Saturday, November 30, 2013

Trellis gives advice

Mrs T is keeping her finger on the grindstone as usual.
Dear Stephen Fry, she writes, I do admire how you can do so many things, and some of them quite well, but I hadn't realised you went around collecting languages. I will be honest, I hadn't heard of the Beriberi people, but I can see why you enjoyed their lingo so much, all full of dirty words and references to the private parts. I am, as anyone will tell you, as broadminded as the next bigot, but your obsession with the naughty bits bothers me. You should have grown out of it by now even if you are a nancy. You're a nice boy, mostly, so why don't you get over it, start afresh, maybe take up a nice hobby, or some kind of socially-useful work, like scouting or helping with the Duke of Attenborough's Award?
Your helpfully
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, Widow, retd.

Predictions and theories? Not from me!

Factors determining timing and success of breeding?

In captivity, Barn Owls breed prolifically, often having several broods throughout the year. That is why, years back, breeders would be forever releasing young owls into the wild, a practice that has dwindled after legal restraints on release of captive-bred birds were imposed.
Could it be that, underlying and determining the breeding behaviour of wild Barn Owls is the same urge to prolific breeding? Thwarted constantly, of course, by such factors as inability to come into breeding condition because of
inclement weather that makes hunting difficult or lack of sufficient prey when the vole population crashes.
In the season just gone, a lot of pairs formed but didn't breed at the usual time, and then, there was a spate of late first clutches, probably because the vole population had increased in the summer (as often happens) and the breeding imperative kicked in again.
The trouble is that the later in the year the hatch, the less likely it is that the young will make it to fledging. Result: lots of failures, or at best just one or two chicks getting off.
It is important, though, not to make bald statements about good years and bad years, as the situation can vary considerably in different parts of the country. The West Country has a bad season, Suffolk, it seems, doesn't do too badly. Central Cambs and other parts ofthe Fens are disappointing, the Peterborough area has a fairly normal breeding season.
And now, as we approach winter, it is tempting to start another round of theorising and predicting: a poor breeding season means fewer birds means less competition for the food during the winter. Well, maybe. A mild winter favours the owls. Well maybe, but does it favour the rodents and inverterbrates? And is the converse true? How do owls fare in a hard winter? And does the timing of cold snaps, wet spells, strong winds play a role?
About the only prediction that's reliable is, to paraphrase a famous saying of a southern Baptist Minister: “things ain't what we want 'em to be, and things ain't what they're gonna be, but they shure ain't what they wuz.” I find that mildly comforting, even though it is deeply meaningless. Anyway, it's as near as you will get to a prediction from me.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Throw Grammar off the Train

I am enjoying a blog called Throw Grammar off the Train, written by a former newspaper subeditor. I recommend it. Here is a piece where he is discussing something he found in the Wall Street Journal. He writes:

Today's WSJ piece on the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon includes a baffling bit of terminology:
The Yanomamö, like anthropology subjects everywhere, regarded the note-scribbling scholar as a choice target for practical jokes. Only after months of effort did Mr. Chagnon learn that his informants had been deliberately feeding him bogus names. Naturally, he found out in the most humiliating way possible: Telling a group of men something about a headman's wife, he unknowingly referred to her by a capillo-vaginal epithet.
Even if you knew the meaning of capillo- ("hair"), the intended epithet might not be immediately apparent. Luckily Google Books will show you the page with Chagnon's actual words:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours' walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping and howling followed. It seems the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt”. It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called “long dong” and his brother “eagle shit”. The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath”.

Love it!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


It is significant that the following is set in Massachusetts.

Researchers for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found over 200 dead crows near greater Boston recently, and there was concern that they may have died from Avian Flu. A Bird Pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone's relief, confirmed the problem was definitely NOT Avian Flu. The cause of death appeared to be vehicular impacts.

However, during the detailed analysis it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird's beaks and claws.  By analyzing these paint residues it was determined that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with trucks, while only 2% were killed by an impact with a car.

MTA then hired an Ornithological Behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of truck kills versus car kills.

The Ornithological Behaviorist very quickly concluded the cause: when crows eat road kill, they always have a look-out crow in a nearby tree to warn of impending danger. They discovered that while all the lookout crows could shout "Cah", n
ot a single one could shout "Truck."

What's it like to be a bird?

This is a review of a recently-published book, Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead. it's definitely a book I want for Christmas....

Who’d be a bird anyway? Chickens have bi-focal vision: one eye for the close-up work of pecking seed; one for the fox on the horizon or the hawk in the sky. Peregrine falcons don’t swoop directly on prey – as the crow flies, to coin a phrase – but in a wide arc, using the right eye. Mallard ducks on the ground and swifts on the wing both nod off with half the brain at work and one eye wide open watching for danger.
Bird Sense: What it’s Like to be a Bird, by Tim Birkhead
Nightingales in Berlin have to up their vocal performance by 14 decibels to be heard over the traffic; great tits in the city keep down the volume but change the pitch or the frequency to get the message across. The oilbird of Ecuador sleeps with its eyes closed but then it could even fly with its eyes closed: like a bat, it uses echolocation to work out where it is in total darkness.
The ears of the great grey owl are asymmetrical – higher on one side than the other – the better to pinpoint prey on the vertical as well as the horizontal axis. That is why it can swoop on a mouse under the snow. All listeners can localise a source of sound by unconsciously measuring the difference in time as the waves arrive at each separate ear: for small birds, this would dwindle to less than a millionth of a second so little birds move their heads from side to side to increase the range.
Avian hearing ability varies according to the season. So do other features. In winter, the testes of the cock sparrow dwindle to the size of a pinhead; with the nesting season, they swell to the volume of a baked bean. The ability to sing tends to surge with the urge to nest. A hormonal response that varies with daylight length also does strange things to the brain: the ability to acquire and deliver song dwindles, and the relevant area of the bird brain shrinks, in the winter. This is, says Tim Birkhead in Bird Sense, “a sensible energy-saving tactic” because brains are a big expense: the human brain for instance uses 10 times as much energy as any other organ.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A letter to Sarah

I am grateful to AGB, an incurable romantic if ever there was one, for drawing my attention to the following letter. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer in the Union army during the American Civil War. He was killed in action shortly after this letter was sent.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

Trellis is back

Trellis is back, firing in all directions.
Dear Sarah Palin, she writes, fancy having a go at the new Pope! You are a caution, and no mistake! Believe it or not, I wrote to him myself recently about how he should improve the position of women in the Catholic church, not just cleaning pews and flower arranging and making lardy cakes for the poor. I haven't had a reply, so if you talk to him, perhaps you could mention it. I am sure he will listen to a person of your Intellectual Statuary, even if you are as mad as a bag of spanners.
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd

Why even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis

An article from the Guardian. Thought-provoking.

That Obama poster on the wall, promising hope and change, is looking a little faded now. The disappointments, whether over drone warfare or a botched rollout of healthcare reform, have left the world's liberals and progressives searching for a new pin-up to take the US president's place. As it happens, there's an obvious candidate: the head of an organisation those same liberals and progressives have long regarded as sexist, homophobic and, thanks to a series of child abuse scandals, chillingly cruel. The obvious new hero of the left is the pope.
Only installed in March, Pope Francis has already become a phenomenon. His is the most talked-about name on the internet in 2013, ranking ahead of "Obamacare" and "NSA". In fourth place comes Francis's Twitter handle, @Pontifex. In Italy, Francesco has fast become the most popular name for new baby boys. Rome reports a surge in tourist numbers, while church attendance is said to be up – both trends attributed to "the Francis effect".
His popularity is not hard to fathom. The stories of his personal modesty have become the stuff of instant legend. He carries his own suitcase. He refused the grandeur of the papal palace, preferring to live in a simple hostel. When presented with the traditional red shoes of the pontiff, he declined; instead he telephoned his 81-year-old cobbler in Buenos Aires and asked him to repair his old ones. On Thursday, Francis visited the Italian president – arriving in a blue Ford Focus, with not a blaring siren to be heard.
Some will dismiss these acts as mere gestures, even publicity stunts. But they convey a powerful message, one of almost elemental egalitarianism. He is in the business of scraping away the trappings, the edifice of Vatican wealth accreted over centuries, and returning the church to its core purpose, one Jesus himself might have recognised. He says he wants to preside over "a poor church, for the poor". It's not the institution that counts, it's the mission.
All this would warm the heart of even the most fervent atheist, except Francis has gone much further. It seems he wants to do more than simply stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak and keeps them that way.
"My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost," he tweeted in May. A day earlier he denounced as "slave labour" the conditions endured by Bangladeshi workers killed in a building collapse. In September he said that God wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world and yet we live in a global economic order that worships "an idol called money".

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sein Kampf

After watching a presentation by the historian, David Irving, who is known and notorious for his apparent sympathy for Hitler and Nazism, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Mein Kampf (In translation: I am no masochist). I was curious because Irving said that he had never read it, and I would have thought it counted as a primary source, and Irving castigates other historians for using mainly secondary sources.
It's a turgid read, repetitious and full of tendentious statements, but I am glad I have dipped into it (Years back, I carried out a similar exercise with Marx's Das Kapital, and dipping is all I could manage there, too). I am glad because it has shown me that Hitler was very clear about what was wrong (basically racial impurity) and how it could be put right. Most significantly, he was clear that the masses had an uninformed perception that things were wrong, a longing for things to be put right, and that they would rally to the leadership of a man who could define the disease and apply the remedy, namely himself.
Call it megalomania, call it a Messiah complex, but whatever it is, it sustained Hitler, it gave him the strength and determination to carry out his mission. As such, this drive is very very dangerous, because it brooks no opposition, it recognises no variation or alternative vision; and it is inflexible in the face of changing circumstances.
Looking at what has happened since Hitler's day in so many countries – Cambodia, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela and so on – the same phenomenon repeats itself. The latest country to fall victim to the Messiah complex is, in my view, Turkey. I have no doubt that if he had time, the PM of that country would write about sein Kampf,  his “struggle”.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Surgit Trellis!

It delights me to be able to tell you that Mrs Trellis has broken her long silence.
Dear Anglea Merkel, she writes, I have to say I agree with you that men ought to sit down to tinkle. They are such messy creatures, aren't they? The front of my husband, the late Mr Trellis, for instance, was permanently encrusted with porridge, and the lower half of him, well, delicacy prevents me from being more specifical, but I will tell you that when he took off his trousers at night, he used to stand them in the corner.
Yours in sisterly solidarity
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd, fastidious.

Monday, November 11, 2013


The Germans – I don't mean all of them, of course – have been propagating the idea that men ought to sit (sitzen) to urinate (pinkeln). Combine this with the development of a tubelike device which enables ladies to pinkle while standing and ask yourself where all this is leading. Is there a hidden agenda to masculinise women and feminise men? I don't like this at all. In fact it makes my blood boil. It's enough to make me tear my frock. OK, I guess it's just my time of the month. I will get over it, standing up or sitting down.

More about the Tui

As you all know by now, the Tui is a New Zealand endemic and a member of the honeyeater family of birds, hence its name in French: Méliphage tui. I like the Tui for the white plumes on its breast, which caused the early British settlers to call it Parson Bird; for its acrobatic way of feeding, typical of honeyeaters; and for its vocalisations, beautifully captured in the accompanying video. I guess I also like it because I have seen one and you haven't!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Call me Pi-waka-waka

I wrote elsewhere that if there's anything in metempsychosis, I want to come back as a Fantail. I had not realised until I met up with this feisty wee bird in New Zealand that the family to which it belongs, the Rhipiduridae, contains upward of fifty different species scattered throughout Australasia and South East Asia. The only other Fantail species I have seen is the Australian Willy Wagtail, which, as the name suggests, bears a superficial resemblance to our Pied Wagtail.
Anyway, the reason I am so taken with the New Zealand Fantail is not just its pretty appearance, wren-sized body, cheeky face and the amazing tail that gives it its vernacular name. That would be enough to make you love it, but it also has an endearing habit of flitting round you restlessly as you walk across the grass. One second its over your head, the next it is practically under your feet. It reminded me of the bluebird in the Walt Disney movie, Song of the South, where the old negro slave, Uncle Remus, sings Zippedy Doo Da (“Mr Bluebird on my shoulder, it's the truth, it's actual, everything am satisfactual!”).
I thought at first the Fantail was just welcoming another visitor the way most New Zealanders do, but I soon realised that it was waiting for my size 10 boots to kick some insects out of the grass for its breakfast. Our Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) do the same around cattle.
So I'd quite like to come back as a New Zealand Fantail, because it's a fun bird in a beautiful country. And there's a bonus. Its scientific name is a bit of a mouthful: Rhipidura fuliginosa (rhipis, a fan; ouros, tail; fuliginosa, sooty). But the Maoris call it Pi-waka-waka. I wouldn't mind if people called me by such a pretty name.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Solenodon paradoxus

Believe it or not, this little chap is a mammal. Sure, he's ratlike (belonging to the order Soricomorpha, mouselike, which includes shrews and moles), and to be sure he's not beautiful. But he is amazing. The solenodon is an ancient beast, the only mammal known to have survived the dinosaur cataclysm. It is a little known creature, found only on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, and on Cuba. He defends himself by spitting poison, he has a ball-and-socket joint in his nose and, they say, finds his prey by echolocation.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's important to realise that you don't have to be beautiful to be interesting. I find that a comforting thought as my ageing face slowly collapses into wrinkly decrepitude.