Friday, 31 October 2008

Of Politics and Religion

Lorna drew our attention to this truly excellent article (How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington) in the Comment & Debate section of Tuesday's Guardian newspaper.

Only one thing doesn't completely square, though no doubt there's a good explanation. The other day I checked out the Texas TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills) pdf (which I now can't find but I did find this), detailing what high school students would be taught about biology and it was deeply impressive. Of course, what the curriculum states and what actually gets thoroughly taught aren't necessarily the same thing.

Edit: Of course, our own standards are in freefall anyway. Since the schools are graded on their exam results, naturally, they choose the easiest examination boards for their pupils to take. That pressurises the exam boards to make the exams easier, so magically, the results continue to get better and better.

So, do we believe that the pupils are getting brighter, or that they are working harder, or that teachers
are getting better, or that the exams are getting easier? Err, tricky, can I have notice of this one.....?

And I am endebted to the superb Pharyngula for publicising this incredible 18-year-old, who expresses in this YouTube video quite a few of the reasons I'm an atheist, but so much more coherently and concisely than I ever could.

It's interesting that she posted quite a few YouTube videos expressing her opinions about religion, then Pharyngula posted a comment about her, and within a very short space of time the Christian right were demanding that she be banned from YouTube, and this in the liberal, free-thinking, democratic US of A.

What I don't understand is why the fundamentalist Christians feel so threatened by one 18 year old girl. And what gives them the right to impose their views on her. And how they can square their Christian teachings (turn the other cheek, love your enemy, etc) with their threats of violence against anyone who dares express an opinion that doesn't support their personal view of the world.

And by the way, CB1, this is not intended as any kind of a poke in your direction. It's a long time since I came across anyone in the CofE that I would call remotely fundy.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

African Art

I love African art, and I've been collecting it for a short while. I think I've mentioned it before.

So today I took my dental abscess to my dentist, even though it was more or less cleared up. I wanted him to check it out and make sure it was going to stay OK. He reassured me!

On the way back to work, however, I saw a van parked by the side of the road with a spread of wooden carvings laid out on the pavement. I've seen this guy there from time to time and was interested in one particular item, a small table, which I'd seen, so stopped to investigate.

Sadly, he didn't have any of the tables, but we talked about what he did have. Most of what was laid out was made for him in Thailand, and some was really rather good, though it wouldn't really fit in at home. Then I discovered he also did African stuff, and persuaded him to fetch some out of the back of the van.

Well as you can see, I couldn't resist. The hard part was deciding what to buy, since I could cheerfully have taken all of it! He had half a dozen figures like this one, and at least a dozen wooden masks. These two are from Gambia, though he didn't have any more information than that. They don't look as though they were made to order, so I'm assuming they were made by a village carver somewhere and used in local rituals, before being bought up and shipped to the UK.

Now most of the stuff I've bought in the past I got off the internet, eg the African Art Museum, and I always thought the prices were really low, considering the quality of what I was buying, but this stuff cost a quarter what I've bought previously. Just amazing! The real problem is where to put them.

What do you mean, impulse buying?

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Silver Earrings

Thought I'd post a couple of photos of these earrings I made last night for Jenny's birthday. I cast them using a cuttlebone, which I know I've posted about before. Summary - cut top few centimetres off a cuttlebone with a hacksaw. Then cut it lengthways across the width (ie you're splitting a long, wide, thin thing into two even thinner ones). Carve your design in negative into one side of the cuttlebone, then wire the two halves back together and pour in the molten silver.

One reason I like this technique is the texture you get from the surface you carve. The cuttlebone is made up of alternating harder and softer layers, so when you pour in the silver, you get curved, almost wood-grain markings on the surface. This is what you can see in the left-hand photo.

I'm rather pleased with them, partly because of two unexpected effects. First, I did nothing to smooth off the saw marks from the side which I didn't carve, so I ended up with straight lines on the backs. Second, I wanted to curve them round so the semi-circular surface faced out from Jenny's ear, but as I did so, the silver twisted. The combined effect means she can actually wear them either way around and they still look good. Even the inadvertent saw marks make an interesting texture.

Phew! A birthday present that's actually just for her, rather than both of us!


Jenny emailed this pdf of an article in Nature magazine about our predisposition to religion to me and I thought it sufficiently interesting to stick it up on the web. It's a spegriment (experiment) because I don't know if I can link directly to a pdf from here or if I need to stick it in an html doc.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Campaign against faith schools

Just heard there's a Justgiving page for the campaign to phase out faith schools in the UK. That's much more important than ads on bendy buses. I gather there's also a No. 10 petition, but I've not visited that yet.

And on another topic, I'm delighted to report that after going home in the late morning yesterday, simply unable to concentrate, the abscess has finally started responding to the antibiotics and I'm back at work, the pain under control and anticipating being able to ditch the ibuprofen later today. Hoorah! I think in the long term that tooth (UL7) may have to come out, but I'll talk to my own dentist about it when I see him in a few weeks' time.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Chronological incompetence

They say you shouldn't mock the afflicted, and I suppose that in general I'd agree with that sentiment, but on this occasion I'm going to make an exception.

As I said in my previous post, we're feeding Lorna and Richard this evening, but what we're doing is either prepared already or will take no time at all to do, so once we'd finished in the garden (netting the ponds, mostly, to keep autumn leaves out) we came indoors for a cup of tea and a little time to relax and read before starting to prepare dinner.

Around 5:45 the doorbell went. What the hell? I thought. To my astonishment, it was Lorna and Richard, all kitted up and ready for the evening. They'd put their clocks forward instead of back, so as far as they were concerned, it was 7.45. They'd got up an hour earlier this morning, instead of an hour later.

And as Jenny pointed out, they must not have had a radio or TV on at all during the day, or they'd surely have noticed.

Anyway, we're getting ready as fast as we can and we'll ring them when it's OK for them to reappear.

Daft or what?!

Of course, I never make stupid mistakes, ever.

Of food and teeth and things

This, my friends, is Ostrich Stroganov, and very tasty it was indeed! On the left you see most of the ingredients - Lincolnshire (I kid you not!) ostrich steak, sliced into 0.5 cm strips about 5 cm long, mushrooms, onion. Not on view are garlic, brandy and soured cream, plus the noodles and savoy cabbage, of course.

Brown the meat in butter (failed - too wet, but we tried) and remove from the heat. Sweat the onions and garlic for a bit until they're softened, meanwhile preparing the noodles and cabbage. I think Jenny microwaved the cabbage, then fried it in butter with oodles of black pepper.

Reintroduce the meat to the onions, slosh in a bit of brandy, then slowly stir in soured cream, a bit at a time. When it's the consistency you like, season with salt, pepper and a good grating of nutmeg and serve. We had it with a nice 2002 Côte Rôtie. Yum!

Today I''m feeling rather sorry for myself. Partly it's the slight hangover as a result of having such fun last night, but also it's because I woke at 5 with a raging toothache and didn't sleep much after that, despite treating it with paracetomol.

Having been unable to eat all my breakfast, (Sophie Grigson's fried eggs with chilli, garlic, balsamic vinegar and coriander) I found my dentist's emergency number and rang it. When the stand-in dentist told me the callout charge I thought "Yowser!" but did it anyway. As it turned out, he lives just around the corner from us, so instead of opening up his surgery, for which he would have charged, he invited me into his kitchen and did the diagnosis there. For free! Result!

He prescribed antibiotics and suggested ibuprofen would be more effective than paracetomol, and I'm now starting to feel a bit better. Still leapt out of my skin when preparing apples for the freezer and carelessly popped a piece in my mouth! But the fact that I forgot for long enough to do that does give you a good idea of how much the pain has diminished.

Tonight we're feeding Lorna and Richard, which is why it was so essential to get the tooth sorted out. Delia Smith's Californian Grilled Fish with a Quick Coriander and Lime Tartar Sauce, followed by the same apple and bramble brulée we keep serving to all our friends.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Atheist Bendy Buses for London

Just saw this Daily Telegraph article about the fact the British Humanist Association is going to advertise "There is probably no god" on the sides of London's bendy buses. According to the article the campaign to raise funds to pay for it was launched yesterday and raised £31,000 in the first day. Today the total stands at over £60,000. Yay! Go atheists! Lets have ads on taxis, in the tube, all around the country. More please!

Ha ha ha! £77,000 as at 23:50 Weds, 22/12/08

Sunday, 19 October 2008


After our visit to Venice in May, I started creating a web page so I could share my
photos, mostly with my Mum, but also with you guys. Sadly, it got interrupted and then I forgot about it.

However, after finishing the South Africa page the other day, I remembered the Venice one, so dug it out and have now finished it. It was only a 4-day trip, including travelling, so apart from singing, we didn't do much. As a result, there's not much text, just a smallish selection of the 100+ photos I took.

If you're interested, they're here, and there's a music list at the bottom of the page.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Contingence of History

This morning I had a revelation! I've posted before about how my career as a programmer took a dip a few years ago and how I've recently started moving back into the world of software development. Well...

A year ago the vacant position of Technical Author at work needed to be filled rather urgently. I was bored with software testing, and thought the TA rôle might be interesting, so applied for and got the job.

Then the possibility of breaking back into development came about, and I started to think the diversion into Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop had been very much the wrong thing to do. This morning's revelation was that actually it's set me up perfectly for the move. Here's the biz.

The working code that I write is C# and it's just another programming language and is largely irrelevant in this discussion. The key thing here is that the front end, the user interface, can be created as an almost entirely separate process, using a Microsoft tool called Expression Blend.

Expression Blend looks and feels remarkably like Photoshop, and that means that my meagre Photoshop skills have allowed me to step straight into the Expression Blend desktop and become productive in a fraction the time I'd have taken otherwise.

Without the Photoshop experience, I'd be really struggling at this point. And that's contingence of history. It's evolution in real life; just building on what you already have. Magic! I tell you, if I don't have a perfect day now, I don't deserve one!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

New Music

Several years ago I heard, on Radio 3, Choral Evensong from Southwark Cathedral and was completely blown away by the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis. It was by Stephen Tanner and at the time it was called the Spiritual Service, which was appropriate as it sounds very negro spiritual in style.

After much to-ing and fro-ing I eventually heard from the publisher that it was due to be published "any day now." Hah! Three years later, it has finally been published! It's now called the Southward Centenary Service, as he won a competition with it.

I showed a copy to our musical director, who liked it, so I bought a set for the choir, and last night we had our first run through.

As far as I'm concerned, the two big hits are that the MD is willing to include it in our repertoire (normally if he doesn't have the idea himself you can forget it!) and that most of the rest of the choir think it's as wonderful as I do. There are one or two for whom the main requirement is that the composer be dead, but I think even they will come around eventually.

Monday, 13 October 2008


I thought I'd try out this Following thingy, but as I don't actually know what it does, I've only Followed 3 folks I know. Until I get the idea. So don't feel hurt if I'm not following your blog. No need to hoist your bosom and flounce at me.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Yet more dance!

On Friday a bunch of us went to see the Phoenix Dance Theatre at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, and it was completely different from Richard Alston, as expected, and just as good. (Links to all three are in an earlier posting.) We had a really great night, and Richard drove home once more, hurrah!

None of the contemporary dance we've seen before has had much of a story you could deduce, but the five pieces we saw on Friday were all story-based, with the story explained in the programme. I'll not go into too much detail, but the first piece was (and I have the programme in front of me here!) inspired by selected passages from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. There was no music at all, just someone reading exerpts from the play, with 5 dancers portraying 4 characters. Quite why there were two women being Amanda, dancing almost, but not quite entirely the same steps, is a mystery. Fascinating and compelling.

The other most memorable dance was called The Moore's Pavane, and was based on Othello. The four dancers were in mediƦval costume and danced to the rules of the 16th century pavane dance, with modern balletic interpolations and interpretations. This was completely magical, and worth the ticket money on its own. I plan to search for a DVD from this company, but haven't got around to it yet.

And so, on to the rest of the weekend.

Yesterday, amongst the rest of our shopping, we picked up a muntjac from the local farm shop. I'd phoned on Thursday to order one, but found they'd just had a delivery and so was able to reserve a complete carcass for myself. This is perfect. Muntjac, in case I haven't already bored you to death about it, is simply the best venison you can get. The animals are the size of a border collie dog, weighing only about 10kg when fully grown. Their meat is utterly tender and doesn't need to be hung at all, so the flavour is very mild. If you like game, there's nothing to stop you hanging it, or asking your supplier to do so, but we like it fresh.

The advantage of taking the carcass complete rather than ready-butchered, is £5 rather than £22 a kilo. You do throw away more, of course, but not that much. My muntjac weighed 6.3 kg (skinned, gutted and decapitated), of which I don't think I threw more than a kilo or so away. Well, alright, definitely less than 2 kg. The price I had to pay to get this excellent deal was to butcher the carcass myself. In truth, this is not hard to do. All you need is a very sharp small knife (I use one with an 8 cm blade), a hacksaw and some courage. Some knowledge of anatomy is useful, but in reality, you learn as you go along.

What you do is have a go, make a bit of a mess of it and waste more meat than you need to, but learn by the experience. Next time, you waste less meat. The haunches I retained entire, then I ferreted out the loins, which are the muscles that join the hips onto the rib cage (inside and out - there's lots of meat there), then took the hind-most 9 ribs on each side for a crown roast some time, then hacked off the front legs and chopped them into bits at each joint.

The haunches you roast or pot-roast, the loins and ribs you just treat like lamb equivalents, and the front legs you guess with. Although they're frozen as they are, I imagine we'll cut the meat off the bone after thawing and stir-fry or some such.

I pressure-cooked some of the bones for 15 minutes with an onion, a carrot and a bouquet-garni, but sadly, didn't think to roast the bones first, so the flavour of the resulting stock is rather bland. I'd intended to make a venison consommé but the basic stock didn't warrant it. We'll just use it as stock and it'll be fine.

We also did lots in the garden, including cleaning out the nest boxes. The tit box is built into a brick column, and was easy enough to deal with, but the sparrow terrace (3 boxes side by side) needed extra work. It's only 2 or 3 years old, but the plastic hinges had broken, and I had to replace them with brass ones. In fact, it's clear the wood is not marine ply, but just ordinary stuff, so I don't imagine it'll last that much longer. And it turns out sparrows are not that sociable, either, and you won't get more than one pair in the terrace. That's if the blue tits don't get there first, of course!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

And another thing

It's funny, the weird coincidences that happen. I intended to put this into the silversmithing post, but at the critical moment, forgot, so I'm dedicating this post to Alice Roberts. All will become clear, Earth Person.

So there we were, flipping through Ian Buckley's photo album of past students and the jewellery they'd made, when who should we see, but Dr Alice Roberts, of Coast and the current human anatomy series (who's title I can't remember) fame. Wearing a lizard/gecko pendant which we saw her wearing as we watched this very evening.

She obviously spent a weekend there, making the pendant and, I suspect, a ditto ring, which we also saw this evening.

Well now I've had a crush on Alice Roberts since I first saw her on Coast, not unconnected with that gorgeous Bristle (sorry, Bristol) accent, so for her to turn up in Ian's photo album was a big hit. Crikey, I feel I almost know the girl!

Well, it's late and I have had several glasses!

Song and Dance

This is a most impressive display by Italian Police motorcyclists. I'm not sure when it was done. 1950's I'd guess, but it is a guess. Play the movie and be impressed!

And on a (slightly) related note, I can report that we (Lorna, Richard, Jane, Jenny and I) went to a fabulous performance by the Richard Alston Dance Company in the Cambridge Arts Theatre last night. Just mesmerising, including one piece in which they danced without any music at all! And Richard drove home, which meant I could sample the odd glass of red!

Tomorrow we're going again, this time to see the Phoenix Dance Theatre. Peter and Julia will join us, but sadly, Jane can't make it this time. We'll tell her how wonderful it was when we see her on Sunday!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Art and Silver

The other weekend I bought two works of art, one by my very good friend Jenny Giles, a woman I've adored for decades, and one by someone she knows. They're both part of a group that work in textiles, and exhibited their work in the Herts Open Studios recently. (Actually, I have to hope Jenny's husband doesn't read this blog, as he could easily get entirely the wrong idea!)

Jenny borrowed my copy of Anatomy for the Artist by Sarah Simblet, and created the nude you see here. Several of her friends did their own versions, but I liked this one best.

I love the other work for its wild, woolly nature, but it is a complete nightmare. First, the sticks all have buds on, so the least bit of vibration and they slowly ratchet their way out of the fabric. Having taken delivery last night, I have already found one stick on the front drive! I have a cunning plan to stitch them in place, but it will be a slow process. This is also spider heaven, you can imagine, and we have a host of pet Pholcus infesting the house. They are going to just love this! So we've hung it over the stairs, where it's going to be impossible to reach with the vacuum cleaner!

At the weekend, we went over to Hereford to do some silversmithing. I've posted about this before, but the summary is that we've been silversmithing for over 20 years, for much of that time going twice a year for a weekend course. Most unreasonably, the tutor retired, and for the last 5 or so years we've been casting around looking for someone that does our sort of weekend course. This year we found Ian and Sue Buckley at Bringsty Arts Studios, and this was our second visit.

Jenny had this beautiful stone, in which the layers are clearly visible, and where it's obviously fractured at some time in the past, though it's solid stone now. Those vertical lines are tiny faults, just like the huge ones you see in rocks by the coast or in road cuttings, just on a minute scale. Despite the blurriness of the photo, if you line up the pattern of horizontal paler and darker stripes, you can see that of the four vertical bits the stone is divided up into, the third from the left has obviously slipped towards us by a couple of millimetres.

We've had that stone hanging around the workshop for a good 10 years, and never known how to set square stones. That was the first objective of this particular weekend, and we had several goes, although there are still other techniques we could learn for doing the same thing. This one has a pleasant, informal feel, I think.

I made a ring with a square lapis lazuli set on it. I couldn't get it to balance sensibly for me to take the photo, so stuck my finger in, to hold it.

I also did the lapis pendant, which took much of the rest of the weekend. Sadly, the tube at the top is soldered on crooked but it's not too obvious when it's being worn.

In fact, the piece hides a multitude of errors, but fortunately most of them are not too blatant!

The other thing I did was to sand cast a copy of the babyrusa skull belt buckle I was talking about the other week. This also didn't work too well, though I think I know why. I now understand the process of sand casting, and could probably do it myself at home if I bought the necessary sand, which I might just do.

The problem was that even though the sand showed the detail of the skull beautifully, the casting didn't, and I think that was because Ian used a very wide cone to form the channel into which we poured the silver. This meant there was a rather violent rush of silver into the cavity, and I surmise this swept away much of the detail. A narrower channel for the silver would have slowed the flow, preventing it from doing such damage. Of course, the risk then would be that the cold mould would chill the metal before it had flowed all around the mould, so I might have to have several goes.

Anyhow, Ian pointed out that the old, corroded version still actually looks rather good, so I might just resurrect that instead.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

South African holiday web page

I've created a web page with photos and supporting text. It's essentially Tuesday's posting with more photos and expanded text. If you've nothing better to waste your time on, please visit

It's really aimed at my mum, who was also born there, so it's in a sort of semi-diary format.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Cape weaver bird

Just on the offchance blogger couldn't cope with an 160Mb video file, I've run it through Windows Movie Maker and saved it as a WMV file about 3% the size of the original and I'm uploading that. Having made a movie I'm reasonably pleased with, I had to find a way to inflict it onto you!

It was quite a windy day, and there's a bit of a gust right at the end.

While waiting for the movie to upload, I've been going through the South African photos, deciding which ones to put on the new web page I'm planning, and came across a photo I meant to put in yesterday's blog. Here it is. It's called a jointed cactus, and if you see one, I recommend you avoid it.
Each pink blob is about 5cm long, and is only very loosely attached to its neighbours. The spines are barbed, and there are lots of them, as you can see.

So I innocently walked across the verge to get a better view of some flowering aloes I wanted to photograph, and as I returned, I felt a prickling sensation in my left calf. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph it now.

As your foot passes a cluster of these unpleasant characters, the barbed spines latch onto your shoes. You lift your foot in the natural process of walking, and the pink blobs are instantly transferred to your calves.

Fortunately, I was wearing jeans, and the spines didn't penetrate too far into my flesh. Even so, it took several minutes to rid myself of them.

It's what's known as a dispersal mechanism, and I imagine it's pretty efficient. An animal walks by and snags a few blobs. After a bit, it manages to dislodge them. With any luck (from the plant's point of view) the soil is just right for a jointed cactus to grow, so away it goes.