice from the print version. Spectacular - but deadly.

Whether or not extraction takes place depends on whether our energy and environment plans are fully evolved by the time extraction becomes fully viable. Will the burp happen anyway by now? The odds are not good.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Recessions are all different

Arthur Laffer (of Laffer curve fame) served under Ronald Regan, and was a huge fan of the economics of both Regan and Bill Clinton - the latter because he apparently cut government spending as a proportion of GDP by more than any other president. Naturally, he doesn't like the Keynesian effort to prime economies through government spending, in particular because he says it will fuel inflation. He thinks the solution to the current global recession is for the government to give everyone a full holiday from federal taxes for 12 months.

But there are a lot of traps in his suggestion. First, he phrased it as a "let's try this" proposal, which rather suggested it is less a well-developed plan than a finger in the air. For all their claims to scientific method, economists are working in a complex, constantly changing milieu which is difficult to treat with full rigour. Second, there is an ideological basis to his idea. Such a tax holiday inevitably benefits people and companies according to their hit - as such, it is a completely regressive proposal - that is, it benefits the high earners vastly more than the low earners. Third, as a counter to the fuelling of inflation, it is rather specious for two reasons: reserve banks these days use interest rates as a level to keep the lid on inflation; also, these are currently particularly deflationary times anyway.

The BBC radio programme on which I heard this carried a quote from Keynes from the 1930s about government counter-recessionary spending.

But I think what Keynes may not have appreciated, and what Laffer ignored, was that economics and economies evolve, and for that reason every recession is different from the last. In Keynes' day, the depression was deep and people were poor. Any financial benefits most people got would be spent fairly quickly. Nowadays, however, there is likely to be much more discretionary power in spending: in other words, the ability to save is stronger, so there is an inherent slowdown in the velocity of that stimulus money - so the effect of direct stimulus spends is weaker than it would have been in the 1930s. Ironic, because a direct feed of money to people is said to result in faster circulation than infrastructure spends. (I would suggest that a way out of this would be masses of small-scale infrastructure spends - on, say, measures that reduce carbon emissions, such as energy efficiency. This has in fact been happening.)

Changing circumstance is something economists usually don't account for: mostly, they cite past evidence - or counter-examples - as justification for advice. And that is only ever part of the story.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Criminality - the causes are the obvious

A couple of studies - of alcohol and prisons - suggest criminality is to a large extent due to the obvious factors of poverty, mental illness and alcohol.

A report from the Australian Institute of Criminology reveals that nearly half the homicides in Australia involved alcohol. Homicides that:
- happened on weekends or evenings; or
- involved male or unemployed victims; or
- involved a male killed by a female partner
all mostly involved alcohol.

Yet I suggest this study is very specific to Australia. In the USA, for example, where handguns are far more plentiful, the circumstances of homicide would likely be far more varied (homicide rates are elevated by increased opportunity - as presented by a proliferation of handguns).

And a survey of NSW prisons reveals remarkably consistent factors in incarceration, which must be a good proxy for serious criminal action.

About half of NSW's inmates were expelled from school; half were unemployed; risky drinkers; were intoxicated at the time of offence. Pretty much the usual suspects - although there was one unexpected finding: more than half had suffered a serious head injury.

The NSW prison system has been highly successful in keeping HIV at bay, with only 0.1% being HIV-positive (although five wrongly thought they were infected!) However, hepatitis B and C affecte one in four and one in three inmates respectively, signalling "iv drug use and risky sexual behaviour".

Yet only one in six inmates was aware of a sexual assault in jail last year, which was apparently an improvement on eight years ago.

The overriding impression is that poverty and lack of education (which is a direct factor in poverty) are significant indicators of criminality - which is exactly as one would expect. It's also reasonable to expect mental health issues to be significant, but the report-on-the-report is silent on that (apart from the 'head injury' finding). However, I did find mention of the previous survey (here) which, as a proxy, says 41% of male prisoners (and 54% of females) had in the past had mental health treatment or assessment.

Monday, July 27, 2009

More uses for "junk" DNA: developmental

Sex and junk. Two subjects of endless fascination for geneticists. Today: Junk.

Because there's been a new discovery that turns the notion of junk upside down.

Junk DNA seems to make up a high proportion of a typical genome: that is, we don't know what huge strings of coding information are for, but we don't think they do anything - simply because we haven't yet found functionality for them.

Wikipedia lists a few hypotheses for "junk DNA":
- a "reservoir of sequences" from which new functionality can emerge - in effect making it an important evolutionary nexus;
- useful space to more easily enable formation of necessary products such as enzymes (one of the least likely options, to my mind);
- undiscovered regulatory functions to control the expression of genes, particularly at developmental stages such as embryos;
- some junk may have regulatory layers for meaningful genetic programming (I'm not fully on top of this idea; I would have lumped it in with the one above);
- extrapolation from some genomes suggests eukaryotes (organisms with cellular nuclei) may "require a minimum of non-coding DNA" - but that minimum is said to be about 5%, whereas the human genome contains 95% junk.

Further possibilities include:
- evolutionary redundancy - for example, accidents in coding that are not deleterious and so remain within the DNA;
- viral insertions into germ-line cells, which are subsequently propagated into progeny.

That last is quite significant, as it has in recent times been demonstrated that a significant proportion of many genomes are viral in origin. This in itself is a significant vehicle for evolution, as viral DNA has often contributed useful functionality to the host.

But 95% junk DNA in the human genome? Intuition suggests much of that is of unknown functionality rather than junk per se.

Now Princeton University (datelined 20 May) reports an answer for at least some of the "junk". And it's close to the developmental concept above.

In Oxytricha, a single-celled pond-dwelling organism, what was considered junk has been found to trigger complex regroupings of DNA strands, during the development phase of the organism. Once the functionality has been completed, the gene's products are disposed of, and the genome trimmed down again.

It sounds like the process is so ephemeral that it is easily missed, especially since the evidence is subsequently destroyed. But the genes once labelled junk actually control the assemblage of other genes.

It sounds analogous to an assembly hierarchy: instructions beget miniature machines, which produce outputs and are then disassembled again.

To complicate matters, the researcher says "the instruction set comes in the form of RNA that is passed briefly from parent to offspring and these maternal RNAs provide templates for the rearrangement process". This might be analogous to a mother feeding an embryo necessary nutrients to enable growth, but this is a step beyond - it's at the DNA level.

One final thought. Much junk DNA consists of apparent stutters. That is, coding sequences that repeat ad nauseum, reverse, and otherwise follow semi-meaningless patterns. Some of that is viral in origin - which is not to say that it is or isn't currently useful. I expect that we will reclassify much junk as meaningful. As for the rest, will there be any DNA that is completely useless? On a macro level, unused functionality tends to atrophy and disappear over evolutionary time - unless it finds new functionality first, which happens surprisingly often. It's hard to say that the same principle of atrophy applies at a DNA level (the question is, how much cost there is to carrying an incremental amount of freeloading DNA) - but it certainly makes sense that mutation can result in new-found functionality at the DNA level. Mutations, after all, are akin to random scientific experiments: if something beneficial arises, it stands a reasonable chance of surviving.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Favourite songs and comparing apples with oranges

JJJ's recent listeners poll of all-time favourite songs yielded the usual suspects, such as Stairway To Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Smells Like Teen Spirit. Of course, subjectivity aside it begs the question what is a great song?

Should it stir the heart more than the intellect? How much do the words matter? - does their appeal have to have direct, or viscereal? How do you compare anguish with joy? How much does one infuse accepted wisdom and deem a song great simply because others do? And what about a great groove?

A poll will conflate all these issues. I can attempt to separate some of them in a set of personal lists, but one overarching list is too much.

I find the songs that appeal to me on a lasting basis are those that move me emotionally, whatever the reason and whatever the emotion. Sometimes it's an especially strong, expressive peak that captivates me (Pagliacci, Forbi, Sarajevo); sometimes it's multiple peaks (Unforgettable fire, Last goodbye); sometimes it's the overall effect (Ship song)

So here's 10 songs that move me. Sometimes because of the sentiment expressed, sometimes the stirring music, and sometimes the impressionistic value of the whole. It's hard to say they're well ordered, because again it's scarcely comparing like with like.

  • Jeff Buckley - The last goodbye [from Grace]- dripping with emotion, words, melody and vocal expression are all indispensible
  • Pavarotti - No, Pagliaccio non son (from Leoncavello's Pagliacci) - a song that by turns is anger and anguish; it's in my list for a peak: where he sings, "go, you are not worth my grief...". No other version of this song can compare.
  • U2/Pavarotti - Miss Sarajevo [from Passengers' Original Soundtracks] - again, it's here for a high point: Pavarotti's part is made the greater by contrast with Bono's singing, peaks at "love will come..."
  • Jessi Bjorling - Forbi Forbi (Lensky's aria fromTchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, sung in Swedish)
  • U2 - The unforgettable fire - it's about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki victims, although you wouldn't know from the words
  • Sundays - Here's where the story ends [from Reading, Writing, Arithmetic] - the best from the album: wistful, with a voice laden with beauty and expression. I pretend their other albums are laudible, but they're not the same
  • Four Tops - Baby I need your loving
  • Art Garfunkel - Travelling boy [Angel Clare]
  • House Of Love - Call me [Audience with the mind]
  • Nick Cave - Ship song [The good son] (albeit Cave has a number of stirring songs in his catalogue - as does U2)
  • Jack Frost - Cousin/Angel [Snow Job] (and the day jobs of collaborators Kilbey and McLennan - The Church and Go-Betweens - produced much of beauty too)
  • This Mortal Coil - Tarantula [Filigree and Shadow]

I will likely alter/add to this list. Other songs make it to different lists for other reasons, such as raw power (No love lost), groove (Hot love to To the river), or guitar-as-meditation (Theresa's sound world - and much by Sonic Youth, Duane Allman, Neil Young, Clean, Durutti Column).

Friday, July 24, 2009

What's happening to this blog?

Not much, I'm still going. But over the last couple of months, I've made a few changes.

Ideally, I'd proffer a thought a day: an idea or insight that strikes me as significant. For this, I infuse more than enough information: in particular, from the Sydney Morning Herald, New Scientist (the weekly science news magazine), and ABC Newsradio (incorporation BBC's world service) - plus myriad other sources.

However, my publishing schedule has been somewhat variable over these three years, depending particularly on time availability.

One of the more recent additions is a tag list. Unsurprisingly, evolution, climate change and politics top the list. I have tried to backfill since I started using tags more rigorously, but there's still plenty of posts that need to be adequately tagged. The size of the tag list will inevitably steer the tags from the very specific to the more general.

And since I am trying to overcome a significant income deficit, I added some discreet ads at the end of the post. Not enough to be distracting, I trust.

I have also adopted a weekly schedule to the subjects - another tidyup. This makes the schedule more demanding and thus more fragile, but I'll try to keep it up as follows:
Mondays (published Sundays): Evolution
Tuesdays: sociology (social trends)
Wednesdays: economics/politics
Thursdays: climate change/science
Fridays: technology/IT
Saturdays, Sundays: music, film, literature, miscellaneous.

And most recently, I added a web counter to get some idea of the traffic for this blog. I've been using profile views and comments as a sort of proxy, but they tell little.

I expected a couple of views per day, since I've mentioned this blog to a few friends. But I was surprised to find an average of about 50 unique page views each day (averaging 40 visitors). Which suggests to me people may be coming here one-off via a specific Google search; the comments tend to bear this out. I know what it's like to be a lurker: there's simply not enough time to read everything, let alone interact. But I am asking you to send a comment today, if you can. What made you come to this blog (or what were you searching on)?

Feel free to comment on content, but you don't have to. Reminder that comments here are moderated to prevent spam, so they won't show up until I've clicked through them.

PS: I have to laugh. Having just said the ads were discreet, I looked at this post and found a massive yellow ad for a retailer at the bottom. Cross fingers it won't happen too often. Is it there now?

Microsoft, installs and quality control

Some lessons in working with Microsoft - and in software installation - are over at my professional blog. Although there may be a familiar ring to the experience, I also have some thoughts on why it happens.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Different weather: is it climate change?

The jasmine started coming out a few days ago, triggered by a bout of warmer weather. Normally, first out is the delectable scent of the daphne in the tailend of winter in August. The daphne's flowers are starting to poke out, but they are beaten by the strong scent of jasmine.

Flowers are a great way to signal the passage of seasons, especially if you have a range of plants that flower at different times.

Last year I noted both flowers were out early - around this time, too. But this year, the order is reversed, and the daphne is slower than the jasmine for the first time.

It's all very well to ascribe changes to global warming (today was the Sydney's hottest July day in 19 years). But there will still be normal seasons and abnormal. And if we take this as a signal, climate change deniers are at liberty to use a hot year like 1998 as their benchmark to justify their position.

(And I say this to climate change deniers. Pin yourself down to a hardline position, if you will. Let's have something clear and unambiguous written down for posterity. Then let's look back in 20 years and see what effect your stance has had by then on your children's world.)

No, one or two anecdotes don't prove a case... but there are already numerous anecdotes the world over (eg, try sheep sizes in Scotland). Yet I'm sure at a local level, if you stay in one place for long enough - and I'd say ten years is enough, at this point in time), you will witness numerous anecdotal changes around you.

So what are you doing about it? Reducing car use? Buying electricity from renewable sources? Voting wisely? Just as there are numerous anecdotes, there are numerous actions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

indiscriminate bombers DON'T get to heaven

The life of William S Burroughs was shaped by the choices he made, which ultimately revealed him to be a venal, self-centred, and nonhumanist man.

Unfortunately, as a libertarian, Burroughs impinged on the lives of others through those affected by his writings. One of his tracts advocated random assassination, as a force to destabilise a society. As a disaffected product of a wealthy nation, he had the freedom to do that.

It is possible but doubtful that Indonesian jihadists have read his writings. But they come from exactly the same place, albeit being disaffected products of a poor nation.

Which some of them just made poorer. Every time the indiscriminate bombing of a western target splashes death tolls across world headlines, Indonesia's economy tanks. And it's not just tourism - one of its prime industries - that suffers; it's also trade, and in particular the foreign investment that lifts a poor country up into the developing world. And if you don't hold much stock in that, you don't live in poverty in a poverty-stricken country.

Those latest bombers can be excused for feeling disaffected, at the receiving end of a number of potentially crushing power disparities. But there can be no excuse for the stupidity and selfishness of their action, which ultimately have the opposite effect of whatever their intention was.

And those who expect to get rewarded in an afterlife would find, if you could model such an afterlife, that they are excluded for that very selfishness and stupidity.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Insights into teenage tech trends

A teenager on work experience for a bank has written a 'research note' on media technology that has reverberated around the world.

This despite the fact that the research was not quantitative: he consulted a few friends, then wrote up in one day a paper that has been praised for its [anecdotal] insights.

The bottom line was that in their formative years of consumerism, teenagers are great adopters of digital media, but take issue with both cost and advertising (don't we all?, but the sensitivity is much greater). They adopt most media because it doesn't cost, and only some media by necessity. Texting [and phone calls] and cinema are the main media that are paid. Music is either pirated, or consumed from internet stations for which they have more choice of content, and no ads.

in: good mid-range mobile phones (can be obtained at birthday/xmas), Facebook, Internet as search/reference resource, viral marketing (word of mouth, so to speak), cinema (esp while at kids' prices), game consoles
out: Twitter (costs), radio (ads), regular tv watching, iTunes or similar, newspapers

Teenagers will carry many habits into adulthood; the fact that this is practically the first generation to have access to a wide range of digital media technologies suggests some significant adjustments in markets and advertising are afoot.

Morgan Stanley's comments are largely limited to: "[the] influence on TMT [technology, media, telecoms] stocks cannot be underestimated." But I can't resist making a few observations of my own.

Since all this suggests it will be harder to wean people off a non-payment habit, the implications are good for innovation in areas that benefit from large-scale commodification (commercial markets such as devices and mass-market pop music), but bad in areas that commodification detriments (art).

Implications are particularly bad for most music artists, as they will find it harder to earn money from selling content. Particularly at the medium to low volume end, this can profoundly affect the market, as far fewer people will be able to make a living from their music. At the top end, there will be greater pressure to tailor music for the paying market, which may drive the quality even further down to find a lowest common denominator that sells in sufficient bulk. Yet ultimately the ramifications are not all bad, if you consider the New Zealand model. Being such a small market, the expectations of most New Zealand musicians in the 1980s were not high in an income-earning sense, so in a way they made music with less regard to commercialisation. As a result, New Zealand was a hot-bed of innovation*.

Implications are also bad for advertisers, who will not easily reach people as they pass from a consumer stage of life to an earning, choice-laden lifestyle. Most traditional venues for advertising are ignored, particularly print (however, since the writer was male, he may have understated the appeal of girl's/women's magazines).

Consumer technology in the last couple of decades has been driven by mass commodification of technology, which led to great innovation in areas of affordability, for example home computers and mobile phones. The suggestions are that hardware innovation at the consumer end will continue to be focused on mobiles, computers and gaming.

The report was written in London by Matthew Robson for Morgan Stanley, and can be read here.

*spoken in a past tense because I have no recent knowledge of that market.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The cell as computer

Making sense of the material world is a gradual process that we all achieve to different degrees over the course of our lives. The further removed a paradigm is from a day to day human experience, the harder it is to put it in a meaningful context. Whether too vast or too small in size (stellar phenomena or microscopic to sub-atomic action), or too long or short in time (evolution; quantum actions), it helps to find a way to express meaning in terms we live each day.

Living cells are computers. This is a very succinct analogy which can help to conceptualise the complexity of cellular life and action.

Of course this metaphor is not new, but it looks to be very well put in a new book, Wetware: a Computer in Every Living Cell, by Dennis Bray (and reported in New Scientist).

Stentor Roeselii is a pond-dwelling single-celled organism. It exhibits behaviour that is akin to being directed by a brain. If a jet of water is squirted at it, it will duck down, then come back up cautiously. Another, identical squirt would be ignored. Squirt an irritant chemical at it, and it will "arch its stalk-like body out of the way, move from side to side", retreat, then finally tear itself free from its mooring and drift off to a new home.

Bray characterises such an organism as a chemical computer. Ultimately, the programme written out in the DNA (and so it cannot be reprogrammed per se). But the complex set of actions (output) are all induced by chemical reactions that occur as a response to stimulus (input). The chemical reactions are not simple, but they are effectively laid down by DNA, which also dictates the form, that is the composition of this "bag of biochemistry". We cannot yet come close to duplicating this because we haven't broken the barrier to the point where we can build computers at anything more than an electronic level.

In a similar fashion, a multicellular organism could be seen as a large group of chemical computers that includes complex mechanisms (chemical interactions) to bind them to working collaboratively. (By the time we get to the sophistication of an animal with a decent-sized brain, though, the ultimate outcome could be said to be non-deterministic, simply because of the complexity and miniturisation... but that determinism is another debate altogether.)

Comparing biochemical action to advanced miniaturised computing is a very useful way to help understand how life builds up from its building blocks to the level of complexity we now see.

Why I do like Harry Potter

Harry Potter grew up over the course of Joanne Rowling's seven books.

At first it was addressed at ten-year-olds, but as it became a stellar publishing phenomenon, the Harry Potter world became more serious. That is, the writing focused more on plot and less on the twee hokum that was meant to draw in the ten-year-olds, and which strongly characterised the first book.

It wasn't as if Rowling did a complete volte face to address a different and larger - adult - audience. A little of the hokum remained. But by the end of the last book, it is obvious the whole series was mapped out in advance to a stunning level of detail. But Rowling's content changed to accentuate what was compelling in the books - the intricacy of the plotting, the fervid imagination, the consistency of detail, the complexity of characters, and above all, a nuanced but strong ethical framework. The level at which these are achieved are not the hallmark of a merely competent writer caught up in a maelstrom of unexpected success (such as Dan Brown).

Once the final book is read, pick up a book at random from the middle of the series. You will find many details that are offloaded in passing, which don't seem to have specific plot relevance. Those same details then come with a much more meaningful context. ('"No - [spying on the deatheaters is] your job, isn't it"..."Yes, Potter" [Snape] said, his eyes glinting"' ). Of course, there are a lot of red herrings, but in a different light it's plain to see how some ideas have deeper meaning, while others simply mirror the myriad other possibilities that don't bear out.

There was an article doing the international rounds, a column from a British journalist: "Why I hate Harry Potter". But the writer was simply reacting to the Phenomenon - obviously hadn't read enough of the books to realise what a treat she was in for, if she'd had more wit and patience. That journalist shall be nameless, not like Rowling.

These books will have lasting significance, long after the films are relegated to archival status.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Van Halen and Madonna: who's riders best?

Madonna's stage collapsed, killing one person and seriously injuring another.

She should take a tip from those tired old rockers, Van Halen. Their contract stipulated backstage provision of M&Ms with the brown ones removed - so they wouldn't have a stage collapse.


Silly as it sounds, it's true. Van Halen were ridiculed as an example of rock'n'roll excess, for that rider above, which they put into every contract with tour promoters. But it was all part of their master plan, as Snopes quotes David Lee Roth.

The contract was massive because their touring equipment was massive. Very weighty. So many things to do and install, so many people to put it together. If the contract wasn't followed properly, disaster could await. So they inserted that rider on the M&Ms to verify that the promoter had followed the whole of the contract detail.

One time, the band did find brown M&Ms, so they trashed the dressing room. The stage was sagging, the M&Ms were proof that the contract detail was lacking, but it was only the trashing that was good old rock'n'roll - not the petulance.

I doubt the band were that clever; like the sporting star who mouths over-intelligent words, the idea must have come from higher up the chain, from managers or industry experts.

Still, Madonna could learn something.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Web: easy as 1.0, 2.0, 3.0

I have a memory of a W3 Consortium seminar in Sydney several years back. It discussed their efforts to put meaning into web content via The Semantic Web, using a concept/relationship mapping language called OWL, which uses RDF (a metadata descriptor) and XML syntax.

They intended to arrive at a structure that was universally navigable mechanistically (by computer), yet retain for each specialty area its own language/concepts. Yes, it was developed by academics, for academic applications.

This was before the concept of Web 2.0 was sufficiently popularised to gain a solid meaning. At the time, I believe they used the term Web 2.0 to describe their endeavour.

Times change, meanings change. The term Web 2.0 has been usurped for another purpose, and it looks like the W3 Consortium is now using Web 3.0 instead. At the current state of play, the simplest description I have seen of the evolution of the web (from Jean-Michel Texier via Peter Thomas) is as follows:

* Web 1.0 was for authors [ - to be read]
* Web 2.0 is for users [ - fosters interaction
* Web 3.0 is also for machines [ - fosters automation]

In effect, Web 3.0 should enable more rigorous discovery and collation of information from the far corners of the web. Something like what Google should be, if it had the full smarts. However, it would only work where web content authors added the background tags and capabilities - so it's more likely to be taken up for knowledge/information-building purposes, such as research, reference materials and databases. But this is a deceptively powerful paradigm, and the sky's the limit for assembling useful meaning. The current Google would look like a paper telephone directory... but by then, Google would have evolved to make full use of it. A fully referenced assembler of knowledge, rather than isolated lumps of unverified information.

PS If interested in Data Quality in a technical, database sense, see my latest tech post. (This one was intended for a generalised audience!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Al Gore: weak climate change policy better than nothing

If Al Gore endorses it, is it good enough?

That doesn't seem to be the right question.

In Australia at the moment, Gore has endorsed the Australian government's proposed emission trading scheme. His core rationale is that some policy is better than none. He identifies the failure of two leading industrial nations (Australia and USA) to ratify 1997's Kyoto protocol as one of the biggest causes of inertia in action on climate change. And for those two countries to go to the Copenhagen conference with leadership on the issue is a strong signal to the rest of the world, even if the plans are weak (in the case of Australia) or aimed too far into the future (USA).

For comic relief, Senator Steve Fielding [a foolish sceptic who holds balance of power in the Senate] is hoping to persuade Al Gore that he's wrong on global warming - based on a very selective chart which focuses on 1998, which happened to have abnormally high temperatures.

Meanwhile, Crikey has some harsh words to say about this apparent leadership, which they characterise as based far more on hope than action.

An interview with Gore on the 7.30 Report fleshes out very well his position on Australia and the US in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two Hus, and China's hardball trade game

China's form of economic hardball is possibly unique in these times, a game that has emerged from a specific set of temporal factors, including their culture and their current global economic status.

The immediate context for this is the arrest in China of Stern Hu, an Australian executive of mining conglomerate Rio Tinto. Hu has been accused of, but not yet charged with, espionage. The Chinese government said Hu and three other Rio Tinto employees arrested "have already broken Chinese law and have violated international business ethics".

This was preceded by pricing negotiations that ended up being more favourable to Australian resource companies than had been generally expected. Further, on 5th June Rio Tinto backed out of a $AU25 billion deal with Chinalco, and instead joined forces with rival BHP Billiton. China's burning need for raw materials makes major dealings with resource companies extremely sensitive. Upon the deal's collapse the Chinese immediately convened a high-level political task force to "assess the political and economic risks" of large outgoing investment deals.

Yet: "This is certainly not 'revenge' for the Chinalco deal not going through," said a Chinese Government source. "It is part of a considered, all-of-government response to the general resources question that was made after considering the likely international response."

Maybe not specifically, but it could well be a tactical manoeuvre underpinning the Chinese government's overarching strategy on resourcing.

What happened is not clear yet. But it's obviously tied to the dangerously tricky nature of doing business in China.

The Sydney Morning Herald's John Garnaut noted : "Rio Tinto has strong rules and a strong corporate ethos that should mean that China's 'conclusive evidence' about the company paying bribes turns out to be unsubstantiated." But between Rio's official policy and China's "enormous system of laws that are seldom enforced", there is the traditional Chinese way of business. Another Herald journalist commented:"The immediate very public escalation of the arrest issue makes discreet high level use of guanxi - the uniquely Chinese concept of personal relationships - extremely difficult".

There is thus a wide chasm between the customary way of doing business, and how it should be done if legally enforced. That chasm constitutes an enormous manouvering space under the direct control of the Chinese government. So they are deciding when to enforce practices that would usually be seen to be corrupt or involving undue personal influence.

The deliberate revelation that President Hu Jintao personally approved the "investigation" that led to the arrest, signals an escalation in the politics of trade. Until the Chinese government becomes obliged to close the gap between customary practice and law in a uniform way, they control the playing field. Internation economic and political pressure will force the issue, but until then the Chinese government will be taking full advantage of it.

16-Jul-09 Update: Although PM Kevin Rudd's (public) response to the arrests has been characterised as lukewarm to date, as a sinophile ex-diplomat he is probably better versed than most in the intricacies of communication at that level. But his public words are now somewhat stronger: the world is watching. Meanwhile, a Chinese newspaper quoted an unnamed industry source that Rio had bribed executives of 16 steel mills to get access to industry data "which has become an unwritten industry practice" - which begs the question why those executives weren't also arrested. Lastly, the incident has caused a spike in the spot price for iron ore. Whilst economists can always give explanations for a sudden price jolt in either direction, in this case it could be said to reflect perception that the cost of doing business (with China) is higher than previously expected.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Eritherium: mammals exploded rapidly

A recent paper published in PNAS details the earliest member of the elephant family yet found, dating from just 60 million years agO (just five million years after the dinosaur extinction event).

The eritherium would have weighed only about 5kg, with no significant tusks. But it was identified as the earliest (most primitive) member of the Proboscidea order, of which the (three similar species of) elephant is the only survivor.

The specimen was found in Morocco; the author suggests it is indicative of a rapid evolution of a variety of placental mammals (in particular paenungulates), due to favourable ecosystem development in Africa.

To look at the implications, it pays to take some perspective. It was a dinosaur world (the mesozoic era) for about 180 million years, until meteor impact(s) 65 million years ago cleared the decks of all larger animals (and much else). The first true mammals emerged early in the mesozoic; placental mammals (as opposed to egg-layers or marsupials) emerged about 120 mya, but under the domination of dinosaurs remained largely nocturnal and shrew-sized.

According to the study's author Emmanuel Gheerbrant, the discovery "supports an explosive radiation of placental mammals" in the five million years immediately after dinosaur extinction. This is not entirely new, but reinforces what had already been hypothesised.

Of course, all this simply demonstrates the part environment plays in the evolutionary radiation of different species. In their time, dinosaurs effectively shaped the environment for other species. Meteor impact then remodelled the global environment, and mammals no longer needed to compete for resources with - or evade - (non-avian) dinosaurs.

Humans in turn evolved from the primate lineage only over the past four million years. According to Tudge (p492 - 512), the evolution of brain size (and gracility) was in response to environmental factors such as cooling temperatures and scarcity of resources, and the heavier, less brainy hominid species died out.

So we have 180 million years of dinosaur dominance, followed by a real explosion of mammal species in the next 5 million years. Most recently, homonids evolving over 4 million years; brain size grew rapidly from 3 mya to 1 mya; modern H sapiens sapiens first appearing just 100,000 years ago. Evolutionary change and radiation can be slow when environmental factors mitigate against it, and rapid in favourable conditions. (Yet in the case of the emergence of humans, challenges may have propelled evolution rather than holding it back.)

Gheerbrant, E (2009): Paleocene emergence of elephant relatives and the rapid radiation of African ungulates, PNAS 30 June 2009 - abstract here
Tudge, C (2000): The Variety of Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Wikipedia on Placental mammals

Friday, July 10, 2009

G8 and the capacity to induce climate change

The G8 meeting has just agreed on a carbon emission reduction of 80% by 2050, and an aim of raising global temperatures by no more than 2%.

That's something, because the G8 represents 80% of (current!) carbon emissions.

But it's not enough.

I heard a bloke from India who, by way of commenting on climate change, asked what good is worrying about climate change if you have enough trouble trying to get enough to eat.

That's a very valid reason for people in underdeveloped nations not according enough urgency to the climate change issue (albeit somewhat less valid a reason for inaction from their leaders). They are too preoccupied with survival in the short term to consider the longer term. It could be said that a medium to longer term perspective is a luxury - if you are at the poverty line.

But what excuse for the rich nations to NOT set a far closer target? An 80% reduction is laudible, but for two things. First, it pushes the issue too far back onto later generations - our problem, maybe, but we'll make the urgency someone else's. Further, that target says nothing in itself of the trajectory of change. It permits a lackidaisical approach at the present.

And we can see why the issue becomes a rich versus poor argument.

The solution lies in the hands of the rich nations of today. But it has become apparent that global politics has not evolved far enough yet, and at this point I cannot see effective action being taken. At the rate they're currently talking, significant climactic change is inevitable this century. Not to mention changes in sea level, which will devastate on a global basis. A metre rise? - or three? So far, it has been too hard to quantify the change. There is a huge store of ice in Greenland waiting to melt, and the Russian permafrost has a vast carbon store just waiting to be released. On the cover of the latest New Scientist: "It's worse than we thought". Greenland already losing enough ice to raise sea levels by .8mm per year; 60 million people currently within one metre of sea level - and projected to double.

Humans will survive, of course, as will the planet. This will have a devastating effect on biodiversity. Human suffering - and dispossession - will skyrocket; that and shrinking land will increase conflict and war.

Adapt to a changing world without an explosion of human misery? If we can't get together to deal with poverty and population, that is just not going to happen.

I had thought that once the issue was properly acknowledged worldwide on a cultural and political level, the requisite action would be axiomatic. I hadn't accounted for the capacity of world leaders (and their voters) to allow the tragedy to proceed.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Beatles songs and the translation of value

This is a tale of value transferrence: how creativity is transmuted to the base common demoninator that everything seems to get translated to: capital. Why will the copyright to most Beatles songs end up scattered to the winds, in the hands of anonymous - or big-capitalist - shareholders?

If you will, you could try blaming poor tax advice, Yoko Ono, or the extravagant lifestyle of Michael Jackson - plus a large host of minor players. But quintessentially, there were a lot of poorly-handled relationships, only some of which are detailed here.

In a publishing contract, a songwriter assigns copyright to a music publisher, a company that does the quotidian administrative work of collecting royalties for the song being recorded, played, or used in any context; the publishing company typically has control over licensing the song for use in other media. In return, the songwriter gets a certain percentage of the licensing fees as royalty. Most songwriters sign over publishing rights for a relatively paltry percentage. Some who are canny, or at the peak of their careers, command a good percentage, or contractually stipulate reversion of control at some point.

The Beatles set up their own publishing company (Northern Songs) in 1963, along with an existing publisher, Dick James (most famous as the owner of DJM, which made a fortune as Elton John's original record label).

In 1965, the owners decided to float Northern Songs, to save on capital gains tax. This left Lennon and McCartney each with 15% of their publishing rights. In 1968 they signed on for a further five years - the lucrative early years of their respective solo careers. However, their relationship with James deteriorated (as subsequently happened with James and Elton John), so in 1969 James sold off to ATV Publishing for a good profit, without giving Lennon and McCartney a chance to buy him out. Since ATV threatened to take a controlling share which they didn't manage to buy out, Lennon and McCartney sold their shares in 1969 for £3.5 million.

When ATV Publishing was up for sale in 1985, McCartney tried to get Lennon's widow to unite to buy it up, but Ono preferred it to go to Michael Jackson, to avoid ongoing bickering between her and McCartney. It has been noted that at this point McCartney could easily have bought out on his own. But he didn't, for whatever reason, and it has since been said with some justification that Jackson had a better eye for business than McCartney.

In 1995, Jackson sold 50% into a joint venture with Sony which, with other major catalogue, became the third biggest music publisher in the world.

Sony/ATV's Beatles rights are currently estimated to be worth $30-45m per year. I saw one estimate saying Jackson's assets were about $400m, debts being about $200m; however, that didn't seem to square with Jackson's estimated holding in Sony/ATV: $450m alone.

That is likely to end up on the capital markets, simply because it is more prized as a capital asset than for its sentimental - or creative - value.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Economics and politics asks too much of us

Today's column from Herald Economics editor Ross Gittens:

"After being paid to study the performance of politicians for the past 35 years it finally occurs to me that the problem with democracy is the same problem we have with competition in markets: for it to work well requires more effort and attention on the part of voters (or customers) than they're prepared to devote to it." [my emphases]

Read the rest here.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

How democracy fails

Heard a few days ago that California is in severe financial strife, and is literally dishing out IOUs instead of payments.

I would suggest the problems stem directly from their great experiment with democracy. Citizen initiated referenda have been long touted, but short on fulfillment.

The way Californians have voted on a string of taxation propositions demonstrates that they don't want taxes.

No, they are not radical libertarians. It's just that voters, as a mass, act irrationally. Very clearly, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

In New Zealand in the 1980s, the government proposed to ban all US nuclear ships from its ports. Since the US was running a 'neither confirm nor deny' policy on their nuclear capabilities, that would have effectively meant banning all US ships. In turn, that would put the kybosh on the long-standing ANZUS alliance.

That road was clear. Of course, polling showed that the majority of New Zealanders wanted nuclear ships kept out, but also wanted to maintain the alliance.

There are times when good leadership is called for, to bring the populace along with them. Don't expect voters to successfully micro-manage

Friday, July 03, 2009

Wind power alone can do it - but...

A new study demonstrates that it would be possible to generate global energy needs from wind power alone.

This comes from a Harvard study published in PNAS (the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences), and reported in New Scientist. Abstract available here; full study here.

The study collated wind data from the past 30 years, to produce a database of the best available global wind information, to a resolution of six hourly for areas down to 50 x 60 km.

The modelling suggests the top ten carbon polluters (bar Japan) could generate all projected electricity needs onshore, from existing technology.

The example given to fill US needs was two or three turbines per square kilometre over just 13% of the country.

I would, however, reiterate my reservations on the use of wind power, specifically for the effect that large-scale 'harvesting' can have on climate. The one study I found - again in PNAS - that does look at this issue concluded that the large-scale effects would be 'nonnegligible', as expected.

I've been signed up for electricity from 100% renewable sources since it was first offered over ten years ago. My current option is for 100% solar sources: a little more expensive again that general renewables, but this reflects my concern, and in particular that extracting energy from solar sources has the least impact - potentially positive, in fact. This may be rather aspirational if wind harvesting is currently negligible - as it is - but one must look to, and build for, the future.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Facebook as a tool or timewaster

The internet is a great time-waster. Facebook even more so.

Ostensibly a networking site, its best value is as another tool to allow people to keep in touch with each other despite the inevitable tyrannies of time and distance. While snail mail can be personal, mobile phone direct and email easy, Facebook is a permanent placeholder that can be as low maintenance as desired, or generate a constant stream of traffic between people or groups. Yet the bottom line is that one can easily check up on what a friend is up to - without necessarily having to engage. And you never have to lose contact. In fact, solely through Facebook, I've restored a number of contacts I thought were lost for good.

But you get all types. Facebook is also good for communicating interests. But some people almost live on that site, sending/receiving a steady stream of actionable items - questionnaires, games to play, and groups to join (thanks, Andrew, for all the worthy causes - and they are all good, especially the group declaring Steve Fielding to be not real - but there's only so much time in the day...)

I also get a number of friend-linking requests from people I don't know - largely friends of friends, I guess, with a smattering of mistaken identities. I ignore anyone I don't know well. It keeps the names down to a manageable number. Not like some who collect names with little discrimination, and get lost in the morass.

Recently I saw a (Wiley) cartoon - quite funny, but sobering - that typifies for me that rush of blood to the head that accompanies Facebook, and the lack of discrimination that dilutes its use as a tool.

LinkedIn is the equivalent for professional communication. The equivalent collector there is the professional recruiter - many are casting wide their search for names with apparently little planning on how to use LinkedIn as an effective business tool. I accepted a few invitations to link before I realised I was going to get swamped. So with due respect to recruiters (as a contractor, I'm constantly looking for work), I no longer accept invitations from them.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

An Obama anecdote from 20 years ago

An interesting illustration of Obama's character dates from 20 years ago, when he was a not-very-well-off law student. I don't think his generosity was in anticipation of a vote in a presidential election...