Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This is not in any way a topical cartoon

This is one of my cartoons that was published in the mid-1990s in Fortean Times magazine. It's proved to be very popular ever since and I am often asked for permission to use it in not-for-profit or educational booklets and Powerpoint presentations. Curiously, I'm most frequently asked by medical colleges.

What are they teaching their students?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Don't just feel the heat ... see it

A brilliantly simple but fantastic idea here by designer Shi Yuan. Thermal reactive wallpaper. The more it gets warm, the more the flowers in the pattern open. How great is that?

Wallpaper has had a bit of a bad press in recent years; mostly, it seems to me, due to the glut of property development TV shows that all chant the mantra of 'plain and neutral ... plain and neutral ...' But this is something very different to your standard flock or blown vinyl or, Heaven forbid, woodchip.

Imagine a room in Winter ... it's cold and dark outside and your walls are decorated with heat-sensitive paper; a forest scene of bare trees and patches of snow. You turn on the lights and the heating ... the snow melts, snowdrops and crocuses pop up through the soil. As the temperature rises, new grass begins to show, flowers appear and the trees become clothed in greenery. Is that a young rabbit by that tree?

But now it's got a little too warm, so you turn the heating down. The foliage fades to brown and red. The forest floor becomes littered with golden leaves. The flowers wilt and die. It's time for bed.

Wouldn't that be fantastic?

Variations on a theme

Superbug bites back

My whole life I've known the advertising strapline used by the makers of Domestos bleach:

Domestos kills all known germs. Dead.

That's a pretty stark and confident claim isn't it? Every known germ. Dead. But it's true; raw, undiluted bleach kills everything. Sadly, because it's as harmful to humans as it is to germs, it isn't used in public institutions like it used to be. Which is maybe why superbugs like MRSA were able to get a toehold in our hospitals.

I mention this because I saw an advert for another, similar cleaning product today that claims:

Kills 99.9% of all known germs.

Whoa there! What about the other 0.1%? Why is there suddenly a bunch of bugs and beasties out there that cannot be killed? And what are they?

I think we should be told.

Joke of the Week

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Whack my conkers if you dare

It's been a truly lovely weekend; sunny, bright, dry. Cold in the evenings, mind you. But very nice for the time of year. I've spent much of the past two days in the garden, mowing lawns, weeding and packing up the last of the Summer fruit and veg. My grape harvest this year was pretty poor. There was barely enough fruit to make a decent batch of jam. Many had simply rotted on the vine. I can only put it down to a disastrous three months of heavy rain and little sunshine. My tomatoes were a bit rubbish too. But, on the plus side, the blackberries and raspberries are now at their peak and I'm picking around a pound a day and freezing them for winter crumbles, pies and jams. And I've had some fantastic courgettes, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and greens, and I've never had so many apples in my life. The cooking apple tree is still loaded with them (see above) despite my best efforts to eat as many as possible. I've forgone the usual wine making this year in favour of homemade cider.

But the crop that always tells me that Autumn is here is the one crop I can't eat. Conkers.

I don't have a horse chestnut tree in my garden but there are lots of them around where I live. The September pavements are littered with hundreds of those spiky green spheres and their gorgeous occupants. I say gorgeous as I think that 'conker brown' is one of the richest and most attractive colours in nature. I love it. The roads are smeared with the powdery white corpses of those that didn't roll all the way to the kerb and everywhere you look, small boys are lobbing sticks up into the trees to knock down a champion. Because that's the point of conkers isn't it? They're there to be played with.

All over the country this weekend, small, grubby humans will have been preparing their horse chestnuts for the field of battle. Certainly, when I was a kid, the annual ritual of conker matches was taken deadly seriously. We would try all sorts of tricks and wheezes to turn our conkers into weapons of mass destruction. We roasted them or baked them in ash, we soaked them in vinegar or cold sea water, we froze them and we dessicated them with hairdryers. Some lads did strange experiments on their conkers using chemicals pilfered from nearby farms. One lad used a hooked wire to hollow his conker out (I suspect he'd seen a programme about Egyptian mummies and how the brain was removed from the corpse through the nose by way of just such an implement). He then filled it with a tough expanding foam. Others coated theirs with polyurethane varnish, or boot polish or massaged oils into the conker skin to stop it splitting.

Still others attempted to cheat further by filling their hollowed conkers with washers and bolts and, in one memorable instance, that quick-setting plastic resin you used to get in hobby sets for making transparent paperweights and keyrings having first entombed something within like seashells, a flower or a wasp (yes, I did make a wasp keyring). I don't think that kids are allowed to handle resin like that now as the Health and Safety people have declared it too dangerous. It does get very hot as it sets and it gives off narcotic fumes. But no one I grew up with got burned by a homemade keyring. Or lost an eye to a coathanger or makeshift sword (a stick). Or got trapped in an abandoned fridge. Or became a psychopath because Mummy bought them a toy gun. We took risks and we learned from our mistakes. We knew the difference between playtime fantasy and reality. And most of us made it to adulthood without the need for helmets, gloves or any other kind of padded clothing or specialist equipment. Life is for living, after all.

All of which means that it is with some annoyance that I must lay to rest one of the UK's more persistent urban myths; namely that the Health and Safety Executive banned school children from playing conkers unless they wore safety goggles and padded gloves.

I'd love it to be true so that I could rant and rave ... but it's a load of old conkers. It never happened. It's true that a couple of head teachers either banned the 'sport' or insisted on safety goggles. But not the Health and Safety people. I may whinge and moan about them often (and have done here and especially here) but, on this occasion, they are quite, quite blameless, damn them. In fact, they are even helping to promote conkers as a safe and healthy sport.

Believe it or not, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) sponsors the annual World Conker Championships. They're held on the second Sunday in October in the pretty little Northamptonshire village of Ashton. Thousands turn up every year, as do competitors from around the globe, to swing their nuts on a foot long string. The championships have been going since 1965 and the winner gets to sit on the Conker Throne and wear the Conker Crown. The whole event is organised to raise money for charity. Which is how it should be, of course.

Playing conkers is one of those simple pleasures that everyone enjoys. Yes, you may occasionally get bashed on the finger. And yes, you may see your prize conker disintegrate before your eyes. But it's healthy, it's usually played outdoors in the fresh air and Autumn sunshine, and it encourages kids to play together. Computer games may be addictive but there are few thrills in the world greater than to come home proudly from school with your conker intact and declaring that you now own a Sixer.


Photos by me. Cartoon copyright (c) Health and Safety Executive.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

2p or not 2p?

Here's a shiny new two pence piece that I picked up at lunchtime today. The unusual design struck me straight away as I checked my change as we've never had a 'variant' 2p before. The coin was introduced in 1971 and, until now, every single issue has always carried Liz on one side and the Fleur de Lys ostrich feathers design on the reverse. So it's a bit of a first. And I like it a lot. I'm looking forward to seeing the others in the set. And yes, there is a set; we're just starting to see the first full re-issue of British coins in 40 years.

I've always maintained that we produce some of the most colourful, interesting and innovative currency designs in the world. The latest £20 note is a thing of beauty and this new set of coins is fantastic. In case you don't know, the Royal Mint held a nationwide competition to design the new coins and it was won by a 25 year old graduate called Matthew Dent. When arranged properly, his coins create the Royal Coat of Arms with the £1 coin displaying the full arms. Isn't that great?

I have a small ritual with coins. I throw all of my loose change - 1, 2 and 5 pence coins - into a pot in my study and then, once a year, I cash them in and find I usually have about fifty quid to spend. That's one good curry evening. I rooted around in my pot this evening and pulled out three 2p coins to demonstrate (a) how the coins go from being shiny copper-coloured to dull bronze-coloured in 30 years, and (b) that the queen's portrait gets redone every few years. Basically they just add more jowls and wattles.
1971, 1992, 2008

I wonder what King Charles III's portrait will look like? Assuming Queenie ever abdicates that is. Who knows? She may outlive him. Her mum got to be over 100 after all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dude, where's my bike?

Two unfortunate victims of the Bike Blagger of Olde London Towne spotted today as I roamed around in the unseasonably warm city.

I was particularly impressed that the first bicycle stripper even cut out the hub of the wheel, presumably for those nice expensive gears.

That shows initiative and dedication.

My Car Bra

Talk of bloggernyms and 'secret identities' (Is it a walrus? Is it a hippo? No! It's Colganman!) ties in nicely with the subject of egosearching.

Come on ... you've all done it. At some point in your life you've popped your name into a search engine to see what the internet spews back at you. That's an egosearch. I have an excuse these days as I'm looking to see which companies are stocking my book and I'm looking for reviews and mentions. But I have done it before many times and it always fascinates me to read about other Colgans. It's not a common name but neither is it particularly rare. I've found a US senator called Charles Colgan, a popular author called Jenny Colgan and a singer songwriter called Eoin Colgan. There's an airline called Colgan Air (mentioned in a previous post) and now, I discover, there is a Colgan Car Bra.

A what?

I kid you not. There is a such a thing as a bra for your car. At least, that's what the company have chosen to call this strappy, slinky, black cover thingy that goes over the front of the bonnet of your car/ lorry/ van and which, presumably, prevents stone chips to the paintwork and bug smears. It's a new product for me. I've certainly never seen one here in the UK. But why call it a bra? Surely it's more of a shirt or a vest? But if it is a bra, it's a saucy peephole bra. Cor, look at the headlights on that!

I can't get the idea of car boobies out of my head now.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wandering in the Hall of Mirrors

I left a comment on Punk in Writing's blog a few days ago regarding the band Curve and how much I liked them. If you haven't heard of them, they were a kind of industrial wall-of-sound affair who peaked during the early 1990s - in my opinion - with their first album Doppelganger (Read more about them here) and who set the scene for bands like Garbage to popularise the sound. Anyhow, Punky left a comment after mine that said, 'I wouldn't have thought they were your kind of music. I guess the whole concept of industry music just clashes with my image of you as a tweed-wearing, tea drinking, Cornish book lover.' All of which was very interesting. Is that the way that others see me?

Then, last night, I watched a programme called Stephen Fry: Guilty in which this truly tweed-wearing, tea drinking book lover discussed his guilty pleasures. To my utter surprise, they included ABBA, swearing, Delia Smith, the music of Wagner, watching darts championships on TV, Countdown, Georgette Heyer novels and Farley's Rusks mashed with ice cold milk. Darts? Countdown? Wagner? These things simply didn't fit with the image I have of the man - and I've met him in a social context several times. Surely he watches cricket and crown green bowls and listens to Elgar or Vaughan Williams and drinks Pimms with his Blue Stilton Ploughman's lunch? I mean to say ... Farley's Rusks?

This is what I really look like

It's curious how different we can all be from the image that others have of us. It's like wandering in a Hall of Mirrors where you catch occasional glimpses of yourself and they're strangely distorted or wildly at odds with reality. The truth is that I've never owned anything tweedy. I do have a lot of books, it's true. Thousands of them. And I do drink far too much tea. But my musical tastes are broad and eclectic taking in everything from J S Bach to the Sex Pistols, and including along the way such diverse acts as St Vincent, Bloc Party, Jim Moray, The Pogues, Bjork, Neil Sedaka, Bill Bruford, Karine Polwart, Burt Bacharach, Yes, Arcade Fire, Dave Brubeck, Echobelly, Arctic Monkeys and the aforementioned Curve. I read extensively (my current reads are usually shown at right on this blog) and the books can range from the deliciously sublime to the scandalously ridiculous. On the shelf behind me, Fran Beauman's The Pineapple rubs jackets with Harry Hill's Tim the Tiny Horse, while a biography of Dame Barbara Hepworth nuzzles into Tony Hawks' Around Ireland with a fridge.

My study is peppered with odd little art toys - monsters, comic icons, a set of Jamie Hewlett's Gorillaz vinyl figures and a whole village of James Jarvis's potato-headed In-Crowd. There are posters on the wall for Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics. There are easels boasting half-finished paintings and a drawing desk covered in mugs and glasses full of pens and pencils. My faithful Yamaha APX4A semi-acoustic guitar stands in a corner, begging for a good thrashing; I was in a succession of bands in my youth and I still play and write songs, while harbouring deep, never-to-be-fulfilled dreams of rock stardom. There's a cat on my desk as I type this rubbing against my arm for attention. I'm not particularly fond of cats. I see them as the welfare scroungers of the animal kingdom. But I do like dogs and there are two of them asleep in the lounge nearby.

I tend to watch TV shows that are informative or escapist - and not much in between - so I avidly watch series like Doctor Who, Batman (the original series), Dexter, Family Guy, Prison Break, 24, Mock the Week, Peep Show, The Mighty Boosh and Samurai Jack, while balancing that against QI, The Sculpture Diaries, and any documentary that feeds my interests in art and the sciences or is presented by the holy quadrinity of David Attenborough, Michael Palin, Robert Hughes or Adam Hart-Davis. I hate soap operas and I loathe reality TV shows. Consequently, my TV viewing is now down to about two hours per day maximum. Favourite films? Brazil, Animal House, This is Spinal Tap, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and anything featuring the Monty Python crew or Laurel and Hardy.

So that's me, in a nutshell. And it's now got me wondering ... what are you all like? A few of you I know as well as I know my own feet, but the rest of you are a complete mystery to me. You reveal only tiny glimpses of yourselves from behind your bloggernyms ... Willow, Me, Persephone, Punk in Writing, Princess G, Brit Gal Sarah ... curious that it seems to be the ladies rather than the chaps (although the mysterious Anonymous is still entirely androgynous - hey, that rhymes!). Even when the names are (presumably) real, Debby, Katie, Janet, Rob, Jon et al are curiously coy with surnames. I guess it avoids stalkers and assorted weirdos turning up at your houses to lick your windows. But it does make me realise that the images I've formed of you all are probably nothing like you in reality. You're all walking in that Hall of Mirrors with me.

Bloggernyms. I may have coined one there.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Things I like

Cick here to read the rest of this fantastic spoof of the old Ladybird Books. Thanks for the link Huw. It made me laugh.

And while we're looking at funny stuff, I took delivery of four signed prints today. They were created by Wilf Lunn who, for a certain age of Briton, may be remembered as the mad professor-type character who turned up on children's TV shows in the 1970s with his extraordinary W Heath Robinson type contraptions. Habitually dressed in straw boater and John Lennon specs, Wilf had a particular genius for creating hugely complex gadgetry usually employed to perform some uttery insignificant task.

Well, Wilf's still around (his website is here) and still as barking as ever. And I was so taken with his mad bicycles that I bought a set of his prints. Here's an example - the Worm Catcher cycle.

Apparently, the balls on strings pummel the ground making the worms believe that it's raining. They come up to the surface and you grab them. Bonkers.

I am not a number! (because there's none left)

Apparently, we're rapidly running out of IP addresses. These are the unique identifying numbers that all technology must have in order to use the internet. An IP - internet protocol - address is the web equivalent of a phone number. If you didn't have a phone number you wouldn't be able to communicate with other telephones. It's the same with IP addresses. If you want to know what the IP address of your computer is, click here.

Thomas Watson, head of IBM in the 1940s, famously once said that, 'I think there is a world market for maybe five computers'. He was monstrously wrong of course. But no one in their wildest imaginations could have predicted just how many computers, peripherals, mobile phones, PDAs, media players and other devices would need to access the internet. Consequently, back in 1977 when the internet was being set up, the architects of the system installed the current IP system (called IPv4) believing that it would provide enough unique addresses - 4.2 billion of them - to last forever.

At time of writing, fewer than 14% of these numbers are now left and experts predict they'll all be allocated by 2010.

'So what?' I hear you cry.

Well, to be honest, it probably won't affect you ... as long as internet service providers (ISPs) and hardware manufacturers pull their fingers out. There is an upgraded system - called IPv6 - that was developed over 10 years ago that uses 128 bit addresses (as opposed to the current 32 bit addresses) and will provide over 340 trillion, trillion, trillion new, unique IP addresses. If that's hard to visualise, the actual number of new addresses looks like this:


Actually, that probably didn't help did it? However, internet experts say that they've been talking to larger ISPs and most of them don't seem to have a clue that this is a crisis waiting to happen ... or even that IPv6 exists and is ready to go.

Vint Cerf, one of the internet's 'godfathers' says that, 'They are persisting in the ‘nobody is asking for this’ mentality. When they finally wake up, there is going to be a mad scramble for IPv6 and they won’t implement it properly.'

He also claims that consumers need to be aware of IPv6 and start checking that the products they buy are IPv6 compatible. Most of the larger companies like Microsoft and Apple are already IPv6 but many smaller companies are not. So there's something to think about when you buy that next 'i-phone killer' or PDA. If it ain't IPv6 ready, you could find that your spanky new shiny thing won't work in a couple of years' time.

Of course, if you do buy such things, you could be labelled as a geek. But there is a simple test you can do to check. Just read this:

1f y0u c4n r34d 7h15, y0u r34lly n33d 70 637 l41d.

I have no idea what it says. Honest.

Photo of Vint Cerf (c) The Guardian

Well ... can he?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Ambivalent Guide to the Galaxy

I've had a question buzzing around inside my head for a few days like an errant bee. I deliberately didn't write about it before now as I wanted to consider my answer carefully before committing it to the Blogsphere. The question I was mulling so hard over was ... 'How do I feel about the news that there will be a new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book next year not written by Douglas Adams?'

In case you missed the news, Douglas's widow Jane has given her blessing (in fact, she requested him) to Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer to write a new Hitchhiker novel. It will be published in October 2009 by Penguin and will be called And Another Thing … The Guardian newspaper covered the story thoroughly and you can read about the project more fully here.

It is true that the fifth Hitchhiker book was, as Adams himself admitted, 'bleak' and ended rather abruptly with the apparent deaths of the main characters. Adams also stated that he felt there was another book needed to round off the series. His unfinished novel The Salmon of Doubt may have been that book ... but it could equally have been a new Dirk Gently novel or even something entirely new. No one really knows. And we will never know because of Douglas's outrageously untimely death in 2001 at the age of 49. So, all the arguments are there for a sixth book, aren't they?

So how do I feel?

The truth is that I feel ... ambivalent. On the one hand, I can see that the characters are popular, there is demand for a new book and that Colfer will probably sell the whole Hitchhiker mythos to a new post-Harry Potter generation of younger readers. He's a very talented writer. But, on the other hand, it won't be a new book by Douglas Adams. And that's the bit I'm struggling with.

The reason Hitchhiker became the cult that it did was Douglas's writing. His books stood out from the rabble of badly-written sci-fi and gut-churningly bad comedy novels because of his extraordinary imagination and the sheer elegance of his words on paper. Yes, there are other writers out there who combine literacy with wit and intelligence but none of them do it in quite the same way that Douglas did. Terry Pratchett - although not my cup of tea - is nonetheless a staggering master of punnery. Philip Pullman writes with a clarity and imagination that defies easy categorisation. But neither of them could ever have written a line like 'The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't' or a paragraph like, 'Half-read books and magazines nestled amongst piles of half-used towels. Half pairs of socks reclined in half-drunk cups of coffee. What was once a half-eaten sandwich had now half-turned into something that Arthur entirely didn't want to know about. Bung a fork of lightning through this lot, he thought to himself, and you'd start the evolution of life all over again'. And nor, I suspect will Mr Colfer. Douglas Adams was unique. The joy for me in reading any new Douglas Adams book, magazine article or review was finding choice little soundbites and sentences that popped up every so often like your favourite flavour in an otherwise anonymous bag of Revels. It's the very same pleasure that Douglas himself got from reading his own great hero, P G Wodehouse.

I suspect that Eoin Colfer will do an excellent job of extending the franchise but I can't get excited about it, I'm afraid. You see, there is a precedent for this. When Douglas came up with the idea for Starship Titanic (from a small aside in one of his previous books), he became so 'Douglasy' - as Stephen Fry calls it - about developing the computer game that he didn't have the time nor the inclination to write the accompanying novel. Therefore, the writing duties were passed to his great friend, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Terry turned out a very funny novel ... but anyone who knows Douglas Adams will tell you that it falls tragically short of being a Hitchhiker book. Terry Jones is a very funny man but he doesn't write like Douglas Adams wrote. If he could, Douglas would not have had the impact he did upon people like me.
So, as I say, I don't take issue with the idea of further Hitchhiker books. And I certainly have no beef with the otherwise excellent Eoin Colfer. I'm delighted that he's going to be writing it as himself and not 'as Douglas Adams' in the way that Sebastian Faulks did recently with his 'written as Ian Fleming' novel Devil may care. I wish him well and hope the new book is a success. But I just can't imagine getting the same raw, naked sense of joy and expectation from his book that I used to get when opening a new Douglas Adams - whatever the subject matter - at Page One.

Time may prove me wrong. But I doubt it. It's the writer I miss, not the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent, Marvin, Zaphod and the marvellously bitter and twisted Agrajag became the characters they did because of Douglas's words ... and, tragically, no one can replace Douglas Adams.

The blame for this one falls squarely on Janet

As explained in the comments of the previous 'Joke of the Week' post. Dinosaurs were not very bright.

I have the perfect face for radio - I just need to work on the voice

My first press interview was published today in our local newspaper. Midweek is produced by the Bucks Free Press group and their website features the same story as appeared in print, plus a 10 minute audio interview. You can catch it for a few days by clicking here. It was a great opportunity to 'practice' being in front of a microphone before I have to do the real thing live on radio in a week or so. If nothing else it highlighted that (a) I speak too quickly and (b) start all of my answers with 'Yes' or 'Yeah'. That'll have to stop. Yes indeed. Bugger, I did it again.

Meanwhile, here's a funny that appealed to my sense of humour. It was sent to me by my friend Jooboz, who is keeping her pecker up despite the fact that she works for the ill-fated Lehman Brothers bank. It's good to see she can still enjoy a laugh despite everything. Good for her.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Joke of the Week

Another from my 'I want to be Gary Larson' period circa 1990.

Note the clever way that I completely ignored the rules of perspective.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The blame for this one falls squarely on Murphy

Here's a wonderful, cheeky little illustration by my great mate James 'Spud' Murphy (whose blog you can visit here). I was chatting to him on the phone this morning and we ended up discussing the whole 'Spud' as a nickname business. I've never called him Spud but many people do because he's Irish. Now, he's not offended by it; he's even embraced it by calling his art studio Spudstudios. But there are gangs of politically correct evangelists out there roaming the country in packs who claim that the nickname is a form of racism. Or even that it's offensive as it trawls up tragedies like the potato famine. And it was this that got us talking. Is it really so offensive?

The humble potato is useful, versatile, gives comfort and sustenance and really hasn't got a bad thing going for it. So it's hardly an insult to call someone 'Spud' is it? It's not like you're saying 'You are a vegetable'. If that's the intention, you'd make a lot more impact by simply saying, 'You are a vegetable'. Oh, and by adding a modifier like 'You tosspot' afterwards.

And, as Murphy pointed out to me this morning, the Irish are hardly helping themselves are they? The Inuit may have over a hundred words for 'snow' but the Irish seem to have an entire lexicon for the pomme de terre. They're potato obsessed! Here are some we found this morning - I'm sure there are many more:

Potato - Práta or Fata
Very big potato - cnaiste fadhbairne
Very small potato - póirín
Very tiny potato - paidrín
Very wet potato - sliomach
Frostbitten potato - práta seaca
Frost potato set - scoilteán
Old withered potato - langán
Potatoes cooked in embers - luathóg
Mashed potatoes - brúitín
Chips/Fries - sceallóga (prátaí)
New potatoes - prátaí nua or prátaí úra
Floury potato - práta plúrach
Boiled potatoes - prátaí bruite
Roast potatoes - prátaí rósta
Potato wedges - dingeacha bain or práta ding
Potato scoop - scúp leathchruinn

And my personal favourite:

A small useless potato - screamhachóir

Please don't take me to task over this all you scholars from the Gaeltacht - I don't speak the language and much of this post was drawn from a discussion forum at http://www.irishgaelictranslator.com/. And, if it helps, you might notice that I have an Irish surname myself.

I've just had a splendid roast dinner with some truly excellent spuds. I won't hear a bad word said against them.

The blame for this one falls squarely on Rob

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ancient Modern Art

A stroll around the British Museum revealed a few surprises today. The main attractions are the wonderful Greek statues and Egyptian mummies, Roman bas-reliefs and Saxon weapons. Then there's the Easter Island statue, the old British Library Reading Room and the unnervingly well-preserved 'Pete Marsh' - the sacrificed man found in ... er ... a peat marsh. That's the sort of thing that visitors go there to Ooh and Aah at.

But I was struck by just how many ancient artworks have a strangely contemporary feel to them. I've posted a few photos to show what I mean. The first set of figurines is over 3000 years old. The wall plaque is native American and is over 100 years old. The curious polar bear type outfit is also about a century old but looks like it's walked off the set of The Mighty Boosh. The wooden statue dates from around 1000 years ago. However, the crystal skull is surprisingly new. For a long time, it was believed to be Aztec but modern dating techniques now show that this one, at least, was made in the late 19th century.

Wouldn't it be just hilarious if someone used the same tests on the Venus de Milo and found that it was made of Das sometime in the 1950s?

This is a test post created at 14.52 on 20th Sept 2008 to see if Blogger is fixed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My first review (that I know of)

The Bookbag has run a review of Joined-Up Thinking. You can read it here.

I'm still not sure if they like it or not ... but it is an entertaining write up and they did give me four stars out of five.

So, we're off to a decent start.

Oh oh ...

I'll warn you all now ... Blogger is playing me up. I'm having problems editing posts and when I do manage to get something posted, Blogger is corrupting and adding the wrong dates and times. The Mr Blue Sky post was posted today, Friday 19th, at around 2200 hours GMT.

If it becomes any more obstreperous I may have to migrate to a new blog. Which will, it must be said, break my heart after 500 posts. But be warned!


Mr Blue Sky

Mr Blue Sky is such an infrequent visitor to these shores that you have to make the best of him when he calls. So, as it was such a cracking day today, I took the time between meetings and appointments to snap a few pictures of structures that looked particularly great against that deep blue. The red cranes were on a building site next to the little chapel in Great Portland Street as were the modernist white and green office buildings. The final two pictures are of London's iconic British Telecom Tower. I managed to get right underneath it, near the base - I suspect that many of you will not have seen it from this viewpoint before.

When I was 12, I visited the Post Office Tower* on a school trip for Cornwall and we had lunch in the rotating restaurant at the top. Sadly, just weeks later, it was bombed by Irish terrorists and the restaurant stopped revolving. No tourists have been allowed inside since, which is a shame. Many people still call it the Post Office Tower even though the Royal Mail hasn't been involved in the telecommunications business since the days when we still had dials on our phones and I was still in short trousers.

I did my first proper press interview today, which was a bit scary but quite exciting. And my good friend Liz landed her dream job as a professional photographer.

So, all in all, a very nice day!

*What the BT Tower used to be called.

The name of the pub or the signature dish?

Debby will appreciate this with her wilderness diet ...

And how is food served 'all day' if only between 12pm and 9pm?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tooth Fairy Economics

I chipped a tooth today. Thankfully, it's not a big chip and it's not one of my more prominent front-facing teeth. But the rough tooth is scratching on the side of my tongue so I'll need to get it fixed tomorrow or I'll end up with an ulcer. Life is pretty racy here in Buckinghamshire.

Teeth have power you know. Oh yes. Even today, sharks' teeth and bears' teeth are still worn on leather thongs as a kind of male power totem. And, apparently, it’s very bad luck to count a person's teeth as each tooth counted will take a year off the person’s life. This is partly the reason why people traditionally cover their mouths when they laugh, smile, or yawn.

Folk belief has it that witches can use discarded parts of the body to cast spells upon the owner. Therefore, disposal of shed teeth was a serious business. Depending on local custom, this could mean throwing the tooth onto a roof, or burning it, or salting it, or burying it, or even swallowing it. Another method was to feed it to an animal - usually a mouse or rat. When it was a child's tooth, this ensured that the child would grow long, strong, sharp teeth.

The idea that a fairy could actually aid you in tooth disposal is fairly recent. It may have come from a French 18th century fairy tale, La Bonne Petite Souris, in which a fairy changes into a mouse to defeat an evil king – which it does by hiding under a pillow and knocking his teeth out. This is supported by the fact that in Spanish speaking countries, the tooth fairy takes the form of Ratoncito Pérez, a little mouse, and in Italy the fairy, or Fatina, is sometimes substituted for a small mouse called Topino. In Germany, she is called Die Pflugenweisermitodontogewesenheit. I have no idea what that means. Or indeed how to begin to pronounce it.

But the Tooth Fairy, as we now know her, materialised in the early 20th century, later reinforced by appearances in popular culture such as Esther Watkins Arnold’s 1927 play The Tooth Fairy, and Lee Rogow's 1949 story of the same name. By the 1950s, the character was as established as the Easter Bunny and was regularly appearing in books, TV shows, cartoons, jokes, etc. People generally welcomed the Tooth Fairy as she promoted good dental hygiene in children and she didn’t charge as much as the dentist.

Believe it or not, serious studies have been done of ‘Tooth Fairy Economics’. Writing in The New York Times, Professor Rosemary Wells - generally acknowledged as the world's leading tooth fairy authority - tracked the exchange rate for teeth from 1900 to 1980 against the consumer price index in the USA, and found that the tooth fairy had kept up with inflation.

Mind you, this is the same lady who, until her death, maintained a Tooth Fairy Museum*.

No, really.

*The New York Times, June 23rd 1981.

Tooth Fairy costume by Buycostumes

Brave Daisy

My wittering on about morphic resonance and memetics yesterday made me remember this cartoon I did back in the early 1990s. I was going through a kind of Gary Larson Far Side phase at the time. Which probably explains this cartoon too ...

Talking of Morphic Resonance ...

How queer. Janet posted this photo on her blog of a shop window advert for HMV's new social networking site getcloser. The advert asks the casual passer-by to find a connection between The Doctor and the Bride of Frankenstein.
Finding connections between apparently unrelated facts ... it's a curious parallel with the format of my own book isn't it? Does this mean that Joined-Up Thinking was simply 'of its time'?
So what is the connection between Doctor Who and the Bride of Frankenstein?

Oh and happy Talk like a Pirate Day! Gaaaaarrrrnn!

Can you see who it is yet?

Months and months ago I wrote a post celebrating the uniquely awful waxworks of Louis Tussaud. I implore you to go and look at that post (click here) and marvel at the utter lack of likeness in the featured 'celebrities'. It has me in stitches every time I look.

Well, joy of joys ... today, quite by accident, I stumbled upon a piece from the Daily Telegraph newspaper from January which stated that many of the exhibits at the Great Yarmouth Tussaud's were up for sale. Even better was the set of photos that accompanied the feature (see above - click for a larger image). Can you can guess who these celebrities are? The answers are at the foot of this post and I apologise to my non-Brit visitors that you may not know who some of these people are. Actually, I suspect that many Brits won't have a clue who they are either. They're that bad.
The best write-up about Louis Tussaud's House of Wax I've read comes from the Nothing to see here website. Here's a shameless lift:

'Barely hanging on to the most easterly tip of England, Great Yarmouth is the seaside town that time forgot. Within minutes of our arrival we discover this temporal isolation permeates the town's whole being. At the core of Great Yarmouth’s time warp sits Louis Tussauds House of Wax. Its terrible likenesses have been widely mocked via viral emails and national radio.

Due to a lack of investment or more likely a lack of will, Louis Tussauds is a time capsule of the 1970s and early 80s. Jim Davidson stands proudly at the front of a display of television personalities featuring amongst others Dirty Den and Angie, Sam Fox and the cast of Dynasty. There's a whole gallery of military figures with Churchill and Hitler headlining. Modern day is represented by a lost looking Victoria and David Beckham, but they are probably just the old Morecombe and Wise figures melted down and given new hairstyles.

Those celebrities that are still famous are presented in their 80s outfits. Margaret Thatcher sits at the centre of the world leaders display, Kylie and Jason Donovan are frozen as fresh faced Neighbours newlyweds, and Gary Lineker is still just a boring footballer.

I suspect this lack of renewal is no accident. If England hadn't become so enchanted by Sudoku, circular teabags and the Greek Islands then Great Yarmouth would still be the king of seaside resorts and the Radio One road show would be permanently anchored on the beachfront.'


Head photos are copyright Albanpix and the Daily Telegraph. The Beatles and Laurel and Hardy found with Google image search. Copyright holders unknown.

Those photos - Of course they are ... Starsky and Hutch, Adam Ant and Larry Grayson, Richard Burton (!) and Diana Dors, Kevin Keegan and George Best, John Travolta and Bob Hope, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, and my absolute favourites ... Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey! No, really. It's them!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spokey Dokeys and the viral meme

As I walked home today I heard a sound behind me like a low-powered moped approaching. Then another joined it. And another. I turned around to see three young lads on mountain bikes pedalling furiously towards me. And the noise? It was caused by a trio of empty 2 litre soft drinks bottles. Each of the lads had squashed a bottle almost flat and then mounted it behind and below the saddle with the neck of the plastic bottle resting on the rear tyre. The faster they pedalled, the greater the friction between tyre and bottle and - due to the semi-flattened bottle acting as a sound chamber - the greater the noise. I was very impressed with their inventiveness as I watched them race past and my mind flashed back to my own wondrous purple chopper (careful now ...)
Yes, the Raleigh Chopper was the cool bike to have if you were a barely pubescent teenager in 1974 and I rode mine around Penzance like I was the King of Cornwall. But it wasn't enough to have a gleaming chrome dream machine. Oh no. It needed customisation. And in those days that meant spokey dokeys (those weird bead things that clipped to your wheel spokes and made a strange chattering, tinkling sound as you rode along - of course, us boys had to pick all of the pink ones out and throw them away), rubber tassels that plugged into the grips of your handlebars, and stickers taken from magazines. To top it all, it was de rigeuer to use a couple of old clothes pegs to hold a pair of playing cards to the bicycle frame in such a way that they caught the spokes as the wheels turned, creating a sound almost but not completely unlike that of a motorbike. This new trick with the plastic bottles is obviously the 2008 equivalent - the evolutionary offspring of the spokey dokey or card and peg assembly. But more surprises were in store ... A couple of hours later I was elsewhere in town and saw a bunch of lads who'd done exactly the same thing. They too had the scrunched-up-bottle-engine-noise-generators on their bikes and I wondered ... was I seeing a meme in action here?

Memes turn up a lot on blogs, or, at least, things that people call memes. A meme is actually something quite specific. A meme is an idea or behaviour that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the 'cultural sociosphere' in a manner similar to the contagious behaviour of a virus. The term was first coined by Professor Richard Dawkins as a behavioural analogy to the biological gene - the mechanism by which biological data is transmitted from individual to individual. One recent memetic example was noticed by the comedian and writer Sean Lock - the modern scarf knot. As he points out, people have been wearing scarves for centuries but then, seemingly overnight, everyone began wearing their scarves in a very particular way. Apparently, the scarf knot meme has spread throughout the entirety of British culture in a very short time. Another example is the Australian Question Intonation (AQI) - that rising note at the end of a spoken sentence that makes it sound like a question, even when it isn't. It didn't really exist in the UK until the arrival on our shores of Oz soap operas like Neighbours and Home and Away. Within a generation, it's become a common mode of speech for young British adults. And how quickly did we all learn the ludicrous dance steps to the Macarena and Whigfield's Saturday Night just a few short years ago?

The Queen of Meme is a lady called Dr Susan Blackmore and she has written much about the subject. Her most famous work is the excellent The Meme Machine - I commend it to you all. It had the same effect on me as reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. But beyond Blackmore's work there is a very strange, fringe-science world of memes ... the world of Morphic Resonance.

There are many mechanisms by which a meme is transmitted: word of mouth, media exposure, copying etc. but some memes seem to spread across vast distances and populations without any logical mechanism. One famous example often quoted comes from the 1960s when Blue Tits started to peck their way through the foil lids of milk bottles left on doorsteps. Within a matter of a week or so, Blue Tits were observed doing this all over the UK. How did they all suddenly, and almost simultaneously, 'learn' how to do this? And there are stories of sheep rolling over cattle grids in Australia a whole continent away from where the behaviour first started. There are even stories of cows in the USA who won't walk over a painted cattle grid even though they've never seen or experienced a real cattle grid.

In 1981, Dr Rupert Sheldrake put forward his controversial theory of Morphic Resonance. In this, he claimed that all living things are bound together by a 'morphic field' which allows them to share and benefit from the experiences of others. I know … it all sounds a bit like The Force. Or, at worst, some kind of New Age gobbledegook. But Sheldrake claims to have found evidence of its existence. He states that there are many examples – both in the human and animal worlds – of times when an entire species finds it easier to do something once one individual or group somewhere has mastered it; even though there is no physical communication between them.

During the 1920s, a Harvard University researcher called William McDougall was studying rats and their ability to find their way through mazes. What he found was that an individual rat could make up to 165 attempts to solve the maze before learning to complete it perfectly every time. Curiously, however, the offspring of those same rats would master the maze more quickly. And after a few generations, the rats could find their way through, on average, in fewer than 20 attempts. Sheldrake claimed that this phenomenon was due to ‘each generation of rats adding their pattern of learning into the ‘morphogenetic rat field’’ and, therefore, with each successive generation, the rats would ‘know’ which path to follow. Sheldrake also cites something called the Hundredth Monkey Effect, which suggests that once a critical number is reached, learned behaviour spreads instantaneously from one group of animals to all related animals in the region or perhaps throughout the world. The story first achieved public notice when Supernature author Lyle Watson told the story in his book Lifetide of a group of Japanese macaques. Apparently, one small group of monkeys began washing their food before eating and, soon, this behaviour spread throughout the entire troop. However, according to Watson ‘ … the researchers noted that once a critical number of monkeys was reached, this behaviour instantly spread across the water to macaques on nearby islands.’*

And Sheldrake claims that this happens in the human world too. For 250 years, campanologists had wondered whether it was possible to ring all permutations of seven bells following a certain bell-ringing pattern called Common bob Stedman triples. Then, on the 22nd January 1995, a team in London finally succeeded. Within days it emerged that two other groups, both working independently, had also solved the centuries-old mystery. Sheldrake says that such events are beyond mere coincidence. And he goes further, claiming that all of the physical laws of the universe might operate along the same lines.

It does seem odd that our ability to discover new and wonderful things has accelerated so rapidly. The first true humans – Homo Sapiens – appeared sometime between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. It took until 1903 for two of those humans to invent powered flight. But a mere 66 years after the Wright Brothers’ first faltering steps in aeronautics (their flight was a shorter distance than the wingspan of a Boeing 747), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon. Morphic resonance? Or the fact that communications have become more and more widespread and accurate, and that’s how people are learning from each other?

Since Caxton made mass printing possible, scientists and thinkers have been able to read what’s gone before and build upon the work of others. But Sheldrake maintains that some ideas simply ‘have their time’ and cites several examples that, like the bellringers, all saw the development of something new almost simultaneously but in different parts of the world.
So maybe the idea of strapping a squashed drinks bottle to your bicycle to make it sound like a moped is simply 'having its time' and we can expect to see this all over the planet in the next few weeks?

It's a fascinating old world isn't it?

* In recent years, some of the original research has been discredited by Elaine Myers. See www.context.org/ICLIB/IC09/Myers.htm for more information.
Blue Tit photo by Colin Sargent