Friday, 31 December 2010

Christmas in Spain

If you are lucky enough to have an apartment on the Costa del Sol, you'd be mad not to get out there when you can, so we had Christmas out there, and very nice it was, too!  Not exactly hot, at a modest 17°C, but miles better than the sub-zero temperatures our friends have been enjoying back in old Blighty!

So on Christmas Day Jenny and I went for a short walk, ending up down on the beach, where I took this photograph.  Although chilly, it was very pleasant, with flat-calm sea and a bit of light breaking through the cloud.  We didn't spend long down there before returning to the flat to start cooking Christmas dinner, which was roast local pork.
The next day we drove to Rhonda, about 50km away, up an incredibly twisty road.  You really have to concentrate as you drive up there.  Autopilot is a good way of killing yourself!  I was completely knackered by the time we got home in the evening!

Rhonda is a mediaeval town built on a rock, with a gorge between the old and new towns, now spanned by the 'new' (18th century, I think) bridge.

We parked in the new town, well away from the old, where it was easy to find a space, then walked the half mile or so to the gorge.  Found lunch in a small restaurant some distance before we reached the gorge, having been tempted in by the kid chops.  I don't often get the chance to eat goat, so had to go in!

And the kid chops were simply delicious.  Tiny, and tasting very similar to lamb.  Jenny had Rabo de Toro, which is ox-tail stew, and equally delicious. All washed down by a glass of decent Rioja.

After lunch we walked to the bridge and I followed a footpath down so I could take this photo, which is one of the classic views.
When we were unpacking on the first afternoon, we'd noticed that a shelf in the wardrobe in the master bedroom looked as though one end had got damp.  It was just contiboard, and the white plastic covering was peeling away from the chipboard underneath.

A couple of days later I leant on it, and it collapsed, so I cleared it all out, and this is what I found.  These are bits of the chipboard, and the reason it looks like chipboard 'foam' is that it's been infested by European termites!  They are sweet little things about 5mm long and had eaten out quite a lot of one end of the shelf.  They're all in the dustbin now, of course!  There's no risk to the property, as that's all built of brick, but we'll need to replace that shelf!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Still practising immaturity

Need I say more?
OK, I'll clue you in; it's supposed to be a cat, all right?
You'll understand why most of my carvings are abstract!
I enhanced the cat's ears, so have replaced the photo with a later one. 

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow at last!

So far we've avoided the snow that's been plaguing most of the country, but yesterday afternoon it started coming down in earnest, and now we have about 10cm, which is the most we've seen for oh, at least a year.

Edit: actually, 15cm.  I measured it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Little Egret in Royston

Around midday I was driving back home and saw what I swear was a little egret, flying along a hundred or so feet up.  It's really hard to imagine it being anything else, but I didn't think we had egrets in this part of the country.  I've sent an email to the warden of Fowlmere bird reserve, who knows more about birds than anyone else I know, and he'll certainly know whether or not they occur locally.

So beautiful, flying silently through the still, clear air.  Lovely day to spot a big white bird against that icy blue sky, too.

Edit: confirmed little egret.  There's been one hanging around Fowlmere for the past couple of weeks, so unsurprising to see it around here. Very nice indeed, I say.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir

This is fantastic!  Eric Whitacre is a young American composer, a few of whose works Jenny and I have sung and whose work we really like.  Semi-randomly surfing the web just now I came across his blog, in which he was discussing how he created a virtual choir and used it to record a piece of his called Lux arumque.  He filmed himself silently conducting the piece, then sent that to a couple of hundred singers who'd volunteered to take part.  Each of them filmed themselves singing their own part and sent it back to him, and he had a friend assemble the whole thing into a single movie.  And this is it.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A great cartoon explaining why climate change is real

Thanks to PZ Myers for drawing attention to this excellent cartoon which puts the case for man-made global warming.  Worth the 5 minutes it'll take you to read.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Breaking the Spell

I've been in a curious frame of mind for the past year or so, which I realise is an odd thing to say.  What I mean is that after a lifetime of reading all sorts of books, including lots of fiction, when we got back from Gal├ípagos a year ago, I couldn't stand fiction and simply read factual stuff.  In that way I read Alexander von Humboldt's book about his travels in tropical South America, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species, Sean Carrol, Janet Brown and others you can see in the side bar on the right.  I tried fiction several times, but just got impatient with it and set it aside.  Vikram Seth and Stieg Larsson were treated the same; I read a few pages, then put them down.

But the other day I picked up Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death which is a murder mystery set in 12th century Cambridge and I simply could not put it down!  Today I was supposed to be going into the Zoology Museum in Cambridge to resume preparation some of the fossils we brought back from near Berwick in July, an activity I really enjoy, but I couldn't bring myself to abandon the book.  The fossils are still in Cambridge, and I've just finished the book!

So I don't know what it was about Galápagos that stopped me enjoying fiction, but that particular spell is broken, and I'm really glad!

Friday, 10 December 2010

A cloud forest in...

Oman is all desert, right?  Wrong!  This is cloud forest in the Salalah mountains in Oman, which is right on the edge of the monsoon region, so gets a bit of rain.  Actually, it only gets 15 inches of actual precipitation, but if you factor in the condensation from fog, you can triple that.  Thanks to Razib Khan with his blog at Discover magazine for the headsup.

Muddy paddy paws

We love our cat, but....

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Sun dog

Just peered out the back window to count birds and spotted this rather fine sun dog.  I had to switch the camera out of fully automatic mode so as to override its desire to focus on the TV aerial, and then it made the picture darker than I wanted, but I'm not good enough at the manual overrides to know how to fix that, so I'm afraid it's just a bit dark.

Salvation Army is off my charity list

So a volunteer at the Salvation Army in Calgary, sifting through a warehouse full of unused, donated items, was told to discard Harry Potter and Twilight toys as they were incompatible with the charity's Christian beliefs.  So not only are they anti-gay, but their stupidity extends to children's toys as well, as reported in the Edmonton Sun yesterday.

And just to add that extra gloss

"I was told to withhold a six-inch Harry Potter figure, but when I picked up a plastic M-16, I was told, 'That's for the 10-year-olds,'" he said.
You couldn't make it up, could you?

Black hole at the centre of our galaxy

This is so cool!

A black hole has so great a gravity field, even light can't escape, so how can you 'see' one?

Well, you could look for gravitational lensing, in which the space-time around the black hole is distorted, so light from stars on the other side is distorted.

But what some people at the UCLA Galactic Center Group did was to track a bunch of stars near the centre of our galaxy for more than a decade, working from the idea that the centre of a galaxy would be a logical place for a black hole to exist, and if it did, the movement of the stars might betray its presence.

And what they found was that the stars are orbiting around a gigantic nothing with a mass of 2.7 to 4 million times the mass of our sun.
You'll need to click the image to see the animation.

Tip of the hat to Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas has come early this year!

I read in the Guardian that the sorely-missed Monty Don will return to Gardeners' World, though I haven't found anything to say exactly when this joyous event will take place.  Hooray!  We loved Monty and were very sad when he didn't return to GW after recovering from his stroke.

The Beeb have axed the ghastly Toby Buckland, who has been a big put-off for us Clacks, though I know there are folks out there who like him a lot better than Monty.   I'm not surprised he's disappointed, but I'm still glad to see him go.

And sadly, Alys Fowler also got the chop.  I thought she was good and that GW didn't really allow her to blossom, if you'll excuse the pun.

Actually, as I write this, I find myself wondering how much this was all a problem of the scriptwriters, and how much Toby Buckland.  You know how mainstream comedians stop being funny after a couple of series. They spend decades developing their material before being discovered by TV, then use it all in a single series.  The second series is written by scriptwriters, who have fun exploring the new boy's talents, but then there's nothing funny left to say and we stop watching.  I wonder whether the production team decided on the new format for the programme and our dislike, which we targeted at Buckland, was actually the fault of the folks in the background.  Oh well, water, bridge, etc.

Good news for Louisiana

Despite much huffing and puffing by the Xtian right, yesterday a subset of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to approve some proper biology textbooks for use in schools, which is really good news.  The kids will get to learn about evolution even though the fundies hate it.  Well, probably.  The panel was seven members of the eleven member board.  Tomorrow the whole board will meet to vote the final approval, but since yesterday's vote was 6:1, it should go through.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Photographs of the frost

Having escaped the worst of the snow, we awoke this morning to find everything covered in a thick layer of frost.  The overnight freezing fog had done its best and made everything beautiful, and now the sun is shining,  so I'm posting a few photographs I've taken this morning.

Monday, 6 December 2010

How to tear clingfilm (plastic wrap)

Doesn't it drive you nuts the way, when you try to tear a piece of clingfilm (aka plastic wrap) off the roll, it simply won't come off in a nice, rectangular piece?  It always tears off in a horrible, irregular mess and worse, leaves the free end of what's still on the roll invisibly welded in place, making it impossible to find the end next time.  Well here's something I worked out.

Pull out as much film as you need and lay it and the roll flat on the worktop.  Take a sharp, kitchen knife - I like to use one with a blade about 20cm (8 inches) long as it has the necessary weight, but this works with a smaller knife.

Without pressing down at all on the knife, run the sharp edge across the clingfilm where you want it to tear.  Do not press down!  You don't want to score your worktop, do you?  You just need to score the clingfilm, and that takes almost nothing. I hold the knife so it points down towards worktop at an angle of about 15° or 20° but I don't think that's critical.

OK, if you insist on using a knife with a 10cm (4 inch) blade, you're going to have to press down just the teensiest bit, otherwise it's not going to score the film, but go easy or you'll score your worktop as well, and that's not a good thing to do.

Pick up the roll with one hand and the end of the film with the other and, starting at one end of the score, pull apart.  It should tear neatly where you scored it with the knife, and the free end is loose enough to be easy to find next time.


Does the Gummint prefer Hearsay?

So the government have removed the requirement for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to have any scientists on it.  This presumably because they can't find any scientists willing to tell them the lies they want to hear. 

It's enough to make you weep!

The world in a drop of water

Well, a man's head, actually.

I'm grateful to Ethan Siegel over at Starts with a Bang for posting these pictures of Pedro Duque during his time on the ISS.

So what's going on here?  Answer, the blob between the camera and the man is actually a droplet of water, which, under zero gravity, has become almost perfectly spherical.

The image is inverted because of the simple optics going on, and the camera has focused on the droplet, not the man, so you see Pedro slightly distorted, viewed through a spherical, water lens.


Sunday, 5 December 2010

Feeding frenzy in the garden

As I've mentioned before, I take part in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Bird Watch project, and spend a bit of time each day watching what's going on in the garden.  As always, while I dress, I look out of the window, and today was rewarded with a mass of birds.  In about 10 minutes, I saw:

  • a blackbird
  • 4 blue tits
  • 6 long-tailed tits
  • a coal tit
  • a great tit
  • 10 house sparrows
By the time I'd finished dressing, they'd all gone and I could see no bird life in the garden whatsoever.  This is a curious pattern, which I'm going to explore when I get a chance, because I've observed it casually over the past several months.  You can watch for 10 minutes and see nothing move, but then on another occasion there's masses happening.  I suspect the small birds are flocking together to feed at the same time for safety reasons, but that's pure speculation at present.  Watch this space!

While cooking breakfast we happened to notice that they were back.  One thing which I have changed recently is to fill one of the bird feeders with sunflower seed hearts, rather than the mixed seed I use in the other, and is divides the birds quite neatly - all the tits feed on the sunflower hearts, while the sparrows rapidly empty the feeder containing mixed seed.  So if I want to try to count the sparrows, I just watch that feeder and ignore the others, but watching tits, if you'll excuse the vulgarity, can be focused on the sunflower hearts.