Archive for September, 2003

An outburst of piety.

Saturday, September 27th, 2003

October is shaping up to be phenomenally busy. I have finally finished a troublesome book outline, and can get that off. I have to profile Redmond O’Hanlon, Robert Silvers, and possibly Marvin Minsky for the Guardian. I have promised a long piece ot the Sunday Telegraph on gay priests,and will no doubt be very busy anyway around the 15-16 October, which is when a formal schism is skedded for the Anglican Communion. The worms are coming out in America. I have two regular columns every week. So, naturally, this is going to be the month the Pope dies, too. Dear God, could you please preserve his life till late November? Christmas would be another really good time. Think of the symbolism.

All biologists should eat kippers

Saturday, September 27th, 2003

because it is quite impossible to bone one without thinking about development. All those ribs, each one a tiny bit shorter than the one in front, but each one growing through the same double turn, first out, then in to make space for and then protect the stomach; all those different tissues: scales, skin, bone and flesh — all these things somehow contained in an egg, and following an apparently predestined pattern as it grows! It’s just too complicated. No wonder the worm looked like a better place to start. The kipper, however, makes a better breakfast.

more doggy nonsense

Saturday, September 27th, 2003
The BBC did not just get its metaphors wrong about Craig Venter’s sequencing of his poodle’s genome. they failed to notice that he hasn’t actually done it. According to the AP report,
“The researchers achieved what is called 1.5 X coverage of the dog genome. This means many DNA fragments remain and the results are less accurate than the completed sequences of some other species. For instance, the mouse has been sequenced to 8 X coverage, which is considered ideal and essentially complete.”
It is really rather shaming that the BBC’s science coverage should be so bad.

Reasons to avoid Today

Friday, September 26th, 2003

the Radio show, that is. I was listening this morning, as I usually don’t, and caught the news that Craig Venter’s dog has had its genome sequenced. I hope they did it properly. In any case, it was announced that the dog had had “the blueprint for its genetic makeup” analysed. This is wrong in so many ways: genes aren’t blueprints for organisms, and even if they were, the genome isn’t a blueprint for the genes. But I liked the idea of a genetic makeup, and drifted off into fantasies about the women’s pages of the future: Martha’s lips are the product of SEXBOMB3 from Sulston Biochem; her eyes are shadowed by GARBO4 from Monsanto, and so on. Of course this will never happen. The most we can ever hope for is not funny at all: Elise gets her wonderfully prominent cheekbones from BRCA2.

keeping up with the de Joneses

Friday, September 26th, 2003

A post at Languagehat put me in mind of something Eamon Duffy said on Sunday: he’s working on the manuscript annotations in late mediaeval prayer books. These were surprisingly common, especially after the invention of printing. People wrote all sorts of things in the margins of their books: often little calendrical notes, but sometimes whole love poems or diary entries. How much were they, I asked: was buying one like owning a television, or owning a car? It was like owning a car, really; and there was, as with cars today, a thriving second-hand market. Printed books were obviously less desirable than hand-written ones. So the early printed ones were designed to look as much as possible like calligraphy; and one of the ways in which this was done was to illustrate them with line drawings. These looked OK in black and white. But an ambitious owner could then hot-rod his breviary by colouring them in as if they had been illuminated by real monks.


Friday, September 26th, 2003

Last week’s Wormseye column drew quite a range of feedback from around the world. Here’s some of it, with comments. The same thing is going up on the Guardian’s site, but they can’t do CSS so I thought I would put it here, more legibly.


The banana principle

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

At lunch on Sunday, I found myself sitting between a doctor and the master of a Cambridge college, who were having a competitive whinge about the ways in which bureaucracy and de-professionalisation were wrecking their lives. Actually, said the Don, the colleges were still run pretty sensibly, which is to say without management. The university as a whole is being persecuted by the Government, just as the Health Service is. The doctor complained bitterly and with every reason that the number of administrators employed by the NHS has risen from something like 5,000 to something like 100,000 in the last fifteen years. What’s more, they all change their minds about what needs doing every three years or so.

I found myself wondering whether there is any natural upper limit on the number of bureaucrats. Some people doubt there can be. Certainly, introspection suggests that managing work can easily expand to fill all the time available for actually working.

But there is a more hopeful example in the banana. Bob May used to go around, when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, that we shared 50% of our genes with a banana. In fact we share them with almost any multicellular organism. They are the necessary “housekeeping” genes, which regulate and make possible the transactions between our separate cells, and keep us functioning as organisms, rather than cancerous agglomerations. So, I suppose from the point of view of the original, autonomous bacterium, they are all a part of the bureaucracy.

The moral of this is not very comforting: in nature, 50% of everything is bureaucratic. That is the limit to which our human institutions must also tend, if we are to take cultural evolution seriously. I expounded this theory, and then, since it was a buffet lunch, went off to get some more food. When I returned, the table was deserted.

MS and chatrooms

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

I can’t say that Microsoft’s decision to close down all their chatrooms all around the world for fear of paedophiles strikes me as particularly public-spirited. It looks more like an ethical excuse to get out of a loss-making business that’s not really going anywhere. Since they don’t charge for acce to MSN chatrooms, they have no real reason to maintai them; and their decision leaves AOL looking immoral — which can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, Felix did tell me that there was an amazing amount of child pornography on the MS networks when he was doing tech support there. The company can’t be held responsible; indeed, he only knew about it because it was his job to shut it down, or rather to report the matter to superiors who could take action. I think that any peer-to-peer technology is going to be used like that. Closing chat rooms won’t do very much about this. My impression is that it was the discussion groups where most of the porn was organised.

good journalism

Wednesday, September 24th, 2003

You need solid journalistic skills to run a first class blog, as well as application. That’s why there are so few of them. But I now believe that The Whiskey Bar is the best and most savage political journalism I read regularly in any medium. I don’t quite know what brought this on. Perhaps his question after Bush denounced the evils sex tourism to the UN: “So when do we start bombing Thailand”.

a little mystery

Saturday, September 20th, 2003
I know I shouldn’t be writing about the war so much, but it’s less disgusting than the gay bishop story. And one really puzzling thing did happen this week: on Thuersday and Friday, there were numerous reports that a large number of American troops had been killed in two ambushes, including eight of them (I think that was the Independent‘s figure) in one incident near Khaldiyah. Here, for example, is the BBC:
Three US soldiers have been killed in an ambush near Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, the latest in a continuing series of attacks on Americans in Iraq. Two soldiers were injured in a separate attack on a convoy in the town of Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad, with unconfirmed reports speaking of a number of men killed.
The source for this appears to have been eyewitness accounts from a carload of journalists which were also fired on by the Americans, and from the Iraqis who were standing around. The Telegraph announced the three American deaths had taken place in Khaldiyah:
Three American soldiers were killed yesterday in a new type of roadside ambush. A light lorry and a Humvee jeep were hit by a blast, possibly from a roadside bomb, on a busy road near Khaldiya, west of Baghdad. Then hidden attackers opened fire with machineguns on survivors trying to help the wounded.
The Times story, bylined from Khaldiya, and by the experienced Richard Lloyd Parry, found reports of eight dead quite credible, and talked about three destroyed US vehicles:
the Arab television station al-Arabiya reported that eight were killed, and eyewitnesses claimed as many as eighteen had been killed or wounded. Scores of local Iraqis were last night celebrating what could prove one of the deadlist attacks on coalition forces since combat officially ended on May 1.
They danced around the wreckage of at least three American military vehicles, fired Kalashnikov rifles in the air and brandished posters of Saddam Hussein. They chanted: “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Saddam.”
Yet no deaths from this ambush have been officially acknowledged at all. The Bushies have got away with so many lies on so many subjects, that perhaps they believe that they can suppress the casualty figures. It’s also possible, of course, that they believe they have no choice because the truth unelectably too awful. Some reasons for this interpretation can be found in the extended entry, a very long quote from the almost infinitely longer Talking Points Memo interview with Joseph Wilson, a former American ambassador to Baghdad: