Thursday, October 28, 2010

Unintentional comedy is always the best comedy

Here's a video by Daisy Hicks. It's for a reasonable pop song called Hang of life. Enjoy.

When I first found this on YouTube (thanks to @bashed) I was struck by the unintentional hilarity of the comments below. Here they are reproduced in full:

robert55012: A fine pair of Napiers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

webmagic22: Must have been hell of a bumpy ride to keep ending up on the floor like that.

Caledonian86224: Excellent song fella, excellent.

RightUpYourTube: :D Excellent work as always and a great use of deltics!

BCCletts: Seems like most of the filming was done shunting up and down Kingmoor and the goods flyover, and a huge pile of continuity compromises - starts with a Class 37 and switches between Mk 2E/F and Mk 3 - but what exactly is the thing on the front with the fixed distant? Class 31?

Airthreypark: That is a London Midland 350 in the background at 40 secs so that isn't Kingmoor.... Deffo a Deltic at the start not a 37. Looks like Cargo Ds mk3 in the main with their mk1 Kitchen thingy. Suspect that mk4s might be involved at 50 secs 1:30 and 2:40 because the poor girl ends up on the floor which wouldn't happen with lovely smooth riding mk2s or mk3s! The best description of this might be 'Guilty Pleasures'..........Deltics, Rail Enthusiasm, Mk2s and 3s, Power Pop, Women.......

srduke: Did she have a valid ticket?

powerunit417: @BabydelticProd: Perhaps they shouldn't have "re-edited" it as your version seems to have had significantly more views than the official version........

craigybus1: @BCCletts Its 100% Deltic mate...Traction was Royal Scots Grey. Martin would be quite annoyed if you called his loco a 37 methinks :)

nm63uk: Been reading the comments, lots about RSG, did anyone notice a girl in this video?

Comedy writers take note!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Under the Influence

I've seen a few of these Influence Maps around recently and decided to have a go at creating one myself. It's the brainchild of Boston-based illustrator Matt M. Laskowski (Fox-Orian). It's specifically a graphic representation of the artists that have had the greatest influence on the way I work. The larger the box, the more that person has influenced me.

I really had to think long and hard about this; there are hundreds of artists whose work I love but they haven't really impacted on my style. I love Salvador Dali and Jean Arp and Beryl Cook but I don't paint or sculpt like them. After much deliberation, I eventually settled on the 10 above. They have all, in some way, led me to where I am today. Click on the graphic for a larger version.
Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews dominated the poster market in the late 70s. Well, them and that tennis player scratching her arse. The Big O poster company and the Athena poster shops turned LP sleeves and book jackets into affordable art and launched artists like Dean and Matthews, Patrick Woodroffe, Chris Foss, Philip Castle, Ian Miller, Chris Achilleos and many more into stardom. You could buy the posters in record shops and Woolworths too. Everyone had at least one on their bedroom wall. And if it wasn't a modern fantasy poster it was often a retro art poster by Mucha or Lautrec. They were really popular.
The roaring trade in poster art led to Roger Dean starting up the Dragon's Dream (later Paper Tiger) art book imprint. I bought pretty much every book they produced and feverishly tried to copy the various artists. One hugely influential book was The Studio, which featured the New York loft space occupied by artists Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Jeff Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith. The loft was subdivided into four areas with each artist having their own work area with a shared 'hub' for socialising and bouncing ideas off each other. I dreamed of one day working in that very same kind of creative hothouse atmosphere. To be honest, I still do. Of the four, Smith was the artist I copied the most. At the time, he was drawing for Marvel comics - Conan mostly - along with another artist whose work I idolised - Gil Kane. We got very few US comics in Cornish shops back then but Marvel UK ran large format black and white reprints. My favourite was Planet of the Apes comic; not so much for the apes but for the secondary stories like Warlock and Gulliver Jones, both drawn by Kane. We also got the black and white reprints of Savage Sword of Conan which boasted artwork by Windsor-Smith, Kane and other artists that quickly influenced my style like Alfredo Alcala and Alex Nino. Then 2000AD came along and, like many others, I was soon aping the artwork of people like Mick McMahon, Kevin O'Neill, Steve Dillon and especially Brian Bolland. What's wonderful, some 30 years later, is that I now count some of those people as friends.
One man I never met but who had a huge influence on me was Willie Rushton. I've blogged on the subject before (see here) so I won't repeat myself. He was a wonderful cartoonist and I took great pleasure from his savage caricatures and scratchy inkwork. My school had bound editions of Punch magazine and I spent hours going through them finding his work. Along with Rushton, there were Ralph Steadman, Ronald Searle, Ed McLachlan, Martin Honeysett and Quentin Blake, and they led me to discover the golden age of British illustration. I soon became bewitched by Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson, Kay Neilson (okay, so she was Danish), Monro S Orr, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Shepherd, Sir John Tenniel and the rest. I still hang out at Chris Beetles' gallery in London whenever I can just to drink that stuff in.
The final, possibly puzzling, influence on my grid is Dame Barbara Hepworth. She's there for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she represents a style of sculpture that emulates the natural forms found in nature. I love that kind of thing. Like the work of her contemporary Henry Moore, her pieces look like they've been weathered into shape by the wind and rain over millennia. They mirror the organic shapes of the odd buildings and landscapes in Roger Dean's paintings (we've gone full circle!). But they also remind me of my childhood in Cornwall. The cliffs around where I grew up were wondeerful to sketch as they'd all been carved in the wildest shapes.
My father was a keen artist and writer and he introduced me at an early age to both the Newlyn and St Ives schools of painting. I have a particular fondness for Stanhope Forbes and Walter Langley to this day and will always pop into the Newlyn Gallery and Penlee House for a look when I'm visiting the folks. I visit Hepworth's house whenever I can as it holds fond memories for me. I met her once, very briefly, about a year before her tragic death. My dad, who was a policeman in his day job, had found a sculpt that he believed was hers and had gone around to get it identified (see here). I was with him in the car (having been collected from school) when he popped around to her house. I was spellbound as I sat drinking squash in her garden, marveling at the half-finished pieces all around. She was lovely and I get a strange tingle whenever I re-visit the house, now a museum and part of the Tate gallery.
So there you go. My artistic influences. You can see a little bit of all of them in the work I produce, whether it's for a client or for pleasure. It may be the way I draw an eye or use a coloured ink. It may be my choice of brush or the shape of the rocks in the background. te influences are there to see.
If you fancy creating your own Influence Map, there's a Photoshop template on Matt's Deviant Art site here. If you don't have Photoshop, grab a copy of mine and replace the images with your own.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A genius day out

Earlier this year (in May as reported here) I took part in a workshop event with Dave Gorman and a bunch of other people all intent on improving the BBC TV series Genius. Now, I loved the show when it was on Radio 4 and avidly listened to all three series. There's nothing quite so funny as the British public and, when they're asked to be inventive, they come up with amazing stuff. Like virtual reality headsets for chickens so that even battery hens think they're having a better life. Or fizzy Bovril. Or steel drum urinals to make toilet visits more fun (and more musical). Wonderful stuff. So I was delighted when the series transferred to television and gave us great moments like Johnny Vegas and the 'conveyer belt duvet':

However, the TV series somehow lost a little bit of its zing in the move so, for series two, Dave wanted to get back some of that energy and to cram as many genius ideas into each show as possible. The workshop was us trying some of those ideas out.

It paid off. the new series has been hilarious, wickedly funny and every half hour episode has flown by. My idea got discussed tonight on the fifth show in the series featuring guests Alexei Sayle and Tim Minchin - both big heroes of mine. It was nice to have made the edit (and made them laugh):

My idea was for a 'Karma Machine' to teach people to look after my property. I've loaned stuff out to people before and got it back broken. It's annoying. Even more annoying is when someone - such as removal men -break something that's irreplaceable and their only response is 'We're insured'. That's no use to me. But what if I strapped a transmitter to my property and a receiver to a cherished item of theirs ... along with a small explosive charge or electricity generator? Then they'd be more careful I'm sure. Because if they're blase with my property, the Karma Machine will punish them. here's an illustration I did for the show that didn't make the edit:

The show was an absolute joy to be involved in and Dave Gorman is a very kind, patient and funny man. He loves the series and has put so much energy into making it a success. I do hope that he gets a third series. It'll be well deserved. Sadly, the BBC are playing silly buggers. There were no trails leading up to the show being broadcast and despite all five episodes being on a Monday night at 10pm, they've moved Ep 6 to a Sunday at 11pm ... again with no trails. It may affect the viewing figures, which is sad because that's what the BBC seems to run on these days. It would be grossly unfair if such a funny and inventive show was cancelled because the BBC couldn't be arsed to promote it. Especially when there's so much shite on.

Visit the Genius website here for lots of extra bonus silliness.

Incidentally, this was my second TV appearance in just a few days as I turned up in the audience for the recent QI H series episode 'Happiness' last Friday and Saturday. See if you can spot me.

It's like a lardy version of 'Where's Wally?' isn't it?

'Where's Wobbly?' maybe.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This week's Artist: WJC

It isn't often that I discover an artist whose sense of humour is very similar to my own. So, when I do, it's very satisfying and, in the past few days I have discovered Warwick Johnson Cadwell. Almost everything he draws tickles my funny bone. Witness 'Jedi teatime' above or his sketch for 'Rod, Jane and Freddy (and Freddy)' below:

There's an appearance of raw naiveity to his style that I like, in the same way that I like Quentin Blake or Ralph Steadman or Mick McMahon. But, as with all of those artists, there's good draughtsmanship and clever composition here. It's great stuff. And I love what he does with beloved TV characters. Like here, on the day when Rainbow went bad (I particularly like George the pink hippo's hook hand):
When I used to commute to work, I ran a Twitter hashtag game (if you Tweet you'll now what I mean) called #trainbites where I would describe some of the more colourful passengers. I sketched a few in my notebooks too. WJC has gone one better producing this brilliant poster.

All human life is here. And it commutes. Damn I wish I'd thought to do this.

Visit his blog here. Or his Flickrstream here. On Twitter he's @WarwickJC.

My second painting

As you'll know if you read my recent post in which I declared that anyone can do art, I have been teaching myself to paint. I've always been an okay penciller and I can slap some ink and gouache around but the skill of painting always eluded me. Back when I was doing A Level art at school in the late 1970s, you had to be able to paint to get a good grade. And that meant oils. I just couldn't get to grips with them at all. As Roger Dean commented in his contemporary and groundbreaking art book Views, painting with oils is like 'floundering around in a swamp. It's like painting with mud'. That was my experience certainly and, even though my brilliant art teachers tried their best, I had neither the patience nor the skill to master them. I got a C grade. It was all a bit dispiriting.

And so, for the next 30 years, I stuck to inks and watercolours and gouache. Every piece of artwork had a comic book panel look with stark black outlines. and then along came computers and I started creating art in a whole new medium. In time, I started to work as a professional illustrator and suddenly, art was something I was doing for other people rather than for my own pleasure. It was then that I decided to teach myself to paint as a leisure activity. It's been a struggle with a lot failures along the way (see this from 2007 and this from 2008). In 2008, I had a go at painting a cat in a chef's hat. Hugely influenced by the naive style of people like Amanda Visell and Michelle Valigura, I turned this out:

It was horrible (see the whole story here) so I left it at that. But then I decided to have another go at painting this year. I adopted acrylics as my weapons of choice, dropped all attempts to emulate other artists and just let it all flow out of the brush naturally. First attempt was the 'Norf and Sahf' painting (here) but it was still all black outlines and nothing more than a fancy cartoon panel. So I bit the bullet, wheeled out the crappy old chef cat picture and decided to give it another crack. And here's the finished result:

I'm starting to feel happier with paint now. I can see a style developing after just two paintings. I now have a few more on the go and, who knows, a few more canvasses and I may even dare to say that I'm developing into a painter.

I agree more or less (or fewer) with Fry

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography - Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

I'm with Stephen on this one.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

It's murder living in the sticks ...

I have a confession to make. It will shock some of you. Others may say 'It comes as no surprise. I had a feeling there was something odd about him'. It's not a secret shame like alcoholism or an addiction to gambling. It's something I do sometimes in company. I guess it's pretty harmless really. Well, to me anyway.

I am a Midsomer Murders addict.

Oh the shame.

I blame my good friend Chris Hale. It was Chris who said, 'Once you start watching you'll be hooked. It's formulaic and comfortable. Before you know it, you'll find yourself spotting the locations where they film it as they're all around where you live in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.' Then he said, 'It doesn't tax the brain and it's so English and pretty. It's all country houses and Women's Institute, village fetes and pony clubs, bellringing and bedhopping. Lots and lots of that by the way. They're all at it like knives.'

So I watched out of curiosity. And now I'm mainlining John Nettles six days a week.

ITV are very cruelly showing an hour per weekday by taking old 2 hour episodes and slicing them into daily one hour chunks. Then, on Sunday, we get a two hour show. At the moment, they seem to be cherry-picking from Series 3 and 4 and from series 6 for the Sunday. Then, every so often, we get a brand new show from the current series 13. All of which means that my addiction is almost impossible to beat. It's like waggling a Woodbine in front of a desperate smoker.

If you've bever seen it before, Midsomer Murders revolves around Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (Nettles) and is set in the fictitious county of Midsomer which, judging by references to Oxford, Reading and the Thames Valley, seems to be where bits of Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire currently sit. Certainly, it's all very red brick and Cotswold stone although, oddly, Barnaby identifies himself as working for Avon and Somerset Police. Aided by a succession of detective sergeants with monosyllabic surnames (Troy, Scott, Jones) Barnaby works from Causton, the county town, and investigates murders across the many villages that seem to make up the county. And there are a lot of murders. I wouldn't live there. In fact, even Barnaby's wife is put off moving out of Causton when Barnaby explains the death rate for every village she suggests. By my reckoning, there have been over 120 murders since the show began (89 episodes). The place is more dangerous than Wigan on a Friday night.

On the subject of Barnaby's wife, here we have one of the most interesting characters in the show. Joyce is obviously frustrated by her husband's workaholic lifestyle (apparently he even solved a murder on their honeymoon - but still had time to conceive their only child Cully). Consequently, she throws herself into every hobby and village activity available to her. One week it's jam making, another it's brass-rubbing or tramp coddling or something. It's become a kind of game to guess what she'll be into with each new episode. She reminds me a little of the fad-hopping Eva in Tom Sharpe's Wilt books.

The main reason people watch the show, I guess, is Tom and the never-ending catalogue of remarkably tortuous and convoluted whodunnits that are his daily work. Regular themes involve inheritance, infidelity and 'covering up old secrets'. There's a lot of that. We've also had sibling rivalry, incest and eugenics, even an episode involving ghosts. But no matter how bloody or strange the crime is, grizzled old Barnaby always manages to sift the red herrings from the evidence, usually at the expense of his sidekicks who tend to jump to obvious but wrong conclusions. Sadly, however, no amount of clever script writing can get over the fact that it's pretty easy to guess who the murderer(s) is/are. It's always one of the guest stars. And, if it's not them, they'll be the victims. Nettles plays the role very well. Barnaby is kind of unlikeable in some ways. He can be short and unsympathetic. On one occasion when his wife books him an African holiday he reacts like someone just threw his puppy into a crocodile pond. He has a huge fan club though and the show has spawned a host of fan sites (like this and this) and a very serious fan club that re-enacts some of the murders. Here's the link. Buckinghamshire County Council even has a downloadable trail map so that diehard fans can visit many of the locations.

For me though, the star of the show is Midsomer itself. Despite being set in the modern day, the show harks back to a time when people did know all of their neighbours and community spirit was strong. There are no kids in hoodies, no ram-raids, no crack cocaine addicts and, seemingly, no graffiti. It's an English idyll. Well, apart form the murders anyway. It's an England that might have existed once but is very hard to find now except in the smallest rural communities. It's rife with class prejudice and full of very familiar stereotypes. But, like countryside calendars and biscuit tins with Constable's The Haywain on the lid, it's an England that people seem to wish really existed. The show is very popular both here and overseas and when Nettles hangs up his helmet and boots at the end of this season, the show will continue with his cousin - another DCI Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) next year. I suspect keeping the name is because the show is sold as 'Inspector Barnaby' to some countries.

If I have any criticism at all it's that it doesn't really reflect the multi-cultural face of modern Britain. It's very white. Even in the smallest of villages there are, at the very least, Asian run cornershops, Chinese or Indian restaurants and NHS services. These kinds of 'backbone of the community' roles are very often run by people from minority cultures. And where are all the Dutch and German tourists? And are there no council or housing trust estates? Everyone is so terribly middle class.

Midsomer Murders is great fun. In a digital TV world of back-biting reality shows, violent and miserable soaps, disaster-strewn news broadcasts, 'everything will harm you' so-called documentaries and cynical comedy panel shows it's a breath of fresh countryside air. It's like cake for the brain and one slice is simply not enough.

I love it.

A new millennium dawns

I've just realised that, following publication of this bout of wittering, I will be just 34 entries away from 1000 blog posts. Good grief. That's an awful lot of waffle.

I started this blog back in August 2006 and a lot of beer has passed twixt glass and lip since then. Crikey yes. Looking back, I see that one of my earliest posts was this one - a colour sketch of two archetypal British holiday makers based on a couple I saw in Spain. I relocated them to Backpool for the sketch so that I could include some popular cliches such as the stick of rock and 'Kiss me quick' hat. Well, by sheer coincidence, I'm just redrawing this picture as a proper piece of art. So maybe when I reach the 1000 mark in a couple of weeks, I'll offer a signed print as some sort of prize. Or prizes even? Maybe a few?

Hmmmm. A competition. I'll give it some thought.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

An in-advert-ently commercial post

It always feels a bit uncomfortable hawking your own wares on your own blog. But, sadly, I do need food and drink to sustain my larger than average frame and to keep me supplied with nubile Filipino sex slaves. So I simply must tell you that the QI EFG Bumper Book of QI Annuals (pictured above right) will be in the shops on November 4th and is the perfect Christmas present. It's very good value for money (and nearly an inch thick!) at just £12.99 (or just £7.79 on Amazon) and contains every glorious colourful page of the E, F and G annuals inside a brand new softback cover lovingly drawn by me. On the same day, the brand spanking new QI H Annual (with 8 new pages by me) will be released as will the long awaited Second Book of General Ignorance.

What do you mean I've already been paid and won't get any more money for advertising them? Bugger.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Amazing Meeting - Day 2

God decided to punish me for my skepticism this morning.

Day Two of TAM2010 started like the plot of an episode of One Foot in the Grave. Everything went horribly wrong and, if I were so inclined, I'd have screamed 'I don't fecking believe it!' at the sky. First of all there was the interminable rail replacement bus service that took over 45 minutes to deliver me from High Wycombe station to Denham station, some 14 miles away. Then came the Sunday service train schedule which, due to a singular lack of synchronisation meant that an almost empty train had left Denham about 2 minutes before our bus arrived. Then, when I finally got on the train, I discovered that (a) I'd forgotten to charge my camera battery overnight and would maybe get one or two shots today if I was lucky, and (b) I'd split my jeans under the crotch. Thankfully, unless I sat down with my legs wide open, people would be unlikely to notice. I might have wished for a warmer day however. The draught was quite disconcerting.

So, an excellent start to the day. More importantly, it meant that I arrived much later than I'd hoped and I missed Marcus Chown's talk on the 'Top 10 Bonkers Things about the Universe'. Shame I missed that. I like Marcus. I met him after a recording of The Museum of Curiosity recently and he was charming, funny and inspiring. He deserves more airtime. I certainly find him more palatable than Brian Cox. And I like Brian Cox a lot. Anyway, here's a pic I've outrageously lifted from t'interweb (here) to make up for my lack of attendance. And the Top 10 can actually be seen here (my thanks to Jim Christian for that link).

Next up was D J Grothe whose talk I joined about 10 minutes in. Grothe is the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and received whoops of delight from the audience by announcing that the profits from TAM2010 will stay in this country to promote UK skepticism. And that's despite half the audience being from elsewhere in Europe. This really was good news and will hopefully allow grass roots groups like the Skeptics in the Pub (Tagline 'Drinking and critical thinking') movement to grow. I'm hoping too that a fat wodge of cash will go to The Nightingale Collaboration and towards TAM2011 and maybe subsidising the ticket price? Nice to see some recognition too for regional conferences like QED that are starting to grow.

A panel discussion then took place about technology and new media involving Rebecca Watson, Kate Russell, Gia Milinovich, Martin Robbins and Neil Denny. There was some irony in this as the wi-fi in the very swish Hilton Metropole Hotel was bloody awful and the only place I could get a Vodafone signal on my phone was the only part of the 5th floor where I couldn't hear the speakers. New technology? Pft. The talk was interesting if curiously out of step with the feel of the conference. I popped out to make some calls, tweet a couple of times and rid my body of some of the hotel's appalling coffee. I was back in time for an on-stage interview with Melinda Gebbie by Skepchick's Rebecca Watson. Gebbie, as you may know, is Alan Moore's partner and the co-author with him of Lost Girls. An interesting discussion about pornography and women that spawned several great soundbites. I particularly liked this from Gebbie: 'If we loved ourselves more as women, we wouldn't have to be so bitchy.'

It's a shame that the busiest man in showbiz, Mr Stephen Fry, wasn't able to attend the event this year as we hoped he would. However he couldn't let the side down and so we were treated to a pre-recorded interview with the National Treasure by the splendid Tim Minchin. Fry was his usual affable self; definitions and long, wordy sentences rolling off his tongue with gay abandon. One of the main themes discussed was the importance of proper empirical research within skepticism and critical thinking. 'The real beauty', said Fry, 'Is when you get down and dirty and say 'let’s see'.' Also discussed was pseudo-science and how it propogates itself to become so popular. Fry commented that the New Agers and Snake oil Merchants have appropriated the language of science to make their claims seem more solid. Tim Minchin picked up on this, commenting on the use of terms like 'energy' and 'boosting'.

A little later, in a curious and unintentionally ironic twist (two in one day!), I was chatting to a friend not at the event who was watching via the dysfunctional live video feed. Apparently, if you watched it on The Guardian website, you had to endure an advert first for some beauty product that began 'Inspired by the science of genes ...' Ha!

Fry was interesting as always and Tim Minchin is always great value. But the next live panel (following another not terribly memorable lunch) was superb, boasting two heavyweights of comedy and journalism. It was a complete surprise to see that the person interviewing Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan was none other than Jon Ronson.

I've met both men before. Jon is great to chat to. Graham is a lovely chap too. But he's shy and modest and he's not a natural raconteur, which is maybe why you don't see him featured in many interviews or on panel shows. So I was wondering what to expect from him on stage during an interview. I was pleasantly surprised. While he isn't as verbose as Fry or as comfortable with a crowd as Chown or Ince, he was very funny and had some good things to say. A lot of his and Ronson's discussion centred on new media, in particular Twitter. 'For me it's like a multimedia radio station that's broadcasting whatever I can be arsed', explained Linehan. 'I don't have as many followers as some but I've got a good reach with this stuff and when I find something inspiring or beautiful I just really feel like I'm adding to the sum total of nice things in the world by sharing it.' When discussing the internet and sharing sites such as YouTube, Linehan expressed his amazement that some people aren't excited by it, especially the media. 'The way the internet is spoken about by the worst examples - like the Daily Mail for example - is like they're saying 'I don't know why but it's just wrong!'. There was a guy in the Irish parliament stood up recently and declared 'The internet has got to be stopped!' The wider world seems to distrust this stuff and I don't understand why.' Ronson reminded us of one of Linehan's best tweets 'My wife said to me at breakfast 'I have something to tell you ... I'm Banksy' but then pointed out that the people he finds the funniest on Twitter aren't famous people. 'They're people like Saliwho and The Fag Casanova. The old ideas - like commissioning editors that filter the great people out of the crap masses - are completely bullshit. The general standard of creativity of everybody is incredibly high and that's quite frightening for the people who make money out of being funny'. Linehan stated that one of the joys of a free, uncontrolled medium like Twitter is that you can do extraordinary things. 'I introduced 50Cent to Lord Sugar,' he said, 'I read their tweets and thought that they had a lot in common. It feels to me like democracy, and when people start to fight back against it it's because what we had before this wasn't quite democracy, and now these people are scared. I'm sure that Murdoch hates the internet. We all need to be very very careful of our internet rights. '

P Z Myers is maybe a name you don't know. For me, he was the star of the conference. Myers runs the world's most often read science site Pharyngula. His talk was about tone; the way we as skeptics should take our views out into the world. He's a strong advocate of reasoned argument and powerful but non-violent lobbying. He admitted that we are up against it. The battle will be long and hard because the opposition is so clever and organised. For example, he demonstrated the layers of misinformation and downright lies used to emotionally blackmail people into supporting the anti-abortion lobby. Here's one of his Powerpoint slides of a genuine billboard campaign in the USA:

As he pointed out, the image here of the happy, smiling baby is a complete lie. Here's the truth:

That's what you look like 28 days from conception. He also suggested that a few extra words '... and a tail' be added after the word 'tongue'. Here's another example:

We're all unique for goodness' sake. And this is what we look like at conception:

'At conception it's just a slimy ball with wiggly sperm all around it', he said, 'And it's not even as nice as it sounds.'

The whole issue of how to put across a skeptical viewpoint without causing offence is a massive minefield. It's one I've personally experienced. In a previous career, I was part of a small team who were forced to give up valuable office space for a prayer room that hadn't been asked for and no one ever used. When I challenged the logic of this, I was accused of being insensitive at best and insulting at worst. At no time had I ever said anything derogatory about anyone's beliefs or their right to believe in whatsoever they chose to. I quickly discovered that it was my management merely 'ticking a box' to score points on their diversity and equality scorecard and, I'm afraid, my frustration got the better of me. I put in a request for a special room where I could talk to my imaginary friend. I can't tell you how much ire I stirred up. The prayer room was put in place, I was told off and the room remained resolutely empty for more than a year after which it gradually mutated back into an office again. I wish I'd heard the phrase 'We shouldn't be gratuitously obnoxious, we should be purposefully obnoxious' back then. It was a phrase that Myers taught me today.

Myers also discussed the ridiculous claims of Ray 'banana' Comfort (What? You've never seen his video?! Watch it here) and the more vitriolic defenders against atheism such as Daniel Spratlin. The internet is full of misleading and cleverly edited anti-atheist propaganda, such as this video that supports Ray Comfort's claims while demonising Richard Dawkins.

By taking part of a conversation out of context, the video appears to show Dawkins proposing the idea of panspermia - that we evolved from biological material that arrived here from outer space - as his preferred theory. It's amazing stuff. Enjoy the sheer one-sided nonsense of it. If nothing else, you'll learn that cats were created specifically for women's laps.

The finale of Day 2 and, indeed, the whole conference was the juggernaut that is Alan Moore. Famously prickly and often controversial, the hirsute author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta didn't disappoint as a speaker. He's always claimed not to be a comedian but he was brilliantly funny today with gags about the Big Bang originating in 1927 in Northampton among many others ... okay, so you probably had to be there. But I enjoyed his talk, even the bleak poetry reading. He's an amazing guy to listen to and the range and depths of his interests is extraordinary. If I have a quibble it's that I couldn't find much in his talk to fit the overall theme of TAM2010 - healthy skepticism and critical thinking. But I'm the last to be ungrateful and watching Mr Moore is always an utter joy and an honour.

So, overall impressions of TAM2010? The worst I can say is that, at times, it came across as a little amateurish for such an important event. Failing AV (10/10 to Richard Wiseman for patience), not so good food and coffee, and terrible Wi-Fi reception are not what you expect at an event that's cost each delegate over £200 a head. And on that subject ... a price tag like that makes the event pretty exclusive. Many of the bravest and most challenging skeptics I've met are students or people in fairly low-paid professions such as workers in the NHS. It seems a little disingenuous to put on a conference celebrating skepticism but which excludes, I'd wager, the majority of active skeptics. I'd hate to see the evolution of a kind of 'champagne skeptic' class. As I suggested earlier, maybe some of the profit could subsidise tickets next year?
That said, I cannot fault the organisers or the speakers, interviewers and panellists. It was a truly uplifting event and I look forward to next year with a spirit of optimism. With these kinds of heavyweights behind us, maybe there is a future where science and sanity reign supreme.
One thing is for certain; thanks to Richard Wiseman, I can never again listen to Carl Orff's opening to Carmina Burana without sniggering.

As I was leaving I bumped into Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. Damn, I wish I'd remembered to charge my camera battery. Hope my undies weren't showing.

So, that's my take on the two days but, despite furious scribbling in notebooks and a handy voice recorder, I've undoubtedly missed a lot. Therefore, please also see Jim Christian's blog of the event here and here, and also Martin Robbins' live blogging from the event here. Crispian Jago has also written an informative and entertaining review here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Amazing Meeting - Day 1

The Amazing Meeting. Two days. 24 Speakers. 1000 Delegates.

TAM is an annual series of fundraising conferences set up for the James Randi Educational Foundation. The subject of these conferences is healthy skepticism; it attracts people like myself who have an open, enquiring mind but who, nevertheless, demand proof before blind acceptance. It's about sanity, good science and the debunking of harmful quackery, dangerous pseudo-science and people who make money - sometimes a lot of money - by promising things to desperate people that simply aren't true. This year's US conference - TAM8 - was held in Las Vegas in July. TAM2010 London is the second such UK conference. TAM2009 was the first to be held outside the USA and sold out in just one hour. Speakers at previous TAMs have included Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, magicians Penn and Teller, Prof Brian Cox and dozens of other noted scientists, entertainers and academics.

TAM2010 has been no less a stellar event and kicked off on Friday night with pub quizzes and a special discounted performance of Andy Nyman's and Jeremy Dyson's genuinely terrifying Ghost Stories at the Duke of York's Theatre. But the main event began on Saturday with a day of speakers that many conferences would die for. Host Professor Richard Wiseman welcomed us all and introduced the man himself - James Randi - who gave a stirring speech in which he assured us that he was fit and well and ready to continue the fight against fraud and fakery. It was extraordinary to hear such strength emanating from such a small and frail looking figure; he has had heart bypass surgery, had a golf ball sized intestinal tumour removed and has undergone chemotherapy in the past two years. His passion for investigating the claims of psychics, mediums, faith healers and such is undiminished. He is on record as saying that he doesn't want a fancy tomb or a museum of magic named after him; what he wants is to 'be cremated and have my ashes blown into Uri Geller's eyes.'

Next up was Dr Susan Blackmore, she of the multi-coloured hair, multi-coloured husband (Adam Hart-Davis) and the scientist more than anyone responsible for expanding the concept of memes and memetics. A meme (a term first coined by Richard Dawkins) is a self-propogating idea or behaviour that transmits itself throughout a culture. It can be a belief, an idea, a practice, even a song or a dance. Applying the idea of memes to such issues as belief in psychic phenomena is an interesting idea. Blackmore explained that she's spent years using the scientific method to prove the existence of such phenomena with the result that she is now a confirmed skeptic.

Next at the podium was Professor Richard Dawkins himself arguing not against religion or god(s) but arguing strongly for the subject of evolution to be elevated to the same status as the Classics. I find Dawkins a little too evangelical at times but he was quite restrained today, his only real vitriol being levelled at American schools. 'My subject, Evolution, is under threat', he said, 'I want to come out fighting.' Among his more notable comments were these that sent a ripple of excitement through the audience:

'Science is the poetry of reality'.

'The evolutionary perspective makes you realise that it's a sheer accident that we able to set up a morality that is so human-centred.'

'If we held hands with our mothers, and they with theirs, back to our common ancestor with chimps, the chain would only be 200miles long.'

Richard Wiseman acted as a splendid host between speakers, treating us to Powerpoint presentations of rubbish ghost photos, and silly examples that demonstrated how easily people can be persuaded to believe something. Among these examples we saw proof (when the IT finally worked) that the Teletubbies are evil and that The Monkees were in league with a fascist dictator. Just listen to their theme song:

'We're just trying to be friendly, come along and see us play,
We're the young generation and we've got Saddam Hussein'.

Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, speaking with a voice even louder than his suit then gave us a good talk on copyright. His best quote? 'Yesterday's pirates are today's admirals'. You can see his talk here.

Geeks pin-up Dr Adam Rutherford opened his talk by telling us 'I want to talk to you about Jesus' and then revealed some harrowing truths about the Alpha Course, which he enrolled in to see exactly what was being taught. His first fascinating insight was that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than believers (here's the link) so maybe the believers shouldn't be the ones claiming to know it all. A second point worth emphasising is that everyone is welcome on the Alpha Course ... even gays who can be cured as the result.

A lacklustre lunch (this conference cost delegates over £200 each - I did expect better fare) was followed by a very funny interview of Andy Nyman by Richard Wiseman. Nyman is one of those people you know by sight but can't quite name. He was in the British (and vastly superior) version of Death at a Funeral, in Charlie Brooker's Dead Set and he was the hilariously ineffective training coordinator in Severance. But, behind the scenes, he's a superb magician and has co-created many of Derren Brown's most impactful shows. Yes, he's the real Jonathan Creek. And, of course, he's the co-writer of the aformentioned Ghost Stories show.

An interesting chat illustrated with plenty of photos and funny anecdotes. I spotted a beardy Jonathan Ross clapping the funnies along with his flame-haired wife Jane Goldman and a couple of daughters. That's the thing about an event like TAM - the audience boasts as many famous faces as on stage.

Nyman was followed by a spirited sales pitch by Karen James for the Beagle Project and then a talk by Paula Kirby of the Richard Dawkins Foundation who built upon some of the themes in Rutherford's talk to discuss the worrying influence in politics of the Christian Party. These are people who, by admission in their own manifesto, want to abolish all fairness and equality legislation, replace CCTV with street pastors, raise the motorway speed limit to 90mph, make abortion illegal, teach creationism in schools and bring back corporal punishment, solve global warming by enforcing Sunday as a day of rest (lowering the carbon footprint, apparently), and - of course - cure all homosexuals. The gays really get a pounding in their literature. As Kirby pointed out, it's unlikely that these people will ever get an elected MP in the house but, nevertheless, they are vocal and proactive. They protest everything they don't agree with. Not enough of us protest back. Oh, and I loved the fact that their literature insultingly calls people like me a 'secular humanist fundamentalist'. Cheeky bastards. I quite fancy the badge though.

A three way discussion of skeptical activism followed on hosted by Tracey Brown of Sense about science and featuring Dr Simon Singh, Dr Evan Harris and David Allen Green (better known to many as 'Jack of Kent'). Evan harris made the point that so much more lobbying needs to go on within parliament to ensure that dodgy and ill-advised legislation isn't pushed through. David Allen Green talked about coordination between activists and gave us the wonderful quote, 'When cats complain they complain about herding skeptics'. This point was then taken up by Simon Singh who took the platform to announce the arrival on January 1st 2011 of The Nightingale Collaboration. named in honour of nurse and statistician Florence (she invented the Pie-Chart. Did you know that?). TNC will be the first major attempt to provide a focus and meeting point for all of us diverse and geographically divided skeptical bloggers, writers and activists. If you want to know more about it, read this article in The Guardian by Martin Robbins (who I saw several time feverishly live blogging during the day despite the best efforts of the dodgy wi-fi to black him out).

Finally, we had the grandstand event of the day - an interview of James Randi by the wonderfully on-form Robin Ince. It was a wide-ranging discussion from Randi's appearance on Happy Days to his first debunking of a psychic preacher when just a child in Canada. At times the interview was very moving. Randi even choked back tears at one point when telling the story of a crippled child denied proper medical care due to the prevailing belief in prayer and psychic healing. However, he also delighted the audience with stories about how he disproved the abilities of Uri Geller and the money-grabbing so-called psychic minister Peter Popoff. Popoff in particular was the subject of much of Randi's anger. As he described it (and I'm paraphrasing here), 'Popoff had utter disdain and a total lack of respect for the people he was supposedly helping. We raided his trash and found that he threw away small cheques. He was only interested in the big ones with lots of zeroes. And yet these smaller cheques were from the poorest of people; people so poor they'd given their last cent to him, even their bus fare home. And I have a recording in my possession of Popoff's wife feeding him information about the audience members via a hidden earpiece in which she clearly says 'The big fat nigger is next up. I know you. Leave his tits alone'.'

Sadly, despite Popoff being shown to be a fraud, time and time again, he's still raking in millions of dollars. 'It's easier to believe,' said Randi. 'People don't want to hear that there's no hope. They clutch at anything, even proven nonsense. I can't blame them for that. I just detest the predators who benefit from that.'

This led on to Ince asking how Randi kept his enthusiasm and momentum in the face of constant threats of legal action and the fact that, despite the evidence, people keep returning to mumbo-jumbo. 'Because of all the little victories,' said Randi. 'The important thing is to keep informing people and then letting them make their own informed choices'. One of my favourite quotes from his talk was 'Education doesn't make you smart. It makes you more educated' in response to an audience question about why scientists are sometimes fooled by charlatans. 'The other thing you have to remember', explained Randi, 'Is that these people are really good at what they do. Uri Geller has maybe four tricks in his repertoire. But he does them fantastically well. You can't sustain a career on four tricks unless you're the best at doing them.' The other quote I liked was during a discussion about atheism. 'I'm an atheist of the second kind', said Randi. 'The dictionary has two definitions - the first says 'A person who denies the existence of a deity'. The second says 'A person who has not been given sufficient proof to believe in a deity'. I'm an atheist of the second kind. I'm open to examining evidence and proof. I don't deny anyone else's right to believe.'

But perhaps Randi's best quote was his most succint. Ince asked him, 'Have you ever had anything on the JREF Million Dollar challenge where you've thought, 'You know what, actually this might be a little tricky'?' Randi's reply? 'Nope.' He explained that the prize is still available and has been since 1964. 'It's so frustrated the charlatans out there that they've even started a rumour that the prize was won years ago and we've covered it up', said Randi. 'On our website you can see that's not true. And, besides, anyone can ask us for a copy of the bank statement showing that the money is there and available to be won. No one ever does.'

There then followed a short award ceremony in which Ben Goldacre was honoured for Outstanding Achievement in Skepticism and 15 year od Rhys Morgan was deservedly given the Grass Roots Skeptic Award for exposing a terrible profiteering miracle cure. You can read Rhys's story here.

Unfortunately I couldn't stay for Tim Minchin's gig and, instead, had to fight my way through planned engineering works on Chiltern Railways and the peculiar hell of the rail-replacemnet bus service. All totally worth it though.

Roll on Day 2.

Meanwhile, checkout this site that has lots of videos from previous TAMs.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I've been Tealed

I am hugely proud to have been the subject for one of top caricaturist Adrian Teal's brilliant cartoons. Ade works on the QI Annuals as I do and has also done some artwork for the new H Series currently showing on BBC1 on Fridays and in an extended QIXL edition on BBC2 on Saturdays. His wonderful work will be on display in the 'Horses and Hunting' episode scheduled to show on December 17th.

Meanwhile, take a look at his extraordinary likenesses here in his Twitpic gallery. What a clever bloke he is. And he looks a bit like Suggs.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

... and on the subject of self-belief ...

Following on from my previous post, a video about the power of self-belief.

I laughed so hard I was nearly sick. Funniest thing I've seen in years.

Created by Kevin Nalty. Visit his site here.

Art for your sake

In this post I want to talk about art and you. I want to get you creating some art. And before you say anything, listen ...


As a working artist, I'm always meeting people who say things to me like 'Oh I wish I could draw' or 'I can't paint to save my life'. It's very frustrating to hear them say that because it's simply not true. They are all perfectly capable of drawing and painting. They have arms and hands, eyes and fingers (and, even if they don't, that's no barrier). What they're actually saying is 'I don't produce anything that I'm happy with'. The problem is their perception, not their ability.

When I worked for Scotland Yard's Problem Solving Unit, we would often find that the issue wasn't the actions of the people allegedly causing the problem. It was the way that their actions were viewed by those people complaining. For example, we'd be told by middle-aged people that it wasn't safe to walk the streets because of 'all of the kids in hoods'. Then we'd talk to the kids with their hoods up and they'd say 'It isn't safe to walk the streets with our hoods down in case kids from another gang recognise us'. And further investigation would show that the only people who ever got assaulted and robbed were under 25. So the problem wasn't kids in hoods but how people outside of that demographic - none of whom had been robbed or assaulted incidentally - saw them.

Art is just the same. If Bob Smith adores Titian and wants to paint like Titian, he'll be disappointed when his work is only 30% Titian-ish. He'll believe that he's somehow failed. But he hasn't. He's created a 100% Bob Smith piece; as unique and valid as anything Titian ever produced. Validity isn't measured by galleryworthiness or monetary value; most of the great painters and sculptors were unappreciated in their own lifetimes and many died in penury. Bob Smith's lack of self-belief is skewing his perception and making him see a problem that isn't actually there. His art is valid. It has worth. It only loses those things in his eyes because he's comparing it to another artist's work. If he'd never seen a Titian would he be happier with his own work? Of course he would.

And there is the issue of taste. Just because Bob may not be happy with what he's produced doesn't mean that it won't be loved by others. Taste is an intensely personal thing. We all see a piece of art differently. I can almost guarantee that there's stuff I love that you'll hate and vice versa. For example, which (if either) of these paintings do you like?

The one on the left is by the late Frank Frazetta. the one on the right is by Boris Vallejo. Both men are absolute giants in the world of fantasy illustration. Both are painted with enormous skill. I love the Frazetta painting. The muted colour scheme, the power and tension in the hero's posture, the anticipation of the snake's strike. Boris's painting, meanwhile, does nothing for me. I really don't like it. I can admire the skill; there's more detail than in the Frazetta painting, and the female figure is far more anatomically correct than the barbarian. But the painting just doesn't float my boat. It's kind of cheesy. The palette is too extreme, almost as if the colours have been used straight from the tube. There's no connection between figure and monster; they're just two objects in juxtaposition. It's like she's posing with a stuffed dragon. Frazetta's figure, meanwhile, is connected to the monster in the most vulnerable way imaginable. You can almost feel that snake warm and scaly as it slithers between his legs. The sepia-toned colour scheme brings them even closer together and there are hints of other monsters lurking in the gloom. I wouldn't hang either painting on my wall but if I had to choose, Frazetta would win hands down. Same for you?
I used to teach art to older teenagers at a youth club in the early 1990s and the Frazetta/Vallejo images were ones that I used to create discussion. What I found, time and time again, was that most of the kids, male and female, preferred Vallejo's paintings. The reasons they gave were almost always about colour and the level of detail and the almost photographic quality of the figures. We agreed to disagree but it just shows how different tastes can be. Now look at these two pictures and decide which one you prefer:
These were two of the finalists in this year's BP Portrait Award 2010. The one on the left is Michal Ozibko's i-death. On the right is Last Portrait of Mother by Daphne Todd. When I went to see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Ozibko's piece left me cold. It was huge and beautiful and showed an extraordinary ability. I liked the subject matter and what he was trying to say. But, compared to Todd's picture of her dead mother, i-death was simply an exercise in exemplary technique. Todd's picture held me for ages. The rough strokes of the paint spoke of a haste, of a desperate need to capture the nobility of this frail woman before it was too late. Even the use of two canvasses made me think that, in her hurry, Todd had picked one up that was too small but there wasn't enough time to start again. I later learned that the picture was painted over three days at the chapel of rest where Todd's 100 year old mother was kept after her death. Her mother had given permission for the piece. 'We all hope our remains are going to be treated respectfully, and I can imagine that some people will think this is not respectful,' says Todd. 'There are all sorts of issues about death that are swept under the carpet. No one really accepts that it really happens to each and every one of us and that it is happening all the time.' Again, I wouldn't hang either picture on my wall. But I know which one I prefer.
This idea of 'I wouldn't hang it on my wall' is hugely relevant to this discussion. There's a wonderfully enlightening snippet of conversation in the recent The Ricky Gervais Guide To Art podcast. Karl Pilkington makes the point that 'good art is art that the majority of people like' and that 'there's a lot of snobbery in art'. Gervais comes back with:
'I think there should be snobbery in art. The world is full of idiots. There isn't safety in numbers with art. I think you should be a complete fascist when creating a work of art. I don't think it's open to utilitarian or democratic referendum.' To which fellow podcaster Stephen Merchant pithily adds, 'We'd just end up with the X Factor.'

Gervais may be opinionated and inflammatory but I agree with him 100% on this issue. Art isn't about what the majority likes or wants. Art is all about the artist and what they want to say by commiting to canvas, paper, wall or plinth. An artist should never have to limit their creativity or change their chosen style just to satisfy some scorecard. There should never be some average mean of public taste and sensibility (whether or how to display the piece publicly is a different issue). If that were the case, all art would be the same. It would never evolve. It would stagnate. And, by the same token, you cannot measure one piece of art against another in terms of whether it's good or not. I can't possibly say that Frazetta is better than Vallejo or that Todd is better than Ozibko. It's as nonsensical as asking 'Which is better, an apple or a pear?' Neither is better. Better by what measure? All any of us are qualified to say is whose work we prefer.
Which brings me back to you, dear 'I can't draw for toffee' person. When you draw something and say you're unhappy with it, what are you unhappy with?
Are you unhappy because it doesn't look like the kind of art you like? None of my artwork looks like the work of those artists I most respect. I will never be able to draw and paint like Beryl Cook, Willie Rushton, Jon Burgerman, Amanda Visell, Eric Joyner, Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson, Ralph Steadman, Hajime Sorayama ... and all the others. So I don't make the comparison. How can I? I'm not any of them.
'There isn't safety in numbers with art'. It's so true. The fact that a greater percentage of the public prefer Constable's The Haywain to Lucien Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping shouldn't mean that all public art should be green, oily and chocolate box pretty. When Picasso first shifted an eye to the wrong side of a painted head, he didn't think to himself 'People are going to hate this'. He did it because it felt right and to Hell with the rest of the world. He wasn't comparing his art to some benchmark of public opinion. He painted for his own satisfaction.
Children are deliciously uncritical and they love what they create. My grandchildren (aged 5 and 3) are always delighted with what they've painted. 'It's a train!' they reliably inform me as I try to find anything even remotely train-like among the raw blue, yellow and red splodges of poster paint. They see the value of what they've done. It's naive art in the true sense; they have not yet developed a taste in art and have no knowledge of art with which to compare their own efforts. The curse of adulthood is the loss of that naivety. The tragedy is losing the joy of the act of creation.

Or maybe you're unhappy because you can't move the vision in your head onto the canvas? Then take some art lessons. Or teach yourself. The process of painting or drawing is mechanical and it can be taught. The proportions of the human body can be taught. Use of colour and tone and media can be taught. It's hard work at times but if you want it bad enough, you'll get it. What can't be taught is imagination and passion. If you have the vision in your head and you desperately want to express it, you're already there. All you need to learn is how to use the tools.
You have to forget the idea of being 'good' or 'bad' at art. Art isn't like sport where you win or lose. Some people are better tennis players than others. No one is a better artist than any other.
As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, I know that people who tell me 'I'd like to write a book one day' mostly never will. If they really wanted to write, they'd write. All of the writers I know write all the time in notebooks, blogs, on napkins and i-pads. They can't turn it off. The consideration of whether anyone will ever read it other than themselves is secondary to the act of creation. That's why they're writers.
Artists are no different. I know lots of people - illustrators, painters, sculptors, photographers - and they never stop creating art. I was sat in a pub with my mate Mark from Photoswithattitude recently and, even though it was a social drink, he took at least ten photos of people and things because a shot presented itself and he felt compelled to capture it. Mark's photos are not simple landscapes or portraits or records of events. Every shot is composed, considered. And yet most will never be prints or be published in a book. He took them because it pleased him to do so.
Behind me in this room are six unfinished paintings; four in acrylics, two in oils. I'm teaching myself to paint because I don't know how. I'm enjoying myself immensely even though they aren't for sale and won't go into an exhibition. I'm not as technically proficient as any of the artists I've mentioned in this blog. I don't know if anyone will ever like them. But I don't care. I'm having fun being an artist.
If you really want to be an artist, then be one. The only thing stopping you is you.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Welcome new readers

Hello. Do come in. I'll pop the kettle on.

I've picked up quite a few new visitors after my mention on QI last week so I thought I'd better explain what this blog is all about. It's about anything I find interesting. It's about things that inspire me, annoy me, make me laugh, make me seethe. It's art and science and media and cake recipes. I don't know a single term that covers the range of my interests. Let's just call it Colganology.

I still have most of my school reports from the 1960s and 70s and I delight in the fact that Mrs Atkins, my infant school teacher, wrote this about me when I was 10:

'Stevyn is very intelligent, at least two years above most of his peers in reading, writing and spelling. However, his grasshopper brain means that he flits from interest to interest and unless he can learn to concentrate on one thing at a time, he will not pass his 11+'.

I should explain for my younger or overseas readers that the 11+ exam used to be a kind of educational banding exercise. If you did well, you went to a higher performing Grammar School. If you didn't do so well, you ended up at a Comprehensive. I ended up at a Comprehensive and I remained ahead of many of my school chums throughout my entire compulsory education ... but left in 1979 with an A Level in Art (a Grade C), and piss poor O Level just-about passes in English, English Literature, Biology and Religious Education. Mrs Atkins was right.

That 'Grasshopper Brain' of mine (Perhaps what I should have called this blog?) is still with me. I can no more buckle down and study a single subject in detail today than I could in my teens. No one area of study attracts and excites me more than any other.

I've recently discovered that I am a Scanner. By that I don't mean that I can make people's heads explode by mind power like in those early 1980s schlock horror films. I mean someone like this. My chum John Williams, author of the bestselling Screw Work, Let's Play assures me that I'm not weird ... just a bit different.

I read maybe two to three books a week. I scour hundreds of websites and blogs. I watch TV documentaries by the score. I traipse around museums and libraries and antiquarian bookshops. What I'm looking for are facts that make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck; little snippets of information that make me go 'Ah!'. I want to know how the world works and how everything connects to everything else. That was, in a way, the idea behind my first book Joined-Up Thinking. I was only able to write that book because of the massive collection of interesting things I'd found and stored. What I'd like to do is share some of these with you.

This blog is, if you like, a scrapbook of things I find interesting. No more, no less.

I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

A kinetic walk on the beach

The name Theo Jansen may not mean a lot to you but he's a huge hero of mine. For years I've been fascinated by automata; delicious moving sculptures with hundreds of moving parts. I'm also a great fan of kinetic sculpture, particularly the huge 'wind toys' of Cesare Manrique that you can find all over the island of Lanzarote. Theo Jansen takes automata and kinetic sculpture and puts them together to create extraordinary walking beasts that could be said to be almost living. Like the simplest organisms, they respond to changes in wind and temeperature. They gather air into plastic bottle 'lungs' and use it to drive their legs. They can even detect the presence of water and will walk out of the sea rather than get wet. I love them. And I hope you;ll love them too.

Animaris Umerus walking - June '09 from Strandbeest on Vimeo.

And here's his excellent TED talk on the subject. Well worth a watch in full screen if you have a spare 10 minutes.

Also, Theo's website is here and has lots of videos of his Beach Monsters.

But will there be Gleisians?

The star known as Gliese 581 is utterly unremarkable in just about every way you can imagine. It's a red dwarf, the most common type of star in the Milky Way, weighing in at about a third of the mass of the sun. At 20 light years or so away, it's relatively nearby, but not close enough to set any records (it's the 117th closest star to Earth, for what that's worth). You can't even see it without a telescope, so while it lies in the direction of Libra, it isn't one of the shining dots you'd connect to form the constellation. It's no wonder that the star's name lacks even a whiff of mystery or romance.

But Gliese 581 does have one distinction — and that's enough to make it the focus of intense scientific attention. At last count, astronomers had identified more than 400 planets orbiting stars beyond the sun, and Gliese 581 was host to no fewer than four of them — the most populous solar system we know of, aside from our own. That alone would make the star intriguing. But on Wednesday, a team of astronomers announced that it had found two more planets circling the star, bringing the total to six. And one of them, assigned the name Gliese 581g, may be of truly historic significance.

For one thing, the planet is only about three or four times as massive as our home world, meaning it probably has a solid surface just like Earth. Much more important, it sits smack in the middle of the so-called habitable zone, orbiting at just the right distance from the star to let water remain liquid rather than freezing solid or boiling away. As far as we know, that's a minimum requirement for the presence of life. For thousands of years, philosophers and scientists have wondered whether other Earths existed out in the cosmos. And since the first, very un-Earthlike extrasolar planet was discovered in 1995, astronomers have been inching closer to answering that question. Now they've evidently succeeded (although to be clear, there's no way at this point to determine whether there is life on the new planet).

"We're pretty excited about it," admits Steve Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz, a member of the team, in a masterpiece of understatement. "I think this is what everyone's been after for the past 15 years." Planetary scientist James Kasting of Penn State University, who wasn't involved with the discovery, agrees. "I think they've scooped the Kepler people," he says, referring to the telescope that launched into space early last year on a mission to determine how common Earthlike planets might be. The "Kepler people" have a number of candidate Earths in the can but are still working to confirm them.

Being first isn't the main reason Vogt is excited, however. "Someone had to be first," he says. "But this is right next door to us. That's the big result." What's particularly big about it is a matter of simple arithmetic. With only 116 stars closer to Earth than this one, it was hardly a sure thing that so small a sample group would produce two habitable planets, including Earth. And two such planets may be an undercount, Vogt says, since just nine out of those 100-plus stars have been studied in any detail. Indeed, one of Gliese 581g's sister planets, known as Gliese 581d (O.K., they don't put a lot of creative energy into naming these things), could conceivably be a habitable world itself.

One of the four planets known to orbit Gliese 581 before the latest discovery, 581d was found by a team of Swiss astronomers in 2007 and was thought to be outside the habitable zone and thus too cold for liquid water. But a reanalysis last year brought it into the zone, albeit just barely. The problem is, 581d is too big to be Earthlike; it's probably made mostly of nonwater ice, like Neptune and Uranus, which makes a poorer candidate for life than 581g.

Lost in the excitement over possible life on the new world is what a remarkable achievement its mere discovery was. Detecting a planet this small is monstrously hard — and would have been impossible when Vogt and co-discoverer Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington first got into the planet-hunting game in the early 1990s. The instruments you use to detect tiny back-and-forth motions in the star — motions caused by the orbiting planet's gravitational tugs, which are often the only way to infer that the worlds exist at all — simply weren't sensitive enough. Since then, says Vogt, "I've been busting my gut to improve the instruments, and Paul has been busting his gut to do the observations." In all, those observations span more than 200 nights on the giant Keck I telescope in Hawaii over 11 years, supplemented by observations from the Geneva group — and that painstaking work finally confirmed 581g's existence.

None of this proves that there is water on Gliese 581g. "Those are things we just have to speculate about," says Vogt. But he goes on to point out that there's water pretty much everywhere else you look. "There's water on Earth," he says, "and on the moon, and Mars, and on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, and in interstellar space. There's enough water produced in the Orion Nebula every 24 seconds to fill the Earth's oceans."

It's not hard to imagine, in other words, that Gliese 581g might have plenty of water as well. "It could have quite a good ocean," Vogt says. Certainly, it could be a sterile, nonbiological ocean. But unlike any planet found until now, there's nothing to rule out the idea that it could be teeming with life.


Time Magazine

An error of Titanic proportions?

Some interesting new evidence has recently surfaced, if you'll pardon the term, about the sinking of RMS Titanic; possibly the most famous shipping disaster of all time. The traditional story has always been that, when the iceberg was spotted, there was insufficient time to effect a course change and that the collision was unavoidable. However, that may not be the whole truth.

Lady Louise Patton, novelist and granddaughter of the Titanic's second officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (played memorably by Kenneth More in the film A night to remember) has recently revealed a long-held family secret; that the accident may have been due to simple pilot error. Lightoller had nothing to gain by concocting this version of events; he was an honest God-fearing Christian Scientist and the fact that he only ever confided in his wife seems to confirm its veracity.

I will quote here from an excellent article by Ian Jack, published in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday 25th September:

'Although [Lightholler's story] hinges on a simple mistake, the maritime mechanics behind the mistake can be hard to grasp without visual aids, such as a model yacht with a moveable tiller-rudder combination. I sat with one last night. You push the tiller right, the rudder swings left, and if the boat were in a pond it would obey the rudder and veer left too. Sailing ships steered on this principle. The command "hard a-starboard" meant the wheel had to be turned to the left and not, as the instruction would suggest, to the right. Steamships, on the other hand, steered like cars. You moved the wheel to the right and the ship took the same direction.

Not all steamships followed these rules, however. On the north Atlantic, liners persisted with "tiller rules", meaning that the helmsman moved the wheel in the opposite direction to the command. The practice was abolished in 1928, but in 1912 it was thought to be safer because so many seamen (Lightoller, for instance) had trained in sail.

By Lightoller's account, First Officer Murdoch spotted the iceberg when it was two miles away – it was an exceptionally clear night, after all – and surprised his helmsman with a barked order to change course. Quartermaster Robert Hitchins, a steam man, momentarily forget the counter-intuitive nature of tiller rules and sent the ship towards the berg. By the time the course was corrected, valuable minutes had been lost and the later cry, "Iceberg right ahead", came as no surprise to those on the bridge. Lightoller, resting in his cabin, wasn't among them but in the two hours and 40 minutes it took the ship to sink he learned what had happened from his three senior officers, including Murdoch.

Neither they nor the young sixth officer, James Moody, who was also on the bridge at the time, survived. The living witnesses were confined to the wretched Hitchins and the two lookouts. To save whatever was left of the White Star Line's reputation, and to spare it from bankruptcy, a story was confected as the survivors, including the line's desperate chairman, Bruce Ismay, sailed to New York on board the Carpathia. The iceberg hadn't been seen because the night was too calm; no white waves broke around its base. Lightoller, a loyal company man, went along with this foreshortened version of history, in which the iceberg loomed out of the night with only 37 seconds' warning.' (Here's the link if you want to read the whole article).

Interesting, eh? But let's not leave it there ... the Titanic is surrounded by a wealth of myth and fable. For a start, there's the story of unlucky Dannie Buckley from Ballydesmond, County Cork. Like many young Irishmen, Buckley saw the chance of a new life in America and therefore travelled steerage class on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. He was one of the pitifully few survivors who made it to the United States alive and physically unhurt although what his mental state was like is not recorded. He then joined the US Army … and was killed on the very last day of World War I aged just 28.

There is also an urban myth surrounding the mummy of the priestess Amen Ra. It was said that she could put a curse upon anyone who looked at her on display in the British Museum. Some museum visitors were so concerned about this that they would often leave roses and other offerings on the sarcophagus to placate her. Sadly, it’s all rather pointless as the mummy of Amen Ra isn’t there. It’s just the box.

According to the legend, the so-called ‘unlucky mummy’ went down with the ship on the Titanic. And quite a number of websites cite this as fact, along with a substantial list of the victims of the terrible curse. Sadly, like all the best stories, it’s untrue.

The story quotes the following ‘facts’:

  • The mummy was bought in the late 1890s by four rich young Englishmen. One of the men, for no apparent reason, walked out into the desert and was never seen again. The second was accidentally shot by a servant and had to have his arm amputated. The third man was bankrupted. And the fourth guy suffered a severe illness, lost his job and was reduced to selling matches in the street.

  • Upon reaching the UK, it was bought by a London businessman. Three of his family were injured in a road accident and his house burned down, so he donated it to the British Museum. As the coffin was being unloaded, the truck jumped into reverse and trapped a passer-by. Then as the casket was being lifted upstairs by two workmen, one fell and broke his leg. The other died unaccountably two days later.

  • Once the coffin was installed, staffed claimed to hear frantic hammering and sobbing from the coffin. Other exhibits in the room were also often hurled about at night. One watchman died on duty. One cleaner’s child apparently died of measles after the cleaner dusted the coffin. After that, cleaners refused to go near the coffin. A photo-journalist took a picture of the mummy case and when he developed it, the painting on the coffin was of a horrifying, human face. The photographer was said to have gone home then, locked his bedroom door and shot himself.

  • Soon afterwards, the museum sold the mummy to a private collector. After continual misfortune (and deaths), the owner banished it to the attic.

  • A well-known authority on the occult, Madame Helena Blavatsky, visited the museum. Upon entry, she was seized with a shivering fit and searched the house for the source of an evil influence of incredible intensity; She finally came to the attic and found the mummy case. She was asked to exorcise the evil spirit but said that she could not as evil remains evil forever.

  • Eventually, an American archaeologist bought the mummy and arranged for its removal to New York. In Apr 1912, the new owner escorted its treasure aboard a sparkling, new White Star liner about to make its maiden voyage to New York …

It's a nice story. But it's glaringly inconsistent with the facts. As reported on the Snopes Urban Myth site:

  • The famous Madame Blavatsky died in 1891 ... before Amen Ra was even found.
  • No archaeological materials that could possibly be a mummy were listed on the cargo manifest of the Titanic. And, anyway, we’ve found the Titanic now. And there’s no mummy there.
  • All of the various deaths and disasters are either (a) true but unrelated, (b) coincidental, or (c) complete bollocks.
  • And most damning of all ... the story was invented by writer William Stead – a mystic – and Douglas Murray – an Egyptologist. Stead, not the mummy, went down with the Titanic.

And as for the story that the ship's hull number spelled out the phrase 'No Pope' in reverse ... it's a load of arse gravy. The myth states that spooked Catholic shipwrights warned that the ship was doomed. However, the Titanic never bore any such number (its official Board of Trade designation was 131,428 and her yard number was 401) and the workers at Harland and Wolff's shipyard were predominantly Protestant.

Lastly, I'll leave you with the curious coincidence of the HMS Titan. Here’s the story:

'In 1898, Morgan Robertson had his book The Wreck of the Titan published. The story revolves around the maiden voyage of a massive 46,000 ton ocean liner called The Titan. The ship was believed to be unsinkable by its designer and builders. Then, on the voyage from England to New York in April, it collides with an iceberg and sinks. Many passengers are killed as there are too few lifeboats. Sound familiar? There do seem to be some extraordinary coincidences with the story of the Titanic. On April the 15th 1912, the supposedly unsinkable 45,000 ton liner hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage from England to New York and sank. Half the passengers were drowned because there weren’t enough lifeboats. And, spookily (although I’d love to know the source for this), there was a copy of The Wreck of the Titan in the ship’s library.'

It would be so easy to read some kind of eerie premonition into this. And many, many books, websites and TV shows do just that. Following the release of The Da Vinci Code movie, every TV channel stuffed their schedules with programmes about the Holy Grail, The Knights Templar, Nostradamus and the Priory of Sion. There were newspaper articles and magazine articles and I was soon utterly fed up with it all. Most of the programmes had nothing new to say and simply recycled old ideas, many of which have since been shown to be complete rubbish. Among them was the 'mysterious’ Titan coincidence. But is it really that much of a coincidence?

Let me ask you; if you were setting out to write a thriller about a liner sinking, what liner would you choose? The biggest of course. Brand new. A cutting edge ocean liner with all the latest features. Maybe even unsinkable. And she'd have to be on her maiden voyage too, surely? On a maiden voyage, you can pack the ship with celebs and millionaires and even the designer too. Otherwise, where's the unexpected surprise? Where's the drama? There’d be no story if you wrote it about an average ocean liner of average size on an average voyage would there?

So, you have a huge ship – the biggest in the world. What would you call it? Majestic? Gigantic? There aren’t that many words for enormous that sound right as the name of a ship, are there? SS Humungous?

Now, we have a huge ship on its maiden voyage. How could we sink it? Our options are surprisingly limited. This was the turn of the century – before suicide bombers and Bermuda Triangle-type myths had started growing - so what would have been big and powerful enough to sink a liner? A tidal wave maybe? An explosion of some kind? Or what about an iceberg? Like the ones that were common hazards in the Atlantic at that time. Like the ones that sank the SS Pacific and the SS Persia on its maiden voyage in 1856.

It’s really not that much of a coincidence is it really? Even if Robertson had changed some of the details - if he’d called the ship The Gigantic instead – people would still say that the stories are eerily close. They’d just be saying ‘Ooh! Freaky! Gigantic means the same thing as Titanic!’ And it makes me ask the question … how many more features could we change and people would still think of it as a spooky coincidence? For example, what if the ‘Gigantic’ was 56,000 tons instead of 46,000? Or what if it sank in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic? Or was on its 13th voyage?

We can be very simplistic about weighting coincidence. It seems to be the case that if a coincidence seems twice as improbable, people assume that it’s twice as unlikely to happen. Of course, the very random nature of reality means that’s not true at all. Disaster can strike from any direction at any time.

All it might take is one guy steering the ship the wrong way.