Archive for the ‘ Science ’ Category

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I’ve been in more than one argument that’s ended with people pointing at me and yelling “1984! 1984!”. I always had a suspicion that the book wasn’t being referenced accurately, and so recently I decided to read it for myself. I found it immensely enjoyable. It’s captivating, chilling, and supremely relevant to the context in which it was written.

I have to admit that history is not my strong point (unfortunate, given that ignorance of history is one of the novel’s central themes) but the current political climate is worlds apart from that of 1940s Europe. As such, I don’t think that Nineteen Eighty-Four can be used to “shine a light” on the actions of modern governments in the way that many people seem to want it to be.

The stereotypical “Nineteen Eighty-Four” comparison arises in discussions on surveillance; be it via CCTV camera, email scanners, or DNA sampling.

I personally couldn’t give a toss. I don’t believe in this “right to privacy” that people are so attached to. In my opinion, there are two problems with a “right to privacy”:

  1. The phrase “right to privacy” is meaningless. What is privacy, and how is it violated? How is it measured? Is a glance enough to violate privacy, or does it have to be a thorough inspection? Does it matter whether you are in a public or private space? Why? Does it matter whether or not you’re aware that you’ve been observed? Why? Does it matter whether the observer is a human or a machine (or a monkey, or a flower, or a ghost)? How far does your “privacy bubble” extend – does it only cover you, or does it cover your property; and if so how long does it cover your property for once you discard it (old laptops, clothes, family photographs etc.)?
  2. Privacy is not a necessary condition for a happy life. The government could have read every single email I’ve ever sent, and there would be no measurable impact on my quality of life. Strangers could walk past my window all day long and I’m pretty sure I’d be OK. I could get caught on CCTV cameras from every single angle, and it wouldn’t hurt me. There are almost infinite situations in which privacy is unnecessary.

I believe in a right not to be humiliated. I believe that there are sets of circumstances where privacy between two or more specific parties is necessary. A teenager might want to keep their browser history private from their family, for example. A job applicant might want to keep their personal life private from their potential employer. I believe that in any situation in which public knowledge of personal details could lead to any measurable harm, privacy should be an option. In a relationship between an individual and a disinterested government, however, why hold back? Yes I would find it a bit weird if there was a camera in my bathroom, recording my lavatorial exploits, but if there were cameras in every bathroom who would care? (Why put a camera in a bathroom?)

The disinterested government is the real issue, not the methods of surveillance used. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the telescreens and hidden microphones are a tool used by a zealously authoritarian government to eliminate the freedoms of its people – and before anyone starts talking about British authoritarianism I’m just going to have to go ahead and point out that the British government does not track down, torture, and murder its citizens for expressing anti-government opinions, talking in their sleep, or having extramarital sex; so it’s not really an accurate comparison now is it?

And THAT is why people who blabber endlessly about Big Brother piss me off. No one is watching you, and no one cares what you’re doing. Even the people who know you don’t care what you’re doing. The government cares even less.

… unless, of course, you’re doing something illegal. Which is an issue that needs a certain amount of discussion. I’m not going to say “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, because I hate that argument. It’s unpleasant and accusatory, and not worth the breath used to speak it. Instead, I’d like to address those who are concerned about being caught on CCTV doing something illegal: surely it’s more sensible to protest the illegality of your action, whatever it may be, than the method of detection?


  1. I want to do X (graffiti, protest, shoplift).
  2. X is illegal.
  3. If I do something illegal, I will get caught and punished.

If you believe that what you’re doing is right, then the problem is at step 2, not at step 3 – if you do away with step 3 you’re hindering the enforcement of all laws. If your problem is with step 3 then fine, you might have legitimate beef with surveillance.

But enough with the Big Brother bullshit! Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a novel about the inherent evil of being watched all the time, and if you sincerely believe it is I suggest you read it again.

The abstract of my dissertation using the #upgoerfive text editor

Things that change the type and number of flies that land on a body after it is dead:

After a person dies, flies often land on their body. This can happen very quickly, sometimes within minutes. If we know the type of fly that is present on a dead body, we can sometimes work out how long ago that person died.

Many things can change the time at which different types of fly land on a body. How hot it is can change the type of fly, and so can the place the body is left and what the body is like. Dead bodies wearing clothes will have different types of fly land on them than bodies with no clothes on, and the flies will arrive at different times. Some of these things are more important than others, but we don’t always know which.

It is important to study these things and work out how important each one of them is so that when a person’s dead body is found it can be decided how long ago they died.

In this study, five animal legs were put in a safe outside place. Each leg was made to be different from the others. One had nothing on it and was put in a place with sun. Three had things put on them (a shirt, shorts, and a bag) and were put in the place with sun. One had nothing on it and was put in a place with no sun.

More than ten types of flies landed on all the different legs during the study, which was tried two times. Lots more flies arrived during the first time than during the second, as the first time was much warmer. One type of fly arrived the most during both times. Other types of fly arrived a lot during the first time but not much during the second time, or the other way around.

During the first time, the leg in a shirt had the most flies of all land on it. The leg in shorts had fewer flies land on it, and the leg in a bag had the least flies of all. However, some types of flies landed on the leg in a bag but didn’t land on any of the other legs.

During the second time it was very cold. Flies don’t like the cold and so not many of them landed on the legs. Because there were not enough flies, it is too hard to work out which legs the flies liked best. However, it does show that how warm or cold it is can be very important to flies.

The study has shown many things that it would be good to look at another time. First, a longer study in the cold could show the things that change the number and type of flies than land on a body in the cold. Second, some types of flies that were found on the legs are not thought of as good for working out how long ago a body died. A study looking at those types of flies could work out whether or not they might be good to look at after all.

Legal highs

The front page of yesterday’s Kentish Gazette is a story about a new shop that’s just opened in Canterbury. The shop’s called UK Skunkworks, and apparently sells legal recreational drugs and related drug paraphernalia. The story made the front page because recently, tragically, two local young men died after taking methoxetamine; a drug that was at the time legal but has now been banned under new government powers. The tone of the article is generally negative, and features our dear MP Mr Julian Brazier explaining his objection to the shop’s existence.

I’m troubled by this for several reasons.

Firstly, although the drug has been implicated in several deaths, as of the 23rd of March 2012 no deaths have positively been linked to methoxetamine use. The government and the media consistently misrepresent drug harms, as we saw in 2009/2010 with mephedrone and the late 90s with Ecstasy and the death of Leah Betts. That being said, methoxetamine has a whole heap of nasty effects and people have been hospitalised as a direct result of the drug.

Secondly, when it comes to drug use I believe that people should be able to make their own decisions. Why should any action be illegal if it doesn’t cause anyone else any harm? I’m not saying that we should just wash our hands of those who, through desire or ignorance, are going to hurt themselves; I’m saying that if a person has made an informed decision about what they want then I would rather support than condemn them.

Condemning and punishing a person for drug use doesn’t do any good. Recreational drugs such as ketamine and cannabis are still produced and distributed in the UK, despite the fact that they’re illegal. If they were legal they could be subjected to regulations and quality control, increasing safety. Making something illegal doesn’t mean people will stop doing it, it just means that they’ll be less safe when they do. Not to mention, of course, the fact that money raised by the drug trade is a motivator for violent crime and encourages organised crime. Just like in America during the prohibition.

… which leads me to my next point – something that always winds me up. Alcohol and tobacco, two of the most harmful drugs, are not only legal (though subject to age restrictions) but people are legally encouraged to try them (through adverts/common use on television and in film). In my opinion, the restrictions on alcohol and tobacco should the same as the restrictions on any other drug. This would mean that either all drugs would be legal (with restrictions) or all drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) would be illegal, to varying degrees. Personally, I’d prefer either of those scenarios to our current situation.

Neither scenario is perfect, of course. I can imagine that problems would occur if big companies were allowed to push other drugs the way they push alcohol and tobacco.

Look, I’m not a drug taking person. I drink alcohol every so often, and I once took a few puffs of a mate’s cigarette. I just can’t understand why a personal decision that doesn’t harm anyone else should be illegal. The opinion of the moral majority shouldn’t be law. I guess if it was up to me, I’d legalise it all but place heavier restrictions on advertising. I’d like to see people having to earn a license to buy drugs, the same way people have to earn a license to drive a car, by taking lessons on drug safety and proving they know how to access help if they need it.

Maybe if this were the case, if drugs were subject to quality controls and if people who chose to use them had the knowledge to use them responsibly, fewer young people would die drug related deaths. Moreover, I don’t think it’s fair to use stories about people who’ve died after taking a drug to push for harsher drug laws. It doesn’t seem like it’s what they would have wanted.

Whatever, I don’t have all the answers. These have just been some ramblings that were too long and complicated for twitter, and too boring for facebook. Leave a comment to tell me whether you agree with me or not and why. I look forward to hearing your feedback 🙂

Biometrics – an invasion of privacy?

Biometrics is the science of identifying a person by their unique biological characteristics – their DNA for example, or their fingerprints. There’s currently an enormous range of technologies designed for this (and more currently in development), but they remain comparatively underused. Why is this?

The question that is invariably asked is that of safety. Who’s collecting my data, and why? Could it be used against me? Is it safe? Newspapers publish sensationalist anti-biometric articles, but the public are surprisingly unconcerned. A 2006 survey of the British public showed that by and large we trust the technology. 83% of respondents claimed they felt “comfortable” or “extremely comfortable” with fingerprint recognition technology.

Counter-intuitively, the aspect of biometrics that people seem most resistant to is its use in crime prevention. DNA evidence has been used in the UK since the late 80’s, but it still draws criticism (despite it’s incredible reliability). The National DNA Database (established over 15 years ago) has faced attacks from all political parties, as well as organisations such as GeneWatch UK and the Human Genetics Commission.

It all seems to stem from a belief in a “right to privacy”. In 2011, the headlines were dominated by the phone hacking scandal – a story revolving entirely around privacy issues. 2011 was also the year Clare’s Law was proposed, a law that would allow the police to inform a person if their partner has a history of violent offences. This faced significant opposition, due to the fact that it would violate that sacred “right to privacy”.

I don’t believe that anyone has a right to privacy. It doesn’t make sense. Why do you need it? A violation of someone’s privacy doesn’t *necessarily* harm them in any way. I think it’d be better to say that people have a right not to be humiliated. I mean, who really cares if the government has your DNA? What kind of juicy information are you expecting them to extract from it?

My personal opinion is that everyone should be on the National DNA Database from birth. Controversial I know, but think of the benefits! Any criminal that leaves DNA could be caught before they reoffended. There would be vast rewards for medical science as well – genetic risk factors for diseases could be identified, and people could apply the appropriate steps to reduce their risks.

Contingency planning

hey world!

So about a year ago I signed up to 23andMe’s personal health service. I sent them a tube of my spit, as you do, and they set me up an account at, where they gave me an estimation of my odds of developing various conditions, based on my genetic profile.

Here are some of my top risks:

Coronary Heart Disease – 58% (as opposed to the average 47%)
Prostate Cancer – 25% (as opposed to the average 18%)
Alzheimer’s Disease – 14% (as opposed to the average 7%)

On the plus side, they predicted a pretty reduced risk of:

Type 1 Diabetes – 0.1% (as opposed to the average 1%)
Melanoma – 0.7% (as opposed to the average 3%)
Age-related Macular Degeneration – 3.3% (as opposed to the average 6.5%)

So it’s not all bad, yeah?

I’m a bit gutted about having a 1 in 4 chance of getting prostate cancer, and not overjoyed about being told that I’m at double the normal risk of developing Alzheimer’s (since I’m already as forgetful as fuck); but fortunately these are only indications of probability, and it’s entirely possible that it’ll never happen.

That being said, they’re indications that I may as well take seriously. I’ll pay attention to the bits and bobs of prostate cancer research that I see, and I’ll do my part to lower my risk of Alzheimer’s as well (with further bits and bobs).

But these things do happen, so I’ve been thinking.

If I get Alzheimer’s, I’m gonna follow the instructions in this pretty legend pamphlet (heads up, it’s pretty legend but it’s also hardcore depressing). Amazing what you can find on the internet, really.

And if I get cancer, I’m throwing a party! I’ll probably need some cheering up, to be honest. Plus it’d be a great way to spread the news to all the people I see regularly but don’t know well enough to have an awkward “I have cancer” conversation with. It wouldn’t be too upbeat (I can’t imagine myself being in too much of a dancy mood, for example), but there’d be some nice music (maybe even a live band, depending on how much money I have) and some classy food. Probably not too much alcolol though; I’m not sure getting trashed would help anything. Maybe a glass or two of expensive wine. No champagne though – that’d just be poor taste.

P.S. And at least if I get Alzheimer’s I can plan my own surprise party. Happy World Mental Health Day 2011!