Tuesday, 30 June 2009

On being more keyboardy

Many thanks to Greg Laden for this post, in which he talks about keyboard shortcuts that work in your browser. I'm sure many of us know many of these, but there were several that were new to me, so I suggest you read his post.

Frinstance, I know that Control/+ and Control/- zoom in and out, that Control/T opens a new tab in Firefox, that Control/F opens a find box bottom left. I didn't know about F11 to 'see more real estate' (F11 again to get all your menus and toolbars back!) or Control/L to jump to the URL address bar.

Oh yes, and not widely known is that Windows/D gets you back to the Windows Desktop. That won't work on a Mac, of course, the Windows key being the one with the Windows logo, sitting between Control and Alt on your left. But there may be an equivalent.

And I've just discovered, quite by accident, that on my PC here at work, Control/Alt/Right Arrow lays the display on its right-hand side, Control/Alt/Left Arrow lays it on its left and Control/Alt/Up sets it right way up again. But I think that depends also on video drivers and whatnot, so might not work for you.

Edit: sadly, Control/Alt/Arrow doesn't work on my home PC :(

Glastonbury pictures

My ex-boss Gavin, bass player in the Broken Family Band, sent around a link to a set of 33 pictures of this year's Glastonbury Festival, and I thought I'd post the link myself. BFB did play there this year, but I haven't seen any pics yet.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Keeping myself busy on Sunday

So Jenny sloped off to a conference in Glasgow on Saturday morning, and returns tomorrow evening. I had things like shopping and jewellery making to do, as I went to a friend's 60th birthday Ceilidh in the evening and I'd finally had an idea for a piece of silver jewellery I could make her. It's a pendant but sadly, I found I didn't have the length of fine silver chain I'd imagined, so I've ordered that, but Cyn won't get her presie for a few days yet. I'll post a photo when I've finished it.

Yesterday, to help with the hangover, I got on with the cascade. This is the cascade, as it looks now. I didn't have the wit to photograph it beforehand.
I built it in the late 1980's and it consisted of a cast cement bowl at the top, maybe 50cm in diameter, quite shallow, filled with rounded pebbles. That poured over a waterworn Westmorland limestone rock (I know, I know, it's bad to use real limestone pavement, but I didn't know that then!) into a second, bigger cement pool, which in turn poured over a second Westmorland limestone rock with a satisfying groove in it. That's the grooved rock you can see there.

And it worked, and looked and sounded very satisfying, with one, trivial problem. The cement and the rock have different coefficients of expansion, so as they grow and shrink with temperature, naturally, they crack apart. Pump water over a cascade where the bits don't actually join up properly, and you fairly swiftly empty the pond!

Ages ago, I worked out the solution, but the sizes of the rocks concerned meant I've been very reluctant to actually get on and do it. What you do, as must be obvious by now, is take up the whole shebang and lay pond liner beneath where the cascade is to go, then put it all back. That way, any water that leaks through the cracks just gets carried to the pond anyway.

You seen the size of those rocks? That bottom, grooved one is 70 cm x 40 cm x 30 cm deep. To get it out, I used a long pole and some concrete paving blocks. Having levered the rock up a bit, I used another stick to push a paving block under it. Then balanced another paving block ready, levered the rock up some more and shoved the fresh block under. I knew that without doing something like that, I was lining myself up for back surgery, and I'm not keen on that. (If you want to see a nasty back injury, visit Ziggi, who, with one of her horses, was hit by a Landrover that didn't stop (scum is too good a word!), earlier this year.)

Anyhow, the key thing was to get the bottom rock in place, because that was the one that required me to borrow 4 scaffolding planks from my mate Bill, to put over the pond the cascade trickles into, and I wanted to finish with them yesterday so he could pick them up some time during this week.

There was an alternative to planks; the pond is 60 or 70 cm deep at that point, of which the bottom 30 cm (min) is stinky black mud, dead fish and dead frogs, accumulated over the past 20 years. Provided I wore no shoes, to avoid damaging the 20 year old pond liner, I could have stood in the pond while working .... nope, I don't think so!

So whenever we finally get around to finishing this project off, I'll trim back the surplus black liner, so it's pretty well invisible and we'll have a pretty cascade that doesn't leak. Sounds like time to move house to me!

What really happened on the moon...

More funniness, this time thanks to Greg Laden.

Gotta go - helicopter coming!

Good news from Oop North!

This really is good news. The BBC news website is reporting that adult sea lampreys have been found in the River Wear and that this indicates the river is really clean.

Fisheries officer Paul Frear said: "We were thrilled to discover lampreys back in the River Wear, as these rare blood-suckers show us that the water quality in the river is very high.

"Lampreys are extremely selective with their spawning sites and will only nest where the water quality is optimal."

That's wonderful news! Not so great if you're a Wear trout, of course!

Sunday, 28 June 2009


You'll be amazed to learn that I think this American comedian is really funny. There's a clue in the title text.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A distressing observation

I'm reading an interesting, but somewhat depressing book called Ancestral Roots by Timothy Clack (ISBN 978-0-230-20182-8). Although obviously a relative, he's no-one I've ever heard of before, so not a close relative. He's a lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford University, and the book, so far, is about human evolution and how it's shaped the way we are.

In the middle of a rather difficult chapter, in which I frequently had to go back and re-read paragraphs, I came across this, in a section about Rhesus monkeys:

The cyclical perpetuation of poor mothering and habitual aggression is found not only in humans, but also in monkeys. As one primate study noted, poorly mothered mothers 'displayed more aggression as well as indifference toward their infants than did normally raised subjects...'

So, a poorly-mothered female, subject to abuse and violence as an infant, will raise her own children similarly badly, thus perpetuating the misery. You have to hope that Social Services are aware of this and taking steps to counteract it, but in light of some of the horror stories the press regale us with, you could be forgiven for harbouring doubts.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Keeping Libel Laws out of Science

Please visit the Sense About Science website, read about why it's so important and sign the petition.

This really is important!


Interesting but disappointing

We went to Robinson College last night where there was a collaborative project involving music, readings and contemporary dance, all based around Danté's Divine Comedy. I think it was essentially driven by the Italian faculty, with a small band of musicians and a group of dancers. We were really looking forward to it, having misread the publicity and thought it was entirely dance.

Even so, when we saw the programme we were sure we were in for a great evening, and it's true that some bits really were excellent, but sadly, much of the dance, particularly in the first half, was uninspiring, to say the least, and we thought the readings could have been done better, with more expression.

Jenny said that much of the music was of the sort she thought composers had stopped writing 50 years ago on the grounds that nobody wanted to listen to that sort of stuff. It was hard not to agree. It made me think the composer had written a nice, harmonious chord and then decided to flatten the cello note by a semitone just to make it sound more 'interesting'.

Worse was the fact that the seating in the auditorium, where we were for the first half, was not tiered, so those of us not in the front couple of rows missed a lot of the action. I thought it was an interesting idea to stage the two halves in different venues, though it didn't entirely work for us on this occasion.

The second half was in the college chapel, which does have tiered seating, and we enjoyed it much more as a result. The choreography was better and the last dance sequence in particular, was brilliant. 6 girls danced without music of any sort, the only sound, apart from the patter of their feet on the floor, being provided by the girls themselves exhaling loudly, either all together or in sequence. With apologies for the pun, it was inspired.

So not a disaster, but not something we're likely to repeat.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Your brain treats tools as temporary body parts

This is a really interesting concept. Apparently when you use a tool, be it a hammer or a knife or whatever, your brain quickly starts to treat it as though it were actually a part of your body. Ed Yong reports this at his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.

According to some psychologists, our brains rely on a mental representation of our bodies called the "body schema", which allows us to coordinate our various parts and to interact with the world around us. Now, Lucilla Cardinali from INSERM, France has found that we incorporate tools into this mental plan after using them for just a few minutes. It's confirmation of an idea that has been kicking around for almost a century.

She recruited 14 volunteers and asked them to grab a block in the middle of a table, that was always the same distance away. Then, they had to repeat the same actions with a grabber - a long, mechanical lever tipped with a two-fingered "hand" - and then a third time, with their own hand again.
And later...
But the clearest evidence for Cardinali's theory came from a final experiment, where she touched the volunteers on their wrist, elbow or middle finger and asked them to use their opposite index finger to point directly above the point of contact. This simple request showed that after using the grabber, the volunteers overestimated the length of their arm.
Really neat. I wonder how far you can extend it. Think about the way we just know exactly how big the car is, where the nearside is, etc. It's not hard to think up examples that match the description. When I carve a piece of wood or stone, I don't think about where the end of the chisel is, to make sure I hit it squarely with the mallet; I know where the end of the chisel is. I've just never asked myself exactly how I know that! Yes, I know I occasionally reverse into another car, but I know pretty well where the back is, and the bash is an error, not a misunderstanding.

Edit: Here's another example: When I was a student, I worked for the Post Office at Christmas, delivering mail. One year, I was doing parcels, rather than letters. There were three of us, two students and one coach driver, and we went out in his coach, delivering parcels.

From a speed perspective, it made much more sense for all three to deliver the parcels, and whoever got back to the coach first, drove it on to the next stopping point. Completely illegal, of course. No license, no insurance, blah blah. Fortunately, it was a long time ago. I really wouldn't do it today.

The first time I drove the coach, I stayed much to close in to the nearside kerb, since my internal schema had me driving a much narrower vehicle than I really was. Of course, the driver quickly told me to move further out. I only needed to be told once. As soon as I realised I needed to think about that aspect, I did so, and never drove too close again. And interestingly, have never had a problem with a wider vehicle since.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

A big 'moment' on the way to work

As I rode to work on my motorbike this morning, I sneered at a man in a Toyota Prius when he made a poorly-judged manoeuvre and nearly suffered a head-on collision. Still full of my own superiority, I very nearly crashed myself a few minutes later!

In his case he overtook a van on the approach to a junction with a minor road on the right, and only just had enough space to get back onto his own side of the road when a car pulled out of the junction. Even as he pulled out I thought "That's not a good place to overtake!" and felt dead smug when he found himself in trouble.

My own piece of stupidity came a few miles further on. There's a crest where the road curves slightly to the left, and a nice swoopy piece of road following it, but there's also a good spot for a police radar van to hide at the bottom of the hill, where he can get a perfect bead on everything coming over the hill.

We crested the rise and I checked carefully for a radar van, before pulling out to overtake, but completely failed to see a silver car coming in the opposite direction. I guess I was so focussed on looking for the cops I simply didn't check the more immediate danger properly.

Seeing the hazard at the last minute, I grabbed a big handful of front brake and the bike twitched so violently from side to side for an instant I was convinced I was going to come off. Somehow, (complete luck - no skill involved at all!) I regained control, but was still beside the Prius.

Fortunately, the silver car pulled right over and made enough space for the three of us to pass safely.

I'm still shaking! What a dork! I tell you, it's not the motorbikes that are dangerous, it's the idiots in charge of them!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Green roof

I realise now that it's not actually finished, since I always planned to nail thin laths over the top of the black pond-liner where it overlaps the tops of the sides of the bed, and I've yet to get hold of those.

It does look rather sparsely planted, but at least some of these will spread once they're established, so it won't always look quite so desert-like.

And I hope the birds enjoy it, since no-one else can see it! It is a rather weird thing to do, I suppose, to make a bed no-one can see. On a par with throwing carvings into the sea, I'd say.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Alternative Medicine doesn't work!

A series of US government-funded studies over the past 10 years and costing $2.5 billion have provided ample evidence of what we suspected all along - virtually none of these 'alternative therapies' actually work. This msnbc article has all the dirt.

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.
As the man said, alternative medicine that's been shown to work is called medicine!

The Simon Singh Affair

Nature magazine has weighed in on the appalling Simon Singh affair. (In case you're new here, Simon Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association because he wrote in the Guardian that they were promoting bogus treatments for children with asthma, colic, etc.)

There seems to be a significant developing momentum to get the libel laws changed. Let's hope so. I wonder what the errant judge is thinking right now.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Just for a laugh

Someone posted a request that folks post pictures of themselves in the 70's and 80's. Well I don't have too many of those, and in any case, the purpose of the request seemed to be more to get people to post pictures of when they were kiddies, so I offer this.....

This is my older brother Peter, in the background, and me looking at the camera, in 1952 when I was 3. My father was on a teachers' exchange, teaching in Edinburgh for a year, while the Scottish teacher taught in his place in Johannesburg.

I remember little of this time, of course, apart from looking backwards between my parted legs, to frighten away wolves. Worked, too; didn't see one!

During the holidays we toured on, get this, a tandem bicycle with a 2-child sidecar! There can't have been any traffic at all on the roads. You simply couldn't do that these days!

Evolution: Education and Outreach

So I was perusing the Pharyngula blog, the way I do, and read his comments on the latest edition (I think) of Evolution: Education and Outreach. I found what he said interesting enough to follow the link to the journal, and lo and behold, discovered that Jenny features in it. If you scroll down a bit, you'll see she's there doing her thing about the fish-tetrapod transition. Click the title to read an abstract, or the PDF or HTML links to get the whole article. I found it all an easy read, but then, I am pretty familiar with both the material and Jenny's style, so I would.

Anyhow, it made me feel really smug that she's up there with the great and the good!

At home, alone

This, rather anaemic-looking piece of chicken is cooked according to a Nigella Lawson recipe. She categorises it as TV Dinner, because it takes no time at all to cook, but I can tell you it belies its appearance and is totally scrummy!

Chicken with Chorizo and Cannellini
500 ml chicken stock (actually, you can get away with much less!)
1 chicken breast
100gm fresh kale, torn up into smallish pieces
olive oil
100gm chorizo, sliced, then chopped.
400gm tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
smoked sweet paprika
Bring the stock to the boil, gently lower in the chicken and poach gently for 10 mins. If you've skimped on the stock, you'll want to turn the chicken over half way through.
Cook the kale in boiling water for 5 mins or until tender.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the chorizo for a bit, then add the cannellini beans. As the fat oozes from the sausage it colours and flavours the beans, which is good! I like to add a bit of the chicken stock towards the end to give the whole thing some juice.

When the chorizo and beans are hot, tip them into a pasta bowl, then drain the kale and dump some on the beans, then stick the chicken on top of that. Dust with the paprika. Yum!

The wine, in case you're wondering, is a rather nice dry muscat from Pays d'Oc, which I bought from Cambridge Wine.

Actually, those who know me personally will have spotted that this was a rather ambitious dinner, and yes, I had to leave some of the beans! Also, I didn't read the bit about chopping the chorizo after slicing. It doesn't get much cooking, so was rather hard going, but chopping it smaller would have fixed that.

And the excuse is that Jenny is at some annual Darwin dinner or other.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Chiropracters scrambling to cover their tracks

I don't have time to do a personal post right now, so refer you directly to the Quackometer blog. Chiropracters are panicking and the governing body, whatever they're called, is urging them all to shut down their websites and remove all literature claiming they can treat colic, asthma, earache, etc, etc.

I have to say, this sounds like an admission of guilt to me. Yay for science!!!!!!

Monday, 8 June 2009

Green Roof

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was planning to put a green roof onto the end of my shed, but that it had been too hot and I felt I was risking damaging the new roofing felt I'd just laid. Or maybe I didn't get around to blogging about that.

Well anyway, yesterday there was a big gap in the rain, from 11am to 5pm, so I leapt at the chance and got it almost finished.
Mostly the surface is covered with a gravel mulch, to stop the compost blowing away and hopefully reduce the rate of water loss. I have no idea whether all the plants will survive, though some undoubtedly will. Once we've worked out what is happy up there, we'll encourage those.

The unmulched bit is just because it had been raining quite heavily and what you can't see is that above the left-hand edge is a plum tree. I didn't much fancy clambering about under that and getting soaked, so left the final planting and mulching until another day. I also plan to cut the tree back a bit to improve the plants' chances.

The planks making up the bed are tannelised, so shouldn't rot. Then I put some other boards down flat on top of the existing roof to spread the load a bit, pvc pond liner to line the whole thing, with the lowermost edge hanging below the lower defining plank, to allow water to drain out.

Then a layer of old towelss and some torn up trousers, to soak up water, and filled it with a mixture of general purpose potting compost, vermiculite and perlite, trying to minimise the overall weight of the bed.

The design is based on what I discovered by googling for 'green roof' so I didn't make it up entirely, and you could do one yourself if you felt like it.

Hopefully it will look beautiful for years to come. I did think about staining the wood, but it'll go silvery-grey in a year or two's time, and that's nicer than any stain, I reckon.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Carpet Fitter

A friend sent me this; it's too good not to share!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sex with Ducks - oh yes!

I don't need to say anything about this. It's self-explanatory and just perfect! Hat tip: Greg Laden.

Of course, you do know that male ruddy (I think) duck has the highest penis to body-length ratio of any vertebrate? (Barnacles have the absolute highest ratio, Darwin discovered!) Maybe Pat Robertson was just jealous.

Digital Cuttlefish

I like the Digital Cuttlefish's blog banner so much I downloaded it and stuck it up here for you to see.

I particularly like the little poem. If you click the image it'll take you to the blog.

PZ Myers posted a link to it because there's a poem there celebrating the fact that New Hampshire has passed all the laws necessary to legalise same-sex marriage. And hoorah to that, I say!

The Guardian backs Simon Singh

This Guardian article gives you all the info you need. Simon Singh is the journalist who had the temerity to suggest that chiropractic treatment for ear infections , amongst other things, was bogus and criticised the British Chiropractic Association for happily promoting them.

Astonishingly, a British judge has concluded that he does have a case to answer, so he's being sued by the BCA for libel.

I do no more than refer you to the poem in my previous post. Chiropractic treatment is, according to Wikipedia, generally regarded as alternative medicine. To quote Tim Minchin: alternative medicine that has been shown to work is called....medicine.

I wonder how you contribute towards his legal costs....behold, if you click the Keep Libel Laws out of Science button top right, it'll take you to the Sense About Science site where there is a Donate link. Hoorah!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

This is one brilliant poem.

And very funny, too! There's no video, just audio, so close your eyes, open your minds and revel in it. It's 9 minutes of joy; so many of the things you always want to say but never think of until the moment has passed!

I found it on the James Randi Education Foundation, where he was saying the poet and comic, Tim Minchin will be in London for the TAM London conference, 3-4 October.

It's a sign, it's a sign!

This crop marking is just soooooo cool! And it's in the UK, so we're best at something after all! No idea where PZ Myers got it.