Monday, 31 December 2007

Highs and Lows

We've been away for a few days. Last year, we spent a few nights in Watchet on the Somerset coast, where we walked up and down the nearby Blue Anchor Bay picking up pebbles containing fragments of bone, some even recognisable as small vertebrae of a crocodile-like reptile from the late Triassic.

This year we went to Sidmouth in Devon, since the cliffs west of Sidmouth are noted for producing interesting if rare Triassic fossils. Well, some aspects of the trip were very good, but some were very bad.

It went wrong even before we set off. Doing a clever reverse park into a rather small slot on Royston High Street, I smacked the nearside front wing into an invisible cast iron bollard. Great start! Then the traffic was awful going down the A1M and around the M25. As we neared Basingstoke on the M3 the radio informed us that our chosen route, the A303 had severe delays west of Andover, so Jenny had to plot a new route, and the end result was that the 4 hours we'd allowed for the 200 miles turned into 5 hours 30. Super job. Fortunately the hotel was nice, if rather pricey, so, rather worn out by the drive, we collapsed into the restaurant, rather than look for somewhere in town. The food was OK, but the Puilly-Fuissé was very special. Yum!

I've just noticed, checking the appearance after posting this, that the Westcliff Hotel, where we stayed, appears in the Google Ads at the top!

In the morning we could see, while eating breakfast, that the tide was in. We'd completely forgotten to check when we made the booking, which was pretty stupid, given we went there to walk along the foreshore. Oh well. We walked the town in search of Neil's fish restaurant, which had been recommended, with the intention of booking a table for that night. It was closed until 18th Jan. Better and better.

Then a good thing happened. There was a little shop full of African stuff, in which I found a wonderful caftan and had a really pleasant conversation with the proprietress, who I think was probably from Kenya. She said wearing the caftan was fine, since it was Unicef. She used the term several times, clearly meaning unisex!

Then it started to rain. And it got darker and windier, so we retired to the hotel for a bit, stopping on the way to pick up a few pebbles. The hotel manager was kind enough to arrange for me to use a workshop, and I spent a happy couple of hours carving a pebblehead while Jenny read in the lounge.

We emerged about 2.30 in the hope of some low tide, but it was just foul and we quickly gave up. I think you'll understand, looking at this photo, which is from the west end of the foreshore. Naturally, there were surfers surfing!

(I'm never clear how to lay the text and photos out, since on different monitors the layout seems to change, so I hope this looks OK to you!)

Saturday was beautiful, with clear skies and light winds, so we decided to walk west along the cliff top to Ladram Bay. The climb out of Sidmouth was steep and tough going, but eventually we got to the top. Jenny had tried to persuade me to go back and fetch the car, but I was very keen to walk and she did eventually agree it was the right decision.

Naturally, when we got to the exposed bit at the top, it rained and blew. Ladram Bay has been completely ruined by a vast and expanding caravan park. It's a complete eyesore and a real shame. And the tide was in, so there were no rocks to see. Oh yes, and my estimate from the map that it was only a mile or so was wildly wrong. We eventually came to a figure of 2 and a quarter miles.

Apart from the caravan park, there was nothing at Ladram Bay, so we then walked another .75 miles to Otterton where we found a nice pub that served us decent beer and lunch, after which we caught a bus back to Sidmouth. From the bus we saw 3 buzzards, one of which Jenny is pretty sure was a rough-legged buzzard, something of an erratic in Devon.

Back in Sidmouth she waited by the foreshore while I went up to the hotel to pick up my pebblehead. Returning down the hill I saw a tiny black bird. Intrigued, I watched it for perhaps 5 minutes. Black head, dark grey breast fading to silvery grey belly, black bill and legs, probably black back, but hard to tell, russet under the tail, small white wing flash. Back in Royston we identified it as a black redstart, of which I'd not previously heard.

I buried my head in the shingle (yeah, it's supposed to be some kind of a joke) in the hope it won't get found too soon. There's a long strip of shingle up against the cliffs, with sand and rocks on the seaward side, so hard to know where to leave it. Then we walked the foreshore and found nothing, but it was lovely.

In the morning we checked out, only to find some kind soul had thrown a rock at the car in the hotel car park, damaging both driver's side doors. Charming.

I opened the boot to fetch out the camera, and Jenny gashed her head on the catch. Fortunately the 3cm cut didn't bleed too badly and she refused medical aid. The camera batteries were flat, but the kind receptionist lent me 2 from her mouse so I could photograph the damage. The cops gave me a crime reference for me to tell the insurance company, but didn't insist on attending, so we got away OK.

And then there was no traffic to speak of on the way home, and we were home in 4 hours, which was perfect.

So I hope you all have a terrific New Year. Hope you like the pics.

And one final thought. The cops also said I'd be assigned a Victim Support Counsellor. I kid you not.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

How to pass the BahHumbug days

So to while away the idle hours, Jenny and I have been decorating the spare bedroom which I use as an office. This has been on the cards for some time, and is the last room which still has the original carpet and curtains which we inherited from the previous owners of the house over 20 years ago. Yes, it's due the makeover!

So I have added a new triple spotlamp over where the desk used to live, threading the cable over the ceiling and under the joists from the central ceiling rose. Had to do it that way because the loft has laminated flooring, and I really didn't want to lift all of that to install a new light. Anyhow, the holes in the ceiling have been repaired and the ceiling paper patched, and it's going to look OK.

We've installed new coving and painted the walls, and will paint the ceiling next week. Yes, I know that's the wrong order, but you have to do what you can when you can. The ceiling and coving needed time to dry, so we painted the walls while we were waiting, knowing we'll have some repairs to do later.

There's a carpet due, but I don't think we've got a date for it to be laid yet. And the new bookshelves have been delivered and are cluttering up the hallway as there's nowhere upstairs for them to go yet.

So the latter part of the afternoon has been spent with graph paper and some cut up rectangles of paper, trying out different layouts for the furniture. Why are we doing this, I wonder, when I've already wired in the new light?

Christmas dinner, in case you were wondering, was roast duck. 3 hours on a lowish light, glazed with sour cherry sauce for the last 15 mins, and simply the best duck we've had. Roasties, of course, brussels and roasted carrots and parsnips. Accompanied by a rather nice Wine Society Margaux. Too full for Christmas pud which is still in the cupboard. And could still be there this time next year. Fortunately, it keeps.

Tonight we're having a slow-roasted hand of pork, which we put in the oven some time around lunchtime. Rubbed a mixture of crushed fennel seed, garlic and chilli into the slashes in the skin, then basted with oil and lemon juice every few hours. We'll eat it at 8 or 8.30 when it will be moist and succulent and falling off the bone. I've lined up a Wine Society Pauillac which should go quite nicely with it.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

We all will be off to Washington DC

Just in case someone happens along reading old posts, this one originally announced to the world that Jenny was to be awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot medal, which is one of several awarded to scientists of various disciplines by the National Academy of Sciences. It's a a great honour, and of the list of previous recipients, several are really big names in the biological world, so we're just bowled over by it all.

After I put up the original post, it transpired they'd asked her not to say anything about it until NAS publicised it, which they finally did last week (22nd Jan), so I removed the posting, but now it's in the public domain, I'm refilling the gap a bit.

We'll be going to Washington DC for the awards ceremony in late April.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Family Photos and the shortness of life

We've just been down to Bristol to visit my mum and she fished out a load of old family photos. One she showed us was of my older brother's wedding. Looking at it, I think it must have been taken in 1976 because I was in it, but my then wife Diane, wasn't. We'd split the previous summer and it wasn't until the following year that I met Jenny. I've scanned it in and cropped it, and the reason I post it is because we realised, while looking at it, that only half the people on it are definitely still alive. Which makes you think.

The 2 on the left are not immediate family, and I think they've both gone. He was George Unwin, but I'm not sure who she was. Next is my father, Edi, who died four years ago, next to my mother in the hat.

The groom is Peter, with first bride Heather. They had five children god help us! Next is my mother's younger brother Ralph, with his wife Jean, who died last year. I think next is Pam Unwin, wife of George, and I'm pretty sure she's gone. And finally me, with my hair the longest it's ever been.

So to cheer myself up, here's a photo of Jenny and me in 1981 when she was doing her PhD at Newcastle and we were living near Seaham Harbour in a rented farm cottage within sight of the sea.

We had a lovely, if chilly, time there. In winter the wind whistled in from Siberia (OK, I exaggerate!), directly over the sea and under our front door, depositing snow inside. We couldn't afford to have the storage radiators on more then the minimum, so friends tended not to visit us in winter!

I'd cut my hair a year or 2 previously to increase my chances of getting a job, and it's stayed relatively short ever since. Now it's short because it's so thin it'd look stupid long. Sigh. I seem to have made my way back to old age and how many people I know have died.

To get myself out of that loop I'm going to prepare my dinner. Jenny took some fossils down to Bristol and will be scanning them with a CT scanner tomorrow, so she's staying with my mum and I'm on my own here. I have a chunky rib-eye steak in the fridge and I think I'm going down to the cellar now to find myself something nice to drink with it.

One of the lovely things about the friends we have here is that when they know I'm on my own, they look after me. After dinner, I'm going with Lorna and Richard over to Jane's house to help decorate her Christmas tree. Well, I think I'll probably supervise, but you know what I mean. It's so nice when people so obviously care.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Best Blogging Buddies award!

All the (rather short) while I've been blogging, I've seen people giving each other awards, and now someone's given me one! Hoorah! Thank you so much, DJKirkby! I really came over all of a glow when I found out! I have to say that you're right, however, the pic is just the weensiest bit twee.

I'm afraid I'm about to go a bit squidgy about the edges. If you leave quietly now and come back later, I'll be feeling better, I'm sure.

This sense of companionship that we feel as we blog was completely unexpected. Of course, to start with I had no real idea what blogging was about, and I imagine like many people out there, just signed up to find out what all the fuss was about. I felt such a pseud, too; who'd want to read anything I might write, particularly as virtually everyone who read it would be a total stranger.

At first, I just clicked the "Next blog" button at the top of the page, but quickly got bored with unintelligible foreign blogs or kiddies' txtspk pages full of stuff about school which they find riveting, but I find utterly tedious. (No doubt the reverse is equally true!)

Once I discovered blogrolls, however, all that changed. When I found a blog I enjoyed reading, I started clicking the links to their favourites, and quickly discovered many blogs I loved to read. I could spend hours just cruising from one to the next, but in truth I don't have the time, or, I suppose more accurately, I don't make the time. Life is pretty full, and to devote lots of time to reading blogs, I'd have to drop other things off the list. (I have to examine the filters on the shower pump right now, actually!) I signed up for Purplcoo, but sadly, have hardly ever visited since.

You fall into several natural groupings - mothers of young children (I can't understand this; I have no time for kids!), atheists, scientists, police and ambulance people, and quite a few who are less easily categorised. There's no obvious pattern to it, it just fell out that way, and that's how I like it.

So thank you, not just to DJK for the award, but also the the rest of you out there, who write so beautifully, who show your vulnerabilities, and who somehow make up the glue that bonds this virtual community together.

I still think I'd rather have had the Unstable and Bitchy award!

Apparently I'm supposed to pass this on to 7 people, but actually I'm only going to nail 4 of you - Orchidea, Suffolk Mum, Headless Chicken and A Mothers Place is in the Wrong. You've all made a big difference, and I try to visit your blogs regularly.

A deeply impressive sermon

No real time to post anything right now, but I wanted to pass on this link to a TED talk by an Anglican priest not long after the 2004 tsunami. I found it through a link on Shalini's Scientia Natura blog. Though I can't go along with him on the existence of god, I nevertheless found the talk profoundly moving, and I was deeply impressed by a man who's faith had clearly been shaken, and who had found the courage to stand up in front of his congregation and say "I don't know."
There's no more to this post.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Oh what fun - a history of lives!

The "write a letter to your 13-year old self" meme set me thinking a bit. Here's the scenario: suppose you write to yourself and it does actually change something. Like I might not have given up playing the piano. So there's a new version of my life, if you like. This time, when the piano-playing Rob writes to himself, that's not something to recommend, since it's already in place. So this time, there's a different letter.

If the second letter also changes something, then we're on to life version 3, and so on. It's easy to imagine loads of different versions. So the ability to write to yourself introduces the concept of life metadata - a history of your lives; a whole added dimension. I think that's so cool!

It's also bollocks, of course, being based on an impossibility, but that doesn't stop it being fun!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

How to waste your life

So on Wednesday, at my request, my ISP changed me over to a different email server, and ever since then Thunderbird has been able to send email, but not receive it. Fortunately I've been able to use webmail, so I've not been completely cut off from the world, but I much prefer Thunderbird, so I've invested quite a bit of time trying to sort it out.

I'd been in touch with the ISP tech support ahead of time to find out what changes I'd have to make, and all they mentioned was changing the POP3 server name, so that was what I did, but since then I've been living in a world of pain.

This afternoon, quite by chance, I stumbled upon a web page which mentioned the acronym SSL in connection with encrypted email connections, and a penny dropped. I've visited my Account Settings so many times over the past few days, I could actually remember that mine was set to use TLS if available. TLS (Transport Layer Security) is a slightly more recent protocol than SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), but that's not the point. SSL was an option, so I clicked that and saved the settings.

And behold! Thunderbird now receives email, hoorah!

So why, I ask, couldn't the ISP tech support guy have just mentioned this to me? I mean, the old server was not encrypted, and the new one is, so maybe, just maybe, the encryption protocol might be relevant. No? Am I asking too much?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Been bloody tagged!

So I've been tagged by Arctic Fox. Thanks Fox, haven't you got anything better to do? Actually, I'm secretly grateful, as I've never been tagged before, and I somehow feel as though I've finally arrived in the blogosphere.

The rules

1. Link back to the person who tagged you.

2. Imagine you could send a letter back in time to yourself, when you were 13 years old, what would you write to yourself?

3. Tag 5 people to inflict this on (sorry guys!) - Pondside, Headless Chicken, DulwichMum, DJKirkby, SnailbeachShepherdess.

And here is the rest of it.

Dear Rob

Here I am in my late 50's and I have discovered there is a wonderful way to write to myself, just once, when I was 13. What you're reading is a letter from the future; a letter from yourself when you're much older.

Now I remember when I was 13, how tedious it was getting advice from adults. What a waste of time! What do adults understand about me? Sod them!

So the first thing to tell you is that this is not going to be a lecture telling you to pull your socks up and all that garbage. I've had a great life and am continuing to do so, so I'm not going to nag you to do anything much different. Not everything has gone perfectly, and I've been pretty miserable from time to time, but that's how it is, and working harder at school or university wouldn't have changed that. In any case, you know you should work harder than you do and nothing I say will change that.

So there's going to be nothing about smoking or drinking, and nothing about school, but what there will be is a few things, in no particular order, which it seems to me you could usefully bear in mind when the time comes to make a decisions.

For instance, when you leave school, don't imagine you have to give up piano lessons. You'll have done really well and will really be enjoying it for almost the first time, and there will be no reason to stop. Adults also take music lessons, and you shouldn't just assume you have to give up.

You will absolutely love driving cars (and later, motorbikes). It's worth taking the advanced driving test. They have some stupid rules which you have to follow until you pass, but then you can forget those. The key things they teach you are ways to drive safely as well as quickly. Any fool can drive fast, but doing so safely is a neat trick.

Don't be taken in by religion, ouija boards, spiritualism, astrology or any of that nonsense. It's all just smoke and mirrors, just airy fairy fantasyland and it's a complete waste of time. You have one life, and when it's over, it's done, so make the most of it. Apply your scientific understanding of the world, and you'll see that without proper, reproducible evidence, there's just nothing to any of their claims.

But, do think about joining an Anglican church choir. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it, but it's not. You don't have to believe, all you have to do is not admit it. I know you were brought up Congregationalist, but the Anglican choral evensong service has stunning music, and the best music to god ratio of any service I know. Yes, you'll have to put up with all those around you praying and posturing, but just relish the music. They say the devil has all the best tunes - that's nonsense; the Anglican church has the best by far! The reason we never heard any choral music in our house is because our sainted father doesn't like it. I'm afraid he's a bit of a Philistine in that respect. Grandpa J sings in a church choir and could introduce you to some good stuff if you asked him.

OK, end of lecture. Probably best not to mention this to anyone, but do hang onto this letter.

Friday, 7 December 2007

PC woes

Suffering from computer trouble at the moment. Fired up the PC on Wednesday evening and the hard drive was going mad and the machine was so slow as to be more or less unusable. Task Manager showed the cpu was 96% idle and I couldn't see anything doing significant disc i/o but it was hopeless.

There really is more this time!

Oh, and I'd asked my isp to switch me over to a different mail server which has spam and virus filters, and ever since then I can't receive email. I can send, but when I try to Get Mail I Get an Error instead. Might be Norton being overzealous, but I can't tell yet.

Last night it was the same, so I rebooted into Safe mode and ran a full system scan in Norton. Took all evening and found zilch. The disc was quiet in safe mode and stayed quiet when I rebooted into normal, but I still can't receive email.

Fortunately the isp made a casual aside at one point which told me how to use webmail, so that's what I'm doing at present.

So I've no idea what the hard drive thought it was doing. Maybe it just decided it needed a workout. Been reading But Why's postings about rowing and stuff.

And just to round things off nicely, at work this morning the Systems guy tried to install some software on my work PC, only to find there wasn't enough free space on the rather small hard drive, and there's some reason he can't just add a second drive, so he's taken my PC away to copy everything onto a bigger drive. I'm doing this by sneakily running Internet Explorer on a piece of audio kit sitting on my desk.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Finally, another pebblehead!

Jenny brought me back this pebble from Nova Scotia when she was there in the summer, and I've had a pretty good idea what I was going to do with it, ever since she put it into my hand. However, it turned itself into a Mandrill, which wasn't quite what I had in mind. Still pretty pleased with it! Shame the first photo is a bit blurry.

I'll probably do a bit more tidying up before I mount it on a stand like the rest, but not too much, I think. I like it pretty well the way it is.

Market Train

I love this video clip. It simply would not happen in the UK.

Friday, 30 November 2007


Last night we saw Beowulf at Letchworth Broadway cinema. It's really sad to go in and realise there are only 10 people in the audience. How do they break even?

Anyway, it lived up to the 3 stars The Week magazine awarded it. There was lots that was very good about it, but enough niggles to make it not the overpowering experience of Lord of the Rings, for instance. Some very good effects, including a magnificent Grendel, spectacularly awful.

I expect you all know this, but it's entirely computer animated, and the makers seem to have to stepped back from trying to portray true realism, and ended up with figures that reminded me most of Lara Croft about 7 or 8 years ago. Rather strange. And the character providing the voice for Beowulf (I'm simply not interested in filmstars, so I've no idea who that was) had a bit of a cockney twang, which was very out of place. Lots of Welsh accents, and some Scandinavian, too.

An interesting touch was the use of bits of old English in places. You could just about follow what was being said and it lent an air of authority to it. Shame it was a Saxon tale from 500 years earlier!

Grendel's mother had been babe'd-up, which allowed them to introduce an interesting extra twist to the story, but then they de-sexed her in order to get a child-friendly rating. She emerges from the water covered with a layer of 'liquid gold', but as that pours off her, it seems to stick to strategic bits, well there's a surprise.

And any time there's the remotest bit of nudity, the camera pans away not very subtly, so you just don't see their bits. Oh yes, violence is fine, but we draw the line at showing naked bodies.

I didn't think it was all that violent, and what there was was done with such speed and in such a blur, you really didn't see that much of it. Not much blood and gore at all.

Overall a great evening's entertainment, if slightly dissatisfying in parts. The sound levels were a bit high, but not as bad as on previous occasions.

An Apology

To the lady in the black Golf, whom I overtook (along with several others) in the queue of cars following the dustcart being trailered away from the crash-site in Orwell this morning.

Yes, you're quite right, I should have waited my turn. I'm sorry, it was discourteous to jump the queue like that. My (lame) excuse is that I thought the front car looked unlikely to go for it, and I didn't want to be stuck at 40mph all the way to the M11.

Of course, my assessment was wrong in almost all respects. Believe me, I do try.


Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Books I've just finished reading

Read this book. Wonderful, it's, even if I did have a tendency to read it in a fake Indian accent.

And this one kept me smiling, all the way through. It's quite a small book, and a very easy read. Easy also, to hear Alan Bennett reading it, just behind your ear.

These are both books I could cheerfully give to friends and family for Christmas, confident they'd be well received.

I'm also experimenting with expandable posts, but it seems the Read more link appears whether I have a summary/expansion or not. Apparently it's left as an exercise for the blogger to fix. Sigh. I really wish they'd just put the answer. I get little enough time for blogging these days.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Newnham College Chamber Choir concert

Just back from a most wonderful concert in Clough College, where the Newnham College Chamber Choir sang mediæval carols most beautifully, interspersed with 5 readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Dr Daniel Wakelin who had translated it from (possibly) mediæval English. Fortunately the programme included a translation into modern English, so we could follow what he was saying.

Actually, I say mediæval carols, but in fact several were ancient words set by modern composers like Britten. Still most excellent, and a great thing to do on a winter Sunday afternoon.

I think this was probably the first concert I've been to where the choir was all female. Didn't detract from it one bit. I just loved it all. As evidently did the rest of the audience, which must have numbered over 100. There weren't enough chairs, and folks were standing at the back. The girls looked pleased with themselves, as well they might.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Eccentric Geocentricity

This is just hilarious! I've been really busy at work over the past few days, and haven't had much time for reading blogs, but yesterday stumbled across something so funny, and so completely left field, I have to direct you there.

I was reading Shalina's excellent blog at Scientia Natura which I always find a wild and stimulating read, when I came across this posting. Now I don't know about you, but I thought geocentrism faded away several centuries ago, but no, it seems not only am I completely misguided about how the world came to be the way it is today, but I am also totally wrong about the nature of the universe.

It seems there are 2 (only 2?) schools of thought on this subject. The French and Belgian Roman Catholic school are of the opinion that the earth spins at the centre of a rather small, stationary universe, while the other, I assume North American, school holds that the earth rests stationary at the centre of a large, spinning universe. And they maintain that there is logic which supports these views.

Intrigued, I followed a link in one of the comments to the Geocentricity Primer, but sadly, as you'd expect, all the "evidence" is bible quotes. Oh, and there's this stuff called æther, an 18th century idea, I think, which somehow changes the way everything works, so trivia such as gravity, speed of light, einsteinian relativity and so on, are all flawed and/or irrelevant.

Actually, I think this is really cool. I used to think the ID/creationist shower were nutters, but they're positively (what's the word?) right-thinking compared with the geocentrics! I reckon our task will be done if we can just get everyone to realise that they're all part of the same bunch of loonies. No-one in their right mind, not even the Dover school board (not the best link, but I'm a bit pushed for time) will take them remotely seriously and we can start getting on with our lives.

Yeah, dream on.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Scary sea creatures, part 93

No, this is not a fake, nor is it the product of someone with Photoshop skills, at least not according to

It's called Promachoteuthis sulcus and appears in the Tree of Life project at

The 'teeth' are described in the species profile as a beak, so presumably the disturbing similarity to human teeth is coincidental.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A Most Important Question, finally answered!

And the answer is......lynn-ux. Yes, for all these years we've been confused about the pronunciation of linux; is it Lie-nux or lynn-ux. Finally, the dilemma is resolved, for today I read in the British Computer Society magazine an interview with the man himself, who confirmed the pronunciation. Phew!

Who? you ask? What man? Well Linus Torvalds, the man who actually wrote linux.

And in case you're wondering (I know you are!) he's Finnish, so is pronounced Leenus.

And if you haven't the slightest idea what I'm raving about, don't worry, the nurse is here with my medication.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

'Intelligent Design'

For a period of several weeks recently, I exchanged emails with an Intelligent Design enthusiast. I'd come across a site which offered to send a series of emails which would 'prove' that ID was valid and that many things I accept as factual, are actually just fairy stories. I thought I'd let them have a go.

They fell at the first hurdle, however, because the very first email contained the assertion that the universe was created by an intelligence. They offered no evidence to support this opinion, so I cancelled out of it, with the comment that such an unsupported assertion simply demonstrated that they had nothing new to offer.

I got an email back offering to send the whole set of messages in a single attachment to give me the chance to assess everything they were saying, rather than just dismiss it out of hand. I should have known I was wasting my time, but I did learn one thing from it; I'm lousy at debate, so I might just as well not get involved.

So then I exchanged a number of emails with this guy, in which he maintained that what I was saying was 'baloney' and I maintained that he was believing 'fairy stories'. Well, neither of us was willing to admit the slightest flexibility, so eventually I gave up entirely. It was a complete waste of time. I still maintain I'm right, of course; he offered no evidence whatsoever to support his claims, just attacked the theory of evolution.

The outcome was that I was prompted to assemble my ID Good Joke jpeg. Just my small contribution. The animal, I hope you know, is a tree kangaroo, in my opinion one of the silliest 'designs' in 'creation'. I hope you like it enough to pass it around. Or make your own version.

My wife Jenny is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Cambridge University, where for the past 25 years she's worked on the evolution of land vertebrates from fish. As you'd expect, some of her understanding of her subject has rubbed off onto me. I think one of the things that makes me so bad at debate is that I can't step away from the subject and be completely logical about it.

When the ID enthusiast erected a straw man argument (there are no ancestors and descendants in the fossil record, therefore Darwinian evolution is a delusion) it just made me mad, particularly since he dismissed my arguments as either micro-evolution (ie irrelevant) or simply nonsense. One of several answers to his straw man is that because so few individuals are actually fossilised, you'd never expect to find ancestors and descendants, so scientists stopped thinking in those terms many decades ago.

Relationships these days are represented by cladograms which look like this one, which I copied from, which is the Tree of Life web project, and represents real science.

The idea is that since we know we won't find ancestors and descendants, we look at the specimens themselves and identify similarities and differences, and use these to decide their most likely relationships. This turns out to be quite a robust methodology, particularly since, when a new specimen turns up, you can incorporate it into the existing pattern.

Sometimes, of course, it highlights shortcomings in the current model, sometimes it just reinforces it. That's how science works.

Unfortunately, cladograms do rather play into the hands of the ID charlatans. They see just lines on the left, with no ancestors, so claim that evolution can't have happened. Then they turn the diagram through 90 degrees and call it a field of grass, with no substance below.

They take perfectly good, valid science, and misinterpret it for their own purposes, then peddle the resulting garbage to people who don't have the background to know they're being lied to.


I feel a bit better now, thank you.

Contemporary Dance

Last night, a bunch (well, the usual reprobates - Lorna, Richard, Jane, Jenny, me) went to Cambridge Arts Theatre to see the Richard Alston Dance Company. We've seen them before and knew they were good, so were looking forward to the evening.

We met up in the theatre restaurant, with Jenny arriving about 15 minutes late, having not escaped her adult ballet class until 6.30. Anticipating this, I'd ordered for her, reasonably confident she'd be happy, which proved to be the case. Jane had warned us she'd not get to Cambridge before 7 at the earliest, so we didn't wait for her.

The food was good, as was the wine, and a little after 7.30, Jane arrived, and when the bell started to ring, we made our way downstairs.

At the door, however, there was a line of people waiting to go in, so seeing no-one queued at the bar, I quickly ordered drinks for the first interval, then went in.

We were in the very front row. Goodness me, I've never been so close to the action before! It was absolutely brilliant! We got more and more enthusiastic as the evening wore on, and came out really elated. I've no idea why I like dance, but I really, really do. If you've never tried it, and get a chance to go, take it. If you don't love it, you'll only have wasted one evening. If you do love it, you'll thank me for the rest of your life.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Insult translation

A colleague brought the Essential Foreign Swear Words book in to work today. One entry I liked was "I have you down as a bit of a pigeon-licker" Never minding that I don't actually know what one of those is, the interesting bit is that the Spanish translation is given as "Te Machaco." Since I think we can assume Te means You, that implies that the Spanish have a word for "pigeon-licker". The mind boggles.

Assuming the book is accurate, of course. Well of course it is, bound to be, there in black and white, init?

Free Google translation service

If you look to your right you'll see a new gadget, being the new Google translation service. Select a language, press the tit and after a pause the blog reappears translated into an approximation of the spraak you sproke. (Must be under a lot of stress; I'm making up words!) You can download it from (click the Tools link) or apparently directly via the gadget itself.

Of course, being a software translation, the most entertaining thing is to go to, paste some English in, translate it to some other language, copy the translation back into the first window and translate it back into English. I did it for one of my blog postings, which came back comprehensible, but in a French accent. Small things.

Of course, you have to wonder why, since both of my readers are native English speakers, I would want to do that.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Preparing for the winter

I seem to be down to a normal number of spam messages, so presumably the program generating them has finished. I wonder how many messages it sprayed around the world. I reckon I had about 5000 returned messages, but I've no idea what the undeliverable to delivered ratio is likely to be. Only one person seems to have thought it really was me sending the junk.

Today has been a day of sorting things out for the winter. We've not finished, of course, but we have done several things. We put Jen's bike away for the winter, for one. She always has a lecture series which overlaps the weekend the clocks go back, and she can't depend on the trains to get her to work on time, so always rides until she's finished giving this set of lectures, then puts the bike away. The only work we needed to do on it was to fashion a small aluminium bracket for the fairing. The grp around the bolt holding one part to the frame had fractured, so I made a bit to span the gap and bolted it firmly to the frame again.

The other main task was to net the second pond. This entailed pulling lots of weed out of the freezing water and clipping back the leaves of the Japanese water irises, before stretching the net across. I also try to get as many water lily leaves out as I can while I'm at it. The idea is that any leaves that decay in the water raise the nutrient levels, so encourage green murky water in the early summer.

Pulling out lily leaves, it became clear there were several centres of growth. The radiating leaf stems were a bit of a giveaway. Reaching down into the water I found that there were great thick water lily roots right up to the edge of the pond. I grabbed some and pulled, and the whole lot moved towards me. To start with I just broke chunks off and piled them on the side of the pond, but eventually I pulled the whole thing out. There was wheelbarrow-load of water lily, combined with stinking, thick, gelatinous, black mud. Lovely! It all went on the compost heap apart from the original plastic pot still containing the original plant which I tossed back in. Then we netted the pond.

The other thing I've done this weekend was to put up a nestbox for tawny owls. I bought this thing made of stuff called woodcrete, which is a mixture of cement and sawdust. What I hadn't anticipated (or even given any thought to) was just how much the thing weighs. Must be 10 or 15 kilos, I reckon.

So yesterday I screwed it to the wall overlooking the neighbouring property (that wall is on the boundary and next door is sheltered housing for wrinklies) but was not comfortable that the screws I'd used were man enough for the job. During the night I remembered I had some much meatier screws, so this morning I was up the ladder again, and now I think the thing is much more secure. We really hope some tawnies take up residence. There used to be owls around when we first moved in 20 years since, but some years ago the old barns and sheds across the road were demolished and a handful of houses built, and since then there've been fewer owls. Fewer bats, too, come to that.

Email spoofing

I don't really know the correct sentence construction for this, but someone is spoofing my email account. What I mean is that a program somewhere is pretending to be me, and is spraying spam out into the world. Terrific. First I knew was on Friday when I got home from work to find 2400 returned undeliverable emails waiting for me. Since then I've had well over 1000 a day. I've fired up Thunderbird while doing this, and it reports 960 messages waiting for me. Naturally my ISP only works normal office hours, so I can't ask them if there's anything I can do about it. I have set up a filter, which diverts most of them straight into the Trash folder, but that doesn't actually fix the problem. What concerns me is that I might end up blacklisted, which could be a tad inconvenient. Hope none of you are getting spam from 'me'.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007


Well, I couldn't stand it, I just had to sort out the dishwasher, and the simplest solution was to buy another one. Well, the old Zanussi was 21 years old, so didn't owe us anything. Whiteware has a designed life of 10 years, so we were kind-of expecting this one to die soon.

The new one is a Siemens and will be delivered tomorrow Hooray! The only thing that worries us is that all modern dishwashers seem to take at least 2 hours, some rather more, to wash a load. The old Zanussi could charge through a load in about an hour, no problem.

This rattles the washing machine cage, too. Our old Hotpoint, which died about 5 years ago, also took 45 mins to an hour to wash a load. The replacement Bosch takes 2 hours and we still haven't worked out how to make sure the towels don't come out smelly. Towels have been known to come out of the airing cupboard and go straight into the washing basket! And worse than that, it accumulates a disgusting dark grey slime around the rubber collar that seals the drum around the door. Bosch say to do a full-out hot wash once a month but a) we don't have much that needs a hot wash and b) it's not exactly environmentally friendly to do an empty hot wash just to clean the washing machine. I've seen dishwasher cleaner - can you get washing machine cleaner? What a ridiculous idea!

Anyhow, now I'd better go and clear the decks so when the new one arrives, the man can actually fit it. At the moment it's buried under a mountain of detritus in the utility room.

Oh bugger, they've caught up with me!

I can't remember how much of this I've blogged before, so I apologise if I repeat myself too much.

A year ago we had a grid-connected array of solar panels installed. We were dead lucky, because we fell right in the middle of the gummint's scheme to subsidise such things by almost 50%. They've capped it at some pathetically low figure now, so no-one in his right mind would take them up on it. Anyway, we put 11 panels up and the installer said they would generate roughly 2200 kWh per year. Actually, at 1873, it's been less than his estimate this year, but then we had a lousy summer.

Now concentrate. We buy our electricity from Southern Electric, but the house is located in Eastern Region, and Southern don't have an agreement with Eastern to replace our meter with one which can measure the power I squirt back into the grid as well as what I suck out. In the interim the agreement with Southern was that they'd pay me 5p a kWh for everything I generated, whether I was importing or exporting, compared with the 9.2p they charge me for what I use. I think this is roughly fair. Well, it was explained to me by Natalie, with whom I fell instantly in love the moment she opened her mouth - Edinburgh accent.

In the run-up to the installation, I'd been scanning my old bills and couldn't work out why the first quarter of the year was always twice the size of each of the other quarters, so had eventually started reading the meter every day, to try to work out what was happening. (A. The last quarter reading was always an estimate. As we use more power during the winter, the first quarter, a real reading, then had to catch up, so was much bigger. Still with me?)

One bright spring day I was reading the meter, when I spotted that it was running backwards! Apparently meters come in 2 flavours - newer ones only run forwards, but older ones go both ways. So this meant all the electricity I was generating was reducing the meter reading, and they were paying me for it. Hah! Brillliant! I can cope with that! In fact, instead of a bill at the end of September, I had a letter telling me I'd overpaid by £44. Better and better.

Until yesterday, when I had a phone call from Southern, making an appointment to replace my old meter with an import/export model. Damn!

Still, it does mean I've been paid twice for the 1800 kWh I generated.

Monday, 5 November 2007

A fantastic weekend!

Yes, the weekend really did live up to expectations! Well, almost. It started badly, when we discovered the dishwasher was broken, which cast something of a shadow over the weekend. I checked the web, but all the sites I found said that if the motor was broken (it is) to call in a professional. For a 25 year old dishwasher, I think I can see what's coming!

Jenny seems to have liked her presies. A mixture of various things, some silly (eg a pair of socks with the periodic table of elements on), some more serious. I like to give her something I've made myself, and this year completely failed on the silver front, which was frustrating. I ended up shaping a piece of wood rescued from the loft into a pendant. The grain is rather special. Having smoothed it with very fine grade wet-and-dry I French polished it, which was hard work. I'm very poor at French polishing, and had to have many goes before it was finally OK.

Having beautiful weather both days was a bonus, and with 7 canons being inducted during the evensong, Coventry Cathedral was packed. An audience congregation of 600 completely changes the accoustic dynamic of the building. And we acquitted ourselves well. We sang the Rose responses, Psalmo 150 by the Brazilian composer Aguiar, and Joubert's O Lorde the maker of all thinge, all of which suited both the occasion and the building perfectly. The clergy were very complimentary afterwards, too. I think the Aquiar was so different from your average psalm setting, they were impressed. Well I think it should have knocked their socks off, but that's just me.

Afterwards everyone retired to the Ramada Hotel where Jenny and I stayed. I'd arranged for the hotel to lay on canapés and champagne and they really did us proud. Courteous, friendly staff and great canapés.

Afterwards, Lorna and Richard came with us to Simply Simpsons restaurant in Kenilworth, where we had top notch food and a really nice claret, again with excellent service. Quite pricey, but worth it. Sadly, the link to their own website doesn't work, so what I've given is just a kind of review page.

Sunday, after a pleasant drive home, I cooked Jenny's birthday meal. I did have to ask her to help a bit, as I also had to wash up by hand, but I did almost all of it myself.

I started with Alternative Anna's roasted peppers with halloumi and pine kernals, which is really excellent. Thank you, Anna! I opened a bottle of 2001 Chassagne-Montrachet, which was lovely, and matched the peppers well.

Then I roasted a wild mallard with a sour cherry sauce, roast potatoes, red cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli. The mallard was falling off the bone, as requested by the birthday girl, but sadly the flesh was rather dry. The recipe I was following said to pour the excess fat off from time to time, but there wasn't any, and it wasn't until we were actually eating it, that we concluded that a) being wild, there was no fat and b) there being no fat I should have been basting it. Ah well, that's how you learn these things. It was very tasty, nonetheless.

This was going to be accompanied by a 1986 Chateau Gruaud Larose, which is a second growth claret I bought 20-odd years ago. The last one of these we opened a couple of years ago was completely stunning, but this one was not nice. The cork crumbled as I extracted it, and the wine itself was slightly vinegary. I opened a second, which was better, but that was still rather cool, having come straight up from the cellar. Very disappointing.

Pud was pears in spiced red wine. I modified a recipe we've used before, because I don't like it as sweet as it otherwise would be. Half the amount of sugar, and then added a couple of inches of cinnamon stick as well.

After the main course, we cleared up a bit, partly to give the food time to go down a little. While we were doing so, Jane, Lorna and Richard arrived, and we retired outside for fireworks. I'd bought these a year ago and just not got around to letting them off, so was relieved when they all worked properly. Lorna and Richard brought some of their own, and let some of those off, too.

Finally we went back indoors and ate the pears. I'd anticipated doing something like this, so had made enough for 5, and it did seem to hit the spot. I was pleased with the result of the modified recipe, so have kept notes for next time. Nothing worse than modifying a recipe and being very pleased with the result, only to forget what you'd done the next time you come to do it.

Today I'm whacked. I feel a powerful need for a quiet evening at home, with simple food and not much booze. So naturally we're going into Cambridge for the fireworks on Midsomer Common, followed by dinner in whatever restaurant we can get into. Well, maybe I'll get a rest tomorrow!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A great big snowball in the sky!

Jenny came home and insisted we go out more or less immediately to find somewhere dark and look at the sky, to see if we could see comet 17P/Holmes, and we could!

This photo is lifted straight from because that link just takes you to the home page, and the content is bound to change. It was taken by
Laurent Laveder of Quimper, France and shows his daughter and stepdaughter pointing the comet out.

Apparently the comet exploded on 24th October, and it's now so big it's easily visible with the naked eye, though it lacks the exciting tail you'd normally associate with a comet.

Through some fairly ordinary binoculars it resolves into quite a big fuzzy blob to the left of Perseus.
As Jenny commented, she had Hale-Bopp for her 50th, and now this one for her 60th. Pretty good, we think!

It was good to find somewhere dark (thank god it wasn't cloudy!) and we could see the Milky Way quite well, but it did remind us just how polluted with light our night sky is.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Bitsa Blog

This is going to be a bitsa blog, 'cos it's so long since I've had a chance to post anything, there are several unconnected topics I'd like to write about.

One such is that I ordered some interesting wine from the Wine Society the other week, and it was delivered last Thursday. There was some stuff on special offer, but it didn't add up to the minimum requirements to qualify for free delivery (either a case of 12 bottles or total value £75 or more), so I poked around in the catalogue to see if there was anything to justify lashing out.

To my surprise I found several unusual wines which persuaded me it was worth it, so my case included a Moroccan shiraz, a Lebanese red (not Ch. Musar) and a Greek red. I've tried the Moroccan, and it really is rather nice. I'd not expected anything other than paint stripper from Morocco, so it was a surprise to see it in the Society's lists. Not surprised, given it was there, that it was worth the effort. Haven't tried the others yet.

And an unexpected bonus was to find my case was a case of 15 bottles. Members ordering between early Oct. and some time in Nov. get three free bottles of rosé, for no obvious reason. There was a leaflet explaining it, but I didn't spend long reading it.

On Saturday we decided we really had to try the squirrels I got last week, and thought initially of doing a coq au vin but with squirrel. Mopsa had convinced me of the need to cook and debone them first (she ate one in January and described it as similar to eating a Pirelli!), and I thought we were all set. Then Jenny found a recipe for a mediæval 'grete pie'. Our book prints the original recipe and a modern equivalent, so we followed that.

The recipe uses minced beef along with whatever game you feel like putting in (we used pigeon breasts as well as the squirrel), plus chopped dates, currants and prunes. Assembled with some gravy in shortcrust pastry it was simply delicious, particularly with fried bubble and squeak potato cakes . And I'm delighted to say it was twice as big as we needed, so we'll have the rest for dinner tomorrow night.

Yesterday afternoon Jenny finally decided her ring finger had healed enough to try putting on her wedding ring. I had to finish all the tidying up I'd started because of course, once on, it was likely to stay on, so I sorted the rough edges out and gave it a good polish (bench grinder with polishing mop attached) so it looked pretty much like new. Of course, having had the thickness of a saw blade removed by the hospital, it was actually smaller than before, so I had to hammer it on a ring mandrell (long, tapered steel tool clamped in a vice) to stretch it a little. When we thought it was big enough I was getting ready to file off the hammer marks, sand it with fine grade wet and dry and then polish it again, but Jenny decided she rather liked the hammered finish, so slipped it on and that is how it is.

Then last night we had Lorna, Richard and Jane around for dinner and served the meat-eaters crown roast guard of honour of muntjac. (Aside: this was one of the reasons I was so cross when they butchered the muntjac I bought last weekend - they either just threw the whole ribcage away or stripped the meat out and added it to the 'diced venison' they gave me. So it'll be months and months before we can do this again. Grr!) Richard had a skate wing fried in butter. Served with roasted and new potatoes, carrots from the garden and steamed cauliflower. Preceded by garlic mushrooms and followed by Mopsa's clafoutis (this is in a Mopsa comment in Mutterings and Meanderings). Yum. Oh yes, we started with one of the free rosés, then the muntjac was accompanied by Klein Constantia (South Africa) Marlbrook and a really nice Argentinian red that Jane brought. I started to lose track by the time we hit Lorna and Richard's bottle! Fortunately, the clocks having gone back, we were all ready for bed pretty early, so it wasn't too hard to get up this morning!

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Tuna steaks with roasted veg

So tonight J had a Darwin College governing body meeting, so didn't get home until 9.30. As I rode home I was wondering what to cook, considering the possibilities, and decided on tuna with roasted veg on the side. The veg were all there at home, of course, so that was easy, and I dropped by Tesco to pick up the tuna.

The tuna was already wrapped in discount plastic bags, but I bought it anyway. Mistake. Should have known better. I mean, fish on a discount.

I had shallots, potatoes, half a red pepper, half a courgette and a couple of garlic cloves along with 2 halves of an immature gem squash. That was really interesting, as the seeds were unformed, so I just scooped out the 'paste' where they were starting. The skin was still too tough to eat, even though the squash was only 5cm in diameter, but the flesh was delish. I tossed them in olive oil with fresh thyme and marjoram, then roasted them for half an hour flat out.

I found wierdly shaped pieces of tuna in the plastic bag, 2 of which I fried, one went to the freezer. Tastewise they were OK, but not great.

Two and a half hours later, I find myself running to the bog. And again and again, all evening. Do I dare go to bed, I ask myself. This is not nice. Do I blame the tuna? I can't imagine roasted veg doing this to me.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Just passing time

I'm glad I had the wit to check out the United Airlines website this morning, because Jen's flight landed 35 minutes early. I just grabbed my handbag and drove like the wind. All went well until the short stretch between the M4 and LHR itself, where I got clogged up in slow-moving traffic. As I approached Terminal 3 my phone rang and it was Jen, wondering where I was. Fortunately she didn't have to wait long for me and we were soon on our way home.

I grabbed myself another couple of hours zeds, then got up, remembering I needed to buy something for dinner. I'd kept a couple of the squirrels out of the freezer, but Jenny wasn't keen, so I had to think of something else. I got a guinea fowl from Bury Lane Farm Shop and I'm going to casserole it with red wine vinegar and puy lentils, using a Tamasin Day Lewis recipe. I've got a rather limp savoy cabbage which should go well with it.

I think the real reason we're slightly uncertain about the squirrels is that we can't find much in the way of sensible recipes for them. There are endless recipes on the web, but most of them seem to assume you wanting to do this as quickly and simply as possible. I'm sorry, but any recipe that specifies a can of chicken or mushroom soup gets a click of the Back button. I do notice that most recipes suggest you cook the beasties, then debone them before continuing on with the recipe, so I assume their tiny bones are best kept out of the casserole. Don't recall having a problem before, and certainly they're no smaller than quail, but that was on the barbie. Might be more difficult submerged in sauce.

At the moment I'm thinking in terms of coq au vin, just substituting the squirel meat for the chicken.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Today's cock-up

I really do think this is quite funny. Fortunately. Today our friend Julia is celebrating a birthday with a zero, with a meal for about 20 in a local restaurant. Today is not her birthday, of course, just the nearest convenient Saturday. The other day when I went to check the time we were due at the restaurant, I couldn't find the email, but Lorna and Richard said they thought it was 7.30 and that sounded reasonable, so at 7.20 I went over the road to collect them and we walked up into town.

We were greeted with "You're first to arrive" but nothing else, but when we thought about it, it did seem odd that our host and hostess weren't there already. I asked what time we were booked in for, and burst out laughing when he said 8.30. Why didn't he say "Do you realise you're an hour early?" We could have stayed and had a drink, if we hadn't worried about being completely arseholed by the end of the evening, but instead we came home again. Lorna had forgotten to check her email, so I don't know where she got 7.30 from.

So that's how I have time to write this post! Now I'm going to pour myself a glass of white and read my book for half an hour.

Feeling lethargic

This is not right! It's a beautiful, if chilly, Saturday, I've got Jenny's birthday present to make and I really feel lethargic and demotivated. The day is not going well. First thing I did was collect a tail bag we'd ordered for Jenny's Honda 500. This is a fabric bag she can attach to the pillion seat to hold her stuff and which detaches easily when she arrives. Only we were expecting it to have a base which was semi-permanently fixed, to which the bag itself zipped and unzipped. Wrong. It's just a cubical bag that bungies onto the seat. Well, maybe it'll do, but it's not what we were expecting.

So then on to Bury Lane Farm Shop to pick up the muntjac we'd ordered. This turned out to have been butchered already and much more expensive than the last one as a result. Well, I can cope with that, since I don't have to cut it up myself, but it's not ideal. Because I don't get so much of the actual animal, they throw in a kilo or so of venison sausages, but when I get them home I find they've been sitting on the counter for so long most of them have nasty dried up skins and I really don't know how edible they'll be. Now I'm getting hacked off and am looking for faults.

He did supply me with 4 squirrels, but he wrapped them quickly and tied up the bag, and I didn't actually get to see them until I got home. Each is in its own, sealed plastic bag, which is fine, but one of them turns out to be 2 half-squirrels, which strikes me as a a bit dubious. I guess they use shotguns and sometimes it's a bit messy. I can tell you that they weigh 320 to 340 gm each.

So that lot is now all in the freezer, and I realise, writing this, that I've nothing lined up for tomorrow night's dinner. I'd best give that some thought now!

Friday, 19 October 2007

Not much to report

Jen flew to Austin, Texas, on Wednesday for a conference, cursing and spitting all the way. Because she's lecturing on Monday, she couldn't stay a Saturday night, which meant the flights cost her about three times what they needed to. And all for a 15 minute speaking slot. I'm not sure why she didn't just say "Sod that."

Wednesday evening I ate out in Royston with Lorna and Richard as usual, then last night cooked myself patatas a los pobre, which should translate as poor man's potatoes. I lifted the recipe from the very splendid Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart.

Peel, chop and par-boil some potatoes. Fry up a chopped onion and several garlic in olive oil. Chop the garlic if you want or leave it whole. Chop a few rashers of smoked streaky bacon and toss that in with the onion & garlic once they're softened. You can use smoked gammon if you prefer. If you feel like it, chop and add some sweet pepper. Any colour will do, but red is prettiest in this dish. Finally, add the potatoes to this mix. You may want to add more oil. Turn the heat right down, cover tightly and leave to cook for half an hour or so. Give it the occasional stir to stop it sticking to the pan. Alright, to free it from the bottom of the pan.

This is a simple, reasonably healthy dish, particularly if you're stingy with the meat, which is really only there for the flavour.

After I'd cleared up, I lit a fire, cracked open a bottle and settled down with my book. Few things can beat that combination. The book is Animal's People by Indra Sinha, and, amazingly for a Booker shortlisted work, is extremely readable. I've bought shortlisted books before, and they've always been dreadfully worthy. I am thoroughly enjoying reading this one, and stayed up rather later than planned last night because I didn't want to put the book down.

This weekend I'm hoping to make Jenny a silver pendant for her birthday, but the start I made last night was not promising. I may have to buy something (shock horror!). We brought back some nice opals from Australia at Easter, but I'm so out of practice, it's really difficult to do anything half-way decent.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007


OK, I know this was nothing to do with my post about grey squirrels, but the timing couldn't have been more perfect. This evening, on Channel 4 the Wild Gourmets were in Cumbria, where they shot some grey squirrels and then prepared "Peking squirrel" (ie, like Peking duck only with squirrel) - poached, shredded squirrel meat in a 5-spice sauce, with wild greens and spring onions, rolled up into those thin, thin pancakes with a wild damson sauce. And served them up to the locals in a pub, to widespread acclaim. Everyone that didn't end up on the cutting room floor said they loved it, and all were either going to sell it in their shops or serve it in their restaurants or eat it when it was on the menu. Brilliant!

And it was on prime time TV, so hopefully this will be the start of a movement to make grey squirrel a normal presence on our game counters, and then we might see the numbers start to decline a bit. Well OK, rise more slowly, if you insist I remain realistic!

And just to reinforce what I was saying about the impact of the greys on our native red squirrels, there are about 150,o00 reds in the UK and 2.5 million greys. Unchecked, Mr Wild Gourmet said, the reds could be extinct within 15 years.

I'll say that again. Red squirrels in the UK could be extinct within 15 years. Think about it.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Marine Reserves around UK coasts

We can all, apart from the fishing industry, see that our fisheries are in desperate trouble. Fish stocks are collapsing around us, the size of the fish being caught is dramatically less than 30, 40 or 50 years ago, we throw away vast quantities of ‘by-catch’, and yet, no-one is actually doing anything about it. The industry is in denial and the government just wrings its hands.

Each year, quotas are reduced a little, which is completely inadequate, stocks fall further, more reductions, more falling stocks, more job losses. Hopeless. And don’t forget the fishing industry that denies there's a problem is the same industry that fished out the cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. There are still no cod on the Grand Banks, 75 or so years later.

Edit: Wrong, well at least, the last bit. The Grand Banks cod take increased up until the mid-70s, after which it fell by 60%. The Canadians extended the fishing limit for foreign vessels from 12 t0 200 miles. Using more sophisticated techniques and equipment, the Canadian take increased once more, stabilised in the 1980s, then declined until 1992 when it reached a record low. The Canadian government banned cod fishing on the Grand Banks in 1992, throwing 30,000 out of work. Stocks have yet to recover and it's uncertain whether they ever will.

Worse than this is the issue of by-catch, where large numbers of non-target fish are simply dumped back in the sea, dead or nearly so. Prawn fishing is the worst, but all fisheries do this, and it stinks. It’s a direct and inevitable result of the quota system.

And finally, many of our sea bird colonies are unable to raise significant numbers of young, because the sand-eel population has crashed, almost certainly because of industrial fishing which simply hoovers up the whole population and makes it into animal feed or fertiliser. The sea bird chicks are simply starving to death.

Seems to me, the answer is marine reserves where fishing is completely banned. The fisheries industry don’t like that idea, of course, but it does seem much more likely to help. New Zealand is introducing marine reserves which will eventually total 20% of the coastal sea area, and already they’re seeing spectacular increases in fish numbers. Sadly, I can’t find a website to provide a link to with any figures, but this one seems a good place to start.

And that’s what I’d like to see around UK coasts – 20% reserved as no-take, no dump, no disturb zones, where the marine environment can recover to something like its natural state. Within the reserves there’d be more, bigger fish, but of course, they wouldn’t stay within those areas. As the population density rose, they’d move out into the unprotected areas, where the industry could then catch more, bigger fish than they do at present.

It wouldn’t help the by-catch issue, but I need hardly say it should help the fish stocks and the sea birds, and if the stocks recover, there won’t be any need for quotas, and the by-catch issue will disappear.

The Grey Squirrel Menace

That may sound like an exaggeration, but in reality grey squirrels, introduced into the UK from the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are progressively eliminating our native red squirrels, and if we don’t do something drastic, reds will be effectively extinct in the UK in the forseeable future. I know they are darling little bouncy bundles of fluff and fun, but realistically they are a menace that is wiping out significant parts of our native wildlife.

Greys are bigger than reds, can live in a wider variety of habitats and eat a wider range of foods, including immature nuts which the reds would leave until later, so they out-compete the reds, leaving them with less to eat. In addition, they spread the squirrel parapox virus, to which they are immune, but which kills red squirrels.

According to the UK Red Squirrel Group the two species can exist side by side for up to 20 years before the reds finally disappear, but disappear they will.

As if that wasn’t enough, grey squirrels also eat the eggs and young of many of our native songbirds, already in alarming decline.

Recently the Forestry Commission proposed a plan to make grey squirrels infertile, and there are numerous other plans to control the greys, all of which I urge you to support.

I also strongly recommend eating grey squirrels, not only to help control them but also because they are completely delicious! The local farm shop where I buy much of my meat and game, has told me they can get me grey squirrels in much the same way they supply me with muntjac deer. In the latter case, I get a clean, whole carcase, weighing about 6 to 9 kilos which costs me £4 a kilo, and which I need to dismember myself. The bit I find hard, skinning and gutting, has already been done for me. I just cut it up and stick it in the freezer.

An adult squirrel at this time of year I would expect to weigh 250 to 350 grams. Since that includes bones, I’d say it would feed one. I have no idea what he’s going to charge me, but I’ve asked for four in the first instance. I’ll keep you posted!

I’m not sure yet how I’m going to cook them. The flesh tastes somewhere between chicken and rabbit, so I imagine I could do Squirrel Nutkin au vin (yes, I know Squirrel Nutkin was a red, I’m just trying to be clever). We did barbecue one in the early summer, having marinated it in soy sauce and 5-spice, and it was absolutely delicious, but it’s October now, so past barbie time. We’ll definitely be working on the idea, provided the supplier really does come up with the goods.

And if you can’t bring yourself to eat them, please at least support an organisation that’s working to control them. You’ll be helping prevent the extinction of red squirrels and the decimation of our native songbirds, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A fragment of a translation of a poem....

This is a bit of Jerome Sams' translation of L'Histoire du Soldat by C F Ramuz and set to music by Igor Stravinsky. I heard it on BBC Radio 3 a while ago and absolutely loved it, though apparently some purists were horrified that it wasn't being done in the original French. If it had, of course, I would not have understood any of it, so I think it was a jolly good thing!

This is only a fragment, the bit I like best.

The thing you were before you changed, you can't be any more.
You can't add what you've now become, to what you were before.
You have to choose, you can't have everything, that's not allowed.
One happiness is all the happiness you get, and two's a crowd.

Wish I could write poetry like that.

The winner!

Yippee! I won DJKirkby's Wordless Wednesday, hooray! Thinks: must get the doors widened.

I need to ask DL about the link to his Blog Action Day logo, cos I'm not alone in just getting html when I tried to add it to my post. I ended up downloading and uploading the logo as an image, which I'm sure is not right.

Edit: OK I have a better solution to the logo issue. Right click the logo here and select Properties. Copy the image location and then embed it where you want, wrapping it in <img src="copied location" >.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Blog Action Day 2007

October 15th is Blog Action Day in which bloggers are encouraged to tackle issues of the environment in a variety of ways, but particularly by blogging a relevant post.

I plan to post something about grey squirrel control in the UK, as that's quite close to my heart right now. The event also encourages us to donate to a relevant charity, and I've been in touch with UK Red Squirrel Group in the hope I can donate to them. They are a sort of umbrella group which received some lottery money last year, but only about half of what they need.

If you're concerned about the environment, please join in, write an environmental post, but most importantly, publicise the event. There's an awful lot of bloggers out there who could send a very powerful message!

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Mega breakfast!

Boil some potatoes. I used Maris Piper. While that's happening, dice and fry some smoked streaky bacon. If you feel like putting in some mushrooms, do. Add some chopped rosemary and thyme. When the potatoes are cooked, drain them and crush roughly. You're not aiming for smooth mash here. Add the potatoes to the pan with the bacon. You may need to add a drizzle of olive oil. Mix it all up and press it down a bit, and turn the heat up. You're aiming for some crispy bits of potato, so you'll need to stir it from time to time. Meanwhile, fry a couple of eggs. When the potato looks about right, serve it, with the softly fried eggs on top. Mega!

Saturday, 6 October 2007

For those that like symbolism

Jen had the dressings removed from her hand on Wednesday, and her fingers are healing nicely. They're still a darkish pink, and a small area of the worst burn is still a rather weepy scab, but it's making good progress, so will be back to normal soon. You'll be relieved to hear that she won't let me take a photo! Apparently nobody at work noticed that the bandages were off. A bit like the dog that didn't bark in the night, she said.

So I thought it was about time I fixed her wedding ring. For the past 20 years we've done a bit of silversmithing, though we don't do much now. As a result, I have some 9 carat gold solder, so was able to solder her ring back together quite nicely. I also managed to fill a second saw-mark they made when the first nurse wasn't strong enough to bend the ring, so that's nicely tidied up, too. She can't get it on yet, as her ring finger is still puffy and tender, but the ring is almost ready for her to wear. I didn't clean it up too thoroughly, because I wasn't sure whether or not I'd need to stretch it to fit. As that involves hammering, there was no point bringing it back up to an as-new finish, which is what I'll do when the time comes.

And the rest of today has been spent in the garden. Pulling up tomatoes and hanging them upside down in the greenhouse to ripen. Not a brilliant crop, but tasty and nice to have. Chopping a chunk of Philostachis nigra (black-stemmed bamboo) off the main clump and planting it in a gap elsewhere in the garden. Pulling vast amounts of weed out of one of the ponds and thinking about doing the second one tomorrow. Jenny's been digging up masses of Japanese anemone which has overrun one of the beds. We've got wallflowers from the market in Royston to put in there and elsewhere.

Tomorrow we need to net the ponds as the maple next door is already dumping lots of leaves and we need to keep as many out as possible. Must also decide what to do about winter lights, tomorrow. We usually put a string of 100 or so plain white, non-flashing lights up into a silver birch tree, but most of the bulbs have blown in the existing set, so we'll have to buy new ones, I think. Sounds as though I've already decided, doesn't it?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Pretending to be brave

Having recently acquired a multi-function printer, I thought I'd play around with scanning in some old photographs, and came across these, which are of me and my bike after I crashed it in November, 1997. I'd fitted electrically heated handlebar grips, to keep my fingers toasty on cold winter nights, and the next day was riding home from work. Sadly, the grip on the throttle dragged against the switch cluster next to it, but I thought that was OK, as I could easily open and close the throttle.

In quite heavy traffic, I was overtaking one car at a time, making good progress, but at one point changed my mind about passing, so let go the throttle. Which stayed wide open. As I closed rapidly on the car I'd been about to overtake, I panicked and grabbed a handful of brake, the front wheel locked up, and down I went at about 60 mph. I was incredibly lucky to bounce straight down the road, neither veering off into the hedge on the left, nor the oncoming traffic on the right.

But I learned the value of proper biking gear that day. I was wearing kevlar scuff resistant overtrousers, which were damaged but OK, a leather jacket which acquired a new hole in one shoulder, and Derriboots (lined, plastic waterproof boots, a bit like fancy wellington boots), which kept my feet nice and dry, but gave no support whatever to my ankle as I tumbled down the road. The ankle was not broken, but took a year to recover as much as it ever would. It was my only injury - the jacket and trousers, designed for the job, protected me brilliantly. First thing I did when I started riding the next spring was to buy a decent pair of motorcycling boots!

The bike flipped over when it bounced off the hedge and ended up back in the road. All the plastic bodywork had to be replaced (thank you, Norwich Union!) but amazingly, there was no structural damage at all, and I'm still riding the same bike.

Once the hospital had established that my ankle was only sprained, I took a taxi home. Jenny opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate my making it over the threshold under my own steam!


I finally started carving again! Somehow, for ages now, I've just not had the motivation to get out there and actually do something, but that all changed on Tuesday night. I'm carving a head for Lorna to give to her friend Dot as a birthday present, but it's been languishing in the shed untouched.

On Tuesday I realised that I wasn't happy with the way I was doing it, so took a fresh look and changed it. It's called Girl in a Wimple, which is deliberately provocative, a wimple being so similar to a hijab. Trouble was, I'd carved her face to be rather sweet and girlish, which is not at all my style, so I had at it with vigour, and now it's much more deeply set, more angular, more geometric, and I'm much happier with it! Did some more work on it last night and expect to do some tonight, too.

And now I'm soaking up that wonderful feeling you get when the logjam finally breaks and everything just moves right along. Magic!

Monday, 1 October 2007


A friend currently on holiday in India posted this picture on his blog. I liked it so much I had to share it with you! I want! I want!

Update on Jen's burns

It's a fortnight since Jenny burned her left hand with boiling fat, and I'm glad to be able to report that she's making good progress. She burned the index, middle and ring fingers, and the outer two are almost at the point where they no longer need dressing. The middle one was the worst burned, and is making slower progress, but even that is doing fine.

One irritation is the way the dressings keep falling off, and this was something which added to the delay in getting to Jane's for dinner last night. To protect the dressing while she showered, Jen put on a rubber glove, but taking it off removed all her dressings as well. At least the one on her middle finger should be tied up around her wrist, but we don't seem able to do this particularly successfully so far.

We're trying to get hold of some vitamin E cream to apply, since a nurse somewhere along the line has suggested that to aid the recovery. Others have mentioned it, too, but it doesn't seem easy to find so far.

And to add to her joy, her boss starts a year's sabbatical today, so Jenny is acting director of the Museum of Zoology for the next year, something she's not looking forward to. It means lots more admin and much less research, which is quite the opposite of the way she'd like it to be!

Busy weekend

Saturday's concert was mostly Royston Town Band, with a short spot by the excellent Royston Youth Choir, and a couple of slots for us.

The youth choir is a dozen or so children aged roughly between 8 and 16, mostly girls, but there's always been at least one boy I think. Pam Lambert, who runs it, is a friend of ours and fellow choristor in Royston Priory Singers, and she's obviously very talented in this direction, because the kids are always simply excellent. They start singing and everyone just bursts into tears! Most of the stuff they did on this occasion was 3-part harmony, some in rounds, often with movement as well, and all from memory. One piece, called Can you hear me? was a song from the perspective of a deaf person, and they did proper signing as they sang. I'm welling up just writing about it! Lorna and Richard (who use signing with some of their severely disabled pupils) were in the audience and said they could read the signs, so it was pukka.

Our bits went OK, though I discovered just how poorly I know Zadok the Priest! I really must do some note bashing on that some time. It's the sort of thing everyone just assumes you know, so you never get much rehearsal time, so it's up to me to bring myself up to speed.

On Sunday we sang choral evensong in a tiny church in a village called Friston, which is between Snape and Aldeburg, close to the Suffolk coast. It was a lovely day, so Jen and I decided to go on my bike, and set out at 2. It's a while since I've taken anyone on the pillion, and it took a few minutes to get used to the different dynamic of the bike, but we settled in pretty quickly, and arrived in plentfy of time, having taken about an hour and three quarters to cover the 80 miles.

There was some village festival going on all weekend, so the church was beautifully decorated with enormous bouquets of flowers everywhere you looked. We had a cup of tea and some cake in the village hall before starting to rehearse, which was very welcome. What I had was actually a bowl of rum with a bit of cake floating in it. OK, I exaggerate, but there really was quite a lot of rum and it was delicious.

In the service, the church was packed, which is always gratifying, and we had the Bishop of Dunwich in attendance. Maybe they came for the Bish, rather than us, but I don't care! Wasn't too impressed by his sermon, but he sang the responses confidently and accurately, so that'll do.

Coming home we opted to go a longer route, around the south side of Ipswich rather than across country the way we'd come, and it took no longer, despite being 20 miles further, since the road was dualled most of the way and I could crack on a bit. I eased off a little towards the end when it had become completely dark.

Irritatingly, my superduper oversuit allows a draft to circulate around my midriff, so I was well chilled by the time we got home. I had to stand under the shower for 5 minutes to warm up, which meant we were late getting to Jane's for dinner.

This angel had slowly casseroled some partridges with sausages and belly of pork, and had steamed a lump of salmon for Richard, so the 5 of us had a really delightful meal. Not forgetting the spicy pears in red wine sauce, of course, one of my favourites.

Knackered now, of course!