Saturday, 17 February 2018

Genius in the Wilderness

One of the great things having a blog is that you can celebrate the achievements of your friends. These two books were written by friends - David Adam is a colleague from work (we're with the Submerged Log Company). I know Neil Ansell through a wonderful Facebook group for writers called, for reasons with which I shan't bore you [you don't know, do you? - Ed] the 'Drunken Beagles', although I have met him in person. It was in a room above a pub just off Leicester Square, but hey, that's enough about my personal life. Not only that, but I have enjoyed earlier books by both David and Neil. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, the books below are so fresh off the presses that the ink isn't quite dry. I should add that neither author gave me a free copy. I bought these books for myself, with, you know, actual money. Just like you should, so go get 'em.

The Genius Within by David Adam is about that thorniest of subjects, intelligence. Intelligence is like jazz - very hard to define, though you instantly know it when you come across it. Adam's rule-of-thumb definition is pragmatic and robust: intelligence is the capacity to use what you have to get what you want. With that in mind, he explores the world of smart drugs, electrical stimulation and mind hacks. More than that, he experiments on himself, with the aid of his long-suffering spouse, to increase his performance on intelligence tests, thus outfoxing MENSA (the society for people who can pass MENSA entrance exams). Along the way he explores the bizarre world of savants, various kinds of intelligence, how intelligence tests have been used to justify racism, and even decide who should live or die. At the heart of the book is the notorious Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, which, for all its misinterpretation and misuse, does actually mean something, and is to an extent inherited. Most startling is that IQ has increased over the past few decades, a consequence of better education, and also, I guess, nutrition, communication, and the fact that there are more people. Work even fresher than this book shows that those living in larger groups are brighter than those in smaller ones (though, admittedly, the study was on birds, not people). But beware IQ, which shows all sorts of odd things, including a correlation with more liberal attitudes and politics. This might make Adam's readers feel good about themselves, because, you know, more conservative types like me don't read books, being content to remain in the corner and bang rocks together. After I closed the book it occurred to me (very dimly, because I'm like that) that intelligence was used in a similar way to justify racism. But hey, that's me. This book, is funny, insightful and dangerously readable.

There is a part of all of us that would like to be like Neil Ansell, unafraid to pack the fewest of belongings and head out into the wilds. Most of us do this only in our dreams, yet Ansell has been footloose since his earliest youth, and has spent much of his life a solitary wanderer. The Last Wilderness tells the story of his return, in poor health, to the wilderness that first started him off - the 'Rough Bounds' of the Western Highlands of Scotland, the near-inaccessible peninsulas just inland of Skye and the Small Isles. A series of hikes over the course of a year sees him scrambling up cliffs, slithering down scree, and coming face to face with red deer, seals, otters and an aviary of birds. He didn't manage to see a wild cat, though a wild cat did see him. There is an elegiac quality to this, as, page by page, we learn how progressive deafness is removing the song of first one bird from his experience, and then another - hence the book's subtitle, 'a journey into silence'. And again, how a once-heroic stamina is being weakened by a kind of slow-motion heart failure. Trails that he once bounded along with carefree ease become gloomy and arduous. It is all very beautiful, and almost painfully sad. As I came to the end of the book I kept thinking of Raspberries, Strawberries, a song by the Kingston Trio from my parents' record collection: A young man goes to Paris, as every young man should/ there's something in the air of France that does a young man good... An old man returns to Paris, as every old man must/ He finds the winter winds blow cold, his dreams have turned to dust.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Three Things About Gatsby

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon There are three things you need to know about Elsie. The first is that she is Florence Claybourne's best friend. The second is that Elsie always know what to say to make things better. And the third is ... well, Florence can never quite remember that. Florence, 84, a resident of Cherry Tree sheltered accommodation for the elderly, has been having trouble remembering things lately. But Elsie is always there to stop her shouting too loudly and getting into trouble with the warden, who'd like to move her into Green Bank, the dreaded higher-dependency facility for residents who can no longer retrieve their marbles. But the independent and outspoken Florence has cause for concern when a mysterious gent called Gabriel Price arrives at Cherry Tree. Problem is, Florence and Elsie know for a fact that Gabriel is really Ronnie Butler, a thoroughly bad lot who died in 1953. But is he? And what is he up to? Now, you'd think that an Old Peoples' Home would be the last place where you'd set a ripping mystery yarn like this. Joanna Cannon turns this assumption on its head. In a place full of memories, not all of them very reliable, a home for the elderly is just the place. The mystery itself is full of twists and turns, but along the way we are told a few home truths about how we do - and don't- care for the elderly in the beige, beige and beige 21st Century, where the elderly are barely more than statistics, grey heads to be counted by younger, career-minded management, and not human beings with wisdom and experience that deserve to be respected.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald In America, anyone can make it big. In America, anyone can be a movie star. In America, the most unlikely people can become President, and occasionally do. It does help, though, to have money, and lots of it, though, as someone once said, money can't buy you love. Gatsby is simply dripping with money, which he scatters like so much largesse during his famous parties at his Long Island mansion, to which none of the guests are invited - they just turn up, hoping that some of the Gatsby shine will rub off. For all that, Gatsby cuts a lonely figure,  and when his downfall comes, he is forgotten, disposable, like yesterday's news. This short (very short) novel has 'classic' written all over it, which made it somewhat hard to approach. It was Fitzgerald's most successful novel, however, published in 1925, the height of the 'Jazz Age', a period of conspicuously deep consumption and shallowness of personality which, as we all know, didn't end well. If one had to sum it up very briefly, it's an object lesson in the butterfly-wing fragility of the American Dream. Also, how those brief moments of ecstasy experienced in one's penniless youth can never be recaptured, however much money you throw at them. If you like Gatsby, you'll enjoy the early satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh, especially A Handful of Dust (1934), which explores similar themes but from across the water.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Cold Expectations

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote One ordinary Saturday evening in November, 1959, farmer Herb Clutter, his wife and two teenage children were slaughtered in their beds in Holcomb, Kansas. The crime was as motiveless as it was savage. When a short newspaper item on the murders caught his eye, New Yorker journalist Truman Capote went to investigate, interviewing virtually everyone who'd known the Clutters - an apparently perfect, upstanding mid-western, mid-twentieth-century middle-American family whom everyone liked, who had no enemies, and whose capacious closets were as free from skeletons as any closets might ever be. A series of unlikely chance events pinned the crime with absolute certainty on two drifting dreamers, and when they were caught, tried and settled in Death Row, Capote interviewed them, too. The result, published in 1966, caused a sensation, in part, I suspect, because Capote depicts the criminals as human beings, though their backgrounds are presented without judgement or comment. Capote saw In Cold Blood as a 'documentary novel'  and for the most part it reads as a crime thriller, albeit far better written than most of the genre. It's the quality of the writing that's the star - entirely unaffected, it is crisp and unsentimental, yet engaging and humane. As a journalist first and foremost, Capote lets his characters tell their own story, and rarely if ever interposes himself into the narrative. As clear as a mountain spring and sure to end up as one of the best reads of my year.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens Such is the power and richness of his prose I usually only manage to read one Dickens every two years, if that. As one critic on Goodreads said about The Pickwick Papers, these books were meant to be read in weekly parts, not devoured in great quantities at once, as if binge-watching a box set, the effect of the latter being similar on the mind as being force-fed Black Forest Gateau might be on the digestion. Pickwick, however, belongs to Dickens' exuberant youth, along with Barnaby Rudge, which I read only a few weeks before Great Expectations: an uncharacteristically short interdickensian interval for me, occasioned by the fact that Gee Minima is studying the latter for an exam (the same being true for In Cold Blood, as it happens) and I wanted to be able to discuss it with her. And what a contrast. Where, in Barnaby Rudge (1840) the youthful Dickens embarks on a complex ensemble piece set against a panoramic backdrop, perhaps because he knew no better than not to try something so ambitious (in which case I am relieved to know that I am in good company), the mature author at the height of his powers has Great Expectations (1860) stick to a relatively simple, linear plot, for all that machinations in the background contrive to interpose themselves on Pip, the hapless hero. For there are two kinds of people in the world. No, not the gentry and the working people, the exploiter and the exploited, but those who make things happen, and those to whom things happen. Pip is very much in the latter category. Without his knowing why, and through no effort of his own, he is suddenly propelled from poverty into great wealth, and, prevented from knowing the source of his fortune, lives his life idly and in a state of existential despair. Nonetheless, to say that the lesson of the book is that money cannot buy happiness, or that money earned honestly is the only money worth having, would be trite in the extreme. Having just put the book down (only possible once I had reached the end) I could say that Great Expectations is all about the satisfaction of being the master of one's own fate, however humble, rather than being the unwitting agent of others, and this applies not only to Pip, but to the object of his unrequited love, Estella, raised from an orphan simply to be the tool of revenge on the male sex by the jilted and more-than-half-mad Miss Havisham. But one could go on at great length (as many people have) about the moral aspects of Great Expectations, without mentioning - as one must - its merits as a rattling good story. Dickens, as ever, mesmerises with his characterisations, his comedy, his irony, his gothic stylings, his sheer storytelling, but in Great Expectations we can see - in contrast with Barnaby Rudge - how the mature Dickens uses all these things with a poise and control that seems entirely effortless. Whereas Barnaby Rudge is a period confection, for all that its many digressions, comedic asides and richness of scenery are intensely enjoyable, the impression on finishing Great Expectations is that you have been in the presence of greatness, and have not just read - but witnessed - one of the Great Novels in the English language.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

I Like IKEA

It will not have escaped your notice (either of you) that Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, died recently. Cue jokes about having to assemble a coffin, and so on, let's get them out of the way first. I'm going to come out and say it - I like IKEA. I like their design, their style and their wit.

Even though (and I think I can say this without fear of embarrassment) I fall into that group of parents whose children were not conceived in an IKEA bed, I have at various times enjoyed creating a BENNY large-hadron collider from plain unvarnished birch; an AGNETHA atomic-force microscope in unbleached cotton; a FRIDA uranium-235-enriching ultracentrifuge in beech-effect particleboard, and a BJORN laser gravitational interferometer in canvas and tubular steel. I probably own every Allen key IKEA has ever made.

When Mrs Gee and I first set up home together our dining table and chairs were ÅBO, and they lasted until well into the primary school years of Gee Minor and Minima - who spent much of their formative years larking about in the Kids' section of IKEA (we still have a superfluity of IKEA plastic beakers). An EXPEDIT storage unit occupies a wall of our salon, where it houses an increasing number of books, some of Mrs Gee's collection of vinyl LPs, a bowlful of fossil sea urchins and other gewgaws. Gee Minima does her homework at an EXPEDIT shelving-unit-cum-desk and sleeps in an IKEA bed.

I wrote much of Deep Time at a desk in an IVAR shelving unit. I think there are still one or two pieces of it in the shed, holding up tools and pots of paint. I started Jacob's Ladder at the same unit but finished it at a ROBIN desk, where I also knocked out The Science of Middle-earth, A Field Guide to Dinosaurs and all three volumes of the Sigil Trilogy. Although The Accidental Species and Across The Bridge were conceived, researched and written at a plank, derived from an old wardrobe, set on screw-in legs from Homebase, the computer I'm writing on now is set on a very ancient and very small IKEA workstation. Probably called LARS. (By The Sea was entirely written on trains.)

It is true that the way IKEA stores are laid out seems calculated to drive you mad. But there is a trick to it: research. Go through the room sets for ideas. Choose the furniture you want and take extensive measurements. If you want, buy a few tealights and a mug in the marketplace. Sure, go ahead, enjoy gravadlax and or meatballs in the cafe. But if you want to buy anything serious, like a sofa or a wardrobe,  come back at an uncrowded time with a couple of mates and a van. And nowadays you can order things online anyway.

Many years ago when the world was young (OK, it was 2011) Mrs Gee and I had some men in hard hats build a double-height extension on the back of the Maison des Giraffes. The remodeling included a new kitchen and bathroom, but having no budget for furnishing these rooms - not even from IKEA - we had a great time fossicking around in reclamation yards and on eBay for bargains. Our Butler sink cost £30 in the same scrapyard where Mrs Gee spotted the gold taps for the bath for £10. The bath itself was new, but bought from eBay, and the range cooker was an eBay bargain (£350, Wisbech, collection made possible by my friend Mr M. P. of Cromer and his Renault Espace). Much of the woodwork in the kitchen was done by me. That is, myself.

Now, I come from a long line of Russian Jewish cabinet makers. I can trace my lineage back to my great-great-grandfather, a man who gloried in the name of Aaron Israel Ginsberg. As heirlooms we have a set of beautiful mahogany dining chairs made by his son, my great-grandfather, Wolf. His son, my grandfather, carved walnut dashboards for Rolls Royce before being seconded in World War II to make Spitfires. My father, too, is no slouch and in his retirement spends many hours in his workshop quietly faking making things. Many of my father's relatives have created beautiful things, over the years. Well, perhaps the genes have become diluted with the generations, because when I try to make things, they are always described by Mrs Gee as 'rustic'. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which no shelf I have ever hung has ever fallen down (hence no need to buy a BILLY bookcase), we felt it time for our kitchen to be refreshed. But kitchens cost ££££££. Many more ££££££ than we can afford. However, when I sold an old and (as it turned out) rather rare Rickenbacker bass guitar I'd had lying under the bed for years for £££, we decided to see what we could get.

That's when Mrs Gee reminded me that IKEA used to make a range of free-standing kitchen units under the name VARDE. The range has been discontinued but there remains a very healthy secondhand market in VARDE units online. Why IKEA discontinued the VARDE range I have no idea - it could be because they are too good. They are remarkably solid - monumental, even, with solid beech tops, legs and frames - and very good quality for the price. So after some research, I managed to secure a VARDE sideboard (eBay, Thetford, £250) and two VARDE hanging cupboards (eBay, Colchester, £50). Here they are, all settled in.


But wait, there's more. I bought a VARDE stainless-steel double sink unit (Gumtree, Hackney, £150). Here it is, as yet unplumbed in...


This will replace the Butler sink, which will enjoy retirement in the garden where it will be used to grow herbs and geraniums.

We are keeping some of my rustic kitchen furniture, but for a very modest sum (and some road trips: have Volvo Estate, will travel) we have gotten a rather stylish kitchen. So, thank you, IKEA.

I am sure you have many IKEA stories of your own. IKEA has become part of all our lives, because it has allowed people without much money to furnish their homes in style. IKEA furniture is cheap and cheerful, and despite the jokes, it is well designed, easy to put together, and so deservedly popular. Go to IKEA on any given weekend and you'll find people of all backgrounds and walks of life fondling a KALLAX storage unit or flomping out on a KLIPPAN sofa or gingerly trying out a POANG chair.

You'd think, therefore, wouldn't you, because you would, that a left-leaning newspaper such as the Giardia would be full of praise for the way that a man from very humble beginnings found a way to bring value and style to so many - very much the Peoples' Furniture Store. But, oh no - The Giardia's retrospective of some of IKEA's greatest hits was an exercise in snobbery. If you ever need an example of the hypocrisy of so-called 'progressives', look no further. My dear, it seems to say, we simply ADORE the working-classes, as long as they don't come and shop in Waitrose.

Let them eat cake.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Barnaby Skinner

Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge. After the success of his first novel The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens wanted to try a historical novel, emulating his hero, Walter Scott. He chose for his subject a dark episode that had happened fifty years before he put pen to paper - the so-called Gordon Riots of 1780, when the eccentric peer George Gordon set up the Protestant Association to protest moves in Parliament to emancipate Roman Catholics from the strictures in which they were unable to own property or teach or practice their religion. (This reminds me, although plainly not Dickens, who doesn't mention it, of another act of Enlightenment Reform - the 'Jew Bill' of 1753 to allow Jews in Britain to become British citizens, but which was repealed in 1754 after popular protest.) During the riots there was extensive damage to people and property and London was, for a few days in the summer of 1780, wholly given over to the Mob. Dickens - who at heart was a journalist and reporter - is peerless in conveying the terror of living under the intimidation of the Mob, the horror and mindlessness of anarchy; and unflinching in describing its atrocities. The build-up, though, is long. The description of the lives, times, interrelationships,  squabbles and occasional mysterious and faintly Gothick doings of the various characters whose lives are changed by the events of 1780 takes up the first half of the novel (Barnaby Rudge himself is a rather minor character in this ensemble piece), and Dickens does like to lay it on thick with long descriptive passages and comic asides. That Dickens can get away with such things shows the quality of his writing, which is a joy to read on every page. It is interesting that Barnaby Rudge remains one of Dickens' least-read and least-known works. I owe it to him for bringing to light a shameful episode of English history of which I had never heard, puncturing our vision that the 18th Century was one of wall-to-wall Enlightenment. Did Dickens succeed in emulating Scott? No - he was too good a comedian. And Scott would never have been quite so kitchen-sink. An unexpected pleasure.

Neal Asher - The Skinner. As far from London of 1780 as one could get, although surprisingly similar in its exuberant description of riot, anarchy and gore, comes this science fiction splatterfest in which dismemberment, death and torture are described with such elan that there really ought to be a notice at the bottom of each page exhorting the reader to NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. The distant planet Spatterjay resides on the fringes of the Human Polity of worlds, and was once used by the pirate Jay Hoop and his criminal gang who captured humans and sold them as decerebrated slaves to the horrible crab-like Prador, with whom the Polity was once at war. Seven hundred years later, a few lost souls reconvene on Spatterjay to settle some old scores. I'm not giving anything away when I say that they do, but the body count is high - both by combat, and by losses to Spatterjay's endlessly and creatively hungry wildlife. If you have decided not to visit Australia on the rumor that every wild creature there was out to kill you, and you get nervous about creepy-crawlies and squishy creatures with long clackety legs, this is probably not the book for you. (I loved it.)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

For The Love of a Litl 'Lotl

Readers of these annals (both of them) will know that we are rather fond of axolotls, chez Gee, so much so that a while back my colleague Professor L. O. of Jena sent me a reprint of a paper he'd coauthored celebrating the sesquicentenary of these charming amphibians as experimental animals. Back in the day the axolotl of our eye was the irrepressible and perhaps irreplaceable Squirty Benson Wilberforce III, and it was my sad duty some time ago to post notice of her transformation from Axolotl to Exolotl.

When Squirty passed on to the great polluted Mesoamerican alpine lake in the sky Mrs Gee declared that no kitchen work surface was complete without at least one tank with an axolotl in it, so after a decent mourning period we acquired not one but two yes two count 'em two not three but two more axolotls. We had said to the helpful assistant in the well-stocked aquatics department of the garden centre where we acquired them that we were going to call them Aragorn and Arwen ('great names,' he said, wistfully) though - unsure of their gender - we ended up calling them Merry and Pippin instead. They shared the same tank until Merry started using Pippin as a snack bar, nibbling off one hind leg and most of a hand. I hied fifthwith forthwith to the aquarist and bought another tank wherein Pippin could regrow their limbs - which they did.


No kitchen worktop chez Gee is complete without at least one axolotl tank

Axolotls are indeed famous for their regenerative ability, and it was fascinating to watch Pippin slowly reacquire a full set of limbs.

Pippin, now a Fully-Limbed 'Lotl

Wouldn't it be great if people who had lost limbs could simply regrow them, as an axolotl can? The regenerative capacities of mammals such as humans are my newt minute rather limited, though we wouldn't want to be without our innate ability to repair small wounds and lesions. There is a small mammal called the African spiny mouse that can regenerate quite large patches of skin, and recent medical work using gene therapy and stem cells shows that it's possible for people with the serious skin condition epidermolysis bullosa to have their epidermis almost completely replaced.

Regenerating entire limbs, though, is quite beyond us.

The fossil record shows that a capacity for limb regeneration was once more widespread than it is now, but has largely been lost except in salamanders such as the axolotl. The genes required to regenerate limbs seem unique to salamanders, so any progress towards, maybe, in the distant future, transplanting a 'litl 'lotl magic into the clinic will depend on getting some idea of how these axolotl genes work in concert, and sit in context of other genes.

Hence the importance of working out the complete axolotl genome - the entire catalogue of DNA to create a 'lotl from something very litl. A person born on the day when the initial sequencing of the human genome was first announced will be celebrating their seventeenth birthday on 12 February (I celebrated the occasion here).  Since then, dozens if not hundreds of animals and plants are known in full genomic detail.

And now, at last, the genome of the axolotl can join this mighty company.

Why has it taken so long?

The reason is that although the 'lotl may be litl, its genome most definitely is not. A giant among genomes, it is ten times the size of the human genome. Salamanders tend to go in for large genomes - some salamanders have genomes almost four times the size of the axolotl genome. Even so, the axolotl genome contains some 23,251 protein-coding genes, about the same as most vertebrate genomes. Much of the rest of the axolotl genome consists of 'junk' - that is, repetitive DNA. Almost two thirds of the axolotl genome consists of highly repetitive sequences, largely produced by transposons or 'jumping' genes that copy themselves and spread through the genome. Sequencing large genomes is a technical challenge, especially when they are highly repetitive, as it's hard to keep track of which one of the many similar sequences is which: the researchers working on the axolotl genome had to create custom technology and software to make sense of it all.

As well as long stretches of repetitive DNA sequences, the axolotl genome has large introns. Protein-coding genes tend to be split into several sections, or exons, each one bounded by stretches of non-coding DNA called introns, rather in the way that TV programs are split into sections by commercial breaks. If the axolotl genome were a TV show, it would be the Superbowl, as its introns are frequent and very long -- some 12-17 times the length of introns found in the genomes of mice, frogs or humans. An exception is found in the groups of genes called Hox clusters, which are vital for development, and in which introns have been kept relatively short.

What can be said from the genome about how axolotls regenerate their limbs? As yet, rather litl. There are some peculiarities, such as the complete absence of a gene called Pax3 that's essential for development in other vertebrates. Having the genome will allow researchers to start charting the positions of the small collection of genes unique to axolotls known to be involved in regeneration, working out their locations relative to other genes, and one another. Until now, each of these genes was an isolated island in a largely unknown world. Now, with the genome, we have - at last - the map.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Body of History

It's been quite a while since I reviewed books on this site. Given that this blog is all about reading as well as writing - and I'm not doing much of the latter - I felt this had to change. So here are my first two reads of the year.
Body of Evidence is a crime thriller by Patricia D. Cornwell. I'd never read any of this author's books (this was a gift from Gee Minor), but was pleased to be able to enter the world of one of modern crime fiction's great sleuths, Virginia Medical Examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta. This is a somewhat brutal and bloody exercise, concerning vengeance and jealousy in the world of literature. It was written in the 1990s and, amazingly, somewhat dated. I am not sure whether I liked it or not. I had to admire the slick plotting, but was somewhat put off by the smoking, the obsessive details about guns, and the chatter of Scarpetta's oafish sidekick, Lieutenant Marino, whose persistent use of the word 'squirrel' to describe criminal suspects made me wish he'd go and bury his nuts somewhere else.

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig impinged on my consciousness as the featured 'Book at Bedtime' on Radio 4, an episode of which I heard while driving home from work (by day I am with the Submerged Log Company.) I enjoyed what I heard so much I decided then and there to buy it. It concerns one Tom Hazard, whose exterior as a 41-year-old history teacher in the East End conceals a secret past, and long. He was born in the 16th century, and discovers he is one of a very small and select group of people with a condition called anageria, which means he ages at about a fifteenth the rate of ordinary humans. To avoid attracting attention, and perhaps burned as a witch, this means he has to keep moving - to the South Seas, the American Wild West, Paris in the Jazz age, and many other places besides. Surving means he has to make many sacrifices, including not allowing himself to fall in love. The theme of longevity has a long history in literature and film, from Orlando to Highlander. This was a decent enough stab at the genre, but I felt it lacked the grandeur and panorama such a subject might afford, and rushed a little to the end.