Thursday, 22 June 2017

Is it sex that’s keeping Granny going?

Is regular sex good for your brain as you get older?

The journal Age and Ageing published some research in 2016 on the effects of sex on the brains of older people called Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitivefunction in older age

The Journal of Gerontology has just published Frequent Sexual Activity Predicts Specific Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults, which says it ‘replicates and extends the findings’ of the first study.

Any article purporting to be about the science of sex makes for good headlines, but is the science any good? (Spoiler: No).

First, the Sex on the Brain research. Let’s set aside the dreadful title. Has anyone done research into the tendency of academic studies to make themselves sound like tabloid articles?

For the purposes of this study, ‘sexual activity could include intercourse, masturbation, petting or fondling’. I’m not sure what counts as petting and fondling except that there used to be signs at swimming pools saying: ‘No petting’.

The aim of the study is to explore ‘the relationship between cognition and sexual activity in healthy older adults’ (aged 50-89). The tests used were number sequencing and word recall. The findings were that ‘there were significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing and recall in men. However, in women there was a significant association between sexual activity and recall, but not number sequencing’.

The word to keep in mind here is ‘association’. We’ll come to that.

People in the study were asked about sexual activity in the last 12 months. The findings were that ‘sexually active men and women to have significantly higher scores on the number sequencing and recall tests than sexually inactive men and women (all P < 0.001)’.

This is where the alarm bells start to go off.  

As all good skeptics know, correlation does not imply causation – or ‘association’ as the study calls it. That’s at the core of the problem with this research. Both studies admit this: ‘we can only speculate as to a causal relationship at this time’ and ‘we cannot infer a causal relationship between SA and cognitive function’. So all the studies are really saying is that people who say they have more sex when they are older do better on certain tests.

It’s important to have a control group when researching: people who did not receive the treatment or got a placebo or who didn’t do something to others did, for example. You need something to compare your results with.

The control group here is people not having regular sex. This might work if there were no other variables and confounding factors. But that’s not the case. It would be a much better indicator if the people who did score higher had no sex for 12 months and were then retested. Did their abilities change?

Another problem is that the average age of people having sex was 64.4 years and those not having sex was 72.9 years. That’s quite a big difference in terms of ageing; changes to the body over those 8.5 years are not considered. Women at the lower end of the age range were not asked if they had been through menopause, which can affect sexual activity and interest.

There was no indication of whether the participants were straight or LGBT, trans or cis.

The sample size is good, 3,060 men and 3,773 women, enough to produce significant results. But there were 2349 men who were having regular sex and only 711 who weren’t, which could skew the results.

A further problem with the research is that ‘sexually active men and women were more likely to have a higher level of education, be younger, wealthier, more physically active, not depressed, less lonely and have a better quality of life’.

This is where another klaxon goes off.

People with more money and a better education scored higher. They were also more likely to be living with a partner and so have easier access to sex. The study could just as well be called ‘Educated, wealthy old couples have more sex!’ (Not quite so catchy as titles go)

It could also have been called ‘People with depression, illness and loneliness have less sex!’ These conditions don’t just affect older people but everyone and can reduce sexual desire or activity.

Masturbation was included as sexual activity but not split into solo or mutual groups. So it could be that DIY is just as effective as sex with someone else – there’s no way of knowing from this study.

Both studies speculate that the cause could be the ‘potential cognitive enhancing effects of dopamine’ and ‘enhanced oxytocin release’. These two have been shown to improve cognitive functioning but levels were not measured in participants.

There’s also the problem of self-reporting. How honest were the answers?

The participants were not asked if they were having good quality sex or how their sexual activity had changed over time.

The second study replicated the findings of the first and tested for a wider range of cognitive functions. But there were only 73 participants (aged 50-83), not enough to be statistically significant. One of the tests was to list as many words beginning with F as possible. Don’t tempt me.

How are the media reporting these findings? One guess.

The Express says ‘University boffins have discovered older people can boost their brain power - by having more sex’ and thoughtfully includes a badly-drawn diagram on a sex position for people with arthritis. Props for using the word ‘boffins’ though, that always makes me laugh, especially in an article about sex. 

The Evening Standard goes with ‘Over-50s can boost their brain power by having more sex, new research has found’. That’s an interesting but not unexpected use of ‘found’.

The Daily Mail says ‘Sex is the key to staying sharp in old age!’ What are we to infer from the exclamation mark? That it’s a surprise? That old people are having sex? Or just that it’s about SEX!

So yes, the expected uncritical response because it’s SEX. And we all like to read about SEX. Or SEX! to be more accurate.

What do we take away from this research?

That some people do better on some cognitive tests than others and that they are likely to be better educated, wealthier and healthier. They also have more sex.

There’s no consideration for people who either can’t have sex or don’t want to and how articles like this might make them feel. The research is carefully neutral but the media coverage implies that people should be having sex to preserve cognitive faculties. It’s up to you, shag or go senile. No pressure.

As a positive takeaway, if you’re not having sex, your brain is not doomed to shrivel up. Dopamine levels can be increased through exercise, getting enough sleep, achieving goals (even small ones) and eating bananas. Oxytocin levels can be increased by holding hands, stroking pets, laughing, exercise and even looking at pictures of cute things.  So go eat a banana and look at some kittens.  

Appendage: The picture at the top is only vaguely linked to the subject but all the words I could think of to put into an image search would have taken me somewhere I may not have wanted to go.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Quit It - Part Three

Part Three of dispatches from the front line after ONE YEAR without smoking

Have I smoked in the last year? No. Not one. Do I still want to? Yes. Will I give in? The hell I will.

The addict part of my brain will always be there but it’s become a puny, mewling thing.

One of the strongest triggers now is leaving a cinema; my first thought is still to light up. Last week I dreamed I was smoking and really enjoying it; for the next couple of days I really wanted one. An ex-smoker I know said this still happens to her occasionally, even after years.

People keep saying that I must feel so much better. In theory, my immune system should now have recalibrated, the cilia and cells in my airways regrown. My risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke has dropped to less than half that of a smoker. But it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve actually started feeling well after being almost constantly ill for more than eight months - not just with post-smoking coughs and colds but with non-respiratory viruses.  The GP tells me this is normal. Bloody marvellous.

I’ve just got back to my pre-quitting weight. Maintaining it is hard and means not even looking at lovely, lovely sugar more than once a week. I’m eating less overall than I was too, which is a real challenge.

My knees have adjusted to the extra cardio and my bum muscles are a bit firmer than they were.

I’ve saved myself a couple of thousand pounds (my brand, Silk Cut Silver, now sells for £10.45 in my local supermarket, of which £5.19 is tax). Am I saving the NHS money? I may not need it for smoking-related diseases but if I live longer, I will need it for other things.

Since I quit, standardized cigarette packaging has been introduced and the ten pack is no longer available. The idea is that the drab boxes with big ugly health warnings will make more people quit and put children off starting. The evidence for quitting is very slim but there is some evidence that the boxes are less attractive to teenagers. 

Most of the legislation, constant price increases and public health strategies are aimed at preventing young people from starting. They won’t put off the addicts – and certainly wouldn’t have made me stop.

You can see why vaping is becoming more popular with its pretty colours and no health warnings or gruesome images. So far. Evidence is growing of the dangers of vaping if it is not used as a short-term quitting aid. 

Some tobacco companies have started selling tins to avoid the new packaging rules and keep their branding visible. One expert said “The fact that these tins appeared almost immediately prior to the branding and size restrictions coming into force is suspicious.” It’s not suspicious, it’s predictable. They are not going to go down without a fight for a global industry currently worth $770 billion a year.

I’ve learnt a lot about quitting in the last year, some of it scientific, some of it personal. The main messages are:
  • Quitting is bloody awful but if it was easy everyone would do it. I am super special sparkly
  • There is no good time to stop. This last year has been a bugger for many reasons
  • It’s different for everyone
  • Think before you open your mouth around a quitter
  • There will be consequences. Quitting is damage limitation, not resetting to zero
  • There are both genetic and cultural components to addiction
  • Public health information and support is very inadequate
  • It’s really important to get support from anyone who will listen to you constantly whining
  • Punching people won’t make you want to smoke any less

So that’s my year of quitting. Now give me that damn cake.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Beyond Belief

A Comres survey commissioned by the BBC for Palm Sunday** does not look good for the Church of England despite a predictable effort to spin the findings.

In the survey, 51% of people surveyed identified as Christian. Half of the people surveyed said they didn’t believe in the resurrection, while only 31% of people identifying as Christian said they did. Only 17% of people thought the Bible version was literally true while 26% believed but thought the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally.

Although Christmas is now far more celebrated, the resurrection is the core tenet of Christianity and Easter is its most important festival. No resurrection, no Christianity.  To quote the Bible: Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25) And yet more than two thirds of Christians don’t believe that.

Belief and church attendance have been falling for quite some time. The figures for belief in this survey are slightly better than those in a YouGov survey from last year which found that only 46% of people identify as Christian. This was a much bigger survey and so is more likely to represent the population as a whole (nearly 12,000 as opposed to around 2,000 people). The YouGov survey also found that more people believe in ghosts than in a Creator.
According to the current survey, 37% of people identifying as Christian never go to Church. Another survey by the Church of England itself found that only 2% of the population go to the Church of England at Easter. The flock really has strayed far from the Good Shepherd (probably because they know he’s going to herd them off to the slaughterhouse so we can all eat our traditional Easter roast lamb and rosemary). 

The survey also looked at belief in life after death. It found that only 46% of people said they believed in it and the same number said they didn’t. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then the Church’s carrot and stick tactics are not going to work on you.

Sidebar: of those who do believe in an afterlife, 56% were women and 36% were men. I looked at why women may believe more than men in many kinds of supernatural phenomena (and non-evidence based medicines) here.

The Church is fighting a rearguard action and trying to spin the findings that 20% of the non-religious believe in some sort of life after death and that 9% of non-believers do believe that the resurrection happened.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker,said: "This important and welcome survey proves that many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers, hold core Christian beliefs”. He describes the results as “surprisingly high levels of religious belief among those who follow no specific religion, often erroneously referred to as secularists or atheists”.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Firstly, the Church doesn’t have a monopoly in life after death belief. About a third of the people (32%) who believed in some sort of life after death believe in reincarnation, hardly a Christian doctrine.

Secondly, 9% believing in the resurrection is not a ‘surprisingly high level’ when you look more closely and see that these are people who ‘do not belong to a religious group’ according to the survey. They are not identified as non-believers or claiming to be atheist or secular, he’s just grasping at straws because any kind of belief, however small or tenuous is better than nothing.  He does deserve credit for his top skills at ignoring all the stats that don’t reflect well on the Church though. That’s quite an impressive mental contortionist act.

Thirdly, he is conflating atheists and secularists. Atheism means no belief in God whereas secularism is a political belief in the need for separation of Church and State. You can be religious and secular, as many people are.

Like a lot of Easter eggs, the Bishop’s claims are hollow and crack under the slightest pressure.

There is also dissension in the Christian ranks. Reverend Dr Lorraine Cavenagh is the acting general secretary for Modern Church, which promotes liberal Christian theology. She said "Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody's lives.

"So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won't do and that's true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith."

A cynical person might say that the Church wants us all to believe like children at Sunday School do. Many of these children also believe in Santa.

Would it be mean to point out that in 2002 a survey found that a third of Church of England clergy don’t believe in the physical resurrection? That’s a bit of an own goal. It’s also unfair to people who do believe if they’re being led by people who don’t.  

These findings follow the Cadbury Easter egg fiasco where self-proclaimed vicar’s daughter Theresa May and Archbishop Sentamu got very hot under the dog collar about Cadbury’s and the National Trust dropping the word Easter from their eggs and egg hunt. I wrote about that here (short version – it’s not true).  

Does any of this really matter to most of us who are more interested in hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and maybe some roast lamb next Sunday?

The Bishop of Manchester also said: "This demonstrates how important beliefs remain across our society and hence the importance both of religious literacy and of religion having a prominent place in public discourse."

This is the crux of the matter. The Church will not give up its power and influence. It will not give up unelected bishops in the House of Lords or its tax-free benefits or state-funded Church schools and hospital chaplains or its general right to meddle in people’s lives. It wants the right to cherry-pick who gets to go to its schools, to mislead children in sex education classes and to discriminate against women and non-hetero cis men.

Church leaders are deluding themselves about the relevance of their beliefs and their jobs in a multi-cultural society. Yes, this country has a Christian heritage, religion has shaped society and history but it is not the sole influence. Societies evolve and the Church is looking increasingly like a dinosaur just before the meteors hit. Or, to add another simile, the Church is like a ferret that will not let go once its jaws have locked on.

However, this survey is no reason for celebration. Politicians won’t do anything to secularise the country because they’re afraid of losing votes. Anglicans (Church of England) are more likely to vote Tory, for a start. This government is very good at ignoring research it doesn’t like in any area and at dismissing ‘experts’ as irrelevant. 

So the Church of England has the last laugh. Whatever surveys show, there is no prospect of change any time soon. It’s much easier to hold onto power than to gain it. Inertia, cowardice and the status quo prevail.

Happy Easter.

** Palm Sunday is the one before Easter where the Bible says Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and people waved palm leaves at him.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The E Word

As if Theresa May didn’t have enough to deceive the British public about at the moment, now she decides to wade into the Great Easter Egg Debate. This is basically the Winterval, ’they’re cancelling Christmas’ non-story with added chocolate.

Cadbury’s and the National Trust have been running a joint egg hunt for 10 years. This year they’re calling it the Cadbury's Great British Egg Hunt instead of the Easter Egg Trail.

According to May, dropping the Easter is ‘ridiculous’. According to Archbishop Sentamu, this is ‘spitting on the grave’ of the company founder, John Cadbury, who was a Quaker.

May said: "I think the stance they have taken is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what they are thinking about frankly. Easter's very important... It's a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world." She also reminds us that she’s a vicar’s daughter.

Firstly, Cadbury is not dropping Easter from its promotions. As a spokesman point out: "A casual glance at our website will see dozens of references to Easter throughout." A ten second look at their website shows ‘Enjoy Easter fun at the National Trust’. Yes, the E Word is right there.  They also have a section called Easter Products  that says ‘Our eggstensive range is packed with perfect treats for the Easter season!’. Yes, it’s a terrible pun, but, again, the E Word is right there.

The National Trust website  says Join the Cadbury Egg Hunts this Easter. In fact, the page mentions the E Word five times.

Secondly, dear Archbishop, stop being a drama queen for one minute and you may remember that Quakers don’t even celebrate Easter because they believe every day is holy. 

Thirdly, both the Archbishop and the vicar’s daughter seem to have forgotten that there is nothing in Christian doctrine about the mass consumption of poor quality chocolate at Easter, whether it is shaped like an egg or a rabbit. These are wholly pagan relics. I wrote about the pagan originsof Easter here .

Fourthly, calling it the Great British Egg Hunt should make all the Brexiteers happy. We’ll have none of that Middle Eastern religion that was imposed on traditional British beliefs around 1500 years ago. Keep Britain’s Spring Festival British.

Fifthly, if Easter is as important as the two of them are trying to make out, how come only about 2% of people bother going to Church to celebrate what is the fundamental basis of Christianity?  And that’s according the Church of England’s own statistics. 

All of those armchair Christians really should stop their advance towards diabetes for an hour and go to their nearest church – if they even know where it is.  They may be able to sing some carols but how many Easter hymns do they know? How many gave something up for Lent? It’s not as if Cadbury and the National Trust are barricading church doors to keep people out.

Sixthly, the real story here is that Brexit could mean more expensive or smaller chocolate bars. Cadbury’s have already reduced a pack of six Creme Eggs to five with only a slight decrease in the price. A spokesman for thecompany has said that it may well have to pass on higher costs to customers by raising prices or selling smaller products for the same price. And it’s not even a British company any more, it’s owned by US company Mondel─ôz International. I suspect the ghost of Mr Cadbury would be far more bothered about that.

Cadbury’s are probably far less worried about what Theresa May thinks than about the fact that six out of ten of our favourite chocolate products are made by their rival Mars, including the top slot, which is taken by Maltesers.  

Finally, a vicar’s daughter and an Archbishop really should know that it’s a sin to tell a lie. They won’t be getting any eggs this year because the Easter Bunny knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. Santa sold the Bunny his list – customer data sharing gets everywhere.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

2016 – Another year of nonsense on stilts

As part of running London Skeptics in the Pub, I like to collect stories for our members. These are some from this year that caught my attention. They cover three main areas: health, diet and random nonsense.

Let’s start with the health-related stories.

Antibacterial soaps are often sold with scare tactics – buy this or your children will be eaten by bacteria and you will be a Bad Parent. But there is mounting evidence that they are no more effective than regular soap and water and they may be driving antibiotic resistance.

Glucosamine has become a popular remedy for joint pain but it looks like it’s no better than placebo. This means that it may work – because placebos work, especially in pain management – but it’s not cheap and you might well be better off using exercise. I wrote about glucosamine six years ago and back in 2001 the BMJ found that it doesn’t work, yet it’s still a huge money-spinner.

Staying with pain management, we’ve all used paracetamol but again there is mounting evidence that it’s no better than placebo.

So-called alternative medicine has had a fair few stories in the news this year as well, some more worrying than others.

Cupping was popular with some athletes at the Olympics. It’s done by setting fire to a flammable liquid in a glass cup. The flame burns away the oxygen, creating a vacuum. Once the flame goes out, the vacuum creates suction that sticks the cup to the body.

Along with the drop in temperature, this sucks the skin up and draws blood to the surface. There is also a version that doesn’t involve fire but it’s much less dramatic and so lacks the theatricality that witchdoctors and quacks often use to convince their ‘patients’ they’re actually doing something other than fleecing them.

The red spots last a few days and are caused by ruptured capillaries beneath the skin. It’s claimed to cure muscle problems and pain, arthritis, insomnia, fertility issues, and cellulite. Needless to say, there is absolutely no evidence for any of these claims and it will make you look like a twat. Stalwart skeptic Dr David Colquhoon was on TV explaining why it doesn’t work.

On the upside, yet more trials find homeopathy doesn’t work and NHS Wirral has stopped funding it.

The US government has ruled that homeopathy treatments will now be held to the same advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits. This means that all homeopathic products will have to include the statements ‘There is no scientific evidence backing homeopathic health claims’ and ‘Homeopathic claims are based only on theories from the 1700s that are not accepted by modern medical experts’ if they are to be stocked in chemist shops. So that’s at least one good thing America has done this year.

Many vets are calling for homeopathy to be banned, too. Of course, some people will see this as a victory for Big Pharma and carry on buying it. Because there’s no cure for stupidity.

Vets have increasingly been offering a range of ‘alternative treatments’ including chiropractic and acupuncture; the cost of them has pushed up pet insurance by 9% according to the Association of British Insurers. Of the 370 policies on the market, 96% include alternative therapies. It’s hard to tell whether vets are offering these treatments because people want them or whether people want them because vets are pushing them. Either way, this cat looks really pissed off its owner is so dumb.

Back to humans and there is no evidence that brain training helps prevent dementia. As the population ages, the various forms of dementia are on the increase and the race is on to find a treatment, especially as the NHS may not be around much longer.

Staying with the brain, the term ‘brain plasticity’ (or neuro-plasticity) gets bandied about a lot but means pretty much nothing. It’s one of those terms that people who don’t know much about science use to make it sound like they do.

It could be argued that it’s up to adults what they do to themselves but it’s different when they force children to take alt med. In October this year, a four year old boy nearly died after being given supplements from a naturopath to treat autism.

This year has seen the usual crop of diet fads. Our appetite for them is equalled only by our appetite for fat and sugar (well, my appetite for sugar, certainly).

Superfoods are claimed to have all sorts of miracle powers. There is no good evidence that pomegranates have any particular benefits, goji berries are no better than any other fruit, there is little evidence for chia seeds, beetroot juice does seem to lower blood pressure slightly but if you have high pressure, get to the doctor, change your diet and do some exercise rather than looking for a quick fix. Eating too much seaweed can be bad for you and kale has no magic powers. It doesn’t seem to matter how often the antioxidant myth is debunked, people keep buying into it.

The idea that you need to drink eight glasses of water a day just won’t die despite the total lack of evidence.

Another thriving fad is clean eating. Spiralised vegetables, kale and pomegranate (again) and NO EVIL CARBS. Bread and pasta are evil and ‘full of chemicals’. Apparently fruit and veg contain no chemicals at all. That’s because they are made from fairies’ breath. The supermarkets are increasingly stocking cauliflower ‘rice’ and butternut squash or courgette ‘noodles’. And of course they are not cheap.

There’s a serious demonizing of sugar but a lot of the ‘clean’ recipes that claim to avoid sugar are still sweetened with honey, dates, coconut sugar, agave syrup and so on. I’m sorry to tell you that these are all still sugars. Paying a lot more for something with virtuous-looking packaging won’t change that.

Yes, it’s mostly another dumb middle class fad but it has repercussions for people with eating disorders, assigning some foods to the ‘dirty’ category, making food a moral choice and piling on the body shaming if you stray from the straight and narrow. Don’t you want to Get The Glow? Like a lot of cult members, clean eating converts really don’t like it when confronted with evidence.

Another dumb idea from this year was that activity icons on food packaging would help combat obesity by showing how long it would take to exercise off the calories. They won’t. As ever, the truth is boring: eat a balanced diet and get some exercise.

Finally, this story suggests that eating chocolate can make you smarter. I don’t care if it’s good science or not, I just want it to be true.

December 26. A late entry is the protein supplement. Even most athletes don't need extra protein. According to Tom Sanders, professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London,“There’s been a lot of hype in gyms pushing high-protein shakes, there’s also a need to get rid of a waste product from the dairy industry, which is whey protein,” he said. “It’s a lot of crap, a way of selling a cheap product at a high price.” Excess protein is excreted through urine so you're basically paying for expensive pee pee.

OK, we’ve done the serious stuff, now here’s the fun.

During the run-up to the Brexit referendum, there was much talk about an EU cabbage regulation that runs to 26,911 words. This myth has been around since the 1940s in one guise or another. There are some lengthy British guidelines but EU regulation contains precisely none that are specific to cabbages.

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something has been endlessly repeated. Malcolm Gladwell conveniently or willfully misunderstood the research his claim is based on and made a lot of money from it. But it’s nice and sound-bitey so expect to see more of it.

If you’re tempted to get your DNA checked to find out who your ancestors were, you may well be paying for what scientist Dr Adam Rutherford has described as ‘mostly total bollocks’. What’s more, a general misunderstanding of how genes work has led to some people thinking their ancestors give them some sort of ‘pedigree’ or explain their behaviour. One of my great-grandfathers was a convicted bigamist. What does that say about me? Absolutely bugger all.

This year there was a story that went on far longer than it should have about an eight foot werewolf terrorizing people in Yorkshire. According to one ‘expert’ it’s our ‘collective guilt’ about exterminating wolves that keeps these myths going. So not horror movies, alcohol and attention-seeking, then?

Oh, and apparently Uri Geller predicted that Theresa May would become Prime Minister. Of course he did.

There are three main threads running through all these stories. Firstly, desperately ill people will try anything – and who can blame them? They are often vulnerable to exploitation. There is always money to be made from intractable pain and incurable conditions.

Secondly, many of us want a quick fix to lose weight. With the increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes and other health consequences, the market is ripe for exploitation and there is no money to be made from common sense.

Finally, some people will believe any old nonsense if it makes a good story, suits their prejudices or requires a bit of effort to check out.

Come and join us at London Skeptics and watch us sort crap from Christmas for another year. You can find the stories I collect on our Facebook page and on Twitter @LondonSkeptics. Thanks to my right hand woman Carmen, to all our speakers, our audiences and the Monarch for hosting us.

The truth is out there. Keep ‘em peeled.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Pulling the wool over your eyes

Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer have been knitting and crocheting mathematical images and objects for over twenty years. They’ve given demonstrations at science festivals, schools and craft exhibitions to ‘teach maths in an unconventional way’.

Some of the pieces have taken many thousands of hours to create and some have been bought by the Science Museum. Anything that engages young people with maths or science is laudable but is this anything new or interesting or artistic, worthy of a place in the Science Museum? Why is the Guardian getting so excited about them?

Firstly, does making these pieces out of yarn add anything to them? I spoke to Elaine Jones, a professional crafter, who said:

Most of their blanket designs would be equally interesting (and maybe clearer) as designs on paper. The craft aspect adds nothing, whereas hyperbolic crochet, for example, is a really good way of creating 3D shapes that are not easily made in other ways.

Hyperbolic crochet is something I did and wrote about here quite some time ago.

It started as a teaching aid and has developed from there. There has been a travelling exhibition of coral reefs made from hyperbolic crochet. They are both beautiful and have a scientific purpose – two, in fact. One is solving a problem of three-dimensional mathematical representation, the other is ecological. This is something that would be very hard to do in any other media.

For many craftspeople, maths is a tool, not an end in itself. Elaine continues:

It also made me consider how much maths/geometry there is in traditional pattern design anyway. The article totally overlooks this, making it sound as though using mathematical sequences to create patterns is 'amazing', instead of being something that craftspeople have always done. The difference is that craftspeople are concerned about aesthetics, whereas these people are not (as evidenced by some of their minging colour choices!)

This really is not special at all:

Elaine then says
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about science in art/craft. Some of it is great, but some of it is not. Despite that, if someone creates work based on something 'scientific' it immediately attracts more kudos than purely aesthetic work, regardless of its merit. It's an interesting idea, but to be really good, the execution and visual appeal should be good too. Otherwise, it's just mathematicians knitting stuff.

She is absolutely right. Part of the problem for me is that people who don't craft are impressed by any old bit of hand-made crap (which works in your favour if it's a birthday gift). Etsy is full of lumpy ugly stuff that people are charging money for. The fact these pieces are hand-made doesn’t make them ipso facto special. People have been making complex carpets and wall hangings for over a thousand years by instinctively using maths – and many of them were innumerate.

Anyone who has designed a crocheted blanket has spent time thinking about proportion, the relation of one section to another, fractions, how shapes intersect and so on. One of Ashforth and Plummer’s pieces is basically just a bunch of knitted mitred squares with a mathematical gloss.

I did a cushion using the same technique without even realising I was doing maths.

Lots of people make Fibonacci scarves. Craft web site Ravelry has over a hundred designs using the Fibonacci sequence, from scarves to stuffed animals. They also have hyperbolic crochet, pseudospheres, algebraic socks and a Lorenz manifold, which is pretty damn cool.

Many quilters use geometry in their designs. The Canadian quilter Libs Elliott goes further and uses coding to generate random formations of geometric quilts.

And of course, in the Arab world, geometric patterns have been used for around a thousand years in carpets, tiles and hangings.

Fractals are another maths thing widely used in art and craft, like this fractal necklace by Marc Newson.

I could go on but you get the picture. Or the quilt. Or the scarf.

How interested are kids in something crafted anyway? Does a six year old really care about afghan technique or how many hours went into making it?

The couple run school workshops teaching kids to knit just enough to collaborate on their own craft project for a wall hanging in the school, with a bit of added maths. This is the core of their teaching work and, judging by their website, seems to be successful in helping kids to work together and learn social skills. Making something yourself is always satisfying, especially for children. But there’s no metric for gauging how much maths the children learn or whether the workshops benefit them in their studies. Judging from this teacher’s report, they learnt far more about knitting and teamwork than maths.

The pieces the couple produce themselves are nothing special as craft or as mathematically produced objects. They sell patterns for many of their pieces and also other things like knitted toilet roll covers, dolls and puppets which are, frankly, the kind of thing that’s left over after a village hall bazaar.

They are not some amazing novelty act, they are a very small part of a long and varied tradition of using maths to create a wide range of arts and crafts. Treating them as something special ignores this tradition and the people, amateur and professional, who do it every day, as well as the work of professional maths communicators.

So, to Cast Off, putting a maths or science gloss on a piece of craft does not make it unique or wonderful. If you can find a simpler way to make maths accessible, don’t spend thousands of hours on it. Crafters have been using maths for generations. There are far better teaching aids and examples of maths-based crafts available. The Science Museum is surprisingly easy to impress. It's all a bit Emperor's New Clothes.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Quit It Part 2

The continuing saga of My Adventures in The Land Without Fags **

(Part 1 is here)

The monkey on my back is no longer a mandrill, more of a vervet.

I still want to smoke, sometimes A LOT, but it’s slowly becoming more an emotional and mental need, a kind of nostalgia. I miss it like Wendy missing Neverland.

For the first time, smoke smells bad to me. A friend was smoking Rothmans, admittedly one of the stinkiest fags, and I didn’t like it. Up until now, I’ve stood next to friends while they smoked and even followed people in the street a couple of times (yes, I know).

The IBS has mostly calmed down. For the first month, my digestion was seriously messed up and sometimes I looked five months pregnant, not because of the stress of quitting but because of physical withdrawal from chemicals that have controlled appetite and digestion for over 30 years. It takes a while for that to normalise (and it pisses me off when people assume IBS is caused solely by stress and, by implication, that I’m a feeble, neurotic woman).

The weight gain is holding steady at around 3kg. I’m exercising like buggery to get rid of it but so far, no dice. I haven’t noticed any difference at the gym with the weights but I can go harder on the cardio and being really out of breath at the end feels good, an endorphin rush I haven’t had for years. My knees aren’t so keen though.

I spoke to my dentist about whether the inhalator is having an effect on my oral health and he said that as long as my mouth isn’t permanently dry, it should be OK long term. On the upside, circulation to my gums is greatly improved already. On the downside, the fast recovery means they are much more sensitive so a session with the hygienist was nasty even with painkilling gel.

I’ve discovered that when someone kisses you, they can’t taste the nicotine from the inhalator, so that’s a bonus.

I’ve noticed that inhalators are sold in the pharmacy section of my supermarket whereas vaping equipment is sold with smoking products.

The rage has mostly gone although there are still moments. I haven’t done anyone actual harm but I’ve come very close a couple of times. They deserved it. I can now see the appeal of being a vigilante superhero – judge, jury and executioner. I may have to work on that. Or buy a cape and mask.

Things not to say 1: If I say I want to smoke, don’t say ‘No you don’t’ and think you’re being helpful because I really do. Acknowledge the craving and help me deal with it by distracting me – make me laugh, do a little dance, whatever.

Things not to say 2: ‘What, still?’ Yes, still. Just because smoking doesn’t cause extreme and obvious behavioural changes like some drugs and alcohol can doesn’t make it any less powerful an addiction. I’m bored with it too, with how much attention it takes up - even when I’m thinking about something else at the same time. I want it to be over and done with. So kindly take your short attention span elsewhere.

Things not to say (or think) 3: Stop making a fuss and get on with it, you shouldn’t have been smoking in the first place. There’s a moral judgement attached to some people’s response to addiction, even if they don’t admit it. It’s based on ignorance about genetics, personality, environment, whether the people you most closely identified with did it, changing social acceptance, legality, and smugness. A lot of smugness. No one factor makes anyone a victim destined to be an addict but it’s a complex, multi-factorial thing and judging from your moral high ground really doesn’t help.

The vervet has shrunk to a pygmy marmoset. I’ve decided to give her a name – Sparky. ***

Do I still want to smoke? Yes, every day, mostly in the evenings. But not for as long or as intensely as before, and it’s not making me miserable that I can’t.

I’m having regular dreams where I light up, then realise what I’ve done and wake up really angry with myself, so it looks like my unconscious is rooting for me too. Shame it can’t have a word with my metabolism.

From a 3kg peak, weight gain is now 1.5kg. I’m eating a bit less than I was before I quit but there really wasn’t much I could trim off my diet and now I’m hungry a lot of the time, which is miserable. The Nicotine Replacement Therapy is supposed to help with metabolism, hunger and weight gain. Maybe I’d have gained a lot more without it, there’s no way of knowing.

Public health and other advice websites assume that all smokers are fat bone-idle slugs so their weight gain advice is mostly just to be more active and avoid snacking, which is no use to me at all.

I’m trying HIIT as part of my regular workout (High Intensity Interval Training – basically doing sprints). There are many variations and I’m doing a 2:1 ratio: 20 second sprints then 10 seconds slower on the bike, repeated for four minutes, at the end of every workout (two weights, two cardio per week) plus an extra cardio session with HIIT, plus a lot of walking. Research shows HIIT is better for weight loss than longer periods of less intense cardio. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to my normal gym routine once I’ve lost the weight or if I’ll have to keep up this level of intensity forever to keep it off. I bloody hope not. I’ve had knee problems since I was a kid and compartment syndrome in both legs about six years ago so I don’t want to push my luck. My knees hate me right now.

Things I have learned 1: Nicotine is the third most addictive substance known, after heroine and cocaine, then alcohol and barbiturates. There is also an individual factor that makes some people more susceptible to some substances than others - I’ve used four out of those five and only become addicted to one.

Things I have learned 2: Smokers tend to have more visceral fat – the one that sits round the organs and causes serious health problems. It’s a stealth fat that even people who don’t look overweight can have. Because of chemical changes in the body, weight-gain after quitting is more likely to be subcutaneous fat (under the skin), which is less harmful, especially short-term. And it will be short term, if it kills me.

Things I have learned 3: Nicotine is not all bad. This shouldn’t be a surprise as poisonous plants like deadly nightshade have medical uses.

It has been found to protect against Parkinson’s disease. A small study has found that it may also protect against the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

There isn’t even much of a problem with addiction in its therapeutic use because, according to an article in Scientific American, other ingredients in tobacco smoke are necessary to amp up nicotine’s addictiveness. Those other chemical ingredients—things like acetaldehyde, anabasine, nornicotine, anatabine, cotinine, and myosmine—help to keep people hooked on tobacco. On its own, nicotine isn’t enough.

Another benefit is as a cognitive enhancer. According to Jennifer Rusted, professor of experimental psychology at Sussex University: “To my knowledge, nicotine is the most reliable cognitive enhancer that we currently have, bizarrely.” Many other studies back her up.

According to another article in Scientific American: Psychologists and tobacco-addiction specialists think it's now time to distinguish clearly between nicotine and smoking; the evidence shows smoking is the killer, not nicotine.

"We need to de-demonize nicotine," said Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London.

Things I have learned 4: There’s a lot of disagreement over whether addiction is a disease or a learned pattern of behaviour, whether addicts are helpless victims and should be treated as such or whether this view disempowers people and makes them less likely to try to take control and change. The term ‘brain plasticity’ gets bandied about a lot in terms of learning or unlearning behaviour, including addictive behaviour, but it’s pretty much empty of meaning and should be regarded with skeptical caution.

What next?
This is the point where I should think about stopping the NRT according to some guidance but I’m in no rush. One Everest at a time. And according to the research I’ve mentioned, it’s not doing me any lasting harm and may even have some benefits.

For the first time since I was a teenager I will have to deal with life’s vicissitudes without the comfort blanket of nicotine, which could be interesting. But Sparky and I will keep plodding down the long and winding road. Maybe I can train her to wear a little hat and bang cymbals.

** That's English fags, not American fags, obviously.
*** Monkey notes: the mandrill is the largest monkey, the pygmy marmoset the smallest and the vervet (not surprisingly) somewhere in between.


Still not smoking. Still wanting to smoke or at least wanting the comfort of it. Still using the inhalator. Still haven’t lost all the weight.

For the last two months I’ve been constantly ill with colds, laryngitis, three day flu (despite having the jab), more colds. There are endless forums where quitters talk about how many times they’ve been ill since stopping. None of the public health advice sites warn you that the immune system can take a long time to recalibrate itself and, while it does, you’re vulnerable to every passing invader. Also, nerve cells in the respiratory tract are beginning to work normally again, which means you’ll feel pain and irritation that smoking damped down, and the cilia take time to regrow to help repel the invaders.

It really does feel like a kind of penance. I would very much appreciate it if everyone would just stop breathing on me.


I seem to have emerged from the tunnel of germs. My knees no longer hate me and have adjusted to the extra cardio, and I've lost two of the three kilos I gained.

I've had some very difficult personal stuff to deal with, including a funeral and my first response was to reach for a cigarette. An actual physical reach for a pack that wasn't there. Someone said that it would be understandable and not a failure if I just had one, if that helped me cope. I explained that I can't just have one. Ever.

2016 was probably not the best year to quit, given what's been happening in my world. But then, there never is a best year. If not now - when?


More colds and viruses.  I may not live any longer now but it sure as hell will feel like it. I need a way to surround myself with a cloud of smoke to keep the germs at bay without doing myself harm. Basically, I need to become a dragon.

Still haven't lost the extra weight, damn it.

And yes, I do still have nostalgia pangs for smoking, especially the lighting up part. But not nearly as often and the smugness helps keep them to a minimum, especially as the cost of a pack has now gone up to over £10.

One of my younger relatives told me that of the ten people on his course, he's the only one who doesn't vape. Not one of them were previously smokers. That's a worrying trend even if they never move onto cigarettes as there is increasing evidence of harm.  Tobacco companies are aiming to double their vaping sales  as fewer and fewer adults smoke. Profit has to come from somewhere and young people are a prime target because they think they'll live forever whatever they do.

Some smokers I know are starting to get defensive around me, which can be difficult.  "I know I should give up, but ...". I'm not making you feel bad, that's all on you. I know you'd feel better if I started again but I won't. Sorry about that.

On the upside, I’ve been keeping my hands busy.