17 September 2005

the dunes! the dunes! I mean the wires, are alive with, um

Dune tunes...the greatest hits
It might not knock Coldplay or Kanye West off the top of charts, but physicists who say they have cracked the riddle of 'singing' sand dunes are compiling a CD of sand music. The team say their new theory allows them to predict the notes that different dunes will make.

Sand dunes in certain parts of the world are notorious for the noises they make as sand avalanches down their sides. Some emit low powerful booms, others sound like drum rolls or galloping horses, and some are even tuneful. These dune songs have been reported to last for up to 15 minutes and can sound as loud as a low-flying aeroplane. Physicists know it is the avalanches that set the grains humming, but the precise mechanism has remained controversial.

St�phane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate. They found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle. That put to rest one theory that the noise was the result of the entire dune resonating.

You might think that orchestrating a sand dune is the height of musical eccentricity. You would be wrong...

NZ election results

At 11:42 in New Zealand the count, on 99.9% of polling places, was:

  • Labour Party - votes 40.60%, electorate MPs 31, list MPs19, total MPs 50 (52)
  • National Party - votes 39.76%, electorate MPs 31, list MPs 18, total MPs 49 (27)
  • New Zealand First Party - 5.86%, electorate MPs 0, list MPs 7, total MPs 7 (13)
  • Green Party - votes 5.09%, electorate MPs 0,, list MPs 6, total MPs 6 (9)
  • Mâori Party - 1.95%, electorate MPs 4, list MPs 0, total MPs 4 (0)
  • United Future New Zealand - 2.74%, electorate MPs 1, list MPs 2, total MPs 3 (9)
  • ACT New Zealand - 1.52% electorate MPs 1, list MPs, total MPs 2 (9)
  • Jim Anderton's Progressive - 1.21%, electorate MPs 1, list MP 0s, total MPs 1 (2)

The bracketed numbers show the seats held by in the old parliament. Roughly, the minor parties of the right have haemorrhaged support to National and many New Zealand First voters appear to have transferred to the Maori Party. National have almost doubled their seats, but largely at the expense of smaller right-wing parties.

The Australian media are carrying fairly inaccurate reports that the election result will not be known for days. That is wrong. It will take some time to form a government as the two major parties negotiate for support, but it's hard to see how anyone but Helen Clarke can emerge as prime minister. The election result, however, is likely to be very close to these results and should be finalised within 72 hours.

Labour and National correspond fairly closely to the ALP and the Liberals, although NZ Labour is a long way to the ALP's left and National is probably slightly to the Liberals' right. New Zealand First is essentially a personal vehicle for Winston Peters who was formerly a National MP. The Green Party needs no explanation. The Maori Party broke with Labour over the foreshore and seabed controversy and because they felt Labour was attacking Maori rights. United Future New Zealand is a centrist and Christian Party that, in some ways, resembles Family First. ACT New Zealand and Jim Anderton's Progressives are personal vehicles led by former Labour MPs representing, respectively Rogernomics and opposition to globalisation.

Clarke starts from a base of 50 seats and needs 12 for a majority of 62. Clarke has an existing coalition with the Greens which leaves her looking for 6 MPs. New Zealand First said before the election they would support the largest party which is 7 more, although United Future say they will not support a government with Green MPs. It is impossible to see the Maori Party supporting Brash's project to abolish the Maori seats and end any special standing for the Maori people. A Green/UFNZ/Maori Party arrangement gives Clarke a majority of 63 without New Zealand First.

Brash starts from a base of 49 and needs 13 to govern. His only certain partner is ACT New Zealand and that leaves him 11 short. Even if Winston Peters, the head of New Zealand First, persuades himself (as he has on past occasions) to support a National Party government Brash is still 4 short and looking for Green support. Even if Brash cobbled together a New Zealand First/Act New Zealnd/United Future New Zealand arrangement he would still need one more MP. Where would he find them? The Greens, the Maori Party and Jim Anderton all stand to Labour's left.

The unicameral New Zealand parliament is elected by the Mixed Member Proportional system used in Germany and other countries. The parliament comprises 63 electorate MPs, 7 Maori MPs and (usually) 51 list MPs. The electorate MPs and Maori MPs are elected in single member districts by first past the post. Every New Zealander gets an electorate vote and a list vote. Maori can decide to enrol in the local electorate of in one of the Maori electorates. The list votes are counted in a single electorate comprising the whole country. The list MPs are elected in proportion to the party's share of the list, but their party has to to either win an electorate or get more than 5% of the national vote. The number of list MPs varies slightly according to the performance of the party in the electorate vote. Any Australian journalist who begins an election report with a complaint about the complexity of the system is only telling you they're too lazy to do any research.

All in all, this looks like a famous victory for Helen Clarke who has almost certainly won a third term as prme minister. I'll update the results tomorrow but I do not expect them to vary much from now.

The comments at John Quiggan include some misguided souls who say the way the NZ parliament is elected is better than STV. I may post some thoughts on MMP v STV tomorrow, after I've tracked down some detail on the German election.

Update 2
At 12:05 am on 18/09/2005 NZ time, the results in terms of numbers of seats had not changed. there are 35000 overseas voters on the roll, and it's not clear from the Electoral Commission website how many of these have been counted. Special votes, by electors not on the roll with a claim to vote, are in the sme situation. 25000 ovrseas votes are unlikely to change this result, but we'll know more tomorrow.

There's been some really bad reporting on Wnston Peters, leader of New Zealand First. Natonal defeated him in his electorate of Tauranga. However, his party won list seats and he is the number 1 candidate for those seats so his election as a list MP is assured.

I'll update again tomorrow when the situation with special and overseas votes should be clearer and I've worked out what the Bundeswahlleiter is reporting in Germany.

16 September 2005

the ostrich in the greenhouse

Warming world blamed for more strong hurricanes
Worldwide since the 1970s, there has been a near-doubling in the number of Category 4 and 5 storms %u2013 the strength that saw Hurricane Katrina do such damage to the US Gulf coastline late in August 2005.

Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, says the trend is global, has lasted over several decades and is connected to a steady worldwide increase in tropical sea temperatures. Because of all these factors, it is unlikely to be due to any known natural fluctuations in climate such as El Niño, the North Atlantic Oscillation or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

"We can say with confidence that the trends in sea surface temperatures and hurricane intensity are connected to climate change," says Webster's co-author Judy Curry, also of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The team looked at the incidence of intense tropical storms and the study results are the strongest affirmation yet that Katrina-level hurricanes are becoming more frequent in a warmer world.

The study finds there has been no general increase in the total number of hurricanes, which are called cyclones when they appear outside the Atlantic. Nor is there any evidence of the formation of the oft-predicted "super-hurricanes". The worst hurricane in any year is usually no stronger than in previous years during the study period.

But the proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 or 5 - with wind speeds above 56 metres per second - has risen from 20% in the 1970s to 35% in the past decade.

"This trend has lasted for more than 30 years now. So the chances of it being natural are fairly remote," says Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) at Boulder, Colorado.

Moreover, says Webster, natural fluctuations tend to be localised. "When the east Pacific warms, the west Pacific cools, for instance. But sea surface temperatures are rising throughout the tropics today." The surface waters in the tropical oceans are now around 0.5C warmer during hurricane seasons than 35 years ago.

The International Panel on Climate Change and Australia's own Greenhouse Office both make certain predictions about what the greenhouse world will be like.

More super-hurricanes? Check. More bushfires? Check. More droughts? Check. Greater intensity in all three? Check. Urgent government action to minimise the harm greenhouse will do the planet? Um...