Friday, 31 December 2010

Christmas in Spain

If you are lucky enough to have an apartment on the Costa del Sol, you'd be mad not to get out there when you can, so we had Christmas out there, and very nice it was, too!  Not exactly hot, at a modest 17°C, but miles better than the sub-zero temperatures our friends have been enjoying back in old Blighty!

So on Christmas Day Jenny and I went for a short walk, ending up down on the beach, where I took this photograph.  Although chilly, it was very pleasant, with flat-calm sea and a bit of light breaking through the cloud.  We didn't spend long down there before returning to the flat to start cooking Christmas dinner, which was roast local pork.
The next day we drove to Rhonda, about 50km away, up an incredibly twisty road.  You really have to concentrate as you drive up there.  Autopilot is a good way of killing yourself!  I was completely knackered by the time we got home in the evening!

Rhonda is a mediaeval town built on a rock, with a gorge between the old and new towns, now spanned by the 'new' (18th century, I think) bridge.

We parked in the new town, well away from the old, where it was easy to find a space, then walked the half mile or so to the gorge.  Found lunch in a small restaurant some distance before we reached the gorge, having been tempted in by the kid chops.  I don't often get the chance to eat goat, so had to go in!

And the kid chops were simply delicious.  Tiny, and tasting very similar to lamb.  Jenny had Rabo de Toro, which is ox-tail stew, and equally delicious. All washed down by a glass of decent Rioja.

After lunch we walked to the bridge and I followed a footpath down so I could take this photo, which is one of the classic views.
When we were unpacking on the first afternoon, we'd noticed that a shelf in the wardrobe in the master bedroom looked as though one end had got damp.  It was just contiboard, and the white plastic covering was peeling away from the chipboard underneath.

A couple of days later I leant on it, and it collapsed, so I cleared it all out, and this is what I found.  These are bits of the chipboard, and the reason it looks like chipboard 'foam' is that it's been infested by European termites!  They are sweet little things about 5mm long and had eaten out quite a lot of one end of the shelf.  They're all in the dustbin now, of course!  There's no risk to the property, as that's all built of brick, but we'll need to replace that shelf!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Still practising immaturity

Need I say more?
OK, I'll clue you in; it's supposed to be a cat, all right?
You'll understand why most of my carvings are abstract!
I enhanced the cat's ears, so have replaced the photo with a later one. 

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow at last!

So far we've avoided the snow that's been plaguing most of the country, but yesterday afternoon it started coming down in earnest, and now we have about 10cm, which is the most we've seen for oh, at least a year.

Edit: actually, 15cm.  I measured it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Little Egret in Royston

Around midday I was driving back home and saw what I swear was a little egret, flying along a hundred or so feet up.  It's really hard to imagine it being anything else, but I didn't think we had egrets in this part of the country.  I've sent an email to the warden of Fowlmere bird reserve, who knows more about birds than anyone else I know, and he'll certainly know whether or not they occur locally.

So beautiful, flying silently through the still, clear air.  Lovely day to spot a big white bird against that icy blue sky, too.

Edit: confirmed little egret.  There's been one hanging around Fowlmere for the past couple of weeks, so unsurprising to see it around here. Very nice indeed, I say.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir

This is fantastic!  Eric Whitacre is a young American composer, a few of whose works Jenny and I have sung and whose work we really like.  Semi-randomly surfing the web just now I came across his blog, in which he was discussing how he created a virtual choir and used it to record a piece of his called Lux arumque.  He filmed himself silently conducting the piece, then sent that to a couple of hundred singers who'd volunteered to take part.  Each of them filmed themselves singing their own part and sent it back to him, and he had a friend assemble the whole thing into a single movie.  And this is it.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A great cartoon explaining why climate change is real

Thanks to PZ Myers for drawing attention to this excellent cartoon which puts the case for man-made global warming.  Worth the 5 minutes it'll take you to read.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Breaking the Spell

I've been in a curious frame of mind for the past year or so, which I realise is an odd thing to say.  What I mean is that after a lifetime of reading all sorts of books, including lots of fiction, when we got back from Galápagos a year ago, I couldn't stand fiction and simply read factual stuff.  In that way I read Alexander von Humboldt's book about his travels in tropical South America, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species, Sean Carrol, Janet Brown and others you can see in the side bar on the right.  I tried fiction several times, but just got impatient with it and set it aside.  Vikram Seth and Stieg Larsson were treated the same; I read a few pages, then put them down.

But the other day I picked up Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death which is a murder mystery set in 12th century Cambridge and I simply could not put it down!  Today I was supposed to be going into the Zoology Museum in Cambridge to resume preparation some of the fossils we brought back from near Berwick in July, an activity I really enjoy, but I couldn't bring myself to abandon the book.  The fossils are still in Cambridge, and I've just finished the book!

So I don't know what it was about Galápagos that stopped me enjoying fiction, but that particular spell is broken, and I'm really glad!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A cloud forest in...

Oman is all desert, right?  Wrong!  This is cloud forest in the Salalah mountains in Oman, which is right on the edge of the monsoon region, so gets a bit of rain.  Actually, it only gets 15 inches of actual precipitation, but if you factor in the condensation from fog, you can triple that.  Thanks to Razib Khan with his blog at Discover magazine for the headsup.

Muddy paddy paws

We love our cat, but....

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Sun dog

Just peered out the back window to count birds and spotted this rather fine sun dog.  I had to switch the camera out of fully automatic mode so as to override its desire to focus on the TV aerial, and then it made the picture darker than I wanted, but I'm not good enough at the manual overrides to know how to fix that, so I'm afraid it's just a bit dark.

Salvation Army is off my charity list

So a volunteer at the Salvation Army in Calgary, sifting through a warehouse full of unused, donated items, was told to discard Harry Potter and Twilight toys as they were incompatible with the charity's Christian beliefs.  So not only are they anti-gay, but their stupidity extends to children's toys as well, as reported in the Edmonton Sun yesterday.

And just to add that extra gloss

"I was told to withhold a six-inch Harry Potter figure, but when I picked up a plastic M-16, I was told, 'That's for the 10-year-olds,'" he said.
You couldn't make it up, could you?

Black hole at the centre of our galaxy

This is so cool!

A black hole has so great a gravity field, even light can't escape, so how can you 'see' one?

Well, you could look for gravitational lensing, in which the space-time around the black hole is distorted, so light from stars on the other side is distorted.

But what some people at the UCLA Galactic Center Group did was to track a bunch of stars near the centre of our galaxy for more than a decade, working from the idea that the centre of a galaxy would be a logical place for a black hole to exist, and if it did, the movement of the stars might betray its presence.

And what they found was that the stars are orbiting around a gigantic nothing with a mass of 2.7 to 4 million times the mass of our sun.
You'll need to click the image to see the animation.

Tip of the hat to Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas has come early this year!

I read in the Guardian that the sorely-missed Monty Don will return to Gardeners' World, though I haven't found anything to say exactly when this joyous event will take place.  Hooray!  We loved Monty and were very sad when he didn't return to GW after recovering from his stroke.

The Beeb have axed the ghastly Toby Buckland, who has been a big put-off for us Clacks, though I know there are folks out there who like him a lot better than Monty.   I'm not surprised he's disappointed, but I'm still glad to see him go.

And sadly, Alys Fowler also got the chop.  I thought she was good and that GW didn't really allow her to blossom, if you'll excuse the pun.

Actually, as I write this, I find myself wondering how much this was all a problem of the scriptwriters, and how much Toby Buckland.  You know how mainstream comedians stop being funny after a couple of series. They spend decades developing their material before being discovered by TV, then use it all in a single series.  The second series is written by scriptwriters, who have fun exploring the new boy's talents, but then there's nothing funny left to say and we stop watching.  I wonder whether the production team decided on the new format for the programme and our dislike, which we targeted at Buckland, was actually the fault of the folks in the background.  Oh well, water, bridge, etc.

Good news for Louisiana

Despite much huffing and puffing by the Xtian right, yesterday a subset of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to approve some proper biology textbooks for use in schools, which is really good news.  The kids will get to learn about evolution even though the fundies hate it.  Well, probably.  The panel was seven members of the eleven member board.  Tomorrow the whole board will meet to vote the final approval, but since yesterday's vote was 6:1, it should go through.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Photographs of the frost

Having escaped the worst of the snow, we awoke this morning to find everything covered in a thick layer of frost.  The overnight freezing fog had done its best and made everything beautiful, and now the sun is shining,  so I'm posting a few photographs I've taken this morning.

Monday, 6 December 2010

How to tear clingfilm (plastic wrap)

Doesn't it drive you nuts the way, when you try to tear a piece of clingfilm (aka plastic wrap) off the roll, it simply won't come off in a nice, rectangular piece?  It always tears off in a horrible, irregular mess and worse, leaves the free end of what's still on the roll invisibly welded in place, making it impossible to find the end next time.  Well here's something I worked out.

Pull out as much film as you need and lay it and the roll flat on the worktop.  Take a sharp, kitchen knife - I like to use one with a blade about 20cm (8 inches) long as it has the necessary weight, but this works with a smaller knife.

Without pressing down at all on the knife, run the sharp edge across the clingfilm where you want it to tear.  Do not press down!  You don't want to score your worktop, do you?  You just need to score the clingfilm, and that takes almost nothing. I hold the knife so it points down towards worktop at an angle of about 15° or 20° but I don't think that's critical.

OK, if you insist on using a knife with a 10cm (4 inch) blade, you're going to have to press down just the teensiest bit, otherwise it's not going to score the film, but go easy or you'll score your worktop as well, and that's not a good thing to do.

Pick up the roll with one hand and the end of the film with the other and, starting at one end of the score, pull apart.  It should tear neatly where you scored it with the knife, and the free end is loose enough to be easy to find next time.


Does the Gummint prefer Hearsay?

So the government have removed the requirement for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to have any scientists on it.  This presumably because they can't find any scientists willing to tell them the lies they want to hear. 

It's enough to make you weep!

The world in a drop of water

Well, a man's head, actually.

I'm grateful to Ethan Siegel over at Starts with a Bang for posting these pictures of Pedro Duque during his time on the ISS.

So what's going on here?  Answer, the blob between the camera and the man is actually a droplet of water, which, under zero gravity, has become almost perfectly spherical.

The image is inverted because of the simple optics going on, and the camera has focused on the droplet, not the man, so you see Pedro slightly distorted, viewed through a spherical, water lens.


Sunday, 5 December 2010

Feeding frenzy in the garden

As I've mentioned before, I take part in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Bird Watch project, and spend a bit of time each day watching what's going on in the garden.  As always, while I dress, I look out of the window, and today was rewarded with a mass of birds.  In about 10 minutes, I saw:

  • a blackbird
  • 4 blue tits
  • 6 long-tailed tits
  • a coal tit
  • a great tit
  • 10 house sparrows
By the time I'd finished dressing, they'd all gone and I could see no bird life in the garden whatsoever.  This is a curious pattern, which I'm going to explore when I get a chance, because I've observed it casually over the past several months.  You can watch for 10 minutes and see nothing move, but then on another occasion there's masses happening.  I suspect the small birds are flocking together to feed at the same time for safety reasons, but that's pure speculation at present.  Watch this space!

While cooking breakfast we happened to notice that they were back.  One thing which I have changed recently is to fill one of the bird feeders with sunflower seed hearts, rather than the mixed seed I use in the other, and is divides the birds quite neatly - all the tits feed on the sunflower hearts, while the sparrows rapidly empty the feeder containing mixed seed.  So if I want to try to count the sparrows, I just watch that feeder and ignore the others, but watching tits, if you'll excuse the vulgarity, can be focused on the sunflower hearts.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

I love Jesus and Mo!

I think this one is particularly good!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Early retirement is good for me!

This BBC report is not news, but it's good to see confirmation.  I know I've felt better and more relaxed since losing my job in June than I have for ages.  I just love not having to get up to go to work in the mornings!

Unlike some other people, I don't measure my self-worth by the job I do, though that wasn't always the case.  That's not intended as a criticism of those that do; it's just an observation which means I don't feel bad about not having a job. But when Imerge folded in June, I just started doing other things that I like, such as carving, volunteering at the local nature reserve, preparing fossils in Jenny's lab, and so on.  I'm never bored and I never watch daytime TV.

It's lovely.  I recommend you try it, the minute you can afford it.  Unless, of course,  you do measure your self-worth by the job you do, in which case, stick with it!

Actually, when visiting the old Imerge website to ensure the link above would work, I discovered that a couple of weeks ago the old firm was bought out by Prism Sound of Stretham, near Ely, which is fabulous news!  I was heartbroken that such a terrific portfolio of products went down the tubes, so it's wonderful to hear that it's going to be resurrected.  I lifted this quote from the Prism website, and it matches the philosophy we followed at Imerge exactly.

Measured and subjective performance are the highest criteria, followed by flexibility and ease of use. They are not expected to be cheap, but they are expected to do their job in a manner that leaves nothing to chance and nothing to be desired, year after year.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Unexpected Royal Favour

You might expect the Queen, as head of the church in England, to sniff haughtily at us godless folks, but no;  in her speach to the General Synod yesterday, she was at pains to point out that atheists are not the evil bastards we're made out to be sometimes.

In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none.
Well bugger me!

Also reported in the Guardian today.

Who's a pretty polychaete then?

I do realise it's probably just the faintest bit weird to think marine worms are cool, but my excuse is that in a previous millennium Jenny used to run a marine biology field course for first year students every other year, and I went along initially to drive the minibus.  As I learned more about the animals, I eventually started giving the talk on marine worms, and I still think they are just wonderful.

So I was delighted today to run across this Ed Yong article on the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.

The worm in question lives in deep water near the Philippines, where it swims rather above the sea floor,so avoiding bottom trawls, but below the depth at which mid-water trawls tend to take place, so it's new to science, and there seem to be quite a lot of them.

I'm pretty sure (OK, I'm guessing!) the similarity to Anomalocaris is completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Traces of modern civilisation in stone

I have often wondered how we might leave a clue of what we were about in case we manage to wipe ourselves out, and have never thought up anything remotely likely.  This Discover blog has found someone who has!

I think the idea is simply brilliant, but sadly, the execution leaves me cold.  It looks as though the artist, Kevin Sudeith, has used an angle grinder, which I'd suggest is not an ideal tool for fine work.

On the other hand, at least some of his works seem to be done in granite, which is bloody hard and would certainly keep me busy with my hammer and chisel.  Actually, I doubt I could do anything this good at all, but I still wish he'd managed to achieve smoother edges.

Maybe if he worked on a much bigger scale...

What's so premature about premature ejaculation?

Tip of the hat to Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science for pointing out this entertaining article in Scientific American.

Actually, if you visit Ed's Missing Links page, the 1918 autopsy article is worth reading, too.

Giving my neck a break

As it were.  For the past six weeks or so my neck has been giving me gyp, especially early in the morning.  At first I just took paracetamol, then I went to a physiotherapist three times, which seemed to help for a bit, but then it just got worse again.  Last week I took it to the doctor, who sent me for an X-ray and specified some blood tests which will happen this week.  No idea what that might tell him.  Since it's worst around dawn, I figured it might be pillows, so I've been experimenting with those (thicker or thinner than usual), so far to no avail.

So today, after another bad night, I resolved to stop doing anything that might exacerbate the symptoms, which means, amongst other things,  no volunteering at the nature reserve and no fossils work, as that involves peering down a binocular microscope.

But that doesn't mean I can't wander around the reserve looking at things, and today I'm glad I did that, even though it was a bit chilly.

This is a siskin.  I stole the picture off the web, having not given the idea of taking my own photograph a thought.  Pathetic, I know.  The birds were easily close enough for me to have got a half-way decent picture.  Anyway, there were about 10 of them, and very nice it was to see them, too.  And accompanied by 3 long-tailed tits, which are always just so cute!

Later I saw, at some distance, a marsh harrier being mobbed by a single rook.  Sadly, it disappeared from view after a very few seconds, never to re-emerge.

Doug has put a tray of grit out in front of the Reedbed hide in the hope of tempting some bearded tits out of the reeds so folks can see them.  Bearded tits, like many gramnivorous birds, keep some grit in their gizzard to help grind up the seeds they eat, so the idea was they'd pop out of the reeds to top up.  They didn't, at least while I was watching.

After an hour, thoroughly chilled, I came home.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Counting sparrows

I've been taking part in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Bird Watch for well over a year now, and one thing I often have difficulty with is counting the number of house sparrows we have.  We've put up several nest boxes for them, and they often feed at one of our bird feeders, but once there are more than about 10 of them, it's really hard to count them as they flit between the hedge and the feeder.  See you you get on.  I think there are eight sparrows in this movie clip.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Yet more needless cruelty in the name of religion

Johann Hari has written an excellent article in the Indy today, which was a real eye-opener for me.  I had no idea that the slaughter method used to produce halal and kosher meat is so cruel, and it turns out a quarter of the meat sold in the UK is prepared in this way.

In Britain, it is a crime to kill a conscious cow or sheep or chicken for meat by slashing its throat without numbing it first. The reasons are obvious. If you don't numb an animal, it screams as you hack through its skin, muscle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and major nerve trunks, and then it remains conscious as it slowly drowns in its own blood – a process that can take up to six minutes. So we insist that an animal is stunned before its throat is slashed, to ensure it is deeply unconscious. There isn't much humanity in our factory farming system, but this is – at least – a tiny sliver of it, at the end.
But the rules for producing kosher and halal meat require the animal to be fully conscious while its throat is cut, and to pretend that this is not painful is simply to ignore the evidence.

And you might be surprised to learn that quite a few organisations use meat prepared in this way, presumably so they can comfortably part muslims and jews from their money.  But of course, the meat is never labelled kosher or halal because the rest of us might just object to eating food produced with needless cruelty.
It is served unlabelled and as standard meat in Wembley Stadium, Twickenham, on all British Airways flights, at Nando's, Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and even swanky Ascot racecourse.
 We need to start making some noise about this.  It really isn't acceptable to use religion as an excuse for cruelty to sentient beings. This isn't the 6th century.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Clearing a chalk stream

Today being Thursday, the volunteers were out in force at Fowlmere Nature Reserve.  Doug was at a meeting in Norfolk, so Rob, the Cambridgeshire ecology officer (or some such.  Not really sure of his title) got us going, then disappeared, leaving us to get on with it.  This was what we'd expected; he wasn't abandoning us in our hour of need!

The main task was to clear sedge from where it was growing in the main flow of the stream, and cut back herbage on either side to get a bit more light to the water, and as you can see, that seems to have been successfully completed.  I managed to avoid getting wet by accidentally leaving my wellies in the car, though I did have to don waders and replant some of the sedge plants elsewhere on the reserve later.

What you may not be able to see in the photo is that the stream has a series of posts driven into the ground along either edge, with withies woven between them and the space behind backfilled.  This is what I was talking about in my last post.  By making the channel narrower, the rate of flow is increased, reducing silting and keeping the stream suitable for fish like trout and bullhead.

Obviously with sedge growing there, the flow had been seriously impeded and it was important to pull it out.  Once things settle down, the water will flow clear once more.

A satisfying morning's work, rounded off by my seeing a female merlin as I drove home.  First time I can be confident it really was a merlin!  Oh all right:  a bit bigger than a blackbird, much smaller than a kestrel, dark brown all over, but definitely a raptor, with short neck,  pointy wings and long tail.  One of our bird books says to look for the heavily barred tail, but hey, I was driving at the time!

It crossed the road from my right about 3m up in the air, then turned parallel with the hedge that runs along the road, dropping to less than a metre above the ground and gliding most of the way to the entrance to someone's driveway, then banked sharply left and flew in there.  I was coasting quietly behind it, so got a good view, though not of the tail bars, sadly.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Maintenance at Fowlmere

With all the wind we've been having, it was no surprise to get an email on Monday from Doug, the warden at Fowlmere, about clearing a fallen tree.  I'd been around the reserve about 10 days previously, and found nothing, but then the weather was so foul I didn't get back in at all.

Three of us set to yesterday morning and by lunchtime had got it all sorted out.  Doug wielded the chainsaw and the other two of us hauled away the logs, branches and ivy.  It was a glorious morning and very satisfying to have some hard physical work to do for a couple of hours.

During a break I spotted the bracket fungus on a post driven into the streambed long ago.  Twigs are woven between rows of posts and the space behind backfilled so as to narrow the channel and speed up the flow.  This reduces silting up and makes the stream more suitable for trout and other chalk stream species.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Some pictures of Manchester

It was Jenny's birthday the other week and we'd been talking for some time of arranging a day out just for the hell of it.  Initially this was going to be London - take in a concert or something, visit an art gallery, find a nice restaurant for dinner and catch a train home around 10.
Then Jen decided a weekend in Manchester would be better.  She's from there, so it makes sense, and we could go to the Lowry centre amongst other places.

There's slightly more to this saga.  About 25 years ago I was working for a London based company who hired me out as a computer consultant to Barclays Bank in Knutsford.  My employer had a deal whereby if you were working away from home for more than 3 months, they'd pay for a dirty weekend for you and your partner, and my boss recommended that we stay in the Britannia Hotel in central Manchester.  It was brilliant, with the most amazing staircase which, at that time, was painted in pale blue and gold.  We had a nightcap sitting in a settee on one of the landings, just gazing at the staircase and watching the world go by.

So of course, we had to stay there this time as well.  The staircase has now been painted magnolia, which is not as wonderful, but it is still the most amazing structure.

On Saturday morning we wandered around the centre of the city just for Jenny's old times' sake, then caught a tram to the Lowry Centre in Salford.  The Lowry Restaurant in the centre is excellent, and we had very good lunch before going into the actual gallery.   Over the river from the restaurant we could see the tower of a lifting bridge reflected in the windows of a modern office block.  This is one of several photographs I took as the light changed.

The actual exhibition was a little disappointing.  The well-known style is nice enough, but I found that I quickly reached saturation point and several rooms of Lowrys were more than I wanted.  Jenny had hoped there'd be more very early stuff, before he developed his matchstick figures style, and I was hoping for more of the later seascapes.

After that we did the Imperial War Museum, which I suppose was our penance for having such an otherwise terrific weekend! We kept

snapping away as dusk fell, and I was particularly pleased with this end-on shot of the new swing bridge they're building there.  The previous photo of it was taken from the viewing platform in the IWM tower, just so you can see what the arty-farty photo is about.

In the evening I'd booked us a table in The French restaurant in the Midland Hotel.  I had looked at a sample menu online, so I knew when I booked that it was going to be seriously expensive, so I just hoped the quality matched the price.  It did.  We started by sharing a quail dish, accompanied by a half bottle of Sancerre, then Jenny had a lamb main course while I had beef fillet steak, with a bottle of claret to wash it down.  All simply delicious and while we didn't come away thinking we'd found an absolute bargain, we nevertheless thought we'd had good value for money.

On Sunday morning we went to the Manchester Art Gallery  although we could only allow ourselves an hour there, which wasn't remotely enough.  We found a room dedicated to Adolphe Valette who was a French artist who taught at the Manchester School of Art in the early part of the 20th century.  Among his students was one L S Lowry.  There was also an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, some of which featured in the TV programme about that group not long ago here in the UK.

We decided to idle gently back home across country, so around midday set out down the A6 , stopping for lunch at a pub, then continuing down through Chesterfield and Mansfield to Newark.  There, we picked up the A1 and headed south and home, where I'd taken the precaution of buying in a half leg of lamb so we could have a roast dinner.  Lovely!

Friday, 12 November 2010

Libel Reform in the UK

I lifted this straight from PZ Myers.  Please copy it to your own blog and sign the petition.

This is a message from Simon Singh:

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particular dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

A very strange meal

Having spent most of yesterday picking interesting looking, but so far unidentified bones out of rock, Jenny and I headed home, aiming for the 18:26 from Cambridge, but discovered, on arriving at the station, that our train had been cancelled owing to earlier damage to the overhead power lines somewhere.

Not wanting to wait half an hour for the next one, we inspected the (extensive!) queue for a taxi, and opted to find a local restaurant for a quick, cheap meal, and catch a later train, so walked back up towards town.  Eventually we decided a Chinese restaurant called Sesame looked hopeful, the menu on display by the door promising something different from what we're used to, so in we went.

Well it certainly was different!  I had duck in a beer sauce, which turned out to be all those bits of duck you normally throw away.  It had been dismembered with a cleaver, so there were lots of small chips of bone, and the actual chunks of animal consisted mostly of the joints, a bit of neck and a piece of backbone, none of it with much meat on.  They'd obviously kept the meaty bits for themselves.  There was a lot of it, and certainly the soup it was in was very tasty, but we weren't impressed by the duck.

Jenny's meal of battered and deep fried strips of lamb was rather better, but even so, I'd bet the meat they started with was breast of lamb, as there wasn't too much meat involved in that either, being mostly fat.  Quite tasty, but unlikely to be healthy!

And then they could not accept a debit card, having had some problem with the equipment.  Fortunately, I had a wallet full of notes, so could cope with that.

For all my whining it was cheap, the staff were cheerful and courteous and there was no unnecessary hanging around, so I've no real cause for complaint.  I don't think we'll be back, however.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Do not get taken in

There are some wrist bands (oh, now necklaces, too) being sold in the US and Australia, and no doubt in the UK and online too, which claim to work with your body's natural energy to improve your balance, strength and flexibility, using holograms built into the devices which resonate with the natural energy field of the body.

It's complete bullshit, of course.  Holograms can do nothing, and the term 'natural energy field of the body' is meaningless.  This little movie takes it all apart very effectively.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Another new recipe

We watched Nigel Slater the other night for the first time ever, and he showed a recipe using mashed butternut squash to top a shepherd's pie, instead of mashed potato.  I was inspired, and tonight made my own version.  If you're not familiar with bobotie, I'd suggest you make that first, before trying this variant.  It's not for nothing that bobotie would be a hot contender for South Africa's national dish!

Bobotie Shepherd's Pie with Butternut Squash

This is a combination of a South African bobotie (a Cape Malay dish made with curried minced lamb and one of our favourites!) with a traditional shepherd's pie.    There are many versions of the bobotie recipe, and this one I'm linking to is similar to the one I did, though you'll notice I left out milk, breadcrumbs and egg, as I didn't want the meat filling to set the way a bobotie does.  I also didn't add the bobotie topping, using mashed butternut squash instead.

This recipe gives the quantities for Jenny and me, so you may want to adjust it a bit. 

250 gm minced lamb
Olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
10 ml (2 teaspoons) curry powder
2.5 ml (half a teaspoon) ground turmeric
Finely grated zest of ¼ lemon
Sea salt and black pepper
50 gm dried apricots, chopped
Half an apple, peeled, cored and chopped.  The bobotie recipe says Granny Smith; I used a Braeburn I happened to have.
30 gm sultanas
25 gm slivered almonds, roasted in a dry frying pan
2 lemon, orange or bay leaves
Half a butternut squash

You can peel the butternut squash before you steam it, or not.  If you leave it, it will take slightly longer to cook but be easier to peel.  First cut it into wedges or chunks, whatever you prefer, remove any seeds, then steam for about 20 minutes until it's tender.

While it's doing that, fry the onion and garlic gently in the oil until translucent.
Stir in the curry powder and turmeric and cook briefly until fragrant.
Mix in the minced lamb and brown it, then add the lemon zest and juice, salt, pepper, apricots, apple, sultanas and almonds.

If your timing is good, both will be ready at the same time.  Put the mince mixture into a pyrex dish, spreading it out flat, push the leaves into the mince mixture, then spread the mashed squash on top, covering the entire surface.  Our pie ended up about 6 cm deep and perhaps 20 cm across.

Dot with butter and stick it in the oven on flat-out (our fan oven only does about 200ºC) for 20 minutes, until the topping is starting to go slightly crispy and brown.

Some Cape Malays put cumin, coriander and cloves in their boboties, but I haven't yet tried that.  Personally I'd like to try cardamom, too.

Monday, 8 November 2010


This is most of the crop of potatoes I've been growing in my greenhouse since July, and although it doesn't look much, I'm delighted with them.

They're a second early called Vivaldi and were introduced by Thompson & Morgan, and are completely delicious.

I've not treated my potatoes very well this year, and the main lot outside were pretty dud.  Then some of the stems of these in the greenhouse got mould and started to go slimy and disgusting, so instead of waiting for Christmas, I harvested them yesterday.

We had a roasted wild duck with sour cherry sauce, and boiled up all the tiny potatoes you always get, just as new potatoes.  Just delicious, as I said, and the catalogue claims they are also good for almost any other cooking style. 

So here's what I did and what went wrong.  I had six 70 litre compost bags outside, each with three or four seed potatoes at the bottom.  I start with about 15cm compost, then, as the shoots emerge, earth up continuously, unrolling the bag as I go, until the bag is completely full of compost.  The idea is that the plants keep adding new layers of tubers, so you end up with a massive crop.  This is really only effective with maincrop potatoes, so I had high hopes of my King Edwards, and less for the Dunbar Rover, which is a second early.

So first, I somehow failed to punch drainage holes in one of the bags, so although the plants grew, when the wettest August on record started, the bag filled with water and everything rotted.  This did rather highlight the fact that I'd not been watering as diligently as I should, or I'd have had that problem much earlier!

Then I didn't feed them properly.  I should have been giving them a high potash feed to encourage root growth, where in fact I gave them a general purpose fertiliser, and not enough of that.

Finally, when I did harvest them, we found that quite a few of them have become what is called glassy.  I've not seen glassy potatoes since I was a child, and I'm still not sure how to avoid it.  It's reputed to be caused by the tuber starting to grow a shoot and roots in its own right, as if to make a new plant. As the shoot develops, it uses the starch in the tuber as its own food source, the flesh goes somewhat translucent, and no amount of boiling will render the thing soft.  Worse, it is either entirely flavourless or tastes disgusting.  You end up with a greyish, crisp, tasteless (if you're lucky!) potato with little or no nutritional value.  Yuk!

The mistake with the Christmas potatoes was to start them off in the greenhouse in July.  It was far too hot, and the leaves got scorched and probably grew much too fast, too.  They shot up to the roof, then collapsed over sideways, which I think was the cause of the mould that eventually infected several of the plants. 

Next year I plan to buy proper planters from T & M, instead of using old compost bags, to feed and water more assiduously, and to start the Christmas potatoes off outside and only move them into the greenhouse in September or October when there's a risk of frost.

But I will definitely be growing Vivaldi again!  Yum!

Jenny's Birthday

It was Jenny's birthday last Wednesday, and she decided she wanted to go to the Red Cow at Chrishall for the weekly dining excursion.  Generally no-one has much of an opinion of where to go, so if anyone says "What about there?" that tends to be enough.  I was slightly apprehensive because I'd heard the pub had changed hands, and we didn't know if it was still as good as it had been, but I'm delighted to report that it is still excellent!

There were eight of us, which meant we tended to split into two groups of four, but that was fine and we all had a good time.

Wednesday was particularly successful for me, too, as I was finally (and only just in time!) inspired to make a piece of jewellery for Jenny.  I'd been casting around for something to make her for weeks, but nothing interesting occurred to me until Wednesday morning, when a design for a ring popped into my head.

 As you can see, it's pretty simple, so I was able to make it in the afternoon in time to hand it over that evening.  That's my hand in the photograph, not Jenny's, of course.

The stones are cubic zirconium, cut just like diamonds and in fact, indistinguishable from the real thing without specialist equipment. I have to say, I'm pretty pleased with the result, and Jenny was, too.  In fact, the manager of the local branch of Cambridge Wine and a member of her staff both liked the ring enough to enquire about copies.  I might just do that, given the horribletude of the weather today!

Friday, 5 November 2010

A spiritual plane where everything is invisible, yet!

I'm grateful to Greg Laden for posting this and I like it enough to want to share it with you!

The bird that cries "Hawk!"

Ed Yong reports on Not Exactly Rocket Science about some anecdotal evidence that is no longer anecdotal.  A year or so ago he heard about a Seth Efrican bird called a fork-tailed drongo mimicing other animals' alarm calls and stealing their food when they panicked and ran away.

“Drongos are notorious thieves and mimics. In South Africa, I spent a morning with a meerkat researcher, following live meerkats. He said that he had anecdotal evidence that the fork-tailed drongo would sometimes mimic the predator alarm calls of meerkats while they were foraging and then swoop down to nick their unearthed morsels.”
Now a Cambridge PhD student, Tom Flower, has demonstrated that it really is true.

The drongos use a combination of alarms. Some are their own, but others are imitations of the warning calls of glossy starlings, crowned plovers and pied babblers. Foraging animals often form watchful alliances, where different species recognise and listen out for each others’ alarms. If one spots danger, the entire alliance runs for cover.
So the drongo can give a glossy starling alarm call and the meerkats scurry for cover, leaving the bird to collect the food.  Neato!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


This is a great post by a woman who had an abortion.  These things need to be said.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A little bit of DIY

In the cupboard under our stairs we have a rail across, from which we hang coats on coat hangers, and have never worried about the dead space behind the coats.

Recently, however, I realised that the wine fridge, which currently lurks behind a settee in the living room, would fit neatly into that space, and as said space is unheated, would have to work less hard at keeping the wine cool.

The wine snobs amongst you will know that white wine should be served at around 8 - 10°C.  If, like most of the world, you chill your white wine in a conventional domestic fridge, you'll be serving it at around 5°C, which is why it is relatively tasteless when you take your first glug.  So a year or two back, Jenny bought me a proper Gordon Ramsay wine fridge which holds a dozen bottles. A giant leap for wine snobbery in the Clack household!

The only down side to this is that the fridge itself is rated as having an energy efficiency of G, which is about as inefficient as you can get.  I'm not sure how they are allowed to sell it, and if I was Gordon Ramsay I'd certainly not allow them to associate my name with it!

So we've been looking for somewhere cool and out of the way to put it, and once installed, I'll be getting some decent insulating sheet to wrap around it in an effort to reduce its current size 16 carbon footprint.

Last weekend, the weather being foul, we started making that dead space behind the coats accessible from the hallway, with the result you can see here.  Two sweet little doors made from an old one I was too mean to throw away about 10 years ago. Don't look too closely at the workmanship, as, like many a DIYer, I'm not that good at getting the angles perfect and the gaps precisely parallel.  And the fact that they're not quite the same shade is down to the one on the left showing its original outside, while the one on the right is showing it's original inside, which has faded less.  Well, if it doesn't bother me, it shouldn't bother you!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Botswana skeptics blog

This makes me feel really optimistic but I post this because of the excellent cartoon!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I want to do this!

I'm much obliged to Arabella Sock for posting this wonderful picture.  Of course, I can't just up  and off to San Sebastian to indulge, but I do have minnows and sticklebacks in my pond.  D'you think if I dangled my feet in the pond, my fishies would oblige?

Actually, at this time of year the water is more than a bit parky, so perhaps I'll wait until next summer before trying it!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Fowlmere Bird Reserve

Today the warden, Doug,  had to go to Norwich for a meeting, so yesterday another volunteer, Mike, and I went to the reserve where Doug showed us what he wanted done today.

When I got back to the car park I spotted this beautiful euonymus growing in the hedge.

Today Mike had a couple of people with brushcutters, plus another to help rake up, while I took everyone else to the reedbed where last week we cut a mass of reeds. 

One of the things we had to do today, which made it much harder work, was entirely my fault, though I wasn't at all sorry!  Last week, while moving reeds around to clear the way for the man with the rice harvesting machine, I spotted two water voles.  I didn't realise there is no official record of water voles at Fowlmere, or I'd have made the effort to photograph them.

Anyhow, the fact that they were in the reedbed and I had seen them near the reeds stacked in long rows ready to be burned, meant that we had to restack all the reeds so as not to catch voles hiding under the stacked reeds.  Every last one had to be moved!  Well, there were five of us, so although it was a lot of work, we got it done reasonably quickly.

The wind was blowing in the wrong direction for lengthwise burning anyway, so we built big stacks and fired them progressively.  With a stiff breeze blowing, it was quite spectacular, and the stacks burned away much more quickly than last week.  Didn't see any evidence of Rattie, unfortunately.

So I took the opportunity to take some more fire photographs!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Extra Brownie Points

Jenny flew back from Pittsburgh overnight, landing at Heathrow shortly after 6 this morning.  When I looked at her flight itinerary, it looked as though she'd be travelling for an awfully long time, so I determined to pick her up from Heathrow instead of letting her catch the train home.  The train is not hard, but it takes quite a while, and she'd be navigating the centre of London  during the rush hour, which is never fun.

I started my preparations last night.  Once I'd recovered from Fowlmere I did a quick shop, to make sure I had everything I'd need.  Then I discovered I was ravenous at 6 pm, so reheated and ate some leftover chicken, broccoli and macaroni bake which I'd made on Monday.  There was rather a lot, and to my surprise I finished it off with no bother.  In fact, I was still rather peckish, so heated up the remains of Wednesday's Indian, which had been destined for today's lunch.  Even then, I wasn't overfull.  Amazing!  I haven't eaten so much in a sitting for years!

After nursing some nice red wine while watching Channel 4' Inside Giants, this one being about the Giant Squid, I went to bed and slept well.  Although I'd set an alarm for 5.45, in fact I woke at 4.30 and decided that would give me time to check the status of Jenny's flight, so while I showered and dressed, I turned the puter on.  And I'm glad I did, because she was expected to land half an hour early.

I was out of the house by 5 and met satisfyingly little traffic, pitching up at Terminal 1 International Arrivals at 6.15, a few minutes after touchdown.

Her progress through the terminal was swift, and the look on her face as she emerged and caught sight of me was worth the effort.

Once we hit the M25 she ferreted in the tote bag I'd brought and poured some coffee, then, as we neared home, she ate the two yoghurts I'd brought for her.  We were home by 8.15 and in a very short order hit the sack.

And we are agreed: it is very nice indeed that she's back!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Today on Fowlmere Bird Reserve

Today we were burning reeds at Fowlmere and I tell you, I was completely whacked when I gave up at 3 o'clock.  A guy with an Italian rice-harvesting machine was going around cutting and baling the reeds and we had to first make sure the bales were out of his way the next time he came around and then stack and burn them.  Burning them was quite fun, of course, but there was still lots of stacking to do right up to the end, as Tim, the driver, just wouldn't stop!

The harvester was just about at the limit of its performance, cutting these reeds, and Tim kept having to stop to fix things.  Unjamming a great knot of reeds, re-threading the string that ties the bundles together, and on and on.  But even with the breakdowns, we couldn't keep up!

Towards the end of the day I realised I'd not spent much time looking for birds, but not long after that cast my eyes skywards and was rewarded with a marsh harrier, so that was OK.

When I got home I sank a J2O, then had a cup of tea and finally a long, deep, hot bath.  Ah, bliss!

And tomorrow I have to be up at 5 so I can pick Jenny up from Heathrow.  She's not expecting me, so I have to be there when she walks out of arrivals.  If I miss her, she'll hop on the tube to Kings Cross and I'll have wasted the journey.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Things you didn't know you didn't know

This is amazing! I found this article in Biology Today about bacteria called Shewanella which grow tiny hairs when times get tough.  The researchers called them nanowires and the first publications about them appeared in 2006, so it's a pretty new field.

Turns out the nanowires actually conduct electricity, and colonies of Shewanella can join up their nanowires, giving, amongst other things, the possibility of inter-bacterial communication, though that's still speculative.

One of many bits of information I didn't know was that bacterial respiration can be described as 'giving up electrons' and that our own breathing is fundamentally just that, though we use oxygen to accept the electrons and bacteria use other electron acceptors.

Electricity carried on nanowires may be a lifeline. Bacteria respire by losing electrons to an acceptor – for Shewanella, a metal such as iron. (Breathing is a special case: Humans respire by giving up electrons to oxygen, one of the most powerful electron acceptors.)
So when times are tough and there's not much for a hapless bacterium to dump electrons onto (ie respire) it grows nanowires which join up to its mates' nanowires and hopefully the colony can find some electron-acceptors somewhere, enabling the whole colony to survive.
"This would be basically a community response to transfer electrons," El-Naggar explained. "It would be a form of cooperative breathing."
Neat, eh?

Monday, 11 October 2010


I read this in a book called The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho.  I've been reading small dribs and drabs of it over the past several months.  I've not yet finished it, and I'm not convinced it's any good, because I keep losing the thread, but I like this quote, so I offer you a paraphrase.  It's in the context of your religion forbidding consumption of specific things.

It's not what goes in your mouth that is evil, but what comes out.
Later: well, it's a nice little story, but I didn't (even from the start) like the way it was wrapped up with religious and other stuperstitious   overtones.  It could easily have been written without the silly fairy-story aspects, but I guess you can't have everything.  I must have liked it a bit - I finished it!


This morning as I was dressing I looked out of the window into our back garden and just caught sight of a flurry of pigeons all flying off in roughly the same direction, followed by a small cloud of collared doves, the whole kaboodle heading roughly east.  Now this struck me as unusual, since although there are lots of pigeons and doves, they rarely fly in any kind of coordinated fashion.

So I was alert when a sparrowhawk shot across the garden.  "Ah, that'll be it then" I thought.  I was surprised enough by the pigeons' reaction to do an internet search, and it would seem that sparrowhawks do take a few pigeons.  I'd thought they were too big to be on the menu regularly.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Good in parts

Well last night's meal was a bit of a mixed bag.  The oxtail stew itself was truly splendid, reflecting an excellent, simple recipe.  The potatoes dauphinoise were less good, proving that crême fraîche is no substitute for cream in this recipe!  The crême fraîche went rather cheesy, like cream cheese, which was not the desired effect at all!  But the desert of warm peach with berries in a Grand Marnier syrup worked well.  I was so full I had to leave the washing up until this morning!

The Montbazillac was delicious, too.  We'd opened it on Wednesday, when it had seemed rather one-dimensional (wine-snob-speak for sweet but rather bland!) but after several days in the fridge, it was richer, fuller and altogether more wonderful!

And then this morning I drew back the curtains to find 17 (yes, seventeen!) collared doves and a great spotted woodpecker in the ex-blue tree!  A splendid way for the day to greet me!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Estofado de rabo de buey

As I've mentioned before, when Jenny goes away I like to indulge myself on the food and drink front, so have just put my oxtail stew into the oven for about 4 hours at 140°C.  This is an Andalucian recipe with butter beans, tomatoes and red wine, as well as all the usual suspects.  We've done it quite a few times before, though I think this is the first time I've cooked it by myself.  Not sure.  Anyway, it is one of our favourites, so hopefully will be up to the mark.  To go with it I've brought a bottle of 2002 Côtes Rôtie up from the cellar to warm to room temperature.  I'll decant that an hour or so ahead of time.

For vegetables, I have Dunbar Rover potatoes I grew in a polythene bag, which are nice boiled, though they are a tad too floury for my taste, and then perhaps carrots or French beans or both, straight from the garden.  I know I'll have vastly too much, so am not planning to have a starter or pudding, though there is the dregs of a half-bottle of Montbazillac in the fridge.  Hmmm.  Maybe I should think of something in the way of a dessert.  Perhaps I'll go and see what the farm shop has in the way of berry fruits.... maybe pick up some crême fraîche....

Later: a white-fleshed peach, some fresh blueberries and frozen raspberries.  I think if I heat those up in a light brandy syrup they'll be just right!  And I'm thinking I could do something more adventurous with the potatoes, now I've got the crême fraîche.

All by my ownsome

Jenny's flown off to Pittsburg for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual symposium, leaving me here at home.  As is often the case in these situations, once she's gone, I feel rather at a loose end for a while, before getting my act together and using my time productively, so here I am wasting time blogging on a Saturday afternoon!

I came across these fantastic pictures on the Discover blog.  Collaboration between an ad company, Canon printers and a photographer yielded some exquisite photographs of liquid ink being manipulated by sound waves.  I couldn't find a way to embed the slide show, so just cut out the arty stuff, ignoring pictures of the equipment they were using.