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?

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.

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.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Secret Life of Bees

I've just finished The Secret Life of Bees, a novel by Sue Monk Kid and I thoroughly recommend it. Set in the early 1960's in the deep south of the USA, in the early days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights act, the lead character is a young girl who's mother had died when she was very small and who's father seems to hate her. She is one weird kid but somehow, underneath, there's this thread of normality running through it that keeps it all together.

I liked it better and better as I read it, and in the end I was disappointed when I got to the end.

US Health Reform - the truth will out!

OK, you know all the fuss the Ridiclicans are making in the US about the Obama health reform package and claiming the NHS is a ghastly socialist mistake, etc? Well get this. I'll put it in its own paragraph for extra emphasis.

Some US health insurance companies deny women health insurance if they have been victims of domestic abuse.

Does that make you feel good about US health insurance companies? And when you consider the lies the US far right spread about the NHS, it's amazing their god doesn't just strike them dead! Come on, big sky daddy! Make with the lightning!

Here's a quote lifted from scienceblogs Corpus Callosum blog:

Insurance companies can reject applicants for health coverage for a variety of reasons that are particularly relevant to women. For example, it is still legal in nine states and D.C. for insurers to reject applicants who are survivors of domestic violence. Insurers can also reject women for coverage simply for having previously had a Cesarean section (C-section).
For sheer, outright hypocrisy, it's hard to beat the Republican Party.

Monday, 14 September 2009

No kidding, this really is excellent news!

Another thing I gleaned from the most recent Week magazine was this, quoted from Hürriyet (Istanbul):

Turkey is at last poised to make peace with its Kurdish minority, says Mehmet Ali Birand. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems finally to have decided to put an end to the 25-year insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - by peaceful means. The details are vague, but inter alia the government is said to be planning to dump most of the remaining restrictions on the Kurdish language, allowing it to be taught in schools and restoring Kurdish names of towns and villages - and to amend the constitution to respect Kurdish ethnicity. For sure, Erdogan faces big obstacles. Negotiations with the PKK could be sabotaged by right-wing nationalists and by rebel die-hards. Even among the liberals there's the usual hand-wringing: "the time isn't right", "too dangerous", and so on. But what choice do we have? Exactly when is the right time to stop the bloodshed? Think of what we'll gain: an end to terror attacks, funerals and crying mothers; billions saved on military spending, fewer tensions with Iraq - and thus fewer tensions with the West over our human rights abuses. It may take time, but it's got to happen. So why not now?

Hoorah for Recep Erdogan, even if I can't spell his name right, not knowing how to create a g with a moon above it! Our IRA problems are not by any means solved, but we're living in a completely different world from the one we were in before we ignored that pinnacle of stupidity, Paisley, and actually started actually talking to the people who disagreed with us. If this takes off, Turkey is on track to turn into a normal developed country, and that's worth several big cheers!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Last night of the proms

This is Alison Balsom, winner of the Brass section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition a couple of years ago and daughter of a friend of ours here in sunny Royston. We've known Alison since she was about 12, although we've not seen much of her since they moved away from just over the road to the other side of Royston.

Last night, Jenny and I decided we'd have another last barbie of the year, and as it was the last night of the Proms, we put the dining room TV on and opened the doors through to the conservatory, then barbecued just outside the conservatory.

We were astonished and delighted to hear Clive Anderson announce that Alison would be playing, and entranced by the music. She is not only very beautiful, as you can see, but plays exceptionally well. Well that's no surprise, is it? You don't get to solo on the Last Night of the Proms without being something really special.

And she knows us! Hah! Fan-bloody-tastic!

Nice frock, too!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Wish I'd thought of this!

This is lifted verbatim from The Week magazine, dated 5th September, 2009.

An atheist group in the US is cashing in on the popular notion of the Rapture - the idea that pious Christians will be carried up to heaven in a sudden swoop, leaving unbelievers on Earth to endure the anti-Christ's seven-year reign. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets is offering the services of a group of certified sinners and blasphemers, who will take care of the dogs and cats left behind on Earth, in return for a small fee.
So it's not just the fundamentalist religious wingnuts who can take callous advantage of the gullible then! Hehehe! Classic!

I recommend The Week very highly, as it's a digest of all the week's news, without any obvious bias. Incidentally, while looking for the magazine's website I came across a similar-looking American publication, also called The Week. Whether these are sister publications or entirely independent is unclear at the moment.

Not for the squeemish!

This is just astonishing, though in retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised that it's a crustacean; a huge proportion of all crustacea are parasites. This is, however, quite new to me. And thanks to PZ for posting about it here.

According to Wikipedia this is Cymothoa exigua which is an isopod (ie related to woodlice, etc.) It creeps in through the fish's gills and attaches itself to the base of the tongue, where it extracts blood using the front three pairs of legs. I'm having a hard time accepting that last bit, but don't have time to research it.

Anyhow, with a reduced blood supply, the tongue eventually withers away leaving the isopod in its place. Strangely, the fish manages to use the parasite in just the same way it used to use its tongue, so is presumably not much worse off than before.

Which suggests this relationship has been around for a very long time indeed.

I don't know what kind of fish that is, with the very human-like incisors, but one of the comments on Pharyngula suggested it might be a sheep's head fish. I can find nothing in Wikipedia about that.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but the Guardian has run a review by Richard Fortey of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth and I found this video on a different blog. I haven't even read the Guardian review yet, as I won't have time until later. Sounds as though Richard Fortey didn't find it entirely perfect. I'll be interested to read what he says.

Atheist cat finds your prayer cute....

I got this from Greg Laden, but I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


I haven't picked any tomatoes since the weekend, so now seemed a good time. As you can see, there's a decent bowlful. They're Gardener's Delight, a flavoursome cherry tomato. I've got them in grow-bags in the greenhouse for the first time, as last year and the year before I lost most of the crop to blight. Sounds like it was a good job I did so, as I gather this year is just as bad.

However, if any of you gardeners out there knows what's causing the damage to the handful in the second photo, I'd be glad to know.

I'm wondering if it's scorching; maybe they got wet and then the hot sun was focused by the liquid and burned them. We have had some pretty hot sun this year, albeit only when we're not looking. (Nearly said only at night!)

Anachronous posting

I should have posted about this first thing this morning, but actually I was rather busy. Then I forgot about it, so it's out of sequence. But hey.

When I was about half-way to work this morning I suddenly thought "This is far too glorious a morning not to take some time enjoying it!" So at the next opportunity, I turned left and rode my motorbike to work through some local villages instead of straight along the A-road to the motorway.

It didn't add more than about 10 minutes to the journey time, and to be truthful, the bike (a big, touring Honda like this only red) is not best suited to the narrow, winding lanes I was following, but the sun was shining and it was wonderful just pootling quietly through the countryside.

Ahhh, bliss!

Daily Telegraph - Bwahahahahahahahahah!

This is seriously funny. The Torygraph has published an article on their website, supposedly reviewing a film about Darwin's private life, called Creation:

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel, focuses on Darwin’s private life as he struggles to accept his daughter’s death and is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own “growing belief in a world where God has no place,” according to the film’s synopsis.
To be honest, I only skimmed the article, knowing pretty much what to expect, because my attention had been directed to it by PZ Myers. Not least, a pathetically weak list of arguments to support creationism. Actually, the list of arguments demonstrating the truth of evolution were pretty pathetic, too.

But the best, was the comments. Take a little time to read the comments. They are magnificent!
Congratulations to the Telegraph for its new policy. Writing articles in the style of 'The Onion' is a big change in direction but it does allow us to laugh at hilarious jokes like the 'five best arguments for creationism' you've included here.
Wait a second....You were joking weren't you?
Oh dear.

Adnan Oktar / Harun Yahya

If you've half an hour to spare, take a look at this exposé of Adnan Oktar. Oktar is a fundamentalist muslim from Turkey who has distributed large numbers of a book called the Atlas of Creation, which is full of junk science claiming to prove that evolution doesn't happen. It's rubbish, of course, but beautifully presented.

He seems to be running a cult, equivalent to Scientology and a range of others, which essentially provides him with sex, power and money taken from the disciples and their families.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Predatory great tits!

Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it, but no, researchers in Hungary have found that when times get tough, the local great tit population is quite likely to go into a cave system and eat hibernating pipistrelle bats.

You can see the story reported by the Beeb here

A wonderful book!

I've just finished Nick Lane's Life Ascending, subtitled The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution and it's completely brilliant. It should be compulsory reading! I'm going to take 5 minutes to force a little bit of it on you!

The last chapter is about ageing and death, but far from being gruesome, it becomes interesting when you realise he's distinguishing between the process of getting old and the diseases you might suffer as a result. He contends that we probably won't cure the diseases of ageing, like alzheimers or cancer, but we might well be able to switch a gene (a proportion of Japanese have this) which makes us age more slowly and thus be less susceptible to the diseases of ageing. Too late for some of us, of course!

Here is a bit about free-radicals and antioxidants. The theory that free-radicals might be a bad thing was proposed in the 1950s, but since then we've discovered that actually, free-radicals are part of a closely-controlled process within the cells. This came as a big surprise to me, as I'd actually only heard of free-radicals being harmful.

They work in much the same way that smoke activates a fire alarm. Rather than attacking proteins and DNA at random, free-radicals activate or disable a few key signalling proteins, which in turn regulate the activity of hundreds of proteins and genes.

We now know that free radicals are central to cell physiology, so we can begin to see why antioxidants (which mop up free radicals) do as much harm as good.

And further down
Quashing free-radical signals is equivalent to switching off the fire alarm. To stop this from happening, antioxidant levels in the blood are strictly controlled within tight limits. Large doses of antioxidants are simply excreted or not absorbed in the first place.

Completely misled by wishful thinking!

This photo, published by Chris Nedin on his Ediacaran blog, completely misled me. I had to actually read the text before realising what it really was. If you click the photo, it'll open full size.

Years ago I used to accompany Jenny on marine biology field courses in Pembroke, west coast of Wales, run by the University of Cambridge Zoology Department, and I fell completely in love with marine worms. See here for an example.

So my immediate reaction to this picture was Wow! What an enormous worm! The lens cap must be 5 cm across, so the worm is gigantic! Then I remembered that these worms are all marine, and this did look like dry river bed. Hmmm. Unlikely to be dry, could it be such shallow, clear water that I can't actually see the water? But then the lens cap would float away. And in any case, they're marine worms, not fresh water.

Finally, I read the words. It's not a worm at all. It's a group of hairy processionary caterpillars, each following the one in front so closely that if you don't actually look, you imagine it's one long animal.

But it's not just the way the caterpillars process that misled me. It's also the fact that I just love polychaete (poly = many, chaete = bristle, as opposed to oligochaete: oligo = few, as in earthworm) worms, and I just wanted them to be a worm, so of course, in my mind, they were!

So thank you, Chris. Fantastic photo, and so cute to have my own brain lead me down completely the wrong trail!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Projects that spiral out of control!

You know how things can start getting out of hand? You start something, then you have another idea, so that gets incorporated, then another, and so on, until you've committed yourself to a massive project which is going to take forever to complete. Well I seem to be well down that road!

Several months ago I started digging out lily of the valley from the right-hand end of the rockery you can't really see in this picture. I had to move several of the rocks to do that properly, and then realised that it would be a good time to have a go at sorting out the cascade.

This sounds so familiar, I suspect I blogged about it at the time.

The cascade consisted of a small cement bowl at the top, pouring it's water down the front of a piece of waterworn limestone into another cement bowl which in turn poured the water over another waterworn limestone block into the pond. I know, I know, it's a mortal sin to use limestone pavement for your rockery, but we didn't know about the damage being done when we bought it.

Sadly, the cement bowls quickly cracked away from the limestone, so every time we switched the pump on, we were effectively pumping the pond dry.

The answer, we'd learned after several years, is to lay some pond liner on the soil beneath where the cascade is to be, so that any water leaking out is caught and channelled back to the pond.

I duly lifted the rocks, being very careful not to injure my back, (slipped a disc in 1998 - the most pain I've ever experienced and not to be recommended) and laid a triple layer of pond liner, but then I simply could not get the bottom rock to seat properly. It looks OK, but if you walk on it, which you need to occasionally, it moves. Not good enough.

Finally I decided I'd have to get a man in. A couple of hefty landscape gardeners would no doubt fix it in a day or two, so I called in the professionals. However, by the time the man actually came to look at the job, I'd decided I'd have them put the rest of the rockery back as well.

Then while he was here, I asked him to quote for the blue tree. This is a cypress, and we love it, but it's very close to a silver birch, and the branches of the birch nearest the blue cypress are definitely not happy. We think the cypress is exuding a toxic gas which is killing the birch.

We don't want to get rid of it entirely, so the plan now is to cut off all the young wood, to just leave the framework of branches. Conifers don't grow away from old wood, so this will kill it, but it'll still look pretty interesting, as I hope you can see from the photo.

I started the process, but then found myself having to climb higher up the ladder than I really wanted to go, so guess what - our landscape gardener will quote for cutting the tree back too!

And then at the weekend, before the quotes had arrived, I realised something about the pond. We put it in over 20 years ago and lined it with PVC pond liner which had a design life of 10 years. If we have the cascade redone, sod's law says the pond liner will fail a few months later, requiring the whole lot to be lifted again. Oh dear, here we go again!

Today he was back to quote for relining the pond. While he's at it, he'll sort out the ledge that runs around the curved side, so we've got somewhere good to put marginal plants in pots, and he'll also deepen it a bit, though I'm not sure why. Another couple of days' worth of effort.

I think this is going to be expensive. Fortunately, he's talking about doing the actual work in November, so we've a couple of months to save up a bit. And I really must stop thinking about this, or I'll come up with something else to have him do!

Sunday, 6 September 2009


Last night we had what will probably turn out to be our last barbecue of the year. It was lovely to have the chance, but we had to bring the whole evening forward by about half an hour so as to get the cooking all done before it got dark. And although dry, it was quite windy, so we brought the barbecue down to the paved area immediately behind the house and sat and ate in the conservatory.

For the hell of it, I brought my African figurine out to join us, forgetting that the Cat Goddess was awake. Not sure how they will have got on in such close proximity. (This is a joke, in case you haven't cottoned on; one is a piece of wood and the other is stoneware, so the concept of self-awareness is irrelevant!)

Anyhow, for once we reduced the amount we were barbecuing before we started, so actually managed to eat almost everything.

We started with scallop and mushroom kebabs, which were simply wonderful, then prawn kebabs which Jenny had marinated in oil with chillies, followed by salmon marinated with herbs, courgette and tomato kebabs, big open mushrooms with a slice of St Augur melted in and a baked potato.

Pudding would have been figs with St Augur, but by then we were full. As I say, it's unusual for us to get even this far, and a good job the corn on the cob went into the freezer!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Healthcare in the USA

The other day I wrote to a US newspaper which had printed and article which so distorted the view of our NHS as to make it unrecognisable. No reply, of course. Didn't expect one. I like this video clip, too. Hat tip: Greg Laden.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Light at the end of the tunnel

The past couple of weeks have been pretty hard work. Juggling rehearsals and services with visits to my mother while we were in Gloucester really took it out of me and emotionally I was much closer to losing it than I'd imagined. Things were looking promising, although the care package which had been set up for her wasn't scheduled to kick in until 2nd September, and although my younger brother had arranged a timetable of folks to visit, there was a big gap.

No sooner had I got back to work than it became obvious that the only person available to fill that gap was me. Mum had phoned early last Wednesday morning to say she thought she'd heard people downstairs during the night. I phoned the care person due to call that morning, and hit jackpot.

Sue Jones, community matron, took it all in and at the end of our conversation said she'd try to fix up some interim carers to visit mum from the weekend through to the Wednesday, which is what she did and they are an absolute godsend. Sue Jones, superstar, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

The yellow folder is the one left by Interim Care to keep track of mum's treatment, and it says Please do not throw away because the permanent care folks left a red folder a couple of weeks ago, and mum thought the contents were unreasonably personal and intrusive, and in any case the spelling was poor, so she threw it away. When Julia and I went down during the Gloucester week we searched high and low for it, as we knew it should be there.

So I went down on Thursday and stayed until Saturday morning. I was due to leave at about 9 in the morning, but then mum woke me in the middle of the night having taken a fall while on the way to the loo. She'd not broken anything and once I'd set her on her feet was able to walk to loo and back OK, so I wasn't greatly worried. However, she then woke me at 6.30 complaining of a very painful bump which had developed on her hip.

I took a look and it was the size of half a cricket ball. I phoned the out of hours medical services and the doctor, who sounded as tired as I was, agreed she probably hadn't broken anything, but someone should take a look, so put her on the list for a visit. After hanging around while mum went to the loo again, I went back to bed, but sleep was elusive.

The medics finally arrived at 11.45 and called the bump a haematoma, which just means a blood vessel had broken and bled into whatever tissue it ran through. In this case, probably muscle or subcutaneous fat. Anyway, the actual clot was rather smaller than a golf ball, although the overall swelling was much larger than that. The nurse hurt her a lot while investigating, but I think that was probably inevitable. They prescribed cocodomol and ice packs and I'm glad to say mum reported the pain much reduced when I spoke to her on Sunday.

By the time I got home at 3 on Saturday afternoon, I was completely wacked. We were supposed to be singing with our occasional choir, called Choir 18, in Bury St Edmunds cathedral, but I'd have been completely crap, just from exhaustion. Fortunately Jenny had had the presence of mind to send the conductor an email warning him of our likely absence, and he was able to sort it out OK.

So instead of eating in Maison Bleue and staying at the Chantry Hotel before singing Eucharist, Mattins and Evensong, we had a delicious roast chicken accompanied by quite a lot of Puilly Fuisse and Chablis before retiring early.

Sunday and Monday I pretty much just pottered, but I'm still worn out. Fortunately my boss is pretty tolerant, so even though I didn't actually do much today, he said nothing. Thank you, David!

While pottering yesterday, I decided to take a look at the green roof on my shed, to see what sort of progress it was making. Click here to see how it was when first planted up in June. The two photo's were taken from opposite corners, and the rock has gone, but you can still get an impression.

Good job I got up there, as there were quite a few weeds which needed to be pulled out. But I'm impressed by how well everything's settled in, and a bit concerned that at least one plant is likely to take the whole bed over, which is not part of the plan. That's the one furthest away to the left in this photo, and second up from the bottom left in the old pic. It's gone from about 15cm to 50cm in diameter! Yikes!

Also unexpected was a night-scented stock, growing vigorously in the far right corner. Useless, of course, as you can't get close enough to smell it without a ladder, but interesting that it's growing there. No idea how the seed got there, of course.

And now it is hammering down with rain, so I think I'll drive up to the station and collect Jenny, rather than make her walk home in the wet.