Wednesday, October 24, 2012

atlantic insights

Last month I visited Hamburg and attended the joint meeting of the research projects THOR and Nordatlantik. I learned many interesting things there about the complex relationships between oceans and climate and the research that aims to understand these.

You can read all about this in my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now and freely accessible(NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication):

Atlantic circulation keeps turning

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 20, R853-R856, 23 October 2012 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.013

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I also took lots of photos at Hamburg - one of them appears on the first page of the feature, another below (that's not the hotel where I stayed) and another half dozen on my flickr photostream.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

pregnant bellydancing

loving the highlights video of Shakira's pregnant performance in Baku:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

castillos de cartón

This is a lovely movie about three students trying to find their way in art, love/sex, and life in general, and I reckon it shows about equal parts of these three areas. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the cover of the UK DVD, which focuses on one of these and obviously tries to sell the film as porn, which it clearly isn’t. This is underlined by the very unsubtle English title, "3some". I think the original title, Castillos de cartón, is to be understood along the lines of “castles in the air”. The script is based on a novel by Almudena Grandes with the same title (see book review below).

The three characters are set apart from mainstream society not just by their creative urges but also by their unusual 2+1 love life, which they don’t dare to spell out to their parents. This isolation increases the pressure on each of them to find fulfilment within that triangle. To me, this was the most important aspect, and it was acted very convincingly. The art could have been used even more – I love the triangular arrangement where they draw portraits of each other, but their art isn’t really used to show how they see each other.

Actress Adriana Ugarte also appears in Lo contrario al amor (which was shown at the London Spanish Film Festival this year (but I missed it) and in the earlier film El juego del ahorcado. Will have to check those out ...

Can't bear to reproduce the UK cover, so here's the spanish one, which I will at some point print off to replace the one I have now:

amazon UK - they sell the horrid UK edition a lot cheaper, though.


PS (23.11.2012): review of the book:

Discovering the book after having seen the movie isn’t an ideal situation, but as we live on an island that seems to be a million miles away from continental Europe, I wouldn’t have heard of the book otherwise. It hasn’t even been translated into English.

This is a slim novel under 200 pages, but it still has some intriguing layers of complexity. On top of the plot of the movie, the love triangle set in the 1980s, it has a noughties level as well. It starts with one of the protagonists calling the second to deliver the news of the suicide of the third. On that premise, which understandably makes the protagonists think of the past, the story is related in flashbacks.

There are also some formal subtleties which I quite enjoyed. For instance, the text has four parts, titled el arte, el sexo, el amor, and la muerte (the fourth, death, was dropped in the film, but the rest agrees with my three-part description above). Each of the parts starts with a statement concerning the number 3, reflecting, of course the status of their relationship:

3 is an odd number;
3 is a peculiar number; (not sure if that’s what she meant with “aparte”)
3 is an even number;
3 isn’t a number after all.

And there are other elements like these hidden in the text, echoes, reflections, repetitions, contradictions, which I rather like, and which I’m sure will keep students in Spain busy for a while.

I think Grandes succeeds in making the artistic mind accessible. I’m a great fan of everything that at least tries to explore how creativity works and what makes artists tick, and this was an interesting addition to the relevant works I knew. Sadly, Grandes doesn’t describe in detail what the art of the most successful of the three artists looks like (or did I accidentally skip a page?). In the movie, his breakthrough moment is when he covers a huge canvas entirely with red paint, but I found no reference to that in the book.

What I did find, however, is the song from which the title is derived. It is Para ti, by Fernando Márquez, and it dates from 1995, so its use in the story is only mildly anachronistic.

The relevant lines, which are quoted in the book, are:

Para ti, nos buscamos el paraíso,
nos cocinamos melodías con su charme,
nos olvidamos de los críticos seniles,
nos encerramos en castillos de cartón.

Anyhow. A lovely little novel. Available in Spanish and in German, but not yet in English, so if anyone wants to push for a translation …

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ants, arsenates, and asteroids

This month's roundup of German publications is covering the letter a, with a feature on ant orientation (which I also covered in Current Biology recently), a report on evidence showing the arsenate-resistant bacteria have not managed to replace phosphates in their metabolism, and a humorous take on asteroid mining. Next month, we'll get to bees, black holes and bedbugs. See you then.

Arsenat-Stoffwechsel widerlegt Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 46, Issue 5, page 276 (published online: 2 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.201290051 Restricted access

Wie sich Ameisen in der Wüste orientieren Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 60, Issue 10, pages 1007–1009 (published online: 4 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201290351 Restricted access

Asteroiden-Recycling Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 60, Issue 10, page 978 (published online: 4 OCT 2012) DOI: 10.1002/nadc.201290380 Restricted access

PS: the journal home page of Chemie in unserer Zeit currently displays a news item concerning the current exhibition of the industry painter Alexander Calvelli, with a reference to my article about him.

Monday, October 15, 2012

haunted man

Three years ago, I saw Bat for Lashes live at Oxford's O2 academy, not knowing much about them / her (I don't think it's ever made explicit, but the media seem to assume that the name is simply a pseudonym for Natasha Khan, not the name of her band). I then completed my BFL CD collection (2 CDs), which I liked a lot, so I was very keen to get the third offering on day one. Here are my first impressions after 4 spins:

Essentially, the third Bat for Lashes album is a lot like the second, only more so. “Haunting” is a key word that describes the addictive effect of the sounds used to underline Natasha’s ethereal vocals. We get a different texture in each song, for instance plucked and muted strings in the first single All your gold, resonating drums in the next track, then bowed string bass in another, or warbling synths or xylophones. These accompaniments are often ostinato, i.e. obstinately repeated for much of the song, but as they have a different kind of sound in each song, they still offer interesting diversity, and often manage to sound mysterious, pulling the listener in by making them curious.

So, well, if you’ve played "Two suns" a hundred times (I have), you may enjoy this even more.

Oh, and I just love the cover photo to bits. Sadly, the booklet doesn’t reveal what happened next – surely she can’t have carried that bloke around forever?

Prostye Dvizhenia

Related to the movies we're not allowed to see here, I should also mention pop videos that are effectively banned. A notorious case from the early 00s is the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. I love the style of their videos, some of which reminded me of European cinema, e.g. Kieslowski's 3 colours trilogy (maybe some east-west European dialogue behind this).

The parts of their work that were released internationally faced stiff opposition in the UK and calls for outright censorship from TV show hosts Richard & Judy.

Small wonder then that the following gem was never released in an English version. It's title, Простые Движенья, translates as simple movements. I think the movement it might have triggered around here could be described as a kneejerk response ...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

oxford waterways

In the last few years, I have spent a lot of time on or alongside Oxford's waterways, including the river Cherwell, the Thames (also known as the Isis around here) and the Oxford Canal. With various combinations of children I have crossed, walked along, swum in, navigated with our canoe, and ice-skated on these waterways, so over time a few photos have accumulated.

Accordingly, I have now created a flickr set dedicated to Oxford's waterways, which you can check out on my flickr pages, or watch as a slideshow below.

Having gone through my 800+ flickr photos twice, I've now found 73 waterways pix, but I may still have missed a couple.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

alien invaders

My latest feature is about invasive species large and small, from raccoons to ants, also visiting those that cause disease in plants or humans:

Alien invaders

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 19, R819-R821, 9 October 2012


HTML text and PDF file. (NB: my features remain on free access only until the next issue appears, i.e. normally 2 weeks, sometimes 3, and they return to free access a year after publication)


Photo: NHG

Friday, October 05, 2012

en la cama

Germany/Chile 2005
Dir.: Matías Bize
Cast: Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela

The film that inspired “Room in Rome” would be interesting in its own right, but is even more intriguing when one sees it after Medem’s version of events. It is even more confined to the bedroom (here in a motel in Chile), and the film makes fun of this constraint by bringing up the old children’s game where one is not allowed to touch the floor, restricting the movements of the two characters even further.

Although the dialogue is completely different, the characters can easily be aligned with Medem’s cast. Bruno is in certain ways like Alba, and Daniela clearly inspired Natasha – and both conceal the same piece of information until quite late in the movie.

The cast consists exclusively of the two people in the room (so in the difficult moments one can think of Sartre and conclude that hell is the other person). We don’t even hear the voices of people calling the characters on their mobiles, and we have to trust them on what they report – which may not be true, as trust is being a problematic issue in this story as in Medem’s.

I liked the cast, although, of course, no bloke on the planet could really compete with Elena Anaya. Blanca Lewin as Daniela is almost a Medem-like figure, she’s got something of the look of Medem’s female protagonists, and one can easily imagine how her performance caught his interest. So I would recommend it to anybody who liked Room in Rome (or Sartre’s Huis Clos ?). My DVD from Germany has a 12 certificate - if you convert that from Euro to Sterling and add the number of frames revealing nipples, it would probably end up at 18, if anybody bothered releasing the DVD in the UK (there is a region 1 DVD, released in 2008, not rated, cover shown below).

Thursday, October 04, 2012

not buying that

Here comes a draft list of some companies I prefer (or ideally would prefer) not to support with my custom. Additional suggestions welcome

last updated 04.03.2016


TESCO supermarkets - notorious for their treatment of suppliers, and I also find the speed of metastasis quite scary, there are now half a dozen of them within easy cycling distance of my home. (I’ve also seen Tesco stores in Hungary and in the Czech Republic.) Support your local co-op store instead. As a member, you get profit shares, so if you pay too much the excess flows back into your pockets, not into those of some zillionaire shareholders.

A Tesco express at Budapest, Hungary.

Asda - owned by Walmart, which is the US equivalent to TESCO.

Nestle - there was a wave of boycotts and protest back in the last century, mainly based on the company’s aggressive marketing of infant formula milk in developing countries, where a lack of clean drinking water means that persuading mothers to replace breastfeeding with formula milk can actually cause additional deaths. I don’t think the company has resolved this issue in any satisfactory way, as a few local boycotts from recent years have highlighted, even though the global attention has faded. Also, coffee, chocolate etc. are product ranges where it is easy to find good quality FairTrade products, so there is no reason to buy unethical stuff.

Cadbury’s - OK, I know that they have now started to use FairTrade products (better late than never - but see what the BBC Watchdog programme says about their FairTrade aspirations!), but I seem to remember that they lobbied the EU to water down their definition of "chocolate" to allow the inclusion of soy fat instead of cocoa butter, and I still resent that. Currently, I buy either Divine Chocolate or Co-op own brand - which is also made by Divine.


A reader has nominated Amazon for being "union busters and tax dodgers". I agree with that argument, and I also would like to keep physical bookshops in business. However, as I'm normally after books that high-street bookshops would never dream of putting on their shelves, I couldn't do without a big online trader. As an author, I am also faced with the dilemma that amazon sells my books while most high-street bookshops don't.

I was interested to learn, however, that the website enables customers to order books online and have them delivered to their local bookshop. Which I guess helps to save the shops and stops all the cardboard packaging from piling up at our home. So I'll try that soon.

Update 2016: A piece in the Guardian on alternatives to amazon.


The big four high street banks: RBS/Natwest, Barclay’s, HSBC, Lloyds TSB - their failings have been well publicised in the context of the government bailouts for RBS and Lloyds, which were deemed “system-relevant and too big to fail.” Until recently, I wasn’t aware that there are alternatives, but it turns out one can find more ethical banks (e.g. the co-operative bank), and there are also a few credit unions in the UK (not as many as in the US) and a few building societies that survived the 1990s wave of demutualisation. Visit the Move Your Money website for more info.

Aviva insurances - just how much did they pay their bosses?


The Sun, The Times - I would never buy a copy of any newspaper owned by the Murdoch family, for obvious reasons. When I see one in a bin or on the ground I might pick it up, just to make sure the paper gets recycled. If I’m feeling very generous I might even flick through the pages.

Sky satellite TV – well, ideally.

Broadband providers – horrible people, but there are co-operatives springing up offering phone and broadband. Will try one of these soon and report back.

Google is among the companies passing on data to the NSA, so I'm now a happy user of DuckDuckGo. If for whatever reason I still need google, DuckDuckGo will run my google search anonymously for me in https mode. Still staying faithful to google's blogspot platform.


Energy providers – as the main energy providers are selling the same electricity and the same gas through the same infrastructure, they can’t really compete properly, they can only trick people by offering cheaper rates in the short term, which will then revert to normal rip-off rates long term. – There are now a number of regional energy co-operatives, plus the co-operative energy operating across the UK, so, again, any excess flows back to the customers, not to the shareholders.


Back in the days I used to book air travel via expedia, until I found out that they weren't offering any flights to Cuba. One can of course book directly from the airlines. In the UK, Co-operative travel is an alternative I'll try out the next time.

British Airways cancelled a return flight ticket when we had to change plans and couldn't use the outbound flight. They did so without telling us - even though they emailed about less important thing prior to the flights. The warning that they "may" do so is somewhere in the countless pages of small print you have to approve on booking, but it doesn't say they will do without warning. Here is a published report of a similar case. Not going to use them again.