Archive for the 'play' Category

It may not be riding rockets, but bee-keeping has a certain edge to it when you’re allergic to their stings.

Last autumn we set up three hives on a corner of the garden. Andrew and the botanical team have since given the hives proper plinths, we’ve registered them with the local authorities, and it’s become a rite of passage for willing guests to join a hive inspection or feeding.

Claire agreed to join, if I could find a pink bee suit. Turns out, white ones dye really well:

Claire in her new bee suit

The bees just call her "Blossom" with a capital B

For those of you who, like me, know virtually nothing about bees or beekeeping, here’s the short short version.

Beehives are cleverly designed as stacks of rectangular boxes without a floor or a ceiling. You combine different types of boxes to get different things done. For example, the main body of the hive lives in the base box, called a brood box. That’s where the queen hangs out, the comb there has both honey cells and hatching cells (think honey-eating bee-maggots, more charmingly called brood). The worker bees move freely up and down the hive, from box to box. You put a filter above the brood box to stop the queen, who is too big to fit through the grille, from laying eggs upstairs.

You get boxes for feeding the bees, and boxes for collecting honey. The honey-collecting boxes are called “supers”, and the others, which are more like spacing boxes with room inside for gadgets and gizmos are called ekes (possibly Norse, for “augment”?). Since our colonies are young, they haven’t yet filled out their brood boxes, so I’ve focused on feeding them. I accidentally drowned half the bees in each of the colonies in the first attempt by failing to install the feeders properly so, all in all, I’ve come to appreciate how fragile the colonies can be.

Throughout the course of the year, there are different things to watch out for, or get done. Early in spring you give the hives a dose of syrup to get them started. We started feeding them in March.

This Easter weekend, with my brother Bradley & guest visiting, and spring springing, seemed like a perfect occasion to see how the colonies were doing. We made some feeding syrup last night, woke up at sparrowfart this morning and suited up. Our goal was to check out the hives, make sure they seemed healthy & happy, and replenish the food to help the colonies grow quickly.

Things got a little adventurous while we were inspecting the brood frames of the first and most vigorous of the hives. Two of us ended up with bees inside our veils, so we closed up quickly and beat a hasty retreat for a brush-off and tea. I got stung on the neck, but I think the sting failed to set properly so the epi-pens are all intact. Some disappointment in the household that nobody got to jab me in the heart with one.

Restored, we went back to finish off the other hives, and Bradley spotted a queen – first time I’ve seen one of them. Once we all relaxed it was a pleasure to work through the frames together one by one. As Bradley said, there are millions of years of evolution telling you that you urgently have to be somewhere else every time the hive buzzes. We’ve got to figure out the best way to clear each frame without ending up surrounded by a cloud of upset bees. But it all went smoothly.

So, all things being well, next year we’ll have honey that is genuinely local. And we’ll get to test that old story about local honey being good for hayfever. All in the name of science, of course.

Easter eggs

Monday, March 19th, 2012

One of our ducks has started dropping eggs in random locations in the garden. I don’t know which duck, but I assume it’s one of the new females we took in from the SPCA, who hasn’t figured out “nesting” yet. I do love ‘em but they’re not African Grey’s in the IQ department. Anyhow, I think I finally understand why people hide eggs in the garden at Easter. Because ducks used to do it for them! I suppose, for millennia, this has been the season to go hunting for eggs. Now we just substitute chocolate ones instead.

For the moment, I’ve kept them in a cool shady spot while I keep an eye out for an actual nest. If a polecat doesn’t find them first, I may be able to slip them onto the nest in time for them to get hatched along with some cousins.

Month of mo, 1 day to go, unless…

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

This mo might gro!

Major metrosexual disaster mo

Even the sheep are running scared.

It’s the last day of Movember.

Inspired by your comments, and frankly, more inspired by your donations to Movember in the name of this metrosexual disaster, I’ll take on the challenge of wearing this mating handicap for an extra week for every additional USD 1,000 donated today. About USD 2,100 raised so far, and I’ll match the total when the event wraps up.

Go on, make me do it, at  mobro.co/smonaut.

Update

Your generosity was incredible – thank you everybody. All that hard currency meant I had to wear the mo for an extra week (Claire was a little worried that you’d have her looking around for somebody else to kiss at New Years eve!) and the folks at ZA.Movember seem delighted. I matched all donations made by the end of the month, and will match one other challenge that came in shortly after. Would never have thought to top the charts; kudos is all yours.

Caption competition

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

I’ve donated my face to charity. It’s not a tattoo, but it’s nevertheless a commitment. Really.

118 118?

"It will only take me a minute to fetch the lube."

You can contribute to the cause (male health, grin and bare it etc) via the excellent Movember and if you do it as a result of my embarrassment then I’ll match it up to a somewhat unreasonable figure. I think they take plastic, and for the globally challenged $1 is about R8, so your donation will look much more impressive than it is. Just like my tache. Think big ;-)

If however you would like to substitute wit for cash, and this is a rare occasion when that is a possibility, add your caption for this 70′s throwback to the comments below.

Commercial access to space on hold

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

As widely reported, Russia has closed commercial public access to Soyuz seats for flights after the US shuttle is retired.

Now that the ISS has the capacity for a larger full-time crew, the seats are more likely to be devoted to long-duration ISS crew rotation than short-term ISS visits, whether visits by professional EU / US astronauts or folks flying privately. I’ve no doubt that there are economics attached to the Russian seats that are similar for both cases – the EU and US have to pay for the lift just like us ordinary folks.

There are a couple of interesting twists to the story.

One is that, when the Shuttle is retired, the Russians will have the only manned access to orbital flight in the ISS partnership. Russia and China will be the only nations with manned orbital capabilities, and the US huffishly refuses to welcome China into the ISS club. Expect the price of a seat to rise substantially while that’s the case.

Another is the EU’s plan to evolve their autonomous cargo vessel (ATV) into a manned capability, something that’s perfectly feasible and quite sensible IMO.

And the third twist is that the Russians have long been open to commercial offers for a long-duration flight (six month ISS crew rotation). That woudl require substantially more training (12-18 months minimum depending on who you ask) but would certainly include the Soyuz lift to get there and back.

Wretched news

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Read on for something that’s either hilarious or baffling, depending on which IRC channels you’ve been hanging out in. 5 hit die Lich indeed. And that’s just the left hand.

Calibrating equipment for altitude

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

One of the experiments I was a guinea-pig for on the space station was a study into the correlation of heart rate and metabolism (energy expenditure) in space.

I didn’t have to do much – drink some amazingly expensive water (isotopically distinctive so it would make a good marker) and keep track of everything I ate. And wear a heart monitor, which recorded every beat for much of the flight. Apart from the irritation associated with the wiring of the heart monitor it was straightforward, all the hard work was done on the ground at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, at UCT.

This was an extension of research they had been doing into the correlation of heart rate and metabolic activity in athletes, and they wanted to see if the same rules apply to astronauts in flight. Conclusions:

  1. Yes, they do.
  2. Astronauts don’t burn a lot of energy in space. Floating around is the ultimate couch potato profession, except for interesting events like EVA’s and decompression scenarios where every movement is against the pressurization of your suit.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I took a look at the readings of my heart rate monitor – just a low-end Polar heart strap and watch that I’ve been wearing out on the slopes for interest’s sake. The dear thing thinks I’ve been doing AMAZING amounts of exercise while snowboarding. In one day, apparently, I burned off 6,000 kcal, which is hardly likely given my very relaxed (“Sunday tripper”) approach to exercise in general.

I think the issue is that my heart rate is generally elevated when at altitude. The watch doesn’t know anything about altitude, though, so it thinks that I’m tearing up some imaginary track when really I’m enjoying a cup of vin chaud * at 3,000m.

So, does anybody know how to recalibrate one of these things, for a more realistic result? I’m guessing somebody has a data set which would allow one to normalize heart rate for altitude and body mass, and get better results. Or is there a monitor out there which senses altitude and takes it into account automatically?

* thanks to Pierre for pointing out that I’m not, in fact, drinking “lime wine”. What a limey I am.

Snowboard heaven & hell

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I’m working out of Verbier, Switzerland, during February and March this year. No sympathy expected. Hopefully, the miracle of broadband will make it possible for me to work a full day and enjoy the slopes too!

Last week was my first here, and a bit of a holiday – I had 12 boisterous guys sharing the chalet and things got a little rowdy. Photos are, alas, NSFW. Not safe for pretty much anything, actually, other than sending us all tumbling from our respective slender grasps on respectability. ‘Nuff said.

Anyhow, the week finished with the most amazing day snowboarding I’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy. Four of us and a guide went exploring off the back of Mont Fort, which is the highest peak you can get to without hiking, and did some back country touring. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Fields of virgin powder, steep climbs up snow staircases that seem to spell instant terminal velocity for anyone who places a foot wrong, nerve-wracking traverses.

We survived, it was glorious, and of course the more we retold the stories to the rest of the group, the better it all seemed. There’s a sign in one of the pubs here that says, very wisely, “The older I get the better I was”.

Today of course all of that cock-sure confidence went out the window after a huge overnight dump and wind that concentrated the snow into nice deep drifts. I couldn’t tell my arse from my elbow, could barely keep the nose of the board on top of the powder, crashed into walls of snow that were totally not there a second before (they jumped out at me, I swear) and ended up falling into a tree-well and landing on a series of strategically placed rocks.

I’m sure the rocks are not regretting the encounter, but I am this evening!

Anyhow, tomorrow morning am lined up for another lesson and am hoping that a little more caution, along with my trusty old ass-guards (“does this make my bum look fat?”) will make for a better day.
More to come.

Gloomy outlook… not

Friday, May 12th, 2006

You know, some days London just isn’t so bad after all.

London on a great day

Update: Of course. The fact that I am not actually allowed INTO that lovely garden is another matter altogether.

Judging the 2006 Rolex Awards

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

I’ve had the huge privilege over the past two days to be on the panel helping select this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

It’s inspiring to see the diversity of amazing projects that were shortlisted – on the one hand that made the debate all the more difficult, on the other hand I felt that each project had much to recommend itself. You’ll have to wait till October to find out the winners! Anyhow, for the record, it’s fantastic to see individuals with courage and vision getting the chance to pursue their dreams with the support of an award like that. If you know someone – anyone – doing original and visionary things with whatever time and resources they have to hand in the fields of exploration, heritage, the environment… urge them to apply for the next round.

Perhaps the best bit for me was the panel itself. Most often when I have the pleasure of meeting someone I really admire the meeting is necessarily short – we’ve both got to run to the next meeting, and the next time we’re likely to be able to coordinate a meeting in person is months away. Here we had long, intense discussions about the projects, which become a proxy for the challenges facing the world at large. And so you really get to see what people think are important, and why. A great two days. Tomorrow, I’m off to San Fran for the MySQL user conference, then NYC for the weekend and on home to London to get ready for The Drake.