* Posts by Toby Murcott

19 publicly visible posts • joined 14 May 2006


Toby Murcott

Misunderstanding Peer Review

You write:

"Meanwhile the scientific community has also endorsed Luo and his colleagues' general gist, as the boffins' paper (pdf) outlining the role of clay in the appearance of life is published tomorrow in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports."

Nope. The fact that it is appearing in a peer review journal means that two or possibly three referees, and the journal editor, think the work is of such merit as to be published. This is a long way from endorsement by the scientific community. That will only come after the research has been scrutinised much more widely. Publication in a peer review journal is the first step towards wider endorsement but it is a big mistake to assume the former means the latter.

El Reg's LHC visit - Deleted Scenes

Toby Murcott

Double pedantry

"there are FEWER atoms inside the tubes than there are in outer space"

Fewer is grammatically correct, of course, but it's no big deal that there are fewer atoms inside the LHC than in outer space. I strongly suspect that there are fewer atoms in the Solar System than there are in outer space. Surely it's the density of atoms inside the LHC that is lower than in outer space? That is the LHC houses a harder vacuum than outer space.

My coat's the one with the slide rule in the pocket...

Boffins build super-accurate atomic clock

Toby Murcott
Paris Hilton

Fermions and watch winding

Actually the comment about strontium atoms being fermions is correct. Some atoms can be fermions depending on their constituent sub-atomic particles.

However, it's the line "resulting in a very impressive feat of not needing significant winding for more than 300 million years." that got my pedantic back up. Winding provides energy to power a clock, not its means of determining time. The clock will need powering for all the time it's in operation, but if you are happy with an accuracy of 1 second in 300 million years it won't need recalibrating within that period.

Paris, because she has plenty of energy but never turns up on time

Cops taser JCB thief in 'slowest police chase ever'

Toby Murcott

I blame the music...

... Nizlopi clearly have a lot to answer for.

Deloitte loses hundreds of thousands of pension details

Toby Murcott

Pedantry alert


"said the data was encrypted" WERE encrypted - one datum, many data!!


IBM gets virtual and cloudy with 22nm chips

Toby Murcott


Unless physics has changed a lot in the last few years, higher frequency IS shorter wavelength. But then I don't know that much about chip fabbing so am probably missing something...

BT starts threatening music downloaders with internet cut-off

Toby Murcott
Paris Hilton

Imagine if it happened with the mail...

... "you have received illegal material through the post. Therefore we are removing your access to the mail service and you will no longer be able to receive any mail from whatever source."

Now test that in court!

Paris 'cos she's clearly just started work at BT's legal department

Monitor maker aims s.book sub-notebook at Asus Eee PC

Toby Murcott

It'll never sell...

... there's no pic of it being used in a harsh evironment demonstrating its resistance to UV, sodium chloride, hard silica based grit and sweat.

Sacked PlusNet boss blasts BT sale 'stitch up'

Toby Murcott

Its rare to make a positive comment...

... so I will.

Its probably slightly off topic but I have been with Plusnet for a couple of years and actually find them, and their customer service, pretty good. Not excellent, but I'm happy with them. Happy enough to say so publicly. And no, I'm not an employee or a relative or an employee or anyone who would be banned from entering any competition they might run.

And for the spat amongst the top execs, so what. They all make far more money than the vast majority of people in the world and business is pretty nasty, the money is supposed to be a bit of a recompense for the back stabbing. Its mildly interesting to read about what goes on but not very. I predict the lawyers will do well, and neither side will come out happy, c'est la vie, or c'est justice perhaps.

Vote for sale on eBay

Toby Murcott

Invisible but probably not insignificant

Jeremy said

"At the end of the day, I take my civic duties seriously when the need arises but to be honest, my local councillor has such an insignificant effect on my life that I'll have probably forgotten who I voted for by the time I leave the booth."

I agree in part, by and large local councillors are not very visible with a few notable exceptions. However, they do have a surprising amount of influence over our local environment. They decide planning; rubbish collection; road building and maintenance; libraries;parks and so on. And if Private Eye is to be believed also sell off playing fields, forge expense accounts and go on expensive jamborees.

My guess is quite a lot would rather we just quietly forgot about them and let them get on with it, partly why they are so often invisible perhaps? I say we should vote and in large numbers to make it clear that we are at least trying to keep some sort of democratic eye on them. A vote ain't much but many votes are one of the most powerful voices in this country.

[Cue uplifting music and mild surprise that I came out with that last bit]

Are there secrets to life-long brain power?

Toby Murcott

Publication record

Its pretty easy to check someone's publication record, simply look them up on Pubmed which is the publicly available database of all published academic journals in the bio-medical sciences. It doesn't have every single journal but those that are not available via Pubmed are known as "unlisted" and not usually given the same authority as a listed journal.

A quick search, and I mean this took about 3 minutes, search turns up 2 publications by a DS Khalsa, one that mentions Alzheimers and the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation, and one that does not. Here's the url for the search on the term "Khalsa D S" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?CMD=search&DB=pubmed. (If that doesn't work, the search engine is at www.pubmed.com and I used two search terms "Khalsa D S" and "Khalsa alzheimer's"). Neither appear to be clinical trials or original research but I have not read the papers in full and therefore cannot tell for certain. The first, published in 1985, appears to be a summary of evidence, a review in other words and the second one published in 1998 is classified by Pubmed as a review.

So, the author cited here has a publication record but on an initial search it appears to be short one. The results of that search suggest that he has not published original research in the field in a Pubmed listed journal. To be sure of that one would either have to spend much longer conducting far more extensive literature searches or simply contact him and ask.

Do we really need a daily shower or bath to stay healthy?

Toby Murcott


Hmm... I'm with Stephen Juan here, "then" works better than "than".

And yes, I have been accused of being a pedant on more than one occasion...

What is a Cro-Magnon man?

Toby Murcott

Humans in Australia

The situation regarding human migration to Australia is not as clear cut as that. There are both archaelogical and mitochondrial DNA datings that suggest anatomically modern humans arrived in Australia at least 60,000 years ago (cf. Cro-Magnon 40,000 to 10,000 ka.). Other human migrations have arrived since then but the evidence is not that they simply displaced all the previous inhabitants but, like the majority of known human migrations, interbred with them. Evidence from mitochondrial DNA suggests that Australian Aborigines, modern humans, have a very old lineage. (See PNAS | January 16, 2001 | vol. 98 | no. 2 | 537-542). While there are certainly many different strands of the modern human family within Australian Aborigines the evidence suggests that Australian Aborigines do not appear to be all direct descendants of humans who arrived 8,000 years ago but have a common lineage in Australia going back much further than that.

The point that we are not all descended from Cro-Magnon humans is even more pertinent to people of African origin. Cro-Magnon humans are European so while we all share a common lineage pre 40,000 ka. the evidence suggests that modern Africans are not direct descendents of Cro-Magnons.

The debates about exactly where and when humans evolved and our exact lineage are complex and fascinating. And while there is broad agreement that modern humans are first seen in Africa, the evidence as to exactly what happened from then on is incomplete, hence the type of debate we're having about humans origins in Australia. However, to assert as the original article did, that we are all descended from Cro-Magnons who did not appear until 40,000 years ago is not supported by the evidence and is a surprising claim for an anthropologist to make.

Sorry I've gone on so long:-)

Toby Murcott

Err.... not quite!

"Cro-Magnon humans are regarded as the earliest form of modern humans."

Err... not quite! Modern humans first appeared in Africa around 120 to 150 thousand years ago, according to the current dominant "Out of Africa" hypothesis of human evolution. Cro-Magnon man (and woman, of course) are the first representatives of our species in Europe, but they are not the earliest form of modern humans and nor are they regarded as such.

Toby Murcott

I've just realised...

... that the author of this is an anthropologist! And currently working in Australia! Consider the following.

Australian aborigines are estimated to have arrived in Australia anything between 120,000 to 50,000 years ago. If, as the author maintains, Cro-Magnon man was the first example of modern humans and didn't appear until about 40,000 years ago then this implies that Australian Aborigines are not modern humans. And nor, for that matter, are modern Africans who appeared in Africa around 150,000 years ago (the estimates vary).

The author has made some very entertaining howlers in other subjects but to make such a blunder in his own subject takes quite some doing.

Is it possible to swallow while standing on your head?

Toby Murcott

Push not pull

The process of peristalsis pushes, not pulls, the food down the oesophagus, and also through the small and large intestines. The muscles in the oesophagus contract behind the bolus and relax in front of it resulting in a push.

There is no mechanism for pulling food into any part of the alimentary canal. If you think about it, pulling involves something to grab on to, and gripping a slippery ball of chewed food would be pretty tricky so pushing is the only practical option. This even more the case further down the intestine where the digested food is virtually liquid - have you ever tried pulling water?

What is a Chinese restaurant headache?

Toby Murcott

Not an allergic reaction

The reaction to MSG is not an allergic reaction. This is important as an allergic reaction can lead to anaphylactic shock and death. MSG headache is unpleasant but not life threatening.

What was wrong with the 'bubble boy'?

Toby Murcott

A couple of minor points.

I was puzzled by the comment "This impaired immunity is in the endocrine system, but not so much in the nervous system." This doesn't make any sense and suggests a fair bit of confusion over our bodies internal workings.

The immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system are separate systems with distinct functions in the mammalian body. Roughly speaking, the endocrine system is made up of glands that produce hormones, the hormones themselves and the tissues to that respond to them. The nervous system is the network of nerves that communicate rapidly between different parts of our body and do the complicated processing jobs in our spinal cords and brains. The immune system is the collection of cells involved in fighting infection and hunting down aberant, potentially cancerous cells in our bodies.

These three systems do talk to each other but I do not understand how an immune deficiency can be "in the endocrine system, but not so much in the nervous system".

The best analogy I can come up with is to think of the nervous system as the Internet, the hormone system as the mail service and the immune system as the police. They all depend on each other to some extent but if you have a problem that eliminates your police force, then it is not going to appear more in the mail than the Internet.

Also the description of X-linked SCID as a defect in the adenosine deaminase, ADA, enzyme is wrong. Technically, X-linked SCID is a defect in the IL2RG gene which results in, amongst other things, a lack of T cells. The ADA gene defect is autosomal recessive, which means that someone has to inherit two copies of the faulty gene, one from each parent. It is not X-linked which means both sexes are equally prone and results in a deficiency of both B and T cells.

Is it true my body is not entirely alive?

Toby Murcott

So water is alive is it?

While this is an interesting idea, that your body is partially not alive, the way it has been presented in this piece is palpable nonsense.

What the good doctor has done is crudely and inaccurately classed organic compounds in the body as "alive" and in-organic as "dead". He has, rather weirdly, included water in the group of things that are "alive". Do you commit murder when you have a drink?

If you took this definition of what is alive and dead then petrol would be very much alive, as would methane gas and good old fashioned ethanol, the intoxicant so many are familiar with.

I love the line "A small part of us is not alive, never has been, and never will be". Actually EVERY small part of us is not alive and never has been. He describes the dead parts in terms of individual atoms or molecules. I know of no definition of life that calls any individual atoms or molecules alive, and that goes for DNA too. A DNA molecule is most emphatically not alive - it cannot do one of the most fundamental of living process, that is replicate itself. It needs to be part of a living cell to do that.

If you were to take any of the elements he has called alive and separated them out they would no more be alive than some of the inorganic "dead" elements he has described. A molecule of protein is no more alive than an atom of iron, or sulphur. It is the combination of all of these components together that make up the organism. And its only the organism as a whole - or any part of it that can live an independent existence such as cells in tissue culture - that can be considered alive.

There are more interesting and much more accurate ways of talking about the "aliveness" and "deadness" of a human body. For example, when you look at someone you only see dead cells, no live ones are visible on the surface of the human body. Every skin cell on the exterior of the body is well and truly dead - like, I hope, this article.