Saturday, 26 December 2009

A meagre crop of carrots

Well, this was more of an experiment to see what happened than a serious attempt to grow carrots, though I did have in mind pulling them up at Christmas. The thought of my own fresh baby carrots for Christmas dinner was quite appealing, even if it didn't quite work out like that in the end.
I realise, now I'm posting this, that there's no scale on the photo, so you don't really have much idea of how big they are, but I'll reassure you that they're small. Not really a serving for two.

The whole experiment was rather badly done. In the spring and early summer we grew potatoes in 5 old 50-litre compost bags, lifting them around July time and very lovely they were, too. Being able to just dive your hands into the compost and pull out the spuds was lovely, and they were so easy to clean and had no slug damage at all. Wonderful.

But then the bags of used compost just lay around getting in hte way, and some time later (can't remember when, so a great experiment, yes? I think it was after we sang in Gloucester cathedral, so probably September) I took two bags into the greenhouse and sowed one with cos lettuce and one with carrots.

The lettuces were great as we were able to harvest them in November as baby leaves to use in caesar salads, and they were quite delicious and crisp. The carrots are as you see. I pulled about half of them, as the remaining ones were clearly too small to be worth the effort. Next year I'll start them in June or July I think, as soon as the spuds come out.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Surprising news from the lower Congo

There are so many aspects of this little video report from the lower Congo River, I'm somewhat stunned. First, that the river is so extraordinarily deep - commonly 300 feet, but dropping suddenly in places to over 500 feet deep. Submerged canyons, even.

And the wild hydrodynamics make it look extremely dangerous, too. Just watch in awe as those guys kayaking through the rapids!

But the conclusions the scientists reach is just as amazing; the hydrodynamics breaks the river up into discrete areas in which populations of fish are isolated from each other, and as a result, speciation events are happening all the time here. New species are evolving because they're isolated in relatively small groups.

Brilliant!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Um...

I say nothing!

'Venomous' dinosaur!

Well I suppose it shouldn't come as a great surprise that a dinosaur might have been venomous; after all, many reptiles, eg komodo dragons, use venom to subdue their prey. Bit it's a nice extra snippet of information to file away. The Beeb tells us about a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

In the context of fangs, snakes fall into two categories; those with their fangs at the front, like cobras, rattlesnakes and mambas, which kill their prey by poisoning them, and those with their fangs at the back, like pythons and anacondas, which kill their prey primarily by constriction, though they do also have venom.

According to the paper

Rear-fanged snakes are considered less dangerous than other venomous snakes.

The fangs in these snakes do not inject venom, but instead channel the poison along a groove on the outer surface of teeth that pierce their prey's flesh.

Sinornithosaurus had upper teeth that were similarly long, grooved and fang-like.

Just as a little aside here, I was at a talk by a snake venom expert a few years ago, in which he dispelled a myth about snakes, though like all good myths, it continues to propogate around the world.

When he analysed the venom of venomous and 'non-venomous' snakes, he found it was essentially the same. All snakes use basically the same venom. The big difference is that 'non-venomous' snakes inject it using fangs at the rear of their mouths, so don't generally manage to inject very much. This was tragically demonstrated in the case of a boy in the US whose parents had given him a 'non-venomous' snake as a pet. The snake bit him and managed to inject a lethal dose of its poison.

So now you know! I didn't know the bit about the rear fangs being grooved rather than hollow.

Another impressive image of the virgin Mary...

Oh I do love this! I lifted the picture from The Friendly Atheist, but even she doesn't know where it originally came from. Classic!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Spectacular footage of submarine volcano

The Beeb has a webpage with an impressive video of a submarine volcanic eruption, taken by a robot submersible 1000 metres down in the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, I can't find a way to embed the video directly, so you'll just have to follow the link. Worth it anyway, as the text explains what's interesting about it much better than I could.

So if you ever wondered what happens when really hot magma comes into contact with icy cold, highly-pressurised deep water, now's your chance to find out!

And, of course, they found bacteria and shrimp living in the highly-acid water. Yawn. Extremophiles are so last year, my dear! Well all right, maybe they are this year, but this year is almost last year, init?

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Snowmen

So it snowed here on Thursday evening and I decided I was going to have some fun! Do you like my iguana? Well, it did seem most appropriate, given where we've just been.

Just because I'm old, doesn't mean I can't be immature as well!

Friday, 18 December 2009

We've been away...

Can you guess where? Here are a few clues.



Friday, 4 December 2009

Missing link Croco-duck found!

I'm lifting this directly from JREF, 'cos I'm really short of time, but I love this! Enjoy!

For the past few years, anyone who has been following the Creation vs. Evolution debate has come across the comment by Kirk Cameron, made on the The O'Reilly Factor, that there are no "transitional forms." His exact quote, which demonstrates his general misinformedness as to how evolution actually works, was:

"Plus, Darwin said in order to prove evolution, which is the number one alternative to God, you gotta be able to prove transitional forms. One animal transitioning into another, and all through the fossil record and life we don't find one of these. A croco-duck. There's just nothing like it. There is no one animal transitioning into another"

Not so fast, Cameron. The croco-duck has been found.

In fact, two separate candidates for the coveted title of "croco-duck" have been uncovered in two different parts of the world. The first of these creatures was discovered on the southern coast of Peru. This creature, a pelagornithid, has been described as "a giant, bony-toothed seabird that lived up to 10 million years ago." In the beast's Wikipedia article, we find this bit: "Some believe they are related to gannets and pelicans, while other say they are related to ducks." Of course having no living specimen to examine, we are left to speculate as to what this pre-historic water-fowl with the giant, bony-toothed bill may have looked like. Wikipedia has an artist rendition, but it's approximate. There does, however, seem to be a taxonomical relation between the pelagornithid and the anseriformes, a family which includes -- you guessed it -- ducks. So, candidate one for the title of croco-duck is a duck-like creature with a bill filled with sharp, crocodile-like teeth.

Candidate number two is even more croco-duckish. Dr. Paul Sereno, a Sahara-based Paleontologist with National Geographic, recently unearthed five species of ancient crocodile. One of them, the previously-discovered "Anatosuchus minor," is also known as the "duck crocodile" for it's broad, duck-like snout. This species was originally discovered in 2003 by Dr. Serano in Gadoufaoua, Niger.

So we have two viable candidates for the title of croco-duck. The beauty of this is that these plainly transitional forms would be a lot less noteworthy if the creationists hadn't spent so much time crowing about their non-existence. Alas, they are hoist by their own petard. If you spare even a thought for the pelagornothid, it's likely probably because you're pondering the ironic contrasts between the world the creationists believe in and the one we actually inhabit.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, unlike the falsehoods peddled by Kirk Cameron, is based in many varied and dynamic disciplines. It is a combination of biology, chemistry, physics, archeology, paleontology, astronomy, and more. Central to all of them is the ability to question; to test a hypothesis, and should it prove wrong, to begin again. This is why new evidence is always welcome to the scientist, and so often discomfiting to the believer. Scientists love to unearth croco-ducks. Believers always wish they'd go away.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Cephalopod movie footage

I've seen some of this footage before, but not all. There are tricks I'd really like to be able to do myself, like the colour changes and some of the shape changes, too!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The PVS man and Facilitated Communication

When I saw the video of Rom Houben, the Belgian(?) man in a Persistent Vegetative State following a car crash 23 years ago, I was deeply sceptical of the way he was supposedly communicating with the outside world. It just looked too easy for it to be the carer who was doing the communicating.

It seems I'm not the only one. Steven Novella at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=2838 doesn't believe it either.

He has clearly revisited his article later and has added:
Addendum: Here is a new video in which Houben clearly has his eyes closed while the “facilitator” is typing furiously. This is completely impossible. (Hat tip to Orac for the link – he has also discussed the case.)

Actually, the video link seems to take you to a whole page of other links, so be warned.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A worthy cause

The Richard Dawkins Foundation is looking to raise funds, and I'd say they're one of the better targets for your seasonal charity donations.

Damn Atheists!

Ha ha! I love this!


Oh wait! It is a joke, isn't it?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Hammerhead sharks and stereo vision

This BiologyNews.Net report summarizes work just published about whether or not hammerhead sharks have any stereoscopic vision. The researchers actually started out convinced the sharks did not have stereo vision, but then....

The scalloped hammerhead had a massive binocular overlap of 32 deg. in front of their heads (three times the overlap in the pointy nosed species) while the bonnet head had a respectable 13 deg. overlap. And when the team measured the binocular overlap of the shark with the widest hammerhead, the winghead shark, it was a colossal 48 deg. The hammerheads' wide heads certainly improved their binocular vision and depth perception.
And then another surprise...
Even more surprisingly, the team realised that the bonnethead and scalloped hammerheads have an excellent stereo rear-view: they have a full 360 deg. view of the world.
Impressive. Stereo vision fore and aft. I wonder about up and down. Don't see any mention of that, though I've not gone back to the original source.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Spectacular flower

Some years ago, Jenny gave me a Strelitzia regale (Bird of Paradise flower) plant. I was delighted, because they used to flower in Cape Town when I was a kid, but I'd never had one of my very own. It was rather small, so unsurprisingly, didn't flower straightaway.

This year, it did, and the first of three buds has just started opening.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

21st Century ouija board

Hat tip: PZ Myers

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Good tidings for the festive season!



Hat tip: Greg Laden

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Great Richard Dawkins TED talk

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species I'd strongly recommend you invest the 20-ish minutes needed to watch this talk Richard Dawkins gave to a Technology, Entertainment and Design audience.

Sadly, I can't get the embedding to work for some reason, so I'll just have to give you a hyperlink. Sorry.

150th Anniversary of the Origin of Species

Today, 24th November, is the actual anniversary of the first publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Jenny is guest of honour at a museum in Warsaw, Poland, where she's giving a talk and then cutting a ribbon to declare a new exhibition open. She flew out yesterday and will be back tomorrow. I hope it all goes swimmingly and that she takes lots of photo's!

Her talk is about what Darwin didn't know about transitional forms in the fossil record. There were large gaps in the record at the time, and they posed a serious problem to him, but since then, lots and lots of transitional forms have been found, and our understanding of the relationships between the various groups is much enhanced.

Do not be fooled by the creationist/ID folks claims that there are no transitional forms. The level of ignorance required to believe that in the face of the evidence is staggering, to the point where you are torn between thinking them insanely ignorant or simply telling lies. There doesn't seem to be much alternative. Sorry, it just makes me cross!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Not exaggerating either!

Just in case you think I was exaggerating the amount of meat on that shin of beef, take a look at this picture. Three of us ate until we could hardly move last night, and this is the cottage pie I've just made with the remains.

There are two things I think I'd do differently next time. First, I'll give it an extra 10 minutes in the oven to brown the mash a bit more, but today I was just too hungry!

Second, there's quite a bit of gristle in this joint which, after 8 hours cooking, had gone quite soft, so I didn't exclude it when I processed the meat in the food processor. This was only a small error; I only had one nubbly bit in tonight's portion. But I think I'll exclude some of the coarser bits in future.

Dawkins at Christmas Hoorah!

Yeah well, you might expect me to like this!

Successful experiment

The other week I saw a butcher on the box refer to shin of beef on the bone, and it set me thinking. We do Jamie Oliver's slow-roast shoulder of lamb, which is completely delicious, and I wondered if we couldn't do something similar with shin of beef.

I ordered some from Bury Lane Farm Shop, collected it on Saturday and we cooked it yesterday, inviting Jane along as quality control.

So the picture on the left is the lump of shin, which must have weighed 3 lbs and as you can see, even though there's a hefty piece of bone in there, there's masses of meat. The first surprise was what it cost - £6. Yes, a mere ill cephalopod (sick squid).

I dusted it with flour and mustard powder, then browned it in a pan before sticking it in a roasting tray with some slices of onion and half an inch of water. Covered it with a double layer of foil and stuck it in the oven at midday. 15 minutes flat out, then turned it down to 120° C. That was actually too low. After 3 hours it was still really tough, so we upped the temperature to 140° C which was probably what it should have been all along.

An hour before serving it, we stuck in some carrots and parsnips, and eventually served it around 8.30, so you can easily work out how long it had been cooking. By that time the marrow had all melted and drained out of the bone, making this incredible gravy.

And it was tender, juicy and delicious! For much of the afternoon we'd been rather dubious about it, as the smell emanating from the oven wasn't all that tempting, but the end result really was worth it. And it was no effort, since all we did was look at it every few hours to assess whether or not it was going to be OK for dinner.

Starter was smoked eel caesar salad with baby cos lettuce leaves from the grow-bag in my greenhouse and pud was bubbling plum and orange compote, which I've blogged about before.

All accompanied by rather too many oodles of wine, resulting in a small hangover this morning. Ho hum.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Descartes' Bones

I've just added Russell Shorto's book Descartes' Bones to my booklist on the right, and I thoroughly recommend it. You might not think a book about a 17th century philosopher and the impact his work had on subsequent generations is likely to be riveting, but you'd be wrong. It's completey fascinating, particularly in light of America's catastrophic plummet into religiosity.

Cool singing; shame it's an advertisement

Shame it doesn't fit onto my blog neatly, too.

Diet Coke and Mentos

This looks like fun, and is probably the only sensible use for Diet Coke that exists on the planet. Mentos seem to be some sort of mint sweet, though the movie clip seems to show the guys inserting something long and thin into the bottle, which is not consistent with what I've found on the web. However, I am really not that fussed, so the 30 seconds' research I've done is as much as I'm going to do. In this case, I'm happy being ignorant!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Pretty autumn pics

Just back from Bristol, sorting out mum's affairs. What you'd expect really, funeral directors, registering her death, pick up the will from the solicitors, close her bank accounts, check up on some church details, etc. So I thought I'd post a few pictures I took today, it having been a most gorgeous day.

First up is a picture I saw in the funeral director's. That's what I want, I think!

The other two are just country views I spotted and was fortunate enough to have the time to stop and photograph them.

Coming up the A1 I'd realised that if I hung a right at Stevenage I could drop by Walkern Gallery where I have some work on display, and could chat to Steve Lowe, the proprietor. He's a good lad, so that was an easy decision.

After that, I took the scenic route home, along narrow country lanes and through small villages. It was just lovely, and left me relaxed and comfy by the time I got home. I'm ready for a cup of tea just thinking about it!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Quite a good day

Well it's all worked out rather well. The drive down was a breeze with no hold-ups on the M25 so I got to my mum's house at 12. The guys removing the stairlift had been and gone, presumably knowing the keysafe code. (Keysafe is a little metal box screwed to the outside of the house with a numeric keypad into which you punch a code to open it. Inside, we keep a key.) So that was good.

I dismantled the hospital bed and lugged it downstairs, then reassembled it on its little cradle affair. It's designed so that you can join the head and foot with a pair of clever brackets, then slot the base, which comes apart into two parts, vertically onto the brackets. It's neat because the whole thing ends up narrow enough to go through a door, but using the bed's own wheels so it's easy to move about. The PSW from 1970 was very pleased and did not suck his teeth at me even once!

And I've managed to drag the double mattress back upstairs, so all I have to do now is retrieve the rest of the bed from the garage and reassemble that in mum's bedroom. That's really easy as all the pieces are very light, if a bit cumbersome.

Finally, I've laid myself in a decent sirloin steak and a promising-looking bottle of Côte de Beane Villages for the evening. I discovered some frozen oven chips in the freezer, so they'll do. I'll enhance them with a generous helping of melted garlic butter. Yum! The steak will be in a creamy mushroom sauce, using up an ancient pot of double cream I found cowering at the back of the fridge.

So now it's time to tackle the bed, I fancy.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Entertaining phone conversation

In her last weeks, mum was very kindly provided with a proper motorised hospital bed, I think by Social Services. The platform could be moved up and down so mum could get in and out easily but also the carer could work at a reasonable height when manoevring mum in the bed. And the head could be tilted up and down, etc.

So on Monday I knew I'd be going down to Bristol on Thursday, and set things in motion to get the bed collected. Today I had an entertaining conversation with a woman from the firm collecting the bed.

She just could not get her head around the fact that as I live near Cambridge, I could not be at my mum's house before midday, and I was busy with other stuff on Friday, so if they wanted their bed back, they'd just have to damn well come in the afternoon. Apparently normally the finest granularity they can manage is a working day. Can you believe that? "Yerss. We'll pick it up some time on Fursday" Well you can try picking it up in the morning if you like, but you'll not find me there to let you in!

If the operative collecting it is the same guy that delivered it, (I think I referred to him in a previous post as your quintessential public sector worker, like someone stuck in the 1970's - nothing was not too much trouble for him!) I bet he sucks his teeth at me!

This is funny!

This is clearly rather old, but I still think it's funny. Just move the mouse cursor around on the screen. Hat tip: Greg Laden.

Monday, 16 November 2009

No, I've not vanished into thin air

Well, the long silence is because my mum died in the early hours of Friday morning. She was 86 and had been going downhill increasingly fast, so although it was sad, it was not unexpected. I expect there'll be more silence for a bit, but then life will start to return to normal.

I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to go down to visit her on Thursday. I sat with her all afternoon, just holding her hand and talking to her in the brief moments when she woke up.

Her carer asked me what she should do if mum died in the night and I said to do nothing until the morning. Dragging out the medics and me would not bring her back.

So when my phone rang at 6 am, I knew that she'd gone. Apparently she slept well and died peacefully in her sleep around 2 am.

In the morning quite a lot of things happened, one of which was very gratifying. She'd said she wanted her body used for medical science, and carried an organ donor card, but she wasn't eligible for organ donation. Fortunately I found a research group at Bristol University working on dementia, and they wanted her brain. After a few strategic phone calls, the funeral directors collected her body and delivered it to the University. I assume it's now in their chapel of rest, sans brain.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Carl Sagan and the Googolplex

I love this short (3 mins) video not just because it's interesting and I have always admired Carl Sagan, but also because it was filmed in Cambridge, and I can recognise bits of the town as he walks around - Johns College, Free School Lane, one of the entrances to the Zoology Department yard, and so on.

Hat tip: Greg Laden

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A brilliant evening of contemporary dance

Months ago, our neighbours Lorna and Richard booked tickets for an evening of contemporary dance at Sadler's Wells in London, and Friday was the night! We skived off work early to catch the train to London and met Richard outside the theatre. He'd booked a table at a nearby Thai restaurant, and we had a very pleasant meal before going in.

As we walked into the auditorium, I glanced at my ticket, which said AA10 or something, so I assumed we were in the 27th row from the front, which is rather further back than I like to be, but I just imagined Richard had bought the best seats he could get.

I was a bit surprised when I noticed that we were passing rows in the F-G-H area, but completely amazed to discover that row AA was the VERY FRONT ROW of the stalls. There was just a fence and then the orchestra pit.

Next great surprise was that the orchestra pit was full of an orchestra! We're much more used to dance in Cambridge where the music is mostly provided electronically, so to have an orchestra of about 25 or 30 players was a big bonus.

The dance company was Rambert Dance Company (formerly Ballet Rambert), who we've not seen before. There were three rather long sets with intervals between, the first two by visiting choreographers. The first set was to Schubert's Death and the Maiden, choreographed by Henri Oguike, who's dance company we've seen in Cambridge, and was probably my favourite. Second was to parts of Saint Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, choreographed by Siobhan Davies, which Jenny liked best, and the third was to some not very nice horrible, especially commissioned music, choreographed by Mark Baldwin, Artistic Director of the Rambert, who we've not seen before.

The absolute pinnacle for me was actually the fragment of the Carnival of the Animals called The Swan, in which a single man was accompanied by a solo cello. I'm afraid I didn't see the dance at all, being completely mesmerised by the cello; the playing was simply exquisite. All helped by the fact I was sitting no more than 15 feet from him!

Overall a spectacular night. We missed the 10.15 from Kings Cross, which was a shame as we then had to wait half an hour for the next train, and of course, with the alterations going on, there's no bar there either.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Continental drift in action

OK, so this is not exactly news, having been published in 2007, but there's a recent report in Live Science which drew my attention to it. Not sure the recent report actually adds anything to the original Leeds University one, but anyway, I was stimulated to have a play in Photoshop, not least because of some pretty impressive photographs ULeeds published.

So first I went there in Google Earth and hit Print Screen, then pasted the resulting clipboard into Photoshop.

From the first Leeds photo, you can see that the area near Djibouti is moving roughly horizontally apart, but if you follow the hints in the terrain, the rift stops in Malawi, and there's no hint of any tectonic activity in the ocean floor near Mozambique, so I conclude that whole area is pretty much static right now.

So using a magic tool in Photoshop, I drew around a bit area including Mozambique, but following, as I say, the hints in the terrain through Africa. Then I rotated that a bit and dragged it to the right, and coloured the resulting new ocean in in a paler blue. That's my prediction of where things will be in a few million years from now. Aren't you glad you asked?

And the Somali pirates can just live on their island by themselves!

Babies cry in mother tongue

This is neat. Scientists a the University of Würzburg in Germany recorded the cries of 30 French and 30 German new-borns and analysed them. It's long been known that babies can hear what's going on from within the womb, so this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but it's nice all the same.

French newborns tend to cry with rising melody patterns, slowly increasing in pitch from the beginning to the end, whereas German newborns seem to prefer falling melody patterns, findings that are both consistent with differences between the languages.
Still, whatever language the child is crying in, it's still intended to be annoying, which it is, especially if the child is not your own!

A new gem is on its way

There's a report in Biology News that scientists in Florida have succeeded in culturing pearls in the Queen Conch (as opposed to oysters or fresh-water mussels). This has been an objective for a long time as the Queen Conch has been heavily over-fished and is now rather endangered in the wild.

Conch pearls are formed by concentric layers of fibrous crystals, and this layering often produces the desired flame structure, which is characteristic of conch pearls. The pearls have a porcelain finish and luster like the interior of the conch shell, and come in a wide variety and combination of colors including white, red, pink, orange, yellow and brown.
I haven't found a decent picture of a Queen Conch pearl, cultured or otherwise, I'm afraid. However, the fact that they come in a variety of colours is really interesting. I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for them to become affordable, however!

Fantastic fireworks!

We usually go to the firework display on Midsomer Common in Cambridge and always enjoy it, but last night was special. The display lasts about 20 minutes, and half way through I was standing watching, thinking "Yes, this is pretty good. There are fireworks I've not seen before and it's well choreographed, but I don't think it's any better than in previous years. "

Then they seemed to change gear, and the last 5 minutes was just spectacular! It's almost impossible to describe fireworks, but I'm going to try to describe one anyway. This one was not a big banger miles up in the sky; you could best describe it as a small cloud of crackly silver sparkles about 15 metres up, that just went on and on. Well I say small cloud; we were quite a way away and I'd say it was 10 metres across, based on my guess of 15 metres up. Fireworks are supposed go bang and finish, but this one lasted for minutes. Wonderful!

Afterwards we went to Le Gros Franck for dinner, which was divine. Richard was obliged to have the bouillabaisse as that was the only main course that omitted both meat and gluten, but he seemed happy enough.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

MMR vaccination protects against autism!

It's true! In a Danish study summarised here, half a million children's records were examined and they found that the risk of developing autism for vaccinated compared with non-vaccinated children was 0.92 (if I understand this right, a risk of 1 is equal, ie no difference) and the risk of developing other autism-spectum disorders was 0.83, vaccinated vs non-vaccinated.

To put it another way, vaccinated children were 17% less likely to develop autism-spectrum disorders and 8% less likely to develop autism.

Result!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Jenny's Birthday

It's Jenny's birthday on Tuesday, but I'll be in Bristol sorting out some of mum's financial affairs, so we're bringing it forward to today. I'd bought her a few things over the past few months, but truth to tell, they either weren't terribly exciting or were more for us than specifically for her.

When you've lived together for a long time and particularly once the house is paid for (ie ready cash is slightly less of a problem!) it gets harder and harder to actually think of things to buy each other for Christmas and birthdays. We've either already got it, or if we need it, we just go and buy it, or something like that, so I've found Jenny's birthdays and Christmases rather disappointing several times in the past few years.

Perhaps I need to explain that. I find the real pleasure is in the giving, and much less in the receiving. That's why, if I start thinking months ahead and still can't find anything interesting to give her, I find it disappointing.

So that's one reason I'm particularly pleased we've got back into the silversmithing. I was planning to make her a pendant, but changed the design when she said she'd like one with garnets set on it. I'd been planning to use a couple of tiny opals that have been hanging around for years, but thought again when she mentioned garnets.

I remembered we had some 10mm diameter stones, so thought for a bit and came up with a new design to use them, then this weekend went down into the cellar to make it. And to my great relief, it all went smoothly, and I'm pretty pleased with the end result. The only glitch was when I put the catch on the chain before feeding the chain through the pendant, so I had to unsolder that bit and do it again. Well, that was no big deal, I was just cross with myself for making such a silly mistake.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Claymation movie about being multicellular

This is a cool movie I just saw on PZ Myers blog and I was impressed enough to want to post it myself. It shows a clear, simple explanation of one of the characteristics of being multicellular, and it could easily be part of an O-level biology course. Clear, simple, accurate, short. Brilliant.

CreatureCast Episode 2 from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Support American officials upholding their constitution

I inadvertently subscribed to the American Family Association a while ago, and as I've mentioned before, it's completely impossible to unsubscribe. However, I've found a way to occasionally take advantage of this.

Today they're whining that Macomb County Road Commission (Michigan) are making some guy remove a nativity scene from government property, claiming that it's anti-religious and the first of this year's battles in the war against Christmas.

That's complete bollocks, of course. All the commission is doing is upholding the constitution which states quite clearly that no religious symbols and whatnot will be displayed on government property. It's all part of the separation of church and state. Very clear, very right and proper, and deeply unpopular with the religious right.

So if you agree with me, you can go to this page run by the AFA which allows you to send an email to Macomb County Road Commission. It's pre-written, demanding they rescind the order.

What I did was change the text to say something like (didn't keep a copy, sadly) "I'm delighted to learn of your actions to remove a religious icon, ie a nativity scene, from government property in the city of Warren. " I put a bit more but I can't really remember what. I made sure I was courteous and supportive, and I hope they like that. The list of states has Other as the last option, so you're not forced to choose a US state as your place of residence.

Dawkins on the Pope's poaching of Anglicans

Richard Dawkins has a terrific article in the Washington Post about the Pope's latest idiocy in trying to poach extremist Anglicans who don't like women bishops, gays, etc. The bit I particularly like is right near the end, where he bemoans the fact that Rowan Williams is not taking advantage of the situation by offering sanctuary to potential women priests, male priests who want to get married, women who don't like the idea of being downtrodden, gays, and Africans sick of being lied to about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of Aids.

Oh and there's a completely hopeless response by Damian Thompson in the Torygraph. He doesn't actually put forward any arguments to counter what Dawkins says, just maligns him. Well surprise!

Jesus and Mo

I love the Jesus and Mo series of cartoons, so thought I'd share one with you today. This one's from a day or two back. I'm not sure how often they're posted. It's not every day, but more often than once a week, I think.

If you click the cartoon you'll see a full-size version.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

How you really came to be here


So I've been watching this video, which PZ Myers posted on his blog. (I couldn't be bothered with the stupid homeopath who's movie clip is above LK; why should Iwaste my life listening to someone talking rubbish?) I've not seen much of it yet, as it lasts over an hour, and I'm at work, but I did see two things I just love.

First, he said "Gravity sucks!" ie it pulls; it doesn't push. Classic!

Then he explained about where the atoms that make our bodies come from. I did actually know this, but I would never have thought up the punchline.

Right after the big bang, the only atoms in the entire universe were hydrogen atoms. They clumped together to form stars, and within the stars, fusion reactions took place, forming first helium, then later oxygen, carbon, silicon, etc. So all the non-hydrogen atoms in the universe were formed inside stars.

So if you think about it, the atoms that make up your body were once inside stars. That's the unavoidable conclusion. You are stardust! Do you like that? That's not the punchline.

The only way for those atoms to get from inside stars to inside you is for the stars to have exploded as supernovae. Nothing else would do it. So here's the punchline:

The stars died so that you could be here today!

Never mind Jesus; it's the stars you need to thank!

Asteroid explodes over Indonesia

So today's excitement seems to come from reports that a 10 m diameter meteor exploded about 15 - 20 km above the Indonesian island of Sulowesi. The explosion was the equivalent of 50,000 tonnes of TNT, about three times the Hiroshima bomb. The bang was recorded by instruments 10,000 km away.

Yeah, but. It all happened on October 8th. THREE WEEKS AGO! Dammit, a pigeon could deliver news faster!

The movie clip is of an Indonesian newscast, so don't bother turning on your sound. What you see, sadly but inevitably, is just the dust cloud left behind. Too much to hope that someone would just happen to be pointing his phone at the sky waiting for something exciting to happen.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Singing in Durham Cathedral

On Saturday we drove up to Durham where we sang Evensong in the afternoon, then Mattins, Eucharist and Evensong yesterday, and I think we acquitted ourselves reasonably well. We messed up the processing pretty much every single time, but then, they did have a different pattern of processing for each service, and we didn't actually rehearse all the manoevres, so it's hardly surprising we got it wrong.

And there were a few scary moments in the Mattins (Ireland Te Deum as far as I was concerned!) but probably nothing most of the congregation would have noticed.

Talking of the congregation, there were more there than in any cathedral we've ever sung in, apart from the Sunday morning after Princess Diana was killed. We were impressed! To get a decent crowd at the 10 am Mattins is unheard of, and the church was pretty well full for the Eucharist at 11.15.

At lunchtime a small group of us was queueing up at an ATM and the girl at the front, turned when she'd finished, saw one of us near her and said "Were you in the.... oh, in that tie, I don't need to ask, do I? The mass was just lovely!" Actually, we thought so to, but it was wonderful to get an unsolicited compliment like that. We did a Lloyd Webber (senior) mass and an anthem called Let all mortal flesh keep silence by Self. And we did it rather well!

Then there was another surprise waiting for us. From 2 to 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, we were rehearsing for the 3.30 Evensong, including another piece by Ireland, this time Many Waters Cannot Quench Love. Well actually, it might be called something else, but I remember it by the first line, and I like it. It has two short solos in the middle, one soprano, one baritone. One particular sop has always done this solo, and she did again yesterday, and it was lovely. However, the bass who normally does the other solo wasn't with us, so the conductor had asked a visiting bass who occasionally sings with us if he'd do it. And wow! what a voice! It was fantastic! And when we looked around, the nave of the church had lots of people just sitting listening! I reckon there was a good 100 there!

Durham Cathedral is a wonderful building and it was a real privilege to sing there, so I was a bit disappointed when, at the end, they complimented us on our singing, but did not invite us back. I'm hoping that was just an oversight, but it might be that their standards are just that bit higher.

I was also very fortunate that Jane came with us and was happy to drive half-way in each direction. That made all the difference, and I was actually able to do a good day's work today. Had I driven the 450 mile round trip myself I'd have been flat out today! Thank you, Jane. You can drive my car any time!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Fog nets

This is really cool, and just shows you what can be achieved with a little ingenuity. The pic is of a plastic net, 8m x 4m, suspended on a hillside in Lima, Peru.

People from the countryside have migrated to the capital over the past few decades, looking for work, as is so common. The more recent arrivals have to live further up the hill, where there's no piped water. There's effectively no rainfall, either, at only 40mm a year, and they have to buy their water.

But now they're taking advantage of a particular attribute of their locality, which is frequent, dense banks of fog. The fog condenses on the plastic nets and drips into a gutter running along the lower edge. Each net can yield up to 120 litres of water a day, which is enough to irrigate their vegetable plots, though they still have to buy water for personal use.

Doesn't look fabulous, but hey, it's a shanty town!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A pretty picture for you

A guy at work emailed some aircraft pictures around and I liked this one enough to want to share it with you. I expect it's widely available already.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

What real scientists say about Evolution/ID/Creationism

I have the feeling that most of you are actually with me on the evolution/creationism question, but this is a good, thoughtful video that will only waste 10 minutes of your lives.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Fantastic video of an aquarium

PZ Myers has it right. The owners of this aquarium should just film it continuously until they can fill a DVD with it, then sell copies. I'd buy one! I can even cope with the soundtrack, though I'd probably have it muted most of the time.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

McDonalds hits Africa!

A friend sent me a pile of funnies, and this one just got to me!

Monday in Boston, Mass

We could have flown home on Sunday night, but being unsure exactly what the timetable would be, and fancying an extra day in the States, we opted for the evening flight on Monday. After breakfast in a café in Cambridge, we checked out of the hotel and headed for downtown Boston. We'd have preferred to catch a bus, so as to see a bit more of the city, but there isn't one, so we had to take the underground, known as the T for some reason.

First we strolled in Boston Common, encountering an event which turned out to be a women's run of some sort, which was due to start at midday, but for which the preliminary noise had evidently started a while before we arrived. I guess you can't have that kind of an event without someone howling down a PA and hordes of people hanging about.

Past that, we went into the Botanical Gardens, which were much more park-like than we'd expected, though some of the trees did have labels, so maybe it did justify the title. Quite pleasant, nonetheless, and we sat in the sun to eat the remains of Saturday night's bacon and onion tart starter.

As we headed back towards the exit we saw this delightful fountain. Of course, these days it's completely illegal for me to have taken a photograph of it, but I did even so, so there!

A fairly short stroll brought us to Quency Market, but we were really looking for lunch by then, and Jenny took me to the Union Oyster House where she's eaten before. It claims to be the oldest restaurant in the States, and was very pleasant. We had a bowl of Classic Clam Chowder, which was completely delicious and just the right size to fill the gap.

On the way to the restaurant we came across this clock in a shop window. Just perfect!

Full of soup, we headed for the aquarium. This is not bad, but sadly, it was Columbus day, so the place was just heaving, and it was an effort to actually see into the tanks some of the time. Still, some excellent jellyfish tanks, an impressively large octopus, a cuttlefish which performed cooperatively for me to film, and a number of other interesting beasties.

The overnight flight was uneventful and I actually managed to get some sleep, which makes a change. Then we were lucky with the trains, arriving at Kings Cross 5 minutes before a Royston train, which spat us out at 10. A cup of tea and a bacon sarnie was the order of the day, followed swiftly by bed! Oh the pleasure of hitting your very own bed after an overnight flight across the Atlantic!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

American Academy awards ceremony

On Sunday morning there was a talk by John Holdren, Obama's Science and Technology advisor. The talk was riveting, all about the President's attitudes to all things scientific, how a high proportion of his important appointments are women and so on. Sadly, the bulk of the talk has fallen straight out of my brain, having been followed by quite a lot of other stuff. I hope that at some point they'll stick the gist, or better, a transcript, up on the Academy's website, but it's not there yet.

One thing I do remember was a photograph of Obama in the White House, talking on the phone to astronauts in the Space Station. In a room full of kids. The story is that someone on the staff thought it would be good if a selection of kids from local schools could come and watch the President talking to the astronauts. When all was ready, the President was primed as to what was going to happen, and he just shot off into the room where the kids were assembled to meet them.

Then, once the link with the Space Station was established and they'd exchanged a few pleasantries, Obama simply handed the phone over to kids for them to ask questions for themselves. What a brilliant thing to do! Somehow, I can't imagine Bush ever having done that. 'Course, I'm condemning the eedjit without evidence, but that's fine, I think. It's just the sort of thing he would do!

It all finished at midday, after which we changed into civvies (I'd been in my suit all the previous day and all morning, and that's enough!) and strolled into central Cambridge looking for a bite to eat. I'd seen a sign the previous day, warning that Harvard Square would be closed for Oktoberfest, but hadn't really given it any thought. Turns out, Oktoberfest is a giant street party, with stalls selling all sorts of stuff and performers strutting their stuff through the streets.

There were dense crowds of people, such that it was hard to make your way through at times, but a lot of fun, nevertheless.

These nudes are made from wire mesh, just pushed out to form the shapes, and I thought they were very interesting. Not sure I like them all that much, but a novel medium for a nude.

We had lunch in a micro-brewery, where the beer was called something like Cambridge on the Charles (the local river is the Charles) and it was simply excellent!

We had pulled-pork mini-sliders, which turn out to be small buns, about 5cm square and really nondescript. I once had a similar thing in a MacDonalds, and I've not been back to the big M since. Disgusting.

However, the pulled pork is slow-cooked pork which has been shredded and a thick layer put between the sliced buns. All sounds good, except we'd not noticed the word Trio lurking there. Yes, we had three of these each, and it was far too much, of course. Managed to eat most of the meat, but just discarded the buns.

We also located a promising restaurant for dinner, called Sandrine's. When we turned up in the evening it was not too full and they fitted us in with no problem. It turned out to have an Alsatian flavour, so we had the choucroute with various meaty things, which turned out to be pig's trotter and several different sorts of European sausage. If you visit the Sandrine's website, go to the Photo Gallery and hover your mouse pointer over the bottom-right thumbnail, you'll see a picture of the choucroute.

We had the presence of mind to ask the waitress if she'd mind our sharing a main course, which was no bother at all. That meant we had room for a starter, which was an interesting bacon and onion tart which we plan to try to emulate some time.

A thin, unleavened dough base with the edges rolled up, into which had been put a thin layer of (possibly) cream cheese. On top of that was a generous scattering of pre-fried chopped bacon and onion, and then the whole thing had been flash-baked. Really good.

The choucrout was excellent, though we could have managed without the pig's trotter, and one between the two of us was perfect.

Accompanied by a nice bottle of Californian pinot noir, it was a great evening and we just kept looking at each other going "Yeah! Aren't we having a fabulous time?!"

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Away for the weekend

On Friday Jenny and I flew to Boston, Mass, USA, for her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We had such a brilliant time and I took so many photographs, that I'm going to load them up here as a series of smaller posts, otherwise you'd get a huge book to read!

The flight was routine, everything went according to plan, there were no delays, so I'll not spend any more time on Friday, save to say that we stayed at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge, and it was pretty pricey. The American Academy had negotiated a special rate for Friday and Saturday, but even so, when you added on the taxes, it was hellish expensive about $300 a night.


Saturday morning we took the shuttle bus to the American Academy. I should point out here that this is not the AAAS, despite sharing the initials. The AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, equivalent of the BAAS. The American Association is a quite distinct organisation, and I suppose I'm going to have to do a bit more research to really get to understand the differences. I think it's quite unreasonable for two US organisations to share their initials like that. Just confuses the issue.

While the inductees were being introduced to the Academy and finding out what was to happen the rest of the day, I wandered onto the Harvard University campus and visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And the first thing I saw was this collection of amazing Victorian glass models of flowers, so I'm going to stick several photos on the left, now.

They were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a couple of German brothers for use in educational institutions, and they are just stunning. They also made some invertebrates which you can see elsewhere in the HMNH and also some protozoa which I've seen in the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

After lunch we all trooped down to the induction ceremony, which took the rest of the afternoon. The Academy is enormous, with about 11,000 members, and there were 237 inductees. Fortunately only about half attended, or we'd have been there all night!

Some names you might have heard of or otherwise be impressed by: Alfred Spector, Vice President of Research at Google, Sean Carrol and Neil Shubin (see my book list), the late Pina Bausch (dancer and choreographer), Judi Dench, Emmylou Harris, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, John Williams (composer), Bono, Nelson Mandela, Robert Gates, US Secretary for Defence, Colin Powell. Exhaulted company indeed! Sadly, almost nobody famous was actually there! Emmylou Harris and James Earl Jones read out a selection of letters between John Adams and his wife during the American war of independance on stage (very moving), but otherwise just took part as ordinary inductees.

Some famous peoples' letters of acceptance were framed on the wall, and I had to photograph this one, of course. Pity I couldn't hold the camera still.

Following the ceremony there was a short drinks reception, after which some of us had been invited to dinner, which was excellent, and great fun to meet a pile of interesting people. The Great, the Good and the Weird, I think it would be fair to say! Fortunately there was a shuttle bus to pour us back into the hotel afterwards!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The World of Religion

I stole this from Greg Laden. I think it's great!

Rhyming bling for Saturn!

So we all know by now that an enormous new ring has been discovered around Saturn but I refer you to the Digital Cuttlefish who has celebrated it in verse. Definitely worth the visit!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Friday, 9th October, 11.30 UTC - it's a date!

Thanks to this posting from the Smithsonian.com blog, I've learned two new things today.

First is that on Friday morning at 11.30 UTC (Universal Time is more or less the same as GMT) a space ship will be deliberately crashed into the moon, and a second one, following behind, will fly through the resulting dust plume, sample and analyse it, before crashing into the moon itself. If you live somewhere west of the Mississippi it'll be dark, and a 10 inch telescope will be powerful enough for you to actually see the plume of dust.

For the rest of us, the second new thing should come to our rescue. That thing is NASA TV. I've just been watching live footage from the Space Station, but when I just went back to it a moment ago it was some other programme, though still space-related. The live SS footage was a bit jerky, sometimes just showing one frame per second, but other times playing smoothly, so I guess that depends on how quickly the signal is getting through the interweb and onto my PC.

Anti-vaccine death-count widget

You'll see I've stuck the Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccine death-count widget on my sidebar. If you click it, it'll take you to a website explaining how Jenny McCarthy is indirectly responsible for hundreds of vaccine-preventable deaths and tens of thousands of VP illnesses in the USA.

If you click on the Get Widget text at the bottom, it takes you to a different website where you can copy the code to display the widget on your own blog.

Sadly, I've not found an equivalent for the UK. And I assumed the numbers would click up in parallel with those on its home website, but that seems not to be the case. Not sure what I've done wrong.

The present numbers, as I post this, are 235 deaths and 49556 illnesses.

There are sane people in Texas!

Hoorah for Texas State District Judge Tena Callahan who has ruled that state's Defense of Marriage Act (which, as you might imagine, precludes same-sex marriage) is unconstitutional.

So they're not all woo-mongering wingnuts!

BTW do not, whatever you do, subscribe in any way to One News Now or the American Family Association; there is no way to unsubscribe, and you'll get sent their crap for ever after. Click the Unsubscribe button; nothing happens. I've had to create an email filter that just diverts anything they send straight into Trash.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

We meet Alice Roberts

Hah! Be envious, you guys! Last night we went to a Royal Society event in London, skiving off work a tad early to get down for the 6.30 start. It was a conversation, entitled Fossils, fact and fiction, between Dr Richard Fortey, retired trilobite specialist at the Natural History Museum and author of numerous excellent books, some scientific and others not, and Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, amongst others. Tracy has recently published a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, the early 19th century woman who collected many of the spectacular marine fossils along the south coast of England, around Lyme Regis, which helped build the foundation of knowledge on which Darwin based his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The event was chaired by Dr Alice Roberts, anatomist and paleopathologist at Bristol University, well known as one of the presenters of the Coast series of TV programmes and also solo presenter of her own series on human anatomy. She is also a personal pin-up and I drool every time I see her on the box, so the opportunity to attend an event like this (interesting enough in itself) and see her in the flesh was not to be missed.

The conversation was interesting, with a lot of backwards and forwards between Richard and Tracy, with minimal intervention by Alice Roberts, just when things might have seemed they were starting to flag or perhaps when they drifted slightly off-topic. Just right, I thought.

After a short Q&A session which took things up to the required hour, we all retired. The general public all left, but RS members and guests were efficiently siphoned off from the thronging masses into a side room where there was a drinks reception.

We chatted to a few people, though we didn't know any, then, almost at the end and just before the chief protagonists and a few RS officers were about to go in to dinner, we found ourselves in the group talking to my hearthrob. OK, I lie. We manoevred ourselves there!

While I distracted the bloke haranguing her loudly about electric cars, Jenny started talking to her about silver. As I've mentioned before, we found out quite fortuitously that she had been on a weekend course at Bringsty Arts Studios, which gave us a useful hook to start the conversation.

We had a lovely few minutes conversation in which she revealed that she not only had heard of Jenny, but also knew of her work and referred to Acanthostega! We were deeply impressed!

After they'd gone in to dine, we finished our wine and wandered up the road looking for somewhere to eat. After a pretty short search we came across a delightful, if pricy, restaurant in Jermyn Street called Rowley's. We anticipated it would be expensive, but were in sufficiently expansive mood to just say "The hell with it!"

We shared the scallop starter, which was divine, then Jenny had baked cod and I fillet steak with foie gras. Jenny had a glass of chardonnay while I had a couple of claret, and it was simply wonderful. The fact that the starter cost what we'd normally pay for a main was not enough to dent our ebullient mood, and we were still feeling the zing of a thoroughly enjoyable evening when we got home to Royston at 11!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Singing in Cambridge

Yesterday lunchtime, the choir we sang with in Venice last year and Brussels this year, Choir18, put on a concert in All Saints Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Churches Conservation Trust. We were one of 40 choirs singing in 40 churches over the weekend.

The Churches Conservation Trust maintains over 350 churches which are no longer used for regular worship and which would otherwise fall into disrepair.

This church was built in the 19th century on the site of an older church, and includes stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown and William Morris. Sadly, I didn't read the blurb until I got home, and didn't make the time to actually wander around and look at the place, which was pretty stupid, I think you'll agree.

Anyhow, we had a decent audience, so the church didn't look empty, and they seemed to like most of what we sang.

The programme included Gabrielli (Jubilate Deo), Purcell (Hear my prayer), Harris (Faire is the Heaven) and Barber (To be sung on the water), as well as works by contemporary composers like Whitacre, Matthews, Aquiar and Lauridsen. Afterwards the organisers had laid on a light lunch, after which Jenny and I sloped off, knackered, to idle the afternoon away!

One entertaining aspect of the event was that the Whitacre piece Sleep was originally a setting of a poem by Robert Frost, but the Frost estate refused permission for Whitacre to use those words. How spiteful is that? Makes you feel really warm and cosy about Frost's descendents, doesn't it? Fortunately, Whitacre is made of stern stuff and he found someone else to write words especially. And the result is magical, so I suppose we ought to be grateful to the wretches!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Cute Cephalopod!

I stole this from PZ Myers, where else? It's just soooo pretty!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Molecular Biology Manga

This is really cool. PZ Myers posted a link to this site where there's an example of a manga about molecular biology. OK, splenation: manga is a form of Japanese cartoon book - Jenny's first book, which was written for a Japanese publisher, was first translated into Japanese, then issued both as a regular book and as a manga. Including cartoon pictures of Jenny herself! Sadly, Jenny's manga hasn't been translated into English.

This particular manga, which has been translated, is all about molecular biology, aimed at making it entertaining as well as informative. And it works! Check it out!

Monday, 28 September 2009

An exceptional man

Jenny's been in Bristol attending the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an American group which normally meets in the USA. They were afraid that meeting outside of the US would mean they'd have rather fewer delegates than usual, but in fact with 1100 there, it was the second-best attended annual SVP meeting ever, only 40 delegates short of the outright record.

I went down on Saturday afternoon, partly to visit my mum, who lives near Bristol and is really not well at all, and partly to bring Jenny home on Sunday in time for her to get to a choir practice Sunday afternoon. We're rehearsing for a concert in All Saints church in Cambridge next Saturday lunchtime, and really needed this extra rehearsal. Jen would not have been able to make it if she'd had to travel by train.

So on Saturday night we went to the awards ceremony, where we saw various people I'd never heard of getting awards for being clever and working hard and having a significant impact on the field, etc, etc. The last and most prestigious award was the Romer-Simpson medal, for lifetime achievement in the field of vertebrate paleontology, and this was awarded to someone I've heard of and Jenny knows, called Farish Jenkins Jr.

Farish was one of the people who collected specimens of Tiktaalik in arctic Canada a few years ago, which is how Jenny comes to know him. The picture is evidently of him on a field expedition somewhere and that looks like the cast of a sauropod footprint he's holding, so not the Tiktaalik expedition then.

Once they'd handed over the medal, he had about 10 minutes to say thanks, and it was just riveting. As he opened his mouth, you just knew that here was a complete master of the spoken word. His voice, his choice of words, the tempo, everything was spellbinding. I found myself regretting never having heard him speak before and when he finished, wishing he'd go on. It was a magical moment.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Fantastic bat photography

Thanks to PZ for directing my attention to this Daily Mail article about some amazing photographs taken by wildlife photographer Kim Taylor of bats drinking from a pond in his garden in Surrey. I wouldn't normally send you to a rag like the Mail, but they do seem to have the best pics.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Anyone know how to sharpen a chisel?

Some years ago I inherited a few old wood-carving gouges from my father-in-law. He'd never used them, having inherited them from someone himself, and they were in pretty poor condition. I've sharpened up one in the past and used it successfully, but today I was working on a big piece of wood and decided that another of these old inherited chisels was just what I needed to use at that point. I do have some chisels I bought new myself, so these are just extras.

So I fished it out and set about cleaning it up. It's still a mess, but I figured I'd get it sharp first and worry about the rust later. The red mark is where I tried it out on my piece of wood, which is a dark red, African hardwood, called pidook. Curiosly, when I googled to check the spelling, nothing matches at all, and yet a few years ago, when I bought the wood, I got several hits.

Anyhow, having sharpened the gouge up and tried it on the wood and found it good, I then noticed a few little notches in the sharp edge. Being in a rather pedantic frame of mind, I got a little stone out and flattened off the end until there wasn't a single notch. Ran my fingernail along it and nothing caught at all, so that was a good place to start.

Back to the oilstone for another 20 minutes or so until I had another good edge. Gave it a strop and bugger me, the edge has a whole series of little notches. Where the hell did they come from?

And just to cap it all, when I tried it out on the wood, the edge is not as good as the one I rubbed off with stone before deciding to do the job properly. So I've come inside and am drinking a soothing cup of tea!

What is it about professional fund-raisers?

<rant>
I've just taken a call from the Royal Horticultural Society (we've been members forever!) and within a few words I knew this was a begging call. What is it about the tone of voice or the carefully-worded script or some other aspect of the call that just tells you that without doubt, they want your money?

Anyhow, notwithstanding the rather slimy Jason on the other end of the line, I did agree to a small monthly donation. Sadly, gummint regulations dictate that having agreed to cough up, I then had to put up with several more interminable minutes of tooth-grinding, eye-glazing tedium while he explained all about bank direct debits and how I could change or cancel and how it would show on my bank statement, etc, etc. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

And then a new one to me. He explained that he was a professional fund-raiser working for the RHS and that the amount he and his mates would charge the RHS for the exercise would be £37,000 but that the RHS expected to raise £290,000 from it. Why do I have to know that? Frankly, if the RHS decides to use professionals, that's a good thing as they're likely to be more effective than Miss Marple sitting at home with a phone book and a cup of tea, and I assume they've costed it out and expect it to be worth it. I'm not actually interested in the cost-benefit analysis, particularly as what it was costing by now was my time!

But I did consider emailing the RHS to say I gave my support despite Jason, not because of him, and someone from his company might spend a bit of time working out what exactly it is about the way these people go about their business that so nearly put me off.
</rant>

Women of Note, singing at Anglesea Abbey

On Saturday afternoon a Cambridge choir called Women of Note, of which our friend Jane is a member, sang a number of 10-minute slots in the grounds of Anglesea Abbey, a local National Trust property. About a dozen of us turned up, though one couple timed it badly, missed the first couple of slots, then had to leave before the next one. The event coincided with an excellent display of dahlias, so I took a few photos of those, too.

It was a really lovely afternoon, warm and hazy, the grounds are impressive and the singing splendid. We had a lovely time and it was a very relaxing way to pass a couple of hours on a late-summer Saturday afternoon.