Sunday, 31 January 2010

RSPB Garden Birdwatch

Just done our hour of birdwatching for the RSPB. Never taken part in this event before, although it has been going for decades. The idea is that you count the birds you see in your garden during a selected hour over this weekend, and enter the maximum number of individuals that visited your garden during that hour. So if you see 4 sparrows early on, then 2 later, you count that as 4, but if, later, you see 6, then you count that as 6.

We saw 4 blackbirds, 2 blue tits, 1 buzzard (admittedly only flying over, but I count that as 'feeding', so visiting), 2 collared doves, 2 dunnock, 9 house sparrows, 1 long-tailed tit, 1 redwing, 2 robins and 4 woodpigeons.

The blue tits have obviously already paired up, as they were visiting a nestbox built into a brick column. This struck us as a tad early in the season, but I imagine the tits know what they're doing better than we do! The redwing only visited for a short while, eating red crab apples, before a blackbird chased it off. I rather expect one species to largely ignore another, so was slightly suprised when I first saw blackbirds chasing redwings out of 'their' crab apple, but I suppose the blackbird is getting proprietorial about the apples, particularly as there aren't too many left.

And it really was very pleasant just standing in the bedroom window gazing out of the window for an hour, binoculars and camera to hand.

Saturday, 30 January 2010


Well I guess most of the world has already seen it, judging by the box office take, but if you're hesitating, just get in there and watch it. The plot's predictable, but everything else is simply brilliant! And there are some particularly splendid and innovative life-forms.

So if you're up for it, Jane, I'm happy to see it again!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

OK, I know I'm slow...

This is such a brilliant cartoon. Sadly, it took me two reads to get the joke. (If you click the cartoon, you'll see a slightly larger, clearer version.)

So if you've got this far, as I did, and still not got it, read it again, but check out the spelling in the last two frames....

Pretty good chips!

Jenny is out at a posh-frocks Darwin College anniversary dinner and won't be back until late, so I'm treating myself cuisine-wise, as usual.

This is the steak and chips I've just consumed, and I have to say it was a qualified success. The steak is sirloin, cooked according to a recipe I found on the net called Grilled Sirloin, High Plains Drifter Style.

Essentially you coat the steak with a paste made with garlic, marjoram, cumin seed, paprika, whole-grain mustard, olive oil and red wine vinegar. You're supposed to barbecue it, but of course, in January in the UK I was never going to do that, so I just fried it. That didn't really work, as the paste stuck to the pan and just fell off the meat. However, it was not a disaster.

When it was done I set it to one side under foil to rest for 3 or 4 minutes while I dealt with the sauce. Deglaze the pan with a glug of red wine, then whisk in a knob of butter to make a delicious silky sauce. Yum!

The beans didn't work at all. They were green beans from our garden last summer, frozen without blanching as that tends to leave them too soggy when you cook them, but just microwaving with butter was not the way to deal with them. I think if I'd steamed them, they'd have been fine.

The steak was not bad. A bit strong on the paprika side, but nevertheless tender and tasty, and I'll probably save the recipe for the summer when I can burn the meat on the barbie.

And now the chips, Oh Yes! Thickly cut from Maris Pipers, par-boiled for 3 minutes, drained, dried off by leaving them in the same pan over a low light for a few minutes, then fried in duck fat. Oh boy! Crisp and gorgeous they were!

And all accompanied by a magical South African red called Chocolate Block which I continue to sip as I type. Cheers!

Now I'm going to light a fire and fall asleep on the settee in front of it while the Mahler 5 plays itself out. Night night!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Quirky Phones

I lifted this movie clip from the Discover blog, specifically this posting. It's about a music group at Stanford University, who use mobile phones to play music. Actually rather more interesting than that sounds!

Clear Evidence of a Higher Authority!

His noodliness be praised, he has appeared to comfort us in our distress!

Slightly good news

This video is of James Randi of JREF fame, talking about the appalling Jim McCormick and the totally hoax ADE651, a dowsing rod masquerading as a device capable of detecting explosives and widely used in Iraq. The Iraqi government has spend $85 million on these completely useless devices! 85 million dollars! And worse than the waste of money is the fact that people are undoubtedly being killed and injured by explosives that have not been detected by the devices.

Although our gallant gummint has banned the export of the devices to Iraq and Afghanistan, (that's the good news) sadly they haven't charged the conman who sells them with fraud. Today they arrested and bailed him, so no doubt he'll do a runner. Well, he's made enough profit just out of Iraq to retire comfortably.

Enjoy the movie clip.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

How did birds first start to fly?

When I was at university about a millenium ago, a question which has only just been resolved was being debated in the palaeontological world: how did birds first start to fly? Were they ground-dwellers, which used their wings to flap themselves faster and faster until they found they were off the ground, or did they live in trees and glide down from the heights?

Now some research has been published by US and Chinese workers supporting the latter theory, based on a reconstructed skeleton of Microraptor which had feathers on both the wings and the hind legs and, just for extra zing, on actual flight tests of a model. It does look like fun!

Oh yeah, and my own original prejudice is shown to be vindicated. I never could make sense of the running-along-the-ground-until-you-take-off argument!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Spring is here!

Well OK, indications that the year has turned are here. I should have taken the picture of the winter aconites while the sun was shining, when they would probably have been rather more open, but we were pretty busy working on the greenhouse, so I forgot.

However, aconites always make me think that even if spring isn't actually here yet, and we still have February to get through, it really won't be long before we can sit on the patio and enjoy a glass of chilled white as the sun goes down. Which is what gardening is all about, after all!

The greenhouse saga is that when we moved into this house in 1986 a couple of the panes were cracked and then I grew two grapevines, which required me to remove the corners from a couple more panes.

Gradually over the years, other panes have cracked, but it all came to a head in December, when half a pane fell right out, leaving a 60 x 30 cm space for the wind to howl through. I rapidly filled it with bubblefilm, but then during the Christmas break we actually went and bought the necessary 7 panes of glass to fix it all up. Didn't quite get around to fitting them, but at least we had them on site.

Yesterday we got going and it really isn't that hard, once you've worked out how the little wire clips work. Jenny got on scraping out moss and gloop from the corners, then started washing decades-worth of algae from the remaining glass, while I cracked on (sorry!) replacing panes. And it was all going swimmingly until Jenny managed to break one of the remaining good panes. Well, that's how life is. I was just grateful I didn't cut myself. Sharp edges do tend to result in blood with monotonous regularity and it was something of an achievement to avoid that this time!

Anyhow, today we did the rest of the panes, bought and fitted the last replacement, washed the whole lot down and then soaked it all in Jeys Fluid to suppress the algal growth. And it really does look pretty good. No doubt it will be another 20 years before it gets a repeat prescription!

This bird is a redwing, and we've had three or four of them in the garden while the weather has been bad. They're country birds, and we've not seen them in our garden before, but they have been tucking into the red crab apples.

These apples are a godsend for the birds at this time of year. The variety is called Red Sentinel and it's clear that they taste pretty nasty, as nothing goes near them before early January, but then the blackbirds and squirrels find that's all there is left to eat, so eat them they must.

The bird is, as you see, a smallish thrush with a pale supercilium (eyebrow to you and me!) and a reddish area just below the wing. I think you can see more of it when the bird flies.

I've been logging the birds in the garden since early last year as part of a British Trust for Ornithology survey, and was quite looking forward to putting these unusual birds onto the record. The sheet is divided into common birds and unusual ones, and I was confident this was an unusual one. Wrong, there it was under common. Bugger!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Huge computer monitor

The other week when it snowed, I came home at lunchtime, but then felt guilty because I could do no work. The next day I spoke to the systems guy who introduced me to This is a website which allows you to log into your work computer from home, for instance. From work I visited the site and registered, providing the IP address of my work PC, then from home I log into the site and then connect to my work PC. Of course, the work PC has to be left on, which is less green than one would like.

But the key thing is that you can then control the remote PC as if you were sitting in front of it. And this meant I needed to replace my monitor at home. Because I'm technical author at work, I have a rather wide telly, allowing me lots of 'real estate' to lay out the documents I create. Connected from home, the remote PC still thinks it's talking to that same telly, so everything looks rather tiny on the old 17" monitor.

So on Thursday I visited John Lewis online and bought a 21.5" Acer and to my amazement, it was delivered yesterday at work, despite the fact I'd not paid for next day delivery. Impressed!

And the new telly is super-whizzo - I can actually read the text that's currently showing on my telly at work! Well, it would be if I'd left the monitor switched on, which of course, I didn't. And since the systems guy told me about it, I'm going to assume it's secure, though it's hard to see how.

The big benefit is that if I want to run Photoshop or Illustrator or InDesign to work on a document, I don't have to have them installed on my home PC at outrageous expense, I can continue to run them on my PC at work and all that comes to me here at home is the dots that make up the picture I see on my monitor. Clever or what?

Of course, I've not actually had to do any real work yet, so there may be a downside I've not encountered.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Of worms and things

I followed a link from Ziggi's blog Testing Testing to find this out. It's just a bit of fun.

When we were away in December, I did actually try to get myself infected with a few hookworms. I know it sounds gross, but there's a reason I tried.

There's some research going on in Nottingham University based on the idea that our immune systems are actually tuned to expect us to be infected with worms, and now that we're not, the immune system goes slightly wild and causes conditions like asthma. That's the thread of their research.

Now I have heard that the same theory might apply to eczema, and as I suffer from mild eczema (I itch almost all the time, sometimes most ferociously), I figured a small population of hookworms might be worth a go.

Somewhere between a dozen and fifteen is said to be symptom-free, but enough to distract the immune system. I did approach the Nottingham researchers, but they didn't want to play. Ecuador seemed promising, but sadly, didn't yield any result.

And I'm the normal one in our family!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ho ho! And this is funny too!

Hat tip: PZ Myers.

This is very funny!

It's really bad, and yet somehow, I'm not a bit surprised. And I'm pretty sure our lot would do pretty much the same.....

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Updated Booklist

I've just updated my list of Recent Good Reads, and thought I'd comment on some of the books.

Sean Carroll's Remarkable Creatures has a chapter about each of a selection of people who influenced or were influenced by Darwin. Humboldt, Henslow, Roy Chapman-Andrews and others. He's an excellent writer and this was an interesting new slant on the Darwin story.

Tracy Chevalier was the girl talking with Richard Fortey at the Royal Society last autumn, chaired by the delectable Alice Roberts, and her Remarkable Creatures is quite different from Sean Carroll's, being a novel based on the life of Mary Anning, the woman who found many of the most significant fossils that changed the course of geology and palaentology in the 19th century.

The latest Dawkins is a structured discussion about the evidence supporting evolution with strong rebuttals of the rather feeble creationist arguments against. As with some of his earlier stuff, I find him irritatingly repetitive, and his lists of examples are always at least half again as long as they need to be, but his writing is clear and unambiguous, and of course, I agree with him, so that's OK!

Right now I'm reading Alan Moorhead's excellent 1969 paperback Darwin and the Beagle and shortly I intend to get hold Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctal Regions. This was originally published in the early 19th century and heavily influenced Darwin. I stumbled across this 1995 translation in the library on our Galápagos cruise ship, and determined to read it when we got back.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Amazing crystals in South American cave

Naica Cave was only discovered recently when miners broke through into it. It's full of enormous crystals of gypsum and features in tonight's BBC programme How the Earth Made us presented by Iain Stewart.

To give you an idea of why it's an incredible place, that crystal running nearly horizontally in from the lower left to the middle of the picture is big enough for Stewart to walk along! It must be nearly half a metre thick!

So I recommend you watch the programme tonight, but if you just want to get a flavour, visit the BBC website which has a short video clip.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Noah's Ark

You'd expect me to like this, and I do. I didn't see it in the news anywhere, but as I don't read newspapers, I do rather cut myself off. To compensate, I read a magazine called The Week, which is a weekly digest of the world's news. I've mentioned The Week before, and I recommend it highly. There is a US magazine of the same name, but whether they're related or not, I don't know.

Anyhow, to the biz: Noah's Ark. Reported in the most recent issue of The Week, a Mesopotamian clay tablet dated to about 1700 BC (ie centuries older than the Old Testament) has been found to have an account of the Flood, and the Ark it describes was a circular raft woven from reeds and commissioned by the Sumerian king Atram-Hasis. There was actually a Guardian article published on January 1st, so this is old news.

The shape makes a lot more sense than the boat-shape of the biblical Ark, since all it would have to do was float; there was no need for a pointy end, because it wasn't going anywhere, just up and then later, down. Which isn't going to please the biblical-literalists, now is it? Good!

Well, I've believed for years that the Flood was real but localised, and that the people who floated in any kind of a boat-like object probably just carried their immediate family and a few goats and sheep, but that the story became inflated with time, as these things do.

And it's nice that it pre-dates the Bible, but that doesn't really prove or disprove anything.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

A Good Gig in Cambridge

We gave a free lunchtime concert in Great St Mary's church in central Cambridge today and I have to say, it really went rather well. Something of a relief, as it was mostly new stuff and we'd only rehearsed it last Sunday afternoon and then this morning before the concert. Never knowingly over-rehearsed!

Mendelssohn Frohlocket
Pärt Bogoroditsye Dyevo
Whitacre Lux Aurumque
Lassus Videntes Stellam Magi
Merulo Tribus Miraculis
Montiverdi Lauda Jerusalem (Vespers 1610)
Dove Seek him that maketh the seven stars
Eccard When to the temple
Then the organist, Michael Cayton, played Edmundson's Toccata on 'Von Himmel Hoch' which was brilliant!
Allain Cana's Guest
Whitacre Sleep
Gershwin They can't take that away from me
Arlen Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz
and for an encore we did a setting of the Beach Boy's Barbara Ann

The accoustics in GSM are quite friendly and we really had quite a good time. The Montiverdi was rather tough for me because the middle section has the tenors on top F or thereabouts more or less continuously for quite a while, and I run out of Fs quite quickly! Fortunately there were five of us, so I could get away with it.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Good and bad from Anglian Windows

These are concrete paving blocks, I bet you already worked out, and the reason I took a photograph of them is that there's a saga to be told!

A few years ago we wanted to have the driveway paved like this and I made the mistake of letting Anglian Windows talk me into having them do it. It was very expensive and I had to get cross with them, but the end result does actually look good and we've had no problems with it. Until we were away in December.

We returned from holiday to find that the drain, who's corner you can see, had become blocked, and the neighbour, who shares said drain, had to call Dyno-Rod. Dyno-Rod hit him for £100 of course.

And what they found blocking the drains, I'm sure you're ahead of me here, was a couple of concrete paving blocks.

So last weekend Andrew finally passed me the bill so I could reimburse him and I immediately wrote to Anglian enclosing a copy of the bill and the photo you see here. Courteous but firm, I was. In summary: "Your man dropped these blocks down the drain and I've had to pay £100 to get them removed. I look forward to receiving your cheque for the full amount at your earliest convenience." I resisted the temptation to suggest that leaving them down there in the first place indicates that the person responsible had about the intelligence of a chimpanzee, but I certainly thought it!

I didn't expect too much of an argument, given the evidence, but I couldn't help remembering having to call Dyno-Rod myself a couple of years ago to clear a drain under our (Anglian) conservatory. I blogged quite extensively about it at the time, you bet! They don't seem too good with drains, Anglian.

Long story short, I was astonished this morning to get a phone call (07:50 for Christ's sake! I was still asleep!) from a man at Anglian who said "You're absolutely right, it's entirely our responsibility, I'll arrange for a cheque for the full amount to be sent to you. Might take two or three weeks, but it will arrive." And gave me his name. Offered his phone number but I don't keep my specs by the bed, so couldn't write it down. However, I did get it from 1471, so if no cheque arrives, I'll know who to call.

So they screwed up once more (the prats!), and then held their hands up and put it right (good lads!).

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Beautiful new spider from Israel

Look at this. Isn't it simply beautiful? It features in The Big Picture on the beeb's science page, with text which reads:

Meet Cerbalus aravensis, a newly identified spider species. University of Haifa-Oranim scientists discovered it in the southern Arava region of Israel, in a habitat they say is endangered. With a legspan up to 14cm, it builds an underground den with a trap door made of glued-together sand.
Of course, that's not a face making it look so cute, it's just the front of the cephalothorax (the front blob), with a horizontal row of four eyes across the bottom and two nearly vertical rows of what look like three eyes. But yes, that bit does look like the face of some sort of exotic monkey!

And there's more at

Open letter to Tony Blair

Occasionally I come across a piece of writing that just makes me sit and think "I wish I had written that. I wish I could write as well as that!" This open letter from Kenneth Houston in Ireland to Tony Blair is just such a letter. I commend it to you.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


I stole the title to this post from Chris Nedin at the Ediacaran blog. Too good to waste!

Sarah Palin is to join Fox News, and as if that weren't funny enough, get this quote from her:

"I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News," Mrs Palin said in a statement on the network's website.

"It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news."

I think it's a marriage made in heaven, 'part from the fact that heaven doesn't exist, of course.

And today's big news is that Fox 'values fair and balanced news'! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Friday, 8 January 2010

This is just not right

It's bad enough that this parent is telling its child lies, but what is less obvious is that if the parent tells the child rubbish like this when it's in junior school, the child is quite likely to reject good solid science teaching in its teens, even when presented with unequivocal evidence.

As someone once said "Give me the child until he is seven, and I'll give you the man." ie get brainwashed early enough and you'll stay brainwashed.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

A kitten down the top

This is just for Arabella Sock, who's blog you'll have to visit to understand why. Visit this posting and scan down the comments about alcohol-free January.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Evolution taking place on our doorstep

This fascinating BBC article reports on a paper by an international group of scientists, published in the journal Molecular Ecology. Apparently there are two distinct populations of killer whales in the seas around Great Britain, and it looks as though they're diverging into distinct species.

One group mostly eats fish, while the other eats seals, dolphins and small whales. The latter group seem to be more closely related to Antarctic Orcas, and the males grow to up to 2 metres longer than males of the fish-eating population.

"It's similar to how Darwin's finches have adapted to different ecological roles in the Galapagos, but on a larger scale," Dr Foote notes.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Slow-roast shoulder of mutton

A couple of years ago, Jenny and I cooked some mutton for the first time in living memory, and were very disappointed in it. Despite following instructions from a cookbook, it was tough to the point of being inedible and I recall that it tasted nasty, though that's not what Jenny remembers. We resolved not to make that mistake again.

Then the other week, the lady butcher in Bury Lane Farm Shop, knowing we're into slow-roasting, offered us a half-shoulder of mutton, promising that we'd love it. So we stuck it in the freezer, and finally cooked it on Friday for our New Years Day dinner.

We coated it with spices using a Hugh Fernleigh-Whittingstall recipe, covered it with foil and roasted it for 6 hours at 120°C. It was fabulous! We're complete converts. We don't know what we did wrong the last time, but this was as good as any of the other slow-roasts we've done. Yum!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Happy New Year

Well we've had a rather quiet Christmas, with just the two of us, and in fact, we have spent quite a lot of time working on various projects. Jenny had some Royal Society stuff that needed to be done and was quite time-consuming; I wanted to crack on preparing a website with some of my Galapagos photos.

To put that into perspective, I had anything from 75 to 120 photographs for each of the 8 islands we visited, so just reducing that to no more than about 20 per island was a significant task in itself. Then I cast around for some free software to help me make a slideshow for each island, though in the end I stuck with Irfanview, which I at least know how to drive.

If you give Irfanview a set of picture files, it will build you a home page and then a slideshow that allows you to next and previous through the pictures. I then edited the html, adding my own text, hyperlinks, etc. It's not finished and it's not perfect, but it's OK, so I think I'll publish it and the hell with it. It's here.

We have also had a small film fest for our local friends. We've seen Wall-E, Coraline, Slumdog Millionaire, Wild, In Bruges. Yes, there is a preponderance of the shallow, but hey! Not sure what we'll watch tonight, but that'll be it for the year!