Jul 05 2015

Portinscale 2015

We had an abortive trip to Portinscale in the Lake District for our summer holiday last year, ended prematurely by illness. This year we’re back and have improved greatly on last years performance! Portinscale is just outside Keswick, a small town at the head of Derwentwater. In the past we would have stayed a little further from civilisation so we could go for longish walks from the door but with 3 year old Thomas a bunch of attractions in easy distance is preferable.

Day 1 – Sunday

Rather than fit packing and driving the relatively short distance to Portinscale from Chester into a day, whilst simultaneously meeting the arrival time requirements, we travelled up on Sunday morning. In the afternoon we went to Whinlatter Forest Park, a few miles up the road. The entrance is guarded by a fine sculpture of an osprey.


It has an extensive collection of trails for pedestrians and cyclists. A Go Ape franchise for people who like swinging from trees, some Gruffalo / Superworm themed trails for children. And a wild play area featuring Thomas’ favourite thing – a pair of Archimedes Screws:


There’s also a very nice cafe. We visited Whinlatter several times of an afternoon.

Day 2 – Monday

We went to Mirehouse in the morning, a lakeside estate with a smallish garden and a rather pleasant walk down to Bassenthwaite Lake.


There’s a fine view from the lake down towards Keswick.


In the afternoon we went to the Pencil Museum in Keswick, not a large attraction but Thomas liked Drew the giant and we got 5 pencils for an outlay of £3.

Day 3 – Tuesday

In the morning we went to Threlkeld Mining Museum. Its full of cranes and various bits of mining machinery from the past 100 years or so. There is a narrow gauge railway line which runs half a mile or so to the head of the quarry from the visitor centre. Threlkeld is not a slick affair but it is great fun for a small child fond of cranes, and the volunteers are obviously enthused by what they are doing. To be honest, I’m rather fond of industrial archaeology too!

Basically, they collect cranes.


All of which are in some degree of elegant decay


For our visit they were running a little diesel train:


In the afternoon we walked down to Nichols End, a marina on Derwentwater close by our house in Portinscale.


Day 4 – Wednesday

My records show that we last visited Maryport 15 years ago. It has the benefit of being close to Keswick – only half an hour or so away. We enjoyed a brief paddle in the sea, on a beach of our own before heading to the small aquarium in town.


Whinlatter Forest Park once again in the afternoon.

Day 5 – Thursday

On leaving the house we thought we would be mooching around Keswick whilst our car was being seen to for “mysterious dripping”, as it was Crosthwaite Garage instantly diagnosed an innocuous air conditioning overflow. So we headed off to Lodore Falls, alongside Derwentwater before returning to Hope Park in Keswick.

Thomas declared the gently dripping woods on the way to Lodore Falls to be “amazing”:


The falls themselves are impressive enough, although the view is a little distant when you are with a small child, who coincidently loves waterfalls and demands their presence on every walk:


Hope Park was busy, but it is a pretty lakeside area with formal gardens and golf a little back from the shore.


In the afternoon we visited Dodd Wood, which is just over the road from Mirehouse, where we did a rather steep walk.

Day 6 – Friday

On our final day we visited Allan Bank in Grasmere, this is a stealth National Trust property, formerly home to William Wordsworth and one of the founders of the National Trust, Canon Rawnsley. “Stealth” because it is barely advertised or sign posted, and is run in manner far more relaxed than any other National Trust place I’ve visited. It’s a smallish house:

Allan Bank, Grasmere

With glorious views:


The house was damaged by fire a few years ago, and has only really been refurbished in as far as making it weather proof. Teas and coffees are available on unmatching crockery for a donation (you pay for cake though), and you’re invited to take them where you please to drink. There is a playroom ideally suited to Thomas’ age group, along with rooms Wordsworth and Rawnsley occupied upstairs.


It has the air of a hippy commune, and it’s sort of glorious.


Outside the grounds are thickly wooded on a steep slope, there is a path approximately around the perimeter which takes in the wild woods, several dens and some lovely views.


We glimpsed a red squirrel in the woods.


As Thomas wrote, it was "”Fun”!


In the afternoon a final trip to Whinlatter Forest Park.

We left on Saturday amidst heavy early morning rain, the only serious daytime rain of the holiday – probably the best week of weather I’ve had in the Lake District!

Jul 05 2015

Book review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

yourinnerfishI’m holiday so I’ve managed some more reading! This time Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. As recommended by my colleague, David Jones, at ScraperWiki.

This is ostensibly a story of a particular distant ancestor of humans, the first to walk on land 375 million years ago, but in practice it is broader than that. It is more generally about what it is to be a modern palaeontologist and taxonomy – the classification of living organisms.

Your Inner Fish is a personal account based around the work Shubin and his colleagues did in discovering the Tiktaalik species, the first walker, in the high Canadian Arctic. It turns out the distinguishing features of such animals are the formation of shoulders and a neck, underwater a fish can easily reorient its whole body to get its head facing the right way, on land a neck to move the head independently and shoulders to mount the front legs become beneficial. Shubin hypotheses that animals such as Tiktaalik evolved to walk on dry land to evade ever larger and more aggressive aquatic predators.

Shubin recounts the process that led him to the Arctic, starting with his earlier fossil hunting in road cuts in Pennsylvania. The trick to fossil hunting being finding bedrock of the right age being exposed in moderate amounts. Road cuts are a second best in the this instance, being rather small in scale. Palaeontologists find their best hunting grounds in deserts and the barren landscape of the north. Finding the right site is a combination of identifying where rocks of the right age are likely to be exposed and knowing whether someone has looked there already.

Once you are in the field, the tricky part comes: finding the fossils. This is a skill akin to being able to resolve a magic eye puzzle. This is a skill which is learnt practically in the field rather than theoretically in the classroom. I’m struck by how small some of the most important fossil sites are, Shubin shows a photo of the Tiktaalik site where 6 people basically fill it. The Walcott Quarry in the Burgess Shale is similarly compact.

The central theme of the book is the one-ness of life, in the sense that humans share a huge amount of machinery with all living things to do with the business of building a body. These days the focus of such interest is on DNA, and the similarity of genes and the proteins they encode across huge spans of the tree of life. In earlier times these similarities were identified in developmental processes and anatomy. It is significant that researchers such as Shubin span the fossil, development and genetic domains.

Anatomically fish, lizards, mammals and birds represent the reshuffling of the same components. The multiple jaw bones found in sharks and skates turn into the bones of the inner ear in mammals. The arches which form gills in fish morph and adapt in mammals to leave a weird layout of nerves in the face and skull. These similarities in gross anatomical features are reflected in the molecular machinery which drives development, the formation of complex bodies from a single fertilised cell. Organiser molecules are common across vertebrates.

It’s worth noting the contribution of Hilde Mangold to the development story, her supervisor Hans Spemann won the 1935 Nobel Prize for medicine based in part on the work differentiation in amphibian embryos she had presented in her 1923 thesis. She died at the age of 26 in 1924 as the result of an explosion in her apartment building. Nobel Prizes are only awarded to the living.

Why study this taxonomy? The reasons are two-fold, there is the purely intellectual argument of “because it is there”. The shared features of life are one of the pieces of evidence underpinning the theory of evolution. The second reason is utilitarian, linking all of life into a coherent structure gives us a better understanding of our own bodies, and how to fix them if they go wrong.

As examples of our faulty body Shubin highlights hiccups and hernias. Hiccups because the reflexes leading to hiccups are the descendants of the reflexes of tadpoles which allowed them to breathe through gills as well as lungs. Hernias because the placement of the testes outside the abdomen is an evolution from our fish ancestors who kept gonads internally – external placement is a botched job which leads to a weakness in the abdomen wall, particularly in men.

This book is shorter and more personal than Richard Dawkins’ and Stephen Jay Gould’s work in similar vein.

I liked it.

Jun 29 2015

Book review: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut-by-giulia-endersIt seems a while since I last reviewed a book here. Today I bring you Gut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders.

The book does exactly what it says on the tin: tell us about the gut. This is divided into three broad sections. Firstly the mechanics of it all, including going to the toilet and how to do it better. Secondly, the nervous system and the gut, and finally the bacterial flora that help the gut do its stuff.

The writing style seems to be directed at the early to mid-teenager which gets a bit grating in places. Sometimes things end up outright surreal, salmonella wear hats and I still don’t quite understand why. The text is illustrated with jaunty little illustrations.

From the mechanical point of view several things were novel to me: the presence of an involuntary internal sphincter shortly before the well-known external one. The internal sphincter allows “sampling” of what is heading for the outside world giving the owner the opportunity to decide what to do with their external sphincter.

The immune tissue in the tonsillar ring was also a new to me, its job is to sample anything heading towards the gut. This is most important in young children before their immune systems are fully trained. Related to the tonsils, the appendix also contain much immune tissue and has a role in repopulating the bacteria in the large intestine with more friendly sorts of bacteria following a bout of diarrhoea.

The second section, on the nervous system of the gut covers things such as vomiting, constipation and the links between the gut and depression. 

The section on the bacterial flora of the gut gathers together some of the stories you may have already heard. For example, the work by Marshall on Helicobactor Pylori and its role in formation of stomach ulcers. What I hadn’t realised is that H. Pylori  is not thought to be all bad. Its benefits are in providing some defence against asthma and autoimmune diseases. Also in this section is toxoplasmosis, the cat-born parasite which can effect rats and humans, making them more prone to risk-taking behaviour.

I was delighted to discover the use to which sellotape is put in the detection of threadworms – potential sufferers are asked to collect threadworm eggs from around the anus using sellotape. I can imagine this is an unusual experience which I don’t intend to try without good reason.

There is a small amount of evangelism for breast-feeding and organic food which I found a little bit grating.

As usual with electronic books I hit the references section somewhat sooner than I expected, and here there is a clash with the casual style of the body of the book. Essentially, it is referenced as a scientific paper would be – to papers in the primary literature.

I don’t feel this book has left me with any great and abiding thoughts but on the other hand learning more about the crude mechanics of my body is at least a bit useful.

May 11 2015

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

The Liberal Democrats have members from all walks of life. I, for example, am a scientist and sometime software developer. To be honest I’m more of a manager than a developer. There are many tools for software management, one of them is the Agile framework. This is a relatively new innovation and the details are unimportant here but I think there are a couple of things we can learn from Agile. The first is the title of this blog post:

Everyone is awesome, no one is to blame

This mantra is something we bear in mind when we look back over a period or a particular event. The benefit of this approach is most apparent when you are faced with a situation where the mantra is left behind: “You messed up, you are to blame”. Under these circumstances the protagonists in the retrospective become entrenched in their positions and unwilling to open up as to why something happened. It becomes more important to defend your side and make sure someone else is to blame. This approach is unhelpful, and ultimately you have to go forward and continue working with those found to be to blame in a poisoned atmosphere.

We as Liberal Democrats face this risk. I’ve been a member of the party since 1988, it was only after the 2010 general election that I realised that the Liberal Democrats had factions! In a former life I worked with a student from Yugoslavia, she had fled the country with her family at the time of the war. We talked about Yugoslavia and I asked her once whether she knew in her class at school who was a Serb and who a Croat. She said: “Of course not, we were all the same”. In Yugoslavia demagogues dredged up division where none previously existed.

I joined the Liberal Democrats because I wanted to be with people like me, not with some people like me and that other bunch who I couldn’t abide. Schism is for socialists ;-) We mustn’t let any dissection of what is coming to be known as “Cockroach Thursday” become an excuse for factionalism and finger pointing, other parties have tried that approach and it doesn’t work.

The second tool for analysis you might enjoy is “5 whys”. Parents of toddlers will know be somewhat familiar with this technique, used for establishing root causes. It’s very easy to jump to a cause for an event in one bound but it isn’t necessarily right. The “5 whys” method invites you to question the first cause you come up with repeatedly with further “whys”.

  1. Why did we lose? We broke our promise on tuition fees
  2. Why did we make our promise on tuition fees? Because the NUS presented us with a pledge to sign
  3. Why did we sign the pledge on tuition fees? We wanted the votes of students
  4. Why did we want the votes of students? Because we wanted to win parliamentary seats
  5. Why did we want to win parliamentary seats? So we could implement our policies which we feel are best for Britain.

The important point here is not my particular responses to the questions rather that I haven’t stopped at the first one, and each answer leads to further questions which we may return to later.

For my next post I will highlight the use of the Gedankenexperiment in the analysis of political problems.

May 08 2015

A cockroach emerges…

I’m a Liberal Democrat. Our party president, Tim Farron, once described us being like cockroaches in our indestructability.

Today the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party has dropped from 57 parliamentary seats to 8, slightly lower than was achieved by the Liberal Party in 1979. Since 2010 Liberal Democrat local councillors have experienced this level of defeat, as have the party’s Members in the European Parliament. It looked like things might be different for the parliamentary party, but they weren’t.

The writing was on the wall from the moment Nick Clegg and David Cameron stepped into the Downing Street rose garden in May 2010. Our opinion poll ratings plummeted from that moment, before we’d done anything else but form the Coalition.

Today, in May 2015 we lost seats to Labour because of the “Great Betrayal”, we lost seats to the Tories because people thought of the Coalition “I actually quite like this government” and then backed the lead partner, we lost votes to UKIP and the Greens because they are the new repository of the protest vote, we lost seats to the SNP because nationalism trumps all.

The night had virtually no redeeming features. I particularly feel the loss of MPs like Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson and Julian Huppert all of whom made significant contributions in parliament on equality, science and anti-authoritarianism. All of whom appeared to be popular local MPs, all of whom were swept aside by the national tide.

Nick Clegg retained his seat, for which I’m rather pleased. Outsiders don’t realise quite how dependent a Lib Dem leader is on their party. The things Nick Clegg took the blame for were the things we as Liberal Democrats had collectively decided. He has been the one that has born the brunt of outrage against the Liberal Democrats with good grace. He is the one, more than any of the three main party leaders, who has talked with the public.

The political landscape won’t remould itself, it won’t be remoulded by online petitions. It won’t be remoulded by the “progressive alliance” engaging in rounds of recrimination. It won’t be remoulded by endless venting on twitter, or invoking the apocalypse. It won’t be remoulded by the lion’s roar, or an idiot with a pair of trews.

It will be remoulded by people like me who spend their spare time doing local politics: sitting in interminable meetings in their evenings, posting leaflets through doors, standing for local elections, helping local people and breaking out once every 5 years or so to fight a General Election.

I’m still a Liberal Democrat. I’m proud of what we achieved in coalition in the last 5 years, it’s been the best time to be a Liberal Democrat since I joined the party in 1988.

I’m going to go back to trying to win seats at elections and making sure the liberal voice is heard.

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