Sunday, December 31, 2006

So just who exactly are we saving the planet for?

As is traditional on this last day of the year, the time has come for me to muse upon the year gone by and ponder upon the year to come.

2006 has been pretty good to me. I've been involved in some great writing projects, some interesting art projects and (finally), after more than 30 years of writing songs, I've got into a recording studio to start making an album. Okay, so Huw - the guy I write songs with - and I may end up owning the only two copies ... but it's the sense of achievement that matters; the fulfilling of a lifelong ambition. I've met some people who are immensely inspirational including the great Ray Harryhausen, toy designer James Jarvis and film director Kevin Smith. And I've added another grandchild to my family. So, as I say, all in all, a pretty good year.

I hope that 2007 will be equally lovely. To start with, I'm going to teach myself to paint. Properly. I've made an early start on (what will be) my first painting in 35 years. You see, I've been doing colour illustrations up to now; watercolour, ink or gouache pieces that usually involve some pen work. I've not been painting in the true sense. But now I am and I'll be posting my progress on this blog.

But now ... just one small worry about 2007. While popping out for some groceries this morning I was struck by the contrast between two groups of people I saw. The first was at the supermarket where there was a queue at the recycling area. Yes, a queue. People were waiting in line to dispose of their Christmas excess in a responsible and eco-friendly manner. And all power to them. The second group I saw were standing around a trio of badly-parked, high-powered cars in the High Street. They were all either smoking or eating McDonald's. Most of the packaging lay around their feet on the pavement. And that's when it hit me ... just who exactly are we saving the planet for?

All of the recyclers were middle-aged people like myself. I recycle too. I buy organic fruit and veg and source my meat and eggs from local organic farms. We buy our gas and electricity from sustainable supplies. My wife and I drive environmentally friendly cars (were it not a necessity for work, we'd ditch them) and we take public transport whenever we can. We're no angels; we do have some bad habits and we don't attend environmental marches and rallies. We're just normal people doing our bit to help save the planet for our children ...

But sometimes I think 'Why bother?' They don't seem to give a rat's arse about it. Like the group I saw this morning, chucking their fast-food packaging around while their gas-guzzling cars belch more crap into our already fragile atmosphere ... why am I doing without certain luxuries just so that they will have a planet upon which to raise their burger-munching, lager-swilling, bus stop-wrecking, grafitti-spraying, fag-smoking Chavlings?

It sometimes seems to me that the goodies of this world are doing all the work while the baddies reap the benefits ... the David Attenboroughs saving the world for the Vicki Pollards to inherit and despoil.

Happy 2007.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas and New Year to my strangely tongue-tied visitors

I've added a counter to this blog. I got it from the nice people at and the great thing about it is that, once you have an account with them, they can tell you where your blog visitors come from. So far this week, I've had visits from the UK, USA, Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, Italy, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey and many more ... and it's a real thrill to see where in the world my wittering drivel has reached.

But, dear readers, why don't any of you leave me any comments, hmmm? I get spam. Oh yes. The buggers have already found me to offer their pornographic and medicinal delights. But I rarely get any nice comments. Or even nasty comments. So come on guys and gals! Let me know what you think. Season of goodwill and all that.

Anyhoo ... Have a fantastic Christmas (or other appropriate Winter festival) wherever you are and an equally brilliant New Year!

I know I will.

Foggy Photography ... Fography? Phoggography?

The uncharacteristic fogbanks that have engulfed the UK this past week have provided some unexpected benefits. They may have caused air traffic chaos but, aesthetically, Britain looks great in the fog.

Despite the best efforts of American film-makers who seem to believe that our country is permanently wreathed in smog (and that we all talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins) we don't really suffer serious foggage. Foggery. Fogginess. Whatever. But recent unusual weather patterns and unseasonal temperatures have left the country wreathed in pea-soupery. So it's not so much a White Christmas this year as a Grey Christmas that you can't see; at least beyond 100 yards. But it does make for pretty pictures. Oh yes.

I had to drive to Stokenchurch a couple of days ago to pick up food supplies for our various pets and as I passed through the village of Studley Green, I couldn't help noticing how picturesque the Shoe Tree was. I should explain ...

Just outside the village is a tree that has pairs of shoes hanging from it like some kind of strange laced and leather fruit. No one seems to know how the 'tradition' started, but the current tree is the third to have appeared on this stretch of road. The first fell down. The second was cut down by some vandal with a chainsaw. But the third one is still up and sprouting more and more shoes by the month.

Some claim that it stems from an ancient fertility rite whereby a couple would tie one shoe each together by the laces and throw them into the branches of a tree. But the truth is that no one seems to know why it all started. Nor why, apparently, there is a bra tree somewhere near Oxford and a panties tree near Henley on Thames.

I must go and look for them sometime.

There are shoe trees all over the UK, America, Australia and Canada, and I'm sure there are many more in other countries too.

Anyway, I decided that this was a great photogenic opportunity to add my own pair of shoes to the tree. So I went home, found an old pair of boating pumps and headed back to get a bunch of shots, several of which I include for your bemusement and pity.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Dr Sketchy - A Virgin in London

My mate James Murphy and I went to the first London Dr Sketchy's Anti-Art Class on Saturday. Dr Sketchy's was started by New York artist and Burlesque dancer Molly Crabapple as a way of making life-drawing classes more fun. As far as Dr Sketchy's is concerned, anyone who can hold a pencil is welcome. Consequently, the combination of beer, busty babes, Burlesque and ... er ... sketching (sorry, couldn't think of a sketching word starting with B) has proved to be immensely popular and has spread throughout the USA, Canada and Australia. And now the phenomenon has reached our shores with Dr Sketchy's springing up in Scotland and now England.

Saturday saw Murphy and I roll into the Volupte Club near Chancery Lane for three hours of fun and frolics with compere Dusty Limits and buxom model Ophelia Bitz. And it really was great fun.

I reckon that we acquitted ourselves rather well having both won on-the-spot prizes of snifters of brandy and Fererro Rocher (ooh ... they were spoiling us!) chocolates. We were challenged to complete sketches in ever shorter time spans as Ophelia went through her nipple-tasselled paces. I've included one of my 2 minute sketches ... complete with glove puppets (Yup ... she used glove puppets). And one of Murphy's that was simply titled 'Deck the halls'.

Want to know more? Log on to the Dr Sketchy Website. And if you want to know when the next one is running in London, click here. Oh, and Murphy's blog is here.

Friday, November 24, 2006

It's all a plot ... Part 2

Some extraordinary images from Gilles Barbier's artwork L'hospice (The Nursing Home) where he's very loudly making the point that no matter how 'super' we are, we all bow to the Grim Reaper.

That's a jolly thought isn't it?

Actually, this was just the logical follow on from my earlier post about feeling older. And I've wanted an excuse to post these pics up for a while now.

I'm actually feeling quite chipper!

It's all a plot to make me feel old ...

I once heard comedian Billy Connolly say that he knew he was getting old when he started making grunting noises while picking things up. For me it's been far more traumatic.

I turned 45 in August and, until then, had enjoyed relatively rude health. I have a back injury that causes me a bit of pain now and again but I rarely have a cold, or sore throats or tummy bugs or any of the common ailments that trouble us. But since August, things have changed dramatically. My blood pressure went up. My cholestrerol soared to 7.4. My left knee started to play me up. And I started getting headaches.

I've dealt with the blood pressure issue by losing some weight and my cholesterol is better. The headaches were because I now need reading glasses. And the knee? Some cartilege damage leftover from my youthful days as a hooker ... while playing Rugby, folks (you think I'd get work as a male prostitute with this face?). I'm pencilled in for an operation in the new year.

So, now that's all been dealt with, I don't feel so old ... or didn't until 10.50pm on the 22nd when my daughter Kerys presented me with my second grandchild. I'm a grandad again.

So welcome to the world Tyler Myghal Dawson Colgan, a little brother for Leah. Like most babies, he looks like a grumpy old man.

Just like me, in fact.

Ooh ... I'm sure my prostate's starting to rumble ...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Clucking furculas!

Researching my book about luck continues to dominate my life. In preparation for the silly season that is Christmas, I've been digging around for the origin of the lucky wishbone.

Yes, I've been fiddling with furculas.

The furcula is the fused collarbones found in birds. And not just birds. They've also been found in the fossil remains of theropod dinosaurs from as far back as 150 million years, which strengthens the pretty much accepted theory that birds are the dinosaurs that survived. Notch up one more point for the Evolutionists. Take that you pesky Creationists!

It was the Etruscans, that mysterious Italian culture that existed before the Romans, who started the whole business of wishbonery by using hens for divination. They would draw a circle on the ground, divide it into 20 segments (one for each letter in their alphabet) and then place some food in each. By following the bird's progress around this living Ouija board, a priest would note the letter order and interpret the messages. Later, when the bird died or was sacrificed, its entrails would be 'read' (Alectromancy) and the wishbone kept and dried. Rubbing it would then grant luck. Once they'd absorbed the Etruscans, the Romans started breaking the bones for luck. And it's gone on ever since.

But, of course, there's always only ever one wishbone per Christmas/ Thanksgiving/ birthday/ Sunday roast dinner. And what about the vegetarians? There's no good luck involved in pulling a carrot. But why should they lose out?

The problem was solved by Seattle entrepreneur Ken Ahroni who, in 1999, developed a plastic wishbone that would break with the same satisfactory snap as a real one. Since then, he's sold millions of them. They're really popular in the USA, especially around Thanksgiving. The vegetarians are happy. The kids are happy. Even the environmentalists are happy as they're biodegradable too. What an inspired idea. Ken's company even produces special edition wishbones to tie in with events like the Superbowl and Presidential elections. But can you find them in the UK? Not a chance. I've been searching everywhere. So, in the end, I contacted Ken and he sent me 100 of them. What a nice chap. His website is here.

I'm planning a mass public snapping.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Vision of Dog

Remember my post back in May about Jesus appearing in a slice of toast? Well, the gods of silly simulacra have been at it once more and The Holy Son has manifested himself yet again ... this time on the arse of a dog.

Of course, it could be a fake. But it does beg the question of why anyone, faker or otherwise, wanted to take a photo of a dog's arse?

Borne away to Stornoway

I've just spent a very pleasant brace of days teaching in the Outer Hebrides. On the Isle of Lewis to be precise; home of the famous Viking chessmen, gaelic speaking crofters and more sheep than you can shake a jar of mint sauce at.

I've always fancied visiting the islands because of the stones. The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, are home to some of the UK's most impressive neolithic sites. But, for one reason or another, I never quite got around to it. Which is no excuse really as the islands are so easy to get to. I took an hour's flight from Heathrow to Glasgow and then hopped on another hour-long flight from Glasgow to Stornoway. Even allowing for a changeover of an hour and a half at Glasgow, I made the journey in under four hours ... It can sometimes take me that long to get to the far side of London from here in High Wycombe.

I arrived on the evening of Sunday November 5th - Guy Fawkes' Night - and expected to have an unusual view of the celebrations below. How fascinating to see fireorks and bonfires from above! Except there weren't any. The islands are staunchly Scottish Presbyterian and they don't allow that sort of malarkey on the Lord's Day. In fact, I was lucky to have even flown there on a Sunday. I was told that when flights first started on Sundays, outraged ministers blocked the runway.
But I'd finally got there. Stopping to collect my bag from the smallest baggage retrieval system in the world (and while being glowered at by a chessman), I attempted to get a cab to my hotel. I was told that there would be at least a half an hour wait as only one taxi driver ('he's an Englishman') works on Sundays and he was having his tea. So I waited. I couldn't walk. Although the hotel was less than a mile away, there are no pavements, no street lights and it was pitch black outside.
I was to learn that the darkness is something you have to get used to this far North. As it's November, the islands are dark by 4pm. I soon realised that all I was likely to see of Lewis was the inside of my hotel room and the inside of a classroom. Sigh. Sio much for prehistoric standing stones. But then, one of my participants offered to give me a whistle-stop tour of the main sites that evening.
It was already gloomy when we began our tour. We took a circular route around the West coast, taking in the Carloway Broch, the black house villages and other sites. By the time we got to Callanish, it was really dark. Or it would have been if we hadn't had a full Moon. It was almost bright enough to drive by. It certainly added to the atmosphere. Callanish by moonlight is magnificent.
The stones were worth the trip alone. Amazing things. But just in case you can't make anything out in the picture above (which is, after all, illuminated by nothing except moonlight and the car's headlights in the background), here's what they're supposed to look like if you see them in daylight.

Friday, November 03, 2006

My Jewellery Designs

Back in 2001 when Dawn and I decided to tie the knot, I decided that it might be nice to design my own wedding ring. I know this very clever jeweller called Neil Fullard and he'd mentioned several times in the past that he'd like to have a go at making something designed by me. So the time seemed ripe.

My starting point was that I wanted to design a ring that looked as if it had flowed around my finger and set hard. I wanted sexy, curvaceous shapes. And I wanted it to look almost grown rather than manufactured. After about 20-25 drawings, I arrived at this (above). I could see waves in it, which made me think of my native Cornwall and the sea. There was something like a dolphin leaping in the shape. And there were boat keels and crab claws. It seemed to fulfil my criteria. But, as an extra design feature, I fancied trapping a gemstone in one of the gaps, just like seasnails or sea-smoothed pebbles catch in the gaps and cracks of rockpools. I gave the design to Neil and he made it up in platinum with a deep blue - almost black - sapphire. It was just what I was after. He's a clever boy.

Next, I designed a brooch. Again, I was keen to feature as many natural forms as I could. And after much doodling, I came up with this:
It is based around the shape of an egg - nature's perfect receptacle - and boasts features such as the split leaves of rubber plants, a shark's gills, the crest of a hadrosaur, a foetus, a hornbill's bill, a lion's tail and many more, all distilled down into a single complex shape. Neil made up a prototype and, again, it looks gorgeous. I must get around to designing the rest of the set some day.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Curse you Ladders!

A big thanks to White Watch at High Wycombe Fire Station. As part of my ongoing book project to prove that luck does not exist, I asked them if I could walk under their biggest ladder. And they did me proud ... not just one ladder but four, including the 24 metre (nearly 80 feet) extending MAN ladder pump.

When I got home I discovered that the toilet flush was stuck, the car developed a hole in the radiator expansion tank, and all of the phones and internet connections in my house had gone kaput.

Surely not ...

Monday, October 09, 2006

More Pirates! Arrr!

Following on from the pirate poster I did for International Talk Like a Pirate Day and for the national Autumn Schools Book Fair for Scholastic Books, I've been asked to do some more pirate artwork for an AIDS charity treasure hunt-style event and for the charity Osteoporosis 2000's 'Treasure your Bones' Campaign.

Pirates have been very good to me this year.

I suspect that I need to thank Johnny Depp.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Horseplay? No, hard work.

I met a real farrier this week. In the course of writing my book about luck, I needed to get myself a horseshoe. Traditionally, you should find a horseshoe that's been cast off by a horse. But that doesn't happen too often these days as the kinds of people who own horses tend to have the money to keep their horses' footwear in tip top condition.

His name is Andy Springham and we met at a farm near Tring in Hertfordshire where he was in the process of shoeing several very large horses. What appeared to be a pack of wolves were panting and sprawled on the stable floor and the place was filled with the not wholly unpleasant smell of burning hooves. Two of the dogs turned out to be long-haired German Shepherds that belong to the farm. The third, smaller animal was Andy's own dog which looked the wolfiest of all - perhaps because it actually is quarter wolf. Which is why, maybe, it kept looking at me with an unblinking 'you look like you've got some rich meat on you Fat Boy' kind of way.

To my delight, Andy had just removed several shoes and happily handed one to me, fresh from the hoof. At last I now had a real lucky horseshoe.

In respect of his chosen career, Andy is one of the happiest people I've ever met.
"I love being outside and travelling from farm to farm", he explained. "And I love being around animals. I always did. I grew up in West London but I always took jobs that kept me close to animals. I trained as an engineer after leaving school but I soon realised that it wasn't for me. So I retrained as a farrier and I've never looked back. Best job in the world."
I asked if there was enough work for him.
"I turn it away every day", he said. "There are more horses in this country now than at any time since The War."
So did he have any children to follow in the family footsteps?
"I have a daughter", he explained. "But she wants to be a nurse. I'd like an apprentice to pass the skills onto but they never last. This is hard work, see. And as soon as the young lads or lasses realise that, they're off. That, or when the cold weather sets in. It's sad. These skills will be lost."

Chalk another one up for the lazy generation.

I knew it

Yup. You can balance an egg any day of the year.

I knew it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Autumn Egg-quinox

Today, if you weren't aware, is the Autumn Equinox; the day when there is the same amount of daylight as night (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway). And there is an old story that you can balance an egg on its end during the Equinox.

What you do is this; balance the egg on its fatter, rounded end and just keep it there. It takes about 10 minutes but suddenly the egg 'settles' (you feel something like a tiny 'clunk' as it happens) and you realise that you can take your fingers away. And voila! One strangely balancing egg apparently in defiance of gravity and all reason.

So I tried it. And, to my utter surprise, it worked.

Just then, my brother-in-law (a very pragmatic and not easily impressed heating engineer) turned up. I showed him my egg. He looked for the blu-tack, wires and evidence of glue. He scratched his head. Then he snorted, grabbed an egg from the basket and, in an 'anything you can do ...' fashion, attempted to balance it on its pointy end.

And it also worked. I was amazed.

So try it for yourselves. But be quick ... the Equinox will be over at 4am tomorrow morning. Saying that, I'm pretty sure an egg will balance tomorrow too. Or, indeed, on any other day.

Guess what I'll be doing tomorrow?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Wheelie clever (sorry)

Another apology. Another break in my blogging. I've been in Falkirk, Scotland, and a very nice place it was too. I visited the Falkirk Wheel while I was there. If you've not seen it before, it's a superb piece of engineering. But it's also a work of art. And an icon of how to be practical and eco-friendly.

The wheel is a boat lift, a phenomenally clever piece of kit that links two canals - the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde - that are at different heights. In just one roatation, the wheel can lift 300 tons of water and boat 115ft into the air. And it works by balance, gravity and a little electric push that uses no more energy than is needed to boil 15 kettles. As one boat is hoisted up, another is going down on the opposite side. The whole process takes around 15 minutes and, once lifted, a boat then continues its journey along a 100 metre long aqueduct, through a tunnel under the Roman Antonine Wall (built in 140AD), under the main Glasgow to Edinburgh railway and finally through a series of traditional locks to join the Union Canal. I climbed a hill behind the wheel to take a few shots and the sun, obligingly, came out.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chopsticks for Dummies

Hey ho, here we are again. I've been away for a couple of weeks to such exotic climes as Birmingham and Watford. The postcard's in the mail.

I've had a couple of really, really nice Chinese meals while I've been away. And, as the result, I feel the need to talk about chopsticks. At the risk of sounding casually racist ... what's the big idea, guys?

Yes, yes, I know that the origin has something to do with weapons that can stab and cut not being brought to the table, but honestly ... who ever got stabbed with a spoon?

And why is there always some flash tit on the table next to me who is so dextrous with his sticks that he can separate water molecules?

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Voice of Reason

Outspoken businesswoman and star of TV’s The Apprentice, Saira Khan writes a column for the Daily Mirror newspaper. In a recent piece* she made a number of excellent and valuable points:

‘My religion is very important to me. I love being a Muslim and I love my community. But I also love being British. Sometimes fundamentalist religion can seem a way out the contradictions between being a Muslim and being British. It gives some young people a set of rules to follow. But looking at it another way, we are lucky to live in a country where our faith schools and halal shops are tolerated. Young Muslims can’t just say ‘we’re alienated’ because many British people try hard to understand about Islam.’

If only everyone felt the same way.

* 'Listen to the voice of reason', Daily Mirror 11th August 2006.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bug and chips twice, please

How about that for a book title?

I've had this little book for a number of years now, ever since I attended an evening lecture run by the London Natural History Museum in the late 1980s. It was written by Vincent M Holt and first published in 1885 by the Museum itself.

The lecturer, whose name I've forgotten I'm afraid, made the very valid point that insects and other invertebrates outnumber us backboners by millions to one. And yet, on the whole, this vast source of protein is almost entirely unused. I say almost ... because we do eat some. In the UK, we eat crabs and prawns and lobsters, cockles, scallops and oysters. But if it hasn't come out of the sea we go all weird and wobbly. Why? Why this prejudice against land-based arthropods? The lecturer (and I'll have to paraphrase here) made this very point.

Prawns and locusts share a common ancestry. They are both arthropods with external skeletons and almost identical internal arrangements. However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat? Most would still go for the prawn.

And yet, they taste pretty much the same. I can vouch for that. This wasn't just a lecture, you see ... it was a tasting. And during the evening I munched my way through deep fried honey ants, a barbecued witchety grub, a kind of black pudding made from flies and a locust cocktail. And they were all delicious. They really were.

He also explained that there would be less famine in some areas of Africa if people started eating insects again. Unfortunately, this source of valuable protein has been lost ever since Christian Missionaries managed to persuade the vast majority of tribes that eating bugs was dirty and disgusting. A prejudice, incidentally, that was foisted onto most of you too.

Food prejudices are not a uniquely British phenomenon, but we are oddly particular. We'll eat a lamb or a calf or a cow or a pig. But we won't eat a horse or a dog or a squirrel. Most people will no longer eat rabbit (delicious) and the fishmongers get asked for almost nothing but cod. Try some John Dory, or gurnard, or pollock or hake - they're fantastic fish. And what's with the idea of 'dolphin-friendly tuna'? What's so special about dolphins? Is it because they look like they're smiling? Or is it their supposed intelligence? Let's face it, if whales were that intelligent, they wouldn't keep swimming near Japan would they? No one seems to give a toss about the tuna, though. All tinned tuna is tuna-unfriendly.

This is a perfect example of what some call species-ism but what I call Mammal-nepotism; the idea being that the closer something is related to us, the more we like it; the further away it is, the ickier it is. It's no great surprise that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose a charismatic warm-blooded mammal - the giant panda - for its logo is it? Yet if you look at the list of critically endangered species (as opposed to just endangered) what do we find? The Antiguan Racer Snake, the Spotted Handfish, the Australian Ant, and the Southern Blue Fin Tuna (I hope you're listening to this, Flipper).

But as Douglas Adams pointed out in his book Last Chance to See (co-written with Mark Carwardine), the best way to save an animal from extinction is to eat it. As soon as an animal or plant has commercial value, resources will be found to make lots of them. Chickens will never be extinct. However, let's return to the subject of eating insects. Here are a few facts for you.

There are 1,462 recorded species of edible insect. Mealworms are an incredibly rich source of nutrition, having more complete protein than soy, meat, or fish and are concentrated sources of calcium, niacin, magnesium, potassium, the B-vitamins, and many other nutrients. Wouldn't they go some way to alleviating world hunger? And they're beetle larvae - beetles are the most numerous species on the planet. 100g of crickets or grasshoppers contain 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat, 5.1g of carbohydrates, 75.8 mg of calcium, 185.3mg of phosphorous, 9.5mg of iron, 0.36mg of thiamin, 1.09mg of riboflavin and 3.10mg of niacin.

Fully 95% of all living creatures on Earth are insects – that’s approximately 10 quintillion (10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000) individual insects alive on this planet at this exact moment. 10% of the total biomass of life on Earth is made up just of ants (some scientists claim the figure may even be as high as 15-20%). And that’s not counting the other arthropods – spiders, scorpions, crabs, lobsters, woodlice, etc. many of which are also edible. By comparison, we humans make up just 0.33% - and there are six billion of us.

So, if we embraced the bug as a foodstuff, we'd not only ensure the bugs' and our survival; we'd also have an exciting new range of meals to choose from. Anticipating this, the excellent Mr Holt included recipes and suggested menus in his little book. Who could not resist the lure of Boeuf aux chenilles (Braised beef with caterpillars), Larves de guepes frites au rayon (Wasp grubs fried in the comb) or the ultimate supper dish of Phalenes au parmesan (Moths on toast)?

There is absolutely no difference between a snail and an oyster - they are both gastropods. And the snails you pay so much for in France are the same as the ones in your back garden. Exactly the same. So get out the garlic butter and tuck in.

You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.
Grow-a-Brain has some great insect-eating links on his site here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Jennifer's Magic Vagina

There's a guy called James Randi who used to be a professional magician but is now more famous for debunking fakes and frauds. Famously, he has put up a $1 million dollar prize to anyone who can prove psychic ability under laboratory conditions. Not unsurprisingly, the prize remains unclaimed.

Until now.

Recently, Jen Dziura, New York comic and blogger, posted an open letter to Mr Randi on the McSweeney's humour website in which she suggests an experiment to prove that she has a vagina with proven psychic ability. As she explains:

'A statistically significant even number of volunteers will be recruited to participate in the test. Volunteers should be male, heterosexual, and unknown to me, and should have at least $5 on their person. Each volunteer will be assigned to a group: 'vagina' or 'no vagina.'

'In every trial, the volunteer will be seated within a short walking distance of a hamburger stand. Volunteers in the 'vagina' group will also be seated within a short walking distance of my vagina. Volunteers in the 'no vagina' group will have a leaden wall placed between them and my vagina. To ensure that the 'no vagina' group is not motivated by even the suggestion of my vagina, I will not be seen by them, and my voice will be conveyed only through a voice-altering device that masks my gender.

'For each trial, I will ask the volunteer if he will buy me a hamburger. I predict that volunteers in visual proximity of my vagina will be at least 50 percent more likely to comply than those separated from my vagina by a leaden barrier. '

You can read the full text here on the McSweeney's Site.

Since then she's been inundated with calls and emails ... from a worrying number of people who seem to think it's a real challenge. "I just wrote a humour article for a humour website", she explains, "and I've just been taking it from all sides here. There are the people who have written to me very seriously to tell me that I 'don't understand the scientific method'. And for people who do understand the scientific method, these people are very gullible!"

Here's a recent e-mail:

"Would not your experiment merely suggest that male psychology is more suggestable to a woman who is visable (sic) and in person than one who is hidden by a barrier? ... I wonder (if you're serious) how your experiment differs from a psychological experiment and enters the realm of the paranormal."

If she's serious?

Is he serious?
Photo of Jen by Ryan Brenizer

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hubcaps and Horseshoes

I'm writing a book about luck. Well, not just about luck; it's about the depths to which silly, pointless little foibles and superstitions have invaded our lives. Over the next few months I'll post a few snippets here (the earlier post about the number 13 entry was adapted from the book). In an effort to prove that luck is something you make yourself and not some 'power' or person, I've been been deliberately doing things in an attempt to improve or damage my luck. For instance, since January I've walked under ladders, carried icky dead rabbit's feet on my person, smashed mirrors and walked on the cracks in the pavement.

Has it made any difference? Wait until the book comes out ...

Meanwhile, this month I've been looking at superstitions surrounding horseshoes. And one train of thought took me in a totally unexpected direction. You see, I couldn't find a lucky horseshoe. Despite living in rural Buckinghamshire and despite the proliferation of little girls called Penelope trotting around on their precious ponies, I have not found a single horseshoe on the side of the road. For maximum luck, you should find a shoe and approach it from the open points end.

But this superstition began when horses were the primary mode of transport. So what's the modern equivalent? Well, cars have replaced horses ... and cars do occasional 'throw a shoe'. That's right. I reckon the modern equivalent of the horseshoe is the hubcap. So I've collected a few. For luck. But after a while, my long-suffering wife started to ask, "Why is the back garden full of hubcaps?" And I had no good answer. What could I do with them?

If only I'd been as smart as the wonderfully named Ptolemy Elrington. He's a Brighton-based artist who has made the hubcap into his medium of choice. And his work is extraordinary.

"Hubcaps are aesthetic in purpose, but ultimately of very little use," says Elrington. "They're automatically rubbish when on the side of the road, but with a little effort and imagination I transform them into something which gives people a great deal more pleasure. My hubcap creatures are made entirely from recycled materials; all the hubcaps are found, usually on the side of the road, and therefore bear the scars of their previous lives in the form of scratches and abrasions. I believe these marks add texture and history to the creatures they decorate."

I told him about my book project. He said, "I like the parallel of hubcaps and horseshoes being lucky. I guess they have been lucky for me as I've been very happy in my career."

I've posted a couple of pictures here but there lots more on his website here.

Clever guy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Unlucky for some

Did you know that Eleven plus Two is an anagram of Twelve plus One?

Think that's weird? How about this:

13 x 13 = 169 is an exact mirror of 961 = 31 x 31

Check it. It's true. But it gets weirder ...

If you write 13 x 13 as a square like this - 132 - you then get this mirror:

132 = 169 is the same as 961= 312

Okay so far? Now insert plus signs between all the digits and the equation looks like this:

(1 + 3)2 = 1 + 6 + 9 is the same as 9 + 6+ 1 = (3 + 1)2

It still works! How odd is that?

Finally, did you know that the sum of the first 13 Prime numbers is 238, whose sum of digits (2 + 3 + 8) is 13?

Thirteen is a number shrouded in mystery and superstition. Some people won't go to work on Friday the 13th. Some people won't eat in restaurants on Friday the 13th. Some people won't get married on Friday the 13th. Some people won't travel on Friday the 13th. A fear of the number 13, or Triskaidekaphobia to give it its medical name, can be very debilitating.

Many buildings don't have a 13th floor. Many hotels don't have a room with number 13 (often relabelled as 12A). It's far worse in America than in the UK where they really take this 13 thing seriously in urban planning and architectural design. Madness! All this fuss over a simple number. But why?

The most common theory concerns the Last Supper. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and who later committed suicide, was the 13th guest at the table. Another theory from Scandinavia claims that 13 is bad luck because the 13th demigod to join their pantheon was Loki the Evil One, who brought mischief and misfortune to Mankind. Yet another theory comes from ancient Egypt. To these people life was a quest for spiritual ascension that involved passing through 12 stages and a 13th beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolised death.

My favourite concerns the eternal Battle of the Sexes. Thirteen was a special number for ancient Moon and Goddess-worshipping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). There is a 27,000 year old carving that was found near the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France that depicts a female figure holding a crescent Moon-shaped horn that has 13 notches carved into it. The theory goes that the battle between Sun/Male and Moon/Female was won by the Sun. The Christian Solar Calendar triumphed over the older pagan version and 12 defeated 13.

Whatever the reason, 13 does, at first glance, appear to be a curious number. But it isn't of course. The thing is ... it's very easy to get caught up in this kind of thing. And people do. There are whole websites dedicated to 13-related weirdness and trivia. There are no sites about the weirdness of number 12. Odd that. Yet, I bet if someone spent some time gathering examples of mathematical oddity involving the number 12, there'd be just as many. Probably.

And people do bend the rules to make them fit their wild conspiracy theories. Take the idea that any one with 13 letters in their name is said to have 'Devil's luck'. The proof lies in the fact that many infamous murderers have 13 letters to their names: Charles Manson. Harold Shipman. Frederick West. Saddam Hussein. Jeffrey Dahmer. Theodore Bundy. Jack the Ripper.

Spooky, eh?

But what about Dr Crippen? Whichever way you slice it, his names never add up to 13 digits. Peter Hawley Harvey Crippen (24). Peter Crippen (12).

Myra Hindley has 11 and Ian Brady a measley 8. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, has 14. Idi Amin has a pathetic 7 and the worst serial killer of time, Adolf Hitler, has only 11. I could go on. And, let's face it, Theodore Bundy and Frederick West are a bit dubious. No one ever referred to them as anything other than Ted and Fred. And, worst example of all, Jack the Ripper? I'm pretty sure that he wasn't christened Jack the Ripper.

"And what name have you chosen for the child?"
"Jack. Jack the Ripper."
"Right ... I ... I see ..."
"We think it suits him vicar. Don't it suit him Nancy?"
"Yeah. He looks like a Ripper don't he?"

I can't see the police pulling potential murder suspects in off the street just because they have 13 letters to their names. Although it would have spared us from The Spice Girls.

Interestingly, Prime Minister has 13 letters.

So does President Bush.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Can dogs hold their breath?

While walking the dogs in Black Park at the weekend, Willow (our half American Bulldog, half Staffordshire Bull Terrier) decided to look for sticks and stones to play with ... under water.

I've never seen a dog do this before.

Is she normal?

Be-de-be-de-be-dee ... Don't muck with Buck

'The year is 1987 and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William 'Buck' Rogers are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems and returns Buck Rogers to Earth ... 500 years later.'

Remember that intro? Spoken in sonorous tones by William 'Cannon' Conrad, it introduced us to that silliest of 1970s' sci-fi series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Well, now it's back on TV in the UK (on satellite TV station Bravo) ... and I'm loving every cheesy, cliche, unfashionable and uninspired minute of it.

The DVD box set cover. The artist has been very kind with Buck's waistline.

Buck Rogers first appeared in March 1979 and ran for a full first season of 24 episodes. A second season began in 1981 but ran for just 13 episodes. Chunky Gil Gerard was Buck and he was aided and abetted in his adventures by slinky Erin Gray as spandex-clad Colonel Wilma Deering, bewildered Dr Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Twiki (Felix Silla), a small 'ambiquad' who spoke like a Bronx taxi driver and punctuated his 1970s' platitudes with an occasional 'Be-de-be-de-be-dee' noise (although in series 2 Mel Blanc no longer did the voice and Twiki affected a weird falsetto instead. I suspect he had a robot sex change). In Season Two, the series got a shoddy makeover and Buck got a new playmate, Hawk, played by Thom Christopher. Hawk was the last of his kind; a birdman with a feathered toupe which must have been incredibly warm to wear judging by the frequent sweat to be seen running in rivulets down the actor's face.

As explained in the intro, Buck is sent out on a routine mission and ends up getting frozen. After thawing out, he finds that he's now in the year 2491. And things are very different. There's been a nuclear war to start with and much of the 'old knowledge' has been lost. It's a world ruled by computerised brains and protected by the Defence Council based in New Chicago. Everyone has enormous hair and dresses in Bacofoil and the world is at peace.

But what a strange world it is! 25th century computers are the size of bears and fitted with reel to reel tapes and chunky retro switches. Computer graphics look suspiciously like the stuff we used to produce on our Sinclair ZX81s and Commodore Amigas. Disco is the universally acknowledged music of the universe. And what's left of the 'old knowledge' is strangely particular. In one episode Wilma confesses that she has no idea what an egg is, while in another she knows how big a whale's tongue is. What possible catastrophe could have caused such singular specificity?

Be-de-be-de-be-dee. Annoying little bastard.

All of the men are hunky and slim and the ladies are lovely Charlie's Angels also rans. They've obviously sorted out the global warming issue as all they seem to wear most of the time are silver bikini tops adorned with bling. All except Wilma, that is, who is far more professional and spends Season One in the kind of super-tight spray-0n jeans made fashionable by Olivia Newton-John in Grease, and Season Two in a kind of Donald Duck sailor suit with pixie boots. And heels. All of the female fighter pilots wear high heels. So practical.

But that's one of the things that makes watching Buck Rogers so enjoyable. I love the fact that they got it so very, very wrong. Glen Larson presented us with an optimistic view of the future based on 1977 technology and seen through the eyes of 1970s sexual politics. Everything is just so cheesy - the fashions and the hair and the music and the technology. And when that's combined with stinking scripts and completely uninspired characters and situations, it makes a show worth watching for the sheer comedy value alone. Look at the planet names ... Neutropolis; I wonder if the people there are neutral? And what kind of creatures live on Voltron? Electrical beings maybe? The effects are appalling (this was the time of Star Wars but TV didn't have George Lucas budgets) and the scripts are criminal. Just look at the titles ... Planet of the Amazon Women, Cosmic Whiz Kid, Vegas in Space, Planet of the Slave Women, Space Rockers and Mark of the Saurian (lizard creatures maybe?) This was sci-fi of the very worst kind; derivative, inane, camp and lacking in all the fixtures and fittings that made its main 1970s competitor Star Trek so damned great.

'... but it's the pelvic thru-u-ust that really drives you insa-a-a-a-ane ...'

Buck Rogers was cancelled halfway through Season Two and deservedly so. While Season One was all the things I've described, it still had a naive charm and some fabulously over-the-top performances: Pamela Hensley as the vampish Princess Ardala; the deliciously named 'Legion of Death' (which included Joker Frank Gorshin and Markie Post); and an apparently catatonic post-op Julie 'Catwoman' Newmar as Zarina the War Witch with cheek bones so sharp she could cut tin. Season Two however, changed the format (and half of the cast) and replaced Twiki's voicebox with that of a San Francisco tour guide. And they dropped his (its?) trademark be-de-be-de noise. That's like the characters in The Fast Show being told 'Drop the catch-phrases.' Madness. The universe may have been expanding but so was Gil Gerard's waistline and he seemed less and less the hero-figure. Wilma was demoted to a background character and an irritatingly smug robot called Crichton was introduced. Worst of all was veteran Ealing comedy actor Wilfred Hyde-White, whose Professor Goodfellow character was so doddering and dithery I wondered at times whether some escapee from an old people's home had wandered aimlessly onto the set looking for his teeth. Still, it's good to see that pastel blue cardigans are still de rigueur 500 years from now.

It had to go.

But now Buck is back. And I can't resist it. It's car-crash telly. I'm watching it every day and I'm roaring with laughter. Somehow I don't think that's what Glen Larson intended. I've heard rumours that it's due a makeover, like Larson's other 70s sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica. I do hope not. I like it just as it is. Awful. Cringeworthy. Crass.

I'm going to buy the box set.

(Photos (c) Universal Studios)