Wednesday, 29 September 2010


It's ages since we went to Spain and I was feeling guilty that my brothers were doing all the work on the flat, so last week Jenny and I went out there. We've finally decided that letting out to friends and family is not working, since no-one has actually rented the place in the year or more we've been thinking along those lines.

The picture shows Jenny sitting on the patio.  The tree in the foreground is a lemon and the pink stuff to Jen's right is beaugainvillea. There's another lemon to the left of that.

So Ned has been speaking to a local letting agency, who seem keen to get us on their books. Trouble is, there's a lot to be done before the place is in a lettable state, so part of our duties was to instigate some of the necessary changes.

The agent was supposed to be coming up with quotes for replacing the cooker, cooker hood and fridge, for removing a defunct water filtration unit, for replacing the loo in the guest bedroom and for doing a bit of painting. Sadly, she's not done so yet.

Anyhow, I now have a euros current account at Lloyds TSB Spain and have initiated closure of my late step-mother's old bank account. That's likely to be a protracted process!

And we've put up a picture, a mirror, five ornamental plates, done a lot of cleaning and sorting out including cleaning the inside of a kitchen cupboard. Horrors! Well, the hinges are sacked out so a couple of the doors don't stay shut. The cheapo solution is magnetic catches, so I fitted those. That requires removing everything from the cupboards, and while they're empty, it's a good time to clean them. First time in 20 years, I reckon. Revolting! Hopefully Peter and Ned will muck in and do a couple more and in no time they'll all be clean.

Spent a fortune on bed linen and are still not fully equipped in that direction.

Although we flew out on Tuesday, it was Saturday before we finally made it to the beach! At this time of year there are few enough people around that you can go skinny dipping without offending anyone, and I do recommend it. Lovely!

I took my snorkel and mask partly to see if there was anything interesting to see and partly because in the shallows there's a small risk of being washed against rocks by the waves and it's nice to get a few seconds notice of the bang! I wasn't, as the water was just deep enough, but it added a margin for comfort.

So I saw perhaps half a dozen different sorts of small fish, snakelocks anemones, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Nothing big, nothing terribly interesting or that I've not seen there before, but nice enough. There must be bigger fish there, because there are always a few fishermen with huge fishing rods and they wouldn't persist if they were never successful. I suppose they might be casting their lines further out than the 50 metres or so I swam.

The sea bed shelves very gradually there, and even at 50m out the water was only aboaut 3 or 4 metres deep.

When I gave the car back to Helle Hollis, Jenny pointed out a leaflet about the Home Owners' Club, which gives 15% reduction and your keys are waiting when you arrive.  And this is a benefit you can share with friends and family, so I plan to join!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Continued on page 2

In the olden days, the Guardian was jocularly known as the Grauniad because it was notoriously poorly proof-read and was consequently full of typos.

Although I don't actually take a daily newspaper, this morning I was feeding Lorna and Richard's cat, they having gone away for the night, and I read a front page column about the pope's visit to the UK. At the foot of the column it said "Continued on page 2" so I turned to page 2, but nowhere was the continuation of the article. I eventually found it on page 5.

So gratifying to discover that they've not abandoned such a long-standing tradition.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Tim Minchin on the Pope

Love this!  Not safe for work, of course.

Predated Dove's Egg

And no, I don't mean pre-dated!

I found this egg on the compost heap directly below a collared dove's nest and I was intrigued by the obvious peck marks.  It is almost certainly a collared dove egg, being white and the right size.

The fact that the egg shell was directly below the nest suggested it had bee predated rather than had hatched naturally, since the adults typically carry the egg shell a little way away from the nest after hatching.

A brief search of the internet confirmed this, as someone commenting on a forum suggested that a naturally hatched egg has a fairly smooth edge.  I didn't do any follow-up research to check whether or not this commenter was right;  it's not like it's a matter of life and death for me, after all, even if it was for the embryo dove!

And then there are the peck marks, which could easily have been made by a jackdaw or magpie.

I was a bit disappointed in the Tracks and Signs book we keep for just this sort of event, as it doesn't list eggs in its index at all!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Go home pope!

So now mockery is forbidden in the UK?

This is utterly pathetic!  An ice cream manufacturer created a rather splendid advert showing a pregnant nun eating his ice cream, and the Advertising Standards Authority has banned the ad as likely to offend Roman Catholics.

Antonio Federici's advert showed a pregnant nun eating ice cream in a church, together with the strap line "immaculately conceived".
The Advertising Standards Authority has ordered it to be discontinued, saying it mocked Roman Catholic beliefs.

They've vowed to come up with something special for Ratzinger's visit.  I can't wait!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Preparing fossils

This, believe it or not, is one of the fossils we found in Burnmouth in July, and it's proving quite enigmatic, even if it actually doesn't look like much at all! (And my apologies that the ruler is upside down!)

The original rock, as extracted from the cliff, was about 8cm square and perhaps 2cm thick, and held a sizeable piece of bone as these things go.  We were quite excited.  Jenny thought it might be the clavicle of a fish from a group called Rhizodonts.  The clavicle in this context is the centre bone from the front of the shoulder girdle (no direct equivalent in human anatomy) but judging from the size of the bone, the fish would have been a couple of metres long, so a decent meal for four!

Now I know you can't see much of the bone, as it's mostly embedded in the rock, but what you can see is a paler area where I've been picking away the rock matrix, leaving a kind of horizontal brownish area just below where the ruler says 15cm upside down.

That, if you magnify it up, is a row of tiny teeth, each only about a millimetre long, and they are getting us excited.

If, and it's a big if, that row of teeth really is part of the rest of the bone in the rock, then it can't possibly be a clavicle.  Shoulder girdles do not have teeth, even in Carboniferous fishes!

But what we're left with, and I know you can't see this, is quite a chunky bone which must be part of the mouth of whatever originally owned it, equipped with minute, but minute teeth.  If an animal has a jaw bone, and it doesn't matter whether that's upper or lower jaw, 10 cm long, how much use is a row of teeth 1mm high?

There's a vertebrate palaeontology conference going on in Cambridge as we speak, and we're showing this beastie to the experts.  So far, the reaction is "Nope.  Never seen anything like that!"

I'll throw another thought your way.  Feel free to discard it.  This animal lived in a 20 million year period known as Romer's Gap.  At the end of the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago, there was a mass extinction, much like the one we're all familiar with at the end of the Cretaceous.  Romer's Gap comes immediately after that, and it's called that because vertebrate fossils are extremely rare from that 20 million year period.  Our beastie comes from about 3/4 of the way through, so about 345 million years ago.

When you get a mass extinction, the few that survive, once things stabilise, have life relatively easy, at least that's my theory. There's less competition and it's generally easier to get by.  If it's easier to get by, even some quite unpromising variations don't stop you reproducing, so a slew of weird animals evolve.  After a bit, and we think less than 20 million years in this case, more and more competing forms evolve, life gets tougher, and only those variants that are actually any good survive.  The rest die out.

We might have one of the survivors here, or one of the doomed weirdos.  We don't know.  Now isn't that fascinating?

Monday, 13 September 2010

In my garden today

The latest fad in UK gardening seems to be called "rivers of colour" and I'm as susceptible as the next person to fads, so have started some rivers of colour of my own.  The idea, as if I needed to explain, is to plant a meandering strip of plants all the same colour, winding through your garden.

We already had some black grass  (Ophiopagon) growing in part of the area I wanted to treat this way, so I bought some more plants and also divided some that had established themselves and started to spread.

Sadly, there still aren't enough plants to look impressive,but I think you can get an impression of what I'm aiming at.  Next year, however, I expect it will look a lot better.  I'll add plants on an ad-hoc basis and broaden the strip until it looks OK.  There is another strip elsewhere in the garden, but that is even less impressive!

I've also taken about 40 cuttings of pinks, and if they all grow I'll plant them alongside the black grass, hopefully as a pleasing contrast.  Also, with that many pinks in flower, we might stand a chance of smelling their gorgeous scent without scrabbling around on hands and knees!

The other thing we've achieved over the past few weekends is to sort out the area around the ex-blue-cypress and under the silver birch.

As I mentioned a while ago, we had all the foliage stripped off the cypress because it was getting too big for the garden, and left it with just the trunk and main branches, forming an architectural feature in the garden.

Finally, we've planted stuff around the base of the trunk and repaved the area under the birch where we like to sit and watch the world go by sometimes.

The birch is not a happy bunny, with the branches closest to the blue cypress bearing rather small, sickly yellow leaves.  A few years ago we lifted the paving slabs immediately around the birch, thinking to improve the water supply, but that had no effect.

Part of our thinking in killing the cypress was that it might be exuding a toxin of some sort that was affecting the birch, since it's only the branches nearest that are affected.  Not completely making this up;  I have heard of trees giving off noxious vapours to keep the competition at bay, though never seen it in action.

Now that the cypress is dead, we hope the birch will recover.  We didn't kill the cypress until rather late in the year, so are not greatly surprised the birch hasn't perked up yet, but just to be on the safe side, the paving nearest it is concrete blocks rather than slabs, so the rain that falls there can soak through and get to its roots.  We'll have to withold judgement until next year, of course.  No idea what we'll do if it's still sick then.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Mockery is a good response!

Hat tip: P Z Myers.

Fish Trap

When the pond we've just had renovated was ready to be restocked, I rescued a couple of dozen sticklebacks from a drying-up ditch in Fowlmere bird reserve and  bought a similar number of European minnows from a nearby pet supplies shop.

The idea was that we used to have common goldfish in that pond, and they bred so furiously they ate all the wildlife, so I figured sticklebacks and minnows would be a much better bet.  They'd still eat the midge larvae, so we'd not get bitten as much as if the pond had no fish at all, but they'd do less damage to the rest of the wildlife.

Unfortunately, the trug I used to store the sticklebacks for the few days until the pond was ready had previously been used to store said common goldfish, and although I thought I'd got all the goldfish out, I missed one.  My excuse is that this one hadn't changed to orange, so was still black on top and therefore invisible in the rather murky water.

I've been trying to catch it for weeks now, but I suspect it was just swimming through the chicken wire my fish trap was made from, so today I made a new trap using a finer mesh plastic netting.  It had been in the pond only half an hour before I rather optimistically  checked it.  I hadn't caught the goldfish, but I did have one of the larger minnows!  Oh well, it won't harm them and it does at least prove that the design works.

This design has an open top as the old, chicken wire trap caught several frogs, two of which sadly drowned.  With an open top, frogs will be able to reach the surface, even if they can't climb out.

Fowlmere volunteering

Yesterday I was volunteering at RSPB Fowlmere and just felt like blogging about it.  It wasn't a particularly special day, but it was fun and hard work and very satisfying, so what's not to like about that?

The warden, Doug, took a couple of us off the beaten track to where a willow tree had had a branch blown off recently, and we proceeded to pollard it, which took all day.

The tree had obviously been coppiced some years ago, as there were about half a dozen trunks springing from the base, each about 10cm thick, and Doug cut each in turn with the chainsaw.  Ray and I then used loppers and occasionally bowsaws to reduce the lighter wood to burnable dimensions while Doug cut the thick stuff into lengths of perhaps a metre and a half for stacking in a wildlife stack.

Once we'd got a decent pile of the light stuff, Ray got a fire going and we were kept pretty busy feeding it.  Starting with dry wood, the fire was soon chucking out quite a bit of heat and as time went by we were able to put the green wood on and burn that, too.  We were joined by a couple of the other volunteers once they'd finished whatever it was they were doing.

The fire burned down a bit while we ate our lunch, but we were quickly able to restore it once Doug cut down more of the tree.

Once everything was on the fire, most of them left, leaving another volunteer and me to tend the fire until it was safe to leave.  We hung about for another hour or so but then he had a text message from his wife at home to say that a heavy shower had just passed through their village heading for us.  As he had no waterproofs, he gathered most of the remaining tools and scarpered.

I put my Rohan jacket on and sheltered under a tree until the worst was over. The Rohan is not waterproof, but the rain didn't last long and I didn't get seriously wet. It certainly didn't seem to have any effect on the fire! I waited for another half an hour or so, by which time the fire had died down, showing neither flames nor smoke, then went home myself.  In that last half hour I took this photograph, which I'm quite pleased with.  It seems to encapsulate Fowlmere, so I thought I'd show it to you..  The building you can just see is a big hide overlooking the mere, where we get various ducky things, herons and waders.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Great TED talk on the oldest living things

I'm not sure you can count a colony of bacteria as a single organism, but perhaps I misunderstood that bit.  Clonal trees and bushes are cool.  And very, very old! Bristlecone pine?  Pchwah!  A mere stripling!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Ricochets and Repercussions

The title of this posting reflects the fact that you can't always tell what the long-term effects of your actions will be.

We watched a fascinating programme on Channel 5 last night, about a catastrophe in India. As so often with TV science documentaries, they stretched it out rather more than necessary.  I think they could have got away with a half hour or possibly 40 minute programme instead of the full hour they gave it.  I suspect this is a side effect of farming the actual programme making out to specialist companies;  obviously the production company would rather sell a longer programme for more.

The programme started by focusing on leopards moving into urban areas, with an increase in the number of children being attacked, which has generated a lot of panic amongst the local population, with some predictable killing of the unfortunate leopards by crowds armed with sticks.

Instead of sending out vigilantes to massacre the leopards, the Indians have done some basic research to find out why things have changed, and it turns out the leopards are primarily in the urban areas to predate a wildly booming population of feral dogs.  As their natural prey in the jungle has got scarcer, they've found an alternative food source, and now dogs form about 80% of their diet.

Next question, of course, is why are there so many dogs?  This needs to be answered for another reason, quite independently.  Many of the dogs carry rabies, and people are getting bitten.  You have to get the vaccine within 24 hours of being bitten by a rabid dog, and people just don't realise that.   The nice lady doctor explained that if you don't get the vaccine within the critical period, you die.  There is a 100% death rate for those not vaccinated in time.  I didn't know that, but then there's not a lot of rabies in this country, so I wouldn't expect to know it.

As you'll know, cows are sacred to Hindus, and in northern India they're allowed to wander as they choose and no-one is allowed to interfere with them.  When they die, their carcasses are collected up and taken to traditional dumping grounds, where they are just left.  This sounds gross until you realise that the vast populations of vultures could strip a carcass within an hour, so it obviously wasn't nearly as nasty as you'd imagine.

Only now there don't seem to be many vultures about, the carcasses lie around for ages, attracting dogs and flies.  The absence of vultures is a real problem in this respect and is the root cause of the problems with the dogs.  There's another thread to this tale, too.

The Jains are a religious group who, amongst other things, consider fire and earth to be sacred, which makes disposing of their dead somewhat problematic.  They can't bury the body or burn it because the flesh is unclean and would corrupt the earth or the fire.  So traditionally they've exposed their dead in purpose built towers and the vultures have come along and dealt with them in the same way as they used to deal with the dead cows.  No vultures means an accumulation of dead Jains, which is not a pleasant thought.

This all started to become obvious in the late 1990's and people started doing the research necessary to understand it.  The vultures were definitely dying, but no-one knew why.  As the numbers crashed, and by that I mean the number of vultures was halving each year, the Indian government declared them an endangered species, which made it a crime even to possess the carcass of a vulture.  This wasn't exactly helpful to the scientists trying to find out what was killing them.  If you can't have a carcass, how do you find out what killed the bird?

In the end they had to work in Pakistan, which has less rigorous enforcement.  They discovered that elderly cows were being given an anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac to ease the pain of rheumatism and arthritis.  When the vultures cleaned up the cow carcasses, they ingested the Diclofenac which caused kidney failure.  Doesn't cause kidney failure in humans or cows, just vultures.  I took Diclofenac daily for years after I slipped a disc and my kidneys are fine.

So a few years ago now, the Indian government forbad the sale of Diclofenac for cows, though some is still being used that way.  Presumably for some Hindus, it's preferable to ease a cow's suffering than to sort out the problems with vultures, Jains, carcass dumps, feral dogs, rabies and leopards.  In theory, with less of the drug being administered to cows, the vultures should start to recover.

There are also now captive breeding programmes springing up, where the vultures are fed drug-free goats, and that seems to be quite successful, though it'll be a long time before the populations recover to the millions that existed before.  Even the Jains are investigating starting their own captive breeding programme.

Quite where we are now, I don't know.  There's a long article going into much more detail than the TV programme at the Bombay Natural History Society website.  One of the things it details, which the programme omitted, is that the Indians have tested an alternative anti-inflammatory called Meloxicam and found that it's just as effective for the cows, but does no damage to the vultures.

Of course, it could do enormous damage to leopards, or crocodiles, or elephants, or rice.  Who knows?  Nobody's done the research.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


I've been working on a wooden carving, which I've called Reclining Nude, for ages.  Last year, with all the trauma of mum's death, I hardly touched it, but this year I've got back down to it.  Sadly, progress has been slow.  It's by far the biggest piece I've done, and even when I spend hours chipping away at it, the evidence doesn't seem to match the effort!

When I was singing in Florence in May, however, I had a most interesting conversation with Jacques Giles.  Jacques is the husband of my gorgeous friend Jenny, who was singing, and Jacques had come along as a groupie.  Jacques turns wooden bowls on a lathe, and had recently acquired himself a powered chisel.

Now I had looked on the internet for a powered chisel a couple of years ago, and drawn a blank, but Jacques actually has one.  So the other week I called on them and checked it out, and now I have one of my own.

It's called a Proxxon motorised carver, which may be why I didn't find it when searching for 'powered chisel'.  The chisel bit itself is rather small, and it doesn't take off much at a time, but it's so effortless, I can keep going much longer than when using the hand tools.  Of course, I still need to use hand chisels quite a lot of the time, but for overall shaping of the piece, it's a dream.

The limiting factor at this stage is just that it gets rather hot.  The instruction manual mentions overheating as if it's a fault, but says nothing about only using the tool for a limited time before giving it a chance to cool off.  I do that because it doesn't feel right making it carry on working when it's so hot.  Just mechanically unsympathetic.

Jenny's Crash - update

Jenny's bruises developed nicely and she's been  in quite a lot of pain for the past fortnight.  Fortunately that is now easing.  This was just as well as she went to Grenoble with her post-doc, Stephanie, on Tuesday last week, returning on Friday.  They took some fossils to be scanned in the supa-dupa synchrotron facility there.  I had no idea what it was like, but post a few pics here.  I was deeply impressed.

The synchrotron has an enormous ring around which they shoot electrons until they achieve whatever speed is deemed necessary for the experiment, then beams of electrons are siphoned off.

This picture shows part of the building that houses the ring.  It's not as big as the LHC, but then the experiments are in a different league!  Even so, it's powered by its own nuclear reactor, which is what you see in the next shot.

In Jenny and Stephanie's case, the experiment was to try to see inside the fossils they'd taken, and this was only partially successful.  One rock in particular, showed up beautifully, and they should get a lot of information out of that.

Sadly, most of the others didn't work as well.  The problem is that they need the bones and the internal bits of the bones to be more opaque to the beam of electrons than the rock matrix is.  Without that critical difference, you don't see much at all.

And the third pic is of Grenoble itself, which I include really just because it looks like a nice place and they had some decent food there!

Meanwhile, I was sorting out Jen's bike. We'd had a quote for all the parts from the local Yamaha dealer, but of course, that came to much more than this 14-year-old bike was worth.

With the workshop manager, we went through the list picking out just those parts necessary to make the bike rideable and presentable, which came to a much more reasonable figure.

Then we added the cost of a helmet and a jacket (both damaged in the crash) plus a rather small amount for the pain she suffered.  Still came to quite a lot!

When the man came back from holiday on Thursday, he contacted me and we discussed where we were at.  I'd not got around to posting him the documentation, because I thought he'd not be back until the weekend.  Long story short, he's agreed to pay, but has yet to do so.  When I see the money in our bank account I'll post him a "full and final settlement" document signed by Jenny, but not before.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Homeopathic Webcomic

You might expect me to like this.  I first saw it at Skepchic, but she stole it from Peter Harrison at Reality is my Religion.