Friday, 30 September 2011

Street Rubber Bands

Need a rubber band while you're out walking? Britain is the best place
to find one. Just look down and one will appear in a few minutes, most
likely near a door with a letterbox slit.

These are red rubber bands discarded by the post/man/woman. At the post office, mail is bundled up into delivery groups and as they are delivered, the rubber bands are tossed. How much do you think the post office spends on rubber bands every year?

But indeed, they must be cutting back (that is, conserving rubber bands), since fewer are visible on the streets than in previous years. Still, I found one recently to hold a mandolin in a rucksack that couldn't be zipped closed, and I've since heard that two friends actually collect them (that's rubber bands, not mandolins)...
Red rubber band abandoned on doorstep    ➞

Friday, 23 September 2011

Food Waste Bucket for Recycling!

With the recent acknowledgment that methane (a greenhouse gas) is produced by rotting food in landfill sites, some local authorities (city councils) are collecting raw food waste to be used as fuel. Considering how much food is wasted in Britain, this is a good move, but it does create problems in the kitchen.

We have been given a food waste basket and bags made of degradable corn starch for collecting our garbage:

Food waste basket; Cox apple and onion for scale!
Classy, eh?
But it does have to be disposed of very regularly or it leads to fruit flies...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Geology Lectures at the Geological Society of London

For the past two years, Shell oil company has sponsored monthly talks at the Geological Society of London. These are open to the public and deal with many topics of current interest. Past titles have included:
"Icelandic volcanoes, interactions between volcanoes, ice and atmosphere"
"Challenged by carbon: geologists, the oil industry and climate change"
"A mole in London: tunnelling beneath the city for major transport and infrastructure projects"
"The Anthropocene: living in a new age"
"Returning carbon to nature: the geology of carbon capture and storage"

Wednesday's talk was on "Paleogene climate conundrums", looking at the a previous instance of rapid climate warming at the Paleocene/Eocene (PE) boundary. Dubbed the PETM (thermal maximum), the climate at that time (between 50-52 million years ago) resulted in a temperature rise of 5°C at high latitudes due to injection of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Included in the lecture were fossils of a 15-metre long snake that weighed 3 tons, which would have needed a minimum of 30°C climate to grow that large. The PETM is being studied for comparison with our current global warming, with the conclusion that the rate of carbon dioxide addition to the atmosphere is much faster today, disallowing time for the ocean to act as a buffer by absorbing extra carbon. Thus, it was implied that whatever happened then will happen faster and perhaps more extremely now.

Talks for the rest of this calendar year are:
19 October "Earth's atmosphere trapped in ice: 800,000 years of climate change"
16 November "New hydrocarbon development challenges and the impact on geoscience research"
14 December "Mineral deposits and their global strategic supply"

Reserve a seat by contacting The Geological Society
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BG
Tel +44 (0)20-7434-9944

More information about The Geological Society is available at:

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Cambridge Building Spree

Anyone who has lived in Cambridge, moved away, and then returns for a visit will be astounded what is going on south and west of the station. It is common knowledge that when the rail station was built, the colleges conspired to have it sited as far out of town as possible, out by the cattle market, the lumber yards and grain elevator.  This was to keep the students from quickly jumping on a train to London.

A bicycle bridge erected in the early 1990s opened up the area south of the tracks to new housing, and blocks of flats now line the railway. The cattle market was ended and turned into a leisure centre, marked by a parking garage and a dance venue. This was matched by downtown development of a new shopping center dwarfing Lion Yard.

But here we are in the 2010s and all sorts of construction is going on along Hills Road south of the station turnoff. At the head of Station Road, for example, a 7-storey building is being erected, completely out of character with the surrounding buildings and vying with the Catholic church steeple in height. Continuing south, one comes to a whole neighbourhood of new blocks of flats on the left in the Cambridge Gateway project, some completed, some just going up. Then at the junction with Cherry Hinton Road, the street going west is loaded with apartment blocks, while the old cattle market on the left has acquired a Travelodge, a multiplex cinema, a bowling alley, and a row of shops including the ubiquitous Tesco. Cambridge is growing southwards, with gusto!

Cambridge Gateway project with the old grain elevator in the distance;
looking east towards the station from Hills Road

The old cattle market, looking northeast from Cherry Hinton Road
Looking west from the head of Cherry Hinton Road

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Okinawan Music at the Japan Matsuri

We did it again! The London Sanshinkai did a half hour's performance this past Sunday at the 2011 Japan Matsuri (Festival), singing slow and fast songs and then dancing the Okinawan bon dance, Eisa. Great fun. The stuff is already up on Youtube.

Let's start with the fast dance, Toshindoi
Penguin outside the London Aquarium in
kimono for the Japan Matsuri!

Then to a slow dance and song, Asadoya Yunta

And end with a slow song teaching morals to children, Tinsagu no Hana

Unlike the past two years of Japan Matsuri held at Spitlefields Market, this one took place around the outside of the London County Hall, next to the London Eye. Lots of stalls offering food and trinkets; two outdoor stages for music performances and one for martial arts. Good that it didn't rain!

Don't know where next year's festival will be held yet but probably at the same time of year – maybe conflicting again with London Open House Weekend (previous blog)...Keep in touch with the Japan Matsuri website.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Chewing Gum

A previous post on NHS dentists mentioned one of the hazards of the American practice of chewing gum: crushed molars! Funny, gum is sold here in Britain, but you never see anyone chewing it. Those with wads in their mouths (see how my perspective has changed?) are invariably Americans. But with the visible absence of chewing, the spots on the pavement (sidewalk, remember) caused by gum disposal become a mystery. I have never seen anyone spitting out gum. How do the spots get there? Secret nighttime squads of gum chewers? In any case, they do result in massive squads of pavement cleaners out there with their special spray guns cleaning up Oxford Street (the main shopping venue). Here are some facts as reported by the BBC:
The disgusting pavements of London – unless
you think the street is strewn with silver dollars!

"London's Gum Facts:
• The cost of cleaning up London's streets from chewing gum is estimated as being as much as £10 million every year
• Chewing gum takes up to five years to degrade
• The cost of removing each bit of chewing gum is between 50p and £2
• Deep cleaning the entire length of Oxford Street to remove chewing gum takes three months and over 300,000 individual pieces are removed"

If you want to read more about pavement cleaning before the Olympics – click on the BBC permalink. We rather prefer the solution offered in Coyoacan, Mexico City (below) but doubt the tree can accommodate all that's necessary! A gum-tree!!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

"Sell by" to be outdated

Britons are said to throw away 30% of their food each week. To me, this says 'no freezer in the house'* and 'I hate leftovers'. But apparently some of it is due to the confusing labels on supermarket food. We currently have four levels of usage instructions:
"Sell by"
"Display until"
"Use by"
"Best before"

In this good news (ephemeral link below), the first two are exposed to be only inventory tools and have nothing to do with the edibility of the food. These are to be abolished! Hurray! It is stated that this will save 60% of food thrown out. The other two are for guidance only: "Use by" applying to perishable food like "soft cheese, ready-prepared meals and smoked fish", while stuff like "biscuits, jams, pickles, crisps and tinned foods [that's canned, to you]" get a "Best before" date.

Tinned foods? These are usually stamped with one or two years' usage. It took me seven years to eat the tinned foods I bought to see us through 2K. (Remember that? Turn of the millennium; computer clocks turning off the electric power stations, etc.? Never happened) My mother is still working her way through tinned dehydrated foods bought for the 1974 fuel shock, and I remember in my childhood eating tinned foods years old. That's what canning was for.

This all tells me that people have lost their senses how to tell if food is going bad. They have no concept of staleness or rancidness, or they would be able to tell for themselves whether the food is still edible. And there are no instructions how to avoid damaged or inflated tins. So even throwing out food by their "Use by" or "Best before" dates is a travesty if the food is still edible. 60% of 30% is 18%, so 18% more of food will be saved but 12% will still be thrown out. I say, use that freezer and eat leftovers!

* If I understand the DEFRA figures correctly, in 2010 there were about 30 million freezers (chest, up-right, fridge-freezers) in use in the UK among a population of 60 million. A Scottish survey shows this represents an increase of freezer ownership from 60% of households in 1990 to 94% in 2000.

Friday, 16 September 2011

British Museum gallery talks

The British Museum has an excellent programme of free lunchtime gallery talks (1.15-1.45) and other free lectures, often given by curators at the museum itself or by outside specialists. I attended one gallery talk recently on Chinese glazes by Nigel Wood, an expert on Chinese ceramic technology. It was excellent, covering both the changing pottery styles through Chinese history and the chemistry of the glazes in a nutshell. Instead of looking at slides in a lecture hall, these talks take place in the museum galleries themselves, and the lecturer moves among the cases talking about items therein. This is a most informative way to study when in a small group; and if the group is large, there are earphone amplifiers so that one can hear what's being said in the middle of the crowd. Regular visitors to the galleries drift in and out on the sidelines without being disruptive. But do make sure you know where the gallery is to get there on time because it is a spatially complicated museum! No need to book, just show up...

Yesterday I attended a talk in the Korea Foundation Gallery at the BM (sorry, that's what it's called here), where a guest curator from the Seoul National Museum was scheduled to talk about the new Korean materials there on loan from SNM or bought with funds donated by the Hahn Cultural Foundation. To my chagrin, however, the talk was given in Korean! There were only two people in attendance, myself and a Korean intern at the museum. My Korean isn't that good, and I only understood a little of what was said, but I thought, What a shame that the lecture wasn't in English to appeal to the more adventurous British and tourist public. Wouldn't the Korea Foundation want their gallery widely known? The gallery is well worth visiting, currently having Silla stoneware, and gold and beads from the Kyongju tombs in one case and Kaya iron armour for both men and horse in another. These are on short-term loan from SNM and will eventually be returned to Korea. The permanent exhibit contains ceramics of several ages including celedons, porcelains and punchong ware. Inlaid lacquer and metal works as well as an iron Buddha are also on display.

To see more about the Korea Gallery and Hahn Cultural Foundation:

Check out future activities and events at the British Museum at:

Thursday, 15 September 2011

NHS dentists

Yesterday I had to go to Cambridge to see my dentist. Even though I've moved away from there, I still travel back twice a year to keep my NHS (National Health Service) dentist. Once you find a good one, don't let them go! In parts of the country, NHS dentists have no more space on their rosters to accept new patients; I guess those rejected have to go private or do without (more likely). I had a terrible experience with a British-trained dentist early in my stay in Britain. It was after I had crushed two lower molars with too much or too energetic gum-chewing (another topic). He made a mess of capping them. So on the recommendation of the American Embassy, I next went to an American-trained private dentist in London (located in Cavendish Square behind the John Lewis department store – high rent area) but had to pay £300 for a filling, more than 6 times the NHS price (now £47 for a filling; check-up and cleaning only costs £17). Not again, thanks. He was kind enough to recommend a friend of his, also British but American-trained, who practiced in Cambridge, so I signed on with that one with the NHS to have my caps replaced. Then he retired but was succeeded by an Australian-trained dentist, and after that, I now have a South African-trained dentist. They all have done fabulous work. Don't give them up if they're good!

PS Have you ever noticed how many people in Britain are missing one or more pre-molar? A gap that is revealed when smiling? I asked my dentist why, and funnily enough, she hadn't noticed or thought about it. She decided, though, that the tooth is vulnerable because it gets heavy chewing but is not as strong as a molar; and it is not replaced because you have to pay extra for something like that – not covered by the NHS. And her final comment was that Brits don't seem to care about their teeth  – something that is rather widely noted and discussed in the vanity press!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

What? Brits say sorry?? Never!

The New York Bakery Co (?!) just released results of a survey revealing Brits say "sorry" on average 8 times a day or about 3000 times a year. What it doesn't say is that customer service here is miserable. You go into a shop with a complaint, and the shop assistants (doesn't all this sound very British?) NEVER say "I'm sorry" for your troubles, or for bad merchandise, or for poor service. They NEVER take responsibility and acknowledge that something is wrong. Politicians NEVER say "I'm sorry" either, living a philosophy never to admit your mistakes. It's all a very disconcerting aspect of "Living in England". I'm sorry, but the bakery's plans to offer 'brashness classes' is missing the point. The retail industry here needs complete retraining how to deal with customer complaints and admit they're sorry – because if they don't, they will be when they lose our business.

And anyway, how does this sorry business compare with other countries? I guess in New York (where the bakery, perhaps, is based?), lips are sealed, or do they say something else less printable? In Japan, it is de rigueur to apologize at once, whether or not you're involved, whether or not you're responsible or to blame. The apology smooths the way for lenient treatment; if one refuses to apologize, life can be very tough.


PS Wow, David Cameron apologized. But of course he wants the votes of half the population:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bollards in the City of London

TOPIC: bollard (pronounced 'bowl-lard')
Like, in all of these cutbacks and threats to the economy, why is the City of London implanting new bollards along their streets? Heavy iron things painted in classy black, red and silver. Each one must cost a fortune (though they appear to have been manufactured in the 1990s when we were all flush [see 1992 date on one below]). There are two kinds, too: tall skinny ones and squat bulky ones. The streets getting these fixtures already have double yellow lines (indicating no parking at any time, unloading for max 40 minutes) (but then again, you have to read the regs for each London borough because they define the lines differently, especially the application time of the regs). So are these bollards to keep cars from mounting the curb during loading? There must be three cars a day that use the streets where these bollards sit. And how long will they keep their nice shiny appearance, until they rust away like all iron does? Then we will have nasty hulks squatting on the pavements (sidewalks to you folks out there). Or will they employ an army of people to repaint them periodically?

  • "A bollard is a short vertical post. Originally it only meant a post used on a quay for mooring. The word now also describes a variety of structures to control or direct road traffic, such as posts arranged in a line to obstruct the passage of motor vehicles." ...