Wednesday, 29 April 2009

So short of time these days!

Things are hotting up at work, so I have less and less time for non-essentials, and I'm afraid blogging falls into that category. However, tonight I have 20 minutes, so I can throw something at the page so you know I'm still in the land of the living!

Last Saturday, I was privileged to sing evensong in Madingley Church, just west of Cambridge. Jenny sings with the Anima Singers, who are loosely based in the Zoology Department in Cambridge, and they had thought at one stage that they'd be short of tenors, so I was invited to help out. As it turned out, there were enough tenors, but by then I was involved.

We did the Ayleward responses, Gibbons short service and Sancte Deus by Tallis. I know the first two really well, but had not done the Tallis before. It's not particularly hard, and I enjoyed singing it.

Last night we went to a lecture by Professor Ken Miller from Brown University, Rhode Island, organised by the Faraday Institute and held in Emmanual College. (Sadly the Faraday link is extremely slow, so I can't follow it and make sure it's helpful.) He's a cell biologist and talked about Creationism, Intelligent Design and Evolution, and it was completely fascinating. He's a very good speaker, even if his PowerPoint slides had too many gizmos and different fonts, which was slightly distracting.

Part-way through, he was talking about how the anti-evolution lobby basically lie about gaps in the fossil record, and used as his example, the fish-tetrapod transition. This was cool, as it's what Jenny works on, of course, and his slides showed several of her drawings and cladograms.

Then he stopped and said something like "Actually much of what I'm talking about is the work of Jenny Clack, who happens to be here in the audience. Thank you for coming, Jenny!" How cool is that? Jenny said she was really embarrassed!

Then he talked about human evolution, and showed a slide with masses of different hominid (or is that hominin?) species. It's not the lack of intermediate species that's the problem, he said, it's working out how they relate to each other. They're obviously all there in the 'bush' of which we are a twig, but it's not so obvious which species is closest to which other.

Human evolution is of course, the thing all the anti-evolutionists are most bothered about, because they can't bear the thought that they're actually just animals like all the rest, and they particularly don't like the thought of having evolved from apes. Just too demeaning, my dear!

The only part of the lecture I found unconvincing was when he said that as a believer, he didn't think faith was incompatible with evolution. Personally, I think it is, so I can't understand his perspective on that one. Still, at least he didn't try to force me to accept it.

So by the time we got home we didn't fancy cooking, so strolled up to the nearest Thai restaurant. There was enough for us both to have the leftovers for lunch, but then, sadly, we had an email from this week's dining clique organiser, saying he'd decided the Thai would be just the place to go, so he'd booked a table for 8 at 8. Sigh. I think I'm going to be all Thai'd out by the end of the evening.

Oh yes, I mustn't forget. I have a blood test tomorrow, so have to start fasting at 9.30 tonight. That should be OK, as I expect we'll be out of the restaurant by then. I just mustn't carry on drinking when we get home. Which will do me no harm whatever!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

New light shed on nocturnal vision

This is so cool! Ed Yong has posted about a new discovery in nocturnal vision in mammals. I'll leave you to read his post, rather than just copy it here, but here's a summary:

Nocturnal mammals like mice, rats and cats, have the DNA in the rod cells in their eyes organised in a unique and interesting way, which allows the nuclei of those cells to act as lenses, concentrating what little light gets through, so enhancing their night vision.

Vertebrate (and probably most other) eyes have cone cells for colour vision and rods for black and white. Rods are much more sensitive to light than cones. Nocturnal animals have lots more rods than diurnal ones, so they can see better in dark conditions.

Now it turns out nocturnal animals have this extra trick up their sleeves to enhance their night vision further.

Something else I learned about mammal vision not long ago is that early mammals, being nocturnal, lost most of their colour vision, and only regained it about 63 million years ago. One consequence of this is that our colour vision is noticeably different from that of other colour-aware vertebrates; I think we lost one type of cone, leaving us with two, and then one of those diversified back into two types. So birds see colour rather differently from us. Actually, a bell is ringing in my head saying that birds have four types of cone, not three, but I don't have time to check that.

This rather wordy article goes into rather more detail than you're ever likely to want.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Improbable Research

I love the Annals of Improbable Research, though I visit very rarely, so I'm particularly grateful to Dr But Why, whose link I followed to get there today, and thence to an entertaining article in the Guardian. Years of painful experiences, treated with impressive scientific rigour!

Click here

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A bench for DJK

I was thinking of DJKirkby while I was in Spain, and took photographs of several benches, but in the end decided to post just this one photograph.

This is where my father and stepmother used to sit when they were mobile, where she scattered his ashes when he died in 2002 and where she would go to sit and talk to him in the years after his death.

I don't think they'd ever been churchgoers and I certainly don't know anything about her beliefs, but I know she drew comfort from being able to sit somewhere they'd shared when Edi was alive. Whether she thought he could hear what she was saying or just liked being able to sit there and imagine he could hear, I'll never know.

When she died a year ago, her ashes were scattered there, too, so they could be together.

It's quite poignant, really, and I completely approve of their ashes blending in the soil, even if it is based on fairy stories.


We were in Spain last week, a bunch of us, enjoying rather mixed weather, but lots of excellent food, drink and company. We deliberately went in the week before Easter (Semana Santa) because many Spanish cities have parades in which floats are carried through the streets, with bands playing and hords of people in bizarre pointy hats, like brightly coloured KKK followers. I plan to make a web page with a selection of the 200+ photographs and movies I took, but that's for another day! These three are just a taster.

6 of us, Jenny and me, Lorna and Richard, Peter and Julia, flew to Malaga, while Jane had booked herself a flamenco dancing course in Seville for the first few days. Her Spanish is better than mine, but even so she found it hard going, since the course was conducted entirely in Spanish. And there was only one other student, a French girl.

One (of many, I assume) thing Jane learned was to stamp harder - mas forza!

On the Monday Jenny and I abandoned the rest and went to visit our friends Pete and Fran who live nearby during the winter, returning that evening. We haven't seen them for years, so it was really good to catch up.

The next day we drove up to Cordoba, which is a little over 2 hours away. I was confident I knew the way to the hotel, but wouldn't you know it, one critical road I needed to drive along was closed off for roadworks, and that's where the nightmare started.

We drove around, using a totally inadequate map, repeatedly finding ourselves blocked by bollards in the road or being diverted by one-way roads in the wrong direction. After half an hour I gave the map to Peter and Julia, and let them lead. After quite a while, during which they asked the way at one point, astonishingly, we found the hotel. The off-street parking was 'interesting' getting both in and out, since the ramp down was seriously steep and the road quite narrow. Julia did an impressive bit of reverse parking, too.

The float in the picture above gives you an idea of the sort of thing they were carrying around the streets. Each is carried by about 50 men, with resting stages and replacement bearers every now and then. There's usually someone swinging an incense burner, so the smell of the orange blossom (gorgeous!) mingles with the smell of incense. Yummy!

These are very much family affairs, and of course, the Spaniards take their religion very seriously, so there are hords of kids, too, both in the parades and spectating. Personally, I don't think making children follow any particular religion should be allowed before they're old enough to make an informed decision, but that's not practical, of course.

So one thing I'd not seen before was children collecting wax from the candles the processors were carrying. Quite what the purpose of collecting a ball of 'holy wax' is, I have no idea, but lots of kids were doing it, and those carrying candles always cooperated.

To make life interesting, many of the streets the floats are carried down are barely wider than the floats themselves, and some parades have men with forked poles which they use to lift telephone wires out of the way as the float is carried underneath.

And the processions can go on until 02:30 in the morning! Fortunately none came near our room at that sort of time. The bands are loud, and I'd not have been a happy bunny if I'd been kept awake by somebody celebrating religion.

Jane joined us on Wednesday, having caught a train from Seville. She said the train was fast, clean and comfortable, but the security quite severe. Not really surprising.

This bridge in Cordoba is called the Roman Bridge, though in truth it fell derelict and was rebuilt about 500 years ago. Last time we were there, 3 years ago, it was swathed in scaffolding and canvas whilst undergoing a major restoration, and it does look magnificent. There's a great little museum at the end, well worth visiting and giving a terrific view from the top.

After a couple more nights on the coast we flew home, arriving quite exhausted, which is not what you expect from a week's holiday in Spain! Not entirely sure how that came about!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Artwork as Border Fence

I so wanted this to be a work of art, stretching across a remote piece of desert. It's so beautiful, so powerful, so almost natural, I think it's completely wonderful.

Except that it's not a work of art. It's part of the US/Mexican border, and it's the fence the US is building to keep illegal Mexican migrants out.

Read a fuller account at No Caption Needed. (Actually a caption is needed, since you don't immediately grasp what it is.)

Paper-thin loudspeakers

This looks like fun! People have been talking about really thin, flat loudspeakers for a while, but now someone is expecting to get a product on the market later this year. Hoorah!

I'm not sure about the bloke, though.

Hat tip: Science Daily

Ancient man cared for the disabled

This was a real surprise to me. I've long imagined that in older, tougher times, the seriously disabled would be left to die, yet here is clear evidence from 0.5Mya that a child with a mental disability from birth survived until it was between 5 and 8 years old.

Hat tip: Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science.