Saturday, April 24, 2010

And on that farm he had a tiger ...

Good grief. I have been lax haven't I? Nothing written on here for a couple of weeks. Let me apologise with the most misleading book cover of all time. It is ever-so-slightly pertinent to this post.

Work is progressing on the new book. It's a bit more of a 'grown up' book than Joined-Up Thinking and needs a lot more research. It's very time consuming ... but it's also the fun part. So far I've interviewed IT specialists, tramps, barristers, three professors, a man who thinks we should farm tigers, fishermen, some conker enthusiasts, a prostitute and a wizard. I also have some interesting contributions from the people at QI and the very splendid Tim Minchin. Trust me, it will all make a kind of sense when you read it.

I've heard some very funny stories during the research. One involved a little old lady who told me that she could never remember her PIN for her credit card so she wrote it on the wall next to her local ATM. When I scalded her for her dreadful lack of security consciousness she replied, 'But how would anyone know that it's my number?' and the more I've thought about it, the more I've realised the truth of what she said.

There's been some controversial discussions too. One chapter I'm working on looks at how the obvious answer isn't always the right answer. Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism may have advocated 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people' but strong emotions skew the logic of any given situation. We could, for instance, save an absolute fortune in NHS costs (that we tax payers all fund) by giving homeless people a free house. Really. We would. Do the maths (or read this). But how would you feel about that if you'd scrimped and saved to get your first foot on the property ladder? The residents of Sipson in Middlesex have had to fight tooth and claw against the combined might of the Labour government and the British Airports Authority to stop Heathrow building a new runway over their demolished village. They may now have won despite the logic of the building proposal and the huge numbers of air passengers who want to get in and out of the UK quicker and more frequently.

And then there's tiger farming.

'Tiger farms will help reduce the demand for wild tigers if the market is well-regulated. It would be wrong to say that by eliminating the market we eliminate the demand for tigers,'" says Terry Anderson of PERC. He refers to the continuation of the illegal trade in tiger parts, which are prized for having healing and aphrodisiac qualities and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Illegal poaching and the destruction of tigers' natural habitats have contributed to the decline of the wild tiger population to critical levels, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The WWF estimates that the number of tigers left in the wild has dwindled to around 3,200, less than the number held in captivity, with only around 50 in China. It has warned that tigers may become extinct in the wild in less than a generation.

In a paper published in 1998 called Who will save the wild tiger? Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist from Johannesburg, South Africa, voices some uncomfortable truths: ‘The problem for tiger conservation today is that currently the benefits are more potential than actual. For most local people, there are only two positive values of live tigers (other than any traditional cultural values they might hold that favour the tiger). First, tigers prey on wild animals such as deer, boar and pig that destroy crops in many areas. Second, some people are employed as staff in protected areas, and thus earn a living from tiger protection. But even then, their salaries are often low, so that the incentive for good performance is lacking.’ Meanwhile, as he points out, demand for tiger parts – particularly bones used in traditional Chinese medicine – is high and ‘Rapid economic growth in countries such as China is likely to increase disposable income, possibly leading people to pay increasingly high prices to obtain tiger products, even illegally. […] Since the benefits of Asian economic growth are not spread uniformly, poor rural people living adjacent to tiger reserves will probably remain poor, so that higher prices for tiger products will make poaching more attractive. Even if demand should fall, the current supply of tiger products may diminish much faster, especially if (as has happened) authorities destroy seized stockpiles of products destined for the market'.

In conclusion, the paper notes that farming tigers could help save the species. At present, it is almost impossible for purchasers to be sure that they are buying genuine tiger bone. Farming would create a quality control and make poached wild tigers less attractive. Tiger farms would create local employment opportunities and a legal fur trade. ‘In sum, most of the interest in tiger conservation occurs in the developed countries,’ says ‘t Sas-Rolfes, ‘But little of that interest translates to actual protection of wild tigers in their natural habitat. Few local people benefit directly from the presence of wild tigers, but they bear considerable costs. It is mostly people in developed countries who benefit from tiger conservation campaigns. […} Governments may resist market-based opportunities but tiger conservationists should not.’

It's a fascinating idea isn't it? But how do you feel about it? After all, we do the same for cows, sheep, goats, chickens ... so why not tigers? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts

And now, back to the writing. Oh, and the terrible Animal Farm book jacket was pertinent only in that there was a big cat depicted. I know. I know. Lazy.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Nowt so Queer as Earth Folks - 2010 update

When I first started blogging I ran several different blogs on a variety of subjects that interested me. Over time, I combined them and transferred all of the content to this one blog. I quite like the eclectic mix that has resulted. One of these early blogs was called Worlds of Possibility and it was a series of speculative essays (such as here, here, here or here), scientific articles (here or here) and even artists' impressions of what life could be like on other worlds (here or here). The subject of what life on other worlds could be like has fascinated me my whole life. Had I not been such an attention-seeking arty-fartist at school I would most definitely have tried to become a marine biologist. The sea is the most alien environment we can explore first hand and, let's face it, a lot of the stuff in the sea - especially deep sea - is about as alien as it comes.

Every so often, I post up some interesting little news stories that I hope you'll find as fascinating as I do. I have a couple of them here for you today. Before we start, however, I should point out that I have both of my humanoid feet firmly in the xenobiology camp. There are two distinct camps you see; astrobiology and xenobiology (within the broader category of xenoscience). The main difference is that astrobiologist tend to focus upon finding 'Goldilocks' worlds where conditions are 'just right' for life like that on Earth to have evolved. Xenoscience, meanwhile, is more adventurous. As Professor Jack Cohen describes it: ‘Instead of looking for carbon copies of Earth, we ought to be theorising about and looking for the different kinds of planets, and other potential habitats for life, that exist out there in the wide universe. ‘Exotic’ habitats should be seen not as obstacles, but as opportunities; instead of dismissing them with an airy wave of the hand and saying, ‘Obviously life couldn’t exist there’, we ought to be asking, ‘What would it have to be like if it did?’’' That kind of viewpoint appeals to my creative side and, every year that goes by, we find more and more forms of life here on Earth that simply don't conform to the rules we've always held to be rigid for life. Here's a great example, taken from today's Daily Telegraph; a complex life form that doesn't need oxygen:

'New species 'lives without oxygen'

The first animals that do not depend on oxygen to breathe and reproduce have been discovered by scientists on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea.

Three species of creature, which are only a millimetre long and resemble jellyfish encased in shells, were found 2.2 miles (3.5km) underwater on the ocean floor, 124 miles (200km) off the coast of Crete, in an area with almost no oxygen. The animals, named Loriciferans due to their protective layer, or lorica, were discovered by a team led by Roberto Danovaro from Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy. One of the species has been named Spinoloricus Cinzia, after Dr Danovaro's wife, while the other two, known as Rugiloricus and Pliciloricus, have yet to be formally named. They were found during three expeditions to find life in the sediment of L'Atlante basin in the Mediterranean, which took place over the course of a decade.

Professor Danovaro told BBC News bodies of multicellular animals had been found in sediment from a similarly oxygen-starved area of the Black Sea, but they were thought to have been carried there from adjacent oxygenated water. The species found in the latest expedition were alive, two of them containing eggs, and though they died on extraction the eggs were successfully incubated on the ship, and hatched in an oxygen-starved environment. The professor said: "It is a real mystery how these creatures are able to live without oxygen because until now we thought only bacteria could do this." Lisa Levin, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in the journal BMC Biology that further research into animals that can live without oxygen could help scientists examining the possibility of alien life existing on other planets.'
And here's another, a little older, taken from the Microscopy UK website:

'A Lobster's Microscopic Friend - Symbion pandora - a new life form and a new phylum.

Just before Christmas 1995, a new life form discovered by Danish biologists on the lips of the Norway lobster attracted world-wide media attention. Why? This topical article by Dave Walker describes and illustrates this "zoological highlight of the decade" using the biologists' published material and includes an exclusive photograph kindly supplied by the original researchers.
It is not that difficult to find a new species. Place an experienced botanist and zoologist in a poorly investigated area of the world such as virgin rainforest and leave them there for a while to study the fauna and flora. It is quite likely that a tiny beetle, fly or plant such as a moss may be found which is unidentifiable and is declared a new species. In fact it is believed that millions of species remain undiscovered. So why did the discovery of S.pandora excite not just the scientific community but attract media attention world-wide? For two main reasons.

Firstly, the organism was not discovered in the depths of a rain forest or an oceanic trench, but on the bristles surrounding the mouth of the Norway lobster Nephrops norvegicus which can be caught in the Kattegat Straits, a busy shipping lane between Sweden and Denmark. You've probably eaten the Norway lobster - as scampi and chips. Secondly, when a new animal species is discovered, no matter how unusual, it can normally be classified into a known group of creatures with the same body plan or phylum. Although there are 1.5 million plus known species in the world, they can all be classified into 35 or so phyla. These include the chordates (eg the vertebrates such as man), molluscs (snails) and arthropods (jointed limbed e.g. insects). However, S.pandora was so unusual that it could not be classified into any of the existing phyla, and a new one was suggested called Cycliophora.

The organism has a very complex life cycle, with a number of well-defined sessile (stationary) and free swimming stages with different morphologies. The largest and most illustrated phase is the feeding stage. The key features of this stage are as follows.

- typically 350 ┬Ám long
- attached by an adhesive disc to the lips of the lobster
- feeds using a mouth surrounded by a ring of cilia
- excretes via an anus next to the mouth ring
- the feeding stage continually produces inner buds which replace the feeding structures
- both asexual and sexual reproduction can occur

Pandora's sex life is so peculiar that scientists at the Natural History Museum, UK were left puzzled. A museum scientist was quoted as saying 'it is unlike anything we have seen before'. There was a debate whether Pandora had one penis or two, a fact eagerly announced by the popular press. The essential features of the sexual cycles are as follows. As well as sessile stages there are three free-swimming stages i.e.:

- a larva containing a new feeding stage
- dwarf males (size typically 84 um) which settle on feeding stages
- females which attach to the lobster, and subsequently degenerate producing larva which disperse.

All the free-swimming stages do not feed and are short-lived. Sexual reproduction is initiated when the lobster is near the end of its moult cycle. At this stage sexually mature feeding stages are found attached to the lobster's lips. The asexual aspect of the life cycle explains why large populations of feeding stages with no mature sexual stages have been found on lobsters.

Cycliophora, in which S.pandora has been placed, is thought to have affinities to the phyla Entoprocta and Ectoprocta. The Ectoprocta are also known as the bryozoans or moss animals. Bryozoans are microscopic invertebrates that can form beautiful colonies which are often attached to rocks and plants in both fresh and seawater. The bryozoans reproduce asexually by a budding process similar to that of Pandora.'

You see my fascination? If we have stuff like this right here on Earth, what chance is there of little green men ... or indeed anything even vaguely humanoid elsewhere?

Nature is far more bizarrely inventive than any of us petty humans ever believed possible.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Hero, not Zero

So what did we all think to Matt Smith's debut as the new Doctor, eh? I have to say that I was pretty damned impressed. Of course, it's early days and we have another 12 episodes in which we'll see his character bed in, but, on the whole, I really enjoyed it. (Warning! Spoilers!)

The Eleventh Hour was a well-paced story with enough simplicity to ensure that the focus was never quite stolen away from the new Doctor finding his (new) feet and the budding relationship with new companion Amy Pond. In a nutshell, nine year old Amelia Pond has been uprooted from Scotland to England ('It's rubbish') to live with her aunt. We don't meet the aunt or Amelia's parents ('I don't have a Mum and Dad') but the young girl doesn't seem to need them. She's self-sufficient, has plenty of common sense and isn't scared of anything ... except the crack in her bedroom wall through which voices can be occasionally heard. She's not phased at all by the sudden crash-landing of a blue police box in her garden containing a man in a tattered David Tennant costume who claims that he doesn't really know who he is yet as he's 'still cooking'. After some hilarity as Amelia attempts to find the food the new Doctor needs to aid his regeneration, they explore the mysterious crack - which turns out to be in space/time rather than the plaster.

This is where Steven Moffat's superior scriptwriting comes to the fore. He has a knack of making complex ideas simple and, as his Doctor explains, 'knock the wall down and the crack will still be there'. He then widens the crack and we get our only glimpse of an alien prison from which 'Prisoner Zero has escaped'. However, before the Doctor can explore further, the TARDIS cloister bell starts to toll and the Doctor is forced to climb back inside and make a five minute jump into the future to stabilise the engines. The young Amelia grabs her suitcase and patiently waits for his return.

Twelve years later, the Doctor returns. The TARDIS, all-but knackered by Tennant's ecplosive regeneration, is as erratic as it used to be in Baker's and Pertwee's day and is busy reconfiguring its internal architecture. The Doctor soon meets up with Amelia - now Amy - Pond who is still iving in the same house and working as a kiss-o-gram. Prisoner Zero, it seems, has also been hiding in the house for the past 12 years by using a 'perception filter' to hide a room from Amy's senses. Once outed, Prisoner Zero (who has formed a psychic bond with the coma patients at a nearby hospital), impersonates several humans while, overhead in the skies, his gaolers search for him threatening to destroy the Earth if he is not handed over. I won't completely spoil the ending but, let's face it, you know the Doctor's going to win and Amy is going to get on board. I will add a few personal comments however. First, the criticisms.

Sorry, Moff, but the aliens were ARSE. A multi-form that looks like a bad CGI viper eel just doesn't cut the mustard these days. We've come to expect better. And, hanging from the ceiling as it did (apparently) and with those teeth, it just looked like the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe after a few months on Slim-Fast. And as for the 'space screws', the Atraxi, what were they thinking? A giant eyeball sitting inside a Christmas tree decoration? Dear Davros no! I hope we see much better as the series progresses ... but the teaser trailer wasn't too encouraging. Lizard people? A miltary green Dalek? A slightly broken Cyberman? The statues from Blink? Well, okay, they're pretty cool and we have a two-parter coming up with them as the immobile bad guys. But still, I hope they're hiding the best stuff from us because otherwise, I'm a bit disappointed.

However (topping up the half-empty glass), there are so many positives to shout about. Matt Smith was very good as the new Doctor; erratic, smart, cocky, brilliant and with all sorts of little echoes of his previous incarnations. Karen Gillan was excellent as Amy - even if she did spend most of time in wide-eyed disbelief at everything that was going on around her. Her character will be an interesting one; disbelieved and in and out of therapy her whole life because of a chance encounter with 'the raggedy doctor' when she was nine, she's hugely sceptical and mistrusting of the Doctor. That said, she also can't resist finding out more to the extent of absconding with him on the eve of her wedding.

The direction was tight and, as I said before, Moffat's script was excellent, peppered with hints of the past (such as the Doctor snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS - as he was once shown by River Song, who is back later in the series) and some brilliant lines. My favourite? The Doctor to young Amelia: 'You're Scottish. Fry me something.' Nice performances from Olivia Coleman and others too. There were also hints of a story arc for this series, rather like the 'Bad Wolf' arc and others, when Parisoner Zero talks about the cracks in the universe and 'Silence will fall' when the 'Pandoracle (did I hear that right?) opens'. Ooooh spooky.

As good a start for a new Doctor as any I've seen. And I'm just old enough (and a big enough fan) to have seen them all.