Friday, May 24, 2013

cultural history of geek speak

review of Netymology, by Tom Chatfield

Over the last two decades, the world-wide web has rapidly evolved to become the focus of a world-wide super-culture shared by several billion people using it. This culture has developed new standards of communication and civility, virtual communities (some with their own distinctive cultures), and terminology.

Just with a brief discussion of the etymology and usage of 100 of the termini of the internet age, Tom Chatfield has achieved much more than just creating an annotated list of fancy new words. While one could use it as a reference to look up words that have remained unfamiliar or puzzling (though an index would help with this kind of use), a cover-to-cover reading conjures up a cultural history of the internet age. Each of the words and concepts discussed also serves as a mirror reflecting the behaviour of web users and online communities from a different angle.

Along the way there are lovely little factoids waiting to be picked up. My favourites include: Thomas Edison writing about “bugs” in his inventions; the patron saint of the internet (St. Isidore of Seville, apparently); the use of “OMG” in a 1917 letter addressed to Churchill; and the fact that there is a Wikipedia entry on the gender of connectors and fasteners.

In some cases, the the 3-pages standard length of the chapters left me yearning for more, but then again, the book might have easily become unwieldy, and for those who want to investigate further, there’s always the internet …

PS: on a related topic, also see my recent feature on the evolution of online culture.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

my inner fish

I somehow managed to miss Neil Shubin's excellent book "Your inner fish" when it came out a few years ago. Now, however, I had the chance to read it and catch up with my inner fish on the occasion of the publication of the coelacanth genome.

Shubin's discovery of an intermediate fossil, Tiktaalik, and the genomic comparisons of coelacanth with other vertebrates tell us some amazing things on the transition from fish to land-living animals. What I find most mind-boggling, however, is this: If you look at the tree of life from the perspective of the coelacanth, you'll find that mice, chickens and humans are closer relatives than herring or zebrafish, or anything that lives in an aquarium, and never mind sharks and rays. Try to get that into your brain if you're just a fish.

By coincidence, the reference genome of the zebra fish was published almost at the same time, so I could combine one fish that tells us about our evolution with another that tells us about our development, into a feature that is now out in Current Biology;

What fish genomes can tell us about life on land

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 10, R419-R421, 20 May 2013

doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.068

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Friday, May 10, 2013

cognitive enhancers

Not that I've felt the need for brain doping (beyond caffeine) so far, but I've been following the field of cognitive enhancers from a safe distance for a while now and have summed up the current state of affairs in a feature for Chemistry & Industry, which is out in the May issue:

Smart New World

Chemistry & Industry No. 5, pp32-35

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In the same issue, I have a review of the book:

Gold nanoparticles for physics, chemistry and biology

on page 47.

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Maybe the smart pills could magically convert me into this guy:

einstein

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

gut feelings

This week's issue of Current Biology has a special section of food and biology. My contribution is a feature on the gut microbiome and what it can tell us about widespread problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Does the gut microbiome hold clues to obesity and diabetes? Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 9, R359-R362, 6 May 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.047

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The issue looks like this:

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