SciBlogs

Archive March 2011

Is this a Conversation worth having? Peter Griffin Mar 30

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There’s a new player in science communication that has emerged across the Tasman, in the form of The Conversation, a website backed by numerous Australian universities and overseen by a highly experienced team of journalists and scientists.

I’ve known The Conversation was coming for some time – our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre are a supporting partner. It is an interesting and promising concept – one that has emerged as people seek out a proliferation of alternative sources to mainstream media coverage of science.

So what’s the deal? The Conversation is a Melbourne-based web start-up featuring content written by scientists, finessed by trained journalists and presented directly to the public.

It is essentially a reaction to the media’s lessening ability to do coverage of science-related issues justice. It has the financial backing of ANU, Monash, Melbourne, UTS, UWA and the CSIRO to the tune of millions of dollars per year and counts those organisations plus a hardful of others among its content partners.

The idea is that The Conversation‘s journalists set the editorial agenda and seek out experts at the scientific institutions to come up with articles and opinion pieces. This graphic nicely sums up how The Conversation differs from the mainstream media.

Source: The COnversation

Source: The Conversation

That could be a recipe for dry, highly-technical pieces from academics, but out of the gates The Conversation is generating interesting, well-written and even controversial material. The hidden hand of seasoned journos shines through in the writing, which so far has covered subjects as varied as the Google Books court reversal and a neuroscientist’s view on “chiropractic quackery“.

The experts featured so far form an eclectic group. There are disclosure statements to cover off potential conflicts of interest and discussion is encouraged with comments open on each article and Creative Commons repurposing of the content endorsed.

The editorial team at The Conversation is headed by Andrew Jaspan, former editor of The Age, The Observer (London), The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. That amounts to some serious journalism experience in Jaspan alone. A team of around 18 makes up The Conversation, though a number of them seem to be part-time assistant editors. As such however, The Conversation represents probably more resourcing in science journalism and communication than any media organisation in Australasia is committing – barring possibly the ABC.

Is it sustainable?

But will it work longterm? The public still gets 90 per cent of its information about science from the mainstream media – newspapers and magazines, TV and radio broadcasts and the online portals of those organisations. The Conversation is a new player that seems to be committed to high-quality content. What it doesn’t have however, is a large audience to put that content in front of. Its readsership will increase over time, but The Conversation will likely need to forge content-sharing partnerships with media organisations for its content to gain traction with the wider public.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds, and The Conversation already has AAP as a strategic partner, suggesting some content sharing with the newswire service is in the pipeline. At  Sciblogs, we’ve found that articles written here can quickly catch the media’s attention. Today alone, nutritionist Amanda Johnson was on radio and TV on the back of her piece about the influence of marketing on children’s perceptions of food.

Since late last year, Sciblogs content has been syndicated via the New Zealand Herald website and occasionally Stuff and NBR. Coverage by our bloggers of the Ken “Moon man” Ring affair pushed Sciblogs traffic last month above the 100,000 visitor per month mark for the first time. So there is mainstream media appetite for good quality content and increasingly, editors are deciding to reach out to bloggers and op-ed writers to supplement their own coverage. This is a good thing and something The Conversation will, I think, find it easy to exploit. The problem is the media are rarely willing to pay for such content, which is leading to a preculiar thing – where some specialist areas of journalism, such as science journalism and investigative journalism, are starting to be funded by groups outside the mainstream media.

The Conversation is a prime example of this. Sciblogs, which was intially funded by the New Zealand Science Media Centre to some extent is also an example of that. In the area of investigative journalism, US not for profits, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica are examples of this. All of the above area funded by Government, public institutions, philanthropists or a mix of all three.

So we are starting to see a shift in the media landscape where resource-intensive journalism of complex issues is being taken up and funded by third parties. That reflects the commercial reality of the state the media is in at the moment, but isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as the quality and independence of content can be maintained, who cares where it comes from?

But the issue of independence shouldn’t be underestimated and The Conversation, like Sciblogs and any other organisation seeking to put out credible information should never the importance of independence – both real and perceived. Editorial decisions need to be made independently of the organisation’s financial backers.

So far so good for The Conversation. The content is making me stop and read, the site looks pretty good. It arrives at a time when major science-related issues of public concern (the tsunami and nuclear situation in Japan, extreme weather events in Australia etc) require effective explanation on the part of experts. This venture facilitates that and therefore shows a lot of promise. So yes, a conversation that is indeed worth having.

Clinical trials – New Zealand is missing the boat Peter Griffin Mar 21

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I’m at the NZBio conference in Auckland over the next couple of days, so in a good position to see what is preoccupying the country’s biotechnology sector.

One simmering issue has already been aired – the ad hoc and often ineffective way we approach conducting clinical trials of drugs and treatments in New Zealand. According to scientists, “big pharma” representatives and the chair of the health select committee, National MP Dr Paul Hutchison, our approach to clinical trials threatens to see us lose out to other countries that are better serving companies that want to test their drugs and treatments.

Click here to listen to a podcast of the discussion on clinical trials in New Zealand at the NZBio conference today…

This issue is currently the subject of a select committee inquiry which Dr Hutchison said is due to report back in the next couple of weeks. He didn’t reveal the recommendations the committee will make, but the tenor of his speech suggested some quite sweeping changes to the way clinical trials are undertaken in New Zealand will be put forward.

New Zealand is good at doing small, complex clinical trials. We are reasonably priced, we have robust ethics oversight and good researchers.

So, what’s the problem with clinical trials? Well, according to Hutchison, the value of clinical trials completed in New Zealand is going backwards – from $100 million a decade ago to between $20 – $40 million today. That is very concerning, because hosting clinical trials has very positive spin-offs. It bolsters R&D infrastructure meaning other health research efforts benefit. That includes build up a skilled health research base and international linkages with drug companies that leads onto more work. In comparison to New Zealand, phase I – IV trials undertaken in Australia are worth $450 million a year in direct foreign investment.

Other countries, such as Singapore and South Korea have streamlined their infrastructure and injected public money into clinical trials to attract more business. As a result, the number of clinical trials undertaken in South Korea has increased by 240 per cent since 2005.

Why isn’t New Zealand stealing a good share of this business? Apparently our ethics committee approval needs to be more efficient and faster. There needs to be less bureaucracy, a better focus on research among the DHBs and above all, a higher level of spending on health research from central government. – apparently we spend a third of what the Australians do on health research.

Jan Campbell, medical director for the New Zealand arm of major drug company Roche spoke frankly about the frustrations drug companies face in undertaking clinical trials in New Zealand, though was gave high praise at the same time. Unfortunately there is no central way of negotiating contracts for these trials she said, so deals have to be struck with individual DHBs. There are 20 DHBs so that’s potentially a lot of negotiating that has to go on. The Government has no national health research action plan, added Campbell.

The result is “ad hoc contracting, fragmented governance and short term relationships”.

Campbell’s view is that New Zealand really needs to focus on an area of health research and invest in it. This will then draw the interest of drug companies when they decide where in the world to base their clinical trials. She suggested for instance, that New Zealand could become a global leader in researching metabolic diseases – such as type 2 diabetes. The infrastructure that evolves to support trials in this area could then support other areas of health research.

Drug development model “unsustainable”

Matt Kepple, managing director of Primorus, which runs early phase clinical trials, said that updated figures suggest the total cost of taking a new mass market drug through to commercialisation is US$1.6 billion. Typically the process takes 12 – 15 years. Some 70 per cent of trials conducted in the US are delayed by 1 – 6 months. In Asia Pacific, which includes New Zealand, only 45 per cent of trials are delayed. Delays are serious, because they eat into the time covered by drug patents during which time a drug company has exclusivity on selling the drug.

The single largest cost in the research and development of a new drug is the clinical trials that must be carried out. Therefore, companies are looking to shave their costs by conducting trials in lower cost countries – such as those in Eastern Europe or Africa.

Campbell said the current method of taking a drug to market was unsustainable due to the huge cost involved and would result in a change in the way drugs are developed – though she didn’t elaborate on what would change.

However, University of Auckland PhD candidate Michelle Lockhart, who has studied in depth* how clinical trials are conducted in New Zealand. says the changing situation could play into New Zealand’s hands:

Globally the traditional model of drug development is changing and the large pharmaceutical companies are looking externally for innovative compounds, new technologies and cost-effective drug development services.

New Zealand (NZ) can capitalise on its expertise in innovative drug discovery and development but needs to be able to define and promote its capabilities to the global drug development industry.

New Zealand for its part is particularly well suited to clinical trials in the area of immunology and treatments related to the central nervous system.

So there’s plenty of opportunity to follow Australia’s lead and really target the market for clinical trials. But structural changes need to happen to develop a more cohesive approach to clinical trials. Hopefully the select committee report will suggest some decent action steps that can be quickly taken up by the health sector, scientific institutions and drug companies.

* Lockhart, New Zealand Medical Journal, 25 June 2o10

Whats on my iPad – dozens of apps reviewed Peter Griffin Mar 19

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The iPad 2 launches in Australia and New Zealand this week (March 25th) and to foreshadow that I’ve written my latest Listener column on the power of the “app” and how our concept of software is changing thanks to this new format which has been hugely successful for Apple and also Google with its Android apps and to a lesser extent, Microsoft with its apps marketplace on Windows Phone 7 devices.

I’ve decided to flick through the apps on my version 1 iPad and give you a review of them. So far, I’ve spent probably $120 on iPad apps – some get a lot more use than others, but I’m generally happy with my purchases. Here’s a guide tour of the apps I’ve downloaded onto my iPad in the last eight months…

Productivity

Google Earth for iPad
Google Earth for iPad

Alarm Clock: A large green digital clock radio that acts as an able and highly visible bedside clock radio. The alarm clock will even detect your current location using the iPad’s geolocating feature and serve up the weather in your locality. The basic version needs to be running in the foreground for the alarm to go off, though that is overcome in the “pro” version which also has various themes, alarm notification sounds and can be used as a flashlight. Nothing compelling enough for me to upgrade – yet. Has come in handy many times as an alarm clock when I’m traveling. 7/10 (free)

Dropbox: Absolutely indispensable. Dropbox on the iPad has saved my bacon several times. The service in its own right is fantastic – an online storage and file sharing system that gives you quick and easy access to your essential files from any computer that has the Dropbox software loaded onto it. I use Dropbox to share files with colleagues all over the world. As soon as I or anyone else in the group uploads a file, it is available for everyone else to access. On the iPad, the experience is excellent. You can open Word files, image,  PDFs and Powerpoint slides, save files to be shared via your Dropbox and search among your folders. If you need access to a set of files and want easy access to them, Dropbox and the iPad is a powerful combination. 9/10 (free)

Google Earth: Perfect for the iPad. I spent a week surfing this app solidly. Breath-taking, fascinating, endlessly entertaining and useful. FREE! 10/10 (free)

Manage: Bought this with the best of intentions to use it to manage my life, but have barely touched it. Manage is an app that lets you create and manage tasks to organise your life. Create checklists for yourself, annotate them with scribbles using handwriting function, set due dates for yourself. It is a fairly solid app, but its lack of integration into the calendaring function I use (Gmail Calendar) and general lack of visability on the iPad unless you are within the app renders it fairly useless for me. Organisational freaks will love it, I’m about to delete it. (5/10) US$1.99

Pages: A well-executed work processing programme for the iPad that has served me well as I type out articles, letters and even the odd short story on my travels. Did I do that by tapping on the iPad’s screen? Hell no! I have a Bluetooth wireless keyboard that I sync up with the iPad to allow for fast typing. Pages lets you create simple documents or choose from numerous templates to create everything from letters to invitations. There’s a fairly basic set of word processing tools, but everything you need to turn out a professional looking document. You can embed photos, get a word count and check the spelling. The navigation system that lets you flick through documents is pretty slick too. When you are done you can simply hit a button to email the document. That sure beats the steps you have to go through using Word on your computer. Note, this isn’t a Microsoft product, so don’t expect the same functionality as Microsoft Word. 8/10 US$9.99

Penultimate: I had a huge amount of fun with this app for the first week, then pretty much left it alone. Penultimate is a digital notebook that lets you scribble, doodle and draw graphs and diagrams. Architects, scientists and graphic designers will love it. The touchscreen interaction is impressively executed. You can draw on graph, lined, or plain paper using different types and colours of pens. An eraser quickly undoes your unwanted scribbling. When you are done email a copy of the page or save it as a photo. Huge potential here, but not ideal for scribbling notes in meetings which is what I bought it for. 7/10 US$1.99

The Chambers Thesaurus: A fairly simple but effective digital version of the Chambers thesaurus. The search function is central to the app – punch in the word and even if spelled slightly wrong, the app will guess what you ar elooking for and preload words it thinks you are looking for. In that sense it is very quick. You can search by word type (noun, verb, adjective etc). Possibly not the most comprehensive thesaurus around and a fairly simple presentation of it here, but generally serves the purpose well. 7/10 US$4.99

Webex: I use the Webex conferencing system to dial into conferences on a regular basis, and until now that has meant sittin gin front of my computer as I watch content being presented and listen to audio. That has changed with the iPad version of Webex, which allows me to view content, listen in on and ask text chat questions in web conferences. The user interface is simple and effective and the web streaming has worked flawlessly for me every time. Obviously, this is a niche tool, but stands to revolutionise web conferencing for legions of business people who need to dial into web conferences to collaborate with far flung workmates. 8/10 (free)

WordPress: I love the flexibility of the WordPress content management system for updating this blog and my other websites. But the WordPress site is largely unusable when accessed via the Safari browser on the iPad. Certain essential features don’t work which makes blogging impossible. WordPress have addressed that with the WordPress iPad app. This integrates into your blog account to populate a directory with your posts and synchronise with your content management system, That part of the app works very well. What doesn’t work quite so well is the content input via the app. The richness of tools you get in the WordPress word processing panel is not present in the iPad app. Also, I’ve had no success embedding images in blog posts via the iPad app, though the option is supposedly there. Previewing posts fails to load pu my blogs theme with it. However, the basics are there – you can approve or delete new blog comments, make amendments to pages and publish simple blog posts, either straight away or by setting a publication time. I’m hoping for an improved version of this as I’m really keen on blogging via the iPad while on the road. 6/10 (free)

World Atlas: A digital version of those lush, detailed maps you find slotted into the pages of National Geographic – which is the publisher of this fantastic little app. Zoom around the world with the swipe of a finger looking at the world in political terms, satellite view or “executive” view, which gives you an interesting overview of things like vegetation and land use and population density. Geo-location detects your current location. You can download individual continent maps and there’s a provision to overlay satellite mapping and road information from Microsoft’s Bing service, though that may be a North American feature as it doesn’t work for me. Beautiful resolution and quick loading when zooming in 7/10 US$1.99

Wolfram: The brainiest search engine comes to the iPad with a smart little app that will prove hugely helpful for people who need to have facts at their fingertips. The iPad keyboard while used in Wolfram helpfully features mathematical symbols, which the average Wolfram user may have use for. The data returned in searches is beautifully formatted with navigation down the lefthand side of the screen and the resulting articles, graphs and tables presented in the main panel. I rarely use Wolfram via the web browser, but strangely reach for the iPad like a reference book whenever I need to check a fact. 8/10 US$1.99

ebook readers

The Kobo store on the iPad
The Kobo store on the iPad

Free Books: An excellent app that focuses on works of literature that are out of copyright and can therefore be downloaded for free. A library area features book suggestions by genre and author making it attractive to browse. The selection of books is impressive. Pages flip past with the swipe of a finger and while the reader itself isn’t as slick as that of the kobo or the Kindle, there are good navigation features and you can send book suggestions to Twitter. A worthy effort giving you access to a range of great classic books. 7/10 (free)

iBooks: Over 100 million books have been downloaded by iPad users in the year the iPad has been on sale. The main advantage here is the integration with the online iBooks store which utilises your Apple ID which you will have if you use the App Store or iTunes. The browsing interface is slick and familiar to App Store visitors. There’s also customer reviews of books built into the store, previewing of content etc. The reader itself is well-functioned with ability to change brightness, text size, search the text and bookmark pages. 8/10 (free)

Kindle: A solid version of the world’s most popular ebook reader the Kindle has been designed for the iPad. The key thing here is the integration with your Amazon account and the Amazon online store (though not through the app as the Kobo does but by sending you to the website via the iPad’s web browser). Fast loading and pages look clean and crisp. 8/10 (free)

Kobo: My favourite of the ebook readers, the Kobo software is slick and the graphics crisp. Free Gutenberg Project books feature and are beautifully formatted. Annotations to pages can be made and there is excellent integration into the Kobo’s online ebook store (which shows prices in NZ dollars). Social networking sharing of your book choices features and there’s a great little function that shows your ebook reading statistics – how many pages per session, total reading hours etc. 9/10 (free)

Science

Click here to view a separate review of science apps that have debuted on the iPad.

Social networking

Twitter: A fairly handsome and user-friendly Twitter client has come to the iPad. It allows fast scrolling through your Twitter stream and browsing of lists, direct messages and mentions of your own Twitter handle. You can shrink URLs and upload photos. All the basic functionality you need, however I rarely use it as I need the multiple streams of content Tweetdeck allows. 7/10 (free)

Tweetdeck: A nicely developed version of the popular Twitter viewing client. Tweetdeck is always loaded on my desktop computer and its usefulness is repeated on the iPad. It allows multiple Twitter streams to be displayed. Posting messages is quick and easy via the iPad’s keyboard. My only complaint is that sometimes Tweetdeck is very slow to refresh and is sometimes slow to respond to commands. Still, the best way of accessing Twitter currently available on the iPad. 7/10 (free)

Versions of LinkedIn and Facebook are viewable on the iPad but these are iPhone apps. Currently neithe rplatform have dedicated iPad apps which is rather disappointing. The touch version of the Facebook site (touch.facebook.com) is however fairly accomplished and is accessible via the iPad’s web browser.

Weather

WeatherPro HD
WeatherPro HD

WeatherProHD: I wanted a decent app to supply multiple layers of weather data for my area but also internationally. The best app I could find was WeatherProHD and I haven’t been disappointed. The user interface is beautiful and presents masses of data at once. For any city in the world I can view forecasts, current, wind speed, rain fall, air pressure, temperature, humidity and UV index. Hitting a tab brings up radar view so I can see the weather situation and a second tab features satellite view so I can actually see the weather systems in relation to my area. It is like having the 6pm weather tools in your own hands (and without the weather girl jabbering away in the background). I’d like to see little weather forecast blurbs feature – this is very data intensive so no analysis of the weather data supplied. But for quick access to the important measures, its indispensable.  7/10 US$4.95

Photography

Foto Editor: A fairly basic but useful photo editing tool. Occasionally you have a pic on the iPad (in your photo album) that you want to send on to someone. Here you can crop, edit, rotate and add effects ot a photo and then share it via email or social networks. I find using photo editing tools on the iPad a bit cumbersome eg: dragging boxes to select part of a picture. Foto Editor is very much entry level and will keep prompting you to upgrade to iPicEd, a newer premium version of the software. Foto Editor is fine, but photo editing is generally better done on a computer. 6/10

Getty Images: A lovely way to browse the lush photos of the Getty Images database. Spend hours flicking through portraits, news photos and nature pics. Not much more useful than that but a great time waster for those who love quality photography. 7/10 (free)

News

Associated Press: A unique and interesting way of displaying news, which involves randomly throwing photos, videos and news headlines up on a noticeboard. Clicking a headline then brings up full story view or opens a video player or photo gallery. It is a slightly random way of gettin gyour news fix, but the AP news judgement is generally pretty good and you can shuffle through the categories to find a noticeboard with only "World" or "Technology" stories featured for instance. Its looks pretty, however due to its slightly random presentation, I don’t use it much. 6/10 (free)

BBC: One of my favourite iPad news apps. It generally strikes a very good balance of displaying content in a very visual way and getting a wide range of content onto the screen. The breaking news ticker along the top of the app is very useful. There is an icon “Live Radio” embedded in the app, which I presume allows streaming of the BBC News radio bulletins, but it doesn’t work for me, possibly as I’m trying to access it from New Zealand.

Bloomberg: Exceptional at what it does – financial news, stock prices and graphs. The black background to everything is bold and powerful. I don’t use the app much as I’m not an avid follower of the market. But as a former user of the Bloomberg terminal as an ex business journalist, I would have LOVED to have had access to this much more user-friendly interface to financial data. And it is free! 9/10 (free)

CNN: Lovely looking app – has encouraged me to consume CNN content which I rarely did on the internet before (though I am a subscriber via SkyTV). 8/10 (free)

The Wired iPad app
The Wired iPad app

FT.com: Very tidy indeed. The Financial Times is a classy publication and that’s reflected in the quality of this app, which retains the feel of the paper but gives it a digital makeover that is highly effective. I’m one who firmly believes that the character of newspapers with their multiple column formats and traditional typefaces for headlines looks good in the digital world and this is obviously the way they think at the FT too. However, my use of this app pretty much stopped once the free trial ended. Only previews of stories are available outside the pay wall sadly. 8/10

New Zealand Herald: A fairly unflashy but solidly delivery of the Herald’s content. The focus seems to be on simplicity and making the most of the photography available to the newspaper. The front page is a series of photo bozes displaying the headlines. Tapping a story brings up a massive photo and headline, which you scroll down from to access the story. Videos and photo galleries pepper the articles. It doesn’t get any more complex than that, but for an alternative to navigating busy, cluttered news websites, its an attractive way to take in the news headlines. 7/10 (free)

New York Times: Another rather traditional go at an iPad app that comes off looking pretty good. The feel of the New York Times is retained as multimedia is added to the mix. Free at the moment but likely to go premium as the NY Times prepares to take its content behind a pay wall. 7/10 (free)

NPR: The US public broadcaster has done a great job of serving up its radio content alongside text-based stories. It is a dream to navigate and use and the presentation of the audio streams means I listen to more NPR and a wider range of stories than I would have evne using the iPhone app. Pure class from NPR. 9/10 (free)

PressDisplay: A revelation. An excellent way to view newspapers in digital format. As a subscriber I download my favourite newspapers each morning (about 50MB per newspaper) and view them before heading to work. The papers are displayed as you seem them in print form, but here is the beauty of PressDisplay -for the price of a Dominion Post and New Zealand Herald subscription, I get access to virtually every newspaper in the country and thousands from around the world in digital format. I can swipe from page to page, search the text, zoom in on photos and infographics. It doesn’t really get much better than PressDisplay. 9/10 subscription required

River of News: A premium app that acts as a sort of RSS reader for news services – but in a very visual way. Where it succeeds is in offering a way to customise your news experience on the iPad, taking feeds from numerous source.s This is very useful as most iPad news apps are walled gardens that feature only the content of one provider. But the service is a little rough around the edges, largely due to the variations in how content is delivered via RSS. For instance, some stories feature a photo tile, others are blank. Needs some work, but useful for monitoring favourite news sources on the iPad. 6/10 US$2.99

Slate: Funnily enough, I’ve only really started reading slate regularly since the arrival of the iPad. This is one of the more innovative way of presenting magazine-style content on an iPad app. It is designed to lure you further into the content and it does that with skill. 7/10 (free)

Stuff: A nice way to read the news aggregated from Fairfax newspapers, and unlike the Sydney Morning Herald the app is a freebie. Navigation is easy and multimedia spices up the content available. While highly visible on one front, the app retains the feel of browsing a website in the section categories. A must-have for the iPad news junkie. 8/10 (free).

Time: Fairly stock standard stuff from Time. The weekly mag is displayed as you see it in print form. The pages are high resolution and crisp, and without all the complicated interactive workings of Wired, are fast to download. Still, I’d like to see an app aggregating the breaking news of the Time website on the iPad. That currently seems to be missing. 5/10 subscription or one-off purchase required

TVNZ:A commendable effort for our tech-savvy state-owned broadcaster. The iPad app expands on aspects of the TVNZ on Demand service, delivering news stories and associated videos through an attractive interface. Videos are smooth-playing and abundant in quantity. Clearly there’s room for further development here, but a great start for a broadcast TV-centric app. 8/10 (free)

Wired: Looks beautiful and is currently the best magazine implementation on the iPad. Articles feature embedded infographics that are interactive. Videos start up and articles are delivered in differing formats – some swipe down to continue, others to the right. Adverts are revolutionised with animation and video. The app means in New Zealand we can get the magazine at the same time as everyone else in the world for a fraction of the price you pay for the print edition – when it gets to New Zealand. The only downside is the large size of the Wired app – 400 – 500MB. That makes for a slow download. Still, its worth waiting for as the content is superb and the presentation often breath-taking. 9/10 subscription or one-off payment required

Music

BeatwavePRO: A great way to generate a sample track for an electronic song. Beatwave lets you plot notes on a screen (high notes towards the top, low notes down the bottom). Select from instruments and music styles and buy in additional music packs as I did. What you get is a compelling little track you can use as a base to build a more complex song. You can export the song as a file to share or import into a music-making programme to add to. 7/10 $7.99 (additional music packs $0.99 – $1.99)

GarageBand: The best music app I’ve come across on the iPad, GarageBand for iPad is the tablet version of the popular Apple music-making software for the Mac. Does much of what MusicStudio does, without the vast range of instruments but with "smart" instruments that makes it easy for novices to make decent-sounding music. Music editing and mixing is also easier with GarageBand. Endless fun and helps you get your head around music. 10/10 ($6.49)

Guitar Chords: A simple little app that I’m using as I learn to play the guitar. It could be a lot better. Patchy design and layout. 4/10 (free)

MusicStudio: A monster of a programme in terms of functionality. Needs a bit of music knowledge to be of any use but allows you to put together fairly complex songs on the iPad. I got sucked into buying numerous instrument packs as this came along before GarageBand. As a result I’ve dropped most of $50 on this app. But I love it and will continue to use it. 8/10

n-Track Tuner: A slightly geeky but very accurate guitar tuner. 6/10 (free)

SoundyThingie: A bizarre but innovative little app that lets you draw lines to simulate sounds and notes. It means, much like with Beatwave you can create music samples by plotting notes on the touchscreen. A lot of fun ot play with even though there’s not a lot of variety to the sounds you can create. 6/10 (free)

Recipes

RecipeGrazer: Thousands of recipes here. The site is US-centric so not ideal for us kiwis but has given me plenty of ideas. 6/10 (free)

iPad apps – what’s on my tablet Peter Griffin Mar 14

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The iPad 2 launches in Australia and New Zealand this week (March 25th) and to foreshadow that I’ve written my latest Listener column on the power of the “app” and how our concept of software is changing thanks to this new format which has been hugely successful for Apple and also Google with its Android apps and to a lesser extent, Microsoft with its apps marketplace on Windows Phone 7 devices.

I’ve decided to flick through the apps on my version 1 iPad and give you a review of them. So far, I’ve spent probably $120 on iPad apps – some get a lot more use than others, but I’m generally happy with my purchases. Here’s a guide tour of the apps I’ve downloaded onto my iPad in the last eight months…

Productivity

Google Earth for iPad

Google Earth for iPad

Alarm Clock: A large green digital clock radio that acts as an able and highly visible bedside clock radio. The alarm clock will even detect your current location using the iPad’s geolocating feature and serve up the weather in your locality. The basic version needs to be running in the foreground for the alarm to go off, though that is overcome in the “pro” version which also has various themes, alarm notification sounds and can be used as a flashlight. Nothing compelling enough for me to upgrade – yet. Has come in handy many times as an alarm clock when I’m traveling. 7/10 (free)

Dropbox: Absolutely indispensable. Dropbox on the iPad has saved my bacon several times. The service in its own right is fantastic – an online storage and file sharing system that gives you quick and easy access to your essential files from any computer that has the Dropbox software loaded onto it. I use Dropbox to share files with colleagues all over the world. As soon as I or anyone else in the group uploads a file, it is available for everyone else to access. On the iPad, the experience is excellent. You can open Word files, image,  PDFs and Powerpoint slides, save files to be shared via your Dropbox and search among your folders. If you need access to a set of files and want easy access to them, Dropbox and the iPad is a powerful combination. 9/10 (free)

Google Earth: Perfect for the iPad. I spent a week surfing this app solidly. Breath-taking, fascinating, endlessly entertaining and useful. FREE! 10/10 (free)

Manage: Bought this with the best of intentions to use it to manage my life, but have barely touched it. Manage is an app that lets you create and manage tasks to organise your life. Create checklists for yourself, annotate them with scribbles using handwriting function, set due dates for yourself. It is a fairly solid app, but its lack of integration into the calendaring function I use (Gmail Calendar) and general lack of visability on the iPad unless you are within the app renders it fairly useless for me. Organisational freaks will love it, I’m about to delete it. (5/10) US$1.99

Pages: A well-executed work processing programme for the iPad that has served me well as I type out articles, letters and even the odd short story on my travels. Did I do that by tapping on the iPad’s screen? Hell no! I have a Bluetooth wireless keyboard that I sync up with the iPad to allow for fast typing. Pages lets you create simple documents or choose from numerous templates to create everything from letters to invitations. There’s a fairly basic set of word processing tools, but everything you need to turn out a professional looking document. You can embed photos, get a word count and check the spelling. The navigation system that lets you flick through documents is pretty slick too. When you are done you can simply hit a button to email the document. That sure beats the steps you have to go through using Word on your computer. Note, this isn’t a Microsoft product, so don’t expect the same functionality as Microsoft Word. 8/10 US$9.99

Penultimate: I had a huge amount of fun with this app for the first week, then pretty much left it alone. Penultimate is a digital notebook that lets you scribble, doodle and draw graphs and diagrams. Architects, scientists and graphic designers will love it. The touchscreen interaction is impressively executed. You can draw on graph, lined, or plain paper using different types and colours of pens. An eraser quickly undoes your unwanted scribbling. When you are done email a copy of the page or save it as a photo. Huge potential here, but not ideal for scribbling notes in meetings which is what I bought it for. 7/10 US$1.99

The Chambers Thesaurus: A fairly simple but effective digital version of the Chambers thesaurus. The search function is central to the app – punch in the word and even if spelled slightly wrong, the app will guess what you ar elooking for and preload words it thinks you are looking for. In that sense it is very quick. You can search by word type (noun, verb, adjective etc). Possibly not the most comprehensive thesaurus around and a fairly simple presentation of it here, but generally serves the purpose well. 7/10 US$4.99

Webex: I use the Webex conferencing system to dial into conferences on a regular basis, and until now that has meant sittin gin front of my computer as I watch content being presented and listen to audio. That has changed with the iPad version of Webex, which allows me to view content, listen in on and ask text chat questions in web conferences. The user interface is simple and effective and the web streaming has worked flawlessly for me every time. Obviously, this is a niche tool, but stands to revolutionise web conferencing for legions of business people who need to dial into web conferences to collaborate with far flung workmates. 8/10 (free)

WordPress: I love the flexibility of the WordPress content management system for updating this blog and my other websites. But the WordPress site is largely unusable when accessed via the Safari browser on the iPad. Certain essential features don’t work which makes blogging impossible. WordPress have addressed that with the WordPress iPad app. This integrates into your blog account to populate a directory with your posts and synchronise with your content management system, That part of the app works very well. What doesn’t work quite so well is the content input via the app. The richness of tools you get in the WordPress word processing panel is not present in the iPad app. Also, I’ve had no success embedding images in blog posts via the iPad app, though the option is supposedly there. Previewing posts fails to load pu my blogs theme with it. However, the basics are there – you can approve or delete new blog comments, make amendments to pages and publish simple blog posts, either straight away or by setting a publication time. I’m hoping for an improved version of this as I’m really keen on blogging via the iPad while on the road. 6/10 (free)

World Atlas: A digital version of those lush, detailed maps you find slotted into the pages of National Geographic – which is the publisher of this fantastic little app. Zoom around the world with the swipe of a finger looking at the world in political terms, satellite view or “executive” view, which gives you an interesting overview of things like vegetation and land use and population density. Geo-location detects your current location. You can download individual continent maps and there’s a provision to overlay satellite mapping and road information from Microsoft’s Bing service, though that may be a North American feature as it doesn’t work for me. Beautiful resolution and quick loading when zooming in 7/10 US$1.99

Wolfram: The brainiest search engine comes to the iPad with a smart little app that will prove hugely helpful for people who need to have facts at their fingertips. The iPad keyboard while used in Wolfram helpfully features mathematical symbols, which the average Wolfram user may have use for. The data returned in searches is beautifully formatted with navigation down the lefthand side of the screen and the resulting articles, graphs and tables presented in the main panel. I rarely use Wolfram via the web browser, but strangely reach for the iPad like a reference book whenever I need to check a fact. 8/10 US$1.99

ebook readers

The Kobo store on the iPad

The Kobo store on the iPad

Free Books: An excellent app that focuses on works of literature that are out of copyright and can therefore be downloaded for free. A library area features book suggestions by genre and author making it attractive to browse. The selection of books is impressive. Pages flip past with the swipe of a finger and while the reader itself isn’t as slick as that of the kobo or the Kindle, there are good navigation features and you can send book suggestions to Twitter. A worthy effort giving you access to a range of great classic books. 7/10 (free)

iBooks: Over 100 million books have been downloaded by iPad users in the year the iPad has been on sale. The main advantage here is the integration with the online iBooks store which utilises your Apple ID which you will have if you use the App Store or iTunes. The browsing interface is slick and familiar to App Store visitors. There’s also customer reviews of books built into the store, previewing of content etc. The reader itself is well-functioned with ability to change brightness, text size, search the text and bookmark pages. 8/10 (free)

Kindle: A solid version of the world’s most popular ebook reader the Kindle has been designed for the iPad. The key thing here is the integration with your Amazon account and the Amazon online store (though not through the app as the Kobo does but by sending you to the website via the iPad’s web browser). Fast loading and pages look clean and crisp. 8/10 (free)

Kobo: My favourite of the ebook readers, the Kobo software is slick and the graphics crisp. Free Gutenberg Project books feature and are beautifully formatted. Annotations to pages can be made and there is excellent integration into the Kobo’s online ebook store (which shows prices in NZ dollars). Social networking sharing of your book choices features and there’s a great little function that shows your ebook reading statistics – how many page sper session, total reading hours etc. 9/10 (free)

Science

Click here to view a separate review of science apps that have debuted on the iPad.

Social networking

Twitter: A fairly handsome and user-friendly Twitter client has come to the iPad. It allows fast scrolling through your Twitter stream and browsing of lists, direct messages and mentions of your own Twitter handle. You can shrink URLs and upload photos. All the basic functionality you need, however I rarely use it as I need the multiple streams of content Tweetdeck allows. 7/10 (free)

Tweetdeck: A nicely developed version of the popular Twitter viewing client. Tweetdeck is always loaded on my desktop computer and its usefulness is repeated on the iPad. It allows multiple Twitter streams to be displayed. Posting messages is quick and easy via the iPad’s keyboard. My only complaint is that sometimes Tweetdeck is very slow to refresh and is sometimes slow to respond to commands. Still, the best way of accessing Twitter currently available on the iPad. 7/10 (free)

Versions of LinkedIn and Facebook are viewable on the iPad but these are iPhone apps. Currently neithe rplatform have dedicated iPad apps which is rather disappointing. The touch version of the Facebook site (touch.facebook.com) is however fairly accomplished and is accessible via the iPad’s web browser.

Weather

WeatherPro HD

WeatherPro HD

WeatherProHD: I wanted a decent app to supply multiple layers of weather data for my area but also internationally. The best app I could find was WeatherProHD and I haven’t been disappointed. The user interface is beautiful and presents masses of data at once. For any city in the world I can view forecasts, current, wind speed, rain fall, air pressure, temperature, humidity and UV index. Hitting a tab brings up radar view so I can see the weather situation and a second tab features satellite view so I can actually see the weather systems in relation to my area. It is like having the 6pm weather tools in your own hands (and without the weather girl jabbering away in the background). I’d like to see little weather forecast blurbs feature – this is very data intensive so no analysis of the weather data supplied. But for quick access to the important measures, its indispensable.  7/10 US$4.95

Photography

Foto Editor: A fairly basic but useful photo editing tool. Occasionally you have a pic on the iPad (in your photo album) that you want to send on to someone. Here you can crop, edit, rotate and add effects ot a photo and then share it via email or social networks. I find using photo editing tools on the iPad a bit cumbersome eg: dragging boxes to select part of a picture. Foto Editor is very much entry level and will keep prompting you to upgrade to iPicEd, a newer premium version of the software. Foto Editor is fine, but photo editing is generally better done on a computer. 6/10

Getty Images: A lovely way to browse the lush photos of the Getty Images database. Spend hours flicking through portraits, news photos and nature pics. Not much more useful than that but a great time waster for those who love quality photography. 7/10 (free)

News

Associated Press: A unique and interesting way of displaying news, which involves randomly throwing photos, videos and news headlines up on a noticeboard. Clicking a headline then brings up full story view or opens a video player or photo gallery. It is a slightly random way of gettin gyour news fix, but the AP news judgement is generally pretty good and you can shuffle through the categories to find a noticeboard with only "World" or "Technology" stories featured for instance. Its looks pretty, however due to its slightly random presentation, I don’t use it much. 6/10 (free)

BBC: One of my favourite iPad news apps. It generally strikes a very good balance of displaying content in a very visual way and getting a wide range of content onto the screen. The breaking news ticker along the top of the app is very useful. There is an icon “Live Radio” embedded in the app, which I presume allows streaming of the BBC News radio bulletins, but it doesn’t work for me, possibly as I’m trying to access it from New Zealand.

Bloomberg: Exceptional at what it does – financial news, stock prices and graphs. The black background to everything is bold and powerful. I don’t use the app much as I’m not an avid follower of the market. But as a former user of the Bloomberg terminal as an ex business journalist, I would have LOVED to have had access to this much more user-friendly interface to financial data. And it is free! 9/10 (free)

CNN: Lovely looking app – has encouraged me to consume CNN content which I rarely did on the internet before (though I am a subscriber via SkyTV). 8/10 (free)

The Wired iPad app

The Wired iPad app

FT.com: Very tidy indeed. The Financial Times is a classy publication and that’s reflected in the quality of this app, which retains the feel of the paper but gives it a digital makeover that is highly effective. I’m one who firmly believes that the character of newspapers with their multiple column formats and traditional typefaces for headlines looks good in the digital world and this is obviously the way they think at the FT too. However, my use of this app pretty much stopped once the free trial ended. Only previews of stories are available outside the pay wall sadly. 8/10

New Zealand Herald: A fairly unflashy but solidly delivery of the Herald’s content. The focus seems to be on simplicity and making the most of the photography available to the newspaper. The front page is a series of photo bozes displaying the headlines. Tapping a story brings up a massive photo and headline, which you scroll down from to access the story. Videos and photo galleries pepper the articles. It doesn’t get any more complex than that, but for an alternative to navigating busy, cluttered news websites, its an attractive way to take in the news headlines. 7/10 (free)

New York Times: Another rather traditional go at an iPad app that comes off looking pretty good. The feel of the New York Times is retained as multimedia is added to the mix. Free at the moment but likely to go premium as the NY Times prepares to take its content behind a pay wall. 7/10 (free)

NPR: The US public broadcaster has done a great job of serving up its radio content alongside text-based stories. It is a dream to navigate and use and the presentation of the audio streams means I listen to more NPR and a wider range of stories than I would have evne using the iPhone app. Pure class from NPR. 9/10 (free)

PressDisplay: A revelation. An excellent way to view newspapers in digital format. As a subscriber I download my favourite newspapers each morning (about 50MB per newspaper) and view them before heading to work. The papers are displayed as you seem them in print form, but here is the beauty of PressDisplay -for the price of a Dominion Post and New Zealand Herald subscription, I get access to virtually every newspaper in the country and thousands from around the world in digital format. I can swipe from page to page, search the text, zoom in on photos and infographics. It doesn’t really get much better than PressDisplay. 9/10 subscription required

River of News: A premium app that acts as a sort of RSS reader for news services – but in a very visual way. Where it succeeds is in offering a way to customise your news experience on the iPad, taking feeds from numerous source.s This is very useful as most iPad news apps are walled gardens that feature only the content of one provider. But the service is a little rough around the edges, largely due to the variations in how content is delivered via RSS. For instance, some stories feature a photo tile, others are blank. Needs some work, but useful for monitoring favourite news sources on the iPad. 6/10 US$2.99

Slate: Funnily enough, I’ve only really started reading slate regularly since the arrival of the iPad. This is one of the more innovative way of presenting magazine-style content on an iPad app. It is designed to lure you further into the content and it does that with skill. 7/10 (free)

Stuff: A nice way to read the news aggregated from Fairfax newspapers, and unlike the Sydney Morning Herald the app is a freebie. Navigation is easy and multimedia spices up the content available. While highly visible on one front, the app retains the feel of browsing a website in the section categories. A must-have for the iPad news junkie. 8/10 (free).

Time: Fairly stock standard stuff from Time. The weekly mag is displayed as you see it in print form. The pages are high resolution and crisp, and without all the complicated interactive workings of Wired, are fast to download. Still, I’d like to see an app aggregating the breaking news of the Time website on the iPad. That currently seems to be missing. 5/10 subscription or one-off purchase required

TVNZ:A commendable effort for our tech-savvy state-owned broadcaster. The iPad app expands on aspects of the TVNZ on Demand service, delivering news stories and associated videos through an attractive interface. Videos are smooth-playing and abundant in quantity. Clearly there’s room for further development here, but a great start for a broadcast TV-centric app. 8/10 (free)

Wired: Looks beautiful and is currently the best magazine implementation on the iPad. Articles feature embedded infographics that are interactive. Videos start up and articles are delivered in differing formats – some swipe down to continue, others to the right. Adverts are revolutionised with animation and video. The app means in New Zealand we can get the magazine at the same time as everyone else in the world for a fraction of the price you pay for the print edition – when it gets to New Zealand. The only downside is the large size of the Wired app – 400 – 500MB. That makes for a slow download. Still, its worth waiting for as the content is superb and the presentation often breath-taking. 9/10 subscription or one-off payment required

Music

BeatwavePRO: A great way to generate a sample track for an electronic song. Beatwave lets you plot notes on a screen (high notes towards the top, low notes down the bottom). Select from instruments and music styles and buy in additional music packs as I did. What you get is a compelling little track you can use as a base to build a more complex song. You can export the song as a file to share or import into a music-making programme to add to. 7/10 $7.99 (additional music packs $0.99 – $1.99)

GarageBand: The best music app I’ve come across on the iPad, GarageBand for iPad is the tablet version of the popular Apple music-making software for the Mac. Does much of what MusicStudio does, without the vast range of instruments but with "smart" instruments that makes it easy for novices to make decent-sounding music. Music editing and mixing is also easier with GarageBand. Endless fun and helps you get your head around music. 10/10 ($6.49)

Guitar Chords: A simple little app that I’m using as I learn to play the guitar. It could be a lot better. Patchy design and layout. 4/10 (free)

MusicStudio: A monster of a programme in terms of functionality. Needs a bit of music knowledge to be of any use but allows you to put together fairly complex songs on the iPad. I got sucked into buying numerous instrument packs as this came along before GarageBand. As a result I’ve dropped most of $50 on this app. But I love it and will continue to use it. 8/10

n-Track Tuner: A slightly geeky but very accurate guitar tuner. 6/10 (free)

SoundyThingie: A bizarre but innovative little app that lets you draw lines to simulate sounds and notes. It means, much like with Beatwave you can create music samples by plotting notes on the touchscreen. A lot of fun ot play with even though there’s not a lot of variety to the sounds you can create. 6/10 (free)

Recipes

RecipeGrazer: Thousands of recipes here. The site is US-centric so not ideal for us kiwis but has given me plenty of ideas. 6/10 (free)

Earthquake prediction: Is GPS our best bet? Peter Griffin Mar 12

4 Comments

The devastation following the 8.9M earthquake in Japan and, closer to home, last month’s lethal quake in Christchurch has many asking what science is actually doing to find a way of forewarning of major earthquakes.

seismoGiven the loss of life in high magnitude earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis, it is indeed something that ought to be taken seriously and that doesn’t mean giving Ken Ring and his moon quake theories the time of day.

There’s a lot going on in this area of science, including efforts to drill down into major faults  – including our own Alpine Fault, to give us a better understanding of how they work. Previously I’ve written about research in Nature that suggests the San Andreas faultline was weakened by the Boxing Day 2004 9.3 magnitude quake off Sumatra 8000km away, thus linking two distant faults. Research supporting that theory however, is fairly sparse.

More promising perhaps, is the work being done particularly in Japan with GPS sensors that can detect minute movements in the Earth’s crust and therefore offer “pre-signals” of the occurrence and location of the epicentre of an earthquake. There is some evidence to suggest this is possible, however predicting the timing of an earthquake is far more difficult rendering the exercise fruitless so far when it comes to trying to prevent loss of life.

Japan has since 1994 been running GEONET, a dense network of highly-sensitive real-time GPS sensors that continuously transmit data and have been able to detect co-seismic, post-seismic, and inter-seismic deformation signals as well as slow slip events on plate boundaries. This backgrounder gives a good overview of what GEONET achieved in its first decade – and its limitations, which can be summed up with the following statement taken from the report:

Recent results from GEONET do not necessarily support an optimistic view for detecting pre-seismic signals. On September 26, 2003, the Tokachi-Oki earthquake (M8.0) occurred. This earthquake was the first interplate M8 event around the Japanese Islands since GEONET has been operated. Irwan et al. (2004) analyzed both the 30-second and 1 Hz sampled GEONET data to investigate crustal deformation around the onset time of the earthquake. They failed to identify any precursory signal of the earthquake. We have to conclude that it was impossible to issue an earthquake warning based on GPS data in case of this event. Moreover, there is no report of pre-seismic signal detected from either the continuous monitoring of extensometers or borehole tiltmeters.

A 2009 paper in Nature Geoscience by Japanese researchers focused in particular on Japan’s Northeast, the area the quake occurred last night. The scientists write that there are two extreme views on earthquake prediction – one one hand, that earthquakes are an “unstable phenomenon occurring in a nonlinear complex system” ie: random and impossible to accurately predict in terms of timing and on the other hand, they are a “stress accumulation release process driven by relative plate motion”, in which case it may be possible to figure out when faults will slip.

The reality, write the researchers, is somewhere “between them”:

For large interplate earthquakes, given the past fault-slip history in and around source regions, we can compute the spatiotemporal change in the stress distribution, and so predict the next-step seismic/aseismic fault-slip motion there through physics-based computer simulations. Then, the problem is how to precisely estimate the past fault-slip history from observed seismic and geodetic data.

That last bit helps indicate the amount of time until the the next earthquake is due.

In the brief period since last night’s earthquake, one Japanese scientist has compared what the data the GPS sensors have been producing and the location of the 8.9M quake and its aftershocks.. This is what Associate Professor Satoshi Ide, of the Solid Earth Science Group, Graduate School of Science, University of Tokyo had to say of the results:

“Today’s earthquake’s distribution is in good agreement with the slip-deficit rate data* collected by Nagoya University Associate Professor Hashimoto** and her team in 2009 using GPS. I have used the original plot published by Prof Hashimoto and plotted data from today’s earthquake on top of it (blue indicates foreshocks and red for aftershocks). By looking at today’s data and the data plotted by Prof Hashimoto, you can see the consistency in distortion.

Here’s the graph Dr Ide talks about (his earthquake and aftershock data from the last 24 hours is plotted on the graph to the right)

The left graph is from the 2009 Nature GeoScience paper. The right graph is the same with blue indicating foreshocks and red for aftershocks plotted by Dr Ide

The left graph is from the 2009 Nature GeoScience paper. The right graph is the same with blue indicating foreshocks and red for aftershocks plotted by Dr Ide

So it would appear that the GPS sensors detecting the slip deficit and slip-excess rates have accurately identified where the earthquake and aftershocks were to later strike. The problem of course is that the data didn’t indicate when the fault would slip triggering the earthquake and the resulting tsunami. No warning was given.

There’s something powerful in the GPS data for science then, but sadly, still nothing that can give any accurate indication of when a major seismic event will occur, the crucial component to avoiding the devastating impact of a high magnitude earthquake.

Sources:

* Hashimoto, C., Noda, A., Sagiya, T., and Matsu’ura, M., Interplate seismogenic zones along the Kuril-Japan trench inferred from GPS data inversion, Nature Geoscience, 2, 141-144, 2009.

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20000902a9.html

Learning from America’s Ken Ring moment Peter Griffin Mar 04

64 Comments

The furore over John Campbell’s interview with earthquake predictor Ken Ring this week really exposed a strong anti-science vein running through New Zealand that even we here at Sciblogs, seasoned from hand to hand combat with the anti-vax lobby, homeopaths and evolution deniers were surprised at.

Some of the headlines preceding the predicted December 1990 earthquake

Headlines that preceded the predicted December 1990 earthquake

As one commenter on Sciblogs put it, Ken Ring’s predictions and his methods have a “pleasant intuitiveness” to them that makes them sound plausible and offer comfort in the face of hard science, often explained in complex, unemotional or even arrogant terms by scientists.

Well, this week’s turn of events reminded me of a 20 year-old Science article I was sent in the wake of September’s earthquake (h/t Lynley Hood) that paints some striking similarities between Ken Ring and another earthquake predictor who has long since passed, Dr Iben Browning.

Dr Browning was a self-taught climatologist with a Ph.D in zoology who in late 1989 predicted the serious likelihood of a major earthquake striking the Mississippi Valley during the first week of December 1990.

The media jumped on the prediction and widely publicised them. Why? According to Science:

Browning’s successful scare was based on classic ingredients: a predictor with apparently solid credentials, a prediction method that sounds scientific, and unsupported claims of previous prediction successes.

Does all of that have a familiar ring to it?

According to Browning, who at the time was a business consultant in Albuquerque, the subtle bulging of Earth caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon – was  to peak on 3 December 1990 which meant there was a 50 percent probability of a magnitude 6.5 to 7.5 earthquake sometime between December 1 and December 5. Browning identified the New Madrid fault as the likely break point.

As the day approached, Midwesterners were in consternation and on the day itself, schools and factories closed and “…groups such as the Red Cross wasted precious funds in their efforts to calm the public”. The period passed with no earthquake on the New Madrid fault, people sheepishly drove back into town.

Why were numerous media outlets so eager to promote this bogus earthquake prediction? The answer has many parallels with the seismic situation we find ourselves faced with in New Zealand.

Throughout the 1980s, the authorities in the Midwest of the US had been warning the population about the risk of earthquakes, pointing out that the New Madrid fault beneath them had produced three of the country’s most devastating earthquakes in 1811 – 1812. While there have been few serious earthquakes on the fault ever since, the risk remains – a lot of research is underway in the New Madrid Fault Region to learn more about the state of the fault as a high magnitude earthquake in the region is expected to result in massive damage and significant loss of life.

Like those Midwesterners, many of us live in close proximity to a major fault line – in my case, its the Wellington Fault cutting a path through the city half a kilometre from my office. For those in the South Island, it is the Alpine Fault that traditionally has had them worried. There has also been a recent, fairly destructive quake in the form of the September 4 7.1M event – on a previously unknown fault. In October 1989, weeks just prior to Dr Brown making his prediction, there was a large quake in northern California (Loma Prieta) killing 63 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

So you have a: an area of the country riddled with faults that scientists says could rupture and cause massive earthquakes b: a recent high magnitude quake that has put earthquakes squarely in the public consciousness and c: a guy who comes along and says he can predict when and where the next one will happen.

Throw on top of that the fact that scientists actually  have been, over the years, checking out the possibility that tidal forces can trigger earthquakes, and the lack of credible scientists loudly proclaiming Iben Browning a quack, and you have the perfect conditions for Dr Brown’s theory to take hold.

There was also something else seemingly compelling – Dr. Browning was reported as having predicted that earthquake that struck the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

He missed by just 6 hours hitting the Oct. 17 San Francisco quake on the nose and by only 5 minutes in an update a week before the disaster.

However, when December 1990 had passed with no quake on the New Madrid fault, scientists went back and looked more closely at his predictions.

Reported Science:

His claim to have predicted Loma Prieta was baseless, a video and a transcript of two of his talks showed that he had not even mentioned California – he had predicted nothing more than vague geologic unrest around the world. And his claimed 5-year-long record of prediction success was no better than chance.

You may have read fellow Sciblogger David Winter’s piece Ken Ring can’t predict earthquakes either which looks in detail at Ken Ring’s “prediction” of the Feb. 22 quake in Canterbury and whether it stacks up.

It all came crashing down for Dr Browning in 1991, according to Science when it was revealed that one of his biggest supporters, geophysicist Dr David Stewart revealed that be believed “psychic phenomenon is [sic] a fact”.

Again, some parallels with Ken Ring author of Pawmistry: How to Read Your Cat’s Paws. More on that and Ken Ring’s lack of formal scientific qualifications at Silly Beliefs.

Scientists did a lot of soul-searching in the wake of the Ibsen Browning debacle in 1990. They were criticised for not getting on the front foot and debunking Dr Browning sooner in the piece, before the media frenzy had whipped up hysteria. One scientist quoted in the Science piece explains the approach that is often taken by the scientific community in such cases:

The hope is that if we don’t respond, people will forget it and it will go away. If we do respond it gives the prediction a certain amount of credibility.

Scientists responded strongly this week to debunk Ken Ring’s claims as an earthquake predictor. Maybe they should have done that sooner, but I have seen the reluctance outlined above in operation here too and for good reason – look what happened on Campbell Live.

In the end the parallels between the shonky earthquake predictor who terrified the US Midwest in 1990 and Ken Ring currently putting a ring around March 20 on his calendar are incredibly strong. The question asked by US scientists back then was why hadn’t they learned their lesson about pseudoscientific earthquake predictions. After all, there had been at least three of them in the 1970s that had attracted widespread publicity – surely the scientific community wouldn’t let a fourth gather steam? Well it did and the rest is history… and there’s a lot we could learn from that history when faced with earthquake predictions of this nature in our own country.

Pawmistry: How to Read Your Cat’s PawsPawmistry: How to Read Your Cat’s Paws

Books, music, movies – better bought online? Peter Griffin Mar 04

2 Comments

My debut technology column in the New Zealand Listener hits the streets in the Auckland region today and over the weekend for the rest of the country.

You’ll find a preview of it here soon, when the latest issue’s contents are loaded up. To kick off, I looked around my neighbourhood – central Wellington, and examined the forces putting my local video store and music store out of business and which could well finish off my local Whitcoulls outlet before long too.
Symbol of the (digital) revolution - iPad 2, released this week

Symbol of the (digital) revolution - iPad 2, released this week

I’m talking about the digitization of content and the efficiency of e-tailers that can serve New Zealand from the other side of the world better than retailers on our doorstep can. In my book, this trend is a positive thing as its leading to a better customer experience, more competitive prices – and opportunities for New Zealand companies to get in on the act in the weightless economy.

You’ll need to buy the Listener to read the column, but here are the websites and devices I refer to it the column which may prove useful for those on the hunt for decent online retailers or options for buying digital content.

Websites

Amazon.com – The biggest and some would say the best online book, music and movie etailer. Amazon is the US giant of e-tailing and headed by Jeff Bezos has come up with some visionary innovations of its own – the Kindle ebook reader being the most successful. In January, ebooks outsold good old-fashioned paper books for the first time, as millions of people unpacked Kindles that had been left under the Christmas tree and then went looking for their first book purchases. Good prices, second-hand items available too, reliable service and delivery, if a little slow at the standard delivery rate. The go-to place for browsing crowd-sourced book, movie and music reviews and a really nice, user-friendly site. Buying through the online music service is a breeze too.

BBC iPlayer - Sadly, not available to people attempting to log on from New Zealand (though this may change in the next couple of years as the BBC has signaled its intention to take the iPlayer global – for a subscription fee of “less that US$10 a month” according to sources at the Beeb. The iPlayer service already has Google Android and iPad apps available in Britain. The complexities of content distribution arrangements will probably slow the arrival of the iPlayer here, but one thing is for sure – the iPlayer service would clean up here, luring those disillusioned with pay TV and happy to view content on tablets, PCs and internet-enabled TVs.

The Book Depository – My favourite online book store, The Book Depository offers free shipping worldwide and delivers impressively quickly – generally 3 – 4 days. The site isn’t as user-friendly as Amazon’s, but selection is extensive and The Book Depository is particularly good in niche areas – science, economics, textbooks etc. A pleasure to use and gets a lot of repeat business from me, mainly because I can get books up to 25% cheaper thanks to the free shipping policy and generally lower prices.

Copia – a fledgling social networking website for book lovers that also acts as a fairly good ebook store. Write reviews, share favourites, join discussion groups. It is like an online book club where you participate from the comfort of your home armed with PC or iPad. It has a way to go to reach the critical mass that will make it as useful as Amazom.com

Digirama – A great place to buy music, particularly music by local artists. Audio tracks are $1.75 each, while new release albums cost $17 which is cheaper than buying a CD and without annoying digital rights management, you can shift music between numerous PCs.

Fishpond – The best local etailer of books, movies and music, Fishpond has an impressive selection and offers free national shipping. Delivery is generally 1 – 2 business days. While similar to or better than retail prices, Fishpond struggles to match Book Depository on price given the latter’s free international shipping. Nevertheless, solid service, good selection and on-time delivery has seen Fispond become the biggest fish in – the small pond of New Zealand etailing (ouch, that was lame). Slightly cheaper than iTunes.

iTunes – content wise it is fantastic – the iTunes store is the most successful online music store in the world and also excels as an etailer of movies and TV shows (though much of what is on offer isn’t available in New Zealand), as well as a vast number of podcasts – many of them free to download. The iTunes software that sits on your computer and through which you access the online store is a different story – I’m not a big fan. It isn’t very flexible, requires regular and large updates and really forces you to do things Apple’s way. Give me Winamp over iTunes any day. Nevertheless, if you own an iPod, iPhone or iPad, you’ll need to use iTunes, so you better get used to it as hundreds of millions so far have.

Devices

Apple iPad – the best tablet on the market and soon to be superseded on March 25 by the iPad 2, which is slimmer, faster and boasts cameras on its front and rear so you can make video calls to people. A great device for storing music, video, photos, ebooks and for generating content and surfing the web. A complete game-changer in my view

Kindle – Amazon’s hugely popular ebook reader is credited for kick starting ebooks properly and really proved to Steve Jobs the pent-up demand for a device like the iPad. Priced from $199 plus shipping (purchase via the Amazon.com site)

Kobo – Probably the best of the stand-alone book readers after the Kindle, the Kobo is cheap, lightweight, has great battery life and actually integrates into a pretty useful online store. Whitcoulls has cleverly done a deal with Kobo, so Whitcoulls online store for ebooks is essentially the Kobo store and you can buy the Kobo at Whitcoulls outlets. However the value-add from the Whitcoulls side isn’t really obvious – buying direct from Kobo makes just as much sense – if not more (discount please?) Price: $199

Motorola Xoom – The saviour of Motorola’s fortunes? The Xoom tablet is a Google Android based tablet that looks to be one of the most promising of the iPad rivals. It went on sale in the US last month, equipped with dual cameras, a dual-core processor for excellent processing performance and built-in mobile broadband access. Who knows when it will get to New Zealand – maybe never, but it keeps Motorola in the game after years of failed products and disappointing sales. Price US$799.

Running rings around the Moon Man? Peter Griffin Mar 01

John Campbell’s interview last night with “Moon Man” and self-proclaimed earthquake predictor Ken Ring was, according to the unprecedented stream of Twitter messages following it, a “train wreck”, “harsh”, “disappointing” and “poor journalism”.

campbell liveMedia veteran Dr Brian Edwards weighed in (site loading slowly today) soon  after the appearance to condemn Campbell’s effort:

John, your mindless, bullying, tirade against ‘moon man’ Ken Ring on tonight’s Campbell Live was perhaps the worst piece of egotistical, self-important, out of control, closed-minded, biased, unprofessional  non-interviewing I have seen in more than 40 years of New Zealand television.

With respect to Dr Edwards, I think he is over-reacting. What John Campbell engaged in was on a par with a mild episode of BBC Hardtalk as fronted by attack dog intellectual Stephen Sackur – though without the finesse or, it has to be said, the intellectualism. In a sense, the interview with Ken Ring was a train wreck, but at least Ring wasn’t permitted to air his banal theories in a softball interview, the trap a journalist at the Gisborne Herald fell into:

The Gisborne Herald has been the only media outlet to ask him about his success highlighting the likely dates of quakes, he said.

’Nobody has interviewed me at all. The way I see it the geologists have got it all wrong – they say these earthquakes are not occurring on any known faults, but earthquakes create faultlines as they go.

Not that the Gisborne Herald felt the need to consult a geologist, an astrophysicist or a scientist of any persuasion in this single-source story.

It is this type of easy media exposure which Ken Ring is adept at manipulating to his own end. Let us not forget that Ken Ring publishes a long-running and presumably lucrative series of weather prediction almanacs – his website is currently pushing the version for Ireland.

Giving Ring airtime in the media has turned out to be a very bad idea – people are taking his theories seriously and in the wake of last week’s quake, many are considering leaving Christchurch in the days around March 20, when Ring next predicts a quake will occur. The Campbell Live interviews preceding the exchange with Ring showed how intelligent, hard-working and obviously fearful Cantabrians have bought into Ring’s scientifically unfounded predictions.

Given all of that, its not surprising that Campbell was angry, that he was unwilling to give Ring a free run as so many before him have done. Campbell succeeded in shutting Ring down and tore into his theory as he should have done. But so unfocused was the attack that the average viewer never even got to hear a summary of Ring’s theory before Campbell attempted to demolish it. The overall impression for those who had only vaguely heard of Ken Ring then was that of a poor old man sitting alone in a TV studio being shouted at by a flustered and clearly angry John Campbell. Tragically, people are flocking to Ring’s defence as a result.

The irony is that Campbell could have simply asked Ring four or five simple questions and stood back as Ring shot himself in the foot attempting to answer them with his wacky pseudoscientific explanations. That’s all that would have been required for the average Campbell Live viewer to write Ring off as a crackpot and move on.

The set-up of the interview didn’t help, with Campbell on location in Christchurch and Ring stuck up on his own in the Auckland studio. At least TV3 didn’t put Ring head to head live on national TV with GNS Science seismologist Dr Kelvin Berryman – that would have been unfair, inappropriate and have made for bad TV.

I yesterday spent much of the day at the Science Media Centre trying with limited success to persuade journalists not to give Ken Ring any more airtime. Unfortunately last night’s episode of Campbell Live has resulted in a lot of people lending moral support to a guy who is preying on the fear of vulnerable quake victims. I don’t think that’s what John Campbell set out to achieve but it was a side-effect of the shotgun approach he took when he needed the incisiveness of a surgeon’s scalpel.

For an analysis of Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions check out this piece by fellow Sciblogger David Winter

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