Monday, May 21, 2007

The Origins of the British - Stephen Oppenheimer

In his book, The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer examines British and Irish history from a genetic perspective (mtDNA and Y-chromosome analysis).

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited unchanged (except for chance mutations) from your mother, whilst the Y-chromosome is inherited unchanged from your father (except for chance mutations which are more likely as this chunk of DNA is bigger than mtDNA). Most of the chance mutations in these DNA chunks have no effect and so just build up over generations, allowing geneticists to construct family trees based on the differences. The rate of mutation is fairly low, for mtDNA there's just one mutation in 1000 generations on average.

Britain and Ireland in the last Ice Age (15,000 years ago) were covered in ice caps and uninhabited polar desert; European populations survived in the evocatively named Ice Age Refuges: in Ukraine and Eastern Europe; in Italy; and in south-west Europe either side of the Pyrenees. The climate and lifestyles would presumably have been similar to that of Siberian tribes or North American Inuit.

Once the ice receded, people from the Ice Age refuges started spreading out and eventually colonised what would become Britain and Ireland. Oppenheimer's key point is that the vast majority of British and Irish (68-88% of people, depending where you live) are descended from these first inhabitants: hunter-gatherers who arrived during the stone age before farming.

The vast majority of these came originally from the south-west European Ice Age refuge around what is now the Basque country. The other, albeit smaller, source of inhabitants is people who originated in the south-east European Ice Age refuge, who would have come into the Eastern side of Britain from the opposite sides of the North Sea. Oppenheimer says that some of these people arrived before the advent of farming, some after.

What this effectively does is demolish all the old theories that had successive waves of invasion and migration spreading over these islands and replacing previous populations. So Neolithic farmers didn't arrive and out-breed the locals, instead the locals must have taken up farming; Iron Age Celts didn't arrive and wipe out their Bronze Age predecessors; and Anglo-Saxons did not perpetrate genocide against indigenous Celts in Dark Age England.

Another theory he demolishes is that when Britain was conquered by the Romans the population was entirely Celtic-speaking. This has been assumed mainly because the post-Roman Angles and Saxons have been described as invaders in the few texts that survive from the end of the Roman Empire.

After reviewing the genetic, historical, archaeological and linguistic issues, Oppenheimer concludes that Celtic populations were living in the same areas that they occupied in later historical times: Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Western Scotland; and that the main Eastern populations (in England and Scotland) were culturally Germanic/Scandinavian (reflecting the cultural links across the North Sea) - this would help to explain why English has hardly any Celtic words in it and, whilst obviously related to Dutch and German, seems to have split off from them much earlier than Anglo-Saxon times.

It had always struck me as odd, the idea that the Angles supposedly came from a little bit of Denmark called Angeln but had sufficient numbers to conquer the whole of what became the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria - half of Engand. If Angeln had been a powerful city-state commanding huge tracts of Northern Europe then perhaps it would make sense.

Friday, May 11, 2007

colour changing card trick

This card trick by Dr Richard Wiseman on YouTube is excellent - you will be fooled.

(Also see and James Randi)

Friday, May 04, 2007

UK Local/Regional Election Results

Labour lose seats to the various nationalist parties everywhere: SNP in Scotland; Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Conservatives in England.

Alternatively, compared to the share of the vote in last year's local election results: Labour are up (by 1% to 27%); the Tories stay the same (at 40%); and the Lib Dems are down (1% to 26%).

What does it all mean?

Well, it's a mid-term election, so it potentially means nothing. Governing parties often do badly in mid-term local elections but go on to win subsequent general elections - but not always, so you just don't know.

Gordon Brown could take the view that it's a mid-term, low turn-out poll and those disgruntled Labour supporters who voted SNP or Plaid Cymru are likely to revert to Labour come the General Election, particularly as they didn't vote Tory. He can also be quietly confident that the Tory challenge has been fairly muted as they barely reached the 40% mark in their share of the vote. Labour did worse in the 2004 local elections but still won in 2005 ...and Brown can still jettison many unpopular 'Blair' policies before then and get in a tax cut.

David Cameron can take the view that the Tories did really well, especially considering that they haven't even outlined any policies yet. He can point to the fact that Tony Blair hasn't quite resigned yet and this has hindered his ability to really target Gordon Brown, and he can paint a rosy picture where a revitalised Tory party full of new policy initiatives will make Brown look old and lack-lustre - especially if more of Labour's chickens come home to roost (like cash for honours).

The rosy scenario for the SNP is that they are about to form a Scottish administration as a stepping stone on the path to Scottish independence - the gloomy view would be that they've peaked, many of the people who voted for them don't want independence, so they have to risk losing their support if they push for independence; also, watch out for the anti-independence press looking for skeletons in the SNP's cupboards or producing doom-laden analyses of the prospects for an independent Scotland.

I suspect that it's in the interests of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories a like, if the SNP try to govern as a minority administration in Scotland, they can watch the SNP vote erode as they struggle to actually run Scotland. Of course, the fact that they are even in the position to consider being a minority administration is fairly momentous - although Alex Salmond may regret banging on about all those spoilt ballot papers, he's got the most to lose!

As for the Lib Dems, if they're struggling to capitalise on Labour's mid-term woes, now then how badly will they do in the General Election? This could be quite significant if their voters start to fragment in different directions.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Suck Quilley's

Quilley's Throat Lozenges:
If your throat is sore - suck Quilley's

Well, it made me laugh. I'm fairly sure that I heard Paddy Ashdown tell this joke in a fairly serious radio discussion (Start the Week) about Iraq and other wars, but I may have confused it with a comedy programme I heard later in the day (The Unbelievable Truth).

When I googled it, I found a reference to a slightly different version of it (from 2001) on this: A digest of extracts gathered over the past week from various sources, notably BBC Radio 4.

Gordon Brown compared to John Major

You never hear any commentator compare Brown to John Major, despite the similarities of their positions (taking over mid-term after 10 years of an enormously successful but now unpopular prime minister) ...and, of course, Major really was an unknown quantity (3 months as Foreign secretary and Chancellor for just one budget).

In April/May 1990, Labour were scoring over 50% compared to the Tories in the low 30s in opinion polls (ICM) and yet Major went on to win in 1992. Now it's Labour in the low 30s but the Tories struggle to score over 40%. (see

In 1990, inflation was over 9% and interest rates were as high as 15%! Unemployment was on the way up as the 90s recession bit. I could imagine Brown saying: you've never had it so good! (see

Provided Brown can get out of Iraq (and the US Democrats might sort that out for him) and provided he hasn't sold anyone a lordship then his position is good.

The interesting thing will be how Cameron responds to Brown, currently the Tories try to portray Brown as a centralising control-freak whose urge to meddle and tax is screwing up the economy - but, despite the recent hoohah about inflation, no-one is currently predicting a recession, so a year down the line, if inflation is back on target and the economy continues to grow, this won't wash.

If Cameron is to avoid being cast as a soft, hand-wringing version of Blair then he has to come up with some eye-catching policies. Which way will he go? Green? Brown will point to how this will hit the consumer in the pocket. Tax cuts? Brown will get a tax cut in before the next election and then ask what the Tories are going to cut back on to pay for more tax cuts. Privatisation? What could they privatise apart from very controversial things like the NHS or Post Office? Reform of the House of Lords? Who cares?

I suspect that Cameron could most easily wrong foot Brown by advocating policies for decentralisation, along the lines of taking operational control of the NHS out of the hands of politicians and devolving power from Whitehall to the English regions (as has been done for Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland) - unless, of course, Brown gets there first as he did when he gave the Bank of England operational independence.