The left-wing genes

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Which genes are left-wing? All of them! At least that’s the interpretation Oliver James puts forward in this piece at The Guardian, as he points out that the mapping of the human genome hasn’t delivered evidence for the genetic determinism of mental health and social status that conservative politics – not to mention the pharmacology industries – hoped it would:

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. “Our environments are critical,” he concluded. And, after only a few years of extensive genome searching, even the most convinced geneticists began to publicly admit that there are no individual genes for the vast majority of mental health problems. In 2009 Professor Robert Plomin, a leading behavioural geneticist, wrote that the evidence had proved that “genetic effects are much smaller than previously considered: the largest effects account for only 1% of quantitative traits”. However, he believed that all was not lost. Complex combinations of genes might hold the key. So far, this has not been shown, nor is it likely to be.


Another theory was that genes create vulnerabilities. For example, it was thought that people with a particular gene variant were more likely to become depressed if they were maltreated as children. This also now looks unlikely. An analysis of 14,250 people showed that those with the variant were not at greater risk of depression. Nor were they more likely to be depressed when the variant was combined with childhood maltreatment.

In developed nations, women and those on a low income are twice as likely to be depressed as men and the wealthy. When DNA is tested in large samples, neither women nor the poor are more likely to have the variant. Worldwide, depression is least common in south-east Asia. Yet a study of 29 nations found the variant to be commonest there – the degree to which a society is collectivist rather than individualistic partly explains depression rates, not genes.

Politics may be the reason why the media has so far failed to report the small role of genes. The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill. To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.

It’s a rather generalised and sweeping statement, but I think there’s a core of truth to it. Is this why there’s been such a right-wing push-back against genetic science in recent years, perhaps?

[ That said, James is narrativising genetic science in a very similar way, albeit on behalf of the other side of the debating chamber. The political polarisation of science worries me regardless of who’s doing it, because it puts the primacy onto agenda-driven interpretation rather than evidence; nowhere is this more clear than in climate science, where progressive/left-wing attempts to counter the right’s conspiracy theories with their own rhetoric have obscured the facts of the matter even further. ]

Outside the media: the geofenced future of advertising

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2010

Geolocation + smartphones + permission marketing – [old media channels] = ?

The campaign was created by Placecast, a location-based mobile ad company in San Francisco. It uses a practice called geo-fencing, which draws a virtual perimeter around a particular location. When someone steps into the geo-fenced area, a text message is sent, but only if consumers have opted in to receive messages.


Placecast created 1,000 geo-fences in and around New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, cities where the North Face has many stores and areas that get a lot of snow or rain, so the company can tailor its messages to the weather. In urban areas, the fences are up to half a mile around stores, and in suburban areas they are up to a mile around stores.

Stowe Boyd reckons it’ll stick, and I’m inclined to agree.

It is going to be huge, especially with young people who text preferentially over talking on their phones. And of course, the retailers will pay for the messages.

And even better than come-ons like these will be the coupons. I am driving past the local Giant supermaket, and I get a text message with an attachment: 2 coupons for brands that I have registered at the Giant website. […]

But what Miller completely forgets to mention is that this is direct advertising, like direct mail was. This will end run the media companies who have made their bread and butter from advertising and coupons. If Domino’s can text me a code to get two pizzas half off today, why would the[y] advertise in the local paper?

If the future of advertising is direct and opt-in, through mobile devices to the consumer, the media lose the support of retail and local advertisers.

Yes, consumers still need to learn about PF Chiangs in the first place, but that is much more likely to be a direct experience, too, like going there with friends and then signing up for text-based promotions because it’s mentioned on the menu, or a friend uses a coupon or discount code.

The future of advertising is moving outside of media, and that’s another nail in the coffin for traditional print media.

And of course, there’ll be ways to game the locational ads system, too; step beyond the text message coupons and into mobile map apps, and suddenly there’s an incentive not to send you by the shortest route, but by the most lucrative – a brainwave courtesy of Jan Chipchase, caught in traffic in Virginia:

… the result I suspect of a sat-nav that decided that every possible road-works was a Point of Interest. Which might sound a bit far fetched today, until you consider that someone somewhere is drawing on ever more reams of data to serve up your your route – and someone else somewhere else is using every tool in their disposable to cajole individuals of interest past places ‘of interest’.

When the company pitching you advertising *also* calculates the most ‘efficient’ route to take from A to B you need to ask the criteria by wh[ich] efficiency is measured. And keep asking – the answer will likely change with the ebb and flow of financial results.

Of course, you could always turn off your phone, foregoing the navigational assistance in exchange for freedom from interstitial marketing. But then there’s a 93% chance that your route will be guessed by analysis of your previous movements, so you might as well leave it on and hope for a good open-source ad-blocker app…

… though this is almost certainly more worth worrying about than geolocational robbery crews.

The mould, the map and the mass transit system

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2010

slime mould "transit network" (credit: Science/AAAS)There’s still much we can learn from the natural world – and not just the simple things. Nature has a way of solving complex problems without the need for cognition and abstract thought… or even sentience, in many cases. I remember being impressed as a child by the incredible power of tropisms in plants; the simple behaviour of growing toward a light source, for example, can make dumb vegetable matter seem tenacious, determined, relentless.

Well, it turns out that tropism can be pretty efficient, too, as discovered by a research team based in Tokyo. Having already discovered that slime mould can find the shortest route through a maze (provided there’s a food source to entice it), they made a simple map of Japan which used oat flakes to represent major population centres, and let the mould loose on it. End result: the networks of mould connecting the oat flakes closely resembled the country’s existing mass transit networks, or alternative layouts that were theoretically just as efficient. [via BoingBoing; image borrowed from linked article, credit Science/AAAS]

This reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) story I read a long time ago about some architect employed to lay out a new section of campus for a college or business or something similar. Having set aside a large green space between a bunch of buildings, he was asked where the paths across it should go; his response was that the best way to make an efficient network of paths was to not lay any at all, and to let people walk as they wished across the green space for the first term. By the end of that time, the paths worn into the grass by pedestrians could be used as a map for the asphalters, showing not only the routes required but the comparative traffic densities thereof.

I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this, but I think it has something to do with dethroning rational planning processes in favour of waiting for the best methods or systems to emerge from the chaos of real life. For all our research, for all our academic disciplines and best practices, sometimes just letting things happen as naturally leads to the most efficient solution. I guess the trick is to recognise which problems are best solved in such a way, and which ones aren’t…

The mind re-maps the body: learning to live with your cybernetic centaur legs

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2009

Good news for wannabe cyborgs and transhumans! New Scientist reports on another manifestation of plasticity in the human mind; it turns out that tool use results in a remapping of the mind’s perception of the body, which in turn suggests that adapting to artificial prosthetics or cyborg bolt-ons is within the capability of our baseline brains.

The brain maintains a physical map of the body, with different areas in charge of different body parts. Researchers have suggested that when we use tools, our brains incorporate them into this map.

To test the idea, Alessandro Farné of the University of Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, and colleagues attached a mechanical grabber to the arms of 14 volunteers. The modified subjects then used the grabber to pick up out-of-reach objects.

Shortly afterwards, the volunteers perceived touches on their elbow and fingertip as further apart than they really were, and took longer to point to or grasp objects with their hand than prior to using the tool.

The explanation, say the team, is that their brains had adjusted the brain areas that normally control the arm to account for the tool and not yet adjusted back to normal.

“This is the first evidence that tool use alters the body [map],” says Farné.

Farné says the same kind of brain “plasticity” might be involved in regaining control of a transplanted hand or a prosthetic limb when the original has been lost. The brain might also readily incorporate cyborg additions – a cyborg arm or other body part – into its body schema, says Farné, “and possibly new body parts differing in shape and/or number, for example four arms.”

So, good news should you decide that you want to become a permanent cyber-centaur by wearing these things:

Cold war getting hotter scenario from 1987

Tom James @ 19-06-2009

DD-ST-87-08751Alternate-history fans will appreciate these US Department of Defense maps of a projected Soviet invasion of Western Europe, heralding as they would have done the beginning of WWIII:

This map is a really a picture in macro-scale of the epic tank battle for the plains of Germany, that entire generations of Western and Soviet officers built careers around planning and preparing for. In the history of human civilization, the Soviet Western TVD invasion was probably the most researched, contemplated, and gamed out battle that was never actually to take place. Fifty years of voluminous strategic studies were compiled by both sides on this very subject, as both sides searched for advantages in a truly enormous field chess game.

I don’t know enough about the history to say if this is paranoiac or just horrific.

[via the Exile][image and article from TechConex]

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