Sea-Ice Trends

It can be really easy to be distracted by the noise in a set of data. A great set of charts for looking at the day-to-day changes in the Arctic Sea-Ice is maintained by Neven, and I often find myself checking this on a daily basis. Fun as it is to follow the weather-driven ups and downs of the sea-ice, I decided that I wanted to create a chart that would remind me of the bigger picture: the inexorable, global-warming driven decline in sea-ice.



The Shipping Forecast

I am listening to the Shipping Forecast. I am willing on the person reading it. They are really struggling and are about to lose their voice. She makes it to the end!

And then she says this.

“Apologies for my voice at the moment, it appears to be leaving me, a bit early in the day.”



A “reader” writes:

My wife says that I sound like Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, a character from the superlative “A Mitchell and Webb Look”. Should I be concerned?


Cake or Death 6: Chocolate Almond Macaroons vs Death by Euphoria

Oh lordy. I’ve moved, which means that I’ve been filling my days with packing and throwing out stuff. I have managed to fit the odd bit of cake vs death action in, but the documentation has fallen by the wayside. Now I start to catch up on another chance to choose between cake, or death!

Those who forget what this ridiculousness is about will find out soon enough…

The Cake


Chocolate Almond Macaroons, by Linda Collister (p64, chocolate).

These macaroons are one of my favourite recipes. In the recipe it is intended to make a sort of chocolate truffle and sandwich two of the macaroons together, but I’ve never gone to that level of effort, finding that one macaroon is quite sufficient as it is. This might be related to the quantity of almond essence that I add, somewhat in excess of that recommended, making these macaroons more about the taste of almond than as as a chocolate sandwiching device.

This time I did experiment by following the directions in the recipe to flatten out the macaroons before baking for half of my macaroons. This produced macaroons that were more crunchy, and perhaps biscuit-like, than those I normally produce, which have a slightly gooey and chewy centre.

Everyone preferred my way.

The Death

Death by Euphoria

Given the sugar content of these macaroons, and their blissful taste, it might be thought that they would be involved. But, oh no. This death is generally about using pharmaceuticals to create uber-humans, but positing the scenario whereby such uber-humans will become so immune to anything unpleasant, by using pharmaceuticals to effectively wish such feelings away, that society will sort of disappear in a haze of not being bothered.

I found this chapter genuinely scary.

In many respects this future is here already, and there’s immense societal pressure to use pharmaceuticals to overcome temporary physical or mental weakness. The adverts for stimulants such as red bull, or even lemsip, are quite chilling when you consider the sorts of mind-meddling drugs that are on the horizon.

Cake or Death – what is your choice?

Cake or Death 5: Candidate Number Two vs Terrorism

I still have cake left that I baked at the weekend so it’s another chance to choose between cake, or death!

After this edition of cake-or-death I am up to date, so I’m open to suggestions for the cake to welcome D and R with next weekend.

The Cake


Candidate Number Two, attempting to recreate my mother’s carrot cake.

I have certain vivid memories from my childhood. Crawling through the long grass of our back garden, pretending that our cat was a tiger and we were in a jungle. Being scolded by my mother for trying to argue that a “couple of biscuits” might mean three. Running into my bedroom in the evening for fear of something in the darkness leading to the attic behind me, and rushing to close the curtains to banish the Cylons in the window. And my mother’s carrot cake. Dense. Dark. Carrotty. Completely devoid of walnuts, cream cheese frosting, or all the other daft things that afflict every single carrot cake recipe I have subsequently been able to find.

My mother doesn’t have the recipe she once used, and barely remembers the cake to which I refer. And so I am bound to a quest, to iterate upon a recipe until I reach one that matches my idealised memory. This is candidate number two in that quest, and it goes like this:

225g butter creamed with
half as much sugar to which add
2 beaten eggs
225g grated carrot
225g wholemeal flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
half tsp ground nutmeg

Unsurprisingly I messed up again and completely forgot to add any baking powder. Duh. It was baked at 160C (in a fan oven, so 180C otherwise) for one and a quarter hours. Once the excess butter had dripped off, and it had matured for a couple of days, it really wasn’t that bad.

It’s really interesting that the cake is now tastier to eat, on day four, then on the day it was fresh from the oven. Leaving out baking powder wasn’t such a terrible plan, the density is good, but I think in the next iteration I will add just a little. There is too much butter/not enough of the other ingredients. The smell of the spices was really exciting when I took the cake out of the oven, but I can’t taste them in the cake. Is there enough carrot? I’m not sure…

The Death


The risk of death here comes from terrorists constructing a nuclear dirty bomb, or a chemical/biological device for killing either a large number of people, or creating vast amounts of panic and disruption. Once again scientists are cast as the bad guys:

… it only takes a competent chemist to create vats of a toxic nerve agent, and there are plenty of competent chemists in the world… If the question is whether a dirty bomb will one day go off somewhere, spreading radiological, chemical or biological material, then the answer has to be yes. It only takes a patient, skilled scientist to prepare the equipment and the active ingredient.

However, Alok Jha concludes that this is a death that doesn’t have the potential to bring about the end of civilization. And that is undoubtedly correct. Civilization can survive vast industrial wars, so even scientifically-trained terrorists can’t put it at threat. Still, if a scientist you know starts to show an unhealthy interest in caesium-137, castor oil production, smallpox, anthrax (and light aircraft) or botulinum (and milk) it might be worth baking some cake while you still can.

Cake or Death – what is your choice?

Cake or Death 4: St Clements Meringue Pie vs Mutually Assured Destruction

It was another weekend, and thus another chance to choose between cake, or death!

This instalment of cake-related decision making happened some time ago, but I was so upset by my pie that I delayed writing about the experience.

The Cake


St Clements Meringue Pie, from Perfect Cooking by Marguerite Patten.

This isn’t the first time. My meringue pies have gone wrong before. The recipe states: “Stir over a gentle heat until thickened.” Either I’m not patient enough, my heat is too gentle, or my cornflour is defective because it never thickens. This then means it is fiendishly difficult to plonk the meringue on top, because it just wants to sink into the runny fluid underneath. This time, worse was to come.

Clumsily, I managed to spill much of the runny liquid onto the floor as I was placing the pie into the oven. I spent ages over that runny liquid! It just went over the floor!

It was still tasty. And the pastry in this recipe is fantastic. But, the disappointment. The regrets. I have unfinished business here.

The Death

Mutually Assured Destruction

Lots of nuclear weapons. Everyone dies. Except they don’t – surely nobody would be that mad! Oh, well, all sorts of people have nukes now, and some of them are definitely mad. And possibly not many nukes would be enough to finish us off, because of the dust, leading to a nuclear winter. The scientists said so.

Did I mention that the scientists are evil. Evil! Alok Jha really seems to not like scientists. He says:

Once the principle of this devastating bomb had been demonstrated, however, it was only a matter of time before scientists around the world would want to come up with their own versions.

Uh-huh. So, nuclear proliferation is entirely the fault of scientists wanting to play with their nuclear physics toys, and nothing whatsoever to do with power games by dictators, military leaders and politicians with a liberal arts education.

Cake or Death – what is your* choice?

* I think I’m leaning to Death this time, because I’m a scientist and I’m evil! Also, the pie was so disappointing…

Cake or Death 3: Raspberry & Almond Teabread vs The Doomsday Machine

It was another weekend, and so it’s now another chance to choose between cake, or death!

This latest episode of knife edge decision making has been somewhat delayed by my failure to remember to bring both the book of doomsday and this week’s recipe with me to visit Rosie in Wales.

The Cake


Raspberry & Almond Teabread, by Trish Messom of The Stuffed Olive in Bantry, from the Cookbook of the same name (photography advice from Rosie).

This cake, although it’s called* a teabread, is superficially similar to a pound cake, but with more flour and less butter and hence, well, a bit more bready. But it’s really nice!

I used tinned raspberries, rather than fresh, and since the kitchen was really cold, and the batter stiff, this meant there was little chance of the raspberries remaining cohesive, and they instead became smeared tastily throughout the cake, rather than becoming discrete raspberry chunks within the almondy substrate of the rest of the cake. I’m sure this would make a difference to the experience of eating this cake/teabread, but…

Don’t forget your tea. Or hot chocolate. There is something about this teabread that demands that it is accompanied by some hot beverage, and I don’t think that was just a matter of the cold kitchen it was baked in.

The Death

The Doomsday Machine

Ever seen Dr Strangelove? That’s the premise of of this Doomsday. Only the Russians really did build it and really didn’t tell anyone about it.

The thought process proceeds thus. Nuclear weapons (see next week – why does this book seem to be written backwards?), massively destructive, have them because the other guys have them, have enough of them to destroy the world so that the other guys won’t use theirs. But.. have to keep them under control, so require codes to fire them.

However, this then makes it sort of possible for the other side to win a nuclear war – if they can knock out all of your command and control then you can’t send the codes to your nukes, and you lose. Turns out the Soviets were paranoid enough to think of a way round this, involving a bunch of “command missiles” that would be shot up to send codes out to all their nuclear weapons if a nuclear attack was detected, and the link to command and control was down, presumed destroyed. Something like that. There seemed to be another bunker involved with a bunch of very bored junior officers, but I didn’t find that bit very reassuring.

Are we scared yet?

Pretty much, yes. Setting up an elaborate security mechanism so that only authorised people can fire your nuclear weapons of mass destruction is a very sensible idea – one of very few when it comes to nuclear weapons. And the Soviets decided it had to be circumvented lest it prevented them from firing their nukes in retaliation. Oh dear.

Cake or Death – what is your choice?

* I did consider baking a tart this week, but it’s not a cake! they cried. For the avoidance of doubt, for the purposes of choosing between cake and death, all tortes, puddings, tarts, muffins, scones, cookies, biscuits (and teabreads) count as cake. You’re hardly going to confuse any of them for death now, are you?