Cleopatra Was Egyptian – Shock News!

Wow, breaking news brought to us by the BBC reveals that Cleopatra was, wait for it, of african descent! It seems that the in-depth research of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra was wrong and the queen of Egypt was not actually a white caucasian but was native to Eqgypt. Amazing claims like this needs some fantastic research. Fortunately the headline news on the BBC rewards us:

Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was part African, says a BBC team which believes it has found her sister’s tomb.

Wow. Knock me down with a feather. It gets better:

But remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton.
Experts have described the results as “a real sensation.”

Amazing. An African skeleton… How could Liz Taylor have got it so wrong only 45 years ago. Do we need to re-cast and re-film an entire generation of epic movies? Next you will be telling me Jesus wasn’t a tall, blue eyed, blonde haired Caucasian.

Actually, I cant keep it up. This is mind numbingly insane.

First off: Who is actually surprised that Egypt is in Africa? Seriously, anyone? This is a news item that basically says “Egyptian Queen is part African.” Is it really that quiet a news day? (no). This is the Online BBC news that ignored seven hours of riots and petrol bombs in Lurgan, Northern Ireland (despite coverage being in the newspapers). This is the online BBC news that is regularly a day behind unfolding events. It is obviously wasting too much time writing copy for the department of the BLOODY OBVIOUS.

Secondly: No one is disputing Cleopatra’s lineage coming from Alexander’s generals and being predominantly Greek. However, the idea that this remained purely Greek (Macedonian?) after the first generation is simply batshit insane. Yes there was a huge amount of inbreeding, and most royal marriages were with Greek nobles, but over 250 years without allowing locals into the bloodline is unlikely. That would have been news worthy.

Thirdly: In my limited archaological knowledge, WTF does “african bones” mean? Is this 19th century casual racism where its thought that the darkies have a different genetic makeup to us “white people?”  What on Earth is there about the bones that make them “african” rather than Egyptian or Greek? Seriously, WTF!

There has been some reluctance of late for this blog to attack the blinding madness that the BBC is pushing out, mainly because it puts us in the same camp as the Daily Wail, but this is a step too far.

The BBC has seriously lost any sense of what is, or isnt, news. This is thinly veiled advertising for a BBC program of dubious merit. Shame on the BBC and I want them to refund what ever portion of my licence fee went towards this drivel.

Darwin and the Tree of Life

Possibly the best “educational” program I have seen on television in as long as I can remember. Better than Michio Kaku, better than all the discovery channel shows, better than all the rest.

I am talking about a wonderful BBC1 program – Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life – which has just finished. If you missed it, I cant stress how much you really should watch this on iPlayer. It is a part-Open University funded education program, supported by an interesting BBC Darwin website, where you can catch a glimpse of the program if it isnt on the iPlayer yet.

In a nutshell, David Attenborough shows his fantastic qualities as a presenter and takes the viewer on a tour through the history of the theory of evolution. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the science and has a presentational style that is unmatched. I was actually saddened at one point in the program, when I realised that 30 years ago people were more accepting of evolution and our place in the world than they are today. Thanks to the idiocy of fundamentalist religion we really are going back in time.

Attenborough calmly and politely mocks the ideas that all species were created as they are with no change and gives a wonderful (if brief) example of how the eye is a good example of evolution at work. It is all well done and while the hardened scientist may object at some simplification, this is a program which explains evolution in an hour for the general public. To that end some abbreviation of the tree of life is understandable.

Sadly, the BBC website sort of undermines Attenborough’s fantastic work with this line:

David shares his personal view on Darwin’s controversial idea.

Now, while it was indeed controversial in the 1860’s it is now valid science with solid evidential backing. The controversy is not real. Implying it is still there plays into the hands of the idiots and anti-educationalists. Shame really.

This program shows that, despite its faults, the BBC really can pull it out of the bag when it comes to “important” programs.

Joke science

Coffee makes you hallucinate. (Yeah, right….) Well, it says so in a piece of research reported in lots of today’s UK papers.

The NHS Choices website says that

This bizarre claim is based on research into 219 students who answered questionnaires on caffeine intake, hallucinations and feelings of persecution. Various other news sources have reported the study, including the Daily Mail, which says that “drinking cup after cup of coffee dramatically increases the risk of hallucinating”.

Hmm, what percentage of 219 students reporting that they hallucinate after drinking coffee isn’t taking the piss? (~0% is my rough guess.)

This hallucinogenic coffee must be the best-kept secret on the planet. After centuries of coffee drinking, noone else has ever reported a caffeine -induced hallucination but these researchers found enough coffee-trippers in of a sample of 219 students to generate comparative results.

The NHS website demolishes the “coffee makes you hallucinate” claims quite comprehensively. This is reassuring in terms of the quality of NHS advice, after spuriously precise numbers of fruit-and-vegetables to eat or steps to take every day had made me a tad sceptical.

It’s obvious why the press excitedly report such nonsense (Ben Goldacre has pretty well said everything that needs to be said on that subject). But why do research projects that a 10 year-old could find gaping flaws in get done at all?

(sparing their blushes, no names) …of the Department of Psychology, Durham University carried out this research. No sources of funding were reported. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Oh yes, publication targets for academics and universities. Publish or be damned.

Black Hole found in Milky Way

From the BBC News website:

There is a giant black hole at the centre of our galaxy, a study has confirmed.

German astronomers tracked the movement of 28 stars circling the centre of the Milky Way, using the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

The black hole is four million times heavier than our Sun, according to the paper in The Astrophysical Journal.

You can read more on the BBC site (I cant find any other links about it yet)

The world smiles with you

The British Medical Journal reported today that happiness was infectious.
(James H Fowler, Nicholas A Christakis, 2008, Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network:longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study, BMJ 2008;337:a2338 doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338) (How’s that for a serious reference?)

Well, Fowler and Christakis didn’t exactly say that happiness is infectious. That was what the free bus newspaper said in the pop-science report. But it doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

From the abstract:

Objectives To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks …
Results Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.

I’ll sidestep a long debate over their methods and conclusions* and just temporarily assume the conclusions are correct. Some of itheir data supports a standard “common sense” conclusion. If you are generally “happy”, you make people around you feel happier. Unhappy people make other people feel sad. Most people would agree on the basis of their own anecdotal evidence.

You could account for a lot of the effect through the processes of human interaction. We all spend most of our time communicating in one way or another. It would be strange if emotions expressed in our communications didn’t influence other people.

All the same, it’s a fascinating suggestion that emotions are being transmitted as if they were infections. “Memes”, maybe, although I don’t like using the term, except as a metaphor, and it’s far too easy for metaphors to get taken as literal truths. (Universe created in seven days, for instance.)

The BMJ article doesn’t suggest an explanatory transmission mechanism. This is disappointing, given that they have managed to come up with a measurable concept of “happiness”. Sort of sidestepping centuries of philosophical debate, really. Not invalidating it – a few indices can’t account for human consciousness – but approximating emotions in a quantifiable way, so the researchers could do statistical tests and chart their results.

Off the top of my head, I can guess at a few possible mechanisms – admittedly, all are crackpot theories, but they could be tested – such as people tending to synchronise their brainwaves with those of people they are close to; the action of pheremones; subconscious mirroring of others’ physical state, and so on.

Footnotes, even, as well as references.
* E.g Sampling factors that might have influenced the results included genetics (they focused on family groups), environment (living in a spatially limited area and, so, probably in the same social strata) and the tendency of people to associate with people that they identify with (they looked at friends.)

Wealth Buys My Happiness

I am somewhat short of time and this is a topic that really needs some in-depth commentary to do it justice. While I fully intend to return to this over the next few days, please think of this as a mini-meme: If you read this post please have a think about blogging your opinions on the articles below. If you dont want to, that’s OK, as I said, I will address the fact that I pretty much disagree with every one of these… 🙂

Background: In light of the Credit Crisis and the environmental disaster we are bringing in on ourselves, New Scientist has put together a “Growth Issue” in which a variety of people argue we need a new social model in which economic growth is not the goal and we all adopt a fun-filled, relaxed, minimal work life.

First off the editorial: Always annoying but this sets the tone: Read it first then move on to the main feature.

The weirdest of the feature has to be the “Life in a land without growth” article. It is a hypothetical report from 2020 detailing how great life is now we have done away with economic growth. The report has a great start:

IT’S 2020, and we are a decade into a huge experiment in which we are trying to convert our country to a sustainable or “steady-state” economy. We have two guiding principles: we don’t use natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the planet, and we don’t deposit wastes faster than they can be absorbed.

but then goes massively down hill with:

In our society, scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable – and if they’re not sure they work out a cautious estimate.

Hmm. Didn’t Lisa Simpson try this for Springfield? I am more than a little worried about the idea of a culture where “scientists set the rules.” From that point on, I began to disagree with most of the report and decided, if that was our society, I’d be a terrorist.

The next utopia-article that annoyed me was the “Nothing to fear from curbing growth” one. To be fair to Kate Soper, it is better written than the hypothetical report but she hits on a theme which gets my back up on a gigantic scale: The idea that the more money you have, the less happy you are.

This is monumental nonsense. As far as I can tell it was a tool used to keep the working poor in their place by convincing them that aspiring to great-wealth would be bad for them. It manifests itself in our obsession with the failings of the rich and famous – every time some one wealthy checks into rehab, or complains about being depressed etc., the nonsense about money not making you happy is dragged out. Interestingly, this is something asserted more often by well off people than poor people, which makes you wonder about their motives.

Kate Soper shows how there is a mistaken transposition of survey data to draw this conclusion:

For example, rates of occupational ill-health and depression have been shown to be linked to the number of hours we work, and once a certain level of income is reached further wealth does not correlate with increased happiness.

Hours worked does not equal wealth and we have an odd conflation here.

Working 20 hours a day does not make you happy. I can testify in the court of Odin that, having done a 36 hour shift I was not even close to being happy at the end of it. I would be much, much, happier if I didn’t have to work.

That part of her claim I agree with. Working long hours is depressing.

Working long hours, however is not the same as being wealthy. In fact it is often the inverse. Poor people have to work all the hours Zeus sends to make ends meet. This makes them depressed. They are depressed because they are poor.

There is a middle ground, but it is a middle ground I will never have sympathy for. Some people are at the very low end of being well-off and, as a result, have to work insane hours. These are not actually rich people though – recent examples are the merchant bankers in the city of London, working 18 hours day to get million pound a year bonuses. Sadly, their lifestyle demands those bonuses and therefore demands those hours. If they are living in the centre of London, where a toilet costs a million pounds to rent, they best work as hard as the cleaner (who admittedly lives in a cardboard box under tower bridge). They are “wealthy” but not happy. However, they are an odd group and far from representative.

Then we get the genuinely wealthy. I suspect Bill Gates is a pretty happy person and enjoys his life. I think it would be foolish to say he was less happy than someone who was working 12 hour shifts stacking shelves in the supermarket, followed by a six hour shift waiting tables to try and keep a roof over their families head.

Going back to the article, it jumps from working long hours = depressing to saying that beyond a certain level of wealth the increase in happiness is not proportional. This left me with a huge so what.

If I am X happy with £100million, does it matter that I am only (X*2)-Y happy with £200million? Not to me. I am more happy, and that is enough. The rest of her article continues the conflation of work and wealth so I will leave it for now.

Now, as a final point, and going back to the title, I will again assert it is largely incorrect to say that money doesn’t buy happiness. For the screaming pedant it is correct because happiness is an emotion and unless the very existence of lots of (positive) numbers on your bank balance makes you happy the money isn’t doing that bit.

However, what money gives you is the ability to become happy. If you are wealthy enough to not have to go to work, you can spend quality time with your family; you can spend more time doing hobbies; you can learn new things; you can read new books; you can travel the world. There are more things that I want to do than I will ever have time to do so it is a constant battle with the clock. Money buys that wonderful thing called time. The problem is we have to give up time to work so the key for most people is finding the best balance between lots of work, and lots of time.

Being slightly scientifically oriented, I am open to having my mind changed on this topic – but I suspect any arguments will just go back and forth on issues of pedantry. What I propose instead is a simple experiment.

If you feel, like so many others, that money does not make you happy then send me £50,000. With this we can see if having less money makes you happy and if having more money makes me happy.

As this is a fixed amount and may well be below the threshold that Kate Soper was referring to there is a second experiment: I will make a note of my current happiness using any criteria you choose. Then I am given £1million and my happiness is re-assessed. Next this is increased to £10million (with another assessment) and finally a sum of £20million and a final assessment. From this we can see if the increasing sums of money show a corresponding increase in happiness.

Does that sound like a good idea? I am more than willing to take part in the experiment at a moments notice.

On the other hand, if you aren’t willing to give me all your money, don’t claim being rich doesn’t make you happy.

Footnote: I used “you” and “your” a lot, these are just generic terms. I didn’t mean you unless you are Bill Gates [or similar] and fancy the experiment. Do you?

Down wiv da kidz

It is certainly true that if you don’t have a vote, you don’t count in a democratic society.

One of the (many) demonised groups in the UK now seems to be the “youth” – of which the middle aged, middle classes seem to be inordinately frightened. Coincidentally, this is also an age group in which most are unable to vote, and most of those who do, don’t seem to bother. As a result, it seems, they have become fair game for any crackpot ideas. Oddly, they are also a group politicians seem to constantly appeal to (obviously knowing they wont be arsed to vote…). Isn’t the world strange.

Two recent mad ideas spring to mind. First from the Guardian:

Road safety: Impose total alcohol ban for teenage drivers, says chief medical officer
A zero drink-driving limit should be imposed on all drivers under 20, the chief medical officer recommended yesterday, saying that such a ban would save lives.

This hits two of our current “fears.” First it panders to the idea that the UK is in the grip of a “Booze Culture” and secondly it cries that some new restriction will “save lives.” Nicely it wraps all this up by targeting a silent group of society, so the fall out would be minimal (and it was).

For me, despite being neither “yoof” or a novice driver so immune to any resultant laws, this is insane. I completely, 100% fail to see any logic. I am reasonably sure that any young driver mature and grown up enough to go out and stick to the 1 pint limit is also likely to be mature and capable enough to drive sensibly. The problem, and it isn’t just young drivers, is being over the limit.

Some figures are bandied about:

Justifying his call for zero alcohol for 17 to 20-year-olds, Donaldson said they were six times more likely to have a car crash if they had been drinking. A young person who had been drinking was 2.5 times more likely to have a crash than an older person who had been drinking. “I’m aware it is a controversial recommendation, but I believe it would save lives,” he said.

Now, so far I have been unable to clarify this, but I am reasonably certain that the problem is young people are more likely to be over the legal drink driving limit – I seem to recall the alcohol level is not recorded by the police if the person is under the legal limit.

Basically, this is saying young people over the limit have more accidents than old people over the limit, so lets lower the limit for young people.

Madness. But it is the madness that comes from some one with a fantastic knowledge of one subject area (medicine) being given implied authority in another area (crime reduction, driver safety etc).

The next bit really annoyed me. From the Times a few days ago:

Curfew tames feral yobs of Cornwall
An experiment to bring peace to a yob-plagued town by imposing nocturnal curfews on its teenagers had a promising start this weekend when the streets of Redruth in Cornwall were free of the usual intimidating gaggles of youths.
Under the experimental curfew, named Operation Goodnight, parents in the most troubled part of the town have agreed with police that they will keep children under 16 indoors after 9pm, and that under10s will not be allowed out after 8pm.

What a wonderful culture we live in. When you read things like this it really makes you despair for what the adults of 2020 will be like.

I have two big issues with this. First off – why are we sending kids so many mixed signals? We (as a society) say they should be more involved in the community, say they should spend less time on their playstations and more time outdoors, say they should spend more time interacting with others. Simultaneously we say they cant go out, cant hang round together and everything they do means a paedophile will get them.

Secondly, the sheer unadulterated nonsense behind this.

  1. It is a voluntary scheme. So if you are a NAUGHTYKID™©® all you need to do is ignore it. All the good, well behaved kids will stay at home. Hang on, isn’t that the wrong way round?
  2. It is being done with the approval of the parents and targets the children in the most troubled part of the town. What? It actually says “a Sunday Times poll showed that nine out of 10 parents backed restrictions on their own children going out after dark.”

Right, let me get this straight. The parents of these “feral” children want restrictions on when the children go out. They have enough control over the children to stop them going out but wont do this simply because their children are little s***s, they demand that the police tell them to do this.

Nope, still cant get my head around it.

Why in the name of Zeus dont the bloody parents control their children? Why do they have to agree with police to follow this “trial” curfew (which will, no doubt, report a positive outcome and then spread to other areas – just like the criminal nonsense that is congestion charging)?

Our children are fine. They are the same mix of evil little turds and fantastic kind angels they were 30 years ago, 60 years ago, 90 years ago and even 900 years ago.

The bloody feral parents are the problem…. but then, they can vote…