Current Affairs Blog 

The Politics of Protest Monday, May 11 2015 

There were some political protests this week.  One in London and one in Cardiff. They were campaigning against the Conservative policy of austerity.  The damnedest thing of all was that the poor sods were a day too late.  A little glitch in their event management meant they did it they day after the election instead of the day before.  It could happen to anyone.

I am being facetious, obviously.  It was of course a response to the result of the general election, rather than a way of drumming up voters to back their cause. It has happened a few times before, after Conservative governments have been elected. There is therefore a history, or perhaps a tradition, of British left-wing activists doing that.  Oddly, right wing ones have not adopted the same tactics.  Conservative election wins are invariably met with scorn protest where Labour ones are not.

Perhaps the answer to this is that the governments are elected for different reasons.  There is the feeling that Labour governments are elected mainly because Conservative ones are unpopular, rather than because the Labour prospect is itself popular.  Labour have a dedicated following of course, which is probably smaller than the tory one, at least if the number of years of conservative government since WW2 is compared to that of Labour.  It is about twice as much.

I was surprised when I first heard that statistic.  Perhaps it is all the more surprising when we consider that voting conservative is largely socially unacceptable.  Or, at least tories are shy, according to Lewis Barber in the Independent.  This shiness might also be why so many of the pollsters got it wrong and why the BBC’s poll that predicted the conservative party would be the largest was published so nervously on election night.

It would be easy for right-wingers to blame a left-biased media for this sort of thing.   Realistically, they had no direct role, and I think we can ignore evidenceless media conspiracies as the mechanism behind voting practices.  The same applies to the protests: they were not media-generated.  By far the most likely explanation for those was that a group of lefties did not get what they felt entitled to at a general election, and rocked up in a couple of big cities (and not even the most Labourite ones) to say so.

This analysis has them as childish, and worse still, undemocratic.  It suggests they should vote for what they want and then move on whether or not they get it, at least in the short term after the election.  That is probably what Conservative voters do, but as we know they have different behavioural response to electoral disappointment.  The only Conservative-type protest in Britain that I can think of is the countryside march.  That was in the middle of a parliament, partly a response to the Hunting Bill. Despite being huge and non-violent, it was not listened by the government of the day any more than any of the others were, so was probably as just as ineffectual. Still, we retain the view and practice that people having their voice non-violently is part of democracy and no one in the UK is about to stop it.

No one needs to tell the Scottish nationalists this.  They did not get what they wanted in the referendum on Scottish Independence, but there was no crying or stamping of feet. They worked out what to do and then did it.  Now, 56/59 Scottish seats in the house of commons are held by the SNP, who got something like 50% of the vote in that Kingdom, overturning several considerable Labour majorities in the process. They now have a strong ‘Scottish voice’ and probably the political will and power to get their way.  Their respect for democracy has been exemplary throughout.

The SNP has also been campaigning for independence for 80 years. In context, that’s about twenty years longer than the National Health Service, an important socialist achievement, has been in existence. We still have a National Health Service, and have even added to its remit the task of being something for everyone to complain about. We also have the Hunting Act and the Union remains intact.  So, who has got the best political tactics?

Banting Thin Friday, May 1 2015 

The broadest definition of lipids includes fats and cholesterol as well as biological amphiphiles. This means that the study of obesity is often regarded as part of the study of lipids. In fact, the study of obesity is a good broad definition of the clinical discipline of lipidology. The principal stuff of obesity is of course fat, referred to formally as triglycerides.

The structure of triglycerides give very little of their peripheral importance away: the social, emotional and even political meaning these molecules have is not at all evident from the molecules as we see them on the page. In fact, despite considerable research into human metabolism over the last hundred or more years, there has been very little impact on obesity. If anything, Europeans and North Americans are fatter now than they were a century and a half ago. This is despite the increase in our understanding of fats and the dangers they pose. This ‘obesity crisis’, if a crisis can happen as slowly as someone over-eating, also correlates with the popularisation of dieting.

In 1862, the undertaker by Royal appointment to the House of Hannover, a William Banting, published a ‘Letter on Corpulence: Addressed to the Public’. The document is still widely available, and makes interesting reading for social historians as well as lipidologists, and probably those interested in the psychology surrounding losing or gaining weight. It is about what became known as Banting, a form of dieting.

A look beyond the Victorian verbosity and veneration brings out familiar themes. He describes the perceived difficulties of corpulence—of being unfit, of having an awkward bodily shape, of lacking energy. He also fashions a superficially believable excuse for not increasing his calorific expenditure (taking more exercise), and hints at many of the ignorances of the time, including that fatness is age-related and that gout and obesity are linked.

Two particular things about this Letter stood out for me. First, that this appears to be an example of the belief that weight loss can, or should, or should only be attempted purely through dietary change. Second, that this is the first low carbohydrate diet, and forms the basis for all those that have been constructed in that vain since.

The idea that losing weight can be achieved through changes to diet alone is not necessarily wrong—no one who understood anything about human metabolism would tell you that it were—but equally there is no doubt that it is not the full story. The mass of triglycerides (amount of fat) in our adipose tissue can regarded rather like the amount of money in a bank account. If we spend more (take more exercise), the balance falls (we get thinner). If we earn more than we spend (eat more calories that are used), the balance goes up (our adipose tissue stores more fat). So, rather like running a current account, the balance between what is spent and what is earned is the key to changing the size of fat reserves. It is not just about what is earned.

Banting’s unwitting begattation of the ‘low carbohydrate diet’ is a bit harder to analyse. Certainly, he consumes fewer calories from starchy foods on his weight loss diet, to a level that he eats fewer than he needs and thus uses up his reserves. However, the diet also represents a considerable reduction in the intake of fat, and not necessarily as low a carbohydrate intake as one might imagine. He avoided pastry and fattier meats but also drank far more alcohol than is recommended today. The emergence of ‘low carb’ diets from this one is therefore a bit of a mystery. It was probably not widely understood in the 1860s was that fat contains more than twice as many calories as either protein or carbohydrate, gramme-for-gramme. Could it be that this is still poorly understood today?

Food is a complicated mixture of molecular species, and indeed the composition of foods is too complicated even to be at the centre of food science. Biochemical studies mean we now know that our omnivorous digestive systems and evolved metabolic machinery are well able to deal with a variety of molecular species. This means that we can tolerate a great variety in our diet. Our bodies can make fats out of both carbohydrate and protein, but cannot make either protein or carbohydrate out of fats. We can convert some protein monomers (amino acids) into others, and thus make up for a certain deficiency of amino acids in our diet, but by no means all—there are at least eight amino acids we must have in our dietary intake, the best sources of which are meats.

Human bodies are not really able to make carbohydrates at all–at least not ones for storing energy. Though we can get energy from fats, we rely upon carbohydrate absolutely. In fact, the basis of all terrestrial metabolism is the oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide. Thus any organism that respites requires a supply of glucose. This means that although there is scope for a good deal of variety, the evidence is clear: there are some things we cannot expect to change.

However, the fact remains: no matter how clear the data, how good the science, or how thoroughly the fad diets and the bullshit of phrases like ‘low carbs’ are debunked, obesity remains. The science is not enough on its own, to stop the crisis. This suggests to me that the study of obesity is the study of the problem, more than the solution. Where the solution will come from is harder to say—but a hundred and fifty years of Banting has not yet given the answer.

References and Further Reading

Letter on Corpulence: Addressed to the Public, William Banting. (A simple google search will bring this up though links here, here and here work at the time of writing)

The Fats of Life, Caroline M. Pond. A dry and now somewhat dated but easy read on fats. More recent research includes evidence that illuminates our understanding of the genes involved in the metabolism of fats, see here.

Language, Stephen Fry and the Real Importance of the Apostrophe Tuesday, Apr 28 2015 

Stephen Fry went on record in 2010 as saying that grammar and punctuation are not very important, specifically that he describes pedantic correction of language as joyless and rather irrelevant.  His view has met with widespread approval.

No one likes being on the receiving end of pedantry. Typically, the only thing implementing that feedback protects one from is other pedants, and so a pedantic response is often nothing other than unattractive.  Despite that, Fry’s arguments did not sit that well for me, and I have finally decided to let the tip off my tongue trip of the top of my palate to say so. Or at least write it on my iPad.

It is certainly true that the point of language is not to get grammar and punctuation spot on.  No one said of Jane Austen that she was a master of the semi-colon, that her use of the apostrophe was unimpeachable.  In a sense, at the distance we now are from her, it does not matter whether she knew how to use punctuation marks or not. We rather assume that she did, because whoever wrote Pride and Prejudice was clearly very intelligent and so was almost certainly capable of grasping the difference between possessive and diminutive, and that neither was necessarily a plural.  It does not matter to us whether or not she knew this, nor showed whether or not she knew it.  The rule that gives the full meaning to girls’ bags, remains.

In fact, any deviation from this simple rule is capable of moving the meaning to something that either renders the sentence incomprehensible or for it to sound as though it means something other than what was intended.  There are of course countless instances where it probably does not matter to the meaning the writer wishes to convey, at least to those sufficiently competent in the language. A common argument against this lugubrious language use is that it is at best lazy not to polish, and at worst, inconsistent and difficult for non-native speakers.

As someone who writes a lot about science, I typically make an effort to get it all right.  This partly comes from the experience that so many people see my copy before it gets published that someone will correct me if it is wrong.  Either that, or they will correct it to what they think it should be, which results in a poor piece of writing (cf. death by committee).

In the last two years, I have been living in a European country where English is the lingua franca and so I have learnt about attitudes within and towards other languages.  This has shifted my perspective and allowed me to articulate my view about why arguments that ‘it doesn’t matter if your grammar and punctuation are wrong, no one cares’ do not sit well.

It is because language relies upon rules to be understood.  I agree with Michael Rosen that English is formulated more from patterns than from rules, unlike many European languages in which any deviation from the set order results in confusion, and where sentences therefore have an unambiguous meaning.  It is hard to apply that to English—the use of tone means that we can make the same sentence mean five different things.  That makes written English by definition a bit ambiguous.  Widespread use of a common rule book is therefore impossible—English is intractable.

However, I question whether that is a strong enough argument for tacit acceptance of not following the pattern, especially where it leads to ambiguity.  Another way of thinking of this is that although patterns can be broken or remoulded in a way that rules cannot, the fact that someone clever does it, does not really give all of us licence to do so.

I broke the rule about not starting a sentence with a conjunction or a preposition twice in the first paragraph of this article, and I probably got away with it.  The way I constructed the paragraph meant that I could probably get away with it.  Was it really worth breaking the rule, though?  Did I use it in an elegant enough way to justify alienating pedants and confusing those who are doing battle to make sense of this rule-less tongue?

Probably not.  And that is really the point, if it does not have a purpose, is it really fair on the reader?

Prominent Paedophiles Tuesday, Aug 26 2014 


I babysat for a paedophile when I was a teenager. Twice. I did not know he was at the time, though it began to emerge in the months afterwards. First, he was accused of assaulting a boy who was in his early teens. It was hushed up. He and his wife were friends of my parents, and wanting to be supportive, my mother had invited them over. I remember he looked very uncomfortable. I know now that what he was feeling was probably guilt and embarrassment rather than fear.

A few months later he was accused again. The alleged assault was a more serious one this time, and with having been accused before, it had to be looked in to. I suppose it must have been pretty clear the second time as it was not hushed up.

I realise and recount this because of the stream of sexual-abuse-of-children stories in the news recently, in Britain at least. Cases cover a range of prominent people, celebrities, public figures and even former members of parliament have been implicated. Several of those mentioned are dead, limiting the scope for any kind of retribution. There have also been cases of children’s homes at which child abuse seems to have been almost cultural, in Rotherham and Belfast.

There was no hiding in plain sight with the paedophile I knew. No fake gold medallions. No creepiness, nothing obnoxious or unpleasant. He had a moustache I thought was strange, but I’ve never seen one I liked so I suppose that is just my preference. He was a musician and music teacher.

He must have known it was not a good idea to seek sexual gratification with a child. I suppose he wanted for a moment’s carnal pleasure, but rationally he must know that indulging it would destroy the life he had carved out for himself. He must have known that sex that was not consented to by both partners–which is what shagging choirboys boils down to if the emotional effect is stripped away–would land him in at least a dozen types of trouble. Touching children is about the most reprehensible crime around these days, followed closely by sex without consent with an adult, so the chances of re-carving out the same life again afterwards were virtually nought.

It does not take much emotional understanding to realise that he must have had these feelings for a long time. Presumably it develops like hetero- or homosexuality and reaches fruition in teenage years. Observation from what gets reported suggests that paedophiles seem to have a preference for boys in their early teens or girls in the few years after they go to school. In other words, embryonic masculinity or embryonic femininity, framed with a certain innocence.

Paedophilia has been around for a long time, and so it is unrealistic to expect it to vanish any time soon. Someone who fancies children, and perhaps always has, probably always will. Just like fancying men or women. The question on my mind is what we do about it.

The rape part is relatively straightforward to manage. We have a legal process for that, for example the Sexual Offences Act (2003). I think it is also fair to say that there is not the political will for it to be modified substantially in the next few decades. I do not advocate changing it. Forced sex with someone who does not understand what it is, or expect it, and is not yet able to make the decision about whether it is what they want, is wrong and can be damaging.

A less easy question is about what happens outside of the rape. What about someone who has those feelings but who has never ‘touched’ a child in his or her life? Is it safe for them to be around children? I fancy women and it is considered safe for me to walk past a beach on a warm summer’s day. Is it safe for an equivalent man in his 30s who fancies children to go to work at a school as a builder, say, or carpet layer?

Many would say it is not safe. I think this objection is a strong and well founded one. However the argument that it is not unsafe for such an individual to be near children is hard to answer. There is no criminal activity involved in feeling something. Feeling something does not mean any kind of action will follow. These observations make it hard to assess the value of the argument that such individuals should be kept at arm’s length from children. Just saying ‘as long as nothing weird, creepy or illegal happens’ is hardly a workable approach; political correctness means we are not in a position to set guidelines on how people who fancy children should behave.

This means a rational position on this is hard to find, especially when paedophiles seem to be increasing in prominence. Perhaps it is far more common than we like to believe. Homosexuality is commonly understood to be about 10% in human populations and estimates of bisexuality put it at about 30%, with the rest as heterosexual. Where does paedophilia fit in to that?

What I do think is more certain, is that we have seen an about-turn in the last hundred years or so, when it comes to sexuality. The Oscar Wilde trial showed that homosexuality was still a terrible no-no for the Victorians. So infamous was it, that it influenced behaviour between men for years afterwards and still does now. Paedophilia, as far as the evidence we have of that time suggests, was much less controversial in that period. It certainly was not punished in the way it is now.

Ultimately, we cannot change a person’s sexual feelings, nor can we allow them to be expressed when doing so can cause long-term and unnecessary emotional damage. However, unexpressed sexual emotion creates a frustration for those who feel it that may be just as damaging.

A heterosexual or homosexual person can masturbate, perhaps with the use of pornography. They could buy the services of a prostitute, to quench their sexual tension. In terms of what is permitted legally, a paedophile can masturbate with whilst recalling his/her fantasies, but that is about it. That might satisfy a short-term craving, but that is not enough to stop every paedophile from turning their life inside out and forever, because of those feelings. Perhaps the important thing for us to do is understand why a person would be driven to risk so much on a futile sexual encounter.

I never did know what happened to the man I babysat for. He disappeared from the radar, presumably intentionally, in order to start afresh somewhere else. A putative google search suggests that he might have moved to another part of the country, but it is not clear. I wonder if he feels as though he is on the run.