Monday, 22 December 2008

Smart Sperm

Clever guys have better sperm?

I read this a while ago, but never got round to blogging about it, but now that I've got some free time, I'm going to, as it's quite an irksome article.

I think this is another great example of how massive conclusions can be made by a the smallest of evidence. This article says clearly that intelligent men have more potent and active sperm. This is quite a claim, as when it comes to such intangible qualities as intelligence and the human body in general, any sweeping statement like this is bound to be wrong. But what bugs me the most is the complete overlooking of the data itself. Granted, there's a few cautionary notes in it, a few attempts to make sure people don't jump to wild conclusions despite the fact that the article itself does just that.

No, this is the bit that really bugs me " from former US soldiers who served during the Vietnam war era." I've nothing against war veterans, but it's very unlikely that you could make conclusions about the whole of the human race based on studies of them. Why not, pray? Here are a few reasons, and some people will probably think of me as a commie liberal pacifist anti-American non-patriot, but bare in mind I'm not and never will be American, and the British people have a tendency to slag off anyone and everyone, even people 'fighting for their freedoms'. Nothing personal.

  1. I'm not particularly well informed about the enlisting procedure in the US, but many TV shows and books seem to emphasise that the bulk of the armed forces are made up of guys who don't do very well academically. This may be due to a number of factors, some people don't like school and don't deal well with education, but aren't stupid. But still, the impression I get is that the Vietnam war was fought largely by guys who dropped out of or couldn't get into college. Some are obviously more intelligent than others, but for a given value of intelligent. You probably didn't see many professors taking on the Viet Cong.
  2. Vietnam was a messy war, with all sorts of horrific stuff flying around (Agent Orange, anyone?). Don't forget the effect stress has on the body, even long term, and what could be more stressful than being a foreign country for unclear reasons while the natives constantly try to kill you? And of course, guys from the American Midwest wouldn't really have adapted to life in a tropical country, who knows what they could pick up? Long story short, all these things could contribute to a low sperm count. Maybe the cleverer ones managed to avoid such things, hence the outcome.
  3. I'm not sure when the data was collected, but Vietnam vets must be getting on a bit by now. Sperm count tends to decline with age, smarter people would look after themselves and look after their health, dumb people would not. This could show up as intelligent people having higher sperm counts as an indirect result, but it doesn't automatically suggest a genetic component like the article suggests.
Maybe the research took all these factors into account, but still, it doesn't rule out the fact that only Vietnam veterans were used. The full conclusion should read "Intelligent men who served at least one of duty in the Vietnam conflict have better sperm than less intelligent men who served at east one tour of duty in the Vietnam conflict", although that's admittedly less punchy.

And don't think this is me disparaging on soldiers, I have nothing against them per se, but I endeavour to remember that you get pricks in every walk of life, the armed forces included, only the ones in the army have been trained to kill as well, and that concerns me. But I don't like rash claims based on partial data. If this was a real test, they should have used several groups of people, not just veterans. Professors, Scientists, Big business managers, engineers etc. although these people probably have better things to do than perform some IQ tests before wanking in a cup.

I'd guess people involved in science or technical fields would have surprisingly low sperm counts, as most of them are insular people who have no friends and spend most of their time in doors, constantly masturbating over pictures of Seven of Nine or some other sci-fi totty. And if they're not, they're all in labs handling toxic stuff or sitting with laptops over their groins, slowly irradiating their testicles. So yeah.

That should balance any potential soldier-bashing impression I've given.

Galileo was right!

Pope Praises Galileo

Have you ever met one of those people who have more opinions than your average person, despite having only about 10% of the factual knowledge of the average person? They seem to be more common than ever these days, where the media seems to prioritise opinion over information, and every opinion is given equal merit. It's a dangerous way to be, and I doubt it can last forever, but for the moment, every person seems to have equally valid opinions, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between strength and conviction of opinion and the awareness of the issues it's based on. I.e. People who don't have the first clue how the economy works are the ones who protest the loudest when something about it changes in a manner which doesn't benefit them, whereas those who may disagree in the same manner but know how the system works usually just accept it.

But these people have been around for quite some time, long before the technology gave everyone a voice. Back where I grew up, long before the Internet connected us up, there were a rich variety of opinionated idiots. I once heard a woman in a shop moaning that all our kids are daft because we don't send them to school enough like they do in Europe. Clearly this woman had no idea that in France, for example, the average school week is, or used to be, 4 and a half days, 10% less schooling a week than British kids. But that didn't matter; her kids were daft, therefore all kids are daft, and it's not her fault, it's the government. You get the gist.

This preamble is very long, I know, but I am going somewhere. These people are often the first to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them. Passionately, without forethought or remorse. If they were in charge, they'd just lock up anyone who challenged their world view, I'm sure. So it's incredibly annoying when, long, long after the thing they disagreed with has been proven correct and become a fact of everyday life, they suddenly accept it as if they always did. That's quite galling, but then it's especially irritating when said person then feels the need to tell you all about the impressive things they've done or learned about the new 'thing' they've taken on board. Good example, the Internet. I know many people who dismissed the Internet as an irrelevance, a sad outlet for people who didn't know how the real world works. This opinion, it turned out, was wrong. These are the same people who, quite recently,felt the need to regale me with tails of their first computer and how they now send 'e-mails' to people they know. Brilliant.

People on the comedy scene get this often, if they're new acts. You often get people bemoaning the lack of 'proper' comedy like Jim Bowen and Bernard Manning, hating younger comics with their swearing and views about things like racial equality and non-violence. This is usually on the back of never seeing a modern comic ever, as soon as they do they can change their minds. Peter Kay doesn't count though, he pays up to this 'proper comedy' angle. Fat wanker.

But an example of this sort of behaviour spanning centuries is in the news. The pope has given praise to Galileo. Remember him? Shattered many of the church's convictions about the place of the Earth in the heavens via the scandalous method of looking at things? Rather than just guessing and accepting because a man in a white dress told him it was the way of things? Contrary to popular belief, the catholic church didn't torture or just jail him on the spot, there was a long drawn out series of accusations and conspiracy to entrap him, but many of the higher ups were on his side so he got away from the worst of it. But that being said, he was jailed at home until he died eventually.

I'm not saying it was right to do that, but it was indicative of the times; church was in charge, don't piss off the church. Even if you're right. Especially if you're right in fact, then they really needed to shut you up as thoroughly as possible. But all this was long ago.

The pope now praises Galileo, and I'm not sure why. Granted, the catholic church could use a major revamp in order to improve it's image and fit in with the modern world (which is 4.3 billion or 6000 years old if you're a true believer, but neither rule out the fact that it's developing and changing). The pope now saying he did good work seems to emphasise the church's lack of understanding of the modern world, not help reduce it. It's been over 400 years! If some guy came up to you and said 'hey, this electricity stuff, it's good isn't it! I reckon there could be some use to be had from it', your first thought wouldn't be 'My, what a cool and insightful person, he clearly is in touch with modern society and I think I might see what else he has to say and live my life according to his teachings and beliefs'. Unlikely.

I thought this about when Tony Blair apologised for the role of Great Britain in the slave trade. Say what you will about Blair, I sincerely doubt he was responsible for slavery. Some people said it was an insufficient apology. This may be a controversial opinion this maybe, but I don't think he should have had to do that; not because nobody should apologise for slavery, far from it, but there's no-one alive to day who could make an apology that was genuinely meant. Everyone who did it is dead now, and whether or not they regretted it we'll generally never know. If there are people out there who have fortunes based on industries that were founded on slave labour and they then chose to donate all their wealth to looking after slave's descendants suffering hard times then yes, that would be a good apology. But they wouldn't be speaking for the whole, so it's still not sufficient.

Deep eh? Ah well, point is, the pope's an idiot. We all know Galileo was right. We've been to Mars(in robotic form at least, and I have no idea what the church thinks of robots), there's a Hubble telescope which has taken photos that people use as desktop screensavers, and we weren't all covertly sat around waiting for the pope's approval before we admitted such things were real. There was no real need to pledge the support for Galileo as it's way too late to change anything. No doubt the pope of 2183 will state that Isaac Newton was quite clever actually, and in 2542 the Pope will issue a statement saying 'you know what, that Hawking was on to something".

Friday, 5 December 2008

Art V Science: Personification

Greetings, seasons wishes and merry new year and all that. First December entry, so I thought I'd get into the spirit of things. And why not start with a bit of self-indulgence and talk about my recent talk? Why not indeed.

I recently did the monthly Science Cafe, which was three days ago as I write this. It's a monthly forum for the open discussion of Science ideas and thinking, or just something novel about the field of science that someone wants to talk about. It's all good, and takes place in the lovely cafe-bar at the Gate, not too far from where I live. So far, so good.

I've never done this before, but am currently promoting an upcoming gig (see link above) which is billed as a science-themed comedy night. Now, I am totally aware that this may be a stupid idea. It may all go horribly wrong, it may be the most confusing gig ever, but I don't think it will be. My hypothesis is that it will be great and a novel experience. But I don't know, this gig is in every way experimental, which is somewhat appropriate.

But if I feel this way, and I'm the one who organised it, surely others will have stronger doubts? Curiosity alone may not be enough to get an audience, which is integral to any gig. So, what we need is strong evidence to support the claim that Science can be funny. Unfortunately, I can't provide that. All I can show are my own efforts at this (see what I did there? Self depreciation? It's all the rage). And that's what I was doing at Science cafe. The concept of science being a valid source of comedy most people consider inter sting in it's own right, but I was to put together a semi-talk, semi-routine to both provide a sneak preview of the gig and a talking point for the assembled masses.

It was a good night. The highlight of which was an almost literal personification of the ongoing clash between art and science. Here's my report of the evening, which may differ wildly if you ask anyone else. That's the problem with subjectivity, it's subjective.

Evening began with the first speaker, Science journalist Dr. Toby Murcott, discussing his talk about 'Why Scientists are always wrong, and why it's a good thing'. The main point he makes is that scientific reports can't offer what the media demands as a straightforward yes or no. When a scientist makes the claim that they definitely know something, then they will invariably be proven wrong with further research. Fair point, but I sort of disagree with the 'scientists are always wrong' claim on similar grounds as that in itself is a definite conclusion. Several examples he used could easily be picked apart, and the people I was with didn't really buy what he was saying, finding their own opinions reaffirmed rather than challenged. But that can happen in any debate, so no worries.

My turn then. Went very well, started talking about my background, school, education, tendencies, and my experience at dealing with the general public, always throwing in as many punchlines or humorous anecdotes as I could, most of which worked very well. This was reassuring, as it's always a risk when you try and do comedy in front of people who aren't out for comedy. It can help or hinder. If it's a music night or something like that, it can be annoying as people think you're just getting in the way. Whereas when it's more a whatever you'd define what I was doing as, people aren't expecting to be made to laugh, so it can be more effective.

Did my talk thing, got laughs, people liked, I got given a card, jobs a goodun. Break, then Q and A with me and the first guy. Most questions are aimed at the first speaker, as he made an actual claim that could be questioned/challenged, whereas my talk seemed to result in a more sort of 'fair enough' response. I said science can be funny, effectively demonstrated it, no worries.

During the Q and A, someone mentioned that school seem to favour arts over sciences when teaching. Toby came up with some reasoning, can't remember it now. At this point, our roles seemed to be that of someone asks him a question, he gives a very long answer, I jump in at the end with a humorous observation, move on. I simplified his argument, in what I thought was a clearly jokey manner, by pointing out that schools need high pass levels, and arts are easier, turning to the rest of the room and declaring "We've all thought it, don't deny it!". Much laughter. Followed by shriek of disapproval.

Intense looking middle-aged woman at the back takes exception to my ribbing. She did an arts degree. There followed some back and forth which seemed to kick off a room-wide debate. I will know highlight the main point made and my thoughts therein, and where they deviate from what I said if this occurred.

Arts woman:
"I have an arts degree" (I can't disprove that either way, lets take it as true).

"Arts subjects are just as hard as science!" (I had made no claim to the contrary, it was clearly a joke I thought, but her statement was overconfident, as she has no basis of comparison to test her claims, at best it seems to be based largely on the fact that she found her arts subject difficult but assumed she's equally/more intelligent than most people)

"Anyone could do science if you (an aggressive 'you', meaning all scientists present) just demystified it!" (A bizarre claim. Science, with it's rigid structure, logic, cause and effect mentality and absolute adherence to the laws of nature, where every claim has to be rigorously tested with approved methods and be sanctioned by a group of well informed experts and every published piece has to be explained meticulously, that's mysterious. Whereas arts, a largely subjective medium based on a shared belief system, personal opinion and with no measurable qualities, that's perfectly normal. In fairness, someone nearby immediately replied 'you could say that about arts'. Arts lady attempted to be more precise)

"But you can do arts, and you can't do science. (looks at me) I could get up and do stand-up (she really couldn't, but I was very tempted to let her try) but I couldn't just go and be a neuroscientist if I wanted! (no, she couldn't. This seemed to mean that you have to be a scientist to do science, whereas anyone can be an artist, a claim which normally enrages artists as it cheapens their profession/talent/livelihood etc. She appears to resent the fact that us scientists keep it away from the public. This is clearly just a malicious attempt on our part to keep 'normal' people in awe of us. Rather than, say, some rational attempt to stop the system collapsing entirely. Would you fly on a plain where the pilot was someone who just fancied having a go? I doubt it. Everyone is allowed to do science, as long as they know how things work, and that takes a bit of learning. What do you get if you do 'science' without knowing how things work? Homeopathy, bogus medication and Gillian McKeith, that's what you get).

Me in response
"I don't believe that scientists are any more intelligent than artists overall" (This is true, it's a ridiculous thing to say, like all women are bad drivers, such a sweeping statement can never be true. Plus I've met some incredibly stupid people who are qualified scientists. A scientist invented homeopathy, don't forget)

"I would never claim to be more intelligent than someone just because I'm a scientist" (I wouldn't it's true) Art's lady: You're not more intelligent than me (All evidence to the contrary thus far). Me: That's what I said (in a way). Arts lady: ....

"Science is seen as complex and difficult, so anyone who does it is believed to be more intelligent, but it's just another form of intelligence. You could have someone who's just as good at music as I am at Neuroscience, that would make us equally "intelligent" (I didn't mention the quote marks while talking out loud, but you get the idea) But you ask most people they'll say I'm the smarter one. I have no clue whatsoever as to how music works, but because it's more common, to more people it's not as impressive, that's the only reason scientists are seen as they are. If people can get over this misconception then we'll all be happier." (I believe all this)

This went on for some time, I managed to maintain the moral high-ground by not getting into a slanging match. It was obvious that most people in the room were not on her side, and I was coming across as the more rational, thoughtful, considerate person. it was Obama V McCain all over again (this is what I was told afterwards, not an arrogant self-appraisal)

The sad thing is I believe what I said. She'd turned up to an event called science cafe clearly expecting a dispute and to score some points off the arrogant boffins who think they're so smart, and she was going to get her argument even if no-one was willing to give it. So what we got was the scientist on one side, making calm statements, taking opinions on board and thinking rationally about the claims being made, and the artist on the other side, shouting passionately about their own opinions which made no sense and no-one agreed with but fuelled largely by self belief. Ironic how the person defending the artists was probably the worst possible ambassador. But not to worry, she'll be fine, she clearly was the sort of person who's convinced they've won a non existent argument in spite of all evidence.

But it was a fun night overall. I hope she comes to the gig this Sunday, it'll be a rude awakening. I was being polite and restrained because of where we were. Some of my fellow comics aren't so generous, if she wants to shout her mouth off again she might as well paint a target on her face. So, if anyone's free, anyone fancy walking round an art gallery shouting 'This Is Bollocks'! as loud as possible? See if they show similar restraint?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Simple Space Pleasures

Space Station Urine Recycler

"Not to spoil anything, but I think up here the appropriate words are 'Yippee!',". This is an actual quote from the ISS, from space station Commander Mike Finck. 'Yippee' is a positive term, not one used very often with regards to space exploration. What, you may ask, has brought about this restrained jubilation that invokes the somewhat archaic term of 'Yippee'?

Have they discovered extra-terrestrial life? I, personally, think that would call for more than 'Yippee', assuming it's good alien life. If they've just stumbled upon a Borg Cube dwelling behind the moon, that would definitely not call for a yippee, or any celebratory term. Perhaps they've cracked the secret of faster than light travel, or teleportation. Again, yippee seems somewhat limited, even if they have only made some massive discovery in theory, and the practice is still to come.

So it must be something more mundane but still positive. Maybe they've finally managed to grow some carrots or get the filter coffee working (water doesn't boil the same way in zero gravity, something to do with the reduced pressure I'd guess, but knowing water it's probably something more surreal). Give up.

They've fixed the urine recycler. That's right, 'Yippee' is because people on board the ISS can now drink their own piss to their hearts content. Only in this situation would having to drink your own waste liquid be cause for celebration. And it's not just a 'yippee'. Here's some other quotes;

- "There will be dancing later," (mission controllers): So piss drinking is a cause for actual dancing too. Even if you factor in the difficulties of dancing in zero gravity, where even the most basic dance steps become hideously elaborate (imagine the Hokey Cokey in zero-g, you put your left arm in, all your other bits will go with it), dancing is done either in groups or with a partner. The confines of the ISS probably make dancing in groups very impractical, but there's only 3 people on board at any one time, so if dancing in pairs is opted for, some poor bugger will be left out every time. Maths, that is.

- "Urine passes Nasa taste test": Not sure if this is a BBC elaboration or a genuine NASA quote, but either way it's worrying. Taste test for urine? This implies that they've had times when urine hasn't passed the test. Is there a flavour scale for urine? How bad does urine have to be before it's recognised as unpleasant urine, by people who celebrate being able to drink it?

I'm being stupid of course. The machine recently fixed takes urine and other waste water and scrubs it thoroughly (with what? More water? Chemicals, I beleive, let's leave it at that). It actually "
distils, filters, ionises and oxidises" all water fed into it. I used to work with machines that sort of did that, not to the same scale degree of thoroughness, but close. We weren't supposed to drink from them, but I'd assume that's to do with taste, rather than actual hazards. How dangerous can utterly pure water be? It's like saying some air is dangerous because it's too fresh. Maybe our systems are more adapted to buggy tap water and anything without the background level sof chemicals would upset us, like when you go to Spain and you can't drink the 'hard' tap water because of the ionic content that screws up our weedy British systems. But if there's nothing there but pure H2O molecules, how could that be dangerous? It's probably not. This is moot anyway as I never drank any.

But those poor buggers on the ISS can celebrate their urine drinking future all they like (speaking of which, if the International Space Station is meant to represent all the countries involved in it's construction and maintenance, how much of an effective representation can 3 astronauts provide? I hope they're mixed race at least). If the water on this planet keeps getting used up, we'll come to depend on this technology. Unless of course they can get hold of one of those big Ice asteroids wandering around the solar system. Again, for such a thing to happen, we'll need to ISS to be involved. Here's hoping they keep up the good work. All that training and hard work and their reward is the opportunity to drink urine? It's not exactly a fine wine, is it. But if urine was a fine wine, what would you eat that would go with it?

Oh, God....

Monday, 24 November 2008

Sore throat? Get a new one...

Stem Cells used to rebuild throat!

Spanish woman gets her damaged trachea replaced by a stem-cell developed new one? Admittedly, I've twice used the word 'throat' now without actually being technically accurate, as it's the windpipe that feeds into the lungs that's been replaced. This isn't technically part of the throat, in my limited experience, although it does connect to it. Still, it's an impressive feat.
The article mentions several drawbacks though. The holy grail of stem-cells seems to be taking a clump of stem cells from the person who needs a transplant, put them in a dish of some sort, then grow whatever organ or tissue is needed by said patient, then stick it back in them. Sort of like some squidgy but biologically advanced herb garden, perhaps? That would understandably be great, preventing the need for this whole opt in-opt out organ donor malarkey.

I'm firmly in the opt-out camp myself, if organs from my mangled carcass can be used to save lives why the hell wouldn't I approve? A lot of people I've heard are just uncomfortable with the idea for no discernible reason. "It's not natural" apparently. Of course not, it's medicine. The natural thing to do would be just to let everyone die when they get ill, even if it's something easily curable, but we don't do that, because as thinking, rational beings we don't have to submit to natures whim's. Nature doesn't have whims either, it's a concept, or a process or whatever you like. Some people don't allow themselves medication because of their ultra religious beliefs which state that illness is the work of God, so by treating themselves they are going against his will. Unlike most scientists, I support this viewpoint. If I was God, and I'm at least a close second, the first thing I'd do is kill off all the people that stupid. So good luck to them. Or not.

So, back to the point, his trachea surgery is brilliant, but not quite perfect. For starters, someone still had to die for the surgery to go ahead. Without getting into the whole aborted -foetuses debate, this is a less than desirable pre-requisite for any surgery. Before they've begun, it's already got a 50% mortality rate. But there's potential for improvement, as they needed a donor trachea to provide a 'framework' for the stem cells to grow around. I guess it's beyond our means to make false ones at the moment, but still, here's hoping. We obviously can't control the way the stem cells develop in spatial configurations at the moment, but it's a start.

Also, I like the way the article states that the use of stem cells 'tricked the body into thinking the donor trachea was part of it'. If we're being honest, the stem cells are technically part of her body, so it's not really a trick. The trachea structure is donated, but does that make up the bulk of the donated tissue after every donor cells has been scrubbed off? But that's just being pedantic.

So, the scope for this is endless, but as always I worry about such procedures being abused, or used for less than noble purposes. If we can make safe, reliable organs to order, would people be happy with the ones they've got? My initial throat confusion was genuine, and lead me to wondering if the Spanish lady had the same voice as before. Obviously a trachea transplant wouldn't effect that, but what if it was the larynx and voice box?

Say some well-to-do person wanted to be a singer, so they get specially designed voice box made that allows them to sing well. But of course, a voice is nothing if you don't have the lungs to use it right. So they get a new pair of those too, bigger and better and fresher than the old ones, which are taken out and thrown in the bin, as no-one needs donor's anymore. Theoretical person can now sing very well. But being a famous singer is more than just vocal ability these days, it's about image. So person gets all ugly parts of her, or his, but lets say her, her body removed and replaced with specially designed better ones. Lets say for arguments sake that said person is horrifically ugly, so all bits of her body, bar skeleton and brain and some connective tissue, get replaced. Now we have basically the bulk of a person sat squelching in the corner. Rap it around a skeleton, bung in a rudimentary brain and it could be used to perform very simple tasks, like digging holes, pushing buttons or working for Virgin Railways. All unskilled labourers could be made redundant, replaced by the flung-off semi-carcasses of the wealthy.

So what happens to our now attractive singing person? She becomes a star for a brief period, but then people start doing the same and redesign themselves to be more talented and better looking and ever on to the point where she gets left behind in the race to be the next new superhuman celebrity star person thing. She gets depressed and sinks into drink (seriously damaging 8 Livers before the money runs out) and drugs (4 septums lost to coke and 2 arms lost to repeated use of infected needles, all replaced before money runs out). After a lengthy spell in 'rehab' where she's chained to a wall for 23 hours a day and gets hosed down regularly (proper comfy rehab is for people with money, which as we've established, has run out), she attempt to re-launch her career by appearing on 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here', but in this day and age the horrific trials involve eating massive, swollen organs like anuses and bladders grown from her own cells, while being watched and laughed at by Ant & Dec (versions 4.8).

This combination of copious autocannibalism while being mocked by small Geordie clones finally destroys the last vestiges of her sanity. She tries to get a brain replacement, but that's the only organ that can't be replaced as it would mean she's not the same patient anymore, and medical malpractice insurance doesn't cover that. But she's adamant, so they put her under anaesthetic and just remove her brain and launch it into space. Not for research, just to get rid of her because she's getting on everyone's nerves.

So what I'm saying is, stem cells, not necessarily a good thing.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Problems with Star-Gazing, an absence of Navel gazing

I'm back! Thesis progress has a directly inverse relationship to that of blogging, I've found. Which is good for the future career, bad news for the regular readers. Hello both! Long time no see.

So, done a bit of scouting around the news sites. Well, the various subjects offered by the BBC news site. I know I tend to stick to the BBC news for my links, but it does seem fairly comprehensive and fairly non-partisan. Also, I pay my license and seldom watch tv, so I wanted to get my moneys worth somehow. So, what's been happening?

Supermodel has no belly-button!

On the front page, not in the Science section. Although it is fairly scientific in a way, so I can use it. Apparently, there's this supermodel named Karolina Kurkova. Not being into fashion or the more 'physical' men's magazines, I'd never heard of her. But I don't think anyone could describe her as unattractive. Indeed, if anyone did, I would assume they were lying. Or Gay. Or a lying Gay person, it does happen. But apparently, she has no belly button. Although, looking at the pics, she does have a belly button, just not one as deep as you'd normally expect. There's a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, with many possibilities such as it being the result of some unspecified abdominal surgery, or some umbilical after effect from birth, or even re-shaping after cosmetic surgery. There are many questions people are asking, and so far the lady in question is not saying anything.

But I have a question; How is this in any way important to anything or anyone ever? Could there be a less relevant issue to take up front page space? I'm sure there are many physiological procedures that could affect the appearance of a belly button, or navel if you will, but are any of them an issue. The article has many comments from people with the same problem, as if it's some sort of support group. Is it a problem ever? Has anyone's life been ruined by the lack of navel? And what's up with our media when, confronted by around 6' foot of physically perfect blonde demi-goddess, the first thing people pick up on is the shallow indentation.

I don't really mind the article that much, it just got to me for persistent use of the terms 'belly button' and 'tummy'. I always find them incredibly patronising, despite them being 'acceptable'.

(Tools) Lost in Space!

This made me giggle. Apparently, some astronauts were fixing some faulty mechanism on the ISS when a tool bag came loose. Now, I once dropped a screwdriver while trying to fix a light fitting on the ceiling. I had to get down from the ladder and get it. I found this very annoying, so I have no idea how enraged these guys must be, but I'm guessing a lot. I would love to be a fly on the wall on the way home, it's bad enough when something goes wrong on a car journey, with recriminations flying everywhere, never mind when you're travelling at supersonic speeds through atmospheric temperatures that could melt lead whilst high enough so that people in aeroplanes look like ants. Stress must be something these guys are coached for, right?

And I have to wonder, how much were the tools worth? It costs about $10,000 a kilo to send things into space, so no wonder they didn't take a spare, but do they get the best possible tools or do they claim some money back by buying cheap ones, like the ones round the corner from the entrance at Hyper Value. Either way, I assume they'll just drift out in Space for ever, or if they do return to earth they'll burn up in the atmosphere. If they don't then they could hit the ground at supersonic speeds and kill someone. Here's hoping it's Peter Stringfellow, so we could see the headline 'Tool Killed By Tools'.

Interesting point, the ISS (International Space Station, just so you know), is 10 years old today. And it's not finished. Which begs the question, when you have a whole planet of builders to choose form, why pick the guys who built Wembly Stadium?

A Mammoth Task

Russian scientists have mapped the genome of the woolly mammoth! They think. About 80% maybe. Or not, they're not sure how big it is really. The genomes, not the mammoth, they're about the size of elephants, that much is obvious from the intact frozen remains. Speculation abounds of a Jurassic Park style cloning resurrection (which they may try to do with Michael Crichton, now that he's popped it). However, the killjoy scientist at the end of the article tries to quash any hopes of this with petty rationalisations such as 'it's not possible'. I jest of course, I always approve when someone in the know acts all reasonable and well thought out. And even if it were possible, if we could start producing new mammoths, where would they go? They're as big as elephants and we're running out of room for the ones we've got, and I don't think they'd make good pets or cattle. I suppose there might be a market for mammoth wool clothes, but it looks itchy to be honest.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Unemployed at the crossroads of life (and other tortured metaphors)

Not got an article in mind, so this is just a link back to here

Not really been keeping abreast of news about Science at the moment, but a quick scan reveals that we really are melting the ice-caps, frogs in Yellowstone park aren't doing too well, India's launched a moon mission, they've found an old Hebrew book and a picture of leopard won a prize. But apparently, none of this is anywhere near as important as two 'comedians' joking about having sex with a woman. I'm not a huge Brand fan, I often thought his endless claims of sexual conquests quite boring, and people complain he doesn't respect women or something. But when he makes such claims and they turn out not to be true, there's a huge outcry, so what's he to do. I found the whole thing offensive, but only because it was a crap joke. These guys are the most highly paid comic personalities in the country, and the best they could do was an inversion on the hack 'I shagged your mum' heckle? Jesus wept.

The BBC news website, my main source of self-contained stories, recently changed their 'Science and Nature' section to 'Science and Environment', perhaps because of the ever increasing number of environment-based stories, or maybe it was just an attempt to seem more eco-aware. I don't know, but if I was cynical, seeing as all things in 'nature' occur in 'the environment', I would suggest that this renaming is a way of seeming more environmentally aware doing any bloody thing differently. Not that that's a bad thing.

I'm currently experiencing a persistent low-level anxiety which I've not encountered before, and I think it's caused by the paradoxical situation of being very busy while simultaneously unemployed. Depending on how you look at it, if I were to hand my thesis in tomorrow, it's either either a month overdue, 5 months ahead of schedule or 11 months early. Again, a lot of contradictions and variables which logically shouldn't exist simultaneously. But they do. So hey ho.

It's going slower than I planned, but it is going at all, which is better than I expected. Again, incompatible scenarios existing simultaneously. My whole life seems to be in some sort of quantum superposition in which all states exist simultaneously with each other until someone observes it, a la Schroedinger's cat. So what I'm saying is, if you ask me 'how's it going?', I might be revealed to have died several minutes ago. Which is why I seem tense when people ask about my progress. Nothing personal.

Look for work at this level is another new experience. I could feasibly accept a normal job, but having a PhD means I should be aiming for higher-up positions, such as post-doctorate positions or even lectureships. I haven't had to apply for these before, so am at a loss for how it's meant to go. I have applied for 4 different jobs already, none have replied thus far. Is that normal? I don't know. It's taken this long in the past, but for this kind of job? Would the complex nature prolong the interview process, or should the assumed intelligence level of those involved increase efficiency, which would mean I get a reply on the same day? God knows. But I haven't been offered anything yet, so maybe it's just me.

I've been feeling at a loss. I don't feel as involved with the Neuroscience squad because I have more outisde interests and probably don't dedicate myself to it as much as my peers. But then I don't feel as involved with my comedy colleagues as I'm the one who's doing a doctorate rather than getting gigs and networking. Although I recently did a gig at a Neuroscience conference. It went alarmingly well, probably the time I've been most 'in tune' with an audience, which should surprise no-one, although it does suggest I only do my best comedy in front of a crowd of Neuroscientists or similar, which does drastically lower my potential success in the wider world of comedy. Pah

I cleaned the house today, that mother of all procrastination tasks, after writing blogs that is. But it did need doing. Although I still finished with many hours put aside for a serious thesis writing session, which would have occurred if the last bit of data I need for my results section of the current chapter didn't require a brief means comparison in SPSS. For those of you unfamiliar with SPSS, it's the statistics package of choice for my department. And by 'choice', I mean it's the one we get given and that's that. SPSS is much like the NHS in a lot of ways. We're glad to have it, and it is useful, but sometimes it's so bloody chaotic or downright crap you'd rather just sneak a bottle of isofluorane and a few tools out of work and remove your own appendix. And as tortured metaphors go, that ones pretty much screaming for death and will confess to the Holocaust at this point. And there we go again, a tortured metaphor about tortured metaphors. Is that a record?

Anyway, I need to compare the means of two groups of results. I say the mean of one group is 57.68. SPSS keeps saying it's 68.71. I'm right, it's wrong, but it refuses to say otherwise. There's no reason for this ridiculous claim, apart form being pointlessly bloody minded. Is it possible to cause physical harm to software? 'I'm going to seriously corrupt your core programming' doesn't really have that much of a menacing ring to it.

Although I should refrain from saying stuff about a programme on my own PC. If it is being deliberately malicious, and I'm writing this on software right now, who knows what it could 68788 **&(£%$* - - - - - - _____________ [][]{}{[][}{[}{}{][][][][][Ld££££££££------...... . . . . . . .

Friday, 24 October 2008

Nudity is an offence against human dignity!

X-Ray vision upsets some people

Some years ago, I attended a conference concerned with what to do with a PhD if you didn't want to stick with academia. This was precisely the sort of thing I really should have been writing down, seeing as I now have no job or offers to speak of, and am confused about where to start looking. In fact, I think I did write a lot of stuff down, but couldn't tell you where I left my notes, probably in the bar where the social took place afterwards, along with the memories of the night and a generous portion of the respect of my peers.

But I do remember a talk from a representative of QinetiQ, about the various technologies he was helping to develop in the name of security, defence, research or, in a nutshell, anything that might at some point turn a profit. One of the things he discussed was a scanner with wave amplitudes specifically arranged to scan beneath clothes, in an attempt to improve airport security, in both efficiency and thoroughness. He did mention that there'll probably be some objection to being able to see through people's clothes. Well, he was right.

It's a tricky one, but I'm leaning in favour of these devices. Largely because the technology is cool, and it brings into existence a crazy comic book superpower that most people assumed would always be fantasy. Like flight, or robots. But the main argument seems to be focused either on a violation of privacy or an affront to dignity. I don't think these two are essentially the same. For one thing, we've given up a lot of 'privacy' in recent years, what with CCTV, Speed cameras, online logging of all our activities, TV licensing crackdowns, ID cards etc. But a lot of privacy has been surrendered voluntarily, largely through websites like facebook, myspace or youtube. Thanks to facebook, I now have access to photographs of 3 lesbian weddings. I have no problem with that, but I never asked for that, it's not something I believed I'd ever see, let alone 3 times (at least). I can't talk, my own wedding photos are on there.

But wedding photo's are meant to viewed, that's the point. But you also get to see more risque pics of people. The anti-filth rules of most social networking sites mean the more exhibitionist of us has to be restrained, but if there were no such rules?.... Youtube is the same, if not worse. As an experiment, I just typed in 'my boobs' into youtube, assuming that no women (the same gender that regularly gets enraged when anyone with a Y chromosome stairs at their chest swellings despite how much they've drawn attention to them, don't deny it!) would just post a video showing off their breasts to every seedy bloke with web access. I was wrong, there're lots.

But it is different I'll admit, as the web offers a large degree of anonymity. If thousands of lonely blokes were stood right in front of them, they probably wouldn't feel as comfortable displaying their 'assets'. And fair enough. There may also be an element of separation, in that it's not 'really real' if it's on a computer screen. It's sort of 'false', a representation rather than the real thing. I can see that. But then, 'I can see that' is the problem.

But that brings us back to this X ray device. It doesn't actually see you directly, it generates a false image of what you have under your clothes. But to a lot of people, that counts. It wouldn't bother me so much, because looking at my naked body would definitely count as 'work' rather than 'pleasure'. I wouldn't get annoyed at someone who cleaned out a toilet I'd blocked, because his interacting with my biomatter is a violation of my privacy. I'd guess he's enjoying it less than anything and is in fact doing me a favour. But some people don't think this way. It's interesting that it's politicians getting their teeth into this, European ones at that. But not Dutch ones, I assume, that wouldn't conform to stereotypes.

Maybe it is a bit invasive, but then everything about the airport is. I'd happily let some poor git stare at a false image of my body for a few seconds if it meant getting through check-in quicker. What's to stop him or anyone else just superimposing a pic of my head on a random nude body? Nothing, and I'd be OK with that. it would be an improvement if anything. But the words 'dignity' and 'airport' rarely got together, where you undergo several humiliations in order to spend hours in a metal tube sucking in the emitted gasses of dozens of strangers. They can strip search you if they want, this seems like the lesser of two evils. And who'll be the people most unwilling to undergo this sort of scan? Crazy fundamentalists. You see what I'm getting at? We might all get a pleasant flight for once. And the technology is great, let's see how far we can take it. Maybe even medical applications will arise. Can you imagine a colonoscopy without an endoscope? If you can, don't. It's a hideous image however it works.

(Several mentions of boobs, nudity, lesbians and X-ray vision in this blog, may get some more unusual readers this time around)

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Don't forget to keep fit, or vice versa

Fat levels contribute to Alzheimer's?

Interesting. The levels of fatty acids in the Brain contribute to Alzheimer's, or at least do in transgenic mice designed to show Alzheimer's like symptoms. That's an important distinction, because these mice don't actually have Alzheimer's, they have a certain pathology that shows the same symptoms. The article does point this out, but this article is slightly hit-and-miss with it's accuracy. Sometimes it specifically points out the facts, sometimes it glosses over them. For example:

" mice genetically engineered to have an Alzheimer's-like condition" - Correct. The mice don't have Alzheimer's, as discussed above. If we could give mice actual Alzheimer's, then that would mean we understood it precisely, which suggests we could do something about it, beyond just giving it to mice. The strain is called APPSWE Tg257, to be precise (Assuming they use the same ones as in my lab)

There are currently 700,000 people living with dementia in the UK, but that number is forecast to double within a generation" - Correct but misleading. This smacks of scaremongering, but potentially scaremongering to increase awareness of Alzheimer's, which is OK I guess. But well done on saying dementia rather than Alzheimer's, because last I heard, it was only possible to confirm Alzheimer's after death, which is too late if anything. (Also, because of the unknown origin of the disease, you can't leave your body to medical examination after death in case someone 'catches' it, which is ridiculously unlikely but can't be guaranteed. Of course, anyone suffering the disease won't remember that, no matter how many times you tell them). But this is mildly misleading because dementia affects around 50% of people over 80. And thanks to improved health care and medical advances, that's the most rapidly expanding age group, so the disease will increase with it.

""In general, fatty acid levels can be regulated by diet or drugs...But a lot more work needs to be done before this novel therapeutic strategy can be tested on humans" - Good, I like the cautious tone. Because given the way the media works, this could be taken by several types of scaremongers and twisted to deliver completely different messages. The anti-choice health Nazi's like McKeith and her ilk could use this as just another example of how eating a lot of fat is bad for you and you shouldn't eat anything other than muesli and tree bark, you ignorant overweight prole. This would lead to mixed messages, as if you eat too much fat you'll die of heart disease and get Alzheimer's. In truth, doing both is highly unlikely, what with dying young being possibly the best prevention of Alzheimer's, but since when did logic and actual science stop these shrieking harridans?
Then there's the anti-government brigade, who could argue that 'life saving treatment being withheld on the NHS', by not giving Alzheimer's patients diet drugs or some other cock-and-bull rationalisation. If there were such a thing as a pill that could prevent uptake of body fat, then it would be worth billions, much like Viagra is. There are some diet pills that prevent up to 30% of fat being digested into your system, but this means it passes straight through. And bare in mind fat is hydrophobic, which means after visiting the toilet you get a lot of 'floaters', which may result in being invited to less parties.

This is a massive generalisation, of course, seeing as one type of fatty acid is linked to the disease and there are many in our bodies, and they are useful. But one thing that's remarkable about diet is the extent to which it depends on memory. Although there are many internal systems in use, like stomach extension, blood sugar levels etc., our habits can often override these with no fuss. If we eat at 3pm every day, we'll be hungry at 3pm, this is habit forming and is a basic and powerful form of memory. As long as we know we've eaten we'll not be hungry. But the time when you eat is an episode, and episodic memory is the first thing to go when you have Alzheimer's (trust me, this is my field). So it's around 3pm, you don't remember eating, you'll eat. You might eat half a dozen meals before someone stops you, it's a problem with people who suffer from anterograde amnesia (can't make new memories, the guy in Memento had it).

People who suffer from Anterograde amnesia have a problem with weight gain, as they forget that they've aready eaten. One of the most common causes of this is Alzheimer's, which is apparently worsened by fat consumption. Vicious cycle. But don't forget that not eating enough, like with sufferers of eating disorders tend to do, can cause memory loss too. Lack of thyamine shrivels the mammilary bodies (small brain nuclei, not breasts, although they lose mass too,m come to think of it) and these are part of the diencephalon, which controls memory. Korsakoff's syndrome, where you can't remember anything, but tend to make it up without realising it. These people have dull lives but exciting memories. So you could say you suffer memory problems if you eat too much or too little. What's the point of all this ranting? Buggered if I can remember.

Alzheimer's mentioned = 16 times.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Fight, fight, fight, fight fight!

When two crabs go to war...

Welcome, fight fans, to this exclusive in-depth analysis about what is shaping up to be one of the biggest battles the UK has ever seen. What's at stake? Only complete dominance of mainland UKs waterways and rivers, and all the goodies that go with it.

As with Cricket, Tennis, Football, Rugby, and pretty much anything else that involves competition, when it comes to the British waterways, our home grown efforts are completely outmatched by foreigners. But that doesn't make things any less exciting, for when the showdown finally occurs, you know it's going to be a no-holds-barred bloodbath, or whatever crustaceans use as blood. I think it's still blood they have actually, but probably not the exact same as mammal blood. You probably couldn't do a transfusion between a crab and, lets say, a goat. That wouldn't work. But then, given the complex nature of blood types, rhesus factors and all that, there's still a fair amount of danger involved in doing a transfusion between a goat and, say, another goat. Danger to the goats, because they may be getting an incompatible blood-type, and danger to yourself, because if you keep trying to inject and/or bleed a goat, it'll probably get quite angry and try to batter you to death.

Where was I? Crabs, yes...

In what is looking to be a serious clash of the titans, the upcoming battle has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood classic, with the so far undisputed king being challenged by an aggressive up and comer who may well dethrone him. Think Rocky 4, but without the ludicrous cold-war-ending political message. This battle, which actually is a case of East meets West, is going to kick start a whole new conflict, not end one. So lets look at the competitors...

In the Red Corner...

What we have here is the North American Crayfish, often known as the non-native crayfish, for obvious reasons. It arrived in our aquatic community in the 1970s, and has since then powered it's way to the top largely by killing and eating anything that gets in it's way. Incredibly aggressive and voracious, the Non-native crayfish can cause extinction of a group of native species within 4 years of arriving in the same ecosystem. Our own crayfish are forced to hide in isolated water sources to ensure survival. The Non-native is a mean bastard, with wide, aggressive claw stance, vicious pincers, and if that wasn't enough, it even spreads disease to other species while being immune itself. This mother is so bad he violates the Geneva convention! The North American Crayfish, much like the stereotype of its native countries military, takes no prisoners and causes maximum damage wherever it goes. It even burrows into seemingly secure riverbanks, causing structural collapse of the ground above. Not even the land itself is safe from these guys. And they are completely without mercy, even eating their own offspring if needs be. And I thought it was cruel to force your child to play tennis at age 4.

The North American Crayfish has dominated our waterways for years, so much so that authorities have implemented a 'kill on sight' policy for anyone who finds one. What, you ask, could possibly threaten such an entrenched aggressive species? Well since you asked...

In the Blue corner....
Hailing from the far east, we have the challenger, the Chinese mitten crab. The up and comer, this incredibly aggressive, superbly armed crustacean looks set to take on the Crayfish and oust him from his role as the biggest pain-in-the-ass the UKs aquacommunity has ever seen. So called because of the unusual hair on their claws (this crabs been pimped!), the mitten crab is incredibly aggressive, voracious and generally unstoppable. They eat anything and everything, with their incredibly large pincers designed for crushing supposedly well armoured mollusk shells. They also have the same burrowing habits as the crayfish. Britain has no freshwater crabs, so the mitten crab has had a relatively unchallenged rise to the top spot in the areas it's already infiltrated. But now the crab and crayfish populations are on the verge of meeting, and when two massively destructive communities share the same space, only one can survive...
Pre-Match analysis

In the run up to the big fight, there's always speculation as to who will have the edge, and what are the factors that will decide the outcome. It's never possible to be 100% correct, but just to keep the bookies happy, here's some points to bare in mind.
- The Crayfish have been around longer than the crabs, having at least an extra decade in which to cement their position, so if the crabs want to oust them, it's going to be a long, drawn out battle. We're not talking a one round knockout here, this will have to go the distance. It's the classic debate, experience or youth? But it's also worth baring in mind that the crabs can live in both salt- and freshwater, so there's always the option to retreat and regroup in coastal waters, which the Crayfish can't do. Both sides look to be prepared for a long slog, so it could be anyones game.
- Overall, the crabs are bigger, reaching as much as 10cm in width, compared to the crayfish's 7cm. As well as those formidable pincers, the crabs also have shoulder spines in their arsenal, which the crayfish lack. It's also widely recognised that the crabs are a lot stronger. The crabs are bigger and stronger than their opponents. But then, so was Ivan Drago...
- The crabs have a rounded body plans like all crabs, and presumably the same sideways walking thing too. The crayfish have a more streamlined shape and forward movement. In terms of overall manoeuvrability and agility, the Crayfish comes out ahead, which could be a deciding factor.
- Both species tend to wipe out any creatures that attempt to share their environment, so we won't be expecting any outside interference here. There'll be no allies running in with a chair mid-bout. There is the aforementioned 'kill on sight' which applies to the crayfish and not the crabs. But it's dubious as to how that will affect a sub-aqua battle, out of sight of humans. Unless you have Setanta, of course.

So there you have it, two monsters of the crustacean world, fighting it out for dominance. Who will emerge victorious? Either way, we'll be doing our best to exterminate the swines. Altogether now,
"It's the, Eye of the Tiger, the cream of the fight, risin up to the challenge of our rivals..."

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Evolution is over, everyone go home.

Evolution of man may be over

I don't normally link to other blogs, but this is a subject I've actually discussed with others in the past, so seems like a convenient time to re-hash some old ground, like the typical narrow-minded friend who suddenly says 'and another thing...' two weeks after the original argument was settled by someone else when you weren't there to witness it, resulting in confusion for all. Hurrah!

Anyway, it's been proposed before in sci-fi books and what not, but given the effect of our intelligence on our overall development, is human evolution at an end? A fundamentalist would say no, seeing as it never happened in the first place, so that's the end of that now shut up and eat your Bible or something like that. But it's a valid concern, because pretty much all the things that drive evolution such as survival of the fittest, environmental pressures and genetic mutation can, to varying extents, be counteracted by our marvelous technology. Why would humans adapt to colder environments when we have central heating? Why would keen hunting skills be needed when Asda's has a Deli counter? And so on.

I personally think this analysis needs to be refined. It might well be the end of Natural evolution, but I don't think evolution can logically stop. Our society is more complex than ever, but still there are selection pressures. Look at Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer. 8 Gold medals, world fame, and if he wasn't involved already he most likely has women throwing themselves at him now. Apparently, he has the perfect build for swimming, naturally so, so any children he has will have similar traits, and anyone who wants to beat him ever will have to have an equal or better capacity for swimming. So we see a pressure here, albeit a small one, to produce the perfect swimmer. Don't mock it, as if it didn't exist, would Michael get the chance to pass on his genes? Uncertain, as he is clearly a hideous man. But because the Olympics exist, he and his type will now become sought after, rather than dismissed by potential mates on account of their resemblance to every Frankenstein's monster spoof combined with Plug, from the Bash street kids.

(Note: I have no issue with Michael Phelps, he's clearly a supreme being of some sort, and as a lifetime shunner of physical activity such people scare me, so I lash out in defence at the impressive yet ugly and probably mentally deficient demi-Gods)

Part of the original article cites the belief that humans are living longer, so evolution slows as a result. But isn't that an example of evolution? How long was the average lifespan 100 years ago? 6 months? And yes, many genetic diseases and illnesses which would normally kill off victims before they could grow to pass on their DNA are now manageable, so that doesn't happen, so the diseases stay around. But that doesn't take into account the general shallowness of 99.99% of breeding partners. I have no issue with people with Down syndrome, but I'll hold my hand up and say I'm not attracted to them and I'd genuinely worry about someone who was. That's an extreme example, obviously, but people do still seek out the most healthy and physically attractive partners, people with genetic defects need not die out they'll probably always be marginalised.

Some people see it differently, I've heard numerous people who believe in 'traditional values' (can generally be interpreted as 'Bigoted Wankers') complaining about all these hideous, pregnant teenagers and 'chavs'. Society is 'going to the dogs' blah blah blah. I don't think 'Chavs' (inverted commas will persist because I don't like the word, but can't think of an equally concise acceptable alternative) are any more or less smart than anyone else. They're a product of their upbringing and environment as much as anyone else. And people complain that they're always on their mobiles, well I find that impressive. Most modern mobiles confuse the hell out of me, and I'm 26 and can do Brain surgery. My little brother has mastered Sim City 3000 on the PC and he's only 8. Compare this to only a few generations ago, when your average child was amazed for weeks on end by the concept of the Hula-Hoop, which is, let's be blunt, a circle. Circles have been around for a loooong time, but they still fascinate us, don't they!

No, they don't. Circles are being phased out, what with downloading and MP3 players, CDs and that are just a storage medium* now. Even machines evolve.

I can't see how we've stopped evolving, but now I think we're more in control of how we evolve. Obviously with genetic engineering this is going to be literally true. People these days are afraid of it, like GM food, it's 'not natural'. Neither is sustained single crop agriculture, crop rotation, industrial fertilisers or taking produce and making it extra shiny before putting it in a shop in a display alongside identical sized and coloured produce of the same genus before throwing it in the bin because nobody buys Veg when there's Snickers to be had.
A lot of people balk at the idea of human genetic manipulation, for themselves or for their children. But not everyone will. I state this with 100% certainty, seeing as there are millions of people who willingly slice their guts or faces open and inject them with all manner of crazy chemicals just to look slightly better. And when one bunch starts GMing themselves, we'll all have to join in to keep up. There's your selection pressure again. And back to the start. And who knows what challenges lie ahead? I imagine there'll be a distinct advantage for humans who can breathe CO2, but not for literally tens of years.

There appears to be a fear of the human race stagnating, and some other race usurping us in the distant future, a la Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. Unlikely, as if we wouldn't notice the slow development of another species technical infrastructure that could rival our own. And given our current progress, we'll have wiped out all other higher life forms before they even get started. You don't normally hear of the upsides of our ecological vandalism do you? But damn it if there aren't a few.

So yeah. Evolution, it would be arrogant to think we've beat it, we're just working with it. In my opinion. The good thing about evolution is, whether you believe in it or not, it just keep happening.

(*CDs have always been just a storage medium, that's what they're for, but the point I was making was nonsensical and I couldn't really back it up, so I just thought I'd say it. I'm very sorry)

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Careering off course

There should be a link to a science news story here, but there isn't, it's just a clip from Rhys Darby's new DVD

Evening. Not done one of these for a while, but been busy. I'm now attempting to complete my thesis whilst simultaneously looking for a job I can do as soon as I complete my thesis but I can't really get a job yet as I haven't finished my thesis but the thesis is taking too long because I'm also looking for work.

Repeat as necessary. You see the quandary I'm in?

This is my first experience with job searching in the field of high level Science research. A lot of people have asked me which I'm going to pursue when I finish my PhD; Science or Comedy. I don't really see why I have to choose one and ignore the other, I haven't so far. But if I did, I really enjoy both, but which one pays better? I'll be honest, I've never seen a situation where desperate scientists have to drive hundreds of miles to conduct 20 minutes of research in front of a disinterested crowd of strangers in exchange for a fiver.
A lot of people I work with seem to have gravitated towards new jobs by some form of academic osmosis, and well done to them. I didn't think this would ever happen for me, for several reasons. Namely, although I enjoy and am interested in my research, I don't live and breathe it. And also I am still startlingly ignorant about how this industry works, unlike those who have a family history of higher education so know the correct procedures and conduct. My parents have always been supportive, but I'm the first person in my family to do A levels, let alone anything else. I guess I could have just asked people how things work, but then I was always worried about being exposed as the blatant fraud I am, so I kept my head down and people just assumed I knew what I was doing. But I'll show them!
Current wisdom is to do a post-doc, or post-doctoral position. Form what I can gather, this is where you do basically the same thing you did during your PhD, but you don't need to put it all in a big report after 3 years, and everyone just lets you get on with things rather than check up on you every few weeks to make sure you haven't snapped and run off to become a bricklayer, or been killed by a rat 'gone rogue' without anyone finding your partially shredded remains.
Traditional sources of career advancement aren't as useful as I remember. The Job centre used to be an option, but it focuses largely on converting the 'unemployed' to 'employed', anything beyond that is a bonus.
I did go to the careers centre for a 30 minute meeting about my options. The nice lady asked what I wanted, and I said ideally, I'd like a job that incorporates all my skills. She agreed that this was something I should definitely aim for. Then I told her all my skills., basically the Neuroscience and comedy. It's fun seeing a supposed expert genuinely at a loss for what to say. We agreed that I have created my own niche, but as I pointed out, a niche is only a niche if people know of it. What I've created is more of a blind spot, a phantom zone of career possibilities. If I'm being outrageously self-promotional, I could say I'm like the nuclear power of employees; potentially extremely useful, but if no-ones discovered it it's not worth a damn.
So I'm currently applying for post-docs in the Bristol area, with the hope of moving there some day. I've had to re-do my CV several times over, and it probably still could be improved. But if anyone knows of a neuroscience post-doc going in the South West or Wales, let me know.

And just to keep up to speed, here's a Science news round-up.

Mice Traced to Vikings: Studying the genomes of mice can be useful in studying human migration patterns. Because mice and humans so frequently travel together (unless you're in first class I assume), their genetic variation has been shaped by our movements in the past. Very interesting, although I'm suspicious of any research that involves mice, the most evil of all creatures. I honestly wouldn't put it past mice to change their DNA just to screw up our research. Horrible little bastards, all of them. Even this article had me excited, I thought it would suggest that mice ARE actually Vikings, after some evolutionary twist like the one that turned dinosaurs into birds. But no, an interesting if less exciting bit of news about species cohabitation reflecting migration patterns. Curse you, you scampery little furry balls of evil!

People don't like living next to a Nuclear plant: It turns out, that people might object to having a nuclear power plant built in their back yard. How much did they spend finding this out? I've been to a nuclear plant, it was quite cool (metaphorically, I'm sure the reactor was at temperatures normally found beneath the surface of your basic star) and a fascinating experience. i would go again. Would I live next to one? No. Nothing against nuclear power, but I don't like the thought of living next to any gigantic complex power plant, it's just ominous. And I'm well informed. But at least this story makes more sense than people objecting to sea based wind farms because 'it'll spoil the scenery'. Jesus wept, get a sense of perspective! Would these people object to life-saving brain surgery because it spoiled their hair?

Microsoft say Google is better: Microsoft says they are a 'David' to Google's 'Goliath'. As I'm currently writing this on a Microsoft PC with windows, like my laptop has, and as does every other computer I've ever used or even seen except for macs which don't count because I don't know that many pretentious people, I have to say I have limited sympathy for Microsoft. And I may have even supported them if they'd used the term 'Googliath'. I wonder if we'll see that term in some official capacity over the next few days?

CONSPIRACY! Keeping it going, here's another conspiracy theory.

McDonald's build secret global transit system!
Haven't you ever wondered why McDonald's burgers never look like the pictures over the counter? It's because all the burgers McDonald's sell (approx 45 million a day) are made at the very first McDonald's restaurant, in San Bernardino, California. The exact recipe of McDonald's burgers which makes them so addictive despite being crap is a very closely guarded secret, so the McDonald brothers decided never to let one be made off-site. Since then, every McDonald's franchise has been connected to the ever expanding kitchens underneath San Bernardino via a system of high-speed pneumatic tubes. There are no actual fryers or ovens outside of the main restaurant, just tube terminals cleverly disguised. These tubes now stretch all over the world. However, the 'fast food' commitment means burgers have to travel at supersonic speeds to get to the correct restaurant in time. This is why American McDonald's seem so much better, and British ones are squashed and crap; it's because the British ones have just crossed the Atlantic in less than 3 minutes, and the pressures incurred squash them until they look as pathetic as they do, whereas American burgers have a much shorter journey time.
The secret sauce is made from the processed remains of employees who risk giving away the great secret.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Calm Weather in Space, not necessarily good news.

Space Doesn't Blow As Much As It Should

Keeping with the space theme established this week, what with moon landings and Dr Who mix-ups, the above story seems rather apt. According to readings, solar winds are at a 50 year low. For those of you that don't know, Solar Wind is the constant barrage of matter emitted by the sun. This isn't actual wind, this isn't air moving in a general direction at speeds of about 10mph, this is solar wind, a never-ending sleet of star matter travelling at near light-speeds, hammering anything and everything in it's way. The Northern Lights, that fantastical light display you see in the far North at certain times of year (not the fictional but enjoyable Philip Pullman book), I believe that's an interaction between solar wind and the Earths magnetic field. I may be wrong, so don't hold me to that. But the Solar Wind is currently very low. Not sure what this will do to the wind-chill factor, seeing as it's still star matter, and also that the background temperature of space is near to absolute zero, it's probably not worth worrying about.
Earths atmosphere and magnetic field means we'll be fine, the big swaddling blankets around us prevent any nasty space crap from getting through. And that's what the Solar wind does. Bare in mind all stars do the same, and a lot of stars are bigger and nastier than our own friendly sun. The Solar wind extends outward in all directions for millions of miles, so the crap put out by other stars can't get into our system as our Solar wind repels it.
But now the Solar wind is low, and nasty space crap can get close to us. Not a problem for earth, but it may effect things in Earth Orbit. Long story short, the drop in Solar wind may interfere with Sky TV and communications, maybe even broadband.
Inconvenient, but I think we'll manage, we'll just have to reinforce satellites in future. But I like the way this news story reads. I think most people read news stories and think two things; Will this effect me? and What can be done about it? In this case, the answers are 'Slightly' and 'Sweet F.A.' I question whether this was worth reporting, but it's still news. I wonder if the right wing nutters will blame asylum seekers for 'taking all our sunlight', or maybe the Oil companies will try and blame global warming on this, or suggest that it will reverse it somehow. The possibilities are endless. I did laugh at the report saying that the current levels are 'thought to be well within the long-term norm'. Implying that if they weren't, they'd go have words!
But like it or not, the Sun will do as it likes. It's bigger than us, and we need it.
CONSPIRACY THEORY: I've mentioned a few conspiracy theories recently, and it occurs to me that they all start somewhere. So let's see if I can start some of my own.
Last years confirmed renewal of the British Nuclear defense system 'Trident' won't happen. It is a cunning ploy on behalf of top government officials. The proposed revamp will cost £20bn, enough for 4 Large Hadron Colliders. However, the actual cost of the revamp will be more like £280, the cost of the Spray paint necessary to give each missile a new coat of paint to make them look new (known as the British Rail manoeuvre). No-one would ever know about the con unless a nuclear Holocaust takes place, at which point people will have more important things to worry about than whether or not our missiles were duds.
The £billions earmarked for investment in the renewal will actually be spent on Tony Blair's undersea volcano and pork pies for John Prescott.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Fake Moon Landings (and other hysterical ramblings)

Did we really land on the moon?.... Yes! Of course we did!

(First and foremost, I'd like to apologise to any Dr. Who fans that have wandered here by accident, as after my last blog I was added to without my knowledge, and they stated that "Science Digestive has great Doctor Who news, photos, videos and more". It doesn't, the best I can offer is that I will soon be a DOCTOR, WHO writes bilge about science news stories. Sorry to waste your time, although if you're a stereotypical hardcore Dr. Who fan, that probably isn't much of an issue)

I recently got a request to do something about the fake moon landings. Or more accurately, the claim that the moon landings were fake when they clearly weren't. There are countless websites refuting this wild claim, of which the above link is just one of the more concise. But as discussed previously, such conspiracy theories are rife on the web, where there is no system in place to check people's arguments.
Some theories, such as the numerous 9/11 conspiracies seem more politically motivated. I don't like the Bush administration, I confess, but I doubt they set the whole thing up as many do claim. This would require an incredible level of organisation, cunning and guile in order to set-up and then get away with, and subsequent actions have arguably demonstrated that the current US government is nowhere near that competent (although if anyone in the US is reading this, I get my information second hand from UK based journalists and pundits, who probably aren't impartial, so I may be wrong in my opinions, although if I am, would that make the conspiracy theories more valid?)
Other conspiracies appear to be more paranoia based. Many believe in UFOs, and that it's a 'government conspiracy' to cover up the existence of aliens. Which begs the question, if an alien race that has achieved a level of technology required for space travel wanted to make itself known to the human race, what exactly could our governments do to stop them?
But in my experience, a lot of conspiracy theories are built upon scientific ignorance, of which the 'faked moon landings' are one of the most well known. Many still believe that Global Warming isn't happening, despite the mounds of data that says it is, because it would be better if Global warming isn't happening. But there are many other conspiracy theories that crumble under the most basic scientific analysis, and thrive only on pure ignorance.
Some people still believe the Earth is flat. We all know it isn't, there's so much proof to counter that claim that it would be embarrassing to go into it here, yet people still persist. I think the problem is with Science itself; some people just don't like it. Nobody likes to be told what to do or what's what, and nobody likes to be made to feel inferior, and when Science comes along and says 'this is how it is', it gets come peoples backs up, perhaps understandably. The majority of conspiracy theories seem to me to be elaborate versions of one kid shouting 'I know something you don't know' to another. People are intimidated by someone who knows too much, and will do anything to redress the balance. When I was in school, I was frequently persecuted because 'you think you know everything'. Which is ridiculous, because as I pointed out, if I knew everything one of the things I'd know was that I knew everything, so I wouldn't have to think about it at all. Thinking itself would be redundant, so it's a nonsensical statement. So yeah, I got beaten up a lot.
The best conspiracy theories endure because they have a precise combination of ingredients. A certain amount of feasibility, a dash of 'it's the man' style cover up, a plausible motive and a certain amount of logic. But not too much logic, because logic and evidence (or science) are not one and the same, logic only equals science when you have all the facts. Consider the following classic joke (observation, to be precise), rightly criticised by the late great Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt.

"Scientists, what do they know? They say the Black Box on an Aeroplane is indestructible, then why not make the whole plane out of that stuff"

Lets overlook the fact that engineers, not scientists, are the ones who build planes, if you ignore that then the above joke makes logical sense. Duh, what are they doing? Idiot Scientists, they think they're so clever! Let's also overlook the fact that a black box is Titanium, a hardy but incredibly heavy metal. A plane made of titanium would require a hell of a lot more thrust to take off and stay in the air, so much so that no normal person could afford to pay the ticket prices required to cover fuel costs (no change there, then). And of course, the way physics works, such a rigid structure would mean the energy incurred on impact during a crash wouldn't be absorbed by a compressible craft but transmitted directly to the passengers, so you wouldn't get broken bones as much as a pureeing effect on the human occupants. But apart from that, stupid scientists!

(Interesting trivia, a typical black box is actually bright orange, making it easier to find after a crash, as it doesn't blend in with burnt, charred remains, which are ALWAYS black)
EDIT: Ben, the physicist I know, has pointed out that titanium is in fact quite light. I did have my suspicions about this, what with titanium being used in darts and bone-fixing bolts and stuff, but I decided to trust Douglas Adams, who wasn't a trained Scientist. More fool me, I assume he got mixed up with Steel, which is heavier. See his comment below for other explanations of the plane/black box durability difference)

But, in the spirit of the argument, here's my favourite reasons why the Moon Landings were faked, and the rebuttals

  • IT WAS A POLITICAL STUNT TO WIN THE SPACE RACE: A logical argument at least, but this would require the cooperation of Russia, the USA's cold war rival. Seeing as Russia had space technology of their own, it wouldn't have been too hard to disprove the Moon landings if they were fake. But instead, they played along, even though it meant doing a favour to their arch rivals and global competitors. Is that how wars work, even Cold ones? During WWII, Germany broadcast constant propaganda to the UK, about fictional battles that the allies had badly lost, in order to crush the morale of the populace. Of course, the British authorities confirmed these claims, because the Nazi's asked nicely and they'd gone to so much effort already.
  • THERE ARE NO STARS IN THE SKY IN ANY PHOTOS OF THE LUNAR SURFACE: This is normally the conspiracy 'trump card'. But you try taking a photo of the moon with a regular camera, you won't see any stars. The moon is too bright, to do it right you need to have specific cameras etc. Anyone with the most basic grasp of photography could tell you this.
  • ITS TOO DIFFICULT TO GO TO THE MOON: Logically it would be easier to fake it, right? No. You'd have to get the 1000s of people involved in the 'cover-up' to play along for the rest of their lives, plus stage an elaborate forgery which was detailed enough to convince all the relevant media and your arch enemies despite such forgeries being far beyond the technologies available at the time, plus stage a realistic looking 'fake' launch that people could witness. In comparison, a lunar mission is just a question of physics.
  • SPACE IS TOO DANGEROUS: Yes, there's a lot of radiation up there, yes there are micrometeorites travelling at such speeds that they could smash open a craft, yes the sun could bake an exposed human to a crisp in seconds without atmospheric protection. But people thought of that. Radiation protection was designed in, there are micrometeorites but the vast emptiness of space means a collision is incredibly unlikely, and the moon landings happened during a quiet solar period.
  • THIS WOULDN'T HAPPEN ON EARTH...: I've seen this phrase pop up many times when some nutter analyses as flimsy piece of evidence, and the conclusion relies on the fact that 'on Earth, this doesn't happen...', which always leads me to internally scream THEY'RE NOT ON EARTH! Logically, they're contradicting their own argument. Instant credibility drop of -46 points.
There are plenty of other arguments, all of which can be found with a quick Google search, and all of which are based on a profound or even wilful lack of scientific understanding. As genius critic/columnist and super-cynic Charlie Brooker so aptly points out, Science is our best friend, and best friends are people who tell us things we don't necessarily want to hear.

Long blog this one, sorry bout that, just trying to compensate for the two previous silly ones.

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