31 March 2010


Canoodling may be just another word, but it ranks alongside even shenanigans for sheer trip-off-your-tongue pleasure. Unlike syzygy or tmesis, which merely make one look pretentious, canoodling is a word for everyone, however common. Even René Artois took the time to muse on why his best waitress would spend such an amount of time canning noodles in the cellar of his café, which goes to show two things: firstly the word canoodling is perfect for inclusion in British sit-coms, and secondly that its meaning occasionally needs to be explained. Even to those who indulge in a lot of it.

For who amongst us has not canoodled, at one point or another? That moment of frisky pleasure, that late-night tryst in the corner of the pub, sliding your hand slowly up someone-else's body, whispering utter nonsense into their ear in the hope that the fasteners on their clothing are somehow linked to their belief that you fancy them.

Canoodling is making out. It's approaching heavy petting. It's anything above first base. Hell, it might as well even be first base - it's just getting it on with someone. But it's not serious, not right at the moment you begin to canoodle. It may become serious later on - you may consider a proper relationship, involving sex, arguments and buying soft furnishings together. But canoodling's a bit of fun to begin with - a bit of slap and tickle.

And so I ask again... who amongst us can honestly say that at one point or another they're never, ever canoodled? Say it with me - let it roll off your tongue. Canoodle, ladies and gentlemen; one of our language's finest words, not to mention a great way to spend a Friday night.

30 March 2010

1000 Airplanes On The Roof / Philip Glass

1000 Airplanes On The Roof is best described as a science fiction opera, with elements of drama but mostly music. Lots and lots of music, composed by Philip Glass. It's written for a chamber ensemble, rather than full orchestra, and features heavy use of synthesizer. The libretto is by David Henry Hwang.

As you might expect from Philip Glass, the music features repetition. I hesitate to write that the music is repetitive, however, as discernible patterns of difference are audible within what may have initially seemed to be a simple repetition, and the recurring themes are often altered and changed - perhaps mutated would be a better choice of word considering the theme. If you're a fan of Philip Glass, you know what to expect, and if you're not a fan then you've probably come across the old Philip Glass knock knock jokes, and must at least have some idea of what you might expect. (Expect. Of what you might expect. Expect. Expect of what you might of expect. Of what you might expect. Oh, okay - I'll behave.)

1000 Airplanes On The Roof concerns an encounter with extraterrestrials, recalled at length by the central character: 'M'. Through the narrative, we are exposed to the broken recollections of M, and are left to decide if this is an accurate depiction of actual events, a voyage through space, part of M's nightmares, perhaps drug-induced, or merely the beginning of a mental breakdown. Consulting the doctor (Track 12: 'Where Have You Been Asked The Doctor'), we end the opera with the final song, titled 'A Normal Man Running'. Whatever M's experience, he is normal... and running. The opera takes place on a three-dimensional, holographic set, images of which can be seen in the accompanying book, credited to Philip Glass, David Henry Hwang and Jerome Sirlin.

The piece premiered on the 5th of July, 1988 at the Vienna International Airport, in Hanger number 3. The soundtrack is available on CD, and if you've got five friends, two synths and at least six hands you can get the score from Chester Novello. Sadly, the CD is missing the voice-over, which makes the story more of an afterthought than an integral part of the opera. I'm afraid even a google image search doesn't come up with any pictures of the 'holographic' stage.

CD Tracklist

01 1000 Airplanes On The Roof
02 City Walk
03 Girlfriend
04 My Building Disappeared
04 Screens Of Memory
06 What Time Is Grey
07 Labyrinth
08 Return To The Hive
09 Three Truths
10 The Encounter
11 Grey Cloud Over New York
12 Where Have You Been Asked The Doctor
13 A Normal Man Running

27 March 2010

Birch Syrup

Similar to maple syrup in many ways, but with a subtly different flavour and an entirely different chemical structure, birch syrup is nevertheless obtained in a very similar way. The predominant, natural sugar in birch syrup is fructose; maple consists primarily of sucrose. Fructose is believed to be more digestible, and birch syrup itself is high in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, manganese, thiamin and calcium. Birch syrup lends itself to marinades, barbecue sauces, coffee, baked squash, breads, shakes and, of course, ice-cream.

Originally, collecting birch syrup was a work-intensive and time-consuming procedure. When the spring came and the sap began to rise in the trees, a camp would be set up, home to the collectors for a week or more. Medium-sized trees seemed to produce the best sap, and each tree would only be tapped once every two years - essentially being given a year off to recover. An upwards, slanting cut with a hatchet would produce a curl of bark on the selected trees. When propped open with a small twig, the sap would drip from this jutting curl into tin pails, propped against or tied to the tree. Collecting the pails was usually the responsibility of the children; some trees gave several gallons of sap, some only produced a cup or so. However much was produced, it was brought back to the camp where it boiled in a large kettle over an open fire.

Boiling the sap was a delicate process: it had to be kept boiling; there's an awful lot of extra liquid to evaporate before you end up with sweet birch syrup. Too little cooking, and the syrup would be watery and might even ferment later. Too much, on the other hand, and it would crystallise. Eventually, however, the syrup was ready to pour off and cool, maybe producing three or four gallons of precious syrup.

Nowadays, in early April the sap of the Alaska paper birch begins to rise. Ten to fifteen percent of each tree's sap is removed through a tapped, 7/16" hole which is plugged at the end of the season to preserve the tree. Time is saved by running the sap through a reverse osmosis machine which quickly removes seventy percent of the water, concentrating the sugar to approximately five percent. Concentration to sixty-seven percent is completed in a wood-fired evaporator. At present there is little or no commercial production of birch syrup anywhere else in the world, although one would imagine that as birch syrup becomes increasingly popular amongst gourmet chefs, production is likely to rise to meet demand.

Sadly, I have never tasted birch syrup, nor even seen it in the shops. Maybe one day...

19 March 2010

Misery Porn

'Tear jerker' - apparently that's the name for this dreadful new genre I've noticed, also known as a misery memoir or, far more descriptively, as misery porn. They're the ones with depressed kids all over the front of the book. You know how it is... one minute you're gently wheeling a trolley down the end of Tesco's cleaning aisle, the next minute you turn a corner, bravely march past an alluring display of multi-flavoured Kit-Kats, and there they are. Staring...

Row upon row of aching, soulful eyes, usually embedded in a small child's head (although there seems to be no guarantee of this), gently faded out into ghostly white. Perhaps a tear or two clusters at the corner of each eye. There are little bunches of blonde hair and a cute button nose, and oh - the titles! Daddy's Little Earner (by Maria Landon, taglined 'A heartbreaking true story of a brave little girl's escape from violence'). 'When Daddy Comes Home' (by Toni Maguire, taglined 'She finally thought she was safe').

There's more. 'Damaged', by Cathy Glass, a 'heartbreaking true story of a forgotten child'. Next to it, we have David Thomas' 'Tell Me Why, Mummy: A Little Boy's Struggle To Survive. A Mother's Shameful Secret. The Power To Forgive.' There are hundreds of them! 'Please Daddy, No' sits next to 'Don't Tell Mummy', with 'The Little Prisoner' and 'Abandoned' crying out for attention on the shelf below. 'Street Kid' and 'All In My Head' dare to branch out into the older market - the kids on the front of these ones look about nine rather than all snub-nosed and four-ish. 'The Invisible Girl', 'Daddy's Rules' and 'Cry Silent Tears'... on and on they go.

I've had enough; my eyes flick back to that first one: 'Daddy's Little Earner' - the title's probably more apt than you'd think. Child abuse: it's the new Mills And Boon.

17 March 2010

Hello! Magazine

Hello!, launched in 1988 and published weekly ever since, has since become well established as a purveyor of celebrity photo-features and other aspects of photo journalism. Each issue features a mixture of articles and interviews from around the world, the range covered aimed at a very specificdemographic. Readership, in 2004, had reached almost two million UK adults, predominantly women, but nowadays the rival magazine 'OK!' out-sells Hello! by roughly three to one. Hello! is, in short, a gossip magazine. But what do Hello! readers expect from their favourite weekly?

  • A Diary Of The Week offers photographic coverage of high society events, such as balls, cocktail parties, receptions, charity dinners or gallery openings. (The more cynical reader may feel 'balls' to be the most apt description of Hello! magazine's output.)
  • Panorama gives an image-based review of current world events, and is the furthest Hello! strays from its celebrity features.
  • Inside Story provides an insight into the daily lives of what Hello! describes as the 'rich and famous', and is usually followed up by Cinematters, which achieves the same purpose but with a more specific focus on the entertainment industry.
  • Fashion and Lifestyle provide Hello! readers with an insight into 'beautiful people and beautiful clothes', as well as ensuring readers can stay up to date with cookery, interiors, beauty tips and television and film listings. Some aspects are embellished in their own Cookery and Travelsections.

Readership Details

It's obvious from looking at the contents of an average Hello! magazine that the reader is far from likely to be attending the social events covered, or to be enjoying the fine interiors the 'rich and famous' encounter on an everyday basis. Indeed, Monica Horten of the British Interactive Media Association takes a gleeful jab at Hello! with her view that 'Hello! is the sort of magazine that is read by the same audience that watches soap operas on television, and by the rest of us strictly only at the hairdressers or in the dentist's waiting room'. Continuing with an assertion that 'the intellectual level is not high', Ms. Horten clearly has her finger on the pulse.

Hello! Magazine itself is more specific about its readership, of which 82% are women, though it's far more flattering, clearly believing its readers to be a high-class, discerning clientele as opposed to gossip-starved soap-addicts. Amongst other things, Hello! are pleased to note that:

  • Readers of Hello! are 71% more likely than the average female to choose a car mainly on looks.
  • Hello! readers are willing and able to spend money on fulfilling their desires. In the last 12 months its readers have apparently spent over sixty-four million pounds on microwave ovens.
  • 91% of Hello! readers enjoy an alcoholic drink.
  • Hello! readers spend nearly 93 million pounds on food every week.


The Hello! website offers one or two other titbits which, while not earth-shatteringly interesting, are worth a mention.

  • Hello! magazine is printed at Polestar Greaves in Scarborough, UK. (Gravure, if you're into technicalities.)
  • According to a recent survey, Hello! readers perceive themselves as upmarket, eschewing other magazines of a similar nature, such as OK! magazine.

The Curse Of Hello!

It is well known that Hello! pay good money for exclusive photocoverage of celebrity weddings. It has been noticed that a large proportion of such weddings break up extremely quickly, an effect known, jokingly, as 'the curse of Hello!'. Some kind of official study needs to be done...

16 March 2010

Prince Of Darkness

From the very beginning you know that this is a John Carpenter movie. It's the music: a pulsing electronic bassline, pounding over a dull, relentless hum. John likes to do his own music, wherever possible, and whilst later films like Vampires allowed him to branch out into a less formulaic style, Prince Of Darkness has the same feel as the Halloween theme tune. It fits well, actually: bleak and sinister, reflecting the tone of the film perfectly.

The plot is straightforward, yet deceptively entertaining. It's a strange mix of quantum physics and theology, most of which sounds entirely plausible, and the efforts of a group of scientists and priests to hold back the ensuing tide of predictably bloody evil. Strange liquids, mysterious transmissionsand various problems with entropy and the arrow of time lead to an influx of zombies and other unpleasant happenings. Of course, on top of these strange and sinister events, it rapidly becomes obvious that Satan, the Prince Of Darkness, is well on his way to being released. Science and religionare required to work together to hold back the inevitable: there's no happy ending here...

Appearances from Donald Pleasence, Alice Cooper and Victor Wong merely add to the enjoyment, managing not to detract from the violence and horror in the slightest. That said, the film, unsurprisingly perhaps, fared poorly at the box office. The skilful mix of science and scripture seems to fall short of what's required to produce a successful horror film, despite the clear intelligence of the script.

Prince Of Darkness was originally released in 1987, and made DVD release in 2002. Its runtime of 101 minutes is refreshingly short and makes it perfect for an evening of intelligent horror. If you don't mind a little gore, and positively welcome the odd smattering of quantum physics and philosophy, Prince Of Darkness is the film for you...

14 March 2010

The Fun They Had - Isaac Asimov

The Fun They Had is a short short story by Isaac Asimov. Its length of roughly one thousand words is nigh on perfect, however, for in those one thousand words Asimov produces a perfect children's story with a point that's just twisty enough for most kids. And it is aimed at children, there's no doubt, and the premise is almost laughably simple. Or it would be if the story didn't make an intriguing social comment on the nature of education as a socialising influence with such gleeful innocence.

Asimov was, apparently, rather at a loss to explain the popularity of the story, which was originally written in 1951 for a newspaper and later published in Science Fiction And Fantasy Magazine. Of course, the story's length and simplicity lends it well to school literature texts for younger readers, and the story received more requests for inclusion in anthologies than any of his other stories.

In the story, Margie finds a book. And books, in 2155, are pretty peculiar. 'I guess you throw it away once you're done with it.' her brother says, and they muse on how much better their electronic book readers are - you can use them over and over again. But this mysterious object from the attic is quite fascinating to Margie, and to Tommy too. Much more interesting, in fact, than the mechanical teacher, which Margie secretly hopes might break down forever. In Margie's book it tells her all about school, about meeting friends in the playground, about homework and sitting together with your own desk. You'll have guessed the point by now - it is aimed at children after all...

"Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had."

12 March 2010

Short Back And Sides

The short back and sides is quite probably the best-known classic British hair style, particularly favoured for young boys as it was supremely easy for mother to maintain with appropriately brusque combings just after breakfast. It was especially common prior to the 1960s; following this popular influences such as The Beatles made it more acceptable for males to sport longer styles of hair, and the desire for a short back and sides decreased accordingly. This trend for longer hair continued through the 70s, eventually giving way to shorter styles through the eighties, including an increased trend for shaved hair styles.

The short back and sides ought to be awarded something in recognition of clear speech. In a world of bangs, ringlets and devilocks it's a refreshing change to come across a hairstyle with a plain, descriptive name. Upon requesting a short back and sides, one could expect the fringe to be trimmed to a respectable level, and the sides and back of the neck to be cropped to a rather severe length, usually with a razor of some description. Sideburns were optional, but usually extended to around the middle of the ear.

The short back and sides also forms a basis for some more outlandish styles. The Eton flop (or 'floppie'), for example, would feature a short back and sides with a long sweep of hair dangling in the eyes.

09 March 2010

Arthur Herzog

You've probably not heard of author Arthur Herzog. During the seventies and eighties, he was merely one of hundreds of authors who seemed to be highly concerned about nature taking some sort of revenge and thus set out to warn mankind to change their ways. You know the thing: giant spiders, mutated horribly by toxic waste just outside of Manhattan, struggle with an insatiable urge to take over the world. If it's not mutant spiders, then it's super-intelligent ants, taking over the Nevada desert and having a bit of a go at anyone who comes near, spending their leisure time building large 3D blocks. That sort of thing. (That was a reference to Phase IV, by the way. If you got it... fond memories shared herewith. Mmmn. Oh, sorry - if you didn't get it, move along please, and try to watch or read 'Phase IV' at some point.)

But you should have heard of him, getting back to the point. Why? Because a number of things set Arthur Herzog's work apart from all the rest. His writing ability, the plausibility, the unremitting terror and the attention to detail; each of these made Herzog's books more than just potboiler horror. Each book, whether it was The Swarm (African killer bees slowly make their way into populated areas of America and are destroyed by genetic alteration to induce sterility) or IQ 83 (retrovirus is accidentally released, reducing the average IQ of the population to 83), was preceded by real newspaper clippings that, while not assuring the reader that such things would take place, at least gave one a nasty feeling of helplessness.

Other books dealt with global warming, earthquakes and convenience foods gone horribly wrong. Yes, even worse than Soylent Green. Of course, the glory days of nature's revenge on mankind as a good read has long since passed - we've moved on to a new age of ensured destruction, as embodied by 'The Road' (Cormac McCarthy) or 'One' (Conrad Williams), both of which are great pieces of new apocalyptic fiction. Herzog's books are still in print, though, ready to offer the connoisseur of sci-fi-horror a good dose of plausible unease.

Arthur Herzog's 2003 publication, described as vivid short stories somewhere between science fiction and horror, is available exclusively on-line at www.arthurherzog.com. You're thinking: Hmm, only available online? Brave move to embrace new technology or last ditch attempt to get published? The answer: go back, read his books and you'll find you're in a position to decide...

Two of Herzog's books also made their way onto film, unfortunately ending up as examples of the standard 70s disaster movie. Orca, the story of an enraged Killer Whale (which isn't quite as bizarre as it sounds: killer whales share a common trait with man, in that they're given to killing solely for revenge), made a 1977 film release whereupon it was immediately derided as a Jaws rip-off, even Charlotte Rampling and Bo Derek failing to make much of a splash.
The killer bees from Swarm took on an almost other-worldly power in 1978, however, raging unstoppable through nuclear power stations and a school or two before being stopped by Michael Caine with a giant mating call transmitter, a standard plot device by that time which was, unfortunately, completely different to the book, far less plausible and a good deal less entertaining.

It should also be noted that Herzog also writes non-fiction books on a variety of subjects and has enjoyed a successful career as a journalist. This was early on in his career, however, when after writing some eighteen stories for the New York Times magazine he turned down the coveted role of editor and later declined a doctorate following his master's at Columbia University, preferring to concentrate on a career devoted to realistic science fiction novels.

A short bibliography:

Aries Rising (Drugs thriller with appropriate quantities of sex, guns and death.)

The Craving ('What happens when hunger becomes a fatal obsession only death can stop..?')

Earthbound ('Your name is Harry Vail and you alone know the terrifying truth...')

Glad To Be Here

Heat (Global warming takes off in a big way.)

IQ 83 (Escaped retrovirus reduces average IQ to 83.)

L*S*I*T*T (FDA approved aphrodisiac works slightly too well...)

Make Us Happy

Orca (Enraged killer whale seeks revenge.)

The Swarm (Africanised bees move north.)

Body Parts (Short stories; Available online only.)


The B.S. Factor

The Church Trap

McCarthy For President

17 Days: The Katie Beers Story


The War-Peace Establishment

The Wood Chipper Murder

How To Write Almost Anything Better And Faster (Sadly not consulted for this writeup.)

Scar Tissue

What is scar tissue?

Scar tissue is a mark left on damaged tissue after it has finished healing. Although it is most commonly thought of as occurring on skin, scar tissue will also form on internal wounds, including those to vital organs. Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, heart disease affects cardiac tissues, and even the pancreas can be scarred by diseases like pancreatitis.

Although scars replace destroyed tissue, they do not perform the function of the missing tissue properly. Extensively scarred tissue may lose the ability to function normally, or may limit muscle movement. Scarred blood or lymph vessels may hamper proper circulation of fluids. Scarred skin does not form sweat glands or hair follicles, and a scarred heart muscle can eventually lead to heart failure.

Scarred Skin

With regard to the skin, scar tissue forms after an injury, a part of the natural healing process and inevitable as the body piles collagen in to restructure the wound. Only a very minor wound will heal without the formation of scar tissue; whether accidental, self-inflicted or as a result ofsurgery, scars occur when the dermis is damaged. Even stretching can cause scarring, leaving long, linear marks. Ear piercings, too, are common sites for a build up of hard scar tissue.

The amount of scar tissue formed is linked to various factors about the wound. Size, depth and location have considerable effect on the scar, as do age, skin characteristics and other, hereditary factors. Scar tissue is usually easy to identify: dense and thick, varying in in colour. Silvery,pale pink or brown, the scar fades over time, but never truly disappears on its own. Surgical procedures can help, and topical medications can have some effect. Others swear by Vitamin E or cocoa butter.

Abnormal Scar Tissue

Known as a keloid or hypertrophic scars, abnormal scar tissue forms when the body over-produces collagen. These scars are thicker than normal scar tissue, with a different texture. Hypertrophic scars will not extend beyond the edge of the wound, though they will raise up from the skin's surface. Keloid scars are more worrying, as they may grow, indefinitely. Although benign, a large tumor-like growth can form.

Both types of abnormal scar are common on young or dark-skinned people. Some individuals have a genetic susceptibility to them, others may be caused by accidental damage.

08 March 2010

Janine Duvitski

Janine Duvitski was born in 1952 and is an English actress. She had an English mother and a Polish father; her original name of Drzewicki was probably abandoned as a stage name because the British public are still too lazy to figure out how to pronounce Polish. Duvitski moved to London early in life to train as an actress, and made her first forays into success with a couple of small television drama roles. Her first 'proper' role came about after she placed an advertisement and photograph in Spotlight magazine, and was invited to audition for a short play about incest. Although twenty years old, her audition was apparently convincing enough for her to win the role of the 13 year old girl. Further success followed, and after a few stage roles Mike Leigh spotted her and offered her the part of Angela in Abigail's Party - first the stage version, then the later television version.

That first role, with the incest and so on, is something of an oddity, being rather more serious than Duvitski's later roles. You see, over the years, beginning with Abigail's Party, Duvitski has cultivated a kind of dopey, naive charm and turned it into an art form. I've no doubt that in real life she's as sharp as a button but the character in Abigail's Party is a perfect example of Duvitski's metier. Mike Leigh's playscript calls for a meek and mundane character, and Duvitski plays it perfectly: she sits, completely out of place admidst the hostess, Beverly's, 'finery', and certainly is no match for the sophistication of the Sue character. 'I have very beautiful lips,' she goofily drools at Beverly, on command, while for most of the play her husband regards her with an expression of utter contempt. If you haven't seen Abigail's Party, of course, you have no idea what I'm talking about, so let's move swiftly on to Dennis Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills'.

This excellent, deceptively cheerful play offers another chance for Duvitski to shine. Here she plays Audrey, a young girl clutching a dolly who is clearly as bright as a box of hair. Brilliant performances all round, of course, for the cast of this one; do try and see it.

Duvitski is also famous for her roles in Waiting For God, where she plays a rather dull-witted and simple woman, as Pippa Tench in One Foot In The Grave where she plays - wait for it - a rather dull-witted and simple woman. But please, don't be put off - she's brilliant at it. In fact, it would be a mistake to assume that Duvitski can only perform as a simple, dull-witted woman; her roles in the recent English National Opera production of On The Town and in Alan Bleasdale's Boys From The Black Stuff prove her versatility. The possibility of becoming typecast must always be a risk for any actor or actress... Duvitski flirts with it perhaps a little more than most, having accepted roles in The Madness Of King George and the 1979 version of Dracula, both of which involved playing mad women. But really, she's so good at it! There probably ought to be a separate category in the BAFTAs.

Duvitski is currently married to the actor Paul Bentall, with whom she has four children. That's not him in the picture; that's taken from the comedy series 'Benidorm', and she's standing next to actor Kenny Ireland.

07 March 2010


Rope has been made since the early Stone Age, from whatever materials were available. For European hunter-gatherers, ten thousand years ago, that would be flax, grown specifically to make rope. For the Persians or Egyptians, papyrus was also used. Nowadays, both vegetable fibres andsynthetic materials are used to produce rope, though synthetics enjoy a greater level of popularity.

It is no surprise that humanity has developed rope-making in such a way, and it is unthinkable that there will ever come a time when the common, simple rope will become obsolete. Rope provides us with the means to delve into the deepest cave, to seek out fuel or food in remote places, to move over rugged terrain with everything securely held on pack animals or vehicles. It joins things together, and in doing so keeps things safe. Rope was essential for the block and tackle construction techniques of the medieval stone masons, and the vital tool of the Egyptian labour forces. Thick, strong cord keeps mountain climbers off the ground, and (for the rest of us) those thin, black cords keep our shoes on our feet. And of course, it's only when your pockets are completely rope-free that you realise how useful a length of cord could be...

Vegetable Fibre Cordage

Until this century, rope was made from shredded, combed and graded fibres of plant stems; maybe flax or jute. Alternately, the leaves of sisal or hemp provided a tough, suitable fibre. Fibres attached to seeds, such as cotton, or the fibrous husk of coconut shells (coir) were also suitable.

If plants weren't available, horse, camel or even human hair were just as usable, though vegetable fibres were far more common. For obvious reasons, such ropes are referred to as natural fibre. These fibres were spun clockwise to create long yarns. Several yarns would be twisted anticlockwise to form strands. Finally, three strands would be laid together and spun clockwise to create a typical rope.

The resulting cord was relatively strong, but prone to abrasion, and, in many cases, the natural fibres could become prey to mildew, rot, vermin or insects. It might swell when damp, and in icy conditions could easily freeze and simply break. Nevertheless, in their time, natural fibre rope was an incredibly useful tool, and an important aspect of humanity's historical development.

Some natural fibre rope remains in use. Those thick ropes in the gym are commonly made of high-quality hemp cordage, and coir ropes grace more than one boat fender. On a less practical note, the interior decor of your everyday nautically-inclined theme pub would be far less authentic without their multiple yards of natural fibre rope. (Decide for yourself whether the eradication of nautically-themed pubs would be adequate reason to ban natural fibre ropes...)

Synthetic Cordage

As technology improved, so did rope-making. In the 1930s the basic elements for synthetic cordage were discovered and developed. Fine, continuous clusters of multifilaments, less than 50 microns in diameter became a real possibility. The production of coarser monofilaments was perfected, and flat, narrow strings could be produced through careful extrusion of synthetic chemicals.

Such synthetic materials are stronger and lighter than their vegetable counterparts. A three-strand nylon rope is more than twice as strong as a manila one, yet weighs half as much and can last four times longer. They do not lose strength from being wet, have high breaking strength and can withstand sudden shock loading.

This is not to say that synthetic ropes do not have their own shortcomings. They are susceptible to heat, and thus friction can easily cause softening, melting or, most disastrously, parting. That said, polyamide produces the strongest man-made cordage, and Polyester, Terylene, Dacron and polypropylene offer common alternatives. In situations where strength is required and friction can be minimised, synthetic cordage is an unparalleled choice.

05 March 2010

Soldering Iron

A soldering iron is a simple device for applying heat to a specific point. The intention is to melt solder at this point, joining two materials. This joint is then allowed to cool, thus soldering the two materials together. Generally, soldering is used to create an electrically conductive joint betweenelectrical components and a circuit board. It should be noted that although the term soldering also refers to joining pipes, a plumber would use a blowtorch rather than a soldering iron.

Solder is generally a mixture of tin and lead with a melting point just below 190 degrees Celsius. The tip of the soldering iron, therefore, must reach this temperature, and the most common method of achieving this is with electrical power. Other options include butane powered soldering irons, which have the advantage of being cordless, and there are other devices available which are designed to be heated in a furnace.

Depending on the type of work at hand, differently shaped tips can be fitted to the soldering iron. For working with fine electronics components, a slender and rounded tip is useful, whereas a triangular, flat face is useful for work with sheet metal. The tip itself should be coated with a thin layer of solder, a process known as tinning. This ensures a good transfer of heat from the tip of the iron to the surface being soldered, and keeps the tip in good condition.

The high temperatures at which soldering takes place means that certain safety considerations must be taken into account. The majority of soldering irons feature a hook by which the device can be hung whilst hot, or come with a stand into which the iron should be placed when not in use. Additionally, there is always risk of the solder splashing, and so protective goggles are essential.

Although soldering irons come in a range of sizes, the majority of these are visible with the naked eye. New Scientist, however, recently reported the smallest device in the world. Formed from carbon nanotubes with a diameter of 20 millionths of a millimetre. Gaseous iridium is condensed into solid droplets between one and ten nanometres wide, then electrically forced along the nanotube's surface where they collect as a bubbling liquid. The inventor, Alex Zettl, plans to use them to solder tiny parts together, enhancing current work on a 'nano-structure production line'.

02 March 2010

Rescue On Fractalus

Released in 1984, the Atari 5200 game Rescue On Fractalus was one of LucasFilm's early attempts to break into the computer game market. Working closely alongside Atari to produce Ballblazer and Rescue On Fractalus, LucasFilm subsequently went on to produce more games under first this name and, later, the LucasArts label.

Rescue On Fractalus, as the name imples, made extensive and innovative use of fractal geometry to produce the mountainous ranges of the planet. Nowadays, it is by no means the only game to have done this - Captain Blood featured similarly generated alien canyons - but at the time, particularly considering the hardware limitations of the Atari 5200, its graphics were quite stunning.

Stunning... if a little jagged. Early prototypes were known as Behind Jaggi Lines, a reference to the jagged streaks of cockpit that the player was forced to peer through. The jaggy lines became personal enemies of the programmers, and thus the alien forces in the game became known as Jaggimonsters. Alas, despite the development of now-common anti-aliasing technologies, the 5200's colour palette wasn't large enough to allow for fancy graphical techniques. Low framerates and jaggy lines all round, then...

Though best remembered for its fractal graphics, which provided the right level of geek-appeal, the gameplay in Rescue On Fractalus was similarly engaging. Originally conceived purely as a straight-forward rescue mission, George Lucas enquired about the location of the fire button. Rescue On Fractalus rapidly evolved to include gun emplacements, jaggi monsters, suicidal flying saucers and alien impostors, who will leap up and bang on the front window in a most alarming fashion. All of which leads many to believe that Rescue On Fractalus, solely by design rather than luck, was one of the best Atari 5200 games to be produced.

Programmed by David Fox, Loren Carpenter, Charlie Kellner, Peter Langston, Gary Winnick and David Levine, Rescue On Fractalus was released for the Atari 5200 in 1984. Previously it had been named Star Mission, Rescue Mission and the doomed, pun-laden Behind Jaggi Lines.