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October 2004

Teenage obsessions: on the track of unknown animals

The news this week about Hobbit-(wo)man led me to recall one of two books which obsessed me in my early teenage years, Bernard Heuvelmans' On The Track of Unknown Animals. Cyptozoology was one source of escape during a lonely start to boarding school life. The other book that I remember vividly from those delicate years is As The Naked Wind From The Sea — a title which left little to the imagination (and the book, even less), and which I'm delighted to see was made into a film which was banned in Finland before 1997. This Swedish novel made the rounds in a sex-starved, all-boys school and fulfilled every male fantasy I could think of at the time — and some — as we wondered and wondered about girls, an unknown animal for sure.

It was Arnold Darlington (1912-1986), Malvern's renowned Head of Biology, who fed my day-time enthusiasm for the first kind of biology and, in particular, encouraged my research into an obscure little animal, the tardigrade, a creature so extraordinary as to catch and hold my interest.

Tardigrade2
© Martin Mach

NASA's Astrobiology site cites the tardigrade as an example of an 'extreme animal':

Some organisms, however, have evolved to adapt to a loss of water – in essence, to cheat death until water reappears. One such organism is a microscopic animal called a "tardigrade." … If their environment dries up, the tardigrades undergo a process called anhydrobiosis (life without water). A sugar called trehalose moves into their cells to replace the lost water, and the tardigrade curls into a little ball called a "tun." Their metabolism lowers to a death-like 0.01% of normal, or is entirely undetectable. Depending on how long they have been in an anhydrobiotic state, tardigrades can become active again within a few minutes to a few hours after exposure to water. Anhydrobiosis is just one type of a range of adaptable techniques called cryptobiosis. The other types of cryptobiosis are cryobiosis (cold temperatures), osmobiosis (salt water), and anoxybiosis (reduction of oxygen). Cryptobiotic animals were first documented in 1702 by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, when he observed tiny life forms in sediment collected from rooftops. He dried the "animalcules" to preserve them, and when he later added water he saw the creatures begin to move around. (The animals van Leeuwenhoek studied were probably rotifers – a microscopic organism that uses a wheel-like organ to swim and feed). Because of their ability to withstand hostile conditions, tardigrades and other cryptobiotic organisms are of interest to astrobiologists. Some tardigrades can survive in temperatures as low as minus 200 degrees Celsius (minus 328 F). Others can survive temperatures as high as 151 degrees C (304 F). Tardigrades can survive the process of freezing or thawing, as well as changes in salinity, extreme vacuum pressure conditions, and a lack of oxygen. Tardigrades also are resistant to levels of X-ray radiation that are hundreds of times more lethal to humans and other organisms.

How intriguing now that, just when it seemed to the casual eye that we had nowhere truly unknown left to explore on the face of the planet, there is, perhaps, a greater chance than we had imagined that close relatives of ours (the little people of lore?) are alive and well, undiscovered, deep in the forests of the world:

The discovery of Homo floresiensis makes it much more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures are founded on grains of truth. In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative to scour central Sumatra for 'orang pendek' can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold. Another argument in favour of such searches comes from the recent discovery of several new species of large mammal, notably in Southeast Asia. For example, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, a species of ox from the remote Vu Qiang nature reserve on the border between Vietnam and Laos, was first described from hunting trophies in only 1992. Another species of bovid, the kouprey (Bos sauveli), was discovered in Indochina in 1937. Neither of these creatures is as exotic as a yeti or orang pendek, but the point is made. If animals as large as oxen can remain hidden into an era when we would expect that scientists had rustled every tree and bush in search of new forms of life, there is no reason why the same should not apply to new species of large primate, including members of the human family. Nature


Searching for sex shopping

Agenda Inc (via Smart Mobs):

"Twenty percent of all searching was sex-related back in 1997; now it's about 5 percent," said Amanda Spink, the University of Pittsburgh professor who co-authored Web Search: Public Searching of the Web with Penn State professor Bernard J. Jansen. "People are using (the web) more as an everyday tool rather than as just an entertainment medium."
Wired News carries the report to which Agenda Inc links:
Experts aren't surprised by the results. "They're not getting excited about using the internet anymore," Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto cyberspace researcher, said of the findings. "Remember when cars came out, and people would say, 'Wow, we're going for a ride today!' Now they just go for a ride."

Or go shopping. Spink said her studies show queries for e-business or commerce increased by 86 percent in the past seven years. …

What hasn't changed much in seven years is how hard people are willing to work at searching. The answer: not very. Spink and Jansen found that people averaged about two words per query and two queries per search session. "The searches are taking less than five minutes, and they're only looking at the first page of results," Spink said. "That's why people are wanting to get their results on the first page" of search engine results.


Derrida: a modern Socrates?

Writing in the LRB, Judith Butler argues that Derrida, like Socrates, found 'the question (to be) the most honest and arduous form of thought'.

'How do you finally respond to your life and to your name?' … That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honouring what cannot be possessed through knowledge, what in a life exceeds our grasp.

"Coming to terms" with Derrida will not be easy: he has coloured and affected so much of what we perceive, focusing so many of our perceptions and intuitions, challenging these and always rendering us restless just when we might have been tempted to stop.

… his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticised the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to 'totality' or 'systematicity' as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that pre-emptive valorisation. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. This notion of 'reading' insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write.

Above all, I respond to what Judith Butler calls his insistence 'on the Other as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be 'captured' through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed'.

This conception became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorisation of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his criticism of the discourse of 'terror' as it worked to increase governmental powers that undermine basic human rights. This political ethic can be seen at work in his defence of animal rights, in his opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about 'being' Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing origins and language.

Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life and the encounter with the Other, one that required a reading of the rules by means of which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

I am also, though, moved by her opening paragraph on Derrida and mourning.


Good practice … and theory

From a rough transcript of Eric Schmidt's (Google CEO) remarks at 35th Internet Anniversary (via Boing Boing):

Good management is not that complicated, it's about leadership. Some managers need to micromanage everything, but that doesn't produce creativity. If you can figure out a way to tell a story, that's how people learn. they have a beginning middle and an end. if you have the right kind of people and the right kind of values, that can work. The great thing about high tech is that labor is very mobile, and if you want to deal with other people, you are forced to deal with them as peers and equals. …

Information on the internet has a very long tail (Ed. Note: referring to Chris Anderson's recent article in Wired.)There are very few things that the entire world is interested in at the same time. The vast majority of people out there are very much engaged in their own daily lives, in a local context very different than yours or mine.

The other thing to remember is that the average person does not want to debug their computer. We prefer instead the idea of a person typing something in and Google -- or someone else -- figuring things out for you. But very few things are organized around that principle of simplicity; we love and appreciate the complexity in technology but people using the internet really don't want that. When you see an ease of use breakthrough, it's such a wonderful thing.

I'll be posting more about simplicity and computing shortly.


Straws in the wind …

Olivier Travers has summed this up well: 'I see more people waking up to the fact Google might turn into a significant Microsoft ISV'.

It's interesting to see how Google might become a significant Microsoft ISV. If they play it right, and provided they want to give it a try, the two companies might even avoid going on a frontal collision course and learn how to work with each other. It all depends on a) how much hubris there is going to come from Google and b) how much paranoia is growing at Microsoft. The two might end up keeping a close eye on each other but still dance with each other when that makes sense, not unlike the uneasy but still workable relationships Microsoft has with, say, Cisco or IBM.

PC World:

Microsoft has found an unlikely new partner to help promote Windows XP: Google. While senior Microsoft executives pit the company against Google in a looming Internet search war, the Redmond, Washington-based company has begun offering a Google search tool for download from the Microsoft.com Web site. Google's Deskbar is included in Microsoft's Partner Pack for Windows, a collection of Microsoft and third-party products released last week that Microsoft describes on its Web site as "the ultimate application package" for a Windows XP PC.

Inclusion of the Google Deskbar in the Windows Partner Pack is an example of how Google can be a partner for Microsoft's large Windows group while at the same time a rival to MSN, a relatively small Microsoft group that in June ended its first profitable year ever, says Joe Wilcox, a Washington, D.C.-based Jupiter Research senior analyst. "While the MSN Search folks may be in hot competition with Google, for the Windows platform Google is a valuable partner," Wilcox says. With Windows XP adoption lagging, Microsoft's biggest challenge right now is promoting Windows XP's capabilities, Wilcox says. "Over the last couple months, Microsoft has stepped up XP evangelism, in part by showing the capability of partner products that extend the operating system's capabilities. The products available with the Partner Pack are consistent with that approach," he says.

Another reason for Microsoft to include the Google Deskbar in the Partner Pack is because it was built using Microsoft technology. "Microsoft is pleased that Google recognized the potential of the Windows platform and the .NET Framework, and chose to use it to enable the delivery of a great search application," a Microsoft spokeswoman said. Google spokesman Steve Langdon said bundling the Deskbar in the Windows Partner Pack is an example of industry collaboration. "From time to time we work with Microsoft, and this is an example of that," he says.

Dan Gillmor's post, Google's Windows-Centric Stance (Picasa, Desktop Search, Keyhole), has this comment from Nick Bradbury: 'My take on this is that Google realizes that much of Microsoft's strength is due to most computer users having all of their data stored on Windows machines. If Google can use Windows apps to slowly get people to move their data to the web (via Google), then they're one step closer to an internet OS.'


Iraq: 100,000+ civilian deaths?

The Lancet has today released online a report (Roberts, Lafta, Garfield, Khudhairi & Burnham) into civilian deaths in Iraq since March 2003, when coalition forces invaded Iraq. The summary (free registration required) states:

The risk of death was estimated to be 2·5-fold (95% CI 1·6-4·2) higher after the invasion when compared with the preinvasion period. Two-thirds of all violent deaths were reported in one cluster in the city of Falluja. If we exclude the Falluja data, the risk of death is 1·5-fold (1·1-2·3) higher after the invasion. We estimate that 98000 more deaths than expected (8000-194000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included. The major causes of death before the invasion were myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular accidents, and other chronic disorders whereas after the invasion violence was the primary cause of death. Violent deaths were widespread, reported in 15 of 33 clusters, and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children. The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher (95% CI 8·1-419) than in the period before the war.

Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.

The full report (pdf) is available here.

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and a respected commentator on Middle East affairs, reflects:

The troubling thing about these results is that they suggest that the US may soon catch up with Saddam Hussein in the number of civilians killed. ...

The methodology of this study is very tight, but it does involve extrapolating from a small number and so could easily be substantially incorrect. But the methodology also is standard in such situations and was used in Bosnia and Kosovo.

I think the results are probably an exaggeration. But they can't be so radically far off that the 16,000 deaths previously estimated can still be viewed as valid. I'd say we have to now revise the number up to at least many tens of thousand--which anyway makes sense. The 16,000 estimate comes from counting all deaths reported in the Western press, which everyone always knew was only a fraction of the true total. (I see deaths reported in al-Zaman every day that don't show up in the Western wire services).

The most important finding from my point of view is not the magnitude of civilian deaths, but the method of them. Roberts and Burnham find that US aerial bombardments are killing far more Iraqi civilians than had previously been suspected. This finding is also not a surprise to me. I can remember how, on a single day (August 12), US warplanes bombed the southern Shiite city of Kut, killing 84 persons, mainly civilians, in an attempt to get at Mahdi Army militiamen. These deaths were not widely reported in the US press, especially television. Kut is a small place and has been relatively quiet except when the US has been attacking Muqtada al-Sadr, who is popular among some segments of the population there. The toll in Sadr City or the Shiite slums of East Baghdad, or Najaf, or in al-Anbar province, must be enormous.

I personally believe that these aerial bombardments of civilian city quarters by a military occupier that has already conquered the country are a gross violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, governing the treatment of populations of occupied territories.


Google through the Keyhole

Memories of Google's CityBlock Project (Matt Jones: 'I guess - as ever with Google - worth keeping a close eye on' — 14 April, 2004):

Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) today announced it acquired Keyhole Corp., a Mountain View, Calif.-based digital mapping company.

"With Keyhole, you can fly like a superhero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere else in the world - or find a local hospital, map a road trip or measure the distance between two points," said Jonathan Rosenberg, vice president, Product Management. "This acquisition gives Google users a powerful new search tool, enabling users to view 3D images of any place on earth as well as tap a rich database of roads, businesses and many other points of interest. Keyhole is a valuable addition to Google's efforts to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

With an Internet connection, users enter an address or other location information and Keyhole's software accesses the database and takes them to a digital image of that location on their computer screen. The interactive software then gives users many options, including the ability to zoom in from space-level to street-level, tilt and rotate the view or search for other information such as hotels, parks, ATMs or subways. Unlike traditional mapping technologies, Keyhole creates a dynamic 3D interface for geographic information. Keyhole's technology combines a multi-terabyte database of mapping information and images collected from satellites and airplanes with easy-to-use software. Google also announced, effective immediately, a price reduction for Keyhole 2 LT from $69.95 to $29.95.

Google Press Release


Little lady of Flores

Homo floresiensis & Homo sapiens

Skeletal remains show that the hominins, nicknamed 'hobbits' by some of their discoverers, were only one metre tall, had a brain one-third the size of that of modern humans, and lived on an isolated island long after Homo sapiens had migrated through the South Pacific region.

"My jaw dropped to my knees," says Peter Brown, one of the lead authors and a palaeoanthropologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia.

The find has excited researchers with its implications - if unexpected branches of humanity are still being found today, and lived so recently, then who knows what else might be out there? The species' diminutive stature indicates that humans are subject to the same evolutionary forces that made other mammals shrink to dwarf size when in genetic isolation and under ecological pressure, such as on an island with limited resources.

The new species, reported this week in Nature, was found by Australian and Indonesian scientists in a rock shelter called Liang Bua on the island of Flores. The team unearthed a near-complete skeleton, thought to be a female, including the skull, jaw and most teeth, along with bones and teeth from at least seven other individuals. Nature

Carl Zimmer, writing in Corante, comments:

Paleoanthropologists were first attracted to Flores when 800,000 year old tools were found on the island in 1998. Boats seem to have been essential for getting to Flores, which speaks of a pretty impressive mental capacity for Homo erectus. (On the other hand, lizards and elephants and other land animals got to the island without a boat--perhaps by swimming being swept away on logs during storms.) Researchers poked around on Flores, and last September they turned up something none of them had expected: Homo floresiensis. Homo floresiensis was not an ape--it had the signature traits of a homind, such as a bipedal anatomy and small canine teeth. But it wasn't a pygmy human, either. Pygmy brains are in the normal range of variation for our own species. What's more, the floresiensis brain wasn't just small but had a drastically different shape than ours--a shape more like the brain of Homo erectus. This and other anatomical details have led the researchers to conclude that Homo floresiensis branched off from Homo erectus and evolved into a dwarf form.

Here is case-closed proof that today's solitary existence of Homo sapiens is a fluke in the history of hominids. Even 18,000 years ago, at least one other species walked the Earth with us. Exactly how Homo floresiensis went extinct no one knows, but close to the top of the list would have to be ourselves. Neanderthals survived only a few thousand years after humans turned up in Europe, and Homo erectus seems to have disappeared from Indonesia around 40,000 years ago, just around the time humans came on the scene. Perhaps Homo floresiensis lasted longer on Flores because it was harder for humans to reach.

A dwarf hominid on an island is fascinating for another reason--islands are famous for fostering the evolution of dwarf animals, from deer to mammoths. It's possible that the small territory of islands and the lack of competition and predators favors the small. For the first time, hominids have fallen under the same rule. Islands mammals have also been shown to sometimes evolve much smaller brains, and, incredibly, the hominid brain is subject to the same rule. Homo floresiensis's brain shrank down to the smallest size ever found in a hominid. Did Homo floresiensis lose the mental capacity to use tools along the way? The researchers found stone tools in the same site where they found Homo floresiensis, but it's not clear whether Homo floresiensis made the tools, or humans used them (perhaps to kill Homo floresiensis?).

One of the most interesting questions that comes to mind with the discovery of Homo floresiensis is how far back it goes in the fossil record. Just how long did it take for a lineage of hominids to lose half their height and two-thirds of their brain? It may have taken a million years, or a few hundred thousand, or maybe less.