What Causes Fairy Circles in the Namib Desert?

A fascinating new paper in Science on the so-called “fairy circles” in the inhospitable Namib Desert in southern Africa:

The sand termite Psammotermes allocerus generates local ecosystems, so-called fairy circles, through removal of short-lived vegetation that appears after rain, leaving circular barren patches. Because of rapid percolation and lack of evapotranspiration, water is retained within the circles. This process results in the formation of rings of perennial vegetation that facilitate termite survival and locally increase biodiversity. This termite-generated ecosystem persists through prolonged droughts lasting many decades.

Ars Technica summarizes:

But now, after a six-year study and more than 40 trips to the Namib Desert, Dr. Norbert Juergens believes he has come to understand the biological underpinnings of this strange phenomenon. According to Juergens, a single species of termites is responsible for creating and maintaining the circles. But the barren circles aren’t just a byproduct of these tiny insects living below the sandy desert surface; they are part of a carefully cultivated landscape that helps the termites—and many other organisms—thrive in an otherwise inhospitable climate.

Juergens hypothesized that if the fairy circles’ cause was biological, the organism would need to co-occur with the circles and would probably not be found elsewhere. Only one species fit the bill:Psammotermes allocerus, the sand termite. Not only was the sand termite the only insect species that lived across the entire range of the fairy circles, but these termites were found to be living beneath nearly every circle sampled. And the harder the termites worked – foraging, burrowing, and dumping their refuse – the more grass died, leading Juergens to conclude that the termites keep the circles barren by burrowing underground and foraging on the roots of germinating grasses.

In summary: the termites are cultivating their own constant sources of water and food by creating and maintaining these circles. It’s a phenomenon known as ecosystem engineering.

Advertisements

Bill Simmons on the Heat Streak

The Miami Heat lost to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night. And with that, their streak of 27 consecutive wins ended. Bill Simmons has a great analysis of how that regular season game felt like a playoff Game 7:

You had the underdog Bulls playing without their two best players against the most famous NBA team since Jordan’s Bulls. You had the best player in 20 years at the peak of his powers. You had a national TV audience and unparalleled stakes: Miami approaching an unapproachable record, the smell of history looming over everything, real greatness in the air. You had an intensely proud Bulls team hoping to turn that game into a street fight (1980s basketball, reincarnated), as well as a genius defensive coach who understood exactly how to beat Miami (or at the very least, make them sweat out no. 28). And you had Chicago’s spectacular crowd, one of the few old-school NBA fan bases left that (a) understood the stakes, (b) would never sell their tickets on StubHub to Miami fans, and (c) knew from experience exactly how to affect such a game.

I can’t remember watching an NBA regular-season game that felt like a Game 7 before. Those Super Bowl Sunday battles in the 1980s between the Celtics and Sixers or Celtics and Lakers always felt special, maybe even like playoff games … but never like a Game 7. Jordan’s return from baseball in Indiana had a special you-have-to-see-it energy, as did Jordan’s first post-baseball game in MSG and Magic’s 1996 comeback game against Golden State. I loved the spectacle of LeBron and Wade joining forces for the first time in Boston (opening night, 2010), and if you’re going back a few decades, I’m sure those first Wilt-Kareem and Wilt-Russell battles stood out in their own ways, as did Kareem’s Milwaukee team ending L.A.’s 33-game run in 1972. Even last week, Miami’s thrilling victories in Boston and Cleveland felt like playoff games. Just not Game 7s.

Excellent. Puts things in context, for both a casual and devoted fan. I like Simmons’s list of top ten records which he thought would never get broken.

 

The Year Formerly Known as the Future, 2000

David Bauer pens a great post on how far distant the year 2000 seems to be when we consider the details:

On your way to the office, you make a quick stop at a café to meet a friend (the only digital certification of your friendship being the fact that you are in each other’s limited contacts on the mobile phone).

She tells you about this great band she discovered yesterday (no, not from Brooklyn — even hipsters yet had to discover them). She pulls out her phone to show you a video of the band. Actually, she doesn’t, video doesn’t look so great on a 84×48 pixel monochrome display. Also,YouTube was far from invented.

«No problem, I already have it on my iPod», she says. She lies, to be precise. The iPod doesn’t exist in 2000, either. If you had an Mp3-Player in 2000, it was probably a Rio and looked ridiculous.

Well then, you pull out your laptop to check for the band on Napster, because this, after all, exists (and soars) in 2000. Too bad the café doesn’t have WiFi (you own one of the first laptops that would support it). Turns out, in 2000 cafés either offer coffee or internet, but rarely both.

Your friend promises to burn you a CD with some of the band’s songs and bring it along next time you meet. To send them over email is not possible because the files are too large. And it’s not like there a simple service to transfer them online (your idea of inventing Dropbox before someone else does seems even brighter now).

My favorite bit was about relying on Encarta to get your encyclopedia knowledge! So true (and I loved using Encarta). I still have the CD version of it in my attic. Anyone remember playing through the awesome MindMaze game built into Encarta? Those were the days…

Speaking of the year 2000, the TV show Beyond 2000 was one of my favorites in the 1990s.

The Baguette Police in France

An intriguing piece on Bloomberg about how rule-heavy the country of France is. There are rules for determining the height of sidewalk,  to the composition of the concrete used for construction, to the length of baguettes that can be sold at boulangeries:

A French baguette has to measure between 21.6 inches and 25.6 inches, or between 1.8 and 2.1 feet. Civil servants are required to check how windows open and close in the nation’s public buildings.

The 400,000 norms that go to make France France — many of them “absurd” — cost the state more than 500 million euros ($640 million) to implement and need to be reviewed to stop them strangulating the country, a 116-page report said this week.

All of this scrutiny adds up to a big cost:

Rules including those that ensure hotel stairs are bi- colored and that four-year-old children’s public school lunch has the protein equivalent of half an egg and two chicken nuggets have cost France more than 2 billion euros between 2008 and 2011, with more than 700 million euros just for 2011, according to the report.

More here.

###

(via Chris Peacock)

Red Tourism in China

Der Spiegel has an interesting piece on “Red Tourism” in China:

The Chinese government has dubbed this “red tourism,” and it is meant as a response to its people’s identity crisis, to a certain sense of emptiness and alienation. What exactly should people in China believe in these days? Who is really still interested in ideology? Taking a proactive approach to these questions, the Communist Party decided to put its own history on stage to create reminders of the revolution in various places around the country — and to make clear to all Chinese citizens who made their country great. The government has also set up a “National Coordination Group for Red Tourism” and convened “Conferences for Red Tourism” that have even been attended by a member of the Politburo.

All this revolutionary education certainly benefits the country’s economy. According to the party’s newspaper, “red tourism” has created millions of jobs and built thousands of kilometers of highway and several new airports. Soon Chinese patriots will even be able to fly to the spot in the desert where China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964.

How one actor prepares for his role as Mao:

Actor Wu Yongtang earns 10,000 yuan, or about €1,200, each month for his performances as Mao, as well as a bonus for performing every day. Wu wouldn’t be easy to replace, and a limited resource brings in a higher price — even here on the Mao market. But Wu doesn’t really like to talk about money. Instead he explains that Mao appears in his dreams and interprets this as meaning “he wants me to play him.”

Before finding the role of his life, Wu had only worked as a driver, first in the army and then for a factory. He beat out two other applicants for the Mao role at the first interview because they were both barely 1.7 meters (5 foot 7 inches) tall, or too short to play Mao, who was 1.8 meters tall.

Unlike official Communist line, the article (part II here) is more than 70% good.

Goodreads is Now Part of Amazon.com

This is an interesting move from Amazon.com: the company is buying the excellent online books social network and information portal Goodreads. I’ve used Goodreads sparingly in the past, but I know a lot of people who love the service and the recommendations. Here is the press release:

“Amazon and Goodreads share a passion for reinventing reading,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon Vice President, Kindle Content. “Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.”

“Books – and the stories and ideas captured inside them – are part of our social fabric,” said Otis Chandler, Goodreads CEO and co-founder. “People love to talk about ideas and share their passion for the stories they read. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to partner with Amazon and Kindle. We’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world. We’re looking forward to inspiring greater literary discussion and helping more readers find great books, whether they read in print or digitally.”

“I just found out my two favorite people are getting married,” said Hugh Howey, best-selling author of WOOL. “The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books – To Be Read piles everywhere must be groaning in anticipation.”

Following the acquisition, Goodreads’s headquarters will remain in San Francisco, CA. Founded in 2007, Goodreads now has more than 16 million members and there are more than 30,000 books clubs on the Goodreads site. Over just the past 90 days, Goodreads members have added more than four books per second to the “want to read” shelves on Goodreads.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Here’s what the folks at Goodreads wrote about the acquisition:

1. With the reach and resources of Amazon, Goodreads can introduce more readers to our vibrant community of book lovers and create an even better experience for our members. 
2. Our members have been asking us to bring the Goodreads experience to an e-reader for a long time. Now we’re looking forward to bringing Goodreads to the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle, and further reinventing what reading can be. 
3. Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity, under the Goodreads brand and with our unique culture.

Sounds like a great fit.

The Man Who Sold His Fate to Investors at $1 a Share

This is an interesting story in Wired about a 30-year-old part-time entrepreneur named Mike Merrill who decided to sell himself on the open market. He divided himself into 100,000 shares and set an initial public offering price of $1 a share:

But, like many entrepreneurs before him, Merrill soon learned the downside to taking on outside funding. In the ensuing months and years, 128 people bought shares of Merrill, and he fell victim to competing shareholder interests, stock price manipu­lation, and investors looking for short-term gains at the expense of his long-term well-being. He was overwhelmed by paperwork and blindsided by takeover interest. He found himself beholden to his shareholders in ways he had never imagined, ruining personal relationships along the way. Through it all, Merrill clung stubbornly to the belief that since an IPO had worked for Google and Amazon, it should work for an individual too.

Initially, shareholders voted on a variety of small projects. On February 15, 2008, for example, Merrill asked whether he should make a short video to market shares in himself. His investors voted that idea down, but a month later they approved an investment of $79.63 in a Rwandan chicken farmer.

I’ve seen advertisements for www.upstart.com before, but it was good to read the start of this thought process of investing in someone.