How to explain academic publishing to a five year old

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Last week I tweeted a cow-based academic publishing analogy in response to the prompt in the title, and the replies and quote-tweets extended the metaphor so gloriously, so creatively, so bleakly and hilariously at the same time, that I’ve pulled my favourites together below.

Here’s the original tweet:

Speaking as a goat, I approve of open access.

When I took a diversion from my various computer science related qualifications to study psychotherapy for a while, I was amazed to discover how fortunate we computer scientists are that so much of our literature is published open access. It probably comes from the culture of the discipline, whose forefathers were publishing their work as open-source software or on the Internet long before academic journals reached the online space. But even here, there’s journal drama and all the kinds of problems that Ned (and the people who replied to his tweet) joke about.

Howdymattic Outtakes

Yesterday, I shared with you the introduction video I made for my new employer. A few friends commented that it seemed very well-presented and complimented me on my presentation, so I thought I’d dispel the illusion by providing this: the “outtakes”. My process was to write a loose script and then perform it multiple times (while being sure to wear the same hoodie) over the course of several days as I walked or cycled around, and then take only the “good” content.

That I’m able to effortlessly make a longer video out of a selection of the outtakes should be evidence enough that I’m just as capable of mucking-up a simple task as anybody else, probably moreso.

You may observe in this video that I made a number of “Hey, I found a…” snippets; I wasn’t sure what would scan best (I eventually went with “Hey, I found a… nothing?”). Folks who’ve seen this video have already criticised my choice; apparently the cow I found was more photogenic than me.

Also available on: VideoPress, QTube, YouTube.

Drowning cow saved by ‘mermaid’ on 200-mile swim

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 Lindsey Cole is swimming part of the River Thames to raise awareness of single-use plastic

A drowning cow was rescued from a river by a passing “mermaid” on a 200-mile swim of the Thames.

Lindsey Cole splashed into the river in a wetsuit, tail and hat at Lechlade, Gloucestershire, on Friday. She is raising awareness of the environmental effects of single-use plastic.

As she passed through Oxfordshire on Sunday, she spotted the stricken cow.

Delightful. The “urban mermaid” Lindsey Cole has been swimming along the Thames as a mermaid in order to raise awareness of plastic pollution. She spotted what she thought was a big white plastic sack and swam on, indicating to her support boat to pick it up… but when they caught up they realised that it was a drowning cow! Some while later, they arranged for its successful rescue.

Jedward and the Aurochs

Part One – Jedward

I’ve just worked out what Jedward‘s debut single reminds me of. But first, because I expect – hope? – that the folks who read this blog are oblivious to Irish teen popstars Jedward, I’ll fill you in. Identical twins John and Edward, Jedward lost at The X Factor in 2009 and then went on the following year to release a single which reached #2 in the UK charts and #1 in the Irish. That single was Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby), a simultaneous cover/mashup of Queen/Bowie’s fantastic Under Pressure, and the monstrosity that was Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby.

If you’re not familiar, go watch the music video. Don’t worry: I’ll only make you do it once.

It’s an obvious combination because it’s easy: perhaps the laziest music mashup I’ve ever heard. Ice Ice Baby already (very noticeably) sampled Under Pressure, although Van Winkle denied this to begin with, so Jedward barely had to “shuffle the two together”. I’m not claiming that it’s not catchy, just that it’s not original.

Oh, and you’re likely to see more of them: they’re poised to be Ireland’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, this year.

Part Two – and the Aurochs

Aurochs (Bos primigenius) were a huge species of bovine – the predecessors of modern domestic cattle – that roamed freely around much of Europe and Asia right up into the 17th century (although their numbers had diminished greatly since about the 12th-13th, primarily as a result of hunting, and the destruction of their habitat by climate changes and human expansion).

Painting of an aurochs. From ground to shoulder, these animals stood about two metres high, and weighed about a tonne. That's about the size and mass of a small rhinoceros, or - perhaps more-aptly - eight to nine thousand quarter-pounders.

Why am I talking about these beasts, you ask. Well, apart from the fact that Jedward and the Aurochs would be an amazingly-cool band name, I’ve been reminded by the song above of the Heck cattle. Allow me to explain:

Heck cattle are a breed of cattle which have been bred over the last 70 years or so as part of an effort to “breed back” the Aurochs by combining the relevant genetics of those species that succeeded them. The idea is that all of the characteristics of the species can still exist in some form or another in modern domestic cattle, and with sufficient selective breeding it’s possible to get back whatever you want.

It’s controversial, especially when it’s used to “bring back” extinct species: after all, no member of the “new” aurochs will ever be genetically identical to any “old” previously-living one. But then, no aurochs and it’s children will ever have shared the exact same genetic code, either. There’s a philosophical question, there: suppose we managed to breed back an animal whose genes shared a specified level of similarity with a previously-existing species (say, 99.8% – about the level of DNA shared between all humans): could one legitimately call it a member of that now-extinct species, recreated?

A male Heck cattle. Sure LOOKS like an aurochs, doesn't it?

Heck cattle aren’t even close, so this is just a thought experiment. They’re neither large enough nor distinct enough from domestic cattle to be called aurochs: they’re just a primitive-looking breed of cattle. But there’s a point to this whole thing; hang in there.

Part Three – breeding back music

I wonder if it’s possible to “breed back” music by remixing and mashing-up, in a similar way to that seen by the breeders of the Heck cattle and other similar schemes. The family trees are much smaller, but many of the same principles apply: Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby) samples both Under Pressure and Ice Ice Baby. Ice Ice Baby, in turn, also samples Under Pressure. There’s presumably original elements in the final song, too, which represents the introduction of new (genetic) material: let’s call that mutation. Add a few hundred more remixes and mashups, samples and loops, and make a dozen more songs from these: would it be possible to “get back” the original Queen song by using samples of all of the surviving parts?

That depends, really. Do sufficient samples exist? There’s a lot of loss of information if everybody only uses the iconic dum-dum-dum-de-de-dumdum melody. Do we accurately know what we’re trying to recreate? A big problem with the Heck cattle is that we know a lot about how they looked and only a little about their temperament, their behaviour, or – and let’s face it, this is what people are actually asking – their taste. Is somebody’s memory of a song sufficient that they could be asked to identify a “recreated” piece of music, in the same way as we try to use rare contemporary pictures of aurochs in an effort to reproduce them?

This is a rarely-seen Heck Mercury. It's a pale comparison to the real deal: it looks the same, but it doesn't sing even remotely as well. Sadly, efforts to find descendents of the rock star himself have been hampered by his sexuality, a problem not encountered with the aurochs... although it would provide another, perhaps more-amusing, explanation for their extinction.

Or maybe Jedward’s song reminded me of the Heck cattle simply because hearing it made me say, “Heck, no! What’s this bull?”

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