The second time I saw an octopus in the wild

I love octopus.

Their biology is fascinating, but it’s the look of them that really captivates me.

From a lifetime of living on land, I’ve come to associate large, intelligent animals with vertebrates. But if you look into the eyes of an octopus you can feel an intelligence looking back at you. And it’s not an intelligence with fur or feathers, it’s alien, it’s tentacles and suckers.


I’ve been obsessed with animals ever since I could be. I’ve spent plenty of time in aquariums, and I’ve seen octopus. But until a couple of years ago I’d never seen one in the wild.

But then on a holiday in Mallorca a couple of years ago it happened, twice. The second sighting was the most memorable, but the first served as a good teaser.

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The five stages of watching impala

I was genuinely enchanted the first time I saw impala in the wild.

They typify what’s most captivating about antelope; they’re elegant, beautifully coloured, and they move with speed and grace. I think I said something overly earnest like “they’re so beautiful!”

My remember my companions looked at me with a mixture of surprise, and pity.

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What Finding Nemo didn’t tell you about fish sex

Blue Planet II, the BBC’s latest flagship nature documentary is almost open us, and the press is currently awash with teaser stories and clips.

This week, the Daily Mail, the bastion of British conservative reactionary values, ran a story revealing that Blue Planet II will include footage of a fish changing sex.

The fish in question is the delightful Asian sheepshead wrasse.

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Short Story: An apple a day keeps the algorithms at bay

Stop right there.

Yes, you. Stop.

I can see what you’re doing. You’re reaching for that high-sugar, high-fat snack aren’t you?

Well don’t, because they’re watching, and I’m here to warn you.

Oh stop looking around like that, you look foolish. They’re not watching you now, they’re watching you in the future, obviously.

You’re thinking about that snack again aren’t you? You don’t believe me? You’re thinking what harm could it do? Hell, why not pick up some pop-tarts and vodka too, maybe some cigarettes, really push the boat out?

OK, don’t.

You were planning on putting that snack on your card, weren’t you?

Fuck me, what are you thinking? Don’t you realise what kind of trail you’re leaving – what kind of impression you’re creating? If you pay with your bankcard they’ll know who you are. That snack will be on your records forever.

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Short Story: The Day We Lost Science

You know the story about how we killed science? Scratch that, killed isn’t the right word. We didn’t kill science, we lost it.

You see, I was there when it happened. I used to be a scientist, back when people still were.

It began with gorillas for me.

Maybe you’ve heard of them? We lost gorillas around the time we lost science. My research group was studying them in Virunga National Park. Or we were trying to. Gorillas lived in dense jungle, they were big, but quiet as ghosts when they wanted to be. They were a nightmare to track. We’d spend hours, sometimes days, locating them. We’d get maybe a week of observations, then they’d get spooked and vanish again.

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Short Story: We can simulate it for you wholesale

Amanda hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. She’d been too excited to sit still for more than a few seconds, let alone to get a spoon safely in and out of her mouth.

She was about to book the holiday of a lifetime. She’d saved for years, and now she finally had enough. Today she was booked in for her initial consultation, all part of the process of crafting her dream get-away.

Amanda was waiting in the reception of Reality Incorporated. It looked just like you’d expect. The walls were painted a fashionable shade of grey, the furniture was white and ergonomically curved, the art was abstract and probably unjustifiably expensive.

Amanda sat on her hands and tried to pretend she was calm. She’d spent years planning this trip, she knew exactly what she wanted, she was desperate to start the consultation and get the ball rolling.

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Short Story: The apex of creation

The probe came back to life as it fell into the uncharted solar system.

It ran diagnostics and repaired errors, then connected to The Network to catch up with what had happened in the Galaxy during its thousand-year sleep.

Once satisfied, the probe looked outward and took the lay of the land.

It found a yellow, Sun-like star. It found five rocky inner planets, six gas giants, and a sprinkling of asteroids and comets. One of the rocky planets sat sweetly in its star’s goldilocks zone, not too hot, not too cold. The probe altered its velocity and headed in to investigate.

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Short Story: The infection of meaning

“Do you ever wonder what it all means? Like, what’s our purpose?”

Ellen cringed. She’d heard that question asked in that tone so many times. She knew it wasn’t a real question, more an attempt to sound profound. She tried not to listen, she tried to focus on the cocktail on the bar in front of her.

“Why are we here, you know?”

It was no good, the man’s voice was too loud, Ellen turned on her stool and looked. She saw a young man sitting in a booth with a young woman. He was grinning and talking, she was frowning and listening. Ellen was about to turn away, but the young woman interrupted and she was curious.

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Short Story: How do you tell if the world’s ended?

The end of the world isn’t like on TV. It doesn’t happen with a bang, or even with a whimper, it happens bit by bit. I didn’t realise when I first saw it. I thought it was just a broken water pipe in the street outside.

I watched the water seeping out and pooling in the road as I made my coffee. It looked beautiful in the morning sun. When I came home from work that evening the water was still leaking. I called the authorities to let them know they had a burst pipe but no one came. The pool of water grew, day after day. I didn’t realise it was the end of the world.

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The ten(ish) steps of learning to use a new R package

Step 0: Excitement

We’ve all been there.

You’ve got your hands on some shiny new data. You’ve got a research question. You’re more excited than a small child at Christmas. You’re going to discover something totally new. Life is wonder!

You just need to learn about that new technique you’ve read about in that paper.

Step 1: Initial Joy

So, that new technique…. oh look, there’s an R package for it. That’s convenient. That’s brilliant in fact. I can’t wait to get started. I love being a scientist. Sure, I have no money and no one understands me, but I’m about to embark on a voyage of discovery.

I’ll just download the reference manual from CRAN.

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