Monday, September 30, 2013

Dvořák abbreviated

The latest addition to my growing collection of arrangements for cello and flute is an adaptation of the slow movement from Dvořák's cello concerto. I've left out a section in the middle, bringing it down to 6 minutes length. The rest in bar 66 marks the spot.

As the original work is largely a dialogue between the solo cello and the woodwind instruments in the orchestra, I'm hoping that my edit makes some kind of musical sense, but all hints and suggestions for improvements are welcome.

PS: Noteflight members can see a handy list of our other scores here. Mere mortals can access them individually through the earlier blog entries.

Monday, September 23, 2013

a robot's life for me

there are exciting things going on in the fields of robotics, biomimetics, and biohybrids, but for some reason researchers in these fields tend to communicate their important results via conference proceedings rather than high profile journals. So when I went to the conference Living Machines at London in July, I realised that there are lots of things that hadn't shown up in the pages of Nature and Science. I haven't really looked at these issues since publishing "Biotronik" ten years ago - a book in German which looked at biohybrids and the interface between biology and electronics.

Trying to make up for lost time, I wrote a feature about these things, which is out today in Current Biology:

Towards living machines

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 18, R821-R823, 23 September 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.09.004

Free access to full text and PDF download.

Vicky Vouloutsi from Barcelona held an intriguing talk about programming social behaviour on the established android system iCub (I could have benefited from such programming in my early life too!), so I took a snap of her and her pet:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

mental disorders made accessible

review of

Essentials of psychiatric diagnosis: Responding to the challenge of DSM-5

by Allen Frances

The Guilford Press, New York, June 2013

In April this year, I wrote a feature about the criticism levelled at the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, DSM-5, which appeared in May. One of the critics I cited was Allen Frances, MD, who had criticised from the preparatory stages of the new edition that it was making diagnostic criteria too wide and too vague, at the risk of making mental patients of us all.

Frances is not only a distinguished psychiatrist (he chaired the team that prepared the fourth edition and was also involved with the third edition of the DSM) but also a prolific writer, so he prepared his own, anti-DSM-5 diagnostic guide in time to be published almost simultaneously with the big manual. As he told his publishers about my article, they kindly sent me a review copy of the book.

I was a bit apprehensive at first, as the title sounds somewhat technical and forbidding, but sampling some of the chapters I soon found out that it is highly readable for lay readers. Each chapter for a specific mental disorder has very clear signposting including a screening question, description of a prototype case, and differential criteria to distinguish the condition from separate, but similar ones, or, indeed, from the fringes of normal behaviour. The last distinction is possibly the most important one, as the risk that all variability in human behaviour may get labelled pigeon-holed into psychiatric categories and treated with drugs provided by an all too eager pharmaceutical industry is a growing concern.

The book is “meant for everybody with an interest in psychiatric diagnosis” – not just medical professionals and students, but also anybody who cares about a person who may have mental health problems. Recognising problems early can save lives. And as some of these disorders seem to be spreading, the target audience may well include most of us.

PS: A revised edition has just come out on September 18th. According to the blurb on Amazon, it “features ICD-10-CM codes where feasible throughout the chapters, plus a Crosswalk to ICD-10-CM Codes in the Appendix. The Appendix, links to further coding resources, and periodic updates can also be accessed online (”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

not showing at a cinema near you

I only just discovered that the annual statistical yearbook from the BFI (British Film Institute) has statistics on everything, including the foreign language films that I would like to see in cinemas but that fail to turn up. So I had a good look at the BFI statistical yearbook 2013:

According to the country of origin stats on page 17, 151 (23%) of the movies released in the UK in 2012 came from other European countries (198 from the US, 162 from the UK). I have a nagging suspicion that figure includes one-off showings at festivals or at specialised cinemas like the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français in London. At least the number that made it to Oxford cinemas is definitely 5 times smaller. They account for 4.8 % of box office takings, but of course one could argue endlessly which is the hen and which the egg in this story.

Also see the chapter 5, "Specialised Films", which includes specific stats on foreign language films. Apparently, 230 films in 32 foreign languages were released in 2012, accounting for 35.5% of all releases, but taking only 2% of the box-office. Allegedly the number has increased from 96 in 2001, which is contrary to my impression. This is in line with an increase in total releases (and in audience figures), however, so the percentage is stable at 35.5%

Some specific languages (including all that have 10 or more films): French 49 films (I am sure that fewer than 12 were shown here! ), Hindi 44, Tamil 21, Malayalam 19, Turkish 13, Punjabi 10, Spanish 10, German 8, Arabic 4, Italian 3, Mandarin 2, Dutch 1.

On average, foreign language films play at 20 sites on their widest release – the figure for English language films is 159. Commercially most successful foreign language film in 2012 was Untouchable. Three other French films made the top 10 (of non-Hindi foreign language box-office): Amour, Rust and Bone, The kid with a bike (I actually saw this one!). The cumulative stats for the last 12 years have Amélie in 3rd and Volver in 7th position.

Speaking of which, German film “Die Wand” shows exactly once at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, next Tuesday at 6pm. The same slot will host Fernando Trueba's The artist and the model later this year, which allegedly is on release from this week. After a tweet from me, the distributor, Axiom films, pointed me to the list of "tour dates", so you can check if it comes near you.

Londoners also have the benefit of the annual London Spanish Film Festival at the Ciné Lumière, which will run from September 27th to October 9th this year.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

DNA balls

My feature on Spherical Nucleic Acids (SNAs) - a kind of assembly in which short nucleic acid strands stick out radially from a nanoparticle core - is out in the September issue of Chemistry & Industry:

DNA plays ball
Chemistry & Industry 2013, No. 9, pp28-31

This is premium content with restricted access to the full text, but I may get pdf reprints.

Image source: Wikipedia - Adapted from Cutler, J. I., et al., Spherical Nucleic Acids. J Am Chem Soc 2012, 134 (3), 1376-1391. Copyright 2012 American Chemical Society.

PS - as punishment for making fun of people for publishing DNA helices the wrong way round, I've been hit by another inverted helix in the illustrations for this article, which I didn't get to check. Fortunately, it's a detailed ball-and sticks model where the chirality is very hard to verify, so it won't mislead anybody who doesn't know already which way the helix is supposed to turn.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

forty years later

Today is the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile. Thirty years ago, I attended a major event on the eve of the 10th anniversary:

which was a huge arena event with lots of big names. The head of the regional government and future federal president Johannes Rau was sitting in the first row with his very young wife (and I was two rows behind them), when the evening's host Dietmar Schönherr, speaking about the US interference in Nicaragua, referred to the then US president Ronald Reagan as an arsehole. That was front page news the next day.

Based on what I learned that evening and later (eg from books like Joan Jara's excellent biography of her husband Victor), I have never been able to hear any US politician trying to take the moral high ground without grumbling, but look at what your guys did to Chile. And even though it has now returned to democracy, the recent student demos have reminded us that Pinochet's legacy persists in the education system as elsewhere.

Oh well. There doesn't seem to be much going on around here today. Just me and my Victor Jara LPs.

Monday, September 09, 2013

memories are made of what exactly?

Today's issue of Current Biology is a special issue on memory, with lots of great articles on various aspects of memory. Oh, and there's also a feature from me, on sharp-wave ripples and whether or not they're important for memory.

Are memories just ripples in time?

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 17, R734-R736, 9 September 2013

Free access to

HTML text

PDF file

All the themed content in this issue will remain on free access for a month after publication date, apparently.

By coincidence, there is also a new book out about one of the most extensively studied patients with memory loss, H.M. While this isn't directly linked to ripples, the cause of his memory loss was removal of his hippocampi, and they are also the source of ripples, so that was a good enough excuse for me to mention his case.

Friday, September 06, 2013

fun with chemistry

Since April 2000, I've been publishing a humorous column called "Ausgeforscht" (vaguely: all done with research - the launch coincided with the end of my research career) in the magazine of the German chemical society (GDCh), Nachrichten aus der Chemie, every even-numbered month. As of this month, the column will begin to appear in every issue, and it has moved to the very end of the magazine, i.e. to the inside back cover. Easy to find, easy to rip if you want to collect the pieces like I do.

Columns until October 2010 are collected in my book 9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums - hopefully with the higher frequency I won't have to wait quite as long to build critical mass for another book ...

Oh, and this was also the round-up of the September pieces, as there is only this one:

Ausgeforscht: Chemie nur für Jungs?
Nachr. Chem. 2013, 61, 991.

The piece features the Let toys be toys campaign against gender stereoptypes in the marketing of toys - several large retailers in the UK seemed to think that chemistry kits were toys for boys, until the campaign started poking them.

9 Millionen Fahrräder am Rande des Universums, Wiley-VCH 2011.

PS (7.9.) latest news from the toys front: LEGO is releasing its first minifigure of a female scientist, and she's a chemist, more info here.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

a naked paradox

Book review:

Die Nackten und die Tobenden

Ernst Horst

Blessing Verlag 2013

This summer was perfect for being out and about with nothing but a sun hat, and the perfect book to enjoy with that would be one about the weird and wonderful cultural history of nudism in (western) Germany, from its beginnings until ca. 1970.

At the heart of this book is an appreciation of the many nudism magazines which blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, partly thanks to buyers who weren’t necessarily nudists - although both the magazines and the nudists’ associations sometimes connected to them would strenuously deny any kind of erotic subtext to their publications filled with pictures of beautiful naked people (the cover of the book shows a typical cover photo from one of those magazines). This commercially successful double life ended when the unstoppable rise of openly erotic magazines like Playboy (which launched a German edition in the early 70s) deprived them of a large part of their audience.

This paradox is to me the most intriguing aspect of organised and card-carrying nudism to this day, but it was even more pronounced in the prohibitive climate of the 1950s. Nudists were fighting for the right to be different, to indulge in the minority interest of running around in their “Lichtkleid” (i.e. only dressed in light), confronting a catholic/conservative society that saw nothing but sin in nudity. At the same time, however, they were just as keen to be seen as normal people who had no links to anything unspeakable like sex, promiscuity, or homosexuality. Rather than fighting for a more open-minded society, they chose to campaign only for their lifestyle to be accepted as normal, while everybody else who fell outside the norms could go to hell. Ironically, there was no such battle in the GDR, as nudism was one of the liberties tolerated by the regime.

Ernst Horst previously published a book about Erika Fuchs, the highly influential translator of Disney comics, which I still have to read. Here he adopts the pose of an amateur anthropologist somewhat restricted by the scope of what magazines he can find on flea markets and what information he can search on the web. I wouldn’t mind that so much, except that he talks a little bit too much about writing the book, instead of actually covering the subject matter. Apart from that gripe, however, this is a cultural history well worth reading, regardless of whether you’re sporting tan lines or not.