On skin colour in Asians

There\’s a bit of a disconnect here. Yes, we know that (especially from the sub-Continent but also in other parts of Asia) the lighter the skin the better looking the woman is considered. Thus the proliferation of lightening creams.

We also know why:

Perhaps it was once a sign of social class: only poor people needed to toil in the sun, so a dark, weatherbeaten face testified to a lowly station. Perhaps the belief hardened during India’s long, violent history, in which power and wealth were associated with fair-skinned marauders such as the Aryans.

Indeed, there are those who argue that (and there\’s sufficient DNA evidence to make their argument stand up, if not to entirely prove it) that the caste system is part and parcel of that ensuring that the light skinned Aryans continue to rule to roost over the darker indigenes, right down the generations.

That first explanation worked in almost all European societies up until the 1950s-1960s of course, when it went into sudden reverse and it was the tan that became the mark of a higher social class (class isn\’t quite right there: status or wealth perhaps). As everyone now worked indoors it was those who could afford to jet away to the winter sun who were displaying status by having a tan, not those with the milky white skin of never having had to work in the fields.

And thus we now have the opposite of those lightening creams: the fake tan and the tanning salon and, yes, they are hugely used by those in exactly the same socio-economic positions as those using the lightening creams.

The disconnect comes in the rest of Anjana Ahuja\’s piece. She has correctly answered the question of why these creams are used. And then spends the rest of the piece asking why these creams are used?


Regional variations in life span

No, I know, this isn\’t all of the story but it is at least part of it.

The places where people live long lives seem to be those places which people go to when they retire. Thus it isn\’t that thy are places which make people live long lives: it\’s that those living long lives go there.

The mayor, John Burden  –  a lifelong resident  –  said: \’I would like to say our longevity is because we have good Christian people. But we have clean air and good local produce with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables available.

\’I don\’t think it\’s anything to do with being born here. I can walk through the town these days and hardly see anyone I grew up with.\’


Darwin and large families

Only a little side note really:

Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, of whom seven survived to adulthood. Although only three provided Darwin with grandchildren,

You can see why people had large families…..if only 30% of your children provide you with grandchildren then you need a pretty good number just to keep the genes being passed on….

Sir David King: moronic twat

The Iraq war was just the first of this century\’s "resource wars", in which powerful countries use force to secure valuable commodities for themselves, according to the UK government\’s former chief scientific adviser.

Sir David King predicted that with human population growing, natural resources dwindling and seas rising because of climate change, the squeeze on the planet would lead to more conflict.

"I\’m going to suggest that future historians might look back on our particular recent past and see the Iraq war as the first of the conflicts of this kind – the first of the resource wars," he told an audience of 400 in London as he delivered the British Humanist Association\’s Darwin Day lecture.

So let\’s think about this a little.

Joe Stiglitz tells us that the Iraq war will, in total, cost the US $3 trillion.

Oil\’s currently $45 a barrel or so.

So that money would buy, umm, 66 billion barrels.

Iraq has some 112 billion barrels of proven reserves.

Hmm, so, maybe?

Well, no. This still ignores two very basic facts. The first is that everyone is still paying Iraq for each and every barrel of oil. It\’s a bit silly to go paying for things twice over, isn\’t it?

The second is the response to those who say that it\’s all about access.

This ignores the meaning of the word fungible.

This is, I\’m afraid, the sort of moronic twattery that you get when scientists stray off the rather norrow confines of their specialist subject.


Science provides natural explanations for your existence – a map which tells us where you are and what you are. If you don’t think such explanations are important, existence is probably wasted on you.

Erm, no

Or maybe yes.

The Formula AE car will use a solar-powered battery to get it moving but will then use the airflow passing over the vehicle to power a turbine.

It will be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds and is expected to cost around £100,000 when it hits the market.

Four strategically placed air intakes, which will be built discretely into the car\’s bodywork, will channel the airflowover the car\’s body towards the turbine.

There are two intakes on the front of the car and one on each side towards the rear.

The turbine itself is hidden within the car body and will be connected to an alternator which will increase the amount of electricity available to the car by 20 to 25 per cent.

Given that I know nothing about engineering it\’s a little difficult for me to comment. But isn\’t this like blowing at the sails in a yacht and expecting it to move?

You\’re trying to capture the energy from the airflow. OK. But no energy system is 100% efficient. So aren\’t you going to lose more energy capturing it (as opposed to just letting it pass by) then you\’re going to get from it?

Or have I just shown that I really don\’t know anything about engineering? Or physics?


The Ig Nobels

A decent crop this year, although they do seem to have changed a little bit from honouring completely nutty research to honouring really rather good research which only sounds nutty at first.


Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico for discovering that lap dancers get larger tips when they are ovulating.

This touches on something really rather important. We know that there\’s something of a game going on between men and women over when women ovulate. We\’re pretty much the only mammal that doesn\’t in fact advertise the moments of maximum fertility. In this game women are attempting to hide when they are indeed fertile. But if the strippers get higher tips when they are ovulating, this presumably means that men can in fact tell, even if only subconsciously, when they are.

Which shows that there might be a few rounds in this game still to go.


Dan Ariely at Duke University for demonstrating that expensive placebos are better painkillers than cheaper ones.

And that\’s got a lot of implications for health care, doesn\’t it?

On the subject of science…

This is rather a good example of it.

Darwin looking into whether blondes were more or less likely to get married and have children than darker haired women. Thus, was the population going to become darker haired over time?

Now, from memory, this is before we (that is, the world in general) found out about Mendel\’s work on peas and thus knew about the inheritance characteristics of dominant and recessive genes (looking it up I see I\’m right, and that Darwin\’s alternative theory was wrong).

So, he tries to collect the data by teaming up with a doctor and studying the women who attended a hospital. Then:

"Eventually Darwin came to the conclusion that the experimental basis was not good enough. Both Beddoe and Darwin came to the conclusion that the original results were misleading and didn\’t make sufficient allowance for the darkening of hair with age."

That\’s good science that is….theory, collect evidence, realise that the evidence cannot be used to prove the theory one way or the other….then drop theory.

Sure, it would be wonderful to be able to prove such things one way or another, but the science consists of the methods by which you provide such proofs. And if you can\’t provide the proof in a scientific manner than you\’re not able to provide the proofs.



No, not the results here:

Babies conceived through IVF are much more likely to die at birth than those conceived naturally, the results of a new study show.

The death of babies is never to be considered excellent.

No, rather, we\’ve got a perfect example of two things: the state of science reporting and the much better state of science.

For there we\’ve got our headline, that IVF babies are more likely to die than those conceived naturally. Which isn\’t in fact what the article itself says at all.

Rather, the study looked at births conceived naturally, then those conceived naturally to women who also had one via IVF and then to those as a result of IVF from the same women.

Yes, IVF risks were higher than the first group: but much much lower than those in the third.

So, the result is that IVF, amongst those women who have had both that and conceived naturally, is much less risky than natural.

Her results also show that among women who conceived with fertility treatment but also had another child naturally, the spontaneously conceived baby was three times more likely to die than its IVF sibling.

"The adverse outcomes of assisted fertilisation that we noted compared with those in the general population could therefore be attributable to the factors leading to infertility, rather than to factors related to the reproductive technology," Dr Romundstad said.

So, zero points to the headline writer for getting the wrong end of the stick and many plus points to the researchers themselves for doing what all too few do. Looking at correlation and causation in a mature manner. Looking at babies conceived by IVF alone is never going to tell us all that much, for those created that way will of course be to people who already have problems with conception in some manner. ( We might also note that the 30% rise in risk isn\’t in fact all that large as the absolute risks are pretty low: 6 in a thousand is it? But the three times increase is indeed large.)

Spiralling off into pure speculation (as I am wont to do and as usual, on the basis of very little fact) what might explain that huge gap between natural and IVF in the same women? Well, umm, might it be the men? Some subset of IVF births are with donated eggs. Some subset are with the woman\’s own eggs but donated sperm and another with the couple\’s own of both.

OK, perhaps not the men in fact, but those natural conceptions will obviously be with the couple\’s own gametes….while a substantial portion of the IVF births will be with one or another (or both) sets donated. So the higher risk amongst the naturals comes from the very point that (some) IVF is designed to overcome. Gametes that just aren\’t up to scratch.


Finally, I find out where this excellent phrase comes from.

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Niels Bohr.

It would have to be quantum, wouldn\’t it?

Explaining fish evolution

You can imagine in a few million years, when flatfish have finally got themselves sorted out and the eyes are beautifully symmetrical over a neat horizontal mouth, that future generations of IDers will be loudly demanding to know how such a creature could possibly have evolved from ordinary fish. Where, they\’ll ask, is the missing link?

And the answer will be, well, we ate most of them with chips, peas, and a dollop of tartare sauce.

Well, There is an Answer to This Question, Of Course.

Far from showing how swiftly the world is advancing, the Phoenix mission is another dispiriting reminder of how the pace of change in the world is regressing.

It\’s 2008, for Pete\’s sake. Weren\’t we supposed to be taking holidays on Mars by 2008? When we watched Star Trek as children, didn\’t we assume that by the 21st century we\’d be in silver one-piece suits, visiting galaxies, meeting aliens with eyeballs the size of watermelons and nostril foliage like an upturned version of Don King\’s hairdo? In fact, we can barely travel across London without havoc (what happened to those personal jetpacks we were promised?). Japan\’s Bullet Train is almost half a century old and we still haven\’t built anything that matches it for grace and punctuality. Concorde, far from being a first step to being able to fly to Sydney in an hour, has died. Supersonic travel died with it.

Just like Al Gore used to be the next president of the United States, the future used to be the next phase awaiting mankind. That\’s how the future is supposed to work, isn\’t it? But all around us lies spooky evidence that the world may actually be moving in reverse.

If you look at the list of technologies that have indeed advanced rapidly as against that list which has either stagnated or regressed, you\’ll see an interesting point.

Those that have advanced are those (generally, to be sure) where individuals and markets have been left alone to play. Those that have stagnated or regressed are those where governments and bureaucracies have strained mightily to pick winners. And with their usual efficiency, have notably failed to do so.

Whjy, we might even go so far as to start assuming that it\’s not just a correlation, that there might even be some causality here?

Eat Your Breakfast to Have a Son

This is interesting. Confirmation of something which has been seen in other species but not (at least as far as I know) in humans.

The first evidence that women can influence the sex of their child by what they eat before they become pregnant is published today.

The study, which links higher energy intake around conception to the birth of sons, provides the first explanation of why the number of boy babies is in decline in the west, suggesting it is the result of women consuming low fat foods and skipping breakfast, among other things.

In times of plenty, more sons are born, in hard times, more daughters. The reason is:

The work complements studies of other animals that shows that more sons are produced when a mother has plentiful resources or is high ranking, reflecting how boys are more taxing to raise.

"Boys breast feed for longer and for more," she says. "There is evidence from traditional societies that mothers invest more time in bringing up boys. And if a mother has plentiful resources then it can make sense to invest in producing a son because he is likely to produce more grandchildren than would a daughter. However, in leaner times having a daughter is a safer bet."

The phenomenon, where lean times are linked with daughters, has been most extensively studied in insects, but is also seen in horses, cows and some species of deer.

Dr Mathews adds: "Potentially, males of most species can father more offspring than females, but this can be strongly influenced by the size or social status of the male, with poor quality males failing to breed at all.

Females, on the other hand, reproduce more consistently. The mechanism is not yet understood in mammals, but it is known from IVF research that high glucose levels encourage the development of male embryos while inhibiting female embryos. In humans, skipping breakfast depresses glucose levels and so may be interpreted by the body as indicating poor environmental conditions and low food availability.

If you\’re going to raise a scrawny son because of the shortage of resources, said son is unlikely to breed, a scrawny daughter is more likely to breed than a scrawny son.

No, I\’m not a scientist, most certainly not a biologist, but I would assume that the sex selection takes place at implanation or not of the blasotocyst (if that\’s the correct word?).



The Dream of Every Scientist

“Our result show that one of the main assumptions of current models and theories is, in fact, quite wrong."

It doesn\’t matter what the subject is (in this case it\’s how starlings flock, but it could be about meiosis, hormesis or haplotypes) that\’s the one phrase that every scientist wants to be able to stand up in public and say. Preferably with proof of course.

It\’s also, to a large extent, why this science stuff works. People are endlessly trying to disprove the assumptions of others, not to find reasons why they are right, but to find out why they are wrong. What survives this process tends to be robust.

That\’s Nice

For some at least.

The Pentagon is spending billions of dollars on new forms of space warfare to counter the growing risk of missile attack from rogue states and the "satellite killer" capabilities of China.

Congress has allocated funds to develop futuristic weapons and intelligence systems that operate beyond the Earth\’s atmosphere as America looks past Iraq and Afghanistan to the wars of the future.

There will be those who gorge on the contracts sent out on an emergency basis.

The most ambitious project in a new $459 billion (£221.5 billion) defence spending Bill is the Falcon, a reusable "hypersonic vehicle" that could fly at six times the speed of sound and deliver 12,000lb of bombs anywhere in the world within minutes.

Unfortunately we\’ve already been involved in that one and I don\’t think we passed the required standards. Hafnium carbide is a) the most refractory (ie, highest melting point known) material and b) bloody hard to make.

This though looks much more interesting:

Darpa is also developing a small unmanned launch vehicle that would provide "responsive and affordable" access to space, for less than $5 million per launch. The first test flight was made in March.

Getting into orbit for that sort of price is an order of magnitude improvement. Only one more order of magnitude needed and we\’ll be "there". "There" being just about anywhere, for as has been pointed out, once you\’re in orbit, you\’re not half way to the Moon, you\’re half way to anywhere.

Racial Differences

This is a very odd statement for a scientist, a geneticist, to make:

Despite his frantic backtracking, James Watson\’s statement that Africans are less intelligent than Europeans follows a long and dubious tradition of geneticists claiming that supposed racial differences have a genetic basis.

If racial differences do not have a genetic basis then it\’s very difficult to think what they might be based upon. Things like the preponderance of red hair in Scotland, of long distance runners in East Africa, sprinters in West, epicanthic folds in Asia: these are clearly genetic markers of what we call race.

We can argue that race isn\’t an important idea, that our common humanity (and indeed, the fact that variability within groups is almost always larger than that between group averages) means we should disregard it.

We can also argue that while some things are indeed racial differences and have a genetic basis, that the things that people think are (to be crude, dick size, or to be less so, sexual appetite, or in this case, intelligence) are in fact not.

But to claim that none of the observable differences between different groups of humans have a genetic basis is simply absurd.

BTW, on what Watson actually said, that "Africans" or "blacks" have certain genetic traits that make them less intelligent than other groups. Others have pointed out that even the measurement of intelligence, let alone its inheritability, is still somewhat controvesial…..but to me the claim fails for a very different reason.

Let us assume many of his points: that there are groupings of humans that correlate with what we think of as races, That there is some genetic determination, some traits of these groups that are inheritable. If we do assume all of that then we do not get to a situation where we can talk about "Africans". For, at least as I understand it, there is more genetic variation in Africa than there is in the rest of the world.

The Zulu, the Pygmy, the Khoi San, the Ibo, Amhara, Dinka, (add groups to taste) show more variation between them than is found in the rest of humanity put together. Thus to state that "Africans" are genetically this or that is simply nonsense.