Monday, December 27, 2010

four degrees warmer

As politicians blatantly fail to find ways of limiting climate change to a warming of no more than two degrees C, scientists are beginning to think about what will happen if and when the average temperature rises by four degrees or more, which may in fact happen as early as the 2060s.

Not all effects are likely to just double from a two-degrees world. Some, including the predicted displacement of people, may take on a very different (meaning catastrophic) quality.

Read my news feature in the latest issue of Current Biology:

Researchers ponder a 4C temperature rise
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 24, R1052-R1053, 21 December 2010

summary and free access to pdf file

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

christmas tandem

This year's christmas lights in Oxford's High Street feature a few bicycles, very fitting for one of the UK's biggest bike hotspots, also including a tandem:

Wondering whether they picked up abandoned bikes from the street and painted them ...

Oh, and I have to admit I haven't written a single xmas card this year - if you were expecting one, I'm afraid this seasonal blog post is all you're going to get.

happy holidays!

PS (2011): the tandem is there again this year, and somebody else took a much better photo of it, which you can see on flickr

Friday, December 17, 2010

wytham woods

A couple of years ago I wrote a feature for Oxford Today about the climate change research that Earthwatch carries out in Wytham Woods, just outside Oxford. Wytham Woods is actually a reasonably large (by today's standards) patch of wood, with an intriguing history and an amazing track record in ecological research, to the extent that there is now an entire book about it:

Peter Savill, Christopher Perrins, Keith Kirby, and Nigel Fisher:
Wytham Woods: Oxford's Ecological Laboratory
Oxford University Press 2010
Publisher's page with link to pdf of first chapter

When I visited the Earthwatch project in Wytham Woods, it was run as a corporate partnership, recruiting volunteers only among the employees of the relevant company. From next year, however, the project appears in the generall Earthwatch programme, so everybody can join the fun, jug the trees and weigh the voles:

Full details of the Earthwatch project.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

silk and prizes

The roundup of German pieces for December includes a polymer science perspective on spider silk, a detailed look at this year's Nobel prize for chemistry (Heck reaction and similar couplings using palladium catalysts) and a look back over 20 years of the coveted IgNobel prizes in chemistry. The spiders even made it to the cover of Nachrichten:

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Spinnenseide aus Sicht der Polymerforschung. Nachrichten aus der Chemie 59, 1250

Ausgeforscht: Was ist eigentlich Chemie? Nachrichten aus der Chemie 59, 1225

Verknüpfung von Kohlenstoffatomen mittels Palladium Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 12, 18 [free access]

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shakira at Paris

Shakira live at the Bercy, Paris, 6.12.2010

concert report / review

As I take every conceivable excuse to travel to Paris, and as I can’t do the London gig of the current tour because it falls in the school hols and I have kids to look after, I went down to the Bercy to see the Sale El Sol Tour for the second time (first time was Lyon, see here).

The queuing was slightly less mad than in Lyon (which was the first concert in Europe and has therefore surely attracted a few hundred hardcore front row people from across the continent), but still quite crazy. I joined the end of a very long and winding queue at 6pm, when the doors opened, and it was 7 before I got in.

This time I heeded my own advice which I gave out after the last concert, and went for a place close to the “end of the pier”, with just four or five rows between me and the synapse of the stage axon (I like this neurological terminology for the stage layout, will stick with it!). It’s not just that much of the show is actually happening there, it’s also that you don’t have to crane your neck back and forth when the action moves from the main stage to the synapse and back. And the view of the main stage is still good from this distance, plus one gets an impression of the whole light show as it is intended to be seen. So, best standing place in the house, really.

Just after “Bonsoir Paris” I noticed she actually addressed the criticism I expressed after the Lyon concert, switching her “tonight I’m all yours” introduction into French. Later on she also spoke more French during the bellydance course with four girls from the audience. Sweet. My other criticism after Lyon was that the DJ was a bit rubbish and blatantly only there to artificially pump up the adrenaline, and wouldn’t it be better to give a new act the chance to play to a big audience. As the announcement in Lyon said the DJ was booked for the entire European tour (and he was still there in Paris), I am now officially spooked to hear that at the Manchester Gig (14.12.) he has been replaced with a girl group called Parade. Damn I should have gone to Manchester as well.

So, next on my wishlist is a full-length recording of the Arabic song A'tini al-Nay. Oh, and another MTV unplugged concert.

Where were we? Oh yes, Paris. So, from my vantage point at the end of the axon the whole show made a lot more sense, and I really loved the little unplugged session at the synapse.

Some random observations that I hadn’t noticed or recorded last time:
The Sale El Sol announcement already confused me at Lyon. She started with something along the lines of “over the last few months I’ve been feeling a bit different” which seemed to lead very clearly towards something involving eggs and sperms, except that it didn’t. Identical text in Paris, but still no baby at the end of it.

I really loved the violin intro for Ojos Asi. I think the violinist who also plays a range of other instruments is a great addition to the band. Still have to find out her name. I think she was introduced as British in Lyon but as Irish in Paris. Never mind.

I’m not a huge fan of Gipsy but loved the dance intro and the acoustic version of that, and the throwaway line at the end: “soy gitana de ciudad”.

Two days after Paris I was due to see the show again at Frankfurt, but come 9pm (and after the DJ had already played 30 mins too long and in a suspiciously calm mood) it was announced that due to the inclement weather conditions her plane couldn’t land at Frankfurt, so the show had to be postponed. Oh well. Next time take the train – I really enjoyed my train rides through the snow from Paris to Frankfurt and back. Now I hope that the replacement show in Frankfurt will be Monday –Wednesday during term time, hope that can be arranged … Oh, and don’t forget A'tini al-Nay.

Monday, December 13, 2010

bioremediation of oil spills

Funnily enough, the microbial communities that can digest oil spills (given the right set of conditions) attract a lot of attention after each major disaster, but suffer from neglect soon after. I covered this issue briefly in my book Life on the Edge (1998) and have now revisited it on the occasion of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Turns out the research hasn't made as much progress as one might have wished, it's still mainly guesswork if you want to predict whether a given spill will or will not be efficiently degraded by microbes.

I wrote a news feature about all this for Chemistry & Industry, which is out today:

Digesting a sticky problem
Chemistry & Industry No. 23, page 14-15.

Full text (open access)

Friday, December 10, 2010

ICE and snow

My ICE train from Frankfurt to Paris had just left Saarbrücken and entered the snowy landscapes of Lorraine, when the announcement came: Due to the difficult weather conditions, the train manager told us in very apologetic tones (I was half expecting we had to stop the train and walk the rest of the distance), they were obliged to limit the travel speed to 230 km/h (144 mph). Whizzing through the winter wonderland at only 230 km/h (at one point the train seemed to outpace a plane that came in to land at Charles de Gaulle airport) I had time to reflect on the wonders of modern technology which we in the UK can only dream of. It also helped that there was an audio socket where I could plug in my headphones to listen to Bryan Adams’ bare bones acoustic live CD, which I really enjoyed and hadn’t known before, rather than having to listen to the two very talkative blokes on the other side of the aisle. Oh, and the general comfort and space available was comparable to first class carriages in the UK. So I didn’t mind at all that the marginally slower high-speed train would take half an hour longer to get to Paris Est (in the event, it turned out to be only a delay of 25 minutes, of which 8 minutes were already picked up between Frankfurt and Mannheim).

A week earlier I had travelled from London Paddington to Oxford in similar weather conditions. Never mind that the Diesel-guzzling trains on this route would probably disintegrate if they tried to run faster than 120 km/h, but my train spent a full hour sitting on the same spot outside Reading station, where the points had packed up due to the mild frost. Trains from Surrey into London had stopped working altogether the day before my travel, and I had read reports about passengers who had to spend the night on stranded trains.

And I’m not waving the German flag here or advertising the services of Deutsche Bahn and Siemens (who build the ICE trains). In fact, on the way out (Paris to Frankfurt) I had a TGV (run by SNCF and built by Alstom) which catapulted me through the snowy landscapes just as comfortably and without speed limit (Alstom hold the world record for rail engines, as they very helpfully explain in German (!) on the sides of at least some of their TGV engines, so that their competitors in Munich get the message). And on the whole I think the TGVs have a better record on reliability than the ICEs which have had some technical troubles in recent years. (But, of course, TGV and snow wouldn’t have worked as a title.) I’m just wondering why the UK has taken such a spectacularly wrong turn, wrecking its railways at the time when other countries invested in the future of theirs. Here in Oxford, half way between the capital and the second largest city, we’re still waiting for the railway line to be electrified. And not content with being one of the worst rail systems in Europe, ours is also among the most expensive ones (and is set to get more expensive under the pretext of having to finance improvements). Oh, and after yesterday’s political events, we can look forward to higher education following the tracks of the UK’s railways. Comfort and joy, indeed.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

fighting education cuts

My news feature about the UK protests against the savage cuts to higher education funding suggested by the government is out in this week's issue of Current Biology:

Fees hike leads to UK student riot pR999
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 23, R999-R1000, 7 December 2010

summary and restricted access to pdf file

spider silk

Research into the amazing material properties and potential uses of spider silk is a field I have followed for many years. My latest piece on this features the use of methods from polymer science (including rheology and theoretical models) for a better understanding of what makes spider silk special and why it isn't so easy to recreate the material even given the protein sequences. The piece also reports recent progress in structural biology of silk and attempts to reconstitute it.

It appears in the December issue of Chemistry World:
The spider's apprentices
[restricted access]

There is also a German article about this in the December issue of Nachrichten aus der Chemie - details to follow when I do my roundup of German pieces for this month.

Monday, November 29, 2010

who should demonstrate tomorrow?

Vice-chancellors, profs, lecturers, schoolkids, parents, … that’s who.

I don’t really read the right-wing papers, but have heard rumours that they are trying to dismiss the current wave of student protests against education cuts and tuition fees as “self-serving.” Which is of course a blatant lie, as the current students of year 2 and higher will not be affected by the changes, and those who have just started will only be affected in their final year.

The student protest is very much based on the principle that higher education is a public good that serves society as a whole and should therefore be funded by the state and free to those who have a sufficiently large brain to soak it up. The students’ side of the deal, of course, is that they are investing three years of their lives into the improvements of their minds, when they could just go after the money (the schoolgirl with the placard “Fine – I’ll be a stripper” comes to mind here).

Seeing that the government is trying to demolish this fundamental principle of higher education, the professors and lecturers should be first in line to man the barricades. The message the government has for them is that their work is really not in the public interest but only helping the individual customer. Now if I were a vice-chancellor of a UK university, I would have a word or two to say about this presumption. (And I am sure that if the Oxbridge VCs had spoken out on this issue, the world would have taken notice.)

Then, if we have to think materialistic thoughts, the school-children now under 16 will be hit hardest. If they are from below-average earning households, they stand to lose the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), and on top of that have to face the prospect of up to £27k tuition fees (plus the student loan they will need to cover living costs. Those who will be hit hardest may not have started following political events yet, so it’s their parents who should demonstrate on their behalf.

As the old Manics tune said so fittingly: “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next” (and yes I know where the slogan comes from, but that’s how bad the situation is).

So, if people think this through, the students may have some company during tomorrow’s demos.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A´tini al-Nay...فيروز_-_اعطني_الناي

On the Oral Fixation tour, Shakira started the show singing a couple of lines in Arabic. This snippet is only listed as "intro" in the DVD, and to my eternal shame I must admit I never investigated what these lines were.

On the new tour, the same lines emerged in the middle of the show and a setlist I found on the web names the song as A'tini al-Nay.

Which, it turns out, is a poem by Gibran Khalil Gibran, sung by Fairuz:

And in this interview, Shakira explains how A´tini al-Nay was one of the first songs she performed as a young child, and that people called her the "little Fairuz," and she sings the first two lines again but then says she can't remember the rest of the lyrics.

And here's the version at the beginning of the Oral Fixation concerts, which then blends into Estoy aqui.

I'd love to see her doing a complete cover version of the song, actually. Can we have that on the next album, please?

Update 13.11.2021: still waiting, but I replaced the embedded video above which had stopped working, and found two new ones to add:

Oh, hang on, maybe I like this version even better. Can't make up my mind:

And I've just found a free score too. Don't have a ney (yet) but have enjoyed playing the bits I remembered on the flute and recorders over the last few years.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oxford occupied

I visited the Radcliffe Camera today, the historic library building occupied by student protesters since yesterday's demo. Situation looked rather grim, as police aren't letting anyone in, and a represeantative of the university read a statement threatening consequences to the education prospects of the occupants. As if their education wasn't threatened enough already by the government. Also not clear why Oxford University students shouldn't be allowed in their own library (at least during opening hours).

Here are some photos I took today:

A rather fierce looking police cordon sealing off the building.

Communicating with balloons.

A don discussing with students in front of the occupied building.

See protesters' blog with links to other occupation events around the country, and their twitter feed.

According to BBC Radio Oxford the students were evicted from the library around 5pm today, after police managed to get in.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

fight education cuts

We had a nice little demo here at Oxford this afternoon, starting from Carfax tower and culminating in an occupation of the Radcliffe Camera, which has been declared a "public library" by the occupants (see their statement, twitter feed). Clever to occupy a library complete with lots of computers and fast internet access ...

Here are a few pictures I took:

Meanwhile, events in London are a bit more scary, see Laurie Penny's report.

Monday, November 22, 2010

photos of lyon concert

I do realise that my concert photos tend to be a bit rubbish, but here's a selection of the least worst ones from last week's event:

Te dejo Madrid ?

Inevitable - with the inevitable acoustic guitar, only this time it's red, it used to be a blue Ovation guitar.


Loca or SheWolf?

Ojos así

Waka waka

Waka waka

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Santiago Calatrava at Lyon

While I was at Lyon, I also visited one of the major works of my favourite architect, Santiago Calatrava, namely the railway station serving Saint-Exupery airport. From the outside it looks like it could fly:

while from the inside the gravity defying height and lightness of the structure makes me think of a modern variation on the theme of gothic cathedrals. In both cases, the windows are extremely important:

After duly admiring the structure itself inside out and from all sides, I had a lot of fun walking around and checking which details were and which weren't designed by Calatrava - the granite benches, the departures board, the dustbins, and the bollards clearly were part of his grand design. Disappointingly, the fittings in the gents were off-the-shelf stuff (maybe he doesn't want his work to be peed on?).

When you drive a train to the station, it looks like this:

Ok, I'll admit I cheated here, this is in fact the tram towards the city centre moving away from the station ...

For further photos of my visit, check my flickr photostream. In the architecture set you'll also find two other buildings by Calatrava.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shakira at Lyon

Concert review

Shakira at Lyon Halle Tony Garnier 17.11.2010

After two months of touring the US, Shakira’s third global tour hit European soil at Lyon. Having spent the night before the concert in Lyon already, I arrived at the Halle Tony Garnier at 4pm and was shocked to find there were more than 500 people queuing already. I haven’t seen such fierce competition for the front row places before, and have in fact on some occasions arrived much later and still secured a better place than this time.

But anyhow, we all got in eventually and had ample time to admire the venue. As someone told me over breakfast at the Youth Hostel the next morning (all hotels being fully booked because of some aquarium trade fair or something similarly important), the place is a former exhibition hall built in 1914 using metal scaffolding in the style pioneered by Gustave Eiffel. The width is comparable to other arenas (like Wembley Arena) but the length of the thing is a staggering 210 metres, so I hope the people in the tiered seating at the back brought their telescopes along.

Like on some of the last European gigs I saw, the “special guest” was a DJ with the only and acknowledged ambition to work up the crowd, which I feel is cheating in a way, if you compare it to the traditional approach of giving a less known band or act the chance to promote their work to a wider audience. The advantage of the DJ approach, of course, is that they only need minimal equipment, such that 15 minutes after the DJ finished, the stage was ready for the main act, and Shakira actually appeared before the announced time (that must be a first, not just for her but for any woman of her nationality).

When the lights went down and everybody strained their eyes to work out where in the darkness she might materialise (no curtain and no giant cobra in sight this time), she worked her way through the crowd from the back of the audience to the “pier” running half way along the middle of the venue to the stage. Once it was clear from the video projection that she was in the crowd, it was in fact easy to locate her from the halo of excitedly glowing smartphones and cameras surrounding her.

While walking towards the stage she sang “Pienso en ti” an ancient piece from her breakthrough album Pies Descalzos, which she recently re-recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Love in the Times of Cholera. On reaching the stage she switched to the dancey Why wait from the SheWolf album.

The setlist was something like this (no guarantees for the order of pieces especially around the middle, pretty sure about the front and tail ends of the show):

Pienso en ti
Why wait
Te dejo Madrid
Si te vas
Underneath your clothes
Ciega sordomuda
Whenever wherever
A'tini al-Nay (sample from an Arabic song by Fairuz)
Nothing else matters (Metallica cover)
Las de la intuición
Sale el sol
Ojos así
Antes de las seis
Hips don’t lie
Waka waka

Notable absentees were Estoy aquí which was kind of her signature tune before the crossover and which opened the programme of the last tour, and No. Overall, I counted 11 Spanish pieces out of 20, which looks about the right mix to me. I was chuffed to have Antes de las seis included, one of my favourite ballads from the last few years, along with the old favourites like Ojos asi and Te dejo Madrid.

Similarly, the current tour band is an inspired mixture of the old and the new. Tim Mitchell, Albert Menendez, and Brendan Buckley have been on board since the MTV unplugged concert or longer, so they probably communicate with Shakira by musical telepathy by now. Glad to see that someone “from the UK” has joined Olgui as a second female musician in the tour band, and plays interesting instruments including a violin amplified by a brass horn. There were also a couple of new boys with interesting hair styles on guitar and bass, and a new percussionist. Oh and two very attractive dancers. This woman does know how to please the male minority in her audience.

Overall, the impression was that of a more normal, relaxed, let’s have fun together style of show compared with the mongoose tour. I probably said the same about the Oral fixation tour, but this time she went even further in this direction. There were still surprises and interesting new takes on well-known pieces though.

Hint for future concert goers: the places around the end of the pier are good ones, as much of the show happens there, actually, including an acoustic session and some interesting dancing, along with the belly-dance lesson for three girls picked from the audience.

I was slightly disappointed to hear that Shakira’s use of French remained limited to “Bonsoir a tout le monde” and “Merci beaucoup.” I don’t think there is a place in the world where addressing the natives in English feels as wrong to me as it does in France.

I’m also missing the open air concert in Las Ventas (Madrid) like mad. Obviously, it didn’t fit the tour calendar this time, but to me Las Ventas was just the perfect venue on the previous two tours.

But hey, I’m not complaining. Lyon was brilliant, and I have two more gigs to go to …

Previous Shakira concerts I attended:

London (16.12.2002)
Madrid (25.04.2003)
Madrid (22.06.2006)
Antwerpen (31.01.2007)
London (18.03.2007)
Köln (08.04.2007)

PS (Dec. 2011): I'm very pleased to report that my criticism re. not speaking French to the audience has been addressed somewhat in the Dec. 2010 concert at Paris, and then very impressively in the June 2011 concerts that were recorded for the Live from Paris DVD.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

if you tolerate this, then your children will be next

The song/video to match this extraordinary week should really be "If you tolerate this ... " by the Manic Street Preachers, which you can find here but which sadly has the embedding blocked.

So, instead I'll embed another Manics song, which - in normal times - I like better anyway because it features an interesting female voice (courtesy of Nina Persson from the Cardigans):

Thursday, November 11, 2010

protests and riots

(updated Fri 12.11.)

I'm writing something about Wednesday's protests and riots, here's a reading list of stuff I liked:

Spending cuts: the fightback begins by John Harris

"What happened on Wednesday afternoon was not some meaningless rent-a-mob flare-up, nor an easily-ignored howl of indignation from some of society's more privileged citizens. It was an early sign of people growing anxious and restless, and what a government pledged to such drastic plans should increasingly expect."

Student protest: we're all in this together by Nina Power

"It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but "investments" by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good."

Inside the Millbank riots by Laurie Penny.

"It's scary, isn't it?" I ask. The boy shrugs. "Yeah," he says, "I suppose it is scary. But frankly..." He lights up, cradling the contraband fag, "frankly, it's not half as scary as what's happening to our future."

Browne's Gamble Stefan Collini in th London Review of Books

"But while it may be true that the present system embodies an unnecessary pretence that all institutions called universities perform the same set of functions, it is no good deluding ourselves that simply leaving 18-year-old applicants to cash in their vouchers at a university of their choice will lead to a more intelligently conceived provision of diverse, high-quality institutions. It may just lead to a few private jets and a lot of Ryanairs."

Oxford Education Campaign Facebook page

Flickr groups and tags:

Anglia Ruskin Student Union
tag "studentmarch"
Protests ... group

Oh, and here is LibDem leader Nick Clegg speaking about tuition fees before the election:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

science is vital

A month ago, scientists were out in the streets of London's government quarters to protest against the threatened cuts to the science budget. Then, in the Comprehensive Spending Review, it appeared that science had escaped more lightly than other areas, with a budget freeze for four years. However, looking at the small print, some areas are still vulnerable to bigger cuts, and the near-demolition of state funding for university teaching (see my opinion on that one) may well have knock-on effects on the quality of research.

Immediately after the Spending Review I wrote a news feature for Current Biology on all the cuts and what they may mean for science, education, and the environment. It is out today:

Britain cuts back deeply on spending
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 21, R905-R906, 9 November 2010

FREE access to PDF file

science is vital demo in Whitehall

Monday, November 08, 2010

Two cultures and counting

Review of
The Honest Look by Jennifer L. Rohn
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press 2010
(out on November 30th)

The cultural divide between the worlds of science and arts has stirred much debate since CP Snow diagnosed it in the 1950s. How much specialisation is good for society, and how much general knowledge from the sciences should extend to the other side of the divide? The idea has inspired several generations of science popularisers, but we rarely read about its effect on people who straddle both sides or are unsure which side they should be on.

The protagonist of “The Honest Look”, Claire Cyrus (no relation of Miley I hope), is one of the straddlers. She has just completed a PhD in biology, but is more passionate about writing and reading poetry than about her science, which involves a monstrous proteomic analysis instrument, a machine with the size, complexity, and neediness of the Beckman model E ultracentrifuge from the 1960s (no, I’m not that old, but my PhD supervisor still used two of these in the 90s).

Adding to the culture shock is the fact that her first post-doctoral appointment, taking care of the first commercial specimen of that machine, is in a biotech start-up, where we have the corporate culture conflicting with her hitherto purely academic upbringing. A third cultural divide opens up as the company in question is based in the Netherlands, but most of the scientific staff members are Brits who migrated there with the scientific founders. Oh, and our heroine is bilingual, the child of a Spanish mother and British father.

Unlike Rohn’s first lablit novel, Experimental Heart, which had a thriller plot, this one is essentially a romance, so as a fifth binary we have two contrasting male specimens competing for the attention of our heroine, and naturally each has different views on the cultural conflicts listed above, so love also pulls her in different directions on these other issues of cultural identity.

With all those conflicting forces tearing her apart and cultural canyons to fall into, not to mention a serious moral dilemma arising from an unexpected scientific result, one does worry about Dr Cyrus a lot, which keeps the pages turning just as fast as a thriller plot. Rohn pulls out all the writerly stops to make the poetic sensibility of her heroine believable, and succeeds as far as I can discern from my vantage point between cultures (English poetry buffs may have their own opinions).

She is also very good at bringing the expat perspective on Amsterdam (where she lived herself for several years) and the surrounding lowlands to life. With my rather vague and informal knowledge of Dutch I loved the paragraph where one of the characters translates mundane everyday Dutch into Shakespearean English to illustrate the similarities. (I might have used this as a running gag, actually, for comic relief when the story gets tense.)

What I found less convincing was everything involving the use of Spanish – firstly, I don’t understand why Claire, with Spanish and English and a love of words, doesn’t really extend her love to Spanish, which in my ears is the more interesting and poetic language of the two. Then, the character called “Ramon” (rather than Ramón) lost his accent in more than one way – the dialogues reported to have been held in Spanish don’t sound like something translated from Spanish to me. Even some of the Spanish interjections (querida, Dios mío, por favor,) sound as though they had been translated from English, not glimpsed from a Spanish dialogue. I think with a language used so widely in popular culture (CSI Miami through to latin pop music) one can actually get away with longer snippets giving a more authentic impression.

Having said that, it’s still a wonderful novel, and it addresses cultural conflicts that are very important to me and should be to a wider readership as well. So I hope it does find readers on all sides of these cultural divides, and thereby helps to bridge the gap between Snow’s Two Cultures (and a few more).

Friday, November 05, 2010

cello masterclass

Friday is the time of the week when I can't be bothered to write a proper blog post and post a video instead. And as I haven't put up any cello music for a while, here comes Steven Isserlis giving a masterclass on Schumann's Fantasiestücke op73 (well, three minutes out of one hour). Isserlis is the patron of the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building here at Oxford and shows up at least once a year, so we've seen him perform a few times.

Think I may have to get the DVD with the full masterclass ...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

why the state should fund universities

I never thought this needed explaining, but seeing that the government releases details today of what they admit is a move "to shift a greater proportion of [Higher Education] funding from the taxpayer to the individuals who benefit" (quote from the comprehensive spending review, page 51, last bullet point), it may be time to spell out the blatantly obvious.

The three words "individuals who benefit" are the most insiduous piece of misleading political propaganda that I've come across in a long time. So, for the benefit of the individuals who are busy wrecking higher education:

* giving people as good an education as their brains can soak up is not primarily to benefit the individuals, it is in the best interest of society. We all, i.e. society, need well-educated scientists, medical doctors, even lawyers and accountants. These days, we need more of these than of people who can stack shelves without complaining.

* yes it is expensive to educate people, but the benefit to society outweighs the cost by a large factor. Imagine the talented people who would normally study decided to work as bar staff instead. In the words of one ex Harvard president: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance"

* on top of the benefit that academically educated people offer society by doing intelligent work, they also earn more more on average, so pay more taxes (disproportionately so in a progressive tax system), so they also are "the taxpayer" who funds their studies.

* even when the state pays the full cost of tuition, students still have their bills to pay for the duration of the study, and often make a sacrifice in terms of what living standard they could afford if they went to work straight after leaving school.

* Burdening students with the cost of their tuition on top of that will definitely scare away some talents (no matter how clever the payback arrangements) - especially if they have the opportunity to study elsewhere for free.

* Furthermore, I am worried that the "market solution" will turn degrees into commodities. If students are regarded as paying customers and have to pay close to the full cost of their education, they could very easily get the idea that with the payment they have purchased the right to get a degree regardless of their talent or effort.

These are the reasons why in civilised countries the state does (and should continue to) fund higher education, collecting at most a small nominal fee from students to avoid abuse of the facilities offered. It's not that difficult to understand, is it?

(protest posters seen in Oxford last week)

I'm pleased to report that we have a very active protest group here, the Oxford Education Campaign, which has already managed to scare away business secretary Vince Cable (the fact that the business secretary is in charge of HE tells you a lot about what's wrong here!). You can look up OEC on facebook or email to find out more.

A nationwide demo against HE cuts will take place on Wednesday 10.11. 11.30am at London, starting at Horse Guards Avenue - more details here.

PS: More about today's government announcement in the Guardian.
Also, my blog entries now get a tweet button, please use it generously (noting that both the button and the counter refer to the URL shown at the top of the browser, so if you're looking at a page with several blog entries, you'll have to click a specific blog entry first to get a specific tweet and counter result for it):

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Nothing is as obscene as censorship

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the verdict in the Lady Chatterley trial, arguably the beginning of free expression in this country. A lot has been written about the trial ahead of the anniversary, see for example Geoffrey Robertson’s insightful essay here. "The verdict was a crucial step towards the freedom of the written word, at least for works of literary merit," Robertson writes.

I’ve lived in the UK for the last third of this half-century since the trial, and coming from a country where censorship is explicitly ruled out by the constitution (since 1949):

Eine Zensur findet nicht statt. (Censorship does not take place.)
Grundgesetz Art. 5, Abs 1

I still find a shocking amount of censorship at work here. The ways, means and excuses have changed, of course. Today it’s not about what women and servants might read, but allegedly about protecting children (from seeing anatomical details of human beings, shock, horror).

Just two areas where I bump into outrageous censorship all the time:

First, classification of movies by the BBFC (the British Board of Film Censorship, now rebranded Classification). Our experience from 17 years is that the BBFC damages the chances of European movies to find an audience here by handing out age limits that are frankly ridiculous. Goodbye Lenin had a 15 certificate here, while in Germany anyone over the age of 6 was allowed to watch it. The effect of this is not only that it stops families from watching films that would actually have been educational for their children (like Goodbye Lenin, which deals with the reunification and the breaks it involves for people from eastern Germany). It is also extremely damaging to the commercial prospects of the films involved, and I find that more and more often the European films that I would have liked to see in the cinema here don’t even get a distribution deal. I’ve started to compile a list of such films in a recent blog entry.

Secondly, email and internet access for children at our secondary school. I recently requested information about a forthcoming school trip and received an email from the teacher referring to an attached powerpoint presentation. Only the school’s censorship system had removed the attachment – they don’t even trust their teachers. Yahoo mail is blocked on school computers so children can only use their school email addresses, which are heavily filtered. On one occasion, an email with a review of a children’s book attached was blocked. The book review had contained the word “fetish”. I have started to use the term “the Chinese authorities” when referring to whoever controls this. (Thankfully, the Chinese authorities can't read this blog, as they block blogspot as well!)

By contrast, passing through Paris on the way back from Barcelona, I was amused to see stacks of the daily paper Liberation with a very explicit sexual image on the front. The paper was outraged – about the fact that the mayor of Paris had restricted access to the exhibition of works by Larry Clark containing this image to over 18s. Accordingly, they made sure that every under-18 could now see it at every news stand in the country. Liberation spent three entire pages on spelling out how scandalous this decision was. Needless to say I bought a copy of the paper and treasure it.

So, 50 years after Penguin got the green light to publish Lady Chatterley’s lover (now republished in a special anniversary edition), there is still a long way to go towards liberating this country from censorship, but the Lady C trial certainly was an important beginning. As one of the lovely Waterstones ads in the 90s said:

Nothing in a book could be as obscene as censorship.

Monday, November 01, 2010

bioremediation of Deepwater Horizon spill

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, two papers in Science Express looked at the chances for bioremediation and seemed to come to opposite conclusions, i.e. that the Deepwater Horizon spill will or will not be rapidly degraded by microbes. This highlights that we know far too little about the microbes and microbial communities that can degrade oil in seawater, so we cannot predict whether they will be helpful in a given case and it will indeed be difficult to recruit them for cleanup operations.

Depressingly, science doesn't appear to have advanced very much since I covered oil-eaters in my book Life on the Edge 12 years ago. Much like the oil eating microbes themselves, research activity investigating their lifestyle tends to multiply after an oil spill and then fade again.

I wrote a short article about these first studies (and a third one which appears to weigh down in favour of bioremediation at least of the lighter hydrocarbons such as propane) which is now out in Spektrum der Wissenschaft:

Öl fressende Mikroben im Meer
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nov. 2010, p. 12

first paragraph and restricted access to PDF file

PS This is the only German piece this month, so this blog entry also serves as my round-up of German publications.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

perforin pore unveiled

The group of Helen Saibil at Birkbeck College determined the shape of the perforin pore, which killer cells of our immune system use to eliminate cancerous or virus-infected cells, which suggested how the protein subunits could be arranged. In collaboration with researchers at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) who solved the crystal structure of the individual protein blocks that assemble to form this pore, the group has now come to a conclusive model, which is “the wrong way round” compared to what they were expecting based on similar bacterial pores.
Read my news item in Chemistry World here.

(image courtesy of Helen Saibil, Birkbeck College London)

R.H.P. Law et al. Nature online DOI: 10.1038/nature09518

Friday, October 29, 2010

eyes like yours

warming up for the forthcoming European leg of Shakira's tour, here's a clip from the last one, Ojos asi live from Dubai:

PS watching that video again, it just occurred to me that Ojos asi was the first song I ever saw her playing live - see the ravings of my younger self here. No wonder it leaves me stirred and shaken.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oxford Today relaunch

Oxford Today, the alumni magazine of Oxford University, has a new publisher and a new editor, so the first issue of the academic year was celebrated as a "relaunch" today with champagne, canapees, and speeches. Even the vice chancellor (organic chemist Andrew Hamilton) put in an appearance, and for me it was an opportunity to put faces to email addresses.

I've been writing science features for Oxford Today since 2004, and have now also taken over the science findings page which compiles very short news items on scientific results emerging from research conducted here (open the PDF version of the magazine and scroll down to page 11).

My latest feature, about data sharing in genetics, appears on pages 30 to 32 of the magazine and online here. As punishment for my recent rant on inverted helices I've been served with a wrong helix as well. Intriguingly, the same illustration also contains a correct (but much smaller) image of the double helix, on the 2-pound coin, so it can't be because someone flipped the image. Very pleased however that the spiral staircase appearing in the portrait of HELEX director Jane Kaye has the correct chirality.

We were told that not only the printed magazine has been spruced up, the website is also being relaunched in an improved format, with added content, including even music videos. I'll have to check those out.

PS I have been assured that links to earlier online content of Oxford Today will remain functional, so my previous pieces, such as this one on multiple sclerosis and epigenetics are still accessible via my website and blog.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the inverted helix

It is a fact widely ignored by people who design covers for science books and journals, but let me say it loud and clear, the normal version of the DNA double helix is RIGHT-HANDED, i.e. it is like an ordinary screw in that if you look down the axis and follow the ridge clockwise, the movement will lead away from you (see this example from the Ashmolean Museum's collection of glassware).

If, however, you take a picture of a DNA double helix and mirror it, you end up with something blatantly WRONG like the examples below:

PS in order to inject some scientific method into my rant, I've just done a Google image search for "DNA" and checked the first 30 double helix images shown. Giving those where the chirality isn't easy to see the benefit of the doubt, I have spotted three images with left-handed helices, so the error rate seems to be around 10%, even on websites that get high PageRank.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Marina and the Diamonds at the Regal

Saw Marina and the Diamonds last night, and OMG she looked just like Shakira. Just kidding, this is a quote from her song "Hollywood", of course. But she does have some shakiesque features.

Great show, and I really liked the venue too. The Regal is a former Bingo hall that has been refurbished and converted to a music venue only recently, and this was the first time I saw it from the inside.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Room in Rome reviewed

I was a huge fan of Julio Medem’s small but exquisite oeuvre already, but Room in Rome easily made it into the top five of my all-time favourite films (where it competes with Medem’s Sex and Lucia). What, you may ask, makes it so special?

First the set-up – a one-night encounter in a hotel room, which the camera never leaves except to peep out onto the balcony or through the entrance of the room into the corridor. This would work brilliantly in a very small theatre as well. The basic idea is borrowed from a Chilean movie (En la cama) with a couple of very important tweaks. Medem turned the man of the first movie into a woman, and he moved the room to Rome, and embedded it in Italian art history. There are paintings on every wall and even on the ceilings, which play an important part in the movie.

Alternatively, to relate it to a better known movie, one could call it an all-female “Before sunrise” set indoors and in a different city. In one rollercoaster night the protagonists get to know each other and learn to trust and love each other.

So in that room, we have two women, not too many clothes, lots of art, and modern IT equipment enabling them to show each other their outside lives via Google Earth. Oh, and a splendid view from the balcony over the roofs of Rome. (One could have called it Room with a view, had the title not been taken by some other movie.)

(still from official site)

Let’s get the clothes issue out of the way first, as it seems to have scared UK distributors to an extent that they didn’t give the film a chance in the cinemas. Yes, both women are undressed for most of the length of the movie, but after about two minutes that appears completely normal and one stops noticing it. In a sense, considering their respective vulnerabilities and difficult path towards mutual trust and truthfulness, one could argue that most of their nakedness is psychological rather than physical. Seen this way, the cosy white bath robes they put on for breakfast in the end seem to represent the comfort and protection of a trusting (if time-limited) relationship.

More interestingly, the art, chosen by Medem’s wife and art director Montse Sanz, tells us something not only about the story and its possible interpretations, it also offers insights into Medem’s philosophy when Natasha cites the Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti, seen in one of the paintings, as saying: “The artist must know at all times what he is representing.”

I would argue that the film contains more classical art than we see on the walls. Many of the poses of the women remind me of paintings – most of them reclining nudes, obviously. Towards the end, Medem acknowledges artworks as a source of inspiration explicitly when he makes Natasha copy the pose of the Venus de Milo, which is present in the room as a small scale model. Come to think of it, with all the gorgeous lighting and colours, many of the frames would make nice paintings.

Ironically, the state of the art IT equipment including a smartphone and a laptop running Google Earth (or the Microsoft equivalent) almost seamlessly becomes as important as the Renaissance paintings, as it’s the only connection to the previous and outside life of the protagonists. Talking of technology, I also love the fact that Alba turns out to be an engineer who came to Rome to plug an invention she made. While she failed to score a contract on this occasion, her business seems to be going ok, judging by the quality of the hotel room she booked. And as Natasha is an art historian, the story could be read as a “two cultures” dialogue as well.

The five languages – some of the most touching moments involve each character speaking their native language (Spanish / Russian), assuming the other won’t understand. But the English dialogue, with just enough of an accent to identify the origin of each character worked surprisingly well for me (I do like my Spanish films and am not necessarily happy if people switch to English). It’s sad and ironic, however, that Medem’s first film to feature dialogue mostly in English wasn’t actually shown in UK or US cinemas. We also get some Italian (via the singing room service waiter) and some Basque via a video, reminding us of Medem’s cultural background (I understand that, genetically, he is as much German as Basque, namely 1/4 each).

The music of Spanish (but English singing) singer-songwriter Lourdes Hernandes, aka Russian Red (a pseudonym she borrowed from her favourite lipstick, apparently) is perfect for the movie, not only because her accent matches Alba’s.

So in summary, buy the DVD, you can’t borrow mine, as I need to watch the movie another five times.

Friday, October 22, 2010

C'est la lutte finale

I had a crazy week, but finding this made my day:

The illustrations by Gerhard Seyfried with the German lyrics of the Internationale were originally a poster typically found on the toilet walls of shared student flats in the late 70s. Hitching his cartoons up to a recording is a brilliant idea. And of course there is plenty of stuff in there that fits this week's events in the UK amazingly well.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

loca loca loca

Have received my copy of Sale el Sol yesterday and played it on closed loop for last 24 hours (OK, I did sleep a bit, too). With the volume up and the bass boost on, I'm expecting the neighbours to come knocking on the door any minute ...

Am really puzzled now - is it me or is this album a million miles better than the English language She Wolf album? It may be that her recent attempts to adapt to the English speaking US market just don't work for me, or it might be that the songs she writes in Spanish are really better (and I mean musically more than linguistically). And to me the gap is much bigger than between the two Oral fixation albums (OF 2 had some really interesting tracks that should have been singles, such as How do you do, and Timor).

Any opinions from fans or others ?

PS really looking forward to the concerts now !

PPS Sony UK is being completely hopeless again. While the CD was available in Germany at the end of last week and in the rest of the world at the beginning of this week, the UK release date is end of November. I ordered mine from Germany, but amazon uk now also has some used copies.

Monday, October 18, 2010

recycling without separating

From today, Oxford City Council introduces a new collection system for recyclables, where all dry recyclable materials go into a blue bin:

i.e. all plastics, glass, cardboard, paper, tins, etc. together. The little green thing takes food waste, while the big green bin is for the residual non-recyclable waste, of which there is very little. The council says it hopes to improve its recycling rate from around 40 % to over 50% with this scheme.

While the new system includes more types of material than the previous one and saves me the trouble to take some stuff to bring banks, I am having trouble to imagine how they plan to separate the stuff out. And after 30 years of separating recyclables, it goes against all my instincts to throw them all in the same bin. Guess our blue bin will be unusual in that it will always contain a layer of plastic, then a layer of paper, then glass ...

Friday, October 15, 2010

bumblebees for Britain

Had a great evening at the Earthwatch debate yesterday, where 5 groups of species competed for the title of environmental mascot for britain, and the bumblebees won:

Left to right: Tony Juniper (song thrush), Stephen Hopper (oak), Samantha Burgess (coldwater corals), George McGavin (bumblebee), Johannes Vogel (bluebell), and host Andrea Catherwood (a former Earthwatch volunteer).

George McGavin championed the bumblebee pointing out that it is a keystone in the ecological network, upon which many other species depend, and that the 25 bumblebee species found in the UK today represent 10% of the global bumblebee fauna.

Twitter hashtag for the event is#SpeciesForBritain

Thursday, October 14, 2010

quince season

Quince season has begun! My little tree has produced a nice crop this year, though not as many as this one at St. Hilda's College, overhanging the river Cherwell (but sadly out of reach):

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

turning the world upside down

After the Science is Vital demo on Saturday, I revisited Anish Kapoor's mirrors in Kensington Gardens, this time all polished and without fencing. Love the way they inspire people to interact, eg by turning themselves upside down to look at the upside down reflection:

or by lifting things high up to see them in this one:

The clear sky mirror, with its frameless, very sharp border reminds me of Philip Pullman's subtle knife, which cuts windows into the fabric of our universe to give access to parallel universes. In this case, the universe behind the mirror seems to be sunnier than ours:

Couldn't think of much to say about the red-tinged sky mirror, so I hired a duck to swim across its reflection:

The exhibition website isn't finished yet apparently, but you can pick up a leaflet containing a map with the location of the works from the Serpentine Gallery or the Red Pavilion next door.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

wine, games, and geometry

Articles out in German this month include circled squares, quiz chemistry, the science of wine, and the computer game that folds proteins:

Die Quadratur des Kohlenstoffs, Chemie in unserer Zeit 44, 317, DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201090063
abstract and access to pdf
(my blog entry on this story in English)

Ausgeforscht: Quizfragen für Computer, Nachrichten aus der Chemie 58, 1002.

Biowissenschaften: In vino Wissenschaft, Nachrichten aus der Chemie 58, 1028.

Proteinfaltung als Computerspiel, Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 10, 16.
full text
(my blog entry on this story in English)

Oh, and talking about protein folding, here's a swan folding back its flexible domain onto the compact core domain:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

the song of the potter

Many years ago, I heard an April's fool story on the radio that went a bit like this:

Archaeologists have investigated the banded decorations on ancient Egyptian vases and found out that the potter had been singing during his work, and the vibrations transmitted through his arm were engraved in the vase, much like the early gramophones and the vinyl records. Building a special gramophone for Egyptian vases, the scientists managed to play back the song recorded thousands of years earlier. I think they actually played a soundclip they claimed to be a remastered version of that ancient recording. It was April 1st, though.

In an obituary of the physicist and Nobel laureate Georges Charpak published in El Pais (5.10.10) I now came across this story again, and it was no joke this time. Apparently, Charpak performed experiments to verify whether sound (in his case shouting, not singing) produced by potters could be recorded in the pottery. The paper reports that his colleagues at the institute thought he had gone potty, but sadly it doesn't relate the outcome of the experiment.

Friday, October 08, 2010

intrinsically disordered proteins

Intrinsically disordered proteins in biomedicine, IRB Barcelona, 4.-6.10.2010

Some 13 years ago, Kevin Plaxco told me about an intriguing piece of research done by geneticist friends of his, involving a signalling protein that is exported through the hollow core of the bacterial flagella under construction, until the finished flagellum is closed off with a cap. Writing a News and Views commentary for Nature, we discussed this system as a prime example of a protein that has to be unfolded in order to carry out its biological function (The importance of being unfolded, Nature 386, 657-659, 1997, PDF).

We weren’t aware of any other literature specifically discussing this issue at the time (we missed one paper that had used the horrid terminology “natively unfolded” which we hadn’t thought of), but there were already a few examples of other proteins to discuss in this context. Incidentally, the geneticist authors of the paper we pegged our piece to weren’t very interested in the protein folding implications of their work, so we were free to take the issue and run with it.

The new field whose birth we assisted as midwives has grown quite remarkably in the years since, witness the recent research conference organised by the IRB Barcelona, “Intrinsically Disordered Proteins in Biomedicine”, attended by some 120 researchers and held in this rather wonderful building (The Institut d'Estudis Catalans in the centre of Barcelona, 100 metres away from Las Ramblas):

The conundrums that we already discussed in 1997, namely how can you tell that the disorder isn’t an artefact of your experimental conditions in vitro, and how can disordered proteins survive in the cell, are still being kicked around, although on a much higher level. And with more examples: there are now more than 1200 intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) listed in the database

The in vivo vs. in vitro question is now being addressed with a range of sophisticated methods that also allow in vivo studies of protein structure (and lack thereof).
To the stability question, an answer is emerging in the shape of the realisation that disordered proteins involved in signalling are often meant to be present only in small concentrations and for a short time.

Technical advances reported at the meeting included he “live” (though debated in discussion) observation of movements of a disordered chain by high-speed AFM, single molecule dynamics measurements by fluorescence, as well as variations on NMR, SAXS, and combinations between these two complementary techniques.

The biomedical applications promised in the title of the conference aren’t quite ready yet, though the fact that many IDPs work in transcription regulation suggests that their understanding will be useful for cancer research. Thus, the much-studied tumour repressor gene product p53 featured in several talks and posters. Amyloid-forming proteins such as alpha-synuclein also feature in the IDP roll call. Also, linear peptide motifs, recognition sites often found within intrinsically disordered regions, appear to serve as prime targets for viruses to mimic.

All in all, definitely a research field to keep an eye on, even though I have to admit sentimental bias when I’m saying this.

PS Other impressions from Barcelona (and Paris) to appear on flickr soon.

Friday, October 01, 2010

london art and architecture

Busy day at London yesterday - saw the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern on its first day:

I'm afraid I have to agree with the review in the Evening Standard - a biographical approach would have been more enlightening. Gauguin only discovered art in his 20s and became a professional painter in his 30s, then turned his back on the Parisian art scene to live in the South Pacific. Just how this unusual biography came to happen doesn't become clear in the exhibition.

I caught the tail end of the exhibition "Exposed" as well - Tate Modern offers a very affordable combined ticket for the two events while they overlap. More on that exhibition some other time.

I also visited the allegedly ugliest new building in the UK:

and still find it beautiful. What most puzzles me about the "ugly award" is that if you look round Elephant & Castle everything else (shopping centre, 60s tower blocks) is truly hideous, so the one way in which the "owl" doesn't fit in is that it is more beautiful than everything within a mile radius. (It isn't in fact substantially higher than the surrounding tower blocks.) Pleased to see that the Latin American restaurant "La Bodeguita" is still there in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre, it has in fact a perfect view onto the front side of the owl.

And I saw Anish Kapoor's mirrors in Hyde Park:

and the red pavillion at the Serpentine Gallery of which I posted a few (all-red) images on my flickr photostream.

Oh and I had a coffee that was just the right size:

Perfect day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

writer's lament

I’ve come to realise that there are a few very good reasons why I ended up being a writer. It’s not just that I can do it, many people can put fingers on a keyboard and press them down, but I actually like to communicate in writing and often prefer it to speaking. So here’s my case for the written word.

Writing is, firstly, more advanced and civilised. People have been talking for hundreds of thousands of years, but writing only for something like 10,000, I guess. But that argument leads me into trouble, as writing is now at risk of being supplanted by more recent forms of communication like video and podcast which again rely on talking. So scrap this.

From the emitter’s point of view, I prefer writing to talking, because I can edit what I have written until I am happy with it, while I can’t withdraw what I have spoken once somebody else has heard it. There are many painful memories of things I have said and later regretted saying, but I can only remember very few things that I wrote and released to an audience and then regretted. And that is actually a very significant discrepancy, as I do in fact release more words in writing than in spoken language. So if I calculated the stats on a “number of regrets per million words released” basis, the difference would be very drastic. And it’s all down to that most wonderful achievement of civilisation, editing.

From the recipient’s point of view, I prefer reading to listening for a very selfish reason, namely that I am in control of what I read, but I’m not in control of what I hear. Unless, of course, if I decide to be very rude and walk away from somebody talking nonsense or hit them over the head. As time goes by, and I’ve accumulated enough life experience to be familiar with most of the nonsense that people talk, I find it increasingly difficult to be in a situation where I am forced to hear people talk about things I don’t want to hear. I’ve heard people conducting messy relationship break-ups from their mobiles in public places, and others describing their cancer operations to a carriage full of strangers on a train. Call it control freakery, but I do prefer to be in a quiet room with a book. If the writer bores or annoys me, I can always put the book away and pick up another one without offending anybody.

For these reasons I tend to be a bit bemused if people insist on calling me instead of emailing, “because it’s more direct” (the telephone uses the same electrons in the same cable!) , and slightly worried over the unstoppable rise of the podcast and the audiobook, and other technologies that go backwards in time in that they replace written communication with talking. Even if the talking is done by a machine that I can control via an “off” switch, I cannot change the way it speaks to me. Why do you want to have somebody else read a book to you with their chosen speed and emphasis, when you could pick your own instead?

So I could happily withdraw to my ivory tower and communicate with the outside world only by writing – except for my immediate family, who occasionally need to be yelled at – but there is one small problem. The fact of the matter is that people don’t buy books because they like how an author writes. Many tend to buy books by people who have appeared on (or at least been mentioned on) the telly. Preferably by people who have appeared on the telly and talked in a very persuasive way.

As I don’t appear on the telly all that much and have been hopeless on the one or two occasions I tried it, this leaves my books with a rather small (but, I like to think, highly intelligent) audience. And that’s a problem to which I haven’t found a solution yet .