The following posts have no fixed theme or style, but I hope you enjoy reading them!

Friday, 30 May 2008

Advice #25

To assume makes an
ASS of
U and
so don't do it unless necessary. And don't you forget what you assumed either, so it can't come back to bite you unexpectedly afterwards
[This nugget of advice was given to me at school by Mr Nutter]

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

News: Murky Past May Surround Materials Department

I have been stewing over this ever since I found it last night. It appears that a lecturer in our department had some terrible mishap occur some time in 1999. The website for his group says:

"Since the recent departure of [six people] from the group, we are currently down to two active members and urgently require the injection of new blood. If you are interested in materials issues at high temperatures, you are warmly welcomed to join us!"

I wonder what happened to them. And why did the website then get abandoned for so many years? Did they leave together to join a cult or a foreign materials department? Did they have a suicide pact or were there lives cruelly taken away by an air disaster on the way to a conference in Nairobi? It sounds like they may all been sucked away when an unstable material spontaneously disappeared in a puff of smoke. Reminds me of star trek somehow. Anyway, I don't think his group has ever recovered, and I have never worked out since I have been in the department where he does his research. It's possible that the mental scars from this incident have plagued him ever since and he has never returned to "active service", being housed by the Materials Department in a way that appears to betray some kind of guilty feelings that the department may also harbour over the incident. But maybe it's just my overactive imagination...

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Recent musical experiences

I went to see the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble on Sunday, and I can report they are very good. I'm not sure if they are famous in the jazz world, but they seem to be extremely talented and have a lot of fun. They are really versatile, sometimes playing the kind of modern jazz that I don't really "get", sometimes making atmospheric sounds that wouldn't be out of place in an album by the cinematic orchestra, and sometimes playing jazz with funky beats and rhythms. There was one solo guitarist-singer song too, and one moment where the pianist interchanged between big romantic classical chords and making sounds with the strings by reaching inside the piano. The players were playing (mainly) a piano, double bass, cello, electric guitar, drumkit and steel drum. I've never seen a steel drum and a cello together, and several other combinations there aren't too normal either.

It was music that you could allow to direct your thoughts here there and everywhere in the sections where it was it was hard to follow all 6 parts. My thoughts wandered to other music I have heard, to sex, to exams and the future, to my family and the past, and finally to looking for the personality in each player individually...

The first one that struck me was the drummer. He was a Roman. An ancient one. Playing the drums. He was quite solemn about it as if he were performing a ritual. I doubt he knows he's a Roman, but I do.
Then there was the pianist. He knew how to make so many noises on the piano, I can imagine him dropping out of a conversation just to enter into his little reverie in which he thinks of new sounds to make.
The double bassist was from the twenties, with a serious job by day, keeping the books for the family business, who sneaked out at night to a speakeasy to play his double bass while they weren't watching.
The other ones had personalities too, but the ones I invented weren't as good, so I won't bore you. And it was good. And I'll probably be getting either a cinematic orchestra album soon cos I enjoyed the concert a lot.

My second musical experience was the Eurovision Song Contest last night. A bit of a contrast to the aforementioned concert, I admit. As usual it was full of terrible songs, comedy acts, people who take themselves seriously and people who don't. A group of people from the materials department came to our house, and enjoyed lots of pizza and other food while pointing out the little touches that made the songs special, like flashy lights, costumes, women taking off clothes, props, fireworks, dance routines and backing singers. We were dismayed by the lack of cheesy key changes in this year's contest, but the voting patterns did not fail to impress, with drinking required when your chosen "bad" song got points, and when your chosen "good" song didn't get any. We were too well-behaved to get very drunk, but it's always fun! I didn't feel that Terry Wogan was at his best though, he definitely came out with some classic comments about belly-buttons and political voting, but his irony was tinged with sadness that the best song would never win because of the "political" (I doubt it actually has much to do with politics) voting. He was right of course, the Russian song that won was average at best, even by the standards of eurovision. And it seems he may not be back to present the contest next year. I wonder how many viewers will turn off without his wonderful comments on the performers and presenters on stage.

Other recent musical experiences include:
-finding a load of my Dad's old music and discovering he listened to Lenny Kravitz in addition to Chris de Burgh, Trad Jazz and Dire Straits that I already knew about. Urgh!
-listening to an interview with Usher in which he said the song "Love in the club" (about making love... in a club) was connecting with men because everyone thinks it, and then telling the interviewer that he had never made love in a club but had done in various other places e.g. planes. Listening to people discussing a song like that made me chuckle - it really doesn't seem like there's much to add, the lyrics are clear enough
-joining a choir in college. More to follow at some point I imagine on that one

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The new British coin designs

Most people don't seem to have heard the terrible news. The reverse (tails) is changing on all British coins except the £2 coin later this year. This does not mean that the size, shape or material of the coins will change, and the old designs are not being taken out of circulation. However, new coins are produced every year to replace those that are lost or drop out of circulation for some other reason, and these will all carry a new design.

The new design for every coin features a part of the Royal Shield, with the effect that if you line them up in the right way you can see most of the shield (see the Wikipedia article for a picture of this and more information on everything I write here)
But this seems like a novelty, and seems like a poor replacement for the coins that we already have.

The penny has the symbol of parliament, a portcullis
The twopence has the symbol for the prince of wales: ostrich feathers, a crown and the motto "ich dien" (I have a feeling it means "I serve" but I'm too lazy to look it up)
The five pence has a scottish thistle
The ten pence has an english lion
The twenty pence has the rose (used after the war of the roses; you know, the one combining the white rose and the red rose of the opposing sides in the war...)
The fifty pence has Britannia, who has been on our coins for at least 3 or 4 centuries, and after whom songs are still sung
The pound has a big variety of designs, with different ones each year. It works like this: the countries take it in turns to have a design for them i.e. the UK then Scotland then Wales then Northern Ireland then England then back to the UK. Something I have only noticed today is that the designs are themed for each cycle of designs. So the first two cycles had national plants, the third and fourth cycles had symbols like the welsh dragon and the northern irish celtic cross, and the fifth cycle (ending in 2008) had bridges.

So we are exchanging around twenty symbols for a single one. And the one we get to keep is the £2 coin, which is some kind of abstract pattern that's meant to represent innovation or something equally modern and meaningless.

If this only lasts one cycle (five years) then I won't mind, and the gimmick will have run its course, but I really hope we go back to the old ones at some point. However, the royal mint has given no indication that it will go back.

Is my inner numismatist (coin collector) coming out in this indignation? I find myself checking my coins for rare dates and good condition so I can hide them away, as I used to when I took my coin collecting more seriously. Do you care? Even if you don't, have a think now and fill out my poll on the left - which coin design will you miss the most?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Did you know?

The word on the street is actually three words

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Milk in tea, Part III

-on when to add milk; a literature review

Tea with milk is clearly a controversial issue and has been for many years. The number of comments on my first post on the subject is testimony to that. However, the problem does not stop at “would you like milk with that?” There is much more debate to be had about when to add the milk. If you’re using a teapot, should you pour the brewed tea onto the milk, or should you put in the milk afterwards? If you’re teabag dunking, does it make a difference if you put the milk in either before the bag like Housemate Jo), immediately after the water is added or after it is brewed? This all feeds into broader questions of how to make the perfect cup of tea that I won’t discuss here, though I will possibly address them at a later date: Is loose leaf intrinsically better? Should you warm the pot before you use it? With teabags, should the tea be added to boiling water, or should boiling water be added to the tea? The questions never end, and people are extremely vociferous in explaining or defending their views.

George Orwell was one of the most influential people to have entered the debate. He wrote an entire essay on the subject entitled “A Nice Cup Of Tea”. In this essay he puts forward his view that “by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round”. This is a controversial view, as he himself admits at another point in the essay. Contradicting advice is given on Wikihow claiming that milk should be added first. Of course it is not quite that simple. Tea companies give their own advice: Tetley advises us to add milk after brewing when using teabags. Twinings (being a more upper class brand), focuses on loose leaf tea: “Pour a little milk into each cup before pouring the tea through a strainer if necessary, and sweeten as required.” A representative of Yorkshire tea called Simon gives his personal view although he seems to accept views from both sides in the debate - “If the tea is being poured from a teapot, milk in the cup first. If the tea is being made in the mug or cup, milk should go in last. Others may say the other way around but that is my personal preference.” First Class Teas is equally equivocal in their fun, quirky way: “There are many different schools of thought on how to brew tea, and that's before we even think about pre-tea milk-pouring issues! One of the great intrigues of tea is the personal discovery of one's own styles and tastes, and as such I don't like to dictate to people what they should or shouldn't do. After all, if you like something and it isn't causing any harm, who's to tell you it's wrong?”

Some people have tried to describe the reasoning behind different opinions. According to this website, for example, “Some people saying that the milk should be poured in first and others saying that the tea is poured first. Obviously as a nation we have got used to brewing tea in a mug. This way the tea is always added first. However, to make a real cup of English tea the milk is always added to the cup first, followed by the tea.” i.e. tea should not be brewed with milk present; to avoid that, milk should be added after if dunking a bag, but before if using a teapot.
A BBC article believes that traditions dictate the correct answer on this. It says that adding milk before the tea is better, but that “This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics.”
The people responsible for tea’s inclusion as an official icon of England (a project from the government department of culture) wrote about tea and milk, explaining more debating points about milk in tea. It says that there are class issues behind it, as there are with most things in Britain. Poor quality china was used by the middle classes during the 1700s, which would crack at high temperatures, as opposed to the fine china of the aristocracy or earthenware of the working class. The price of milk was apparently a factor in the amount of milk to add too.

From weebl and bob (my favourite online duo) to tea museum founder Edward Bramah to Steven Hawking, everyone has an opinion.

So how can we lay this matter to rest? I suggest two possibilities: conventional wisdom and science.
Conventional wisdom is hopefully expressed in the British standard BS6008 (here, though I think you’ll have to pay to see it. It's the effectively the same as ISO 3103 although I believe the Brits got there first), used for tea tasting. It says for 5.6g tea, half a pint of boiling water should be added and it should be brewed for 6 mins. Milk should be added before the tea (5ml), but if you insist on adding it afterwards, it should be added when liquid is 65-80 degrees. It adds that milk sometimes helps to accentuate differences in flavour and colour.
Real scientific peer-reviewed work was done on it too, as reported by the guardian here. And there is agreement! Again, milk should be added before the tea. The scientific argument is that milk poured onto boiling water is heated more quickly because the surface area of the milk is higher, increasing the risk of denaturing the proteins in the water, which is bad for the taste.

So do we have an answer? The problem will never solved completely, but it looks like the evidence is just starting to lead to putting the milk in first if you add tea from a pot. Results also suggest that you should add the milk after when dunking a teabag.

I am currently carrying out systematic taste tests to see if any of this actually makes a difference or whether the whole thing is a storm in a teacup (sorry I couldn’t resist). I’ll report back to you, probably next month.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Advice #24

Take your towel when you go for a shower
[it causes huge embarassment if you don't, I can tell you]

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Saturday thoughts

Hey everyone. I've been thinking, so I think a record of this occasion needs to be made.

1) Boris Johnson just became mayor. To me, this seems like a bad idea. He has odd views on immigration, he drinks too much, and he's an object of fun for everyone in the country who pays attention. He's a very tory tory indeed. But I think he's probably harmless. Most things in this country are run by the civil service, not politicians. It takes a government a long time to force anything through civil service that they think is a bad idea. Boris seems like a man who will ultimately do what Dave Cameron tells him. He has been well-behaved during the campaign, so we can hope that he'll keep it up now he's in the job. So maybe it's a good idea to have a famous politician, a celebrity, as London mayor. It worked for California. If it makes people interested in the process of making the country a better place, maybe it's worthwhile. But I can say that happily, I don't have to live in London!

2) Snooker has been taking over my life. I have been failing my degree, losing contact with friends and losing respect from my housemates at my insistence to watch every shot. This year has been the best year I have seen, if only for the first semi-final match between Ronnie (the rocket) O'Sullivan and Steven (7 world championships) Hendry.

I used to watch Steven Hendry when his way of clearing up the table was brand new. Nobody had ever done it frame after frame before. Bear in mind that the first maximum break at the world championships was in 1983 and the second was in 1991. Steven Hendry began winning major tournaments in 1990, and got his first maximum at the tournament in 1995 [there were two this year so far]. He had a knack of spotting a red miles away down the table, potting it and then clearing up the rest of the balls without the other guy having a shot. This got a bit boring to watch, because even fairly good safety shots could result in this happening, and it became a game of target practice rather than one of tactics. Nowadays everyone can do that. I end up watching the "rubbish" old players like Steve Davis, because they think the game out a bit more and rely on safety rather than attack.

This match between Ronnie O'Sullivan and Steven Hendry opened up a new era of snooker though. Ronnie has improved his safety game to the extent that every safety landed near a cushion with a ball in front, so Hendry never had an easy safety or a shot. It's no longer a case of putting the white ball near the baulk cushion, you pick the spot along the baulk cushion where it's virtually impossible for your opponent to play a safety. The break-off shot was more precisely played in this match than I have ever seen before too. In 7/8 frames in the second session, it was played so that every red ends up in the bunch with the exception of one red, which ends up on the cushion. This makes it almost impossible to pot a ball straight away. My point is that in this match, it was won by the best safety player, whether he was the most consistent potter or not.

There were two shots that I'll remember too. Ronnie played a 4-cushion escape from a snooker, and just touched into the bunch of reds at the end. And Hendry, having fouled twice missing a red off two cushions, decided to take on a pot that he would never normally have considered, along the cushion from miles away. And he got it! Break-building is suddenly interesting again when you know that they got the opportunity by a carefully considered safety rather than a brute-force shut-your-eyes-and-hope pot from distance. But I'm trying not to watch any more, it's my final university term, so it's not the ideal time...

Thursday, 1 May 2008


An almost imperceptible nod to you all this May day