The Hangingfly and the Ginkgo Tree

Ginkgo & Hangingfly

credit: Capital Normal University


On first glance, you might not notice the hangingfly in the picture above, and for good reason: new research indicates that this Jurassic-era species was a near-perfect mimic of the leaves of the common gingko tree.  According to researchers, its fossilized remains offer a rare glimpse in to how prehistoric bugs and plants co-evolved for mutual benefit.  In this case, the hangingfly could advantageously hide from predators and lure prey, while at the same time deterring ginkgo-eating animals from munching on the plant.

So what, you ask?  Insects look like plants all the time, and vice versa.  Nothing to see here….yet.  But now that scientists have better 3D imaging technology at their disposal, like the advanced morphometrics that were used in this study, they can start getting a closer look at microscopic organisms.  That carries interesting implications for fossils.  Museum cases around the world are full of leaves and branches that were found preserved in rocks and river beds, many of which were collected hundreds of years ago.  Could some of them actually be bugs instead?  How many other mimetic insect species have we overlooked because we’ve simply mislabeled their remains as those of identical-looking plants?  There are enough examples of Mesozoic copycats (katydids, grasshoppers, and cockroaches) to suggest that at least a few more are still out there waiting to be discovered.  I’m predicting that sometime in the next couple of years, you’ll hear at least one announcement from a botanical museum that, for whatever coincidental reason, takes a second look at one of its specimens and discovers it to be something else entirely.


The Year in Cinema

After a incredible (and incredibly taxing) few months of science writing, a time out for few thoughts on a good year at the movies.  The list comes with an asterisk on account of some notable omissions – as of this writing, I have not seen ArgoSilver Linings PlaybookDjango Unchained, Searching for Sugar Manor Zero Dark Thirty, all of which I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy.

But these ten alone make for a worthy playlist, I think, with a little something for everyone.  You’ll notice a few recurring themes on this list.  Many of the best movies of 2012 wrestled with the notion of power, the subtle dynamic between master and disciple, the illusion and the reality of control.  Identity is slippery; someone you think you know may turn out to be a stranger.  A photographer goes to the end of the earth to document the world’s disappearing ice.  There are two movies about cults and two about time travel that couldn’t be more different – one a flashy shoot-em-up, the other a sweet romance between a couple Pacific Northwest oddballs.  Not all of these are happy stories, but fortunately, the two that stood above the rest are both exuberant, delightful, and idiosyncratic.  Either one could have earned top honors – they should really be 1 and 1A.  Your mileage may vary on whether you prefer the unruly anarchic spirit of New Orleans over the mannered storybook anachronisms of New Penzance, but by all means, seek them both out.  You’ll leave the theater on a soaring high.

10. The Imposter


Image credit: Erik Wilson

16-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing in Texas in 1994.  Three years, later, a boy was found huddled in a phone booth in Spain.  Though he had different colored eyes and a French accent, he claimed to be Nicholas  — and the Barclay family believed it.  That’s the true crime premise of this sneaky, shocking documentary, which uses cannily crafted reenactments to show how con man Frederic Bourdin preyed on one family’s hopes and fears.  Bourdin himself is interviewed, still puckish and unrepentant.  But the film makes it clear that the real villain is the bottomless human capacity for self-deception.

9. Compliance


Magnolia Pictures

Compliance isn’t a documentary, exactly, but it may as well be.  Based on a prank call that occurred at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, the story unfolds over the course of a busy Friday night at a generic fast food restaurant.  A man claiming to be a police officer phones up the harried manager, telling her that the pretty blonde cashier stole money from a customer.  He can’t come down to arrest her himself, so the manager will need to detain her in the back and strip-search her instead.  As the man’s instructions grow ever more horrifying, the manager continues to push ahead, convinced by the smoothly authoritarian voice that she’s doing the right thing.

Shot on a shoestring budget, this film is, at times, as difficult to watch as any horror film (and prompted walkouts when it screened at Sundance).  But unlike the recent glut of torture porn, which fetishizes cruelty though a prism of grotesque obsession, Compliance is a useful reminder that in real life, most evil is banal, rooted only in our primal desire to please.

8.  The Master

Weinstein Company

Weinstein Company

The Master is, in form and function, a cult classic.  Superficially, it’s a gloss on the mid-1950s rise of Scientology and its charismatic leader L. Ron Hubbard.  But those looking for insight in to Tom Cruise’s love life will be disappointed.  It’s a nuanced study of two broken men who crave control even as they resent it.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s master hides his temper beneath a façade of restraint; Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-Navy drifter makes moonshine out of photographic chemicals and rages against the world like a feral animal.

The Master is a tough sell to those who prefer things to, you know, actually happen over the course of two and a half hours in the theater.  But Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few filmmakers who has earned the right to make rambling mood pieces and this one mostly works.  Where There Will Be Blood gushed with fire and brimstone, The Master opens its poison petals more slowly.   The film is closer to a tone poem than it is to prose, a meditation on dreamers and seekers in the American west.

Hoffman and Phoenix are sure to get all the press around award season.  But don’t be surprised to see Amy Adams slide in to the Supporting Actress category too.  As Hoffman’s wife, she has ferocious instincts, especially during that scene in the bathroom where she lets her husband know exactly what she thinks about his new pet.  She’s a vision of fierce maternity, the true power behind the throne.

7.  Sound of My Voice

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

I was a big fan of Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, and now here I am, back defending another low budget indie movie about cults directed by an unknown and starring a pretty up-and-coming ingénue.  Well, this one is just as creepy and nerve-rattling, withholding enough information to keep the suspense high throughout.  In the phenomenal first scene, a husband and wife determined to expose a Los Angeles cult as a sham allow themselves to be blindfolded, handcuffed, and led to a room full of devotees in white robes.  The leader, a wispy twenty-something blonde (Brit Marling), claims to be a refugee from the future with a special mission for the group.  It all plays out like a moody nightmare, and as the couple gets in too deep, Marling’s eerie, otherworldly presence begins to unnerve and divide them.  Who exactly is playing whom?

6. The Loneliest Planet

IFC Films

IFC Films

I wish we could have more than one Julia Loktev film per decade, but if she needs that much time to create movies this good, so be it.  Built on small moments rather than big events, slight glances rather than spoken words, The Loneliest Planet will undoubtedly test the patience of any art house viewer.  A pretty young couple (welcome, Hani Furstenberg and welcome back, Gael Garcia Bernal) is traveling through Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the state).  They sample local cuisine, practice their headstands, and go on long hikes in the gorgeous mountains with a curmudgeonly guide.  To the extent that there is a plot, it turns on a single moment halfway in, a split second decision that no good review should even hint at.  Suffice to say, it throws the rest of the trip – and the lovers’ trust in one another – in to utter chaos and you’ll forget about that slow buildup.  The film is a master class in minimalism and its the truest look at fracturing relationships I’ve seen in a while.

5. Looper

Film District

Film District

Ambitious, brainy sci-fi is rare, but then again, so is director Rian Johnson’s knack for making gee-whiz concepts work on screen.  If you can buy in to a future where time travel exists and the mob (led by Jeff Daniels) sends its victims back 30 years to be offed by specialized assassins (the “loopers”), well, then you’re in for a fun evening.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a pro at killing his marks – that is, until his future self (Bruce Willis) shows up as his next target.  Plenty of twists ensue.  Wisely, the film never gets too bogged down in its own byzantine ideas – it sets a few ground rules and takes off.  It’s a kinetic blend of 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, and The Twilight Zone.

4. Safety Not Guaranteed

safety-not-guaranteed_320Time travel is by no means a given in the whimsical Safety Not Guaranteed, but it serves as a MacGuffin that gets sourpuss Aubrey Plaza (she of the epic eye rolls on Parks and Recreation) out on the road in search of somebody who wants it to be.  She’s tagging along with her boss, a Seattle Magazine writer who’s looking for the author of a bizarre classified ad that begins: “Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me.”  The guy, a grocery store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), may just be delusional but he’s never less than sincere.  The film, which shares some common DNA with the semi-funny, semi-tragic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, delightfully winds up being the reverse of many romantic comedies – here, it’s the a kooky guy who gets the dour girl to lighten up.  By the end, its protagonists are true believers and you will be too.

3. Chasing Ice 

chasing-ice-glacier-370x230James Balog, a National Geographic photographer, wanted to see the ice before it was gone.  And it’s a good thing he did – it’s disappearing faster then ever.  Amidst news that Arctic ice hit a record low this past September, Balog’s images from Iceland, Greenland, and Canada are nothing short of astounding.  Ice sheets the size of Manhattan crumble before your eyes.  Entire glacial valleys open up in the course of just one season.  In one sequence, the camera has to be rotated four times to capture the full retreat.   Balog, fighting a bum knee, rapells in to bottomless caverns, walks in to the frigid ocean barefoot, and hikes sheer cliffs to place cameras in some of the most treacherous spots imaginable.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the photography is breathtaking, and the implication is compelling enough to make you call your senator.

2. Moonrise Kingdom


Perfectly symmetrical camera shots; French pop music; binoculars; vintage record players; goofy headwear; Bill Murray without his shirt on – yes, all of the Wes Anderson mainstays are there in Moonrise Kingdom.  Anderson is a pro at creating hermetically sealed worlds, Technicolor dollhouses in which precocious children and damaged adults coexist uneasily.  His track record is decidedly mixed (I didn’t care for The Royal Tenenbaums or The Darjeeling Limited at all, but I’ll defend The Life Aquatic  as a well-intentioned misfire and Rushmore  (15 years old already!) as the most fully-formed of them all).  But I flat out loved this one.  I didn’t stop smiling the entire time.

On the story book  island of New Penzance, Sam Shakusky, a laconic orphaned Boy Scout who dresses like a mini Daniel Boone, hatches a plan to run away with his gal, literary schoolgirl rebel Suzy Bishop.  They fly the coop, heading to the wilderness with a compass, a picnic basket, and Sam’s survival skills as a storm of the the century bears down, forcing the adults on the island to reckon with their own angst as they mount a search party.  This group includes Edward Norton (as the bewildered Scout Master Ward) and Suzy’s bickering lawyer parents (the aforementioned Murray and Frances McDormand).  Bruce Willis tamps down his usual macho to give an unexpectedly tender performance as the island’s only policeman, Jason Schwartzman shows up in a perfectly absurdist cameo (he’s usually best in small, concentrated doses), and Bob Balaban pops in periodically to deliver narration on history, weather, and other miscellany.  There is nary a Wilson brother in sight.

Writing out the plot on paper doesn’t do it justice – you have to see all the visual tics and sly jokes and truly impressive camera angles, especially in the finale, for yourself.  Anderson cares deeply about the small details in his frames, and if it’s true that his films can seem overly mannered and cerebral at times, it’s also true that he’s created a unique form of storytelling.  Amidst all of the decoration, he’s working from a simple premise: that Sam and Suzy are just two misunderstood kids, caught up in the single-minded pursuit of young love that would be perfect if only the adults would stop getting in the way.  Anyone who’s ever had a summer fling, be it at age 14 or 40, knows the feeling.  It’s usually fun to spend time in Anderson’s head, but in this film, he’s finally found a way to connect his head to his heart.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild 

video-beasts-anatomy-articleLargeYes, there are actual beasts here, but the hulking prehistoric aurochs roaming through a vaguely post-apocalyptic New Orleans aren’t the only untamed creatures in town.  The real force to be reckoned with is newcomer 6 year old Quvenzhané Wallis as the pixie-like Hushpuppy, holding the screen with wide eyes and wilder hair.  She’s only a child, but in the flooded ward known as the Bathtub, she’ll have to learn to survive on her own quickly.  Her daddy (played by Dwight Henry, a New Orleans local who was hired away from his day job at bakery down the street from the set), is sick and grimly realizes that he won’t be around forever.

Beasts works as almost anything you want it to be – a fable, a tall tale, a post-Katrina allegory, an ode to libertarianism.  Hushpuppy lives amongst a rag-tag group of locals who refuse to be evacuated from their houseboats and shanties, and whether she’s learning to break a crab in half with her bare hands or hunkering down to ride out the next storm, she learns that the world is at once remarkable and terrifying.  During one bout of heavy rain, Hushpuppy’s father straps miniature water wings on to her frail arms, a small moment that’s both wonderfully funny and incredibly moving in context.  First time director Benh Zeitlin, a Wesleyan graduate, has real affinity for the residents of his adopted home and it shows.

The film bounces along amiably on the sheer audacity of its premise of magical realism – how else to explain a floating brothel, an alligator stuffed with dynamite, and those gigantic warthog-like things?  It doesn’t always cohere, and it likely doesn’t intend to.  The Bathtub is an archetype that’s unwieldy and diverse and contradictory – much like this country.  As in the Whitman poem, it contains multitudes.  But Beasts is like nothing like you’ve seen before.  It’s a rough-hewn American gem.


Now, have at it.  What did I miss from 2012?


Other notables, in brief:

21 Jump Street, a remake of the 1980s undercover buddy cop show, is better than it has any reason to be.  Channing Tatum can be funny (who knew?) and so can Jonah Hill (well, we did know that).  Full of winks and nods to the acid-washed jeans era, it’s got killer cameos from Johnny Depp and Ice Cube, having blast as the no-nonsense sergeant.

The Dark Knight Rises is a satisfying, Occupy-tinged conclusion to the Christopher Nolan’s pitch black Batman trilogy.  If it didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it’s only because Tom Hardy’s masked antagonist Bane couldn’t match the ferocious charisma of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Skyfall brings Daniel Craig back as James Bond, squaring off against a wily cyber criminal (Javier Bardem, bringing some serious crazy in another unhinged villain role).  The actions scenes are well done, but the whole endeavor is marred by an evil plot that’s just plain ludicrous (even by Bond standards).  One of the deepest Bond casts ever, with Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomi Harris, and Ben Whishaw all chipping in.

Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the lanky frame of Lincoln like a familiar overcoat, uncannily mimicking everything from the folksy stories to the high-pitched voice.  Steven Spielberg (mostly) contains his usual sentimentalism and wrings some effective drama out of the decidedly unsexy business of a House roll call vote. Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Sally Field have scene-stealing supporting roles while others like Joseph Gordon Levitt (as Lincoln’s son) and Jared Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant) are wasted.

No one can accuse Marion Cotillard of taking easy, glam roles.  In Rust and Boneshe plays a killer whale trainer who takes up with a kickboxer after suffering a horrific accident.  This could have been a sappy disability movie; instead, it turns into a bracing romance that’s harrowing and refreshing at the same time – the cinematic equivalent of an ice bath.

Don’t pet the alien cobra-thing.  Just don’t do it.  Prometheus, the long-awaited Alien prequel is passable, but not very lovable or memorable (the other day, someone had to jog my memory that it even came out this year).  Filled with frustrating plot holes, glaring omissions (actual aliens; vents for said aliens to hide in), and bewildering character decisions (run sideways, Charlize Theron, and you’d have been fine), the whole thing is kind of a mess.  Michael Fassbender does what he can as the android with a soul, and poor Noomi Rapace’s signature scene – cutting a baby alien out of her own abdomen with a laser scalpel – goes for naught.

Slowly But Surely: A Programming Note

Courtesy qf8 / Brendan Landis (via Flickr)

Apologies for the long delay in posting.  Life has conspired to keep me quite busy as of late.  Regular blogging should resume on or around June 1.

In September, I’ll be starting the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, which will improve my efforts greatly.  The site itself is also due for a bit of a revamp and that may include a change of URL.  Watch this space for updates on Fizzing Beaker v. 2.0

As always, thanks for sticking with the blog.  You won’t regret it.  More cool science coming soon.

All Creatures Great And Small

In the midst of his paean to plankton over at More Intelligent Life Oliver Morton compares fascination with microbes to fascination with birds.   After admitting to a personal distaste of the latter, he continues:

But I would also claim at least a hint of an intellectual justification.  Birdwatching seems to embody a belief that nature is best appreciated through the observation—and cataloguing—of its component parts in all their variously plumed and differently warbling specificity.

Such contemplation seems sure to miss the glories of the whole by concentrating on its least relevant parts. The vast majority of the life that matters on this planet—the life that keeps the planet habitable—consists of microbes.

On its face, that’s a pretty sharp dig at a wide community of ornithologists (both professional and amateur), none of whom would likely concede that birds are somehow insignificant when compared to a bunch of krill.  It also seems to suggest that all of the fully formed macro-species on the planet – whether dolphins, gorillas, or porcupines –  are akin to hood ornaments while plankton are the true fuel inside the planet’s engine.

Morton is sticking up for a worthy underdog here – oceanic microbes, though not particularly cuddly, do indeed make a lot of things possible without getting much love from the general public.  And as he goes on to explain, his attitude has more to do with a general curiosity about the world’s natural processes than any acute fauna-phobia.  But I sense that the rub is not so much about plankton as it is our collective ability to think about scale.  As a species, humans are not very good at wrapping our brains around things that are extremely large or extremely small.  On a day to day basis, we operate within a mental realm defined by the upper and lower bounds of each primary sense – what we can readily see, smell, taste, etc.  Anything we have to use an instrument to detect requires a new schema and a not-insignificant amount of imagination.  Psychologists have noted for years that we can deal with small units – 1 inch, 50 feet, 7 dollars, 2 liters – easily because we encounter them so frequently.  Birds have sizes and dimensions that fall within those conceivable measurements, so they make sense and thus feel “real” to us.  But what to do when talking about plankton, which are typically measured in microns (1,000 microns = 1 mm)?  Or, inversely, the diameter of the sun, which is 865,000 miles, the equivalent of 33,015 Boston Marathons or 291 trips back and forth between L.A. and New York?  At some point, extremely large and small numbers take on an abstract quality, a surreal vagueness that can’t even be properly conceptualized.

On some level, everybody in this day and age understands that the world is a much more complex place than he/she can really imagine.  But it has not always been that way.  17th century bishop James Ussher famously worked backward through Old Testament lineages and calculated that the  earth was created in 4,004 B.C.  A half-cheer for his efforts – he was, after all, attempting to make a reasonable calculation based on the time frame that was familiar to him.  But bigger thinking was eventually required and carbon dating now, ahem, politely disagrees (there are rocks in Western Australia alone that are known to be more than 3.4 billion years old).  Aristotle, a pretty smart guy in his day, wouldn’t have known what to make of a googolplex.  It took several medical generations (and countless cadavers) to realize that the human body was not actually an impenetrable fortress against microbes, but instead one giant, teeming petri dish full of them.  There are countless other examples, but expanding knowledge has almost always meant grappling with scale.

In a funny way, incredibly large numbers might actually help stimulate the public’s engagement with scientific news in a way that run-of-the-mill numbers do not.  When we hear that the world’s smallest frog, discovered in New Guinea in January, can sit comfortably on the face of a dime or that a hypothetical Lego Death Star (built to scale based on the size of a Lego person) would be more than 3.5 kilometers tall and include 1.2 x 1015 individual Lego pieces, we stop and take note.  Virgin Oceanic is planning to take a submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and it needs to be able to withstand pressure that is equivalent to 16,165 psi, or “the weight of four pickup trucks pressing on an area the size of a postage stamp.”  The mind boggles at that number, but we know it’s an impressive feat all the same.   Vast numbers can be almost pornographic in that sense – outlandish and exciting, but abstract and detached from an individual’s own experience at the same time.

So, to Morton’s original point, perhaps we should all spare a few more thoughts for plankton.  Our microscopic friends do regulate the ocean’s oxygen cycle, after all.   You won’t find them on display at any zoo, and they don’t capture the popular imagination quite like birds and other animals.  But it’s following in a long scientific tradition to contemplate things much greater and much smaller than our normal existence would otherwise give us reason to.

The Open Science revolution and the price of scientific content

image credit:

Over at The Crux, Mike Taylor outlines the toxic dynamic between research scientists and the academic publishing giant Elsevier.  Almost 7,000 scientists have joined the Cost of Knowledge boycott, citing a long list of grievances against Elsevier’s journal publishing practices.  The scientists are fed up with the exorbitant subscription rates and paywalls that limit access to their work, coupled with the publisher’s embrace of the much-loathed SOPA legislation.  Elsevier, meanwhile, is circling the wagons in an effort to keep its content exclusive, prized, and therefore profitable.  David Dobbs has been following the issue closely and I’d highly recommend checking out his reporting for more detail than I’m providing here.  The purpose of this post is to answer the question: what are the publishers thinking? (As a matter of disclosure, I currently work at a large trade publishing house and the views expressed here are my own.)

Taylor is correct to say that this long-stirring rebellion has everything to do with the Internet, which removed the traditional barriers of entry.  Publishers used to be the sole gatekeepers of content, offering editorial, production, and distribution services that authors would not otherwise have access to.  A major publisher like Elsevier also lends enormous credibility to findings that appear under its banner, crucial for those “publish or perish” scientists looking to establish their reputations.  That gate is still in place, but the fence around it has been removed, allowing anyone to go around.  Major publishers can still offer high-powered marketing/publicity campaigns beyond the scope of what most authors could provide (or pay for) themselves, but beyond that, e-books neutralize many of the market advantages that publishers held for years.

The Elsevier journal Advances in Space Research carries a whopping price tag of $4,923.00 for 24 printed issues.  An electronic-only subscription won’t save you much – that one runs $4,512.75.   Buying a single article costs $31.50.  To justify that to already-incensed scientists and science writers, the journal should have to account for where the money goes.  I can do it on the trade side.  For a standard new release hardcover priced at $26,  the retailer (B&N, Amazon, etc.) will buy copies at a 50% discount.  Of the remaining $13, the author will receive either an 8% royalty ($2.08) if it’s a print book (because another $2 or so will go toward production), or a 15% royalty on an e-book ($3.90).  That leaves somewhere between $8.50 – 9.00/copy, which is diffused into employee salaries, rent, electricity, marketing co-op, etc.  But ultimately, very little will end up being pure profit.  Trust me, trade book publishing is not, as Roger Sterling would say, the kind of business where everyone has a summer house.  If scientific journals can provide a similar cost breakdown that justifies the nearly $5k subscription price, I’m all ears.  I suspect that much like textbooks (which are priced artificially high in anticipation of the second-hand book market), there’s some room to maneuver.

Publishers like Elsevier don’t seem to realize that have the low ground in the battle for public opinion in this area.  The actions we’re seeing lately are not so much malicious as they are bewildered.  In a digital environment with a level playing field, Elsevier has done nothing but draw lines in the sand and throw up barriers in the hopes that they can enforce the value of scientific content through brute force alone.  Scientists, on the other hand, can talk about transparency of ideas and the importance of a vibrant, open intellectual community.  Researchers only want publicity and distribution for their findings, not big money (some journals pay, many more do not).  Open access journals would also help chip away at the “ivory tower reputation” that has dogged science for decades.  To a public that howled when Wikipedia went dark last month, it’s clear which side has the upper hand on the PR front.

In a half-defense of publishers, the digital age has irreversibly eroded consumer willingness to pay set fees for content and initiated a “race to the bottom” of sorts.   Years and years of free information – be it news, weather, sports, or science – have conditioned us to expect everything free and instantaneously, when in fact it does take somebody’s time, labor, and general effort to produce it.  Even widely-read magazines and websites are guilty of this attitude.  Feature editors often come to us looking for free excerpts with no expectation of paying a book author the same rate they’d pay a freelancer for the exact same article.  My standard reply is to simply ask the publication if it has a budget for excerpts.  If the answer is no, then so be it.  We won’t turn down the publicity.  But more often, they will offer something – even if it’s only $200 for 4,000 words.  That’s $200 more than I would have gotten otherwise.

Being a start-up science writer myself, I don’t have the budget to buy access to $31.50 papers from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and the others.  If  I hit a paywall in the course of my research, I have to either rely on the abstract that’s provided (not ideal, and not good reporting) or try to track down a hard copy at a library somewhere.  Either way, I won’t pay the $31.50.  But I might pay something, and that’s where an altruistic “pay-as-you-wish” model might make sense.  Instead of operating at one extreme (free) or the other (lots), why not make it a sliding scale?  A poor graduate student will pay nothing.  A book author, working off an advance, would probably feel more inclined to pay a bit.  A large bio-tech institution might not blink at paying the sticker price.

Will some people pay exactly zero dollars?  Sure.  I’d even venture that most will.  And others will continue to find workarounds.  For example, The New York Times initiated its paywall almost exactly one year ago and it’s not even close to airtight.  I know, because I have an easy bit of code that allows me to bypass it whenever I want.  So why does the NYT even bother? Reuters economics blogger Felix Salmon argues that the flimsy barrier actually works counterintuitively:

Wonderfully, the NYT seems to have disproved that idea. It’s no philanthropy: it’s a publicly-listed for-profit corporation, run for the financial benefit of its shareholders. But its paywall marks a new model and very promising in getting consumers to pay for content. It’s not a completely free pay-as-you-wish approach: the NYT nudges people quite hard to pay quite a lot of money. But I’d wager that the majority of people buying digital-only subscriptions to the NYT are doing so only after bypassing the paywall at least once or twice. If you hit the paywall on a regular basis and barge past it, eventually you start feeling a bit guilty and pay up. By contrast, if you hit the FT or WSJ paywall and can’t get past it, you simply go away and feel disappointed in your experience.


Paying for something you value, even when you don’t need to, is a mark of a civilized society. The NYT treated its readers as mature and civilized adults, and outperformed internal expectations as a result. Meanwhile, the WSJ and FT are still treating their readers with mistrust, as though they’ll be robbed somehow if they ever let their guard down a little. It’s a sad and ultimately self-defeating stance, and I hope in future they learn from the NYT’s embrace of the open web, even in conjunction with a paywall.

Swap “Elsevier” for “WSJ” in the paragraphs above and you get the gist.  Would a pay-as-you-wish model work to Elsevier’s satisfaction if it were to adopt such thing?  Would the boycotting scientists accept this as a compromise?  I have no idea.  In the short term, maybe not.  But it could be a way for the publisher to continue funding its existence without denying access to the scientific community.  It will be painful to lose guaranteed revenue from a large number of subscribers who are grudgingly paying out of obligation.  But large organizations have the luxury of adopting a loss-leader approach for a while, and over the long term, I suspect that scientific goodwill would return and journal revenues would rise again.  The Elsevier brand name still carries quite a bit of clout and cache.  In 2007, another powerful brand name, Radiohead, dropped its record label and released “In Rainbows” independently on this type of model.  The group made a lot money doing so.  Elsevier could experiment by starting small.  Why not place 10 – 20 journals (a small percentage of the company’s holdings) on pay-as-you-wish pricing for Q4 of 2012 and Q1 of 2013 and see what happens?  At the very least, it would be valuable test data.

No one knows how quickly Open Science will move (Dobbs, for his part, likens it to a roller coaster that creeps along, then suddenly accelerates when provoked).  But the revolutionaries are already plotting a new regime modeled on PLoS One.  If scientific journal publishers like Elsevier want to keep their seat of power, they can’t afford to dig in here.  They can’t wallow in self-pity and futilely proclaim that traditional industry practices will overcome.  Those are like last words before the guillotine.  The invention of the Model T was pretty bad news for the horse-and-buggy industry, and it didn’t take too long for people to stop reminiscing about the way transportation “used to be.”

The semi-wild macaques of Gibraltar

Spain is in the midst of picking a fight with Britain over Gibraltar’s sovereignty, so it’s an excellent opportunity to highlight the fact that “the Rock” is one of the more unique nature preserves in all of Europe.   Scientists believe that the peninsula’s mild climate and abundant caves helped shelter otherwise-vulnerable plants and animals (including pre-modern humans) during the last Ice Age.  As a result, the 2.64 square mile area flourished into a hot spot for biodiversity.  It boasts over 600 plant species, a rich array of wildlife, and a prominent avian observatory that monitors migratory patterns of raptors and other Mediterranean seabirds.

Most famously, Gibraltar is home to Europe’s only contingent of free-roaming Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus).  Genetic studies estimate that macaques originated in Africa 5.5. million years ago and quickly expanded northward to what is now the Iberian peninsula.  It is possible they once covered the entire Eurasian continent too, but for whatever reason, they soon became rare outside of North Africa.  It is likely that Barbary macaques were introduced to Gibraltar permanently during the naval wars of the late 17th century (the British took control of the colony in 1704).  Because they lack tails, they’re colloquially called  “apes” even though their closest genetic cousins are Asiatic gibbons and baboons.  Their soft pink faces, pale-grey fur, and rust colored heads make them look very congenial and approachable to humans; in fact, macaques were recently studied for insight into the origin of smiling.

Outside of Gibraltar, however, Barbary macaques have been living on the brink for the past several decades.  Relentless development, logging, and other human activities in Morocco and Algeria have driven them out of the high cedar forests and disrupted mating patterns.  With precipitous population decline in former strongholds like Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountain range, the species landed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.  One estimate indicates that there may be fewer than 10,000 remaining worldwide.  The Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society lists 230 currently living in Gibraltar in a “semi-wild” state.  They are allowed to range freely, but the colonies are closely monitored and cared for when needed.  Residents are fiercely protective of their simian “natives,” making The Rock one of the last reliable bastions for this unique and threatened species.

An apocryphal legend holds that if the Barbary “apes” ever leave Gibraltar, the British will soon follow.  As World War II wound down, Winston Churchill (keeping one eye on then-Fascist Spain) took the superstition seriously enough to import macaques in order to reinforce the colony’s population.  And history shows that the British don’t like to give up their territorial holdings without a fight (see: The Falklands, Prince William’s recent deployment to).  Does that bode well for the macaques, too?


Modolo, L. Salzburger, W. Martin, R.D. 2005.  Phylogeography of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) and the origin of the Gibraltar colony. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 102(20):7392-7.

Carrión, J. et al. A coastal reservoir of biodiversity for Upper Pleistocene human populations: palaeoecological investigations in Gorham’s Cave (Gibraltar) in the context of the Iberian Peninsula. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2008; 27 (23-24): 2118 DOI:10.1016/j.quascirev.2008.08.016

Honey bees and the specter of CCD

[cross-posted at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History’s “Citizen Scientist” blog] 

Outside the Marsh Room, tucked at the end of a long hallway, hundreds upon hundreds of bees swarm inside the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History’s observation hive. Female workers produce thick wax and regulate the honeycomb’s temperature. Male drones, housebound and defenseless without stingers, stand ready for fertilization. And the queen (marked with a white dot on her thorax) lays over 1,500 eggs per day. It’s an incredibly efficient system despite its complicated social hierarchy. Individual bees aren’t particularly smart, but the aggregate hive is. Each bee follows simple rules, performs specific tasks, and acts without knowledge of the big picture, all of which allows the group to adapt quickly to environmental threats.

But what happens when an entire swarm decides, disastrously, to fly away all at once without explanation? The phenomenon of sudden hive abandonment is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the first alarm bells went off in early 2006. Beekeepers in the Midwest went outside and found their honeycombs turned into ghost towns. By autumn, similar reports surfaced nationwide. Some commercial producers lost up to 90% of their populations. Left unchecked, the consequences of widespread CCD would be disastrous for the U.S. agricultural economy. By most estimates, honey production is a $15 billion business, not to mention the various fruits, vegetables, trees, and other crops that depend on the bees for pollination. The precipitous decline was the subject of the 2009 documentary Vanishing of the Honeybees, narrated by Ellen Page.

Why do seemingly healthy swarms fly away? Theories abound, but none of the usual explanations account for a nationwide plague. Finally, some of the pieces may be falling into place. A new study from San Francisco State University, published this month in Public Library of Sciences One, identified a parasitic organism called Apocephalus borealis that causes the self-destructive behavior. The fungus had been previously observed in African bumblebees, but not in North American honeybees. Apocephalus borealis attacks the bee’s brain and destroys its functional capacities, consuming it from the inside out. An infected bee doesn’t die right away, however. Instead, it moves absent-mindedly and sluggishly without the ability to navigate properly. The parasite may actually manipulate the bee into flying away in order to give itself an opportunity to invade new populations. Similar diabolical fungi have been shown to affect ants in Thailand and caterpillars in American forests.

If Apocephalus borealis is indeed the culprit in CCD, the infections may be partially due to pesticide usage. Tests at the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland recently demonstrated that exposure to trace amounts of imidacloprid (commonly used for termite control) lowers the bees’ immune systems, leaving the hives vulnerable to hardy strains of infection.  The links between the fungus and the pesticide are still being worked out, but the overlapping effects of the two factors will almost certainly make it more difficult for researchers to isolate each variable. There is still no definitive diagnosis for hive collapse, but this new research gives scientists several promising avenues to pursue.

Since CCD’s appearance, amateur and commercial beekeepers alike have responded to the threat quickly.  National media coverage has drawn focus and resources to the cause. After significant dips from 2006-2009, the number of U.S. honey-producing colonies stabilized somewhat at 2.6 million in 2010. Domestic honey production (in pounds) also rebounded to 2005 levels.  So far, Massachusetts has been spared the worst of CCD. The state’s amateur and commercial beekeepers hope to keep it that way.

On March 31st, the natural history museum will host Professor Tom Seeley for a presentation on “honey bee democracy.” Dr. Seeley is a biologist at Cornell University, author of three books on swarm intelligence, and a preeminent expert in the field. He even has a species of bee named after him (Neocorynurella seeleyi). It’s sure to be an illuminating discussion about some of the Cape’s most fascinating residents.

Magnetic Soap Has Arrived

No, not magnetic bar soap for the shower, unfortunately (though how great would that be?!).  Instead, scientists at Bristol University in the U.K. have announced the invention of a soap compound that can be controlled predictably by magnetic fields.  The researchers created it by dissolving iron into a variety of salts to form hard metallic centers in each soap particle.  Thus, after introducing the soap into a body of water for cleaning purposes, scientists can use magnets to corral,  separate, and remove it from the system entirely.

The most immediate application for this technology is large-scale environmental cleanup.  After last year’s Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf, approximately 1.8 million gallons of industrial soap were used to disperse the oil.  Some advocacy groups worried that adding synthetic chemicals was only compounding the disaster by wreaking havoc on marine habitats.  Unlike a kitchen sink, the ocean can’t just be drained or rinsed when it gets too soapy.  The Bristol breakthrough, however, presents a potentially scaleable, eco-friendly solution to that problem.  It’s quite fitting too, given that soap relies on basic magnetism to separate oil and water in the first place.  Today’s news is a promising development for the future of commercial and household water treatment.

Weekend Video

Nothing fancy this weekend, just a great song and some stunning time-lapse photography from Yosemite.  Enjoy.

(h/t Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy)

Yosemite HD from Project Yosemite on Vimeo.

The San Diego “Chargers” and the New Commodification of Energy

The Atlantic‘s nifty Cities page has a brief item up about San Diego’s push for increased electric car usage.  The new initiative came together in early 2011 via a seemingly too-good-to-be-true collaboration between the utility companies, the local government, university research departments, and clean energy non-profits.  It’s the stuff of Davos dreams, except that it appears to have actually worked.  In November, San Diego introduced its  fleet of 300 electric vehicles available for short term rental.  The program works very similar to ZipCar in that vehicles are available on an hourly basis, able to be picked up and returned at various charging stations throughout the city.  The stations draw solar power from photovoltaic cells and connect to a localized grid infrastructure.  Keep those shopping excursions minimal, though: many of the small “fortwo” [sic] vehicles only have enough room for a driver, a passenger, and maybe a bag of groceries.

The article,  however, neglects to mention cost, which seems essential to any discussion of clean energy technologies.   It’s notable that San Diego is not exactly a representative sample population.  It is consistently one of the ten richest cities in the country, which means that residents can afford to tinker with new, pricy technologies in a way that other areas of the country can not.  It also has consistently fair weather, with no shortage of sunlight to power all of those cells.  Could you run this program in, say, Minneapolis?  Nobody quite knows yet how consumers will react to all-electric cars.  That’s not to suggest that San Diego shouldn’t run the experiment; it absolutely should.  But the results will vary significantly in other urban markets (and for that matter, the surrounding suburbs served by public transportation networks), meaning this will be the first step of many rather than a surefire panacea.

It’s no secret that consumers ultimately act with their wallets in mind, so any electric fleet will need to offer an appealing financial incentive.  In a densely populated metro area, that incentive is having a car available instantly without having to purchase it, garage it, fuel it, repair it, etc.  But the rental program – which does have to pay for all of those things – will need to keep its own costs low in order to keep the consumer price point reasonable.  Electrical grid energy, though cheap, is not entirely free.  Additional demand from hundreds of power-sucking cars will put strain on the city’s network and require high-frequency monitoring to avoid outstripping the supply.  In November, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon got excited about the possibility of charging up a vehicle at night (when energy is cheap) and then plugging in and “selling” energy back to the grid during the day (when energy is more expensive) to turn a small profit.  Small cottage industries already do this with home solar panels and the idea has been in circulation for a while.  But only now, with electric vehicles poised to roll out on a larger scale, has that thinking extended to cars.   Commenters point out that constantly draining the battery will shorten the car’s life.  Most owners actually need to use their cars during the day (if not, why bother investing in a pricey plug-in at all?), making it unfeasible for them to “sell” at peak hours.  (Others, including Dan Ferber at Miller-McCune, argue that this problem isn’t as big a deal as it may seem).  The San Diego cars are well suited to test the theory.  A given percentage of the electric rental cars could be “selling” throughout the day while they’re on the lot, just so long as enough “driver” cars are available to meet customer demand.  By cleverly rotating which cars are “sellers” and which are “drivers,” the longevity of each individual vehicle could be extended.

What we’re seeing, I think, is the beginning of an age where our conception of energy will change and we will start thinking of it as a more fungible currency.  Yes, most of us pay an electric bill already, but it’s money that only flows one way: out the door every month.  Right now, the only way any of us can “save” is to reduce usage, which is undesirable.  But in the future, electric energy might be traded and attained in other ways.   An idle car can earn back some of its value while you’re not using it, much like interest in a savings account.  In that way, it is fungible in a way that gasoline is not.  Brad Plumer is bullish that solar power is only getting cheaper and that it might only be a matter of time before it can achieve parity with fossil fuels without the aid of subsidies.  He also notes that a carbon tax from the U.S. government would go a long way toward that end, but doesn’t appear likely in the near future with Republican control of the House.

Whatever the results of San Diego’s initiative, California is likely to remain the proving ground for all-electric vehicles.  Not only is it the top car market in the nation, but it has the strictest emission standards.  These can significantly alter an auto’s fortunes.  Chevy’s Volt roared out of the gate and and won MotorTrend’s 2011 Car of the Year Award (much to Rush Limbaugh’s chagrin).  But the car failed to meet the Golden State’s requirements, causing it to lose out on state subsidies and miss its sales projection by 25%.  California has set a goal to generate 33 percent of its total energy from renewable sources by 2020, so there is strong incentive for San Diego’s unique collaboration to pay dividends – and a risk of significant backlash if it doesn’t.

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