Tuesday, September 30, 2008
What are they teaching their students?
Monday, September 29, 2008
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?
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.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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 likeIt'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
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.
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
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
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.
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
Sunday, September 21, 2008
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.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
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
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!
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.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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*.
*The New York Times, June 23rd 1981.
Tooth Fairy costume by Buycostumes
Oh and happy Talk like a Pirate Day! Gaaaaarrrrnn!
'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.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
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.
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?