Print Story Moriarty retired to Wessex to keep wasps
Diary
By TheophileEscargot (Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 08:11:56 AM EST) Reading, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "A Slight Trick of the Mind". Web.


What I'm Reading
Next from my Ask Mefi answers was A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin. It's a novel about an elderly, retired Sherlock Holmes, set in his Sussex beekeeping cottage in 1947. It isn't really a mystery, though there are some prosaic puzzles. It's more of a meditation on old age, as a lonely Holmes contemplates his declining faculties.

Rather good: well written and with a nice elegiac atmosphere: it's a bit of a mood piece. Cullin does a good job at a literary filling out of a character who's somewhat superficial: in some ways I think Doyle's Holmes is a collection of quirks with not much underneath. There isn't much in the way of plot or climax though.

Cullin does pretty well with period and cultural detail, though there a few awkwardnesses like Holmes talking casually about degrees "celsius". (At school in eighties I was taught in "centigrade", though the term was changed in 1948). Also Holmes seems to have more of a modern than Victorian sensibility in some ways. Religion seems strangely absent for Victorian contemplating death. Oxbridge professors were not allowed to marry till the late 19th century and discouraged even then: it was taken for granted that the pursuit of an intellectual life means some sacrifice of private life. I don't think a Holmes could really reach the age of 93 and suddenly realise "oh noes, I forgot about love".

Overall, well worth a look if you don't insist on plot, conflict or action. Thought The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was better, but this may well be the second best Sherlock Holmes novel not written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Extract, review, review, review.

Web
I think I've found a role model.

Bad science: Big breakfasts breed baby boys. Hints. Think about the 3rd generation. Think about how many parents of each sex a child has. Think how many famines there have been without this effect showing up.

Bad journalism. Fishing for a sabotage story.

Bad medicine. Dr Crippen's Diary?

Software. Low level programming is easy. Why Programmers Don’t Like Relational Databases.

Economics. US mergers are followed by price rises: more competition needed? Does learning economics make you selfish?

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Moriarty retired to Wessex to keep wasps | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Silly me by Gedvondur (4.00 / 2) #1 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 09:39:23 AM EST
I always imagined Watson finding a fifty year old Holmes dead in a chair in his office, needle sticking out of his arm.

Gedvondur
"If you do not sin, then you too may some day float like a big pink Goodyear blimp of The Lord." -theboz

Sex ratios by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #2 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 09:43:19 AM EST
Sex ratios of parents are meaningless as its already well known that the sex ratio at birth is not exactly 50%. There are other animals that have ratios other than the human 51% male and there are lots of good examples of sex ratios changing in response to environmental changes in the animal world. Certainly unless a species is monogamous and mates for life (and humans are not in this class) there is absolutely no reason the sex ratio has to be 50-50.

In regards to famines:


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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
Elephant Seals and Dutchwomen by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #3 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:13:33 AM EST
Regarding famines, a couple of diaries ago I mentioned the genetic consquences of the Dutch hunger winter of WW2. Children born then, and the children of those children, had thrifty metabolisms and were more prone to diabetes.

A 59% male ratio is a huge demographic shift. I really can't believe that they wouldn't have noticed in that incident alone. I suspect it would also have shown up in parish records from the Irish potato famine. Keeping track of births doesn't really take high tech databases: it takes a lot longer to produce a baby than to write out it's birth certificate in longhand.

Regarding sex ratios, the classic example is the elephant seal: a highly polygamous species where a male maintains a harem of up to 100 females. People often intuitively expect that therefore an elephant seal will produce more female offspring than male. In fact though, they produce a 50-50 ratio, even though most of the males will never reproduce.

The reason is that every offspring has exactly one male parent and one female parent. The reduced number of males who reproduce is therefore exactly compensated by the increased success of those that do manage it. It's the one-mummy one-daddy thing that determines sex ratios, and that means there's a strong evolutionary pressure to keep the numbers pretty even.

If things worked the way the study says and you had a hard few years: maybe due to famine, maybe the local wildebeest have died off, maybe another tribe's forced you off the good land, then you'd have a generation with a skewed sex balance, producing fewer offspring in the subsequent generation. (That's not a group selectionist argument: producing a kid the same sex as everyone else's kid hurts the individual as well as the group).

This supposed effect just doesn't make sense to me.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
skewed sex balance by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #5 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:25:54 AM EST
If you have a skewed sex balance in which females are overrepresented, you don't necessarily produce fewer offspring in the subsequent generation.

Remember that the evolutionary pressure you talk about is to produce an even sex ratio at breeding age. That's not the same as producing an even sex ratio at birth.

The other thing to consider is that the study you labeled bad science was looking at slight changes in diet, not starvation. It is very possible that the effect goes away when people are literally starving. There's a huge difference, biologically, between skipping breakfast and going five months without enough food.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
Well by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #6 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:42:24 AM EST
If you have a skewed sex balance in which females are overrepresented, you don't necessarily produce fewer offspring in the subsequent generation.
However, the study claims that some diets will produce 59% boys.

They claim that the reason behind is is that boys are more expensive to produce than girls. If so, the effect ought to be more pronounced the greater the degree of famine.

The study was of 740 women. Not a tiny sample, but a few hours with Excel can easily produce as many statistically significant correlations from random data as you can be bothered to generate. Meanwhile, famines like Dutch hunger winter, the Soviet famines, the Irish potato famine affect hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. I'm betting on the bigger samples.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
"ought" by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #7 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:44:40 AM EST
It is very possible that during small shortfalls, it is a better strategy to produce fewer boys while in real famines, it is a better strategy simply not to breed at all.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
In a parallel universe, perhaps by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #8 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:49:57 AM EST
But as the thrifty-metabolism offspring of the Dutch hunger winter show, in this universe the human strategy is to produce offspring who are better adapted to live on fewer calories.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
but by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #9 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:59:15 AM EST
The one does not preclude the other. The effect off famine on fertility is very well known.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Yes it does by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #10 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 11:04:55 AM EST
A famine doesn't starve everyone to exactly the same extent. Some people have enough to eat. Some are a little short of food. Some are literally starving.

In a famine, at whatever level of starvation this effects shows up at, there would be some people at this level, which means the effect would show up demographically.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Starving to the same extent by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #11 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 11:18:34 AM EST
If people aren't starving to the same extent, then the effect wouldn't be 59%...
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
No by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #12 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 11:31:23 AM EST
But if you're narrowing the calorie range at which this effect shows, it's even more puzzling that it happened showed up so strongly in the small sample of the study.

Remember this effect allegedly exists to help women produce smaller girl offspring when short of calories. Yet somehow in a situation when people are genuinely short of calories, it's so small as to be statistically indetectable with a sample size in the hundreds of thousands. Yet it shows up in a sample of hundreds when considering prosperous, well-fed mothers in the developed world. And it doesn't affect the sex ratios born to the overweight and obese: that would surely have shown up by now too.

It doesn't make sense: an economy measure that only shows up when there's a miniscule deviation from a healthy food intake, disappearing completely whenever there's a significant calorie surplus or deficit.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Maybe by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #14 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 12:59:13 PM EST
I still think you are far too quick to call this "bad science" based on historical data. It seems to me like calling the life-extension effect of calorie restriction a crock because people don't live longer after famines.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Well, that's probably wrong for similar reasons by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #15 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:19:47 PM EST
A single famine might not make a difference, but if there was a significant life-extension effect it would show up in the demographics. You could look at the developing world, Marx-Leninist economies (there's some interesting data from Cuba), isolated and religious communities and so on.

If there is any effect in humans, it must be pretty tiny to have not shown up by now.

It works in rodents of course. Rodents are highly optimized to grow fast, pump out a load of babies and expire, so there's plenty of room for life-extension trade-offs. But humans take about 13 years to get to reproductive age, and 25 before the brain fully matures. Having invested all that time maturing, evolution needs us to take advantage of it. It's a pretty fair bet that we're already got all the easy life-extension genetic switches and mechanisms turned all already.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Not just rodents by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #17 Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 06:51:32 AM EST
The effect has shown up in every animal from tapeworms to rhesus monkeys that have been studied and is pretty much accepted by the biological community as most likely existing in humans.

See here.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
I think that article by R Mutt (2.00 / 0) #18 Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 07:34:25 AM EST
Illustrates Wikipedia's tendency to be provide evenly balanced arguments when the actual evidence is heavily weighted one way.

The "Effects on humans" section basically just talks about the normal ill-effects of being overweight. When it does cite actual scientific papers about calorie-reduced life-extension in humans it's papers like this: "Why dietary restriction substantially increases longevity in animal models but won't in humans."

That paper bears out the earlier point: there's a trade-off between fast reproduction and longevity. Humans have already traded off for that: we reproduce very slowly and live very long lives. Any life-extension effects of this in humans are likely to be noexistent or very small.

[ Parent ]
When I'll have time by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #19 Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 07:55:09 AM EST
I'll dig up more concrete stuff. It really is pretty well accepted these days.
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[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
The mechanism I'd heard was different. by ambrosen (4.00 / 1) #20 Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 01:34:17 PM EST
The mechanism that I'd heard, and strikes me as plausible, is that the male offspring have a much greater variance in the number of children that they have, so if your situation is good relative to the social background, then male children are the best, cause they'll all go round getting lots random women pregnant, but if you're at a low social point, far better to have daughters, and they'll all have one or two children with the cads from the posh family, and all will be well.

But this story seems a bit different. I'd like to see a reconciliation of the one I'd heard (a relative wealth situation) and the one presented in those articles.

[ Parent ]
I have the same objection by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #21 Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 10:25:21 PM EST
If there's one thing that historians have an Imperial Fornication-Ton of data on, it's aristocratic genealogy. If this effect is real and significant, it's the easiest thing in the world to prove. Look at the records of posh familes (Kings of England is a good place to start) and just see how many male and female children there are.

If you look up what they call Pathological Science or Voodoo Science, not all of the features but a disturbing number of them seem to apply to sociobiology.

1. Discoverers make their claims directly to the popular media, rather than to fellow scientists.

2. Discoverers claim that a conspiracy has tried to suppress the discovery.

3. The claimed effect appears so weak that observers can hardly distinguish it from noise. No amount of further work increases the signal.

4. Anecdotal evidence is used to back up the claim.

3 is the critical one. For 2, it's "political correctness" rather than a conspiracy which is assumed to be covering things up.

Anthropologists, historians and social scientist have spent an awful lot of time and effort painstakingly eating grubs with remote tribes, spending lifetimes analysing gravestones and parish records and so on; and applying the incredibly sensitive pattern-recognition system of the human brain to the resulting data.

I wish biologists who venture into their realm would start looking at their data, instead of just assuming that as mere social scientists they're just too thick to have done anything worthwhile.
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It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
All good points. by ambrosen (4.00 / 1) #22 Mon Apr 28, 2008 at 02:50:25 AM EST
I concede all of them.

[ Parent ]
My guess by ad hoc (4.00 / 1) #4 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:23:42 AM EST
Holmes sits in a chair fretting about his failure to pull Irene Adler.
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The three things that make a diamond also make a waffle.
Perhaps Holmes would have gone back to school by jxg (4.00 / 2) #13 Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 12:25:35 PM EST
only to have his life transformed by the compelling intellectual framework of Ayn Rand.

Yor book reviews rock by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #16 Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 01:59:51 AM EST
Nice and concise and I almost always agree. Keep at it.

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It's political correctness gone mad!

Moriarty retired to Wessex to keep wasps | 22 comments (22 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback