The Taxonomy Fail Index

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Myrmecos has published a proposed formula for determining the stupidity of a taxonomy fail.

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Taxonomy fails irk me. Some might say disproportionately so. They might even have a point. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to at least try to get these sorts of things right, so I was pleased to Alex Wild, over at Myrmecos, taking the time to come up with a formula for figuring out just how wrong a taxonomy fail is. Of course it doesn’t stop people making the mistakes in the first place, but if we have a way of quickly figuring out who’s making the biggest blunders we can, at least, make an attempt to accurately target our … re-education attempts. He calls it the Taxonomy Fail Index, or TFI.

As an experiment, I ran my favourite taxonomy fail through it, and it turns out that calling penguins mammals has a TFI of about 531. That makes it about 53 times stupider than calling Sarah Palin a chimp, but still not quite as stupid as insisting that scale insects are beetles.

So there you go.

  1. The last common ancestor of mammals and birds was also the last common ancestor of the two great classes of Reptile, the Synapsids and Sauropsids, which diverged some 320 million years ago. Humans and Chimps, by contrast, diverged somewhere between five and seven million years ago. []

Bats are really loud!

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Bats are some of the loudest animals on earth, emitting noises up to 130db, which is louder than a nightclub, or an aircraft taking off.

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If you’re a human being, that’s probably something of a surprise, since the chances are that you can’t hear them at all. We all know they use sound for echolocation, but those sounds are simply too high-frequency for most humans to hear. You might be very lucky, particularly if you’re young, and just be able to pick out their squeaks right at the edge of your perception, but even then it’s so marginal that you’re only catching a tiny part of the sound intensity bats emit. It turns out that bats are some of the loudest animals on the planet, with some species able to emit sounds up to 130db, which is just about the threshold at which sounds become painful to humans and significantly louder than the inside of a nightclub or watching a jet take off from 100M.

I find it amazing that something can be so incredibly loud, and yet seem completely silent to me. It’s weird to think of those quiet summer evening I’ve spent watching them flit about overhead being set against a deafening1 crescendo of noise. Nature never ceases to amaze.

All of this, incidentally, came out of a piece by Ed Yong, at Not Exactly Rocket Science, about a species of bat that has evolved much quieter squeaks in order to sneak up on the moths it preys on. It’s fascinating; go read.

And if you’re interested in little-known bat trivia, did you know that they account for a quarter of all mammal species?

  1. literally; at that volume, serious hearing damage is a very real possibility. []

HTC Desire and Android battery issues

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There is a bug in SenseUI on the HTC desire that prevents the phone going to sleep.

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By now, most people have noticed that I’ve switched from my venerable iPhone 3G to an HTC Desire. I’ve had it a little over a week and, on balance, I’m happy with it. I’m sort-of half-planning an iPhone/Android comparison piece from the perspective of a switcher, along with my version of what each of the platforms gets right, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I just had to comment on this from Google:

When asked about Android’s weak battery life at the Google Zeitgeist forum, Google co-founder Larry Page said that if anyone is not getting a full day’s worth of battery, there’s “something wrong.” Page then went on to suggest it’s probably user habits and third-party apps causing battery woes. “When there is software running in the background, that just sort of exhausts the battery quickly,” said Page.

Eric Schmidt chimed in, “The primary consumer of the battery life on these phones is the transmit/receive circuit. So tuning that and obviously figuring out a way to not use too much of that extends your battery life…And people bring in applications that are not particularly smart about that.”

Perhaps on some Android phones they’re right, but on the Desire it’s absolutely not the case. HTC haven’t acknowledged it yet, but if you enable Flickr sync in their Sense UI, you’ll put the calendar into a state where it indefinitely holds a partial wake-lock, which prevents the phone going to sleep and reduces your battery life to 7-9 hours ‘standby’ (in my case.) This has been confirmed on multiple handsets on multiple carriers. So, yes, on the Desire, the primary consumer of battery life is an OS bug. Oops.

Quote from Andronica

Well, I guess Labour noticed the Lib Dems then

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Details of an Anti-Lib-Dem attack leaflet Labour put through my door.

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I got this attack leaflet through my door yesterday:

A Labour campaign leaflet comparing the Lib Dems to the Tories
A Labour campaign leaflet comparing the Lib Dems to the Tories. Page 2.

I know it’s an election, and all parties do this sort of thing, but I really with they wouldn’t. Anneliese Dodds is a good candidate, and while I’m unlikely to vote for her, this sort of mud slinging only makes me less likely to.

Lobbying Transparency — Reading East

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I wrote the the Reading East candidates in the general election, asking about lobbying transparency. Here are their responses.

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A while ago, as part of a 38 Degrees campaign, I wrote the the four candidates for the Reading East constituency in the upcoming election, asking their opinions on improved lobbying transparency, and urging them to pledge support for a mandatory register of parliamentary lobbyists. This was in-part driven by my conviction that the recent Digital Economy Act was pushed through parliament largely due to intense lobbying from the music industry, and other “rights-holder” groups, of which we, the electorate, have no oversight, or even visibility. It was also in-part driven by my firmly held belief that secretive and unaccountable lobbying harms democracy and lowers confidence not just in our government, but in our system of government.

This is the mail I sent:

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I’ve added a page for details about the software I write.

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I’ve added a new page to the site, which you can find on the menu at the top. It’s a rundown of the publicly released software I’ve written; for now just a noddy python script for sending boxcar notification to an iPhone (which I wrote to let me know when um… long downloads have completed.) If sending push notifications from the command line is something you want to do, feel free to grab it; it might save you half an hour.

A potentially fatal mistake

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The BBC mistakenly describe theropods as small.

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I know it must seem like I get a real kick out of spotting other’s taxonomic mistakes and pointing them out here, but really I’d be a much happier man if it wasn’t necessary. All it would take would be for journalists to double check their terms before going to press, or to make sure they got their pieces proof read by someone familiar with the subject. It’s the BBC’s turn again this time, and in the midst of what is, otherwise, an excellent piece about recent pioneering work on determining the colour of dinosaur feathers, by using an electron microscope to examine the shape and structure of fossilised melanosomes. There’s nothing at all wrong with most of the article. In fact, go and read it now; I’ll wait.

See? It’s all very interesting; well researched, and well written, and it avoids the two most grating errors science pieces in the mainstream media usually make; making it sound like this has overturned everything we’ve previously thought about the subject, and giving ‘equal time’ to some wacko who disagrees with the research. So, yes, it’s a great piece. With one small error:

This gives more weight to a very well-supported theory that modern birds evolved from theropods, the group of small carnivorous dinosaurs to which Sinosauropteryx belonged.

A relatively benign mistake to make while sat at a desk in a nice comfortable office, but there are scenarios where you might want to be a little more careful in checking your definitions…

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What’s up with text-shadow rendering in Firefox 3.6?

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Firefox 3.6 seems to have real trouble rendering shadow elements.

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So, Firefox 3.6 is finally here, and on average it’s 20% faster than 3.5. It’s actually a really noticeable improvement for both rendering and scrolling around pages; I’d say it’s more or less on a par with Safari on most pages. I hear from Windows using friends that it’s similarly quicker on that platform too, approaching the speed of Chrome, in places. All of which makes this a little odd.

I noticed, not long after the upgrade that my blog (this page, unless you’re reading a syndicated copy,) was scrolling really, really slowly in Firefox, which it had never done before I upgraded. I checked it in Safari to reassure myself that it wasn’t something wrong with the site, and everything was fine; scrolling was smooth and responsive just like it has always been. I checked Firefox 3.5 on my macbook; same thing. I disabled all my firefox addons and tried again on the desktop: still painfully slow. So I re-enabled some of them and started messing around with firebug, disabling various style elements to see if I could figure out where the slowdown was coming from.

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Homeopaths admit more really is more

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Stangely homeopathy advocates are considering a massive spam attack against wikipedia.

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Looks like a bunch of homeopathy supporters have got sick of not being taken seriously on the internet, and decided that the best way to gain the respect of the wider community is to spam wikipedia until the service is overloaded. I’m not sure whether the intent is just a DoS, or if they think people will just get so tired of reverting their edits that they just roll over and let them have their say. Either way, it’s a stupid plan; the absolute most they’ll achieve is that the pages they target will be locked until they themselves get bored and go away.

In any case, I wonder if the irony of the whole idea is lost on them? Surely the homeopathic way to do this would be to have one person say, very very quietly, what they want on the page, while in the same room as someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who is a Wikipedia user.

Hat tip to @xtaldave for the link.

A Venomous Dinosaur?

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Enpu Gong has discovered evidence that the small theorpos Sinornithosaurus may have had a venomous bite. This is the first evidence of this in any dinosaur.

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Oh, oh, oh! This is an exciting one! Earlier this year, when the discovery that Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are venomous was published, I idly wondered if any dinosaurs were as well. Komodo Dragons and dinosaurs are not closely related, so there was no reason to make that leap, beyond the fact that they are (or, in the case of dinosaurs, were) both large terrestrial reptiles, and that I want it to be true.

Well, it turns out I might yet be onto a winner with that one. A recent publication by Enpu Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences documents fossil evidence that Sinornithosaurus, a small Cretaceous theropod from what is now China, possessed a venomous bite. The venom gland itself, being soft tissue, has not been preserved1, but the skull contains a cavity that Gong believes could have contained one. More convincingly, the animal had long, grooved upper teeth, like those used by extant rear-fanged snakes to inject venom into prey, with voids above them, which could have functioned as local reservoirs.

Not everybody’s convinced, and I’d categorise the evidence as ‘strongly suggestive’ rather than a slam-dunk, but it’s fascinating stuff and lends a big pile of credibility to an idea that I really want to be true.

Check out Ed Yong’s longer and better coverage, over at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

  1. Which is not to say that soft tissue can never leave fossil evidence, in fact Sinornithosaurus is also famous for being one of the first dinosaurs to be discovered with fossilised feather-impressions, merely that it is significantly rarer. []