GENETICALLY modified maize causes cancer: that was the gist of a study, among the most controversial in recent memory, published in September 2012 in the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology. Well, actually, it doesn’t. The journal has just retracted the article. It would be too much to say that GM foods have therefore been proven safe. But no other study has so far found significant health risks in mammals as a result of eating GM foods.
And yet again we see why anyone using single scientific studies to back up their assertions should not be trusted. Particularly when the single study has a result which happens to back their preordained conclusions when the majority of studies do not.
A newly published study, “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain”, shows that male and female brains exhibit distinct patterns in the way neurons are connected to each other.
One could suggest the headline, Gender stereotypes map directly affect the growing brain, tenuously extrapolated from this paragraph in the Independent, a variant of which is also in the Guardian:
The research was carried out on 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males – aged between 8 and 22. The brain differences between the sexes only became apparent after adolescence, the study found.
Rather than adopting my posited headline, the press have gone with the usual stereotyping tropes from the Attracting Clicks 101 course notes. Attempting to sound factual, the Guardian puts it as, Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal. The Independent goes for the absurd: The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are ‘better at map reading’.
At this point, I note that none of us are qualified to draw any of the conclusions in these three headlines from the study in question. Thankfully, there is more qualified commentary on Mindhacks, and by Cordelia Fine in New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism?.
While none of us may be particularly qualified for the above, I think there’s strong evidence that I should be trusted more than the Independent’s science section. It uncritically “reported” the following balderdash as the words of an expert last month:
While the religious would argue that life on earth is a mere warm up for an eternity spent in heaven or hell, and many scientists would dismiss the concept for lack of proof – one expert claims he has definitive evidence to confirm once and for all that there is indeed life after death.
The answer, Professor Robert Lanza says, lies in quantum physics — specifically the theory of biocentrism. The scientist, from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, says the evidence lies in the idea that the concept of death is a mere figment of our consciousness.
Professor Lanza says biocentrism explains that the universe only exists because of an individual’s consciousness of it – essentially life and biology are central to reality, which in turn creates the universe; the universe itself does not create life. The same applies to the concepts of space and time, which Professor Lanza describes as “simply tools of the mind”.
Indeed. Ridiculous theory suggests thing, Independent’s framing posits this as “evidence” from an “expert” for thing. Need I say more about the trustworthiness of the Independent’s science section?
HTML is a clumsy language to write in, and I’ve long used a plain text markup language to format posts on this site. Until now, I used an older system called textile. I didn’t use that anywhere but this site, so was always having to look up the syntax. While not an excuse for my lack of writing, the prospect of syntactic frustration did add a further small blockade to my getting started.
This morning, I finally got around to adding support for markdown to the homespun software that powers the site. I use markdown almost every day for work, so am much more familiar with the syntax. I’m not a master by any means, however, and hope that adding support here will encourage me to internalise the syntax rather more. Ideally, I’d get to the stage where I don’t have to think about formatting.
The editor I implemented for the site has always been rather hokey. So, for now, I’m happy to have access to a range of editors that support markdown natively and have had rather more care lavished upon them.
Here’s to more than one post in the next three months.
Not really knowing how to use a computer is deemed acceptable if you’re twenty-five or over. It’s something that some people are even perversely proud of, but the prevailing wisdom is that all under eighteens are technical wizards, and this is simply not true. They can use some software, particularly web-apps. They know how to use Facebook and Twitter. They can use YouTube and Pinterest. They even know how to use Word and PowerPoint and Excel. Ask them to reinstall an operating system and they’re lost. Ask them to upgrade their hard-drive or their RAM and they break out in a cold sweat. Ask them what https means and why it is important and they’ll look at you as if you’re speaking Klingon.
Alternatively, being able to read a book doesn’t make you an expert on great literature.
And to those of you who sneer at your company’s tech support behind their backs: unless you’re in the unusual position of being vital to your company, that tech support person is probably doing a lot more to keep your company going under than you are.
Cloudant’s service is based on CouchDB. CouchDB is a document database built from the ground up with disconnected operation in mind. It has a robust protocol for transferring data between databases, including getting two or more databases into an identical state. It’s obvious this should be a great fit for keeping mobile devices in sync with each other. Even better, the protocol is designed around the assumption that all devices are peers, and so doesn’t require a central point for a “master” copy of the data. Think git rather than svn.
For mobile devices, however, a central mediator often makes sense due to the constantly changing network conditions, addresses and so on a device experiences. Part of my work at Cloudant revolves around making it as easy as possible for developers to make use of this power within the constraints of a mobile gadget.
This is where TouchDB comes in. TouchDB is an Apache-licensed project that was started with the goal of creating a mobile-device native datastore able to speak the CouchDB replication protocol, and so perform as a peer in synchronising data between a mobile device and a remote CouchDB database. There are two main projects, one for Android and one for iOS. The iOS project is more advanced, fortunately for my needs.
I’ve only just started my work with TouchDB. My first baby steps are learning the ins and outs of the library through the challenge of porting my own application over to using it. Fortunately One to Watch uses a home-brewed key-value store so the data model was already document-based and easy to bring into TouchDB land.
As I wanted to become more than cursorily familiar with TouchDB’s innards, I decided to work with the low-level database classes rather than the better documented CouchCocoa interface, which mimics CouchDB’s. It turns out there’s quite a bit of assumed knowledge — understandably — down in the guts of the implementation. Still, after a weeks teasing apart of the necessary from the unneeded, I’ve got to a stage where I’ve two devices and a simulator exchanging data with a master database sat on Cloudant. There’s something magical about watching changes leap from one device to the another, seemingly through the air.
While the databases seem pretty robust at keeping in sync with each other, my UI still needs a lot of rework to be able to respond to arbitrary changes appearing in the database that are not a result of a user’s actions. There’s still along way to go:
It’s all pretty exciting, and hopefully I can find the time to work through the whole thing from start to finish. In general, all this experience will feed directly into my work for Cloudant, making the finished system pretty awesome. Well, that’s what I hope. And then I just have to get on the road to tell everyone about it.
I’ve been fascinated with the idea of all devices feeling like views onto the same datastore for over a decade — since my first Psion mobile computer — so being able to hopefully make it much easier through putting work into both Cloudant’s service and device libraries should be pretty fun.