Monday, January 31, 2011

End of January Mindf*ck

A curious little optical illusion to end January with. Believe it or not, the two squares marked A and B are exactly the same colour. Don't believe me? Then print it and check for yourself by folding the paper so that A and B overlap. Or, if you're more technically minded, grab the image in an art program and cut and paste chunks from the two squares into each other. You'll see I'm right. This curious effect is caused by a mechanism in the brain called 'colour constancy'. It means that when we see a colour in shadow, our brains know that the colour is artificially darker and compensate by brightening it. It's all very clever and just a bit unnerving.

If you want to more about visual colour theory - especially all of you fellow artists out there - I can do no better than to direct you to this excellent blogpost here by Jason Cohen. It may make you rethink that old-fashioned colour wheel that you were shown in school ...

365 Doodles - Day 31

And so we reach the last day of January and the first whole month of doodles posted. I'm rather enjoying this.Sadly, I don't think I'll have time to do something brand new and original today, so here's a joke written by Chris Hale and drawn by me. I seem to be drawing a lot of Piglets recently ...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The scale of it all

A very nice little animation by Brad Goodspeed showing us how big other solar system objects would look if they were the same distance from Earth as our Moon. Humbling.

365 Doodles - Day 30

Today's doodles are of Zahhak (meaning ‘he who has 10,000 horses’),a character from ancient Persian mythology. In The Avesta, he is described as a monster with three mouths, six eyes, and three heads. In other texts he is described as a man with a snake growing from each shoulder that could not be removed and which fed on human brains. Zahhak ruled Persia for 1000 years after deposing the fruitily-named King Jam and had a gang of demons – or daevas – to help him. He was eventually defeated by a nine year old called Fredon who hit him three times with a mace and then stabbed him three times with a sword. From out of the wounds crept all manner of crawling and slithering things. The god Ormazd ordered that Zahhak be chained up on a high mountain somewhere to avoid pest infestation. It is said that at the end of the world, Zahhak will be freed for just long enough to be slain by a resurrected hero called Kirsasp. Hardly seems worth undoing the padlocks. Here's the finished illustration:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 29

A page of rough character sketches drawn in a West End pub yesterday. It's important when designing a character to explore it from different angles - to see it in 3D in your head. It's also important to try out a range of facial expressions too. These are very early designs for a possible children's book being written by a friend. There's no issue with posting them here as the character will undoubtedly evolve and change over the next few months.

Friday, January 28, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 28

Blimey. Nearly a month in to Doodlethon 2011 (that's how I'm branding it) and here are some giants.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another satisifed customer ...

The always witty and erudite @vivmondo with a meerkat sketch I did. He is, quite literally, hooting with pleasure. Or has sat on the iron.

And here's me being equally delighted (if uncharacteristically frowny-looking) with one of his insane and hilarious doodles - the English Top Cat Premier Feline. I love it. He's one of the most consistently funny guys on Twitter and I'm proud to own an original.

We did a doodleswap. Now we own a piece of each other's artwork.

Fancy a doodleswap yourself? Contact me!

365 Doodles - Day 27

Well ... have you tried shaving without using a mirror?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 26

A bit more than a doodle maybe but weird shit all the same. What is going on in my head? I blame the five hours sleep I had last night.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 25

The original doodle for the painting I've just finished called 'I was brave today!' The idea is that if even tiny Piglet can strap on an axe and shield when needed, anyone can be brave when the circumstances demand it. Here's the painting:

Monday, January 24, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 24 - Bonus

Not so much a doodle as me arseing around with a flatbed scanner. What larks.

365 Doodles - Day 24

Another page from the notebook/doodlepad. You see? This is why I don't do caricatures or portraits. I'm shite at it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hello? Reality? You still there?

Two wholly CGI movies - an advert and a comedy rainforest - that demonstrate just how scarily real computer graphics can be. The camera does lie. You can no longer believe what you see.

Flat for rent: Three up, Two dead

A couple of years ago I sat in on a junket with Being Human creator Toby Whithouse. Here's the gist of what he had to say plus the informal interview I did with him afterwards. It was first published in Tripwire magazine:

‘I've got this friend. He says the human condition, the human nature, 'being human' - is to be cold and alone. Like someone lost in the woods. It's safe to say he's a 'glass-is-half-empty' kind of guy. And I see nature differently. I see the ancient machinery of the world. Elegant and ferocious, neither good nor bad, it’s full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden - until the right moment.’

That’s Mitchell – a vampire – describing his best friend George who just happens to be a werewolf. And just in case you’re one of the very few people who’s never seen BBC3’s hugely popular new genre series Being Human, I should say that George and Mitchell share a house in Bristol with Annie. Who’s a ghost. Welcome to the strangest flat-share since The Young Ones.

Being Human began life as one of six pilot shows broadcast during February 2008. Phoo Action – based on Mat Wakeham and Jamie Hewlett’s Get the Freebies strip in The Face - was picked up for the full six episodes. However, an online petition by Being Human lovers demanding more gathered over 3000 signatures in just a couple of weeks. Consequently, the BBC changed its decision and Being Human was commissioned instead. Following some cast changes and few tweaks to the overall concept – what series creator Toby Whithouse refers to as a ‘reboot’ – the show was launched in 2009 to huge acclaim. A second series is now in production.

I spoke to Toby recently after a Q and A session for writers at London’s Soho Theatre. What follows is a mix of my questions and those asked during the session itself by Kate Rowland of the BBC Writers Room and the audience.

TW: Touchpaper approached me asking for a new This Life flat-share type thing. But I felt it was the dullest idea ever. I created three main characters but, in nearly a year, got nowhere. Meanwhile, I’d been writing a romcom about a Jewish werewolf called Mild Thing. We decided to have one last meeting about the flat-share project when I suddenly thought ‘Why not combine the two? Let’s turn George into a werewolf, Mitchell into a vampire and Annie into a ghost?’ The BBC read it and asked for a pilot.

Did you write the pilot episode as a stand-alone or with a series in mind?

TW: It was always written as Episode One. I had the series ‘bible’ - the arcs for the characters - but I just didn’t have all of the stories mapped out. For example the only thing I knew about Episode Six was the part when Herrick (the vampire leader) walks into the room and George comes out of the shadows. And at the end of Episode Two, I knew Tully (another werewolf) would say to George ‘One day you will use this’ and that's what was used in that scene in Episode Six.

How did it feel when you heard about the petition?

TW: All hell broke loose - we really didn't expect that response. What got the BBC though was that this was the audience they’d been trying to engage with … and there they were online. On the message boards there were people saying this was obviously an orchestrated campaign by the producers - but it wasn't! If you saw the producers you'd understand ... The BBC had kept the show 'in development' but then along came the petition and six weeks after the pilot was shown the series was commissioned. Amazing.

Vampires and werewolves seem to be everywhere nowadays. What makes yours different?

TW: We asked ourselves ‘If vampires and werewolves were real, what life would they lead?’ We reckoned they’d have ancillary jobs, live on the fringes of society. Giving Herrick an utterly mundane job as a policeman gave him anonymity. It allows tension between the two worlds - Ours and theirs. And if you have a race of immortals it would be natural for them to then think ‘I'm sick of this’.

You work with big themes.

TW: That's what I love. High concept. I was a huge comic book fan. I secretly craved to write Doctor Who. The supernatural element allows you to write about the humanity the characters are striving towards.

Did you do much supernatural research?

TW: I did all my research when I was a kid!

The vampires changed between the pilot and the series. So did the casting. What prompted that?

TW: Because it wasn't commissioned straight off, we had to recast due to the actors' commitments. Adrian Lester and Andrea Riseborough were both brilliant, but recasting their roles caused a re-think. It changed the dynamic of the characters. But it was a positive change, particularly as the pilot vampires were a bit too Anne Rice for my liking. It was a good opportunity.

Were you involved in the casting?

TW: I was sent DVD compilations of actors. When you are casting there is a sense of relief when the person is right. The actor Greg Chillin read for Mitchell at first, and then he came back and read for Owen and he was that character. Perfect.

As a former actor yourself do you ever feel tempted to write yourself a role?

TW: I would hope my writing would attract a better actor than myself! Pragmatism overtakes vanity when you see what other actors do. The character of Herrick didn't go through much of a journey from Episodes One through to Six on paper but Jason's (Jason Watkins) performance brought nuances to the character that made it better. Having been an actor means that I am both sympathetic and unsympathetic with other actors. I always give them a character name as it looks better on your CV, and I always try to give them a gag. But if they say something like ‘This line doesn't work for me’ then I'll say ‘Really? It's in the script.’

You like to keep control over your work.

TW: Total autonomy if I can! When I was sent a copy of the Hotel Babylon episode I wrote, it was very different to my script. Mild Thing was my first attempt to get more control over my work. I wouldn't lose gags because of the wrong stress etc. I actually did 18 months of stand-up as I had total control over my output that way. Being on BBC3 is good because the level of intervention is far less than on BBC1 or BBC2. A good example is in the episode where Annie whispers a secret about death to Owen - if that had been BBC1 or BBC2 I would have had to explain it.

How do you keep control when using other writers?

TW: I rule over them like an angry god.

Did you choose the other writers?

TW: I knew their work well and knew they would bring the right tone to the episodes.

How did that relationship work?

TW: For example, one of the stories – Episode Four – had Mitchell befriending a local kid. It was one of the first stories taken from the ‘bible’. All I knew was we'd have that scene with the kid and mother in the hospital and then the scene when Mitchell goes into the room with Herrick and says ‘I'm in’. That was all that was handed to the writer. We spend a couple of days with the writers and discuss the shows and then storyline with them individually, give notes on treatment then notes on the scripts.

Who would you say are your influences?

TW: Alan Moore, Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet – the TV series), PJ Hammond, Aaron Sorkin (The Wire)...

What determines the number of episodes?

TW: Money. We simply don’t have the revenue from advertisers and sponsors like they have in the States, which enables them to make long runs. However, Series Two will have eight episodes. That’s bad enough. Twenty two would terrify me.

Was budget the reason why there is little CGI in the series?

TW: Yes. We ruled out CGI and everything was done with prosthetics and animatronics. In a way it actually makes it more tangible as it actually exists. The light falls on it all in a 'real' way.

Like the difference between the ‘real’ Jabba the Hutt and the CGI version?

TW: Exactly. We were also accused of being ‘a bit obvious’ as we based the vampires in a funeral parlour. But that's the genius of it! Cliche was all we could afford!

Is that also why the series is set in Bristol, rather than London?

TW: The show is made by BBC Wales so we only had a certain distance we could film within. Cardiff had become a bit overcrowded so it made sense to go to Bristol.

How many episodes of series 2 will you write?

TW: Four well or six not very well. We will 'cast' writers based on the genre of the episodes. If one is comic and the next is scary, it gives the series a natural flow. I have storylined the new series and put forward the ideas for character arcs and villains. These can be rejected or expanded.

You’ve had a varied writing career. What was it like writing for Doctor Who (Toby wrote the series 2 episode 'School Reunion') and how did you go about the task of re-introducing Sarah Jane Smith?

TW: The whole show was reinvented and Sarah Jane had to move along too. My work on No Angels was part of the reason they asked me to do it. I had written the 'feisty woman' stuff before and Sarah Jane was such an iconic 70s character – a young, fresh, sexy journalist who was ahead of her time. So she was easy to write for. Doctor Who and Torchwood were both easy to get into as the characters had been so well-written by Russell T Davies. It was K-9 that was hard. Totally anachronistic and a pain in the arse! I did try leaving him out but they noticed …

K9 was the straight man to Tom Baker’s Doctor. Is the comedy element of Being Human important?

TW: I have to write scripts with gags. When you write a drama with 20 gags everyone says – ‘Isn't he funny?’ but if you write an hour long comedy with 20 gags, no-one will find it funny. The fact I once did stand up helps. You get instant feedback which is exciting. And there’s the unpredictable nature of it all; what is a great set one night could be awful the next. I try to keep that feeling when writing.

After Being Human, would you be comfortable writing on someone else's show again?

TW: I am doing that at the moment … but can't say any more.

How do you approach your writing?

TW: Like a day job. Which it is. I start at 8.30am and try to get five pages done per day. I go back and revise them so they are five good pages. By 5pm I am brain dead. It’s a very solitary existence and sometimes a little too much introspection leads to dark places within yourself - and the weirder you can become. On the other hand, you have no-one to delegate to and it's very empowering and responsible.

So what can we expect in series 2?

TW: More of the same … but there’s a whole new story arc involving the character you saw interviewing Owen at the end of series 1. I will say no more but it’s going to be fantastic.

One last question … any plans to introduce more famous monsters? As George and Mitchell work in a hospital you could have a heavily bandaged patient walking along a corridor …

TW: What? Oh no … I wish you hadn’t said that. That’s so tempting. But that would be really jumping the shark. Wouldn’t it? Damn you!

Toby Whithouse – thank you.

Toby Whithouse began his career as a stand up comedian and actor in shows and films such as Holby City, Kavanagh QC, Goodnight Mr Tom, Bridget Jones’ Diary and The House of Eliott. He moved to writing when his play Jump Mr Malinoff, Jump won the Verity Bargate Award in 1998. After this, he was offered writing work on TV shows such as Where the heart is, No angels, Hotel Babylon, Attachments, Torchwood and Doctor Who.

Huge thanks to Kate Rowland who conducted the stage interview and to Lara Greenway who recorded the interviews.

No hidden Satanic message - Just a Cumberland Spicy

It's true, folks. I've proved it.

Jesus, played backwards, is Sausage.

365 Doodles - Day 23

Doodled while chatting to my mate Joel Meadows on the phone this morning. What does it mean?!?!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 22 (Additional)

Just so that you realise that I've ALWAYS doodled, here are a few that go waaaaaay back. The oldest (dinosaur stampede) is from 1971 when I was 10 years old.
Once a doodler ... always a doodler.

365 Doodles - Day 22

Inspired by the Museum of Everything, a page from my doodlepad yesterday.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Everything is fun

I had a day out in London today. I was meeting some friends for drinks but decided to go in early and take a stroll up to Primrose Hill to visit the extraordinary Museum of Everything.

The name, you'll gather, is a gimmick. Of course it doesn't contain everything. But it does have one of the oddest collections I've seen in many a day. I'd like to show you exactly what I mean but this stark warning was posted on the walls in every room and an eagle-eyed curator watched my every move in case my hand twitched towards a camera case.

Instead, what I have is a meagre collection of images pulled off the interweb. They will, at least, give you a sniff if not the full quarter pounder and fries.

The Museum - curated by one of the founders of Brit-art, Sir Peter Blake - appears to be a repository for every obsolete puppet, toy carousel, poster, banner and exhibit that ever once graced a freakshow, funfair or circus. There are hundreds of individual pieces and everything has a kind of well-worn, grubby creepiness to it like props from a League of Gentlemen episode. There are grinning Mr Punchs and gurning ventriloquist dolls, weird angular shadow puppets and mannikins with scary painted eyes that follow you around the room. When you enter the place, you pass first through a little coffee bar selling 'lukewarm tea, punchy De'Longhi coffee and cakelets sourced from Lidlania and Iceland' and down a corridor covered in photos of giants and midgets and cases displaying General Tom Thumb's boots and a photo album of exceptionally hairy individuals.

The Museum boasts a good collection of 'outsider art'; the kind of work that is made outside of the established gallery system and usually by untrained artists. Amongst the works on display was an amazing tapestry depicting a birds-eye view of Wonderland with Alice and all of her adventures. It's big and bold and colourful and yet every figure is so poorly executed that it makes you smile. It's like listening to Les Dawson play the piano. Or watching an Ed D Wood movie. Or an ITV sitcom. It's awful but it's charming and hilarious. Okay, so the ITV sitcom was a bad example. On the opposite wall is another set of tapestries made by Ted Willcox in the 1950s. His subject? Girlie mags. Brilliant!

There's a room full of the miniature carousels and automata of Arthur Windley which makes you jump when it suddenly bursts into colourful, noisy animated life as you enter. But the star of the exhibition is undoubtedly the loopy taxidermy of Walter Potter. Some of his pieces are straightforward; dead family pets, birds on perches etc. But then you start discovering weirdness in the form of three legged geese, two headed lambs and worse.
And then you come to the crowning glory - Potter's animal tableaux. Here you'll find families of toads playing in a municipal park. Or kittens at school. Or squirrels playing cards. It's total madness. The largest piece depicts the funeral of Cock Robin. Inside the case there must be at least 50 animals and birds all acting out the poem in glassy-eyed stillness.

The Museum of Everything is there until February the 11th before it moves on. I suggest you give it a visit if you can. Entrance is free but they welcome a donation, large or small, to help with the running costs.
Leaving the museum I decided to walk into central London via Chalk Farm and Camden. As always there was plenty of street art to be found and some pieces were very good. This one was on the wall just up from the museum and made me laugh. I agree with the sentiment too:

Walking further down Regents Park Road and over the railway bridge towards Chalk Farm, I came across this enormous leopard.

You get the scale of it in this next photo:

What I really liked about this piece was that it's interactive. Get up close and you can see that people have left individual messages all over the big cat's body. Quite contemporary messages too:

After a long but pleasant stroll I ended up in Holborn. As I came up towards New Oxford Street I was struck by the unlikely nature of this grafitti:

How on earth did they do this? There is the tiniest of ledges and thin window frames for them to cling to and the whole thing floats dangerously above a solid concrete pavement. Perhaps they got inside the building and wrote in reverse on the glass?
Passing by Drury Lane, I got a photo of the White Hart - London's oldest licensed premises. Reputedly first licensed in 1216, Old Bailey archives suggest that it was a popular watering hole for London's notorious highwaymen and regular customers included Jack Shephard and Richard (Dick) Turpin just prior to his hanging in 1739. Condemned men also stopped by for a final drink and the comfort of a good (bad) woman before facing the hangman's noose.

My final photos are from the new business development behind Centrepoint and called Central St Giles. Here you'll find this very pleasing bright red blob called Ob 8 by Steven Gontarski. I really like the way that it hangs in space among all of the grey concrete and glass. All the buildings around are reflected in its high gloss surface. Very pleasing.

Then I met up with my good friend, photographer Mark Page, for a swift drink in the dingy and crassly-decorated rock pub known as the Intrepid Fox before going on to meet a great bunch of people I'd met on Twitter.

All in all, a very good day. I must have another one.

365 Doodles - Day 21

An early one today as I'll be in London most of the day. A page of doodles imagining a dogs versus cats/ pirates versus authority kids' book that I'll probably never write. Good idea though. Well, I think so!

I'm a bit of a numpty but ...

I don't pretend to know anything about politics. I don't pretend to know anything about the monetary system and fiscal policy. In fact I have a deep misunderstanding of numbers - so deep it's at atomic level - and can barely count to 21 if I'm naked. Or 20 and 1/2 in cold weather. However, it strikes me that the whole student tuition fees debacle is missing a major trick.

The argument put forward by the Tories/Libdems is that it's not fair to tax the public to pay for students to have free higher education. They argue that it's fairer to give the student a loan to cover their fees and then, if upon graduating, the student gets a job that earns more than £21k per annum, they can start paying the loan back. And, you know what? It kind of sounds fair and practical. However, there is a third way surely?

We are in the midst of a global recession it's true. However, there is still plenty of money out there, especially among the large corporations. Something like the proposed Robin Hood Tax would easily pay for higher education without causing major losses. In fact, it could work as advertising too with scholarships and courses named after the benefactors. Companies would be investing in the education of their future staff and management.

My worry is that the higher fees will encourage students to go for courses that are more likely to land them a well-paid job ... so that they can pay off their fees debt. After all, no one wants to study for a career that pays bugger all. And where's the incentive to study hard for a mid-range paying job? £21k a year isn't that much these days, especially in the South East where renting even a one bedroomed flat will set you back around £700 per month. Add a huge debt on top and it could be crippling. This would lead to dwindling numbers taking courses that don't traditionally lead to lucrative careers. I'm thinking here of things like fine arts, poetry, sociology, philosophy etc. If that happens, the courses will shut down leaving more spaces for the lawyers, accountants etc.

What kind of a pressure are we placing on young shoulders by making them panic over the dreaded £21k threshold? It's very sad. And so easy to fix.

Isn't it?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Best news story ever?

Goodbye Little Green Men

They’re here, apparently. They’re visiting our world on a regular basis. Some – the mysterious ‘Men In Black’ – may have infiltrated prominent positions within our society to act as fifth columnists. Others are leaving indecipherable messages for us in corn fields. Sinister ‘greys’ steal cattle and mutilate horses and even abduct humans in order to do experiments on them, often with a particular focus on harvesting our eggs and sperm or putting machines up our bottoms.

They travel to our world in cigar-shaped motherships and land in saucer-like scout craft. The US government has known about them for years – certainly ever since the well-publicised Roswell incident of 1951 - and may even be collaborating with them to get their hands on new technologies like stealth bombers and Pop Tarts. Some say that the Illuminati - the secret rulers of the world – are a reptiloid species that includes among its number the British royal family and a succession of Republican US presidents. Others say that the visitors are here to guide us, to shepherd us towards the next stage in our evolution as a species. A third, more worrying claim, is that they’re using our stolen gametes to create a race of part-alien part-human hybrids with which to launch an invasion. Watch the skies …

If any part of that paragraph is true, it is the most astounding thing to have happened to humanity since we climbed down from the trees and walked upright – assuming that’s what happened and aliens didn’t bio-engineer us. Aliens from other worlds are visiting us? They walk among us? Can it really be true? An awful lot of people seem to think so.

In a recent (April 2010) Reuters/ Ipsos poll of 23,000 adults in 22 countries, more than 20% of those polled said that they believe in aliens. 40% of people from India and China believe that aliens disguised as humans are all around us. Meanwhile, according to a 2002 SKY News poll of people in the UK, 65% of people think that UFOs are alien spaceships. A similar Gallup poll taken in the USA in 1997 put that figure at 45%. The poll also revealed that 71% of Americans are positive that the US government knows more than it’s letting on. In the same year a poll by CNN and Time magazine showed that 80% of citizens believed in a cover-up, 50% believed in abductions, 64% that aliens have contacted us and 74% that aliens would look humanoid. A staggering 3% - that’s a potential nine million people – claimed to have been abducted. That’s around the population of London.

While we’re talking about polls, it’s interesting to note that at the time of the first recorded modern UFO sighting in 1947, 90% of Americans taking part in a Gallup poll had heard of flying saucers but 29% put them down to optical illusions and only 9% said that UFOs were anything other than hoaxes, US or Russian secret weapons or weather balloons. By 1957, a Trendex poll showed that belief in saucers as alien craft had grown to 25.3%. It could be that aliens had started to visit the Earth with greater frequency after Kenneth Arnold’s famous 1947 sighting. But it’s also possible that increased media awareness, plus the Golden Age of Hollywood sci-fi, helped public opinion along. Classic films like The Thing from another world (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It came from outer space (1953), Earth vs the flying saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) mostly portrayed flying saucers and their occupants as dangerous threats to humanity. No one ever made a film called Fluffy green bunnies from Mars want cuddles. There were exceptions of course, such as the excellent The day the Earth stood still (1951) and This island Earth (1955), which said more about human fear and irrationality than about alien aggression. But these kinds of films were in the minority. By 1971, polls showed that 54% of people believed in UFOs and 76% suspected a government cover-up (National Enquirer). And the percentages have stayed pretty constant ever since.

It’s also notable that arguably the most famous and most often-quoted alien abduction story – that of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961 – occurred just days after an episode of The Outer Limits was aired that contained aliens very similar to that remembered by Betty in her dreams. Their abduction seems to have become the template for just about every alien abduction since and it’s notable just how few stories of ‘Greys with wraparound eyes’ exist before the Hill’s story broke. Of course, history is full of stories of abductions by fairies, goblins, demons and devils. It’s remarkable how similar many of these historical accounts are to modern UFO abduction stories. According to Robert Bigelow, who part-funded a Roper survey of abductees in July-September 1991, more than four million Americans or some 100 million humans worldwide have been abducted by aliens. As Carl Sagan wryly commented at the time: ‘It’s surprising more of the neighbours haven’t noticed.’

However, The topic under discussion here isn’t whether UFOs are alien spaceships or even whether aliens are visiting the planet. It’s the aliens themselves I want to discuss. In particular, I want to look at the likelihood of them being humanoid.

Next time you get a chance, take a close look at a creepy crawly. It may be a snail or an ant, a spider or a woodlouse, or something more exotic found in the sea or the rainforest. Look it over from head to tail (if it has either) and ask yourself this question: ‘How different am I from this creature?’

If the creature you’re looking at is a starfish, there are some interesting differences between it and you. You are bilaterally symmetrical; the left side of your body is pretty much a mirror image of the right. You have two arms and two legs and two eyes. A starfish, however, has pentaradial symmetry and usually between five and 15 arms (it is nearly always a multiple of five) radiating from the central ‘hub’. Some species have 50 or more but, however many arms the starfish has, each has a simple eye at the tip. What’s more, if a limb is severed, it can be regrown. In fact, providing some of the central hub is attached, a severed leg can also regenerate a whole new starfish. The starfish’s ‘blood’ is water, pumped around the body by way of a vascular system that replaces the need for muscles, sinews and tendons. Starfish move by way of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hydraulic tubular ‘feet’. Its skeleton – a series of interlocking calcified plates or ossicles – is on the outside. Their mouth is at the centre of the lower surface of their bodies and their anus directly above on the top surface. Some species can ‘throw’ their stomach over their prey and drag it back inside the body to be absorbed. Others push their inverted stomachs inside shellfish and start to dissolve them from the inside out. Some of the digestive system is found inside the legs. A starfish has a complex nervous system that allows it to register touch, temperature, light, orientation and odour. However, it has no central brain; the nervous system acts as a simple ‘distributed’ brain. Starfish commonly reproduce by releasing eggs and sperm into the sea and letting them find each other. The fertilised eggs can turn into miniature starfish but the larvae of many species are bilaterally symmetrical free-swimming plankton that look a bit like spiders made of jelly.

If the creature crawling up your arm is a common house spider, it also differs from you in a number of important ways. Firstly, it has an external skeleton made of chitin – the stuff your fingernails are made of – covered in sensory hairs, or setae, that perform different functions. Many are concerned with touch, as you’d imagine, but some are chemical receptors. A spider can, in general terms, smell and taste with its hair. Inside the spider’s suit of armour, you’ll find a bunch of organs floating in a fluid called haemolymph. This is pushed into the hollow legs by hydraulic pressure enabling the spider to walk, which is why when a spider dries out or loses its blood, its legs curl inwards. Spiders have eight legs and modified pairs of limbs near their anus called spinnerets that extrude silk; a protein fibre that hardens on contact with air and which has a tensile strength greater than steel or kevlar. Despite this, it can be stretched to 140% of its original length without snapping and is incredibly light. A strand of spider silk long enough to encircle the Earth would weigh less than 1lb (500 grams). Spiders don’t have jaws and cannot swallow solid food. Instead, they inject a liquefying agent into the victim’s body by way of stabbing fangs and then drink the resultant ‘soup’. Most spiders breathe by way of a ‘book lung’; a respiratory organ that looks like a bellows. The moist ‘pages’ absorb oxygen directly from the air. Spiders have four pairs of eyes. Some species, such as the jumping spiders, have extraordinarily good eyesight; ten times better than the best insect eyesight (dragonflies) and one fifth as acute as a human’s.

When we turn to more exotic creatures, things get even stranger. Osedax mucofloris—otherwise known as the bone-eating snot-flower worm – lives on the seabed and eats the bones of deceased whales. Symbion Pandora lives only on the ‘lips’ of Norwegian lobsters and has a sex life that involves at least three distinct body forms and two penises. There are frogs that break their own bones to create claws (Trichobatrachus robustus), and solar-powered sea slugs that ingest algae and then benefit from being able to photosynthesise food. There’s a tongue-eating louse (Cymothoa exigua) that attaches itself to a fishes’ tongue, feeds off the blood supply causing it to atrophy, then lives in the mouth thereafter performing the role of the now dead tongue.
Herring communicate by farting, butterflies taste with their feet and there is a simple jellyfish-like creature called Turritopsis nutricula that is effectively immortal. Once it gets old, it reverses the ageing process until it becomes a sexually immature polyp and then has its life all over again. It can do this indefinitely. Then there are the tardigrades, or water bears, or moss piglets (aww …), a group of tiny, cute soft-bodied micro-creatures that can live at temperatures below –273°c and above 150°c. They can also go without water for a decade, withstand pressures of up to 6000 atmospheres – that’s six times deeper than the deepest part of the ocean – and can take 1000 times the dose of radiation that it would take to kill you. They can even survive in a vacuum as space scientists learned when they popped a few into low-Earth orbit for 10 days on the Biopan 6 Experimental Platform.

No matter how oddly bizarre a creature may be, they all share something in common with us; their DNA. DNA is the complex nucleic acid that decides the differences between a horse and a seahorse and a seaweed. And, indeed, the defining features of every distinct living organism on this planet. Everything from a vampire finch to a winkle, a diplodocus to Johnny Depp, has the same DNA inside its cells. It is the particular arrangement of the components of the DNA strand in each that dictates who sucks blood, who weighs 14 tons and who collects an Oscar.

Imagine four switches, each of which has two positions – Off and On. By choosing which to switch off and which to switch on, we can create 16 different permutations:


Now imagine a bank of several hundred thousand switches and the possible number of permutations becomes astronomically large. That’s basically what DNA is. Every change of switch position results in a small dviation. It means that even our closest genetic relatives, our siblings and parents who have just a few different switches, look slightly different to us. Chimpanzees, who share around 98% of the same DNA sequence as us look significantly different. We share 50% of our DNA with bananas and 51% with pineapples. So, if all of the life forms on Earth in all of their extreme diversity are products of a single nucleic acid arranged in a myriad different ways … just how different could life look on a world that has evolved in a completely different way?

The late, great biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould once created a thought experiment he called 'replaying life's tape.' ‘You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past’, he said. ‘Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original. I suggest any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken. […] Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.’ Our very existence is based upon a million, billion, trillion, quadrillion tiny chance events and advantageous mutations. So, already the chances of us meeting like this are highly unlikely. But if that were not extraordinary enough, consider this …

You are only able to read this book because all of your ancestors survived; every single one of them, going right back to our humble squidgy origins. Life is believed to have begun around four billion years ago – that’s 4,000,000,000 years – and yet, from those earliest, primitive, single-celled proto-life forms right up to the present day, there is an unbroken chain of progenitors leading to you. Every one of your ancestors – the upright apeman, the tree-dwelling primate, the primitive mammal, the synapsid, the amphibian, the fish, the agnathan, the primitive notochordate, the pool of organic goop – every single one of them managed to stay healthy long enough to mature, find a mate and get laid. What are the chances of that happening again if we replayed life’s tape? Would there necessarily be otters or elephants or bedbugs if we did the same? The chance event that means that one animal dies while another, slightly different, lives is what decides whose genes make it to the next generation. It really is all very random. And things could have been very different indeed.

In 1909, a paleontologist called Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered some interesting fossils in a black shale bed in Yoho National Park, high up in the Canadian Rockies. It became known as the Burgess Shale (as it is near the Burgess Pass) and, over several expeditions, Walcott collected many fossils from the shale that he identified as new species of arthropods. However, later examination of Walcott’s fossils in the 1980s revealed a startling truth – what Walcott had discovered were not new species but wholly new types of organisms. Work by Harry Whittington, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris showed that many of the Burgess Shale creatures in fact constituted whole new phyla

A phylum is a large family group. The phylum to which we belong is Chordata. We are chordates. The Chordata includes all mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and extinct creatures like dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mammal-like reptiles (pelycosaurs and therapsids); everything, in fact, with a spinal chord. Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda, which also includes other jointed-legged animals like spiders, scorpions, woodlice, lobsters, isopods and the extinct trilobites. All of the animals on Earth consist of just 30-odd phyla; 95% of all species exist within just nine. Therefore the discovery of any new phylum is an extraordinary find. The Burgess Shale, and discoveries of similar species in the Maotianshan Shales of Yunnan Province in China and Emu Bay, Australia, have added at least six new phyla to the story of life. Many of the species still defy classification today.

The creatures of the Burgess Shale lived in the Middle Cambrian Era, around 500 million years ago when there was a sudden ‘explosion’ of diversity in animal types and body-plans. This is sometimes referred to as the Big Bang of Evolution. It was a time when nature experimented with many different designs for life, most of which proved ultimately to be unsuccessful. Among the fossils so beautifully preserved in the finely textured shale were creatures like opabinia, which had five eyes on stalks and a snout like a vacuum cleaner hose tipped with a grasping claw. There was the huge (at three feet long it was one of the largest animals on the planet at that time) predatory anomalocaris with its grasping arms and waste disposal-type grinding mouth, and the wonderfully named hallucigenia; scientists still don’t know which end of the animal was the head and which was the tail but one side has silicon spikes and the other a set of grasping mobile tentacles. Everything we now call a chordate may have evolved from a flat, blade-shaped worm creature called pikaea.

Sadly, the opabinia didn’t make it (although there is some evidence that the tardigrades are their descendants). But what if they had? What if, like pikaea, they’d evolved into millions of different species as different from each other as bullfrogs and blue whales? What if one of those branches on the evolutionary tree evolved into an intelligent species? What would we look like if we’d evolved from a creature with five eyes and a claw-tipped trunk? You can be pretty sure it wouldn’t be terribly humanoid.

Now consider this; part of the reason we look the way we do and live the way we do is the planet we’re on. Our gravity (dictated by the mass of our world), our distance from the Sun, the stability provided by a large moon, the speed with which we rotate and travel in our solar orbit … all of these factors allow life of a certain kind to have evolved. But what some or all of those factors were different? What if we’d evolved on a low gravity world? Or a world where gravity exerts the same pressures that we find at the bottom of the deepest oceans? What if it were so hot that liquid water couldn’t exist? What if there were no oxygen? The fact that so-called extremophiles exist on this planet that can live in environments that would kill humans instantly shows that life will find a way. There are forms of bacteria that can live in excessively acid or alkali environments that would dissolve flesh. There are microbes that live in molten asphalt and boiling thermal springs. There are hagfish, crabs and tube worms that cluster around thermal vents on the ocean floor that derive all of their nutrition from chemical energy – they get nothing from the Sun. And, just recently, a creature called a loriciferan was discovered that doesn’t need oxygen; something that was previously believed to be essential for all life. Three species of the creature, which are only a millimetre long and resemble jellyfish encased in shells, were found 2.2 miles (3.5km) underwater on the ocean floor, 124 miles (200km) off the coast of Crete. One by one, the conditions we consider to be necessary for life to exist are being stripped away. If creatures can exist without oxygen, without sunlight and even in the vacuum of space, then the universe may be teeming with life that doesn’t necessarily need a clone of the Earth to live on.

To my layman’s eyes, scientists looking for life elsewhere seem to fall into three distinct camps. There is the CETI or SETI brigade who are training radio telescopes at areas of space in the hoping of hearing someone say ‘Ahoy there!’ Then there are the astrobiologists and the xenobiologists. The main difference, it seems to me, is that astrobiologists tend to focus upon finding 'Goldilocks' worlds where conditions are 'just right' for life like that on Earth to have evolved. They have scored a success recently by finding the planet Gliese 681g which appears to be much like Earth. Xenobiology, meanwhile, is more adventurous. Dr Jack Cohen, currently at the University of Warwick and a noted and popular xenobiologist, puts it like this: ‘Instead of looking for carbon copies of Earth, we ought to be theorising about and looking for the different kinds of planets, and other potential habitats for life, that exist out there in the wide universe. ‘Exotic’ habitats should be seen not as obstacles, but as opportunities; instead of dismissing them with an airy wave of the hand and saying, ‘Obviously life couldn’t exist there’, we ought to be asking, ‘What would it have to be like if it did?’’

What, for instance, would life look like if it were based on silicon rather than carbon? It's been a staple of science fiction for years; think of Terry Pratchett's rock-eating trolls, the planet-wide life form in Arthur C Clarke's Crusade, the alien in the Alien Trilogy, and the crystalline entity and the Horta of Star Trek's Silicon Avatar and The Devil in the Dark episodes. Silicon-based aliens are everywhere. But why do sci-fi writers pick on silicon as opposed to other elements like helium or mercury or calcium? It's basically because silicon is the closest thing to carbon in terms of structure.

It's interesting to speculate what a silicon-based life form would be like. It's more interesting to ask why there are none on Earth (as far as we know) as silicon is far more abundant than carbon here. At first glance, silicon looks like a good basis for an alternative biology. Carbon and silicon both have something that chemists and physicists call a ‘valence of four’. That means that individual silicon atoms can make four bonds with other elements to form chemical compounds; like a jigsaw puzzle piece that has four sides and can therefore connect with four other pieces. Carbon can form over 10 million different compounds with other elements, among them many that are essential for life as we know it, such as sugars, celluloses, chitins, alcohols, fats, antibiotics, amino acids and proteins. Silicon can form almost as many, although different, compounds.

Secondly, both silicon and carbon can bond with oxygen. Not all elements can. And, as far as we know at this time, nearly all living organisms need to process oxygen.

Thirdly, by using oxygen as a kind of 'glue', both silicon and carbon atoms can form long chains called polymers. Two examples of this are the carbon-based poly-acetal, a kind of plastic, and silicon-based polymeric silicones, which we use for waterproofing and lubrication. It is carbon's ability to form long complex chains that led to the formation of DNA ... and it is entirely conceivable that silicon could evolve something similar. However, while there are marked similarities between the two elements (which is why they appear so close together on the Periodic Table), there are some major differences too.

You'll have seen that an atom is often represented in books and articles as looking something like a mini planetary system with a central nucleus surrounded by circling electrons (although in newer reference works the orbiting electrons are sometimes represented as more of a cloud). Well, with the carbon atom there are six electrons whizzing around a nucleus made of six protons and six neutrons (hence carbon's Atomic Number of 6). Silicon has 14 electrons circling a nucleus made of 14 protons and 14 neutrons (Atomic Number 14). What this means is that the 'cloud' of electrons around the silicon nucleus is bigger and, therefore, the forces that bind it all together are weaker. Consequently, the silicon atom does not form as strong bonds with other atoms as carbon does (which is why even the hardest silicon-based rock is not as hard as carbon-based diamond). This alone makes it difficult to imagine a silicon-based molecule the length of DNA forming and remaining stable.

The chemistry of life is difficult (although not impossible) to visualise for a silicon-based life form. When carbon unites with oxygen (oxidisation) during breathing, it forms carbon dioxide, a gas. We breathe it out and plants breathe it in. However, when silicon oxidises, it forms a solid called silicon dioxide. It's hard to imagine a creature that breathes in oxygen and breathes out something that is essentially sand. There would also be some 'disposal' issues for a silicon-based life form as it would excrete similar silica-based substances. It adds a whole new dimension to the expression 'Shitting a brick'.

And where would a silicon-based life form draw its energy from? All living things need a way to collect, store and utilise energy. Once absorbed or ingested, the energy must be released exactly where and when it is needed within the body. Otherwise, all of the energy might liberate its heat at once, incinerating the life-form. In a carbon-based life-form, storage takes the form of carbohydrates (the curse of us fatties). A carbon-based life-form 'burns' this fuel in controlled steps using speed regulators called enzymes. Carbohydrates (the clue is in the name) are carbon-based compounds that oxidise to form water and carbon dioxide, which are then exchanged with the air. Silicon doesn't form many compounds that will duplicate the function of enzymes so it's hard to imagine how a silicon-based living organism could function. But that doesn’t make it impossible. One speculative study of the possibility of silicon-based life by ATS paints a fascinating possibility: ‘A major component of glass is silicon. It might be possible that an organism based on glass exists. An organism like that may get its energy from solar-cell like cells.'

Then, of course, there's life based on nitrogen, phosphorous, arsenic, ammonia ...

Dr Jack Cohen believes that the possible shapes and habits of life are not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. ‘Asking what humans would look like if they'd evolved on Mars is like asking what fish would look like if they'd evolved on the Moon,’ he says. He does point out, however, that there would be some points of commonality with Earth life. He calls these calls Universals. ‘During evolution, some things have happened independently many times’, he explains. ‘The most common are what I jokingly call The Four Fs: Fur, flight, photosynthesis and sex. Mice, bumble bees and some plants have all independently evolved fur. Insects, bats, birds, pterosaurs, even fish and snakes have evolved flight. There are still four different kinds of photosynthesis and many more have gone extinct. As for sex … everything is at it in one form or another. But these aren’t the only universals. Convergent evolution has given animals that swim through liquid water similar shapes - sharks, icthyosaurs, dolphins and penguins for example. Eyes are everywhere from the complex to the simple. Rhinos, lizards and beetles have horns. There’s a lot of bilateral symmetry. Running evolution again would give universals like these so it’s possible that they’d also appear on other worlds.’ In contrast, he points to what he calls Parochials; features that have evolved specifically and often only in one group of lifeforms such as feathers, pentadactyl (five fingers or toes) limbs, even the human trait of looking after the ‘cute’ baby animals of other species. Our closest relatives, the Chimpanzees will eat their young during tribal wars - there is nothing 'sacred' about the young to them.

On the subject of Gould’s ‘rewinding life’s tape’ concept, Cohen says: ‘A different fish leaving the sea would have given a different result. The particular fish that did come out of the ocean had its airway crossing its foodway. If a different fish species had come out, we wouldn't choke. Also, it had its reproductive and excretory systems mixed up. If it hadn't, we wouldn't have 'dirty' books - we'd have different kinds of hang-ups altogether. For credible aliens, we want to know what could plausibly happen if we ran evolution again. There are lots of possibilities. Construct the plot from the ecology. Have the ecology and ‘adventure into it’.’

Cohen believes that, when and if we do meet aliens, they won't be biological. They’ll be robots, just like the robots we send out into deep space on missions too long for them to be manned. Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and, despite travelling at 10 miles per second, will not leave our own solar system until 2015. At that speed, it will take more than 74,400 years to reach the nearest star. Even travelling at the speed of light – 186,000 miles per second – the journey would take four years. It seems a very long way to come to Earth just to identify a few solitary souls that (a) no one will ever believe and (b) who are incapable of operating even a simple point and shoot digital camera with which to capture some decent evidential shots, and then fly all the way home again.

There is also the unlikely fact that they found us at all to consider. Would they really come all the way here without knowing for certain that life exists? Yes, we’ve been streaming radio and TV broadcasts off into space for more than a century but if we can’t hear alien civilisations, why do we expect them to hear us? The likelihood that an inhabited planet lies in the path of our signals is like expecting to shoot the antennae off an ant with a crossbow while blindfolded.

Of course, we can imagine beings for whom an average life span is thousands of years. We can visualise creatures that can survive happily at near-light speeds and maybe even survive in the vacuum of the raw universe. But doesn’t that make it even more unlikely that they’d be humanoid and, for some reason, intent on sexually assaulting us? The analogy would be our astronauts arriving on an alien planet and snogging some moss.
And if evolution of life in Earth - quite possibly the only inhabited planet is the universe - has shown us anything it's that variety is King. Unless we have a common origin, it's next to impossible for life to evolved elsewhere that looks like us, with all of our Parochial features.

Greys? Little Green Men? I don’t think so. Do you?

365 Doodles - Day 20 Doodlethon!

For some mad reason last night I challenged Twitter to ask me to do a superfast doodle of anything. And I mean anything. I quite fancied the challenge. What I hadn't anticipated is just how barking mad many of my Twitter chums are. Over the course of the next 30 minutes I found myself drawing the most bizarre set of doodles ever. In the end I drew, scanned and posted 16 doodles in half an hour. I actually broke a sweat. But what larks! I may do it again. Here are just a few of last night's lightning quick doodles. Firstly, a python that's swallowed an elephant:
And now the Pope playing table tennis with an aardvark ... A cowboy in a bath ...

And, last but not least, the maddest request of all: a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus Rex slipping on a banana skin outside a KFC. No. Really.
These came from the minds of the people who follow me on Twitter. Thank goodness they don't know where I live ...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

365 Doodles - Day 19

A quickie in red biro. The skinniest, scariest looking woman I think I've ever seen ... and her sister was equally skeletal. At least, I assume it was her sister. If not ... Eek!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Life Laundry: Phase Two

The 'Life Laundry' continues apace. In my first wave, I went through my studio/office like a tornado, throwing out anything that isn't needed or of real value (although some stuff is purely sentimental of course). I was amazed at just how much clutter I've accumulated over the past 30-odd years. I haven't become a complete clutter fascist; there's still plenty here but I filled two wheelie bins in the first couple of days.

Then I started on books. I have thousands. I bagged up over 300 of the buggers that (a) I probably won't read again, (b) are obsolete (like old dinosaur books) and (c) was given but have never read (and unlikely to). I ebayed the collectible stuff then Gift-Aided the rest to my local charity shop, taking in four bags a day so it was manageable for the staff. I had a letter yesterday from the South Bucks Hospice that it funds telling that, so far, my donations have made them £63. That's a good feeling.

My next attack was CDs and DVDs. Why keep them? I have all of my music in MP3 format. And the films and TV series I have are constantly cycling on Dave, GOLD and the SKY movie channels. A lot more are on YouTube. So they all went the way of the books.

I found boxes and folders and scrapbooks full of press clippings of my drama performances, shows and exhibitions and things I've had published. So I scanned them all and chucked them. After all, all I need is a record and not the physical object. It was kind of nice to read the good reviews again after all these years. I had to give up the drama lark after my back injury in 2005 - I just can't stand for prolonged periods without a lot of pain - and I do miss treading the boards.

Yes, I did use the rather pretentious handle of 'Stephen Meryk Colgan' back then before I settled on the equally pretentious 'Stevyn'. The play, incidentally, was Constance Cox's wonderful adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime.

I've also made a start on de-cluttering me. I've always struggled with my weight. I like my food and I love to cook (ex-chef) and I dearly love a drop of good real ale. But none of it likes me and a mere sniff of cream or hops and my stomach distends by a good six inches. In 2007 I took the radical step of doing a crash diet with Lighter Life. I can testify that it works. Look:

I went from 21st to around 15 and 1/2 in seven months. Lighter Life worked for me because I have strong will-power and, essentially, you give up food. You replace normal meals with special shakes and bars that provide everything your body needs - except calories. At nearly £70 a week it's not a cheap option, although it's not as expensive as you might think because you have no food shopping bills. You're also paying for counselling and that, I'm told, is the most important part. It's your relationship with food that's at fault, not the food itself. Unfortunately, the particular counsellor I had (no longer there I should add for clarity) was awful. She was a Gillian McKeith clone and too abrasive and annoying for me to bond with. Consequently, I left the programme before the stage where you graduate back onto 'real food' and went back to my old lifestyle. And since then, I've put 3st back on.

So now I'm doing it right. It's not rocket science; you put fewer calories into your body than you burn during the day and you do some exercise too. So that's what I've been doing; long, energetic walks, calorie-controlled meals, no booze. And it's working. I've lost a stone in January already. Four to go. I aim to be well on the way to 13st by my birthday in August.

And tomorrow (or maybe the day after as I'm off to Brighton tomorrow) I start work on the second phase of de-cluttering. I still have over 1000 books gracing these bookshelves. How many of them do I actually need?

365 Doodles - Day 18

A page from my current goes-everywhere-with-me notebook.