Friday, 24 December 2010


It's been a cold and uncomfortable December, but today's the last day in my usual marathon Christmas run and I'm looking forward to three days off. This year I never quite got round to the whole decorations thing. Dramatic window display aside. One year Ryan brought in a set of fairy lights that have to be two miles long, with seventeen million bulbs. It took us a long time to snake it around the shop and when it was switched on it filled the place with a weird light. And a strange low hum. Festive. They're somewhere in the basement, along with a pile of tinsel and suchlike.

I ought to be better at things like that - seasonal window displays, themed cabinets and so on. I will use the feeble excuse that I'm far too busy with lots of very important things. Anyway. I'll be open on the 28th again and hoping that there's no more snow. I have the VAT return to look forward to. One of the very important things.

Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Take us to our leader

The theory of evolution provides a clear, demonstrable mechanism for development and diversification of life, for the origination of new species and an explanation of the multitudes of shapes and sizes of living things. New ideas and insights are formed and the theory is built on incrementally with new information, but the underlying principle has remained solid. It is a fact that evolution happens - how and why it happens we can, and will, still learn much more about.

What remains the big question for science - and where those of a religious nature may still look for the hand of a god - is the very origin of life on Earth in the first instance. At what stage can something be called 'living'? It's not an easy question, really. We're comfortable with thinking of single-celled forms as living - though it's not much of a life - but at what point does chemistry become biology? Genetic replication? It's a field of science that sees a great deal of research, naturally, and there are a number of lines of thinking - hypotheses with evidential support which should eventually produce a single dominant theory. This, in turn, will gradually gain acceptance outwith the scientific world and act as a platform for further research. It takes a while for an idea to be suggested, tested, embraced, reach the textbooks and become... general knowledge.

At the moment, areas of work that may provide a solution include oceanic hydrothermal vents (black smokers), ribonucleaic acid (RNA) storing information and developing to DNA, and iron and sulphur layers in areas of volcanism. Another possibility suggested is that material from elsewhere provided the initial source material for life on Earth. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of the origins of life, merely shifts it elsewhere, but it could deliver an answer to what happened on our planet. Meteorites found in Sudan in 2008 contain amino acids, and other examples with these proto-proteins have been found in the past. It does seem very possible we may all be aliens.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Hermes vs The Elements

It's been a very cold, very snowy December. You may have noticed. Aside from keeping people from walking around town to do their Christmas shopping by throwing them all over the icy pavements and freezing their eyeballs into glassy frostballs, the weather has meant it's been difficult for people to deliver parcels.

More and more people are relying heavily on online shopping, and that's understandable. It's easy and convenient. It's warm and you can sit down. I'm very glad I got my site up this year after too long spent thinking about it. The website's first December has helped balance a little of the drop in walk-in trade, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm careful to get things in first class post the next day, but then it's in the hands of the professionals. And this month, that's not been looking like much of a safe bet. Royal Mail hasn't been too bad, have to say. A little slower perhaps, but even without the weather that can happen in the Christmas run-up anyway.

I have felt badly let down by my courier, though. I have a contract with them by way of pre-paid consignment notes - far cheaper than just arranging a delivery as and when. I had a decent sale from a customer in London, who had called the shop on a Saturday. It was packed and ready for collection on the Monday morning, due for pickup later that day. Nothing happened. I phoned the next day and they were apologetic, but expected collection within a few hours. Again, nothing. On the Wednesday, on phoning, I was told no collections were possible across all of Scotland until the following Monday. The customer was okay with this - as long as they made it by Christmas. On Wednesday the following week I finally gave in and phoned around other firms. I gave up on two as I couldn't get through on the phone. Eventually I found an alternative, promised the customer they would have it tomorrow and waited. And waited. The guy showed up 20 minutes after I was supposed to close, but I was very grateful to see him. Cost me an arm and a leg, but I felt the customer's patience had been tried enough.

It's great when a parcel you've been waiting for arrives, but it's also a nice feeling to walk out of a shop with your purchase.

[EDIT] Turns out the parcel, which should have been delivered on Wednesday, is still in a London depot on Saturday morning. Looking like Monday now - two weeks after it was supposed to be collected for next day delivery. Two weeks, two companies and outright failure. Still waiting for the second firm to call me and explain.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Meanwhile, on Hobbit Island...

Flores, in Indonesia, was home to a group of little folk called Homo floresiensis until around 12,000 years ago. They may have been a separate hominin species, or may have been a tribe of cretinous humans - small bodies, pinheads. I wrote a bit about them last year. They were found in 2004, when the  Lord of the Rings films were fresh in the mind, so were unsurprisingly nicknamed Hobbits.

Anyway - some bones have been found in a cave on the island that seem to have belonged to a giant form of marabou stork, Leptoptilus robustus. Scaling up, it was probably about 180cm tall, which would have been nearly twice the height of the hobbits. Marabous are scary looking enough at their current size, so I expect they were given a wide berth. Not quite a terror bird, but I'd bet it made the hobbits uneasy. The article touches on the possibility of the storks eating babies, but that's purely speculative. Turns the usual stork/baby thing on its head.

The island must have been a strange place - dwarf elephants and humans, giant rats, storks and lizards. Islands are often a source of unusual forms of well-known animals. Cut off from the rest of their population, new species gradually develop, and often change in size. Dwarf forms and giant forms. Without the same predators, food sources and so on, the pressures are different and form eventually reflects that. Hence Darwin's finches and tortoises on the Galapagos, for example. Lilliput and Blefuscu as well, of course.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Paired up

I got in a load of one our best sellers in time for Christmas. The ammonites from Majunga (or Mahajanga) in Madagascar are beautiful. The one to the left has been cut in half and the flat surfaces polished, but you can also get them polished on the outside, which shows the intricate suture pattern (below) off to best effect. From some layers the ammonites can be left as they are, when an opalescent layer within the shell shows a rainbow of colour. We sell a lot of these. While - generally speaking - the geologists tend to go for the rough, unpolished stuff, the polished ammonites are just appealing as objects, as decorative... things. Pretty things have a broad appeal.

The chambers of the ammonites shell have mostly been filled in with honey and amber coloured calcite crystals, the green/grey sediment the shells were deposited in, and sometimes the reddish polishing powder used in preparation. The combination of colours in the spiral pattern varies, and people go for different effects - some prefer an even colour throughout, some go for a mixture.

Most commonly, the site produces Cleoniceras cleon, Phylloceras inflatum and Douvilleiceras mammillatum, but there are also nautilus - Cymatoceras sakalavus - found there, like the one on the front page of the shop site. I've seen some huge examples, over a metre across, but mostly those have been cobbled together from pieces of a number of specimens. Usually, the biggest I have in stock are around 22cm across, and those are impressive enough.