My Christmas Message

December 22, 2013

 I wish all my loyal readers a Merry Christmas and peace and joy for the holiday season. See you all in 2014! Take it away, Showaddywaddy!

Quotes of 2013

December 22, 2013

He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. His was a spirit born free, destined to soar above the rainbows. Today his spirit is soaring through the heavens. He is now forever free. Boxing great Muhammad Ali on the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. Pope Francis

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. President Obama

I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity. Edward Snowden

I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive. Walter White to his wife Skyler on series finale of Breaking Bad

I am flawed…deeply flawed. I didn’t invent the (doping) culture but I didn’t try to stop the culture and that’s my mistake, and that’s what I have to be sorry for. Lance Armstrong

I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity. Angelina Jolie, on her double mastectomy after learning she carried the breast cancer gene

They thought that bullets would silence us, but they failed. Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations, on July 12, referring to Taliban gunmen who shot her for promoting teen education in Pakistan.

My children say that they feel like Jewish families in Germany under Hitler’s regime. Truly, everyone is against us. Silvio Berlusconi

I am Chelsea Manning. Former soldier Bradley Manning, who was convicted for leaking documents to Wikileaks, announced a change of sex

Contrasting views on Margaret Thatcher:

She was a giant, beside whom other peacetime politicians of the 20th and 21st centuries look like mere pygmies. The Daily Mail

Above anything else, Mrs Thatcher implanted the gene of greed in the British soul. And, in the end, that is the poison of her legacy. Simon Kelner in the Independent

You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you? Eddie Mair to Boris Johnson on the Andrew Marr Show

We’ve had enough Bushes. Former first lady Barbara Bush on April 25, on whether her son, Jeb, should follow the family tradition

Everything you thought you knew about supermarket geography may be wrong

December 15, 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a supermarket manager in search of a fortune will put the milk at the back of the store. These Machiavellian types want to make us go through the whole store to get to the milk so that we will then end up buying loads of things we hadn’t planned on getting. This view is reflected in this video from Michael Pollan:

To be honest I don’t really know why supermarkets put milk at the back. I am just used to it being there. It could be because it’s easier to deliver it there. Perhaps shoppers prefer it there.  But what I do know is that the Pollan answer is not the only possible explanation. It seems to me a case of lazy thinking. Here are a couple of cases where popular items are not placed at the back of the store. There was a study carried out at a petrol station at lunchtime. Putting sandwiches at the end of an aisle crammed with enticing potential impulse buys did not produce the desired result. Shoppers did not get distracted, but it did annoy them and the store did risk their going somewhere else. And do bookshops put the most popular books at the back of the store in order to get customers to fill their baskets with books? No, they are at the front, where it’s most convenient.

Supermarkets are looking to eke out maximum turnover and profit from each square metre of shelf space. They are not concerned with which brand sells best – their own bottom line is of course their main concern – but only with total sales. They therefore need to be convinced that any display will increase their overall profits.

Location is the key. The best positions are scarce and companies will pay accordingly. Traditionally it has been believed that shoppers are more likely to notice a product at eye level. However, according to Siemon Scamell-Katz, author of The Art of Shopping, this is not the case. Using eye-tracking technology he was able to show that we naturally look lower than eye level, somewhere between waist and chest level. When Scamell-Katz presented this evidence to Procter & Gamble, a client of his at that time, the company began negotiating for lower shelves. The supermarket bosses may have been surprised, but. It worked and sales increased.

Another myth is that supermarkets are constantly moving things around to confuse us. This may happen at times. However, if you disrupt people, they may well buy less.  Shoppers build maps of stores, allowing them to ignore aisle markers and even shopping lists. Memory and signpost brands enable them to navigate the store as if on auto-pilot. When they are unable to find the products they want, they get frustrated. They may end up leaving the store empty-handed, or taking their custom to a competitor. Customers value convenience. As Scamell-Katz says:

If you make it easy for the shopper on a mission to buy bread, they’ll come back, and are more likely to do their main shop there as well.”

I am a little sceptical of the notion that consumers are lab rats that can be easily hoodwinked. In this vision we are hapless victims who need to be saved by experts with special knowledge like Pollan. I take it as a given that supermarkets are out to get the money in our wallets. I also believe we have mental foibles, cognitive biases that can mould our behaviour. We dispose of limited time on this earth; it is simply not possible to do a cost-benefit analysis of every purchase. We need heuristics, those mental short cuts that enable us to maximise our most valuable resource – time. Supermarkets know this, and I’m sure they try to manipulate us. But there is a big difference between what stores want to do and what they can do. The urge to trick us is generally constrained by competition. A store that does not think of its customers’ convenience and make their experience relatively pleasant will surely struggle. Ultimately stores reflect what we desire. This is the power we have as consumers. We can be hapful. A store that blatantly tries to hoodwink its customers will soon find them taking their custom elsewhere. I will finish with this quote from Tim Harford in his book The Undercover Economist:

But this is an example of a universal truth about supermarkets: they are full of close (or not so close) substitutes, some cheap, some expensive, and with a strong random element to the pricing. The random element is there so that only shoppers who are careful to notice, remember, and compare prices will get the best bargains. If you want to outwit the supermarkets, simple observation is your best weapon. And if you can’t be bothered to do that, you really don’t need to save money.

The books I have most enjoyed reading in 2013

December 15, 2013

I found it easier to choose the non-fiction. Anyway, here is my list:

  • The Corrections: A Novel  Jonathan Franzen
  • Emma Jane Austen
  • The Honest Truth About Dishonesty  Dan Ariely
  • How To Think Clearly Rolf Dobelli
  • The Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
  • One Summer Bill Bryson
  • Red or Dead David Peace
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman
  • War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
  • The Weekend Bernhard Schlink
  • The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

1,227 QI facts to blow your socks off

December 8, 2013

Here is a selection of trivia culled from the most recent QI book:

One in ten European babies is conceived in an IKEA bed.

10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months.

The words written on Twitter every day would fill a 10-million-page book.

In 2008, a man in Ohio was arrested for having sex with a picnic table.

The world’s population spends 500,000 hours a day typing Internet security codes.

More than 50% of NASA employees are dyslexic, hired for their superior problem-solving and spatial-awareness skills.

The designer of Saddam’s bunker was the grandson of the woman who built Hitler’s bunker.

The US tax code is four times as long as the complete works of Shakespeare.

Psychologists cannot agree on what ‘personality’ means. Anthropologists cannot agree on the meaning of the word ‘culture’ or on the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.

In 1894, The Times estimated that by 1950 London would be nine feet deep in horse manure.

The same man invented heroin and aspirin in the same year: Felix Hoffman, 1897.

There are more than three times as many PR people in America as there are journalists.

British spies stopped using semen as invisible ink because it began to smell if it wasn’t fresh.

The United States of America maintains a military presence in 148 of the 192 United Nations countries.

Aerosmith have made more money from Guitar Hero than from any of their albums.

A typical microwave oven uses more electricity keeping its digital clock on standby than it does heating food.

Each year, drug baron Pablo Escobar had to write off 10% of his cash holdings because of rats nibbling away at his huge stash of bank notes.

Arabic words are written right to left, but Arabic numbers left to right. Arabic speakers reading anything with a lot of numbers in have to read in both directions at once.

Trombone is French for ‘paperclip’.

Margaret Thatcher was part of the team that invented Mr Whippy ice cream.

When Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity, the New York Times sent their golfing correspondent to interview him.

A full Kindle weighs a billionth of a billionth of a gram more than a brand-new one.

The word ‘unfriend’ first appeared in print in 1659.

Durham University offers a Harry Potter module. It includes the topic ‘Gryffindor and Slytherin: prejudice and intolerance in the classroom’.

85% of the clicking on web ads is done by 8% of the people. Since 2008, the number of clicks has halved.

Sending a man to the Moon and finding Osama Bin Laden cost the US government about the same amount of time and money: ten years and $100 billion.

The American TV sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer trained as an Israeli sniper.

Russian has no word for ‘bigot’.

Chemotherapy is a by-product of the mustard gas used in the First World War.

Google earns $20 billion a year from advertising, more than the primetime revenues of CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX combined.

20% of people in the UK believe they have a food allergy, but only 2% actually do.

The American secret service tried to spike Hitler’s carrots with female hormones to change him into a woman.

40% of all bottled water sold in the world is bottled tap water.

More than twice as many people are killed by vending machines as by sharks.

The inventor of ‘Best before’ dates, originally for milk, was Al Capone.

‘Influenza’ is Italian for ‘influence’: heavenly bodies were once thought to affect our own.

Henry VIII had a Groom of the Stool whose duty was to see that ‘the house of easement be sweet and clear’: in other words, to wipe the king’s bottom.

In the last 60 years, more than 23,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea. Only two Koreans have gone in the opposite direction.

Gatwick, the name of the UK’s 2nd-largest airport, means ‘the farm where goats are kept’.

There is at least ten times as much crime on TV as there is in the real world.

The first Olympian disqualified for banned substances was Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall of Sweden. In the 1968 Mexico Games, he had two beers to calm his nerves before the pistol shooting.

The first recorded incidence of air rage involved a passenger in First Class who shat on the food trolley after being refused another drink.

In 2003, six monkeys were funded by the Arts Council of England to see how long it would take them to type the works of Shakespeare. After six months, they had failed to produce a single word of English, broken the computer and used the keyboard as a lavatory.

Leo Tolstoy’s wife wrote out the drafts of War and Peace for him, in longhand, six times.

Within 200 yards of the flat in Islington where George Orwell had the idea for 1984,there are now 32 CCTV cameras.

In 2008, an MI6 officer appeared on The One Show. Halfway through, his moustache fell off.

The Bible is the most shoplifted book in the USA.

Sir Charles Isham, a vegetarian spiritualist, introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847. He hoped that they would attract real gnomes to his garden.

The use of the English word ‘gay’ to mean homosexual is older than the use of the term ‘homosexual’ to mean gay.

All Bran is only 87% bran.

When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, he ordered all Monopoly sets to be destroyed.

Nelson Mandela was not removed from the US terror watch list until 2008.

11 of the 12 men to have walked on the Moon were in the Boy Scouts.

The National Health Service is the world’s 4th-largest employer after the US Defence Department, the Chinese Red Army and Walmart.

In online dating sites you are more likely to come across a teacher or lecturer than someone from any other profession.

The founder of, Gary Kremen, lost his girlfriend to a man she met on

More than one in five Americans believes that the world will end in their lifetime.

Nature versus nurture is dead – long live epigenetics!

December 1, 2013

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles.

The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”

“Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.

“Bad mothering,” says Freud.


The nature / nurture debate has divided scientists and philosophers for millennia. Plato and Aristotle, as they generally did, had opposing views on the subject. John Locke, the famous 17th-century philosopher posited that the human mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which the environment inscribes personality. This view has generally held sway in the social sciences. But its opponents believe that it is genes which control our behaviour. This has been a very polarising debate. One man who experienced all this divisiveness was E.O. Wilson. A proponent of sociobiology, Wilson was accused of racism, misogyny, and eugenics. At a two-day symposium organised by American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was attacked by a member the International Committee Against Racism, who poured a pitcher of ice water on his head and chanted “Wilson, you’re all wet.” The scientist, still wet, gave his speech and received a prolonged standing ovation. No one was asked to leave the premises, no police were called, and no action was taken against the protesters later. Such is the indulgence given to these intellectual fascists on campuses and at public meetings. Wilson, though, was proud to be the target of such intolerance:

I believe…I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea.”

I have tended to side with those on the side of genes, but really this debate is based on a false dichotomy. Genes and environment interact. The best explanation I have read about this was by Matt Ridley in his book Nature via Nurture, which came out in 2003:

It is genes that allow the human mind to learn, to remember, to imitate, to imprint, to absorb culture and to express instincts. Genes are not puppet masters, nor blueprints. Nor are they just the carriers of heredity. They are active during life; they switch each other on and off; they respond to the environment. They may direct the construction of the body and brain in the womb, but then they set about dismantling and rebuilding what they have made almost at once – in response to experience. They are both cause and consequence of our actions. Somehow the adherents of the ’nurture’ side of the argument have scared themselves silly at the power and inevitability of genes, and missed the greatest lesson of all: the genes are on their side.

In the light of this controversy I have been following with great interest the emerging field of epigenetics. Although it has been defined in several ways, all the definitions are based on the concept that environmental forces affect gene behaviour, either turning genes on or off.  I found this definition online:

Epigenetics literally means “above” or “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes “on” or “off.” These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes.

Genes contain the instructions but it is epigenetic factors which direct how those instructions are actually carried out. I don’t really understand the processes involved, but I’ll give it a go. There are two basic mechanisms for epigenetic change. One involves molecules known as methyl groups that latch on to DNA to suppress and silence gene expression; the other involves molecules known as acetyl groups, which activate and enhance gene expression. If you want to know more, check out the video above.

This epigenetic influence is ongoing. Fifty-year-old twins show three times more epigenetic modifications than do three-year-old twins; and twins reared apart show more epigenetic alterations than those who grow up together. Epigenetic investigations are proving that neither genes nor the environment is destiny.

A brief digression: epigenetics does seem to have echoes of the ideas of the 18th century naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. He was writing about evolution long before Darwin. Unfortunately he backed the wrong horse, or should I say giraffe? He believed that the giraffe ancestors had stretched their necks to get at the highest leaves in the trees. This caused their necks to become slightly longer, which trait was passed on to descendants. Generation after generation inherited slightly longer necks, and the result is what we see in giraffes today. Darwin’s Origin of Species, Gregor Mendel’s peas and the later discovery of DNA left the Frenchman’s ideas looking ridiculous. The field of epigenetics is not exactly a vindication of Lamarckian evolution, but there are at least parallels in the transmission mechanism.

What are the practical implications of epigenetics? One fruitful area has been research into famines. Studies of the effects of famines in Holland in the 1940s, in China in the 1950s and in the United States over a century ago show they affected the lifespan and obesity rates in subsequent generations. The Dutch famine took place in the German-occupied part of the Netherlands during the winter of 1944-1945, as World War II was drawing to a close. A German blockade cut off food, punishing the Dutch for not supporting the Nazi war effort. One famous victim was Audrey Hepburn who was growing up in Holland during the famine. She would go on to suffer from anaemia, respiratory illnesses, and edema as a result. The clinical depression that afflicted her later in life has also been attributed to malnutrition. This tragedy and its longer-term consequences was the subject of the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study, which found that the children of pregnant women exposed to famine were more susceptible to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and many other health problems. The women who were pregnant children during the famine had smaller children. That is to be expected. What was more surprising was that when these children grew up and had offspring of their own, these children were also smaller than average. This data suggests that the famine experienced by the mothers caused some kind of epigenetic changes that were passed down to the next generation. Hunger seemed to switch on genes that increased the accumulation of body fat in times of plenty, in order to improve survival chances in times of famine.

However this is not helpful in the modern world where cheap calories are more easily available than at any time in history. These epigenetic effects could lead us to a rather pessimistic conclusion. But this knowledge could also be used to find solutions. There are apparently already four drugs on the market which can switch genes on or off. And if you don’t want drugs, you may be interested to know that diet can also affect gene express themselves and exercise has been shown to switch off the FTO gene, a key driver of obesity.

In coming decades, scientists studying epigenetics may understand how environmental forces and genes interact to condition our health. Epigenetic systems are heritable, self-perpetuating, and reversible.  I am convinced we will find cures for many human diseases and conditions, including some cancers. And it may unlock some of the mysteries of human personality. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it will be rendered obsolete, but I think epigenetics will give us a much more nuanced perspective on the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Why some sea turtles migrate?

December 1, 2013

I have recently been reading This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works. The book, edited by John Brockman features the favourite theories of experts in numerous fields and disciplines. I got my idea for the epigenetics post from a contribution of the anthropologist Helen Fisher. Another of my favourites is this one by the philosopher Daniel Dennett:

My choice is an explanation that delights me. It may be true and may be false—I don’t know, but probably somebody who reads Edge will be able to say, authoritatively, with suitable references. I am eager to find out. I was told some years ago that the reason that some species of sea turtles migrate all the way across the South Atlantic to lay their eggs on the east coast of South America after mating on the west coast of Africa is that when the behavior started, Gondwana was just beginning to break apart (that would be between 130 and 110 million years ago), and these turtles were just swimming across the narrow strait to lay their eggs. Each year the swim was a little longer—maybe an inch or so—but who could notice that? Eventually they were crossing the ocean to lay their eggs, having no idea, of course, why they would do such an extravagant thing.

What is delicious about this example is that it vividly illustrates several important evolutionary themes: the staggering power over millions of years of change so gradual it is essentially unnoticeable; the cluelessness of much animal behavior, even when it is adaptive; and of course the eye-opening perspective that evolution by natural selection can offer to the imagination of the curious naturalist. It also demonstrates either the way an evolutionary hypothesis can be roundly refuted by discoverable facts (if it is refuted) or the way it can be supported by further evidence (if in fact it is so supported).

An attractive hypothesis such as this is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry. Critics often deride evolutionary hypotheses about prehistoric events as “just-so stories,” but as a blanket condemnation this charge should be rejected out of hand. Thousands of such hypotheses—first dreamed up on slender evidence—have been tested and confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt. Thousands of others have been tested and disconfirmed. They were just-so stories until they weren’t, in other words. That’s the way science advances.

I have noticed that there is a pattern in the use of the “just-so story” charge: With almost no exceptions, it is applied to hypotheses about human evolution. Nobody seems to object that we can’t know enough about the selective environment leading to whales or flowers for us to hold forth so confidently about how and why whales and flowers evolved as they did. So my rule of thumb is: If you see the “just-so story” epithet hurled, look for a political motive. You’ll almost always find one. While it is no doubt true that some evolutionary psychologists have offered hypotheses about human evolution for which there is still only slender supporting evidence, and while it is also no doubt true that some evolutionary psychologists have been less than diligent in seeking further evidence to confirm or disconfirm their favorite hypotheses, this is at most a criticism of the thoroughness of some researchers in the field, not a condemnation of their method or their hypotheses. The same could be said about many other topics in evolutionary biology.