18 April, 2009

Where Shoddy Predictions Happen

The NBA Playoffs are started today, pretty much as I wrote this (I promise I had already written my predictions for the Celtics and Cavaliers series before they tipped off, OK?). So, here are my calls for the first round (and a stab at beyond).
Eastern Conference
1st vs 8th: I honestly can't see Detroit pulling it together enough to take more than a single game against the Cavs, who have too many weapons, too much depth (LeBron alone probably has too much depth). Their 3-point shooting will be key this post-season, as will their inside threat. But I think the Pistons, especially Hamilton and Prince, may have enough pride to win one home game. Rasheed Wallace can be a force when he wants to be. Shame there's no Iverson in this series to add a bit of drama. Cleveland Cavaliers to take the series 4-1

2nd vs 7th: Interesting matchup between the ailing, KG-less Celtics and the resurgent Bulls. The acquisition of John Salmons has greatly benefited Chicago and how he matches up with Paul Pierce will be key to deciding this series. Boston will struggle to find new routes to score without Garnett and one of Glen Davis or Leon Powe is going to have to shoulder a heavy load on offense. Maybe then it'll be good for them to 'ease' into the postseason against Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. I think the champs will get through the first round but I wouldn't be surprised to see this go to 6 or 7. Rondo and Allen will have to provide fire from the backcourt or PP34 is going to have to carry this team again. Chicago need to pinch one of the first two in Boston to make it a fight. Boston Celtics 4-2

3rd vs 6th: I haven't watched much of either the Orlando Magic or the Philadelphia 76ers but this seems to be something of a mismatch. There are a few doubts over Dwight Howard's ability to dominate games in the 4th quarter, but provided the Magic's shooters remain sharp it's hard to see Philly matching them. Orlando have tremendous strength on defense as well. I'm expecting them to take this in 4 or 5. If I watch any of these games I'll be looking to see how Howard steps up, and whether rookie SG Courtney Lee looks quite so composed in these playoff games. Orlando Magic 4-1

4th vs 5th: This is certainly appetising on paper, pitting Dwyane-Wade-fired Miami against a very solid Atlanta Hawks team. Neither are likely to trouble Cleveland too much in the 2nd round, but most expect this series to go to 7 games. I'd expect that to include Wade taking over in a huge way once or twice. But the Hawks won't have to go to their bench much and I expect their compact unit to be too much for Wade. Miami PG Chalmers is playing his first playoff games, also. Atlanta Hawks 4-3

Western Conference
1st vs 8th: The Lakers have looked like such a supreme force in the West, it's hard to imagine the shaky Utah Jazz stopping them in the first round. With Bynum and Gasol in the middle, and Kobe looking menacing absolutely everywhere, this will be too much for Deron Williams to steer through, although I doubt they'll be swept. Lamar Odom's attitude will be key for the Lakers throughout the playoffs. LA Lakers 4-1

2nd vs 7th: If Tyson Chandler and James Posey are fit, the Hornets have a chance in this one, given that Chris Paul is simply remarkable. Like all the top players in the playoffs, Paul's minutes will be up and the pressure will be on. Unfortunately for the Hornets, his opposite number Chauncey Billups is a superb defender and extremely experienced. His supporting cast in Denver seem much healthier and better drilled. Denver Nuggets 4-2

3rd vs 6th: The Dallas Mavericks looked a spent force 3 months ago, when they looked likely to be the 9th team in the West, but they're now on a decent run and preparing to face a San Antonio Spurs side missing one of their big three and fervently hoping another can get back to full strength. I expect that Howard and Terry will continue their form into the first round and Dallas will take this series. Tony Parker won't be able to carry the Spurs over 7 games against Nowitzki & Co. Dallas Mavericks 4-2

4th vs 5th: It's hard to judge how much weaker the Portland Trailblazers will be for their lack of playoff experience, but there are few players in the league that play better at crunch-time than Brandon Roy. Meanwhile Houston, much improved since McGrady's season ended, may be a touch over-reliant on Yao Ming, but under the right conditions convert his presence to free points. Still, if the Blazers continue to shoot well, I expect them to take this. Portland Trailblazers 4-3

A pretty conservative outlook, definitely. But real upsets look like they'll be hard to come by this year. I think if there's going to be one, Chicago-Boston might be the major candidate. If the Bulls can win a game in Boston then the Celtics should be concerned.

In the second round I expect the Cavs to cruise through in 4 or 5 again, as neither Miami nor the Hawks can match their firepower. Similarly, I'd expect the Lakers to make it to the West finals, although their record against the Trailblazers could make that a tough series. I think it would take something of a miracle for Boston to reach the East finals without KG, so I'd expect Orlando to win through to a matchup with the Cavs, and either Denver or Dallas to fight it out with the Lakers. I think this will be Denver's role, and although I'd love to see them beat the Lakers, I can't see it happening.

I expect the NBA finals to read Lakers-Cavaliers. It'll be a tough matchup that'll go all the way, but I think L.A. will have the slightest edge at the end.

Maybe we'll get to see some bits as good as this (I adore these ads - anything that combines slow-mo or black&white with sports):

11 April, 2009

Don't Lose The Faith

Did Darwin Kill God? aired a few weeks ago. Being produced by a member of the theology department here at Nottingham, it caused a buzz among many of my theologian friends! I had a few reactions and ideas at the time, typed a few out, but didn't click the publish button then. Belatedly, and after a re-watch, here are some thoughts, cleaned up and influenced in no small amount by several people I've discussed it with since. It's no longer on the iPlayer, but you can find it easily on Youtube. Apologies, this is gonna be long!

First, a confession: I am no longer watching for the science. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly hard to remember a point in the BBC’s Darwinian double-anniversary coverage at which I was captivated by the obligatory re-hash of Darwin’s theory of evolution that must precede any discussion. I have a developing awareness that it is not normal behaviour to watch every one of these Darwin docs. It’s not a useful adaptation.

It’s OK this time, however, because we know what we’re really here for: a fight. In Did Darwin Kill God? University of Nottingham theologian Conor Cunningham promises to delve into the question of extremism on either side of the evolutionary ‘debate.’ Thus plugging directly into the reason we love this quarrel anyway – stupid rednecks vs snobby uber-atheists. There’s a voyeurism in observing this conflict. We want harsh words. We want blood.

Unfortunately, this is a BBC documentary through and through. Nothing terribly remarkable about the way it looks, the tone held the right side of respectability, but often flirting with cheesiness. Cunningham cuts a presentable and affable figure, and is lit dramatically while he whispers his way through Genesis. Establishing that Genesis was not taken as a literal account of creation, he travels to Israel and Oxford, tracing the roots of biblical literalism to the reformation, and explains that geology and Christianity were perfectly compatible in Darwin’s time – indeed, many of the top geologists were clergymen. This is all useful stuff. It’s good to put the current spasm of mouth-frothing evangelical protestantism in some sort of context. Heavyweights such as St Augustine are in his corner, after all.

We also have a brief look at the course Darwin’s own faith took following publishing the Origin. This thread of reasoning always bemuses me: the originator of the theory was a Christian, and became an atheist, so is atheism inevitable following understanding of his theory? The question is stupid; the undignified bickering over the beliefs of the late biologist by believers and atheists alike awfully ugly. Alongside whether or not “Hitler believed in evolution,” this is neither of scientific nor philosophical import. At least this segment was brief.

Enough of this moderation. Let’s go to America, where hillbilly music plays as we delve into the Scopes trial and an increasingly fundamentalist reading of the Bible in the 60s. We get to see inside a creationist museum and listen to some daft claims; it’s all rather predictable fare. More interesting is Cunningham’s contention that by treating the Bible as a science textbook, the creationist is effectively worshiping science. The transition to intelligent design raises the question for Cunningham of why an interventionist designer would allow evil to occur in the world. Unfortunately, this seems something of an own goal; it’s certainly not clear that his God allays suffering either. Indeed, one might say that natural selection is as suffering-intensive as creation is likely to get.

Similarly, Cunningham states he sees God operating through evolution, in a way that leaves one wondering: is this divine evolution still automated, unguided, without direction? If God is responsible for mutations that grant us intelligence, sight or even flight, is he also responsible for the mutations that cause Cystic Fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease? If he was not the active evolutionary force, then what function does he serve in the Creation? Cunningham’s role for God in evolution seems no more robust.

Asserting that the ‘clash’ between Christian belief and evolutionary theory is an artificial one, Conor turns his attention to a different group of fundamentalists. Immediately the use of terms ‘Darwinian’ and ‘ultra-darwinists’ bother me. Generally speaking, these terms flag a less-than-amicable relationship between the speaker and evolutionary theory. They are also meaningless: modern ‘Darwinians’ have a very different view of evolution, one that involves genetics, for one thing. But I suppose, no-one does like labels. They are necessary evils. My main criticism here would be that having used ‘ultradarwinian’ as a slur for the final twenty minutes of his documentary, Cunningham ends imploring us to “let Darwin rest in peace.

While discussing the atheistic side of evolutionary theory, the central argument is that scientific theory can tell us only about things material, and so cannot disprove God. It’s a pretty elementary point – indeed most atheists accept this but counter that “he who asserts must prove” – but a key one. Michael Ruse puts it best, saying “If one goes into the lab…to do science, one is, as a scientist, not looking for God.” Francis Collins agrees.

Possibly this is a problem with the documentary as a whole. The notion that Darwin could have “killed God” is garbage! Rather, evolutionary theory is key in this battle of beliefs because i) it is the clearest example we can point to where material evidence contradicts the literal word of the Bible and ii) belief in God is functional, regardless of fact, and understanding our origins and place in the universe better diminishes the functional utility of belief.

The descent into meme theory in the final ten minutes is confusing. We are truly through the looking-glass here, and Cunningham seems rather lost himself, telling us that at its heart meme theory tells us “there is no me or you,” and “everything is an illusion.” This is somewhat misleading. Unfortunately meme theory is at its heart no more than a philosophical analogy that shows how ideas could be spread like genes. It certainly lacks the power to bring down religion – it should be obvious that describing an idea, for instance that of a crucified and resurrected deity, as a ‘meme’ does not alter the actuality. If it took place, then it took place, meme or otherwise. For the same reasons, Cunningham’s supposedly damning attack on meme theory – that it is tautological – ultimately falls flat.

‘Memetics’ merely describes the way the idea or belief has spread, although its proponents have been guilty of doing so with some fairly emotive language, it’s true. Maybe this grants meme theory too much credibility anyway. It’s not a truly scientific concept. But it is amusing to imagine that Conor is actually so aghast at Rickrolling, or the notion that LOLcats have ended belief.

From the start cards were laid on the table. Conor Cunningham is a Christian and an evolutionist, and through to this last section we have little reason to doubt it. But as we get in to the realms of more modern theory, a flicker of doubt takes life in my mind. Little instances of innuendo creep in, such as when Francis Collins vaguely denies that evolution is “all about genes”. There is an underlying hostility towards the “selfish gene theory” that is not at its heart scientific. (Here, the rather clunky faux-dialogue interview style employed throughout does really grate. When a point is made that feeds into Cunningham’s argument, the camera cuts to him so he can smile and nod encouragingly. It comes across a trifle smug.)

It’s natural for a theist to be hostile to the idea that we are nothing but the sum of our selfish genes. The implications for our moral grounding seem dire – although we do exhibit many separations from our natural origins, after all. Our understanding of genes should broaden in years to come, but this ‘selfish model’ is still the closest approximation we currently have. What rankles is that Cunningham’s criticisms are not scientific in nature – they pounce on perceived “dissent in the scientific community” and take this as their evidence.

Oh well. It is perfectly natural to pick and choose which bits you want to believe, when there’s no practical reason to get it 100% right. And there really isn’t, in this case.

The worst horrors should always be saved for the final reel. So it was for an atheist and scientist who so far can agree, if grudgingly and with however much nitpicking, with some of our conclusions so far: Science and Religion are two different things. Christians are not normally quite so belligerent, only Americans. Darwin cannot disprove God. Meme theory certainly does not disprove God.

Enter Simon Conway Morris, who also sees evolutionary theory as incomplete, much to Conor’s glee. But more importantly, he considers evolution might be the method nature uses to reach underlying, (dare we say divine) conclusions. This mysticism seems a pretty unforgiveable attempt to shoehorn God into evolution, and it violates Cunningham’s own scheme of separate science and faith. Our truce is broken. It’s a shame.

It’s a shame because there was some good stuff in this documentary. A condemnation of extremism (which is ludicrous on both sides), and a reminder that Christianity isn’t all about what happens in Colorado Springs. A few examples of theists who can get behind evolution. And an attempt at reconciliation. I fear I have dwelt overlong on the contentious aspects. But the key is this: evolutionary science is incomplete, and we must test it and understand it. It will take us wherever it will. And one gets the feeling that just as Conor Cunningham has an idea of the kind of God he can believe in, so too can he deal with evolutionary theory – on his own terms.

There, maybe that will be it for Darwin for the time being. I only just bought a copy of The Origin of Species, actually, so probably not (You may be surprised to hear that it's far from essential reading for the modern science student. Maybe you shouldn't be). Apologies to anyone's ideas I have pinched, most of these thoughts were my own, as far as I can tell. Maybe they were no more than memes. If you missed it on TV and iPlayer, Youtube has your back.

04 April, 2009

Stickmen and Chimneys

Follow up from my post aaaages ago about the wonderful music of Just The Architect: Chan has teamed up with Jed Hart and a bunch of matchsticks to make a sweet video for Stickmen and Chimneys:

The track is on JTA's 508 EP, which features some of his best tracks to date, including the stomping Countach!!, and is available for free from this link. A new EP titled Theo the Weak will soon be available for download, so stay tuned!

You can also watch this on Youtube if you so choose. Subscribe to the JTA channel to see future moving pictures!

What Comes Next

A big piece of news came through last night, and I had to make a note of it, coming so shortly after my pre-emptive eulogy to the glory-days of Allen Iverson. Allen Iverson has played his last game of the season, and hence also his final game as a Detroit Piston. So much for being motivated by his next contract. Iverson, after a poor display against New Jersey on Wednesday, made it clear that he couldn't deal with playing off the bench. It's clear that for A.I. it's got to be a starter's slot or nothing. He plays the game in his way, and no other. That's why he was revered in Philadelphia. It's why he's a near-certain Hall-of-Famer. And we may be watching his last days.

NBA.com's David Aldridge considers "where next?" for The Answer, suggesting he could re-team with Larry Brown in Charlotte. It seems odd, considering the Bobcats are starting to look like a well-constructed, balanced team on the rise, and Brown's past history with Iverson in Philadelphia. But phrased as a last hurrah for a superstar and 'his coach,' it's certainly attractive, if not plausible. One thing the basketball world seems agreed on is that Iverson won't be joining a top team - they were all paying attention to how this one has turned out, and they know he won't settle for 'providing a spark from the bench,' the role that has commonly been suggested for him this season. He won't be earning an 8 figure sum on his next contract, either, assuming he even signs one.

I expect him to, though. This is a disappointing black mark on his stellar career, one that he will be keen to expunge with one more season on a playoff team, at least one more season as a superstar, and the All-Star farewell that the fan-voting system would give him. Many teams will steer clear, but a team will be prepared to take a punt on a brand like Iverson that can fill arenas and create a buzz, especially with some franchises threatened by takeover and transfer to new cities. I think his pride means he won't accept the paltry veteran's minimum, but a reasonable mid-level contract from a team that will let him play on his terms would do the trick. Add in this speculation that he shares an agent with LeBron James, making this an opportunity to 'cosy up' for the watershed Summer of LeBron in 2010, makes this look a little more likely.

It's too late for him to go out at the top, but as such a huge figure for so long, I think Allen Iverson will find one last shot irresistible. And I think in a system that suits him (one where it is all about him, and one that compensates on defense) it wouldn't be impossible for A.I. to surprise us all once more. A Shaq-style indian summer would, however, require him to use all his craftiness, ferocity and grit, and to play with a huge chip on his shoulder. It would also be the stuff of sports fantasy.

Was the Allen Iverson experiment a failure? It seems at first the answer is yes: Detroit were the second-best team in the East last season, but won't finish any higher than 7th this season. They probably won't do reach .500, and they're not a lock for the playoffs, although I anticipate that they'll scrape into the first round without the distraction of the A.I. story. Former PG Chauncey Billups, meanwhile, has propelled the Nuggets to second in the West and himself into MVP column top 10s, even though he's not seriously in the debate itself. Detroit gave away a great player, in return received a legend who can't play team, and have crumpled.

But Iverson's $20.8 million salary will expire this summer, giving the Pistons valuable cap space that a crafty operator like Joe Dumars will look to maximise (Aldridge suggests bolstering the frontcourt with PFs Paul Millsap or David Lee, both impressive this season and free agents this summer). With several years to come from Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and the ongoing hope that Rodney Stuckey can become a dominant point guard who can knock down shots and impose himself on games, life will go on in Detroit, who should be a playoff team for several more years.

I don't think they'll replace Billups satisfactorily for a long time, but even with him, the Pistons wouldn't have been able to hold off the Cavs or Celts this season, and much though they enjoy playing the Magic, their days as an elite team in the East were numbered. The A.I. gamble was a risk worth taking, especially considering his expiring contract.

Now Detroit have to hope they can display some masterful ability to trade again. And the rest of us have to hope Allen Iverson signs elsewhere to give us a swansong worth remembering.

In other news, I really should have kept my mouth shut about the Cavs, going by their loss against the bottom-feeding Wizards and last night's destruction by Rashard Lewis and the Magic. They're still good, promise. Playoffs are coming!

02 April, 2009

Heroes Die

Another angle of my NBA fandom that's affected by geographical detachment: it's a lot less consistent and more personal than it would be if I were duty-bound to follow a team. Contrast the small rosters of a basketball team with the 20+ stars in a top football club's squad, and you can see the NBA becomes a veritable pic'n'mix of favourites the casual fan can choose from on any given night (see: Delonte West, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Big Baby Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Andersen, Shaq). I can get interested in the up-swing in Thabo Sefaloosha's fortunes in a way I never could with, say, a resurgent Wigan Athletic full-back. I won't lie - the glamour and action, games every night of the week, and relentless accumulation of stats help too.

One of the odd things about starting to follow any sport is a lack of context when watching ageing stars, or even that lack of comprehension when watching stars really in their prime. When I started following football in 1995 Liverpool's squad included the waning Ian Rush and John Barnes, while Peter Beardsley was playing up front for Newcastle. I was a couple of years late to really understand these players. There's a lot of regret here: if I'd really been paying attention I could have been experiencing Fowler, Bergkamp, Le Tissier, Ginola and Cantona in their primes. I blame myself less for this, but similarly I was missing the best years in Europe of Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo. I still feel the only player I really appreciated at the time was Steve McManaman!

With this in mind and my basketball obsession in its infancy, there's a degree of desperate conservation that sets in when I watch basketball just now, as who knows when some of the current 'living legends' might break down? Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have gone down as fast as their teams since their MVP days. Kobe may be getting his best shot at a solo championship this June. Tim Duncan may only be a playoff force for another year, and Shaq's incredible burst this season, at 37, already seems to be defying the laws of time and physiology.

Allen Iverson, at only 33, is already assured of legendary status: number one pick in the extraordinary 1996 draft (ahead of Kobe, Nash and 7 other future All-Stars) his ten years in Philadelphia included a League MVP, 4 seasons as scoring champion and perennial All-Star selection. Still, Iverson has a combustible personality and the Sixers were beset with friction, beaten out by Shaq's Lakers in Iverson's only Finals trip. Despite his astonishing scoring ability (3rd highest average points per game in league history) A.I. looks likely to end his career without a championship ring. A trade to the Nuggets placed him alongside another big-time scorer in Carmelo Anthony, but it was soon apparent that the duo were going to prove too defense-lite to get past a first-round playoff series. The Answer was moved on to Detroit for Chauncey Billups.

It's become fairly clear that Denver got the better end of this deal - Chauncey has propelled them to second in the Western Conference at time of writing, and instilled a new belief in D. Meanwhile, it's become apparent just how much influence "Mr Big Shot" had with the Pistons, who have fallen apart. After 6 consecutive East Finals appearances, Detroit are now sub-.500 and scrapping to make the playoffs while Iverson seems a very poor fit as a solo star in a team that was once the very definition of 'chemistry'. A poor substitute indeed for a gritty defensive point guard who could pull the strings and make shots.

There were reasons for hope. I mentioned yesterday that the Pistons are still a tough matchup with Rip Hamilton back in the lineup, and that with a focused Iverson adding firepower to the second unit they could scare anyone. Don't forget that the guy is meant to be playing for his next contract. But it looks like it won't happen that way (main story). Allen Iverson is a superstar, and with that self-belief has also come an intransigence that has doomed any attempt to fit him into a system. Ultimately it may be that stardom that denies him another chance at a ring. And if his thoughts are starting to swing towards retirement, that means any opportunity to see A.I. take over a game is unmissable, a real collector's item.

It's a peculiarity of american sports that everything is set for parity, from salary caps to college drafts. Talented players landing at loathsome franchises often get things all their own way and no backup, sometimes ingraining that lone hero status and turning them into novelty scorers. LeBron is astonishing but he's only received real quality support in the last year. Because of rookie contract length, it's not uncommon for a young star to remain in that dark place for 4 or 5 years before joining a contender (e.g. the stars of the 2003 draft class who will be in that extraordinary 2010 upheaval). By that stage, 'fitting in' may be too much to ask. Concerned for OJ Mayo yet? You should be.

Maybe this is why the revival of the Celtics has been such a story. Paul Pierce had been the only reason to smile for the C's during the past two torrid seasons, Kevin Garnett had won an MVP in Minnesota but endured 7 successive first round playoff defeats, and Ray Allen (aka Jesus Shuttleworth) had been quietly pouring in 3-pointers and enjoying cult status as everyone's favourite shooter. After years in the wilderness, they found each other, formed a tight unit, reincarnated a stumbling franchise, and completed their resum├ęs. It's a great story.

Which brings me back to the beginning. I've had many basketball infatuations, but my love for Ray Allen constitutes more than a crush. It's the real deal. 'Ray Ray' cuts a sleek figure and doesn't dominate games like Kobe, LeBron or Dwight Howard, but in this defense-orientated Celtics setup he fits beautifully, harrying opposition wings on D. On offense he can drive in to the paint or, more usually spaces the floor and works off Pierce or Rondo to bury a dagger. He's a brilliant shooter, with a stroke that's simply beautiful to watch. He has a cheeky smile and interviews well. He reads books, for crying out loud! And he's 33, which means I am desperately trying to grab memories and encase them, any time he plays well. I know I'll miss him when he's gone.

Last night's game against Charlotte gave me an opportunity to post this. I briefly mentioned yesterday that Charlotte's playoff push is a serious one, and having sprung a defeat on the Lakers they were more than ready for the Celts, forcing the game into double overtime. Good job Boston have a player that can hit clutch shots; I was more than pleased with the way this one turned out:


Obviously being a basketball fan in Britain isn't awfully convenient in a lot of ways, but here's one thing I'm thankful for: with no geographical reason to form allegiances, nothing holds me back from watching the most significant games. Faced with a close matchup, especially in the approaching post-season, I can always take a third path and root for history. It was hard not to perceive some significance watching the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons, who met last night in Cleveland. The Cavs presently own the best record in the league and were going for a franchise-record 13th win, while the once-great Pistons are limping into the playoffs and desperately hunting for .500 parity. It was a highly watchable contest which ultimately highlighted the Cavaliers' excellence and underlined the MVP credentials of their star LeBron James, who might just be having a historically great season.

They call him King James for a reason. The Pistons got off to a fast start but by the end of the first half Cleveland had clawed back to 41-44. LeBron followed up a defensive stop with a drive and successful layup, plus a foul, which he converted from the line to make it 44 apiece at the half. A decent first-half Detroit effort all but erased.

It's commonly said that great teams and players define themselves in the clutch and as the clock runs down. So contrast LeBron's heroics at the death of the 2nd quarter with Rasheed Wallace's antics at the end of the third. As the Pistons prepared to take the last shot of the period, 'Sheed picked up a 16th technical for the season, which carries a one-game ban (at least he's still re-habbing his calf injury) and Joe Smith got a block ("he knocked the S and the P off Spalding") to preserve a 4-point Cleveland lead.

James & Co.'s class was even more evident late in the 4th. With 4:30 remaining and 67-69 down LeBron followed up a powerful dunk by flicking the ball from a Detroit hand to Mo Williams and on receiving it back delivering a spin move and really improbable basket-plus-one. LeBron had another extraordinary three point play with a couple of minutes on the clock, driving into the paint and laying in with contact from Wallace. The game was all but strangled. Anderson Varejao grabbed an offensive rebound shortly after to run the clock down on Detroit's hopes. The Cavaliers won out 79-73 (video recap).

Cleveland are the best team in the league right now. 36-1 at home, they seem assured of topping the league and enjoying that crucial home advantage in the playoffs, with the Lakers losing to Charlotte last night and falling 3 games back. Little doubt, either, that this is the best supporting cast LeBron has had. Mo Williams and Delonte West have formed a tenacious backcourt, with ample distance-shooting backup off the bench from 'Boobie' Gibson and Wally Sczerbiak. 'Wild Thing' Anderson Varejao adds extraordinary energy to the frontcourt while the experience of Smith and Ilgauskas will be a huge piece of the playoff push. Just imagine what this team could do if Ben Wallace returns locked in and ready to go.

However, these talented players are dwarfed by James. His 25 points and 12 rebounds were almost nothing special. Oftentimes his triple-doubles feel like nothing special. The statistics don't fully explain how he takes hold of a game, how he refuses to allow his team to lose at home. For all the squabbling over the MVP voting, you might think there was some kind of debate. It masks the fact that LeBron James' 08-09 season has showcased the sort of ability and achievement that are just waiting to be capped with a title. Forget the regular season MVP - a Finals MVP would place this season squarely in the history books. They call him King James for a reason.

It's no wonder that they're the Presidential pick to represent the East in the finals.

Meanwhile, this loss for the Pistons kept the race for 7th and 8th seeds in the East wide open, with Chicago also losing, and Charlotte's victory. Which actually wasn't that much of a surprise for Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops, who outlined how results could look (Box 2) as the Bobcats gun for their first ever playoff appearance.

Overhauling Detroit wasn't mentioned, and I think they'll probably make it. Hamilton, Prince, Dice, Wallace and Iverson, even misfiring, really have too much talent, grit and experience not to. Iverson looked good off the bench and could really help them through this rough patch, although he's not happy with the role. Stuckey, Maxiell and Bynum are good young players that can provide important bursts. The Pistons won't be returning to the East finals this season, but if they make the playoffs, no-one should be taking them lightly.

01 April, 2009

Scientist Studies

Wow, this is really huge. John S. Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts reports on a paper that would rewrite the rulebook on evolutionary theory. It's not often, or ever, that you get to read about a change in a field so cataclysmic that it completely changes the outlook on a whole field, certainly not one so important or controversial as evolutionary theory.

If true, the theory of Empedoclean Evolution would totally discredit natural selection, in this Darwin anniversary year of all times. Professor Augustus P. Rillful's paper concerning the importance of horizontal transfer of genes (for example by viral and bacterial mechanisms) foreshadows a comprehensive understanding of all sides of speciation.

Looks like a Nobel-prizewinner, doesn't he?


Meanwhile, a couple of other interesting links I found in my morning perusal:

A really fascinating post at Genetic Future about the marketing strategy personal genomics company 23andMe are using. I've always really liked that name, incidentally. Their plan is to form a community of users based around their "mommy bloggers" who'll chat about pregnancy and kids. Daniel McArthur suggests mothers-to-be might graduate from comparing weight gains to genotypes, splashing out on DNA testing kits for their loved ones to determine how their offspring might turn out. It really could be a fantastic marketing masterstroke, making this information seem relevant to a big-spending demographic.

It hasn't gone down well with Steve Murphy "The Gene Sherpa," who highlights the effect it could have on the clinical load. Imagine having to somehow convince a pregnant mother that their child will turn out perfectly normal despite that elevated heart disease risk factor.

It occured to me lately quite how fortunate I am. There are a few science columns I read by guys in their 50s that mention that they'll wait a couple more years for the price to drop on personal genome sequencing, and then they're doing it. That is, getting hold of the sequence for a fraction of their genome, the size and price of which is dependent on the package and company they go for. 23andMe's service tests for a number of significant (disease-indicating) variations at 600,000 positions, at the fairly affordable price of $399. A couple of other operators are in the $1,000-2,500 range, testing roughly a million polymorphisms. Each service is aimed at providing estimates of their customer's 'genetic risk.'

Meanwhile, Knome (another really great name, and tagline!) offer a complete personal genome sequence and analysis, for a somewhat-heftier price. This year-old article suggests a figure of $350,000 (wikipedia haggles down to $99,500) , which would include ongoing support by a team of geneticists and bioinformaticians, apparently (career bells start ringing...). And would you believe it, they output on a sparkly new USB key!

But it won't be in the hundreds of thousands forever. Certainly in 20 years we should anticipate it will be affordable for us regulars - indeed this wide availability is a crucial point of all the genetic dystopias we've been busily envisaging since Human Genome Project results started coming through in 2000. Of course, we all expect health insurance premiums to be calculated on the basis of our genetic disease risk. A short step indeed to Gattaca.

I fully anticipate that within my lifetime I'll be able to have a browse through the complete sequence of As, Cs, Ts and Gs that determine so much about me, without breaking the bank. I only hope I'll be savvy enough to understand what some of it means. It's magical really, and represents an comprehension of human biology standing on the brink of the unimaginable. Beyond it lies real sci-fi territory.


Are viruses alive? Yes or No? This question is a controversial one at ERV, where there's frustration at a recent review in Nature Reviews: Microbiology (Bear in mind that with an impact factor of ~15, that's a pretty hefty journal to go spitting on virologists in). The notion of excluding viruses from the "Tree of Life" seems a peculiar one to me: they have played such a huge part in the development of life, and continue to have a huge role in living systems, it really doesn't make sense on a practical level. Ultimately the use of having such a tree is to understand the relationships within it between living things, and the history of their development, and given that viruses have such relationships, they should really be in. That would, at least, be my view from a practical standpoint.

There's an interesting question here anyway, about our definition, ever hazy, of life. It can't rest on autonomy, as last time I checked humans, among other species, wouldn't do terribly well left on our own. Nor can we disqualify viruses simply because it's hard to trace their lineages, as unsatisfying as it may be if we are unable to reach the root of the tree. As we scrabble around trying to find the boundary between living and non-living we naturally enter into questions of abiogenesis. It's a pretty fascinating area to think about, and ill-served by artificially imposing living/dead boundaries.