Friday, 29 October 2010

A little bit of DIY

In the cupboard under our stairs we have a rail across, from which we hang coats on coat hangers, and have never worried about the dead space behind the coats.

Recently, however, I realised that the wine fridge, which currently lurks behind a settee in the living room, would fit neatly into that space, and as said space is unheated, would have to work less hard at keeping the wine cool.

The wine snobs amongst you will know that white wine should be served at around 8 - 10°C.  If, like most of the world, you chill your white wine in a conventional domestic fridge, you'll be serving it at around 5°C, which is why it is relatively tasteless when you take your first glug.  So a year or two back, Jenny bought me a proper Gordon Ramsay wine fridge which holds a dozen bottles. A giant leap for wine snobbery in the Clack household!

The only down side to this is that the fridge itself is rated as having an energy efficiency of G, which is about as inefficient as you can get.  I'm not sure how they are allowed to sell it, and if I was Gordon Ramsay I'd certainly not allow them to associate my name with it!

So we've been looking for somewhere cool and out of the way to put it, and once installed, I'll be getting some decent insulating sheet to wrap around it in an effort to reduce its current size 16 carbon footprint.

Last weekend, the weather being foul, we started making that dead space behind the coats accessible from the hallway, with the result you can see here.  Two sweet little doors made from an old one I was too mean to throw away about 10 years ago. Don't look too closely at the workmanship, as, like many a DIYer, I'm not that good at getting the angles perfect and the gaps precisely parallel.  And the fact that they're not quite the same shade is down to the one on the left showing its original outside, while the one on the right is showing it's original inside, which has faded less.  Well, if it doesn't bother me, it shouldn't bother you!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Botswana skeptics blog

This makes me feel really optimistic but I post this because of the excellent cartoon!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I want to do this!

I'm much obliged to Arabella Sock for posting this wonderful picture.  Of course, I can't just up  and off to San Sebastian to indulge, but I do have minnows and sticklebacks in my pond.  D'you think if I dangled my feet in the pond, my fishies would oblige?

Actually, at this time of year the water is more than a bit parky, so perhaps I'll wait until next summer before trying it!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Fowlmere Bird Reserve

Today the warden, Doug,  had to go to Norwich for a meeting, so yesterday another volunteer, Mike, and I went to the reserve where Doug showed us what he wanted done today.

When I got back to the car park I spotted this beautiful euonymus growing in the hedge.

Today Mike had a couple of people with brushcutters, plus another to help rake up, while I took everyone else to the reedbed where last week we cut a mass of reeds. 

One of the things we had to do today, which made it much harder work, was entirely my fault, though I wasn't at all sorry!  Last week, while moving reeds around to clear the way for the man with the rice harvesting machine, I spotted two water voles.  I didn't realise there is no official record of water voles at Fowlmere, or I'd have made the effort to photograph them.

Anyhow, the fact that they were in the reedbed and I had seen them near the reeds stacked in long rows ready to be burned, meant that we had to restack all the reeds so as not to catch voles hiding under the stacked reeds.  Every last one had to be moved!  Well, there were five of us, so although it was a lot of work, we got it done reasonably quickly.

The wind was blowing in the wrong direction for lengthwise burning anyway, so we built big stacks and fired them progressively.  With a stiff breeze blowing, it was quite spectacular, and the stacks burned away much more quickly than last week.  Didn't see any evidence of Rattie, unfortunately.

So I took the opportunity to take some more fire photographs!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Extra Brownie Points

Jenny flew back from Pittsburgh overnight, landing at Heathrow shortly after 6 this morning.  When I looked at her flight itinerary, it looked as though she'd be travelling for an awfully long time, so I determined to pick her up from Heathrow instead of letting her catch the train home.  The train is not hard, but it takes quite a while, and she'd be navigating the centre of London  during the rush hour, which is never fun.

I started my preparations last night.  Once I'd recovered from Fowlmere I did a quick shop, to make sure I had everything I'd need.  Then I discovered I was ravenous at 6 pm, so reheated and ate some leftover chicken, broccoli and macaroni bake which I'd made on Monday.  There was rather a lot, and to my surprise I finished it off with no bother.  In fact, I was still rather peckish, so heated up the remains of Wednesday's Indian, which had been destined for today's lunch.  Even then, I wasn't overfull.  Amazing!  I haven't eaten so much in a sitting for years!

After nursing some nice red wine while watching Channel 4' Inside Giants, this one being about the Giant Squid, I went to bed and slept well.  Although I'd set an alarm for 5.45, in fact I woke at 4.30 and decided that would give me time to check the status of Jenny's flight, so while I showered and dressed, I turned the puter on.  And I'm glad I did, because she was expected to land half an hour early.

I was out of the house by 5 and met satisfyingly little traffic, pitching up at Terminal 1 International Arrivals at 6.15, a few minutes after touchdown.

Her progress through the terminal was swift, and the look on her face as she emerged and caught sight of me was worth the effort.

Once we hit the M25 she ferreted in the tote bag I'd brought and poured some coffee, then, as we neared home, she ate the two yoghurts I'd brought for her.  We were home by 8.15 and in a very short order hit the sack.

And we are agreed: it is very nice indeed that she's back!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Today on Fowlmere Bird Reserve

Today we were burning reeds at Fowlmere and I tell you, I was completely whacked when I gave up at 3 o'clock.  A guy with an Italian rice-harvesting machine was going around cutting and baling the reeds and we had to first make sure the bales were out of his way the next time he came around and then stack and burn them.  Burning them was quite fun, of course, but there was still lots of stacking to do right up to the end, as Tim, the driver, just wouldn't stop!

The harvester was just about at the limit of its performance, cutting these reeds, and Tim kept having to stop to fix things.  Unjamming a great knot of reeds, re-threading the string that ties the bundles together, and on and on.  But even with the breakdowns, we couldn't keep up!

Towards the end of the day I realised I'd not spent much time looking for birds, but not long after that cast my eyes skywards and was rewarded with a marsh harrier, so that was OK.

When I got home I sank a J2O, then had a cup of tea and finally a long, deep, hot bath.  Ah, bliss!

And tomorrow I have to be up at 5 so I can pick Jenny up from Heathrow.  She's not expecting me, so I have to be there when she walks out of arrivals.  If I miss her, she'll hop on the tube to Kings Cross and I'll have wasted the journey.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Things you didn't know you didn't know

This is amazing! I found this article in Biology Today about bacteria called Shewanella which grow tiny hairs when times get tough.  The researchers called them nanowires and the first publications about them appeared in 2006, so it's a pretty new field.

Turns out the nanowires actually conduct electricity, and colonies of Shewanella can join up their nanowires, giving, amongst other things, the possibility of inter-bacterial communication, though that's still speculative.

One of many bits of information I didn't know was that bacterial respiration can be described as 'giving up electrons' and that our own breathing is fundamentally just that, though we use oxygen to accept the electrons and bacteria use other electron acceptors.

Electricity carried on nanowires may be a lifeline. Bacteria respire by losing electrons to an acceptor – for Shewanella, a metal such as iron. (Breathing is a special case: Humans respire by giving up electrons to oxygen, one of the most powerful electron acceptors.)
So when times are tough and there's not much for a hapless bacterium to dump electrons onto (ie respire) it grows nanowires which join up to its mates' nanowires and hopefully the colony can find some electron-acceptors somewhere, enabling the whole colony to survive.
"This would be basically a community response to transfer electrons," El-Naggar explained. "It would be a form of cooperative breathing."
Neat, eh?

Monday, 11 October 2010


I read this in a book called The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho.  I've been reading small dribs and drabs of it over the past several months.  I've not yet finished it, and I'm not convinced it's any good, because I keep losing the thread, but I like this quote, so I offer you a paraphrase.  It's in the context of your religion forbidding consumption of specific things.

It's not what goes in your mouth that is evil, but what comes out.
Later: well, it's a nice little story, but I didn't (even from the start) like the way it was wrapped up with religious and other stuperstitious   overtones.  It could easily have been written without the silly fairy-story aspects, but I guess you can't have everything.  I must have liked it a bit - I finished it!


This morning as I was dressing I looked out of the window into our back garden and just caught sight of a flurry of pigeons all flying off in roughly the same direction, followed by a small cloud of collared doves, the whole kaboodle heading roughly east.  Now this struck me as unusual, since although there are lots of pigeons and doves, they rarely fly in any kind of coordinated fashion.

So I was alert when a sparrowhawk shot across the garden.  "Ah, that'll be it then" I thought.  I was surprised enough by the pigeons' reaction to do an internet search, and it would seem that sparrowhawks do take a few pigeons.  I'd thought they were too big to be on the menu regularly.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Good in parts

Well last night's meal was a bit of a mixed bag.  The oxtail stew itself was truly splendid, reflecting an excellent, simple recipe.  The potatoes dauphinoise were less good, proving that crême fraîche is no substitute for cream in this recipe!  The crême fraîche went rather cheesy, like cream cheese, which was not the desired effect at all!  But the desert of warm peach with berries in a Grand Marnier syrup worked well.  I was so full I had to leave the washing up until this morning!

The Montbazillac was delicious, too.  We'd opened it on Wednesday, when it had seemed rather one-dimensional (wine-snob-speak for sweet but rather bland!) but after several days in the fridge, it was richer, fuller and altogether more wonderful!

And then this morning I drew back the curtains to find 17 (yes, seventeen!) collared doves and a great spotted woodpecker in the ex-blue tree!  A splendid way for the day to greet me!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Estofado de rabo de buey

As I've mentioned before, when Jenny goes away I like to indulge myself on the food and drink front, so have just put my oxtail stew into the oven for about 4 hours at 140°C.  This is an Andalucian recipe with butter beans, tomatoes and red wine, as well as all the usual suspects.  We've done it quite a few times before, though I think this is the first time I've cooked it by myself.  Not sure.  Anyway, it is one of our favourites, so hopefully will be up to the mark.  To go with it I've brought a bottle of 2002 Côtes Rôtie up from the cellar to warm to room temperature.  I'll decant that an hour or so ahead of time.

For vegetables, I have Dunbar Rover potatoes I grew in a polythene bag, which are nice boiled, though they are a tad too floury for my taste, and then perhaps carrots or French beans or both, straight from the garden.  I know I'll have vastly too much, so am not planning to have a starter or pudding, though there is the dregs of a half-bottle of Montbazillac in the fridge.  Hmmm.  Maybe I should think of something in the way of a dessert.  Perhaps I'll go and see what the farm shop has in the way of berry fruits.... maybe pick up some crême fraîche....

Later: a white-fleshed peach, some fresh blueberries and frozen raspberries.  I think if I heat those up in a light brandy syrup they'll be just right!  And I'm thinking I could do something more adventurous with the potatoes, now I've got the crême fraîche.

All by my ownsome

Jenny's flown off to Pittsburg for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual symposium, leaving me here at home.  As is often the case in these situations, once she's gone, I feel rather at a loose end for a while, before getting my act together and using my time productively, so here I am wasting time blogging on a Saturday afternoon!

I came across these fantastic pictures on the Discover blog.  Collaboration between an ad company, Canon printers and a photographer yielded some exquisite photographs of liquid ink being manipulated by sound waves.  I couldn't find a way to embed the slide show, so just cut out the arty stuff, ignoring pictures of the equipment they were using.

Monday, 4 October 2010


On average, every six months we like to go on a weekend silversmithing course with Ian and Sue Buckley at Bringsty Arts Studio on the Hereford/Worcester border.  They're lovely people and he's an excellent tutor, so we always have a great time.  This is generally enhanced by staying at the14th century coaching inn called the Talbot at Knightwick.

On this occasion all the rooms at the Talbot were taken, so we stayed instead with Jayne Robbie who runs a B&B only 50m from the pub.  This was perfect, as not only was it cheaper, but Jayne is a terrific hostess and we could eat at the pub as well.   Result!

My main project was to raise the bowls of a pair of wine goblets I'd decided to make.  You start with plain discs of silver and then spend a long time banging them with a hammer.  It's noisy and physically hard work.  I got, I suppose, 75% of that stage done, and the rest will have to wait until we go next time.  My hands hurt!

You need to have a second project to fill in gaps, on these weekends.  Ian can't always be instantly available every time you need to grab his attention, so having something else to do means you don't hang around bored.  And on this occasion, I also needed to give my hands and everybody's ears a rest from time to time!

So this pendant is what I made.  I've had a packet of a dozen or so 4mm cubic zirconium for probably 20 years and never been able to set them.  The bought-in claw settings I've tried were always rubbish, and other ways of setting these stones are very difficult and not always successful, so they've just languished in the toolbox.

But on our last weekend, Ian showed me a little cone-shaped burr like the one in the second photograph. You can use that to drill down the centre of a piece of silver tube to make perfectly-angled shoulders for a bright-cut stone to sit on, and if your tube is wide enough, there'll be a thin lip left which you can rub over the edges of the stone to hold it securely in place.

My bright-cut stones are a mixture of 4mm and 5mm in diameter, so I bought two burrs, one for each size, and this weekend made this pendant. I figured Jenny needs some bling jewellery to wear at Royal Society events, and you can't distinguish CZs from real diamonds, so these would do.  I'll have to do her some earrings and possibly other bits to match, but that's fine.  I have to say, I'm rather pleased with that.

Not quite Nul Points

A while ago we realised that our old fridge was over 20 years old and the freezer an impressive 30, both made before the idea of energy efficiency ratings had been dreamed up, and actually, both probably pretty inefficient, so we started thinking about replacing them.  This was where things got interesting.

The slots where they lived were barely over 50cm wide, which is quite restricting when you come to buy this sort of whiteware, and it took us months to eventually settle on Lec units from John Lewis.  Last Wednesday we took delivery of a tall fridge freezer and an under the counter freezer, the old ones due for collection on Friday, giving us time to get the new ones settled in and cool before unplugging the old.  The kitchen was a disaster area, of course, but we could live with that for those few days.

Except that when I tried to swap the doors so they hinged on the left, one of the feet would not screw into the hole provided.  The hole had not had a thread tapped into it.  An engineer's visit was arranged for this morning.  I was quite clear about what was required.  The man needed the equipment to tap a thread into the hole.

Later that day it became obvious that the new fridge was not cooling to the required 3 - 7°C.  I put the max-min thermometer in and it showed about 14°C.  I phoned again and informed them of this.  The guy was very reassuring.  The engineer would almost certainly be able to fix it, but in the unlikely event he couldn't, they'd supply a replacement within 3 - 5 working days.

Today the engineer showed up, looked at the hole, tried to clean it out with a screwdriver, tried hammering the foot in (knackering the thread on the foot in the process) and gave up.  He put his hand inside and said it was cool, even if not down to the required temperature.  He didn't believe the max-min thermometer, trusting his own feelings in preference to basic science.  Nope, there was nothing more he could do, he'd order us a replacement.  He was, in a word, useless.  And he wouldn't even refit the power lead I'd cut off the old fridge so I could use that in the interim.  So we get a replacement on Friday, but in the mean time have no fridge at all.

Fortunately John Lewis had failed, too.  The old fridge and freezer were still out in the back yard.  Using a plank from the garage, I dragged the old fridge back inside and it's now in the utility room.  I wiped the worst of the rain off and refitted the wire I'd cut off, but then made my own mistake.  Without giving it time to dry off, I plugged it in and switched it on. 

I could hear a sort of hissing, crackling sound, so quickly unplugged it again, then watched as whisps of what I hoped were steam rose from around the motor. Didn't smell like steam, smelt like burning plastic, but it soon stopped and I saw no flames!  I had hoped that even though it had been rained on, the fact that the electrics were underneath would have kept them dry, but clearly it was not so.

So I'll let it dry out for a bit before plugging it in again.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hello Darwin my old Friend

As Greg Laden says, if only Paul and Art had been this good with words!

More about Spain

I remembered that I'd taken some photographs with my phone, so downloaded them a few moments ago, and I thought I'd show you a few of them.

One night we ate in the restaurant la Mandragora, which is in the el Zoco shopping complex in Calahonda.  We've been eating there for years, since before my father died, and it's always been excellent.  This time was no exception, in fact, the food seemed better than ever. 

However, it's about a half hour walk from the flat, so we walk there, then get a taxi back.  Several times during the week, walking in that direction, we saw this dog, standing on top of the column, just watching the world.  It never made a sound, and the first time we saw it we thought it was a sculpture as it was standing stock still.