Monthly Archives: September 2014

A hecatomb of innocents?


What has it got in its pocketses?


No doubt I should have been doing something else:  paperwork, ironing, tidying the kitchen.  But I stole an hour or two.


This particular job has been overdue for about quarter of a century.  I used the felt stash to make accommodation for the needle stash.  The prototype holds short, the second model the long ones.


The rolls are a bit rough at the edges, but maybe now I’ll be able to find my favourite 11s without ten minutes of muttering and rattling.

Sowing the garden with salt


The thermometer says one season, the leaves say another.

1 leaves say

In the Indian summer I have hacked out shrubs, lifted slabs and relaid them,

2 slabs

heaved up ancient anti-weed fabric (lavishly festooned with ingrown weeds)

3  low sun

and dug … and dug … and dug … while dripping saltily into the soil.

This didn’t leave much energy so I took refuge with the easy readers.  Walsh’s impersonation of Sayers was vaguely readable but uneasy, as if she was chaining herself to the external patterns of language without the inner life.  It made me think of someone trying to dress herself in items from a wardrobe bought by a taller person with a different colouring.

4 reading

Everest 1953 doesn’t have the scope or depth of research which Wade Davis brought to Into the silence, and it certainly doesn’t have the maps (black mark) but it was a pleasant overview of the expedition and brought out the characters of Eric Shipton and John Hunt as well as Hillary and Tenzing.

5 terracotta knit

In slightly more conscious moments I sewed up terracotta and cabled cream.

6 cable knit

The ties have it


I’ve been watching The ascent of man as I didn’t see all of it the first time around, and every other sentence uttered by Bronowski is making me mutter about intellectual arrogance, cultural imperialism, sexism and elitism, bossiness, and the social crime of talking through one’s hat to an audience of millions.  And yes, I know it was a landmark and a cultural highlight and the rest.

Let’s compare this with its twin landmark programme from the same era, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation.  The two programmes purport to be ‘personal views’ and the presenters also have much in common:  middle aged men, educated, elitist, intelligent.  Yet I mildly discount Clark’s arrogance and absorb his personal view.  Why am I so captious and unkind about Bronowski?


Civilisation is a ‘history of ideas as illustrated by art and music’; Clark was a trained art historian who had also worked as a professional at a high level in his field.  The ascent of man has a wider remit; and while Bronowski was a mathematician and a scientist, he was no archaeologist, ethnographer, geneticist, historian or palaeontologist – thus having no right to an authoritative opinion on any of those topics – which did not prevent him expressing one.

Then there is the way the presenters’ scenes are shot:  Clark seems to spend more time off the screen than on it, and when visible is usually positioned to one side of the television frame, seated with the appearance of languor or walking sedately through spectacular surroundings.  Bronowski is often central and full face to the camera, speaks far more didactically and actually wagged his finger during an opinion piece.  Now I am NOT going to have some middle-aged man wagging his finger at me in my own sitting room, WHOEVER he may be.  (Queen Victoria would have agreed with me on this one.)

But it comes down to ties.  Clark invariably wears a dark vaguely tweedy suit, occasionally diversified with a plain dark waistcoat, always with a subfusc tie, which is sometimes seen migrating gently towards his left ear. And then there is Bronowski, dressed in bomber jackets, strange three-quarter 1970s coats, leather jackets, mustard coloured trousers, variegated shirts, and at least twelve in-your-face ties per episode.

Can I really justify discounting the series on the grounds of tie choice?  Well, yes, actually, I think I can.  Bronowski’s ties shout ‘Look at me!  Look at my clever blue tie with spots all over it!  Look at me again!  It’s my poison yellow with brown zigzags tie!  Aren’t I bold and individualistic! Hello there, it’s me again with my tie covered in green and lemon squiggles! I can get away with it because I am cool!’  Call me narrow-minded; but I’d give more credit to a presenter who appeared to be less interested in himself. And I don’t think I’m going to enjoy eleven hours spent in the company of someone who insists that I look at his ties.

My mitochondria are killing me


and if Nick Lane is correct, they are killing you as well.


This one is so broad in scope and so stuffed with detail that it is difficult to summarise.   The main enquiry of the book is into the reasons why animals age, so far as current research can indicate this.

En route, Oxygen describes the role of that element in geology, evolution and biochemistry, pulling numerous strands of investigation together to consider why the Earth retained its water, why organisms were under oxidative stress long before they were exposed to free oxygen, why rates of evolution began to gallop only after oxygen respiration became part of the deal, the damage done by free radicals in animal tissue, the questionable role of vitamin C as both a pro- and an anti-oxidant, but also involved in activating any number of hormones and neurotransmitters, and the question of the leaky mitochondria.

So here is today’s literary challenge:  sketch out the book in Lane’s own words without cheating and just copying his own summary:

… radiation exerts its biological effects through a mechanism that is very similar to the effects of oxygen poisoning …. Respiration can therefore be seen as a very slow form of oxygen poisoning.

The development of multicellular organisms can even be considered an antioxidant response … Our elegant circulatory system, which is usually presented as a means of distributing oxygen to individual cells, can be seen equally as a means of restricting … oxygen delivery to the correct amount.

Given this wide range of actions, the extent to which our normal physiology is fine-tuned by vitamin C is virtually anybody’s guess.

Barja found that bird mitochondria are more oxygen-tight: relatively few free radicals leak from the mitochondria … this explains one long-standing puzzle: the poor relationship between the … lifespan of birds and mammals.

… the composition of mitochondria affects their function and our lifespan, but is not easy to alter by diet.

Sex steals resources that we would otherwise use for staying alive, but then so does being human … perhaps laziness does pay, so long as we don’t eat or drink our way to an early death.*

This is a terrible travesty of a fascinating book.  Go away and read it yourselves.  But you can’t have my copy – I will be keeping it.

* from pp 112, 166, 182, 256, 338, 275

Blood sport: A game for any number of players


They have a certain weevilly charm with their downturned snouts and purposeful little legs, but the charm wanes when one is heavily outnumbered.  In this case it was two against several hundred, and we hunted them down, squashing their tough carapaces without hesitation, though with some remorse.  But I bet some got away into the crevices.  I shall slice my bread most carefully.


Bouncing through the neutrophils


A random chain of events led me to the article, which is well above my head.

Pericytes (contractile perivascular cells found on the abluminal surface of capillaries and post-capillary venules) interact with endothelial cells and contribute to vascular homeostasis.  At inflammatory sites, neutrophils migrate along pericytes interdigitated in the vessel wall, exiting through gaps between neighboring pericytes. 

 I read on, bouncing from known word to known word and attempting to retain a sense of the argument.

After a while an odd sense of familiarity grew, and I realized I was using the same reading technique as if tackling large lumps of Milton or unfamiliar bits of Shakespeare.  Not only that, I recalled using this same technique when reading my first adult novels – tackling the dense vocabulary of Jane Eyre when I was six, for example, which offers vassalage, heterogeneous, capacity, propensities, noxious, indignation, sanguine, complacently, cordiality, prone, scapegoat in a single paragraph in chapter 1. I remember hurdling detail with my eyes on the narrative, and discovering that most of the words came quietly into focus behind me.

It still works.  Like Mr Shaw, let us stimulate the phagocytes.

Article Neutrophils at work was in the July issue of Nature Immunology – authors Nauseef and Borregaard.