Tuesday, 16 December 2014

UKIP logic

Today I found one UKIP council candidate making this claim on Twitter:
"...over 200 countries have immigration controls are they racist etc?"
The false premise this is based on is absolutely staggering and mind-boggling. The UK does still have immigration controls - for the vast majority of countries in the world, and even towards other EU member states (the UK is not a Schengen Area party). Entrants from the EU must prove their citizenship at the border, and must be economically active to remain (ie. they can be removed after a period of time if they fail to acquire a job or training).

The point I want to make by highlighting this is quite simple, really. How are we supposed to fight a party like UKIP when the very way they frame their arguments are so entrenched in misinformation and lies as this? If we are to defeat a group like UKIP, we must take control of the debate and stop retorting in their own framing of the issues.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The problem with National Coming Out Day

Well, today is National Coming Out Day. And I guess it's now my job as an angry cultural cynic, or so I've been described, to explain why I despise it.

Let me start by saying that this comes as my perception of the holiday as a gay man who's had the experience of coming out to family members who were hardly progressive on the issue at the time, and for whom the whole sexuality thing got out about me (against my will) while at school... Catholic school...

While the times are certainly easier now than they were in the past, we must not forget that for many people, coming out to their family, friends, co-workers, etc, simply is not an option. I was terrified of coming out to my family as a teen, largely because of my very Catholic, half Spanish, half Sicilian stepfather, who was already in a (often mutually) violent relationship with my mother. At the same time, I'd confided my sexuality in someone at school who I thought to be my friend. In a matter of days, the rumour had passed around the entire school and instigated a school life of bullying until the age of 18 that was, at times, so bad that I once malingered illness for 2 months to avoid going. I couldn't involve the school administration, as they'd talk to my parents about the issue, and when I did, they simply ignored it, citing the already repealed Section 28 as the reason (in reality, it was just because the school was run by Catholic bigots).

It wasn't until I was 22, and my stepfather had finally moved out, that I felt able to tell my mother about my sexuality, and it took a good stiff drink beforehand. Looking back, she took it a lot better than I expected, but not as well as could be hoped. She had literally never known an openly gay person in her life, let alone expected her son to be gay.

So how does all of this relate to National Coming Out Day?

The concept behind NCOD is that people should use the day to pluck up their courage to talk to people about who they are - just swallow your doubts and tell people, all in the name of progress because we need visibility and yada yada. I agree, gay people need to be more visible in society for people to realise it's really not a big deal. But is creating a pre-packaged day of observance that sends the message of "Oh go on, just 'be brave', you'll be fine" really productive?

There is already increasing pressure on LGBT people to come out, because there's a growing cultural delusion that it'll automatically be fine when you do. And what's more, you have an implied moral duty to do so, because we need visibility!

When I was 14 and told a friend that I'm gay, I regretted it until I was 18 and left school with abysmally bad grades that I largely blame the chronic bullying I experienced for. When I was a teenager and wanted to communicate with my parents on the subject, I was unable to do so. It was not a matter of courage or bravery, it was a matter of self-preservation. Between the age of 14-18, much of my life felt like a living hell, because of having to hide my sexuality. Read, had to, from my family, and also because of the one time I told someone before I should have. There are still plenty of horror stories waiting to happen, particularly with LGBT youths who are desperate to be able to talk to someone, but can't.

I do not regret now, 2 years on, having told my mother. But I told her when I was ready to. Not when I was told I should just be a little more brave.

Gay, lesbian, bi, trans teens don't need to be patronised with the message that they should just be brave to benefit the LGBT community. You trivialise the experience of having to live in that kind of environment where hiding it is simply a matter of self-preservation. Many gay people, young ones especially, have a hard enough time without being pressured into coming out, and being sent an implicit message that not doing so is a personal failure.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Politicians are entitled to a private life

I'm getting sick of seeing "scandal" cases about MPs, councillors, council candidates, etc etc in the news and being forced to resign because of some kind of sex scandal, which is often something as banal as sharing photos of your cock in a personal and private chat with someone, as with what recently happened to Brooks Newmark.

I have no idea what a journalist was doing posing as a model to induce him to send photos of his genitals, or why it would be news that, in the 21st century, sometimes people use digital media to "get off", so to speak. The fact he is married is irrelevant, this is a part of his private life, and for a journalist to pass off as someone else in order to expose details of that private life is completely inappropriate and lowers our politics to the same level as the contents of Heat Magazine.

I will be completely frank. I have stood as a political candidate in local elections. There is sexually explicit content on the internet relating to (and of) me, if you know where to look. I make no apologies for this; it is my business and mine alone. It has no impact on my suitability as a local politician. It is none of your business unless you are invited into my private life, and, if you manipulate me into inviting you in bad faith, the shame is on you, not me.

Political parties need to grow a spine and make a pledge that they will not fire, or pressure or force to resign, any of their elected representatives or candidates for so-called "sex scandals" where the acts in question are completely legal. We need to stop treating politicians as though their private sex lives are part of their job, and our parties should take the lead by promising to protect their members instead of throwing them to the wolves over details of their sex lives.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Dear Evangelical Christians at Pride

Dear evangelical Christians who attended the Liverpool Pride march in counter-protest yesterday,

Thank you for turning up to protest, as you do every year. Sincerely, I'm not being sarcastic. Most of the people who attend at the march are there because they grew up with people like you around them telling them they shouldn't be proud of who they are. People like you are the reason why they go on marches like this.

But now, with people like you being increasingly the marginalised ones, it's hard to see the enemy you're protesting against at most modern pride events in this country. Very easily, without people like you, people could start asking "Well, why am I here?"

You give everyone on the march a visible enemy to protest against. Knowing you're going to be there fuels people, including me, to march. You turn yourself into the embodiment of why everyone is there. The embodiment of the values many of us were raised with and are marching to show our rejection of. Joining in with the jeering and the laughing, and watching the guys in bondage gear and horse masks heckling you is one of the highlights of the march. You reminded me why I turned up.

Sincerely, thank you for being there.

I hope to see you next year.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

What can cause holes in frames?

I was asked today to weigh in on the potential cause of this apparent damage to a frame. In actual fact, it isn't damage as such.

To explain, we have to consider a critical concept when working with honeybees, the bee space. The bee space was discovered in the 19th century by the Polish beekeeper, Johann Dzierżoń. The idea behind the bee space was the discovery that honeybees will always build their combs so that they maintain a 6-8mm gap between their combs, just enough to allow workers to pass each other by, back to back.

It was this discovery which a few years later led to the invention of the modern removable frame hive by Lorenzo Langstroth, and every removable frame hive is designed to have spacings that allow bees to build combs according to the needs dictated by the bee space.

However, bees sometimes build their combs in a crooked manner. This is especially true when the adjacent comb has projections such as drone cells or queen cells, which always project from the comb and thus reduce the bee space between the combs. As a response to this, the bees may start to chew away the comb on the adjacent frame, to restore the bee space.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

On starting as a beekeeper

I've said it quite a few times that one of the ways to help stop honeybee declines is if we had more beekeepers keeping bees. And indeed, there have been more and more people taking up the hobby in the last few years. But one of the trends I've noticed (and it was noted in a fairly recent issue of the BBKA's newsletter) is that many of those who have taken up the hobby have left it within a year or two - a much higher level of attrition of low-experience (0-2 years) than in the past. So I wanted to cover a few points of advice before people start.

  1. What's your ultimate motivation for starting? Take a serious thought about this one; is your motivation a genuine interest in bees and/or the craft of beekeeping, or is it ultimately down to what you've seen in the media about pollinator declines? There's nothing wrong with feeling a little inspired by that - but unless it's paired with a genuine and prior interest in bees, you're unlikely to continue the hobby long-term.
  2. Find your local association, go to a meeting or two, ask a more experienced beekeeper to show you around their hives and show you what an inspection is like. Importantly, absolutely do go through an inspection with a beekeeper so that you have both a rough idea of what's involved in day to day beekeeping, and so you can gauge your reaction to the reality of having thousands of stinging insects flying around you (which, by the way, can and do sting through a bee suit).
  3. Allow yourself to be stung at least twice, a couple of weeks apart, by honeybees, before you get your own. You will be able to gauge your body's reaction to the sting and whether you're potentially allergic to the stings. You don't have to have anaphylactic shock to be allergic, but milder allergies can still have unpleasant reactions. You'll also be able to gauge your psychological reaction to the prospect of being stung. If you feel you're likely to be walking on egg shells while inspecting your hives, then it's probably not for you. You must be able to handle bees confidently and able to concentrate on the task at hand rather than the prospect of being stung. Critically, you should also be able to continue a hive manipulation after being stung and scraping it out - you should not have an adverse behavioural reaction to a sting.
  4. Read, read read. Get books about beekeeping. Read things on the internet (though take it with a pinch of salt unless it's from a reputable source). Learn about what's actually involved. Beekeeping is more than keeping bees in a box. Make sure you know what's actually involved, as well as your responsibilities (see below).
  5. Consider the commitment and time involvement - from April to late July, you'll need to spend at least 30-60 minutes per week inspecting each hive you own. For various reasons, you'll want at least two colonies. Additionally, it's reckless to make the commitment to a colony of bees unless you're sure you'll be able to make this time commitment, and won't bail after getting stung a few times, and neglect the colony. In addition to the problems your own colony can encounter due to neglect (including the death of the colony), you can spread disease and parasites to other peoples' colonies, and you have a legal responsibility to notify DEFRA on suspicion of notifiable parasites and diseases. Not suspecting them because of wilful negligence or ignorance isn't a defence. Neighbours tend not to like uncontrolled and repeated swarming onto their property, too, and neglect to prevent swarming as far as is possible jeopardises the reputation of beekeepers, reinforces fears about bees, and makes it harder for other beekeepers to reassure people of the safety of bees.
  6. Consider the costs. It can cost upwards of £500 to get started with one colony, and you will almost certainly need to buy additional equipment down the line. Once you're established, you can offset some of these costs with honey sales, but don't depend on being able to pay off the credit card you bought your equipment and bees with from honey sales in your first year or two.
I don't intend to put people off of becoming beekeepers, but for the good of your own colonies, and for the good of other people's, please take into serious consideration whether this is something you can commit to long-term before you start.

Avaaz: Before the bees are gone?

For a while now, Avaaz have been spamming out more of their emails, this time regarding bees. But it's not a petition this time - they want you to dig deep to fund their little science project. In short, they want your money so they can fund a research project to find out why bees are dying, because all of that industry funded junk science getting in the way of the facts.

Apart from the astounding irony of an explicitly and openly partisan organisation that has previously run petitions presuming the primary cause of bee declines (pesticides), accusing the other side of junk science when asking for money for your own science project, there are a lot of problems with this "project".

  1. Given Avaaz's open political agenda regarding pesticides, how can we be sure that this study will be unbiased, and not "junk science" as they accuse the industry of?
  2. The language they use, such as "go head to head with big pharma" strongly indicates that they do, in fact, have a strong bias, and this research will be worth about as much as the paper it's (not) published on
  3. The scientific consensus is currently that there is no "silver bullet" to halt bee declines, which are actually caused by multiple interacting factors (of which pesticides are just one). See this TED Talk by a well known bee researcher for more detail
  4. Bee and pollinator declines are now subject to a rapidly growing body of research. There has already been a lot of research, and there is a lot of ongoing research, into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, independent of the industry, which has shown that they are harmful to bees. My own university tutor has performed published research about the effect of imidacloprid (the most widely used neonicotinoid) on honeybee learning at concentrations likely to be encountered in contaminated nectar.
  5. In light of #4, it's hard to see how Avaaz think a project like this will be a magical panacea in the fight against pesticides
  6. Avaaz have not stated exactly what the research would be studying ("pesticides" is not a good enough answer, be specific), or who would be performing it
In summation, this is almost certain to end up being junk science. It will divert a lot of money from peoples' pockets to a junk science project that could be spent on other charities projects fighting pollinator decline. A list of the charities working to fight pollinator decline is below:
  1. Friends of the Honeybee is the British Beekeepers' Association's fundraising campaign, and seeks funding for research into honeybee parasites and diseases, particularly Varroa.
  2. Hymettus funds research into bees, wasps, ants, and other pollinators, and disseminates information regarding their conservation.
  3. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust does exactly what it says in the name.
  4. Buglife is a charity dedicated to "saving the small things that run the planet" and has a long-standing campaign to conserve pollinators.
  5. Find your local beekeepers' association - they're all branches of the BBKA and usually charities in their own right, and support beekeepers in the local area. Donating to them can help the association to rent land for their members to set up a communal apiary, help to buy equipment and/or bees for new members, provide training for both beginners and established beekeepers, and potentially a myriad other things.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The bigger picture of honeybee decline

We all hear about honeybee, and other pollinator, declines and rightly want to find the causes so we can counter them. But I wanted to take a moment to explain the consequences of honeybee declines by putting beekeepers into the picture.

Honeybees can no longer survive for an extended period in the wild (feral colonies are almost non-existent in the UK since the mid 90s), and rely on beekeepers to manage parasites, disease, and the effects of other problems like pesticides. This means that they are precariously sustained by the ability of beekeepers to maintain colonies. The number of beekeepers and the number of colonies each beekeeper can maintain determines the total ecological carrying capacity of honeybee colonies.

Everything from equipment costs, to miticide treatments to kill varroa, to the cost of making up new colonies in order to make up for lost colonies, to reduced honey harvests, impacts the economy of the industry. When the economy of the industry is disrupted, the number of colonies each beekeeper can have, and even the number of beekeepers (as the costs of beekeeping can drive people out of the industry, from commercial to the humble hobbyist, or present an insurmountable barrier to entry).

This means that, on top of varroa and pesticides, et al., the biggest threat of all to the honeybee population may be a matter of economics. This is why we need the government to consider financial support or subsidies for beekeepers in the National Pollinator Strategy.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Stop pandering to an EU referendum

It seems the trendy thing for all of the parties at the moment, from Labour to the Tories, even to the Greens, to entertain the idea of a referendum on Europe, while their policy is either that they want to stay in Europe (Greens), or that they send otherwise mixed messages about Europe (Tories, Labour to a lesser extent).

Why is this dangerous?

Stop pandering to UKIP defectors

This whole debate is essentially giving the playing field to UKIP. A minor party that gets an obscene amount of media coverage. A party that has no elected MP, but gets infinitesimally more media coverage than a party that does (the Green Party). There is a debate about European immigration right now, we get that. But I'm dumbfounded by every single party's determination to give the centre ground to UKIP, from whom all other policies flow.

Which leads me onto my next point...

Stop sending mixed messages

"We want a referendum but we want to stay in Europe really, honest". Are we supposed to follow on your words with such a weak, half-hearted policy? When someone votes for a UKIP candidate, they know they are voting for a withdrawal from the European Union. If I vote for your party, I want it to be a vote for staying in the European Union. No ifs, no buts. If it is your policy to stay in the EU, my vote for you should be my way of expressing that. The public has had its say. There is no need for a referendum.

In fact, this is one of the chronic problems of the major parties today; they seem to be unable to create an coherent policy on any issue that really matters. "We want to stay in the EU, but we'll have a referendum anyway" is one hell of a mixed message. Exactly how much do you want to stay in the EU? I'm not convinced as to your commitment to that policy. At least when people vote for UKIP they know what mandate they're voting for, exactly.

Stop being idiots

Every time you create a reactionary policy to UKIP's, you give their position credibility. Stop it.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A critique of the [adjective][species] survey methodology

The [adjective][species] (AJ) surveys and their results and various analyses have been getting quite a bit of attention lately, and I wanted to draw attention to the fundamental flaws in the methodology of the analysis of the data they collect.

I'll start with a slight disclaimer about this critique, I'm not a social scientist, but I am a Zoologist, or more specifically an Ethologist, and, as such, a core part of my work involves collecting data on the behaviour of animals and then analysing it statistically.

For this critique I'll be specifically focusing on their article on the furry fandom and re-evaluating one's sexual orientation as an example of the site's methodological failings that are so fundamental that I'd be surprised if any of them have any training in basic statistics or the scientific method.

So, where to begin...

A pretty visualisation does not analysis make

One of the major problems with this article is that it conflates making a pretty graph with analysing data. The writer uses the graph to assert a trend which indicates the hypothesis to be true; that the furry fandom does lead people to re-assess their sexual orientation. But there are no analytical statistics to back up this assertion, and there is no test (such as a chi square) to prove that this distribution did not occur due to random variation.

Some data points on the distribution make it obvious that you can't take anything for granted with this graph without a significance test, as I've highlighted in the image below, and these are just the worst offenders:

The number of heterosexuals can increase by about half in 3 years across the distribution (years 8-11) but apparently this isn't worthy of discussion. The number of pansexuals can more than double in a 1 year span and then drop off but this isn't worthy of discussion. There has been no critical analysis of the reliability of the dataset anywhere in the article. There has been no actual analytical test to check the statistical significance of the dataset anywhere in the article. This is a very basic principle of using any dataset like this.

Without testing that the data distribution did not occur by chance, why would I accept your hypothesis? For a scientist to accept your hypothesis, you need a 0.05 probability or less (less than 5%) that the data was acquired by chance alone. Simply looking at the distribution, I'd posit that the data would likely fail this test.

Even if you proved that the distribution is not random, you would then still have to establish a correlation coefficient, etc. with other tests.

Look, ma! No hands control!

For any scientific test, you really need a control sample. Re-evaluation of one's sexuality occurs all the time in the general population; running something like a Mann-Whitney test against a data sample from the general population is basically essential to establish that it differs at all from other populations.

Lack of alternative hypotheses

They present no alternative hypotheses that don't involve the fandom. There are a couple of obvious ones:

  • Furries who have been in the fandom for a shorter period of time are by definition going to be younger on average than those who have been in the fandom for longer; it's established that many furries first join the fandom in their teenage years. The author's own hypothesis asserts that the fandom doesn't "turn" people gay or bi, just makes them re-evaluate their sexuality. If these younger furries are in their teens, it stands to reason that they may re-evaulate their sexuality, anyway.
  • Since this is not a longitudinal study but based on a question asking someone to report how long they've been in the fandom for, it is impossible to determine whether they have re-evaluated their sexuality during their time in the fandom based on this data, or whether the growth and greater attention the fandom has received recently has attracted a greater proportion of heterosexuals to the fandom among younger cohorts.

Spurious claims

"The trend is almost certainly starker than the chart shows."
Says what statistical test?

"It’s safe to conclude that more than half of the heterosexual furries coming into the community will change their sexual preference."
Even if you were to prove that this is not a random distribution and establish a correlation coefficient, correlation does not imply causality, as I've demonstrated with my above alternative hypotheses.


This analysis is based entirely on a single data visualisation with no statistical testing whatsoever. The conclusions reached by the author of the article are completely pseudo-scientific, and even assuming, for the sake of argument, the data is non-random, and has a significant correlation coefficient, the author makes a spurious conclusion that correlation implies causality.