Archive April 2011

The mother of all languages? Peter Griffin Apr 18


I keep a fairly close eye on where New Zealand science is covered in the international press.

So it was good then to see University of Auckland psychology lecturer Dr Quentin Atkinson featured in the Wall Street Journal and other major news outlets for his paper published in Science last week which suggests that our modern languages may have all descended from a single ancestral tongue spoken by early Africans between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

The research is a bit controversial as are many of the theories put forward by evolutionary psychologists because they are often difficult to test properly. Atkinson computer modelled 504 modern languages, looking specifically at the number of phonemes – distinct units of sound, that are included in each language.

He found that the further away from Africa he went in search of language, the less phonemes the language had – Pacific island languages had the least, as did South American languages.

As the WSJ explains:

His research is based on phonemes, distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones, and an idea borrowed from population genetics known as “the founder effect.” That principle holds that when a very small number of individuals break off from a larger population, there is a gradual loss of genetic variation and complexity in the breakaway group.

Dr. Atkinson figured that if a similar founder effect could be discerned in phonemes, it would support the idea that modern verbal communication originated on that continent and only then expanded elsewhere.

The idea is that languages tend to start out with more sounds in them, then become less complex as people migrate away and settle in smaller groups.

The research results mirror those reported in the world of genetics with analyses showing that African populations have higher genetic diversity than European, Asian and American populations. But some scientists are wary of settling on the mother tongue theory given the diaspora out of Africa happened so long ago.

Merritt Ruhlen, an expert on the evolution of human languages at Stanford University, California told New Scientist:

“Most linguists do not think it’s possible to trace linguistic history past 10,000 years. There is a lot of anger and tension surrounding that kind of analysis.”

Which is why the Dominion Post on Saturday described Atkinson as having been “thrust into a global media storm” with the publication of his Science paper.


In a separate article on Stuff, Michael Field covered some of the other sceptical comments from scientists such as Bart de Boer, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam.

“…he said he was surprised that phonemes can be used to trace language evolution so far back in time – and that over the course of tens of thousands of years phoneme diversities in far-flung areas of the world have not ‘drifted back to the sizes found in Africa’ because cultural evolution of phonemes is ‘much faster than genetic evolution.’”

Atkinson for his part seems unfazed by the reaction. He told the Dominion Post:

“… I thought it would attract attention and I’m glad it has.”

An infographic from the Wall Street Journal that illustrates the change in linguistic diversity as you move out of Africa.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Wall Street Journal

Gluckman: base policy decisions on the evidence Peter Griffin Apr 12


It barely attracted any coverage when it was released following the Prime Minister’s post cabinet press conference last night, but Sir Peter Gluckman’s discussion paper on evidence-based policy is possibly one of the most important he has released thus far.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister has made a call for government departments to improve the quality of and make better use of the scientific advice they use to inform policy decisions.

He said science is increasingly complex and non-linear and while scientific advice shouldn’t necessarily underpin every policy decision, New Zealand really needs to improve the way science is used in the government policy making process:

“…a number of examples exist where the lack of independence of the scientific advice and its conflation with other perspectives has noticeably biased the information available for decision-making and led to inappropriate outcomes.”

Sir Peter steers clear of pointing fingers, but looks at a couple of recent cases where scientific advice was ignored, overlooked or mishandled with serious consequences.

From 1999 to 2008, New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment (MfE) was involved in the remediation of the contaminated agrochemical site at Mapua, Tasman District. After withdrawal of the main contractor in 2004, MfE took over the resource consents and became responsible for management of the remediation process, which was subcontracted to the publicly funded developer of the novel remediation technology adopted.

The operation ran over time and over budget, and there was considerable local disquiet around possible air and water discharges of toxins. An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment criticised several aspects of MfE’s involvement, but in particular focused on the lack of technical capability within the project team that took over the programme’s operational management.

This lack of technical expertise was found to have probably contributed to the poor operation and deficient monitoring of the remediation. ’If MfE is to perform operational functions, those functions need to be clearly defined and supported by the appropriate in-house technical capability.’

Looking further afield, Sir Peter examines the BSE outbreak in the UK, the handling of which by the British Government was a complete debacle:

Several observers have commented that the scale and duration of the crisis were at least partly attributable to the failure of MAFF to seek appropriate and independent scientific advice about the veterinary or public health implications of BSE.

In fact, in the initial stages an explicit decision was made to conceal the existence of BSE and to avoid consulting or involving scientific advisors. When external scientific advice was eventually sought, its recommendations were strongly constrained and influenced by MAFF officials who were also concerned with the commercial effects of any regulatory action.

MAFF’s repeated claim to the effect that policy was based on and only on sound science was a rhetorical cover for a set of covert political and commercial judgements masquerading as if they were scientific.

While he doesn’t name them, other examples of where policy decisions have gone against scientific consensus exist in the move to defer fortification of bread with folic acid (scientists say it is safe and cuts down on neural  tube defects), the move to defer a decision to lower the blood alcohol limit (the scientific evidence supports such a change), and the move to ban use of mobile phones in cars (the science suggests fiddling with the stereo or a GPS is just as distracting). The Government’s controversial draft energy strategy is arguably in the same camp.

Governments overseas have increasingly tried to bring government decision making in line with scientific evidence – or at least paid lip service to the idea. One innovative idea that has enjoyed some success is the UK Government’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee’s Evidence Check programme. The committee reviewed the Government’s use of evidence in policy making on a number of issues, such as the licensing of homeopathic products by the MHRA and the diagnosis and management of dyslexia.

What can change?

Sir Peter is opening the issue up for discussion but a few things he suggests to improve use of science in government decision making include:

- Adopting some sort of peer view for scientific advice given to Government.

- Protocols and guidelines for using external scientific advisors.

- Crown Research Institutes clear the way so they can advise Government without worrying about commercial sensitivities resulting from private contracts.

- Focus more on social science research.

Some good material for discussion here and hopefully a conversation will start that leads to greater value being placed on science informing policy in government.

NZPA closure will hurt science coverage Peter Griffin Apr 07

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It had become apparent to journalists some time ago that things were starting to look shaky for the country’s news wire service NZPA, with its major backer Fairfax itching to go it alone, generate its own content and save some money in the process.

But last night’s news that Fairfax’s move to pull the plug on its funding of  NZPA will likely see the agency wound down this year with the loss of up to 40 jobs has nevertheless rattled journalists who saw it as a sure and steady influence in an age of eroding media values.

The death of NZPA is really the end of an era in New Zealand journalism. NZPA for over one hundred years has been the agency of record for breaking news stories. Newspapers might write more fulsome and colourful accounts than NZPA produces, but the agency can be counted on for serving up short, concise, timely and generally accurate news alerts on a wide range of subjects – from general news and politics, to business sport and science.

A few weeks back I sat in NZPA editor Kevin Norquay’s office to talk about that last topic – science. NZPA is a bastion of decent coverage of science-related issues in New Zealand and that is largely down to one individual – NZPA veteran reporter Kent Atkinson. Part of the reason for my visit was to thank NZPA for its commitment to covering science issues and giving Kent the leeway to pursue a round he loves.

While having to shuffle several rounds at NZPA, Kent’s interest in science and his commitment to covering the round thoroughly has meant decent coverage of issues as diverse as stem cell research and ocean acidification has been supplied to New Zealand newspapers and websites. This sort of coverage otherwise would not exist as mainstream media organisations, with a few exceptions, simply don’t have the resources, the individuals or the inclination to cover science in this way.

The great thing about NZPA is its reach. A decent science story, or any story for that matter, can run in numerous daily metropolitan and regional newspapers. While Stuff and the Herald Online will pile in to cover the populist stories – Darren Hughes’ night time exploits, the plastic waka etc , often with rolling coverage during the day, NZPA can be relied on to fill in the blind spots, with dispassionate reports. That safety net of coverage will soon be gone for our major mainstream news organisations.

Do they care?

The question now is whether they will up their game to fill in the gaps left with NZPA’s departure or simply abandon the ethos of providing comprehensive, accurate coverage that was embodied in NZPA.

NZPA’s closure will be bad for coverage of science-related issues, just when – in the wake of Ken “Moon Man” Ring’s earthquake predictions, the Christchurch earthquake, the nuclear situation in Japan, we need decent coverage of science-related issues more than ever. I fear Kent Atkinson, with his extensive knowledge and experience in the science beat, will be lost to journalism as well as other seasoned reporters in the NZPA newsroom, such as my old colleague from the Business Herald, Pam Graham, who now serves as NZPA’s finance editor.

I must admit, as I chatted with Kevin Norquay looking out at the bunker-like NZPA newsroom a few weeks back, I had a bad feeling. There were barely any journalists in the newsroom, and when I enquired as to whether they were all out in the field, Kevin replied that the staff in the newsroom constituted the daytime shift for the agency. NZPA had the air of an organisation clinging to values, a structure and business model that were dying.

Bureau model shows promise

It would be nice to think that Fairfax and APN will use the millions of dollars they save in fees paid to NZPA to hire some of those made redundant to bolster their own coverage, particularly in specialist areas that NZPA excelled in. But I’m more inclined to think that NZPA’s backers will instead make the savings and carry on business as usual.

There is some hope I think in the bureau model Fairfax is employing, such as the business reporting hub that was recently set up in Auckland under the leadership of another former Herald colleague Tim Hunter.

A team of maybe one or two reporters within Fairfax, based in a city but nationally focused and tasked with covering the science beat properly could transform coverage of science across the largest print media group in the country, adding to the excellent work done by the handful of Fairfax reporters who cover science and environment issues. It would be even more effective in the APN camp.

Fairfax and APN are also able to give a story the sort of treatment NZPA was never able, due to the limitations of its structure. For instance, a Stuff reporter/videographer recently attended a press conference we at the Science Media Centre organised in conjunction with Professor Sir Peter Gluckman.

Less than an hour after the press conference, the reporter had a story filed to Stuff, accompanied by a nicely edited interview with Sir Peter complete with voice over. The ability of the major news portals to quickly turn around packages of multimedia content has put them in the box seat for covering breaking news stories. Where they still fall down however, is in the breadth of coverage they can offer – and that’s where NZPA was the ever present backstop.

But I doubt science coverage will get any more of a look-in than it does now with the support of NZPA. Which is why it is a sad day for science journalism and a sad day for journalism in general in New Zealand.

Video download and streaming options for Kiwis Peter Griffin Apr 01

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My New Zealand Listener technology column this week looks at the (legal) options for Kiwis who want to venture online to download movies and TV shows at their leisure.

zuneThe options could generously be described as “patchy”. Consider this – for US$8 a month, about the cost of a glass of wine at a bar in central Auckland, a Netflix customer can stream as many movies a month as they like. For an additional US$2 a month, they can take advantage of a DVD mail out service that mirrors that provided by Sky TV’s Fatso service here.

Now the US has good quality broadband pervasive across the country and unmetered data plans mean users can log onto Neflix without fear of chewing through their monthly data cap. The quality of the broadband means streaming thousands of video simultaneously across the internet from Netflix servers is a viable option in the US.

Is the same type of service viable here? Technically yes – for many of us. But the infrastructure isn’t in place from any provider to offer up video streaming services on that scale, though TVNZ, Mediaworks and Sky with its iSky player are gaining valuable experience doing so.

The real stumbling point is the negotiations that would have to be concluded with movie studios in the US to allow a comprehensive library of movies to be offered up to subscribers.For a small market like New Zealand, there is really only one player that has pockets deep enough to secure the rights to offer a service as comprehensive as Netflix – Sky TV. And currently Sky has no real incentive to do so – its pay TV business is going gangbusters, its Fatso service scooped up all the rivals in the market and no other player is battering down the door to launch a movie download service in New Zealand.

So other than renting DVDs, using Sky’s limited movie on demand options or subscribing to their movie channels, the options for picking and choosing your movies and downloading them via the internet are at best 3 – 4 years behind the US and two years behind Australia.

Here are the legal options I came across in researching for the column…

Apple iTunes – a pretty decent service to use especially if you have invested in an Apple TV box ($169) which lets you stream video from your computer to your TV screen. Pricing is reasonable for movie rentals, but we don’t get the same library as the US market, so selection is limited.

Caspa OnDemand – The movie download service that comes with the TiVo personal video recorder is technically very good but hamstrung by a dire movie selection – barely 500 movies. I buy movies here from time to time – the quality and speed of the downloads is good, but Caspa really needs to up its game in the content stakes for this to work longterm. Plus, you currently need to be  TiVo PVR owner to take advantage of this – TVNZ recently wrote off its $10 million investment in TiVo which suggests the platform is withering and dying in New Zealand, which is a shame. The box itself is very intelligent and flexible (you can shuffle comtent to your computer and mobile devices), but it was too late to market behind Sky’s MySky box and woefully implemented.

Microsoft Zune Player – Don’t even go there. A token effort to flex Microsoft’s muscles in the content space that doesn’t really deliver for the New Zealand market. The Zune software itself is quite nice, but the movie selection is dire, the Microsoft credit system confusing and apparently my internet connection (even on Orcon’s highspeed unbundled service in Wellington) is too slow to stream some movies! Available on Xbox 360, PC and on Windows Phone 7 devices and credit can be shuffled between the two, one advantage of Microsoft having its fingers in several pies.

Playstation Mubi – I like what Sony is doing here – offering a curated library of around 300 art house movies to take you away from the mainstream and into creative cinema. But as a download service for those of us looking for a well-priced flick to watch on a Friday night it doesn’t deliver.

I may have left out some options, but the above services seemed to be the extent of the legal services I could find that allow downloads in the New Zealand market. Doing a Google search will bring up many more services, but BEWARE. Many of these services are illegal – they will take your credit card details and charge your card, but deliver up content they have procured illegally. There are many pirate download services masquerading as legitimate download services. If it sounds too good to be true, it definitely is.

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