Naked twix

Tea twix tube

This is a quick blog response to Amanda (famous for her Astropixie blog). She is currently observing at the AAT (Anglo-Australian Telescope) and because the weather is exceedingly inclement, they are spending the long, starless nights doing Tim Tam Slams. While I was a PhD student I became a little bit obsessed with doing Tea-twix-tubes or twix-straws. The idea is similar. Jon and I thought we’d show you how it’s done.

First, take your scrumptious Twix finger

Next bite the ends of it (you can see me having a good old chew in the picture). This is essential to getting a good draw of tea through the body of the twix finger. Use the moments after you have bitten the ends of your twix off to go and make a nice hot cuppa, or you might be tempted to gobble the rest of the finger straight off. Don’t try this with coffee and definitely not hot chocolate (unless you want to be bouncing off the walls like a toddler on Haribo). Tea works best. We are British you know.

Dip the end of your twix into the tea and suck quite hard. Don’t be put off by the twix getting a little soggy. You will taste tea through the twix, so if you have really hot tea, its best to put your twix in the fridge for a little bit so you scold your tongue.

Its so delicious you won’t want to stop.

When the chocolate is starting to melt its best to abandon your new straw and munch away at it. You’ll find it is slightly slimy but utterly delicious! Fortunately a twix is more substantial than a Tim-tam so there is little danger of having to fish the soggy remains out of your cup.

Liven up any cup of tea with a Twix Straw!

Autons

First aid and invasion of the autons

This week I thought “Why not do a first aid course?”. The company offered us all a day out at the American Red Cross, to learn CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), basic first aid, and some tips on when to use an AED (automated external defibrilator). It was rather a jolly day, despite being constantly reminded not only of our own mortality, but how ‘dangerous’ CPR could be. Dangerous to the first aider. We saw countless videos where we told to find an antibacterial gauze before you give someone the kiss of life.

Did you know that the person next to you could have AIDS or hepatitis? Its a battle-ground, and you have to protect yourself. So keep your antibacterial gauze handy if you think you might need to snog someone back into the land of the living. Otherwise, you are in danger. Not ‘at risk’, actually ‘in danger’. Just imagine what you could pick up on the bus or, worse yet, in a night club. Be careful when a cashier hands you your change in the supermarket. They might have just sneezed on your money. It turns your blood cold, doesn’t it.

We spent a good portion of the day role playing with these sleepy fellows. Be careful, I suspect they might be Autons

Mine was really poorly. He experienced choking, difficulty breathing, a sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack. Fortunately I am now trained. I tried a polo mint on him first. He didn’t take to that so I whipped out the AED and zapped him. An AED, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is rather like a Speak-and-spell but with a cheeky little afterbite. Rather disturbingly, a disembodied voice tells you what to do at each step; where to put the pads, how long to wait, if there is a pulse, when its going to shock. The only thing it doesn’t tell you is the cost, but who wants to know that when you’re ill, you might have a heart attack.

The depressing fact is that americans have to pay for every trip in an ambulance – $3000 thank you very much. Republicans are perfectly comfortable with socialised military, police, fireservice and ambulance service. But medicin? Hell no! those illegal immigrants and homosexuals will use my tax-dollars for treating their perverted diseases.

Maybe I’m old fashioned but I don’t want even 30 seconds contemplation of whether I can afford an ambulance trip and hospital stay, if my nearest and dearest is involved in a serious accident. When you put a price tag on it, that is what happens. Its a very Thatcherite principle. If you can afford $1000+ per month, you get insurance. If you can’t you, are treated like a second-class citizen, suffer poor health and end up with huge and unpayable debts.

If you think that paying $100 for a prescription (as Haley recently paid for eye drops) which would be available over the counter at Boots the chemist, in UK for £7, you are stupid or corrupt. Socialized health care is a right not a luxury.

A whole lot of gay loving

Last Friday, New York became the 6th US state to behave like a western democracy and vote in favour of the legality of same-sex marriages. This is excellent news.  I was best-man at the civil partnership (as UK law treats same-sex marriages) of 2 very close friends, and it was a deeply moving, beautiful day.  It has however given the fundamentalist crazies cause to thrash about in their trailers and beat their fists on their pulpits. I get very cross when silly, misinformed people pronounce on the morality and legality of these unions.

It’s generally religious people, who claim to embrace society’s downtrodden, who cannot reconcile anything other than a man and a woman as forming a “normal” relationship. Occasionally there is an areligious conservative who expresses these opinions too, but generally they are xenophobic bigots whose arguments are fit for not even the gutter press.

The primary idea which cause religious conservatives to foam at the mouth is that it is an “offense before God”. When you closely scrutinize this it boils down to only a few passages in The Bible. A few in Leviticus (old testament) and a couple in St Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth (new testament) – St Paul also had a thing about women wearing hats and being quiet. Christians are on really shaky ground if they take Leviticus too seriously because it tells us to do and not do all sorts of things weird things, from burning doves when you are on your monthly, not having tattoos, to wearing clothes made from more than one fabric, and swearing at your parents (that one carries the death penalty, you’ve been warned).  The New Testament actually advises against “sexual immorality” and it is modern Christian mentalists (particularly low-church troglodytes who would welcome back slavery and fiercely defend their right to bear arms) who rewrite this to mean same-sex relationships. What it intended to relate to is incest, rape, sexual slavery and other sexual abuse. These are seriously immoral acts, same-sex relationships are not. No really, compared to all the horrific things humans inflict on one another, it really is not. Don’t be silly. Shush now.  Anyway Southern Baptists are jolly good sports, they’re all about inclusivity so I’ve heard.

Anyway, moral finger wagging aside, there is a deeper misunderstanding about what marriage in a Christian sense is and what it means. Many Christian denominations see marriage as a sacrament, that is something which reflects the divinity of God. This is means, God is a benign creator who has scattered  little parcels across the world which allow you to be more like HIM. Like unlocking achievements in computer games, but without the gold coins falling from the sky or musical jingle. So marriage, and a good marriage allows you to be closer to God, and God isn’t gay, so tough luck. Um, no, that’s just bias. Actually reading the New Testament will show you lots of same-sex loving happening all over the place.
“faith, hope and love”
“love one another with a pure heart, fervently”
Ah ha! “With a pure heart” can’t mean with a gay heart! Silly Billy, it is actually in favour of loving regardless of looks, status, hand-writing, novelty teapot collection, sex or gender, but doing it truthfully.

The really key thing here is that aside from the law (the one courts and lawyers use, not the vague idea of a celestial one), the only people who actually do the marrying are the happy couple.  In a religious sense the priest, minister, justice of the peace, or licensed elvis impersonator are only there as witnesses. It is convenient if they can fulfill the legal (and entirely secular) obligations, but as far as God is concerned it’s a contract between the couple and the almighty. If you were married in a Anglican Church in UK the vicar is licensed to legally marry you, that happens when you sign the register in the private side chapel. The reading of the vows has no legal baring on the marriage, and is just for show. It doesn’t mean it’s not important. In fact if you can say you love the one you are standing in front of, before hundreds of people, and will mop up their sick when they drink too much or whisk them away to Paris when they are stressing their eyebrows off, that’s hugely significant and symbolic, particularly if you mean it.

So if the Christian church doesn’t have any legal part in a marriage, and God would be fine with the couple saying “I do” to each other in private, then what are churches making a fuss about? Well… Exactly. It basically boils down to tradition, handed down from a time when the Church and state were tightly coupled. If you make a judgement which is on shaky scriptural grounds, be very careful how you live the rest of your life. It had better be immaculate.

Q: How many evangelical Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: CHANGE?!

Catherine Tate and David Tennant signing autographs

Much ado about Tennant

“We’re going to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing”, Haley said to me in November 2010. “We’ve been here before”, I thought. A couple of years ago we joined the RSC so we could buy advance tickets for the London run of Hamlet (starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart). I say “we” but Haley was far more keen on it than me. I wonder why. If you follow the exploits of David Tennant as closely as our household, you will remember that he suffered a back injury and almost the entire run was performed by the understudy.

7 months later we rock up to Wyndham’s theatre, expecting there to be some disaster and one of the 2 headline actors would be incapacitated. We have a long history of not seeing famous people in plays – Thoroughly Modern Millie (without Amanda Holden), Hairspray (devoid of Michael Ball) and Hamlet (you know all about that). For weeks Haley had been getting a little agitated at the prospect of a Tennant-less Much Ado.

No announcement was made when our tickets were snapped by the usherette; the programme seller showed no sign of nervous twitch. The lights went down, the music started up and Catherine Tate (in the role of Beatrice) was found lying on a sun-lounger. Phew. One down, one to go. Within moments David Tennant (in the role of Benedick) appeared on stage, and finally I could relax and enjoy the show.

Tennant made a most unusual entrance, driving a union flag draped golf cart onto the stage. There was almost a standing ovation when he appeared. The man next to me nearly exploded from the excitement – he was several sheets to the wind already, a middle-aged man with his current female “best-friend”, who reacted in an ostentatiously forced way to everything on stage. Tut, Londoners.

Tennant and Tate were in the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, who rail against the state of marriage to anyone who will listen, are inventively verbose, and cannot stand each other (because they are far too alike). I was interested to see if their chemistry would be similar to that they shared in Doctor Who, where they were chase and platonic. Their transition from people who claim to dispise each other to being the loves of each others lives is entirely believable.

Beatrice has a line about her lending Benedick her heart -  “a double heart for his single one” – Who knew Shakespeare was a fan of Doctor Who? Haley and I shared a knowing look at that point, fortunately it went over the head of the expressive queen next to us.

I’m always slightly uncomfortable with Tennant speaking in his natural accent. Mostly because he does an “english” accent so immaculately that his Scottish accent sounds fake. He acted his socks off, with an amazing amount of energy, including wearing a mini-skirt, bubble wig and pig nose for the “masked ball”, and dancing very “enthusiastically”.

The part of Beatrice also suited Tate, more than I had perhaps given her credit for. There were moments where she slipped into some of her personas, or tailored versions of them, which could easily have been cringey, but instead fitted perfectly with the character who was “born to speak all mirth and no matter”. Her Frankie Howerd impression was nearly as good as David Walliams. She looked gorgeous in her wedding outfit too. There is one very tender moment where she lets down Don Pedro (Adam James) on his offer of marriage, which was a little gem of acting.

There is a wonderfully slapstick scene where first Benedick and then Beatrice overhear characters they respect talking about how much the other secretly admires and loves them. Tennant gradually ends up covering himself with about a gallon of white paint and Tate is unwittingly hoisted 30″ into the air. Haley did an audible sigh when Tennant delivered his “Love me!” soliloquy with white hand-print on his face, and messy, painty hair. He also had tight, cut-off jeans shorts. I swear Haley was dribbling by the end of that scene.

The rest of the cast had a herculean task to match these to giants, but also did very well. Dogberry and The Watch are traditionally the slap-stick, “mechanical” roles but their performances were sadly diminished purely because of the high-energy Doctor-Donna performances. They were still funny and enjoyable, and there was a very sweet old man (Nicholas Lumley) in the watch who reminded me of my dad trying to speak to spanish in a deliberately RP voice. There was also our Barry (Mike Grady) from Last of the Summer Wine, who was conspicuously recognizable but who had hardly any stage time. Hero (Sarah MacRae) and Claudio (Tom Bateman) were everything you would expect from the lesser Shakespearian romantic leads, good looking but one dimensional. Live guitar music by Enzo Squillino Junior, who also played 2 minor roles, was excellent.

It was truly the funniest, most vivid performance of Much Ado I will ever see. The audience was a menagerie of applause when the curtain came down, calling the cast back on to the stage 4 or 5 times, with only the elderly and infirm failing to give a riotous, and well deserved standing ovation.

We elected to carry on the jolly mood we felt after the show, and visit a local pub for a quick drink. We wandered past the stage door, where I managed cajole Haley into waiting to see the cast (“they’ll never come out”). Within 3 minutes Tennant and Tate burst through the doors and despite several terse A4 posters on the wall saying they wouldn’t, they enthusiastically began signing programmes, having photos taken, and chatting to the rapidly swelling crowd. Haley refused to go too near because she was “embarrassed” and then spent an hour moping because the David Tennant didn’t look past the 100-odd people in the crowd to share a magical moment with her, where their eyes would meet and he would fall hopelessly, madly, and deeply in love with her but recognise the impossibility of the situation, give her a loving but tragic smile then quickly look away with a tear in his eye.

See it if you can. I will use the word. It was awesome.

Tolkien and psycholinguistics

A good friend of mine has written a book. I’m quite excited about it. Being an academic I know lots of people who have published, because in universities that is the convenient way that pen-pushers measure how clever, hard-working, REF-able, or just highly-cited regardless of research quality you are. Publish or perish. Most of these publications are academic papers, very few are books, and even fewer are digestible by a non-specialist audience. In my experience, only one features hobbits.

Yesterday was the book launch and instead of a boozy reception with a couple of incoherent speeches in management speak by a publisher, there was a rather civilized afternoon mini-conference and a glass of something alcoholic, with salted peanuts. Tasty.

The subject of the book and the conference: Tolkien and Wales.

There were 3 talks (or papers as humanities academics call them) about different aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s writing and career which particularly related to the Welsh language. As an scientist it amuses me when people give talks by standing at a podium and reading from a prepared script. It’s a difference in culture, but Haley and I shared a knowing look.

The first talk given by Dimtri Fimi (UWIC) described something really strange about Tolkien, verging on the disturbing. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and any of the other Middle Earth epics, it won’t have escaped your notice that large portions of it were written in ‘foreign’ languages. These languages were constructed from old J.R.R.’s imagination, but heavily influenced by present or historical European languages. The 2 mature languages which Tolkien developed were Sindarin and Quenya (both elven languages). They were modeled on Welsh and Finnish, respectively. Dr Fimi gave numerous examples comparing welsh grammar with sindarin grammar, and I was amazed that they both us almost identical mutations.

Now comes the wacky part. In a 1955 lecture, Tolkien claims readers of The Lord of the Rings would enjoy them because he had constructed languages, or particularly Sindarin (the welsh one) to resonate with all British people. He believed that the welsh language was somehow genetically imbedded in ever British person, because before the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans and any other invaders arrived Britain was occupied by the Welsh. To say that people love Tolkein’s epic mythology because he has unlocked some hidden room in our genetic make-up which predisposes Britons to feel an emotional response towards the books makes you wonder if he had been at the wacky-backy. Many of the names sound welsh. Arwen, for instance, is actually a welsh girls’ name (a shortened form of Arwenna) as well as being Liv Tyler’s elven character. We were even treated to an antique recording of Tolkien speaking Sindarin, which I have to say, to my heathen ears sounded rather like when I accidentally tune into Radio Cymru.

Tolkien revealed this was his intention in a lecture in 1955, 2 years after Watson and Crick had discovered the structure of DNA, so genetics was a very new science and it is unclear to me from Dr Fimi’s talk whether Tolkien truly meant genetics or if he meant it was some sort of telepathic, ancestral link (which presumably ignores ancestors who also spoke other languages). Its like suggesting that my favourite colour was blue because my great-great-great….. grandfather’s favourite colour was also blue.

What a funny fish Tolkien was.

The second paper was by Simon Eckstein (Swansea University) and compared Tolkien with a contemporary of his, and author I had not heard of called David Jones. As you can tell from his name, he was of welsh ancestry, although born in England. The main thrust was that both Tolkien and Jones sought to create mythology that was unique to Britain. We have King Arthur (who was Welsh, incidentally) but we don’t have anything as old Zeus, Odin or the Lorelei. Certainly nothing Bronze Age. Mr Eckstein asserted that this was because Welsh was the language of these legends, but they became inaccessible once the dominant language of Britain moved to that of the new invaders. In the Crystal Maze this would have been an automatic lock-in. The lock-in was so pronounced because welsh, being a bardic language, has a vocabulary which is difficult to translate into Old, Middle or even modern English. Eckstein gives the example of the word Hiraeth, which describes the feeling isolation when being taken away from someone or something you love. A bit like homesickness and yearning for the lush pleasant land of Wales.

I suppose if the stories were never written down and the indigenous (and minority) welsh-speaking population stopped telling or singing the stories, it is conceivable that many will have been lost. I can’t help feeling that some legends should exist in some form. Maybe they were just evolved into the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion.

Next and finally was the headline act, my friend Carl. He was a pro at giving his paper. The words were clearly written in a script but they were effortlessly and seamlessly delivered, in a way that made me think that all talks should be given this way. This talk was much less academic, but equally stimulating. He was talking about his new book, but gave us some lovely anecdotes about his research and how he had made discoveries which had been overlooked by others, who had been just a bit lazy. Quite incredibly Carl found references to Tolkien’s understanding of welsh in hand-written notes in the margins of Tolkien’s private library. He also went through hundreds of folios in the Bodleian Library of Tolkien’s notes looking gems which had been badly categorized. It was funny to hear that Tolkien corrected the welsh grammar which appeared in welsh grammar text-books.

I really came to realise that Tolkien had a profound understanding of the way language worked. Its not clear if he ever spoke or conversed in the many languages he knew (he certainly corrected the Swedish and Dutch versions of The Lord of the Rings), but he seemed to love and devour grammar. Anyone who can create not 1, but 2 languages must be some sort of genius with linguistics.

I enjoyed the mini-conference immensely and having bought the book (no T-shirts were available), I’m looking forward to reading more about the crazy genius of J.R.R. Tolkien. However if I had been a person off the street (the Cardiff University community engagement team had advertised the event via university emailshots and in the Big Issue) I might have found it rather heavy on name-checks to academic texts and subject specific terminology; as someone who regularly gives public talks I’m wary of even using the word ‘wavelength‘ in front of a non-specialist audience, let alone ‘philology‘.

Afterwards, Haley said she’d like to write a book and have a mini-conference on it. I rather fancy it too. It was jolly entertaining and a much better use of a Saturday afternoon than watching 22-ish men kick a leather egg around.

To see what all the fuss is about, go and buy Carl’s book Tolkien and Wales

Dance fever

Chaotic pendulous ball

Its generally at this time of year that I remember about Facebook. During the normal course of my life I am happy to say that I can stay away from Facebook for large periods of time. However around Easter is traditionally when the Chaos Ball is, that is the Cardiff Uni, School of Physics annual ball. Each year the ball is organized for the students and by the students, in a very democratic way. This year the highly efficient Natasha and her team of minions delivered a spectacular affair. I’m also amazed she didn’t have an accident with her dress during the ball.

I must say that it is rather fun going to the ball as a member of staff, having gone as a student. When I was a student there was almost no mingling between the year groups. In fact there was very little mingling between our year group, it was very much like school in a lot of respects.

This year I really had not been keen on going to the ball. I could not put my finger on it. I had had a cold the week before and was generally feeling grotty and tired. I thought we would stay until the last dance and that would be it, in bed with a mug of cocoa by midnight. We had arranged to share a taxi home with Peter who lives down the road, and we had all agreed (very sensibly) that we were far too old and crusty to be going on to a club after the week we had just had. Set in stone. No going back. Not even a hesitation.

At 3.30am I had to be dragged off the dance floor and shoved into a taxi before I made more inappropriate comments to students and their friends. I believe I may have started at least one malicious rumour during the night and I lost my camera (the latter turned up in the possession of a student, who had taken blurry pictures of semi-naked men). One student admitted to having stalked me on Facebook, I may have told another student that she was annoying (but in a good way) and said other things that may not of been wholy appreciated. It was like The Hangover, only without marrying a prostitute and taking rohypnol. I think Haley may have stolen a tiger.

I was very glad to have mustered the energy to push through like a little soldier. I am also very glad to have been there when one of our students was proposed to by his long-term partner. It was a very joyous occasion and very brave of them too, being able to feel comfortable to come out to all their peers and lecturers in such a public way. It was very sweet.

The mandatory pictures….I have no defense, but I was very drunk at the time. I was quite surprised how well Peter could dance. He could have been in Pan’s People, if he wore lycra and had big hair.

Make your own Planck model

I love making time-lapse films, so I’ve done another one. Stuart has made a very nice Planck model, so we thought a quick explanation of how to assemble it would be the perfect accompaniment. I’m behind the camera and you can see Stuart’s hands doing the work.

You can get your hands on the model from the UK Planck outreach site or from Stuart’s flickr feed (specifically, page 1 and page 2). I used iMovie ’11 to do the video editing – it was remarkably easy!


Make a model of Planck satellite from Edward Gomez on Vimeo.

A day in the life of a short film

Making a video is like a Cadbury’s Double Decker; there is a period of time beyond which I forget how much I dislike it and have a crack at another one. In the case of a Double Decker it’s the idea of nougaty chocolate that lures me in. With videos I rather like the idea of being creative; directing, shooting, editing,writing and sometimes starring in the videos is quite exciting. The endless hours of editing and reshooting, frying your camera because you used the wrong (but irritating identical looking) power supply, and back-chat from people being videoed, make me wish I had never started down the film making path.

Unlike with a Double Decker, the end product of all video faffing usually feels satisfyingly worthwhile.

You can have a look at some of my past videos from the Teapots from Space series with the links to the right. My favourite is “How to spot Astronomers”.

To earn my keep ( and honorary lecturer position) in Cardiff University, School of Physics and Astronomy, I promised to make an video advert starring Harriet, one of our 3rd year students. It incorporates some of the time-lapses I’ve been playing with. Have a look and let me know what you think. There has already been talk of more!

Day in the life of a Cardiff student from Edward Gomez on Vimeo.

Welsh college of Dirty Beasts

When I was much younger than I am now, I had the books of Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes, by Roald Dahl. I have a lot of sympathy for Roald Dahl as an author. He does what Enid Blyton dares not. Make stories for children (and about children) where you can say ‘fart’, dirty people walk around with corn flakes in their beard, fantastic things happen to children who deserve them, and nasty people get the really horrible fates they deserve. His children’s stories are playful, a little grotesque, and full of excitement. Nothing of dogs called ‘Timmy’ or lashings of ginger beer. What ho!

Roald Dahl lived in Cardiff during his childhood and also went to the same school as me, very briefly (Llandaff Cathedral School). He enjoyed his time there rather less then I did.

This evening I sneaked into the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to see the dress rehearsal of a musicalised version of this doggerel. The British composer Martin Butler (who I’ve not heard of – he did a different musical version)  Brian Irvine (who I have also never heard of) took 4 of these and turned them into a one act opera which is just as playful as the poems. My little sister was in this production and it was splendid. The vocal performances are easily the best I have seen from a student group and much better than many amateur groups. Bravo!

At one point a rather large ladder fell down, but the performers didn’t bat and eyelid, which made me half believe it was meant to happen. All the performers wore delightful 1950′s tweedy clothes, that I was rather envious of.

Lots of people were eaten by the ‘dirty beasts’ during the 40 minutes. They all deserved it.

Rather sadly the performance was the only one available to the general public as this is a production which will tour around local schools. Our loss but the schools’ gain.

Here is a little video of Timothy West reading The Anteater. It has one of my favourite bits of gentle British xenophobic leg-pulling. Its at the expense of Americans, of course.

“Some people in the USA,
Have trouble with the words they say….”

I won’t spoil the rest.