• How not to go crazy traveling with young children

    One of the things you have to do when you're on sabbatical in a city like London, is make sure you take advantage of your travel opportunities. For my family, this equated to visiting a number of iconic European cities, a luxury that from Vancouver (where I'm usually based) would have been far too costly. Anyway, it's been clear to my wife and I that during these once-in-a-lifetime visits, our consciousness is very much overridden by one central question: "What will Ben and Hannah do?"


    (Clockwise from left) Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy; Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France; near Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2010

    Just so you know, Ben and Hannah are my children. You've might have seen them in this previous post, and like any parent, I love them dearly. Nevertheless, traveling with very young children is an interesting experience, as it is by turns wonderful, exhausting, memorable, frustrating, and (just to be clear) exhausting. You are, after all, interacting with a tourist that would most likely rank the playground or the cat that they saw by a tree, far above the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Also, if you're lucky enough to be staying somewhere where there is indoor swimming, then you can rest assured that you will hear of nothing else.


  • Students doing right by making medicine accessible to the developing world.

    In light of World AIDS Day, I'd thought I'd post a little bit about Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. It's a bit of a mouthful, but it's a student run non-profit that does brilliant things. Even though the video above is two years old, Mike Gretes does a lovely job highlighting some of what UAEM does, and there's also tons of information on their website:

    Many important medicines and public health technologies are developed in academic laboratories. Their accessibility in poor nations is profoundly affected by the research, patenting and licensing decisions made by universities.

    We are a group of university students who believe that our universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to improve global access to public health goods

    This is important for a number of reasons. One example is that it recognizes that almost all therapeutics have their humble beginnings at some lab bench at some university. This isn't necessarily the finished product, but it is often the "eureka" moment that can start the path towards a medicine with real life benefits.

    Because of this, that academic lab and its researchers, have this opportunity to lay down some ground rules when the discovery is ultimately marketed out to some company. For instance, they can dictate that licensing is different (amenable to generics) when circumstances compel the drug to be sold in markets that simply can't afford the usual prices set by pharmaceutical companies (think HIV medicine in developed versus developing countries). Unfortunately, this amazing opportunity is usually a missed opportunity: which is why UAEM members stay up nights thinking about ways, to advocate, educate, and guide universities to do the right thing.

    Anyway, if you're connected to the university system, it's a must to check it out. There might already be a UAEM chapter at your school (there is at mine). If not, there's also help available to set one up.

    Universities Allied for Essential Medicines

  • The Nagoya Protocol: the first step towards saving the endangered Unicorn?

    If a Society for the Preservation of Unicorns1 were to put out commentary or a press release about important but largely unreported UN biodiversity meetings, I'd imagine it would go a little like this:

    unicornhabitatbb.jpg(Public domain image adapted from NOAA photo library. Slide available here).

    Well, it's been a few days since the Nagoya COP102 conference has wrapped up, and by all accounts, people have deemed it relatively successful. That is, the conference that was meant to set some goals in the preservation of global biodiversity has (largely due to the admirable persistence of Japanese officials) managed to get government types to agree to a strategic plan with a number of environmentally friendly targets (nicknamed the 2020 Aichi Targets3 for those of you who like to keep track of such things).

    Although the word "rainbow" did not make a single appearance in the text, the targets did nevertheless include obvious things like percentages of land and ocean to set aside for preservation (17% and 10%), and overarching statements that promised, "to at least halve and where feasible bring close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats including forests (by 2020)." (more…)

  • The Candy Hierarchy

    LATEST: The Candy Hierarchy has been updated for 2012.


    With Halloween approaching, I thought it would be amusing to write a bit about candy, or more specifically, a system that aims to rank it. In this case, the rubric would be according to "emotional zeal" or something more jargony sounding like "joy induction." Anyway, this hierarchy is the work of a friend and colleague, Ben Cohen. Ben is an environmental historian over at the University of Virginia, but in a previous life, he and I use to write on a blog together. This partnership happened because of our backgrounds publishing science humour (see Ben's clip list here), so in some respects, this "Candy Hierarchy" is just another creative juncture.

    However, since I'm loving how you can get immediate feedback from the Boing Boing community, I'm also thinking that we could use this opportunity to throw a little kickass "peer review" into the ranking. Kickass because: (1) I know some people are going to be deeply offended by the rankings; (2) the rankings were last updated in 2008, and are therefore long overdue for some revision; and (3) well, isn't peer review just kickass anyway? Oh yeah – the graphic is new (just made it today): hopefully if you play in the comments, some of us can use it one day as a slide for an interesting discussion on the scientific method – yes?

    Anyway, read on… (more…)

  • My virtual swag bag for biodiversity and Nagoya COP10 includes Zhu Zhu pets.

    So this Nagoya COP10 conference is coming up in a week, and at these events what tends to happen is that all the delegates will receive a "swag bag' of sorts. Actually, the term "swag" is probably over selling it a bit, since what they actually receive is probably better described as a portfolio of resources. In other words, it's less about gadgets, gift cards, and bling, and more about documents and materials that will attempt to inform them on the various issues at stake.

    Anyway, the teacher in me is also wanting to put together a virtual swag bag of biodiversity things to look at – especially for those who want to quickly get up to speed on the whole thing. Of course, you can read my "Star Wars" jargon infused primers on the conference itself (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and a sidebar; or here as a single post), but why not take a gander at a few other things available on the web.

    You should start with the above panel discussion video. In my opinion, it is excellent – I'm going to get all of my students to check it out. Involving five experts who obviously care a great deal about biodiversity, it's a good and pragmatic overview of all the pertinent issues at stake. Admittedly, it's a little close to homework at times (especially the first few minutes where intros are made), but in terms of packing in a lot of great information, it's well worth a look. Best of all, once the questions start (culled from forums and twitter) it gets engaging and lucid pretty quickly. I loved the bit where the entomologist, Dr. Chris Lyal, defends the weevil, and in doing so, you learn just how kick ass weevils are!

    The embedded YouTube video just shows the first 8 or so minutes (which includes the introductions), but I highly recommend giving yourself some time to watch the full length version here (think of it as a much more palatable alternative to reading 50 pages of text to stay informed). (more…)

  • Do you know what this is? (Pretty sure it's not a Tribble)


    Not much information about it, except that the furry stuff does appear to be hair. Current hypotheses involve something to do with a lion hairball that may have been blown about in the dusty savannah, therefore resulting in this poofy look. Other ideas posit an association with the Massai? Anyway, If you have any ideas of what this could be, it would be great to hear them. For now, it remains a mystery.

    What you're seeing is one of the many samples that the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity gets day in day out. Essentially, this is a centre within the Natural History Museum that acts as an accessible expertise base for all things flora, fauna, and fossilized in the United Kingdom. Kind of like a place where the public can bring stuff in for identification, hang out with scientists, link up with other amateur naturalists, and even help out in a number of open air laboratory outreach projects (also known as OPAL).

    I've highlighted the "hairball" because it is something that was brought in and even after an initial look is still quite mysterious. However, the vast majority of things that get sent or dropped off do get identified. Earlier, I had a chance to talk to the centre's resident entomologist, Beulah Garner, about some of the things that were particularly odd or interesting looking. See, if you can identify any of them (answers in bold supplied by Beulah): (more…)

  • Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook

    This is a continuation from this post about crowd sourcing humour writing. There were many great suggestions, some of which were almost complete pieces in themselves (especially this one from pencilbox and this one from J.K.). In the end, however, an editorial touch was used to streamline the many great comments into hopefully a pretty funny list. So without further ado, the Boing Boing community presents:

    "Chapter Titles from my Unicorn Physics Textbook"

    Newton's Laws
    Quantum Mechanics
    Phototonics (a.k.a. Glitter)
    Horn Topology
    Force Fields
    Thermodynamics (except for the 1st Law)
    Euclidean Vectors
    Total Fucking Awesomeness

  • Thanks for reading and "May the scientific method always be with you."


    Phylomon cards: "EUROPEAN HONEY BEE, I CHOOSE YOU!"

    I had a great experience here at Boing Boing, and want to send on a big thanks to Mark, Cory, Xeni, David, Rob and the rest of the crew for letting me spend some quality time here. I'm also grateful to the many museum folks who let me chat with them, and so graciously showed me their projects. Kudos especially to Bob Bloomfield for the warm welcome and the many discussions on biodiversity advocacy. Hopefully, my posts didn't dilute the overall awesomeness here at Boing Boing, and at the every least, I hope a few more people are interested in Nagoya COP10. Also, it was fun to do my part to increase the Chewbacca quotient (even if only slightly) here at the site.

    With that, I'd like to end with two last requests. Both related to biodiversity: one is kind of worthy, the other a little goofy. One requires folks of the artistic bent, the other maybe a more scientific approach. (more…)

  • Nagoya COP10 Primer #4: with reference to Twitter

    Continuing from:

    Nagoya COP10 Primer #1: with references to Star Wars
    Nagoya COP10

    Primer #2: with a reference to Kevin Bacon

    Nagoya COP10 sidebar: UNFCCC YOU!

    Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

    So what should be done at Nagoya? This is the 20 million species plus question. And for all of the criticism that I've (and others) have proffered, we should appreciate that the task at hand is going to be quite the challenge. If nothing else, this is immediately clear from the often anthrocentric (humans rule the Earth and are just playing our role on the evolutionary front, so deal with it!) commentary left on biodiversity pieces throughout the internet.

    There is a somewhat official Strategic Plan document out there, one that (with a remarkable lack of brevity) highlights 2020 goals and attempts to identify the process and partners to be involved. It's worth a look, although probably best absorbed by taking in the tables shown on page 19 on. It involves a list of some 20 different target statements. Some of which are short, bouncy, although still vague like a twitter tweet:

    1. By 2020, everyone is aware of the value of biodiversity and what steps they can take to protect it.

    Others are more to the point:

    11. By 2020, At least 15% of land and sea areas, including the most critical terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats, have been protected through effectively managed protected areas and/or other means, and integrated into the wider land- and seascape.

    A few establish direct talking points for individual COP members:

    16. By 2020, Each Party has an appropriate, up-to-date, effective and operational national biodiversity strategy, consistent with this Strategic Plan, based on adequate assessment of biodiversity, its value and threats, with responsibilities allocated among sectors, levels of government, and other stakeholders, and coordination mechanisms are in place to ensure implementation of the actions needed.

    And this one, almost works as a haiku:

    3. By 2020
    Subsidies harmful

    to biodiversity

    are eliminat…


  • Art, nature, the history of science, and whoa, aren't these beautiful?


    Plate 73 of the John Reeves Collection of Zoological Drawings from Canton, China, 1774-1856. (© The Natural History Museum, London).

    Reeves was an English tea inspector, but also amassed a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings of plants and animals during his time in Canton.

    A few weeks back, I had a great conversation with Judith Magee, Library Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum. From this conversation, as well as others (thanks Peronel, Martha, Bergit), it soon became clear that there were many individuals within the museum that had a passion for things pertaining to the humanities and the arts (see also this previous post).

    In particular, the museum happens to house a vast collection of illustrations and paintings, many of which were originally produced as a way to scientifically document new species, new cultures, and other things observed during expeditions. However, it's also clear that apart from their historical value, these pieces of artwork also have immense aesthetic value. They. Are. Beautiful.

    And speaking to Judith, you can literally feel the enthusiasm and affection for such pieces. Judith talked to me about writer/artists such as Alexander von Humboldt, John Bartram, as well as the wonderful drawings collected by John Reeves. (more…)

  • Why natural history museum collections rock!

    348916676 551F3Ef390 Z D

    Photo: Tom Goskar. Used with permission.

    So far, it's been a very interesting experience in the month and a bit into my sabbatical at London's Natural History Museum. First off, there was that element of giddiness: coming back to an iconic institution that takes me back to my time as a kid in awe of dinosaurs, blue whales and all the sparkly stuff in the mineral exhibits. Next came, a weird sort of pride – like as if being in the museum's great hall, looking up at the beautiful ceiling, and standing in between a Diplodoccus skeleton and a statue of Darwin, made me feel privileged to be a scientist. I felt as if I was in the best-club-ever: one that carried on the work of so many pioneers whose efforts are housed in this museum. But then a strange feeling of discomfort settled in. This was because the science that goes on here, by and large, is quite foreign to the medically genetic driven projects of my own background. In other words, the bench tops here do not always require pipettemans and overpriced electronics. However, after having had the privilege of meeting some lovely people at the museum and viewing a few of these collections, I've come to really appreciate the importance of biological curation.

    1. The collections serve as the physical and open portal to specimens needed for biodiversity research.

  • Chic apartments for London birds


    Take a look at this art project entitled, "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven"

    In the sought-after London boroughs of Chelsea and Islington, inner city birds often have to claim their nesting space quickly! However, birds that are open to changing their wild ways might be convinced to try out the innovative bird-housing concept developed by the artists at London Fieldworks. The "Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven" opened recently as part of the Secret Garden Project by UP Projectsand hopes to develop into a haven of biodiversity and create a new public awareness of the ecological and cultural value of urban green spaces. (via Inhabitat)

    These look very pretty, although I am curious as to how they fare when the tree moves or when it grows.

    As an added layer of biodiversity speak, there's a bit of irony in the title of the project. Turns out the "Tree of Heaven" or Ailanthus altissima is actually a tree species of much botanical interest in London, and elsewhere in England generally. Essentially, a lot of folks are quite concerned that this ornamental turn invasive species is poised to rocket in numbers. It's one of the fastest growing trees around, it's allelopathic (meaning it produces a chemical that inhibits the growth or other plants), and its seed production capabilities are almost unmatched. In fact, the female tree is capable of producing upwards of 30,000 seeds per kilogram of tree! That would be akin to a small tree as heavy as me (at about 160 pounds), being able to produce 2.2 million seeds!

    Why is this tree a particular interest these days? Well, over the years, climate has been steadily getting warmer and sunnier in England, and given that the Tree of Heaven is shade-intolerant, the extra sunlight is possibly giving the opportunistic tree the small push needed to expand greatly in numbers.

    Anyway, perhaps this means more places for the birds to live?

  • Chewbacca, Han Solo and R2D2 drawn as if part of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh


    Illustrations by James Hance, used with permission.

    I'm surprised I didn't catch this earlier, but James Hance has recently released a series of lovely images. Here, he re-imagines Han Solo as Christopher Robin, Chewbacca as Pooh Bear, R2D2 as Piglet, and even (this is cool) an AT-AT as Eeyore.

    Definitely go to his Cartoon page to see the images in their full glory. Also this just in – James writes:

    The first Wookiee the Chew book gets published today (September 1st) and will be available from either my website or comic stores in Jacksonville. My main hub is at Cafe 331, downtown Jacksonville. I'm there every Saturday with prints, paintings and books.


  • Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

    Screen Shot 2010-08-31 At 7.53.02 Pm-1

    (Continuing on from previous primers: 1. Star Wars | 2. Kevin Bacon)

    O.K. now on to business… Here are the Convention on Biological Diversity's three basic objectives:

    1. The conservation of biological diversity

    2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity

    3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

    They also have – or had rather – a goal, a biodiversity target, which was the following:

    In April 2002, the Parties to the Convention committed themselves to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.

    This was also the reason why 2010 was proclaimed as the International Year of Biodiversity.

  • Can crowdsourcing produce funny humor pieces? The next step

    In case you missed it, here is the set up.

    And from the comments from that previous post, there were many great titles. Some lend themselves more to an essay type humour piece, whereas others were just funny as one-liners. It was tough choosing, but I'm going to go with two titles. One is a tweak, but seems to involve a subject matter near and dear to Boing Boing readers, plus should be good for a funny list (from edthehippie). The other seemed to win the popularity contest, and is definitely a title with great potential and hopefully providing some creative space for folks who like to write a little more than one sentence (from artiefx0).

    Anyway, without further ado, here are the titles!




    Game on! (Note: please use the keyword "unicorn" or "awesome" to let me know which piece your comment is alluding to).

  • Neglected organisms haiku

    A couple years ago The Science Creative Quarterly started asking for phylogenetic haiku: or poetry of the 5-7-5 form that focused on a specific organism. We actually have hundreds of submissions, but haven't had a chance to sit down and present them all as a single collection (one day, we'll get to this, one day).

    Anyway, it's quite striking how in haiku land, it's the "un-cute" that gets the most representation. This is awesome to me, as usually in the world of media, it's the cute and cuddly that tends to win the limelight (dolphins, pandas, baby seals, anyone?).

    So in an effort to continue this trend, why not an open thread where you have a chance to compose a haiku on an organism you're pretty sure has never had the privilege of being set to poetry. The goal here, of course, is that if you google your organism's name as well as the keyword "haiku," it will be this post that will sit on the number one spot.

    Anyway, I'll start:

    Look! Bryozoa!

    Like the Borg, but cellular.

    Small, strange, and pretty.

  • Question: How long would your Ph.D. have taken if everything worked?

    When I meet other scientist types, this can be one of the most interesting questions to throw out there.

    We can use mine as an example. I did my grad studies in Microbiology and Immunology, but basically I was doing biochemistry type work (cancer research with a lot of molecular stuff). It took me just over five years to finish this sucker which is pretty typical in North America. Of course, when I take a critical look at my thesis and calculate: "What if this thesis literally shows all of my work, because everything I did, worked? What if I had magic fingers throughout my research and never had a failed experiment!?"

    Using this rubric, I calculate that my Ph.D. in biochemistry/molecular biology type work could've taken about, DUM-DUM-DUM…

     Dnghub Wp-Content Uploads 2010 08 6Months

    Note that this figure also includes the 3 months needed to write the damn thesis itself! This means that technically my thesis is reflective of only 3 months of successful experiments: or as I like to think of it — four and a half years of failed experiments!

  • Hail the mighty microbe! Bacteria on hand at the Deepwater

    Just so that we don't forget that in the area of biodiversity, microbes do indeed rule the Earth, Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science does a great job of reporting on a recent study looking at the Gulf and its ever changing bacterial community.

    In the Gulf of Mexico, nature's janitors are hard at work, mopping up the aftermath of a man-made disaster. On 20 April, 2010, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig unleashed the largest oil spill in US history. Now, a team of American scientists led by Terry Hazen have shown that just a month or so after the incident, a microscopic clean-up crew had already started to digest the mess.

    The ocean is home to many groups of bacteria that can break down the chemicals found in crude oil. Some, like Alcanivorax, are oil-eating specialists that are usually found in low numbers, only to bloom when oil spills provide them with a sudden banquet. That's exactly what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Hazen has found that these oil-eaters have swelled in number in the contaminated waters.

    Oil Eating Bacteria Have Started to Clean the Deepwater Horizon Spill