Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Genetics and education (part 2)

It’s Wednesday morning and time for my weekly contributor, Rambler5319, to take over with his guest post.

This week we’re looking at the second part of the subject I started last week (13.11.13).

If you didn’t catch it here’s the intro again and then I’ll go on to the second two speakers and the subjects they covered.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fdjsp

Ok so the next speaker (the third in the prog) was asked if he thought that using genetics for human enhancement is immoral. His answer was that it was immoral “not to use it”. He believes humans don’t want sickness and ultimately death so if there is a way to get round these by using genetic information he thinks we should. However the panel made a good point on this by saying that surely our humanity (and its limited lifespan) is what gives us the ability to display certain characteristics. The example was given of say a normal person who walks through a minefield is showing great courage but if that person is immortal they cannot demonstrate courage because they cannot be killed by stepping onto a mine. I think you can see the point – as humans with a certain lifespan we can demonstrate things that an immortal person cannot. The panel believed that imperfections in everyone are what make us what we are as humans and the idea of getting rid of these takes us into a very difficult area. His response was that certain characteristics (not all) should be got rid of.

He then took the discussion into the area of cruelty. He believes everyone would like to get rid of cruelty. If they could discover what makes people cruel then they could change something in the genetic make up to stop it. One of the panel’s responses was quite simply – the idea is mad. The research seems to be going into the area of altering what is a human being. Who is going to do the deciding of what (and who?) is changed? You? Me? The scientist? The Government?

The last speaker felt that this whole area is just a short step away from eugenics. History demonstrates that genetic research has definitely gone down the wrong road he said. However he did agree that if the genetic information seemed to suggest that a person may have a pre-disposition to a particular medical problem, say heart disease or something else it should be made available and used to hopefully treat that person. This sounds ok but what do you do if you find evidence of something which may have serious implications about the life expectancy of a person? Do you tell the person? There is certainly a moral issue there. Is it right to let them know or will they be happier not knowing? And once again who is going to make that decision? And who is going to have the conversation with the affected person?

The more I listened to the various points of view on this the more I thought that the implications are too far reaching for us to know the answers. It’s a bit like asking the early travellers on a railway train which ran at say 15 mph whether they could imagine a world in which trains would travel at over 100mph and even 200mph. (Incidentally, in June this year, it was reported that Japan is trialling a new series of magnetic trains which will be able to travel at over 300mph cutting the Bullet train times – between Tokyo & Nagoya – by just over 50%. However you have another 14 years before they’re due to come into service!)

Who could have imagined those first ships that were built to carry just a few containers would end up the monsters we have today. Ships launched this year are just short of 400 metres in length and capable of carrying the equivalent of up to 18,000 containers. If all the containers were laid end to end they would stretch for 110kms – wow just read that again 110kms of containers on one ship!

Imagine a conversation say 40 years ago when many people had to look for a phone box to make a call with someone and telling them that in the future nearly everyone will be able to be contacted at any time of the day or night because they’ll all have a device which they can carry around with them; it will track their exact position anywhere on the globe and enable many other things to be done. Of course it would have sounded fanciful but aren’t we facing a similar conversation now about genetic information?

And so it is with this whole area of genetics. How can we possibly imagine what will be in 50 or 100 years time? Will those people look back on us as short-sighted & resistant to change. They probably will. By then any moral issues will have been passed by in some way and that new world will be functioning very differently to the one we know today. We may or may not be part of it (well the 50 year one for younger folks) but would we want to be?

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Bird Droppings

It’s over to my guest blogger today for some fascinating facts on this subject:

 

Today I thought I would take a break from the more serious subjects I’ve covered recently. The topic today is bird droppings (or more commonly pooh). Unsightly mess? Spoils public buildings & many other structures – definitely. But how much do you know about it? Will you even carry on reading this because you think it’s boring and uninteresting. Tell you what – I thought that before I started thinking about it. It almost became something “to get excited about” as LLM might say.
I wonder if you’ve ever been hit by bird droppings from the sky as you walked along outside? I have. I was fortunate though, it landed on my shoulder (and therefore thankfully missed my head although it did get some small splashes) and left me with a stained shirt for the rest of the day. Yes, I was on my way to work walking from the train station. Oh well, it gave people in the office a good laugh when I arrived with the mess down the front. (“I see you had some visitors drop in on way to work this morning”, and other such witty remarks.)
So what could be interesting about bird muck? Well, in case you’re struggling, one of our national newspapers came to the rescue recently. It published a survey analysing droppings found on cars in different cities in the UK. It seems to suggest that it’s not just where you park your car that affects whether it gets muck on it but that it is related to the colour of your car. Is there a colour, for instance, which does or doesn’t seem to get hit as much as others? Yes there is but it’s not as simple as that. Before we go any further let’s look at the published table below:

Red – 18 per cent
Blue – 14 per cent
Black – 11 per cent
White – 7 per cent
Grey/Silver- 3 per cent
Green – 1 per cent

This is quite interesting as you can see that nearly 1 in 5 cars that are hit are coloured red. Hmm.. perhaps you won’t buy a red car next time. Before you get too carried away by this revelation just look at those figures again. Now you don’t have to be a maths whizz to see that the figures don’t add up to anywhere near 100%. I make the total 54% (and this is the full table as appeared in the newspaper). (You might have to add 7% if the white/grey means two colours tied on that figure but it doesn’t say.) What happened to the other 46% of the sample? Were they all colours different to the ones specified? If so why not include an “other colours” category? LLM covered “getting excited” about stuff but at this point I was doing “getting angry” (at the quality of this presentation). Why publish such a rubbish table which appears to show only just over half of the number surveyed? Is the paper really that bad at its adding up? (Is this turning into a “Chat 2” blast?)
Ok so let’s look at some more of the detail behind table. They looked at 1,140 cars across five cities: Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol. Sounds like a fair spread, north, middle & south, but wait a minute, think about this – why no London investigation? (London is noted for its population of pigeons in certain areas so should have been a good area to get a lot of test results.) Seems like a fair number of vehicles but did you know, as of the most recent figures, there are 31 million cars in the UK (and 134 million in the USA). Now take the sample size and divide it by the total number of cars (& times by 100) to get a percentage – any guesses? I’ll tell you it’s 1,140/31,00,000 = 0.00367% – that is 1/272 of 1%! Just take a moment to think about that – not half of 1%, not a quarter of 1%, not even one 100th of 1% or one 200th of 1% but 1/272 of 1%! How small is that? Now come on, since when did a fraction of 1% as small as that represent a big enough sample to make inferences about cars across the whole country. And yet, there in a national newspaper, the survey is given some column inches with no ref to how small the sample is when compared to the total number of cars on the road.
So far, amongst other things, we have: an apparently incomplete table that doesn’t add up to anywhere near 100%; we have a sample size so small that it makes it hard to deduce meaningful data; and we don’t know why the capital of the country has been excluded from the survey.
Steam is (metaphorically) beginning to come out of the ears at this point but bear with me there’s more.

The next bits are what I would call basic. Think about it – we are not told anything about the locations surveyed. Were the car parks on open ground? Were the cars just parked in streets? Were there overhanging branches or even road or rail bridges which often have metal support girders underneath providing many ideal perches for pigeons? (The car park at my own place of work actually has a dual carriageway going over it so has two bridges & therefore lots of girders & therefore lots of pigeons.)
Remember too that the research did not consider the type of birds doing the fouling of the vehicles. (They actually spelt it “fowling” at one point in the article – haha.) Whilst they could not possibly see all the birds doing the deeds it is possible that they surveyed at a place in a city where there is a resident population of a particular type of bird –pigeons, sea-gulls or starlings for example. Btw, did you know that pigeon pooh is more damaging than say seagull pooh? I’m sure you want to know why so I’ll tell you – it’s because pigeons eat seeds and therefore produce grainier pooh and it’s that which causes more blemishes on your car’s paintwork. However what about all those smaller size birds: sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, finches, thrushes etc?
The article also gives you the useful info, from car polish experts Autoglym, that car paint damage is NOT caused by the acid or alkali in the pooh which I always thought – so I did learn something useful from reading it. I won’t bore you with the technical explanation – if you’re really interested you can look it up.
Did you know that insurers estimated that the annual cost of damage to paintwork from bird droppings is about £57 million? Best advice? – just clean it off as soon as possible. Well I’d never have thought of that!
In the car park where I work two people have yellow cars. Why is yellow not in the survey table? Does this mean it’s the safest colour to buy because the survey did not spot one yellow car with bird muck?
Another stat which might have been helpful is the colour distribution of cars on the road. Supposing, for instance, that 18% of all cars on the road are red, it would be no surprise that 18% of the bird muck survey were found to be red cars would it? This again is basic stuff which any normal person would ask. It’s like saying that a survey found that the average age of people going into a particular building was say 68 and you say why so high? Why were there not more younger people going in? Ah well, you see, it’s a day care centre for pensioners. Bigger picture springs to mind here!
It takes about 3 seconds to research colours of cars sold. Here’s the table of colours of cars sold (so not the actual total in the country, but does include yellow) for most of 2010:

1: black Cars sold: 465,249 Percentage share: 24.7
2: silver Cars sold: 402,537 Percentage share: 21.4
3: blue Cars sold: 310,331 Percentage share: 16.5
4: grey Cars sold: 270,863 Percentage share: 14.4
5: red Cars sold: 192,335 Percentage share: 10.2
6: white Cars sold: 188,463 Percentage share: 10
7: green Cars sold: 20,735 Percentage share: 1.1
8: beige Cars sold: 17,237 Percentage share: 0.9
9: yellow Cars sold: 7,621 Percentage share: 0.4
10: brown Cars sold: 6,967 Percentage share: 0.4

These figures do come to 100%. Again simple bit of research – look at the top 3 in the bird dropping sample (red, blue, black) and add up the percentage figures. It comes to 43%. Now look in the table for 2010 sales and add up the percentages for the same 3 colours – it’s 51%. Not that far apart I’d say.

Inference – the more cars there are of a certain colour the more likely they are to get hit! It’s not rocket science but it doesn’t make headlines and you know as well as I do that “headlines” sell papers.
Another newspaper gave the following table apparently for most popular car colours IN THE WORLD! And here it is:
1. Silver – 26 percent
2. Black/Black Effect – 24 percent
3. White/White Pearl and Grey – 16 percent each (tie)
5. Red – 6 percent
6. Blue – 5 percent
7. Brown/Beige – 3 percent
8. Green – 2 percent
9. Yellow/Gold – 1 percent
10. Others – <1 percent
We see that this table also does add up to 100% (you do have to add 16% to the 84% total because two colours were tied in third place).
Black, red, blue comes to 35%. Not that far off 43% really.
Now, apart from the fact that I was “getting angry” about this terribly presented (bird droppings) survey, I was amazed to note what I had come to believe over many years was actually being confirmed. I have on a number of occasions come to my car to find it has droppings on and yet the one next to it has none. When it first happens you don’t notice anything special but when it keeps on happening you begin to wonder: am I parking under a bird’s nest? Is there a tree branch over the parking place? Did I definitely remove the “Pooh here” notice from the roof of my car? Ooh… wait a minute was the notice invisible? – remember “Invisible Art” from 4.7.12. Better check that.

Ok so now you know the facts but will it influence the colour of car you next buy. Will you rush to the research paper and get the info and then decide to buy a GREEN car or even SILVER?
And you thought bird pooh was not that interesting. (Maybe you still do after reading Mr Angry’s rant.) What about readers of this blog sending in the colour of their car and whether it gets “pooped on” on a regular basis.

Last word has to go to the Ornithology experts who were quoted in the article:

“The British Trust for Ornithology is more circumspect on the role of colour in the ‘drop zone’ for birds.

A spokesman said: ‘We do know that birds can be attracted to certain colours during display but droppings on cars are probably more to do with where you park; if you park where birds roost then you are going to get more droppings on your vehicle.’”

Incredible! Would you have thought of that? – and they didn’t even do a survey to back their conclusion up.

 

Searching for Agatha

Yesterday I thought I’d go for another walk. My day in Highgate was so lovely, I thought I’d try another one. I decided to go to Newlands Corner, near Guildford and potter about in the countryside for a while.

The area is linked to Agatha Christie’s ‘death’ because this is where thousands of people met up to scour the area looking for her body. Her husband had apparently told her one day that he was off to spend the weekend with their nanny! (There’s bound to be a lot more to it than that, but anyway, that’s what we know.) She flipped, obviously. In the middle of the night she got in the car, leaving the dog and baby at home, and sped away into the night. Her car was found at Chalk Pit, a little further down from where I started my walk but Agatha was nowhere to be seen. Stories covered every newspaper. The husband came under scrutiny and became the murder suspect. People searched the countryside and woods for her body. Ten days later she was found, chilling in a little B&B in Harrogate. As you do.

Anyway, yesterday I thought I’d go on a little Agatha search of my own through the woods. It started near a beautiful organic vineyard…

….and my path followed it along it’s edge until I passed another spot with some mysterious history.

The Silent Pool is strangely silent, as the name suggests. The water is totally still and clear. You’d expect, if water was that still, that it would be stagnant, or growing a bit of algae. But this water is clear.

You can see where the water line is, from the reflection of the stick, but the grass and ground underneath are still really visible.

Anyway, the story goes like this. A girl and her brother were bathing in the Silent Pool when King John rode past on his horse. He decided to take the girl with him, but she was not so easily captured. Her and the brother fought against him, waded too far and drowned together. Since then, a ghostly white figure is seen at night bathing in the moonlight. *cue scary X-Files music*

As it was the daytime, I saw no bathing ghosts and kept on my walk, which became a huge steep hill within minutes. I pretended not to be panting like mad and powered on up, every minute wondering when it would stop rising. It finally levelled out and I was deep in a thick forest.

It started raining very lightly but I just ignored it. The forest walk went on for a good hour or so, lovely dense trees and one little windy path through them that I followed unquestioningly. I wish I had questioned it more, actually, because not knowing where I was became a bit of a theme for the day…! But in going slightly off route, I stumbled across some amazing little things. Like this statue of a man with a hook for an arm and his dog…

… some chickens, some grand houses that were all but hidden in the foliage until you passed directly in front of the gate and a quiet little pub, where it became impossible to ignore the rain, which had by now made me a little damp and cold all over. I also realised that I was in Gomshall, which is not Shere, where I was supposed to be. It was Gomshall. The wrong place. Gomshall wasn’t even on my Newland’s Corner map. And I hadn’t gone under the A25 like I was supposed to have. I pretended all was fine and I sat in the warmth of the country pub, munching away on a freshly baked baguette which may be the best bread I’ve ever eaten. It was still warm and so soft.

As I gazed forlornly out of the window, watching the rain get heavier, the man behind the bar warned me, “You’re no good waiting for it to get better, it won’t. This is it for the day now.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Where are you trying to get to?”

“Shere.”

“It’s the second on your left, about a half an hour walk away.”

I finally admitted it was raining and took my waterproof jacket out of my bag. Like a wearied soldier heading back to the battlefield, I donned my jacket, shouldered my rucksack and headed into the rain to Shere. I was thankful for the waterproof but maybe the jeans weren’t helping matters. It wasn’t a long way to Shere but I figured I should stop for another cup of tea when I got there or I might drown! So I looked…

…and looked….

Well, at least the museum will have something, I guessed. That’s what I’d come into Shere for anyway. I had done my research, I knew the museum was open on a Thursday. Making my way there under the shelter of overhanging trees, I arrived at the door to see this …

… It was 4.30pm…

So I figured it was time to head back to my starting point to finish the walk and head home to dry off. On my way, there was loads of bunting around. Some looked to be leftover Jubilee stuff and some said London 2012 on it. It turns out that next week, the Olympic torch is coming through the area. I’ll just say this, they’d better be bloody open then! I won’t say ‘I hope it doesn’t rain’ because I don’t want to jinx it.

Anyway, the walk back to the beginning/end point was quite pretty, even though the rain fell harder and harder….!

And not once did I see Agatha Christie…. O wait, she was in Harrogate, wasn’t she…?