Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Mixed Christmas

This Christmas we rented the same flat we usually do in Sherringham on the north Norfolk coast.  It's a nice, warm, comfortable flat in the middle of the town, with a decent chippie at the end of the street and the most excellent Restaurant No 10 close by.  The plan was to spend the whole time watching birds on the reserves at Cley next the Sea and Tichwell Marshes, but on Saturday morning, Jenny wasn't feeling well, having picked up a tummy bug somewhere.  We went to Cley anyway, figuring we'd get lunch in the visitor centre there, and we could stay inside and watch birds from there if she didn't want to venture outside.  No reason to expect the visitor centre to be closed on Christmas Eve, after all.

It was not to be.  The visitor centre was indeed closed, so we had to lunch in a nearby pub before walking across the reserve to the nearest hides.  It was bitterly cold in the rather sharp wind.  We were very glad to get into the first hide, I can tell you!

Worth it, though, as we saw lots of birds.  Marsh harriers, lots of lapwings, a few dozen black tailed godwits, avocets, a few shoveler ducks, lots of teal and widgeon, a scattering of dunlin, a few birds we tentatively identified as golden plovers, a pintail duck and several shelduck.

There were also a few birds I thought were redshank, ignoring the fact that their legs were bright orange, not red.  After a bit of quiet discussion between Jenny and me, the guy sitting next to me offered advice, saying they were, in fact, ruff.  Now Jenny had thought they might be, but I'd dismissed that, as ruff over-winter in Africa.

Except that the local expert told us there was a small population that over-winters in Norfolk, and we were watching a dozen or so of them, including a male just coming into breeding plumage.  That was pretty good!

Jenny was really not well, and in the evening, hardly ate any of the goose I roasted for her.  Worse, her sense of taste was affected, and the decent bottle of red I opened was wasted on her.  I had to drink most of it myself!

On Christmas day, after opening our presies, we drove to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, near Fakenham.  We knew the gardens and shop would be closed, but figured the nature reserve should be open.  Wrong.

It was a beatiful day, however, so we ambled slowly back to Cley, spotting a stoat bouncing across the road at one point, and startling a merlin a few miles later on.

At Cley it was much warmer than the previous day and we sat in the same hides, watching an amazing display.  There was a poorer selection of ducks, but the highlight was a vast flock of golden plovers.  We're not much good at estimating numbers of birds, but decided there were well over 1000 in that flock, as well as several hundred lapwings.  I hope this mpeg movie works in your browser.
OK, it's a rubbish video, but it's the best I could do.  When I zoomed back so you could see how big the flock was, the birds were so small as to be almost invisible, but close in, and it doesn't look like anything that special.  I blame the birds, me.  They just don't fly as close together as starlings!
In the evening, we roasted a haunch of muntjac, which was delicious, but Jenny barely ate enough for a church mouse, poor girl.  And I had to drink most of the Klein Constantia Marlbrook red, her favourite wine!
On Monday she was worse yet.  We discussed going home, but then went to Tichwell Marshes, which was a pleasant drive.  As we went past Cley, we noticed that the visitor centre was open, so hoped for lunch at Tichwell.  Wrong again.  The notice said they'd been open on Saturday, but would stay firmly closed on Boxing Day.  Bummer!  Well, by now my guts were threatening, though fortunately the threats have been empty so far.  Just the odd twinge you get when you know things are going wrong, but that's been it.  It did mean, however, that my appetite was (and still is) quite suppressed, so missing lunch was no hardship. Jenny, however, wasn't up to any birding at all, which was a real shame, as she gets much less opportunity than I do, and had been really looking forward to it.

We arrived to find a cluster of people looking up into some alders right next to the visitor centre, and eventually spotted a notice announcing the presence of arctic redpoll, which are something of a rarity.  I got quite a good look, but I don't think Jenny saw them other than being small birds in the trees over there somewhere.  I thought they just looked like redpoll, but then the sign did say they're extremely hard to distinguish.

We wanted to go right out almost to the sea, but the walk was too much, and the furthest we got was the very splendid new Parrinder Hide, about half-way to the dunes.  There we saw an enormous flock of golden plovers, presumably the same flock we'd seen at Cley.  I overheard someone say "three or four thousand" but of course, I've no way of knowing how much better he was at estimating bird numbers than we were.  It looked similar in size to what we'd seen.

There were also several hundred (at least!) brent geese, many more teal than at Cley, and several common snipe.

We didn't stay long, however, as Jenny was feeling awful, and soon headed back to the car.

On the way home, we decided we would go home straightaway, though that actually meant leaving at about half past five, as it took close to an hour to get back to Sherringham, then another hour to pack up and load the car.

Driving home, we started feeling the call of our local chip shop, and by the time we arrived, we were really looking forward to fish and chips!  In keeping with the rest of the trip, it was not to be.  Both the chippies, along with all the restaurants we could see, were closed.  Feeling rather sorry for ourselves, we got some breaded pollock fillets out of the freezer, fried some chips in the frying pan and boiled up some peas.  Not quite what we'd had in mind!

God's teeth, I've typed all that and the bloody video still hasn't finished uploading!  Mind you, it is 80Mb, so maybe I'm expecting rather a lot.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Last year, we discovered Christmas potatoes, which you plant in bags in July, and give you new potatoes in time for Christmas.  That in itself was pretty cool, but the real discovery was the variety Vivaldi which is exclusively available from Thompson and Morgan.

Quite simply, Vivaldi are the best tasting boiled potatoes we've ever come across, and they're worth growing just for that.  They do also roast well, but IIRC the end result is not that different from Maris Piper, so no point wasting your few precious Vivaldi doing that!

This year I grew five seed potatoes in three special bags, and we had the first few last night, accompanying a delicious Spanish dish of duck legs with orange, olives and bacon.  You don't get a lot, but then, there are only two of us, and we don't have a way of keeping them for months, so we wouldn't want bags and bags of them.

So if you try this next year, you order them in the spring and they're delivered in July.  Remember to water the bags well, as they are thirsty, and feed weekly or your yield will be pathetic. 

And don't be tempted to plant tiny potatoes left over from ones you've grown earlier in the year.  They'll grow, but not make any fresh tubers. Worse, the original tuber will still be hard, but all the starch will have been used up by the plant, and when you cook it, you'll get what's known as a glassy potato.  Stays hard, looks translucent, tastes nasty.  One to avoid.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Burning reeds

This is actually out of sequence, because I intended to post about it, but got so tied up with other stuff, it fell by the wayside.  However, I want to stick the movie up anyway.  Yes, the wind is blowing the flames towards me, and it did get pretty hot, but I don't think I was ever in any serious danger of getting burned.  Oh yes, and no willows were (seriously) injured making this movie!  And I must find out how you suppress wind noise, cos I always get this really loud roar in the mike.

Thursday equals Nature Reserve Day!

For some reason I was on light duties today, which meant just walking around the public paths, clipping back brambles and dog roses where they were hanging over the paths and liable to ensnare people as they walk by.  When I first arrived, I thought this was going to be miserable, as I was convinced it was going to bucket down most of the morning, but in fact, my fears were groundless.  Although chilly, the morning brightened, and much of the time was clear and sunny.

Passing the watercress hut (this was a centre for growing watercress in the 19th century) I spotted a treecreeper, a tiny bird I've rarely seen before.  This one was being most obliging, and having had a good look at it, I decided to check out the differences between the ordinary treecreeper and the short-toed.  Looking back up, lo and behold, the bird was still around, albeit on a different tree.  I was able to creep closer and confirm that it was an ordinary treecreeper, not short-toed.  I probably watched it for about 5 minutes, which is pretty good.

From there I went to Reedbed Hide to take five, eat a sandwich and warm up a bit.  Of course, while there, I was watching birds, though there didn't seem to be much about, just a few mallard, teal,a heron, some corvids and a moorhen.  Just as I was thinking of packing up, however, a raptor appeared from nowhere and attacked the teal!

The teal flattened themselves onto the water and the hawk missed, but it swooped up to a height of about 5 or 10 metres, turned on the tip of its wing and shot straight back down again, repeating this manoeuvre three or four times before giving up and flying away west.

It was quite a big, chunky bird, with pointy wings, dark brown on the top, and characteristic hawk moustaches, and I decided to be hopeful that it was a peregrine.  Teal might be our smallest duck, but they're still far too big for most of the other raptors it might have been.  No way it was a hobby, which eats dragonflies and small birds, it was too big and the wings were the wrong shape to be a sparrowhawk, and in any case, I thing the teal would be much too big even for a female sparrowhawk.  And it certainly wasn't a buzzard (of which there was one about) or any kind of harrier, again, because the wings were wrong.

So I was quietly confident it was a peregrine, though not confident enough to put it on the sightings sheet.  I had, however, managed to get two very far-away, blurry photo's of it.

I sent Doug an excited text, but of course, he didn't immediately appear, as the bird had disappeared to the west.

When I met up with him, however, my description of the bird and the way it attacked the teal, along with the photo's, convinced him that it really was a juvenile peregrine.

I'm so chuffed, I'm like a little kid who's had a pat on the head from his favourite teacher!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Anti-vaxxers just won't lie down and die

This is a really nasty piece of work.  It encourages people to think of measles as benign, when in fact it kills thousands of children every year, mostly in developing countries.  Worse, it will mislead children into believing that, too.

Here's what WHO have to say about measles:

Key facts

  • Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
  • In 2008, there were 164 000 measles deaths globally – nearly 450 deaths every day or 18 deaths every hour.
  • More than 95% of measles deaths occur in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures.
  • Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide.
  • In 2010, about 85% of the world's children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 72% in 2000.

Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease caused by a virus. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.
That anyone should publish such wickedness is shameful.  I can't find any information about who published this malicious rubbish, which is probably just as well, as I'd find it hard to resist the temptation to give them a piece of my mind!

The world's smallest living tetrapod

Just published in the open access journal ZooKeys, the world's smallest living tetrapod is described.  There are actually two species of these miniature frogs from New Guinea, adults achieving a heady 8 - 9 mm in length!  Hard to imagine a tetrapod that small actually working properly!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Another brilliant TED talk

This guy, Luis von Ahn, is a member of the team that brought us CAPTCHAs, those little strings of distorted characters that you have to type into an online form to prove to the website that you're not a computer program.  The talk is only 15 minutes long, and is definitely worth watching, but here's a summary.
They knew the few seconds we spend entering those characters waste our time and that over 100 million people use captchas each day, so they wondered if there was work that could be broken down into such small bits, it would be possible to do something useful in those few seconds.  Amazingly, there is something.  They use it to digitise books.

They changed the captcha software to present you with two words instead of a simple string of characters, and you now have to type both words in. One word, the computer recognises, the other it doesns't.  It uses the one it recognises to check that you're not a computer program, then stores your entry of the other word, with a probability that it's right.  When some number of other people have identified this unknown word, the probability that it has a valid digitisation increases to the point where it can accept it as right.  So it moves that word from Unknown to Known and proceeds.  With hundreds of millions of such transactions each day, digitisation can proceed fast!

Another project they have going is translating the web into the main world languages.  Machine translation is not much good yet, but human translation is expensive.  So they decided to recruit anyone who wants, to translate text for them, working at their own level of competence.  It's free, because translating English into your chosen language helps you to learn the language, which is enough motivation to keep lots of people doing it.  There are millions of people around the world paying to learn a foreign language. Once a dozen people have translated the same piece of text, it's easy to merge the results and be confident the translation is good.  He reckons they can translate the remaining 2/3 of Wikipedia into Spanish in 80 hours.  Amazing!
Now watch the talk!


Monday, 5 December 2011

Surfing a river in Munich

I'm reading the book that won the Royal Society Winton Prize for best popular science book this year, The Wave Watcher's Guide, and came across a reference to surfing on a river in Munich.  There's a concrete barrier in the river, so a standing wave forms as the river passes over it, and local surfers have been taking full advantage for quite a few years now.  So cool!

Choosing to get cold

There's a reason I park my motorbike in the garage for the winter, and I reminded myself what it was today!

For about 6 months, Jenny and I have mulled over the idea of buying a rather weird looking contraption with two front wheels and one hind one, but we've not quite got around to it.  Yesterday, however, I spotted that a local dealer had a secondhand one for what looked like a reasonable price, so resolved to go and have a test ride.  And this is what I rode.
It's a Gilera Fuoco 500, and it is weird.  The front wheels are independently sprung, so when you corner, you just lean it over as you would a conventional bike, but there's a locking button which allows you to lock it in whatever position it's in, which is useful at traffic lights, for instance.  No need to put your feet down.

Earlier in the year we were looking at Piaggio equivalents, unaware that the same manufacturer also makes Gileras.  The Piaggios come in 300 and 400cc variants, with better underseat storage, but the Gileras are the sportier flavours, hence the larger engine.

I didn't really give it that thorough a work-out, but rode it for 6 or 7 miles, enough to start to get the feel of it, and I quite like it.  It didn't immediately leap out and say "Buy me!" but then, it's very different from what I'm used to riding, so that's no big surprise.

It has a 500cc single cylinder 4-stroke engine, with fully automatic transmission, and I confess I was unaware of any of the gear changes.  It just goes, and the performance is actually not bad.   Having the rear brake on the left handlebar like a bicycle is very strange to start with, since that's the clutch lever, normally.

This one is only a couple of years old, but already has nearly 20,000 miles on the clock, which is a lot for a bike.  On the other hand, it's relatively cheap, which suits my mindset right now.  I'll sell the BMW in the spring, when I should get a better price for it.

Oh yes, putting the bike in the garage.  The BMW has rather poor weather protection, so by the time I'd ridden the 20-odd miles to the dealer, I was somewhat chilled, despite having togged up appropriately, I thought.  He gave me tea and we nattered for a bit before I took the Gilera out, then I rode the BMW home again, arriving pretty cold.  I put the central heating on and had some hot lunch, but stayed cold until eventually I had a shower, but actually, I'm still not exactly toasty.

So I've still not decided what to do about the Gilera, but the BMW is staying in the garage for the rest of the winter!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Philosophy in prison

Many of the TED talks I see are very clever, inspiring, impressive.  This is probably one of the most thought-provoking I've seen.  It takes less than 4 minutes.  I commend it to you.  Seriously.

Haydn Seasons

We made a mistake a few weeks ago, but it'll all be over soon.  Our main choir, Royston Priory Singers, gave a concert in a local church, and the conductor had invited a couple he knows, a tenor and an alto, to join us to bulk up the numbers a bit, and I ended up standing next to this tenor.

We sang half a dozen anthems suitable for Remembrance, though a week early, then did the Fauré Requiem, all of which went off rather well.

At the end, the tenor turned to me and explained that his choir was singing the Haydn Seasons on 11th December, and did I want to come along, as they were a little light on tenors.  I've never been invited to help out like that before, and was sufficiently flattered to agree.

That was before I discovered that the choir was a good 45 minutes drive from home!  So on Tuesdays until the actual gig, Jenny has to catch a slightly earlier train home, I have to have the dinner ready by 6.30 and we don't get home until close to 11pm.

And the Haydn is hard!  Neither of us had even heard of it before we started, and we're not that keen on it, now we've met it.  Quite often, the tune you're singing simply doesn't go where you're expecting it to.   I've been bashing notes at home quite a bit, and there are still large sections I'm hopeless at. Fortunately, the man actually lied, and the tenor line up is quite strong, so it matters less that some of the time I'll be singing in quiet mode.

I'll be much more circumspect if I ever get flattered like that again!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Broken maquette

 This is a chalk maquette of a goddess I've been working on for the past week or so.  I always planned to carve the final version in limestone, but wanted to play around with the design in chalk first, as it's so soft and quick.

To be truthful, I was unhappy with the slot down the front, right from the start, as it makes her torso look too face-like, but I carried on, as I wanted to explore other ideas elsewhere, such as scooping out her thighs, which you can see I started to do on her left. 

Although conceived simply as an exercise to explore the shape, there had been times when I'd imagined finishing her to a decent standard, then consolidating the surface of the chalk with a liquid sealant, making her into an acceptable work of art that I could keep inside.

I was distracted this afternoon as soon as I started that scooping out, when I discovered a small fossil, possibly a fish, in the chalk right there.  After extracting that and sending Jenny an email about it, I carried on, but then fell foul of a personal characteristic I've brought forward from when I was very young.

I have always had a tendency to rush at things and try to make too much progress too quickly.  In this case, I'd carved my goddess to roughly final proportions, (still lots to do, of course) but was then too vigorous when I started to scoop out her thigh.  Too rough with the hammer and chisel, and after a while, I looked up and noticed that she'd cracked right across her waistline.

Well, bugger!  Fairly happy I know where I'm headed when I start on the limestone final, but actually rather sad to have wasted the maquette, which I was getting to like.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Awesome Octopus!

This is astonishing, but I'm bemused as to why exactly the octopus is doing this.  I'm indebted to PZ Myers, just for a change!

Printing problems solved!

This is the problem I've been having printing out a photograph of my new reclining nude carving.  The original photograph  shows the colours more or less as they are in real life, a rich red, and on the monitor, all looks good.  However, when I printed the picture out, the colours were completely different, and my beautiful nude seemed to be a dull brown colour.  It was driving me nuts!

I contacted Canon Customer Support, who recommeded I download and use something called an Adobe Colour Profile, but didn't provide any clue as to how I was supposed to use it once installed.   I wasted hours and half a small rain forest farting about trying to get a decent print, since there is a plethora of different settings both in Photoshop and on the printer, none of which seemed to make the slightest difference.

Not knowing what else to try, I stuck a sheet of glossy photograph paper into the printer, instead of plain.  Until then, the pictures I'd been printing had come out OK for my purposes, so it hadn't occurred to me the paper might affect the colours that were printed on it.  When I hit the tit, bingo!  Out came a photo with the colours not unacceptably remote from the original.

Now why didn't someone suggest that right from the start?

Monday, 21 November 2011

An Unsatisfactory Sunday

Yesterday was such a glorious day that we decided to forgo the pleasures of gardening and drive to Grafham Water to watch birds.  We'd been reading about the reserve in the Wildlife Trusts magazine, and it seemed a perfect way to use a beautiful day.

As we drove around the Papworth bypass, however, we found ourselves entering a bank of fog, with visibility down to less than 100m in places.  Well, not so much a bank of fog as an extensive blanket!

Still driving through fog, we stopped in the village of Brampton to buy lunch in a pub I've been to before, only to find it closed down.  We found the George Hotel in Huntingdon, where lunch was adequate rather than great, but then we had a bonus as they were running a special offer which we'd not spotted, and our two fish and chips lunches were £10 instead of £8 each.  Lunch with drinks for £16 was good value!

The fog had lifted a few millimetres, so we drove hopefully towards Grafham Water, but on the A1 it was as bad as ever, so we turned around at the first roundabout and went home.

At this point, we still had delusions of being able to visit Fowlmere as compensation for our disappointment at Grafham, but by the time we got back near home, it was already too late to be worth the diversion, and in any case, we needed a cup of tea!

Later, turning on my phone to check the calendar (I'm older generation - my phone stays off much of the time!) I discovered a message from my friend Pam, who had called at lunchtime to give us a lift to a choir practice.  Oh bugger!  We'd completely forgotten that was happening.  This was the second of two rehearsals for a concert in Southwark Cathedral on 3rd December, and we'd been unable to do the first as we'd had a visiting Swedish academic staying with us.  I made a grovelling apology to el Chef the conductor, but there's no way we can take part now.  Fortunately, he has enough bodies in the choir that he wasn't dependent on our being there.

So overall, not a very satisfactory Sunday. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Inventing new foodstuffs

We lifted the chilli plants from the greenhouse last weekend, and picked all the remaining fruit.  These plants, bought from the local garden centre, were a bit of a dead loss.  Although they fruited quite heavily, and needed minimal care, the fruits were so mild, they were barely recogniseable as chillis.  In fact, we used quite a lot in place of green peppers, though they were a pain as they were so small.  Jalapeno fiery chillis my arse!

Anyhow, I decided I'd roast them and make a sort of pepper aquivalent of passata.  I started halving and deseeding them, then realised that as I was going to sieve the result, I didn't need to do that, so just cut the stems off and removed any damaged areas.  (We discovered we had a couple of snails resident in the greenhouse!)   I drizzled olive oil over them, seasoned with salt and pepper and gave them an hour in a roasting dish at 180°C. 

While they were cooling, I went and bought myself a food mill so I didn't have to push the pulp through a sieve with a spoon.  I now have a small bowl of chilli paste, and amazingly, the roasting has drawn out the chilli heat quite a lot, so now it really does have a bit of bite.  It's not excessive, but definitely useful.  Hoorah!

All is not perfect, however, as I was using a mixture of red and green chillis, so the result is a rather unappetising brown colour.  And I have yet to work out how to store it.  I guess it would freeze OK, so I just have to stick it in the ice tray and I'll have a small pile of 2.5cm cubes of chilli paste.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Art Exhibition

Well, the Reclining Nude is as finished as she's going to be for now, though there are still things I could do to improve her.  This is what she looks like now.  This photograph is not the most thought-through composition I've ever done;  I just cleared the mantlepiece in the living room and stuck her up there for the photograph.  She'd not even central, and the lighting's rubbish, but there you go.

I've taken the three pieces up to Curwens and installed them there, and now the sixth formers from Freeman College in Buntingford are hanging their pictures.  I didn't spend long there as I'd just have been getting in the way,  but what I saw was impressive, and I'm looking forward to getting a proper look at the private viewing on Wednesday.

Later.  I still have the problem of how to clean my hands.  When I applied the first, sealing coat of French polish, I neglected to wear any disposable gloves.  The grain of the wood, despite my wiping it down with a damp cloth, still retained quite a lot of wood dust which, mixed with the French polish, stained the resin a deep red.  

That went onto my hands, winkling its way into all the cracks and crevices, where it remains.  My hands look a complete mess!  I've scrubbed them with meths, the standard way to dissolve shellac, without much result, so now I'm pretty much resigned to waiting for the stain to grow out.  Lovely!

Friday, 11 November 2011

A busy week

Last weekend I suddenly realised I'd only got a week to finish the sculptures that are going into Curwens, the High Street solicitors on Monday, so had to get a bit more focused, rather than smooch idly about doing a bit of sanding, then sloping off to the nature reserve for a bit of birding!

This one is called Tooth Fairy and is carved from a piece of wood I collected from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute when I worked there.  They built a new block, starting in 2002, I think, and the process of clearing the land in preparation involved felling a few trees.  I'm not sure what wood this is, as the tree was already down and cut up into logs by the time I became aware of it.

Although I finished carving it some years ago, I've only just made the black plinth for it.  It's been standing in our hallway, but really isn't stable enough without the plinth to go into a public space.  I'm quite sure the solicitor would not let me exhibit it there as it was.  So it's actually standing on the plinth while the glue sets, then tomorrow I'll up end it and drive half a dozen long screws into it, just to make sure!

This is Untitled and is a bronze casting I made in 1998.  It sat outside in the garden for most of the time since then, and when I started polishing it ready for this exhibition, I discovered I'd never really finished polishing it all those years ago.  I used 500 grade wet and dry to sand out all the old scratch marks left by the random orbital sander, then put a polishing mop into my power drill so I could polish it up nice and bright with tripoli.

The third piece I'll be exhibiting is not quite finished, so I'll have some work to do over the weekend, which is why there's no photo of it.  I finished shaping it a couple of weeks ago, and have spend much time since then sanding and smoothing it, but today it got its sealing coat of French polish.  That has to dry thoroughly, then I'll sand the whole surface with very fine sand paper, as the French polish lifts the grain a bit, and I'll have to remove that before giving it another couple of coats.

It's carved from a piece of African hardwood called paduck, which is a beautiful red colour, which the French polish really draws out.   The whole thing is late, because when I started sanding, I found that many of the concave curves were slightly rippled, which is simply not acceptable, so I've spent a lot of time over the past few days scraping away with a metal scraper, to get them smoother.  Still not perfect, but whether I'll find the motivation to work some more on it when I get it back from the solicitors in a couple of months' time, I have no idea.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Restoring riverine environments

This is really good news, even though the river concerned is far away.

I've been really busy of late, so haven't had much time to check out my usual favourite blogs.  I have a few sculptures going on exhibit in a local solicitors office in the High Street next week, and they're not all finished, though they will be!

This video was posted by PZ Myers some time ago, but I've only just seen it.  I'm not against all dams, but I do know quite a few were built for rather dubious reasons and without much thought for the local wildlife, so when someone decides a dam has to go, it's really gratifying to watch the time-lapse video of the destruction.  I hope someone posts a second video showing it taken through to complete removal, as this one only goes so far.

Monday, 31 October 2011


On Saturday morning, having finished our shopping, we decided to visit Scotsdales Garden Centre near Cambridge, to buy a Fatsia japonica which we'd decided we wanted for a bare spot in the garden.  We regard trips to Scotsdales as a bit of a luxury, but it was a beautiful day, so we just said "What the hell!"

While there, we got details of gabions, as the spot for the plant actually needs to be terraced a bit, to stop the soil just slipping down the slope and onto the path.  Gabions are those wire mesh cages you see with cobbles in, forming retaining walls.  We fancy using those, so were costing the exercise up.  Rather more than we'd imagined, of course!

Coming out of Scotsdales, I just felt like taking the scenic route, rather than driving directly home, so turned left and headed for the coutryside.  That idea quickly changed into plans for lunch at the Cricketers Arms in Clavering.  The Cricketers is run by Jamie Oliver's parents, and I've been there several times and always had excellent food, but somehow, I've never taken Jenny, so this was my opportunity to rectify that.

Sadly, when we arrived, both car parks were completely full, so we didn't even go in.  It's not a vast pub, and with all those cars, there was little chance we'd get our lunch any time soon.  We headed towards home, but then saw the Three Tuns in a little village called Great Hormead.  I had a memory of having eaten there once, long ago, but it was completely unfamiliar, so I guess I made that up.

Anyhow, we had an excellent lunch, Jenny drank a pint of Old Hookey and I had a decent glass of sauvignon blanc.

After a cup of tea at home, we decided some birding was in order.  I'd heard there were red kites not far away, and had read a blog which suggested where we might see some. We didn't see any raptors, but did see skylarks, and hords of chaffinches, which made the walk worth the effort.  A very pleasant way to round off the day.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I wonder where the time goes...

Yesterday afternoon, after riding into Cambridge to pick up a power tool that had been repaired, and then to Stevenage to collect some motorcycle overtrousers, I went straight to Fowlmere Nature Reserve to do a spot of birding.  I've added a decent-sized topbox to the bike, so can easily store my crash helmet, boots and overtrousers while I wander around the reserve.

When I got to the main hide, standing on stilts overlooking the mere, the sky was very dark and overcast, with deep blue clouds threatening rain, and making it really hard to see the birds.  There were lots of corvids, mallard and tits of various flavours, of course, but I could also see teal and eventually, a couple of snipe, and there was a cetti's warbler calling in the background.  Cetti's are secretive birds that we often hear on the reserve, but I've yet to see one.

After about half an hour the clouds had moved away somewhat, and sunshine brightened the mere, and I was very pleased to take a half-way decent shot of the snipe, brightly lit by the sun, low in the sky.

There wasn't much happening, and I was beginning to think about going home, when I became aware of a flurry of avian activity in the reed beds that surround the hide.  Quite a few small, brown birds had started flitting about amongst the tops of the reeds, evidently feeding on the seed heads.

After looking them up, I concluded they were reed buntings.  This is not quite as straightforward at this time of year as in the spring, when the males are in their quite distinctive breeding plumage.  Easy to tell a male reed bunting in the spring, and if there are less obvious brown jobbies around with him, they're probably females, but they all moult in the late summer, and at this time of year, the males are much more similar to the females.

Anyway, at that moment, Doug, warden of the reserve, arrived and confirmed my ID, so that was OK.

We watched for a bit, then saw the resident kingfisher, perched obligingly on a post, and then, to our amazement and delight, a sparrowhawk settled on the cattle gate not 10 metres from the hide, and sat there for several minutes.  I took quite a few photographs, but it was coming on dusk by now, and none of them was any good.

When he flew off in pursuit of someone small and tasty, he quickly returned to the gate, sans dinner, but over the next 20 minutes he treated us to a stunning demonstration, mostly done within about 30 metres of the hide, and most of the time when he perched, he was within 10 metres, once within 3!  It was fabulous!  We get sparrowhawks in our garden, and we've seen them catching small birds, but never so close, nor for such an extended, uninterrupted view.  Magical!  Disappointingly, he failed to catch anything before I left.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Messing about on the nature reserve

This morning's Spanish class was cancelled and I rather wasted the whole morning, so was determined to make better use of the afternoon.

I spent the first part working on the wooden carving I'm preparing for exhibition in Curwens, the local High Street solicitors, in November.  On a sunny day like today, it's good to get the piece out into the sunshine where I can see the imperfections better, and the end result was that I think the piece is actually ready for final sanding, followed by French Polishing.  Hoorah!  It's taken over two years, but I'm really pleased with it.

So at about 3:30 I decided to reward myself with a wander around Fowlmere, and I'm really pleased I did.  I didn't walk all the way around, just went straight to Reedbed Hide, and quickly realised that had been a good decision.

A pair of greenfinches glowed in the sunlight as I approached the hide, their yellow breasts much brighter than in this photo, and once I was installed, I was delighted by a merlin, obviously in hot pursuit of something small and tasty.  It flashed across from left to right almost at eye height, a blur of grey, with pointy wings, phenomenally fast.  It veered sharply left, gained height, then turned right, finally vanishing from sight before I could tell whether or not it had caught its supper.  None of the pictures I've found on the web show the grey tops of the wings the way I saw it, so you'll just have to take my word for it!

Soon after that I got a brief glimpse of a marsh harrier, mobbed by corvids.  It disappeared beyond the reserve and that was the last I saw of it.

There were 10 teal on the mere, and I just love watching them.  Resplendent in newly-moulted winter plumage, they were pin-sharp pretty.  I apologise that the link is to an American hunting website, but their pictures are much better than all the birding ones I found.  The second of the shooters' photographs is rather unlike the birds I see, but the other three match quite well.

There was also lots of activity in and above the reeds, with reed buntings and warblers flying back and forth, mostly too quickly for me to positively identify them.  I tend to think that if it's small and brown and has white outer tail feathers as it dives into the reeds, it's probably a reed bunting, but if the tail is shorter and lacks the white outers, it's probably a reed warbler.  With such a vague ID, I don't actually tick them off, of course.

As the gloom increased and I started to feel a bit chilled, I headed off, but did spot a few starlings circling ready to dive into the reeds to roost.  Too few to be worth waiting around for, even though sparrowhawks are known to lurk, waiting to pick the odd one off.  One day soon there'll be a few hundred, and that will be more worth watching.  It would be nice if we got thousands, but we don't.

Global warming confirmed

Of course, most of us already thought global warming was a real phenomenon and sighed and cast our eyes skyward whenever we encountered deniers, but it's nice to have a new, independent study which confirms the data published by other workers.  Here's a link to the BBC report of the preliminary results.

It's particularly gratifying that the Berkeley Earth Project, headed by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, was partially funded by organisations which lobby against action on climate change.

This graph shows how closely their results match those of the other three major studies.

What they don't say is anything about what's driving the temperature rise.  Ah, now that's a whole different opportunity for speculation and argument.  I still stick with the "our fault" side, but I do realise the argument is still raging.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Roasted tomato passata

In my greenhouse I grow tomatoes, amongst other things, and this year I had three growbags with three plants each of Gardeners' Delight, a small, red tomato, Sun Gold, an orange cherry tomato (and a stunning little taste-bomb into the bargain!) and Black Cherry, a small, dark-skinned tomato.  The main motivation was to be able to make good-looking tomato salads, and we were very successful there.

As usual, they produced far more fruit than we could deal with, and during the summer, as has become my wont, I made and froze tomato soup on a number of occasions.

As we get towards the end of the season, the red and orange tomatoes had more or less stopped growing, so we tore them out last weekend, leaving the Black Cherry plants, as they still seems slightly active.

That left us with deciding what to do with the fruit we'd picked off the discarded plants.  I opted for passata rather than soup, as there's already some soup in the freezer, but then pulled someone else's suggestion out of my memory and first roasted the tomatoes before sieving them.  I can't remember who suggested it, but it seemed like a good idea.

I halved each tomato, then gave them half an hour in a roasting tray at about 180°C.  When cooled, Jenny pushed them through a sieve (I was cooking the dinner) and as we cleared up, I sampled a teaspoonful of the passata.

It is just gorgeous, and I'll definitely be doing that again next year.  Sweet and rich, with a real "Wow!" factor.   What I'll also be trying, is roasting the tomatoes before making the soup, as the flavour of the roasted fruit is so intense. Watch this space!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Robot that flies like a bird

The other week when Jenny and I were in Spain, I was idly daydreaming about how one might go about making a model bird that would fly by flapping its wings.  I knew that imagining I might be capable of doing this was fantasy, but little did I realise that it had already been done!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A great day for a ride!

I needed to go into Cambridge to pick up a spare part for the sander I use when carving wood, so went on the BMW.  As I rode into Cambridge, it struck me what a beautiful day it was, and what a shame it would be to waste it, so having collected the bits I needed, I headed east out of the city, instead of the normal south-west.

Crossing the bypass to the north of Cambridge, I took the Newmarket road, which is lightly-trafficked and has some lovely, swinging bends to blast the bike around.  At the end, I just felt like doing it again, so turned illegally right, which took me onto the bypass, drove back to the previous exit, and rode that delicious, curvy section of road again!

I knew there was a roundabout somewhere towards Newmarket where it would be sensible to turn right and head south back towards home, but instead I just went straight on, heading into the unknown.  I followed my nose for a bit, riding through Stetchworth and Ditton Green, turning right in Saxon Street down to Kirtling, Kirtling Green and then Cowlinge.

Eventually the tiny roads spat me out onto the A143 down to Haverhill, from where I took the Steeple Bumpstead road, which gradually turned south-west and took me through Hempstead.  (Don't you just love all these village names?)  In Hempstead I followed a sign for Saffron Waldon, soon ending up on familiar territory.

The seat on the BMW is not the most comfortable, or maybe I'm just losing my natural padding as I get older, but anyhow, by now my bum was pretty sore, and I still hadn't had any lunch.  I'd originally planned to go down to Stansted, then across to the A10, or to just follow my nose along roughly that route, but the hunger and pain were enough to make me point the bike homewards.

Of course, my hidden agenda for this ride was also to face up to the demons that have grown in my head ever since my crash in May.    I was quite traumatised by the crash, and have not ridden much since, so taking the opportunity to get some saddle miles was a good thing to do and by the time I was on the twisty bit between Saffron Waldon and Barley, I really was enjoying myself, pressing on much more confidently than when I set out this morning, laying into the bends where I was confident I could see the line and really exploring some of the extremes of accelleration the bike is capable of.  By 'eck, it don't 'alf go!

It's about 15 miles from home to Cambridge, but by the time I parked the bike back in the garage, a couple of hours after getting it out, I'd done 82 miles, which is not bad for a shopping trip.

Will it still be sunny on Friday?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

What life is really about!

I'd forgotten this, until my friend Dave sent it to me.  Just because I've seen it before, doesn't mean I don't like it!

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body totally worn out, screaming "WOO-HOO, what a ride!!"  

Hols in Spain

Having been left this flat on the Costa del Sol in my step-mother's will, and having finally got around to putting it in the hands of a letting agency, we felt obliged to go out there last week to assess any damage our guests had done while staying there over the summer.  It's a hard life, having to spend time in Andalucia, but you know, you have to take your responsibilities seriously!

Apart from Friday, when it was overcast, the weather was fabulous, with temperatures ranging from 25 - 30° C, and wall to wall blue sky.  There was a bit of charging about to do, but really not much.  We bought a cheap DVD player to put in the flat, and a few other bits and pieces, but for the most part we were able to just laze about reading.  This is not something we would normally do, when on holiday, but this time we just felt we wanted to do pretty much nothing, so that's what we did.

The sea was nice and warm, too, so it only took a few seconds to actually immerse yourself completely, and I could stay in snorkelling for half an hour before starting to feel properly chilled.  It was very murky the first time we got in, but twice I got up at 8 for a dip, and we also swam in the late afternoon, when the water was the clearest we've ever seen it.

Last Christmas, I gave Jenny a snorkelling mask with a built in camera, ready for exactly this occasion.  I seem to recall she was somewhat underwhelmed, but actually, she was pleased with it when she finally got the chance to use it!  It turns out to be much harder to get decent photographs and movie footage than you imagine at first, because you're being sloshed around in the water, but I reckon with a bit of practice, it'll come good.

This was one of several shoals of different sorts of fish, swiming amongst some rocks within about 10 metres of the shore.  Jenny saw them on the first day she used the mask, but completely failed to make the video mode work.  I then saw them the next morning, and succeeded where she'd failed.  It's not exactly stunning footage, but you get the idea.

The thing that struck us most forcibly was that although we've been snorkelling here for years, we've never seen so many fish before. The reason, however, is now pretty clear.  Generally speaking, we've steered clear of the really rocky areas, simply because the rocks themselves are pretty sharp, and you can easily cut yourself (I did on Sunday morning!) if a wave sweeps you onto them.  Also, in some areas there are rather a lot of sea urchins, and yes, we have in the past, spent time with needles and tweezers, extracting echinoderm spines from flesh!  However, the fish have no such qualms, but tend to avoid the sandy areas, as there's not much to eat there.

Been away

I've not been deliberately neglecting my duties, but we've been away for the past couple of weeks, so there's been no opportunity to post anything.  This is the first of (probably) a couple of posts to fill in the gaps.

The week before last, we went to a fossils conference in Lyme Regis, on the south coast of the UK.  The Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) has met each September for a few days, ever since the early 1950's, generally at a UK university, though there have been occasional forays onto the continent.

This year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Anning's brother finding the first ichthyosaur skull near Lyme Regis, the show took place there instead, despite the lack of a nearby university.  And very good it was, too.

Jenny and I drove down on the Tuesday, realising as we hit the M3 that we knew a pub near Winchester that does rather splendid food, so we diverted to the Plough at Sparsholt for lunch.  It's a few years since we sang in Winchester Cathedral, but on that occasion we stayed in Sparshold Agricultural College, and the Plough was the nearest pub. That was when we discovered how good the food was, and this time we were not disappointed.  Well worth diverting for, and we did the same on the way home, too!

I attended the first day's conference, listening to several early tetrapod talks, including Jenny's but after that spent time looking for fossils, which I find much more interesting.  Found none I wanted to collect, but I did turn over a rock to discover this wonderful armoured marine worm.
It's probably a Harmothoe species and I think it's rather fine.  I did take some movie footage of it, but I think you have to be a bit of a marine polychaete geek to want to watch something like that, so I'll spare you!

Although I didn't make a palaeontological breakthrough, I did manage to get sunburned, as the weather was just lovely pretty much the whole time we were there.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

I promise not to keep posting Jesus and Mo cartoons, honest!

This delighful chap is an African honeyguide chick, along with the carcases of his nestmates. 

Honeyguides lay their eggs in the nests of bee-eaters, which are in holes in trees or abandoned aardvark holes in the ground. Scientists thought that, like European cuckoo chicks, the baby honeyguides were killing the other nestlings, but they didn't know much about how it was being done.

Now a group of Cambridge scientists has placed night-vision cameras in parasitised nests and filmed the honeyguide chick physically attacking and killing the host chicks. 

There's a decent report here at the BBC, but I warn you, the video is gruesome.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Jesus and Mo

I like this enough to steal a copy from the original Jesus and Mo site and repost it here.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Pitcher gets tit!

Old news, I know, but hey!

According to this BBC article from 5th August, a Somerset nurseryman found the remains of a great tit in this large pitcher plant at his nursery. 

It's not that unusual for pitcher plants to catch frogs, lizards and mice, as well as the insects they presumably mainly target, but this seems to be only the second time a bird-for-lunch has been reported.

The assumption is that the bird landed on the edge of the pitcher, leaned in to steal a tasty insect snack, lost its balance and landed head first in the pan.  When our cat drinks from the bog, I worry that the same will happen to her!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A week in Canterbury

This year, our cathedral week was in Canterbury, which I think must mean we've arrived, choir-wise.  They don't come much more prestigious than York and Canterbury, so I think we're there.

I was a little apprehensive, following our York experience.  In York the lay clergy were very friendly and welcoming, but the big knobs were distinctly sniffy and remote.  Not the happy experience you hope for at all.

In the run up to last week, our musical director had something of a struggle to agree a music list with the Canterbury folks, some aspects of which seemed perfectly reasonable, and others quite strange, so I started to expect the clergy to be much like those in York.

I'm delighted to say, the reverse was the case.  They were completely lovely, and we had a simply brilliant time. The minor canon who lead us in the responses was a bit concerned when he saw there were only 14 of us on the first day, but when he heard us rehearse, he realised there's no deadwood in this choir - we all make a noise, and when we want to, we can be really quite loud!

We were astonished when we processed in for our first service on Monday, to see a congregation of about a hundred.  Normally during the week there are more of us than them, but this week we never had fewer than about 75, and on Sunday, there must have been 300 in the nave for the eucharist.  Of course, Canterbury is a big tourist attraction and also has significant numbers of pilgrims visiting.  Still, awesome to think that we must have sung to nearly 1,000 people in the course of the week.

I had checked out a very useful website called Canterbury Explorer before we went, so we had some clues about good places to eat, and on Tuesday, six of us had dinner at the excellent, if pricey, Deeson's restaurant. There being just me and five women, I jokingly referred to them as 'my harem'.   There were one or two negative comments from other choristers the next day, none directly to me, that they would have expected to be invited, but that's just bollocks. At no point did I consider organising anything for the whole choir, and they have absolutely no right to expect anything of the sort.  Sorry, I find myself getting cross about it all over again!  GRRR!  The only person who could legitimately feel aggrieved was Cynthia, who is part of our little 'dining club'.  I didn't ask her because she organised the accommodation and I thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that she'd need to be on-site to ensure things ran smoothly.

We had lunch twice in the delightful Café St Pierre (which doesn't seem to have its own website), once in the excellent Goods Shed and once in Café Mauresque, a middle-eastern restaurant.  We also had dinner in the Mexican restaurant Café des Amis and in Café Mauresque.  This might sound as though the food at the school wasn't good, but in fact it was very satisfactory, just we felt inclined to eat out much of the time.

The Goods Shed was a particularly splendid find.  An old railway shed, it had a variety of stalls, selling fresh meat, fresh fish, vegetables, sandwiches, wine and beer, cheese, etc, as well as a restaurant where you could get an excellent lunch.  We bought freshly made sandwiches twice to take as a picnic lunch, and were delighted both times.

On Wednesday after the morning rehearsal, we drove to Whitstable, where we ate our picnic on the beach, then west to Oare, where Jenny had spotted a bird-watching spot.  That was spectacular, with about 50 avocets, hundreds of black-tailed godwits, a little egret, lots of lapwings, dunlin, cormorants and a few redshanks.

The choir always has one day off, when we don't sing a service, though we do rehearse in the morning.  On that day, Jenny and I took our picnic to RSPB Dungeness for a spot of birding.  It was windy and overcast, but we saw lots of really interesting birds, and had a most excellent time.   Marsh harriers, great crested grebes, common terns and lots of ducks of various sorts.  Excellent!

We also had a walk in Blean Woods nature reserve, which was really lovely.  Didn't see many birds, but the wood, a mixture of coppiced birch, mature oak, open heathland, etc, was so still and quiet, we didn't care.  We just ambled gently through, soaking up the peace.

And to round of a very satisfying, if exhausting week, I heard today that our director has had a letter from Canterbury, thanking us very much for singing for them and saying they're looking forward to us returning.  We must have done OK if they're inviting us back!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Talking about dragonflies...

One of the things that drives me nuts about dragonflies in particular, is the way so many of them cruise up and down, seemingly without ever stopping for a rest anywhere I can get a decent view of them.  Without clocking a good look, I have no hope of identifying them, and even then, can usually only narrow it down to 3 or 4 species.  I mostly have to get a photograph.

So I was particularly smug when I just waited for much longer than usual on the boardwalk in Fowlmere yesterday, watching this big green and blue jobbie teararsing around, when it finally settled on a twig I could actually see clearly and get a decent photograph.

It's a male Southern Hawker,Aeshna cyanea and I'm pretty pleased with the snap.

I also saw my first Ruddy Darter of the season.  I took this picture in July last year, and have just had to visit british-dragonflies.org.uk to check that it wasn't a Common Darter, but it isn't.

Suppressing adverts

I was just reading a British Trust for Ornithology review of a new British dragonflies DVD and was nearing screaming point, driven mad by the blasted animated adverts cluttering up the page.  I googled for suppressing adverts, and hit gold.  There's an open source add-on for Firefox which suppresses ads, so I installed it, and it's bliss!  I had to share the good news!

You can download it free from here https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/adblock-plus/

I'm not exactly sure what the stuff about filters is, but I accepted the default EasyList filter which sees to work just fine.

Oh and in a fine irony (this is irony, isn't it?) the ads on my own blog have been suppressed!  Ho ho ho!

Monday, 8 August 2011


On Saturday we hosted a barbie for Jenny's colleagues at the University Museum of Zoology, which went rather well.  After two solid days' preparation, we had about 25 turn up.  They brought whatever they wanted to cook on the fires plus some booze, while we provided baked potatoes, half a dozen different sorts of salad and three desserts, as well as the backbone of a drinks supply.

We had to borrow stuff from the lovely Lorna and Richard, and had four barbies spread around the garden as well as loads of chairs and a reasonable number of tables.

Jenny and I were very circumspect about the alcohol in the early part of the evening, just to make sure all went according to plan, but once most of the eating had been done, we allowed ourselves to relax a little.  The weather was kind and we spent the whole time outside, a regular trickle of people returning to the kitchen to replenish their drinks.  As dusk came on, the night-scented stocks did their biz and all were suitably impressed!

Some people had driven, and they tended to drift away earlier than the rest, but most had come by train and caught the last train back to Cambridge, which meant it was almost midnight before they left.  We, having had to work pretty hard, were absolutely whacked by this time, of course!

In the morning, nursing hangovers, we broke the back of the clearing up, then just idled the rest of the day away, recovering.  It's rare for us to just sit about reading at the weekend, but that was the therapy we needed, so we indulged oursleves  Sitting in the attic, I was reading a Classic Bike magazine that Richard had passed to me (I pass my Motorcycle Sport and Leisure to him and he passes me Classic Bike!) and started finding myself wanting to buy an early 1950's BSA 500, but Jenny was quick to point out that I hardly use the BMW, never mind a second bike in the stable, so that brought me back to reality!
 I found this picture on the web, which I presumably shouldn't have copied, but hey.  This is a very tidy 1937 example.  BSA made hundreds of thousands of these, especially during the war for the armed forces, and a lot get restored into military style, but I prefer the civilian look.

All academic, of course, as I'm not going to get one!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Wow! Data transmission by light!

I'm not too impressed by this guy's presentation, but the idea is brilliant.  Summary:  use a new piece of kit to flicker a standard LED lamp so fast you can't tell it's not on continuously, and use the flicker to transmit data to a suitable receiver.  eg Traffic lights could talk to your car.

A trip to Scotland

On Tuesday last week, Jenny and I took the train up to Edinburgh for the reopening of the National Museum of Scotland after a major refit.  It was quite a big investment of time and money, considering we only stayed at the event for a couple of hours, but it was very good to meet up with our old friend Nick Fraser, Keeper of Natural Sciences there.  And it was pretty impressive, with over 1000 attending.

Sadly, I didn't take my camera, and my phone is useless in low light levels, so although I took quite a few photographs, none was worth posting.

On the birding front, I've been maintaining the "What's About?" sheet in Doug's absence, so have visited Fowlmere several times.  I'm rather pleased with this action shot of a kingfisher, taken from Reedbed Hide.

Catching Up

I've been having a few problems with blogger, with which I'm now getting some help from the blogspot forum, so this is a new post just to try out the fixes they've given me. First, I need to upload a photo, so here goes.
This is a juvenile muntjac which walked across the front of Spring Hide on the bird reserve the other day. You can tell it's a juvenile because when I leant out of the front of the hide to take the photo, it watched me, instead of running away. Bambi, you're dinner!

OK, I've been up to other stuff, but that can go in another post after I see what happens with this one.

Monday, 18 July 2011


I know I should have posted this a few weeks ago when it was topical, but I was busy and just overlooked it.  Here it is anyway.

I have a difficulty with the slutwalks, because I think they're conflating two separate issues, and that is unhelpful.  They're mixing up the crime of sexual assault with  the likelihood that the way you dress might provoke such an assault.    These are not the same thing and should not be treated as a single entity.

First, sexual assault is intolerable and inexcusable, and it's a disgrace that so few cases are successfully prosecuted in the UK.  I know there are grey areas and all is not always as unambiguous as we'd like, but just a glance at the statistics should have our alarm bells ringing. 

Second, in my view the cop who sparked the whole thing off to start with was actually right.  If you dress provocatively, you might provoke.  That doesn't excuse that reaction, but it certainly makes it more likely.  And if you do something that makes an assault more likely, there's a case to be made that you contributed to the situation you find yourself in.

Let me offer a less controversial example.  If I crash my motorbike while driving at 80 mph, I can hardly complain if I hurt myself more than if I'd crashed at a rather more legal 60 mph.  I have contributed toward the severity of my injuries, although the actual cause of the crash might have been a careless car driver pulling out of a side turning.   The fact that I was speeding doesn't excuse him for not looking properly, but it does make the consequences worse than they might otherwise have been.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

(Belated) Happy Birthday, Neptune!

Damn!  I missed a really significant birthday the other day!

Neptune was discovered by two astronomers in Berlin in 1846 and with an orbit around the sun taking almost 165 years, 12th July was it's first birthday since being discovered.  How about that!

Happy First Birthday, Neptune!!!

These pictures are courtesy of the very splendid Hubble Space Telescope, and I stole them from the Starts with a Bang blog posting, where you can read the whole story and see more excellent pics.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Outreach in Berwick upon Tweed

A year ago, Jenny and I discovered some really interesting fossils in the borders region of Scotland, and in March returned to look for more.  Rather to our surprise, we were accosted by a couple of beligerant Scots, who accused us of plundering their heritage.  They took us for commercial collectors, and they didn't like it one bit.

After a rather awkward conversation, they departed, taking details of Jenny's email address and website, and we curtailed our trip with a distinctly nasty taste in our mouths.

However, over subsequent months, the senior Scot established our bona fides and he and Jenny exchanged a series of emails, which culminated in our returning north at the start of last week, for Jenny to give a talk to the local villagers about the major project for which she's shortly to apply for funding, its scientific significance and the importance of the fossils from the area in terms of our understanding of evolution of land vertebrates at that time.

We were a bit apprehensive, and no-one had any idea how many people she might have in her audience, not even the senior Scot who had done all the organising.  He'd advertised the talk quite widely, but until the day, you can't tell.

To our amazement and delight, the village hall was packed with over 70 locals, and they had to ship in extra chairs to accommodate everyone.   One local said he'd never seen the hall so full in all the time he'd been living there.  Jenny's talk was very well received and not only do we know now that we're welcome up there, but we've had offers of help should we need it.  The audience included a local girl who is about to start an MSc at Glasgow University, and who'd made the trip home especially to come to the talk.

This is all particularly good, as the funding body to whom Jenny is applying, is strong on outreach, so we've already got a good example in the bag.  There are several other sites in the area where good fossils have been retrieved, so we're anticipating repeating the talk to other communities once things get going.

Another thing we needed to address was making contact with the owners of the cliff we've been collecting from.  We had been under the mistaken impression that the cliffs were Crown property, but in fact, that is just everything below the high water level.  The cliffs belong to the farm above.

Jenny had exchanged letters with the farmer's secretary, but wanted to meet up so as to know who she was talking to when she phoned to say we'd be on-site.  She had had an email from a Scottish Heritage person who'd made the initial contact, apparently with one Pete Davidson, so we turned up and asked to speak to him.

A confused look crossed the secretary's face.  No Pete Davidson here.  After much backwards and forwards, and to great hilarity, it turned out that the farm owners are David and Peter Allen.  Peter is David's son.  So the man we wanted was Pete, David's son, not Pete Davidson.  Ho ho ho!  Anyhow, even though we didn't get to meet Pete, his father was there, but in reality, it was the secretary we needed to meet, as she's the one who will answer the phone.

So that was all very satisfactory, too.

And to round off the trip, I was playing 'how many miles can I get out of a gallon of diesel?' all the way there and back.  I drove slightly slower than usual, 80 instead of 90, very easy on the acceleration, try to reduce braking as much as possible, coast down hills and if you need to accelerate, try to do so when going downhill.  Avoid accelerating while going uphill.  Of course, you can't do too much of that without being antisocial, but I just did my best.

And the result?  Normally, the car does about 45mpg.  On this trip, 56mpg.  I was quite astonished.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Moore at Hatfield House

On Sunday we went to Hatfield House to see the exhibition of large Henry Moore sculptures they've got on at the moment, and this is my favourite of all, called Hill Arches.

I really like Moore, but was surprised to find there's quite a bit of his stuff I don't much care for.  I've never really come across much that wasn't to my taste before.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Shiny! Shiny!

This is me posing with my new bike, a BMW F800ST, and I'm very pleased with it, even though it was an impulse buy. 

I'd been looking at a small variety of bikes, based on the criteria that they must not have a chain final drive, they must have some sort of weather protection, they must be rather lighter and more agile than the Pan and they must have ABS.

I'd not really considered a BMW until strongly recommended by a friend and BMW nut who lives on Shetland, but when I saw this one on a dealer's website, I realised it ticked all the necessary boxes, so went and had a test ride. 

Rather to my surprise, I found myself agreeing to buy it on the spot, especially when the man threw in a secondhand pair of panniers for nothing.

It's smaller and lighter than the Pan, has ABS, some rather rudimentary weather protection, and a toothed belt final drive.  The panniers are rather smaller than on the old bike, but at least I can get a helmet in one of them.   The screen is rather abbreviated, and I might have to buy a taller one, but I'll stick with the original for a while and see how I get on.

Jenny was less than impressed by the amount of research I did before buying it, but as I was still pleased when I got it home on Saturday, has somewhat relented in her criticism!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Another trip to A&E

Yesterday, just after a rather large lunch, I started to get pains in my lower abdomen, which rapidly got worse.  After a while, I took my tummy up to the local Health Centre, where the duty doctor poked and prodded and did all those things you'd expect, but didn't seem to really have much idea what was wrong.  This is no criticism.  At no point throughout proceedings did anyone actually decide what was wrong.

At first she recommended standard pain killers, but as my pain got worse, while I was just sitting there, she suggested I go to A&E.  I'd already decided that was where I needed to be, but by then the pain was too much for me to safely drive to Addenbrookes, so she referred me to A&E there and called me an ambulance.  By now I was lying on the bed in her surgery, groaning.

The ambulance crew fitted me up to all the usual instruments and then, oh bliss, gave me 10ml of morphine.  I began to imagine I might survive!  They didn't treat me to blue lights and a siren, however.  Damn, twice in two months I've missed out on that!

From the ambulance I phoned Jenny to let her know what was going on.  This being Wednesday, a group of us were down to eat in a local Indian.  Obviously I wasn't going to be there, but there wasn't anything Jenny could do to help me in Addenbrookes, so no reason for her not to eat out as usual.

At A&E I got more pain killers and then a battery of tests, lots of poking and prodding, lots of questions and few answers.  As time passed, the pain got worse and I started groaning again.  At around 6.30 a nurse fitted me up with a drip.  I inferred from that and the rest of the proceedings that one possibility was a perforated bowel, which would require surgery, and I was then on nil-by-mouth, as you'd expect.

I asked this nurse if I could have more pain relief and she said she'd sort it out, but 20 minutes later, nothing had happened and I could see the end of my tether.  I spotted a red button labelled Emergency - Pull, so I pulled it.  That got me a telling off, since that button is the Cardiac Arrest Alarm button.  Still, it worked.  I got instant attention, which is what I wanted!

I was given two tiny grey and green capsules, which worked after a bit, though not as well as the morphine had.  And a nurse squirted some anti-nausea stuff into the cannula in my hand, because I kept thinking I was going to throw up.  By this time they'd done all the blood tests and everything else they could think of, apart from an X-ray, and everything was showing as completely normal, so still no idea what's actually wrong with me.

Some time around 7.30 I think, I was taken for an X-ray, then shunted back to my cubicle to die wait.  With the pain slightly ameliorated, I was able to doze, and when I awoke, to my amazement, the pain had subsided to almost nothing.

They still took me to the Clinical Decisions Unit, back of A&E, where I was given a bed to wait in, along with two other, sick-looking guys.  Nothing happened for a long time, except Jenny, Lorna and Richard turned up, having thrown together an overnight bag for me, which I thought was really good of them.  It was lovely to see them, too.

Their timing turned out to be impeccable.  Around 10, not 10 minutes after they'd arrived, my surgical team turned up, listened to my tale of how the pain had gone away, and discharged me on the spot.  So not only had my lovely wife and friends brought me stuff I might have needed, but they were on hand to run me home when I was liberated!  Perfect!

But the medics still had no idea what had caused my pain.  One of the nurses in CDU said it's like that with most abdominal pain - it goes away by itself and no-one knows why it came or went.  Terrific!

Update: as recommended by A&E I visited my doctor on Friday and he said, testing my urine, that a kidney stone will often leave a trace of blood in the urine, having scratched the inside of the ureter, but there was no trace on Friday.  When I reported this to Jenny, however, she said the nurse in CDU had seen blood in my urine sample just before I left on Wednesday, but I'd completely forgotten that.

So it seems likely that I was passing a kidney stone, and when I looked that up on the web, the symptoms do match quite well.  The way you avoid kidney stones is to drink lots of liquids, which I already do, so a repeat is not impossible.  Well, it's progress, but not necessarily of the sort I'd like to make!