The breathing (middle) Earth

Winter is coming. It’s not only the fans of Game of Thrones who know it. The first leaves are starting to fall from the trees as we enter the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. “To every thing there is a season…” according to Ecclesiastes, but John Nelson has put it even more eloquently in his animated GIF called “The Breathing Earth” shown above.

Constructed from a series of cloud-free satellite images from NASA, it shows the ebb and flow of snow cover and vegetation as the seasons pass. It beautifully illustrates the climatic rhythm of the world; the earth as a beating heart.

As you watch the snow line advance and retreat, one striking fact becomes clear. The United Kingdom is extremely fortunate as regards to its weather. Yes, it’s true. Look at the top part of the image. Despite a reputation as a land in which everyone constantly moans about the weather, in fact the UK has it good. Look how far down the snow line comes in winter elsewhere. It reaches all the way to places like Colorado, Turkey and Afghanistan, all more than thousand kilometres further south. Meanwhile, the British Isles remain remarkably warm thanks to the Gulf Stream.

The fact that there is a Gulf Stream should not be a surprise, since every school child knows that. But this animated map demonstrates its effect and gets the point across very efficiently. If you consider the different means of communicating information such as speech, the written word, numbers or pictures there is a clear hierarchy of efficiency when it comes to delivering facts. As the old adage has it, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Let’s consider speech first. The spoken word is very good at communicating emotional content. Vocal inflections help the listener to interpret the message and gauge, for example, the self-confidence of the speaker or the intended level of sarcasm or humour. In contrast, emails lack this. That is why it’s always a mistake to send an email in the heat of the moment. It is likely to be misinterpreted. But other than for emotional communication, the spoken word is very inefficient.

Proof? Here are two examples. First, on a presentation training course you are always told never to hand out your power point pitch in paper form at the beginning of the meeting. Why? Because the audience will then read it and race ahead of you when they are bored. Actually, this has always struck me as bad advice. Surely it’s more important to make sure your audience is not bored rather than deliberately keep them in a state of somnolent stupefaction. The main point is that they can read it faster than you can speak it. The written word is therefore more efficient at delivering information speedily than the spoken word. And they want it fast.

The second example involves a regular fixture of the winter calendar – a Peter Jackson movie about hobbits. When he made the Lord of The Rings, Peter Jackson condensed the original text of half a million words into three films, each of which lasted around two and a half hours. But when he proposed to turn the Hobbit, a slim book for children of less than 100,000 words, into a trilogy of films of a similar length there was uproar amongst the critics. Surely this was just a cynical marketing move. By stretching out the meagre source material to sell tickets for three separate trips to the cinema, he was clearly slicing the salami far too thin.

In fact, if you crunch the numbers you will find out that this is not true. If you were to read the Hobbit out aloud, it would take just over 11 hours. At least, that is the length of the unabridged audio book. Three movies at, say, 3 hours each for the extended DVD versions, would clock in at 9 hours. By that arithmetic, he could probably get away with making it into four movies. Coming back to our main point, it is further evidence that the spoken word is not a very efficient way of transmitting information.

The written word trumps the spoken word when it comes to speed of delivery. Taking the national average reading speed of 300 words a minute, it would take 5.5 hours to read the Hobbit, from cover to cover, in one sitting. In other words, it is twice as fast as reading it out aloud. But even the written word is much less efficient than pictures. If you want to know what happens in the Hobbit, then the plot can be summarised in just one diagram, such as the one below.


No one would suggest that the fun of reading one of the classics of children’s fiction can be replicated by a glance at simple map but, leaving aside the rich descriptions, characterisations and interwoven story arcs of that imaginary world, it does at least present the bare facts of the story in a quickly digestible form. In a world where time is of the essence, text is being gradually replaced by infographics because pictures and numbers get the story across quicker. Web gurus often tell you that ‘pictures are the new text’. Nowadays, having the time to read is a luxury – something you do on holiday to relax.



Is it Gneiss? Or is it Schist?

I did a spot of time travelling this morning. In physical terms, the distance I travelled was about 40 miles, but it turns out I actually travelled 130 million years in time…geological time, that is.

It was my morning commute. Normally a depressingly bland rail journey from Tunbridge Wells to Central London but this morning I saw it with new eyes. The train line cuts right through the Weald of Kent, known as the Garden of England but also home to a sequence of rock formations that is so diverse it helped found the science of Geology in the 19th century.



These rocks were laid down in the Cretaceous era, just after the age of reptiles in the Jurassic and just before the age of mammals in the Paleogene. Alternating layers of clay and sandstone were deposited in turn and then topped off with a layer of chalk built up from the tiny calcified skeletons of marine microorganisms.

This perfect layer cake of sediments was then disrupted by the Alpine Orogeny. The continents of Africa and India, drifting slowly northwards, collided with the Eurasian tectonic plate and threw up a series of spectacular mountain ranges as a result: the Alps, the Himalayas, the High Pamirs and the heavenly Tian Shan that look down upon the Silk Route in Western China. In addition, the pressures of this continental collision also caused the Wealden rocks to buckle upwards so a flat plain became an enormous chalk topped dome which would have been one and a half kilometers high, or roughly the height of Ben Nevis.




Ben Nevis is made of hard granite, but this chalk dome was easily eroded. After 70m years of wind and weathering, all that is left of its original majesty is the outcrops of the North Downs and the South Downs and the famous white Cliffs of Dover. So to travel across the face of the Weald is to travel in time across the striations of a chronological sequence of exposed rocks; from the 135 million year old Tunbridge Wells sandstone, through the 70m year old North Downs to the relatively recent alluvial mud of the Thames at London.



If you run your fingers over the local sandstone blocks of the station building in Tunbridge Wells, you are touching the ancient past; a tactile time tunnel to 135 million years ago. If you half close your eyes and open your imagination, you can summon up a vision of a dozen semi-evolved scaly reptiles blinking in the weak sun of a Cretaceous dawn. Not so different, in fact, from the morning commuters on the platform today…


How you see a landscape depends upon your training; you see what you are trained to see. To a geologist, the train trip from Tunbridge Wells to London is a trip through the Cretaceous Era. Scanning the rock formations, he is the one who can distinguish between what is gneiss and what is schist. A painter looking at a sunlit valley may see an exquisite balance of colour, light and shade. A military commander, looking at the same valley, may see ridges to shield advancing infantry and escarpments for setting gun emplacements. It all depends on your frame of mind and what you have been taught.

Half empty? Half Full?



To some, the glass is half empty. To others, the glass is half full. But to an engineer, the glass is clearly the wrong size for the job; it’s twice the size that it needs to be.

The two cardinal sins in the engineering world are over specifying and under specifying. If you are building a bridge you clearly don’t want it to fall down. That would be a disaster. But at the same time, building the whole thing out of needlessly expensive materials, say titanium and diamonds, would also be bad engineering. The skill lies in properly specifying the materials so that it is only as strong as it needs to be; that’s good engineering.

Those were the thoughts that were running through my head when I stopped off at the Berners Tavern just off Oxford Street last week, purely for work purposes of course. When you first walk in to the bar you are confronted with a striking vista of opulence and taste. My iPhone snap below does not really do it justice, but it will give you a feel of what I am talking about.



Now look at the barman a bit more closely. See how tall he is? Now look back at the shelves. See how tall they are? Then it strikes you. There is something very wrong here. How on earth does he manage to reach the ones on the top shelf? Pondering this mystery was spoiling my enjoyment of my fine scotch (Talisker on the rocks, since you are asking, and yes, it was already half empty). So, in the end, I had to go up and ask him straight out ”How do you reach the bottles on the top shelf? ”

The answer was…he doesn’t use them at all. They are too high up and just there for show. If you look carefully at the photograph you can see that the bottles on the bottom three shelves are very crowded together and the ones on the higher shelves are more spaced out. That’s the tell tale sign that only the bottom three shelves, the ones within reach, are actually used.

The same is true of software products. A lot of commercial software has features that customers never bother to use. Microsoft Office is a good case in point. The majority of employees only use 15% of the word-processing and layout features available in Microsoft Word, and use Excel only for viewing spreadsheets rather than making them. Such software is often called ‘bloatware’ because it takes up an unnecessary amount of space on your PC. Microsoft Office Home Edition, the most stripped down version, takes up 3GB of disk space while competing products can provide 80% of the functionality with only 250MB. In other words, Microsoft Office is 12 times bigger than it needs to be.Tim was looking at mens titanium wedding rings while drunk last night. He probably fancied one of the ladies that we met while shopping and drunkenly dreamt of marrying them. What an eventful night coming out of that guy. His morning ritual was just as eventful.

Think of it this way. If you were venturing off into the unknown you might think that a Swiss Army Penknife would be a useful bit of kit. But, sooner or later, you would notice that you only ever use the knife. You have never used the fish scaler or the nail file and you are not even sure what the marlinspike is for. It is even worse when you know in advance what job you are trying to do. A surgeon needs a scalpel. To a professional like him, a swiss army knife is next to useless.

Hay Fever



It’s raining DNA outside. It’s also a bright summers day without a cloud in the sky. I am walking through the park on the way to work smelling the intoxicatingly sweet odour of the pollen drifting from the small-leaved lime trees that line the path. Bad news for hay fever sufferers. The pollen count in London is reaching a record high as trees and grasses throughout the Kingdom billow forth their genetic material to the wind.

This fecund explosion of pollen seems so wasteful. Only a tiny amount of this genetic material will end up in its intended place, fertilising the pistils of their flowering counterparts. Moreover, many plants can reproduce asexually by putting out runners, rhizomes and root suckers. Others, like the dandelion, can even produce seeds asexually. When you blow a dandelion ‘clock’, the hundreds of little white feathery parachutes that float on the wind are all genetically identical clones. Unlike pollen, each of these seeds can form a new plant all on its own. This leads many biologists to ponder the question “Why bother with sexual reproduction at all ?”

On the surface, asexual reproduction has a lot going for it. A large number of offspring can be created very rapidly and an exact copy of the genes is passed on which is good news from the individual’s perspective. It takes far less time and energy; no need for elaborate courtship rituals, no peacocks fantail and no deer antlers. But despite these advantages, sexual reproduction is still favoured by nature and the dominant form of propagation on the planet. I have tried explaining to my teenage daughters that sex is an unnecessary waste of time, but they don’t really believe me and still seem to be surrounded by eager looking boys.

The biologist’s answer to why sex is important is sometimes called the ‘Red Queen Hypothesis’. In the late 1970s, W.D.Hamilton demonstrated this with a computer model of artificial life. His simulation started with 200 digital ‘creatures’; some of these reproduced asexually by cloning, others were forced to search for a mate before replicating. These creatures were killed off randomly but, after 100 generations or so, the only ones left were all asexual reproducers. A clear demonstration that cloning beats sex. However, Hamilton then changed the rules and ran the game again, this time introducing viruses that infected the creatures causing them to die. This made a significant difference to the outcome. In fact, the simulation produced a completely opposite result. This time the sexual reproducers won because their greater genetic diversity gave them resistance to viral attack.

In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen has to keep running in order to stand still. So Hamilton called his explanation for sex the ‘Red Queen Hypothesis’. He saw life as a constant struggle between organisms and viruses, each one evolving to counteract the other so, in effect, they were running to stand still. Clones, being genetically identical, are highly vulnerable to viruses. In contrast, organisms that reproduce sexually shuffle their genes in each generation which gives them the diversity to withstand viral attack.

If you go for a walk in the countryside this weekend, have a closer look at the hedgerows and you may see another demonstration of this concept. Neat suburban hedges are made of identical plants, bought from the local garden centre and propagated by cuttings. So a suburban hedge is a row of single species clones. But a hedge in the countryside has a wider variety of species; in fact, you can tell the age of a hedge by the number of different species it contains. This is known as Hooper’s Rule. Count the number of species in a 30 meter stretch and multiply by 100 to get an estimate of its age.



The photo shows the hedge outside my village Church in Chiddingstone. There are five different species in a 30 meter stretch: hawthorne, field maple, yew, oak and blackthorn. This would imply that the hedge is 500 years old, which tallies well with the local historical records. It is also a demonstration that the motto “unity is strength” (see note) is wrong. It should be restated as ‘diversity is strength’ .

The idea that “genetic diversity grants viral resistance” has recently been adopted in a new sphere. Professor Michael Franz at the University of California is looking at ways to introduce a form of genetic diversity into computer application programs. With popular desktop software, like the Windows operating system or the Firefox web browser, every copy installed on a billion of PCs around the world is an identical clone of the master copy. This creates a computing monoculture which is highly vulnerable to attack by viruses, which we have all experienced to a greater or lesser extent. Antivirus software has offered some protection in the past but, as the Economist (24 May 2014) notes, even Symantec (the market leader) recognise that antivirus software is no longer effective and a new approach is needed.

Professor Franz believes the answer lies in changing the way software programs are compiled. Software is written in a high level language, like C++ or Java, but in order to run it needs to be translated into machine code, the binary language that computers understand. This translation process, from high level language to machine code is called compiling. Normally, software engineers want their programs to run as fast as possible so compilers are set to optimise speed. As a crude analogy, it’s bit like asking a translator to convert some text from French to English but to only use a limited English vocabulary with no words longer than five letters.Of course, there are many different ways that a French text could be translated into English; the meaning would be the same but the actual words would be very different once you relax the five letter limit. Likewise, with compiling computer code. Once you are prepared to relax the speed requirement, each compilation can be different from its predecessor. It may run a little slower but it will be a unique instance of that program, different at the binary or “genetic” level from its parent.This ‘multi compiler’ approach has already been tested on the Firefox browser, producing (at least theoretically) a billion different interpretations of the program which are functionally identical but genetically different. When tested against common viruses, they all failed to infect the system and, other than causing the odd crash and reboot, this malware had no effect at all.

This is a promising start and highlights the path to a whole new way of protecting systems from viruses but a commercial implementation is still several years away with plenty of technical issues such as MD5 hashing yet to be resolved. We can also expect that, in time, malware will adapt to this new approach too, as the Red Queen Hypothesis would suggest. In the mean time, the most defence against self-propagating malware is effective and rigorous network monitoring.

We look with hope to the future in anticipation of the multi compiler approach being further developed. There is a neat circularity to this journey. An idea born in Hamilton’s computer simulations of artificial life returns to its roots as a mechanism for defending the computers themselves against viruses. As T.S. Elliot has it in Little Gidding

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we first started
And know that place for the first time…”

Footnote : “Unity is strength” is motto that has been used over the years by a number of different nations including Belgium, Haiti, Bulgaria and Georgia. Looking at this list, which are far from the most powerful or coherent countries on the map, is hard to avoid the conclusion that the motto was fundamentally flawed.

Sonic animation test

AlienI’m currently working in Singapore with a tech startup called Sonoport. Here is my first sonic animation using the alpha version of the Sonic Animator – check out and have a play with the Studio.
Click on the link below and then move your cursor over the picture until it turns into a little finger icon – then click repeatedly …with your sound turned on!