So we spent all day in the garden, and I'm knackered, but after we'd put all the tools away and cleared up and made sure the new plants we'd bought would be OK until we plant them next weekend, we were sitting on the patio with a nice bottle of chilled white.
First, we watched 4 of the blue tit brood as they explored the cascade, not 3 metres from us, drinking the water and eventually bathing in it. This just never happens at any other time of year, as the birds very quickly either get eaten or learn to be much more frightened of anything that might harm them.
Then I thought I'd take a photograph of this rose, which is called Zephirine Drouin. We planted it quite a few years ago now, but it never really thrived. Then last year it looked a bit more perky, and this year is its best yet.
It's heavily scented, which is one of the reasons we bought it. We realised today that it can't be a coincidence that we dug everything out of the bed it's in a couple of years ago, manured and fertilised it quite thoroughly, then planted everything again. Actually, that's not quite true, as we didn't dig the rose out, just almost everything else.
So clearly the soil improvement is a hit with ZD!
Sunday, 31 May 2009
So we spent all day in the garden, and I'm knackered, but after we'd put all the tools away and cleared up and made sure the new plants we'd bought would be OK until we plant them next weekend, we were sitting on the patio with a nice bottle of chilled white.
Posted by Rob Clack at 19:32
We didn't have any blue tits nesting in our garden this year, but there evidently was a family around because they fledged a few days ago, and we've seen at least half a dozen in the garden. They know no fear, of course.
So Jen and I were sitting on the patio with a cup of coffee just now, enjoying the sunshine. I could hear goldfish slurping at the weed around the edge of the pond, and thought it was unusually loud and persistent, but it was only when the cat started taking an interest that I looked up.
'Twas not a goldfish, but a blue tit chick which had fallen in the pond. It was caught up in blanket weed, which was why it hadn't drowned, but equally, it was completely soaked. I retrieved it from the cat before it suffered any injury and tried to put it in a bush, but it panicked and tried to fly away. With sodden feathers, it couldn't fly and soon ended up on the ground.
Several times I had to pick it up, as the cat was still interested. Eventually I put it on the top of a water butt close to the end of a leylandii hedge, but instead of stepping quietly into the security of the hedge, it tried to fly into the neighbour's garden. I gave up at that point, but at least the cat was now indoors, so it was safe from that.
I have my doubts about its survival, but if it managed to dry out and groom its feathers, I guess it stands a chance.
Posted by Rob Clack at 12:13
Saturday, 30 May 2009
The Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida is having to retire two submersibles and sell their purpose-built support vessel owing to a lack of funding. Considering how poorly-known the ocean floor is and the fact that these vessels have dived over 9,000 times in the past 4 decades, this seems to me to be a really bad thing.
Please visit their website and sign their petition! The following is lifted straight from the petition, but read the whole thing there. And spread the word!
The Johnson-Sea-Link I & II submersibles are owned and operated by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Fort Pierce, Florida. They are launched from the HBOI research vessel R/V Seward Johnson, a 204-ft ,purpose built ,state of the art platform redesigned in 1994 which displaces 1282 tons and has a 6,000 nautical mile range. An experienced captain and crew constantly maintain the R/V Seward Johnson as part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) Fleet of research vessels. A team of highly skilled sub pilots operate, maintain and upgrade the submersibles according to strict safety protocols. The Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles were built in 1971. Almost four decades, 9,000 dives and continuous upgrades and improvements later, the Johnson-Sea-Link I submersibles and II, along with their support ship the R/V Seward Johnson, remain invaluable platforms for exploring the oceans.
Unfortunately, the current administration of HBOI has announced its decision to sell the R/V Seward Johnson and retire the JSL submersibles in spite of a lack of technologies with similar or better capabilities at HBOI, FAU or any other institution on the East coast of the U.S. While some argue that this expensive technology is outdated and tied to its mother ship, this view is not shared by the scientific community. The Alvin submersible operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts is 10 years older, and still performs between 150 and 200 dives a year. No one considers the Alvin 40-year old technology, or criticizes its dependence on the research vessel Atlantis for its deployment. It is still considered a valuable workhorse. While NOAA has just awarded HBOI a 22.5 million dollars grant to be a Cooperative Institute, in part due to their ability to perform oceanographic study with such tools as the R/V Seward Johnson and JSL submersibles, it is unclear whether these assets will be supported by that grant money. Unless a new source of funding is found to support these technologies, the current administration will continue their plans to abandon these technologies. Maintaining and operating these technologies is expensive, and the HBOI administration lacks the funds to continue to support these assets. Thus, it is critical for the State of Florida to invest in these amazing technologies to further our ocean exploration and our scientific progress.
Since FAU is a state university, the submersibles and research vessel are property of the State of Florida and the taxpayers should have a say in choosing whether these amazing technologies which are helping us discover and protect our underwater assets should be maintained. These are expensive technologies to maintain, but their benefits far outweigh their costs. If you believe that the state of Florida should invest in science, education and technology, please sign this petition to indicate to our legislators that you believe the HBOI ship and submersibles should be saved from sale or retirement and supported by the state of Florida.
Posted by Rob Clack at 09:52
Thursday, 28 May 2009
Jenny and I were the only ones not away or busy last night, so we ate in a local Chinese restaurant on our own. In the course of the idle chatter, I bemoaned the loss of our receptionist at work. Not that I particularly liked her, but I did used to enjoy looking down the front of her blouse, an exercise both easy and rewarding.
Jenny's response was interesting. She mentioned a theory, quite likely well known, I imagine, that women are mentally more mature than men, but physically more immature.
Specifically, women's eyes are relatively bigger, their faces shorter, they're not as tall and their voices don't break. These are all paedomorphic (child-like) characters and are the direct result of sexual selection by men.
The sad fact is that men throughout the ages have preferred younger-looking women, and have selected their mates accordingly. Logically, I suppose paedophiles are only taking this to extremes.
As to whether men are typically less mature than women, I think that's probably true too, though it's a less easy characteristic to actually measure objectively. I plan to stay immature for the whole of my life!
On a different, but related topic, one of the lads at work is very keen on salsa dancing, and goes quite often. Last weekend there was a mega-event in St Albans, where a couple of thousand people danced for most of the long weekend. Steve was there for about half the time, so spent most of Monday sleeping it off.
I only mention this because of his description of the event, which appealed to my childish sense of humour. He described it as being a bit like speed-dating, only you get to grope the women.
Posted by Rob Clack at 12:45
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Monday, 25 May 2009
Well actually, I didn't sing in pain, 'cos I couldn't; it was too painful.
We went to Brussels on Friday, with the same choir with whom we sang in Venice last year, to sing a concert in the Cathedral on Saturday afternoon and mass in a different church on Sunday morning. This year it's called Choir1824 because there are usually between 18 and 24 of us. Next year, who knows?
Trouble was, I woke up on Saturday morning with a mouth infection. This was almost certainly linked to my dentist drilling out and replacing a broken white filling on Thursday. She's a lovely girl, but desperately slow, and it's just too much of a coincidence that I got the infection so soon after visiting her surgery.
So Saturday was slightly painful, more so in the evening, and by Sunday morning I realised I needed to do something urgently. Taking a friend who speaks good French, I visited first a pharmacist, who could not give me the antibiotics I wanted, and then a clinic, where I saw a doctor who prescribed what I needed. However, singing the mass at 11 am was out of the question, so I sat in on the service and listened.
We were in the church of St Jacques, with a long, long accoustic decay, and the Victoria mass and Gabrielli Jubilate Deo which they sang, completely suited the accoustic. It was simply glorious. Some of the other stuff they did was a bit quick, so the Philips Ascendit Deus and the Gibbons O clap your hands together, while wonderful pieces, didn't work as well.
After Saturday's concert, we grabbed a beer, then did a little light busking, not quite in the Grand Place, as planned, as there was an event intended to help reunify Belgium, which is at serious risk of actually splitting in two.
These busking sessions are greeted with mixed reactions by the choir. We tend to do arrangements of Cole Porter and so on, plus a few others like In an English Country Garden and Percy Grainger's Country Garden which are a bit out of character for a choir that mostly does sacred music. Anyhow, one of the passers-by asked whether the Country Garden we'd just sung was by Grainger, and then took a leaflet and to our surprise, appeared in the congregation on Sunday morning, along with a couple of mates. Result!
Whether it was the fact there was a lot of singing going on or the fact that my mouth was really quite uncomfortable I don't know, but the end result was that I took rather few photographs. The link to St Jaques actually takes you to somebody's flickr page where I thing there are more, but I didn't actually pursue that. I was impressed by the clock, but not enough to go really close to examine it. I also liked the elephant, which may be graffiti or actually real art, I've no idea. Cool, whichever.
Eurostar was totally cool, both going and coming. 2 hours from St Pancras to Brussels with a brief stop at Lille. I was bemused when listening to the announcer and getting the impression that Lille had been renamed Lillerop, which seemed strange. Evenually I cottoned on; Lille Europe, pronounced in rapid French!.
And I'm glad to report that the horse pills, amoxycillin, cut in within a few hours and the pain is subsiding. I'm just wondering whether to charge the dentist the €62 I had to pay the doctor and pharmacist to get the required treatment.
Posted by Rob Clack at 11:47
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Monday, 18 May 2009
This, ladies and gennymum, is Thylacoleo carnifax and I'm indebted to Chris Nedin at Ediacaran blog for posting about it.
It's the long-extinct marsupial lion, and I think it provides excellent evidence for the reality of evolution.
If you take a look at those teeth, the ones labelled Pm3 are premolars, and they are edgy, slicey premolars. Carnivores typically have edgy, slicey molars. Think about a dog or cat's side teeth and you'll know what I mean. So the indication from the premolars is that this was a carnivore.
Then there's that sharp fang pointing forward out of the lower jaw. Not actually a canine, but a modified incisor, which in us are the chisel-shaped front teeth.
But we know that Thylacoleo evolved from an entirely herbivorous line, and if the side teeth are premolars and the pointy one is an incisor, what is going on?
The answer is provided by strontium and zinc. Plant material, particularly herbaceous plants, accumulate strontium. Grasses also do, but less so. Animals don't accumulate much in their meaty bits, but interestingly, their bones do. Plants don't accumulate much zinc, but animal flesh does. So if you analyse the bones of an animal, checking particularly the strontium and zinc levels, you can derive some interesting information about what the animal ate.
A number of bones of animals of the same age and from the same deposits as T. carnifax were analysed and fell neatly into the three expected groups; browsers with most strontium and least zinc, grazers with less strontium and more zinc and carnivores with most zinc and least strontium. T. carnifax came out as undoubtedly a carnivore.
So what of my claim that this supports evolution? It's because the group of animals that gave rise to the marsupial lion were all herbivores, that Leo here, grew such weird teeth. I'm speculating that when they started to eat meat, they had back teeth more specialised for eating plant material. Selecting for slicing back teeth would not distinguish between a molar and a premolar; whichever was best would do. Ditto the incisor. Many herbivores don't actually have canines, so whatever could be co-opted for the purpose would do.
Evolution proceeds with what it has to start with, not what makes the best starting material. If there really had been a designer, how likely is it that she would have given Leo such bizarre teeth? Not very likely at all, I'd say. She'd have used the same basic pattern as other carnivores. Why re-invent the wheel?
Sunday, 17 May 2009
I only read about this in the Week magazine today, but it really should be more widely recognised. Everyone's heard of the placebo effect and it's widely known that a placebo can have a beneficial effect even though it doesn't contain any active ingredient.
The nocebo effect has been known since the 1960's, if not earlier, and is the reverse. IIRC some researchers wired up some brave students with electrodes on their heads, pretending to do some valid research, but warned the students that they might experience serious headaches.
Lo and behold, despite the current in the wiring never being switched on, some of the students reported headaches. According to Wikipedia, the term is derived from the Latin and means "I will harm" (as opposed to placebo; "I will please.")
People living near mobile phone masts report symptoms of electrosensitivity, supposedly brought on by exposure to electromagnetic fields produced by the masts, but in fact, there are no such effects. Their symptoms are brought on by the fear of the masts, not by any real risk. They're making themselves ill by imagining themselves to be under some sort of threat, not by the existence of any such threat.
As I say, this ought to be much more widely known.
For my 60th birthday, our neighbours and drinking buddies, Lorna and Richard, bought me a matinée performance of a drama/dance performance called Pictures from an Exhibition at the Young Vic, and booked us in for a meal on the Hispaniola, which is an old boat moored on the Embankment.
We had no idea what to expect at the Young Vic, but it was spectacular; a mixture of drama and dance which was completely riveting, the 80 minute performance, with no interval, zipping by like nothing. It was disturbing, surreal, funny, erotic and deeply moving; a biography of Modest Mussorgski; a brilliant, innovative performance.
His father died when Modest was quite young, his mother was cold and distant, he was abused by his music teacher and grew up to be an unrequited homosexual. That he was too frightened to actually implement his sexual persuasion is hardly surprising for late 19th/early 20th century Russia.
It was brilliant and draining, and we felt a curious mixture of exhileration and exhaustion when we emerged from the theatre. I really do thoroughly recommend you go to it if you can. Fantastic! Here's a link to a YouTube snippet which gives you a minute flavour of what we saw.
We walked along the south bank of the Thames to the Tate Modern, where we wandered around some of the permanent collections before having tea in the bar on the top floor, then walked to the restaurant boat, which is opposite the Eye.
The food and drink were excellent, and we had a thoroughly good time, constantly revisiting the afternoon's performance as we remembered yet another impressive bit.
Friday, 15 May 2009
Though we've known about this for a while, today it was officially announced, so we're allowed to tell everyone about it. It's been really hard not to shout it from the rooftops, I can tell you!
Jenny has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
I leave that sentence on it's own line, because it really is a fantastic privilege. A bit like winning an Oscar, Jenny said to someone who didn't realise the significance. There's a page about new Fellows from Cambridge on the University website, and you'll see that Jenny is second on the list. OK, the list is in alphabetical order by surname, but still, it's nice she's near the top!
You can't really get much higher in the scientific community than the Royal Society, and you really do have to be terrifically good to be elected. We are astonished, humbled, awed.
She was also elected as an honorary member of the American Acadamy of Arts and Sciences last month, so it's all go! AAAS membership is pretty prestigious in its own right, of course, but I'm afraid it pales into insignificance compared with FRS!
So, only Desert Island Discs to go then.
Now tell me that isn't just gorgeous! The colour scheme, the fact that it really is flying, the spread fins, the use of the web between the tentacles to increase surface area, so it has flying surfaces both front and rear. Simply awesome! I stole the pictures from the Tree of Life web project. The second is just the first, enlarged and enhanced by the photographer, so you can see it better.
Actually, there is one question I've not seen an answer to; how are those fins supported? There isn't a bone in its body, and the last I heard, squid only had a chitin support within the mantle itself. Nothing in the fins. Of course, I don't see a scale there, to indicate size. Not that squid have scales, of course. Groan. All I know is that that the article says this group of squid vary between 10 and 100cm. What I'm getting at is that a small squid might get away without anything special to support the fins in flight, while a big one would definitely need some support.
I had no idea squid could fly. And they're so tasty, too!
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
I may be a bit behind the times here, but I've just come across this posting about a libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against one Simon Singh. Here's what Singh said:
"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."What is particularly worrying about the judgement is that the presiding judge, Sir David Eady, apparently didn't take any of the oral arguments of either side into account in making his judgement, but simply read out a pre-prepared judgement in which he had already decided that by using the word "bogus", Singh had meant effectively "fraudulent".
It's not the fact that he found against Singh per se that worries me, it's the fact that he had already made up his mind before all the evidence had been presented.
The word that springs immediately to my mind is "travesty".
And the picture is so that you can commit to memory this fine, upstanding representative of British justice. May he live in interesting times.
Monday, 11 May 2009
As is usual at this time of year, we sang Eucharist and Evensong in Binham Priory near Cromer yesterday, and it was completely lovely. However, the weekend did not go by any means perfectly.
It all started on Thursday evening, while Jenny and I were eating out in a local restaurant. Lorna had offered to buy us some catfood as we were short and unlikely to have a shopping opportunity before tonight. She brought it around and left it in our kitchen, but then, as she left our driveway, she somehow tripped. It was so fast, she was unable to cushion her fall with her hands at all, and banged her forehead hard on the road, resulting in lots of blood, tears and confusion.
We came home to find all their lights on, but the place empty, and Julia's car in our driveway. Since Julia's a nurse, we figured something bad had happened. They explained when they got home from A&E at about 11.30.
So they didn't go to Binham with us, which they have done for the past several years, and we really missed them. We still had fish and chips and champagne on the Friday night, and ate in Restaurant No 10 (utterly excellent!) in Sheringham on the Saturday night, but it wasn't the same at all.
A few weeks ago, I bought a small oil painting from a painter called Sam Robbins, who lives in Norfolk, and I somehow got the idea he lived in Holt, so on Saturday afternoon we caught the Poppy Line steam train from Sherringham to Holt. Holt was lovely, and we had a great time exploring it, including a terrific lunch in the Balthazar wine bar. Sadly, they don't seem to have their own website.
We looked in lots of art galleries, but were able to resist the temptation to buy any of the seriously tempting offerings. We did buy a few cheap things, of course!
Sadly, it turns out that Sam Robbins exhibits his work in Mundesley, which is right the other side of Cromer from Holt, so we never did get there. Where I got the idea that he was in Holt, I have no idea. It's a shame, as I was quite keen to meet him and see what he's got on show.
There was a BMW vintage car rally at Holt station, which was quite nice, though we're not really into cars. Still, some of them had quite pleasing, sweeping lines, as you can see.
Sunday was great. We sang a Victoria mass and the Saint-Saëns Ave Verum, both of which went well and sounded good in the great accoustic of the Priory. At 6 we sang Evensong - Tallis: If ye love me; Smith 5-part Responses, Weelkes Mag & Nunc and for the anthem, Purcell's setting of Psalm 96: Sing Unto the Lord.
Between lunch and Evensong, Jenny and I had to clear the holiday flat we had rented for the weekend, and then found ourselves with about 90 mins to spare. We drove to Cley next the Sea, where there's a bird reserve. We'd seen a marsh harrier as we drove to the Priory in the morning, so thought we might see if we could get a better view.
The new visitors' centre is pleasant and full of interesting things to buy, which of course, we did. We now have 4 wine glasses made from the tops of wine bottles, inverted and with a glass disk stuck to the neck. The body of the glass is then sandblasted to give a frosted appearance, and the sandblasting is masked to give a pattern, in our case 2 glasses have fish on them and 2 have geckos. Neat. Sadly, you can't buy them through the online shop.
Out on the reserve, we saw at least 3 marsh harriers. I think there were actually four, but I couldn't be sure, so 3 is the count. Also avocets, shelducks, snipe and lapwings. And other things, but you know....
Back home, the first thing we did was go to see Lorna, of course. She'd been having visual disturbances, which was worrying, but fortunately turns out not to be brain damage, nor yet a detatched retina, but something odd to do with the clear gel that fills most of the eye. I suspect it's something along the lines of a stress fracture within the gel, a sort of fault, caused by the impact. Anyway, she's much better, and now sporting quite an impressive black eye!
So I'll leave you with a little teaser, to which I genuinely don't know the answer. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the scientists gradually got rid of mediaeval terms, and started to use more precise, descriptive ones. So we lost things like the four humours (earth, air, fire, water) which, in a healthy person were thought to be "in balance"; magnesia, lime and baryta became the alkaline earths, live air became oxygen, fixed air became carbon dioxide, and so on. Anyhow, the gel that Lorna seems to have injured is called Vitreous Humour (Am.E. Humor), and the liquid between the cornea and the lens is called Aqueous Humour. So why have these not been renamed to something more sensible? It does seem quaintly mediaeval. What the hell is meant by the term Humour, here? Just asking.
Thursday, 7 May 2009
This is an interesting BBC report of research projects demonstrating remarkable skills in tool creation and use amongst birds, particularly New Caledonian crows, which live on the Pacific island of New Caledonia.
For a start, the creation and use of tools by the crows is at least equal, if not better than that among non-human primates. It really is worth watching the first video clip.
Another facet of this is that bird brains lack the neocortex, which is the part of the mammalian brain thought to be responsible for intelligent cognition. It is thought they use a different part of the brain, the nidopallium, instead.
However, this is much less clear cut. If you google for "mammal nidopallium" you get a number of hits which, when I tried to read them (rather hard work for me!) suggested the homologies are not all that clear cut and quite likely not agreed upon by the various workers in the field.
Well I guess that's fair enough; it's cutting edge research, so there is bound to be a range of opionions.
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
This report in Daily Science is interesting, not only because the researchers have found evidence of very early fossil animals, but also because the discovery, if valid, pushes the earliest known evidence of animal fossils back by 200 million years to between 800 Mya and a 1 Bya.
In summary, they've found structures which closely resemble those left by decomposing sponges on the sea floor, which they interpret as implying the presence of sponge-like animals at that time.
And a facet of this that amuses me is timespan this extends known fossil animals backwards. Tacked at the remote end of the fossil record, the difference between 800 million and a billion years doesn't seem so much. Until you compare it with the 200 million years since dinosaurs first evolved. That period includes the entire evolution and extinction of dinosaurs, birds, most mammals, and of course, ourselves.
I don't think anyone is immune to the telescoping of time like that.
Monday, 4 May 2009
This photo is something of a mystery. Jenny found the nest in the garden, and we're not sure what it is. We think it's probably the nest of some sort of solitary wasp, but we're guessing. Our insect book doesn't show anything like it. Jenny will show the photo to people at work who should know. That is one advantage of working in the Zoology Department at Cambridge University, of course!
We've done quite a bit of gardening this weekend, particularly on Saturday, though it's cold and miserable today, and all plans have been binned.
Saturday was very satisfying, however, particularly as we had our first barbecue of the year. We love sitting on the patio watching the growing gloom, hoping to see bats or shooting stars or satellites or something. At this time of year it's a bit chilly, of course, but nothing wearing a fleece can't fix.
Yesterday we had a rehearsal for a choir trip to Brussels, which occupied the whole afternoon, and in the evening we fed Lorna and Richard.
We'd picked up some halibut from the fish stall on the market on Saturday morning, especially for this. The fish man is expensive, but his fish is always fabulous, so we swallow hard and pay. We got 4 halibut steaks which Jenny cooked to a recipe by Susan Hicks, and they were simply delicious. Accompanied by boiled potatoes, courgettes and a mixed salad, together with some good Meursault and a nice Chablis. Sadly, my brain feels distinctly frazzled today. I wonder why!
We saw Susan Hicks on TV years ago and bought the book, which we use quite regularly. Susan Hicks seems to have had a troubled life. She disappeared from TV and the last I heard had apparently had a spell of homelessness. I tried to google for her, but didn't trawl up anything apart from numerous references to her fish cookery books.
Today I was going to put new roofing felt on the shed, and then start to make a green roof for it, but the chilly wind and occasional shower soon put paid to that, and I won't have another free weekend in May, so it'll be June before I start.
The green roof will be a 10cm deep wooden box that sits on the shed roof. I'll line it with pond liner (with drainage holes, of course) and fill it with a mixture of peat-free general purpose compost and vermiculite, the latter to reduce the weight a bit. Then we'll plant it up, mostly with house leeks (Sempervivum) and stonecrops (Sedum) which are pretty much indestructible. With luck it will look a lot nicer than the shed does at the moment, and be almost maintenance-free.
This afternoon a nice couple came to visit us. I gave away some plant pots last week, via Freecycle, and she was one who took a pile of pots. Although she commented on the garden, I didn't have the wit to show her around. Feeling slightly stupid, I emailed her and made the offer. Today, she and her husband came and we showed off our garden to them.
They were very complimentary, asked lots of smart questions and were a real pleasure to show off to.