Saturday, 31 October 2009

Smoking up a storm

yes ok I'll stop with the bad titles, this is the last one, maybe.

On to the actual purpose of this post: it appears that the government of our dear island has sacked Prof. Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The reason? saying that by changing the classification of drugs to "scare" people from them you were "devaluing" the evidence. The BBC report on the sacking can be read here and the report on his comments here.

My main gripe with this is the lack of respect that politicians (of all parties) seem to have for the people who advise them. If you are employed to offer advice on a policy your agreement with that policy shouldn't be a contingent of your employment.

In this case I think that the Prof. Nutt has a very good point: we allow the use of alcohol and tobacco (which can cause, among other, things cancer and cirrhosis) but ban the use of cannabis (a chance of developing psychosis or other neurological problems).

Moving on from this to a more general outlook this seems to highlight one of the main problems currently experienced by the scientific community: our expert advice (a few dozen years studying a small field) is routinely being over thrown based on 'gut-instinct' and anecdotes. There is a distinct distrust at all levels of society of those with expertise. This would be less worrying if it wasn't for the fact that often this expertise is replaced by much more dubious sources of information: how many people now will take the advice of someone who uses 20 minutes at the university of google to discover that vaccines are bad over someone who has spent a greater portion of their life researching and studying exactly how vaccines work.

I think this is more than just a new anti-intellectualism (which it is), I think it's the beginning of global future-shock. As technology and knowledge moves on people are becoming increasing terrified by the change and looking for simpler explanations of how the world works. The continued inability of science to do what people expect of it (why do we still have AIDS why isn't my car flying yet) has given people the impression that as a group scientists are detached from the concerns of pretty much everyone else.

This leads me back to the reports on the BBC: people no longer want experts. They don't want people who are willing to tell them that we don't have all the answers yet, to tell them that actually drug abuse is endemic in pretty much all societies and has been for years. People are actually losing a lot of the rationality that drove us to where we are now. I'm not saying that we are going to back-slide, just that we might move sideways a bit. As this century progresses the number of new technologies in people's lives will drive many to consider it magic. People won't want to be told that the nanotech injection they just received is very carefully molded to them specifically they will want to just know that the magic juice will cure their cancer.

Science has raised us so much higher than we have ever been before and now most people cannot see the difference between it and magic. It's a shame but for many people I think that the 21st century will be one of magic and will miss out on the wonder that we can create.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

how habitable is the earth?

If you have any interest in futurism and possible extra-solar habitation (ie living on other planets) this is an excellent post by an excellent author

The rise of journal sharing?

There is a very interesting (and short paper) on the impact of and ease of illegal sharing of journal articles here.

For those of the tl;dr (too long didn't read) variety basically a large number of journals that practice closed access (you have to pay to read articles) are having their articles shared via websites etc. The estimated cost of one of these websites to the 2,000 odd journals whose articles were republished as $1.4Million (based on $30.00 per article).

I'm not a big fan of intellectual property (IP) laws (maybe because I have nothing to protect) but I feel that several things have come into play in recent years. The IP laws are now as likely to protect large companies from individuals as the opposite (in fact more likely as an individual will rarely have the resources to cover legal costs) and the rise of the internet which has blurred the line of what can actually be protected. Is code something that you can patent? that particular bit of code or the concept behind it. These issues have already been met by firstly music, then movies and now slowly the publishing world (look at the trouble google is having with news that they license and various books).

In the case of scientific publishing the real question is whether we should pay for information. Prior to the internet a lot of the work of publishers was exactly that: editing and publishing articles that would then be bound together and sent to those who were interested often costing a lot of money in the process. Now in the publishing world most of the work is done electronically, editing and organisation of the information is still important but the cost of actually printing the article is often no longer an issues as people will read the papers online. Should we then be paying up to $30 for an article?

I don't think we should. Information is at its best when everyone can access it, creating a situation in which multiple people can all review and learn from someone's contribution is far preferable to creating an arbitrary barrier for people to cross. This is especially true in the case of the sciences where people are interested but only a very minor percentage will want to pay up to $100 for a paper that they're only interested in browsing. The upshot of charging people to learn is that you create a capitalist market for information. On the internet this means that people will go where it's freely available (eg wikipedia) or where it's free but wrong (eg Answers in Genesis). As part of the purpose of science is the propagation of knowledge forcing people to pay to get good information seems counter-intuitive. This is more of a problem now when information is so freely available in general and people are treating science more and more like magic: either something to be feared or avoided as un-knowable. Giving good and easy access to genuine science will mean that those who are interested can get hold of the actual information that is needed and make their own mind up about it. I'm not saying this will stop websites like Age of autism from spreading misinformation but with access to genuine papers on vaccines or the LHC people who might otherwise take these websites at face value (especially when presented with the scientific world hiding its information behind a pay wall) they may read up and find out the real facts.

While this is a very similar situation to the one found in the entertainment industry I think the subtle differences make the case stronger for open access journals. While the entertainment industry should be free in some form (I pay for the cinema and yet still insists on adverts why!?) funded through pay-to-dodge ads or a pay-to-own system etc. The journals system should be completely free, a lot of journals already have adverts if these moved onto their websites in a "pay for the ad free premium version" system I would be more than happy.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

"It's only a theory"

Interesting program on BBC iPlayer called "It's only a theory" hosted by Andy Hamilton and Reginald D Hunter, first episode has a very interesting man on talking about the possibility that the first 1,000 year old person has probably already been born. Seems to be a reasonable argument based on bell curve concepts.

The idea is that people being born now will likely have access to technology that will extend their life significantly and once they get old (again) the process will repeat to the point that essentially life will be sustained ad finatum.

The guy presenting the argument is awesome (HUGE beard) bit of a strange program not too well created, interesting idea with a reasonable approach to science but somewhat trying to hard for jokes that aren't really there.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Further VHDL adventures

Well I've finally made my shiny toy do something vaguely useful. With the amazing power of science (and several weeks hard work/hackery of other's code) I've made my board into an 8-bit binary to hexdecimal converter. It does this by changing the output of the seven-segment LED display to the relevant character based on the position of the 8 sliders.

That's about it. Next stop something genuinely useful.