Friday, August 18, 2006
‘My religion is very important to me. I love being a Muslim and I love my community. But I also love being British. Sometimes fundamentalist religion can seem a way out the contradictions between being a Muslim and being British. It gives some young people a set of rules to follow. But looking at it another way, we are lucky to live in a country where our faith schools and halal shops are tolerated. Young Muslims can’t just say ‘we’re alienated’ because many British people try hard to understand about Islam.’
If only everyone felt the same way.
* 'Listen to the voice of reason', Daily Mirror 11th August 2006.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
I've had this little book for a number of years now, ever since I attended an evening lecture run by the London Natural History Museum in the late 1980s. It was written by Vincent M Holt and first published in 1885 by the Museum itself.
The lecturer, whose name I've forgotten I'm afraid, made the very valid point that insects and other invertebrates outnumber us backboners by millions to one. And yet, on the whole, this vast source of protein is almost entirely unused. I say almost ... because we do eat some. In the UK, we eat crabs and prawns and lobsters, cockles, scallops and oysters. But if it hasn't come out of the sea we go all weird and wobbly. Why? Why this prejudice against land-based arthropods? The lecturer (and I'll have to paraphrase here) made this very point.
Prawns and locusts share a common ancestry. They are both arthropods with external skeletons and almost identical internal arrangements. However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat? Most would still go for the prawn.
He also explained that there would be less famine in some areas of Africa if people started eating insects again. Unfortunately, this source of valuable protein has been lost ever since Christian Missionaries managed to persuade the vast majority of tribes that eating bugs was dirty and disgusting. A prejudice, incidentally, that was foisted onto most of you too.
Food prejudices are not a uniquely British phenomenon, but we are oddly particular. We'll eat a lamb or a calf or a cow or a pig. But we won't eat a horse or a dog or a squirrel. Most people will no longer eat rabbit (delicious) and the fishmongers get asked for almost nothing but cod. Try some John Dory, or gurnard, or pollock or hake - they're fantastic fish. And what's with the idea of 'dolphin-friendly tuna'? What's so special about dolphins? Is it because they look like they're smiling? Or is it their supposed intelligence? Let's face it, if whales were that intelligent, they wouldn't keep swimming near Japan would they? No one seems to give a toss about the tuna, though. All tinned tuna is tuna-unfriendly.
This is a perfect example of what some call species-ism but what I call Mammal-nepotism; the idea being that the closer something is related to us, the more we like it; the further away it is, the ickier it is. It's no great surprise that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose a charismatic warm-blooded mammal - the giant panda - for its logo is it? Yet if you look at the list of critically endangered species (as opposed to just endangered) what do we find? The Antiguan Racer Snake, the Spotted Handfish, the Australian Ant, and the Southern Blue Fin Tuna (I hope you're listening to this, Flipper).
But as Douglas Adams pointed out in his book Last Chance to See (co-written with Mark Carwardine), the best way to save an animal from extinction is to eat it. As soon as an animal or plant has commercial value, resources will be found to make lots of them. Chickens will never be extinct. However, let's return to the subject of eating insects. Here are a few facts for you.
Fully 95% of all living creatures on Earth are insects – that’s approximately 10 quintillion (10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000) individual insects alive on this planet at this exact moment. 10% of the total biomass of life on Earth is made up just of ants (some scientists claim the figure may even be as high as 15-20%). And that’s not counting the other arthropods – spiders, scorpions, crabs, lobsters, woodlice, etc. many of which are also edible. By comparison, we humans make up just 0.33% - and there are six billion of us.
There is absolutely no difference between a snail and an oyster - they are both gastropods. And the snails you pay so much for in France are the same as the ones in your back garden. Exactly the same. So get out the garlic butter and tuck in.
You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Recently, Jen Dziura, New York comic and blogger, posted an open letter to Mr Randi on the McSweeney's humour website in which she suggests an experiment to prove that she has a vagina with proven psychic ability. As she explains:
'A statistically significant even number of volunteers will be recruited to participate in the test. Volunteers should be male, heterosexual, and unknown to me, and should have at least $5 on their person. Each volunteer will be assigned to a group: 'vagina' or 'no vagina.'
'In every trial, the volunteer will be seated within a short walking distance of a hamburger stand. Volunteers in the 'vagina' group will also be seated within a short walking distance of my vagina. Volunteers in the 'no vagina' group will have a leaden wall placed between them and my vagina. To ensure that the 'no vagina' group is not motivated by even the suggestion of my vagina, I will not be seen by them, and my voice will be conveyed only through a voice-altering device that masks my gender.
'For each trial, I will ask the volunteer if he will buy me a hamburger. I predict that volunteers in visual proximity of my vagina will be at least 50 percent more likely to comply than those separated from my vagina by a leaden barrier. '
You can read the full text here on the McSweeney's Site.
Since then she's been inundated with calls and emails ... from a worrying number of people who seem to think it's a real challenge. "I just wrote a humour article for a humour website", she explains, "and I've just been taking it from all sides here. There are the people who have written to me very seriously to tell me that I 'don't understand the scientific method'. And for people who do understand the scientific method, these people are very gullible!"
Here's a recent e-mail:
"Would not your experiment merely suggest that male psychology is more suggestable to a woman who is visable (sic) and in person than one who is hidden by a barrier? ... I wonder (if you're serious) how your experiment differs from a psychological experiment and enters the realm of the paranormal."
If she's serious?
Is he serious?
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Has it made any difference? Wait until the book comes out ...
Meanwhile, this month I've been looking at superstitions surrounding horseshoes. And one train of thought took me in a totally unexpected direction. You see, I couldn't find a lucky horseshoe. Despite living in rural Buckinghamshire and despite the proliferation of little girls called Penelope trotting around on their precious ponies, I have not found a single horseshoe on the side of the road. For maximum luck, you should find a shoe and approach it from the open points end.
But this superstition began when horses were the primary mode of transport. So what's the modern equivalent? Well, cars have replaced horses ... and cars do occasional 'throw a shoe'. That's right. I reckon the modern equivalent of the horseshoe is the hubcap. So I've collected a few. For luck. But after a while, my long-suffering wife started to ask, "Why is the back garden full of hubcaps?" And I had no good answer. What could I do with them?
If only I'd been as smart as the wonderfully named Ptolemy Elrington. He's a Brighton-based artist who has made the hubcap into his medium of choice. And his work is extraordinary.
"Hubcaps are aesthetic in purpose, but ultimately of very little use," says Elrington. "They're automatically rubbish when on the side of the road, but with a little effort and imagination I transform them into something which gives people a great deal more pleasure. My hubcap creatures are made entirely from recycled materials; all the hubcaps are found, usually on the side of the road, and therefore bear the scars of their previous lives in the form of scratches and abrasions. I believe these marks add texture and history to the creatures they decorate."
I told him about my book project. He said, "I like the parallel of hubcaps and horseshoes being lucky. I guess they have been lucky for me as I've been very happy in my career."
I've posted a couple of pictures here but there lots more on his website here.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Think that's weird? How about this:
13 x 13 = 169 is an exact mirror of 961 = 31 x 31
Check it. It's true. But it gets weirder ...
If you write 13 x 13 as a square like this - 132 - you then get this mirror:
132 = 169 is the same as 961= 312
Okay so far? Now insert plus signs between all the digits and the equation looks like this:
(1 + 3)2 = 1 + 6 + 9 is the same as 9 + 6+ 1 = (3 + 1)2
It still works! How odd is that?
Finally, did you know that the sum of the first 13 Prime numbers is 238, whose sum of digits (2 + 3 + 8) is 13?
Thirteen is a number shrouded in mystery and superstition. Some people won't go to work on Friday the 13th. Some people won't eat in restaurants on Friday the 13th. Some people won't get married on Friday the 13th. Some people won't travel on Friday the 13th. A fear of the number 13, or Triskaidekaphobia to give it its medical name, can be very debilitating.
Many buildings don't have a 13th floor. Many hotels don't have a room with number 13 (often relabelled as 12A). It's far worse in America than in the UK where they really take this 13 thing seriously in urban planning and architectural design. Madness! All this fuss over a simple number. But why?
The most common theory concerns the Last Supper. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and who later committed suicide, was the 13th guest at the table. Another theory from Scandinavia claims that 13 is bad luck because the 13th demigod to join their pantheon was Loki the Evil One, who brought mischief and misfortune to Mankind. Yet another theory comes from ancient Egypt. To these people life was a quest for spiritual ascension that involved passing through 12 stages and a 13th beyond, thought to be the eternal afterlife. The number 13 therefore symbolised death.
My favourite concerns the eternal Battle of the Sexes. Thirteen was a special number for ancient Moon and Goddess-worshipping cultures because it corresponded to the number of lunar cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). There is a 27,000 year old carving that was found near the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France that depicts a female figure holding a crescent Moon-shaped horn that has 13 notches carved into it. The theory goes that the battle between Sun/Male and Moon/Female was won by the Sun. The Christian Solar Calendar triumphed over the older pagan version and 12 defeated 13.
Whatever the reason, 13 does, at first glance, appear to be a curious number. But it isn't of course. The thing is ... it's very easy to get caught up in this kind of thing. And people do. There are whole websites dedicated to 13-related weirdness and trivia. There are no sites about the weirdness of number 12. Odd that. Yet, I bet if someone spent some time gathering examples of mathematical oddity involving the number 12, there'd be just as many. Probably.
And people do bend the rules to make them fit their wild conspiracy theories. Take the idea that any one with 13 letters in their name is said to have 'Devil's luck'. The proof lies in the fact that many infamous murderers have 13 letters to their names: Charles Manson. Harold Shipman. Frederick West. Saddam Hussein. Jeffrey Dahmer. Theodore Bundy. Jack the Ripper.
But what about Dr Crippen? Whichever way you slice it, his names never add up to 13 digits. Peter Hawley Harvey Crippen (24). Peter Crippen (12).
Myra Hindley has 11 and Ian Brady a measley 8. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, has 14. Idi Amin has a pathetic 7 and the worst serial killer of time, Adolf Hitler, has only 11. I could go on. And, let's face it, Theodore Bundy and Frederick West are a bit dubious. No one ever referred to them as anything other than Ted and Fred. And, worst example of all, Jack the Ripper? I'm pretty sure that he wasn't christened Jack the Ripper.
"And what name have you chosen for the child?"
"Jack. Jack the Ripper."
"Right ... I ... I see ..."
"We think it suits him vicar. Don't it suit him Nancy?"
"Yeah. He looks like a Ripper don't he?"
I can't see the police pulling potential murder suspects in off the street just because they have 13 letters to their names. Although it would have spared us from The Spice Girls.
Interestingly, Prime Minister has 13 letters.
So does President Bush.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Remember that intro? Spoken in sonorous tones by William 'Cannon' Conrad, it introduced us to that silliest of 1970s' sci-fi series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Well, now it's back on TV in the UK (on satellite TV station Bravo) ... and I'm loving every cheesy, cliche, unfashionable and uninspired minute of it.
Buck Rogers first appeared in March 1979 and ran for a full first season of 24 episodes. A second season began in 1981 but ran for just 13 episodes. Chunky Gil Gerard was Buck and he was aided and abetted in his adventures by slinky Erin Gray as spandex-clad Colonel Wilma Deering, bewildered Dr Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Twiki (Felix Silla), a small 'ambiquad' who spoke like a Bronx taxi driver and punctuated his 1970s' platitudes with an occasional 'Be-de-be-de-be-dee' noise (although in series 2 Mel Blanc no longer did the voice and Twiki affected a weird falsetto instead. I suspect he had a robot sex change). In Season Two, the series got a shoddy makeover and Buck got a new playmate, Hawk, played by Thom Christopher. Hawk was the last of his kind; a birdman with a feathered toupe which must have been incredibly warm to wear judging by the frequent sweat to be seen running in rivulets down the actor's face.
As explained in the intro, Buck is sent out on a routine mission and ends up getting frozen. After thawing out, he finds that he's now in the year 2491. And things are very different. There's been a nuclear war to start with and much of the 'old knowledge' has been lost. It's a world ruled by computerised brains and protected by the Defence Council based in New Chicago. Everyone has enormous hair and dresses in Bacofoil and the world is at peace.
But what a strange world it is! 25th century computers are the size of bears and fitted with reel to reel tapes and chunky retro switches. Computer graphics look suspiciously like the stuff we used to produce on our Sinclair ZX81s and Commodore Amigas. Disco is the universally acknowledged music of the universe. And what's left of the 'old knowledge' is strangely particular. In one episode Wilma confesses that she has no idea what an egg is, while in another she knows how big a whale's tongue is. What possible catastrophe could have caused such singular specificity?
All of the men are hunky and slim and the ladies are lovely Charlie's Angels also rans. They've obviously sorted out the global warming issue as all they seem to wear most of the time are silver bikini tops adorned with bling. All except Wilma, that is, who is far more professional and spends Season One in the kind of super-tight spray-0n jeans made fashionable by Olivia Newton-John in Grease, and Season Two in a kind of Donald Duck sailor suit with pixie boots. And heels. All of the female fighter pilots wear high heels. So practical.
But that's one of the things that makes watching Buck Rogers so enjoyable. I love the fact that they got it so very, very wrong. Glen Larson presented us with an optimistic view of the future based on 1977 technology and seen through the eyes of 1970s sexual politics. Everything is just so cheesy - the fashions and the hair and the music and the technology. And when that's combined with stinking scripts and completely uninspired characters and situations, it makes a show worth watching for the sheer comedy value alone. Look at the planet names ... Neutropolis; I wonder if the people there are neutral? And what kind of creatures live on Voltron? Electrical beings maybe? The effects are appalling (this was the time of Star Wars but TV didn't have George Lucas budgets) and the scripts are criminal. Just look at the titles ... Planet of the Amazon Women, Cosmic Whiz Kid, Vegas in Space, Planet of the Slave Women, Space Rockers and Mark of the Saurian (lizard creatures maybe?) This was sci-fi of the very worst kind; derivative, inane, camp and lacking in all the fixtures and fittings that made its main 1970s competitor Star Trek so damned great.
'... but it's the pelvic thru-u-ust that really drives you insa-a-a-a-ane ...'
Buck Rogers was cancelled halfway through Season Two and deservedly so. While Season One was all the things I've described, it still had a naive charm and some fabulously over-the-top performances: Pamela Hensley as the vampish Princess Ardala; the deliciously named 'Legion of Death' (which included Joker Frank Gorshin and Markie Post); and an apparently catatonic post-op Julie 'Catwoman' Newmar as Zarina the War Witch with cheek bones so sharp she could cut tin. Season Two however, changed the format (and half of the cast) and replaced Twiki's voicebox with that of a San Francisco tour guide. And they dropped his (its?) trademark be-de-be-de noise. That's like the characters in The Fast Show being told 'Drop the catch-phrases.' Madness. The universe may have been expanding but so was Gil Gerard's waistline and he seemed less and less the hero-figure. Wilma was demoted to a background character and an irritatingly smug robot called Crichton was introduced. Worst of all was veteran Ealing comedy actor Wilfred Hyde-White, whose Professor Goodfellow character was so doddering and dithery I wondered at times whether some escapee from an old people's home had wandered aimlessly onto the set looking for his teeth. Still, it's good to see that pastel blue cardigans are still de rigueur 500 years from now.
It had to go.
But now Buck is back. And I can't resist it. It's car-crash telly. I'm watching it every day and I'm roaring with laughter. Somehow I don't think that's what Glen Larson intended. I've heard rumours that it's due a makeover, like Larson's other 70s sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica. I do hope not. I like it just as it is. Awful. Cringeworthy. Crass.
I'm going to buy the box set.
(Photos (c) Universal Studios)
Sunday, August 06, 2006
I reckon they're a Stanley and Mavis. What do you think?
It's a pity that all things scatological and micturatory are viewed as taboo in the West because we're missing out on some artistic opportunities. Most purely functional items can be made to be beautiful; just think about your car, your home sound system, cutlery, curtains, crockery, TVs, telephones ... yet the poor old toilet has remained dull and, it must be said, fairly poorly designed. We hide it away in the smallest room of the house when it's the one item we couldn't live without.
But, nowadays, I'm delighted to say that a new wave of artists are creating whimsical pissoires for us all to use and enjoy. Check out Clark Sorensen's extraordinary flower and shell urinals (example above) or the extraordinary Gothic masterpieces on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Centre or Bathroom Mania's infamous 'Kisses', for example.
Let's get sanitary ware out of the water closet.
Honest to God officer... I was only in there taking photos of the art ...
Saturday, August 05, 2006
Unbelievable. Simulacra are big business.
In recent years the name of Allah has appeared in all manner of confectionary and other baked goods. So, I wondered, is there anyone out there who wants to start the bidding on this not-at-all faked miraculous piece of toast that bears the image of Shakin' Stevens?
I'd accept a thousand as a starting bid.
OK. Thirty quid.
You're breaking my heart.
This is the curious phenomenon of simulacra - seeing images of people or things in unexpected places; often in spontaneous natural forms. Well, I found one myself yesterday in the gents' toilet of a cafe in Bloomsbury, London. A perfect simulacrum of Mickey Mouse in the urinal.
Oddly enough, when I showed this to people, their only question was, 'Why were you taking photographs in a Gents' toilet?'
For example, the 11th of August 1999 was marked by a total eclipse of the Sun. And in the UK the total eclipse was only visible from Cornwall ... where I just happen to come from. The eclipse took place at 11.11am on the 11th. And the greatest coincidence of all is that the Sun is approximately 400 times bigger than the Moon and also 400 times further away, which means that they are the same size in the sky. Consequently, our planet may be unique in the universe in that our Moon blocks the Sun precisely. Weird, eh?
I spent that day on the beach at Gwithian in Cornwall and watched the entire event in the company of my family and a large crowd of hippies, some of which had - for reasons best known to themselves - drawn a Celtic knotwork pattern in the sand accompanied by the enigmatic words WELCOME ALIUNS. Once they found out it was my birthday, I became a kind of totem and strange men and women kept asking to touch me.
I said that they could if they wore gloves.
As the sky started to darken, someone in the car park on the cliffs above started to play Pink Floyd's Great Gig in the Sky (from the appropriately named Dark Side of the Moon album) on their car stereo. The soundtrack was perfect, and Clare Torry's extraordinarily orgasm-like vocal performance matched events exactly, reaching a climax as it went pitch black and becoming quieter as the light began to return.
There are some who say that Dark Side of the Moon has a hidden meaning and that if you listen to it while watching The Wizard of Oz, the two experience some kind of extraordinary synchronicity. If you fancy trying it, check out The Dark Side of the Rainbow website. If you go to this page you can download a printable script to follow. Of course, it's a load of old cobblers but there are some curious coincidences. But aren't all coincidences curious?
So what can I look forward to on the 11th? Who knows. All I know for certain is that I'll be 45. And that's weird enough.
I’m not a Royalist but neither am I a raging Republican. I just find it odd that we pay such deference to a group of people whose ancestors basically beat up our ancestors in order to be the boss. I also find it odd that Royalty enjoys our highest esteem when they defer all decisions about running the country to self-serving politicians (who never get it right, no matter who’s in charge). It makes me wonder what exactly the Royals do that warrants our allegiance.
People will tell you that they’re a boon to the tourist industry. But are they? Isn’t it the trappings of Royalty that people come to see? The palaces and the jewellery and the castles … they’d all still be here even if the Royals weren’t. And how many tourists actually ever get to see a Royal, let alone meet one?
I have actually met a few members of the Royal family. And they were very nice, if stiff. But how could they be otherwise? Mollycoddled and kept safe like the rest of our national treasures, they live in a world that defies all similarity with the world we know and have to live in. They get dusted off and brought out like the best china when the tourists arrive.
Oh well. Happy birthday Ma’am. I hope you appreciate it. You are the living proof that money and privilege buys health and longevity. I’d like to have seen you survive 80 years on some of the council estates I’ve visited recently.
(I can be such a bitch, can't I? Sorry.)
Friday, August 04, 2006
Would I get nicked on the strength of what Boris produced? I reckon so.
The one thing that I will miss when I've shed a few more pounds is going into shops and buying extra large pants (by that, my American chums, I mean undershorts.)
XL. Or, even better, XXL pants.
Sounds great doesn't it? Yes! Give me XXXL pants! I have the gonads of a Tyrannosaurus!
However, the sad truth is that extra large pants just indicates extra large beer gut, man breasts and a fat back. But I don't care. At least I don't have to ask for small pants. Or (God forbid) extra small.
That would be mortifying.
I admit that I've been lazy. I've mistreated my blog. I've left it cold, lonely and unloved in its kennel out in the back yard in the rain.
But no more.
I decided to rip it up and start again and, hopefully, inject some new life into it after chatting with New York comedienne and blog queen Jen Dziura.
She gave me a good hard kick up the arse. And I didn't even need to pay.
I've also had a number of extremely successful meetings recently and have decided to up the ante on pitching my book projects to agents and publishers. I have lifted myself up from the well of despondency and I'm now happily sat in the bucket of optimism.
Onwards and upwards, people. Onwards and upwards.