Finally, a level-headed statement on the abortion act. I sometimes despair of how abortion seems to be a battle-ground sans scientific evidence to back up wide-reaching statements. Admittedly, those who oppose late-stage abortions do so under moral arguments, but there is no reason why a moral argument should not be based on evidence.
30 October 2007
I like Stephen Fry. I don't know him personally, but I enjoy his writing, his blethering, his somewhat awkward sense of style. Not being a stalker-fan, I wasn't aware that he was a gadget-freak until his recent outing. Like I said, not a stalker-fan.
That said, I take great umbrage at one sentiment in his latest post about his adoration of all things dorky:
So, believe me, a love of gizmos doesn’t make me averse to paper, leather and wood, old-fashioned Christmases, Preston Sturges films and country walks. Nor does it automatically mean I read Terry Pratchett, breathe only through my mouth and bring my head slightly too close to the bowl when I eat soup.
I was in complete agreement with him apart from that. What exactly is wrong with pTerry's books? And is his loose sentence construction describing Terry Pratchett readers as being mouth-breathers and head-lowerers? I was appalled. Then chastened. It's true. Every word.
Incidentally, probably apart from the lack of Discworld book ownership, Stephen Fry has described the majority of computer users. I'm not talking about those who just use Microsoft Office for work, but those of us who use them to organise our photos, music, movies, lives, work, and perhaps even interact with others socially1. Most of us who couldn't care less which OS you run on what machine built by whom2. And yes, not everyone's on World of Warcraft (although I would if I had the time).
1 Or anti-socially in the case of trolls.
2 Unless you're a jealous and spiteful git. What's with Windows users mocking me on my Mac over here anyway? I was a very early cross-OS user with a MacintoshII in my early childhood (oh SAM...), an IBM running MS-DOS followed by Windows 3.1 in my early teens was the home PC, and I built myself a series of cheap desktops since then running the whole range of Windows OS until XP, when I moved over to experiment with some of the free Linux OS. A power-board death of my last Fedora-running laptop left me stranded in LA without a home computer, hence the purchase of a Powerbook, which incidentally, is very cheap on this side of the pond. I've loved and hated aspects of ALL the systems I've made and bought in my short lifetime. I just like my Powerbook right now. It does the job quite nicely. Rant? Me? No... I just get constantly ridiculed about my Mac. It seems almost personal. Finally, a "PC" way to stigmatise somebody. They can't make fun of my Scottish accent on a Chinese face, but they can mock my choice of OS. And my dog. They mock my ownership of a dog too.
3 Fark. That was a rant, wasn't it? Sorry....
25 October 2007
One of the most level-headed things I've read about the shooting of Charles de Menezes by the Met:
However, [Clare Montgomery, QC] told the jury: "If the Metropolitan Police are exposing the people of London to danger because they are not doing what is reasonable and what is practicable, it is surely in the interests of Londoners that you say so."
The case for the defence sounds a bit more like a John le Carré novel.
18 October 2007
Mr Justice Burton was asked to rule on whether An Inconvenient Truth could be shown in UK schools. He agreed that it could, provided the "one sided" film was accompanied by guidance notes for teachers.
The case was brought by school governor Stewart Dimmock, from Dover, a father of two, and who is a member of the New Party.
Mr Dimmock did not want the movie distributed to schools. He called the Oscar-winner a "shock-umentary" and objected to children being "indoctrinated with this political spin".
I remember vividly reading a National Geographic magazine about greenhouse gases and how increases in said gases have caused global warming1. This was back when I was a very impressionable child, and it spurred me, along with my peers, to action. From then on, we damn well switched lights, computers and TVs off whenever we weren't abusing our gawd-given right to electricity. It didn't make me a tree-hugging eco-warrior, but it made me very aware of humans' actions on their environment. Photos of polar bears will usually do that.
Nonetheless, it started a lifetime of being careful and making the greenest-possible choices with my limited willpower and means. Damn right I was an impressionable child. Who knows how my life would have been different if National Geographic had been more responsible and published guidance notes to temper the one-sidedness of the greenhouse gases->global warming message. I ought to sue! They denied me decades of swanning about in low-MPG SUVs like the Glorious Humvee, sleeping by the glow of my 200-inch TV and banks of computer monitors, commuting by plane every week from Asia to Europe. And it would have saved me countless hours of sorting my glass from plastic from paper from metal waste. Hours I could have spent swanning about in my Glorious Humvee.
1 Incidentally, this is now known to be an overly simplistic view, but the take-home message is still the same.
17 October 2007
Sometimes I wonder where the breakdown in communication between scientists and journalists lies. In this article about a recent study on a DNA damage checkpoint enzyme, the Beeb describes the study as such:
Research into how the human body repairs damaged DNA has been described as a "major breakthrough".
The way that cells protect themselves from diseases like cancer has been the focus of a study by scientists at Dundee and Leeds Universities.
The enzyme studied1 indeed has a crucial role in DNA damage repair, a mechanism that prevents the DNA in cells from getting more and more mangled with every replication cycle. But to conflate a study on structural analysis of a bacteriophage2 enzyme with cancer in humans annoys me a little. It's sexing up the topic beyond its current reach3.
Some of the responsibility for conflation of basic science with translational/clinical applications lies with scientists. We have to justify what we do: to the funding agencies, to our peers, to the editors of journals, and to the public that ultimately funds our research by taxation. So everything we do has to somehow, however tenuously, be tied in to some disease or some way to make human life better4. So every time we publish our findings, we make that link, however thin, to some major health concern: cancer, heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune diseases, cancer, blah blah blah. And the journalists, with their need to write an interesting article, take a lot of our fatuous crap on faith. Don't ask for solutions. I have none. I am guilty of the same damn crime.
1 Sorry, it's not open access. You're unlikely to be able to read the full thing outside of a first world university/college. It's a bugger isn't it? Incidentally, does anyone else get annoyed that they don't link to the studies in PubMed or even list the first author? Then again, if they had, I wouldn't have seen via PubMed that one of the authors, David Lilley, has published in both Nature AND Science in the space of a week. That's rare.
2 Bacteriophages are a type of virus that "infect" bacteria. Yep. Even bacteria get viral infections. Isn't nature amazing?
3 Don't get me wrong. I think this structural analysis of the protein is a great step forward in understanding how DNA damage repair works. The next step may happen yet. I just don't think the next immediate step is preventing cancer.
4 Caveat: I refer here to research funded by the Medical Research Council in the UK or the various National Institutes of Health etc in the US. My world is very narrow.
15 October 2007
What the great one says, with research substituted for writing.
You don't live there always when you write. Mostly it's a long hard walk. Sometimes it's a trudge through fog and you're scared you've lost your way and can't remember why you set out in the first place.
But sometimes you fly, and that pays for everything. --Neil Gaiman, genius.
True of any creative field, I suspect. Science to outsiders may not seem as creative as, say, painting or writing. But it is an artform in a way. And every day, we have to find creative solutions to problems1. It's a hard, hard slog; sometimes with no end in sight (like right now!). But the occasional insight into the functioning of the universe makes it all worthwhile.
1 Whether hypothetical or simply practical in terms of lab practice
Menzies' leaving is not much of a surprise. The timing was probably not to his own plans though. But hey, if a general election is a year away, the Lib Dems probably want to get their leadership battle out of the way and all the nasty words forgotten by the time voters cast their ballot.
14 October 2007
It was moving. Shocking. Gripping. And emotionally draining.
The National Theatre of Scotland brought their production of Black Watch to Los Angeles this month. 1. There wasn't a chance in hell that I was going to miss it. And I dragged P along so he didn't have to be the only Perthshire accent on campus for once.
Black Watch is a masterfully crafted piece of theatre. You're sucked in instantly: fascinated by the potty-mouthed neddish lads and their casual sexism and sexual harassment. But they soon become more than stereotypical soldier-types. The playwright, Gregory Burke, didn't feel the need to throw in the usual human-interest wife and kids angle to get us to see these guys as fellow human beings. None of the crap that the Sun and its like put out whenever they run those "our lads in Iraq" pieces. There's not much point in putting in some spoiler space here. After all, this is inspired by recent history. There's no need to explain to you that the media interest in the Black Watch started with the poor timing of the announcement of their regiment's disbandment, which coincided with its deployment in Falluja. Poor PR by Her Majesty's government on the one hand, but without which the world would be poorer by an excellent play. If anything, the loss of the Black Watch as an independent regiment has given us the chance to hear the collective voice of the soldiers who were interviewed for this to happen.
Political statements aside, the direction was superb. The choreography was unexpected and the fighting in balletic fashion somehow made it all the more poignant without romanticising the aggression. The physical nature of the acting somehow brought home the realisation that these are people who live their lives through brawn.
Among the reviews posted on the UCLA page and echoed elsewhere on the interwebs, there are opinions that viewing Black Watch should be compulsory. I would add my voice to this. It not only helps you start to understand why some men/women (but mostly men) enlist, but also some of the disillusionment that they must feel. As said several times in different ways, the "Allied" forces in Iraq had already "won" the "war". It's the peacekeeping that's killing everyone now.
Funniest line of the night: [Description of what life in mortar-filled Iraq is like] "It's like Perth Road [in Dundee] on a Saturday night."
Slightly awkward moment in a mainly American audience: [When the squad was ambushed and stranded] "If we were Americans, we'd have been fucking airlifted out by now."
1 And they're taking it to New York after this weekend. Where it joins their production of Wolves in the Walls, which is as opposite a piece of theatre as I can imagine. Not that I wouldn't enjoy it; being based on a Gaiman and McKean collaboration.
11 October 2007
Walking the dog a couple of nights ago, we passed a sign1 that made me smile. And I just couldn't resist using it. So there. The damage is done. Tell me if I should undo it.
1 I'd like to credit the corny genius behind the sign-tist chain of sign shops for this.
While we're blathering about science, the recent award of a Nobel prize to Mario Capecchi, Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies made me remember how much I used to curse their blasted brains during the PhD years. You guys deserve a Nobel prize for making 3 years of my nascent scientific life hell. Then again, without your pioneering work, there'd be no work for the skill-less people in the world like me.
I've been thinking about the future1, my place in it, and my place in scientific research. Having bored myself silly with self-centeredness, I looked further afield. Back in July2, Professor Greenfield was deploring the lack of female scientists in the higher echelons of her profession. She makes a few fair points, but, as can only be expected with such a complex problem, has no solutions. I'd only add that many male scientists face the same problems as female scientists3: publish or perish, wave farewell to a life outside the lab, bid your aging reproductive organs good day and goodbye4, watch all peers ascend on the property ladder while you slum it out, suffer from intense self-doubt5, blah, blah, moan, whinge, whine. Oh, we're back to self-centeredness again. Regardless of the problems and lack of solutions, I got a darn good laugh out of this comment to Prof. Greenfield's article:
"Maybe women scientists are that much more intelligent so they realise that as a career, scientific research is a joke?" --WinstonTheChair
1 And no, it's not orange.
2 When my head was so far down a microscope there was no light input save that of the very expensive laser. And no, it wasn't orange either.
3 I should know; I live with one.
4 Granted, this is more a problem for XX than XY. But without XX, XY in a partnership with a scientist XX can't do much about it.
5 Believe me, even the most arrogant of scientists has moments of self-doubt. There is perhaps, though, a reciprocal relationship between success in science and self-doubt.
10 October 2007
As a sign of how little I read outside science these days, it's taken a full week for this debacle to reach my consciousness via the sharpener. And without launching into is-he-or-isn't-he 1, the Sharpener article's comment about prevalent mud-flinging attitudes reminded me of a recent Doonesbury comic [clicky the linky; I don't want to break copyright law and reproduce it here]. LOL all you want. It's sad but true that we are headed towards an era of smear2.
1 For what it's worth, I really don't think Dawkins can be accurately named and shamed as an anti-semite. If anything, as a devout atheist, he's just anti-any-religion-you-care-to-name. Call him an anti-religionist if you must. Anti-semite has overtones of picking on a particular racial and religious group that we all know has been very badly treated by the world in general lately. Bad choice of example. But then again, can you choose any example of religious dominance in state-run affairs and not offend anybody? Hell no.
2 And I don't mean PAP smears. No, those are good things. If we were headed into the era of free PAP smears for all women, that would be much better...
08 October 2007
Curious Hamster is back to posting1, and as usual, I'm nodding my head in agreement with much of his observations on the state of British politics. I've been thinking recently, what with the deification of Boris Johnson. Oh, what's that? He's just running for mayor? Oh that's alright then. Anyway. It got me to thinking about the damage the Blair era of lies2 had done to politics, let alone the state of the nation. And how it needed a shake-up of sorts. A way of focusing on workable policies instead of false promises. Ah ha ha ha. How naive. Cameron's rehearsed speech did nothing for me. Quite like the inquisitive hamster, it had me in stitches instead. But the comparison of Cameron to Blair with the pronouncement of accompanying doom was sobering. There is no alternative to Brown. Whatever the News of the World's poll says, Labour is still pretty much in power and will be at least for another general election. Whenever Brown has the guts to call it. Sobering.
1 He's been back for a while, but I haven't. So it's taking me some time to get through his recent posts.
2 Oops. Sorry. It's this broken keyboard of mine. I meant spin of course.
01 October 2007
I switch the computer off for a few days1 and this happens. WTH? Did I side-slip into an alternate dimension? Is my interwebs pulling a fast one on me? This type of shit you can expect from countries with dictatorships, not the UK. Oh, hang on...
1 OK, a few weeks.2
2 And it'll be a few weeks more if this type of shit keeps happening to our freedom of speech (bar libel, wot is a tricky area).