Posts Tagged ‘the telegraph’

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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