Friday, 28 December 2012

A Christmas Carol

I'm not a great Dickens fan, so went along slightly reluctantly when neighbours and drinking buddies Lorna and Richard proposed that we go to a performance of A Christmas Carol in Charles Dickens' House in London, but I was completely wrong.  That's never happened before, of course!

We went down by train at lunchtime and spent a couple of hours in the National Portrait Gallery, something else I was pretty ambivalent about.  Wrong again!

Jenny wanted to see the exhibition of pictures of Prince Henry, son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, so we bought our tickets and went in.

First, it was fascinating - he was very popular and in his late teens looked extremely promising as a future king, but then tragically died of diptheria (I think).  The notes published after his autopsy seem clear enough that modern medics have decided that was what did for him.

There was music playing quietly, and the highlight was hearing the Tompkins When David Heard that Absalom was Dead which we sing occasionally.  It's one of a slew of pieces composed as a direct result of the death of Prince Henry.  I've rarely enjoyed a couple of hours in an art gallery more.

From there we returned to Russell Square and walked to the Dickens Museum.  There were only 24 people in the audience in a smallish room, where Dominic Gerrard put on an excellent one-man-and-a-puppet show which held us entranced.  I was so glad we went.

Afterwards we walked to an Indian restaurant, the Salaam Namaste just around the corner, where Richard had booked us a table. We had really excellent food and if you're looking to eat thereabouts, I highly recommend it.


OK, so I'm a bit behind posting this, but hey, it's Christmas!  We had a great time, and I hope you, dear reader, did too! I crocheted Jenny a beret with a flower on it, which inevitably needed to be adjusted for size, but which I've now done.  I only do crochet once in a blue moon, but there are endless video tutorials on the net, so I spent a small amount of time watching a few of those, then got on and did it, and not only did she say she liked it, but actually, it doesn't look at all bad.

I also made her this 7cm-wide silver brooch, which probably only a handful of people in the entire world will fully appreciate. I saw the design as a tattoo on the web with that wave-effect, and a mediaeval fish in the middle. 

I was very taken with the design, so replaced the fish with a life reconstruction of a beast called Crassigyrinus, which was one of the first fossils we found when we started exploring the lowermost Carboniferous rocks in the Borders Region of Scotland a couple of years ago.

As you can imagine, there are not too many people who'd recognise it at all, and fewer still who would realise that it was part of the ecosystem during the period Jenny and her colleagues are investigating in the course of her latest, greatest project.

It got the thumbs-up, too, which was a relief as it was damn hard work to make! The chain is because over the years, Jenny has lost several brooches when the pin has come undone, so I've got into the habit of adding a short length of chain with some sort of pin so she can secure it twice, just in case.  To be sure to be sure, if you like.

Dinner was pot-roasted haunch of muntjac, and very delicious it was, too.  We hadn't expected it to be quite so big, and at the end of dinner had only reduced its 1.8kg to about 1.5kg!  However, some of the leftovers will be made into Muntjac en croute on Sunday, which will be good, I almost guarantee.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

I want one of these!

The BBC is reporting a prototype electric motorbike being developed in California (I think), with fully enclosed bodywork and gyroscopes to keep it upright.  It looks really cool and I want one.  Sadly, it'll be too expensive at $24,000 if it ever goes on sale.  The posts sticking out of the body just in front of the rear wheel are for parking only.

I'd also have preferred to embed the video in this blog posting, but can't manage to extract the embed code, so I'm afraid you'll have to follow the link.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Catfish catching pigeons

This is amazing footage of European catfish on the River Tarn in France, where it passes through the city of Aldi, which I found on the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog on the Discover Magazines Blogs.

There's a small island in the river, where pigeons come to rest and bathe, and the catfish have obviously been watching David Attenborough, since they've learned to lurk in the shallows, then lunge out of the water to grab a pigeon, just like Patagonian killer whales catching unwary sea lion pups.  Yes, they sometimes strand themselves briefly, but, like the killer whales, they get back into the water without problem, and obviously catch enough pigeons to think it's worth the effort.

Monday, 3 December 2012


I've posted before about Choir 18, with whom Jenny and I have sung in Venice, Brussels and Strasbourg, and this weekend we were with them again, though not in quite such exotic locations.  On Saturday we gave a short lunchtime concert in Southwark Cathedral, then yesterday sang an Advent carol service in a minute church near the village of Stanstead Abbots just south of Hertford.

The Southwark Cathedral music was all new to me, and it was a bit of a struggle on two rehearsals, particularly as two tenors dropped out at the last minute and for the last piece, O Magnum Mysterium by Gabrielli, the conductor moved some first basses up to second tenor, and made the second tenors sing the alto line.  My sight reading is not great, and I really found singing the new line difficult after one quick run-through in the morning.  Everything else was pretty good, so overall we were happy with our performance.

Yesterday at St James in Stansteadbury was also difficult, singing some stuff we'd never seen before with just the rehearsal on the day.  Inevitably there were a few iffy moments, but overall it wasn't too bad.  It was made more interesting by the fact that the church has no electricity or heating, so no lights, just candles.  And someone had to pump the organ by hand.  We were thoroughly chilled by the time it was all over.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The (less) wild yoof of today

If you're over, I don't know, say forty, I bet you think the yoof of today  are a wild bunch of binge drinkers and druggies, rude, noisy and aggressive in public, the girls all getting themselves pregnant while they're still at school.  OK, I exaggerate, but I'd bet you, like me, thought there's more than a grain of truth in the stereotype.

Think again.

According to this article in a copy of the Economist magazine which Jenny picked up on the train yesterday, they're rather more conformist than we imagine.

In 1998, 71% of 16 - 24 year-olds admitted drinking alcohol in the previous week, while in 2010 the figure was 48%.
Drug-taking is down faster, from 20% to about 11% (I'm interpreting the graph, so don't have the exact figures.)
Teenage pregnancies are down 25% since 1998, to 1969 levels.
School truancy rates and youthful criminality are down since 2007.
According to the Offending, Crime and Justice survey (when?) people born between 1992 and 1996 are less frequently rude and noisy than their older cohorts were at the same age.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Learning about beetles from old books

What can you discover about beetles by studying mediæval books?  Well as it turns out, there's one thing you might be surprised by.

This article on the Discover blog, reports the findings of an evolutionary biologist, one Blair Hedges, from Pennsylvania State University.

Hedges examined woodblock illustrations in books printed in Europe between 1462 and 1899, and measured 3,200 beetle holes.

Between these dates, many books were illustrated with woodblock engravings, and what was new to me (despite being rather obvious) is that when the wood was engraved, it had no visible wormholes, but it did have beetle larvae living inside, so some time after the engraving was finished, adult beetles would emerge, leaving a misnamed wormhole.  We assume it was too expensive to throw the block away, so pictures were printed with white circles marking where the beetles had emerged.

Hedges found that there were two sizes of round hole, and that these pricisely matched two species of European furniture beetle, and only them.  The smaller holes were made by the northern furniture beetle and the larger ones by the Mediterranean furniture beetle.

OK, that's not terribly exciting, though it is novel.  But if you check out where the books were printed, you find that the two species were distributed quite separately, with a clear demarkation line between them.  Presumably the northern species liked it cooler and wetter, while the southern species liked it hotter and drier.

Until now.  These days, the northern furniture beetle is found all the way south to the Mediterranean, and the Mediteranean furniture beetle is found all the way up to northern France and Germany.  It hasn't made it to the UK or Scandinavia yet, as far as we know.

The speculation is that the protected environment inside our houses has allowed the beetles to extend their territories hugely.

And all discovered by measuring printing defects in old books!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Police dog

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Friday, 16 November 2012

Superb Fairy-Wrens learn in ovo

Just had an email from the British Trust for Ornithology which included this link to a fascinating article about Australian Fairy-Wrens.  Apparently, as a defence against cuckoos, Superb Fairy-Wren females sing to their eggs, and what they sing includes a nest-specific key call which the young, having hatched, have to repeat back to the parents before the parents will feed them.

Researchers were recording near the birds' nests to see if they could record any anti-predator calls, but what they got was the mothers singing to their eggs.  They determined that the key call was nest-specific by swapping batches of eggs between nests.  The embryos learned the key call from the foster mother, showing that it was not inherited from the parents and must have been learned in the egg.

The young have about 5 days before they hatch to learn the key, while cuckoo embryos, because the eggs are laid later, have only two days.  It's a clever strategy, but still only works about 40% of the time, as the cuckoo chicks try out various different calls in the hope of striking lucky, which presumably they do much of the time.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Talking up the project

On Saturday, Jenny and I went down to London to University College, where Jenny gave a 45 minute talk about the project at the Geologists' Association's Festival of Geology. It was very well received, and she was asked to sign a copy of her book!

Jenny was the last of four speakers, and was preceded by Professor Iain Stewart, geologist, vulcanologist and TV presenter.  He turned out to be just as nice as he seems on the telly.

It turns out he knows Tim Kearsey from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh and Sarah Davies from Leicester University, had been speaking separately to them in the past few weeks, but only realised that the projects they were so excited about were one and the same, namely Jenny's Romer's Gap project.  He sat in on Jenny's talk and was very complimentary when we chatted afterwards.

On Monday I drove Jenny over to Leicester for her to give the same talk to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society.  Her talk was timed to start at 7.30, which would have meant some awkward train journeys, but it was no big deal for me to drive her over there, particularly as they paid for my diesel and gave me a nice dinner!

Before dinner, we managed to see a display of some of the rocks Carys and Sarah had collected in August and October, some sawn in half and polished, and that was really fascinating.  I need to learn some sedimentology, as every time they talk about the stuff they do, I'm completely baffled.  Mostly the people there were students, but there were a few from the Lit and Phil Soc.  Jenny took along a selection of the fossils we've collected, which stirred some interest from those there.

Leicester Lit and Phil is obviously thriving, as there were well over 100 people there, perhaps more than at the GA meeting on Saturday, and they were clearly just as interested in what Jenny was saying as the London crowd.  Overall, a very interesting few days.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

President Obama

Be interesting to see what changes the republicans make in response to this. I did read some time ago that if Mitt Romney lost, the party as a whole would lurch even further to the right. 

Shame Congress is under republican control.  That'll make it much harder for Obama to actually achieve much.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Doing science in Scotland

Last week I went up to the Borders Region of Scotland to do some more field work connected with Jenny's project, about which I've blogged before.  Eight of us were there, staying in two cottages, and it was a pretty sociable affair.  Tim is Jenny's post-doctoral research associate, Keturah is her new research assistant, Sarah is a conservator from the Sedgwick Museum who used to be Jenny's preparator for many years.  We also had two sedimentologists from Leicster University, a palynologist from Southampton University and a geologist from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.  For the first couple of days we also had Marcello Ruta, from Lincoln University.  And during the week we were visited for a day by three people from the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.

This picture is of a small huddle of scientists on the foreshore.  I was way up on the cliff taking views of the bay, and zoomed in as far as I could to get this picture.

Carys Bennett, one of the Leicester people, had already been up there for a couple of weeks, logging the sediments in the bay, but for this week she had help from her colleague from Leicester, Sarah Davis, and the BGS Geologist, Tim Kearsey, who had brought a very expensive GPS unit which was accurate to about 3cm.

Sarah Finney and I had expected to snorkel (in wet suits!) to sample rocks from below the low water  mark, but in the event the tides were sufficiently low that Carys said we didn't need to do that.  As the weather was filthy and the water extremely turbid, that was something of a relief!

I had hired a GPS with a waterproof bag to help me identify precisely where we were sampling, but it turned out to be only accurate to 4 metres, which is useless for what we wanted, so just as well it wasn't needed.  Just as well it wasn't expensive, too!

We collected fossils from a bed we knew was very rich in disarticulated and rather fragmentary bones, but also lots of samples from all over the bay, just for more detailed examination back at the lab.  Perhaps the most exciting in the long term was collecting from the lowermost beds, which were laid down immediately after the end-Devonian extinction event, assuming we've dated the rocks correctly.  (We won't know until Carys has finished her logging and sampling exercise, which won't be for another few weeks yet.)

My pet theory is that once things settle down after an extinction event, the low population levels mean life is relatively easy, so some pretty weird animals can evolve, but once population levels start to rise, the competition for resources means only those beasts actually well adapted survive, and the rest are weeded out, and I reckon that all this happens within 5-10 million years.

We did find a few small scraps of stuff in these oldest rocks, but nothing more.  Next time, I'll spend much more time in that part of the bay, and hopefully will find something useful.

We decided on day one to eat all together, so on the first evening we fed everyone back at our house, then the next evening they fed everyone at theirs, and so on.  This meant there was lots of socialising going on, and in fact, much of the conversation was scientific rather than just gossip.  Usually several conversations going on at the same time, with people chatting about various aspects of the project and learning from each other.  The atmosphere was vibrant, it was very productive scientifically and it was a great bonding event.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Ox Cheeks recipe


Quantities: Be guided by your own requirements rather than this recipe.

Ox cheek cut into large chunks.
1 medium red onion, roughly diced
1 or 2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
about 5 juniper berries
1 star anise
1 clove of garlic, chopped
a sprig of sage - mine was 10cm long
1 bay leaf
100 ml passata - or use a squidge of purée or some tinned tomatoes or a few chopped fresh ones
red wine


  1. Heat the oven to 180°C / 170°C fan
  2. Trim the ox cheeks of any excess sinew and gristle, then heat a little oil in a casserole dish and fry the onion, celery, carrot, juniper, star anise, sage and bay leaf until they start to soften.  If you like, put the garlic in at the same time.  I prefer to wait until the onions are softening before adding the garlic.
  3. Add the ox cheek and fry to brown the surface, then add whatever form of tomato you're using and cook for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add red wine and water if necessary, to cover the meat.  Season well with salt and pepper.
  5. Cover and cook in the oven for a couple of hours.  Keep you eye on it to make sure it doesn't dry out.
  6. If you feel like it, you can strain the sauce just before serving, but we don't bother.
If you want to brown the meat first, then do the onions, etc, that works, too.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Evensong in Southwark Cathedral

On Saturday we caught the train to London and the Northern Line across to London Bridge, then walked to Southwark Cathedral.  After an hour or so's rehearsal, we sang choral evensong to a congregation of a dozen or so, including some of our own groupies.  We did a set of responses written by our conductor, Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in D by Wood and Joubert's O lord, the maker of all thinge, and we did them rather well.

After we'd finished singing, there was a bit of praying, which you just can't avoid, and the clergy person started praying for peace, possibly in the Middle East, I wasn't listening, when I was struck by a thought.  You'd imagine they'd realise how futile it is praying for peace.  I mean, if it ever did any good, surely there we'd have seen some peace breaking out occasionally, but no.  Complete waste of breath.  Well, you know I think that already, so maybe I'm wasting my own breath.

Jenny and I had taken the precaution of preparing a stew of ox cheeks in red wine, which we left on the timer.  When we ate it at 8.30 it was just gorgeous, accompanied by our own, home-grown potatoes and carrots.  Yum!

Friday, 5 October 2012

An African Mask

When we were in Spain the other week, we visited the Biopark in Fuengirola.  We went in March, and liked it so much, we decided to go again.  We still like it, but I don't think we'll make a habit of going there.

Walking from our usual car park, though, we happened across a new shop selling African art.  Now I'm silly about African art, so fully expected Jenny to drag me firmly past, but no, she dragged me inside!  Talk about a kid in a toyshop, it was magical!

This small shop was just packed with masks, carvings, votive pieces, spread out so you were at risk of tripping over stuff.  We were entranced!  (I'll not link you to their website as it's not finished.)

To start with, I was confident we would not buy anything, as our luggage was already pretty full, and I wasn't about to pay Easyjet for an extra hold bag, but then I undermined myself, but realising that all I had to do was get the man to mail me whatever I decided to buy.  Resolve?  My resolve lasted about 30 seconds!

I could have bought almost anything in the shop, but in the end settled on this mask.  The man did tell me where it came from, but I've forgotten, so will have to email him.  I've looked through my African Mask books, without success, though I'm betting on somewhere like the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Oh, it's about 40cm high.

Like most of the things in the shop, this seems to me to be a mask made in a village for some specific ritual, bought by the buyer for the shop and shipped back to Spain, rather than something made specifically for the tourist trade.  I was astonished that it was only 120€.

The man reckons that in 20 years time no-one in Africa will be doing carvings like this, because all the young people are migrating to the cities, and no-one is learning how to make the traditional carvings.  I think he's probably exaggerating, but there's still a large grain of truth in what he says.  This stuff will become increasingly rare.

Fortunately, it's still dead cheap, so I can fill our house with as much of it as Jenny will let me buy.  It'll never be worth any money, because it's a bit weird in most Brit's eyes, and even when the supply dries up, the demand will be minute.  And I expect I'll be dead by than, anyway.  Even if I live to 90, I can't see prices rising significantly.

Edit: I had an email from the vendor telling me it's a Kifwebe mask from the Congo, and that fits OK, as I was able to find another one in a similar style on the web.

Edit 2: Looking it up, I find it was made by the Songye people from south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for use by their Kifwebe sub-group who used to be some kind of authoritarian figures, controlling social behaviour, neutralising disruptive elements, etc, so a Songye equivalent of a policeman's helmet.  That's if you believe the interweb, of course!

Cat update

The cat's blood tests came back pretty normal, which is a bit disappointing.  If she'd had hyperthyroidism, there's a newish catfood with a very low iodine content, which can usually be successfully used to lower the hormone levels being produced by the thyroid, but her hormone levels are normal, so we don't know what's wrong with her.  The vet's two best guesses, hyperthyroidism and diabetes, both not uncommon in older cats, have been excluded.  Next step is ultrasound and X-ray scans, in case there's something horrible going on inside her.

Of course she's not insured, what do you think we are?

I don't know how this is going to turn out.  The high tech gadgetry will be expensive, but we'll just swallow hard and cough up.  Treating whatever shows up may be a different issue.  We do love our cat, but we're not totally gaga about her, so it's unlikely we'll empty the bank account to make her well again.

Not least because she's about 14, and could just die of old age quite soon anyway.

Ewww! Thank you, cat!

I awoke yesterday morning at about 6 to hear the sound most cat owners will recognise, the sort of  glugging sound they make just as they're about to throw up.  Sadly, it took me too long to wake up and realise what I could hear, and the cat threw up on the duvet right between us.  Yuk!

I did a minimal clean up with bog paper, then when we got up, put the duvet cover and top sheet through the wash.

We're feeling quite sorry for the poor little mite just at the moment.  She's lost a bit of weight over the last 6 weeks or so and this is emphasised by the fact she has a skin condition which is obviously itchy.  She's licking herself vigorously all over, and scratching where she can't lick, with the result that she's lost a lot of fur.  There are places you can see skin, which is not good.

We took her to the vet on Monday and he has had comprehensive blood tests done, but we don't know the results yet.  Most likely a thyroid problem, but could be diabetes.  Skin condition might be a side-effect of the underlying disease.

Coloured honey

Apparently some French beekeepers have been bemused recently to find their bees making honey in decidedly non-honey-like colours, such as blue, green and even red.  The BBC showed some footage, and the jars really were quite impressive.  I'd have bought some!

Now the mystery has been solved, and sadly, we'll not be seeing green honey in our shops any time soon.  It turns out there's a biogas plant that processes waste from the Mars factory nearby, and the bees had discovered waste M&Ms which had been left in a bin outside.  Not unnaturally, the bees found them irresistible, but the 'nectar' they took back to the hives wasn't the innocent, almost colourless liquid of the natural state.


Friday, 28 September 2012

Cat in a basket

It's not immediately obvious from this photo, but the cat has taken to sitting in a small basket of woolen gloves which Jenny likes to keep on a table near the front door.  (Why we don't put them away in the summer is a mystery!)

The cat is awake and compos mentis in this photo, but quite commonly sleeps curled up on her side, head tucked under a paw, so is much less obvious.

This morning our cleaner was dusting in the hall and noticed that the pile of stuff in the basket was bigger than usual, but you can dust on autopilot, so the next bit didn't surprise me at all.

Yes, she dusted the cat!

Cat gave her a rather aggrieved look, apparently!

We're a bit worried about the cat.   A couple of years ago she suddenly got a patch of itchy, flakey skin at the base of her tail, which the vet treated with a steroid injection.

Recently, this has flared up again, much worse than before, and we've had various inconveniences, like holidays in Spain, which have interfered with our ability to take the cat to the vet.  Anyhow, she's booked in on Monday, and not before time.  She's lost quite a bit of weight, and with all the licking and scratching, quite a bit of fur, too, so she's looking rather ratty, which is not bad for a cat!   Let's hope the vet can sort her out pronto.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Such a cute little snake!

I managed to miss this bit out of yesterday's post, so will just have to add it now.
On Friday afternoon, Jenny and I walked down to the beach for a swim and came across this little guy on the footpath, obviously not well, but not entirely dead.

Not knowing if he was poisonous, I picked him up with a stick and dropped him under the hedge by the path.

On our return, he was there, and now was clearly dead, so we carried him home.  I put him on Jenny's filofax for the photo, as the camera underexposed him when he was lying directly on the white, plastic table.

We looked him up on the net, and he's a Horseshoe Whip Snake, and non-venomous.  This one's only about 30 cm long, (that's a 2 euro piece) but they grow to 1.5 metres.  They're quite common around the western Mediterranean, but are threatened by habitat loss.  It's possible this one was threatened by dehydration, since the area is suffering a terrible drought, and even the prickly pears are looking sorry for themselves!  Hence all the wildfires, of course.

We checked the online catalogue of Jenny's museum, and discovered that they don't have a specimen of this snake, so we curled him up in a small bottle and stuck him in the freezer, then put him in a round wooden box that was lying around, and brought him home in hold luggage.  We figured the temperature drops quite a long way in the hold, so that would keep him frozen, with any luck.

Jenny was going to take him to work today, but I've not heard what kind of reception she got.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A week in sunny Spain

 Last week we returned to our flat in Spain, as we have been doing twice a year for a while now.  The only major downer was that the letting agency had laundered all the curtains, and whoever had rehung them had very little idea of what to do.  It took us the best part of a day (spread over two days, of course) to rehang them all and make the place look half-way decent.

The first wildlife we noticed were Monk Parakeets, which we've not had before.  I gather they've been on the Costa del Sol for a while, but we've not had them in our garden.  Pretty, noisy birds.

Once we'd got the flat vaguely decent, we went into Fuengirola to visit the Biopark, which we'd discovered in March and liked.  This visit was much the same, though we went in the reverse direction so as to see a few exhibits we'd missed the previous time.

We started with lunch of an enormous chicken caesar salad and a small beer, it being over 30°C outside.

We were particularly taken with these exquisite squirrels, though I can't remember where they came from.    Indonesia, perhaps.  As before, we were very impressed by much of the detail.  All the enclosures are conventionally built, but then the brickwork, or whatever it was, was coated with wire mesh and spray concreted, before artists finished the surface to look like rocks, tree, etc.  The 'rocks' the squirrel is on is entirely artificial, made to look like rock. And it does.

We were also just as unhappy as last time at the big cat, great ape and meercat enclosures, all of which struck us as far too small.
On Thursday we were looking for a small nature reserve near Málaga, which we failed to find, but Jenny did spot an icon on the map for a botanical garden a few kilometres north of the city, so we headed there for lunch.

La Concepción, Jardín Botánico-Histórico is an absolute gem.  We spent the whole afternoon there and saw about a quarter of it, if that, but we were completely blown away by it.  So late in the season there wasn't that much colour, but the range of greens and textures, and the interesting planting meant you could surely walk around there in the dead of winter and still have a fantastic time.  Highly  recommended.

I loved this little female figurine, entitled, assuming I've translated correctly, the Fountain of Life.

The garden originally belonged to the Marquis of Loring and were used to grow lemons which they exported all over Europe.  The Marquis and Marchioness created the gardens which was bought by the city of Málaga in 1991, restored and then opened to the public in 1994.

After an idle day on Friday, we went to another new find.  Jenny had taken her laptop as there were a few work-related things she needed to do, so I looked up birding on the Costa del Pensionistas and found a site describing the National Park of El Torcal just south of Antequera, an hour's drive away, as being worth a look.  I have to say, that although I don't like their website, the park itself was fantastic.

There are two circular walks you can do, and we just did the short one, partly because it was so hot, but partly also because we wanted to save the longer one for another visit.

We saw Egyptian vultures, black redstarts and I think a blue rock thrush, as well as quite a few other birds that were either so familiar as to not comment on or seen too fleetingly to be able to identify.  Especially as I'd lost Jenny's bird book.

Yesterday we washed all the linen we'd used, tidied the flat up a bit and got to the airport around 7pm.  After dropping our bags and going through security, we were disappointed to find the eating facilities rather limited.  We passed what might have been an restaurant, but was rather full, then found ourselves at a bar selling burgers.  We are not great burger fans, but had some anyway, and did not enjoy them much.  The red wine was pretty pricey, too.

Still, the flight landed more or less on time at 11.15 at Southend, despite being late taking off.  Southend is such a micro-airport we were through it in no time and home by 1am.  We had a glass of red while we settled back in, so were still a bit sleepy this morning!

Islamic protests

Just back from a week in Spain and ploughing through my email, found this, which I think sums things up nicely.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Discovering the Anternet

Scientists at Stanford University have been studying harvester ants, and found an interesting parallel between how they judge food availability and how computers judge bandwidth when transferring data across the internet.  This article at Biology News has the detail.

If you send a file across the internet, one of the algorithms that manages the transfer is called Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the way it works is to break the file up into 'packets' and send the packets singly to the far end.  The receiving computer sends and acknowledgment or 'ack' back, so the sending computer knows the packet has arrived safely.

If there's a delay in the return of the acks, the sender recognises a restriction in the bandwidth, so sends packets less frequently so as not to overload the system.

In harvester ants, which forage for seeds and other suitable food, if fewer ants return with food, then fewer leave to forage, while if more return with food, then more will leave to forage.

So it seems ants invented the same management protocol as we use for file transfer, millions of years ago.  I think that's pretty cool.  It's also interesting to speculate what else we might learn from ants and other colonial insects, since there are 11,000 species of ant, living in a wide variety of habitat and dealing with endless different ecological problems.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Today I had a wisdom tooth extracted.  The dentist had persuaded me that both upper wisdom teeth needed to come out, and had booked me in to have them both done in the same appointment.  Later, friends suggested that was a cruel and unusual punishment, so I phoned and brought one forward to today.  The receptionist told me quite confidently that upper wisdom teeth 'just flick out', implying I was making an unnecessary fuss.

When I walked into the surgery, the dentist still seemed to be under the impression he was doing both, and clearly couldn't understand my reluctance refusal to go along with Plan A. Anyhow, after some discussion, he injected just the left side, and after a few minutes to let the anaesthetic take effect, started making with the pliers.

When you have to have wisdom teeth extracted, do not let them persuade you to do more than one at a time!

The tooth did not 'just flick out'.  He struggled for fully 10 (OK, probably only 5) minutes before it finally came out, during which time he yanked my head around all over the place and succeeded in bruising my lips all around the left side of my mouth.  Not only is the inside of my mouth sore, but the outside is too!  I bet he's never had a wisdom tooth out!  Actually I'm not sure he's old enough to have any yet.

Jenny is at a conference in Oxford and I shall indulge myself on the culinary front, as I usually do when she's away, so I've just been to Tesco and bought myself a piece of skinless boneless haddock, as I think I deserve something soft and easy to eat.  I'll probably poach it in milk and then make something like a creamy mushroom sauce, with noodles for the carbs.  And a bottle of Puilly Fuisse for the anaesthetic!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Stan Wood, fossil hunter extraordinaire

It is with great sadness that we learn of the death of Stan Wood yesterday, 9th September.  He was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer about 15 months ago, so we've known the end was coming for some time.  It is nevertheless, devastating.

Stan had been a professional fossil collector for several decades, and his skill and perseverance in that field was second to none. He supplied universities and museums with a series of spectacular fossils which broadened our understanding of the evolution of early tetrapods enormously.

Most recently, Stan was working with another of Jenny's colleagues, Tim Smithson, discovering a wealth of fossils from the lowermost Carboniferous, a period known as Romer's Gap, about which I blogged not long ago.

There is also a blog entry about him posted by the man who bought Stan's business.

Stan will be sadly missed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


The other day we picked our first sweetcorn cobs, and I have to say, I am feeling dead smug!  They were well up to commercial size, and because I picked them at the peak of readiness and they were on our plates within 10 minutes, they were completely scrummy!  Not quite sure why I thought it necessary to stick a Swiss Army knife in there for scale, since we all know what size sweetcorn is, but there you go!

We are going to have our work cut out eating them before they are actually over the top.  I suspect we're going to have to give some away.

I don't trust weather forecasts beyond a day or so ahead, but the BBC forecast shows sun all day on Saturday and a nice high of 25°, which if right, means a barbie, I suspect.  Ah yes, barbecued sweetcorn!  Me gusta mucho!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Salisbury Cathedral

Last week we were singing the sung services in Salisbury Cathedral, it being the summer hols and the cathedral choir school being on holiday.  We've done this every August since 1996 and it's a demanding, but very satisfying week.  If you're interested in the music we sang, you can see the programme for the week here.

We rehearse from 9:15 to 12 each morning, then again from 4 to 5, before singing Evensong at 5.30.  Evensong is just the best service there is, consisting of maximum music and minimum god!

It's a real privilege to have the opportunity to sing such wonderful music in such magnificent architecture, and Salisbury is a fabulous place to sing, having one of the best acoustics we've experienced.  We also like the fact that there's no Rood Screen, so the whole place feels much more open.

We visited the cathedral some years ago when we were singing in Winchester Cathedral, so we knew there was a fantastic font in the nave.  Naturally, I had to take a photograph!

It's very clever.  The water being pumped in from underneath hits a baffle, so the surface of the water is very still, though people walking by do disturb it, and lots of people stick their fingers in, of course.  And where the outfall enters the floor, the maker has got some cleverly arranged wire mesh, so the water falls into the catchment with a soft hissing sound.  Quite brilliant.

There was some difficulty with one of the choir school administrators, who was positively unhelpful and unfriendly, but we suspect that as the school is undergoing some serious refurbishment and is clearly not remotely ready for use in the coming term, she was possibly stressed beyond the point at which common courtesy is regarded as important.

The only other downer was one of the clergy in the cathedral.  For those not familiar with Anglican Choral Evensong, there's a bit in the service where a priest intones a series of sentences, to which the choir responds, for example

Priest: O Lord open thou our lips
Choir: And our mouths shall shew forth thy praise

 all done to music and generally referred to as Responses.  So on Friday, we did a set of Responses written by our own musical director, and which the priest would not have come across before.  He was given the music a couple of days ahead of time, but clearly did not look at it, and didn't bother to come to one of our rehearsals to run through it, and when he came to do the intonation, he was simply all over the place.  What he sang was nothing like what was written.

This presented us with a problem, because the whole thing is done unaccompanied, so if he doesn't sing the right entry, we don't know what notes to sing ourselves, and have to guess.  The result is predictably awful  Fortunately the next time he was doing this, on Sunday, he was familiar with the Responses, so could (mostly) get his bit right.

He did apologise for the 'note safari', so we forgave him.

Something I can't omit from this posting was our lunch venue.  On Tuesday, being our first full day, Jenny and I went into Bernier's Tea Room which is a restaurant right next to the part of the choir school where we were staying and were delighted to find the food excellent, though the service slightly slow.  It was so good, we went the next day, and the next, until by the end of the week, we'd not eaten lunch anywhere else!

Still on the food theme, on Friday, four of us ate at Charter 1227 in the centre of Salisbury, where we had fantastic food, great wine and excellent service, but the whole experience was spoiled by the fact that the prices on the menu did not include VAT, so a restaurant we'd thought rather pricey but probably worth it, turned out to be 20% more expensive.  That left a nasty taste in the mouth, I can tell you. we mis-read the small print at the bottom of the menu and thought that the prices excluded VAT.  Actually, they included VAT, so we were maligning them falsely.

And it wasn't outrageously expensive, since four of us had delicious main courses and two bottles of house wine for £100 excluding tip.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Jury service

I was on jury service all of last week, and it was a real eye-opener.  The guy was up for two charges of managing a brothel, and one of laundering the proceeds of an illegal operation through his bank account.

I spent the whole of the week, right up to the point at which we retired, becoming increasingly angry that the case had even been allowed to come to court.  The prosecution were only able to offer circumstantial evidence, and I thought that was pretty flimsy at best.  Didn't stop her spending the best part of a day and a half going through it in meticulous detail, of course.

Every now and then she'd smile at us jurors.  I couldn't help thinking of Gordon Brown, each time she did so.  Made me feel distinctly queasy.

Then I got cross with the defence for not pleading "no case to answer", though at least he was easier to listen to and had less to say.

You can imagine my astonishment when, on retiring, we took an intial vote and nearly half the jury thought he was guilty on all charges

So we were in discussion for well over 3 hours, during which time those of us convinced he had not been involved in the running of the brothels finally persuaded the rest that there was at least insufficient evidence to convict him of that.    I confess I'm convinced many of them  were sure he was guilty and weren't too bothered that there was no evidence to show it.  I was sure he was innocent all the way through and the fact that there was no evidence just reinforced that.

However, on the third charge, of laundering the ill-gotten gains, we all thought he was guilty, but a few of us thought the prosecution had not produced adequate evidence to prove it.  He was close friends with the two people who were running the brothels, and we figured there was no way he could not know what was going on, but it came down to three of us who kept saying "Insufficient evidence."

Then someone pointed out a text message (we had transcripts of all sorts of stuff!) in which our man had referred to a "free shag."   If you refer to a free shag, it's hard to be convincing when you claim not to know about paid-for shags, and at that point I switched my vote.  The remaining two wouldn't budge, so we'd reached impasse, but the judge said that we'd given it enough time and a majority verdict was acceptable.

I don't feel bad that I eventually convicted the man - I thought he was guilty all along.  I feel bad because all the way through the trial I was convinced he was a good man fallen among rogues.  I still think so.  And his 18-year-old son was there in the public gallery supporting him all the way through, which says a lot, I think.

I can't find any information on what his likely sentence will be, so all I can do is hope the judge is as lenient as possible with him.  I'm slightly optimistic there, as the judge came across as one of the good guys, too.

Monday, 20 August 2012

We are going to be so sick of sweetcorn!

Last year I grew sweetcorn for the first time in decades, and was rather impressed with the result.  The new breeds seem to be much more reliable than when I last grew sweetcorn, 30 years ago, so I had another go this year.  This is the result.

I asked Jenny to stand next to the plants when I took this photo a week ago, just to prove that they really are nearly eight feet tall!  It must be the wet early summer, as I've not done anything different from last year when they were at least two feet shorter.

Most of the plants have two ears, so I'm actually expecting to have far more of the smallish cobs than Jenny and I will ever eat!  The hardships we put up with!

Monday, 13 August 2012

The latest on the Romer's Gap Project

In May I posted about how Jenny had been successful in her application for funding for the next big project she'll be working on. 

At the end of the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago, there were quite a few tetrapods around, but they were all, as far as we know, fully aquatic.  Their legs would not support them out of water, they had internal gills, they had fishy tails and they seem to have had more than five digits, max eight so far known.

Then there was an extinction event, after which, for about 20 million years tetrapod fossils were extremely scarce, but after that, all known tetrapods conformed pretty much to the patterns we see today - lungs, not gills, no fishy fins, robust legs with five or fewer digits.

The gap has challenged palaeontologists for the last 75 years.

A few years ago, a colleague of Jenny's, Tim Smithson, started poking around in the Borders Region of Scotland, and has so far come up with five sites yielding tetrapod fossils that fall directly into that gap.  This project is to study not just the tetrapods, but the plants, invertebrates, fishes, limnology, sedimentology, paleaoatmosphere, everything we can think of.  It's a four-year project involving Cambridge, the National Scottish Museums and the universities of Leicester and Southampton, as well as the British Geological Survey.

So last week Jenny, Tim and I rented a cottage in Northumberland and visited the sites.  There were two motivating factors.   First, most of the team have never seen even the main site at Burnmouth, just north of Berwick on Tweed, so a goodly group of them turned up on Monday morning for us to show them what we knew.

The rest of the week was really for Tim to show us where the fossils have been coming from.  He said that if he falls under the proverbial bus, someone else needs to know where the sites are or they'll be lost for decades. 

This is very poignant, because another colleague, professional fossil collector Stan Wood, who was to have been part of the project, was diagnosed a year ago with inoperable lung cancer, and is dying as we speak.  He will be sadly missed, as he was an extraordinary collector who had a huge impact on the world of palaeontology over the past several decades.  I think when Tim thought about Stan's death, that was when he realised he would then be the only person who knew where those sites were.

The first day was exciting but frustrating.  There had been so much rain that our route was flooded in two places and we couldn't get to the first site.  We did manage the second, but the burn was a torrent and there was no way we could get to the actual exposure.  Then the route home was flooded in a couple of places, too, though all that required was a few diversions before we got home.

On Tuesday we collected some exciting looking fossils from Burnmouth, in a bed which Jenny and I had completely overlooked when we've been there previously.  We've been collecting fossils for 30 years, and we simply didn't see what was right in front of our eyes!

 On Wednesday we revisited the Sunday sites, of which one is on the left here, this time successfully as the water levels had fallen considerably, then went and visited Stan and his wife, Maggie.

Thursday was another Burnmouth day, then on Friday we drove a little north up the coast to look at another exposure Tim had found, though this one was not very productive at all.  Still, we needed to know where it was and what it looked like.

And although it rained on us a bit on Sunday, for the most part we had excellent weather and really enjoyed the week.  It's frustrating that for the next two weeks I'm doing jury service, so can't go into the lab to see what's actually in the rocks we collected.  Some stuff was obvious as we broke up the rock, but we also collected quite a few 'bulk samples' which didn't show anything obvious, but may have stuff hidden inside, waiting for us to crack it open.  No doubt Jenny will keep me posted.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Brushcutter course

This is a brushcutter, kind of industrial scale strimmer, and the RSPB have very kindly just sent me on a 2-day course, brushcutters for the use and maintenance of.  We use brushcutters at Fowlmere nature reserve mostly for cutting reeds, but also for clearing grass and other herbage back from the paths.  There are two people qualified to operate the brushcutters, but they're not always there, so having a third means we're better able to keep up.  At this time of year, just when volunteers are going on holiday, the herbage encroaches pretty rapidly!

You might think that two days at an RSPB reserve in Kent, learning how to use something as simple as this is excessive, but in fact, I realised by the end that there wasn't much time wasted. 

It's not just that the rigid, three-pointed blade spins with a tip velocity of 300mph and could easily cut through somebody's leg if they got in the way, but there's also quite a bit of maintenance which can be easily done if you know how.  Some decades ago I had an ancient petrol lawn mower, and really struggled to get the starter rope properly installed so I could actually spin the motor up.  Turns out to be really simple if you know how, natch!

So we started with several tedious hours of elf and safety, of course (how else would I know the blade tip velocity?), then spent quite a few hours actually practising, and finally, yesterday afternoon, had our assessments.  I'm relieved to say I passed.  I'd have been pretty cross if I'd failed, of course.

In some of the pauses, I managed to see a great spotted woodpecker, lots of green woodpeckers, quite a few goldfinches, a handful of avocets, a female tufted duck with half a dozen chicks, a marsh harrier and a little owl.  Considering I wasn't actually there to watch birds, I thought that was not bad.

It was nice to come home, though.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Ringing swifts

On Friday, Doug, the warden of Fowlmere nature reserve, was ringing some swift nestlings from nests in a barn near his office, and had invited some staff from RSPB HQ at Sandy to come and get some experience.  They had all done a bit of ringing before, but not of swifts, so this was a perfect opportunity.  Jenny and I went along just to watch.

It was really interesting to watch, for a bit, but actually, once you've seen a few birds being ringed and measured, it quickly loses its edge, so after they'd done a couple of nests, we came away.  Sadly, I didn't check the photographs I'd taken immediately, something I almost always do, and when I came to download them onto the PC, I found them rather disappointing.  This is the least bad of them.

I did expect them to be carrying a parasite load, but had no idea that the lousefly is so big - it's easily 5mm long, and each bird can carry several of them.  Revolting!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Excellent service from John Lewis, Cambridge

15 years ago, I bought a nice office chair from John Lewis at a very reasonable price and I was delighted, the following year, when I slipped my disc, to find that it was still comfortable despite the injury.  From then on, I never had a comfortable office chair anywhere I worked, and I struggled until I finally retired a couple of years ago.  Nevertheless, the office chair at home remained comfy and I could sit in it for hours on end with nary a twinge.

A few days ago it suddenly started to feel strange in the seat department, and closer inspection revealed that the foam insert in the seat had cracked right across.  I was curious that there didn't seem to be anything supporting the foam underneath, but assumed it must be some special foam.

I called a supplier in a nearby town and discussed it with him, agreeing that I'd dismantle the chair and take the foam over for him to look at. But when I did, I found that the foam insert had been moulded around a metal frame, and a quick phone call confirmed that he'd not be able to do anything to help me.

Then I phoned John Lewis, without hope, but not wanting to leave any avenue unexplored.  The girl listened to my sorry tale, took the details and said she'd ask the furniture repair people to ring me.

I've just had a lovely phone conversation with a woman there, suggesting this, offering that, saying she'd speak to people in the furniture department to see if anyone has any ideas about how to get spares for Kebe (Denmark) chairs, etc.  I really felt as though nothing would be too much trouble for her, and it really reinforced my bias in favour of shopping at John Lewis whenever possible. Lovely!


On Friday we had the inaugural meeting of the Romer's Gap Project team, and it was really exciting to actually meet (almost) everyone involved.  The Principal Investigators met slightly earlier, then the rest of us turned up, the others of 'the rest' being what's called Project Partners.

So the saga behind that is that the PI's get funding from the NERC grant, which means they can take on PhD students and hire Post-doctoral Research Associates to help them with their individual projects, while the Project Partners don't get funding, so can't hire extra staff, but still collaborate - they're interested in the field, this is quite a prestigious project, the results seem almost bound to be revolutionary and there's a good chance they'll get their names on some of the papers that we expect will be published.

I knew Jenny wanted to create a website for the project, but didn't know any details.  Turns out the British Geological Survey will host the site, but I should be involved in its creation.  We'll be using Wordpress Content Management software, which I gather means that once we've created the skeleton of the site, the other scientists involved can post their own text and pictures.  I only know Wordpress as blogging software, but apparently it looks and feels the same when you use it for CM, so that sounds pretty good to me.

There will also be a blog, and a twitter feed, but I'm so far behind the times I know nothing about tweeting.  I did hope I could have a panel on the website Home Page where tweets could be displayed live, as I swear I saw something like that on the BBC news website last week, but it's not there this week, so I might have dreamed it.  No doubt all will become clear with time.

So then we cracked open a few bottles, ate some nibbles and nattered for a bit before melting away into the night.  Jenny and I melted via a new Iranian restaurant in Cambridge which served us delicious food but had a bemusingly brief wine list, consisting of the words Red Wine £x.  Turned out to be quite a nice Australian shiraz.  Only later did I cotton on to the fact that the guys are almost certainly all muslim, so don't drink alcohol and really don't understand those of us that do.  Particularly not when we've had a few!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A joke to share with you

I got this from the Week magazine, which presumably means it was previously published elsewhere.  If you've seen it before, I apologise.

A Higgs boson walks into a Catholic church.
"What are you doing here" asks the priest.
"Well, you can't have mass without me" says the Higgs.

Doesn't look too bad, does it?

So the damage to the bumper, grill, spoiler and fog lamp are obvious, but they actually only amount to a small part of the cost of the repair.  The real damage is invisible - three radiators behind the bumper - air con, intercooler (turbo) and engine.

The car is at the menders now, and I'm driving  a small, bright red balloon called a Citroen C1.  Fortunately, I'm not expecting to do any real mileage this week, and I should get my own car back on Friday.  Please.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Another eventful week

On Wednesday we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company Globe Theatre's production of Hamlet in the King's College Fellows' Garden.  To our amazement, it didn't rain and we enjoyed a terrific performance.  Well, you expect the RSC to be brilliant, and they were. We picknicked on the grass, of course.

On Thursday it was the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition.  Well, it's a 2-day event and we went on Thursday.  Cambridge fellows hire a coach to take us there and back, but it doesn't leave until five, so you don't get enough time to go around all the exhibits.  This year, Jenny and I dumped the car at the park and ride and caught a train to London, arriving at lunchtime.

I've not seen the new Kings Cross concourse since it was finished, and I was really impressed.  Well up to continental standards!  We went up onto the balcony and found somewhere nice for lunch, then went to the Royal Society and left our posh frocks in the Fellows' Room before visiting the Royal Academy to see their Summer Exhibition.  As before, we saw a handful of things we liked and a lot we can I put this tactfully?...not to our taste!

Back at the Royal Society we didn't rush to get to the exhibits, wanting time for our feet to recover, but then, to our distress, we discovered that everything shuts down between five and seven, so our effort to see all the exhibits was wasted.  Bugger!  Well, next year we'll probably not bother with the RA and just do the RS earlier.  It's a bit of a pain that you then have to waste two hours waiting for it all to start up again.

The dinner that is laid on for fellows and their guests was nice, as ever, so we were well fed up and agreeably drunk, to quote Gerard Hoffnung.  I had to take it easy, of course, as I would be driving home from the park and ride.

The coach taking us back to Cambridge was a little late, but we got to the park and ride around midnight, which was not far off what we'd expected.  The drive home was enlivened somewhat when a muntjac crossed the road about 10 metres in front of us.  I had no time to react at all, didn't even touch the brakes, but hit him square on with a loud bang.  He went under the car.

Back home it was too dark to see what damage had been done, but I knew I'd need a new front bumper.  After Spanish on Friday morning, I set about putting the repairs in train, starting with having someone remove the bits of spoiler which were dragging on the ground.  It's definitely an insurance job, this one.  Front bumper, grill, right hand fog light, spoiler, right front wheelarch liner, aircon radiator, intercooler (turbo) radiator.  Probably a couple of grand just for the parts.  I tell you, muntjac are solid little beasties!

Oh, and the repair man said they'd steam clean the underneath of the car, which I'd not have thought of, but is rather obvious!

Monday, 2 July 2012

A most obliging bird!

This is actually in reverse chronological order, but that's how I feel like writing it!

I was on Fowlmere nature reserve this afternoon and as I walked away from the main hide I was watching a bunch of about 20 swifts, circling high up, when I was distracted by a hobby passing by.  Once that had flown out of sight I turned back to the swifts, only to find their numbers had swelled to about 75!  That was very satisfying, as there seem to be rather few about, and that was the most I've seen together for some years.

But before that, sitting in the hide, I heard a linnet singing, so crept over to his side of the hide and to my delight, saw him not three metres away.  I took several photographs, regretting slightly that he was facing away from me, when a gust of wind upset his balance and when he re-settled, he'd turned around.  Perfect!  More photographs, then I pressed the Record button, and got this short clip of him, which I'm pretty pleased with.  I hope you can play it.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Two stupidities!

Yesterday morning I was working at the reserve, raking up reeds and grass which another of the volunteers was cutting with a brush cutter.  It was hot and humid and quite hard work, so after a while I took my tee-shirt off.  Not a pretty sight, I know, but I did feel it was necessary.  I did notice that my forearms were a bit pink by the time we finished at lunchtime, but took no notice.

In the afternoon I had to go to the Eye Clinic at Addenbrookes Hospital, as the last time my optician looked deep into my eyes, he spotted a freckle on the retina of my left eye, so had to let my doctor know, who referred me.  These things are almost always completely harmless, but very occasionally they can turn into something quite nasty, so taking my eye to the hospital was a sensible plan.

By the time I got to Addenbrookes I was starting to be aware of the damage I'd done to the skin of my arms and back, but there was nothing to be done about it at that stage.

At the clinic they put drops in my eyes, to dilate the pupils, so they could see in better.  I knew they were going to do this and had gone in by train and guided bus, of which more later, so I didn't have to drive with dodgy eyes.  The nice lady doctor reassured me that I'd probably had the freckles since I was born and I could ignore them, which is pretty much what I'd expected her to say.

As I made my way outside into brilliant sunshine, however, I realised I'd forgotten to bring any shades, and it was physically painful to even look vaguely in the direction of the sun.  I cringed while sitting at the bus stop waiting for the guided bus, and had to ask the driver if he was going to the station, as I couldn't read the front of the bus.

So the much-derided guided bus is brilliant for getting from the train station to Addenbrookes, as it goes directly, almost completely on the special track, so has no delays due to other traffic.  Station to hospital takes five minutes.  We used to whinge that there was no halt on the railway at Addenbrookes, when it would make such sense, but with the bus, there's now no need.  Tick, VG!

At the station, quite fortuitously, I met Jenny, and as we walked from the station home, we decided we couldn't be bothered to cook, so having picked up some shades from home, walked up into town.  The nearest restaurant used to have tables out on the pavement where you could eat, but I think the weather has meant they no longer have them, so we were obliged to eat indoors.  Not a big deal, but it would have been nicer to be outside, of course.  By the end of the meal my pupils were back to normal size and I no longer looked as though I was deeply in love with everyone I looked at!

And this morning I've made the mistake of scratching those bright pink bits of me that I can reach, and each time I do so, I rediscover how much it hurts!  What an idiot!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Who did you say you were again?

Yesterday we sang choral evensong in a local village church and acquitted ourselves rather well.  Introit was Oh Lord, the maker of all things, by Mundy, then we did the Smith 5-part responses, Purcell Mag & Nunc and for the anthem, Purcell Oh God, thou art my God.

Afterwards they served wine and we stood around chatting amongst ourselves and with the congregation.  Jenny and I found ourselves talking to a slightly familiar-looking man who was quite engaging, and we had a pleasant chat.  We didn't stay long, but the surprise came when we got into the car with Julie and Jane to come home.

Although this guy had looked a bit familiar, neither Jenny nor I had had any idea who he was, until Jane and Julie, amid gales of laughter, told us he was only Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State for Health.    Jenny was rather embarrassed, but I had just thought he looked a bit like someone I knew but I couldn't  think who, so it didn't bother me at all.

Probably a good job I hadn't realised who he was, as I might have been tempted to ask him what was really going to happen to Royston Hospital, about which we've heard any number of conflicting rumours and denials, but we suspect will be closed shortly.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A great cartoon

I love this cartoon, posted by PZ Myers.  Now I'm going to have to go and find more work by Hanson!

Friday, 8 June 2012

A weekend of downs and ups

And both of those were rather extreme; the downs were pretty shitty, but the ups were fantastic.

On Friday I flew to Italy with Choir 18, which is one of the choirs we sing with.  Sadly, Jenny had to stay at home, as she had to mark Cambridge University exam papers over the weekend, and there's no escape from that.

To my amazement, Ryanair was OK in both directions; nothing like as squalid and disorganised as I remember from a couple of years ago.  On the other hand, there had been threat of a baggage handlers' strike, so I'd got hand luggage only, which made life easier, even if I did waste the £50 I'd paid for a checked bag.

 I went with three other friends, one of whom had been through Rome Ciampino airport before and knew where to catch the coach across town to Rome Termini railway station, so I just followed along.

At the railway station, we'd just missed the 6.30 train, as expected, so had time for dinner before the next train at 8.45.  We went upstairs to a balcony self-serve restaurant, where we had decent food and some nice wine.

Sadly, I was careless with my handbag, hanging it over the back of my chair, and some time later, when I went to buy more wine, I found my purse had been filleted, lightened to the tune of about 250€ and £75.  Fortunately, I keep my cash and cards separate, so the scumbag hadn't found the cards and I was able to draw more cash later.  Welcome to Italy, sucker!

The trains were all incredibly cheap, and worked fine, but about half an hour out of Filogno, our destination, I started to feel unwell.  By the time we disembarked I was feeling quite sorry for myself, and when we arrived at the convent in which we were staying, I was shivering uncontrollably, with an obvious high temperature.

In my room I piled all the bedclothes from the second bed onto my own, and still partially dressed, lay there shivering for a couple of hours.  Eventually I fell asleep, and slept fitfully through the night.

The symptoms were typical of flu, but milder, so not enough to keep me in bed over the weekend, but enough to make life pretty miserably much of the time.  The intensity ebbed and flowed, so some of the time I felt fine, some lousy.  Friends gave me paracetomol, lemsip and sympathy, all of which helped!

The weather was great and we trained to the next town up the track, Spello, and made our way up the hill.  Alex, one of the tour organisers, lead us up to the top of the hill to a balcony restaurant with a terrific view.  The photo is a stitch-up of three I took from the restaurant.  You can tell how ill I was because I drank water. Well, to tell the truth, the jugs of beer arrived first and we were all very thirsty from the climb up the hill, so I had a small glass of bee first, but the rest of the time it was water.  My lunch consisted of a smallish green salad.  I told you I was ill!

I survived the rehearsal in the afternoon, but couldn't make it past half-way through the concert, deciding it would be better to withdraw than to collapse in a heap while singing.  Fortunately there was a point where the choir separated widely into two sections, so in the confusion as they reassembled, I was able to duck out to the side without it being too obvious to the audience.

We found this picture (I swear it's Rowan Atkinson!) in the room we changed in before and after the concert.  I couldn't resist!

In the evening I joined a group of friends, intending to eat with them, but after a glass of prosecco and some nibbles, decided a full meal would be a waste of time.  When they split to find a restaurant, I stayed in the bar (outside in the main square) and had a glass of red with more nibbles.  By the time that had gone down, I'd had enough and retired, hurt, to bed.

On the Sunday we took the train to Assisi where a small group of us wandered around rubbernecking.  It really was fabulous, and I was starting to feel quite a lot better.   There are two churches in the Basilica of St Frances, an upper church, where we rehearsed first, and a lower church where we sang mass.  After mass, we returned upstairs and sang a 45 minute concert in the upper church.
Alex and Temi, our tour organisers from a company called, had done a great job publicising our concerts, so both on Saturday and Sunday we had decent audiences.  Quite gratifying that we acquitted ourselves well and got lots of compliments from clergy and audience. And one of the clergy filmed the whole thing, and there was word of sticking some of it up on YouTube, though whether that will ever actually come about is anybody's guess.

Alex did post one track on YouTube for us.  It's not my favourite piece, but you get the idea.

We parked ourselves in the station bar while waiting for the train, and with waving beers, sang a few numbers, which seemed to go down quite well.  Then to dinner organised by Temi and Alex in a Foligno restaurant.  Terrific food and excellent wine.  We had a fixed, six-course meal, though I could only make it through to course four before exhaustion overcame me and I sloped off to bed.  Some of the rest were up until 2.30 the wicked people!

On Monday we took the train back to Rome, the coach to Ciampino airport and Ryanair home, all smoothly and without a hitch. I took Jenny a nice bottle of Barolo as compensation for having to stay at home marking.  Marking turned out not to have been completely bad, as the weather was filthy, so she couldn't have done any gardening anyway.

These and a few more photo's are now also here on a web page on my site.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Great news for the buzzards of the UK and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick for the Countryside Alliance!

The other day I was horrified to read that Defra was planning to destroy buzzard nests and capture wild buzzards near pheasant-shooting areas because the Countryside Alliance claimed these most beautiful raptors were eating some of the young pheasants the estates were raising to shoot.

Now I know my views in this area are a bit extreme, but I think killing animals for sport is utterly barbaric and should be outlawed completely.  Not just fox hunting, but pheasant and grouse shooting, too.   People who like killing things just for the sake of it I think are completely despicable.  I can't think of a single thing to excuse behaviour like that.

If you kill an animal to eat it, I think that's OK, provided you do it humanely, but just for the sport?  No no no!

So just now you can imagine my delight at reading on the BBC news website that HM Gummint has done a U-turn and decided that plan was a non-starter, and they'll have to think again.  Of course, the Countryside Alliance are furious.  Oh dear, how sad.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Rather a good day!

We had several things go right for us yesterday, so I'll gloat about them in chronological order.

First, my old boss from my last job has asked me to create User and Installation manuals for a new product they're just starting to produce, so I get a week's work, which will bring in some useful cash, and also forces me to practise various Adobe products like Photoshop, which I rarely use and consequently, forget the tricks.

In the afternoon I went into Jenny's department in Cambridge to help her fit a new cutting wire to her diamond wire saw.  This is a machine with a grooved spool around which about 10m of very fine, diamond-impregnated steel wire is wound.  It loops around a lower pulley and back up onto the original, and you (gently) press your fossil against the front run of wire while the machine pulls it first one way, then the other.  It can take days to cut through large specimens, or ones in particularly hard rock, but it works.  It was a prototype when they bought it about 20 years ago, and for all we know, was the only one ever made by this firm.  There is no official documentation, and we rather suspect it was designed by guesswork.  It certainly has a Heath Robinson feel to it.
Changing the wire is another of those things that happens once in a blue moon, and in fact, it's 10 years this month since Jenny last had to change it.  I've never been involved, but am moderately handy, so thought I might be able to help.  Jenny's old preparator, Sarah Finney, also came, but neither she nor Jenny could actually remember what to do.  

Fortunately, there were some notes to help, so we slowly picked our way through.   To start with, we used some leftover wire on an old spool, just to try it out, but thinking there wouldn't be enough on the spool for a complete winding.  Rather to our amazement, there was enough, but it took two attempts to actually get it working properly.  One of my tasks for today is to write down what we did, so as to supplement the notes we were working from.  A bonus is that we realise it takes less wire at any one time, so the supply we have could last another 30 or 40 years, by which time most of the rest of the machine will have broken, I suspect.

I came home as soon as that was finished, so missed the biggest event of the day.  An email from Jenny was awaiting me when I got home.  Getting on six months ago, Jenny applied for a major grant to fund the next big piece of research she wants to carry out.  This is a collaborative venture with the National Museum of Scotland and the universities of Cambridge, Leicester, Southampton and Bristol, with additional links to the University of Uppsala in Sweden and a group of researchers in Nova Scotia.  It's by far the biggest project Jenny has ever been involved in, and will take her through to retirement in four years time.  If it yields the results we hope for, it will have a major impact on our understanding of the early evolution of tetrapods and how they invaded the land.

Yesterday's big news was that the Natural Environment Research Council have agreed to fund the project, so we were drinking Nyetimber sparkling white last night, over the road with Lorna and Richard, in celebration!  To put it in perspective a bit, your project can have a triple A rating and still not get NERC funding, the competition is that intense.

And then finally, my younger brother sent me links to some home movies which he has had digitised.  These are bits of 8mm home movie made by our maternal grandfather in the 1950's, which have been languishing for decades.   I had become concerned that they would degrade to the point of being irrecoverable, but magically, Ned has managed to get at least some of them digitised.

It has to be said that my grandfather was not great with the cine camera, though to be fair, he didn't have a little screen on which he could play back what he'd just shot, as we do today.  He had to finish the reel, then send it off to Kodak for processing and some weeks later would get it back.

There are lots of classic home movie errors - jerky movements, panning too fast, including too much bright sky, so the lower half of the shot is underexposed, or the reverse, so the sky is overexposed.  I doubt if I could have done any better!  But what's fabulous about it is seeing ourselves all those years ago, mostly in Cape Town, as far as I can tell.  I've only watched two of the seven files so far (incredibly slow to download!), but I'm really enjoying it.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Brilliant weekend!

We went to Stratford on Avon with neighbours and much-loved drinking buddies, Lorna and Richard, for the weekend.  As has become our habit on these occasions, they had booked us tickets to a matinee performance, so we set out rather early on Saturday morning.  I googled the route and was surprised to see the best way was up the M1, not a route we've ever tried before.  Tick VG, and hour and three-quarters later we were there.  We'll stick to that route in future.  Lunch at Bistrot Pierre was rather mixed.  The rest of them had excellent omelettes and chips, but my chicken caesar salad hadn't been tossed at all, so there was a layer of rather thick parmesan shavings at the bottom.  I quite like parmesan, but not on its own!  And actually, I prefer some smoked bacon in my chicken caesar salad, though I know that's not in the proper recipe.

The play was The Tempest, and it was a magical production.  We laughed, we cried, and were completely riveted for the whole two and three-quarter hours.  We were buzzing as we emerged, and over a cup of tea in a local café kept running over favourite bits.  My only real criticism is that up in the gods, where we were sitting, there is no way of squeezing past other members of the audience to get to your seats without treading on their toes.  There is simply no space at all.  Once you're there, it's fine, but getting there can!

In the evening Lorna had booked us into Lambs restaurant, one of several places where we've eaten in the past, and we had a most excellent meal.  They all had fish, so most of the wine was Austrian Grüner Veltliner, but I had a terrific steak, so had a couple of glasses of Rioja.  My sticky toffee pudding was excessively sweet, but Jenny's chocolate chip brioche and butter pudding was spot on.  I had to sample it, of course!

The B&B, Avonleigh, was excellent.  Very comfortable and friendly with a good breakfast, after which we drove to Kenilworth Castle, (sadly, the English Heritage website seems to be broken, but hopefully they'll notice soon) which we thoroughly recommend.  When my family came over from South Africa in the early sixties, we lived in Leamington Spa, and visited Kenilworth Castle, but of course then, there was no information about it at all.  Now you get a free audio guide, can buy guide books and there are useful signs and labels all over the place.  We spent several happy hours there before retiring to the Queen and Castle over the road for a spot of lunch, and very good that was, too.   I had a particularly nice merlot rosé from the Pays d'Oc.

Now we're home and about to stick a half leg of lamb in the oven.  As the new inner door for the oven arrived on Friday and took no time at all to fit, this roast will christen it.  I'm going to stick a whole garlic clove into the roasting tray with the meat so we can squidge the resulting paste out when we serve.  At least twice over the weekend we've been served whole roasted garlic cloves with bread, and it really is rather nice.  Yum!