Friday, 30 November 2012


At last the mostly woeful Black Caps have won something.

You know, I was so tempted to leave it at just those few words. For my fellow cricket followers out there it probably says everything. But for those who have a more casual relationship with cricket I feel I ought to enlarge upon my measly offering. I write this a few minutes after the New Zealand cricket team won the second test match against Sri Lanka in Colombo. It has been a tough tour for the Kiwis. The early games were heavily influenced by the monsoonal rains. The only 20/20 was rained off after the Black Caps set a meagre total of 74 runs off 14 overs. Only 3 of the 5 one-day games were completed, and they were also affected by the inclement weather, leading to victories to Sri Lanka via the Duckworth-Lewis system.

The sun came out for the test matches. Unfortunately for the Kiwis their losing streak didn't end with the rain. The first test was all about Rangana Herath. He bowled magnificently, taking 11 wickets in the match. There weren't many highlights from New Zealand; McCullum and Flynn made 50's in the first innings and Southee and Patel bowled pretty well. In the end the Sri Lankans had an easy victory. Following another all too familiar ordinary Black Cap batting performance they were left a second innings target of just 93 runs to win the test. They got them without losing a wicket, wrapping the match up inside 3 days.

So it was fair to say I wasn't approaching the second and final test with optimism. The Sri Lankans had consistently had the wood on the Black Caps, out-batting and out-bowling us in every game. Losing McCullum and Guptill early in the first innings didn't add to my confidence. But then something special happened, and it happened in the guise of Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson. These two put on a determined display of batting, with their partnership adding 262 runs before Williamson succumbed to the wily Herath. He and Taylor crafted innings of 135 and 142 runs respectively, and Flynn again chimed in with a nice 50. The batsmen had finally set the bowlers a respectable total of 412 to defend, and they went about the task with enthusiasm. Southee and Boult were particularly troublesome, taking 9 wickets between them. The Lankans were bowled out for 244, giving the Kiwis a first innings lead of 168 runs. Only Samaraweera showed any real resistance, notching up a good 76 runs, with unconverted starts by a number of other batsmen. 

Our batting was more fragile in the second innings, but it was Taylor's match with a gritty 74 before he was run out by a poor Southee call. It was also nice to see a solid 35 run effort by Todd Astle on debut. Thanks to the first innings effort our total of 194/9 declared was enough to set Sri Lanka the target of 363 runs to win the match. With a day and a bit to achieve it this was likely to be a tall ask, but a draw was definitely on the cards. Our seamers won the day however, dismissing the hosts in the final session for 195 runs. Mathews was solid, but his 84 run innings lacked support. Overall a victory to the Black Caps by 167 runs squaring the test series. 

I like one day and 20/20 games, and I always want the Black Caps to perform well, but there is something about a test victory that seems more special somehow, more deserving of praise. Perhaps it is because they don't happen that often, especially away from home. So well done to the Black Caps, who have come away from the series smarting a bit, but who must feel at least a little better having won the final game. They now head to South Africa where a bigger challenge awaits. The wickets are at least likely to be a little more similar to those here at home, and the weather will hopefully play less of an active role in the games to come. Here's hoping the confidence boost this test victory gives them will result in a few more wins against the Proteas.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Of things geeky

Those of you who know me a little have probably guessed that I'm a bit of a geek, but only my best friends are aware of just how nerdy I can be. So let me crack open the door to the closet a little and let you have a peek inside.

Firstly, my job. I work on an IT help desk, and prior to that I worked in microbiology laboratories, so immediately you know I'm going to have at least a hint of the geek about me. But the geek taint runs deeper in me, oh yes, much deeper indeed. When I'm not helping the good folks at my workplace use their computers I return home to my cave and let my true nerd surface. I love reading science fiction and fantasy novels, so have a bit of a library of my preferred authors at home. Robert A Heinlein is probably my favourite, although Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, David Eddings, Julian May and many others also grace my bookshelves. I think the thing I like most about Heinlein is that while his works are strongly sci-fi, at their heart they are very human stories. Science fact still interests me as well, even if my career has headed in a different direction. And though I majored in botany/microbiology I also remain fascinated by, and try to keep abreast of, the discoveries in the fields of astronomy, cosmology and physics.

In addition to working with computers I also enjoy playing on them. Yes, I'm a bit of a gamer. I am the first to admit that I'm not a very good gamer, my reaction times aren't what they used to be, so I don't usually go for fast-paced multi-player shooters. I'm much more comfortable with a good old turn-based strategy title (the Civilisation series has collectively absorbed many many hours of my life) or a role playing game. I am currently playing through an old classic RPG that I never completed the first time around, namely Baldur's Gate 2. Titles like these have the added advantage of being easily saved, paused and/or exited at pretty short notice; having a young baby in the house means this happens often. :)

Geek chic is on the rise, but there is still, I think, a fairly strong social stigma surrounding some of the more extreme nerd pastimes. And there is no really good reason for this other than the innate human predilection for fearing and belittling that which is different and which we don't understand. So it is good to see guys like Wil Wheaton being so openly nerdy. Wil is probably best known as an actor. His roles include Gordie Lachance in the film Stand by Me, Wesley Crusher on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more recently an evil version of himself, and Sheldon Cooper's nemesis, on the TV series The Big Bang Theory. But Wil is also openly geek. For those of you likely to be interested in this sort of thing, and I'm hoping there will be at least a couple of you, Wil hosts a quite entertaining web series called TableTop on the Geek & Sundry website. Essentially Wil invites a few mates around to play boardgames, films & edits it, adds some commentary and descriptions of the game rules and mechanics, and releases it onto YouTube. I'd like to give Wil some special kudos for getting Steve Jackson in to play Munchkins. Yes nerds, THAT Steve Jackson! Wil takes him on at his own game, along with Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh, but you'll have to watch the episode yourself to see if the padawan becomes the master.

On the very slim chance that Wil or someone else associated with TableTop reads this I'd like to thank you for advancing the nerd cause, for introducing me to some games I'd never heard of, and mostly for giving me a bloody good laugh. I'd love to see you guys have a crack at something like the Civilisation board game, but it does take a long time to play, so probably wouldn't translate well into the 30 minute format of TableTop. I own a copy of the English version published by Gibson Games, but I think I like the look and feel of the US version by Avalon Hill in the early 80's a bit more. It is long out of print now of course, but you can often pick up copies of out of print games on eBay. And if you're feeling especially generous I'd gladly allow you to use my copy, it is still in pretty good condition. You'll just have to fly it to the States, along with it's minder :)

I think that is probably enough self-exposure for one evening, and anyway I'm missing what might be a tight finish in the New Zealand vs Pakistan 20/20 cricket game, although it isn't looking promising. Go the Black Caps! And as the big fella said, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Time, and Happy Birthday

Six weeks and two days ago our daughter Elizabeth was born. I have since discovered just how much of one's time a newborn consumes. So this is something of an apology of sorts, an apology for the time taken between posts. Having said that I in no way begrudge her the time, I wouldn't have it any other way. Be warned, however, that it is likely that service here will be a tad infrequent and irregular, at least for a few weeks more.

As it turns out caring for a newborn, while being a pretty miraculous thing, does descend into a repeating pattern of feeding, burping, jiggling, cleaning poo, and catching what rest you can between the above. It's a kind of Groundhog Day of fatigue. Luckily we're able to do it together. I have a new found respect for solo parents and parents in multiple-birth families. Even acting as a team as we are it is bloody exhausting, and we're only wrangling one baby between us.

So here's a quick summary of the first six weeks of parenting. Baby was great for the first few days, she slept for quite long periods of time between feeds, and aside from her exports being a bit sticky nappy changing wasn't especially unpleasant. By the end of the first week sleep was becoming a more precious commodity, with unsettled nights causing substantial disruption, particularly for Julie. Luckily I was able to sleep more throughout the night, and while she was caring for Elizabeth I was caring for her. Then I had to go back to work. Suffice it to say that I've had a couple of days off since then, mainly to recover from sleepless nights and accumulated sleep debt. Thanks very much to my employer for being so understanding, not only for allowing the occasional daddy day, but also for putting up with my reduced efficiency while at work.

After the first week pooing became much more frequent and a good deal more runny. We have only had one really major poo explosion, where the nappy provided insufficient cover and absorption, and that required an entire clothing change, and a new blanket to boot. I have no idea where it all came from. Luckily this has settled down after six weeks, and she's now no longer needing a change after every feed. Thank goodness.

Elizabeth is eating like a trooper, and growing very nicely. She's put on 1.2 kg and is apparently tall for her age. Whether that is a predictor of future height remains to be seem, but we're relieved she is happy, healthy and well-fed. She's also a very good wee babe, doesn't really cry unless she actually needs feeding or burping, and has settled into a pretty good routine. She had her first inoculations on Friday and, while she cried a bit when she was jabbed with the needle, after a minute or two of daddy cuddles she calmed right down and went back to sleep. Needless to say we are relieved that she is such a relaxed and trouble free little girl. Long may it continue.

So happy six week birthday Elizabeth. One day when you read this know that your Mum and Dad love you very much, and we are doing everything in our power to make sure you are well cared for and well loved.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

New life and new beginnings

I say above that I am going to blog, at least in part, about the joys and demands of new fatherhood. Well, I am now in the position to start doing just this, because on June 30th at 3:20am my wife Julie delivered a beautiful baby girl, Elizabeth Rose. We couldn't be happier. For those who haven't seen the myriad pics on Facebook here she is with her very proud dad:

I guess the overwhelming emotion on the roller-coaster during the delivery was one of helplessness and impotence. Obviously I was excited and anxious, but really all I could do was stand by Julie, hold her hand through each contraction, support her and tell her what an amazing job she was doing. I was incredibly proud of her throughout the labour, and sharing this experience has brought us even closer together, something which those who know us well will probably find difficult to believe :) But in reality she was the one doing all the hard work, and experiencing the pain, discomfort and fatigue. While I wouldn't have missed it for the world, I still felt pretty useless, although I like to think that my support helped at least in some small way. It was a truly amazing and miraculous experience.

I know a few of my friends have talked about bonding with their newborns, and how this can sometimes take a little while, because the emphasis is usually on bonding between mum and baby. For reasons I won't go in to, following the delivery I was fortunate to be able to spend some time doing the skin-to-skin thing with our new baby, so in my case this bonding happened very early on. And wee Elizabeth seems to really enjoy dad cuddles, when she is being a bit grizzly a few minutes in dad's embrace seems to help soothe her. She is lovely to cuddle, really warm and soft and snuggly, and she makes the cutest little noises when she is feeling warm and contented.

So far being a dad is really rather enjoyable. I don't even mind changing dirty nappies, something I'd always kind of dreaded in the build-up to the delivery. Sure, for the first few days the poo is kinda nasty and sticky, but it doesn't take long before it starts to become less unpleasant. And having had pets for a number of years I've become used to cleaning up the odd mess. At least baby's poo is (usually) contained within a nappy. I have made one basic noobie error during changing, one which I trust will elicit some amusement for you. I cleaned Elizabeth's bottom and then picked her up to give her a wee cuddle before putting her clean nappy on. Of course she did the unexpected and promptly produced a second poo, all over my hand and t-shirt. I was initially stunned and a little horrified but, once I'd cleaned up, Julie and I had a bloody good laugh about it. So new dads, here's a tip for you - NEVER pick up your newborn without a nappy securely in place :)

There is one more challenging aspect to having a newborn, something which I'm sure fellow dads will sympathise with, and that is breast-feeding. Elizabeth can be a little fussy at times, and doesn't always latch on and feed well. This can be pretty frustrating, especially in the wee small hours when we're tired and she is crying up a storm. Once again I experience the same feelings of helplessness and impotence as during labour. I really want to help and get her feeding sorted, but there really isn't anything I can do. Our midwife assures us that we're doing everything right, but that in the early stages both mum and baby are learning how to make it work and we just have to persevere and be patient. Apparently by this time next week we'll look back and wonder what the hell we were worried about. That's nice to know, and intellectually one can take it on board, but at times it isn't easy. I think it might be a man-trait that makes us want to fix things, to find and offer solutions to problems rather than just sit and be supportive and comforting. It is this inability to rectify some situations which I find most challenging. Mostly, however, being a dad is a truly joyous experience.

One thing we've noticed is that Elizabeth seems to pick up our mental state and reacts to it, because when we are feeling a bit less certain about how things are going she seems to fuss more. As Julie said, even if you don't realise it you probably are a bit stressed so, if you can, take a few minutes for yourself and try to relax a bit.

Last, but by no means least, I'd like to extend my heartfelt thanks to our widwives and to the staff at Christchurch Women's Hospital. The quality of care we received was outstanding, and it was dispensed with a great deal of competence and professionalism. You made what was a potentially very scary and uncertain time much less intimidating for us. Thank you so very much.

Monday, 25 June 2012

NZC is like a box of chocolates...

It's true, you never quite know what you're going to get from New Zealand Cricket (NZC), and neither do the players. NZC have recently released their list of contracted players for the 2012/2013 season. Each year cricketers eligible to play for New Zealand are ranked by NZC, and the top 20 ranked players are awarded contracts for the season. The value of the contracts varies from $181,000 plus match payments for the top ranked player down to $73,000 plus fees for the 20th ranked player. The actual rankings remain a secret, but it is likely that the captain, Ross Taylor, will be somewhere near the top of the list.

This year the contracted players are: Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Andrew Ellis, Daniel Flynn, James Franklin, Martin Guptill, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Tarun Nethula, Rob Nicol, Jacob Oram, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, Kruger van Wyk, Daniel Vettori, BJ Watling and Kane Williamson.

The list has a fairly predictable sameness about it, which is a reflection of our relatively limited pool of top class players. Most of the contracted players have pretty much selected themselves, but as always the list has raised a few eyebrows, especially in the bowling stakes. Some commentators have wondered about the inclusion of Doug Bracewell at the expense of Mark Gillespie, but for me this is a sensible decision. Both have only played a handful of tests but Bracewell is younger, has a better record, and seems to be less injury prone. Injuries or personal reasons have ruled out a few other high profile players who would otherwise likely have made the cut, notably Jesse Ryder and Hamish Bennett. There has also been some surprise at the omission of Neil Wagner, but he has only just become eligible to play for New Zealand. He has been included in the team to tour the West Indies, and if his international performances live up to the promise of his domestic record he is almost certain to be offered a contract in seasons to come, but I have no issue with NZC not offering a contract to a player untested at international level.

But other contracts around the fringes are a bit more questionable. I remain unconvinced with Andrew Ellis and Rob Nicoll, and Jacob Oram, as fine a servant as he has been, must be nearing the end of his international career, especially in light of recent injuries. The problem, as always, is who to replace these players with if they were to be omitted. Andy McKay and Brent Arnell haven't really impressed when given a chance, and other bowlers on the domestic scene don't appear to offer more than the contracted players. At least Ellis and Nicoll are all-rounders, so if they have a bad day with the ball there is always a chance they can contribute at the batting crease, and vice versa.

Certainly the list of contracted players has a strong limited overs feel about it, which is hardly surprising given the Twenty20 World Cup to be played in Sri Lanka starting in September. For me tests are still the pinnacle of the cricketing world, and in a season where we have a lot of test matches coming up I'm not sure that such a strong focus on limited overs cricket is in the best interests of the team's future. T20 and One-dayers are good money spinners, but most fans and players still hold our test performances and rankings as being the most important achievements. But if the miraculous happens, and the team comes home with a trophy from Sri Lanka, I guess nobody will really care about test match performances. Sadly.

As an aside, NZC are likely to announce a successor to John Wright as coach sometime around July/August. Stephen Fleming has already ruled himself out, citing family reasons. I think in years to come, when his children are a bit older, and when none of his former team-mates are still playing for New Zealand, Flem will make an excellent coach of the Black Caps. Former coach Steve Rixon has been suggested by some commentators, and I'd welcome his input; his record with NZ last time was excellent. It would mean the aussie invasion of NZC would be complete though, but if we could be as dominant as the aussie team in years past I guess that would be ok.

Monday, 18 June 2012

On imminent fatherhood and the generosity of good friends...

One of the core subjects about which I intend to ramble on here is the adventure of becoming a dad for the first time, so I should probably set the scene a little more comprehensively. 

My lovely wife Julie and I are expecting our first child some time around the end of this month. At our second scan (around 20 weeks in) we were informed that it was 90% likely that we were having a wee girl. I'm not especially bothered about the gender of our little Peanut, so named because when we found out we had achieved some measure of success in our quest to start a family the cluster of cells destined to be our baby was only the size of a peanut. The name kinda stuck. As long as Peanut is happy and healthy I'll be content, although I'd not be completely honest if I didn't admit that in the early stages I was convinced that we were having a son. I think all blokes want a son, possibly in some archaic caveman desire to teach him how to use power tools, how to kick a rugby ball, how to fish, and do all those other manly things. The reality is, though, that I'm still looking forward to teaching my daughter how to do all those things. Plus, given our slightly nerdy predilections, she is probably going to grow up as a bit of a geek, albeit one that can wield a fearsome cricket bat :)

The odd thing about being expectant parents is that it seems to give friends, family and sometimes complete strangers carte blanche to share all their gruesome stories and experiences about birth, poos, vomit, and so on. It is as if they take a perverse delight in frightening you when it is too late for you to do anything other than grin and bear it. It all seems to be pretty good natured stuff though, and we've had plenty of laughs, tempered occasionally with trepidation, fear and disbelief. I've also heard that it isn't uncommon for little old ladies to approach heavily pregnant women in the supermarket and rub their bellies approvingly, although so far this hasn't happened to my wife. Mind you I've had a big tummy for years, and no complete stranger has approached me for a belly rub either, so perhaps reports of this behaviour are grossly exaggerated.

The other really gratifying aspect of impending parenthood is the incredible generosity of those who have already travelled down this road. People have not only been free with their horror stories, but also with advice, offers of assistance, and vast quantities of baby gear. I think we probably have enough clothes and other bits and pieces for several Peanuts, although I'm assured that babies are pretty good at getting their clothes dirty, especially during a poo explosion. 

So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the folk who have been so generous, be it with gifts of clothes and other baby gear, or with offers of support. We both really appreciate your generosity, and you've helped smooth the road untravelled. Becoming a parent is a scary thing to contemplate, and we are very fortunate to have such awesome family and friends. Thank you.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Science denialism - is it the new black?

Before I begin my diatribe I feel I should apologise for my tardiness in drafting this post. Despite my best intentions sometimes life just gets in the way :) Now to resume normal service, at least until our baby arrives. And I urge my handful of readers to comment if you so desire.

I remember a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when we as a nation looked up to scientists and respected them for their knowledge and expertise. The news media would seek their opinion on matters about which they could make relevant comments and we would nod sagely as we listened to and, for the most part, believed what we were hearing. Today it has become fashionable to scoff at those who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, a state of affairs which for obvious reasons perplexes me.

There are some very apparent symptoms of this shift. A couple of high profile examples are proponents of "intelligent design" and deniers of climate change. But there are others. The internet abounds with wacky conspiracy theories which survive not in the presence of any real proof, but in fact proliferate by actively opposing those who provide evidence to the contrary, and by suggesting that those who follow scientific method are somehow the patsies, unwitting or not, of big evil corporates or war-mongering governments. I'm thinking here of theories like that the US govt is causing earthquakes and freak storms around the globe by misdirecting the relatively puny power of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme (see HAARP conspiracies), that the contrails left by airliners are not water droplets condensing rapidly from jet exhausts, but that the aircraft are seeding the atmosphere with barium and aluminium salts for nefarious purposes (see chemtrails), that the HIV virus is not responsible for Aids but that the cause may be, among other things, recreational drug use (see aids denialism), and the list goes on. These are the same people who believe that what is possibly humankinds greatest achievement, landing astronauts on the moon, never happened and that the whole event was faked at a sound stage in Area 51. There is considerable cross-over with the folk who think the world is going to end this year because of the shortcomings of an ancient calendar commonly attributed to the Mayans, but which was likely devised by the Olmec people.

Why is it that such a vocal sub-group prefer not to accept knowledge earned and/or theories devised by science? These are the same folk who in earlier times felt deeply threatened by Darwin and Galileo, and who for reasons known only to themselves are deeply fearful of the world being a rational place, guided by natural and predictable laws. They commonly spread their dogma via the internet, blissfully unaware of the irony that the means by which their message is being propagated would not exist but for the exploits of the very scientific community which they continuously mock. In the past all of these folk would have been drawn to the church, where they relied on the power of prayer to protect them from demons and boogie-men. But organised and structured belief doesn't seem to be du jour, so many have fled the church and instead today seek solace in the companionship of fellow conspiracy cultists.

Scientific denialism may not be the new black, but it is certainly akin to a new religion. Don't get me wrong, it is ok to question science. Scientists do this all the time, it is part of the peer review process, and the way in which the body of scientific knowledge evolves and grows. But do it with sound evidence gathered by experimental findings and proper research. To do anything less demeans not only the great works of scientists past and present, but also ourselves.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

It's life Jim, but not as we know it...

There is a quite famous formula in science called the Drake Equation. It was developed by Frank Drake, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1961 as part of the SETI programme, and it sets a framework for trying to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilisations in our galaxy, the Milky Way. I'm going to bore you now with the basic details of this formula, because I find the concept of it quite interesting. So in all it's glory here it is:

N = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

That looks pretty meaningless, so let's break it down a bit:

N is the number of civilisations within our galaxy with whom we may be able to communicate, i.e. the target number we are interested in.
R* is the rate of new star formation in the galaxy.
fp is the fraction of these stars which have planets in orbit.
ne is the number of planets in each star system which may be capable of supporting life.
f is the fraction of these planets which actually go on to develop life
fi  is the fraction of these which evolve intelligence
fc is the fraction of intelligent civilisations which have detectable interstellar communication.
L is the length if time during which each civilisation emits detectable communication.

I won't go into the details of each of the factors, but if you want to read more follow the link above to the Wiki page. Current best estimates of the various factors leads us to a final N number of somewhere between 0 and 182,000,000. This varies mainly because the actual values of several of the factors are a matter of some conjecture, and we are forced to guess what these might be. In particular the values for f fi and fc are open to debate, because we have no data on which to base our estimates. So we may be alone, or our galaxy may be teeming with intelligent life we are yet to discover. However because of the vast distances involved (the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy roughly 110,000 light years across containing around 300 billion stars) if the number of detectable civilisations is moderate (say 10,000 or so) they may be sufficiently far away that we can't find them with our current level of technology, and any signals being emitted by them may not have reached here yet, and may not do so for hundreds or thousands of years.

As stated above there is a lot of conjecture about the values of some of the factors, leading to such a wide variety of possible answers that its use as a predictive tool is questionable. It does, however, provide an interesting starting point to stimulate thought about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be a successful conversation starter at the vast majority of social functions :)

One of the more interesting possibilities raised by the Drake Equation, and one for which we are now beginning to be able to assign numbers, is the likelihood of life existing elsewhere, even in its simplest form. We already know the rate of stellar formation, and therefore the number of stars in our galaxy, and we are starting to be able to make good guesses at the number of these with planets, and what proportion of these planets lie within the goldilocks zone, the orbital distance at which liquid water might exist on the planet's surface, and therefore the zone in which life as we know it is most likely to arise. Our assumption is that life is pretty likely to arise where conditions exist which favour it. This is based on studies of the diversity of life on Earth, the one place where we know with certainty that life has evolved. Life inhabits pretty much every available habitat on our little ball of rock, and manages quite nicely in environments you and I would find quite unbearable. So it doesn't seem unreasonable given favourable conditions that at some stage elsewhere a complex organic molecule began to replicate itself. If we replace R* with the total number of stars in our galaxy (300 billion) to get a current snapshot and then use conservative estimates N becomes:

300,000,000,000 x 0.34 x 0.005 x 0.13 = 66,300,000

That is over 66 million planets or moons in the Milky Way which may contain even rudimentary life as we know it. In our own solar system there are a couple of reasonable candidates. Mars is a possibility. We know water ice exists on the planet, and at some stage in the past it had liquid water on its surface. Recent photographs suggest the existence of subterranean caves, and it is likely that ice exists in a sort of permafrost under the soil surface. Both of these habitats support basic life on Earth. A more exciting possibility is Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Like Earth it has a metallic core surrounded by rock. The entire surface is covered by a layer of water roughly 100km thick. The massive gravity of Jupiter exerts strong tidal forces on this layer, which creates sufficient heat through friction to allow a significant ocean of liquid water to exist underneath the icy exterior. And anywhere where we see permanent liquid water there is a strong likelihood that life may exist. Hopefully the question will be answered one way or another when the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer investigates Europa around 2030. I can't wait :)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Wright man for the job

At the beginning of this month John Wright announced that he was not going to be seeking an extension to his contract as coach of the New Zealand cricket team. He will be standing down from this role following the end of the Black Cap's tour to the West Indies in July/August. No doubt a number of factors influenced this decision, and it looks as if it was Wright's to make. It seems that New Zealand Cricket (NZC) don't want him to go, with Chief Executive David White quoted as saying "we were keen to see him continue his head coach role, however understand and respect his decision to look for another challenge." I can only speculate as to the reasons, although rifts between him and Director of Cricket, and former Australian coach, John Buchanan have been suggested. Wright himself has said that he and Buchanan have different philosophies and approaches to the game, so it looks likely that this contributed at least in part to his decision not to continue in the role.

When Wright was first appointed as coach I had a great deal of optimism about the future of the Black Caps. He was a gritty and determined opening batsman for New Zealand for many years, and was half of what was arguably our most successful opening combination at test level. He and Bruce Edgar opened the batting together from 1978 to 1986, and scored a total of 1655 runs at an average of 31.82. This is only the 27th best opening pair in the history of cricket, and it is some measure of the relative weakness of New Zealand's record in test cricket that we remember them so fondly. Wright was also a very successful first class cricketer, scoring over 25,000 runs at an average of 42.35. 

After retiring from the game he took a brief hiatus for a couple of years and then moved in to coaching. It was as head coach of India that he really made his mark. He oversaw a remarkable rise in Indian cricket from 2000-2005, during which time they had series wins against Australia and Pakistan and made the final of the 2003 Cricket World Cup. That the Black Caps had their first test win in Australia for 25 years under his watch suggests he was making real strides with the team, and keen observers could see an almost palpable difference in the way the team approached the game.

Wright comes across as a no-nonsense kind of fellow, one who wouldn't suffer fools gladly, and I suspect that he tackles coaching with a fairly old-school approach, focussing on basic skills and fitness. Rumours abound that he was feeling disenfranchised by the management style at NZC and that he felt he was spending too much time writing reports and attending meetings. This type of new age management style doesn't go down terribly well with a lot of kiwis, and it is likely that Wright is one of them. I am deeply disappointed that he felt it necessary to stand down, and the Black Caps will suffer from his loss. Personally I think NZC made a huge mistake appointing Buchanan and putting in place systems that alienated Wright, and I'm sure they will rue this decision in seasons to come. I hope they will be able to find someone for the coaching role who will build on the good work Wright has begun, but I won't be holding my breath.

Thanks for the memories John, you'll be missed by true cricket fans.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A dam shame

Yesterday the news broke that Meridian Energy has decided not to proceed with its bid to build a new hydroelectric dam on the Mokihinui River, north of Westport. The reasons cited by Meridian include the "high costs and risks surrounding a scheme that encroached on environmentally sensitive land." This makes it sound as if Meridian are concerned about the environment, but in the end the process of approval was simply made too hard and too costly for them to proceed through the Environment Court. Conservation groups are of course claiming this as a victory.

Let me say, first of all, that I care about environmental issues as much as any comfortable middle-class left of centre pakeha family man. By this I mean I happily put out my recycling bin each fortnight safe in the knowledge that I am saving the world, I have a number of those odd curly light bulbs at home, and I tut-tut to myself under my breath when I see a big dirty corporate being painted as doing something nasty to the environment on Campbell Live. I was not happy with the idea of opening up National Parks for mining, because there is a place for preservation of our native species and natural beauty for future generations. Very little ruins the aesthetic appeal of an area like digging it open to mine it, and there are plenty of tracts of land in private ownership which could be exploited for their mineral wealth first. 

However, Meridian's decision saddens me. I think most people would acknowledge that we need to invest in more electricity generation capacity. The problems several years ago with low levels in hydro lakes in central Otago highlights how fragile our supply can be, and how dependent we are on benevolent weather patterns. So it seems a no-brainer to build a dam on the West Coast, an area which receives the highest and most consistent rainfall in the country. That's the reason my dad moved us away from the Coast when I was a young lad, to get away from the rain. Meridian's plan involved building a dam on an isolated river that nobody really knew existed and would have generated power to supply 50,000 homes. The resulting lake created would have been 14km long, and the area would have been opened up for recreational purposes to Coasters.

Yes, there were environmental issues involved here, the area plays host to kiwi, bats, blue ducks, eels, fish, etc. But it isn't as if the lake would have sprung up overnight drowning all and sundry instantaneously. These things take time. I'm pretty sure the kiwi and bats* would have walked up the hill to keep their feet/wings dry and I doubt the ducks, eels and fish would be complaining about a lake to swim around on/in. I understand the arguments about reducing the area of natural habitats available for these species to breed and live in, and I am generally sympathetic to these concerns. But this is one of those occasions when I think we ought to have considered the economic and infrastructural benefits over and above these concerns. And if the government is, as looks inevitable, planning on selling off a part share in Meridian, showing that the nation is sympathetic to development wouldn't be a terrible signal to send to potential investors.

*Note that our native bats aren't especially strong fliers, they tend to spend a great deal of their time crawling around on the forest floor.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

And so it begins...

Subtitle: The one where the scene is set.


Welcome to my blog. It took me a long while to make up my mind about starting a blog. At first I thought that it would be a waste of my time, and that nobody would really care what I have to say about stuff. But then I got to thinking, well, why shouldn't I? After all, I'm moderately intelligent and have 44 years of life experience on our little ball of rock swinging gracefully around our star, so I might, on occasion, make an observation which enlightens or entertains.

Who am I? Well, I live in New Zealand, home to hobbits, sheep, adventure tourists, and the occasional nerd like me. I'm a big fan of my home country, but there are things going on here which variously amaze, annoy and dumbfound me. At the time of writing my wife and I are about to become parents for the first time, with our baby daughter due around the end of June. This is an adventure soaked in anticipation and trepidation, and is undoubtedly something I will be discussing at some length here. That'll be fun, I hear you say :)

No doubt a reasonably common theme here will be my disenfranchisement with politicians at both central and local government levels. Occasionally I will rail for or against issues about which I am passionate, and I make no apologies for embracing my leftist leanings. I am also, as my brief bio suggests, a science and IT geek, and the content here will reflect that. Expect posts about cool sciency stuff, especially the life sciences and astronomy, interspersed with comments about things IT with a bit of gaming thrown in for good measure.

By far and away my favourite sport is the noble game of cricket. I love the swings in fortune during test matches, and the little defining moments which can change a game. I don't mind the shorter versions, but for me test cricket will always be the purest form of the game. Like many kiwis I am interested in rugby, but not with the fervour demonstrated by a number of my fellow countrymen, so it won't be high on my list of topics.

Settle in folks, sit down, put your feet up and make yourselves at home. This blog will likely be a bit of a mixed bag; I intend to touch on a number of topics which interest me, as stated above. With a bit of luck I will find the time to post with reasonable frequency, but as the aphorism goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I make no excuses if when our baby comes I drop out of the loop a bit, I expect this to be a pretty busy time.

Note also that this blog is a bit of a work in progress, so expect  things to evolve over time as I tweak things a bit. Cheers!