Homophily

While in the car today I caught a few minutes of Naturebang on BBC Radio 4. This episode explored the link between Starlings and Social Networks.

I learned that when starling murmurations, or the swirling patters they make when flying in synchrony, were modelled they discovered that groups of seven birds control all of the crowds movements. One bird moves, taking with it the six birds close by, and they take the six around them, until all of the birds move together.

It’s all beautifully and elegant when seen in birds. Not so when translated into humans and our social networks. In humans this “tendency for people to seek out or be attracted to those who are similar to themselves” is called homophily. It’s also what causes the echo chamber myopia you get on social media. We all do it. Follow people we agree with. Repost things that reflect our opinions. I’m going to say it’s one part of the many things that’s contributed to political tribalism. Those with similar ideologies only interacting with others of a similar ideology. It’s probably why polling doesn’t work anymore. I’m sure the causes of the current political malaise are more complicated, and it’s a mistake to reduce things in this way, but as someone from Oakham once said, “the simplest solution is most likely the right one.” Beware, the way birds move together, might mirror how we coagulate on social media.

The Conversation: Guillaume Thierry: Lab-grown mini brains

I am both fascinated and horrified by this story. It definitely falls into the category of, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And transplanting lab grown brains into animals is disgusting. It’s one thing to conduct experiments on tissue, it’s another to put that tissue into another living thing. That is both unethical and cruel.

I realise no amount of legislation or control will stop some motivated party exploring the many potentials of the technology. Perhaps they should also consider the possibility that lab grown brains might play a part in the Singularity.

For those who don’t know the Singularity is the point at which “technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.”

The unfathomable changes could bring some kind of utopia. They could also bring judgment day, and Terminators dispatched to destroy us.

It’s sobering to think science fact is accelerating past science fiction.

The Atlantic: Ed Yong: Spiders Can Fly Hundreds of Miles Using Electricity

This is a really interesting piece of science, that started the what-ifs in my head going.

I don’t think it’s enough to be a film, unless it’s some kind of superhero movie. It makes me think Magneto-Spider-Man. What if Magneto was female and has an affair with Spider-Man, and they had a child. It could be the child’s genesis story.

If expanded out I can imagine a world populated by warring clans of superheroes, the magnetics and the spiders. A spider finds love in the arms of a magnetic, Capulet versus Montague style.

Alternatively it would make a great piece on a science programme or one of those Be Amazed style videos.

NowThis: Scientists are reading this ancient document without having to open it or even touch it

This is definitely a great subject for a documentary. The only thing I would say is we need to find something explosive. The technique is fascinating, but it needs to offer an insight into a document that changes our understanding of the world.

[We should build Moon Base Alpha] The Conversation: Matteo Ceriotti: Wandering Earth: rocket scientist explains how we could move our planet

The science in this article is interesting, but Mr. Ceriotti leaves the best for last. If there’s any human life on Earth when the sun starts to expand, the best thing we can do is move the entire population of the planet to Mars. I much prefer the idea of moving us all to the moon. That way we’ll be floating through space like the team of Moon Base Alpha in Space: 1999.

[First they came…] The Guardian: Damian Carrington: Humanity must save insects to save ourselves

This is another in a long line of stories warning that our actions are causing an extinction level event. People are slowly waking up to the facts, but a large proportion remain silent, either wilfully ignorant, or openly hostile to the idea that our behaviours need to change.

For some reason this makes me think of Martin Niemoller, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany, and critic of Adolf Hitler. He spent several years in a Nazi concentration camp, and after the war believed Germans had been complicit, through their silence, in Nazi atrocities. He wrote this very famous speech.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I don’t think our crisis is quite as linear as Mr Niemoller’s. It’s more of a cascade, that gets exponentially worse with every pound of material extracted from the planet. Our complicity in our own destruction might be described like this.

First they destroyed an insect, and I did nothing – I was not an insect.
Then they destroyed an amphibian, and I did nothing – I was not an amphibian.
Then they destroyed a reptile, and I did nothing – I was not a reptile.
Then they destroyed a fish, a bird, and a mammal, and I did nothing – I was none of those things.
But that was not enough.
They kept on killing.
Killing more.
On more.
More.
On.
Until they destroyed all of the insects. And still I did nothing – because they are a pest.
And more.
On.
Until they destroyed all of the amphibians. And still I did nothing – because they were in the way.
And more.
On.
Until they destroyed all of the reptiles. And still I did nothing – because they are on my land.
And more.
On.
Until they destroyed all of the fish, and all of the birds, and all of the mammals.
And still I did nothing.
And more.
On.
Because there was nothing left.

This is more of a word game than some lofty attempt at poetry. But unless we do something to stop our current trajectory there will be nothing left. The earth will survive but we will not.

[There’s a film in there somewhere.] Time: Amy Gunia: Deadly Swine Fever Is Ravaging China’s Pork Industry, and It May Be Spreading

There are many things from Ms Gunia’s story that could be expanded into a film. The first is the scale of China’s pork consumption. How much environmental damage is that causing? Not to mention the amount of suffering involved in rearing and then killing so many animals? Both of those element are interesting but I can’t see them as anything more than background to another story. The one thing that really jumped out at me is that African Swine Fever is a virus with no cure. There’s definitely story in that. The most obvious is a plot in which this incurable virus mutates, jumps the species barrier, and starts to infect humans? Steven Soderberg’s 2011 film Contagion ploughed a similar furrow. We follow a government agency as they try to stop the spread of the ensuing pandemic. This movie stops short of the apocalyptic outcome of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1980 film Fukkatsu no hi (Virus), in which most human life is wiped out. That story follows a small group, surviving in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, as they also try to find a cure. The story that I find more interesting is one that follows survivors in the aftermath of the pandemic. With the trappings of civilisation gone, what do we become. I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam. A plague has killed most of the worlds population. A small group of survivors try to rebuild civilisation alongside Crakers, a species of post-humans, bioengineered to survive the plague. There is something in the existence of human and post-human at the same time, an inherent conflict between nature and nurture, instinct and conditioning. I have an opening in mind. A small group of survivors fleeing though the wasteland of a city, chased by a group bioengineered for life in this harsh new world. Why are they being chased? How will they survive? They characterise their post-human pursuers as a pack of animals. They are being hunted like wolves chase an Elke. There are all kinds of opportunities for action, and horrific scares. Everything funnels towards a huge reversal. We find out that the group of survivors were actually a hunting party. They stalked the post-human species, and killed one for food. The post-humans are simply trying to drive these predators from their territory.

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The Guardian: Agence France-Presse: Cocaine found in all shrimp tested in rural UK county

This is both very concerning and extremely funny. It tells me that those responsible for water purification are allowing contaminated water into the environment. I can see the internet going bonkers over the idea that people will be able to get high eating shrimp.

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