Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Lunchtime Twitch

(I should have posted this yesterday!)

I went on my first ever proper drop-everything-and-run twitch!

Lunchbreak had just started, a colleague stuck his head around the lab door; "Have you got your binoculars with you?"

He'd just had a text, a Red Flanked Bluetail had been found in a field behind a church a few minutes away. Just found, in the last hour. Hardly anybody knew...

We leapt into Womble (I say "leapt", but my colleague is rather tall. He rather folded into the seat), and shot off to the next village...

... pulling into the church car park, we crossed into the next field, and found a small group of twitchers already there. Quite a mixed bunch to look at, several had done the same as us and popped out in their lunch break at the call of an SMS (I still had my suit on!), others were more dedicated, and had arrived with full gear - all-weather clothing, bins, scope, large-lens camera...

It was very civilised, newcomers greeted and pointed to the willow with the tiny brown bird, at first keeping company with a flock of robins, then showing on its own in the lowest branches, and even out in the open.

It was quite an odd feeling, but very enjoyable, to be out of bounds like this, with probably the most dedicated bunch of birders I've met in a long time (including the supply teacher I mentioned in Twitch! - he had been the one to find it in the first place and start spreading the word). Quiet, civilised, friendly.

Plenty of photos were taken by the other twitchers (I do not take many bird photos - I just don't seem to have the knack to get them really sharp). Images of this particular bird have been posted by Andrew Easton on the Lounge Lizards website.

I really enjoyed twitching this bird, so far from it's home ground. I may just pop out again...

Sunday, 26 September 2010


Idle wonderings...

In recent news, studies show that crowded urban populations are evolving a greater resistance to "slum" diseases, such as TB. It even seems that cystic fibrosis is a side-effect of an evolved response to cholera - carriers of the CF gene are more resistant to cholera toxins. The occasional instance of CF is outweighed by the benefits of being better-able to resist cholera.

It seems human DNA has yet to catch up with modern medicine.

A related article from that give hints that human evolution is accelerating.

We already know that populations around the world have taken different evolutionary paths to our Rift Valley ancestors - those who moved North, to less sunny latitudes, developed paler skin to aid the formation of Vitamin D; those at higher altitudes developed larger lungs and hearts; cold environments selected for eye-insulating epicanthic folds...

In the past, predictions of "future humanity" tended to involve words like "melange" and "melting pot". Increased global travel, growing acceptance of other cultures, all of these would see humanity becoming one homogeneous, undifferentiated population.

Now, though, storytellers and futurists must allow for the possibility - the strengthening possibility - that human populations are isolated enough (and the loss of cheap fuel will only increase the isolation) for speciation to occur.

But, what an odd event it will be - assuming the occupants of this planet retain easy communication for long after we lose easy travel, that some descendent of the internet persists, these new divisions of genus Homo will still share so much; language, culture, humour. To an outside viewer, it would look as though several disparate species had arisen and yet found enough common ground to unite under one cultural umbrella.

Or, maybe, Wells was more on the mark than he thought...

Monday, 20 September 2010


Two stories caught my eye today.

Firstly, there has apparently been a 40% fall in child employment in the last five years. Hypotheses abound, including competition from cheap migrant labour eating into the number of jobs available.

More likely, to me, though is:
"Children today are priceless possessions whose wants and needs are attended to. Because they can obtain pocket money from parents, they can by and large enjoy drifting around in society. You have to actually exercise some responsibility and initiative in order to get a job."
Health and safety scares, tabloid obsessions with child snatchers, and just plain old poor parenting have robbed generations of children of the gumption to get up and do something of actual value for themselves.

The second story to catch my eye, minutes later, backs me up:
Andrew Croskery, from County Down, applied for a judicial review of the [2:2] grade he received from Queen's University in Belfast.

Mr Croskery claimed if he had received better supervision he would have obtained a 2:1, the High Court was told on Monday.

What he means is, "I didn't get the grades because you didn't tell me to do the work"!

Try getting over yourself Mister Croskery - you missed out on a 2:1 because you needed to be watched. You failed to earn a 2:1 because you did not motivate yourself to earn the rewards you knew were available.

According to his Lawyer (and who is paying for that?):
"He avers his employment prospects have been jeopardised... in this competitive job market,"
I'll tell you what, I aver that Mister Croskery's employment prospects have been jeopardised far more by this open declaration that he cannot perform to his full abilities unless closely supervised.

Why couldn't he just suck in his result, and either work the job market harder or, if he has parents who can afford a lawyer for this expensive childish strop, why can't they fund another year at university so he can try again for the grades he claims he deserves?

I've been on both sides of the interview desk over the years, and I'd be a damn site more likely to hire a kid who bollixed a few points on his degree because he had a social life, knew it, and was ready to get back on track than some whining priceless possession who would take me to court if he missed out on a pay-rise because I didn't stand over him and force him to work.

Take heed, children of the 21st Century.

You don't need skills or aptitude to get on in life, just a lawyer good enough to sue the people who refused to spoon-feed you for the first thirty years of your life.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Making Joy.

This last week, I've regressed some twenty years.

You probably don't know, but my original degree was in Paper Science, at a university that no longer exists. For four years after I graduated, I ran the labs in a paper mill in Derbyshire.

Since redundancy accelerated my move into teaching, I have done very little with paper. The odd bit of recycling, helping other teachers with projects and whatnot, but nothing serious.

This last couple of weeks, car trouble has meant I have spent quite some time alone with our head of Art, and we fell to random plotting. We decided it would be a good idea to have a joint project between Science, Art and Technology to make paper and paper-making equipment.

So, I resurrected a project that has sat on my to-do list for over three years, and started making paper from scratch.

Not recycling, as most paper-making projects do, but from actual raw materials, something I have not done for over two decades, and even then I used a bunch of specialised machinery.

For a man in his shed, wood is not a good material to turn into paper. It's too tough, and requires too much in the way of heavy machinery and corrosive chemistry. I had a cast about in my mind, and came up with... nettles.

I had always treated nettles as weeds, but as a raw material they are fascinating. Soup, tea, beer, robe, fabric... the wonder is why we do not have farms full of nettle crops (of which, more later).

There is very little online about making paper from nettles, mostly comments along the lines of "Hey, did you know you can even make paper from nettles?" so a lot of what I did was cobbled together from ill-remembered lectures and hobby-level reading.

I went old-school, and borrowed a few tricks from the Japanese traditions (very different to European techniques), and I made a fascinating discovery - nettles provide a wide range of fibres.

To a European papermaker, plants provide single kinds of fibre - hardwoods give short fibres, softwods give longer fibre, and cotton gives very long fibres, up to 5 or 6 centimetres (although papermakers tend to get the short bits, since the long fibres go to fabric). The nettles, though, are like two plants in one. the core of the stems is like a mixture of hard and soft wood - the fibres seem to be in the order of two to five millimetres long (I haven't had a chance to do any microscopy on them yet). The outer layers of the stem, though (the bast) gives fibres that could be, potentially, be up to a foot long! Split a stem with a twisting motion, and the strands seem to reach from root to tip!

No wonder they used to make rope from nettles!

Turning the stems into paper was a struggle, one that I'm documenting in an instructable that probably won't be finished before October, but the work so far has been a joy!

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to make paper. Not just make paper, but Make paper.

This isn't science, it's alchemy!

I have spent hours harvesting, stripping, cutting, retting, cooking, splitting and beating these plants. On a sheer physical scale, this is the biggest Instructable I have ever done. I have been stung, stunk out half my school, upset my neighbours and over-worked machinery.

I have been enjoying myself!

What the heck, maybe nobody reads the final project. Maybe it slips into obscurity (somehow I doubt that, though). It is a landmark project for me, far more significant than publishing my hundredth project, or even than having a Guide dedicated to my work. This project, to me, epitomises what Making means to me.

I have gone back to basics, the very soul of a product. I have taken it back far enough, I am fairly sure that, if you left me in a field with a knife and something to start a fire, then I could walk out (days) later with a sheet of pale green paper.

Ha! I'd like to see a computer geek build his own computer from a pile of sand and copper ore...

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Birdwatchers are a mixed bunch.

From dedicated experts with decades of experience, to kiddies who like ducks.

One popular stereotype is the twitcher. A birder, usually a man, who rushes about the place to see as many birds as possible. I once tried to twitch a lesser kestrel, but failed. My father has twitched a few times.

Some twitchers, though, are very dedicated. I know a teacher who only does supply work, so that he has the freedom to drop everything and dash off to see an interesting bird at the buzz of a pager.

Generally seen with mild indulgence, even by other birders, twitchers are a competitive bunch, but in a civilised sort of way - lining up to take turns at a scope for a glimpse of a single rare warbler, keeping to footpaths and generally behaving themselves.

Some, though, are less orderly. At the very top end of twitching, people who have given up jobs and travelled tens of thousands of miles around the UK to push their year lists to the limit (383 in a year is the highest I have heard of, which leaves my current ten dozen in the dust) are also not above tossing around a few writs to challenge the validity of other twitchers' lists.

That's all showbiz, though. Not a real problem, more of an entertainment for those of us who struggle to reach 150.

It's how they get their birds, though.

I recently discovered how one of the UK's "top" twitchers, a man I had previously heard of spoken only with respect, ensured that he got at least a glimpse of the rarities he targeted.

At a twitch that happened on private land, the landowner (a farmer with experience of rarities on his land) had posted signs asking birdwatchers to keep to footpaths and the edges of fields with crops. The twitchers respected his wishes, searching for the bird at range, peering into ploughed ruts with bins and scopes.

This twitcher, though, tramped back and form across the field until he flushed the bird, allowing a brief glimpse of the departing bird, a tick in his book, and leaving an enormous dent in the good will that twitchers rely on to get to see most of their birds.

At another twitch, the same person pushed chest-deep into bushes, again to flush the target bird and leave immediately.

That is just plain selfish, denying other birders (whether they keep lists or not) a chance to see something special, and I would like to reassure readers that the vast majority of even the most OCD twitchers are not like this.


Oops, got to go...