Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Reality checkpoint, where are you?

Meeting: where a bunch of scientists in different countries phone each other at once and try to solve a problem, not realising that it's 10 pm in the UK, a public holiday France, that one person in the group speaks little English, you all have different specialisms so noone understands what you do anyway. The human race would be infinitely more advanced if the time spent wasted in meetings was used in a more efficent way.

Welcome to my life, do come in and make yourself at home.

Part of the problem with the scientific community is that we are spread in a thin layer over the whole world. The other problem is that noone sleeps or has a life. I have taken skype calls when in Korea from people in the US, been woken up at half-past-stupid by people wanting stuff when they couldn't possibly wait for a couple of hours for me to regain consiousness. I've been phoned two hours after returning home after a hospital stay. I've worked 72 hrs straight to make something that someone couldn't possibly wait any longer for then decided they didn't have time to use. I've had meetings at 1 am, then got on a train at 6 am to deliver a talk halfway up the country four hours later. Dealing with scientists is like dealing with volcanos - you hear nothing for ages, then they have short periods where they crash around, make a huge amount of noise, throw out a lot of hot air and you generally don't want to get in the way. Then it will go quiet again, with just the occassional rumble so you don't get too relaxed.

I'm lucky in my current job, having worked for some rather demanding people in the past, that I now have a great boss, fantastic colleagues and a strong link with the pharma industry. It's not that industry people are any less demanding in terms of meetings and targets, it's just that they are more organised, predictable and straight talking. Everyone sets targets, but industry people actually tell you what those targets are rather than expecting you to be psychic. I like that. I know where I am in my current job - specifically - not standing on a geological fault line that could crack without warning.

Years ago, when I lived in Cambridge, there was a little sign on a lamp post in the centre of the green where then paths converged in the centre. It said "reality checkpoint" and made me smile whenever I walked past it on my way to work as I just knew that I was on my way to entering a whole world of very stressful craziness and it gave me a point of reference. I never relaxed on my way home until I had walked past that sign. It became the physical gateway between my two worlds. A bit later on it disappeared and somebody scratched "reality checkpoint, where are you?" on the lamp post instead. I adore this photograph from Emma in Wonderland because it reminds me so much of that feeling. A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to win a blog giveaway and she sent me one of her beautiful prints entitled "Recurring Nightmare".

I think it is a very special piece of work, a reworking of another of her pieces called "A Gentle FreakOut". I like this photograph very much as I have days like that, but I like Recurring Nightmare even more because I have days like that sometimes one after the other. It communicates quite simply, in an 10 x 8 image, what goes on in my head a lot of the time that I don't know how say or explain to people. I'm a dreadful photographer so I have a massive amount of admiration for anyone with the skill to capture that sort of emotion in an image. Even something static can move if you have the skill.

I do feel bad that I haven't spoken about this photo before, but there is a very special reason. I have been trying to frame it and hadn't found anything that could do the piece of work justice. I find it quite difficult to frame things - more so because to me the frame is the way in which the piece of works enters the room. If you put a wonderful piece of glass sculpture on a chipboard plinth, people will see the the plinth not the object. If you wear a balldress and trainers, people will only see your Reeboks and nothing else. A muffin top in a couture dress? Trust me, it'll only be the cake shelf people notice. A good frame should be noticable, but noticable in its ability to go unnoticed, if that makes sense.

I wandered down to Oxford market this morning and got chatting to the guy that sells the photo frames. I ended up with a plain dark grey slightly aged solid smooth acrylic frame with no bevelling or embossing, about an inch wide each side and the wrong sized mount for the inside. I was always taught to frame for the room and mount for the picture, so the mount is bright white (I'd like to apologise for the yellowness of the photographs, it's really late so the light isn't good!). It is the wrong size though, so I had to attack it with a craft knife to get it to fit. Ideally, it should have gone a frame the next size up, but I wanted to keep the sizing tight so the photograph wasn't lost in the frame. My alterations to the mount with craft knife gave a very narrow border and a shredded tablecloth.

The photograph itself is a black and white print and it will probably be hung on a white wall, so I want to decorate the frame a little bit, but not too much that it detracts from the photo.

One thing I like about this photograph from an aestetic point of view is that it combines angular forms with a softness. The original photograph has soft outlines and obvious movement, where as the thumbnails that make up the reworking are retangular repeats. A while ago, I bought these mosiac tiles from my folksy namesake Tessera for a jewellery making project. I have loads of them left over and have been wondering what to do with them for ages. They are very pretty and very tactile - and like the photograph, soft in colour and angular in form.

I also have these, which are lithium batteries from my now deceased kitchen scales.

If I take an engraving tool to the edge of the frame I can etch out small parts of it to allow me to set the objects slightly deeper into the fabric of the frame.

...continuing the etching

Applying some sealent to the gaps and embedding the objects...

And that's everything

Right. I'd better go get my presentation ready. Wish me luck.

Huge thankyou to:

Emma in Wonderland

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

What cake did next...

I had a lovely email from the friend who I made the wedding cake for, which reminded me of the half-finished work in progress that resulted from that project. That and being asked for my fruit cake receipe.

Receipes have always been a bit of problem for me as I don't often write things down. I sort of guess - and just carry on until things look like they are okay. To be honest I'm not even very good at following written instructions as I'll get distracted and drop extra things in. Often if I bring cakes into work and people comment on them in my heart I know that there is actually very little chance that I will ever get the same result again. I cook by eye, measure by the handful and wander off halfway through to do other things. Delia would have a fit.

I was determined this time that it wouldn't be like that. The daunting task of a 12 inch diameter, 8 kilo fruit cake does something to rein in the spirit of the runaway chef. A project on that scale is the Ritalin of cookery. If something that size goes wrong, it's an expensive, time consuming mess to sort out and I don't think could face eating that large a failed attempt. And it would just be me eating it as my other half doesn't like dried fruit. In fact very few people I know actually like dried fruit. So this time I weighed things.

A quick sort through my cupboards yielded a five inch, an eight inch, a nine inch and a twelve inch round cake tin. I also have a nine inch, a seven inch and a five inch square.

All of the rest of my baking forms are very daft shapes, so aren't a great deal of use here unless you want a wedding cake shaped like a caterpillar.

I liked geometry at school, so size and volume were easily calculated and I can see that the mixture I'll get in the the seven inch square tin will be the same as what I'll get in the eight inch round one. That makes sense as the seven inch tin has corners that the eight inch round one doesn't. I was going to try and prove this by pouring water from one form to another, but I've just noticed that the round tins have loose bases so that proof-of-concept does have the potential to go horribly horribly wrong and you'll just have to take my word for it.

Cookery time!

As with most cakes, the first part involves beating the butter and sugar to a pulp. I have quite bad RSI, so find this quite difficult and tend to do it in the food mixer. I don't really like the food mixer - partly because to me it was bought because of a physical defeat and is therefore a sign of weakness and partly because if I forget to lock the sneeze guard in place I end up with cake mix in my hair.

Eggs next. Most cookbooks will tell you to beat them in slowly in small portions. Life is too short, just beat them in hard.

Whilst the mixer is doing it's stuff, you can sort the fruit out. Mix the fruit together and soak the whole lot liberally in alcohol. I should tell you to use the finest oak aged cognac, but you could just do what normal people do and douse it in the evil local firewater you bought back from your holidays ten years ago because you have vague recollections of it tasting good on a beach in the sun and don't understand why it suddenly tastes of meths the moment you cross the UK border. I'm using a mixture of Czech plum schnapps, German pear schnapps, Cointreau, Ammaretto and some Hungarian cherry moonshine that was brewed in someone's garage. I must admit that I think alcohol adds nothing to fruit cake other than the aseptic environment you need to stop the bugs eating it. At least by using fruit based and strongly flavoured liquers you can add something to the taste rather than just making the thing smell of petrol. Throw lemon juice and rind in here too and leave it to sit for a bit. If it is a large cake, I do this overnight so the fruit has time absorb the liquid.

I do find that the food mixer overbeats stuff even on the lowest setting (this is the point I get lynched for dispecting the Kenwood on my other internet forum) so I tend to scrape it into a bowl (or a new bucket if it's a big one!) at this point and do the rest by hand. Usually wincing in pain. In goes the fruit, spices and other random bits.

Plonk it into a greased tin (cake release and strip lining will save you a world of stress later on, but it's optional), throw in oven, bake for days until it's solid enough to case serious injury when dropped from a first floor window. Job done. Attack it Quentian Tarantino style with a kebab skewer. Soak in a lethal cocktail of miscellanous spirits, wrap in greaseproof paper and plop into an airtight tin until your ready to use it. Store away from sources of ignition in a well ventilated room. Do not inhale vapour. Get it out and sedate it with more alcohol every so often if you plan to keep it a few months. Otherwise it will get angry. Before you marzipan it, take it out of the greaseproof paper and leave it open to the air to dry off a bit. Or rub the surface with icing sugar.

You may have noticed the lack of promised measurements in this walk-through. That's because I spent quite some time repeating this process on different scales and doing some number crunching.

Here we go :) Numbers! I hope they will be helpful :)

Fruit cake receipe table

This receipe makes a darkish fruit cake - the one I use for wedding cake tiers when dark fruit cake has been specified. The longer you keep it and the more you feed it, the darker it gets. If you want it really dark, use darker sugar and throw a couple of tablespoons of treacle into the mix.

You can alter the ratios of fruits as long as you keep the total mass the same. Sometimes I add all sorts of random stuff to it - dried papaya, dried apricots, prunes, dried pears. I admit that I actually tend to replace the cherries with crystallised apples too (crystallised, not dried) as I don't like cherries, but that's just a personal thing. You can choose whatever nuts you like - I normally use hazelnuts as I think almonds are the cyanide flavoured no-legged spawn of Satan's bedsit, but anything goes. Think of it as a guide, rather than an absolute. It's not a receipe, it's a comfort blanket :)

Oh - and cool oven - gas mark 1 :) If you are doing a big one, wrap the tin in greaseproof paper, stand it on a couple of sheets of newspaper and tie it up with string, that way you won't cremate the edges. It's done when a skewer comes out clean. It will take ages. I cook large ones overnight, turning the oven down to gas 1/2.

Think that's everything...

I would like to say a huge thank you to Selki from Folksy for explaining how to link a file into a blog :) Turtle has some wonderful downloadable projects on his blog too which can be found here

Sunday, 23 May 2010


Dear Google,

Thank you for today's interactive doodle - your way of paying homage to the great Pacman. I wasted two hours when I was supposed to be working and now have the theme bleeps stuck in my brain. I am ensconced in happy nostalgia, with a reminder of my obsession with retro gaming that has made me download a ZX spectrum emulator onto my computer and given me the urge to search ebay for a DDR mat. I feel myself turning back into the stroppy anti-social teenager I once was - but I do not fear for I know that the geeks will inherit the earth. Seriously though, it was genius. I am almost at the stage I can forgive you for the Vista toolbar that keeps trying to usurp my position as system adminstrator in some sick electronic terminator-style coup. Almost. But not quite yet.

Yours sincerely,


I adore Pacman. It's so simple, so iconic and so much fun. I have visions of him now in an electronic nursing home sharing food with Inky and Clyde and talking about the fact that they were the trailblazers of electronic gaming. If it wasn't for them there would be no Quake, no Doom, no Sonic the Hedgehog, no Mario, no Lara Croft - nada. There would be no multi-user dungeons, no 3 am raiding parties with people halfway across the globe. There also wouldn't be any Animal Crossing or any Civilisation which means I would have a life and I wouldn't have RSI. Not a bad legacy for something that looks like a half-eaten pizza. They helped opened the flood gates thirty years ago. They caused the flood.

I have wasted a large amount of my life gaming, only natural for someone of my age with an obsessive streak. I grew up with it as it evolved from the Neanderthal space shooter arcade machines to the first home consoles sold just for gaming. Before the advent of the home gaming machines, games were basic and normally written in BASIC by kids like me on the clunky keyboards of things like the VIC20 and C64. They usually involved navigating blocks of pixels through mazes or were entirely text based. I'm a puzzle person through and through with particular fondness for kawaii platformers of the early 1990's. I will play them obsessively until I find all hidden doors and all the secret worlds. I will play them until my hands freeze up. I will play them until it's 3 am in the morning and I've fallen asleep on the sofa with the electronic pipping lulling me to sleep.

One of the things I feel these days though is that although the graphics are now almost photographic in quality, the games themselves are getting easier and easier. It's not that I am getting more practiced, if anything I should be getting slower and the youngsters should be able to beat me down as the technology gets more advanced. The DS thinks my brain age is 68 as it can't read my handwriting, but it can't take me out at Mario Kart. Professor Layton gets a C minus for puzzle setting. It should not be possible to wipe it out of challenges in 48 hrs. Must try harder. The most fiendishly difficult games for modern gaming platforms are the rewrites of the retro.

I wondered if a lot of this was partly to do with the culture of people liking to win easily and partly that gaming now is more mainstream rather than the domain of pale-skinned geeks in heavy metal t-shirts it was when I was a kid. I like computer games I have to work at, I want them to win; at least at the start, so I can come back later and wreak revenge. I want them to make me think, I want the ups and downs of emotion, the frustration, as it makes the sense of achievement worth so much more. I need to understand that what I want can only be accomplished through practice, skill and hard work. I want to learn something; even if it is just how to navigate the kill screen and how to rage against the machine. Retro games are perfect social programming - rewarding dilligance, rather than their easy-come easy-go easy-win modern counterparts where money and your subscription to the maufacturer's site will hand you the Easter eggs on a silver platter. It's like comparing the discipline of martial arts to the highly sponsored and commerical world of professional sport. Beating a computer on level one of anything is like cheating at solitare. What's the point? Why would that make you feel good? You're only cheating yourself. Gaming has lost it's purity with age. It has sold its soul to a society with no work ethic.

Tetris, another wonderfully simple concept yet still painfully addictive, is the ultimate for this as it's not about winning, it's about losing as slowly as possible. It is a perfect life lesson. It teaches you that you cannot win, but more importantly that it doesn't actually matter. It is a journey, a process and even without an end-point, proof that the journey itself can be fulfilling.

I want to play my part in the celebration and create something tiny to wear to work tomorrow.

Small ball of red clay to start with.

I can shape this then cut it with a fine blade to give two roughly equal discs.

A bit more carving with a fine blade and they start to take shape

Pierce hole in the top and bake in the oven.

I do find simple clay shapes actually more work than really detailed ones. Flat surfaces aren't very forgiving, and really benefit from a going over with fine emery paper.

A quick coat with the fastest drying craft varnish in the world (it is really warm today!). Application of little googly eyes

...fixtures and fittings.

And we're done.

Sometimes the simplest things make me smile. And teach me so much.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Of the way in which she manifests

I have spent, the geek that I am, the last three hours reading political manifestos trying to work out how not to waste my vote tomorrow.

The city of Oxford is divided into two sections; Oxford West (and Abingdon) and Oxford East. There isn't a wall down the middle, but there might as well be. Oxford West has dreaming spires, open spaces and extensive college grounds; Oxford East has benefit fraud, graffiti with spelling mistakes and amusing ASBO kids called Chardonnay and Princess Belezbub. I live in the rough part; on an estate which has a welcome sign underneath which somebody has scrawled "my ghetto hometown". This means I get to vote in the rough part. To be fair, it's a bit rough by "nice town in the South" standards, so I'm not going to be the victim of a drive-by or a car-jacking any time soon, it just means my insurance is a bit higher than in would be on the other side of town and people scatter car parts on their front lawns.

This is the first time ever though that I have no idea who to vote for. I'm just not sure I want the responsibility of voting any of them in this time. I will vote, because I feel oblidged to, but I wish there was a no confidence box. None of the parties offer me any real incentive to vote for them. I can read all the manifestos I want, but I'm sure by the end of it the only way for me to choose will be to get the coloured board out of the twister set and let Fate decide. She has more experience than me, although if she has a similar sense of humour then I'm in trouble.

Election fever has hit work pretty hard, although to be fair it normally denigrates into a set of "date, marry, dump" questions pretty fast. Only 40 % of the people in my lab are entitled to vote in the election anyway on the basis of nationality, so looking for pearls of wisdom and inspiration amongst my colleagues and the students is a bit like herding cats. We decided yesterday that it would be more fun to vote in the candidate for the neighbouring consituency - that way each area would get the politican they deserve rather than the one they want - on the basis that what you want isn't always the best thing for you. I am really hoping that none of us lot become the policy makers of the future. I am afraid. Very afraid.

So - an election inspired make for me today. I've just taken delivery of a massive quantity of clay so that's a good place to start playing. I want to make something small enough so it can sit on the top of my computer monitor at work.

This is a chunk of brown polymer clay. Actually, it's a mixture of a lot of the bits of polymer clay I trim off the things I make.

Normally I use them for making the mould blanks, the small objects to cast from, as the colour doesn't matter - but as with most things like this, if you mix enough colours it will eventually go brown. I remember carrying out extensive experiments with plasticine when I was a kid, so I can tell you with almost complete certainty that if you throw the brown away, the resultant mixed mass you invariably acheive after messing about with it will be a foul shade of dark green. I'm going to divide it into three roughly equal chunks.

Then each one again into three, two smallish and one slightly larger bit.

Shaping the clay gives me this...

...and with a bit more fiddling around, things start to take shape. I'd like to point out here that I very rarely make things that have faces out of clay as I find them really difficult. No matter what living creature I try to make, it will always end up looking slightly feline, which is why I stick to making cats.

If find with clay that I can poke seed beads into it and they tend to survive intact when you bake the model. So, seed beads for eyes, a bit of white and pink clay for the faces and some limbs.

Some coloured clay and little white glass beads to finish off.

Cynic? Moi? I guess I'll decide tomorrow. What's the worst that could happen?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Paper, scissors, glue

I found a load of old stamps in the bottom of my papercraft box yesterday. I like stamps, I think it's because they each have a little story behind them. Most of the time I will have no idea what that story is but to someone out there they will mean something. Most of these are much much older than me and some of them come from places that don't exist any more.

I've been trying to work out what to do with them for a while. I've have this notebook, which is full of really pretty handmade paper, for ages now as well. I picked it up orginally to use as a sketch book, then realised the petals in the pages make it a difficult surface to draw on.

I don't like the colour of the cover very much either, so figured I maybe could decorate it with the stamps and turn it into a travel journal. I like the idea of having a travel journal. I do have this one, but it isn't really me so I've never used it.

I just know I'm going to get shot down for this, but the pattern on the cover reminds me of finger painting. It has a huge sticky-out spine, and the inside is full of sections in which you are supposed to write ordered lists of things that need to be put in order. It even has little pockets. I'm not organised enough to have lists or tidy enough to ever have children that paint like that. I'm sure it would fit neatly into the Prada handbag of perfectly made-up lady in a tour bus, but it won't work bent out of shape in the back pocket of my hiking rucksack with the little pockets full of dehydration sachets and malaria tablets. It just won't. I'm sorry Emma, I really am. If it's any consolation, I use my one Cath Kidston bag when I go mushroom hunting and I store the chain from my motorcycle in the dust bag that a similarly unloved and unused Radley handbag came in. I use my one bottle of fancy nail polish for labeling test tubes. They are pretty things, but they just don't suit me at all.

So, back to the task in hand. Child safe craft glue, an old paint brush, a bunch of old stamps and a note book.

I'm going to start on the spine...

...then work round so all of the surfaces are covered with a mosaic of stamps.

A few on the inside too and I'm finished.

Quick and simple. I'm going to leave the shell and the wooden strip and cord on the front as it looks kinda beach-washed-sun-bleached-hippy and I like that.

Now all I have to do is think of somewhere exciting to go.