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Red hair twaddle

REVISIT SERIES A post from July 2014 Each week I'm going to include a post from years ago that I feel is worth revisiting: I feel the strong urge to share with you what may be the worst piece of science-based reporting I've seen this year. It's from UK free newspaper Metro and it is titled  Red head? Climate change could make you and your ginger compatriots EXTINCT . (The usually respectable Independent also covered this 'story.') It may not be obvious now, but as the slightly younger picture of me above demonstrates, I am a member of this apparently endangered grouping. But what does the story say exactly? I will extract some of it's joyfulness, so you don't have to read it (though admittedly in the original you get a picture of Lily Cole rather than me). The suggestion is that due to climate change and the 'rapidly increasing temperature across the British Isles, the red hair gene could soon be a thing of the past.' And the way we are told
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WFH and TV

In a recent article , the redoubtable comedian David Mitchell noted that the office supply company Toner Giant had published research showing that a high percentage of those working from home (yes, it was WFH not WTF) watch daytime TV. Sadly, as is often the case when the media comments on data, Mitchell did not provide a link to the original source - it's here if you want it . There are two interesting bits to this - one is what people allegedly watch and why Toner Giant is telling us (Mitchell struggles to understand why they did this, presumably because he didn't read the whole original piece, which tells you) - and the other is whether or not this is a problem. The claim is 82% of UK hybrid workers admit to watching TV when working from home - this is based on a 'survey of 2,000 British hybrid workers', though we aren't told how they were selected and hence how representative they were (or weren't). Why does Toner Giant care? Because they claim that personal

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman - P. D. James ****

P. D. James was one of the great English crime writers, with one of the more interesting detectives in Adam Dalgliesh, but reading this novel from 1972 I was struck by how interesting it was to me for two reasons. One is purely personal - it's set in Cambridge just a couple of years before I was there, so comparing the picture James paints with my own experience was fun. But more significant is the stylistic approach she takes. I'm a great fan of Margery Allingham - and the central character in James' book is a pure Allingham heroine - Cordelia Gray is young, feisty, intelligent and taking on a role that would in earlier years have been considered the 'unsuitable job for a woman' of the title - a private detective. Although technically an Adam Dalgliesh book, we only get indirect references to him until the final chapter where he makes an appearance, very much as a supporting character. But it's not really having a murder mystery where the author's detective

Wiltshire science and Mark O'Donnell

For a number of years I was proud to count the late BBC Radio Wiltshire presenter Mark O'Donnell as a friend. He very sadly died at the end of 2019 - but I wanted to look back and remember some remarkable inserts we made for his show.  The idea was to visit science and technology locations in Wiltshire. It was a great opportunity to find out more about these places, whether historical or modern. What made the visits was Mark's warm presence and ability to draw the listener in to the scene. Sadly the BBC has not kept the tapes of the visits, but here are a few written highlights from me. The startling significance of Mr Talbot's spectacles - visiting Lacock Abbey and the scene of the first negative image A revelation in Wroughton - at the Science Museum controlled environment store and library (a location that so impressed me that I suggested it as a location for my little TV piece teaching quantum physics to then BBC business editor Robert Peston ) How oxygen was first di

The Monk - Tim Sullivan ****

It’s always satisfying to come across a well-written murder mystery and discover there are several more waiting. In this case I accidentally started with book 5, but have since gone back to the first of Tim Sullivan’s novels featuring DS Cross. The most interesting feature of the series is that Cross is on the autism spectrum. This gives him some distinctive advantages over his colleagues, while also offering some challenges. On the whole Sullivan handles this well - in this book, almost all of Cross’s colleagues regard him with affection, though we are told that in the past he was treated badly. That is perhaps the most unlikely aspect - it’s hard to imagine that policing has so many suitably thoughtful officers, though I may be resorting too much to stereotype. The murder victim is a Catholic monk, with much of the action taking place in an abbey - also well handled and providing a neat tie-in to Cross’s enthusiasm for church organs.  The monk’s background is unusual, giving opportun

Evidence of absence

The other day, reading Tom Chivers' excellent book on Bayesian statistics  Everything is Predictable , I was reminded of that old chestnut, 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' This is often put forward as if it were a powerful logical argument. But, in reality, it's a bit of common sense that sometimes works, but always oversimplifies. In case you aren't familiar with the expression, I might say that I've never seen any evidence that dark matter exists (as opposed to the behaviour of galaxies and galactic clusters attributed to dark matter), but I shouldn't take that as evidence that dark matter doesn't exist. As Tom Chivers points out, this is very frequentist thinking. The Bayesian approach would be that every good quality experiment that fails to find dark matter modifies our priors - it can be used to reduce the probability that it exists. Interestingly, this somewhat trite saying only tends to be wheeled out when responding to a theor

Close to Death - Anthony Horowitz ****

There was a danger that by the fifth of his Hawthorne mysteries that started with The Word is Murder , Anthony Horowitz would have stretched the unusual format too far. The other books were written in the first  person, with a fictional version of Horowitz himself acting effectively as Watson to eccentric ex-cop Daniel Hawthorne. But this entry in the series starts in the conventional third person, describing the occupants of an exclusive close in Richmond on Thames and their fractious relationships with a boorish man who it feels is surely going to be the murder victim. The setting is clever, because the small gated development effectively provides a similarly isolated group of suspects to a traditional country house murder mystery, but better suited to a modern world. And we get a classic varied group of suspects from a chess grandmaster and a 'dentist to the stars' to a pair of old ladies. But Horowitz then comes into the story as this was a past case of Hawthorne’s that Hor