31 August 2010

More Lough-Lapping Lamentation

Hey - I just found out that a bunch of folks did the Lap the Lough on Sunday in support of the EMMS. And I didn't know, so didn't get the chance to say hello. Ah well - maybe next year, and this time I'll keep my ear closer to the ground.

30 August 2010

Pretty pictures in the Synoptics!

Ian's analysis of synoptic similarities
Over at Irreducible Complexity (a jolly fine blog - I would highly recommend it), Ian has been busy - perhaps this is why we haven't heard from him in a while, but I hope the hiatus was a blip... He has done a cross-comparison between the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. As everyone knows, these gospels are the first three, and contain a huge amount of shared material. We know that none of them were written by eye-witnesses to the events they describe in the life of Jesus the Nazarene, but it is very likely that Matthew and Luke created their gospels by starting with Mark (the most ancient, dating to about 40 years after Jesus died), and working in other material, plus their own bits and bobs. Over subsequent centuries, various scribes and copyists altered some of the material in all three, and we ended up with what we have today.
What Ian has done here (best read the post, of course!) is to compare when Matthew, Mark and Luke agree on specific Greek words in their shared stories about Jesus; this might indicate a shared source. The analysis is interesting, as you can see - it confirms a huge degree of interdependence.
Still, I think it's missing something. What we need is a co-analysis of where the various stories appear, and if there is any sign of deliberate alteration or correction of a more primitive text. For example, most scholars agree that Mark came first (or at least most of it), as its Greek is a bit "countrified"; Luke and Matthew spoke better Greek (both were evidently living in the Hellenistic world, not the Aramaic-steeped wilds of Palestine), and therefore corrected and sanitised Mark in a reverse process of that which Mark Twain used to reflect the dialogue of Huckleberry Finn.
I'm sure this has been done before, but one set of techniques which could be very helpful in sorting these things out would be to use some of the tools of modern bioinformatics, when we search and compare the genomes of different species to infer their evolutionary relationships. I'm going to toddle off to have a wee think about this, and may report back...

28 August 2010

BBC dumb and dumber and dumberer...

BBC health correspondents catch a
few rays while dreaming up headlines
What in tarnation is the Beeb trying to do these days? Hot on the heels of some really silly comments in an article on evolutionary biology comes the startling news that "Food pipe cancer doubles in men".

Food pipe cancer.

FOOD PIPE cancer??

It's OESOPHAGEAL cancer, people! Even "cancer of the gullet" would be preferable. But "food pipe"? Please for damn sake halt this descent into verbal infantility. Oesophageal cancer is a very very serious disease; at the very least, the population of the UK needs to know what the oesophagus is, and the factors that cause this cancer.

I suppose in other news we will have oral cancer replaced by "cake hole cancer"? Lung cancer by "cancer of the oxygen exchange organs"? Stomach cancer is bad enough - most people regard any cancer between the "food pipe" and the "poo pipe" as "stomach cancer" - this needs to change.

Come on, BBC, sort it out! You're supposed to be leading the field, not grazing in it.

26 August 2010

Research Governance Blues

So here I am, waiting to fly home, after a very interesting meeting in London to do with a large genetics research project we're collectively trying to get off the ground (so am I - my plane is over an hour delayed). Who would have thought that the process of getting research approved could be so difficult, so byzantine, so seemingly obtuse? After hours of discussing SSIs, CLRNs, MRECs and LRECs, I think I understand even less than I did before.

HOWEVER, this has instilled in me a deep and rigid determination to get this thing sorted. It will happen - it may be difficult, it will certainly involve a lot of work, but sometimes when you see that the mountain is high, and legions of gerbils are arrayed in your path, the only thing to do is get out the strimmer and start slicing through them.

Or die trying.

BBC Science hack is daft as a rock - oh my golly golly gosh!

Seriously, I expect more from the BBC than this. I'm a taxpayer and a licence payer. I'm a doctor and I want my sausages. But Howard Falcon-Lang, a science reporter for the BBC, has reported a piece entitled: Space is the final frontier for evolution, study claims. He kicks off with this rather incendiary statement:
"Charles Darwin may have been wrong when he argued that competition was the major driving force of evolution.

He imagined a world in which organisms battled for supremacy and only the fittest survived."

So I'm only two sentences into the article, and the only thing I can deduce is that Howard Falcon-Lang has not got the slightest clue about Darwin, and not the foggiest notion about evolutionary theory.

Essentially, the article is about a paper that has found that one of the most significant factors determining the amount of biodiversity that arises in an ecosystem is the actual amount of room (or opportunity) for the species to evolve into - effectively, the number of available niches. This is not controversial, but the paper is a nice demonstration of how species can radiate out to fill several niches that suddenly become available, whether by the extinction of big old critters like dinosaurs, or by colonising virgin territory. It's nice work, and a good demonstration of the power of evolution.

Indeed, it shows that Darwin was right.

But we knew that.

Someone should tell Howard.

Unless Howard is not responsible for those initial sentences, which were instead introduced by a sub-editor? In which case he should find that sub-editor and rip them a new one.

Otherwise the article is fine. There.

25 August 2010

'Hell' as an invention of the church

I *like* Bishop John Selby Spong. A courageous, individual and coherent thinker. I disagree on a few minor points, but this is what it's all about.

Check out this video on YouTube:


Sent from my iPhone

24 August 2010

Homeopathy posters removed

Unauthorised posters promoting quackery have been removed from the postgraduate centre noticeboards in Belfast City Hospital. Hospitals should be places of healing, not pandering to New Age crystal-hugging woo.

Was Bes the god of Down Syndrome in Ancient Egypt?

This is a little poster I prepared for the British Human Genetics Conference in 2009. I have this hunch - dare I call it a hypothesis? - that Ancient Egyptians would have recognised Down Syndrome in people born with this condition, and may have made a connection between them and the god Bes. Bes was an interesting god - a dwarf god with a leonine aspect. He was very popular in the domestic setting, but lacked a formal cult centre during most of Egyptian history. Theophoric names mentioning Bes are relatively uncommon, despite Egypt being awash with Bes amulets and statuettes. Have a look at the poster; let me know what you think. Also, if you come across any Bes names or (even better!) Down Syndrome mummies, I would love to get my hands on some data.


Sent from my iPhone

23 August 2010

Bad Science

Every now and again I post a short book review on AnswersInGenes, and every now and again I don't. For example, I know at least one reader who is itching to hear my review of "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?", even though he knows I'm going to trash it and make mean comparisons to "Should Christians Embrace Gravity?" or "Should Christians Embrace Telephones?" Facts are facts, whether they cause you the theowobbles or not. Big boys don't cry about such things. But I merely throw this out by way of a teaser. I *will* review that book. Some day.

But not today. Today I would like to draw the attention of whatever readers manage to dodge the tumbleweed and jangle their spurs down the dusty main street of this ornery ghost town to the supremely brilliant book "Bad Science" by the fantastic Dr Ben Goldacre. In a joyous, but nonetheless rigorous and meticulously researched, romp through the world of alternative medicine and similar pseudoscientific nonsense, Ben comprehensively debunks the likes of "Dr" Gillian McKeith, the former darling of the stool-gazing media, whose qualifications and claims do not stand up to the remotest scrutiny. That should be enough in and of itself, but no. There's more.

Demolishing the bogus claims of outright quackery like homeopathy and Andrew Wakefield's atrocious MMR vaccine hoax, Ben cuts like a knife through rancid butter. But it is not just a debunking mission - along the way you learn about things like the placebo effect (profoundly misunderstood by the public), regression to the mean, and other sources of bias that scientists are very much aware of, but charlatans love to use to con the public.

This is one of those books where you come out the other end *smarter* than when you started - and that is always a good thing. I can't recommend it highly enough.

22 August 2010

I'm lapping the Lough...

Next Sunday (29th) I'll be joining hundreds of other cyclists to circumpedallate the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, Lough Neagh. 87 miles, so it's not a killer, but I've been a bit slack in my training lately, so it's a challenge.

For the uninitiated, Lough Neagh is pretty big. It's twice the size of the Sea of Galilee, and the third largest lake in Europe, after Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. We have a wee boat down at Kinnego Marina near Lurgan, and on the rare occasions we can dump the kids and head out for a sail, it's marvellous. Lough Neagh is a haven for bird life (and flies). But this time I'll be cycling, not sailing.

I haven't been raising any sponsorship for this run, largely because I've been rather busy, but if you feel inspired to the root of your very soul by the thought of hundreds of punters moving in an orderly circuit of our national treasure, I would like you to consider donating to Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and help them get badly-needed relief to the people of Pakistan who have been hit so badly by the recent floods - as well as to other very needy people around the world.

The other thing I would love people to do is to THINK for themselves. Try to identify one belief or opinion that you hold on the basis of *authority* - that someone has told you to think or believe, or that you've maybe read somewhere. Ask yourself: "is this TRUE?" Ask: "If I didn't have this particular authority telling me this is true, would I have any basis for believing it?", and: "Suppose my authority is *wrong* - how could I check whether it is *really* true?"

Freethought. It won't cost you anything but the fundamental underpinnings of your worldview. And "faith" and "sincerity" are dirt cheap anyway. It takes effort and bravery to subject your own beliefs to scrutiny and revision.

Oh, and I think there may be some places left on the bike ride - sign up and come along!

17 August 2010

Theodicy. Sorted.

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with the central problem of their odd assumption of a benevolent god - why is there so much *death* in the world? Why would a loving god create a world in which everything *died*, often in pretty horrible ways? What could such a designer have been *thinking* of? Explanations such as "original sin" have been proposed, but have been dismissed as philosophically infantile. A slightly more grown-up (but still utterly flawed) proposal has been to regard evil as the consequence of free will - if death didn't happen, our free will would be impaired. That makes no sense at all, and again most philosophers regard it as silly.

But now I will reveal the answer. Why all the death?

Answer: SEX, SEX, SEX.

God must simply *love* sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Bat sex, whale sex, ragworm sex, crab sex, duck sex, cheeky monkey sex. Lemming sex, octopus sex, snail sex, caddis-fly sex. The animal kingdom is tripping over itself with the kinkiest, wildest, wettest, hairiest, horniest, craziest sex you could ever imagine. Some birds do it while they are flying; in some spider species, the female eats the male after sex. Some nematode worms practically envelop each other during sex, while some frogs display spectacular acts of acrobatics to fertilise their spawn. No need to go on. No need to over-egg the pudding.

God made death to clear the stage for a gigantic explosion of critters gettin' it on. A benevolent god, who wants his creatures to shag the living daylights out of each other. Which he can (presumably) watch from on high.

And thereby theism is rescued. I wonder why Cecil Frances Alexander didn't include sex in "All Things Bright and Beautiful"?

15 August 2010

What the heck is this? [Marine biology]

So we're walking along the beach at Jordanstown, minding our own business, when one of the kids gets swallowed whole by this critter. It's about 20cm long (that's a 5 pence piece there to give you some scale), has dozens of fleshy little undulating legs; you can see it's segmented, and when bothered, it exudes a milky liquid, which I presume is either some sort of repellent, or possibly worm sexy stuff (whatever turns 'em on, I guess).

OK, that's enough clues - who's going to identify the beast?

14 August 2010

Inherit the Wind

Last night I had the fun experience of going to Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast to watch the famous epic "Inherit the Wind", and to discuss the film and its implications afterwards in a panel discussion.

It's a great movie, based on a play of the same name, itself loosely based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial", where a schoolteacher was brought to trial for teaching evolution in Tennessee, in contravention of a crazy law that prohibited it. The facts of the case are somewhat different in the play and in real life, but the movie iconicised the dramatic conflict between science and religious fundamentalism.
After the film I participated in a panel discussion with Rev Scott Peddie and Prof Norman Nevin. We had a very amicable and (I hope) entertaining discussion, expertly chaired by William Crawley of the BBC (who put the film series together of which this was part). I never know whether minds are changed by debates or panel discussions, but we had a lot of fun, and I'm wondering if someone is going to make a similar film around the 2005 Kitzmiller trial, which in many ways would make for excellent drama fodder in its own right. I do think that ITW held up creationism and biblical literalism/inerrancy to very appropriate ridicule; it deserves a wide audience.

11 August 2010

Update! 5th Force nomenclature revised

Hot on the heels (and up the sides and over the seat of your car and on your trousers) of the breaking news story on the discovery of the 5th fundamental force of nature, the International Physical Union, the governing body of physicists worldwide, has revised the name of the fundamental particles that carry the 5th force from "shitons" to "steptons".

"We're really very excited about this", commented Prof Helga Hundscheisse, Nobel laureate, and head of the IPU committee that recommended the change.

08 August 2010

Breaking News: 5th fundamental force of Nature discovered!

Up until now, scientists have been of the view that there are four fundamental forces in Nature - gravity (the weakest of these, but the most significant over long distances, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force which holds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom, and the strong nuclear force which holds these particles themselves together internally.

Now, after many experiments in the idyllic Irish countryside, a team of Very Clever Scientists announces the discovery of the FIFTH FORCE (F5). It is a moment that will echo through the hallowed halls of science, and will generate Nobel Prizes aplenty. The discovery of the F5 promises faster computing, cheaper access to outer space, time travel, and possibly cleaner footwear.

What is F5?

The Fifth Force is one of the most irresistible forces of nature - it is the force generated between a dog turd and the shoes of any small children within close proximity. Parents have known for years that when they take their small kids out for a walk, if there is a dog turd anywhere nearby, the child WILL stand in it, and WILL tramp it into your car or into the house. F5 works in an unusual way - although the child's mass and the turd's mass are very different (usually), the child is attracted towards the turd, rather than the turd towards the child. The asymmetry may be explained by the generation of a force-field around the turd that has an absolute reference frame, yet keeps pace with the earth's rotation and other factors that may influence the location of the turd. This may have implications for Einsteinian relativity, and has already been used in a prototype zero-energy engine, comprising a small child strapped into a harness, dangled 2 feet away from a dog turd (at foot level), in much the same way as a donkey/carrot/cart arrangement. Researchers are working on a vertical version which may show anti-gravity effects, allowing easier access to space, although how the field performs in an accelerating reference frame has yet to be established.

To explain the activity of this force, physicists have had to postulate the existence of force carriers, which are referred to as shitons. A fresh dog turd emits many more shitons than an old one, although even the white chalky turds still emit an appreciable number, and give rise to a statistically higher rate of child-stepping-into than, say, a dummy rubber decoy.

An interesting phenomenon that arises from this is that once the dog turd has been stepped in, the field dissipates for that child's foot, but the resultant relaxation of the field means that when the child enters a car or the house, the shitons mediate an attraction to every available surface, so the turd gets spread far and wide before the smell is noticed. Adults' trousers appear to be particularly vulnerable.

In prospective experiments, another unusual phenomenon has been demonstrated - the louder and more insistently an adult alerts a child to the presence of a dog turd, the greater the attractive force between the small child's foot and the turd seems to be, reaching near infinity with more anguished warnings.

Despite these stunning successes, team leader Dr Shane McKee has announced that he does not wish to renew his research grant, and wishes to leave further research to up-and-coming scientists. "I'm too old for this shite," he said.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee...

...he saw two bloggers who were updating their posts.

"Follow me," he said, "and I will make you... er... wonder why you clicked on that link to the left and got updated every time a new post appears on Answers in Genes."

And, Lo!, they did. And they were really happy for the rest of their lives.

The End.

07 August 2010

Scooby Dooby Doo, WTF??

Back in the olden days, Scoob and the gang chased ghosts and monsters, and every time, it turned out that there was a perfectly rational explanation. Old Man Jacobs wanted all the gold for himself, so he came up with the Cookiestown Ghost to scare off the neighbours.

That sort of thing.

But lately some of the new movies and shows have had plots that have left significant loose ends, almost as if the ghosts are left "real".

The REAL Velma Dinkley would be appaled.

Sort it out, people - Scooby Doo used to be a flagship for rational thinking and an evidence-based approach. These supernaturalist loose ends are polluting the vibe. It cannot be allowed to continue!

Too good not to share

Thanks to Eggy for this one. I'll need to break out my Nukulele and join in. The Uke is a tragically-neglected little instrument, and in terms of fun and accessibility, rocks in a big way. I'm currently working on a version of Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive" ("a loaded four-string on my back") and have a passable rendering of World Party's "Put the Message in the Box". But I don't think I'll ever ascend these lofty heights...

06 August 2010

Real IRA claims responsibility for Cambrian Explosion

In other news, Ian Paisley Jr promised that he would fight creeping metrication of Britain's imperial measurements. "Not 2.54 centimetres!" he thundered to an audience of old ladies last night.

The Resurrection

Some say it is impossible. The dead, they say, cannot come back to life. Some say the scientific evidence is against it. Some say that our faith is misplaced, or that we are irrational idiots, zealots, extremists. They pour scorn on our efforts to re-establish the Kingdom on Earth. They even actively oppose us, citing "ethical" concerns, or by seeking to limit our activity using legislative means and preying on the unwarranted fears of a gullible public.

But they will not succeed.

Our faith is strong, we have right and reason on our side. And in that day of rejoicing, as the nay-sayers gaze in awed terror, we will welcome the re-establishment of a state of glory that has not been seen on Earth since the infancy of humanity.

Yes, one day the mighty mammoth will be cloned from its DNA, and once more majestically roam the Siberian tundra.


05 August 2010

How to write a gospel

Oh donkey-biscuits - it appears I have gone and adopted a rhetorical position that *everybody* disagrees with! Ian, whose incisive secular biblical scholarship I greatly admire, Graham, whose level-headed bonhomie and good sense I enormously respect, Peter, whose witty and apposite gags make me chuckle, and Ric, whose friendship over the last 36 years (Yikes! That long??) I value dearly - all surround my little donkey with their good-natured laser-blasters, and are softly popping away at the beleaguered (?sp) beast.

Yet, as if it were clad in impenetrable composite kevlar-mithril body armour, the plucky creature remains unscathed!

So let's try another approach (fear not, team, I shall continue to comment on the other threads - you don't get away that easily!) - how *should* one go about writing a gospel? I mean, suppose you are some Judeo-Hellenic proto-Christian punter from, say, Antioch; you've never been to the Land of Israel yourself, and you're surrounded by other punters of a similar mindset, and you would love to make the best pitch possible for this Messiah chappie, whose legendary deeds are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Yet the efforts you have seen so far have been a tad lacklustre...

I offer the following tips:

1. First, get your THEOLOGY straight. History be scuppered - this is a GOSPEL, the TRUTH - not what actually *happened*.

2. Bring to mind some old prophet quotes from your dim and distant elementary instruction. Doesn't matter where you get them - anywhere will do. Remember you will have to use these to show that whatever you make up later will be "fulfilled according to the prophecy".

3. Get your sources lined up - anything you can find. Doesn't matter whether it is authentic; if it sounds cool, that's great. Don't worry about provenance, or even if it relates to someone else - in a few millennia people will make up lame excuses and rationalisations for you.

4. String all that stuff together; make sure your narrative has some flow, some drive, some momentum. You're telling a *story*, remember! Not history. Make sure you do not cite your sources. It won't matter - for centuries people will assume/claim that you were an eye-witness. Plagiarise away.

5. Now go back over it, and look for the mundane. See if you can tart that up any. Only one donkey? Add another - fits the prophecy better (you think). A chap at the tomb? Make him an angel. Add earthquakes and zombies and visions and appearances. Your Messiah not forthright enough about his divinity? Sex it up, baby!

6. End on a high.

There ya go! It's a wrap.

02 August 2010

If the hectic pace of life is getting you down...

Taken during our crossing of the Sea of Galilee (by boat, not by foot, silly!) back in November. Previously posted, but I thought it deserved a reprise.

The Difference

XKCD does it again.

Farewell to a legend

Today Belfast said goodbye to Alex Higgins, arguably the man most responsible for making the otherwise incredibly boring game of snooker one of the most popular spectator sports of the late 70s and early 80s. I know it's a cliché to say that you remember him winning the 1982 World Title, but pretty much everyone *did* watch that final, and it was a pretty big deal.

However, after the Hurricane's departure, Belfast needs to ask itself some searching questions - like why is it that our main reputation is for violence, and our most prominent sporting heroes were a little too fond of the sauce or the fags, and ended up dying too young?

I would hope that at least some of the legacy of Alex Higgins and George Best would be to make youngsters think: "I wish I could be like them, *except* for the booze and the fags. And perhaps with a little better control of my temper." But then perhaps the excess is what made them what they were. And then one also has to wonder about the whole Augustinian nonsense of original sin. If there really *is* a god (a quaint notion which I suggest has the most minuscule probability attached), would he *really* want to fill heaven with sycophantic harpists, theological drivel-merchants, sunday school teachers and the like? Or would he rather have a smattering of folks who would from time to time head-butt Gabriel or smash their Ferrari into the Pearly Gates?

01 August 2010

HMS Investigator & Captain Robert McClure

According to the BBC News, Canadian marine archaeologists have located the wreck of HMS Investigator, a ship dispatched from Britain in the mid-19th century to find what had happened to the ill-fated Franklin expedition, itself launched to chart a route through the North West Passage, north of Canada and its Arctic islands. A little-known fact is that HMS Investigator was captained by the intrepid Irishman, Captain Robert McClure, an Arctic explorer of some note. In addition to being the first to transit the North West Passage, his team were also the first expedition to circumnavigate the Americas, albeit with the assistance of HMS Resolute (poor HMS Investigator was abandoned to sink to where it now lies).

As for HMS Resolute, the rescue ship, it went on to have its own intriguing history in smoothing relations between Britain and the United States, and part of is timbers form President Obama's writing desk in the Oval Office of the White House.