This is my last column for the time being: from today, I’m taking a year’s sabbatical.
Writing in this space is the most gratifying job I’ve ever had, but also the toughest. It’s like owning a pet dragon: I feel lucky to have it, but it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals . . . and if something goes wrong, there’s a substantial risk of being blasted by fire. And so, to ensure a supply of good meat in the future, I’m taking some time off. Part of this is to work on a book project. But I will also be reading, reflecting, and replenishing my stash of ideas.
Which brings me to the subject of this column. This week, as it is the last, I thought I’d write more personally, about how I put these pieces together — and where the ideas come from.
For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once.
So it’s important to catch them when they do appear: to that end, I have a list. It’s not well-organized — my desk is littered with scraps of paper and post-it notes, covered in scrawls like:
• Seven amusing things to do with bacteria? • Funny methods? Find paper where scientist dressed as a moose. Also tickling paper — tickle 7 orangutans, 5 gorillas, 4 chimps . . . • Do sexually transmitted diseases increase sex drive? • Oxytocin and diplomacy • Painting the planet • Taking names
To elaborate on the last four: some parasites are known to alter the behavior of the host so as to increase their own transmission. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, spends most of its time in rats and cats, and needs to get from one to the other. Infected rats, instead of avoiding places that smell of cat urine, show a foolhardy attraction to them — which presumably makes the rats more likely to be captured and eaten, thus allowing the parasite to return to the body of a cat. Since organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases can only spread if those who are infected copulate with new partners, you might therefore expect they would evolve to enhance their host’s desire for new sexual encounters. Testing this in humans is problematic. But it could be looked at in other animals. Indeed, there is tentative evidence that insects are sometimes victims of such manipulation.
On oxytocin. This is a hormone that, when given as a nasal spray, has been shown to increase trust; at one point I considered arguing that it should be administered to all peace negotiators.
On painting the planet. I was charmed by the recent discovery that the colors of dinosaur feathers can sometimes be discerned from fossils — and by the thought that with this knowledge we can start to give real color to the planet’s past. Also, working from what we know of how today’s birds and lizards see the world, we can infer how the world might have looked like to a dinosaur.
On names. I have a fat file of disparate name facts. For example: it’s often argued that your name affects your life. It’s been suggested, for example, that girls with “girlie” names tend to be bad at math, apparently because the world expects them to be. Then there’s a set of reports about last names and monogamy — last names are usually inherited from the father, as is the Y chromosome. So names and Y chromosomes will be inherited together — if mothers are faithful to their husbands, and there is no adoption.
The OnLIne Virtual Information Assistant
Also in the file: dolphins are said to have names. Though whether it’s a name (a whistle that other dolphins use to address a given individual) or a personal theme tune (something the animal whistles to announce itself) is not clear. But the real reason I considered writing about all this is that I wanted to gripe about the fate of “Olivia.” It used to be a rare name — which I liked. But it is now among the most popular names for baby girls in England and Wales. It is the name of a pig in a series of children’s books; you can even buy the stuffed toy. And — worst of all — it has become an acronym. Some time ago, I walked into the Imperial College library to see advertisements for “OLIVIA: OnLIne Virtual Information Assistant.” Harumph.
To try and tempt ideas to arrive, I talk to people and I read a lot. I always read the press releases from Nature for example, and I am a regular visitor to Science Daily, a Web site that collects science headlines and press releases. A couple of colleagues reliably alert me to interesting papers, too. All that gives me a sense of what’s out there.
But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.
This is the part I like most. I go to a science database called the ISI Web of Knowledge (this is not an open database, alas; my access is through Imperial College), and I start fishing: I type in key terms — fossil and color; brain and exercise; praying mantis and cannibal — and see what comes up. This gives me a sense of how much is known, and how complex the subject is. And then I begin to read. And read. And follow threads of information — who has referred to this paper? What is the original source of that fact?
Having done this, I let the information percolate. Often it takes me several runs at a subject to create something coherent. A few weeks ago, for example, I published a piece about cuckoos; but that was the fourth time I had tried to write it, and the final version represented a fusion among several different subjects I had been playing with. Perhaps I’ll give the full treatment to one of the related subjects when I come back.
Before I go, I want to say thank you — to everyone who has read the column, commented on it or written to me, whether with enthusiasm, ire, suggestions or questions. I also want to thank the many friends and colleagues who have discussed ideas with me, commented on drafts, improved the rigor and clarity of my thinking, responded to queries and stimulated my imagination.
Above all, however, I want to thank those who, one way or another, have helped me week in, week out. Special thanks to: Thiago Carvalho, Martin Espindola, Nick Franks and the other members of the Biophysics group at Imperial College, Dan Haydon, Elizabeth Jones, Gideon Lichfield, Oliver Morton, Dmitri Petrov and, above all, Jonathan Swire. I owe you guys more than I can say. Thanks.
So, until the next time — goodbye, everybody! And thanks again.
I found the paper where the scientist dresses in a moose suit. See note 12 of Berger, J., Swenson, J. E., and Persson, I.-L. 2001. “Recolonizing carnivores and naïve prey: conservation lessons from Pleistocene extinctions.” Science 291: 1036-1039. The tickling paper was Ross, M. D., Owen, M. J., and Zimmermann, E. 2009. “Reconstructing the evolution of laughter in great apes and humans.” Current Biology 19: 1106-1111.
The extent to which parasites have evolved to manipulate their hosts is controversial. However, reasonably strong evidence exists for Toxoplasma; see, for example, Berdoy, M., Webster, J. P. and Macdonald, D. W. 2000. “Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267: 1591-1594; and Vyas, A. et al. 2007. “Behavioral changes induced by Toxoplasma infection of rodents are highly specific to aversion of cat odors.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 6442-6447. Note that Toxoplasma has also been suggested to cause behavioral changes in humans, perhaps including some cases of schizophrenia — see Yolken, R. H., Dickerson, F. B. and Torrey, E. F. 2009. “Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.” Parasite Immunology 31: 706-715. However, as far as I know, there is no suggestion that any parasite-induced changes in human behavior are an advantage for the parasite. For a review of the evidence, such as it is, that some insects are made more promiscuous by their sexually transmitted diseases, see Knell, R. J. and Webberley, K. M. 2004. “Sexually transmitted diseases of insects: distribution, evolution, ecology and host behaviour.” Biological Reviews 79: 557-581.
For oxytocin increasing trust see, for example, Kosfeld, M. et al. 2005. “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” Nature 435: 673-676.
Inferring dinosaur feather color from fossils has been in the news: see Li, Q. et al. 2010. “Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur.” Science 327: 1369-1372; and Zhang, F. et al. 2010. “Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds.” Nature 463: 1075-1078.
On names. I first read about girls’ names and mathematics in The Guardiannewspaper; I was never able to find the original research. For an overview of research into Y chromosomes and surnames, see King, T. E. and Jobling, M. A. 2009. “What’s in a name? Y chromosomes, surnames and the genetic genealogy revolution.” Trends in Genetics 25: 351-360. For a discussion of dolphin whistles, and whether they are names, see Barton, R. A. 2006. “Animal communication: do dolphins have names?” Current Biology 16: R598-R599. For Olivia being among the most popular names in England and Wales, see here. The series of books about Olivia the Pig are by Ian Falconer. To see what I mean about the acronym, go to the Imperial College library information page and type “online virtual information assistant” (in quotes) into the search box.
On Feb 14, or any other day, don't behave like King Lear
by Frances Ess
Updated 06:07 PM Feb 14, 2012
When I was studying English literature, the Shakespearean play King Lear left an indelible mark in my memory. King Lear demanded that his three daughters declare their love for him publicly before he apportioned his kingdom to them.
The first two daughters did so, but the third refused and accused her two sisters of lying, as they were married, and so how could they claim to love their father above all men?
The king, feeling insecure, failed to realise that his third daughter was the one who truly loved him.
Now, it is the season for lovers to declare their love openly. Some ladies would demand that flowers be sent to the office, so that everyone may see how much she is loved. Some demand a candlelight dinner, with a hotel stay.
Businessmen have usurped Valentine's Day as an occasion to be celebrated with a dozen roses, a diamond ring and even a declaration of one's love in the classified advertisements. I pity the poor gentlemen who have to live up to these ads.
But what is love? Does fulfilling all these expectation demonstrate it? If a lady is confronted with two lovers who both give her flowers, does she choose the one with the bigger bouquet?
If we know the story of King Lear, we would realise that words of love do not equate to love. Similarly, demanding that one's boyfriend fulfill expectations shaped by public relations and ad agencies shows that one does not really understand what love is.
William Blake said it succinctly in his poem, The Clod and the Pebble that "love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself has any care; but for another gives its ease, and builds a heaven in hell's despair".
This Feb 14, perhaps the man may finally see if the woman he loves truly loves him.
Knowing the higher costs of roses, a candlelight dinner and diamond rings, would she release him from this annual torture and be confident enough to tell him that she does not need these to realise that he loves her.
My husband and I have been married for over 23 years, and we realised that every day can be Valentine's Day. We spend at least an hour each day walking around the neighbourhood, free from the demands of daily living and our children.
We are as much in love as we were two decades ago, but the love has mellowed, secure in the knowledge that we have committed ourselves to each other. Best of all, we never behave like King Lear. We just behave like lovers, as it should be.
Flowers, candles and apples adorning the sidewalk outside Mr Jobs' home in Palo Alto, California, on Thursday. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS
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Flowers, candles and apples adorning the sidewalk outside Mr Jobs' home in Palo Alto, California, on Thursday. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS
Mr Jobs, seen at right with his wife Laurene at the Oscars last year, died on Wednesday. -- PHOTOS: REUTERS
NEW YORK: Over the past few months, a steady stream of visitors to Palo Alto, California, called an old friend's home number and asked if he was well enough to see them, perhaps for the last time.
In February, Mr Steve Jobs had learnt that, after years of fighting cancer, his time was becoming shorter. He quietly told a few acquaintances, and they, in turn, whispered to others. And so a pilgrimage began.
The calls trickled in at first. Just a few, then dozens, and in recent weeks, a nearly endless stream of people who wanted a few moments to say goodbye, according to people close to Mr Jobs.
Most were intercepted by his wife Laurene, who would apologetically explain that he was too tired to receive many visitors. Some asked if they might try again the next day. Sorry, she replied. He had only so much energy for farewells.
The man who valued his privacy almost as much as his ability to leave his mark on the world had decided whom he most needed to see before he left.
Mr Jobs spent his final weeks - as he had spent most of his life - in tight control of his choices. He invited a close friend, the physician Dean Ornish, a preventive health advocate, to join him for sushi at one of his favourite restaurants, Jin Sho, in Palo Alto.
He said goodbye to long-time colleagues including venture capitalist John Doerr, Apple board member Bill Campbell and Disney's chief executive Robert Iger. He offered Apple's executives advice on unveiling the iPhone 4S, which took place on Tuesday. He spoke to his biographer Walter Isaacson. He also started a new drug regime.
But, mostly, he spent time with his wife and children - who will now oversee a fortune of at least US$6.5 billion (S$8.4 billion), and take on responsibility for tending to the Jobs legacy. The couple have two daughters, Eve and Erin, and a son, Reed. There is also Lisa, his daughter from a previous relationship.
'Steve made choices,' Dr Ornish said. 'I once asked him if he was glad that he had kids, and he said, 'It's 10,000 times better than anything I've ever done'.
'But for Steve, it was all about living life on his own terms and not wasting a moment with things he didn't think were important.'
Mr Jobs' biographer, whose book will be published in two weeks, asked Mr Jobs why so private a man had consented to the questions of someone writing a book.
'I wanted my kids to know me,' Mr Jobs replied, Mr Isaacson wrote on Thursday in an essay on Time.com.
'I wasn't always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.'
Because of that privacy, little is known yet of what his heirs will do with his wealth. Unlike many prominent business people, Mr Jobs never disclosed plans to give large amounts to charity. His shares in Disney, which he acquired when the entertainment company bought his animated film company Pixar, are worth about US$4.4 billion. That is double the US$2.1 billion value of his shares in Apple, perhaps surprising given he is best known for the computer company he founded.
Mr Jobs' emphasis on secrecy, say acquaintances, led him to shy away from large public donations. At one point, he was asked by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to give a majority of his wealth to philanthropy alongside a number of prominent executives like Mr Gates and Mr Warren Buffett. But Mr Jobs declined, according to a person with direct knowledge of his decision.
Now that he is gone, many people expect that attention will focus on his wife, who has largely avoided the spotlight but is expected to oversee his fortune. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, she worked in investment banking before founding a natural foods company.
She then founded College Track, a programme that pairs disadvantaged students with mentors who help them earn college degrees. That has led to some speculation in the philanthropic community that any large charitable contributions might go to education, although no one outside Mr Jobs' inner circle is thought to know of the plans.
'Steve's concerns these last few weeks were for people who depended on him: the people who worked for him at Apple and his four children and his wife,' said his sister Mona. 'His tone was tenderly apologetic at the end. He felt terrible that he would have to leave us.'
He turned down offers to attend farewell dinners and accept various awards. On the days he was well enough to go to Apple's offices, all he wanted afterwards was to return home and have dinner with his family.
'He was very human,' Dr Ornish said. 'He was so much more of a real person than most people know. That's what made him so great.'
WASHINGTON: For one of the nation's most famous billionaires, Mr Steve Jobs kept a low profile as a charitable donor.
Unlike fellow technology leaders Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he did not sign the Giving Pledge, the effort under which the richest individuals in the United States commit to giving at least half of their wealth to philanthropy.
His name is absent from the list of gifts of US$1 million (S$1.3 million) or more maintained by Indiana University's Centre on Philanthropy.
And it was not until after an unflattering media report about Mr Jobs on the subject that Apple last month initiated a 'matching gifts' programme, under which donations to philanthropic organisations made by employees are matched by the company.
Now what will happen to Mr Jobs' fortune - estimated at US$8.3 billion by Forbes - is a matter of speculation that is provoking discussion about him and the societal obligations of the very rich.
The most recent round of debate began after The New York Times published an unflattering piece in August, saying 'there is no public record of Mr Jobs giving money to charity... Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it'.
Moreover, Mr Jobs had closed Apple's philanthropic programmes when he returned to the firm in 1997 and never reinstated them despite a profit of US$14 billion last year, the Times reported.
'Many other innovative companies have found ways to apply their ingenuity and resources to helping society,' Mr Vincent Stehle, a long-time grant-maker in non-profit technology circles, said on Thursday. 'It was a little disappointing not to see Apple at the table.'
But Mr Jobs' supporters said the bulk of his contributions to society may reside in the quality of and innovation in Apple products. They also pointed out ways that he and Apple have been charitable.
U2 lead singer Bono quickly responded to the Times article, saying: 'Apple's contribution to our fight against Aids in Africa has been invaluable.'
The company had given 'tens of millions of dollars that have transformed the lives of more than two million Africans through HIV testing, treatment and counselling. And Apple's involvement has encouraged other companies to step up,' he wrote.
Mr Jobs' supporters said it also may be impossible to know from public records what he gave away because he could have requested anonymity.
The fact that he does not appear on lists of public giving 'doesn't necessarily mean that he's not giving generously', said Centre on Philanthropy spokesman Adriene Davis.
Mr Jobs' most direct effort at philanthropy was when he set up the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, shortly after he was forced out of Apple in 1985.
To run that, he hired Mr Mark Vermilion to head Apple's community efforts. He wanted the foundation to focus on nutrition and vegetarianism but was tied up building another firm and it shut down.
'He's received a lot of criticism for not giving away tonnes of money,' Mr Vermilion said.
'But I think it's a bum rap. There are only so many hours in a week, and he created so many incredible products. He really contributed to culture and society.'
Mr Mak designed the logo featuring Mr Steve Jobs' silhouette incorporated into an Apple logo. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
HONG KONG: A Hong Kong design student said yesterday that he was overwhelmed and 'flattered' after his sombre logo in tribute to Apple founder Steve Jobs became a worldwide Internet sensation.
The design, featuring Mr Jobs' silhouette incorporated into the bite of a white Apple logo on a black background, has gone viral on the Internet since news of his death on Wednesday.
'I feel so unreal,' Mr Jonathan Mak, a second-year graphic design student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told Agence France-Presse, after he was inundated by hundreds of e-mail and messages on his Twitter account.
'I will consider using any proceeds I make from the copyright for cancer research.'
Hong Kong design student Jonathan Mak
The 19-year-old said he had received queries from newspapers in the United States and Germany about buying the copyright to use his logo and had been offered jobs after it spread like wildfire on the Internet.
'I am flattered by the attention but I would like to focus on my study before taking on any full-time job,' said the bespectacled student, adding that he was trying to cope with his new-found fame.
'I'm quite busy now actually as I'm trying to finish a school project,' he said.
When asked about whether he would be targeting commercial opportunities, Mr Mak said he was considering contacting Apple on copyright issues because his design is based on Apple's own logo.
Some merchandisers have reportedly used his logo for commemorative memorabilia for Mr Jobs such as T-shirts and caps that are being sold on the Internet.
'I will consider using any proceeds I make from the copyright for cancer research, as suggested by some people to me on the Internet,' he said. Mr Jobs died at 56 of pancreatic cancer.
Mr Mak said he first came up with the design after Mr Jobs announced his resignation in late August, but the logo received little attention at the time.
The teenager said the Apple founder had inspired him in his design.
'He was a minimalist, which is the way I would like to emphasise in my design - fewer elements but a powerful message.'
'Steve Jobs strongly believed in his own ideas and continued with his beliefs no matter how people criticised him. He was courageous,' said Mr Mak.