Thursday, March 21, 2013

Signs of spring

Extraordinary though it may seem, it is now spring.

In the world of modern-day newspaper publishing, where this first appeared, yesterday is the new tomorrow and these words were processed in winter, while the wind was howling, the frost was freezing and the hail was hailing.

Whereas they're being ingested by you as you recline on your patio in the vernal sunshine as lambs are gambolling, daffodils are blooming and blackbirds are all of a twitter.

As if. The chances are that whatever the season, the icy eastern blast isn't going to turn itself off any time soon.

Be that as it may, it's time to get this year's vegetable crop going. Last weekend's treat was a visit to the garden centre – one that sells seeds, and plants, and trowels and stuff along with the scented candles, wind-driven mobiles, ambient CDs and malevolent-looking reptiles that are your average garden centre's stock in trade. 

Here, while Mrs D pondered which brand of spud she'd be digging up next autumn, yours truly wandered amongst racks and stacks of chemicals, and wondered as he wandered: how much of this stuff actually works?

Here, for instance, was a packet of friendly mycorrhizal fungi, which allegedly encourage massive amounts of root growth. (Don't buy the unfriendly sort, or you'll end up under three feet of toadstool.)

Here was a bottle of brown treacly gloop, extracted from algae, which purports to pep up your petunias and put poke into your potentilla.

And here were the nematodes, which sound like a 60s pop combo but are actually a natural method of pest control.

Everything sounds promising, and over the years we've tried quite a few of them. We've got no idea of how much good they've done, mind you. Because you can't, unless you test everything under rigid scientific conditions.

But it's springtime, and who cares about science? We'll just stick them all in the ground, and see what pops up.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Weird tales from the red planet

 Things are going a bit pear-shaped up in space. Or on Mars, to be a little bit more precise.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been pootling around on the surface of the Red Planet since August last year, sieving soil, hammering rocks, drilling holes and brushing up the dust afterwards.

Looking dangerous: Mars Curiosity Rover
Not to mention taking some rather attractive panoramic holiday snaps of the surrounding landscape when it has a moment or two to itself.

Or at least it was until last Thursday, when it threw the interplanetary equivalent of a massive wobbly and stopped in its tracks.

Understandable, really: there is only so much DIY a 2,000lb six-wheeled scientific dune buggy can do without needing a sit-down and a cup of tea.

The boffins at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were having none of that. They logged straight into the computer systems on the stubborn little gizmo, worked out that there had been a crash, and put it into something called “safe mode”, which basically means that Curiosity stops all of its scientific investigations and sits there quietly waiting for someone back on Earth to work out what is wrong with it.

Weird or what?
Although it does make you wonder what would happen if they pushed the wrong button and accidentally sent it into dangerous mode.

 Wild parties with luscious five-legged Martian lovelies?

Drag races across the arid plains of Gale Crater against rolling balls of prickly, sentient Venusian tumbleweed?

Titanic pincer-to-pincer battles against malevolent crab-like fungoid entities from the dark planet Yuggoth?

Sounds like someone has been reading too many weird tales by HP Lovecraft. Or eating too much cheese before bedtime. Or indeed both.

Because putting a Mars Rover into safe mode is really no different from what all of us do when the computer fouls up.

The advice of endless magazines, of spotty lads in computer shops and of husbands who would rather be having a kip works for both, and really is the only solution: turn it off, and turn it back on again.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The power of the penguin

We were watching the penguins the other night. Not literally, you understand. The weather outside may be frightful, but as far as can be ascertained the real things haven't migrated quite this far north.

No, this was the TV programme. By turns happy, tragic, thrilling, heart-stopping – a bit like Strictly Come Dancing but with even more feathers. And in the Antarctic.

Not that we watch Strictly. Re-runs of Time Team are more our scene. Postholes win prizes and all that.

Where were we? Oh yes. Penguins.

Cute little dudes who make you happy to shell out for your TV licence. (Shell out? Get it? Sorry.)

Other penguins
As soon as you start watching, you're drawn into the drama. A huddle of fledgling Emperor Penguins is under attack by Percy the Predatory Petrel. Help is at hand, though, in the shape of Adélie the Rescue Penguin, who hustles off Percy and saves the day.

But then Adélie's penguin pals turn up and start bullying the poor little chicks, pushing them into the icy ocean before they're ready to get their feathers wet. Mix in some jaunty background music and these penguins are more animated than a Pingu, more human than a meerkat.

The hushed tones of David Tennant add a touch of class to the welter of Attenborough-esque anthropomorphism. "Gripped by a collective urge," he intones, "they start to move as one."

A bit like the conga at Mrs D's birthday party last year. But imbued with rather more style and grace.

We know all about collective urges in our house. Last weekend we had a collective urge to forget the capital of Finland. Some odd synchronicity caused us to lose the same brain cell at the same time, and probably in the same place as the car keys.

Back to the penguins.

Safe from the predations of Percy, the Emperor chicks swim away to spend their formative years at sea, as the soundtrack waxes Wagnerian.

But in a final touch of bathos, we track back to PenguinCam, the show's unsung star. The real-live penguins attack the intruding automaton. It teeters, it totters, it wobbles. And they pull its head off.

Such is life.