Monday, October 23, 2017

Put it on my bill

If your looking for a good example of how evolution works then look no further than out of your kitchen window! Two populations of Great Tits have been studied since the 70s one in the UK and the other in Holland, turns out that the UK population has a (significantly) higher percentage of birds with slightly longer beaks than their Dutch cousins. One possible cause of this difference is the higher propensity for people in the UK to use bird feeders in their gardens, leading to the longer billed variants successfully raising roughly one more chick in every five. Of course over time this difference would lead to the longer billed variants coming to (eventually) dominate the population over here. 

Unlike Darwin, who also noticed variations in the beak shapes of similar birds, scientists today now understand the mechanism for these differences. The specific genes that control facial shape have been isolated and do indeed show evidence of selective changes in the the two populations. The hypothesis regarding the bird feeders being the driver for this difference is, as yet, unproven, but never the less it's certainly credible and fascinating if true.


Sometimes my days feel like this...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

London treats..

Special treat for us yesterday, we attended a service at Westminster Abbey that celebrated my daughters school (which was founded in Westminster) It was delightful, the girls put on a great show, choral and dance performances all very polished in a wonderful setting. I also learned that the ex-head girls of her school are allowed to marry in the Abbey, now there's an incentive! Of course I was less keen on all the God stuff, but being in the presence of Darwin, Newton, Rutherford, Thompson and Faraday, I couldn't really complain, you can see Newtons tomb centre picture. 

Afterwards we went for a great meal at Temper in Soho, an open fire-pit (mostly) beef & lamb restaurant. It was also great to see tons of people out enjoying themselves on a Friday night, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the streets were heaving; feeling more like August than late October. We caught the train home around 9 and were all tucked up in bed by 10:30, a memorable family day out.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Yep, this is pretty much what my kids would think.. 

Back in the day, I remember trying to buy a copy of Windows 3 while working in Cape Town. Back then the old style 5 inch floppies were the norm down there but my computer (a relatively new one) was fitted with a 3.5 inch drive. Predictably, the shop I was in only had the software on the old larger floppy disks and I think Windows came on a pile of about 20 of them!

I explained my predicament to the chap in the shop and, after much confusion, he suddenly realised what I was on about and said in his thickest Afrikaans accent "ah so you want a stiffy" I'd never heard these disks called that before and it took me a while to realise what the hell he was on about (I did initially think the conversation had taken a rather odd turn), but, it made perfect sense, you have floppy's and stiffy's. For years afterwards I deliberately and mischievously used this term, predictably with much associated giggling from my Northern hemispheric colleagues, of course the joke died with the device, still, now we have pokes and fat-pipes to snigger about instead.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Militant Atheists

So this is what "militant atheist" means (in the eyes of believers)...

Tuesday titter

I've only felt like this for a very few box-sets, House, Soprano's, Breaking Bad not much else..

Collide and conquer

I was sitting in the car with my teenage son yesterday and we were listening to someone on the radio talking about the announcement from scientists at the LIGO detector this week. In it they were discussing the incredible detection of both visible and gravitational waves from a neutron star collision, in which the flash of the smash was seen via telescopes at exactly the same time as a gravitational wave passed through our planet, distorting space-time under our very feet. I noticed that he (my Son) was fiddling with his phone and not really paying attention, I asked if he was impressed at this detection but he said that he wasn't very interested in it and didn't really understand what was being said. I can understand his frustration, it's unlikely that many people really understood the magnitude of this feat nor the amount of skill, dedication and hard-work required to achieve it. 

I took some time to try and break it down for him, explaining what happens to stars as they grow old and run out of fuel, how gravity causes them to collapse and become super dense and how even a teaspoon of matter from such a star would weigh millions of tons. Then I asked him to imagine what it would be like for two of these super-heavy monsters to smash into each other, creating a black-hole and completely obliterating themselves causing ripples in the very fabric of space-time itself, and, how unlikely it was that we would be able to see all of this from Earth and detect the minute distortion at exactly the same time as seeing the explosion through various telescopes, demonstrating that gravity travels at the same speed as light. Then to cap it all, to think about the fact that all this mayhem was actually going on over 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed our planet and before Human beings had even evolved on the savannas of Africa, ergo, it's amazing what we can achieve and learn when we just collaborate.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Seasonal vistors

We had an unusual visitor to our little garden today, it's a Goldcrest, a lovely little bird with a striking yellow/gold stripe on its head. It must be something to do with the weather at the moment and also that I spent most of the day standing by the kitchen window (I was brewing beer and had my camera out, hence the snapshot) I noticed several interesting species of bird including, coal, long tailed, blue and great tits, chaffinches, wrens and several jays, all of whom popped by briefly to (I guess) feed on the various insects around who are being fooled by our Indian Summer into much higher activity levels than usual, either that or birds are oddly attracted to the smell of malt!

A little of the dark-side

It's a beautiful day here in the South East of England, unseasonably warm and sunny. So, to celebrate I thought I'd kick off a full brew-day to make a Christmas beer, a dark Winter-warmer! In the photo above you can see the different grains I used, we have pale malt, pilsner malt, roasted malt, chocolate malt, brown malt, crystal malt and various other adjuncts like flaked oats and lactose. Hopefully this little lot will combine to make an unctuous black beer  that I'm going to flavour with cacao nibs soaked in Cointreau, giving it a kind of Chocolate-orange vibe, should finish around a cockle warming 8-9% ABV so ideal to sip (in suitable moderation) next to a roaring fire.

Here you can see the grains "mashing", it's essentially just mixing them with hot water and holding a steady temperature of around 65 Centigrade for around 90 minutes. When you do this enzymes in the barley convert the starch in the crushed husks into sugar giving the yeast something to further convert into alcohol. You can't really see it in this picture but the final liquid (wort) came out treacle-black and already visibly viscous, the beer will take a couple of weeks to ferment and then another 6 weeks to condition in bottles, hopefully it'll be just about ready as the holiday season kicks-off!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Puking, relatively

Reading this book currently; fascinating stuff, some of which I already know and some I don't. It's basically a history of science kind of book but drills into a little more detail on key discoveries in physics, like the relationship between electricity and magnetism and general relativity. 

I like Krauss, he's a good writer and even better speaker, he uses humour to get points across and generally keep the audience engaged in what can sometimes be a fairly dry subject. Last night I read his through his attempt at explaining relativity and the speed of light using a metaphor involving his daughter projectile vomiting onto the back of his head whilst driving to nursery school. Slightly more tangible than clocks, mirrors and steam trains; looking forward to the next instalment.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

Feeling nostalgic today, must be my age..

I remember when this song (see image above) was in the charts (35 years ago!) I was at university and had a week-end job as a chef in a greasy-spoon cafe a couple of miles from where I was living at the time. I used to cycle there and back and the route had a really long hill section in it. I recall having this track pumping out of my Sony Walkman, cranking the volume up to 11 as I got faster and faster down the hill on the way to work, it felt exhilarating. As things levelled out and I was at maximum velocity an open top triumph Spitfire drew alongside me being driven by some flash bloke with shades and a tash, to my horror, in the passenger seat was my recently "ex" girlfriend! Clearly she had "moved-on" and feeling somewhat out-done that I was still on a push-bike and she was in a snazzy sports car I struck my best "uninterested look" by directing my gaze upwards and away from the car. I felt it was going well (the music was helping) until I realised that, in my state of distraction, my front wheel had brushed the curb and I was in one of those uncontrollable wobbles that you sometimes get on two wheels when steering corrections get ever more violent and pronounced ending in inevitable disaster.

Over the handlebars I went, the world spun for a few seconds and I ended up in a ditch full of blackberry bushes by the side of the road, blood oozing from several nasty scratches on my arms and face. They didn't even stop to see how I was, and I limped on to work to get plastered-up and put in a full shift (we weren't snowflakes in those days, although my Dad would probably disagree) I limped back home later that evening to fix my bent front wheel, lick my wounds and feel sorry for myself. I threw the cassette-tape into the back of a drawer and I never set eyes on that girl again, but as fate would have it, like this song, she's scorched into my memory because of the powerful sensory associations I experienced in those moments. I can't help being reminded of that event every-time "eye of the tiger" pops up on the radio or on the TV. These days I sometimes forget why I'm in a particular room but remember that moment as clear as a bell, such is the interconnected nature of memory.

Friday smirk

Patience, patience..