Archive August 2010

Introducing a new blog: Southern Science aimee whitcroft Aug 31

1 Comment


go banner 3.1

Today, I introduce the first of a number of new bloggers starting over the next few months.  The Southern Genes blog, to be contributed to by a number of people from Genetics Otago, aims not only to talk about genetic science, but also to examine its effects on our society and to showcase some of the brilliant work which goes into it.

Welcome, everyone, and we look forward to all that lovely knowledge you’ll be sharing :)

Why the Caster Semenya sillyness makes me so angry aimee whitcroft Aug 24


I am, I would be the first to admit, generally pretty flippant and light-hearted in my blogging.


Caster Semenya. I dunno, but Jenny Meadows looks at least as...hardcore...ya?

Not for me the heavy-handed nor overly serious style adopted by many others.  No, I prefer that my readers have a bit of a giggle, maybe pick up some new knowledge, and go skipping off into the rest of their day.

Not today, gentle readers, not today.

Upon perusing our fine print news media this morning (in this case, the NZ Herald), I was at first nonplussed, and then furious, to see yet another article about Caster Semenya.  The female athlete who won the 800m and 1500m races in the World Championships last year and then proceeded to be paraded (unkindly, often) in front of the world, by the media.

What occasioned this treatment?  Well, she won.  By quite a margin.  Performances like hers, in any sport, do tend to raise the eyebrows of sporting officials, as they suspect foul play of some sort.  Her 800m time beat her personal best (9 months earlier) by 7 seconds, and became a national, championship and world record time.  Now, I believe that a drug test in this case is perfectly fair.  They also, however, asked her to undergo a gender test.  This was supposed to be kept confidential (gender is, after all, somewhat more personal than drug use*), but was leaked to the press.

Who proceeded to have an absolute field day with the issue but, as is so often the case, I haven’t actually heard much sense from people around me who I’ve heard discussing it (although there were a couple of decent articles at the time).  The issue died down for a while, but has raised its ugly head again, and I am once again spittingly angry at the pronouncements by so many, who know so little, on the subject.

Before I get into said debate, some facts to bear in mind.

Gender is not, as many might believe, a binary characteristic.  In fact, like so much of life, genetics and the human experience, it encases a spectrum of different possibilities.  Some examples below:

- Superfemales/supermales – These are people who have an extra sex (X/Y) chromosome.  In females, for example, it means the that the person has 3 X chromosomes**, and some women can be taller (although other potential characteristics include reduced muscle tone and clumsiness).

- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia – Occurring in 1 in 1,000 people, this refers to a series of diseases in which the genes for enzymes which are involved in making cortisol have mutated.  The outcome?  Most of the time, it changes how much sex steroids people make (either too much or too little), which can affect their development, fertility, etc

- Conditions such as AID – Androgen insensitivity syndrome is caused by mutations in the androgen (male sex hormone) receptors.  People with the condition, which also, as with most genetic disorders, varies in strength and effect, often experience some level of infertility/undervirilisation.  In people who have complete AIS, a genetically male person (XY) will present externally as a female, as androgens are responsible during development for the development of a neutral foetus into a male foetus (one might describe being female as largely default).

And the tests for gender are far from, well, seriously accurate in some cases. To explain – gender is determined by whole chromosomes full of genes.  So to figure out whether someone is genetically male of female, you’re looking for very specific bits.  Which, even if a full sequence is done, is apparently something like a fishing expedition.  Other ways to test include looking at genes elsewhere, which regulate hormone production and sit elsewhere in the genome.  But again – not exactly back and white.  Or you could look at muscle, but the same applies***!

I’m certainly not going to try and guess what, if anything, might be affecting Caster Semenya – I’m simply trying to make clear that human gender is a far, far more complicated thing than simply being a boy or a girl.

And here’s where we can start the debate.  There are certainly a number of facets, so I’m going to try not to waffle, but rather open them up for discussion.


Is this something something that should be being splayed across the media internationally?  Yes, something interesting is occurring.  And it’s not like doping, because that’s breaking the rules. Caster has broken none so far, and should be treated with a little bit of common decency (clearly, dignity is too much to ask). A lot of the complaining really does seem to have a very base, greenish tint to it…

And I thought we’d got over wanting to peer at other people in some sort of weird carnival-type fashion (especially if they didn’t consent).

Where do we draw the line?

This is the crux of it, I think.  It could be argued that most professional athletes are far from representative of the norm – like many models, they represent the far ends of the bell curve which makes up humanity.  Female athletes, for example, are likely to have started out with more androgens (male sex hormones) that their ‘normal’ counterparts, which would provide an advantage.  And we don’t moan about that.

Or, perhaps, one female athlete is taller than another – perhaps even taller than some male athletes.  Do we then tell her to compete with men? Obviously, asking shorter men to compete against women would probably still be unfair…

To give another example: Usain Bolt.  The man who made the world’s draw drop with his incredible speed, charm, and, well, that wonderful moment when he slowed down at the end of the race to show off a little.  He’s a complete freak .  Speed is made up of a mixture of how long your stride is, and how fast you can move your legs.  Bolt’s stride is unusually long (7ft or something equally incredible), and he is able to move those legs of his very fast, both of which give him that gobsmacking ability to outrun lightning.  Now, should we be saying that he can’t compete at all, since he’s basically untouchable (and going to get faster)?  I have heard not even the slightest whisper of such a suggestion.

Or, should we split athletes in classes, either instead of/in addition to splitting them by gender?

I dunno, perhaps we should do away with professional athletes completely, and just pull random people off the streets to compete.  Hmmph.

Other angles

Here’s where I bring in transhumanism, and prosthetics, and so forth.

A word on prosthetics.  Take, if you will, the case of Aimee Mullins****.  She’s a runner, and a gifted one at that.  She’s also a model, an inspirational speaker, and, oh yes, she wears prosthetic legs. And there’s Oscar Pistorius, who runs so fast on his prosthetic legs that he’s able to compete (and compete well) against able-bodied runners.

Which brings up another question: are prosthetics an unfair advantage? Should we ban their use, or have runners using them run in yet another category? Might athletes one day choose to lose limbs in favour of bionic alternatives?

That last point dips deeply into transhumanism, a subject with which I’m fascinated.  (For myself, I’d be happy to swap squishies for more advanced versions with cool features, but yes).

In conclusion

Certainly I don’t have answers, but I think we need to be very careful in the proscriptions we make – there’s much of the slippery slope about this whole issue.

And there’s no one test which will answer this question – it’s something for the judges to decide, as they figure out what constitutes female vs male. This is a matter for experts, not the the ill-informed opinions media/public debate.

Certainly, it would be nice if everyone could have a little more dignity as the decisions are made – at least as much dignity as Semenya has displayed during this time.

UPDATE: The IAAF has come to a decision on this.  Which makes the continuing media farce even more appalling.


Postscript: Let me be clear – I understand why sporting events are split into male/female, and I have no problem with it.  Oh yeah, and also: the athlete who was moaning that running against Semenya was like running against a man, finished 8th. It could be argued that it’s not Semenya getting in her way…and there’s nothing uglier than bad sportsmanship.

Further postscript: Jenny Meadows actually came out in support of Semenya last year – details of decent sportsmanship in this article.


* Particularly, and I should stress this, in countries which are not western and liberal!  Good grief, South Africa (from whence I hail) has some seriously old-school attitudes towards such things, and the poor girl’s only 19 now!

** Other names for the condition include triplo-X, trisomy X, XXX syndrome, and 47,XXX aneuploidy

*** Basically, while men and women differ in muscle strength and muscle variation, there are always going to be outliers on both sides.

**** Watch TED talks by her, here.

Cooking: where science and art already meet aimee whitcroft Aug 23


I come from an extremely foody family.


I’ve always explained it to people as follows: “you know that place in their hearts where fundamentalist religious people keep their god?  That’s where my parents keep food’.

So yes.  And I now find myself living in a particularly foody city (Wellington has, apparently, the highest number of eateries per capita in the world), and with a flatmate who is also, well, you get the point*.  And it’s Wellington on a plate at the moment.  Sigh.

Food’s something of a passion, in other words.  Also, interestingly, it’s a pretty sciencey thing: understanding the complex interactions between the ingredients and flavours can make the difference between a bad and glorious meal, or a comfortable (and creative) and nervous, disastrous cook.  I’ve experienced both of the latter over the years.

So with that in mind, I have decided to share books/papers to do with the science of cooking :)

First up! Cooking for Geeks is proudly brought to us by the guys at Maker Shed.  It will teach those interested how to calibrate their tools, the chemical reactions they need to understand, how to (properly) play with their food, and also share knowledge from those more, um, knowledgeable.  Including the xkcd guy :)


Secondly – ta da!  I’m not sure if it’s the world’s most expensive cookery book,  but it’s certainly not the cheapest.  Coming in at a cool $500 (US) and six volumes totalling 2,400 pages, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is due to be released later this year.  In addition to enlightening us about the underlying principles of cooking, it also, apparently, has very, very pretty pictures.  Which is always a happy thought.  I’m considering seeing if a few friends want to club together with me to buy it.  And then perv over it.

modernist cookingFinally, not so much a book as a paper.  I came across it earlier this year, and thought ‘Ooh!  My mum would love this this, so I should blog it!’.  This was before I realised that it’s 53 pages long, and goes into a great deal of detail on the subject of molecular gastronomy, on which a brief note.

A sublime mixture of the scientific and the tasty, the field looks at the science behind food, its preparation, and our interaction therewith.  I’m certain there have been programmes about it on the food channel – sometimes looking very test-tubey, but hey – and I think I remember strangely coloured smoke in one.  Nonetheless, despite its early treatment as something of a science sideshow, it appears to have been gaining in credibility, and usage, over the last few years.

So much so, in fact, that two of the world’s top restaurants, El Bulli (Spain) and The Fat Duck (UK) adhere to its principles.  And I hear local restaurant Martin Bosley’s also likes to play in that particular sandpit.***

Anyhoo, said paper, entitled Molecular Gastronomy: A New Emerging Scientific Discipline, is available in its entirety, and a big thumbs up to Chemical Reviews for publishing it.


Postscript: I intend to start blogging about actual research again shortly.  But first I need to write about Semi-Permanent, which was absolutely wonderful :)


* Srsly.  We throw huge dinner parties at least weekly, and the food, my god, the food!  And wine.  Ahem.

** A tome if ever I saw one.  And I have.  Running wild through the forests at night…Oh, wait.  Never mind.

*** And has a very fine degustation menu, according to friends who were recently there.  They also sell an awesome spice mix, called ‘vadouvan’.  Buy!  Consume! Roll around in!

Reprise #3: the value of memory aimee whitcroft Aug 16


Last reprise for the moment!

According to this marvellous post, a British (yes, the Brits feature again) brain has actually worked out a formula able to place a precise, sterling value on one’s memories.

It factors in elements such as how vividly you recall it, its perceived importance, and a host of other interesting factoids. It’s also available here, if you’d like to try it out…

It’s all part of his research into how, essentially, to use neuroscience to enable companies to tailor their marketing even more. And this is where it gets sticky, I think.

I will, quite freely, admit to not being a mathematician, and so will refrain from any pithy comments related to the formula.

As a former market researcher/analyst (amongst other things), I am generally not overly concerned by companies’ efforts to tailor their efforts to us. I would probably rather have my time wasted by ads I might be slightly interested in, than not. Probably. Certainly, I can understand the companies’ point of view.

Then again, people have varied levels of resistance to marketing messages, which is where some of my friends’ misgivings come in. They worry that such tailoring makes it more and more difficult for people to say ‘no’ to marketing messages. Particularly, well, the so-called ‘mass market’ (an ever more inaccurate phrase, frankly). No, this does not, sadly, paint a picture of humanity as reasonably able to make decisions for themselves. Nonetheless.

Personally, I find myself sitting uncomfortably on the proverbial fence with mixed feelings about this development and what it heralds. I’m amused, yes. It’s funny, after all.

I’m also slightly worried by it – it does seem that companies’ are increasingly looking for the edge in their messages, and are quite happy to manipulate us at levels where, frankly, the ability to filter messages is not longer an option.

Mostly, though, my overriding emotion is this: fantastic, we’ve managed to attach a monetary value to yet another integral part of the human experience…


In other news, I shall be attending Semi-Permanent this week in my ‘i heart design’ hat*, as one of Idealog’s roving writer-type people.  Hooray!  Look out for the tweets and the posts on Idealog‘s site :)


No, it’s not an _actual_ hat.

Reprise #2: Sixty Symbols aimee whitcroft Aug 13

No Comments

Something fun to explore over the weekend! (And my first ever post)

The link is to Sixty Symbols (click on the logo above), kindly brought to us by the University of Nottingham (nice one, chaps).

Sixty Symbols is brilliant: it’s perfect for those of us with an interest in physics, but not, perhaps, the ability to read and comprehend the often dense physics textbooks (or the accompanying lectures, for that matter).

The fact that the concepts are presented by people clearly expert in them’s even better, and I’ve found I’ve learnt some brilliant new things, including concepts with which I already thought myself familiar.

A year on, a reprise or two aimee whitcroft Aug 11

No Comments

So, I’ve now officially been at this blogging thing for a little over a year.

And, inspired by Darcy’s latest post (feat. the number 191), I thought I’d, well, also have a small celebration. Yay! /dons party hat and places squeaker at the ready

Also, when sciblogs syndicated my content, it didn’t pull in the first few posts, meaning that some of you many not have seen them. And here’s the reprisal bit – I’m going to pop up a couple of the less time-critical ones over the next few days, with the first, entitled ‘universal snacks’, below.


Universal snacks

Well, the title might be a little misleading. This is mostly an excuse to post this, which I thought was funny. After all, what better way to enjoy your next handful of peanuts (particularly when sitting on a plane, of course) – than by expanding for your fellow passenger the central tenets of physics and how they apply to universe shape.

peanutsOr not.

And then, just as we had narrowed the possibilities down (they also include theories that it might be dodecahedral, although I have yet to find a snack shaped like that – possible new product angle, anyone?), someone went back and relooked at our assumptions.

Which is wonderful. Super. Very scientific. And, often, a stunningly good way to upset not only the apple cart, but the entire market with repercussions all the way back to the farm.

You see, it’s been realised that dark energy (the black sheep of physics, hngh hngh) might have far more of an effect on the shape of the universe than we thought. Which makes sense. But it really does confuse the matter even more.

And, in a wonderful chicken and egg scenario, this lack of knowledge about the size and shape of the universe, in turn, makes it very difficult to further explore (i.e. find/work out anything, at all, about) dark energy.

Fun, non?

I’m back! aimee whitcroft Aug 09


I have, once again, been remiss in my blogging.

nerdnite logo true

To those who noticed: my most humble of apologies.  Rest assured the self-flagellation in this respect has been more than adequate.  To those who didn’t: um, yes.  At least you were saved any potential pain and/or horror at the situation.  And, hopefully, I once more have a little bit of time for blogging occasionally.

So, what have I been doing that’s had me so distracted?!  A number of things, not all of which this is the forum to discuss.  But one, certainly, bears an update and brief description.

Last Monday, the first ever Southern Hemisphere Nerdnite took place.  Here, in Wellington.  Some of my readers may remember that I wrote of starting said chapter, with the fantastic Brian Calhoun, in early June of this year.  And start it we did!  Even more exciting, people actually turned up, and in numbers greater than we had expected.

Held at Betty’s, in part due to the fantastic wraparound projectors the bar sports (it’s certainly not a sports bar, though), we survived the rather major technical glitch which had the inhouse projectors refusing to speak to any of our laptops (requiring a run to SilverStripe to borrow their projector), and the evening got under way.

At this point, many of our patrons were on their second round, which always helps, and our speakers had definitely* been matching pace.

First up was Daniel Spector, who had transported himself back to 1912, donned a gorgeously appropriate suit and hairstyle, and was discussing past, present and future trends in self-propelled motor vehicle transport.  You know.  Cars.  Buses.  And verily, was there some wonderful madness in all that early design, and, at the end, some highly amusing badinage.  I shan’t bother trying to replicate it,** though.

Next was Chelfyn Baxter, of ‘the g33k show‘ fame.  Taking transport somewhat into the future, he talked of better ways of getting, well, stuff into space than rockets or space elevators.  Key parameters for acceptance into his talk included cost and danger***.  Much hysterial laughter ensued, and a great deal of audience participation.  He also used a brilliant presentation tool called prezi, which we all love because a) it’s free, b) it’s easy to use and c) it should replace the dreaded (and dreadful) powerpoint in the very near future.

Third up was Matthew Holloway, of the Creative Freedom Foundation, to talk about copyright in New Zealand, and how it differs to that used by countries such as the UK and the US.  For example, copying content for the use of satire and parody is completely legal in the US (otherwise a great many comedy shows would be in trouble).  In the UK there’s no such actual law allowing it, but it’s generally accepted that it’s OK.  In New Zealand, unfortunately, there’s no law protecting it, and no general acceptance, meaning that all copied/parodied/satirized content here is actually illegal, and could genuinely get people into trouble.  Not, in my opinion, a very good thing at all.  Audience interest was measured here not so much in peanut-gallery comments and good-natured heckling, but in serious questions at the end of the talk, as people tried to get some granularity for how things here actually work.

Finally, we had Joel Pitt speaking of consciousness, AGI, and the Singularity. AGI, for the uninitiated, stands for ‘artificial general intelligence’ (a branch of AI), and the Singularity, well, go here for an explanation****.  The talk was expected to melt brains and that it most certainly did, particularly for those members of the audience who had not come across the latter two concepts!  It’s always wonderful to watch people be exposed to new, brilliant information like that :)

Oh yes, and there was much happy drinking.

In short, then, the night was a great success – a great mix of science/tech, people and conversation.  The next one’s to be expected in mid-ish September (I’m going to be in SA in early October, so we brought it forward a bit). Anyone who has a topic they’d like to talk about, get hold of us! We intend to choose speakers for the next round by early September…

Oh yeah, and anyone who missed the talks/hilarity and would like to see them – stay tuned!  We’ve got video etc currently being assembled into a thing of sheer awesomeness :)  Stay tuned for the announcement of its readyness (on Twitter, most likely).


* And at the very least.  With Brian and I keeping pace, of course, with no regard for life nor limb, in order to ensure that no one felt awkward (we’re heroic like that).

** Because we have footage.

*** The more, the better.  Obviously.

**** I’ve been following it for years and, I must admit, can’t wait.  Especially since the date moves forward every year :)


Contact details:

Twitter: unbrand / teh_aimee / nerdnitewelly

Email: brian / aimee at nerdnite dot com

Website: nerdnite Wellington

Facebook page: nerdnite wellington

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer