Wednesday 30 December, 2020

Who said robots can’t dance?


Quote of the Day

”If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

  • Motto embroidered on one of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s settee cushions.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Smith and friends


“The best jam I’ve ever witnessed.” Recommended by Andrew Ingram, Whom God Preserve, who writes :

“Tommy is famous (and I think this is why I just love the guy) for jamming with other people – helping them to improve their technique, learning from youngsters with good ideas etc. Apparently if he stays in a hotel after a gig, there’s usually a session in the bar / back room, and usually with amateurs. This is him with Richard Smith (who is a pro) and two others who I think are just getting a shot at jamming with the master. No notes, no music sheets, just bring your brain, memory and fingers. And ears.”

Long Read of the Day

How mRNA went from a scientific backwater to a pandemic crusher

Terrific story in Wired UK

In 1995, Katalin Karikó was at her lowest ebb. A biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Karikó had dedicated much of the previous two decades to finding a way to turn one of the most fundamental building blocks of life, mRNA, into a whole new category of therapeutics.

More often than not, Karikó found herself hitting dead ends. Numerous grant applications were rejected, and an attempt to raise funding from venture capitalists in New York to form a spin-off company had proved to be a fruitless endeavour. ”They initially promised to give us money, but then they never returned my phone calls,” she says.

By the mid 1990s, Karikó’s bosses at UPenn had run out of patience. Frustrated with the lack of funding she was generating for her research, they offered the scientist a bleak choice: leave or be demoted. It was a demeaning prospect for someone who had once been on the path to a full professorship. For Karikó’s dreams of using mRNA to create new vaccines and drugs for many chronic illnesses, it seemed to be the end of the road…

Read on. It all comes good in the end.

Christmas in an alternate 2020

Lovely blog post by Tim Harford.

Perhaps there is no wrong way to exchange Christmas gifts, but in a hurried rendezvous just off junction six of the M40 must come close. My sister was furious; we had planned to go for a walk in the woods together the day before Christmas Eve, one of the safest activities imaginable. No longer: true to form, the prime minister had promised far more than seemed possible, realised it wasn’t possible after all, and then snatched it all away in a tumble of confusion. If the present-swap was to be legal, we had just hours to get it done.

As I drove to the rendezvous, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. For 15 years I’ve been writing columns discussing the problem with Christmas gifts, and now we were testing the idea to destruction. If nothing remained of Christmas except the presents, what would I do? The situation revealed the answer: at almost any cost, I’d hand over the damn presents.

We economists have a troubled relationship with gift exchange…

They do. That’s because they think people are very bad at choosing gifts.

To a brother-in-law who likes cricket, we give a cricket-themed tchotchke whose sole purpose is to symbolise the fact that we know he likes cricket. To a music-lover, we give CDs, not realising that she threw out the CD player years ago and listens only to vinyl. The shirt is lovely but does not fit; the toys would have been cool three years ago; the book is so perfectly chosen that in fact the recipient read it over the summer. Many pitfalls lie in wait even for a gift-giver who has empathy, imagination and patience — and by mid December many of us are running low on all three.

But because gift-giving remotely is one of the few things we have been able to do this Christmas, Harford comes up with an interesting thought-experiment. “The pandemic”, he writes,

has operated like a neutron bomb, destroying the hugs and the feasting and carol services and the visiting of elderly relatives, while allowing the flow of gift-wrapped plastic to continue unabated. What a shame that things aren’t the other way around. Imagine an alternate universe in which Christmas carols and pantomimes and parties and feasts with family and friends were all possible, but because of a strange virus that lived on wrapping paper, it was unsafe, illegal and deeply antisocial to offer Christmas gifts.

Might be worth a try.

On the other hand…

On Sunday, December 20, my phone buzzed with a news alert. From midnight, the government was going to put London and lots of other places into Tier 4. This caused alarm in our household because my son lives in London and is currently renovating his place, and a special new sink that he had ordered had been delivered to us. He had been planning to collect it on a day trip around Christmas, but that would now be out of the question. Since it was on the critical path for the renovation, the work might be delayed for weeks or even months.

So we hit on a plan. We would meet him half-way at an open air venue and hand over the sink so that we could all be back in our respective bases before midnight. The meeting place we arranged as the car park of a large motorway service station.

We got there early and sat in the car waiting for him to turn up. And then a strange thing began to happen. Cars were arriving in large numbers, parking at a slight remove from one another. And we watched as people got out, opened the boots, extracted gift-wrapped boxes and bags and brought them to other cars, where people were doing the same thing. Over half an hour, the entire parking lot was briefly transformed into one massive gift-exchange venue. Families and friends stood outside in the cold under street-lights, mostly observing social distancing, talking and laughing and taking photographs.

It was a lovely, moving scene — of friends and families whose plans to spend Christmas together had been abruptly squashed by the government’s abrupt decision, but who were determined to mark the season somehow. A profound reminder of human resourcefulness and of how cruelly a basic human need — to touch, to embrace, to kiss — has been denied by the virus.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  •  Swan song: German firefighters remove ‘mourning’ bird blocking railway line. Its mate had been killed by flying into an overhead high-voltage line, and it had settled at the point of his/her death. Swans apparently do that sometimes. Link.
  • Some modellers think that by February 1 over 90% of Covid infections in the UK will be of the new variant. Link.
  •  How My Record Player Helped Me Feel the Music.. Analogue nostalgia rules OK. Link

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