Sunday, March 30, 2008

Not worried about Ray

I mentioned Ray Harryhausen in my last post. Well, a little while ago, I got the opportunity to meet the great man. Here's the story ...

A journalist friend of mine recently interviewed Ray Harryhausen at his home and I’ll admit that I was envious. There are very few people whom I regard as 'heroes' but Ray is definitely one of them. You may not know the name but you'll know his work. He's the pioneering animator who gave us those great stop-motion adventure movies of the 1960s and 70s like Earth Vs the Flying Saucers, One million Years BC, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and It Came from beneath the Sea. It was thanks to Ray that we got to enjoy Jason and his Argonauts fencing with an army of skeletons, Sinbad battling the multi-armed iron statue of Kali and Raquel Welch in a pair of fur knickers (Incidentally, it's also Ray we have to thank for Tom Baker getting the role of Dr Who. The BBC chose him after seeing his performance as the bad guy in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). Ray's films are a fondly-remembered part of my childhood. Joel was quite happy to pass on Ray’s address to me but I needed a good reason to meet him. I couldn’t just turn up and say I was there because Ms Welch’s hirsute undercrackers had filled me with adolescent joy. Or because he’d been the first person to show me what a living dinosaur could have looked like (I was dinosaur mad as a kid – I still am).

A few weeks later, I found that excuse. I won't go into details because it relates to an as yet unpublished book project but it was a good reason and, I'm pleased to say, the great man was more than willing to accommodate me.

Ray Harryhausen lives in a very big house and I know enough about London house prices to know that he’s sitting inside a lottery win’s worth of bricks and mortar. Originally from California, Ray has lived in the UK for nearly three decades and he loves us Brits. Maybe that’s because he married one. Diana was certainly very welcoming as she opened the front door. I’d heard that’s she’s quite fiercely protective of Ray so I made an extra-special effort to be on my best behaviour.

Ray is a delight. He has a permanent twinkle of excitement in his eyes and he was twinkling fit to explode as he showed me around his house like I was the first person he’d ever had visit. In some ways his house is more like a museum to his career as it fairly bulges with references to his films. To begin with, there are bronzes, all sculpted by Harryhausen himself, displayed on every available flat surface. He explained, as we climbed the two flights of stairs up to his study, that many of the original models from his films have deteriorated.

“I wanted to create a permanent record of them”, he said, “So I resculpted some of the figures and had them cast in bronze. They’ll be around long after I’m gone.”

As he said this, we passed a superbly detailed bronze of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms attacking a lighthouse.

“I cast the lighthouse from the actual prop we used in the movie”, he explained. “I kept them all you see.”

Ray is a rarity in the film industry in that he’s hung onto most of the models and props used in his movies. The shelves and glass cabinets in his study were groaning under the weight of them: Medusa (Clash of the Titans) enjoys a case with a rather moth-eaten and threadbare Pegasus. Across the room, a group of Selenites (First Men in the Moon) share their home with a couple of skeletons (Jason and the Argonauts) and a dinosaur from Valley of Gwangi. There are octopus tentacles and Cyclopes, Big Bad Wolves and Dragons. A saucer from Earth versus the Flying Saucers sits incongruously atop a pile of rubber legs. The models are old and worn and I could see what Ray meant about their deterioration. Many of them offered a glimpse of their metal skeletons; the wires poking through the rotten rubber flesh like steel bones. But they are in good enough nick to still show off the man’s sculpting ability. Ray – who drops famous names casually into the conversation like he’s talking about the guy from down the pub – told me that Peter Jackson flew him out to New Zealand during the filming of King Kong because he’s a huge fan of his work. While there Jackson said that he’d like to establish a Museum of Film Animation. If he does get it off the ground, Ray may well donate his priceless collection. And it’s not just the models either. Ray is an exceptional draughtsman too and his original sketches, drawing and paintings are everywhere, framed and hanging on every spare inch of wall. I’ve been deliberately coy about where Ray lives as a burglar could net himself millions in swag from just one good rummage.

The day ended with tea and a chat in one of the several downstairs reception rooms. I was distracted momentarily by the sight of a maid wandering around with some kind of parrot on her shoulder. But then I saw the plaque commemorating Ray’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And the golden knight standing on the sideboard. There, in front of me, was a real Academy Award - the Gordon E Sawyer Award for outstanding scientific and technical contribution to film - presented to Ray in 1991. A photograph next to it showed Ray accepting the award from (his words) that ‘nice guy Tom Hanks’.
“That’s an Oscar”, I said. “A real Oscar.”
“Yes”, said Ray. “Please be careful. It’s heavy.”
He was right. It weighed a ton (well, eight and half pounds anyway). Dark visions of clubbing him over the head and running off with it flitted through my starstruck brain. But I could never do that. Not to such a genuinely nice man. And anyway, Diana was watching me like a hawk. I placed it back on the sideboard and finished my tea.

I thanked him for his valuable time. He signed my copy of his biography and we posed for a photograph together. It was the only photo I took that day as Ray is very strict about that. Firstly, there's the fact that someone may recognise some feature that could identify where he lives. Secondly, he had a bad experience with a reporter a few years ago who took lots of pics and then used them and sold them indiscriminately.

So ... I’d met a childhood hero; a genuine Hollywood star and movie genius. And I’d been allowed to hold an Oscar.

Not a bad day's work, eh?

Visit Ray's site here.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Evolution of the Dinosaur (Book)

The five books in this photo span a period of 44 years and represent just how differently experts have come to think about dinosaurs in my life time. They're arranged in order from oldest to newest. I got the first - Dinosaurs of the Earth by John Raymond - when I was about seven or eight years old. That would have been 1968-9 when the book was already five years old. Dinosaurs had fascinated me since I was a toddler - mostly thanks to the films of Ray Harryhausen - but this book lit the spark under my interest and it became a raging fire that's never gone out. Since then I've bought and read pretty much every decent dinosaur book that's been published. The newest, the fifth book at bottom right - Dinosaurs: The most complete, up-to-date encyclopaedia for dinosaur lovers of all ages (deep breath) by Thomas R Holtz and Luis V Rey, arrived this morning from Amazon. A comparison between the oldest and newest books amused me for ages.*

When I got Dinosaurs of the Earth, our view of these fabulous monsters was that they were lumbering reptilian imbeciles, cold-blooded and pea-brained. Brontosaurus (sadly no longer with us as the fossil turned out to be parts of two already identified dinos mixed up together) and its sauropod relatives were depicted as titanic whales-out-of-water; so large that their legs couldn't support them for long and, as the book says, '... so heavy that they had to stay in water most of the time because it helped to support the weight of their bodies'. They were described as 'slow-moving, dull-witted animals', so stupid that they dragged their long tails along the ground despite the damage and pain this would cause them. The predatory Allosaurus, by comparison, was depicted as 'cunning' and 'ruthless'. And, as was the fashion of reconstructions at the time, he seemed to walk with a curious tottering, upright, penguin-like stance that kept his tail firmly on the ground. It made him and all the other upright dinosaurs appear that they had something stuck up their bottoms. None of the pictures were at all dynamic. The dinosaurs were posed, static. And, of course, every dinosaur looked as if it had been dressed by a British gent's tailor: dull greys, greens and browns - nothing too colourful please. The book is hilarious to read now and the pictures are laughable, but back then I was spellbound.

The next big jump in my understanding of dinosaurs came with Z F Snipar's Life before Man, brilliantly illustrated by the great Zdenek Burian. What Burian did, that no illustrator had done before, was to place his creatures in accurate environments. We could now see where they lived. Yes, they still looked like they were posing for photographs and they may still have been the colours of a rainy day in March but now they seemed much more like real animals. They were surrounded by plants and trees and other dinosaurs. The landscapes were huge, lush, arid, volcanic, alien. The interrelationships between the various species started to make sense.

That's Burian's Tarbosaurus above (a close relative of Tyrannosaurus). Life before Man was published in 1972 when I was 11 and I got the book for Christmas. I spent hours trying to copy the illustrations and failing dismally. But it does explain why I can still draw a Pachycephalosaurus from memory but can't draw people very well. I did read the books - I didn't just look at the pictures - and learn a lot from them but, primarily, it was the artwork that drew me in. My desire to draw dinosaurs became even stronger with the 1981 arrival of William Stout's The New Dinosaurs.

Stout turned his dinosaur pictures into real art, jumping nimbly from oils to pencil sketches to exquisite pen and ink work. He would mimic fine art movements producing Impressionist dinosaurs or Art Nouveau style dinosaurs. Some even looked as if they'd stalked from the pages of Marvel comics. Throughout it all, though, was realism, accuracy and, above all, dynamism. Stout's creatures were alive; they ran and jumped and swam and shagged and pooped. Inter-species punch-ups looked bloody and bruising as they would have in real life. Veggie dinosaurs nuzzled their hatchlings. Mud-trapped and doomed Hadrosaurs howled in anguish and fear. It was staggering stuff.

Towards the end of the 80s I met Natural History Museum uber-sculptor John Coppinger and we became great mates. John was responsible for many of the dinosaur reconstructions on display in the museum and he introduced me to the hyper-realistic paintings of John Sibbick whose work he often used as reference. One of John's very well-used, dog-eared books was Dr David Norman's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs (1985). It was stuffed full of Sibbick's work, like this T Rex:

I had to buy a copy (Sibbick also illustrated a companion encyclopaedia of Pterosaurs by Dr Peter Wellnhofer which is brilliant. If only they'd completed the set with one about the sea monsters. Sigh).

All of which brings us bang up to date. In recent years, extraordinary new finds in China have changed our view of dinosaurs once again. These fossils are extremely well preserved and so much detail has been captured that we now know that many dinosaurs had feathers - the so-called fuzzy dinosaurs. A recent dinosaur 'mummy' gave us a glimpse of skin textures and bony plates. And an amazing fossil of a tiny Yale doorkey-sized dinosaur called Scipionyx has preserved the structure of internal organs. We know so much more now than we did 44 years ago. The evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds has been pretty much accepted as fact and we've had to re-evaluate how these creatures looked and acted. And, at last, the boring colour schemes have gone! Look around you at the birds we share our planet with. They come in an amazing range of colours. So now we can imagine dinosaurs in the same way; vivid colour patterns, wattles and crests and big, showy feathers ... would you think of anything quite as remarkable as a Peacock's tail if all you had to work from was a skeleton? Probably not. But a new generation of paleo-artists are doing just that. Among them is Luis V Rey, the co-author of the book I recieved today. Here's his take on Velociraptor's big cousin Deinonychus.

There are many other books and many other writers and artists I could mention like Alan Charig, John Ostrom, Angela Milner, Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Douglas Henderson, Bob Bakker, Dougal Dixon, David Lambert and the wonderful Mark Hallett. But I had to whittle it down and these five books are enough to really show the evolution of dinosaur-interest books during the past 40 years.

It makes me wonder what such books will be like in a further 10 years. Will there even be dinosaur books? New media may allow us to not only view dinos in their habitats but interract with them too. I can't tell you how excited I was when I saw Jurassic Park on the big screen - despite all of its hideous innaccuracies - but imagine a holographic 3D presentation where you could actually walk under and around these fantastic beasts. I just hope I can live long enough to experience it. Meanwhile, new discoveries are being made almost daily. Fossilisation is such a haphazard and unlikely event that the fossils record can only ever be a tiny cross-section of the number of species that have inhabited the Earth at some time. But there are plenty more to be discovered yet and who knows what new secrets they'll bring with them?

My bookshelves are waiting.

*Note that the term 'dinosaur' technically only describes one type of life form. Of equal fascination were the flying pterosaurs, the sea-going plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs and mosasaurs and the various other creatures that inhabited the prehistoric world. I love 'em all.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Taking sensible measures

On this blog in the past we've discussed the nature of what it is to be British. We've dismissed many icons as false because they are no more British than giraffes are (the Sunday roast, fish and chips, Cricket etc.). They are things that we have adopted (or stolen) and incorporated into our cosmopolitan and mongrel culture. And good thing too. It means that we can enjoy the best that the world can offer us, from Indian cuisine to Italian shoes. And it has made English the most flexible, vibrant, descriptive and richest language on the planet.

However, one trait the British are often accused of is stubbornness. Take the Euro for example. Most of the rest of Europe has been happy to embrace a single currency. It makes a lot of sense. I'm off to Lanzarote for a short holiday in June and myself and the other Brits will be the only ones having to pay twice to have our currency converted. Maybe there are sound economic arguments for staying out of the Euro - I'm not an economist and really have no idea - but any fanciful notion of retaining our heritage is bunk. The Pound is an Italian invention given to us by the Romans and, because it was legal tender throughout their empire, was the original Euro.

We have already accepted one change in currency when, in the early 1970s, we switched from the complex 'old money' of pounds, shillings and pence, to the more streamlined decimal system that we use today. Having used both systems in my lifetime I can say with all honesty that the new system is much easier to use. And that's probably why, apart from a few hardliners protesting at the time, we Brits accepted decimalisation. We weren't stubborn then. Nor have we been stubborn in accepting the changes from vinyl to CD to MP3, or from analogue to HDTV, or from film to digital cameras. We've accepted, and in many cases embraced, these changes. It's because most of them improve our standard of living or make things easier for us.

My size 9 shoe is about a foot long. You know what they say about men with big feet? It's completely false. Sigh.

So why are we still so stick-in-the-mud about weights and measures? Why are butchers and grocers and other tradespeople willing to be prosecuted as martyrs to preserve feet and inches, pounds and ounces, quarts and gallons?

Warwick Cairns has provided me with the answer. I've just finished reading his fascinating and entertaining first book - About the size of it. It's been a real eye-opener. I won't steal his thunder (or his sales) by revealing too much but he explains the origins of what we like to call 'imperial' measurements and why they are so comfortable for us. Take the 'foot'. Not surprisingly, as a rough estimate, a foot isn't far off being a foot long (the difference in size between the average sized lady's foot and gent's foot is not as large as you might think). It's a visual, always available measure of length. Your hand - when measured across the widest part - fits three times into the length of your foot. And a thumb's width across its widest part fits four times into the width of your hand. All of which means that there are twelve thumbs in one foot. Sound familiar? And there are three foot lengths in one leg length, so a walking stick (or yard stick) also becomes a measure ... and so on and so forth.

My hand is four inches wide - a third of my foot.

What Cairns shows us is that the older non-metric measurements are easier to use because they are drawn from the world around us and, particularly, our own bodies. By comparison, centimetres and metres and other artificial constructs are alien and not so easy to estimate. Just ask a kid to draw a line that is their Dad's foot in length. Then ask them to draw one that is 30cms in length and see which is the more accurate; and these are kids who've been brought up with decimal measures. So it may not surprise you to learn that most societies around the world have created measuring systems based upon their body parts. It's why bricks and rail tunnels and boats and CDs are the size they are. Manufacture (the clue is in the name as it derives from the Latin for 'hand') is all about making products that are easy to use, which is why things are made to a standard of measures set by our bodies, not some arbitrary mathematical subdivision of the size of the world.*

My thumb is one inch wide. Amazing. I seriously need a manicure.

There is a principle in science called Occam's Razor. It states that 'All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best'. In other words, the easiest way to do something is probably the right way. You test all the different ways of doing a task and then use the razor to 'slice' away the inefficient and least-practical. I would suggest that if we applied Occam's Razor to measures, we'd end up retaining our yards, feet, inches, miles, pounds, ounces, gallons, fathoms and gills. Sadly, it's probably too late now as the government seems intent on the change.

So how come they still post speed limits on roads in miles per hour?

Get the book here.

* You may not be aware of this but the length of the metre was decided by calculating the distance between the North pole and the equator (a quadrant) and then subdividing by tens. Hence what we call a metre is 1/10,000,000th of a quadrant. Oh, and it's wrong. It assumes the Earth is round. Which it ain't.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Third new must-have vinyl figure of 2008

This is the hand-painted prototype of Dave Pressler's new 8" tall Angry Clobber Monkey (ACM) that is being released soon by Munky King. According to Vinyl Pulse:
'Dave added a sweet surprise detail... The hatch on the rear of ACM now opens to reveal a little pilot. This lil' guy watches over the angry meter and pushes the 'clobber' button when the metal one's temper boils over. ACM is a strong design fusing a personable character with a tight sculpt bristling with technical details -- such as the screws and rivets. The hidden cockpit with pilot figure push it over the top by revealing an additional aspect of the character's back story. Dave (is) one of the few artists who sculpts his own figures ensuring that the 3D shape is completely true to the initial vision.'

Here's the 'lil' guy' in question. I love it.

No date for release yet but if you want to see more, click here.

My flavour of the month, Amanda Visell, has a new figure out too. It's the metal Axephunt available in silver from Fully Visual. There are only 100 of these in existence ... and just one is gold. Will it be mine?

For more on Urban Vinyl, read my previous post For Love of Vinyl.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Four seasons in one day

Today was weird, weather wise.

It started cold and windy; so windy that it caused a fall of soot in my lounge chimney. By 10am, this had turned to driving rain. Then, at around 11am, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Blue skies, puffy white clouds. Lovely. But by lunchtime it was snowing; thick blizzardy snow falling so heavily that we could barely see the houses across the street. This turned to hail and then back to snow. Before long, the cars and the garden were white and it looked like the snow was settling. That is until 12.30pm when the sun came out again and melted it all.

And so it's gone on all afternoon: sun, rain, snow, hail, snow, rain, sun. As I peer out of my study window now at 5.13pm, the sky is a glorious blue, the sun is shining ... but the occasionally soft and fluffy snow flake drifts by.

What in hell is going on?

The weather has developed multiple personality syndrome.

(Sorry if the photos don't convey the strangeness or severity of the weather ... whenever it was really bad I was either nowhere near my camera or it had stopped before I got the lens cap off.)

It's all a question of belief

I'm currently researching and writing another book and part of it looks at how deeply ingrained superstitious belief is, despite all of the available evidence to disprove it. I therefore sent out a questionnaire to almost everyone I know asking a few basic questions. Then, I chose 50 of the responses at random. The results were interesting, though not unsurprising. I have yet to complete a more detailed analysis but here are some early results:

One question asked ‘Do you consider yourself to be a superstitious person?’ Another asked ‘Do you believe in luck?’ A later question asked respondees to indicate what activities they would undertake on Friday the 13th. Among the options were things like:

•Drive to work.
•Place a bet on a horse race.
•Go for a romantic meal with a loved one.
•Get married.

It was interesting to see that of the 23 people that answered ‘No’ to the first two questions, only three said that they would get married on Friday the 13th. So even people who see themselves as non-Believers are in the thrall of Dame Fortune ... her talons dig deep. And early indications are that people have levels of belief ... there is only so far they will go before the ancient superstitions take control.

Another question asked people if they knew their star sign and asked them to describe, in just five words, what the attributes were for people born under that sign. 100% of people knew their star sign. Intriguingly, 34 of the 50 were also able to describe what a person sharing their star sign was meant to be like. This raises all kinds of questions about whether we are moulded by these ancient beliefs or whether we mould them. After all, if you'd spent all of your life being told that Leos (what I am) are 'enthusiastic, energetic, optimistic, generous, artistic' ... wouldn't you try to emulate that?

According to one horoscope site, I should be 'full of ambition and enthusiasm (but should) admit to a lazy streak and, given the opportunity, will take the easy way out, especially when a situation offers little fun or glory'.

The most extraordinary description I read was 'People born in this period should have more time to sleep than almost anyone else. They usually overwork their brains, and are inclined to suffer from headache, trouble with the eyes and other things concerned (sic) the head. And they are liable to get cuts and wounds in the head. Such people usually demand constant medical attention.'

As I read this I distinctly felt myself think 'Yes, I do have trouble with my eyes ...' It just shows you that it's so easy to try to make this rubbish fit your life. The fact is, I am not a heavy sleeper and rarely have more than 6 hours a night. I'm not a martyr to headaches and the only significant head injury I've had was when I collected a brick during the Southall riots in 1981. I am rarely ill and the only 'constant medical attention' I need is to do with a back injury I sustained a few years ago.

Leos are also born leaders apparently. I hate being in charge and, during my police career, made a conscious decision never to take promotion as I didn't want to be responsible for other people. This despite the fact that for two years I was part of the team that wrote the promotion exams.

An interesting start to the results. I look forward to more revelations.

Oh, and I've just noticed that my profile on Blogger has automatically listed my star sign as Leo and my Chinese horoscope sign as Ox. Someone has actually taken the time to write a piece of code that works it all out from my date of birth. Presumably Blogger itself commissioned and paid for that piece of work because they felt that the information would be either necessary or useful.

In what way?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Good News for Foghorn Leghorn

As you'll know, I'm not the most sentimental person when it comes to animals. I respect them, I'm fascinated by them, I enjoy contact with them and, it must be said, I eat them. However, I cannot abide (1) treating animals as if they are people - it devalues us and them, and (2) cruelty. Now, I realise that some of you will say that killing an animal to eat it is surely the ultimate cruelty. But I disagree. Evolution has created a tier structure within nature. It's why there are many more prey animals than predator animals. Mackerel lay eggs by the thousand. Sharks lay eggs in ones and twos. QED. It's the way Nature works ... and Nature is not kind. Nature is cruel. Watch a cat play with a mouse. Watch a troop of chimpanzees hunting terrified monkeys. Watch an orca - the world's biggest dolphin - throwing a seal pup around like a rag doll until it is dead. Put me in a room with a very hungry lion and see how well watching The Lion King 20 times equips me for the reality of Nature 'red in tooth and claw'.

I'd like to think that, as civilised intelligent beings who have, by way of our sentience, had the custodianship of the planet foisted upon us, we can rise above cruelty. It is within our power to give a food animal a good life and a humane death before we eat it. And, if we're being entirely self-centred, it makes the animal taste better too. This is why I've been such an avid supporter of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Out campaign. And I'm delighted to see how hugely successful it's been. Good news for us. Good news for the chickens.

Keep it up you good, good people.

Catch up with the campaign here.

The confusion of the Irish

March the 17th is always St Patrick's Day. Isn' it? Well, you'd think so wouldn't you? But this year, there was some confusion as the church decided that it was March the 15th. Apparently it's all something to do with ecclesiastical calendars and Easter falling where it has this year. Did it make any difference to the Irish? Hell no. They carried on celebrating as usual, only now they had two days of celebrating to do.

St Patrick was a great character and his life was just as confused. Born in England or Wales, or maybe even France, he was carried off by pirates, and spent six years in slavery in Ireland before escaping and becoming a missionary. He’s credited with almost single-handedly introducing Christianity to the country. And he got rid of all the snakes by popping them in a box and chucking it into the sea. Which is why the Irish Sea is so stormy apparently.

St Patrick’s Day is marked by ‘wearing the green’ i.e. a shamrock. And a funny hat. Shamrock (the actual word is Seamrog) is simply the Irish Gaelic for ‘little clover’. There has been some debate over which of the many hundreds of clover species is the original Shamrock, but White Clover Trifolium Repens seems to be the most popular candidate. According to tradition, White Clover was held in high esteem by the early Celts of Wales as a charm against evil spirits. And in Ireland itself, the plant most often referred to as shamrock by the people seems to be the White Clover.

And who first identified White Clover as the true Irish Shamrock? None other than one Nathaniel Colgan. How cool is that? It’s not a common surname by any means and most Colgans are related to each other in some way. So it seems likely that the man who first identified the Irish Shamrock – the luckiest plant on Earth if you can find a four leafed one - is probably related to me. Hoorah.

The most popular story as to why the Shamrock became associated with Ireland states that St Patrick used it to illustrate the Holy Trinity to his parishioners. By parishioners, we presumably mean people who weren’t intelligent enough to understand the concept of ‘three’ without having a plant with three leaves held in front of their eyes. I’m not convinced that the Irish are doing themselves a great service with this theory. Another story I found says that the leaves have a different meaning. It’s one for Faith, two for Hope, three for Love and four for Luck. It’s also said that Eve carried a four-leaf clover out of the Garden of Eden. I have no idea why she would do this when every type of fruit and vegetable was available to her. Maybe it was a subtle dig at Adam’s manhood?

“You hardly need anything as big as a fig-leaf dear … here, use this …”

But Seamrog? Maybe instead of debating when St Patrick's day falls or why four leaved clovers are lucky, we should instead sort out Irish Gaelic spelling. I was watching a programme about Irish folk music the other night and one of the singers had the extraordinary name of Seosaimhin Ni Bheaglaoich. That’s Josephine Bagley to you and me. Come on guys ... either use English letters properly or make up some of your own.

I guess I would be entitled to spell my name in Gaelic fashion too if I so chose as my paternal grandfather was a Sligo man. The name Colgan originates in County Derry and then spread up through Sligo to Ulster. It means ‘swordsman’ (Oo-er!) and our family motto is Virtus Probato Florescit or ‘Tried virtue flourishes’. And my name in Irish Gaelic? Apparently it would be Stiofán O Colghain.

Hmmm ... I'll stick with what I have I think. Nothing says 'numpty' quite so much as a man who can't spell his own name.

Photo by Alice Gomstyn

Rue Britannia Part 3

My best mate, Huw Williams, has just won a major award for designing and directing the following advertisement. And quite rightly so. It's stunning, poignant and carries a very scary but all too important message.

There is a serious, if clumsily delivered, message in this second movie too. This was my first attempt at using Windows Movie Maker. Shoddy, yes. Unprofessional, undoubtedly. But it was a great way to use up a bunch of Googled images. Plus, I love that old George Dusen song.

Doesn't it make you feel proud to be British ?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Happy Easter Everybody!

(Thanks Liz! She hates Easter ...)

Ooooooh Swish!

The Reality of Writing

Since I was able to announce that I'm soon to be published, a number of colleagues and acquaintances have said to me ... 'I quite fancy being a writer. Where do I start?'

Well, my answer is always that you start by accepting that life is going to be very, very, very hard. Agents and publishers receive thousands of manuscripts per week and something has to grab them by the nadgers (or equivalent) on Page One or it will go onto the 'thanks but no thanks' pile. Agents will happily tell you that nearly all of them have 'let one go' at some time or other; where they've passed on a book that later became a bestseller. But, unless that first page grabbed them, what else could they have done? The problem is volume; if it's true that everyone has one good book in them, that's a hell of a lot of books.

So, that's the first thing to accept: Unless you really have produced the greatest Page One that an agent or publisher has seen all week, you are going to be rejected. That happened to me every month for 18 years. It hurts ... but the lure of writing has always been stronger and I've perservered.

Of course, there are other ways to get your manuscript read (apart from bribery and offers of sex).

My late father, Michael Colgan, was a budding writer who'd had many pieces rejected for magazines and newspapers. So he decided to make his name stand out on the page and changed the spelling to Myghal - that's the Cornish way of spelling it - and, suddenly, his work was being published. It's why I call myself Stevyn even though, as many of you know, my actual forename is Stephen. Besides which, there is an eminent psychiatrist called Dr Stephen M Colgan (my middle initial is also M ... perhaps we are the same person?) who has already published a number of scientific papers and I was keen to avoid any confusion.

Another tack I took was to get the book endorsed. As it's essentially a book of interesting facts, albeit arranged in a novel and original way, I thought about who would enjoy it. My first choice was Stephen Fry so I sent it to him. And, because he's such a thoroughly nice chap, he did endorse it. There's no doubt in my mind that having Stephen's name of the cover of my manuscript made people pick it up. That said, had the book been a complete dog, I still wouldn't be getting published.

A third method is to have a really strong title. I've been attracted to books solely by the title. Among my favourites - recent and old - are How to be Idle (Tom Hodgkinson), The Neverending Days of Being Dead (Marcus Chown), Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail (Christopher Dawes), Around Ireland with a Fridge (Tony Hawks), The Astrological Diary of God (Bo Fowler)and my favourite ever - Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis. All of them are worth a read, incidentally.

So, there you go ... my advice, for what it's worth, is (a) be prepared for rejection, (b) have a brilliant Page One, and (c) make yourself stand out out from the crowd even if it's just to get the agent's or publisher's attention - you can always revert to your real name or change the title once you've got the buggers hooked.

As for other advice, the best I've read in a long time - especially when talking about earnings as a writer - came from John Scalzi's blog Whatever (My thanks to Bristol-based folk hero Jim Moray for the link). UK readers substitute Inland Revenue for IRS. Or some other suitable epithet for the taxman. I can think of a few ...

I would also direct you to the following sites:

Robin Kelly's excellent Writing for Performance site.
Michael Stelzner's Top 10 Blogs for Writers.
The BBC World Service How to Write site.
How to Write for Film at Screenwriters.
The many WikiHow Guides.
Jim Heath's guide to writing non-fiction at Viacorp.

And, if you're interested in romance and paranormal writing, check out Michele Cwiertny's blog and the A Slice of Orange site.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Life through a lens

My brother Simon - known to his friends for some obscure reason lost in the mists of time as Jake - has just set up shop as a pro photographer. And damnably good he is too. You can pretty much guarantee that he'll come up with an original way to set up the shot.

So, if you're in the West Country (he's based in Camborne, Cornwall) and you fancy getting your portrait done or your wedding recorded for posterity - he's your man. Or, if you're a bit too far away for that, he does a mean trade in photo repair. I've yet to see much better work than his. But then again ... I am biased.

A bit.

Find him via his blog at Simon Colgan Photography or his website or by email.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rue Britannia Part 2

You may recall one of my rants earlier this year about national identity (If not, read it here). Well, here's an update for you.

On this week's Museum of Curiosity, Bill Bailey explained that in late 2007, The Times newspaper ran a competition to create a new motto for England of not more than five words. The winner?

Dipso. Fatso. Asbo. Bingo. Tesco.


Name that Tune ... by Graphs

Can you name the famous songs that these graphs represent? (Click on them to see a larger image)

There are lots more to be found here at Flickr.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Hidden Treasure

I've lived and worked in and around London for nearly 30 years but, yesterday, I made an extraordinary discovery - an entire self-contained town within a town. I'm talking about the amazing hidden oasis of Dolphin Square.

Imagine creating a set of lawns and an Italian garden in three and half acres. Then add in a croquet lawn and tennis courts. Then, dig underneath it all and build an underground swimming pool, bar, brasserie, gym and car park. Then construct, on all four sides of the grounds, a series of tall red brick blocks of flats; 13 houses, all named after famous mariners like Drake, Raliegh and Nelson, and containing between them some 1250 flats ranging from bedsits to penthouses. You now have something like a red brick city wall penning in the gardens and sealing off this private community from the rest of London. But to really isolate it completely, add a hotel, a laundry and an arcade of shops. And that, ladies and gents, is Dolphin Square; a complete community that, if necessary, could live their lives without the need to ever stray outside.

Built in Pimlico, SW1 near the River Thames between 1935 and 1937 by Richard Costain, Dolphin Square has had some interesting residents. Among them were politicians Harold Wilson, David Steel, William Hague, Estelle Morris and Beverly Hughes. In 1994 alone there were 59 MPs living in the Square, including 23 Conservatives, 27 Labour, and 9 Liberal Democrat. Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, famous for their involvement in the Profumo Affair, were both sub-tenants.

In 1940 the Free French occupied Grenville House, and when General de Gaulle was in the Square, workmen had to be issued with special passes before being allowed entry to that house. William Joyce - the infamous traitor known as Lord Haw-Haw - lived there but was hanged for treason in 1946. Other controversial tenants include Oswald Mosley, the fanatical ‘blackshirt’ fascist and Soviet spy John Vassall. Entertainers lived here too including Arthur Askey, Tommy Trinder and Vic Oliver and music hall star Bud Flanagan, who lived in Raleigh House. As one half of the hugely successful double act Flanagan and Allen (with Chesney Allen), he enjoyed particular success during the Second World War with songs like ‘We’re Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line’. A member of The Crazy Gang, Flanagan is perhaps more familiar today as the voice behind Jimmy Perry’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler’, the theme tune to the BBC TV programme Dad’s Army . The gardens feature a memorial bench to him donated by his wife.

Yet, despite its history and string of famous residents, apartments at Dolphin Square are surprisingly cheap. Well, for London prices anyway.

I'm so pleased I found it and had the chance to look around. Dolphin Square really is a hidden treasure.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pulling shapes and pulling muscles

Only the Japanese could have invented Human Tetris. My thanks to Michele Cwiertny for introducing me to this ignoble sport.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Everard in Bristol. Oo-er, missus!

"Of course, them Europeans has got it right", said the man in the bright orange street cleaner's uniform. "They has a siestal."

"A siestal?"

"Yaas. They has a sleep after dinner. That's what we needs. A siestal."

It's a curious feature of the Bristol accent that many words ending in vowels seem to collect an L that shouldn't by rights be there. Thus, in just a few short minutes I had learned all about Ford Fiestals, the local areal, avocadols and, now, why street cleaners on the night shift should have siestals. I've since discovered that this Bristolian idiosyncracy may have actually given rise to the modern name of the city as it was once called Brycgstow (the place of the bridge) in old English. The locals, presumably, added the triumphant final L.

Our conversation took place last night at some time between 1.30am and 2pm in the proximity of an excellent kebab wagon parked at the junction of Broad Street and Corn Street. I'd just enjoyed a riotous evening at the nearby Wetherspoons pub - The Commercial Rooms - of which I will tell you more shortly, and was now in the mood for processed lamb-like meat, pitta bread and hot chili sauce. The fact that I could enjoy this fine repast in the company of several street philosophers only served to make my doner even more rewarding. As the searing heat of the chili sauce cauterised my taste buds to mere blackened stumps, I found myself chatting with two street cleaners. I have no idea what their names were, only that they were two of the most splendid people I've met in a long while.

I'd been in Bristol for a couple of days running a seminar for people from various organisations. It's a great city, lots of fun, lots of history and, without a doubt, one of the friendliest I've ever visited. Without exception, everyone I met was quite lovely, from the strangely elf-like receptionist at the Thistle Hotel to the drunk street busker whose rendition of Fake plastic trees will stay with me forever - But not in a good way. During the lunch breaks and the inevitable finger buffets that accompany such events, I took to roaming around the narrow alleys and streets, discovering glass covered markets and quaint little shops selling ethnic jewellery, fossils, home-made clothing (scarves mostly), fine foods - including the best pies I've ever tasted - and many antiquarian bookshops.

It was in one of these that I found a corking little gem with the title - using that economy of words so prevalent of the era in which it was published - Male methods of Birth Control: Their technique and reliability - a practical handbook for men by a Dr George Ryley Scott. Published in 1937 and priced at one shilling and sixpence, the book is a candid though joyously coy book that explains such baffling concepts as Coitus Interruptus, Coitus Reservatus, Coitus Saxonis and how to wear an American Tip. Here are a few choice extracts:

'While the wife may know nothing about the peculiar and scientific risks connected with the withdrawal method, she has no confidence at all in her husband's power to withdraw in time, and she is therefore filled with anxiety every time the method is in operation. The effects of this anxiety is psychologically bad for the woman.'

'When a condom has once been used, if it is desired to employ it again, great care must be taken in its storage, or it will be useless. The best way to preserve rubber is to keep it in a dark place under water. Alternative methods of preservation are immersion in powdered chalk or Fuller's earth.'

'Most skin condoms have a string at the top (open end), for use in affixing to the penis, with the express object of preventing slippage. Many men use rubber bands instead of the string.'

And, among the reasons cited for a husband (sic) to be sure that he arranges the contraception rather than his wife are where the wife is either 'stout' or one of the 'very large number of feeble-minded, ignorant and lazy women'.

The extraordinary thing about this book is the way that it highlights the dramatic change in sexual politics that took place after The Pill was made available. In this strange little book, we learn that women - sorry, wives - had very few, and mostly unreliable, methods of birth control at their disposal in 1939. Therefore, responsibility (and control) was almost exclusively male.

There is also frequent mention of the National Council for Public Morals, who, it must be said, would have been quite apoplectic if they'd met the groups of students we met in the pub earlier that evening.

Bristol is a university town and, tonight, one university student was celebrating her 20th birthday. I know that I'm getting older but, as I glanced around the bar, it took me a while to realise that every reveller was over 18 despite looking, to my rheumy old eyes, like they were all twelve. The young ladies were clear skinned and fresh-faced and most were stick thin. The boys were tall, spotty and wore those attempted beards that students wear; chinstrap, sideburns and moustache but none of them yet joined up. They looked as if they'd been attacked by the rare Clifton facial moth. All had sensible, fashionable haircuts meaning that they were Freshers or second year students ... give it another year and they'll all be pierced, tattooed and be sporting the silliest hair cuts and colours imaginable.

The gimmick of the birthday party was for everyone to turn up wearing a plain white t-shirt and to bring a fat permanent marker. They then proceeded to grafitti each other's bodies. Soon, every bosom was sporting a pair of badly drawn nipples and various slogans based upon the theme of 'Suck these'. The boys sported slogans like 'Gay for pay' and 'I cum for gum' on their annoyingly flat chests and pecs. But the really priceless stuff was on the rear of the shirts. Because the hapless victim couldn't see what was being written or drawn upon their backs, the pen-wielders became much fruitier. Downward-pointing arrows appeared in the small of the back accompanied by such witty bon mots as 'My crack' or the wonderful 'My beautiful anus'. Badly drawn genitalia proliferated across shoulder-blades along with subtle innuendos like 'Fuck me for a fiver' or 'If you can read this, you're up my bum'. One simply said 'I suck'. Take that as you will.

It seems just a few short years ago that the use of words like these in public would have been deemed obscene or in some way deleterious to public order. But these were not some ASBO-generation knife-wielding maniacs intent on anarchy and a night of Happy Slapping. These were well-adjusted, happy, well-behaved kids celebrating their newly found indepedence and freedom of expression having moved out of Mum and Dad's house. They were no trouble at all. And some of them are our future doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Having concluded my chat with the street cleaners, I dallied briefly with an ambulance crew before a gaggle of five young university ladies approached the kebab van in need of burgers. They were very chatty and I explained that I'd been in the pub earlier when they'd had their pen frenzy. One of them then asked me to add something to her shirt. My age was once again thrust upon me because her bosom wasn't. Despite having happily had young men scrawling all over her chest for hours, she presented me with her back to scribble on. I didn't mind. In fact, it made me feel a lot less like some old perv ... after all, these young ladies were actually younger than my own kids. I drew a caricature of her and the racy 'Good luck!' It must have pleased her because the other four immediately lined themselves up for a sketch each. I wandered back to my hotel happy, mildly squiffy and with absolutely no sense of taste whatsoever.

Bristol is a wonderful city and I'd recommend it to anyone for a visit. Bath - just up the road - may be prettier but Bristol is more cosmopolitan and has some extraordinary architecture as shown in the photographs that pepper this post. Favourite for me was the amazing Edward Everard building in Broad Street (see above). Now a branch of RBS (Insurance), it is fabulously clad in tiles made by Doulton to a design by W J Neatby (based in turn upon an idea by Everard himself). The building opened as a print works in 1900 and the main image of the faience frontage depicts Gutenburg and Morris separated by a stylised angel representing truth and light. It's quite stunning.

I will go back soon I think and explore some more. I will certainly be keen to see if I can find any of the other books in the same series as Male Methods of Birth Control. They include The Commonsense of Nudism, Sexual Apathy and Coldness in Women, Sex Problems and Dangers in War-Time and the worryingly titled Sterilization of the Unfit.

I'd joined a gym before I realised that it was actually about preventing 'the incurably insane, the feeble-minded and the imbecile from breeding.'

Good grief.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Official ... at last!

Yes, it's official. I can now reveal a bit about my forthcoming book as it's appeared on Amazon today. The book is called:

Joined-Up Thinking: How Everything Connects to Everything Else

It's published on 3rd October this year by Macmillan. It will feature cover quotes from Stephen Fry and from John Mitchinson (co-author of QI: The Book of General Ignorance with John Lloyd).

What's the book about? Basically, it's about the interconnectedness of things; how completely different and apparently unrelated people, places, things and objects are actually much more closely related than you think.

Once the official announcement is made I'll post up more details and let you see the cover. It looks great and I'm delighted with the job that Macmillan has done.

More news as October gets closer.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Frozen in Grand Central

Thanks to Exene's blog Made you look for introducing me to Improv Now. Great site and a great stunt.

Ronald McDonald's Birthday Blues

Pretty much everyone knows that if you can blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake with one puff, you can make a silent wish which will come true. But did you know that if the knife touches the bottom of your birthday cake while making the first cut, your wish won’t come true? Or that every time you have a birthday party at McDonald's you're breaking the law?

But first ... why do we have candles on cakes anyway? Like most popular traditions, it all seems a bit odd if you take a step back and look at it objectively. From what I can discover, it’s fire, rather than candles, that relates to birthdays.

Originally, a birthday was not celebrated as it is nowadays. Rather, it was a day of panic and worry because people believed that malevolent spirits would attack you on the anniversary of your birth. Therefore, the birthday boy or girl would light a big fire to keep the nasties away, and invite friends and family over for additional protection. And so the birthday party was born. To add to the myth, the Greeks would make tribute to Artemis in the form of round cakes decorated with candles so that they would glow like the Moon. Artemis was the twin of Apollo and was goddess of the wilderness, the hunt, wild animals and fertility. She is also associated with the Moon and was often depicted with the crescent Moon above her head. Some scholars argue that in fact the candles carried the tribute up to the gods in the form of smoke.

And you might find it quite interesting to learn that the most performed song of all time isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody or Yellow Submarine or even the Birdie Song. It’s Happy birthday to you, that annoying tune that we all sing before blowing out the candles. I had heard some story about the song actually being copyrighted, so I checked the story out on the Snopes Urban Legends website. And it’s true! Here’s the story …

In 1893, two sisters from Louisville, Kentucky, called Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill penned a little ditty to be sung in infant schools. The song went:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning dear children,
Good morning to all.

The Hills' tune was published in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten later that year. No one is quite sure who set the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ lyrics to the tune but its first published appearance was in a songbook edited by Robert H. Coleman in 1924. After that, the arrival or radio and the ‘talkies’ spread the song around the world. It was featured in the score of the Broadway musical The Band Wagon in 1931 and became the first ever singing telegram used by Western Union. But when Irving Berlin used the ‘Good morning to you’ melody in his musical As Thousands Cheer, Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister, decide enough was enough and sued. Her sisters had never been credited for the song and were not receiving any royalties. Her suit was successful and she secured the copyright of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for her sisters in 1934. Under US law the copyright protection of ‘Happy Birthday’ will remain intact until at least 2030.

So, as Snopes asks … are we all in breach of copyright every time we sing the song at a birthday party? No is the answer, thankfully. The copyright covers use in plays, films, television, public performance and ‘at a place open to the public, or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances is gathered.’ So singing it to little Johnny at school is okay. But if you have your party at McDonalds ... every time one of their annoyingly bouncy staff gets everyone to join in with the song, he/she is breaking the law. The clown is in breach of copyright.

The current copyright holder is Summy-Birchard Music, a small subsidiary of the AOL Time Warner Group. Royalties are split between Summy-Birchard and the Hill Foundation; a fund set up to administer the money. As both sisters died single and childless, the money is either going to charity or to some relative – possibly their very lucky nephew, Archibald.

The writer Bruce Anderson has the last word on this:*

‘The next time you hear "Happy Birthday" in a movie — and now that you’re listening, it won’t be long — stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Think about how Hollywood would love the story of the Hill sisters, two Southern kindergarten teachers who write a song that they only hope will be a useful teacher’s aid. Instead, the song is a hit that never goes away. It is sung hundreds of millions of times each year, a musical juggernaut that tops the efforts of Tin Pan Alley’s best. Appropriately, then, film credits are the one place left where Mildred and Patty Hill still get their due.’

* From ‘Beyond Measure’, published in AttachĂ©, January 2002

Ronald McDonald (c) McDonalds Corporation
Cake photos by Pink Cake Box - probably some of the most inventive cakes I've ever seen.

Welcome to Vandaland

We all love to smash stuff.

I guess it’s the naughty child inside us all that we dare not let out most of the time. Why else do we watch programmes like Brainiac, Top Gear, Robot Wars and Scrapheap Challenge? And don’t tell me you watch ice-skating or Formula 1 without secretly hoping for a heavy fall or a serious crash. Okay, so it may be more of a boy thing than a girl thing but I reckon that we all, to some degree, love seeing stuff being smashed. And smashing things yourself is even more enjoyable. Kids love to build towers from bricks and blocks but they enjoy bashing them down more. And everyone loves watching a controlled explosion bring an old factory chimney or block of flats down.

I’ve always believed that you could make a lot of money by setting up a theme park where people are allowed to simply smash things up with sledgehammers, axes and chainsaws. People would love it! Of course, it would all have to be cleared by Health and Safety. But look at Diggerland. That’s a seriously popular theme park (or parks – there are several of them now) and all that happens there is that people get the chance to drive JCBs. What a fantastic idea! And Health and Safety have cleared it … so perhaps my destructive theme park is possible. But what would I call it? Vandaland? Anarchy Towers? Thump Park?

I reckon it would be a public service. It may just allow people to vent enough of their frustrations that they don’t bother to smash bus stops anymore. Or beat their partner or kids. Or base-jump off Canary Wharf.

Jeremy Clarkson – ever the outspoken voice of British testosterone – says that:

‘The human being, and the human male in particular, is programmed to take risks. Had our ancestors spent their days sitting around in caves, not daring to go outside, we’d still be there now.' (1)

Adding some scientific argument to Clarkson’s case is Dr Peter Marsh of Oxford’s Social Issues Research Centre:

‘When our society becomes too safe, we feel compelled to put risks back into our lives. Consider for a moment bungee jumping. Only in the context of recent shifts in contemporary living could such a mindless activity come to be considered attractive - something which people will pay to do - leaping off bridges and towers to be rescued from the inevitable fate of gravity by an elastic cord! What we have here is a clear example principle of risk homeostasis - in times of objective safety, we act more recklessly - a phenomenon also quite apparent in more humdrum aspects of our daily lives. (…) All of this is based, in my view, on our evolutionary heritage - achieving a comfortable balance between the enervating experience of complete safety and the heart-stopping fear of one risk too many - a level of physiological and psychological arousal which first tempted early man out of his cave to find food, and thus to feed his family and ensure the survival of his genes, but inhibited acts of sheer hubris in front of a sabre-toothed tiger. (…) We need some bad habits, I suggest, in order to retain our subscription to the human race.’ (2)

I believe they both have a valid point. If Health and Safety had their way, we’d all stay indoors covered cocoon-like in bubble-wrap. That’s not what Health and Safety was invented for. Like the Unions, it was invented to stop the working man or woman from being unreasonably put in danger or being overworked by unscrupulous bosses. But they’ve lost the plot. How does that noble origin include stopping homemade cakes from being taken to school because the ingredients aren’t listed? Would the originators of the HSE shudder if they heard that playing conkers had been banned in some schools?

In 2001, 24-year-old PC Kulwant Sidhu was pursuing burglary suspects on a roof when he fell through a skylight and was tragically killed. I, like the majority of people, was deeply saddened by his death. The fact that I have been in similar situations myself as a police officer only made the tragedy more real. But, like most coppers I accept that these things happen. Being a police officer, by definition, is dangerous and unpredictable. In my time, I’ve been shot at, had knives waved at me and been thumped more times than I care to remember. But you perform your duties as best you can in the circumstances. You constantly review and, if necessary, revise your game plan. You perform a rolling risk assessment. And most of the time, it goes your way. I survived my service. Kulwant, sadly, did not. Maybe he misjudged things. Maybe he stumbled or tripped. Maybe he was misled by what he saw. Maybe he didn’t have all the facts. Whatever the reason, he accepted the risk that goes with the uniform and he chose to go onto that roof. He was a brave and dedicated young man.

However, the Health and Safety Executive did not accept that it was a rare, tragic and unavoidable accident (despite the fact the last time it had happened was 1952). To them, Kulwant’s death was ‘proof that the Met, and its commissioner in 2000, Lord Condon, had failed, criminally, to discharge their duty to protect officers from the risk of falling from roofs.’ (3)

And in an extraordinary move (and at a cost of approximately £3 million of tax-payers’ money – that’s enough to pay for 70 constables on the street for a year), decided to prosecute the Metropolitan Police Service. Kulwant’s family did not ask the HSE to take the action.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed. If the police had lost the case, they were looking at the very real possibility of ordering all officers not to climb onto any area over 6ft off the ground without ropes, ladders and climbing gear. As the then Assistant Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe (now Chief Constable, Merseyside Police) put it, “It would have been a veritable burglars' charter, a victory for criminals and would have encouraged suspects to use roofs to escape.” And I wonder how the public would have reacted to that?

The same issues surround police chases. I fully expect to see a ban in the next few years despite the fact that it means that every villain will know that all they have to do to get away is employ a good driver and a fast car. It’s madness.

Life is for living. And risk-taking is part of living – whether it’s for thrills or for the greater safety of the public. If all risk and thrill is removed, is it any wonder that people will get pent up, frustrated and stressed? If all risk is removed, if all of our natural outlets for stress relief disappear, where will that stress assert itself? Bad behaviour is where. Or in dangerous sports.

Oh, if only Vandaland was open!


(1) ‘They’re trying to lower the pulse of real life’ Sunday Times article 4th March 2001.
(2) ‘In praise of bad habits’, a lecture to the Institute for Cultural Research, London, November 17th 2001
(3) As reported in ‘We fall off horses. Do they want us to use Shetland Ponies?’ Daily Telegraph 28th June 2003.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Brain Straining

I don't normally use this blog to repeat 'funnies' that I get by email, but every so often I get one that makes me smile or is just plain clever. I'll leave you to guess which one this is.

You can see the answers by clicking on the Comments.

Question 1:
You are participating in a race. You overtake the second person. What position are you now in?

Question 2:
If you overtake the last person, then you are ... ?

Question 3:
Take 1000 and add 40 to it. Now add another 1000. Now add 30. Add another 1000. Now add 20. Now add another 1000. Now add 10. What is the total?

Question 4:
Mary's father has five daughters: 1. Nana, 2. Nene, 3. Nini, 4. Nono. What is the name of the fifth daughter?

Question 5:
A mute person goes into a shop and wants to buy a toothbrush. By imitating the action of brushing his teeth he successfully expresses himself to the shopkeeper and the purchase is done. Next, a blind man comes into the shop who wants to buy a pair ofsunglasses; how does he indicate what he wants?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

No one understands him but his woman ...

Back in November, I was raving about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's fantastic version of Theme from Shaft and bemoaning the fact that it wasn't yet on YouTube. Well now it is!

Scream with joy!

Alien Life Quotes

A few other snippets that I uncovered while researching today's rant (see last post):

'It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. [...] Even with such absurdly looking odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets - of which Earth, of course, is one.'

- Richard Dawkins, from The God Delusion 2006

'I dis­believe all the flying saucer stories that have little green men, not because they are little and green, but because they are men. Little green splots would be so much more believable.'

- Jack Cohen in an interview with New Scientist magazine 1991

'Thus, when we go out into space there may be more to meet us than we expect. I would look forward not only to our extra-terrestrial brothers who share life-as-we-know-it. I would hope also for an occasional cousin among the life-not-as-we-know-it possibilities. In fact, I think we ought to prefer our cousins. Competition may be keen, even overkeen, with our brothers, for we may well grasp at one another's planets; but there need only be friendship with our hot-world and cold-world cousins, for we dovetail neatly. Each stellar system might pleasantly support all the varities, each on its own planet, and each planet useless to and undesired by any other variety. How easy it would be to observe the Tenth Commandment then!'

- Isaac Asimov in an interview with the Mercury Press 1962

'In the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, we tend to plan for life as we know it, even down to the nucleic acid bases or base sequences used in organisms elsewhere. What if they don't use DNA? Or RNA? Or linear information-bearing polymers? Do they have to use liquid water as the universal biosolvent? The universe has surprised us before with its variety, in spite of the simplicity and small number of fundamental physical laws'.

- Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Physics, and chair of the Theoretical Astrophysics Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson

'Were going through a tremendous biological boon in learning so much about life on this planet. A lot of this advancement is due to remarkable techniques that have been developed that are extremely sensitive, but also highly specific. But that very sensitivity, because of its specificity, makes it almost useless in the quest to look for life elsewhere. That is, unless life elsewhere is made of exactly the same building blocks that we're made out of and using similar sequences. So what we need to do is come up with more general ways to look for life, but increase the sensitivity in order to find that life. If we come up with techniques, knowing the organisms that we're looking for, we might find some organisms here on Earth previously not known, much less finding things on other planetary bodies'.

- Michael Meyer, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology (NASA Headquarters)

'Nowhere in space will we rest our eyes upon the familiar shapes of trees and plants, or any of the animals that share our world. Whatsoever life we meet will be as strange and alien as the nightmare creatures of the ocean abyss, or of the insect empire whose horrors are normally hidden from us by their microscopic scale.'

- Arthur C Clarke

'Aliens will not resemble anything we've seen. Considering that octopi, sea cucumbers, and oak trees are all very closely related to us, an alien visitor would look less like us than does a squid. Some fossils in the ancient Burgess shale are so alien that we can't determine which end of the creature is up, and yet these monsters evolved right here on Earth from the same origins as we did.'

- Johan Forsberg

Life as we don't know it

In one of those curious coincidences that life occasionally throws at us in order to make us question our senses of logic and reason, this week's BBC2 Horizon programme talked about the Drake Equation ... the day after my post on the very same subject. Weird. The show was actually about the search for exoplanets; planets circling stars other than our own Sun. And it actually made me a tiny, tiny bit cross because it took such a limited and old-fashioned view of the possibilities for alien life. Let me explain ...

The programme talked about how scientists - well, astronomers anyway - are using gravity to find planets. A star's mass creates a gravity well; a dent in space-time that pulls objects in towards it. At the same time, planets circling the star have gravity wells of their own and exert a smaller though noticeable force on their parent star. A particularly large planet will exert a force strong enough to cause the star to 'wobble' and it is this wobble that astronomers look for in order to find exoplanets. They have now found lots of them and, just recently, they discovered Gliese 581c, a planet that exists within its star's 'habitable zone'. Gliese 581c may just have liquid water on its surface and, as the various astronomers and astrobiologists were delighted to explain, this means the potential for life.

Now this is where I started to take umbrage. You see, I think that it's a staggering, swaggering, swollen-headed liberty to assume that life has to have followed the same evolutionary path as ourselves. The term 'habitable zone' is a dead giveaway.

I’ve been re-reading Jack Cohen’s and Ian Stewart’s book Evolving the Alien (also reprinted as What does a Martian look like?) for the umpteenth time recently and something I hadn’t really taken on board before suddenly jumped out at me. In the early chapters, the authors spend some time discussing the term Astrobiology and why it’s the wrong term to use when discussing alien life. Firstly, it’s incorrect; ‘astro’ means ‘star’ and it's highly unlikely (although not necessarily impossible) that aliens would live on a star. Secondly, it’s a term coined by astronomers rather than biologists (if it were the other way round, the term would be ‘Bioastronomy’) and astronomers, gifted individuals that they are, are not experts on the life-sciences. Jack and Ian prefer the term Xenobiology, which means ‘strange biology’, or the broader Xenoscience, which embraces all of the scientific disciplines.

But why should we be bothered? Why is it so important to choose the ‘right’ name? It’s because, if we don’t, we may find ourselves listening to the wrong experts. For example, I’ve just trawled back through just a few of the many press clippings and downloaded stories and features I've accumulated, over the years. Among them I found these various snippets, all less than a year old:

'Mapping what gases comprised Earth's atmosphere during its history, scientists propose that by looking for similar atmospheric compositions on other worlds, they will be able to determine if that planet has life on it ...’

'Although water is an essential ingredient to life as we know it, wet hot Jupiters are not likely to harbour any creatures. Previous measurements from Spitzer indicate that HD 189733b is a fiery 1,000 Kelvin (1,340 degrees Fahrenheit) on average.’

' ... life can only possibly exist where there is liquid water, an oxygen-rich atmosphere and a planetary temperature that is in the 'Goldilocks' zone; not too hot, not too cold - just right.’

'According to statistical analysis based on how quickly life got going on Earth, life will start on at least a third of Earth-like planets within a billion years of them developing suitable conditions ...’

See what’s happening there? ‘Earth-like planet’, ‘essential for life’ and the ubiquitous ‘Goldilocks Zone’ are terms that steer us towards the idea that life can only exist on a world that is similar to Earth. Therefore life would most likely evolve in a similar way to life on Earth. That’s the astrobiologist speaking. The xenoscientist doesn’t think that way. As Cohen and Stewart say so clearly:

‘Instead of looking for carbon copies of Earth, then, we ought to be theorising about and looking for the different kinds of planets, and other potential habitats for life, that exist out there in the wide universe. ‘Exotic’ habitats should be seen not as obstacles, but as opportunities; instead of dismissing them with an airy wave of the hand and saying, ‘Obviously life couldn’t exist there’, we ought to be asking, ‘What would it have to be like if it did?’’'

Now that’s the xenoscientist speaking. And that’s the view that I subscribe to. As I've discussed in previous posts on subjects as apparently unconnected as Pac-Man and silicon-based life, other forms of life could be possible.

Life doesn't have to be life as we know it. It's far more likely to be life as we don't know it.

Life is a powerful force and doesn't tend to let things like an unsuitable environment get in the way. As an example, a colony of Streptococcus bacteria that was living inside the camera of the US Surveyor 3 unmanned spacecraft that landed on the Moon in 1967 survived there. The crew of Apollo 12 visited the craft in 1969 and brought the camera back to Earth inside a sterile container. What scientists found amazed them; these hardy bacteria had survived against all the odds and could still reproduce and carry on as normal once they'd been returned home. And all this despite suffering the rigours of launch, space travel and touch-down on an alien world, and also living in a vacuum, 3 years of radiation exposure, no nutrient, water or energy source, and deep-freeze at an average temperature of only 20 degrees above absolute zero (The temperature at which all movement - even of atoms - stops. Considered to be precisely Zero Kelvin, or –273.15° Celsius, or –459.67° Fahrenheit).

Bacteria have been found to exist in the most extreme environments imaginable:

  • Vacuum - bacteria can survive in near zero pressure and temperature, provided suitable care is exercised in the experimental conditions.
  • Pressure - bacteria have survived exposure to pressures as high as 10 tonnes per square centimeter (71 tons/sq-in). Colonies of anaerobic bacteria have recently been recovered from depths of 7 km (4.2 mi) or more in the Earth's crust.
  • Heat - Archaebacteria can withstand extreme heat and have been found thriving in deep-sea hydrothermal vents and in oil reservoirs a mile underground.
  • Radiation - viable bacteria have been recovered from the interior of an operating nuclear reactor. In comparison to space, each square metre on Earth is protected by about 10 tons of shielding atmosphere.
  • Long preservation - bacteria have been revived and cultured after some 25 million years of encapsulation in the guts of a resin-trapped bee.

Extraterrestrial life may well be so weird we would not immediately recognise it, and scientists looking for alien life should be seeking the unfamiliar as well as the familiar. Xenoscientists and xenobiologists warn that NASA's current approach to 'follow the water' works well if the assumption is that life everywhere is just like life is on Earth — based on water, carbon and DNA. But the 'life as we know it' approach could easily miss something exotic.

The US National Academy of Sciences Panel issued a report in 2007 that states just this. The US space agency commissioned the report from the National Research Council, one of the independent National Academies set up to advise the federal government on scientific issues. The panel of biochemists, planetary scientists, geneticists and other experts considered all the possible ways that life can arise and exist. Recent discoveries of extremophiles — organisms living in conditions of heat, cold and dark and using chemicals once thought incompatible with life — have changed ideas of where life can survive.

"The purpose [...] is to be able to look for life on other planets and moons with an open mind ... and not maybe miss some other life form because we looking for some obvious life form," explained John Baross, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle, who chaired the committee. As a biochemist, Baross said lab experiments also show water does not necessarily have to be the basis for life. It might be possible for a living organism to use methane, ethane, ammonia or even more bizarre chemicals. But how weird can it get?

"We had some discussion about how weird to make this because there are so many concepts out here. There are so many theories about what life is and what could be a living system," explains Baross. "NASA and other groups are looking hard for extraterrestrial life. Telescopes search for spectral signatures from other planets that might suggest water is on the surface. Robots on Mars are seeking evidence of water, past or present. We wanted to actually think outside of that box a little bit and at least try to articulate some of the other possibilities besides water-carbon life."

All life on Earth uses some form of DNA or RNA to encode the basic information for replicating and changing, but perhaps other life forms exist that use a different method to do this, the report suggests. NASA might also think about returning to some of the more promising places in our own solar system to look for evidence of life, the committee said. They include Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus and even steamy Venus.

"If you are a biochemist, Titan is of enormous interest, because it's a carbon moon. It does have clearly some liquid methane or liquid ethane lakes or pools. There could be chemical reactions going on that could be favourable for producing complex biochemicals," says Baross. "The exploration that could lead to a novel life form ... would be the most profound discovery ever made. Stumbling past it or worse, destroying it because it did not look like life, would be an equally profound tragedy."

If life forms on our own planet can exist without water, in conditions of intense heat and cold, in places where sunlight never reaches and inside the very rocks themselves ... isn't it likely that life elsewhere will have evolved to live in the same, and even more, extreme environments?

It's not the first time that a programme like Horizon has raised the hackles on the back of my neck. And not just me ... on this week's edition of Radio 4's Museum of Curiosity, particle physicist Professor Frank Close of Oxford University had a good moan about a 'scurrilous' episode of the programme that was so ill-informed that it intimated that the particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland is creating anti-matter that could destroy the world. He blamed trash fiction of the sort put about by Dan Brown and the like and explained that, 'The most powerful things we can do here on Earth are puny in comparison with what Nature does all the time. We're being blasted by cosmic rays right now; they're passing through us in this room all the time. The energies of these cosmic rays are vast compared with the things we're doing at CERN and the Earth hasn't been destroyed by them. The experiments have been done before ... it's just the first time that we're going to be doing them.'

Yes, I'm possibly over-reacting but this is an important issue. The BBC has a duty to inform as well as entertain and popular science shows have a duty to present as accurate a picture as possible. Astrobiologists and xenobiologists have differing viewpoints. I don't know which is right - although I have my own ideas on that - but a programme that only presents one viewpoint creates a lopsided and innaccurate view of current scientific research.

It's a trend I wouldn't want to see get any worse.

'Low gravity alien' by Don Davis for the Cosmic Safari TV series.
Other images from various sources unknown (possibly models developed by Jack Cohen and/or Dougal Dixon).