SciBlogs

Archive January 2010

The rort that still is mobile data roaming Peter Griffin Jan 31

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The Herald on Sunday produces more evidence today of the perils of using your phone for email and surfing the internet while abroad.

While making calls and sending text messages while abroad has become much more affordable for consumers and the charging schedules easier to understand, the same cannot be said for using mobile data services.

I’ve heard numerous stories of people returning to shocking bills after using their phone to keep in touch via email while abroad.

Ernie Newman, ever-present advocate for consumers as head of the Telecommunications Users’ Association (TUANZ) told the HoS:

“People go overseas without any concept of how quickly these costs can mount up. It’s what’s known in the trade as bill shock and unfortunately it’s a recurring story.”

Here in New Zealand on a Vodafone plan, 100MB of mobile data will cost you $10. When you roam overseas as a Vodafone customer, 10MB will cost you $100 – yes, one hundred dollars.

As the table below shows, people using data services overseas typically pay 10c per 10kb of data. Now, 10kb is enough to get one or two plain text emails via a device like the Blackberry or a Windows Mobile phone. If you are just clearing a few email it isn’t too expensive, but heaven forbid you download, say a 300kb PDF file ($3), or a 2MB Powerpoint presentation ($20).

What’s even worse is that as a Vodafone customer, if you do not roam on a Vodafone network in the country you are travelling in, you’ll pay 30c per 10k. So that 300kb PDF file is suddenly costing you $9, the 2MB Powerpoint file a whopping $60.

The minimum charge in plenty of countries you are likely to be travelling in – Canada, Denmark, Fiji, Kong Kong, South Korea, is 30c per 10kb. And some providers, such as the US arm of T-Mobile, charge minimum connection fees, in its case – the minimum charge for a data session is $3.

Telecom quotes data charging, probably more realistically by the megabyte. One megabyte in Australia will cost $8, in the UK, $10, in Fiji and China, $25.

To their credit, the two mobile players Vodafone and Telecom have got a lot better about warning customers about using mobile data overseas. This from Telecom’s website:

“…if your laptop automatically downloaded a security update of 30mb it could cost you up to $900 depending on where you are, and you may not even be aware it happened until you received your bill back in New Zealand.”

Avoiding mobile data roaming bill shock

1. If you are picking up email on your phone, make sure you are receiving them in text only form and with the option to open attachments if you choose. Avoid at all costs opening attachments on your phone while overseas.

2. Be very careful about using GPS mapping applications to find your way around foreign cities – these can rack up significant data transfer which at 10 – 30c per 10kb could cost a small fortune.

3. Want to access a restaurant review or tourst guide on your phone? Avoid doing so – websites, especially those that aren’t optimised for mobile web browsers, can take several hundred kilobytes to load. Even optimised, virtually text only pages, will take 10k – 30k per page to load. That’s potentially 10c – 90c per page to load.

4. If you are using a mobile data card or USB dongle to get your computer online overseas, BEWARE. Data charges will escalate quickly. Make sure you turn off Windows updates, antivirus software updates, peer to peer file sharing applications. Don’t use Skype, don’t even have it running. I’d very very wary about using my computer with a data roaming service. At least with a mobile phone, you are likely to be assured to only have one application running at the one time. Your computer is a potential gateway to sucking large amounts of data as the various useful bits of software you have installed query servers on the internet for updates.

5. Always stay on partner networks, when roaming. You can, for instance set Vodafone as your default network so that Vodafone will be the first network you connect to as soon as you walk off the plane in a country where Vodafone operates (or has an affiliate). The same goes for Telecom’s XT network.

A cross-section of roaming destinations and Vodafone charges

A cross-section of roaming destinations and Vodafone charges

Morsel combat: the Listener on genetic modification Peter Griffin Jan 31

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The Listener out this weekend, features an interview with Dr Nina Fedoroff, who was in the country last week talking agricultural science and genetic modification and covers the other side of the GM argument with Green MP Sue Kedgley also featured.

It is worth a read, particularly the interesting side bar by writer David Lomas which points out that Kiwis are already eating GM food mostly without their knowledge but that GM isn’t really in demand here because we are not big producers of commodity crops like rice, corn and soy.

Sarah Barnett’s main piece expands on Fedoroff’s assertion that attitudes to GM food are changing:

The New Zealand Listener, Jan 30 2010

The New Zealand Listener, Jan 30 2010

I’m currently two-thirds into an exceptionally good book called Enough, which examines the causes of famine and food shortages in Africa and which is written by a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters.

I haven’t even got to discussion of genetically modified crops yet, but the overall impression so far is that the US and Europe, with lavish protectionism of its farmers, haphazard approaches to food aid and mixing of humanitarian assistance with geopolitical objectives has done the African continent considerable harm over the past few decades, while at the same time teaching African nations new farming techniques and shipping excess supplies of grain to feed Africans when crop fails.

It seems a large amount of the suffering and starvation endured by African nations could have been avoided had the Western world been more genuine about its efforts to really help Africa, rather than being seen to do so.With that sort of track record, you can understand why there’s a good deal of cynicism that GM crop technology, developed by the West, is the answer to hunger in Africa in the face of climate change – generated largely by those of us in rich countries.

I’ll post a full review of Enough in the next few days.

Sciblogs featured in the Taranaki Daily News Peter Griffin Jan 30

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Today’s Taranaki Daily News carries a piece by Helen Harvey in its feature section looking at Sciblogs and some of its contributors.

The feature isn’t online, but you can read it in full below… view full screen for larger text size.



US to NZ: Get real about GM crops Peter Griffin Jan 29

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It was fairly predictable that Dr Nina Fedoroff’s comments about genetic modification during her visit to New Zealand this week would raise the hackles of anti-GM group GE Free NZ.

Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate

Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate

It was also ironic that Fedoroff, Hillary Clinton’s science and technology advisor, arrived just as GE Free New Zealand went back to court where Crown research institute AgResearch was seeking to overturn a decision that last year saw its applications to undertake GM research across a range of species withdrawn.

Fedoroff is an expert in plant genetics, author of a book on genetic modification and an unabashed advocate of the technology. This New York Times piece gives Federoff’s take on GM, which can be summed up with this quote from her:

“There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.

“Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired, but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.

“In the last century, as we learned more about genes, we were able to devise ways of accelerating evolution.

“So a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop. That’s how plant breeding was done in the 20th century. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.”

Fedoroff’s presentation Rethinking Agriculture in a Changing Climate (see  a version of it below – minus the video clips) formed the basis of her public lecture at the University of Auckland on Wednesday and also forms the bones of her pro-GM justifications, which focus on food security and the challenges faced by the world of feeding more people using less arable land.

It is the “accelerating evolution” using genetic modification that has been such a touchy subject in New Zealand, and while it wasn’t top of the agenda as Fedoroff met some of the country’s top scientists in a series of high-level discussions, her message will certainly be getting sympathetic nods from scientists she has met this week who are extremely limited in the GM research they can do and who have been unable to get a commercial release of a GMO of any kind in New Zealand, after decades of effort. AgResearch chief executive Andrew West went as far this week as to suggest scientists have a moral obligation to pursue GM technology.

“If genetic modification can create more food from fewer inputs, I think we have a moral obligation to use it. With our current product mix, New Zealand can feed 17 million people,” Dr West said.

Fedoroff is well aware of the antipathy to GM in New Zealand. But she believes public sentiment on GM may shift as rising demand puts pressure on food prices. She told the Herald:

“Stay tuned … dug-in positions can change quite rapidly.”



The iPad – everything it was tipped to be Peter Griffin Jan 28

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Most of the rumours proved to be true, testament I suppose to how hard it is for a company of Apple’s stature to develop a product secrectly in a world as inter-connected as ours.

Steve Jobs and the iPad

Steve Jobs and the iPad

Here’s the spec sheet for the new Apple iPad:

  • 9.7 inch IPS display
  • 0.5 inches thin
  • 1.5 pounds
  • Full capacitive multi-touch interface
  • 16-64GB of Flash memory storage
  • 1 GHz Apple-branded A4 chip (developed in-house)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 802.11n WiFi
  • Built-in Speaker
  • Built-in Microphone
  • Accelerometer & Compass
  • 30-pin Dock connector (same as iPod and iPhone)
  • 10-hours of battery life (Over one month standby time)
  • Runs all iPhone apps
  • App Store application included
  • 3G access for premium versions

Apple’s Kindle rival, the media’s saviour?

As expected, the iPad is a device that will display books, magazines and newspapers and as such appears to be a hi-tech, high-resolution version of Amazon’s best-selling gadget, the Kindle – with the ability to play up to 10 hours of video between charges.

It was telling that one of the partners on-hand to help launch the iPad was the New York Times, which is already partnering with Amazon to deliver a version of the paper to the Kindle for subscribers and which has already developed a rather nice iPhone application.

Personalised newspapers

The tablet, as expected opens a world of opportunity for tech-savvy media companies to redesign their newspapers and magazines for the iPad – plenty of developers have been working on applications for the App Store, so there is a good base of expertise in this area, even here in New Zealand.

The interesting aspect of the iPad however is that, like the Kindle, versions of it have a mobile chip built into them. Wifi or cable will be the methods for syncing the tablet and transferring content for the basic model, but a deal with Apple’s old mobile partner, AT&T means those going for the premium model can update their iPad via a 3G mobile service.

Not only does that offer huge convenience to users, it offers an access gateway for content providers that ensures only paying customers get through – a potential answer it would seem to the problem of eroding sales for the media industry as people access content online for free.

NZ debut?

Negotiating international rights for the iBook service could take a while as these things are complicated. Amazon recently missed out New Zealand when it went global with the Kindle. Vodafone would be the default partner to supply mobile access when the iPad does get here. Based on US pricing however, the iPad won’t be cheap here coming in well above the price range for netbooks, with the base model likely starting at the $1000 mark.

Price:

The iPod touch-esque iPad starts at $499:

  • 16GB – $499 (US)
  • 32GB – $599
  • 64GB – $699

The 3G models, running on AT&T’s network, will cost significantly more, due to the mobile chip:

  • 3G 16GB – $629
  • 3G 32GB – $729
  • 3G 64GB – $829

Mobile outages symbolic of Telecom’s malaise Peter Griffin Jan 28

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I had a sense of deja vu today as I walked down Lambton Quay repeatedly attempting to dial a number on my Blackberry.

XT Network: crashes more often than Richard Hammond

XT Network: crashes more often than Richard Hammond

Instead of a ringing tone, dead air was all that could be heard in my phone’s earpiece. The words “call failed” kept flashing up on the screen. A few things go through your mind on such occasions: have I paid my phone bill? Is there a massive amount of concrete nearby blocking the mobile signal? Is my Blackberry knackered? Since last month there’s another item to add to that list – has the XT network fallen over again?

Telecom’s massive outage on its XT mobile network today came barely six weeks after the last one similarly knocked out service from Taupo south, severely inconveniencing me and thousands of other customers for over half a day. If the first big outage shook faith in the reliability of Telecom’s new mobile network, the second so soon after with undoubtedly leave many customers considering a move to Vodafone, or at the very least a retreat to Telecom’s more stable CDMA network.

Early in the millennium, I reported on how Telecom got itself in trouble with an advertising campaign that suggested customers could enjoy “five nines” reliability on its fixed line service. The adverts promised:

“Should our network get damaged it will usually heal itself. Should it get severely damaged it will automatically divert to a backup cable. Should that fail, technicians will divert traffic to other backup cables.”

The ads proved a headache for Telecom when angry customers who had their phone and internet service cut off rang the Telecom helpdesk asking why their connection wasn’t working 99.999 per cent of the time. Telecom tried to weasel out of that one by explaining that the reliability promise, which was a trendy thing to advertise in the telecoms and IT industries at the time, related only to Telecom’s “core” network. The myriad collection of cabinets and copper wires between its core infrastructure and you weren’t covered in the reliability promise. Problem is, its somewhere in that bundle of kit that the problems with fixed-line services often happen.

Telecom soon abandoned that ad campaign and since then has never pushed reliability as a selling point. Both XT outages involved systemic failures in Telecom’s core network, the latest one Telecom executives putting down to:

…issues with our Christchurch XT Mobile RNC switch which has resulted in the degradation of the XT Mobile Network from Taupo south between approximately 10.30am and 12pm.

The RNC is a radio network controller which is responsible for routing calls across the mobile network of cell sites.Last month, the problem was again with RNC switching, according to the National Business Review. Telecom’s mobile network architecture is flawed to the extent that if one of its two RNC switches for the country fails, the other one cannot take over for the whole country.

The XT network was meant to breathe new life into Telecom. Instead, it has come to symbolise what is wrong with the company. While I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Telecom’s impressive mobile data service on the XT network, innovative mobile services are otherwise hard to find. Telecom’s pricing for XT was also uninspiring on launch and despite the slick advertising campaign featuring Top Gear host Richard Hammond, the range of handsets offered by Telecom has been rather lacklustre so far.

Elsewhere there are signs of a company struggling to innovate:

- It was incredibly late to market with an IPTV offering, partnering with TIVO well after Sky had claimed the personal video recorder market with its successful MySky device. Word is that TIVO sales are well behind targets. While TIVO is a fantastic device (I reviewed it here), the idea that people would go to a Telecom store to purchase it is flawed. A technical glitch related to TIVO that saw Telecom broadband customers overcharged earlier this month suggests the unmetered data access associated with TIVO has been causing Telecom’s software engineers grief as well.

- Telecom completely dropped the ball in its dealings with Sky TV, shifting from having a useful bundled deal with the pay TV operator and owning a stake in the company, to having virtually nothing to do with it. Vodafone was quick to exploit the fractured relationship, offering its customers the MySky recorder at preferential pricing.

- Telecom’s play at offering a suite of services to the small business sector has hardly set the world alight, despite costly sponsorship of dotcoms like Start-up.co.nz and Madefromnewzealand.com which are focused on small, innovative New Zealand businesses.

- Consumer VoIP services are missing in action despite claims back from executives back when I was reporting on Telecom for the Herald that they were on the verge of being released.

- Telecom has missed the boat with retail product bundles so many times, its not even funny. Best example – not going head to head with Vodafone’s Best Mate deal until that product had been in the market for years. Telecom has an alternative available now, but sadly the customers have long departed for Vodafone.

The list goes on and on. Telecom seems so drained from years of fighting regulators, manipulating customers with advertising that breaches the Fair Trading Act and cleaning up after fiascos like Xtra Bubble, that it is too timid to come out with innovative products and too unsure of itself to deliver them effectively. All the while, Telecom has lost market share on all fronts – mobile, broadband, phone packages and tolls. The only bright spot has been its IT services division Gen-i, but the shine has even come off that. All up, Telecom’s strategy and vision when it comes to innovation seems to make about as much sense as the sloppily drawn asterisk that serves as its new logo.

It’s only hope to develop an edge that will stop its business and consumer customer bases from eroding completely is to get involved in a meaningful way with the Government’s national broadband plan. That will probably force Telecom to break itself up, so-called structural separation, which the Government would require of it. Telecom has resisted doing that so far – but it doesn’t really have much of a choice any more with numerous competitors angling in on the fibre roll-out.

Telecom boss Paul Reynolds is reportedly “angry” about the latest XT outage and has commissioned an independent review. Good job. But he’s likely to be increasingly disillusioned with aspects of Telecom and the legacy he was left by his predecessor Theresa Gattung, who promises to soon release a “no holds barred” memoir of her time at the top of the country’s largest listed company. If it lives up to the promise, it could well serve as a textbook case in how bad technical decision making and lack of innovation and vision can topple a behemoth.

Will Agresearch’s Court of Appeal bid pay off? Peter Griffin Jan 26

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[UPDATED: An ERMA spokesperson got in touch to clarify that ERMA isn't party to the appeal - "In the High Court, GE Free challenged ERMA’s right to receive the applications from AgResearch. AgResearch appealed the High Court decision, and we were in court yesterday to assist in any way we could and to seek clarification of ERMA’s powers under the Act."]

It was a decidedly slow day at Wellington’s cavernous Court of Appeal today.

Wellington's Court of Appeal which is hearing the GM application case

Wellington's Court of Appeal which is hearing the GM application case

The single case scheduled on the court noticeboard: GE Free NZ vs Agresearch and the Environmental Risk Assessment Authority.

In Court room 1, lawyers for Crown Research Institute Agresearch and ERMA, the Government body that vets applications for imports and trials of genetically modified organisms, aligned themselves on the left side of the court. Lawyers for GE Free New Zealand took their positions on the right.

If the few onlookers gathered to observe proceedings were expecting a legal argument on whether genetic modification trials should be allowed to go on in New Zealand, they’d have been pretty disappointed. What followed was a day of rather dry but occasionally vigorous and interesting legal discussion that focused on how the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act applies to ERMA’s process of receiving applications from organisations seeking to import or develop genetically modified material. Nevertheless, the outcome of the appeal could decide the direction and extent of genetic modification trials in New Zealand for the next few years. The stakes for everyone concerned are high.

Agresearch and ERMA are appealing a High Court ruling from last June which saw the anti-GM organisation GE Free successful in having withdrawn Agresearch’s applications to import genetically modified material and undertake GM trials in New Zealand on several species of animals. Justice Clifford ruled back then (see his full judgement at bottom) that:

…the applications are simply too generic to enable the risk assessment called for by HSNO to be meaningfully undertaken. In reaching this conclusion I have carefully considered whether I am trespassing on to a question which should be left to ERMA’s expertise. I have concluded that I have not.

In other words, Justice Clifford was saying that the scope of the GM applications, which according to NZPA sought approval for “laboratory testing of human and monkey cell lines and smaller species of GE laboratory animals, and the development of GE cows, buffalo, sheep, pigs, goats, llamas, alpacas, deer and horses”, was far too open-ended, the information contained in the applications, much too generic to allow a proper assessment of the risk it may pose to the country. His interpretation of the law is that given the lack of detail in the applications, they shouldn’t even be heard, which would have the effect of throwing out Agresearch’s applications before the substance of them has been looked at in any meaningful way by ERMA’s team of experts.

ERMA obviously took exception to its authority being undermined in this way, which is why it was part of that High Court case and is part of the appeal against the judgement.

Agresearch’s lawyers today outlined the intent of the applications in relation to cows, which is to undertake GM research and breeding to allow the production of high-value proteins in milk. They said that the applications were for “extraordinary small modifications”:

“The idea that some fantastic creature can be made as a result of these processes just doesn’t hold water.”

They argued also that the HSNO Act doesn’t specify that organisms have to be identified in a particular way in an application, nor where trials are proposed to be carried out. In effect, Agresearch’s lawyers are arguing that the CRI’s applications complied with the law and should have been processed and considered by ERMA.

ERMA’s lawyers suggested Justice Clifford’s judgement was inconsistent with a 2003 court ruling in the so-called Madge case, where a group calling itself Mothers Against Genetic Modification and headed by ex-Thomson Twins pop star, Alannah Currie, was unsuccessful in attempting to overturn an application approved by ERMA that allowed Agresearch to undertake GM trials that involved inserting human, rat, mouse and deer genes into cows. They said there was no legal requirement specified in the HSNO Act to assess whether an application to ERMA was valid. In effect, ERMA’s scientifically-qualified staff would do the analysis later in the process.

GE Free NZ’s lawyers for their part, suggested the applications were far too broad and slight on detail, indicating what species of host animals were intended to genetically modified but not what “source donor” animals would be used and where the material would be imported from.

They said that if the specific intentions of the GM research had been outlined in detail, such as a desire to find a way of reducing methane emissions from cattle, GE Free NZ may have been been more understanding about its applications.

“[They are] effectively saying Agresearch can go off on its own now and not come back,” said one lawyer of the applications.

It has been suggested to me by people in the scientific community that Agresearch’s applications were indeed broad in nature. There are valid reasons for that – Agresearch doesn’t know with certainty where the science is going to go in the coming years, so wants as broad a remit as possible to experiment. Applications can also be expensive to lodge and have investigated, so the broader you go in terms of species an application covers, the less cost incurred in going through the ERMA process. But was Agresearch too ambitious, especially given the anti-GM sentiment in New Zealand?

Crossing the line?

The three Court of Appeal judges presiding over the appeal had plenty of curly questions for the lawyers that illuminated the key points the case hinges on. Justice O’Regan seemed incredulous that Agresearch would lodge an application that was so generic and broad in nature.

“You don’t apply for building consent to build any kind of building,” he remarked.

Justice Chambers on the other hand thought it nonsensical that an application, that didn’t “flagrantly” contravene the HSNO Act,  would be thrown out before even being assessed by ERMA

“How can they decide the impact of an application on the environment without going through an assessment at an early stage?” He asked.

“The question is the time in the process that they make these assessments.”

The case raises several questions that will be important to be sorted out ahead of other applications to ERMA (which processes around 240 per year).

- As a matter of law, can an authority give legal approval for something that can’t be fully described?

- What must ERMA do to satisfy itself that it has a valid application?

- Is there a line that’s crossed when an application becomes too broad, and if so, where is the line?

From the legal discussion I witnessed this morning, it is hard to know which way the court will go. It seems that GE Free NZ has a good argument that the Agresearch applications were too broad, but Agresearch has a point in arguing that the applications shouldn’t be thrown out at such an early point in the process. ERMA would seem to have a compelling case that its scientists should have the opportunity to assess credible applications.

Court of Appeal judgements often overturn previous judgements, and there’s a chance of that happening here too. Agresearch last November lodged new submissions with ERMA for a narrower range of GM trials to conduct research “on goats, sheep and cows in containment at its Ruakura research facility”. Public submissions on those applications closed in December. So the CRI is pushing ahead in its bid to undertake GM research, albeit in a more cautious way. In that respect, maybe something constructive may indeed have come out of GE Free NZ’s win last year. But the pursuit of the appeal by Agresearch and ERMA suggests both organisations believe broader applications should be considered.

A Court of Appeal decision could be months away, though I understand the matter has been put into urgency so a judgement could be released in a matter of weeks.



The key to cutting through climate confusion Peter Griffin Jan 25

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Dr Klaus Bosselman is right when he suggests in a New Zealand Herald article today that opinion polls carried out by the media are fickle things and that Government policies in relation to climate change should be based on sound science not public opinion.

But there’s no denying the fact that the public is becoming increasingly sceptical about the scientific claims made in support of anthropogenic global warming and that this has serious implications for us all unless the scientific community moves to counter it. As I was quoted as saying in the same Herald article today:

“If the overwhelming majority of the public isn’t satisfied that the science indicates a need to act … the political will dissipates too.”

Virtually all of the world’s governments are on the same page on climate change – they agree in principle that the science suggests a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So in effect, they are basing their policies on science rather than fickle public opinion – but the reality is obviously a lot more complicated than that. Turning up at Copenhagen alongside other world leaders costs nothing, nor does adding your signature to a list of undertakings that are not legally binding. Getting the support to pass an Emissions Trading Scheme is much more difficult, as our Government found out last year.

Actually pushing through the policy and legislation that will lead to change requires broad, genuine support and it is here that the measures of public opinion come into play in a big way. There is nothing new in this, politics has always been about the weight of numbers and in many respects, timing.

Take for instance, the polarising debate about gay marriage going on in the US at the moment. As this interesting New Yorker piece points out, a major Supreme Court case underway in San Francisco could help decide whether same-sex marriage becomes legal across the US rather than in the five states where it is currently legally recognised.

You would expect gay people and those who support same-sex marriage to be supportive of the Supreme Court bid to make gay marriage legal. But that isn’t the case – a lot of activists in this area are worried the legal fight is too soon, that a defeat could sway public opinion against gay marriage when it is gradually creeping further in favour of it. While 29 states in the US have passed legislation prohibiting gay marriage since 1993, polls suggest that around forty per cent of Americans support marriage for gay couples, and more than fifty per cent support civil unions. Political scientists quoted in the New Yorker piece suggest that “in five years a majority of Americans will favor same-sex marriage–the result of generational replacement and …’attitude adjustment’.’

As the New Yorker sums up: “Why push the Court far ahead of public opinion if public opinion is moving in that direction anyway?”

Now, gay marriage is unlike climate change in that arguments for or against it aren’t based on science as is the case with climate change. But it is an issue that goes to the centre of people’s belief systems and our judgements on how we should live our lives. In that respect, it shares many of the characteristics of the issue of climate change, which is equally as polarising in the US as the gay marriage issue is. The difference is the time factor. Whether same sex marriage becomes legal in the US next year or in five years, is immaterial as far as the world is concerned. Whether governments are given the mandate to act on climate change now or in five years will determine our effectiveness in combating global warming, scientists tell us. If the trend in public opinion is accurate, it may also be much more difficult for governments to secure a mandate from their citizens to act. As such, a slide in public opinion going the other way – towards scepticism rather than acceptance of the scientific consensus on the issue, is disturbing.

Science needs a new approach

It is only a matter of time before opinion polls translate into inaction on climate change, policies shelved, plans deferred – Copenhagen hinted at the inertia. Politicians will use any excuse to put off spending money or undertaking great efforts that detract from short-term goals that improve the public’s perception of them. So the scientific community really has very little time to repair the dents in the credibility of climate science – and get the public back on board.

It would be too late to wait until the next IPCC report is published. What those in the world of climate science need to undertake is a comprehensive and credible recap of what is known about climate change and more transparent examination and commentary on the areas that are causing most dispute. This needs to be communicated in a way the public can understand. That is easier said than done. It is also exasperating for scientists who resent having to spend increasing amounts of time explaining the science, rather than working on the science itself. That’s too bad. Increasing scrutiny is being placed not only on the research results of climate science but the funding of climate science programmes and organisations.

A more informed discussion on climate change with more input from scientists also needs to happen in the mainstream media – not the blogosphere. A good example of what we need to see more of is this Q&A piece published on the Herald website today, where NIWA climate scientist Dr Jim Renwick is asked to answer questions submitted by Herald readers. In some short answers he is quickly able to cut through some of the misconceptions about climate change. We need more of this type of thing.

I ask nearly everyone I meet what they think about climate change and the majority of them are sceptical of the human component of it. But when you probe a bit further and ask them to explain why, the usual sceptic arguments that have played out extensively in the media are usually referenced. Meanwhile, global warming predictions often appear hysterical in contrast to what the sceptics have to say. As Dr Renwick explains:

We’ve already discovered that the deficit model of science communication is ineffective. As this essay points out
In modern societies – particularly given the power and pervasiveness of today’s communications technologies – trust and respect need to be generated; they cannot be taken for granted or imposed from above, whether in science or any other type of social activity.

That implies the need for an openness to dialogue, and a willingness to come out from behind closed walls, whether these belong to the ivory towers in which scientific knowledge has traditionally been produced, or the boardrooms and corridors of power in which key decisions about the production and application of this knowledge are taken.

This is something that those involved in climate science still need to get their heads around. If it wasn’t important before it is now fundamental to everything people in the field do. As Zim Sherman writing in the letters page of today’s Otago Daily Times (see below) sums up:
All the knowledge in the world is meaningless unless you let it out of the box
From the Otago Daily Times, Jan 25, 2010

From the Otago Daily Times, Jan 25, 2010

Climate science’s trouble spots Peter Griffin Jan 21

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Nature has just published a very good feature on its website which is worth reading for anyone wanting an overview of the real contentious areas of climate science.

As Nature sees it, the areas that need “greater open discussion” include: regional climate forecasts, precipitation forecasts, aerosols and palaeoclimate data.

A fuller reading of the e-mails from CRU in Norwich, UK, does show a sobering amount of rude behaviour and verbal faux pas, but nothing that challenges the scientific consensus of climate change. Still, the incident provides a good opportunity to point out that – as in any active field of inquiry – there are some major gaps in the understanding of climate science. In its most recent report in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted 54 ‘key uncertainties’ that complicate climate science.

…Such holes do not undermine the fundamental conclusion that humans are warming the climate, which is based on the extreme rate of the twentieth-century temperature changes and the inability of climate models to simulate such warming without including the role of greenhouse-gas pollution. The uncertainties do, however, hamper efforts to plan for the future. And unlike the myths regularly trotted out by climate-change denialists (see ‘Enduring climate myths’), some of the outstanding problems may mean that future changes could be worse than currently projected.

Meanwhile, scientists writing in a letter to the journal Science have dissected the Himalayan glacier melt claim and how this erroneous information got into the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report. You can read the letter below.



Yes, that block of cheese is costing you less… Peter Griffin Jan 20

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A common complaint among those of us who buy most of our food from supermarkets is that it costs significantly more to fill a shopping basket these days than it did a couple of years ago.

Cheese has become the benchmark for the affordability of food and, boy has a block of tasty cheddar gotten expensive! It may come as a surprise then to see the latest Food Price Index figures out from Statistics New Zealand, reveal the price of cheddar cheese has dropped a hefty 16 per cent. Even chicken which has been horrendously expensive is down a respectable 8.5 per cent. Good news then. Overall however, food prices increased 0.9 per cent in 2009 relative to 2008, despite a modest slide in prices towards the end of the year.

Still, looking more long term, food prices are up 10 per cent over the last two years! That’s largely thanks to the spike in staple foods we saw in 2008 when grain reserves around the world ran low. So cheese may look more affordable now, but we are still paying through the nose for it compared to a few years ago…

The key lessons – eat out less and cut down on fizzy drinks!

Statistics New Zealand notes:

Food prices increased 0.9 percent in the year to December 2009, following increases of 0.9 percent and 2.0 percent in the years to November and October 2009, respectively.

Three of the food subgroups increased in the year to December 2009. The most significant upward contributions came from higher prices for non-alcoholic beverages (up 6.6 percent) and restaurant meals and ready-to-eat food (up 2.8 percent). The grocery food subgroup also rose (up 0.3 percent).

The food subgroups which decreased were fruit and vegetables (down 2.1 percent) and meat, poultry, and fish (down 0.9 percent). The most significant upward contribution came from higher prices for soft drinks (up 9.5 percent), tomatoes (up 68.9 percent), and white sugar (up 34.4 percent).

The most significant downward contributions came from lower prices for apples (down 25.8 percent), chicken (down 8.5 percent), cheddar cheese (down 15.9 percent), and potatoes (down 14.7 percent).

While food prices have fallen 3.5 percent over the past five months and are 0.9 percent higher than a year earlier, they are 10.0 percent higher than two years earlier. This compares with an 11.4 percent increase in food prices from November 2007 to November 2009. Biennial increases in food prices have been decreasing from a high of 17.3 percent from June 2007 to June 2009.

Here’s the Food Price Index report for 2009 in full:


And the latest Consumer Price Index data too…



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