Chinese Paddlefish on the way out

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Like the Baiji before it, the Chinese Paddlefish appears to be on the brink of extinction, if it has not already slipped over the edge.

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A couple of years ago I wrote about the extinction of the Baiji — or Yangtze River Dolphin — and now, as the BBC reports, it looks like another large inhabitant of the Yangtze is on the verge of following it, if it hasn’t already done so.

One of only two extant species of Paddlefish, the Chinese Paddlefish (Psephurus gladius,) which, with reported sizes up to 7m long, may also be the world’s largest freshwater fish1 has not been detected at all on a recent survey. The team do admit that it’s quite possible for isolated individuals to have escaped detection due to the sheer size of the area surveyed, but point out that the environment can no longer support a viable breeding population, and that unless some specimens can be caught in time to begin a captive conservation programme the species is doomed.

It’s depressing to be writing about the extinction of another large, ecologically important species so soon after the Baiji — doubly so since it was native to the same river system — and it’s no comfort at all to know that there will have been plenty of other, less-visible (but no less tragic) extinctions in the same period, or that this is unlikely to be the last.

  1. it is currently not clear — and now may never be — whether the animal spends it’s entire life in fresh water []

Oh, hai!

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A squirrel poses for a photo with his holiday buddies.

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It's always the same; you go on holiday, "make friends" with some guy and when you get home you realise he managed to get himself into every photo you took!

It's always the same; you go on holiday, "make friends" with some guy and when you get home you realise he managed to get himself into every photo you took!

Hat tip to John Lynch over at A Simple Prop for the link.

Also, if The End of the Line didn’t convince you, John has discovered another reason not to destroy the world’s fish population: if there are no fish to eat, the Otters will have to find something else to eat: Human Flesh!

Don’t look so charismic now, do they?

Software patents are just bad

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An East-Texas court has ruled that Microsoft Word infringes patents belonging to i4i, and ordered Microsoft to stop selling the software.

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It won’t come as news to many of you that I’m no fan of Microsoft — their long history of sub-standard software combined with economic domination and anticompetitive behaviour just doesn’t do it for me — but even I can’t bring myself to see this patent ruling as a good thing. Funny perhaps, and certainly karmicly appealing, but ultimately it does no-one but i4i any good whatsoever.

Software patents do nothing but limit companies’ ability to innovate and develop quality software, and this an ideal example of that. Microsoft Word is one of the few genuinely good products MS has ever produced, and their move to an XML file format in office 2007 was both a huge improvement in file size and processing speed, and an important step towards open-formats and interoperability from a company that had historically seen those things as an anathema. Obviously, it’s not perfect, and there were already open XML formats they could have adopted rather than rolling their own, but it’s a step in the right direction and it benefits every user of MS Word. We should not be discouraging Microsoft from making these kinds of change, yet that’s exactly what the recent East-Texas court ruling banning the sale of Word due to patent infringement does — and in the strongest possible way.

But it’s worse than that; not only does this discourage further good behaviour on the part of MS, but it directly impacts thousands of companies all over the world; Word is critical to the functioning of a huge number of businesses, and not being able to buy new licenses, even for a short while, could be a serious problem for some of them. If they’re left with less licenses than they have employees, then some of those employees might not be able to work, or have to do so on illegal software. In this financial climate, no company wants to have to make that choice. It’s true that there are alternatives (even free ones,) but anyone who thinks that’s a solution has never had much contact with corporate IT departments.

The whole situation seems like utter nonsense to me. Microsoft followed a totally obvious course of action, which benefited pretty much everyone, when it switched its file formats to XML, and yet because some other company had the idea first, they’re fined $277,000,000.00 in “damages” — someone will have to explain to me how Microsoft improving their office suite cost i4i $240 million — and the rest of us are prevented from buying the software we want to use.

In case anyone needed further proof that software patents (and patents in general) do more to harm to innovation and competition than they do to protect inventors, I think this is a prime example.

Komodo Dragons are Venomous

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Komodo Dragons are venomous, and don’t just rely on the presence of pathogenic bacteria in their mouths to poison prey.

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Yes, you read that right; in the second new lizardly discovery I’ve read about this week — this time at the excellent Not Exactly Rocket Science — it turns out that not only are Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) 3m long carnivorous lizards with razor-sharp, serrated teeth that can run at 20km/h, but they’re also venomous. You know, in case all that other stuff wasn’t enough to give you nightmares.

It was thought for decades that Komodo Dragons relied on the virulent cocktail of bacteria present in their mouths to infect and weaken prey when they bit them, so that they could hunt them down over a few days and finish the job. It turns out that, while their mouths certainly are rancid, they have an even nastier weapon in their arsenal.

Brian Fry of the University of Melbourne, tipped-off by the discovery in 2005 that a close relative of the Dragon (Varanus varius, the Lace Monitor) has venom glands, took an MRI of the head of a Komodo Dragon and demonstrated conclusively that it too is venomous. The venom in question is complex, but seems mainly tailored to increase blood loss from the gaping wounds left my the Dragon’s razor-like teeth and characteristic ‘backward-jerk’ biting motion, causing massive blood loss in the victim, weakening them and often leading quickly to shock, and then to death. It’s worth noting that even where the blood-loss is not sufficient to kill the victim, going into shock within sight of a hungry 3m carnivore probably will be.

Komodo Dragons being the largest extant reptiles, and me being me, the first thing I thought of when I read about this was the possibility that some dinosaurs may also have evolved a venomous bite, and I was pleased to see that I’m not alone; there a discussion of the subject in the comments at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Unfortunately, they agree with me: the idea is a bit of a stretch (OK, a lot of one,) since Komodo Dragons aren’t closely related to dinosaurs, and there are no known venomous examples of the closest extant relatives of dinosaurs: the birds. What this does show, however, is that it’s quite possible for reptiles — even large ones — to be venomous without providing any skeletal or dental evidence of the fact. So our conclusion has to be that some dinosaurs may have been venomous, but that we have no good reason to believe that they were.

Sandfish

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The sandfish is a small desert lizard that recent experiments have show literally swims through sand.

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The sandfish (Scincus scincus) is a species of desert skink that has a nifty trick for evading predators (or just the hot sun): it submerges itself in the sand and literally swims though it — thus the name.

The species has always been known to be an exceptional burrower, but recent experiments utilising x-ray imagery have shown that it doesn’t dig using it’s limbs as one might expect, but holds them fast against its body while using graceful side-to-side undulations to push itself forward, much like a snake swimming in water. Check out the video the researchers have posted online; it’s really quite impressive.

The thing I really love about discoveries like this is that it really highlights just how diverse and incredible life on Earth is. It doesn’t matter how outlandish something sounds; if its a viable way of getting around, finding food, catching food, or eating food, then something, somewhere is almost certain to be doing it.

Also, the BBC has an extremely cute image of one surfacing.

WordPress 2.8 and brief downtime

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An upgrade to wordpress 2.8 caused half an hour’s downtime.

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Tonight I upgraded the WordPress install on the site to version 2.8, resulted in about half-an-hour’s downtime while I untangled some merge conflicts the svn update to 2.8 combined with a move to the new WordPress core svn server created. Interestingly the process went fine on my test server, but not on live; I’ll have to look into that. Anyway, apologies for any inconvenience the downtime may have caused you.

The 2.8 upgrade itself is almost entirely back-end, admin stuff, and shouldn’t have any impact on the visible site at all.

Death by Hyperbole

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The media hype surrounding Darwinius Massliae has reached fever pitch, and is largely misplaced.

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OK, this is getting out of hand now. I mean, it was out of hand before, but it just got passed the point where even I can stay quiet about it. It’s like we’ve just passed the event-horizon of some new kind of publicity black hole and are now tumbling helplessly towards a singularity of overstatement where, rather than the laws of physics, it’s our sense of proportion that breaks down.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look at this YouTube clip, and see if you can guess.

Edit: Unfortunately, YouTube have removed the video in question for ‘terms of use violation.’ It was a trailer that described a TV program on the History Channel as the most important event in 47 million years. It was utterly over the top.

Seen it? Any ideas?

It’s a TV show about a fossil. Seriously. Granted, it’s a pretty interesting, particularly complete fossil of a 47 million year-old transitive primate called Ida (who was a member of a species we’ve called Darwinius masillae), which is something you don’t exactly see every day. But still: a fossil.

It’s not going to change the world, it’s not going to revolutionise the way we think about ourselves and it most certainly is not the missing link (which is — as I understand it — a term no serious palaeontologist would use anyway.) But somehow, the media have got hold of it as some kind of world-changing event and are running with it, reality be damned. The hype machine has been in full swing for about a week now and, if this video is to be believed, is showing no signs of slowing down. If it wasn’t quite so depressing, it’d be quite amazing how much they can make of so little.

Hat tip to Carl Zimmer over at The Loom for this and other sensible writing about Darwinius.

The New Apple Adverts

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Apple have released four more of the Mac/PC adverts; how true are the claims they make?

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Well, Apple have come out with a new set of their (in)famous Mac/PC adverts. Surprisingly, this time round I find that I’m not paralysed with rage — just mildly disgusted and disappointed — and can write about them. Obviously, I should make it absolutely clear that, as adverts, I hate them. They’re patronising, confrontational and almost exclusively focus on perceived shortcomings of the opposition. But, as usual, they also make some claims that are generating some … debate around the net, and I thought — as user of both Macs and PCs without (I hope) any particular partisan leanings — I’d be well placed to pick them apart and give an objective review of their claims.

So without any further ado, here are my thoughts on the ads:

Legal Copy

This one is weird. I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to claim. That Apple machines don’t auto-update? Not true. That they don’t make you agree to click-through licenses when they do so? Also not true. About the only justifiable claim I could see here is that PCs tend to have a higher volume of auto-updates. But then the vast majority of them are Windows Defender updates that don’t have a click-through anyway. If I had to make a call, I’d say I do more clicking-through of licenses loaded with Legal Copy on my Mac than I do on my PC.

As far as I can see, this one is out-and-out dishonest.

Biohazard

This is probably the most contentious issue raised by the new (and old) PC/Mac ads. Apple have always insisted that Macs don’t have viruses, and that PCs are much more at risk of infection or being hacked. But then they do things like quietly post advice to run anti-virus software on their support forums, and PC users are understandably quick to jump on that as evidence that Macs aren’t so safe as Apple would have us believe. So what is the deal? Can a Mac really hang around in his casuals while nearby PCs are forced into isolation suits?

I’m going to say yes, but with a honking caveat. The fundamental truth of the issue is that there are almost no malware threats to the Mac; there have been about five actual cases of OSX malware making any headway at all in the wild. Compare that to the thousands of different PC malware threats released into the wild every month, to the tens of millions of PCs actively enlisted in botnets and the difference is so stark as to almost make Apple’s complacency justified. Almost.

The point is that the reason OSX is largely safe from malware attack is that there is no malware to be attacked by. It’s not that OSX is some magical virus-proof wonder-OS; it’s that it has too small a market-share to be worth a cyber-criminal’s time. If Apple continue to grow their market-share then sooner or later someone’s going to go for them, and I suspect that when that happens Apple, and the wider Mac community, will be woefully unprepared. There’ll be a few hectic months while everyone and his dog gets infected, Apple rush to get a fix out, play catchup for half a year and finally get on top of the problem. At least as much as any other platform has.

I’ve heard it suggested that telling people they don’t need virus protection is irresponsible because it means that when a threat does arise, people won’t be protected. I don’t really agree, for a couple of reasons. Firstly and most generally, I’m not convinced of the utility of anti-virus software on any platform. Consumers spend millions of dollars a year on Windows anti-virus software, and infection rates are still through the roof. Not only that but anti-virus software itself feels a lot like malware to me; it insinuates itself in every corner of your OS, gives you no control over what it does or when, often kills a machine’s performance, and all for what seems to be very little gain.

So given that anti-virus software is expensive, ineffective and detrimental to a machine’s day to day running, I fail to see how advocating it’s use on a platform that doesn’t currently need for it would be a responsible act. Especially given my second point, which is that no-one really know what Mac malware will look like when it appears, and until they do, how can anyone write software that has a fighting chance of countering it? It’s true that there are certain standard patterns to malware design, and by looking out for those existing software might get lucky, but my guess is that it’ll take six months after the first real wave of infections for the anti-virus companies to get up to speed on the sorts of exploits real malware takes advantage of and how to close the security holes.

Those six months should be plenty of time for Apple to reverse its message on viruses and get started on what will, in all likelihood, be a continent-sized pile of humble pie.

So, er, to get back to the point of the advert, is it true that Macs don’t have to worry about viruses? I’m going to say yes. But with caveats.

Stacks

Another odd one this. I get the feeling they were just trying to advertise that iPhoto has this neat new feature, but had to dress it up in their usual confrontational format to make it fit the ad-campaign. I mean, everything they say and imply is sort-of fair enough; iPhoto does ship with every Mac, and does have facial recognition, where an out-of-the-box PC is much more limited; it’s just that that’s not a particularly convincing point to make. Yeah, I guess organising photos by facial recognition is sort-of neat (when it works,) and it’s nice that it ships with Macs by default, but it’s not like the technology is unheard-of on the PC; there is free, easily available software (Picasa), that does it just as well.

This also is my favourite of these four new ads, because it highlights the overarching mistake Apple has made with the whole campaign; the PC is just a much more likeable character. It’s always true, but I think doubly so in this one.

So are the advert’s claims true? Yes, I think so, just also pointless.

Time Traveller

Appalling.

This sort of mud-slinging just pisses everyone off. It effectively says “PCs hang and crash all the time,” which, without justification or stats, is just the advertising equivalent of “PCs smell of poo!”

Having said that, I have to add: subjectively, my experience has been that my Macs have been more stable than my PCs. That’s not to say that I’m a typical case, or that my experience is necessarily representative; it’s just what I’ve noted over the past half-a-decade or so.

I’m not going to let my subjective experience colour my judgement on this one though; it’s just not justifiable to make these kinds of claims without support. False.

The End

So there you have it. I reckon roughly a 50% hit rate on truth, only one advert that actually has a convincing argument for buying a Mac, and even that one is so heavily caveated as to make the statement in isolation borderline dishonest.

It’s a real shame Apple insist on sticking to this advertising campaign; as far as I can see, all it does is alienate people. It’s doubly frustrating to me because Apple make great products that I really like. I love both my Macs, and while not everybody is going to like them, they are definitely good enough to sell on their own merits without needing to constantly bad-mouth the opposition. Now, if only Apple would actually tell people what those merits are.

Jack Thompson in legal trouble again

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Jack Thompson is in trouble for spamming the Utah State Senate President.

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GamePolitics is reporting that Jack Thompson is back in the legal firing line, this time for spamming one of his supporters — the President of the Utah State Senate, Michael Waddoups — with “offensive” images from GTA4. Needless to say, Mr Waddoups is no longer quite so supportive of Mr Thompson and not only has he vowed not to support his anti-game legislation again, he’s attempting to have him sued for misuse of email.

This sort of thing really makes Jacko no friends, and it’s tempting to think that he’s just a mad old fool who doesn’t realise he’s fast running out of them. My take on it is somewhat different though; if you actually look at how the man acts it’s clear that he’s not actually interested in making friends, or advancing his cause, or even in making money. What he craves is attention. It’s that simple; he wants people to notice him, and he’s realised the best way to manage that is to piss them off. He’s basically a troll, except that instead of hanging around on anonymous message boards annoying Star Trek fans, he’s quite successfully trolled the entire computer game industry, the US legal system and is moving on to their government. Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that Jack Thompson is not an idiot at all; he’s the most successful troll the world has ever seen.

You have to respect him for that.