Monday, 19 December 2011


I HAD scheduled a number of 'Things We Like At Christmas' posts to automatically post, one a day, throughout this week. But circumstances have changed - a family member has fallen very sick, very suddenly, and it strikes me as insensitive to allow such frivolous festive observations to appear to be my only focus at this time. Today's post published before I could get to a computer to cancel it.

Things we like at Christmas? Family: safe, happy and well. We continue to pray.

UPDATE 31/12/11: We got the best Christmas present we could ever ask for in the form of a phone call on Christmas morning from the family member referred to above. Things are on the mend but for every few steps forward to recovery there have also been setbacks. Things are still sensitive and upsetting so I therefore won't be talking about it here, but I plan to return to writing as soon as I can - if nothing else because that person is one of the main supporters of my writing and a frequent visitor to these pages. I'd like there to be plenty of nice things for her to read when she next comes by.

Things we like about Christmas #9

TRYING to guess who has sent us a Christmas card from the handwriting on the envelope. Matching the postmark to the handwriting can carry a surprising level of intrigue!

Monday, 7 November 2011


IN MANY ways this is my favourite time of year. The downsides associated with the start of a new academic term seem to fade to insignificance on days when the sky is clear, the air is crisp, and the trees have turned to varying shades of yellow and red. Leaves are falling to the ground as a reminder that, despite our best efforts to influence the world around us with work and inventions to make our lives more convenient, there is a universal constant that is nature, the true ruler of the surface we live on. Even London Midland have had to issue a revised ‘leaf fall’ train timetable, surprised, once again, that the seasons have changed, just like they do every year.

Sadly the falling leaves mean that my varying explorations of my local area have had to come to an end. And as I sit, now, staring out of the window of our second floor flat through what was the canopy of the trees around us, the squirrels and sentry pigeons having sought refuge elsewhere, I reflect on my first full summer in this new home.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Love Wins

THERE'S an interesting review of the latest book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, on Amazon. It draws a neat analogy for the book with a five hundred-year old piece of artwork - a wooden rhinoceros; this for a review of a book about heaven and hell.

In 1515, Albrecht Dürer produced a woodcut of a rhinoceros based merely on descriptions of the animal, having never seen one himself. He gave it a suit of armour and a small horn on its neck. In subsequent years, despite the increasing ability to paint from life of rhinos at first hand, many artists continued to paint an armoured creature because the armoured rhino of Dürer's woodcut had become the standard, the definitive image. In spite of the evidence - actual rhinos, not wearing armour - the general populace continued to be presented with images of a beast laden with metal plating, a fearsome semi-mechanical creature of war. And that was what many assumed a rhino to look like.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The cruelty of a PhD

TEN months of failed experiments later... (click image for larger version)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Last Thursday Evening

THERE it was, sitting at the end of the street: my old house. The gravel-covered concrete driveway with Dean’s car, parked at an angle as it always was to avoid driving into the street sign in front; the white-fronted semi-detached house, as ever with musical sounds coming from the lower left window and a halogen glow from the top right. From that window too: Darren, who was expecting me. I descended the stairs to the front door, no longer under threat from the creeping brambles we had tamed in my time. Indoors, the sounds of a guitar lesson came from the downstairs bedroom, a recording studio by day. To the right, the living room: the same old sofa, the same grey carpet, the same old pile of exercise equipment and assorted detritus in the far corner though with notable new additions – metallic reflector panels and lighting stands, remnants of the day, I’m told, the living room became a photography studio. The kitchen next, our old debating ground, still with its work surface of fajita kits and ketchup; a fruit bowl filled, as ever, with fruits of surprising sophistication, none of them eaten; the tops of the cupboards still lined with barrels of protein and carbohydrate powders. On the stove a pan was frying fish, destined for the same, square bowl with leaves on that the same meal had been so often been served while I had been there. The garden, with its weeds just about under control - the best we could ever achieve – was the same. The pond remained drained, its audience of crumbling stone animal figurines rescued from beneath the once chaotic flora wishing, as ever, for the fish to come back. The barbecue had moved, the pile of tyres had grown, evidence of attempts to grow vegetables remained, the old shed had been emptied and a crime-scene tent had appeared at the bottom of the garden (where once we had excavated an old patio, believing it to be a Roman fort), but in all other ways it was precisely how I had left it. But now, who is this? Here comes ,a cat, the newest housemate: Lily, only 1, still adventurous and extremely affectionate, chasing moths in the failing light of dusk. Pets had not been allowed in my time: I was jealous. Back in the kitchen Dean, Darren and I reminisced; the dream team back together again. We spoke of PhDs and cheesecakes, the discussions instantaneously in-depth and impenetrable to outsiders, including the third housemate, my replacement’s replacement, who hid upstairs in my old room, now off limits but probably the same as before. Waving farewell, Darren and I drove on up the road, past the sports field I used to enjoy crossing, past the end of the tube line and the church where I used to play, unaware at the time of the opportunities I was being afforded. To the pub: the Cock & Dragon, our old favourite, an old man’s pub with stuffed fish and moose heads on the wall and bitter on tap, but beneath the facade a good old-fashioned Thai restaurant at heart. We chatted away, talking weddings and work; cats, holidays and being uncles, all of the things that had changed since I had left, since I had moved on to happier times.

It was nice to be reminded of all of the things I had once called home, to be reminded that there were indeed nice things to remember. For so long I had looked back on the house as where I had lived during a difficult time: the failed London experiment; where I had lived when I wasn’t happy, when I had felt trapped. But now I could see that the house should be exempt from the bad memories. It was in the kitchen I had received an email that led to me being where I am today, offering me a place at Birmingham. It was in the living room where late night housemate rivalry on the Wii Fit bubble game had defined new levels of competitiveness. It was in that downstairs bedroom/studio where I had my first singing lesson. It was in that bedroom upstairs, the window on the left, where I had lived among my own mess on the floor, desperately looking for a way out, my emotions as tormented as the mess itself. It was that mess on the floor that my girlfriend, now wife, came unannounced to sort, to put me back on my feet. A lot happened in that house at the end of the street.

Monday, 22 August 2011


So there I was, frustrated and angry about events at work on Friday last week.

And then I went to Devon.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

60% Banana

THIS is me, many years ago, making a fool of myself in the centre of Birmingham. I've made a fool of myself in a similar manner several times since, including in a student newspaper that is also archived in the British Library.

Now, inspired in part by these deeds and in honour of my birthday*, my friend Phil has created some rather splendid t-shirts over at his Evilflea SpreadShirt shop. All profits go to The Hoja Project, an educational charity working in Tanzania. If you can, it would be great if you could support him and the charity by buying one of these marvellous garments, or as Phil puts it:
We puny humans share 60% of all our DNA with the mighty banana. I think this needs to be more widely known.

*this is not at all a coincidence

This woman is a bit more than 60% banana (organic, too):

Monday, 25 July 2011


WHEN we were driving back down the Western Australia coast in 2009, we spent a night in Kalbarri, a town that felt like an oasis in the middle of a jungle. Turning off from the North West Coastal Highway, we drove for several hours through the Kalbarri National Park, thunderstorms threatening to erupt around us. After a day of solid driving, the road took us for several hours even further away from nowhere along a flat and uninspiring landscape. Driving became a mission to simply arrive, eat and rest, and consequently we missed the moment the road dropped away, revealing sudden and unexpectedly dramatic vistas looking down to the Murchison River far below. Rich bush coated the river basin; steep ravines and adventurous terrain replaced the flat monotony. It was a jungle among scrubland. Through this landscape we slowly descended to the riverside town of Kalbarri, at the mouth of the Murchison into the Indian Ocean, arriving late in the afternoon. The town was a welcome sight, an outpost existing beyond the known world, serviced by a giant road loop that serves Kalbarri and Kalbarri alone. It was a small town, not especially glamorous, but its location and geography made up for it all. A spit covered the harbour entrance, with waves breaking even further out on submerged rocks, sending spray and swell towards the sand bar that stood as lord and protector over a gentle community that basked in the calm of the estuary and the town’s prime location in the recesses of the wild west coast.

This was a town for all kinds. Syrup’s Health and Gourmet Shop provided our first gluten-free experience in quite some time, where a slightly frizzled lady sold us rolls and spoke to us with more authority about coeliac disease than any shop here or at home has done since. The bar and hotel was a true outback ramshackle affair – plastic chairs, beer and lotto. Caravan and trailer parks nestled alongside luxury hotels. Our own campsite felt like somebody’s back garden. A gossip of galahs pecked at food on a roadside lawn, jumping with fright as each car passed. People loitered by the bottle shop, while others sipped coffee outside cafes. In the evening we ate at a world-famous establishment known as Finlays Fish BBQ, a fine dining establishment set inside an old fish factory that offers ‘no service, no corkage, no glasses and no frills’, all inside a tin shed. It was brilliant. We devoured our plate of fish and meat with glee, and the resident cat chewed our leftover prawn shells with even greater enjoyment.

Startled galahs

Sadly our time in Kalbarri came to an end far too quickly, and as we set out the following morning to complete our loop back to the north-south highway, we rued our chance to explore further. But there was one last treat, for Kalbarri was home to a seahorse sanctuary.

Millions of seahorses are taken from the wild each year to be sold as pets, depleting coral reef ecosystems and harming already endangered wild populations. Buying such creatures is not only harmful but a false economy, for wild seahorses tend not to survive in the artificial conditions of a tank and do not naturally eat dead fish food sold by aquaria. The Seahorse Sanctuary in Kalbarri existed not only to breed seahorses, thereby preventing further damage to wild populations, but to wean them on to frozen fish food, increasing their chances of survival as pets and thereby their value for money. Where wild seahorses typically die in captivity after 5-6 weeks, sanctuary seahorses can survive for up to 6 years. The sanctuary was a pet industry business that provided both a better solution for customers and a tenable conservation objective.

As an attraction it was pretty good too. For its size (one room) there was a lot to see and do, taking you through the process from breeding through seahorse school and on to graduation. Mixed with pipefish and older seahorses, young seahorses were taught by demonstration to eat frozen shrimp, to become big and strong and to make their parents proud. The creatures were colourful, flamboyant and rather lovely to watch, and we spent a good hour making friends and chilling out with the seahorses. Brilliantly, the venture was sponsored by Guylian.

Then off we drove, on to Dongara-Port Denison, Cervantes and then Perth, and this story was forgotten.

Then on Friday I discovered that the Seahorse Sanctuary in Kalbarri has closed. This makes me really sad and I can offer no additional information as to what has happened. I can only hope that the good work of the sanctuary is being continued by others elsewhere. I would be grateful that if anybody knows anything more about the sanctuary’s closure they would share it, as this is truly a loss. In the meanwhile, may I salute the efforts of Michael and Wendy Payne over the past 10 years towards the protection of wild seahorse populations.

Monday, 18 July 2011

We can grow beards (if we want to)

ROWHEATH Pavilion, in the heart of Bournville, is a sports pavilion and function complex, built in 1924 by the Cadbury family as a clubhouse for the recreational facilities they made available to their workers. In the 1970s, ever stricter health and safety regulations saw the demise of its lido, and over time the building fell into disrepair. Successive attempts to manage the building failed and it was eventually closed down. It was re-opened in 1985 by a local management group, who struggled to keep it afloat. One of their building users was the Trinity Church, which had previously met in a house in Selly Oak. With financial troubles at Rowheath continuing, Bournville Village Trust asked Trinity to operate the Pavilion under a management agreement. Trinity would later sign the lease on the building, and over time Trinity became the Pavilion Christian Community, which would assume full day to day running of Rowheath Pavilion. Trinity’s ambitions for the building differed to all previous management groups of the building for it sought not to run the building for profit but for the local population, to restore Rowheath to its central role in Bournville as clubhouse, venue and community centre. Little did they know at the time that in 2011 it would be invaded by 17 strange, voluntarily hairy Australians with a penchant for harmonising.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Chasety downity, whackety backety

THE thing is, I was only supporting Sabine Lisicki because she played with a smile at the AEGON semi-finals in Birmingham, seemed to be a good player and, generally, seemed a nice person. I had no idea she'd reach the Wimbledon semi-finals on a wildcard. She has defeated number 4 in the world Li Na and number 9 Marion Bartoli, who herself defeated Serena Williams. I stopped blogging about it because I couldn't really believe it, and if you could hear me commentating on the tennis you'd probably stop reading for good anyway. In fact, I had to restrain myself on Twitter, waffling on and screaming triumph at every point won against Na. I was probably very annoying. That said, in response to this and whatever else I was spouting on about that day, Nelly kindly told me later: "I love how excited you get about, well, everything".

Tomorrow Lisicki faces Maria Sharapova in what will undoubtedly be a very tough match. No ladies singles player has ever won the Wimbledon Championships, but given that some people think she serves like a bloke, perhaps she can pull off a Becker or an Ivanišević? Be it on a big screen or on my laptop, hiding in a corner of the laboratory, I shall be watching and cheering along. This is going to be good!

Normal service will be resumed once the tennis has come to an end.

Post title from Thwok! by Matt Harvey.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wack, thwok, thwack, pok

SABINE Lisicki, unseeded, beats world number 4 Li Na in a thrilling three sets: 3-6 6-4 8-6. At one stage she was two match points down.

Seriously... wow. Incredible match.

Post title from Thwok! by Matt Harvey.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hittety backety pingety zang!

HURRAH! Sabine Lisicki today absolutely slaughtered Anastasija Sevastova 6-1 6-1 to progress through to the second round of Wimbledon. The match, delayed by rain, was already one rescheduled after play progressed too slowly yesterday on Court 8. Lisicki and Sevastova were the fourth match due on that court on Tuesday, but play began with Daniela Hantuchova who, as previously mentioned, plays really slowly... it can't be coincidence that all other courts completed four or five matches when Court 8 barely started its third...!

Never mind, play got going late this afternoon and the victory came quickly - the first set lasted 19 minutes, the second 26 minutes. Comfortable stuff.

Tomorrow she gets to play on Centre Court where she faces Li Na, who is seeded third for the entire tournament. Eep. So, er, fingers crossed then...

If you are intrigued by the titles of my previous two posts, they are from the poem Thwok! by Matt Harvey, poet in residence at last year's Wimbledon Championships.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Thwackety wackety zingety ping

LAST Saturday we went to watch the semi-finals of the AEGON Classic at the Priory Club in Edgbaston, Birmingham. I'd not been to see professional tennis before, but being just down the road, it seemed silly not to go. Armed with picnics, sun cream and umbrellas, we had a pleasant day that has made me very excited for Wimbledon.

First to play were Daniela Hantuchova and Ana Ivanovic, in matching shocking pink dresses. It was a bad start for Ivanovic, probably embarrassed at having come to the match wearing the same outfit as her opponent, as she was broken in the very first game. She regained dominance, but she was consistently sloppy. Meanwhile, Hantuchova played mind games with Ivanovic, and it was Hantuchova who eventually took the victory, despite her lower seeding. It was a bit of a slow game - even Martina Navratilova, present to celebrate the tournament's thirtieth anniversary, got bored and went home before its completion. I supported Hantuchova from the beginning as the underdog, but I wasn't happy with her play, which seemed unsportsmanlike and lacking grace.

Next to play were Shaui Peng, seeded third and the highest seeded player remaining in the competition, and Sabine Lisicki - unseeded, unheard of, headphones in her ears as she came on court. Now this was a match: faster, much more exciting and fair play from both sides of the court. Both seemed nice players, not ones to mess with each other or challenge umpire decisions, but it was Lisicki who caught our attention. She played with a smile... indeed, she played very, very well with a smile. At each missed shot she would squeal in anguish, followed by an embarrassed giggle. She won convincingly, and was ecstatic.

Two days later (the final was delayed by one day because of rain), she repeated this performance and beat Hantuchova to the trophy, only her second ever singles title. I gather it was equally as effortless. It qualified her for Wimbledon, raised her WTA ranking by 38 places to 62 and earnt her four new fans - Rachel and myself and my parents.

Today she takes on Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova in the first round of Wimbledon, where she reached the quarter finals in 2009 before falling into two years of injury and comparative obscurity. I hope you will join me in cheering her on.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Four red cars in a super good red line

IT was supposed to be a relaxing holiday, a week in which to unwind, to switch off, count to ten and reboot ourselves in the midst of a busy few months at work. But it felt strange; my mind could not switch off. It did not want to read nor watch the world go by. The plan to have a quiet week simply wouldn’t agree with me. Here I was, confined within a hotel, desperate to see what lay outside of its (admittedly very lovely) walls. We were a 30 minute walk from the UNESCO World Heritage city centre of Split, Croatia, and yet, rules being rules (albeit self-enforced), we weren’t out exploring. I wanted to see everything there was to see, to know all that there is to know about Split and Croatia generally; and yet, at the same time, I did not, for I could remember how exhausted we have been on all previous holidays because we’ve tried to do too much. It was peaceful and tranquil: I was distracted.

I hid behind my book, but I was watching the clientele.

A couple just ahead of me were having some drinks delivered. What a place I’m in, I thought, to have waiter service by the pool. The couple gestured at the waitress to shoo, her job done, her purpose fulfilled. How rude, I thought.

A lady turned over, the first time in an hour, to allow her back to tan. I wondered how red she would be that evening.

Five beer-bellied, overly tanned Englishmen were drinking beer at the opposite corner of the pool complex. As the beers kept coming, their volume increased. They would hail the waitress and keep her talking as they ogled her: a young, fit, Mediterranean twentysomething in the presence of five balding men in the midst of mid-life crises. I tried hard not to watch their pack behaviour, attempting once more to delve into my book. But a thought crept into my mind. Had I found a corner of Croatia that is forever Benidorm?

Sunday, 5 June 2011


WE went to a really lovely wedding yesterday in Buckinghamshire, full of enthusiastic singing, happiness all round and... a reception at Pinewood Studios! Wandering around the expansive gardens of Heatherden Hall, we came across a memorial to Desmond Llewelyn, Q from the Bond films. The gardens were lovely, with well crafted lawns and secret gardens nestled behind well-tended borders. As the sun descended, the rabbits came out to say hello. It was such a tranquil spot, so close to where cinematic history is made yet a world away from the glamour of the film world, a fitting location for the legacy of Bond's old fatherly quartermaster to rest.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

But not a real green dress, that's cruel

LAST night, for the first time in 4 years, Nelly and I performed at an Open Mic Night in Bournville. We were a bit rusty to start with but it was great fun. We tackled only songs we had learnt all those years ago, only realising afterwards that two of them we had never actually performed to anybody else before...

There were lots of other great acts too. Here are some pictures!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Lady Under the Floor

OVER Easter, Rachel's sister, brother in law and their three-year old came to stay with us. For the purpose of anonymity I shall call them S, R and J, respectively. Here's a few stories from their stay.

On Friday we all met at Hatton Country World, a farm-based attraction for younger visitors and a shopping village for adults. J was scared of the pigs, but was taken greatly by the guinea pigs. This was appreciated by the adults, as the guinea pigs lived inside, away from the unexpectedly strong sunshine outside. The guinea pigs lived next door to an indoor playground, containing table football, mini tractors, a giant playhouse and a sandpit, complete with diggers. J delighted in running around the playhouse, trying to escape from his daddy outside, the giant to his Jack.

"FEE, FI, FO, FUM!" shouted R.
"Can't get me!" J would reply.

It was all going swimmingly until R scared the wrong child.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Business at the front, party at the back

FROM politics to another first: a book review.

Through various connections online I know quite a few people. I've not necessarily met them all, but we have conversed and followed each other's online contributions, sometimes over a number of years. Simon Varwell is one such online acquaintance, a man who I know through a collective called Join Me but whom I have not met. Nonetheless, we read each other's blogs (his is here) and chat via Twitter. The Internet is strange that way, allowing social contact, without the contact, or a need to be sociable. So I thought I'd lend my support to Simon's burgeoning literary career and give his first book, Up The Creek Without A Mullet, a go. And here is a review, written somewhat nervously with the knowledge that Simon will undoubtedly read every word...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Would you like to go to the pub? Tough.

I'LL keep this as brief as I can.

I don't like to write about politics and I wholeheartedly believe that somebody's political allegiances are their business alone. But on May 5th we have an opportunity to have a say about the long-term future of how this country is run in a referendum on the voting system for parliamentary elections. I wish that everybody would take this seriously, so I'm making an exception and going to talk about what I think.

The question is, should we keep first past the post (FPTP), or switch to the alternative vote (AV), which is currently used in countries such as Australia, by our own political parties (for deciding leadership) and in our own House of Lords?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Since the early caveman in his fur took a trip to Gretna Green

liberty monument
, gellért-hegy, budapest, hungary
Originally uploaded by SBishop

THE other day I had a bit of a spring clean of my computer, knowing I had a few old photos to sort through. To my shock the unsorted photos went back several years, covering several family events, holidays and all sorts of shenanigans. Because of this I aim, over the next few weeks, to add many of these photos to my Flickr account, this blog and/or Facebook or Picasa, depending on suitability, so that relevant photos can be seen by you lot - family and friends and, selectively, the wider Internet. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Western Australia VI: Thing! THINGTHINGTHING! Thud.

HALF way back to Perth, between two distant towns a day's drive apart, is a lonely junction. Taking you away from the north-south coastal highway, the adjoining road heads west for a few hours into a landscape of red earth, hypersaline shimmering waters, sweeping bays and hundreds of acres of thriving biodiversity. This is the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, the area encompassing two north-westerly projecting, long and narrow peninsulas, creating two immense coves that harbour all manner of surprises: salt mines; sand bars; more tiger sharks than anywhere else in the world; beaches made of billions of only one kind of tiny shell; shell quarries; 4,000 km2 of sea grass; dolphins, turtles and 10,000 dugongs and, in a far recess of one of the bays, a population of living fossils — the towers of stromatolites, ancient microbe populations responsible for our oxygen-rich atmosphere. On land the earth is coated in low-lying shrub vegetation, hiding among it threatened species covering the diverse animal kingdom. Signs warn drivers of the ground-dwelling Mallee fowl, for example, a vulnerable species that builds giant self-insulating nests, coated in sand layers of up to 1 metre in depth and heated by organic decay, in which they bury their eggs.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Western Australia V: Ain't it the life?

A few stories remain to tell from my Australia series, put on pause from last year. You rejoin us at the most northerly point of our road trip along the Western Australia coast, a mile out to sea, where I am having a few difficulties. The rest of the series, which covers topics as diverse as landslides, sheep, epic railway journeys, mutiny and the difficulties of finding breakfast, can be found on my travel page.

THE problem with small boats is the plumbing.

The presence of twenty tourists gleefully sunbathing, drinking and helping themselves to the bountiful buffet, ravenous after several bouts of vigorous exercise swimming in the open ocean, ultimately puts a strain on the ablution facilities of such a vessel. Eventually, they can no longer cope and flatly refuse to flush any longer, creating a moment of panic for whoever might be standing nearby at the time.

I mention this not to put you off your dinner, but to help you understand. We had spent the entire day about the Indian Ocean just off Ningaloo Reef, swimming first with manta ray and turtles at a fish cleaning station and then, throughout the day, three whale sharks. These immense creatures, around 12 metres in length, are the largest fish in the ocean, mysterious filter feeders with distinct and unique spotted patterning. To give an idea of scale, the mouth of the whale shark can reach 1.5 metres in width, and the largest ever rumoured to have been caught, at 18 metres in length, was holding up to 1,000 baby whale sharks inside. The fish had been our hosts, allowing us a privileged 30 minutes or so of their company at a time before diving beyond reach as they migrate along the coast. We would chug up and down the North West Cape coastline, awaiting the call from a spotter plane above. When a whale shark was spotted and the call came through, dozens of boats would race to be the first to reach the animal, sometimes running rings around one another in a bid to block their rivals from reaching the quoted coordinates first. One boat per shark, those were the rules.

The ocean was cold, and I had foolishly opted out of using a wet suit (I was the only one to do so), but only a few minutes of swimming alongside the shark was enough to get the blood pumping and to keep warm. For the whale shark, effortlessly gliding through the water, this was a mere amble. Indeed, a true shark would have scythed through the water at a far greater rate, but for the humans eagerly following alongside this was more than fast enough. The rules were to stay at least 3 metres from the body or 4 metres from the tail and never to swim in front of the fish, but in reality it was difficult to ever get this close: the fish was just too fast. Not that the fish cared of course, as it happily pottered along, eating, pondering and peering curiously at these human things, so clumsy in their locomotion.

Between swims we would dry in the sun, breathe the salty air and spot dolphins and humpback whales in the distance. The buffet was a fine, healthy spread. The day, all in all, was relaxing, healthy and a once in a lifetime – really – experience: to swim with such a creature was an honour. To swim with three, well, you get the idea.

You can see then, why problems involving narrow plumbing might ruin the mood. True enough, it was I who was the bearer of the final insult and, not to be too graphic, the timing of such a catastrophic disposal refusal could not have been worse.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes

A paper!

Trophic neuron-glia interactions and cell number adjustments in the fruit fly
Alicia Hidalgo, Kentaro Kato, Ben Sutcliffe, Graham McIlroy, Simon Bishop, Samaher Alahmed.
Glia, epub 1 Dec 2010, doi: 10.1002/glia.21092

If you'd like to know a bit more, I recommend starting from the very beginning, with the 1986 Nobel lecture of Rita Levi-Montalcini, describing the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). It makes for an interesting story of how science used to be done.

Image from the work of Levi-Montalcini, not us

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

'Cos love's such an old fashioned word

Originally published in January 2011; removed then republished (redacted) in Feb 2016

I am happy.

Today, the craziest week I think I have ever had at work took a turn for the better: for the first time in many days I feel like I am regaining control of my professional life. Projects and plans have had to take a backseat; eleven hour days and not much sleep came hand in hand; but today saw the first signs that I might be getting on top of my quadrupled workload. Sunday was my only day off in the last two weeks, and it proved to be a good Sunday. I played my guitar in the Pavilion in the morning and then Rachel and I, along with Rachel's friend Helen who was staying with us, went to the Ikon Gallery.

The entire gallery was exhibiting only the work of Len Lye, a pioneer of motion and kinetic art, including his films and moving sculptures. We began on the top floor, where Lye's kinetic sculptures were given the acres of space they deserved - bits of metal wibbled, wobbled and clashed in remarkably specific ways to make ripples of light in a darkened room, a calamitous cacophony not unlike the wind of a hurricane, and movements mesmerising, unnatural and alarming at the same time.

Downstairs a handful of paintings, showing off Lye's Māori, Aboriginal and Polynesian influences, played second fiddle to his animations and groundbreaking film work, of which my favourite was the video above. The film, called Colour Box, was made in 1935, the effects achieved by painting patterns directly on to the film itself. Note the subtle marketing techniques also...

There is no point to this post, other than to remark on a Sunday oasis amidst chaos at work. I'm half way out of the dark.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

I was hiding under your porch because I love you

TODAY I gave a lab meeting on my PhD progress to date, or at least since my last meeting. This in itself isn't remarkable, except that it also happened to be my 15 month formal meeting, attended by my internal assessor, to examine my progress and assess my achievements and enthusiasm. Needless to say I've been extremely stressed, prone to error and subjecting myself to perhaps more than I can handle since returning from the holidays. Last Friday, for example, I was juggling two separate experiments, each a day's work in themselves, all while trying to prepare for new experiments this week, using techniques entirely new to us all.

The meeting went well, and in fact I was the most relaxed in any lab meeting I have ever given, perhaps because I think - though I stress that it is only that I think - that I finally know a little about what I'm talking about.

This meant that the rest of the day whooshed by in a daze, as I swanned around humming to myself and feeling content. I haven't achieved all that I had wanted to by this stage in my project, but my supervisor and internal assessor seem to be happy with my progress. When I left for home my spirits were high, not dampened by the drizzle falling from the heavens. A gentleman passed me on the way to the train station, clearly also having had a good day. He was walking faster than me and, just after overtaking me, he began to skip, heading straight - sploosh - into a puddle. At this he let out a "weee-heee-HEEE!" and then returned to his walking pace, undoubtedly rather pleased with himself.

This evening, in celebration, I watched a DVD I have been coveting for a while that, following a documentary on the BBC recently, I purchased in a fit of temptation. It was Pixar's Up.

If you haven't seen it, it's not possible to explain the plot with justice: it just sounds silly and odd. It is about a man who ties balloons to his house and flies to South America. But it is the reasons why he does this, the interplay between him and an eight-year old accidentally caught on his doorstep as the house takes off, and the ever present touch of sadness throughout the film that make it something absolutely special. This is not your standard silly animation, although for sure, its plot is preposterous and never tries to be anything besides. But when I saw Up at the cinema I am quite happy to admit that it made me cry - in sadness and delight in equal measure. The first ten minutes particularly are heartwrenching. Yet I think I probably cried even more tonight on viewing it once more. This is a film about adventure, love, appreciation and memories, tangled up with the cords of those balloons. I know such a review sounds clichéd and ridiculous, and sure, I'm a sucker for an ounce of celluloid silliness lovingly sprinkled in Pixar dust, but I honestly think Up is one of the greatest films of the last decade. It never ceases to affect me in a deeply personal way.

As I reviewed it upon leaving the cinema when it was first released, I consider Up to be pure joy in film form.

And now I retire after a triumphant day, ready for the adventures tomorrow will bring. Furthermore, they will be adventures with my wife by my side. Adventures are what makes life fun, and without them, I would be lost.