Monday, May 30, 2011

our living earth

Review of

Our living earth
Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Isabelle Delannoy
Thames & Hudson 2008

Yann Arthus-Bertrand is famous for his aerial photographs of our planet and its inhabitants. I understand the photographer typically works from hovering hot-air balloons, so his vantage points are distant enough to reveal patterns that we don’t see from the ground, but close enough to still see the humans and their vehicles that create these patterns.

He has very successfully marketed these photos in coffee-table books with titles like “The Earth from above” and in exhibitions. In this book, his photos are hooked up with facts and figures about the current threats to our environment, and with pleas to save the Earth, which puts the photos to a good use and also gives the reader the warm feeling of doing something useful rather than just looking at pretty pictures.

The text, aimed at young readers, doesn’t delve into scientific depths, and doesn’t cite sources for the numbers given, which is a bit of a shame. If the photos and alarming facts manage to stir readers up to the extent that they want to find out more, they will have to go googling to find more comprehensive accounts.

I found copies of the book at The Works for 99 pence, which is outrageous – but grab one if you can.

Friday, May 27, 2011

go wild

Wild swimming
By Daniel Start
Punk Publishing Ltd. 2008

On my map of Oxford, which dates from the year 2000, but probably hasn’t been updated all that thoroughly for the 2000 printing, there are five places by the rivers marked as “bathing place,” including Parson’s Pleasure and Sunnymead by the river Cherwell, and three others by the river Thames (or Isis, as it is called in Oxford).

In the real world, however, if I walk down to the river Cherwell, I find big signs saying “no swimming or diving” or something to this effect, and hardly anybody dares to swim there these days. There is a simple reason for these signs cropping up just about everywhere – land owners are scared of being sued if somebody comes to harm, so they stay on the safe side and put up the signs:

Yet there are many places around Oxford and indeed around the UK where swimming in the wild is at least as safe as crossing a road, for those who can swim and are willing to behave with the necessary caution. Thus it is very welcome that Daniel Start’s book lists around 150 such places around the country, complete with practical tips regarding how to get there and how to stay safe, and with as many gorgeous photos of surprisingly large numbers of people engaged in the forgotten pleasures of wild swimming.

Our local spot, Parson’s Pleasure, is only mentioned in a historical anecdote in the text and not officially included in the list – presumably due to those signs that the university put up after someone drowned a few years ago. But I might one day check out the place at Stonesfield, which, as I learned from this book, is the village where the first fossil was found that came to be recognised as a dinosaur. There is, actually, although the book fails to mention this, a local bus service from Oxford to Stonesfield.

The trouble with a guidebook that covers the whole country when you only need to know about your nearest place, is that it doesn’t appear to be very good value for money and you may be tempted to look up the info in the library or bookshop. I’d recommend to buy the book regardless, though, firstly to enjoy the wonderful photos, and secondly, to support the severely threatened art of wild swimming.

parson's pleasure

A picture taken at Parson's Pleasure - click to view full size on flickr.

PS: The site "dereliction in the shires" has a nice appreciation of Tumbling Bay bathing place by the Thames.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Germany's nuclear exit strategy

Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, the German government performed a spectacular U-turn on nuclear energy. Just six months after drawing up a plan to slow down the planned closure of its remaining nuclear power stations, Germany now looks likely to speed it up, and may well do so by 2020. This would make Germany the first country to abandon nuclear energy after using it for decades, so it would set an interesting example for others to study and possibly to follow.

Read my news feature which is out in Current Biology today:

Energy U-turn in Germany
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 10, R379-R381, 24 May 2011
Summary and open access to pdf file.

This is also one of the rare articles to be printed with one of my own photos, namely this one:


(click image to see larger versions in my flickr photostream)


31.5. German government gives detailed plan for 2022 exit: Guardian report.

25.5. Pleased to note that the Swiss government is now moving in the direction I anticipated and taking steps towards a phase-out of nuclear energy (see this Guardian report. It would have been slightly embarrassing if they had changed their mind in the weeks between my writing the article and its publication.

The UK, meanwhile, has decided to dump radioactive waste in an ordinary landfill site. What a brilliant idea. I wonder whether nuclear energy expert Homer Simpson was involved with the planning? And seeing that the company involved is called Augean, will they divert a river to wash the waste into the sea?

Monday, May 23, 2011

seven days in Havana

I hear that my all time favourite film director, Julio Medem, has started filming a short feature which will be 1/7th of a movie called "Seven days in Havana" (7 dias en La Habana). His contribution is called 'La tentación de Cecilia' (The temptation of Cecilia), and it stars German actor Daniel Brühl. The other 6 parts are from colleagues including Benicio del Toro and Gaspar Noe.

There is preliminary information available from IMDB and spanish cinema blogs (such as this one), hoping to find out more soon, watch this space!

Picture from official website:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

flickr stats

After 11 months on flickr, I have now accumulated enough clicks to do statistics with them, so I'll look into that for the first birthday of my photostream. What's beginning to emerge is that the audience isn't terribly interested in cute bumblebees like this one:

bumblebee 1103

Instead, they seem to have an inexplicable fondness for Homo sapiens females with short shorts and implausibly long legs (beats me). Luckily, Oxford provides plenty of those as well ...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

emanuela de paula

I took this photo of a large NEXT ad ages ago in London (see reflected balconies for scale), but didn't know who the model was:

Following a chance encounter with a NEXT catalogue, I have now figured out she's called Emanuela de Paula, and she has a blogspot blog too, so go visit her.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

eleven minutes late

review of:

Eleven minutes late
Matthew Engel
Macmillan 2009 / Pan paperback 2010

This month it’s 18 years since I moved to the UK, so I’m coming of age as a UK resident, but one of the things that still puzzle me to this day is why the railways aren’t working. The symptoms are familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to travel by train here – half an hour after the start of your journey, the train may stop because of a “signal failure” or something similarly unconvincing, sit on the same spot for any time between ten minutes and two hours, and then crawl onward to your destination. Or you try travelling on a Sunday, and find that all trains have been replaced by buses, due to scheduled engineering work. And as most of the network (including the lines out of Oxford) isn’t even electrified, the trains aren’t much better than buses anyway, and not much better for the environment, as they burn diesel like the buses do.

But why? With my anti-corporate instincts, I might have put the blame on privatisation, which happened soon after I arrived here, so I don’t have as many bad memories of British Rail as I have of the privatised mess that came after its demise. Engel’s book, part travelogue, part amateur history of the railways in the UK, reassures me that privatisation isn’t where things started going wrong. Apparently, they have been going wrong from the start, or at least from the point when speculative building of railways in random places led to a bubble and the inevitable implosion.

Since then, the railways have always been under the control of people who didn’t care about their passengers or services, and who made every conceivable error and a few inconceivable ones on top of that. All this makes for a fascinating read and would be really funny if it was fiction, but sadly it happens to be history and current affairs, and it continues to bring real misery to real people.

I like to spend my holidays in continental Europe and typically travel by train, so I get regular reminders of the fact that it is actually physically possible to run a rail network that gets people from A to B at the advertised time, in comfort, and at a fraction of the price one would pay in the UK (see my praise of ICE and TGV). However, Engel suffocates any nationalist pride I might develop when thinking of the German railways too much by reminding me that the efficiency of their infrastructure is largely due to the fact that it was planned strategically by the Prussian rulers. They didn’t care about the travelling public either, but they did care a lot about moving troops across the country as efficiently as possible.

Amazingly, their warmongering motivation has produced an invaluable asset for peaceful travellers using the network more than 1.5 centuries later. Come to think of it, the Bundesbahn network is strongest in north-south directions, transporting holiday makers to the Alps or the North Sea, while military aggression was typically directed in eastern or western direction, so maybe somebody secretly did think of the travelling public after all.

Engel starts out by describing his own exploration of Britain’s rail network with the benefit of a rover card, then slips into chronological history mode, and only returns to his exploits at the end. Given the sheer mindboggling madness of his subject matter, however, even the chronological core of the book is never at risk of becoming tedious. It reads like Alice in Wonderland, you fully expect to see the Mad Hatter turning up any time.

The title of the book refers to one of the many symptoms of systemic madness. Up to and including ten minutes after the advertised arrival time, a long-distance train is still recorded as “on time.” (In fact, I have seen trains listed as on time on departure boards half an hour after their scheduled departure time had gone by.) Thus, the author hoped on his exploratory travels to catch a train that was more than ten minutes late. In a freak coincidence, none of his trains was.

Engel also offers explanations for the trials and tribulations we suffer locally. I knew that the absence of a line linking Oxford to Cambridge is because this line was closed down in the 60s. What I didn’t know was that this happened within months of the same government’s decision to build a new city adjacent to this doomed line: Milton Keynes. Britain’s largest new town was actually built on land belonging to the village of Bletchley, which had a station on the so-called Varsity line. Oxford-MK-Cambridge would have been a valuable link saving thousands of unnecessary rail travels through London and road trips through the Chilterns every year. The author’s comment, concise and to the point: “Crazy.”

As for the line leading north from Oxford, to Worcester and Hereford, Engel says “much of the route was single-tracked to save money.” They actually paid people to rip out tracks from an operating double track railway line to convert it back to single track? Why don’t we single-track a couple of A roads as well? That would save money on fixing those potholes. And does the M40 really need four lanes between Oxford and London, in these cash-strapped times?

Engel also examines the political short-termism that is partially to blame for all this. Obviously, people who only think as far as the next election won’t be spending much time planning a railway system for the next decades. Maybe France has the TGV because its presidents served for seven years at the time when that kicked off? I’m not quite convinced yet, but it might be an explanation.

For all his brilliant (yet amateur, thus accessible) analysis, Engel can’t offer any remedies to fix this mess. Personally, when the pain gets too strong, I take a coach to London, and the Eurostar from there.

A freight carriage rotting away at Oxford station - I presume it is being used as a storage shed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

third generation sequencing

I recently posted a blog about third generation genome sequencing, so this is just to add that my latest feature on this topic is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

Genomics in permanent revolution
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 9, R294-R297, 10 May 2011
full html text and free access to pdf file

Always happy to send pdf "reprints" if anybody wants to read it and can't get access.

Monday, May 09, 2011

vernier's chemistry

The only German piece out this month is a news story on Harry Anderson's "Vernier chemistry" using the mathematical principle of the Vernier scale (a device consisting of two scales with different numbers of divisions lacking a common denominator, e.g. 9 and 10, invented 380 years ago) for the construction of well-defined molecular rings.

Schieblehre inspiriert Aufbau von Nanoringen, Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr 5, S. 21

The beginning of the text and a link to the PDF (restricted access) is here.

As you can tell from the number of reader's responses, I got the explanation of the Vernier scale the wrong way round. In fact, the additional, slightly different scale is squashed (typically by 10:9), while I wrote that it was stretched. I think I had this wrong version in my head since the age of five or so, so it didn't occur to me to get the caliper out and check.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

how sickle cell trait protects from malaria

New insights into the mechanisms by which the sickle cell trait protects carriers from malaria point to an enzyme that produces carbon monoxide. So will we use this toxic gas as a malaria drug in the future? Read my news story in Chemistry World:

New hope for malaria drugs as sickle cell protection unravelled