Archive 2010

The UFO files – journalists try to keep straight faces Peter Griffin Dec 22

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Right now political journalists in Wellington are leafing through documents released by Archives New Zealand and the Defence Force which detail witness accounts of unidentified flying object sightings around New Zealand back to the 1950s.

I’ve spoken to a number of journalists today who sheepishly revealed they’d been roped into the effort to cover the release of the 2000 documents and were looking for scientific angles to the story.

Well, there are lots of those and I’m glad to receive the calls, because the last thing we need is people like Suzanne Hansen hogging this story – as she did today when she was featured in the Dominion Post‘s front page lead. Hansen is the director of the “research group” UFOCUS and in the Dominion Post describes how she has been fortunate enough to sight a UFO not once, but numerous times in her life, the first when she was just eight years old.

Now the papers that have been released today detail only witness reports of UFO sightings, not Defence Force analysis of those reports. Indeed, Squadron Leader Kavae Tamariki told the Dominion Post that the Defence Force did not have resources to investigate UFOs so had not been able to substantiate anything outlined in the eyewitness reports.

What we are are likely to see in the documents then is a random collection of anecdotes – many credible-sounding, many incredible, that between them will likely bear all the hallmarks of previous UFO sighting – from saucer-shaped craft to unexplained lights in the night sky moving in formation.

From ball lightning to weather balloons

What the reports may do apart from providing some entertainment on Christmas eve, is add to the knowledge of scientists who analyse how natural phenomena or innocuous man-made objects can be mistaken for UFOs that appear to alien spacecraft.

Such scientists include Australian astrophysicist Dr Stephen Hughes who claims ball lightning and other atmospheric phenomena could be behind numerous UFO sightings.

“If you put together inexplicable atmospheric phenomena, maybe of an electrical nature, with human psychology and the desire to see something – that could explain a lot of these UFO sightings,” he told BBC News.

His theory has attracted some support from a New Zealand-based scientist with expertise in ball lightning – the University of Canterbury’s Dr John Abrahamson. As the BBC explains:

Other scientists have suggested that charges dissipating through the ground can create balls of glowing ionised gas above it.

Dr John Abrahamson from the University of Canterbury, NZ, championed the idea 10 years ago that ball lightning consisted of vaporised mineral grains kicked out of the soil by a conventional lightning strike, an idea later tested with some success by Brazilian researchers.

When it comes to man-made explanations, weather balloons – released into the sky on a daily basis all over the world to take atmospheric measurements, are regularly the cause of UFO sightings, as are parachute flares.

Churchill’s please explain

Britain this year released a large number of UFO sighting reports, which are available on the UK National Archives website (at a cost of 3.50 pounds to download). They reveal plenty of unusual sightings like this one outlined by CNN:

The files include a sighting by a man in Birmingham, England, in March 1997. He said he came home from work at 4 a.m. to see a large blue triangle-shaped craft hovering over his back garden.

It was silent but caused dogs in the neighborhood to bark, the report said. It “shot off and disappeared” after about three minutes, the report said, leaving behind a “silky-white substance” on the treetops, some of which he saved in a jar.

It was not clear what happened to the jar and its contents.

There were also eyewitness reports associated with “Welsh Roswell” – numerous sightings of strange lights over north Wales in 1974, a massive explosion and claims of a cover-up. In New Zealand terms – the famous UFO sighting by crew on a plane flying over Kaikoura in 1978 is about as close as we get to the type of event described in the Welsh Roswell eyewitness accounts.

However, the UFO files released to date by the British reveal that the military for many decades took the existence of UFOs seriously. A letter claiming Winston Churchill ordered a cover-up of a wartime encounter between a UFO and a RAF bomber over the English coast have never been corroborated, but there is documentary proof (see letter below) that Churchill consulted his chief science advisor Lord Cherwell on the matter in the early 1950s.

Souece: National Archives

Source: UK National Archives

When the generals talk

The intriguing eyewitness accounts of UFOs I’ve read over the years are those that come from military personnel – particularly military pilots. There are numerous sightings of UFOs around military installations around the world and in the wake of World War 2 and into the Cold War, it is highly conceivable that the Russians or Americans were sending highly advanced aircraft to check out each others installations. I think these are the really interesting UFO reports and the most likely to yield information of Wikileaks-like significance – what are the still-classified prototypes of decades gone by that were dispatched into protected airspace of rival powers to spy on installations and in the process attracted UFO sightings?

Journalist Leslie Keen recently interviewed a number of ex military people for UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record and found that when these in the know people considered all rational explanations for what they had seen, they were still left with answers…

When Joe Blow calls up and sees a light in the sky, it can be explained, like, probably every time. But in these very well investigated cases–and there aren’t that many–they seem to have been able to eliminate every possible explanation that we know of. If you have something where you have a huge amount of information and data about, for which there should be an explanation, but there isn’t, it becomes a dilemma. You get these generals saying that, well, maybe they’re extraterrestrial. They’re never going to say that–they would never go close to that–unless there was a real reason for it.

Data visualisation – some of the best from NZ Peter Griffin Dec 10


This year at the Science Media Centre we’ve gotten really interested in visualisation of science data and began dabbling in these sorts of infographics which we create for the media at large to use.

But the ultimate extension of this type of thing is full-on web-based interactive data visualisations that let you cut the data whatever way you want, rely on robust, legitimate sources of data and which are presented in a way that makes for compelling communication. Our resident data visualisation guru, Landcare Research’s Chris McDowall has turned out some excellent visualisations this year – notably the time lapse animation of New Zealand earthquakes leading up to and following the 7.1 magnitude quake in Canterbury. A similar animation mapped a day in the life of social networking service Twitter based on the geo-location tags of Twitter users.

Now some of the country’s best interactive data visualisations have been highlighted with the winners of the Great New Zealand Remix and Mash-up competition announced today. The winning visualisations are worth a look – one of my favourites is MashBlock, which sought to graphically represent data from the 2006 Census in a very innovative way. This is from the award summary (MashBlock’s creater Cameron Prebble picked up $5,000 and the Best Mash-up award – as well as an award for best use of a Google cloud computing service with an extra $1,000 thrown in):

MashBlock is a tool to visualise demographic data from the 2006 Census for 66 Territorial Authorities, 2000 Area Units, and over 48000 Meshblocks.

This site is built to provide fast location-based queries utilising the Google Maps Geocoder, HTML 5 Geolocation and the AddressFinder autocomplete library to allow the user to find the Meshblock, Area Unit and Territorial Authority their search falls in.

The backend site is built with Ruby on Rails and a PostgreSQL database with the PostGIS plugin. The frontend utilises the javascript libraries jQuery, Raphael and the Google Maps API to create the visualisations and user interaction.

All the data is sourced from Statistics New Zealand.

Being able to drill down into parts of New Zealand to look at demographic make-up is really interesting – the data has been available publicly before now, but this makes it a pleasure to browse – the data isn’t complete for the country, but its a great base to start from.



Another stand-out was Grid Watch by Jeremy Arnold, who won for best visualisation. Grid Watch shows power usage by region and grid exit points (substations) for 2010 in parts of the North Island. Again, this is fascinating – seeing what the power usage is like in different parts of the country, and what the breakdown of power usage is like between sectors of the economy. Here’s what Gird Watch is based on:

An interactive info-graphic with map that shows power usage by Region and Grid Exit Points (Substations) for 2010. Visualizing key information about the national grid, that was previously only available in spreadsheets and zip files, and combining it from CSV extracts from the Electricity Authorities Centralized Dataset (CDS) web interface.

Grid Watch

Grid Watch

Anyway, just a couple of my favourites that have really inspired me to think about the types of science-related data that may be publicly available that could tell a compelling story about, well anything from key environmental indicators such as air and water quality, to climate change to health demographics to known deposits of mineral wealth in New Zealand. The possibilities are endless as the above examples illustrate.

Fibre in the ground by Christmas Peter Griffin Dec 07

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Regional cities in the North Island will be the first to see fibre optic cables laid around their streets as $200 million worth of contracts to roll out high-speed internet services are confirmed.

The deals that the Government’s Crown Fibre Holdings has struck are with the type of infrastructure players not traditionally associated with broadband – Northpower Limited and WEL Networks, the latter of which pitched for the business under the banner of Ultra Fast Fibre Limited

Hamilton, Tauranga, Whangarei, New Plymouth and Wanganui will be the first cities to see the construction of fibre optic networks, with work set to begin in Whangarei before Christmas. Work in larger cities will begin next year once those deals are nailed down.

The Q&A below outlines some of the detail and an idea of the wholesale price that will be put on the services. Note that the prices mentioned ($40 for an entry level fibre service 30Mbps downstream, 10Mbps upstream) will not be what service providers offer consumers and businesses. These providers will layer on costs of national and international access, customer service etc. It is still unclear as to how much fibre broadband packages will actually cost the end-user, that will depend on the long-term answers to questions 15 & 16 below.

Notable by their absence in the first of the fibre deals are the big telcos and in particular Telecom.

But at the Telecom Christmas party in Wellington last night, chief executive paul Reynolds was upbeat about Telecom’s prospects for being a part of the fibre plan and even suggested Telecom, which he pointed out had sunk $4 billion in capital expenditure into New Zealand in the last four years, had an obligation to the country to be involved.

Anyway, here’s the Q&A on today’s developments from Crown Fibre Holdings.

1. What is the area covered by UltraFast Fibre Limited?

This will cover Hamilton (including Cambridge and Te Awamutu), Tauranga, Tokoroa, New Plymouth, Hawera and Wanganui. This accounts for just over 14 per cent of UFB premises (14.2%).

2. What is the area covered by Northpower Limited?

This will cover Whangarei – accounting for just over one and a half per cent of UFB premises (1.6%).

3. Are there any deployable assets which will be included in these agreements?

Yes – the LFC covering Whangarei has an option to buy Northpower’s assets subject to technical due diligence.

4. What will be the value of these agreements?

The value exceeds $200 million.

5. What is the agreed pricing for fibre services?

UFB pricing is at wholesale level and end users should bear in mind that prices of retail UFB services will reflect non-Local Fibre Company costs, such as national backhaul, international bandwidth, provisioning, billing, customer care and so forth. CFH, Northpower and UltraFast Fibre intend to publish final UFB wholesale prices prior to initial sales of retail UFB services. The following are indicative of expected products and price ranges and are initial price ranges only. Price ranges are per month excluding GST.


The price for the UFB entry-level product (30 megabits per second (Mbps) Downstream / 10 Mbps Upstream with a 2.5 Mbps committed information rate will be $40 or less. This is lower than the current wholesale price for “Naked DSL” (Enhanced UBA 40) services.

The UFB 100Mbps household product (100 Mbps Downstream / 50 Mbps Upstream with a 2.5 Mbps committed information rate) will be priced at $60 or less. This is approximately the current wholesale price for “Clothed DSL” (UBA plus POTS), depending on the end user’s location. Subscribers would recognise this service as ADSL2+ bundled with a standard home phone line.

There will be no connection fees for households connecting to UFB.


Business products will be priced considerably below existing Dark Fibre where this is available in the market. Premium Layer 2 services, such as 100 Mbps and 1 Gigabit per second symmetrical services, will also priced competitively. For example, a 1 Gigabit service will be priced at or less than $600, which is about half the minimum current wholesale price.


UFB products for schools are expected to be priced in a similar manner to business products. However, prices will be lower than for businesses because of the Government’s recent decision to cover 100% of the cost of the fibre “drop” from a school’s boundary to its server room.

6. What will be the open access arrangements in these areas?

The Open Access Deed of Undertaking sets out the open access and non-discrimination framework for the LFCs. The Deed of Undertaking which has been agreed by Northpower Limited and by WEL Networks on behalf of UltraFast Fibre Limited is available on the CFH website at It is enforced by the Telecommunications Branch of the Commerce Commission

7. Does the announcement reflect final and binding offers received from the Government’s proposed partners? Will details of the agreements between CFH and its partners for the formation of the two new Local Fibre Companies (LFCs) be made public?

Yes, final and binding offers have been received from Northpower and from WEL Networks, parent company of UltraFast Fibre Limited.

A high level summary has been published on the respective websites of CFH, Northpower and WEL Networks.

8. Given the government agreed to regulatory forbearance for LFCs until the end of 2019, what effect will this have on prices?

Competitive prices are set through the competitive tender process and are set at levels to drive uptake on the UFB. The prices are regulated through a contract between CFH and the LFC partner. Regulation of telecommunication prices through contract is not unusual in New Zealand, notable examples include Home Line pricing under the original Kiwi Share Obligations with Telecom which is now part of the TSO. Non-discrimination is governed by the Open Access Deed of Undertaking with the Crown which is enforced by the Telecommunications Branch of the Commerce Commission. The Deed incorporates the following aspects:

* LFCs are wholesale only, so they have an incentive to price to drive uptake in order to build revenues.

* Prices will be published to ensure they are transparent to service providers and end users.

* LFCs must be compliant with the Open Access Deed of Undertaking covering Open Access and non-discrimination.

* The general UFB policy is to drive uptake, and prices have been set through a competitive process to meet this policy objective.

Proposed changes to the Telecommunications Act will provide for regulation of prices by the Commerce Commission after the regulatory forbearance period.

9. What is a Local Fibre Company (LFC)?

An LFC is a company owned by Crown Fibre Holdings on behalf of the Government and the partner selected to deploy, own and operate a fibre-to-the-premise network in one or more urban areas of New Zealand. It sells access to point to point dark fibre or Layer 1 Services, and lit fibre (containing electronics), known as Layer 2 Services.

10. What is the process for establishing the two LFCs?

The LFCs will be newly incorporated limited liability companies incorporated under the Companies Act 1993, in which CFH and the partner will be shareholders. Each LFC will be incorporated before the end of the year. Details of where the LFCs will be physically located, and how they will be staffed will be made public in due course

11. When will the physical deployments of fibre begin and where?

The deployment will start in Whangarei before Christmas and in Hamilton, Wanganui and Tauranga in early 2011.

12. Why has a binding offer with Alpine Energy not been reached?

That is a matter between CFH and Alpine Energy. Alpine Energy remains a shortlisted party and CFH is in discussions with Alpine.

13. Where does this leave the other parties to the Central North Island Fibre Consortium?

The commercial arrangements between WEL its subsidiary UltraFast Fibre Limited and the other participants in the Central North Island Fibre Consortium (Waipa Networks and the Hamilton Fibre Network) are a matter for those parties.

14. When is a recommendation regarding Alpine Energy expected to be made to Ministers?

A recommendation to Ministers would only be made if a final binding offer had been made by Alpine and one has not yet been made.

15. Is there any interest from retail service providers (RSPs) or ISPs in providing services on these networks?

CFH has been liaising with both RSPs and ISPs and identified strong interest in selling UFB wholesale products. Northpower, for example, already has keen and active service providers delivering retail services in the marketplace.

16. What measures have been taken to ensure uptake of services on these networks?

UFB fibre will be competitively priced so as to attract users. CFH and the Government are also working with industry and key stakeholder groups on a range of initiatives to maximise potential uptake. Examples include:

* the recent decision to provide 100 per cent Government funding for the cost of the fibre connection from the street into school buildings for schools connecting to UFB.

* the whitepaper released by CFH and TUANZ (the Telecommunications Users Association) on 3 December on potential UFB demand in the business sector, in which 82 percent of all respondents reported they were likely to, highly likely to or definitely would connect to UFB within a year of it becoming available.

What motivated the seal cub killer(s)? Peter Griffin Dec 06


As my fellow Sciblogger Brendan Moyle has already posted about, most news websites are carrying the horrifying news that 23 seals have been found by DOC works clubbed to death on the Kaikoura Coast.

Now, as you may know, seals are protected by law in New Zealand – it is illegal to hunt, harm or kill seals in this country.

So when attacks resulting in the type of scenes portrayed in the photos below (scroll no further if you are squeamish) come to light, New Zealanders tend to unite in a collective outpouring of hurt and outrage.

Why would people do such a thing – other than for wanton sick thrills?

Well, in a few remaining parts of the world (namely Namibia and Canada), seals are still hunted on a regular basis. According to the Associated Press, the Namibian Government believes the regular cull necessary to preserve fish stocks.

Now when you strip out the other potential reasons for killing seals – taking their skins and flesh to sell, the concern over fish stocks, justified or not, appears to be the main motive for clubbing the poor animals to death. Tens of thousands are killed by the Namibians alone.

And elsewhere, the fish stocks angle also seems to reign supreme. Take this story from the UK, where a Shetland fisherman was prosecuted for killing 21 seals. Why did he do it? He never really explained, but he seems to be claiming he thought they were starving.

Here’s a similar report from Ireland – again pointing to the turf war going on between fishermen who perceive seals to be a threat to fish stocks.

About 60 grey seals, most of them pups, have been culled off the Kerry coast, wildlife officials reported today.

The Irish Seal Sanctuary blamed local fishermen for killing the animals because they eat fish, and are therefore their “competitors” for fish stocks.

’There’s only one direction the finger can be pointed at: the fishing community,’ said group spokesman Sean Eviston, who travelled to Beginish Island off the coast of the Dingle peninsula to confirm reports of the cull.

Eviston said the grey seals killed were mostly ’whitecoats’, pups about three weeks old. He said the attackers appeared to have used several methods to kill, including gun shots, beating the animals with rocks, and driving nails into their skulls.

Seals have in the past been blamed for the collapse of fisheries (such as in the North Atlantic), but research suggests there’s actually reasonably little overlap between the types of fish humans are after, and the fish that makes up the diet of seals. This New Scientist piece explains further:

The first global study of its kind, released earlier in May 2004, shows that marine mammals and fishing fleets rarely prey heavily on the same fish stocks. The findings are provisional, but they suggest that scientists and policy makers should only rarely need to make a wrenching choice between the economic needs of fishers and their desire to protect threatened marine mammals.

So if the motivation for killing these seals is to protect local fish stocks, the perpetrators may be misguided at best.

Over at the Science Media Centre, we asked Dr Bruce Robertson, Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Otago, what the impact on the seal colony subject to the attack:

Fur seals numbers are gradually increasing around NZ following their near extirpation due to indiscriminate sealing in the 1800s. Many of the breeding colonies that we have now, have only recently been recolonised. For example, Ohau Point became a breeding colony in 1990 and in 2004 there were an estimated 600 pups born there.”

“While 23 seals were killed (as reported), the real number of deaths is likely to be greater.

“This is because females at this time of year are most likely to have a pup and these pups are totally dependent on their mother’s milk for survival. So if the mother is killed the pup will die. Also, females mate about a week after giving birth and hence have a developing embryo in the womb (i.e. next year’s pup), which also would be killed. The total loss of life is more like: 13 females, 13 dependent pups, 13 developing embryos, plus the 8 pups and the 2 males = 49 fur seals. This does not take into account the future reproductive success of these individuals.

“Given this colony is increasing in size, this loss of life is a small setback. However, large mammal populations cannot sustain the repeated loss of breeding females. Consequently, any external influences can be detrimental.”

Mike Morrissey and seal pups  source: Department of COnservation

Mike Morrissey and seal pups source: Department of COnservation

Phil Bradfield and seals  Source: Department of Conservation

Phil Bradfield and seals Source: Department of Conservation

What’s the future of TV in New Zealand? Peter Griffin Dec 01

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The Government has kicked off a $13 million marketing campaign to encourage the 29 per cent of the country’s households still watching analogue TV to switch to digital services ahead of the planned shutdown of analogue transmissions in November 2013.

Newspaper ad for Going Digital campaign

Newspaper ad for Going Digital campaign

For most of us, digital TV is taken for granted – if you subscribe to Sky TV, watch the Freeview service or have a TelstraClear pay TV box in your lounge you are already watching digital TV supplied either via satellite (Sky & Freeview), UHF terrestrial broadcast (Freeview) or hybrid fibre cable (TelstraClear in Wellington and Christchurch).

Digital – a no brainer

No matter what you think about public broadcasting or whether the Government should fund nationwide TV broadcast infrastructure, the transition to digital is a good thing from a technical point of view. Analogue TV depends on broadcasting out signals as electronic pulses to be received by aerial receivers. It is reliable and cheap and compatible with any TV equipped with an external aerial or rabbits ears set-top aerial and within range of a broadcast tower.

Digital TV brings us into the binary world, where rather than being broadcast out as a continuous signal, the content is converted into bits of data and sent in packets as ones and zeros. Equipment at the receiving end reassembles the ones and zeros into the images and sounds you see on your screen.

Digital allows for a more efficient use of radio frequency so you can provide more channels, high-definition channels and better picture quality. In the analogue world, electronic interference means many people put up with a less than perfect picture. In the digital world, if the signal is interrupted by rain fade or if you don’t have good coverage, you either won’t see anything or the picture will devolve into a pixelated mess.

But going digital requires a digital receiver – a new piece of relatively cheap equipment that plugs into your TV and receives a digital signal. You also need either a satellite dish or UHF aerial to pick up a digital signal. And that’s at the heart of the digital TV issue – we have two years to get tens of thousands of homes onto a digital service before the analogue broadcast towers are shut off for good.

While a public awareness campaign and the “Going Digital” website will serve to push many towards a digital platform, its likely that thousands of homes will still not be digital come switch-off time. Its possible that the Government will step in with cheap digital receivers and aerials at that stage, particularly in lower socio-economic areas to make sure families aren’t cut off from receiving free-t0-air TV. New Zealand has good, reliable digital services in place already, but the looming analogue switch-off raises some interesting questions about the future of TV in New Zealand at a time of rapid technological convergence between broadcasting, communications and consumer electronics.

Going digital – many ways to view

While the bulk of the population still tunes in to watch TV shows delivered by analogue or digital broadcasts, a growing number of people are watching streaming video on the internet or downloading TV episodes or movies. From Youtube to TVNZ’s On Demand service to the TV3 playback service to TiVo’s Caspa movie download service, there are already plenty of options in New Zealand for watching programmes via the internet. By late 2013 we will have likely seen an explosion in the availability of these types of services.

Sky TV will next month launch iSky – a service that lets existing Sky digital subscribers access Sky channels on their computer. The BBC’s popular iPlayer service which is currently only available to those in the UK, will next year be extended globally, potentially offering New Zealanders access to BBC TV shows at the same time as they screen overseas. Content is already being served up to internet-enabled video game consoles like the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 as well as the pint-sized Apple TV device. So by the time the analogue airwaves go quiet, what proportion of the population will actually still be dependent on traditional broadcast services like free-to-air TV and Sky TV for TV programming?

Well, probably still the majority of people. The continuing lack of good-quality broadband in New Zealand, the greater level of technical know-how needed to access online programming and the relatively high price of fledgling online content services means that even by the end of 2013, digital TV will still be the hassle-free, cost-effective way to watch TV. Devices like the My Sky personal video recorder and its rival TiVo make the digital TV viewing all the more convenient.

But TV viewing culture is changing, particularly among the younger demographic where people are as likely to download a TV show or spend an evening browsing video clips on the web as they are sitting in front of the TV and watching what is served up. The concept of time-shifting, where people use PVRs to record and watch shows when they want to – and fast-forward through the adverts, is also changing attitudes towards TV content. There is now an appetite for “on demand” content which perfectly suits the internet delivery model, where an episode is just a download or internet stream away. The better broadband connectivity gets – and the Government is pouring $1.5 billion into improving high-speed internet in New Zealand, the better this model of delivery gets.

One box to rule them all

Google TV - merging internet services and digital TV

Google TV - merging internet services and digital TV

The immediate future of TV is likely to look a lot like what internet giant Google is planning. Its Google TV service, which is being integrated into TV sets by the likes of Sony and or set-top boxes from electronics makers like Logitech, will effectively integrate the best features of the internet into the high-definition digital service you currently receive. Google TV for instance, will let you surf the web from your TV set, download applications that organise content and let you use services like Twitter and Facebook on your TV screen. So you could be watching a rugby game while a stream of tweets from friends watching the game elsewhere scroll across the screen. You can also use your mobile phone as a remote with Google TV.

All of this requires a fairly clever integration of broadcasting, a TV user-interface and the delivery of internet-enabled services to your HD TV set. Google isn’t trying to bypass existing broadcasters with Google TV – it wants to enhance these services by offering all the flexibility of the web alongside TV. A primitive version of this already existings on the Playstation 3, which you can use to watch TVNZ On Demand, surf the web and watch Youtube clips. Rivals to Google TV will quickly appear, but one thing will prevent internet giants like Google from subverting the digital broadcast model of TV delivery for some time to come – the traditional players have the content deals sewn up.

The future of NZ TV – look to Sky

iskyOne of the most successful New Zealand companies of the last few years has been Sky TV, a company that over two decades has built a market for itself as the sole pay TV operator in the country serving over 700,000 homes. Sky’s advantage is that it isn’t completely reliant on advertising to pay its way. It charges monthly subscription fees and its swelling subscriber base has allowed it to buy up attractive contact, particularly when it comes to sports coverage. The internet may offer a technical path around Sky TV and the traditional free-to-air broadcasters who compete with Sky in auctions for the New Zealand rights to screen content. But the purchasing power of the likes of Sky and TVNZ means it is unlikely any internet-based operator will be able to get a toe-hold in the market unless it can come up with some compelling TV – and pay the associated licensing fees.

What may change that is a move by content owners – basically the large US and European network operators and movie studios to move to immediate release of content on a global scale. For instance, if iPlayer becomes available to New Zealanders in the next year or two, you could potentially watch Top Gear via the your laptop or internet-enabled TV screen at pretty much the same time it becomes available to online viewers in the UK. However, the BBC sells the rights for Top Gear to Sky-owned Prime TV, so it would be burning a lucrative international sale by doing so. However, if the iPlayer service found another way to make revenue – charging users directly which is pretty easy in the age of internet micro-payments, or displaying advertisements in the iPlayer service, the BBC could be in a position to go to viewers globally and make more money – cutting out the middlemen.

I think that will be the real thing that defines how TV will develop beyond 2013 and the analogue switch-off. Will content makers start to push out content globally in simultaneous release via the internet and internet-enabled services like Google TV and will they come to favour this method rather than partnering with traditional broadcasters around the world?

One thing is for sure – the dominance of Sky in the local market is making many people nervous. Sky is the largest digital TV platform and with its advertising-dependent rivals TVNZ and Ironbridge (owners of TV3 and C4) facing tough times, Sky’s ability to snap up the attractive content is only going to get better. That’s why you are seeing TVNZ cozying up to Sky, featuring Freeview content on the Sky platform. It can’t beat Sky, so its keen to get into the Sky camp.

The future of TV in New Zealand then, apart from public broadcasting TV which is likely to be maintained in some form by the Government, is pretty much dictated by Sky TV. As the big content buyer in this country, Sky will also largely control the technological developments that determine how people receive digital TV. Having sunk a lot of investment into its high definition satellite service, there isn’t compelling reason for Sky to pursue internet TV other than as adjunct services for existing subscribers – which is what iSky will effectively be.

While the move to all-digital delivery for TV in New Zealand is a significant step that other countries are also pursuing, the integration of internet services and TV and the commercial realities of TV and movie content deals are going to be the big determinants of how we watch and what we watch in the coming few years.

The robot – can it help out at Pike River? Peter Griffin Nov 22


UPDATED: This evening’s press conference on the rescue effort underway at the Pike River mine had much discussion of the military robot that is being prepared for deployment into the mine entrance.

"V2" - the converted bomb disposal robot used in a West Virginia mine search and rescue operation in 2006

"V2" - the converted bomb disposal robot used in a West Virginia mine search and rescue operation in 2006

The military robot entered Pike River mine this morning but broke down after progressing about 500 metres into the mine shaft, reportedly due to water from the ceiling causing damage to the robot. See the latest Science Media Centre update quoting international robotics experts on the track record of mobile robots in mine research and recovery operation

Tasman District police area commander Superintendent Gary Knowles said the robot being supplied by the military would progress up the entrance of the mine and carry four video cameras. It could also carry sensors for detecting gas. Is it a robot specially designed for mining rescue missions? No, it isn’t. But there also isn’t such a device in deployment anywhere.

As Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall said at the press conference:

“Globally is there anything better? No.”

He added that the robot, which is a multi-use device used for everything from bomb disposal to traversing disaster zones, could only be deployed in fresh air, because it is not “intrinsically safe”. That means it is not designed from the ground up to prevent electronic charges or sparks that could trigger an explosion in the presence of certain mixtures of gas. It has 1000 metres of fibre optic cable which it will trail behind it, sending video back to the outside world and allowing its controllers to steer it. Knowles said it would carry in its mechanical hand a rag or piece of paper as a visual aid to gauge if there is airflow in parts of the shaft it can reach.

The limit in the length of the existing cable available for the robot and its battery life will limit the extent to which the robot can explore the mine – though the cable is apparently being extended up to 2.5km to reach the full length of the shaft. It will also have to manoeuvre its way around a large mining vehicle abandoned in the middle of the shaft. The robot’s military handlers are apparently completing a risk assessment to make sure introducing the robot to the mine isn’t likely to trigger an explosion. But that prompted an interesting question from one of the journalists attending the press conference – if the robot will only be deployed in fresh-air scenarios, why not just send a person down? Pike River’s Peter Whittall suggested its a matter of relative risk – sending a robot down is risky, but sending a person down is even riskier, given the increased potential for loss of life if something goes wrong.

Robots as first responders

Robots have been deployed in mining disasters before, most notably in 2006 at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners were killed in an explosion. The robot deployed was the US Mine Safety and Health Association’s V2:

V2 is approximately 50 inches tall and weighs over 1200 pounds. It is propelled by explosion-proof motors that drive rubber tracks similar to a military tank. It is equipped with navigation and surveillance cameras, lighting, atmospheric detectors, night vision capability, two way voice communication, and a manipulator arm.

The manufacturer is Remotec, Inc. of Oak Ridge, TN, a world leader in hazardous duty robotic vehicles. Remotec has designed and developed robots for applications such as bomb squads, hazmat, military, swat team, remote inspection of nuclear facilities, etc. MSHA acquired the specially designed robot at a cost of $265,000.

However, the robot struggled in the terrain of the mine, bogging down in mud 9,500 feet inside the main shaft. Rescuers eventually left it behind as they headed deeper into the shaft. In 2007 an improvised robot crawler was sent into a mine at Crandall Canyon in Utah, but as this report outlines, it proved “no match for seismic activity, groundwater and other challenges”:

Unable to provide the rescuers with much information, the robot was left down the borehole overnight. Unfortunately, when the crew returned to retrieve it the next morning they discovered that the hole had shifted and the robot could no longer make its way back to the surface. Despite several attempts to remove the robot, including using a 400-pound chisel to break up the ground blocking its escape, the $35,000 robot became permanently trapped 52 feet below the surface.

The above description appears to actually be based on the report Mobile Robots in Mine Rescue and Recovery by Professor Robin Murphy et al. Professor Murphy runs the Centre for Robot-assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University , and is a world-leading expert on the deployment of mobile robots in disaster zones including mines. She is quoted in the Science Media Centre update above.

David Cliff, Associate Professor at the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre at The University of Queensland, told the Science Media Centre today that robots had yet to prove their value in mine search and rescue operations:

’Robots in general in the past have seldom worked — they are not able to cope with the level of damage found in the mines and are not flame proof or intrinsically safe. A robot was used in the USA at Sago with limited success.

’They cannot be used in flammable atmospheres. They usually trail a cable for control and communications and these are prone to damage. SIMTARS have such a robot with cameras, gas monitoring and temperature sensing. NUMBAT is the most famous AUS robot which never achieved its potential — it cost millions of dollars but needed much more to make it really useful.’

Potential for development

Still, several experts are confident robots have a useful role to play in mine disasters with further refinement. William L. “Red” Whittaker is director of the Field Robotics Center and founder of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In this interview, he expresses optimism that robots are close to proving their worth in challenging mine search and rescue operations.

In a mine there are corridors and intersections and walls and floors and a roof — for a robot’s navigation and reasoning that’s a lot of information. But it’s still a lot different than sending a robot into rush-hour traffic, for instance, to head two miles across town. A mine is a relatively simple world for a robot because it is uncluttered by many unanticipated items. In an office building there is far more complexity and clutter — desks, water coolers, signs, and people. So a mine is an amenable environment for a robotic device designed for simple navigation.

There is no fundamental barrier to good locomotion or moving through mine conditions or getting command and control via that robot or appending sense detectors or illumination devices or scanners. So useful rescue response robots could be specialized and deployed in the near term — there’s no leap of physics or big missing piece of technology for machines that could move quickly and effectively in mines.

Other technology that would aid search and rescue teams in the event of mining disasters is also being developed. RFID tags could be carried by miners, transmitting data continuously about their location. But the range of these tags are limited. Inertial portable navigation systems and underground GPS devices are in development to get around the limitations of RFID.

Mechanical help at Pike River

Given the patchy track record of robotic devices in aiding in mine search and rescue operations, its important not to invest too much hope in what the New Zealand military’s robot could achieve. Still, robotics experts will likely be watching with interest as the robot is deployed as each mining incident gives them valuable information about the limitations and potential of the technology.

V2 is approximately 50 inches tall and weighs over 1200 pounds. It is propelled by explosion-proof motors that drive rubber tracks similar to a military tank. It is equipped with navigation and surveillance cameras, lighting, atmospheric detectors, night vision capability, two way voice communication, and a manipulator arm.

The manufacturer is Remotec, Inc. of Oak Ridge, TN, a world leader in hazardous duty robotic vehicles. Remotec has designed and developed robots for applications such as bomb squads, hazmat, military, swat team, remote inspection of nuclear facilities, etc. MSHA acquired the specially designed robot at a cost of $265,000.

Methane fingered in coal mine explosion Peter Griffin Nov 20

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The families of up to 30 miners and contractors working at the Pike River coal mine on New Zealand’s West Coast face an agonizing wait overnight until a rescue effort can be launched in the morning to attempt to reach the miners.

That rescue effort was tonight hampered by worries that in the wake of the explosion at the mine, ventilation in the mine shaft was not functioning due to loss of power, potentially leading to the build-up of dangerous gases.

The cause of the explosion at the mine is still to be determined, but mining safety expert Dave Fiekert has already fingered a build up of methane gas and or coal dust as a possible culprit. Mining companies around the world face a constant struggle to avoid dangerous accumulations of methane gas and coal dust as they go about extracting coal underground.

Volatile methane

Pike River's ventilation shaft

Pike River's ventilation shaft, which previously experienced a rock fall requiring costly repairs

Methane goes hand in hand with coal as the two are formed together, the methane trapped in coal seams or the surrounding rock strata. How much methane exists depends to some extent on the geological pressures, but as mining activity takes place, the pressure is reduced and methane gas can be released, as this interesting explanation of methane in the mining context explains:

“In underground mining, methane is released into the mine workings during mining. Mining regulations require methane to be diluted in the ventilation air, and then vented to the atmosphere. Mines can also remove methane before and during mining by using degasification systems. The gas can be vented, flared (not currently done in the U.S.), or recovered for its energy content. Emissions are reduced if recovered gas is flared or used. Up to 50 to 60 percent of methane can typically be recovered with degasification; the remainder is released in the ventilation air.”

How dangerous is methane? Well, that depends on what concentration it is present in. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration explains further:

[Methane is] an odorless substance that is nontoxic and is harmless at some concentrations. Methane, however, can displace all or part of the atmosphere in a confined space(1); and the hazards presented by such displacement can vary greatly, depending on the degree of displacement. With only 10 percent displacement, methane produces an atmosphere which, while adequate for respiration, can explode violently.

A lot of science and research has gone into estimating how much methane is likely to exist in different kinds of mines, coming up with ways of extracting it and evolving technology to detect dangerous levels of methane in mine shafts. Ventilation shafts are common features of underground mines and Pike River was employing ventilation as a safety measure at its mine. However, it is a tricky business estimating and managing methane levels in mine shafts, as faults in rock can become conduits for methane from other geographically removed sources. This paper outlines the potential for “unforeseen mine gas emissions in quantities sufficient to create hazardous conditions”.

In fact, this Stuff story points to that exact risk being present with Pike River:

The 5.5m -wide, 4.5m high tunnel had to pass through the Hawera fault – a 60m-wide zone of fractured rock with a risk of methane gas infiltration sufficient to require flameproof mining equipment to be used.

Coal dust and the “explosion pentagon”

The other potentially explosive hazard in coal mines is a build up of coal dust. This hazard is as old as mining itself and has been responsible for countless deaths since the 19th century. Working at coal seams with industrial equipment throws up a large amount of dust, which if not properly extracted or appropriately dispersed can explode. OSHA again explains:

In addition to the familiar fire triangle of oxygen, heat, and fuel (the dust), dispersion of dust particles in sufficient quantity and concentration can cause rapid combustion known as a deflagration.

If the event is confined by an enclosure such as a building, room, vessel, or process equipment, the resulting pressure rise may cause an explosion. These five factors (oxygen, heat, fuel, dispersion, and confinement) are known as the ’Dust Explosion Pentagon’. If one element of the pentagon is missing, an explosion cannot occur.

In the confinement of a coal mine shaft, the conditions for coal dust combustion are obviously quite favourable.

Echoes of West Virginia

The Pike River mine explosion, on the face of it, would appear to mirror some of the characteristics of the explosion in April at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia which killed 29 miners.An investigation into the tragedy is currently underway – you can track its progress via this website.

This BoingBoing article features mining engineer Dr Christopher Bise talking about the ever-present threat of methane and the possible sources of ignition that could trigger an explosion:

[Miners are] very careful about open flames. But let’s say the mining machinery was ripping away at the coal seam and one of the bits happened to strike a rock and make a spark, like a boy scout starting a fire. Sparks occur. That’s why all the machinery has detectors on it. If the methane concentration gets above 1.5%, the detectors are supposed to automatically de-energize the equipment. But that’s not foolproof. You could get a rush of methane that happens too fast.

Pike River’s own internal investigations and potentially external, independent investigations will no doubt get to the bottom of what caused the massive explosion. In the meantime, a rescue effort unlike anything New Zealand has seen in decades is about to get underway. We can only hope its outcome is as inspiring and miraculous as that experienced by the Chilean miners who captured the world’s attention with their prolonged underground ordeal.

Singapore still the science all-star Peter Griffin Nov 18


UNESCO has just produced its report on science for 2010 and a brief chapter details the recent shake-up of the New Zealand science system with a number of graphs benchmarking us against our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region.

The report’s overwhelming theme is of an increased focus on science among emerging countries that is beginning to challenge the domination of the traditional “scientific triad” of the US, Japan and Europe, who have traditionally been the world leaders in research and development and scientific projects.

One of the big measures used in the report is gross domestic expenditure on R&D and on that count, China, India and Korea are raising Asia’s game:

Led mainly by China, India and the Republic of Korea, Asia’s share increased from 27 to 32% between 2002 and 2007. Over the same period, the three heavyweights, the European Union, USA and Japan, have registered a decrease. In 2002, almost 83% of research and development was carried out in developed countries; by 2007 this share had dropped to 76%. This trend is even clearer when industry’s contribution to GERD is considered. Between 2000 and 2007, the private sector share of R&D spending, as a proportion of GDP, saw a sharp increase in Japan, China, Singapore and especially the Republic of Korea, while it remained stable in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom and even saw a slight decrease in the Russian Federation and the USA.

In our part of the world – UNESCO includes New Zealand and Australia along with the Pacific islands in the same group as many nations of South East Asia, we are doing pretty well. New Zealand and Australia account for just five per cent of the population in the region, but nearly half of its total GDP. Traditionally the bulk of scientific expenditure comes from those two countries as well as the bulk of scientific output. But that is changing and at a swift pace, largely driven by Singapore and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Thailand. The table below gives some of our key measures against others in the region.

unesco table

Singapore’s science focus

Singapore’s investment in science has really paid off for the country according to UNESCO:

Singapore is one of the few countries in the region with a net inflow of scientific personnel, both from the region and from other scientifically advanced economies. There is growing evidence that Singapore is becoming central to global knowledge hubs in fields such as biomedical science and information technology (IT). A big challenge for Singapore will be to maintain the present inflow of human capital in order to underpin sustained knowledge-based development over the next decade, even as the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies is stimulating demand for skilled personnel in these countries.

Singapore produces more patents than New Zealand and across the border in Malaysia, scientific developments are also gathering pace:

Malaysia registered less than half as many patents as New Zealand in 2001 but matched it by 2006 and moved ahead in 2007.

In that respect its good to see announcements like the one this week from New Zealand’s Health Research Council, that detailed a new scientific collaboration with Singapore. A $2 million joint fund has been set up by the HRC and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research for cancer research. The money will fund joint research projects into breast cancer progression, ovarian cancer and liver tumours undertaken by researchers at the University of Otago and Singapore-based universities.

Science in from the cold

The UNESCO report picks up an increasing trend globally of governments looking to science to breathe new life into their economies – something that rings true here with Prime Minister John Key’s stated goal of putting science “at the heart of government”.

Science policy has shifted ground in terms of national development strategies. Science policy has been brought in from the cold to play a central role in innovation policies. This has quite significant long-term implications and carries with it policy management dilemmas.

Your science in seven words Peter Griffin Nov 02


UPDATED: The Running Hot conference for emerging researchers is underway in Wellington – follow updates via Twitter @smcnz. Last night kicked off with an interesting panel discussion moderated by Radio New Zealand’s science-friendly Nights host, Bryan Crump.

running hot

Crump quizzed three scientists on their areas of research, with included climate change, neuroscience and epigenetics. Before that, outgoing acting CEO Lesley Middleton from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology put up a slightly disturbing slide that caused a lot of discussion among the gathered early-career researchers.

Here’s that diagram Lesley Presented H/T Dr Michael Edmonds for finding it in Igniting Potential. UPDATED: The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has provided an updated version of the graph which shows only science-related PhDs. The previous version showed all PhDs – 14,148 of them…

career pathway

It showed using arrows of varying thickness illustrating what percentage of PhDs go where after university (if I can get hold of a copy of it I’ll post it). It showed that around 68 per cent of PhDs don’t continue on in research but disappear off into other sectors to do a myriad range of things. Only two per cent will advance through academia to eventually become professors. Many in the room felt the seemingly large exodus of PhDs from academia is a sign that there aren’t enough attractive opportunities in research in New Zealand for those seeking post-doc projects.

Middleton didn’t seem so concerned about it. She said what was more important were the “feedback loops” that saw PhDs going out into industry or Government coming back in contact with academia in some form of collaboration. Her message was that we need to boost this kind of public-private collaboration to make our country more innovative. Fair point, but there was lingering unease in the room at the massive grey arrow diverting 68.8 per cent of qualified PhDs out of research and into the ether.

Prior to that, myself and Science Media Centre colleague Dacia Herbulock again gave researchers tips on communicating their science. This time there was a bit of a twist – after getting researchers to describe their science in one or two sentences, we then got them to repeat the exercise, summing up their science in a maximum of seven words. Here are some of the results…

My personal favourite…

Is Facebook the new-age ‘virtual’ marae?

Some of the others:

Ways people heat and cool their homes

Telling the story of migration between western countries

Technology to help people with brain injuries

How do people have ethical sex

Stopping babies exploding

How we organise knowledge affects what is possible

Telling the stories of merino wool

Nanomaterials as high performance electronic devices

Understand the relationship between structure and function

I develop rehabilitation devices for stroke patients

I want to make a molecular dragon

Transporting people in resource-constrained cities

Torturing shellfish: Using stress to develop understanding

Are we what our mothers eat?

Mysteries of the deep sea.

Disasters: survival of the fittest?

Does earthquake risk influence tourist choices?

Aussie support for GM slips slightly Peter Griffin Oct 26

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As the latest study on the New Zealand public’s perception of science is released, a similar study across the Tasman focusing more narrowly on biotech has identified some similar trends.

The survey of 1000 people from across Australia commissioned by the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research shows support for biotechnology techniques like genetic modification and stem cell treatments remains high overall, but has slipped since 2007.

GM food continues to be one of the least well supported biotechnologies, according to the study.  While the Australian public perceive the benefits (70%) to outweigh the risks (48%), this is a drop from 2007 in benefits (77%) and risks (54%), yet still much higher than the 2005 figure of perceived benefits (64%) but lower than the 2005 figure of perceived risk (71%).

So over five years it seems as though Australians have become more comfortable with the risks GM technologies pose, but more sceptical of the benefits they potentially offer. Or as the report sums up:

Despite some shift in opinion about genetically modified food crops, there remains widespread acknowledgement of the potential benefits they may provide. Many recognised the value of a number of objectives of genetically modifying crops, particularly the need to adapt to the Australian climate by producing plants that are drought or salinity resistant. In addition, the majority of those who do not accept genetically modified food crops would be swayed by longterm tests (50% would change their minds), and labelling describing what component had been genetically modified, and why (45% would be influenced).

Australia is much further along that New Zealand when it comes to employing genetic modification in agriculture. Most states allow GM food crops to be grown – the main crops are canola and cotton (particularly New South Wales and Queensland). But a good deal of Aussies surveyed (43%) didn’t know if there were GM crops being grown in their own state. Only 49 per cent said they’d be in favour of GM crops being grown in their state.

The table below suggests there’s been a slip since the last survey in 2007 when it comes to using GM technologies in general. The report takes a stab at suggesting why this is. Take for instance, the use of GM crops to try and reduce environmental impacts:

The need to recycle water is likely to be less pressing in 2010 than in 2007, following severe rainfall deficiencies in 2006. In addition, items related to fuel use and alternative fuels are likely to be less pertinent than they were in 2007, when fuel prices were particularly high.

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Interestingly, there was a drop in the perceived value of using biotechnology to address climate change. The researchers note “this may be due in part to rising scepticism about anthropogenic climate change per se, rather than doubt in the ability of biotechnology to address the problem”.

That finding mirrors the research conducted here by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology into the public’s perceptions of science, which shows a dip in the perceived benefits of research into climate change relative to 2005 and 2002.

The New Zealand research doesn’t ask survey participants particularly about genetic modification (that would be pretty interesting) but you get a sense that recent GM-related scares, such as a biosecurity breach at a containment facility at Lincoln have had an impact on the public’s confidence in this type of research. A increased number of people felt there should be tight controls on what scientists are able to do and there was a slight increase in the number of people agreeing with the statement that “science is out of control these days” – though the majority disagree with that.

So, overall, the public is still strongly supportive of science, but a bit of fatigue and scepticism setting in in some areas, reflecting changing circumstances and changing perceptions we have seen reflected in the media, particularly on issues like climate change

Here’s the Australian report in full…

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