Maintaining the dignity of plants

Owing to some of my recent less-than-serious posts, I have to assure you that what follows is not a joke. The Swiss federal government's ethics committee on non-human biotechnology has mapped out guidelines to help granting agencies decide which research applications deeply offend the dignity of plants — and hence become unfundable (see Nature News, 23 April 2008; subscription required). All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. The Swiss constitution says that the 'dignity of creatures' must be taken into account in the gene-technology arena, which is why the term has been adopted into the regulations. The government called on the advice of its ethics committee two years ago to help develop a definition for plants. The committee has created a decision tree presenting the different issues that need to be taken into account for each case. But it has come up with few concrete examples of what type of experiment might be considered an unacceptable insult to plant dignity. Hybridization of roses? Shelling peas? Treading grapes? Or, as suggested by one online commenter, mowing the lawn?

Web 2.0; Da Vinci 1.5; readers 0

Via 101 reasons to stop writing blog, I learn that Dan Brown is to revise the Da Vinci Code to correct various minor and not-so minor errors in the previous version. Although small changes have been made in various print runs, this new project is a proper revision, named Da Vinci Code 1.5,  that will be "like re-reading the book for the first time".
From the stop writing post: "When asked if the revisions made substantive changes to the plot of the novel, Brown replied, "Oh sure. When you take out all the factual errors, baseless conjecture and flawed reasoning, the whole storyline basically collapses. All you’re left with is a guy who’s good at solving puzzles running around Europe for no reason. I don’t even like Europe. The new version is entirely set in Connecticut, so I could fact-check everything myself without having to drive more than two hours." "
Read on at the link for the full horror. Unfortunately, owing to work load, the publication date of the revision has slipped from 1 April to 31 April. Can't wait.

Britannica joins the blogosphere

You may have read or heard that the other day Encyclopaedia Britannica introduced WebShare, which it describes as a "special program for web publishers, including bloggers, webmasters, and anyone who writes for the Internet. You get complimentary access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online and, if you like, an easy way to give your readers background of the topics you write about with links to complete Britannica articles." Apparently it should not take more than 24 hours to receive your free subscription, and WebShare offers you a range of widgets and twitter feeds of the encyclopaedia's content to add to your blog or site. If you are interested, there are various help, FAQ and other pages from the main page here.
The move has been met with muted approval on the blogs and sites I've read so far. (Thanks also to Dave Lull for sending me a link to the Britannica's article about the initiative.) Barry Graubert of Content Matters blog writes: "Britannica has clearly been on a path towards the dead pool since the birth of Wikipedia. Initially, they simply took the position that a wisdom of crowds approach could not compare to the expertise of their editors. That argument was put to rest in the comparison conducted by Nature a few years ago. Wikipedia today has nearly 4 billion monthly page views, while Britannica has only 21 million. In providing blogger access, Britannica has taken a baby step towards addressing the problem of whether they even exist on the Internet." Barry points out that the Internet is all about links, incoming and outgoing, and that Britannica does not get that. Even the WebShare blog, he writes, has no links at all in it, not even to the encyclopaedia's own twitter feed. That particular omission has now been rectified, but it is true that the blog seems to exist in its own insulated space apart from that one link. Barry has applied for a WebShare ID and will keep track, he writes.

Update: in a strange reverse-twist, I have just read that Random House is to publish Wikipedia as a book.

A stagger through the Internet

I haven't written a post of links for ages, and have no hope of catching up with myself, so will just highlight a few here. My full magpie collection (items I've read on the Internet that have caught my attention momentarily) is here, at my Google Reader shared page: an rss "shared" page may be the nearest thing yet to a look inside someone's brain, but I am not sure I recommend it in my case. In any event, here are a few highlights:

At Cotton Pickin' Days (note the beautiful author photo that is currently featured), Hsien Hsien has found a site that lets you display your name as chemical elements. Well, if your name is something like Hsien or Oliver Sacks, that is: does not work for Maxine or Petrona. Take a look and see if it works for you, as it is most attractive.

After reading several reviews of Justine Picardie's book about Daphne Du Maurier, it is a relief to me to read a review of a book by this intriguing author: here, Carla Nayland reviews The House on the Strand. Carla asks if anyone has read this book. In my case the answer is yes, but I am afraid I can't remember much about it as it was too long ago.

What's the best crime-fiction book of this or any year? See Detectives Beyond Borders for one answer. Me, I am maxed out for the moment by the Times top 50 list and associated discussion. Various views on that list are at Euro Crime, It's a Crime, Scott Pack,  Mysteries in Paradise, Crime Scraps, and I am sure, more. Just remember, for every person who was unfairly omitted, another has to be dropped. What a task, narrowing it down to 50. Not one I would have liked to attempt, but I think the consensus (and my view) is that the Times did not do a bad job.

While on the subject of Crime Scraps, Norm has uncovered a most extraordinary story about a vanishing Jo Nesbo manuscript. I blame those Boys from Brazil, myself.

A few reviews: Material Witness on Hell's Fire by Chris Simms. Another author I haven't read but am clearly going to have to, after reading this review. Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robinson, sounds wonderful, reviewed here by Harriet Devine. Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise enjoys The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson (also highly recommended by Petrona), and This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas. Crime Down Under makes me dead keen to read Shatter, by Michael Robotham, and Random Jottings writes enthusiastically about The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnin.

Just a final link: the excellent publisher Quercus has "pounced on a 19-book, two million-word future history epic. David Wingrove's Chung Kuo rivals Dune and Asimov's Foundation series", according to the Bookseller. "Set 200 years in the future in a world dominated by China, the sequence of books sees history re-written and the West forgotten, with no official record of Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. Any reminders of the past are buried beneath mile-high, continent-spanning cities." And on that note, good night.

Yes we have no tomatoes

Via Books, Inq, I read a story in The Telegraph 'Row over shepherd's pie ends in court':

"A row over the correct way to make shepherd’s pie ended up in court after a disagreement between two brothers turned violent. After a day spent drinking, Michael Garvin cooked his brother John the traditional English dish for dinner, expecting a grateful response. John, however, voiced his disquiet that the pie was not topped with a layer of sliced tomatoes. His brother, a chef, claimed a layer of tomatoes was not the appropriate way to finish off a shepherd’s pie, and responded by hitting him over the head with a shovel."

There is quite a back-story to how the two brothers ended up in the dock, described in the article: kind of hard to countenance all the fuss. Thankfully, we have an in-touch and intelligent judiciary in this country, capable of making a ruling in the form of a code (Da Vinci plagiarism case), and not a collection of people who can't follow the plot of a Harry Potter novel. "District Judge Peter Ward told the defendant that, in his view, there was no need for a layer of tomatoes on a shepherd’s pie". Maybe the judges should follow the Lords' excellent example and start their own blog.

[Even if the shepherd's pie story hadn't been so funny, I would have had to write about it so I could give the post this title.]

Too groovy for scholarship

As I've observed before, it's a small world, that Internet. Today on the train to work I read an article in the Times about lack of space at the British Library reading room: "Two years after one of the world’s greatest libraries opened its doors to undergraduates and anyone working on research, high-profile writers and academics say that the struggle to find a desk is now intolerable. Library directors stand accused of increasing visitor numbers to boost funds and performance bonuses."
The problem is, apparently, the students. Initially rallying (mentally) to the defence of this much-maligned societal group, I read on and realised that the issue is not so much the students per se, but that they go into the reading room and don't read — rather they sit around chatting, etc. Whether they really are students, or whether they are just random people wanting to spend a day in the warm and dry, there are plenty of places in the BL to go and chat — over a drink or some food if you want to – without having to go into the reading room. So it does seem a bit strange, even antisocial, to natter in the reading room while others are trying to concentrate. It is rather like reading your book quietly on the train when someone plonks themselves next to you and starts to organise their next trip somewhere by yelling down their mobile phone, as happened to me tonight on the way home.
As it happens, I was due to have lunch today with an eminent author and senior academic who, coincidentally, was in London to do some research at the BL: Professor Dame Honoraria Grump, FRS, B. Lit, VC, OM, so I asked her opinion. She confirmed that the queues are just as described, and that she is frequently reduced to perching on a windowsill if she is lucky, because she cannot arrive very early at the BL due to the distance she has to travel to London. We speculated that the students may not have vacation access to other London University libraries if they live in London but study at universities elsewhere, and/or that individual universities' libraries may not, these days (as opposed to "our day")  be very good compared with the BL.
When I arrived home tonight, I opened my "home email" and found that Dave Lull had already sent me a link to the online version of the Times article. Far flung we may all be, our little band of brothers and sisters, but our minds are in tune!

Here's some more from the Times, you might enjoy it:

"Lady Antonia Fraser and Claire Tomalin have swapped horror stories of interminable queues. Library users complain that the line to enter the new building in St Pancras, central London, has recently been extending across its enormous courtyard.
Lady Antonia said: “I had to queue for 20 minutes to get in, in freezing weather. Then I queued to leave my coat for 20 minutes [at the compulsory check-in]. Then half an hour to get my books and another 15 minutes to get my coat. I’m told it’s due to students having access now. Why can’t they go to their university libraries?”
Of particular irritation is the notion that many undergraduates now come to the library to relax, meet and text friends, and play on laptops, rather than to read books. “It’s become a social gathering,” Lady Antonia said.
Ms Tomalin described the crowds as intolerable: “It’s full of what seem to be schoolgirls giggling. I heard one saying, ‘I’ve got to write about Islam. Can I have your notes?’ It’s what you expect to hear in a school.”
Of the long queues she said: “It is absurd. It’s access gone mad. Access has many good points, but making the British Library, which was for specialist readers, into something for general readers seems to me terrible.”
The historian Tristram Hunt said that it was a scandal that it was impossible to get a seat after 11am when students were there. Many people travelling from outside London complain that they cannot get to the buidling [sic] any earlier. “Students come in to revise rather than to use the books,” he said. “It’s a ‘groovy place’ to meet for a frappuccino. It’s noisy and it’s undermining both the British Library’s function, as books take longer to get, and the scholarly atmosphere.” "

Sunday Salon: the week’s reading

Sunday Salon Since last week's Salon, I read Skin Privilege by Karin Slaughter and The Moment you were Gone by Nicci Gerrard. The former is part of the author's Grant County series: Karin Slaughter had a rest from that with her previous book, the stand-alone thriller Triptych (which I thought was jolly good). Skin Privilege continues the formula of previous episodes: doctor and part-time coroner Sara Linton and sheriff Jeffrey Tolliver get into sticky situation where help is not to be found easily, dissect their relationship, everything is simultaneously slow-motion and exciting, Lena and her awful past, as previously, provide the plot impetus. If you've read the earlier books in the series, you'll find this one well up to scratch. I don't recommend starting out with it, though. There is a shock at the end, but it has a tacked-on feeling to it, as if the author is getting bored. Time will tell.

The Moment you were Gone is the third of Nicci Gerrard's single-author books (she writes excellent thrillers with her husband Sean French under the name of Nicci French). I loved the previous two, and can equally recommend this one. It is very much in the Anita Shreve/Joanna Trollope mould – or rather like one of the Nicci French books without the crime part of the plot. The Moment you were Gone is about two girls who were best friends as children but when adults, one of them abruptly disappeared, never to be heard from for 18 years. What happened and why provides the framework to the story, complete with lots of family domestic minutiae. There are some humorously poignant passages, such as the time when one of the characters is stuck in a remote Welsh cottage for days and survives on home-made marmalade, stem ginger in syrup, and past-sell-by-date tinned octopus. One welcome aspect of the Penguin edition I read is that it contains a short essay by the author about her writing life, providing the context for why she created this particular book. I wish more publishers did this kind of thing.

Verdict on the Times’ top 50 crime writers

Michael Moran of the Times very kindly stopped by at Petrona to provide the link to his paper's list of "Top 50 Crime Writers", as a comment to my "heads up" post of last weekend – which I mention here as the earlier post contains links to previous attempts at the impossible feat.
Petrona's verdict on the Times list? I've just finished the newspaper version, and I am quite impressed. Included are the superb Andrea Camilleri, Karin Fossim and Maj Sjowell/Per Wahloo, as well as more obvious but. "best-list-wise", sometimes overlooked modern proponents such as Henning Mankell, Donna Leon, Manuel Vazquez Montalban and John Harvey. As well as the list of 50, compiled by two Times reviewers, genre expert Barry Forshaw, and authors Val McDermid and Natasha Cooper, several people reveal their own favourites: Mo Hayder, David Canter, Jim Kelley and Louse Welsh; some of the 50 are singled out as particluar favourites (Nicci French on Wilkie Collins (great inclusion!), Simon Kernick on Dennis Lehane, Natasha Cooper on Ruth Rendell, Simon Barnes on Dick Francis and Barry Forshaw on Patricia Cornwell); and there are numerous crime-fiction-related tasty sidebars on a range of topics by writers including Ian Rankin and Christopher McLehose, which is nice because several other good authors are mentioned who aren't on the main list (eg Stieg Larsson).
A good feature, overall, I'd say. Much easier to read and navigate if you can get hold of the newspaper rather than relying on the online version, incidentally. Of course, there are always going to be disagreements over the details. Good that Harlan Coben and Scott Turow are in, not so good that Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Peter Spiegelman and Robert Crais are out; Arnaldur Indridason (the most egregious omission of all), Nicci French and Fred Vargas didn't make it either and are unfortunate omissions. Ngaio Marsh, sadly, is out, but Christie, Sayers and Allingham are in. Nor did some of the newer talented writers make it — but they will surely feature in future such lists: Gianrico Carofiglio, Brian McGilloway, Asa Larsson, Jan Costin Wagner and Tana French spring to mind. (But there are others!) I also presume that Peter James, Lee Child and John Sandford were considered too "thriller" to gain a foothold. I was sorry that Mary Higgins Clark (America's Queen of Suspense) wasn't there either. But although I don't personally enjoy reading all the authors on the list, I think that 90 per cent of them deserve to be there, even if not always in the ranked order chosen.

An author at the library

Penny Vincenzi, who has shot straight to the top of the UK paperback charts with her latest book, An Absolute Scandal, is one of those authors whose latest book I invariably read (via the library) at a time in my life when I read anything and everything, from Aeschylus (yes, honestly) to Waugh (Hillary and Evelyn) and all points inbetween. Then I stopped reading her. I can't remember why, now, but it was probably because I was too busy writing my thesis to read novels and then forgot, or maybe I just drifted away. Now, it is too late to pick her up again I think, because I am probably too "out of sympathy" with the genre – and I already have three lifetimes of books to read in my literal, electronic and metaphorical queues.
But I did smile to receive a link to a lovely article in the Independent (careers section) from the indefatigable Dave Lull today (the man who keeps the Internet going, single handed), about how Penny Vincenzi's first job was as a librarian — and not just any librarian, but a Harrod's librarian. "There were far more private lending libraries then," she explains. "Boots had one. At Harrods, you got a book straight away; you just rang up and ordered it and it was delivered that afternoon, sometimes by horse-drawn van". The article continues: "Penny handled readers whose names began with the letter S. "Sir Malcolm Sargent was an absolute sweetheart, very polite." The famous conductor was unusual: "Most of them were absolutely horrible. We were minions." "

Hall and Keynes join Arbor in the citation indexes

I was taken by a Correspondence in Nature the other week, in which Daniel C. Postellon of the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, Michigan, write (Nature 452, 282; 2008):
The career of the non-existent author Ann Arbor is well-known to connoisseurs of computerized databases and citation indexes. Usually listed as the last author, she is sometimes credited with the academic degree "MI". Ann is not actually a person, but the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan. Her 'degree' is a misinterpretation of the abbreviation for Michigan: MI. She pre-dates online computerized databases, and was often listed in the paper edition of Index Medicus.
Ms Arbor now has a UK rival in the team of Walton Hall and Milton Keynes. Like her, they are usually listed as last authors. The online database Google Scholar lists them as co-authors of 46 publications, in addition to their solo work. Walton Hall is actually a building on the campus of the Open University in Milton Keynes. These 'authors' have a useful role to play: they can be used to check the accuracy of the databases and indexes.

I sent this letter to Dave Lull, who replied that the story reminded him of the dictionary trap,when the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary deliberately inserted a false entry in their dictionary. "The New Oxford American's entry for "esquivalience" defines it as "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities; the shirking of duties," as in, "After three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed." The word's etymology is traced to the late 19th Century, "perhaps from French esquiver, `dodge, slink away.'" But while "esquiver" is a real French word, "esquivalience" is an invention." Lots more nice detail at the link provided.