Thursday, 24 February 2011

Nature Magazine: the battle continues

Latest on my battle with Nature Magazine and their ridiculous restriction on accessing content from 1997 and earlier.

Dear Sir

I have been a subscriber to Nature magazine for a number of years. As a science author in the field of human evolution and prehistory, I make extensive use of your online content – in fact it is my principle reason for subscribing to Nature and indeed to other science journals. I therefore find it somewhat vexing to be presented with a paywall if I try to access content from 1997 or earlier. Your website provides the singularly unhelpful explanation that such content is “not available” to personal subscribers, without a word of justification for this policy.

Since I flatly refuse to pay US$ 32 to download such articles, I am forced to obtain them at the British Library. I work from my home in North London and having to travel to and from St Pancras for these articles is a very annoying waste of my time. US$ 32 is far more than any other periodicals charge, even to non-subscribers (and by the way, the currency used in the UK is sterling, not US dollars).

Nor can I make any headway with your support staff regarding an explanation for a policy that strikes me as petty and frankly iniquitous. After nearly three months of repeated chasing and mounting frustration on my part, the best you have been able to come up with is that it is “a business decision supported by the board”, which you must surely accept is a wholly-inadequate explanation. In fact it is obvious that nobody within your organization either knows or cares what the explanation is. 1997 is the year Nature went online and I understand that the earlier content was only placed online more recently. Probably somebody at the time felt it would be a good idea to restrict access to it and because nobody complained the policy has remained in place, the reasoning behind it (if any) long since forgotten.

How much extra revenue is Nature making from this policy? My guess is, not a penny. Or cent. I don’t know, but my guess is that the vast majority of users of the online content are in academia and are not personal subscribers. The few personal subscribers that do use the online content probably obtain the restricted material from a library, as indeed do I. I cannot imagine any subscriber paying to access the restricted content. So all this restriction is accomplishing is to waste peoples’ time. In fact in my case I am seriously considering not renewing my subscription next month on the basis that if I have to go to the British Library anyway, I might as well read the magazine while I am there.

Charging subscribers for this content should be scrapped with immediate effect.

Yours sincerely,
C.P. Seddon

Friday, 28 January 2011

Modern Humans in Arabia 125,000 years ago?

Stone tools have been recovered from a site in the United Arab Emirates. The tools are reported to be 125,000 years old and it is claimed by British archaeologist Simon Armitage in the journal Science that they were made by modern humans. This date is 40,000 to 60,000 years before modern humans are generally thought to have reached the Arabian Peninsula.

The tools were found at a rock shelter on Jebel Faya, a 350m (1,200ft) mountain equidistant from the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf and lying due south of the Straits of Hormuz. The rock shelter itself is 180m (600ft) above sea level. It contains archaeological layers dating from the Iron and Bronze Ages all the way back to the Palaeolithic. Artefacts from the latter have been found in three layers, the oldest of which, Layer C, has been dated by optical stimulated luminescence methods to the Eemian Interglacial, 125,000 years ago. The artefacts were manufactured using a number of different reduction strategies including Levallois, volumetric blade, and simple parallel methods. The tools include small handaxes, foliates, end scrapers, side scrapers, and denticulates. It has been suggested that they have more in common with contemporary artefacts from North and Northeast Africa than with those known from other Arabian sites. Since the African artefacts were made by modern humans, it is proposed that the Eemian Jebel Faya artefacts were too.

The Eemian Interglacial was warm period between the last and penultimate ice ages during which “humid corridors” opened up in the Sahara Desert. Modern humans reached the Levant, probably via the “humid corridors”, but they are not generally thought to have reached further into Asia. The general view is at that time, the Levant was effectively a north-eastern extension of Africa. After conditions worsened 91,000 years ago, modern humans disappeared from the Levant, which was subsequently re-occupied by Neanderthals.

Armitage believes that humans crossed the Bab Al Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea at the onset of the Eemian, when sea-levels were fairly low and it could readily be crossed. Once in Arabia, the colonists benefitted from reduced competition for resources and exploit both the coast and interior for food. Groups occupied the southern coast and pushed inland, taking advantage of the warm wet conditions. Armitage suggests that it is these rather than technological innovation that provided the stimulus for the expansion. The more recent Palaeolithic artefacts suggests that the colony survived the harsher conditions that set in at the end of the Eemian, although it was probably cut off from groups living further south.

It cannot be ruled out that the tools were of Neanderthal origin, although co-author Anthony Marks rejects this view and in an article in Science claimed that Neanderthals did not use this combination of tools. Archaeologist Michael Petraglia noted that the site was out of the Neanderthal habitat range. But archaeologist Sir Paul Mellars was quoted as being “totally unpersuaded”. He does not believe that there is any evidence that the tools were made by modern humans and does not see the tool style as African.

I will personally admit to being sceptical and think it is far more likely that these tools were made by Neanderthals. Petraglia’s comments notwithstanding, it was reported last year that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals soon after leaving Africa. Assuming they left via the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, as is widely believed, they must have encountered Neanderthals in Arabia.

Armitage, S., Jasim, S., Marks, A., Parker, A., Usik, V., & Uerpmann, H. (2011). The Southern Route “Out of Africa”: Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia. Science , 331, 453-456.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Loud music in pubs

As a regular pub-goer for many years I find it infuriating that all too often, my experience in a pub is ruined by music that is gradually increased in volume to a level that makes conversation all but impossible. Attempts to find a quieter spot are generally futile; loudspeakers are positioned to ensure that no place in the pub can escape the ghastly conversation-defeating THUD THUD THUD of the music, which itself is generally rubbish, utterly devoid of merit. I will generally be forced to move on and find somewhere quieter. In addition, there are many occasions where I enter a promising looking pub, only to turn round and walk straight out because of ridiculously loud music.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I have nothing against music in pubs, but its purpose should be background. I totally fail to understand how anybody can enjoy volume levels appropriate to a nightclub or trendy bar. The pubs I visit do not have a particularly young demographic and drinkers are of a wide age range, with many in their 40s to 60s. I would imagine that few, if any, feel that the music adds anything to their drinking/eating experience. Furthermore, in the past, when I have gone drinking with work colleagues, there were times when even the younger people in the gruup found the music to be objectionably loud. Finally, I would call upon the support of Sir Patrick Moore, who on the TV program “Room 101” a few years ago listed pubs that play loud music even before he got on to his well-known dislike of fox hunting.

I have heard two theories, neither of which shows publicans in a very favourable light. The first is that the bar staff do it for their own benefit, totally forgetting that it is people like me who ultimately pay their wages. The other is that it is a cynical and wholly-irresponsible ploy to boost sales on the basis that people respond to the stress the music causes by drinking more.

I can in fact refute the latter theory. At one now-embargoed pub in Highgate, I have seen the pub empty almost visibly as the volume is increased. So it is clear that in that case at least, the music is purely for the benefit of the bar staff.

We are often hearing about the decline of the British pub. In such circumstances, surely it is a massive own goal to alienate your customer base by foisting something on them that at best adds nothing and at worst unacceptably detracts from the pub experience. If all drinkers would follow my example of boycotting pubs where loud music is played, by forcing a change of policy it would in the long do the industry a huge favour.

Unfortunately the industry don't seem care very much - I have emailed the British Beer and Pub Association about the issue, but nobody could be bothered to reply.

© Christopher Seddon 2011