Sunday, 28 February 2010

Birthday dinner!

Today is my birthday (yay!) and it's pouring with rain (boo!) so I think it'll be indoor activities. I'm working on casting a silver hammerhead shark pendant, which is proving tricky. I'll post a picture when (if) it's done.

Its been a tradition in the Clack household that the birthday celebrant is cooked a decent meal by the other, so last night it was my turn for Jenny to cook for me. Well, that actually is how it mostly is normally, though the celebrant gets to choose whatever (s)he wants.

I wanted:

Thinly-sliced smoked eel on a bed of lettuce with my own vinaigrette dressing.

Roast fore-rib of Aberdeen Angus with roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese and onion gravy.

A delicious raspberry concoction with crème fraîche.

First course accompanied by champagne, second with Warwick Trilogy, which is a South African bordeau blend I've known and loved for at least 15 years.

On this occasion neither of us was feeling all that great. Jenny's had a miserable cold-like thing with aching limbs but had to keep dragging herself to work as she was finishing off her lecture series to second-year students. By the end of the week I'd started showing similar symptoms so we're moping about the place feeling sorry for ourselves. As a result, I helped Jen with the cooking - roast spuds, cheese sauce for the cauli, keeping her glass topped up, etc. All the really arduous bits!

The meat was delicious, but we'd somehow ended up with a rather thin bit, so we separated it from the bone and roasted that on the bed of onion slices, then Jenny grilled the bulk of the meat with the meat thermometer in so as not to overcook it. Then we just hacked it in half and dumped it on the plates. It was completely delicious, but then, AA is.

Ah, now, what shall we have for breakfast?

Friday, 26 February 2010

Royal Society 350th Anniversary Stamps

The Post Office has launched a set of ten first-class stamps with the heads of famous ex-members together with illustrations of some of their work.

I thought, knowing a certain Fellow of the RS rather well, I'd join in the celebrations and post in image of the stamps here ;)

I expect there'll be more as the year progresses!

Oh yes, and I was mildly entertained when I played the item yesterday on that RS Executive Secretary Stephen Cox got Alfred Russell Wallace's name wrong and kept calling him Alfred Russell. Wallace was co-discoverer of natural selection, along with Darwin, of course.

I like this.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Facilitated Communication doesn't work! Who'd have thought it?

I posted in December about Rom Houben, the guy who'd been in a persistant vegetative state for over 20 years and who had 'miraculously' been able to communicate when a 'facilitated communicator' supported his hand so he could tap out messages on a keyboard.

Like many others, I was deeply sceptical, and it turns out that scepticism was justified. They did a very simple test and demonstrated that the 'facilitator' was just making it up. As we had suspected.

The patients were presented with words and objects while their facilitators were out of the room. When the therapists returned, the patients were asked to type out what they saw. Two out of the three facilitators, included Houbens’, failed–leading Laureys to conclude that the Belgian man wasn’t communicating in the first place.
Actually, there was a facet to the story I'd not heard before, which was that he really was mis-diagnosed as PVS. Tests not available when he was first diagnosed have revealed that he is conscious, not in a true PVS at all.
Said Laureys [one of Rom's doctors]: “The story of Rom is about the diagnosis of consciousness, not communication” [BBC].

The Real Cause of Global Warming

This is a picture of the space shuttle Endeavour performing one of the S-turns it used to shed speed as it headed back to Florida the other day. The photo was taken by Soichi Noguchi in the Space Station.

What I learned today is that the glow of the superheated gas is not caused by friction of the shuttle flying through the air, but by the gas having been compressed as the shuttle rammed at it. Well, that's what Phil Plait said on the Discover blog whence I stole the pic.

Monday, 22 February 2010

An Immense Cretaceous Shark

This Laelaps blog posting discusses an enormous fossil shark from the Cretaceous, and one of several interesting things is that it didn't have huge, scimitar-like teeth to slash your flesh, it had a pavement of crushing dentition, suggesting it ate shells.
A paper due to be published in the journal Cretaceous Research in April includes this reconstruction, based on a section of jaw, and with an adult human shown on the right, to give an idea of scale. No point providing a link to the actual paper, as you need a subscription to read it.

But at up to 11 metres in length, I have to ask what it was crushing with those gigantic gnashers. Modern shell-crushing sharks, like the Australian Port Jackson shark, I can imagine eating clams, oysters, etc., but this thing was so big, small prey like that would not have been worth its while.

Which does rather beg the question "So what, exactly, did it eat?"

Friday, 19 February 2010

Sonic Boom meets Sun Dog

This is sooooo cool! And the publisher knew we'd want to see it again, and has accommodated us. Sadly, the folks commenting in the background keep saying the same stuff! It's less than 3 minutes, so won't take up much of your life, unless, like me, you just keep re-watching it!

Hat tip: grrlscientist.


This is really cool!

this Christian Louboutin heel was painted on a woman’s bare foot by John Maurad and Jenai Chin when New York Magazine featured an article entitled, You Walk Wrong.
Even knowing what it is, I still see a foot in a stiletto, not a painted foot!

Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?

It's good to know that a reputable Australian research institute has undertaken an important study with implications that affect all of us.

A longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.

OBJECTIVES: To determine the overall rate of loss of workplace teaspoons and whether attrition and displacement are correlated with the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom.
DESIGN: Longitudinal cohort study.
SETTING: Research institute employing about 140 people.
SUBJECTS: 70 discreetly numbered teaspoons placed in tearooms around the institute and observed weekly over five months.
MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Incidence of teaspoon loss per 100 teaspoon years and teaspoon half life.
RESULTS: 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days. The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in rooms associated with particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value. The incidence of teaspoon loss over the period of observation was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.
CONCLUSIONS: The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.
Tea hee! (sorry)

Thursday, 18 February 2010

More good news - Ken Ham thinks they're losing!

Further down the same email from OneNewsNow I see that Ken Ham thinks the xtians are losing the war against the realists:

The founder of the Creation Museum says American Christians
are losing the culture war because many of them now believe
what he calls the "pagan religion" of evolution.
We need to redouble our efforts, methinks!

Iowa faith leaders back same-sex marriage

I was delighted to read in an email from the appalling OneNewsNow that Iowa faith leaders have expressed support for same-sex marriage. OneNewsNow, like the American Family Association (AFA) is one of those organisations you simply can't unsubscribe from. Once you're on their list, their revolting emails continue to arrive forever, however you try to sever the links.

More than 160 faith leaders in Iowa have voiced their
support for same-sex "marriage" and are criticizing
opponents who cite the Bible in raising objections.
Well hoorah, I say, and good for them!

Edit: Turns out OneNewsNow is part of AFA, which I must have known at one point but clearly forgot.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Singing in Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey is a most beautiful building with very friendly accoustics, and it was a real delight to go down there with our choir, Royston Priory Singers, to do evensong on Saturday and mattins and evensong on Sunday.

I set out a bit hacked off because I'd found it near-impossible to book a room for just Saturday night. I had to take two nights, which always smacks of profiteering to me. So we went down on Friday afternoon, but it still took 3.5 hours and then another 30 mins after we'd taken a wrong turning in the city itself. Yes, though we love maps, city navigation is not a great strength of ours! Bath also has an appalling traffic problem, so allow an extra 30 minutes anyway.

Once checked into a delightful attic room in the Brooks Guesthouse, we strolled into town to eat. There are loads of eateries and we wandered more or less at random, unsure exactly what we wanted, though veering away from pizza and more towards gourmet. Then we found Fishworks in Green Street.

Fishworks is a small chain with 3 restaurants in London and this one in Bath. It was excellent, and I thoroughly recommend it. It wasn't cheap, but nothing was in Bath. For example, I spent nearly £28 on parking fees for the weekend. That is simply outrageous!

The dover sole was die for! It's worth putting that in a paragraph on its own.

The singing went well and we got lots of compliments, though I personally sang badly in mattins, mostly because I had a bit of a hangover, but made worse by having the presiding clergy sitting no more than a metre to my left and easily within earshot, so she could hear all my mistakes. Grim, I tell you!

The hangover was because one of our choristers had arranged a choir meal for the Saturday night. This was in the King William pub and was also good, though again, expensive. There were 18 of us there and we all had a good time, some of us more so than others.

Nobody actually said "Rob your singing was crap in mattins!" but I knew! Anyway, I acquitted myself OK in the two evensongs, so came away satisfied with my own performance.

A small amusing diversion occurred on Saturday after evensong. (You'll have spotted that this post is not in chronological order!) We emerged at about five to find the shops still open, of course, and immediately found ourselves next to a shoe shop with a mega-sale on. Naturally, Jenny wanted to go in, so we did. Sadly, she found nothing she liked, but I did! I'd described some shoes I wanted to Jenny a few weeks ago, and behold, a pair sufficiently similar to meet my requirements were 50% off!

Coming home there wasn't a single holdup, so we were home in less than three hours, which was not bad, and as a bonus, Jane, who couldn't be with us this time, had cooked us a completely delicious roast chicken. Result! Jane had been singing with a different choir, Women of Note, in Cambridge, and had also had a good time.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Another Unknown Unknown

I didn't realise this wasn't known!
I just assumed that the relationship between insects and the rest of the arthropods was well understood, but there you go.

One of the things that makes it really hard to tease out the actual relationships is that so many of the arthropods seem to share lots of characters, but in fact many of these have evolved independently.

For example, for a long time scientists believed that insects were closely related to centipedes and millipedes. Along with their anatomical similarities, these two groups are also both mainly land-dwellers.
Now with an enormous DNA analysis, they've discovered that this most beautiful beastie, a blind cave-dweller from the Bahamas, is one of the group most closely related to insects. Read the story on Carl Zimmer's page in the Discover magazine blog.

There is just one detail in which I'm completely convinced Zimmer is totally wrong:
It lives only in the pitch-black, oxygen-free waters at the bottom of deep caves in the Bahamas
The bold font is mine. I'm pretty sure an anaerobic arthropod would be a world first and would have made front-page headlines! I reckon he accidentally left out a critical 'almost'.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Ben Goldacre on the Placebo Effect

This is clear, concise and sensible, and worth spending the time watching.

He doesn't mention the nocebo effect which is just as valid and powerful. If you believe you're being harmed by something, the nocebo effect makes it much more likely that you really will be harmed. I feel sure it works in exactly the same way as the placebo effect, though I've no idea whether any research has been done.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ah, how sweet!

Just read the first paragraph of this Wikipedia entry!

Oh bugger! Someone at Wikipedia spotted it and edited it out. The bit about the population of Western Oz had an addition along the lines of "And 1, Emma, who loves Doug to bits." Can't remember the actual names or exact wording, but you get the drift.

Avatar followup

As is so often the case, pretty much our only complaint about Avatar was that the sound level was so high, and we aren't the only ones to think so. Jenny likes to sit and watch the credits roll while listening to the end of the soundtrack, so that was what we were doing at the end of Avatar.

As we did so, the audience was drifting out past us, and we heard several (young!) people comment on why the cinema felt it was necessary to deafen us by having the sound level so high.

Returning home I was pleasantly surprised to find a link on the CineWorld website allowing me to email them with my comment, so I did so.

Today I had a reply stating that a) they set their volume to 5 rather than the 7 the distributor recommends because their customers find 7 too loud, and b) they haven't had any other complaints. (We won't ask how they know that 7 is too loud, if they've had no complaints!)

So if, like me, you find it's too loud, I'd suggest you email them politely but firmly requesting that the sound levels be turned down. If enough of us do that, maybe they'll get the message.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Squirrel Ragout

For the past week or so I've been training the squirrels in my garden to get used to the trap. At the beginning of the week I left the trap closed and a small tray (an old catfood tin) on top, baited with peanut butter, walnuts and sunflower seeds. Each day I'd rebait the tin and move it closer to the trap entrance. Yesterday the tin was actually inside the trap, but the door was wired open, so they could come and go. When the bait had been taken by last night, I knew they were ready.

This morning I set the trap properly and within an hour had caught one of them. Then this afternoon I caught another. I have skinned and butchered them and they're cooling their heels in the freezer. I have seen up to three in the garden, so I might just try for a third one tomorrow, but now I'm knackered. It's surprisingly hard to skin a squirrel. Unlike many other animals, the skin is quite tightly attached to the flesh underneath, so you can't easily pull it off. I snip the connecting tissue with scissors, but it's a slow business.

I couldn't depend on these beasties for one of this weekend's meals, as I couldn't be certain I'd catch any, and now we've bought some neck of mutton for tonight's dinner and have defrosted a neck of muntjac for tomorrow's, so the squirrel nutkins will be for another time. I do intend to follow Hugh Fernleigh-Whittingstall's delicious Squirrel Ragout recipe though. I think Jenny has always been a bit iffy about squirrel, but I think this HFW recipe might just convince her.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Letter from 'Science' to 'the Media'

There is an amusing letter from one Dean Burnett who, on his blog, describes himself as a neuroscientist and comedian, to 'the Media'. There are also letters to Homeopathy and Astrology which I'm saving for later, but I have high hopes.

Here's an exerpt from the Media letter.

Hello. It's me, Science. Hope you're well. You seem a bit angry of late, snapping at people for no real reason. I've heard we all get a bit more right wing as we get older, but seriously, calm down. Try some meditation or yoga or Chamomile tea. And this is me (the personification of the abstract concept of Science, just to clarify) saying that, so you know I must be worried.
Actually, in digging out the hyperlinks to Homeopathy and Astrology, I discovered there are more letters there, including Dear The Pope. Way to go!

Don't make us pay for crazy Uncle Ratzi's tour!

Personally, I think this pope is bad news, what with his ridiculous claims that condoms promote the spread of AIDS, amongst numerous other absurdities, but not everyone agrees with me. Now he wants to tour the UK and he's welcome, though I'd prefer it if he'd not proselytize his particular brand of idiocy. Not going to win that one either, so not going to lose any sleep over it.

What I object to, however, is that the UK gummint will subsidise the trip to the tune of £20 million. If he wants to come here, let him pay for his own holiday, or if he can persuade UK catholics to pay, then fine, but I don't see why I should pay.

If you agree, please sign the National Secular Society's petition to Downing Street to not give this nasty piece of work any of our cash.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


Last night we watched a programme about time which we'd recorded, though I can't actually remember when it was transmitted. It was the second of a series by Professor Michio Kaku and was fascinating generally, but unexpectedly satisfying in one particular respect.

I don't remember being taught any Einsteinian relativity when I was at school, but I do know that not long after that I was aware that time was said to slow down as you approached the speed of light. Which is to say that if you were in a space ship travelling that fast, time would appear to proceed normally, but a hypothetical viewer from outside would see time inside your spaceship proceeding more slowly. And I'd heard about space shuttle experiments where time on the shuttle had trailed behind our time by a few seconds, but it wasn't all that impressive.

However, last night we saw Michio Kaku at the top of a mountain in the alps, talking about a really impressive demonstration of the effect.

Muons are sub-atomic particles produced when cosmic rays hit molecules of air in the upper atmosphere. They travel at close to the speed of light, but are very unstable and decay in a very short time, so you should not expect to see them more than a few hundred metres from the point at which they were created.

At the top of this alpine mountain was a sensor counting muons, and it was counting loads of them, despite the fact that it was several kilometres from the layer in the atmosphere where the muons were being created. It seems strange that we are able to count muons much further away from their point of origin than it's possible for them to travel before decaying.

Then to the rescue leaps Einsteinian relativity! The muons are travelling at close to the speed of light, so they experience time much more slowly than we do, and this is what allows them to travel so far.

And I think that is soooooooo neat, where neat in this context implies an intersection between smart and cool and cute!

Monday, 1 February 2010

A Proven Virgin Birth!

I refer you to this Discover Magazine blog posting, which is well worth the read.

To summarise: 15-year-old girl has oral sex with new boyfriend but immediately afterwards is discovered by former boyfriend. Knife fight ensues during which all participants are injured, none lethally. The girl has double penetrative wounds to her stomach which are quickly and efficiently stitched up by the local A&E.

Nine months later she gives birth to a healthy boy. And you can absolutely guarantee that she got pregnant via the oral sex because she is found to have no external opening to her vagina. She obviously swallowed the semen, which leaked into her abdominal cavity through the knife wounds and the sperm made its way to her fallopian tubes where she must have conveniently just ovulated.

A guaranteed virgin birth but by no means a miracle!