Thursday, December 31, 2009

you've been pottered

I guess it wasn't surprising but I still get slightly depressed looking at Germany's top 20 bestsellers of the decade, published in the current issue of Der Spiegel.

In the fiction list we have Harry Potter in positions 1, 2, 3, 14, 16, and 18. Dan Brown in 5 and 15, Stephenie Meyer in 8, 9, and 20, and Germany's very own fantasy kidult fiction writer Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, etc.) in places 6, 11, 19 (which already counts as good news, I guess). Two German originals which I found mildly interesting (Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the world and Charlotte Roche's Wetlands) made 7 and 4, respectively.

There is the school of thinking that says that many of those millions reading Harry Potter wouldn't have read any book otherwise. But I tend to think if they only read fantasy and nothing else, they might as well read nothing, it wouldn't make much difference. What I am worried about is the other side of the spectrum. A phenomenon like the noughties fantasy tsunami pulls along people from all sides, including those who might otherwise have spent their time reading more intelligent books. So if people come along and say Rowling did great work for public literacy, I have to object and point out that pottermania may also have stopped people from reading more intelligent books and dealing with the real world.

The non-fiction side of the list (another 20 titles including one by the pope) is less easy to categorise but just as depressing. Suffice it to say that a "medicine for kids" title is the only thing that is coming anywhere near science.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

oxford by night

Last week's long, clear winter nights were perfect for a bit of after-dark photography:



Bath Place, access to the Turf Tavern, popular watering hole, but practically impossible to find if you don't know where it is.



Hythe Bridge Street



Xmas lights in Cornmarket Street

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

aromatase and cancer

There is a huge family of enzymes known as the Cytochrome P450 family, which I always used to find very confusing. Man species have hundreds of them, doing apparently unrelated things, so I never managed to remember anything about these proteins because whenever I came across a bit of information, it didn't seem to fit with the previous one.

Recently I've managed to figure out what it's about (the clue is in the spare oxygen atom left over after the reaction they all share -- with that they can do all kinds of chemistry) and written a couple of pieces about this field, pegged to the crystal structure of aromatase, an enzyme that plays a key role in a large number of breast tumours, and is thus a prime target for cancer therapy. Aromatase is also interesting for the chemist as it is so far the only known enzyme that can turn an aliphatic ring (such as cyclohexene) into an aromatic one (such as benzene), hence the name.

My latest musings on CytP450s, aromatase, and cancer appear in the January issue of Education in Chemistry (but not on their website, I'm afraid):

Aromatase: a target for cancer treatment.
Education in Chemistry 47, No 1, 22-24.

This is also my first publication of 2010, hooray!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

favourite films of 09

... looking back at the movies I've seen on the big screen this year, there are a few clear favourites (with links to blog entries):

Sin nombre (a rare case of a movie that I find both deeply depressing and still loveable. Most disturbing is the observation how close the violent gang is to what we call civilised society. We've just delegated the violence bit to the armed forces.)

Fish Tank Not all the movies I watch are in Spanish, you see ...

Broken embraces ... though around half of them are, in fact.

oh, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was great, too.

shall I dare to list favourites of the noughties as well ? too much trouble to check through systematically, but Almodovar's Volver would certainly feature in the top 10, as well as Medem's Lucia y el sexo. Cedric Klapisch's Auberge Espagnole is one of my all time favourites. Fatih Akin's Gegen die Wand (head-on) springs to mind, as do Good-bye Lenin and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and we mustn't forget Amelie, which I think came out just after the millennium ...

So I guess it's been a good year, and decade, if we leave aside all the politics and wars.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

crunching numbers

One of my xmas holiday traditions is that I check the science citation index to see whether anybody has bothered citing my old research papers. This year, my five earliest works have gone empty-handed, but most others have still received a fair number of citations. The top three in new citations are:

1. my proteins and pressure review, which is also at the top of the overall citation list (updated version now online).

2. Jaikaran et al. J. Mol. Biol. -- an amyloid paper that has risen steeply to no. 4 of my ranking and will probably reach no. 3 next year. From the same project comes:

3. Higham et al. FEBS Lett. (climbing to No. 9). Very pleased to see the amyloid papers are still finding attention. My own role in these was only a minor one, but the first authors definitely deserve the recognition.

My Hirsch index (number n of citations that have been cited at least n times) is stuck at 16 now, which is a shame. For six years after retiring from research I watched in amazement as it kept climbing without any input from me.

Anyhow. Always fun to do some statistics. More about this next year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

saving the trees

Just to let everybody know that I haven't written a single xmas card this year, so if you expected one and looked up the blog to see whether I'm still alive, please don't take it personally. xmas panic starts around a month too early for me and lasts a month too long, and with one thing coming to another, I just didn't get round to any mailings.

Enjoying long walks with my son now and the occasional glimpse at the web when I can get access. Also the quiet after the rush is always a good time to hatch new book projects and such like, so watch this space.

happy holidays to all, whatever you're celebrating ...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

freezing spiders

Spending hours out walking in the cold today, I noticed that spiders' webs are looking really strange these days. I saw lots of webs that were a quite a few threads short of the usual beautiful symmetry:





So I'm wondering whether the cold weather clogs up their spinning ducts, or dampens their motivation. "Can't be bothered with geometry today, it's too freaking cold" I hear them mutter. Just a random thought. May have to ask our local spider expert about this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

incompetence explained

As I'm grounded due to the Eurostar problems, it's a perfect time to think about incompetence in the workplace. This ubiquitous phenomenon was brilliantly explained 40 years ago in the book The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull.

The fundamental principle of the title states simply that:

"In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His [or Her] Level of Incompetence."

Now I like to think of this in terms of schools, where everybody has seen the principle in action. If a teacher is doing a good job at teaching s/he will get promoted to deputy head or head teacher, meaning they will do less of the teaching which they are good at, and more of the management work which they may not be so good at.

If a head teacher still does a good job at leading the school, they may be promoted to lead a larger school, which they might find more challenging. If they are still good at that, they may become school inspector or some sort of bureaucrat quite remote from everything they used to be good at.

The trouble is that in every step of the process, people who do well get removed from what they do well, while people who don't do quite as well, are stuck at what Peter calls their Level of Incompetence.

Note that it's nobody's fault in particular, it's just an in-built flaw of having a hierarchy where people get promoted on the basis of their performance.

The best way to avoid getting stuck at one's level of incompetence is to get out of the rat-race and do something that is outside of any hierarchical order. I seem to remember that in the book -- as it reflects 60s society -- the male employees can't refuse promotion or abandon the rat race, as their wives would object to the feared loss of social status. Hoping that men are more liberated today, they may find it easier to escape!

I hear that the original book got reprinted this year, so get a copy if you can. It really explains a lot of things that would otherwise remain forever mysterious. Like the fact that trains can be stopped by the wrong kind of leaves, or snow that's too fluffy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

orient meets occident

The enchantress of Florence
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape 2008


First up, I have to admit that this, Rushdie’s 10th novel, is the first one I’ve read, so I may end up saying things that are blatantly obvious to people more familiar with his work. I’m also quite happily ignorant of the work of most of his male, British-based contemporaries. So I’m in the fortunate position of reading the book purely on the merits of its contents.

What attracted me to the novel was the fact that it makes surprising connections between Orient and Occident, weaving history and magic realism into a very colourful pattern, which, I think, tells us something about our shared cultural heritage. The enchantress of the title is Qara Köz, (supposedly) an aunt of the Mughal emperor Akbar the great. While reading the book, I wasn’t sure whether she was among the historic or the fictional characters, but just now a google search for her name brought up only references to the novel, so I guess she’s an imaginary person (just like Akbar’s favourite wife is imaginary within the novel).

At the court of Akbar arrives a European traveller who claims to be her son, although he is obviously too young for this to be true. The stranger tells an elaborate story to back up his claim, leading Qara Köz from the Mughal empire to Persia, then to Florence, where she meets historical figures including Niccolo Machiavelli, Andrea Doria, and the Medici princes, then to the New World, where the story-teller is born, who completes her circumnavigation of the globe.

Orient and Occident in Rushdie’s historical fantasy are equally violent and Machiavellian places, where nobody can trust anybody else. Celebrated military leaders typically die from treason within their own ranks. Everybody has to watch their back constantly, and the “enchantress” has to switch her allegiance repeatedly and walk the very fine line between being enchanting and being persecuted as a witch.

It is fascinating to see a synopsis of the histories that are normally treated as though they had happened on different planets, even though there definitely were trade connections, and thus must have been people who moved between the different cultures flowering in distant parts of the world.

I generally think that Europeans tend to be in denial about the influence that oriental culture, promoted by the Arabs in Spain and by the Turks at the Eastern borders of Christian Europe, had on our cultural evolution. Too keen to define itself as the Christian Occident against the Islamic Orient, Europe failed to appreciate the good things the Islamic world had to offer, e.g. Islamic science in the Dark Ages, when there was not much European science happening at all.

Therefore, this tale of two cultures projects a very interesting light on renaissance history (familiar in the European part, and new to me in the Indian part). Of course one could also read it as a fable reflecting modern cultural conflicts.

Friday, December 18, 2009

beauty of fractals

... time to break up the series of text posts with a picture, here's in praise of natural fractals:



Oddly enough this tree stands in Oxford city centre (Jowett Walk), on a small patch of land that is probably a College garden and really to small for it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

a three-billion-year-old patch-up

[deutsche Version]

One of the areas of science that don't get any coverage in the general media concerns the evolution of the protein synthesis apparatus, which in my opinion holds the (as yet hidden) clue to the origin of the protein/RNA/DNA life we know today. It's incredibly important for our fundamental understanding of biology, but maybe it's too complicated to explain to lay people, so nobody bothers.

Paul Schimmel's work on tRNA synthesases (the enzymes that attach amino acids to transfer RNAs so they can be correctly incorporated into proteins) is a prime example. It's a highly complex system that has been around since the time of the last common ancestor of all living things (LUCA), but before that it clearly evolved out of a much simpler system, and understanding the details could open a window into the time before LUCA.

Now Schimmel's group has published in last week's issue of Nature (but without any accompanying fanfare on the front pages) an intriguing example of how evolution dealt with an severe weakness of the system. The tRNA synthetase for alanine (AlaRS) is prone to accept wrong amino acids, especially both the smaller glycine and the larger serine.

Obviously, all "attempts" to fix this by modifying the recognition site have failed, because the key residue in the recognition site is unchanged in all species anybody ever looked at. Having failed to solve the problem, nature developed a patch-up, in the shape of a second enzyme, derived from AlaRS, but working independently, in a secondary check-up stage. This enzyme, known as AlaXp (not sure what the Xp stands for, maybe the need for a patch reminded somebody of Windows?), is so widely distributed today that it also must have been around since the days of LUCA. In a whole series of crystal structures, Schimmel's group has now unraveled how this patch works.

So this, as well as the evolution of the tRNA synthetases, tells us something about how evolution developed the protein synthesis machinery that is universally used today, and specifically how it dealt with a problem that didn't yield to conventional improvements by mutation. But try explaining that to a newspaper editor ...


Reference:

Min Guo, Yeeting E. Chong, Ryan Shapiro, Kirk Beebe, Xiang-Lei Yang & Paul Schimmel
Nature 2009, 462, 808

Paradox of mistranslation of serine for alanine caused by AlaRS recognition dilemma

Alanyl-tRNA synthetases (AlaRSs) may confuse glycine or serine with alanine, potentially causing mistranslation and thus profound functional consequences, with serine posing a bigger challenge than glycine. AlaXps — free-standing, genome-encoded editing proteins — represent one editing checkpoint to prevent this from occurring. Nine crystal structures, together with kinetic and mutational analysis, now show how AlaXps solve the serine misactivation problem.

full text (restricted access)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

decade of a domain

my first domain name, www.michaelgross.co.uk, is 10 years old today, so I'll take this as an excuse to post a brief history of my website, blog and associated activities. If nothing else, it shows how rapidly the online world has changed in the last 13 years.

History of Only Connect!

27.12.1996 learned HTML from a book.
30.12.1996 launched as Michael’s Home Page, then releasing a numbered issue every week. Main sections: Science; science communication; bilingual children. The site is hosted at the Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences (www.ocms.ox.ac.uk).
13.1.1997 issue 3 appears with title “Only Connect!” Fourth section: miscellaneous eccentric ideas. Front page essentially a list of 4 sections and 4-5 subsections each, linking to specific pages. E.g. under science communication, there were links for my first books Nanoworld and Life on the edge, and one to the science journalism list.
29.12.1997 Issue 35 has 43 active files. Updates not necessarily weekly.
9.11.1998 Amazon.com associate.
19.4.1999 New section about Oxford (gargoyles, local authors …)
16.12.1999 registered domain name www.michaelgross.co.uk
3.1.2000 New design: front page now has images and titles to link to eight second level pages (each branching out to multiple third-level pages!): Life on the Edge, Nanoworld, Molecular Computation, Light and Life, journalism, bilingual children, books & music, links. Later added research as ninth second-level page.
12.5.2000 google affiliate (earning a fraction of a cent each time someone used google from my page, but it never added up to a payout!).
Jan 2001 joined associate programs of Amazon.de, .fr, .co.uk
Aut. 2001 moving out of Oxford University, site now hosted at Birkbeck crystallography (BBK).
18.10.2002 registered domain name www.proseandpassion.com
22.10.2002 backed up 150 html files, then redeveloped site with simplified structure and new style (using cascading style sheets). Front page now circle of eight icons (no text other than the “alt” text that appears when touching icon with mouse), rather than vertical list of icons plus text. Circle icons link to 4 books, plus pages called whoiam, journalism, research, prose and projects. The last one was soon replaced by a link to the Shakira page, developed Jan-Mar 2003. E.M.Forster quote now written across the top such that “the prose and the passion appears in the middle like a title.
Jan 2005 installed copy of site at geocities (main site still hosted at BBK).
10.4.2006 upgraded geocities to ad-free geocities-plus, pointed proseandpassion domain name at this.
Spring 2006 joined MySpace, started blogging there and on
10.5.2006 at yahoo 360.
11.5.2006 linked yahoo360 blog to geocities site, where it is mirrored in “red top version. Also joined and tried out blogger that month.
24.5.2006 moved michaelgross.co.uk domain to point at geocities site (stopped updating BBK site, which can still be seen here), pointed proseandpassion domain at yahoo360 blog.
10.7.2006 new front page with “book shelf” design. Slimmed down again, now only five second-level pages. (e.g.one for latest book and one for backlist, not one for every book). Title now “michael gross science writer”, with E.M.Forster quote in top right corner.
1.10.2006 all five second-level pages adapted to new structure.
28.2.2007 added family history page.
Summer 07 joined FaceBook.
2.7.2007 proseandpassion.blogspot.com becomes the main blog, with the proseandpassion domain name pointed at it. Blog posts copied manually to MySpace, and mirrored automatically in FaceBook.
14.5.2008 last entry in Yahoo360 / red top blog, as this has begun to function erratically, accepting only a fraction of the entries posted. All red top entries are still online today, at http://michaelgross.info/blog/index.html/.
Aut.2008 developed somewhat decluttered style for “platypus” page and gradually spread this style over the pages of the other books, e.g. linking to relevant blog label instead of having dedicated (and always out-of-date) “news and events” page.
July 2009 joined twitter as @michaelgrr.
Nov. 2009 Forced to move website to yahoo web hosting and new domain michaelgross.info following closure of geocities in October. Blog now has google page rank of 6/10 (when did that happen?) PR of website has dropped to 0 because of the move, though (it used to oscillate between 4 and 5 for the last few years).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

missing the target

One thing that New Labour governments here have been really good at is setting targets for everything. At one point, I seem to remember, the government even set a target for the maximal number of suicides that was going to be allowed to happen in a certain time frame (or was that in a dream?).

So the whole business of setting carbon reduction targets for timepoints well beyond the next elections really suits them, especially if they don't have to take any actual measures to start moving towards the targets.

This was the philosophy underlying the Climate Change Act 2008, which Gordon Brown has recently held up as a shining example to other nations. Now the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK has picked the Act apart and checked whether the UK can actually meet the targets specified in the Act, based on performance so far, manufacturing capacity, engineering and servicing workforce available, etc.

Obviously, the engineers have their own hidden agenda, namely the grudge that the manufacturing has moved away from the UK, so engineers are now no longer in demand here, so this is an opportunity to say "told you so", and "that's what you get when you train people to become accountants rather than engineers".

But still, the bottom line is that the government hasn't done much to actually meet the targets contained in the 2008 Act, and there is little chance it could meet the targets even if it started doing things now (and in fact, stopped expanding airports now).

Read my news feature in today's issue of Current Biology:

‘Failing’ claims on climate targets
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1054-R1055, 15 December 2009
doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.11.024

Summary and restricted access to PDF file

Monday, December 14, 2009

archaeology of blogging

To my huge surprise, I've just discovered that the first incarnation of my blog (apart from the very first one on MySpace), which was hosted on the Yahoo360 / geocities network of sites has survived the demise of both yahoo360 and geocities. Apparently, blog entries have been moved, along with my website, to the new yahoo domain michaelgross.info.

I usually refer to it as the "red top" version of my blog, it ran from 10.5.2006 to 14.5.2008, with 503 entries, and the complete list of entries is here:

Prose and passion: the red-top version

So if any of my seven faithful readers should ever want to look up a vaguely remembered blog entry from the time before blogspot (i.e. older than summer 2007), that's where to find it. Please ignore the pedestrian design, though ...

PS one entry I just re-read is:

three reasons not to eat your partner

responsibility of chemists

This time of the year, 25 years ago, I was a first term chemistry student, and one morning our inorg. chemistry prof put the periodic table aside to give us a stern lecture on our future responsibility as chemists. That's about the only thing I remember of the Bhopal disaster, which remains to this day (luckily, in a way) the worst industrial accident ever.

Despite being a responsible chemist and all that, I never looked all that closely at what happened and why, until reading this piece on the 25th anniversary.

Bhopal: 25 years of poison, by Indra Sinha

Reading this, you're left wondering whether the event should have been prosecuted as manslaughter, murder, or genocide, but the fact of the matter is that nobody has been prosecuted to this day. (Essentially, an extremely labile and dangerous substance was stored in a large tank, and somebody decided to switch off the cooling for that tank, to save costs, then water accidentally entered the tank and started a reaction -- there are several outrageously wrong decisions in this story that must not be allowed to happen inside a chemical factory.) And people in the area still ingest the poison and get diseases and birth defects from it.

Chemistry aside, what most angers me about these things is the inherent racism assuming that it's no big deal if 20,000 people die in India from negligence of a US-owned factory, while the deaths of 3,000 people in the US are an outrage that can be used as an excuse to invade two countries (again at the cost of tens of thousands less important lives). Clearly, all men are not created equal ...

Friday, December 11, 2009

with apologies to MC Escher

Somebody very kindly put up a convex mirror in the old entrance hall of the Radcliffe Science Library, which now only gives access to the vending machines and a librarian's office. With its original floor tiles and arches, the setting looks very Escher-like in distorted reflection, so I couldn't resist the temptation to try an Escher-esque self portrait:



With sincere apologies to the master, whose reflections you can find on the official Escher website.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

collision course

The Large Hadron Collider is up and running now, after year-long repairs, and producing actual collisions and scientific measurements. And just on time, my review of Paul Halpern's book "Collider" has appeared in this week's edition of Chemistry & Industry (issue 23, p27, restricted online access).

Here's a snippet:


What I found most exciting in this book was the story how physicists came to build bigger and bigger accelerators, ending up with the LHC. There is much to be learned about the nature of human endeavours from this side of the book alone. For example, the fate of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was to be built from scratch in a remote part of Texas, until Congress pulled the plug, contrasts with the LHC which is based on using existing CERN infrastructure and recycling as much as possible from previous instruments, and thus could be financed without much pain.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

ribosome memories

In the monthly round-up of German pieces, we have my take on the Nobel prize for ribosome structure and function, why Ardi is neither chimp-like nor human, and how to adopt a chemist.

The nobel prize piece was a bit of a nostalgia trip as I was also working with ribosomes in the early 1990s, collaborating with Knud Nierhaus' group at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics at Berlin, where Ada Yonath held a visiting professorship at the time. I attended one of the big biannual ribosome meetings in Berlin in 1992 (in the central district that used to be part of the capital of the GDR and in 1992 had more craters than the moon!). I came away with the impression of lots of very bright people feeling their way around in the dark. The crystal structures were really desperately needed, but at that time it was far from clear whether they would ever materialise. Fortunately, around 2000, they did, which is the achievement honoured by this year's Nobel prize in chemistry. And yes, this is chemistry, as the ribosome is nothing but a molecular machine. You can purify the molecular components and assemble a ribosome that has never seen a living cell (and may incorporate synthetic components, or isotope-labelled ones), and it will still work normally. No vital force here, just chemistry.

Anyhow, here are the references:

Adoptieren Sie einen Chemiker, Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, 1175.

Weder Mensch noch Affe Nachrichten aus der Chemie 57, 1208-1210.

Detailansichten der zellulären Eiweißfabrik, Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 16-18.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

education for all

It struck me as somewhat ironic that Shakira came to one of the most exclusive universities in the world last night to talk about providing education for all, but then again, the students here will in the future be the people with the power to change things, so I hope they did take the message in.

I didn't get access of course, but the full text of her lecture at the Oxford Union is online here:

The democratization of education.

Essentially, she was saying that the progress of civilisation throughout human history is due to education for more people, so it is in our best interest to make education accessible to all. (which is what her foundation Pies Descalzos is helping to do in Colombia)

Some snippets:

I’m still a student on all these issues, but I’ve come to learn that there are ways to change this. So no government can say that the challenge of bringing education to every child is an impossible task.

Now I want to be clear about this, this isn’t about charity. This is about investing in human potential. From an ethical point of view, from a moral point of view, it accomplishes a purpose. But also from an economic point of view, this could bring enormous benefits to all mankind. Universal education is the key to global security and economic growth.


That is how I want the youth of 2060 to see us. That our mission for global peace consisted of sending 30,000 educators to Afghanistan, not 30,000 soldiers. That in 2010, world education became more important than world domination.



Using my supernatural abilities, I managed to find her after the lecture and got to see her for about 20 seconds (while students took turns to be photographed with her) before she disappeared through the door you see on the right of the less then perfect picture below. Meanwhile, her partner, Antonio de la Rua, was lounging on a sofa just two metres from where I was standing. (I think this is the first time I saw him in RL.)



For better photos of the event, check www.shakira.com, they have now set up a picture gallery.

PS there's also a report in the local newspaper, the Oxford Mail

PPS There is now a ten-minute video with key of the speech available for viewing via the official site.

Monday, December 07, 2009

world cup final

The climate change world cup final has started now, except that we don't get another chance every 4 years on this one.

Showing that international co-operation is possible, fifty newspapers including the Guardian have joined forces to co-publish a joint leader comment today (see this picture gallery).

You can follow the news from Copenhagen on twitter:
http://twitter.com/cop15
http://twitter.com/revkin

Meanwhile, our school has sent us an invitation for children to take part in a ski trip, by plane of course, and with snow guarantee in April 2011, i.e. if they don't have snow they'll make some. Looks like they want to teach the children how to maximise their carbon footprint ... Goes to show that people here in the UK just don't get it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

pigeon-holes

Isn't it reassuring to see that all these new-fangled communication technologies from email to twitter haven't managed to displace the good old-fashioned pigeon holes ? Here in Oxford, everybody needs one at their college plus one at their institute, so there must be many thousands of them. This set of PHs is on Parks Road:

Friday, December 04, 2009

huffing and puffing

A third of a century ago, H. McGurk and J. W. MacDonald published a landmark paper in Nature (Hearing lips and seeing voices, vol. 264, p 746) showing that speech perception is influenced by visual impressions as well, not just by the sound.

Back in 1997, I did an opinion piece for New Scientist exploring the implications of the McGurk effect (as it became known) for the unfortunate tradition of dubbing movies and thus mismatching the auditory and visual signals. In that piece I also mentioned some of the variations on the McGurk experiment done by other researchers, some of which were quite funny, e.g. perceiving speech from inverted faces. I'm still wondering whether the subjects of the study had to stand on their heads.

Last week, Nature published another spin-off, easily summarised as "McGurk effect in air-puffs." Briefly, the authors Bryan Gick And Donald Derrick show for air flow what McGurk and MacDonald showed for vision, namely that it can distort auditory perception. For instance there is a short sharp puff of air in saying "pa", but not in "ba". The paper is on page 502, and a short interview with the first author appears on page 388.

Fortunately, though, all this doesn't affect anybody's enjoyment of movies, unlike the original McGurk effect and the dubbing industry.


PS You can read a "director's cut" version of my 1997 McGurk piece either here or in my recent book The birds, the bees, and the platypuses.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

welcome to Hamburg ... errr ... Berlin

If you choose to fly to Germany with a certain orange-tinged budget carrier, you shouldn't be surprised to end up in Berlin when you booked Hamburg. Or in Hamburg when you booked Dortmund. Because the map of Germany that this company uses (at least in their ads, hopefully not for their pilots!) looks like this:



Four cities are definitely wrong, one may be right (hard to tell as Dusseldorf and Cologne are so close to each other, so the line indicating Cologne may be pointing to either), and Munich appears to be vaguely in the right area). I recommend to take the train instead.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

speaking at the Oxford Union

Shakira is due to speak to the Oxford Union (members only event) on Monday the seventh. The blurb to the event is basically a summary of her musical success, with no mention of her work in education. I may be wrong, but I'm quite sure that she will use the opportunity to talk about education and her foundations Pies Descalzos, and Alas (see for instance this recent Ibero-American summit). I will have to work it out from the local press though, as I'm not a member and can't get in.



Shakira visiting the Pies Descalzos’ school in Chocó (Colombia) - 2009 (shakira.com)


PS (3.12.) My prediction that she is going to talk about education has now been confirmed by the official website.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

copenhagen countdown

Six days to go until the big COP15 meeting at Copenhagen. Quite curious what will come of it, after so much debate beforehand.

In my view, the big problem is that people still don't understand that unlimited economic growth is not compatible with a planet of limited resources. So as long as governments give the environment with one hand and take away with the other in the name of stimulating the economy (UK government approved new runway for LHR airport while pretending care about CO2 emissions!), we're not going to be able to fix things. An economy that only works when it grows like a tumour isn't working at all.

Also, as Naomi Klein pointed out in Rolling Stone Magazine recently, there is much too little appreciation of the fact which she calls the "climate debt", i.e. that the rich countries caused most of the excess CO2 we have, while the poor countries will suffer most from its effects (on both sides of the equation, "most" means over 90%). So the billions due to be paid for climate mitigation aren't aid or charity, they are just fair compensation.

Anyhow. Time to stop ranting and sit back for the final show. In my last pre-Copenhagen piece on climate, out in today's issue of Current Biology, I've tried to make sense of the various political wrestlings surrounding the Barcelona negotiations in November:

Climate jostlings intensify
Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 22, R1009-R1010, 1 December 2009
doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.11.004
abstract and restricted access to PDF file
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