Sunday, May 30, 2021

new wave

So here we go again, the UK govt is making the same mistakes with the new variant first identified in India (B.1.617.2) as it did with the original Covid and then with the Kent variant (B.1.1.7) - play down the problem, let it spread, and only act when people die in their hundreds.

As the Death Eaters are going to deny it later, here's what we know today, 3 weeks before the planned end of all restrictions. B.1.617.2 is spreading exponentially in England. So far, this rise has been masked in the overall stats by the decline of the Kent variant, but now that B.1.617.2 is the dominant version, it is beginning to dominate the stats, and those stats are pointing upwards, at up to 30% increase week on week. I reckon that figure will still get worse as the variant spreads to places as yet unaffected. Follow Christina Pagel on twitter for the latest warnings. Also this analysis by David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters which just came out in the Observer today.

I hear the AZ vaccine which is predominantly used here, protects to 60%, so we have still 40% of the original risk. So if with B.1.617.2 as compared to the original strain, and all other things being equal, we're 2.5 times more likely to get infected, this cancels out, and we're just as screwed as we were last year with no vaccine. [Update: numbers corrected 1.6. - in the original version I stated wrongly that it would only take a 1.6 fold increase in infection risk. Still quite realistic possibility that this will happen, eg it's 60% more contagious than the Kent variant, which was 60% more contagious than the original strain, 1.6 squared is 2.56.]

Meanwhile, two English football clubs played the champions league final at Porto, Portugal, yesterday, and English fans were allowed to travel there and spread the the new variant a bit more. Spain is also welcoming tourists from the UK in June. Both countries will come to regret this before the summer is out. As Champions League games played a significant part in spreading the original Covid around Europe (First Valencia fans travelling to Covid-infested Italy, then Madrid fans travelling to Liverpool as Spain was preparing for lockdown), I really don't understand why these things are still allowed to happen.

So even though we're fully vaxxed now, we're still stuck on Mutant Island for the foreseeable future ...

street scene from the first pandemic summer, own photo.

PS: Today's figures from the govt website just in:

22474 new cases in the last 7 days, that's 4755 more than the previous week, up 26.8% in a week. 60 deaths in seven days, up 18 or 42.9%. Hospital admissions up 23% week on week.

If you ask me, don't plan anything for June 21 onwards that you wouldn't be comfortable with right now, or better still live by the rules we had before May 17th. The third wave is happening.

Friday, May 28, 2021

in praise of amateur music making

Some thoughts on

Play it again: An amateur against the impossible
Alan Rusbridger
Vintage paperback 2014

Reading Alan Rusbridger’s piano-centred memoir ten years after the events is perfect timing for me, as I am almost exactly ten years younger than him, so, right now, I can relate to his 2011 persona quite well. In fact, like him, I have also launched a crazy musical project at the age of 56 (ie last year, in response to the covid crisis), and like him I am considering writing a book related to it. However, my professional life doesn’t involve steering the Guardian through some of the most adventurous times in its 200 year history, so there the similarities end.

But even if you’re not 56 and seeking crazy music challenges, you might enjoy his memoir, eg as a celebration of amateur music making. This hobby has declined steeply with the advent of recorded music, as many of the pianists Rusbridger interviewed have discussed. Until the 19th century, if you wanted music at your wedding, in your salon, or just for your enjoyment after work, you would have to pay a musician to play it, or play it yourself. And many people did. To the extent that, as one interviewee remarked, a composer’s success in the 19th century was decided in private music rooms more than in the concert venues.

Since recorded music became ubiquitous, this motivation disappeared, and fewer people played. Those who played professionally had access to recordings of the best performers to compare themselves to, which drove up standards and opened a chasm between them and the remaining amateurs, where a continuous spectrum of standards had existed before. Which leads us to the somewhat deplorable state of the world where Rusbridger fears ridicule from fellow editors in chief for his musical hobby, whereas playing golf or tennis would count as a perfectly reasonable pastime for the editor in chief of a major media outlet.

The crazy challenge he took on, for no other reason than being impressed by a performance from a fellow amateur, was Chopin’s ballade in G minor, op 23. The score is included in the book, complete with markings from Rusbridger and his four piano teachers, the whole battlefield. A nice touch, and yes, to this non-pianist the piece does look quite scary. It lasts around nine minutes when played by professionals (see eg Olga Scheps here).

Other things happening in his musical life during the time include some chamber music – he also plays clarinet and appears to have many musical friends – building a music shed and buying a piano for it, and endless discussions with numerous pianists up to and including the stellar Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim. I sometimes had the impression that he spent more time talking about the piano than actually practicing it.

Then there was the day job, which at that time involved dealing with Julian Assange and publishing the original WikiLeaks files together with Der Spiegel and the New York Times, and then the peak of the phone hacking affair, culminating in the revelation that the News of the World had (among thousands of others) also hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler – a Guardian scoop that forced Rupert Murdoch to close the News of the World. (This story is also told from a different perspective in Tom Watson’s excellent book Dial M for Murdoch.)

So, never a dull moment, but I’m glad now that I’m more in control of my work-music balance than he was. He has since then retired from the Guardian post and become principal at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in fact less than 1 km away from my place. I trust he has a lot more time for practice and playing now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

replicating the RNA world

I'm really excited about recent progress in the field of recreating the RNA world. The very small bunch of people pursuing this is now tantalisingly close to having an RNA molecule that can replicate itself or other RNAs of the same size. Once they achieve this, I naively imagine, they could just let the magic molecule loose in their in vitro RNA world scenario and watch it evolving all by itself, re-enacting the origin of life. I wrote a feature about this for Current Biology last autumn, but since then Peter Unrau's group has made another step forward in mimicking modern aspects of gene regulation on the the RNA World stage, in a move that also improves processivity, i.e. the replicating ribozyme staying on the template for as long as it takes. So, my new feature, taking this step into account, is now out in C&I:

Spark of life

Chemistry & Industry Volume 85, Issue 5, May 2021 Pages 26-29

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI - appears to be on open access right now

Loving the carnivorous plant closeup on the cover - nothing to do with my feature, but with a feature on plant peptides.

PS The previous issue (No. 4) includes my review of the book Stem cells: From hype to hope on page 37)

Monday, May 24, 2021

a different kind of plague

With the pandemic and everything else going on, a different kind of plague has received very little attention, although it also causes devastation in several countries, the locust outbreak in East Africa and the Middle East.

Following a suggestion from the editorial team at Current Biology, I have looked into the fascinating science of why and how solitary insects turn into devastating swarms. While surveillance and early intervention can stop it from happening, there's no way of putting the genie back in the bottle, which is why insecticides are being applied at a massive scale. I find this a bit frustrating, as it would be both amazing and useful if chemical ecologists could come up with a pheromone that switches the swarm back into solitary animals that disperse and avoid each other. Might be useful for humans, too on occasions when they become a nuisance. (Oh, and I forgot to mention in the feature, the periodical cicadas now emerging in North America are unrelated, they are true bugs, while the locusts are grasshoppers. Will have to do a separate feature on cicadas some other time.)

My feature is out now:

How locusts become a plague

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 10, 24 May 2021, Pages R459-R461

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Locusts, while harmless as solitary individuals, are among the worst pests known to mankind once they become gregarious. (Photo: christels/Pixabay.) NB while this image was labeled as "desert locust" on pixabay, I am told it may show a different species of grasshopper. So for illustration purposes only, don't use the picture as a field guide.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

quartet times three

I kept saying we only have two photos of the string quartet in which our family cello Heinrich and his eponymous owner participated, but I was wrong, I've rediscovered a third. To avoid confusion, I'll reunite the three here (they also appear in my flickr album "family history").

This is the one I rediscovered most recently,

this is the classic group portrait, dated April 1927,

... and here is the quartet in action.

I only realised last year that, zooming in on the sheet music in the last picture, one can read that they are playing BRAHMS. He only published three string quartets, so that narrows it down dramatically.

All photos were taken by my grandfather Richard, who was the only child of the cellist and a keen photographer.

I'm still none the wiser re. who the other three musicians were, see my search appeal here.

Friday, May 14, 2021

chamber music revisited

As Cowley Orchestra reconvened outdoors this week in much-reduced force just sufficient for duos and trios, I revisited the chamber music scores the young cellist and I prepared many years ago for our duo adventures. As the Flash previews which I embedded in the relevant blog entries at the time are no longer working (at least not on my computer), this is a new list I've prepared to have the playable ones handy (the noteflight list also includes some projects that didn't quite succeed or didn't get finished, although the "likes" added by users give you an impression of what works and what doesn't, I'm putting the more popular ones first in the list below).

Beethoven 3 duets (written for clarinet and bassoon originally):
1.1. Allegro comodo in C (video flute and cello)
1.3. Rondo in C
2.2. Rondo in Dm (video clarinet and cello)

JS Bach
Bourree in e minor, from the lute suite (the famous bourree used by many people including Jethro Tull)

Dvorak
Adagio (from the cello concerto)
Humoreske

Haydn
Menuet and trio (This was the first duet we performed, very basic stuff, and I probably still managed to make mistakes.)

Faure
Sicilienne (op78) This looks ok and we did perform it, not sure why it didn't get any likes.

Unfinished work: One of my favourite pieces for cello and flute to listen to is the Trio (op 78) by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, but unfortunately the piano has quite a prominent role in it. We made an effort to kick out the piano and arrange the piece for cello and flute alone, but never quite got it to a presentable shape.
First movement
Second movement (its a theme with variations, but we only got one of the variations done)

own photo

PS (27.5.2021) Now beginning to add YouTube links of professional performances to each of the pieces.

Monday, May 10, 2021

deep life

Among the neglected "extreme" environments that still provide habitat for a suprising number of species in surprising amounts, the deep subsurface has perhaps been the most underappreciated. Recognition of deep biotopes only really took off this side of the millennium, decades after environments like deep sea vents were explored.

The Deep Carbon Observatory (2009-2019) helped to fill that gap to some extent, and in its wake there are now several research stations exploring the deep underground, often based on disused mine shafts. Writing up the DCO results for the new edition of Astrobiology which comes out in August, I realised I hadn't covered this work since 2013. So about time for me to dig in and see what's going on below the surface.

My feature is out now:

Life underground

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 9, 10 May 2021, Pages R415-R417

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Several research stations have now been established at disused mines to investigate life in the deep subsurface. The image shows DeMMO field coordinator Brittany Kruger at work in a former gold mine in South Dakota. (Photo: © Caitlin Casar.)

Friday, May 07, 2021

fluorescent platypuses

This round-up of pieces published in German covers the marvels of sponges, coffee, fluorescent platypuses and wastewater analytics.

Was Schwämme alles können
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 3, März 2021, Pages 69-71
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Magical mysteries of marine sponges

Ausgeforscht: In neuem Glanz
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 3, März 2021, Page 98
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
(about the recent, rather belated discovery that platypuses fluoresce under UV light)

Was Kaffee mit uns macht
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 5, May 2021, Pages 74-76
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: What coffee does to body and mind

Ausgeforscht: Abgründe der Abwasser‐Analytik
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 69, Issue 5, May 2021, Page 114
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
This is the mickey-taking, but a serious appreciation on wastewater epidemiology is here.

Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

fragile fates

Some thoughts (with spoilers) on

House of Glass
The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family

Hadley Freeman

4th estate paperback, 2021

I have one or two book projects in my pipeline that are inspired by family history (eg this one), so I am naturally curious about other people’s efforts in this field. Our household has been reading Hadley Freeman’s contributions in the Guardian since forever (in my case since she moved from the fashion desk to become a columnist), which means I already knew some intriguing glimpses of her story, including the fact that her grandmother lived in Paris and never got over having to flee the city in WW2, and this loss of place is also something I can relate to (and Paris too, of course).

House of Glass is the story of this grandmother and her three brothers. The Glass siblings were a Jewish family from a town in today’s Poland. One of the many insane ironies in this story is that the first pogrom in (20th century) Poland happened in their town and saved their lives. This was before the end of WW1, so modern Poland didn’t even exist yet, but it became clear to them that the relative safety they had enjoyed under Habsburg rule was over. Their father came back from the war in poor health, and after he died the siblings and their mother followed in the footsteps of their cousins to move to Paris in the early 1920s, when France was still happy to accommodate Jewish immigrants. Their hometown was near Auschwitz, and among the Jewish families who stayed there, virtually nobody survived the Holocaust. So the statement that a pogrom saved their lives is not even an exaggeration.

When antisemitism and then the Nazis caught up with them in Paris, the four siblings responded in very different ways. One did as he was told by authorities, registered as a Jew, came forward when called up for internment, and ended up being murdered in Auschwitz. The other three did not and miraculously survived. The youngest of the brothers, the fashion designer (later turned art dealer) Alex Maguy tricked the sister into marrying an American, leading her to a life in safety in Long Island. To save his own life, he juggled personal friendships with resistance members and Vichy officials, and cheated death more than once. He even managed to save his 100% un-assimilated mother, which strikes me as the most surprising achievement in a life story that has plenty of others. The oldest of the brothers survived in less eye-catching style, but survive he did.

So, for a Holocaust memoir, this one has a 3/4 happy ending and manages to be uplifting. It uniquely encapsulates the history of the 20th century – the oldest sibling was born in 1901, the last survivor died in 1999 - while also raising issues that are again troubling us today. As it was researched and written after all of the siblings had died, it has plenty of detective work and sleuthing to keep up the suspense. And as a warning to aspiring memoir writers like myself, it is becoming obvious that this kind of investigation requires a lot of hard work (and travel, so I am excused for now, but I have a list of places I need to visit for this purpose).

PS: While reading this, I felt inspired to dig my own tiny bit of Jewish ancestry again, and thinking about it I suspect there may be more that has been swept under the rug.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

memory full

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, 15th month

I've just about managed to memorise the 24 bars of the first minuet in D this month, but I am increasingly getting the impression that new bars learned risk pushing out some of the not quite secure enough ones learned before. So for this summer, I'll focus on securing and polishing the 12 movements I have studied so far and won't be adding any new movements for now.

I've also done a debut performance of the most advanced movements (those at the bottom of my list, below) at Oxford's only bandstand (Florence Park), which was great fun, and I'm planning to do that more often, to practice keeping the concentration while random children are running behind my back and dogs come sniffing at my legs. Other than that, the audience has politely ignored me which is the best I can hope for.

One movement I might complete this month is the Courante in G - seeing that there isn't much missing.

So after 14 months with 389 practice days, 12 movements studied, and 409 bars memorised, my list now looks like this:

1) movements I've studied for a month, then put aside for now
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

2) movements memorised in a significant part
1.3 Courante (2/3)
2.6 Gigue (1/2)
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)

3) movements memorised in their entirety
1.4 Sarabande
2.4 Sarabande
2.5 Minuet I&II
3.6. Gigue

4) movements memorised and synchronised with metronome
1.6 Gigue

5) movements recorded on video and also performed in public
1.5 Minuet I&II- VIDEO
3.5 Bourree I&II - VIDEO

No f in Heinrich, but two f holes
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