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.