SciBlogs

Archive April 2010

Clarity from the Gisborne Herald on climate science Peter Griffin Apr 27

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As far as I can tell, this is the first New Zealand editorial from a mainstream media outlet to reference the University of East Anglia inquiry into Dr Phil Jones and his colleagues. From Saturday’s Gisborne Herald…

Gisborne Herald April 27, 2010

Gisborne Herald April 24, 2010

Swine flu one year on – Q&A with scientists Peter Griffin Apr 26

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This time a year ago, the media was going big on one particular story – SWINE FLU!

ZYGOTE MEDIA GROUP ANATOMYNews stories today report intensive care units across New Zealand and Australia were on the verge of turning away seriously ill patients during the pandemic, due to a twelve-fold increase in the number of flu patients being put into intensive care last winter.

At the Science Media Centre asked scientists we asked New Zealand scientists to reflect on the pandemic – what was learnt, how the impact of H1N1 compared to other countries and whether we over-reacted…

Scientists included in the Q&A include:

- Dr Robert Webster, Department of Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee

- Dr Sue Huang, Head of WHO National Influenza Centre, Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR)

- Dr Richard Hall, Virologist WHO National Influenza Centre, Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR)

- Professor John Fraser, Head of School of Medical Sciences, University of Auckland

- Michael Baker, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health, School of Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Otago, Wellington

- Dr Richard Webby, Director, World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds, St Jude Children;s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee

1) What have we learned about swine flu in the last year? What were the particularly big lessons (eg. the demographic of those most affected, vaccine safety, etc)?

Robert Webster: ’The big takeaway from this pandemic is that there is no way we can predict the severity of a pandemic: flu will continue to foil us no matter what we do. It was much less pathogenic than than the 1918 strain — when the virus first started showing up coming out of Mexico out of pigs we immediately started thinking of Spanish flu 1918. We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. We got something in between.

’It wasn’t too innocuous. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had anti-viral drugs and new methods of oxygenation, young people would have been much more severely affected. It wasn’t a harmless pandemic. It was amazingly transmissible. We were preparing for H5N1 which kills 60 per cent of people that it infects.’

John Fraser: ’It was highly virulent but no less pathogenic (and arguably significantly less pathogenic) than other strains (NZ case fatality rate of 0.005% is low). Those most at risk were those with no prior immunity to this strain (i.e, younger people). It is apparent that in many older individuals, there was sufficient prior cross-reactive immunity to limit the effects of this pandemic.’

Sue Huang:

- We have learned that the pandemic affected young people more than old people.

- We learned that the pandemic is highly transmissible, and spread rapidly to every continent within weeks.

- We learned that although 2009 H1N1 is less lethal than the 1918 pandemic, it still caused 17,798 reported deaths worldwide. If there was no concerted public health response worldwide, the death toll may well have been higher than this.

- We have learned that the pandemic vaccine safety profile is as good as the seasonal vaccines’ and one dose of vaccine, rather than 2 doses as originally expected, provides good immune protection.

Richard Hall: ’We have learnt that pandemic influenza, previously known as ’swine influenza’, is a mild to moderate infection that arose from the combination of avian, human and swine influenza strains that mixed together to create a new virus. Characteristics of this virus are similar to previous pandemics that have occurred in the 20th century, although the 2009 pandemic virus appears to be less severe.

’Certain risk groups of have been identified as being more susceptible to this virus, than to normal seasonal influenza . These groups include pregnant women, the very young and indigenous peoples.’

Michael Baker: ’We have learned a great deal about the virus, the illness it causes, and vulnerable populations. Thanks to scientific advances in areas such as virology and epidemiology, we are now better defended against this pandemic virus than any population in history. We have an effective vaccine, and we have a good understanding of who was infected in the first wave and who in the population is most vulnerable.’

Richard Webby: ’Perhaps the biggest lesson from this pandemic is the reinforcement of the fact that we still have a long way to go to understand influenza and particularly the impact that human immunity has on viral emergence, defining risk populations, and vaccine efficacy.’

2) What significant new research has emerged here and abroad in the last year looking at H1N1 and what has it revealed?

Robert Webster: ’I come back to the fact that we can’t predict pandemics. That’s the lesson: we have to be prepared for anything with influenza. We can have vaccine feedstocks and antivirals and all these things but there is no way we can predict how severe they are going to be.’

John Fraser: ’It spread in a very similar pattern to other influenza strains. However, the most striking finding from NZ research, which led the world, was the very rapid rate of decline after the peak in week 28 ( July 2009). By August the notified cases (GP visits and hospital admissions) were declining rapidly. I suspect this was a result of fewer people visiting their GP once it became clear that it was just another flu, and that people chose to ride it out at home rather than visiting their GP.

’It appears that young people were more at risk from H1N1 than adults with a clear shift in age related cases. This suggests that there was protective immunity in older people probably due to some cross reactivity to a previous strain.

’The most important thing I think we learnt was despite all the best efforts to try and stem its introduction (including some of the more bizarre and more excessive activities), the rate of infection after initial introduction in April was very typical of an ’unmanaged’ flu pandemic. This says that you can’t really stop it, no matter how hard you try and that resources need to be allocated better!!’

Sue Huang:

- Co-infection research: ’NZ is in a unique situation among all southern hemisphere countries in that we had co-circulation of seasonal A(H1N1) virus which is Tamiflu-resistant and pandemic A(H1N1) virus which is Tamiflu-sensitive.

’The biggest research question is whether co-infection of two viruses in a person would result in a new pandemic virus which is Tamiflu-resistant. ESR scientists have identified a few co-infection cases in NZ. Researchers at ESR are working with experts at St Jude Childrens Research Hospital (Memphis, Tennesse) to determine whether such natural co-infection cases resulted in generation of a new pandemic virus. The results from this study will be due out soon.’

- Serosurvey: ’After the first wave of pandemic, one essential research question is how many people have been infected by the pandemic virus and what the population immunity against this virus is. Serosurvey allows detection of individuals who are symptomatic and asymptomatic. This allows for evidence-based decisions on a targeted and cost-effective vaccination program. Also it adds to our understanding of the epidemiology of the pandemic virus. ESR scientists have been contracted by the Ministry of Health to conduct the serosurvey, and the Ministry of Health will release the study findings in due course.’

Richard Hall: ’ESR scientists have determined that pandemic viruses circulating in New Zealand in 2009 and early 2010 are still sensitive to the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. A normal seasonal influenza virus emerged in 2008 that had developed resistance to Tamiflu, and ESR identified the arrival of this virus into New Zealand late in 2008. This tamiflu-resistant virus was present in the community at the same time as the pandemic occurred. Researchers at ESR are working with experts at St Jude Childrens Research Hospital (Memphis, Tennesse) to determine what the impact of co-circulation of both these viruses might be, with the results from this study being due out shortly.

’Work both here in New Zealand and in other countries shows that the genome of the pandemic virus has changed very little over time, and that viruses isolated from severe or fatal patients are not genetically distinct. The severe cases are largely brought about by secondary infections of bacteria which follow on from the influenza infection. This is more likely to happen in individuals that are in higher risk groups such as the elderly or those with specific diseases.’

Michael Baker: New Zealand made an important contribution early in last year’s pandemic by publishing (in August 2009) the first description of a complete pandemic ‘first wave’. Our position in the Southern hemisphere meant we were one of the first countries to experience this event and our surveillance systems performed well. This description correctly identified the relatively small proportion of the population infected by the virus and the low case fatality. This reporting has been widely cited and assisted the Northern hemisphere in their pandemic planning. Intensive care specialists in New Zealand and Australia also collected and analysed systematic data on the worst affected cases in both countries which helped to identify risk factors for severe infection (notably pregnancy, extreme obesity, and respiratory illness).

3) Overall, what was the effect in New Zealand? Was it more or less severe than in other countries?

Robert Webster: ’The medical people in New Zealand will have a much clearer picture of this, but my impression, looking at it from the United States is that if anything, it was rather more severe than the rest of the world.’

John Fraser: ’The outbreak in NZ was no more or less severe than in other countries. NZ was however an important indicator for the northern hemisphere and I think they dealt with it in a much more measured fashion because of the New Zealand information.’

Sue Huang: ’ESR’s sentinel GP surveillance showed that about 2.7% of New Zealanders (116,335) had influenza-like illness resulting in a visit to a GP, with children aged 0-19 years having the highest disease burden. The ILI activity in 2009 was the highest during 1997-2009 and the second highest during 1992-2009, second to 1996 activity.

’Within 3-4 weeks, the Pandemic H1N1 virus rapidly overtook seasonal H1N1 virus (the initial predominant virus) and became the predominant virus for the rest of the first wave. That pandemic H1N1 out-competed seasonal H1N1 in NZ is a unique situation among southern hemisphere countries. This situation helped the WHO and the Australia Influenza Vaccine Comittee to make the decision to remove seasonal H1N1 components and replace them with pandemic H1N1 components since seasonal vaccines only allow 3 components (H1, H3 and B) for the incoming influenza season in 2010.

’ESR’s Notifiable disease surveillance recorded 3,668 confirmed and probable pandemic cases. It also recorded 1,014 hospitalised cases due to pandemic virus. This is the highest record during 1990-2009 with the second highest record in 2003 with 552 hospitalised cases. The risk factors include pregnancy, chronic respiratory conditions, diabetes mellitus, cardiac disease etc.

’Although there were 20 fatal cases being confirmed to be due to the pandemic virus, about 119 patients were admitted to ICU, much higher than other years. The improved hospital care in the modern era, in particular ICU care, may have saved many patients’ lives.

’Combining all the facts listed above, my interpretation is that when 2009 pandemic is compared to the worst pandemic in 1918, it is mild. The 2009 pandemic is similar to the 1957/1968 pandemics. However, when 2009 pandemic is compared to seasonal influenza monitored over 1990-2009, it belongs to a severe form based on the second highest ILI activity in the community, the highest hospitalisation and very high ICU usage. The low mortality may be due to improved hospital and ICU care in modern era.

’The effect of the pandemic on NZ is very similar to other southern hemisphere countries who have experienced co-circulation of pandemic and seasonal influenza during the first wave.’

Richard Hall: ’The response from public health authorities and the virology laboratories within New Zealand has been held up as an example of a well conducted response. Decisive action and intervention was taken by public health authorities in the early stages of the pandemic which helped to contain the initial incursions of the virus. Our laboratories were able to cope with testing very large numbers of samples during the containment phase, keeping up a pace that much larger laboratories overseas were setting.

’At the peak of the pandemic, ESR scientists were testing greater than 300 samples per day. During the containment phase, lab testing helped to delay the spread of the virus by identifying those affected and allowing decisions to be made about patients that should remain in isolation until they became non-infectious. During the management phase, ESR scientists monitored the changes of the virus closely regarding antiviral resistance and any genetic and antigenic changes.

’The severity of the pandemic in New Zealand was similar to that observed for other countries. The inherent mild or moderate illness caused by the virus accounts for this similarity. New Zealand and Australia provided world-leading care for hospitalised, more serious cases and developed special procedures specific to pandemic H1N1 cases that are now adopted around the world.’

Michael Baker: ’In New Zealand the 2009 influenza pandemic caused at least 40 deaths, about 120 admissions to intensive care units, more than 1,000 hospital admissions, and probably more than half a million infections in the community. One feature of the pandemic was its global spread and the similarity of the ‘epidemic curves’ in most countries (or at least those countries that have the resources to track the disease).’

Richard Webby: ’The impact of the pandemic in New Zealand was pretty consistent with what was seen in the rest of the world. Considering New Zealand was one of the first affected countries outside of North America, the general response was good.’

4) Was the pandemic overhyped, the threat overrated?

Robert Webster: ’Absolutely not! The world should be really happy that the science that was put into play, the antivirals, the vaccines, the strategies for handling it, particularly in New Zealand, saved very many people. There is no other way to prepare for a severe situation and thank God it wasn’t so severe. What would have happened if it had become as pathogenic as H5N1 and killed 63 per cent of the population? There’s no way we can predict severity at this stage. We are criticised because we don’t have the knowledge that will allow us to do that.

’Influenza viruses come originally from the aquatic birds of the world and this virus was out there in the pigs of the world for something like 10 — 15 years. As scientists we have to do better at surveillance of the human-pig interface.’

John Fraser: ’In my opinion yes. However there is always a need to be on the alert and to respond appropriately when you don’t know how pathogenic the strain will be. It is easy in hindsight to say we over-reacted. In this case, little was known about the strain, and I believe the media got a hold of the story and turned it into a doomsday threat, with very little evidence to go on. There was some pretty crazy behaviour at the start of the epidemic such as principals closing down schools on the basis of a single case and General Practices putting up signs telling people to go away if they had any of the symptoms. Hopefully we have learned a lot about how to deal with a potential flu pandemic and what works and what does not. I think practices need to be examined and revised accordingly.’

Sue Huang: ’I do not think it was overhyped. Facing an unknown situation where a new virus emerged and spread so quickly and widely, and knowing that the influenza virus is notoriously unpredictable and can mutate fast, we had to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. NZ benefited with a well prepared pandemic action plan and the concerted public health response which helped to delay the virus for 6 weeks from establishing sustained community transmission in NZ. NZ also benefited from having the WHO declare a global pandemic, which triggered global vaccine manufacturers to produce vaccines. Judging by the 2009 pandemic, this could potentially have been a severe form of seasonal influenza (as I indicated above) — the excellent public health response and measures certainly helped to mitigate the risks and harms posed by this pandemic.’

Richard Hall: ’Based upon what has been observed from previous pandemics in the 20th century, which have caused severe disease and many fatal cases, the actions taken during the 2009 pandemic were entirely appropriate. Initial efforts to keep the virus out of New Zealand were successful for over 6 weeks which allowed time for key agencies to fully activate response plans. Actions taken during the containment phase in New Zealand further limited the spread of the virus. If the virus had been more severe these measures would certainly have saved lives

’Additionally, compared to the previous 12 years the number of people affected by pandemic influenza reached levels higher than seasonal influenza . This means many more people than usual were affected by influenza during the 2009 New Zealand winter. Public health measures allowed for increased capacity to deal with such a surge in influenza cases.’

Michael Baker: ’I think the level of threat from this pandemic was communicated quite effectively in New Zealand. The arrival of a new pandemic influenza virus must be treated with extreme caution, given the history of such events (the 1918 pandemic is still the greatest natural disaster to ever affect New Zealand). Early reports about the 2009 H1N1 virus suggested it had a moderate case fatality and could cause hundreds of deaths, even in a small country like New Zealand. Fortunately, when the pandemic became established in New Zealand it was less severe than these early reports had suggested.

’A leading international authority on risk communication, Peter Sandman, actually identified New Zealand when he cited examples of good public communication about this disease.’

Richard Webby: ’In hindsight it’s easy to claim this, but in April/May of last year no one had any idea of where this virus was headed and what the coming months had in store. I would much rather be in a situation now where looking back we can say it was overhyped and the response exaggerated as opposed to looking back and saying we underestimated this thing and if only we had responded with more vigor.’

5) What do you expect to happen this flu season? Do you think it will reoccur to the same extent?

Robert Webster: ’If you look back at the last pandemics from 1957 and 1968, you usually get a lull, a period of grace. This is two, even three years where the virus is still filling in the gaps and is not drifting significantly. I would suggest we will have a fairly mild year. That would be the prediction, but don’t trust flu!’

John Fraser: ’It is estimated that during its very short stay in NZ, it infected 11-14% of the population. It is certainly likely to be back again this year, but I suspect the existing herd immunity and the availability of a vaccine will prevent a serious pandemic outbreak (although one could argue that 14% of the population infected in 3 months is a pandemic!).’

Sue Huang: ’Knowing that the influenza virus is notoriously unpredictable and mutates fast, it is very difficult to predict where it would lead. This is precisely the reason the WHO is not declaring the pandemic over. It remains uncertain whether the virus would accelerate its mutation rate because of immune pressure from the human population (i.e. a lot of people have been exposed to the virus and developed immunity which would force the virus to change in order to survive).

’It would be very important to monitor the second wave in all southern hemisphere countries including NZ. If the virus is not changing much for the coming winter in New Zealand, and a lot of New Zealanders were exposed to the virus in 2009 and/or had vaccination, then we may not see the same extent as occurred last year. ESR scientists at the WHO National Influenza Centre are keeping a close eye on the virus regarding its antigenic and genetic change and its antiviral profile.’

Richard Hall: ’This is very difficult to predict. It has been suggested that this year in the southern hemisphere, pandemic influenza will return in New Zealand, with a ’second wave’ that is of lesser significance than that which occurred in 2009. Many people in New Zealand are now vaccinated against pandemic influenza which formed part of the normal trivalent flu vaccine.

’Also, many people in the community will have contracted pandemic influenza last year and will now have developed immunity. These factors may make it harder for pandemic influenza to spread as quickly. There is always a possibility that the virus may mutate but there is no evidence at present to suggest this is occurring. ESR scientists at the WHO National Influenza Centre are presently testing pandemic influenza viruses and sequencing their genes to monitor any changes in the virus.’

Michael Baker: ’The H1N1 pandemic virus is expected to reappear and probably dominate the influenza season in New Zealand, which could begin anytime from April onwards. At least one million Zealanders are now immune to this virus, either from natural infection or from vaccination this year. Consequently, this virus has far less potential for transmission in 2010 so we would expect it to cause less illness than in 2009.’

Richard Webby: ’My expectations are for a typical flu season with either influenza B or the pandemic virus dominating. We need to stress that if I could really predict this I would be a rich man thanks to the TAB.’

Crazy science letter of the week part 5 Peter Griffin Apr 26

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I’m not sure which letter is crazier, the first letter published in the Southland Times on April 23, or the reply published in today’s paper. What animal did that old bone come from? Was it the Murrells’ old nag? So many questions. One thing is for sure,  there’s definitely a fair bit of fuzzy science going on here…

Source: Southland Times April 23

Source: Southland Times April 23

And a response published today…

Source: Southland Times (April 26)

Source: Southland Times (April 26)

Crazy science letter of the week part 4 Peter Griffin Apr 23

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This is a long one, but a good one as crazy science letters go. Almost made me choke on my xtra trim milk! From Healthy Options magazine.

Source: Healthy Options, April 2010

Source: Healthy Options, April 2010

Herald sucked in by bogus fuel technology? Peter Griffin Apr 22

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Aardvark’s Bruce Simpson and tech reporter Juha Saarinen have this morning raised some pretty valid concerns about a story the New Zealand Herald is carrying about a New Zealand-made fuel combustion technology known as “Fuel Star”.

The story, which has no byline and comes with a “supplied” photo, begins with the optimistic intro:

Fuelstar Fuel Combustion Technology of Auckland is set to become a multimillion-dollar exporter. The company, which has been battling sceptics for years, has recently made a major breakthrough with its fuel combustion catalyst that will reap huge rewards for the operators of high-use diesel engines.

That’s a pretty big claim given that Fuelstar’s catalyst, which Fuelstar boss Ian Cornelius says offers “reductions in fuel consumption by 15 per cent and more” has been hammered by Australian regulatory authorities as recently as February for failing to live up to the promise. This from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Independent testing of a New Zealand device touted as fuel saving, has found it is useless, Western Australia’s Department of Consumer Protection says.

Consumer Protection said the Fuelstar Combustion Catalyst failed to deliver petrol savings and emissions reductions promised by promoters of the product.

The Department of Consumer Protection has passed its findings onto the New Zealand Commerce Commission. So why is none of this mentioned in the Fuelstar story in the Herald, a story that has no input from independent experts and quotes just Cornelius and Ford Mondeo owner Terry Brown?

Aardvark has more background on the backstory to Fuelstar. But he ends up focusing more on the Herald’s coverage, asking:

Do they not have a single journalist who could spend a few minutes on Google to try and find *any* truly independent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to back up FuelStar’s claims?

Clearly not — or they’d have discovered that there is no such thing.

I suspect that the very few journalists still employed over at the NZ Herald are busy re-typing press releases and adding their byline, leaving them no time to actually engage in proper journalism and investigative reporting.

Yes, I can hear a few good journalists cursing at me under their breath right now. “How dare he say that?” they’ll be saying. “The arrogant bastard”.

Well to those journalists I say “get off your fat bums and do some real journalism rather than retype press releases for a change”.

Challenge FuelStar’s claims. Submit the product for proper scientific testing (which I might add has already been done and the product failed miserably) and report on those results.

Amazingly, the Herald undermines its own intro further down in the story when it states:

The company is in discussion with its financial backers to raise enough capital to complete comprehensive third party verification testing.

So Fuelstar is set to become a “multimillion dollar exporter” but hasn’t even completed third party verification of its technology.

Sorry, EPIC FAIL for the Herald. If you want to know what the expert consensus is on Fuelstar, you won’t read about it in the Herald. This site, the reliability of which I can’t vouch for, claims to have rounded up comments from scientists on Fuelstar.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what the Commerce Commission has to say about Fuelstar based on the findings of the Australian watchdog. Interestingly I note on the Fuelstar website that the company is closing down its division for cars and motorbikes:

Our main focus moving forward will be with trucks, locomotives, power generation plant, boats and ships. Our small unit division (motorcycles and cars) is closing down….all stock must go

UPDATED: The game console as a living room hub? Peter Griffin Apr 21

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See bottom for my hands-on review of TVNZ on Demand on the PS3

For some time there’s been a battle for the lounge room underway, with consumer electronics makers, PC vendors and games console players vying to provide the one box that provides all our entertainment needs.

In New Zealand the victor so far appears to be Sky TV, which has a winner on its hands with the My Sky digital video recorder. TiVo has arrived on the scene offering less channels, much more functionality but a flawed sales model which has led to disappointing uptake for Hybrid TV and its partner Telecom New Zealand.

Sitting in the background have been Sony and Microsoft who in the form of the Playstation 3 and Xbox respectively have a device that is internet-enabled and capable of delivering streamed content form the internet, as well as play music and videos from disks, hard drives and flash memory cards. But what the games consoles haven’t been able to do as well as My Sky and TiVo is deliver video on demand, when viewers want to watch it. I currently download videos on my computer and play them on the PS3 console – its a great experience, but it isn’t a seamless, integrated feature offered by Sony. I watch videos using the Youtube client on the PS3 which is a little clunky but gets the job done.

One step closer to what I’ve been looking for – an easy way to watch programmes on demand that is legitimate and user-friendly, arrived today in the form of TVNZ on Demand on the PS3. At least I hope it has, I haven’t trialled the service yet – I will do tonight and report back. Essentially, this service replicates the TVNZ on Demand website on the PS3 allowing you to watch shows like Shortland St and The Pacific delivered to the PS3 as a streaming video. If the video playback is anything like that offered through the TVNZ on Demand website it will be a good experience. The screengrabs below give you an idea of the user-interface, the TVNZ On Demand service slotting into the PS3′s media bar.

This is potentially a big deal for TVNZ – there are 105,000 PS3s in homes around the country. Provided they are connected to the internet via Wi-fi or ethernet, they can all access TVNZ content. It really is a potential glimpse of the future for the state broadcaster. It also could be an attractive medium for TVNZ’s advertisers as ads will be streamed at the start of on-demand shows and there’s the potential to direct people to an advertiser’s website at the touch of a PS3 controller. That could be very powerful for advertisers with creative online pitches.

For those who haven’t joined the My Sky or Freeview camps this could be an attractive option for on-demand TV, especially if TV3 hurries up and claims a presence on the PS3 too. As for the Freeview tuner card for the PS3 there was so much talk of a few years ago. It hasn’t emerged here, which is a shame as the PS3 is a great multimedia device for everything – other than receiving plain old free-to-air TV.

Will report back with hands-on experiences in the next instalment.

REVIEW

After signing into my Playstation account on the PS3 I wasn’t able to see the TVNZ on Demand icon on the media bar of the PS3′s user interface which initially caused some confusion. That was sorted out by visiting the TVNZ website where there are instructions on how to access the service via the PS3′s web browser, effectively you just enter www.tvnz.co.nz/video into the PS3′s web browser and the service will start up automatically.

The user-interface is clean and attractive, focused on vertical navigation for shows available to view and horizontal scrolling among categories such as “newest”, “most popular” etc.

Clicking on a displayed show brings up icons of all the episodes and clicking on one with the PS3 controller using a pointer on the screen starts the media player. You will be instantly greeted by an ad playing in small format in the middle of your TV screen – by the end of the night, the default ad for a shaver was beginning to grate on me.

Clicking on an icon on the media player’s tool bar expands the video to the full size of your TV, in my case, 48 inches. At that size, the video quality is fairly average, akin to a reasonable quality Youtube clip (HD is likely to be added to TVNZ on Demand at a later date).

Audio quality on the other hand is good. The media tool bar is fairly easy to use and nice to navigate with the PS3 controller.

The one big downside to the service identified in a few hours experimenting with it is the reliability of the video stream. All of the shows I played, from Close Up to Gordon Ramsey to The Pacific stuttered along, pausing every minute or so. Annoyingly, this brings up the media tool bar each time, which takes about 30 seconds to disappear from the screen. So if the video stuttering isn’t enough, this intrusion, makes for an even more distracting sideshow.

I am using the PS3 over a Wi-fi network and have no problem streaming Youtube clips, so I’m assuming the bandwidth issue is at the TVNZ end – perhaps heavy demand on launch day.

Because I am an Orcon customer, use of TVNZ on Demand on the PS3 is zero-rated, meaning the streaming doesn’t eat into my monthly data allowance, which is a major advantage.

All up, a well executed service that has its limitations – picture quality, reliance on video streaming being the biggest ones.

What is impressive is the large amount of content here. Now why didn’t TVNZ load all of these shows onto its TiVo CASPA on demand video service? Seems like a no-brainer to me…

tvnz1

TVNZ_SD

Climategate’s final act ignored by NZ media Peter Griffin Apr 20

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When I was reporting for the Herald on convoluted and long-running stories like the dismantling of Telecom’s monopoly on the phone and internet market, I felt obliged to cover each major phase of the story through to completion.

It seems the same isn’t true of the New Zealand media in general when it comes to the “Climategate” controversy involving the emails leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.

The man at the centre of climategate, UAE’s Dr Phil Jones, was last week cleared by an independent inquiry into the affair along with colleagues the emails showed he was corresponding with.

That followed an earlier report issued by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee which came to a similar conclusion when examining the conduct of the scientists – there was no impropriety. The UEA report went further because it looked into the actual science mentioned in the emails.

While Climategate received extensive New Zealand-generated coverage when the story broke last November and in January and February as “glaciergate” put the heat on the IPCC, there was virtually no coverage of the outcome of the inquiry’s publication last week penned by New Zealand journalists. Scrap that, as far as I can tell there was NO coverage of it penned by New Zealand journalists. I’m not so sure about broadcast media, but I looked hard to find any and came up empty-handed.

Using our Meltwater media tracking service, I was able to go back and look at what the media produced on the day the inquiry published its report and in the following days up to today. Coverage of the announcement amounted to a handful of wire stories, mainly reprints of an Independent story. Not a single columnist examined the report as far as I can tell, despite one in February suggesting the media should “let slip the dogs of war” on these lying scientists and expose the AGW scam for what it is. As Jim Hopkins wrote in the Herald, frustrated at what he saw as a lack of penetrating journalism on Climategate:

…back in the real world, there is only silence; a cruel weapon in private and even more inexplicable in public, particularly when it is the fourth estate’s response to an extraordinary story.

So it was surprising then that the denouement of this “extraordinary story” was completely ignored by Hopkins who chose to devote his column last Friday not to Climategate and the UEA inquiry, but to… Winston Peters.

It is not that he didn’t have time to write it – the news broke in the UK on Wednesday. It is not that there was no local angle – New Zealand scientists had plenty to say on the outcome of the inquiry. So what was it then? Eyjafjallajokull? Maybe. But I think what’s really behind it is the fickleness of the New Zealand media, the speed with which it loses interest in stories, especially when there are no rounds people to see the story through to its conclusion the way I did as I waded through all those Commerce Commission determinations about Telecom. No one “owns” the story, so no one cares about what was written before and that readers are owed a concluding story, a final act.

Maybe the outcome of the Climategate investigations (there is one more inquiry to be completed, by a panel headed by Sir Muir Russel), will get some scrutiny by New Zealand media tomorrow night in the Media7 special on the media and climate change. Sir Peter Gluckman talks to Russell Brown on the issue and Brown will patch in The Guardian’s environment editor James Randerson, who oversaw extensive coverage of Climategate – from beginning to end. It should make for interesting viewing.

Crazy science letter of the week part 3 Peter Griffin Apr 19

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This one, from today’s Taranaki Daily News, isn’t so much about science as animal welfare and isn’t so much crazy as it is eccentric. But I thought it was fantastic and needed to be shared with Sciblogs readers…

Source: Taranaki Daily News

Source: Taranaki Daily News

Confusion reigns over multi-vitamins and breast cancer Peter Griffin Apr 19

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Consider these two headlines published in the last couple of days:

multivitamins1New Zealand Herald:  Major research finds link between multi-vitamin pills and breast cancer

BusinessWeek: Supplements might reduce breast cancer risk

Both are top search results on Google News, but don’t they seem to contradict each other? Let us look a little more closely at the stories. Here’s the intro for the Herald story:

Women who regularly take multi-vitamin pills face a much higher risk of breast cancer, a study has found.

And here’s BusinessWeek‘s intro:

Women who take multivitamin tablets along with calcium supplements seem to have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer, new research suggests.

Okay, so they definitely seem to contradict each other – or does the “along with calcium supplements” mentioned in the BusinessWeek story make all the difference: ie is taking calcium supplements along with  multivitamin tablets rather than just multivitamin tablets alone really the difference between a woman increasing or decreasing the risk of her developing breast cancer?

The answer is no. BusinessWeek continues:

Taking a multivitamin tablet reduced the risk of tumors by about 30 percent, while calcium supplements reduced the risk by 40 percent, the study authors noted.

So calcium is a breast cancer fighter according to this research, but so too are multivitamins, which the Herald suggests can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. The study referred to by BusinessWeek, Associated Press and others is from researchers at Ponce School of Medicine in Ponce, Puerto Rico. It involved the authors comparing “vitamin and calcium intakes of 268 women with breast cancer and 457 women without breast cancer, all in Puerto Rico”. The research was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual conference in Washington, D.C. over the weekend.

The Herald report and numerous others refer to a different piece of research conducted by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This 10-year study involved more than 35,000 women, and researchers discovered those who regularly took a multi-vitamin pill “increased the risk of developing a tumour by 19 per cent”.

Lack of context

What appears to have happened here is two pieces of research emerged over the same weekend with contradictory conclusions. One is a very large study, the other relatively small. But I haven’t found a story on Google News that refers to both stories, weighing up the results and putting each in context alongside the rival study. As a result, anyone browsing the web is likely to see directly contradictory stories examining the same issue – whether multivitamins impact the risk of a woman developing breast cancer.

Just posted, by the ABC News in Australia, this piece which quotes head of surgical oncology at Newcastle’s Calvary Mater Hospital, Professor John Forbes”

He says the results of the Swedish study are barely statistically significant and do not indicate what the outcome might be for women taking fewer vitamin tablets.



Local science TV show coming to Freeview platform Peter Griffin Apr 17

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Apart from the excellent kids programme Lets Get Inventing, there hasn’t been a family-orientated science TV show commissioned in New Zealand for years.

tvnz7wallpaper-3-250x200So it is great news that TVNZ has commissioned a show for the TVNZ7 channel available on Freeview and on Sky as well. I’ve spoken to several companies that have pitched ideas for a science show in response to TVNZ’s request for proposal which closed in late February. Those conversations lead me to believe that whoever gets the green light, the quality of the content will be high.

Still, while there is little homegrown science content on our screens, flip through the Sky channels Discovery, National Geographic, Crime and Investigation, History Channel and Documentary Channel and you get a fair bit of science programming, albeit, foreign programming. Crucial to the success of the TVNZ7 show will be the format.

It will need to be fresh, original and capture the imagination. With the likes of Myth Busters and Megastructures having already gone a long way to popularise science TV for the mainstream, a new science show can’t resort to old formats and tricks to pull in viewers. There’ll need to be something edgy, new and mold-breaking. Oh, and because its on the advertising-free public broadcaster channel, money is tight so it will have to be done on the smell of an oily rag. A big challenge, but I think New Zealand’s innovative TV production industry is up to it!

The Royal Society is partnering with TVNZ on this venture, which should serve to open doors for the prodco in the science sector. Here’s the announcement from the Royal Society:

Royal Society of New Zealand partners with TVNZ 7 to promote the value of science and technology

The Royal Society of New Zealand has formed a partnership with TVNZ 7, with the shared objective of promoting the value of science and technology to New Zealanders.

A major new commission will see a science and technology series produced for the digital channel and launched on air later in the year.

TVNZ 7 is an advertising free channel, available via both Freeview and SKY. The channel offers stimulating factual and information programmes, documentaries, current affairs and news bulletins. The schedule is made up of a mixture of local and international programmes.

The mission of the Royal Society of New Zealand is to foster in the New Zealand community a culture that supports science and technology and to promote science and technology in schools, in industry and in society.

The Royal Society of New Zealand’s Chief Executive, Dr Di McCarthy says:

’The idea of a brand new television series on TVNZ 7 designed to excite and inform with great stories of science and technology in contemporary New Zealand is thrilling to the Royal Society of New Zealand.

’We especially want to see young New Zealanders become inspired by the fantastic array of opportunities which science and technology offer as a career. We are also looking forward to seeing the benefits of research presented in a way that makes viewers take a second look and say ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’.’

TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis is delighted by the partnership with the Royal Society of New Zealand:

’TVNZ 7 and its sister channel TVNZ 6 seek to partner with organisations with a similar interest to ours in creating genuine value for New Zealanders. The value of applied science and technology to the New Zealand economy is significant and we’re immensely proud to be joining forces with the Royal Society of New Zealand to showcase exciting developments in this arena.

’Our purpose is to inspire New Zealanders on every screen and this partnership with the Royal Society will help us do that.’

TVNZ 7 will announce details of the new series in the coming months with a plan to launch the series later in 2010.

TVNZ 7 is available on Freeview/TiVo channel 7 and on SKY/Telstra channel 97.

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