Friday, August 31, 2007

isotopes saga continued

Back in March I reported how researchers think that a diet enriched in heavy isotopes could fend off aging:

This made a bit of a splash in the general media. But the discussion is also going on in the scientific journals, see the latest issue of Trends in Biotechnology:

Heavy isotopes to avert ageing?
Vadim V. Demidov
Center for Advanced Biotechnology, Boston University, 36 Cummington St., Boston, MA 02215, USA
Oxidative modifications of cellular components by free
radicals are thought to be the cause of ageing and ageassociated
diseases. Extensive prior research has aimed
to lessen such damage by counteracting the free-radical
oxidizers with antioxidants, but there have been no
attempts to protect the oxidizer-targeted biomolecules
by making them more stable against oxidation. A recent
paper describes an original and promising method based
on the use of non-radioactive heavy isotopes, which
might enable living cells to resist the free-radical oxidation
and consequently allow us to live a healthier,
longer life.

TRENDS in Biotechnology
Vol.25 No.9, p. 371-375

Thursday, August 30, 2007

ghost bikes

a couple of months ago, a student cycling right in the heart of Oxford, outside the Bodleian Library, was killed in a collision with a garbage truck. A couple of days later a bicycle spraypainted entirely in white turned up by the roadside, chained to a post. While I immediately made the connection with the accident, I didn't quite figure out who put it there and why -- whether it was some kind of religious tradition to paint an object relating to the death and use it as a memorial.

Now I've come across a mention of the group visual resistance which has been putting up such ghost bikes in New York for a couple of years:

"Beginning in June 2005, members of Visual Resistance have been creating small and somber memorials for New York City bicyclists killed by automobiles. Each time a biker is killed, a bicycle painted all white is locked to a street sign and a small stenciled plaque is bolted in place above it.

The installations are meant as reminders of the tragedy that took place on an otherwise anonymous street corner, and as quiet statements in support of bikers’ right to safe travel. It was inspired by Ghost Bike Pittsburgh, which was in turn inspired by a similar effort in St. Louis. In recent months, Ghost Bikes have appeared in cities across the country, as well as in the UK."

The Oxford ghost bike doesn't have a plaque, though. At least I haven't found any.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

heard it on the grapevine

As you slurp your well-deserved bordeaux or beaujolais, spare a thought for the complex genetics giving your wine that rich taste. A consortium of genome researchers from France and Italy has now presented a draft version of the genome of the grapevine. Among interesting insights into the evolution of flowering plants, they also discovered that the genes responsible for health-beneficial compounds such as resveratrol, and those responsible for flavours, are massively overrepresented in comparison with the genomes of other plants.

Read my story here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Herr der Diebe

Trying to treat my Venice withdrawal symptoms, I've watched "The Thief Lord" today, which is an English language adaptation of a German children's book (by Cornelia Funke) set in Venice. I don't normally watch children's movies these days (I have my people for that) but this one was actually quite nice, and you do get a lot of Venice. Shot on location, with real vaporetti, real canals and real tourists ...

IMDB details

Friday, August 24, 2007

ecos magazine

In Germany, there is a magazine in easy Spanish for people learning the language, called ECOS (from spotlight publishers, who also publish magazines in English, French, Italian ... ). In February this year they ran a 6-page feature about Shakira, complete with cover (and a wild mix of pix from different photoshoots).

I've been waiting for this for years, and of course I missed it when it finally happened, so now I ordered the issue from the publishers, and they sent it without problems. You can order your own copy

It costs Eur. 5.50 plus postage.

The magazines are actually quite good, generally (we have a subscription of the French one, ecoute, and buy ECOS whenever someone happens to be in Germany and finds one). Explanations and vocabulary are given in German, though, so the mags are less useful for readers coming from a different language background. Shame this kind of thing doesn't seem to exist for English speaking people learning other languages ...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

(solar) power to the people

Way back when in the eighties, when I was young and green, Germany's Green Party, untainted by real government responsibility, had lots of nice policies in their programs, including the one that people who produce renewable energy small scale, e.g. with a solar panel on their roof, should be entitled to sell any spare electricity back to the providers. Very simple, very obvious, though we never really believed we'd get through with this in a capitalist world.

When the red-green coalition came to power, it very sneakily introduced this idea into a new law governing energy provision (living abroad by then, I actually missed it when it happened), without creating the storm I would have expected.

These so-called feed-in tariffs have since then become a major success story, as they have made private photovoltaic cells economically attractive, plus the idea has been copied by legislators in many other countries -- as I found out to my surprise when I researched a news feature for Current Biology.

Read my story here:

Current Biology 17, No 16 (21.08.), R616
Germany goes for solar

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

changing lives

... oh, and I should mention that the whole venetian adventure would not have been possible without the help of the Newman Trust, a charity that took my son, who has autism, on a one-week holiday. So a big thank you to them and all their volunteer helpers. They really do change lives.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

canal grande

Did I mention that Venice's vaporetti (water buses) are the best public transport ever? OK, they may be as crowded as the London underground or any other busy transport system. But the sights are so much nicer. We did an (almost) complete round on one of the circular lines, which takes 2 hours (imagine going round London on the circle line!) and have been up and down the grand canal countless times, discovering new sights each time. Oh, and very reassuringly they actually stop people from boarding when the boat is packed. I expected them to just keep pushing ...

so here's to the hours spent on board:

(image borrowed from Wikipedia while the digital camera containing our pix is still travelling elsewhere ... )

Oh, and while we were there, the newspapers reported that Stonehenge, Eiffel Tower, and the pyramids were among the most disappointing tourist attractions, according to polls on site. Canal Grande was mentioned among those that did not disappoint.

think with the senses

... science coverage will return soon, but here's a round-up of other Biennale impressions:

Leon Ferrari from Buenos Aires, Argentina, exhibited a series of collages, combining real (I think) headlines from the catholic paper Observatore romano (such as "Pope stresses importance of the family") with historic depictions of violence pepretated by or in the name of the church, such as crusades, inquisition, etc. Not a new topic of course, but very hard-hitting and sadly still relevant.

Oscar Mun~oz, from Cali, Colombia, showed three portraits in statu nascendi, very simple black ink paintings on grey background, painted in two or three minutes, so you get your art while you wait. except that the screen goes blank again afterwards and the process starts again. To avoid boredom, we get 3 portraits on 3 parallel screens.

Several US artists have visualised in one form or the other the fates and/or number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A somewhat more original view on war is presented by Nedko Solakov from Bulgaria, who explored the patent dispute between Bulgaria (which continues to produce Kalashnikov machine guns without paying royalties) and the Russians who claim patent rights to the design. As the artist points out, the Russians have used the cyrillic alphabet, invented by a Bulgarian, and lactobacillus bulgaricus for centuries without paying royalties ....

Hiroharu Moru (Japan) made people hold a huge helium-filled balloon with a question mark on it on a line such that the question floated ca. 5 m above their heads. No answers provided, though.

El Anatsui (Ghana) produced two large (6m*3m ?) golden vlies like tapestries by recycling metal tops and screw caps from bottles of wine and other alcoholic beverages. Boy that must have taken a lot of drinking. But it looks nice too. And I can relate to it as I also keep things like corks, you never know what you might be able to use them for.

In the Australian Pavilion, Daniel von Sturmer presented video installations of some very simple but clever experiments involving gravity and cubes. In one, which took me a couple of minutes to figure out, you see a dozen small wooden cubes tumbling around in a large hollow cube in rather unpredictable way. My theory is that the large box is rocked around in all directions on a movable support, but that we cannot see this movement because camera and lighting are connected rigidly to the box. So what looks like random forces pulling the blocks in this or that direction, piling them up or knocking them down, is in fact gravity.

In Thailand's pavilion, one gets a sensual experience of the Buddhist saying that we should be unsticky like the sand -- which doesn't care whether an emperor walked over it or whether a dog excreted on it. The sand is real, the dog is thankfully only a video installation.

Monday, August 20, 2007

prenez soin de vous

As I mentioned briefly, I found Sophie Calle's installation "Prenez soin de vous" at the French pavilion of the Biennale completely addictive. I could have easily spent all day there, watching all the videos and reading all the responses. I'll need a interactive DVD version of this ...

Partially of course it's the fact that a written text is the centrepiece of the installation, so as a writer (and reader) I can relate to the fact that there are more than a hundred different ways to look at this text.

Most papers have covered this only with a paragraph or two, so I had to turn to the Sydney Morning Herald to spare me the trouble of writing an arts review myself:

Spurned artist's 107 ways to loathe her lover

Sophie Calle has turned heartache into conceptual art, writes Angelique Chrisafis.

PICTURE this. You're one of France's best-known living conceptual artists. You are 51 and visiting Berlin. Your mobile beeps; it's an email from your boyfriend. In a hideously self-absorbed message about human emotion, he dumps you electronically, saying it hurts him more than you. He signs off: "Take care of yourself." You're heartbroken. Then you think of its potential as art.

Sophie Calle has filled the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale with a praised exhibition about her emailed dumping letter. Over two years, she distributed the missive to 107 women professionals, photographed them reading it and invited them to analyse it, according to their job. The ex's grammar and syntax have been torn apart by a copy editor, his manners rubbished by an etiquette consultant and his lines pored over by Talmudic scholars. He has been reordered by a crossword-setter, evaluated by a judge, shot up by a markswoman, second-guessed by a chess player and performed by the actress Jeanne Moreau. A forensic psychiatrist decided he was a "twisted manipulator". The temple to a woman scorned is entitled Take Care of Yourself (Prenez soin de vois), immortalising lines that Calle, if she hadn't had recourse to the international art world, might have read again and again in tears.

"The idea came to me very quickly - two days after he sent it," she says. "I showed the email to a close friend asking her how to reply and she said she'd do this or that. The idea came to me to develop an investigation through various women's professional vocabulary."

At first it was therapy; then art took over. "After one month I felt better. There was no suffering. It worked. The project had replaced the man." She feared he might seek a reconciliation, which would have ruined the whole thing.

Sitting under a pair of stuffed bulls' heads in Calle's warehouse home south of Paris, surveyed by her taxidermy housemates (a bear in a rocking chair, a tiger in a necklace and a zebra), it's hard not to wonder what man would send her a monstrous email like this.

He must have known he would be immortalised by French art's game-player in chief, the Marcel Duchamp of emotional dirty laundry. This is the woman who 30 years ago started her career following and photographing strangers in the street, once trailing a man to Italy. Over a decade before the British artist Tracey Emin displayed her soiled sheets, Calle invited strangers to sleep in her bed for eight-hour shifts over nine days, photographing and asking them what age they were when they last wet the bed.

She got hold of a lost address book, interviewed everyone inside about its owner and published the results in the newspaper Liberation, delighted when he sought revenge by publishing a nude photo of her. She got a job as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel to rummage through guests' possessions and photograph the mess people left.

Calle won't say who dumped her, only that there is a one-word clue at the start of the book of the exhibition. Did he approve?

"He knew about it. He didn't like the idea but he respected it. So he decided not to meddle."

Was she looking for revenge? "No. And a fear that it might be interpreted like that initially made me hesitate."

She doesn't use all her boyfriends as work, she insists. Her current partner has asked her not to do anything based on him and she has agreed.

Take Care of Yourself is only her second piece about a partner, she says, if you don't count No Sex Last Night, a film about marriage made with her then husband. Her first dumping piece, Exquisite Pain, is to be revisited in an exhibition with her "guardian angel" Frank Gehry in Luxembourg. It is the record of how in 1985, Calle won a bursary to Japan for three months and her boyfriend arranged to meet her in India at the end. As she was boarding the plane she got a message saying he was in hospital in France. He had actually met someone else. She repeatedly told the story of her dumping, asking others about their worst moments of suffering. She found it too raw to show the piece for almost 20 years, until a Pompidou Centre exhibition in 2003.

Raking through her emotional life for subjects, she has been compared to women artists such as Emin and accused of cheap tricks. "Love, life and death, all of that is the most mundane material for artists. It amuses me because people often say, doesn't it bother you to show your private life? I say, well if you ruled out private life, you would have to eliminate all poetry. Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine use their emotional life as subject matter. What I'm putting on show is a dumping. All dumping letters are the same, they're unpleasant. This one is neither better or worse than all the rest. It's an aid to a break-up. I don't talk about the man, and all the better. The subject is the letter, the text. It was the words 'take care of yourself'. Those words made me click. He said 'take care of yourself', he knows how I take care of myself, he knows what my method is."

A prime example of Calle turning pain into art is another piece for the biennale. Calle says that when she was told last year she would be showing at Venice, another call came through: her dying mother who had a month to live. Calle nursed her at home. But she had heard people who are dying often wait for the two minutes when their relatives leave the room to slip away.

"It became almost an obsession. I wanted to be there when she died. I didn't want to miss her last word, her last smile. As I knew I had to shut my eyes to sleep, because the agony was very long, there was a risk I might not be there. I put a camera there, thinking if she gave a last jump or start, a last word … I'd have it on film."

This led to another fixation. "The obsession of always having a tape in the camera, changing the tape every hour, was so great that instead of counting the minutes left to my mother, I counted the minutes left on each tape."

Calle was in the room when her mother died. She hadn't shot the footage as a piece and didn't feel ready to use it, but her Venice curator persuaded her. Pas pu saisir la mort is a film installation of the last minutes of her mother's life. "I spoke to my mother about the biennale … She was so horrified about not being there, I thought the only way I can make her be there is if she's the subject."

protein architecture

I'm back home, trying to adapt to the real world and the British "summer".

One of many things that struck me about venice is that it is one of the very few "parallel universe" experiences available in this universe. As the whole infrastructure depends on water transport, there is an endless supply of "mutant" functionalities to observe, from the speed-boat ambulance through to the waterborne fruit stalls and the rather obscenely big yachts of the finance administration. It feels like Philipp Pullman's parallel Universe in "Northern Lights" where zeppelins ruled the air transport business. I kept looking out for zeppelins in venice, but there weren't any.

one of the venetian sights I knew about for many years but now had the chance to see first hand is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. My PhD supervisor once gave or sent me a picture postcard with this famous staircase:

Which of course will leave any protein scientist scratching their head in disbelief. I mean how could the Renaissance architects know exactly what an alpha helix and a beta sheet looks like ? This looks so much like a small protein set in stone that it's downright spooky. (It was built in 1499, 4.5 centuries before alpha helix and beta sheet were discovered!)

When we dropped by, the beta sheet was hidden by scaffolding though.

There are more pix on the

italian wiki site

Friday, August 17, 2007

walking on water

I could get used to living in Venice, crumbling palaces, lots of water, no cars, what's not to like? after a few days one learns to navigate the maze and figure out whether a given errand will be quicker by land or by boat, and to steer clear of the tourist groups following a leader holding an umbrella aloft.

Have spent two days at the biennale, also checked out peggy guggenheim collection, murano, the beach at lido, the doge's palace and a concert by

Interpreti Veneziani which was actually quite nice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

pensa con i sensi

... senti con la mente.

Well, i am at the biennale at Venice right now, and the Italian quote is the motto of this years edition. Sounds a lot like "prose and passion" in fact.

Have seen lots of exciting stuff here which I will probably rave about for months to come (e.g. Sophie Calle's "prenez soin de vous" which I love to bits!) but right now I have to keep it short. You know this blog has to be shipped by water taxi and all that, so I would have to charge you double for every word I write :D

So I'll just post a quick link to the Biennale and tell you the rest later.

Friday, August 10, 2007

a shark on the roof

happy birthday to one of the oddest Oxford landmarks, the Headington shark, which turned 21 yesterday.

It even has its own entry in Wikipedia, which is


Talking about sharks, the great white supposedly photographed off the coast of Cornwall turned out to be a hoax. But the Headington one is really there on the roof, I've seen it myself. (Coming into Oxford on the coaches from the airports or from London, you can't miss it if you keep looking out to the left.)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

paris je t'aime

... talking about movies, I went to see Paris je t'aime this week. Didn't expect much from it, being an episode film on an all-too-obvious topic, but I really liked it a lot. IMDB details

Many familiar and many more unfamiliar sights of Paris, many familiar and quite a few fresh faces, what's not to like ?

Plus it's been the first time in many years that I've seen our local arthouse cinema packed to capacity.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

toda la vida

-- ¿ Y hasta cuándo cree usted que podemos seguir en este ir y venir del carajo?
-- le preguntó.
Florentino Ariza tenía la respuesta preparada desde hacía cincuenta y tres años, siete meses y once días con sus noches.
-- Toda la vida -- dijo.

This is of course the ending of El amor en los tiempos del colera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I hear it's been turned into a movie by Mike Newell (who did 4 weddings and a funeral and one of the Harry potter movies), for more details check the

I'm a bit worried that it appears to be in English, even though most of the cast are from a spanish speaking background. but let's see.

Good news though is that Shakira appears to have contributed several songs to the soundtrack, so I'll have to see the movie ...

Oh, the quote from the end of the book, by the way, was featured in a web page I made ages ago and haven't touched in more than 6 years. I was amazed to see that it's still online:

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

German Titan

Just one piece published in German this month -- about the weird chemistry happening in the thick and foggy atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan:

Groß M:
Chemie in unserer Zeit 41, Nr 4, 302
Atmosphärenchemie des Saturnmonds Titan

Monday, August 06, 2007

life and death

I read a feature this weekend about people who received sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13-17. Deeply depressing:,,2140431,00.html

Never mind that a few of the cases reported look like clear miscarriage of justice to me, the whole idea of spending 70 years in jail for something you did (or in a few cases, didn't stop others from doing!) when you were 13, looks perverted to me.

Although some people are apparently allowed to kill at random. Jean-Charles de Menezes did nothing wrong except looking a bit foreign. The inquiry into his death has now finished with essentially no consequences:,,2140692,00.html

Sunday, August 05, 2007

havana club

As summer has finally arrived even in England, I will mix a nice little Cuba Libre later this evening.

Which reminds me that Cuban rum, Havana Club is among the very few commercial products imported from Cuba that you can find easily in the UK. Oh, and it's a very good rum too. (Don't be fooled by the brand with the bat in the logo -- that company was based in Cuba before the revolution and is now operating elsewhere. I have heard allegations that they funded a few of the 500 or so assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.)

More about the real Cuban rum is here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

If you found this blog via my domain name, you may be surprised to have ended up here, but don't worry, the content is the same in the various incarnations of my blog.

The thing is that the geocities (red-top) version of the blog, to which the domain name used to point, still doesn't accept comments, and is rather dull in that I cannot put links, pix, etc. around the blog. So I'm now making the blogspot version the main edition of my blog. The direct address is

However, if you're after an older blog entry, try the yahoo 360 version, which has a lovely calendar tool, where you can move the mouse over the calendar dates and the corresponding titles of blog entries pop up. This version is here:
and it has the complete archive of 245+ blog posts since May 2006.

Oh, and the busiest version in terms of page views and comments is in MySpace:

For the time being, these 3 will receive the same content, so pick whatever format you prefer.

Friday, August 03, 2007

do you ndiyo ?

Amazing the number of things one can learn from just one newspaper article. Yesterday there was one from which I learned the swahili word for "yes", the fact that there are plenty of short and snappy domain names left, if you are prepared to use swahili words, and most importantly, that is aiming to give people in the developing world access to computer capacity by developing a device (called a Nivo box) that allows you to use remote computers without actually having a computer yourself. I think even here University libraries could save a lot of money switching to that kind of device. What's the point of having an array of state of the art computers that only serve as interface for stupid things like catalogue searches, which could easily run on a central server ?

So it's smiles all around. Plus a lovely quote:

For an example, Stafford-Fraser points to the railway station in Cambridge which for months had three display screens high on a wall in the main hall: one said "arrivals"; one "departures"; and one "Press Control-Alt-Delete to log in".

I think the monitors were in that condition when I visited Cambridge in May. but I didn't think of the logical solution.

Anyhow, here's the full

PS: Ndiyo founder Quentin Stafford Fraser is also famous for setting up the world's first webcam, the Cambridge Coffeepot Cam.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

smoking ban fuels climate change

It's been a month now that smokers have been evicted from pubs and bars in England, and business is going on as usual ... at the cost of the climate. Because what happens is that every pub that has even a square foot of outside space has furnished that with a gazebo and patio-heaters, and bingo, they have a nice and cozy pub for smokers again. Who cares that the heaters are the most energy-wasting and climate-damaging invention ever made ? I've read this week that the current epidemic of patio heaters is likely to scupper Britain's chance of meeting its Kyoto target.

There is more on patio heaters (pre-smoking ban) here:,,1589372,00.html

I pinch myself every time I see one, wondering whether I fell into Alice's rabbit hole. I mean how unbelievably stupid can people be, to produce, sell, buy, use these things ? Back in the 70s, when awareness of environmental issues awoke in Germany, we used to joke about people who had poorly insulated homes that "they might as well heat the garden". Never in my weirdest nightmares would the possibility have occurred to me that 30 years later, with climate change on the doorstep, people would actually heat their gardens (and the atmosphere) on purpose.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Simpsons conquer the Milky Way

The Simpsons have now been broadcast to everybody living within a radius of over 20 light years. While this range covers only a small part of our galaxy (100,000 light years across), it does include for example the three planets of the red dwarf star Gleise 876. As these planets are roughly 15 light years away, we will have to wait another ten years to hear back what their inhabitants thought of the first series.

This is just one of many anarcho-scientific-humouristic thoughts you can get when you mix up The Simpsons, Carl Sagan, and some hard science. In his new book “What’s science ever done for us”, essentially a “Physics of the Simpsons” book in the now well-established tradition of Laurence Krauss’s “Physics of Star Trek,” Paul Halpern explores the scientific content, background, and humour of 26 Simpsons episodes (I’m not a serial TV viewer, but this is probably the number of episodes per season?). Highlights include the Coriolis effect (Bart vs. Australia), donut-shaped universes (They saved Lisa’s brain), and lots of travel through time and space.

In the over 400 episodes of the series so far, there have been masses of references to science, from which Halpern has mainly selected those based on physics, astronomy and cosmology. He also displays an enhanced affinity towards the “Tree-house of horror” episodes, in which the laws of science are often broken gratuitously. Thus, his book is entertaining and stimulating, but by no means comprehensive.

While treaties on the philosophy of The Simpsons already exist, crucial topics such as the everyday engineering (remember the monorail?), the biology (what was written in the flowerbeds outside the botanic gardens when the family went to see the smelly flower?), and the maths of the series remain to be explored in depth. (For maths, the book cites which I need to check out soonish!) Also, the book was of course printed before the simpsons movie came out, so it can only offer a "checklist" of possible scientific aspects to look out for in the movie. Many years from now, when the Sun will turn into a red giant and The Simpsons will have explored all avenues of human knowledge, a complete “science of the simpsons” would end up just being a funnier version of Encyclopaedia Britannica.