Naturally Destructive

13 05 2020

By and large, I’m a great fan of nature. There are exceptions of course. Not a big supporter of one or two viruses of recent fame and could happily survive in a universe where domestic cats had never evolved. But otherwise – fully paid-up member of the compost bin owners’ society and trying to do my bit for the green revolution.

I have reasonably firm views on GMOs. (Though as a rational person I like to think I’m always open to persuasion). I accept that humans have artificially guided evolution for thousands of years with the selective breeding of dogs, horses, pretty much all domesticated food animals and crops… and garden flowers. Not to mention ourselves through cultural preferences and transient arbitrary ideas of “beauty”.

The key for me though is that each intermediate state from “found in nature” to “final product” was deemed by Mother Nature to be viable and fit to breed the next generation. It might have been a human-guided process, but Mother Nature implicitly gave it her rubber stamp of approval: “fit to breed”.

Technically speaking any human-bred plant or animal is a GMO as it’s genetics were artificially chosen not by the influence of its natural environment but by human hand (though arguably this is increasingly “the environment” in which most things now exist). Selected for better muscle tone, brighter colours, headier scent, etc.

The modern idea of a GMO though includes the much more insidious toolset of directly adjusting genes within an organism – no breeding required. Just a test tube and a lot of PhDs. Though this might be presented as “short-cutting” the process of having to breed and select from all the intermediate stages, it also removed Mother Nature (who unfortunately isn’t a real scientific agency setting the rules) and her veto from the entire process. No longer do we have even the limited checks and balances of “nature” testing whether an intermediate result is “fit to breed”.

Mules are a great example. They were useful beasts of burden, but nature’s given a big thumbs-down to their ability to breed, effectively causing an evolutionary cul-de-sac (or “bag’s bottom” as we say in English). Any dodgy unforeseen side-effects of creating a mule are prevented from being passed to any future generation.

Modern GMOs can go even further though and take genes from a completely different part of the “tree of life” and insert them in an organism that has had no shared relation for the last billion years or so!

Image Source: Wikipedia

I was horrified a few weeks ago to discover that glow-in-the-dark fish are now commonplace in Canadian pet shops. A 2003 article in NATURE was already ringing alarm bells about the risks of “transgenic” release into the wild.

The GloFish® web site states:

“The fluorescent color in GloFish is produced by an inherited fluorescent protein gene that is passed from generation to generation and creates the beautiful fluorescence that can be seen when looking at the fish. The fluorescent protein genes are derived from naturally occurring genes found in marine organisms.”

Image source: GloFish®

Now please don’t me wrong – I have nothing against GloFish®. They found a marketing niche and exploited a loophole in US regulations to sell a legal product. What bothers me philosophically is that there is no “natural” way this fluorescent protein could get from the unidentified marine organisms (which I assume are not fish, otherwise why not say so?) into the tropical fish. Even with the kinkiest fish sex you can imagine. (No – please don’t.)

Once there though, having side-stepped nature’s checks and balances, the gene now gets a free ride and is passed on with the “legitimate” genes to future generations, and potentially into the wild if accidentally released. These other genes were tested as a package at each and every step for viability by nature/evolution for millennia. This direct gene modification is NOT the same as breeding bigger cows or coloured carrots (actually the orange ones are not the natural colour. The others are – blame William of Orange for that). Nature is not configured to stop the unforeseen consequences of genes artificially introduced this way, in the same way as it is to stop mules breeding. It can’t make an intermediate step sterile (or in this case downright non-viable) if it was never even invoked.

Have these people never read Atwood’s Oryx and Crake?!

Now, I realise that this rather gaudy example is just an edge case and more mundane things like the invention of glasses to allow myopics such as myself to function – and live long enough to breed without walking off a cliff – are just as valid an example of humans meddling in what genes get passed on, but at least for the moment we’re not allowing direct gene manipulation for “better” humans. Come the apocalypse (and the end of opticians) nature will undoubtedly have the last laugh. Nature, I’m sure, was the scientific advisor to the awesome film Gattaca.

I sense I’m treading close to eugenics here, so choose to stop with the thought that ALL humans are bad for the Earth, but I’m confident that she’ll figure out how to get rid of us in the end. Even if it’s only to palm us off on her estranged brother Mars.


Image Source: @astrid_kalt

Believe it or not, before I put finger to keyboard this post was supposed to be about “natural weed killer”. Such is the random nature of human thought. I enjoy gardening, but sometimes the tap roots on more persistent weeds make them harder to get rid of reliably.

I discovered a recipe for home-made weedkiller made from common household substances, so am giving it a try. The added bonus was that one ingredient is vinegar, which Mrs E hates with a vengence. This was a convenient way of removing relatively large quantities of rice vinegar from ancient experiments in sushi-making from the cupboard in one go.

I’ll try and remember to post pictures of this particular human’s hypocritical negative impact on nature as represented by the weeds in my back garden.

Business Reopens Its Doors After 53 Days To Find All The Leather Products Molded ‹ Bored Panda

12 05 2020

Got to love nature! It doesn’t care about us, which I suppose shows it’s sentient.

This article from Bored Panda shows what can happen inside a luxury goods shop (admittedly in Malaysia with the A/C turned off) when we’re not getting in the way of the natural way of things.

Within only a few weeks of us forceably cutting back on traffic the air clears, life returns to the previously contaminated waterways of Venice and London and… fungal growths begin to break down luxury goods into compost.

There are theories that evolution really got into top gear once fungus appeared and began the breaking down of useless dead things and returning previously locked in nutrients back into the food chain. Perhaps this in Nature’s way of giving us a message about how high fashion is just so much useless dead material, better served as food for the simple creatures of the world…

Source: Business Reopens Its Doors After 53 Days Of Closure Due To Quarantine Only To Find All Of The Leather Products Molded ‹ Bored Panda ‹ Reader —

It’s Been a While, or “Eine klein Nachtesnonsense”

11 05 2020

It’s been a lot of things actually. “A while” is the least of them. Two years or thereabouts since I deigned to share my neural explosions with you, good reader. As ever, a chain of random yet tenuously related events led me here to this desk, in front of my long-suffering keyboard, to offer a post or so for any remaining follower’s of the Quieter Elephant.

This time it began as a search for fountain pen ink. Lamy (the German pen manufacturer) issued a 2020 special edition colour known as Turmaline, after the complex colours of Tourmaline – the mineral. It’s a turquoise colour this ink, but with a pink sheen when it’s dried. Very fetching.

A review of it can be found here from WonderPens which I recommend if for no other reason than they’re Canadian.

Image source:

So anyway, that led me to a very pleasant morning cleaning a previously problematic fountain pen I’d once mistakenly filled with “dipping ink” (non-aqueous and bad news for fountain pens. Lesson learnt!) Anyway, I then had to test it (good results so far) and wandered off into messing about with some actual dipping pen nibs I have for calligraphy. Trouble there is the nibs are very “scratchy” and really demand good quality paper if one is to avoid making a complete mess.

That in turn led me to dig out my now rarely consulted Moleskine notebook. I adore the silky smooth paper in that. And lo – there I found some snippets of intesely bad poetry and 5½ pages of “things to blog about” dated, well, not, actually. A got better at dating my scribbles in later pages.

I smiled in fond recollection of the megabytes of nonesense I have contributes over the years to the collective digital compost that is “The Internet” and thought – why not? It has indeed been a while! One of the items leapt from the page due to another recent experience – “Klein bottles”. I’d marked it as having been covered, but it turns out to be a passing remark in an early post (2011) which now points to a stale link. (I got better at avoiding those too over the years!) Excuse enough to revisit the subject.

So the Klein link? Well – years ago a science teacher recommended we all watch The Christmas Lectures broadcast from The Royal Institution (Sir Isaac Newton’s baby). Kind of like TED Talks for kids… in the 70s. I was blown away – it was Carl Sagan talking about The Cosmos. Heady stuff for a geeky teenager. (Before I became a geeky adult.)

Random YouTube meanderings took me to a couple of videos by Matt Parker on what is now the Ri channel. He’s an ex-maths teacher from Australia now based in the UK and spending his days popularising mathematics with a splash of stand-up comedy. The lecture on Things to see and hear in the 4th dimension was particularly amusing and culminated in the revelation that Klein Bottles were his favourite shape and the still mind-warping explanation of what that might infer if it was the 3D “shadow” of a 4D object.

Discovered/invented in 1882, the Klein bottle is like a 3D version of a Möbius strip. It has only one surface which is its inside and its outside…

Image Source: Core 77

All pretty geeky stuff. But Matt Parker went the extra kilometer – oh yes he did!

The classic visualisations are typically made of glass, but require specialist skills in glass-blowing to create. What then, if instead of access to a glass-blowing artisan to make you a Klein bottle, you only had access to say – your mum?

Yup – Matt Parker got his mum to knit him a Klein bottle hat, and geeky it most certainly is. But wait – there’s more! He’s not just a geek. He’s a maths geek. Though the Klein bottle hat was a feat of knitting wonder, he finessed it and got his mum to make another, with alternating rows of colour so that they represent the first 47 or so decimal places of Pi. Even the decimal point is represented by a different colour, right on the brim where it folds under.

Matt Parker wearing Klein bottle hat made by his gifted mum. Image source: Ravelry

This, dear reader, is right up here with knitting your own version of Tom Baker’s Dr Who scarf! Not only is his mum a knitting guru but generous with it. If you’d like to make your own the pattern is available free as a PDF via Ravelry.

The DNA Journey

3 07 2016

Would you dare to question who you really are? #LetsOpenOurWorld

Source: The DNA Journey



Who are you? No really – deep inside, who are you really?

I came across some random bit of flotsam (or is it jetsam? I always get the two confused) beached on the edges of the Internet. It was a video of a group of folks in the UK adamantly stating what they believed their heritage to be. After a simple spit sample to test their DNA they were shocked and surprised by the results. The “100%” English, anti-German guy discovered he was 5% German himself, and only 30% “British” (whatever that means these days!). Two people discovered they were actually cousins!

So much of who we think we are is learnt, and not actually real. That’s a good thing, because we can always learn new things, and even occasionally from our past mistakes. We can become something better than what we think we already are.

A guy I once worked with used to rub me up the wrong way almost daily. At a management retreat he mentioned a book he had enjoyed – The Seven Daughters of Eve. It covers much of this ground of common heritage, and I learnt to be more tolerant of him after accepting that we were likely even distantly related. As ultimately, we all are.

Sure this was all a clever marketing stunt for a travel site, but hey – accepting that we are ALL connected can only be a good thing in this age of fracturing states.

Now go and smile at a stranger – the more superficially different from you the better.

Children With Prosthetics Could Soon Be Creating Their Own Lego Attachments

25 07 2015

Losing (or never having) a limb can place one at a huge disadvantage. As a child – adaptable though the little imps invariably are – one can be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to one of the most influential learning processes we humans use… play!

This Lego-compatible prosthetic system from IKO literally allows kids to “hack” their own prosthetic and become part of their toy.

Beyond cool…

More at The Guardian.


Fight stigma and discrimination – be human

27 06 2015

There’s a lot of mistrust and hatred in the world. Don’t be part of it.

Misinformation and “knowing” facts that are actually just plain wrong is the root of prejudice.

This project in Finland by broadcasting company Yle Kioski had a man who was HIV+ asking for the simple human act of being touched. It’s all in Finnish, but pretty much the only word spoken – repeatedly – is “kiitos”, meaning “thank-you”.

A man with HIV asked strangers for some human contact. Their sweet reactions brought him to tears.

A man with HIV asked strangers for some human contact. Their sweet reactions brought him to tears.

The best bit for me is that (more well-educated) mothers are happy to hug the complete stranger, or let their kids do the same. Where would we be, really, without the non-judgemental love that mothers offer?

Do we learn how to be mean?

27 06 2015

This is a neat little experiment from the Japanese Red Cross.

Adults drop their wallets next to kids to see what they will do. It’s a beautiful experiment.

Adults drop their wallets next to kids to see what they will do. It's a beautiful experiment.

It seems that perhaps we really do start out as little angels (one experiment showed a preference for “nice” behaviour as young as 3 months) and learn to be blue meanies later. At least it shows as a species we can learn. Some of us are really good at learning…

Samsung’s ‘Safety Truck’ Shows The Road Ahead On Screen So Drivers Can Pass It | Bored Panda

22 06 2015

Cool marketing idea. Not sure if it will make much impact to road safety on Argentina’s roads though…

Full length advert on the Bored Panda web page below.

Samsung’s ‘Safety Truck’ Shows The Road Ahead On Screen So Drivers Can Pass It | Bored Panda.

Bored Panda: Samsung's Safety Truck

Know The Glow

4 06 2015

Heard about this on the radio this morning. As an employee of Canon, I thought it particularly interesting.

You know that annoying “red eye” you get from flash photography, where the blood vessels in the retina cause a red glow in the eyes of the people you’re photographing? Well… sometimes it’s not red. It can be yellow or white… and that’s usually not a good thing!

Turns out it can be an early diagnostic of several eye problems. Some very serious. Early detection is key to good outcomes from treatment. So – go take some photos of the ones you love!

Here’s a web page for more information: Home – Know The GlowKnow The Glow | Know The GLow.

To give you an idea of what to look out for they also have a gallery of examples.


Cards Against Humanity for women in STEM

31 03 2015

BuzzFeed tells me that the sly wits over at Cards Against Humanity are producing a new add-on pack to help them generate funds for a new scholarship.

If you’ve never played CAH, you really should. It’s a great way to break down barriers between parents and teenagers. Or random strangers at a party. They even do different packs to cater for cultural differences – UK and Canadian variants are available as well as the US one. The insults are the same, but you get a different selection of political and TV personalities to aim them at.

This new scholarship will help fund women in STEM courses. A good thing in itself, but personally I’m not convinced funding is the major reason women are under-represented in the sciences.

Cards Against Humanity’s New Pack Will Pay For Women To Study Science – BuzzFeed News.