Thursday, 15 April 2010

In thrall to the machines: Or how to open a packet of biscuits

It says 'Tear here' so I gently pull the red strip, ripping a ragged diagonal line in completely the wrong place. More pulling and the shiny material shreds into a dozen thin strips, dislodging crumbs. A bit more and the top third suddenly rips off the packet, causing biscuits to cascade into the tin. So much for following the instructions. Then why did I tear here? Because it told me to, along with all the 'Lift this flap', 'Open other end' and numerous additional petty directives that rule the lives of us consumers.

Einstein has been quoted as saying "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." I'm not sure that this wasn't his response to nuclear weapons and Mutually Assured Destruction, but are we as some commentators suggest in danger of becoming a variant of the degenerative, docile Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine? From birth we are brought up to obey a myriad of procedures that give the appearance of improving our quality of life but have their rationale in manufacturing efficiency and the corporate balance sheet, locking us into a sophisticated socioeconomic profile that overrides individualism. Until the machines we increasingly rely upon achieve a much more sophisticated level of communication, are we are instead instructed to think in machine-like ways to achieve a viable interface? If so, at what cost to fundamental human traits such as initiative? Essentially, were the blank-faced bureaucrats of 2001: A Space Odyssey a more accurate prediction than Arthur C. Clarke's technophiliac Profiles of the Future?

Lest I sound like a socialist luddite, I have to admit to both utilising and enjoying much of the digital technology on offer, but as a means to an end, not an end in itself. And I only go so far - no Bluetooth headset for me! But then I also don't have a Wii, Playstation, DS, wall-mounted flatscreen television, Blueray DVD…yet I don't think I'm missing out on anything. But then I also don't consider it necessary to spend my time on public transport telling friends over the phone that yes, I'm on public transport!

The gee-whiz factor of bigger, faster and louder associated with the macho 'hard' technology of industrialisation has been largely superceded by digital and virtual technology that appeals to both genders. The irony is that whilst the latter is alleged to promote empowerment of the individual, we are in many ways just as subservient to the manufacturing corporations as ever. Where and when devices and software become available are driven by economic factors such as long-term release cycles, meaning upgrades appear staggered over a year or so rather than clumped together in a single update. So far this has done little to abate the enthusiasm for digital communications, entertainment, and navigation technology, despite the impact on consumer debt and the enormous amount of time spent continually learning how to use it all. (I'm not a violent man, but in my opinion most instruction manual authors should be strangled at birth).

But then it is astonishing how fast items such as mobile phones have been taken up by the general public for leisure use, much to the surprise of manufacturers who initially assumed a business-orientated user model. The proliferation of non-core functions has shown that most people find it easy to assimilate cutting edge technology, despite remaining as in the dark as ever regarding the varied theoretical and practical underpinnings. Surely there must be a danger in increasingly placing more and more of our daily lives in the hands of the few who sell us the hardware and software, whilst having no idea how any of it works?

A major cause for concern, as always, is that this ignorance has allowed the proliferation of scare-mongering stories concerning potential health hazards. As far as I am aware, drivers using mobile phones are in far greater danger than the average user is from the radiation emission, yet the debate continues. And speaking of vehicles, the fallibility of satellite navigation devices has yet to be properly addressed, despite police warnings. Drivers seem frequently to be so subservient to their satnav as to leave all common sense behind, as I found to my cost when an articulated lorry driver followed the directions for a shortcut down my obviously too narrow residential street and promptly wrote my car off. The over-reliance on devices or software can also lead to problems if there is not a non-digital back-up. I remember some years ago visiting a branch of a well-known restaurant chain whose staff utilized electronic ordering pads: due to a software failure they were having to work with old-fashioned pencil and paper, leading to a 45 minute backlog for diners. Clearly, basic arithmetic isn't the only skill to suffer these days!

The fact that extremely fine motor skills are usually essential for effective operation of computer and other interfaces, screen readers not withstanding, is frequently overlooked. This, as much as technophobia, can prove a fundamental stumbling block to the elder generations who are encouraged to join the 'online community' or suffer ostracism. But then however good it may be for someone who is infirm or housebound to have a webcam/Skype or even an internet connection, nothing can wholly substitute for direct face-to-face interaction. Indeed, are today's children growing up lacking (even more) social niceties, having largely replaced personal interaction with digital proxies such as texting and social networking websites? I suppose the proof will be in the next few years when the first wholly-immersed such generation reach adulthood...

The development of Web 2.0 technologies, whereby the internet becomes a two-way interface, is a powerful tool for human interaction and grass-reports campaigning, and certainly one of the best things to come out of the digital revolution. But the sheer speed of the paradigm severely limits error-checking, leading to a vast amount of noise and thus sensory overload and overproduction of information. The slick multi-media presentation of information on the web can appeal far more, especially to children, than the old-fashioned printed word, which can lead to a lack of critical thinking. After all, if it looks pretty and sounds good, then surely it must be true? There have always been errors in text books and science popularisations, but the self-proofing of Web 2.0 material can only be worse by several degrees of error. As yet the delivery technology is far superior to the ability to quality control the content. Whether the ease of access to content outweighs the shortcomings is another area that will no doubt receive a great deal of attention in the next few years, from educationalists and parents alike.

Clearly, the future for humanity lies with a post-industrial society (as per Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave), wherein information and virtual products are at least as important the material world. But with high technology in the hands of powerful multinational corporations and public knowledge largely restricted to front-end user status, we face a serious possibility of losing social and cognitive skills as more aspects of our lives become inextricably bound with the wonderful worlds of electrons and silicon. As for any Second Lifers out there, I'll save virtuality addiction for another time...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Blown away: some weird and wonderful animal defence mechanisms

At a time when environmentalists are calling for farmers to swap cattle for non-ruminant species such as kangaroos in an effort to stem bovine methane emission, a recent report by a leading Argentinean palaeontologist reminds me of Karl Marx's popular axiom "History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce".

The report's theme concerns animal defensive mechanisms, a classic example of truth being infinitely stranger than fiction. Consider for instance the bombardier beetle, an innocuous enough looking insect that when endangered can squirt a boiling liquid from its rear abdomen. Okay, that's only mildly weird. Well what about the several species of frogs and newts that when threatened extrude internal claws or spines by puncturing their own skin? Or the Asian carpenter ants whose soldiers literally self-destruct in the defence of their colony, in the process spraying a sticky poison over their attackers? Surely if anyone needed a good argument against Creationism then this panoply of the bizarre would suit admirably, since it postulates an equally bizarre, not to say warped, sense of humour on behalf of a Creator.

But the news from Argentina may well outshine (if that is the right word) all of the above, not least from the sheer scale of the animals involved. The main players are those undisputed giants of the dinosaur world, the South American titanosauria sauropods of the mid- to late-Cretaceous. Partial remains found over the past twenty years imply species such as Argentinosaurus may have reached lengths of 40 metres, thereby exceeding their better-known Jurassic relatives such as Diplodocus by around 20 per cent.

In 2002 Fernando Calvo, Professor of Natural Sciences at La Salta University in Argentina, became intrigued by sauropod growth patterns and nutrition. Although coprolites (fossilised poo) have not been found for any species of Argentinean titanosaur, the study of microscopic phytoliths, silicified plant fragments, suggest these animals enjoyed a broad plant diet. The notion that Mesozoic vegetation consisted primarily of conifers, cycads, horsetails and ferns has been overturned by recent discoveries of palms and even tall, primitive grasses. Since modern grazers such as cattle can survive solely on such unpromising material, how about titanosaurs?

Calvo and his team began a study to go where no scientists had gone before and assess the potential digestive systems of Argentinosaurus and its relatives. One of the luxuries of an enormous bulk is being able to subsist on nutritionally-poor foodstuffs, a case of sheer quantity over quality. The La Salta group hypothesised that their native sauropods were amongst the most efficient of digesters just because of their size: by the time plant material had worked its way through such a large digestive tract most of the nutrients would be absorbed, no doubt aided by gastroliths, literally stomach stones deliberately swallowed to help churn the material.

The preliminary report was published in March last year and quickly became notorious in palaeontological circles. For there was no delicate way of describing the findings: the titanosaurs would easily top the Guinness Book of Records' list of “World's Greatest Farters”. Whilst sauropods did not have the multiple stomach arrangements of modern ruminants the hypothesis was clear: titanosaur herds would have been surrounded by an omnipresent cloud of methane.

For Calvo, the next step came several months later when a tip-off from a farmer in Chubut led to an astonishing series of finds. The site, whose exact location remains secret, revealed the semi-articulated fragments from a tight-knit group of three predatory Giganotosaurus and approximately 15 per cent of the skeleton of a single, adult Argentinosaurus. Team member Jose Chiappe led the extraction work on the latter colossus and postulated that it had died slowly, perhaps due to blood loss following an attack.

What were far more intriguing were the positions of the attackers: all three had a slumped, head-down attitude, implying sudden collapse and virtually instantaneous death. Calvo found himself asking the obvious: how could they have died? Whereas a Diplodocus tail was well-formed for use as a whip, it was a much more gracile animal than its Cretaceous counterparts. The larger bulk of Argentinosaurus didn't bode well for a fast reaction: by the time a titanosaur had noticed the approach of a Giganotosaurus it would have had precious few seconds to position its tail for a whiplash response. Then Chiappe remembered an Early Cretaceous site in Liaoning Province, China, where animals had died of suffocation due to volcanic gases.

The resemblance in the post-mortem postures of the Giganotosaurus led to an incredible but as yet unpublished hypothesis: if correctly positioned, a frightened titanosaur could have defended itself by the simple expedient of raising its tail and expelling gaseous waste directly into the conveniently-placed head of an oncoming predator. An initial calculation based on scaling up from modern animals suggested an adult titanosaur could have produced about one tonne of methane per week. Computer simulations suggest a sustained five-second burst at close range would have K-O'd an eight-ton Giganotosaurus, and with a brain barely half that of Tyrannosaurus, it's unlikely the predators had the wherewithal to avoid their fate. If only the late Michael Crichton had known this, perhaps he would have written a scene involving an ignominious demise at the rear end of a sauropod for some of the characters in Jurassic Park (Jurassic Fart, anyone?) Or since this occurred in the Cretaceous, in the name of scientific accuracy perhaps that should that be Gone with the Wind?

Technorati Tags: , ,