Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Home, sweeet home

I'm currently in my British motherland and being here has reminded me of something's I really miss living in the US, some aesthetic, some not, and began to list them. So as I sat in my room, listening to the sound of rain putter-pattering against the window, which to me brings  back memories of summer holidays as a child,  I started writing the list down, and decided, heck, why not post it. So here you go, the bits of Blighty I crave:
Birdsong:  Now, I do hear birds singing in the US, but it's typically just a couple, and just not the sheer diversity. At one end of an avian migration route, the UK simply has more birds, mostly coming to the UK to breed, besides residents. Plus the work of the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds has helped conserve the variety, unlike in the US where many native species have been decimated. I also like seeing the ubiquitous magpies flying about, and in the colder months the sounds of rooks and crows "cawing" in fields.

Religious tolerance & liberal values: America likes to think of itself as the "land of the free" and a cultural melting pot. It isn't. Seriously, the way religion has such a stranglehold on American politics would be considered abhorrent in the UK which has a much more "live and let live" mentality. Also the political values in the UK are such that even the Conservative party, the most right wing of the three main parties, is to the left of the Democratic party. Talking to students her about the US healthcare system and the reaction against "Obamacare" they just couldn't believe that the public would be against universal health care and, especially, that people could be denied the best possible health care just because of what insurance (if at all) they had - they considered it just so morally alien to them. They consider that access to the best possible health care as a fundamental moral right for everyone. And don't get me started about access for all to university education.

Proper tea: None of this weak namby-pamby weak Liptons rubbish that you get in the states. Good strong PG Tips or Tetley tea. What the Brits call "builders tea".

Sense of humor: I must have a caveat here that most of my friends have a sense of humor where they get sarcasm, double or "single entendres" and more surreal "pythonesque" (which I discovered is actually in the Oxford English dictionary - humor or situations that recall Monty Python) jokes. But too often Americans don't.

The joy of snacks: Although the UK has a bad reputation for cooking, it really isn't deserved. In the past couple of decades the British have become obsessed with cooking. Just look at the popular cooking TV shows in the US like top chef, most were stolen from the Brits. Even your average pub prides itself on the quality and variety of its dishes- as opposed to burgers, fries and nachos that you find in nearly every US bar. The restaurants are also typically very friendly to those with dietary needs - almost everywhere has a large selection of gluten-free, halal and vegetarian/vegan dishes. But, for me it's the snacks I really miss: salt and vinegar square crisps, Worcestershire sauce-flavored crisps, veggies pasties, chocolate digestive biscuits, custard creams (also a biscuit), and chocolate - Hershey's chocolate officially is not chocolate in Europe because of its inferior chocolateyness, snacks like Cadbury's flake and double deckers just kick the butt of American chocolatey snacks. Also a special shout out is warranted for the spicy deliciousness of HP sauce and branston pickle (the latter brings out the flavor of cheese in a simply mouthwatering way) … mmmmmmm.

What I don’t miss: grey skies and rain, rain, rain and more rain … sigh.

Ridley Scott what were you thinking?!

The last few weeks I've participated in an orgy of movie watching, thanks partially to long plane flights and staying with my movie-buff sister for a few days. I've mentioned before how once upon a time I did movie reviews, and enjoyed writing them. I have just seen a film that gave me the urge to put pen to paper again. Or at  least electron to silicon.

Two of my favourite films as a teenager, in fact even as an adult, were Blade Runner and Alien. The characters were three dimensional, the cinematography and effects and direction were outstanding, and they were full of atmosphere. So the director Ridley Scott has been one of my favourites as a consequence (my all time fave director is probably Hitchcock though, but Scott is up there in my top 5). I am also a fan of Aliens - one of the few sequels that really was a sequel to the original movie, as well made as the original but different - again three dimensional characters, great sets and loads of atmosphere.

The main attractions of Alien 1 & 2 is that the characters were beliveable - interstellar truckers in 1, military grunts in 2 , and the worlds they were set in although futuristic, looked realistic. They are both a tiny minority of movies where spaceships float in the vacuum of space silently (accompanied by a deliciously creepy film score), and the science is actually relatively plausible.

And then we have "Prometheus" - the prequel to Alien.

(spoiler warning)

First of all, the science is dreadful - I'm told the space science is OK, but it's full of bad biology. The engineers we are told have a 100% DNA match with humans - seriously, they are giants with pitch black eyes and thick marble-like skin. That alone would require quite a few different genes. At the beginning of the film we see an "engineer"/"ancient" dissolving themselves into the water supply of a primeval earth. Despite the fact that if you reduced DNA to it's component parts, it would not reassemble at a later date in the same order, that's just bad chemistry, but in 3 or so billion years between the engineers dumping DNA onto the earth the evolution of humans, did the engineers not evolve at all? We go from bacteria to humans on one planet, but the aliens are untouched by natural selection and evolution.

They find a several alien head in perfect condition after 2000 years despite being in what we are told is earth like atmosphere - is this atmosphere completely sterile? Are there no decomposing bacteria? We see later that the planet has worm-like creatures, so the chance of zero bacteria or similar is unlikely. Moreover they take this head, and despite being two thousand years old, they are able to electrically stimulate it's nervous system. Finally from a scientist's perspective, their portrayal of a biologist made me cringe. What biologist goes up to an unknown wild creature saying "hey beautiful" and try to pet it. I've been attacked by enough wildlife, even cute seals & dolphins to know that those buggers bite and have nasty infectious diseases.

Finally, Noomi Rapace has an alien removed from her by the auto-surgeon. When she returns later to that room, the small tentacled alien she had removed, has grown to giant size - how? It was sealed in a room with no access to food. Matter cannot simply appear from nowhere, so how did the creature grow. Did it each all the surgical instruments in the room for nourishment?

Then there are various aspects of the plot that don't make sense. What was the heiress of a multi-billion dollar company doing taking two years off to visit an alien planet? Shouldn't she be watching the company? The aliens have super technology, yet dispatch pesky interlopers by beating them up. What no weapons?

There apparently was a catastrophic outbreak of one of their created "viruses", so what does the hibernating alien do first thing on waking? Kill the humans and launch the ship towards earth, despite having been in stasis for 2000 years. What no checking to see if the situation has changed in the last 2000 years?

There were a few positive notes those. The character of "David" was one of the few ones with any depth, and extremely well acted. I love the "Lawrence of Arabia" scene.

Charlize Theron's character, although a plot hole, was also interesting, and I liked how although human, members of e crew thought she could have been an android, because she was so so emotionless and unempathetic. Noomi Rapace tried her best despite clunky dialogue. As for the rest of the characters - meh. Can't I couldn't remember most even when the film was playing, they were so one-dimensional.

If you want to see a good film, avoid Prometheus, and I recommend looking out the following to add to your Netflix queue.

Best exotic marigold hotel: Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith - what's not to love in this superbly acted, sentimental and amusing story of senior citizens moving to India to stay in a ramshackle hotel.

Honkey dory: In 1976 a drama teacher tries to stage a musical version of the Tempest at a working class Welsh high school. Despite Minnie Driver's intermittent Welsh accent,  a nice movie.

Pirate radio: Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh and a host of great British actors, including two actresses I have crushes on. The soundtrack is fantastic.

Anonymous: An interesting film with the premise that Shakespeare's plays were written by the Earl of Oxford and that Queen Elizabeth I had a host of illegitimate children. The latter is probably more plausible - she was periodically confined to bed because she had an illness which caused her to "swell up". There are huge historical flaws in the Earl of Oxford thesis though e.g. the Tempest is widely believe to have been based/inspired by  a 1609 popular pamphlet on a "tempest" that caused a shipwreck that marooned scores of people on an island. The Earl of Oxford died in 1603 - the number of similarities between the pamphlet and the circumstances of the play are so abundant that it would require the Earl to be seriously prophetic. That's just one argument. But nonetheless, I really enjoyed it, even if they did make Kit Marlowe a jerk (one of my favourite historical characters).

As a final note, Snow white and the huntsman is worth watching just to see Ray Winton play "scary" the dwarf - other dwarves include Ian MShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost and a smattering of other famous British dramatic actors. The dwarves have much much acting cred than most of  the leads. It is also nice to see "Bella" be bad ass, as opposed to simpering and whining about her boyfriend woes. Snow White is a much better role model for young girls than the shallow, pathetic, self-indulgent "Bella".

Protecting Panama's dolphins

Now the International Whaling Commission is drawing to a close I can reveal a little about some of our successes at the meeting.

Firstly we drew attention to the poor beleaguered population of bottle nose dolphins in Bocas del Toro, Panama. This population of less than 200 animals ISPs the focus of o huge amount of dolphin-watching activity. I personally saw 6 boats around a small group of 5 or six animals, and colleagues say that up to 25 is common, although we did get reports of sometimes nearly a hundred boats chasing dolphins in the high season. For the record, Panama has great dolphin watching regulations, some of the best in the world. But boat operators either don't know about them, or typically don't care. There is certainly no enforcement. I should add that not all boat operators are badly behaved around dolphins. I personally witnessed two companies behaving impeccably near dolphins, obeying the regulations and complaining and shouting out at operators that weren't. But they are in the minority.

The situation in Bocas was discussed at the IWC scientific committee (personally having photos of boats in clear violation of regulations helped quell the protest from government officials that there was no problem and the rules were always obeyed) and their concern was expressed in the official report, which also stated that  the Panamanian Government should do something about the situation. Certain IWC commissioners visited government high ups to protest the situation too. The fact that Panama is the host of the IWC, is an indicator that they want to be seen as a world nation that has an active interest in the management of whales and dolphins, and it's certainly embarrassing for them not to have their house in order on that score. A week after I left Panama now, I hear that there is positive movement on the government front, there have been some meetings with boat operators and a new research project to monitor the sustainability of dolphin-watching in the area, and to study the impact of the activity on the dolphins, has been initiated (incorporating colleagues and even some of my graduate students).  So at least something positive has come out of this year's Whaling Commission meeting, which makes a pleasant change.

Diabolical villains

 "If I've learnt one thing as a pirate, it's that wherever you go, from Chesterfield to Matlock, there are only two types of diabolical villain: the misunderstood kind who are doing it for attention, and then there's the evil-to-the-core kind. Actually I'm forgetting zombies. And inscrutable foreigners as well. Four types ...."

From: The Pirates ! In an adventure with communists by Daniel Dafoe.

A little venting

I hate British European airways.

I'm spending several weeks in Scotland running a field course and thought I'd take a quick 35 minute plane flight to Northern Ireland to see family. So I booked a reasonably priced $150 ticket with British European. However, on checking in my bag of clothes and kit for the field course, I was told there would be an excess baggage charge : $ 180 plus a  $60 fee for changing my ticket. I face an additional $180 to take my bag back to Scotland. An extra $420 on top of the $150 flight. $6 per minute in the air. The airline has me over a barrel. What can I do, I have to take that luggage?!

So I found out that the "B.E." in the slogan "fly B.E." stands for "bogus extras". Listening to the litany of extra charges was a bit like the song "master of the house" in Les Miserables, with an extra charge for sleeping with the window shut. You can't find these charges online because of course, that would require their website to actually function.

After having had the various extras and penalties explained to me, the service representative said to me "now you've learnt something". Yes, never, ever fly British European Airways again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

On whales ....

" 'Anyhow,' one of the scientists was saying to another, 'there simply isn't room in the museum's Fishes Hall, so we've decided to pretend to the public that a whale is actually a mammal without any legs. It's patently ridiculous - I mean to say, just look at the thing, it's a gigantic fish if ever you saw one - but mum's the word ! In my experience the public will believe just about anything, so long as you write it down on a little piece of card.' "

The Pirates! In an adventure with scientists. Gideon Defoe.

Lonesome George, lonesome no more

This week (June 24th) saw the sad death of George, the last of his kind. So called "lonesome George" the last giant tortoise from the island of Pinta, died, signifying the extinction of his sub-species (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). The Pinta tortoises were thought to have gone extinct in the early part of the 20th century, but in 1971 a lone male, George, was found wondering on the island, and immediately taken into captivity with the idea of starting a captive breeding program.
I take a class of students to the Galapagos Islands every year and, one of the highlights of the trip has been to see George in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Center. He was originally accompanied by two female tortoises, from Isabela island, a sub-species (C. nigra becki) deemed to be the closest to George's sub-species morphologically, and they had hoped that this might stimulate George to breed and possibly produce closely related hybrids. This was, however, unsuccessful. Although the females produced 3 batches of eggs, none of them were viable. Plus, George just didn't seem particularly interested in mating.

When I was there last, scientists at the Station had determined that the tortoise sub-species from Espanola island were in fact more closely-related genetically to George (C. n. hoodensis), and there was talk about starting attempts to breed again. So two new females from Espanola were placed in George’s enclosure in 2011. But alas it was not to be.

It was terribly sad to watch George slowly plodding around his enclosure. Occasionally he would look at you with his sad, and strangely familiar face (I later discovered that the face of ET was based on giant tortoises like George), and ignore the female tortoises in the enclosure with him, oblivious  the conservationists hopes that he would take an interest in them and somehow save some of his unique genetic material by breeding. Personally he always reminded me of Walter Matthau … in a shell.

The giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands were probably never in terribly high numbers. But in 18th and 19th centuries the islands became a popular location for whaling expeditions (for sperm whales) and the tortoises were captured as a source of fresh meat - the tortoises could be lashed on deck and could survive without food for several months, and so could provide whaling vessels with fresh meat (the sailors never ate the meat of the whales they killed, surprisingly). Sperm whale oil was extremely valuable, at times literally worth its weight in gold, and such lucrative wares attracted pirates and privateers (government sanctioned pirates) who also captured the tortoises. Later the islands started to be colonized and in addition to being a source of food, the animals the colonists brought with them competed with the tortoises for resources. So throughout the islands tortoises were depleted, with the Pinta tortoises being hunted to near extinction.

George was over 100 years old at his death. A hundred years ago, the Titanic sunk, just to put that age into perspective. I was told at the Charles Darwin Research Center, that he might have even been 170 years old. If so, he was born in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, grew up in the early Victorian era, as the industrial revolution was beginning to take off. He would have seen sailing ships cruising around his island turn into iron steam ships, to the numerous high speed ferries, fishing boats and tour boats that ply the waters of the Galapagos today. Much of that life was as the last of his kind.

On the question of classification

You can divide the animal kingdom into five different classes:

Animals: identifiable by their characteristic four legs, animals are probably the most famous creatures available. Meat comes from here.

Sea creatures: includes sharks, crocodiles, whales, barnacles another fish. Distinguished from animals by bing slimy and more suited to parsley sauce.

Sea monsters: the most fearsome class, sea monsters vary widely. The common theme about them is that when you tell people about them, they assume that you are lying. A fascinating fact: zombies are technically in this category although none of them live in the sea!

Birds: anything with wings. Birds evolved when the earth was still covered in lava and therefore too hot to walk around on.

Fungus: mushrooms, toadstools and athlete's foot. If you go for a walk in the woods and see a fungus, why not eat it? It's a proven scientific fact that a creature that doesn't move can't hurt you.

Any creatures that don't fit these classes are the exceptions that prove the rule.

From: The wit and wisdom of the Pirate Captain - a major philosophical work. Gideon Defoe.

We're here to annoy you

A bit of a backlog of items because thanks to crazy storms hitting my hometown, I've been without power for several days. At least I don't have a tree in my roof like my next-door-neighbour, or a trashed car like a neighbour across the street.... so far. But 100oF+ weather  without air conditioning ain't great. Did read 3 books with nothing else much to do. However, the poor cats have melted in the heat and just look at me as if to say "where's the F#@$ing air con human! I'm so going to throw up a hairball in your shoes ... when I have the energy to move." Also, had to grill every grillable item in the freezer before it went off - I'm a bit sick of veggie burgers. Anyway, back to my post ...

I've written before about how incompetent bureaucrats and admin people irritate me. This past trip has been a sequence of incompetence followed by idiocy, followed by downright rudeness. Airline staff that say I'm not on the list, then how come I have a boarding pass? My visit to the field station I was supposed to stay at was a prime example. I arrived and they told me that I was not registered and they have no record of me. If so, how come I can see a key with a sticky note with my name on on the desk? After having registered in the and jumped through the various hoops, including phoning the head office in Panama city and meeting with the station director to fill in paperwork, two days later I checked out and was told that I wasn't registered, but despite that I owed a $60 registration fee and a charge for a laboratory I never used.

Although, in an example of travel karma, despite problems an hassles, I got upgraded to first class on the final leg home and luxuriated in comfort while sipping champagne, so it could be worse.