Natural breeding more dangerous than genetic engineering

3 March 2008

OK, that title is slightly mischievous. When I say natural breeding, we’re not talking normal hot plant sex here, but something even hotter: bombarding the hapless veggies with gamma radiation to induce mutations.

It might not sound very natural to you and I, but according to regulators around the world, this counts as natural compared with genetic modification. If you induce a change by genetic engineering, you have to prove it’s safe. Do it by mutagenesis and no one cares.

Except a team in Portugal are now claiming that mutatagenesis results in more changes in gene expression (which genes are turned on or off) than genetic engineering. For greater changes read more potential to produce (more) toxic substances. After all, plants are primed to produce toxins to deter those that want to eat them.

In fact, history shows that even old-fashioned conventional breeding can be dangerous. The Lenape potato bred in the 1960s turned out to have dangerously high levels of solanine, the toxin found in all potatoes. The Magnum Bonum, an century-old breed from England reintroduced into Sweden in the 1990s, was similarly toxic. (“Old”; “traditional”; “natural”: gotta be good, hmm?)

The kiwi fruit bred in New Zealand from an inedible (but not toxic) Chinese berry and introduced to the US in the 1960s never underwent safety testing and caused allergic reactions in some people (recently shown to be due to a protein called actinidin). Hybrids between ordinary potatoes and related species have been found to produce a novel toxin not found in either parent called demissidine.

The list could go on and on. My point is not that genetic modification is wonderful but that we should be wary of everything we eat, however it was bred or created.

“Faith schools”

15 February 2008

Many months ago, I signed a petition calling on the UK government to abolish faith schools. Tonight, I got an email telling me there was an official response.

Let’s start with the last line:

Many parents who are not members of a particular faith value the structured environment provided by schools with a religious character.

Now, why can’t state schools provide a “structured” environment? What is a structured environment anyway?

Parents like me want the best education for our children, and we’ll lie through our teeth about our beliefs to get it if we think the state-supported religious schools in our area are better than any others. I know lots of parents who have lied about their beliefs to get into such schools. I even know some people who have been asked to lie on their friends’ behalf.

Parents’ dishonesty has nothing to with any inherent superiority of faith schools, just the fact that these schools tend to have been around longer, have more money and, most of all, the pick of the best pupils.

It gets even worse:

Religious Education (RE) in all schools, including faith schools, is aimed at developing pupils’ knowledge, understanding and awareness of the major religions represented in the country. It encourages respect for those holding different beliefs and helps promote pupils’ moral, cultural and mental development.

I have no problem with teaching people about different religions. Teaching them to “respect” superstitious rubbish is another matter.

And the idea that “moral development” depends on learning about religion just makes me despair. We’re in real trouble if that’s true.

It get worse still:

In February 2006, the faith communities affirmed their support for the framework in a joint statement making it clear that all children should be given the opportunity to receive inclusive religious education, and that they are committed to making sure the framework is used in the development of religious education in all their schools and colleges.

Really? The faith communities support faith schools? Well I never.

They think children should be given the “opportunity” to receive religious education? Of course, they want the opportunity to spread their lies to impressionable young minds.

What is unbelievable, in this day and age, is that any government is sponsoring and supporting those lies, let alone the British government.

PZ Myers, I hope you’ll pick up on this on Pharyngula. You might think the US is behind Europe in terms of religion and evolution, but really, you’re way ahead of us in banning religion from state-sponsored education.

Mighty stupid mouse

1 February 2008

I’ve just had to spend half an hour or so disassembling and reassembling my “Mighty Mouse”. (If you don’t know what a Might Mouse is, be thankful.) 

Sure, the sideways scrolling is neat. But I think the convenience is outweighed by the time you have to spend trying to clean the damn thing to get the up-and-down scrolling working again. Eventually it stops working altogether, as mine did months ago. 

Fixing it was pretty easy but it’s just not something one should have to do. I can’t believe Apple is still selling the same flawed design. (Steve, are you using one?)

All Apple needs to do to fix it is make cleaning the scrollball properly a two-minute job rather than a half-an-hour job involving screwdrivers, knifes and glue. In the meantime, if you haven’t bought one, don’t.

Leopard woes Part IV

4 January 2008

Alright, this is not so much a woe as a belated gripe. I tried out the search folders in the new Leopard Finder today and noticed that when you do a search, a slider bar appears at the bottom of the window that allows you to set the icon size – including making it as large as 512 X 512, way bigger than the standard 128 x 128.

Nice feature, you might think. And it is. Especially as it helps make up for the ugly, impractical and very annoying thick white border that appears around photo preview icons in Leopard, wasting megapixels of screen space in folders full of photos.

So the question is, why does the slider only appear in Search folders, and not in any of the normal folder views, where this feature would be really useful? WTF were they thinking at Apple!

A load of shite

3 January 2008

OK, I’m coming to this party very late but I can’t let this go. Some reality-challenged editor at the New Statesman published this rubbish about global warming having stopped in 1998, which, as usual, lots of people leapt upon in their desperation to avoid facing the truth.

Personally, I didn’t have to look beyond the byline to know the article isn’t worthy of anything other than scorn. The author was apparently known among his erstwhile colleagues at the BBC as David Shitehouse for his habit of writing seemingly great scoops that turn out to be utter rubbish, or very old news rehashed, or both. (The other British science journalist whose work also deserves instant dismissal is Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times. If he writes it, you can be confident it ain’t true.)

The reality is that the long-term temperature trend is very much on the up, despite the fact that we’re at the low point of the 11-year solar cycle, which means we’re receiving less heat from the Sun than usual. See here, here or here.

iMovie ’08: adding chapter markers for iDVD

3 January 2008

I’ve been doing a lot of playing around with video in what little spare time I had over Xmas. Besides importing VOBs, my other big problem was adding chapter markers to iMovie edits before importing into iDVD.

Yes, what Steve giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other. The iMovie ’08 interface, with its skimming feature, is brilliant – miles ahead of every other editor, which will all work like this when the patents expire – but one of the lost functions that needs to be restored (Apple, are you listening?) is the ability to add DVD chapter markers.

Apparently there’s a way of doing this in GarageBand, but I’ve never used it and deleted it from my MacBook to save space. Instead, I discovered a nifty utility that can add chapters for you: the curiously named Metadata Hootenanny.

It’s not perfect – iDVD started importing widescreen footage in 4:3 aspect ratio after I added chapter markers, which I fixed by adding a tiny bit of blank widescreen footage to the beginning of the video – but it’s quick and easy.

iMovie ’08: importing VOB, DVD or MPEG2 video without losing quality

3 January 2008

As ever, non-Mac users look away. This is just a bit of technical bumf, but it took me ages to work it out and I haven’t seen quite this elsewhere, so here it is in case it helps anybody. 

So, my family had jumped the gun by paying to have some old cine films converted to VHS video, and then throwing away the original films (groan). That resulted in a huge loss of quality and, worse still, the only way I had to convert the VHS to digital was via a very poor DVD recorder, resulting in further losses from re-encoding. I then copied the VOB files from the DVDs onto my Mac, so I was left with a bunch of VOB files in desperate need of editing.

FWSE it and you’ll find most people recommend converting the MPEG2 video (which is the underlying format for DVD/VOB) into DV for editing in iMovie. But converting means re-encoding, which means losing more quality, which I couldn’t afford to do with what had already become poor quality footage thanks to re-encoding.

For the past two years the VOB files have been sitting on a hard disk, and I’ve occasionally done a search for MPEG2 video editing solutions for the Mac. I had no luck until the much-maligned iMovie ’08 came out. This, apparently, can import MPEG2 for editing without re-encoding, as it’s intended to work with cameras that record to hard disks/DVD rather than just DV.

Trouble is, when I tried to trick iMovie into importing MPEG2 by using the create-a-disk-image-with-camera-like folder names mentioned in the above links, it just crashed. Then I discovered by accident that if you open iMovie when you have a non-commercial DVD in the computer, iMovie treats it like a camera and will offer to import it. This not-very-well-advertised feature came as a surprise to me, though of course many others are well aware of it.

So here’s the bit that I haven’t seen elsewhere: if you’ve just got video in VOB format, rather than as an actual DVD, you can get iMovie to import it by converting the VOBs back into a DVD image, using an application such as Toast. The trick, however, is to mount the disk image by control-clicking (right-clicking) and choosing Open with Diskimagemounter. I found that if the DVD disk image was mounted with Toast, it just crashes iMovie.

So that’s most of my problems solved, and I hope other people’s too.

The only remaining issue is that some of the VOB files seem to be corrupt, as there are some chunks that iMovie won’t import (thumbnails don’t load in the import dialogue panel and if you try to import them, iMovie crashes). Any solutions, anyone?