Friday, March 27, 2009

Florida Stone Crabs: An apology

I travel on my stomach: I've never been to a country without learning how to ask for something I've never eaten before[1]. On my recent trip to the US I tried the local delicacy[2]: the Florida stone crab claws.

They were delicious. I must have looked like a slavering monster wrenching the all-too-easily identifiable limbs to pieces before devouring them (sharing a table with a vegetarian always alerts my to my deficiencies in both moral and actual fibre.) It never occurred to me to ask what they did with the rest of the crab.

Watching QI the other night, I found out. Apparently the stone crab can lose its claws and they grow back: a feature that stone crab fishers exploit. Apparently it is recommended that they leave the crab with one claw so it can defend itself against anything that wants to eat the rest of it (how thoughtful!)

This made me feel worse than if my crab had been rapidly dispatched and popped in a pot: some poor maimed crustacean was shuffling around the Florida seabed whilst I nommed its no-longer-appended-appendage.

I now feel even worse: research by Queen's University Belfast has found that the stone crab's hermity brethren can feel and remember pain. Which means that there's a good chance my poor claw donor saw the net coming and thought, "Oh no. Not again." Only in crab, obviously.

Florida stone crabs: I'm sorry. I hope the claws are growing back nicely. If you'd like me to come and open some oysters for you, I'd be happy to help. It's probably no comfort but you were delicious.

[1] Most surprisingly delicious thing I've had - stuffed pigeon in Egypt. Most amazing street food: brik in Tunisia.

[2] yes, they have them. Stop sniggering my judgemental European friends.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Auntie Em gets a stylist?

I used to have a good hairdresser (Scottish Ruth, with the broken central heating, where did you go?) but in the three years since I last saw her I have had maybe two haircuts that I've liked. Now, OK, I only get my hair cut every two months (rather than the magazine-mandated six weeks) but that's still approximately 16 hair cuts to which the response was "oh well... it'll grow out."

I was bemoaning this to friends who have very good hair a few weeks ago and one of them advised me to get a stylist. I balked at this because, living in London, a stylist to me is someone takes 10% of your month's salary to do what the hell they want to your head. Because obviously they're far better placed to know what you want than you do: they're stylists goddammit. And they're all based in these scary salons that make me feel like that bit where Julia Roberts goes shopping in Pretty Woman, but without the warm glow of self-esteem that apparently comes from having borrowed a rich punter's credit card.

Eight weeks have rolled by since the last trim and it's time for a haircut. I've decided I'm bored of growing it: I've been trying to look professional and sober in a premature gesture towards possibly becoming a lecturer, and really it doesn't suit me at all (the hair and, possibly, the career plan.)

I know the style I want - I accidentally got it by some fluke a few years back but have lost the sole photo of it. It's best described as "messy" but that doesn't seem to be enough to go on. Google image search wasn't helping: one more picture of Reese Witherspoon with her artfully tousled frikkin red-carpet locks will kill me. I have a life, not a personal hairdresser. These are not the follicles we're looking for.

In a flash of inspiration, I realised that I was looking in the wrong place for my hair. The style I have in mind doesn't live on top of a Reese or a Drew or a (shudder) Paris. It lives on top of a Satoko or a Satomi. I finally found the hair I want on a jRock site. Please promise you won't laugh:

(Yes, I know, that's not a real person.) It took some finding. Google image searches for "Cute Japanese woman hair" without at least moderate safe search on should not be tried except in the most liberal of workplaces!

But who do I trust to transform my serviceable but dull bob into something Tokyo stylee?

Well, I work in Hendon, North London, home to a sizable Japanese diaspora. There's an Asian hairdressers on the opposite side of the dual carriageway from my tube stop. So, braving rain and underpasses, and rehearsing last night's freshly learnt Japanese grammar under my breath ("watashi no kami koto dekimasu ka?" Is my hair possible? Can you cut my hair?) just in case [1], I took a deep breath and went into a new hairdressers. I even, instead of just making an appointment, asked if I could have a consultation first (oh brave new world!)

Tan - who is from Malaysia and speaks perfect English (to my disappointment - all that practicing for nothing), sat me down and did that "wafting the hair about through his fingers" bit that I (used to) believe was purely to establish the "me hairdresser, you client" dynamic. But no - he told me why that style wouldn't work with my hair and how to change it so the bits that I like would work with my hair.

So I go back on Friday for a two hour appointment. For which I am being charged the princely sum of 25 quid. (For overseas readers (and other non Londoners), that's probably as cheap a haircut I've had in London since I moved here.)

I'm not promising photos - unless it goes really well - but watch this space. Auntie Em may yet have a good hair day!

[1] There's a Sushi restaurant next door where Japanese is pretty much exclusively spoken. I long for the day when my Japanese is good enough to use in there. Free conversation practice!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace day 2009

My heroine of science: Maggie Aderin, for her extremely cool work, and her desire to tell the world about it.

I first saw Maggie Aderin on one of Adam Hart-Davis' programmes (a quick Google tells me it was "The Cosmos, a Beginners' Guide") and I was blown away, not just by her knowledge and eloquence, but by the passion she was prepared to show for her subject.

It's an open secret in UK science that public engagement is often seen (at best) as a distraction from "real work." At worst, it is written off as a substitute for being any good at your job. And yet here was a practicing scientist that was prepared to be as ebullient as Adam Hart-Davis: professional enthusiast.

Dr Aderin's CV proves that public engagement and scientific achievement go hand in hand. She has a doctorate from Imperial College and has been a Senior Project Manager at Sira, Managing Director of Science Innovation Ltd and a space scientist at Astrium Ltd, the European Space Company.

Maggie Aderin is my heroine for Ada Lovelace day 2009 for her commitment, not just to her own research, but to the next generation of scientists. As a member of the same generation, I'm happy to have her as a role model too. Happy Ada-day Maggie.

See the full list of Ada Day posts here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Or "light up the Doctorow-signal"

So the great firewall of Australia was an epic fail. Now the Oz government wants to go after the links instead.

Yup - Aussies linking to "banned" sites are being threatened with massive fines ($11,000 AUS per day).

Now I'm as rabid as the next reader of the British tabloid press when it comes to wanting to flay the people making and hosting images of child abuse. Slowly. From the feet up. But this isn't what the watch list is about. Or at least, that's never what it stays about for long:

"[Wikileaks] has also published Thailand's Internet censorship list and noted that, in both the Thai and Danish cases, the scope of the blacklist had been rapidly expanded from child porn to other material including political discussions."

Asher Moses, Sydney Morning Herald, March 17th 2009.

The first Aussie site to be threatened with a fine was a discussion board. Why? Because one of the posts had a link to an anti-abortion website. The next big target was Wikileaks - added to the "do not link" list because it hosts "a leaked document containing Denmark's list of banned websites."

Does the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) have no idea how the Internet works? I bet that within six clicks from your favourite auntie's blog you could be at most of the sites on the Internet that would make you wish you could claw your own eyeballs out (including, but not limited to, Conservapedia.) Whether I want to be or not, I'm part of the big network of pointers that makes the web work.

If ACMA doesn't realise that this plan is unworkable then that's some breathtaking incompetence on the part of a body whose whole reason for being is to understand communications networks. If the ACMA dosn't care that the plan is unworkable then they are using bullying tactics to achieve something that they know could never be achieved through legislation and the courts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Macaques teach their babies how to floss

PLoS ONE, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Where else can you read about research as diverse as the discovery of self-medicating behaviour in caterpillars and the differences in brain activity when telling apart reality from fiction (I'm going to read that one properly and write it up on the serious blog, which has not been updated in ages.) What is more, PLoS articles are FREE - to anyone with an internet connection - no matter whether you're in a university or a web cafe, whether you're in Cambridge or Cairo. Hurray for open access.

And hurray for good dental hygiene. A collaboration between researchers at Kyoto and Ubon Rajathanee Universities studied monkeys that live around the Buddhist shrine of Prang Sam Yot in Thailand. They found that the macaques had learnt to use human hair as dental floss. Not only that, monkey-mothers repeated the "flossing gestures" significantly more often when observed by their monkey-babies than when not.

The length of the flossing episode didn't vary between the infant present/not present conditions. The authors therefore argue that the change in behaviour doesn't result from the mother being distracted by the presence of her infant. Rather the increased repetition of the flossing gestures (reinserting the hair and repeatedly "snapping" the teeth) is intended to demonstrate how flossing is done.

Doesn't it make you proud to be a primate?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I get worms

Living with the world's most ridiculous balcony (26 foot by 9 inches) makes gardening a challenge. Last year I found the answer to my composting needs at least: vermiculture or "worm composting". It nicely combines composting with the joys of pet ownership.

I bought a nice, dual tray wooden bin from Southwark council. It was made from reclaimed wood, by a project to provide training to homeless people. It also eats tofu and reads the Guardian.

Sadly my worms didn't make it through the sub-zero temperatures we had over winter so I'm having to restock. I've just bought myself a couple of hands-full of Dendrobaena Venita to get started again.

Last year they ate their way through all of our vegetable scraps, several torn up newspapers, umpteen crushed egg shells and the contents of the hooverbag, leaving behind a box full of fantastically rich compost. There is no smell, and the worms are photophobes so as long as the lid is closed at night they don't escape.

I'll be using the castings to propagate another batch of the pleasingly prolific "Tumbling Tom" that I grew last year. Whilst the dwarf squash and courgettes were lovely they have too much desire to spread themselves about so I'll be sticking mainly to salad greens, herbs and tomatoes. I may try some pea canes again too. And of course this year we have an olive and a lemon to take care of too.

Perhaps Green Butterfingers would swap some worm castings now for an aubergine later this summer?

Update: I just got email: my worms are now in a parcel winging their way via recorded delivery. Let's hope there's no repeat of last year when the box broke in transit and the parcel sat at the reception desk all day. Thank goodness for the timidity of worms.