Friday, 30 April 2010

History repeats itself

We got our third duck family earlier this week, and it's already down to 10 chicks. The original two families are now even more significantly down, with just a handful of (admittedly larger) chicks between them now. Less evidence of people feeding them this week, but I'm probably just not paying close enough attention. Anyway, it'll be interesting to see if anyone makes it out alive this year. It's not even May, but already a wearisomely familiar picture of Nature's waste seems to have all but played out.

Still, on the plus side, the seagulls have been getting busy this week. Noisily. Just outside my office window. So hopefully there'll be at least some signs of more enlightened, K-selected behaviour to offset the r-folly of the ducks.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Dr. M

Up to London this weekend on a long-overdue trip to see Dr. M. Because I'm not particularly well-organised (to say the least), our previous get-together is lost back in the mists of early 2009.

In fact, it's been so long that since this last visit, Dr. M has not only purchased an old terraced house in southwest London, but has almost completely renovated it. Before visiting, I'd interpreted his descriptions as pointing to it requiring something of a spruce up, but in fact it's been on the receiving end of some serious work. To the extent of interior walls being demolished and rebuilt; a total rewiring; the plumbing in of the house's first central heating system; and the removal of all traces of the previous owner's preferred decoration style (vintage 1960s, judging from the photographs). Anyway, an impressive work-over has occurred, though a little more tidying up will keep Dr. M busy a bit longer.

Post-house-appraisal, we headed off to London Bridge to take in a great market there, and to grab some beers in sight of St. Pauls. After a change or two of bars, and the departure of C on cat-feeding detail, we headed back out west for an evening of drunken philosophising, breeze-shooting and curry consumption. Most satisfying, though now largely forgotten.


Sunday took us out to Woking for some garden shopping. One large credit card transaction later, and Dr. M was all set to be self-sufficient in the produce-growing department. Well, in a few years once the veritable arboretum purchased comes of fruit-bearing age. I'm looking forwards to seeing how that all pans out next time I'm up. Which, hopefully, won't be after so long an interruption.

There are some more photographs here.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Malthus takes a bite

It's difficult to be sure about the rate at which it's happening, since I'm not making a concerted effort to head-count them, but the duckling count is definitely down since the start of this week. Then, both mothers had around 15 chicks each, but today the broods are both down to less than 10 each, although it isn't terribly easy to count them quickly.

I've also not been keeping track of violations of the food-embargo. The declining duckling number hints at no further breeches, and I certainly can't see anything down there just now, but duck-on-duckling murder is (apparently) at least as common a Malthusian scythe as starvation.

Actually, that probably makes the quad sound at little to much like some sort of Roman Amphitheatre, with gladiator-style duckling action in the arena. So far, I've yet to see anything bad happen at all. From my perspective, ducklings just disappear, but I'm assured that there are nefarious goings-on down below.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Oops, wine tasting

Forgot to report a wine tasting evening at which we were the hosts. Duh.

Given the close proximity to the much-awaited (by at least one of us; clue: not me) 2010 World Cup, we chose our wines along football-relevant lines. Originally, we'd hoped to get wines from each of the countries in England's qualifying group, but Algeria and Slovenia turned out not to be well-represented (well, represented) in our local off-licence. So we wound up having a wine each from parts of Group C (England and United States) and two wines apiece from the hosts (South Africa) and the current holders (Italy). The English wine was one we acquired last year on our holiday in Burwash (and surprisingly good - to the extent that I judged that it must be the non-English white and voted appropriately ... and incorrectly). The choice of the theme also gave C licence to roll out the assorted World Cup tat that we've amassed over the years, including a England-shirted gnome we put on the front steps to greet our guests.

While the evening went very well, true to form the scores were uniformly low. Out of a possible 24 points (6 wines times 4 properties: grape, country, year, alcohol content) the highest score achieved was a meagre 9 (I pulled down a shockingly poor 5). A result of this low scoring was that we then had to have a three-way tie-break to tease apart the weak field and determine our winner. Next time, I reckon that some form of multiple choice should be used so that we have at least some idea what vintages and potencies are in the mix, with the hope that our scores are somewhat more respectable.

Anyway, the upshot of the contest was the wresting of the Golden Arse from June (shown here, pre-match) by her daughter Rachel ...


As usual, there's a full set of photographs here.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Contrails galore

With aircraft restrictions re-evaluated, it's contrails galore above Soton at the moment. It's been quite interesting to have the sky free of them for the better part of a week, but I say that as someone who's not flying next until mid-May. Anyway, perhaps my officemate, stranded since last week in the US, will make it back soon?

Needless to say, the Tories (and other reprobates) have been quick to turn what appears (at worst) over-cautious regulation into a great big political football. What's worse is that their shrill spokesperson is using the event as an opportunity to go off on one about "over-regulation". Given how overzealous some airlines have been with thousands of misplaced customers on their books, I can just imagine how deregulation will improve things. Either way, it's helpful to know that leopards really don't change their spots.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Oooh, a jet!

Contrails ahoy! That's the first one in days - a proper high-flying, condensation trail-producing, volcanic ash-risking aeroplane. Heading south-west too.

Judging from the ongoing commentary on all things volcanic, it's becoming another opportunity to bash the UK Met. Office and, in particular, climate models. Some argue that the (positive) data from a handful of test flights is transparently more credible than the (negative) synoptic output from regularly data-assimilated models that have been carefully developed over years. Even the normally money-grubbing RyanAir has seen through that cheap shot and noted that, in a dynamic situation, a clear air corridor today is useless for planning flights in even a few days time. Ho-hum.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Two tribes

Presumably at some point during the weekend, a second brood of ducklings has hatched, so we now have two collections of adorable chicks competing for the negligible resources of the quad. Or not so negligible as it happens, since someone is feeding them in direct contravention of the human-Anatidae rules of engagement. Anyway, for now all looks well in the quad, but with ~30 ducklings in there all aiming at adult size, it's going to get ugly before long.

In passing, while there's no sign of any chicks yet, our roosting seagulls appear to have returned. And seem to be spending a lot of time here judging from the accumulation of guano.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


Another weekend, another animation. This time Up by the Pixar studio. While it gets off to a great and unexpectedly moving start, the pacing is a little weak and the story less sure-footed than Pixar's usual high standards. For instance, after a relatively slow start in which Paradise Falls is carefully set up as Carl's ultimate destination, he practically gets there in a single hop. I'd expected more from his journey. Then the film follows with a succession of less convincing and overly "coincidentalised" events. Imagination is applied here well, the talking dogs being something of a neat idea, but the "zany" turn of events somewhat betrays the film's beginning, which is more heartfelt and grounded in real hopes and disappointments. Still, it's never less than charming, and is streets ahead of most of what's out there. As ever, Pixar's worst enemy is itself - by setting the bar so high, it can't always beat its "personal best".

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Quad fodder

As promised, some photographs of this year's first quad brood. Not that it's possible to tell, but the upper image shows part of our new, improved quad pond.



In unrelated photography news, the sun is setting here right now, but doesn't look any redder this evening despite Iceland's current contribution to air pollution.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Let the Malthusian dynamics begin

About a week earlier than in last April, our first batch of ducklings has appeared in the quad. I didn't spot them myself, but they were clocked from another office with a great view down into one of the bushes that they nest in. Given that they were all hiding under their mother, I wasn't able to do a headcount, but my corridormate thinks that there are already more than 10 chicks. That fits with last year's first batch which came in at 14. Anyway, I'll see about getting some pictures for Strange News, but I'm obviously prohibited from circulating them more widely.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Science fiction + Mythology = ...

Sometimes, usually when I'm all alone out walking somewhere in the countryside, I fantasise about a life on Earth in the absence of humanity. How good it would be to just go anywhere I wanted, and how great it would be for ecosystems to return to a civilisation-free state. As evidenced by such films as 28 Days Later and I Am Legend (or the more peaceful excerpts of them, at least), I'm not alone in trying to imagine such a world. And in a similar vein, Margaret Atwood's latest novel, the dystopian tale The Year of the Flood, is a literary take on this apocalyptic theme.[1]

The novel is set in a somewhat extrapolated future in which western societies have "brazilified"[2] into super-rich gated communities governed by corporations, and crime-ridden slums occupied by the underclass. Biotechnology is a major industry in this world, and the genetic engineering of animals has created a diverse range of chimeric organisms tailored for particular purposes such as wool or meat production, and even as harvestable sources of transplant organs for humans. Alongside this increase in synthetic diversity, natural biodiversity has dwindled due to the depredations of a burgeoning human population.

Against this backdrop, the novel follows two women escaping from very different situations in this economically divided world. Threatened by a sadistic boss, Toby leaves a life of violent servitude in the slums; meanwhile, Ren escapes the scrutinised confines and corporate perfidy of the gated compounds. The two women meet in an ecological commune known as God's Gardeners, which operates outside of corporate rule but constantly has to defend itself from the neighbouring, lawless slums. Here they meet Adam One, the leader of this group, and are introduced to his theological interpretation of biology, with its catalogue of Saints such as Rachel Carson, Francis Crick and James Lovelock, and its core belief in a coming "Waterless Flood" that will end the tyrannical reign of humanity over the Earth.

Unbeknownst to God's Gardeners (and largely narratively off-stage), an idealistic geneticist known as Crake has developed a lethal virus that will deliver an Earth-cleansing "Flood". In tandem, Crake has also created a replacement for mankind in the form of a novel, and ecologically benign, human species. The release of the infectious agent triggers devastating mortality and the collapse of societies worldwide, and while God's Gardeners are somewhat better prepared, they too are caught off-guard by both its severity and the changed world that it leaves in its wake. In the aftermath, Toby and Ren find themselves trapped separately in safe, if temporary, havens, but events conspire to both reunite and threaten them.

The novel largely runs in parallel to Atwood's earlier novel, Oryx and Crake, and both novels share characters as well as the key event of the devastating global pandemic. This wide overlap between the two novels brings both advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, it allows Atwood to more completely flesh out her dystopian future. Oryx and Crake was largely filtered through life in the super-rich enclaves, and specifically the experiences of a character very close to Crake. The Year of the Flood spends much more time in the poverty-stricken surrounding areas, and takes in some of the corporate world (the health spa, AnooYoo; the animal-themed sex club, Scales and Tails) in addition to the austere world of God's Gardeners. In a nice detail, the latter organisation is also used to provide the sermons and hymns that open each chapter, and which illuminate the depredations of humanity on the Earth.

However, on the down side, it does mean that readers of the earlier novel lose out a bit by already knowing something about the steadily approaching calamity. This event doesn't come as a surprise in the novel, since its time-line is already fractured, but it does mean that the narrative can feel something like a retread at times. More seriously, Atwood can't resist tying the two novels together, and doing so in a quite ham-fisted manner. First of all, though The Year of the Flood uses some very different locations and perspectives, one of its central characters is intimately connected to the protagonist from Oryx and Crake. Nothing wrong with that, but Atwood employs this connection in an utterly implausible coincidence at the tail end of the book. A coincidence, I should add, that also deflates the satisfyingly ambiguous ending of the original novel.

One area in which this novel particularly distinguishes itself is its melding of Christian mythology with environmentalism. As touched on already, Adam One constantly refers to the "Waterless Flood" and talks of both Ararat and a New Eden as God's Gardeners' haven during the flood and the cleansed world after it. The sermons more generally present a religion in which biological concepts like predation, eusociality and pollination are given a theological spin. I really quite enjoyed these rather florid extrapolations of Atwood's, and thought that she did a pretty good job of making a plausible stab at a religion more in tune with ecology (cf. "Let us make man in our image ... and let them rule ... over all the earth"). That said, she's clearly having a bit of fun with the shoehorning of religious ideas into agreement with less palatable concepts like disease and death, and the latter sermons after the release of the "Waterless Flood" are actually quite dark as God's Gardeners gradually come to terms with the thought that perhaps the New Eden is not for them.

So, overall I'd judge the novel very much as a mixed bag. I really liked the texture of it, and enjoyed being back in Atwood's apocalyptic world, but I just wish that she hadn't tied this novel so tightly to the previous volume. Follow-up visits by authors to their fictional worlds don't have to tie up the loose threads of predecessor volumes, and in this case really shouldn't have.

In passing, I think that the pandemic of both novels presents something of an interesting moral challenge to ecologically-minded readers like myself. It's the deliberate outcome of the actions of an idealistic environmentalist, but it's obviously an appalling event that kills practically everyone on Earth. But when I read of yet another species swallowed by extinction, or hear of a particularly strident protest against the thought that perhaps we've enough humans now, or see some especially wasteful new product or technology, then I start thinking the same way as Crake. Absurd, since I do think that biological diversity alone is not everything, and that civilisation is at least as important, but I feel, deep inside, where he's coming from. Given the sordid future that Atwood creates, and then destroys, again, I don't think that I'm alone.

[1] I say "literary" here since Atwood has an ambiguous relationship to science fiction (an issue on which she's not alone as I've commented before). It's difficult for me to see this volume, its predecessor and earlier works like The Handmaid's Tale as anything but science fiction, but Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction". Possibly because she prefers all her books to sit together in the fiction section of bookshops; possibly because she perceives an antipathy in critics towards genre fiction. Either way, I do find the protests of "serious novelists" about the branding of their work as genre pretty annoying, not least because they're parroting the snobbishness of the critics. That said, if a few science fiction books like this one go "undercover" to infiltrate the literary fiction shelves, perhaps they'll serve as a Trojan Horse to get the genre (at least its best proponents) a little more acceptance.

[2] Brazilification: The widening gulf between the rich and the poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle classes (Generation X).

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The First Cut

The back garden gets its first cut of the year in this fisheye-o-vision time lapse movie ...

Friday, 9 April 2010


Having just caught it this evening, I can wholeheartedly recommend Fantastic Mr. Fox. I wasn't entirely confident that subject material written by Roald Dahl and centred around the antics of a suave, anthropomorphic fox was quite suited to the director, Wes Anderson, but he pulled it off brilliantly. Although animated, it's probably not ideally suited for children given the at times wry humour, but I imagine that it's still visually engaging enough to hold their attention. And great voice acting too, not least from the ever reliable George Clooney (can this man do no wrong?). It definitely lives up to its titular adjective.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


One of my birthday presents the other month was a faux fisheye lens. It's not a proper one, but tries to simulate one by appending a stumpy additional lens onto the end of a normal one. Anyway, not having ever tested a proper one, I've no idea how good a job it does, but the results seem pretty good to me, or at least pretty distinctive. Here's a shot I took today of Pushkin with maximum distortion ...


And here's a time-lapse with a bit less distortion ...

I've also noticed just how many smudges must be on the camera's sensor. Yikes.

Political posters

The election hasn't even been called yet, but I've already had about enough. I'm sure that Labour, sorry, New Labour, has equally annoying ones, but my ride into work seems only to take me passed Tory posters. Time for a bit of editing ...

I've never voted Tory before ...