Friday 18 March 2016

Time After Time

It's a Friday night. I'm at home alone. This used to happen a lot, and when it did, I would often spend the evening with music on, enjoying my dinner and a glass of port, perhaps a tinkle on the piano or write an entry on the blog. So that's what I'm doing now.

Except it's different. Everything is different. This is the first blog post I have written in a couple of months, my piano practice has waned, and I'm only just finishing off a bottle of port that was opened last July. In fact, this final glass has me I reflective mood, and here's why.

When I opened the bottle (a fine Sandemann's 10-year tawny), I had just returned from a wonderful weekend in Portugal, celebrating the wedding of good friends with more fine company. The latest wedding in a long line of weddings (number 25 I think) I have been to, and yet another reminder of time moving on at an uncontrollable pace. I was single, I was writing blog pieces to imaginary readers and I was spending Friday nights at home alone playing the piano and drinking port. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. It beats shooting vodka through my eyeballs, vomiting in the street and burying my face in a kebab.

But this week has made me realise the vastness of life's transitions since then. Tonight, sitting at home alone with my port, I am staring at my new dining table with pride. When did furniture become so important?! I am texting my mate who has just completed on his house purchase (presumably furniture is about to become important for him too!) and later intend to be sat on the floor of his empty flat drinking a beer as I did when I moved into my place 18 months ago. Earlier today I bumped into three friends who I have not seen in a while, two armed with their young children, born since that fateful trip to Portugal. The third was with me in Portugal, and I have barely seen her since. Our brief catch up was long overdue.

Also in the intervening months, four more weddings have occurred, another date has been set and two more pregnancies have been announced (I feel a Richard Curtis movie coming on!) - good friends planning their futures together. I have found myself in a relationship and making plans. My house has become a home. Life is good.

And while I wouldn't change it for the world, the relentless passing of time just gets quicker and quicker - a relentless march towards middle age and beyond. that leaves me baffled and bemused The same friends who were married in Portugal have now moved there, another hockey season passes with my aching body taking longer to recover from each match, and my dear Gran was lost to this world over Christmas. Stop the world, I want to get off!

Life moves on, and I intend to enjoy the ride. Tomorrow I will celebrate another friend's 30th birthday. My 30th seems a while ago now; I have no idea how many bottles of port have come and gone since then! But I will celebrate surrounded by friends of all ages: some just leaving full time education, some getting their first place, others making family plans and a few, including me, contemplating the lateness of the hour and the number of drinks I can consume without feeling rough on Sunday.

Perhaps its the music, or maybe the port, that has caused this pensive admission this evening. I imagine most of us wonder where the time has gone, how we ended up liking quiche and discussing Brexit instead of Bieber. I hope it may strike a chord with a few of you, but don't get used to it. I intend to use my Friday nights more wisely. But just for now, for old time's sake, I need to open a new bottle of port.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

A small nugget of wisdom

I was recently unfortunate enough to find myself driving the A303 late into the evening as my stomach began to rumble. This was unfortunate as I knew I could not survive the remainder of the trip without some form of food intake, but I also knew that the culinary establishments available on the A303 were not of the high calibre of cuisine that I was hoping for. My food snobbery extends as far as avoidance of fast food outlets where possible, and on this occasion it seemed impossible.

So I found myself at Burger King for the first time in a great many years, staring indecisively up at a menu that left me bewildered and perplexed. In the many years since I have procured fast food, it appears that the pricing strategy has changed. For example, four chicken nuggets cost 99p. But six cost £2.89. Even my elementary maths can spot that this simply doesn't add up. On the one hand each nugget is worth 25p, but if you wish to extend your nugget eating habit by another 50%, you then pay 48p per nugget. It would be far easier to get two lots of four, save yourself 91p, and have an extra two nuggets to boot!

I contemplated that perhaps Burger King knew something about chicken nuggets that I did not. Perhaps the likelihood of a customer collapsing from a heart attack increases by a factor of six billion the moment they clasp their lips around the 5th or 6th nugget, and so in the interests of health and safety they have a pricing strategy to combat this. Except that you can then get nine nuggets for £3.89. Who in their right mind would risk nine nuggets when they would likely collapse after five or six?! And besides, even if you can survive a certain nugget-related ailment, you could have 12 nuggets for £2.97 if ordered in batches of four!

I wondered if Burger King were trying to combat obesity by encouraging people to consume less, but then I noticed the price of fries. A small bag of fries was over a pound, but a medium bag of fries was less than a pound. How was this so?! Is it more cost effective for Burger King to cook and/or sell more fries? How does this compare to the cost per nugget? And has anyone ever, in the history of bizarre fast food pricing, purchased a small bag of fries when they could get a medium bag of fries for less?! Even if they only wanted a small bag of fries it would make more sense (to the individual, though not environmentally) to buy a medium bag of fries, then consume only a small bag's equivalent, and throw the rest away.

So the only people who should ever purchase a small bag of fries at Burger King are rich environmentalists with small appetites! And the only people who should ever purchase nine chicken nuggets are rich risk-takers with poor arithmetic.

Can anyone explain this nonsense to me please?

Monday 7 December 2015

The customer is always trite

I have, in the past, been known to write posts based around two of my favourite topics: technology and customer service. Today I was offered the best of both worlds, and so I can combine my two passions into one post.

I was in the office attempting to print when the printer made one of those noises that you recognise as being the precursor to bad news. Not a mechanical fail noise, but one of the inbuilt notification noises that announces, with a kind of cheery disposition, that something is not right. Further investigation revealed that the printer was out of ink, and specifically black ink. I had not heard any form of warning noise to suggest that ink levels were of concern, and so the sudden cessation of printing rights was something of a shock.

The printer refused to print any documents until such time as a new printer had been installed. Having removed the offending cartridge, the printer told me, via the tiny screen of news, that I should switch off the printer until the cartridge was replaced, in order to prevent any damage to the machine. I did as instructed, and hit the off switch, only for another notification to reveal that I should, under no circumstances switch off the printer without a cartridge in case of damage to the machine. This seemed something of a catch 22 to me, but in the end I had to reinstall the empty cartridge to combat the problem. The printer, of course, took great delight in beeping again to notify me that the cartridge was empty and that it needed replacing before it would resume normal printing duties.

Without a spare cartridge in the office, I made my way later in the day to PC World (presumably one of the less successful theme park names in existence) where I found rows upon rows of printer cartridges laid out for me to select from. Having foreseen this exact circumstance, I was able to produce the number and type of cartridge for the store assistant, and locate the replacement instantly. By sheer good fortune, the cartridge I wanted was available on a buy one get one half price deal.

Arriving at the till to claim my discount, I was asked whether this was a business expense, and whether I would be requiring a VAT receipt. I said it was, and that I was.  For some reason, this necessitated a move away from the main checkout to a desk with a computer and a chair. I have no idea why, but I had to register various work details with the receipt man before he could print a VAT receipt for me. This has never occurred to me when attempting to procure a receipt previously, and the process took far longer than was necessary, with him having to type and retype my name, scan the print cartridge multiple times, and wait for the printer to kick into action. How ironic it would have been if his printer had, at that very moment, run out of ink.

After an eternity had passed, receipt man was finally able to give me the receipt, which consisted of at least two pieces of printed A4 paper confirming my details, and several till receipts. To contain all paperwork in one place, receipt man searched, in vain, for a stapler at the desk with the computer. Realising that there was not one present, he made his way to the main checkout, where he did indeed locate a stapler. Receipt man then took at least four attempts to staple the paperwork together, as someone had vandalised the stapler so that it produced a chewed hole in the paper with sharp staple ends sticking out. 

Finally my stapled paperwork was complete and I was free to go, but in one final desperate act of inefficiency I set off the alarm when leaving the store, because receipt man had failed to notice the protection tag on the packaging. I think at this point he sensed my utter loathing for everything that he stood for, as he waved me through without even bothering to check if I had stashed another 16 cartridges in my pockets. Had I done so it would have been the world's longest and most painful shoplifting experience ever.   

Sunday 22 November 2015

When I'm cleaning windows

I have, in the past, written about my peculiar fondness for window cleaning. If you missed that particular gem, you can find it here. At that time, I was living in a shared house and the window cleaning was arranged by my landlady. Now my own landlord, I have the great pleasure of arranging my own window cleaning, and it seemed by far the easiest option to engage the services of the existing window cleaner. Having agreed terms and conditions, the window cleaner now arrives periodically without warning.

And so it was a few days ago. I awoke as usual to my alarm, but as I was regaining consciousness another, unexpected noise greeted me. The window cleaner was at the front of the house hurling soapy suds at the glass and scrubbing ruthlessly. I arose to the sound of the window cleaner washing the bedroom windows. I decided to leave him to it, and strolled down the hall to the bathroom. As I arrived there, the window cleaner also arrived. He had relocated to the back of the house, and was now furiously beating the bathroom window as I carried out my ablutions. After this was complete, I drifted downstairs to get breakfast. Arriving in the kitchen, I was again met with the window cleaner going about his business, and as I moved into the utility he followed me there too. 

Whilst I recognise the coincidental nature of the window cleaner's movements and mine, I couldn't help but wonder whether he was doing it deliberately. I considered whether he times his rounds to coincide with sleepy workers clambering out of bed. I don't suppose it was personal, but in my dopey state I couldn't help but curse his every move. My increasingly shiny windows were of little comfort for my disrupted morning routine. And after he had left and I had managed to prepare myself for the day ahead, the final nail in the coffin was an envelope left in the letter box demanding payment for the morning's interruptions!  

Monday 16 November 2015

All White on the Night

In the course of writing this blog I may have mentioned, once or twice, my love of natural history. I've studied it, I worked with it, and my hobbies are largely based around it. During the course of my studies I've learned more about the eminent men and women who have advanced our understanding of nature in the UK and abroad - academics, scientists, explorers, and the many, many people working in conservation around the globe today. If I told you to name the most influential, who would you go for? David Attenborough? Charles Darwin? How about Gilbert White? Did anyone mention Gilbert White?! Ten gold stars if you did.

Gilbert White is broadly acknowledged to be the UK's first natural historian, discussing ideas like migration and species identification before Darwin was even born. White made observations of the natural world around him, writing his thoughts down and corresponding with others on his musings (the equivalent of a blog!). These letters were published as 'The Natural History of Selborne', detailing his findings in his home village of Selborne in Hampshire (and available free on kindle for anyone bold enough to tackle it!). Selborne still stands, as does the vicarage that White lived in - now converted to a museum in his honour (and, incidentally, also a museum in honour of Captain Lawrence Oates, one of those who made the fateful journey to the South Pole with Scott).
White's original manuscript
And so it was to Selborne that I went for a couple of days break, in order to see the place where the great man lived and walked. At his house, his vegetable gardens are still in place and the library is stocked with hundreds of versions of his book from around the world, including the original manuscript. It was pleasing to imagine White sat at his desk, with views out over his gardens into the woods beyond, pondering such questions as whether swallows migrate or spend the winter hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Whilst that may seem obvious today, global travel had not yet opened up the possibility of finding our migrants in other countries, and there certainly wasn't any sophisticated tracking technology available.

The house and vegetable garden
The village is nestled at the base of Selborne Hill, up which Gilbert and his brother constructed a zig-zag footpath to the top, giving fantastic views of his house and the surrounding area. The autumn colours made the uphill slog well worth it. As I strolled around his gardens a peregrine falcon drifted overhead and circled against white clouds before a few powerful flaps of its wings propelled it from sight. What would Gilbert have thought of the bird? Did he know that this is the world's fastest animal, capable of speeds of 200mph? I doubt it!

The view over Selborne
The fact that we know so much about the world around us today is by no means attributable to Gilbert White, but he was the first observer of ecology to publish his observations in a way that allowed others to examine them further, and from such work comes greater scientific understanding. And for that we should be grateful to Gilbert and a small band of amateur natural history enthusiasts.

Autumnal apple and ladybird in the gardens

Sunday 18 October 2015

Count me in!

I’ve been told that there are only three types of people in this world: those that can count, and those that can’t. For those that can’t, the numbers game can be something of mystery, or even a painful experience. But for those that can (and those that can’t!), numbers form the basis of most of the measurements by which we judge our lives. They represent targets, achievements and goals, they provide a benchmark against which we strive to improve or compete, and mark the passing of time to give context to those achievements.

So it is in conservation and birding. We count birds; whether to determine population trends over time or simply for competition with others or ourselves. We count numbers of individuals, breeding pairs, numbers of species, fledged young, and we do this repeatedly to assess the health or otherwise of a particular habitat or location, and then to see what happens in that place over time.
One particular place where this has been happening lately is the Isles of Scilly. The archipelago is a group of over 100 islands (depending on the tide) located 28 miles off the tip of Cornwall, with a permanent population of around 2,200 people. For the last nine years I have been privileged enough to visit the islands each autumn to lead guided walks for the RSPB on Tresco, one of the five inhabited islands. The purpose of the visit is to raise awareness of the work the RSPB are doing on the islands for wildlife, and success is largely judged on numbers: how many people we meet, how many walks we do, how much money we raise, how many members we make. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story here. Other numbers have started to become more important.

Storm clouds off Bryher
Back in 2013, a partnership project involving five different organisations began, with the aim of improving the productivity of breeding seabirds around the islands. About 20,000 individuals from 14 different species of seabird come to the Isles of Scilly to breed each year, but populations of most of them have been doing badly due to predation of eggs and chicks by rats. The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project aims to remove rats from St Agnes and Gugh, two of the most important seabird nesting areas, and started doing so in autumn 2013. The 84 inhabitants of the islands all signed letters of support for the proposal, and baiting began. Over just six weeks all signs of rats disappeared, and no rats have been seen since!
A survey tunnel
The knock on impact of this work was seen in 2014, when surveys revealed manx shearwater chicks on St Agnes and Gugh surviving to fledging – 10 of them in fact. And in 2015 there were 28 of them. This may seem like small fry, but this is where numbers come in. Not a single manx shearwater chick had been recorded by anyone on those islands in living memory. None. That’s zero productivity over perhaps 100 years. And now there are at least 28 chicks leaving the islands for a life at sea. Even better, storm petrel chicks have been confirmed in 2015 – the first for many years.
A Manx Shearwater chick
Conservation projects are rarely so successful so quickly, and we can only assess how well they are performing using data – without a baseline we would have nothing to compare to, and without rigorous, consistent survey techniques we would not be able to draw reliable conclusions. The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project is a fantastic example of what can be achieved through partnership working and community support, and of course an excellent example of how numbers have shown that success. Let’s just hope the surveyors were not among the five out of every four people who have problems with fractions.

Friday 9 October 2015


Somehow it's been months since I posted anything on here. There's a lot of catching up to do! Alas I'm only just recovering from a busy summer of work and weddings, more of which I'm sure will feature in due course. For now I'm mostly treading water, but I've come up for air long enough to write a brief post.

This last few weeks the sun has disappeared all too quickly in the evenings. As a result the floodlights have been a vital ingredient for hockey training, and the bright lights have been attracting insects, and the insects have been attracting bats. For any bat detectorists out there I might suggest spending an evening by the astroturf taking a peek for yourselves.

Last Tuesday, whilst I was supposed to be coaching, I noticed a large moth struggling to get airborne. It was huge, and dropped to the ground on the edge of the pitch, where I managed to locate it. Being an amateur naturalist I have some appreciation of our larger moths, but this didn't look like anything I had encountered before. It had cryptic upper wings designed for camouflage, but beneath them revealed a blue, purple and black set of bands across the underwing. I had a good look at it, but failed to take a photo and thought little more of it.

The following day I tried to look it up. I wondered if it was a hawkmoth, due to it's large size, but most hawkmoths are quite striking and have bold patterns and wing shapes. So I wondered about an underwing, having recently seen a lot of red underwings. This one had the usual camouflage on the top wings but no bright warning colours beneath. When I searched 'underwing' on google I scrolled down until an image burst out at me. I have no copyright to show you the image, but it was exactly as I recalled from the night before.

To my amazement and great satisfaction, it identified the moth as a 'blue underwing'. I have never heard of this before, so I delved further. The blue underwing is also known as Clifden Nonpareil, and it turns out to be something of a superstar in the moth world (lepidopterland?). Many a moth-er (not mother) has Cliften Nonpareil at the top of their wish list, it transpires. This is, in part, due to it's rarity. It is not resident in the UK and so the handful that turn up each year are all immigrants. It is also due to it's uniqueness - almost no British moths have blue on them!

Armed with this information, I began to doubt myself. I asked a naturalist colleague whether there were any similar species that I should look at in case I had misidentified it. His response was 'None whatsoever, la la la la la didn't happen you B*stard', which gave me some indication of it's appeal to those in the know. I contacted the Wiltshire moth recorder, and sheepishly suggested that I might have a probable record of a Cliften Nonpareil, and could he give me his advice. When he replied he said it was 'unmistakably so', and what a fine record it was too. There have, apparently, been a few recent records of them in the county, and in several other counties.

I strongly suggest you all look up this little beauty. It is a truly stunning beast, unlike anything else on the UK moth scene. And you never know when you might just come across one yourself!

P.S. One week later I saw the moth again at training, and this time managed to catch it and take a photo!