Friday, May 1, 2009

Acer Perspire One!

Modern technology

Owes ecology

An apology.

-- Alan M. Eddison---

In light of recent developments with my Acer Aspire One, I think modern technology owes a bit more than an apology to ecology and ecologists like me. To state that I’ve been having problems with my mini laptop (apparently they are called ‘netbooks’) would be like saying that nuclear weapons can kill people.

For the last month, I’ve been walking around in a daze trying to figure out how a three month old laptop can go from hero to villain with speeds that belie its 1Gig RAM. What makes matters worse is that I had recommended it to half a dozen ecologist friends of mine who immediately went ahead and bought it. This post is not just a rant, it’s also a warning to all those who are planning to buy the Aspire One about the potential problems. And I’m not going to give you the regular review shit about how the screen is small, resolution is less and keyboard is cramped.

After purchasing it in December, I was feeling pretty good about its light weight and extreme portability. I was able to carry it around wherever I went in a small backpack and seemed ideal for the life of a travelling ecologist. In the middle of a survey for slow loris in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India I would constantly congratulate myself on the money well spent. I was feeling too smug and I should have seen the writing on the wall right then.

The first signs of trouble started in the most unlikeliest of places. Cherrapunji. It has to be one of the most scenic and pleasant places in India. It’s the kind of place where you don’t really expect anything to go wrong, least of all the lean, mean light machine in your backpack. On the 12th of March it just stopped working. Rebooting was of no use. The screen was dead and although the indicator LED’s came on, the computer display for all practical purposes was dead. 

A few days later I was back in Shillong and frantically searching the Acer forums and discussion groups on the net for a clue. Many people reported it and there didn’t seem to be any solution. The discussion threads died without a satisfactory answer. The only Acer service centre happened to be in Guwahati, a hot dusty hellhole that some people call the gateway to northeast India. Personally I think there couldn’t be a worse advertisement for the northeast than Guwahati. However, that was where I was headed. 

On a hunch, I called up my friend Vivek in Bangalore, the only person to have bought this computer before me. And sure enough, I hit the jackpot. The same thing had happened to him a few weeks back! So what was the solution? Apparently all it needed was a BIOS update which any service centre would be able to provide in 10 minutes. Could it really be that simple? So why hadn’t all these jokers on the forums never said anything about it? This was an important lesson. Never believe all you read in the forums, or rather don’t expect them to solve your problems always. I decided to keep this nugget of information to myself and see what the service centre guys would come up with. As expected, the lone service guy slowly moved his right hand up to scratch his head in the classic sign of “ I don’t have a clue”. I decided I had proved my point and didn’t fancy having to spend the night in Guwahati. I gave him my BIOS update trump card. It was like a bulb went on somewhere inside his head. “Oh!”. It took exactly ten minutes just like Vivek had promised and the comp was up and running. 

“Phew! Close shave!” I kept repeating on the bus back to cool Shillong. Little did I know..

A few weeks passed. Meanwhile all the photographs and data from the survey had been transferred to the computer. I should also mention that I had meanwhile committed the most basic mistake of all computer users. I hadn’t partitioned my hard disk and was relying on pure luck to see me through whatever challenges (read crashes) that technology had in store for me. In the euphoria of having come out through a near death experience (not mine, the computer) I began to feel it was indestructible.

And then came 10th April. The survey in Meghalaya had just ended. I was sitting in Shillong with two colleagues at the forest rest house. The computer was playing some music when a particularly good song came along in the playlist. Now most people who have seen this computer would know that the speakers are next to useless because of their tiny size and tinny noise. Yet the public demanded a higher volume. I turned it up to the maximum volume and went out. Five minutes later when I came back the computer was dead again.

That was the start of another hellish journey. No matter what we did it refused to start up and would continue to reboot just as it reached the windows ‘loading’ screen. No amount of F8’s, ‘last known configuration’  ‘safe mode’ or ‘DOS mode’ helped. It just would not start.

So, it was back to Guwahati again. This time even Vivek didn’t have an answer. There was no time to check the internet. Pulse and heartbeats were rising fast. I just had to get to the rundown service centre first. 

The service centre guy like all service centre guys had one answer to all computer solutions. Reinstall Windows. Of course, he didn’t have a clue what had happened in the first case. I had all my survey data in there and there was no way I was going to let him obliterate any slim chances I had of recovering that. I spent five hours with him trying to persuade him to retrieve the data. In all fairness, he tried whatever he could (which wasn’t much). Then came the deciding moment. What was to be done? I decided I was going to take my chances and asked him to leave it alone. I wanted to get back to Bangalore (the ‘IT city’) and hopefully find someone more competent. I still couldn’t believe that two and half months of hard work would go poof just like that.

It was then that I started searching the net for information on such problems. Apparently in the last one month many people all over the world had the same problem with this computer and nobody had a clue why. All of them had had to reformat their disks and have everything reinstalled. Then came the crazy explanations. Apparently the Aspire One crashes if you play U2’s “Hold me thrill me kiss me” loudly claimed some people. Some said, not just that, other U2 songs too. Then someone else discovered even other songs by other artists (not necessarily non Irish) could bring it on. It was funny for the guys on the forum, while for me it was a life-and-death thing. Some techie guys suggested this intriguing possibility – computer body too small, right speaker too close to hard disk, loud volume creates vibrations and magnetic field disturbances. Hence hard disk crashes!! (read story here

This seemed like one cruel unending joke.

Finally I decided to hand the computer over to Karthik, colleague and friend who was on his way to Bangalore the next day. Then what followed were tense phone conversations as Karthik investigated all the so-called ‘hardware data retrievers’ some of whom apparently specialised in ‘disaster recovery’. Under normal circumstances I would have found these terms enough fodder for some famous jokes and put-downs. I really don’t think much of hardware guys. As if to justify my faith in them, two guys who tried their stuff on the computer surrendered with their hands in the air. The third guy was smarter. He claimed he could do it for 2,500 bucks. That reminded me why I hated them.   

The situation seemed pretty hopeless now. I was still not in Bangalore and there was no point in harassing poor Karthik anymore. I told him to ditch the search and sit back till I got there. One day later I get up in the morning to see a missed call from Karthik at 1245 in the morning. I call him back and he gives me those four wonderful words “Hey, I did it”. He did it! What he had done in a brainwave was to load the open source Operating System Ubuntu from an external drive and managed to get the computer running. Once in, he could see all the stuff I wanted and simply copied them onto another external drive. I was so happy and relieved; I had no idea what to say.

I know it’s going to be tough to get anything out of Acer for all the harassment I had to go through for no fault of mine, but I want to make sure all of the Acer Aspire One users read this and take note. Serious shit could happen and you’d better be ready. If you’re stuck with an Aspire One, preparedness should be second nature and backup should be your middle name.    

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The ebu gogo of Flores - an unfinished story

The locals knew of them as the ebu gogo, the 'grandmother who eats everything'. At first glance, it appeared to be one of those countless cryptozoological stories of mythical animals. "Probably a large macaque that was mistaken as a human" said the scientists.
In 1998 a team led by Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia discovered crude stone implements and then followed it up by discovering LB1 (alternatively known as Flo, Hobbit etc.) the skeletal remains in the Liang Bua (LB) limestone caves of the remote island of Flores (see map and picture below) in the Indonesian archipelago. Subsequently, that cave revealed the existence of the skeletons of seven more of these 'hobbits', named because of their exceptionally small body size and height (see pic below).

It was one of the most electrifying findings in anthropology and started one of the most fiercely contested scientific debates over the origins of the little people of Flores. The owner of the bones seemed to have existed as recently as 12,000 years ago, something unimaginable for a primitive hominin, all of which were believed to have been extinct at least 24,000 years back.
One of the greatest mysteries of the modern world finally seems to be showing signs of resolution with the publication of the most recent study by Karen Baab and her colleagues at the Stony Brook University in the Journal of Human Evolution (Jan, 2009). The study addresses the primary bone (couldn’t resist the pun!) of contention among the two camps of scientists and concurs with the initial paper of Morwood which assigns the hobbits the status of a new species altogether - the Homo floresiensis. The opposing camp has vehemently protested this species status claiming that the skeletons were nothing more than pygmy Homo sapiens with microcephaly. What is of interest is the number of scientific papers in respected scientific journals that have gone back and forth proving and disproving the acceptance of this new species. And it hasn't been short of controversies too!
Looking at the immense volume of scientific literature starting from 2004, I have tried to simplify matters by summarising the findings for each year subsequent to the initial announcement of the find in Nature. The studies are colour coded green (agreeing with the hobbit being a new species) and orange (disagreeing on the species status):

Brown, P.; Sutikna, T., Morwood, M. J., Soejono, R. P., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E. & Rokus Awe Due . "A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia". Nature 431: 1055

Morwood, M. J.; Soejono, R. P., Roberts, R. G., Sutikna, T., Turney, C. S. M., Westaway, K. E., Rink, W. J., Zhao, J.- X., van den Bergh, G. D., Rokus Awe Due, Hobbs, D. R., Moore, M. W., Bird, M. I. & Fifield, L. K. "Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia".
Nature 431: 1087–1091.

Letter to Sunday Mail from M. Henneberg of the University of Adelaide, Australia on October 31st, three days after Nature report attributing the reduced head size to microcephaly

2005"Technical Comments: Comment on "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis"". Science. 2005-10-14

Morwood, M. J.; Brown, P., Jatmiko, Sutikna, T., Wahyu Saptomo, E., Westaway, K. E., Rokus Awe Due, Roberts, R. G., Maeda, T., Wasisto, S. & Djubiantono, T. (2005-10-13). "Further evidence for small-bodied hominins from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia".
Nature 437: 1012–1017

Falk, D.; Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M. J., Sutikna, T., Brown, P., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. (
2005). "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis". Science 308 (5719): 242.

2005 was an important year. The first scientific publication challenging Morwood's findings appeared in the form of the technical comments in Science. Till then it was restricted to letters in newspapers and articles in magazines. Dean Falk published her comprehensive study supporting the species status based on a brain pan. It was also the year when the controversy turned ugly with the shenanigans of Teuku Jacob of the Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta, Java. Jacob was not in the team that made the initial discovery in Liang Bua. However, even before he published scientifically, he was already parroting the 'microcephaly' idea of Henneberg. November, 2004 Jacob had all the delicate skeletal specimens moved from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology to his own laboratory without the permission of the Centre's Directors. He eventually had to return them after an outcry from other scientists, who knew of his reputation for restricting scientific access to fossils. But by then, the damage was done. Portions of the skeletons were severely damaged with two leg bones completely missing.

Jacob, T.; Indriati, E., Soejono, R. P., Hsu, K., Frayer, D. W., Eckhardt, R. B., Kuperavage, A. J., Thorne, A. & Henneberg, M. (September 5, 2006). "Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 103: 13421–13426

Martin, R. D.; MacLarnon, A. M., Phillips, J. L., Dussubieux, L., Williams, P. R. & Dobyns, W. B. (
May 19, 2006). "Comment on "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis"". Science 312 (5776): 999

Falk, D.; Hildebolt, C., Smith, K., Morwood, M.J., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, E., Brunsden, B. & Prior, F. (2006). "Response to Comment on "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis"".
Science 312: 999c.

Argue, D.; Donlon, D., Groves, C. & Wright, R. (October 2006). "Homo floresiensis: Microcephalic, pygmoid, Australopithecus, or Homo?". Journal of Human Evolution 51: 360–374.

Dean Falk's paper continued to generate debate in the form of 'comments' and 'response to comments' from both camps. Jacob finally published along with various scientists from Australia and United States who attributed virtually everything in the skeletons to 'pathological abnormalities'. Debbie Argue compared the skull of LB1 to various microcephalic skulls and concluded that it indeed deserved the new species status.

Falk, D.; Hildebolt, C.; Smith, K.; Morwood, M.J.; Sutikna, T.; Others, (2007). "Brain shape in human microcephalics and Homo floresiensis". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (7): 2513

Tocheri, M.W.; Orr, C.M.; Larson, S.G.; Sutikna, T.; Others, (2007). "The Primitive Wrist of Homo floresiensis and Its Implications for Hominin Evolution".
Science317 (5845): 1743.

Larson SG, Jungers WL, Morwood MJ, et al (2007). "Homo floresiensis and the evolution of the hominin shoulder". J. Hum. Evol. 53 (6): 718–31.

Hershkovitz I, Kornreich L, Laron Z (2007). "Comparative skeletal features between Homo floresiensis and patients with primary growth hormone insensitivity (Laron Syndrome)". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 134 (2): 198–208.

The important publications that added to the voices supporting the new species view were Tocheri et al. and Larson et al. Tocheri compared the wrist bones and concluded that it was very similar to African apes and early hominin-like wrist rather than modern humans and Neanderthals. Larson et al. found similar results for the shoulder bones. This proved that the hobbits were much more likely to be a new species rather than deformed modern humans.

Lyras GA, Dermitzakis DM, Van Der Geer AAE, Van der Geer SB, De Vos J. 2008. The origin of Homo floresiensis and its relation to evolutionary processes under isolation. Anthropological Science. Published online 1 August 2008.
Hershkovitz I, Kornreich L, Laron Z (2007). "Comparative skeletal features between Homo floresiensis and patients with primary growth hormone insensitivity (Laron Syndrome)". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 134 (2): 198–208.

Obendorf, P.J.; Oxnard, C.E.; Kefford , C.E. (June 7, 2008). "
Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B Biological Sciences (Online: Royal Society) 275 (1640): 1287-1296.

Lyras study confirmed what Debbie Argue had found by comparing the 3D-morphometrics of a number of microcephalic human skulls with the LB1 skulls. The LB1 skull morphometry was significantly different from microcephalic human skulls. Hershkowitz suggested that the hobbits were in fact afflicted by a hormonal disease called the Laron Syndrome. Similarly, Obendorf et al. proposed that the hobbits were actually born without a functional thyroid, leading to something called 'Cretinism' (and all this time I thought cretin was a swear word!). However the latter two theories didn’t seem to have too many takers.

Baab, K and K. P. McNulty (2009). Size, shape, and asymmetry in fossil hominins: The status of the LB1 cranium based on 3D morphometric analyses. Journal of Human Evolution.
The latest in the series, this paper by Karen Baab looks at 3D morphometrics of the LB1 skull in much the same way as Lyras and Argue. Dr. Baab and colleagues collected 3D landmark data on the LB1 skull and a large sample of fossils representing other extinct hominin species, as well as a comparative sample of modern humans and apes. They performed several analyses of different regions of the skulls. Taken together, these analyses indicated that the LB1 skull shape is that of a scaled down Homo fossil and not a scaled down modern human.
So, is this finally the end? That’s anybody's guess, but as Karen Baab herself remarks, she recognizes that the controversy as to the evolutionary origins of Homo floresiensis will continue, perhaps without an answer.

Updated: 18/08/2014

Was that last paragraph above prophetic or not? So now, after all this time, it seems like the Flores human is not a new species at all. It was just the microcephalic skull of an individual with Downs Syndrome! If you look at my review above, there have been researchers who have come to similar conclusions earlier. How could a peer reviewed paper that announces something as dramatic as a new species of Homo fall so flat? Serious questions need to be raised on the review process for a start.
For the time being, here are some links to the popular articles on the new discoveries as well as the original paper:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Worst jobs in science - almost there!

Popular Science magazine did a highly imaginative story recently  on the so-called 'worst jobs in science'. I thought it was a pretty interesting choice of the ten different  and varied jobs, guaranteeing a huge variety of physical and mental discomfort. I must say I was very impressed to know that I pretty much made the list in three different categories. Here they are : Triage Biologist, Monkey sex observer (I swear I'm not making this up!) and Leech researcher.

Personally I think the whole concept of a triage biologist (someone who chooses one species to conserve over another) has very little basis in logic. Supposedly mooted recently by Stanford University biologist Terry Root, who has worked with the IPCC, it wont win too many admirers among passionate conservationists. It is in fact more of an economist's way of looking at the

 threats to biodiversity on Earth.  The most basic problem is that we still don’t have the knowledge or the competence to start prioritising species based on their exact roles in the multitude of complicated ecosystems. Hell, we still haven't even a clue about the number of different species that exist on this planet and still talk of picking and choosing species we want to keep alive while the rest are to be obliterated off the face of time forever!!

Number two - monkey sex observer! Oh I've done my share of that with macaques. The reason why I don’t qualify is that unlike some primatologists, I wasn’t watching ONLY for the alpha male's thrusts and orgasmic grimaces. Its hardly as 'yuck' as the article makes it out to be. 

Number three - Leech researcher. If you a re a biologist and you work anywhere in the Western Ghats or northeast India, it doesn’t matter what researcher you are, the leeches are gonna get you anyway. Yeah, the slimy buggers are everywhere, black, yellow, green, striped, big small, medium, massive, itch inducing, sore inducing, you name it, they are everywhere. Umm.. yes, I didn’t have to be a leech researcher to gather the bloody evidence!

Just in case you're wondering about the other seven jobs, here they are:

Theoretical Physicist

Vermin Handler

Lone Fossil Ranger

Hurricane Hunter

Medical Waste Burner

Experimental Taphonomist

Mars Simulator Crew