Monday, 28 September 2009

Prejudice as accepted fact

Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy comments on the recent controversy over Andrew Marr's questioning of Gordon Brown. [don't read the comments]

Andrew Marr, for the BBC, asked:

A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through; are you one of those people?

The Prime Minister, unsurprisingly, refused to answer the question.

Sunny criticises the way that this "legitimised a smear" that's been going around for ages, but I think this misses the point.

The most irritating thing is that the entire controversy over it is based on a very dangerous chain of illogic. There have been plenty of people leaping in to deny that Gordon Brown takes painkillers, and to criticise the people who've suggested it. This is entirely expected, all part of politics, etc. What's getting lost in this is that it shouldn't be an issue in the first place.

In the 2008 US Presidential campaign, Barack Obama was accused by his opponents of being "a Muslim". This was denied strongly and repeatedly refuted by numerous people - but very few people thought to add - or start with - "and so what if he is?". Colin Powell is the only major US political figure I can remember raising that point, though there may have been others.

It's the same issue here - Andrew Marr was undoubtedly entirely in the wrong to ask a question about Brown's medical history: there are very few questions a journalist can ask about anyone's medical history, and none of those possibilities applied here.

The rumours that have been started about Brown's medical history and mental health are undoubtedly intended by their initiators as smears. They really shouldn't be - it should be as pointless a question as "So, I hear you ate a carrot yesterday, Prime Minister. Could you confirm or deny this rumour?"

It works as a 'smear' because enough people vaguely believe a variation on one of these two clearly false statements:

  • People with chronic pain should not be Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister needs to be an idealised specimen of humanity (and, you know, straight, white, male, and other defaults would be good, while you're at it)
  • People with chronic pain should not take medication for it, and doing so makes them unsuitable to be Prime Minister

You can substitute for chronic pain any of the other numerous mental health problems people have suggested Brown might have (most commonly depression, something which the generally popular and successful Prime Minister Churchill also lived with). I'd certainly rather any politician with health problems, mental or physical, was receiving appropriate treatment for those problems. Laurie at Penny Red covered this well the last time it came up (which, note the post dates, was 3 weeks ago...). Going back a bit further, Charles Kennedy was forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats over his alcholism, and has since been replaced by various people who are neither as competent nor as popular with the public. Good going there, Lib Dems.

The people responding to this and criticising the "legitimisation of a smear" need to be more careful not to legitimise the idea that it would be bad if it was true while they're at it. Breaking that illogic is the only long-term way out of this.

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Necessary or interesting links

A bunch of links that are necessary or interesting, but which I don't have time to comment on in depth:

Friday, 25 September 2009

"Frustration is no defence and no mitigation"

So said Judge Cutler, sentencing to jail a man who drove a car through a supermarket, injuring six women, one seriously, after a dispute over purchased goods.

I wonder if that principle will be applied in future to the perpetrators of domestic violence, who often cause far more serious injuries on multiple occasions, but are let off with a sentence lower than the 16 months that Mr Caton received for this. I fear it will not.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Permanently marked

The news articles on this story are generally so full of poor assumptions and ablism that I don't have a good one to link to. The BBC one isn't quite as bad as the others, so: a man has been removed from the London taxi training course. The facts of the case, as far as I can tell through the reporting, are this:

[trigger warning]

In 2000, while living with paranoid schizophrenia, he strangled his wife. He pleaded guilty on grounds of diminished responsibility, and was sentenced for manslaughter to indefinite imprisonment in 2001.

Some time after this, the parole board assessed that he was no longer a danger to society and he was released. In early 2009 he worked for a private hire company in London, and later on began training for the London black cabs (which have a higher standard of training required).

Transport for London's guidelines, at the time, allowed people with 'spent' convictions to train with them. When the press discovered, via a leak, that this man was taking this training, they raised a giant fuss. TfL then disallowed the man to continue with the training, and announced that it would change its licensing guidelines to exclude people with spent convictions for violent offences except in exceptional mitigating circumstances.

What no-one seems to be generally pointing out in the mainstream press, though, is that this is surely precisely one of those circumstances. He was under the effects of a severe mental illness at the time he killed his wife. The court at the time accepted that this was the only reason for his actions in allowing the diminished responsibility plea (which is really quite rare). He has since been assessed as healthy by the parole board.

Let's take an example with a physical illness. Someone gets a highly contagious, highly dangerous physical illness. A family member catches it and dies, but they survive after extensive treatment in hospital. Having recovered, they apply for a job as a taxi driver, but are turned down because a previous health problem once led to someone's death. The logic being used, of course, is "what if they're wrong about being healthy?" to which the answer is "and where did you get your license to practice medicine again?".

Of course, it's in all the press, and the existing taxi drivers were up in arms about it, so that sort of thinking is never going to be possible in this case. TfL had been trying to be reasonable about it...

[a few days ago] Jeroen Weimar, chief operating officer at TfL, said: [...] "We have got five to six years of independent medical advice saying this man is no danger to the community and fit and proper to be a taxi driver or a minicab driver."

...but have since presumably calculated that it's better to stop taking hits to their reputation than to support people with previous mental health problems. It's appalling that the two things are contradictory.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Terrible article on weight

I read BBC News a lot, and in general, my thoughts about its stories are more about how bad the events described are, not how bad the reporting is. This is not one of those times.

BBC News's science (and related fields) reporting is one of the weakest aspects of the operation, and this article about perceptions of obesity is a good example of this.

Let's start at the top

The poll, carried out by YouGov for Slimming World, found just over a quarter of 2,000 people questioned had measurements which would place them squarely in the obese camp.

So, no reason that a survey about weight for a magazine that exists to promote diet plans might in any way be slightly biased. This potential for bias never even gets a mention in the rest of the article.

Over half of those deemed morbidly obese believed they ate a healthy diet, while more than a third of the overweight said they had never tried to shed the pounds.

Given that it's extremely possible to be fat and eat a healthy diet (or indeed, as I was as a teenager, very underweight despite eating numerous large meals), that's not as unlikely as it's being framed as. I also wonder what proportion of that third are women, since "overweight" BMI ranges are more socially acceptable in men (and arguably less noticeable at all, given that the cultural images of women in the UK are generally extremely thin).

It also doesn't say, though I expect the survey collected it, how many of the "underweight"1 people have also dieted in an attempt to get thinner still.

While our life expectancies have increased at the same time as our weight, the consensus now is that cases of diseases such as diabetes and even cancer could be reduced if everybody strove to be within the "normal" Body Mass Index (BMI) range

Okay, so life expectancies have increased as weight increases (and bear in mind that the increase in weight averaged across the whole population has been small). Therefore, we should reduce the weights of people to increase life expectancies even more.

That's not particularly convincing. In the US, there's a study called NHANES, which is a huge survey of health and diet. It's been carried out three times, and in each case, the people studied have been the subject of a later follow-up study. One of the basic checks in the follow-up study is whether or not the person is still alive.

There's a 2005 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association called "Excess Deaths Associated With Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity" (copy via "Alas, a blog"). It takes the 18-25 BMI category as a baseline, and compares that (controlling for age and other obvious factors, such as smoking) with four other categories:

  • Less than 18 ("underweight")
  • 25-30 ("overweight")
  • 30-35 ("obese")
  • More than 35 ("also obese, but more so")

It's a simple test: check what proportion of the 18-25 BMI range have died since the original study, and then see what proportion of the other ranges have died. If the arguments about fat being dangerous are true, then the heavier categories should have more deaths - the "Excess deaths" referred to in the title of the paper. For shorthand, I'll refer to categories as being "more dangerous" or "less dangerous", if they have excess deaths or fewer than expected deaths respectively.

There are some useful graphs at the bottom of the second PDF, but in summary:

  • In adults between 25 and 59 years old, there is no statistically significant difference between the 18-25 range, the 25-30 range, and the 30-35 range. The 35+ range is associated with an increase in the number of deaths (though not for people who have never smoked). The 18- range is also not statistically significant.
  • Between 60 and 69 years old, the 18- range becomes statistically significantly more dangerous. The 35+ range remains statistically significantly more dangerous than the 18-35 range, but by a lower margin.
  • At 70 years old and over, all ranges except 18- are statistically the same as the baseline. 18- is again more dangerous

It's worth noting further that even the statistically significant changes are relatively small - even the most dangerous category (BMI 18-, age 60-69), is only between 2 and 3 times more dangerous. On a similar measure, smoking is around 20 times more dangerous. Conversely, probably the safest category (BMI 25-30, age 25-59) is between baseline and 33% safer.

The study also notes that the older data from NHANES 1 has a higher death rate. The more recent data from NHANES 2 and NHANES 3 shows no statistically significant increase in death rates for any category except 18- (in NHANES 3 only. Conversely, NHANES 2 shows a statistically significant decrease in death rates for the 25-30 category.

So, essentially, differences in BMI are unlikely to change your chance of dying in a given time period much at all, especially if you don't smoke (unless you get old, in which case it starts to get somewhat dangerous if it drops too low, but even then not by much).

This bit of the last excerpt needs more comment.

[...] if everybody strove to be within the "normal" Body Mass Index (BMI) range

There are multiple major problems with this sub-sentence alone:

  1. BMI is a horrible measure of healthiness-of-weight. It was designed as a statistical measure of weight within populations, not as something that could be applied to individuals. The "normal" category comes from the late 19th century, which had far more problems with malnutrition than the present day. It doesn't distinguish at all between fat and muscle mass (most athletes are "obese" according to a BMI scale). It doesn't do anything different for body type - it's designed for white male Europeans of average build.
  2. No-one has managed to find a way to change the long-term weight of an individual to a different selected weight. Short-term, starvation will reduce it and overeating (and we're talking 10,000 calories a day, not just an extra portion of chips) will increase it. Long-term, this changed weight will revert back to the previous norm for that person in almost all cases. This is like saying "if everyone strove to be taller, we wouldn't need to buy so many stepladders". It's not true, and even if it was, it wouldn't mean people could get taller.
  3. Diets and other weight-loss interventions can be very bad for health in and of themselves. "Yo-yo" dieting (a natural consequence of telling people that they have to lose weight or else
  4. "normal" has been picked arbitrarily based on what was average over a century ago. You'd expect that with malnutrition being reduced in European countries since then that the mean and median weights would rise... in fact, it would be worrying if they didn't.
  5. (I've probably missed at least one, but this is enough...)

The focus on the extreme in television documentaries about the very large but also in the pictures that are chosen to illustrate articles about obesity have also been held up as another potential culprit.

A few points to the BBC for identifying the "headless fatty" pictures as not really depicting what the 'average' "obese" person looks like. Minus several million points for going ahead and using one at the top of the article anyway (it cuts out quite a lot that's not the head, too).

The article goes on to criticise the negativity around fat people, and mentions the abuse that fat people (including children) receive, but only identifies this as a problem because:

"All the discussion around overweight children is so negative that it is not surprising parents find it difficult to acknowledge there is a problem. It's a defence mechanism," says Dr Susan Jebb of the Human Nutrition Research Laboratory of the Medical Research Council.

So, it's only a problem that fat people are subjected to abuse for being fat, and told that being fat is bad, because it means that we can't tell them that being fat is bad in a detached, emotionless, scientific manner. Glad that's sorted, then.

It terrifies me that this is the quality of the debate that's going on about the (probably non-existent) "obesity crisis". So far, the only actual outcome all this worry has appears to be a reduction in the quality (but not the length) of life of fat people from all the abuse. Oh, and a great profit for the dieting industry. Keep commissioning those surveys, then.

Finally, missing from the article, any opposing view at all. The BBC science reporting does have a tendency to reprint press releases uncritically. Not every article needs to have an opposing view - and the media more generally certainly has a problem with looking too hard for them - but this is a news organisation that's run positive reports on research like the research I've quoted.

1 "underweight" and "overweight" are terrible terms in themselves, since they imply an "ideal" or "normal" weight and are generally used to imply that this "ideal weight" is the same for everyone (after 'correcting' for height). More on "underweight" and "overweight" at Alas, though there doesn't seem to be any consensus on what the "unmarked" category should be called. "medium-weight" or some variation sort-of works, though the variations on "government-mandated standard weight" make the point that normal/unmarked/medium has already been set arbitrarily.

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Monday, 21 September 2009

25 years of Elite

It's now 25 years since the first release of Elite. It was an amazing feat technically, and one of the classic computer games of the 1980s. In many respects, it was better than either of its sequels - the very realistic physics model of the sequels was again technically impressive, but didn't actually make for a fun game.


The BBC gives the results of a Freedom of Information request that shows that several UK police forces have been failing to record numerous reports of rape. In Northumbria, almost half the reported cases were not recorded. In Durham, almost 40% were not recorded.

Here's the letter I've sent to my MP on the matter.

The BBC reports at on the failure of some police forces to record allegations of rape in line with Home Office guidance. Durham police force is one of those specifically named, with almost 40% of reported cases not being officially recorded.

Estimates from the British Crime Survey and other sources suggest that 90% of rapes are never reported at all, and the Home Office's own research (HORS293. Kelly, Lovett and Regan: "A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases.") identified failures and inconsistencies in police handling of rape cases as a major reason for missing reports.

Durham police force also has one of the lowest conviction rates for rape in the country, something which this failure to even properly record almost half of reported offences is surely contributing to.

What steps are being taken by Durham police force to address these failings, and what pressure can you as MP for [constituency] place on the police force to do so swiftly and effectively?

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Saturday, 19 September 2009

Items with no sensible use

Lakeland is a store that mixes generally useful and decent quality household products (plates, etc), with expensive and/or overspecialised stuff only useful to the very rich (chandelier cleaner?) or the owners of small restaurants (cooking equipment with non-domestic capacities). This product is one of those overspecialised ones - it's a pink plastic pig, with a magnet (to attach to a fridge), a motion sensor, and an alarm. It makes a noise if the fridge door is opened.

The sales pitch is that it's great for securing fridges against theft. I am very uncertain exactly how many people have:

  1. A fridge that their food regularly gets stolen from
  2. ...that they are close enough to at the time of the theft to hear a novelty pig
  3. ...and close enough to get to the fridge before the thieves have vanished, taking the pig with them so that it isn't there next time
  4. ...and can't just see the fridge

"Fortunately", at the end of the sales pitch, the item's real use becomes clear:

And after the feasts of the season, it might help reluctant dieters too!

Yes, it's a cheap and easy way to encourage an unhealthy relationship with food in yourself and others! Open the fridge and get automatically called a pig, through the miracles of technology.

The school said what?!

The Children's Legal Centre, among others, are calling for stricter legislation against bullying in schools. BBC News has an article on this. The article describes a particular case of bullying, which is horrific enough in itself - but the school's response just makes things worse.

[trigger warning]

In a BBC Breakfast News report Debbie (name changed to protect her children) said she had no choice but to consider legal action against the school her two teenage children used to attend.

She claims teachers stood by and watched as her son was attacked - in front of her - by about 40 other pupils.

"They had these temporary metal road signs the triangular ones and they just attacked him with it, beating him.

What would a failure to address serious violent attacks be without some victim-blaming.

The school says Debbie's child's special needs were behind many of the problems, and any bullying took place outside the school.

This doesn't appear to be a direct quote, but if it is a reasonable summary of the school's stance, it's extremely clear what's actually behind the "problems".

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Thursday, 17 September 2009

11 hours...

[trigger warning]

BBC News reports on the criticism made by a judge after police took 11 hours to respond to an emergency call from a woman who had been raped.

The court heard the woman had called police at 1649 GMT on 26 November last year claiming she had been assaulted in Peterborough, but she was not seen by an officer until 0353 GMT the following morning.

Jurors heard she called the police for the second time at 1719 GMT, informing them she had just seen her attacker.

She was not met until 1830 GMT when a Police Community Support Officer attended the scene and sent her home.

Cambridgeshire Police had a 3.1% conviction rate for rape in 2007, and had similarly bad rates in 2004-2006, making it one of the worst performing forces in the country.

Hardly surprising when they act like this.

[Cambridgeshire Constabulary Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hopkins] said an investigation into the incident had taken place and new procedures to deal with serious sexual offences had since been put into action.

"We note the comments made by Judge Enright and will study them closely to establish whether any further changes need to be made," he added.

Given that this seems to be just one of the most obvious ways Cambridgeshire police have got things wrong, I doubt things will be improving much. In 2004, Gloucestershire and Suffolk were the only two forces with worse conviction rates. In 2005, both had made significant improvements, getting average or above average (which still means around 7%, so not "good" by any definition) conviction rates. Cambridgeshire remained near the bottom of the list. If they didn't think to hold a major investigation then, it seems unlikely that they'll do anything useful now either.

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Did I mention that stereotype?

Also in the news today, Lady Deech, a senior lawyer criticises the divorce laws as making it possible for "a woman with maybe no particular qualifications, married for a short time to a celebrity of some sort, [to] walk away with many, many millions".

Another lawyer, Vanessa Lloyd Platt, who has worked on divorce cases, points out that "Women will have to give up careers to look after children, and they must be properly compensated". The assumption that this has to be the case needs challenging, obviously, but while it's the common case it's entirely right that property gets split with that in mind.

The whole argument is essentially built on the ancient premise that childcare, raising a family, etc. is not "real work" because it doesn't directly earn a wage, and that the support it gives to the wage earner is inconsequential.

At any rate, with women and men both needing to look for employment nowadays, this seems like Lady Deech is responding, not to a particularly common case, but to a common stereotype. Building a legal system around what stereotyped people might do, instead of what actually happens, is never a good idea.

Good news and bad news on leave for new parents

The government is finally announcing a timetable for the introduction of paid paternity leave longer than two weeks. It's the same plan they've had for a while, and placed in the 2005 manifesto - to allow the mother to transfer months 6-12 of their leave to their partner (contrary to the reporting on the issue, and the implications of the name "paternity leave", this need not be the father, and applies equally to same-sex couples). It's not great, but it is a significant improvement on the current situation.

In worse news, that The Times appears to be the only news organisation to lead with, the government's promise from the same manifesto to make all 12 months of maternity leave paid has been abandoned. It's not entirely surprising, since doing this would cost tax revenues the government isn't currently getting - whereas the paternity leave change is neutral in terms of government spending, but it would be nice if for once it wasn't a plan that primarily benefited women that got axed for cost reasons. Harriet Harman MP, one of the few openly feminist cabinet members (and she gets a huge amount of criticism from the media for it), was apparently overruled by Lord Mandelson.

The response from some of the business organisations has been fairly predictable.

David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said it would be a good idea to allow fathers up to six months' leave "when the economy is working at full tilt" but it would harm businesses struggling with the recession.

"This is not the time to do it. It is a huge burden to plan for both a male and a female employee being away," he told the BBC News Channel.

If businesses can plan successfully for a small number of their staff to be unexpectedly ill for several months - and they have little alternative, they can plan for a small number of their staff to be expectedly absent for a well-defined period of time to look after their new children.

The major reason in favour of introducing extensive paternity leave (as has been done in a few other European countries such as Sweden, Finland and Iceland) is that it takes away from the culture that childcare is a woman's1 role and work is a man's (all three of Sweden, Finland and Iceland do noticeably better than the UK on measures of gender equality). It will obviously take a few years before any significant number of men start taking up the opportunity (and the way the leave is going to be set up isn't ideal), but it should help to erode that stereotype. More leave, better paid leave, and more flexible allocation, as those other countries have, would be better, but this is an important first step.

I do wonder how much of the opposition from businesses comes from "we can't hire a woman, because they might take maternity leave, and now you're saying that we can't hire men either? Who are we supposed to employ?" attitude.

The new leave would be available from April 2011

1 While the mother isn't necessarily a woman, and their partner isn't necessarily a man, it's by far the most common case, and it's unlikely that the "childcare is a woman's job" crowd are particularly considering any other family situations.

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Monday, 14 September 2009

The mean is never a sensible measure of money across the population

British Household wealth drops by nearly £31,000 through recession says the Daily Telegraph. The drop is about 12%, which means that the mean household wealth is around £250,000 now, down from around £290,000 last year.

Well, a third of households don't own their home (either outright or with a mortgage). Given that those who do own homes have a mean house price around £225,000 (also a misleading mean, of course: everything other than detached houses is a bit cheaper than this), the household wealth distribution is going to be very skewed.

Mean losses (or gains, for that matter) are easy to calculate, but have very little value when thinking about the effect on individuals.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Return of the carrier pigeon

I don't know whether the staff at Unlimited IT were aware of RFC 2549 or the old (in computing terms, anyway) adage "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of quarter-inch tapes." but it seems rather likely.

For bulk data transfer, where interactive response isn't needed, shipping the files on some sort of storage is generally going to be faster than the network. A carrier pigeon carrying a 4GB USB drive could come in level with a fast 4Mbit/s connection over that sort of distance, and any connection slow enough to complain about is going to get defeated easily by the pigeon.

The UK academic network, and its European and US counterparts, is in the GBit/s range, at which point the carrier pigeon starts to look obsolete, though a vehicle full of DVDs does not. It's unlikely that there'll ever be a time when the quality of network available to the general public will beat (over the short and medium distance, anyway) a carrier pigeon with the compact storage device of the day, now that the storage devices are small enough for a pigeon to carry at all.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Height and happiness

Another story, tall people lead 'better lives'. It's an interesting distinction between correlation and causation: actually, if you read the paper (again, subscription or employer/university-based access required) from Economics and Human Biology, though, what's actually found is that this relationship - while fairly consistent if you only control for gender and race - almost entirely disappears if you control for education and income too.

What actually appears to be happening, as Deaton and Arora also suggest, is that people with high incomes and good education are likely to be happier with their current situation ('better lives' is a self-assessment, in this case: on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst it could have gone, and 10 is the best, how well do you think your life is going?). They point out that growing up in a well-off family makes it far more likely that you'll be in good health and well-nourished, which makes you more likely to reach your intrinsic height, and also makes it likely you'll have access to a good education - which means a high income.

Statistically, at least, money can buy happiness, then. That's not really newsworthy, though.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Oversimplified Science Reporting

An interesting example of how science reporting in the news can oversimplify an issue: here's a paper in Evolution and Human Behaviour. The paper is about some research carried out on babies (around 11 months old) to test some hypotheses about fear of snakes and spiders.

Here are the various reports of this paper in the news:

  • BBC News: "A new study in the US suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders."
  • Daily Telegraph: Girls appear to be born with a natural fear of spiders, scientists have discovered.

The actual research didn't show this. What it showed was that, at the age of 11 months, if told that spiders are dangerous (by pairing spider images with unhappy faces), girls are significantly more likely than boys to remember this and exhibit confusion if shown a spider paired with a happy face. Female babies learn more readily that spiders are dangerous (also works with snakes) but this really doesn't go so far as a "genetic aversion". The New Scientist article provides a concise but accurate summary of the paper: "[...] a study suggests that females are genetically predisposed to develop fears for potentially dangerous animals."

From some other news sources, it's also possible to detect a definite "reprinting the press release" pattern.

  • The Metro: While women would be more weary of dangerous animals because they were the primary carer for children and could only have a relatively small amount of offspring compared to a man, the male of the species had less to lose and would take more risks in life with behaviour such as hunting.
  • Daily Mail: [Dr Rakison] said that because a woman can have only a relatively small number of offspring compared to a man – and is often the primary carer for children during the first years of life – it made evolutionary sense to be more weary about venomous snakes and spiders.

Both, despite rewording the containing sentence, keep the same mis-spelling of "wary". (BBC News substitutes 'cautious', Sky News spells it 'wary', and the Telegraph doesn't include a similar sentence).

Edit: The badly-written BBC article got picked up for criticism elsewhere. It's interesting to see how many of the complaints are ones that the original paper anticipated and controlled for, but the news articles didn't see as worth reporting. (The complaints about the evolutionary conclusions being drawn, yes, they're still valid - there are at least a few good alternative explanations - and again, the actual paper is far more cautious about drawing evolutionary conclusions about the reasons)

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Friday, 4 September 2009

Woman should be moved to women's prison, court rules

A report from the BBC on a female prisoner, placed in a men's prison, who has had to go to the High Court to request a transfer.

The judge's reasoning, though, seems rather inadequate even if it gave the correct result.

She is now seeking gender reassignment surgery, but has been told by a gender identity clinic that it cannot take place until she has lived "in role" as a woman "within a female prison".

The judge said: "It follows that, so long as the claimant remains within the male prison estate, she is unable to progress towards the surgery which is her objective."

This "interferes with her personal autonomy in a manner which goes beyond that which imprisonment is intended to do", he said.

"I declare her continued detention in a male prison is in breach of her rights under Article 8 (right to private and family life) under the European Convention on Human Rights."

From this, is it possible to conclude that a trans person who had either already had GRS, or did not want it, would not have a case to be moved to the correct prison? That seems really rather messed up. (the same logic would say that a cis person placed in a prison for another gender would also not be entitled to move)

Of course, if the obvious argument of "She's a woman. She's in a men's prison. Does this not strike you as really obviously wrong" had been considered a reasonable argument by the Ministry of Justice, it never would have got this far.

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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The mutation rate of DNA

Cell Biology have recently published Yali Xue et al. "Human Y Chromosome Base-Substitution Mutation Rate Measured by Direct Sequencing in a Deep-Rooting Pedigree"

It's an interesting paper, though far enough out of my expertise that I can't comment much on the methodology, which compares the Y chromosomes of two men with a common male-line ancestor, and uses this to work out the mutation rate. This is more straightforward than it would be for other chromosomes, because Y chromosomes are - in the absence of mutation - passed down unchanged from a single parent, and so there isn't the swapping and recombining that goes on with other chromosomes. Similar analysis at a broader and more statistical level has been used to calculate the approximate time period the most recent common male-line ancestor (often called "Y chromosome Adam") lived

The result of it is that Y chromosomes have a mutation rate around 3*10-8 mutations/nucleotide/generation, which isn't far from historical guesses of the rate.

The reporting on the paper scales this up to the entire genome, giving a 100-200 mutations/person rate - in other words, 100-200 of your nucleotides will not have come from either of your parents' base DNA, but will be mutations in the egg and/or sperm and/or very early on in cell division.

What the reporting doesn't say is whether this extrapolation is valid or meaningful. The Y chromosome is not necessarily representative - it contains duplicates of a few things already on the X chromosome, quite a bit of "padding", and a few bits to make a variation on the default human form - and is relatively small for a chromosome. Additionally, unlike the other chromosomes which are regularly mixed, its only major form of change is mutation. This might make it have a different rate, making the 100-200 extrapolation unreliable. The researchers themselves don't make this extrapolation in the paper.

Male-line analysis like this is by far the easiest to do and has only just become plausible, but only works by this method on the Y chromosome. Female-line analysis on mitochondrial DNA (which is always passed mother-to-child, since the mDNA in sperm does not go into the egg) could also be done, but is even less likely to be representative of the mutation rate in the other nuclear chromosomes. I'll stop there before I go into a ramble about how amazing mitochondria are.

It's probably a solvable problem in the future, but don't expect it any time soon. Getting the error bars down on the Y-chromosome estimate and repeating the study with different cousins is likely to happen first.

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

It starts very young

[trigger warning]

From BBC News, the results of an NSPCC and Lottery-funded report on violence in teenage relationships. 90% of teenagers (13 to 17) have been in an intimate relationship. Of those:

One in six [girls] said they had been pressured into sexual intercourse and 1 in 16 said they had been raped. Others had been pressured or forced to kiss or sexually touch.

A quarter of girls had suffered physical violence such as being slapped, punched, or beaten by their boyfriends.


Girls also reported that they suffered more repeatedly in relationships and at a younger age.


Unlike most boys, girls often felt they had little choice but to put up with the abuse because they felt scared, guilty, or feared they would lose their boyfriend.

It's not, perhaps, surprising that violence in relationships starts so young, and occurs in teens as much as it does in adults. This, though, is apparently the first detailed study of it, which did surprise me. I wonder if any follow-up studies on younger children are planned.

It makes it very obvious that people need teaching very early - before 90% of them have already been in a relationship - what a healthy relationship looks like and what an abusive relationship looks like. Expecting them to learn by example just doesn't work.

(It's not clear from the NSPCC press release whether the report considered same-sex relationships, since all the examples they give are heterosexual, and I can't find the report itself on their website)

Edited to add: A comment at the F-Word article gives the report. Currently only the executive summary is available. It's worth reading (and yes, they did cover same-sex relationships)

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