Monday, 31 January 2011

A stonking fish pie

While compiling the shopping list for our weekly shop on Friday, I found myself craving a fish pie, so we decided to do that for Saturday night.  At the Tesco wet fish counter we discovered they did a pre-mix for fish pie, consisting of smoked haddock, salmon and Vietnamese river cobbler.  (I knew nothing about VRC and googling has made me doubt the wisdom of eating it, but so far I've not seen anything verifiable, so will have to continue looking.)  We bought some frozen prawns as well, which turn out to be from Indonesia, and I'm a bit dubious about that, too!

Anyhow, Jenny made this really wonderful fish stew from it.  Was going to be a pie, but turned into a stew.  She poached the fish lightly, made a thin-ish creamy white sauce with white wine and fresh parsley, then topped it off with par-boiled, cubed potato and sweet potato and gave it 20 minutes in the oven.   Extremely yummy, and generous enough for my lunch today.

I do like food!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This is the second year we've taken part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, in which people across the country spend an hour some time over this weekend counting the birds they see in their gardens or in local parks.  The numbers of birds were pretty similar to last year's, 11 species compared with last years 10, and although this year we didn't see buzzard, redwing or long-tailed tit, we did see a sparrowhawk, great tits, a chaffinch and a wren.  I'm a little disappointed with the total count of only 9 house sparrows, as I know the local population is about 25. The full results will be out in March some time.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Grasshopper warbler meadow

This is the beginnings of a meadow designed to encourage grasshopper warblers at Fowlmere.  We spent the day clearing and burning hawthorn scrub, which is not that much fun as the spines are ferocious.  Not only do they penetrate your clothes and flesh, but they are just like giant velcro in the way they intermesh with each other and anything else they can find.

Apparently grasshopper warblers like tussocks of grass, and many of the lumps and bumps here should suit them, I gather.  Quite a few of these bumps are antheaps, which Doug the warden seemed to think was a good thing, though I never got to the bottom of why.

Anyhow, we finished a bit after three and I went home, intending to collapse into a deep, hot bath.

Before I got home, however, I'd remembered that Jenny is giving a talk at Royal Holloway College in London, so would not get home much before ten.  I'd promised I'd cook something of which I would have my share at the usual time, and the other half would survive reheating when she got home.  So I stopped off at Tesco and bought some lamb shoulder fillet, plain yoghurt  and an aubergine, thinking I could do a Madhur Jaffrey Indian dish.

The post-shopping bath was deep, hot and delicious, and yes, I did fall asleep.  I still ache quite a lot, mind.

Sadly, I decided to cook a korma, which really required cream rather than yoghurt.  I thought it would be fine, and indeed, it did taste good, but actually, the yoghurt curdled and it did look like a pile of sick.  The aubergine I fried with turmeric, cayenne and black pepper and that was fine.

Anyhow, Jenny is due at the station in 10 mins, so I'll go and collect her.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Real science and Climategate

Just watched a really interesting, if somewhat depressing Horizon, in which the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, discusses the way in which the public perception of science has been damaged over the past few years.  I hope that if you click that link, it'll allow you to watch the programme.  What it seems to come down to is that the internet allows anyone who feels like it to publish their own point of view, whether that's based on reality or just their own particular fantasy, and search engines throw up the links without providing any clue as to which is the real science and which the fantasy.  They all appear to carry the same weight.  No wonder the public is confused.

Much of the programme is based around Climategate, and the key thing it clarified for me was the way in which that controversy arose.

Much of the data telling us about global temperatures in the past comes from tree rings, and some of the bits of wood that provide that information are very old indeed.  From the time thermometers were invented and temperatures recorded, there's a very good correlation between the dimensions of tree rings and temperature, so we can be pretty secure in deriving temperatures from wood that was growing before the invention of the thermometer.

Unfortunately, after about 1960, the correlation starts to break down, and no-one yet understands why.  So the controversy started because in preparing a graph showing global temperatures, the scientists used real temperatures, measured using thermometers, in preference to tree ring-derived temperatures.

The Telegraph journalist who latched onto this called it "apples and oranges", ie you're not comparing like with like, but that's clearly nonsense.  What the scientists were interested in was the global temperatures, and the fact that they needed to use two different techniques to measure temperature is irrelevant.  What's important is the temperature, and that's why the science was vindicated.

One of the depressing aspects of the programme was seeing the way different newspapers had reported the vindication.  Rags like the Daily Express presented it as if, despite doing poor science, the guy somehow managed to hang onto his job, which is a gross distortion of the truth.  I guess screaming headlines always did sell more papers than boring old truth.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Not wasting time!

Just to prove that we don't mess about on the bird reserve on a Thursday, here are before and after photographs of last Thursday's efforts.  Three of us got about half of this done in the morning, then after lunch four more arrived to finish off.  We were done by about 3pm and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
To start with, I was in charge of the fire, so spent some time collecting dry twigs so that after coffee we'd be in a position to start the fire and not have to charge about looking for kindling.  Fortunately there was plenty nearby, so I soon had a decent-sized stack ready.  Then I helped out pollarding the willows and cutting up the waste, dividing it into stuff to be burned immediately and logs to be stacked.  Not sure whether the stacked logs are regarded as a habitat or whether they get ferried out of the reserve to be used as firewood.  We just left them.  After coffee I lit my fire and I'm glad to say that it got going straightaway and we soon had a decent blaze.

This last photo is just of a hawthorn stump which the warden had chopped down recently, and I thought the effect was rather attractive.  Although it will undoubtedly send up shoots in the spring, the deer will almost certainly eat all the new growth, and eventually the stump will die.  That's why we were pollarding the willows, rather than coppicing them.  (Both pollarding and coppicing are described here on the Bluestem Nursery website, in case you have no idea what I'm talking about!)

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Curwen's Solicitors, Royston

An artist friend of mine, Paul Bainbridge, suggested I get in touch with Curwens, a local solicitors, because they exhibit works by local artists for a couple of months at a time in their office on Royston High Street.  Sadly, they don't have a page dedicated to the art, despite having been doing this for a couple of years.

Anyhow, the reason for this post is that in mid-March I'll be exhibiting a few of my own pieces of sculpture there, and I'm really delighted to get that opportunity.  It's inspired me to get on with my Reclining Nude, carved from African Paduck wood.  Sadly, today I had to send back the Proxxon power chisel I've been using, as it's developed a fault, but hopefully it won't be away for too long.

The problem with this piece of work is that it's by far the biggest thing I've done so far, and is also pretty complex.  And the wood is cracked, so I've had a few disasters as bits have just flaked off.  What with those and my mum dying in 2009, work ground to a halt.  I made a start last year, but the stresses of my employer folding in the summer distracted me, so here we are a couple of years down the line and really, not much has changed.

Until last week, when I really started to crack on!  Not sure if publishing this picture is a good idea, so I think I'll duck.  People don't tend to be too impressed by work in progress!


Delighted to see that Hugh's FishFight has raised over half a million signatures so far!

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Doing our bit for Hugh's Fish Fight we had mackerel for dinner last night, and it was excellent!  I was a little surprised, because we bought the fish from Tesco, and I'm always a bit dubious about Tesco wet fish, but these were very good, so tick, VG Tesco!

Jenny found a Sophie Grigson recipe in a cookbook printed in the mid-1990's.  The 'chutney' is tomatoes and lemons, with a bit of mustard, coriander and black peppercorns, sweetened to give it a nice sweet/sharp edge. 

You can see that the fish has lemons in and I'm sure something got rubbed into the slashes, but I don't know what.

The chips I par-boiled for 2 minutes, then fried in a heavy, cast iron frying pan, as we don't have a deep fat fryer.    I threw in a chopped garlic clove, which worked OK but I think I should probably have held it back until the chips were half-done.

And all rounded off with plainole frozen peas.  For all that we like going to town on our cooking, I still really like frozen peas!

Washed down with The Wine Society's dry French white wine from the Pays d'Oc, which was really good, too!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Hugh's Fish Fight

If you didn't watch Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 3 one-hour programmes this last week, please do so using 4od.  Then visit the website and sign the petition.

Essentially, he's drawing attention to the fact that the EU fish quota policy is forcing fisherman to discard half the North Sea catch dead into the sea, throwing away millions of tons of good fish, in order to conform to a badly formulated law.

Once a trawler has caught it's annual quota of cod, for instance, it can't just stop fishing, because the men still need to make a livelihood, but the trawl doesn't distinguish types of fish, so up will come loads more cod.  Most of these are already dead by the time they're dumped on the deck, but they still have to go back into the sea because the trawlermen are not allowed to land them.

It's completely insane.  There has to be a better way than this.

Friday, 14 January 2011

A new, very early dinosaur

This BBC article is about a new dinosaur fossil found in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina in 1996 and only now published in the journal Science.

The almost complete skeleton took so long to prepare because it was embedded in ironstone, which was incredibly hard and difficult to remove.  Jenny and I are well familiar with that, since many of her Greenland fossils are in extremely hard matrix which can only be prepared by hand.

Christened Eodromaeus, it was about 1.2m long, so pint-sized, and hails from 230 million years ago, when the land was dominated by large mammal-like reptiles very different from the later dinosaurs.  At the end of the Triassic period, an extinction event wiped out about half of the known species, including most of the mammal-like reptiles, leaving the way clear for the dinosaurs to expand and take over the world.

This one is thought to be an early ancestor of the theropod line, leading ultimately to things like Velociraptor and T. rex.  Another beastie from the same timeframe, misfortunately named Eoraptor, is thought to be an early example of one of the other major lineages of dinosaurs, the sauropods.  Since the sauropods were herbivorous, a moniker meaning "early predator" is hardly appropriate.  However, it's been so named, and the name will stick, I think.  Them's the rules!  I think the people that published its description didn't realise it was more closely related to sauropods than theropods.  Well, it was very early in dinosaur evolution, so both these animals were pretty similar to the earliest dinosaur of all, so probably not a hard mistake to make.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


I'm reading a fantastic book at the moment, called Peregrine by J A Baker, which was recently republished and which Jenny gave me for Christmas.  It was written in the 1960's I think and condenses about 10 years of watching peregrines into a single year's diary, and honestly, it's like poetry spread across the page.  Some of the imagery is just stunning, so I pulled a few paragraphs out and I offer them to you here.  (OK, I'll fess up:  last night while out for dinner I was raving about the writing, so promised to email a few paragraphs to our friends, then decided I'd post them here, too!)  I didn't spend long ferreting, just pulled out a few paragraphs, and you have to be aware that most of the book is just like this.

A cock blackbird, yellow-billed, stared with bulging crocus eye, like a small mad puritan with a banana in his mouth.

An iridescence of duck's heads smouldered in foaming blue water: teal brown and green, with a nap like velvet; widgeon copper-red, blazoned with a crest of chrome; mallard deep green in shadow but in the sun luminous, seething up through turquoise, to palest burning blue.  A cock bullfinch, alighting on a post against the water, seemed suddenly to flame there, like a winged firework hissing up to glory.

At one o'clock the sky above the river darkened from the east, and volleys of arrowed starlings hissed overhead.  Behind them, and higher, came a heavy bombardment of woodpigeons and lapwings.  A thousand birds strained forward together as though they did not dare to look back.  The dull sky domed white with spiralling gulls.

High tide was at three o'clock, lifting along the southern shore of the estuary.  Snipe shuddered from the dykes.  White glinting water welling in, mouthing the stones of the sea-wall.  Moored boats pecking at the water.  Dark red glasswort shining like drowned blood.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Declining Detroit

I missed this Jan 2nd  Guardian article on the ruin that is occurring in Detroit.  Beautiful and tragic.

Yes, but is it art?

I'm grateful to Phil Plait on the Bad Astronomy blog in Discover, for drawing attention to this beautiful satellite image of a phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Patagonia.   This is not a true colour photograph, which is probably just as well.  If the sea were that colour I think we'd all be in deep trouble! 

What's happening here is that a deep, cold current from the antarctic, rich in nutrients, is colliding with a warm current on the surface, coming down from the tropics.  The swirls and eddies mix the two, and along with abundant sunshine, provide excellent growing conditions for the phytoplankton which sit at the centre of the food web.  The phytoplankton bloom, providing food for all sorts of animals, from krill to fish to whales.

And isn't it pretty?

Awesome picture of the ISS

I saw this on TV the other night and when I came across it via the Discover blog today, I just had to post it.  The Frenchman who took it was in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman, taking pictures of the eclipse of the sun, when the International Space Station transited the sun.  Unlikely to have been a deliberate shot, as it completed its transit in 0.86 seconds.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Disappointing digital TV

Yesterday Jenny and I decided that we needed to replace the old CRT TV in the living room with a digital TV, in anticipation of the digital switchover which will happen later this year.  We didn't want a vast TV which dominates the room - if we want to watch stuff in big, we have a 5 foot by 3 foot pull-down screen and a ceiling-mounted projector which we can use - so the new TV needed only to be a similar size to the old one, which I measured at 20 inches diagonally.

In the shop we found a 22 inch TV which seemed to meet our requirements, so bought that, but on installing it, we were disappointed to find that the picture was noticeably smaller than on the old one.

Only then did we think about the fact that the new TV is of widescreen format.  Its aspect ratio is 16:9 compared with the old box's 4:3, so measuring across the diagonal, which is how TVs are sized, wasn't helpful.  What I should have done, had I thought of it, was measure the height of the old TV and make sure the new one was similar to that, which would have given me a perceived picture size the same as the old one.

In all the chatter about the digital switchover, this is not something I've heard mentioned at all, and I think there are going to be a lot of disappointed owners of shiny new digital TVs this year.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Great Images from Grenoble

The BBC reports on some exquisite pictures produced at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble.  They've been using the most intense X-rays in Europe to look inside some fossils of straight-shelled ammonites, and the detail they're seeing is just amazing.  Jenny and her research associate, Stephanie Pearce, went to Grenoble last autumn to use the same facility to look in side some early tetrapod fossils, with rather more mixed results, unfortunately.

Until now, no-one had any evidence for what ammonites actually ate.  It was thought that they were carnivorous, but without evidence, that could not be confirmed.

The middle image in this composite picture shows, not very clearly, a mass of radula teeth and the remains of a small crustacean.  As you can see from the 1mm scale bar, the whole thing is pretty small.  If you go to the BBC report there's a video showing the radula teeth much more clearly.

What is amazing about the ESRF is the fineness of detail that you can see if the imaging process works.  The different bits of the specimen must be of different transparencies to X-rays, otherwise nothing shows up.  When it works, it's fantastic, and you can see things you'd never spot any other way. Fabulous!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Barry Schwartz: On doing the right thing

Sorry to post another TED talk, particularly one that lasts 23 minutes, but this guy has some useful things to say. For instance, he says you can't make a set of rules that will stop the bankers crashing the system as they did the other year, because bankers are like water - they'll find a crack somewhere so they can avoid the rules.  And the opposite of rules is incentives, but if you incentivise people, all they're interested in is the incentives, not what they're doing, so teachers can end up teaching so the kids pass tests, while not educating the kids properly at all.

Lesley Hazleton: On Reading the Koran

This is a really excellent TED talk which I commend to you.  Lesley Hazleton, self-confest agnostic jew, sat down to read the Koran and was rather surprised by what she discovered.  I'm not sure why the bottom of the frame has been cropped off.  Normally I adjust width and height of video clips to 400 wide by 241 high, which I did this time, but the embed html has more pairs of dimensions than I'm used to dealing with, so some have been ignored.  Whatever, you should be able to see the top of the Stop/Go button on the left and the Cancel button on the right.  I think.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Where have all the birdies gone?

One of the frustrations I find with watching birds in our back garden is that quite often, there's very little activity at all.  I've just spent about 20 minutes peering out of a back window and seen only a couple of collared doves, a wood pigeon, a blackbird feeding on fallen apples, and that's about it.

Then suddenly, I realised why that was.  I'm reading an excellent book called Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham, in which he proposes the theory that our brain size increased rapidly, starting a couple of million years ago, as a result of our starting to cook our food.  I'll go into why I'm (moderately) convinced in  a minute, but first, how does this help with the birds?

In the book, Wrangham describes how chimpanzees (and lots of other animals, of course) eat until their stomachs are full, then have to go and have a rest while the stomach processes the food, before they can go back to stuffing themselves.  I expect you're way ahead of me here, but of course, this is exactly what's happening with the birds.  They eat until their crops are full, then have to go for a little lie down while the crop empties itself.  I've noticed before that the small birds in our garden all tend to feed at the same time, which I take to be a defence mechanism, but it neatly explains why so often there's bugger all happening out there.

So why am I convinced by Wrangham's argument that cooking food gave us bigger brains?  First, he says that cooked food is more easily digested than raw, and supports this with quite a bit of evidence, not least how poorly people who subsist on an entirely raw diet fare.  Then he reports that there is evidence (albeit circumstantial) for the use of fire by Homo erectus starting about 2 million years ago and that at that time, anatomical changes occurred which fit neatly in - the teeth start to get smaller and weaker, the jaw and jaw musculature is reduced, the rib cage and pelvic girdle become more slender, implying they guts they're holding are shrinking, all of which are consistent with eating cooked food.  And at that time, the 450cc Australopithecine brain expands to 6 or 700 in H. erectus, then to 1200 in H. erectus heidelbergensis about 600,000 years ago and finally to 1400cc when anatomically modern H. sapiens comes on the scene 200,000 years ago.  It turns out that reducing the size of your gut saves you a hell of a lot of energy, which can be diverted to the brain. Soft, easily-digested, cooked food permits a reduction in the size of the gut, freeing off energy to make you smarter. 

The later brain expansion episodes don't have the supporting evidence relating to cooking that the 2 Myo episode does, all of which I find quite persuasive.  Until someone comes up with a better idea, of course.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The state of our Spanish apartment

Since the place is very nearly ready to let out to holidaymakers, I thought I'd post a little information about it.  I don't expect this to generate any business, since I took a look at my sitemeter stats the other day, and most visitors seem to be bots, not real people at all!

This first picture is the kitchen.  It's what an estate agent would call 'compact', but in fact is perfectly useable.  A bit crowded if two of you want to cook, but fine for one and with all the stuff you'd be likely to need - brand new oven, hob, fridge and microwave, rather older dishwasher and washer-drier.

Next up is the living room, viewed from the dining area.  This was taken at night, as you can see from the dark bits visible between the curtains.  I don't think Jenny and I would have chosen curtains like that, or white settees, but that's what we inherited, and it's all in reasonable condition, so it would be pointless to replace any of it.

Finally, you get the view from the living room into the dining area.  Like the kitchen shot, this one was taken during the day.  The floors all through are polished grey marble, though in the bedrooms, which, for some reason I didn't photograph, these are covered with beige carpets.  We might take the carpets out some time, as the cleaners don't seem to operate vacuum cleaners!  We'll just need to be sure there really are marble tiles underneath first!  The marble floors are wonderfully cool when it's really hot outside.

The apartment is a 10 minute walk from the beach and from the nearest cafĂ©, a supermarket and a bank.  Going the other way, it's a 10 minute walk from a strip which includes numerous restaurants and a couple of 24 hour mini-markets.

Further on in the same direction is another shopping centre with supermarkets, banks, hardware and knick-knack shops.

As we make it more our own, so we like the place better and better.  You can rent it via Craig Lea Managerment Services.  Leastways, I think thats' our apartment!