Wednesday, October 08, 2008


So here's Palin's excuse for her fucking lame performance in the Katie Couric interview. She was pivoting apparently:

Palin told Carl that she was "annoyed" at some of the interviews she has done, "Ok I'll tell you honestly the Sarah Palin in those interviews is a little bit annoyed because it's man no matter what you say you are going to get clobbered. If you choose to answer a question you are going to get clobbered on the answer," Palin said. "If you choose to try and pivot and go on to another subject that you believe that Americans want to hear about you get clobbered for that too."

Here's another example of a crazy person incoherently pivoting:

If you can't get the staff.....

.....employ a monkey waiter! According to the BBC:

A restaurant in Japan has some unusual waiting staff on its books - two macaque monkeys.

Yatchan and Fukuchan serve customers hot towels and drinks, and are given soya beans as tips.

The monkeys are family pets who have been allowed to help in the bar. Animal rights regulations mean the premises have been visited to ensure the creatures are not being mistreated.

Here's a video of the little chaps:

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Has human evolution stopped

Famous UCL geneticist Steve Jones is being quoted in various places as saying that human evolution has stopped:

Health, birth control and the healing power of lust all conspire to tell us that, at least in the developed world, and at least for the time being, evolution is over. So, if you are worried about what Utopia is going to be like, cheer up - you are living in it now.

Jones isn't the first to argue that human evolution has stopped; Francis Collins has also done so, albeit primarily for religious reasons. It's an interesting claim. There is a large amount of evidence suggesting that humans have been evolving a fair bit recently (recent being the last few thousand years). There have been a few studies taking a general look at evidence for recent positive selection. For example:

Wang, E.T. et al. (2006) Global landscape of recent inferred Darwinian selection for Homo sapiens. PNAS, 103, 135-140.


Voight, B.F. et al. (2006) A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome. PLoS Biology, 4, e72.

As I say, these take a wider perspective, looking at the whole of the genome. There is also research that focuses in much more specifically, on a gene or two, related to a particular trait. The Lahn lab has been at the forefront of this, for example with evidence that resistance to malaria may have developed as recently as 1600 years ago:

Tishkoff, S.A. et al. (2001) Haplotype Diversity and Linkage Disequilibrium at Human G6PD: Recent Origin of Alleles That Confer Malarial Resistance. Science, 293, 455 - 462.

in addition to work which demonstrates that a gene important in regulating brain size arose only 5800 years ago and was subject to very strong positive selection:

Mekel-Bobrov, N. et al (2005) Ongoing Adaptive Evolution of ASPM, a Brain Size Determinant in Homo sapiens. Science, 309, 1720 - 1722.

The apogee of the whole recent positive selection stuff was reached last year when John Hawks published a paper arguing for accelerated human evolution during the late Pleistocene. He has an excellent summary of his research here and the paper is:

Hawks, J. et al. (2007) Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. PNAS, 104, 20753-20758.

The conclusion of the paper is important in the context of what Steve Jones is saying:

It is sometimes claimed that the pace of human evolution should have slowed as cultural adaptation supplanted genetic adaptation. The high empirical number of recent adaptive variants would seem sufficient to refute this claim [3, 6]. It is important to note that the peak ages of new selected variants in our data do not reflect the highest intensity of selection, but merely our ability to detect selection. Due to the recent acceleration, many more new adaptive mutations should exist than have yet been ascertained, occurring at a faster and faster rate during historic times. Adaptive alleles with frequencies under 22% should then greatly outnumber those at higher frequencies. To the extent that newadaptive alleles continued to reflect demographic growth, the Neolithic and later periods would have experienced a rate of adaptive evolution more than 100 times higher than characterized most of human evolution. Cultural changes have reduced mortality rates, but variance in reproduction has continued to fuel genetic change [47]. In our view, the rapid cultural evolution during the Late Pleistocene created vastly more opportunities for further genetic change, not fewer, as new avenues emerged for communication, social interactions, and creativity.
Now, it's important to note that the research above is generally looking at things that have occurred in the last few thousand years, so it's possible that Jones is right and that human evolution has stopped in the last 100 years or so. However it's a conclusion reached without any actual evidence. When we consider the large amount of evolution taking place up until very recently (and possibly continuing) and the final bolded sentence above, we should be very wary of what Jones says.

For a more specific look at why Jones is wrong, read Razib over at Gene Expression. Key quote:

When I initially read the quotes from Jones in The Times I was alarmed, but wondered if his position was being taken out of context or misinterpreted. I emailed a prominent evolutionary biologist who I suspected would know Jones well enough to clarify this issue. My correspondent responded that Jones really does believe this, and he finds Jones' ideas as ludicrous as I do (adding for good measure he doesn't get the sense that Jones has a really good grasp of population genetics).

Lehman CEO gets punched

Arf arf

No vid of the actual event unfortunately, but see this:

Monday, October 06, 2008


Here is the dictionary definition of hypocrisy:

n. pl. hy·poc·ri·sies
  1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
  2. An act or instance of such falseness.
Or, if you'd prefer, here is a picture based definition:

"Pope criticises pursuit of wealth"

Friday, October 03, 2008

Empire in Black and Gold - book review

Another book review. This time I've provided a much smaller picture of the cover than I did for my review of Brasyl. The reason is simple - the cover is terrible. Cheap and lazy looking. This is a real shame because it actually masks one of the better fantasy debuts in recent memory. Empire in Black and Gold is written by new boy to the scene, Adrian Tchaikovsky.

The book begins with one of the principal characters, Stenwold Maker, witnessing the fall of a Lowland city to the soldiers of the Wasp Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades and Stenwold is trying to warn the complacent movers and shakers in the Lowlands. The book follows Stenwold and his allies attempts to thwart the Empire. That's pretty much it. So far so predictable.

Why should I bother with this book you might be thinking. Well this description only tells a part of the picture - I mentioned the Wasp Empire. This isn't purely descriptive, the Empire consists of humans with wasp like characteristics. The world of Empire in Black and Gold is split into racial groups along insect based lines. These groups are Kinden and we have beetles, dragonfly, spiders, moths, ants and so on. Each of these has distinct physical characteristics related to their insect designation and also distinct cultural traits. This idea is ripe with opportunities for exploring serious issues like racism but it is also simply enjoyably imaginative and open to a wide range of possibilities. It's a genuinely interesting addition to the world of fantasy literature.

In addition to this we aren't dealing with the bog-standard quasi mediaeval secondary world. 500 years ago, the Lowlands were ruled by the Moths, a mystical kinden with control of magic and a tyranical domination of the other races. They were eventually overthrown by the rationalist species, in particular the Beetles. This led to the demise of magic from general usage to the point where few believe in it beyond the Moths and their client Kinden. The Beetles are skilled craftspeople and they eventually propelled the world towards a sort of proto-industrial revolution. The book is therefore filled with early flying machines, the development of trains and steam power. Certain elements of traditional fantasy world; we are still talking about swords and taverns and whatnot. However, the transitional nature of the world is interesting and fun to explore.

The book isn't perfect. The prose is a bit clumsy in places, particularly early on, and not all the characters are massively interesting. Although I have praised the worldbuilding, for me it is actually a bit light in places - hopefully the background of the Kinden and the history of the world will be explored in greater depth in future books (it's a trilogy). There is certainly scope for this. Despite these minor issues, this is a very creditable debut and comes highly recommended.

The Guardian and racism

For all it's faults (e.g. employing prize twat Seamus Milne) I'm proud to call myself a Guardian reader; it's the paper that best embodies my social and political views. That said, it does occasionally suffer from the malaise affecting part of the left where supposed anti-imperialism leads to unbalanced criticsm of the US and Israel and tacit support for illiberalism. Nowhere is this better embodied than on Comment Is Free; wade into the comments to many of the blogs and you will find yourself in a conspiracy theory obsessed, anti-semitic, flat-out racist swamp. DavidT at Harry's Place has been following up one particularly interesting case of this. One commenter, Tehrankid77, was notorious for her racist views towards Israel. One such example:

Star of David has been flying inside number 10 since Thatcher days; you are just too blinded by your hatred for the Muslims to notice it.
Now The Graun supposedly have "a zero-tolerance policy on antisemitic postings or any other form of hate speech." This is somewhat contradicted by their tolerance of comments like that above. It is further contradicted by the fact that they ended up commisioning Tehrankid77 to write a column. Then another.

The Guardian is now aware of this situation and they won't be accepting any more articles from Tehrankid77. Which is fine. But you have to wonder why she was on board in the first place. To me it looks like a generally lax attitude towards anti-semitism, that simply wouldn't be allowed were it racism directed towards other groups.

The Guardian needs to shape up and take a firm and consistent stand for anti-racism.

Stop fucking winking at the fucking camera

Well gosh darn it, if she'd have sounded any more Little House on the Prairie I'd have been forced to shovel apple pie down her throat till she exploded with a cheery smile. Here she is, connecting with "Joe Sixpack" and "Hockey Mom" through the medium of extraordinarily transparent folksiness.

Thursday, September 25, 2008



For those not in the know.

I like big cliffs

I really really want to go to Mount Thor on Baffin Island, the earth's greatest purely vertical drop (an impressve 1.25 km):


However, I really really really want to go to the solar systems biggest cliff, on Miranda, a moon of Uranus. Verona Rupes is a mere 20 km high:

Methane - it's time to panic!

The Independent, not known for being, er, a good newspaper in any respect, has another article designed to scare the shit out of the organic falafel eating contingent in Primrose Hill:


In reality, methane is an issue because it is a greenhouse gas and actually a more powerful one than CO2. It therefore clearly needs to be monitored. According to the IPCC, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen due to human activities but have actually been falling over the past couple of decades. This is a trend that needs to continue and we need to keep an eye on global concentrations. One particular property of methane that helps alleviate concern to some extent is the fact that it has a relatively short residence time in the atmosphere. CO2 sticks around for a long time (this is one of the main reasons why it is such a problem), but this is less of an issue with methane.

Sarah Palin is a fucking nutcase part 1342557

So, if McCain gets the nod and then pops his clogs, the president of the United States could be a person who goes to church and gets protected against witchcraft:

Er........seriously, Sarah Palin has to be a joke. Surely.

There's a longer version, with various scary shit here.

Book review - Brasyl


This is my first book review, so hopefully it's not too clunky as I want to do justice to a really good read.

Last night I finished one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking books that I've read in ages; Brasyl, by Ian Macdonald. This novel is set in three different time periods, all of them in Brazil. The first storyline we are introduced to is that of Marcelina Hoffman, a TV producer in modern day Sao Paulo. Marcelina lives a high octane lifestyle, endeavouring to create ever more outrageous reality TV shows, whilst rushing from meeting to capoeira class, to visit her mother and party with her friends, with whom she generally has fairly superficial relationships. It's Marcelina's attempt to meet a disgraced futbol player and film him that propels her life out of control.

The middle storyline takes us into the future, to Sao Paulo in 2032 where we meet Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, a young entrepreneur, attempting to make his way out of the favelas. This future city is ruled by surveillance, contains a vast trash mountain in addition to the huge skyscrapers and is making it's way into the brave new world of quantum computing. Edson gets involved with a "quantumeiro" and his carefully worked plans begin to come apart.

Finally, it is 1732 and a Jesuit preist, Father Luis Quinn has arrived in Brazil. Quinn is sent on a mission up the River Amazon to confront a missionary turned rogue. He is accompanied by Robert Falcon, a French geographer, a rationalist and intellectual sparring partner for Quinn. This proto-Brazil is a brutal place, in which the native "indios" are enslaved and the country is stripped of its natural resources.

All the principal characters are well sketched, believeable and engaging. However, the real strength of this book is Macdonald's evocation of Brazil. He throws you in at the deep end, with liberal usage of Portugese and coloquial Brazilian language. Helpfully there is a glossary included at the back (which I didn't notice till around halfway through). This lingustic approach has the effect of immersing you in his vivid descriptions of Brazilian culture and way of life. It's really one of the most evocative descriptions of place that I've ever read. We go from beach, to favela, to improvised community chruch. From the obsession with futbol, to the old lady who keeps a book of weeping to commemorate her lost sons. I can't praise it highly enough.

Around all this we have the main plot. Which I don't really want to give too much away about. However, the three main storylines are all linked by a narrative that touches on quantum theory and the nature of reality. If this sounds heavy it isn't; there is a real lightness of touch. Plus some really cool knife fights.

If you are in any way interested in SciFi, big ideas, Brazil or simply highly imaginative, beautifully writen books, then this one's for you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

US election - further informed political commentary

That Sarah Palin really is horrendous isn't she.

Glasvegas - a great new band

So, I'm feeling rather ashamed today. I've done something that has betrayed all my core principles. I've fallen for a band that have been hyped up to the eyeballs by teen pop magazine the NME. Sob.

Throught my days as a music fan I've poured every drip of my heart and soul into not jumping on the bandwagons (one usually comes along every few minutes) created by this ludicrous rag. However, this time I've caved. I saw their positive review, read a load of other irritating hype and steeled myself to ignore the lot. However, then I saw ecstatic reviews from sources I trust. I also saw the words "sound a bit like Jesus and Mary Chain". The result was a war of emotions, before a trip to Zavvi and the rather shamefaced handing over of £10 for their debut album.

Guess what. It's really fucking good.

The comparisons to the Jesus and Mary Chain are understandable. There are similarities. However, they're a lot more poppy and accessible. Most of the tracks are pretty anthemic and wouldn't sound out of place in a decent sized venue. Indeed, if they're not careful there is the potential to head on down the road to U2. For the moment though, they've got the balance right. Their lyrics are also worthy of comment, being about social workers, stabbings and shitty relationships with a parent. They're pretty raw but surprisingly powerful.

Anyway, enough waffle. It's better just to listen to the stuff. You can't actually embed these songs on a blog, but head on over to YouTube for a listen:


Daddy's Gone