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Archive for December, 2009

Last week, an article that featured in Current Biology was covered broadly in the media – by the  BBC and bloggers alike – which I am thrilled to see as it involves an animal I think is awesome. The Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), from the same group (Mollusca) as snails, has blown existing theory on intelligence in invertebrates clean out of the water.

Octopuses are considered as intelligent as dogs

In a study spanning nine years from 1999  to 2008, researchers Julian Finn and Mark Newman from Museum Victoria in Australia spent 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters. They filmed the shenanigans of the soft-sediment dwelling octopus, and realised something unique was going on. The octopus was seen digging empty coconut shells out of the sand, emptying them with jets of water, stacking them and carrying them with a cumbersome gait now known as ‘stilt-walking’:

The shells are used as an instant shelter for the octopus – and are only used when required, often being carried as far as 20 meters across the sea floor. Stilt-walking is a novel method of transporting the shells, and leaves the octopus open to attack by predators. This deployment of the shell is a clear example of tool use.

Ants carry leaves - but they are not as canny with them

Where various ant species will collect and carry leaves, this is only in reponse to specific stimuli and not deployed – meaning this is the first-ever recorded case of tool use in invertebrates.

The use of tools is a benchmark of higher intelligence, previously only observed in mammals and birds.  Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago discussed this in his informative blog, Why evolution is true.  Although the greater intelligence of the octopus is well-known and debated over in biological circles, the actions of acquiring the coconut shells are the most complex ever recorded – and there have been a few.

It seems the Beatles were a fan of the octopus, too –

Observational learning is considered a sign of higher intelligence. In 1992, an experiment in Naples proved octopuses displayed key characteristic behaviours of this type of learning, when a group of captive octopuses were trained to grab a red ball over a white ball – after having watching previously trained octopuses do the same.

In 1997, an article by Doug Stewart for America’s National Wildlife Federation cites how a night biologist at the Seattle Acquarium heard a commotion and caught a 40-pound octopus slithering around on the floor, having smashed the quarter-inch-thick lid of its tank.

Octopuses can be pesky beasts

The article also notes: ‘Octopus literature is filled with tales of naturalists briefly leaving animals in open tanks and returning to find them scaling a bookcase, hiding in a teapot or expired on the carpet.’ There have been reports of octopuses boarding fishing boats, opening holds and stealing fish, and playing with bottles, by releasing them into currents of water and catching them.

The biology of the octopus is just as neat. If in danger, they can expel black ink, change colour in less than a second and, if they do get nipped by a predator and loose an arm,  they can grow a new one back. Expert in animal behaviour from Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts, Roger Hanlon, told Stewart: “When it comes to camouflage, it’s the most capable organism on the planet without question.”

The blue ringed octopus - master of deception

Octopuses have a retractable beak like a parrot’s to kill their prey. They can even eat sharks:

But the intelligence of the Veined Octopus as represented by their canny use of coconut shells is still baffling. How has their cognitive ability evolved to this extent in the marine environment, where selective pressures are completely different to those influencing the evolution of terrestrial beings? How does a species known for being solitary know to mimic the actions of its contempories – what is the advantage of this?

I shall keep an eye on the way this debate shapes up. Meanwhile, here’s Jean Geary Boal, one of the scientists who worked on the Naples experiment. She’s got a bit of a soft spot for the soft things:  “It’s extremely easy to anthropomorphise octopuses. They make eye contact with you. They respond to you. They reach toward you. There’s just something mesmerising for people about octopuses.”

*nb – in researching this article, I found Octopi is not the plural preferred by the majority of  scientists.

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Sitting opposite the glittering lights of Cardiff’s winter wonderland, whirring with festive glee, sits a rather unusual gem. Cardiff Arts Institute, ‘like being pissed in a Saatchi Exhibition’, is a brand new establishment offering a completely different experience in Wales’s capital.

Independent pub group 580 Ltd and Something Creatives spotted a gap in Cardiff’s live music and arts scene. Taking note of the handy location on Park Place opposite Cardiff’s national museum, with the groggy plod of students heading into town, they decided to invest in a new venture.  CAI opened on November 5 this year, and is a veritable hub of creative outpouring with live music, food and decor that’d make Laurence Llewelyn Boleyn blush.

The view from Cardiff Arts Institute

Fiercely innovative, with ‘Forever Evolve’ etched on their internet manifesto, CAI replaced Incognito’s, a club/pub/restaurant, which closed last year. It is set back from the busy road in a terraced Victorian building.

The venue is split across three levels, with a staircase leading up to the ping pong room, and a vibrant array of decor. With porcelain horseheads, colourful neon signs, displays of flourescent marigolds and glass cabinets full of ironic trinkets, the interior definitely has an affinity with various boozers in Shoreditch. Down from the long and well-stocked bar sits an area sporting live music by night, and an eating area in the day. CAI is strong on its interactive features and likes punters to feel involved, with lego boards mounted on the walls.

Leah Thompson, 32 and Tamsin Berkley, 35, were enjoying a catch-up drink after work. Leah has lived in Cardiff for four years. She said: “I was here on the opening night – it was jam packed. I came in, went straight to the lego and spent half an hour playing with it. I like it here – it’s really different, and much better than Incognito. I walked in and thought – wow. The space has really opened up. There’s definitely the market for somewhere like this in Cardiff.”

CAI hosts a wealth of live music, putting events on throughout the week and at weekends. The nights boast a spectrum of music genres – from electro, house, funk, dubstep, indy, rock and jazz, to swing. Wonky Disco is held on Thursday nights and recently featured Cardiff electro group The Evils, while the lively Glass Diamond and eclectic band Opa!  – playing ‘Balkan beats and Kleizmer cuts’ – have also made a cameo. According to Deputy Manager Dan Johnson, 23, it was London-based trio The Correspondents who really got the crowd going for gold.

Dan lives in Cardiff Bay and oversaw the opening. He said: “It wouldn’t be fair to compare CAI to Incognito – towards the end of its life, Incognito lacked that zainy atmosphere. It was quite cheesy – a very dated pub.” CAI featured in the Guardian at the end of last month, where it was described as a ‘hot new city haunt’.

Marketing Executive for CAI Matt ‘the Hat’ djs at the Institute regularly. He said: “Inspiration for the interior has come from places like the Lock Tavern Pub in Camden, and Start the Bus in Bristol. I like to play a bit of house, a bit of dubstep, just everything to try to encourage every sort of crowd possible.”

The music nights are only part of the story, however. Dan said: “Although the best events are the bands and DJs, we have quiz nights and musical bingo which are quite fun, run by a pair called Squeaky Hill. They attract quite a few students who want to get involved. Puff Daddy’s musical blingo is coming up soon – we had one back in November and it was very successful. There are lots of prizes to be won, and games to play. Records and roasts on Sunday afternoons are the ideal way to sooth a hangover. Our main competition are Buffalo and Ten Feet Tall, although the crowd there are probably after something more mainstream.”

The crowd flocks over from Cardiff's National museum for lunch

Ten Feet Tall is a popular live music haunt in Cardiff’s city centre. Manager Jonathan Dexter, 23, said: “I like the ping pong room up the stairs, it feels like somebody’s living room. I haven’t noticed any sort of drop off in our crowd here, though.”

With rumblings of an appearance by the Super Furry Animals on Boxing Day, CAI has a myriad of musical and events planned for the new year. With such a successful first month and a powerhouse of creativity behind it, it will be interesting to see how the indefinite evolution progresses.

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Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) may help the plight of the journalist by providing tools with which to verify data. By using statistical methods of analysis through computer programs such as excel and statistical packages may help in presenting data from databases in a more objective way – which could lead to the public trusting journalists more – surely a good thing.

Public records can be analysed, political and demographic change may be quantified using such tools, alongside geographic information system mapping. By using stats, the data will become more useful and can be backed up further with the more classical benefits of computers – email and research. It increases the efficiency of the journalist in terms of making meaningful conclusions in rapid time – good when working to deadline.

Clarence Jones of the Miami Herald worked in 1969 with CAR to find patterns in the criminal justice system. Bill Dedman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 after CAR helped him in his investigation into mortgage lending redistribution in middle-income black neighbourhoods, The Color of Money.

It is argued the first use of CAR, however, was in 1952 when CBS used a UNIVAC computer to analyse the results from the US Presidential election. Over here in the UK, The Daily Telegraph presented a database for the UK election in November 2008.

Of course, the spiraling success and popularity of the internet has changed the way the media can interpret important information – not only supplying databases with raw material but also the tools to make this information come alive and make the story sing. The role of such analysis in investigative journalism, when the stakes may be higher and time tighter is evidently great. In 2007 the use of CAR increased yet further – with interactive maps strengthening data aggregation and presentation.

Adrian Holovaty is a key figure in database journalism – another way of describing CAR. He launched Chicagocrime.org in the US in 2005, where essentially wrote the basis of database journalism. A project of his, The Everyblock Project, aims to gather and present a myriad of data over 11 American cities. He was awarded $1,100,000 to assist with this by Knight News Challenge.

As a by product of CAR, several news organisations have released Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) – namely the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times. An API allows the sharing of content through software programming – allowing further coagulation of information.

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According to the Human Genome Project, Biology will be the foremost science of the 21st Century following the completion of sequencing the human genome in 2003. The possible ramifications of this are vast, and may be applied to areas as diverse as human migration and archaeology.

We all need the work of research scientists

This is music to my ears, as I find reading about new research in biology absolutely fascinating. I feel many more people would if they could only get to see some of the things the human condition is capable of, and the phenomenal abilities of the minds of research scientists who literally work to save humanity. The fates of our lives are in the hands of these people, and I do not think we consider them enough. Here’s some music for your ears, I think it goes nicely with my blog:

It’s a tough job. Where would you start, if you were faced with a disease such as HIV? A disease that morphs and hides in the body in ways a human being with all the time in the world and the mind of Einstein could not invent. Imagine having only a laboratory, and a set of symptoms to work with, what would you do? I am in constant awe of the people who are able to not only seek out the tiny changes causing disease, but who can use these observations to create bespoke treatments.

I’ve been reading about synesthesia today. This is a harmless neurological phenomenon where a stimulus to one sense triggers a response in another – literal sense swapping. So, you could see a piece of music in morphing colours and shapes, taste the flavour of words, see numbers as objects, or directly associate numbers and letters with personalities. Or a day, month, or number might mean a specific location in space.

Seeing numbers as colours

Synesthesia means ‘joined sensation’, and has an incidence of one in 23 people in its different forms. It can be induced by epilepsy, a stroke, blindness or deafness, and is passed through families, although scientists are yet to identify the exact form of inheritance. The sense-swap is accumulative, so the sufferer will hear a sound and see a picture, at the same time. The correlation lasts a lifetime – if Tuesdays taste of beef bourguignon and Nirvana’s 1993 acoustic set looks like a dozen cardboard cutouts of Des Lineham floating three foot from the floor, they will do always.

Synesthesia was first mentioned in 1690 by Oxford philosopher John Locke. He questioned the mental capabilities of a ‘studious’ blind man after he claimed he tasted scarlet when he heard a trumpet. Attitudes now have progressed following a bout of research in the late 1990s, and synesthesia is now regarded as something more than a literal metaphor, and fascinates many in the science and art communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is an affliction  not uncommon amongst artists and musicians.

Wassily Kandinski, 1866 - 1944

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is largely considered the inventor and theorist of abstract painting in the 20th century. Kandinsky, born in 1866, suffered from synesthesia and wanted to use his condition to create the painterly equivalent of a symphony, to stimulate the ears of the observer. That’s quite a brief.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition VIII, 1923

When he was a child, Kandinsky complained that his paintbox hissed at him. But whether or not he actually had synesthesia has been a subject for debate, as it is a phenonemon sometimes sought by artists in order to find inspiration for their abstract creations.

The Tate Modern featured an exhibition of Kandinsky’s work in 2005, which helped to raise discussion around the topic. An insightful piece in The Telegraph at the time claimed he had acheived ‘pure abstraction’.

Wassily Kandinsky - Several Circles, 1926

Kandinsky mused: ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.’

If  a composer encountered his paintings and was inspired to write a symphony, I wonder how similar the two pieces of music would be. Perhaps this has happened already.

British painter David Hockney heard the colours blue and red during the music of Ravel, so painted his stage sets of the Metrolopolitan Opera accordingly.

David Hockney, An Image of Celia

Perhaps this painting is supposed to look like Ravel’s Bolero?

I think one of the most remarkable forms of synesthesia is ordinal linguistic personification, OLP. This is when days, months, letters or years are assigned personalities. Dr Richard Cytowic has written a book entitiled ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ . One of his subjects suffering from OLP told him in 2003:  ‘I is a bit of a worrier at times, although easy-going; J is male, appearing jocular, but with strength of character. K is female; quiet, responsible’.

Dr Cytowic's book

Another synesthete, Carol Steen, revealed: ‘There was a piece of music by a group called Uman. The first note was grey and it was like a band with a slight curve to it, and it was a gradient, and it had gold specs on it. The background was black but it was being broken up by other colours, moving shapes of fuchsia and there was a small click, almost like a drumbeat, something being struck, and as it was struck, a black shape appeared, and the shapes appeared from left to right, going horizontally across the bottom of this, like a movie screen I was watching.

‘And the shapes were so exquisite, so simple, so pure and so beautiful, I wanted to be able to capture them, but they were moving too quickly and I couldn’t remember them all. And it’s kind of a pity because it was a year’s worth of sculpture I was seeing in a few moments.’

I try think of phenomena such as synesthesia in an evolutionary context. Have our senses always been wired as they are now? For arguments sake, suppose seeing and hearing sound led to a quicker reflex time in response to a predator. The individual displaying this characteristic would be more likely to live to a reproductive age and pass on this trait, the inheritance of which would be likely due to syntesthesia’s strong inheritability.

Perhaps this characteristic would spread throughout populations and increase in incident until the prevailing response to sound is vision. How would a society shaped by these duo-senses look? How would it be different to ours, today? Would we be more efficient as a people, or less?

James Watson and Francis Crick, and their famous DNA double helix

I don’t have the answers, but I bet there is a scientist out there who is searching for them right now.

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Last week, as part of the online component of our journalism course, Rob Andrews shared his pearls of wisdom on the future of the industry. Andrews is UK Editor of Paid Content – a website providing global coverage of the economics of digital content.

Rob Andrews at a conference on changing media. He is second from the right.

Andrews was a fellow student at the Cardiff School of Journalism before cutting his teeth at his weekly local rag. He joined Paid Content after predicting all media would eventually become digital. Andrews said he enjoys the flexibility that comes from working for Paid Content as he can work from home, putting together his own video and audio.

Andrews studied journalism at Cardiff - as I am now

Paid Content was set up in 2002 by Rafat Ali , former managing editor of the Silicon Alley Reporter. There’s a good interview with Ali on Greg Lindsay’s website mediabistro.

The UK’s branch of Paid Content is part of Context Next Media, owned by Guardian News & Media Ltd. It provides sustainable business models to decision makers in the media – specifically the entertainment, publishing, advertising, marketing and technology sectors.

During the 2009 World Association of Newspapers Congress, Ali discussed the changing requirements of today’s journalist, as the reporter, the promoter and the business man. He features on the Editors Web Blog website today stressing the importance of having the sense of the changing economics in journalism at the forefront of his mind. He said: “At its best, I am a better entrepreneur because I am a journalist, and I’m a better journalist because I’m an entrepreneur.”

Are we aspiring journalists in for a steep climb?

Andrews was quite frank about the media landscape at the moment, but optimistic about the opportunities it provided for change and innovation. He said the print industry was losing money from having to develop to keep afloat in a time of media abundance. He stressed a solution could be to extend the reach to the digital media, citing online advertising as providing a measurable and targeted way of helping media moguls sleep at night. He thought this solution would be more efficient than traditional forms, so could guarantee investment. Music to the ears of many regional editors, perhaps. But how do Andrews’s predictions effect the local press, where minions such as myself will be looking for a job?

Andrews felt pay walls are a good idea – where specialist content is concerned. He mentioned the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal as pioneers in this area. They are charging for their news of a more financial and business ilk already. He said the scope for pay walls depend on the content;  that charging for local newspaper content online would be suicide, citing an example from Teeside where hyper-local reporting was tested unsuccessfully. I can see this – much as I love my local rag, The Kingsbridge Gazette, I can’t really see people shelling out for ‘unidentified duck on bridge’.

The Wall Street Journal has successfully introduced paywalls

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is keen to introduce a pay wall to The Times as from next year, focusing on the supplement sections. Andrews mentioned findings by a recent PCUK/Harris Poll study commissioned by Paid Content where only five per cent of readers were prepared to pay for online news, and questioned the plausibility of this.

In this case, it may be that value added extras are the way forward – such as The Telegraph charging for its fantasy football, charging for Spotify on the iPhone, or buying news as a commodity on iTunes.

I thought – perhaps it would be a good idea of a new type of service to pharmeceutical companies, providing bespoke content, for example the information on the sections of the stock market that effects them.

But Rob still believes this is an exciting time to become a journalist, as long as we are able to embrace the multi-tasking involved. He says there will always be a call for specialists – despite the rise of citizen and fall of  print journalism.

I hope he is right.

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