Tuesday, July 22, 2014

ecology all plugged in

Field workers in ecology and technology are increasingly turning to modern technology in their quest to monitor and protect wildlife. Discarded smartphones now serve as listening stations to spot illegal logging, while affordable drones help with the conservation efforts for large species, and satellite imaging provides valuable data on the ecosystems level.

I have rounded up a few surprising examples of such new applications of technology in ecology and conservation in my latest feature:

Connecting with the natural world

Today’s technology, from smartphones to drones, provides researchers and conservation workers with many new and improved ways of observing and protecting wildlife.

Current Biology
Volume 24, Issue 14, pR629–R632, 21 July 2014
abstract page and restricted access to full text / pdf file

It will remain on restricted access until this time next year, but do drop me a line if you have problems with access, I can send PDF reprints.

Topher White from Rainforest Connection demonstrates a listening device built from a discarded smartphone. I real-life application the devices are installed invisibly, however, camouflaged and higher up in the trees. Photo: Rainforest Connection.

Friday, July 18, 2014

analytical about art

The July issue of Chemistry & Industry contains my feature on the use of analytical methods such as SERS (surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy) in art conservation:

Fading pictures
Chemistry & Industry July 2014, pp32-35

One of the recent examples covered is the colour change through light damage in the painting Portrait de Madame Léon Clapisson by Auguste Renoir:

shown in a reconstruction of the original colours (left) in comparison to the faded original. (images: The Art Institute of Chicago).

Also in the same issue (p50-51) is my long essay review on fracking, the excuse being the book:

Hydrofracking: what everyone needs to know
by Alex Prud'homme

I'm afraid both pieces are premium content, but I have PDF files, so drop me a line if you want one.

Oh, and the art feature made the cover:

I'm loving the cover design by the way - I have often stood in front of the new(ish) C&I logo in the cropped circle and wondered: "Is it art?"

Monday, July 07, 2014

solar fuel

My latest feature in Current Biology discusses artificial photosynthesis and the quest to produce transport fuel from renewable energies:

Closing the carbon cycle

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 13, pR583–R585, 7 July 2014

Free access to full text and PDF link
(free for 2 weeks after publication, and again after one year)

own photo

Friday, July 04, 2014

perverted policy

Perv – the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering


Author Jesse Bering grew up as an insecure gay boy during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and knows a thing or two about what it feels like to have a sexual orientation that the “silent majority” very loudly disapproves of. Although things in the US and most western countries have changed dramatically since then, he has kept a healthy dose of anger and mistrust against similar moral panics.

He puts his scepticism and scientific expertise to good use in analysing the problems around the people who are as ostracised today as he was in the 1980s, including paedophiles and all those with other kinds of “abnormal” sexual orientations, technically described as paraphilias.

Sexual orientation – a concept which only emerged in the late 19th century – can easily be measured today (the author has great fun describing how it is done with male subjects) and it has become clear that in boys it is fixed by the age of 10. Thus there is no way to cure a paedophile of his orientation, just as one cannot straighten out gay people.

What society could do, but has failed to do so far, is to recognise that people with certain paraphilias have a problem and need help addressing it. Harm reduction, rather than moral, naturalness or normality, is the key issue in Bering’s argument. Podophilia (foot fetishism) isn’t likely to harm anybody, but paedophiles need help to live with an orientation that would inflict suffering on children if they lived out their secret urges.

Currently, society tends to label them evil (contrary to the scientific evidence showing that they haven’t chosen their orientation) and heaps so much shame on them that some resort to child murder rather than risking exposure of their sexual transgression.

Bering points to scientific evidence showing that in places where child porn was temporarily legally available, child abuse was less prevalent than when it wasn’t, suggesting that such material, repulsive as it is to the rest of us, doesn’t encourage transgression but rather provides an outlet and reduces crime.

These findings create a first-class philosophical dilemma – would it be ok to recycle confiscated child porn to offer it as a pressure valve to known paedophiles who might otherwise go out and stalk children? Even though the making of that material presumably harmed children in the past? And does it make sense to incarcerate “hands-off” offenders, i.e. people whose only crime is to have indecent images stored on their computers, if these very images may have stopped them from doing worse?

A possible solution that the author appears to support would be to allow computer animation material to be produced and consumed. Strictly following the harm reduction idea this would make sense, as nobody is harmed in the production of such footage, and if it helps to reduce actual harm to actual children, it must be a good thing, right? Now try explaining that to the media outlets with the biggest megaphones …

Combining passion rooted in his own experience with an impressive writing talent, Bering has distilled a difficult subject matter into a fascinating book. It may still take a few decades until society (any society on the planet, really) is ready to extend evidence-based policy to the unspeakable issues addressed here. If Bering’s book helps to speed up progress just a little bit, it will be remembered as a huge achievement.

I admit that the cover design is kind of clever, but it might create problems if you do your reading on public transport ...

Thursday, July 03, 2014

freezing facebook

After what I’ve learned this week about manipulation of timelines by facebook, I‘ve decided to freeze my facebook account. This means I will not close it, to make sure my sign-off post explaining the reasons remains visible and people can find the links to my pages on other social sites, but I’ve blocked twitter from forwarding my tweets, so there should be nothing new coming in.

It’s not mainly the fact that the research they carried out on “emotional contagion” was unethical because there was no informed consent, although this was certainly unacceptable. Personally I would have been unlikely to be hit by facebook's mood manipulation, as I rarely check the timeline. It's worrying to think what other uses the site might find for similar "experiments".

What affects me more and makes it pointless for me to share things on facebook are the routine manipulations that were revealed in the wake of the fiasco. From this story I’ve learned why my tweets forwarded to facebook no longer got any reactions: As I didn’t use facebook directly very often, so didn’t put many likes and responses on people’s posts and don’t interact much, I was accorded low priority in people’s timelines, so they were less likely to see my stuff unless they specifically visited my own page (and for those who are ready to put in this extra effort, I’d rather they visit my blog on blogspot).

Which is a vicious circle, really. If you’re not so popular on Facebook, the algorithm will make you even less so by de-prioritising your content in other people’s streams. This is a turbo-charged popularity contest, worse than anything happening in real life.

For regular updates, follow this blog, my twitter, and/or my tumblr - further links are under "VISIT MY" in the margin (underneath the green astrobiology cover).

Quote from one of the explanatory pieces in the Guardian:

How many stories is Facebook filtering out, and how? Backstrom explained in August that Facebook's news feed algorithm boils down the 1,500 posts that could be shown a day in the average news feed into around 300 that it "prioritises". How does this algorithm work? Backstrom explained that factors include: how often you interact with a friend, page or public figure; how many likes, shares and comments individual posts have received; how much you have interacted with that kind of post in the past; and whether it’s being hidden and/or reported a lot.
PS: I missed Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble when it came out - that would have warned me. A discussion of the Facebook newsfeed in relation to the filter bubble theory is here.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

lee and che

My series on Oxford buskers seems to be settling in on a monthly rhythm now. For a daily fix of street music visit my street music blog on tumblr. This month's artists are duo Lee and Che - I think she's called Cheryl in real life, so he must be Lee. They play covers of pop/country songs that are a bit less well known (at least to me), so I discover new songs every time I see them. Here they are doing their thing in Cornmarket Street (own photo):

I have a couple of street videos of them on my youtube channel:

Cover me up by Jason Isbell

For you by Angus and Julia Stone

For more info find them on Facebook.


My flickr pics of Lee and Che

Lee and Che's youtube channel


NB: Anybody wanting to join the vibrant Oxford busking scene needs a busking pass from the Oxford City Council, application details here. See also the code of practice and the map of the nine official busking spots here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

four years on flickr

as another summer solstice rolls by, it's also another anniversary for my flickr photostream. After four years on the site, I have accumulated 1415 photos, that's just under one per day, which I think is a reasonable rate. I am at no risk of exhausting the 1TB storage space, the site tells me that I'm still under 1% of capacity. So I could carry on for another 400 years.

While I'm not entirely happy with the design changes that flickr has made in the last year, the site still works well for me in terms of finding an audience that will look at my photos and occasionally provide feedback. While I would be perfectly happy to post pictures of architectural details and bumblebees all the time, the audience seems to have a weird preference for photos of human beings, so I'm also providing a few of those. Especially if the humans of Oxford engage in activities I'm interested in such as playing music or reading.

I would embed a few flickr pics here, but they tend to mess up the lovely link within app which crosslinks between my blog posts. So instead I'm offering you a screencap showing the top of my viewing charts as of today:

Visit my flickr photostream here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

phage therapy for trees and people

The use of bacteriophages as antibacterial therapeutics is an option that has been underappreciated for too long, considering the current crisis of widespread resistance to antibiotics. As I've reported three years ago, much of the ecological research into the triangular relationship between a pathogenic bacterium, its host and its phage has been carried out with plants such as the horse chestnut. This has now reached the point where experimental treatments for plant diseases can be introduced based on phage cocktails. These can also serve as models to study the promise and pitfalls of future use of phages to treat infectious diseases in humans.

My feature is out in Current Biology today:

Phage therapies for plants and people

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 12, 16 June 2014, Pages R541–R544

Summary and restricted access to full text / pdf download

NB there has been a change of access policy so the features will no longer be on open access in the first two weeks after publication date. They will, however, become freely accessible one year after publication. If you have problems accessing a feature, please do drop me an email (michaelgrr aatt yahoo ddott co ddott uk) - I have pdf files at hand which I'll be happy to send for personal use.

A horse chestnut sapling, own photo.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

science in south america

Back in 1999 I applied for a fairly amazing job at Nature and got through to the final, meaning I had the opportunity of a long chat with the editor, telling him what I would like the the magazine and website to add to its existing strengths. One of the main things I obsessed about was that they should do more to represent and support science in Latin America. Which obviously wasn't what they wanted to do at the time, so I didn't get the job. (Click the tag "LA_ciencia" for further attempts at supporting Latin American science).

It looks like it took 15 years and a world cup to make them change their mind - the special section Science Stars of South America in the current issue looks quite comprehensive at first glance (I may have more to say on it once I've actually read it). It seems to be on open access, start your reading here.

Cover of Nature, 12.6.2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

how drugs became demons

In my long essay review of the book "Demons - our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco and drugs" by Virginia Berridge (OUP 2013), I had plenty of space to ponder the perversity of current drugs regulation, as highlighted by David Nutt and others. As for the book itself, Berridge does a very good job explaining how events from the Opium Wars onwards led to the world ending up in this particular rabbit hole. My main criticism was the author's remarkable detachment from these hotly debated issues, which can at times be infuriating. Also, as she apparently has no opinions on any of the controversial issues surrounding current drugs policie, she doesn't offer a way out of the mess either.

Anyhow, my review is out in the June issue of Chemistry & Industry, on pp 50-51. If you have any problems accessing it, drop me a note.

Friday, June 06, 2014

archaic proteins and all that Bach

In the round-up of German pieces published in May-June 2014 we have medical marijuana, curious carbohydrates, and paleo proteins, as well as intellectual giants from Johann Sebastian Bach to Dr House.

Wirkstoff THC: Marihuana-Medizin macht Ernst
Chemie in unserer Zeit Vol 48, No 3, p 163

Biochemie: Kohlenhydrate spielen Protein
Chemie in unserer Zeit Vol 48, No 3, p 167

Ausgeforscht: Kobalt im Blut
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 6, p

Ausgeforscht: Buchstabensuppe
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 6, p 727

Blickpunkt Bio: Proteine aus der Urzeit des Lebens
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Vol 62, No 6, pp 632-634

Oh, and I nearly forgot, the paleo proteins made the cover of Nachrichten:

Monday, June 02, 2014

coffee and chocolate

I generally avoid writing about food, as it gets written about too much already, but if the few food types I really care about (essentially: wine, chocolate, coffee) are under threat, I have to ride to their rescue.

So here comes a feature on how climate change, financial speculation, and growth in demand may make it harder to find decent coffee and chocolate at affordable prices in the near future:

Coffee and chocolate in danger

Current Biology Volume 24, Issue 11, pR503–R506, 2 June 2014
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.05.035

Full text and free access to PDF file.

own photo.

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