Monday, October 26, 2009

Create some evidence, dammit

I took the dogs out for their daily romp around the fields this morning. And why not? The sun was shining, the weather unseasonably warm - I didn't even need a coat - and there were hedgerow goodies to be gathered in for wine-making etc. I hadn't been more than 10 minutes from the house before realising that I'd spotted more than 20 species of birds including crows, rooks, blackbirds, starlings, a thrush, two or three different types of seagull, sparrows, wood pigeons, collared doves, a cock pheasant and, most spectacularly, a kestrel, several red kites and a truly huge buzzard. And I found myself thinking, 'How can any reasonably free-thinking intelligent person look at all of this variety and still believe in the idea of a single creation event?'

I've blogged about this before but, every so often, I get the urge to shout out loud about Creationism and why I find the idea so ridiculous, so inherently flawed and so utterly lacking in any palpable truth. I simply cannot understand how anyone can believe it.

Firstly, I must point out that this is not a religious argument. As far as I am concerned, everyone has the right to believe what they want. If people choose to believe that there is a god or gods, or that we didn't land on the Moon or even that aliens are visiting us regularlly to play with our bumholes, that's fine by me. We must all be allowed the freedom to believe whatever we want and it is fundamentally wrong to take that right away from us. It's one of the reasons I wasn't opposed to Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC's Question Time this week. Although I find his views abhorrent, tasteless, outdated and just plain wrong, he has a right to believe his own diatribe, a right to free speech and the right to look like a twat on national TV. I anticipated that the BBC was giving him the rope with which to hang himself and, sure enough, he looked utterly ridiculous and has probably done a lot more harm to the British National Party than good. But believing that something exists is not the same as something existing. And in order to accept that something exists, you need some degree of proof. The alien abductionists, Bigfooters and Moon landing conspiracists do at least try to provide some kind of evidence to support their beliefs, dubious though much of that proof sometimes turns out to be. But Creationism? There is such overwhelming evidence against the concept that it is completely discredited surely? Isn't it?

I could talk about the massive fossil record (which, large as it is, probably accounts for considerably less than 1% of the species that have ever existed). I could talk about the discovery of genes and DNA. I could point out that the pheasant and the wood pigeons I saw this morning look nothing like their ancestors who were introduced to Britain millennia ago from Africa and Europe. They didn't exist at the supposed Creation, yet they're here. How? By what mechanism if not evolution? And I could point out that evolution, as a theory, has been supported time after time after time by reasoned, unbiaised scientific experimentation. Whether it's a process created by a god or has simply evolved itself like a solar system or oceans or the weather, there can be no denying the fact that it exists. There are fossils that clearly show the evolution from Hyracotherium to horse, from theropod dinosaur to bird, from Ambulocetus to whale. If a single creation event caused every species that has ever existed to appear on this planet simultaneously, instantly and fully-formed, why do we have transition fossils that show one species moving towards becoming another? Why are the fossilised wasps and spiders trapped in amber more primitive than the ones we run away from now? Why create millions of species ... and then allow the vast majority of them to become extinct? It simply makes no sense whatsoever.

At this juncture, it's worth pointing out that there is a difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design. The ID people (mostly) accept that change occurs in species, that there is a fossil record and that the process is still ongoing. Many ID proponents believe that this shows the hand of God at work. However, many others are happy to divorce themselves from religion. Intelligent Design champions include a number of very clever people who produce well-researched books; people like Dr Michael J Behe (Darwin's Black Box, Edge of Creation) and Dr Antony Latham (The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed) who do, at least, attempt to prove that the story of life on Earth could not have happened without some kind of guiding 'hand'. I've read many of these books and enjoyed them. And by balancing their arguments against those made by Darwinists I have made informed choices about what I choose to believe.

But Creationism is a very different thing. It states, categorically, that all life on this planet was created by God during a single enormous creation event. It proposes that bacteria and beetles and kangaroos and oak trees and vultures and crocodiles and frogs and dinosaurs and mammoths and every other of the billions of species that have ever existed all appeared together in that instant. It insists that the fossil record is wrong, faked or misinterpreted. And yet, they provide no evidence for these outlandish statements other than pointing us towards what's written in holy scripture. In fact, the majority of their literature does little more than attack accepted theory. For instance on the website of the Creation Evidence Museum (Yes, there is such a thing. The site is here), it boasts ten reasons why Creationism is right. None of them actually provide any evidence of this. For example, number nine is: 'A living cell is so awesomely complex that its interdependent components stagger the imagination and defy evolutionary explanations. A minimal cell contains over 60,000 proteins of 100 different configurations. The chance of this assemblage occurring by chance is 1 in 104,478,296.' Assuming this is accurate, how is that proof of the Creation? Wishy-washy, unsupported comments like 'stagger the imagination' and 'defy evolutionary explanations' are unscientific and, the case of the latter, untrue. And, anyway, one in 104 million is only about eight times more unlikely than winning the lottery. With four billion years and an infinite number of organisms having lived, bred and mutated in that time, the chances don't seem quite so remote do they?

Another argument is: 'How could something as complex as our eyes have arisen by chance?' Again, the simple answer is time and inheritance. Our eyes are very sophisticated organs to be sure. They are perfectly suited to the environment our ancestors evolved in. But that's the point isn't it? They evolved to suit our environment. Consequently, they're not very good underwater. And we can't see ultraviolet, infrared, x-rays or heat like some animals can. And we are pretty rubbish in the dark while some supposedly less advanced creatures than us can see as clear as day. Why weren't we equipped with those abilities? And why would any Creator bother creating much more primitive eyes like those found in worms and crustaceans? Or the sophisticated but very different eyes found in molluscs and insects? If the template for really good eyes existed at the time of the Creation, why not equip every animal with them? And maybe the plants and fungi too?

Meanwhile the Museum provides 'evidence' of human footprints alongside dinosaur prints, claiming that this is proof that we all arrived together. The Alvis Delk fossil, for example, was 'transported to a professional laboratory where 800 X-rays were performed in a CT Scan procedure. Laboratory technicians verified compression and distribution features clearly seen in both prints, human and dinosaur. This removes any possibility that the prints were carved or altered.' A professional laboratory eh? Not the Smithsonian or the Natural History Museum I suppose. And this from the same museum that claims it has footprints of a seven feet tall human from the Cretaceous Era (so why did we shrink if that was God's optimal design?) and that mammoths frozen in ice are absolute proof of The Flood (Don't get me started on The Flood. See my previous blog here).

The point I'm coming to is that if Creationism was a harmless belief like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I wouldn't take any issue with it. Nor would I take umbrage if it made some kind of effort to provide evidence of its own, rather than just attacking everyone else's. It's the fact that it's gathering pace as a viable alternative to Darwinism that concerns me. It's the fact that it's hi-jacked the ID argument and uses it to further its own agenda, even though much of the best ID literature doesn't actually mention God. It's the fact that there is such a thing as a Creation Evidence Museum that peddles its dodgy 'proof' to children and their religious parents as substantive evidence. It's the fact that I have recently seen Creationist books in the science section at a branch of Waterstones despite there being little or no science in them, just anti-evolutionary dogma. It's the fact that the (currently) most powerful nation on Earth is torn between religious belief and hard science. Even if schools are not yet teaching Creationism instead of evolution, there is sufficient doubt among parents to insist that both options be presented as equal theories.

In March of 2001 the Gallup News Service reported the results of a survey that found 45% of Americans agreed with the statement 'God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,' while 37% preferred a blended belief that 'Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,' and just 12% accepted the standard scientific theory that 'Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.' In a forced choice between Creationism and the theory of evolution, 57% chose Creationism against only 33% for evolution (10% said they were “unsure”). Only 33% of Americans think that the theory of evolution is 'well supported by evidence,' while slightly more (39%) believe that it is not well supported and that it is 'just one of many theories.' One reason for these disturbing results can be seen in the additional finding that only 34% of Americans consider themselves to be 'very informed' about evolution. Clearly the 66% who do not consider themselves very informed had no problem in saying that they didn't believe in it. Worrying? Hell yes. But it gets worse.

During the recent US elections, a USA Today and Gallup poll asked registered voters the question 'If a presidential candidate stated that he or she DID NOT believe in the theory of evolution, would that make you: much more likely to vote for that candidate, a little more likely, not make a difference either way, would it make you a little less likely, (or) much less likely to vote for that candidate?' The results showed that 53% said it would make no difference to them and 3% had no opinion. 15% said it would make them more likely or very likely to vote for the candidate. But, most worryingly, a whole 14% said less likely and 15% said much less likely. 29% is a pretty big swing away from a candidate. It could win or lose an election. Whichj means that the candidate who gets the most powerful job in the world could win or lose depending on whether they believe in evolution or not. It's genuinely scary to think that if the Creationist leader got in ... the USA would have a president who cannot understand or accept basic science.

I'm all for a rational discussion of Intelligent Design versus Darwinism. I'm happy to read arguments from all sides, even Creationists. I am not a zealot. I have, and no doubt will again, been persuaded to change my views on certain topics when the arguments have been strong enough. So here's my challenge to Creationists ... supply me with something I can test, or show me some evidence that supports your beliefs. If you can't do either, then stop poisoning the minds of the next generation of doctors, scientists, writers and artists. Give them the same right we should all enjoy - to decide for themselves what they choose to believe based upon properly and rigorously tested evidence.

And my final question ... if 57% of Americans don't believe in evolution, why is Heroes such a popular show? After all, at its heart is the idea that humans are developing extraordinary powers naturally - by evolution. Discuss.

Another week, another WIP

Yes, it's lazy blogging but I've been very busy this past week and din't get time for much other than work. Proper blog coming shortly. Meanwhile, here's another WIP using the same techniques as you used on the Apache pic last post.

This is Svarog, a Balkan god, and here's his story: The world was made by a god called Rod (true) who then sat back and relaxed. He popped out a son called Svarog and left him in charge. To help him do his job better, Rod gave him four heads so he could see everything at once. Svarog then realised that he had absolutely no idea where Dad had put the Earth. ‘Somewhere under the water’ being somewhat vague, he asked a small grey duck to dive to the bottom of the ocean to look for it. The duck returned a year later saying that it could no longer hold its breath. So Svarog asked Rod to intervene. The elder god blew a mighty wind that pushed the duck deeper below the waves. Two years later, the duck returned, once again moaning about the lack of oxygen. So this time, Rod used the thunder and lightning to make a storm that pushed the duck deeper than ever.

After three years the duck returned with a branch in its mouth. Svarog rubbed the branch between his palms and called out, ‘Make warmth, Sun! Light up, Moon! Blow, Wind! We must save Mother Earth, our nurturer!’ All the elements came together in a mighty blast and the branch was blown from Svarog’s grasp. As it plopped into the ocean, Moist Mother Earth appeared at the surface, and the Moon quickly cooled her down. As his last act of creation, Svarog created a great and mighty snake, Yusha, whose job it would be to hold Moist Mother Earth above the water like a lifebelt. When the snake shifts position, the earth trembles and quakes.

So now you know! Click on the final pic for a larger version.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

WIP* me!

People often ask me how I create a piece of artwork from scratch so here's a quick guide to a picture I recently created. It all starts with a series of sketches that culminate in a final rough:As this was going to be a computer-based art piece, I scanned the sketch into the computer and then greyed out the rough. I then overlaid blocks of flesh colour and began work on the finer details of each figure.
The technique I like to use involves isolating areas and block filling with colour before playing with darkness and tone to create shadows and highlights. Although I have access to Adobe Photoshop, I still prefer to do this kind of work on an older competitor called Paint Shop Pro.

The image of the Earth was grabbed from Google and dropped into place. The illustration is to accompany a native American creation myth. The Apache believed that the early Earth was the size of a bean so the gods kicked it around like a football until it started to grow. Then the Creator – The-One-Who-Lives-Above - told the wind to get inside the ball and inflate it. Finally, Tarantula the Trickster attached a series of cords to the sphere and with a mighty tug, stretched the Earth to its current size. I just latched onto the football idea and created a team of 11 players.
Individual characters are first blocked in with black on the heavier shadow areas. Then shade and highlights are added. I try to give the overall picture a certain 'tone' so the choice of colours for the various costumes and masks is important.
Here's the finished item. Click on it to see a larger version. A picture of this complexity usually takes me a couple of working days to complete. I hope you like it.

*WIP - Work in progress.

Return of the war on dongles

'Time', as Douglas Adams once wrote, 'to declare war, I think, on little dongly things.'

Back in 1998 (or thereabouts) Douglas wrote an article for MacWorld magazine about his frustration with power supply leads and 'dongles' - plug and play computer peripherals - that varied from country to country. Why, he asked, couldn't there be a common standard? As he pointed out:

'In fact there already is a kind of rough standard, but it's rather an odd one. Not many people actually smoke in their cars these days, and the aperture in the dashboard which used to hold the cigar lighter is now more likely to be powering a mobile phone, CD player, fax machine or, according to a recent and highly improbable TV commercial, an instant coffee making gizmo. Because the socket originally had a different purpose it's the wrong size and in the wrong place for what we now want to do with it, so perhaps it's time to start adapting it for its new job. The important thing this piece of serendipitous pre-adaptation has given us is a possible DC power standard. An arbitrary one, to be sure, but perhaps we should probably just be grateful that it was designed by a car mechanic in an afternoon and not a computer industry standards committee in a lifetime. Keep the voltage level, design a new, small, plug and you have a new standard.'

Ah Mr Adams, the voice of commonsense in technology. Wouldn't he have loved the brilliantly cool stuff we have now? The i-pods, graphics tablets, flashdrives and digital cameras ... he'd have worshipped at their gadgety altars. But, I suspect, he'd still be raging about the dongles.

A decade on and there's still no 'one-size-fits-all' power connector is there? Consequently, if you're a regular international traveller, you'll need to take all manner of adapters with you. And, of course, every power lead has a different connector too so I can't just power up my phone or laptop using someone else's lead either.

And then there are USB leads. Lots of bloody USB leads. When the 'universal serial bus' arrived, I cheered. No more 5, 7, 9 and 10 din plugs, no more firewires, SCARTs, male or female serial cables or even, maybe, power cables.

USB = Universal = One-size-fits-all. Joy!

But no. Oh no no no. Rather than being universal, the USB lead is merely versal. One end may be a common size but the other end is different for almost any peripheral you want to plug it into. The USB lead for my i-pod is different from the ones for my camera, my webcam, my satnav, my printer, my videocam and my phone. That's seven USB leads just for the gizmos I can think of off the top of my head. Which means that whenever I travel, I need to fill one corner of my suitcase with a small plastic-coated nest of power adapters and USB leads, all unique and un-universal. And if I lose a lead, I have to endure the trauma of trying to find a new one that fits. I had to buy a new USB lead for my camera the other day (which prompted this post) and was so bewildered by the choice that I had to take an impression of the camera socket, imprinted in Blu-Tack, with me to ensure I got the right size.

This is all a plot, right? This is a coordinated and orchestrated move by the tech companies to make us buy lots of leads. Just as printer and photocopier companies make their money from toner and ink, I reckon Gates and Jobs and the IT Crowd make their money from cables. I'm sure of it.

The world of technology may have made some wonderfully powerful leaps since Douglas Adams died, but the war against dongles goes on. Douglas called non-standardisation 'sheer blinding idiocy'. But if I were a cable manufacturer I'd be laughing all the way to my yacht.

We're the idiots for putting up with it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Teal appeal

A quick post to promote the work of Adrian Teal; not just because he's an extraordinarily talented caricaturist but because he's a thoroughly nice bloke. We both have contributions in this year's QI Annual.

I realise that these are mostly British TV celebs but, hopefully, my overseas readers will recognise Russell Crowe and John Cleese. If you want to see more of Adrian's work, you can find him here and here. Oh, and here. And if you Tweet, he's @adeteal on Twitter.

The Good, the Bad and the Interesting

If I'm to believe the people I chat with on Twitter, I'm not wired up the same way as other people are. Now, by that I don't mean that I have unnatural urges to maim ducks or stalk choristers or even join a smiley death cult; what I mean is that my twitterchums find it odd that I sometimes find myself pondering unbidden questions that, frankly, just don't matter to anyone but me.

For instance, earlier this week, I found myself publicly opining about Fruit Corner-style yoghurts. Are you familiar with them? The pots have two compartments - one filled with a fruit compote of sorts (or chocolate coated flakes, balls etc.) and a second larger compartment of plain yoghurt. The idea is that you spoon or tip the complimentary flavouring into the yoghurt and stir it through.

I was eating one of these tasty snacks when it suddenly struck me ... why was I doing the manufacturers' work for them? If the point of a Fruit Corner is to mix the two together, then why not mix them at the factory? Why am I being asked to do it? And am I paying extra for the privilege? Surely there must be a cost implication in producing two separate components rather than one single flavoured yoghurt? So I posted this thought on Twitter and was mildly surprised to read that a couple of other people had had the same thought ... but then hugely surprised by the number of replies saying things like 'How do you think of these things?'

How do you think of these things?

It's a very similar question to 'Where do you get your ideas from?' - the question that makes all creative people go wobbly and liverish. It's been asked a gazillion times by uninventive interviewers ... and yet it's almost impossible to answer. Pop it into Google and there are over 200 million pages returned. Most are author or artist sites where the subject has attempted to answer the question. Neil Gaiman, for instance, replies:

'Every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.

In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: 'From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,' I'd say, or 'From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,' or 'From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement'. It seemed to make sense at the time. Then I got tired of the not very funny answers, and these days I tell people the truth: 'I make them up,' I tell them. 'Out of my head.' People don't like this answer. I don't know why not. They look unhappy, as if I'm trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there's a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not telling them how it's done. And of course I'm not.'

Neil's hit the nail on the head there. Or, rather, he's identified that it is the head that needs nailing. We don't 'get' ideas from anywhere. What goes on in our heads is the culmination of genetics inherited from our long line of progenitors blended with the sum of our life experiences. Separate two identical twins at birth and give them lives entirely independent of each other and they will undoubtedly share some similarities of character and appearance. But they will also be very different people in many ways. And it is this combination of factors that makes one person predominently analytical or emotional or tactical or practical or creative or whatever. Both of my parents were creative, my father particularly, and among my late grandparents and great-grandparents there were poets, master masons, tailors, musicians, painters and inventors. So it stands to reason that I would be fairly creative. And, sure enough, my brothers are too. One is a talented photographer and the other can make beautiful wooden furniture from scratch. So where do I get my ideas? From my head. From my particular combination of genetics and life experience. I'm naturally predisposed to invent stuff. That's just the way it is.

However, the act of invention isn't always spontaneous. Sometimes it's sparked by an event, an 'inspiration'. I once wrote an entire short story with a strong ecological message simply because I'd seen a lone glove sitting on a wall. It set a train of thought chuffing along in which I remembered all the other odd items I'd ever seen lying in roads or on walls or railings. Eventually I constructed a story about an overcrowded, over-polluted future society where the discovery of time travel allows the government to deal with its waste disposal problem by dumping trash back through time ... with the inevitable consequences when an unsuitable item arrives in the incorrect era. A lonely faux-leather glove on a wall was 'where I got the idea from'. But it was my head that created the story around it. Like Neil Gaiman, I'm not sure how I can explain this process to people without them seeing it as a cop-out.

Some will claim that you can learn to stoke the fires of invention and creativity with thought exercises and creativity tools. There may be some truth in that - it's hard for me to evaluate as I've always found such courses to be flawed and of little value - but it cannot do any harm to flex your mental muscles by asking a few 'What if ...?' questions now and again. I can heartily recommend books like Julian Baggini's The pig that wants to be eaten (and 99 other thought experiments) as a way of provoking new thoughts and ideas. And there are games you can play with yourself to rustle up new insights too. One such is called Good, Bad, Interesting and was first introduced to me by a chap called Colin Nesbitt. You take a simple idea such as 'What if humans suddenly evolved an extra pair of eyes on the backs of their heads?' and then describe three good things that would result, three bad things and three interesting things. Things like:

Good - Can see muggers creeping up on you. You wouldn't need wing mirrors on cars. Or hats. No more surprises (or is that a bad thing?).

Bad - What position would you sleep in (And would you get tired more quickly)? You would see your own arse ... and what it does (but you would know whether your bum looks big in certain clothes). What would furniture look like?

Interesting - What would hairstyles look like? Would you need individual prescriptions and possibly spectacles for each eye? Would cinemas be 'in the round' and could you read two books simultaneously? What would sex be like?!

It just fascinates me that a simple statement like that can throw up so many ideas. So maybe the next time you're struggling to come up with an idea you could try something similar. After watching Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine tracking sea turtles as they laid their eggs on Last Chance to See last week I wondered ...

'What would be different about our society if humans laid eggs?'

So, what do you think? What would be good? Bad? Interesting?

I'm looking forward to reading your ideas.

Then you must tell me how you think of these things.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A quick plug

Just a quick post to say that Alt. Wycombe III takes place at the Nag's Head in High Wycombe on Saturday 24th October. As you might guess from the title, it's the 3rd such annual event organised by my good friend Mark Page at Photos With Attitude (Warning! Nudity and Adult Themes).

It's a day and evening of music, fashion, photographers and models. A chance for like-minded people to meet, chat and network in a safe environment. Photographers can show off their portfolios and prospective alt. models can meet and chat to them.

Oh and I designed the logo.
The event also raises funds for the SOPHIE charity - the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. A very good cause that I wholly endorse and support.

The fortnight in pictures

A big cruise liner parked in the Thames basin near London Bridge and dwarfing even HMS Belfast. Apparently this ship is a regular visitor and plies the seas between London and Iceland. I had no idea the Thames was deep enough to berth such a huge boat.

Some photos from a day trip to Brighton. the weather was magnificent (as it has been for most of the past two weeks) and people were even sunbathing. Met up with old mucker Chris Hale for a beer or two.

This week, in between working, I went to the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. I was greeted by the blaring horns of over 50 limos cruising slowly along the street protesting about something - I never did find out what. The building in the background - for those of you not so familiar with London - is BAFTA where the British 'Oscars' are doled out every year.

I've always been a huge fan of Kapoor's work - I loved Marsyas at the Tate Modern a few years ago (see here) - and the new exhibition doesn't disappoint. Yes, there are the crowd-pleasers like the cannon that fires a 20lb shell of red wax into a white corner every 20 minutes and the monolithic Svayambh; a 30 ton loaf of the same red wax that travels almost imperceptibly slowly through a series of arches, being formed and reformed by the doorways and gravity (We weren't allowed to take photos but I snuck this one). But there are many other delights too.

My favourite was outside in the RA courtyard where a tall structure of mirrored globes called Tall Tree and the Eye that endlessly reflects its surroundings. You look up at it and see a hundred tiny versions of yourself looking back. It's quite humbling.

I also managed to complete 23 illustrations for this year's QI Annual (the G annual) and am pitching a new book. Busy busy busy. But never too busy to enjoy myself.