Friday, 28 December 2012

How far do ethics go?

It's an interesting question.  Normally in Science we think of ethics in terms of the direct effects of an experiment on subjects participants.  True up to a point.

Let us consider the Bell Curve, a psychological treatise that didn't directly involve much in the way of live experimentation, but which was used as a scientific justification for widespread racism.  Schools in black areas are underfunded compared with schools in white areas, and this underfunding leads to underperformance.  The Bell Curve allowed politicians and racist pundits to argue that "these kids aren't underperforming because the school is underfunded, they're underperforming because black people are not as intelligent as white people".  On that basis, correcting the underfunding was never a priority.  Thousands and thousands of young people received a sub-standard education because of the abundance of melanin in their neighbourhood, and this was allowed to continue because some bloke they'd neither met nor heard of had gotten it into his head that they were just naturally stupid.

I would beg to differ as - indirectly - this man has saved my life on more than one occasion.  At any rate, the racial aspects of the Bell Curve were later proven to be dodgy as fuck, and using that to form policy is seen as scientifically unethical.  If doing your thang as a researcher causes others to be harmed - even if they aren't involved - and you could have foreseen or avoided such then you are unethical.  Simple enough.

People say that politics should not interfere in Science.  True up to a point.  Misusing Science (or Psychology) to round up political undesirables is reprehensible behaviour on the part of all involved.  With that said, unfettered Science has given the world its fair share of horrors.  Freedom without some degree of regulation is like a loaded gun in the hands of a toddler.  There must be, not control as such, but limits.  There must be checks in place to ensure that innocents have nothing to fear from Science.  There must be acts that are deemed to be beyond the pale.

Ethics, in my view, begins with the germ of a thought in the researcher's mind before the study has even been fully conceived and ends only when those ripples upon the surface of history which were caused by the study have ceased.  Typically this point will be reached long after a prominent researcher has died.  Indeed, his great-grandkids might have great-grandkids by the time we can say that his work is no longer skewing the world.  If you loose a thing upon the world - be it a theory or an ideology - then you are responsible for what it does.

In my view of ethics, J. Robert Oppenheimer killed a quarter of a million civilians, because he built his doomsday device knowing full well that it was a tool for levelling and irradiating cities.  If we divide the casualties (c.250,000) by the number of weapons needed to cause that many casualties (2), then at a ratio of 125,000:1 we can say that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the single most efficient slaughter of civilians in human history.  He's a hero to some, sadly, because the bomb is said to have ended WWII and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers who would've been flung back into combat had the war continued.  Standing between the war and the civilians is what soldiers are meant to be for.  A few thousand troops saved at the cost of a quarter of a million civilians is not an ethical trade.  Of course to some people it makes a difference that the unelected emperor of those civilians was in bed with the Nazis.  To others, it makes a difference that those civilians weren't white.

So then I encountered this article via a link on Facebook.  The university in question is undermining Palestinian homes in occupied territory at the risk of causing a collapse.  They say that groups calling for a boycott are attempting to bring politics into the business of what should and shouldn't be researched.  I disagree.  Ethical oversight prohibits abuse primarily because it is abuse.  Our notions of what constitutes abuse evolve with the political understanding of the times, but if we today perceive it as abuse then it is abuse, plain and simple.  Endangering the lives of families is not made acceptable just because they're Palestinians living somewhere Israel wants.  If anything, by forcing this upon those under occupation it is the university itself which has brought politics into research, as there's no way in hell they'd be allowed to do that kind of maverick shit in Tel Aviv!

It then falls to ethics bodies to intervene and halt the study.

If however the ethics body cannot or will not apply its own rules; be it because the abuser is untouchable (as in this case, Israel has Uncle Sam behind it to grant impunity), or because the ethics body has been bought, then we reach an unfortunate circumstance wherein the nearest semblance of ethical enforcement is obstruction by the protest of citizens.  A boycott or blockade has no weight on paper, it is unaccountable; but on the other hand I struggle to think of a more democratic way for a society and its citizens to articulate the point at which they draw the line between acceptable conduct and unacceptable conduct.

Now for the ethical distinction between winging a stone at the guy who took the decision to dig under homes in the first place and winging a stone at some poor bastard who is just doing his job...

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Xmas with my lot

The thing about spending the Winterval with my family is that...  it works.  The thing with big families is we pull together, roll up our sleeves and build the thing.  The younger ones bake, Diane and I hang things, then discuss the way I've hung them.  Mam used to do all the cooking and the cleaning when we were younger; it was our day off, and she's always been very much the Matriarch of the Sept.  These days she's a lot less able, so increasingly me and Diane do the bulk of the work.

You mustn't take me for grumbling, far from it!  We've never had much money; but we've a roof over our heads, we don't owe nobody nowt, the house is warm and dry, we don't lack for food or love.  We're rich where it counts.

Some people have Christmas catered, or eat out, or book into a hotel.  If that suits them then fair enough, but I'd hate it.  We cook our food to our taste, and spare no effort.  There's enough of us to spread the work  thin, but feeding your family is a labour of love on the most average of days.

I haven't said blessings in a lot of years, being more of a lapsed Catholic these days, and I don't really have a deity these days to be thankful to, but I'm thankful.

The motto of the Glencoe mob is contentious.  Officially we haven't had one since the clearances.  We lost that and our arms, and can only use those of Clan Donald.  Unofficially, however, it is Nec Tempore, Nec Fato, or "there is no time, there is no fate".  This is true enough.  Time and fate grant no boons, elbow grease does.  They don't take either, people do.  It all comes back to the lives you touch, and those that touch yours, for good or ill.

So I'm thankful to my family.  For them, yes, but also to them.  This day is nice because we make it nice.  Family life works because we make it work.  There's nothing in life worth anything that you don't build with your own hands, and I'm grateful to have such wonderful colleagues in this project I call existence.

Right, cider.  I leave you with the Muppets:

Monday, 24 December 2012

If you read nothing else today...

It's about the terms of service you agree to when using services on the internet.  All the crap they hope you won't bother to read.  This site distils it down into the points you really need to know.

Meanwhile, it's Christmas Eve.  By tradition we have a big fry-up for breakfast, and the pets get any leftover sausage.  We don't make a habit of feeding them unhealthy food, but they get a little treat at Xmas.  Suffice it to say that Bill and George are strutting about just now like the cat that learned to operate dairy machinery.

I leave you with this gem from the internet:

I'm gonna go drink Shuck under the table.  Nollaig mhaith chugat, as my granny would say, and the best of the season to ya!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Apocalypse Update

Still no big-ass meteorite, but I can see some pigeons looking shifty...

Testing the cider

I've made the cider, I've racked the cider, and today I've tested the cider.  To do this I arranged some time in a lab, but you can do this at home if you have the parts:

  • Hotplate,
  • Pyrex beaker,
  • Mercury thermometer,
  • 100cc cylinder, graduated by 1cc increments,
  • Clamp stand
Measure out 100cc of the cider using the cylinder, transfer it into the beaker, pop that onto the hotplate.  Stand the thermometer in the cider, using the clamp stand to ensure that the bulb of the thermometer is near to the bottom of the beaker but not quite touching it.  Heat it to 72ºC for a couple minutes until it's steaming nicely then take it off the heat and wait for the steam to stop.  You wait for the steam to stop in order to get an accurate measurement.  Once it isn't steaming any more, put it back into the measuring cylinder and read the volume.  We will call this new measurement X.  

  100 minus X = your percent ABV
100 - 92 (my X value) = 8% ABV

I also tested it at a lower temperature to gauge the methanol content and judged it to be less than half a percent.  I used Benedict's solution to test for aldehydes (formed when ethanol goes off) and found none of the characteristic orange sludge which appears in a positive test.  

It tasted largely of rhubarb.  Very sharp, but not too sharp.  I think next week we'll be good to go!

In other news: that arum has grown since it moved to its new home.  It seems to have settled in quite nicely :)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Anthocyanin Test

I've used this one since I was a little kid.  Anthocyanin is a pigment found naturally in red cabbages and leaches into the water during boiling.  This test therefore comes free with a Sunday roast.  It acts as an indicator, changing colour in response to changes in pH.  It's a shotgun test, meaning that it sacrifices precision for breadth.  Don't worry that it's called anthocyanin, there's no cyanide involved, I've checked.  Cyan is simply a shade of blue; a purple chemical comes from a red cabbage and people name it for blue.  Chemists do have a weird sense of humour.

The range it covers is as follows:
Strong acid
Medium acid
Weak acid
Weak alkali
Medium alkali
Strong alkali
Ridiculously strong alkali!

If your soil is strong enough to turn the solution white then you'll already know about it, having received prior treatment for chemical burns.  You should always start this test with a violet solution.  If your cabbage was cooked with London tap water like mine was then you'll start with a blue solution.  Titrate it back to violet using vinegar before running the test.  

In my case, the soil in the beds shifted slightly into the blue spectrum, which was surprising.  My soil is slightly alkali despite being a humus-rich loam.  The previous gardener must've gone berserk with the lime!  Most vegetables prefer slightly acid soils, so I'll have to amend the soil before I can plant the year's crops.  

Feel free to use this test at your own risk.  

In other news: George seems to think the circles around the holes in the birdhouses are eyes, looking at him. Every time he looks at them from an angle where only two can be seen he raises his hackles and growls.  We can now add the tree to the very long list of things that George believes have come to murder us all in our beds.  

Monday, 17 December 2012

Woodcare pt. 2 (plus a rant)

  I'm going to share this article, as with all the talk over the shooting of those schoolkids it is worth remembering that most people with mental ill-health do not go on to become killers.  I live with depression, I'm also autistic, I even have the so-called "warrior gene", yet I struggle to think of any situation in which I could murder.  Such a thing is either in a person or it is not, but most forms of mental ill-health do not contribute to it.  The panic which follows such events will inevitably lead to some poor sod with hyperactivity or autism or mutism - or even just someone who is unusually shy - who has never harmed a person in their life getting lynched by a bunch of eejits (egged on by the Sun) who confuse different with dangerous.  The problem has chiefly to do with culture.

  I found this quote.  It's attributed to Morgan Freeman, but then a lot of quotes on the internet are attributed to Morgan Freeman just because it gives them a measure of authority:-
"You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here's why.

It's because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.

CNN's article says that if the body count "holds up", this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer's face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer's identity? None that I've seen yet. Because they don't sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you've just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.

You can help by forgetting you ever read this man's name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news."
Whoever actually wrote this has gotten it bang on.

Okay, pictures of finished things now.

And I've succeeded in fucking about with the heliotropic behaviour of a bramble.  Hooray!

Sunday, 16 December 2012


  Thanks to the efforts of the weather, crap builders and one inconsiderate smoker (who has been soundly bollocked, fear not), my bench is in a bit of a sorry state.  I've brought it in, planed it and sanded it.  I also improved it by using the plane to round off the corners, making it more comfortable.  Granddad Rab would be proud-ish.  I'll give it another sanding tomorrow morning then varnish it.  Jobs like these make me wish I still owned a belt sander (we lost it in a move), so when I've a few bob spare I'll have to have a shufti on ebay.

  I picked up a trio of birdhouses today; they'll also go up tomorrow.  I can make my own easily enough, but I had a coupon that made these more economical to buy.  They're of a size to attract tits to the garden - stop sniggering!  Got dirty minds the lot o' youse!  Anywho, there's something of a debate on painting and/or staining birdhouses.  Some say do it, it makes them look pretty and can ensure that they're in keeping with the look of the garden.  Others say don't do it, that you don't know what chemicals are in your paint or stain and that it might poison the birds.  

  I have my own line of reasoning on the matter, and that is that if you put a glass over the entry hole and draw round it, then only paint outside the line, you should minimise the likelihood of stuff getting on the bird.  You should also refrain from painting the roof, as water on the roof might drip in through a gap in the wood, and don't paint over the baseplate.  The baseplate has gaps around it to allow air in and to allow any water that gets in to drain away, protecting nestlings from drowning or suffocation.  Painting this can occlude the gap and cause these problems.  Finally, never paint or stain the inside of the birdhouse.  This should remain largely dry in use, it may even pick up oil from the bird's feathers, so there is really no need to introduce chemicals into such an enclosed environment.  

Lastly then, I've found out how foxes are getting into the garden.  It's hard to see scale in a vertical photo, but this lot is six feet high!

Pics of the finished bench and the birdhouses in situ will appear either tomorrow or Tuesday.  FSM knows what I'm gonna do about Steptoe's Yard...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

'Tis the Season...

"Once they figure a way to work a dead horse, we'll be next. Likely I'll be the first too. 'Edd,' they'll say, 'dying's no excuse for laying down no more, so get on up and take this spear, you've got first watch tonight.' Well, I shouldn't be so gloomy. Might be I'll die before they work it out." 
– Eddison 'Dolorous Edd' Tollett
  Well, my part in the Christmas Clean is drawing fast to a close, Gods be praised.  My black dog, Shuck, tends to make an appearance around this time.  Two generations of Atheists (though half of us were still part-raised as Taigs) and still we gotta get festive.  My cynical nature reckons that the season isn't in full swing until I've called the tree a c**t to its face.  I hate Christmas, so the little acts of cynical pseudo-rebellion (like insisting that being Christmas no.1 makes Killing In The Name a Christmas song) keep the black dog from swallowing me whole.  I never take it too far though, on account of the fact that the rest of my family seem to like this ever-repurposed holiday, and that it is bizarrely easy to spoil it.

  Gardening then.  I've had to change my plans for the beds.  It turns out that a person can't work a bed of 5'x5' without stepping into it, which defeats the object.  Better than having six of those is having ten beds of 3'x5'.  Either way it covers the same amount of ground, but this way I get to grow more solanaceae and alliums, fewer beans and apiaceae, plus I can include things that weren't in the six bed rotation such as peas, wheat and gourds.  Here's the new plan; it's to be read clockwise in terms of a given bed, which actually means that the whole thing'll rotate anti-clockwise.

More tatties overall, but in a rotation that sees each bed growing legumes once every five years rather than once every six.  The beds won't reach all the way to the Eastern fence.  Instead, there'll be a strip of land a foot wide, from which I'll grow fruiting bushes and vines up trellis against the fence.  This is also where I'll grow borage, as any area of soil that has fruit growing in it has a heavy drain on potassium.  

  Other than that, the garden's ticking over.  Got some manure coming soon.  Got the baseplate to the composter coming soon.  Once Commercemas is over I can start building for the coming year.  I'll get a tool cabinet and a couple of bat boxes built.  The beds will be built in January.  I'm thinking railway sleepers for the beds, but you've got to be careful in buying them.  For beds, the law says I need timber not treated with creosote.  The shed likely January or February.  Once the shed is in situ I can work on trellis plus further bird houses, bat boxes and other things.  BirdCam will follow the shed.  The greenhouse tent will go up in March and the first seedlings will go into the garden shortly afterward.  With luck I'll be getting in the first of the early Harvest in June.  

  Lastly then, the post Why Biology?  has attracted enough interest (second most viewed post on the blog) that I reckon it's appropriate to go further back.  Science for me started when I was a tiny kid.  I had a microscope before I could write, but I'd document my methods and findings pictorially.  At 4 I used to sit and watch that cartoon variously known as Once Upon A Time... Life, and How My Body Works.  Mam got me a chemistry set when I was about 5 and I grew crystals of copper (II) sulphate.  The big thing though was Lego.  I had Lego throughout my childhood, starting from the day I was able to play with things without trying to eat them or fit them into the orifices of the head.  Physics, mechanics, timing, all can be explored with enough Lego.

  I don't think I was raised toward Science though, I think it's better to say that I wasn't raised away from it.  I had the tools because I asked for them and showed genuine interest.  The kids who grow up to consider Science are not those who were told to be curious, but those who weren't told not to be curious.  If that makes sense?  I dunno.  ROLL VT!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Rosie and Jim Go Outside

Finishing revisiting childhood in 3... 2... 1...

I'm back.

So we've got some new additions to the garden this morning.  Rosie and Jim are from Rubus 3 and they've taken up residence on the roof of the Strawbrary.

Bill is vaguely interested in the mysterious floating plant pot.  George is convinced that it's here to kill us all!  Meanwhile, the experiment's own page now comes up top on Google when you search for The Rubus Experiments, which is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Winter Is Coming!

I won't really have much to do in the garden between Xmas and mid-January, so I might not blog much.  I tried to find a way of explaining how interesting my life is about to become, and then I found this on the internet:


Monday, 3 December 2012

Chemistry in the kitchen

I make no assertion that this test is foolproof, nor can I accept responsibility for any gardening errors made based on the results of testing your soil this way.  Please dispose of the end products carefully and responsibly.  Always wash your hands before and after Chemistry.

Rhizobium woes

Thus far, my beans aren't nodulating.  I still don't know if the deficiency is in cobalt or Rhizobium.  I've been looking online for a cheap way to test for the presence of Co whilst browsing Rhizobium stockists.

  Most places (quite sensibly) won't ship live bacteria to any address that isn't a school or college.  Trouble is that this includes Rhizobium.  Some strains of Rhizobium can infect humans, but not the same ones that infect beans.  Thus far, the only place I've found that'll sell me Rhizobium will also sell me Penicillium, Candida, and Staphylococcus. OH HELL NO!  I shan't publish the address because I don't want to encourage or facilitate stupidity.

  Staphylococcus is the genus which includes the dreaded MRSA.  Whilst certainly dreaded, MRSA lives on the skin of 1-in-3 of us and is only likely to harm you if you have an open wound or a compromised immune system.  Still, after the huge media flap over MRSA (ethical journalism FAIL!), you'd think they'd be careful with Staphylococcus.

  Penicillium gives us penicillin.  Penicillin is restricted for a good reason, in that overuse of it is what started this whole superbug fiasco in the first place.  People should not be making batches of dubious penicillin in their garden sheds.

  Candida is a fungus that gives you ringworm or thrush.  Bloodstream infections from Candida have a mortality rate of between forty and fifty percent.  A vengeful, twisted eejit who got hold of a batch of Candida could load up the Karcher, take it down to Westfield and give ten thousand people a dose of thrush.  It also makes wine go off and I can't be having that!

Suffice it to say that I shan't be shopping at a place so reckless as to offer any germs to anyone.

  So, I'm back to square one.  A mate's dad grows V. faba and he gets N fixation just fine, so I'm trying to get a clod of his soil to spread on mine.  He's fine with it, the only problem is he's down in Southampton.  Next time I visit Ro I'll stop by, but that won't be for a while yet.

I best get working on that Co test...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dissecting veggie propaganda

Now I'm all for vegetarianism.  I think it's a great way of reducing carbon footprint, improving the health of the bowels and such.  However, when people use dodgy science to get militant about it then I have to say something.  

This is doing the rounds as the reason why broccoli is better than steak:
Notice the mass.  The broccoli is roughly fifteen times the mass of the steak.  That already shows you that this is a crap chart, as a real mass-for-mass comparison requires you to get out your calculator and times all the numbers for steak by 14.875

Thankfully, I've taken a pop at the arithmetic:
  • 81g of protein,
  • 35.7mg of Ca
  • 10.4125mg of Fe
  • 74.375mg of Mg
I can go on if you like, but you get the picture.  On the calories, niacin, and all the metals (except Calcium) the steak beats the broccoli.  Broccoli wins on vitamins and fibre.  

  "Phytochemicals" are just chemicals made in plants. It comes from "phytos" - "plant" in old Greek.  This can be anything from Vitamin C (which is helpful), to chlorophyll (the most abundant phytochemical, which does nothing for humans), to strychnine (which is poisonous to humans and many other mammals).  Some phytochemicals (such as lycopene in tomatoes) are being investigated for drug-like properties, but so what?  To get a therapeutic dose of the stuff you have to either eat your weight in tomatoes every day or else synthesise concentrated lycopene into pill form.  

  You're not going to beat the drug companies or stave off cancer by shopping for phytochemicals.  Having a good variety of vitamins and other important chemicals like citrate in your diet is a good thing, but increasing your intake of "phytochemicals" in so broad a term as that is a bit of a nonsense frankly.  It serves nothing.  I'll bet my right eye that the use of the term with reference to diet has something to do with "nutritionists" - those mountebanks of the 21st Century.   

Anything not given a numerical value but merely listed as "very high" can be discounted for comparison purposes.  You cannot compare anything that does not have a value, so its inclusion is meant to skew opinion without any scientific basis for doing so.  

Phytochemicals can be discounted from any comparison between meat and veg because you may just as well ask "is a cow a plant?  yes/no"  

  To get a day's worth of calories and amino acids from broccoli you'd have to be eating broccoli all day. 700g of raw broccoli will see you scrape by on amino acids, but will only provide you with less than a tenth of your calories. You'd have to chug chip fat to make up the shortfall.  Alternately you could just eat a balanced meal.  Maybe have the broccoli and the steak with some boiled potatoes and asparagus.  Job done.  

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Racking the cider

  First a gripe about the state of humanity.  Me and mine went to the Xmas thing in Hampton like we do every year.  Lovely as ever.  Someone got hurt up by the Uxbridge Road and an ambulance was coming up from Fulwell. It ended up slowed to a crawl behind a shuffling crowd outside the bakers' who were not so dense that they'd be harmed or even greatly inconvenienced by getting out of the way.  So I shouted "ambulance!", which should have caused some reaction, but nobody moved.  I shouted again "AMBULANCE!", and a few people moved.  So I took a fortifying glug of hot wine and yelled "There is an ambulance behind you with blue lights on!  Move into the right hand lane or onto the pavement!  This is no longer a request!"  That shifted them.

  I recall a similar set of circumstances five years ago in Heiligendamm, only there the whole crowd took up the cry of "rettungswagen!" and immediately parted like the Red Sea from where I was to the horizon and beyond my sight.  They were so good that the krankenwagen never had to go slower than 10 mph.  THAT is how people are meant to behave!  I despair of my compatriots.

Okay, on with the cider!

If you haven't yet read the start of this keg of cider then you'll find it here.

  Racking is the practice of transferring your unfinished wort from one vessel to another whilst fermentation is still ongoing.  You do this after the first 1-2 months or whenever your sediment starts to look a bit dense.  A little sediment is a good thing, it gives it a complexity of flavour.  Too much sediment impairs the flavour.  When you rack cider (or beer, or wine, or mead) into a new keg you leave the bulk of the sediment behind in the old keg.

  The keg is meant to spend as much time sealed as possible; so if you wish to add ingredients that weren't in season or were too impractical or expensive when you laid down the cider, or top up with sugar or yeast or nutrient, then you wait until racking time to do this.  Today I've added rhubarb and enough yeast and nutrient to begin a secondary fermentation.

  It smelled as it should, which is not to say it smelled good.  This stuff is not cider, but a half-fermented apple wort.  Essentially it's a tub of rotten apples.  It'll be another month's maturation before I dare call it a cider.  Still, it had the beginnings of the right overtones and undertones. I reckon it'll be alright.

  Proper rhubarb cider is hard to get in London.  The commercial stuff is pale and crap, and the decent stuff from Kent and Somerset seldom leaves Kent and Somerset.  If you want good cider in London then you have to either go five miles to find a niche pub that gets it in, or you have to brew it yourself.

As you can see, the sediment has gotten deep.  
1) Sterilise the second keg and equipment in hot water and chlorine, as per the original

2)  Add any supplementary fruit (such as the rhubarb) to the second keg with a little nutrient before the wort is racked.  Be sure to whiz the new fruit through the blender with some water and sugar to extract the maximum flavour from it.  

3)  Pour the wort from the old keg to the new keg via a towel in a sieve.  

4)  When it gets to the point that you're pouring as much sediment as product, and the liquid itself is thick, opaque orange, this is the time to stop.  Tip the rest down the toilet.  

5)  Finally, add any supplementary yeast (made up the same way as the starting yeast) and seal the keg.  If you use the same type of airlocks as I do then you can tell when the keg is airtight because twisting the keg lid any tighter causes the airlock cap to jump high enough into the air that it clears the chamber and pops off.  
6)  Leave it in the bath and run the hot tap to a quarter full.  Let the revised wort warm up to between 25ºC and 30ºC in order to give the yeast a favourable starting point.  Then remove the keg from the bath, dry it off and put it back where it normally lives.  

Easy peasy.  This lot'll be racked one last time, about a week before it's due to be drunk.  The final racking is done to clear any scum from the top (resulting from the stringy bits in rhubarb, which are indigestible to yeast), and to introduce Campden tablets which halt further fermentation.  Overbrewed cider is even worse than underbrewed cider.  I'll then stash it away somewhere cold so that it tastes lovely and fresh when it's needed.  The final rack is also when I'll draw some off for lab testing.  

Fingers crossed!

Friday, 30 November 2012

The first frost

Today was the first frost of the new Winter, at least in London anyhow.  Willing to bet my mate Lyndsey up in Tayside has been freezing her arse off for a month already.  Comment that it's been two months in 3... 2...

So it touched the lawn but not the beans.  It also bejewelled those bloody weeds that keep invading my lawn, so presumably this is the time to make a serious dent in their numbers.
Sparkly lawn!  Alas for the hole in the bottom corner there.  

The beans are coming along nicely.

Scarcely kissed by the frost.  

Take THAT ya bastards!

That's all good, but today I also found that I had something to be really proud of.  The roof of the arbour was covered in a thick layer of frost but not a drop touched the seat.  That must mean that a) I got the roof seals spot on, and b) that I've successfully sited it for maximum shelter from the worst of the cold.  Happy with that!


No frost!
Really chuffed with that.  Right, I've got a day off tomorrow so I'll be racking the cider.  Wish me luck!


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

I shouldn't have to say it!

Grr!  The world is annoying me tonight!

My gamertag is SixAgileFingers and I believe that sexism in gaming is BULLSHIT!

That is all.

Flies, bats, other stuff

The composter is attracting flies, even as we are fast approaching the Winter.  This must mean the composter is generating a certain amount of warmth, which is nice.  Getting rid of the flies is something of a must, however.  I don't mind flies, they do their jobs in the ecosystem and the world keeps turning; but they encourage spiders, which I personally quite like but which my sisters get freaked out over.  It's bad to put house spiders out in Winter as they won't last the night, so I resist doing that, but I don't want to swell their numbers by letting a fly explosion run unchecked.  The solution is to assert a biological control over the flies. More spiders are out of the question.  Frogs are crap.  Wasps scare the living shit out of me.  Birds can be great, but there's quite a spread with birds and you don't know when putting in a bird box whether you'll attract the sort of bird that likes flies or the sort of bird that likes your crops.

I've decided on bats.  London has many species of bat, and Strawberry Hill comes alive at dusk with the tiny, leathery sound of pipistrelles in flight.  I'm picking up a pair of bat boxes tomorrow which I'll fit high up in the big Maple just as soon as I can get ten minutes use of an extension ladder.  Eventually I'll set up BatCam as part of the BirdCam project, but for now the priority is pest control.  It's also nice to be able to offer shelter to an endangered species.

I'll need to stain the bat boxes so as to protect the wood from the elements.  Should I stain them a blending colour like green or brown?  Red like the fences?  Something like purple or blue to be bold yet stylish?  Something that really sticks out like a neon pink?  Or should I stain them black and then paint a little batman symbol on the front?  Decisions decisions...

Mike's doing well.  The beans are doing well.  The strawbs are doing well.  The lawn has a hole in it.  Those Thymus are doing well, though I still never figured out that 'lilac' business.  The brambles seem to be doing alright, to the point that two of them have shown overt growth while a third is budding.

I'm getting a budget from the household in January to make improvements to the garden, which should be sufficient to finance a shed, the beds, and a greenhouse tent.  This is awesome!  I mentioned before that the ramp out front is bridging the DPC and needs to be replaced, well so too does the patio out back.  This'll put the shed, beds and greenhouse on hold until it's done, but it should be done fairly quickly.  I think I'll stain the shed blue an paint the trim (corners, door frame, window frame) white.  I think that'd be bold, but look nice.

In other news: there was some kind of magpie turf war going on in the Buddleia earlier today.  It was quite intense, more so when a shitload of parakeets and a raven got involved.  Bill stayed indoors for that one, and of his own volition too, which I guess means he's smart enough to value his eyeballs.

I need more tea.  Down the bar last night...  Okay, it's a bit of a long story.  Jesse disappears for donkeys' at a time because of work.  When we see him again; he, Liam and myself have a thing of sitting about the bar in our boxers and drinking.  I don't normally have more than two pints on a night out, three at most, so now my head feels like it's been carpeted.

On the other hand, it isn't every day that one's arse gets a round of applause.

Bye xx

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Looks like I haven't just killed thirteen bramble cuttings!  This is excellent!  It means that the experiments are definitely going ahead (I've been biting my nails over this one) and that at the end of it I'm likely to have a viable plant with which to carry on the lineage of brambles that have lived up to now in the front garden.  Think in terms of Noah's Ark if that helps.

Pics when the camera turns up.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Harvesting asparagus

This is sort of an aide memoire for Our Diane, as she's the main asparagus cook in the house.

I'll be growing asparagus in great troughs hung from the back fence.  Might be there's fifty shoots in a trough.

Year 1:  You identify which ten are the biggest, greenest, healthiest-looking shoots and you leave those alone.  Don't pick those because they're your breeding group.  You let them grow, flower, and seed.  Pick the remaining forty shoots for food and be sure to compost your cuttings.

Year 2:  The ten from last year have bred and new shoots have emerged.  Because they've been bred from the best of last year's asparagus, this lot are collectively better than last year's crop.  The genes for a good quality crop have been passed down.  Once again you have fifty shoots.  Pick your ten healthiest and keep them for your breeding group.  Make sure this year's breeding group is not comprised exclusively of last year's breeding group or else evolution stops.  Eat the rest.  Compost your cuttings.

Year 3 onward:  As per year 2.


  Someone changed the boiler recently.  The new one has a narrower flue and exhaust than the old one, which means the hole in the wall needed mortaring to a narrower gauge so as to be snug to the new pipe.  Fair enough, but they didn't put a tarpaulin down before they started mortaring, so the stuff went everywhere!

  • It left indelible streaks on the patio.
  • It discoloured a chunk of my bench, which'll mean an afternoon spent sanding and revarnishing.  
  • It gummed up the head of my leaf rake.  
  • It got on the lawn, shot the pH up through the roof and killed a square metre.  
  Grass likes a pH of between 5 and 7.5.  At 7.5 it gets sick, at 8.5 it dies.  I'm treating the area with citrate over the Winter so that I can try and reseed in the Spring.  Balls!  

In other news: aphids!

Things aren't all bad though.  I need some manure and Nathan (the mate with the horse) has offered to drive some round in the boot of his car.  This comes as a relief, because trying to cart a barrowload of poo on and off the train might raise a few eyebrows at the very least.  He drives up from Redhill to visit his partner in Boston Manor, so Strawberry Hill is about 50p's worth of petrol as a deviation from the normal route.  Easy peasy.

Life ain't all bad.

Friday, 23 November 2012

So why Biology?

Be warned: there's no gardening in this one.

  Before I start, I just want to give a shout out to London's navvies.  Tonight the rain is amazingly heavy and the wind is frankly extraordinary.  I saw it at Clapham blow the rain thirty-odd feet off plumb in the space of a ten foot drop.  It was in the eyes, knackering my visibility.  It was in the boots, numbing my feet.  It was under the boots, denying me a comfortably sturdy footing.  Ridiculous conditions.  Then as the train went through St. Margarets I saw the Men In Orange preparing to walk the tracks.  Such a brave and dangerous thing to do, but if they don't do it then one night my train might not deliver me home to Strawberry Hill in one piece.  I take my hat off.

No great shocker that I'm presently nursing a hot chocolate with a decent glug of Bailey's in it.

  So I've decided that I'm no longer going to try and get a head start on my fees.  £27k is either ten years' saving or a bank job.  If I want that slip of the paper which says I can probably try grownup science then I'm just going to have to swallow the debt.  Fucking Tories!  I want to do Natural Sciences, and having been unable to choose between Biology and Geology I'm looking at the possibility of taking a major/minor split with Biology being the major.

  I've just finished college this year, a fact that my circle seem to be quite proud of.  I get asked what I'm going to do next and it's always "so are you going to do Medicine?"  Up until a year ago I would've said yes, but something has changed.

  When I was sixteen I enlisted.  I applied at first to join the REME, to become a mechanic or a spark.  Joining up is quite an involved process, and there's all manner of screening to go through.  When I completed my psychological profile I was taken to one side by a recruiter who said that being an electrician would suit me, but that being a medic might suit me more, and with a BARB score of 80 (the intelligence test, the average score is around 50) I might enjoy the mental challenges of medicine.  So I ended up joining the RAMC and training as a medic.  One conversation really can put your life on a different path.

  I was earmarked for the 16th before my legs got busted and I was honourably discharged.  I landed on my feet in civvy street and found work as a nurse in acute stroke care.  I spent a good few years in stroke and loved every minute of it.  When I was 20 a patient had what was from my perspective the worst possible outcome.  Not just a death - I'd had my first at 17 and a good number since - but a death in which a choice I'd made had affected things.  Let me be clear: the patient was not going to be walking out the front door whichever way you slice it.  Still, when you're young and you find yourself in that scenario, how things are explained and handled in the first few hours can make or break you.  It broke me.  It messed me up, tore my mind apart so badly that I spent a week under observation, and I'm not the same person since.

  That is not the problem.  Far from it.  It hurt, and it should hurt.  It should hurt so that you don't make the same mistake twice.  It should hurt so that you don't assume, you don't gamble, you question everything (most of all yourself) and you kick your own arse into doing the very best you can do; because you never want to feel that again.  Then a year ago I found that I had accepted it, that after more than half a decade I'd made peace with myself.  This was unnerving, because I don't want to ever become hardened to such things.  I've already lost a part of myself, and I don't want to know how much more of myself I'd have to lose in order to wear so thick a shell as that.

So no Medicine.

  Medicine was always a second choice.  I'd never really aimed to have a career in healthcare.  I was a geeky kid who liked circuits and snails, minerals and fossils.  I was always interested in the natural world and how it worked.  Medicine appeals to the right person for the right reason, but is also just a popular way for a scientist to get a paying job.  What I really want to do is give the Universe a poke to see what it does, and I always have.

  I started college two years ago at 25.  A late bloomer, but what the hell.  That could've been shit, but it wasn't.  When you're a hyperactive genderqueer autist with a fucked up knee and a half-palsied hand you find you can have quite a spread with teachers and with authority figures in general.  Maybe you'll be pitied, or ignored, or seen as a curiosity, an interesting case study or test subject, or someone to tick a load of boxes for their diversity cred.  I lucked out in that my lecturers did none of that shit.  The experience gave me a renewed confidence, not only in my aptitude for science but also in my ability to carve out a place for myself as a scientist.

  Going out and studying the natural world no longer feels like an impractical pipe dream.  It's real and attainable and if I could spend the rest of my life doing that then I would be a very happy person indeed.

Now, if I am going to give the Universe a poke then I'm gonna need a bloody long stick...

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A nitrogen fixation

So I haven't done much today, a) because when it rains like it did today my left knee turns into a brick, and b) because I'm thoroughly hungover.  November 20th will do that at the best of times, but this year was doubly fubar because someone there actually got spat on.

Anywho, I've gone and checked my V. faba for nitrogen fixing.  This can be done quite readily, but may mean the loss of a plant.  Nitrogen fixation doesn't happen because the plant just feels like doing it.  It happens because of a symbiotic infection in the roots by a bacterium called Rhizobium.  Rhizobium causes nodules to form on the roots.  These nodules contain ammonium (NH4+, better expressed as H3N:H+), and when the plant is dug over at the end of its life those nodules decompose, releasing the ammonium into the soil.  Were it not for this process the soil couldn't support the intensity of plantlife that it does, which in turn means the Earth couldn't support anything like the 7 billion humans that are currently walking around.  Chances are that you are alive today because of Rhizobium.  Let's give it a round of applause, shall we?

Rows and rows of Vicia faba
These are too clustered.  Digging up one might hurt the roots of those around it.  Avoid them.  
These are more sparse, so it is far easier to isolate a single plant.  

Using a hand fork, dig out the entire clod that surrounds the roots.  
Use a slow-running tap to gently sluice off the soil.
Examination of the major roots should reveal nodules.

 Alas, I found no nodules.  No nitrogen fixation for me.  The problem might be any one of four things:

  1. I have no Rhizobium in my soil.
  2. I have the wrong strain of Rhizobium in my soil for V. faba.  
  3. My soil is deficient in cobalt, which is a catalyst for the reaction.
  4. These beans are not yet mature enough to be showing nodules.  
I'll give it until this time next month and then I'll lift another plant.

In other news, I'm fairly certain the big Maple is attracting birds...
That is definitely a nest!
...and the Rubus Experiments are a go!

Until next time xx

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Rubus Experiments, pt. 2

I'll be setting this one up tomorrow.  Broadly the same set-up as for Rubus 1, but with different variables:

Windowsill 'Tilly' (my bedroom)

  • Hot
  • Average humidity
  • Maximum direct Sun
Windowsill 'Tom' (dining room)
  • Hot
  • Very dry
  • High Sun
Windowsill 'Tiny' (living room)
  • Warm
  • Average humidity
  • Minimum direct Sun
Windowsill 4 (Rubus 1 group)
  • Coolest, though warm still
  • Most humid
  • Second-highest direct Sun
From Rubus 1, only Milo and Doodle will be involved in Rubus 2.

Further updates will now be found at

The Rubus Experiments, pt 1

Note to secondary and FE biology teachers: feel free to use this as an example of a simple and practical botanical experiment.  The link presently comes up second on the first page of Google when searching for "The Rubus Experiments".  The Rubus tab across the top of the page will link to the site where I'm posting the experiments progress.  

  The ramp out front needs replacing as it is presently bridging the damp course.  Everyone finally admits it, so that'll likely happen a few months from now.  The ramp covers more than half the surface area of the front garden, so it'll mean something of a slash-and-burn of plantlife out there.  That Buddleia will go (TFFT!) but so will my brambles.  Those brambles have been there for over ten years and they're a brilliantly heavy cropper.  Every year in late Summer/early Autumn we have more blackberries than we know what to do with.  I didn't plant the bramble myself and nobody knows how many generations of Rubus have grown here.

  More important than sentiment is genetics.  Genes are like stories: they shift in the retelling.  The verses which suit the culture tend to be retained, to grow and to flourish, whilst those which don't will fade into obscurity.  That plant has a genetic heritage which enables it to hold its' own in that place, that soil, those conditions, in spite of competition from other plants.  That plant belongs to that garden, and a similar bramble bought from the garden centre might not suit the space in the same way.

  What to do, then?  Well, I intend to keep the bramble one way or another, but if the bulk of it must be chopped down then I might as well try some stuff out.  I'm not saying this'll work, so you shouldn't take this as a guide to action.  Still, here's what I'm getting up to:

The tools I'll need.  
I've filled the pots with soil from my garden, the same soil the parent plant is growing in.  Most would say to use potting compost, and I'd tend to agree.  My soil is crumbly, silty loam which successive gardeners since the 1930s have dug endless peaty compost into.  If I wanted a better medium for growing I'd have to invent it.

I took the soil from the beds.  Specifically from a point furthest from where my V. faba are growing.  No sense in depriving the beans at this time of year.  Once filled, I took cuttings from shooting tips of the Rubus. They're easily spotted by the claw-like, mitroid tips.  These are where new growth is happening most vigorously, so they should be most likely to take root.  The greenest shoots are best.  Prior to cutting the blades of the scissors were suspended in a pan of water as it boiled.
The growing end of a vine.  
The shoot cutting, size 7 hand for scale.  

I took only healthy shoots, avoiding any that had a problem with greenfly.  Heh, "problem", kinda makes it sound like "if you're not talking to your plants about greenfly..."  Aaanyways; once a shoot cutting was taken, it had to be rinsed under the tap.  A good soaking helps prepare the cuttings.  A hole was made in the centre of my potted soil using a skewer and the cut end put into the soil.  I then used my thumbs to press the soil down gently, just enough to close the hole without compressing the soil.  

I've made five of these - each of roughly the same length - and put them in the Nursery.  Mike has been relocated to my bedroom windowsill for the duration.  Mike seems to be recovering well from his infection.  Once there they each got a solution of 4:2:6 up to the yellow line on the saucer.  Now for the experiments.  I say experiment, but these are more akin to case studies than true lab experiments, albeit with certain controls in place.  

  1. I've taken four cuttings of thin, green shoots.  One of a thicker, purpling shoot.  Which will fare better?
  2. Two of my shoots curve.  I've pointed the tips of these away from the Sun, where normally plants bend toward the Sun.  Will the phototropic action of auxins cause the whole shoot to straighten up as it brings itself sunward or will the tip kink towards the Sun instead?  

Basic exercises in botanical study, but interesting for all that.  I'll observe the cuttings over the coming months and report on their progress.  Here's the five as they stand today:

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Short Shower

Tonight is the night of the Leonid Meteor Shower.  Tonight, Strawberry Hill has chosen to be both completely overcast and somewhat foggy.  FML

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mischief Managed!

Whatever hacked me, it's gone now.

Tune in next week when I'll be testing my V. faba for nitrogen fixation.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


My blog has been hacked!

I am not selling anything.  

I cannot change your background colour on Facebook.  

Any such adverts will contain unsafe links.  

The ads on the right are fine but any that appear in posts could well contain malware.  


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Mike got sick :(

Mike - my Laurus nobilis - has come down with a case of powdery mildew; a common disease of bay trees.  The treatment was severe.  Mike has two parts to him, a long one and a short one.  I don't know if the shorter part is a second trunk or if it's a branch of the main trunk which budded below the soil.  Whatever it is, the affected leaves were all on that part, that branch, so I took the entire branch.  Effectively I took a third of him.  By isolating the infected part from the healthy plant I should've prevented further deterioration; fingers crossed.  Mike looks sad now.

I've gotten photos, of course.  The classic grey patches of powdery mildew are visible, as are the brown leaf margins which suggest the mildew has damaged the leaves internally.

Hopefully this'll put a stop to it. Poor Mike :(

Monday, 12 November 2012

Thyme and Space

  I picked up some Thyme yesterday.  By this point I've run out of space in the herb nursery so I'm keeping the thyme on my bedroom windowsill.  They'll go out in Spring in a trough beneath the landing window.  From the centre radiating outwards I have:

1x Common Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
2x Red Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
2x Lilac Thyme (Thymus lilac thyme, apparently)

  I give it a week before my room starts to smell like a roast.  That windowsill gets full Sun so they should grow like stink.  They'll be pretty when they're in full flower too.  I'm growing most of my herbs in the garden or in pots on windowsills but I'd be mad to pass up fitting windowboxes.  I'm gonna check out that Thymus lilac thyme, because that does not sound like a thing.  Even if the name of a new species isn't Latin per se, it does at least need to be Latinised - possibly by bolting an us on the end of it - lest some important botanist somewhere go berserk and shit a kidney.

  While I was out I picked up a suet feeder and some mealworm suet blocks.  Robins do love their mealworms.  I've hung that on the same nail as a clay birdhouse that I dug up last week and have since repurposed as my fat cake feeder.  Hanging them from the back wall rather than from a tree should make it harder for squirrels to get at it.  Maybe I'll bring the ladder out at some point and move the feeders up higher onto the pipework.

  Pinky and Perky have recovered beautifully in the 26 days they've been sat in the herb nursery.  So much so that today I put them outside in the Strawbrary.  I actually didn't rate them.  Everyone says Alpine strawberries have a kick but these tasted very watered down to me.  Maybe because nursing involves a fair bit of water in the initial stages, I don't know.  I put them in the outer bit rather than the inner bit so that wildlife can get at the berries.  They'll still cross-pollinate with the others so hopefully I'll end up one day with big, juicy Cambridge strawberries that crop over an extended period like Alpines do.  We live in hope.  
  Pinky's on the right, Perky's on the left.  I had to get more straw to mulch these two, so most of the remainder from the new bag has gone into the Strawbrary, while a good few handfuls have gone onto the roof for birds to take for nesting, perhaps save them from picking it off my plants.  I'll get some copper tape for the edges eventually, but of course there's a million other things to do.  

  Lastly then, a plea for sanity, a plea that people learn from my fail.  The ends of fingers have no muscle, no meat to speak of; just skin, fat, two tendon-ends and a bone.  It doesn't take much for something to go deep.  Please, when storing tools in a place where they cannot readily be seen - such as the bottom of a toolbox, drawer or bucket - ensure that all knives and saws are sheathed.
That could've been nasty.  Thankfully it caught the pinky on my swearing hand - so-called because the ring finger and the pinky are both dull and half-palsied - and even then it only got down to the fat.  I've since checked my toolbox incredibly thoroughly, as infections such as tetanus can be picked up from cuts by muddy tools.  My jab's in date again from last year, so it's all good.

Right, I'm off.  That porridge ain't going to eat itself.  Bye xx