Sunday 30 January 2005

Meiji Stereo Microscope

When I was a kid,  my parents bought me a microscope. It was a very simple compound microscope that wasn't that good but nevertheless, I spent a lot of time mucking around with it. I found all the things in pond water quite amazing. I've been holding off getting a microscope for my own kids until the time seemed right. Indeed for young children, just a magnifying glass is best.

There are basically two kinds of microscopes. Low-powered stereo microscopes and high-powered compound microscopes. A stereo microscope is recommended as a first microscope for children since you don't have to prepare the specimen you want to examine and their relatively low magnifying powers means children can readily make sense of what they're seeing. It's also easier to operate.

I've been casually looking around at microscopes for a couple of years but I finally found this Meiji EMT stereo microscope on ebay and won the bid for it. It just does 10x and 30x magnification. I'm really pleased since I got it for a great price compared to what a brand new one sells for. Meiji is the third largest Japanese manufacturer of microscopes and seems to be well regarded.

Meiji EMT Stereo Microscope

The microscope boffins on the Internet all seem to agree that one should buy a second hand top brand microscope rather than the obscure (typically chinese) models. You certainly should avoid microscopes sold in toy stores. The very best brands seem to be Olympus, Nikon, Zeiss and Leica. Lieca owns the Leitz, Wild brands. Basically, the idea is to buy an entry level model from a brand that is commonly used in research labs. Their optics and build quality are stellar.

You don't need to buy it brand new. Microscopes have a very long lifespan; it's not like they wear out much. The main issue is accessories and spare parts. So buying a top brand model that is a few decades old is perfectly fine. Even the microscopes from the 50's and 60's can still be very good and are much sought after.

The kids had no problem figuring out how to use the stereo microscope. We've just started by looking at household items like coins, pens, tissues, leaves and dead bugs covered in dust found in our lamp shades. It should be fun as we find more insects in the spring time.

Meanwhile, I can feel myself getting addicted to ebay. I'm trawling it for a good bargain on a compound microscope so I can show the kids the interesting things I discovered in pond water so many years ago. 

Saturday 29 January 2005

Evita (Alan Parker, 1996)

Jenny picked this up the other day and we watched it. It didn't do much for me. The sets were lavish and it had some nice cinematography. Even Madonna wasn't as bad as I was expecting. But I just didn't enjoy the music and given that it's a musical, it failed to get me involved.

It was interesting reading up on Eva Perón afterwards and understanding the implications of some the scenes in the film. I didn't know anything about Evita before the film and film itself is just a caricature. Forget the film and just read the website about a remarkable woman at a remarkable time.

Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

It's rare that you find a really innovative film but Memento is definitely up there near the top. The plot is about a man, Lenny, who can't make new memories since the rape and murder of his wife. Lenny remembers everything before that event but his memory now only lasts five to ten minutes at a time. Lenny has only one purpose in life and that's to find his wife's killer and take revenge.

Christopher Nolan then uses this situation to explore lots of interesting questions about memory. How accurate is memory? How do you use memory? How can you remember to forget? How do you know what you want? Best of all, the entire narrative is from Lenny's perspective and in short segments that mimic Lenny's thinking. However, you start at the end of movie and you're shown progressively earlier and earlier segments of the movie until you get to the beginning where you finally figure out what's been going on. It's superb. Had to watch it twice to get my head around it.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday 25 January 2005

Waterstone's Sacks Blogger

Well it's quite interesting seeing how employers are reacting to employee's blogging. Of course, it's usually negative but I think Waterstones went too far with this one especially for a company that's all about selling opinions. I sent them an email letting them know I'm no longer one of their customers.

So Long Johnny

Johnny Carson passed away a couple of days ago. I certainly remember watching at lot of his shows. Here's his views on democracy:

He compared it to buying "a big house you can't afford, with money you don't have, to impress people you wish were dead. And, unlike communism, democracy does not mean having just one ineffective political party; it means having two ineffective political parties.

"Democracy is welcoming people from other lands, and giving them something to hold on to, usually a mop or a leaf blower. It means that with proper timing and scrupulous bookkeeping, anyone can die owing the government a huge amount of money... Democracy means free television, not good television, but free... And finally, democracy is the eagle on the back of a dollarbill, with 13 arrows in one claw, 13 leaves on a branch, 13 tail feathers, and 13 stars over its head. This signifies that when the white man came to this country, it was bad luck for the Indians, bad luck for the trees, bad luck for the wildlife, and lights out for the American eagle. I thank you."

Monday 24 January 2005

Tim Killed

R* discovered Tim's still little white body in the corner of his cage tonight. His head was splattered with blood and his eye was missing. Gruesome. She was very, very upset so I quickly took away the evidence and cleaned up the scene of the crime.

Gerbil murder is a messy business.

There's only one suspect. His brother Tom. But he's showing no sign of remorse whatsoever. Strange given that they were best mates for three years and always slept in a ball together. However we do suspect there has been some previous domestic violence. We've found Tim bleeding before but thought it might have been self-inflicted.

We're quite perplexed by what Tom's motives were. Living in a small cage is probably enough to make anyone psychopathic but I suspect that they just weren't getting enough food. Tom took matters into his own paws and bumped off the competition. I can see the ruthlessness in his eyes now. Never trust a gerbil.

I hope Tom feels cold tonight. That will make him sorry. We've decided on a garden ceremony and burial tomorrow. I guess I better prepare a eulogy.

Sunday 23 January 2005

Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997)

A charming film that's worth renting. The first half is a good comedy romance which gets you involved with the characters despite the bad English dubbing. Italians just move their lips faster than English speakers! In the second half, the characters are shipped to Auschwicz and the movie strives to blend humour with the tragedy of the Holocaust. Very tricky but it does pull it off for a heartwarming ending. Recommended.

The Corporation (Marck Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, 2003)

I've been waiting for an opportunity to see The Corporation for months and finally managed to catch it at a local independent cinema. Overall, it was very good. Not as slick a production as the other documentaries I've been watching lately but I was very interested in the topic.

It covers the rise of corporations in society and how they eventually got the legal status of a "person". It then investigates what kind of a "person" a corporation is and concludes that it's psychopathetic based on numerous anecdotes. The anecdotes can be very gripping but I find anecdotes are a weak way to prove anything. They're emotive and make it clear there's a problem but do little else. Few solutions are considered. It a nice touch that the view points of some right-wing thinktanks are aired to offer some balance. Despite the gloomy nature of the film, it does have an upbeat ending.

As it is, it's a long movie and the topic is massive. It would be great to expand it into a series of documentaries broadcast on TV. However, if you're really interested, a much better analysis can be found in the book "The Divine Right Of Capital" which takes aim at the roots of the problem.

This is a Canadian production and Jennifer Abbott even lives on Galiano Island. Nice to see a local film make it big.

Thursday 20 January 2005

Next Trackday

I've registered for a trackday run by I've never gone with this company before but their events look like really good value. They're run on airfields and perimeter roads rather than real race circuits so that keeps the price down. Their Heyford Academy Day 1 is held at a former US airforce base near Bicester and is mostly driving exercises and training rather than a full-on track session. That's perfect since I still don't know how to balance my car when I'm at the limits of traction. For £99, it seems like a good deal to me. Here's a write-up of a previous event run for the Caterham 7 club. This event can be followed by a level 2 Academy Day with more advanced training. If Day 1 goes well, I'm quite sure I'll sign up for Day 2.

If you want to join me, it's on Saturday, March 19th. I hope it's cold and wet. If it's cold, it helps cool the car. If it's wet, you get less tyre wear and lots of practice with understeer and oversteer.

Tuesday 18 January 2005

BBC: Dioxin found in German eggs

Arrrgghh. Organic and free range eggs are more at risk of being contaminated with dioxins because of the land the chickens are allowed to roam on. That's the only kind of eggs I buy!

This issue has only arisen in Germany but it could happen anywhere. It's so annoying to try and do the right thing and then discover the new risks you're taking. I'm also buying only organic and free range chicken when I can in order to avoid supporting the horror of poultry factory farming.

Power Of Nightmares Rebroadcast Tonight

The documentary Power Of Nightmares is being rebroadcast on BBC 2 starting at 23:20 tonight. If you haven't seen it, you really, really should. There's also part two tomorrow and part three the day after that.

It's a controversial documentary series which argues that the threat of terrorism to the West is a politically driven fantasy and that al-Qaeda is not really an organised network. It's a fascinating exploration of recent history and the rise to power of the neo-conservatives in the US and well as Islamic fundamentalist - both groups which benefit from the so called "War on Terror".

It's a must see. If you're not in the UK, it's possible to find the programmes on the Internet as a BitTorrent download.

Monday 17 January 2005

Remote Control Model Car Racing

remote control car racing

I took the kids last Sunday down to the outdoor race track of the Remote World Model Car Club located in Upton Park, Slough. I just recently discovered they existed. They race 1/8th scale off-road buggies. The club is seriously well organised with a great track, elevated rostrum, PA and track marshals. Indeed, they hosted the 2003 European championships. Good fun to watch and the smell of nitro certainly brought back memories. Just might add one of these to my toy acquisition list...

I know I've been lacks in posting photo's. I've now got a brand new camera phone and hope to post photo's more frequently. The picture is the start of one of the races.

Sunday 16 January 2005

BBC: Romanian woman gives birth at 66

You know, it just doesn't seem like a good idea to me to give birth to a child when you're a senior citizen. You ought to be reasonably fit to raise children and expect to be around for a lengthy part of their lives and your children's children's lives too. Personally, I think doctors shouldn't help anyone over 50 to try and conceive a child.

Friday 14 January 2005

Exotic Guitars

I haven't been playing for a quite a while but I still like to look at guitars. Here's some fantastic guitar creations.

Ski Fitness

I hurt. I really hurt.

I've decided to join a couple of friends skiing in the Pyrenees next month. With only three weeks to get my legs somewhat prepared for the task, I popped down to the gym for the first time in a year. My inner thigh muscles certainly did not appreciate me waking them from their slumber and have made their inadequacy very apparent. It's the same muscles that I didn't know existed until I attempted horse riding.

But as soon as I stop walking like a geriatric cowboy, I gotta get back to the gym. Here's an interesting article on which muscles you use for skiing. Here's a ski fitness workout.

Monday 10 January 2005

Signs of The Times: Where Are The Pay Phones?

We were out doing some errands and we needed to make a phone call. Jenny's mobile battery was too low and I wasn't carrying my mobile on me. No problem! Just do it the old fashioned way; find a pay phone. Do you think we could find a pay phone? A petrol station didn't have one. Even a community centre didn't have one but the receptionist let Jenny use the main switchboard phone.

Obviously with mobile phones, there's not as much need for payphones. In fact, according to ofcomwatch, BT has removed 17,500 payphones in the last two years. Of the 75,000 that remain, 27,000 are unprofitable due to payphone revenues dropping by 41% since 2000. So life gets harder for those without a mobile.

Today I was visiting the hospital and noticed a payphone (I'm now aware of payphones!) and it accepted euro's! That's the first time I've seen any coin-operated device in the UK that accepts euro's. That's a really major sign of the times.

Signs of The Times: URL Building Signs

I'm going to try a new series of blog entries I'm gonna call Signs Of The Times. It's just observations of the little things which are indicative of the bigger changes that are going on around us.

Today I drove past a local government building in Slough. It had a long sign in front of it right next to the road and all it had on it was a URL That's it. There was no other sign except for that one. URLs are pretty common in all kinds of places usually as a subtext to something else but this URL was the primary means of identifying the building. It's an example of how deep the terminology of the Internet is embedded in society.

The sign made sense as an easy way for the local government to promote access to its services through the Internet.

Sunday 9 January 2005

Googling Unsecure Webcams

Yep. It works. Find thousands of unsecure webcams around the world. The modern peeping tom.

Infernal Affairs (Wai Keung Lau, Siu Fai Mak, 2002)

I'm not big on cop shows. Got really bored of the genre. However "Infernal Affairs" was just superb. Actually this is a whole trilogy out of Hong Kong. After "Infernal Affairs I", you get a prequel "Infernal Affairs II" and you finally get the sequel "Infernal Affairs III". I've seen I & III and thoroughly enjoyed both. No doubt the first movie is the best but III was worthwhile. Can't wait to get my hands on II.

The basic plot of I is about two moles. One mole works for a triad and has infiltrated the police. Another mole works for the police and has infiltrated the triad. Both groups know a mole exists in their own organsiation and both moles are tasked on finding the other.

There are plenty of twists to the story and the narrative is very clever with the way it jumps around the story timeline. Along with dark and moody cinematography and excellent character acting, the film really builds up the tension and propels you along goading you to figure out what's going on before yet another twist is beset upon you. It's like a classic film noir thriller and miles away better than the shout, chase and shoot Hollywood cop drama style.

Highly recommended. I really hope Hollywood doesn't try and remake it.

BBC: Monsanto fined $1.5m for bribery

Monsanto is at the top of my list of vile corporations. They've admitted to "paying bribes to a number of other high-ranking officials between 1997 and 2002". Just more evidence about how low they will sink to push the GM agenda.

Wednesday 5 January 2005

Battle Royale 2: Requiem (Fukasaku, 2003)

Definitely not as good as the first film. Not by a long shot. Altogether, an uneven story and disappointing narrative. Too much over acting and the characters aren't as engaging. The plot seems to have been sacrificed in favour of gratuitous violence. The first film was superb at examining individual decisions to survival by violence. This film also asked questions about violence but failed to give any answers. It even flirted with criticims of the United States and the violence that country has committed towards other countries. But only flirt and it was totally irrelevant. That is the problem. The film touches many themes but just doesn't offer anything substantial or thought-provoking. It wasn't focussed and many motivations were left dangling.

Watch the original. Don't bother with this sequel.

Sunday 2 January 2005

House of Flying Daggers (Yimou Zhang, 2004)

Excellent film from the director of "Hero". This time it's set at the end of the Tang Dynasty. The same beautiful (and sometimes over-the-top) cinematography. The plot is enjoyably twisty but not as complicated and intriguing as the flashback narrative of Hero. Hero had too much flying around; I prefer the martials arts in Flying Daggers. It's still beyond credibility but not quite into fantasy. Flying Daggers is a better love story. However, it's a Chinese film and, as you know, Chinese films don't have happy endings. Highly recommended.

Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Superb Japanese animation from Hayao Miyazaki. This is the film he did before "Spirited Away" and shares much of the same style as that film. It's a wonderful cinematic creation from a fertile imagination exploring the man vs nature theme. One warming though. Yes it's animation but it's not a children's film. Lots of violence, blood and graphic war scenes. That said, I let my kids watch and they really enjoyed it. Like most animation, it can be a bit jerky and the lip-synch poor. It doesn't look like any computer animation was used. I found the ending satisfying but a bit ambiguous.

If you like Japanese animation, you shouldn't miss this. I'm looking forwarding to digging up Miyazaki's earlier works.

Happy New Year

I mentioned last year that I often get a bit melancholy as one year passes away and a new one starts. It's been no different this year and made particularyly poignant reflecting on the disaster in Asia. We spent a quiet New Years Eve at home. I don't have any real concrete plans for 2005 besides doing some sailing. No resolutions. My mother-in-law is over for a visit while Jenny under goes some elective surgery. It will take a few months for Jenny to fully recover.