Monday, May 31, 2010

nature's testosterone-tinged view

In the current issue of Nature, there is a three-page "opinion" section where the magazine asked 8 experts for a brief comment on Craig Venter's "artificial cell" feat. As the production of new life typically involves the female of our species more than the male, and as a large part of the Venter phenomenon is probably related to the influence of the hormone testosterone, I was expecting to find comments from women as well as men among the eight voices. Alas, the line-up of 8 experts contained exactly 8 blokes (that's 100% if I got my maths right).

As somebody who was an active member of Germany's Green Party back in the 1980s, when the party developed the "zipper" method of having candidate lists with alternating female and male candidates, I know that it isn't easy to find women willing to stick their neck out in a male-dominated environment. But if somebody comes up with a panel of 8 people who are all male, I know that they haven't tried hard enough. And if they have tried hard and there were still no female candidates, then maybe the whole idea wasn't such a good one in the first place.

And it's not that Nature is offending for the first time. A few years ago, they ran a series of one page profiles of researchers, under the title "lifelines", and if memory serves, the first eight of these were male. After the 5th male in a row, I complained to the most senior female member of Nature's editorial staff, and she said "we tried" - see my answers above.

A few months ago, they started a series of monthly opinion columns ("worldview"), needless to say that both of the columnists claiming to represent the world are white middle-aged blokes, so similar I can hardly tell them apart.

And why do I care seeing I'm part of the group that's benefiting from this bias? I can think of several good reasons:

* as a subscriber of Nature (though not for much longer, I suspect) I am paying for the editorial parts (the research papers I would just look up in the library if I needed them), and I am paying to find out things that I don't know already. Being a middle-aged, scientifically-minded bloke myself, I think I have an idea of how this kind of brain works, and it is very rare that one of the men that tend to write Nature's opinion columns actually manages to surprise or impress me. If I'm paying to get a piece of people's minds, I want diversity of minds, not all the same.

* As a father of girls, I would of course have hoped that equal opportunities would move forward since the 1980s, but looking at Nature (or the Royal Society, or the new UK cabinet), it seem we're moving backwards.

* A third reason is already mentioned in the opening paragraph -- seeing that reproduction requires a female but may soon no longer require a male, it is shocking to what extent the whole field of bioethics is dominated by males.

Friday, May 28, 2010

protected areas and their economic impact

As conservation is all about the economy these days, people are wondering whether nature reserves and similar protected areas are actually helping or harming the people living in the area. They might harm by stopping people from exploiting natural resources, but they may also help by offering opportunities in eco-tourism and benefits from ecosystem services.

If one wants to know which way the overall balance turns out, there appears to be very little hard data to go on, but now K. Andam et al. have published a "controlled study" in PNAS trying to eliminate error by comparing the economic development of sites with a nature reserve to that of sites similar in all aspects except that they are lacking such a protected area.

Carrying out this kind of analysis on various sites in Costa Rica and in Thailand, the authors come to a cautiously optimistic conclusion, namely that the "treated" samples (i.e. with a protected area) have done somewhat better than the control samples.

So now if your conservation project runs up against local nimbyism, you can always throw a copy of that article at the opposition.

Kwaw S. Andam, Paul J. Ferraro, Katharine R. E. Sims, Andrew Healy, and Margaret B. Holland
Protected areas reduced poverty in Costa Rica and Thailand
PNAS published ahead of print May 24, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0914177107

Abstract and free access to PDF file.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Paris in 3 minutes

The essence of Paris in 3 minutes, as captured in the original video for Kiss Me, which is an hommage to Truffaut's classic Jules et Jim. Looking this up on YouTube, I found to my horror that there has been a more recent movie-tie in video of this song, so the original video was actually hard to find. Thus, in an attempt to save it from oblivion, here goes:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

education fixed

In his latest column, George Monbiot advocates a brilliantly simple and effective fix for the blatant inequality of opportunity in this country, based on an earlier idea by Peter Wilby. I'll tweak it slightly but the essence is the same:

If only x percent of the year group can go to the best universities, make sure that each and every secondary school gets places for the top x % of their students. I.e. if x is 5, our local state school with some 200 students per year doing A levels, would get 10 guaranteed places at Oxbridge. No more Apartheid in the schools system, as ambitious parents would seek out schools with fewer successful pupils to let theirs have a better chance, so within a few years the whole system would be homogenised and everybody would get ahead purely on the merits of their performance.

The only real problem I can think of is that competition between pupils for the fixed number of places could become nasty.

Other than that there are of course a few political problems meaning that it will never happen, such as the fact that it would remove the heritable privileges of those who are monopolising power and wealth in this country. Also, I think they do it similarly in France (at least I seem to remember that the important figure at the end of your school career is a ranking, not a mark, but not sure), so it can't be right.

So watch out for politicians studiously ignoring this proposal.

George Monbiot: Universal Cure (24.5.2010, printed in the Guardian on 25.5.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

magnificent maps

On my last visit to London, I had a few hours spare and went to the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library, just because it happened to be on my way. Found it really interesting in the way it shows the different ways in which maps have been used in different contexts - each represented by a room of the venue, e.g. the audience chamber, the bedchamber, the merchant's house, etc.

I actually tend to put maps on my walls as well, have a huge pseudo-realistic view of Europe on display, and an aerial photograph of Oxford (kind of a map as well). Sad though that satnavs and google maps will drive all map makers out of business, so I'm not sure whether there will be any maps from the 21st century to feature in future exhibitions.

Magnificent Maps continues until Sept.19

Monday, May 24, 2010

Parson's Pleasure

I spent most of the weekend on or by the river Cherwell, so I thought it was time for a blog entry to celebrate our short-walk holiday destination:

When we walk down to the river (which is not very far, and sometimes the river comes to us), we arrive at a place where two millstreams are diverted from the main course of the river which then goes down a weir, leaving two very elongated islands between the streams. The top end of the larger island is known as Parson’s Pleasure, and it is quite paradisiacal on the rare occasion when we have nice summer weather.

People go there to sunbathe or study, to have their picnics or foreplay, practice tightrope walking or taichi, or to go for a swim in defiance of the numerous signs warning them that the water is actually deep.

In a bygone era (not quite sure when, but in the mists of Oxford’s history, definitely before they built the cycle path which cuts across the islands), Parson’s Pleasure was one of the many riverside bathing places that are still marked on our old map, although nobody values the pleasures that you can get for free any more. Apparently this one was special because dons (i.e. male Oxford academics) used to do skinny-dipping here, while women were banned from the area. Local lore has it that one fine afternoon, a punt -- looking a bit like this one:

-- as I was saying, a punt full of undergraduates of both genders (can’t have been that long ago, then) lost its way and came gliding past the gloriously undressed academics. While most of them used their hands to shield their private parts, one don is said to have covered his face instead. Asked about this, he replied: “Oh, my students know me by my face!”

Well, I guess all this ended when female cyclists gained permission to ride past the area, some time around 1990, I think. But even without the naked dons it’s still a great place to be on a fine summer day …

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"opportunities to learn from Cuba"

[deutsche Version]

The US trade embargo against Cuba is turning 50 this year, and one should hope that after half a century of watching this policy fail to achieve its goals, even the most blockheaded lobbyists should start to scratch their heads and have a good re-think. But then again, one should have hoped that, too, after a whole century of catastrophic failure in the “war on drugs.”

Anyhow, very subtle signals seem to indicate that the US are slowly but surely beginning to move on this issue. Among the signals is the recent publication of a “Policy Forum” piece by Paul Drain and Michele Barry in Science magazine (vol 328, p 572, 30.4.2010), analysing the effect of the embargo on public health in Cuba and the reasons why Cuba’s health system has been spectacularly successful in spite of it.

One particularly insidious part of the story, I learned from the Science piece, is the “Torricelli Bill” of 1992, which suppressed the export of medical supplies to Cuba and did have a measurable impact on public health in the country. (I really can’t get my head round this – the lobbyists in Miami must have been twisting lots of people’s arms to ensure that their relatives back home don’t get medical supplies when they need them. Does anybody understand this?) Apart from the blip following that law, however, life expectancy in Cuba has risen steeply in the 50 years since the embargo began, and has drawn equal with the US, even though health spending in Cuba is by orders of magnitude less than in the US. It is tempting to cast a cynical eye at the data and conclude that the Torricelli Bill was a desperate attempt to stop Cuba from overtaking the US on health indicators such as life expectancy, and as such it has, just about, worked.

But how could Cuba achieve what has been described as “developed world outcomes at developing world prices”? The article highlights the Cuban emphasis on disease prevention and primary health care. Educating people about health risks is relatively cheap. Letting them run the risk and then trying to cure the diseases with pharmaceuticals, as done in the US, is much more expensive. In terms of access to primary medical care, Cuba has a very large number of physicians per capita, and even in remote rural areas, access to medical care isn’t much of a problem. And, unlike the UK’s NHS, they do believe in checkups. Every Cuban citizen, I learned, is expected to see a physician at least once a year.

Disease prevention also depends on vaccination programs, which in turn depend on the manufacturing and indeed invention of affordable vaccines. When I visited Cuba in 2004, I was fortunate to catch the story of the new, affordable HiB vaccine developed at Havana just before this advance was published in Science. This was an outstanding success, but more generally, the biomedical research institutes in Havana are widely recognised for their world-class research, which directly leads to effective and affordable vaccinations for the Cuban people.

Sensationally for a publication that is kind of a flag carrier for US science, the article concludes that in the wake of the US healthcare reform “there may be opportunities to learn from Cuba valuable lessons about developing a truly universal health care system that emphasizes primary care. Adopting some of Cuba’s successful health-care policies may be the best first step toward normalizing relations.”

Call me crazy, but I am feeling cautiously optimistic that the embargo madness won’t last for another 50 years.

Paul K. Drain and Michele Barry
Global Health:
Fifty Years of U.S. Embargo: Cuba's Health Outcomes and Lessons
Science 30 April 2010:
Vol. 328. no. 5978, pp. 572 - 573
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189680
summary and access to PDF file (PDF access may be restricted, not sure)

Friday, May 21, 2010

a furious gentleman

When I finished my PhD and packed my bags to move to the UK, my professor gave me a book by watercolour artist David Gentleman as a parting present, called Gentleman's Britain. The pictures are nice, and the comments by the artist equally well observed, but on the whole, as one would expect from watercolour artists, the work is rather inoffensive.

Imagine my surprise then to find out from this feature in the Guardian's review section that Gentleman is also the artist behind the distinctive and furious blood splattered designs of the 2003 protests against Bliar's war in Iraq, and he is even credited with the idea of turning those two letters around, even though somebody would have done that sooner or later I'm sure.

So I've combined two rather contrasting works that I own in one photo:

Oh, and he's also done lots of posters, stamps, murals in London tube stations, etc. So it's Gentleman's Britain in more than one sense!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

mangroves and rainforests

There is a pair of Earthwatch lectures happening today at London, both concerning tropical forests under threat:

Forests: challenged by a changing climate
(follow this link to book free tickets)

Thursday 20 May 2010
The Royal Geographical Society
1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Chaired by Bernard Mercer,
Chief Executive of Forests Philanthropy Action Network

Dr Mark Huxham, Napier University
Dr Glen Reynolds, Royal Society SE Asia Rainforest Research Programme

6pm - Doors. Cash bar
7pm – Lecture
8.30pm – Cash bar

I have covered Mark Huxham's work on mangroves last summer (see here), and will cover the Borneo work soon, watch this space.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

cotes du rhone villages

I only found out in my late 20s that I really like the red wines of the Cotes du Rhone area (apologies for the bad spelling, does anybody know how to produce an accent circonflexe in HTML???), and have in recent years managed to pin my preferences down more precisely and learned to distinguish the various "Appellation Controlée" labels of the region (AOC). By sheer coincidence, some of my French relatives moved to the area that produces my favourite wines, so if I recognise a place name that I remember from driving through on my way to visit them, that usually means I will like the wine.

Among the many villages that produce Cotes du Rhone, only around 90 are allowed to put Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC on the label. Even more selective is the AOC Cotes du Rhone Villages followed by the name of a village - only 18 villages have the right to append their name, and here in the UK it is mighty difficult to find these wines. I have found such wines from Rasteau, Plan de Dieu and Saint Maurice at Marks and Spencers, and Valréas at the co-op. Still looking for sources for the other 14.

Two of the villages in the area have gained the right to their own AOC, namely Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Gigondas is typically outside of the range I am prepared to pay (as is the Chateauneuf du Pape), but Vacqueyras is usually affordable and very good. Just to make sure people don't overlook it, both villages put their name not only on the label but also emblazon it in the actual glass of the bottle:

PS. Wikipedia tells me that 2009 is an exceptionally good vintage, so be prepared for further ravings when that wine arrives ...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ethics of data sharing

I have recently started to work for the Welcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics (WTCHG) which is based at Oxford University's Old Road Campus. The first feature I wrote for their website is now online:

How to control access to sensitive DNA information

It is about the MalariaGEN project, which works with sensitive DNA data from participants in Africa and therefore had to develop new ways of controlling access to that data.

Monday, May 17, 2010

teenage troubles in tuscany

Love Falls
Esther Freud

Some time in the 1990s, I compiled a list of people from my birth year plus/minus one who had achieved something significant already. Don’t laugh, turning 30 can do this to your brain! One of my more famous contemporaries on that list (which also featured on the early editions of my website from summer 1997 onwards) was writer Esther Freud (daughter of painter Lucian Freud, and great-granddaughter of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, since you ask).

By that time, Freud had only published two novels, Hideous Kinky (1991) and Peerless Flats (1994), of which I read the latter – the former was soon after turned into the eponymous film featuring Kate Winslet, at which point Freud’s writing career seemed assured. Of her subsequent novels I greatly admired Gaglow (1997), which uses her German/British intercultural heritage to great effect, but didn’t quite know what to make of The sea house (2003).

With Love Falls she returns to the mind world of the teenage girl, which I suppose is what she does best. Of course I can’t really tell, as I don’t know it from the inside, but it looks convincing to the bystander. It is July 1981 (as readers are supposed to know due to the references to the wedding of Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer, but I had to look it up!), and our protagonist, Lara, 17 (born in spring 1964, she also qualifies for my list!), embarks on a trip to Italy with her father, which means she’s going to spend more time with him than she has in the past 17 years put together. That’s probably already true by the end of the epic train journey that takes them to Siena.

She is thrown into the strange world of wealthy British expats in Tuscany, which in fact feels quite similar to the world described in the Bertolucci movie Stealing Beauty, except that the rather likable heap of artists lounging round the pool in that movie is replaced with a not quite so sympathetic gang who are there to save their inherited wealth from the UK tax authorities.

Lara’s summer in Tuscany includes a wide and interesting range of experiences and emotions, and trying to make sense of them she reflects back to memories of her previous foreign adventure, an overland trip to India with her mother (which reminds us of the exotic flavours of Hideous Kinky although that one was set in Morocco).

Parts of the novel are disturbing enough to ensure it doesn’t end up on the “light summer reading” shelf, but still, the Tuscan sun does add to the reading pleasure, and teenage angst and confusion looks much more photogenic by the Love Falls (as in waterfalls) than in the dreary backyards of Peerless Flats, so I reckon for anybody who doesn’t know Freud’s work yet, Love Falls might be a good place to start.

PS: Other contemporaries on my list included writers Naomi Wolf and Federico Andahazi, actresses Juliette Binoche, Jane Horrocks and Jodie Foster, singer Tori Amos … actually, the list ist still online at my old website, untouched for nearly a decade.

Friday, May 14, 2010

antiques fair

I only discovered last year or so that we have a lovely antiques fair in this town, which happens every Thursday and is always good for some surprising discoveries.

I have on occasions found things there that we actually needed (eg an adjustable stool for the cellist to sit on) but most of the time I just enjoy the sights, and if I find something that looks really nice, I remember that our house is already 300% over carrying capacity and take a picture instead of buying.

So here are two beautiful women whom I might have taken home if I had a suitable space to accommodate them:

And here's something I spotted some time last year and photographed mainly for the irony of the leaf being inadvertently weighed, not that I was actually tempted to buy this one:

PS Turns out the painting is by Angelo Asti, whose work was used for Art Nouveau post cards and porcelain, hence appears via an indirect route in this wall calendar.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stolman / Stohlmann genealogy

Updating the list of "orphans" in my family history, I realised that the name of Marie-Luise Stohlmann / Stolman is actually rare and thus a promising lead. Today the name is concentrated in the area Herford / Lippe / Minden-Lübbecke, which is where Marie-Luise Stohlmann lived.

I understand from this ancestry list that the name line goes back to Johan Christoffer Ernstmeier (1698-1772) who obviously married into the Stolman family and farm at Klosterbauerschaft (near Herford) and took on the name. (He's generation 6 of the list, so there are 5 Ernstmeier generations before him.) Among his children and grandchildren there are several males who would qualifiy as grandfather of father for Marie-Luise Stohlmann, so if anybody could help me to fix this gap, I'd be very grateful.

Further details: Marie Luise Stohlmann married Carl Heinrich Schilling, their daughter Luise Schilling was born 1841 in Neesen and baptised in nearby Lerbeck (both places have merged into the town Porta Westfalica).

Further Stohlmann names from the same area are here though not sure how they relate to the others mentioned above.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Within Temptation, partially unplugged

Within Temptation at the Koningin-Elisabeth Saal, Antwerpen 28.4.2010

I just about caught the tail end of the second run of Within Temptation’s “theatre tour,” so by this time I already had the resulting CD “An acoustic night at the theatre” and was kind of expecting a live rendition of the CD. Although the programme started much like this CD (Towards the end, stand my ground, somewhere), it turned out to be much more. In fact, the acoustic set was interspersed with an equal number of pieces in full-on inferno mode, so we got two full hours of music (and thankfully, no support act!).

While the acoustic equipment included two guitars, piano, cello, and violin, the acoustic set wasn’t completely unplugged either, as the bass was still electric. One could feel immediately that some of the musicians and large parts of the audience weren’t quite comfortable with the low-voltage part of the programme. I saw one of the guitarists was fidgeting so much I had the impression he wanted to jump up and start headbanging. I, for one, think the music of the band would work well in an even more drastically unplugged version, eg in an MTV unplugged programme, with a few more interesting instruments.

Everybody’s attempts to stay in their seats faltered just before the half-time break, when the electric guitars came out, and the hard-core fans streamed to the edge of the stage. The second half alternated between acoustic and electric parts, with fans flooding forwards and being shooed back to their seats accordingly.

One of the bonus features of the event was to observe the violinist and the cellist during the louder parts of the concert. At one time they put on helmets (builders’, not motorcyclists’) as if they feared the building would collapse. At another time, one of the other musicians appeared to be instructing them in the high art of playing an instrument while jumping up and down. I certainly haven’t seen any cellist trying that before.

The background video projection was apparently shown on some sort of semi-transparent gaze, making it hard to distinguish between things that were real but behind the screen and those in the videos. Duet partner Anneke van Giersbergen appeared to walk in at the back of the stage but turned out to be a projection, while the cellist, violinist, and second drummer working behind the gaze initially looked a bit two-dimensional but turned out to be real.

For anybody who missed this experience, I recommend the live package “Black Symphony,” a recording of a one-off concert with the Metropol Orchestra and a large choir – the best and most generous live CD/DVD pack I own. I’m still hitting myself because I missed that concert when it happened.

PS didn’t get very good pictures from row 8, but here’s the stage before the concert (no idea where they hid the amps and everything, the big sound just came out of nowhere):

And here’s singer Sharon den Adel:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

peak phosphorus

By now, most people have heard that fossil fuels are a limited resource, but with other resources we are still behaving as if we had a few more planets up our sleeves. One of the most limiting resources is phosphorus, which currently comes from mining in only a small number of countries. Experts predict that peak production may come as soon as 2034, or even sooner if oil peaks before that date.

Therefore, recycling schemes aiming to recover phosphorus from sewage residue should be treated as a high priority. I have looked at the situation and the recycling options in a news feature which appears in today's issue of Current Biology (complete with a nice reproduction of "The Alchymist" by Joseph Wright of Derby, showing Brandt's discovery of P):

Fears over phosphorus supplies
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 9, R386-R387, 11 May 2010

summary and restricted access to pdf file

Monday, May 10, 2010

celebrating Dorothy Hodgkin

This week marks the centenary of crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1964. Today, Monday, there will be an event at the Oxford University Museum, which I understand involves a bust being unveiled.

On Wednesday (the actual birthday), there will be celebrations at the Royal Society in London (DH being among the first women to be elected to the ranks of the RS fellows), and on Thu, a one-woman play written by Hodgkin's biographer Georgina Ferry will be shown at Lady Margaret Hall.

Oh, and it looks like I missed the annual Dorothy Hodgkin lecture this year, it was held by Elspeth Garman in March.

PS (Tuesday) turned out that the play was also shown at yesterday's event, and it was quite wonderful.

The bust was unveiled by Dorothy's little sister, shown here just after the veil came off:

Apparently it's another "first female" for Dorothy Hodgkin, as all the other scientists represented by statues or busts around the museum are male. The style doesn't fit in with the male colleagues, I'm afraid, wo have either full statues or at least head and shoulders, and who are mostly in light coloured stone. So this severed dark head sticks out a bit, but maybe that was the idea.

PPS (Wed) just found out that one can hear a complete lecture by Dorothy Hodgkin (on the insulin structure, held at the 1970 Nobel Laureates Meeting at Lindau) here.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

why the Neanderthal genome matters

Amidst all the ado about the UK general election, few people around here will have noticed that a draft genome of our Neanderthal (or Neandertal, as they spell it in the US and in Germany) relatives was published in Science magazine on Friday, 7.5. What press coverage there was focussed on the finding that all modern non-Africans analysed in comparison have a very small number of “typical Neanderthal” genetic traits, suggesting that the small group of early humans that emigrated from Africa and then went on to populate the rest of the world must have interbred with an even smaller number of Neanderthals.

Personally, I find that specific result neither surprising nor terribly important. What I find much more exciting about this project is, firstly, the phenomenal difficulty that had to be overcome (which is why the project is discussed in the “crazy” section of my recent book, The birds, the bees, and the platypuses), and secondly, the usefulness of Neanderthals as an external reference point for genetic and biomedical studies of our own species.

To the first point, as I have both worked with DNA and dug for Neanderthal remains, I was awestruck a few years ago, when Svante Pääbo and colleagues set out to sequence a complete genome, based on a 50-microgram DNA sample from a single rotten bone (if memory serves, 50 micrograms of DNA may well be invisible to the naked eye). Apparently, they have a little more material now (seeing they report a composite genome derived from three individuals), but still. If you consider that only 10 years ago the draft sequence of Homo sapiens, a species of which we have more than 6 billion specimens walking around, required a monumental effort and astronomical cost to sequence even in a crude draft version, the success of the Neanderthal sequencing project just a decade later is just mindboggling. Especially because the risk of contamination with modern human DNA must be severely limiting the sequencing effort. Every bone fragment that any Homo sapiens has touched with their bare hands is probably a lost cause already.

Regarding the second point, we are only beginning to get an impression of the diversity of individual human genomes, but as we are accumulating more and more personal genomes and begin to draw medical conclusions from them, it is important to have an “ancient” reference for comparison, to be able to deduce which of the genetic variants is the original one and which is the mutation. To some extent, the chimpanzee genome can serve as a stop-gap in this role, but Neanderthal being so much closer to us, it is a much more useful reference point. The new research puts the parting of ways at 270,000 to 440,000 years, while chimps and humans parted company some five million years ago.

Finally, in the analysis of the few genetic variants that we non-Africans seem to have inherited from Neanderthals, there are already some interesting clues for medical research. Most intriguingly, one of the genes has been linked to autism. A few years ago, there was a short story published in Nature, exploring the possibility that we have our “nerdy” genes (an overdose of which may cause autism) from Neanderthals, which implies that Neanderthal society failed because of a lack of social instincts. This story could now turn out to be amazingly prescient.


R. E. Green et al., Science 2010, 328, 710.
H.A.Burbano et al., Science 2010, 328, 723.

Friday, May 07, 2010

dancing about architecture

Whoever said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" clearly didn't take the work of Santiago Calatrava into account. I hear the New York City Ballet is currently running a season of new productions developed in collaboration with the architect. See the fascinating video Calatrava at New York City Ballet on YouTube (can't embed it for some reason).

Which reminds me, I do need to adjust my travel plans to be able to see a few more of his buildings in situ. Valencia, Barcelona, Lyon, Zurich, Venice, Malmo, that would make a nice tour around Europe.

(somebody didn't want me to hotlink to their photo, so I had to recycle one of my own!)

PS: conflict of interest declaration: I often write about music, but rarely dance about architecture, so I always felt the statement cited above couldn't be right ...

Thursday, May 06, 2010

latest spin on interdisciplinary research

One of the things that Oxford does well is interdisciplinary research - apparently to do with all that time that dons spend in their colleges hanging out with colleagues randomly assorted from other disciplines.

One of the latest interdisciplinary research centres here is CAESR (Centre for Advanced Electron Spin Resonance spectroscpy), which covers an amazing breadth of projects from quantum computing through to biology. I have reported on the work of CAESR a couple of times, but this time round, writing a feature for Chemistry World, I was very lucky in that ESR pioneer Jack Freed from Cornell University came to visit the centre just at the right time, so I also got to interview him and hear his seminars, in addition to the interesting things I found out from the local researchers.

The resulting feature, Spinning around, appears in the May issue of Chemistry World, pp 50-53.

restricted access to full text

PS for my previous reports on ESR click here and here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

therapy with nena

Nena at the Garage, Highbury, London, 3.5.2010.

I think I’ve figured it out now – this event was really a therapy session to help us cope with the double embarrassment of being German and on the wrong side of 40. Tellingly, Nena included a song about each of these issues in her recent album, but played neither of them at this gig. “Made in Germany” wasn’t on the setlist, while “In meinem Leben” was, but was dropped as it didn’t fit the mood.

The audience consisted mainly of Germans (with the odd British partner in tow), and most must have been born in the 60s. Which would have been obvious to anybody looking at the queue outside the venue for two minutes, but apparently nobody told the musicians. After the first song (SchönSchönSchön from the new album), Nena addressed the audience in English, and set out to explain who she was (I’m that chick from the 80s), raising nothing but an amused chuckle from those of us who have known her for 28 years now.

Then the band went on to play her (or, strictly speaking her original band’s) debut track, Nur geträumt, dating from May 1982, and were practically blown off the stage by the audience response. They very clearly hadn’t expected that from a gig in a country where Nena is only remembered as a one-hit-wonder, if at all. “Woher kennt ihr das denn?” asked a very dazed and confused Nena.

The treatment of Nur geträumt, along with 99 Luftballons later in the show, shed some light on the age-related part of the therapy. Back in 2002, in a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of that debut, she tried to destroy and reconstruct the old songs, which in my view didn’t work all that well. This time round, she played them pretty much faithful to the original versions, only slightly de-80-fied, and re-energised. So, as one tends to do around this time in life, she seems to have made peace with her more youthful self. Embarrassment No. 1 overcome.

Another interesting aspect of the age issue being resolved is that two of her children appeared on stage that night. Daughter Larissa, 19, appeared unannounced as singer of the support band “Adam & Eva,” but it took only a couple of lines to put 2 and 2 (i.e. her voice and her nose) together and figure out who she was. Larissa’s twin brother Sakias appeared as vocalist with Nena, this time with proper acknowledgement (and not unexpected, as he appears on the album as well).

Work on the second trauma, being “Made in Germany” is condensed in the title track of the album. In London she only picked up the sentiment in one or two announcements, referring to a song as very typically German, and pointing out that it wasn’t her fault. But the audience being either tourists or expats, we were of course acutely aware of this. We even managed to queue from the wrong side of the entrance – that wouldn’t have happened to a native British crowd.

The set ended with the 90s piece Liebe ist – by that time, the artists had managed to get their heads around the fact that this was essentially a home game 1000 km away from home. Still, it must have been a very different experience from the concerts in Germany, where they play large arenas with a more mixed crowd. Here, there were maybe 400 people, and there had been practically no advertising, so only people with an active interest would have known about the concert in the first place.

I could have easily missed it, in fact. What happened was that during my travel in Germany in April, I came across the video of In meinem Leben in a hotel room. This was rather curious experience as well, as I found myself covered in goosebumps several seconds before my conscious brain caught up and figured out what I was listening to. Because of the video, I bought the Made in Germany album, and as I liked that as well, I checked the website on my return, and found the info about the London concert.

Anyhow, a bunch of very happy musicians dropping with sweat played 99 Luftballons (original German version, the English version is rubbish in comparison), and another 80s classic, Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann. The last encore should have been In meinem Leben, but as they didn’t want to dampen the exuberant mood of the evening, we got a second playing of Nur geträumt instead.

Which was a bit unfortunate, as I had hoped to take a few illegal photos during the quieter piece (staff were quite fiercely stopping people from taking pix, but I had a plan). But it never happened, so all I have is a picture of the tour bus, and of the empty stage before the show:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

liege guillemins in passing

Last stop of my April travels -- admiring Liege Guillemins station by Santiago Calatrava (see previous raving here) from within the train, on our way back to Brussels. It's also interesting to notice how the structure stimulates conversation among passengers who didn't know about it, look out of the window, and notice there's something rather special going on outside.

So here's the view from the windows of an ICE train (running 100 mins late, and being overcrowded due to the ash crisis):

Monday, May 03, 2010

Shakira's world tour announced ... at last

breaking news: Shakira 2010 global tour announced! Dates in NYC, Houston and LA already confirmed

(Announcement in Spanish)

First gig will be September 21st in New York, apparently. Four years and a few months after the start of the Oral Fixation tour - these Latinas do like to keep us waiting! but hey, with luck we might get to see her in Europe before the end of the year. Watch this space.

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