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 .

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

to share or not to share

Researchers in medical genetics share a fundamental dilemma with the people running facebook. Their whole enterprise would benefit from the uninhibited sharing of information, but individual participants might suffer from it.

In biomedicine, there are two major developments that have made a rethink of the privacy settings necessary, namely the arrival of personal genome sequencing, and the genome wide association studies of tropical diseases, which depend on participants who don't always qualify for "informed consent" in the established sense.

Oxford bioethics experts (in and around the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, pictured below) have played a leading role in setting up new procedures to handle these privacy problems, and have hosted an international conference on data sharing here earlier this month. Reason enough to explore the issues in a news feature, which is out in Current Biology today:

New data issues
Current Biology
Volume 20, Issue 18
(28 September 2010)
Pages R790-R791

access via sciencedirect

PS my previous publication on this issue is here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I can see your heartbeat

I love the way the heartbeat is visualised in this new video by Enrique Iglesias ft. Nicole Scherzinger:

Ok, I'll admit that I love everything else about this video as well, but the heartbeat thing is a good excuse to file it under "public understanding of science" and embed it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

reflections on chirality

In my occasional series on all things chiral, here's a racemic boathouse:

Just to confuse people, they have put a right-handed staircase (i.e. like an ordinary screw it moves forward if you turn clockwise) on the left of the building, and a left-handed one on the right. If the reflection in the water had been clear enough, you would see a left-handed reflection on the left and a right handed one on the right.

This is one (or maybe two?) of the college boathouses lined up along the river Thames, between the two main channels of the river Cherwell. There is another one next door to this built to the same design.

I also added six other new Oxford photos to my flickr photostream today.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

800 balas

800 bullets, Alex de la Iglesia, Spain 2002

The movies of Alex de la Iglesia appear to be marketed as tosh around here, if they reach the UK market place at all, but if and when I get to see one, it turns out to be surprisingly good and indeed profound. Looking at the cover of the 800 balas DVD, I would never have dreamed of buying it, if it wasn’t for the fact that somebody I know appeared in it as an extra and was really excited about it when the film was made in 2002. Oh, and the DVD was only £2.99.

So, coming to the film without much hope other than perhaps spotting a familiar face in the crowd, I found to my surprise that it spoke to me in a number of different ways, and about rather profound issues, too.

The most important angle, and probably the issue the director had in mind when he dreamt the whole story up, is the layer cake of multiple deceptions that is lovingly built and destroyed here. There are many movies about movies (Truffaut’s La nuit americaine being my cultural signpost among them), and how the acting profession is essentially about lying and faking emotions. This one adds a few more layers to this theme. On top of the actors’ deception (and the illusion created by a rapid sequence of projected slides), we have the stuntmen pretending to be the actors. On top of that we have the out-of-work stuntmen (or maybe they never really worked as such?) endlessly repeating their wild West stunts in a run-down theme park, pretending they are part of the glorious tradition of the spaghetti western.

The entire hall of mirrors, deceptions and delusions falls apart when a young boy decides to meet his grandfather who runs this show and deludes himself about various aspects of his past and present life. As the boy figures out who is trustworthy and who isn’t (a prostitute and his grandmother are about the only sane and reliable people in the madness), the handful of tourists who come to the park are clearly unable to tell the real fights from the faked ones, and take photos of everything regardless.

Then, reading number two, seeing that it is set in Spain (though in the wrong part of the country), one could interpret the movie as a modern day version of Don Quixote. In both works the imaginary fights of men inspired by fictional fights eventually turn into real ones with real blood loss. Oops, I think I would have to re-read the Quixote in order to elaborate further, so I’ll leave you with this tantalising hint.

Finally, one could regard the movie as an allegory for any human enterprise that starts out gloriously and ends in mayhem and in-fighting. Without thinking too hard, the UK’s “new labour” government strikes me as an obvious parallel. Or, indeed, one could do some self analysis. Is my life really an echo of past glories dependent on an audience ready to be deceived? The ticketseller gives the boy a clue: “If there’s no audience, there will be no show,” he says.

So the moral is: don’t believe what it says on the box (I’d love to think that maybe somebody really clever picked up the theme of the movie and just wanted to add an extra layer of deception to it, but that appears highly unlikely). This is not a western, it’s not about the violence, and not even about the nudity. It is actually a wonderful movie that has important things to say – much like Alex de la Iglesia’s earlier work “La comunidad” (Common Wealth, 2000). I’ll have to watch it again, as with all the excitement about the film, I still haven’t spotted that face I was looking for.

Image source: 800 balas official site

PS (9.8.2012) here's a showreel from the actress I'm looking for ...

Monday, September 20, 2010

pick a species as UK mascot

At the forthcoming Earthwatch debate you can vote for a species to serve as an environmental mascot for Britain.

Among the five debaters will be Dr George McGavin, winner of the Earthwatch ‘Irreplaceable Species’ debate in 2008, when he won over the audience with his knowledge and wit, arguing the case for bees. This year Dr McGavin, BBC Lost Lands presenter and Honorary Research Associate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, will once more set the audience buzzing about bumblebees as his choice for Britain’s environmental mascot.

Also entering the fray to find the archetypal British species will be Tony Juniper, writer, campaigner and independent environmental advisor who will sing the praises of the song thrush; Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, will be rooting for the oak tree; Dr Johannes Vogel, the Keeper of Botany at London’s Natural History Museum, will paint a colourful picture of the bluebell; and Dr Samantha Burgess, Earthwatch Senior Research Manager (Oceans), will make waves for deep-sea coral.

The debaters have been challenged to choose a species which both represents the UK’s invaluable natural heritage, but also the British people’s inimitable spirit. They will work to persuade the audience that their chosen species is vital to ecosystem health and British social and cultural identity.

Earthwatch executive vice president Nigel Winser says “Our annual debate at the RGS is always a thought provoking and entertaining event, while addressing serious environmental issues. Do come along and cast your vote and help us choose the new environmental mascot for Britain for the 21st Century.”

Thursday 14 October 2010
at the Royal Geographical Society
1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR

For full details and to book free tickets, click here.

Perfect excuse to dig out one of my own bumblebee photos from this summer! Vote bumblebees!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

movies we're not allowed to see

-- last updated 25.06.2015 --

NB: for more recent updates see my new blog post on this issue.

I've been catching up on some European movies from the last years that for some reason or another didn't get a cinema release in the UK (criteria: no release date listed on IMDB and film didn't show up here). There is a growing collection of recent films that I really liked and that didn't get shown in this country, so I'm compiling a commented list here:

Mädchen Mädchen (Girls on top) - Germany 2001, Dennis Gansel.

Juana la loca - Spain 2001, Vicente Aranda - it's just a straightforward period drama based on the same events as Gioconda Belli's more ambitious novel El pergamino de la seducción (which I reviewed here) but I love the story so it doesn't harm to have a second view on it. It's nicely done and should interest people outside Spain too. (It has in fact been released in the US as "Mad Love", but not here.)

800 balas (800 bullets) - Spain 2002, Alex de la Iglesia - surprisingly brilliant film, see my review.

El otro lado de la cama (The other side of the bed) - Spain 2002, Emilio Martínez Lázaro - starring Paz Vega, Natalia Verbeke.

Suite Habana (Havana Suite) - Cuba 2003, Fernando Pérez - not European, but still interesting.

L'esquive (Games of love and chance) - France 2003, Abdellatif Kechiche - only shown at the London film festival.

Dot the i - UK 2003, Matthew Parkhill - this one puzzles me, actually, it's made in Britain, with funding from UK film council, in English (though with stars better known in Spanish speaking countries), all nipples carefully covered up, and it still went straight to DVD (more here).

Tout le plaisir est pour moi (The pleasure is all mine) - France 2004, Isabelle Broué, starring Marie Gillain - comedy around libido lost and found, a bit painting by numbers and too americanised for my taste, but apparently not enough to get a UK release.

En la cama - Germany / Chile 2005, Matías Bize starring Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela - the film that inspired Julio Medem's "Room in Rome" (2010, see below). See my review.

Melissa P - Italy / Spain 2005, Luca Guadagnino - a difficult topic handled tactfully, see my review.

Ensemble c'est tout - France 2007, Claude Berri - ok, I wasn't really overwhelmed by this one, see my review of the book (by Anna Gavalda) with post-script on the film here. The film was only shown at a festival here and hasn't even seen a DVD release (my DVD is from Germany).

Caótica Ana - Spain 2007, Julio Medem - maybe not his best work but still worth watching, see my review here.

Les anges exterminateurs - France 2006, Jean-Claude Brisseau - although part one of the trilogy, Les choses secretes, was shown in UK cinemas, this second part and the final one, A l'aventure, weren't.

Tangerine - Germany 2008, Irene von Alberti - German musicians try and fail to connect with the culture of Morocco ...

A l'aventure - France 2008, Jean-Claude Brisseau - third part of the trilogy, of which only the beginning, Les choses secretes made it to UK cinemas.

LOL (Laughing out Loud) - France 2008, Lisa Azuelos - a teenage comedy with a twist, as Sophie Marceau, who shot to fame with La Boum in the 80s, plays the mother of the lead girl this time round. Looking this up on IMDB, I found out that a US remake starring Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore is due to be released on 1.6.2012. Oh, and there hasn't even been a DVD release in the UK, another movie I had to import from Germany.

Française -France 2008, Souad El-Bouhati - shortish film about being a foreigner and choosing your country, starring Hafsia Herzi from Couscous (La graine et le mulet), review to follow.

Soul kitchen - Germany 2009, Fatih Akin - review to follow.

Castillos de cartón - Spain 2009, Salvador García Ruiz - charming film based on novel by Almudena Grandes, about three art students in 1980s Madrid who find their ways in art, love, and life. See my review of the UK DVD edition trying to mis-sell it as porn.

Je te mangerais - France 2009, - girl-on-girl obsession complete with harrassment and a background of classical music. Love the setting (in Lyon) and the views, but there are some disturbing things going on that aren't really addressed. Also, the link between emotions and their musical expression wasn't easy to catch for mere mortal non-pianists like me. Went straight to DVD in the UK in 2010 (title: Highly Strung, cert. 15).

Now & later - USA 2009, Philippe Diaz - free love vs. the power of military and financial oppression, heart-warming stuff, read my review here.

Mentiras y gordas (Sex, party & lies) - Spain 2009, Alfonso Albacete - superficially, this is sex and drugs and techno all the way through, so don't be surprised at the knee-jerk reaction from some quarters and the 18 certificate on the DVD. If you can look beyond that, however, there are interesting subtleties (the lies are in the title for a reason), characters likeable with all their flaws, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs and falling in love.

Happy Few - France 2010, Antony Cordier - starring Elodie Bouchez - I missed La vie rêvée des anges when it came out, and generally hadn't seen a movie with Bouchez since Les roseaux sauvages (1994), so I made a note regarding this one when I heard about it in France. Needless to say, it didn't get a UK release (not even as DVD) so I imported the DVD from Germany. One might question whether the news that two couples have merged into a foursome is material enough to fill two hours, but I really liked the general feel and atmosphere of it.

L'âge de raison - France 2010, Yann Samuell - starring Sophie Marceau - what happens if the letters a clever 7-year-old girl writes to her future, 40-year-old self actually get delivered? Good question, slightly muddled in the answer but still interesting and moving to a degree. Further proof that de-frenching French films by bringing in a bit of English dialogue and leaving out all nipples doesn't guarantee cinematic release in the English-speaking world. Neither does the presence of a huge star like Marceau ... It was shown in cinemas in Germany, where a DVD is available under the title Vergissmichnicht.

Balada triste de trompeta - Spain 2010, Alex de la Iglesia - shown at Edinburgh Film Festival only.
A complex and difficult movie on the trauma caused by the Spanish civil war, read my review here

Vénus noire - France 2010, Abdellatif Kechiche - epic and profound biopic of an African woman shown around as "Hottentot Venus" in European cities in the 19th century. See my review here

Mes chères études - France 2010, Emmanuelle Bercot - now this alternative approach to student finance might have caused scandal around here, so better not show it.

678 / Les femmes du bus 678 - Egypt 2010, Mohamed Diab, starring Nahed El Sebai, Boushra, Nelly Karim - very timely and relevant film on the everyday harassment of women, see my review here.

still from "Habitación en Roma": official site.

Habitación en Roma (Room in Rome) - Spain 2010, Julio Medem - read my review here.

I love Périgord - France 2011, Charles Nemes – it’s a cliché-laden comedy about an Anglo-French culture clash and I wouldn’t normally make a fuss about it, but given the topic, a no-show in UK cinemas might of course be read as censoring the opinion of the other side in this age-old cultural conflict.

Q - France 2011, Laurent Bouhnik – What if relationships between people were driven by rampant female desire, what might this alternative to the testosterone-soaked world we live in look like? The (male) writer/director seems to think that it would be a better world, as the desire of the female protagonist, although a bit disconcerting at first, ends up being a force for good, fixing troubled relationships and strengthening the community. Sadly, censors and marketing people are unable to ignore the bare chests for long enough to work out what a film is actually about, so we have another interesting film that didn’t get a UK release and went straight to DVD with a blurb that essentially tries to sell it as posh porn. When will they ever learn?

Memoria de mis putas tristes - Mexico/Denmark 2011, Henning Carlsen - lovely adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' eponymous short novel from 2004. Review to follow.

Camille redouble (Camille rewinds) - France 2012, Noémie Lvovsky - Charming if slightly illogical time travel story featuring the director in the lead role. It was - released in around a dozen countries but no UK date in sight.

La fille de nulle part - France 2012, Jean-Claude Brisseau - this low-budget ghost story looks like poor old Brisseau is now reduced to filming in his own flat and playing the lead himself, but it is still interesting.

Mapa para conversar (A map for love) - Chile 2012, Constanza Fernandez, starring Andrea Moro, Mariana Prat, Francisca Bernardi - three women in a cute little chamber piece mostly set on a small boat. Restrictions clear the mind, as one of the characters says. Available on DVD from the lovely peccadillo pictures.

PS: I am, of course, a bit biased in favour of Spanish and French cinema, but I'm sure there are similarly neglected films from other European countries, and indeed from around the world as well. I'll also acknowledge bias towards vaguely intelligent films, which excludes some German comedies that were extremely successful on the domestic market but didn't get exported.

"Endangered List" of films that may or may not end up on the list above (as I haven't seen them yet, and/or they may still turn up):

Flores raras (Reaching for the Moon) - Brazil 2013, Bruno Barreto
Landes - France 2013, François-Xavier Vives, starring Marie Gillain
Ayer no termina nunca (Yesterday never ends) - Spain 2013, Isabel Coixet - shown at the Berlin International Film Festival 2013, and at the London Spanish Film Festival 2013

Una pistola en cada mano - Spain 2012, Cesc Gay - Shown in Germany (Ein Freitag in Barcelona), and at the London Spanish Film Festival 2013.

Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the world) Germany 2012, Detlev Buck.
Klip (Clip) - Serbia 2012, Maja Milos
Weil ich schöner bin - Germany 2012, Frieder Schlaich
El amigo aleman (The German friend) - Germany, Argentina 2012, Jeanine Meerapfel
3 - Uruguay, Argentina, Germany 2012 - Pablo Stoll - oops, there are too many movies called 3, I was looking for this one and first found the one below, and got all confused.
Tres - Ecuador, Argentina, Germany 2012
3 Zimmer/Küche/Bad (Move) - Germany 2012
Baad el Mawkeaa (After the Battle) - France / Egypt 2012
Después de Lucía - Mexico / France 2012
A perdre la raison - Belgium 2012, Joachim Lafosse, starring Emilie Dequenne
Buscando a Eimish - Spain 2012, Ana Rodríguez Rosell, starring Manuela Vellés, Emma Suárez - shown at the London Spanish Film Festival 2012
Joven y alocada - Chile 2012, Marialy Rivas

Lo mejor de Eva - Spain 2011, Mariano Barroso - starring Leonor Watling, Adriana Ugarte
Un été brûlant - France 2011, Philippe Garrel - starring Monica Bellucci
Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta went to heaven) - Chile 2011, Andrés Wood - a biopic of the Chilean folk singer, song writer Violeta Parra
Graba - Argentina 2011
Lo contrario al amor - Spain 2011 - shown at the London Spanish Film Festival 2012
Verbo - Spain 2011 - shown at the London Spanish Film Festival 2012
Karen llora en un bus - Colombia 2011
Abrir puertas y ventanas (Back to stay) - Argentina 2011, Milagros Mumenthaler
La chispa de la vida (As luck would have it) - Spain 2011, Alex de la Iglesia
Poulet aux prunes (Chicken with plums) - France 2011, Marjane Satrapi
3 - Germany 2011, Tom Tykwer
I phone you - Germany 2011, Dan Tang
Almanya - Willkommen in Deutschland - Germany 2011, Nesrin Samdereli, Yasemin Samdereli

Amador - Spain 2010, Fernando Leon Aranoa, starring Magaly Solier
Le sentiment de la chair - France 2010 - (slightly scared of this, plot summary sounds like it may be taking "anatomical detail" a little bit too literally?)
Marieke, Marieke - Belgium 2010, Sophie Schoukens
Die Fremde (When we leave) - Germany 2010, Feo Aladag - starring Sibel Kekilli
Le nom des gens - France 2010, Michel Leclerc
Flamenco, flamenco - Spain 2010, Carlos Saura -
Un homme qui crie - France/Belgium/Chad 2010, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun -
Joseph et la fille - France 2010, Xavier de Choudens - starring Hafsia Herzi, Jacques Dutronc

La fille du RER (The girl on the train) - France 2009, André Téchiné, starring Emilie Dequenne
Eloise - Spain 2009, Jesús Garay
Io, Don Giovanni - Spain / Italy 2009, Carlos Saura
Anonymes (Buried secrets) - France 2009, Raja Amari - starring Hafsia Herzi
El último verano de la Boyita - Argentina 2009, Julia Solomonoff - shown at the Viva Festival, Manchester only.
La Yuma - Nicaragua 2009, Florence Jaugey -

El juego del ahorcado - Spain 2008, Manuel Gómez Pereira - starring Adriana Ugarte
La journeé de la jupe (Skirt day) - France 2008, Jean-Paul Lilienfeld - starring Isabelle Adjani, who won a César for this role
L'aube du monde (Dawn of the world) - Iraq, France, Germany 2008, Abbas Fahdel - starring Hafsia Herzi
Le premier venu (Just anybody) - France 2008, Jacques Doillon -
Arráncame la vida (Tear this heart out) - Mexico 2008, Roberto Sneider - Adaptation of Angeles Mastretta's novel, shown at the Viva Festival, Manchester only.

Les filles du botaniste - France / Canada (2006) but dialogue in Mandarin
Short order (Life is a buffet) - Ireland, Germany, UK 2005 - starring Emma de Caunes

Perder es cuestión de método - Colombia 2004, Sergio Cabrera - an adaptation of Santiago Gamboa's eponymous novel

Petite Lili - France 2003 - starring Ludivine Sagnier; an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, apparently

Solino Germany 2002, Fatih Akin

Finally, films from the watch list that did get a UK release after all, hooray:

Alceste a bicyclette (Bicycling with Moliere) - France 2013, Philippe Le Guay - Note the predictable replacement of the name of Alceste (the lead character in Le misanthrope) with the author's name in the international title. UK release on July 6th, 2014.
El artista y la modelo - Spain 2012, Fernando Trueba, starring Claudia Cardinale - one-off showing at the London Spanish Film Festival's Spring Weekend, April 2013, then release of around a dozen copies in September 2013, details here
La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the warmest colour) - France 2013, Abdellatif Kechiche - winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2013, and I was still worried it might not get a release here. That's how bad things have become. It was released in November 2013.

Paris-Manhattan - France 2012, Sophie Lellouche - French reflections on Woodie Allen - UK release 5.7.2013, apparently, although it hasn't shown up in our local cinemas. Got DVD via Germany and really liked it.
Les femmes du 6ème étage (The women on the 6th floor) - France 2010 - UK release in July 2012
Elle s'appellait Sarah - France 2010, Gilles Paquet-Brenner - starring Kristin Scott-Thomas
UK release 5.8.2011 as "Sarah's Key"

Further reading:

  1. An interesting piece from a movie professional who had a few fights with the UK censors appeared in the Guardian film section on 1.10.2010.
  2. 100 years of film censorship (slash classification): Kira Cochrane in the Guardian on the BBFC's anniversary, 27.7.2012.
  3. BFI statistical yearbook 2013: According to the country of origin stats on page 17, 151 (23%) of the movies released in the UK in 2012 came from other European countries. Also see the chapter 5, "Specialised Films", which includes stats on foreign language films. Apparently, 230 films in 32 foreign languages were released in 2012, accounting for 35.5% of all releases but taking only 2% of the box-office. I'll prepare a separate blog entry on these stats.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jules Verne at Amiens

On my recent visit to Amiens, I also looked up the monuments to the writer Jules Verne, who lived there for the last three decades of his life and served on the city council. His wife came from this city, and he also found its location convenient, being half way between Paris and the port of Le Crotoy where his boat was based.

Since my last visit, his residence has been turned into a museum:

It opened in March 2006, which looks suspiciously as though someone aimed at the centenary of his death (March 2005) but missed the deadline. It's easy to find as the street is now named after him:

His statue is also nearby:

Note the avid young readers surrounding him. I also read a large number of his novels as a youngster. Later in life, I re-read 20,000 lieues sous les mers when finishing my PhD thesis, as it fitted the subject (life under high hydrostatic pressure) and in fact yielded a nice motto for the introduction. I also read the re-discovered work Paris au XXeme ciecle, first published in 1993 when it came out, and Le rayon vert after watching the eponymous movie by Eric Rohmer. So while I wouldn't call myself a fan, I feel sufficiently connected to his work to look in on the old man when I come to a town linked to his biography.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

extremophiles feed on formic acid

Researchers have found a new form of energy metabolism in extremely heat-loving (hyperthermophilic) microbes from the genus Thermococcus, which thrive at temperatures above 80 deg C.

Yun Jae Kim, Hyun Sook Lee, and colleagues from several research institutes in Korea, Japan and Russia, demonstrated that several Thermococcus species can produce the cellular energy currency, ATP, using formic acid, the simplest organic acid, as their only fuel. They react formic acid with water, producing bicarbonate and molecular hydrogen.

The researchers discovered the surprising ability in the species T. onnurineus after noticing that its genome contained multiple copies of a gene coding for an enzyme specific for the oxidation of formic acid. When they tested other Thermococcus species for this trait, several, but not all shared the ability to thrive on formic acid. Thermococci form part of the domain of the Archaea, which are as distinct from the Bacteria as from the Eukarya (including all plant and animal species), and which include many species adapted to life under extreme conditions.

Previously, biologists had assumed that this type of reaction would not yield enough energy to fuel the growth of cells. Formate consumption was only known from microbial communities where methane producers can use the hydrogen produced and thereby favour the reaction.

This represents the simplest anaerobic (i.e. oxygen-excluding) metabolism discovered so far, and may well point to ancestral, primitive forms of energy metabolism that were later superseded by more efficient types in most branches of life.


Kim et al, Nature 2010, 467, 352.

For background information on extremophiles, see my book:

Life on the Edge

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

taking off today

Sale el sol tour

PS the first review of the Montreal show I could find is here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

a very useful formula

I am puzzled that my children's secondary school doesn't seem to teach the most elementary form of the binomial theorem, i.e.

(a+b)2 = a2 + 2ab + b2
(a-b)2 = a2 - 2ab + b2
(a+b)(a-b) = a2 - b2

In German selective secondary schools (Gymnasium) you get these 3 equations drilled into your head until you know them in your sleep, backward and forward (well at least this was still the case when I went to school), and rightly so, as they are incredibly useful for everything from quadratic equations through to mental arithmetics (allowing you to calculate things like 53 * 47 in a flash). They are known as "binomische Formeln" and have jokingly been attributed to a mathematician called Binomi, though of course the name refers to the fact that they are about algebraic expressions based on two terms.

Looking them up on Wiki, I found that the German entry Binomische Formel, which explains their usefulness in great detail, is linked to the English entry Binomial theorem, which is about the more general version [(a+b)n], applying to powers of all sorts. The latter would of course be too difficult for most pupils, so I am wondering whether it's only the German system that has come up with the the idea of rebranding the simplest case to make it accessible and useful. (A quick check of the wiki entries in Spanish, French, and Dutch reveals they also focus on the general formula.)

Any clues to this mystery appreciated.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

new roof

My little study now has a new roof which keeps the rain out and lets the sunlight in - which is very good news, as the old roof used to do it the other way round.

Still plenty of work to do on the interior decoration (old plasterboard ceiling and woodwork will go out to create an extra 2.5 cubic metres of space) not to mention on the tidying up front, as you can see on the picture below. But I already love the fact that I have now daylight in the space that used to be dark and gloomy even on nice days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

how greed wrecked our economy

I don't care much about money, so it takes exceptional circumstances to get me thinking about the state of the economy, but I have a feeling that the time has come to look at these things more closely than I normally do. What I'm particularly struggling to understand right now is why and how politicians (especially in the UK!) have allowed finance to run wild without realising that this would result in the systematic destruction of the real-world economy, i.e. of the companies that actually produce useful things but only yield modest profits.

There was an interesting comment by Andrew Simms in yesterday's Guardian, explaining how several British corporations originally founded with an agenda committed at least partially to moral principles (e.g. by Quaker families) came to be corrupted and wrecked by corporate finance. Some quotes I highlighted:

Twinings' fate highlights the quietly corrosive, long-term effect of the excessive privilege given to finance. Over decades its hypnotic hunger for unrealistic profit has corrupted or wrecked many other eminent corporations in Britain – often companies that, like Twinings, helped define our national identity.

Glib dismissals that this is the way of the world, the inevitable outcome of otherwise efficient markets, ignore the fact that indulging the lords of finance has wrecked the productive economy, just as much as it bankrupted the public finances.

If the corporation is to have a future, the public sphere will have to demand a redesign – and return finance to its proper, subservient role of supporting the wider economy.

On a related note, in a comment published last week, Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang challenges the notion that deregulated finance helps the economy overall. In the long term, Chang argues, the economy was doing better in the "bad old days" of the 1960s and 70s, when regulations were much tighter.

This charming little beast guards the boundary of the City of London, I think it may be telling us something about what's going on in the square mile!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Fernando's kitchen

Last weekend I stumbled upon an unsigned band called Fernando's Kitchen, as three of its members were playing in Oxford's Bonn Square. Though I couldn't stay long, I loved what I heard, essentially a mediterranean fusion of styles including flamenco and arabic music (not that I'm very good at analysing this, but the oud is a giveaway):

Looked them up on MySpace and found this nice video with the complete band, also doing a street performance:

I should have bought the CD though.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


It just dawned on me that Shakira's world tour starts in a week, on Wed, 15th, in lucky Montreal, Quebec, Canada (see tour schedule). Over here in Europe we have to wait a couple of months longer, but the countdown starts now.

I understand she and the tour band are already in Canada and busy practicing:


Monday, September 06, 2010

a taste of salt

Just one piece out in German this month, a slightly delayed account of the discovery of taste receptors for salt, which essentially completes the set. While not all details have been worked out, there are now at least strong candidate receptors and cells for each of the five elementary taste sensations. Amazingly, most of the key discoveries were made by the same team (collaboration of Charles Zuker and Nicholas Ryba), who I think should be up for a Nobel prize within the next few years.

Rezeptoren für jeden Geschmack
Spektrum der Wissenschaft September 2010, S. 18-19

Friday, September 03, 2010

the maths behind the Sarrazin affair

Former SPD politician and Bundesbank manager Thilo Sarrazin has unleashed a torrent of outrage (but also support from some quarters) with his hypothesis that muslims are going to swamp Germany and make up the majority of the population within a century, simply by having more children. In spite of acres of coverage going over the subject matter back and forth, I haven't seen a mathematical treatment of the claim to check whether it could actually happen, so I did my own back of the envelope calculation.

What would it take to make Sarrazin's fears turn into reality? For a 10 fold population increase in a century, we need roughly a doubling per generation. Let's assume that traditionalist muslim families (henceforth: "traditionalists") have an average of 8 children, of whom 4 will follow the traditionalist way, have 8 children again, etc. With this model (key parameters: 50% uptake of traditionalist lifestyle, 8 children per tradionalist couple) the number of traditionalists would double from each generation to the next, so these (or higher) parameters would support Sarrazin's claims. Note that we can safely ignore the 50% of children who don't follow the traditionalist way, as they will gradually adjust their fertility to the prevailing level of the country which is sub-replacement level.

I haven't seen scientific data regarding these two numbers, but my gut feeling would be that both numbers will in fact be lower, so the traditionalist population will _not_ double in a generation, and may not even grow at all. And seeing that net immigration has vanished in recent years, we can ignore that part as well.

So here is my stationary model: Assuming that 1/3 of children from traditionalist households stick with the traditionalist ways and have an average of 6 children, that would leave us with just 2 traditionalists in the new generation to replace the 2 parents we started with, i.e. we have exact replacement.

Of course if the parameters are smaller than 1/3 and 6, the traditionalists will gradually disappear (though possibly not as quickly as the rest of the population).