In praise of frogs

I’ve always been interested in frogs, and all the more so recently. This bit of fun is dedicated to (who else?) Miss Piggy:

Why are there so many
Fans of Anurans?
And why do they always hide?
But I must say I share
This batrachian attraction –
The artists, researchers, and me!

Has Wikipedia stabilised?

I have previously blogged about Wikipedia being in trouble. However, revisiting the English Wikipedia statistics page, I see that (at least in purely quantitative terms) the decline of Wikipedia may have halted.

The chart above shows the number of new articles per day on the English Wikipedia. During its first five years, this number grew exponentially, but switched to a linear decline in mid-2007. Recently that decline seems to have halted, with an average of 866 new articles per day over the past two and a half years (see here for examples of recent articles). The statistics on the number of active editors tell a similar story.

Whether Wikipedia’s quality problems have stabilised is another story, of course, but it looks like Wikipedia will not be vanishing any time soon.

Information is Beautiful 2014: Creative Routines

I forgot to cover the 2014 Information is Beautiful Awards on this blog. A particularly nice entry, winning gold in the infographic category, was this fantastic Creative Routines infographic by RJ Andrews of Info We Trust (inspired by the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey).

The image below shows just one entry from the infographic, that of Charles Dickens (midnight is at the top of the circle). Click to see the whole infographic.

Animal Architects by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould: a book review

Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould

The 2007 book Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould explores structures built by animals – nests, cocoons, spiderwebs, beaver dams, and the like.

The hexagonal tubes of a wasp nest

This is an extremely interesting topic, and so I read this book with great interest. Animal Architects is very readable, and provides good information on spiders and insects – especially social insects like wasps, ants, bees, and termites. There is also an extensive discussion of how birds build nests and bowers.

The mud nest of the American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

I found the discussion of bird nests particularly interesting – especially the way in which construction style was linked to taxonomy (p. 181).

The male Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) of northern Australia builds and decorates an elaborate bower (which has no practical utility, but exists only to attract females)

The authors are based in Princeton, New Jersey, but there is a surprisingly large number of references to Australian wildlife (about a dozen mentions). Perhaps this reflects the interesting range of birds and insects living in Australia. Well-known animal architects like the beaver help to round out the overall story.

Beavers survive the winter in lodges like this

However, four things annoyed me about this book. First, there are readings for each chapter, but no specific endnotes. Second, there seemed to be considerable speculation, as to the cognitive mechanisms that might be involved, without any actual evidence being cited. Third, there was no reference to simulation studies. In many cases, the only way to tell whether simple programmed rules can generate observed behaviour is to program the rules and try it out. The results can be surprising at times (for example, bacteria can home in on chemical concentration gradients, in spite of not being able to sense the direction of such gradients, and not being able to steer). And fourth, some statements seemed rather debatable. For example, many biologists would disagree with the claim that “the [wasp] builder needs to know where she is in the overall structure under construction, and what needs to be built there” (p. 88) – arguing instead for stigmergy as the key mechanism. There is also the rather odd statement that “human speech has fewer than three dozen consonants” (p. 273). In fact, there are more than this just in Hindi, and far more in the IPA.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.

Animal Architects by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould: 3 stars

Vanuatu update

The Red Cross has produced this damage assessment map for Vanuatu (click to zoom):

The photos below show aid arriving – delivering aid from Australia (below left, photo: Australian Defence Force) and Vanuatu Mobile Force soldiers loading UNICEF aid (below right, photo: Graham Crumb of Humans of Vanuatu). Much more is still needed, of course.

Please help Vanuatu

The island nation of Vanuatu (above, left) has been in the news because of the terrible damage caused by Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam. The capital, Port Vila, was hard hit (see the photo below by Graham Crumb of Humans of Vanuatu), and some islands (such as Erromango and Tanna) were utterly devastated. The right-hand side of the map above shows the track of the cyclone, with the strongest (Category 5) period shown in red.

The people on the devastated islands desperately need water, food, and shelter. The international community is helping out, but donate if you can. Please: there are many donation options.

However, as the cyclone track above suggests, the large island of Espiritu Santo came through the cyclone comparatively unscathed. The people there, strangely enough, need tourists. Tourists are their livelihood, and tourism is also the engine of Vanuatu’s national economy. So you can also support the nation of Vanuatu by taking a holiday there. The beaches and the diving are, they tell me, great, and the brave people of Vanuatu will become more than just faces on the television. To quote a message from one of the locals on Espiritu Santo:

Thank you everyone for your kind thoughts and wishes sent during this very sad time in Vanuatu. Santo has been blessed, Cyclone Pam has passed by the Island of Santo causing only minor damage. We have clean water, power and plenty of food. We also have travelers waiting to return to their countries as soon as possible. ALL RESORTS AND BUSINESSES ARE OPERATING AS NORMAL.

As of today we still have no communications. Turtle Bay Resorts satellite system is being used by the community to send out emails and to keep up with information on Port Vila’s terrible situation. The business community of Santo is terribly concerned of the warnings for travelers to cancel their travel plans to Vanuatu. The media of course is reporting the situation in Vila but this is not Santo. If our Island can keep receiving the visitors, businesses in Santo will survive the crisis situation in the months to come. This in turn will support many local people who will be able to support their families in Port Vila to rebuild their lives. No tourism and our Vanuatu economy will suffer greatly.