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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
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Last modified on 2015-08-15 16:13

Book review: We Are for the Dark, by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman

Although Elizabeth Jane Howard is listed as co-author, this book was apparently published when she was having an affair with Aickman. He was a writer who specialised in supernatural fiction and probably the stories in this book are largely if not wholly due to him. Not all of them are exactly ghost stories but they are certainly narratives of weird events, none of which receive a full explanation. [More]

The priesthood of public health

Richard Lehman has a nice blog about medical research at; extracts from this appear as Research Update each week in the BMJ.

On 16 July 2016 Dr Lehman had a nice comment on a recent JAMA article on "the theology of eating fat", in which he referred to diet pundits as "the priestbood of public health". The occasion was a recently published large-scale study of nurses and doctors in the USA, which concluded that saturated fat is bad for you.and polyunsaturated fat is good. Lehman's comment is that it "doesn't provide the priestbood with very much to preach about in my opinion".

Book review: The Journey of Man, by Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells is a population geneticist. His book covers much the same ground as Stephen Oppenheimer's Out of Eden; both books contain a fair amount of detail but are aimed at non-specialists. They describe what has been discovered about how humans spread across the world after they left Africa some 50,000 years ago. Until quite recently our knowledge of human migrations relied mostly on archaeology. We now have the equally important contribution provided by population genetics.

Researchers have two main lines of attack in their quest to study the history of migration. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother and so tells us about the female side; the Y chromosome, which determines male sex and is inherited from the father, gives us information about male ancestry. Historically, mitochondrial analysis was first on the scene, leading to the announcement of 'Mitochondrial Eve' in 1987. She was thought to have lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago; we are all her descendants, although this does not mean that she was the only woman living at that time; it's just that the others have no surviving descendants. [More]

Book review: What Is Paleolithic Art? (Jean Clottes)

Clottes is an archaeologist who has probably seen more prehistoric art than anyone else, and here he offers his view of what it means. The book was published in French in 2011 with the title Pourquoi l'art prehistorique?. Why the present publishers chose to change this for the English translation isn't clear since Clottes was certainly concerned with answering the why question.

Not everyone agrees that it is even possible to know why our prehistoric ancestors made these extraordinary pictures in the way they did, but many people have put forward hypotheses to explain the work. These include art for art's sake (now largely out of favour), totemism, and sympathetic magic to assist in hunting, to preserve animal fertility, or to eliminate dangerous predators such as lions and bears. But Clottes finds all of these to be wanting or at least incomplete. He favours the view that an essential clue to understanding prehistoric art is shamanism. In this he is taking the same approach as David Lewis-Williams, with whom he has collaborated a good deal over many years. [More]

The Greek government is endorsing homeopathy

My wife has provided this item of information from the Greek news.

A medical furore is going on because the government has appointed an eleven-member committee composed of ten doctors and one pharmacist, all of them homoeopaths, to pronounce on whether homoeopathy should be officially recognised as a valid treatment in Greece with requirements set for the qualifications needed to practise.

Dead against this are the majority of the medical community, who point out the unsuitability of the committee and the lack of evidence that homoeopathy is anything other than placebo.

From religious quarters there are also complaints that all complementary medicine is based on mystical and other undesirable ideas, all of which are considered heretical by the Orthodox Church, and as such should not be given
official recognition in an Orthodox country.

Of course, one reason for the government's enthusiasm for this idea may be the fact that homeopathic medicines are relatively cheap.

Brexit and the tyrrany of the old

On 22 June The Economist had an article with the title Hoping that demography is not destiny. This included a graph, "The tyrrany of the old, showing the probability of voting "Remain" for different age groups with an A-level education. This showed a clear correlation with age.

The data suggest age is the primary cleavage in the electorate (see [graph]). Looking specifically at middle-class adults with an A-level education, 70% of 18-24 year-olds in the English hinterland are expected to vote to “remain”, compared with just 30% of adults over 65 in the same region.

These estimates were borne out by the actual vote. I find it very depressing that the desire of many young people to remain was negated by the desire of many older people to leave. Like them,I shall no longer be around by the time the results of the vote take full effect, but my grandchildren will be and they will live with the results. The demographic consideration was a main part of what caused me to vote to remain.

David Cameron made two mistakes in planning the referendum; one was deciding to have it in the first place and the other was not allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

But, However, Though

Reviewing John Humphrys's book on language and its misuse (Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language) in 2007 I questioned his dislike of "however" and his preference for "but". But in fact I've now come to much the same conclusion myself and pretty much avoid using "however" in this way. Humphrys and I are in a minority, of course. The copy editor at a publisher to whom I sent a book chapter recently replaced my "buts" with "howevers" all over the place. I let it go rather than have an argument.

Something I dislike more than "however" is "though". In my sentence above I could have writtern: "In fact, though, I've come to much the same conclusion myself ...". This usage is quite common these days but is not one that I intend to adopt.

Book review: On the Wing, by David Alexander

Quite a variety of animals, even snakes, have acquired some capacity for gliding flight, but only four major groups have developed powered flight: insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. Alexander presents an accessible account of current thinking about how these very different kinds of animal acquired the ability to fly.

The first three chapters describe the basic requirements for flight, which are essentially the same for all flying animals and also for aircraft. They all need lift, to stop them falling to the ground. Lift is generated when the wings move forward through the air, and this requires the application of force, which is called thrust. In animals the thrust is provided by flapping. So powered flight is flapping flight. [More]

Marcus du Sautoy: The physicalised universe

Recently I reviewed Our Mathematical Universe, in which Mark Tegmark says that the universe is not just described by mathematics, it is mathematics. So I was interested a couple of days ago to hear BBC's interview with the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy in The Life Scientific. (Du Sautoy is Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in succession to Richard Dawkins.) At the end of the interview he talked about the omnipresence of mathematics in science, and said: "I'm becoming more and more a believer in the fact that the universe is a physicalised piece of mathematics . . . The reason that we're seeing mathematics everywhere is that actually the universe is a piece of mathematics."

Book review : The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick

Although best known as the co-discoverer, with James Watson, of the structure of DNA, Crick also worked in neuroscience. He taught himself neuroanatomy and from the 1980s until his death he studied the mechanism of consciousness at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. In this book he presents his ideas on this subject. The book is aimed at non-specialist readers and Crick writes very accessibly, but he does not over-simplify and readers with little previous knowledge of neuroanatomy will have to work quite hard to grasp the details, particularly in the chapters on the visual system that is the main focus of the book. But Crick says that it is acceptable to skim the difficult sections and simply note the conclusion. [More]

Getting a computer without Windows

It can be quite difficult to buy a computer, even used, without Windows™. One supplier who does allow this is Novo Computers, who sell refurbished laptops and desktops; you can request a different OS or none at all, which is what I did when I bought a refurbished desktop from them recently.

Not only do they not force Windows™ on you, but you can return the computer for free in the first 30 days for a different model or a full refund, and you get 6 months' (extensible) warranty. Definitely recommended.

Book review: Life Ascending, by Nick Lane

Lane is a biochemist, so it is no surprise that biochemistry is prominent in most of his ten chapters. But the discussion is wide-ranging and there is plenty of sometimes surprising information about other aspects of evolution. For each of his topics Lane provides a review of current theories before offering his own conclusion about which he thinks is most likely to be fruitful.

The first chapter is about the notoriously difficult problem of the origin of life. Lane finds that the most likely setting for this is the deep-sea hydrothermal vents. We usually think of these in terms of "black smokers", which in spite of their high temperature are home to an astonishing variety of life. These vents are volcanic, but there is also a second type of vent which is less well-known and is not volcanic, therefore cooler. These are called alkaline vents (black smokers are acidic). More