Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nicole's second debut

Killer love - Nicole Scherzinger

I loved the video releases Heartbeat and Don’t hold your breath (not to mention the first PCD album and all 7 videos from it), so I came to this album with high expectations. It didn’t quite live up to my hopes, but it’s been growing on me after repeated listening. Like the title track and the other single, Poison, both co-written by Nicole, as is Everybody.

The big revelation of the album is the final track, AmenJena, which she co-wrote with Trina Harmon, who is referenced in the acknowledgements as “my teacher and friend.” She recorded this with Harmon playing the piano as the only accompaniment. Finally we get to appreciate Nicole’s voice … Now I have an idea: could the two of them get together and record an unplugged album with the best of PCD and from this album? That could be truly spectacular.

PS: What really annoyed me is the sticky label on the box, saying “Debut solo album from …” Some of us remember that there was a debut solo album called “Her name is Nicole,” which got delayed several times and then disappeared from the radar. I wish record companies were honest about this kind of thing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's my turn to speak

review of

by Sefi Atta
Interlink books 2010

The book opens with a dialogue between two friends on the bus, on their way to work, after narrowly escaping a possible accident. Rose talks a lot, and preferably about what her friend Tolani should do with her life and her boyfriend, while Tolani herself only gives laconic replies. Both face an uphill struggle trying to survive in the chaotic metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria, in a society dominated by men who tend to be unreliable, molesting, or even criminal.

Tolani doesn’t appear to be very good at getting her way through dialogue, even though there is a lot of it going on. Somehow, it never goes her way, and she always ends up swallowing her pride. Her employers kick her around, her useless boyfriend squanders her savings, her mother tells her everything except what she needs to know, and her friend Rose signs the pair of them up for a trip as drug mules, which, again, requires Tolani to swallow her pride, not to mention a condom filled with cocaine.

With its colourful representation of everyday life in Nigeria, this short novel (like Atta’s debut, Everything good will come) is very engaging - at least in the short term, for 10 or 20 pages. I especially enjoyed the swipes at us western people (“oyinbo” seems to be the Yoruba equivalent to “gringo”), such as: “… oyinbos write theories about things they can’t understand, and by the time they finish, you can’t understand either, even if they’re writing about you.” (p. 167) However, given the very slow pace of the progress our heroine makes, the reading experience is also a little bit frustrating in the longer term. This may very well be intentional, reflecting the frustration that this woman suffers every day. (Atta's debut novel was a coming of age story, so there naturally was a bit more of direction to it.) Only in the very last paragraph she seems to have picked herself up. “It’s my turn to speak,” she says. About time, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

data deluge

As I may have mentioned before, advances in genome sequencing are moving faster than those in computing (still following Moore's law, i.e. doubling capacity every 18 months or so). In the long term, of course, this means that scientists are going to produce more data than they can store or handle. Similar problems also arise in other fields e.g. neuroscience.

I've written a feature on the data deluge and how biologists are hoping to cope with it for Current Biology, which is out today:

Riding the wave of biological data
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 6, R204-R206, 22 March 2011

summary and FREE access to PDF file

One of the sources of the data flood: second generation genome sequencing machines at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, Oxford.

Monday, March 21, 2011

origin of life revisited

Origin of life researcher Jeffrey Bada and his team have analysed a set of old samples inherited from Stanley Miller. It was the first simulation of origin of life conditions to include sulphur, yet Miller never reported results. With modern methods, Bada's group show he missed out on something interesting.

Read my news story in Chemistry World (open access).

Friday, March 18, 2011


Friday Video:

Within Temptation's new release Faster, from the album "The Unforgiving", out in Germany next Friday, 25.3.

Here in the UK we have to wait till Monday ...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

march for the alternative

metropolitan police are expecting guests next week, I'm sure they are putting the kettle on ...

But seriously, it's important to keep the protests going, this government needs strong opposition, or else it will wreck the country in no time.

PS Speaking of which, welcome back to Science is Vital, the movement against research spending cuts.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

how volunteers help science

Tomorrow's Earthwatch lecture:

Many hands, new knowledge: The value of citizen science
Thursday 17 March, 7pm (doors 6pm, event end 8.30pm)
Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AR
focuses on the breadth of tasks that volunteers can perform to help field science.

Chris Newman from Oxford's WildCRU (wildlife conservation research unit) will talk about the volunteer experience on the mammalian ecology projects in Wytham Woods and in Nova Scotia. William Megill will explain the challenges of observing whales and sea turtles in the Pacific Ocean, where both robots and volunteers come in handy.

More details and free tickets here.

PS a related BBC news story is here

Sunday, March 13, 2011

jewish prayer

Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton performs her "Jewish prayers" at the Kings Place, London, next Thursday. Here's a taster:

She also appears, with different programmes, on Friday and Saturday, details are here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Genghis Khan's winning ways

I’m so excited – just found out I’m in the shortlist for a literary prize. Well, errr, a book title that I suggested for the Diagram Prize (oddest book title of the year) is on the shortlist: Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way. And last time I checked the online votes, it was leading by a large margin. [Update 28.3.: turns out Genghis Khan and I actually won the award! Woo hooooo!]

Still haven’t checked with my dentist whether she’s following this approach. We should be told.

The six titles on the shortlist are:

8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings
Various authors (TWI)
The Generosity of the Dead
Graciela Nowenstein (Ashgate)
The Italian's One-night Love Child
Cathy Williams (Mills & Boon)
Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way
Michael R Young (Radcliffe)
Myth of the Social Volcano
Martin King Whyte (Stanford University Press)
What Color Is Your Dog?
Joel Silverman (Kennel Club)

I love the last one, actually, as it shows how you can achieve absurdity with very simple means, without using a single unusual word.

A collection of 50 book covers from the shortlists of the first 30 years of the prize was published in 2008: How to Avoid Huge Ships: And Other Implausibly Titled Books. Sadly my personal favourite "Procrastination and task avoidance, a practical guide" (shortlisted some time in the late 90s) isn't included.

Recently, oddity lovers in Germany have also set up a prize: Kuriosester Buchtitel. With my most recent title “9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums,” I might be at risk of getting nominated. Which would be ironic and nicely circular, as the original Diagram Prize is covered in one of the chapters, greek rural postmen and all.

PS I don't think I own a single book from the Diagram shortlists. Maybe I should get this one, it got glowing reviews at amazon:

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

20 años de Ecos

Ecos de España y Latinoamérica, the magazine for learning Spanish, is 20 years old this month (as is a member of my family). Funny that. I've already praised the magazine here, so I'll just add "many happy returns" to that. Our household does in fact have a subscription at the moment, so long may it prosper.

Ecos Online

PS in other Latinamerican news, biochemist Alberto Granado, Che Guevara's travelling companion of Motorcycle Diaries fame, has died aged 88. There is an interesting obituary in the Guardian

Monday, March 07, 2011

fairtrade fortnight

In the UK, fairtrade organisations are celebrating fairtrade fortnight (28.2.-13.3.), so I rounded up some of the fairtrade products I use regularly - turned out to be all coffee, chocolate, tea. There weren't any fairtrade fruit around at the moment, and I forgot to include the orange juice (fruit passion):

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Avril's lullaby

the new Avril Lavigne CD, Goodbye Lullaby, landed on my doormat today, although it's only officially out on Monday. Cooked up a quick review hoping to get in one of the first at, but they haven't put in the button for customer reviews yet. So, never mind, here goes:

As somebody who has followed Avril’s career from the beginning, loving the kind of sound she produces without being blind to her limitations, I was a bit worried how this fourth studio album might turn out. Having spent a day playing it on closed loop, I’m now reassured that it’s quite ok.

With the trademark mixture of broken-voiced vulnerability and shouty assertiveness, the album resembles the first two ones more than the silliness of best damn thing, which I think is a good thing. Conversely, if you didn’t like her early work, you probably won’t like this either.

There are three songs co-written and overproduced by Max Martin and Shellback, which are the ones I like least. On a fourth track, MM and Shellback had a go at a more acoustic style, which isn’t quite as bad. One of the four MM tracks, What the hell, has already been released as a single, and I fear the other three will follow.

But by far the best damn thing about this album are the songs that Avril wrote on her own or with guitarist Evan Taubenfeld, including Everybody hurts, 4 real, Darlin, and the two “lullabies” framing the album. I’m hoping we’ll get to hear more of this Avril on the rocks in the future.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Niko's mischievous experiments

review of

Niko's Nature
by Hans Kruuk
Oxford University Press 2003

Together with his German colleague, friend, and fellow Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen counts as a founding father of the science of animal behaviour, ethology. The most remarkable thing about his scientific legacy is how simple and elegant his experiments were, and yet they often revealed something profound about why animals behave the way they do.

Tinbergen would use felt pens to paint spots on stickleback fish that use this kind of colour stimulus in mating, move landmarks that he thought wasps might use to find their nests, and paint birds’ eggs in different colours. These experiments, which often gave the impression of originating from the mind of a mischievous child, answered many important questions on how animal instincts work.

Given the nature of his science, which is relatively easy to grasp even for the completely uninitiated, it is not surprising that he also wrote books for children and grown-up lay readers. This may or may not have some connection to the fact that two of his co-workers from his post-war years at Oxford’s zoology department went on to become highly successful popular science authors in their distinct ways: Desmond Morris and Richard Dawkins.

Hans Kruuk, also a former PhD student from the Tinbergen lab (and an early observer of the famous badgers of Wytham Woods) has written a highly readable account of the intertwined life and science of “the Maestro” as his co-workers used to call him. There are only moderate amounts of war-time drama in an otherwise settled and stable life, but the unusually accessible nature of Tinbergen’s research means that this biography is a rare opportunity for non-scientists to understand how a scientific mind works.

PS I should have reviewed this book 5 years ago when I read it. I’m somewhat disappointed to see that OUP still hasn’t reissued it as a paperback, which doesn’t bode well for the sales.

PS (10.4.2019): The Nobel foundation featured the Tinbergen brothers on the occasion of siblings day, yesterday, linking to this article about them by an economist. Which reminded me of a very interesting letter to the Guardian written in 2013 by Niko's son Dirk Tinbergen, remembering post-war food shortages:

"Helen Keats's story of roof rabbits (Letters, 12 February) reminds me of my father and uncle debating whether it was worth "investing" breadcrumbs to try to catch sparrows for the pot."

It is an example of the family trait that Hans Kruuk refers to as "pathological modesty" in his biography - the letter writer forgot to mention the hilarious fact that both participants in the sparrow-catching discussion went on to win Nobel prizes in fields related to the subject.

Friday, March 04, 2011

one hundred strokes of the brush

review of

Melissa P

film by Luca Guadagnino, 2005

Based on the book “One hundred strokes of the brush before bed” by Melissa Panarello (which I haven’t read), this Italian / Spanish production describes the descent of a young girl into a series of increasingly unwise sexual encounters. It is far less explicit than the UK’s 18 certificate might suggest (unless nipples on display are nowadays sufficient reason to slap the red badge on), and it is far better than any of the comments I have read would give it credit for.

As parents we do need to be aware that for vulnerable girls, who may be low on self-esteem, there are very real dangers arising from their sexuality and from its ruthless exploitation by men of all ages. The recent phenomenon of the “loverboys” in the Netherlands, who coax schoolgirls into prostitution, shows that this is not as rare as we might have hoped.

The film handles this difficult subject tactfully. For instance, the nudity is only on display when Melissa is ensconced in the comfort of her home, either alone in her room, or in the bathroom with her beloved grandmother (whose nipples are also revealed in an old photograph – maybe that pushed the censors over the edge?). On the other hand, the more dangerous her encounters with men become, the less we get to see of them, and the more is left to the viewer’s imagination.

The film only makes limited use of language – as I understood most of the Italian without ever having learned that language, it can’t have involved any sophisticated phrases. I‘m guessing this may be on purpose, as the body and visual languages are more important to the protagonists and the movie, and lead actress Maria Velverde can express herself very eloquently without saying a word.

On the visual side, I loved the locations chosen with a great sense of place and visual effect, such as the descent into the improbably cavernous historic basement which ends up being a descent in more than one way.

Here’s another film condemned to the trash bin by people who can’t see past a bare chest, and that’s a shame.

IMDB page

PS From the same director comes the more recent I am love, one of the few continental films that have managed to cross the English Channel recently (UK release April 2010).