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.