Monday, March 20, 2017

robot ecology

robots are beginning to take over our planet, so it's time to start worrying what they will do to the existing systems, from ecology to economy. Which was a sufficient excuse for me to write a third robot feature (previous attempts date from 2015 and 2013), which is out now:

How will robots integrate into our world?
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 6, pR199–R201, 20 March 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The robot exhibition at the Science Museum, London (own photo). I'll also add some of my pics from that exhibition to my flickr photostream.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

misa campesina

As part of Oxford twinning link with León, Nicaragua, it has become a tradition that the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense, a folk mass emphasising workers rights and their suffering under capitalism, is sung here once a year (although the most recent press report appears to be from 2011). To give an impression of the music, here's a 3-minute potpourri of the misa performed by Nicaraguan singer Katia Cardenal.

I managed to miss this in the last 22 instalments, but this year there was an official call for people to join the band and choir, which the young musician forwarded to me, so I got to play the lovely tunes on the flute, plus a few bars worth on the guitar.

There were a few people from Nicaragua in the audience, including a woman in the first row who watched us (the band) very closely. Before the last piece she got up to make a speech - turned out she is Guisell Morales, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the UK.

The choir warming up (own photo). The Nicaraguan embassy has shared some photos (of me even) on twitter.

Related to this, the Oxford Leon Link has an exhibition on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the town partnership. This is at the South Oxford Community Centre in Lake Street, although I'm not sure about times and dates.

We also had a visit from a coffee farmer from Nicaragua who gave a talk during Fairtrade Fortnight.

Monday, March 13, 2017

dances with science

Open Archive Day

I hear Rambert (formerly Rambert Dance Company) are on tour and perform at the New Theatre Oxford this week (Wed-Fri), so it's a good excuse to dig up a feature I wrote in 2011 about their work with scientist in residence Nicola Clayton (whose research field is corvid intelligence, hence the title):

Dances with magpies

image source

Monday, March 06, 2017

losing ground

Even after the international year of soils (which was in 2015, in case you missed it), the world cares too little about the ground we stand on and which actually feeds us. On current trends, most fertile soils may disappear well within this century, and food security with them. It's a global problem that political leaders could fix with sensible regulations, if they weren't so busy deregulating everything.

My feature on the state of our soils is out now:

Losing the soils that feed us
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 5, pR163–R166, 6 March 2017

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We often dismiss soil as the dirt below our feet, yet it is a vital resource for food production as well as a highly complex and insufficiently understood ecosystem. The image shows farmers in Kyuso, Kenya terracing part of their land in order to minimise erosion losses. (Photo: ©FAO/Thomas Hug.)

Thursday, March 02, 2017

prepare for brexodus

Like many other non-British EU citizens in the UK, I am sensing a strong vibe that foreigners from continental Europe will be made to feel unwelcome here (not by all, of course, but by the UKIP-inspired government and its supporters) in the near future. I have lived in the country for nearly 24 years now, but as things are going now, I may be out before the end of the 26th year.

The parliamentary debate over the Brexit Bill has shown that there is no efficient opposition that would moderate the government’s worst efforts leading us towards a traincrash Brexit and aligning the country with Trumpism. Even our local MP Andrew Smith, Labour, representing Oxford which voted 70% remain, voted with the government on the brexit bill, which was kind of the last nail in the coffin.

So far the government has resisted all calls, including the one from the majority in the House of Lords, to offer the 3 million non-British EU citizens living here any kind of reassurance that we will still be allowed to stay. My guess is that they will eventually come up with some conditional thing which will be tailored for people who have highly-paid jobs, maybe tacking on an exception for nurses once they realise that the health provision would collapse without them. But if resident foreigners ever lose their job, or happen to be freelancers or unpaid carers, it’s too bad and they’ll just have to go.

Specifically, there is the £35k rule currently in force for non-EU citizens, meaning that a work permit renewal after the first five years of residence requires you to earn more than £35k per year (see Stop35k).

Second, there have been cases of EU people applying for permanent residence permits (which we don't need yet, but they did so either as a precaution, or as a first step towards applying for British citizenship) and being rejected on the grounds that they should have had private health insurance rather than relying on NHS during their stay so far. Essentially this means that the home office doesn't recognise the NHS as a health insurance. This may sound crazy, but it happened to several people.

Not to mention that the residence permit application is a form with more than 80 pages to fill in (I am told it's five pages in Ireland, two in Germany), and additionally requiring you to document every time you left he country and returned (for me that would be over 100 trips to document) _and_ to send in your passport with the application, so being unable to travel while it is being processed. And if hundreds of thousands of people are having to go through this at the same time, the administration will by swamped with applications and who knows how long it could take. In the meantime, people have neither passport nor residence permit and may end up in the immigration detention centres.

I do appreciate that it is a huge privilege that we have been enjoying over the past 23 years thanks to the EU free movement policy, and that many people from other parts of the world have had it a lot harder. We regularly get examples in the news of how the Home Office treats people who don’t have that privilege (see the recent case of Irene Clennell, deported although she has been married to a British citizen for 27 years) and we’re not keen on getting a taste of that treatment when our privilege expires.

Moreover, apart from quite possibly not being allowed to stay, I am not really sure whether it will be safe to stay once the word spreads among racists and other fringe lunatics that Trump's attitudes to foreigners and other minorities (and women, obv.) are now ok, even in the UK.

There will be a Brexodus of people the UK can't afford to lose. According to a recent survey, a majority of doctors from the continent are already considering to leave, and BMW may decide to build the electric version of the Mini on the continent rather than in Oxford. As people leave, the international atmosphere of places like Oxford will disappear as well, so, well, sorry for the rant, back to packing ...


Monday, February 27, 2017

fairer food

Open Archive Day

Today marks the start of Fairtrade Fortnight in the UK and a few other countries, so I'll combine this with my regular archive dip and dig up a feature from 2014 on threats to coffee and chocolate, which happen to be two of the fairtrade products which I buy regularly:

Coffee and chocolate in danger

enjoy, while you can ...

No coffee left (own photo)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

a mixed bag

My round-up of German pieces published in February (none in January) includes Trumpian chemistry, CRISPR in agriculture, enzymatic Si-C bonding, and cancer stem cells:

Organosiliciumverbindungen leicht gemacht
Chemie in unserer Zeit vol 51, p 9
open access (apparently, don't know why)

Netzwerk Leben: Die Stellknöpfe der Entwicklungsuhr
Chemie in unserer Zeit vol 51, pp 68–69
open access (apparently, don't know why)

Genetisches Tipp-Ex für die Landwirtschaft
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65 , pp 128-130
abstract and restricted access to full text

Chemie ist Trumpf
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65 , p 215
open access

Monday, February 20, 2017

caring about victims

Lives lost are met with dramatically different responses in the media and in the general public. One child abducted and killed in a wealthy country can keep the front pages for weeks, while tens of thousands of children perish in humanitarian crises without much notice. Many of the political conflicts dramatically enhanced by the recent US elections boil down to which lives people care more about and which ones less. The unborn vs. the already born, the black youth vs the white policeman, the European native vs the Syrian refugee.

Racism fuelled by vicious scapegoating favoured by certain politicians and media outlets is one obvious reason for distributing empathy inequally. However, there are also some other, more surprising mechanisms at work, like the identified victim effect, which is measurable in that people donate more money to help a single identified victim of crisis than they would if there are several in the same situation. This effect is also one of the reasons why empathy is not always a good guide to sensible political decisions.

I have looked into these issues for my latest feature which is out now:

Caring about humanitarian crises
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 4, pR123–R125, 20 February 2017

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

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Research shows that empathy responds better to images of a single identified, or at least identifiable, person. While groups of victims may need more support, their numbers rather subtract from our empathy. Charities and political organizations have long used this effect, with ads and posters of individuals, like in this charity campaign from 1918. (Image: United States Government/Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

chimps revisited

Open Archive Day

Many of my features are in one way or another about Homo sapiens - eg how this one species wrecks its home planet in record time. So it's always a welcome relief to report on other animal species that don't destroy their habitat and look at the amazing things they can do.

A year ago I wrote a feature on chimpanzees and the question whether their tool use can be described as culture. This feature has now entered the Open Archive so it's freely accessible here:

Chimpanzees, our cultured cousins


Photo: Thomas Lersch via Wikipedia

Monday, February 06, 2017

fantastic species

After all the depressing news of Death Eaters taking over the White House and starting to blow up our planet, I needed some cheering up, so I wrote a feature that's a bit of light entertainment (compared to the others), about the magic of marine biology, complete with dragons, unicorns and psychedelic colour schemes. The Harry Potter Universe also provided inspiration for the title:

Fantastic species and where to find them.
Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 3, pR83–R85, 06 February 2017

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Oh, and by sheer coincidence, the cover of the issue also shows one of the fantastic creatures I've discussed in my feature, a leafy seadragon :

The cover relates to the paper by Connell et al. (pages R95–R96), who use natural CO2 underwater seeps in the southwest Pacific, which represent near-future oceanic conditions, to demonstrate how a marine calcifying animal can in fact thrive in acidic waters due to the increased supply of habitat and food. The image shows a leafy sea-dragon (Phycodurus eques), an iconic marine animal of southern Australia that lives among CO2-affected habitats.

Monday, January 30, 2017

can we still stop the collapse?

Open Archives Day

(trigger warning - depressing outlook)

Three years ago, I asked in a feature:

Will our civilisation survive this century?

and discussed the issue in the light of evidence from earlier collapsed societies, as well as the current crises that humanity is failing to address.

As things are going now, we can count ourselves lucky if civilisation survives the next four years, and we'll probably have to put in some extra effort to make it to the middle of the century, never mind the end. Accordingly, the famous Doomsday Clock has just been moved forward by 30 seconds.

So we have about two and a half minutes to do something. The first waves of global resistance have been encouraging, but much more is needed. As the horror clown in the White House steers his administration in exactly the wrong direction on almost every level and the UK government rushes to line up with him, multiple responses are required and things could get a lot worse before they get better. So, not to get anyone down, but this may be a good time to read my collapse feature, which is openly accessible now, as it is more than a year old.

Just now, my therapy is watching the counter on the online petition against a state visit from the horror clown. As I'm writing the count increases by ~200 every 10 seconds.

Also, the pink pussyhats have cheered me up enormously, so to end on a positive note I'll include the cover of Time magazine:

Monday, January 23, 2017

losing our lakes

Lakes are sensitive to a range of disturbances from human activities, from pollution to water shortage. Some are simply disappearing from the face of the Earth, which can have serious ecological knock-on effects.

Following the publication of a new database of key parameters of lakes around the globe, I have rounded up a few examples of lakes that are in trouble or disappearing. The resulting feature is out now:

The world's vanishing lakes

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 2, pR43–R46, 23 January 2017

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Where the Aral Sea used to be. Source: Zhanat Kulenov, Wikimedia Commons.

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