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.