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!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Non-stun religious slaughter

I was horrified this morning to discover that a quarter of the meat sold in the UK is from animals which were not stunned before slaughter, despite the fact that the people who insist on such meat for religious reasons make up only a tiny fraction of the UK population.

Like the BHA, I think such slaughter should not be permitted, but at the very least, all such meat should be marked, so we can avoid it.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A weekend of extremes

Yesterday we threw our first dinner party for ages, and found ourselves feeling unexpectedly anxious about it.  Our guests were a guy who works in Jenny's department and his wife, and an old friend of Jenny's, who she's known through singing for decades, and his wife.

After a starter of local asparagus, we served a shoulder of pork which we'd slathered with smashed garlic and fennel seeds, then roasted on a very low light for about 10 hours, basting from time to time with olive oil and lemon juice.  That was accompanied by Tamasin Day Lewis's Greek potatoes, which you stick in a baking tray with onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and water, and roast at 200°C for an hour and a half.  Delish.  And carrots sautéed in butter with lots of garlic, and savoy cabbage to cut through the richness.  We had some nice Beaujolais with that.

Pud was mango and passionfruit brulée, accompanied by a bottle of 1997 riesling, which was rich and unctuous despite only being 9°abv.

So that went beautifully.  Everyone seemed to have a good time and we felt we'd acquitted ourselves OK, and by about 1pm today the house was back to normal.

But then the drain in the kitchen made an ominous gurgling sound as the washing machine emptied itself, and we found water flooding the kitchen, and the conservatory.  The saga here is that when we had the conservatory built, there was a man-hole cover smack in the middle of the floor, screwed down and covered with a layer of chipboard and then laminated flooring.  This always was asking for trouble!

So we moved all the plants and furniture out of the conservatory and lifted about 2/3 of the flooring in order to expose the two access points necessary to clear the blockage.  I had to borrow a friend's rods, but once I'd got my hands on them, it was the work of moments to clear the blockage.  There's a U-bend where the drain comes out from the kitchen, so the stink of the sewers doesn't get back up into the house, and this was where the blockage was.  We never throw fat down the sink, but evidently there's enough in your normal washing up for it to accumulate over time, so we're obviously going to have to take precautionary measures in future.

Once the floor has dried out, which I reckon will take a week, we'll relay the laminate, but where the small access cover is, over the U-bend, we'll cut out a patch which can just rest in place and be easily lifted.  It's against the wall, so won't be obvious.  Then I'll set myself an alarm every 6 months to chuck some foaming drain cleaner down there.  That's the real beauty of cutting out that piece of laminate - so much easier than tearing the skirtings off the wall so you can lift the whole strip.

So yes, I'm knackered!

Later:  Oh yes, I forgot.  We took the meat out of the oven on Saturday afternoon several times to baste it, resting the tray on the oven door, which pulls down.  At one stage there was an ominous creaking/cracking sound.  Later investigation proved it to be the glass inner window of the door, which had partially come away from its adhesive.

It didn't stop us from cooking the pork, fortunately, so on Sunday, when I dismantled the door and found out what was going on.  I cleaned it up and visited the Neff website, but could not find the adhesive needed to re-glue the glass back into the door.  

There was a phone number, however, and they were open on a Sunday, so I phoned.  The girl said they don't sell the glue and I'd not be able to buy any, but she could sell me a new inner door, which was astonishing, considering the oven was installed in about 1989!  So the door is on its way.  We could use the oven, though in fact I think we probably won't for the next couple of weeks.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Stephen Hawking

I got this from Al Stefanelli's blog, and I would like to share it with you.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

One weird sea creature

I copied this from PZ Myers Pharyngula blog because it is seriously weird.  I think he's right that it's probably some sort of deep sea jellyfish, though I've never seen anything like it.  At 6 mins 30 it's rather long, so unless you're an enthusiast, you might want to watch the first couple of minutes, then skip to the last minute or so.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Star Wars Day

This is such a terrible joke, wot I read on my friend Arctic Fox's blog, that I can't possibly not inflict it on you.

Today is Star Wars Day - May the fourth be with you!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Shake, Fold, and Save a Forest

This TED talk only takes 4 mins 30 seconds and I think it might just change your life, albeit just a tiny bit.  I think it probably has mine.

So I tried it myslf, using a single sheet of kitchen roll, and it works.  First, as you shake your hands over the sink, you'll notice that the splashing sound gets quieter;  obviously, you're shaking most of the water off your hands before you even pick up the paper towel.

Folding the sheet is not actually essential.  I tried drying my hands with an unfolded sheet and although it was harder, it did work.  What made it harder was that the sheet disintegrated once it was wet.  Folding means it retains its integrity for longer, so it's easier to complete the drying process.

Something he didn't mention, as it's obvious, is that it's rarely essential you dry your hands completely.  We know this.  Ever since the invention of hot air hand driers, we've known that walking away with damp hands is no big deal.

So next time you dry your hands with a paper towel, remember SHAKE, FOLD!  And congratulate yourself for being less profligate with the world's scarce resources!