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!