Thursday, December 31, 2009

The past of the future

Slate has an entertaining piece on Omni magazine, which makes me wish it was still publishing. I'd put up with the occasional article on UFOs to read the equivalent of William Gibson coining 'cyberspace' in 1983.

The story of Omni's decline is also worth a read. The mag's website now apparently points to Penthouse, a more enduring brainchild of Bob Guccione (although Bob Jr now owns once owned Discover).

I've never opened a copy (Of Omni, not Penthouse. Well, not of Penthouse either, actually.) but apparently it dealt in predictions of robot gardeners and moon bases. This made me think of my much-loved and recently rediscovered Usborne Book of the Future, which, published in 1979, beat Omni into print by two years.

The UBotF offered insightful analysis of future trends in transport, medicine and agriculture. Most importantly for an 8-year-old boy, it also has a picture of two spaceships blasting the crap out of each other on the cover.

A Google search suggests it has a substantial online following - not surprising, as Usborne books were a kind of precursor to the internet for geeky 70s boys. It also suggests that my hardback might be worth a bob or two.

At the end of each chapter, there's a timeline describing what will happen. We're now in 2001-2050. Some predictions weren't too great - space mirrors providing night lighting by 2000 - but others are coming along - brain impants to help stroke victims. And others were a weird mixture of bang on and cutely off. Here's one from the Future Cities chapter for 1991-2000

First deliveries of electronic mail. Hand written letters are electronically copied, sent via a satellite-link to their destination, where the incoming message is printed out.

Happy 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

See my face

I've recently started working on a book about reputation. More news on that to follow.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to Adam Smallman at Dow Jones Investment Banker on that topic, relating to the financial sector. The video is up now on Don't blink twice!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The fine line between clever and stupid

This advert is on display at many London Underground stations. It's for an energy drink that has never passed my lips, but which I believe is aimed at people who find Red Bull intimidatingly classy.

Let's move beyond the thought that it was someone's job to come up with that combination of words, other people's to approve it, and however much they all got paid is scant compensation for spending your waking hours doing that sort of thing. (Look - the arms holding it have got tattoos! Edgy!)

Instead, let's just enjoy the unintentional parallels with metabolic scaling. Although I'd obviously have been happier had it said 'Relative energy consumption is a function of size'.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


When I saw the graph on the front of today's technology Guardian, in an article about the slowing growth of Wikipedia (it's not in the online version), I thought: "That looks like a logistic growth curve. Perhaps the sum total of knowledge represents a resource that is being exhausted, causing the encyclopedia's growth to slow".

When I got to the end of the article, I discovered that the researcher behind the work being discussed, Ed Chi of PARC, had a similar thought.

"In my experience, the only thing we've seen these growth patterns [in] before is in population growth studies – where there's some sort of resource constraint that results in this model." The site, he suggests, is becoming like a community where resources have started to run out. "As you run out of food, people start competing for that food, and that results in a slowdown in population growth and means that the stronger, more well-adapted part of the population starts to have more power."

But the article also says that the slowdown is caused by a shift in power towards 'deletionist' editors - it's getting harder to get stuff onto Wikipedia. Which suggests that the correct model might not be a sort of density-dependent, resource-limited population (we're running out of stuff to create wikipedia entries about), but perhaps something more top-down, like a predator-prey system (the editor population is keeping the contributor population in check).

I've no idea, but it's a question entirely suitable to the tools of ecological analysis. Someone should get onto it.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Alilo, alilo, alilo

Some of the songs sang by Georgian choirs (not to be confused with Gregorian chant) predate the arrival of Christianity in the country. Or so I’ve read; I’d believe you if you told me they predate the big bang, so bottomless does the music sound.

One of the most spectacular gigs I’ve been to was the Rustavi Choir in London a few years ago. So when I was in the Sounds of the Universe shop in Soho a little while ago, I snapped up the 'Polyphonic Voices of Georgia' cd on Soul Jazz Records' new Word Audio Foundation imprint. (You can also hear Georgian singing on Soul Jazz's 'Faith' comp, which twiddles the dial on a world of religious music.)

The WAF cd, sung by the Anchiskhati Choir (me neither), is all religious songs, which means it misses out on the rougher-edged folk tradition - some of the harmonies are sweet and almost western. But it's still lovely. And, being Soul Jazz, they've made an effort - you get funky postcards, proper sleeve notes, and the cd comes in a cool but slightly-annoyingly-larger-than-usual plastic box - a bit like those cases that cassettes sometimes came in. Along with the monochrome cover photo, this gives the impression that the recording is in fact some academic ethnomusicology project from the 60s.

(if you like this sort of thing, Corsican and Sardinian male voice choirs sound similar to my ear.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Before the carbon rush

The Economist's Natasha Loder has a post on her blog worth reading about the speculators getting preemptively involved in carbon forest credits in Papua New Guinea. A former Australian horse trader and cock-fighting impresario, it seems, is going around the place "signing up landowners for big carbon trading deals in advance of negotiations to trade forest carbon as offsets between countries".

There's something Conradian about this story; the old one of white folks going into the jungle to try and get rich, making up the rules as they go along. Is this how carbon trading is going to work?

Although not just white folks, apparently. Natasha is commenting on a story by the AP's Ilya Gridneff. I can't find the original elsewhere online (it's reproduced on her post), but a google reveals he's all over this kind of stuff in PNG. Sample first par: "A nephew of Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Michael Somare is accused of pressuring remote villagers to sign away their land for carbon deals despite there being no carbon trade laws in place."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thoughts on hearing the 7 o'clock news

A long time ago, BBC Radio 1 broadcast a documentary about Kraftwerk. The thing I remember most clearly from it was a story about how, when they heard 'Billie Jean', the band was thrown into crisis, believing that the song was such a leap forward that there was nowhere for them left to go.

Much later, I saw a clip of Jackson performing the same song at the Motown 25th Anniversay concert, and thought 'Well, pop music should have given up at that point, because nothing is ever going to top that.'

This morning, there were no tracks from 'Off the Wall' in the clips played on the Today programme (not big MJ fans, I guess), so we put the cd on. Anyone who doesn't like this record doesn't like happiness. Let us single out for praise 'Rock With You': that rare thing, a brilliant mid-tempo pop song, totally sophisticated and totally disco at the same time. You can imagine Smokey Robinson or Ella Fitzgerald singing it, and that's the company he deserves to be remembered alongside.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I give in

OK, so I've no desire to read anyone else's tweets, but I've been thinking that it's a good medium for saying 'hey, check this paper out', which is often all I want to do. So I've set up a feed, and put that last post on it. I think it's called @gentraso. We'll see if it's as colossal a waste of time as I've always believed.

9 July update. That really was a very graceless post, wasn't it? On poking around twitter, I can see that there's a some interesting stuff, and I can see how it's potentially addictive. I've still not signed up to follow anyone yet, though (though I may). And I'm still not sure where all the time for this stuff comes from.


They don't know much about art.
But they can learn what you like.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seeds of an edible city architecture

I've got a piece in today's Nature looking at recent efforts to integrate plants and buildings to help produce food and adapt to climate change.

It's loosely pegged to three recently stopped or upcoming exhibitions: London Yields at the Building Centre; Vertical Gardens at Exit Art, New York (both finished); and Radical Nature at the Barbican, London (starting on Sat 19th).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Best. Title. Ever.

Nothing to do with ecology etc., but I couldn't resist saluting Peter Leeson for calling his book on the economics of piracy 'The Invisible Hook'.

Monday, June 08, 2009

I bet no other blog spots this

So, the avian gunge scraped out of the engine of the US airways flight that ditched in the Hudson river this January was (Canada) goose rillettes. Ho hum.

More exciting is this piece of nominative determinism (from the press release)...

“It’s important to not only know what species of birds are involved in collisions, but to also understand the role that migration plays in the larger picture,” said Carla Dove, a coauthor and program director at Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Laboratory.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hear my voice

My south-London tones are getting an outing on US radio tomorrow, on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth, from 12 noon EST. I'll be talking spite.

5 June Update. Here's what I said.

Friday, May 29, 2009

My journalistic heroes...

...are the guys who couldn't be arsed to follow up on Watergate. That's what I call work/life balance.

Why is it easier to get away with keeping a live leopard than wearing a dead one?

I can see why people take drugs, despite their illegality. Drugs get you high. But I find it a lot harder to understand the massive illegal trade in live animals. I guess a pet leopard or monitor lizard is a status symbol, but not one that's easy to flaunt, and what kind of a dick wants one in the first place?

That's what I thought when I read the excellent New Yorker piece ($) from April about the havoc being wreaked by escaped exotic pets in Florida.

The answer must be partly because the chances of getting caught are minimal and the punishments footling. That's unlikely to change (and besides, drugs policy shows how ineffective prohibition is). What we need instead is an effort to change norms. The animal rights movement has had some success in demonizing the wearing of fur (this train of thought was prompted when I saw the piece in today's Guardian about PETA's shock tactics, which I haven't read, because life's a bit on the short side), likewise the campaign against conflict diamonds. The conservation movement - so polite, reasonable and ineffectual compared with those who campaign for the welfare of captive animals - needs to do the same for exotic pets.

Of course, you wear a fur coat in public. Which brings me back to pondering the point of a status symbol you need to hide, and makes me wonder and despair at what in human nature (including mine) delights in ownership for its own sake.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More research is needed

Apparently, you need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

Turns out you also need to examine a lot of piles of elephant dung before you find a frog. 48.33, to be precise.

Now, if someone could be a bit more quantitative about the frog/prince ratio, we could work out princes per pile of elephant dung.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nascence man

Having been away from my computer, this is now a week old. But I've written a feature for Nature about Mike Russell's work on the origin of life, especially his efforts to recreate the key moment in the lab.

No animals, no trees

A couple of recent papers show how seed dispersal is harmed when forest vertebrates disappear - it's not just bees and microbes that provide ecosystem services, we need the big stuff too.

In Biotropica, Stephen Blake of the WCS and colleagues look at seeds in the dung of forest elephants in the Congo. There are a lot:

Analysis of 855 elephant dung piles suggested that forest elephants disperse more intact seeds than any other species or genus of large vertebrate in African forests, while GPS telemetry data showed that forest elephants regularly disperse seeds over unprecedented distances compared to other dispersers. ... Our results suggest that the loss of forest elephants (and other large-bodied dispersers) may lead to a wave of recruitment failure among animal-dispersed tree species, and favor regeneration of the species-poor abiotically dispersed guild of trees.

And in Ecological Applications a US/Thai team look at the impact of bushmeat hunting on the dispersal of the hog plum, Choerospondias axillaris which, as the name suggests needs mammals (although not just pigs) to move it about. The clue is in the paper's title 'Bushmeat poaching reduces the seed dispersal and population growth rate of a mammal-dispersed tree.' "Extinction of C. axillaris is a real possibility, but may take many decades," they add. "Recent and ongoing extirpations of vertebrates in many tropical forests could be creating an extinction debt for zoochorous trees whose vulnerability is belied by their current abundance."

In Guanacaste, Costa Rica, they (especially Dan Janzen) got round this problem by introducing cattle, replacing the large herbivores that had gone extinct in prehistory. The trees thrived as a result. But Guanacaste is a dry forest. To paraphrase the music hall song about the horse and the lighthouse, I imagine it'd be harder to keep a cow in a jungle.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cruel to be kind

Why are people such *****? I've got a feature in this week's New Scientist looking into it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blood feuding and antagonistic pleiotropy

This week, I wrote a story for Nature’s online news about a PNAS paper on the link between violence and reproductive success in the Waorani, an Amazonian tribe. The basic message is that men who went on more blood-feud-motivated raids had fewer children surviving to adulthood. This is the opposite result to that found by Napoleon Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomano, where men who had killed in raids had more wives and children.

Chagnon’s work and methods have been controversial, and the debate around all that, and what this study says about the possible link between aggression, reproduction and natural selection is too complicated to go into here.

Instead I want to offer up some quarter-baked speculation on a slightly different topic. The paper suggests that one reason that Waorani violence seems counterproductive is that, unlike the Yanomano (and apparently other societies where blood feuding goes on), there’s no gap between rounds of violence. The Yanomano, says the paper, wait a generation between taking up the cudgels, during which time the attacks are sorcery-based. The Waorani were always at it.

This long delay reminded me of what’s called antagonistic pleiotropy. This is the idea that organisms age because natural selection can favour a gene that has a selective benefit in one’s youth but is detrimental later on — i.e., the bad stuff kicks in after you’ve bred and evolution has stopped caring about you. Could something similar, I wondered, allow delayed blood-feuding to persist, or even confer a benefit to such behaviour in some circumstances?

I can imagine how the initial aggressor might benefit. You prove your toughness in a handicap-principle kind of way, and/or reduce the competition, and then get to enjoy the benefits for a couple of decades. But what does he who waits get out of it? Maybe it reduces the cost that continual feuding imposes on everyone — apparently the Waorani were on their way to wiping themselves out. Or maybe the delay has kin-selection benefits — if the feud passes down the generations, maybe the next cohort gets to prove its toughness, reap the benefits etc.

I thought the analogy was interesting, but I don’t know if there’s any validity to this comparison, and I’m not saying blood feuding is, like, cool. And besides, these days we have libel lawyers to settle this sort of thing. Who, I suppose, are the sorcerers de nos jours.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Networks, finance and ecology

A couple of days ago, the FT reported on a speech by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England's head of financial stability:

Financial risk management and regulation should cast aside many elements of traditional finance theory and learn lessons from ecology, the spread of diseases, biology and engineering, according to a senior Bank of England official...

[Haldane] likened financial mathematical models which "pointed to the stabilising effects of financial network completeness" to the now-discredited 1970s-style ecological orthodoxy that asserted the complex networks of enemies and parasites in rainforests would always guarantee their survival.

What I think Haldane's talking about is the belief that more complex food webs were more stable, because diversity is, like, good. This was challenged by Bob May's famous 1973 finding that if you add links to a food web at random it actually becomes less stable the more complex it gets. SInce then, to quote a 2007 paper "the complexity–stability debate has been a central issue in ecology: does network complexity increase or decrease food-web persistence?"

And yet, to quote me, nature is full of large groups of species interacting in complex ways, and field and lab studies suggest that more complex, diverse ecosystems, in fact, show smaller fluctuations in their population sizes. So how's that work?

What ecology has shown us is that complexity per se isn't a disaster, so long as it's the right sort of complexity. Real food webs aren't random, and highly interconnected webs are in fact more robust to the removal of species - i.e. if one species/company goes extinct/bust, there isn't a cascade of other extinctions/bankruptcies. (This is Jennifer Dunne's work.)

The piece also says Haldane said that "the biggest and most interconnected banks should be subject to tougher regulations than smaller firms because they were most likely to be a super-spreader of financial risk. He likened them to heroin users or promiscuous homosexuals who were most likely to spread the HIV virus."

This is an allusion to the finding that small-world networks, such as the Internet, are robust to the removal of a random link, but very sensitive to the targeted removal of the best-connected links. This might be a bad thing in terms of cybercrime, but if you're trying to, say, stop disease spread, it can be turned to your advantage, because by targetting the best connected/most promiscuous individuals you can have a big impact on spread.

AIG, Citigroup etc., in other words, aren't too big to fail - they're too interconnected to fail.

Food webs are a bit different. In a study of the food webs of fish and plankton species living in lakes in the Adirondacks, Dunne and colleagues found that the species most vulnerable to extinction are the ones that result in the fewest secondary extinctions. This suggests, at least in the absence of human manipulation, that the structure of ecosystems maximizes biodiversity persistence. Researchers are now trying to deduce what shapes ecological networks into these robust configurations-forces such as natural selection or thermodynamic constraints on energy flows within the food web might each be at work.

So complexity per se isn't a bad thing. It's what you do with it that counts. Financially, what we need is to understand what makes a robust network, and then try and build that into the system - although that might not be compatible with everyone getting as rich as possible as quickly as possible. Then, although we won't see the shocks coming, we will be able to reduce their impact.

That's not to say the science is all neatly worked out. Haldane said that financial theory was a generation behind ecology. Which made me want to put my money under the mattress, because, although ecologists are getting some ideas about the general properties of ecological networks, food-web theory is still full of contradictory and disputed ideas. Still, maybe this will see a wave of ecologists following George Sugihara into finance, echoing the wave of maths and physics PhDs who became quants a decade or two ago. Remember how well that turned out?

Haldane's compete speech is here. (This post is based largely on the SFI Bulletin piece linked to above, 'Risk in Financial Markets - Learning from Nature' what I wrote (sound of own trumpet) 18 months ago.)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

You have to laugh

From Terry Eagleton, writing in the London Review of Books ($):

During the Second World War, a woman was interned for five months when the authorities discovered an entry in her diary reading 'Destroy British Queen. Install Italian Queen.' She turned out to be a beekeeper.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A logic problem

Now class, what can we conclude from these two nearly adjacent papers in the current issue of Intelligence?

1. Intelligence and semen quality are positively correlated

2. Conservatism and cognitive ability
First sentence of abstract: "Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More on maximum entropy

Over the past few years, I've written pieces for Nature ($) and PLoS Biology on using of theories of maximum entropy production to explain things relating to climate, biogeochemistry, and evolution. Naturwissenschaften has just published an open-access review by Axel Kleidon, one of the field's main men (particularly from the climate end of things), on that topic.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Blogging the Origin

I've been so busy doing this, I haven't got round to linking to it from here. But I am. On scienceblogs.