Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas creativity

I'm completely useless at making anything myself by hand. Fortunately, the magic of the internet means that, as long as I can turn something into a digital file, someone else can turn it into a physical item for me. So, this year I've tried to knock up a couple of presents for C this way.

First up, her favourite novel as a Penguin-style mug ...

Present 1

Next, ripping off the local artist Tina Bird Wallbridge to make a stylised map of our local neighbourhood ...

Present 2

Saturday, 19 December 2009

3D or not 3D? That is the question

With yesterday's snow making us chicken out of a run up to London, we bummed around Southampton for the day before heading out to see James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar. With the exception of [shudder] Titanic, I've always found Cameron's work a lot of fun, and his Aliens is still one of my favourite films. But the (over)selling of Avatar began early, so I was skeptical that Cameron would successfully tackle aliens on a remote planet[*] for a second time.

The plot can be summarised in a single sentence: a crippled marine, Jake, goes to a distant world where his mind is projected into a fully-functional alien body, the avatar, ostensibly so that he can infiltrate the aliens and persuade them to let evil corporates rape the planet, but he goes all fifth-column on his masters when he belatedly discovers how evil they are, and ultimately leads the aliens (read "Native Americans") to a military victory over said evil-doers. OK, that would probably read better as two sentences, but it's not exactly Tolstoy. Serviceable science fiction nonsense (which, obviously, I love), but not exactly best-original-screenplay-Oscar material.

Aside from its pretty flawless integration of computer animation into live action, the other big selling point is the film's use of 3D. This is the bit I was probably more skeptical about going into the film. My first experience of this was watching, or rather trying to watch, Creature from the Black Lagoon in crappy anaglyph-o-vision[**] way back in youth club when I must have been 10 years old. I then managed to dodge 3D for more than two decades, and figured it was dead, until I caught one about the ISS on IMAX in Florida. That was kind-of OK, but IMAX is still a sufficiently novel experience for me that it was difficult to separate the 3D from that. All of which makes Avatar my first experience of mainstream cinema 3D.

Coming out of the film, I'm still not convinced that 3D is the way forwards. Leaving aside the massively inflated ticket price (it cost us slightly less than double a seat at our local arthouse cinema), 3D just doesn't bring enough to the table to my mind. Firstly, it obviously does absolutely nothing for normal cinematic conventions like plot or character. A film will still stand or fall based on it making coherent internal sense and being filled with engaging characters, not on whether some of said characters appear slightly closer to the viewer than others.

Secondly, for all of Avatar's technical prowess, there were still moments where its 3D became briefly incoherent and times when I had to consciously make it 3D by re-focusing my eyes. For instance, early in the film there's a fast chase through a beautiful jungle that has the viewer racing along with Jake's avatar. Unfortunately, there's so much 3D information passing so quickly that my eyes gave up the ghost and the whole sequence was lost on me as a 3D spectacle. Other times, particularly in enclosed scenes, I found myself looking around the frame to objects much closer than the subjects that Cameron wanted me looking at, objects that were either difficult to bring into focus in the first place or which made it difficult to change focus when the action moved on.

Anyway, overall the 3D is pretty impressive, but I remain unconvinced that it's the way forwards for cinema. I think it's not a bad trick for spectacles like Avatar, but I'm not sure it'll add anything to conventional, character-based films. And there's still the economic aspect to whether studios will support it, namely: since DVD is now a major way by which films recoup their costs and make profits, and since TV is a long way from 3D and is inherently an unlikely platform (would you like to watch little 3D figures battle it out in a corner of your living room?), studios can't make a buck from the extra costs 3D films take to make. So I still remain to be persuaded on 3D.

Changing tack, is conventional, 2D Avatar up to much? Generally yes, but I don't think that it's up to Cameron's usual standards. I was kind-of suckered by the biological detail of the world, Pandora, that he's created, but I suspect that most people don't appreciate, or even spot, the homologies in the Pandoran fauna. I also suspect that many of Cameron's usual fans might be a little put-out by his flagrant tree-hugging as well. Again, this is something that I don't mind ... too much, but I would imagine that many more gung-ho fans might find themselves sympathising with the evil corporation's more laissez-faire attitude to Pandora's natural wealth. Furthermore, the underlying theme of biological unity sits interestingly with the heavily weaponised spaceships and exoskeletons.

There were one of two items I did particularly like or engage with. Firstly, that Cameron carries the idea of avatars further than simply the body that Jake "occupies". Both the corporate mercenaries (and their exoskeletons) and the native Na'vi warriors (and their mounts) extend themselves into the platforms they ride on, so there's a kind-of meta-avatar thing going on. I also quite liked the (ultimately new-agey) biological oneness that ties Pandora together. I was hoping that it might have a more sciencey explanation by the end (as hinted by Sigourney Weaver's scientist character), but Cameron left it as some mystical mumbo-jumbo that one had to gloss over. And, of course, I'm always suckered by films that use the evil-corporation-vs.-oppressed-underdogs dynamic. Although they were giant, blue-skinned and digitally-rendered space aliens, I totally got behind them.

I did wonder how Cameron will follow this one up though. We'll see.

[*] Actually, it's a moon of a gas giant that looks suspiciously like Jupiter. Admittedly, aside from zonal banding, the gas giants we're familiar with can look a little boring, but did Cameron really have to cut-and-paste Jupiter's Great Red Spot onto his fictional companion of Alpha Centauri? I'd have thought he could have been a bit more imaginative than that - perhaps two giant spots that merge during the film in some sort of meta-thing? He totally should have come to speak to me.

[**] Much to my surprise, I've just this minute discovered that the film was originally shot with the kind of polarised light 3D that is more popular nowadays, and which Avatar uses. I always figured that red-and-green were the official colours of the flag of ancient 3D films.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Disgruntled from Southampton

As solid and enjoyable as the Today programme is, it frequently drops the ball on science. Today's failings were annoying enough for me to complain to them for the first time. Grrrr ...
One of the aspects of science presentation in the media that I find most annoying is the inconsistency in the reporting.

A short while ago, I heard Justin Webb questioning David King on the veracity of climate science, and again muddying the waters of a settled area of science ("settled", obviously, in the scientific community).

But earlier in the programme I heard the Today panel cooing over some clearly erroneous "science" about dancing in humans. Thankfully, I'm no expert in "dance science", but even an oceanographer can spot a number of serious flaws in the reported work, flaws that the Today team were either oblivious to, or quite happy to ignore for the sake of a story.

For starters, the data originate from a self-selected sample so are not representative, and are (I believe) UK specific so may not translate between cultures. Which, needless to say, didn't stop the interviewee from extrapolating wildly to the whole of humanity. This dubious data was then used in an evolutionary flight-of-fantasy in which the interviewee first confidently tacked on some faintly plausible relationship with fertility, but then went off at the deep end by positing an explanation for older male dancing that drew on discredited group selection theory.

To wit, any older male "stepping aside" for younger males would be at a strong evolutionary disadvantage since they would likely leave less descendants than less accommodating rival males. To be fair, it's conceivable that some variant of kin selection could play a role here, but the Today interviewee blithely played the super-confident expert while peddling his science-lite story.

Such a double standard in reporting is infuriating to scientists. Work that's firmly grounded in vast quantities of data and deep theoretical understanding is pilloried, while work that, to put it charitably, needs more data and better hypothesis-testing gets as much airtime and polite approval from the Today team.

I understand the realities of reporting that place science as just one other story, but Today does its listening public a disservice by failing to properly contextualise the science that it does report. We expect Today to focus on important stories when it comes to the political and economic arenas, why can't it do the same for science?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

My carbon jackboot

I took another of these "carbon footprint" quizes. I didn't come out so badly (see here), but I suspect I've lied a bit about assorted aspects of my Earth-screwing lifestyle. Apparently, if everyone lived like me, we'd only need a little over one extra Earth-like planet to get by on. Seems a tad unlikely.

Not, of course, that I entirely trust the calculations underlying these rather rarefied quizes. Ecology has only gotten into assessing and enumerating ecosystem services in a big way in the past decade or so, so I'm a little skeptical that the assorted factors that go towards this number-of-Earths estimate are well-constrained.

Still, it's faintly informative, and probably captures something about our lifestyles. That said, my ecologically-minded friend AMG managed to rack up 5 Earths! I seriously doubt that I'm 3 Earths more virtuous.

Carbon footprint

Friday, 11 December 2009

A god walks among us

We just had a rather entertaining seminar from Paul Falkowski [*]. Extremely wide-ranging, from molecular biology to global biogeochemical cycles to human evolution to the anthropocene. And pretty entertaining too. He knows how to have an audience eating out of his hand.

Anyway, among other interesting points that he mentioned...
  • Most biological diversity in the world is in function not form, since most organisms are single celled and bacterial.
  • From examining the distribution of processes between evolutionarily disparate lineages, it's clear that "quantum evolution", via horizontal gene transfer, is an important process.
  • The main elements involved in life on Earth are (the usual suspects ...) H, C, N, O, P and S; of which all bar P are linked together through electron exchange processes.
  • The whole world is run off the back of about 1500 genes, all else is just embellishment.
  • The evolution of language and complex memory in humans has allowed the dissemination and collation of vast amounts of information, which in turn has given us the ability to vastly alter and control our environment.
  • Some point I now can't clearly remember about how the accelerating accumulation of wealth in technological societies that somehow means that they're predisposed to plundering the Earth's resources (i.e. co-opting more and more of the planet's infrastructure).
Anyway, all good stuff, and presented with an impressive zeal. What I liked most was the scale covered, from cellular machinery through biogeochemical cycles to the grand sweep of Earth's history and our (probably deleterious) role in its future. I was a little bit less impressed by the occasional name-dropping (though he's earned it), but overall a great seminar. But having seen him in action in Florida last year, I wasn't surprised.

Knowing of my editorial predilections, my officemate asked if there was an article on Falkowski on Wikipedia. I checked and there wasn't. One lunch hour's activity later, and now there is. He totally merits it, but I've probably grossly oversimplified his interests.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A good idea?

Yesterday saw the publication of a "statement from the UK science community" orchestrated by the Met Office in support of the scientific consensus on climate change.
We, members of the UK science community, have the utmost confidence in the observational evidence for global warming and the scientific basis for concluding that it is due primarily to human activities. The evidence and the science are deep and extensive. They come from decades of painstaking and meticulous research, by many thousands of scientists across the world who adhere to the highest levels of professional integrity. That research has been subject to peer review and publication, providing traceability of the evidence and support for the scientific method. The science of climate change draws on fundamental research from an increasing number of disciplines, many of which are represented here. As professional scientists, from students to senior professors, we uphold the findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which concludes that "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and that "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations".
Although I am one of the almost 2000 signatories, I did think twice about signing up, and communicated this in my response to the initial request for support. Not, I should add, because I in any way disagree with or have qualms about the statement, but because it's not clear to me what the best course of action is when dealing with the toxic morass created by so-called climate skeptics [*].

This, of course, has reached something of a head with the carefully timed, and carefully selective, publication of e-mails and computer files (most likely) stolen from the Climate Research Unit at UEA. While they contain little that surprises me, and at worst paint certain scientists as rude and unhelpful towards other scientists, the publication of this material seems to have greatly elevated the shrillness of so-called skeptics to new highs (or lows, depending on one's perspective).

Even some scientists have been hand-wringing about portions of the content published to the internet. Seeing how the so-called climate skeptics have operated over the years, and having noted the parallels between their strategies and those of similarly misguided creationists, anti-environmentalists and tobacco interests, I can't say that I'm particularly offended or dismayed by the material that I've seen. It seems a fairly inevitable response to the crass stupidity, goalpost-shifting, disingenuity and outright lying that largely passes for so-called skepticism in such circles.

This is probably because I've exasperated myself dealing with such people in Usenet and at Wikipedia over the years. I've realised from repeated encounters that while a minority of (almost always) hostile opponents can be swayed by a straightforward laying out of "the facts", the majority of such "discussions" don't go anywhere useful. Sometimes one is faced with a continually moving target, where responses to one false statement merely result in its replacement with another. Other times, an opponent will just disappear from a discussion, often to reappear later or elsewhere making similar or even identical false statements. While it's often a pleasure to deal with the eager-to-learn minority, these latter types now quickly fray patience after years of dealing with them.

Anyway, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the foregoing, I decided to sign up to a statement which I knew would just get thrown back at us as further evidence of some vast left-wing conspiracy to enslave the "freedom-loving" moral majority (or something ...). But in the end, I still think, or perhaps hope, that the long game is the one we should play. Keep confronting the so-called climate skeptics whenever they pop up, and hopefully slowly contain their particular, and peculiar, brand of "individualism". We'll see.

[*] I preface "climate skeptic" with "so-called" deliberately since they don't merit the term "skeptic". With some notable exceptions, whose views are a lot more mushy under questioning, the baying mob are denialists plain and simple. Nothing will change their view, and when climate change becomes undeniable, they'll find some way of worming out of the mess that they've partially helped create. It would be nice to think that there'd be a satisfying "I-told-you-so" somewhere down the line, but I expect material circumstances to change sufficiently that a future comeuppance will offer no pleasure.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Journey back

[Taking advantage of my new laptop, this post was written on the move]

Well, the meeting was something of a mixed experience. My first surprise was the attendance – I’d gone expecting a handful of people, but the medium-sized conference room was pretty healthily stocked by the time I arrived. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these turned out to be Met Office staff who just dipped in and out of the meeting randomly, but it was initially something of a shock. The presentations before mine were mixed layer focused (as they were meant to be), and a mixture of review and “normal” work. Needless to say, I immediately panicked that my generic “thoughts on biophysical interactions” presentation wouldn’t fit in. Probably correctly, although my presentation came off well enough to solicit questions from the audience. But given how different my presentation was to those before it, I suspect there was an element of them just being polite. Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – there were a pair of total stinkers in the afternoon.

What did I learn? Well, mostly that model physics, which I always take as being well-understood and a fixed star in my life, has all sorts of problems and issues associated with it. One of the big names in attendance, the appropriately-named Bill Large, even got all sociological on the failings of the community to consistently apply model schemes and to adopt the best ones. Coming from the not-dissimilarly burdened marine ecosystem community, it was a relief in a way to know that our problems, although more serious in different ways, have analogues in other fields. I also learned that my frequent complaint, that I can’t get a straight answer as to whether my modelled mixed layers are any good, also runs in this community. I mean, if they don’t know …

I had a long chat with RW about the future of marine ecosystem models. Because the Met Office is in the business of running large numbers standardised experiments (weather forecasts for instance), he’s keen that something sensible is done to thin the plethora of existing models down to a more manageable field. He seemed very interested in the Follows work, and asked what my take on it was. I think that it’s great “blue skies” stuff, and I love the motivation behind it, but I suspect it’s not going to be a big part of the (near) future. Not least because it’d be a huge pain to run so many tracers (most of which go effectively extinct), but also because the parameter trade-offs that underlie it still needs a lot of work on them. Of course, I said all this while managing to conveniently forget my own failed fellowship bid that aimed to do something not a million miles removed. Anyway, it sounds like there’s pressure building to settle on some representation of the ocean’s ecology. And probably not good old HadOCC.

I was also questioned over coffee by a student (from Reading I think) who’s trying to model the Arabian Sea (in 1D) with a view to examining the bio-optical feedbacks there. From what he said, it sounds like he’s coming unstuck on a number of fronts. First, he’s trimmed the ecosystem model to remove chlorophyll as a dynamic state variable. Probably not the best idea for a project in which light absorption is a key aspect. He’s also having trouble getting his phytoplankton to bloom, they prefer to hover around at low values. He thinks this may stem from issues related to upwelling fluxes of nutrients, but this isn’t going to be fun to simulate in 1D. Anyway, I’m not sure if my advice helped or hurt, but I gave him my details and I’ll see if he calls back.

Anyway, though much of the meeting was a bit over my head, there were a few interesting results presented, and the “sociological” stuff was worth attending for. It was also nice to finally visit Met Office Exeter. Having visited their cramped former residence in Bracknell many times, I was curious to know what they’d do with a bit more space. And I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know what it’s like to work in, but it’s quite a departure from traditional institutional designs, in particular through its centring around an impressive central space, the “Street”. This houses shops, a gym and even a spa, and has plenty of viewing points including a number of walkways spanning it. A definite step-up from the old Hadley Centre digs. My abiding memories of that building were the corridors that were barely wide enough for two people, the veal crate offices, and the fact that the plaque noting the building’s opening by Margaret Thatcher was matter-of-factly hidden in a pokey coffee room.

Returning to earlier random thoughts, train journeys in darkness don't inspire anything like the same mental meandering in me. Perhaps it's because the external world is black with occasional lights, and that this focuses my attention into the carriage interior and my fellow train inhabitants. Night-time return journeys like this one mostly find me speculating about the lives of other passengers. This is entirely rank speculation based on gross extrapolation from trivial details: what they're doing; what they're reading; what they're talking about too loud on their mobile phones. Anyway, it all sort of points to my morning randomness being as much to do with having something outside to look at as anything else.

Right, changing train soon. Better get ready.

Journey out

[Taking advantage of my new laptop, this post was written on the move]

Off to the Met Office in Exeter today to deliver a short presentation on biophysical considerations pertinent to the “next generation” of climate / weather models. Not exactly my specialist topic (despite my job title), but I’m stepping in for EKP as she’s off moving house. As it happens, I’m sure that I owe her anyway – she seems to have been to a lot more meetings this year than I have. Anyway, I’ve slides about light, mixed layer depth and some about the future shift of modelling away from ocean-only to fully-coupled modes. I imagine that in a couple of years the idea that using ocean-only models is OK will be looked on in amazement. But, then, in a couple of years, the climate will be far more obviously changing and therefore needing fully-coupled models. So long as the climate was largely similar to its “stable”, interglacial state, ocean-only modelling was perfectly fine. Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to hear what everyone else at the meeting is suggesting for their parts of our models in the future. Assuming I get to Exeter at some point – this train seems to have experienced a series of setbacks on its journey so far …

I don’t know if it only happens to me, but I find that travelling invokes a strange, reflective state in me. Maybe it’s seeing a swathe of the world pass by the window. Maybe it’s the iPod-driven musical accompaniment that I use to pass the time. Maybe it’s just being solo and having nothing better to do. Either way, I invariably go off on strange trains (appropriately enough today) of thought. Sometimes I think about the wild things I see outside and wonder what they make of what we’ve done to the world around them. Do they just completely accept it unthinkingly, or do they have some primordial inkling at the back of their minds that this isn’t the way things are meant to be? Or has evolution already marched them on such that the world we’ve shaped to our ends meshes with their internal model of it? Do deer now see fields as completely natural, or do the curves of rivers and forest edges still seem, inexplicably, more “natural”?

Anyway, that’s the kind of nonsense I think about when travelling. I also think that I should listen to my music more often. Being a slave to Radio 4 these days, I often forget how much I used to like spending hours and hours listening to my CDs and, latterly, MP3s. Actually, come to think of it, listening to music also seems to put me into a more reflective mode. Perhaps it’s the mild disconnection that both travel and personal stereos introduce with my immediate environment?

[In passing, we’ve just gone past some derelict factory by the side of the railway. It gave me flashbacks to my (many) hours in City 17. Hardly a ringing endorsement for easy, rural living in the southwest. Actually, the scenery has now changed to a rather swollen waterway off to the side of the rail track.]

I also often go on “deep time” digressions, wondering what the landscape I’m flashing past looked like before we got our hands on it, thousands of years ago. And then what it’ll look like in thousands of years time when we’re gone. That line of thought usually diverges onto whether our extinction will be accompanied by that of everything around us, or whether they’ll get to wordlessly spectate as we, and our “exosomatic manifestations”, disappear from the world. And then what they’ll make of the ruins they find themselves among. Of course, closing a previous random thread, perhaps they’ll have evolved to the point where our world is natural and the fragmented wilderness that follows it is alien.

Anyway, I should be getting into Exeter soon, so I’ll stop for now. I wonder what the meeting will be like?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

New York story

I've managed to build up a bit of a backlog of books that I've read but not blogged. Nicely defeating my argument that if I've time to read them, I've easily time to write down something about them. Anyway, this one, Brooklyn by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, I read way back while we were on holiday in early October, so it's going to be fun recalling details about it.

The novel tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living with her mother and older sister, Rose, in south-east Ireland in the 1950s. Struggling to find work at home, Eilis is offered a job in America through a family priest, a job that she clearly has to take. Apprehensive at first, then strongly homesick later, Eilis travels on her own to an alien New York where she becomes a shop assistant in an Italian department store in Brooklyn. Gradually, she finds her feet, both at work and in her new life in the United States. She's helped along the way by an attentive employer at work, a gruff but kind-hearted landlady and the watchful gaze of her Irish priest. This support, together with her own tenacity, slowly transforms Eilis from a shy wallflower to a more confident young woman, at ease in her night classes and on the dance floor at her parish church. At the latter she meets Tony, an Italian American who, after an extended courtship, she falls in love with. But an unexpected death back in Ireland forces Eilis to part from Tony and return, ostensibly briefly, to her old life. This visit confronts Eilis with the changes that America has wrought in her through the new esteem in which she finds herself held. Having left dowdy, she has returned sophisticated and exotic, and attracts the attention of a successful local man. Hesitant in telling her family of her relationship with Tony, and tempted by the possibility of unexpected romance in Ireland, Eilis allows herself to be swept along into the arms of this new suitor. But Eilis cannot keep her two lives separate and choosing between them is inevitable.

This was a really enjoyable story that unexpectedly ticked lots of boxes for me. I went in expecting some dour tale of misery in Ireland being supplanted by a whole new class of misery in the New World, with some worthy commentary about the emigrant experience along the way. Ireland's reputation as the wellspring of biographies that wallow in miserable and unforgivingly hard lives certainly proceeds it.

But in Eilis the novel creates a believable focus of whom the reader is at first protective, then someone whose modest triumphs can be shared, but then latterly someone whose fickleness begins to undo the earlier good will. As such, she feels a very real, fully three-dimensional character, and her gradual transformations are teased out naturally by Tóibín without ever feeling forced. Although some of her later decisions are liable to invoke despair in the reader, it's easy to see why she is so tempted, even while it's equally easy to see her (uncharacteristically) in the wrong.

The novel fills out Eilis' world with credible detail and a number of memorable secondary characters. Though she is relatively underplayed, Rose cuts an interesting figure in the novel as the wise elder sister with motives that are opaque to Eilis. Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis' landlady, also plays a key role; at first, a stern matron figure to her young boarders, but privately supportive of the girls that she gets to know well. Nothing said directly, but the implication is that Mrs. Kehoe sees something of her own young self in Eilis.

One aspect of the novel which is a little credulity-stretching is Eilis' generally good fortunes; she more or less lands on her feet, and almost everyone she comes into contact with, certainly everyone who matters, is kind and helpful to her. She does seem a rather lucky woman to say the least. But it's not like she wins the lottery of anything like that, so this doesn't really detract from her story. Perhaps I've just read too many novels in which things-going-wrong drive the plot forwards?

Anyway, a most enjoyable read. Not likely to set the world on fire, and not the canonical emigrant novel (whatever that is!), but easily one of the most pleasing novels I've read of late. I've not read Tóibín before, but if he writes like this all the time, I'll definitely be dipping back into his work.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Another day, another Inspector Rebus novel, Tooth and Nail ...

This time the novel is set, unusually, outside of both Edinburgh and Scotland. Rebus has been called to London to assist a stumbling investigation there into a potential serial killer, dubbed the "Wolfman" by the popular press. Ostensibly there because of his experience in an earlier case (one that's pre-novels I think), Rebus suspects that he's been brought in only temporarily, to take the heat off the local investigators and to potentially serve later as a scapegoat. However, much as hoped by his London opposite number Detective George Flight (and expected by loyal readers), Rebus' fresh eyes and Scottish experiences take the investigation in new directions. Assistance from an attractive, if strangely office-less, female psychologist gives Rebus both a new perspective on the killer, but also an Achilles' heel.

There's not really a lot to say about this novel beyond it being another quality Rebus read. Unlike the earlier novels, which are largely police procedural and peopled by criminals with ultimately straightforward motives, this is focused around a crime genre stereotype: the serial killer. It's an interesting diversion for Rankin, but one which is slightly haunted by the spectre of Hannibal Lecter. Especially so given the killer's interest in teeth, which is reminiscent of the quarry in Red Dragon, published several years before this novel. Rankin also appears to borrow the convention of giving the killer voice here. Hitherto, the novels have tracked Rebus' dogged pursuit, but here the object of the chase is given short chapters in which victims are all-too-briefly introduced.

But the parallels don't detract from this novel, and may even be Rankin satirising the genre, although it feels more like homage. The serial killer is finally revealed a little late in the novel, and while I was somewhat perplexed by the revelation of identity (I probably wasn't paying close enough attention), I still went along with it happily. But then, that's what happens when the well-written prose goes down so pleasingly easy.

Overall, another step up for Rankin. I'm looking forwards to the next one.

Friday, 27 November 2009


I went to another in the biannual series of Christians in Science lectures the other week. This time around we had an astrophysicist, Rev. Dr. David Wilkinson, who latterly became an ordained Methodist minister in Liverpool and then a theologian at Durham University. His lecture title, "God, Time and Eternity", wasn't one that he'd chosen, it having been "gifted" on him by the organisers, but it allowed him to draw on his experiences from both of his vocations.

The science part of the lecture largely dealt with big bang cosmology, with a bit of a focus on the period up to 10-43 s after it happens (= the part where our physical theories apparently break down). The speaker did a good job of introducing the history of and evidence for the big bang, and gradually wound around to the problems with the theory itself, and the complications caused by the appearance on the scene of dark matter and dark energy. This culminated in a quick overview of inflation theory, and a mention of the fudges that this involves.

Up to this point the speaker was entirely on-message. But the point where a speaker gets to gaps in the current scientific picture of a topic is often a sign of "bad things" to come. While this speaker was no exception, I have to say that he held it together much better than I was expecting, and much more credibly than any of the speakers to date.

By way of a quick summary of where he went "wrong":
  • The usual slippery description of god that skilfully bounces between an amorphous generic description and one which is specifically the New Testament god-Jesus fusion
  • A whiff of special pleading to shoehorn god into the explanation for the Great Mystery of Being (a mystery that agnostics et al. are happy to concede)
  • Dangerous skating around the anthropic morass of a fine-tuned universe
All that said, the speaker did have some very redeeming features. Although he may have been overplaying it for members of the audience who, like me, switch off in the face of a religious certainly in one particular god being the right one, he was quick to put the counter-arguments to his position as he went along. For instance, unlike other speakers in this series, his visit to fine-tuned fundamental constants took in the anthropic principle, and he even described the topic as "anthropic balances" to make draw attention to this rival explanation. He was also keen that believers should be very careful around gaps in current scientific knowledge and to avoid shoehorning god into these, and explicitly rejected the "tuned fundament parameters" argument as an argument from design (and for good reason, as I've remarked before).

More generally, he was very good at staying reasoned throughout his seminar, and occasionally even conceded points where his theology has no answers. For instance (and this was also picked up in post-seminar questions), he noted that our universe is pretty big and empty for something that was ostensibly created for us. Also, while clearly not enamoured of them, he accepted that multiverses (were they to exist) would cause his theology trouble by again decreasing the "specialness" of our world. Other speakers in these series have ranged from not covering such topics, to overplaying them and then dismissing such concerns out of hand. So this speaker was refreshing if nothing else.

Anyway, a much better performance from this seminar series this time. A very affable speaker, unafraid to concede ground, and willing to be upfront about gaps in his theology. Admittedly, as usual for these speakers, he came unstuck whenever he came close to the specifics of his particular faith, resorting then to bald affirmations or poetic metaphors. And he did have some strange antagonism with deism which was both confusing and unconvincing. But, overall, a step up for Christians in Science.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Outsourced biodiversity

Just read (or, more accurately, skim-read) an article in Nature about Gretchen Daily and ecosystem services. She's a big advocate for the latter, and the article reviews the topic and the dollar estimates placed upon the benefits we, usually unknowingly, accrue from the Earth. An early estimate for global services was $33 trillion per year, which is not far off its economic "equivalent", Gross World Product, estimated at $41 trillion.

One of the attractions of this presentation of ecology, aside from it accurately telling us something important about the infrastructure that supports our civilisation, is that it provides a backdoor route for protecting biodiversity. By (necessarily) summarising the beneficial effects, it encourages the preservation of intact ecosystems, regardless of whether the constituent organisms are cute and cuddly or over-limbed and venomous.

However, the article goes on to make a point that's inherent in the concept of ecosystem services, but which I'd not thought much about before. Basically, what happens if your ecosystem services can be outsourced to a less biodiverse alternative? The specific example given in the article is the replacement of a complex native habitat with a "monotonous plain of non-native grass [that] delivers better and cheaper ecosystem services, measured in water filtration, carbon sequestration and flood protection".

Put this way, the concept of ecosystem services could be applied to determine the "minimum specification" ecosystem that will provide the required outputs without trimmings such as newts and nematodes. Of course, diverse natural ecosystems generally deliver more than just a couple of core services, but they also (presumably) contain redundancies in the form of species that contribute no anthropic benefits. Faced with a small number of preferred system outputs and the choice between a simple managed system, and one which includes all of nature's glory, it's easy to see how biodiversity could take a backseat.

Admittedly, the argument could be made that we don't understand ecosystems well enough to ever be faced with such a bald choices, and there's something in this. We've got a pretty good idea how the major players in ecosystems operate, but the full breadth of interactions escapes us, and there are plenty of examples from ecology of where numerically "irrelevant" species play a key role. Furthermore, even ostensibly human environments such as cities become home to a range of unanticipated species (good, bad and ugly), and any engineered ecosystem is liable to be similarly infested and affected. So, for the foreseeable future, largely intact ecosystems are likely to be cherished (in that special "marginalised unless vital" sense).

But this does makes one realise that we need more than a utilitarian argument for retaining biodiversity. That might halt the barbarians at the gate for a while, but it's not enough that our fellow non-human residents of Earth "merely" close the loops of the planet's biogeochemical cycles, we need to think beyond this. Essentially, we need to factor in a moral dimension to biodiversity, and we need to be able to sell this plausibly when the ecosystem engineers come knocking.

Monday, 16 November 2009


This is a fairly pointless statistic, and a disappointing one when viewed in context, but I finally passed 10,000 photograph views over at Flickr!

Pointless, since I use Flickr to distribute photographs for friends and family rather than for self-validation [*]. Disappointing, since my friend Graham is already sitting an order of magnitude ahead of me, despite neither giving a hoot about the numbers, nor having as many uploaded images. Not, of course, that I'm in some higher-is-better competition ...

[*] In the main that is, although I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't nice to get positive comments from passing visitors.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Greatest promise?

We got a circular around work last week asking for individual scientists to contact Channel 4 news to respond to a particular climate change question. Anyway, here's what I (ignorantly) sent them ...

"Which idea, policy or technology do you think holds the greatest promise or could deliver the greatest benefit for addressing climate change?"

In the immediate future (~10 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to carbon capture and storage (CCS). In principle, these will allow technological societies to retrofit existing infrastructure while continuing to use fossil fuel resources without exacerbating either climate change or ocean acidification. In an ideal world, these problems would be tackled by energy conservation and by expansion of renewable and nuclear fission energy provision, but these options are either limited in extent or are (irrationally) unpopular.

In the further future (~30 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to nuclear fusion. There are a number of options being investigated on this front (of which the best-known is ITER under construction in France), but I expect that one or more will be successful and will allow us to meet longer-term energy requirements without the production of CO2. Assuming there are no further innovations in transportation technology, I would also expect nuclear fusion to provide a means for generating carbon-free hydrogen for use in land and (possibly) air travel.

Should climate change prove more rapid and deleterious than we currently believe it will be, I believe that some geoengineering technology may be helpful in temporarily offsetting climate change to allow us time to adjust our activities. Specifically, I believe that the deployment of stratospheric aerosol technology may allow us to decrease excessive global temperatures. However, since this particular technology does nothing to address the root cause of climate change, it categorically should not be viewed as anything other than a temporary "fix". Furthermore, as indicated by the recent Royal Society report, all geoengineering technologies have significant negative aspects (e.g. deleterious side-effects, prohibitive cost), and none should be viewed as preferable options.

My answers above have focused on purely technological angles to climate change, to which I would add a couple of policy / presentational points. Firstly, given that climate change measures are costly (at least in the short term), it should be recognised that there are strong financial incentives to avoid pursuing them, and policy relying on the better natures of individuals and governments is unhelpful. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon must be the route forwards. Secondly, and this is more a presentational point, it cannot be stressed enough that, on climate justice grounds, emissions targets should always be expressed in per capita terms and should acknowledge not just present-day emissions but those historical emissions of technological societies that have gotten them to their present state. All too often public discussion is needlessly clouded by focusing on emissions on a country-by-country basis, which ignores (all too conveniently it usually transpires) relative size. Further, technological societies are overwhelming responsible for our current situation, but this fact is often overlooked, creating great injustice when the emissions of less developed societies are scrutinised.

Finally, a point that is only rarely heard in current environmental discussions is that climate change is not the only ecological cliff-edge to which modern societies are heading. The growth of human societies (both in terms of numbers of individuals and resource consumption) is creating ever greater strain on the ecosystem services on which these same societies unknowingly rely. Coupled to this is the related loss of biodiversity, which has both practical and moral angles to it. Solving climate change, which seems a forlorn hope at the best of times, does very little for other such invisible hurdles.

Needless to say, as with other such requests for input, I've heard diddly-squat back. If I hear anything about this news item, I'll post it up.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


This ...


Has become this ...


I wonder what the difference will be?

To be honest, I was pretty happy with Vista. It got a bum rap in my view, but since it's clearly on the way out, I thought I'd get with the programme for once, and keep up with the new OS.

So far it seems to be fine. It installed with no problems and is running well (bar some teething problems with HL2DM). Not quite as resource un-hungry as I'd hoped, but there's maybe scope for tailoring that.

I'll have to just see how it works out. I can always go back ... I think.


A bit of a break with traditional reading patterns this time: a biography - indeed, an autobiography. For reasons I can't entirely pin down, I've never been interested in reading anything beyond fiction or popular treatments of science, etc. Although I've enjoyed the occasional biographical asides in the latter, and the veiled hint that the former are partially biography, I've not felt the need to read formal biography. Unsurprisingly then, I'm only coming to it now because of a birthday present from C. Knowing of my great love for the UK band Blur, she bought me the autobiography of its bassist, Alex James.

That said, I suspect it's not the most typical of introductions to the literary genre for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's written (rather than ghostwritten) by someone with an atypical job relative to most public figures who come to my attention, namely one in popular music. Secondly, although the subject is an artist, the book contains practically nothing about his art. This came as something of a surprise, and I suspect some readers might feel a bit cheated to find the book's pages bereft of anything about their favourite music beyond vague, passing remarks.

This latter point certainly undercut my expectations for this book. I'd expected, probably hoped, to find out interesting points about particular songs and albums, but the book stays well away from this sort of dissection. To the extent that it's at times difficult to work out when the author is talking about since he doesn't even use his band's discography for temporal stratigraphy.

Instead, the book is a rambling overview of James' childhood and his life during the Blur years, that finishes up with him settling down with a wife (and, inexplicably, a pig farm). He skips the music to focus instead on the everyday, and increasingly less-everyday, aspects of his rock star life. Large quantities of drugs are consumed, wall-to-wall sexual adventures are passingly alluded to, but the book does find time to fill in some unexpected details.

These include a walk-on part for the artist Damien Hirst who, contrary to my expectations, comes off as a talented and entertaining friend to James. Also, James waxes lyrical about his infatuation with astronomy, which ultimately led to the (ultimately) unsuccessful Beagle 2 mission to Mars. And, along the way, James becomes a qualified pilot, and gets quite poetic about his flying around Europe and Africa.

So, though it has a near-total lack of any backstory or discussion of Blur's hits, the book does make for an interesting read. But it's safe to say that James is not the most natural or fluid of writers. His prose frequently reads like conversation, with a repetitive patter that works in speech but less in print. And he has something of a bad habit of being overenthusiastic about everything. The reader is breathlessly introduced to some arbitrary subject (flying, touring, cheese shops) that is then described as James' favourite and the best-ever. Although it would have distorted his style, I did often think that James' editor could have stepped in and earned their keep more (or perhaps they did!).

One uneasy aspect to the book is James' treatment of his long-term girlfriend, Justine. She never really features much in the book, despite playing an ostensibly significant part for a long stretch (although this could be said about most of James' friends and family). Furthermore, although constantly apologetic towards her in his writing, James really didn't treat her very well during his ride with Blur. As success kicks in, tours quickly become an opportunity for (multiple) infidelity, and though James appears regretful about this, he still strung her along for a considerable period of time. And while it's difficult to be sure given the book's rather fluid chronology, it reads like she left him because of his lack of commitment, only for him to commit to his current wife in pretty short order.

Anyway, overall it's an interesting peek into contemporary rock star life, one that does contain a few nice surprises, but I can't say that it's won me over to biography as a form. It's doubtless far from the best introduction, but I'm still not particularly convinced that I want to take such a specific interest in the detail of the lives of others. I'm going to stick to novels.

Saturday, 31 October 2009


Now this is pretty cool ...

It's a kind-of cloud generated from the content of Strange News using an online Java package called Wordle. I particularly like that it displays "Arse" prominently - didn't notice that I'd used it that much. Although I've fed it this blog, it can be fed any large block of text. Here's what happens when you give it the entire text of Moby-Dick (for APM, of course) ...

Marvellous. Given that it identifies major themes in the text it's fed (cf. "Whale" above), perhaps it's a quick way to generate a short-hand summary of a technical paper or long newspaper article? :-)

Return of the Wanderer

For someone as poorly observant as me, it's difficult to know for sure, but I'm pretty sure that this year's successful seagull (last blogged here and photographed here) is currently hopping around its birthplace on the roof opposite (I'm in work wrapping up a review for the NSF). The gull, which still has juvenile plumage, arrived with an adult, possibly its parent. I don't know how gull families work, but they're a veritable model of the nuclear family compared to the dysfunctional ducks. Anyway, wearing my anthropomorphic hat, I suspect that animals as big and seemingly clever as gulls are probably smart enough and interested enough to recognise and return to places that once were important to them. So, who knows? It could be them.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The naturalness of age

We caught an excellent exhibition at the Civic Centre yesterday. The BP Portrait Award 2009 is on tour, and is spending a month and a half in Southampton.

While the subjects range widely, taking in everyone from children to heavily tattooed Portsmouth supporters, painting the elderly was quite a popular choice. Some of the pictures were really striking, and the material accompanying such painting usually made vague references to the naturalness of the ageing process or the cycle of life or some such.

Seeing such commentary repeatedly made me reflect on, not so much how natural ageing is, but how natural our acceptance of it is. In part, this sometimes strikes me as being a reflexive dismissal of efforts to ward off ageing and a dislike of the denial of age by those of a more materialist (in the social sense) disposition. All well and good, but as a biologist I can't help but think that ageing, far from being something that we should relax into, is something that we really should resist.

Rather than seeing it as a necessary part of life, senescence should instead be seen for what it is: a predictable outcome for the throwaway machines that are built to service the unconscious and uncaring needs of immortal strands of digital information. If we value ourselves, that is our minds, above the ceaselessly shuffled genes that built the machines that we both are and occupy, then we should take a far less sanguine view of our fate.

In a way, ageing truly exposes our serf-like existence as mere temporary vessels for more permanent passengers. Once they have disembarked, off to newer, cleaner vessels for the next leg to eternity, the fate of the decaying hulks left behind is irrelevant, and the concomitant blindness of natural selection is to be expected. In this view, we should be more than a little annoyed by senescence, and a whole lot more questioning of the common wisdom that, just because something is natural, it should be uncritically accepted.

The shallow pursuit of youth should be viewed suspiciously, but it is wrong to view ageing as some benign part of some abstract "cycle of life". What ageing is really telling us, if we're prepared to listen, is "you're fired".

Sunday, 18 October 2009

More drinking in Eastleigh

Further to last month's evening in Eastleigh, last night saw another, albeit more refined, quaffing-session in the town. This time it was a wine-tasting evening - at least that's the formal excuse. Last time's winner, Dan, was both defending the Golden Arse and co-hosting the evening with Rachel. Unfortunately, as has occurred time and time again, he was unable to retain the Arse, which went to repeat-winner June ...


While June won with an impressive score of 15/18, I trickled in way down the table with a paltry 7/18 points. And, even then, some of those I only got because I played the numbers game and guessed the same wine multiple times. Though I have won the Arse in the distant past (and on my first tasting evening to boot!), my performance in the last few evenings has left a lot to be desired. I think I'll be taking tips from June next time though (and/or copying off of her sheet).

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Carbon cooperation

Another very interesting seminar today. This one, by David Beerling from Sheffield, dealt with the geological cycle of carbon (weathering; CaCO3 burial; vulcanism) and the role that terrestrial vegetation plays on top of it.

Essentially, for a couple of decades it's been known that there's a neat feedback loop between CO2 and climate, which is mediated through rock weathering on land. Vegetation on land is known to be associated with enhanced weathering, and the evolution of land plants (first in getting onto the land; later the advent of the angiosperms) is believed to be responsible for two significant decreases in atmospheric CO2 in the Phanerozoic.

This was the background to the talk, but it went off in quite a different direction. Beerling then introduced the arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) and the ectomycorrhiza (EM), two groups of fungi with strong mutual symbioses with land plants. While I knew that these played an important role in nutrient acquisition for some plants, I'd no idea quite how big a role this was. Apparently around 12% of photosynthate produced by a plant can be channelled to its symbiont.

The seminar then delved into some experimental work in which the strength of this relationship was examined (largely through 14C-labelling of plant photosynthate). This was augmented by some very elegant and clever growth experiments in which the potting medium was differentially composed of soils of different mineral value. These trials showed not only the strong link between the two species, but also how tenacious fungi are at locating and "mining" minerals for their plant partners. Some of the photographs showing the fungal growth were really impressive on this point.

Finally, the talk returned to the geological cycle of carbon, and armed with this new quantitative knowledge about the plant-fungus relationship, suggested instead that the underlying factor in the downward "jumps" in past atmospheric CO2 was the evolution of the two groups of fungi. Fossil evidence points (as much as it can given large uncertainties) to the appearance of each group around the time that CO2 drops.

Anyway, it was all quite a nice challenge to the "interesting-but-not-significant" view I'd formed of AM and EM during my biology degree. And intriguing to see cooperation, which I also typically view as "interesting-but-not-significant", put pole position in such key biogeochemical processes.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Evil corporates

Judging from this weekend's films, anti-corporatism is still in vogue, and still makes for enjoyable cinema (which may say more about me than Hollywood).

First up was State of Play, a remake of an excellent TV series we saw a couple of years ago. Somewhat surprisingly, the film largely mirrors the original, albeit with a few nips and tucks. The core story is retained, though some of the plotting is rather fast, and we don't get to know some of the characters quite so well. This does tend to move things along a little too quickly for the viewer to try to guess ahead, surely one of the pleasures of the genre, but it was still an enjoyable film. The story's central messages about the corrupting influence of the bottom line and the creeping corporatisation of military services are retained, and still timely, although as with the TV series, get overshadowed as the narrative twists its way to the finish line.

Much more interesting, and viscerally enjoyable, was District 9, an ostensibly science fiction film about alien visitors to Earth who have overstayed their welcome. Told as a mixture of conventional cinematic narrative and through interspersed documentary footage and interviews, the film follows Wikus, an administrator tasked by Multinational United (MNU) to evict the aliens from their Johannesburg (and eponymous) slum. However, while serving eviction notices to the brutalised aliens, Wikus is accidentally exposed to an alien technology and begins to undergo a genetic transformation that gradually turns him into an alien. This transformation is of great interest to MNU, who have long been searching for a means to successfully operate alien weaponry, and Wikus quickly becomes an expendable resource for the corporation's biotechnology department. Escaping from MNU, Wikus becomes a hunted fugative, and while desperate to return to normal life and his loving wife, he gradually becomes aware of the true plight of the aliens. Ultimately, he selflessly helps one alien and his son to escape to, and activate, the mothership that has hovered unresponsively over the city for 20 years.

While the film is solidly enjoyable as a science fiction romp, particularly when Wikus begins to use alien technology to fight back against MNU, its real themes run very close to the surface. In this respect, setting the film in post-Apartheid South Africa is something of a master-stroke, one that harmonises perfectly with the anti-racist subtext (practically the sur-text). The film did strike me as channelling the spirits of Robocop and Alien Nation, but by marrying the best themes from both (together with the rather enjoyable violence of the former) more than stands on its own two feet. And, as ever, it's hard not to like a film which ends hopefully.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Not so autotrophic now

We had an interesting inaugural seminar in yesterday's Friday Seminar Series. MVZ was in the barrel, as was I, since I was on introducing duty through my new membership of the Series' organising committee. He gave a quite revelatory (and impressively brief) overview of some work he's done on less-than-autotrophic behaviour of phytoplankton. After starting with an introduction that took in the evolutionary history of prokaryotes and the endosymbiosis that led them to eukaryotes, we jumped to a conundrum in the nutrient and carbon budgets in the modern North Atlantic. Basically, eukaryotic algae are doing a fair fraction of the carbon fixation, but are only responsible for a small fraction of phosphate uptake. Given that there should be parity between these, something is up. Bactivory, apparently, is what that "something" turns out to be. By carefully labelling prokaryotic cells by providing them with an isotope-labelled amino acid, MVZ was able to show that, within hours, this label wound up in some interesting places. Even card-carrying autotrophs like the coccolithophorids have a sideline in getting phosphate in a less-than-first-principles manner. The idea is that, in highly nutrient stressed environments like the oligotrophic gyres, bacteria provide an excellent source of phosphate, and other useful molecules to boot. That said, my favourite phytoplankton, the diatoms, are still hardcore-autotrophs, with no whiff of bactivory on their part (at least in the open ocean), but this probably stems from their adaptation to high nutrient environments (plus their frustules would probably impede dining). In the environments that MVZ studied, it turns out that eukaryotic phytoplankton are as important at grazing bacteria as bona fide protistan microzooplankton. Quite a turn up for the books [*], although pleasing to see that, despite billions of years of autotrophic life, the eukaryotes are hanging on to their phagotrophic machinery ... just in case.

[*] Actually, as MVZ pointed out, people have known for a long time (probably for almost as long as they've known about microplankton) that eukaryotic phytoplankton engage in grazing activity. What's new here is that the scale of this has been established. I certainly wouldn't have expected algae to be such enthusiastic players in the grazing business. It's definitely something for future generations of ecosystem models ...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Day 6, drivearound

Rather than exhaust ourselves on another walk on our last day on holiday, we decided to go on a drive around several places that we had on our list but which we never got around to visiting. Any future trip out this way, not unlikely given how successful this trip has been, might take some of these in more closely.

Day 6, drive around

Our first stop was Goudhurst, a village on top of a little hill. Definitely something of a nice stop for a hike, but a little empty for us in culture-vulture mode. As with many of the East Sussex / Kent villages, it has a great church bang in the centre of town. Although this, and the town in general, was under siege from Jehovah's Witnesses while we were visiting, we had a good look around and in it ...


Next up was Lamberhurst, actually immediately to the north of Bewl Water. We didn't stop in the village itself, but instead dropped by its church ...


After an abortive trip to Scotney Castle, a nearby, but dull-looking National Trust site, we then headed back east to Cranbrook, a much larger village that afforded lunch and another church visit. This time the church was all decked out in its harvest festival finest, as can be seen in the scattering of apples and adornments to the baptismal font here ...


Cranbrook also sports a great windmill near its centre. It's essentially a museum these days (one that was shut when we visited), but I believe that it's still functional when it wants to be ...


Our final stop for the day was at a nearby vineyard. We had a quick look around the vines (which were being picked while we were there), before exploiting its shop as a source of birthday / holiday presents. Rather nicely, we also got to sample a few whites, a red and a rose that they produce. The whites were very nice, but the red wasn't as full-bodied as we're used to - possibly on account of more limited growing conditions for red grapes.

Full set of drivearound photographs available here.

On returning to Burwash, we chilled out to make the most of another beautiful sunny day, before getting ourselves ready for the trip back to Southampton. Burwash has been a great holiday venue, particularly because of the barn itself. Needless to say, a round of holiday home snaps resulted.

Full set of barn photographs available here.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Day 5, Bewl Water

Looking around for a walk to do, we spotted nearby Bewl Water. It's another reservoir, much like Darwell Reservoir on our Brightling walk, but has an activity centre and a full round-lake path.

After ruling out cycling around the path on grounds of prohibitive cost (you'd think such an operation might drop its prices off-season), we decided to just walk out one edge of the lake then back, and then to try our luck elsewhere. But easy walking, nice views of oast houses over water and an impressive (early) average walking speed (3.5 mph), persuaded us to do all 20 km (12.4 mi) ...

Day 5 Bewl Water hike

As mentioned above, one of the attractions for us, and one of the reasons that it mutated from a 3-mile round trip into the full 12 miles, was because it had no shortage of attractive views of the aforementioned oast houses. And because, as the track picture above shows, the path wriggled its way around the lake, we often got multiple views of these. This one we saw from far and near ...


Actually, there isn't a huge amount more to say about the walk. The path was, with a few roadwork-related hiccups, extremely easy to follow. And the weather was, again, excellent. So it was a enjoyable and straightforward walk around a rather inlet-heavy, but pretty, lake ...


... At least for the first 10 km! The second 10 km, while still very easy walking, gradually became more of a chore. But the walk did give us something of a sense of achievement since it's the longest one-day walk we've done for quite a while. Some days we've come quite close in length when summed up over the full day, but this is the longest formal route we've walked in years (and it isn't even all that long!).

Anyway, it was very pleasant to return to the activity centre and claim our coffees. It was also surprising to find that, including a lunch stop, we'd managed to maintain an impressive (for us) average speed of 3.1 mph. Admittedly, the path, being around a lake, was largely flat walking, but this is still a good speed for our walks (our moving average even stuck at 3.5 mph).

The evening's entertainment this time was the glossy, nonsense techno-thriller Swordfish, another hauled from the barn's large DVD library. Unlike Mystery Alaska, which somewhat surprised us as a minor success, this time we got more-or-less what we expected. Its saving grace was that its running time was sub-100 minutes, so it only just outstayed its welcome.

Full set of photographs available here.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Day 4, Rye and atomic Dungeness

We travelled a bit further out today, down to the southeast and the coastline around Rye and the Dungeness. We began with an easy hike around an SSSI adjacent to Rye Harbour ...

Day 4 Rye Harbour

The walk took us on an almost triangular route around a protected coastal ecosystem. The foreshore was a large shingle beach, almost certainly formed by longshore drift, and clearly still on the move judging from the dilapidated groynes all along it ...


The shingle was home to a rather strange cabbage-like plant that formed irregular sparse coverage. The plants were a little desert-like in their distribution, but I couldn't think of what might be limiting them and causing this pattern. Though the SSSI was ostensibly home to a range of rare and protected species (which were nicely illustrated by mosaics), we didn't really come across much obvious wildlife. We did see more goats again, however.

Much more obvious, though distant, were two sources of power generation on the coastline. Just south of Rye we could see a large array of wind turbines, although they weren't up to much as our visit coincided with slack winds. Further off in the distance was a series of rectangular buildings that related to an altogether different carbon-free technology ...

After completing our walk (7.4 km; 4.6 mi) we headed up to the town of Rye itself. It's a nice little maze of cobbled and car-hostile streets where, somewhat to our surprise, the novelist Henry James once lived. Though small, it has its own little castle (complete with balls) and a large and well-provisioned church. After grabbing lunch at a little collective supporting adults with learning difficulties, we did a bit of exploring ...


We then headed out towards Dungeness, stopping off along the way for a closer peak at the first of the area's non-fossil fuel power sources ...


Arriving at the rather desolately beautiful Dungeness headland, our first stop was Prospect Cottage ...


This is a "cottage garden" created by the film-maker and artist Derek Jarman. Being located in the alien environment of Dungeness and rising out of the shingle there, the garden is a rather bizarre version of the rural idyll beloved of chocolate boxes (and one well-provisioned with the "sea cabbages" already mentioned). I'm guessing that's what Jarman was after when he originally created it. Well, that and locating his homage to cosy English living in the evocative and seemingly threatening shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station ...


This is the first nuclear power station that I've gotten up close to, and the setting certainly helped amp up the atmosphere. Firstly, the desolate shingle gives the area the air of a science fiction world, helped when we visited by its framing with a grey sky and sea. Secondly, the area is populated either by small cottages surrounded by junk, or simply by large piles of seeming marine debris, including beached boats and battered shipping containers. These pile on the futurism by giving Dungeness an end-of-the-world feel that wouldn't be out of place in Half-Life 2.

Surprisingly, but at the same time not surprisingly, the area is host to a small community of artists, of which Jarman was once part (he may even have been in the vanguard, but I suspect not). While investigating the displayed works of one painter (Paddy Hamilton, we later discovered), we were invited into his studio and got the low-down on his work and inspiration. One of his series of paintings was of the vehicles that visited Dungeness. It transpired that these belong to a population of transients attracted to the cheap living and isolation of the headland. The paintings themselves were interesting, but the stories behind each gave them an unexpected depth.

All that said, the power station is a pretty anodyne feature. While we were wandering around there was essentially no discernible activity or noise from the station. Quite different from the industrial landscapes around my work, which are always busy or noisy or both. In fact, what activity there was stemmed from the fair number of curious visitors who'd travelled to the tip of the headland to see the reactor buildings. Perhaps because they didn't glow, but just invisibly and silently produced power, people tended not to stay very long, and neither did we. A flurry of photographs, and we headed back inland to Burwash.

Full set of photographs available here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Day 3, Brightling and Bexhill

Two main targets today: a walk based around the neighbouring village Brightling, and a trip to see the De La Warr Pavilion in the seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea.

Day 3 Brightling hike

We picked the Brightling walk from one of our books because it took in a number of follies built by the local 18th century eccentric John ("Mad Jack") Fuller. As his nickname implies, Fuller was regarded by some as a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but he was something of a rebellious MP and a strong patron of the arts and sciences, of which he supported, among others, J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday.

Anyway, our hike began at Brightling church, in the graveyard of which is a Fuller's final resting place, a large pyramid mausoleum ...


The walk went on to take in two further follies belonging to Fuller, a temple folly that now forms the centrepiece of a sheep pasture, and a tower folly that can still be scaled for views of Brightling and its surrounds ...


Again, the weather was very much on our side, and the walk took us over fields and through woods, passing goat farms and even crossing (twice) a rumbling, covered conveyor belt snaking its way through Brightling's rolling landscape ...


We could hear this gently grumbling through the forest long before we could see it. Apparently, it serves a neighbourhood gypsum mine. It certainly provided a more industrial feature of interest to counterpoint the more classical follies of Fuller.

Eventually (9.9 km; 6.2 mi), the work circled back on itself and brought us back to Brightling's church and Fuller's pyramid. Although the graveyard was providing dining for some local sheep (which now appears a common management strategy in East Sussex), the total absence of a bench (I know, I know) forced us to look a bit further afield for a lunch spot.

Fortunately, our route to Bexhill-on-Sea took us through a number of small villages and we eventually found the lovely St. Lawrence Church on a hill in Catsfield ...


It wasn't the first church that we stopped at though - but it was the first one that hadn't been deconsecrated and turned into someone's home. C had got as far as sitting down and getting the sandwiches out before we spotted that our first church's "graveyard" was lacking in headstones but did have a washing line ... oops.

After lunch we headed down to the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea, and visited (probably) the town's most famous attraction: the beautifully Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion ...


C had been wanting to visit this for years but we'd never quite made it far enough east (the A27 being pants). Although I like Art Deco, I've often found that famous buildings I've gone out of my way to find are somewhat disappointing when finally encountered in the flesh, so I wasn't in a huge rush to see the Pavilion. But I must admit that I was pretty impressed in the end. As well as being uber-stylish - with a cylindrical glass front that houses a spiral staircase and some dangling modernist sculpture - its recent refit has given it a real polish. We actually caught it inbetween exhibitions, but just as well really - the building was cool enough to justify wandering around it without trying to take in any art on top.

Unfortunately, Bexhill-on-Sea doesn't have a whole lot else to see (or, rather, nothing that we could see), so we headed for home after finishing our photoshoot of the Pavilion. On the way back we hit another church, Mountfield. Among other details, this had a great Millennium Window with a lovely modern detail ...


Full set of photographs available here.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Day 2, Battle and Bodiam

East Sussex is probably best known in the Britain for its connection with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This year is probably the most significant, well, memorable, date in British history ... for reasons that (me being from Scotland) are largely mysterious. Today's hike was centred on the town that now exists adjacent to the battle site, the appropriately-named Battle, and took us to Battle Abbey, a memorial to the battle built by the winning side. I'm still not entirely sure why this particular battle is such a tectonic shift in British history (hadn't we been conquered by the Romans previously? aren't we currently "ruled" by an alien royalty?), but I can at least say that I've walked all around the hillside on which the battle took place.

Day 2 Battle walk

We started bang in the centre of Battle but got out of the town in fairly short order, heading northeast. This time the GPS unit had remembered out track so, with a few minor deviations, we stayed close to the plan. This was helped by rather obvious path markers like this one ...


After a short deviation immediately after this railway tunnel, essentially we walked the wrong way around a sewage farm, the walk was pretty uneventful. A long stretch of it was through the bottom end of some impressively large gardens attached to equally impressively large houses, much, I'm sure, to the displeasure of their clearly moneyed owners. The outgoing leg, to a small village called Sedlescombe, took us mostly through fields, while the return leg was a largely forested affair. Quite a long walk (16.6 km; 10.3 mi), but cloudy weather kept it comfortable.

Eventually, we circled back to Battle ...


The town is pretty much dominated by the abbey built to commemorate the battle, and though we'd already walked quite far, we figured that we couldn't possibly visit the town without doing the history.


It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I'd originally feared. After a short film setting the scene, we took a walk around the battle site guided by a surprisingly entertaining audioguide.

Usually I'm extremely skeptical of these devices because they turn art gallery visitors into inconsiderate view blockers, but here there was no risk of that, and the commentary was well-written and actually quite amusing in places. For instance, after introducing an impressive, if tumbledown, portion of the abbey, the speaker delighted in undercutting our perceptions by revealing it as the toilet block.

And though even the geography of the site has changed somewhat since the battle, keying the commentary to particular locations still gave the listener an idea of where key events took place. The key event, of course, was the felling of King Harold, ostensibly by an arrow to the eye, an event we couldn't resist replicating on the very site where Harold (allegedly) fell ...


After leaving Battle we headed home by way of a couple of stops. We caught a really nice church in Salehurst with what we thought was a novel solution to graveyard lawn maintenance ...


Our last stop was nearby Bodiam Castle, something of a total castle stereotype. Not content with classic turrets and slit-like windows for shooting arrows out of, it's also surrounded by a (duck-infested) moat crossed by a drawbridge. Still, it made for a photogenic end to our day out.


Full set of photographs available here.