Friday, December 31, 2010

May all your Christmases be white....

This is exactly how I pictured Christmas in Canada. White crunchy frosting everywhere and a hoard of snowmen to form an Arctic version of a zombie apocalypse. However, the photo is actually of my parents' garden in Leicestershire, since the UK responded to my move north by promptly filling up with snow. It brought a whole new meaning to the old concept that everything you search for is in your own backyard. Literally.

The real question is though, was this a white Christmas?

Let's consider the facts: It was (1) Christmas Day and (2) white. You might think that this was rather damning evidence and that it was a straight-forward done deal.

And you would be wrong.

Apparently, the official criteria for a white Christmas is that a single snowflake must fall in the 24 hours of the 25th December anywhere in the UK. So in fact, everyone could be up to their necks in snow and living in igloos due to brain-eating Frostys having invaded their kitchens and it could still not be an official white Christmas. Conversely, London could be improving their tans, but if that solitary snowflake lands on a bag pipe in Edinburgh, a white Christmas it be!

The Met Office web pages reveal nine 'Official white Christmas monitoring sites', one presumes for the people who have decided to bet their life savings / house / pet dog / first born on it being a white Christmas in a particular year. These locations are Aberdeen Football Club, Aldergrove Airport in Belfast, the Bullring mall in Birmingham, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Edinburgh Castle, Glasgow Cathedral, Albert Dock in Liverpool, Buckingham Palace and Granada Studios in Manchester. Presumably, people are hired for this snowflake counting. It could be quite lucrative, if not in over-time pay, then in bribes from people whose partner has bet their eldest son.

So was 2010 a white Christmas in the UK?


Second children everywhere are disappointed.

Happy 2011, folks!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

'Twas the night before Christmas....

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring....

... Except me because I'd just blown one of the circuit breakers. Whoops.

Using my iPad as a flashlight, I wove through the dark living room to the fuse box and examined the situation. On the top row were a half dozen black rectangles that resembled dominoes. I had no idea what to make of those. The lower row showed six switches, one of which was in the 'off' position. Ah-ha! I was a genius! I flicked it to 'on', God said 'let there be light!' and....

.... nobody paid the slightest bit of attention.

I returned to the kitchen and confirmed that no one had listened there either. Dejectedly, I flicked the light switch a couple of times and returned to study the fuse box. It was after midnight, so possibly the best thing to do would be to go to bed and sort it out in the morning when it would be daylight and my parents would be awake. I looked at the switch I had just turned on and paused. Had I flicked the unmarked one on the end or the one beside it labelled 'cooker'? If it was the latter, then the oven had probably reset itself... The oven with the turkey in it.

That ... would be bad. Oh yes.

Deciding I would be in deeper trouble for letting such a catastrophe go unmentioned than for waking someone up, I crept upstairs with my iPad-flashlight. I have to say, the illumination from this make-shift lamp was not great; there should totally be an app for this. Creeping past my brother's room, I tapped on my parent's door.

"Mum? Uh... I blew all the lights.... And maybe the oven."

I'm unsure whether it was a reflection on my childhood that my mother seemed totally unphased by this occurrence. She located a real flashlight and I moved to documenting the events via twitter on my freed iPad as we moved around the house. Returning to the fuse box, Mum took out one of the domino thingos from the row above the familiar breaker switches. It turned out these were breakers too, but ones which you had to manually feed a strip of fuse wire into yourself.

I feel the need to confirm this was Christmas Eve 2010, not 1910.

One screwdriver and a length of 5 amp fuse wire later (5A for fuses, 15A for most electrical appliances and 30A for cookers. It's never too late in the year to improve your education of devices you thought you were born too late to have to deal with) and we were back in business. The other breaker switch that I had flicked turned out to be the unlabeled one and was not connected to anything. Actually, we're not sure, but Mum turned it back to 'off' to see if anyone complained.

"Sorry to wake you," I said sheepishly. "But I wouldn't have had a clue how to reset that fuse."

"It's fine," Mum said cheerily. "You can see why I study fossils now... Anything old is right up my alley!"

I consoled myself by thinking that at least I got to demonstrate how to get new mp3s onto her iPod this week.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hell is the lap of luxury

Christmas presents packed. Suitcase closed. Extremely large book in hand luggage in anticipation of 10 days at the airport while London tries to work out where the runway is under the snow. Cat.... zooming in concentric circles around the apartment. Apparently, someone suspects the way this morning is going to go down.


It took me two attempts to get Tallis into her carrier. The first time she escaped to hide under the bed in the basement bedroom. As I lifted the futon to shift it across the room, I had to give her credit for continuing to remain out-of-reach under the middle of the slats in a brilliant thwarting of my scheme. Three more laps around the apartment later and my clean white sweater was covered with dusty black paw prints but we were finally in the car. I hit the highway.

"Tallis?" I glanced briefly down at the suspiciously silent carrier on the floor by the passenger front seat.

No response.

"Hey kitkat! How are you doing?"


"Tal Tal...?" I stopped at a set of lights and took the opportunity to give the carrier a nudge. No response.

Had something awful happened? Did Tallis hurt herself as she was stuffed into the carrier? Was the black canvas holder in fact imbued with a rare poison that kills felines on contact as Tallis had always claimed? Had my crazy, selfish and (let's face it) highly unrealistic dream of going home for Christmas caused my poor sweet pussy cat to perish?! WAS I THE WORST CAT OWNER IN THE WORLD?

Concerned, I nearly missed the entrance to the 'Cat Castle' cattery, swerving into the driveway at a sharp angle and causing the cat carrier to roll onto its side.


Apparently, the silent treatment can be over-ridden by an even bigger reason for indignation.


Parking, I scooped up the carrier and we went inside the house to be met by several of the assistants who were coming out to top up the bird feeders (cat TV).

"Oh, it's Tallis! We love Tallis! She is such an angel! Hello, Tallis!"

This declaration of love and friendship was met with a hissing, spitting ball of fury as the smell of the other cats reached my same-species-phobic companion.

"..... She's thrilled to see you too!" I tried to cover up the noise as the carrier wobbled in my grip under its inhabitant inflating her fur to ten times its normal volume.

I let Tallis out in her roomy cage, sprinkling cat nip over the three levels of bedding. "Look at it this way," I told the cat eying me as if I were spreading dog urine on her food bowl. "At worst, it's less than two weeks, but if the news is anything to go by, Heathrow will be closed and I'll be back tomorrow."

Yellow-green eyes narrowed. The message was clear: Let it snow.

"We need to work on selflessness for the sake of others."


The translation of that I leave to the reader.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hot feet


"What's up?" I looked over at the cat sitting beside me on the desk.


"Is it the heated pad? Is it too hot?" I'd put down a small electric blanket on a cushion next to where I was working for Tallis to sit on. Technically, the box it came in said that it shouldn't be used on pets, but my friend had one that her cat used to love. I put my hand on the felty blue surface. Perhaps it was uncomfortable on the pads of her paws. "I can turn it down." I did so, clicking the control to 'medium'.


"You know .... you could always just get off it."


I picked her up and promptly received a vigorous face wash. I squinted out of one eye. "Do you just want me to hold you until the blanket cools?"


Apparently, yes. Cat is now curled in a ball on heated pad. Stroking has produced no interest.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Of reindeer and doll parts

My neighbors are enthusiastic about holiday decorations. As the end of October drew near, cobwebs began to creep over their eaves and a realistic, villainous looking crow took up residence on their front gate. The right side to their lawn was entirely covered by a gigantic inflatable black cat which must have obscured half the light coming through their front widow. Since it was approaching winter, I suppose there wasn't a huge amount of light to block, but I'm not sure how comfortable I'd be serving tea with the underside of a cat's tail pressed up against the panes.

That said, neither cat nor crow nor cobwebs were what really disturbed me as I walked past their front yard each day. It was the graves.

Of course, I know that Halloween is associated with the return of the dead. Indeed, its name is a variant of 'All Hallows Even', the night before All Hallows Day which, together with the following day, 'All Souls Day', commemorates those who have died.

The slightly gruesome twist on this for modern Halloween is nothing new and, indeed, if we were just talking about some spooky headstones with amusing bylines all would be well.

... It was really the doll's body parts sticking out of the freshly turned earth that I objected to. I mean, it was clear they weren't even connected. No one likes the idea of deformed doll zombies. NO ONE.

Now though, this is all gone. No black cat, no crow, no cobwebs. Instead, a equally mutant-sized inflatable penguin sits on the lawn and animatronic illuminated reindeer peacefully graze...

..... on the earth of the reassigned doll-zombie resurrection site.

It brings a whole new side to the term 're-gifting' .

Sunday, December 12, 2010


"Why aren't you on the ice?"

As one, we turned on the bench to see the director of our ice hockey league walking up behind us, carrying a clip board.

"We're not allowed until the referees get here," volunteered one of my team mates. "Last time we went on before them we got into trouble."

Helmets nodded in agreement. In truth we had been gathered up and lectured at length about skating before an official rink attendant was present. It was pointed out to us that no one was going to rush to take responsibility if something HORRIFIC and AWFUL happened during warm-up. Like ... a mass pile-up in the goal .... or a puck rebellion.

"That is wrong," our director told us crisply. "You are not minors."

Blank faces peered at her from behind wire helmet cages. We totally were a minor league team. If there had been a mistake and we were this night facing a team from the pro league .... oh my.

"You're over 18," the director explained patiently. "You don't need to wait for a referee to warm up. Get on the ice. This will be resolved tonight."

There are some people you argue with and some people you really don't. Unfortunately, both our league director and the referee were examples of the latter case. Still, since the referee wasn't here ... We pulled open the door and pushed out onto the ice just as our captain appeared.

"Hey! How come we're on the ice?"

"She told us to!" At least five arms shot out to point accusingly at the director, who had moved across to talk to the other team.

Yes, we're clearly twelve.... That was probably where the confusion arose from in the first place.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The North Pole: when Canada just isn't far north enough

For the second year in a row, the UK has more snow than Canada. This is what is known as "WRONG". The UK are supposed to get a maximum of half an inch of the white stuff somewhere near the beginning of February. The whole country then shuts down for 24 hours while the Government tries to ascertain whether cars / trains / shoes actually work in snow. By the time they have agreed that someone should be let out of their house to try it, the snow has melted and blissful ignorance is preserved. Canada, meanwhile, should be on skiis. Everyone. Even the geese. And the milk bags. I feel duped. Clearly, there is only one solution:

I must go further north.

Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand, there is a decided lack of computer facilities for theoretical astrophysics north of Canada. Perhaps, like Hawaiians who would really like to pay for their health care [*] if only they knew it, polar bears think they don't need simulated galaxies.


Until they come to their senses, however, I must fall back on the only activity I do more than astronomy: blogging. Quark Expeditions are running a competition to find an official blogger for their North Pole cruise. Apart from the whole trip-of-a-life-time factor, it's a job I would love more than any other. Unfortunately, they only select based on writing style from the top 5 competition entrants. To reach that top 5 everyone needs to vote for you.

And I mean EVERYONE.

I confess, I think this is a long shot. By the looks of things, I need at least 1,000 votes to stand a chance of making that 5.

But it would be incredible.

So I'm asking you, ALL OF YOU, to nominate me. Annoyingly, you need to register on the website to vote, but the spam you receive from them is small. I joined over a year ago and was sent less than 1 email a month. Please don't let that put you off.

Once you have done that .... thank you. Now I need you to go out into the world .... and make babies. Then get them email accounts so they can vote for me too. That done, pat the little tykes on the head and head out to accost at least ten people and get their votes. Preferably schizophrenics with multiple email addresses. If you get arrested for such antisocial behaviour ... I'm sorry ... but remember to direct your prison guard to the website. You have until February.

If it's any consolation, should I win, there's probably a fair chance I will fall into the mouth of a polar bear. In which case you can feel smug knowing that your small prison cell undoubtedly has more room than a stomach. This trip would also improve the content of my blog posts; I understand your complaints about the uneventful plumbing in Hamilton.

So please vote for me :-) Here ... here .... here ..... or maybe here. And here.

Plus here.

[* USA version of the Daily Show clip here.]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Green eggs, ham and twig fish

After a careful examination of cities, I have concluded that those closest to achieving the Buddhist state of nirvana are old factory buildings. These red bricked structures with their tall chimneys and wrought iron window decorations tend to be reincarnated as art galleries and sushi bars which Sex in the City assures us is a step towards paradise.

In Toronto, one such area is Liberty Village which was undoubtedly once thick with soot, but now is thick with gym goers mooching down from their loft conversions to pose by a running machine. It is also the location of a photography exhibition of a friend of mine, Ken Yan.

In keeping with the area, we began the day with brunch at an airy, pine attired restaurant with floor to ceiling windows. Attractive arrangements of greens were served with the dish of your choice which in my case was ....

Green eggs and ham.

It rocked, Dr Seuss style. (In case of alarm, I should probably mention the 'green' part of the scrambled eggs was spinach.)

The art gallery was in a boutique-sized shop down from a dance studio and opposite a yoga class. One wall was dedicated to 18 prints by Ken and the other had a massive wide angled photo of ....

.... So the problem with high resolution HUGE images is you spend all your time staring into the windows of taxi cabs and forget to look at the complete view. Yeah, I've no idea.

Ken's photos (she adds hastily) I did remember. One that particularly stood out was a picture of sunflowers in a similar design to van Gogh's famous painting. While produced with a camera rather than oils, Ken printed the photo on canvas to give it a painted feel. The result appeared to be a hybrid between a photo and a painting, leaving you unsure exactly which you were looking at.

Another photo I was admiring showed light reflected in a serene lake from which a few thin branches protruded in an arc. Ken told me a couple he had previously been showing it to had been indifferent until he had explained the title. My eyes slid down to the small square of card underneath the frame: "Twig fish". I was no artist and concluded this probably meant something deep. Maybe a commentary on the loneliness of the plant in the water, cut off from the lake shore. Or perhaps it was a reflection on the stick's sparse bark, a vision of scarcity in today's material world. I turned my head on one side.

Then again, maybe it was because the twigs combined with their reflection looked like a fish.

I nodded, tried to pretend I'd seen that straight away and made a mental note to not give up the day job for one as art critic.

When we left, it was starting to snow. It would have been so much more impressive if the UK hadn't got landed with twice as much. Perhaps if factories are on the doorstep to heaven, the UK is moving in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It was Sunday night and I was watching a game of American Football on TV.

Actually, no, that is a complete lie. For a start, I wasn't really watching the game since a large plate of nachos had appeared which was commanding my attention. Secondly, this was Canadian Football. Prior to that evening, I wasn't aware that Canadian Football differed from its southern counterpart. It appeared to be an equally inaccurately named sport in which players with incredibly padded upper bodies manipulated a non-ball like object without their feet. Fans around the room assured me however, that not only did the Canadian Football League (CFL) have different rules from the National Football League (NFL) in the USA, but that they both came into being quite independently at around the same time.

The story goes that in the mid-19th century, McGill University in Montreal learnt a variation of Rugby from the British Army who were garrisoned in the city. Over the border, meanwhile, Havard started playing what was known as the 'Boston Game' which was similar to football (ok, ok, 'soccer') but allowed the ball to be carried. In 1873, Yale University invited Havard (among others) to a convention to produce an official set of rules for college soccer football games. Harvard boycotted this, since Yale refused to consider the variations used in the Boston Game. Yale returned the favour by declining to play this mutant game with Harvard the following year and Harvard, in a huff, invited down McGill to play instead.

When McGill arrived, it became obvious that there were many differences between the Canadian game and the Boston Game, the latter of which still retained many of the features of soccer football. A hybrid of rules was mashed together for the tournament, but the Harvard team liked the new tactics so much that they adopted purely Canadian rules for the second half of the game. In 1875, Harvard managed to convince Yale this newest variation was a great idea, although Yale attempted a show of authority by insisting on a round ball for their match. This was almost certainly singularly pointless since people had lost interest in kicking it.

Nowadays, there are several subtle differences between the sports on either side of the border. The CFL have an extra player, giving 12 men per side, who plays a backfield position. The pitch is larger, being 110 yards long by 65 yards wide, compared to 100 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide. The ball is also a slightly different variation of not-round-and-ball-like. I was assured there were also some rule differences, but the basic concept of men wearing tight Lycra over their oversized pads while wrestling with one another seems remarkably similar.

The particular match that I was being instructed on was the 'Grey Cup', the championship of the CFL and equivalent of the USA Super Bowl. Having watched both, I would say there were some very noticeable differences that had nothing to do with the number of players or pitch size. For a start, the outside temperature measurement seemed to consist of the same digits, but with a minus sign in front of them. Players wore long sleeved shirts under their padding and mist rose from their mouths. The half-time musical act were forced to wear fingerless gloves and the necessity of layers made the chance of a 'costume malfunction' considerably lower. Oddly enough, the coach of the winning team still got covered with Gatorade.

Bizarrely, the CFL had a brief splurge where it expanded to include a number of teams from America. Since the two versions of North American football are still very similar, it is not entirely obvious how they sold this idea. The incorporated teams weren't even from confused border towns --perhaps angling for hospital as well as stadium access-- but from places that included California, Las Vegas and Baltimore. This USA invasion ran from 1992 - 1996, after which the league became entirely based in Canada once again, although this was in part because the only non-Canadian team to win the Grey Cup, the Baltimore Stallions, moved to Montreal.

So the game that started off being the same as real soccer football in the USA, was corrupted by the Brits teaching Rugby to the Canadians. Of course, we may yet come around full circle since interest in soccer is rising in the USA, who even bided to host the 2018 World Cup. Undoubtedly, this enthusiasm is due to their success in the last world cup in their match against England, which was summerised so perfectly by the New York Post:

World Cup Shocker: USA WINS 1:1

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Advent jabs

Tallis: "Meow!"

Me: "Meow."

Tallis: "Meeeeooooooowwwww!"

Me: "Meeeeeooooowwww."

Tallis: "Mowowowowwww!"

Me: "......"

Tallis: "........ meow?"

While the beginning of December marks the start of the Christmas celebrations for many, for Tallis and I it means that her annual vaccinations are due. It is not our favourite time of the year. She was already in her carrier, having entered back first; a feat only to be surpassed one hour later when she entered head first for the return journey. Needless to say, her displeasure at the situation was being vocalised.

I pushed open the door and placed the cat carrier on the front step while I locked the house up. To my surprise, there was silence behind me. I turned to see a giant pompom of fur with two shocked looking eyes in its centre. I suppose it was rather cold.

OK, it was snowing.

But the veterinary practice was only around the corner and at least we didn't have to drive anywhere. I headed off down the street, carrying my silent companion. The vet was a cheerful woman who clearly loved animals. It could have been a meeting full of seasonal cheer, but unfortunately Tallis' vocal chords had de-thawed in record time and she didn't hesitate to inform the poor vet exactly what she thought of her.

Oh, it was terrible (she protested to me, to the vet, to the veterinary nurse who dropped in later, to the receptionist at the front desk and to the cat that was coming in after us. Well, actually, that last one might have been random abuse.) This vile, cat-hating minion of Satan looked in my EARS and then she poked my TUMMY and then she listened to my CHEST and oh! It was bad.

The vet also gave her the vaccination shot, but oddly that didn't seem to register as problematic. The tummy inspection though? Hell. On. Earth. Right there.

The final verdict was health 90% (possibility of asthma to keep an eye on) and charm 2%. We left to make the blustery journey back home.

Me: "There. Was that really so bad?"

Tallis: ..... Didn't you see she touched my TUMMY?!?!

We are now watching the snow from the living room. I have a mug of tea which I narrowly resisted added whisky too (largely because I had only pure malt and it would be a waste to mix it) and Tallis is trying to sleep beside me. I say 'trying' because I'm on the watch for any side-effects from the vaccinations which I've translated as the need to poke her every few minutes.

Me: "Aren't you glad I'm at home to look after you?"

Tallis: .........

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A winning flush

It has been a life-long ambition to produce the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Except you know, written in Canada .... by a Brit. There are those who have suggested becoming an astrophysicist was not the way to go about this. Their points largely focus on the difficulty of placing the word 'physicist' with 'socially perceptive masterpiece' in the same sentence.

They may have been right.

I realised my galaxy simulations were not making the cut. What I needed was a topic everyone could relate to. One full of inner meaning, gut wrenching suspense and satisfactory endings. Then it came to me:


Are not these white porcelain bowls of glassy water a key part of every person's day? Moreover, are there not some days when it is a positive highlight to be near one, if only because there is a 50% chance the person you are trying to avoid is not allowed to follow you into the restroom? You may laugh, but not for long because:

BOOYAH! I won the Leap Local Travel Story Competition[*]!

For toilets. Yes. Japanese ones to be precise.

I admit that a 500 word article perhaps can't be classified as the full classic novel, but with an expansion into different plumbing across the globe, I think I can easily expand it to rival all 7 of the Harry Potter novels. Just think of the movies!

The editor of Leap Local reported what a couple of the judges had said about my piece. One, an American author, commented:

"Informative, witty, focused. Author understands that a single slice of pie reveals the taste of the whole. We see all of Japan in these metonymical toilets."

..... I'm really hoping I still have friends in Tokyo after this.

[*]Leap Local run a website (and newsletter) that contains recommendations for travellers in different countries. People contribute tips for accommodation, eating, site seeing and other services that might not necessarily be found in a standard guide book.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Six secrets

While driving home this evening, I was listening to the radio which was presenting a short review of the book 'Six Secrets of a Lasting Relationship'. Evidently feeling that the average listener would drive into a wall if there was any form of suspense, the host proceeded to reveal the 'six secrets' without preamble:

1. Talk TO your spouse, not AT them.

The way to tell this --for those unaware of the difference between a conversation and a monologue-- was revealed to be body language. If you are accidentally engaged in a single-sided diatribe, your spouse will be tense. On the other hand, if information is being exchanged by both parties, they will relax. 

Now arguably, your spouse is liable to have an emotion response range rather greater than the average poodle, so declaring when they will or will not feel relaxed seems rather arrogant. On the other hand, there's no denying that considering the other individual in any form at all can only be a positive step. I concluded that this book was starting at the basics and turned my attention to secret #2:

2. Don't assume you know what they are thinking before getting all the facts.

The example given was that you might think your spouse did not like visiting your parents because they LOATHED THEM BEYOND ANY OTHER CREATURE ON EARTH whereas in fact, they felt intimidated. The DJ went on to emphasise that there was a difference between these two states, although he made no intimation as to which one was preferable. I vaguely thought the first might be easier to deal with by way of being emotionally straight forward and relieving you of the embarrassment of endless reruns of baby photos. However....

... we had to talk to our partner and remember we're not an X-man with psychic powers. Got it. What's next?

3. Don't say things like 'you always listen to your mother's advice over mine'.

Here, we were told you are not only accusing your spouse of hurting your feelings but of doing it on purpose. Again, our helpful radio translator was there with the warning that this is WORSE than hurting someone accidentally. 

So no random accusations that make you sound like a pre-schooler. Next!

4. Don't be late.

Remember, your spouse's time is as valuable as yours.

Did I mention that this advice was presented entirely from the point of view of the man? I'm nicely generalising it here, but the radio presenter almost always used 'she' and 'her' when talking about the wronged spouse. While faintly amusing from my perspective, it left me wondering about the state of the (male) DJ's own personal life. This concern escalated several orders of magnitude for secret #5:

5. Don't bad mouth your spouse behind their back.... not even to your boyfriend or girlfriend.

.... does anyone else think that if you are talking to your BOYFRIEND or GIRLFRIEND, the exact contents of what you are saying is unlikely to impact your marriage significantly? I'm assuming this was a slip on the behalf of the DJ, since he made no suggestion that a useful tip to a successful relationship would be to NOT SEE ANYONE ELSE. He just ploughed right on with secret #6, which I've entirely forgotten since it seemed negligible after the revelations in point #5.

As I pulled into my driveway, I reviewed the secrets to long lasting happiness that I had learnt: talk to your partner, recall you're not omniscient, restrain from accusing them of intentionally trying to cause you irreparable emotional damage and don't describe them as a puke-ridden cockroach on facebook.

But having a spare girlfriend on the side is no big deal. So long as you're not late for dinner.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can unicorns go extinct?

The answer is apparently 'yes'.

Before I became lost in a whale's stomach, I was exploring the second special exhibit at the Ontario Science Museum on mythical creatures. (Any objections to the location of such a display should have been made when I described the Harry Potter themed production at said same science-focussed location). The question raised --whether a creature that only existed in people's imaginations could die-- was answered with the example of the Nasca killer whale. Heard of it? Well no, that's pretty much the point. Once though, it appeared to have been a legendary monster.

The Nasca lived in south Peru from around 1 - 700 AD. Many archaeological finds from that period depict a killer whale holding a human head. All stories centred around such a beast, however, have been lost. Indeed, from what is known about the people from that time, it is not possible to even ascertain if the creature was good or evil. Personally, I would have thought that holding a severed head intimated one of those two options, but apparently head collecting was the thing to do at the time and he might just have been trying to fit in.

Not only can these creatures die, but they are also victims of evolution. Unicorns, for instance, used to have the body of a goat with a short coloured horn and griffins did not always have wings. Likewise, there is the Canadian Inuit legend of Sedna (a human, not a planetoid) which describes how a girl rather rashly decides to marry a bird, unsurprisingly regrets it, and is rescued by her father. In a feathered fury, the jilted bird conjures up a storm and the father decides to cut his losses and throw Sedna overboard. Unwilling to comply, Sedna clings to the boat, forcing her father to cut off first her fingers and then the knuckles. The first of these become the whales of the ocean and the second the seals. Continuing to demonstrate an unhealthy tenacity, Sedna survives to persuade a dog to chew off her father's hands and feet. He curses them all which causes the earth to open and swallow them both into the underworld. While originally all human, mermaid images introduced by merchants and slaves later became became associated with Sedna. Such travellers' tales explain why legends that originated thousands of miles apart often share common features. Mermaids, apparently, always have a penchant for combs and mirrors.

The original origin of each mythical creature could stem from different courses. Largely, it seemed that their creation was the product of four distinct situations:

The first of these was that of mistaken identity, especially of decaying remains. One such example was a sea monster that turned out to be the carcass of a 9m basking shark. Likewise, in 1855, the Danish Zoologist, Japetus Steenstrup, proposed that the fabled sea bishop observed in the 16th century was actually a large squid. Of course, since the Giant Squid can be up to 18m in size and there is an even larger Colossal Squid with eyes as large as a human head, the classification of 'monster' becomes a bit of a mute point. Amusingly, in 1300, Marco Polo described seeing unicorns that were probably Sumatran Rhinos. Suffice to say, he was unimpressed by their beauty. A giraffe was later mistaken for a unicorn when it was presented to the Chinese Emperor in 1414 by the explorer, Cheng Ho. Possibly due to accounts of this tale, the Japanese word for giraffe, Kirin (麒麟), also means unicorn.

The second origin was fear. The open ocean, with its seemingly infinite extent in all directions including down, can seem to hold any number of horrors. In such a place, the arched backs of jumping dolphins could easily appear to be the many tentacles of a kraken. Matters were perhaps not helped by Konrad Lykosthenes, who published an encyclopedia in 1557 detailing the monsters awaiting sailors. Similarly, Conrad Gesner's 1563 zoological work included a hippocampus; a sea creature with a horse's head, reinforcing the theory of the time that every animal found on land had a counterpart in the ocean.

Many mythical creatures were created to explain mysterious phenomenon. For example, Mexican farm animals were sometimes found dead with open gashes. Such events were blamed on 'Chupacabra'; small blood sucking creatures with glowing red eyes who kill like vampires of the non-sparkly ilk. Modern medicine has since revealed that gas in a carcass can cause it to expand and form splits of seemingly surgical precision. Giant bones from extinct creatures, such as those from dinosaurs and the huge ape gigantopithecus blacki, were also frequently thought to only be explainable by mythical beasts. Even elephant skulls, understood when alive, could resemble the remains of a Cyclops in death, with the opening in the skull for the trunk the space for its single eye. The fact these creatures are associated with forges, incidentally, came from the ancient Greek blacksmiths, who wore an eye patch to protect their sight from flying sparks. The Greek mythology, meanwhile, explained the natural disasters of earthquakes and volcanoes as originating from the torment of the giant children of the gods Uranus and Gaia, trapped by Zeus after the battle of Gigantomachy.

Finally, there were mythical creatures whose existence was through a story with a moral. One such creature is the goblin-like, Japanese tengu, who live in the forests to mock and punish prideful people. Their legend tells of a man walking through a forest and finding a tengu who agrees to teach him the magical art of ninjutsu. Rather than use his new skills for worthwhile causes, the man kills and steals from travellers. In one unfortunate evil act too many, he tries to kill a slow farmer who was in his way. Rather than slay the poor man, his sword breaks, revealing said farmer to be the tengu and himself unable to use his powers again. The Japanese saying "tengu ni neru" (he is turning into a tengu) is commonly used to recall this tale and warn people against arrogance. In 1860, the Japanese government posted official notices to tengu asking them to temporarily vacate a certain mountain during a schedule visit by the shogun. I cannot help but feel this revealed a particularly honest view of the characters of the country's commanders.

Sometimes the origin of a creature cannot be even guessed at due to the age of its legend. Griffin illustrations are found that date back to 3300 BC. The Greek myths are known to be at least 2,700 years old, but their material is borrowed from still more ancient tales.

A few modern mythical beasts are created through more mundane means. In 1842, the people of New York City were enthralled by the shrivelled corpse of the 'feejee mermaid' . The creature was shown by P. T. Barnum who acquired it from a colleague in Boston. In reality, the little body was made by fusing the torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish. Such fakes were made in the East Indies and sold to British and American sailors in, what one can only suppose, was an early tourist trade. Ideally, one would like to think we are now above such mockery, yet pictures on the internet of mermaids washed up on shore after a tsunami beg to differ.

For some, the creation of phoney creatures is not so much trickery as an art form. Bob Slaughter had a distinguished career in palaeontology before moving into the business of making attractive fake fossils of small winged humans and their friends. His book on this appears to have fooled at least one reviewer. There is also the Coney Island artist, Takeshi Yamada, who creates 'gaffs' including a taxidermied rabbit with a fish tail.

Aspects from mythical beasts have also wound their way into modern associations. The pokemon character 'aipom' resemble the ahuizotl; a monkey creature with an unfortunate pastime of pulling people underwater and drowning them. 500 years ago, the same creature was carved into the wall of an Aztec temple as pictographic symbol of the ambitious Aztec leader who took its name. A similar creation with a taste for drowning is the Japanese kappa. When it's not disguising itself as a child in preparation for watery demises, the kappa apparently likes cucumbers, resulting in the sushi cucumber roll to be known as 'kappamaki'. It is also the origin of the phrase 'even kappas can drown', referring to the fact that even experts can make mistakes, and 'just a kappa fart' which a cruder form of 'a much ado about nothing'. Amusingly, the kappa is very much the product of the culture it was born in. Their strength originates from water in the bowl shaped dent in their head. To defeat the creature, you bow to it, whereupon manners will force it to bow in return, spilling the water and causing it to flee back to the river or pond.

Not all questions about mythical creatures were answered by this exhibit. As I stood in front of a model of the flying horse, Pegasus, child of Greek god Poseidon and monster Medusa, a teenager beside me turned to her friend and demanded, "How can two gods make a horse?"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hockey at midnight

I shot down the ice. My blades cut into the smooth surface in steady strokes. Ahead of me, the small black disc slid towards the far end. The referee was probably going to blow his whistle, but that didn't mean the defence shouldn't give chase. It was like flying.

Either that, or the fact our game hadn't started until 11:30 pm was addling my brains.

In my league, there are three time slots for games on Saturday night: 9:15, 10:15 and 11:15 pm. A balance is attempted so that no one team gets landed with all the late games, but those slots that we do get are universally hated. This week was a 'make-up' game, due to us missing a match last month because of a tournament. It resulted in a bizarre ice time and, in a strange twist, playing the exact same team as we did the week before. To top it all, this rival team was the one I was on the previous season so I had only the haziest idea of who was friend or foe out there.

Plus, I was exhausted.

Coming off the ice, I decided that next shift I would simply take a nap in front of the goal and hope this was disconcerting enough to cause the other team's shots to all go wide. I was just falling into a light doze on the bench when someone smacked the puck so hard it shot over the barrier. It ricocheted off the wall behind me with a loud bang and flew over my helmet to land by my skate. I picked it up with narrowed eyes and threw it back onto the ice.

"Are you awake now?" asked my team-mate, grinning, as she exchanged places with me.

Oh yes, this had gone too far. I had been hauled out in the middle of the night to play a confusing game against my old team in a surreal parody of the week before. Then to top it all, someone tries to kill me with a puck. I was tired, shocked and suffering from deja vu in which I played on both sides of this match.


Of course, given the previously listed problems, it wasn't obvious who 'they' were going to be.

The puck shot towards the opposition's net and I hung back to mark their right wing player. He was hanging by the blue line, ready to take the puck back down the rink towards our goal. But I had his number, I was on him like a fly on jam --an appropriate analogy since he was wearing a red helmet-- slamming on that pressure that was bound to cause him to make a mistake. Assuming that was, he noticed: he was the size of a bear. I consoled myself with the fact he'd probably trip over me if he turned.

The puck shot out the other side of the zone and I moved for a more prominent position, skating rings around the pursuing player. Literally so, I should add. He looked unsteady on his feet and I thought it might unsettle him. I then played a few rounds of hockey tennis, bouncing the puck toward the opponent's goal as it came my way three times in a row. I think I wasn't the only person having deja vu.

Then we won.

By 'we' I think I mean my current team. Either way, I credit my own awesome defence for the victory... or attack, if it was the other team that came out on top. That'll learn them for waking me up.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rock Band life

I was in the bar after hockey feeling that my life, frankly, rocked. With mingled horror and fascination, I was hearing of the troubles one of my team-mates was having with her soon-to-be-ex spouse. The situation was nasty: neither party was talking to the other and a judge had ruled a time-share on the kid .... and the house. The latter meant that for half the week, my friend wasn't allowed in her own home and had to couch surf around the town.

I was deeply sympathetic but could offer little apart from a potential surfing location if she ever started to seriously consider the ice rink as a bedroom. Despite us being almost the same age, I had neither kid, husband (past or present), mortgage or any form of asset that wasn't straight forwardly mine. It made my curses at indecipherable code errors seem like a picnic. The kind you have on a ridiculously sunny day where the provider of said packed lunch has remembered you don't like celery. 

In short, my life more than rocked. It was the equivalent to Rock Band 3, Lego edition, on the Playstation.

Fortunately, other members of our team had more practical advice. With bankers through to car salesmen in our ranks, we had most problems covered. They offered opinions on credit ratings while I sat there ready for anyone who had a problem with their star forming galactic clouds. (No one did, but someone is bound to next week. I mean, I can't go a day without running into these kind of issues). Somewhat alarmingly, there were also a number of people who had battled similar problems, including facing bankruptcy and custody wars.

My rocking life acquired a second keyboard.

One banker-turned-student offered his take on the situation. "You don't want to declare bankruptcy," he advised. "Or it'll be seven years before you can get a decent credit rating again. Then you'll end up like Elizabeth."


I accidentally swallowed an ice cube and spluttered while it painstakingly melted in my gullet.

"She's got no credit," my team-mate helpfully continued. "So she has to pay the bank to get a Visa. Plus, she moves so much that it appears as though she's defected on her rent almost every year."


... Well OK .... I did have to have a secured credit card because border control hates credit ratings crossing between countries even more than people. And yes, I had moved roughly every year since graduating in a crazy work-related globe trot but .... but .....

Fine. It was all true.

"I built up a solid credit rating in the US," I protested. "And I only move because of my job!"

"Did you explain that to the bank?"


"Did it make a difference?"

".... No."

My rock band life was reduced to a microphone with a faulty battery.

I was offered an extra slice of pizza. Clearly, it was felt that I might not see another meal until our next game. I took it. 7 years as a student leaves deeply ingrained habits regarding refusal of food.

"Cheer up!" I was slapped on the back. "At least you don't have to contend with dividing a household with an ex-husband or boyfriend!"

"If you do start sharing a house though," Another team-mate lifted a finger. "Charge them rent. That way, even if you break up after years together, you can declare them a tenant and not a common-law marriage partner!"

It is quite amazing what you learn. I sincerely hope that information will be utterly useless to me in the future.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Building dolphins

Yesterday, I built a dolphin. I made it as round as a ball but gave it a big tail for propulsion. It moved okay, but unfortunately couldn't turn fast enough to avoid hitting the underside of a propeller driven boat and exploding.

It was sad. Possibly, no one should employ me as a substitute god quite yet.

To console myself, I went to chill out in the heart of a blue whale. Weighing over 150 tons and measuring up to 39 m in length, the adult blue whale is the largest mammal that has ever lived. A 1:1 scale model of its heart is therefore a perfectly comfortable place to sit, at least once I had shoved the kids out through one of the valves.

I was at the Ontario Science Centre which had an exhibition running on whales. In pride of place (by necessity of its size) was the skeleton of a sperm whale whose 18m length stretched the length of the hall. It might fall short of its blue whale cousin, but the sperm whale is the largest toothed predator, even if it does use its teeth mainly for filtering and biting other males in fights. Blue whales have baleen plates that resemble giant brushes, rather than teeth, which filter huge quantities of water for krill; a technique known as 'lunge feeding'. Sperm whales and other toothed family members, such as dolphins, feed on individual prey such as giant squid. Because of this, the sperm whale also has the honour of having the largest nose that is actually a massive echolocation device which it uses to hunt squid down to depths of 2000m. By contrast, the human record for a dive is 82m. Rather than a tool for hunting, the noises made by baleen whales are used for communication, such as the humpbacked whales' song. Its low frequency allows the sound to cover huge distances so these solitary beasts can contact one another.

After I'd mentally redesigned a whale's insides into an entry for 'changing rooms', I started to wonder about how such a humongous mammal ended swimming. After all, one could hardly picture an elephant taking this as a personal challenge. I originally presumed that when mammals first left the ocean, a off-shoot stayed behind. These would then become whales, while the land-lovers developed two legs, shoved them under a computer desk and became graduate students wondering why they left the ocean and if it was too late to change their mind. In fact, it turned out I was wrong. The exhibition showed that whales developed from land animals who moved into the sea to take advantage of the food source there. Fossils exist of deeply confused creatures known as 'ambulocetus natans' (literally 'walking whale') that could both walk and swim. They appeared to hear sound through their lower jaw which was transmitted to the soft tissue leading to the ear in an early version of the echolocation mechanics of their descendants.

More soberly, another board discussed the problem of beached whales. In New Zealand, they have had to deal with a mass beaching of sperm whales whose huge bulk makes refloating almost impossible. Internal damage from the beaching is highly probable and the mammals rapidly overheat when stranded. When this happens, a fast, humane death is considered preferable and is carried out using a specialised device known as SWED: Sperm Whale Euthanasia Device. This is a single-shot anti-tank rifle, the kind of weapon usually designed to penetrate the armour of tanks. 

On a more cheerful note, New Zealand is also home to the smallest of the whale family, Hector's dolphin, whose length is just 1.5m. That's just over a 5th of the size of a newborn blue whale, which weights 3 tons at birth. I'm thinking not a crib from Ikea.

Friday, November 5, 2010

1984 and locally grown cucumbers

I have long believed I knew the source that would ultimately cause the downfall of human civilisation.

It was not, as seems to have been suspected by magazine headlines, that Brad Pitt's daughter enjoys dressing up as a boy. It was not even that googling 'Palin for President' produces serious hits (and one frankly awesome one). Nor was it that the Large Hadron Collider is planning to recreate a mini Big Bang or that there are people who will honestly freak out about this.


It was that the UK military satellite system is known as 'Skynet'.

However, I was wrong. This is merely a Hollywood decoy for the ultimate peril. The real threat comes from a far more covert operation; the UK's private health care sector. Unlike the headquarters for the Secret Intelligence Service which is pointed out on boat tours of the London Thames, few people suspect the UK even has private health insurance companies. This is what makes this idea brilliant.

And evil.

In truth, everyone in the UK is covered by the National Health Service and for emergencies, there is no competition. However, if you have a non-urgent complaint such as a nagging sports injury, you might find yourself on a waiting list just below the item 'improve the railway network'. For such times, some people (including my parents) invest in private health insurance.

While talking to my dad about his policy last weekend, I discovered that the cost of this added coverage changes depending on how much you exercise. On the surface, this seemed logical and harmless; fitter people are less likely to get sick and need to use private health facilities. It did nevertheless, raise one important question:

How do they know how much exercise you did?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was not the honesty of the client. I guess as a health service, their psychology was good enough to understand the limits of human self-interest. They turned out to have a variety of systems. The first was to offer you money off your gym membership. Once you applied for this, the gym would then record how often you went and pass this information on to the insurance company.

I chewed my lower lip. Having to 'check in' to the gym was a little bit like being back at school. I supposed with social networking sites now offering to list your location when you log in, many people did this optionally, but I still wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable with my free-time being recorded. There was also another problem:

"You don't use the gym," I pointed out to my dad. "You go out cycling. Does that not count?"

"Ah!" he replied enthusiastically. "They give you something for that!"

The 'something' turned out to be a heart monitor that you wore while you exercised and which then transmitted the data back to the insurance company. For a gadget geek like my dad, it was a good bit of fun .... of the ominously Orwellian kind. 

"It would get really worrying if an ambulance showed up at your door for a heart attack they could tell you were about to have in thirty minutes!" Dad suggested. ".... or maybe that would be reassuring. If it were a hearse that would be worse."

Yes, yes it would. I laughed. Then stopped and checked the street for stretched black cars.

And there was more. It was possible to link in your supermarket loyalty card and get an even larger discount based on the amount of fruit and vegetables you bought a week. I scratched my head, thinking this through.

"But you and Mum don't buy most of your veg from the supermarket," I said. "You get a vegetable box from the farmer's market."

"That's true," my dad pondered this. "Perhaps we could ask them to set up cameras in the house so they could see all the food we have coming in!"

My head hit the desk with a clonk. Move over Terminator, Big Brother is watching you. And it's all because the public demanded their vegetable boxes be registered.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Strands of hair stood up sparsely from my scalp like bristles on a toilet brush. I looked like an old doll which had lost most of its wiry curls. Just such a plastic princess lived in a chest somewhere at home and it was fairly certain I had been the cause of its alopecia. The person responsible for my current condition was standing just behind me, critically pulling at the hairs as she checked they were evenly distributed. Armed with a sharp-ended hook, she looked like she was sewing a wig directly into my head. If that had been true, I would have been anxious for her not to stop any time soon.

"We had to stop using the cap for most of our customers," she told me. "They just found it too uncomfortable." She pushed the hook down into a particularly large bald patch and punctured the skin-coloured rubber cap I was wearing, drawing another group of hairs through it.

Ha! Those cowards!

"It's just a bit uncomfortable," I said dismissively, taking the chance to throw a condescending glance around the rest of the salon. I have no idea if they saw; my eyes were watering fountains. The dust in the room was clearly dreadful.

Satisfied with the balding barbie look she had created, my torturer picked up a pot of bright red liquid and started to paint everything she had drawn through the rubber hat. I examined the hue with a degree of satisfaction. When I had arrived at the salon and declared I wanted to dye my hair red, my hairdresser had been sceptical.

"You'll have to get it re-done every 4-6 weeks," she warned me.

If she was disliking that idea, she would have really hated my original notion of platinum blond.

"Eh," I replied. "My hair is short. I can let it grow out."

My carefree attitude did not seem to reassure her. "That will give you a line," she warned again.

Personally, I thought she had a higher opinion of my fashion sense than there was any evidence to support. However, she did have an alternative suggestion; highlights would mix in with my natural hair colour, bring out the red tones already present and then grow out more naturally. It sounded like a plan we could both work with. I talked her up a few shades in brightness and here we were. Now looking like a balding doll who had been in a horrific accident.

Finishing up, the hairdresser snapped the cap further down over my ears before leaving me to enjoy my newly discovered silence with a couple of gossip magazines (Did you know Lindsay Lohan has a unrecognised half-sister? ... who is Lindsay Lohan?). Twenty-five minutes later, she reappeared to examine the results ... and gasped, exclaiming ....

.... well, I had no idea. I couldn't hear anything at all. Either the dye had taken or all my hair was about to drop out. Either way, I was going to get an interesting new look. I tried smiling brightly. There was no evidence this was the wrong reaction. Following directions that indicated the sinks were my next port of call, I sat while the excess liquid was washed out before the cap was pulled free with a pop.

Hello world, aren't you loud?

Venturing back to the mirror I ascertained two important points. Firstly, I still seemed to have a full head of hair. Secondly, it was bright coppery red. Even though highlighting colours only part of your hair, the overall effect is an all-through hue. From my experience with blond highlights, a week would see it settle in even more so it would become even harder to tell which sections had been dyed.

I was impressed. I looked like a fall tree and hopefully I wouldn't be clamouring to imitate the winter counterpart after a few months of root growth.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A letter to my analysis code

Dear Analysis Code,

I appreciate that you think I don't understand you. In fact, you're quite right. I freely admit that I was hoping my knowledge of your inner workings would have to extend no further than that needed for a paragraph in the 'Numerics' section of our paper. You see, I am not your author. It would be best to consider me more like a step-parent. The hands-off distant kind that took on the role after you'd left for college. I was hoping that your part had been played in the analysis of my simulation and now all I must do is gather together your outputs for presentation. I did not intend to run you again nor indeed did your sculptor, since he had left the field altogether.

Perhaps this hurt. Maybe you felt neglected as you were left to corrupt and your modification time-stamp slowly age. Or did you feel guilt, wondering repeatedly if it were your internal logic loops that drove your developer out of academia? Having now worked with you, I admit this cannot be ruled out. Whatever the reason, it has become clear to me in the last 24 hours that your revenge has been planned a while.

How you must have laughed when I started rummaging through your files. It was true that you were needed, desperately needed, once again. Without you, the paper and the months of work I had put into it would be wasted. The files I had been using were wrong and the updated analysis had never been completed. I needed to do it myself. I needed you.

You had me over a barrel, Code, and I think you knew this. Not for you though, were obvious scenes of displeasure. It would have been too simple to just not compile, throw up 'library not found' errors or run out of memory. They were all problems I was expecting and therefore beneath you. Instead you compiled, you ran smoothly and outputted the expected data while I held my breath. I thought I had been victorious and my delight was great. Then, after four different operations, I looked at one of the results.

It didn't look totally wrong.

But it didn't look totally right.

In fact, I might have passed it by in my elation had I not being paying careful attention. I believe this was your plan. To force me to re-complete the paper only to later realise the results were still incorrect. It did not work. I saw through your fake productions and realised there had been a error. But how was this possible? It's true this was a different data set, but the changes were marginal compared to what you had run before. The main difference was there were more simulation times to analyse. Did you realise this, Code? Is that why you decided to strike? You knew you would have to iterate through not 29 outputs but 73? Did you think that maybe I was not overly enthused by the prospect of this either?


Yes. Yes you did, and you demanded vengeance.

You knew the only way to get to the bottom of this problem was to read your source files. All of them. And discover exactly what made you tick. You didn't want to be used, you wanted to be understood. I confess, I was only in this for the publication. That was never enough for you.

So here we are, you and me. Right where we were at 10:30 pm last night. If we're still here at the weekend I may burn you onto a DVD just so I can throw you out the door. Perhaps you think that if I understand how you work, I'll use you again. It is a ruthless plan that I've come to associate with you. Just so you know though, Code, the success of this is intimately tied to this paper being accepted for publication. If it isn't, I swear that I will hunt down every last version of you and delete them from disk.

You are not the only one who can be vengeful.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"What can I get for you?"

"I'll have a soy tall, double shot, triple whipped, hazelnut mocha latte."

I tried really hard to make this order sound damn casual, with a side helping of narcissistic diva. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but feel guilty at making such a complex request of the Starbucks barista. Also, I was reading the order from my iPhone. I shot the woman an apologetic look. She grinned and we went through it again more slowly.

The reason I was attempting to purchase the most complicated drink on the menu when I normally just got a tea came down to .... fan fiction. Did I mention I spend a large fraction of my personal time pretending I am a middle school Japanese tennis player? Rarely? Huh. I can't imagine why. Anyway, accepting this, now put said Japanese boy in a story set in an alternative universe in which he orders incredibly complex drinks from Starbucks because he is an arrogant prick. Still with me? No...

Look, it's all here:

The reason why Elizabeth ordered a crazy drink at Starbucks

It was written by a friend and I role-play (in a unconnected game) the character Atobe who orders this drink as if it is water. Therefore I had to do this. Obviously.

It's similar to how I made myself like ginger beer as a child because all the school kids in Enid Blyton books drank it at midnight feasts. I think when I write a best seller, all the characters are going to have cravings for broccoli.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I absolutely judge people. You think I'm being friendly when I shake your hand but really? TOTALLY JUDGING YOU. Oh yes.

This addiction to on-the-spot superficial character analysis has been given a full and unhealthy scope in my creative writing evening class.  Why, there is even a section of the syllabus on character development so it is practically an assignment to UNFAIRLY JUDGE EVERYONE IN THE ROOM.

Take the two girls who normally sit to my left. They have long, dyed blond hair, never finish the assignments and wear more make-up than I would ever have the patience to put on. Or the ability. I THEREFORE JUDGE THEM AS BIMBOS. Plus, they look disconcertingly identical so I judge them as bimbos WHO I AM CREEPED OUT BY.

While I pack a couple of pens and a writing pad to come to class, the bimbos pack their boyfriends. One of these lover accessories likes his characters in a certain state; namely dead. No assignment of his is complete without a body count higher than the class attendance. This demise has to be achieved with at least 6 implements intent on demonstrating the meaning of mortality, all of which are wielded so inexpertly that the room became red with blood. Even when it is a cavernous ballroom. It swiftly became a personal rule to eat lightly before class. Then last week he vanished to join a full time program. When I heard this my eyes narrowed. Partly because I could have eaten dinner. Partly because it was late in the semester for a place to become available on a course. The feeling of unease was compounded by the fact he was obviously PLANNING A HOMICIDE. Or 50. I therefore judged him right there and then as AN AXE MURDERER.

At the back of the class sits a curvaceous young man with a portfolio case and over-grown hair. Originally he was silent. I instantly judged  him as a SOCIAL MISFIT. Now though, he sits at the front of the class, interrupts to randomly agree with our teacher and points while he speaks. When finally asked to be quiet because someone else was reading he responded "It's ok, I've finished." I therefore changed my mind. He is now an EGOTISTICAL POINTY SOCIAL MISFIT.

Then there is the guy with the stubbly chin, shoulder length hair and tinted glasses. He feels the need to stop and add explanation of his work as he reads it which is CONFUSING. I judged him as intentionally cultivating the look of a writer and therefore TRYING TOO HARD. However, in several weeks the act hasn't slipped. So I graciously retracted my judgment. I now judge him as BEING ON DRUGS.

Finally, there is the girl who had short blond hair, has recently turned 30 and keeps a blog.

... indescribably I feel slightly freaked out by this.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Accidentally peverting the course of justice

As I have mentioned in previous posts of things-that-have-got-me-into-trouble, I tend to bounce about when I listen to my iPod. The song and the random thoughts passing through my head add together in a non-linear way to dictate my speed down the street.

This evening, I thought I could bribe myself to actually do my Japanese homework ('describe your week') if I relocated to a Starbucks and ordered a pumpkin latte. So I set off down the road at a slow walk listening to "Angels on the Moon". This then morphed into "Juliet" and I was forced to leap into the air and spring away at top speed ... right past two police cars that were evidently scoping out the area.


I slowed and looked back to see a police officer watching me. It was unfortunate but I didn't feel I could turn back and ask if my behaviour had just labelled me as PRIME SUSPECT #1 for a mass burglary of all these houses. Besides, they'd been watching the street a while so they knew I hadn't done anything.


I turned the corner, bobbing my head a bit to make it clear I was listening to music. I might have started singing along to complete the picture, but at that moment the main lyric was "I can't decide whether you should live or die" and I decided against it.

As I walked down the next street towards the main road, the police car came up behind me to pull in just up ahead, cutting me off. I turned off my iPod. It seemed a wise idea in this case.

"Are you Victoria?" the policeman stepped from the car and smiled politely at me.

"....No," I said, hoping this was the right answer. It seemed the one least likely to cause trouble but it was always possible that there had been a horrifically violent crime and all they knew was the culprit's first name didn't start with a 'V'.

"Ah." The eyes of the law did not look overly convinced. "We're looking for a woman by that name and you ran past our car."

"Yeah." I had to admit it looked rather suspect. "I realised that after I'd started sprinting."

I produced ID which the officer checked before thanking me for my time. No doubt he made a note of my name on a list of possible insane residents in the neighbourhood. I continued at a sedate pace onto Starbucks, trying to recall the word for "police" in Japanese.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Milk bags

Today I bought milk in a bag. The type of bag that you'd buy rice or nuts in or another solid food item that definitely wasn't a liquid from a cow.

Canada, that's STRANGE. Just so you know.

So strange in fact that for my first year in Ontario I stuck to buying normal cartons. This was also due to the fact that the milk-in-a-bag came in four litre quantities, which seems a bit extreme for me and a cat. I contemplated regularly making white russians for group meeting, rather than buying cookies, but decided it would be a hassle to bring in the glasses every week. So I stuck to cartons until it was revealed to me that inside every four litre bag were in fact three 1-and-a-bit litre bags. Why, it was like matryoshka dolls! So I froze two and dumped the third one in a milk jug with the corner snipped off its tip. Magic. In a bag.

It is, however, still STRANGE. Canada, don't think I've changed my mind about that.

Apparently, the idea of selling milk in a bag was introduced in the UK by the supermarket Waitrose in 2007. Unfortunately it utterly defeated the BBC's technology correspondent and was given up on this April.

That is because people thought it was STRANGE.

Also, we tried to complicate the issue with a clever container rather than telling people to go buy a pair of scissors.

A rival chain, Sainsbury's, is now going to give it another go with an alternative advertising campaign. Rather than focussing on the environmental aspects which went out the window as soon as the bag split, articles surrounding Sainbury's decision always mention one fact:

Canadians like milk bags.

And nobody likes to be outdone by the colonies. Canada itself, however, seems to be suffering from doubt, possibly brought on from the UK outright rejecting milk bags as ...


The online environmental magazine, the published two articles concerning milk bags. The first came out when the UK were looking askance at the whole idea in 2008 and had the encouraging title "Milk Bags a Hit in Canada, UK". A bold statement that Sainbury's have since picked up on. However, a recent article from this summer was entitled "Is Drinking Milk From Bags Weird?".

Yes. Yes it is. We are pleased you have noticed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A question of doubt

"I can never trust you again. My entire perception of you has changed."

How exactly do you respond to something like that? I finished my mouthful of food and tried to ascertain what horrific act of wanton cruelty I had committed in the preceding ten minutes. Apart from my lunch containing chicken, there were no obvious possibilities. And if my (apparently erstwhile) friend had a particular affinity to feathered fowl well ... he should have mentioned it before I reached for the second half of the sandwich.

"Have you not moved on from the conversation we were having at the start of lunch?" I guessed.

"No!" He had stopped eating to stare in horror across the table. "I still can't believe it!"

The lunch-table topic had been the question of whether you should be legally obliged to reveal to your partner that you have committed a serious crime, if you met them after you'd been freed from jail. My opinion was no, relationships are private and not a matter in which the government had a right to interfere. If you had served your time in jail and been released, you should have the same rights as any other innocent citizen. My friend's opinion focused on concern that a late revelation of such an act after, for example, marriage and children, would ruin the life of the ex-criminal's partner. He pointed out that there was some precedent for his view in the existence of the sex offenders list, which proved that it was not universally considered that serving your time in jail was always sufficient.

"You might be hiding something from me that would affect me negatively if I found out!" he accused.

"Well, we clearly should have hidden this from you," cheerfully remarked another friend who agreed with me. "Then you wouldn't be accusing us now!"

"You could be right though," someone else commented sinisterly. "Actually they've both served concurrent life sentences."

"True," I agreed. The tomato juice from my sandwich had started to run down my hands. I rose to go and locate a cloth. "They're called postdocs."

Friday, October 1, 2010


So last weekend I single handedly defended the physics department from having EVERY SINGLE COMPUTER stolen. And probably all the chalk too. Either that, or I just blew my career right out the water by declaring that an eminent professor was a bounder and a cad. One of the two.

My office mate was leaving. Her thesis was defended and the finished product stacked neatly on her empty desk ready for submission. (It would be later hidden by our advisor in a last-minute psychological experiment ... possibly suggested by me. BUT HE DID IT.) I had come in on Saturday afternoon to help her move her books, papers and two towels (I have no idea) back to her apartment to be packed for her move to California next week. 

As I approached the door to the main building a figure started towards me. He has been loitering on the opposite side of the road, but now he hurried across to stand a mere half step behind me as I fumbled for my keys. When I opened the door, his hand shot out over my shoulder to catch the edge and pull it open.

Boldly, I turned to look the man squarely in the eyes. I admit, he didn't exactly look like your stereotypical robber. Wearing a suit and being significantly over 70 he looked more like ... I dunno .... some distinguished Professor Emeritus.  But I was sure it was just a guise! Beneath that grandfatherly exterior lived a World of Warcraft fanatic, desperate to get his hands on our computing cluster for more power and probably the sword of Azeroth. 

"Could I see some ID?" I inquired, a steely look in my eye.

"Excuse me?" replied gentleman, a.k.a. Horde Undead Rogue

"I can't really let you into the building with seeing some ID, if you don't have your key," I explained, pleasantly. Ha! Where's your sword now, buster?

"I'm a distinguished Professor Emeritus!" the gentleman protested.


Okay, I admit, he didn't actually say 'distinguished' but it was totally implied. I prayed he wasn't some famous guy in my field who I had just completely failed to recognise.

It was times like this, I wished I'd focussed on astro-particle cosmology. Then the most famous person in my field would be Stephen Hawking. Dead easy to spot and I could totally have made a get away long before he'd have had the chance to accost me in the doorway of a building.  As it was I stood slightly awkwardly while the Professor Emeritus dug in his wallet for his university ID.

Admittedly, I didn't actually check the name on the card wasn't "Horde Undead Rogue" but it was so totally time to leave. I apologised and scooted off down the corridor at a pace that ensured he would never discover what sub-department I was in.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The power of the pen

The Physics department is going to publish my blog.

Well, not absolutely exactly but near enough for me to be highly entertained. Possibly for weeks.

This rather unlikely scenario was triggered when I saw that the University of Florida had started a department blog. They included news from their research groups, awards and achievements of department members and details of other projects that people were involved in. All in all, it was a great idea and I therefore decided to STEAL IT INSTANTLY AND MAKE IT MY OWN.

So, armed with the Florida blog as a template, an example entry I'd drafted for my own research group and a suggested plan for future posts, I went to see our outreach coordinator.

"I like it," she said, nodding. "But I'm thinking it might be more memorable as a personal perspective on the department. Especially if it were coming from a postdoc, since we don't often hear much from them."

"So ....," I said slowly. "You mean .... like my blog?"

"You keep a blog?"

I emailed her the URL. It transpired to be exactly what she had in mind, although with a focus more on physics and less on stylish footwear for your favourite bovine. I have no idea why.

Walking back upstairs, I joined my research group for our weekly meeting.

"I am going to do a personal blog for the department," I announced as I poured hot water into my tea cup.

"You could write all sorts of things about the faculty!" someone pointed out.

This immediately provoked a discussion that was engaging, entertaining and ended abruptly by me, least my adviser see the folly of the situation and cut the idea dead in the water.

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," he said in a relaxed tone. "I would just read it and if you had written anything unsuitable ... I'd cut your funding."

I stopped with my mug half-way to my mouth.

"You could write good things about the department!" one of my friends cut in with a swift attempt at damage control.

"Yes, that's true," my adviser picked up on the idea. "I could suggest topics I wanted to be covered."

".... and my funding...?" I inquired, delicately.

".... could be negotiated."

Well, it might not be BBC prime time but apparently I have ratings.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Flower pot men

"You know how you can tell this isn't original footage? It's not in black and white."

Mmm hmm. That and the scenes the film is showing are battles from China's Warring States Period, around 400 BC. I try to keep an open mind, but there are times when I despair of my fellow museum goers.

As it was, I was having a hard time. My iPhone had been confiscated ... well, no, it was in my bag, but I was forbidden from using it to take notes because the attendant couldn't tell if I was actually taking forbidden photographs. In response to my peeved expression, he provided me with a pen and a couple of sheaves of paper. I thanked him for the effort and spun the appendage around in my fingers, trying to recall how to use it. It didn't seem to have a touch pad. Nevertheless, the hassle had just become worth it to record that quote. (For me and for the attendant, since the alternative might have been to say something; we all know that wouldn't have gone well).

I inched away from the couple in question and perused the information boards. The highlight of this exhibit were 10 statues from the 'Terracotta Army'; the 8,000 life sized warriors that were found in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi (pronounced approximately 'Chin Shih Hwongdee'). They were found in three pits, the largest measuring 14,000 square meters, which were discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. He hit the neck of a terracotta warrior instead of water. In another pit, entire suits of stone armour were buried for the warriors to wear. See, I didn't do badly with my pen. 

At this point in the exhibit, however, the First Emperor was merely a twinkle in some goat herder's eye. Possibly quite literally, since there are debates over his legitimacy. Before his rule, China was a divided land with 7 states warring for power (hence, 'the Era of Warring States' - never let it be said I don't explain events in my blog). Sun Zi's 'The Art of War' dates from this period and observant readers will note it was originally a book, not a Hollywood production. The most aggressive of the states, Qin, had grown rapidly in power due to one of the First Emperor's ancestors, Shang Yang, who embraced foreigners and foreign technologies. American border control could learn much from him. By the First Emperor's father's time, Qin had become so threatening that five states banded together to defeat him in battle. While they won, they never rose again. At the age of 13, Ying Zheng (personal name of Qin Shihuangdi) came to the throne of Qin, kicked everyone's ass and brought China under a single ruler for the first time.

Most of this history is known via a single source, the Shiji document, written by historian Sima Qian. Sima Qian was born 65 years after the First Emperor's death and had no balls; quite literally as he was castrated after irritating his own emperor. Due to the fact he kept the only surviving record of the day, his accuracy can only be verified by archaeological finds. Fortunately, due to a penchant of the times for engraving important events on pots, it is possible to ascertain the truth of much of its content.

Sima Qian did not know about the terracotta warriors whose discovery was a complete surprise. He did describe gardens within the tomb of bronze swans swimming on a sea of mercury, evidence for which has been found during scans and soil samples of the land. The main mound of the First Emperor's tomb remains unexcavated, partly due to concerns for its stability and partly from concerns surrounding the potential damage to the contents when brought into contact with air. The paint on the terracotta army, for instance, was put on natural lacquer which lifts right off if not immediately treated with a superglue compound. Sima Qian did claim a task force of 700,000 labourers was set to build the complex, which started, as was traditional, when the Emperor came to the throne. While this mammoth project was underway, the First Emperor himself searched for the elixir of life and the secret to immortality. I guess there's nothing like a back-up plan.

The purpose of burying 8,000 terracotta soldiers along with you would be for an army in the afterlife. From the Christian standpoint, St Peter was due to be in for quite a surprise. It was undoubtedly an improvement from murdering your actual army and household so they could serve you beyond this mortal coil, and one museum plaque assured me Qin was one of the first houses to abolish this practice. I would have felt more impressed if later boards hadn't revealed that all concubines who had not yet given birth, plus a bunch of the architects, were shut up in the tomb when it was sealed.

The tomb complex, while by far the most famous, was not the First Emperor's only feat during his rule. One of his first ones rather points to an unhappy childhood since it involved returning to his old home of Handen and burying everyone alive. Later acts included the introduction of a single currency and writing script across China and a frenzy of building projects that possibly pointed to mental illness, including large extensions to the Great Wall, roads, canals and dams.

Qin Shihuangdi's plan had been to build a dynasty to last 10,000 generations. In fact, his son flunked it. He kept on and even increased the crushing labour service and taxes of his father, causing a rebellion within four years. The resulting civil war saw the capital burned and parts of the famous tomb looted. When the dust cleared, the Han dynasty started, to be the most famous in China's history. Its principals, however, upheld many of the ones began by Qin Shihuangdi to produce a single, unified, China.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

If the shoe fits ...

... wear it.

I examined the boot in front of me and concluded that it would probably be too loose. That is because it was designed for a cow. My eyes slid down to another piece of footwear with huge pinecone-esque spikes on the sole. Now those would give the right impression during my next presentation!: "Any questions? No, I didn't think so."

I was not in fact at the latest sale from 'Foot Locker' but at a museum dedicated entirely to shoes. Three floors, all packed with footwear, although there was one exhibit on socks which was arguably pushing its luck.

People, dogs, cows and dolls; everyone's pedicural comfort was catered for. Did you know that Polly Pocket's shoe size is a third of that of Barbie's? Or that Ken's shoes are considered (by fashion experts) to be conservative while Barbie's feet are only able to wear high heels?

That particular style has made two débuts in history. The first appearance of high heals in the 16th century saw them being donned by men as well as women to extend their height. Their more recent occurrence was a backlash against claims that the rise of women would see the end of femininity. I looked down at my trainers and wiggled my toes. Screw femininity, you can't do that, Barbie!

Examples of the shoes for bound feet in late 19th century China were also on display. The ideal foot size women of the time was a scant three inches and girl's feet were tied at a young age to prevent proper growth. Feet that remained (through bone breaking deformities) this ideal size were known as 'jin loan' or 'golden lotuses' (right from centre picture). Only girls from the Han ethnic group were privileged enough to forfeit all ability to walk painlessly. Manchu girls were forbidden to bind their feet and therefore wore high platform shoes to stilt their gait and allow them to emulate the 'lotus walk' of their bound footed counterparts (far right photo).

The opposite extreme of the golden lotus shoes had to be the trainer from basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall and wears a size 23 trainer.

Of course, no story of shoes could be complete without mentioning Cinderella. It turns out this originally French fairy tale is told the world over with the glass slipper switched out for culturally favourite footwear. In Korea, a girl named Peach Blossom looses a straw sandal which is found by a handsome magistrate. For some unrecorded reason, he deems this item worth returning to its owner and is promptly enchanted by her beauty and asks for her hand in marriage. One can only conclude the law gives even its enforcers problems.

But whether lawyer, prince, scullery maid or peasant, the magical shoe reveals hidden virtue and transforms an underprivileged beauty into a princess. This says much for the continuing prospects of sketchers but rather less for the hope of humanity. Marrying a girl because she looks swell in a pair of shoes?! It'll be all over even before you get her pregnant and her ankles swell up.

Of course, some shoe transformations have a more practical edge. Alongside the glass slipper was a heavy boot with a large metal ring attached to it. This 'Oregon boot' was for the transport of criminals who couldn't peg it with such a weight on their feet.

Moving upstairs into the side attraction of socks, I discovered the first evidence of such items was a first century letter from a Roman soldier who mentioned a pair being sent to him, probably by his Mum. Much later during World War II, there was such a shortage of nylons that women drew a seam up the back of their legs to imitate their appearance. When the war ended, Macy's sold out of their entire stock of 50,000 pairs in six hours. The production of nylon transpired to be deeply unattractive. And wet. It is produced at the interface between the chemicals diamine and dicarboxylic acid. Drip.

For the ultimate highlight, however, what could beat Geri Halliwell's own Union Jack knee-high boots? Well, possibly the cow boot. But then, aside from the decoration, they were remarkably similar designs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How the other half lives

My face was wet.

It had all been in the name of science. I was walking along the street, admiring the immaculate parks that lay in between the immaculate houses of Aspen town. How did they keep them so green in this baking heat? A large splash mark on the pavement provided a possible answer. It looked like the product of a sprinkler system, except I could not see the sprinkler anywhere. Hmm .... Perhaps it was actually the product of a very large dog.

With that in mind, I gave the puddle a wide birth, stepping onto the lawn. It was then I noticed a peg-sized depression in the ground. Was it a miniature mole? Perhaps like handbag dogs, such downsized creatures had become popular in wealthy Aspen. I bent down to examine it ....

... and was promptly sprayed on the nose as an underground sprinkler popped up and turned its jet right on me.

I sneezed and rubbed my face clear just in time to see the sneaky little watering can disappear into the ground again. Oh the temptation to place a large rock over it! (No, I am not remotely above taking revenge on inanimate objects. We all know that was on purpose.)

Feeling hard done by, I continued on my way. It was obvious physicists were not the main brand of person in this town, or surely there would have been complaints from the regularity of this occurrence.

Of course, there were a few other clues that the Physics Centre was a little out of place here. I stood on a residential street of large detached houses and looked along it. Three mail boxes had been customised to resemble a train, a polar bear and a dog. Little yellow replicate street signs hung outside another four houses, declaring them a Beagle / Maltese / yappy handbag dog x-ing.  The last house in that row was for sale ... by the international auction house, Sothebys. My eyes swept over the deserted windows. Apart from myself, the only people in sight were the gardeners, who had driven in from out of town to keep the flowers in a riot of colour. The property owners were apparently at one of their other multi-million dollar homes; it was not the ski season after all.

Given this obvious display of wealth, it was surprising to see the town had a McDonalds. It is unclear exactly who frequented this. Possibly it was there because every American town must have such an object. Or it could have been there to pacify the black bears, whose regular presence was evident from the extremely complex trash cans. Sadly, I did not get to see a bear during my visit. If I had though, lopping a big mac at it might have seemed like a good option.

I might have altitude sickness but you, you my large pawed friend, now have heart disease, kidney failure and gummed up arteries! Ha!

In anycase, to compensate for this common monstrosity, Aspen felt the need for four large art galleries within view of one another. These exhibition stores sold nothing less that full wall-sized pieces. I attempted to buy a card in one but the concept did not appear to be understood.

Our own apartment had a huge living room with a balcony and a compulsory ski closet outside. I might have been tempted to stay, but the third week in Aspen swept in a cold wind to remind us that the town's actual inhabitants would soon return. I remarked on this sudden change of weather to a friend who replied:

"Well, we've just had labor weekend. It marks the end of summer."

... Huh. Who would have thought the calendar would be so accurate?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The wisdom of rangers

"The canyon beckons across the ages for you to slow your pace, even for a little while. Take your time, touch a juniper tree, listen to the river, feel the breeze, and you will see beyond the brink of time."

Words to rival even the Scientology orientation video and I could not help feeling, as I read the pamphlet over a friend's shoulder, that the rangers of the Gunnison National Park spent a little too much time alone.

The Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is named on account of the steepness of its sides, causing its interior to be shrouded in inky shadows. It has an average depth of 2,000 ft, extending to a maximum of 2,722 ft and a total length of 53 miles, 14 of which are inside the park. It is also narrow, with a minimum rim-to-rim distance of 1,100 ft, closing to a mere 40 ft at the river on its bottom. This water stream (otherwise known as the Colorado River), undergoes one of the steepest drops in North America from the surrounding mountain peaks and it is the force of this that had created the canyon over millions of years.

The guide we had acquired from a box at a trail head took us round on a short loop of ten observations points. The canyon itself was the obvious highlight, the likes of which seemed hard to match since they then told us to examine the shrubs. The quote above actually came from the rangers' log book, but when we stopped by the north side ranger's station, it was deserted apart from a board for rock climbers to sign in and out on. Possibly, upon the log book being read, the quote had been stolen for visitor information publications and the ranger himself sent for intensive shock treatment. 

The climbers we spotted as multicoloured dots against the black stone of the canyon. One stretch of the canyon's side is known as the 'Painted Wall' and is the tallest vertical wall in the state of Colorado with a height of 2,250 ft. This is a popular spot for, our guide warned us, experienced climbers. As we watched them cling to invisible ropes like small brightly coloured beetles, I felt that a hefty dose of insanity was required too. If they lived, perhaps they went on to become park rangers.

The summary then, must surely be left to the same rangers who also noted in their log:

"More importantly, though, the scene jolts us, awakening our senses toward the gorge. The clock that ticks away our lives seems very distant, and visiting the canyon is a way we can experience time on our own terms."

... the ranger station could be empty for a while.