Sunday, 31 January 2010

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch weekend

This weekend is the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch survey - basically, you are asked to record the highest number seen of each bird species you record in your garden during a one hour period at any point during the weekend, and then submit the records to the RSPB. More here. It is a large-scale survey, generating relatively low quality but widespread data, but since there are so many participants across such a wide area of the UK, it has provided some useful longer-term trend information about our more common (and often increasingly less common these days) species of garden bird.

My list from this afternoon is:

Wood pigeon: 4
Robin: 1
Jackdaw: 4
Starling (noisy little blighters): 9
Greenfinch: 1
Blackbird: 2
Carrion crow: 2
Chafinch: 2
Coal tit: 1
Dunnock (Hedge Sparrow): 1

There was a sparrowhawk which, technically speaking, wasn't in my garden, so I'd better not put it in - shame! :¬)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Poll: Which of these is the most worthy eco-project?

The public is being invited to vote for the most worthy eco project submitted to the EOG Association for Conservation, which will award money to the winning project and it is up to us to choose which it should be.

To see the projects over the last couple of weeks take a look at them on the below and then cast your vote - I voted for the bees.

Poll: Which of these is the most worthy eco-project?

Don't try to teach your grammar to suck eggs

This is for all the (other) pedants out there. None of the following is my own work! Thanks to the University of Minnesota's Centre for Writing:

Humorous Reminders of Common Writing Mistakes

1. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.

2. Never use no double negatives.

3. Use the semicolon properly, always where it is appropriate; and never where it is not.

4. Reserve the apostrophe for it's proper use and omit it where it is not needed.

5. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

6. No sentence fragments.

7. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

8. Avoid commas, that are not necessary.

9. When you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.

10. A writer must not shift your point of view.

11. Do not overuse exclamation marks!!! (In fact, avoid them whenever possible!!!)

12. And do not start a sentence with a conjunction.

13. Place pronouns as closely as possible, especially in long sentences, as of ten or more words, to their antecedents.

14. Hyphenate only between syllables and avoid un-necessary hyphens.

15. Write all adverbial forms correct.

16. Don't use contractions.

17. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

18. It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.

19. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

20. Steer clear of incorrect verb forms that have snuck into the language.

21. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.

22. Avoid modernisms that sound flaky.

23. Avoid barbarisms: they impact too forcefully.

24. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

25. Everyone should be careful to use singular pronouns with singular nouns in their writing.

26. If we've told you once, we've told you a thousand times: avoid hyperbole.

27. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.

28. Do not string a large number of prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

29. Always pick on the the correct idiom.

30. "Avoid overuse of 'quotation' 'marks.'"

31. Never use more words than are necessary to get your point across: be concise.

32. Awayz check you're spelling. (Your spellchecker would only pick up one of the two errors here.)

33. Always be avoided by the passive voice.

34. Every sentence a verb.

35. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague: seek viable alternatives.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Heavy horses

"Heavy Horses, move the land under me.
Behind the plough gliding slipping and sliding free.
Now you're down to the few
And there's no work to do:
The tractor's on its way

(Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses, 1978)

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about what horses mean to me, spurred on, if you’ll pardon the pun, by Jethro Tull’s 1978 song “Heavy Horses”. I was driving back home last week after a day working in the Borders and it is the first time I’d listened to the song for years. It triggered a whole lot of thoughts and memories concerning horses. There’s a sub-text to the Tull song that, one day, when the oil runs out, the heavy horses, the Clydesdales, Percherons, Suffolks, Shires and others, will have their day again, be called back to harness and celebrated for their usefulness and strength. Horses as a working tool for land management when the oil runs out? Silly old hippy nonsense surely! But no, horses have made something of a comeback in recent years, especially in forestry, where specialist log extraction in sensitive areas is sometimes best accomplished by horses.

A little web searching reveals a wealth of thriving heavy horse culture in Britain and wider, with a whole range of professional and amateur bodies devoted to preserving and restoring the culture of heavy horses as working animals. There is a Heavy Horse Centre between Perth and Dundee, there are numerous societies and trusts (The Working Horse Trust, British Horse Loggers Charitable Trust, and the European Federation for the Promotion of the Working Horse (FECTU), to name a few) and many forestry and land management consultants who use working horses (e.g., British Horse Loggers. Other contractors are available!). I even found an interesting blog:


So, for a few days, I’ve been contemplating the influence that horses have had in my life. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the idea of heavy horses and the romantic notion of the “living tractors” with all their horse brass and quiet power. I don’t manage to attend the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston every year, but the heavy horses are a major attraction for me when I do. Now, don’t get me wrong – I have never owned a horse, never helped look after a horse. Blimey, I’ve never even ridden a horse, not even pony trekking. But I think these sentimental notions derive from the earliest age, when parents and grand-parents talked about working horses in their younger lives in Ayrshire. We always had horse brasses hung as decoration in the house, as I suspect lots of people did.

Of particular note is my memory of Dad telling us many times how, as a boy, he helped with the collection of milk churns from dairy farms on horse and cart. To my childhood imagination, that horse was always a big Clydesdale (rather than the wee working horse that it probably was in reality). I remember, as a very young child in the early-mid 1970’s, Dad pointing out to us the big draught horses from one of the Edinburgh breweries, still pulling the dray wagons to make beer keg deliveries around the city. The fact that we only ever saw them when we were driving through very early morning Edinburgh (this was a time before city bypasses, when all roads converged on central Edinburgh) on our way to a holiday stay with grandparents only added to the sense of drama and enjoyment!

I experienced another link to the days when “horse power” was still a serious option in agriculture through the grand-dad of my closest childhood friends. For most of my childhood and teenage years, our family lived in a row of cottages on a big farming estate in East Lothian. These had been modernised to convert six original tiny cottages to form two small cottages. My friends’ grandfather (and their mum as a little girl) had lived in one of the original six cottages, where he had worked as a ploughman on the farm (just that change in housing density in itself tells a whole story about rising living standards for working people through the 20th Century, and the increasing mechanisation of British agriculture). He told us a number of times about his working life. Rising each morning at about half past four, he had to prepare his horses for the working day, would spend a day working the horses in the field, and then would have to feed and look after the horses before his work was done for the day. It sounded unbelievably hard work to my young ears. No wonder tractors were seized on with such enthusiasm when they first appeared!

But a celebration of big horses is not restricted to those working with horses. Many Scots will be familiar with the big horse statue on the M8 motorway. The artist who created this magnificent equine celebration is the Glasgow-based sculptor Andy Scott. He specializes in statues of horses as public art and you can see more of his wonderful, inspiring work at here. But he is working on something particularly spectacular just now. A remarkable project is underway, courtesy of British Waterways Scotland, who run Scotland’s canal network, the people who brought us the Falkirk Wheel, Central Scotland Forest Trust and Falkirk council (collectively the Helix Project). Only a few miles east of the Wheel, where the Forth and Clyde Canal reaches the sea at the River Carron next to the M9 motorway, two 30 metre horses head statues are to be built as part of the Helix Project by Andy Scott, to create an iconic entrance to the canal network. They will be known as the Kelpies, after the mythical Scottish water horse spirits. What’s more, one of the 30 metre high heads will dip, as part of a mechanism to pump water in and out of the canal’s sea lock. I was privileged to be invited to the launch of the 1/10 scale “maquettes” of the Kelpies statues at the Falkirk Wheel in 2007, when Andy Scott spoke very movingly of the influence of horses in his life and in his family that led him down his own personal artistic path.

Andy Scott's 1/10 scale maquettes of the Kelpies (c)S Mathieson

The Kelpies are due to be built by 2012 and will create a fine historical link back to the role of horses in Scottish life, not least on the canals where almost all canal transport back when the canals were built in the late 18th to early 19th centuries would have been horse-drawn. I, for one can’t wait to see them!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

So I'm not fat after all

I was reading a copy of Cycling Weekly from 17th September 2009 at a friend's house last week and I came across an article on BMI (Body Mass Index) and its applicability or otherwise to cyclists and other athletes. BMI You can read more about BMI here: (sorry - having problems with hyperlinks)

The CW article's main contention was that, as BMI was developed in the 1830s and further in the 1970s as a tool to be applied to allow generalisations about statistics of large populatons where having a higher body weight (relative to your height) increased your risk of disease. When used on the general population (generally relatively sedentary and with average body compositions), BMI might have a role but, as a marker for regularly active people, CW concludes that it is irrelevant and atheletes should, instead seek to measure their body composition through estimation of body fat composiiton (and a number of methods for this are recommended). Hurrah for that!

Now, I've long had a bit of a problem with BMI. As a biologist, I was, quite correctly, trained by my biometrics lecturer and eventual supervisor to regard with suspicion any simple numerical index that was providing a single number summary of complex biological relationships. In the language we used, the reduction of complexity to a single-value index resulted in the loss of most of the useful information. And so it is with BMI, I submit. Were I to calculate my own BMI (for example), it would have remained almost unchanged for the last 5 years (you don't need to know what it is, to spare my blushes), despite having trained, sometimes trained hard, for triathlons over that whole period (or the bits when I wasn't injured or ill). I have changed shape (in a good way) but not weight in the last five years as a result of swimming, cycling and running a lot. But whereas I might have lost fat, I've also put on muscle (on legs from cycling and shoulders from swimming) and, as we all know, muscle is heavier than fat, volume for volume. So, I haven't changed height, I haven't changed weight, I have become fitter and healthier by all sorts of measures, but my BMI hasn't really changed and it says I am overweight for my height.

So, do atheletes need to worry about this? Maybe not, if they are content to obtain their own body fat measurements as above. But consider how BMI can be, and is being, used more widely in society. In one example, some foreign governments are already using BMI as an indication of the relative weight (and by extension, health, and again by extension from that, fitness of prospective British adoptive parents looking at overseas adoption. Given the proclivity of the insurance companies for simple measures of risk (ever wondered why your postcode seemed to attract higher premiums for house insurance, even when you live in a nice place? Somewhere else sharing the first part of your postcode may have more of a crime problem but you share their cost of incresed risk - mmm, insurance coompanies wouldn't generalise, would they?), would they see BMI in a society with rising obesity levels as a quick (quack!) measure of risk for setting life insurance premiums. One to watch! As for me, I need to have my body fat composition measured as a more relaiable guide to health and risk of disease!

PS I did hear a radio programme about diet and weight gain once which claimed (and I have no reason to disbelieve it) that simply eating 100 calories per day in excess of your metabolic needs was enough to bring about a weight gain of about a stone (= 14 lbs = 6.35 kg) per decade. It doesn't sound like a lot of calories per day. It isn't: a typical chocolate digestive biscuit contains about 80-90 calories. So a single extra biscuit a day over your necessary calorie intake might be enough to bring about the kind of weight gain with age that I saw in many of my sedentary elderly relatives. Scary!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Passing of a legend

(Daily Telegraph image)

I was very sad today to hear that Bill McLaren has died:

Bill McLaren was a quintessential part of the television sporting experience for me, growing up in Scotland during the 1970s and '80s. I didn't play rugby except when forced to wear nylon rugby kit during "Double Games" and go out into the bitterly cold east coast winter at North Berwick High School to suffer all the indignities heaped on one of the smallest players on the field. I stopped playing it as soon as it was decently possible to do something else, like cross country running. But, even so, Bill McLaren was a broadcasting god in our house and the Scotland Home Nation matches were essential winter viewing, in large part down to how Bill McLaren was regarded in the house. My dad always sang his praises and, I think, was always disappointed when it wasn't Bill that was commentating on a Scotland rugby match. I think what Dad enjoyed was Bill's couthy Border Scottishness (a very rare thing in sports commentating in those days!) allied with his obviously genuine passion for rugby but also the clearly meticulous effort that he had put into preparing for his latest commentating role. (And the fact that he never slagged anyone off!)

So, I think the whole family took pleasure in dad's meeting with Bill McLaren one day, out of the blue. My dad was a country ranger (the first in Scotland) and, through the summer each year, would put on a weekly guided nature walk or two for the public in a woodland and/or beach area (usually Yellowcraig, west of North Berwick). Out of the blue one day, Bill and his wife turned up to join the walk. It absolutely made Dad's day when Bill told him at the end of the walk that he would do well on TV (I can well believe that too!) - high praise indeed! I don't think Dad has any photos of the day, unfortunately.

So, with Bill Mclaren's passing, almost all of the British sporting commentary giants of my childhood (Dan Maskell, David Vine, David Coleman, John Arlott) have gone - only really Peter Allis and Motty remain actively commentating (is Murray Walker still working?). They'll indeed be sad in the streets of Hawick tonight.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The snow and ice has melted - but the evidence remains!

A snowcat? Not sure!

Slip slidin' away... through Cambus O'May in Deeside

What's black and white and red all over?

Still, here comes Spring!!! Will there be a winter sting in the tail?

Hello, good evening and welcome (Signs I Like #1)

Cable car station, St Anton, Austria - any irony intended? You decide!
Hello and welcome to my new (and first) blog. I can't promise to entertain you but hopefully it will entertain me at least. Lots to learn - for instance, do I add on adverts and make money or not? etc etc. Anyway, that's me started. S x