Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good-bye for now

I am sorry but there is going to have to be a further break from posting from this Keeper of the Snails.

I am having to work stupidly hard on my research at the moment - mainly because I am a woman of little brain and unless I cram everything in really tight it just keeps popping out again.

So good-bye for now. I am sure I shall return and I shall look you all up from time to time.

Thank you all for your company. I have valued it very much and am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity of meeting you all - virtually if not in the flesh.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I, therapist

In Japan robots are being used to act as therapists to the elderly. Artificial seal pups open their eyes and respond like large 3D versions of those virtual pets that were so popular ten years ago. On the BBC website I saw footage of old people talking and stroking these robotic soft toys as tenderly as if they were petting a beloved animal then grinning and nodding as the plastic lids of the glassy eyes opened appealingly in response.

Do these old people know what is happening? Do they realise they are being fooled into thinking that some animal cares about them, that some real messy organic brain (not some tidy small box of silicon chips) appreciates their pats and their coos?

There is something depressing about this. The cheery assertion by the commentator that these imitators of emotion will some day replace humans I found particularly chilling. I remember reading a book by Asimov as a teenager: I, ROBOT. There had to be a primary law when robots were introduced into society, Asimov said, something about not usurping or harming people.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Serious Theft

The Chester Chronicle reported a very serious theft in its edition yesterday. Apparently an essential consignment for a Chester shop was stolen from a vehicle parked in Liverpool on Tuesday night. The £2 000 haul consisted of '36 rampant rabbits, 18 tubs of chocolate body paint and a dozen blow up dolls' and was taken around 6.30pm. It is believed that the thieves escaped in a van.

Mr Prescott, proprieter of the shop 'Nice 'n' Naughty' is so anxious to replace stock before Valentine's Day next week that he has been considering chartering a flight from Amsterdam (the location of his suppliers).

'We are committed to our customers and I will ensure these shelves are filled as soon as possible. We will make sure we do not let anyone down.'

Trade must be good because Mr Prescott is willing to offer a reward of £500 for any information that could help recover the stock. The number to call is +44 (0)870 7427261

Friday, February 09, 2007

Dr Grump and the Funding Crisis

Dr Grump just looked at this study reported on the BBC website and found the conclusion somewhat dubious. It purports to have shown that women prefer men with medium rather than high powered jobs. Now if that were all the information they were given, Dr Grump says, she could accept that that might be the case. But the women were also told what the men's goals were in life - surely that would have a more significant influence.

Dr Grump often comes storming into my room having discovered yet another inconsequential scientific study on the BBC news website - last month there was something about men prefering blue eyed women which set her off into such a long rant about inadequate sample sizes that she almost missed a rather important departmental meeting on funding.
'It would never get past the referees at the University of Urm.' she said, then added darkly, 'Very little does.'

My delightful academic friend is looking a little tired these days. She says she has not been sleeping very well with the worry of it all.
'There is so much I want to do,' she says, 'if only they'd let me.'
Then she showed me another article: one about the discovery of a fossilised first embrace. 'Isn't that beautiful?' she said, 'Just think, all those years ago we were...well, at it.'
'I wonder if he was a middle manager.' I said, examining the interlocking humerii and then the eye-sockets gazing into each other's voids.
But Dr Grump just sobbed, 'Beautiful, beautiful...' again and left the room.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Am I the only one to be thrilled when I encounter these? We didn't plant them but they come up each year - a sign that the worst might be over and the days are brightening.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Hull: A Tale of Freedom and the Sea

Here is the Humber from the Victorian pier; an estuary where river becomes sea and the water is at once both gun-metal grey and

brown. Birefringent, apparently lifeless, a slurry of mud washing at the skeleton of the pier or the jutting piece of land which once held a garrison but now holds the deepest marine tank in Europe. So someone said...

Elsewhere buildings reach onto reclaimed land like stretched-out fingers

while into the town the old marine barely retains its loosening hold with spurting fountains and a domed Museum.

During the second world war Hull was bombed and 95% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed and two-thirds of the population made homeless. However, some of the old streets remain, at least in part; both the endearingly humble - the sort of scene I love because it seems to promise so much -

and the more grandiose with rather splendid ornaments half hidden-away aloft.

Much of the natural history collection of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society is still buried underground in the rubble but the some of it is on display at the Maritime Museum and includes several Narwhal horns made into poles for four poster beds or the central spoke of hat stands. Some were mounted in a doorwell and, to the accompaniment of the mournful bellowings of a school of whales from loud speakers above my head, I traced their smooth spirals with my fingers. Like white barley sugar they always twist the same way; an extension of a tooth and always on the same side of the jaw - except for those rare and highly prized specimens that grow two.

The French started persecuting the tragic beasts in the fourteenth century but soon several other nationalities joined in. They started with the Right Whale (called thus because it floated when dead and hence was the right whale to catch and strip in the waves) but then went on to other species. As the whales became more scarce men went to further and further extremes into the pack ice and then to the west coast of Greenland. Sometimes they became entrapped in the ice and many must have become lost.

There was a section of whaler's boat - each component labelled and their function in the killing described. First the harpoon would be launched and upon being struck the whale would dive - and the whalers would wait knowing that it would have to resurface within half an hour for air. Then there would be a stabbing with some sort of spear until the whale's blow hole blew red. Once dead the whalers would drill holes through the animal's tail to drag it to the ship and then, climbing aboard this harmless intelligent monster, would start to disassemble it where it lay. It is a sad story with an even sadder ending. Many whales are close to extinction now and yet they are still hunted down and still made to suffer - although no longer at Hull.

But Hull has at least one reason for pride; William Wilberforce - the great campaigner for the abolition of slavery - was born here in 1728. His statue towers very high above the town outside the Hull College of Art. He is also on MySpace (!) and a film based on his life AMAZING GRACE is due to be released later this month.

Unfortunately his house was closed for renovation until March,

when, on the 25th is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire - the result of a campaign that William Wilberforce had waged in parliament for over 20 years. However his school, which used to be Hull Grammar School, is now open as a 'Hands-On Museum'

and the church in which he was baptised, Hull's 'cathedral' the Holy Trinity Church is also open most days, but alas not on the day I was there.

However, I think my favourite building in Hull is this - a beautiful little church called St Mary's.

It is quiet here and if you sit on the wall outside for a minute or two there is a peace that creeps up through the toes of your shoes and gathers in your head - and if you walk slowly you can take it with you for several hours. It is just a few paces from William Wilberforce's house and I like to think of him sitting here too.

The Final Talk

Well, what is most likely to be my final talk on my great hero Alfred Wegener (I have given about twenty over the last few years) had an audience of around 250 people and included the Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull (who is a former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge). They were a kind and appreciative audience and I enjoyed talking to them very much. I sold all the Wegener books that I brought.

I gave my talk and stayed in the Quality Hotel which once accommodated Queen Victoria - although Hull has a tradition of being anti-monarchist. Good. I am in favour of republicans.

However, the next morning after breakfast I received a message from my mother-in-law's nursing home that she was very ill, and knowing what that means, was very grateful that I was able to cross the country in time to be there - not for my mother-in-law, who faded gently away, but for my husband. Although it is sad it is also a blessing. 83 is a good age and her quality of life has been poor in the last few weeks and with no chance of improvement.

Today we registered her death and found that it was what we supposed: vascular dementia - a series of minor strokes slowly closing down her brain. She had no idea what was happening to her and most of the time she was perfectly content. It was, I believe, a good death.