Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The pillar of fire explained

Although I've never understood what the explanation for the biblical pillar of fire and column of smoke might be (Exodus 13:22 He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.) I've also never been sufficiently curious to wonder what it really was.  Nevertheless I'm really glad that now we have a simple solution.   It's a fire tornado, and they're apparently not that uncommon.  Hat tip: Phil Plait at the Bad Astronomy blog on Discover Blogs.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

How cute is that?

This is a picture of the world's smallest frog, recently discovered living in and around pitcher plants in Borneo.  That's one ENORMOUS pencil, I say!

Here's the original article.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

We get a phone call

This was weird.  Jenny went in to the Royal Vets College in Potters Bar this morning, despite being pretty stiff and sore from yesterday's crash, but she was home by about 2 o'clock and was taking it easy.  We were drinking tea and reading our books when the phone rang.

The woman on the phone didn't introduce herself but started telling me immediately how she had several elephant hawk moths in her garden, that her daughter had looked them up on the net to identify them and what should she do about them.

Somewhat flabbergasted I guessed they were caterpillars rather than adult moths, told her they were a good thing and then broke off to consult a book.  While doing so, I realised Jenny probably knew enough to short-circuit the whole process, so put her on the line.

Jen explained that they were probably about to pupate and the woman should ensure there was some bare earth where they could bury themselves, advised her about recording the sighting on www.butterfly-conservation.org (though the woman didn't know what a web page was) and finally enquired where she'd got our number from.

Apparently the daughter had seen an article in a paper and had got the number from that.  They thought we were some sort of environmental or conservation organisation.  Er...no, we're not, but fortunately we know a little bit about moths and stuff.  Jenny made her write down the URL so with luck the daughter will be able to record the catties.

So we've still got no idea how the woman came to ring our number.  Bizarre!

And in other news, I can tell you that we've had 79 mm (just over 3 inches in old money) of rain this month, which is twice the average for August.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

What? No dinner? Outrageous!

Yesterday I booked a table for seven at 7.30 in a local Indian and just now was getting ready to enjoy it, when the phone rang. Jenny reported that a car driver had failed to notice her approaching on her motorbike and had pulled out, knocking her off. Fortunately it sounds as though she's not badly hurt, though is on her way to Addenbrooks as we speak anyway.

So I have arranged for the wreckage to be collected, but they won't be there for at least an hour, after which I'll be going to Addenbrooks' A&E to collect Jenny. Unless she's cooked sooner, of course.

By the time we get home it'll be 9.30 earliest and we'll be STARVING and the rest of the dining club will have buggered off home!

I also happen to know there's a bottle of fizz in the fridge with which we can celebrate her surviving the experience!
Well, the reality turned out to be sufficiently different that I thought it worth an update.

After a lot of faffing about I managed to arrange for the bike to be collected, then drove into Cambridge to meet the guy there.  Rather to my surprise, Jenny phoned when I was partway in, telling me she was sitting in a police car waiting at the site for me, not at Addenbrooks at all.  Turns out a paramedic and then the ambulance crew had checked her out and said there was no need for her to visit A&E.

The recovery firm were there when I arrived so as soon as the bike was on the truck, we left, thanking the nice lady policeman very much before doing so.

After stopping briefly at home for Jenny to dump her riding kit and comb her hair, we drove up to the Indian where we found our lovely friends still eating, and were able to regale them with tales of derring do.  Or something like that.  Jenny has bruised her left hip and forearm and done something to her right thumb, but is otherwise OK, if still feeling somewhat shaken.

Today I'm trying to decide whether or not to let the car driver just pay for all the damage himself rather than go through his insurance company.  The car is a Ferrari, so I imagine he's paying through the nose for insurance already, and doesn't want the increased premiums a claim will inevitably produce.  I'm slightly sympathetic, but it would be easy for him to give us the runaround, so I'm prevaricating.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Some really unexpected scientific results

This posting on the Discover Magazine blog discusses two really interesting developments, one about fish and the other about fossils.

The first article is about the relationship between billfishes, like marlin and swordfish, and flatfishes like plaice and flounders.  A guy working in Canada was trying to sort out the relationship between the billfishes and their supposed nearest relatives, the tunas, so he did some DNA sequencing, which is the obvious thing to do these days.

To his amazement, the two groups are only distantly related, some of their similarities work in quite different ways.  For example, both groups can selectively warm up parts of their bodies, certain muscle blocks and their eyes, to well above ambient temperature, which is how they manage to swim so fast.  But the way the warming up works is quite different in the two groups.  <confession>I just believed what it said in the blog posting, rather than doing any research myself to confirm that.</confession>

And the jaw-dropping result was that the flatfishes and jacks are billfishes nearest relatives.  The 'and jacks' bit does make sense.  We were re-watching Blue Planet the other night and saw jacks herding a shoal of small fishes against a coral reef and then picking off the stragglers in much the same way that billfish do with a bait ball in open ocean. But flatfishes?

The other topic in the posting is about a guy who found a fossil leaf with some curious cut marks across some of the veins.  Sometimes insects will cut across the veins of a poisonous leaf to drain out some of the sap, leaving the rest of the leaf rather more tasty, but these marks match marks left by some of today's ants when they're about to die from a parasitic fungus.

This fungus infects the ant and, in the victims last few hours, changes its behaviour.  It makes the ant find a leaf just the right distance above the ground and bite into it across a vein.  The ant then dies, jaws still locked onto the leaf, the fungus sends out a fruiting body from the ant's head and the spores are scattered onto other ants scurrying by.  And this leaf is 48 million years old.


Plastic Bag Mockumentary

Enjoy!  Thanks to Jane for sending me the link.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Singing in Exeter Cathedral

This year's Royston Priory Singers cathedral week was in Exeter last week, and we had a thoroughly splendid time! The weather was pretty good, the clergy welcoming and our singing was not bad.  We got lots of compliments both from the public and the clergy and came home feeling distinctly smug!

There were several highlights for me.  First, on Monday we were rehearsing the Walmisley Mag and Nunc ready for evensong that afternoon.  In the Mag, a short section is repeated, and it's marked to be sung by a quartet first time through, followed by the whole choir doing the repeat.  We've not done that before, and I was dead chuffed when the conductor asked me to be one of the quartet.  Scared almost witless, of course, but I managed it with only a little help from Tom, the tenor standing next to me.

And when the choir was split into two halves, one on each side, I was a lone tenor, there being only three of us.  Very good for me, too!  I found I was being much more careful and taking responsibility, where normally I'd depend somewhat on the other tenors.

Next up was Friday, when Jenny and I cooked dinner for the whole choir.  It's become the norm for us to self-cater on these weeks when that's an option, which it was this year.  We were staying in the choir school, so just used their kitchens.

It was quite nerve-wracking, but we had several slaves and between us it all came together relatively smoothly.  Quite a few compliments there, too, which is always gratifying.  Penne with Aubergine followed by Orange and Ginger Compote, both of which I've blogged about before.  Jenny started us off with a delicious green bean and celery soup made from beans grown in our very own garden.

One interesting aspect which was not entirely unexpected, but caught us out nonetheless, is that when catering for large numbers you can't just multiply up and expect it to be the same.  Frinstance, the pasta dish has 2 small dried chillies crumbled in when catering for two, but chillies have a sort of logorithmic effect, so we knew we shouldn't put 24 chillies in the final dish.  In the end we settled on eight which was about right; enough bite so you know it's there but not enough to sear your tonsils to charcoal.

The same applied to the dessert.  I use the seeds from something like eight whole cardamom pods when making a 4-serving dish, but 40 was obviously far too many.  I think we used about a dozen, which was just about enough.  And we only just got away with the quantities, too.  I multiplied up and we used one large orange per head, but in fact there was barely enough to go around.

The last highlight I'm going to bludgen you with was on Saturday.  We turned up at 3 for evensong and hung around waiting for the clergy to appear.  And we waited.
 Eventually it became apparent none was going to show, but fortunately Royston Priory Singers was up to that challenge!

We have enough competent and qualified people in the choir to do everything, so the conductor lead the responses while two choristers took the readings.  Nyaaah!  We don't need no clergy, we can do it all our own selves!

Said clergy were suitably red-faced when they turned up the next morning!

The pics are just to entertain you a bit.  The triple face is a bizarre piece of carving on the west end of the cathedral.  I've no idea how old it is, but suspect it's not that old as most of the carvings are in a really soft-looking stone and terribly badly weathered.

The rather splendid whale is at the end of one of the choir stalls and is matched by a bull, a crocodile eating a rabbit, an elephant and a lion on the ends of various other choir stalls.  All most likely Victorian, but I didn't do any research at all, so really don't know.

The last picture is of a misericord, which is the carving on the underneath of a hinged seat behind the choir and generally reserved for clergy.

I don't know what the significance of this is, but it looks to me like basically a war horse wearing chainmail, with a howdah on its back instead of a saddle, then human hands instead of front hooves and a human head, presumably a king, wearing a crown.

Judging by that and some of the other misericord carvings, I'd say they are much earlier than the rest, since many are mythical beasts and the product of some pretty wild imaginations!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

On Tuesday, when we got home from Scotland, having verified that the house was not a smoking ruin and the cat dead, we dumped everything in the hall and made ourselves a cup of tea, which we drank sitting on the patio.

As we did so, a moth flew up to an agapanthus flower nearby, hovered in front of it and inserted its proboscis momentarily before flying rapidly away. I saw it for no more than a couple of seconds, but when I described it to Jenny, she was in no doubt it was a hummingbird hawk moth.

When I looked it up, I agreed.  The description in our butterflies and moths book matched what I'd seen so closely, there really can be no doubt.

According to the warden of Fowlmere Bird Reserve, to whom I mentioned it, they're often reported as hummingbirds, but you'd have to have never seen a hummingbird to make that mistake.  The moth is much smaller, even though not exactly tiny.  And the hovering while sipping nectar, the dark wings with orange underneath, daytime flight and the rapid, darting away, all support the identification.

At the warden's suggestion, I recorded the sighting on www.butterfly-conservation.org, as they're surveying these moths and painted lady butterflies, which are also migratory, though apparently HBHMs are sometimes surviving our winters these days..

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Live webcam from Svalbard

This is so cool!  There are four  live webcams aimed at an excavation on Svalbard where they're extracting an icthyosaur skeleton.  Not only can you watch their (necessarily rather slow!) progress, but what rings a bell for me is to see the landscape there.  I fell completely in love with the landscape in Greenland when we were there in 1987, and it looks remarkably similar, so of course, I have to watch the movies just to relive some of my old memories!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A week off

Last week we went up to Scotland, visiting relatives, picking up some fossils the University has bought from a professional collector we know and finally actually collecting some fossils ourselves just north of Berwick on Tweed.  Very pleasant, very relaxing and totally knackering!

Berwick is weird in one respect; I don't think they drink much wine there.  We tried several eateries, but only the last had any half-way decent wine, and even their 'wine list' consisted of four reds and four whites.   Unimpressed!

The fossicking went well, however.  The pro mentioned above and another guy we know have been collecting at this particular locality for years and some of the material will form the basis of a project Jenny wants to start next year, so going there ourselves was kind of essential.

Well the other two guys reckon to have found fossils in about 5 places in the bay, but we could only find one spot that yielded anything, despite spending a long time wandering around.  So eventually we just focussed on this one place.

Based on a paper Jenny had brought with us, and the fossils in the rock, we reckoned this was a shallow, marine deposit, laid down close to a shoreline.  There was a lot of charcoal in it, which you only get near the shore, but the fish fossils were marine.  Mostly they were Gyracanthus fin spines, but there were also a lot of scales, a few teeth and lots of small, unidentifiable bits.  And we also found three large (up to about 20 cm long) bones which we have tentatively identified as rhizodont fish shoulder girdle components.

The picture here shows a fin spine, somewhat eroded away.  It's in a massive block of stone and it's not practical to try to extract it, but you get the idea of what they look like.  The spines formed the edge of the pectoral fin, I think, but Jenny said the preservation of intact fish is very rare and often hard to interpret, so the picture I've linked to might not be accurate.

I've just learned something as I put in the link to the Wikipedia page on rhizodont fishes, and it might contradict what I put about the supposed marine environment, because Wikipedia says rhizodonts were freshwater fish.  It's not impossible that a dead rhizodont was washed out to sea from a river, but it makes me more cautious about claiming it was a marine facies.

I tried to find some rhizodont information to link to, but that seems a bit thin on the ground, too!

The site itself is interesting, too.  As you can see, the strata are vertical, whereas they were obviously horizontal when originally laid down 300 and odd million years ago. We do know that two tectonic plates were colliding at that time and the ocean between them was disappearing, so the forces involved were obviously enormous, but I've not seen strata like this before.

The actual rock containing the fossils was very wet from water percolating down from above and had become soft and friable, which made it possible to extract stuff from the cliff, but at the same time, meant that anything you did pull out, broke into pieces as you did so.

A Gyracanthus spine I extracted came out in over a dozen pieces, and the rhizodont bones were all in many bits.  In fact, the last rhizodont bone is incomplete because when I tried to extract the last, thin piece, it just crumbled away into hundreds of tiny fragments, impossible to reassemble.

Then when it came time to pack everything up, we found we'd used all our boxes.  We'd brought some plastic food storage boxes but had collected too much!  Even a ruthless cull of the less interesting material didn't meet the demand and we had to improvise.

On the beach, Jenny found a 5-litre plastic container which had obviously been used as a buffer on the side of a boat, judging by the rope tied to the handle.  We cut that off, (in my handbag I carry a Leatherman with a saw blade) rinsed out the dregs of whatever the container had held originally (hope it wasn't too toxic to marine life!) and then cut it in half lengthways to make two shallow trays.   That finally allowed us to pack everything away and come home!

Anyhow, we dropped all the material off at the museum and I'm hoping to get a chance to go in on Friday to take a look at it.