Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus

Paul Davies, writing in the Grauniad, has thought of a way to approach a cancer cure. The clever bit is, Professor Davies is a noted physicist - nay, a cosmologist, yet - who was asked to think about cancer from a non-biologist perspective, to "think outside of the box", as it is termed.

In the article, Cancer: The beat of an ancient drum? he says,

Two years ago, in a spectacularly enlightened move, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) decided to enlist the help of physical scientists. The idea was to bring fresh insights from disciplines like physics to help tackle cancer in radical new ways. Twelve research centres were created to focus the effort, and I was approached to run the one based at Arizona State University.

With no prior knowledge of cancer, I started asking some very basic questions. What struck me from the outset is that something as pervasive and stubborn as cancer must be a deep part of the story of life itself. Sure enough, cancer is found in almost all multicellular organisms, suggesting its origins stretch back hundreds of millions of years.

So far so good.

A century ago the German biologist Ernst Haekel pointed out that the stages of embryo development recapitulate the evolutionary history of the animal. Human embryos, for instance, develop, then lose, gills, webbed feet and rudimentary tails, reflecting their ancient aquatic life styles. The genes responsible for these features normally get silenced at a later stage of development, but sometimes the genetic control system malfunctions and babies get born with tails and other ancestral traits. Such anomalous features are called atavisms.

Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University is, like me, a cosmologist and astrobiologist with a fascination for how cancer fits into the story of life on Earth. Together we developed the theory that cancer tumours are a type of atavism that appears in the adult form when something disrupts the silencing of ancestral genes. The reason that cancer deploys so many formidable survival traits in succession, is, we think, because the ancient genetic toolkit active in the earliest stages of embryogenesis gets switched back on, re-activating the Proterozoic developmental plan for building cell colonies.

That's "Haeckel". And the plot appears to be from the X-Files, although I think the Cigarette Smoking Man was also involved somewhere along the way. Biologist PZ Myers at Pharyngula has a blog post showing where Davies is wrong, he's wrong, and where he's right, biologists have already thought of it. (They had a head start, after all.) One clue - Haeckel, who came up with his theory in the 1860s, wasn't exactly correct. Ontology does not actually recapitulate phylogeny.

Anyway, the 'theory' doesn't actually include much physics. So I have a better one for you, Prof. Davies. You know how biologists in the 1600s knew that sperm have a little homunculus sitting in the head which, when implanted in a womb, develops into a child and then into an adult? Well, why don't you invent a sort of micro-MRI that you can use to scan the homunculi, and if they have tiny cancers, cut them out using a small knife...a "gamma knife" sounds small, that'll do...and then fertilize eggs with the cured sperm that will grow up to be cancer free adults?

That's "thinking outside the box" for you!

We can share the Nobel.

Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard - Poly Styrene, RIP

In 1976 I left home for London to go to university. My new pals mostly listened to well-spoken young men from Canterbury who took acid and punted up and down the River Cant, or whatever the hell it is, being twee, idyllic and musicianly.

Not everyone, though. One day someone put on Oh Bondage Up Yours, instantly scaring away the bucolic scenes conjured up by people who all, in retrospect, seemed to have been Phil Manzanera. It was fun, and liberating. Yes, I used that word. It used to mean something, in a woolly short-life-housing, yoghurt-weaving sort of way.

Between the Slits' angry and dynamic female punk and that of Poly Styrene's X Ray Spex, the seventies made it possible for women to get on stage and tell it like it was. (I bought and read Patti Smith's memoir of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe [Just Kids] yesterday, and she mentions auditioning guitarists for her band in late 1974, when "none of them warmed up to a girl being the leader", until she found Ivan Kral.) Now Ari Up of the Slits is dead and Poly Styrene is dead as well. She probably doesn't mind, being a Krishna Consciousness devotee, but I mind.

Rather than the raucous Oh Bondage, I think I'll start listening with Germ Free Adolescent, which in a way was less part of the last of punk and more one of the first few things of the eighties. I can remember hearing this on a day much like today, sunny with birds singing, and with cheese sandwiches avec mustard in the kitchen, except days like that are much more rare in London than in So Cal.

Yes, their songs got on Top of the Pops.

And Identity:

And here's a long punk medley that will last the rest of this quiet and bright, almost Canterbury-esque day. [Link alas decayed]

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Told you so:

Britain sending military team to Libya.

Told you so too, although I didn't think it would be less than 24 hours between the two:

Libyan rebels support having Western troops help evacuate civilians.

The Kills

I'm off to see the Kills in Nashville on Friday.

I couldn't resist seeing them in San Diego last Friday with my friend LOT. Beautiful day to be there.

Due to a certain amount of hangover, I wasn't up to writing a review of it, but I enjoyed the show very much. Next week I'll be seeing them in Nashville with LOT and Aquamarine.

The House of Blues was much more congenial than the last time I was there - or maybe there isn't such a high percentage of twits at a Kills concert compared with Dead Weather fans. The tickets came with a signed picture of the Kills, and on mine Jamie has put his "x" over his own face. I guess he got bored with signing them all.

No, I didn't actually get the set list. Barry Benchpress, the eight foot tall 250 pound security guard with gigantic rocklike pectorals that got into every photo I took, along with his hair, fluorescent earplugs and craggy visage, passed it to the young women beside me and I took a photo of it as I left.

The hangover was due to starting early in the hotel room, I guess. House of Blues certainly made it difficult to drink. Last time I was there they had waitress service, but this time, I went to the bar and the bouncer made me go upstairs to show my ID at the door again and get a wrist band (and who wants to do that trek when you have a spot at the barrier and you know it could close up at any instant), and then I came back down and bought two drinks, and the bouncer stopped me from coming out with them and said I had to drink them at the bar....! I said, 'You could have told me that first!' He just shrugged. So I drank one and the nice barman kept the other one for my friend while we saved her spot, but of course we didn't dare try for a second drink. Next time - nylon hip flask! It's got to be done.

My friend said the problem with the Naked and the Famous was that they were neither naked nor famous. Perhaps that will change and we can look forward to them in all their glory later.

Satellite acoustic, which is apparently non-embeddable.

And the current radio medley, You Don't Love Me/Steppin' Razor is also non-embeddable. This attempt to figure out who is watching the videos will backfire in the end, as when I'm not drunk I'm perfectly capable of pseudo-embedding them. But for today, do click the link.

Edit: Here's You Don't Love Me/Steppin' Razor

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Also at the Mission, SJC - koi in the fountain, with rain and palm tree reflection.

Mission visit

We went to the SJC mission the other day. For no apparent reason they had a Lewis and Clark exhibition. Or the Corps of Discovery...are those two different things? Surely Southern California wasn't a big part of the Lewis and Clark deal?

Anyway, they had activities for kids, so we did them.

Brief catch up

I haven't posted anything on here in a month. No excuse really. Just nothing heartening to post about. Japan suffered a massive loss of life, there was a Chernobyl-level nuclear incident, and the world discovered that the budget deficit is not due to the recent incredible increase in the difference between the wealthiest and the ordinary people in America, where the top 1% take home 20% of the money, but no longer pay their share of taxes, and was not due to things like bankers selling worthless credit swaps to each other until the music stopped and government had to bail them out to the tune of trillions of dollars, but was in fact caused by unionized folks who insist on taking the pensions they've paid into all their working lives and old folks who've been paying Medicare taxes who now, selfishly, want to use Medicare. But now we know, and our agreeable president seems to ... agree and is off to fix the budget accordingly.

He also showed he was one of the boys by starting yet another expensive and hurty war. He completely fell down on the illegality part of it his predecessors were so good at, though. This is technically a legal war. Luckily for his place in history, this one has the potential to go full-Vietnam. You know:

Let's have a no-fly zone!
Um, telling him not to fly isn't working. We're going to have to use planes.
I guess we have to hit anti-aircraft targets on the ground too?
I suppose we better hit that tank convoy as well, even though it's not technically flying anywhere.
Damn, we hit civilians. Well, let's kill twice as many gov't forces to make up for it.
The rebels aren't exactly winning. We'd better send them some weapons.
We need people on the ground to call in air strikes.
We'd better send the rebels some advisors.
Maybe some of our advisors should fight?
Better send in some Marines.
Is the army doing anything else right now? Oh.
How does everyone feel about the draft? Oh.
Let's not put the draft thing in the form of a question this time.


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