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Pathfinders: Darwin in the pink

It seems fitting, in the year of Darwinius Laudatus, that the new incumbent of the White House is stuffing his team with scientists and proclaiming that science is top of the agenda again. Well, it won’t bring on socialism, but at least those who seemed obsessed with visions of a new religious Inquisition in the West can stop worrying for the moment. Nature too is sticking two fingers up at creationists who have problems struggling with the facts of life, by recently producing two entirely new species that, as they say, you couldn’t even make up. One, a bizarre pink iguana, happens to live on the one Galapagos island Darwin didn’t manage to visit  The other is a mirror-eyed spook-fish in the deep ocean with an entirely novel means of discerning sharp images using light reflector arrays (New Scientist, 10 January). Advocates of Intelligent Design will easily explain pink iguanas (God was having a camp day) but in the case of the highly complex mirror mechanism, the obvious question would be: why did our Intelligent Designer not do things the easy way and just have the fish live somewhere it could see by normal means? Recent footage has also emerged of a unique venomous mammal, the Hispaniolan solenodon, suspected of being the last surviving relic of a branch of mammalia with a very uncuddly characteristic. Will ID supporters kindly explain why The Creator can’t seem to make up his mind, and keeps producing hybrid experiments that look suspiciously random and unplanned? Whatever next, a mammal that lays eggs?

Biofuels at bedrock in ratings

Speaking of random and unplanned, capitalism can usually be relied on to filter out all the smart solutions and pick the dumbest, amid a fanfare of speeches about innovation and progress. It seems hardly a moment since biofuels were the ingenious answer to everyone’s oil crisis. Now a new study suggests that they are the worst possible way of dealing with the problem, even taking coal or nuclear power into account (SciDev, Biofuels bottom of the heap in impact study, 7 January)

Why so popular a solution then?  Because it was cheap, the land was already in cultivation for something else, and it was a zero-tech, zero investment changeover. Wind power comes out best, which is perhaps no surprise. If we were to plant wind turbines in every government meeting room in the world, we could probably get all our energy for free.

Free is cheaper

Now where have we heard that one before? It’s nice to see that the digerati are still plugging the idea that because costs are heading towards zero soon everything will be free, citing such free services as Google by way of example. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, is the latest to put this no-longer-very-revolutionary idea in his new book Free: the Future of a Radical Price (BBC Radio 4, In Business, 8 January). Of course, he means everything digital will be free. About the real world of food, clothing and heating he has no comment to make. No doubt it will comfort the refugees of Darfur that they can access free pictures of food whenever they like.  What Anderson and his colleagues could usefully do is extrapolate from their own cosily self-absorbed cyberworld to ask what socialists ask – couldn’t we do the same thing for tins of beans as terabytes? After all, production costs in material goods also have a tendency to fall over time. Besides, there is also the question of what you mean by free. Users don’t pay to use Google, but two Google searches are as carbon heavy as boiling a kettle, and the global IT industry produces as much greenhouse gas as the global airline industry (BBC Online,  'Carbon cost' of Google revealed, 12 January).

PC I-Plod

One thing which is patently becoming less rather than more free is the matter of civil liberties, with police being encouraged by a new European directive to spend more time hacking into the public’s private computers (BBC Online, Police 'encouraged' to hack more, 5 January). Not that it will do them much good. Even if your firewall doesn’t keep them out, they probably couldn’t use the information anyway because they have no way to prove they didn’t put it there themselves. That’s if they don’t lose the information first. Anyone paranoid enough to believe that Big Brother has already arrived will feel a heartwarming glow at the latest in a long line of government security boobs. When the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit was shut down and replaced by the Serious Organised Crime Agency in 2006, the government did not bother to keep the old NHTCU webname and it was bought by a German company. However, the government forgot to mention this to anyone, so whenever any agency including the BBC attempted to tip off the government about suspected cyber-fraud or other criminal japes, they were in fact sending this potentially explosive information to a private commercial enterprise (New Scientist, 3 January).