Tuesday, November 27, 2012

paradox lost

My review of the book Paradox: the nine greatest enigmas in science, by Jim Al-Khalili is out in Chemistry World online:


It also appears in the print issue on page 69 (together with lots of other book reviews, worth checking if you're hunting for presents ...).

Friday, November 23, 2012

tumblr and I

These days I am spending most of my online social networking time on tumblr, which is ironic, as it took me well over a year before I got the hang of it.

I had been homeless on the web since MySpace turned into a ghost town and the forums I had visited also died at around the same time – probably all due to the unstoppable rise of facebook. While I’ve been able to transfer quite a few of these contacts to facebook, I never really liked spending time there. In 2010, I signed up to twitter, which I like a lot, but it is a medium more than a place. I can use it to widen the audience for blog entries (on blogspot) or photos (on flickr), but if I spend more than five minutes watching my twitter timeline (following some 1600 people!), the futility and randomness of it gets to me. Unless there is some major political scandal to kick around, which is always fun on twitter. (I also tried google+ but that never took off, and I am registered with LinkedIn, but it bores me to tears.)

So, well, tumblr and I started out on the wrong foot. I signed up in June 2011 when somebody whom I knew from mutual blog-following on blogspot moved her blogging activity to tumblr and I wanted to stay in touch. However, she soon succumbed to the temptation of the NSFW blogs available on tumblr and ended up reblogging that kind of stuff endlessly without posting anything of her own.

In the first months I didn’t come across any individuals who were actually posting their own content. Everything I saw back then seemed to be just swirling round in circles (which I guess is where the name tumblr comes from?) and come from unattributed sources, i.e. probably stolen. Using tags like #science I found some vaguely interesting blogs that I still follow, like the mother nature network, which covers science and environment, but that didn’t really pull me in.

The legacy of my very first contact in tumblr meant that I had no shortage of addresses for erotica, but once I eliminated all peniswaving blogs, I was left with a few lesbian ones (which I still love) and one that systematically reblogs “topless Tuesday” photos. For a few months I just let these float by, but at one point I started to wonder who these women were. If I liked the face above the boobs I looked up the blog and found quite a few interesting people who – and that was rather important to me – did post their own content, rather than just reblogging all the time.

Some of them even very kindly followed me back, so by that stage – perhaps 1 year into the experience - I had around 20 followers (as many as my blog on blogspot has, except that I don’t think that anybody still checks the blogs they follow there). That gave me a little bit more confidence to expect that somebody, at some point might actually look at contributions I post, so I systematically posted links to my articles and blog entries from blogspot. That helped a little bit, some people became interested in the science bits I had to offer.

Then I widened my spectrum, discovered that there is a one-click option to share my flickr photos on tumblr, also posted the odd video, and ended up sharing everything I posted elsewhere (blogspot, twitter, flickr, facebook) on tumblr as well, and more. By the beginning of this month, the increased activity succeeded in attracting new followers on a daily basis, and catalysing new friendships in a way that I hadn’t really experienced since the demise of myspace.

Tumblr really has become a place on the web where I like to spend time, where I’m surrounded by people who I like, even if they are still mostly strangers. I find it amazing how openly people communicate about very intimate problems over there, and how supportive and loving most people are (apart from some anon. trolling – personally I’ve switched off anonymous asks, so I don’t have that problem). I’m beginning to worry that this is too good to last and that Murdoch might soon buy it up and ruin it (this irrational fear will in the future be called the MySpace trauma). I'm just hoping it stays exactly as it is.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

how the croc got its teeth

Last month, en route to a family visit, I stopped by at the Institut de Genomique Fonctionelle de Lyon (IGFL) and learned lots of exciting things about the research they're doing there, connecting physiology, evolution and development with the help of genomics. Essentially, how does a string of DNA turn into a living breathing animal? How did the leopard get its spots, and the croc its teeth? (Disclaimer: they don't do leopards in Lyon, as far as I know, but they have got answers for the croc question!)

There was too much to mention everything but I tried to make a meaningful story out of this, which is out in today's issue of Current Biology:

How does an animal work?

Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 22, R933-R935, 20 November 2012

For the next two weeks (and then again after a year), the text will be freely accessible:

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Note the lovely species portraits by photographers Vincent & Caroline Moncorgé, commissioned by the institute.


Lyon by night - photo from my previous visit ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

rocking the planetary boat

One of the most fascinating books I got to review in recent years was The goldilocks planet by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, which covers the history of our planet from the perspective of climate history, as deduced from geological evidence.

It is a very scary rollercoaster ride through 4 billion years. But maybe the scariest part is the ending - we humans came to populate the planet in a period of surprising stability, and now, as the authors put it, we're rocking the boat that has shown a marked tendency to capsize in the past.

My long essay review, discussing the issues involved from an astrobiological perspective, is out in Chemistry & Industry this month, page 46-47. It is premium content, but if you ask me nicely I can send a pdf reprint.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

noisettes live

I don't know why, but the new Noisettes tour had its premiere at Oxford last night. It was a great show, ranging from full-on inferno to soft and sensitive. Like the last time, Shingai kicked off her shoes after the first song and performed the rest of the show barefoot, directing the band with her toes (or so it appeared sometimes).

I still don't know enough about their work to make any meaningful comment about old and new songs they played. Clearly haven't done my homework since I saw them the last time round.

So, have a couple of pictures instead (if I'm allowed to make a small suggestion, they could have done with a spotlight on Shingai - most of the time she appeared as a silhouette):

I gather they play the Koko at London today, then Manchester and Glasgow.

PS: Special guests Josephine Oniyama and Marques Toliver were very good, too.

Friday, November 09, 2012

hidden treasure

Tanita Tikaram: Can’t go back

With this album, I had a very weird experience of finding treasure that was very well hidden. I have fond memories of tt’s first album and the single Twist in my sobriety, which was a huge hit in the 80s, but have somehow managed to miss everything she released after that. So when I heard she had a new album coming out this year I started to investigate.

First I watched the official first video from the album, “dust on my shoes” and thought it was a bit too happy-clappy and too smooth for my tastes. Still, I checked audio clips of some other tracks of the album on amazon, and liked those better, so made a note of the release date. In the week it was released I was in a record shop, but the record that wasn’t there was Tanita’s. I ended up ordering it a few weeks later.

It comes with two disks, the proper new album and a bonus CD. I listened to the new material a few times, it was ok, I still like her voice and the kind of sounds she makes in general, some of the arrangements are interesting. But somehow it didn’t grab me. I might have given it 3 stars out of 5.

When I got bored with it, I looked at the other CD, which according to the track list contained old songs from her previous albums. I assumed the record company had just thrown in some old recordings for the benefit of the younger audience who don’t know the back catalogue. I played the CD without paying much attention, I recognised Valentine Heart, which is on her debut album, and still didn’t pay much attention.

When the CD came to Twist in my sobriety, around the middle, it finally struck me. This was not an old track. This was a completely new arrangement, with minimal instrumentation, of the old song. In this case, it was a guitar and a cello. And I found it spectacularly good, breathtaking. And the other songs on the bonus CD are similarly reworked, and similarly brilliant.

I like the first CD, and most of the songs I like a lot more than the one chosen for the first video, but the bonus really did grab me by the collar and didn’t let loose. Which is very ironic, as the whole idea of the album and the title track is not to go back to the past, and to me the most successful part of it is where she did go back to the past and reworked it. And this isn’t even explained on the album sleeve. The only thing that points to this being new recordings is the fact that the instrumentalists for each track are listed in the booklet (typically with one of the two instrumentalists being the singer herself). This is a very well camouflaged treasure indeed.

PS I would have normally added a rant about the stupidity of big record companies at this point (why didn't they release the reworked material as a separate Unplugged CD???), but the CD is from a German label I never heard of before, so I'll let them off the hook.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012


city – a guidebook for the urban age

by PD Smith

Bloomsbury 2012

Call me crazy but I love wandering about in big (European-style) cities. Ideally, they should have a historic core (Mediaeval will do, Roman ruins a bonus!), a big river, a university. Prague, Paris, Cologne, that sort of place is the perfect holiday destination for me.

But what makes cities so attractive, not just for me as a visitor, but for an increasing number of people to move into them, especially into the rapidly growing megacities (with more than 10 million people) of the developing world? Can the cultural history of “the city” be generalised to reveal insights into this form of human cohabitation and cooperation?

PD Smith has attempted this generalisation for cities throughout history and around the world. Like one of my random walks through a city, the book explores many avenues and sights, sometimes via unexpected passageways, and the author invites us to peruse the book in nonlinear fashion. Like the districts of a city, the book has themed section, but within their confines, surprise encounters may happen.

Smith highlights the advantages of a compact, walkable, people-friendly city (I might have mentioned Cologne as an example, where people walk, rollerskate, cycle etc. across the entire North-South extent of the city area on the marvellous river promenade), as opposed to the sprawling, car-friendly city (LA, Brasilia, Milton Keynes). People-friendly cities with adequate public transport and energy-efficient buildings are in fact more environmentally benign on a per-person basis than country lifestyles that heavily depend on driving.

Smith draws on an astonishing treasure trove of sources – including the many volumes that have been written about specific, much-loved cities such as Paris, Venice or New York , and on studies of specific topics like commuting, suburbia, or street art. Faithful readers of his book reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere will recognise some of the information nuggets.

Like any traveller, he always tends to gravitate back home to London, which for a time was the biggest and most powerful city of the world. He concludes the weighty tome with an outlook on the future of the city and with a memento mori, reminding us that all cities will fall to ruins one day.

Highly recommended for anybody who can appreciate cities as more than just the place they commute to.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

cats around the world

Tigers have become an icon of wildlife conservation - there are already many more of them living in captivity than in the wild, and there is a real risk that they may disappear from the wild altogether.

They are not the only big cats in difficulties though. Around the world, on the five continents where felidae became top predators, most of the over 30 existing species are threatened, as I explore in my most recent feature, which is out in Current Biology today:

Felids fighting for survival
Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 21, R893-R895, 6 November 2012

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Here's one feline species that's not threatened and found lots of new habitats in recent times:

houseboat cat

Sunday, November 04, 2012

vintage Zulawski

Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours

(France, 1989, available on multi-region DVD)

Last night, I watched this film for the second time (the first time was in 1990!), and I felt it has kept remarkably well. It is essentially about two people losing their mind for different reasons, and clinging to words, their associations, rhymes and echoes, and to each other, to stay sane / alive if only for a couple of days longer. There is poetry in the increasingly random dialogue, much of which gets lost in translation so it is mainly recommended for those who can appreciate the French version.

Seeing the film as a vision of the world (just about) pre-internet, it is noteworthy that Dutronc’s character gives the world a programming language while the computer screens reveal that he’s losing his own language to an incurable disease. In this current age of “smart phones and stupid people” are we also losing our minds while improving the minds of our machines to perfection? Discuss. The story also predates political correctness and the TGV network – people fly from Paris to Biarritz, how antediluvian! The images are just as beautiful as they were 22 years ago (some stills featuring Sophie Marceau with not many clothes on are still making the rounds on tumblr!), so it’s almost a timeless classic.

Does anybody know whether the film was ever released in UK cinemas? The IMDB doesn't give a release date for it, but maybe they didn't bother adding all the dates for old films made before IMDB existed? But then again, they do list the release date for Germany (where I saw it).

PS I was shocked to hear one of the characters suggesting to the language-loss patient that he should substitute missing verbs with “schtroumpfer” (to smurf). I’ve said that so often (when trying to teach various languages to various people including my children) that I almost came to believe I invented it. Not sure whether I said this before the movie came out.


Friday, November 02, 2012

katzenjammer live

I saw Katzenjammer live last night for the first time (though I didn't admit I was a Katzenjammer virgin when they asked, wasn't sure what the rite of passage might be!). I could go on raving for hours now, as they're just so crazy and refreshingly different from everything else that happened in the history of the universe until now, but then again, I'm not nearly qualified to unpick the zillions of influences and cultural references in their work (I just about managed to identify the Genesis cover and I know that the big triangular thing is a contrabass balalaika), so I'll just post two of my not so very good photos and a video of one of my favourite K songs below.

I should point out that this video is very much at the tame end of the spectrum of Katzenjammer craziness ...

Catch them if you can - here at Oxford they played in a ridiculously small venue at a very affordable price, but that might change if word spreads ...

PS The writer in Oxford's Nightshift magazine correctly translated the name as a fit of self-pity, but I think they took it from one of the first comic series in the US, The Katzenjammer Kids, which began at the end of the 19th century and was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Busch.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

a special proteasome for the immune system

The round-up of German pieces in November has only one article, covering the crystal structure of the immunoproteasome:

Molekularmedizin: Recyclingtonne für das Immunsystem – genauer betrachtet

Vom zelleigenen Schredder für Proteine, Proteasom genannt, besitzen Immunzellen eine Sonderausfertigung. Jetzt haben Forscher dessen Aufbau im Detail untersucht. Damit hoffen sie, Medikamente gegen Autoimmunkrankheiten zu entwickeln.

Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nov. 2012, S. 20-22

beginning of the text and restricted access to full text

I've covered some aspects of this work in English earlier this year, in a feature about symmetry and complexity.

(image: © Prof. Michael Groll/Technische Universitaet München.)