Friday, 29 October 2010

Friends can make you Liberal

I listened to a piece on the Today programme that said scientists had discovered a liberal gene. I spent about 20 minutes lazily hunting around on Google and read ten different stories in a variety of media across the globe that repeated the same general conclusion.

So, it must be true. Wrong.

It took another 15 minutes to find the actual paper – by finding the CV of the lead author and then picking up a reference to the paper from there. Read it yourself at:-

One has to ask, if it took me less than half an hour to find the actual paper and another 10 minutes to read it, how come so much of the world’s media got it wrong? The paper specifically says it has not found a liberal gene.

there is not a direct association between the 7R allele and ideology.” And “We do not claim that this evidence proves a causal relationship between DRD4 (that’s the gene) and political ideology.”

It’s hard to be much clearer than that. What they do show is that if you have the particular gene and you have a lot of friends, then you are more likely to be liberal. They also show that the gene does not make you more likely to have friends.

“The results of these tests indicate that 7R alleles have no significant effect on the number of friends, and no direct impact on ideology. Only the interaction is significant.”

The other thing that the reports don’t mention is “While our finding is statistically significant, the strength of the association is quite small.”

So, the gene does not make you liberal, nor does it make you have more friends. But if you do have the gene and you happen to have more friends then you are a little bit more likely to be liberal. In other words, it is the friends that may make you liberal.

Would a headline “Friends may make you liberal.” have bounced around the world’s media?

What is the message for died in the wool conservatives? Don’t have friends or you might become liberal?

The comparable message for Liberals would be. “Make friends with a conservative – it may really screw them up.”

There is one snag, the paper also make clear that all this gene/friend interaction has to take place in adolescence.

So the real message, to liberals, is:- Get your kids to play with conservative’s kids. Putting it another way - letting kids make friends is a subversive activity. That would have been a much more interesting headline.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

City and country life

City Life

Dusty romanced dirty streets

Secret people indiscreet

Walking closely far apart

That’s the city centre art

Crowded busses flashy cars

Fog and fume block out the stars

Hurry slowly nowhere soon

Morning night and afternoon

Reading other people's blogs I realised I’d never put a poem here. OK so here is one that probably explains why I live in the country now.

OK so I know that afternoon comes between morning and night, but then it wouldn't rhyme with soon, and wouldn't sound right. I used to write lots of poems but now I find novels and blogs are more fun.

Which leads me to country life. We live in an old farmhouse and there is a smell of home baking all the time – well there would be wouldn’t there.

My wife Lois is somewhat obsessed with baking and for the last couple of years has been experimenting with Gluten Free baking – because Gluten makes her sick.

She has now reinvented the original concept of web logging - later called blogging. She invents new Gluten Free recipes and writes them up on her blog as she does them. [ ] This does two things, makes it easy to find the recipe and also tells us when certain things were made, so we can do tests on what their shelf life should be. How many home cooks give best before dates to their products? For those who read her blog I am Mr. Taster on there.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


I was going to post something about visiting the Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern, but Lois has beaten me to it.
Lois is my wife, in case anyone who reads this stuff hasn't guessed it yet. Lois is very intolerant of Gluten and spends a lot of time experimenting with making, mostly baking, gluten free foods, which is why her review of the art seems to spend more time in the cafe than looking at the paintings. If anyone reads her blogs I feature as Mr Taster - maybe I'll use that as a nom-de-plume some day.
If you haven't visited the Gaugin yet then I'd say allow quite a lot of time. There is a lot of material about him that takes time to read, especially as you can expect to be buffeted by the crowd washing by. Like Lois I found the painting drab, I don't know why I was expecting more light, something about Tahiti, romance and all that, but it is just not there. I was also surprised to find that the paintings were almost all much smaller that I expected. OK so that in some ways is good, they'd fit in your living room, unlike some of the things I've seen in Tate Modern.
On the other hand none of it made me laugh, or cry, or say WOW! So why did I go? I'm a sucker for a good story I guess and there is something of that. Gaugin seemed to spend his life reinventing himself and almost living a fiction. He was obviously convinced from an early age that he was a genius. I can't think of any other reason why he would go on painting such dull paintings while he was having such an interesting life.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Who benefits?

It was fascinating listening to Cameron on the Today programme. I don’t think they laid a glove on him, in boxing parlance. What would I have said if I was interviewing him?

On universal benefits there is an interesting debate to be had. Do give it to every one, or do you try to arget those who need it most? Take winter fuel allowance, for example. I get it, I’m old enough, I’ve filled in the forms and it duly turns up each year. I also don’t need it. So why not check my tax code and stop it?

In reality, i.e. outside the rarefied atmosphere of the Today Programme, fuel poverty is not that simple. For example there are old people who have big houses because once upon a time they had children at home. By the time there is just an elderly widow left she may have a house full of memories, but it could well be too cold to be healthy. She may well appear to be rich because that great big house will count as an asset, but she might not be able to afford to heat it.

She should move to somewhere smaller, I hear you say, but maybe grandma thinks her children will never visit if she doesn’t have enough bedrooms. Modern education and work practices have scattered families all over the country – go away to university and never come back. The aspiration to send half the population to higher education not only teaches half of us to be in debt but will probably increase our chances of dying alone, or at least only connected by broadband.

Winter fuel payments could be targeted. You could put together what the local authority knows about housing stock, not just when it was build, but all that stuff that goes into meeting the better homes standard, plus those thermal image things that some councils have on the web sites. If you did that you would know a lot of stuff and you ought to be able to predict how much energy it takes to keep each house warm.

The energy companies know how much energy we all actually consume – they send us bills for the stuff after all.

If you put both of those sources together it ought to be easy to calculate who is not using enough energy to keep warm. If the winter fuel allowance were only sent to them that would be bound to save a packet.

On the other hand it would be intrusive. It means that some computer would be able to delve into our lives and if hacked into, tell the world that we were too poor to keep warm.

That is where the dilemma lies. Targeting, means testing, whatever you want to call it, is intrusive, and as it only helps the poor it means we end up living in a society where there is literally one rule for the rich and other for the poor.

The same sort of thing applies to the child benefit stuff. Back when I was a single parent I got child benefit and I did like having it. In some insane way it was a sort of acknowledgement from the government that I as a single father was able to bring up my kids. It sounds foolish in the light of day, but back then when sometimes I wondered if I could hack it, there was a certain reassurance to getting those cheques. When my youngest daughter finally passed the right age and the last cheque came I remember having a quiet drink and saying to myself.

‘Well I did it.’

On the other hand I am in no doubt that I could have managed without child benefit. I earned enough that under the new proposals mine would be stopped. What I find odd is that they are going to base it on individual income rather than household income. A single parent just over the right tax band will lose the benefit, two people living in the same house each of whom earns half of that will get the benefit, even though their combined income come to the same as the single parent. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

‘Oh but it will be harder to calculate household income than just doing on the tax band.’

Pull the other one. We are quick enough to penalise people on benefits if they cohabit without telling social security. The ‘system’ is obviously quite capable of assessing household income when it feels like it. If they implement this proposal as written it really will be one rule for the rich and another for the poor.

I suppose one good thing about it is that it really will encourage women to go out to work as soon as their husband’s income begins to come close to the upper tax threshold. At least that chucks a bomb under a different set of traditional Tory values – or maybe Cameron is even cleverer than he looks.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Better write better

I’ve been reading Nicola Morgan’s rather good blog for some while ( She did a series of posts about how to use Twitter, so, following on from my last post I decided to take the plunge.

I’ve installed Tweetdeck, again as a result of various comments. Seems like a good idea, especially as it has a column of newsfeeds so that I pick up friends Facebook updates at the same time – on the Iphone too.

Then the wierd stuff starts. I wrote a tweet saying I’d slept in my campervan on the way to a conference in London. Somewhat inconsequential information for the world in general, but one has to start somewhere. (More of the conference in a moment.) Next thing I know I have a new follower on twitter – some campervan / motor home site in the USA that claims to offer everything motor home, is now following me. Obviously they have some software that is chewing through all the tweets in the world and hitting on words like campervan, motor home etc. The mind boggles. I wonder what the package is and where I can get it?

The conference was the writer’s workshops do, in London, about getting published. It came with a one-to-one book doctor session thrown in, which seemed like a good idea since I hadn’t had one since the last update. OK so I am selling the book on Amazon, Smashwords etc. but maybe it still needs work. Plus one has to book up for these things so far in advance that I hadn’t taken the e-book plunge when I signed up.

There is a temptation to Iphone a tweet while sitting in the audience. Risky though, because if a camervan site in the USA can follow me off the back of one word, then who knows who else. If I imply that it is bizarre to listen to “Two drably dressed publishers with boring voices talking about how they want to have their socks knocked off by new submissions.” People whose presentation style seems to suggest that they have never been excited in their lives, but who may nevertheless be monitoring every word in some crafty way. These people publish books. I don’t want to offend them do I? So I thought it, but didn’t say it.

Maybe the drab presentation was part of the act. If it looks as though one would have to work very, very hard to get these people excited, maybe it gives you some idea of what you are up against. As far as I can tell from the figures bandied about at the conference, for the average writer, the odds of getting picked up by a publisher are about one in a thousand. So to a first approximation all authors are failures. Harry Bingham did let slip that three percent of the people who have been through the Oxford Writers Workshop process get picked up. So that must be seen as a huge success – to go from 1 per 1000 to 30 per 1000.

I find it slightly tedious that Harry keeps implying that the only reason you book does not get picked up is because it is not good enough. Has he never read Fred Hirsh on social limits to growth? “If everyone stands in tiptoe, no one sees any better.” If we all get much better at writing but the number of authors stays the same and the book market stays the same then still seems likely that 1 per 1000 will still be the norm.

Of course there is another problem, namely that some pretty dreadful books that appear to disobey everything the book doctors say, still seem to get published. Maybe Harry’s advice should be rephrased along the lines that for most of us the only obvious way to improve our chances of getting published is to write a better book. There may be other ways, like luck, inside contacts, or whatever, but the chances are that the people who get through by those means either don’t know how they did it, or are never going to say. So shut up and keep trying to write better.

I guess Harry’s sales pitch worked to some extent, because I now have a signed copy of his book on how to get published (Getting Published, Harry Bingham). I’ll get Nicola Morgan's book (Write to be Published), when it comes out, but chasing around to see if I can pre-order got me to Snowbooks and their rather wonderful Open Rejection Letter ( It says it all, and it’s worth reading, but here’s a little quote, which I hope they don’t mind me using – it does say open after all.

What it comes down to is that publishing companies aren't really the people you want reviewing your work. If you think about it, we have a financial incentive to put as little thought and effort into sifting through submissions as possible. We've got a lot of submissions to get through and not enough time. Plus, many publishers aren't looking to take any chances with new material; they want obvious, commercial successes, ideally from authors with a track record.”

So, while hiring a witchdoctor, bunging it on Kindle etc. may be worth a try, trying to write better still looks like the only game in town.