Saturday, 31 January 2009

The day we first started wearing clothes

My mother sent us a really interesting article in The Times by Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, about Darwin, some of the work he did and the celebrations taking place this year. It's an easy read, and I recommend it.

One unexpected snippet which was completely new to me was the bit about lice. "When humans emerged onto the sunny savannahs, they lost their hair, perhaps to cool down. The lice had a hard time and evolved to live in the few patches of habitat left. We now have three kinds, the head, the body and the public louse. Only the body louse hangs onto clothing. DNA shows that it split from the head form no more than 50,000 years ago - which may mark the moment we dressed ourselves."

I can't imagine the scientist mapping the lice's DNA even considered asking the question "When did we first start wearing clothes?", yet here is a likely answer. Fascinating!

David Attenborough. A really great man.

We have always been fans of Sir David.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Brazil gets an atheist bus campaign!

Now that really is a surprise! With such a heavy Catholic presence, I really didn't expect the Brazilians to climb onboard!
Hat tip: PZ Myers, of course.

My contribution is to buy two tee-shirts, the first stolen from PZ Myers:

There probably is no teapot. Stop worrying. Enjoy life!

Evolution happened. Get over it!

Cheap LEDs on the way

This article on Science Daily reports how Cambridge University scientists have devised a way to make LEDs much more cheaply that current techniques, and suggests that within about 5 years we'll be able to use LEDs instead of pretty well all current light sources.

Apparently LEDs are dimmable, too, which I didn't know, and which has always been the big problem for me with replacing the little halogen spotlamps. In many parts of our house, eg bathroom, living room, dining room, we want dimmable lights, so mostly are running GU10 halogen spots. Dimmable low-energy replacements are available, at about £15 a pop. No thank you!

The article also suggests our electricity use for lighting could drop from 20% of consumption to 5%, which would basically save us building or replacing eight power stations.

And a very useful side-effect is that if you dose the gallium nitride with aluminium, the LED produces a deep ultraviolet light which is lethal to bacteria and viruses. Neato. Other health uses of LEDs are mentioned, but I'll let you read about them there.

All of which makes it perfectly obvious to me that while some science can be difficult, it is definitely worth the effort!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

New Scientist gives creationists a birthday present

Oh, thanks a lot, New Scientist, that's really going to help!

In case you've missed the furore, New Scientist magazine published an article in which the author suggested that the tree of life, as supposedly envisaged by Darwin, may not have been so much of a tree in the early days, more a sort of network. Nothing terribly spectacular or unexpected there, I'm sure you'll agree. Nobody would expect Darwin to have been completely right about everything, particularly since he knew nothing about Mendelian inheritance or DNA or any of a dozen other fields that have come into existence in the last 150 years.

Sadly, however, New Scientist saw fit to put in giant letters "Darwin was Wrong" on the cover of the magazine. The creationists must be licking their lips and rubbing their hands with glee, toasting NS for generously handing them a quote they can use.

Not unnaturally, New Scientist editor, Roger Highfield has found himself on the recieving end of some irate correspondence from quite a few scientists. His response, which is reasonable, is to recommend reading of the editorial that accompanied the article.

"THERE is nothing new to be discovered in physics." So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortly before the intellectual firestorm ignited by relativity and quantum mechanics proved him comprehensively wrong.

If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism.

A particularly pertinent example is provided in this week's cover story - the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since (see "Axing Darwin's tree"). Most biologists now accept that the tree is not a fact of nature - it is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable. Other important bits of biology - notably development, ageing and sex - are similarly turning out to be much more involved than we ever imagined. As evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at the University of California, Irvine, told us: "The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics."

Biology has been here before. Although Darwin himself, with the help of Alfred Russel Wallace, triggered a revolution in the mid-1800s, there was a second revolution in the 1930s and 1940s when Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright and others incorporated Mendelian genetics and placed evolution on a firm mathematical foundation.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that "New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong". Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.

Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn't see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science's giants. In the same way, Darwin's ideas will prove influential for decades to come.

So here's to the impending revolution in biology. Come Darwin's 300th anniversary there will be even more to celebrate.

[emphasis added by PZ Myers, to whom I'm endebted for the quote]

The trouble with this is that the creationists aren't likely to read the article, or the editorial, or if they do, they'll just quotemine the way they usually do, and ignore anything that doesn't fit their silly ideas of how things came to be the way they are.

Oh well.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Eulalia viridis

It is true that this Christmas Tree Worm is misleading, but even so, I know you'll think it odd that just about my favourite animals of all time are marine worms. Yup, not the warm furry mammal we keep at home that swishes its tail at us and occasionally bites or claws us (but more importantly sleeps on the bed and purrs in our faces). Not even fishies or birdies or lizards or snakes. No, for me, it's marine worms, preferably polychaetes.

Allow me to explain. As if you could stop me! Long, long ago, Jenny led a marine biology field course for first year zoology students from Cambridge for a week in Pembroke in Wales. I went along to drive one of the mini-buses. This occurred every other year for about a decade. Gradually, I got to know the organisms we were looking at, and I simply fell in love with the worms. They are soooooo beautiful. OK, I know you're not convinced, but to me, they're just beautiful, and I love them.

They come in two flavours, and I use the term deliberately. The sessile forms live with their bodies embedded in the mud of the sea floor, with a crown of dozens, maybe hundreds, of fine tentacles spread out across the mud, collecting whatever detritus they could to eat. The sessile forms link above is just a diagram, as so far I've not found a respectable photo. The Christmas tree worm counts as a sessile form, even though the tentacles have been converted into filters for catching stuff from the water currents. Unless, that is, I missed a whole chunk of worm zoology, though I don't think so.

The motile form has a row of paddles down each side, and actively swims around, generally looking for things to eat. This picture of a Nereis doesn't do it justice. I remember it as a straw-coloured worm, with an iridescent, shimmering surface, like the colours you get from a drop of petrol on water. As I say, simply beautiful. I can't find an adequate picture of it. Maybe I'll have to go out with my camera!

Anyhow, a year or two before I started going, a friend of ours who was a technician in the Museum of Zoology, where Jenny works, had taken her younger son aged about 16. Mixing with first year students, a couple of years older than he was, he was vulnerable to bets, and inevitably, succumbed. For a bet, he ate a terrebellid worm, which is a sessile one. This was a mistake. He'd have been much better off eating a motile one. He won the bet, but boy oh boy, did he regret it!

Think about it. (OK, not too deeply!) This worm lives on the sea floor, where it hoovers up whatever it can find on the surface of the mud within about a 5cm radius. It will ingest more or less anything. In this case, the worm came from Milford Haven, where many ships, including oil tankers, come and go. And rinse out their ballast tanks.

Terrebellid worms are known, though probably not to 16-year-olds, for accumulating heavy metals and other noxious substances. Oh yes indeed, he was very sick, for several days. I'm really glad I wasn't there, though I did relish telling the students about that when I'd worked my way up to actually giving the worms talks to them. Fortunately he did survive unscathed.

So what's this post actually all about? Well here's the nub. I was sitting downstairs reading my book (Richard Fortey's The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum - Dry Store Room No. 1, which I find such a cosy, comfy book I just have to recommend it) and the words Eulalia viridis came into my mind. No idea why, but that's why I'm writing this post.

Eulalia viridis is a most beautiful bottle-green worm that lives in the sea around the coasts of Britain. It's about 15cm long and is one of those motile forms, with paddles along its sides. I gather it scavanges stuff, particularly dead barnacles and mussels, and I've been completely in love with it ever since I first cast eyes on one. I love the way the name just rolls sexily off your tongue; I love the gorgeous green colour; I love the way it trickles softly between the pebbles and across the sand. I want to say I love the way it ululates through its littoral environment, but I know that ululate means to make a long, wavering, high-pitched sound, yet somehow, most of those words apply to Eulalia viridis, so it's tempting. I'm also tempted to say did you ever see anything so gorgeous in your entire life, but I suspect I know the answer!

Buccal Bombshells!

Jenny is dining with her head of department and another colleague in Darwin College this evening, so I'm on my own and doing what I usually do; deciding what to eat on the fly, shopping on the way home and then spending much of the evening cooking, eating and feeling smug!

I decided I'd get a slab of salmon and microwave it, dump it on a pile of roasted cherry tomatoes and accompany it with some boiled new potatoes and a few runner beans. In the end, there was so much, I skipped the beans. Jenny will regret this, as I seem to have been rather remiss stringing the beans last year, and she always gets the nasty ones and is understandably keen to clear the lot from the freezer.

So the first photo is of the main ingredients. I put the tomatoes in a small enamel roasting dish with a little olive oil, some chopped up garlic, most of those basil leaves roughly torn, plus salt and pepper, and stuck it in the oven flat out for 20 minutes. Flat out in our oven is a rather feeble 220, but it is a fan oven, which is supposed to make a difference. I turned them over with a plastic spatula half-way through to ensure they stayed coated with oil and garlic.

The salmon went into a plastic dish with a slug of white wine, salt, pepper, a few scrapings of butter and a scattering of caraway seeds. Meanwhile I boiled the potatoes. New spuds always take much longer than maincrop, so 20 mins was barely enough.

When all was almost ready, I gave the fish 90 seconds on max power in the microwave. I was going to give it 2 mins, but decided to take a look part-way through, and I'm glad I did. Could have done with even less, truth be told, but it wasn't too badly over-cooked.

The great thing about microwaving fish is that it's almost instant, and the fish stays moist and succulent, which is just lovely. It's how we cook fish most of the time, though we do have a number of recipes that do it differently.

The second photo, obviously, is of the end result. After dishing out the tomatoes I scattered the remaining basil over them, then put the fish on top and dished up the potatoes next to it. And yes, that is mint on those there spuds, though sadly, it tasted of more or less nothing.

I accompanied this masterpiece with a bottle of Fleurie, which was just spot on. Jane, if you're reading this before 9pm, there's some left; you could always come and help me finish it!

The reason for the title to this post is that I found the cherry tomatoes almost too much for the salmon. The wine, butter and caraway had made the fish delicate and delicious, but the tomatoes just exploded in my mouth. Not quite sure what to do about that next time.

Oh yes, and the tomatoes were inclined to explode all over the table cloth, my shirt, etc., too! Maybe half an hour in the oven would have reduced them to more of a mush and made the whole experience less .. er .. ejaculatory!

Wine for senior citizens

California vintners in the Napa Valley area, which primarily produce Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio wines, have developed a new hybrid grape that acts as an anti-diuretic.
It is expected to reduce the number of trips older people have to make to the bathroom during the night.

The new wine will be marketed as


Monday, 26 January 2009

Promising signs...

Obama on climate change:

"My administration will not deny facts -- we will be guided by them," Obama said.

Jeez, let's hope so! I so want this guy to come good!

A busy weekend - back to work for a rest

Friday night 6 of us went to the Cambridge Arts Theatre, where we saw the Henri Oguike Dance Company perform fabulous contemporary dance. I've blogged about them before, so won't go on about them again, except to say what a shame it was Jane couldn't make it.

On Saturday morning Jenny and I drove down to visit my mum in Bristol. Mum is 86 and has lived on her own for a long time now. One of the tedious side-effects of this is that she has slowly lost the motivation to cook decent meals for herself. When we visit, she cooks nice, interesting meals, but on her own I think she tends to skimp a bit.

Since early December, whenever Jen and I have cooked something like a casserole, we've made an extra couple of portions and frozen them, so on Saturday we were able to give mum a couple of portions each of :-

  • A hearty beef and ale casserole
  • Madhur Jaffrey's lamb rogan josh
  • A fragrant chicken stew to a recipe published in the Week magazine
  • Jamie Oliver's slow cooked pork goulash
  • An Andalucian oxtail stew with butter beans
  • A South African dish called bobotie, made from minced lamb, spices and fruit.
We were both excited about giving her this, and her reaction was all we could have asked for, particularly the bobotie, as that would trigger memories from long ago. Note that recipes for bobotie vary considerably, for instance, we prefer lamb, though many recipes specify beef.

Sunday lunchtime mum had booked us into The Squire Inn in Chipping Sodbury, where we had a very pleasant carvery lunch. I was drinking water, of course, as I had to drive, but that was fine.

When we got back home, while drinking a cup of tea, I dismantled Lorna's hair drier. Lorna had borrowed mine at the beginning of last week as hers had 'blown up'. Actually it had started smoking and putting out a nasty smell. Anyhow, after a few days, Lorna managed to buy herself a replacement, but I had said to give me the defunct one and I'd see if I could fix it.

When I dismantled it, all seemed to be in order, apart from the presence of quite a lot of fluff. Jen and I went over it with old toothbrushes, and cleaned it out. When I reassembled it, it did smell a bit of charring dust and hair, but we expected that. After a few minutes, it was working normally. We infer that a lump of fluff had become dislodged and had fallen onto the heating element, smoking and stinking as it burned up.

This seems to be how it is with hair driers. They're blowing a lot of air through, so inevitably dust and fluff will collect. There's no provision to clean them, so after a while, they'll start to burn up some of the detritus. Most folks will assume the device is broken and will replace it at that point. In this case, Lorna now has a spare.

In the afternoon, Jenny had started to complain about not feeling all that well, so when dinner time came, I cooked. We'd brought home some chicken left over from Saturday night, so I made up a chicken, bacon and leek dijonnaise which I served on rice, while Jenny supervised.

I chopped up a couple of rashers of smoked streaky bacon and fried them for a bit, then added some chopped spring onions (scallions) which really needed to be used up. To that I added a large, chopped leek, and let that fry quietly for a bit, covered, then added the chicken.

With the rice cooking, I added butter to the chicken and leek mix, stirred in some plain flour and then added milk very slowly, to make a white sauce. When the sauce was the right consistency, I put in a couple of tablespoons of wholegrain mustard, some salt and pepper.

I have to say, it really was rather good, and was the sort of mild, easily-digested meal that Jenny needed.

But we were knackered, and after a brief nightcap over the road, where we told Jane all about what a wonderful dance experience she'd missed, we got ourselves an early night. Still had difficulty dragging our backs off the mattress this morning!

Friday, 23 January 2009

It just gets better and better

Obama has ordered a review of all of Bush's last-minute policy acts. Hoorah!

Hat tip: PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

I mend the iron

Our steam iron had got all clogged up with limescale, because we'd never read the instructions fully. They say that you have to use the self-clean cycle every other week to clear out limescale. We've had the iron several years, and never done this. As a result, it started dumping lumps and smears of scale on the clothes as they were being ironed.

I found the instructions and realised our mistake, so followed the directions for self-clean.

After some time, the RCD in the hallway tripped, the TV went off and the fan over the hob stopped. Strange.

I reset the RCD, plugged the iron back in and it immediately tripped again. I tried a different socket, but that was the same.

So I dismantled the iron, noticing as I did so, that there was quite a bit of water leaking out of the base, which is where most of the electrics live, of course. I didn't find a leak, but I did find an enormous amount of fluff and quite a bit of limescale around various rubber bits where the reservoir plugs into the actual heating tank in the footplate.

The photo is because I knew I'd not remember how the wires were connected, but I had to disconnect them to get it all apart. I just love digital cameras!

After getting everything as clean as I could, I reassembled it, filled it with water and switched it on. The RCD didn't trip, the iron heated up, steam came out of its little holes and I think it's probably as good as new.

I think you know I love fixing things!

Neither Shame nor Fear

A Chilean poet has writ large on the Atacama Desert. I got myself all of a lather, thinking he must have damaged ancient carved animal images, until I realised the Nazca images are in Peru, thousands of miles away. The poem reads "ni pena ni miedo" which translates as Neither shame nor fear, and hence the title to this post.

Hat tip: John Lynch

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Bad Faith awards

After I had some very long comments suggesting I was wrong about Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) I did some minimal research which was rather inconclusive, so I shut up, even though the very length and detail of the comments suggested I was on the right lines. "Methinks perhaps he doth protest too much" was what came to mind.

However, I'm delighted to report that the man himself came second only to the appalling Sarah Palin in the New Humanist Bad Faith Awards, 2008. It's not evidence, but it does mean a thousand other people think I'm probably right.

Animal Rights Campaigners Jailed

This is really good news!

Seven animal rights activists who blackmailed companies
linked to an animal testing laboratory have been jailed for
between four and 11 years.

Not for their beliefs, but for using criminal tactics to try to achieve their aims.

Sadly, there are more than 7 of them, so the research is not completely free from threat.

Evolution by Natural Selection in Business

Had a really interesting experience on Monday. The company sent a bunch of us down to London for the day to 'learn about the user experience' you get from a range of retail outlets. I think you'll catch on to why by the end of the post, so I'll not try to explain just yet.

We visited around a dozen different retail outlets, from clothes shops to computer stores to audio equipment specialists, in groups of 4, pretending to be potential customers, but just browsing, asking questions, etc., thinking about how the products were presented, what the overall feel of the place was like, how the staff treated us, and so on. Just get the flavour of each place.

At the end of the day, we met up with the consultancy group that had set it all up, and examined what we'd found. The contrast across the range of stores was enormous and illuminating, and for me can be summed up like this.

For quite a while, the business climate has been pretty equable, and many companies have just ticked along, able to make a living even though they weren't being terribly efficient. Now, however, the climate has changed. Life's nothing like as easy as it was, and it's much tougher just getting by.

Companies that have strategies in place to squeeze the last drop from every opportunity are much more likely to stay afloat, while those that don't know what to do and just keep doing what they've always done, are much less likely to.

Those that can cope with the new environment survive, those that can't, become extinct. It's simple natural selection.

So of course, the reason for the London jolly was to stimulate thought and discussion about what we need to be doing and how we need to change the way we work in order to maximise our chances of survival. As I say, a most interesting day.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A concert in the Leper Chapel

We're just back from a really lovely concert given by a Cambridge choir called Women of Note, in the Leper Chapel, which is on the Newmarket Road as you drive eastwards out of the centre of Cambridge. We were introduced to the choir by our friend Jane, who sings with them. We've been to several of their concerts and always really enjoy them. They always sing an interesting selection of pieces, usually without music, and not to the frighteningly high standard of some of the Cambridge choirs. This makes their concerts much more approachable, and it enhances our enjoyment. This concert was of 'forgotten carols' and was splendid.

The Leper Chapel is minute, seating no more than about 60 at a guess, and is one of the oldest buildings in Cambridge, dating from the early 12th century. It was perishing cold, but being so small gave the concert a wonderful intimate atmosphere, and as we had been warned, we were well wrapped up in jackets, scarves, gloves, etc.

A new speciation event

People who don't accept that evolution by natural selection is real often claim that no speciation events have ever been observed, in other words, that we've never seen a new species arise.

Jenny mentioned that she was sure she'd heard of some mosquitoes that live in the London Underground that had done just that, so we looked it up. I'd never heard of this, but here's an extract from a 1999 paper by Katharine Byrne and Richard Nichols, published in Heredity. (I had to type it in manually, because the original pdf is secure and won't let me copy and paste any of the text, so please forgive typos.)

In London and other areas of northern Europe, there are populations of Culex pipiens which have drawn particular attention, not least because they will bite humans voraciously and breed in confined underground spaces. This molestus form of C. pipiens became notorious during the 1939-45 war because it attacked Londoners seeking shelter from German bombing in the underground railway tunnels (Shute, 1951) and continues to be a sporadic biting pest to maintenance workers. It is one of a group of closely related species that forms the C. pipiens species complex. It is morphologically indistinguishable from the C. pipiens that is found in surface populations; yet these are bird biting, and show other substantial differences in behaviour and ecology (Table 1 and see Service, 1993).

These differences can be interpreted in a straightforward way as adaptations to a subterranean life: the ability to breed in confined spaces is a prerequisite; the greater warmth underground during winter means there is no need for a diapause; nutrients are more readily obtained in the larval stage or from mammals rather than from birds. These differences are heritable (Pasteur, 1977), and presumably maladaptive in the above-ground environment. Interbreeding with above-ground populations is additionally hampered by the physical separation of the two habitats.

All of which means that in the 150 odd years since the first underground railway tunnels were dug, a species of mosquito which only ever sucked the blood of birds has invaded the tunnels, started sucking people blood instead of bird blood and adapted so that its larvae can thrive in underground puddles. The underground population has changed so much that over at least part of its range it no longer interbreeds with the original species. It's sufficiently different from the parent species that some authorities regard it as an entirely new species, C. molestus though it is true that others regard it only as a subspecies.

I was really excited about it until I had almost finished this post, when I discovered that last sentence. Oh well.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Sean Carrol's Darwin Lecture

Each year, Darwin College hosts a series of lectures and invites prestigious speakers from around the world to give them. We've been to some before, and you have to be there at least half an hour early to get into the main auditorium, though there is an overflow venue with good AV links.

Anyhow, Jenny discovered that as a fellow of Darwin, she and I are entitled to sit in the reserved seats at the front, which made me feel very privileged and superior!

Professor Carroll gave a superb talk, very entertaining, full of fascinating information about the influence of recent genetic discoveries is having on our understanding of evolution. The only downer was the appallingly uncomfortable benches, something I remember from each visit, but forget until I've been sitting there for 45 minutes or so, at which point the pain is becoming unbearable!

Afterwards we retired to Darwin College itself for a distinctly underwhelming dinner. Normally Darwin dinners are pretty good, with interesting, well-prepared food and oodles of wine, but last night the food was well below par, the wine glasses were minute and the waiters not too interesting in keeping said glasses topped up.

Fortunately, Jenny and the guy sitting next to her (we were on opposite sides of the table) are both on the Wine Committee, so I'm sure words will be said.

It was a good evening despite all that, however. I was sitting between two very personable young women, and opposite another, rather older one. Normally at these do's I find it hard to make smalltalk, but first, I had met the one on my right before, which made life much easier, and second, the other two were very easy company, so I nattered away all through the meal. Jenny was actually a couple of places displaced from directly opposite me, and spent most of the meal chatting to the guy from the Wine Committee and her other neighbour.

For the past 5 days my internet connection has been abysmally slow; as slow as in the bad old dial-up days. I tested it and got a download speed of 350kbps when I should have got close to 8Mbps. That's why Thursday night's food posting didn't get done until today. I wrote the text, but couldn't upload the photos, so left it in draft.

Anyway, after exchanging several emails with Support at my isp, I eventually just rebooted the broadband modem, and behold! speed was restored. Connection now tested at 6.1Mbps and 350kbps. Much better!

Thursday, 15 January 2009


Tonight (I originally wrote this on Thursday) Jenny is in Cambridge and won't be home until late. Sean Carroll, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin and author of the most excellent book "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", is visiting Cambridge to give the Darwin Lecture tomorrow, and Jenny is in some way hooked up in the entertainment. I think he's talking in the University today, possibly this evening, and she may be at the lecture or she may be part of the dinner arrangements. Given the lateness of her predicted homecoming, I'd say the latter.

Anyhow, I had deliberately not made dinner arrangements myself, because, as I've mentioned before, I quite like deciding what I want on the fly, shopping for it and then cooking it.

This evening I decided I wanted fish, which I would marinate Thai-style, in garlic, ginger, lime, oil and fresh coriander, so stopped off at Tesco and picked up the necessary, ie the fish. I'd imagined a nice slab of cod or haddock, but actually ended up with a whole, farmed sea bream.

I chopped off its head, pectorals and pelvics, since they tend to be full of bones and there's actually not a lot of meat on that bit, then slashed the sides really deeply and dumped it in the marinade, shoving bits and juice into the slashes and the cavity. The first photo shows the fish marinating. Please ignore the broken edge of the plasticware.

Then I cooked the carrots and rice, and when all was nearly done, put the fish in a hot wok with a little olive oil. When I judged the fish was done, I stuck it in the bowl I was going to serve in, resting on top of the steamer with the carrots, covered with a glass lid to make sure it kept warm.

I wanted the rice to be slightly more interesting than just your usual old basmati, so quickly fried a chopped spring onion in the wok, then chucked the cooked rice in with it and gave it a few stirs around. That went on one side of the fish, the carrots (just steamed with a scattering of caraway seed) on the other.

Sadly, I underestimated the time the fish needed. I usually microwave fish, giving a trout, for instance, 3 mins on full power. However, frying in a wok obviously needs longer. I had to give it a minute in the microwave to get it perfect.

I accompanied it with a nice, dry Portuguese white the Wine Society delivered to me in my quarterly Wine Without Fuss selection. Yum!

And now I'm going over the road to see Lorna and Richard. They didn't come out to dinner last night, and I'm kind of missing them.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Cool commercial

A friend in the US sent us the link to this. When I watched it, I spent most of this going WTF? but then thought it was really cool at the end.

Nice Parable

Hat tip: PZ Myers.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


So I meant to post about the pope (Decrepit virgin declares homosexuals to be a threat to society) before Christmas, but got distracted by being ill, so it didn't happen.
Edit: Our wannabee overlords spreading joy, love and tolerance at this festive time of the year.

Anyhow, now some woman has decided to take her conjoined twins to term, even though there's no possibility that they'll survive. Terrific. So here goes.

Here's a supposedly devout Catholic, (sorry, my internet connection is working as if I was still using dial-up; I'll provide the link tomorrow) who's pregnant with a deformed foetus, that she knows will die soon after birth, assuming it/they survive that long, and she's using her religion as an excuse for not having it/them aborted, which any sane person would think the kindest thing to do to it/them.

This woman, this supposedly devout Catholic, hasn't bothered to marry her partner and presumed father of the child she's carrying. I the only one that detects the faintest whiff of inconsistency here?

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Garden Surprise!

So I'd already decided it was far too cold to do anything outside, and was sitting in front of the computer, having booked airport parking for when we next go away, when Jenny appeared and dragged me downstairs. Then she dragged me outside and behold! It was not winter any more! I know it was barely above freezing, but it didn't feel so raw and depressing. Hoorah!

First I had to fix a water butt, who's tap had worked loose and which had dripped itself completely empty apart from several inches of ice. That didn't take long, though it was awkward as it's a long stretch from the opening in the top to the tap at the bottom, even when the thing is lying on its side. No, I didn't try to fix it while it was still upright. Even I am not that stupid.

With that fixed and set back in place we retired indoors to thaw out. The Week magazine (a weekly digest we take instead of a newspaper) recommended a chardonnay from Tesco as "miraculous for the money" so we checked out our local Tesco and were amazed to find the very wine there. So bought 6, hoping we agree with the Week.

After a bite for lunch we had at another water butt. This one is by the greenhouse, and was sitting on top of a raised bed I built oh, 20 years ago, with an offcut of kitchen worktop resting on top of the brick walls, and the water butt on the worktop. Now I knew when I put it there that the worktop would not last forever, though I was impressed by how long it did last. A good 10 years is impressive for thick chipboard without any protection from the weather. Well, it had finally caved in, so I had to sort that out.

I transferred some of the water to the newly-not-leaking water butt down by the house, then tipped the rest into the raised bed. Found some suitable bits of concrete (I tore up a concrete path many years ago, and couldn't bring myself to throw all the bits away.) to make a base for the water butt and reinstalled it.

And the weather forecast incorporated into Gardeners' Question Time predicted heavy rain over the next week, so I expect both of those water butts to be full soon. The other three already are full, of course.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

An Awareness Test

I love this! I really do think it's very funny!

Friday, 9 January 2009

I don't really understand this...

Jenny sent me this link to a BBC breakfast programme so I just watched Nick Davies from Cambridge in a spare 5 mins, talking about tonight's cuckoos programme. There were several interesting bits, like the way a naturalist early in the 20th century discovered and filmed what the female cuckoo was actually doing and how she got her egg into the nest of her victim.

But the bit that astonished me was the way the presenters seemed not to know anything at all about the cuckoo's life history. I came away convinced they must have been feigning ignorance in order to cajole the professor into explaining it as if to schoolchildren.

Surely every schoolchild knows that cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests and that the chick ejects the rightful occupants and that the victims continue to feed the cuckoo until it's much bigger than they are. You don't need a university professor to explain it to you on breakfast tv. Do you?

Amazing deep sea fish

The BBC has a report on this amazing deep sea fish called a brownsnout spookfish, whose eyes are divided into upper and lower sections.

The parts facing upwards use conventional lenses to focus the little light filtering down through 1000m of water, while the parts facing downwards, if I read the report correctly, have crystalline mirrors focussing the light flashes from fish swimming deeper down.

This seems to be the first animal known to use mirrors for focussing light onto the retina and strikes me as very interesting indeed.

Of course, many nocturnal animals, such as cats, have a reflective surface behind the retina, to increase the amount of light trapped by the optic cells, but this is completely different, using the mirrors to actually focus the light. Isn't evolution just fan-bloody-tastic?!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Books that travel

I joined BookCrossing a month or two back, but did nothing more about it until recently. Over Christmas, however, I remembered that I had finished a book which I'd deliberately bought for the BookCrossing project, so I can now proudly announce that our first book has been liberated! It was God, the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger. He uses scientific arguments to demonstrate that there are no gods. I thought it was quite persuasive, but then, I was convinced before reading the book. Preaching to the Choir, as it were.

In case you haven't the slightest idea what I'm talking about, I'll explain. The idea is that when you've finished reading a book that you're unlikely to want to read again, you stick a label in the front which says, to summarise, "I'm not lost, I've been deliberately left here for someone else to read. Please visit and record the fact that you've found me, then READ and RELEASE me!"

I printed my own labels, though you can buy them if you'd prefer. Then you register your book at the website and are issued with a unique book ID. You write that on the label and then leave the book where someone is likely to find it. In this case, Jenny left it on the train as she went to work. There's a good chance, of course, that it's in the railway's Lost Property section, but even if that's the case, they'll eventually give it away or sell it, and then it'll end up back in circulation.

Oh Cruel!

I'm just lifting stuff from other folk's blogs, for now. Got the nod for this from John Lynch's blog.

As he says, am I a bad person if I laughed at this?

Of clocks and time and stuff

Hat tip: Greg Laden for drawing attention to this neato trick. Into any Google search bar, type something like "time Cambridge" and see what comes up. Actually, I just put it into my Firefox address bar and it worked perfectly.

Edit: when Jenny put "time Cambridge" into Safari she got a whole load of Google hits, rather than being taken directly to the web page for Cambridge. The list you get from that link is an incomplete list of world cities, excluding, curiously, Cambridge.

Then I spotted the link to put a clock on your website, so configured it the way I wanted and copied the html into my blog, hence the clock top right. Just in case you weren't already aware how much time you're wasting reading blogs!

The time must be being downloaded from somewhere, as the clock is right, even if your computer's time is wrong. Naturally, it automatically adjusts for summer and winter time.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

New Iguana species on Galapagos

This is an interesting one, not just because the pink land iguana is a new species, but because the DNA evidence suggests it split away from the other Galapagos iguanas 5.7 million years ago, while the island on which it is now endemic was only formed less than half a million years ago.

The most likely scenario I can come up with in the 30 seconds' (is that apostrophe right?) thought I've given it so far, is that the original divergence occurred on a different island, from which they spread and on which the pink species subsequently became extinct. Evolve in island A, spread to island B, die out on island A. Simple. No magic required.

Edit: rereading the BBC article, I find I somehow missed a paragraph in which the scientists provide an alternative explanation - the island on which the pink iquanas originally evolved may have sunk below the surface of the sea. Since the area is highly volcanic, that's at least as good an explanation as mine.

Later edit: Greg Laden's blog gives a much clearer explanation of what is actually thought to have gone on, that matches the data very well, I thought.

Sadly, there is such a tiny population living on this single island, I don't hold out much hope for it.

I lifted this from the BBC Science page.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


As I mentioned in a previous post, I borrowed some hard drive audio-visual equipment from work and rigged up a system to project movies onto a pull-down screen. I'd pre-loaded over 100 movies onto the hard drive and obviously we also had DVDs of our own, so there was a fair selection. Still missing some I'd have liked to have seen, but overall, not bad.

We invited our friends, but then Jenny and I were both ill over the first week, so the the FilmFest didn't actually start until Boxing Day, but since then, we've given it a good shot. We provided popcorn, nuts, bombay mix, etc, as did Lorna and Richard, and everyone brought booze, of course.

Here's what we've shown - the victims varied from night to night.

Boxing Day: Ratatouille
Sat afternoon: Persepolis
Sat evening: The Wizard of Oz
Sun (TV): 39 Steps
Mon: Golden Compass
Tues: Mama Mia!
Weds: It's a Wonderful Life
Thurs: Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl
Fri: Billy Elliot
Sat: nothing. Jenny and I went out for a wedding anniversary meal.

Tonight is the last night and we don't know what we'll be showing. There will be 7 of us.

Edit: Actually, we've wimped out. Most of us are feeling all movied-out, so we'll have a normal Sunday evening, with Jane, Lorna and Richard just coming over for a glass of wine later on, before striding forth into the new year knackered and hung-over refreshed and invigorated!

I have never watched such a concentration of movies in my entire life, and to be perfectly frank, I'm quite looking forward to going back to work!