September 29th, 2009

musical archaeology


And so in late 2009, 30 years on from the day it was created, we can all enjoy some of the most beautiful music made for some of the greatest TV ever produced. (Jonny Trunk)

Fact magazine has the story of how Jonny Trunk rescued from obscurity the soundtrack of David Attenborough’s 1979 tv series “Life on Earth”, composed by Edward Williams. Trunk has compiled a reissue due out soon (Nov 2).

The story behind the unearthing of this music is quite an interesting read (read it at FACT). I’m excited to hear this!

Speaking of Sir David Attenborough… The BBC website has recently issued a collection of his favourite clips from all the tv he’s done with them.

September 27th, 2009

we’ve given our hearts away

This sonnet by Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us”, highlights what will probably always be our greatest loss… That we take our surroundings so much for granted.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

I posted this before once in a video but since removed it because the video was rubbish.

September 25th, 2009


“Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one getting burned” Buddha

September 24th, 2009

Blooming Tea

Speaking of tea ceremonies, here’s a video demo of “blooming tea” in action. Obviously not for everyday consumption, but certainly an attractive and fun bit of ceremony.

From the wonders of tea blog.


Now I think of it, it’s like a more tasteful teapot version of those razzle-dazzle Chinese birthday candles that open up and sing when you light them. I naively lit one of these at my housemate’s birthday party and it roared into action like a garden firework, taking us all aback.

September 24th, 2009

The East Frisian Tea Ceremony

h2g2 has a little article about the unexpectedly interesting history of tea in East Frisia.

The tea is always served with a special kind of sugar and a certain kind of cream.

The sugar traditionally used is called ‘Kluntjes’. These are large, single clear crystals of sugar, which are impossible to bite and almost impossible to suck! They are left to dissolve in the tea. Stirring, as we shall see later, is strictly frowned upon!

The story behind this is that, in the early days of European sugar production from sugar beet, the lower classes could not afford to buy it, but collected the residue from the bottoms of the sugar barrels, where the last of the syrup had solidified during refining. This was considered really precious and each little lump of sugar had to serve several cups of tea. The last tiny bit left in the cup was then given to the children as a treat.

The cream, however, was in plentiful supply, as each household had a goat which they could milk at will.

The most interesting part is the ceremony and tradition with which they drink it. Click here to read.

That article links to another one on h2g2, which I think is by Douglas Adams, who explains how to make a good cup of tea.

One or two Americans have asked me why it is that the English like tea so much, which never seems to them to be a very good drink. To understand, you have to know how to make it properly.

Read more.

And while i’m railing on about tea I should mention that I posted a similar article to that last one before, by George Orwell, in which similar ground is covered:

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Read more.

September 23rd, 2009

you can’t download getting your hands dirty.

Guardian interviewer Decca Aitkenhead on novelist/artist Douglas Coupland:

Only the day before we meet, he had been in a branch of Paperchase when a sheet of multi-coloured hexagonal wrapping paper so mesmerised him that, after a while, staff had to approach the spellbound novelist, taking him for some sort of crazed drifter. As he is telling me this, his eyes feast on the colours of the drawing room. “I don’t know if you get this,” he rasps softly, “but I feel like I can just stare at a recently opened bucket of paint for minutes, just . . . yeah.” For the colour or the smell? “Well, when the paint’s wet in the can, it’s just so – it’s optical, but it’s edible as well.” He gazes into space for a moment, looking dreamily blissed out. “You think, ooh, what would it feel like to eat?” It is at this point that I quietly put aside all the questions I’d prepared, and surrender to an entirely different register of conversation.

Coupland comes across as a fascinating and endearing character by the end of the interview. Partly because he is and partly because Decca Aitkenhead is a fabulous writer and interviewer. This is a very enjoyable read.

I’ve also read and enjoyed Aitkenhead’s interviews with David Mitchell of Peep Show, and American writer David Sedaris.

Her cool destruction of Matt Lucas is a joy, as well.

September 23rd, 2009

immortality in 20 years?

Even if you are sceptical about Ray Kurzweil’s claims, and believe the following to be nothing more than a flight of fantasy, or an overgenerous estimation of modern science, you still must agree it demonstrates terrific foresight and passion.

“Ultimately, nanobots will replace blood cells and do their work thousands of times more effectively.

“Within 25 years we will be able to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or go scuba-diving for four hours without oxygen.

“Heart-attack victims – who haven’t taken advantage of widely available bionic hearts – will calmly drive to the doctors for a minor operation as their blood bots keep them alive.

“Nanotechnology will extend our mental capacities to such an extent we will be able to write books within minutes.

“If we want to go into virtual-reality mode, nanobots will shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will become commonplace. And in our daily lives, hologram like figures will pop in our brain to explain what is happening. “

More at the indepedent.

September 22nd, 2009

the five colours blind the eye

From the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tse translated by James Legge:


The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.
Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”? Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.” What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”? Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune? Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.

From the Lao-Tse entry on wikipedia:

Wu wei, literally “non-action” or “not acting”, is a central concept of the Daodejing. The concept of wu wei is very complex and reflected in the words’ multiple meanings, even in English translation; it can mean “not doing anything”, “not forcing”, “not acting” in the theatrical sense, “creating nothingness”, “acting spontaneously”, and “flowing with the moment.”

September 21st, 2009

shells within shells, life within death

I recently got excited about the beauty of life and death and time as represented in skeletons, after finding the skull of a small mammal.

Happily, my recent fascination in these abandoned structures was indulged once again today upon finding a tortoise skeleton… Only it wasn’t completely abandoned — it had become a living community for other shelled creatures: snails!

shelled friends

What I found most striking, structurally, was how fragile the outer shell layer was. I was expecting a sort of hard enamel, a sort of marble solid covering affixed in one large piece — but its shell is attached in delicate, individual segments, more like human nail only coloured.


See all 5 pictures I took today on FlickR.

September 21st, 2009

Trabant comeback?


From Treehugger:

A consortium is trying to put together the funds to build a new model in east Germany: completely electric, solar heated and ecological. This one is the only one in existence.


As much as I admire the idea and the sentiment, the design above seems to lack the understated charm of the original.

September 20th, 2009

hooked on heat


I’m not sure if I’ve posted about Meena Agarwal’s blog before — Hooked on Heat — but it’s a great resource for those interested in Indian cuisine, from beginners to those who are already “hooked on heat”.

Meena discusses not only the recipes but also their context in Indian culture, and explains how the different components in Indian cuisine go together to make a meal.

Indian Cooking 101 and How Not To Cook Indian Food are two nice places to dig in if you’re not sure where to start with this e-tome.

I just prepared the recipe, from part 3 of Meena’s Intro To Indian, for a coriander/mint chutney. It’s really easy; you just blend everything together and you’re done. I used nectarines instead of mango because I didn’t have any mango to hand (Meena probably would not approve, but it turned out nicely).

September 20th, 2009

what makes poetry?

Matthew Zapruder reflects on his development as a poet, and ruminates on the role of form in poetry today.

When I look at the poems I wrote in my early 20s, I realize they are bad not because they are written in forms, but because they are essentially fake. Whatever moments are true and good in them exist despite the formal elements. Poems in rhyme and meter don’t suit my mind or the way it needs to move. It’s like style: It might seem cool every once in a while to wear a vintage suit, but the fact of the matter is it just doesn’t work for me.

One thing I do notice about my poems is that, though they might not have overt formal elements, there is always a rhythm that develops, subtly, in the voice of the speaker. Maybe something more like a cadence. Most poetry is “formal” in that way.

And I think, secretly, that my poems actually do rhyme. It’s just that the rhyme is what I would call “conceptual,” that is, not made of sounds, but of ideas that accomplish what the sounds do in formal poetry: to connect elements that one wouldn’t have expected, and to make the reader or listener, even if just for a moment, feel the complexity and disorder of life, and at the same time what Wallace Stevens called the “obscurity of an order, a whole.”

Read more.

I like what he says, because I also think that poetry is truth in language. The things I’ve written that I’m most proud of are the pieces that are most wholly my voice with nothing purposefully or accidentally added for effect.

September 19th, 2009

ants attracted to electricity?

If I leave my notebook pc on the ground at night, I wake up to discover ants crawling in and out of its various orifices. Sometimes they crawl up the recharger cable from the ground and enter the machine via the ventilation.

Is this behaviour explained by the sheer number of ants around here, or are they specifically attracted to the electric current, like these Red Imported Fire Ants are in Texas?

[Red Imported Fire Ants] are apparently attracted to electrical equipment and crawl into air conditioning units and the electrical wiring of stop lights, shorting them out. This is the leading cause of traffic light shorts in Texas, where the ants cause more than US$140 million in damage each year. Several ant species, including fire ants, have been shown to contain ferromagnetic nanoparticles that may contribute information about the geomagnetic field for orientation during foraging or migration. However, it has not been found that electric or magnetic fields attract the ants. Rather, when wandering ants cause electrical shorts, they attempt to sting the wire and produce powerful semiochemicals, including defensive and recruitment pheromones. The chemical signals draw additional ants to the short. The only effective protection is to bar ants from the equipment physically or with insecticides.

Posted in Biology | No Comments »
September 19th, 2009

lupin beans

I’ve accidentally discovered quite an exciting ingredient at the supermarket here in Spain, labelled “Altramuces”. Admittedly, I only picked them up because I thought they looked like butterbeans. But it turns out they’re Lupin Beans.

Above: Lupin beans served with Portuguese beer, wikipedia.

They’ve long been a poor-man’s food on the Iberian peninsula. They’re apparently served with beer in bars, in similar fashion to olives or peanuts. And they have some things in common with both olives and peanuts: They are salty like preserved olives and rather similar in texture to a firm olive, while being high in unsaturated vegetable fat like peanuts.

They contain a large amount of protein — 39 grams in 100 is accounted for by protein, instead of the usual 25ish in other beans. And perhaps it’s something to do with the protein that gives them an uncanny cheesy flavour.

At first I was repulsed by the unique flavour of this slightly bitter bean, but the flavour grows on one very quickly, like that of olives — I don’t know anyone who took immediately to olives. I can certainly see why they are so popular as a beer snack.

September 16th, 2009


Keith Floyd was known, despite his love of good food, to pack a suitcase with home comforts like baked beans and corned beef when he travelled with the BBC.

Apparently The Daily Mail serialized tv chef Keith Floyd’s autobiography, and the last entry coincided with his recent death.

It’s rather insightful – in this passage he talks about how difficult it was to suddenly become famous:

There were times when I’d drive to a pub, park the car and then remain seated in it. I couldn’t go in; bizarre though it sounds, I feared walking into the bar because I knew that to do so would involve signing autographs with little squiggles of wine glasses and answering queries about cooking.

So I’d sit in the car, thinking, I have now got a fantastic Jaguar, I’ve got hand-made shoes, I’ve got things I’ve never had in my life before, and I’m frightened to go into a pub. Frightened to go into a pub because I didn’t want to talk about food.

When you are famous, people assume that they know you . . . and that even if they don’t, then they can soon become your friend. It might sound an exaggeration, but a lot of the time I felt hunted.

Read more

September 15th, 2009

carrot chemistry

Although almost 2,000 wild carrot seeds will fit into a teaspoon, every one contains the following chemicals: acetone, acetyl-choline, alpha-linolenic-acid, alpha-pinene, alpha-tocopherol, apigenin, arachidonic-acid, arginine, asarone, ascorbic-acid, bergapten, beta-carotene, beta-sitosterol, caffeic-acid, camphor, chlorogenic-acid, chlorophyll, chrysin, citral, citric-acid, coumarin, elemicin, esculetin, ethanol, eugenol, falcarinol, ferulic-acid, folacin, formic-acid, fructose, gamma-linolenic-acid, geraniol, glutamine, glycine, hcn, histidine, kaempferol, lecithin, limonene, linoleic-acid, lithium, lupeol, lutein, luteolin, lycopene, magnesium, manganese, methionine, mufa, myrcene, myricetin, myristicin, niacin, oleic-acid, pantothenic-acid, pectin, phenylalanine, potassium, psoralen, quercetin, scopoletin, stigmasterol, sucrose, terpinen-4-ol, thiamin, tryptophan, tyrosine, umbelliferone, xanthotoxin and many other vitamins and minerals.

Via QI

September 15th, 2009

the beauty of skullology

Above: A rat skull I photographed last year.

Being in the countryside at the moment, I find myself very close to all forms of life, but also to death. Last year I found a beautiful and replete ram’s skeleton, bleached white under a bush, as well as lizard skeletons, rodent skulls, etc.

On a recent walk I found a skull that I couldn’t easily identify, and so I started searching taxonomy and osteology websites for help (after cleaning it, etc).

A skunk’s skull seen from below, via Skullsite

At first the closest resemblance I could find was this skunk skull (family: memphitidae — they used to be grouped with stoats and weasels and polecats in the family mustelidae, but recently were given their own family after their genetics were deemed significantly different), however that turned out to be a cul de sac, as the skunk is native to the Americas, and there are none in Europe.

Above: A weasel skull via skullsite.

My dad’s guess was that it was probably a stoat or a weasel — but upon investigation, their skulls were too elongated to match my specimen.

A Pine Marten’s skull, via skullsite.

After browsing more images, my conclusion was that it most closely resembles the skull above, that of a Pine Marten — also in the mustelid family like stoats and weasels. So it is probably a species of Marten, which are autochthonous and numerous here. Most likely it’s a European Marten, pictured below.

Above: A European Marten in the flesh.

I found it fascinating looking at all the different skulls on these websites (my favourite is the mole, below. It has no eyes — of course, moles are blind), but it’s a deeper and more poignant feeling to actually be able to hold a skull in your hand.

Above: A mole’s skull.

They are such representative, delicate, beautiful structures. They represent the potential of the materials from which they are made and the collective intelligence (to stretch the concept of intelligence) of all the materials of our planet over time. They are more finely tuned and tested than any car or invention our species has created or conceived. They are more beautiful in their latent history than any sculpture.

Skullsite is a large repository of skull images and information which I found helpful and fascinating. It also has aglossary of skull terminology, such as the glorious “braincase” and “zygomatic arch”.

Skulls Unlimited (a site selling skulls and replica skulls to educational institutions) is another good resource. I found this page, explaining what we can learn from looking at an animal’s skull, particularly interesting. Snip:

Animals with eyes that are located on the side of its head would suggest a prey animal. Side eye placement allows for greater peripheral or side vision. This enables the animal to see predators approaching from the side as well as from behind. This vision is very important for protecting an animal when it is grazing or feeding.

Read more.

And here’s a list of skull & bone links, for good measure.

September 14th, 2009

happiness recipe

Laura of what I like blog has written up a dandy little summary of Eric Weiner’s findings from his book “The Geography of Happiness”.

Here are the first two points:

Culture – The unhappiest countries (Moldova, which seems to have been a bit at sea ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, is a deeply depressed place) have a distinct lack of culture. Without culture there’s no sense of identity, no connection to a country. No literature nor art means no sense of self, either at the collective or individual level.

Nature – Despite the general ennui that the Swiss seem to exhibit (from my brief, superficial observations), the country rates very high on the happiness scale. This is largely attributable to the very deep connection that the citizenry has to nature. Iceland, a stunningly happy (if very dark) country, also has this relationship with the outdoors. There’s an appreciation, not a fear, of the land, connecting the people to the most basic thing that humans know

Read more.

David Byrne in the Wall Street Journal:

There’s an old joke that you know you’re in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German. If it’s the other way around you’re in hell. In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. The permutations are endless. Maybe I’d take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney’s with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it’s not really possible to cherry pick like this—mainly because a city’s qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place’s cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream.

David proceeds to give a list of factors that make a city “livable” for him. Read what follows at WSJ.

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