Monday, 14 August 2017

Trust Me, I'm A Zoologist

Returning to chez Gee late one night after playing with one or other of the beat combos in which I feature on electronic harmonium, I decided to kip out on the drawing-room sofa, so as not to wake Mrs. Gee sound asleep upstairs in the Marital Chamber.

It was completely dark, so imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning to find, on the adjacent coffee table, a bowl of girrafe eggs.

I learned later from Mrs Gee that these had been a gift from a friend who was convinced that they were not girrafe eggs, but zebra eggs. No, I replied, zebra eggs are stripey, not blotched. (If, on reading this, your reaction is to pooh-pooh the idea that either zebras or girrafes lay eggs, all I can say to you is Ex Ovo Omnia, old son.)

Our friend remained unconvinced until a few days later when the eggs started to hatch.

And from the evidence of this picture I'd say not only Ex Ovo, Omnia but Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

What I Did In My Summer Holidays

The Gees have just returned from our first family holiday in six years. Thanks to some very, very good friends, who looked after our menagerie, and whom I won't embarrass by naming, we managed to get away mob-handed - to remotest Northumbria, where we rented a lodge overlooking Kielder Water, which is miles from anywhere very much, in a deep dark forest a midge's crotchet from the Scottish border. Just the place to get completely off the grid and relax, with a box of food, a box of books and a bottle of Pimm's. As Gee Minor (19) says - Pimm's is not an Addiction, it's a Commitment. And - oh yes - there was a hot tub. Bliss!

Although remote and peaceful by modern standards, the region is richly steeped in ancient and bloody history, being close (possibly) to the Battles of Degsastan (603CE: Scottic Dalriata 0, Northumbria 1) and the return match at Otterburn (1388CE: Scotland 1, England 0) and only slightly further away from the Battle of Heavenfield (633 or 634CE: Gwynedd 0; Northumbria 1). The victor of this last was Oswald, whose short reign as King of Northumbria (634-642) was followed by a much longer career as cult hero and saint.

I got all this from my holiday reading, The King In The North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams, which brought the Northumbrian landscape to life and illuminated some otherwise dry recent reading: the authoritative English Settlements by Myres and the thoroughly magisterial Anglo-Saxon England by Stenton.

Those who know me will understand my deep fondness for Tolkien and anything Tolkienian such as Beowulf and the darkest parts of the Dark Ages in which Men were Men; Monsters were Monsters; Contemporary Records were as Unreliable as they were Sparse, and anything at all that has come down to the modern age Extremely Fragmentary (much like palaeontology.)  

The King in the North is unashamed in its contemporary hooks. The very title is a phrase used repeatedly in A Game of Thrones (a popular televisual emission); and the map in the frontispiece is a blatant rip-off of the style used by Christopher Tolkien in his maps of his father's own Middle-Earth. No matter. It's a great book - and ends with a stinging message about the balance of rights and responsibilities that make you think about the rise and fall of societies right down to our own times.

Digging into my favourite part of the Early Medieval period - roughly from 410CE, when the Roman legions left Britain, to 793CE, when the first Northmen to visit England brought in the Viking Age by ravaging Lindisfarne - one is struck by how little we'd know if it weren't for the early Church, especially Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People never fails to call a spade a spade, and which I have read several times with much pleasure.

It is Bede who tells of St Cuthbert, who reportedly spent time in his hermitage on the Farne Islands preaching the gospel to the puffins - an image I find utterly charming. We saw the Farne Islands quite clearly from the imposing rock at Bamburgh, the near-impregnable coastal fortress of the Northumbrian kings.

Slightly further away to the north is Lindisfarne which King Oswald gave to St Aidan, thus founding a tradition of peerless scholarship in which the best of ancient Irish and (then) modern Latin traditions was combined. If the best and worst of the Latin tradition found expression in a single person, it would have been St Wilfrid, whose love of Roman bling (a marked contrast to Irish asceticism) led to his founding of (among others) Hexham Abbey, with its (then) all-mod-cons of a stone crypt. The crypt is the only part of the original Northumbrian building that yet survives, and is one of only two Anglo-Saxon crypts known. (The other one is at Ripon - another one of Wilfrid's creations.)

The very helpful person who allowed Gee Minor and me into the crypt at Hexham Abbey, and who told me some of this stuff, shared my enthusiasm for The King in the North and also informed us that our visit happened to be on St Oswald's Day.

Thus enthused, Gee Minor and I resolved that when we got back to Kielder Water we'd raise a toast - which we did, in the hot tub, in the rain. Having gotten through our first glass of Pimm's we realised that we'd forgotten to do the toast. Our glasses refreshed, we toasted (in this order) St Oswald; St Wilfrid; St Cuthbert; the Puffins to which St Cuthbert preached; and the Manatees.

I am not sure whether St Cuthbert actually preached to any Manatees, though I guess he'd have disapproved if they were Manichees, but after two large glasses of Pimm's we were past caring.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Doctor, Doctor

Many years ago (okay, it was 1994) I was on a plane on the tarmac at Benito Juarez airport Mexico City, waiting for a flight to London. I'd been on assignment and had travelled around that eye-popping country for a fortnight (by day I work for the Submerged Log Company.) I was, frankly, exhausted, and looking forward to a restful flight home. The omens were not auspicious. I was seated in the middle of a bank of five seats, with the bulkhead directly in front of my knees. To make matters worse, to my left was an anxious young couple with a fractious infant.

This, I thought, was going to be a long eleven hours.

Just then a stewardess hove into view. "Doctor Gee! Doctor Gee! Are you Doctor Gee?" Oh. Brother. Just when I thought matters couldn't get any worse, the co-pilot had had a cardiac arrest and the stewardess had assumed that I could possibly revive them. Which I wouldn't be able to do, as my doctorate is in zoology, specifically palaeontology, and although I am pretty hot at anatomy, my expertise is confined to skeletons. Of cows. Dead ones.

Braced for an explanation as I was, the stewardess continued "Doctor Gee, would you like to sit in this seat over here, so this couple can have a seat for their baby?" I accepted with gratitude and found myself in aisle seat, with the space between me and the window occupied by an engaging young classical guitarist from Germany who told me all about her successful concert tour of Mexico. The hours flew past.

The reminiscence was occasioned by the recent announcement of the next actor to play Dr Who, a popular long-running televisual emission. The fact that a female person has been chosen to play the role has occasioned some controversy. To my mind, this marks a refreshing change to what has become a somewhat staid formula. And given that the Doctor is actually an alien from the fictional planet Gallifrey, the part could just as well be played by a talking dog as a human being.

(In any case, those who find themselves surprised by the gender of the latest iteration of the peripatetic Time Lord haven't been paying attention. For some time now the show has featured Missy, a female avatar of the Doctor's old enemy, another rogue Time Lord called The Master: and in a recent episode the Doctor admitted to his companion that Time Lords could switch gender between transformations. But I digress.)

I do, however, have two questions.

First: what did the Doctor do to gain their appellation? In what subject did the Doctor gain their doctorate? We are often puzzled by the Doctor's apparent lack of a name - the status of the qualification is less of an issue.

Second: Why did the BBC feel it necessary to reveal the identity of the actor so far in advance (the first episode with the new Doctor doesn't air until Christmas), even making it national news, making it impossible to avoid? What happened to good old-fashioned suspense? Why do people have to know everything about everything before the show is actually aired? How much is that doggy in the window? What becomes of the broken-hearted? Why do fools fall in love? Who put the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine?

Questions, questions.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Hotel Yotel

Occasionally I have these brilliant ideas that I think might make my fortune. One of these, during a long lay-over at an airport, was to create a chain of capsule hotels within airport terminals, airside, where  travelers between flights might be able to rent rooms by the hour, allowing them to take a shower, freshen up and enjoy a restorative shluf before continuing their journey.

Of course, someone got there before me - at Amsterdam Schiphol, where I spend a great deal of time as a business traveler between Norwich and the World (I work for the Submerged Log Company) there is a capsule hotel called a Yotel that rents out cosy cabins in four-hour blocks. Having discovered it, I was eager to try it out at the earliest opportunity. (There are Yotels at several other airports, I believe.)

That opportunity took some years to arrive, as I usually plan my trips to avoid very long layovers. However, on a recent trip I discovered to my chagrin that after returning from the U. S. and A. on a red-eye I had an eight-hour layover at Schiphol before catching the puddle-jumper to Norwich. I'd arrive at breakfast time - and depart at teatime.

So while still in the U. S. and A. I booked a 'cabin' and it was all ready for me when I landed at Schiphol. The cabins are quite cosy so it's hard to take a decent picture. Here however is my effort...
The picture was taken from within the tiny but perfectly formed WC/ shower cublicle. Yes, it really does have all amenities, including hot and cold running WiFi. The bed was comfy though as you can see it is rather high and was something of a challenge for the more traditionally-built customer, which I am. The cost is quite steep - it cost me 72 euros - but this is fine for a business traveler who can presumably claim it on expenses.

When I woke up I was refreshed though I can't say that it did anything to relieve my jetlag. Nevertheless the cabin was clean and neat, the staff friendly, and it performed a most necessary service. I'd recommend it.

Friday, 9 June 2017

That Was The Week That Was

So there I was, early on Tuesday 6 June, driving from Cromer to Norwich to get my train to London (where I work for the Submerged Log Company), when I thought the road surface rather rumblesome. I ignored it, but after some miles the rumble had become basso profundo e molto feroce and was accompanied by a smell of burning. So I parked up by the side of the road, got out, and found that the offside front tyre had burst and after my driving on it had been shredded to ribbons.

That's when I called the AA (this organization, not that one, for readers in the colonies) and in due course a nice man came to change the wheel. The spare was of a temporary sort, so after some thought I drove the relatively short distance to STS Tyre Pro in Holt to see if they could help me out.

They could.

They also told me that all four of my tyres were very seriously worn, and one of the unburst ones had a nasty bulge - a blowout waiting to happen. They all had to be replaced. Now, it would be my car that has wheels shaped like cycloids or equilateral heptagons or quantum Möbius pretzels or in any case some nonstandard shape Tyre Pro didn't usually have in stock, so the manager of the garage had to drive to Norwich to get them.

While he was away the mechanic took all the other wheels off to find that all the brake discs and pads were worn out too, and also had to be replaced. No sooner had the manager returned with the tyres (it was by now raining hard with a stiff breeze) than he had to return to Norwich to get the discs. Oh, and some engine oil, because I had discovered that the garage serviced cars too, and mine needed a service, so, hey, what the hell.

In the end I was there all day and had gotten to know all the staff fairly well, their first names, the ages of their children, and where they liked to go on holiday. These new friendships lessened the blow of the eventual bill, though not much. It was a very large bill.

None of this is strictly relevant to the following news, notwithstanding inasmuch as which that on Wednesday 7 June I finished editing the text of Across the Bridge, compiled the figures and captions, and bundled the doorstep-sized sheaf of paper to be mailed to the publisher. That sheaf was accompanied (under separate cover) by the whole lot on a USB stick.

A ms, almost ready to submit. Recently.

So it was that on the morning of Thursday 8 June I went to the post office and waved goodbye to almost two years of work, much as one might wave goodbye to a child taking its first unaccompanied trip out of doors.  It'll be back, of course. There'll be the galleys to check. Then the page proofs, which I shall have to use for compiling an index. And I still have some admin to do in the meantime. But as Sam Goldwyn might have said, I have passed a millstone milestone.

Later that same day was a General Election, the results of which I am sure you are aware.

Gee Minor, overcome at having been able to vote in their first General Election.

I think what Britain needs is for King Arthur Boris Johnson - whom Posterity will Record to have been the Greatest Statesman of This or Any Other Age -  to step up to the plate and save us from ourselves. Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part Four

The story so far: after many adventures in Indonesia, and then in Brisbane and Wollongong, Our Hero sets out to explore Sydney - but ends up in the Outback.

After an enjoyably eclectic breakfast with Bert Roberts in a caff round the corner from where I was staying in Austinmer, NSW ...
Breakfast. Don't look for it: it's not there anymore.
... Bert and I took the commuter train into the centre of Sydney. Just as we were coming in to port, as it were, I got a good if unconventional view of Sydney Harbour.

Sydney Harbour. Not a postcard view.
Here is a close-up of Sydney Opera House, just to show it wasn't a fluke.
Sydney Opera House, so it is.
As you can see from this picture it was raining. Rain isn't the kind of weather one usually associates with Australia, but it does happen now and again, and at intervals during the day I got rather wet. But I digress. Bert and I spent a wonderful time at the Australian Museum where I was introduced to some of the world's finest ethnographical and palaeontological collections. Among many highlights was this ...
This. Recently.
... which mightn't look like much, but is a fossil of one of the earliest animals on Earth to be big enough to shake a stick at (it's about 5 cm across.) The fossil is called Dickinsonia. It is around 600 million years old and comes from the famous Ediacara fauna of the Flinders region in South Australia. Nobody knows what kind of animal Dickinsonia might have been, and the same mystery shrouds many of its contemporaries. The Ediacara fauna was a brief but early flowering of animal life that disappeared, more or less without trace, replaced by the spiny and knobbly animals of the succeeding Cambrian, most of which are more or less recognisable as animals similar to those found today. Fossils of Ediacara age have since been found in many other places, but they were first recognised here, in Australia, the place where wonders are an everyday occurrence.

That evening I gave a talk at the Australian Museum on the theme of The Unknown; and the next day did much the same at the University of Wollongong. But the time soon came to say goodbye to Bert and fly from Sydney to Melbourne, where I hooked up once again with Michael Westaway and joined him in a flight to Mildura, a small town on the Murray River more or less where NSW, Victoria and South Australia meet.
Flying Down To Mildura
At Mildura we hired a truck and hied out into the bush, specifically to Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes Region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lake Mungo hasn't had any water in it for at least 15,000 years, but is hugely important archaeologically as several extremely ancient burials have been found here, skeletons of Australians who lived here 30,000 years ago. Here is the view from the veranda of my room at the Lake Mungo Lodge...
Veranda View
... and here is a view of some kangaroos, a mother and joey, glimpsed at the roadside as we crossed the ancient lake bed. Having never seen a kangaroo before I admit I did squeal. A little.
I also took a picture of some emus, or thought I had, but when I looked at the photo these clever birds had disguised themselves as trees. While I was at Mungo I was privileged to have been granted access to some of the archaeological sites by the elders of the three peoples that are custodians of this landscape. These sites are usually off limits to visitors and I offer my thanks to the representatives of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi peoples.

 Sunset at Mungo is breathtaking ...

... as is the road back to Mildura. Only the first 20km from Mildura is paved. The remaining 100km or so looks like this.
The rush hour near Lake Mungo gets into full swing.
Now that, I thought, is a view that typifies Australia, for me. Red, rugged, arid, and almost completely empty. I loved it. Mike did all the driving and deserved the traditional Australian relaxation once we were back in town.
The next day I flew back to Sydney and prepared myself for the long journey home, from the bottom right-hand corner of the map, to the top left-hand corner.

Travels Discussed In This Episode.
My visit to Indonesia was spectacular - to Australia, just as spectacular, but in an entirely different way. I loved Australia and plan to return soon.

I'd like to thank Bert Roberts, Zenobia Jacobs and staff and students at the University of Wollongong; Mike Westaway, and colleagues from Griffith University; Darryl Pappin of the National Parks Service at Lake Mungo; the Elders of the Traditional Owners who granted access to some of the sites; Ross Pogley, Jacqueline Nguyen, Robin Torrence and their colleagues at the Australian Museum; Nicola Stern of La Trobe University; the Evans Family, and many others.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part Three

The Story So Far - After many adventures Our Hero arrives in Brisbane and falls in love with Australia.

I spent Monday 10 April visiting labs at Griffith University in Brisbane, learning about ancient DNA, and a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating (OSL), both of which are proving essential to a matter of strong current interest - that is, how people first made their way to from South-East Asia to that distant southern continent nowadays associated with cold lager, Waltzing Matilda, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

OSL is used to discover the time when a given buried grain of sand last saw sunshine. This involves extracting the sand from caves, ideally in complete darkness, and - once the sand is back in the lab, pricking out grains, one by one, and placing each one, very precisely, in its own cell in the apparatus, all the while working under deep red light, as in a darkroom. Working in womb-like darkness with the comforting hum of machinery all around sounds rather attractive, but I am not sure it's for everyone.

The campus of Griffith is never far from the subtropical forest of southern Queensland. Here is a view of the environs from high up...
The View from Griffith
... and here is one from lower down.
There be koalas in those thar woods
The picture above looks like it was taken in a deep dark jungle, but appearances are deceptive - it's a wild spot on the Griffith campus. So wild, in fact, that koalas live in these woods, and although they are seen only infrequently, they are allegedly very cute. One university member told me a story of how, when she had paused to admire the view, a koala came out and - get this - hugged her ankle. (The cuteness! It burns!) She was so taken aback that she forgot to take a picture of the occasion.

The next picture is not, however, of a koala, but me, that same evening, in the room above the university pub, giving my talk about The Unknown.
'Science is not about Certainty ... but Uncertainty'
The fact that Griffith has a University Pub is yet another reason to like Australia.

Next day I flew to Sydney to link up once again with Bert Roberts (who I'd last seen in Jakarta). We drove down the coast towards Wollongong. We took the scenic route through the Royal National Park - the second designated national park in the world, after Yellowstone.

Between Sydney and Wollongong, looking south

The coastal scenery was quite breathtaking. In some ways it seems very English (I mean, you can stop for fish and chips in what for all the world looks like a Victorian seaside resort) - but somehow bigger, brighter, newer. And those aren't seagulls on the beach, by the way, they're cockatoos.

Bert gave me a quick whizz round some of the facilities at the University of Wollongong. An unexpected pleasure was meeting Prof. Allen Nutman, who'd just published a paper in Nature on what may be the earliest fossils. These are the dome-like remains of bacterial colonies that lived in what is now Greenland, 3,700,000,000 years ago. These domes are called stromatolites, and they still survive on this planet, most notably in Western Australia. This is what a stromatolite looks like after cooking gently for most of the age of the Earth:
A fossil stromatolite, recently.
So it was that in the space of two days I saw the remains of creatures that died out when the world was still very young, and from just before the dawn of history. Then I had a beer. But Australia's like that. Casually wonderful.

Look out for the next exciting installment, when Our Hero visits Sydney and gets very wet.

I'd like to thank Mike Westaway and all the staff and students at Griffith University, and Bert Roberts and the staff and students at the University of Wollongong. G'day!