Your DNA – a Self Testing 101

23andMe testing kitYour DNA is a string of protein pairs that encapsulate your “build” instructions, as inherited from your birth parents. While copies of it are packed tightly into every cell in, and being given off, your body, it is of considerable size; a machine representation of it is some 2.6GB in length – the size of a blue-ray DVD.

The total entity – the human genome – is a string of C-G and A-T protein pairs. The exact “reference” structure, given the way in which strands are structured and subsections decoded, was first successfully concluded in 2003. It’s absolute accuracy has gradually improved regularly as more DNA samples have been analysed down the years since.

A sequencing machine will typically read short lengths of DNA chopped up into pieces (in a random pile, like separate pieces of a jigsaw), and by comparison against a known reference genome, gradually piece together which bit fits where; there are known ‘start’ and ‘end’ segment patterns along the way. To add a bit of complexity, the chopped read may get scanned backwards, so a lot of compute effort to piece a DNA sample into what it looks like if we were able to read it uninterrupted from beginning to end.

At the time of writing (July 2017), we’re up to version 38 of the reference human genome. 23andMe currently use version 37 for their data to surface inherited medical traits. Most of the DNA sampling industry trace family history reliably using version 36, and hence most exports to work with common DNA databases automatically “downgrade” to that version for best consistency.

DNA Structure

DNA has 46 sections (known as Chromosomes); 23 of them come from your birth father, 23 from your birth mother. While all humans have over 99% commonality, the 1% difference make every one of us (or a pair of identical twins) statistically unique.

The cost to sample your own DNA – or that of a relative – is these days in the range of £79-£149. The primary one looking for inherited medical traits is 23andMe. The biggest volume for family tree use is AncestryDNA. That said, there are other vendors such as Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) and MyHeritage that also offer low cost testing kits.

The Ancestry DNA database has some 4 million DNA samples to match against, 23andMe over 1 million. The one annoyance is that you can’t export your own data from these two and then insert it in the other for matching purposes (neither have import capabilities). However, all the major vendors do allow exports, so you can upload your data from AncestryDNA or 23andMe into FTDNA, MyHeritage and to the industry leading cross-platform GEDmatch DNA databases very simply.

Exports create a ZIP file. With FTDNA, MyHeritage and GEDmatch, you request an import, and these prompt for the name of that ZIP file itself; you have no need to break it open first at all.

On receipt of the testing kit, register the code on the provided sample bottle on their website. Just avoid eating/drinking for 30 minutes, spit into the provided tube up to the level mark, seal, put back in the box, seal it and pop it in a postbox. Results will follow in your account on their website in 2-4 weeks.

Family Tree matching

Once you receive your results, Ancestry and 23andMe will give you details of any suggested family matches on their own databases. The primary warning here is that matches will be against your birth mother and whoever made her pregnant; given historical unavailability of effective birth control mechanisms and the secrecy of adoption processes, this has been known to surface unexpected home truths. Relatives trace up and down the family tree from those two reference points. A quick gander of self help forums on social media can be entertaining, or a litany of horror stories – alongside others of raw delight. Take care, be ready for the unexpected:

My first social media experience was seeing someone confirm a doctor as her birth father. Her introductory note to him said that he may remember her Mum, as she used to be his nursing assistant.

Another was to a man, who once identified admitted to knowing her birth mother in his earlier years – but said it couldn’t be him “as he’d never make love with someone that ugly”.

Outside of those, fairly frequent outright denials questioning the fallibility of the science behind DNA testing, none of which stand up to any factual scrutiny. But among the stories, there are also stories of delight in all parties when long lost, separated or adopted kids locate, and successfully reconnect, with one or both birth parents and their families.

Loading into other databases, such as GEDmatch

In order to escape the confines of vendor specific DNA databases, you can export data from almost any of the common DNA databases and reload the resulting ZIP file into GEDmatch. Once imported, there’s quite a range of analysis tools sitting behind a fairly clunky user interface.

The key discovery tool is the “one to many” listing, which does a comparison of your DNA against everyone elses in the GEDmatch database – and lists partial matches in order of closeness to your own data. It does this using a unit of measure called “centiMorgans”, abbreviated “cM”. Segments that show long exact matches are totted up, giving a total proportion of DNA you share. If you matched yourself or an identical twin, you’d match a total of circa 6800cM. Half your DNA comes from each birth parent, so they’d show as circa 3400cM. From your grandparents, half again. As your family tree extends both upwards and sideways (to uncles, aunts, cousins, their kids, etc), the numbers will increasingly dilute by half each step; you’ll likely be in the thousands of potential matches 4 or 5 steps away from your own data:

If you want to surface birth parent, child, sibling, half sibling, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, grandparent and grandchild relationships reliably, then only matches of greater than 1300cM are likely to have statistical significance. Any lower than that is an increasingly difficult struggle to fill out a family tree, usually persued by asking other family members to get their DNA tested; it is fairly common for GEDmatch to give you details (including email addresses) of 1-2,000 closest matches, albeit sorted in descending ‘close-ness’ order for you).

As one example from GEDmatch, the highlighted line shows a match against one of the subjects parents (their screen name and email address cropped off this picture):

GEDmatch parent

There are more advanced techniques to use a Chromosome browser to pinpoint whether a match comes down a male line or not (to help understand which side of the tree relationships a match is more likely to reside on), but these are currently outside my own knowledge (and current personal need).

Future – take care

One of the central tenets of the insurance industry is to scale societal costs equitably across a large base of folks who may, at random, have to take benefits from the funding pool. To specifically not prejudice anyone whose DNA may give indications of inherited risks or pre-conditions that may otherwise jeopardise their inclusion in cost effective health insurance or medical coverage.

Current UK law specifically makes it illegal for any commercial company or healthcare enterprise to solicit data, including DNA samples, where such provision may prejudice the financial cost, or service provision, to the owner of that data. Hence, please exercise due care with your DNA data, and with any entity that can associate that data with you as a uniquely identifiable individual. Wherever possible, only have that data stored in locations in which local laws, and the organisations holding your data, carry due weight or agreed safe harbour provisions.

Country/Federal Law Enforcement DNA records.

The largest DNA databases in many countries are held, and administered, for police and criminal justice use. A combination of crime scene samples, DNA of known convicted individuals, as well as samples to help locate missing people. The big issue at the time of writing is that there’s no ability to volunteer any submission for matching against missing person or police held samples, even though those data sets are fairly huge.

Access to such data assets are jealously guarded, and there is no current capability to volunteer your own readings for potential matches to be exposed to any case officer; intervention is at the discretion of the police, and they usually do their own custom sampling process and custom lab work. Personally, a great shame, particularly for individuals searching for a missing relative and seeking to help enquiries should their data help identify a match at some stage.

I’d personally gladly volunteer if there were appropriate safeguards to keep my physical identity well away from any third party organisation; only to bring the match to the attention of a case officer, and to leave any feedback to interested relatives only at their professional discretion.

I’d propose that any matches over 1300 cM (CentiMorgans) get fed back to both parties where possible, or at least allow cases to get closed. That would surface birth parent, child, sibling, half sibling, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, grandparent and grandchild relationships reliably.

At the moment, police typically won’t take volunteer samples unless a missing person is vulnerable. Unfortunately not yet for tracing purposes.

Come join in – £99 is all you need to start

Whether for medical traits knowledge, or to help round out your family trees, now is a good time to get involved cost effectively. Ancestry currently add £20 postage to their £79 testing kit, hence £99 total. 23andMe do ancestry matching, Ethnicity and medical analyses too for £149 or so all in. However, Superdrug are currently selling their remaining stock of 23andMe testing kits (bought when the US dollar rate was better than it now is) for £99. So – quick, before stock runs out!

Either will permit you to load the raw data, once analysed, onto FTDNA, MyHeritage and GEDmatch when done too.

Never a better time to join in.

iOS devices, PreSchool Kids and lessons from Africa

Ruby Jane Waring

This is Ruby, our two and a half year old Granddaughter and owner of her own iPad Mini (she is also probably the youngest Apple shareholder out there, as part of her Junior ISA). She was fairly adept with her parents iPhones and iPads around the house months before she was two, albeit curious as to why there was no “Skip Ad” option on the TV at home (try as she did).

Her staple diet is YouTube (primarily Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Magic Kingdom, and more recently Thomas the Tank Engine and Alphablocks). This weekend, there was a section on BBC Click that showed some primary school kids in Malawi, each armed with iPads and green headphones, engrossed doing maths exercises. The focus then moved to a Primary School in Nottingham, using the same application built for the kids in Malawi, translated to English but with the similarly (and silently) engrossed.

I found the associated apps (search for author “onebillion” and you should see five of them) and installed each on her iPad Mini:

  • Count to 10
  • Count to 20
  • Maths, age 3-5
  • Maths, age 4-6
  • 2, 5 and 10 (multiplication)

The icons look like this, red to the left of the diagonal and with a white tick mark, orange background on the rest; the Malawi versions have more green in them in place of orange.


We put her onto the English version of “Count to 10”, tapped in her name, then handed it over to her.

Instructions Count to 10

Tapped on the rabbit waving to her, and off. Add frogs the the island (one tap for each):

Count to 10 Add Frogs

Then told to tap one to remove it, then click the arrow:

Leave one frog on IslandDing! Instant feedback that seemed to please her. She smiled, gave us a thumbs up, then clicked the arrow for the next exercise:

Add birds to the wire

which was to add three birds to the wire. Press the arrow, ding! Smile and thumbs up, and she just kept doing exercise after exercise on her own bat.

A bit later on, the exercise was telling her to put a certain number of objects in each box – with the number to place specified as a number above the box. Unprompted, she was getting all those correct. Even when a box had ‘0’ above it, and she duly left that box empty. And then the next exercise, when she was asked to count the number of trees, and drag one of the numbers “0”, “1”, “2”, “3” or “4” to a box before pressing the arrow. Much to our surprise (more like chins on the floor), she was correctly associating each digit with the number of objects. Unprompted.

I had to email her Mum at that stage to ask if she’d been taught to recognise numbers already by the character shapes. Her Mum blamed it on her Cbeebies consumption alone.

When we returned her home after her weekend stay, the first thing she insisted on showing both her Mother and her Father was how good she was at this game. Fired it up herself, and showed them both independently.

So, Kudos to the authors of this app. Not only teaching kids in Malawi, but very appealing to kids here too. Having been one of the contributors to its Kickstarter funding, I just wonder how long it will be before she starts building programs in ScratchJr (though that’s aimed at budding programmers aged 5-7). It’s there on her iPad already when she wants to try it – and has her Scratch literate (and Minecraft guru) 10 year old brother on hand to assist if needed.

I think buying her her own iPad Mini (largely because when she stayed weekends, I never got my own one back) was a great investment. I hope it continues to provide an outlet for her wonder of the world around her in the years ahead.


Kibo: Teaching Robotics to kids?

Kibo Robotic Kit - Kickstarter

I’m going to be punch drunk on the number of initiatives to support teaching programming to young kids, so my priority is to see ScratchJr make it into UK schools – if indeed the teachers think it would be a positive influence to fire up the imagination of their classes of 5-7 year old prospective programmers on their iPads.

That said, another US initiative has gone live on Kickstarter, this time for Kibo – a robot that kids program with a sequence of command bricks. No compute hardware needed with this – it’s all in the box.

The full details (and funding page) can be found here. They’re already halfway to their target. What do you think?

ScratchJr – programming for kids 5-7 – Fully Funded: yay!

ScratchJr UI

I’m absolutely delighted to report that ScratchJr – a tablet based system that teaches 5-7 year old kids how to program – duly hit its $80,000 funding goal just after bids closed on Kickstarter. With that, we have a version for the Apple iPad and a version for Android Tablets this year, and work is now underway to produce the associated teaching curriculum aids and materials.

Just waiting to get news of the ScratchJr t-shirt I get in exchange for my $45 contribution (which went via Amazon Payments as soon as the end date and successful funding level had been reached). I’ll order one in a size that should fit our 2-year old Granddaughter (and iPad Mini user) Ruby.

Full text of the announcement from the Project Lead Mitchel Resnick here.

If you haven’t seen it, I thoroughly recommend watching the video there. It’s an absolute delight to see kids so young speaking so authoritatively about the projects they have created on this platform at such a young age. The next step is to get Primary School teachers in the UK engaged with this; running something like the Education work we executed at Demon Internet (which got free and useful materials into over 95% of UK Secondary Schools for a cost of £50,000, plus £10,000 for associated competition prizes) would be fantastic, though mindful that there are many more primary schools than secondary ones here.

Three year lease, including support, insurance and warranty, for a tablet costs parents or their schools circa £10 per month over that term for an iPad Mini class device. Whether or not kids end up programming, it nevertheless gives them all sorts of other logic/sequencing skills applicable to a wide number of career options later in their lives.

ScratchJr in Use by Pupil

The older sibling product Scratch, the excellent Sugarlabs work (also being implemented on tablets) and Raspberry Pi also have a solid place, albeit slightly higher up the age range.

So, a gift well worth giving in my humble opinion. And kudos to the ScratchJr team for giving us a platform to fire up the imagination of kids from an even earlier age than before.



Supporting Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services Poster

I’ve been setting up a WordPress site with an associated BuddyPress Forum on my Digital Ocean Linux Server during the gaps today (we have our 2 year old granddaughter staying with us this weekend). This for my daughter in law Gill, who is doing some work with Mental Health Charity MIND, and potentially with CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services). This to provide a much needed information and shared experience resource for Medical Professionals, Parents, Teachers and Children. The latter both the afflicted, and siblings plus others they have regular contact with.

As a former special needs teacher, she finds there’s a massive gap in training and that from speaking to medical students, she’s found they learn barely anything about mental health. She’s keen to close that off and to also give online support to all concerned wherever and whenever it’s needed.

I’m just working around a few nuances on how one particular WordPress theme queues up a newspaper style layout on the front page, and to put in some of the preventative measures to arrest the usual torrent of user & comment spam that afflicts sites like this. Once done, she becomes mission control.

Really looking forward to the result when it goes live, her other commitments permitting!


Coding for Young Kids: two weeks, only £10,000 to go

ScratchJr Screenshot

ScratchJr Logo

I’m one backer on Kickstarter of a project to bring the programming language Scratch to 5-7 year olds. Called ScratchJr, it’s already showing great promise on iPads in schools in Massachussetts. The project has already surpassed it’s original $25,000 goal to finish it’s development for the iPad, and last week made it over the $55,000 stretch goal to release an Android version too. With two weeks to go, we are some $15,000 short of the last remaining stretch target ($80,000) needed to fund associated curriculum and teaching notes.

The one danger of tablets is that they tend to be used in “lean back” applications, primarily as a media consumer delivery devices. Hence a fear amongst some teachers that we’re facing a “Disneyfication” of use, almost like teaching people to read, but not to write. ScratchJr will give young students their first exposure to the joy of programming; not only useful for a future in IT, but also providing logic and design skills useful for many other fields that may stimulate their interest. I thought the 7-year old kids in this video were brilliant and authoritative on what they’d achieved to date:

I opted to pledge $45 to contribute and to buy a branded project t-shirt for my 2 year old granddaughter; there are a range of other funding options:

  • $5 for an email from the ScratchJr Cat
  • $10 for your name in the credits
  • $20 for a ScratchJr Colouring Book
  • $35 for some ScratchJr Stickers
  • $40 (+$5 for outside USA delivery) ScratchJr T-Shirt (Kid or Adult sizes)
  • $50 for an invite to a post launch webinar
  • $100 for a pre-launch webinar with the 2 project leaders
  • $300 to receive a beta version ahead of the public launch
  • $500 for a post-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $1000+ for a pre-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $2000+ to be named as a Platinum Sponsor in the Credits
  • $5000+ for lunch for up to 4 people with the 2 Project Leaders

I once had a project earlier in my career where we managed to get branded teaching materials (about “The Internet”) professionally produced and used in over 95% of UK secondary schools for an investment of £50,000 – plus a further £10,000 to pay for individual and school prizes. In that context, the price of this program is an absolute steal, and I feel well worth every penny. Being able to use this across the full spectrum of Primary Schools in the UK would be fantastic if teachers here could take full advantage of this great work.

So, why not join the backers? Deadline for pledges is 30th April, so please be quick! If you’d like to do so, contributions can be pledged here on Kickstarter.

ScratchJr Logo

Footnote: a TED video that covers Project Leaders Mitch Resnick’s earlier work on Scratch (taught to slightly older kids) lasts 15 minutes and can be found here. Scratch is also available for the Raspberry Pi; for a 10 minute course on how to code in it, i’d recommend this from Miles Berry of Roehampton University.

Liberating Kids from Stifling Parents – did someone say “Bang”?

Nuclear Explosion Mushroom Cloud

One of the joys of parenthood is seeing the delight in your kids pulling things together using tools available to them – releasing their creativity, and fostering inquisitive nature. It’s natural and is a wide departure from rote learning (where the ethos is to please don’t make mistakes – mistakes are bad!). A real joy comes from them doing something spectacular, having a crazy idea, applying tools/techniques they’ve learnt, mashing up ideas from various sources, testing and iterating until they have – or do – something memorable.

I saw a comment from a teacher this morning where a parent had approached, and asked that his kiddie not be given access to Minecraft on a Raspberry Pi, because he could be destructive in it. I mean, Jesus.

I remember when I was at school, the comedy was watching someone in a Chemistry lesson grab a waste paper bin, turn it upside down, pierce a small hole in the base, place it over the gas tap (that usually supplied gas to bunsen burners), filling it with gas, light the small hole and walk away. After a minute or two, the flame will have burnt enough of the gas and drawn air from underneath to form an explosive mixture, and BANG! A loud noise, an upside down blue mushroom of flame, and a teacher in overalls standing immediately next to the result with his back to it as it exploded. After an initial gruff “Who did that?” and a classmates immediate confession (from the other side of the room), his punishment was to present to the class what he’d done and how it worked. Then a lunchtime picking up litter.

The same guy, by seemingly intelligent questioning of the teacher over a number of lessons, worked out a way of synthesising Nitrogen Tri-Iodide from the chemical bottles close at hand during lessons. This substance is a touch sensitive explosive; the traditional trick was to leave an innocuous slither of it on door handles, resulting in a “bang” and sparks when someone went to open the door. He duly made some, and carried it out of class to the next lesson (Music), that day taught by a student teacher. He left it drying on the radiator, giving it an occasional nudge with a ruler to see if it was setting. About 15 minutes in listening to some classical music – BANG! Student holding ruler, very red in the face with embarrassment. The student teacher just said (with apparent zeal in his interest): “How did you do that?”. Following a brief explanation, the teacher just waxed lyrical about how some of his colleagues at school had sneaked some Chloroform out of Science class at his school, and spread some over the piano before they were to be victim of their teachers piano recital. It just got slower, and slower…

We also had a spate of people screwing two bolt heads into a common nut, filling the gap in the middle with matchstick heads. Thrown into the air, it typically let off a bang on landing. The innovation then was to attach string around the two bolts, so you didn’t have to spend too much time finding both halves afterwards. Main kudos to Nathan Berry, who found a two 1″ bolts in his Dad’s garage and elected to tighten the work with a spanner, bolts held tight with his Dad’s workshop vice. I suspect the hole resulting from it triggering early while he was still pulling on the spanner is still very much there in that garage roof.

So, few detentions. You only got that for suggesting loudly that “titration” was two words, or for mounting the front of Chemistry teachers Mini on bricks, causing it’s engine to scream as he tried to reverse out to go home. If indeed said teacher could pin it on anyone.

Kids find impressive bangs they’ve engineered are very memorable – for all the right reasons. It fires their imagination. Certainly much more so than the most enthusiastic of “beaten-into-ultimate-safety” teacher mixing two chemicals in a test tube and showing delight when they change to another colour. Snore!

These days, parents are scared into thinking their kids are about to be abducted and must be kept off the street (in wide contrast to the distances I covered with friends on my bike – with no mobile comms – when I was young). A result of the tabloid press stoking up fear in parents in their pursuit of selling printed newspapers (statistically invalid – the once in a decade occurrences are normally by a person known to the victim – but that doesn’t sell ink and paper). Or of trying to protect young males from their pursuit of pornographic images; the end result is a generation of kids who are driven to know enough to engineer VPN connections and to use TOR in that pursuit. I’d be first in line to take the law into my own hands if I found anyone preying on vulnerable kids. However, I feel good teaching of children, the setting of acceptable behaviour boundaries, and being there if they feel in any way uncomfortable about anything, is normally enough without smothering their natural inquisitive nature.

I’m a big fan of getting technology into kids hands early. One of my female relatives in the USA is a child minder, and I noticed a post on Facebook logging what her 7 year old customer was doing. Her first post said “This guy has been playing Minecraft for 2 hours. It looks very retro on the screen. Is this sort of behaviour normal?”. A bit later on she posted again to say “He’s now watching Minecraft Videos on YouTube!”. Appears to me a mirror of kids i’ve seen playing Minecraft this side of the Atlantic. It is a tremendous Educational asset that kids enjoy using.

I love the work of the Raspberry Pi foundation, and would help anyone get their kids hacking on that platform using Open Source software. Of Minecraft, which kids everyone seem to have embraced. Similarly impressed with the early work of Seymour Papert teaching kids to program with Logo. Likewise for Sugar Labs, taking their Linux based Software (originally part of the MIT based “One Laptop per Child” project) to millions of kids in developing countries around the world. Tablet versions coming!

Kids around me these days are very touch-based Phone and Tablet native. My 2 year old granddaughter routinely plays YouTube videos, views the Photo Library and plays games on her parents iPhones – and on my iPad Mini. She’s even bemused that “Skip Ad” doesn’t work on the TV when its playing Terrestrial TV Channels. Using my iPad Mini to such an extent that she now has one of her own at our house.

That said, it’s a small part of her world. She thoroughly enjoys nothing more than wandering in the great outdoors and where many other things feed her curiosity. But she has the resources to look things up as she grows – alongside her current diet of YouTube “Peppa Pig” and “Ben and Holly” videos.

This week, i’ve seen some work on a Kickstarter Project on a cut down version of the “Scratch” language called “ScratchJr“, which is being used to teach programming to 5-7 year olds. See this:

Isn’t it brilliant to seeing young kids like this talk with such authority on the work their doing with this platform? With that, i’m contributing money to help them ship that on iOS and Android tablets this year. If you’d like to join me, you can do so at They are the future and worth every penny.