Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 (Part II)

2009 began, for Rachel and I, in a five star mansion house in the Brecon Beacons, snow all around, the world's most exciting shower in the bathroom. It was a peaceful, relaxing start to the year, but it was really a calm sandwiched between a large amount of discontent. I was in a job I wasn't enjoying and, as a result, I wasn't enjoying living in London. This upset me greatly, as moving to London was supposed to be a big adventure, a big step up in life. It backfired and I felt stuck. Every weekend I was leaving the city because I wasn't happy there. But not spending time in the area I had adopted also upset me, as it meant I wasn't meeting and befriending people or making the most of local facilities. This obviously made things worse. It wasn't long before I was commuting on a Monday morning from Birmingham to Kings Cross. It was surprisingly easy and far preferable.

I didn't write much early this year, certainly little that was personal. Anything I did tried to be positive, but mostly I didn't write about me because I didn't feel I had anything of any interest to say. Instead, I wrote about other topics and bigger things - the Simon Singh libel case, for example. But in doing so, and because I was largely unhappy, these causes came across more as rants. I was told this, and also realised it myself, and tried to back off. Besides, other people were doing a better job than I was. These causes haven't gone away, and I still appreciate their importance, but now that I feel happier I can hopefully approach them differently. I set up a second blog to provide a platform for this. The Sense About Science campaign that began as a result of Singh's (and others') case has since expanded, combining with English PEN and Index on Censorship to form the National Petition for Libel Reform ("Free Speech Is Not For Sale"). I support it, but I shan't rant or push you to sign. If you are interested I simply refer you to, which explains what is going on, and why it is felt that action is needed.

Meanwhile, I distanced myself from the Skeptic community that introduced me to the campaign. The idea is that Skeptics think rationally, so they are wary of woo therapies and claims, and this is an important skill. But the Skeptic crowd, intentionally or not, seems, in my view, to have latched on to the 'science=atheism' fallacy, and displays more than a little arrogance about certain causes, often before looking at any evidence. The appropriateness of scepticism is also context-specific, as we have seen with Climategate. I felt uneasy with the impression given that Skeptics ought to be atheists. I am not one, and I'd rather disassociate myself from a crowd that assumes this of me. The problems with Skeptics are being discussed at several interesting websites and blogs (see here, here and here), and I direct you to those. I believe that it is important to adopt a rational viewpoint, but that it is equally acceptable to have a faith. There are different philosophies in this world, and it is wrong to use one exclusively and dismiss the others, especially if we don't understand them. Science and religion, for example, are not mutually exclusive, but the philosophy of one cannot be used to explain the other.

While all this was happening I was making big decisions about the future. It prompted some self-evaluation and made me post some surprisingly candid posts (for example, Encore une fois). The big decisions all happened at once. I had to leave London and my job. I had to go to somewhere where I was more comfortable. At the same time, I realised more than anything that I wanted to marry Rachel, my rock in those hard times. So I handed in my notice, bought a plane ticket to Australia, went on holiday for 7 weeks and, while there, got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I've not told this story or any anecdotes around it because I'm saving it for the wedding speech, but suffice to say, she said yes.

Things since then have been a whole other realm of contentedness. We both live in Birmingham, although not together. I've started a PhD, which is obviously not an easy thing to do, but the atmosphere, topic, team and work style suits me far better than before. My boss complimented me the other day, even though I haven't got an experiment to work yet. In fact, much has gone wrong - in the first week alone I cut myself, burnt myself, grated myelf and came into unnervingly close proximity with a notorious carcinogen. But that positivity from my boss was not something I had been used to in the past year and a half, and it meant a tremendous deal.

My happiness is, I think, starting to show here, in the style in which I have been writing. So I'm sure that 2010 will see this site flourish with stupid anecdotes and whimsy, in the way that it was always intended.

I wish you a happy New Year and hope that whatever problems you are having will be resolved in the immediate future.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

2009 (Part I)

AS I do every year*, I present to you a round up of the inner workings of this blog and, because things round here are changing, that other blog I started too. The statistics of the blog provide endless amusement and fascination. Some people really do look at seriously strange stuff online.

This year things really took off, with certain posts reaching a far wider audience than I have previously encountered. At the very end of 2008, visits to a post I called Weird Science spiked so dramatically I thought something had gone wrong - visits increased overnight by 9,200%. It wasn't even a proper post. Hits subsequently crashed, but it was a sign of things to come and, curiously, Weird Science remains the most viewed piece of writing I have ever produced.

In January 2009, things began well with Baby is Born. Has Special Powers, a piece that was, at that point, an uncharacteristic style of article for me to write. It was a response to a newspaper article claiming that the world's first "cancer-free baby" had been born. One of the themes of the article was recently repeated in How to live to 100, a piece I wrote over at t'other blog.

Things spiked again in February courtesy of Gail Trimble, the super-brainy captain of the winning team (subsequently revoked) of University Challenge.

Things largely went quiet again until May, when I became involved in the Simon Singh libel campaign, attending this rally in support of him. A trio of posts - In the name of nerdiness, Nerds united - the Blogosophere erupts to the tale of Simon Singh and Nerds rejoice! - proved popular, although their figures pale in comparison to things written elsewhere - and rightly so. I will explain why in my second review of 2009.

Later in the year I set up a second blog, LH&S, to accommodate less personal, more political, scientific or essay-like writing, to keep this blog about me. The catalyst for this change was the longest piece I have ever written, Is Kazakhstan the "Seat of Satan"? No. Grow Up. Despite this, that essay on Kazakhstan was the second most popular entry of the year until very recently (it brought traffic from the UK Skeptics forum and, when my review of U2 in Sheffield overtook it. The new blog meant I was free to be more personal here, and I thoroughly enjoyed presenting The Masquerade Ball, Nightmares and Graduation to you.

I also was pleasantly surprised when, via Twitter, Rob Dougan endorsed my review of his album (in A Turquoise Chord) and subsequently promoted my travel entry Here I Go Again.

Over at t'other blog, things are all very much anew, but my dad commended me on For the benefit of humanity, which meant a lot.

This year I had visitors from the UK, the USA, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, India, Spain, France, Norway, Portugal, Finland, Italy, South Africa, Denmark, Mexico, Poland, South Korea, Austria, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Indonesia, Sweden, Malaysia, the UAE, Romania, Russia, Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Bahrain, Venezuela, Greece, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland, Thailand, Egypt, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia, Uganda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guam (brilliant!), Ukraine, Tunisia, Iran, Vietnam, the Isle of Man, Ghana, Oman, Fiji, Peru, Chile, Pakistan, Lebanon, Cote d'Ivoire, the Philippines, Jersey, New Caledonia, Croatia and, for the first time, the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It's the modern equivalent of stamp collecting, and makes for a very exciting map.

I apologize for all of the threads I promised to write about and never did. Maybe next year, maybe not.

It thus remains for me to let you in on the psyche of the average Internet user. The following selection genuinely brought Internet users here. Some of them are slightly concerning.

Gail Trimble (hugely popular, usually with the word photos, sexy or cute)
hooved crocodiles
Permutations involving Kazakhstan, Satan, Astana, Bayterek, Occult, Symbolism, Illuminati, Masonic (including Astana alien invasion)
The ever popular Johnstone River Crocodile Farm (the post to which this appplies is now 2 years old, and still ignites controversy)
GFP Bunny
Simon Singh (and libel, chiropractic etc.)
Melbourne vs Sydney
Just like last year... sexy Sue Barker
U2 secret gig
English Cheesecake Company + "trustworthy"
New Hits '96
Babies born with special powers
The Swan on cowbells
British Guardian newspaper Scythians were Turkic
Can mutations be done causing special powers?
Cloudland Nature Refuge Australia
"Darth Vader Christmas Stephen Fry"
Dr Alice Robert's boyfriend pictures (?)
Devil's footprints, Wendover, Bucks
Find diagram to show cva patients how to shave
Genghis Khan song atomic bomb
"Gunge, gunged or gunging"
History of the poppadom
Is there anyone in the world with special powers?
In the jungle, the mighty jungle: Simon
Lyric of the song Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
Murder of Miranda Downs on Buckhams Beach, Cairns, Australia (?)
Bruce Parry jumping over cattle
Rob Dougan wine (here's Rob's vineyard: La Pèira)
Simon Says... show me two fingers
Simon Says... nudist
Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for turkic people of Central Asia
Step by step Hangi with diagrams
U2 tour: why didn't they play Pride (in the Name of Love)?
What do you say at a climate change rally?

and, finally, the most surreal:
"What are the milestones of Australia's evolution into what is now its modern day pharmacy practice?"

See you in 2010

*Except 2007 - I blame the jetlag

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #7

Carol services and Christmas events. Unfortunately, I haven't managed to go to a carol service this year, but I have fond memories of services in the past. Last year's service at Christ Church Cockfosters had gospel, rock, traditional and operatic styles all perfectly arranged (music director David is underrated for the work he puts into the worship at the church) and Rachel and I hold a certain university carol service in the Great Hall with particular fondness, for we would consider something that happened there a pivotal moment in our relationship.

Instead, this year, I have seen two nativities. One, led by a youth group of Pavilion in Bournville, was the nativity story as interpreted by Hollywood. In it, after a message from an Angel of Charlie, Mary falls pregnant. She and Joesph go to Bethl... Beverley Hills from their home in Naza... Nashville, Tennessee, to give birth. Unfortunately, there is no room in the inn, because a portal to a parallel dimension has opened and cybermen have taken all of the rooms. Not to worry, they are offered the strange, small blue box that recently materialized outside to stay in.

"But it's so small!"
"It's bigger on the inside."

When Jesus was born, the shepherds, wise men and additional extra teenagers held him aloft to the opening music of the Lion King. Technical hitches meant this had to be chanted in person.

It was all very silly but enjoyable.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #6

My mum's roast potatoes. I'd forgotten how perfect they are.

Things we like about Christmas #5

Unexpected discoveries. In the car back to Devon today with Ben and Jenny (thanks for the lift guys) we listened to Now That's What I Call Xmas. Christmas music often drives me crazy, but I've been oddly receptive to it this year. Thankfully so, for the compilation presented us with the hilarious and hitherto unheard of Never do the Tango with an Eskimo, which reached number 6 in 1955.

Kerrang! radio has also been providing much amusement with its own attempt at positive, uplifting Christmas songs, including:

Oh Christmas tree
Oh Christmas tree
I can't afford you Christmas tree

Oh Christmas tree
Oh Christmas tree

I'm in negative equity

and one that begins:

Good King Wenceslas went out
Didn't take a condom

You can guess where that one leads...

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #4

Hat hair, from wearing a paper hat for too long.

Things we like about Christmas #3

Rachel likes everybody sitting around the kitchen table chopping vegetables and wrapping sausages in bacon. Every year her granny tells her how to make the bacon go further. One year, her other granny scored every single brussel sprout on the bottom with a cross: enough for 13 people.

Things we like about Christmas #2

Forgetting to open an advent calendar for a week, and then eating a whole week's worth of chocolate in one go.

Things we like about Christmas #1

Animal prints in the snow. I like paw prints, pitter-pattering along the fluffy white pavements: Rachel likes the footprints of little birdies.

Saturday, 19 December 2009


LAST Friday was Rachel's graduation, deferred from the summer when we were in Australia. It was a wonderful day.

The night before had been my lab's Christmas party, a truly festive game of bowling and on for a curry. It was a late night and so, try as I might, I looked a little dishevelled early the next morning. But it was rather fun, turning up at work in a suit, transferring vials of flies and sorting progeny through a microscope. I drew many strange looks.

Then I was off, via the photography studio and robing room, to the Aston Webb building and the Great Hall. The last time I was here was my very own graduation two years ago, an occasion I look back on with mixed memories - I was flustered because I was in the spotlight, needing to be here at this moment, here at another, but then I was completely unsure how to react when, on leaving the hall after the ceremony, we walked through the middle of the hall to a standing and rapturous ovation. It was a uniquely uplifting sensation. I was in equal measure laughing and, secretly, crying a little bit.

Graduands are only allowed two tickets each for the ceremony, so Rachel's parents sat in the Great Hall, whereas myself and Granny and John were to go to a screening room where the ceremony is broadcast live on to two television screens. As an overflow room it is not very big, so I went in early and reserved three seats, asking the two people flanking the aisle to protect them.

Back in the foyer Granny and John arrived and many photos were taken, particularly of Rachel in her robes and mortarboard next to a Christmas tree. It took a while for us all to be ready to go in and so, to my dismay, as we arrived the three seats I had reserved had become two. The people reserving them had left and so we were quite lucky we still had two. The rest of the room was packed so I stood at the back in the doorway. This was not a good place to stand because people would frequently approach, see that people were standing at the back, in the doorway and out into the corridor and, taking this as a sign that the room was full, proceed in anyway, just to see for themselves. Every time somebody did this we all had to shuffle around and breathe in to give them room, holding our breath for the few seconds it would take for them to come back out again, having confirmed their suspicions. Eventually room was made and I could move from the doorway into the room itself, propped against the back wall.

The ceremony began with a fanfare. It was quite the spectacle: everybody in their finery and robes, everybody geared up for occasion. But I was distracted from all of this by the third trombone player, the one on the right, because he had a magnificent beard.

The occasion was an opportunity for the Vice Chancellor/Pro-Vice Chancellor (I forget which) to promote what is going on at Birmingham - and there really is a lot. I have often got the impression that the University of Birmingham is forgotten (people automatically think of Aston), but this is a hub of pioneering research and many tremendously expensive developments. It makes graduating from here quite special. I was very impressed with Birmingham's rank within the UK and on a world scale, although I have now forgotten both*.

Standing in the overflow room was funny. Whenever somebody went up to receive their degree, often their family and friends, if present, would cheer and clap. In the Great Hall this would have been perfectly normal, but here we were disconnected from the hall - the graduand couldn't hear them. It lifted the spirit in the room, and those present were united in respect for those graduating. These people deserved their applause, even though they couldn't hear it.

In front of me there were a few young children, clearly bored and unaware of what they were supposed to be watching. One of them had easy-wipe cards with puzzles on, such as mazes and spot the difference. He would scribble all over them with magic markers, rub it out and then start again. He began playing a version of noughts and crosses with his mother. This involved writing your initial in a square, taking it in turns and trying to get four in a row. The boy began:


Now it was mum's turn:


I can only assume that the N stood for the lady's real name. But the young lad was not happy with this, for he rubbed it all out and told his mum: "but that's not your name... you're 'm' for mummy!"

Soon it was time for Rachel to go up to receive her degree, the only First in the crop of Biosciences graduates. Rather than stressed, concerned about where to be and when, or flustered because of the number of photographs required or, as I was, concerned about falling up the steps on the way, Rachel was the happiest I have seen her in a while. She was beaming, radiant and beautiful and I am incredibly proud of her.

*#66 of 600 (link)

Sunday, 8 November 2009


I'VE been dreaming a lot recently, some might say having nightmares: about pipetting, aliquoting and giant, man-eating flies. My mind will repeat the motions of pipetting, sometimes at a selection of probe concentrations, again and again until the point of insanity, when I realise I'm now awake and actually panicking about whether or not I have set up my experiments correctly.

I think the PhD is going to my head.

When considering whether to accept this position, my potential supervisor advised me to make a cake for my girlfriend. Many experimental protocols are much like following a recipe she said, with particular ingredients, particular methods and steps. But, like a cake, to make an experiment work you need to understand the recipe, what is most important to include or do compared with other steps or ingredients, so that you can tinker and get to the result you want: the perfect cake. You have to be prepared for many cake failures but you must continue - you must continue - until it rises precisely, the icing is uniform and the texture and flavour are, in every way, supreme. No cake: no PhD. But people tried to put me off, preparing me for failure, and thus the impression I got was that things are actually much more complicated than this.


A PhD is much like baking a cake for your girlfriend. You must follow the recipe exactly but be prepared for failure, at which point you must then play with the ingredients, timings, steps and sizes of baking trays until you achieve success. And then, just as you reach this result (or at least think you have), your girlfriend - now fiancée - is diagnosed with coeliac disease and so cannot eat the cake that you've made. You have to learn a whole new set of rules about ingredients, source more specialist types of flours, raising agents and a magical thing called xanthan gum, and start the whole procedure again.

I still haven't made Rachel a cake - I've only managed chocolate brownie, which was, in my defence, pretty darned tasty. Consequently, I suppose, I still haven't mastered the art of the PhD. Maybe this explains the dreams about fixatives, fly larvae and aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after aliquot after ... aliquot after aliquot of staining solution and hybridisation buffer. After last year I have managed to detach myself from work as I return home for an evening or weekend, but apparently not in my subconscious.

I'm not sure, however, that this explains the dreams about my pet cat gnawing through my laptop power lead or being trapped in a zoo enclosure by a velociraptor.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Masquerade Ball

IT is one of the greatest mysteries of life. How do you tie a bow tie?

On Saturday, Rachel and I attended a masquerade ball. I spent the entire day, in between paid work, preparing myself: I imagined myself, arms linked with my fiancée, amongst important people in their most magnificent finery; jaw-dropping ball gowns, dapper gentlemen and the mysterious air of hidden identity.

All day I became paranoid about my appearance. I’m well aware that I am a bit of a scruff at times. All afternoon I would disappear into the bathroom to shave off facial hair that had so far evaded my attention that day; and all afternoon I studied guides on how to tie a bow tie.

At first I found a step-by-step diagram, designed such that it could be printed, stuck on a mirror and followed precisely. But as helpful as it was, the final stages of perfecting the deed were difficult to fathom, and even harder to imagine. This called for desperate measures. I turned to YouTube.

The first video I found was utterly charming. Everybody was friendly, their ambition to teach the viewer the key to this mystery clearly defined. And it was lovely... up until the difficult bit, when the camera panned out, such that you could no longer see what the instructor was doing. I screamed in anguish, then found another video, memorized it and hoped for the best.

Rachel’s dad presented me with a range of bow tie options, including a blue velvet clip-on with accompanying cummerbund, but realistically I had the choice of a big black one or a small black one. In the interests of modesty I chose the small one, but this proved to be my undoing: it was so small and fiddly that I had no margin for error, nor any margin to see or feel what I was doing. For half an hour I battled on, fiddling and straightening and then, suddenly, realising success, I was a real man.

Then I looked properly in the mirror. My hair, uncut since before the summer, was a mess. It was long, windswept and unaccustomed to combing. Desperate measures were called for. With nobody looking, I took a pair of scissors to my hair and tried to sort it out myself. I’ve spent years watching hairdressers; I knew the score. You filter the hair between two fingers, leaving the hair that is to be discarded sticking out, and then slice along the finger line. Easy. A chunk off here, some tidying there. The results came instantly. And, if I was honest with myself, I was rather pleased with what I had achieved: a presentable head of luxurious hair.

Then Rachel came in.

“What have you done?” she cried out.

No amount of protesting on my part could convince her of my achievement. She insisted on taking the scissors herself and further cutting my hair. And, I’ll admit, the results were promising. She, too, was rather proud of herself.

Then the penny dropped. Having tidied only the front and not dared to touch the back, I had given myself a mullet.

Then I looked at my shirt: it was covered in cut hair.

I had no mask.

Then we looked at the invitation, on which no dress code was specified. Were all of my efforts in vain?

We arrived at the ball, held in support of a UCCF mission to Bulgaria. It was a curious event. Held in a church hall, there was a disco, playing a mixture of chart music and party favourites from throughout the decades, and a Wii competition. There was a tombola. Everything was fifty pence.

The majority of the visitors were students. All the girls (and there were mostly girls) had made an effort, all very stylish, but most of the boys were just wearing shirts: few had tuxedos, only one other had a bow tie. Everybody knew each other, and it was almost like a get-together of friends with party games thrown in. We stood to one side, slightly bemused and unsure of how to talk to anybody but each other or Rosie or Helen, who we had come with. It was a strange night, not at all what we were prepared for, but for a good cause and everybody had fun.

The following morning, having tossed and turned through the nocturnal restlessness that comes with drinking red wine, my hair had been rather unkindly flattened. I looked in the mirror. The mullet was back.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Is Kazakhstan the "Seat of Satan"? No. Grow Up.

AT 2,724,900 square kilometres, Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world. Just digest that for a moment: the ninth biggest. Given such enormity, I challenge you to give more than two facts about the place. You might know that it has oil and gas, and that it is one of the 'stans and therefore somewhere in the middle of Asia. But can you name its capital? Its president?

Years ago I discovered that Kazakhstan was the ninth biggest country in the world and considered the above. For such an enormous place, where was it in world events? Why does the West never hear about it? Something must happen there, surely? And so began a fascination about it. I will admit that I am not very well read on the country, and have never visited it, but I wish to share a little of what I know, because in an unexpected way, the country is under attack.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Here I Go Again...

...but not on my own.

RIGHT, I'm off on another adventure, albeit shorter and more rigorously budgeted than the last one. Rachel and I are heading to New South Wales and Western Australia for the next little while. I plan to blog from faraway fields and tell tales of experiences and local history, as you have come to expect from my gibberings.

While I fly across the globe and assemble my thoughts, I have dredged up below an assortment of blogs, comments and pictures from my previous expedition. Please do take a look if you've never seen this content before, as I cannot guarantee the quality of what is to follow!

Opera By Night

Simon Says...: Bumpy on the Bay of Bengal
Flying to Singapore; expectations; Today's Best Mix
Simon Says...: A Lizard Watched Me In The Shower!
The remarkable story of Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles; exploring Singapore; Fire Toast
Simon Says...: Welcome to Paradise
Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa
Simon Says...: The War The World Forgot
Changi Prison and Museum; reflections on war
Simon Says...: A Day In International Territory
How not to spend ten hours in Changi airport
Simon Says...: I'm a Natural Blue
To the Great Barrier Reef; big fish, little fish and 'Rotund' fish, apparently
Simon Says...: Never Smile At A Crocodile (ya flamin' galah!)
Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA); Claude the Cassowary
Simon Says...: Imposter! / Interlude
Rachel fills in for me as I have lots of fun in the rainforest; notes on the Stinging Tree (the Gympie Gympie)
Simon Says...: In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle
Cloudland Nature Refuge with CVA; teaching Koreans words like 'onomatopoeia'
Simon Says...: Steve
A man called Steve: friend of the Aborigines, discoverer of dinosaurs and guru of megafauna; safety advice for Englishmen
Simon Says...: Senoritas y Margaritas
Cape Tribulation; the discovery of Australia; Captain Cook
Simon Says...: In Memory of Kirsty
Week 2 at CVA: tree planting at Mission Beach; bush bashing with machetes; the man who liked shrimp
Simon Says...: Johnstone River Crocodile Farm
OzExperience begins; Davo the galah; a severe rant about a crocodile farm
Simon Says...: A Pinker Shade of Tanned
All at sea; sailing around the Whitsunday Islands; swimming with turtles
Simon Says...: A Fringe Of Leaves
Aborigines and Europeans; Eliza Fraser and her island
Simon Says...: What A Beauty!
Visiting Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin's zoo); wombats on leads and marvellous monotremes
Simon Says...: It's A Small World (After All)
Arriving in Sydney; run-ins with the police; coincidental meetings with school friends; a statue of a pig; chocolate by the bald man; Julia
Simon Says...: Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree
The Blue Mountains; Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth; the story of the Three Sisters; a terrifying little train
Simon Says...: Australian Capital Territory
Arriving in Batmania (or, as we know it now, Melbourne) via the nation's capital, Canberra
Simon Says...: The Great Divide
Wandering around Melbourne; Melbourne vs. Sydney
Simon Says...: Go! Go! Go!
The Australian Grand Prix (minus racing cars, grandstands, television crews and people)
Simon Says...: Another Multicoloured Blog
Rachel fills in for me while I have a Very Nice Time
Simon Says...: Not With A Bang But A Whimper
The plight of the Tasmanian Devil
Simon Says...: Sunrise to Sunset
Reflections on the beautiful continent of Australia; onwards to New Zealand
Simon Says...: In Treebeard's Domain
Six days in New Zealand, and already I'm exhausted
Simon Says...: And In The Darkness...
Horse riding, like the riders of Rohan; Queenstown/Lothlórien
Simon Says...: Paikea
Kaikoura to Rotorua; Whale Rider
Simon Says...: Waewae takahia kia kino*
A Maori Marae and hangi feast
Simon Says...: Where Poets Speak Their Hearts
Climbing One Tree Hill with Catherine Holley; on to Fiji
Simon Says...: If You Pick A Raw Paw
The Hurricane
Simon Says...: Fifty Nifty United States
On landing three hours after taking off (eighteen hours ago); Washington DC
Simon Says...: A Is For Parrot, Which We Can Plainly See
New York in two days
Simon Says...: Perfect to Stay
The Boston Tea Party, live from Boston; coming home

GeoffSo you think you know what life is all about?I shall call him Clive
A Colony of BatfishThe shot factoryCapitol Christmas
All at seaPrettyView From The Otherside

Scorched Blue

A few follow-up posts and further stories I wanted to tell at the time:

Simon Says...: A is for Parrot (Again)
John Lennon's poem
Simon Says...: Dear Anonymous
In defence of my views on the Johnstone River Crocodile Farm
Simon Says...: Re: Not With A Bang But A Whimper
Hope for the Tasmanian Devil
Simon Says...: Sai yau levu na lotu keina lomavinaka...
A lost story from Fiji: island life on Waya Lailai; my friend Sau; "Jesus is strong in Fiji"

All images taken by me, published here.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Bricks and mortar

AND then the sun came out, if only for a while, scorching the land and catching the majority of folk off guard. The Underground had to play recorded warning messages about carrying water and having a sit down if feeling unwell; sun lotion went flying off pharmacy shelves; and high street shops emptied as people flocked to the parks.

A couple of weekends ago I was up in Birmingham for Rachel’s belated birthday celebrations, an extended weekend of good food, lots of time in the park and the excellent new Star Trek film. On the Saturday, as various friends went back to Selly Oak on the train, Rachel’s sister, her boyfriend Gary and I opted instead to walk back along the canal. It was a glorious day, and the canal is a good way to cut through the city but remain away from the bustle of a bank holiday city centre.

The canal follows the train line, past the Botanic Gardens and through leafy Edgbaston, past the university halls of residence and then the university itself before reaching Selly Oak. If you were to stay with the canal it would head past Selly Oak hospital, which resembles Shawshank prison, and then directly to the Cadbury factory in Bournville. Where it goes beyond that I can only wonder.

We started our walk at Gas Street Basin, formerly a junction between the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal. Nowadays the barrier between the two no longer exists and the intermediary toll gates have also been removed. Gary knows the basin well, having finished here after one of his many walks in the past. He had to admit, however, that the sight of the basin, the biggest canal basin in Birmingham but still not much to shout about, was somewhat of an anticlimax after hours of counting down the milestones promoting this mythical end of the line. Nonetheless, just seconds from Broad Street and minutes from the city centre, the change in pace down by the water is worth savouring, no matter how small the basin is. From here we were off to the Mailbox, now home to fashionable shops, restaurants and overpriced inner city apartments, aesthetically unpleasing with their numerous, postmodern and pointless appendages and trendy colour contrasts. I find the Mailbox a bewildering place, as it oozes wealth and yet is bordered by derelict car parks and decaying office blocks. The contrast continues elsewhere: Gary has walked the canals out to Solihull, where he tells me the canal path has been repaved and the waterside environment modernized, but it remains in the shadow of dilapidated warehouses.

As we left the ultra-modern we returned to the classic canal landscape, all brick with vegetation creeping through cracks. A weed with a tumorous growth; specimens of the plant that bloke on the telly said is better than dock leaves at soothing nettle stings; and longboat captains dipping their hats in salute to the passer by.

Two days later I was on a train, taking the scenic route back to London. The Moor Street to Marylebone line is a hidden gem of England. It is slower than the Virgin line from Euston to New Street but it passes through some of the best countryside on offer: the Chilterns. But at the Birmingham end it is a whole other landscape entirely, as the track weaves through a maze of disused and abandoned train lines, coated with weeds and opportunistic plant life. Old siding tunnels become independent business, but with the rusting train tracks still in place. Old embankments and brick elevations remain, creating isolated pockets of the city beneath, but stop when they reach a major road: nobody has felt the need to dismantle these relics of a bygone age of the train, and yet they now become useless and derelict obstacles to regeneration. It is a captivating world, and one I hope will remain for a long time. Peculiar how we despise decay of that that remains functional, but enjoy the sight of a derelict and abandoned landmark.


The story goes on. As you can tell, my spirits are lifted when the weather shows this world in all its glory. Sunshine on my shoulders, as the song goes, makes me happy.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Comment is free

I HAVE been aware for some time that I never get any comments on the posts that I put up here. But because I have focused so much on what I have been trying to say and on making things look pretty, I never once noticed that this could be because there is no button for you to press to leave a comment.

There should, according to my settings, be a little link at the bottom of every post stating the number of comments and directing you to a commenting page. The peculiar thing is that this DID once exist, because I got a snotty little comment once about my criticisms of the Johnstone River Crocodile Farm, and another snotty comment telling me that the Dutch, not the Portugeuse, first discovered Australia. Criticism is healthy, although positive comments are also appreciated.

After delving into settings I didn't know I had I seem to have rescued the function to add comments, but that little link at the bottom of every post is still missing in action.

So, since comment is free and discussion is marvellous, please do feel free to join in with my adventures as normal service is resumed.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Encore une fois

I AM very aware that this blog is a bit of a mess. It is one of the reasons I post less these days, as I don't know any longer what I should be posting. Should I post personal thoughts, like a diary? What about stories? Should I use it to entertain, or to inform? I could use this to continue to teach sciencey things (there's at least half a dozen unfinished points in those Darwin200 posts) or other factual things I've discovered and want to share, for example, but do they belong in a separate blog, dedicated to informing, and keeping this just for the stories, or personal reflections? It's hard, and I think I need to decide. Or at least find some more stories to tell, and then it wouldn't matter.

I'm also aware that I hide behind all sorts of details and disparate facts and figures to avoid being personal. I give the impression of being well read, simply so I don't have to open up. From a quick browse of this site you can find out many things that I'm interested in, but little about me. Or at least I think that is how I come across. So, just for once, I'm going to try to be candid.

My name is Simon. I live and work in London, working for a science journal. In six weeks, however, I won't be in this job, as I am halfway through my three-month notice period. I've always been careful about what I say here about my job as I am aware that it is very easy to find this site and identify me, and that is not going to change. The truth is, I found the job challenging, and I had to grow up a lot to handle it, but I have enjoyed it. I will genuinely be sad to go, but I have made my decision and I have exciting plans ahead. I won't be leaving completely, however, as I will be taking freelance work over the summer. It's a good job, and I've had the privilege of access to cutting edge scientific information - indeed, the privilege of editing it - for over a year now. But I'm moving on. Rachel and I will be heading to Australia for six weeks (expect travel anecdotes), and then I am moving back to Birmingham to start a Ph.D.

I'm apprehensive, in truth. When I moved to London it was a big change, but I was excited. The grand adventure fell flat. I haven't liked being in London - I continue to love the city, but I can't live there. For various reasons it has made me extremely introverted, which saddens me. I've never been loud or extroverted but I used to be much more open to opportunity and uncertainty. I now struggle at parties or gatherings to interact and get to know people. I could give explanations for this, but you don't need to hear them: this is just how I feel. Also, my house is in a delightful area (right on the edge of London), but there is so much around that I haven't truly appreciated, and now time is running out. Trent Country Park is just up the road, but it was only a month ago that I finally went for a walk in it. I have achieved so much, and yet there is much I wish I had done. This has made me fractious and irritable.

It makes me nervous about moving again. There are many reasons to be very excited. But what if it falls flat? What if I should be staying put, and sorting out the problems associated with London instead? It's a quandry. On top of it all I will be doing a Ph.D. - and I'm very aware how much work that will be. I want to make this move, but I think I'm rejecting the effort it will require. I just wish things would fall into place.

So that is where my head is at.

This week has been bizarre. My replacement has been decided and starts next week. For six weeks I will have full responsibility to train her; meanwhile I need to pack up, find someone to take my room, and finalize details of the Australia trip; fun though looking at Google Street View for the entire Sydney to Perth route is, it is not proper planning. I'll have just one last chance to see the bits of London I haven't got to yet (which is most of it), one more karaoke trip and one more box of greasy goodness from Wok in a Box on Oxford Street. This has all been playing in my mind, along with a lot of work to do to get ahead before I go. On Wednesday, it came to a head, and I became snappish and grumpy, but by Thursday I was fine.

My efforts to look after my health after my bout of flu are going well, but I'm still stupidly thin, still hypoglycaemic and still lethargic much of the time. On top of that, my toe has become dodgy. Again.

But this week has also been a good one. I got a wonderful endorsement from Rob Dougan, the musician behind Clubbed to Death and the sublime album Furious Angels, via the ever engrossing world of Twitter. Also, my musical collection, overheard and in danger of becoming stale, has been given a new lease of life through the greatness of Spotify. I have been invited to a supper. I went to an excellent Skeptics in the Pub meeting on skepticism and politics, which I might write about later. Rachel and I went to an excellent church 'community' this morning in Bournville, and who can complain - the sun is shining! Lots of great things are happening to me and are about to happen to me. The last year has been difficult, but it has made me stronger in certain ways, and I have learnt a lot. I am going to take this opportunity for change to correct the ways in which I am weaker. I have the support of a great many people, especially my girlfriend Rachel who I love a lot, and I am going to take the opportunities that come at me and make the most of them. The Simon of two years ago wants out again, and I think it is about time I let him.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Koinonia (n. Fellowship or Communion)

AS everybody knows, Easter is about pirates. And what better way to spend Easter, having not-quite-recovered from flu, than to go to a boarding school in Surrey with 60 schoolchildren, dress as a pirate and get covered in paint and flour?

This weekend was the Christ Church Cockfosters House Party, a four-day getaway for the two elder youth groups at the church, a weekend of wide games, gunging and walking the plank, interspersed with teaching, praise and discussion. I was asked to help a long time ago, and delayed deciding for far too long, but was eventually inspired to go, to help in my way. It crept up on me, I missed all of the preparatory meetings because of other commitments or illness, and I entirely misjudged how involved I was expected to be. But on Friday I was on a coach bound for Dorking, for a very different weekend.

For the first day or so I was entirely out of my comfort zone. I’m not used to controlling crowds of people, let alone teenagers who don’t want to listen, certainly not to a softly spoken person like me. I was constantly concerned that I wasn’t fitting in, as I’m not in any way a lad, and I always worry that I couldn’t connect with my group of guys. I always struggle in entirely male company, certainly entirely unknown company - the company I prefer to keep knows nothing about football, and will happily weave science, Monty Python, music and anything quirky into a conversation. Outside of this kind of company I clam up, and haven’t a clue what to say. Outside of discussion and out into the real world I feel equally redundant: I’m the guy who was always picked last for sports teams - I’ve grown up now, but my mind refuses to remember that. Still I’m neither big nor strong. Plus, I’m rather too fond of sleep, and don’t appreciate a hard bed in a room sandwiched between two groups of boys who don’t grasp the concept of ‘lights out’. I struggled.

On Friday afternoon we played a wide game very different to how I remember them in the past. On the plus side, I got to tackle people to the ground and pelt others with eggs and flour (and, being younger than me, I actually stood a chance). I relaxed. I had fun. And I still stand by my tactic of sitting in the enemy’s base for 15 minutes, contemplating my options and letting them waste their attention on keeping me there, even if when I did eventually move I immediately fell over a log and was attacked by four rabid children, thirsty for my life ribbon now deeply buried beneath me in a less-than-comfortable posture, eventually losing my life and the flour ammunition I had successfully won from them. It was muddy, it hurt, but it was enjoyable.

Except when Sorrell bit me in the leg.

On Friday night we ran a quiz, which went well given the last minute writing of questions. The between-rounds challenge also went well, but brought out a side of the children’s imaginations we rather wish it hadn’t, and by pact nobody is ever going to mention it again.

On Saturday we played hunt the leader, whereupon I hid in the centre of Dorking with balloons on my head, at the top of a patch of greenery, pretending to be a flower (or so I could claim, but ultimately, I was a man with balloons on his head). We had a pirate party into the night; a treasure hunt; the next day individual games, including my own ‘cast the anchor’ (nobody died, thankfully); gunging; and a second wide game - this time in complete darkness at night (and not in the woods, because that would have been lethal). This second wide game was particularly scary; at a base, I had the power of the torch (and white paint, just to make things messy), but the scenes were reminiscent of World War II prisons in films, spotlights following those trying to escape. Ghosts would appear out of the darkness, running at full speed towards you, determined to steal your life.

But asides from the activities to which I could help and therefore not be in a state of panic (although I was perpetually in a state of confusion - I should have gone to those meetings!), there were of course daily services, studies and seminars. I jointly led a small group in discussion, and played my guitar and sang in morning meetings. The evening services were based on the Fixed template (the 5pm Christ Church service for students) - there was a loud rock band and screens. It was informal, you needn’t be afraid to dance.

It was at the Saturday service that I snapped out of being uncomfortable, as I realised how selfish I was being. After all, this weekend was not about me. I had to stomach my discomfort, however ridiculous my discomfort might be, and focus on the purpose of the weekend. I sat at the back, and in front of me were two boys (I shan’t name them as they’re wise and savvy and will probably find this blog). Throughout the service they were distracted. They didn’t care. The second they could leave they did. These two boys had been particularly difficult to deal with personally over the past two days, but I suddenly realised that I had to deal with this by making them my challenge.

Their transformation by the following evening was astounding: they sat at the front; they sang. When they could leave they didn’t - they sat, reading the Bible and asking questions of leaders. Around them, the most amazing response was unfolding. People were crying, others were singing almost trance-like. People were in prayer or contemplation. And before you think we did something to these kids - we did nothing. Everybody there was acting of their own volition. I have never seen church like this.

And it encouraged me and affected me deeply. It has been oh so easy to wallow this past year, as I have spent so much time alone. But this weekend I found encouragement among company, among people my age, and those younger than me but so much wiser. I ate, I exercised, I forgot I was supposed to be struggling with flu. I came back excited.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Jingo jargon

BELOW you will notice a short scientific highlight, entitled When autumn falls, published in this month's issue of Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology. I include it for one very simple reason: I wrote it. But in preparing it for this site, I realized quite how high the assumed understanding of the piece is, and so offer this as a short lesson in the jargon of science. What is with all those italics? What is a transcript, and what is a gene? What the devil is a microRNA?

Much like starch (that wonderful carbohydrate in our staple foodstuff, the potato), which is a string of individual glucose sugars (a polymer of glucose monomers), DNA is a string of individual nucleic acids. Each nucleic acid is a little more complicated than glucose molecules - comprising a sugar, a phosphate and a nitrogenous 'base'. Cleverly, there are two strings wound around each other (the famed 'double helix'), which provides a cunning mechanism for the DNA to copy itself - you see, there are four common types of nucleic acid, identical except for the nitrogenous bases. The four different bases are called adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, or, for simplicity, A, C, G and T. Owing to their chemical structures, the bases 'pair' up across the helix, with A aligning with T, and C with G:

Strand 1 Strand 2
| |
A = T
C = G
| |
(diagram for illustrative purposes only: at ease, scientific pedants)

So, all you need to copy a strand of DNA is a plentiful supply of free nucleic acids and a way to unzip the double strand. Once unwound, the exposed single strand becomes a template: A binds to T, and C binds to G in the order of the complete strand, and then some enzymes come in, work their magic, and seal the monomers into second strand.

But, we hear that DNA is the 'information' in a cell. Packaged in the nucleus of every cell in the body (well, almost), DNA is the source of those elusive entities: genes. But how can a string of four types of acid be responsible for building you, hedgehogs and eyes of newt?

Contrary to common understanding, proteins are much more than a dietary requirement for making muscles. They are an enormously complicated family of molecules that do everything that makes you you - they are the enzymes that break down your food, they help to make hormones, they assist the division of your cells and, yes, they are structural components too.

DNA makes proteins. Specifically, it encodes them. First, a messenger molecule is made in the same way as DNA is replicated: the double-strand unzips and free nucleic acids align with their counterparts to form a copy. The nucleic acids in this circumstance are RNA, not DNA, monomers. These differ chemically, and are more transient, but work in the same way - although RNA does not have thymine (it uses uracil (U) instead). This messenger (a transcript) is called a messenger RNA, or mRNA, and is single stranded. Second, the mRNA leaves the nucleus (as DNA cannot) and feeds into a complex structure called a ribosome, which is, to all intents and purposes, a protein factory. And here's the clever bit:

Proteins are made of 20 or so amino acids. To turn a genetic code of 4 letters into a 20-letter amino acid alphabet, the mRNA molecule is 'read' by the ribosome three letters at a time. So, for example, GGU equates to a glycine amino acid. The amino acids attach to another specific RNA molecule, a transfer RNA (tRNA), which exposes three specific RNA nucleic acids to pair up with the mRNA in the ribosome, thereby aligning the amino acids in the correct order, as specified by the original DNA in the nucleus.

These are the fundamentals of genetics: DNA encodes mRNA, which leaves the nucleus and uses ribosomal wizardry to pair up with amino acid-carrying tRNAs, allowing the ribosome to combine the amino acids in the order aseembled, thereby making a protein. A gene? Well, this is the stretch of DNA of the correct length to make a specific protein*.

In scientific literature, gene symbols are denoted by italics and proteins in roman. The use of capitals depends on the species involved.

In my article, I talk about Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species from the brassica family that is used as a model organism - that is, it is the standard and best-characterized species for study. The authors uncovered a genetic loop of two genes - EIN2 and ORE1 (note italics) - and a microRNA called miR164. A microRNA is encoded by DNA but is never translated into a protein; instead, in RNA form, it suppresses the mRNA of other genes. How this works is not known with any certainty. It follows, based on the nomenclature stated above, that miR164 is the actual microRNA, and MIR164 is the gene that encodes it. Lastly, the article mentions ore1 and ein2 mutants - these are plants in which ORE1 and EIN2 have been altered in some way to function differently or not at all (the lower case is a specific style for Arabidopsis).

With all this in mind, hopefully my highlight now makes some kind of sense!

*Definitions vary.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Days gone by

SAT next to me, at our shared house group social, was Eamonn. A retired member of the Irish diaspora, he spends his winters watching classic films, eager for the warm weather to return so that he can get out and about. He especially likes The Cider House Rules.

Eamonn comes from a forgotten world.

He arrived in London shortly after the war. Work in Ireland was becoming hard to come by, so, by recommendation, he moved to London. Reeling from the Blitz, London was the place to be if you were in the building industry, and Eamonn was a carpenter by trade.

Throughout his time in the working world he moved from the construction trade to shop window design and construction to the building of exhibition spaces. He didn't just stay in London, moving up and down the country from Torquay to Yorkshire. Along the way he learnt to discern international accents, as the country was far more culturally diverse than you might assume. Even now, he can expertly distinguish South African from Kiwi.

But this is not what makes Eamonn's tale spectacular.

He told us of the time when London was big but not busy. Crime happened, but you didn't hear about it, and you certainly weren't paranoid about it. Life felt safer. Nobody would be found out and about after 10.30pm. You worked and then you went to the pub to laugh about the day. Or, you went to the dance.

This is where the boys met the girls, and a man would be picked from the boys on account of his quick-stepping, his jive and his ability to lead in the foxtrot. No drinking to boost false confidence, no teeny bopping and self-conscious feelings. This was entertainment. The boys watch the girls who watch the boys, who watch the girls go by, eye to eye.

He met his lovely wife at a dance. Many of his peers met their partners there too. You went to the dance to court. The world was a simpler, less panicked, happier place.

I can't be the only one who longs for days gone by, can I?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Been there. Done that. Ate a pig.

MONDAY's commute was a little longer than usual, arriving (on time) at work in King's Cross, London, having awoken in Selly Oak, Birmingham, 100 miles away. I spend a lot of my time there these days. I rather miss it.

The peculiar thing about Birmingham is that it's a very topsy turvy city. There is no centre from which everything else radiates. There is, of course, a city centre, but everything is hidden below and above each other. You need to know where to find it. One moment you'll be in a state-of-the-art shopping centre, then suddenly China town will be below you, or the brick work of a railway embankment or canal bridge will ascend high above you. There is everything in a very small space. It is no less diverse as you travel across it: jump on a train from student-central Selly Oak, with its rows upon rows of terraces, and on your way to the centre you'll pass allotments, the Botanic Gardens and the leafy loveliness that is Edgbaston and then descend beneath a mass of roads and warehouses. Keep going and you'll pass the deprived yet captivating areas of Duddeston and Aston, canals and flyovers, and suddenly find affluence all over again. Then Birmingham ends, there are fields (of brussel sprouts) and then... Lichfield.

On Sunday, Rachel and I went to Lichfield for an adventure. We knew little about the place, other than that it lies at the end of the invaluable Selly Oak to Birmingham New Street train line. Turns out, it's quite the gem.

Formerly more important than Birmingham, Lichfield is a small city steeped in history - it is, for example, the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary - quietly tucked away in the Midlands. We arrived at about 1.30, finding first a shopping centre that felt oddly reminiscent of Exeter years ago. There was an Adams. I suspect if we'd have looked closely enough there would have been a QS and a Peacocks too. Rachel was keenly looking out for a C&A. Then suddenly the brick work ages dramatically, the pedestrianised streets become paved, the tudor houses come out in force, and there are cloisters. It is the type of place that can get away with having a hat shop.

The world is a better place because hat shops still thrive in places like this.

But, in truth, it took us several hours to find all of this, despite being just minutes walk from the train station. This is because it was lunchtime, and no adventure would be complete without a good sit down meal. Fortunately for us, there is the Kaspico cafe, which, you see, serves fantastic food at bargain prices. A roast, for example, will set you back £4. So will a Honey Roast Pork Shank with lots of lovely vegetables.

Guess what I had?

The shank was so large that the couple next to us felt inclined to wish me luck before I started, and we are fairly sure that the staff behind the counter took bets as to whether I could polish it off. It was enormous; but I was not defeated. On leaving, the cafe owner even asked me if I had managed it. I like to think that I left them in awe.

On we went (slowly), through the market square to the cathedral, a truly inspiring piece of architecture. And on, to the house of Erasmus Darwin, now a museum to the doctor, inventor, poet and influential evolutionist. His house looks out on his herb garden and, behind it, the giant cathedral. We tried to do the museum as quickly as possible. Running out of time but genuinely interested, we desperately tried not to let down the man at the welcome desk, who had valiantly put so much effort into explaining what we could see and learn, how best to structure our visit, and how to use our audio guides. All we had really wanted was to pop in and look around in a few minutes, but he had seemed so happy that we'd picked up the audio guides. The look on his face as we left was one of genuine hurt and crushing disappointment. I promise here and now to go back and do his museum justice.

Anyway, then we had to go home: back to the train station and back to studentville.

(Via the fudge shop.)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Economy Karaoke!

LAST week was all about the snow. This week is all about the birthday of Charles Darwin. So what better subject to break the silence on this blog, but karaoke.

Last Thursday, at the end of my two weeks of non-stop, catch-up, employment-based stress (I got behind), we went out for a work social. But unlike other work socials, which usually involve the pub, and then another pub, this one started in an okonomiyaki restaraunt off Leicester Square.

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese cuisine from the Kansai and Hiroshima regions of Japan, the word translating as 'cook what you like'. It is a pancake or omelette-style dish, cooked teppanyaki-style (on a hot plate in front of you), filled with, as the name suggests, anything you like: only, as we are all far too reserved, we all went for the safer, preset options. Shortly after ordering, my chef was frying a strange egg mix with unknown ingredients, adding pork, bacon, cheese and, bizarrely, salmon. Once suffiently fried and baked (amazing what you can do on a hot plate), one London Mix Okonomiyaki was served, complete with sprinkles of seaweed and fish flakes.

And given that it truly was an odd and not necessarily apetising mix of ingredients, it was genuinely delicious. I was even impressed with my chopsticks skills. If you're ever tempted I do reccommend Abeno and Abeno Too Okonomiyaki, the only two okonomiyaki restaurants in London.

Then we were off, via the off licence, into the depths of Soho at night. Past the 'alleyway of sleaze' with its own Bridge of Sighs, past dubious shops and signs for even more dubious shops, past scary bouncers and into... a Japanese book shop. Despite its location, this seemed to be fairly innocuous and innocent. It had real books. With words and everything.

Our reason for being here was not immediately apparent, until Isobel led us to the counter, behind which was a door that led into a whole other world: a darkened corridor leading to half a dozen karaoke booths. Armed with our wine and plastic cups, we entered these booths - big enough only for a maximum of eight people, two microphones and the wonder that is a karaoke machine - threw away our inhibitions, and spent the evening being very silly.

I have only ever done karaoke once before, also with work. That time I had been highly embarrassed, so I chose a song I already knew: One Week by Barenaked Ladies. I chose it because I thought it might give off the impression of talent (it has a lot of words, sung very quickly, which need to be learnt beforehand - something I had conveniently done to perform it with Nelly in Birmingham). Ultimately, though it went down well, I had cheated.

This time I could relax a little. So, in no particular order, I mauled Michael Jackson's Thriller, Whitesnake's Here I Go Again, Smooth by Santana and Rob Thomas, and, I proclaim with no embarrassment or regret, There's Your Trouble by the Dixie Chicks. All performed with cheesy Japanese videos playing in the background.

I had a lot of fun.

Now then, Charles Darwin...

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Baby is born. Has special powers.

ON Friday, as I left work and headed out to Buckinghamshire, I grabbed a copy of the free newspaper, London Lite. I usually prefer to read a book while commuting - but, having foolishly forgotten Where the Hell Is Tuvalu?, I had little else to read on the Tube. Inside, I found something very interesting indeed.

Page 6, underneath something about Trisha and Channel 5, and next to the Top 10 Rental DVDs, was an article the world has been waiting for for years. Nestled within four columns of only twelve lines, Sophie Goodchild tells of the world's first "'cancer-free' baby".

...hang on a moment. A cancer-free baby?

Aren't they all?

"A London woman has given birth to Britain's first child genetically designed to be free of the breast cancer gene," it says.

I'm sorry, but there are many, many things wrong with this article. And I'm not talking about the ethics of such a procedure.

Cancer is an incredibly complicated thing. It is the outcome of the malfunction of any one of thousands of genes and mechanisms in every single cell in the human body. Each of these are required, under normal circumstances, to maintain the body in a perfectly normal and healthy state. Such genes and mechanisms include countless back-up systems to compensate if one goes wrong. Cancer occurs when any one of these mechanisms goes wrong and causes uncontrolled or unchecked growth. There is no one cause. If there were, we'd have come up with a remedy before now. Genetically, cancer can stem from any one of thousands of genes. True, certain genes are more associated with particular types of cancers than others, but there is no such thing as the breast cancer gene.

"A team from London's University College Hospital had screened the woman's embryos and selected those free from a gene which causes breast cancer. ... "The future progeny of this child will be born free of this gene"".

Not once in the article does it mention what gene they are referring to. Nor does it adequately explain that what has really been omitted from this patient is not, in fact, a gene. As for the future progeny of the child being free of this gene, well that depends entirely on who said child marries.

For the answers we have to turn to the proper newspapers and BBC News online, far more respectable science sources. But even then, we need to have an assumed understanding to fully appreciate what was done.

Researchers at UCH screened the fertilised embryos of the couple because the husband's family has a history of breast cancer: three generations of his female relatives all developed breast cancer in their twenties. They all carry the breast cancer 1 (or BRCA1) gene. But, here's the thing. So do you. Everybody has BRCA1. But don't panic - if we didn't have it, there would be many things wrong with us. In fact, we'd all probably have cancer.

What these people have in common is not that they have this gene, but that they all have a specific, mutated form, or allele, of the gene. This mutation is more susceptible to cancer, because it causes BRCA1 to function incorrectly. Thus, the embryos were examined to see which contained the faulty gene, and those that did not were implanted back into the mother in the hope that she would become pregnant. This isn't novel in the world of science - it has been done for diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntingdon's disease - nasty illnesses you wouldn't wish on anyone. It provides an alternative to telling parents that they should never have children at all.

BRCA1 is not the only breast cancer gene. There is at least another by name, BRCA2, and many others could cause cancer through misregulation. Removing this allele of BRCA1 from the child does not guarantee that she will never get cancer - merely that one cause has been removed. Any number of genetic and environmental factors could cause cancer later in life. If she started smoking, for example, all the hard work would be undone.

The moral of the story is that this is a remarkable achievement. It certainly deserves a slot better than page 6 (The Times gave it the front page the following day, so full credit to them). It also deserves better reporting.

Remember, there is no such thing as the cancer gene. Cancer sufferers do not have a gene that the rest of us don't - that would mean that they, or us, are not human. They merely have a form that makes them more susceptible to it in later life. That doesn't mean that they will get it.

And now you understand why nobody has yet found a cure for cancer.

Posted by Simon, accidentally logging in as Rachel