Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sufjan Stevens - All the Trees of the Field will clap their Hands


I love this song, okay? It always reminds me of chapel in school as the light streamed through the stained glass windows and I concentrated on that instead of the sermons. Most of all it reminds me of trundling along across the Pennines on a train.

The Great Anti-Anti-GMO Rant

Ah, GMOs, those things what sound scary and probably cause cancer. Also Monsanto. Down with Frankenfoods!

Okay, I'll just say this now: I'm sick and tired of unscientific - indeed antiscientific - scaremongering about genetically modified organisms. I am sick of people calling genetically modified foods "frankenfoods" and implying they cause cancer. I am sick of the idea that all non-GM food is "natural".

Why I'm actually sick of all these things goes beyond mere pedantry, as I'll explain later. But first, some lovely disparate sections...

Monsanto
I'll let you in on something not-so-secret here: I hate Monsanto and their business practices, particularly with respect to patents (trying to patent DNA is really, really scary and has serious ethical consequences). However, Monsanto and genetic modification are separate, just as medical science and Big Pharma are separate.

Oh, wait. There are actually people who don't separate medical science and Big Pharma, and whose peddling of fear gets children killed.

Fuck everything.

If you are one of those people, I probably won't convince you without these issues affecting you personally. So let me just say that a research field and the way companies use that research may be connected, but they are different things, and that your inability or unwillingness to recognise that means that people die of preventable conditions. In other words: your pigheadedness is killing people. I hope you have a problem with that.

Natural foods
A lot of people who are against genetically modifying food consider it unnatural.

If you believe this, I hate to break it to you, but...neither is most of the food we eat. In terms of human lifespans, this is not something new. We have domesticated plants and animals for thousands of years. Our crops have been selectively bred so that they rely on humans for reproduction and dissemination. Our domesticated animals have been selectively bred to have more juvenile traits (so they are more docile) and to be more fertile. Without human intervention, several plant and animal species would not exist as we know them today (if at all).

No, selective breeding is not the same as directly manipulating an organism's genome. But either way, you're trying to change some organism's DNA for your own purposes. This is hardly natural. Domestication is not natural. Stop pushing the idea that unnatural food is bad when most of the food on your plate has been selectively and unnaturally bred (hello, seedless watermelons) over thousands of years, unless you want to completely forsake all GM and domesticated food. (I don't recommend doing this. It's hard. There's a reason people started domesticating organisms.)

Genetic modification is everywhere
A lot of the anti-GM brigade rail against "frankenfoods", seemingly without knowing that we have franken-everything. Somehow, the world hasn't been taken over by glowing E. coli yet.

Yes, you heard that right - glowing E. coli. You can genetically modify bacteria to make them glow in the dark (theoretically, you can modify the DNA of any creature to make it glow in the dark; in practice, you need approval from an ethics committee). Biology undergraduates are taught to do this all over the world.

And those glow-in-the-dark creatures I mentioned before? Yeah, scientists are using them to study deadly conditions like HIV/AIDS (well, technically the glow-in-the-dark cats are being used to study FIV, which is the feline equivalent).

This is without going into how A. thaliana is regularly used as a model organism in genetic engineering experiment, along with fruit flies. Somehow we still haven't been taken over by muta-plants, giant flies and glow-in the-dark megafauna. (I don't know why I made them megafauna. Megafauna are really, really cool.)

Finally, genetic engineering has been used to mass-produce medications, from insulin to human growth hormone to vaccines and much more. Without genetic engineering, medication would be more expensive than it already is and far more scarce, drastically reducing people's quality of life and increasing the number of deaths from preventable conditions.

"You're a corporate shill!"
Oh, this old cliché...this comes out whenever you're arguing with one of those anti-science tinfoil-hatted goons. There's no possibility of you actually having studied the science or anything, oh no. You must be in the pay of Monsanto or Big Pharma or whatever the evil company of the week is.

Honestly, I'd love for someone to pay me to write shit on the internet. I'm a broke student and I could use that money for actual food and rent, or for saving up to juggle the utility bills in my new place, or for buying new shoes since the soles on the pairs I've had for 3 years are coming off, or for donating to a worthy cause, or...well, you get the picture. As it is, I do this for free in my spare time. Monsanto, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and the rest probably don't even know I exist. If they did, I've been critical of them in the past. I think they can find better shills than me.

Why do I do this?
And finally we get to the bit I said I was going to do: beyond academic nitpicking, why do I care? Don't I have a life? As a student, I'm supposed to be studying in the hope that those thousands of pounds weren't a waste of money, or else living it up and getting so pissed on nights out that I end up in a different country. Blogging about GMOs is...well...neither.

Okay, here's the thing. I'd rather not be doing this. I'd rather live in a world where everyone has access to a good scientific education.

Unfortunately, we don't live in that world. Given that I've got the knowledge and the access, I consider it my responsibility to talk about science and spread access to that information so that I can create that world. And I want to create that world because ignorance and misinformation kill.

Genetic modification is everywhere, from the first-year biology labs to researching conditions that we still have difficulty treating and everywhere in between. Genetic engineering helps improve people's qualities of life, thanks to being able to mass-produce medications, and could help us feed the world (along with not wasting so much food along every bit of the supply line - that would really help). Trying to stop it all now would set back research several decades. Supplies of medicines and vaccines would run low and be a hell of a lot less reliable - and after the measles outbreaks recently I don't think anyone really wants a repeat. Oh, and that whole feeding-the-world thing might get a bit more difficult.

And this doesn't just irritate me from an academic point of view, it makes me angry. It makes me angry that some affluent suburban types obsessed with a romantic and utterly unrealistic ideal of what is "natural" think that because they have a problem with things they've never so much as thought of researching beyond looking at clickbait or (god forbid) NaturalNews, they can try and turn the clock back by decades.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that setting back research and fucking with production of food, medicine and vaccines will kill millions of people? Because, you know, that's what happens when it's suddenly more difficult to source crops to feed people, or medicines to treat people's illnesses, or vaccines to give them immunity from some of those illnesses, and when developing new treatments gets that much slower.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea that millions of people have to die just because someone doesn't like the idea of "strange genes" in their food and doesn't know that most of the stuff they eat is unnatural anyway. In fact, it makes me burn with rage.

And that's why I talk about things like this. Because every time someone debunks NaturalNews nonsense or points out that GMOs are perfectly safe, that threat gets pushed back. Sometimes we even get people to change their minds based on the evidence, which is pretty awesome. Don't get me wrong, the woo brigade aren't the only threat to good science, but they're a powerful threat and easier to deal with than the big corporations trying to twist science for profit.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

An Enemy of the Britain!

So yesterday I did something political that didn't just involve shouting on the internet, for the first time in nearly two years, by going to the May Day festivities in Manchester. I've not been politically active due to a combination of (over)work, disillusionment and psychological difficulties, which makes me feel guilty. Plus I wanted to get out of the house and avoid revising myself to death.

(The title refers to someone on facebook spitting blood at the thought of Labourites for being too left-wing and labelling them "an enemy of the Britain [sic]". I like laughing at vitriol making native English speakers forget their own language and I like laughing at people who are so frightened of anyone having opinions that differ from their own that they have to label dissenters as traitors. Plus if even relatively inoffensive concepts like "xenophobia is bad" make me an enemy of Britain, well, I'd hate to be an ally...)

At first I was sceptical; TUSC on twitter has a rather unglorious history of palling around with the kind of hateful, tinfoil-hatted weirdos who think Jews control everything (I actually kind of liked them at first as far as you can like any political party, until I found out about that). I actually left the last rally I went to in tears because people were attacking me for my nationality (I'm Israeli and British and questions of identity are complicated) and to this day I habitually lie about where I'm from. I sometimes think about changing my name to something more English so people stop bugging me about where I'm really from. This brings me onto fear: apart from the aforementioned incident, I've had anxiety attacks on marches, been sexually harassed by leftists, and had other general unpleasant stuff happen to me that made me reluctant to plunge myself into a similar environment. Plus...well...I'm not in a union. I'm a wanky student swanning around pretending to do a degree and I have mental health problems that interfere with my ability to function. I don't like encroaching on other people's spaces.

So I did what any weirdo worth their salt does and checked who was going to the event on facebook. I counted at least three students from my university. Worth a shot! (I didn't see any of them in the end...)

...I actually very nearly didn't go. My anxiety has been getting worse in the run-up to exams and this morning I felt a sickening tightness in my chest at the thought of encroaching on someone else's space and potentially having another awful experience.

I managed to push through it. I'm glad I did.

First Impressions
Well, having to go on my phone halfway walking up Princess Street to look at a map was kind of embarrassing...Oh well. I found the Mechanics Institute and the weird little side entrance that you're supposed to use that looks nearly unusable due to roadworks and managed to screw up enough courage to ask people where I was going. It helped that I saw people in "no TTIP" shirts - to be honest I was expecting more angry, noisy protesters from the march.

I was actually expecting a lot more anger in general, to be honest; I've grown used to hanging around people who are perpetually angry at everything and that was part of my aversion to doing politics. I hate the performative aspect of it and I hate feeling on edge and judged. Instead, everyone seemed quite friendly and mellow.

Well, you do mellow out with age I guess - most of the people there were middle-aged, as befits unionised workers I suppose. I've always associated activism with something people my age do, though I'm used to being one of the youngest at rallies and occupations and things. Don't get me wrong, people my age are politically active, but they're probably far more radical and steeped in theory than I am...I am a confused person with a pitiful theoretical background that I really need to improve upon, just trying to make sense of the world around me with the tools I have at my disposal. Everyone also seemed to know each other, which I wasn't expecting.

Stop TTIP!
I stayed behind for the Stop TTIP talk. I find TTIP itself quite difficult to understand due to its secrecy and the fact that I suck at economics and so haven't been involved in the anti-TTIP movements. This is probably the main stumbling block to people voicing opposition to TTIP, to be frankly honest - well, that and the fact that most of TTIP is secret. Considering that as a US-EU free trade deal millions of people will be affected, that's hardly a good sign.

Frankly, it sounds like a capitalist's wet dream: it hands a lot of power to big businesses at the expense of governments. Now, I don't believe governments are benevolent, but I don't think businesses have the best interests of anything but their balance sheets at heart (I mean, come on, companies like Philip Morris are not really working in the interests of public health). People sounded positive about the fightback but governments seem to be listening to themselves and to money above all. Getting more economic clout than multinationals is going to be...difficult, to say the least.

Great Big Balls of Steel
I popped out for a lunch break because I was shaking with hunger by this point. Afterwards, I went to a protest songwriting session - the thing that had made me want to come along in the first place. I absolutely love to sing and if I can turn what I'm good at doing into something vaguely useful, then I will.

I knew we were writing for a choir and actors, but given that we were doing a pop-up performance of sorts, I had no idea whether the choir and actors were decided on the day. Nobody knew. So I asked the choir director and I don't think I should have been able to join, but she might have been too flummoxed by my request to refuse.

Lesson learned - ask and ye shall receive!

We Shall Overcome!
We spent the next 2 hours struggling to write a protest song. After grumpily agreeing that economic inequality sucks, trying to think of solutions sort of hit a dead end...

...Everyone agreed to wanting the Tories out. Taxing the rich more and cutting benefit sanctions also had widespread support, albeit with reservations about how to make sure those taxes would be spent well. More radical solutions hung heavy over my head, although discussing fundamental systemic change is the kind of thing that makes most people (OK, my parents) think you're crazy.

Every group contributed a verse to our song and when we put it together with the scenes the result was rough around the edges, but great fun to perform. It was even better when we fed off the audience's reactions and left me feeling tired but hopeful.

Final Thoughts
Although I felt really happy to be there and to get back into doing something vaguely political, I still have some final loose ends to tie up.

Firstly, not all politically active people are wankers! Okay, lots of them are, but lots of them are not. Secondly, politically active people are not unicorns. A charge that often gets levelled against anyone right-wingers consider "socialist" (so basically not them) is that they live in a bubble or are divorced from the ordinary world. The people I met were not feckless students (not that students are feckless, but people say that about us a lot) or clueless rich folk: they were ordinary people. I would like to stress that the vast majority of politically active people, no matter their position on the spectrum or the compass or whatever metric you like to use, are pretty ordinary. This is at once inspiring and scary.

Thirdly, we all need to be talking to each other more. I bang on about this with humans and with machines because lack of communication impairs the functioning of any system. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge and it is only by working together that we can fill in those gaps.

However, there are a hell of a lot of problems in trying to talk to each other more. Firstly, while most people left of centre agree that things like poverty, inequality and bigotry are bad things, we disagree about what to do about them. There is a real risk of only being able to agree on the most inoffensive solutions - which are usually likely to be reformist stopgaps. For some people that is enough. Some people want deeper structural change. I am one of the "get rid of everything and start anew" group. And we need some reasonably objective way to work out who is right, otherwise we'll always have people arguing about whether systemic change is necessary or not and we'll never be able to agree on anything other than the least controversial proposals. This is without going into creating an atmosphere that welcomes radical ideas and without trying to solve the problem of everyone left of centre seeing everyone else as the enemy.

Secondly, in building any broad coalition, which itself is controversial because everyone fundamentally disagrees with everyone's worldview and methods (this is more than a little simplistic, but my eyes desperately want to shut), you're going to get weird bigots. The first question to ask is: do we want weird bigots working with us? They provide added numbers and influence, but is it really worth it to be giving a free pass to prejudice and hate under the banner of fairness? I don't think it is, but that's a question for everyone to make their own minds up on.

The third problem is time pressure. In less than a week we will have a new government and the process of sorting out who's going to join forces with who to rule the country is going to be a mess of politicians going back and forth on everything they've said during election season. Quite a lot of things could happen, not all of them necessarily conducive to long, leisurely conferences. So as much as I want to get everyone talking to each other, I also recognise that we need people to be acting quickly now. I trust that they are doing so.

There is every hope and possibility of trying to unite people instead of having several different groups all fighting each other. But there are a hell of a lot of challenges to overcome in doing so and we face great pressure.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Lamenting Stupidity

It is fashionable, particularly in pseudointellectual circles, to lament the decline of society (perhaps the decline of your country's society, or the decline of society in general). This is usually tied up with much weeping and gnashing of teeth over how stupid people these days are.

I've got to say that this kind of lamentation doesn't exactly make you look smart. It mostly makes you look like an elitist asshole with a superiority complex, and while some intelligent people are like that a lot of them have better things to do than sit around complaining - I'll get onto this later. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't go through an elitist pseud phase, but I'd like to think that I grew out of it. I realised that I was an absolutely insufferable prick and that nobody really wanted to be around me except other insufferable pricks, which is not really a brilliant track record, but more to the point I realised that complaining doesn't actually get anything done.

At this point, everyone who isn't utterly naive about the world and its ways will sigh and roll their eyes. It is absolutely trivial that complaining doesn't get anything done. It is also disgustingly solution-based, which some people have a problem with. Unfortunately for them, my head is filled with physics, maths, engineering and other problem-solving disciplines.

So let's say that for whatever reason you believe the vast majority of people are stupid. From my perspective, why you believe these things is out of my field; I'm not a psychologist.

Do you believe this is a bad thing? If you're complaining about it, almost certainly.

Know this. Know that people can and do change over time. Know that you can get through to (most) of them.

Know that the problem you are complaining about is fixable. And know that you can help fix it by doing something as simple as pointing people to a website, as simple as copying and pasting a link. You don't have to sacrifice your life and goals to help out a bit in this world.

"But it's not my job to educate people!" you might say indignantly. "I have enough going on just trying to live without having to answer everyone's stupid, basic questions!"

It's not my job either. Although I entertain ideas of going into science communication, for the moment talking about science is my hobby. It's something I do when I'm not doing my degree. It's something I squeeze in amidst the mess that is my life.

I don't do it because it's my job. I do it because I consider it my responsibility to share the knowledge I have been privileged to access, in the hope that maybe one day everyone will be able to share in this knowledge and resources. I do it because someone's got to pick up the slack and confront the woeful scientific illiteracy in our society. I do it because if everyone decided that if educating people wasn't their job, we wouldn't so much as have resources to google, let alone people answering complex questions.

In short - and I know I sound like a self-righteous prick saying this - I do my best to educate other people because I truly, deeply and sincerely believe that it's the right thing to do.

I recognise that the physical sciences are relatively apolitical and that other subjects are far more charged. I also recognise that I am speaking from a position of great privilege. But there are people who are more privileged than me who lament stupidity and yet do nothing about their perceived problem. To them I say: if you think there is a problem, you have the power to fix it.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Reduction

People make me sad.

People make me really, really sad.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one thing making me sad right now (yes, just one, I'm not going to go into too many details right now) is reduction. And you might be wondering why that makes me sad. After all, this is coming from the same person who describes hairbrushes as wavefunctions and humans as balls of cells.

Yeah, guilty as charged. I'm a hypocrite.

For some reason, it leaves an awfully sick taste in my mouth that you can sum up a person's character in the following details:

  • which arbitrary set of borders they grew up within
  • which arbitrary set of borders they were born within
  • their gender(s)
  • their sexuality
People are not inherently bland. They are not interesting solely by virtue of being born in a place you consider "exotic" or something like that. To treat someone as being interesting only because of their nationality or their race or their gender, to reduce them to just that in your eyes, is demeaning and humiliating.

People are interesting for their quirks, their reactions, their passions, their mysteries, their unknowns, the way they crack up at little things and develop complex in-jokes, the things that excite them and make them happy and make them laugh, for the things you have to find out in more than just a potted summary. People are most interesting when you can't describe them.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Useless

The universe is useless.

Half of the people reading this think I'm wrong, half of them think that this is trivial, and the other half don't have a clue what I'm on about.

I am fully aware that this makes three halves.

Anyway, the universe is pretty damn purposeless. It doesn't exist for any grand, high-flown moralistic reason that we can work out; it just is. Because of (as far as we can tell) a Big Bang. Everything in it is just about as purposeless and useless, from galaxies to stars all the way down to us. The universe couldn't give a shit about human concepts like morality and purpose and so far all this is brain-bleedingly trivial so you might be wondering where I'm going with this.

Anyway, we're purposeless, useless beings living in a purposeless, useless universe and somehow I feel like out of 7 billion useless primates I'm the most useless of all.