Monday, August 31, 2009

Is evolution still happening?

Every so often, someone lands on my site specifically because they're wondering this: is evolution still happening?

Depends what you mean, really.  We hear often how viruses and bacteria mutate, seeming to generate new ways to attack us all the time.  Take bacteria (which are more readily classed as living entities).  They proliferate by dividing (binary fission), and their generations are far, far more rapid than ours.  Greater population, fast breeding, more scope for genetic change that is more visible to us.

Yet broadly we conceive evolution in terms of how we humans got to where we are today.  And that's the product of hundreds of millions of years (and elaborated in my earlier discussion here).  Saying that is one thing, but understanding it is far more difficult, because our human scale takes its measure in one lifetime.  At best, we extend ourselves to the whole of human history, which is only a few thousand years - a tiny speck on the scale of hundreds of millions.  I call this issue deanthropocentrism: the effort required to conceptually escape our human framework, and understand processes that work on vastly different scales.  To do this more than superficially is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So some of us think, how can this be, does this evolution really make sense?  Yes, it does, just not so much in our immediate framework.

Yet the sun is still emitting radiation that occasionally knocks around with DNA in our germ-line cells, producing the odd change.  Such changes can add up over time, if beneficial for survival.  If a mutation improves the odds of an individual surviving and breeding, that mutation is more likely to survive.  In the past, this was "natural selection" - ie, mutation survived where the "whole of environment" (including climate, food resources, food competitors, and predators) fostered it.  These days, humans frequently take that role, exercising selectivity over both plant and animal breeds.

How does selectivity work today on humans?  Well, we've diluted it substantially.  By improving global health, we're over-riding natural selectivity.  We're increasing the survival rates of those who have adverse genetic outcomes.  For example, cystic fibrosis sufferers once seldom lived far beyond puberty, but survival has now been prolonged past breeding age.

Is that a bad thing?

No, because we are ethical beings, not ones to ride on the whim of random outcomes.

Over time, our technology can improve outcomes, identify potential issues before they happen, find solutions.

And we are now at the point where the environment is a product of us, not vice versa.  So what of climate change?  Although we can say human adaptions that are better suited to a hotter, more turbulent world are better able to survive, the question is whether those less adaptive are likely to survive to breed.  And our global culture no longer fosters selectivity purely on that basis - bar a calamitous breakdown of society.

So these are the issues: whether and how we intervene in 'natural' selectivity.  Such intervention can bring human evolution to a halt.  The only selectivity for breeding now is societal, and I have seen no indication so far of any specific genetic determinant on those who end up remaining single all their lives (in the sense that they produce no offspring).

In that sense it could be said that humans, for the time being, have induced their own evolutionary pause.  However, that might not be such a bad thing: natural selectivity could work in any direction, depending on environment.  Bigger (or brighter, or more complex) is not necessarily better for survival, for example - as the dinosaurs found out.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds and the director's form

Following film via director's pedigree can be fraught - but ultimately very rewarding.  Few people can be pitch perfect all the time, and those who succeed well can also fail big.

Take Terry Gilliam.  Aside from the Monty Python films (which are largely turkey shoots), his first major critical success was the acclaimed Brazil.  His imagination shines glorious, in both the writing and direction.  Yet he perennially suffers from an ambition far greater than a capacity to realise, so he has crashed spectacularly.  Persistence was rewarded with the wonderful 12 Monkeys, but his record remains understandably patchy... but he's still worth watching for the times he pulls it off.

Jim Jarmusch, similarly uneven.  Early winner with Stranger Than Paradise, persistence richly rewarded with Dead Man. (But how could he come up with Ghost Dog?)

Christopher Nolan.  More consistent, in that his failures are only relative to his stunning successes.  See Memento and be a fan for life; The Prestige is another payoff.  Dark Knight, for all its violence, is obviously the product of a very skilled filmmaker.

TarentinoPulp Fiction: top notch writing, top notch directing.  Some of his later films such as Kill Bill were little more than stylised ultra-violence.  But Inglourious Basterds (US, 2009) is Tarantino at top of form.  Again with more violence than necessary, but so well crafted, so well written.

You can come to a film by accident, or you can follow form assiduously.  Don't expect a payout every time, but it's worth the wait for the jackpot.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich (1940 - 2009) and the soundtrack of the 1960s

Wait 'till my Bobby gets home,
Wait till my baby gets ho-ome
Yeah yeah yeah yea-eah, sure I need some lovin'
Some kissin' and a-huggin'
But I'll wait 'till my Bobby gets home.

That's the first I heard of Ellie Greenwich: her 1973 single Wait 'Till My Bobby Gets Home – a vibrant pop song.

With that came her bio, in a pop chart dated 13th September, 1973:

"Ellie Greenwich is currently having her first hit - at the age of 33, although she's far from being any newcomer to the business.  She, like Carole King and Neil Sedaka, comes from Brooklyn, New York City.  Also, like Carole King, she's divorced from her ex-songwriting partner/husband.  But to get back to the beginnings, she was a high-school teacher for a while, and she was a contracted songwriter for Lieber and Stoller's publishing company.  There she met Jeff Barry, who'd just written his first hit - Tell Laura I Love Her.  They began writing and singing together, and later got married.  The artists for whom they wrote hits included Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield, The Crystals, Lesley Gore, and Ike and Tina Turner, and their hits included And Then He Kissed Me, Chapel of Love, I Can Hear Music, Baby I Love You, Leader of the Pack and River Deep, Mountain High.  When their marriage broke up things slowed down a lot for Ellie Greenwich, but the tremendous success of Carole King has inspired her with a similar ambition.  As a result, she currently has her first solo single on American charts, and it's now hit ours - Ellie Greenwich's Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home is this week in place 83 on the ZM Sound Survey."*

It sounds odd now, but at the time most of the above namechecks drew a blank with me.  But I had only just started listening to pop music with a verve, and it only took another seven years of listening to the radio to fully round out my education in all that was big in music since the advent of rock and roll.

Not until I did the research just now, did I find out Bobby had already been a minor hit in 1963 for Darlene Love (#26 on Billboard).  Or that she also wrote Sunshine After The Rain, a very pleasant almost-hit for Elkie Brooks in the late seventies.

She was credited with setting Neil Diamond on the road to success as a performer; she also worked with Phil Spector (writer, producer and arch criminal) on a number of their biggest mutual successes.

Despite the promise ascribed to her in the above bio, in reality Greenwich's chief impact on music was her songwriting contribution to the blossoming of the sixties.  A narrow focus, but one that shouldn't be understated.  It is a tribute to her skills that so many of those songs were later covered by so many people.

 Although her songs are well known by many, most people haven't even heard her sing - which she does creditably.  An extract from Bobby, from her second album, 1973's Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung, can be heard here. (you can also hear Sunshine After The Rain via Elkie's version here, and Ellie's original here.  They present an interesting comparison between sixties and seventies sensibilities).  Ellie's own site is worth a look; there's also a great interview with her here.

Silly Isn't It/ Cha-Cha Charming

(as Ellie Gaye)
What A Guy
(as Raindrops, with husband Jeff Barry)
The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget
The Raindrops
Raindrops:  What a Guy/Hanky Panky/I Won't Cry/It's So Wonderful/Da Doo Ron Ron/When the Boy's Happy (The Girl's Happy Too)/The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget/Isn't That Love/ Every Little Beat/Even Though You Can't Dance/That Boy's Messin' Up My Mind/Not Too Young to Get Married

That Boy John

Book Of Love

Let's Go Together

One More Tear

Don't Let Go


Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces & Sings
United Artists
Beautiful People/Baby Baby Baby/ Goodnight Goodnight/Long Time Comin'/The Sunshine After the Rain/ Niki Hoeky/The Letter/ Oh How Happy/ I'll Never Need More Than This/I Want You to Be My Baby

Niki Hoeky
United Artists

I Want You To Be My Baby
United Artists

Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung
Maybe I Know/Wait 'Til My Bobby Gets Home/Today I Met The Boy I'm Going To Marry/And Then He Kissed Me/If You Loved Me Once/ Be My Baby/What Good Is I Love You/Chapel Of Love/I Can Hear Music/Goodnight Baby-Baby I Love You/Gettin' Together/ River Deep, Mountain High

Wait 'Til My Bobby Gets Home


*Well, accuracy wasn't the forte of ephemera such as pop charts.  Bobby didn't actually make it to the Billboard hot 100 (whereas an earlier one of hers did, under her own name: I Want You To Be My Baby - a very R'n'B song, which can be heard here).  And ironically, her erstwhile partner's aforementioned song Laura was zooming up the charts that week in 1973, in a cover by Creation which reached number 4, whereas Bobby was destined to sink without trace - apart from the memories of those who heard her sing it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

SETI, Open source, and the socialisation of productivity

What does SETI have to do with Microsoft's furrowed brow?

We all know the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, whereby the universe is scanned for signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum which can be interpreted as originating with intelligent life. Some of us have run SETI@home: you download a screensaver, which runs in the background, borrowing your unused computer time to run a parcel of number crunching for SETI. Everybody wins: only your idle computer time is used, and it can have some wider community benefit - you may even be responsible for the first discovery of extraterrestrial life.

That was the first distributed grid computing project to gain widespread publicity. But the software is now available to turn any general project requiring major computer time into a socialised project. The Herald recently ran an article on Australian use of such software: specifically, BOINC, The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The article said over 32,000 Australians were currently running BOINC projects, out of 1.7 million people worldwide.

The scope is tremendous, not just for general scientific research, but also for any community-sector project that may not otherwise have the resources to get off the ground.

For the moment, here's a list of projects you may wish to take part in. Those are all scientific research, mainly in biology, physics and maths, but there's also a World Community Grid, which is specifically aimed at humanitarian projects.

As for Microsoft, the other side of community computing is software: open source, to be specific: generally an open source project is contributed to by many, with no profit-oriented copyright - and generally available for free. Open Office may be the most famous - a direct competitors to Microsoft's Office suite. And as a method of developing software that is freely available to all, it has gained acceptance in most areas of my professional focus, business intelligence. Apart from the well-known mySQL database, there are also open source tools available for most related areas. As well as database and BI software, there's also ETL, data profiling, and so on.

Over time, you should expect prices to tumble in all types of software directly affected by open source initiatives. Yes, the likes of Microsoft can expect some buffering from these forces due to brand-name strength. But yes too, Microsoft is worried enough that they are already working on alternative revenue streams, including jumping into the cloud. Those alternatives shouldn't see a collapse of capitalism any time soon, but the long-term trend can only benefit the public, particularly those who might not otherwise be able to afford such computer resources, particularly in the developing world.

In a wider sense, distributed computing and open source are simply harbingers of a globalisation and socialisation of productivity, for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

James Hardie's lack of corporate ethics

I doubt company directors and CEOs ever consider themselves thugs. Generally, they would claim their only aim is to protect shareholders' funds; often they claim that as their overriding legal obligation.

Yet James Hardie's managers indulged in thuggery - and they've been caught out.

With a significant liability on their books due to ongoing and emerging claims from their asbestos business, they sought a way to limit that liability. What better way than to sequester set funds in a trust, then high-tail it off to a foreign jurisdiction?

Which they did, reincorporating from Australia to the Netherlands. Yet thuggery it is, since they left behind insufficient cover for current and future victims.

"As a sufferer of asbestosis since 1992, I have no sympathy for their public humiliation. They brought it on themselves by their contemptible behaviour."
..."Big deal. You can guarantee they will not be driving cabs for a living."

- letters to the editor, SMH, 22-Aug-09

The specific crime was a mere technicality. The ten directors were punished because they approved a media release (claiming the trust was "fully funded") which was inaccurate, but deemed to be intended to affect the market.

Penalties were fines of $30,000 to $350,000, and being banned from CEO and board positions for five to fifteen years. The latter tends to have the greatest effect - on their careers. All have left James Hardie; some have resigned other management positions. However, a couple of them are working in the US, where the bans don't apply.

Their defence: each one of them claims they didn't read or don't remember reading the draft press release. Those claims were judged not to have been genuine.

And the James Hardie business (building supplies) has started to rebound from the recession already.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cambrian explained: early multicellular animals

The trifecta of interest in early evolution is: the emergence of eukaryotes (cells with nuclei), multicellularity, and animals.

There are signs of life at 3.8 billion years ago, just 700 million years after the formation of the Earth. I've discussed in more detail the advent of eukaryotic life here. The discussion below revolves around multicellular animals, and several discoveries that push back the timeline of their emergence. This ameliorates the picture of Cambrian-period "explosive" evolution, and replaces it with a more steady narrative. As in all paleontological tales, the evolution of understanding is a matter of both further discovery, and finer interpretation of existing evidence.

The first multicellular life (algae) dates back 1 billion years; the first multicellular animals date from 575 million years ago (the sponge-like Ediacarans).

From 542 to 520 million years ago in the Cambrian period was the relatively sudden evolution of more modern animal forms, which has piqued the curiosity of many, including Stephen Jay Gould. Gould explains the difference between Ediacaran animals and modern ones in terms of body layers: the former are diploblastic while the latter are triploblastic, essentially meaning they have an outer layer (ectoderm), a gut (endoderm) and, most importantly, a mesoderm in the middle, which lends the capacity for complex internal organs.

Traditionally, as a central narrative of animal evolution, the Cambrian explosion lacked context. However, more recent discoveries place the ancestors of Cambrian animals much further back, to about 850 million years.

One discovery concerns analysis of the bountiful Doushantuo Formation, a seabed fossil lode from China. Dating from 550 to 580 million years - latter times for the Ediacarans - tiny spheres have been found to be early animal embryos. Hard, spiky shells ruled them out as large bacteria, and those same shells, sans embryo, have been identified from 632 million years, early Ediacaran period.

This finding was reported in 1998 (Xaio, Zhang, and Knoll in Nature), and discussed at length by Gould in Lying Stones Of Marrakesh (notwithstanding his continued maintenance of special significance he previously accorded to the Cambrian).

Going back further, to 635-713 million years ago, a form of cholesterol has been found, 4-isopropylcholestane, now found only in some sponges.

Further: 850 million year old rocks in Canada (MacKenzie Mountains), which contain stromatolites (traces of cyanobacteria), have also been found to have a particular pattern of calcium carbonate which has been identified as characteristic of a collagen mesh, which only animals build. The discoverer (Canadian Elizabeth Turner) says the life form was even more primitive than a sponge: "a few different types of cells living together in a shared, collagenous matrix".

These discoveries fit well with molecular clock calculations: that is, comparative DNA analysis had already put back the advent of animals to about this time frame - yet evidential traces hadn't been identified until now. Others cast doubt on the interpretations of the evidence above, while still accepting animal evolution as dating back further than other evidence has shown.

I think a key aspect of the emergence of multicellular animals is the environmental backdrop. Photosynthetic bacteria started producing oxygen about 2.5 billion years ago, although this did not extend beyond a few metres of the ocean surface. This oxygen had been poisonous to most life to that point, but fostered development of oxygen-tolerating life. Atmospheric oxygen propelled a chain of circumstances resulted in the lower reaches of the ocean being not just anoxic, but also laden with hydrogen sulphide. Although some bacteria thrived in these conditions, the combinations would have been a "persistent brake on eukaryotice evolution" (according to the above Andrew Knoll).

Then came the second "snowball Earth" ice age, which was seen to "reset the chemistry of the oceans" to make life more favourable to multicellular animal forms. Yet conditions at first were more conducive to smaller, soft-bodied organisms - which, over time, changed the balance, perhaps by eating inimicable bacteria. On one interpretation, increased oxygenation was a result rather than a cause of animal evolution - although it makes more sense that they worked in tandem. The same is conjectured for the set of ice ages that occurred around that time: they could have been just as much a consequence of animal evolution (by sucking out carbon when buried) as a cause. It's easy to envisage a slowly oscillating set of equilibria that eventually settled to a higher oxygen, animal-rich, warm Earth - especially as there were no more snowball Earths once larger animals had evolved (notwithstanding subsequent ice ages of smaller scale).

A fascinating narrative, and one that is more appealing than sudden bursts of evolutionary activity. More detail in the New Scientist article below.

Gould, SJ (2000): Of Embryos and Ancestors in Lying Stones Of Marrakesh, Vintage, London.
Fox, D & Le Page, M (2009): Dawn of the animals in New Scientist, 2009, 11 July.

Friday, August 21, 2009

State of Play (US, 2009): an engaging thriller

Now here's an intelligent film, I thought when I watched this.

No, I don't mean Russell Crowe. I watch films despite him, not because of him.

But this one has quite an intricate, taut plot, one that keeps you working all the way through. Uncommon for a Hollywood film - then I found it was based on a British miniseries of the same name. That makes a lot more sense. This film probably draws a large amount of its credit from the original source - which was compared very favourably to the earlier Edge Of Darkness, another British political thriller - which I have seen, and which was particularly good, even second time around.

In fact, the original State Of Play was so complex the writer didn't want to sell the film rights because he thought it would be unworkable to condense it. Not to worry, he was eventually persuaded by enough money.

The film revolves around politics and journalism - set in Washington, rather than the original London. A minor theme is the tension between the new and the old of online versus traditional journalism. Somewhat overplayed at times, but it eventually resolved an acceptance of the validity of both paradigms.

On reflection, I believe Russell Crowe wasn't a great fit for his role. He was competent, but I expect others could have been more fitting. Apparently, Brad Pitt was originally up for the journalist role played by Crowe. I'm not a huge fan of his, either, although he gave a very creditable performance in Terry Gilliam's excellent 12 Monkeys. A good film can be ruined by miscasting; a great one can be dulled. Crowe didn't cripple this film, but he didn't enhance it.

In that sense, State Of Play could have been better. But regardless, it was a captivating watch; if only Hollywood were more often this engaging. Four stars.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Spaceship Earth-II: the future of Earth's life

"The earth is going to die in 500 million years!" exclaimed my eight-year-old today. And I had to illustrate to her how this is well beyond the span of our existence. Sort of a deanthropocentric exercise in reverse.

But what of it? Fundamentally, we don't like to think that there's nothing left of us - ever. But does that need to be the case? Yes, the sun is growing hotter, but we have hundreds of millions of years of technological advancement before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. And think where we've come in just one hundred years.

Last week, I was talking through a thought experiment with Mark on this topic.

Space is prohibitively large; commuting is not really an option. Even at the speed of light, the nearest star system to our own, Alpha Centauri, would take four years' travel. And it's questionable whether there's anything habitable there. It's a binary (plus) system, and the gravitational flux of two nearby suns may not foster stability.

Further, our bodies evolved in gravity, and it's not clear we'd survive for extended periods in minimal gravity environments.

In Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke posited a mammoth cylindrical body 50 kms long, with habitation on the inside. That's an overwhelming construction endeavour. I think there are easier options.

My suggestion is that to travel beyond the Solar System would take far more massive an environment than we could possibly build ourselves. It would be simpler to grab an existing body, and power that away somehow. As Mark pointed out, this is the Space: 1999 scenario, a science fiction series where the moon was torn away from Earth.

Possibilities include using something large from the asteroid belt, a moon from Jupiter or Saturn (such as Ganymede), or maybe something far out, such as that erstwhile planet Pluto.

Issues include heat, propulsion, gravity, retention of atmosphere, and other life-sustaining variables. By the time it's worthwhile thinking about it, I'd say we'd have the technology to allow us a few options.

This is the stuff of science fiction, certainly; plenty of options have already been canvassed in that milieu. Burrowing underground would provide sturdy shelter, although digging enough habitable space would be Herculean. Other options include domes on the surface - or terraforming.

Ah, terraforming. Rather what happened to our own planet. Microbial life has built up our current atmosphere and environment; we're just the evolutionary outcomes that could adjust to it. It took hundreds of millions of years to develop, but I think it's reasonable to anticipate we'll be able to engineer biological solutions that work faster.

However, out beyond the easy reaches of the sun, everything freezes. There would need to be both sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere (or to be able to continually regenerate it), and heat sources sufficient to prevent that freezing. The latter would be most feasible through nuclear fusion sources - we haven't succeeded at this yet, but I can see no reason it won't come. It's what the sun uses.

Gravity is a matter of using a large enough body. Life on Earth is, of course, evolved for our specific gravity, and much more research is needed to understand how or whether current life forms could adapt to lower gravity, or whether we'd need to engineer alterations that would allow various forms to survive in a somewhat different environment.

Because we would want to take with us as much of the existing variety of life as we could. This could involve storing samples at the DNA level, for later development/unpacking using either technological or substitute development (incubation) methods. In any case, plants and animal life should be considered an essential part of our environment - our being - and taking that with us would not be at issue. Bacteria and viruses too, surprisingly enough. Bacteria are our microbial engineers, a fundamental tool of life. Viruses have helped us become what we are today, though infiltrating our germ lines, they have imparted in us the resilince - and functionality - that we possess today.

The Earth's variety of life evolved specifically because the amount of solar radiation both protects us from other stellar sources, and generates mutation by occasionally knocking around with DNA. Outside Earth's orbit, mutation would happen at a different rate, which we would have to account for. Lesser rates would not be an issue: we are now at the point of engineering our environment to overcome the 'need' for adaptive outcomes of mutation. Greater rates of mutation would necessitate careful screening to optimise outcomes.

Yet that begs the question: outside the Earth's specific environmental womb, would it be more beneficial to engineer adaption in ourselves, so that future generations can make the move more readily? The biggest barrier is ourselves: the fact that we are rather wedded to our current form, no matter how ill-adapted to space journeying. I suspect we would be more willing to put extra effort into optimising our environment, than to force evolutionary change on our own grandchildren.

I have great optimism that we will survive in the long run. Even if, to paraphrase Steve Kilbey, we end up as digital memory*.

None of this is a substitute for getting our own planet in order. But if we can succeed in that, we'll probably be well placed to survive past the use-by date of our planet.

*The Church: Fog, (1992 B-side to Ripple)
It hurts to think that in a hundred years
We'll all just be microfiche
Our names and the names of our songs
Cataloged and filed away

- however, compared to the fate of most of our ancestors, I'd be happy to survive in digital form.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Earth as Gaia - or Medusa?

The Gaia hypothesis keeps cropping up in fiction and popular science, doubtless to make a comeback in the context of climate change.

There are various articulations of Gaia, which proposes the Earth constitutes a complex regenerative system that always returns the environment to a life-sustaining equilibrium. One version maintains that Earth and its atmosphere and environments supports life and constantly brings it back into balance; another draws into the equation the Earth's biomass (the totality of life on the planet), to say that the full system constitutes a self-balancing (homeostatic) system.

Gaia was proposed in the 1960s by James Lovelock, with Dian Hitchcock. Working for NASA, they were charged with researching the atmosphere on Mars, for signs of life. Finding the Martian atmosphere to be in a deadly state of equilibrium, they contrasted this with Earth's atmosphere, in a relative state of flux (between oxygen and carbon dioxide in particular). Their Gaia proposal grew out of that.

Yet Lovelock's background was in chemistry and medical research rather than environmental science, and he was employed by NASA to develop equipment to analyse Mars' atmosphere. Hitchcock's background was philosophy, and she was to test his logic.

After the initial formulation, Lovelock's main collaborator has been Lynn Margulis, a biologist who couched the theory in more careful terms: of trends rather definitive equilibrium. (Margulis' reputation, however, is built on much more significant work, on the origin of organelles in eukaryotic cells: that is, that the organs of cells with nuclei emerged through symbiosis of separate entities). Her contribution to Gaia allows that no species has guaranteed passage through the bottlenecks of time.

But a major criticism of Gaia is its teleological nature: that is, that it implies some intention or purpose behind the planet's formation.

Recently, Peter Ward, an American biology professor, wrote a book that proposes the opposite: the Medea hypothesis, which says that life is constantly trying to kill itself and its own environment (The Medea Hypothesis: Is life on Earth ultimately self-destructive?). His overview in New Scientist is worth reading: it contains much background information about Earth's environmental changes.

My concern is that none of this is saying anything in particular. There is no guarantee that life in any form will survive a major disaster such as global nuclear war or a sufficiently large meteor impact. In fact, current projections are that the Earth will become totally lifeless within 500 to 1,000 million years, purely through the expansion of the sun - and that compares to the 3.8 billion years it has taken to develop to this point.

Behind both Lovelock's and Ward's articulation is the fact that Earth's environment and atmosphere has changed quite drastically over its history, causing mass extinction - several times, and life itself is the frequent culprit, due to cumulative changes in chemical composition of atmosphere and oceans. One such event was the evolution of photosynthesis 2.3 billion years ago. This entailed the absorption of carbon dioxide, and the emission of oxygen: a double whammy. On the one hand, oxygen was pure poison to most life at the time. On the other hand, over the course of 200 million years, the sucking out of carbon dioxide froze the oceans: this (first) snowball earth lasted 100 million years.

(although we credit the most well-known extinction event with an external cause - the meteor 65 million years ago that wiped out non-avian dinosaurs - most were due to events of local origin, pointing to imbalances that build up over time, usually from biological causes.)

There is no guarantee that the planet would return to a life-sustaining balance. Nor is there viable evidence that life deliberately tries to kill itself, or will ever succeed. Yet what it does say is that the variety of life is such that it has survived a number of cataclysmic changes. Pretty much all environmental niches that we can identify have corresponding life forms that could survive it (albeit most of the extreme cases are microbial).

On an immediate level, if we make the planet inhospitable for ourselves, other life forms will surely survive. For what it's worth. But human intervention has been nothing like any previous climate change bar the meteor: all others have been far more gradual. In terms of our lifetime, it's slow, but on a less anthropocentric scale, we are inducing a real shock to the planet. Yes, climate change is natural, but not in the framework in which we live. And the ride will be somewhere between bumpy and catastrophic, depending on our capacity to move forward together on the issue quickly enough.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Peter Garrett: politics is hard on principles

Politics is hard. Rough and hard. Peter Garrett knows this better than most.

He's onto his third or fourth career now. From international success in the band Midnight Oil, he has had various roles in environmental activism, from president of the Australian Conservation Foundation to the board of Greenpeace international.

So what do you do if it's hard to make enough impact from the outside? Get on the inside, and know what real frustration is like. That must be life for Garrett as Australia's Environment Minister.

Last Saturday, an article in the Herald's Good Weekend (colour supplement) attempted to get to the core of Garrett's move. The results are predictable and disheartening: Garrett has learnt what it's like to be a politician.

His long-time associates do not doubt his sincerity and commitment to environment. However, the article stresses that in Garrett's position he is obliged to be a "team player". He's not rambunctious: he doesn't denigrate his colleagues either inside or out of cabinet, and he doesn't break ranks. All his politicking now takes place within cabinet, and he toes the line most strictly with whatever outcomes he has to swallow.

Case in point: in one of the "strongest speeches of his political career", Garrett has warned an international conference that some Australian animal species would have to face extinction. With 1750 threatened species, the government was moving from project-based ecology to preserving ecosystems - which would inevitably mean the death knell for some species.

That is understandable - quite rational, even, if cold-blooded. In fact, I cannot see the world changing course quickly enough to preserve all remaining species, let alone habitats. Human rapacity for land makes it inevitable that any ecosystem that is not explicitly preserved will be strongly threatened. Islands of wilderness are the only viable outcome of our present course.

But imagine being Peter Garrett, and having to announce the impending extinction of a random handful of species. And to keep that stony silence in the face of other environmental injustices that cabinet solidarity had demanded. At what point is one's voice sufficient on its own to sway outcomes? And by that point, are you then accustomed to compromising away your favoured outcomes for other factors?

My kids recognise Garrett more than other politicians - simply because he's our local MP, and he's been to their school. I'd hate them to come to understand him on the basis of what he can't achieve, rather than what he can. It's not his ideals that corrode - it's the political system that's corrosive. I still have hope he can sufficiently influence outcomes.

Update 06-Sep-09: A letter in today's Good Weekend in response to the above article vociferously sums up the attitudes of many:
"Peter Garrett's plea that he was just following the party's orders is possibly the most famous dud defence known.  Far from being the Faust or King Lear suggested, he appears to be the most common of political animals: the chameleon opportunist."

It is worth pointing out that that writer fully misunderstand Garrett's situation.  Despite being environment minister, he is bound by cabinet decisions - and so effectively has no say in many of his "decisions".  The only options here available to him are to resign from cabinet - and so be able to speak out without any real effect - or to attempt to influence outcomes from within.  I cannot comment on the actual machinations, but this process shows how politics can apparently corrupt (and actually corrupt the reputation of) even those with integrity.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Toy Love - yeehah!

With a sufficiently large CD collection, it's easy to stumble across something that hasn't been aired in some time.

Such was the case with the Toy Love album, and it's a real treasure.

Toy Love was a New Zealand "punk/new wave" band from the late 1970s. Short-lived but positively revered, their music had been long out of print. When they were finally (lovingly) consigned to CD just four years ago, it was a double called Cuts, and assembles their various singles, B-sides, and the eponymous album on the first disk, followed by demos and unreleased stuff on the second.

A great collection of all their releases - bar a single track with the ostensible titled The Second To Last Song Toy Love Wrote With Ad Lib Lyrics, which was released on a B-FM album called Goats Milk Soap.

And yes, it does have greats like The Amputee Song (Bride Of Frankenstein's B-side), the glorious Pull Down The Shades and the poppy Don't Ask Me - which made a surprise appearance in the Top 20 in Wellington in 1980.

A really rollicking listen at times (especially the aforementioned Bride!), the music is energetic and surprisingly fresh after all this time.

There's a live clip of them on YouTube - from memory, it includes Shades, Frogs, and Fast Ostrich. There's also a brief clip of them doing Shades in an earlier incarnation, the Enemy. Knox looks decidedly punk in that clip (a friend of mine once went out with him around that time; she thought he was a bit too strange, but ten years on he had definitely mellowed well). But wait - there's more! I found an actual music video of the wonderful Squeeze - never seen that one before. I know there was also a promo video for the Bride single, but it doesn't seem to be around.

Of course, singer Chris Knox, the grandaddy of modern New Zealand music, has an illustrious body of later work, both solo and with Toy Love guitarist Alec Bathgate as Tall Dwarfs. When I was briefly living in Auckland in 1986, I went up the road to buy from him a copy of a comic he had put together, Jesus On A Stick, which featured contributions from a variety of musicians. A very friendly guy (and a great comic, it was). Knox's most famous solo track is Not Given Lightly, once voted the thirteenth best New Zealand song of all time; Tall Dwarfs' first three releases are assembled on Hello Cruel World - thoroughly recommended, particularly the tracks from the original ep Louis Likes His Daily Dip.

Sadly, as Derek told me last night, Knox suffered a stroke recently. There's a blog site that contains updates on his condition.

More discussion on 1970s New Zealand Music: Citizen Band's connection to Split Enz, and a strange collaboration between Dragon and Mark Williams.

The most comprehensive web site on New Zealand music of the 1970's is Sergent's New Zealand Music.

NZ Charts
comp tracks
Squeeze/Toy Love Song

on AK79 compiliation (earlier recordings than those released on the single and album)

Don't Ask Me
Don't Ask Me/Sheep
Toy Love
I Don't Mind/Swimming Pool/ Death Rehearsal/Bride Of Frankenstein/Toy Love Song/ Photographs Of Naked Ladies/ Bedroom/The Crunch/Ain't It Nice/Cold Meat/Don't Catch Fire/Green Walls/Pull Down The Shades/Frogs/Fast Ostrich
Bride Of Frankenstein
Bride Of Frankenstein/The Amputee Song/Good Old Joe

comp track
The Second To Last Song Toy Love Wrote With Ad Lib Lyrics

on Goats Milk Soap compilation



Flying Nun
First disc comprises all single and album tracks; second disc comprises demos, etc: Squeeze/Sheep/I Don't Mind/ Swimming Pool/Death Rehearsal/ Unscrewed Up/Toy Love Song/Photographs Of Naked Ladies/Lust/I'm Not Bored/1978/15/Cold Meat/ Wanna Die With You/Don't Catch Fire/Green Walls/Pull Down The Shades/Frogs/Fast Ostrich

Friday, August 14, 2009

Public Enemy (US, 2009): a must-miss film

Urk! I just found out the director of this film is the same Michael Mann who did Collateral, a 2004 film with Tom Cruise as an assassin.

What links those two films, apart from my desire to walk out on both?

Well, they're both full of gratuitous violence, both have dual protagonists who elicit no sympathy in the viewer... and both were shot in HD format rather than true film stock - yuck!

All factors add up to an appalling film. While my regard for Cruise is not high, I do have respect for Johnny Depp, particularly through his work on Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. But he contributes little of interest to this film.

Plot? Not much. Dillinger robs banks and eventually dies. You already know the ending: he gets shot down by feds outside a cinema. So most of the film is spent waiting for him to make his appointment for that destiny. And it takes far too long.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

First defeat of bad climate change legislation

Today the Australian Senate is expected to knock back the government's key climate change bill, which sets up an emission trading scheme.

The scene would then be set for a re-introduction of the bill in November, potentially to be followed by a double dissolution snap election.

The opposition, scheduled to knock it back ostensibly via a raft of amendments, is opposing the bill for the sake of opposing. The government doesn't have the numbers in the Senate unless the Greens are on side.

Which they're not, because the bill is a thorough travesty. Despite Al Gore's backing (on the basis that taking something to the end of year climate change conference is better than nothing), this bill is seriously regressive.

Under the bill, large polluters are obliged to cut back carbon emissions, but any action by individuals means the large corporations don't have to do as much. In effect, individual action only benefits the corporations (see Ross Gittens here). In fact, this encourage people to engage in greater carbon polluting activities, simply to force the corporations to become more energy efficient. After more than a decade of paying higher electricity prices for green energy, as soon as the bill is passed I should move to brown electricity (as Gittens points out).

Kevin Rudd should be thoroughly embarassed to present such a perverse message to Australians.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trends in Australia's recessionary unemployment

I recently asserted that all recessions are different. Why so? The question is, why is economics not a science? Because it is wrapped up in human affairs, and is a product of human history, which is moving forwards, changing all the time. We are not entirely doomed to repeat mistakes of the past; moreover, economic events are responsive to the political tides, which are constantly changing.

One example: unemployment in Australia.

We have weathered the recession reasonably well, all things considered. The government's economic stimulus packages have had an effect... and unemployment has not shot up as fast as it might have (SMH's Ross Gittens notes here Australia's more favourable position than the major western economies - and that the estimate of peak unemployment has been revised downwards from 8.5 to 7.5%.)

Why? A recent survey has found that employers have largely avoided shedding jobs, and are using a number of strategies to avoid this. Altruism aside, this could be simply because the costs of redundancies are a sufficient disincentive.

About half the employers surveyed cut back worker hours; about 40% froze salaries - one in six reducing executive pay; others cut pay or introduced job sharing.

(On an anecdotal basis, over the past year I have frequently seen companies with resourcing needs that despite looking first at external options, subsequent choose to plug the gap from their existing labour pool.)

The reason for this is said to be immediate past experience with skill shortages, which encourages employers to hedge by retaining skilled staff.

In mitigation, University of Newcastle's Bill Mitchell noted that in the 1991 recession, employers reduced hours - but then subsequently cut jobs anyway.

Countering that: job losses to date have been largely in manufacturing, and another survey had found business confidence at a two-year high (!) - particularly in manufacturing.

Update 13-Aug-09: Boom times indeed! Commonwealth Bank has reported very strong results; now Telstra has too. And Australian consumer confidence has positively rocketed. Perversely, while these are flags for interest rates to rise,employment is likely to lag significantly, as it usually does. Not a good time for unemployment with a mortgage.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Michelle Obama as wise woman

Michelle Obama caused an uproar when she said she said she was proud of her country for the first time.

The prevailing ethos in America is that you should be proud of your country - it's axiomatic. Anyone who isn't damn proud isn't patriotic.

Of course, I have to give credit that not all Americans feel that way - doubtless if such a comment was made in Australia in the midst of a political maelstrom, it would be followed by a similar spluttering of talkback radio and columnist apoplexy. But in Australia, that would be followed by a decent dose of critical analysis.

According to Wikipedia, she first said, in February 2008: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." However, she subsequently modified it for political digestibility.

I am sure that, amongst her welter of feelings at the time, she felt proud for several reasons: that Barack was on board for America, that a black man had gotten that far, that black America had someone really substantial to look up to, that somehow an imbalance was being redressed.

Yes, it was about skin colour. But more, it was about an overturning of the dominant paradigm, in favour of - in Australian terminology - a fair go. And it's hard for that to fall into place without a minority figure at the top.

I read an interview with her in a women's magazine - which was more insightful than I expected. Michelle was impressed that Barack Obama had started his career helping deprived communities. And he went to law school intending "to figure out how to use these gifts not to help myself, but to help others".

Her expressed hopes were simple: universal access to full education (university and beyond), universal healthcare, and an improved America in the world. Yet she still appreciated that these are big agendas, that will take years of work from everyone, not just the [next] president.

As I've mentioned before, on a personal level, she said "we are always measuring our progress by how our kids are doing... not unlike most parents. We're as good as our kids are. If they're happy and whole, they're feeling confident and loved, and they're doing well in school and have friends... then I feel like whatever else is happening, it doesn't really matter."

Okay, that might sound a bit like a truism. But the sum of her thoughts suggests that Barack Obama has partnered with someone who is equally intelligent, thoughtful and ethical. The full article is available here, and is worth a read.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Evolution: hippo bathday

Evolution throws up strange results that leave us struggling to make sense of it all. For example, we know that hippos and cetaceans (dolphins, whales) evolved from a common ancestor, but it's not exactly obvious - more counterintuitive than not, on the face of it.

Some insight can be gained by watching the hipppopotamus underwater. They are far more graceful in water than they appear to be on land, which demonstrates the extent to which their body has adapted for semi-aquatic living.

A couple of scientists - including the interestingly-named Frank Fish - have studied the action of hippos under water, and published their findings in the Journal of Mammalogy (reported in New Scientist). Hippos don't swim per se: they move forward by "punting" - touching one or both front feet to the riverbed, and pushing forwards. For this, the weight and bone density of hippos are well suited to the bouyant aquatic environment.

The authors liken this to the microgravity environment of an astronaut, although they then put it more in an evolutionary context.

Dr (or Mr?) Fish suggested this gave a clue to the development of swimming in cetaceans: initially, "they may have walked on the bottom and foraged".

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Dredging up John Howard's legacy

Drawn to it by professional whinger and nitpicker Gerard Henderson, I watched the final part of the SBS series Liberal Rule, on the nature of John Howard's Prime Ministership.

After living through those years, dredging the past may seem too academic. Still, the documentary (of mainly talking heads) drew together some narrative arcs of the time, and made some connections that are clearer with hindsight.

One point was the effect on Australia of the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. Howard was in the US at the time, and the personal effect on him both solidified his commitment to US interests ("This would lead to war - the only question was, who with?"), and reinforced his approach to the divisive politics that was a hallmark of his tenure.

The Australian election took place a scant two months after that. This was the Tampa campaign, where a premature conjecture that refugees were throwing their own children overboard was turned into a political football that was deliberately carried by Howard's coterie (particularly the smarmy Peter Reith) far faster than the truth could chase after it. This was the flipside to Howard's consistent efforts to bend Australia to his own mould of uncritical nationalism. An election ad extolled Australia as the greatest country on earth, and "we must do more for border protection and defence to keep it that way".

Footage was shown of refugees from persecution in Afghanistan, who were patently pleased to disembark their boat for a safe shore, not knowing they were being corralled straight into a prison.

We know that Howard deliberately dissembled about his intentions to send troops to Iraq if asked by Bush. But we may remember the footage that showed Howard personally perpetuating the baseless line that Al-Qaeda was influential in Iraq - with even less backup "evidence" than Bush.

This confluence of forces global and local ended up benefiting only Howard - but it wasn't a zero sum game, as the refugees and Australian muslim victims of racist attacks would bear witness.

As the narrative of Howard years drew to a close, one reason for the end was his very politics of fear: "fear runs out if the threat doesn't eventuate" - so Howard's message ultimately fell out of step with the electorate.

That was not before his ideology had taken its toll on the Australian political landscape. Despite Australian muslims being forced to vociferously declare their Australianness, Howard's dogged campaigns at one point had resulted in 50% of high school students believing "muslims are terrorists".

Another stark piece of footage showed Howard responding bluntly to a journalist's question: "I always tell the truth". Yet pollsters found through most of his tenure that the electorate's response to the uncovering of his lies was "tell me something I don't know". Despite a majority believing him to lie, of themselves those lies didn't stop him winning elections until 2007.

Career diplomat Richard Woolcott, who served extensively under both Liberal and Labor, had the final word when he said that when the history books are written, "the legacy... will not be substantial". That could be said to be a truism for a conservative leader - but it needn't be, for anyone. Yet such is Howard's ultimate mark.

PS Answer to yesterday's puzzle: dreamboat (no, it's not boardmate!)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tip of your tongue?

One of the things that keeps my mind active is the daily Target puzzle:


Try form words of four or more letters from the given ones above (no proper nouns or plurals ending in S). Today's target: "29 words, good; 43 very good; 57 excellent" - that is, try to get half, three quarters, or all the words they identify from their dictionary (Chambers).

Of course, they miss a few words that aren't in Chambers, but for some reason they sometimes miss some common words.

I usually get the nine-letter word - but not always. Sometimes it comes to me as soon as I look at the set of letters; sometimes I work out a few of the smaller words, and it emerges from there. Sometimes, of course, I go for obvious prefixes, suffixes, or compound words.

But sometimes I have to actively stop seeking. I can't get it, so I move on to something else. Then I look back at it, and it can come to me immediately.

We've all had experience of that - and it's been confirmed as a specific neurological phenomenon, according to a letter published in New Scientist. It refers to a 2003 article in an American journal of cognitive psychology, the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review (specifically, v10 p730 - full paper here).

Well, that's not quite neurology. But they describe the conscious mind activating a wrong pathway, and that pathway being cemented in the mind, over-riding the pathway to the correct answer. Only when that process subsides can the pathway to the correct answer be activated.

Another correspondent notes that as an engineer, he encounters this so often that he deliberately sets himself design problems before he goes to sleep, and very frequently wakes up with the answer before him. He ascribes this more specifically to the amount of clutter inhabiting older peoples' minds. There is a strong inference that younger people are more likely to immediately either know the answer or not.

Evolution of knowledge on evolution

I like puzzles. One thing that drew me to the study of evolution was that it is effectively an intricate mesh of puzzles, with some less-than-obvious yet neat solutions.

But I think what keeps me coming back to it is the raft of conceptual challenges, coupled with the desire to place it all in a coherent framework. The logic behind mathematics and physics, for example, is largely straightforward - except at the outer limits (such as relativity, cosmology, quantum physics).

By comparison, evolution is a constant challenge, in a number of ways.

First, deanthropocentrism. To attempt to make sense of the narrative that is evolution, it is necessary to mentally free ourselves from our human frame of reference. Many accept creationism simply because it's hard to conceptualise mutative changes that happen on the scale of millions and billions of years. After all, human history only extends a few thousand years, and modern humans have only existed for a scant hundred thousand years - yet we are the product of those billions of years that came before.

It's not just time that we need to reconceptualise. There's also the other scales at which evolution is working: DNA, and the chemical factories that it sets up in each living cell. Viruses and bacteria, and the contribution their rapid mutations make to other species, and to the overall environment. And the part played by the complex interactions of species at all levels that are competing for living space.

Evolution also holds a number of unexpected surprises: a seemingly unconnected set of principles that come to play in building up the narrative. Convergent evolution. Viral insertions into germlines. Dual functionality for organs. Terraforming bacteria. The relationship between the rate of evolution and solar radiation. The difference between, say, the human eye and the octopus eye.*

Understanding a number of disparate strands in the evolutionary narrative requires a lot of reading. You will find that the same stories come up time after time in explaining principle, yet there are always new stories and new explanations. But not only is it useful to read widely on evolution: it also helps to draw in parallels from other disciplines and experiences, to make sense of new concepts through associativity, drawing similarity with other strands of knowledge.

Readings of Gould, Dawkins et al only hinted to me at the nature of the challenges that awaited. Gould certainly does discuss the need to reconceptualise. But to come from a different discipline that may be steeped in fairly direct logic, to one such as this where the logic is there, but works in often tangential ways, is something that a life-long biologist often does not appreciate enough in communicating to a non-biologist.

Logic is the fundamental basis of evolution, of course. But understanding calls for more: experience, metaphor, imagination. It's easy to grasp the headline explanation of evolution, but the headline alone doesn't draw all the requisite strands together: there is so much that can make a lot more sense if one drills down.

And it is ultimately immensely rewarding to find that the more conceptual barriers are crossed, the simpler and neater the narrative turns out to be.

*If I mention anything here for which you haven't seen adequate explanation yet, let me know: I'm happy to dwell on it :)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sydney's impending architectural treat: UTS

An exciting addition to Sydney is looming, with the announcement of the winner of a design competition.

The old Carlton brewery on Broadway has been mostly torn down, bar one building left presumably for historical reasons.

Part of that site will see a new building for the University of Technology, Sydney's engineering faculty. The winning design, from Denton Corker Marshall, is a stunner. Unfortunately, the Herald's online report doesn't contain the designs shown in the print edition, but here's one of them.
The other picture gave a clearer, more impressive view of the building; when I find it online, I'll put it here.