Archive for September 2009

Prisons – what’s the point?

This was going to be a comment in response to tatjna‘s comments on penal policy, but been thinking about Dame Sian Elias’ speech, which caused a bit of a tiff back in July. Given that she’s Chief Justice of NZ, she probably knows what she’s talking about.

So, what’s the purpose of prison and does it work for that purpose?

There’s several questions I’ve got about rehabilitation and I’d love to see some evidence. How well does it work? Does it have a stronger effect than the negative effect of being locked up with other criminals? Who does it work for? How well can we separated people into those that can be rehabilitated and those that can’t? If we can’t answer those questions, then rehabilitation isn’t going to help change criminals into law-abiding citizens.

Given that half of prisoners in NZ re-offend within five years of release, it clearly doesn’t work well. Then again, half don’t.

Similarly questions exist for retribution, are criminals making rational choices and will they be deterred by a some risk of some punishment at some point in the future? Here’s the Lord Chief Justice of England on the life histories of typical offenders:

“He is usually male, and often of low intelligence, and addicted to drugs or alcohol, frequently from an early age. His family history will often include parental conflict and separation; a lack of parental supervision; harsh or erratic discipline; and evidence of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. At school he will have achieved no qualification of any kind, and will probably have been aggressive and troublesome, often leading to his exclusion or to truancy. The background will be one of poverty, poor housing, instability, association with delinquent peers and unemployment.”

We can add to that higher rates of mental illness. The idea that criminals are making rational choices looks like a fairly silly one, leaving retribution looking ineffective at changing the behaviour of criminals.

And the third option – isolation without any attempt to change criminals – is expensive ($100k per person per year) and only prevents crime while criminals are locked up. At some point, most will be released and be free to commit more crimes, unless we want car thieves to get life sentences.

One conclusion from Dame Shirley:
“Penal policy is largely irrelevant to reduction of crime and to making our communities safest.”
Given that NZ spends over $700 million on prisons, it’s a tad embarrassing to hear that they are irrelevant.

There’s a more fundamental question in Dame Shirley’s speech that points to a long-term solution:
“What turns ‘blameless babes (as all criminals once were) into the stuff of nightmares?”

If the roots of criminality lie in early-childhood education and health, or the lack of it, then there lies the solution. There is good evidence that support for parents and caregivers in deprived areas improves life chances for those kids. The UK is one of the leaders into research here, thanks to Thatcherite polices that gave us an underclass. Here’s one example of the research. So this kind of approach may well reduce crime, but not till those kids grow up, so there’ll be little effect upon crime for fifteen years.

It’s also a social democratic, ‘Government knows better than parents’ approach, pretty much the definition of a Nanny State intervention, so I can see a push for that going down like a tonne of bricks in NZ.

[EDIT – Then again, maybe there’s hope? “Back to class for bad kids’ parents” from the Dom Post today.]

Climate change policy, coz matters are coming to a crunch

“It’s 77 days to Copenhagen, we have a full atmosphere of gas, half a policy proposal, it’s dark, we’re wearing blindfolds…”

In less than three months time, the world’s leaders will be at the Copenhagen summit to try to agree on the next step after the Kyoto treaty for solving climate change. NZ’s emission trading scheme has been roundly slagged off by NZ’s scientific experts for lacking in ambition and credibility, and for missing the point entirely. It’s also been widely welcomed by our major polluters, so you can imagine what I think of it.

So what’s the rest of the world doing (and here I’m limiting myself to just announcements from today alone):
China announces pledge to curb carbon emissions
Airlines vow to halve carbon emissions by 2050

Quite a bit more than us, it seems…

Awesome new project means that the next couple of months are spoken for.

Also means I’ll get to use words like “transplastomics”, which is just a fundamentally cool word.

[EDIT – I’ve been playing telephone tag for the last couple of days with a Minstry offical. It’s devolved to the point where we’re just ringing each other’s answering machines and saying “tag, you’re it”. Yay for being all grown up and stuff.]

Software Freedom Day

Was fun, even if I hardly got to do anything outside the makerspace room. People seemed to like the Mitochondrion, they gave me a prize for it. Mostly, I was scratching my head wondering why the i2c bus had crashed yet again. Here’s me poking it:

pic by Br3nda

Prize is an Arduino, which I was planing on getting when I start the Mark 4, i.e. in about two years time, after the Fannies*, My Dick**, and possibly the Horrible Instrument***. Oh yeah, and building the house. So if anyone has a use for it until then, please ask.

* – uses Picaxes instead, coz smaller
** – uses no computers at all. I know, that doesn’t seem possible, right?
*** – thinky bits undecided, possibly a PC

ETS summary

Sins of emission – from Dim Post:

“So if I have this right – and I think I do – the Labour Party’s Emissions Trading Scheme left it up to industry and consumers – ie the free market – to pay for carbon emissions while the National government has socialized the cost and transfered the burden to the taxpayer.”

Virtual water

My latest, on the water used in growing food, which turns out to be quite a lot:

Yup, two and a half tons of water for a hamburger*. But so what, it rains lots in NZ, it’s not like we’re short on water. Well, true**, but how do we go about proving that to rich, overseas consumers? And that’s what the paper is mainly about.

Paper got a good reception, helped by the Science Media Centre’s briefing Virtual water – what is it, and what does it mean for NZ?. Here’s the press coverage so far:

Otago Daily Times – “Virtual water measures – NZ’s low rate of exploitation could lend competitive export advantage”
The Press – ‘Footprint’ for water
NZ Herald – ‘Water footprint’ as pressing as carbon dioxide emissions
Radio NZ – Scientist measures ‘virtual water’ used in food crops

* – These are global average figures, should be less for NZ, coz our beef eats grass, not wheat, and wheat takes lots of irrigation.
** – NZ has plenty of water, in comparison to South Australia. Doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with managing it, but we’re not too bad here, so let’s blow our own trumpet for once.

Mini ball in stainless, F/F, G1/4, I think

Imagine you want to buy the perfect dress. You know what you want the dress to do, but you don’t know what size, design, colour or material. You have never bought a dress before. You don’t even know how the sizes are measured. Googling for “dress” is just silly. It’s possible you need a skirt instead.

Saturday evening was like that, only I was trying to find the perfect valve.


Just back from a talk by Richard Newland, leader of the JetBlack team, the NZ attempt to break the land speed records for:

  • NZ – 347km/h
  • OZ – 801km/h
  • UK & World – 1,228 km/h

I started by thinking “I hope they run out of money before someone dies” and ended by thinking “this is pretty cool”. They have a new design from that on the website, the design seems to make more sense and looks even faster.

Feel free to give them all of your money.

Sorry, but my bets are still on Bloodhound, backed as it is by the British military-industrial complex. Rockets beat jets any day.

You remember that slope we all hauled the firewood up, with the tractor and the rope and the pulleys? Yeah, Cliff & Marty got the diggers down it, without killing anyone.

It’s looking like we’ll be able to create a decent size flat area at the bottom of the gulley. Hopefully, with the right drains, it’ll be suitably dry and useable.

Concrete poured for the foundations for the main level. What is it with cats and wet concrete?

A Sea Change

Forest & Bird will be showing A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish, a exploration of ocean acidification. Speaking at the film will be John Raven & John Beardall, two heavily-bearded world experts in the topic.


Tomorrow night, at the Paramount, 6 pm.

More progress

This weekend looks substantially like the last, more planing wood, more moving heavy things, more wiring and coding on the Fannies.

V0.3 works and fakes a log brightness response (which is a good thing), v0.4 is built, needs checking before turning on. Oh, and then a major code simplification is needed, but the bare bones of the code are done.

Main level of house is nearly ready to pour concrete. Much steelwork is in place, but then, we’re on the side of a hill, about a hundred metres from a major faultline:

Anyway, another view of progress:
“What’s this then? You’re not going to put up these ugly stone blocks here, are you? … A henge? Well, what’s a henge? You may call it megalithic culture, I call it vandalism. You realise this is about the last nesting place for mammoths in the whole of Wessex?”

[EDIT – Squee! Picaxe 20X2 released. Twice as fast and saves me 50 square milimetres over the 28X2. Hell yeah! (Also, my geekiness quotient may have just levelled up)]

Geoengineering report on the radio

From Morning Report on Radio NZ this morn. It’s a pretty good summary of both the report from the Royal Society of London, and the local commentary that we provided:

“Royal Society calls for research in ‘geo-engineering projects’ (3’38″ mp3)
A new report from the Royal Society of London says work needs to start now on projects to pull the planet back from catastrophe if greenhouse gas emissions run out of control.”

Quotes from Tim Flannery, Phil Boyd of NIWA, Andrew Cleland of IPENZ, all pointing out that our best approach is to work out how to cut emissions from agriculture, not to focus on geoengineering. But still, it’s worth some research dollars to get a clearer view of the risks and costs.

Apparently there was TV coverage last night too. Anyone see that?

Great big report on geoengineering, my thotts

Geoengineering is the idea that we can actively manage the climate. This might involve building sunshades in space that are as large as Australia, or placing reflectors in the desert that are as large as Canada.

Still, as we can’t agree, at a global level, on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these ideas are under serious consideration. The Royal Society of London has just released a pretty authoritative report on this. Main conclusion – keep trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s getting a decent amount of press so far:
BBC News – Engineering Earth ‘is feasible’
Guardian – Investment in geo-engineering needed immediately, says Royal Society
Financial Times – Report criticises geo-engineering technologies
Treehugger – Royal Society Says Geoengineering Humanity’s Last Hope – But Emissions Reductions Must Be Top Priority
AirAmerica – Could Geoengineering Projects Be Our Only Hope?
More as they come in from Google blog search

And here’s the Royal Society of New Zealand’s commentary, highlighting the parts that are relevant to NZ (forestry, biochar, biofuels, ocean fertilisation), and written mainly by muggins here:
Geoengineering no replacement for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases

That’s the scientific, professional response. My personal response is:


So, we’ll just build a sunshade as large as Australia, shall we? Or we’ll mine more rock than the coal industry mines, crush it up and let it absorb CO2. Or we’ll plant a trillion trees, covering up more land than we use right now to grow food. And somehow, we’ll get nations to agree to pay for this.

Here’s the major problem, and it is a political problem, not a scientific one. We know we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we know how to do it at a reasonable cost and we know what the costs will be if we don’t do it. But we can’t get nations to agree to do this.

So how much chance is there that instead, they’ll instead pay for schemes with higher prices, less chance of working, and more side effects? Geoengineering is an insane and unrealistic idea.

[EDIT – Local coverage from the Science Media Centre: CO2 reduction favoured over untried geoengineering]

The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine

New just in from Wired: Shock horror – most consumers don’t need the latest, shiniest, most breathlessly promoted gadgets. But this is not new and it’s not a revolution. In fact, it’s how 99% of people buy stuff. I know that Wired is aimed at the 1% of bleeding edge geeks*, but ffs, this article raises new heights in stupidity.

I could claim that Wired are only deigning to notice the remaining 99% of humanity because that’s how the journalistic meta-narrative of the zeitgeist is developing, but really it’s most likely that they’re just short on advertising.

* – I know, this hasn’t been true since about 1999, when the target demographic shifted from alpha geeks to people who think technology is cool. To serve this demographic, Wired can just hold up a new thing and say “look, shiny!”, instead of actually having to know anything about any particular kind of technology, why it might matter, and why anyone might care. This makes their journalists’ jobs much easier, and utterly irrelevant.

Free markets for all (except us)

“Catherine Beard, executive director of the GPC says New Zealand needs a policy response to climate change that is not going to lead the world and impose extremely high costs on our economy.

To avoid greater economic decline, we need to see consensus on a more sensible approach. This would have included a low fixed price of carbon in the initial years of an emission trading scheme, similar to what is proposed in Australia”.

The Greenhouse Policy Coalition have done a great job representing New Zealand’s major polluters and ensuring our emissions trading scheme is no threat to them. It’s good to see them coming down strongly against free markets and the kind of socialist price controls that worked so well in Soviet Russia.

Err… wait, what? GPC are all in favour of reducing government regulation and freeing up markets, unless it might cost them some money, in which case they’re all in favour of restricting markets. If I was cynical, I’d think that they were entirely in favour of putting off any decision whatsoever, for as long as possible, and hoping that the problem might go away. These are the people that I have to be polite to.

Anyway, someone didn’t know about this:

Weekend progress

So this weekend was a weekend of getting stuff done, including special time set aside for several jobs that I’ve been meaning to get around to for more than a year. But saturday was mainly shoveling. Progress looks like this:

All the digging is done for the foundations for the next level, steelwork to tie in place, insulation to lay, and then pour the concrete..

Sunday was raining, so time for empirical project work to catch up with theoretical project work. I can’t stop thinking about how to do things, so I end up either a) having a pile of ideas to test, or b) getting on with testing stuff. So Sunday was testing out ideas for the The Fannies. Version 0.2, which looks like this:

All that will need to fit in the space of an AA battery. Yup, that’s an AA battery in the pic, the little one at the bottom. Hmm… I think fitting it all in is doable. Hard, but doable. And I’ve learned that I’m going to need an LED driver in there (probably a PCA9633) and some transistors. What the hell, the driver comes in a 3 mm2 package. Tiny enough to squeeze in.

(Monday night update, now v0.3, transistors done, and can now turn on not one, but many LEDs. The v0.3 is the first circuit I can remember where I used transistors. I’ve managed to build the whole Mitochondrion without one. Yay for digital circuits!)