Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unimportant things that are wrong with the world (1)

The prize for the Observer cryptic crossword is a dictionary. The prize for the Sunday Times cryptic crossword is a pen.

I have been unable to come up with a scenario in which someone who can complete a prize cryptic crossword does not already own a dictionary and a pen.

Ms Melancholy is rather good at cryptic crosswords. She popped down to the treehouse a couple of weeks ago to visit Badger and I, and we did so many crosswords that when I read a sports headline this week saying "Kelly wins our first (and last) medal?" I immediately started unscrambling it.

I am no longer able to interpret meaning literally, but instead am looking for obscure alternative contexts. The cyberneticist Gregory Bateson wrote a wonderful paper on Schizophrenia which is included in "Steps to an Ecology of Mind", which talks about the Schizophrenic experience as being one of taking the information but shifting the context. I have no direct personal experience of the condition, which is of course really just a blanket term for a set of experiences, as we have no 'piss-on-a-stick' test for it as far as I know, but I have met quite a few people with differences in perception or communication which would be loosely lassoed into the 'Schizophrenia' pen, and it does feel like cryptic crosswords are quite a good fit.

On the other hand, Badger's interpretation of the world can often involve the sort of literal meaning-taking that produces similarly bizarre interpretations. Ms Melancholy and I had been out and about, and were coming back to eat some lovely Thai Green Prawn curry that super-chef Badger was whizzing up for us all. Ms Melancholy made a quick phone call to Badger once we knew we were about 15 minutes away ...

Ms M: Hi Badger! Yes, we're not far away - just on the M25 about to hit the A3, do you want us to pick anything up for you?

Badger: Off the M25? Pick me something up off the M25? I don't think so ... no ...

Bless. I suppose Badger was just answering the exact question Ms M had asked!

Funnily enough we didn't come home with a traffic cone, road kill or a single shoe. Speaking of which - why do people throw shoes into the central reservation? Is it because they left the other one on the top of a bus shelter?

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

:Insert dramatic photo here:


Woof woof.

Woof woof woof.

Ruby isn't a yappy kind of dog. One of the good traits of Boxer dogs is that they only bark when there is something to bark at - they bark almost exclusively to alert. Ok, sometimes they are alerting you to a dangerous carrier bag blowing in the wind, but better safe than sorry hey :)

So, when I heard Ruby's very definite "Mum! Mum! Something is wrong!" bark down in the bottom of the quarry, I pricked up my ears. It continued for a little while, so I went to the door and shouted to her.


Woof woof.

Woof woof woof.

(I didn't shout the woofs, I shouted words, she barked back. Just incase you were confused).

I had a friend over at the time, and as I pulled on my shoes I said "Sorry, it's just that it definitely sounds like there's something wrong - I'd better go and check ... " I felt like a bit of an idiot saying it to be honest. Ruby isn't known for her Lassie-esque heroic exploits.


Woof woof.

Woof woof woof.

I was calling reassurance to Ruby as I walked down to the area of long grass, and each time I called, she barked back, the same urgent bark.

And then I saw it.

Ruby was circling the biggest snake I have seen outside of a zoo.

It was coiled, head raised a good six or eight inches above the ground, hissing and spitting at her as she barked at it. Instant adrenaline. Ruby has a heart condition and I knew that if it was an adder then her chances of surviving a bite were pretty much none. I couldn't get near enough to her to grab her collar without risking both of us being bitten, and the snake was looking even more pissed off about the arrival of a human ... eek!

For the first time since I moved here I was grateful that the place is half paradise / half junkyard. There is a derelict cottage not far from where we were standing and the rubble and rubbish from the building collapse and subsequent fly tipping has created a sprawl of junk that spreads in the wind and had conspired to leave a piece of some sort of rubbery roofing stuff about a foot and a half square just a couple of meters from where I was standing.

As I went to grab it I found my right hand patting my pocket where my phone/camera lives, and I actually contemplated taking a photo so that I could blog it. Taking a photo so that I could identify it might have been a good idea - especially as the current environmental survey here is counting snakes and the lovely ecologists who visit would have been absolutely thrilled ... but no, my only thought was that it was very very bloggable! More adrenaline fuelled a quick decision to abandon the photo idea.

I chucked the black square over the top of the snake from behind, and instantly Ruby was calm and controllable and we walked back up to the house, where I promptly got the shakes, cried a bit and drank quite a lot of tea.

It wasn't the snake itself - if it had just been me I would definitely have taken photos and enjoyed the adventure. It was the fact that my baby nearly got bitten by a snake!. It reminded me of a moment the previous day when had seen a man burst into tears on the tube after his little boy pressed the "Open doors" button as we were hurtling down the tunnel. I had watched the boy doing it, knowing full well that the doors would not open, but clearly his father had not had this confidence. The boy couldn't understand why his dad was holding him so tightly afterwards, and I'm sure Ruby was similarly bemused at my squeezes.

At over 2 ft long, the snake was almost certainly a grass snake, we'd have been very unlucky to be bitten at all and the consequences probably wouldn't have been that serious. It had a distinct cucumber shaped bulge half way along it's body(which luckily, was not one of Badger's cucumbers, she'd have been very cross!) so it obviously did present a danger to some of the local inhabitants, just not us.


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Monday, August 13, 2007


Here in the treehouse, we like to do things for ourselves.

When I first met Badger her idea of cooking was to put a Birds Eye frozen chicken pie in the oven for approximately the right length of time. To this day, if I make something really good, Badger exclaims cheerfully: "Wow - it tastes just like it came out of a packet!"

So, it was a major occasion this week when we picked and ate the first couple of Badger's home grown runner beans.

As well as Badger's homegrown beans (soon to be joined by tomatoes, cucumber and peppers) we have our fresh eggs from the girls, who have been pretty much bound to the shed recently after two of them were butchered by a vicious mink. We had a loose pen for them, which did a good job of keeping them from wandering off into the woods, but did nothing to keep out anything that might fancy chicken for lunch.

Fuelled by the recent tropical rains, the area by the chicken shed had magically transformed into a jungle ...

The problem of "how do we keep out intruders" has been debated by Dr But Why? and me for some time. We baulked at the idea of a concrete trench and instead began surveying the tumbled down outbuildings and piles of strange rubble that lurk in the woods. We eventually identified a dozen or so large concrete blocks, perfect for constructing a perimeter wall that would be stable enough to prevent entry into the bottom of the coop and yet unstable enough to fall on the head of any nasty stoat trying to dig a tunnel in. Perfect except for their location, deep in the woods half way down the quarry, somewhere behind the rhubarb field and the apple trees. Which is where they would still be if Dr But Why? wasn't significantly larger than me and fitted with the kind of personality defect that makes this kind of task a challenge.

I did manage to move some of the blocks some of the way. Which I think is no mean feat given that we estimate that they weigh only a few kilos less than I do. But I can't claim any credit for the moving of approximately 400 kg of concrete into position.

We had the sort of plan that an engineer-turned-software-programmer and a scientist-turned-consultant might come up with. A vague outline of our deliverables and a definite investment in the "Extreme Programming" methodology of basically striking out risks until the job was done. We reused a random wooden frame we found under the treehouse, a couple of long thick lengths of wood I had in the garage left over from building my sister a bespoke cabin bed, and the 'fence posts' from the old chicken run, which were actually old slats from Badger's single bed.

Staple gun, self-tapping screws, power drill ... and bob's yer builder, we have a chicken coop!

Badger was most pleased. The chickens were thrilled (in their own chickeny way) and proceeded to scratch, peck and rub themselves in the dirt in a very enthusiastic fashion. The discovery of a major ants nest just outside the coop was, I imagine, the poultry equivalent of realising you've moved in next door to a chinese takeaway.

Not content to stop at growing our own veg, keeping chickens and bashing things with hammers, we're a little bit partial to cutting our own hair. About every six weeks I undertake the interesting and somewhat physically dangerous task of attempting to tune in to Badger's tics for long enough to give her a quick crop without taking out my own eye or chopping the top off of her ear. Badger is quite a demanding client - she has very specific ideas about how her hair should be, and a tendency to only offer input about three quarters of the way through the process.

Many hairdressers will be familiar with clients arriving with a fantasy in mind - a dream of having hair just like Jennifer Aniston or Lady Diana (RIP) ... and Badger is no exception.

I would like my hair to look just like Wylie Kat ...

I rack my brains. Cat Deely? Cat Stevens? Nope ... I'm drawing a blank.

Wylie Kat out of Thundercats.

Oh. Of course!

And it does.


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Sunday, August 12, 2007

A variation on Murphy's law

My house is approximately 1 part carpet (and grass matting) to 19 parts wipe-clean floor surfaces (marble, lino, stone).

And yet, when faced with a major failure of their digestive system, the animals never fail to vomit (or worse) on to a non-wipe-clean area.

There is even an exception to prove the rule. On Friday I went to a one hour lunch meeting in London which lasted almost five hours. As a result Ruby was at home, un-emptied, for far longer than I would normally leave her. Dr But Why? was first through the door, to discover that Ruby had rather cleverly gone to the toilet inside a partially filled bin-liner which contained various bits of plastic rejected by our recycling collection. Bless her.

I promise to post something less disgusting tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Slow worms (not glow worms)

There continues to be something wonderfully circular about this blog. Or do I mean cyclical? Both probably. Something reassuringly the-same-but-different about the content of the posts, which really I suppose is about the content of my life.

So, just over a year ago I posted this description of an evening spent on the downs behind our house, searching for glow worms. This week we have been counting slow worms here in our garden. The environmental assessment of this place, determining whether it is too important ecologically to be built on, continues. Some soft spoken men arrived last week and tolerated Ruby's enthusiastic jumping up very good naturedly as they explained that they would need to put several carpet tiles (they may actually be more than just carpet tiles but that's what they look like) in spots around the garden, and then return each day to count any lizards, snakes and slow worms underneath them.

A week later, they are averaging six to eight slow worms under each tile! Plus the occasional grass snake, and they are fairly sure that if they looked frequently enough they would find an adder or two. They also found one small lizard that ran off before they identified it. The badger set has been confirmed as active, and as well as a small group of friendly Roe deer we have both stoats and mink - it was an evil mink that butchered our chickens several months ago.

They've noted down several interesting variations of wild orchid, and some blue butterflies which may be of the rarer varieties.

They haven't done a bird assessment yet, but we have both of the major types of bat native to the UK ... so all in all it's a pretty comprehensive checklist of protected species.

The environmental assessment guy told me today that he loves visiting our house, because he feels like he is back in Canada - his favourite place he has ever lived. He told me that the patch of overgrowth we were rummaging in, the clearing where the grass is tall and thick with flowers, where clouds of crickets and butterflies are kicked up with every step and lizards slither away unseen, where you can make out the shapes of the deer who slept there the night before, is intended to be a carpark for the development. Of course.

Slow worms are quite amazing creatures really. They live for up to 30 years in the wild, almost twice as long in captivity. I'd guess that some of our slow worms have been in this garden longer than the architects on the project have known how to hold a pencil. And suddenly I can understand why perfectly normal people end up chaining themselves to bulldozers!

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

The big smoothie dilemma

At the weekend I made a smoothie out of the numerous pieces of fruit in the fruit bowl and fridge that were perched precariously on the edge of going furry. It contained mango, plum, nectarine, blueberries, banana, raspberries, melon, papaya, strawberries and grapes. (No courgettes, despite them being sneaky members of the fruit family). And I stood back and thought to myself "What a lot of vitamins / air miles". Now, there is no doubt that the vitamin to air mile ratio of this smoothie is better than a lot of the rubbish we / I import and eat. And Dr Gillian McKeith would probably squeak in glee and pronounce me immortal after drinking this cocktail (particularly once I'd added the live yogurt) ... but still - is that benefit to me (and Badger, and Dr But Why?) worth the damage to the planet?

This stuff is particularly at the forefront of my mind because one of my current projects involves editing and making an interactive documentary about a very interesting book which doesn't yet have a title but goes under a working subtitle of "Why Global Warming is the best thing that has ever happened to the human race." It's a complicated argument, and before you can begin to think about "best" you of course need to settle on a definition of "good" and "bad".

The author's working method of determining between good and bad is quite simple. Things which are expansive and inclusive are broadly good, things which are contractive and exclusive are broadly bad. Thus, legislation which prevents negative discrimination against, to take my own minority, gay people, is good even if from time to time it infringes on the basic freedoms of individuals who are homophobic - this calculation is based on the fact that (in the UK at least) there are more gay people than people who are genuinely damaged by the fact that they can't openly discriminate against us. More people experience inclusion as a result of this change than exclusion. We're not into measuring degrees of benefit or damage - simply whether people feel more inside or outside of the circle.*

I quite like this method of calculation. It seems both human and scientific at the same time. (No, I don't want to further define those terms - I simply feel that in my gut, and as both a human and a scientist that is good enough for me!)

So. On the question of my nine-fruit smoothie, and the fact that there are no papayas growing in Surrey ... I expect that the international trade in exotic fruit is actually more expansive and inclusive than it is contractive and exclusive. Food is a doorway into other cultures etc etc.

Now to more pressing issues. NMJ raised the issue of resisting joining Facebook. It's something I've been wrestling with recently - on Monday I received an email inviting me to become Ruby's friend on Facebook. (For new readers - Ruby is my dog.) I have a limited amount of time for non-work internet stuff, and I have a gut feeling that, for me, Blogging is better than Facebook.

I realised that this is essentially a social smoothie question. Facebook and Blogging do quite different things. Facebook maintains existing networks and facilitates groups of common interest / association. Blogging is so much broader. You already know that, because you're reading this.

So, next time someone pesters me about not being a member of Facebook I shall simply tell them that I like really really exotic smoothies, and very occasionally I like to throw in a courgette. ;)


*Of course we all feel inside / outside of the circle to varying degrees, or even multiple degrees at the same time and this is a constantly changing experience depending on the momentary relationships we have with the various aspects of our selves, but in very simplistic terms I can generally say whether, when something changes, I feel more or less included than I did before. Inclusion is not the same as membership. Accepting an invitation may carry terms and conditions, the value of investments may go down as well as up, etc etc etc.

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