Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Claymation movie about being multicellular

This is a cool movie I just saw on PZ Myers blog and I was impressed enough to want to post it myself. It shows a clear, simple explanation of one of the characteristics of being multicellular, and it could easily be part of an O-level biology course. Clear, simple, accurate, short. Brilliant.

CreatureCast Episode 2 from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Support American officials upholding their constitution

I inadvertently subscribed to the American Family Association a while ago, and as I've mentioned before, it's completely impossible to unsubscribe. However, I've found a way to occasionally take advantage of this.

Today they're whining that Macomb County Road Commission (Michigan) are making some guy remove a nativity scene from government property, claiming that it's anti-religious and the first of this year's battles in the war against Christmas.

That's complete bollocks, of course. All the commission is doing is upholding the constitution which states quite clearly that no religious symbols and whatnot will be displayed on government property. It's all part of the separation of church and state. Very clear, very right and proper, and deeply unpopular with the religious right.

So if you agree with me, you can go to this page run by the AFA which allows you to send an email to Macomb County Road Commission. It's pre-written, demanding they rescind the order.

What I did was change the text to say something like (didn't keep a copy, sadly) "I'm delighted to learn of your actions to remove a religious icon, ie a nativity scene, from government property in the city of Warren. " I put a bit more but I can't really remember what. I made sure I was courteous and supportive, and I hope they like that. The list of states has Other as the last option, so you're not forced to choose a US state as your place of residence.

Dawkins on the Pope's poaching of Anglicans

Richard Dawkins has a terrific article in the Washington Post about the Pope's latest idiocy in trying to poach extremist Anglicans who don't like women bishops, gays, etc. The bit I particularly like is right near the end, where he bemoans the fact that Rowan Williams is not taking advantage of the situation by offering sanctuary to potential women priests, male priests who want to get married, women who don't like the idea of being downtrodden, gays, and Africans sick of being lied to about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of Aids.

Oh and there's a completely hopeless response by Damian Thompson in the Torygraph. He doesn't actually put forward any arguments to counter what Dawkins says, just maligns him. Well surprise!

Jesus and Mo

I love the Jesus and Mo series of cartoons, so thought I'd share one with you today. This one's from a day or two back. I'm not sure how often they're posted. It's not every day, but more often than once a week, I think.

If you click the cartoon you'll see a full-size version.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

How you really came to be here


So I've been watching this video, which PZ Myers posted on his blog. (I couldn't be bothered with the stupid homeopath who's movie clip is above LK; why should Iwaste my life listening to someone talking rubbish?) I've not seen much of it yet, as it lasts over an hour, and I'm at work, but I did see two things I just love.

First, he said "Gravity sucks!" ie it pulls; it doesn't push. Classic!

Then he explained about where the atoms that make our bodies come from. I did actually know this, but I would never have thought up the punchline.

Right after the big bang, the only atoms in the entire universe were hydrogen atoms. They clumped together to form stars, and within the stars, fusion reactions took place, forming first helium, then later oxygen, carbon, silicon, etc. So all the non-hydrogen atoms in the universe were formed inside stars.

So if you think about it, the atoms that make up your body were once inside stars. That's the unavoidable conclusion. You are stardust! Do you like that? That's not the punchline.

The only way for those atoms to get from inside stars to inside you is for the stars to have exploded as supernovae. Nothing else would do it. So here's the punchline:

The stars died so that you could be here today!

Never mind Jesus; it's the stars you need to thank!

Asteroid explodes over Indonesia

So today's excitement seems to come from reports that a 10 m diameter meteor exploded about 15 - 20 km above the Indonesian island of Sulowesi. The explosion was the equivalent of 50,000 tonnes of TNT, about three times the Hiroshima bomb. The bang was recorded by instruments 10,000 km away.

Yeah, but. It all happened on October 8th. THREE WEEKS AGO! Dammit, a pigeon could deliver news faster!

The movie clip is of an Indonesian newscast, so don't bother turning on your sound. What you see, sadly but inevitably, is just the dust cloud left behind. Too much to hope that someone would just happen to be pointing his phone at the sky waiting for something exciting to happen.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Singing in Durham Cathedral

On Saturday we drove up to Durham where we sang Evensong in the afternoon, then Mattins, Eucharist and Evensong yesterday, and I think we acquitted ourselves reasonably well. We messed up the processing pretty much every single time, but then, they did have a different pattern of processing for each service, and we didn't actually rehearse all the manoevres, so it's hardly surprising we got it wrong.

And there were a few scary moments in the Mattins (Ireland Te Deum as far as I was concerned!) but probably nothing most of the congregation would have noticed.

Talking of the congregation, there were more there than in any cathedral we've ever sung in, apart from the Sunday morning after Princess Diana was killed. We were impressed! To get a decent crowd at the 10 am Mattins is unheard of, and the church was pretty well full for the Eucharist at 11.15.

At lunchtime a small group of us was queueing up at an ATM and the girl at the front, turned when she'd finished, saw one of us near her and said "Were you in the.... oh, in that tie, I don't need to ask, do I? The mass was just lovely!" Actually, we thought so to, but it was wonderful to get an unsolicited compliment like that. We did a Lloyd Webber (senior) mass and an anthem called Let all mortal flesh keep silence by Self. And we did it rather well!

Then there was another surprise waiting for us. From 2 to 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, we were rehearsing for the 3.30 Evensong, including another piece by Ireland, this time Many Waters Cannot Quench Love. Well actually, it might be called something else, but I remember it by the first line, and I like it. It has two short solos in the middle, one soprano, one baritone. One particular sop has always done this solo, and she did again yesterday, and it was lovely. However, the bass who normally does the other solo wasn't with us, so the conductor had asked a visiting bass who occasionally sings with us if he'd do it. And wow! what a voice! It was fantastic! And when we looked around, the nave of the church had lots of people just sitting listening! I reckon there was a good 100 there!

Durham Cathedral is a wonderful building and it was a real privilege to sing there, so I was a bit disappointed when, at the end, they complimented us on our singing, but did not invite us back. I'm hoping that was just an oversight, but it might be that their standards are just that bit higher.

I was also very fortunate that Jane came with us and was happy to drive half-way in each direction. That made all the difference, and I was actually able to do a good day's work today. Had I driven the 450 mile round trip myself I'd have been flat out today! Thank you, Jane. You can drive my car any time!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Fog nets

This is really cool, and just shows you what can be achieved with a little ingenuity. The pic is of a plastic net, 8m x 4m, suspended on a hillside in Lima, Peru.

People from the countryside have migrated to the capital over the past few decades, looking for work, as is so common. The more recent arrivals have to live further up the hill, where there's no piped water. There's effectively no rainfall, either, at only 40mm a year, and they have to buy their water.

But now they're taking advantage of a particular attribute of their locality, which is frequent, dense banks of fog. The fog condenses on the plastic nets and drips into a gutter running along the lower edge. Each net can yield up to 120 litres of water a day, which is enough to irrigate their vegetable plots, though they still have to buy water for personal use.

Doesn't look fabulous, but hey, it's a shanty town!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A pretty picture for you

A guy at work emailed some aircraft pictures around and I liked this one enough to want to share it with you. I expect it's widely available already.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

What real scientists say about Evolution/ID/Creationism

I have the feeling that most of you are actually with me on the evolution/creationism question, but this is a good, thoughtful video that will only waste 10 minutes of your lives.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Fantastic video of an aquarium

PZ Myers has it right. The owners of this aquarium should just film it continuously until they can fill a DVD with it, then sell copies. I'd buy one! I can even cope with the soundtrack, though I'd probably have it muted most of the time.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

McDonalds hits Africa!

A friend sent me a pile of funnies, and this one just got to me!

Monday in Boston, Mass

We could have flown home on Sunday night, but being unsure exactly what the timetable would be, and fancying an extra day in the States, we opted for the evening flight on Monday. After breakfast in a café in Cambridge, we checked out of the hotel and headed for downtown Boston. We'd have preferred to catch a bus, so as to see a bit more of the city, but there isn't one, so we had to take the underground, known as the T for some reason.

First we strolled in Boston Common, encountering an event which turned out to be a women's run of some sort, which was due to start at midday, but for which the preliminary noise had evidently started a while before we arrived. I guess you can't have that kind of an event without someone howling down a PA and hordes of people hanging about.

Past that, we went into the Botanical Gardens, which were much more park-like than we'd expected, though some of the trees did have labels, so maybe it did justify the title. Quite pleasant, nonetheless, and we sat in the sun to eat the remains of Saturday night's bacon and onion tart starter.

As we headed back towards the exit we saw this delightful fountain. Of course, these days it's completely illegal for me to have taken a photograph of it, but I did even so, so there!

A fairly short stroll brought us to Quency Market, but we were really looking for lunch by then, and Jenny took me to the Union Oyster House where she's eaten before. It claims to be the oldest restaurant in the States, and was very pleasant. We had a bowl of Classic Clam Chowder, which was completely delicious and just the right size to fill the gap.

On the way to the restaurant we came across this clock in a shop window. Just perfect!

Full of soup, we headed for the aquarium. This is not bad, but sadly, it was Columbus day, so the place was just heaving, and it was an effort to actually see into the tanks some of the time. Still, some excellent jellyfish tanks, an impressively large octopus, a cuttlefish which performed cooperatively for me to film, and a number of other interesting beasties.

The overnight flight was uneventful and I actually managed to get some sleep, which makes a change. Then we were lucky with the trains, arriving at Kings Cross 5 minutes before a Royston train, which spat us out at 10. A cup of tea and a bacon sarnie was the order of the day, followed swiftly by bed! Oh the pleasure of hitting your very own bed after an overnight flight across the Atlantic!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

American Academy awards ceremony

On Sunday morning there was a talk by John Holdren, Obama's Science and Technology advisor. The talk was riveting, all about the President's attitudes to all things scientific, how a high proportion of his important appointments are women and so on. Sadly, the bulk of the talk has fallen straight out of my brain, having been followed by quite a lot of other stuff. I hope that at some point they'll stick the gist, or better, a transcript, up on the Academy's website, but it's not there yet.

One thing I do remember was a photograph of Obama in the White House, talking on the phone to astronauts in the Space Station. In a room full of kids. The story is that someone on the staff thought it would be good if a selection of kids from local schools could come and watch the President talking to the astronauts. When all was ready, the President was primed as to what was going to happen, and he just shot off into the room where the kids were assembled to meet them.

Then, once the link with the Space Station was established and they'd exchanged a few pleasantries, Obama simply handed the phone over to kids for them to ask questions for themselves. What a brilliant thing to do! Somehow, I can't imagine Bush ever having done that. 'Course, I'm condemning the eedjit without evidence, but that's fine, I think. It's just the sort of thing he would do!

It all finished at midday, after which we changed into civvies (I'd been in my suit all the previous day and all morning, and that's enough!) and strolled into central Cambridge looking for a bite to eat. I'd seen a sign the previous day, warning that Harvard Square would be closed for Oktoberfest, but hadn't really given it any thought. Turns out, Oktoberfest is a giant street party, with stalls selling all sorts of stuff and performers strutting their stuff through the streets.

There were dense crowds of people, such that it was hard to make your way through at times, but a lot of fun, nevertheless.

These nudes are made from wire mesh, just pushed out to form the shapes, and I thought they were very interesting. Not sure I like them all that much, but a novel medium for a nude.

We had lunch in a micro-brewery, where the beer was called something like Cambridge on the Charles (the local river is the Charles) and it was simply excellent!

We had pulled-pork mini-sliders, which turn out to be small buns, about 5cm square and really nondescript. I once had a similar thing in a MacDonalds, and I've not been back to the big M since. Disgusting.

However, the pulled pork is slow-cooked pork which has been shredded and a thick layer put between the sliced buns. All sounds good, except we'd not noticed the word Trio lurking there. Yes, we had three of these each, and it was far too much, of course. Managed to eat most of the meat, but just discarded the buns.

We also located a promising restaurant for dinner, called Sandrine's. When we turned up in the evening it was not too full and they fitted us in with no problem. It turned out to have an Alsatian flavour, so we had the choucroute with various meaty things, which turned out to be pig's trotter and several different sorts of European sausage. If you visit the Sandrine's website, go to the Photo Gallery and hover your mouse pointer over the bottom-right thumbnail, you'll see a picture of the choucroute.

We had the presence of mind to ask the waitress if she'd mind our sharing a main course, which was no bother at all. That meant we had room for a starter, which was an interesting bacon and onion tart which we plan to try to emulate some time.

A thin, unleavened dough base with the edges rolled up, into which had been put a thin layer of (possibly) cream cheese. On top of that was a generous scattering of pre-fried chopped bacon and onion, and then the whole thing had been flash-baked. Really good.

The choucrout was excellent, though we could have managed without the pig's trotter, and one between the two of us was perfect.

Accompanied by a nice bottle of Californian pinot noir, it was a great evening and we just kept looking at each other going "Yeah! Aren't we having a fabulous time?!"

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Away for the weekend

On Friday Jenny and I flew to Boston, Mass, USA, for her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. We had such a brilliant time and I took so many photographs, that I'm going to load them up here as a series of smaller posts, otherwise you'd get a huge book to read!

The flight was routine, everything went according to plan, there were no delays, so I'll not spend any more time on Friday, save to say that we stayed at the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge, and it was pretty pricey. The American Academy had negotiated a special rate for Friday and Saturday, but even so, when you added on the taxes, it was hellish expensive about $300 a night.


Saturday morning we took the shuttle bus to the American Academy. I should point out here that this is not the AAAS, despite sharing the initials. The AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, equivalent of the BAAS. The American Association is a quite distinct organisation, and I suppose I'm going to have to do a bit more research to really get to understand the differences. I think it's quite unreasonable for two US organisations to share their initials like that. Just confuses the issue.

While the inductees were being introduced to the Academy and finding out what was to happen the rest of the day, I wandered onto the Harvard University campus and visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And the first thing I saw was this collection of amazing Victorian glass models of flowers, so I'm going to stick several photos on the left, now.

They were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a couple of German brothers for use in educational institutions, and they are just stunning. They also made some invertebrates which you can see elsewhere in the HMNH and also some protozoa which I've seen in the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

After lunch we all trooped down to the induction ceremony, which took the rest of the afternoon. The Academy is enormous, with about 11,000 members, and there were 237 inductees. Fortunately only about half attended, or we'd have been there all night!

Some names you might have heard of or otherwise be impressed by: Alfred Spector, Vice President of Research at Google, Sean Carrol and Neil Shubin (see my book list), the late Pina Bausch (dancer and choreographer), Judi Dench, Emmylou Harris, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, John Williams (composer), Bono, Nelson Mandela, Robert Gates, US Secretary for Defence, Colin Powell. Exhaulted company indeed! Sadly, almost nobody famous was actually there! Emmylou Harris and James Earl Jones read out a selection of letters between John Adams and his wife during the American war of independance on stage (very moving), but otherwise just took part as ordinary inductees.

Some famous peoples' letters of acceptance were framed on the wall, and I had to photograph this one, of course. Pity I couldn't hold the camera still.

Following the ceremony there was a short drinks reception, after which some of us had been invited to dinner, which was excellent, and great fun to meet a pile of interesting people. The Great, the Good and the Weird, I think it would be fair to say! Fortunately there was a shuttle bus to pour us back into the hotel afterwards!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The World of Religion

I stole this from Greg Laden. I think it's great!

Rhyming bling for Saturn!

So we all know by now that an enormous new ring has been discovered around Saturn but I refer you to the Digital Cuttlefish who has celebrated it in verse. Definitely worth the visit!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Friday, 9th October, 11.30 UTC - it's a date!

Thanks to this posting from the Smithsonian.com blog, I've learned two new things today.

First is that on Friday morning at 11.30 UTC (Universal Time is more or less the same as GMT) a space ship will be deliberately crashed into the moon, and a second one, following behind, will fly through the resulting dust plume, sample and analyse it, before crashing into the moon itself. If you live somewhere west of the Mississippi it'll be dark, and a 10 inch telescope will be powerful enough for you to actually see the plume of dust.

For the rest of us, the second new thing should come to our rescue. That thing is NASA TV. I've just been watching live footage from the Space Station, but when I just went back to it a moment ago it was some other programme, though still space-related. The live SS footage was a bit jerky, sometimes just showing one frame per second, but other times playing smoothly, so I guess that depends on how quickly the signal is getting through the interweb and onto my PC.

Anti-vaccine death-count widget

You'll see I've stuck the Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccine death-count widget on my sidebar. If you click it, it'll take you to a website explaining how Jenny McCarthy is indirectly responsible for hundreds of vaccine-preventable deaths and tens of thousands of VP illnesses in the USA.

If you click on the Get Widget text at the bottom, it takes you to a different website where you can copy the code to display the widget on your own blog.

Sadly, I've not found an equivalent for the UK. And I assumed the numbers would click up in parallel with those on its home website, but that seems not to be the case. Not sure what I've done wrong.

The present numbers, as I post this, are 235 deaths and 49556 illnesses.

There are sane people in Texas!

Hoorah for Texas State District Judge Tena Callahan who has ruled that state's Defense of Marriage Act (which, as you might imagine, precludes same-sex marriage) is unconstitutional.

So they're not all woo-mongering wingnuts!

BTW do not, whatever you do, subscribe in any way to One News Now or the American Family Association; there is no way to unsubscribe, and you'll get sent their crap for ever after. Click the Unsubscribe button; nothing happens. I've had to create an email filter that just diverts anything they send straight into Trash.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

We meet Alice Roberts

Hah! Be envious, you guys! Last night we went to a Royal Society event in London, skiving off work a tad early to get down for the 6.30 start. It was a conversation, entitled Fossils, fact and fiction, between Dr Richard Fortey, retired trilobite specialist at the Natural History Museum and author of numerous excellent books, some scientific and others not, and Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, amongst others. Tracy has recently published a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, the early 19th century woman who collected many of the spectacular marine fossils along the south coast of England, around Lyme Regis, which helped build the foundation of knowledge on which Darwin based his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The event was chaired by Dr Alice Roberts, anatomist and paleopathologist at Bristol University, well known as one of the presenters of the Coast series of TV programmes and also solo presenter of her own series on human anatomy. She is also a personal pin-up and I drool every time I see her on the box, so the opportunity to attend an event like this (interesting enough in itself) and see her in the flesh was not to be missed.

The conversation was interesting, with a lot of backwards and forwards between Richard and Tracy, with minimal intervention by Alice Roberts, just when things might have seemed they were starting to flag or perhaps when they drifted slightly off-topic. Just right, I thought.

After a short Q&A session which took things up to the required hour, we all retired. The general public all left, but RS members and guests were efficiently siphoned off from the thronging masses into a side room where there was a drinks reception.

We chatted to a few people, though we didn't know any, then, almost at the end and just before the chief protagonists and a few RS officers were about to go in to dinner, we found ourselves in the group talking to my hearthrob. OK, I lie. We manoevred ourselves there!

While I distracted the bloke haranguing her loudly about electric cars, Jenny started talking to her about silver. As I've mentioned before, we found out quite fortuitously that she had been on a weekend course at Bringsty Arts Studios, which gave us a useful hook to start the conversation.

We had a lovely few minutes conversation in which she revealed that she not only had heard of Jenny, but also knew of her work and referred to Acanthostega! We were deeply impressed!

After they'd gone in to dine, we finished our wine and wandered up the road looking for somewhere to eat. After a pretty short search we came across a delightful, if pricy, restaurant in Jermyn Street called Rowley's. We anticipated it would be expensive, but were in sufficiently expansive mood to just say "The hell with it!"

We shared the scallop starter, which was divine, then Jenny had baked cod and I fillet steak with foie gras. Jenny had a glass of chardonnay while I had a couple of claret, and it was simply wonderful. The fact that the starter cost what we'd normally pay for a main was not enough to dent our ebullient mood, and we were still feeling the zing of a thoroughly enjoyable evening when we got home to Royston at 11!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Singing in Cambridge

Yesterday lunchtime, the choir we sang with in Venice last year and Brussels this year, Choir18, put on a concert in All Saints Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Churches Conservation Trust. We were one of 40 choirs singing in 40 churches over the weekend.

The Churches Conservation Trust maintains over 350 churches which are no longer used for regular worship and which would otherwise fall into disrepair.

This church was built in the 19th century on the site of an older church, and includes stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown and William Morris. Sadly, I didn't read the blurb until I got home, and didn't make the time to actually wander around and look at the place, which was pretty stupid, I think you'll agree.

Anyhow, we had a decent audience, so the church didn't look empty, and they seemed to like most of what we sang.

The programme included Gabrielli (Jubilate Deo), Purcell (Hear my prayer), Harris (Faire is the Heaven) and Barber (To be sung on the water), as well as works by contemporary composers like Whitacre, Matthews, Aquiar and Lauridsen. Afterwards the organisers had laid on a light lunch, after which Jenny and I sloped off, knackered, to idle the afternoon away!

One entertaining aspect of the event was that the Whitacre piece Sleep was originally a setting of a poem by Robert Frost, but the Frost estate refused permission for Whitacre to use those words. How spiteful is that? Makes you feel really warm and cosy about Frost's descendents, doesn't it? Fortunately, Whitacre is made of stern stuff and he found someone else to write words especially. And the result is magical, so I suppose we ought to be grateful to the wretches!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Cute Cephalopod!

I stole this from PZ Myers, where else? It's just soooo pretty!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Molecular Biology Manga

This is really cool. PZ Myers posted a link to this site where there's an example of a manga about molecular biology. OK, splenation: manga is a form of Japanese cartoon book - Jenny's first book, which was written for a Japanese publisher, was first translated into Japanese, then issued both as a regular book and as a manga. Including cartoon pictures of Jenny herself! Sadly, Jenny's manga hasn't been translated into English.

This particular manga, which has been translated, is all about molecular biology, aimed at making it entertaining as well as informative. And it works! Check it out!