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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: The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

Nick Lane is a biochemist at University College, London, where he leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme. In this book he recapitulates quite a lot of what he said in two previous books (Life Ascending" and Power, Sex, Suicide, but there is also a good deal that is new and the ideas are so important and so complex that I welcomed the chance to revisit them.

This is an extraordinarily rich book, whose implications stretch well beyond the strictly biological. The style is informal but there is no shirking of complex ideas, so one has to take one's time in reading. The vivid analogies help here and the effort the book demands is repaid amply. It is not necessary to have read Lane's previous books in order to understand the arguments in this one, although I think some readers may wish to go back at least to Power, Sex, Suicide if they have not previously read this. [More]

Book review: Marking Time, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The series of novels about the Cazalet family during and just after the second world war is probably the fiction for which Howard is best known today, since it was dramatised for both television and radio for the BBC. This book includes a foreword which summarises the main events of the first volume, The Light Years: there is also a list of the family members and their servants and a family tree, so new readers like me are able to pick up the threads and identify the characters pretty easily. [More]

Book review: Slipstream, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book was published in 2002, when its author was nearly eighty, so it spans most of her life. She gives her reasons for writing in a preface.

Why write about one's life? Because of the times one has lived through, the people met and known and loved? To show how interesting, virtuous, or entertaining one has been or become? Or to trace one's inward journey -- whatever kind of evolution there has been between the wrinkled howling baby and the wrinkled old crone?

She explains the choice of her title like this.

Speaking as a very slow learner, I feel I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience. Often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message. That is still happening. I do not write this book as a wise, mature, finished person who has learned all the answers, but rather as someone who even at this late stage of seventy-nine years is still trying to change, to find things out and do a bit better with them. [More]

Book review: Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

I don't remember hearing any mention of mitochondria in physiology lectures as a medical student in the 1950s. Although they are often in the news nowadays, Lane still describes mitochondria as a badly kept secret and an enigma. In this brilliant evolution-based account he shows why they are literally vital to life and have a central role in sex, ageing, and death. If they did not exist the world would be wholly populated by bacteria, and this may well be the case in almost all other planets on which life exists. In other words, the evolution of the eukaryotic cell (cell with a nucleus) was a one-off event that might easily never have happened. [More]

The history of the RCT

Many of us probably think of the randomised controlled trial (RCT) as a largely British invention dating from shortly after the second world war, but an interesting short paper in the NEJM shows that its antecedents go back much further (The Emergence of the Randomized, Controlled Trial: Laura E. Bothwell, Ph.D., and Scott H. Podolsky, M.D. N Engl J Med 2016; 375:501-504 August 11, 2016 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1604635).

RCTs thus represent the most recent outgrowth of a long history of attempts to adjudicate therapeutic efficacy. Their immediate ancestor, alternate-allocation trials, emerged as part of a trend toward empiricism and systematization in medicine and in response to the need for more rigorous assessment of a rapidly expanding array of experimental treatments. Alternate allocation represented a significant advancement for addressing clinical research bias -- but one that had limitations as long as it allowed foreknowledge of treatment allocation. Concealed random allocation merged s the solution to these limitations, and RCTs were soon supported by crucial public funding and scientific regulatory nfrastructures.

This open-access paper is well worth reading.

Review revision: We Are for the Dark

I don't normally revise my book reviews after publication, except for typo corrections and the like, but I've made an exception for We Are for the Dark. by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, because since writing the first version I've been able to discover information about how the collaboration worked which I think needs to be included.

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

Note: I originally published this review on 25/7/16. Since then I have researched how the book came to be written so this is a revised version of the review (19/8/16).

Howard was having an affair with Aickman when this book appeared; she was already a published author whereas he was not. The collection as published does not give any indication of how the collaboration worked, but in her autobiography, Slipstream, she tells us that three of the six stories were by her and three by Aickman. She does not say who wrote which, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet I have been able to find this out. [More]

Book review: The Human Career, by Richard G. Klein

Klein describes his book as both a sourcebook and a textbook, "written with upper level undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in mind". This might suggest that it would be pretty dry and not of much interest to a wider readership, but in fact I think it should appeal to anyone who has already read a number of popular accounts of human evolution and wants to understand the subject in more depth. Klein writes well and clearly. Technical terms are explained when first introduced and Klein has a pleasing tendency to use the vernacular when it seems appropriate, so that all the species in the family Hominidae appear in the text as 'people'.

In writing ... I have tried to steer a middle course between what I see as two extreme approaches - one in which the data are simply a springboard for stimulating speculation about what might have happened in the past, and another in which they are meaningless except to test and eliminate all but one competing explanation of what really happened. The difficulty with the first perspective is that it emphasizes imagination over validity. The difficulty with the second, whose roots lie in a perception of how the physical sciences have advanced, is that it assumes an unrealistic degree of control over data quality and quantity. [More]

The priesthood of public health

Richard Lehman has a 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]