There were reports in the news recently about findings by researchers at the University of Copenhagen that show that all people with blue eyes share a single ancestor. This ancestor was supposedly the first person to express a gene mutation responsible for producing blue eyes; he or she lived in eastern Europe (probably around what’s Ukraine today) between 6 and 10 thousand years ago and all persons living today who have pure blue eyes (as opposed to blue eyes with brown spots/rings) are related through him/her.
Well, I have blue eyes (so do Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz; hi there, cousins!), and I mentioned this report to my wife; she asked “how do they know that?”. I started to answer something about looking at genetic details and then I realised… I didn’t really know. So I went after this information.
Looking for this on the net I found many copies of the same press release, with small changes here and there. It took me a while to find a link to the original article with the research results, and I have to say that it’s not an easy read for someone (like me) who is not a researcher in the area. Still, a few things were somewhat clear, and merging information from the article and from the press release I think I understand how they came to their conclusions.
So, the answer to “how do they know?” is, they actually don’t: they assume this is what happened, with a very high degree of confidence, due to what they found in the genes of the people they’ve surveyed.
Basically, the “normal” eye colour for human beings is brown; up to the moment when the blue-eye mutation first occurred, everybody had brown eyes. There’s a large degree of variation in the gene that codes for brown eyes, which indicates that it’s an “old” gene (in fact, it is shared with many other mammal species with brown/yellow eyes — other primates, cows, cats etc.). This also has the effect of introducing large variations in the actual colour of the eye (from pure brown to very dark brown almost black, to hazel, to blue with brown spots. to blue with brown ring around the pupil, to grey, to green — yes, green eyes are a variation of brown), due to differences in the amount of melanin in the iris.
People with blue eyes, on the other hand, display almost no variation in the gene coding for eye colour (and, hence, in the amount of melanin in the iris); they (well, we) all display the exact same mutation in the same location of the same gene, which causes an iris almost devoid of melanin. This indicates that the mutation is very recent and, at the same time, point to what the authors refer to as a “common founder” mutation – that is, a mutation that spread from a single person. As far as I could tell from the article, the date and geographical location of the original mutation is determined from the prevalence of the mutation in current populations and our knowledge of human migrations in the last 10,000 years.
Interestingly, the article does mention that the very high frequency of blue-eyed individuals in some areas of the globe (say, Scandinavia) indicates that this is a trait that is positively selected; that is, blue-eyed individuals have historically had a better reproductive success, at least in these areas (and this makes it harder to calculate the age of the original mutation). The reason for that advantage is not clear; it could be related to vitamin D absorption in high latitudes, or even to sexual selection (blue-eyed people being more successful in attracting partners). Your guess is as good as mine (and the authors’).
Until very recently, I though all news headlines refering to “Fergie” were talking about Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. That made for some interesting moments.
Early morning in the city; girl in her 20s is running alone, wearing a t-shirt that says “Helsinki City Run”. At the corner of Elizabeth and Franklin she stops and looks around, seemingly very confused. I guess she was in the wrong city.
If I ever become the dictator of a small country (not that this is in my career plan), I will decree that car alarms going off in residential areas will be punished with the impounding and destruction of the car. Even if the car was being robbed.
For reasons that will become clear in the next few months, I’ve been recently browsing travel books about Japan. Amidst all the comments on the, say, interesting cultural aspects of the Japanese people, one thing that I found particularly puzzling was the number of Japanese words that seem to be derived from English words, adapted to the local pronunciation rules.
For example: “milk” is “miruku” (ミルク) (“l” sounds become “r”, consonants are always followed by a vowel); “beer” is “biiru” (ビール); and at least one book claims that “water” is “uota”, but that seems to apply only to mineral water; the “standard” water is “mizu” (水). And that’s only in the “beverages” chapter!
So, what has me puzzled is… what happened to the “original” words for these things? It seems obvious to me that the Japanese would have had words for beer and milk before being contacted by English speakers; the original words must have somehow been displaced by the imported ones. It is a common process for a language to acquire words from others, but it’s not so common that this would happen to words that are so regularly used.
Very interesting… I hope to find out what process caused this.
I don’t usually drive around Melbourne; I don’t own a car, so I take the public transport or simply walk to wherever I need to go. However, in recent weeks I had the need to drive to a few places, and I’ve made extensive use of the “directions” feature of Google Maps.
In short, it works quite well. It got me to my destination every time. But… the directions needed some retouching every now and then. That is, it does make some interesting mistakes.
For example, this path, part of a trip from Point Cook to the city:
It seems very reasonable, and it is indeed the shortest possible path. The only problem with it is that the area shaded in dark grey is a Royal Air Force base, and they don’t really like random people driving through their roads. Granted, there is a road there, but there’s a heavy barrier and an armed guard on the way…
Or this, which is how Google Maps suggest you drive from the city to the western suburbs using the West Gate freeway:
One can see in this map a very sharp right turn from Kings Way onto the freeway, which seems odd. It seems even odder when you switch to the satellite view:
It looks like they’re suggesting that you drive over a barrier and across four lanes of traffic to enter the freeway. Hardly the best possible route.
One more: a path from the Franklin Street, in the city, going south to the Eureka Tower (which is at 7 Riverside Quay):
See that sharp left turn from Queensbridge onto an unnamed street just south of the river? Well, look at the satellite view:
The proposed path takes one onto the footpath and over a very tall barrier (the large red thing) before reaching the destination. Again, it’s a very good path, but not legally – or physically – doable. I guess you could do it on foot, of course…
Don’t get me wrong, Google Maps is very useful and helped me a lot. But, if I found these problems in just a few weeks, I guess their maps need some serious revision…
Word of advice: this post has spoilers after the fold (after the link to “read more”). I will discuss fine points of the plot and the ending. You have been warned.
So, I’ve finished reading the last Harry Potter book a few days ago, and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I was honestly worried that it would not live up to the hype, but it does. Every last plot point is very well finished, all the mysteries are solved and everything fits together perfectly. Not only that, but details from all previous books (even the first two) are relevant to the story and to the conclusion; it seems that J. K. Rowling did know what she was going for from the beginning, and she got to the end in the best possible way. A co-worker of mine even joked that she should get a job with the producers of Lost, now.
There one minor annoyance, which I will discuss in the spoilers session below; nothing too serious, though. An advice to anyone who hasn’t started it yet: go re-read book 6 beforehand. I had read book 6 soon after it came out, and didn’t touch it since; that was a mistake, as I started reading book 7 with just a vague recollection of the previous events, and there was no “previously on Harry Potter” at the beginning… it took me a while to remember what, exactly, was a horcrux, or what relevance that locket had.
I did a long “stretch” to finish the book; I read the final 150 pages or so in a single sitting, and I was exhausted at the end. There is so much going on, so many details to keep track of and so many mysteries being solved that you end up physically tired at the end. Worth it, though, and I almost started reading it back from the start right away. I decided on starting from the beginning, though, and I’m going through the audio version of “Philosopher’s Stone” now (from the library; these audiobooks are unbelievably expensive); Stephen Fry’s narration is wonderful. And, by the time I finish the first 6, the audio version of book 7 should be available.
Last March, a member of the US Congress — Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) — announced to the public that he’s an atheist, becoming in this way the first openly non-theist member of the US Congress in history. It was big news at the time, it was even reported in the mainstream media in Australia.
A few days ago, an Australian Member of Parliament — MP Ian Hunter (Labor-SA) — sent a letter to a newspaper responding to a report that claimed that he was reading a book while other MPs prayed. His response said that, being an atheist, he does not pray and therefore chose to “improve [his] mind by reading” instead. That wasn’t exactly big news, and I guess most people didn’t even hear about that — even in his own seat of Adelaide (I don’t think it would have made the news at all, hadn’t he also said that prayers in Parliament are “an archaic practice which wastes the time of the MPs”).
Leaving aside the fact that MPs regularly pray in Parliament (every day, in fact, at the opening of proceedings), that shows a significant difference in attitude regarding atheism between the two countries… (and, yes, US representatives also pray in Congress).
There was a fire in a bondage parlour in a suburb of Melbourne a few days ago. Nothing serious happened, and no one was injured (by the fire); it would hardly be news-worthy, were it not for the, say, unusual venue. But the venue was too much of a temptation for comedy.
Of course, there was the witty headline: Fire whips though bondage parlour. But the best part was this comment by a Metropolitan Fire Brigade spokesman: “[18 firefighters] were tied up for some time but disciplined and controlled firefighting contained the blaze to one room on the second floor”.
Ok, I give up. Does anyone know how to make an iPod show the date of podcasts in the dd/mm/yy (or yyyy) format without changing the language settings to something other than English? It seems to think that the only English is the US brand of the language, and that is very out of character for a company so concerned with good design as Apple…
I’ve been hearing about Twitter for a while now, but recently it has reached a peak: you can’t read a tech-related blog without seeing a comment about it.
Well, I already had an account (created back in November, updated only once with a generic “working”), so I decided to log in and take a second look. Man, is this thing slow! It takes forever to do anything; the process of loading the home page and logging in took almost five minutes. Is it always like that? Or is it peak time now (8.30pm in the SF Bay Area)?
My guess is that they became more popular than they expected.
Sometimes I think that the best argument against having kids is the behaviour of some parents. I mean, it does look like having kids turns you into a raving lunatic — at least for some people. Case in point: an ad for Hyundai was pulled from Australia TV after stations received complaints from parents. The ad shows a very young kid (two, maybe three years old) driving a Hyundai SUV, picking up a girl of the same age on the side of the road and going to the beach to surf.
The parents complained because, among other things, the ad — get this! — promotes under-age driving. Now, I can’t imagine that a 12 or 13-year-old, who might be physically able to actually drive a car, will be compelled to do so after seeing a toddler driving on TV. And a toddler just won’t be able to drive! Not that a toddler will fell inclined to do so, anyway.
Now, to be fair, part of the problem, supposedly, is that the kid is shown wearing a seat-belt, instead of the obligatory child-restraint seat (well, duh! how would he be able to drive from the child seat?) and that contravenes the advertising rules for cars. But it’s a two-year-old driving! How much less real can you get?
The ad is still running in New Zealand, apparently. And, of course, it’s in YouTube (that’s the NZ version; the Australian one was identical except for the URL, the voice-over and the sign the girl was holding — it read “the beach” here). And, as far as I know, no one complained about a toddler going into the sea unsupervised.
P.S.: SWMBO thinks that the parents who complained might have a point, as a slightly older kid (say, 5 or 6) might be encouraged to at least ask his parents for a chance of driving after seeing a toddler doing so; I remain unconvinced.
In 1964, an IBM 1401 computer was delivered to Iceland; it was one of the first large computers in that country. Now, 43 years later, the result of that event is this:
That’s a segment of the stage performance of “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual”, by the Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson. It has to be seen to be believed. The CD of his work has titles such as “IBM 1403 Printer” and “IBM 729 II Magnetic Tape Unit”. More details at his web site.
MAKE Magazine published, almost a year ago, one article on how to make “throwies”, small devices consisting of a battery, a LED and a magnet and intended to be “released into the world” as a sort of “tech grafitti”.
I couldn’t help but think of them when I read about the recent “incidents” in Boston. I honestly can’t think of a better punch line to the whole “terrorism” paranoia that has affected US officials (and, to a not-much-smaller extent, Australian ones). In fact, I was listening to the Penn Jillette radio show on the subject and a listener actually called in to talk about these devices.
The best comment in the whole story was made by Penn Jillette, by the way, referring to this passage in the news report:
“The appearance of this device and its location are crucial,” [Assistant Attorney General John] Grossman said. “This device looks like a bomb.”
Some in the gallery snickered.
According to Jillette, the fact that some people snickered is a disgrace to the United States. What the report should have said was “everyone in the gallery laughed loudly; a few people wet their pants”. Come on! Does this look like a bomb? If you wanted to hide a bomb somewhere, would you cover it in bright LEDs? And if you were tasked with protecting a city, should you be proud of that fact that it took you three weeks to notice the “suspicious” devices?
As someone else said, it’s way too easy to be a terrorist nowadays; all you need to do is to put a blinking light somewhere.