Saturday, September 30, 2023

How I Spent My Week

Where is this headed?


Caro's blog yesterday recounting the criminal felling of Britain's legendary Sycamore Gap Tree at the hands of an eco-terrorist (my description, not Caro's) riles me big time.  Perhaps that's because I spend so much time traveling around Greece and am amazed at how much of iconic value to western civilization (and beyond) lay at risk to callous acts and a panoply of preternatural psychosis. 

On that bit of alliterative P'ing, I now shall switch gears and point to the beauty that remains in our world if one just bothers to look for it.  Barbara and I are spending a few days with friends on the Aegean Cycladic island of Naxos, a place we've come to love, and which seems to be resisting (somewhat) the propensity of many Greek islands to chase tourist cash at no matter the cost to their citizens' birthright. 

Here's just a token peek at the sort of natural beauty and historical icons the gods have entrusted the Greek people to protect and preserve. May those who care persevere and succeed.


Friday, September 29, 2023

The Sycamore Gap Tree

As you probably know, Hadrian’s wall cuts across this island, almost in the middle. It was built by the Romans to keep the marauding savages from the north out. And, of course, that was Hadrian. Anthony had an idea to build another wall a bit further up as he was a little more optimistic. That was the Antonine wall and runs just north of Glasgow. I’m not sure why he toddled north another seventy miles or so. Did he want Glasgow as part of the Roman Empire and then decide not to bother?  Or did he think it was a visit from the Good Idea Bear before realising what Hadrian had already found out. Indeed, was Hadrian before Anthony or afterwards? Does it matter? I’m sure it mattered to them.

However Hadrian’s Wall is rather famous. And was made more so in a certain film  starring Kevin Costner (not in tights) and Morgan Freeman, as Robin Hood and Azeem. Was it 1991?  It was well after Hadrian and Anthony anyway.  I think the song though, with Brian Adams leaning against a tree (and nobody, I mean nobody, shooting him with an arrow to get him to shut up,) was at number one in the charts  for most of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, or it just seemed that way.

I digress. In that film, the two of them climb a tree, (the tree that is the subject of this blog) and hide, then jump out at some passing person on a horse.  It’s a famous tree and the gap in the wall, the natural dip in the land, is called the Sycamore Gap. It’s a natural passing place to go from north to south.

It has been a favourite spot for walkers on the wall to stop for a picture and a picnic.  The tree, anything from 300 to 400 years old was voted Britain’s favourite tree in 2016.

The multi million selling author from Cumbria LJ Ross uses the  famous motif of the tree in many of her book covers, mostly right on the front of this one.

The tree suffered a little bit of damage earlier this week due to a storm

Then, during the night on Wednesday into Thursday, some wee hooligan went out and cut it down.

The locals of Northumberland reacted, as you would  expect with  extreme anger  and not a little bewilderment at the damage caused to the iconic landmark.

At first, it was thought the tree had come down because of the storm damage, but further inspection, and the very neat saw tooth marks on the exposed trunk told their own story. The Northumberland National Park were quoted as saying the damage had been done “deliberately and illegally”.

The leader of the council has called for the guilty party to be “severely punished”.

The newsfeature made it to the front pages and it was on the  national news.

All because a tree was cut down.

A sixteen year old has been arrested.

People are shocked obviously. The tree, sitting where it did, was a legend.

Quotes are;  “No matter how sick they might be….it has come as a huge shock to me and a huge shock to people across the world, not just in the North East.”

“It is the most unbelievable and appalling act that anybody could even think about doing.”

“if we find the person, they are punished severely for this act of wanton nastiness. It is an icon for Northumberland and the whole of the country. It is one of the most iconic places, because it is so beautiful and so peaceful.”


Even the Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness was quoted as saying  “I’m devastated that the famous Sycamore is gone. That tree was ours. It was an iconic North East landmark standing tall in our beautiful Northumberland. I am incandescent that this looks like a deliberate act of vandalism. I’ll be raising this personally today. I know Northumbria Police are at the scene and officers will do their utmost to catch whoever is behind this. It is terrible news.”

"I'm outraged that someone has done this to such a beautiful tree. What the hell is the world coming to?"

The 70 foot tree had even inspired its own beer!

So it has gone for good.  After being so carefully tended to  when the ground around it was excavated in 1908/ 1911 and  then again 1982/ 1987. Many Roman and Medieval artefacts were found, due to its unique location. The tree stood there as a benign keeper of the gate, a spot for proposals, walkers, hikers, historians, photographers and stargazers.

Since 1987, the tree, has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site based around Hadrian's Wall.

And I think that that fact will increase any criminal charges brought against the young person concerned.

Some folk are saying, it’s a tree. One tree. Governments are felling trees and destroying the planet all over the place and nobody cares.

And that is true but sometimes it takes one symbolic act to bring matters home.

I really hope the felling of the Sycamore Gap Tree acts as a trigger and a focus for some more protection of the environment.



Thursday, September 28, 2023

 Michael - Every other Thursday

For many years I’ve had a (very much layman’s) interest in things like animal perception and consciousness. Maybe this was generated to some extent by my interest in image processing and analysis, which naturally links to the way the human eye works and why it works that way. We are all familiar with the ways in which our brains represent images producing all sorts of changes to what is actually before our eyes. Some of these are almost games, like the apparent 3D vision images called stereograms.  

See the shark? Look closer

Here's a really important one.


You notice how the edge of each rectangle has been emphasized in the image so that we can easily see where one rectangle ends and the next starts. Well, no actually. Your brain is doing that. We care about identifying things, and so our inbuilt processing automatically does some edge enhancement to help.

What is really fascinating is speculating on what animals see, what their image processing is, and why. It turns out that there’s a big group of biologists who study these things and publish results in specialist journals. However, one of them is also a talented writer who has written a mind-blowing book for the general reader about how other creatures perceive the world and why. His name is Ed Yong and his book is called An Immense World – How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.

Ed Yong's corgi Typo with copies of the book

If I’ve made the concept sound dry, that’s my fault, not Yong’s. The Times called the book "Extraordinary" and The Guardian said it was "Magnificent". As for me, I can’t put it down. It made its way to the Sunday Times best-seller list so I can’t be alone in that.

To start at the beginning, it’s obvious that all creatures share the same physical universe. But, as Yong puts it, “Earth teams with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.” This sliver is called its umwelt – the creatures perceptual world.

Even this starting point is fascinating, especially when we realize that humans are no different from other species in this constraint. In fact, the human sensory bubble is not intrinsically superior to the others, it is just different as they all are. Again in Yong’s words, “Animals are not just stand-ins for humans or fodder for brain storming sessions. They have worth in themselves. We’ll explore their senses to better understand their lives.”.

For example, we are proud of our excellent colour vision. It used to be almost universally accepted that other animals see the world in black and white. That’s now known to be completely false. Dogs have two base colours – blue and yellow, as opposed to our three – red, green and blue, so their colour spectrum or “rainbow” looks different and less rich than ours. It's two instead of three dimensional. On the other hand, hummingbirds see in the ultraviolet in addition to red, green and blue. So they have a four dimensional colour pallet that may be much more rich and extensive than ours. Bees see ultraviolet too and flowers are much more concerned about attracting their attention than ours. Their pollen areas are often coloured in ultraviolet.

Zebra at night
WE can see stripes but...
Yong’s book is full of interesting deductions backed up with good science. For example, zebra. I recall being told by a safari guide on one bush excursion that zebras have stripes for camouflage – to confuse predators by breaking up their outlines. This was counter intuitive but camouflage often is. However, one of Yong’s colleagues, who studies visual acuity (the measure of how large objects must be in order to be separable visually from another at a given distance) pointed out that this argument can’t be true. At night, and at the distances predators like lions stalk, their sight would not be sharp enough to distinguish the stripes. The zebra would just look grey all over. So we need to think more deeply about those stripes...

We all know that mosquitos smell animals by picking up carbon dioxide. I didn’t know that they could smell through their feet. As a result, when they land on exposed skin, they can pick up a delicious skin smell. But if there is some DEET on the skin, they immediately take off again in the same way that we'd jerk our hand away from a hot object without conscious volition. That is why you have to cover all your skin. A general spray in the air isn’t going to work.

It's the understanding of other creatures that flows from the book that I find the most fascinating. If you wonder about these things as I do, you will be richly rewarded by An Immense World.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023



Fakin’ baking’--vegans trying to get respect

I’m vegan--meaning no animal food sources of any kind--and my brother and nephews find my food items to be of considerable hilarity, referring to them as “fake bacon;" “fake meat;" “fake milk,” and so on. My friend Mike always says, “Why are you always trying to make plant stuff taste like animal stuff? What’s the point? Either embrace your defeat or eat the real thing.”

Some vegans are such for health reasons, although that's difficult to parse out without some kind of controlled studies because at the same time you’re switching to being vegan, you may adopt some improved health habits such as less sugary foods, since many, e.g. cakes, pies, candy, etc. may contain dairy products. At the same time, canola oil, which is not regarded very favorably, is seemingly everywhere in both plant and animal-based foods. So, you’re eliminating some things for the good but retaining some for the bad.

My reasons are for the (hopefully) healthy benefits, but much more importantly taking a moral stand about animal treatment. I’m not here to lecture anyone (I’m not that kind of vegan--you can eat whatever you please) but I’m revolted by the industrial food complex in which chickens are kept in appalling, cramped cubicles, and cows, pigs, chickens, and so on, are lined up on a conveyer belt and killed with a bolt through the skull. “They don’t feel it,” one might say, but does one actually know that? There must be a millisecond of pain. And if we’re repulsed by the idea of eating horses or dogs, for instance, why is it okay for cows? Even fish must feel some kind of anguish when captured. A fish in air is equivalent to a water-boarded human. 

Anyway, that’s a philosophical argument we can leave for now. What I really wanted to do was show you some snapshots of some of my vegan meals--some home-made, others pre-cooked.

Breakfast is my favorite meal, without a doubt. One of the most refreshing is avocado on toast. In this image there’s also an old faithful in the background, oatmeal (porridge) with oat milk. Avocado is rich with marvelous fats mono-, poly- and saturated fats in 70-15-15 proportions, approximately.

Funnily enough, when we lived in Ghana, we had avocado (picked from the tree in the backyard) on toast all the time, decades before it became a fad in the US. We would dash it with some good ol’ Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, which gave it a nice kick.

If you want to go heavier and more traditional, the array of plant-based breakfast choices, is surprisingly wide. This was my breakfast this morning:

That’s sausage, prosciutto, boiled eggs (I kid you not!), toast and butter, all plant based. The taste? Delicious. Meat-eaters may scorn the “sausage” for not tasting like “real” sausage, but then sausages all over the world vary in taste in any case.

The butter is from a company called Miyoko’s, which makes a variety of cream products and cheeses.

Lunch can  from something light like salad topped with chicken slices, or a burger, a little heavier. Plant-based burgers were once--well, frankly--disgusting, but all that has changed with Impossible and Beyond Burgers. The difference between the two is the that Impossible is made with tofu and Beyond is made with pea protein. My preference is to stick to pea protein and avoid tofu if possible. However, both are astonishingly yummy and the beet juice added gives the burger that rich red inner color.

                                                                    Photo from package

Dinner is probably the most innovative meal. Below are some of the meals I’ve made.

                                                                     Curried chicken

                                Cauliflower crust pizza topped with mozzarella, sausage, olives, mushrooms, spinach

Remember that old English expression of “feeling peckish?” It means you’re not ravenously hungry and feel like just a little something to hit the spot. That was me tonight, so I cooked up some bacon


to top my nice, messy, grilled-cheese sandwich--no fancy presentation here!


For dessert, I had a vegan yoghurt made from coconut milk topped with some fruit and macadamias. The consistency of this particular yoghurt made by Cocojune is more like whipped cream, very light, and it’s manufactured with real probiotic cultures.

I could probably drum up quite a few inventive vegan meals if I actually liked cooking! In fact, not really. I eat to live rather than the reverse. My idea of cooking is put something in the oven or on the stove range, go take my shower and it’s done exactly when I get out. Presto!

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A Morning In My Life (or: NoticingTransitions)

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

See the green shoots? This is the transition I'm happiest about right now--those little green spikes are signs there may be a transition from death to life for my bonsai citrus!

This poor little bonsai tree looked dead when I got back to Singapore. But I trimmed (branches and roots) and repotted it because I have nothing to lose if it was already dead, but if it isn't--

And after a couple of dormant days, these green shoots just appeared--so I think we have a chance! It's still touch and go, though.

I've been thinking about Transitions because of a talk at the Yoga Shala last Sunday. Most of us (well, me) expected it to be about not skipping vinyasas, but it turned out to be something much more profound.

I always thought of vinyasas as unnecessarily tiring transitions from one seated pose to another. What I just learned is that 'used' correctly, they are a time/space to recentre yourself and your breathing and let go of any frustrations attached to the previous pose or any fears connected to the next one. And you don't need to Do anything. Just pausing and deciding "I'm going to be in this moment" can make it easier to get on with the next pose or next project of your day. 

So I decided to try it this morning: instead of reading or listening to a podcast, I would try to be mindful and document my morning "transition" times.

5:30am: Getting Up

Out of bed and on to the computer to do my Morning Pages (I started after reading the Artist's Way and now I use a site called It helps clear my head and figure out what the day's tasks and goals will be. This is where I work through ideas for my WIPs or sort out solutions to plot tangles. After brain dumping here, it's easy to transfer everything to Scrivener for cleaning up.

Then I print out my day's "bingo card" (everything from laundry and arranging for the carpet cleaner to come to word count targets--because sometimes when I'm really tired, completing something just so I can tick off a box is the only motivation I can get my brain around). 

Then I make our breakfast oatmeal...

This is what we have every day: rolled oats, wheat germ, flax seeds, chia seeds, salt, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, raisins and blueberries. All the ingredients are in pull out punnets so I can fix it on autopilot. It's what I miss most when traveling, no matter how fancy hotel breakfasts are!

Served with greek yoghurt mine on the left with soy milk. Beloved's on the right with cow milk goes into the fridge till he gets up at 7, but I eat mine at the computer while clearing my emails. If there's anything to be discussed on Zoom (I really HATE Zooming) this is usually when it happens. 

If there's time I'll visit Facebook and look in on blogs I follow... but not today.

7:30am: Heading Out

Gateway to the park and the bus stop just across the road.

Usually I'll be listening to a podcast or audiobook, but today I'm trying to 'be aware' and enjoy the transition. Met a friendly dog in the park, which was very nice. I still miss my two so much, though!

Since our darling doglets departed, we've given up the second car so I'm heading out on public transport--and so grateful for our nearby bus stops!

This is the one that starts me on my journey to yoga:

Any bus from here gets me to the station. Today a lovely lady bus driver was wishing every passenger 'Good morning' and 'How are you?' as we boarded, despite how crowded it was!

And I got to help an old man off the bus, which made me feel a) younger than I'd felt when I got on, and b) useful--like maybe there was a point to me being alive and on that spot in that moment.

I was so carried away by my good works that I forgot to tap out getting off the bus (if you forget to tap out you can get charged the maximum fare for the route!) I called out to the lady driver and she said, 'No problem, I do for you'. 

And I discovered she'd cancelled my fare--meaning I've just cheated the bus company of 61 cents! 

This is the walk from the bus stop to Beauty World Station--very pleasant in the early morning when it's still cool and even a little chilly.

And then down into the bowels of the MRT...

Beauty World station is on the East-West Line (EW: Green on the map) and I change at Stevens to the Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL: Brown on the map) 

The connection involves quite a bit of walking--I'm so impressed by whoever designed and built all this underground without overly discombobulating the built up areas above ground!

And there's art work too, when I finally arrive at Outram Station.

But I'm very very glad to get back above ground and walking the rest of the way to the shala.

The trip usually takes me about an hour. If I take a bus all the way there it takes over an hour, but then that's an hour of reading time. Whereas today's route is a little faster and got me over 4,000 steps on my Fitbit, just from walking between connections, so that's good too.

 8:30am: Arrive at the Shala

I'm not one of the early birds--they get in at 6:30am and are leaving by the time I get in between 8:30am and 9am.

Practice for me usually takes between an hour and 75 min. I'm still very much a beginner, but I'm coming to realise that turning up here, like doing my morning pages, is a practice that anchors the rest of my day.

Plus, since coming back to yoga here I haven't had any petit mals or full blown seizures (touch wood--maybe the wooden floor here helps!). I don't know if it's correlation or causation, but I love it!

And yes (because people always ask) there's plenty of showers with hot water here for after! About six units, but this is my favourite 2-in-1.

10:30am: Homeward Bound

I retrace my route home, but I'm picking up my lunch and our dinner on my way back to the MRT station.

Today's lunch is coming out of a vending machine--

I'm having a bibim salad and fruit cup, paid for with my Senior Citizen Concession Card.

This is what it looks like on the plate--and it came with this cute little folding fork!

And dinner is going to be 'zi char'; literally 'cook fry' it's a versatile and cheap Singapore fast food that's usually rice or noodles and whatever you pick or ask to have prepped.

This is what we'll be having tonight:

11:30am: Arrive home after retracing the outward journey.

I'm going to do a couple of DuoLingo lessons then write this up and get back to editing The Angsana Tree Mystery. Right now it feels like it could be a great book, but also that I'm never ever going to finish it, it's moving so slowly and I keep going back and reworking things that seem right one day and ridiculous the next...

But all I can do is put in the time and focus, so that's what I'll do. Wish me luck!