Friday, 8 June 2018

If you have the M C 4 R gene
When you grow you'll be fat and not lean
A drug li_rag_glu_tide
Your excess weight will hide
And you'll eat much less food as a teen

The Melanocortin 4 Receptor (MC4R) is a key regulator of body weight. People with genetic mutations tend to gain weight from early childhood. The main clinical feature in MC4R deficiency is hyperphagia (an increased drive to eat) as well as impaired satiety (not feeling full after a meal).

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Trapped by the Banks - How accessible is your money?

We are becoming increasingly dependent on online banking. In the small town where I live there were three banks three years ago. HSBC was the first to close and the building is now a restaurant. Barclays closed their bank last year and the building is still empty. In a couple of weeks time NatWest closes its doors for the last time. While there will be cash machines at the local supermarket and the Post Office (with its already long queues) is likely to remain, anyone wanting a bank will have to travel at least 5 miles or be forced to go online.
Of course, when everything is working smoothly, online banking can be very convenient, and using credit and debit cards means you rarely need cash, except for the most trivial purchases. But of course the real world is a complex place and things do not always work as planned.
Yesterday there was a problem with Visa cards all across Europe - where attempted payments were being refused. As one hungry customer complained on twitter "Just had my card declined at McDonald. Went out fuming like a  panda only to be turned down by KFC too. Who knew that Visa had so much control on our hard earned cash." At supermarkets customers with a full trolley of goods were having to leave empty-handed - but it was the retailer who had the real problems at restaurants and petrol stations as the customer had already got the goods before it was discovered they were unable to pay. There were also problems at the Severn Bridge where drivers were unable to pay the toll fees. Another complication was that cash machines were still working and so many people rushed to get cash that many of the machines ran out of money.
Visa processes most of the debit cards for a wide range of banks, and it seems that the cause of the fault was comparatively simple. When a customer wants to make a payment the retailer's machine send a message to a Visa computer to check that the  payment is valid and then send a message back. Due to a hardware fault the message was not being sent back correctly so the retailer's machine rejected the transaction. What is not clear to me is whether the money transaction went through - and the customer was charged and retailer paid before the corrupted "transaction OK" message was sent out. I am sure we will hear more of this ...
The TSB problem is very different. Basically TSB continued to use (and pay for) Lloyds Bank online system since it was purchased by its current owner, the Spanish bank Sabadell.  It would appear that TSB planned to bring in new software to provide their own system and to make the changeover from the old to the new overnight. However modern banking systems are very complicated and the major problem is in testing any such a major changeover to ensure that there are no serious bugs, As I know from my own experiences 50 years ago this is no trivial matter if you are running batch applications, where the same transactions can be run through the old and new systems to spot any problems. It is very much harder with online systems, particularly when something starts to go wrong and thousands of angry customers try every damned option to try and get their transaction to go through - or to report problems via the phone when there is a long queue of other angry customers.  In fact the continuing problems seem to suggest a number of very different failures - some of which, relating to security, may be design errors which cannot be quickly fixed. 
I am sure we will be hearing more about the causes of the TSB problems - but it will undoubtedly raise a general problem associated with computers and software - which I face in a very much smaller and unimportant way myself. My Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site is maintained using the Microsoft package Frontpage - and Microsoft support ended for this package in about 2004 and it will not run under Windows 10. It would be very nice to migrate my web site to use other much more up-to-date software but the cost of moving it makes such an upgrade prohibitive. The problem TSB had was orders or magnitude greater than the one I face but is one which will be faced by more and more large companies who are currently relying on old and out-of-date software that works but which really needs a major upgrade or total replacement. Many such companies will look at what the current problems are costing TSB and seriously wondering whether they can run the risk of introducing completely new and, in theory, better systems.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Bonobo Midwives

They have noticed the bonobo's girth
And they know what a friendship is worth
So the midwives come round
Good advice they expound
And they help, with great care, at the birth

My research means I am always interested in the social life of animals and how it relates to how our own species behaves.  This week's limerick is based on the behaviour of bonobos when one of them is giving birth. Birth is clearly a social event where female attendants provide protection and support for the mother-to-be, including manual gestures directed at holding the infant as it is born.
I was alerted to this in an article in this week's New Scientist based on the paper "Is birth attendance a uniquely human feature? New evidence suggests that Bonobo females protect and support the parturient" by Elisa Demumu et al in Evolution & Human Behaviour.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Tides will get bigger over the next 10 million years

This week's New Scientist has an article "Tides will rise for the next million years" and I was moved to write another science-oriented limerick.

The Altantic's three thousand miles wide
And America westward will slide
And I have to divulge
That the size of the bulge
Will result in a much higher tide.

Several very different things are involved.

The science of continental drift tells us that the North Atlantic is getting wider by just over a centimetre a year.
The tides are caused as a result of the gravitational pull of the moon. This means that the part of the sea nearest to the moon is attracted by the moon to form a bulge. One the other side of the Earth the Earth is pulled away from sea, creating a matching bulge.

Because the Earth rotates the bulges move round the world once a day, causing the tides. This bulge can be considered to be a wave moving across the Atlantic and it has a particular wave length.

Resonance then comes into play - rather like a huge musical instrument whene the there is a relationship between the wavelength of the note and the length of the string or pipe generating the sound. The tidle bulge has a wave length and the size of the tides (equivalent to the loudness of the note) depends on the size of the boxslowly gets wider tha amplicifcation of the tides due to resonance will get bigger. However when the Atlantic gets even wider the resonance will decrease and the height of the tide will fall.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Is there a significant difference between the way human and animal brains work?

The following essay was written as a follow up to an article by Micheal Marshall quoted in the Futurelearn Course "Introducing Humanism"
"Ultimately, the human brain is capable of some remarkable achievements; it is also capable of a quite remarkable level of self deception. By questioning even the facts we want to be true, by striving to look for the bigger picture, and by making use of methods like tests and trials to remove as much of our bias and motivated reasoning as we can, we can find out what’s really going on. "
Michael Marshall
So let us question a deeply held belief and see where the questioning leads.
Surely everyone knows that we are more intelligent than animals. Universities all round the world have scientists studying different aspects of the human brain with more and more powerful tools to try and find out what it is - perhaps a very unusual gene - which is the source of our great intelligence. Even Michael Marshall seems to support the idea that there is something special when he says that "the human brain is capable of some remarkable achievements."

Monday, 9 April 2018

Bats, Insects and Climate Change

Say thanks to the small free-tailed bat
Who consumes both the earworm and gnat
But the climate is warming
Too soon they are swarming
And the crops in the fields will fall flat
The Scientific American has an article "Bats are migrating earlier, and it could wreck havoc on Farming" which relates to the way climate change is affecting the Mexican free-tailed bats that migrate to Bracken Cave, Texas, in vast numbers, and which eat many of the insects which are agricultural pests.
Bats are not so significant in the UK, and an article in a Devon newspaper, The Moorlander, this week, reminds me that my interest in bats dating back about 60 years. The Devon Greater Horseshoe Project is conducting a survey this summer using bat detectors to count bats as they hunt for insects. About 60 years ago I spent time actively recording and ringing hibernating Greater Horseshoe Bats in Devon - for the pioneer bat ringer, John Hooper, One of my activities involved checking some of the smaller caves and mines in the area between Buckfastleigh and Chudleigh. While I no longer live in Devon, I do visit occasionally and will be most interested to see the results of the survey.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Man's contribution to life on the planet???

In the past, coming from the abyss.
There emerged, on four legs, a small fish.
Then came ape, and then man,
Plastic pot, and tin can,
And then piles, and more piles of rubbish.

See also
Plastic patch in Pacific Ocean growing rapidly, study shows
  • 22 March 2018
Discarded fishing net in the PacificImage copyright The Ocean Cleanup
Image caption Discarded fishing nets were part of the haul
A collection of plastic afloat in the Pacific Ocean is growing rapidly, according to a new scientific estimate.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Captured by the Camera

A Winter View at College Lake, near Tring
Things have not gone as planned over the last few months and my top priority is to keep fit and relax - and what better place to do so than College Lake - and this year I will try and include some more relaxing "Captured by the Camera" shots - and forget about the horrors of Brexit and Trump.