This is London

Paul Raven @ 10-08-2011

Map of London colour-coded for social deprivation index; the darker the red, the poorer the area. Little volcano icons represent riot actions as of ~9pm GMT Tuesday 9th August 2011. Click through for full-size interactive/zoomable version.

London riot locations mapped over deprivation index

Of course, these riots are have nothing to do with poverty or deprivation. After all, they could all have decent jobs if only they just tried harder, right? </sarcasm>

EDIT: for those interested, the 2010 English Indices of Deprivation are collated by (believe it or not) the Department for Communities and Local Government themselves; here’s a PDF summary, or you can dig around here for more detailed versions or direct access to data.

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. ]


Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

One of the best things about publishing new stories is seeing writers take old ideas and remake them afresh. A few months ago, we had Sandra McDonald remixing the post-apocalypse trope, and now Eric Gregory updates the urban vampire for a nanotech-infested near future in the favelas of the Global South.

“Miguel and the Viatura” mashes up religion, poverty, exploitative corporations and transcendant technology, but remains at its heart a powerful story of character, of a younger brother led astray. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.

Miguel and the Viatura

by Eric Gregory

“We’re close,” said Joaõ. “Keep your eyes open.”

It was hard enough to watch the road. Foot traffic was heavy, and police in hardsuits patrolled the walks, faceless behind their faceplates. The air was usually fine in Pinheiros District, but Joaõ had insisted they both wear masks, and Miguel’s eyepieces fogged constantly. “Are we late?” he asked. The only thing worse than crossing the city to see his father would be doing it for no reason at all. If they missed him, Miguel would punch something.

Preferably Joaõ. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: MIGUEL AND THE VIATURA by Eric Gregory”

The Cyclenet: Bangladeshi InfoLadies bring web benefits to the unwired

Paul Raven @ 24-05-2010

Here’s another story that’s all over the shop (I got it via both MeFi and Chairman Bruce), that reminded me a fair bit of Geoff Ryman’s Air: a report at The Guardian about “InfoLadies” in Bangladesh, young women who saddle up on a bicycle with a netbook, a mobile phone and a bunch of medical supplies in order to sidestep corrupt infrastructure, deliver useful knowledge to rural citizens, and transform their lives in the process.

“Ask me about the pest that’s infecting your crop, common skin diseases, how to seek help if your husband beats you or even how to stop having children, and I may have a solution,” says a confident Akhter.

“An InfoLady’s netbook is loaded with content especially compiled and translated in local Bangla language,” says Mohammed Forhad Uddin of D.Net, a not-for-profit research organisation that is pioneering access to livelihood information. “It provides answers and solutions to some of the most common problems faced by people in villages.”


The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.

This explains why thousands of Bangladeshis have embraced InfoLadies and their laptops, which are making lives easier and arguably better. “In most cases I’m able to provide an instant solution using my database,” says Luich, who is educated to secondary school level. For skin infections, she sends the patient’s picture to her organisation’s call centre in Dhaka, where experts help with diagnosis and advise hospital referral if required.

“In many places there are no doctors for miles, and fatalities for easily curable diseases are very high. An InfoLady can save lives,” says Shahadat Hossain of NGO Udayan Sabolombi Shangstha. Government statistics show Bangladesh has only three doctors per 10,000 people.

This is certainly a very disruptive thing to be happening, and it looks as if the disruption is largely positive so far, at least for the villagers themselves – I’m not sure the minor functionaries cut out of the baksheesh loops will be so pleased, for instance. But there’s a kind of technological (or maybe informational) colonialism occuring here, too; it’s not inconceivable that the men and clerics so discomforted by the InfoLadies might find that many of the changes taking place are not to their liking… and that could get ugly. The state won’t like being made to look superfluous to people who already consider it to be little more than an apparatus of exploitation, either; I’m not sure which I feel less sorry for.

How long before the InfoLadies get a sense of personal kudos and cultural agency about their transformative outsider status, start wearing a lot of American Apparel threads and riding fixies? Less snarkily, how many rural daughters will want not just to learn new things from the InfoLadies, but to follow in their footsteps? And how many traditionalist fathers will accept that? Change is a double-edged sword; in Bangladesh and other developign nations, the incredible speed with which cultural change will occur (as the world and its wide web encroaches closer) will be individually empowering, but collectively destabilising. Choppy seas ahead, captain.

GM crops and the war on poverty

Paul Raven @ 09-07-2009

field of wheatOver at The Guardian, Professor Mark Tester stands up to say that genetically modified crops are an essential component of the struggle to erase world poverty and hunger:

GM crops are not the answer to this shameful global situation, but I argue strongly that they provide another tool, another option to try to address the problem. And I do not think those of us sitting in comfortable wealth have a right to deny people the opportunity to improve their production of food. The technology is just that, a technology. Like nuclear technologies (radiotherapy or nuclear weapons) or mobile phones (communication or bomb triggers), how we use it is the main issue. I hope that the plants we have generated provide a subtle use of GM technology that will allow some positive benefits for the developing world.

He’s quite correct, of course; as we mention here quite often, the morality of a tool comes from the hand that wields it. And therein lies the rub: while GM crops have the potential to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves, they can also be (and allegedly are) used to paint them into an economic corner for the purposes of maximising profits – selling farmers the only seeds that will survive the pesticides which you also manufacture, for example. [image by James Wheare]

I don’t know how it is in the States, but here in the UK GM crops are a hugely sensitive topic with a sharp polarity of opinion that has been amplified by propaganda, celebrity campaigning and emotional button-pushing from both sides of the debate. Such extreme viewpoints actually end up clouding the issue; somewhere in the shades of grey is a way to use genetic modification safely for the benefit of everyone, but until we start meeting each other half way we leave the field wide open for both poverty and profiteering to continue.

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