Friday, December 28, 2012

That was Christmas - now for the recycling

That’s it, then. You’ve opened your presents, you’ve stuffed your face, you’ve marvelled at the new 3D Queen, you’ve been for a walk in your festive jumper and you’ve not got washed away in a flood.

Kiss me quick before it goes into the compost
For you, Tommy, ze Christmas ist over. 

But before you can start to think about getting back to work, or making any New Year resolutions, or paying off all the bills, or planning next year’s holiday, there’s one thing you’ve got to do: sort out all the leftovers.

Just as busy hospitals operate a triage system to decide which incoming patients are worth saving, you’ve got to take a robust, unsentimental approach to the Trimmings that Time Forgot.

Here, then, completely free of charge and printed on the finest recycled paper, are your top five post-festive Reuse It or Lose It Tips.

WRAPPING PAPER: easy one, you’re thinking. If you’d opened all your presents really, really carefully, you could by now be folding up the paper, giving it a quick iron, and putting it away in the loft ready for next year. As if. Most of it is scrumpled beyond redemption after an over-enthusiastic three-year-old ripped into it on Christmas morning. The rest has been used to wrap triangular presents and has a entered a spatial distortion field from which no amount of ironing will ever rescue it. Recycle.

BLUE QUALITY STREET: long after the green and purple ones have gone, and long after the last toffee penny has yanked at your fillings, you’ll find a small pile of blue coconut-flavoured uselessness lurking at the bottom of the tin. Not even hungry magpies are attracted to these, and they won’t burn. Send them for landfill.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS: did you know that they recently discovered the gene that codes for not liking these unlovely offshoots of the brassica family? People who have the gene are what are known in medical parlance as “normal”. People who don’t have it, and like sprouts, are... well, it’s not their fault. Sprouts are dangerous things, though. Just before Christmas there were reports about a man from Ayrshire who overdosed on Brussels sprouts. So if you have a any left over (and you will have), encase them in lead, bury them at least six feet deep, backfill the hole with nuclear-reactor-grade concrete, and set up an exclusion zone dotted with Vitamin K detectors. You can’t be too careful.

SPUDS: donate them to science. Yes, seriously. Another pre-Christmas TV news item reported that top plane-maker Boeing is using bags of potatoes to test wi-fi transmission in the passenger cabins of new aircraft. This raises lots of questions – not least of which is: “What were they on at the BBC Christmas party, and where can we get some?” But there’s always life in an old King Edward. Keep for later.

BATTERIES: you mean you remembered to buy batteries before Christmas Day? So all those toys and electronic do-dahs worked straight out of the box? If you’re that well-organised, you don’t need anyone's help getting rid of the old ones – have a fantastically green New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Craft yourself a merry little Christmas

Regular readers (and we understand that there are still two or three left) will no doubt be aware of this writer's fascination with the televisual opus of Kirstie Allsopp, Nigella Lawson and other domestic divas whose main role in life seems to be to make those of us who are unlucky enough to live in the real world all too aware of our own inadequacies.

Kirstie blows her own glass Christmas tree baubles. Nigella whips up a festive four-course meal from nothing but panettone and tomato paste. We watch, we marvel, we feel as though we can’t compete.

A lot of this DIY creativity plugs into a sort of fake nostalgia, a desire to go back to a simpler time before Xboxes, before 3DSXls, before Wii U’s, before other surreal and random alphabetic combinations.

Back to the time when you could make your own Christmas crackers from old loo rolls, a sheet of tin foil and a packet of Polos.

All right, they didn’t crack when you pulled them but they looked convincing, and gave your parents hope that you might have at least one creative bone in your body.

Or back to the time when you could even, in the case of Mrs D’s dad, fashion one large Christmas tree from the trunks and branches of two much smaller ones.

But if your nearest and dearest want the latest in technology for Christmas, and you still want to keep your crafting skills alive, there are a couple of swift projects you could just about complete in the brief time between now and the Big Day.

First, why not try knitting a pair of touchscreen mittens? It’s simple as anything: just buy yourself a couple of balls of conductive wool in the colours of your choice (like Kirstie, you should source yours from a chocolate-box wool shop in a tiny Cotswold village). Cast on, purl 3, plain 4, drop 2, round the back and tie the whole lot off with a bow.

Your iPad-toting relatives will be delighted – at least until they lose all feeling in the tips of their fingers.

Of course, this year’s must-have festive gadget is the radio-controlled helicopter with built-in webcam.

Which is not designed for spying on your neighbours, but for more mundane tasks like making spectacular videos of waterfalls, mountain crags and other inaccessible features. Like your guttering, for a start.

But why spend hundreds of pounds on off-the-shelf technology? Half the fun of this sort of thing is building it yourself from found objects.

A quick rummage in the loft should turn up all the parts you need: metal biscuit tins can easily be hammered into shape for the body of the chopper, a couple of wooden rulers can be pressed into service for the rotors, and the motor from that retired food processor will serve as the power plant.

Stick an old Polaroid camera in the nose and it’s chocks away!

And as for radio control, well who needs it? This baby can fly itself.

At least until your pride and joy starts making a noise like a Stuka dive-bomber, crashes into the cat and shakes itself into a million pieces. Happy Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Your ultimate Christmas Checklist

Do you know the last posting day for airmail packages to Vanuatu? Can you tell the difference between a chestnut roaster and a turkey baster? And can you tie one of those curly ribbons without which no present is truly presentable?

If your answer to one or more of those questions is “No”, then you need help, and you need it now.

Christmas is just around the corner (if you hadn’t quite realised yet) and there’s still lots more to be done.

So here it is – your Ultimate Festive Cut-Out-And-Keep-And-Stick-To-The-Kitchen-Wall-And-Forget-About-It-Until-It’s-Far-Too-Late Christmas Checklist.

  • CARDS: What do you mean, you’ve posted them already? You can’t have – not all of them. OK, you’ve been through your address book and decided who to send them to. But you’ve left off that family from down the road who moved to Canada two years ago. Sure as baubles is baubles, you’ll find a card from them popping through the letterbox on December 22, when it’s far too late to do anything about it. And nothing will assuage your guilt.

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  • DECORATIONS:  Based on 20 years of painstaking scientific research, Dixon’s Second String Theory postulates that any string of fairy lights that worked perfectly well last year will fail within five minutes of unpacking them and plugging them in again this year. It further states that no DIY shop within a radius of 10 miles will have the right fuses. And it finally predicts that the best way to get them working again is to chuck them out and buy a whole new set. All of which explains why fairy light makers are rich, and you are not.

  • FOOD: There was a time not long ago when your choices were limited to a monstrously large turkey or a monstrously expensive goose. These days, of course, variety is the key to spicing up your Christmas dinner table. So if you don’t like the idea of one of those four-bird roasts they’re always advertising on telly, why not try a five-bird roast? Or a six-bird roast? Or a grotesque amalgam of herb cheese, smoked salmon, chilli jam and filou pastry? The only limit is your own imagination. But don’t go overboard on the quail’s eggs and pomegranate sorbet. It has a nasty habit of repeating on you.

  • CHRISTMAS CRAFTS: You can crochet your own Nativity scene, you can create tree hangings from old paperclips, and you can even fashion decoupage tea-trays to give to your nearest and dearest. Let’s face it, though, life’s too short, and there’s only one Kirstie Allsopp. And by no stretch of the imagination is it you. 

  • OFFICE PARTIES: It’s OK to enjoy yourself, and have a few drinks, and strut your funky stuff on the dance floor. But never, ever, ever succumb to the karaoke. There are few festive experiences less pleasant than waking up on a Saturday morning with a rasping sore throat and the strains of BeyoncĂ©’s Single Ladies still ringing in your ears. And you can take that from a man who’s tried it.

  • TREE: Don't worry, there’s still plenty of time to get a tree. Yes, really.

  • PRESENTS: At this late stage it doesn’t really matter what you buy. Just keep the receipts, and remember that Amazon don’t deliver on Christmas morning.

  • DRINK: Oh all right then.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The black hole in our kitchen

Disturbing news reaches us from galaxy NGC 1277, 220 million light years away from Earth in the constellation of Perseus, where space boffins have detected a black hole more than 4,000 times larger than the one at the centre of our very own Milky Way.

This discovery has thrown the astrophysical community into some disarray, forcing them to re-think their ideas about how black holes are formed, and causing one to exclaim: “When it first popped up we said: ‘We don’t believe it!’”

Which, if it adds nothing to our understanding of black holes, at least proves that scientists are human, and can on occasion be persuaded to do Victor Meldrew impressions.

As above, so below. Or so they say. Whoever “they” are. Probably the same people who say “Many a mickle makes a muckle” and  “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

But whoever they are, they’re right. Because the interstellar goings-on in NGC 1277 have their earthly counterpart: right here, right now, in the kitchen at Dixon Towers.

A few months ago the fridge went on the blink. The temperature rose inexorably like an impending Big Bang, the thermostat light flashed like a pulsar and the compressor started making the kind of expensive-sounding noises that can only mean one thing: get someone out to have a look at it.

So we did, but by the time he arrived it was working properly, so he went away, shaking his head rather sadly. At least he didn’t charge us.

Then last week, just as the astronomers announced their discovery, the fridge started making those noises again.

Presumably because of some sort of cosmic harmony between black holes and our fridge. One doesn’t like to probe too deeply into such things.

The same man came around, sucked his teeth, said we needed a new fridge and went away again, pausing only to mend the knob on the front of the washing machine.

So we ordered a new fridge, and set about emptying the old one. At which point it became all too clear that our chiller was the domestic equivalent of the black hole in NGC 1277: it had swallowed everything that approached it, and had become a something of a test bed for scientific endeavour and experiment.

Questions about the age of the universe pall into insignificance beside the greatest questions of all: How long can you keep a half-empty pot of Gentleman’s Relish before it starts to go off? And what is the radioactive half-life of one of Mrs D’s home-made pickled gherkins?

Our white hole
Investigations into the nature of matter are subsumed into the all-encompassing riddle: What happens to a frozen strawberry coulis when it enters its molten state?

Deeper inquiries into the origins of life are as nothing compared to the ultimate puzzle: What’s that growing on the Jarlsberg cheese?

And if you’re of a philosophical bent, you might even reflect on this little mystery: why haven’t we got any proper food in our fridge?

Be that as it may, the fridge was emptied, and now it sits, unplugged and defrosted, a white hole in the tiny galaxy that is our kitchen.

But as its light fades and dies like a brown dwarf, the ultimate question remains: When are they coming with the new one?