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.