Sunday, December 30, 2018

the dancers will fall over

As in 2017, most of the excitement and progress this year was to be had on the musical front. The ships of global and UK politics may be sinking fast, but the orchestra keeps playing.

Speaking of which, the orchestra where I play wrong notes on the cello hasn’t kicked me out yet, and I still crawl through the flute repertoire at a snail’s pace. And I continue to run the administrative side of the Galician Session Oxford, a role which I unexpectedly inherited in the summer of 2017. As some of the more experienced participants are leaving or have already left town, I will increasingly also be in charge of the musical leadership. Scary thought, I may have to put in some extra practice.

After six years and six months, the session lost its long-established home at the James Street Tavern at the end of November. We had one very lovely session at the Port Mahon in St. Clement’s, but are still waiting to hear if this will become a permanent solution.

Along with the Galician, the French and Scandinavian sessions also had to move in December. On the plus side, the move to a venue with a better dance floor attracted the attention of the local dance crowd which used each of the sessions to celebrate a “bal minuscule”. Videos of each of the miniature bals are here.

If I’m still a bit panicky about playing for dancers, it must be because I heard my children’s instrument teachers saying many times: “If you do this, the dancers will fall over.” I can’t quite remember what terrible mistake it was that led to this reaction, or maybe there were different kinds, and I’m sure I’m prone to make every conceivable rhythmic mistake, but luckily, so far, no dancer has fallen over.

Another opportunity to learn about playing for dancers was the very interesting workshop held in October by the ensemble Rigodons et Traditions from Grenoble who exchange visits with Oxford Fiddle Group every few years. Under their very professional leadership we even played for a whole village hall full of dancers. Imagine doing the wrong thing and 100+ people falling over. Now that would look very impressive.

Other new challenges this year included the arrival of a new but vintage (made in GDR) tenor sax, which is surprisingly easy in the fingerings – just a turbo charged flute with the exhaust sawn off, if you excuse a motor metaphor. I find it very satisfying in terms of energy efficiency as well – little effort gives a huge sound. Concern for my lips and the neighbours severely limits the practice times, however, so it will be a while before I can toot my horn in public.

Also new in the collection is an alto recorder – again very easy under the fingers, and I guess the transposition is something one gets used to. In cello terms, everything sounds one string down, so you have a C where you expect the G, and a G where you’d normally have a D. Just give me a few years and I'll get my head round that.

Other opportunities to play wrong notes in public included the first run of the “unusual instruments” class at the Oxford Music Festival (with our highly unusual home-built hammered dulcimer), my second theremin workshop and my second Misa Campesina, a few jam sessions with local band Mad Flamenco, as well as the amazing Folk Weekend Oxford. In July, the visit of the despicable Mr Drumpf to Blenheim Palace offered a welcome opportunity to improve my bugle skills, especially the fortissimo. Subtlety and nuance weren’t really required on that occasion. Previously I had tried the bugle at the London WNBR but cycling and tooting simultaneously doesn’t quite work yet.

So here's to more noise in 2019 ...

PS I forgot to mention: the Guardian asked readers what they do to escape / bypass / fight capitalism, so I sang the praise of folk sessions as free entertainment, pretty far down on this page.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

celtic connections

First thoughts on

La hermandad de los celtas
by Carlos Núñez
Espasa 2018

To those of us obsessing over Galician folk music, Carlos Núñez is a massive star – even if this ecological niche isn’t quite big enough to enable him (or anybody else) to lead a proper rock star life. We’ve had the rather amazing privilege of welcoming him to a special edition of our Galician session here last year, a truly unforgettable experience.

So of course I didn’t want to miss his debut book publication, especially not as it is about Celtic (including Galician) music and culture. Actually, preparations for his book were what brought him to Oxford back in May 2017, where he spoke to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe (who, as it happens, also has a new edition of his book on the Celts out this year). But I was also a bit anxious, wondering how he would be as a writer.

The good news is that he writes beautifully. The sentences sing, you can feel his musical talents in the way he writes them. So, as long as you’re caught in the moment, it’s great fun to read him, and it’s entertaining in the same way as it would be to chat to him or indeed to jam with him.

The trouble starts when you’ve read a few dozen pages and you try to get an organised kind of concept of what you’ve just learned. Unfortunately, you don’t get much help with that. There is no index, and the structure within each of the lengthy chapters isn’t really obvious if it exists. In a very conversational manner, Núñez recalls who he talked to, on what occasions, and reminisces about other influences that shaped his musical life or informed his foray into the wider Celtic cultural history. The typical connection between two items is “This reminds me of… “ While this may be absolutely true, it is not much help for the reader who wants to come away with a bit of structured knowledge, rather than just with the fuzzy feeling of having had a nice chat.

So, in an attempt at helping my poor old memory, I took some notes in the first half of the book (which is quite long enough to count as a book in its own right, so I am now having a break before I tackle the second half). Here are a few of the amazing but sadly disorganised bits and pieces that I noted:

* There is generally a lack of actual archaeological finds of musical instruments of the ancient Celts. The carnyx (war trumpet with animal-shaped head towering high above the player, as featured eg in Asterix), of which a nearly complete example was found at Deskford, and which you can now buy as a reconstruction, is a notable exception.

* Benjamin Franklin wrote about Scottish music. I can’t find it at GoodReads, must be an essay filed under Miscellaneous Writings? References in the book would have helped with this kind of thing.

* Marie Antoinette played the hurdy-gurdy. He just mentions that in passing, as something everybody is supposed to know, and as I didn’t, I looked it up. Apparently this was the tail-end of a wave of folk music being fashionable at the court of Versailles, which started under Louis XIV and ended within the reign of Louis XVI, so supposedly Marie-Antoinette also put away her gurdy at one point.

* To the same folk wave we also owe the musette de cour – a gentrified variant of the bagpipes. Nicolas Chédeville wrote the sonatas Il pastor fido for this instrument. Wrongly attributed to Vivaldi at one point, they are today part of the repertoire for flute and recorders.

* Music from Celtic traditions was considered primitive in the 18th century partly because it was rarely written down, and if at all, it was written just as a melody line, with harmonies left out. (See also: Bach’s cello suites. It took a Casals to convince the world that they are more than just finger exercises.)

* The fact that Welsh is today the most widely spoken Celtic language can in part be attributed to the popularity of Welsh male voice choirs. These, in turn, were created and supported in a bid to keep miners away from the booze.

* Galileo’s father wrote about the Irish harp. How random is that?

* Speaking of which, the oral tradition of harpers in Ireland (such as eg Turlough O’Carolan, 1670-1738) died out in the 19th century. The reason we know their music at all is that at the last of their regular reunions, which took place in Belfast in 1792, the organist of St. Anne’s Cathedral, Edward Bunting, wrote down some of the tunes they played. (Just a couple of weeks after reading that, I accidentally discovered an LP with this music in our house, recorded by Gráinne Yeats in 1980.)

* Post 1066 Norman rulers used the Arthurian legends to bond with the Celts against the Anglosaxons, which explains why Richard Lionheart had Breton harps playing at his wedding. (Plus lots more stuff about the Arthurian legends, and their various echoes in different parts of Europe.)

The take-home message is that everything in the history of the universe has some sort of Celtic connection. I love all these unexpected cross-links through history and across Europe (in the second half, Núñez also covers the Celtic diaspora around the world, so the connections will become global).

But what I really would have needed would be a set of maps with some arrows to reflect all these intercultural connections, some references and a very good index … Part of which would have been the task of the publishers, not the author, so this omission doesn’t diminish the author’s achievement. It just makes it less accessible to us mere mortals.

He repeatedly stresses his own lack of scientific expertise and says that he dreams of bringing the academic experts in the relevant fields together to one meeting and get them to sort it all out. Seeing that for this book he seems to have spoken personally to everybody who is anybody in any field related to Celtic archaeology, history, culture or music, I don’t quite see what’s stopping him from having that meeting next month.

the cover wants to be appreciated in fully unfolded form ...
The photo was taken, as he mentions on page 52, at the beach of Honón, with the Cies islands in the background. Stone monuments in this location are allegedly linked to the legend of Breoghan, and thus to everything else in the book.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Chagall vs La Fontaine

A lovely antiquarian book I bought recently at the antiques fair in Gloucester Green combines the fables of La Fontaine with illustrations by Chagall. Until discovering the book there I didn't even know these pictures existed.

Some random examples of the presentation of text and images inside the book:

Not terribly antiquarian though - sells an edition from 2003 that has the same cover.

Monday, December 24, 2018

emerging whale songs

Open Archive Day

My features in Current Biology emerge from behind the pay wall one year after publication, which means that all those published in 2017 are now in the Open Archive.

On the Mondays between the publication dates of new features, I tend to highlight one feature from the open archives. The last one in the series this year is about how whales learn new tunes, which happens to be quite similar to the way folk musicians learn new tunes, so it enabled me to make an unexpected connection between the behaviours of whales and humans:

Cultured cetaceans

New discoveries on the musicality of marine mammals come out fairly regularly, and one paper quite close to the subject of the feature came out just last month, see the press release here.

I used a picture of a humpback whale when the feature came out, so for balance, here's one of humans sharing their tunes:

(French/Breton session Oxford, Dec. 2018, own photo)

Friday, December 21, 2018

science news 21.12.2018

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert. I include quotes from the summary in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about:


Australian study into how seals react to boats prompts new ecotourism regulations


Health checkups for alpine lakes

Climate change is putting wildlife at risk in the world's oldest lake
- specifically this is about diatoms in Lake Baikal


Newborn insects trapped in amber show first evidence of how to crack an egg

Hidden cradle of early plant evolution discovered in the Middle East
Several new plant fossils from present-day Jordan push back the ages of important seed plant lineages, suggesting these lineages survived the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian.

The idiosyncratic mammalian diversification after extinction of the dinosaurs

Spectacular flying reptiles soared over Britain's tropical Jurassic past

life on the edge

Himalayan marmot genome offers clues to life at extremely high altitudes

Image: Yuanqing Tao


Researchers make world's smallest tic-tac-toe game board with DNA

Quantum Maxwell's demon 'teleports' entropy out of a qubit
I find it slightly worrying when thought experiments spring to life. Soon they'll be breeding Schroedinger's cats :)

plant science

Genetic study reveals how citrus became the Med's favorite squeeze
Genetic detective work has illuminated the important role of Jewish culture in the widespread adoption of citrus fruit by early Mediterranean societies.


Network orchestration: SLU researcher uses music to manage networks
sounds interesting.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

science news 20.12.2018

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert. I include quotes from the summary in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about:


Sapphires and rubies in the sky
Researchers at the Universities of Zurich and Cambridge have discovered a new, exotic class of planets outside our solar system. These so-called super-Earths were formed at high temperatures close to their host star and contain high quantities of calcium, aluminium and their oxides -- including sapphire and ruby.

How does your garden grow in space?


Marmoset monkeys expect the melody's closing tone

Groups of pilot whales have their own dialects

biomimetics & robotics

Growing bio-inspired shapes with hundreds of tiny robots

3D-printed robot hand plays the piano - badly
I'm not impressed. Go to the museum of musical automata at Bruchsal, Germany, to see more advanced robotic music making dating from the 19th century ...


Singapore researchers develop gold-complexed ferrocenyl phosphines as potent antimalarials

Bacterial protein could help find materials for your next smartphone, specifically: lanthanides
See also my recent feature on microbial mining helpers.


Loss of forest intactness increases extinction risk in birds


Plastic waste disintegrates into nanoparticles, study finds

Loss of intertidal ecosystem exposes coastal communities


Scientists discover over 450 fossilized millipedes in 100-million-year-old amber

(Photo: Thomas Wesener)

gene technology

Rabbit gene helps houseplant detoxify indoor air
I made fun of GM house plants earlier this year in my column in Nachrichten (ref. to follow).


Returning indigenous remains to their ancestral lands, thanks to ancient DNA
A similar deal was struck re. Spirit Cave mummy, see my feature on ancient americans, out this week.

seasonal science

Snowed in: Wolves stay put when it's snowing, study shows


in the papers:

How can I remove Google from my life? (just had to have this link on my blogspot - I also share all the facebook scandals on facebook)

Can folk music save the bees? asks the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

science news 19.12.2018

Today's round-up of science stories. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert. I include quotes from the summary in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about:

astrobiology & astronomy

Space telescope detects water in a number of asteroids


Dive-bombing for love: Male hummingbirds dazzle females with a highly synchronized display

Photo by Noah Whiteman, University of California, Berkeley

climate & environment

A new model of ice friction helps scientists understand how glaciers flow

ecology & conservation

Red wolf DNA found in mysterious Texas canines

Recruiting ants to fight weeds on the farm


Researchers find gender separation affects sense of smell - in mice

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

science news 18.12.2018

As tumblr is going dark, I need a new system to simultaneously share and archive the science news items that I pick up in my daily filter-feeding (in addition to twitter, which is good on the sharing but not so good on the archiving side). I'm thinking about one blogspot post each day (Tue-Sat) collecting the press releases I have highlighted that day. (In theory, the sharing options on EurekAlert would make it easy to create one blog post for every PR, but I don't want to swamp the blog tumblr-style.) So here's the test run for a daily collection, aiming to include quotes from the summary in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about:

astrobiology / astronomy

NASA research reveals Saturn is losing its rings at 'worst-case-scenario' rate

Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed

Alien imposters: Planets with oxygen don't necessarily have life

Narrowing the universe in the search for life

bio-inspired tech

Digital wood produced with 3D printing

climate & environment

The full story on climate change requires the long view

Researchers offer a new calculation that provides the long view of what nine different world regions have contributed to climate change since 1900. They also show how that breakdown will likely look by 2100 under various emission scenarios.

Climate change leading to water shortage in Andes, Himalayas

Warning over deep-sea 'gold rush'


Conservation success depends on habits and history

The ghosts of harvesting can haunt today's conservation efforts. Conserving or overharvesting a renewable resource like fish or other wildlife is often determined by habits and past decisions, according to a Rutgers-led study that challenges conventional expectations that the collapse of fast-growing natural resources is unlikely.


New discovery pushes origin of feathers back by 70 million years

'Treasure trove' of dinosaur footprints found in southern England


Passive exposure alone can enhance the learning of foreign speech sounds

Ability to understand and subsequently speak a new language requires the ability to accurately discriminate speech sounds of a given language. When we start to learn a new language the differences between speech sounds can be very difficult to perceive. With enough active practice the ability to discriminate the speech sounds enhances.


Moebius kaleidocycles: Sensational structures with potential applications

Monday, December 17, 2018

the first Americans

Very exciting findings have emerged recently from ancient DNA studies of dozens of ancient Americans, giving a much more detailed picture of the remarkable migrations across all climate zones from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

I've covered this in my last feature to be published this year, which is out now:

Ancient genomes of the Americas

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 24, 17 December 2018, Pages R1365-R1368

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Archaeological evidence of the Clovis culture is widespread in North America. Genome analysis now suggests that people related to Clovis also lived as far south as Brazil. (Image: Reproduced with permission from Peter A. Bostrom.)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

the naked ape

As tumblr is probably going the way of MySpace after Monday's purge, I am thinking of ways of transfering some of my activities there to blogspot. The easiest part will be the "old books" tag, as I already have the "antiquarian" tag here, so expect to find photos of old books (from my shelves or observed in the wild) here more often.

To begin with, here are some reflections on naked apes:

I’ve had the German copy of Desmond Morris’s classic pop science book for decades (print run dated 1978), but just this October I discovered the English paperback with a similar but different design (printed 1969):

Assuming that the English cover design was there first, it is interesting to look at what the German publishers changed. They kept most of the chimp and the general idea, but swapped the chimp’s head and the humans, who were replaced with blonder versions. Note also the only skin contact in the English cover is man to chimp, while the German version allows skin contact between humans.

I could marvel at this pair forever … come to think of it, I’ll go looking for other language editions using a similar picture, watch this space.

Update: here we go - first, from Wikipedia, a picture of the author with a 1969 Dutch edition using the same photo as my German edition (but more than one ape):

And here are four editions I found with similar pictures, in Dutch, Finnish, French and Italian:

Thursday, December 13, 2018

free the nipple

Tumblr is set to implement its nipple ban on Monday 17th, and the petition against it is about to pass the 500,000 signatures target today, but I fear the ridiculous ban will go ahead. Even though the censorship AI is still pretty clueless about what may be art, what a political statement, or humour, or indeed porn.

As a few of us are indulging in throwing around all the nipples we can find, I am using this blog post to collect a few topless discoveries worth keeping after the shutters come down.

👀 The Swedish pop singer/songwriter Tove Lo, I learned this week, is not only a great advocate of body positivity but also prone to drop her top during her shows, especially during the song Talking body.

Tove Lo - Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson

The longest exposure times I found on youtube (some serious research going into these blog entries!) are in the videos from the Lollapalooza 2017 Chicago (views from thefront and side of the stage are available) and at Emo's in Austin, Texas, also 2017. Stop press: just found her Glastonbury gig, where her top essentially consists of glitterpaint handprints. Everything else pales in comparison.

Funnily enough, the tumblr AI hasn't flagged these videos yet. I like to think that with all the furious posting that's happened in response to the ban, the AI has been kept so busy it didn't have time to watch videos.

👀 The Outdoor Co-Ed Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (OCTPFAS). Hope I got that name right. Making generous use of the fact that in New York going topless is legal for all genders due to equality laws, the OCTPFAS engaged in public activities and have created a huge amount of photos that were everywhere on tumblr, but are bound to disappear. In 2016 they performed Shakespeare's The Tempest outdoors and with not very many costumes. Follow their amazing Wordpress blog.

👀 Naked yoga - I never quite saw the point of yoga, but since tumblr told me that you can do it without clothes, it makes a lot more sense to me.

Some photographers who used to share work on tumblr and are now to be found elsewhere:

👀 Giovanni Pasini
👀 Tom Sutherland
👀 Yoram Roth
👀 Mr Chill

Some of the many freelance models presenting amazing work on tumblr:
👀 Roarie Yum
👀 Kelsey Dylan
👀 Trish Davis
👀 Sekaa
👀 Mona Poses

Articles about the tumblr purge and alternatives:

👀 This article in the Daily Dot discusses twitter, patreon, mastodon and pillowfort as alternatives.


Updates / additions

Articles about the state of nipple freedom

👀 Rhiannon Lucy Coslett about the state of topless sunbathing in summer 2019.

Monday, December 10, 2018

reading the riots

Open Archive Day

As I usually watch the news on the French international channel TV5monde (now broadcasting online in the UK), I've seen a lot more rioting in the last few weeks than I would ever want to, and I'm none the wiser as to what it actually wants to achieve. Time to reflect and re-read the feature I wrote after the August 2011 riots in London:

Why do people riot?

Champs Elysees, 24.11.2018

Image source: Wikipedia

Sunday, December 09, 2018

tumblr purge

It's a very sad moment for all of us who have loved tumblr over the last years, as the site will cease to exist in the form we knew from Monday 17th of December, also known as Black Monday. The site's unique selling point so far has been its complete openness to all things that humans obsess about, from a broad range of sexual flavours to popular culture fandoms and even hard science. It was also famous as a safe space for discussing mental health issues.

I've used tumblr since 2011, and identified my main account there as a book blog since September 2013. These years have been very educational, and I have written several features that were inspired by things I learned on tumblr (eg: online cultures; sharks)

From the 17th, the site will follow the lead of facebook and instagram and ban all things that could be vaguely seen as erotic, including, most notoriously, what the new user guidelines describe as "female-presenting nipples". Needless to say I'll be mostly blogging female-presenting nipples for the remainder of the time.

I really don't think the site can survive the exodus that is bound to happen. Nearly half a million people have signed the petition against the ban already. If they leave tumblr, the nature of networks says they will take others with them, so there will be millions of users missing. And tumblr will be left with Harry Potter fanfiction and nazis (because they, strangely, don't seem to be offensive to the new management).

While the tumblr AI is learning how to enact the purge, new posts allegedly violating the policy get flagged with a red bar at the top. Yesterday I shared a story about this from the guardian on tumblr. It got flagged immediately:

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. (Oh, and by the way, I have suggested to my followers not to challenge the ridiculous flagging decisions. It's not in our interest to help the company improve its censorship AI.)

Other articles about the purge and its likely reasons (Apple emerges as a likely culprit in this story):

When Tumblr bans porn, who loses?
Verizon is leaving the engine of internet culture to sputter and die, and its communities to scramble for a new home.
Kaitlyn Tiffany

Tumblr's Porn Ban Reveals Who Controls What We See Online
Paris Martineau

Tumblr is banning adult content. It’s about so much more than porn.
Tumblr’s adult content ban is already harming the site’s vibrant community.
Aja Romano

Images of Jesus and superheroes caught up in Tumblr porn ban
Alex Hern

And one in French from France Culture:
Tumblr et le porno - Quand le capital dicte la morale

Monday, December 03, 2018

minerals and microbes

Microbes have been around on this planet for close to four billion years, so in their own unconscious, unicellular way, they know a thing or two about how to handle its minerals, and even how to produce new ones.

Our flawed human efforts to access the planet's resources have produced a lot of collateral damage, pollution and waste. So we should consider learning from microbes about mining, producing materials and recycling them. Which is the topic of my latest feature, out today:

Mining the mineral microbiome

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 23, 03 Dcember 2018, Pages R1325-R1328

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Copper occurs naturally in a variety of chemical modifications. In this piece of rock it occurs in the minerals azurite and malachite as well as in metallic form. (Image: Parent Géry via

Sunday, December 02, 2018

back to Basque roots

Three years after Ma ma, Julio Medem has a new film out (in Spain), so I am building up excitement. From the trailer and the reviews in the Spanish press it looks like a welcome return to the cryptic complexity of his early films based in the Basque country, such a Vacas and Tierra, which I haven't really understood to this day ...

It's called El árbol de la sangre (The tree of blood), and here is what I could find about it:


Julio Medem returns to his origins, says Milagros Martín-Lunas in El Independiente.

Old style Medem with the brakes taken off, says John Tones.

A compendium of his themes and obsessions, says Manuel Lombardo in the Diario de Sevilla.

My guess is that it will not be shown in UK cinemas, but watch this space!