Saturday, August 14, 2010

Property developers threaten globally important seed bank

This could be a very bad sign for our future as a species when even the highest authorities in a major country (in this case, Russia), with all the information we currently have on climate change and decreasing global bio-diversity, to put the interests of a property development company ( above those of a globally significant seed bank outside St Petersburg (BBC).

(Summary: the Pavlovsk experimental station is a seed bank of thousands of unique plant varieties that grows on a 70 hectare plot outside the city of St Petersburg, and Russia's Supreme Arbitration Court has given rights to build on the land to the Russian Housing Development Foundation, which will destroy nearly 100 years of work to preserve this globally significant resource to build houses)

Pass this on, and pass it up ... to your MP, your senator, your governor, to whatever representative you have available at a political level that can apply pressure to the St Petersburg authorities to save the seed bank.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scottish Crannog Centre

A crannog is a round-house on an artificial island constructed on wooden pilings or stone in a loch or lake. They are almost exclusive to Scotland and Ireland, where there are significant networks of interconnected waterways. There is only one known in England. European lake dwellings tend to be multiple buildings on square platforms.

Last week, I visited the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore (Loch Tay), near Pitlochry, with my family (wife and two teenage daughters), and I would thoroughly recommend the place to anyone with an interest in pre-Roman civilisation in the Celtic parts of Europe. The reconstructed crannog at the Centre is based on the Oakbank Crannog which is just along the loch-side from the Centre. Oakbank was occupied for around 200 years around 2,500 years ago (over 500 years before the Romans darkened British doors). Crannogs were in use from around that time right up until the 16th or 17th Century A.D.!

There's a good exhibition of materials about the distribution of crannogs around Scotland, and about the relatively new field of underwater archaeology. This is followed by a guided visit to the reconstructed 10m diameter crannog on the lake (reached via a wooden walkway). I would have liked to have been able to spend more time on the crannog itself, but the next group of visitors was waiting with their guide. Once back on the lake-side, our guide gave us demonstrations of some of the technologies and crafts available to the crannog-dwellers. (Including hypothesized lathes, techniques for making holes in stones, drop-spinning, the use of a saddle quern for grinding wheat, and fire-starting) - we could have a go at all of these too.

Being as this is a tourist site, there is a shop - but it's a good one, with no kilt towels nor the excessive bagpipe music you usually find in Scottish tourist-trap shops.

The staff were excellent - knowledgeable, engaging, and genuinely interested in talking to the punters. Our excellent guide was Rachel, and we also chatted with Dirk for a while after our tour.

The roads around this part of Scotland are a bit narrow and twisty - even compared to home on the Isle of Man, so be aware it takes time to get places. However, it is well worth the effort of going to the Scottish Crannog Centre. It's open 10am - 5.30pm between April and October (off-season visits by appointment).

We intend to return in a couple of years to see what else they've discovered and developed on the site. Yes, even my teenage daughters agree.

Update: here are the photos.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bionic Legs now an achievable reality

My great uncle Ken was an inventor. Not one you've heard of, like Edison or Dyson, but one of the little guys who invents practical aids for people with disabilities. Unfortunately he died suddenly on the operating table in 2005. That was a shock and a shame at the time, for all the obvious reasons.

Today I discovered something I'm sure uncle Ken would have been very impressed to see: And there's a video of the device in use too:

Robert Irving and Richard Little deserve every success with this device. It may not be fast, but it is clearly a device that has enormous potential, and I'm sure REX 2, when they build it, will be stronger, faster and lighter.

Well done guys.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

How good a photographer are you really?

For my 40th birthday last October, I received sufficient cash to finally indulge one of my minor ambitions of the last 10 years: to go from film SLR to digital SLR photography. So I bought myself a cheap Sony dSLR, an α200K. Then at Christmas, I added a Sigma 70-300 lens. Nothing showy or pricey, just enough to learn the ropes. I already had my tripod so I don't count that as new expenditure, but even so, I've spent over £400 on kit!

I joined, as you can see from the left side-bar. I even paid for a 'pro' account (primarily so that I can upload my photos fullsize), and I don't regret it.

Then I found the Sony α group and started reading their forum. Guess what, about 60% of the posts appear to be 'what new kit should I buy to shoot X' (where X is some broad category of work, like sports, or nature, or sunsets), and most of the answers are: spend £hundreds (at least) to get some specialist lens, filter system, tripod, or even a new camera body, like the α900, at around £2,000 for the body alone - no lens!

Now comes the complete antidote:
Firstly, of course, they're using amazing pro lights (most of the time - except for two $50 floods from Lowes), a studio space, a great model and so on, but at the center of it all is an iPhone 3GS, and an excellent photographer.

You really, really, really don't need all that fancy kit the 'pros' and the shops tell you (sounds like the audio-extremophile stuff I was writing about a few years ago). Yes, you need great conditions, and in a studio, that means loads of light, but it seems that the old adage: "cameras don't take photos, people do" is as accurate as ever, if not more so.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sense About Science

Bear with me... I'll get to the title of this posting in a moment.

I was reading my RSS feeds on as I do every day and I came upon feed item that pointed me to a posting about the death of Martin Gardner (a great writer about science and maths - I had one of his excellent books when I was 16, but seem to have lost it now). This lead me, as many interesting things do, to James Randi's post on the same subject - they were close friends apparently. And finally we get to the subject of this post: there was a small link at the bottom of James Randi's blog for a site called 'Sense About Science'.

I must admit, I'd never heard of these folks before, but just had to link to them from here because I completely agree that scientific debate must be free of 'he-said, she-said' argument and the chilling effect of the threat of libel action being taken when two scientists disagree. Just think what would have happened if British Chiropractic Association had won their case for libel against Simon Singh (what a coincidence: the Sense about Science guys were also supporting Simon Singh). Would you want to try to de-bunk bad science if the supporters of the bunkum could silence you with a libel suit? Can you afford to get caught out like that? Of course, this works both ways. If we want to be able to de-bunk poor science, we have to allow what we think of as poor scientists to question the science we judge good. However, the key difference between good and bad science is that good science is supported by independently, objectively reproducible proof, where poor science tries to hide behind waffle and important sounding names.

So there you have it, a trail of internet wanderings: from RSS feeds to a rant about the importance of free science. And there ends the lesson for today. ;-)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Moving (backwards) with The Times

The Times and the Sunday Times are about to make a seriously retrograde step. They are about to throw up a paywall around their news services. Now the BBC report only says 'charging to access their websites', so there's no direct indication whether News International intend all their content to be behind the wall, or just the articles (as opposed to the headlines), but either way, this is an idiotic decision.

If, and boy is that a big if these days, the Times and the Sunday Times were the only sources of (reasonably) trustworthy news (and thereby hangs a much more complex tale!) on the internet, then moving their content behind a paywall might entice people to spend money getting access to that news, but the reality is significantly different from that. I can state, with a pretty high level of confidence, that I've not needed to go to the Time nor the Sunday Times in many years. I've not wanted to go there either, for just as long. In fact, I don't think I've even bothered going there in at least 12 months, and even if I did, it was only because I found the news somewhere else, and happened to click through to their sites. (So much for the 'aggregators are stealing our content' argument - I'd never have gone to their sites in the first place if it weren't for said aggregators!)

Now, I'm not suggesting that my pattern of usage (or lack thereof) of the News International sites is normal, but I bet there are many, many, many thousands of regular users of the internet in the British Isles that somehow manage to avoid using the Times and the Sunday Times with very little effort, and very little loss to their understanding of the world. In fact, given the nature of some of the other titles in the NI stable (the Sun and the News of the World - two rags that push a particularly atrocious example of the UK equivalent of a red-neck world view), I'm sure many people are better off getting their news elsewhere.

There are so many free alternatives to NI sites, that they are simply wasting their time.

Goodbye, the Times and the Sunday Times, you won't be missed.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Freedom to mis-represent the truth?

If ever we needed proof of the scant regard for the truth as exhibited by British newspapers, here is an excellent example from that bastion of press honour, The Times.

Chew on that, Mr Murdoch!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Are you going to the wedding?

I don't normally do this, but I though this video was so excellent I had to include it:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hopefully this is a better looking stitching together of the previous panorama. However, it's quite dark at the left end, and a a bit over-exposed at the right end as a result of trying to even out the colour throughout.

Douglas Bay, Isle of Man

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Panorama of Douglas Bay

This is a panorama of Douglas Bay, Isle of Man. I took it from the end of the Victoria Pier, and the Tower of Refuge just nicely fell into the center of the image.

The original image is some 24,800 by 2,300 pixels, but neither blogger nor flickr seem to be happy with such an enormous image, even though it's only 8MB. Oh well.

Update: Thanks to a good friend, you can now look at the real photo, by clicking on the preview above.

Update 2: My friend's site appears to have been terminated, here's a link to the same shot at Flickr.