Hot bird news!

I saw a firecrest in the park. Which is fab; certainly the best bird I’ve seen in the park, and one of my best sightings for south London.

It’s an attractive bird I haven’t seen for a very long time. And also it has a much commoner relative, the goldcrest, which is very similar looking except or an eyestripe, and so I’ve dutifully been checking every goldcrest I’ve seen for years — hundreds and hundreds of them in total, probably — and it’s gratifying that it has finally paid off.

‘Rodchenko & Popova’ at Tate Modern

I went to ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’ at Tate Modern today. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions in the past few years that feature Aleksandr Rodchenko*, so I wasn’t really sure how much I would get out of it, but in the event I enjoyed it. Firstly I didn’t know anything about Liubov Popova, and also they had a couple of rooms of paintings, which I certainly hadn’t seen many of before.

I think they were much better designers than painters, mind you — the paintings look like rather generic examples of early geometrical abstracts, to me — but it was still interesting to see them. And the graphic design work they had on display seemed to be a different selection from what I’d seen previously. So that was all good.

The Tate’s exhibition website doesn’t have much stuff on it — I’ve used most of the pictures in this post — but curiously enough, when I was looking for pictures, Google threw up the Tate’s Immunity from Seizure page which, currently as least, is full of (rather tiny) pictures of work from the exhibition. If you’re curious:

Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

Or you could check out this page of Rodchenko stuff from Howard Schickler Fine Art in New York, or this from MoMA.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that they’ve started using touchscreen iPods for their multimedia guides. Last time I got an multimedia guide at the Tate, it was on a Windows Mobile-fuelled piece of crap of some kind and it annoyed me so much that I complained about it at some length afterwards. I didn’t try the guide today, so I can’t offer a comparison, but it seems like a move in the right direction.

* There was an exhibition of his photography at the Hayward; at one stage the Tate had a room displaying his photomontages for USSR in Construction; he also featured in the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and the British Library’s exhibition of printed material from the European Avant-Garde.

» both pictures from the Tate website; the top one is Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918, and the bottom is Aleksandr Rodchenko’s design for an advertisement for the Mossel’ prom (Moscow agricultural industry) cafeteria, 1923.

iPhone field guides, please

I was interested to read Chris Clarke enthusing about iBird Explorer Plus, a field guide to North American birds for the iPhone, because it’s just about the first application I thought of when the phone was released. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent piece of software for Europe yet, but hopefully it will come.

It also seems relevant to a discussion that has been rumbling on in various places (e.g. this post which I found via Daring Fireball) about pricing for iPhone applications, about whether all the crappy applications for a couple of dollars will crowd out better software and prevent people from paying a more serious price for them.

Well, I paid £17 (about $30 at the time) for this book, probably the best field guide ever written, and I would cheerfully pay the same again just to have exactly the same information available on my phone. I paid £35 for a 4 CD set of the bird songs and calls of Europe. And I bought an iPod Nano just so I could have those bird songs with me when I was birdwatching. For a really well-designed application for the iPhone that combined the information and illustrations from the Collins guide with added audio and photographic reference, I would pay £40 without thinking and would probably go higher.

And that’s despite the fact that I don’t think the iPhone is ever going to make an ideal field guide: the advantages like portability and multimedia will never quite compensate for the small screen size. For proper birding I would want the book as well. But to have that information with me at all times, I’d certainly pay good money. And why stop there? I also own field guides to British wild flowers, butterflies, moths, trees, fungi, and insects. Since I don’t want to break my back, I don’t normally carry them around with me; I would love to have iPhone versions of them.

The thing is, I have difficulty thinking of pure functionality that you could add to the iPhone that I would spend a lot of money on. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, just that I don’t have the imgination to think what it is. But I would certainly pay for content.

Another example: amazing though Google Maps is, for walking in the UK, it’s no substitute for the appropriate Ordnance Survey map with all the footpaths and pubs marked on it. And while it would be nice to think that OS could sell digital versions of their maps slightly cheaper than the paper ones, I would pay the full price, grumbling a little, if I could. I paid £6 for a buggy version of the London Mini A-Z, so I guess I couldn’t complain about paying the same for an OS map. For a package that gave me coverage for the whole of, say, Sussex, Kent and Surrey at multiple resolutions, £50 or £60 wouldn’t seem like an unreasonable price.

Darwin’s other finches

The Galapagos finches are an icon of evolution. But you don’t have to go all the way to the Galapagos to see finches which have evolved different beaks and different body shapes in order to specialise for different kinds of food and different lifestyles.

These are all species of finch that Darwin might conceivably have seen in his garden in Kent, or perhaps when he dropped off his family at the church on Sunday and went for a country walk while they were in the service. Some would have been common; others are long shots. I’ve arranged them in approximate order of beak size in the classic Galapagos fashion.

The reason the Galapagos finches make such a good teaching example is that even to a casual observer they look closely related. Indeed, from personal experience I can say that they offer a tricky identification problem: when you have several species which are only distinguished by size and shape of beak, and those features are highly variable within the species anyway… it can be frustrating.

It’s very easy to use them to tell a straightforward story of a few original finches — maybe just a single pair — being blown across to the islands from South America, and then, as the population grew and split between different islands, diverging to fit into slightly different lifestyles. It is the evolutionary process reduced to the simplest possible case.

The evolutionary history of the species pictured here is no doubt rather more complicated; rather than being isolated on an oceanic archipelago, they are part of a family that ranges around the whole northern hemisphere and into Africa. And they look rather more distinct than the Galapagos species.

Even so, apart from a general similarity of body shape and behaviour, there are some suggestions in the plumage that these birds are related. The fact that so many species of finch have one or two pale wingbars is probably not a coincidence. And, after all, that’s what we mean when we say that species are part of the same family: they are all descended from some single ancestral species of finch. Perhaps that original finch had wingbars. Notice as well that they nearly all have slightly forked tails.

And although the story of these finches is so much more complicated and wide-ranging than the Galapagos species, it is essentially the same thing. Those first few finches may not have been isolated on an oceanic island, but it is still a story of a few ancestral birds, somewhere, who bred and spread into different areas, formed different populations, and adapted to subtly different ecological niches. There are still plenty of similarities; they are basically seed eaters, they tend to have complex songs, they are largely arboreal. But they vary from goldfinches who eat thistle seeds to hawfinches with a beak strong enough to crack open a cherry stone.

Darwin actually mentions finches in The Origin of Species. Since 1859, we have become more used to the idea that taxonomical groups (like ‘finches’) equate to shared bloodlines. But the things we know intellectually may still be hard to internalise. So it’s not surprising that, before he had told the world his idea, Darwin found people were uncomfortable with it:

when I first kept pigeons and watched the several kinds, knowing well how true they bred, I felt fully as much difficulty in believing that they could have descended from a common parent, as any naturalist could in coming to a similar conclusion in regard to the many species of finches, or other large groups of birds, in nature. One circumstance has struck me much; namely, that all the breeders of the various domestic animals and the cultivators of plants, with whom I have ever conversed, or whose treatises I have read, are firmly convinced that the several breeds to which each has attended, are descended from so many aboriginally distinct species. Ask, as I have asked, a celebrated raiser of Hereford cattle, whether his cattle might not have descended from long-horns, and he will laugh you to scorn. I have never met a pigeon, or poultry, or duck, or rabbit fancier, who was not fully convinced that each main breed was descended from a distinct species. Van Mons, in his treatise on pears and apples, shows how utterly he disbelieves that the several sorts, for instance a Ribston-pippin or Codlin-apple, could ever have proceeded from the seeds of the same tree. Innumerable other examples could be given. The explanation, I think, is simple: from long-continued study they are strongly impressed with the differences between the several races; and though they well know that each race varies slightly, for they win their prizes by selecting such slight differences, yet they ignore all general arguments, and refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during many successive generations. May not those naturalists who, knowing far less of the laws of inheritance than does the breeder, and knowing no more than he does of the intermediate links in the long lines of descent, yet admit that many of our domestic races have descended from the same parents—may they not learn a lesson of caution, when they deride the idea of species in a state of nature being lineal descendants of other species?

The Galapagos finches, incidentally, are not actually ‘true’ finches. That is, they are not members of the Fringillidae, the family that includes all the species pictured here. They were previously thought to be in the Emberizidae, another large family of seed-eating birds including the buntings, American sparrows, juncos and towhees. But apparently (and I’m only getting my information here from Wikipedia) the latest thinking is that they are tanagers.

Meanwhile, DNA testing has shown another notable island family, the Hawaiian honeycreepers, are in fact finches that have evolved to become nectar eating, with long, narrow curved beaks like sunbirds. And the euphonias, a group of blue and yellow birds that were previously thought to be tanagers, have been moved into the finches as well.

These changes are part of a revolution in taxonomy that has been enabled by DNA testing technology. How Darwin would have loved it.

» The finches pictured are, from top to bottom: siskin, redpoll, goldfinch, chaffinch, brambling, linnet, greenfinch, bullfinch, crossbill and hawfinch.

All the pictures except the goldfinch and the linnet are © Sergey Yeliseev and used under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence. The goldfinch is © Isidro Vila Verde and used under a by-nc licence. The linnet is © Ian-S and used under a by-nc-nd licence.


from The Spectator

The original Addison and Steele version of The Spectator from 1711, that is, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg to read on my phone. I thought this was amusing: 

As I was walking [in] the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder; and as I was wondering with my self what Use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an Acquaintance, who had the same Curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his Shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying Sparrows for the Opera. Sparrows for the Opera, says his Friend, licking his lips, what are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage.

[ long passage snipped ]

But to return to the Sparrows; there have been so many Flights of them let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays, they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper Scenes, so as to be seen flying in a Lady’s Bed-Chamber, or perching upon a King’s Throne; besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am credibly informed, that there was once a Design of casting into an Opera the Story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great Quantity of Mice; but Mr. Rich, the Proprietor of the Play-House, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the Cat to kill them all, and that consequently the Princes of his Stage might be as much infested with Mice, as the Prince of the Island was before the Cat’s arrival upon it; for which Reason he would not permit it to be Acted in his House.

One passing observation: I knew they used capital letters a lot more in the C18th, but I don’t think I realised that they capitalised every single noun, however important or trivial. As German still does, I think.

Some site housekeeping stuff

The very observant among you may notice that my separate book page has disappeared. That’s because I’ve increasingly been blogging about all the books I read anyway, so it just meant I was duplicating the information. And since I started posting to Goodreads, the situation is even more ridiculous, with me effectively posting the same text in three different places, all formatted slightly differently.

So, with a slight twinge of regret, because even if it was a bit pointless, I was quite pleased with that page from a design/coding point of view… I have killed it.

Other bits of minor news: I have started posting to twitter as @HeracliteanFire. And if you really want to follow my every online move, all this stuff — Flickr, delicious, twitter,, Goodreads, this blog and my photoblog — gets aggregated on FriendFeed.

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna is my book from Finland for the Read The World challenge. It makes something of a change: it’s short (130 pages!) and rather light. Most of the books I’ve read for this exercise have been rather serious novels about post-colonialism, dictatorship, the collapse of traditional cultures, civil war, the refugee experience and so on. Mainly no doubt because that was the C20th experience for so much of the world’s population, but also perhaps because of a translation bias: it’s the Serious Books which are most likely to find their way into English editions.


So, although I have a reasonably high tolerance for that kind of thing, it’s still a nice change to read something which is, at least superficially, lighter. The Year of the Hare is the story of Vatanen, a journalist whose car hits a leveret; he finds it, splints its leg, and essentially goes walkabout with the hare for company, leaving his job and his wife to go and work in the Finnish countryside.

The book has an episodic structure as Vatanen meets eccentric characters and gets caught up in mildly farcical adventures. People often come out rather badly, their chaotic and frequently ridiculous intrusions onto Vatanen’s life in contrast to the constant, quiet presence of the hare, and the book is clearly among other things a satire and a book about solitariness and being in Nature. But I don’t want to overburden it with interpretation: I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

» The picture is of course Albrecht Dürer’s A Young Hare, taken from Wikipedia. The most obvious choice imaginable, but it’s such a nice picture.

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