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.