Chimp memory

Chimpanzees might not be all that good at learning languages, but they destroy humans when it comes to short-term visual memory.

Tests in Japan over the past few years with a chimpanzee named Ayumu have demonstrated that a chimpanzee can recall a random arrangement of nine numbers after glimpsing them for only 0.2 of a second – a human’s performance declines dramatically after 0.7 seconds.

Scientists speculate that such a skill would be useful in making split-second assessment of food sources or threats within the social group. It is probably also a faculty which we have lost. Continue reading

Behaviour change

The government is keen to understand who smokes, so that they can encourage behaviour change. That’s why it’s important that they know things like 33% of bar staff and delivery drivers smoke, compared to 14% of teachers.Guardian online

In the papers a  day or two ago there was news of a detailed survey by the O.N.S (Office of National Statistics) into smoking habits in the UK. It seems times have changed, if we didn’t already know it.


They have for me. I used to be a heavy smoker (definition: 20+ cigarettes per day), but gave up, seemingly along with 30% of the population, about eight years ago.

When I started as a teenager, everyone I knew smoked, including my parents, my schoolmates, my chemistry teacher (in class), my PE teacher – everyone. You could still smoke on trains, or in the cinema. You could even smoke on the underground in London if you wanted (only in every other carriage, however).

Now I never see anyone smoking. Times change. We have a teachers’ lunch today, partly in celebration of Janet’s birthday (happy birthday Janet – sorry you’re at work). When I first worked at the school, over the summer in, I think, 1997, we had teachers’ lunches, and there was always plenty of wine. You’d have a couple of glasses with your nibbles, and then go and teach some more. And around the same time in Italy, where I was teaching the rest of the year, I would frequently be brought a gin and tonic up from the bar in my early-evening lesson. I’d sit and teach and drink my gin and smoke a cigarette if the students were smoking too (they usually were). No one seemed to find it strange (although now that I think of it perhaps I told the students it was lemonade).

It’s no bad thing that the teachers don’t drink and smoke in lessons any more – the worst you’ll see is the odd coffee sneaked upstairs in contravention of the house rules – and not only for the student: I don’t think I’d much enjoy teaching with a gin and a cigarette on the go any more. But any wholesale behavioural change reminds you that the skein of habit, which underwrites almost everything we do, is not only undergoing constant attrition, but is tied to larger patterns that have nothing to do with you. It is not just me who has quit smoking, after all; it is most of my generation.

A History of English in Ten Minutes

The English language is essentially a mangled wreck where Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic langauge) and Norman French used to be, which accounts for the proliferation of vowel sounds and vocabulary, and the simplicity of its verb forms (among other things). But for all that, it has its grace and power and poetry – in the estimation of the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, for example, who was bilingual in Spanish and English, English poetry is one of the two great literatures of the world.

So here for the uninitiated is a lightning-fast history of the English language, in ten one-minute lessons, all jammed together in one omnibus edition.

The Lister Knobbly returns to Cambridge

BBC News reports that a classic racing car, the Lister Jaguar, has been resurrected in Cambridge.

knobblyThe Knobbly, as it came to be known, was built and raced from 1957 to 1959, winning 11 of its 14 races in its first year, beating in the process Ferraris, Masaratis, Aston Martins, and the other great cars of the age; driven by the diminutive Archie Scott Brown, it also beat track records at every track it raced on, and this in spite of the fact that it had been developed and built by an amateur designer, George Lister, in his father’s engineering works at Cambridge (inspired, in part, by his meeting with Scott Brown at a race meet in Bottisham, near Cambridge, in 1951).


Scott Brown and George Lister

Archie-Scott-BrownScott Brown died in 1958 in Belgium at the wheel of a Lister Knobbly, and from 1959 the design of the sports car was overhauled completely (addressing, among other things, the Knobbly’s notoriously poor brakes), and was no longer raced competitively. Only about 50 Knobblys  were made in that short period, and they have since begun to command great value in the classic car market, fetching anything between £800,000 and £2,000,000.

It was in this way that the car has come to be in production again –  new owner Lawrence Whittaker’s father was looking for parts and blueprints in order to restore a Knobbly he had bought, but since the intellectual property had been sold outside the Lister company this was no simple matter. The Whittakers have now acquired all property rights and have built a new production facility in Fulbourn, just outside Cambridge. They plan to roll out 4 cars this year and 6 next year. Not a major operation, but the cars are likely to be priced in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Read and watch the BBC report here. There’s also a story on the sale of Archie Scott Brown’s garage in Cambridge here.


At the end of last week one of our groups gave an excellent presentation on the current state of stem-cell research and its current and future applications. As part of this presentation they showed an excerpt from a talk on TED by Surgeon Anthony Atala on regenerative medicine, in which Dr. Atala demonstrates a remarkable new technology that can print kidneys from stem cells.

But actually the excerpt, you will have noticed, is as remarkable for the number of times the Doctor uses the word actually, or actual, as it is for the actual printed kidney. Actually it’s the actual kidney, he says. Over and over and over.

Does it actually mean anything? It usually means ‘real’ or ‘true’, or ‘in fact’, in some sense (it doesn’t mean current or present) – hence the Doctor seems to use it here from time to time, to mean ‘real’ as opposed to ‘imaginary or theoretical’. Here you see the actual kidney means something like, this is not a fake, not a model, but the real thing. 

But elsewhere in the Doctor’s talk it becomes a sort of babble, or noise. He may be a little nervous – we all tend to um and erm a bit when speaking in public – but the fact is, a high proportion of the words used in everyday speech are textural rather than semantic. I remember that when I lived in Italy, a key moment in the process of coming to understand Italian, such a fast-sounding language to the non-native, was when I started to pick out the verbal ticks, the junk DNA of spoken language, and discard them.

Language learning, it seems, proceeds as much by dereliction as by accumulation – learning to recognise what you can safely ignore. A large proportion of what you hear (or in different ways, read) is redundant: false starts, repetitions, irrelevant digressions; and of course your actual verbal tick. And given that Anthony Atala is holding in his hands a kidney that has just been printed like a spare part in a Star Trek replicator, perhaps it doesn’t really matter anyway what he actually says.

Re-wilding the planet

“If you were in a plane and were told you had lost 16% of the parts since you took off, how happy would you be?” Andy Purvis, Imperial College London.

Latimeria ChalumaeIt seems that over the last 500 years we have lost on average 16% of species across the globe, and up to 40% in Europe, the US corn belt and the Himalayas, owing largely to the spread of intensive agriculture and urbanisation (the two being interlinked).

However, new and extraordinarily rich computer models developed by the Predicts project of up to 500 separate ecosystems from across the planet, based on detailed data from up to 10,000 ecosystems in 64 countries, are not merely modelling the woe of species loss but could be used to model solutions, according to an article in the New Scientist.

For instance, the impact of intensive farming on biodiversity seems, paradoxically, to be less severe than that of more extensive, wildlife-friendly farming, since it uses so much less land.


Nothing can guarantee the return of forgotten species (such as the coelacanth, above), but there are some encouraging stories.

Last week with a student I watched the following short talk by George Monbiot. Monbiot is talking about something he calls re-wilding – reintroducing wilderness ecosystems across the world – and in particular about the extraordinary effects of reintroducing a handful of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA in the 1990s, including changes in river flow and the return of birds of prey.

Moon Cake and Flower Tea

Yesterday afternoon in class I ate half a mooncake (or should that be a half-moon cake?) and drank tea made from an extraordinary unfolding flower, and was told the story of the hero HouYi and his wife Chang’e, immortal moon goddess by a student wearing the traditional Qipao. Quite a lesson.

teasetIt is of course the Chinese Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival as it is sometimes known, and my student, Amy, decided we should honour it with some cake and tea. The cake is well-known but remarkable – lotus seed paste in pastry encasing a salted egg-yoke, which you can just make out in this picture:

eggcakeMore remarkable still was the tea which Amy brought – a tightly-wrapped pellet about half the size of a golf ball which, when dropped into boiling water, slowly unfurled, releasing a flower. The resultant tea was delicious.


While we drank the tea and chewed our way through the cake to the egg, Amy recounted the legendary tale of the Moon Festival, more or less as follows:

In the ancient past, there was a hero named [Hou] Yi who was excellent at shooting. His wife was Chang’e. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Feng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of August in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Feng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.

And, to cap the experience, Amy was wearing the traditional Qipao. She was a llittle reluctant to have herself photographed in it, but later she sent me this photograph of the dress:

qipaoAs I say, quite a lesson.