Wednesday, 31 March 2010

My point exactly

No thank you, Miss Dahl!

We watched "The Delicious Miss Dahl" for the first time last night, and I think it'll be the last, too. Admittedly the food did look seriously tempting, particularly the shepherds' pie, and the scrambled egg with smoked salmon on buckwheat blinis has to go on the list of must-try breakfasts. We have a rather limited palate of cooked breakfasts, and are constantly on a rather low-level lookout for new things to try.

However, like Nigella Lawson in her second series, Sophie Dahl was altogether too coy for words, and although I did enjoy looking down her blouse, the fact is that must have been scripted and was completely out of place. Call me old-fashioned, but if I want to see a girl's tits, I'm not going to look for them on a cookery programme.

Might buy the book, mind you.

Friday, 26 March 2010

LHR Runway 3

Great news about Heathrow's proposed third runway, which has taken a severe blow! Campaigners have won a High Court battle over the plans.

Councils, residents and green groups had said the government's approval of the runway was flawed by "conspicuously unfair" public consultations.

The group argued that the decision was at odds with climate change targets.

Lord Justice Carnwath, sitting in London, upheld their argument that the government's policy support for a third runway will need to be looked at again.

Sadly, this is not the end for runway 3, but it does mean it can't just be steamrollered through. Just yet.

Spread the word about the petition!

We need to spread the word about the petition against the pope's visit - there's an opposing petition with nearly 60,000 signatures, while we only have about 9,000!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

There's a petition to protest the pope's September UK visit

If the pope wants to come to Britain, that's OK by me, but I don't think it should be any kind of official visit, and I certainly don't think the UK taxpayer should subsidise the trip. There's a No 10 petition to voice opposition, which I have signed, and which I urge you to sign, too.

  • That the Pope, as a citizen of Europe and the leader of a religion with many adherents in the UK, is of course free to enter and tour our country.
  • However, as well as a religious leader, the Pope is a head of state and the state and organisation of which he is head has been responsible for:
    1. opposing the distribution of condoms and so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of AIDS
    2. promoting segregated education
    3. denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women
    4. opposing equal rights for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people
    5. failing to address the many cases of abuse of children within its own organisation.
    6. rehabilitating the holocaust denier bishop Richard Williamson and the appeaser of Hitler, the war-time Pope, Pius XII.
  • The state of which the Pope is the head has also resisted signing many major human rights treaties and has formed its own treaties (‘concordats’) with many states which negatively affect the human rights of citizens of those states.
  • As a head of state, the Pope is an unsuitable guest of the UK government and should not be accorded the honour and recognition of a state visit to our country.
I personally think he's a nasty piece of work and I'd much prefer him to stay away, but that's just me.

Monday, 22 March 2010

In which I invent a new dessert

I usually snack on fruit at work, and for the past few weeks that has meant clementines, which have been easy to peel, with few pips and pretty tasty. Last week, however, that first attribute changed to the reverse. After struggling to peel the first one, I gave up and took them home at the weekend. On Saturday evening I make them into a hot dessert.

I peeled my 9 remaining clementines the way you do a pineapple - top and tail it, then slice the peel off lengthways. It's quick and rather wasteful. Then quarter each fruit lengthways and cut away the central core. Then slice each quarter across into about 4 or 5 pieces.

In a pan, put about a glass of dry sherry, a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, a small handful of raisins, half a cinnamon stick and about a cubic inch of fresh ginger, finely chopped. Take half a dozen or so whole cardomom pods and break them up in a mortice and pestle. Discard the dry husks, then roughly crush the seeds. Add those to the pan and heat it all up and get the sugar dissolved.

Then add the clementines to the pan, stir it all up, cover and bring to a boil.

Serve immediately with crême fraiche, discarding the cinnamon stick, of course. The ginger gives it an immediate zing, while the yummy cardamom lurks more subtly in the background.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Curiosity and the Cat

In the room we use as an office, we've got an old 3-drawer desk pedestal, no longer sitting under a desk, but shoved in a corner. We keep sundry stationery in it, odd bits of artist's materials, and a few foreign travel items, like bags of left over foreign currency. Because Jenny gets about a bit, it's often cheaper to just dump the small amount of surplus cash in the drawer than to turn it back into sterling.

Jenny is off to Copenhagen for a few days on Monday, so was ferreting in the drawer just now looking for Danish kroner, of which she found a few. I was doing something on the computer, so not taking too much notice until a few minutes after Jen had left continue packing.

There was a strange, metallic thumping sound, which happened again a few seconds later. I worked out what was going on, though I still can't see how it was possible.

I opened the drawer, and out crept the cat. This drawer is full of old bum bags, bags of travel goodies you used to get given, like eye shades, folding toothbrushes, etc, so there's not much space in there. How the cat managed to creep in without Jenny's noticing I can't imagine, but it is entirely in character!

Friday, 19 March 2010


This is a very touching public service announcement (PSA) by the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership, asking people to always wear their seatbelts when in a moving vehicle. Is there an Academy Award for PSAs? If so, this one deserves to be nominated!

[Text stolen directly from grrlscientist who expressed it much better than I could.]

Tissues at the ready!

Malaria in the UK

I saw a snippet on TV last night (I forget which programme) in which a female scientist was pond-dipping in southern England and collecting Anopheles mosquito larvae, and she reported that local people have caught malaria from them. (Wikipedia tells me there are 460 species in the genus Anopheles, and I don't know which one this is.)

So I learn three things from this. First, that malaria-carrying mosquitoes can survive in the UK and were only eradicated in the 1950's (no doubt using DDT and eradicating a lot of innocent wildlife in the process), second, that unlike most other mosquitoes, the females hang on walls and ceilings at 45°, rather than parallel to the surface the way most other mosquitoes do, and third, scarily, they're back. It's going to be much harder to eradicate them this time, but I reckon now's the time to be breeding sterile males and releasing them on large numbers. This technique has been shown to work locally. Can't remember how they sterilise the males, might be irradiation.

Apparently at least one malaria sufferer had never left the shores of the UK, which doesn't quite exclude the possibility of a female mosquito making it to the UK inside an airliner and then finding her victim nearby, but that's pretty unlikely.

Oh and don't worry about them releasing millions of mozzies to bite you; only the females bite. The males don't eat at all during their short adult phase.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Parallax is what allows you to view an object from two different positions and work out how far away it is. You use it unconsciously all the time, since you can see an object with both eyes and your brain automatically works out how far away it is. That's why people with one eye have much more difficulty estimating distances.

Now here's an interesting equivalent in time. A guy at Cornell University had some fossil corals which radiometric dating had shown to be 380 million years old, but he devised an alternative way of calculating their age.

It's based on two things I didn't know until I heard about the experiment. First, corals lay down their skeletons in such a way as to show not just annual rings, like trees, but also daily rings. Second, The spin of the earth has been gradually slowing down over time, largely as a result of the drag of the tides. It's a pretty minimal effect, two seconds in 100,000 years, but it does mean that the length of a day now is quite a bit bigger than it was when the fossil corals were alive in the Devonian period, and that means there are now fewer days in a year than there were then..

He calculated from the radiometric age of his fossils that there would have been 396 days in a year, and that each would have been 22 hours long. Then he counted the rings in his fossil corals, and behold! 400 days of 21.9 hours. That's pretty darned close!

And the reason I call this chrono-parallax is (I'm sure you're way ahead of me here!) that he used two different techniques to examine the same thing and work out how far (chronologically) it was away.

The sums are quite easy to do, though we have to rely on the accuracy of his ring-count.

(380,000,000 / 100,000) * 2 is the number of seconds the spin has slowed since then = 7,600.
7,600 / (60 * 60) is that in hours = 2.11.
So day length then was 21.89 hours.
And the number of days in the year was 365.25 * 24 / 21.89 = 400.46.

And that's why I like science! It's just so interesting and exciting! Don't understand the discrepancy between the calculated number of days and the measured number, though.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Why I hate catching buses

This Discover posting explains succinctly why buses bunch up together and you almost always have to wait much longer for a bus to arrive than the timetable would claim.

Imagine all of the buses are roughly on time. Now imagine that one bus (call it bus S) happens to fall behind. Because S is running behind, more time has elapsed since the previous bus has passed. This means that more waiting passengers have accumulated, at more bus stops. This in turn means that bus S has to stop more often, and has to pick up more people at each stop. Hence, bus S falls even farther behind.
And the converse, of course, is also true. The bus behind has fewer passengers to pick up, so gradually gets early until it catches the bus S.

But of course, knowing the mechanism doesn't provide any comfort as you wait in the freezing blast of winter for a bus that was supposed to be here 10 minutes ago!

Great place, Oz, but DANGEROUS!

If it ducks like a quack...

I stole this straight from Dr Rachie's blog. She is a cell biologist working in Sinney, Oz, and is a good sceptic and anti-woo monger. I love this graphic!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Springtime, oh yes indeedie!

Jen's been away in Edinburgh for a few days investigating a project that looks likely to turn very exciting indeed, though will take a lot of work as it's far and away the most all-encompassing topic she's ever worked on, I'd say. Watch this space, but don't hold your breath. She's talking about applying for EU funding next year, so you get the idea of the timescales we're talking about.

Anyhow, yesterday afternoon I picked her up from the station, which meant I'd had to plan last night's meal on my own, and I found a lovely half-leg of mutton in Bury Lane Farm Shop. I casseroled that with haricot beans, onions, tomatoes, an entire bulb of garlic and a goodly splash of white wine. Got it in the oven about 3:15 and we ate it at about 8:30. It really was rather good. Of course, it goes without saying there was enough to feed 6!

But before sitting down to eat, we took a bottle of white out onto the patio. True, we had to put on thick coats, and even so got quite chilled, but it was just wonderful to actually sit on the patio, watching the world, chatting about what we'd been doing while we were apart, and all that cosy stuff you do.

Because although it was pretty damned cold yesterday, the sun shone and there was a distinctly spring-like feel to the place. Sheets of crocuses, snowdrops, iris reticulata, pink cyclamen, winter aconites still hanging in there. Won't be long before we have daffodils and tulips. Hoorah!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Life just gets better and better!

This report in the Guardian article is surely just icing on the cake. Not content with a paedophilia scandal, the Catholic Church has come up with another birthday gift in the form of a gay prostitution scandal. The text in square brackets is mine.

Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman of His Holiness [ceremonial ushers of the papal household], was caught by police on a wiretap allegedly negotiating with Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 29-year-old Vatican chorister, over the specific physical details of men he wanted brought to him.
You couldn't make it up, could you?

Sadly, I can't see any of this having the slightest effect on the number of Xtians in the world. I think they just don't care.

Great sculpture. Shame about the neighbours!

I read on the BBC news website about this New Jersey woman who, with her son and daughter, built this seriously impressive snow version of the Venus de Milo, only to have a neighbour complain that it was too risqué!

How pathetic is that?

They preferred to clothe rather than destroy it, unsurprisingly. Looks rather more resqué to me now than when naked.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

First Annual NCSE UpChucky Award!

Just read in NewsWise, online mag of the National Center for Science Education in the good ole US of A has instigated a new award, and it's a cracker!

Enter the intelligently designed UpChucky Award, which recognizes supreme achievement in the field of persistently rejecting evolution in the most stomach-turning way imaginable. This crown of cluelessness, this diadem of density, this badge of bullpucky isn't awarded to just any Darwin doubter. The UpChucky is bestowed on that one creationist whose efforts in the preceding year would inspire Darwin (or any rational person) to "drive the porcelain bus".
I love it, just the very idea! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! (wipes away tears) I'm not going to be able to concentrate at all this afternoon!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A Good Book

I've just finished this excellent, if harrowing, book, lent me by my friend Julie who is the oncology nurse who accompanied me to my mother's last August when we were singing in Gloucester cathedral and mum was starting to show signs of a really rapid decline. As mum got worse, I found I couldn't cope with reading the book, so set it aside, but recently picked it up again and finished it today.

Nuland is what the Yanks call a physician who has spent his entire working life in hospitals, so is only too familiar with what really causes us to shuffle off this mortal coil, and he writes about it sympathetically and honestly, including references to things he's done wrong over the years.

It's full of a wealth of information about the detailed causes of death, and as you can see, Oliver Sacks describes it as 'unsparing'. I think I'd express it more strongly than that.

For instance, old women are prone to urethral and kidney infections, and once infected, the kidneys stop regulating the blood sugar properly. As the chemical balance of the blood is disrupted, the brain can't cope and the sufferer becomes confused, forgetful and sometimes delusional.

Mum's dementia became noticeable in February, but this stuff about kidney infections gave us false hope, because she did seem to get better when the antibiotics controlled her infections and right up until August we still clung onto the hope that if we could just nail the infections, she'd return to her old, spiky self. Trouble was, the confusion meant she forgot to take the antibiotics, which meant the infection wasn't properly controlled, which meant she forgot her meds, etc.

In truth, none of that was ever going to happen anyway. Julie, who has more experience with death than most, said it like it was, and after that we were really more focused on making mum's last days as comfortable as we could. We were lucky, in that her dementia progressed relatively rapidly, and she died in mid-November. Other folks have a much tougher, more drawn out agony. It was bad enough for us.

So you can understand why I found the book all too easy to leave on the shelf last year!

And the final joy is that I recall mum's father died, aged 91, after a short period of dementia, so I guess that's waiting around the corner for me, too. Hmmm....thinks.

Blood? Nah, that's cabernet sauvignon rosé!

Actually, this is a photograph of the Blood Falls issuing from the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, and I'm indebted to Phil Plait at the Discover blog for posting about it. He also provides a link to the Atlas Obscura posting.

It seems the glacier formed over the top of a lake about 2 million years ago, trapping all life within it. Highly saline, very little oxygen, high iron levels, and what you see here is a frozen seep escaping from the lake.

The red colour is the iron, but apparently at least 17 different microbial life forms have been found in the falls. It's thought they use sulphur to catalyse reactions with the iron salts in the water to extract the energy needed to survive, and that they've evolved this capacity since the lake was covered with ice.

Brilliant! Just brilliant!

Is it spring yet, Daddy?

I shivered with a slightly raised temperature most of last night and really don't feel great today, so I've indulged in the luxury of working from home.

Yes really, I am doing a bit of work, though I fess, not as much as I would have done had I been in the office.

And one thing I did take time for was to stroll around the garden in glorious spring sunshine and take a few snaps, only one of which came out adequate, so the rest have been culled.

Well the Met Office told us that yesterday was the first day of spring, so is this little cluster of crocuses enough to confirm that?

Monday, 1 March 2010

Lost-Wax Silver Casting

I'm playing with lost-wax silver casting at home, and although you might judge the results to be less than impressive, in fact I'm pretty pleased with the progress I've made and I think ultimately I will succeed.

Summary of the lost wax process: forgive me if you already know this. Make an original item, like a ring, for example, out of wax. Cast 'investment' (a heat-resistant variant on Plaster of Paris) around this. Heat the investment to melt out the wax and pour molten silver into the newly vacated ring-shaped mould. Remove the investment and hey presto! one silver ring. Or whatever.

In my case it was a hammerhead shark. When we were on the Galápagos cruise, one of the naturalists, Socrates by name, wore a silver hammerhead shark pendant on a leather thong around his neck. I coveted that, from the moment I saw it. Sadly, when we called at Santa Cruz and had a chance to walk through the town, I'd stupidly chosen just to bring a few dollars and leave my credit cards on the boat, so didn't even bother looking for somewhere to buy one.

Now when we did silver casting the last time we attended the lovely George Grant's class many years ago, he had a proper oven for burning out the wax and a proper centrifugal caster to make sure the silver shot firmly into the mould and filled all the little nooks and crannies. I don't have either of those, and am trying to find ways to make it work anyway. It has to be possible. People have been doing lost-wax casting for centuries, not least the Benin, of 15th century bronze heads fame, all long before the advent of centrifugal or vacuum casters, the other common way of forcing the hot metal into the mould.

Since I lack any form of mechanical caster, I had to make sure the air in the mould could be pushed out of the way by the advancing hot metal. In cuttlebone casting (slice cuttlebone in half lengthways, scoop out your design, stickem back together and secure with wire, then pour in the silver.) you allow for this by cutting straight grooves to form air-escape channels, and I figured that would work for lost-wax, too, so attached thin wax rods to the tips of the fins. I hope this is clear!

First Attempt
For my first attempt, having invested the wax, I turned the family oven on flat out (250°C) and stuck the mould in, resting on an aluminium foil (ex-readymeal-moussaka) dish. And, in the words of Isiah 6:4 'the house was filled with smoke!' Stinking, acrid wax fumes, setting off the blasted smoke detectors and forcing us to open the kitchen doors to the outside world, despite the arctic temperatures out there!

Once the mould was ready, I melted the silver, then shot upstairs (silversmithing takes place in the cellar) and brought the mould down. Of course, the silver had chilled and I had to re-melt it, which took ages because it was now in a single lump, so had a much reduced surface-to-volume ratio. And of course, that made me rush, so I poured before it was really fully liquid, and a solid lump blocked the entrance almost immediately.

I was encouraged despite the disaster, to see that the initial few drops of silver had made their way right to the tail fin, so the mould was hot enough, the air was able to escape and in theory it should all work. In theory.

Second Attempt
This is an early wax model I made. In truth, I made a wax, cast silicone rubber around that because I knew I'd need several waxes before I succeeded, and now I use green wax which is harder and less easy to damage when you handle it. You can also get blue, carving wax, which is much harder, but which melts to a rather glutinous liquid that doesn't fill moulds well.

Searching the web for further information I came across some YouTube videos (this is video 5 of 9) demonstrating the process. I'd not thought of steaming the wax out of the mould, but it works perfectly well and doesn't fill the house with smoke!

Once the wax had gone, I stuck the mould in the oven to get it as hot as possible. The real wax burnout oven heats the mould to 900°C, then cools it to 600°C ready for casting. I don't know why it has to go so high, but our Neff will only go to 250°C on conventional and 200°C on fan, so it got 200°C fan. No more smoke, hoorah!

This time, once the mould was ready and I'd melted the silver, I asked Jenny to keep the silver hot while I brought the mould downstairs. That was a good move.

Then I blew it.

Somehow I couldn't seem to keep the silver completely molten, I don't know why. It looked OK, but as soon as I poured it, I knew it wasn't right. Quite a bit of metal went into the mould, but then it chilled much too quickly, and as you can see, it didn't really fill the mould properly. The big, knobbly lump on its head is silver I kept pouring into the opening after it had frozen right at the entrance. Usually it forms a small, neat puddle. Clue there! The tips of the fins are not sharp and it should have flowed into the air-escape channels if it was all working according to plan.

The body right behind the hammerhead (lost in a mass of silver where I poured the metal in) is much narrower than the original wax, and I think we just didn't get quite enough metal into the mould before the funnel section froze, so as gravity pulled it all downwards, that part of the body just got stretched a bit.
I'll keep you posted on the third attempt.

Oh, and don't be mislead by the colour of the metal casting; that's just the tungsten light I used to illuminate it. It really is just sterling silver.

So there's more work to do, but I think it will work.

Picky picky picky!

Astonishing hummingbird picture

Now this picture I find completely astonishing, to the point where I suspect that what I am seeing is an artifact somehow introduced by the video camera being used to take the movie.

But that looks an awful lot to me as though the bird has one wing forward and one back, which goes completely against what (little) I know about bird anatomy and flight biomechanics.

Click the photo to visit the YouTube movie I spotted on Pharyngula and which piqued my interest in the first place.