Huzzah, have submitted the magnum opus to the Ministry, and am now gainfully employed in one of those fabulous postdoc things. More on the exact nature of that later.

I started composing a list in my head of things NOT to say to PhD students in the final death throes of writing up, but decided that actually, what was necessary was a blanket ban on any conversation that wasn’t (a) offers of help, whether practical, material, or emotional; (b) idle gossip about celebrities; (c) “Have you heard X’s new album? Here, let me give it to you.” That pretty much covered it.

This last week has been strange without the hour-to-hour countdown; at the end of writing-up I got into this interesting rhythm of not even needing a to-do list. Hadn’t looked at iCal since the beginning of February. The immediacy of writing the next paragraph, fiddling with the next table, doing the colour-coding on the next figure–they all slotted into their own timetable without needing me to arrange them.

Now I have all this perceived TIME and I notice I have become enamoured of scheduling and organising. It’s all patently false of course; I have huge amounts to do, but I have the leisure to think in terms of alternatives (which of these things shall I do, rather than which of these things shall I do next?). And, obviously, the leisure to make blog posts.

So, while I was writing up, my friends have been doing exciting things.

Simon @ Auckland has set up Henry, the Human Evolution News RelaY, which gathers all sorts of newsy tidbits from the scientific literature and press. You can contribute stories, too, as long as you pass Simon’s stringent journalistic criteria.

Mhairi @ Bristol and Eshetu @ Addis Ababa have won a 3-year British Academy grant for the UK-Africa Partnership to investigate population change in 21st century Africa, with a focus on Ethiopia.

Laura @ UCL has set up the Ethnographic Database Project, which aims to gather cultural information on Indo-European societies in a systematic and freely-available fashion. This is a pilot for what may be a larger venture, and one close to my academic heart, so if you can contribute, please do!

Later this month is the second European Human Behaviour and Evolution Conference, at which I’ll be presenting and which looks to be great fun.

a vagary of links

A “vagary”, according to The Source, is the collective noun for ‘impediments’. More pages that collect collective nouns are here and here. I am amused that a group of submarines is called a wolfpack, and that a group of sheldrakes is a doading (shoutout to my friend Duckie!).

Henceforth a group of links to things almost, but not quite entirely like tea relevant to The Thesis shall be known as a Vagary.

First, the Guardian reports on what most menstruating women know: that your hot water bottle really does relieve internal pain. A couple months back I read about a study that demonstrated that heat was as effective as ibuprofen in relieving menstrual pain. This is good news for our livers, no doubt, but carrying around a hot water bottle is impractical for about 99% of women. Those stick-on heat things with the iron filings in them seem to do a good job though!

Chocolate, it seems, is really not anti-depressant: “any mood benefits of chocolate consumption are ephemeral.” It’s just cos you’re stuffing your gob, not the magical woo-woo power of cacao.

Some gems from Medical Hypotheses, which I might unfairly characterise as a place where MDs who still yearn for the third-year undergraduate speculative essays they never got to write because they were too busy memorising the major craniofacial nerves get to, um, write those essays. Hey, it’s called Hypotheses for a reason. I kinda love this. I wish *I* had left-field theory to write up. Hours of fun.

Ecstacy makes you feel good and want to touch people and rub up against them and slide your–sorry. Ecstacy makes you feel saucy ‘cos of vasopressin and oxytocin. Man, that oxytocin stuff is awesome. It makes women forget the trauma and pain of childbirth, stimulates breastfeeding, makes you trust people more, increases your pain tolerance… why can’t I buy *that* from those guys at Camden Market instead of the magic mushrooms?

This one argues that there might be adaptive reasons behind our pervasive use of alcohol and caffeine. That is, caffeine makes us SMRT in an environment where competition is social/intellectual rather than physical, and alcohol dampens down the stress response in environments that lack social networks and cause a greater fear response. Oh, and apparently, if you’re drunk and in some sort of traumatic injury situation you heal better or something. This article is so unnecessarily convoluted in its prose I could only skim it, and it seems to be the kind of evolutionary psychology armchair handwaving that could be problematised pretty quickly; they don’t seem to have a grasp on their timelines (like, WHEN are these environments) or their cross-cultural caff/booze frequencies. But, you know, some testable hypotheses.

Cultural evolution causing baldness. I dunno in what sense cultural evolution is being used here, but possibly the loosest type, i.e. cultural change. Anyhow, apparently wearing headdresses and having close-cropped hair means sebum builds up on the hair shaft, and that’s bad and causes baldness. This is my favourite bit:

“Many people affected by common baldness have noted that they started to suffer from it during military service. This theory could explain this fact. The difference in hair length is the key. Military people, skinheads and others wear their hair short and therefore they can induce problems with the sebum flow. On the contrary, hippies, Hindus, etc. wear long hair.”

Dude. Good luck with that one.

Finally, the piece de resistance: defecating at night-time (only) may help you lose weight. Because you’re carrying your shit around with you all day, and that takes energy.

This gets the special face: o.O

elsewhere on the internerd…

Presentation Zen has a great post on the rule of thirds in slide composition.

FrinkTank linked the site for Danny Boyle's new film Sunshine, which I will not embarrass myself by going OMGICANNOTWAITLKJSHDFALKJFSDA except how I totally just did.

Am following with interest the reponse to Nature's piece commenting on PLoS's "rocky" financial position, here

Long but thought-provoking piece on Savage Minds about the so-called "end of marriage", trying to take a more comparative perspective. 

more chaucerian phylogenetics

Eagleton, C. & Spencer, M. 2006.

Copying and conflation in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the astrolabe : a stemmatic analysis using phylogenetic software. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A [link]

Chaucer’s works seem to be the focus of what one might call literary phylogenetics. This new paper uses network methods to try and unravel the lineages and relationships amongst multiple copies of his “Treatise on the Astrolabe”, a work that was copied at least 30-odd times, some in fragmentary pieces. Using NeighbourNet, the  authors construct diagrams of interelatedness, showing areas of “hybridisation” between manuscripts. They find that the scribes were diligent about creating a complete copy, and would consult other versions to fill in the gaps or verify uncertainties contained in a single exemplar. 

Other cool things in my inbox today included the ToC for PLoS Biology, which contains an article about Siphs, a community expertise-sharing forum for the life sciences. The article discusses the benefits of online databases for journal articles (less arduous time in the library) but the highlights that things like PubMed and WoS don’t actually tell you what is important, or answer your question. We have an information overload without access to expertise, and the Siphs project looks to be set up to counter that. Of course it will only succeed if individuals participate, but announcing it in PLoS is a good idea.

This information age is an exciting time in that knowledge is at our fingertips. But if we fail to innovate upon our means of accessing information, the Internet’s promise of providing us what we want will be lost as knowledge is drowned in a sea of facts. These new tools are founded upon the belief that we’re better off working together, but they work only if you think so too.

The article also linked to Connotea, which I’ve known about for a while but haven’t set up. Given how much I love the social bookmarking available at, I really have no excuse.

some original research on a hot topic

Cultural evolution really is a growing field. So there.
Fiona Jordan
Anthropology, UCL

It is extremely useful to be able to preface one’s grant application or paper introduction with a reference to the vibrant state of research in the field of cultural evolution. Of course, the truth of that sentiment has, until now, been more what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—a gut feeling of what is right—rather than being based on any empirical research. Fret no more, your hyperbolic claims are now statistically validated. Here I present the results of an arduous literature search cataloguing the state of the science over the last 30 years. It’s true: cultural evolution is the next big thing.

I used the search term “cultural evolution” in the ISI Web of Science bibliographic database for the period 1975-2005.  This 30-year period encompasses the publication of three major volumes [see references] applying evolutionary theory to culture and extends back five years previously for comparison. Also, I was born in 1975 and it seemed fortuitous. For each year, I took the total number of records containing the search term and plotted them against the year. Cumulative totals were then calculated.


Figure 1 

Figure 2
Instances of the keyword phrase “cultural evolution” clearly increase dramatically over time, accelerating in the last ten years. We may assume that the number of published works in the field is actually greater than the results suggest, as some studies might not contain that particular keyword but do meet the remit of cultural evolutionary research. A more rigorous approach would compare the citation of a neutral keyword with the trend presented here, but life is too short for that sort of malarkey.


Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. (1985) Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Monographs in Population Biology 16.

Lumsden, C. J. & Wilson, E. O. (1981). Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

return of the linkspam

My lame attempt to add content to today's post is to report that I went to a workshop on dealing with the media. We didn't actually get to the most useful part of it (mock interviews), but there was some interesting advice from our Media Relations centre here and from the presenters. Myself and the other Fame!Recognition!PopSci!Junkies in the group possibly are all a little early-career to benefit from this stuff, but any pointers on how to present complex technical information to General Public and Private Citizen is always helpful.

I think I took away the message that while, for me, the methodology of my thesis is the cool stuff, what is going to be newsworthy are the results–the anthropological meat of inheritance and kinship.

Onto a link roundup:

An appalling choice of sensationalist headline for news about eukaryote evolution. Nice one, NZ media.

Watch a video of Jared Diamond's lecture on his book Collapse, given last year to the Royal Society. Also linked are other video lectures including those by Steve Jones and Bill Bryson.

Also from the Royal Society, the Summer Science Exhibition in the first week of July: the list of exhibits is now online.

The Art Farm Project. Heeeeee.

Newfangled ways of doings maths are being abandoned, back to the old methods. Scarily, the old methods are the ways I know. The new methods look like too much hard work to me.
Finally, from my previous life in the jewellery trade: the Summer Exhibition at the Goldsmiths Company.


Via John Hawks: big words make readers think you're not clever

At Jaron Lanier on the aggregating-phenomena of the the web, where he views Wikipedia (for example) as one of many "online fetish site(s) for foolish collectivism".

Yeah, exactly. The Jolie-Pitt enterprise and celebrity colonialism. Remind me again what Geri Halliwell does for the UN?

Moleskine's City Notebooks (via Londonist). I covet, nngh. Londonist's flickr group is also a great source of internerdly distraction.

Where you get your first post-PhD job really matters.

Language Log's old but clever posts that have a jolly good time ripping apart that Da Vinci Code book.

The decline of the art of the lecture.

Slate's slideshow on mad scientists at the cinema. Grr, gnash, wail. A pet peeve.

Thoughtful post about men's attempts to defuse feminist anger through joking.


In other news, today I voluntarily wore socks and sandals [1]. I don't know how the style part of my brain has been coerced into thinking this is acceptable. It's not fashionable, but certainly comfortable. Maybe all those deputy principals were on to something. I'll be a bit horrified if I start with the wearing of walk shorts, though.

1. Perusal of the link leads to the conclusion that sock+sandal wearers are overwhelming male, 40+, white and overweight. Hmm. Where are all the proud women s+s wearers? (No, don't answer that, honest.)

an inconvenient truth

Presentation Zen, my favourite blog on the art of presentation, links to the site for Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", the film derived from Gore's "travelling slideshow" on climate change and global warming. The trailer itself is (as with all cinema trailers) isn't sparing with the drama, but the presentations and visuals linked therein are impressive.

random links

A terrible sign of laziness, but the two things I want to blog about require brain power and I just can't get that together this afternoon.

From Language Log, Reliable Sources on (Language) Classification.

A USB flash-stick that balloons up with the amount of data stored on it.

From the ever-awesome John Hawks, the unintended consequences of recreational genetics. I have more to say upon this, but it'll be its own post.

New dialects in the East End threatening Cockney.