Scribble, scribble, scribble

I suppose this is what they call a blog. Except that blogs are supposed to be updated more often than this is.

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< February 2009 >
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Saturday 2009-02-21


Gramophone, which calls itself "the world's greatest classical music magazine" and can probably make a decent argument in support of that claim, has put a complete archive of its past issues on the web. For everyone. For free.

How, you might ask, will they now persuade anyone to subscribe to their magazine?

The trick may be that their archive is produced by means of OCR software, with the result that what's actually on the web is perhaps better described not as "a complete archive of their past issues" but as "a surrealist composition loosely based on a complete archive of their past issues". Maybe it'll get better; they have a handy button next to each paragraph to let you report errors. Too bad that most paragraphs have errors, often several of them, and that the most entertaining errors are ones where two different articles have been randomly interleaved.

Anyway, good stuff. Here's a random snippet that tickled my fancy, from a review of a recording of the Goldberg Variations.

One recording, by an artist whom gallantry prevents me from naming, would have sent the Count to sleep from sheer boredom; he might well have taken refuge in sleep as a means of escape from another, by a player living further north.

(The story being alluded to here is probably false, but no matter.)

Monday 2009-02-16


This Times article is loathsome. If its loathsomeness isn't obvious on a quick glance, you might like to imagine an article that begins like this:

A Jew man has pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of pounds from a local shop.

Moshe Davidson, who named himself after the Jewish prophet when he converted to the religion, faces up to a year in prison for breaking into the shop and ransacking its supplies of cash.

Davidson, who believes that he is part of God's chosen people, was caught on CCTV smashing down the door and blowing open a large safe.

(Yes, the second word is deliberate; it pretty much parallels the correspondingly barbarous phrasing in the real article. And yes, the transgenderedness of the subject of the real article appears to have precisely as much relevance to her crime as the Jewishness of the subject of my fake one has to his.)

It occurs to me that it's not un-heard-of for newspapers to change their websites, so here for reference is how the article begins at present.

A sex-change woman has pleaded guilty to reckless homicide after her elderly husband was "exercised to death".

Christine Newton-John, 41, who named herself after the singer Olivia Newton-John following her operation, faces up to five years in prison for forcing her exhausted 73-year-old husband to swim in the pool of their apartment complex in Chardon, Ohio.

Newton-John, who was born John Vallandingham, was caught on CCTV dragging James Mason, around the pool by his arms and legs.

Saturday 2009-02-14


I recently read Rhythms of Life, a book about circadian rhythms. I was very struck by (the currently most plausible guess at) the underlying cell-level mechanism.

It's a negative feedback system, like a pendulum (which, as it swings higher, also feels a stronger force pulling it back towards the central position). Startling thing number 1: one crucial step in the feedback loop is DNA transcription. I'd always vaguely assumed that, roughly speaking, the instructions in a cell's DNA determine how the cell is "built" and are more or less passive thereafter (readers who actually know some biology, please feel free to laugh at me at this point), but no.

Here's a simplified description of how it works: there are two proteins (call them A and B), described by genes a and b. Protein B promotes the expression of gene a, but protein A attaches to protein B and stops it doing this. So, the more A we have, the less A gets made; if the details of how this works out are right, we get the sort of negative feedback loop required to produce an oscillation.

Startling thing number 2 is how easily this produces entrainment to the light/dark cycle. It turns out that A is degraded by exposure to light, and this is enough. (Which shouldn't have been surprising, since in general oscillators very easily get entrained to anything in their environment, but it surprised me anyway.)

So: suppose we have a stable 24-hour-ish cycle, and then it becomes light earlier than "expected". Then A gets degraded more rapidly, at around the time when it would have been being degraded anyway, and so the cycle is a bit shorter. Similarly if the onset of light is later than expected. If the light period goes on for longer than expected, then again A gets degraded faster -- but now at a time when its quantity should be beginning to ramp up; so the cycle becomes longer. And so forth.

Three caveats. Firstly, this is all oversimplified; for instance, A and B are actually pairs of proteins that work together, and there are other mechanisms involved in, e.g., arranging for the period of the oscillator not to be much too fast. Secondly, strictly it only applies to fruit flies, and the corresponding systems in other organisms aren't so well understood. Thirdly, lots of important details (for instance, how the period of the clock manages to be largely insensitive to temperature, when chemical reactions consistently run faster at higher termperatures) are still unknown.