Monthly Archives: February 2012

I wandered lonely as a cloud…

I know it’s not the done thing to diss the Romantic poets, but I’m not sure clouds are really lonely, are they? Let’s anthropomorphise them for a moment, and consider the evidence in a logical and scientific manner.


Cumulus clouds. They don't look lonely.

Cumulus is a lumpy cloud. Its name comes from the Latin for “mass” or “heap”. It’s a good description; a lumpy heap of cloud.

It has clearly-defined edges, and looks like cotton wool. In my head, I can sleep in them because they look so very comfy. And when I’m in aeroplanes, I always think it would be nice to jump out and land in one. In fact, it is the type of cloud drawn expertly by children everywhere, and can be found moonlighting as Father Christmas’s beard as and when required. A cloud such as this could not possibly be lonely.

Interesting fact about cumulus clouds: they form “streets” when they get together. And have street parties because they are harbingers of good weather; they don’t generally grow tall, and so do not participate in precipitation.


Stratocumulus cloud. A cumulus with a hangover.

Stratocumulus is a “flattened lump or heap”. So, basically, it’s a cumulus cloud with a hangover. It doesn’t get high, forming in the lowest two kilometres of the atmosphere and, like it’s more portly brethren, is not associated with precipitation.

I suppose an argument could be made for this cloud being lonely, but I would take issue with that. It has formed from a squishy mass of cumulus clouds, which is pretty neighbourly, and chose its own hungover state. It’s usually found in the company of others, which makes it fairly sociable.

Arguably, this cloud is not lonely either. Also, it indicates high pressure and stable winter weather. So it is a pleasant fellow.


Cirrostratus. Wispy. Friendly.

So named from the Latin cirrus, “wisp” or “curl”, and stratus, “layer”. A wispy layer of cloud. They spend their time high up in the atmosphere (between five and ten kilometres) as a veritable veil of ice crystals.

Cirrostratus halo. Spooky.

They often produce a halo effect (see photo) and indicate moist air and an approaching warm front. Cirrostratus and altostratus form from each other. Such close relationships indicate that cirrostratus are unlikely to be lonely clouds. Quite the opposite, in fact.


These wisps are the aloof clouds of the cloud world. They form in the highest and coldest regions of the trophosphere, are composed of ice crystals, do not bring rain, and they spawned Will ‘o’ the Wisp, Kenneth Williams’ alter ego and entertainer of children of the 80s.

There is a variety of different cirrus clouds – cirrostratus, described above, is just one type. Others include cirrus intortus, tools of the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to use clouds as instruments of torture. Cirrus castellanus is another type of cirrus cloud, used to build castles in the sky; and cirrus vertebratus has no backbone.

Cirrus clouds can be artificial too; contrails from aeroplanes are a type of cirrus cloud. You can judge wind direction up there by looking at how contrails are scattered. And if they persist, you know the relative humidity is quite high. If they disappear quickly, the air up there is very dry. So they’re useful things too.

But they all join with each other, and with other cloud types, and are most definitely not lonely.


Nimbostratus. Lonely, perhaps, but not wandering.

These are low-lying clouds that bring rain. They are named from the Latin “nimbus”, meaning rain, and “stratus”, meaning spread-out. They are big, with flat bases, and are often to be found engulfing the top of a hill. Of course, from the hill’s point of view this stratus cloud would be fog. They are the bullies of the cloud world, being big grey brooding miseries, and are the friends of the hills.

They produce dull and gloomy wet days, with the cloud base often touching the ground. The word “fug” describes them nicely.

I suppose that these clouds could be described as lonely. But they don’t wander, so my original point stands.


As part of Block 2: Air and Earth, we are studying weather systems. This is, sadly, not as interesting as I thought it might be. I think the extreme weather comes in later in the course. For now, the only thing that has held my interest is the clouds.

I love clouds. They bring depth and mood to the sky, and can often be found making interesting shapes – like pigs, and teapots, and – on the odd occasion – snakes and slippers.

They can also give you a clue as to what the weather may do next, if you know what you’re looking for. So this post was really for my benefit; to make sure I’ve got a vague idea of what clouds look like, and what they herald weather-wise.

I still think cumulus clouds would make a grand bed though. The laws of physics and common senses be damned.


Cheese Interlude the Second

Encouraged by Cheese Interlude the First, I present: Cheese Wars!

VQF Cheese wars. Right now, in my kitchen.

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DK likes this.

CC Oh noes! It’s World War Brie!

10 hours ago · Unlike · 3

VQF Edam busters!

10 hours ago · Like · 2

CC ‎6brie brie squadron. A brie too far. There must be other cheeses!

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CC Parmesan shaving private Ryan.

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CC The grater escape

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VQF Combining war, cheese and porn. Collett, I salute you.

10 hours ago · Like

VQF Caerphilly’s Heroes

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VQF Good manchego Vietnam

10 hours ago · Like · 1

AB Back to the Feta

10 hours ago · Like

AB Pretty in Peccorino

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CC NotwarFAIL.

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AB You wanna fight about it? 😡

10 hours ago · Like

CC Stilton crazy.

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CC Double Goucester jeopardy

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PF Where eagles dairy

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CC Haloumi Dolly

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AB Das Boursin

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PF Wensleydale Rider

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AB The Great Dolcelatte

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CC Memphis babybelle

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PF The Roquefort

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VQF Feta and Loathing in Las Vegas

9 hours ago · Like · 1

VQF World War Blue

9 hours ago · Like · 1

PF For a few dollars mozzarella

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VQF Full Mozzarella Jacket

9 hours ago · Like

AB The Dairy Dozen

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AB The Emmental has landed

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AB The Gouda Navarone

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JD Emmentalist.

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JD Gruyere of Living Dangerously.

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JD Wensleydale of the Jackal

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PF Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Cheddar.

8 hours ago · Like

CC The Philedelphia experiment.

7 hours ago · Like · 2

VQF Appalachian Now

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VQF All Quince on the Western Front

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VQF From Here to Emmentaal

Cheese Interlude the First

I love Facebook. I have wholeheartedly embraced social media, and this is one of the reasons why. My husband is in Sweden, and I am planning a Valentine’s Day cheesefest with two of my buddies. The following, taken from G’s Facebook page, and posted by me, is inspired by that. I love my FB buddies.

I’ve got the biggest piece of brie I’ve ever seen for tomorrow night. It ambushed me, and I was powerless to defend myself. My hands were full of other cheeses at the time, and they proved ineffective as defensive weaponry. It did, however, help me to kidnap wine and make good my escape. True story.

Like · · See friendship · 10 hours ago ·

AJ and GB like this.

JD Set the Stilton on it.

10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

JD Or the Danish Blue, and I don’t mean GB’s movie collection….

10 hours ago · Like

VQF They are fighting it out in the kitchen. There’s mould everywhere. It’s not looking good for the stilton…

10 hours ago · Like

JD Send in the Edam. “Ph, please don’t hit me, I’m so wishy-washy…”

10 hours ago · Like · 1

GB I also have brie, you can never have too much Brie, this is a true fact, might need to pick it up on the way back to yours else it might go bad. But also, since I’m unlikely to do the same run as you folks, I might go home have a shower and collect the cheese x

10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

VQF Oh god. Seriously, the brie is bigger than my entire head. The cheddar has joined in now. It’s like curdrophenia.

10 hours ago · Like

JD No, it can’t be? Here comes the Camembert!

10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

VQF Camembert has a fringe. Nobody takes it seriously.

10 hours ago · Like · 1

JD What’s that rolling down the hill – it’s Double Gloucester!

10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

VQF Followed closely by Stinking Bishop. The baby-eating bishop of Bath & Wells of the cheese world. Woe! Nothing is safe!

10 hours ago · Like

GB You realise I am actually imagining you acting this all out in your kitchen, wearing a military helmet and barking orders 🙂 x

10 hours ago · Like

VQF I am. What of it? 🙂 x

10 hours ago · Like · 1

JD Oh, I had Stinking Bishop for the first time last summer, and I was transported to another world of fluffy Cheshire clouds, with rocks made of Babybel and rivers of Dairylea and people composed entirely of Red Leicester. Mmm, cheese, Gromit!

9 hours ago · Unlike · 1

I put my faith in red shoes and new knickers

I don’t want to get into an argument about religion versus atheism, but a conversation on Radio 2 this morning about Shirley MacLaine and the “Mayan faith” pushed a few buttons.

Now, I don’t know much about Shirley MacLaine, but a quick Google search brings up a whole host of hits guaranteed to make me dig my fingernails into my palms and roll my eyes up into the back of my head. And not in a good way.

Here are a few examples: “The Life Force of Sacred Sites”; “Encounter Board: For those interested in Mayan prophecies”; “Faith and Reason: Apologetic Methods”; and a link to her new book “Sage-ing While Age-ing”.

Let’s ignore the nasty title of that – doubtless – weighty tome, and focus on the fact that she has “firmly established herself as a fearless, iconoclastic thinker and seeker of truth”. A quick scan of her books’ summaries suggests that she wouldn’t know truth if it slapped her in the face. And the use of the word “iconoclastic” in the blurb is, at the very least, ill advised.

I don’t mean to pick on the poor woman, she clearly has issues and a large hole in her life that she’s attempting to fill with “spirituality” and possibly the mysterious cities of gold; it simply happens that her name was mentioned on Chris Evans’s breakfast show today and triggered a few thoughts.

The first of these thoughts was irritation at the strangely persistent idea that the world will end in December of this year (2012) because it was foreseen by the Mayan people. And the second was that there is no “Mayan faith” any more, and what we do know of that people’s faith is sketchy at best. This led me to ponder the nature of faith and religion as a whole.

Taking the first thought: a quick Google, again, flipped this site at me like a pancake in a frying pan. It’ll do for a start. But here’s something I stole from the internet that probably sums it up much more succinctly. Plus, there are lolz.

All this set me to thinking about religion and belief systems.

I am an atheist, and proud of being so. I am standing up and declaring my beliefs. I do not believe in a god, or gods, or in fact any kind of supernatural being.

Other people’s beliefs bother me not a jot, as long as they are not forced upon others or used to justify a raft of bad and/or unpleasant behaviour. It baffles me at times; but then I suspect that feeling is mutual.

However, what does bother me is the endless list of daft arguments, accusations and insults levelled by the religious at atheists; there are so many misconceptions, and we non-believers find it very difficult to have a sensible discussion about religion without being accused of being “disrespectful”. You see, it’s often okay to disagree with me and my non-belief in a supernatural being, but as soon as the tables are turned, we are “disrespecting” the believers. Ennit.

But here, in my domain of science and reason (or, you know, mostly science and reason) I would like to address some of the erroneous (and sometimes insulting) arguments levelled at we atheists.

No moral compass

The first point, and one that really grates my carrot, is the idea that as atheists we have no moral compass and no reason to behave well towards fellow human beings. There seems to be some idea that we need a god to tell us how to behave.

This idea actually frightens me. Am I really to accept that, without some kind of a divine being, humans would just rampage around the world destroying everything and everyone in their path? That without a fictitious entity handing down a code of laws from on high, believers would be unable to exercise any restraint over their behaviour? That does the religious no credit at all, and cheapens faith in the eyes of everyone.

Our behavioural codes have evolved throughout history. We’ve moved on from hitting women over the head with clubs and dragging them back to caves (well, most of us have). We no longer simply take what we want at the expense of others (again, most of us don’t). As humans began to live more closely together and develop societies, it became obvious that without a code of behaviour, the whole group would suffer.

There will always be bad apples. But I put forward the hypothesis that it matters not a jot whether they believe in a god or believe in nothing at all. There will, simply, always be bad apples.

Prove it

The second point, and this is next on my list of “things that annoy me”, is that as an atheist, I cannot prove the non-existence of a god or gods. No, I cannot. And there is a very good reason for this. It has nothing to do with not being able to prove a negative (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), and everything to do with not putting forward a sensible hypothesis.

It is impossible to search “everywhere”, so if someone asserts that something exists somewhere, but doesn’t specify where, proving its existence or otherwise is going to be a little bit tricky. See Bertrand Russell’s silver teapot.

It is possible that there is a god-like entity somewhere in the Universe, but as we cannot search the entire Universe, it’s never going to be proven. But theists don’t mean that; they believe in a deity that is right here, right now. And so, the burden of proof lies there. Show me the evidence for your deity, the one that is right here, right now, all around you all the time.

It’s just a theory

Atheism is only a theory, too. Well, yes. I refer you to point number two. Evolution is only a theory (and that opens up a whole other can of nonsense with the creationists, so we’ll only touch on this briefly) but has behind it such a weight of evidence that it groans in the face of those who deny it.

Evidence to support the existence of an immortal, all-knowing and all-seeing supernatural being would need to be quite extraordinary, and I haven’t seen any yet. I’m not narrow minded: show me the evidence, and I will adjust my thinking accordingly.

“You might change your mind!”

Yes, I might. Atheists become believers all the time. And believers lose their faith all the time, too. A “miracle” might make me change my mind; so might bereavement. I can understand why wrenching loss could induce people to believe in some kind of an afterlife in which they are reunited with their loved ones, and if that brings comfort, then that could be a good thing – as long as it doesn’t replace the grieving and healing process.

I’m not set in stone. John Maynard Keynes said it best: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

There are many more similar arguments, some of which are tiringly circular, and I have not the time or inclination to tackle them. Likewise, I’m sure my answers to the above are a veritable pair of fishnet stockings in terms of clarity and completeness, but hey! This is just a blog, not a submission to a scientific journal.

And I shouldn’t have to, but I will, clarify that this is not an attack on religion, or people of faith.

I just prefer to put my faith in human beings. Some of them are quite extraordinary, and deserve the credit of being responsible for their own actions. And some of them are close to evil (whatever that is), and should not be allowed to devolve responsibility for their behaviour.

Human beings, red shoes and new knickers. They are tangible, (mostly) reliable, and capable of putting a smile on my face.

Snow, pain and science

This is going to be a mostly science-free post, as I have been busy for the last couple of days. Busy being a tough cookie, and busy recovering from said toughness.

However, a quick recap of where I’m at now: I am almost at the end of my virtual study tour in the Teign Valley, having just taken a look at the water composition of the river and its tributaries. I’ve got to be honest, the course isn’t gripping me so far. BUT – the books look much more interesting, so I shall not be disheartened.

It’s most definitely more of a “geography with science benefits” course, and I am very much looking forward to getting stuck into the pure science again after this course. Astrophysics all the way, baby!

I am, though, learning a lot about spreadsheets. This is useful, but dull. It’s driving me to drink.

Enough of that, though. I spent yesterday evening doing this: the Grim Night Terror. Here is what it looked like:


Yes, that is snow. Basically, we ran seven miles (it was supposed to be eight, but the ice necessitated a change of course) in an hour and ten minutes. In the snow. It was bloody good fun, and felt fabulous!

During the last mile, I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other – and then there were the crowds of onlookers. It’s astonishing the difference a bunch of strangers shouting encouragement can make. Suddenly, with their help and a man to overtake, I found a burst of speed and crossed the line at pace with a huge grin on my face.

That was nothing compared to the journey home though – four hours in heavy snow, with vehicles spinning off the motorway left, right and centre. It was quite exciting, and completely exhausting. Driving snow gave me flashbacks to my misspent youth…

With a swollen knee – not to mention the swollen sense of pride – I’ve just signed up for this one too: The NUTS Challenge. And I’m probably going to do the Tough Mudder in the summer.

I am this: NAILS. Factoid.

Sign up now. It is fun most excellent.