Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Kilbrittain Whale

I love weird crap. I have loads of holiday photos of my wife looking bemused outside some odd tourist destination. Here is one of my wife outside the udderly brilliant Cork Butter Museum last Sunday.

But last week I think I may have reached the Zenith of weird tourist destinations. This acme of travel strangeness is the Kilbrittain Finn whale. This specimen of the second largest species of whale is mounted in the middle of a town several kilometers inland.

How did it get here? The Channel 4 whale autopsy provides some of the answers about this poor animals beaching in 2009. Three minutes in (or 20 seconds in the video below) you see the frankly unbelievable result of a bad autopsy of a whale. Exploding entrails all over the Denmark beach is the sort of image that stays with you.

What this pathological investigation misses though is the Machiavellian intrigue that lead to this particular resting place for the whale. When it landed in 2009 various locals tried to make off with the 50 ton pile of putrifying Balaenoptera physalus. "Apparently, an attempt was made on Saturday night under cover of darkness to steal the jaws but their bulk proved too much for the perpetrators. "

There are stories of a beach based stand off between the communities of Kilbrittain and Courtmacsherry. "Shortly after it died two men from Courtmacsherry, also known as a drinking village with a fishing problem, approached with a chainsaw. Their plan was to saw off its head and mount the jaw bones in the village. However, they were confronted by Kilbrittain residents who told them they were claiming the carcass." Presumably at some point in these tense negotiations two large groups of adults both armed with heavy machinery both realised that they were fighting for control of several dozen tons of rotting whale carcass.

There is no simile that really can convey the logic here. No metaphor can quite sum up the Irish ability to fight over possession of something that no one would want. But if I had go for one description it would be "like a stand off over 50 tons of festering cetacean".

Now having 'won' the whale, some lads from the local abattoir spent 18 months rendering the stinking baleen bag. This year and a half long job is shown in a frankly horrifying pictographic montage beside the the spoiled beluga that now rests in the middle of Kilbrittain park.

There was a great moment on redneck roundup (as nationwide is known inside RTE) about the whale where one of the guys who spent the lifespan of a hamster hacking at the pile of rancid blubber admits they may have gotten the order of some of the bones wrong.

One thing words cannot convey is the stench coming off this attraction. Some flesh still seems to cling to the head parts resulting in an overpowering odour of death.

It was so bad we could not eat the ice-creams we brought to the park. I advise you to go see the Kilbrittain whale while it still has this stench. There is nothing like the smell of dead whale to make you wonder about what some people will go see/fight over.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Really Old Idea

Sports really annoys me. Particularly at the end when they get boring. When they know they have a minute to go in football they start kicking the ball between them and generally acting the micky. I thought I was dead clever when I thought that they should have random end times of sports. If you do not know when the game will end it is harder to try run down the clock.

Axelrod had the idea of random endings years ago. Many other game theorists have had similar ideas at various times.

Then I heard that random endings have a much longer history. Adapt the new book from Tim Harford explains one really old example. This century IBM got a patent for "a “smooth-finish” auction, an auction that is programmed to end at a random time". This gets over the problem on ebay where at the end of an auction people try not to bid what they value the item at but at just enough to win the auction just before it closes. So instead of people bidding one cent over the current bid with one second left on the auction.

Paul Klemperer pointed out that this idea is quite old. Even though the is a US patent for it.

In a candle auction, the end of the auction is signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid. Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle.

Pepys wrote about such an auction in the 1660's
Auction by candle was known in England by 1641, when it is mentioned in the records of the House of Lords.[6] The practice rapidly became popular, and in 1652, John Milton wrote, "The Council thinks it meet to propose the way of selling by inch of candle, as being the most probable means to procure the true value of the goods."

This 350 years old idea is my current record on simple ideas that someone has beat me to. Hartford's book Adapt is full of these sorts of interesting stories. This extract about the Spitfire gives you a good feel for the book.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Malaria Modeling

There are two very interesting passages in Shah's 'The Fever' that suggest modeling of malaria can have an important role

HIV-positive people are most infective to others when the levels of virus in their bodies are high...Malaria triggers such spikes. Malaria infection, by inducing HIV to replicate, increases the viral load in HIV infected people. According to mathematical models, HIV may be responsible for 980,000 episodes of malaria and malaria responsible for mare than 8,000 Hiv infections in a single district of Kenya. The global effect of the malevolent partnership has yet to be mapped

This paper is the source of this information.

Another interesting point seems to suggest that a scapegoat that is more attractive to mosquitoes than people are.
the greater availability of cow and hog flesh attracted the interest of malaria mosquitoes.Hovering between home and stable ninety-nine out of one hundred times. That bit of anopheline caprice cost Plasmodeum dearly. As cows and sheep sprouted across the English countryside, malaria transmissionground to a halt

Increasing livestock numbers has serious effects on any ecosystem. the pig under the bad scheme should not be promoted without serious analysis. Which leads to a more general problem with complex problems like malaria. I want to talk about these issues in another post. There is an interesting Ted talk on malaria here. A lot of the ideas are impractical which is another reason to talk about practicality later.

Jeffrey Sacks also talks about the important role of livestock that distract mosquitoes in the end of poverty
Another important point is that some types of mosquitoes prefer to bite people, whereas others feed off cattle. Transmitting malaria requires two consecutive human bites: the first for the mosquito to ingest the parasite and the second for the mosquito to infect another person, roughly two weeks later. If the mosquito feeds frequently on cattle rather than on people, the odds are that at least one of the bites, if not both, will be taken from cattle. In India, for example, the predominant type of anopheles tends to bite humans about one third of the time, and cattle the rest. Africa, sadly has another predominating mosquito type which prefers human biting nearly 100 per cent of the time. Mathematically, the chance that an Indian mosquito will feed off two humans in a row is about one in nine, whereas in Africa it's about one in one

While on the subject of development I thought this quote was fascinating Justin Kilcullen head of Troicaire 48:18 in the Frontline 30/05/11 here
"Development aid is what we give to the developing world because we do not give them a decent deal in trade, because we have screwed them on their debts, because the flow of resources...lets change the economic structures that keeps these people poor thats the long term answer". If the head of an aid agency does not think they are the long term answer for development then they are probably not.

For the moment I am going to examine OpenMalaria to see how it can model these issues.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Coding Day Dublin

Can you do anything useful in a day? This is the premise of code day where computer programmers are invited to work with scientists for a day to try solve a real problem the scientists are trying to deal with. "For those unfamiliar with a code retreat, it’s a hack day with a focus, the angle placed solidly on solving interesting technical problems." Hacking here means writing short programs that do something cool.

On the 28th of May I spent a day in the Science gallery trying to create fixes for various small problems. There were about two dozen people there with about a third of the scientists. Declan, Andrea and Qamir who organise loads of these programmers meet ups around Dublin ran the event and helped make it a really friendly atmosphere.

The small projects that seemed to work best involved visualisation. The problem of taking data and presenting it in an interesting way seems just right for a few hours timeframe. Possibly this is because rather than a complex scientific issue all that has to be understood is what sort of information needs to be conveyed.

It is quite difficult to get up to speed on a problem in such a short period of time. I had a really interesting talk with Scrazzl but even understanding their system took so long I felt like I was wasting their time. This meant we spent a lot of time just understanding the basic background of someones research. Treemetrics were also doing some really interesting Operations research work on forest management. It was really interesting to hear what people were working on but perhaps a day that was focused on one theme might allow the coders to read up and get some understanding in advance. Not that I think all such coder days should have a single theme just that it might be interesting to try one that did.

One of the most interesting projects at the day was fight malaria at home. This is a distributed computer project like SETI at home or folding at home. The aim is to test drug molecules against proteins present in malaria to check for potential binds. This could than guide researchers as to what drugs are worth testing in real life. The guys from the project were really friendly and interesting. If you do have knowledge of BOINC or even just want to learn it it would be a great project to help out on.

Instead of just criticising are very fun and worthwhile day I will give an example of the sort of focused task I am talking about.

Something that is big, widespread and multidisciplinary. I am reading The Fever by Shah at the moment which made me think Malaria was one such problem. Off the top of my head diarrhea diseases, political expenses, maths education and are all areas that people from many areas could come together and do some interesting projects/demonstrations over a day on. But malaria is one of those big thorny problems that a hackday about could be really cool. I have a Google Document of possible ideas here

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bad Taxidermy

I have had a frankly morbid interest in taxidermy since I was a child. I particularly like bad taxidermy.

My absolute favorite form of taxidermy is when naturalists in the past attempted to reconstruct animals having never seen them. The weird mistakes they made should make raise serious epistemological questions. If animals we know that are quite similar to ones we see are gotten wrong how wrong are our reconstructions of Dinosaurs? More generally miscontructed taxidermy shows how our our ignorance and presumptions can distort our world.

My competition for the best misconstructed animal is between the Horniman walrus and King Fredericks lion.

With the Horniman walrus naturalist were sent the skin of the animal. Not realising it had wrinkles just kept stuffing the skin until it bloated up like some sort of zeppelin.

And the lion of King Frederick I of Sweden in 1731 where they had no idea what a lion looked like. The reconstruction has these weird old persons false teeth and lolcat eyes.

Paris for some unknown reason has particularly excellent taxidermy using shops

1. Deyrolle on rue du Bac.
2. Aurouze which they used in Ratatouille
3. The catacombs these freaked the bejasus out of me.

While I am on the subject I also recommend 'Stuff the World' a documentary on the world taxidermy championships.

The best crap taxidermy animatronics I have seen. And it is not a big category was in Strontium in Scotland. The wildlife museum there has a tunnel you crawl through where various crap animals on rails roll toward you. Strontium was on our travel list of places elements were discovered but that is a whole other blogpost.

If you also like appalling stuffed dead animals "crappy taxidermy" blog is a goldmine. If you know of any animals stuffed by people who have never seen the animal please post it in the comments

Friday, June 03, 2011

Spongebob New Wave Pants

I was watching Spongebob as usual last Saturday morning and I noticed how most of the characters were modeled on 70's rock musicians. Elvis Costello is a dead ringer for the eponymous hero and Brian Eno could take the wrap of a Squidwort crime if he ever took part in a line up.

Do you know any other 70's rock star look a likes?