The Dim-Post

January 23, 2013

On cats

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 2:09 pm

Towards the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the main character establishes a bird sanctuary on the edge of the suburbs. Cats from the local houses come and kill the birds, so the hero takes photographs of the mutilated bird bodies and distributes them to the cat’s owners, and then goes a step further and kidnaps a cat (Bobby), which he drives to an animal shelter in another city. I love this interview with Franzen – a bird watcher – in which a reporter asks him if he has anything to confess about his own behavior towards cats:

“Let’s say that I was peripherally involved with some conspirators,” he said. “Never mind where. There was a problematic neighbor with a problematic cat. I like cats – indoors. Some, like this particular cat, are killing machines.

“Over time, I was gradually becoming less than peripherally involved. It occurred to me that maybe we should stop, because if we got caught, it would be pretty bad press. Also, my partner, Kathy – the Californian—feels strongly about people’s connection to their pets. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I write about this instead?”

Let’s just agree that Gareth Morgan – like Franzen and his co-conspirators – is  crazy (And if you haven’t already, check out Morgan’s AMAZING anti-cat infographic.) If you want to stop having fun with the issue and read something informative, I’ve found this article by David Winter and this interview with Mark Farnworth useful.

October 3, 2012

Bos taurus and hard determinism

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 9:57 am

Via Stuff’s article on Daisy, the knock-out cow with low-allergen milk:

GE Free New Zealand president Claire Bleakley said cows without the protein BLG was a “frightening development not a breakthrough”

“Researchers that stoop so low as to manipulate the Mauri [spirit or life force] of an animal causing suffering, then pretend that this is a significant breakthrough when we already have business using technology to remove BLG, are inhumane.”

Is DNA a spiritual life-force? It’s hard to see how, since it’s in a constant state of biochemical flux. Nature itself is constantly removing or altering genes between generations – which is why we have different species and variation between members of a species. You could probably eventually breed a cow with naturally low allergen levels, but it might take a long time, and the results would be similar to the genetically engineered outcome.

DNA isn’t magic, it’s a fairly simple chemical structure that is (mostly) just information on how to build proteins. If you buy into the argument that it’s a ‘life-force’ then you’re accepting a hard determinist viewpoint of life in which we have no free-will, because our ‘life-force’ consists of macro-molecules responding to physical processes. Which would mean that the Ag-Research scientists had no choice but to genetically engineer a cow.

November 18, 2011

Now THIS is what I’m talkin’ about

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 4:15 pm

Further to yesterday’s discussion on empiricism and parenting:

Nelson had traveled to Romania to take part in a cutting-edge experiment. It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support. Images from the orphanages had prompted an outpouring of international aid and a rush from parents around the world to adopt the children. But ten years later, the new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. With backing from the MacArthur Foundation, and help from a sympathetic Romanian official, Nelson and colleagues from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Maryland prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages. They would also track a third set of children, who were with their original parents, as a control group.

[snip]

This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages. In theory, damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain—making the shorter telomeres a harbinger of future mental difficulties. It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.

October 5, 2010

Miscellaneous idiocy

Filed under: media,Politics,science — danylmc @ 12:35 pm

A few interesting stories waiting for me when I sat down to eat lunch:

Via RadioNZ:

Arrests have been made in the police investigation into an Auckland super city voting scam, just days before voting closes.

Dozens of police have been looking at whether voters from North Island centres have been falsely enrolled to addresses in Papatoetoe in Auckland.

The arrests come after the Registrar of Electors removed more than 300 enrolments after finding people did not live at the addresses in the Papatoetoe ward.

Labour Party president Andrew Little has told Radio New Zealand that at least one person arrested has links to the Labour Party.

Disgusting by itself, but it also gives the opposition latitude to cast doubt on other Labour victories in the SuperCity election. Imbeciles.

Cabinet has approved changes to the name suppression legislation. It’s now harder to get and penalties for breaching it are more severe. So right wing-bloggers who breach name suppression by revealing the identities of child victims, for example, will now face harsher punishment.

TVNZ has suspended Paul Henry for two weeks. I’m not a fancy PR expert like Andi Brotherston but it seems like delaying tactics are almost always the best option when a scandal explodes in your face. Investigations, enquiries, suspensions . . . anything that just defuses the intensity of the debate seems to be the way to go.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to fertility researcher Robert Edwards for his work on in vitro fertilisation. I always try to memorise the name and accomplishments of the recipient of the medicine laureate so that when I get trapped in a conversation in which I’m ridiculed for not knowing about some rugby player or TV actor I can demand to know if anyone in the group knows who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine this year. Amazing I stayed single for so long.

Also, only a few more days before we find out which super-obscure untranslated European poet the Nobel committee has plucked from obscurity and named the Literature laureate!

July 13, 2010

Happy Meals

Filed under: economics,science — danylmc @ 6:39 am

MacDoctor responds to the recent OECD report criticizing the government’s lack of action combating obesity:

Apparently there is a war on obesity. Trouble is, there does not seemed to be a well-defined enemy in this war. Is it the fast food industry? Perhaps it is the actual fat in foods? Maybe it is the obese person themselves? Or their wicked, neglectful parents? Or perhaps it is carbohydrates, not fats, that make you fat?

All this uncertainty make one thing completely certain. No government in the world is going to make any inroads on tackling the problem, regardless of how much of our money they want to throw at it. Politicians are a simple breed and need a simple target and plan. Unfortunately, the temptation to give politicians a simplistic answer is simply too great for some weight zealots.

I have a simple target! Taxes on high calorie soda drinks! Plenty of research done on this – they’re a huge factor in the rise in obesity. In the US they account for ~7% of all calories consumed and they have no nutritional value AND consumption is price sensitive. A recent USDA study found:

a tax induced 20-percent price increase on caloric sweetened beverages could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day, or 3.8 pounds [1.7 kg] of body weight over a year, for adults and an average of 43 calories per day, or 4.5 pounds [2.0 kg] over a year, for children.

Moving on from the soda tax there are various state and county anti-obesity experiments in effect all across the US. In Santa Clara CA:

Happy Meal toys and other promotions that come with high-calorie children’s meals will soon be banned in parts of Santa Clara County unless the restaurants meet nutritional guidelines approved Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors.

“This ordinance prevents restaurants from preying on children’s’ love of toys” to sell high-calorie, unhealthful food, said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sponsored the measure. “This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes.”

While in New York they’ve forced restaurants to publish calorie counts of their products and combined this with an education campaign about what your daily caloric intake should be. The theory is that once you know you’re only supposed to eat 2000 calories a day and that a Big Mac and fries constitutes 1400 calories you’ll have second thoughts.

I don’t know if either of these experiments will work but my point is there’s plenty of research out there on the subject and there’s a lot more coming. So the problem isn’t as vague and hopeless as MacDoctor thinks.

July 8, 2010

Resbonsibilitie (I can’t spellcheck my post titles)

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 10:42 am

The idea that all of our problems can be solved if everyone takes ‘responsibility’ for themselves is a common trope amongst the intellectual featherweights that dominate our public discourse. Here’s professional National Party shill Richard Long on youth drinking and alcohol reform:

At some stage it has to be acknowledged that there are parental responsibilities in this as well as community responsibilities.

We know parenting difficult teenagers can be a nightmare, but that is where the responsibility falls, although the law could be fashioned to give parents more legal and moral support and more direct access to police and social services.

Schools could be directed to play a bigger role, warning pupils of the consequences of alcohol misuse, and in urging peers to intervene in cases of dangerous excess by friends.

Social groups and sports groups could also help. All this is likely to be more useful than trying to legislate the problem out of existence with broad brush measures which unfairly penalise a wider majority who use alcohol responsibly for the pleasure and social intercourse it delivers.

All of our social policy debates (child abuse, drinking, obesity etc) seem to run into the same objections from our punditocracy:

New Zealand is facing [serious problem]

‘Something’ must be done to solve this terrible problem!

What about [legislative solution]?

No, that might inconvenience me slightly. It has to be something that has no impact on me.

What about [economic solution]?

No, that will cost me some money. It can cost ‘other people’ (trans. Maori, young people, Pacific Islanders) money but not me.

What about [policy solution]?

No, the nanny state . . .

Yeah, yeah. What do you suggest we do then?

(Long pause). People need to take responsibility for themselves.

A couple of months ago the PM commissioned Sir Peter Gluckman to look into the underlying causes behind youth related social problems. In the introduction to his task force study Gluckman wrote:

Puberty in boys starts somewhere between 8 and 11
years of age and generally takes 4 to 5 years to complete; puberty in girls starts a little earlier and is
completed generally between 11 and 14 years of age. Historically, the age of sexual maturation has
fallen dramatically from about 16 to 17 years of age 200 years ago to between 11½ and 12½ years on
average now. This 5″year fall in the age of puberty is matched by a similar, but less well documented,
decline in the rate of maturation of boys.

The increased rate of sexual maturation has its origins in better maternal and child health and nutrition,
and is a sign of a physically healthy population. It has, however, created an ever”widening gap between
the biological transition to adolescence and other aspects of an individual’s development. Consider, for
example, that many children are well into puberty before they leave primary school and have
completed it before they enter secondary school.

If  Gluckman’s hypothesis is true it sheds an interesting light on a lot of youth focused trends – like the latest abortion statistics:

The number of children having abortions has almost doubled over the past 20 years.

The latest statistics have prompted calls for parents to be informed if their daughter is considering an abortion, but health professionals say the move would be “disastrous”.

Last year, 79 girls aged from 11 to 14 had abortions. Of those, 68 were 14-year-olds and 13 aged 11 to 13.

The latest figure is nearly twice the 43 girls under 14 who had abortions in 1991. While the figures have generally been rising, the peak was in 2005, when 105 girls aged 14 and under had an abortion.

If I were a sub at Stuff I’d have led with the angle: Could pre-natal vitamins cause rise in teen abortions? The traditional explanation for statistics like a rise in youth abortions is that our society is sick (lack of parental responsibility!) but it  may be because different generations are physiologically different to each other. If only parents would take responsibility and prevent their children from entering puberty so early!

May 23, 2010

Newkaryote

Filed under: science,Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:54 am

One of the better articles about Craig Venter’s new synthetic bacteria:

To distinguish their synthetic genome from the naturally occurring version, the researchers encoded a series of watermarks into the sequence. They began by developing a code for writing the English alphabet, as well as punctuation and numbers, into the language of DNA–a decoding key is included in the sequence itself. Then they wrote in their names, a few quotations, and the address for a website people can visit if they successfully crack the code.

The absence of these features in naturally occurring DNA is yet another argument against the intelligent design hypothesis.

The synthetic genome is an impressive feat of biology but I’m not sure its the breakthrough we’ve been hearing about. Recombinant DNA technology has been around for a while (the Nobel for it was awarded in 1978) and that gives you the ability to tailor make recombinant cells that express particular proteins. The tricky part isn’t modifying the DNA of the cells (we get our undergraduate students to do that in third year labs) but understanding the protein structure and interactions.

Building a cell that can replicate itself it pretty impressive but building a cell that can (say) be injected into a mammal without triggering an immune response is going to be much, much harder.

May 12, 2010

Science funding

Filed under: Politics,science — danylmc @ 12:12 pm

This seems to follow a cyclical pattern in which new governments look around for money to cut/spend; realise there are no lobby groups or large voter constituencies defending science funding and scrap it all. Then it occurs to them that we have poor economic growth and low productivity and cast around for ways to improve it. All the experts tell them they desperately need to invest in science. Thus bold new intitiatives funding science and technlology are announced. Until . . .

April 23, 2010

Ethics question of the day

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 8:22 am

Via Tyler Cowen, this comment from libertarian economist Bryan Caplan:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I’m not pushing others to clone themselves.  I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?

Firstly, I think this is a creepy, weird thing to want to do. I can think of two reasons to oppose the practise of self-cloning:

  1. You’re intentionally passing on your deleterious genes.
  2. Non-sexual reproduction will reduce the degree of genetic variation in our species (and this could have consequences in terms of lack of immunity to emergent diseases and other, as yet unseen problems).

But those are both basically eugenics based arguments in which the genetic health of the species is deemed more important than the freedom of the individual, so let’s not go there. I can’t really think of any other sound reason to oppose such a practise.

February 7, 2010

The stage is too big for the drama

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 7:46 am

lprent has a post up responding to Poneke’s blogs about climate change, and some of his points reminded me of a famous lecture by Richard Feynman on science. He said:

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of
the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the
charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and
got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a
little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the
viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of
measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you
plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little
bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than
that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until
finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away?
It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because
it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a
number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something
must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why
something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to
Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated
the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.

Governments don’t draft policy relating to negatively charged particles but if they did then we’d probably have had a huge ‘controversy’ about what the real charge of an electron was, how the lepton hoax was part of a global conspiracy, whether the weak nuclear interaction was real or faked, allegations that quantum mechanics was just drummed up to get grant money and so on. Science and scientists should strike for perfection – but they’ll never attain it, and it’s not responsible to ignore scientific findings on the basis of trivial mistakes in the process.

Feynman’s whole lecture is worth reading. The word genius gets thrown around a lot these days, but he really was a stone cold genius.

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