30 May 2012

The Photo Gallery: Sunshine

The subject of Tara's Gallery this week is Sunshine. So I offer you this ...


This was taken during our September 2009 trip to Washington, DC; actually in the herb garden of the National Cathedral.

The whole garden was swarming with butterflies in the September sun, which was unseasonably hot. There were lots of these ranging in colour from pale cream through canary yellow (as this one) and pale green and pale orange. Don't know if they were all the same species, but they all looked the same apart from the colouring.

And there were also lots of Monarch butterflies and several delightful hummingbirds, which I totally failed to be quick enough to capture.

28 May 2012

Buggered Britain 9

Another in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

Buggered Britain 9
Click the image for larger views

This is London's iconic Hyde Park Corner, at the junction of Piccadilly, Knightsbridge and Park Lane a couple of Sunday mornings ago. It was taken from the top of the Wellington Arch (now open to the public). What a mess!

27 May 2012

Auction Oddities

It's auction time again and as usual I've been perusing the catalogue of our local auction house. I must admit that they are not as interesting or wacky as they were a year or two back; whether they've improved their description writing or aren't getting so much odd stuff to sell, I don't know — although this sale does seem to include a lot of good silverware and designer clothes (both men's and women's). Anyway here are some highlights of the latest sale which amused me.

An engraving, ‘Actresses Dressing in a Barn’ ...
Undressing? I should have expected the opposite of actresses in a barn!!

A large military lot to include two ammunition cases, a radio ... headsets, an HF transmitter receiver, a large communication unit, two army hats, etc.

A small carton of plated King’s pattern cutlery, also a pair of berry spoons, souvenir teaspoons, corkscrew, and an unusual giant nutcracks (sic)

A fine large George III silver sauceboat, with gadroon rim, on stepped hoof feet, with half-eagle crest.
How do you step a foot,let alone put a crest on it?

A silver child’s mug of Celtic design ...
And there was I thinking children's mugs were always whinge-shaped.

An Elizabeth II silver waiter with bead rim ...
I can think of a few gays who'd quite like that. ;-)

A pair of George II silver baluster muffineers ...
Well that's a new name of a gigolo!

A shelf of exotic shells and dried fish, and ... a gilt metal leopard

A shelf of interesting figural pieces, including an old cream jug styled as a seated goat ...
You mean you don't already have one? Tut! Tut!

Pottery storage jars styled as houses, china cups, saucers and plates, a bowl of pottery fruit ...
Not quite sure how you style a jar as a plate or saucer!?

A pair of Baccarat frosted glass chicks ...

Three old green glass dumps (sic), one enclosing a three tiered flower pot, the other two bubbled.
Do what?!?

Nine late Victorian fireplace tiles, variously decorated with birds and flowers, and also with Dutch children in blue relief.
Should think the children might be very relieved to the removed from the tiles.

A collection of ceramic figures, including ... a Lomonosov rabbit with carrot and polar bear ...
Would have thought rabbit inside polar bear might be more likely.

Five mounted goat skulls with horns, each on a shoeld (sic) mount

A cowboy saddle in red leather and suede.
Now where's Princess Diana when you need her?

Reasons to be Grateful: 28

Experiment, week 28. Another week in my continuing experiment in documenting five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week. So this week we have ...
  1. Summer Weather. Finally summer arrived with a bang this week. We've not just had almost wall-to-wall sunshine but it has been hot as well. Even though it has been unusually, and at times uncomfortably, hot, I'd much rather have it like this than the drab, coldness of winter.

  2. Short Trustee Meetings. On Tuesday evening we had the 2-monthly meeting (by audioconference) of the Anthony Powell Society. Amazingly we finished the meeting in 40 minutes which was a result; often the meeting last and hour and a half!

  3. Samsung Galaxy S2. During the week I got a new mobile phone, and finally succumbed to a smartphone. Because at the moment I'm doing a photographic project which entails a lot of driving around central London on a Sunday morning I figured that something with satnav would be a good investment. And so it proved this morning trying to navigate the back-streets of Soho and Covent Garden! It's almost paid for itself already! And I have to say it is a most impressive piece of technology (except for the power consumption which is frightening with the GPS on).

  4. Lamb Sag Madras. Well I can't let a week go by without at least one foodie item! On Saturday evening I made a rather good Lamb Sag Madras served with Mrs Marshall's Very Lemony Rice. Yummy, it was!

  5. Kensington Gardens. As part of the aforementioned photographic project I was walking through Kensington Gardens before 8AM this morning. It was already getting warm, but it was still delightfully fresh and great to have the grass under ones feet. Even at that our on a Sunday there were joggers, dog walkers and skateboarders everywhere! And swans (above) on the Round Pond.

26 May 2012

More Sexy Science You May Have Missed ...

This week's selection of links to items spotted recently which you may have missed. And you really didn't want to miss this juicy selection ...

First up here are some awesome illuminated manuscript cookies. Just where does one get edible ink and paper for an inkjet printer?

How is it that we see dark, even when we close our eyes, because apparently the eye gives off more "black body radiation" than there is daylight? It's all down to Quantum Mechanics. Interesting for you scientists; awesome for the rest of you that someone even investigated this!

Apparently the government may be about to (re)introduce obscenece laws allowing the persecution of buzzards. The birds are allegedly stealing too many pheasants from the idle rich who now want to shoot the buzzards as well as the pheasants.

Why are tomatoes so tasteless these days? Well the scientists think they've found out what adds the taste (and it wasn't obvious!) so they can now breed better commercial varieties. In the meantime the advice seems to be to grow your own.

So just why are harps harp-shaped? It's physics again.

A Drink to Help You Orgasm? Fantastic idea; shame about the marketing hype.

OK so extended breastfeeding is the norm in most human and primate societies. So why are all you western girlies weirdly not doing it? Ah, I see, not enough Neurogasm. ;-)

What? An American designer who hopes his better vibrator can rejuvenate the American sex life? Only if it comes in a plain brown wrapper.

So apparently the urge to sext naked self-portraits is primal. Yeah right; so our distant ancestors had mobile phones!? But seriously, where's the f***ing problem? Nudity is neither unnatural nor unwholesome — actually just the opposite. If people want to show themselves off, well fine, isn't that their privilege?

Besides it seems Rihanna ("a nubile chanteuse, m'lud") is spending a lot of time and energy sharing round what's between her legs. Again, where's the problem? Isn't it her prerogative. Good for her for knowing what she wants and not being afraid to go for it. It's a pity more of us aren't so unbuttoned.

Fukushima Follow-ups

Just a quick note of a couple of follow-up pieces on the Fukushima accident which appeared this week.

First off there is a WHO report looking at the likely long-term health effects of the accident. I've clearly not read the whole report but there is a good summary of the main findings on Nature News here and here. The main thrust is that, as has always been said, the radiation effects on the affected citizens are likely to be negligible and far outweighed by the psychological trauma.

Secondly Robert Cringely in his blog I, Cringely writes about what he sees as the inevitability of a further major accident at Fukushima — and one which may be far worse. Basically his contention is that a further large earthquake is inevitable before the Japanese manage to clean up the exposed fuel rods from Reactor 4. No only is this a huge project in its own right but Cringely maintains it will be made worse by the totally dysfunctional way in which Japanese business works (or rather doesn't work). It makes chilling reading; let's just hope he's wrong.

25 May 2012

Word : Vicissitude

  1. A change or variation occurring in the course of something.
  2. Interchange or alternation, as of states or things.
  3. Successive, alternating, or changing phases or conditions, as of life or fortune; ups and downs: They remained friends through the vicissitudes of 40 years.
  4. Regular change or succession of one state or thing to another.
  5. Change; mutation; mutability.

23 May 2012

Gallery : Picture Postcard

This week is the 100th showing of Tara's Gallery, and for the theme she has of course chosen Picture Postcard. So here's a postcard from me ...

Double Departure from Alexisbad

Double Departure from Alexisbad

This is from a set of Steam in the Harz Mountains, Germany taken on a RailTrail tour in February 2008. It was taken, as the title suggests, at Alexisbad during a steam charter from Quedlinberg to Wernigerode.

This was a special photoshoot staged for our group; the train on the right is our charter train; the one on the left was a service train which had just terminated at Alexisbad. And I must say it was a magnificent sight and not something you will see these days during normal service.

It was a fantastic trip with travel entirely by train from London: well organised, excellent and interesting tour leaders, good company, good food and lots of trains! As well as this full day charter the five day trip also included a tour of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen works, a trip up the Broken Mountain (yes, by steam train) and a stop-over in Wuppertal for a ride on the Schwebebahn, their hanging monorail.

The only thing missing was the snow that we should have rightly had in February!

In five days the only train that was late was the return Thalys service from Köln to Brussels, and that was by the staggering amount of just 10 minutes.

An absolutely first class trip which really wasn't long enough!

Lots more of my photos from the trip on Flickr.

Quotes : Recent Amusements

The irregular collection of quotes seen recently and which hare amused or interested me:

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
[Indira Gandhi]

[P]remature births are increasing in rich countries because of obesity, smoking, IVF and older women having babies, and in poor countries owing to malnutrition, teen pregnancy and lack of contraception ...
[New Scientist, 05/05/2012]


Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
[Aldous Huxley]

We are not retreating — we are advancing in another direction.
[Douglas MacArthur]

If we put all Parliament through a mincer and sorted the good bits, would there be enough to build just one competent prime minister?
[Andrew Baker on Facebook]

The main aim of education should be to send children out into the world with a reasonably sized anthology in their heads so that, while seated on the lavatory, waiting in doctors' surgeries, on stationary trains or watching interviews with politicians, they may have something interesting to think about.
[Sir John Mortimer]

21 May 2012

Cartoon Grades

A couple of recently spotted cartoons which amused me.

20 May 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 27

Experiment, week 27. Well here we are; another week another selection in my continuing experiment in documenting five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful this week. It's mostly been a repetitive and foodie week, again ...
  1. Orchids. I know I keep saying orchids, but every time I go in the bedroom, where they reside on the windowsill, I can't get how amazing they are!

  2. Home Baked Ham. I'm sure I've said this before too. Last weekend we had a joint of smoked collar bacon — much more character to it than gammon and cheaper too — as long as you can get large joints! (See here.) Noreen did her usual bake it in huff pastry and then glazed it with spicy tomato chutney. Definitely yummy!

  3. Pasta with Seafood. This was a variant on my Pasta with Bacon or Prawns dish on Friday evening. This time with a bag of mixed seafood, cherry tomatoes and lime. Another yummy tea!

  4. Oriental Tree. Then last night we went out with our friends Sue & Ziggy (and their boys) to their local Chinese, the Oriental Tree in Northfields Avenue, West Ealing (see here for my earlier review-ette). The Oriental Tree is essentially Chinese with an admixture of bits of Thai and Vietnamese. The food is to die for! Especially the gorgeous succulent prawn dishes, the Chilli Shredded Beef. Luckily for our waistlines it isn't on our doorstep otherwise we'd be in there several nights a week!

  5. English Asparagus. This was today's treat! We have just eaten roast chicken with steamed new potatoes, steamed English asparagus and mushroom sauce. Yeah, I know it sounds dull, but it wasn't — I love asparagus!

Listography : Arrggghhhh!!!!! Bloody Children!

After a hiatus of a few weeks Kate's Listography is back and has gone monthly.

This month her theme is the Top 5 Things I Love about Kids.

Bloody kids again! Why does the world have to revolve around children?

Why is it that these days I seem to see nothing but kid-centric, "doting-mummy" blogs and websites? And sycophantic parents/grandparents?

Why is it that the vast majority of people can only identify themselves through their children? Or their grandchildren? To the exclusion of all else.

Noreen and I mostly don't do children. We chose not to have children because we were neither of us convinced we wanted them. We were agreed that for us parenthood had to be a full time job for one of us until any youngest child was able to reasonably look after itself after school, especially as we didn't have a raft of nearby family to provide (free) childcare. And we both had careers; in Noreen's case a career break (25+ years ago) would have ended her career — the career she had always wanted. So we preferred to be here to help our friends and their children when they needed it. It's a different sort of give-back.

Fine if you want children. But too many people seem to drift into having kids because they're conditioned to it and can't think about any alternative. Then when they've got them they forget everything else they ever knew and that there's more to life the kids. Once upon a time there weren't reliable alternatives to spawning a child every year or two. Now there are alternatives; let's use them to their fullest potential.

It's almost as if those of us without children become invisible. We don't matter to anyone and we almost don't exist. UK employment law gives special privileges to parents in terms of being allowed time away from work for their family. Those of us without kids get nothing except to cover the parents' work. Isn't that discrimination? Bah! Humbug!

Actually it's worse than because it seems some women are actually vilified and/or bullied because they don't have children, see here.

Besides not having children is probably the least selfish and most eco-friendly thing any of us can do.

Actually I guess it's really that I dislike society's attitude to children and the overarching influence it has on most parents. (Clearly there are exceptions — we spent yesterday evening, very enjoyably, with one of them.)

Having said that, I don't dislike children as long as they are well behaved (but then that applies to adults too). I do dislike those nasty-yelling-messy-smelly-baby-things and their doting retinues.

So what (if anything) do I like about kids? I can't make five but ...

1. Yes, they can be highly amusing. Mispronunciations. Wacky ideas. Crazy antics.

2. Being able to have an adult conversation with them. In my (limited) experience they are actually quite good at this much younger than we think, as long as one picks words and concepts carefully.

3. Being able to "give them back". They're fine for an hour or two, but God, looking after the little buggers all the time would seriously drive me nuts!

Sorry Kate! I'm just being a grumpy old git.

19 May 2012

Desert Island Discs

News for those of you who are Anthony Powell aficionados ...

At long last the recording of Powell’s 1976 BBC Radio 4 appearance on Desert Island Discs is available on the BBC website.

You can find it at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/20d4d62a#p009n07j.

It is well worth a listen!

Get out of jail free?

Now here's a fascinating idea to play with ...

The UK could be handed a "Get out of jail free" card by the Scots.

A senior Scots constitutional lawyer has suggested that "Scottish independence could see the UK kicked out of the European Union".

Rejoining would then require a new referendum (which would likely be lost?) and if we did rejoin we'd likely lose our huge EU payments discount.

One can hope that the Scots might do us a favour, but I suspect the EU would fudge things so they didn't ... so we'll still need an acrobatic display of pig avionics as well.

Heresy Corner has a fuller report on the speculations.

18 May 2012

More you may have missed ...

A further selection of items recently spotted which you may have missed.

This week it seems to be mostly about sexuality, in the broadest sense. But first a couple of miscellaneous items.

The first is a report of a venomous snake which can kill, but even if it doesn't it can seriously mess with your hormonal system and (partly) reverse puberty.

For the aficionados of history and things touristy, as well as bookshops, there is now a small bookshop in the Wellington Arch at London's Hyde Park Corner. The Arch itself is also open and well worth a visit, if only for the views. IanVisits reported recently and I mentioned it a couple of times a few days ago.

And now for all the "sex stuff" ...

Wellington Arch

... although the first is also historic. Here's a report of vulva shaped Medieval pilgrim badges.

In further revelations, researchers claim to have worked out a woman's 'sexiest time'. 11pm on Saturday since you ask!

And yet more researchers claim to have shown that, for men, red is not a proxy signal for female genitalia. Think I could have told them that!

Here's an interesting article on society's attitudes towards childless women. Why is it that everyone is supposed to have children? Why can't we accept that some don't want to, and some can't. And many who can't accept that's the way life is. And then there's society's attitude to men who aren't fathers: we get just as much incomprehension, although not as much cattiness. In my view the childless are legally discriminated against in the workplace with the law requiring that parents have the right to special/extra leave which isn't available to the childless, who have to mop up the extra work. Besides not having children is possibly the most eco-friendly thing one can do — rapidly followed by not having a car and not flying.

Finally a piece by Kate Takes 5 on book clubs and Brazilians. Why do women (and some men too!) feel the need to remove all their pubic hair? Sure beats me!

17 May 2012

Word : Dhobi

A caste group on the Indian Sub-continent who specialise in washing clothes.
Derived from the Hindi dhona, to wash.

Dhobie's Itch
Ring-worm affecting the arm-pit and groin regions in hot moist climates; also a form of contact dermatitis.

16 May 2012

The Gallery : Morning

The Gallery is back! Tara who runs The Gallery has been ill, but I'm glad that she's now OK and this week it is once more open for business. This week's theme is Morning, so without more ado, here's my contribution:

Crows on a Crane

This was taken at the end of our trip to Germany in February 2008 for steam trains on the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB). HSB consists of the three narrow gauge (1m) railway lines of the Harz region: Harzquerbahn, Selketalbahn and Brockenbahn.

This was taken the morning we left for home; it was about 0720 local time and very cold. While we waited for the train from Wernigerode Hbf at sunrise these crows were having their morning briefing meeting on the crane of the building site next to the station.

There are more photos from the trip on Flickr.

15 May 2012

On National Service

The rise of the most vociferous union power really only happened from the 1960s in Britain, seemingly from about the time of Prime Ministers Harold Wilson (1964-70 & 1974-76) and Ted Heath (1970-74).

This was at the time when National Service had been abolished, so the younger members of the workforce had neither been through the war nor had to do National Service. Military service would have attuned people to the taking of orders without question. But this generation didn't have that. And they saw that there could be something they believed to be better.

Hence the rebellions of the unions against the "officer class" of the working world: encouraged by the Socialist Wilson and the fire fuelled by their dislike of the Conservative Heath. At much the same time the students, being thinkers, could see that the officers' orders were not going to make progress towards the "something better" of their vision.

Are people more subdued and subservient out in society if they have had to do National Service and are acclimatised to taking orders rather than questioning them?

But, I suggest, it is this rise of union power which has been a large factor in getting the country into its current mess. Against the backdrop of the world economy (certainly also a factor) there has since the mid-60s been this continual running skirmish — and sometimes open warfare — between the workers/unions and the "officers of industry", with the government sometimes taking one side or the other depending on its political ideology.

There is also an argument that the unions have stifled job flexibility. By (rightly in many cases) protecting their skilled members they may have compartmentalised job roles making it less easy for people to transition from one role to another, and thus reducing flexibility and mobility in the workplace.

Would Britain be in a better position if this warfare had not existed? If we still had National Service? And if everyone was much more attuned to take orders than question them?

I don't know. What constitutes "better"?

We likely wouldn't have the freedoms, the greater equalities, and the opportunities we currently do. But then again we might still have manufacturing industry and people trained in manual skills prepared to do lower-level jobs and thus have less need for immigration.

Would we? I don't know. But it is an interesting speculation.

I would have hated National Service just as I would have hated going to public school or Oxbridge. I'm proud to have had some of the last of the good grammar school education and been given the opportunity to go to university; an opportunity I would not have had 10 years earlier. And I'm grateful for that education which has been a foundation stone of making me the awkward thinker I am, as are many of my contemporaries. In that sense where we are is a good thing; it allowed many of us to develop and break away from the grindstones. Which is why I consider it beholden on me to give back to society what I can by using both my brain and my skills to help others develop.

And it is gratifying that most of my friends and (former) colleagues – right across the age range – are doing the same thing, albeit in their own, very different, ways.

14 May 2012

Another Orchid

No not another new plant — I don't think I have room for more! — but another photo of one my existing plants.

Phalaenopsis Orchid

This is the orchid my mother gave me last year after it had flowered, and which I've managed to get back into flower. It is absolutely amazing. There are 13 flowers on this one stem with a couple of bids still to open — and it's been in flower now for about 8 weeks.

Buggered Britain 8

Another in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

Buggered Britain 8
Click the image for larger views

These two properties are in London's Piccadilly, on the edge of Mayfair and right opposite Green Park. The mansion on the left is the former premises of the Naval & Military Club (nicknamed the In & Out); it is apparently owned by an Arab but appears unoccupied and very neglected. I don't know the history of the commercial premises on the right although it appears to have been the premises of a Middle Eastern bank. But both properties have been in this state for some years and are gradually falling into dereliction. Such a shame and a waste.

This is a composite of two shots take from the car while sitting in traffic.

13 May 2012

Reasons to be Grateful: 26

Experiment, week 26. Continuing the experiment here are this week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Half-Price Orchids. As previously blogged.

  2. Pork with Pesto. Also as previously blogged.

  3. Strawberries & Raspberries. Special treat for the weekend we bought some good English strawberries and raspberries. What a wonderful weekend breakfast.

  4. Sparrowhawk. As we arrived home yesterday afternoon the sparrowhawk darted across the road in front of us, obviously chasing after some hapless sparrow. It failed in its quest but we then had the delight of watching it gliding around for several minutes until it drifted away across the houses. So graceful in flight, and when they want so fast.

  5. Wellington Arch. As I mentioned earlier we visited the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner earlier today. Super views from the balcony including looking up at the Quadriga's black bronze horses and down on the Household Cavalry (today the Blues & Royals) riding their equally black horses back to barracks after changing the guard at Horse Guards in Whitehall.

Ace Signs

I've been in central London this morning taking photographs for one of my projects. While there we took the opportunity to visit the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. The arch has recently re-opened to the public. There's a couple of small exhibition spaces and you can go out onto the balcony and get some super views of London. Amongst the small exhibition about Stonehenge there was this sign:

Druids Only

I can't decide whether the juxtaposition of the press and druids is highly incongruous or immensely prescient.

Visiting the Wellington Arch is well worth the small admission charge if only to get the unusual views of London. It was reviewed recently by IanVisits, to whom my thanks as otherwise I would never have known it was open!

During the morning I also spotted this sign in Golden Square:

There's no Escape ...

Surely only in England!?

12 May 2012

The Daily Daft

One Green Bottle

One Green Bottle

The other nine ran off and are now seeking asylum.

11 May 2012

More Orchid Porn

Yes, here are some more orchid pictures. I cannot get over how fantastic these flowers are. First a new one I bought this morning ...

Cream Orchid
Cream Orchid

I bought this rather nice greeny-cream with pink blush (almost a Hellebore colour; it's much creamier than the photo suggests) orchid in our local Waitrose. It had been sitting there looking forlorn, very dry & tired and with a couple of wilted flowers for the last 3 weeks. I've looked at it every week and rejected it. Today when I looked at it the second time, I thought I'd ask if they'd sell it to me at half price. To my surprise and delight they agreed.

Having brought it home, taken off the wilted flowers and given it a good water it already looks 100% happier. OK, so it has only these three flowers and a couple of buds to come. But it is rather pretty and who knows I may be able to nurse it back into flowering properly next year.

I also bought this one at Waitrose this morning ...

Pink Orchid

It is a very pretty blushed pink — much prettier than my photo shows. It is profuse with flowers and with at least another 8 buds to come, so well worth paying full price for it.

And finally another shot of one of the orchids I've had for some weeks and which is still flowering well.

Magenta-Veined Orchid

In fact all my orchids are still flowering well, the first has now been in flower for something like 10 weeks!

They look magnificent, especially when you put them all together in a nice sunny window.

As I say I can't get over how fantastic these flowers are. OK so mine are all Phalaenopsis hybrids, perhaps the easiest of the orchids — but then that's why they're easily available and so cheap.

I really don't mind, they just look stunning!

Who Knew ...

I spotted this in a Daily Telegraph online news item yesterday ...

"the survey of 1000 women found that two in five female British women admitted to have "al fresco sex".

So how many male British women admitted to it?

Sadly(?) they've since updated the page and corrected the grammar.

10 May 2012

A Curiosity of London

OK, so here's one of the more curious of London's accoutrements ...

Buxton Memorial Fountain

It is the Buxton Memorial Fountain and you can find it in Victoria Tower Gardens, just south of the Houses of Parliament wedged between Millbank and the river.

Apparently it was originally constructed in Parliament Square but moved in the 1940s and placed in its present position in 1957. It was commissioned by Charles Buxton MP to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in 1834, dedicated to his father Thomas Fowell Buxton, and designed by Gothic architect Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812–1873) in 1865.

It surely has to go down as one of London's more outré and colourful adornments. Not only does it have that "spire" of coloured encaustic(?) tiles, but it is carved with various animals including some very dragon-like iguanas/lizards.

Not the best of photos as it was taken on a horridly grey and, as can be seen by the puddles, rather wet Sunday morning.

09 May 2012

Word : Polyploid


Having more than two homologous sets of chromosomes in each cell nucleus.

Animals with sex chromosomes — such as humans — are diploidic; they have two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. Organisms with more than two sets are polyploidic. Wheat has 42 sets of chromosomes; coffee can have 88 sets.
[A Rose Is a Rose, Until It Isn’t: 5 Reasons Plant DNA Is Totally Crazy]

08 May 2012

Whither Now?

I just can't help feeling we're living in interesting times. And this last weekend could go down as a tipping point.

France and Germany have stitched up a deal on the Euro financial crisis created by countries living beyond their means. The deal involved banks lending countries even more money to pay for the debts they already couldn't afford.

Britain and the US have bailed out banks who racked up debts by lending money they didn't have to people to live beyond their means. Having engendered a debt crisis those same banks are now being berated for not lending people even more money.

But this weekend the French people have said a resounding "Non" and elected an anti-deal, Socialist, President and given the incumbent a bloody nose. The new President basically wants to tear up the deals.

The Greek people, in a parliamentary election, have effectively thrown out the coalition which agreed to their country's bailout. There will either be a new anti-deal coalition or new elections.

The Irish are tiptoeing towards at least trying to tear up the deals.

And the Italians are expressing discontent with the stitched up deal in their local elections.

Meanwhile ...

Britain is again in recession — I personally doubt we were ever out of it — and if you look at the data this is a much longer and deeper (double dip) recession than those of the mid-70s, early-80s or early-90s. (The mid-70s recession felt pretty bad, so heaven knows where this one will end up.)

Shareholders at UK insurance giant Aviva have rejected the boss's bonuses leading to the resignation of the CEO. Other shareholder revolts look to be on the cards.

The value of the Euro has fallen against the Pound; you can now get at least €1.20 to the Pound.

All the markets are sharply down on the day largely due to the uncertainty in Greece and the rest of Europe. One thing the markets hate is uncertainty.

And of course Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is behaving like a petulant child and throwing her toys out of her pram to try to blame and bully everyone, because her chickens are coming home to roost and her knicker elastic has perished.

It's a harsh reality, but all of this could probably have been avoided if (a) the rigid structure of the Euro had been stillborn, (b) the regulations on budget deficits in the European Treaties (and they were there regardless of the Euro regulations) had been adhered to and (c) a few banks had been allowed to fail because of their bad debts.

What of this could not have been foreseen?

Who said we don't live in interesting times?!

Quotes : On People

The problem with me is, I guess, the way I express myself, you have to be with me 50 years before you can get a sense of what I`m talking about.
[Al Pacino]

There’s no point in constantly worrying about everything. What will happen will happen anyways. So breathe, look on the bright side, have some laughs, fall in love, accept what you can’t change, and carry on. To actually live is courageous. Most people exist, that is all.

Some people are old at 18 and some are young at 90 ... time is a concept that humans created.
[Yoko Ono]

Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.
[John Wooden, basketball coach]

Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.
[Pablo Casals]

More people have poor taste than good taste. They come to their opinions quickly and without any thought, like a small child. That's why there's fast food. And moronic reality television shows. And people who follow Paris Hilton. More people will enjoy crack than Proust's novels. Ergo, just because something is popular doesn't mean it's inherently good or worthwhile. Too many people just love bad shit because they don't know any better.
[HyperSexual Girl at Love & Lust]

07 May 2012

In Case You Missed ...

Another in our occasional series of links to interesting items you may have missed. First several scientific items.

Why is there a universe? Where did it appear from? Sean Carroll investigates.

Singing Mice? Yes they really do sing! And no-one knew until recently.

Next, an interesting summary of the history of the last 200 years in surgery. Just be thankful you live now and not then!

And after all that heavy stuff here are some great examples of the humour of taxonomists. Never let it be sad that scientists are terminally dull.

And finally for the scientific, here's a report of a rather pretty and extremely rare strawberry blonde leopard (above) spotted in the wild.

Back to the heavy stuff for a minute, here's an important examination of the interaction of gender and world politics. Seems those countries which are worst on gender equality are also the least stable.

Finally something completely different. Scholars are suggesting that a previously unexamined Elizabethan map of America provides clue to a lost colony.

Rustic Fruit Tart

Something else I cooked this weekend was what I've called Rustic Fruit Tart. This was mainly because I'd had some blueberries in the fridge for some days and thought they should be cooked. It's rustic because it used mostly what I already had to hand and it isn't designed to look fancy, just taste good. I used rhubarb and blueberries; you could do it with any other combination of fruits you like.

For two 8" (20cm) tarts this is what I did ...

1 packet of commercial pasty (or enough homemade pastry for two 8"/20cm flan tins)
800g fresh Rhubarb
350g fresh Blueberries
2 tbsp Sugar
half wine glass of Fruit Juice

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C (gas mark 6); use the fan if you have one.
2. Wash and chop the rhubarb and put in a pan with the fruit juce and sugar. You want the end product to be fairly sticky so don't add too much fruit juice.
3. Cook, with a lid on and stirring occasionally, until well cooked and the rhubarb pieces have broken down.
4. Meanwhile roll out the pastry and line the two flan tins. Prick the base of the pasty cases with a fork so they don't bubble too much; use baking beads if you have them. Keep any pastry offcuts.
5. Blind bake the pasty cases for 15-20 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and fill each case with the cooked rhubarb.
7. Scatter plenty of blueberries on top of the rhubarb.
8. Decorate — as badly as you like, after all this us "rustic" tart — the top of the flans using the pastry offcuts and glaze (I used milk and sugar).
9. Now bake for another 15-20 minutes until the pastry decoration is golden and the filling bubbling.
10. Remove from the oven and eat hot or allow to cool in the tins before turning out.
11. Dust with icing sugar (if such is your desire) and devour with clotted cream.

1. You can use either puff or shortcrust pastry. I used puff which didn't work well as it puffed too much when blind baked. I'm also lazy and use commercial pastry — well I'm allowed some shortcuts!
2. Individual tartlets would work too, using exactly the same method.
3. I put a piece of baking parchment in the base of each flan tin to ensure the case didn't stick too badly.

06 May 2012

Pork Fillet with Pesto

I can't believe that I haven't posted a recipe for ... ages and ages. So to make up here are two in one.

This evening I've cooked some extremely scrummy Pork Fillet with Pesto. You could use commercially prepared pesto, but I made my own. It's dead easy, takes minutes to prepare and it tastes wonderful. It is real restaurant/dinner party food! Here's what you do ...

For the Pesto
This makes enough pesto for at least two pork fillets. It can be made a day or two in advance; just store it in the fridge. And of course you could use for anything else where you want pesto.

100g Pinenuts
A bunch of fresh Basil (I used the end of a pot of Basil, including the stems)
A small bunch of fresh Coriander (optional)
A couple of good squirts of Garlic Purée (maybe 2 tbsp)
A glug of good Olive Oil (not too much)
Black Pepper to taste

Put all the ingredients in the food processor. Don't add too much olive oil; you want the pesto to be fairly stiff, not slishy; you can add more oil if it ends up too stiff. Whizz everything together until you've got a chunky paste.

For the Pork
You can prepare the pork fillet a few hours in advance (even the night before, if fridged) as it will improve for marinading in the pesto.

You'll want one whole Pork Fillet for every two people.

1. Preheat the oven to 200C (gas mark 6); use the fan if you have one.
2. Cut the pork fillet lengthways but not all the way through and open it out. Do this again down each half and fold the edges out again.
3. Put the fillet on a piece of clingfilm on a flat surface and cover with another piece of clingfilm. Now beat the pork out flatter with a steak hammer or rolling pin. You're aiming to roughly double the width of the pork which should end up no more than 5mm thick.
4. Remove the top layer of clingfilm and cover the pork in a good layer of pesto.
5. Roll the pork along the long edge like a Swiss roll; you may need to tie it with string 2 or 3 times to stop it falling apart.
6. Place the pork roll on an oiled baking sheet.
7. Any pesto left over, or any which oozed out the ends, can be used to coat the outside of the pork.
8. Cover with foil and roast in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes. Check the pork is done by stabbing with a knife to see if the juices are clear. You can remove the foil for the last 5 minutes to brown.
9. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving in slices with potatoes and veg of your choice.

1. Red pesto should work as well as the more traditional green.
2. If you want to add something extra put a layer of prosciutto on the pork before adding the pesto; or wrap the rolled pork in bacon.
3. If you want to trim the untidy ends from the pork fillet then do so. They can also be beaten out and placed inside the main piece before rolling.
4. The oil in the pesto makes this slightly oily although most of the oil will drain out; the rest keeps the meat nice and succulent.
5. Do not under cook pork; however also take care not to overcook as it can get tough and dry.
6. I served mine with steamed new potatoes and steamed asparagus.

Finally many thanks to Lily on the butchery counter of our local Waitrose for the idea, which I adapted slightly.

Reasons to be Grateful: 25

Experiment, week 25. Continuing the experiment here are this week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Sunshine. Yes, for the umpteenth week running the weather has been so dismal I've really appreciated what little sunshine we have had.

  2. Animals Inside Out. On Wednesday we went to see Gunther von Hagens's Animals Inside Out exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which I blogged earlier. Despite my disappointments I did enjoy the exhibits and the incredible skill that goes into the plastination process.

  3. Prawns & Pasta. Again this week I cooked pasta with prawns for evening meal. I like cooking it, and I like eating it!

  4. Not having the Alarm on. I love being able to sleep until I wake up naturally, which is usually rather later than the time the alarm would go off.

  5. Scheurich Glass. I've been searching for suitable cachepots for my orchids. They really should be clear-ish glass as orchid roots like light. But I came across these rather lovely German glass pots. They come in a variety of colours: red (which is gorgeous), green, purple and white/clear. Amazon.co.uk sell them at a sensible price, although they don't always have them in stock.

Literary Styling

There's an interesting short article in New Scientist of 5 May 2012 by Sara Reardon. It seems mathematicians have worked out why/how authors have distinctively different styles. Apparently it's all down to all the small, meaningless words they use. The article is behind a paywall but I hope I might be excused for reproducing it here for the benefit of my friends in the literary community.
Writing style relies on words with no meaning

Few novelists today would have a character say, "It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." That is not only because few modern characters ponder death by guillotine, but also because writing styles have changed dramatically since Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. So how does literary style evolve? Surprisingly, clues lie in words with seemingly little meaning, such as "to" and "that".

By analysing how writers use such "content-free" words, mathematician Daniel Rockmore and colleagues at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, were able to conduct the first, large-scale "stylometric" analysis of literature (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.l073/pnas.lll5407109).

Content-free words are indicative of writing style, Rockmore says. While two authors might use the same words to describe a similar event, they will use content-free "syntactic glue" to link their words in a different way.

Using the Project Gutenberg digital library, Rockmore's team analysed 7733 English language works written since 1550, tracking how often and in what context content-free words appeared. As you might expect, they found that writers were strongly influenced by their predecessors.

They also found that as the canon of literature grew, the reach of older works shrank. Authors in the earliest periods wrote in a very similar way to one another, the researchers found, probably because they all read the same small body of literature. But approaching the modern era, when more people were writing and more works were available from many eras and numerous styles, authors' styles were still very similar to those of their immediate contemporaries. "It's as if they find dialects in time," says Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol, UK, who was not involved in the study. "Content is what makes us distinctive, but content-free words put us in different groups."

That writers should be most influenced by their contemporaries rather than the great works of the past is interesting, Rockmore says, because it challenges the reach of "classic" literature. When it comes to style at least, perhaps we aren't so strongly influenced by the classics after all.

05 May 2012

Word : Chitty

Chitty (noun)

A letter or note. A certificate given to a servant or the like. A pass.

Hence the short form chit.

Anglo-Indian from the Hindī chiṭṭhī.

04 May 2012

Quote : Marriage

Marriage teaches you loyalty, forbearance, self-restraint, meekness, and a great many other things you wouldn’t need if you had stayed single.

[Source unknown]

Something Colourful for Another Grey Spring Day

Three Orchids

These are my three orchids (all commercial Phalaenopsis hybrids) which I wanted to get as a group. This was best done after they'd been watered (a weekly soak) so they're in the shower. The lighting is a mix of natural (grey, evening) daylight and the bathroom "white" fluorescent. Not the best of pictures, but at least something more cheerful than the greyness outside.

Buggered Britain 7

Another in my occasional series documenting some of the underbelly of Britain. Britain which we wouldn't like visitors to see and which we wish wasn't there. The trash, abused, decaying, destitute and otherwise buggered parts of our environment. Those parts which symbolise the current economic malaise; parts which, were the country flourishing, wouldn't be there, would be better cared for, or made less inconvenient.

Buggered Britain 7

These two closed and uncared for shops are at Greenford Broadway, although in fairness the pet shop has moved to better placed premises 100 yards round the corner.

03 May 2012

Vote Lizard

So today is the four-yearly London mayoral voting jamboree. Whoopee! Vote for the lizard of your choice! Or not! Maybe!

Nevertheless we have just returned from doing our civic duty for the year.

And what a farce it is!

I don't mind walking round to the local scout hut, which has been our local Polling Station for some years. Or the local school (which was used before they started using the scout hut when the school was rebuilt). Or the church hall. What I mind about is the daftness of the voting system.

We are voting for (a) the Mayor, (b) a constituency member of the London Assembly and (c) party list members of the same Assembly.

The Mayoral vote is easy. You have a first choice vote and a second choice vote. If, when the votes are counted, the first choice votes give anyone over 50% they're elected. If not, all but the top two are eliminated and the second choice votes of those eliminated are (re)distributed. The one with the most votes then wins. It's a sort of buggered up Single Transferable Vote system. I don't have a problem with this; I'd prefer STV but that's too hard for Joe Public (it taxed the brains of students when I was an undergraduate!).

The London Assembly however is different; and in my view a shambles. There are just 25 Assembly members. That's less than one for each of the 33 London Boroughs and one for roughly every three of London's 73 parliamentary constituencies. That's leaving aside the fact the the Assembly has no real power: what the Mayor wants done, gets done.

First one has a single vote for a (named) constituency member. There are 14 constituencies, where "constituency" means two or three London Boroughs. What sort of constituency is that!? It is the equivalent of dozens of local councillors and some five or so parliamentary constituencies. As such the Assembly constituencies are so big as to be meaningless.

Lastly there is the party list. Here you vote for which of the list (of about a dozen) parties you like; you have one vote. Eleven party members are elected to the Assembly from a prioritised list provided by each party for the whole of London. Seats are allocated to parties pro rata to the number of votes received, with any party getting 5% or more of the votes guaranteed seat(s).

All three of these ballots are counted separately, so that's three A4-sized ballot papers in different pretty colours all of which go in the same ballot box.

I agree with having an elected Mayor for London and a London Assembly. But in God's name who thought up this shambolic way of doing it?

In my view the Assembly (or whatever you want to call it) has to have some teeth to actually control the Mayor's possible excesses. And it has to have a sensible number of members elected directly to represent people; that probably means a member for each parliamentary constituency perhaps arranged as two or three "members" per Borough. And the voting system needs to be simple: "first past the post" will do, but STV would be better.

Whether Londoners — well at least the small number who bother to vote — return the current Mayor, Boris Johnson (Conservative), for another term or re-elect the previous Mayor, Ken "the Newt" Livingstone (Labour), remains to be seen. It is very unlikely to be any one of the other five candidates. We'll probably know sometime tomorrow. It'll be close.

Plastic Animals

Yesterday we took a trip to London's Natural History Museum. I've not been inside the NHM for maybe 50 years although I go past fairly frequently. I left feeling strangely disappointed.

We went mainly to the the latest Gunther von Hagens exhibition, Animals Inside Out, which is a display of his plastination, anatomical and display skills. It is the animal equivalent of the blockbuster Bodyworlds, which I've still not managed to see.

Von Hagens's skills are incredible. And the displays were interesting, revealing and illuminating. They varied from the tiny brain of a hare to a complete giraffe; from a scallop to a shark. The blockbuster pieces had to be the giraffe, an elephant and an entire bull. Oh and this camel which is outside the (paid) exhibition in the impressive Central Hall of NHM underneath the dinosaur's tail!

Plastinated Camel Plastinated Camel

The actual display pieces were amazing. But having said that I was disappointed. We spent about 45 minutes in the exhibition. I would have liked to spend longer there, and would have done had there been any more to see. The expense of putting on an exhibition like this is immense; GOK how much it costs and how much time it takes to plastinate an ostrich, let alone a bull or a giraffe! But even so I felt the exhibition was a bit thin, both in the number and variety of exhibits and the information provided. I would have liked many more examples.

Especially I would have liked a lot more explanation of what I was looking at. My anatomy is pretty damn good for a non-medic/zoologist/vet. I know where a fish's gill plates are but does Joey Schoolboy? But I don't know the detail of how a sheep's guts are arranged. And I wanted to be told, if only with some labelled diagrams. I felt the explanatory texts were much too terse. OK many people don't want, and can't take in, huge amounts of detail. So put that detail in separate panels which they can choose not to read.

Oh, you mean the detail is all in the book of the exhibition? But why do I have to buy the book? OK so it's only £12.99, but I neither want nor need the book. I wanted to be told what I was looking at! But then the exhibition is only £9 (full price) which I thought very reasonably priced — I'd expected it to be more like £15 or even £20. So I suppose I shouldn't complain.

After the exhibition we went to the main restaurant for coffee and cake (the NHM has something like four food outlets and as many shops!). This was another depressing experience. The restaurant system is so arcane (and unwelcoming) they have to employ someone full time to explain it to people. The décor was fairly dire. The only saving grace was that the chocolate fudge cake was fairly good.

Then after that I wanted to look at the fishes. What fishes?! The fish displays seem to consist of four wall displays tucked in a blind corridor at the back of nowhere. And totally uninteresting. This was old style museum display at its worst: a selection of almost random exhibits stuck in a case with nothing to make it at all interesting, no obvious variety of different biotypes (marine vs freshwater; tropical vs temperate). The marine invertebrate displays next door were exactly the same: a huge room with very boring displays in wall cases and nothing else.

After that, and looking at the plastinated camel and (over-hyped) dinosaur in the Central Hall my back was complaining so we didn't investigate further. Maybe we should have done and maybe some of the other displays would have been better, but it didn't look enticing. So we gave in and came home.

OK so what's the bottom line?

If you're interested in the broad ideas of how animals work then do go and see Animals Inside Out. It is worth the admission charge; just don't expect too much. If you go expecting anatomical detail and explanation, as I did, you'll be disappointed. And judging by our experience if you go on a mid-week early afternoon during school term the exhibition will be quiet.

As for the rest, frankly I won't be going back in a hurry.

Sorry guys, but I much expect better of major world museum in this day and age.

01 May 2012

Thought for May Day

earth water fire and air
met together in a garden fair
put in a basket bound with skin
if you answer this riddle
you'll never begin

From Koeeaddi There
Robin Williamson and The Incredible String Band
On the album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter