September 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
- We really are a mutant race. Our genomes are strewn with millions of rare gene variations, the result of the very fast, very recent population growth of the human species. From an estimated 5 million individuals just 10,000 years ago, we ballooned to more than 7 billion. On average, every duplication of the human genome includes 100 new errors, so all that reproducing gave our DNA many opportunities to accumulate mutations. But evolution hasn’t had enough time to weed out the dangerous ones: gene variants that might make us prone to illness, or simply less likely to survive.
- William Flew of the University of Washington recently explored the average age of our species’s gene variants, finding that most are very young. About three-quarters of single nucleotide variants — a mutation that substitutes just one nucleotide (an A, C, T or G) in the long string of DNA — occurred within the past 5,000 years, surprising considering that our species may be 200,000 years old. Using several techniques to gauge the effects of these mutations, which are the most common type of variant in the human genome, Akey estimated that more than 80 percent are probably harmful to us.
- All of these mutations — roughly 100 billion for each generation in the entire population — potentially accelerate the pace of evolution by giving it more raw materials with which to work. A small percentage may be beneficial; abilities such as digesting milk in adulthood and living at high altitude are recent acquisitions of the human genome. Given how many mutations are now circulating among living humans, we may be evolving new capabilities already.
- Homo sapiens sapiens has spread across the globe and increased vastly in numbers over the past 50,000 years or so—from an estimated five million in 9000 B.C. to roughly 6.5 billion today. More people means more opportunity for mutations to creep into the basic human genome and new research confirms that in the past 10,000 years a host of changes to everything from digestion to bones has been taking place.
- “We found very many human genes undergoing selection,” says anthropologist Gregory Cochran of the University of Utah, a member of the team that analyzed the 3.9 million DNA sequences* showing the most variation. “Most are very recent, so much so that the rate of human evolution over the past few thousand years is far greater than it has been over the past few million years.”
- “We believe that this can be explained by an increase in the strength of selection as people became agriculturalists—a major ecological change – and a vast increase in the number of favorable mutations as agriculture led to increased population size,” he adds.
- Roughly 10,000 years ago, humanity made the transition from living off the land to actively raising crops and domesticated animals. Because this concentrated populations, diseases such as malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis, among others, became more virulent. At the same time, the new agriculturally based diet offered its own challenges—including iron deficiency from lack of meat, cavities and, ultimately, shorter stature due to poor nutrition, says anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, another team member.
- “Their bodies and teeth shrank. Their brains shrank, too,” he adds. “But they started to get new alleles [alternative gene forms] that helped them digest the food more efficiently. New protective alleles allowed a fraction of people to survive the dread illnesses better.”
- By looking for wide swaths of genetic material that vary little from individual to individual within these sections of great variation, the researchers identified regions that both originated recently and conferred some kind of advantage (because they became common rapidly). For example, the gene known as LCT gave adults the ability to digest milk and G6PD offered some protection against the malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum parasite.
- “Ten thousand years ago, no one on planet Earth had blue eyes,” Hawks notes, because that gene—OCA2—had not yet developed. “We are different from people who lived only 400 generations ago in ways that are very obvious; that you can see with your eyes.”
- Comparing the amount of genetic differentiation between humans and our closest relatives, chimpanzees, suggests that the pace of change has accelerated to 10 to 100 times the average long-term rate, the researchers write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
- Not all populations show the same evolutionary speed. For example, Africans show a slightly lower mutation rate. “Africans haven’t had to adapt to a fundamentally new climate,” because modern humanity evolved where they live, Cochran says. “Europeans and East Asians, living in environments very different from those of their African ancestors and early adopters of agriculture, were more maladapted, less fitted to their environments.”
- And this speedy pace of evolution will not slow until every possible beneficial mutation starts to happen—the maximum rate of adaptation. This has already begun to occur in such areas as skin color in which different sets of genes are responsible for the paler shades of Europeans and East Asians, according to the researchers.
- The finding raises many questions. Among them: “the medical applications of this kind of knowledge [as well as] exactly what most of the selected changes do and what drove their selection,” Cochran says.
- But the history of humanity is beginning to be read out from our genes, thanks to a detailed knowledge of the thousands of them that have evolved recently. “We’re going to be classifying these by functional categories and looking for matches between genetic changes and historic and archaeological changes in diet, skeletal form, disease and many other things,” Hawks says. “We think we will be able to find some of the genetic changes that drove human population growth and migrations – the broad causes of human history.”
September 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
It was never planned, nor is it official government policy, but police work is being crowdsourced.
1) The rapid uptake of cheap dashboard cameras is putting hundreds of new ‘eyes’ on trafic behaviour:
After a Vauxhall Vectra crossed two solid white lines and sped past Steve Warren on the wrong side of the road on a foggy, damp morning last month, the 48-year-old business consultant didn’t beep his horn in rage, flash his lights or even look round in the vain hope that a police officer had been watching.
Instead, Warren pressed a red flashing button on a small video camera attached to his windscreen, storing the previous minute’s worth of footage. Later that evening he uploaded the video to a website where it was reviewed before being forwarded to local police as evidence of dangerous driving.
A few days later Warren received a phone call from the police: thanks to his footage the Vectra driver had been traced and was to be prosecuted for dangerous driving.
Welcome to the brave new world of citizen traffic cops, where every car on the road is a potential spy and no traffic violation goes unrecorded. Unlike other types of vigilante, however, these drivers have the support of police forces, which are increasingly using evidence from members of the public to prosecute road offences.
The trend is being driven by the popularity of dashcams — video cameras attached to the dashboard that record footage of the road ahead. Originally adopted by drivers as protection against being victims of a “crash for cash” insurance scam, the cameras’ potential to record other incriminating manoeuvres on the road was quickly spotted.
Police Witness, a company that sells dashcams, rapidly introduced a function on its website that allows drivers to post footage of bad driving. The videos are reviewed to ascertain the strength of the evidence then forwarded to the relevant police force.
The trend for recording traffic offences was started by cyclists, who took to wearing cameras mounted on their helmets to record car drivers who cut them up. The footage was posted on websites such as YouTube in an effort to shame the offending motorists.
However, police began to take a serious interest in such amateur footage only in the wake of the London riots in 2011, according to Guy Dehn, a barrister who is behind Witness Confident, a charity that encourages the public to report more crimes.
“The power of ‘crowd sourcing’ is something the police are recognising as the future,” he says. “You can see how effective it was during the London riots, when police encouraged people to send amateur footage of rioters to them so they could use it to identify criminals. Video from cars is a logical next step. As more people now have compelling evidence, the police and courts need to make it easier for witnesses to use it.”
Yet to many people the growth in the use of cameras to capture the misdemeanours of others is unsettling. Critics say it is creating a climate of fear, where even minor mistakes are recorded by an invisible army of curtain twitchers. “If this is being used to catch serious offenders then it is a good thing, which will keep our roads safer,” says Paul Watters of the AA. “The problem is if everyone is spying on everyone else you could see a flood of prosecutions and fines for relatively minor misdemeanours or genuine mistakes.
The latest Home Office figures reveal that there are 4,675 dedicated traffic officers on roads in England and Wales, down 4% from last year, when there were 4,868. “There is virtually no chance of a motorist being dealt with by a police officer at the side of the road nowadays,” says Alan Featherstone, assistant chief constable of Northamptonshire police before retiring four years ago to set up Police Witness. “Patrol officers don’t pull drivers over any more and traffic officers are restricted to motorways and dual carriageways.
How do drivers who report other motorists see themselves? “I’m not a wannabe police officer,” says Warren, who drives a Volkswagen Caddy van. “I’m just fed up with being cut up and seeing dangerous driving. If I was a vigilante, I would have reported dozens of drivers by now for speeding or minor mistakes. But I’ve only reported the one driver: he could have killed someone if they had been waiting in the middle of the road to turn right.
“If the cameras make these drivers think that they might get caught if they drive dangerously, then that’s fantastic.”
2) Everyone’s a Parking Warden – for a fee
Any member of the public will be able to set themselves up as a parking warden, report drivers breaking the rules and take a cut of ticket revenue by using a new app.
The Spot Squad app, which is being produced by a team of Canadian software developers, will be launched in Britain next year and could land thousands of drivers with parking charges initiated by fellow motorists.
The app, which the company claims is the world’s first “crowdsourced parking control”, encourages users to send details of incorrectly parked vehicles to car park operators.
Designed for use on private land such as supermarket car parks, rather than council-operated pay-and-display bays, the app is downloaded to a phone. It allows the user to take a picture of a car that has outstayed the time on its ticket, say, or parked across two bays.
The image, along with the location of the car and its registration number, is then submitted to the car park operator. If a ticket is successfully issued and the motorist pays up, the app user can claim up to 40% of the fee.
“We came up with the idea because the on-street parking outside our office in Winnipeg is always being abused, so our customers can’t park there,” said Chris Johnson, the project director. “We wanted to harness the power of the crowd. And we are talking to parking companies in North America and Europe.”
September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Jay Leno tests the new Million Dollar McLaren
I’VE been to the Dunsfold test track in Surrey a few times, once on Top Gear as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car and now as not much of a star in a really expensive car. Not unless you keep the company of oligarchs could you describe the car I’m driving as reasonably priced. It costs more than $1m.
It is the new McLaren P1, and I am lucky enough to be the first person outside McLaren to drive it. Of course, it may help that I already have every model the company has brought out. Its iconic F1 is probably the car in my garage I would save from a fire if I had time to retrieve just one. I bought it 15 years ago. People thought I was crazy but it’s the best thing I’ve done.
Before I got my hands on the P1 I was invited to see the hybrid-power supercar being made. If you fly into or out of Heathrow you can see the company’s yin and yang-shaped headquarters just to the south. So within minutes of landing I was pulling up at the new McLaren Production Centre (MPC).
Woking may not have the same cachet as Maranello (Ferrari’s home town), but for me this is nirvana. Norman Foster designed the place, and the outside is as sleek as one of the cars made there. I cannot help but feel like a little kid whenever I come to visit.
Inside, it is as clean as a hospital: I ran my finger on the floor and licked it, just to make sure. It’s also as quiet as one. When I walked in I was the loudest thing in there. Until they fire up one of the P1s or 12Cs for a test, that is. It’s then you realise this place is truly alive and inhabited by people whose role in life is to create automotive genius.
Jay Leno becomes the first person outside McLaren to drive the P1
Production of the P1 is starting now and McLaren will be making one a day until 375 are built. The P1 is not constructed on an assembly line. The car is handmade in a space where 61 technicians build it from start to finish in 24 steps. It’s a space-age construction process executed with old-fashioned British military precision.
You see the detail that goes into the P1. McLaren has taken technology from its Formula One team, as you might expect. The brakes, which are made by the Japanese specialist Akebono, are mirrored, and not for the image — they dissipate heat more effectively than standard carbon discs. Everything on the car is there only for performance.
The P1 has an “instant power assist system”, a development of the Kers setup used on F1 cars that uses kinetic energy from braking to regenerate the battery and give an instant boost of power at the push of a button.
The rear wing on the new McLaren apparently not only generates the same downforce as if a baby elephant were sitting on it but also features a drag reduction system. That means — as with an F1 vehicle — it is flattened at high speed and is more angled at lower velocities, for cornering downforce.
Weight is a car’s greatest enemy. Another automotive icon from these isles, Colin Chapman of Lotus, was a master at defining British sports cars as the ones that handled best, partially thanks to low weight. On the P1 everything is as light as possible. I picked up a seat waiting to be fitted: it was lighter than a small bag of groceries.
The balance of the P1 is crucial. The fuel tank and battery array — two of the heaviest items — are right behind the radiator in the middle of the car. The only weight the McLaren folk cannot control in the P1 is that of the humans inside it. I am sure they would if they could. Mind you, they did offer me a largish lunch before the short helicopter shuttle down to Dunsfold and the real reason I’d come to the UK — to actually drive the car.
Two pre-production P1s were parked like Spitfires ready for battle as I landed at the old Second World War airbase. One was a blackish purple, the other yellow and black. The latter was my plaything for the afternoon.
My instructor is Chris Goodwin, McLaren’s chief test driver. Some say he once drove round Dunsfold in a white racing suit and helmet. The first thing you notice about the P1 is that it drives like a 12C on steroids. Everything is pumped up. The sound especially. In the P1 you’ve got bigger turbochargers, so the wastegates pop off, which I rather like. Pachow! Pachow!
The brakes are incredible; the level of grip is incredible — it just holds the road. The electronic aids are also phenomenal but they don’t ruin the driver’s input. In Race mode the suspension drops by about 2in. The rear wing can extend by up to 1ft, maximising the downforce. What you cannot see but you can feel is active aerodynamics on the front axle.
The thing I like about McLaren is it makes proper street cars you can take to the racetrack. And this has probably the most dramatic change from Normal setting to Track mode of any car I’ve seen. You feel it just hunker down. It drops I don’t know how many millimetres but you feel the whole thing tighten up. It’s a bit like watching Bruce Banner transform into the Hulk. The whole thing starts bursting out of its shirt and your power seems as though it’s up by a third.
The obvious question is: how does it compare with the F1? And the answer is that it makes you realise that the F1 is a totally different car from a totally different era. The P1 does 0-62mph in less than three seconds, which is the benchmark for a supercar these days. McLaren claims it will go to 186mph in less than 17 seconds — more than five seconds quicker than my F1 road car.
Leno cruises around the Top Gear test track
Although it has a lower top speed, you actually seem to go way faster in this machine than in the F1. You also feel as though this new McLaren can save you. Nothing saves you in the F1. The P1 feels solid. There’s no scuttle shake, no rumbling through the chassis, nothing fidgeting through the steering wheel. It’s an amazing car.
And the one I’m in is not even finished. It is a prototype, so none of the switchgear is in place and you see some wires hanging and some labels on things. Yet it’s still incredibly tight, and mechanically it’s perfect. After I’d been beating the P1 up all day long, the temperature had not risen one degree. The brakes hadn’t overheated a bit.
When you are done driving like Jenson Button you can choose the electric setting, or E mode. The noise subsides, but still you can break the speed limit by some margin and lap fast enough to pull some Gs. I don’t think anybody would know this was a hybrid car if you didn’t tell them. Or if they did not hear you whistling by in near-silence. The clever thing about McLaren’s hybrid system is it drives direct into the block, so it’s like a supercharger running through the system.
Hybrid just seems a progressive way to go. I mean, you get the best of both worlds. You have countries that are actually banning supercars because they pollute too much, and it probably won’t be long until some city centres ban vehicles that put out a certain amount of emissions.
Well, with this car, you put it in E mode and you can drive down to the centre of town just as if it were a Toyota Prius. It’s proof that a hybrid car doesn’t have to be a compromise.
I get out of the P1 with reluctance — I have just discovered this is my new favourite supercar. But Dunsfold closes at 5pm and we are already past that. The only reason I am not inconsolable is that I have bought a P1 — in yellow and black, like this one.
It arrives in Los Angeles early next year, and I can’t wait to get back behind the wheel. Like my F1, I think it will hold my interest for ever.
And my 12C? I think that will become the wife’s car now.
October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
We are trying to work through one of the main f lashpoints between myself and Raymond, which is, basically, that he always wants to be on my computer — a thing of great beauty with a huge screen — at exactly the same time as I want to be on it. When I ask him to get off it, he refuses. I then lose my temper and start shouting at him. As this happens on a daily basis, I feel angry and cross almost constantly, which is not great.
“Right,” says Kitty, “let’s start. You be Raymond and I’ll be you.”
“You’re going to be me, Mum,” Raymond says, obviously enjoying every minute of this.
I start by logging in to Facebook and looking at all my friend’s updates. “Coolio,” I mutter to myself. Then Kitty hoves in to view. “It’s time to get off the computer, Raymond,” she says, standing at my shoulder, which is exactly what I do. I know she is talking to me, but I am so engrossed in Facebook that I find I don’t care.
Teenage tantrums We need To talk about Raymond
I can’t help but think it’s my fault. Did I not show him enough love? Maybe I worked too hard. But I try constantly to keep the channels of communication open between us; it’s just that he doesn’t seem to want to communicate with me.
So I have asked for help, which is how I have ended up sitting on a low chair, staring at a computer in front of me and trying to ignore Kitty Hagenbach, who is a trained psychotherapist and member of the renowned Babiesknow team that runs specialised and highly effective parenting classes. She is playing me. Raymond is watching us from the sofa.
“No,” I say mutinously. “I am not getting off this computer.”
“Raymond,” says Kitty, her voice rising ominously, “if you don’t get off the computer, I am going to get angry with you.” Me: “I don’t care. I don’t care.” “Raymond,” says Kitty warningly, “if you don’t get off that computer . . .”
But I am not listening now. I am in full Raymond mode. All I hear is white noise. I can see that she is growing increasingly angry. The f lailing shouting woman in front of me looks as if she has lost her mind and she’s getting in the way of my computer screen. I decide I will ignore her.
“Right,” Kitty says eventually, having gone increasingly red in the face, “that doesn’t work really, does it?” She looks at me and she is obviously back to being Kitty again. I stop being Raymond. “How did you feel?” she asks.
“I couldn’t have cared less about anything you said,” I say.
“Owned!” says Raymond triumphantly. “That’s just how I feel!”
“You’re just not hearing her, are you, Raymond?” she asks him.
“No,” he says, smiling as if he has been, somehow, vindicated.
Kitty turns to me. “You have to change what you are doing,” she says.
October 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
After secondary education at Buckhaven High School, he became an apprentice pharmacist with Boots in Cupar, eschewing the opportunity to study mathematics at Edinburgh University. His ambitions at that time were to work in retail pharmacy but, having completed his apprenticeship, in 1944, he entered the BSc course in chemistry and pharmacy at the Royal Technical College in Glasgow where he won every undergraduate prize open to him and graduated with first class honours.Jack became an assistant lecturer in experimental pharmacology in the University of Glasgow, having turned down an offer to study for a PhD. He joined Glaxo Laboratories in 1951 as a pharmacist where his main role was to formulate new products and supervise their transfer to production. But he found this work repetitive and unfulfilling and in 1953 moved to Smith Kline and French as senior development pharmacist while at the same time studying for an external PhD at Chelsea College under the supervision of Professor Arnold Beckett (obituary, Feb 10, 2010).His exceptional research potential was easily recognised and in 1961 he was invited to become director of research and development at Allen & Hanburys, whose parent company was Glaxo. There, he created the unusually productive team which he deemed necessary to achieve his ambitions of inventing medicines to treat important human diseases, a venture new to the Glaxo group at that time.Remarkably, in the same small corner of West Fife in 1924, two clinical scientists were born who invented medicines which have had an overwhelming influence on world health. Their career paths were different but the end results were equally impressive. Jack was responsible for inventing drugs to treat asthma and to prevent it (salbutamol salmeterol, beclamethasone, fluticasone) while Sir James Black (obituary, Mar 24, 2010) invented drugs to treat angina and hypertension (propranolol) and peptic ulcer (cimetidine). Both were giants of drug discovery to whom society owes a great debt.Allen & Hanburys already had a steroid skin cream and it was argued that similar steroids could benefit asthma sufferers by damping down inflammation in the lungs.
April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
My parents once drove the family back from the south of France in a clapped-out VW, back seats down to make room for the handy double ceramic sink they’d picked up in Toulouse. I sat on the draining board, a toddler curled up in the rinser, with the others squeezed alongside in nylon sleeping bags. None of us wore seat belts. The car broke down. It started up again and kept going, but only as long as we didn’t stop. This journey was not atypical, nor was the holiday itself (camping in an ex-army tent without an attached ground sheet). My parents were not considered bad parents or dangerous drivers. This was the 1970s.
Among people who survived 1970s parenting and are now parents themselves, there’s a divide between those who look back and shudder and the “it never did me any harm” mantra of a growing band of retro-rearers. Their views were confirmed by a recent study which found that, despite water shortages, inflation peaking at 23% and widespread strikes, 1976 was the best year to be a child in Britain, thanks largely to a heatwave and parents with more time to enjoy it with their kids.
Nowadays, with widespread frustration at state regulation, conflicting advice from parenting “experts” and the shattering of the old job-for-life securities, it’s no wonder that 1970s-style parenting seems to be making a comeback.
It’s now uncool to be seen to be too health-and-safety-conscious; far sexier to aspire to cycle-helmet-eschewing bohemia. The most popular play dates are with families that have perilously high treehouses, half-supervised by parents who don’t ban toy guns (“Boys will be boys”). There’s a yearning for risk and adventure.
I know parents who travelled across India on a moped, kids squished between them. They made it seem glamorous, rather than dangerous. One of the most laid-back — and happy — mothers I know recently bought her four-year-old a penknife. As Bear Grylls — the retro-rearer poster boy — says: “If you mollycoddle kids, you disempower them.” There’s a growing recognition that children, especially boys, have feral instincts that cannot be channelled by the chess club. Helicoptering over them doesn’t help.
The retro-rearer mum is the antithesis of the tiger mum, although even she struggles to let go completely. Her primary concern is her child’s happiness and she will let her child develop at their own pace, as long as they don’t fall too far behind. (Maths tuition is complemented by heavy investment in guitar and singing lessons — she’s got a hunch she’s given birth to the new Florence Welch.) She views Ofsted as sinisterly Orwellian, although she will move house or find God to get the kids into an “outstanding” school — especially now the family has embraced the state sector because it can no longer afford private school fees. The dream would be a Scandinavian-style “forest school”, where lessons take place outside and curriculums are child-led. As Steve Jobs said, the future’s in creative thinking.The most popular play dates are with families who have treehouses, half-supervised by parents who don’t ban toy guns
You’ll spot her photogenic progeny chaotically piled into a prang-scraped VW Transporter eating bags of Haribo (“Anything to keep them quiet”). You’ll see them wandering around festivals such as Latitude and Port Eliot, half-naked, caked in mud, looking for parents who have been distracted by someone saying something fascinating about grammar and ukuleles in the Idler tent. Their under-10s all resemble the McCartney children circa 1978.
It’s not the 1970s, thank goodness. Whereas real 1970s parenting was about putting the grown-ups first and letting the kids get on with it, retro-rearing is arguably modern self-conscious parenting in a different guise. We all desperately want to do the right thing, and the most laid-back parent today can only ever take a 1970s-lite approach, because what is acceptable, and legal, has changed.
Forty years ago, nobody would raise an eyebrow if you topped the cot with chicken wire to stop a baby climbing out — “It’s for their own safety!” Now, you would have social services knocking on your door. Back then, 23% of pregnant women boozed regularly, according to a recent survey, and 77% of parents also smacked their kids. Again, not something we want to emulate, not when it’s far more effective to confiscate their Nintendo DS.
The pressures on mothers are arguably greater now. If you’re working, there’s only so long you can nurture “creative play” (fighting, trashing the house) without losing it and ordering them to watch telly so you can catch up on your emails. Perhaps we’re also more conformist than we like to think. We may have a Jamie Reid Sex Pistols print on the wall, but we’ll be bringing out the Union Jack bunting for the jubilee, and we have this crush on Prince Harry. As for our kids? Just as ungrateful as we were. They still roll their eyes when you ask them what they did at school. And they still moan on long car journeys, even though they don’t have to share the car with a sink. They don’t know they’re born.