Monday, 30 December 2013

Goodbye Darwin, hello Echidna

Darwin is soon to disappear from the Bank of England £10 note but he’ll be found in British wallets, pockets and purses for some time to come - not just on tenners but also the special release £2 coins from 2009 to mark 200 years since Darwin’s birth. For obvious reasons, it was one of my favourite coins to get in change. Since moving to Australia, the chances of getting a Darwin coin in my change have susbtantially diminished. Instead, however, there is a fair chance of getting one of my favourite animals, the Echidna, which graces the 5c coin.

Echidnas are one of the iconic animals of Australia. Neither a placental mammal nor a marsupial, the Echidna is a monotreme like the playtpus. Monotremes lay eggs like reptiles and produce milk for their young like mammals but have no nipples. Today, we paid another visit to the Australian Museum (for their Tyrannosaurs: Meet the family exhibit), which uses the Echidna for their main logo. As you would expect, they also have a few specimens in the museum. The one below really looks like the one on the coin - I wonder if it was the inspiration!

I have been lucky enough to see an echidna in the wild once. When on holiday in 2004, I was out for a walk in Mission Beach, Queensland, and I chanced upon the guy below who snuffled across my path. One of the highlights of the trip! Hopefully, it won’t be my last wild encounter.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

My favourite kind of Christmas superstition

Christmas is a time full of superstitions and traditions from a variety of sources. Whilst I enjoy the odd tradition, I’m not generally a fan of superstition; we adopted a black cat, for example, I have been known to deliberately walk under ladders - after checking that it was safe to do so - and I have nothing against the number 13. One superstition I can get behind, however, is Jura Superstition, which I was fortunate enough to receive as a Christmas present from my lovely wife.

Superstition is Jura's "Lightly peated" whisky and is a bit less peaty than some of my favourites but very tasty and ever so drinkable.

They say:

Jura Superstition is crafted from a selection of the finest aged Jura single malt whiskies. This mysterious spirit has a unique style and character, with tastes of tangy cinnamon, ginger spice and honey with whispers of salty sea spray, rich coffee and roasted chestnuts.

At first, this description confused me as I thought that mixing a bunch of single malts would make it a blend rather than a single malt. I was (of course) wrong. According to Wikipedia:

To be called a single malt whisky in Scotland, a bottle may only contain whisky distilled from malted barley and produced at a single distillery. … If the bottle is the product of malt whiskies produced at more than one distillery, the whisky is called a blended malt or vatted malt, or pure malt. If a single malt is mixed with grain whisky, the result is a blended whisky. Single malts can be bottled by the distillery that produced them or by an independent bottler.

So, there you go.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope you all have a great festive season (whatever your particular celebration) and get things you like, even if it is only a plastic drinking straw… (Best cat toy ever!)

And if the weather outside turns frightful, then find somewhere warm and snug to see things out.

(Another Google auto-awesome effort!)

Monday, 23 December 2013

It's a(n auto-awesome) twinkly Christmas Tree!

This year, we made a little photo collage of our Christmas tree for our relatives back home. After uploading it to Google+ for sharing, something rather unexpected happened: a twinkly version appeared!

Apparently, Google+ features “Auto-awesome photos & films

Auto-awesome creates fun new versions of your photos and videos. Your photos will be combined into short animations, wide panoramas or merged into group shots where everyone looks good. You’ll know when an Auto-awesome photo or film has been created by the [auto-awesome] icon.

It’s not just adding twinkles to lights either:

Auto-awesome photo effects

Eraser - If you take a sequence of 3 or more photos in front of a structure or landmark with movement in the background, Eraser will give you a photo with all of the moving objects removed. It’s helpful for those situations when you’re trying to get a great shot of a landmark or other crowded place, but want to avoid including all of the people in the background of your photo.

Action - Take a series of photos of someone moving (dancing, running, jumping) and Auto-awesome will merge them together into one action shot where you can see the full range of movements in a single image, capturing the movement in one captivating still.

Pano - If you’ve taken a series of photos with overlapping landscape views, Auto-awesome will stitch these photos together into a panoramic image.

HDR - High Dynamic Range is the process of taking multiple exposures of the same image. By merging these images together, your photos will achieve a greater range of shadows and light. Uploading three similar images at different exposures – low, medium and high exposure – will create an HDR image for you.

Motion - If you’ve taken a series of photos in succession (at least 5), Auto-awesome will stitch these photos together into a short animation.

Smile - If you’ve taken a few group photos, Auto-awesome will choose the best shots of each person in your image and merge them into one great-looking photo.

Mix - If you’ve taken a series of portraits sharing similar background elements, Auto-awesome will compile these photos together into a photobooth-style grid. Mix is meant to showcase portrait photos taken with similar backgrounds in time, so it works best with close-ups of faces.

My iPhone already has Pano and HDR covered but I am intrigued by some of the others. The twinkly lights is particularly good for this time of year, though, so stick up those festive shots on Google+ and see what happens!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2013

When I was last buying some wine from Liquorland, I was informed at the till that I had spent enough to qualify for a couple of special offers at the till at $10 for a bottle. Generally, I say no to such attempts to getting you to spend more but the sight of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc made me pause - long enough to be told it was normally $23 a bottle.

I can’t (always) resist a bargain and had just bought some sushi for dinner, which I thought might go nicely with a glass of wine, so I decided to get a bottle from the fridge. A good decision, for very nice it was too! (And did indeed go well with the sushi.)

They say:

“Distinctly Marlborough, this 2013 Sauvignon Blanc captures the vibrant herbaceous, grapefruit and gooseberry characters of the region. Superb weight and elegance combine to complete a wine of remarkable fruit intensity and style.

This one is certainly on the watchlist for recurring offers!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace unveiled

I’m still not sure why Alfred Russel Wallace always has his middle name used, like the assassin of a an American president, but his statue has just been unveiled at the Natural History Museum. Wallace was not forgotten and Darwin did not cheat him out of due credit for Natural Selection. Nevertheless, his contributions to biology were numerous and important and his independent realisation of the mechanism Natural Selection should be no less applauded just because he was second. It is therefore great that he now has a statue at the Natural History museum.

You can watch a video of the unveiling below (unless it gets pulled - the source is unclear). It is great (and somewhat refreshing) to hear David Attenborough emphasise the comradery and friendship of Darwin and Wallace, rather than (as others are prone to do) spouting conspiracy theories that diminish both men.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Good on China for going to The Moon

I woke up this morning to the news that China’s Jade Rabbit rover rolls on to Moon’s surface. It seems somewhat hard to believe but although five Mars rovers have been launched in my lifetime (of which four landed), this is the first wheeled vehicle to drive on the moon for over forty years.

I have never really understood why so much extra time and money was spent sending so many rovers to Mars when the Moon is so close and there is presumably still a lot to learn about it. I grew up with countless sci fi films and books - including the Arthur C. Clarke classic 2001 A Space Odyssey (and, of course, Airplane 2) - that featured a moon base and so it always seemed a question of when, not if. As the Millennium drew clearer, it became more and more obvious that it was not going to happen and I’ve felt a little cheated ever since.

I guess there are very good reasons but I am glad the Chinese have decided that it’s time we landed something there again. Well done. China!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

My top 3 free WiFi spots in Sydney

Two months ago, we stepped off the plane having moved half-way round the world from the UK to Sydney. These days, when you first move to a city - or visit on holiday for that matter - one of the first things on the To Do list is to find a decent source of free WiFi, at least until more permanent internet solutions are in place. Australia is not quite a far down the free WiFi path as the UK, where every other bar or cafe will offer it, but there are still some good spots to be found. Here are my Top 3 Free WiFi spots in Sydney so far: Bondi Pavilion

3. Bondi Pavilion (above). On our first day in Sydney, in an anti-jetlag act, we walked the coastal path from Coogee to Bondi. We were rewarded at the other end by a smoothie and free WiFi at Bondi Pavilion. It was time-restricted and you had to watch an advert first, plus it seemed a little flaky, but with a beach view it still comes in at Number 3.

2. The Australian Museum (right). Museums are often a good spot for free WiFi, especially when there is a decent cafe. On a trip to Wellington last year, I would often visit Te Papa to avail of the facilities. Unlike Te Papa, the Australian Museum is not free (though still worth a visit) but the cafe is. The coffee is good (no surprise), the WiFi is free and you can admire an impressive whale skeleton at the same time.

1. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (below). Edging out the Australian Museum at Number 1 is the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This one is free and is particularly good on a Wednesday night for Art After Hours. In addition to perusing the art - including possibly my favourite sculpture - you can enjoy a nice glass of wine or two and some live music whilst you surf the web.

Art Gallery of NSW

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Truck and trailer approaching a city - and a possible Irish deity

Yesterday, we went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the last Art After Hours of the year, when the gallery stays open until late on a Wednesday night. We had a look at a few of the pictures before retiring to the cafe for a glass of wine or two. I think my favourite of the perused artwork was Truck and trailer approaching a city by Jeffrey Smart (1999), who died earlier this year. I can’t say exactly what I like so much about it but I find it very appealing.

Less appealing was The Expulsion by Arthur Boyd - that is until I spotted the uncanny resemblance between one of the main characters and Rodge (I think) from the potty-mouthed Irish TV duo, Podge and Rodge:

Rodge in a fisherman’s jacket, expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden

God (right) and his brother Podge.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

22 grams of coffee heaven and the brilliant Cafe Brioso

One of the noticeable things about Sydney is the quality of coffee. Unlike the UK, which is dominated by several big chains (Costa, Starbucks, Nero etc.) and has quite variable coffee outside of these chains, the Sydney cafe scene is still ruled by small independents and they are all good! One cafe worth a particular mention is 22 grams on High Street in Randwick, which is just down the road from where we spent our first month in Sydney. Their coffee rates as some of the best that I have ever had - and they do a mean cinnamon bun too!

It would be wrong to mention good coffee, however, without a shout-out for Cafe Brioso, which is more commonly known as the “Library lawn coffee cart” (above). Situated next to the Library Lawn (below), this is my favoured spot for a flat white on campus. Although quiet in the photo above (as I try to avoid taking and posting pictures of strangers), the coffee cart gets pretty busy at peak times but the crew of baristas are awesome and churn through the orders like a well-oiled machine. It’s good coffee, too! My only regret is that, as it’s takeaway only, I alway have a lid, which covers up the pretty “barista art” in the crema/foam. Somehow, it’s nice knowing it’s there, though - a sign, I think, that the barista cares!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Explosive palaeontology

When one pictures fossil hunters, one normally imagines someone carefully chipping and brushing away at some exposed rock. The picture that springs to mind is rarely someone sitting on a box of explosives. With Professor Mike Archer at UNSW, however, that’s exactly what you get.

I first found out about Mike’s extraordinary approach to fossil hunting at the UNSW family BBQ a couple of weeks ago. As described in the Australian Wildlife notes on Riversleigh, a world heritage fossil site in north-western Queensland: (my emphasis)

As water dissolves the rock, bones and teeth can be seen protruding from the rock. Releasing them from the rock is not so easy. Quarrying techniques must be used, including the occasional use of light explosives. Many of the areas are so inaccessible that the larger rocks have to be broken up with sledge hammers, bagged and labeled and lifted out by helicopter.

Once they finally reach the laboratory, the fossils are freed by dissolving away the surrounding limestone with dilute acetic acid. After treatment with preservatives, the fossils are then ready for study by scientists.

This approach has reaped rewards, including the recently reported giant toothed platypus fossil.

Another example of dramatic palaeontology doing the rounds is the amazing set of dinosaur footprints in a Bolivian quarry, which presumably were unmasked by something similarly explosive.

Opponents of evolution often point erroneously at the gappy nature of the fossil record, conveniently ignoring that not only do past organisms need to have been subject to the relatively rare conditions that result in fossilisation but then that bit of rock needs to be exposed again and then someone needs to find it before it’s destroyed! Given of all this, I think that the fossil record is actually remarkably complete! (Not to mention, of course, that even as more and more fossils get added, the fossil record is entirely consistent with evolution and extremely inconsistent with a recent global flood or Young Earth Creationism.)

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Wombats have cubic poo!

Today we went to the Australian Museum in Sydney. The main reason for the visit was to join and get tickets for the Tyrannosaurs: Meet the family exhibit but, even with a very lazy Sunday morning, we had a bit of time to wander round some of the exhibits and so paid the Australian fauna section a visit. I’d already been back in February when I was over for my job interview but you always spot new and interesting things in a museum like this. Today’s interesting fact…

Wombats have cubic poo!

Unfortunately, the museum had little more information than that but thankfully the internet is more forthcoming on faecal facts. (The picture above is from (where else?) Wikipedia.) It appears that the function of the exciting excreta is to stop the stools from rolling away, as they are used for marking territory etc. The secret to the shaping of the poo is the moisture content, apparently. So there you go. My other interesting wombat fact is that their pouches open backwards relative to other marsupials, which stops them from filling up with dirt when burrowing.

You can find out more at a page at “Today I found out about”: Wombat Poop is Cubic and Other Fascinating Wombat Facts. It’s a sadly ad- and pop-up-riddled page but does end with the great “bonus fact”:

Wombats are protected under Australian law, presumably mostly due to being awesome.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Christmas cracker jokes are bad and don't always work in the wrong continent

Dodgy Christmas cracker jokes are a Christmas tradition. Apparently, the jokes are deliberately bad. The alleged psychology behind this is that everyone groans and gangs up on the joke, thus are unified by their common disdain for the poor pun. If, on the other hand, the joke showed true wit and humour then it is highly likely that some people would not understand it and/or simply find it unfunny, thus creating a schism between those who get the joke and those who don’t.

It’s an interesting theory and I am not sure who first told me of it nor from whence it originated. What I am sure of, however, is that even the bad jokes need to be told in the right culture to stand a chance of doing their job. We had our departmental Christmas party yesterday (on a boat in the harbour and very nice too) but the crackers had clearly been imported from the UK and did not work Down Under.

The first one is not so bad. Presumably, Australian birds would migrate north for the winter but I think the meaning is still clear even if the geography is confused. The latter, however, completely fails on the basis that the penguins referred to do not exist here. There is a similar biscuit - the Tim Tam - but it is superior to the humble penguin and possibly why the latter has never taken off.

Even without the carbon footprint considerations, importing your crackers from halfway round the world is not a good move.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Winning wine from Secret Stone

It feels like a bit of a betrayal to post about New Zealand wine but there is plenty of time to get to the Aussie ones! When I was in Wellington last year, I visited a wine bar (for the free Wifi!) and had a very nice glass of red wine. I cannot remember the grape(s) but I do remember it was from Secret Stone. A week or so ago - the time is beginning to blur (but not due to too much wine) - I therefore decided to take advantage of a special offer in Liquorland for two bottles from the Secret Stone range. I thought perhaps it was blend of some kind but the only two varieties I could find in the shop were Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc - two of my favourites from the Marlborough region.

Both were good but the Pinot was the one that I really liked. It wasn’t quite up to the awesomeness of Roaring Meg from Mt Difficulty but it’s definitely one that I would get again. It’s also pushed New Zealand Pinot Noir slightly higher up my red wine wish-list. (Australian Shiraz has been sitting at the top of the go-to list since moving over but I’ve also had some decent glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon - my wine of choice as a student - whilst out and about, which has given me pause for thought.)

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A unique souvenir of home with a John Roued-Cunliffe Illustration

Before we sold our old house and moved to Australia, my wife commissioned a unique souvenir and a beautiful surprise present for me: a line drawing of our old house by John Roued-Cunliffe. Using a photograph plus some artistic license to place our two cats, Mia and Arthur, on the scene, John rendered a lovely keepsake:

John’s wife, Eddie, is friends with mine and she also has a blog, which features one of John’s illustrations. I think it’s great! Christmas is coming up, so if you’re stuck for present ideas then check John’s website!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Chilling with a Mountain Goat at Papa Gede's bar

Today I moved all the textbooks and folders that had been shipped over from the UK into my office from our apartment. I was therefore thoroughly in the mood for a nice cold beer after work. Happily, there were already plans to meet a friend and she took us to Papa Gede's bar at 346 Kent St in Sydney CBD, which can be found at the end of a very unassuming little laneway.

Although they are new to me, Papa Gede’s is a fairly new addition to the bar scene in Sydney and it’s a good one. The interior is cosy and comfortable and they were playing very funky music too, which the friendly staff identified as the Budo’s band (also new to me). They also made a fine beer recommendation in the form of Mountain Goat hightail ale: malty and tasty but also a thirst quencher.

Both beer and bar (and Budos’ band) are recommended!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

You're not what you eat but you are what eats what you eat

The old adage that “you are what you eat” is not really true unless you are thinking at an atomic level. Even here, a lot of stuff passes straight through you or is absorbed only to be filtered out again because it is toxic and/or you have too much of it. The exception, perhaps, is bacteria.

Bacteria get a bit of a rough ride from most humans, largely because most of the bacteria that we have been historically aware of - and interested in - have been harmful to our health. Apart from saving humanity from the Martians, what have bacteria ever done for us? Well, lots to be honest and we certainly wouldn’t be here without them. Not just that but we would be without them.

As highlighted in this week’s BBC Discovery podcast, one of the most important realisations of the past few years has been the importance of what we call the “human microbiome”, i.e. the total microbial (e.g. bacterial) complement of the human ecosystem - and an ecosystem is exactly what you and I are. The idea of a human navigating his or her way through the world as an individual animal - occasionally under attack by parasites - is an idea that is pretty firmly fixed in our sense of self but it is really a falsehood.

The “friendly bacteria” of yakult etc. have popularised the notion that not all bugs are out to get us and that some of them are actually our allies but I still think that most people are probably unaware of the role they play and just how crucial they are to our health (and, when things go wrong, ill health). In many ways, an individual person is more bacterial than human. Not in terms of biomass, it is true, (for bacteria are small) but in sheer numbers the microbes have it: 10 trillion cells may sound like a lot but there are approximately 100 trillion bacteria in the average human. A lot of fuss has (rightly) been made of the Human Genome Project but a human only has around 21,000 protein-coding genes plus a whole bunch of non-coding ones making a total somewhere in the order of 100,000 different genes (no one knows for sure yet). The diversity of bacterial genes in your body is harder still to measure but is estimated to be 100 times this number at around 10 million. (An individual bacterium has far fewer genes that a human cell but there are many different species/strains of bacteria living within you.)

These bugs are important too and play critical roles in priming your immune system, defending you from other unfriendly bacteria and, perhaps most importantly, helping you to digest your food. Indeed, the biggest concentration of bacteria is in the intestine and the population here is heavily influenced by diet - part of the reason that a major shift in diet can cause some upsets down there. Furthermore, evidence now links a healthy gut population with a healthy person, and poor diets have been implicated as possible contributors to poor health beyond simple nutritional deficits. As a consequence, fecal transplants are now being touted as possible cures for all sorts of gastric conditions.

So next time you find it hard to motivate yourself to have a varied, balanced diet, spare a thought for your microbiome!

[Picture from matt over matter, where you can read even more about the human microbiome.]