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.