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Remembering the run-up to the Iraq War

The LRB has an excellent article by Philippe Sands about the Chilcot Report and the Iraq War.

The UK had a key role in the Iraq War, and even before it happened there were millions of us on the streets marching against it: we said in advance that it was unjustified and would escalate terrorism in the region. (There's a video going round at the moment of Jeremy Corbyn back in the day, saying exactly that.) Now, looking back from a 2016 in which we have Isis/Da'esh and waves of refugees, there's no pleasure in the confirmation that we were right. The consequences reverberated not just through the region, but through to the EU and the UK too. Millions of us ignored, and so many killed (not least, directly killed in the war), because Tony Blair had pledged to Bush: "I'm with you, whatever".

Some quotes from the article:

"[The inquiry said] 'we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council's authority.'"

The inquiry received 37 legal responses regarding the war's legality, "reflecting the views of 57 expert individuals and six organisations. Just one of them supported the claim that the war was lawful."

"On 31 January [2003], Blair met Bush and offered a commitment that contradicted the legal advice given to him by Goldsmith the previous day."

"[Goldsmith's] formal advice - the 7 March document permeated with an understanding of the uncertainty and risk involved in going to war - was deliberately withheld from cabinet."

Our government (and related organisations such as the UN Security Council) are built with checks and balances, so that things such as ill-advised wars on the basis of misconstrued information should be less likely.

The article is well worth a read.

Friday 5th August 2016 | politics | Permalink / Comment

I bumped into the Iron Curtain

So I was on holiday in the mountains bordering Germany and the Czech Republic. Walking around, it was actually a bit odd to be simply walking between Germany and the Czech Republic simply by pootling down a street - i.e. making good use of the Schengen free-movement area that's been one focal point of the migration and refugee news this year. So that was on my mind a bit. (And no I didn't spot any migrants!)

Then in the woods, I saw something unexpected. - A grid of little concrete pyramids, each about a metre high. Just sitting there, not part of a building, or an art installation, or anything, as far as I could tell. Looking fairly old and unkempt. An area of about 15 by 20 metres, weird.

I didn't take a picture, so here's an artist's impression:

Artist's impression

Weird huh?

Eventually I saw there was a little notice by the side, explaining that these were a leftover part of the tank-trap strip that defended the Iron Curtain a few years ago. Thick forest provided a lot of the border defence against tanks - but in the channels between forests, these tank traps would be built so that tanks would scupper themselves on the pyramids. Then the guards watching from the nearby towers could do the rest.

Here's a picture I found online, of some similar leftover pyramids in the Czech Republic border area:

Čížov (Zaisa) - preserved part of Iron curtain.JPG
(Photo is by Marcin Szala via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

There were a couple of photos included, of tests where they drove tanks on top of the pyramids. The thought of it, in this peaceful forest. An "enemy" (or any) tank coming hurling down the way, aiming for the border, crashing over the landscape, through fences etc. This is what borders in Europe used to be like. Within my lifetime. These are the eventualities that planners had in mind.

It puts in perspective how we currently talk about borders, with the EU and Schengen and Brexit. I presume that Germans who remember their country before unification already have this perspective...? But as a mainland Brit, it's not like that.

(I know it's also how some borders are right now. For example between Israel and Palestine. Maybe we should all go and experience the physicality of those things first hand.)

Politically, the world is quite unstable right now, and it's really unclear how the multiple crises of 2016 will play out. Whatever happens, the future will not be exactly the same as the past. But when you bump up against our very recent history (the Iron Curtain) in physical form it really brings it home, for someone who never experienced a war - never really even felt the brunt of the troubles in Ireland, though I remember the Manchester Arndale bombing - that the peace and stability that happens (?) to coincide with the EU era is not something to be taken cheaply.

Further reading: I found this nice travelogue from someone who travelled along exploring the Iron Curtain etc, while I was looking for the photo.

Monday 1st August 2016 | travel | Permalink / Comment

Food in the Bavarian Forest

Just back from a trip to the Bavarian Forest - hiking, eating, wandering around. Here are the highlights of what I ate!

Traditional:

  • Pork Schnitzel Wiener art - classic around here, and in Eisensteiner Hof in Bayerisch Eisenstein I had a really excellent one. The meat was tender and flavourful, and the coating delightfully smooth with some lemon juice sprinkled over.
  • At the Schwellhaus'l guesthaus a lovely deer goulash, with red cabbage and spaetzle (soft dumplingy noodles).
  • Trout is a main fish around there, and at Haus zur Wildnis in Ludwigsthal they did a delicious smoked trout salad. For afters a nice traditional pancake, with a date preserve (I think that's what it was!).
  • I also had very nice little pancakes at the Eisensteiner Hof - that time I did manage to write down what they were: "liwanzen" apparently, Viennese. This time served with a nice and tart berry compote.
  • At Poeschl in Bayerisch Eisenstein I had echt Bayerisch brotzeit ("bread time"), having two boiled white sausages, with a pretzel, plus apfelschorle and some baerwurst to wash it down.

Not particularly traditional:

  • Utaty in Bayerisch Eisenstein is a vegan indian restaurant, open only on Friday and Saturday evenings, and with a set menu written in a notebook in a very dear-diary style:
  • Also on a veggie tip - I've been searching for veggieburgers worth making/eating. Most are... a bit meh. At Adam's Brauerei in Bodenmais I had one of the best veggieburgers I've had. So what was it? In fact it was just a straightforward veg pattie, but you couldn't tell since it was overwhelmed by: two slices fried courgette, a fried egg, tomato, cheese, and some micro salad leaves, all in a beautiful "alkaline" burger bun ("alkaline" according to automatic translation of "Laugen-Burger-Broetchen"...) with guacamole on the side. So that's how.
  • Best ice cream was at Cafe Charlotte in Zelezna Ruda. I had a berry one and another one whose name I couldn't translate.

But my special prize goes to this which is... not traditional but has some "tradition" to it:

  • "Country" pizza on the German/Czech border (in the village of Zelezna Ruda, and almost the closest eatery to the border there - a place called Cukrárna Sněhurka), featuring sauerkraut, sausage, ham, and soured cream. Whether a cynical invention or not, it's a great combination, and a nicely done pizza base, I was very nicely surprised.
Sunday 31st July 2016 | food | Permalink / Comment

Sweet onion and puy lentil stew

Inspired by Nigel Slater's recipe I made a great and simple vegetarian stew (vegan, in fact), using my black bean chorizo to help add depth of flavour. (If you haven't got any of that, you could probably do something similar just with a blob of black bean sauce, even though the flavour is different?)

Lovely stew

Serves 1 (fairly big portion), takes 25 mins.

  • 125g ready-to-eat puy lentils
  • 1 onion
  • 1 tbsp black bean chorizo
  • 1/4 tsp ground paprika
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Optional: a few mangetouts
  • A few leaves of fresh parsley
  • Optional: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice

In a deep pan which has a lid, heat up about 1 tbsp vegetable oil, while you chop the onion. You want to chop about three-quarters of the onion into whatever size pieces, and the remaining one-quarter of the onion slice it into nice rings, about half a centimetre thick.

The misc pieces of onion, put them in the pan and give them a good fry to get them softened. Add the three spices and stir around. Then add the chorizo - not too much, it's mainly for flavour. Let this cook for two minutes or so.

Then add the lentils and stir, then add enough boiling water to only-just-cover. Put a lid on, turn the heat right down, and let this bubble for 15 minutes.

In the final five minutes, heat about 2 tbsp of vegetable oil in a frying pan. Make sure the onion rings are separated into circles, and put them in the pan to fry briskly for 5 minutes, turning halfway. While these are getting a little crispy, chop the mangetouts roughly into maybe 3 pieces each and chuck them into the stew, and also add the bits of parsley and the lemon juice.

When the onion rings are ready, simply put the stew in a bowl and sprinkle the onion rings on top.

Thursday 14th July 2016 | recipes | Permalink / Comment

Brexit vs the science around me: the first month

Just before the Brexit referendum I was wondering how Brexit would affect the kind of people coming to work with us. That's a long-term effect and very hard to measure. But really, like most of the country I hadn't really thought deeply about the direct practical consequences of an Exit vote, in this case the consequences for research that would show themselves within the first month.

The effect is on EU funding in particular. Since the UK hasn't actually left the EU, you might think that things carry on "as normal" until that point - existing projects continue, and you can even apply for new projects. (In fact, that's essentially the official guidance so far.) The problem is that collaborative EU grants are the lifeblood of a lot of research, and they're also very competitive. I know of at least one colleague who's been taken off a grant proposal (which is being organised by someone in another EU country), because a UK partner now means a risk factor that could easily cause a reviewer or a programme administrator to mark the proposal down.

Similarly, at least two colleagues who have been leading on EU grant proposals, they're now in a difficult situation. After having put a lot of work into preparing a proposal, do they submit and risk getting marked down as a risk factor? Do they rewrite the proposal with Brexit backup strategies? Do they stop and wait to see what happens?

(I'm not writing this down to change anyone's mind about Brexit, by the way. Just documenting.)

Less concrete, but in my own first-hand experience: we were intending to invite a good researcher to come and work with us under the Marie Sklodowska Curie scheme (which funds researchers to spend time in another country), but I'm not sure how we can do that now. The funding is still there, but apart from the "risk factor" effect mentioned above, the potential researchers would obviously need to know how it affects their right to work in the UK (will they need a visa?) and what career options might follow on afterwards; and there's pretty much nothing we can say in answer to such questions.

This Guardian article, "UK scientists dropped from EU projects because of post-Brexit funding fears" puts the same phenomena in a wider context. This quote, for example:

Joe Gorman, a senior scientist at Sintef, Norway's leading research institute, said he believed UK industry and universities would see "a fairly drastic and immediate reduction in the number of invitations to join consortiums. [...] I strongly suspect that UK politicians simply don’t understand this, and think it is 'business as usual', at least until negotiations have been completed. They are wrong, the problems start right now."

Wednesday 13th July 2016 | politics | Permalink / Comment

Bacup test kitchen July update

OK a brief PAUSE on my vegetarian year as we report back on the latest iteration of our ongoing project to develop the bacup.

Bacup chef

This time I had some of my black bean chorizo in the fridge so we did bacups with a layer of black bean chorizo, then an egg on top, then some grated cheese on the egg.

Bacups coming out of the oven

After pre-cooking the bacups we wanted to take them out of the little pots so they would crisp up properly in stage two, but they weren't holding together enough for that so we kept them in the pots. Added the fillings, blast them about 10 mins in the oven, and look at this lovely result:

Bacups on yr plate

The egg almost-perfectly cooked, slightly runny yolk, protected from the oven by the cheese - and complemented perfectly with the dark chorizo-y bean mix. Crispy top of the bacon, even though not crispy all through. Best bacups on record, IMHO - taste-wise, at least, even though we still need to work on structural issues.

Sunday 10th July 2016 | food | Permalink / Comment
Remainers, referendums, parliament (Thursday 7th July 2016)
Please help save Arch1 (Friday 24th June 2016)
Brexit vs the science in my office (Monday 20th June 2016)
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