Tuesday, 29 September 2015

North Korean noodle chef unearthed at Dudley Zoo

Kim Dim Sum (sporting noodles)

During the early 1950s, the American and Chinese superpowers faced off in the Korean peninsular and through their respective Korean allies waged a savage and cruel war by proxy (this is not historically correct, is it Flaxen?). The North Koreans, for the most part, were armed with a spicy noodle dish, whilst luckily for the West, the South Koreans were armed with napalm- thus the tasty, crispy, North Korean noodle was born. During this uneven conflict, the North Korean leadership ably abetted by their glorious, god-like leader, Kim Cum up Bum, decided that they could tilt the balance of power but only if they could insinuate a deadly noodle chef into the heart of the West Midlands. By a casual stroke of fortune, the Metropolitan borough of Dudley was chosen by default. On that fateful Wednesday morn, on the 26th of December, 1951, a diminutive malnourished and short sighted North Korean specialist noodle chef parachuted into the enclave of Dudley Zoo. He quickly ensconced himself in the baboon enclosure where he remained totally unnoticed for the next 64 years. By happenstance, Kim Dim Sum (for it is he) bore an uncanny resemblance to a generic simian and thus remained totally undetected by the incognisant zoo staff. Luckily for the good burghers of Dudley, his packet of deadly dried/fried noodles became entangled on an itinerant seagull and thus passed forever from the sight of mankind. Kim Dim Sum rapidly adapted to his new surroundings and became particularly adept at grooming other members of the troop and throwing his compressed and partially dried faeces at any schoolboy foolish enough to come within missile range. His idle life of idyll would have gone unabated except for a fickle twist of destiny. Whilst eating a banana with his usual accomplished aplomb, Kim Dim Sum slipped upon the carelessly relinquished banana peel. During the subsequent gyrations our erstwhile noodle chef exposed his rump to the attentive keeper who noticed immediately that the exposed posterior showed no signs of reproductive tumescence- as this was mating season, the game was up.   

Kim Dim Sum was inhumanely destroyed later that day.       

                                                              Arse, big red, arse

Monday, 28 September 2015

Doggerel written on the occasion of the demise of the popular entertainer, Cilla Black


O Cilla, you slipped on the patio and bumped your noodle,
No one around to help except Nobby the poodle.
But Nobby’s no Lassie and didn’t get help,
Not even a whimper, bark or a yelp.  
Sadly you expired in the hot Spanish sun,
Been baked alive like a big current bun.


So now you are with the choir invisible,
Entertaining the Angels with your Scouse accent, bizarre and risible.
No longer will we see you on the box,
No longer will we see your flaming red locks.
Although your performance was ever so crass,
So I’ll just finish off by saying, arse, big fat, ass.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Lies, damn lies and scientific papers...

American Creationists are very strident when it comes to promulgating their nonsense especially when it comes to foisting their twisted version of reality on the young in the school classroom. The Christian right lobby hard for so called 'Creation Science' to be taught in the mainstream biology curriculum as a valid alternative to Evolution. In my mind, placing 'science' after another word does not necessary validate the phrase as legitimate science. In this instance 'Creation Science' remains theology, regardless of it pseudoscientific mantel. Titles mean nothing, content is all. Creationism, as a serious subject, has no right to be taught in a secular school worthy of its name. Thankfully, there are rational Americans who have finally woken to the threat. They realise that this is actually a battle worthy of a fight and are prepared to contest the fundamentalist standpoint in the courts, if necessary.

The rarefied academic world would never be plagued by such blatant attempts to inculcate non-scientific and irrational bollocks into peer reviewed and respectable journals, or would it? Recently, a review paper in a highly respected journal was very nearly published even though it contained references to creation and a creator.  Luckily, the paper was aired online before going into print and thus came under wide  critical scrutiny before being published. But it was a close run thing.

I'll not bore you with any in depth consideration of the subject matter. It really does not matter for the resulting discussion. Suffice to say that it concerned the evolution of an organelle, an inclusion within animal cells. What is particularly worrying is that the paper was accepted for publication in a journal after the standard peer review and editorial process. For those not familiar with the process involved in the publication of a scientific paper a slight digression is necessary. When a researcher submits a 'paper' to a journal the editorial staff pass the paper on to at least two renowned experts in the field for peer review. They do not get paid for this esteemed privilege- tis a badge of honour. They check the work for factual errors and ensure that there are no conceptual errors; are the conclusions reasonable considering the data presented? And finally, are the experiments contained therein, well designed and immune to criticism (I made this last one up). Once the review process has been completed, recommendations are made: the work can be rejected outright; it can be provisionally accepted after revision, or accepted without change. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the Chief Editor of the journal (Proteomics) to decide whether the paper should be published; the buck stops here.

The paper under consideration should not have been about presenting data or expanding knowledge. A review paper is concerned with summarising existing knowledge. Scientists love a well written review paper. As we are not immortal and have other distractions in our lives, we cannot keep up with all the publications within our field. The journal, Proteomics, is a well regarded scientific journal with an eminent editorial team. The journal is not a specialist forum for evolutionary topics as such, but every biologist viewing their paper, if they are worth their salt, will be familiar with evolutionary concepts.                          

Whilst not criticising the usual suspects as itemised above, here is a list of the worrying factors which should have raised the blinkers and set off the alarms:
The title itself is a little worrying: 'Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul'. Okay, scientists don't generally mention the soul. The 'soul' is not a scientific concept, although scientists can use metaphorical allusion as long as it is not over done. The abstract represents the article summary. Interestingly, although the paper was supposedly a review, the abstract mentions, and I quote: 'Novel proteomics evidence to disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis of mitochondrial evolution that is replaced in this work by a more realistic alternative'.    

None biologists may not pick up on the problem. Actually, the first problem is subtle, but insinuates nonetheless. Reviews should not introduce anything new, by their very nature, reviews should encapsulate knowledge on a given subject and not add new stuff. The main problem is regard to the 'evidence' to disprove the endosymbiotic hypothesis' etc. This hypothesis is hard core biology and if you have evidence to the contrary you had better present in a separate paper and you had better come up with some great evidence. This should not be presented in a staid review. These folk are challenging established biology, with a sentence!

The rest of the paper, for the most part, is uncontroversial and typical review fodder. Anyway, I will not delve into specifics but the revolutionary contention proposed by the authors is that a 'creator' was involved in the process. In other words, God did it. An invisible deity, by means unknown, caused things to happen. As scientists we are supposed to examine the world of wonder and come up with rational mechanistic explanations which jibe with established knowledge. These authors were not only sailing close to the wind, they were pissing in the boat as well.  

It will come as no surprise that the two authors involved are self professed 'Creationists'. They are exceptionally rare beasts. To cut a long story short, the paper was pulled after righteous indignation from serious biologists. Interestingly, the paper was pulled for plagiarism. Foolish authors had been cutting and pasting from the established literature. In a way it saved face, for the journal. Better to reject a paper on the basis of  plagiarism than to admit you have been a bloody fool and incompetent.

Scientists are no different from other folk (bit smarter though) and our professional  bodies are governed by people who are not always elected on merit. Some folk like the 'power' engendered. Frankly, most scientists can't be arsed with the bureaucratic crap. Scientists are subject to all the mean foibles of the common man (steady Flaxen). We have our own inclusive jargon and have wonderful acronyms (A.R.S.E.) We can be elitist and sometime stupid, just like everyone else.


Thursday, 24 September 2015

Black Holes of Doom

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in the strange and bizarre and this explains why I'm interested in cosmology and quantum physics. At the opposite end of the scale, of the very small and very large, strange things begin to happen. Physical laws and determinism seem to break down and we leave the realm of science and enter the world of the surreal. It seems ultimately the universe is a very strange place indeed. Perhaps the universe is comprehensible, but not by us. Our intellects might not be up to the task and we will forever flounder in intellectual limbo (stop waxing lyrical Flaxen and start taking the blue pill).

Black holes are just weird. They come into existence when a massive star dies. Once a star has utilised all of its hydrogen the nuclear fusion process will start on the helium. For our sun this will occur in about 5 billion years time. At this stage of its life cycle the sun will transform into a ‘Red Giant’ and expand and swallow the earth. After a further 3 billion years all the helium will have been fused to carbon and the sun will collapse into a star called a 'White Dwarf '. As our sun contracts a great deal of material will be lost in the form of gaseous clouds, called nebulae. The fusion process produces vast amounts of energy which resists the pull of gravity. It is the balance between the energy released by nuclear forces and the contractive pull of gravity which maintains a star's integrity and volume. Once the energetic nuclear fusion process ceases, gravitation takes control and our sun will contract to about the size of the earth. For a relatively mediocre sized star, like the sun, the matter will eventually coalesce and cool forming a dead hunk of matter, mostly composed of carbon.

But what happens if the dying star is 20 times the mass of our sun- now this is where it starts to get interesting. When a very large star exhausts its nuclear fuel it explodes catastrophically (supernova) and the remaining core collapses under the force of gravity. If the remaining material is greater than 2.5 times the mass of the sun, the core will continue to collapse into a black hole.

The contraction continues until a singularity is formed- a single point containing all the residual mass of the star. The gravitational field, close to the black hole, is so strong that not even light can escape. Photons, the quantum packages which comprise light energy are without mass, so how can gravity have any affect on them? I’m not even going to consider the fact that light can act as a wave- that’s another story. According to Newtonian mechanics, gravity is a property of mass and gravity is an attractive force acting between individual blocks of mass. To understand this conundrum we have to enter the rarefied and esoteric world of General Relativity.

According to General Relativity, gravity is not so much a force but the result of mass and energy altering the fabric of space-time. Thus the greater the mass the more space-time is altered or warped. As a photon passes a large mass it will change course due to the altered nature of space- time within the vicinity of the mass. Space time becomes curved and the photon instead of travelling in a straight line, as previously, deviates to follow the curvature of space caused by the mass. The greater the mass, the greater the effect. There comes a point where the space-time distortion is so great that light can no longer escape its grasp. Any matter coming under the influence of the black hole’s huge gravitation 'field' will also be dragged into the abyss to become one with the mysterious singularity. In this way, other planetary bodies can conceivably be engulfed adding to the mass and gravitational 'field' of the dark one.

For quite a long time black holes were a theoretical concept only. In fact because of their very nature you would think they would be impossible to detect. If no light can leave you are not going to see them with a conventional telescope. However, it should be possible to infer their existence indirectly due to the gravitational force on neighbouring objects and photons. One way to detect a black hole is by the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. Light coming from a distant object passing by a black hole will be bent and this apparent movement can be observed by telescopes on earth.

A black hole has a boundary, called the event horizon. This layer represents the boundary between where light can escape and where it cannot. Once a photon passes this demarcation zone it is forever lost to the abyss.

A number of black holes have now been discovered, some within our galaxy and others, far, far away...... Indeed, the centre of our galaxy is thought to contain a very large black hole. It sits in the middle like a greedy ogre, consuming all that comes within range of its irresistible, fetid maw (you didn't take the blue pill, did you Flaxen?).

This short article barely skims this fascinating topic and merely hints at the strangeness of black holes. The more you delve into the topic the more you realise what bizarre cosmic beasts black holes actually are. There are those (even some physicists) who believe that they can act as portals into new universes and may even provide a means for time travel- if only we could survive the journey.
Managed to finish the article without mentioning the word, ARSE.


Sunday, 20 September 2015

Inventions akimbo

The De-Lintinator in action

At Flaxen Saxon Enterprises we are constantly and diligently searching for new inventions to make your life easier. Our prestigious Institute has been responsible for such innovative inventions as the 'Scrotometer' an important scientific instrument designed to measure random scrotal gyrations after a thermal insult.

For those interested in gleaning the detritus which accumulates over time within the dark recess of your navel, you need the 'Navel De-Lintanator'. Not available in stores. Once acquired, you need to place your 'fluff' in a easy to maintain container. Look no more! With the our patented receptacle, 'The Fluffinator', you can maintain your sebaceous mat of dead cells interwoven with sundry secretions in a pristine state. Lovingly stored until you are ready to fashion your waste into a delightful ferret.

Except taste

Have you ever wondered how big your arse it? Well wonder no more! Our dedicated design team at Flaxen Saxon Enterprises have put together a wondrous device which measures the relative mass of your posterior. We call it the, 'Arse, Big Fat Arse anator'



Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Lord moving about, a bit....

Yep, seems plausible to me

The Right Reverend, Dr Peacock Mugumbo, the Bishop of Dudley West (incorporating parts of Sedgley East) has definitive proof that dinosaurs and humans co-existed a mere three thousand years ago. The Bishop, a leading exponent of the 'Young Earth' theory, staunchly believes that the earth, and all its creatures, were created on the 1st of January, at 09.00am (GMT), in 4004 BC by the Lord God.

A minor stumbling block for the 'Young Earth' viewpoint is the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Corroboratory evidence, culled from several disparate disciplines, support the contention that the earth was created 4.5 billion years ago and that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years before the advent of man. If evidence could be unearthed which show that man and dinosaurs walked the earth together it would land a serious blow to the head of cogent rationality and slap the arse (big fat, arse) of  sound sensibility.

In Bishop Mugumbos own words- take it away, Bish: "Twas Sunday morning and I was pondering on the sermon to be delivered that day on the subject of God's benevolence and mercy, entitled: 'Gypos will be tortured eternally in the midden pit of fiery hell'.  As I cogitated anew I felt a warm glow that only a sanctimonious, unctuous, mealy-mouthed, hypocrite could feel and jauntily reached for the packet of my usual breakfast cereal, 'Oaty, wheaty, toasty, crunchy, amphibious landing craft shaped, rice nipples'. As I tilted the box to scatter the oaty, wheaty, toasty.....(get a grip Flaxen and stop forgetting to take your meds), I could not help notice two diminutive plastic figures tumbling from the box and landing with a splish/splash within the receptacle containing said comestible. On closer inspection, I saw the cunningly fashioned form, in miniature, of an amply proportioned man, perfect in every detail except for the anatomy. I could hardly believe my eyes when I espied betwixt the homunculus and an E series, Mark IV, amphibious landing craft type rice nipple, a rendition, in perfect plastic, of a Cretaceous dinosaur. Surely a message from our all redeeming Lord. This could only mean one thing: Man and dinosaurs existed together in the garden of Eden and feasted exclusively on rice nipples shaped like amphibious landing craft. God certainly moves in mysterious ways".

Currently, the Bishop is on an extended sabbatical at the 'Bide awee sanatorium for befuddled and brain-fucked senior clerics'.            

'Full of amphibious landing craft goodness!'

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Last Great Mystic

Now where did I leave my car keys?

Sir Isaac Newton is universally revered as the greatest intellect of all time. Although the English logician/philosopher/mathematician, Bertrand Russell, reserves this spot for the German savant, Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton’s. There is little doubt that Newton had a prodigious and profound impact on knowledge in the second half of the 17th century. His contribution to science and mathematics is without peer and much of what he had to say remains relevant to the science of today. Indeed, it wasn’t until the coming of Einstein and his theory of relativity, at the beginning of the 20th century, that we had cause to revise Newton’s worldview. And even then, Newton’s mechanics hold true for ‘real existence’. The effect of relativity only becomes important when we observe nature ‘in extremis’.

Newton is responsible for ‘inventing calculus'; a powerful analytical tool underlying much of modern mathematics. However, it is likely that Leibniz independently formulated calculus about the same time. Their rivalry over who was ‘first’ caused a bitter rift between these intellectual giants. Newton also made great strides in astronomy and invented the reflecting telescope. All large optical telescopes are of this type today. Thus Newton was a rare genius and his insight and vast intellect not only revolutionised the physical sciences but changed the way other men viewed the natural world- after Newton everything was possible and everything was explainable by the scientific, analytical method. Men of science revelled in their new found intellectual optimism and treated non-mechanistic, theological explanations of physical phenomena, with frank disdain.

Everyone remembers Newton, the great scientist. Not everyone is aware of Newton, the Alchemist. This is not particularly surprising as Newton did not publicise or publish his research into this obscure and arcane area of study even though he spent over two decades of his life and wrote over a million words on the topic. When his manuscripts were discovered after his death, ‘The Royal Society’ deemed the work not worthy of publication and even suppressed its content from a wider audience.

Alchemy became popular during the Middle-Ages: a strange amalgam between practical proto-chemistry and mysticism. The primary aim of many practitioners was to find a way of converting base metals, such as lead, into gold. With modern chemistry as our guide, we can look aghast at the naivety of an intellectual giant such as Newton. But he wasn't alone in his quest of the 'dark art' and Robert Boyle, he of 'gas law' fame, was also an adherent. Whilst Newton and his ilk never achieved their dream, their Alchemic dabbling did help to set the study of chemistry, as a science, on a sound footing. Most of the classic chemistry apparatus seen in today’s laboratories was designed by Alchemists.

Newton was a deeply religious man and scoured the bible for symbolism and hidden knowledge. From his biblical studies, Newton calculated that the end of the world would occur in 2060; seems like a shrewd guess to me. He also plundered ancient mythological texts looking for ‘enlightenment’. Strange, that the man who embodied the enlightenment should have been drawn to the esoteric and irrational. He used his ‘findings’ to help refine his alchemic studies, although to no one’s surprise Newton advanced irrational thought, not a jot. One wonders what further scientific discoveries awaited Newton if only he had concentrated all his efforts into science and mathematics.   

Newton was a complex man (aren’t we all- except if you are a woman: ask Bruce Jenner) and a man of immense contradiction. A compelling figure capable of intense logical analysis and penetrating thought. Contrast this with his ability to apply deep analytical analysis to things mystical. I can’t help but believe that Newton’s mystical and alchemic research was just as important to him as his works on light or gravity. Mayhap we should forgive Newton his foibles. He came as close to becoming a god as any man should be allowed. And judging from the extant literature, on gods, no one is perfect.         

Sir Isaac Newton, in repose 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Death on a Budgie

C'mon smell the roses- they're lovely

Tis spring in Nuzzyland  and a man's thoughts naturally turn to death..... To be honest this morbid thought was not the fruit of dark introspection, but the spawn of my mother (my psychiatrist would have field day with this- not going to tell him though).

I visited my mother the other day and from nowhere she stated that she would like to leave her body to medical research. Frankly I was surprised as my mother has been a Jehovah's Witness for most of her life. Although the past few years she has been less observant- perhaps I have worn her down- the dementia helps. Growing up in a Jehovah Witness household was hard for me especially as I decided to become an atheist at the age of 8. You have no idea what I endured. However, regardless what I had to put up with I steadfastly pronounced my disbelief. I was beaten: this stopped when I became strong as tractor and tall as a tree.  

My atheism means I view death as an end point, not the gateway to an other worldly supernatural existence. Strange isn't it that religions focus their energy on convincing folk that life is just a preparation for afterlife in heaven. And yet it seems, for all their other worldliness, religions are very much rooted to the real world, especially when it comes to money. It fascinates me that the Catholic Edifice is wonderfully wealthy and holds power and sway over the poorest of people. Perhaps the Catholic church should espouse its founder's view and practise humility and more importantly, charity.  

As usual, I'm starting to digress. I have no problem with the concept of leaving a body to medical science. The body, to me, is a vessel and once the spark of life leaves it becomes an impediment. Now there are some who would think this view callous. Great rituals have been thrown up for the dead. In my mind, we should celebrate folk whilst alive, otherwise we are wasting our bloody time and money. This neatly brings me to the cost of dying. To be honest, who can afford to die these days?

In a way, the profession of a funeral director is recession proof. Regardless of economic ups and downs, people are gonna die. We are all on that vast conveyer belt of life and eventually we tip over into the bin of oblivion.  Currently, it costs about $NZ10,000 to remove the corpse of a loved one and place it under the earth or turn it into ash.

As for my passing, they could shove my corpse on the local tip. I wouldn't care, would I?      

I suppose I'm starting to consider my own mortality. It's a terrible thing to become old. Anyway, I reach 60 years in a few months. Is 60 the official designation of old age, or is it the new 50? I have no ambition to be a really old man; has no appeal to me. However, it is unlikely that I will be receiving a telegram (probably an email these days) from the Queen, considering the full life I have led.  

I have never really cared much about government decrees when it comes to living. When I realise my time has come, I will relinquish life and render unto death- but on my own terms.

Strange, but true, my mother's only stipulation is about blood. No blood to be drained and no blood to enter the corpse. Seems to me that the Jehovah's doctrine has not yet left the building. Shame that the JWs don't visit my mother anymore. Since she stopped contributing money, they seem to have drifted far away...... 

Ain't dat the sad truth

Thursday, 10 September 2015

"The Hills are alive"

Gandhi says: "Stop being a twat"

Mahatma Gandhi, as you are aware, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced hard calloused feet. He ate very little which made him very fragile. As a consequence of his frugal diet, he suffered from horrendous bad breath.

This made him: 'A super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis'.

This joke is something quite atrocious


Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Non-Invasive Prenatal Diagnosis- A Brave New World?

Got his father's eyes

Up to relatively recently the only way to determine whether a pregnancy was chromosomally abnormal was by invasive prenatal testing. A sample of the placenta, or more usually the amniotic fluid within the womb, was taken by the obstetrician and sent to the genetics lab for culture and analysis. In this way, foetal chromosomes (gross genome) could be examined to detect abnormalities, mostly Down syndrome due to an additional chromosome 21. Although screening tests are available to assess a woman’s risk of a chromosomally abnormal pregnancy, the only sure way to determine chromosome status is by sampling the baby's cells. Although prenatal testing is relatively safe, there is always an attendant risk to the pregnancy due to the procedure itself. In a good centre, the risk is low- about 0.3%. Clearly it is not possible to offer all pregnant women invasive testing. Most women will have a very low risk and therefore it makes no sense to offer a pregnant woman with a risk, say in the order of 1 in 2,000, a procedure with an inherent risk of abortion of 1 in 300. Furthermore, there is no way the system could cope if every woman underwent invasive testing. Therefore, screening is necessary and desirable to identify high-risk pregnant women.

Screening is based on measuring biochemical markers in the mother’s blood together with an assessment of foetal anatomical structures. Finally, maternal age is factored in. Combining these independent risk factors gives an aggregate risk which can be expressed as a number, for example, 1 in 200. This represents the risk of carrying a Down syndrome foetus. If the risk reaches a 'high risk' level the woman is offered an invasive diagnostic test. Generally, about 5% of pregnant women are tested. When faced with the prospect of a baby with a clinically significant chromosome abnormality most couples choose the harrowing decision to abort the pregnancy; 90% of Down syndrome pregnancies are voluntary aborted.

Recently a new test has been added to the diagnostic repertoire and enables testing without extracting a sample of amniotic fluid from the pregnancy. This test relies on the presence of foetal DNA in the maternal blood stream.

It has been known since the 19th century that foetal cells can enter the maternal circulation during pregnancy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could isolate these cells from the mother’s blood and use them for prenatal diagnosis? In this way, we could obtain a result without sticking a needle into the womb and thereby eliminate the risk of abortion due to the procedure itself. The problem with this approach is that foetal cells in the maternal circulation occur at extremely low levels. In a typical maternal blood sample, only one foetal cell is present for every million maternal cells. A more serious problem arises due to the persistence of certain types of foetal cells. For instance, foetal T lymphocytes, a type of blood cell, linger in the mother’s blood for years making it difficult to know whether the cells analysed relate to the current or to a previous pregnancy. Therefore, the technical limitations of this approach prevent its introduction into the diagnostic setting.

However, all is not lost and foetal DNA also enters the mother’s blood stream, often in appreciable amounts. Up to 6% of the cell-free DNA in the maternal blood comes from the baby. Also, removal of foetal DNA from the maternal circulation is rapid, so there is no problem with contamination from previous pregnancies.

DNA is the genetic stuff that makes up chromosomes and determines all our genetic traits. It is fairly easy from a technical perspective to isolate foetal DNA and use it to determine whether the baby carries a chromosome or genetic defect. This test has recently been introduced into our laboratory and has the potential to revolutionise prenatal diagnosis.  Like all laboratory tests, it is not without limitations. Although the test is accurate there is a small chance that the result will give rise to a ‘false positive’. In this case, the baby is normal even though the test indicates otherwise. Therefore, all positive cases should have a follow up invasive prenatal test.

In certain instances, analysing foetal DNA from mother's blood will not provide an interpretable result. In cases of twins and where the mother is morbidly obese, the analysis is not accurate. Furthermore, this test provides less diagnostic information than conventional amniotic fluid analysis and 5% of clinically significant chromosome problems will be missed.

It unlikely that the cost of the test, for now, will be covered by medical insurance or the public health system. In New Zealand, if a woman decides to opt for the non-invasive route, she has to carry the full burden of the cost. Currently, this amounts to about $NZ650 (equivalent to £325). In comparison to other centres, this is relatively cheap and elsewhere the test may cost twice as much. Thus, the take-up for testing has been slow. Predictably it has proved popular with the usual suspects, the 'wealthy worried well'. In my experience, laboratory testing/technology will become cheaper with time. It is not unreasonable to expect testing to eventually integrate into the public system without cost to the patient. Presumably this decision will be based on a cost-benefit analysis. If all pregnant women receive ‘free’ non-invasive testing there will be fewer invasive tests and therefore, cost savings, but only if non-invasive testing becomes relatively cheap- watch this space. Obviously I can only comment with regard to the New Zealand experience although most Western nations follow a similar model.

I’d like to finish with a word about the dark implications of genetic testing. What I’m about to say throws more light on society than it sheds on the science and scientists implementing and practising genetics. Some argue that genetic testing, especially as it relates to the prenatal context, evokes the dark image of eugenics and the prospect of ‘designer babies’. In a way, this has already happened. In some societies, there is a bias toward male children and a decision to abort an otherwise healthy baby is made on the basis of sex alone. China is facing a demographic time-bomb due to this wide spread practice. There will come a time when it will be possible to determine a host of genetic features of an unborn baby from a simple maternal blood test. Will some couples abort a pregnancy based on genetic characteristics which have no clinical relevance but impinge on intelligence or aesthetic qualities, especially if testing is performed very early in the pregnancy? Repugnant as this may seem to most, there will always be those who will abuse the power of genetic testing.  Where money is involved, everything becomes possible. Call me a cynical old scrote (call me a cab), but I honestly believe effective regulation of genetic technology to prevent misuse, especially at the prenatal level, is ultimately doomed and futile- a brave new world indeed.

I want the tall, blond haired, blue eyed one, of course

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Flaxen the Estate Agent

Recap: Whilst out strolling with his wolf, Loki, Flaxen, king of the Tipton Saxons became entangled in a space/time vortex which perchance connected to a white hole. Hence, Flaxen and Loki were transported through time to finally alight in the Tipton of 2015 after catching the number 27 bus from Dudley.......Before you berate me for concocting impossible scenarios, I suggest you consult the latest in theoretical physics which, no doubt, will bestrew my tale with a sprinkling of verity itself.

For some strange reason which will never become apparent or satisfactory explained, Flaxen and Loki managed to find agreeable lodgings with a flagrant/fragrant homosexual (fat poof) called Roger. After a lamentable episode in the local post office where several aged folk were propelled to Valhalla before their allotted time (only just), Flaxen managed to secure gainful employment as a local estate agent. Oh yes, and for reasons that shall remain veiled in mystery and double/bubble wrapped in incongruity, Flaxen's trusty wolf became transformed into a white fluffy Maltese Terrier, called Bubbles.

The Viewing
"As you can see this is a well appointed 3 bed residence with grand views toward Tipton's only midden pit. The bathroom is bijou and superbly appointed...''

Mr Mugumbo (who else?): "Excuse me king Flaxen of the Tipton Saxons with hegemony over the wester marches and parts of Dudley south, but what are the schools like hereabouts? I wouldn't want little Joachim to go to a school full of brain fucked, thieving gypos''.

"You have raised a fair point Mr Mugumbo. Let me assure you that the 'Gypo Quotient' is within the 10th decile as we speak and the only dark folk allowed on school grounds is the janitor and only after dark. As I was saying, as you can see we have a sharply appointed kitchen type area with all the amenities of running cold water; some of it from the tap. The 'rambunctious room' would be ideal for a snooker table or an area for storing the skulls of your fallen enemy".

"What is that strange crunching noise emanating from the compact but deceptively spacious bedroomette".

"Don't mind that, tis only my trusty wolf Loki/Bubbles feasting on the entrails of the previous viewer who had the temerity to criticise the flock wallpaper in the amply spaced dinerette designed to maximise your lifestyle requirements. Foolish accountant dared trifle with King of the Tipton Saxons and thus with a swift blow of my sword, 'Arse, Big Fat Arse, Biter', I removed his impudent bonce with alacrity.  Well Mr Mugumbo, what do you think of the wallpaper in the tastefully appointed living area''?

"Well to be honest, I prefer a more understated effect with subtle, vibrant tones......".

As if in dream Flaxen reached for his double headed Danish war axe, 'Twat Cruncher', and in a heart beat severed Mr Mugumbo's head clean orf. 

Flaxen picked up the severed head and entered the easy to maintain bedroomette and skillfully placed the head atop the mound of noggins. Loki playfully relinquished the accountant's entrails  and gleefully latched onto Mr Mugumbo's blood rimed corpse with his pitiless maw and dragged it slowly into the sumptuously attired, feature bedroomette.

Next week Flaxen receives 'Estate Agent of the Month Award'.


Friday, 4 September 2015

Cold Readers, Charlatans and other Buggers

Cold reading is the application of a set of psychological techniques to obtain information from people (marks). It is the stock in trade of so called psychics, faith healers, mentalists and even professional psychologists. Practitioners use a series of well rehearsed techniques to coax information from the client or experimental subject and then regurgitate 'new information' in a way which appears miraculous or other-worldly.

Apparent psychics can be charlatans or imbued with a delusional belief that they have special supernatural powers. Motivation is generally for financial gain and very few psychic cold readers provide a free service. Cold reading should be distinguished from 'warm reading' where the information has been gathered beforehand and then regurgitated during the session; accomplices are usually involved to obtain specific facts from clients. Obviously, if the reader is using prior knowledge before the psychic session then there is reasonable cause to think that deliberate deception is involved.

Here’s just a few of the psychological methodologies beloved by the professional:

Forer Effect                                                                                        

This effect is named after a psychologist who conducted an experiment on college students during the 1940's and relies on the tendency for people to relate specifically to general pronouncements, especially if the information paints the subject in a favourable light. Forer told each student that he was performing a personality analysis and gave each a summary of his conclusion. He then asked the students to rate the accuracy of the analysis out of 5.0. The average accuracy achieved was 4.3 even though all the students received the exact same analysis.

Here are a few statements which illustrate the principle very well. How many, would you say, apply to yourself? I replied in the affirmative to all five statements:

“I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well”.

“You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house”.

“You had an accident when you were a child involving water”.

“You’re having problems with a friend or relative”.

“Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen”.

The beauty of this method, as far as the psychic is concerned, is that no client feedback is required and therefore particularly applicable for newspaper horoscopes and very lazy practitioners.


Fishing is a favourite cold reading ploy and unlike the 'Forer Effect’ requires the psychic to put forth some effort. Initially it relies on gathering information even before the subject opens his/her mouth. We all make shrewd judgements about strangers based on physical appearance (profiling). There is much we can tell about a person based on demeanour, age, dress and ornamentation. For instance, the reader may start off by saying: “I see a departed parent standing, smiling, next to you”. Saying this to someone in their late 50s is probably a sound tactic. Depending on the response of the victim client, the reader will moderate his/her reply accordingly. In our example, the reader can quickly turn it around if the client states: “My mother and father are still alive.” In this circumstance a ‘good psychic’ will turn it around by saying something like this: "I see an elderly man, I see him clearly now, it is your grandfather". You might well ask why the psychic didn’t just mention the grandfather in the first place considering the statistical chance that grandparents are more likely to be deceased than a parent. The answer, I think, is that there is more emotional import in a dead parent than a dead grandparent. The more emotion the psychic can provoke, the better. The more we become emotionally involved the less likely we are to engage critical faculty.

As the name suggests this is an indiscriminate wide ranging method best used when there is an audience. Tele-psychics and theatre performers are great exponents of this method. A general statement is uttered: "I see an elderly women called Maud". Given that the audience is large and the woman in question is elderly, it is likely that someone in the audience will relate to this. Usually someone will shout out: “That’s my aunty Maud”.  The person doesn’t even have to cry out. A good psychic will notice any cues from individuals in the audience, verbal or non-verbal. Then they home in like a guided missile. Once a target is selected other vague/general statements can be uttered about Aunty Maud. Things like, "she was a meticulous woman, a kindly woman". At all times the psychic is  very attentive to feedback. Any negative, verbal or non-verbal, response will be deftly detected and the psychic will change tack. Similarly, any encouragement received will form the basis for further development. Indeed, an accomplished psychic will turn a negative reply into a positive. For example: "Your uncle was a nervous man". If the person replies: "Actually, he was a very confident individual". The psychic may retort: "Yes, he projected a confident manner to hide inner turmoil and self doubt".

Psychics use phrases and statements, which superficially at least, suggest that they have gained profound insight into your innermost emotional psyche, but in actuality the pronouncement means bugger all. Consider this: "You control your emotions very well but if provoked you can express anger". Subtle, and not so subtle, flattery may come into play. We are psychologically hard wired to believe good things about ourselves (vanity, all is vanity) and people have a natural tendency to remember things that are perceived as relevant and a knack to forget those which appear irrelevant; a phenomenon termed ‘selectivity of attention’.

I haven't considered all the techniques employed. I'm sure you could think of a few more. I genuinely believe that a small set of psychic practitioners really do believe they have supernatural powers. They are utilising cold reading techniques unconsciously; techniques acquired over many years and reinforced by feedback. That said,  I also believe that most so-called mediums/psychics are hard nosed charlatans who know full well that they are not in contact with the spirit world and their only concern is to fleece the gullible. And yet they cannot practise their vile trade if it wasn't for the believer.....

People who consult psychics and their ilk are already primed to believe. Few sceptics seek their services unless they are conducting research or engaged in exposure. The best audience is always a willing audience.

In the final analysis, the good psychic should be a good psychologist. From beginning to end the ‘reading’ is a farcical but often skilled performance which panders to susceptible people’s established beliefs and vanity. Interestingly, in a supposedly scientific and rational world (who am I kidding?)  large numbers of folk are prepared to give credence to this sort of thing. It is easy to say that they are all ill informed. This is not always the case and educated and intelligent people can fall prey. Certainly there is something fundamental within many that yearn for meaning not based on science and reason. In a way the supernatural is a beguiling temptress and a form of intellectual laziness. And while there exist people who readily fall prey to the supernatural, there will always be those who play the role of predator and promise to lift the veil from the supernatural world for an instant and for a price.