Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Gruel Britannia

In the mid-1980s I worked in central London as a police officer and was often asked by tourists for good restaurants to eat in. I could usually answer their questions. All except one:

'Where can I get a good traditional British meal?'

It was a tough one to answer. There was a Beefeater Steakhouse and a Wimpey. There were pubs that served roast dinners or that specialised in pies (though nowhere near the quality found in some gastro pubs now). There were greasy spooneries where you could get a Full English. If you had a fat wallet you could try tea at The Ritz or visit Tiddy Dol's in Mayfair. But that was pretty much it. Plus, there was the unanswered question of what 'traditional British meal’ actually meant. Some people even scoffed at the idea that such a thing as British cuisine even existed. Wasn’t British cooking supposed to be dire? Didn’t Britons live on fried food and tasteless grey muck?

It annoyed me at the time that I had no direction in which to point them. A lot of British food is pretty amazing. The problem is that our cuisine is all so fragmentary. Go anywhere in France and you can get a great crepe Suzette. Can I guarantee a perfect cockle cake anywhere other than in Wales? Or a delicious Parkin anywhere other than Yorkshire?

I'm not sure if anyone actually knows how many different accents there are in the UK but I suspect it's in the thousands. In some rural areas, there are differences even between villages. On top of all of that, there are dialect words brought in from old Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon and artificial accents like 'received pronunciation' that are more about class and aspiration than geography. Well, British cuisine is much the same; it ranges from whisky, haggis and neeps, cranachan and square sausage in Scotland right down to pasties and clotted cream, starry gazey pie, saffron buns and hog's pudding in Cornwall. Many counties have their own delicacies and so do many towns and cities.
A truly British restaurant chain would offer the finest produce and the best dishes from all over the UK. And what a fabulous restaurant that would be! Just think about the astonishing range of cheeses we produce, the chutneys and pickles, the glorious casseroles, roasts and stews. Imagine the choice of sausages and beers, ciders and game meats. Then there's what we do best - puddings. Not desserts but puddings; spotted dick, rhubarb crumble with properly thick custard (Creme Anglais? Pah!), Cornish ice cream, treacle tarts and bread and butter puddings. It's great to see chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fergus Henderson trying to get us back to eating great British food ... but I still can't spot the British restaurants in London's West End. Damn me, if I had the money, I'd open a chain of them myself. And I reckon we’d be full every night.

Interestingly, when I asked my friends, family and colleagues for their favourite Brit dishes, they nearly all suggested what I would call 'comfort foods'. So maybe I should open a restaurant chain called Morrisseys where sad people can come to cry and assuage their melancholy with artery-clogging delicacies 'like Mum used to make'. The music played gently overhead would be by Radiohead or The Cure or, on really tragic days, Dido or the Lighthouse Family. I'm imagining the menu now ...

My Hamster Died - Chicken nuggets served in a slowly spinning plastic wheel.

It’s not you, it’s me - Chocolate sponge cake with chocolate chips and chocolate icing served with chocolate sauce. Shaped like a boyfriend and served with a variety of very sharp cutlery.

No one understands me - A slice of your favourite pizza, dipped in beer batter and deep-fried.

The Jeremy Kyle Special - Only available in the trailer annexe. Everything on the menu served with Diamond White or Buckfast Tonic Wine. Fights encouraged.

Any suggestions for other delights at Morrisseys?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Let me see you shake your tail feather

We've known for some time now that dinosaurs had feathers and that the theropod dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds. The proof is quite overwhelming - particularly the large number of feathered dinosaur fossils found in recent years in China. And then, last year, the first dino-feathers trapped in amber were discovered near Grassy Lake in Alberta - dating from the Late Cretaceous period. And they told a fascinating story.

"We're finding two ends of the evolutionary development that had been proposed for feathers trapped in the same amber deposit," said Ryan McKellar of the University of Alberta. The team's find confirms that individual filaments progressed to tufts of filaments from a single origin, called barbs. In later development, some of these barbs can coalesce into a central branch called a rachis. As the structure develops further, further branches of filments form from the rachis. "We've got feathers that look to be little filamentous hair-like feathers, we've got the same filaments bound together in clumps, and then we've got a series that are for all intents and purposes identical to modern feathers," says Mr McKellar. "We're catching some that look to be dinosaur feathers and another set that are pretty much dead ringers for modern birds."

We also now know that feathers appeared much earlier in dinosaur evolution than first thought. Fossils of Ornithomimus edmontonicus - which looked something like ostriches but were not previously known to have feathers - have recently been found to have hundreds of traces of filaments along the body and limbs. Moreover, as the team reported in Science, while one of the two adult skeletons showed evidence of possessing a pennibrachium = a forelimb bearing long feathers that form a winglike surface - the third specimen, a juvenile dinosaur about 1-year-old, lacked this structure, although it still had numerous feathers along its body. This marks the first time that wings and feathers have been identified in ornithomimosaurs. "Our specimens are currently the most primitive dinosaur to show winglike structures," says Dr Darla Zelenitsky, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary in Canada, "And because ornithomimosaurs were fairly large, weighing 150 kilograms or more, these earliest wings did not initially evolve for flight - they were obviously not flyers or gliders. Moreover, O. edmontonicus does not appear to have developed its full plumage until it reached the adult stage, which suggests that the wings and feathers served some sort of adult reproductive function such as courtship and brooding."

Meanwhile, another study of a 150 million year old dinosaur fossil has revealed it had multi-coloured feathers. The research, published in the journal Science, compared the structures which determine colour in living bird feathers with those in the fossil. "This would be a very striking animal if it was alive today," said Yale University's Professor Richard Prum, co-author of the report. It is believed the colours would have helped the dinosaur attract a mate. Anchiornis huxleyi is a four-winged dinosaur which lived in the late Jurassic Period in China. Researchers chose this particular fossil to work on because the feathers were so well preserved.

And why shouldn't dinosaurs have been colourful beasts? Just look at modern birds, reptiles and amphibians. But, more than that, look at how dynamic our modern animals are. Doesn't it seem likely that dinosaurs were just as active in their competition, mating and sexual attraction displays?

Well, another recent study suggests proof of exctly that. In an issue of the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, three paleontologists posit that fossilised oviraptors possessed structural features that are characteristic of those found in modern birds with ornamental tails. For example, in the early oviraptor Similicaudipteryx, the last caudal vertebrae (the tip of the “tailbone”) are fused into a structure known as a “pygostyle," which was long thought to be a feature exclusive to modern birds. There is no evidence that Similicaudipteryx was a flying species, and the authors suggest that the bone and muscle structures that can be discerned from the fossil remains are consistent with those seen in birds with tail displays that don't aid in flying but do functional as flashy ornaments, such as peacocks, turkeys, and birds of paradise (note that these birds are not completely flightless, the tails just don't contribute to optimal flight). Some species do indeed favour form over function, and apparently the trend may have started way back in the Mesozoic.

These assertions are, of course, subject to scepticism due to the limitations of the fossil record. This is part of science - publishing new perspectives or conclusions and allowing the scientific community to contribute further analyses and information, ultimately either supporting or discarding the idea. What is unquestionable, however, is that this paper signifies just how far palaeontology has come in recent years. New finds and new technology have yielded broader and deeper information about the details of what dinosaurs actually looked like, how they moved, and how they might have interacted in their ancient world.


BBC News
BBC Science

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Space Colony Art from the 1970s

NASA has very kindly put up and archive of hi-res, copyright-free, 1970s space colony artwork. Go and visit it here. It's out of this world!


Tuesday, 1 January 2013


Wow. Wow. And thrice wow.

After I posted my New Year message in the shed yesterday things went decidedly barmy ... but in a good way, you understand, not in a monkey with a machine gun sort-of way. The Connectoscope is fully funded! A virtual avalanche of pledges, coupled with Christmas orders and some pledges from the most recent live event pushed me over the finishing line just in time for all that weird Scottish folk singing and crossed-shaking-arms business. I am absolutely astounded. What a great start to 2013! What with working on QI and the Museum of Curiosity this spring and summer, I was already expecting to have a great year, but this is the canine's nads, it really is.

So ... 'What happens now?' I seem to hear you ask through the fug of hangover. Well, the good news is that - unlike some of the books on Unbound - mine is already written. Therefore, all that needs to be done is some proofreading and double-checking, some cover designing and typesetting and then it's off to the printers to make your delicious hardbacks and e-books. The paperback will go into the shops later. I'm also going to record the audiobook this month so that will be available and FREE to all of you, no matter what level you pledged at.

Now, I haven't discussed deadlines with Unbound - I imagine they're all feeling 'tired and emotional' today having seen three books smash through the 100% funding barrier yesterday (Well done Jess and Kevin!). But I reckon it's not unrealistic to say that the book will be ready fairly soon.

So, once again, thank you so much for helping to make the Connectoscope a reality. I really could not have done it without every single one of you.