Monday, May 28, 2007


I just learned something. Back in October, I wrote about the time I saw Paul Kossoff play live with John Martyn. I said:

As we approached the Leeds University buildings a couple came up to us and the man asked (in a strange southern accent) where some building was."Excuse me – where do I find the [mumble] building? Wait, do you understand me? I don't speak Yorkshire. What's the Yorkshire for 'excuse me'?"
"Tyke," said my friend. "The dialect's called Yorkshire Tyke. You say, 'Si tha 'ere.'" (Literally, "see you, here.")
The man was excited. "Hey!" he called to his friend, who was gazing blankly into space with her arms folded like an arms-foldy StarGazy Pie fish, "Yorkshire dialect for 'Excuse me' is 'Kythera'!" I have no idea what his association was with Kythera (if indeed that's what he said – it sure sounded like it).

Today I was wilfing and came across this page, Guitars and Amps for Beginners. It says:

The thing Nero (the Roman Emperor, not that CD burning program!) played when burning down the city of Rome was called "cithara", the ancient greeks called it "kithara". So we could imagine the roots of the word "guitar" (italian: chitarra, french = guitarre, german = Gitarre, spanish = guitarra), but the roots of the instrument itself are wide spread.

Is that what they were talking about? It certainly makes more sense that we'd be wandering around a university campus where two guitar greats were playing and find someone who was interested in the history of the guitar than someone who was interested in Kythera!

It still doesn't explain why he said cithara when my friend said "Sitha 'ere" - that definitely begins with an "S", and cithara is definitely "K".

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Moron Star Wars 30th Birthday Party.

Uh, make that "more on". No, wait, I was right the first time!

Time sends a reporter with a fresh outlook on Star Wars:

But it's not actually the waiting in line part that the fans love, says Steve Sansweet, director of fan relations for Lucasfilm. "They love to be together, to find comradery and friendship." And, let's face it, to compare their replica lightsabers.

Ha ha! She thinks Star Wars fans are all nerdy! It makes such a change from the media's 30 years of unthinking admiration for the fans.

She also says:

Those in touch with their dark sides rushed exhibits of tortured druids on a rack, Luke Skywalker's severed head and the Princess Leia slave costume, a fetching metal bikini that says, "Eat your heart out, Jabba the Hutt."

Clearly, the Kool Aid is stronger at Celebration IV than I had been led to believe. Severed head? Tortured druids?

Myers B. Rigged

I have to say I could have predicted this. I wonder if there's a way to hypnotize me so that I don't know I'm taking a test and see if I get the same answers?

I once went to an all day seminar to find out my ideal job, and when I'd worked through all the exercises for seven hours, the big reveal was - my ideal job was Quality Assurance in a Clinical Laboratory!

At the time, I was a QA Manager in a Clinical Laboratory.

It turned out that most people there were already in the Right Job. Our firm paid for the seminar; I thought it might have been rigged in some subtle fashion. Not that I'm accusing the writer of the quiz below of being in the shadowy employ of my masters. Though wait a minnit . . .

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and it's eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works.

It's okay. I understand.

Science/Math Nerd
Gamer/Computer Nerd
Social Nerd
Anime Nerd
Artistic Nerd
Drama Nerd
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

Friday, May 25, 2007

Photosynthetic synchronicity

While I was writing the post yesterday about the ubiquity of photosynthetic pigments, news came in of a new mechanism for energy capture by a pigment. Fungi containing the pigment melanin appear to be able to use ionizing radiation to give themselves an energy boost.
News-Medical Net reports: [T]wo types of fungi--one that was induced to make melanin (Crytococcus neoformans) and another that naturally contains it (Wangiella dermatitidis), were exposed to levels of ionizing radiation approximately 500 times higher than background levels. Both species grew significantly faster (as measured by the number of colony forming units and dry weight) than when exposed to standard background radiation.
Fungi were found living inside the reactor building at Chernobyl. The article speculates that human skin melanin may be able to use radiation the same way, though I suspect that the body behind the pigment may not be happy to receive the stray radiation the melanin doesn't catch.
Dr. Casadevall notes that the melanin in fungi is no different chemically from the melanin in our skin. "It's pure speculation but not outside the realm of possibility that melanin could be providing energy to skin cells," he says. "While it wouldn't be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid."

Happy Birthday, Star Wars!

Star Wars 'A New Hope' is 30 years old today.
Celebration IV is in full swing this weekend.

A fine vintage picture.

I didn't get to see Star Wars until months later - I was in England at the time. I don't think it opened until the late fall in London, but I could be wrong. I'd love to share stories about the First Time but alas I can't remember anything except going to the Pinarbasi Kebab Nosh Bar Take Away Delicatessen on the Mile End Road for a Donner Kebab with Ot Soss afterwards.

Green and Pleasant Land

OK, here's an example of Science Fiction biology.

Robert Sawyer's novel "Calculating God" is an interesting read, postulating that life has been designed to converge in such a way that when all known sentients meet, it is possible for them to Take the Next Step together.

It's part of the plot that life everywhere is going to be similar, because it's been designed to be compatible. So in one way, it's not surprising to hear the disembodied voice of the book say at one point, "The plants were all green - chlorophyll . . . was the best chemical for its job no matter what world you were on." But in another, very different way, it makes me mad.

Although I've only been on one world so far, I can confidently state:
- A large percentage of plants (by number) aren't green.
- Much of plant-kind (by biomass) isn't green.
- Chlorophyll is just fabulous, but it often uses a helper of another color to do "its job" well.
- Some things photosynthesize without chlorophyll.

Photosynthesis is the process by which light energy is converted into chemical energy. Light is absorbed by a pigment, often chlorophyll, and the energy of the photon is used to create a high-energy compound called ATP. The major type of reaction splits water to produce oxygen as a waste product. (Lucky for us; we wouldn't be here if the early plants hadn't filled the nice reducing atmosphere with corrosive waste oxygen.) Chlorophyll is best at absorbing red light and blue light. Green light, in the middle of the visible spectrum, isn't well-absorbed. Since green light is reflected off the plant, a plant using chlorophyll appears green to the eye.

Chlorophyll is a complex chemical related to hemoglobin. There is, as Sawyer implies above, a limited number of ways that a reactive metal ion can be shackled in such a way that the important chemical reactions of life can take place on it repeatedly and reversibly. In hemoglobin it's an iron ion in a porphyrin cage. In chlorophyll, it's a magnesium ion. It isn't the only pigment to capture light, though.

Everyone, surely, except the disembodied voice of the book mentioned above, must have travelled down a lane where many of the bushes were Copper Beech, with their striking dark red leaves. Or at least have moved along the tide line on a beach and picked up the long brown belt-like fronds of kelp or the slippery dark-brown tangles of bladderwrack. Or eaten the red-black sheet used to wrap sushi, called nori in Japanese and laver in English – it's a red seaweed called Porphyra.

The different colors come from Accessory Pigments. These are highly-colored compounds that absorb different wavelengths of light from chlorophyll, allowing the plant to use more of the light falling on it. They are "accessory" because they absorb the light but pass the energy on to chlorophyll for the reaction to be completed. There are carotenoids, the bright orange pigment that gives the carrot its familiar color. There are fucoxanthins, the brown pigments in the brown algae and diatoms. Xanthophyll is a bright yellow accessory pigment sometimes used as food coloring. Peridinin. Phycoerythrin, the red in red algae. Phycocyanin, the blue in Cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria use phycobilproteins – protein-based pigments - to capture energy and pass it on to chlorophyll. Copper beech has its dark anthocyanin pigment.

Between them, the accessory pigments cover a lot of the light that chlorophyll cannot use, and conversely, they provide a bright counterpoint to all the green.

Some things don't use chlorophyll at all, even as a back-end on differently-colored light-absorbing antenna. A non-chlorophyll photosynthetic pigment is Bacteriorhodopsin, a pigment made up of proteins rather than porphyrins. (As the name implies, it's related to rhodopsin, the pigment in our eyes which reacts chemically and triggers a nerve impulse when light of a certain wavelength falls on it.) The reaction does not produce oxygen. It's particularly good at using the otherwise wasted green light. It's found in the Archaea, which are prokaryotes (like bacteria) that have strange eukaryotic (like us) features. Archaea get all the bum gigs in town, living in high salt, high temperature, high pressure, low-oxygen, high-methane areas that no one else wants. They are the sort of things that if one was so inclined, one would say, "Ooh, these would do ok on the surface of some weird planet!"

Photosynthetic life, then, is not always green. It doesn't always use chlorophyll. It doesn't even have to split water and produce oxygen. Bacteriorhodopsin is one example, and there are many related compounds here on Earth, although most of them are proton-pumps that are used in sensing light and for phototaxis rather than energy generation. On other planets, where salinity, temperature and incident light may be different, there would be strong pressure to use and further develop non-chlorophyll pigments like bacteriorhodopsin.

If Earth life is that variable, what is the likelihood that other planets will look green from space? NASA recently published an article on non-green plants on other planets. They're interested because a non-green plant cover might be missed in a survey that was looking for Earth-like planets, so they are developing a way to predict what color plants might be on an alien world. "Not all stars have the same distribution of light colors as our Sun. Study scientists say they now realize that photosynthesis on extrasolar planets will not necessarily look the same as on Earth," says the article.

NASA, even life on Earth does not necessarly look the 'same' as life on Earth. It's all part of life's wonderful diversity. Truth is stranger than speculation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Don't know much biology . . .

(Sam Cooke, Wonderful World)

When I read Science Fiction, what's the one thing that gets up my nose? Lack of women writers in the Hugos? Lack of diversity amongst writers? Fanfiction?

Nope. It's the handwavy biology.

I almost gave up reading any SF after I read Greg Bear's Blood Music. Now, an SF novel has to have a thunderingly good climax where everything is just More! and Further! and Exponential! – that's how it's been structured since E. E. (Doc) Smith's days. But whereas writers can get away with that in physics – because I don't know the difference and a lot of people who do know don't seem to care – you can't get away with More! and Further! and Exponential! in biology. Biology is going to do pretty much what it always does, and the discovery of biological Unobtanium or Handwavium is really, really unlikely to come about. But I forgave Blood Music for its More! and Further! and Exponential! plot, and I still read SF, though with increasing reluctance.

Then I started hitting books where we didn't even have More! and Further! and Exponential! – we just had mundane, and now the biology was mundanely wrong. Often, it's blood they misunderstand (I'm aware I've ranted about this before). Blood is such a heavily charged term I think writers forget it has a natural origin. Sometimes the problems turn up in regular general biological knowledge, like the famous SF book which managed to have a pathologist character refer to someone's sputum "cultures" as diagnostic for cancer, say that when an animal wants to cool itself it erects the hairs on its skin to let the warm air out, and say that wolves and dogs can't interbreed. Oh, and that "ontogeny seems to recapitulate phylogeny" (true I guess), and therefore human embryos have gills (not so true).

I was reading Peter Watts' website the other day to see if he really meant to say something about evolution in his novel Blindsight that was irritating me, or if he'd just phrased it oddly and set off my admittedly oversensitive proximity fuse. I didn't find out the answer (so inevitably there will be more later on the subject), but I did find a long piece on his paleogenetically revived vampire species in which he joked that "none of our subjects developed any kind of aversion to garlic or to any of the Amaryllidaceaen [sic] species".

I couldn't figure out whether he thinks that vampires are affected by garlic AND one of the Amaryllidaceae, or whether some pun on Haemanthus (Blood Lilies) is involved, or whether he thinks that garlic *is* a plant in the Amaryllidaceae. The thought it might be the latter bugs me. It isn't. Garlic is in the Alliaceae, which is related to the Amaryllidaceae, but not at all the same thing. If you cut open a couple of Alliaceae bulbs (say, onion and garlic) and a daffodil bulb, you'll be able to tell the difference immediately, by smell. Those active sulfur compounds in the Alliaceae are knockouts.

Now, does the taxonomy of garlic *cosmically speaking* really matter? It wasn't even actually *in* his book, and he's a marine biologist and probably never says anything iffy about the denizens of the deep, after all. Nope, doesn't matter a bit. But it's like a splinter in my finger, something I just have to worry at until I've got it out.

I'm currently reading a Space Opera classic from 1992 and so far it seems to be about Space Usenet, with everyone nervously reading Space comp.risks. Their Space Data is delivered by Space Truck. But hey, at least we haven't had any unlikely biological science. Then again, I'm only on page 80.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Standing at the Crossroads

There's an old joke about a theatergoer who leaves a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet and blurts out to his companion, "The whole thing was full of clich├ęs!"

Failing to make that mistake, Steve Audio has a piece today on Eric Clapton, about whom he says, "Too many know Clapton today as an Armani-clad aging rocker, whose playing, while very nice, doesn't seem to be inspirational, but rather sort-of...well, generic. This is the Clapton of the slow, unplugged version of "Layla", of countless major events like 'The Concert For George".The reason Clapton sounds generic today is that, simply put, he wrote the book for the modern rock guitarist, and everyone else is copying him. Period."
The post makes the point with a number of well-chosen early videos, all well worth watching.

Two of them are of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, which Eric Clapton made his own, at least to the extent that anyone can wrestle a Robert Johnson song away from its creator. Since my last post was about ummm, similarities – yeah, similarities – in recordings between two musicians, I thought it was a good opportunity to look at the new ideas someone brought to the table when covering a song. Have a listen to Cream's Crossroads at the Steve Audio post above.

There's no video of Robert Johnson, of course, but here are two versions of Crossroads, with images, from YouTube.

Version 1
Version 2

Cream added so much to that song. You might not prefer Cream's version; that's certainly your prerogative. But you can't claim that Clapton ripped Johnson off, either. He credited him, and went on to rearrange the song completely. Not everyone does that – Keith Richards, for instance, feels that he rearranged "Love In Vain" extensively, but if you listen to the Stones' version and Johnson's version one after another, they're clearly similar. The Stones made an almost timid change to the master's song, perhaps afraid to re-imagine it as their own. They didn't rip it off either, but unlike Clapton, they didn't drag rock music kicking and screaming to a crossroads and point out a whole new direction for it to go.

Friday, May 18, 2007

She Moved Through the Fair

I was spending some valuable time improving myself, i.e. reading a Draco/Lucius inc*st slash fic* and it referenced a famous Irish folk song - She Moved Through The Fair. And that, of course, reminds me of Jimmy Page.

Here's Jimmy Page playing White Summer in 1970.

Here's Davey Graham - he is expounding some theory that Irish music is Iranian music, or something, but after a while the program settles down a bit and shows a clip of him playing She Moved Through the Bizarre.

"She Moved Through the Bizarre."
Wonderful, n'est ce pas?
While we're on the subject of Pagey's influences, I should mention "Black Mountainside". I can't find a watchable vid of Jimmy Page playing it because there's some copyright rule or other being invoked by Warner Brothers. But here's Bert Jansch playing "Black Waterside". You'll recognize it as the original, even though this performance is from last year. I couldn't find an earlier version.

"Black Waterside."

If I were a proper blogger, I'd have researched everything and come up with dates and influence lists and rock family trees and stuff, but I'm not. So, based on pure gut feeling, whose version is a) most authentic and b) the inspiration for the others?

Lyle's answer: a) Jimmy Page is much prettier than the other two and b) My God, that Danelectro is fine-looking guitar. Very striking.

So that's all sorted. Jimbo wins.

*The story is very good. Moving, sad and sweet. Amanuensis' "She Moved Through The Fair".

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Evolution of J-Pop – Part One.

(There is no Part Two.)

These two tunes have often struck me as being remarkably similar - even considering the limited range of rock music. But I bet that the rationales behind them represent opposite ends of the spectrum of human thought.

First up is Yoko Ono at the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus of 1968. Her band, the Dirty Mac, is Keith Richards (on bass), Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Mitch Mitchell, and famed fiddler Ivry Gitlis.

I love this track. I'm a contrarian bastard. Most people tell me they can't stand Yoko's singing, and as proof they're right they point out Gitlis' long-suffering 'haven't crapped in a week' expression. I think that's just his natural look. You try to hold a piece of wood against your shoulder with your chin and see what faces you pull. The YouTubers comment that Yoko's summoning spirits, but I don't know if they made that up like the "name of UR crush will appear but dont break chain or u'll dyee" thing YouTube has got going on or whether somebody actually claimed she was.

Whatever she's doing, I'm sure it required Thought and Art and stuff. She was a noted artist when most of her backing band were playing conkers in the churchyard. Check out the Fluxus thing.

That clip was just her bit of the Dirty Mac's set. Click this one to see them play the Beatles' Yer Blues. It's a stonkin' performance too. You don't get people of that caliber playing together every day.

On the other end of J-Pop evolution, we have the This clip from Tarantino's Kill Bill doesn't actually show them, and I haven't ripped the bit of the DVD where you can see them performing it because I'm a lazy, tight-fisted bugger who prefers just to surf YouTube.

Don't they sound like Yoko? I'm convinced that the actual amount of work, thought and art that went into the' "Woo Hoo" is hovering around the "not much" mark. Shame Vonage had to overexpose the tune with their crappy ads.

"Woo Hoo" is actually from 1959, so in that dismayingly post-modern way it is both older and newer than the Dirty Mac track. Figure out for yourself what that means for evolution.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Done, and dusted.

Time for another picture of Paul Kossoff. This one's taken from the DVD - his 'done, and dusted' look at the end of the Isle of Wight's performance of "All Right Now".

Here's a plug for the Paul Kossoff Discussion Forum on Proboards. Go there and discuss how much you love Paul Kossoff, right now!

Squirrelly Friends

I went round a friend's house for a social visit yesterday - and to watch American Idol, which is apparently unmissable. (It seemed to be a repeat; or at least it was identical to the last one I watched, about three years ago.) As we were snacking on kiwi fruit, walnuts and green almonds, she filled me in on her diet secrets.

"I have a light breakfast of oatmeal and berries. If I feel hungry during the morning, I snack on fruit. For lunch I have a little fish – sometimes not even that – and berries. In the evening I usually just eat nuts. And berries."

Is this a Southern California thing? Or is she some sort of woodland creature? An elf, perhaps? Oh noes – is she a giant anthropoid squirrel?

One of my other friends has a Personal Trainer, who has instructed her to eat so much protein, she can't actually manage to stuff it all in. (I gave her tips on how to make egg protein powder shakes.) Both of them seem quite healthy, so I guess this is a testament to the adaptability of the human body. They've both survived the Atkins diet, which was thoroughly odd in itself, and I'm sure we've all tried a Susan Powter-style "Fat makes you fat" diet fad, which always had a tendency to turn into the "Eat 2000 calories of Snackwell's cookies every day because they're fat free so what harm can they do?" diet. One of my friends long ago was on something called the "F Factor" diet. I asked him what it was and he said, "The F is for 'fart'."

Perhaps I'll make a fortune with my own fabulous new food philosophy. It can't be that difficult. Research some foods no one around here has tried before, dream up a justification for why it's the Diet Man Was Always Meant To Eat, write a book and rake in the cabbage, so to speak. Lessee, are there any unusual diets unplundered that I can claim for my own? *Flips through Wikipedia* Inuit diets might be very saleable. No, seals are quite hard to catch in Southern California and are probably protected or something. Wait – I know. I can write a book extolling The Masai Diet – with healthy quantities of fresh blood and milk. That should go well. Unusual, to say the least, but must have something going for it, given how tall Masai get. And you can certainly get lots of cattle around here.

(I quite liked the green almonds. Hurry, if you want to try them. They're only in season for another week.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sex and the Singularity Girl

There have been a few recent posts and comments on Mick Farren's blog, Doc 40 concerning man/computer interfacing. It started with a picture of a girl and a Dalek, an unpromising combination, in my opinion. I'm one of those people who fall for the villain in every production, particularly if he is haughty, stylishly dressed and likely to win. (Lucius Malfoy comes to mind, here.) But Daleks always struck me as implacably evil, and besides they have jellyfish in their middles.

NSFW picture beyond the cut. (For yea, I have learned to do an L-J Cut on Blogger. Fear me.)

The posts on Doc 40 created quite a mini-stir. I was speculating as to the reasons why robots bring out such strong feelings in humans. They are pathetic, of course; we love their clumsy, kittenish attempts to be human. And Daleks, at least, are well out of the uncanny valley.

Robot love not a new phenomenon. There were hints that it was coming in the mid-sixties.

[1] There's also been a recent upsurge in interest in man uploading himself into computers and spreading his seed all over the galaxy. Am I referring to the the Geek Rapture, the so-called Kurzweil Singularity? Nah, too highbrow. I'm talking about this: [2]

But even I didn't expect a Dalek!

[1] Diktor is a great name, isn't it?
[2] Yes, that is a PDP-11. You know you'd hit that.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Blood Simple

I have a problem with House.

I know that Hugh Laurie is teh sexx0r and ZOMG I can't believe he's English his accent is soooo perfect!!!111eleven!! But there's something in it every week that wrecks my WSOD and pisses me off.

It's not that his doctors break into the patients' houses every week to snoop for lifestyle issues. It's not that his doctors do all the lab testing, which I find less than completely realistic, having worked as a technologist in Clinical Laboratories since 1984. I know you have to have the leads do all the work, simplifying the character list in order to foreground the plot. It's not even that (this week) he dosed a fellow surgeon's coffee with amphetamine, which is normally frowned upon by a hospital's HR. Your lead character always has to have a flaw, preferably an amusing one.

It's the blood. The blood looks wrong. And there's always a lot of it about, often being sprayed everywhere, and they always get it wrong.

Fresh blood isn't a red liquid. Take it from me; I've crossmatched thousands of units for transfusion. I've handled and tested hundreds of liters of the stuff. Cord blood, baby blood, adult blood, HIV positive blood, HBe antigen positive blood, I've been up to my elbows in it, and it isn't a red liquid. It's a straw-colored fluid with lots and lots of small red particles – red blood cells – suspended in it. Red blood cells are solid, so fresh blood is never see-through, nor is it translucent. It never looks like a sports drink or Jello.

Sports drink - does not have red blood cells.

Blood is completely opaque, ranging from deep crimson to brick red. Left to its own devices, it eventually clots and the red cells drop to the bottom of the container, leaving a pale yellow serum.

Blood is not red. The red cells are red. They drop to the bottom after clotting.

If it's anti-coagulated, like a unit of blood, it is opaque red until the red cells settle out or are centrifuged out, when it becomes a pale yellow plasma. But it is never see-through red.

Red cells are red. For transfusion, the blood bank often separates the red cells and the straw-colored plasma into different bags for different uses.

It seems so easy to get this right. Red powder paint in whatever they're using for a fluid should do it. Red chalk. Rouge. Any reddish powder. But instead they use something that splashes exactly right, but looks exactly wrong.

Why is that?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Starlight, Star Bright

You got the loving that I like, alright
(Joni Mitchell)

I am so glad this Voice of America story isn't true.
We have discovered a supernova that stands out as far and away the most powerful, the brightest supernova that has ever been observed," said Nathan Smith.The gigantic blast occurred in a galaxy 240 light years away, the distance light travels in 240 years. It was seen in September by ground telescopes and NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
If it were true, I wouldn't be writing this.

This NYT report seems more like it:
Astronomers have been following the star since last September, when it was discovered in a galaxy 240 million light-years away in the constellation Perseus.
Phew. However, the NYT goes on to say:
The star bears an eerie resemblance to Eta Carinae, a star in our own galaxy that has been burbling and bubbling in the last few centuries as if getting ready for its own outburst. The observations suggest that the troubled and enigmatic Eta Carinae, thought to weigh in at about 120 solar masses, could blow up sooner than theorists have thought. Mario Livio, a theorist at the Space Telescope Science Institute who was not involved in the research, said Eta Carinae’s death could be “the most spectacular star show in history.”
Eta Carinae's only 8000 light years away.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin
I sometimes mention a product on this blog, and I give a URL to Amazon or similar sites. Just to reassure you, I don't get paid to advertise anything here and I don't get any money from your clicks. Everything I say here is because I feel like saying it.