Monday, 30 November 2009

Hammerhead sharks and stereo vision

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

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

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Spectacular flower

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

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

Thursday, 26 November 2009

21st Century ouija board

Hat tip: PZ Myers

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Good tidings for the festive season!

Hat tip: Greg Laden

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Great Richard Dawkins TED talk

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

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

150th Anniversary of the Origin of Species

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

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

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

Monday, 23 November 2009

Not exaggerating either!

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

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

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

Dawkins at Christmas Hoorah!

Yeah well, you might expect me to like this!

Successful experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Descartes' Bones

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

Cool singing; shame it's an advertisement

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

Diet Coke and Mentos

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

Friday, 20 November 2009

Pretty autumn pics

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Quite a good day

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Entertaining phone conversation

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

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

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

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

This is funny!

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

Monday, 16 November 2009

No, I've not vanished into thin air

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Carl Sagan and the Googolplex

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

Hat tip: Greg Laden

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A brilliant evening of contemporary dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 November 2009

Continental drift in action

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

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

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

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

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

Babies cry in mother tongue

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

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

A new gem is on its way

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

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

Fantastic fireworks!

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 November 2009

MMR vaccination protects against autism!

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

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


Sunday, 1 November 2009

Jenny's Birthday

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

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

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

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

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