Saturday, August 27, 2011

budapest's red trolleybuses

Third stop on the recent trip, Budapest. I soon realised I love the city to bits, all the crumbling splendour (as in Havana, Venice), plus you can walk along the Danube for miles (easier on the Pest side than on the other one, but also nice on the island). Love the falling plaster and the art nouveau villas, and the red and rusting trolleybuses (electrical buses with overhead cables):


They kept reminding me of a lovely song by Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997):

I actually saw Okudzhava playing live many years ago, when we lived in Regensburg. I knew his work as I was learning Russian at the time. There was a cultural centre on the opposite side of the square where we lived and one day I just walked past the door of that centre and spotted a plain A4 sheet of paper taped to the door, saying Bulat Okudzhava will be playing here on (date, time), which happened to be the day after I saw the notice. That was the only announcement there was, and accordingly it was a very intimate event. I seem to remember there was a translator who read out German versions of the lyrics before each song.

Well, anyhow, more about Budapest to follow.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Almodóvar’s Frankenstein

The skin I live in / la piel que habito

I guess the quickest way to define this film is “Almodóvar’s take on Frankenstein,” although it is loosely based on a different book, a novel by Thierry Jonquet. As I’ve seen a dozen of Almodóvar’s movies, most of them more than once, but zero Frankenstein movies, I’m coming to this junction from a different angle than most people in the English speaking world. So here are some thoughts on how the film fits in with the work of San Pedro (I unilaterally elevated him to sainthood in a previous blog entry, these catholics are sometimes too slow in recognising achievement).

The movie is in fact, Almodóvar through and through, in every part of it there are aspects that are familiar, from the medical / bioethical issues through to he (trans)gender, rape, and sexual identity themes. As these are natural parts of the story, they don’t feel like the auteur is quoting himself – it just amazes me every time that he can assemble a completely different story from what at first glance might appear to be the same building blocks. (Which strikes me especially as I don’t necessarily share his obsession with these recurring themes, and yet they win me over every time.)

There is one interlude where Almodóvar is in fact shamelessly citing himself and contrasting the shrill style of his early work with the mellower style he has adopted since “All about my mother.” It’s the sequence that features a man in a tiger carnival costume and references Kika among other early works. The tiger aside, the rest is all in very mature taste - just savour the interior decorations, worlds away from the women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, although everybody in this movie has good reasons to be on the verge of that or worse.

For fans of the early work it is, of course, a major occasion to welcome back Antonio Banderas, who last appeared in Women on the verge and in Tie me up, tie me down! I prefer not to think of what he did in those 21 years in between (am very busy erasing those spy kids movies from my memory), but it is good to have him back, even if he looks ten times older than the last time. He looks a bit like Sean Connery from some angles, maybe Almodóvar and Banderas should do a Bond movie together, now that would be interesting!

Another familiar face (for the aficionados of Spanish cinema, at least) is the female lead Elena Anaya, who had a supporting role in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia and a lead role in Room in Rome (and a small role in Talk to her, apparently, will have to watch that one again to find her). And we welcome back Marisa Paredes who starred in All about my mother and Flower of my secret.

The Frankenstein-esque story is interesting too, of course, not least because of all the bioethical dilemmas that we also have to confront here in the real world, but that wouldn’t necessarily have convinced me to watch the movie if it had arrived from somewhere else. It’s the way San Pedro does it. He could make a movie out of the phone directory of Madrid and I’m sure it would still be fascinating.

The skin I live in is on general UK-wide release from today (I was lucky to catch a preview last night). Full details at IMDB.

Peter Bradshaw's review in the Guardian (his second take, as he already reviewed it when it was shown at Cannes).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

walking in Vienna

Second stop on our Main/Danube tour was Vienna – though it turns out that the Danube only touches the city rather peripherally. From the hotel near the Westbahnhof we had to walk across the entire city to find the river, taking in an interesting cross section from the Parisian style boulevard Mariahilfer Str. that leads from the station down to the historic city centre, through the Burggarten, past the disneyfied tourist spots with their horse-drawn carriages and people in Mozart costumes trying to sell concert tickets, and then through some outer districts with crumbling industrial sites between the Danube canal and the Danube river itself.

Clearly, the city turned its back on the river, and the idea that anyone might walk down to the river never occurred to anybody involved with its planning. Parallel to the river on the city side there is a little used railway line, but to cross it there are only the motorway bridges crossing over the river as well. Walking along the rail line, we eventually found an old station with a level crossing where we could sneak through and on to the river bank. Which was, of course, blocked up entirely with several Titanic-sized cruise ships.

The city’s other river, the Wien, is also disappointing, as it is completely walled in (see photo, left) and over long stretches even covered up.

A bit of a history lesson, we saw the spectacular Flakturm in the Augarten, and the one in Esterhazy Park, which hosts an aquarium/terrarium. These WWII upright bunkers with walls 5 metres thick are apparently so strong that it wasn’t economically feasible to demolish them, so they are still sitting around. The Lonely Planet guide of Vienna offers a half-page explanation of these monstrosities, while the German Baedeker chooses to ignore them, a case of “Don’t mention the war”?

On the Northeast side of the Burggarten there is a tropical greenhouse specially for exotic butterflies, the Schmetterlingshaus:

wien 1103

More photos

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

synthesising life

I've always been puzzled by the field of synthetic biology. Every now and again, I write a piece about it in a bid to understand what it really is about. My latest attempt at understanding is out today in Current Biology:

What exactly is synthetic biology?
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 16, R611-R614, 23 August 2011
abstract and FREE access to pdf file

As always, I have used examples of recent research to try and define the field, but surely, I will need a few more articles to sort this out.

Image source: wikimedia commons

Friday, August 19, 2011


Just came back from a rail trip to Budapest, visiting a few cities on the Danube and Frankfurt which happens to be on the wrong river (Main) but is as far as you can safely travel in a day starting from Oxford at a sensible time.

We stayed at a hotel close to the European Central Bank, so were close to one of the epicentres of world events when the markets took a nosedive on Monday 8.8. Didn't notice any suspicious activity in the banking quarter of the city, but then again we were busy dodging the torrential showers that swept by in half-hour intervals.

Only in the evening, watching CNN in the hotel room with the Dow Jones shown in a corner of the screen and losing dozens of points every few seconds, did we find out there was trouble.

So here's the peaceful scene outside the ECB after the markets closed:

euro 1101

Banks aside, Frankfurt also has a very lovely promenade where you can walk (or jog, cycle, rollerskate) along the river Main for miles. Such an obvious boost to quality of life, but not all cities get it right.

Additional photos from F. in my flickr set Germany, and further riverside adventures to follow ...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

autistic genomes

Much like everywhere else in the application of genomics to medicine, the hunt for the genetic origins of autism has proven harder than expected, and the genetic variants detected still only explain a minute fraction of the cases. Recent research suggests that copy number variations, many of them occurring spontaneously in the person affected, play a much bigger role than anticipated. While de novo changes are still genetic in that they reside in the genes, they also rhyme with recent suggestions that the heritability of the disorder isn't quite as high as believed.

I've written a feature article about all this which is in the latest issue of Current Biology:

Copy numbers count for autism
Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 15, R571-R573, 9 August 2011
abstract and FREE access to pdf file

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

rocks falling from the sky

My review of the book

Chemistry of the solar system
Katharina Lodders and Bruce Fegley, Jr.
RSC Publishing 2011
ISBN 978-0-85404-128-2

is out in Chemistry & Industry issue 15, p26

I'm afraid it's premium content but do let me know if you need a copy.

I've been rather critical of the book, I'm afraid, but here's a snippet from my review about the chapter on meteorites, which was the part of the book I liked best:

"Meteorites also cast an interesting light on the history of the scientific revolution. Many of the first scientists in the modern sense rejected the idea of rocks falling from the sky as a medieval superstition. Enlightened modernists at the end of the 18th century evicted meteorites from museum collection. Only in 1794 did a brave soul start building the case for their extraterrestrial origin, which gradually won the day."

Saturday, August 06, 2011

phages and pili

the roundup of German pieces in August is all about bacteria, namely first the phages that infect them, and then the hairs that enable them to infect us.

Planet der Phagen
Spektrum der Wissenschaft August 2011, page

Wie die Haare der Bakterien wachsen
Chemie in unserer Zeit 45, No. 4, page 234
DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201190057
abstract and limited access to PDF file

a chestnut tree, as featured in the phages work reported

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

a poisonous surprise

Oxford Zoologist Fritz Vollrath is famous for his work on spiders, but sometimes his team also gets involved in finding out amazing things about larger animals, such as rats storing poison in their fur. They have a paper out today, here's an excerpt from the press info:

For many years mystery has surrounded the sudden collapse, sometimes followed by death, usually at night, of dogs in north-eastern Africa. Typically, if the dogs do not die at once, they lose co-ordination, froth at the mouth and show symptoms of acute distress. In some rural areas elders or hunters might identify a wooly grey rodent as the culprit and warn that the rat is extremely poisonous. New research has confirmed that warning.

The Crested Rat, Lophiomys imhausi, 40-50 cm. long, looks quite innocuous as it clambers about in rocky, wooded valleys in Kenya and the Horn of Africa. If disturbed the long fur on its flanks parts to expose a vivid black and white pattern around a leaf-shaped tract of peculiarly specialized hair. Just how specialized the hair is and how well designed each hair is to hold and dispense poison has been revealed by a group of East African and Oxford scientists.

The group have identified the toxin, which comes from Poison-arrow trees of the genus Acokanthera, long celebrated for an extract from their bark and roots which, when applied to an arrow-head, can fell an elephant.

The scientists have observed the rat gnaw Poison-arrow tree bark directly from the plant, chew it and then deliberately slather the resulting colloid onto the flank hairs. These hairs are designed to rapidly absorb the colloid, acting like a lamp wick. The poison,Ouabain, is well-known as a heart-stopping cardiac glycoside and for centuries doctors have used minute doses of Ouabain to stimulate weak hearts.

The Crested Rat is the only mammal known to sequester plant toxins in this way. When more is known about the chemistry and genetics of the Crested Rat’s immunity to and use of Ouabain there may well be applications for human medical therapies.

In 1974 the senior author, East African Jonathan Kingdon, first advertised the mystery of a poisonous rat and invited further study. It has taken nearly 40 years for the mystery to begin to be solved.

A poisonous surprise under the coat of the African Crested Rat.
Jonathan Kingdon, Bernard Agwanda, Margaret Kinnaird, Timothy O’Brien, Christopher Holland, Thomas Gheysens, Maxime Boulet-Audet and Fritz Vollrath

Proc. R. Soc. B published online before print August 3, 2011, doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1169

full text (open access)

Monday, August 01, 2011

anarchy in the proteome

My feature article on intrinsically disordered proteins, based on the Barcelona conference I attended last year, is out in Chemistry World this month:

Anarchy in the proteome
15 years ago, the idea that proteins might be functional without a well-ordered 3D structure was heretical. But Michael Gross discovers, a little flexibility can go a long way

Chemistry World August 2011, pp 42-45

FREE access to PDF file

The field has certainly grown amazingly in the 14 years since I first wrote about it ...

Among other illustrations, the article features a photo from Stacey Raven, which I accidentally discovered on flickr: