As it's the bleak midwinter here, but also the season of good cheer, I thought I'd post these two videos. I'm still amazed at what they show; that some years ago, a polar bear turned up at an arctic outpost and instead of attacking the chained-up sled dogs on the site, he (or she) played with the dogs instead. Not only that, but it's become a regular event!
I still have vivid memories of reading Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ when I was a nipper, living in London suburbia in the late seventies and early eighties. It was a quiet and simple world then, with the odd Routemaster double decker bus chugging down the street outside my window and a box of Lego bricks on the floor beside my bed, alongside a small pile of Matchbox cars. I lay on my bed in the afternoon sunshine and read 'The Fellowship of the Ring’ in paperback, the tome heavy in my hand, its pages stuffed with small, printed, engrossing text. I read and read and lost myself in Middle Earth and didn't come back to England for hours, or at least until I was called downstairs for tea.
Thirty-seven years on, I’m sitting here in Hampton planning a new science fiction novel. I’m hoping it’ll be an entertaining, imaginative saga that a reader will enjoy from beginning to end. While mulling over what to do, I’ve been thinking again about ‘The Lord of the Rings’, as it's possibly the most famous saga of all. ‘Should I draw on it as an inspiration?’ I wonder. ‘Should I examine how it was written and take notes from it on what constitutes a classic yarn?’
But this is where things get tricky. There is an aspect of Lord of the Rings that I didn’t notice when I was a kid and it’s all about evil. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' has a very odd approach to assessing who’s good and who’s bad. In fact, you don’t need to listen to what the characters are saying or observe what they are doing to work this out. You can work out how bad someone is entirely from their physical appearance (I've stuck in a picture of an Orc sculpture by Boularis to illustrate this. It's very good. Click on the picture to go to the relevant page).
After some studying of the books and the films, here’s my top five ways to estimate a character's morality in 'Lord of the Rings', in ascending order:
Top five markers for calculating evilness in Lord of the Rings
Number 5: Pipe smoking, beer drinking and general food quality
Always a good acid test. If a character smokes a pipe, they’re good. They may not be health-conscious but they’re pure in heart. Likewise with food. Evil people are incapable of appreciating quality food and will make food and drink that tastes awful; the logic of this is beyond me.
Number 4: Height
The taller a character is, the nobler they are. Elves are taller and nobler than men who are taller and nobler than orcs and goblins. There’s never any doubt in the film that Boromir will be the man that succumbs to the temptations of the Ring as he’s under six foot tall.
Number 3: Skin colour
The darker someone’s skin, the more evil they are. Elves are almost white, men are tanned and goblins and orcs are somewhere around dark grey or brown. The Haradrim and Southerners who side with Sauron are indubitably dark-skinned and even have curved swords to mark themselves as from a sub-tropical climate. It’s a wonder they turned up at all. Surely it would have been more sensible for them to stay to the South and let the Northerners get on with their in-fighting? It’s not as if Sauron would head south at any point, as major characters in fantasy sagas never leave the map.
Number 2: Attractiveness
The more attractive you are, the more noble and courageous you are. This is common to all American movies and TV programmes, and so it’s pretty much taken as a default, but it’s still worth mentioning. Even among hobbits, the most attractive character gets to be the hero.
Number 1: Dental hygiene
Yes, it sounds silly, but after much studying of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, I’ve realised that dental hygiene is absolutely the number one marker for evil-ness. Height may seem the most reliable choice at first glance, but it can lead you astray. Dwarves and hobbits are short but good and mountain trolls are tall but evil, thereby undermining Height’s usefulness. Attractiveness suffers the same problems. Gandalf isn’t exactly male model material - his nose is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle’s front bonnet - but he’s clearly super-good. Skin colour can be even more deceptive as an evilness marker, Elves are very pale and extremely noble but Gollum and Wormtongue are practically translucent and they’re both steeped in betrayal, avarice and in the latter’s case, aspirations to marry a taller woman. Clearly, skin colour reaches a ‘stay in the shade’ cut off point. Quite how the cave-dwelling dwarves avoided a problem that transformed Gollum is beyond me. Maybe they made it a rule to install full-spectrum lamps in their Grand Halls? It’s hard to say.
Dental hygiene is the absolutely rock-solid, reliable marker of goodness in ‘the Lord of the Rings' films. The worse a character’s teeth are, the more evil they are; it’s as simple as that. Note Saruman’s teeth in the film. It is astonishing that Gandalf didn’t spot Saruman’s corrupted heart sooner as it's blindingly obvious when we first see Saruman in Orthanc that he hasn't flossed in decades. Mithrandir, you berk, look at the man’s gum line, he's clearly succumbed to the forces of darkness!
Orcs’ appalling dental work can easily be overshadowed by their cataract-ridden eyes, unattractive noses and tendency to laugh inappropriately but their mouthparts are still very much their main fault. As a counter-example, Dwarves, though short and of middling attractiveness, have lovely teeth, indicating that even if you do dwell underground and have excessive body hair, you can still be a good person.
Some readers may point out that the evilness of orcs, goblins and trolls in the story is confirmed by their acts, but this probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Most of the hordes of orcs etc in the story seem to be acting under the mental influence of evil human wizards, which could easily get them acquitted on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Also, did you notice the look on the troll’s face in Balin’s tomb? The creature deserved sympathy, not hate, although I probably wouldn’t hug him. It isn’t a big step to conclude that the entire Lord of the Rings saga is a grudge match between wizards with every other race working as their mind-addled pawns.
There is also the problem in Lord of the Rings that many of the allegedly good characters in the story are able to kill large numbers of sentient creatures without any indications of emotional concern. This is not a good indicator of character and is closely associated with psychopathic tendencies. Possessing a ready willingness to stick sharp metal into someone else’s vital organs is not a good thing. Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, a man may be forced to do such a thing but he really should be affected emotionally by what he has done, whereas Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli seem to enter the battlefields of Middle Earth like jaded pest exterminators. For Pity’s sake, guys, the enemy might have halitosis and B.O. you could kill flies with, but they’re still clothed, sentient bipeds!
Was this weird view of personal character just a cinematic flaw? Did Tolkien personally have this attitude? Was this strain - or more accurately stain - of shallow racism in his book an accidental side-effect of a parochial upbringing or was it plain white-supremacy? I don’t know. The evidence is mixed. Maybe the best thing is to focus on the elements in the story that do show some humanity, for example:
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
I have an idea; how about I write a fantasy saga from the point of view of some Orcs? Ordinary creatures with unhygienic habits who are led astray by ‘lies and threats’ from a wizard and suffer the consequences? The main character could be an orc, pure in heart, with yellow, uneven teeth who survives, gains friends, saves lives and finds love regardless of his dental hygiene. I could draw upon my own personal experiences of possessing a chipped front incisor, off-white enamel and patchy plaque to make the story convincing and win a Western audience over to the idea that you don't have to look like Bjorn Borg to be a good soul. It could become the most humane fantasy saga ever!
I’ll keep you posted.
Examining the possibility of a world without fossil fuels, Michael Le Page comes to the conclusion that global warming may be an inevitable result of any industrialised civilisation, as fossil fuels are an unavoidable phase of that development (18th October pg34). He also reports that this might explain the apparent absence of extraterrestrial civilisations despite the high probability that they exist, as each planet offers once chance at transitioning from reliance on finite fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.Perhaps it would be useful to consider a sentient race that could control its population? If our global population had stabilised at a healthy 7 million, rather than 7 billion or more, it's perfectly feasible that we could have passed right through our fossil fuel phase without wrecking our planet's environment.
The editor writes: We will never know for sure. But it is likely that a critical mass of people as well as energy is needed to reach something we would recognise as an industrialised civilisation.
It's an interesting response from the New Scientist editor. How many people would be needed on this planet for us to continue to develop successfully as a technological species? From a genetic perspective, a species' minimum viable population (or MVP) is in the thousands, so a human population of a million or more is definitely genetically healthy. Genetics aside, what population is needed for technological development? What global population would be required to keep us advancing technologically to the point where we did developed a purely renewable technology society?
Well, how about the entire Roman Empire?
The map above (courtesy of the Wikipedia page) shows the extent of the Roman Empire in around 100 AD. It was big. Surely if our global population was the same as the population of the entire Roman Empire, we'd be able to keep going technologically? Around the time of Christ, daily life in Roman Empire wasn't significantly different from today. They had water supplies, sewage systems, household heating, international trade, docks, cranes, pottery and metalwork and a quality road network. They had developed mathematics, researched complex astronomy and created steam-power prototypes. If the Roman Empire was the only civilisation in the world and its population had stabilised at that point and it had been given enough time, surely it would have been capable of advancing past us? It is true that a lot of technological development in Europe was thanks to developments outside Europe, particularly from the Arab world but the Arab world gained many of their technological developments from Egypt and Greece, which were both part the Roman Empire. For a scientist trying to decide on a critical mass of people required to develop into a modern industrial civilisation, the population of the Roman Empire would seem an adequate amount.
Here's the rub. The population of the Roman Empire, east and west together, in 400 AD, was 70 million people. The entire population of the world at the time of Christ was about 170 million people. Our current global population is a hundred times larger than the population of the entire Roman Empire.
It's very strange that the subject of population is very rarely mentioned when people talk about climate change. It's almost a blind spot and yet population is the elephant in the room. For example, for every extra person in Britain, we need to spend £140,000 more on infrastructure; roads, houses, hospitals etc. Extra people are a big burden. For anyone interested in learning more about the effects of population increase, I recommend visiting the population matters website. Population Matters is a charity that works to educate and inform people about the effect of population on our planet and ourselves. The '£140,000' fact comes from a recent study they conducted into the effects of population growth.
There's a dark final point to the matter of a sustainable global population. It would seem that 70 million people (or 1% of our current population) is a believable global population for survival and development. We've grown fifty times larger in the last two-thousand years and we're still growing, but all the evidence points to climate change putting us back down to that figure in the next five hundred years if we don't do it ourselves. That reduction will be brutal and ugly if we don't find a way to do it ourselves humanely. The choice is ours.
The first type are the tablet games that eat me, in the sense that the game entirely consumes my mind and time. When I play certain games, particularly the simpler games where you match up tiles to complete a row, or combine two sliding tiles together to make the next level up of tile, I fall into a weird mental state where all I'm doing is combining tiles and nothing else in the universe exists any more. It feels good combining those tiles. I work out where to slide the tiles and which tiles to focus on so that they combine well and I can create the next level up of tiles which I will then combine to make the next level up of tiles after that and every time I do that I get a little kick of happiness and success until finally, after I can't change any more tiles and the game ends, I look up and an hour's gone by. An hour?!! How did that happen? What's worse is that even though I've just gone through a self-created, pointless time-warp that's just erased an hour of my life, I actually have a itchy, nagging desire to play the game again!
Earlier this year, the New Scientist magazine published a very interesting article entitled 'Obsession engineers: Mind control the Candy Crush way' that discussed this very phenomenon. The article focussed on two popular games, 'Flappy Bird' and 'Candy Crush saga'. Either by accident or design, both games ate people. 'Flappy Bird' was an accidental success but its popularity was a mixed blessing to its developer, Dong Nguyen. He made a lot of money but he received so much angry correspondence from frustrated players that he withdrew the game from public circulation.
By comparison, Candy Crush Saga is still most definitely available and it really eats people. To quote from the New Scientist article:
Candy Crush has become an instant, unstoppable juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon. Since its introduction two years ago, the game has become the focus of obsessive analysis and sordid confessions. Journalists have openly declared themselves addicts, with more than a few admitting they have paid extravagant sums to play. They played on the train, at work, at weddings, while driving and during bathroom breaks (according to one anonymous web confessor, when she finally got off the toilet after 4 hours of play, her legs collapsed beneath her).
Psychologists have studied the astonishing addictiveness of such games. They refer to the pattern of play in these games as a ludic loop. In a ludic loop, the player performs short cycles of repeated actions that are easily achievable. When the player achieves these actions, they are rewarded, usually by a pleasing tone and visual flash of colour. These repeated events give the player a dopamine hit to their brain, similar to a drug-rush. Combined with the knowledge of a large achievement in the future, this ludic loop compels us to repeat the activity ad infinitum. When I read this explanation, I immediately thought of Super Mario Bros and fruit machines. They both flash and make a jingle when you pick up a star or a coin. Of the two, I'd recommend Super Mario Bros; it's a brilliant game, contains hours and hours of fun and you only have to pay once.
The ability of certain games to eat people has reached disturbing levels around the world. A recent BBC Storyville programme entitled 'Web Junkies - China's addicted teens' documented teenage Chinese men who have been placed into a detoxing camp by their parents to try to end their compulsive gaming addictions. These young men were playing immersive on-line action games in cyber-cafes for hours every day, in some cases all through the night. Watching the programme is both a fascinating and saddening experience.
1) 80 Days is an iPad game in which the player travels around the world as fast as they can in order to try and get back to London in 80 days or less, just as Phileas Fogg tried to do in 'Around the world in 80 days'. '80 days' has a wonderful visual style, mixing late victorian empire and steampunk and is cleverly balanced. It gives the player many different possible routes to take around the world. Players need to plan ahead, buying and selling items on the way that can either help them on their journeys or increase their wealth so that they can take more expensive but quicker forms of transport. Eventually, you learn enough about the routes to travel around the world within the time limit and often with a lot more money than you started, but that's okay because reaching that goal was lots of fun. As you can see from the image below, the artwork is excellent too.
2) Rymdkapsel means 'space capsule'. In this game, your job in this game is to develop a space station by moving resources around using your little rectangle people. Periodically, arrow things visit the space station and fire at your rectangle people. You need to protect your rectangle people against these attacks, but balance that protection with developing the station. I really enjoyed the sparse beauty of the station and the challenge of putting the place together while fending off the arrow threats. Again, like '80 days', the game comes to a natural end in that there is a main goal and once you achieve it, you're done.
3) Monument Valley is a puzzle game where you move a princess around perspective-defying buildings inspired by the works of M.C.Escher. The game has been flawlessly executed with an enjoyable score, elegantly simply controls and the visual fun of manoeuvering around impossible architecture. The game only has ten levels and you'll probably complete the whole game in a few hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
All three of these games, for me, are like a wonderful meal. You sit down with them and you look at them and you know that they've been lovingly made by people who are highly skilled and dedicated to producing something with mouthwatering contents, visual appeal and happy satisfaction. You tuck into them and enjoy the sensations, the feelings but you know that the experience won't last. After a few hours, it'll be finished and you'll have to get up, step away from the table and get on with your life but that's okay because you spent those few hours in happy enjoyment.
In that way, I think these games, the games that we eat, enrich our lives. They're short games that end, which means there are gaps between them, but this leaves room for anticipation, which can be more exciting than actually playing the game or eating the meal. Speaking of which, Wired magazine says that new levels of Monument Valley will be out soon. Yum yum! :-)
A new article out this week adds to that corpus of knowledge. The article appeared in this week's New Scientist magazine and reports on a recent health study of tens of thousands of people in Sweden. The study ran for over 20 years and focussed on milk consumption by adults. It found that:
'the more milk people drank, the more likely they were to die or experience a bone fracture during the study period.'
The study also found that women who reported that they drank three-or-more glasses of milk a day had almost double the risk of dying during the study period as those who reported only drinking one.
This evidence flies in the face of the traditional view of milk; that it's a healthy food and that it helps our bones because it contains calcium. Clearly, this view needs a very strong review. As far as I can remember, the forks over knives documentary gives an explanation that fits the Swedish study very well. Forks over Knives explains that milk does contain calcium but our bodies can't absorb that calcium because we don't have the appropriate enzymes (not surprisingly, as we're not calves). After digestion, the proteins and other elements in milk can create an acid environment in our blood. Our body has to rectify that acid-alkaline balance by drawing calcium from our bones. The bizarre net result is that drinking milk causes us to lose calcium from our bones, not gain it.
This theory is not mentioned in the New Scientist article. It reports that the scientists at Uppsala University could not state a definite causal connection to explain the results of their study. They felt the most likely explanation was that drinking milk was causing inflammation.
Whichever it is, the facts speak for themselves. Don't believe anyone who says that drinking milk is good for your bones.
“It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.”
“It seems to me that for a person to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
The philosopher Schopenhauer, who Nietzsche admired, thought that life's difficulties should be avoided. Schopenhauer recommended people hide away. Nietzsche had the opposite view. He said; 'take the challenges on! You need them! They'll make you a better person!'
Nietzsche is saying a very similar thing to my article suggesting that life is really like Casablanca, which is cool, as it means that a famous philosopher agrees with me. Yes! Unfortunately, it's also clear what I thought was an exciting new idea has actually been around for nearly a century and it isn't new at all. Hey ho.
It looks like I haven't won the Jonathan Cape Graphic Short Story competition this year (boo) but that's okay as it was a good opportunity to get the watercolour paints out and produce something that wasn't vector-based. Rather than let the story disappear into a drawer, here it is for your enjoyment. Knowledgeable readers will notice that it's got the same story (roughly) as a story I produced two years ago, which is a bit naff, but I did really like the story and thought it was worth doing again in a new medium. Hope you like it!
"In her article exploring whether dolphins live up to their reputation for intelligence, Caroline Williams tells of being forcefully rebuffed by a dolphin after attempting to connect with it (27th September, p46). In this era of climate change, the possibility that dolphins don't want to be friends with humans makes them seem more intelligent and emotionally developed than ever."
The mention of climate change led me to think about its connection with another recent topic, Milgram's Experiment. For a long time, many psychologists have been deeply unhappy that Milgram's Experiment seems to show that most people would willingly cause pain and death to an unfortunate target if they were gradually coaxed into it by authority figures. Humanity isn't like that, they say, people aren't that bad!
But a form of Milgram's Experiment is going on as we speak. It started a while ago when some people were coaxed into hurting a living target in return for personal reward. The level of harm they inflicted was slowly ramped up. They willingly continued to harm the target, even though they could see how it was suffering. Now, the experiment has reached the stage where the people involved are inflicting lethal levels of harm on the living target. Yet, they are still continuing even though they profess to be concerned about the target's welfare. The experiment I'm talking about is climate change. The living target suffering is the Earth's biosphere and the people concerned are, well, nearly every affluent individual on the planet.
Perceptive creatures, dolphins.
They found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted. One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room. Despite being unconscious and ‘dead’ for three minutes, the 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines.
The evidence now appears to be conclusive. When someone physically dies on an operating table, in essence when their heart stops, their brain has about twenty seconds worth of oxygen. After that, the brain is unable to function. According to the current orthodox view of consciousness, the subject can no longer think as the brain can no longer work. And yet Dr Parnia's study and Dr Van Lommel's before it, and other associated studies, clearly show that the mind does function. Subjects who physically die and are then revived are found to have been fully aware of what was going on during the several minutes that their bodies were dead. In some cases, they even give detailed descriptions of what happened in the room while they were physically dead which tally with what actually happened.
In the New Scientist article, the psychologists argued that the members of the public that participated in Milgram's experiment - the ones that applied the electric shocks - weren't as bad as everyone has made them out. One reason the psychologists gave was that the subjects in the experiment were told that the experiment had scientific benefit. That, argued the psychologists, was partly why the subjects applied what they thought were lethal level shocks. Also, the psychologists argued, Milgram did the experiment many times, with different parameters (including one where the subjects carrying out the shocks had to physically put the victim's hands on the shock plates) and in some of those versions, a greater percentage of people refused to carry out the shocks to lethal levels. All this, the psychologists emphasised, showed that people aren't as willing to inflict pain and eventual death on a victim - if instructed to by an authority figure - as Milgram's experiments make out.
Being a right picky, curmudgeonly so-and-so, I felt I had to respond with this letter:
"In re-evaluating Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher argue against the popular view that most people will willingly shock someone to death if an authority figure asks them to (13th Sept, pg28). These psychologists might change their mind if they watch the 2010 French/Swiss televisions documentary 'Le Jeu de la Mort', in which participants in a fake game show were asked to shock a contestant who answered trivia questions incorrectly. The participants knew there was no scientific benefit. Yet only a fifth of them stopped before inflicting what they thought were lethal level shocks."
I was very pleased that New Scientist published the letter. The version they printed wasn't actually the version I sent them, but theirs is better. Nuts, I still haven't cracked this clear and efficient prose malarkey. For those who'd like more info on how the devious but illuminating French-speaking fake-game-show people reinforced Milgram's infamous findings, here's the BBC report.
For the last ten years, I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France. The drama of the event is intoxicating. Crashes, feuding, courage, bravery, loyalty, tears, blood, joy and every other possible emotion and calamity pepper its days like a television drama gone ballistic. If it isn’t a rider being catapulted into barbed wire by a side-swiping television car, who then finishes the stage, it’s a rider trying to finish the tour with a broken hip. If it isn’t a rider in tears of sadness because he has to retire, it’s a rider in tears of joy because he’s finally won that most coveted of professional victories, a stage in the Tour. Grown men weep and sport wounds that wouldn't be allowed on Casualty. Men fight, sweat and receive odd cuddly toys while standing on very impractical shoes. The Tour is a mesmeric spectacle.
But something's gone terribly wrong.
Last year, I was watching the Vuelta Espana, Spain’s version of the Tour de France, safe in the knowledge that although there might be some minor dodginess going on, like use of the fat-shedding drug Clenbuterol, everyone seemed to be thinking that riders were otherwise clean. I watched it all the way through to the end and saw a man, so old in cycling terms that he really should have been riding with a pipe, slippers and a very long beard, step on to its top podium. I watched Chris Horner, at the gargantuan age of 41, win that prestigious three-week race.
Chris Horner is a chirpy, likeable American professional cyclist who has had many successes in his career, but he has not been a superstar. This all changed when, after a year where he was mostly injured, he won Spain's major tour, easily cycling away up mountains from top-level cyclists in their prime. This was an aberration. This was an aberration so whoppingly aberrant, it was like a man who finds his house is hit by a meteorite every time he watches ‘Armageddon’. It's physically possible that such a thing would happen, but boy does it feel to him like something unnatural is going on.
How could this be the same Chris Horner that fought but failed to reach the heady heights of European Cycling for so many years? How can a 41-year-old pro-rider win a major European Tour for the first time ever? Professional cycling requires great levels of courage, bike-handling skill, mental strength and sheer never-say-die endurance from its competitors but it is, at heart, a very simple job. Riders have to get from A to B on a bicycle. As a result, it’s relatively easy to work out what they’re capable of by simply recording their weight and the time it takes them to get from A to B. In many cases, riders take the same routes from year to year, particularly the famous mountain climbs, and so rider performances can be both compared with each other during a race, but also with competitors doing the same race years before. Nowadays, with the UCI’s (international cyclist union) biological passport system, analysts can even check the state of riders’ blood and see how that has changed. With all this data, it’s very easy to get a detailed, day-to-day understanding of a rider’s level of performance.
Horner said he was concerned about suspicious comments about his performance and, in a bid to quash them, published his blood data. He said that he hoped that by making this available for everyone to see, the negative rumours would end. But the data tells a different story.
This very interesting article in the Outside Online website discusses Horner’s blood values during the Vuelta. The data includes both Horner’s haemoglobin level (the active blood cells that carry oxygen to his muscles) and his reticulocyte count (his young blood cells). As the article carefully states, the graphs for both levels are not consistent with how someone's blood values would change during a long stage race. Why would Chris Horner release figures that point the finger at him?
I realised something strange, something unearthly was going on. I studied the life of a clean rider by reading Christophe Bassons' autobiography earlier this year. Bassons used to be a very talented young French rider, destined for great things. Unfortunately, he entered the sport when it was in the thick of the drug-taking nineties era of EPO (blood doping), testosterone, steroids and other highly dodgy and quite illegal performance enhancers. Bassons, to his eternal credit, refused to take the drugs and was comprehensively ostracised, bullied, intimidated, shunned and ridiculed as a result, until he finally abandoned his cycling career. If you want a thorough lesson in how not to treat an honest colleague who just wants to do the right thing, read his book.
Near the end of the book, Bassons comments about the current state of doping in cycling. He has been working with the French anti-doping authorities for years and he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s his view:
“Currently, questions are being asked about the extent to which pharmaceuticals such as AICAR, GW501516, TP500 and GAS6 are being used. Some of them have already been found during searches of vehicles and have been used by some athletes, doctors and soigneurs. These substances provide an equivalent effect to EPO, because they improve the performance of the athlete by boosting the transport and utilisation of oxygen by the body. Their effect is very well known. AICAR and TP500, for example, increases the number of mitochondria in the muscles. These cells are in a way little energy plants, which transform substrates (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins) into energy through the use of oxygen. The two products also bring about an increase in lipolysis (the breakdown of 'fat' to provide energy). They maintain lipolysis during intense efforts."
"To be more specific, when an athlete is tying at 80 per cent of his maximum, in principle he stops burning fat and only burns carbohydrate. By using these products, he can continue to burn fat as well as carbohydrate, even at 95 per cent of his maximum. This additional power, which stems from the use of fat reserves, offers a huge advantage. It is absolutely impossible to achieve naturally. Meanwhile the public can see another effect of the products in the physical transformation of competitors into athletes who don't seem very muscular and are very lean. They have a very low fat percentage because they are able to burn all their fats, including those in muscle fibres, and benefit from an increase in energy. With regard to growth factor GAS6, this allows the secretion of endogenous EPO. It is completely undetectable.”
The last two sentences of the passage are particularly startling. Bassons is making it clear that a professional cyclist is capable, at the moment, of significantly improving his performance without any danger of being detected by any UCI test. Skinny riders, traditionally good for climbing mountains but at a disadvantage on flat stages, can keep pace with the heavier, muscular riders by taking the drugs mentioned. All riders can improve their climbing ability by taking GAS6. Basically, riders can cheat if they want to, upping their performances in the process and get away with it.
Fortunately, as has been pointed out exhaustively by teams and riders nowadays, I knew that the peloton has moved on from the drug-taking days. There may be a few accidents when certain riders eat meat contaminated by Clenbuteral-chomping cows, but apart from that, riders' bodies are additive free. No one's taking AICAR, GW501516, TP500, GAS6 or any other illegal drug that could pass as a model of washing machine. Bassons is simply being thorough.
But I was still worried. I sensed something very wrong in men's professional cycling. My next step was to look at performance figures, particularly the performance of different riders over the years. This excellent article on sportscientists.com looks into this very subject. I've popped my version of their graph below, with extra helpful performance bands. The graph below shows the performance of Tour-de-France-winning riders through the late eighties and nineties. The increase in performance values during the nineties is an eye-opener, even if you already know what EPO can do to a rider's climbing ability. Keep in mind that these values are measured during long bouts of intense performance and therefore can't be explained away as short-lived freak events.
The first name on the graph is of particular interest; Greg LeMond.
Greg LeMond was not only a brilliant professional cyclist but can be regarded as a benchmark for the kind of career an exceptional clean athlete can have. Exceptional bike riders have to be blessed with an exceptional cardiovascular system. As Greg himself freely admits, his genes gave him a wonderful opportunity to compete for the greatest cycling prizes. Someone with such exceptional natural abilities will shine as soon as they start cycling in earnest and LeMond was just that kind of rider. He was a phenomenon from his very earliest years in the sport, as described in this interview. He has one of the highest recorded VO2 Max levels (93) in history, which is an indicator of cardiovascular performance. He was coached by one of the all-time greats of cycling, Cyrille Guimard, and had access to the latest technology, and yet his Watts/kg value looks positively mediocre on the above graph of champions’ performances. It is only in 1999, when the Festina affair erupted and the French police were raiding pro-team's hotels that the performances drop back to something close to LeMond’s level when he won his last Tour de France.
I took two important pieces of information from this graph; one, that EPO gives riders a massive advantage and two, that a human athlete is highly unlikely to be able to significantly improve LeMond performance value of around 5.7 W/kg on a late eighties bike.
My next step was to check how much bike technology improvements since the late eighties could improve a cyclist's performance. The first useful fact was that UCI has restricted bicycle design in competitions, stopping major improvements in efficiency. Secondly, the bikes in the eighties weren’t that bad. They were made of quality steel and equipped with just as many gears as current bikes, making them only marginally inferior to today’s products.
I estimated how much changes to bicycles have improved performance by looking at a modern professional’s performance and comparing. I used Philip Deignan. Philip is a top-level cyclist riding for the Sky Team (Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’ team). Sky have helpfully published his performance figures at the 2014 Vuelta here. According to a report I found on the web, Philip has a recorded VO2-Max of about 87, an impressive figure only six points or 6.5% lower than Greg LeMond's. According to Sky’s performance report, the maximum W/kg output Philip produced at the Vuelta in a 20 minute spell was 5.42 W/kg.
I now used that data to compare his ability on a bike in 2014 with Greg's in 1989. I could assume that a top-level pro on a 2014 bike with a VO2 Max of 87 produces a maximum power output in a multi-stage race of 5.42 W/kg; that's a ratio of 0.0623. Greg's ratio, 93 divided by 5.7, is 0.0613. Philip's ratio is therefore only a tiny increase on Greg's at 1.6%. The calculations showed, in a very rough way, that bikes haven't improved riders' performances much at all in 25 years. The two factors of weight and cardiovascular ability are still far and away the main issues for performance.
Knowing this, I decided it was safe to conclude that in any major stage race, the riders can’t naturally produce more than 5.8 W/kg or, being super-optimistic, 5.9 W/kg during a twenty-minute-or-so stretch. Performances over that range would indicate that the rider had somehow developed a body that went beyond all recorded limits. Not only that, but such a rider would have won everything from their very first pedal stroke and already be regarded as the greatest bike rider ever to have existed in time and space in this part of the universe. They’d probably finish each race by taking a small drink, waving to their fans and floating away on a magic cloud to their hotel.
With this very useful fact stuffed in my waistband, I inspected the performance of key riders in recent Grand Tour events. In this new era of clean cycling, with the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs well behind us, I could feel confident and assured that the cyclists zipping by on my goggle-box would have a power-to-weight value from about 5.2 w/kg to, in the case of an utterly amazing clean rider - 5.9 w/kg. Philip Deignan is definitely in that range, what about the rest of the Grand Tour peleton?
This is when a chill went down my spine...
This article on Cycling Tips website gives a very useful analysis of the performances of the major riders in this year’s Tour de France (2014), which Nibali won. The table at the bottom of the article is of particular interest. Here's my version of it below, with snappy colour coding of the values. Green is credible, brown is worrying and red indicates ability to levitate:
The numbers were very scary. In an attempt to calm my growing fears, I remembered that the graph of Tour successes in the nineties was stating overall averages on the Tour, so perhaps only the last column of this table was relevant. It was possible that the first results on ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ might have been distorted because the climb was too short. Then again, ‘Risoul’ might also have been too short and ‘Port de Bales’ as well. Nuts, I thought, perhaps the Tour is much shorter than people think and it only looks long through the TV coverage, like some kind of lensing effect? Perhaps Dr Michele Ferrari’s formula (used in the graph) is wrong? No, wait a minute, I remembered, Dr Michele Ferrari is the notorious sports doctor that allegedly masterminded Lance Armstrong’s training and his medicinal supplemental product regime. Michele does seem to know what he’s doing, whatever he’s doing.
I remembered something else. Any professional rider on a three-week tour will produce their highest output in the early stages of the race. After that, the relentless miles, crashes, heat, rain and the labrador dogs wanting to sniff his front wheel while he cycles past at forty miles an hour will take their toll. His power diminishes as his blood wearies of the constant cardiovascular effort. It’s only when he gives his body a sizeable break to recover that he can function at full power again. This is an unavoidable effect and can only be stopped or reversed by drugs or an actual blood transfusion, which are both banned… and yet Vincenzo Nibali produced 6.09 W/kg on the Hautacam on Stage 18!
Could this be true? My thoughts drifted back to watching Nibali during a mountain stage of the Tour when I noticed that he didn't seem to be bothering to breathe. He behaved more like he was sitting on a sofa, rather than charging up a mountain. At one point, he seemed to be half-heartedly pretending to be breathing heavily on that punishing climb. Why would he do that? Riders are known to mask their exhaustion so as to prevent the opposition knowing that they’re fading but his hammy, brief pants were… well, pants. Surely, faced with top level opposition trying to out-climb him on a daunting mountain road, he’d actually have to breath heavily?
I’ve had personal experience of cycling at my limit up a mountain and I’ve got to say, the only conversation I was capable of making was grunting noises. If there had been a Neanderthal or a three-month-old baby at the other end of the mike, I’d have been all right, but otherwise, I might as well have been gargling my news. Human beings need to breathe heavily when cycling up a mountain.
Swallowing down a surge of terror, I wondered how long this strangeness had been going on. I looked back at last year's Tour in 2013. Had things been normal then or had something sinister already taken hold?
I read this fascinating article on the Outside Online website where experts examine Chris Froome’s performance when he completed the AX3 Domaines climb on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France. He did the famous climb in 23 minutes 14 seconds which is the third fastest ever time on that climb and, most importantly, it beat times recorded when key members of the peleton were doped up to the eyeballs with EPO. Here's the list:
1. Laiseka 22:57, 2001
2. Armstrong 22:59, 2001
3. Froome 23:14, 2013
4. Ulrich 23:17, 2003
5. Zubeldia 23:19, 2003
6. Ulrich 23:22, 2001
7. Armstrong 23:24, 2003
8. Vinokourov 23:34, 2003
9. Basso 23:36, 2003
10. Armstrong 23:40, 2005
22. Porte 24:05, 2013
34. Valverde 24:22, 2013
Froome's time was faster than Jan Ullrich’s time in 2003. This was astonishing. Ullrich was described by Tyler Hamilton in his book ‘The Secret Race’ as one of the most impressive cyclists he’d ever encountered. Lance Armstrong admitted that Ullrich was the only other rider he feared. Ullrich eventually fell from grace after being found to have taken a shedload of performance enhancing drugs but in his prime, he was seen as a godzilla of a competitor... and Froome beat his best time. I wanted to look away, to shield my gaze from this awful truth, but I had to look. Chris Froome had beaten Jan 'my blood's like iron gravy' Ullrich’s best time going up AX3 Domaines and he produced 6.37 w/kg during that 23 minute climb. By comparison, Richie Porte's time of 24:05 seemed like an excellent clean time but not surprisingly, languished down in twenty-second place.
Here’s a quote from the article:
“Based on the proposed power curve in ‘Not Normal?’, the work of Antoine Vayer, a French journalist and former trainer for the infamous Festina cycling team, 6.37 w/kg for the 23 minute effort puts Froome well into the "miraculous" level of human physiology. This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO. It is a level of performance that has all but disappeared following Operation Puerto and the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport.”
They use ‘miraculous’. On my earlier graph, 6.37 sits firmly in the area marked ‘ridiculous’ and is just shy of ‘alien species’, but it’s not necessary to argue the exact term. Others might use ‘WTF??!!!’ or perhaps ‘a physiology redolent of the Rutger Hauer replicant in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner’. Any of them will do. Whichever term one uses, Mr Froome’s performance was alien, wrong, non-human.
When did this madness start? I found This BBC article, written in 2012, the year that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. In the article, Dr Auriel Forrester, a sports scientist who works for SRM (the performance tracking company used by the Tour de France), discusses the power profiles of top riders. She uses data that Vincenzo Nibali himself supplied in 2012, recording his power output in the Alpine Stage 11 of that year's Tour. To quote Dr Forrester:
"His first two climbs are done at 320 and 322 watts and the final ride is 360 watts. This means on the final climb his power to weight ratio is 5.2W/kg. Those figures are where you expect that rider to be. If you compare Nibali to the other riders when they have been climbing, his figures are comparable. They're all ballpark, similar figures. None of those would stick out as spurious."
The reading stared me in the face; 5.2w/kg. Somehow, Vincenzo Nibali had gone from 5.2w/kg on a Tour de France stage to 6.1 w/kg or more, only two years later. Dr Forrester also stated that 5.2w/kg was the normal upper-end power output for the top riders only two years ago. There was no natural way any professional rider could go from 5.2 w/kg to 6.1 w/kg in two years.
I knew there was only one answer. Professional cycling has been invaded by alien body-snatchers! The fifties movie 'Invasion of the Body-Snatchers' was not just a story. It has actually happened.
You may scoff, but look at the evidence! Look at how it's spread, how it's turned normal, 5.2 w/kg riders into 6.2 w/kg creatures of inhuman ability! The pattern is the same as in that movie from yesteryear. In the beginning, a single, anonymous rider becomes infected. His performance miraculously improves. Everyone congratulates him on his new found fame, but they don't know that he's really an alien. Slowly, the alien rider infects others, one by one. These infected riders also improve incredibly and other riders start to wonder what's going on. The infected riders seem to be the same people but they're not. Some riders try to raise the alarm. 'Those riders on the podium aren't humans! They're something else, something alien!!!!' But no one believes them. The team bosses are pleased, they're winning. The sponsors are pleased, they're winning. Everyone is pleased except a few, under-performing riders who the majority agree are just sore losers.
One of the desperate, uninfected riders tells a sports scientist what's happening. The scientist is initially sceptical but then she checks the data. 'Goodness gracious!' She shouts, 'those riders you mentioned are producing values not seen since the days of Frankenstein movies!' 'But what can we do?' Shouts the desperate rider. The sports scientist tries to alert the authorities, the race organisers, the cycling union but no one wants to listen. 'Why rock the boat?' They reply. 'Everything's going really well.' 'But they're aliens!' she exclaims. 'So?' Say the team owners, 'they're aliens that are winning. They're champions. I'd rather have alien champions than human losers.' The scientist gives up in disgust. The desperate human rider abandons the sport and goes to work in his dad's vineyard. The team bosses slap each other on the back and in the background, in the shadows, the alien riders smile unnervingly. 'Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte,' they say with their flat, eerie voices, 'don't fight it, soon you will be one of us....'
Run, Brad! Run Richie! Get out while you can!!!!!
There would have been more but I only had my creaky old mobile phone with me and its battery life is geriatric. I was planning to carry an inflatable globe (see earlier post) and was on the point of buying one in the excellent map shop near Covent Garden on Long Acre when I noticed that it was made in China. Hmm. Buying a lump of plastic carted half-way around the world to use as a symbolic prop in a climate change demonstration didn't seem quite right, so it stayed on the shelf.
Best quote of the day comes from the actress Emma Thompson whose advice on the threat of climate change and the urgent need for serious action was both accurate, succinct and charmingly direct:
“Unless we’re carbon-free by 2030 the world is buggered.”
This Sunday (21st September), there will be a climate change march in London and other cities to promote and highlight this huge and incredibly important issue. A lot of different organisations are taking part, including Friends of the Earth, Population Matters and the Campaign against Climate Change. The march is along the Embankment from Temple Place, starting at 12:30pm and will end up in Parliament Square. The whole event should wind up around 3pm. For more detailed info, check out the websites of the various charities etc that are involved or click on the picture above. I've heard talk of all sorts of fun activities during the march, including a samba band, so it might even be fun!
I'll be taking part. I'm hoping (if I can find one) to carry an inflatable Earth with me. It'll make a good symbol and if I get bored, I can bounce it up and down like a beach ball. ;-)
It'd be great if lots and lots of people come along. Although it might not end climate change overnight, or even possibly make any significant change, it's still worth doing. You could even help to reduce the effects of climate change for entirely selfish reasons, as I chatted about in this earlier blog, but you could also do it because you want to be a person who stood up and made an effort. Later on, when things get tough and people start asking questions, you'll know that you tried. That could be a really good feeling to have.
Here's a great article from Jarvis Cocker in today's Guardian newspaper, putting forward his thoughts on Sunday's march.
Here's a more general report from the Guardian, including comments from a host of celebrities.
For those of you who might be motivated by watching a programme about the forthcoming worldwide climate change march on Sunday, here's the official documentary:
For everyone else, please come. It really, really, really, really is important!
The amazing Blackstone came to town when I was seven, and I saw how he came alive onstage and thought, God, I want to grow up to be like that! And I ran up to help him vanish an elephant. To this day I don’t know where the elephant went. One moment it was there, the next — abracadabra — with a wave of the wand it was gone! In 1929 Buck Rogers came into the world, and on that day in October a single panel of Buck Rogers comic strip hurled me into the future. I never came back.
It was only natural when I was twelve that I decided to become a writer and laid out a huge roll of butcher paper to begin scribbling an endless tale that scrolled right on up to Now, never guessing that the butcher paper would run forever.
Snoopy has written me on many occasions from his miniature typewriter, asking me to explain what happened to me in the great blizzard of rejection slips of 1935. Then there was the snowstorm of rejection slips in ’37 and ’38 and an even worse winter snowstorm of rejections when I was twenty-one and twenty-two. That almost tells it, doesn’t it, that starting when I was fifteen I began to send short stories to magazines like Esquire, and they, very promptly, sent them back two days before they got them! I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn. Then, during the late forties, I actually began to sell short stories and accomplished some sort of deliverance from snowstorms in my fourth decade. But even today, my latest books of short stories contain at least seven stories that were rejected by every magazine in the United States and also in Sweden! So, dear Snoopy, take heart from this. The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.
Fourth decade! How did he last that long? Was he inspired, dedicated, surrounded by supportive, motivating people or was he just plain nuts? Writing, particularly when one is not getting published, is mentally tough, although I still think it beats commuting. Even successful writing may not be much better. George Orwell had this to say about writing a book:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George, it seems, would have plumped for Ray Bradbury being nuts.
if writing is like being ill, then writers need medicine from time to time. They don't want the medicine to cure them of their affliction, as they don't want lose the strange, heady malady that bewitches them, but they usually want some of its worst symptoms - low confidence, dwindling motivation, creeping loneliness and patchy ignorance - to be alleviated.
I know of a medicine that can turn a hermit-writer that's moaning and scribbling uncontrollably into a motivated and more knowledgeable member of the creative world. The effect doesn't last forever but boy, it's a shot in the arm. That medicine is a week on an Arvon course. The Arvon Foundation organises one-week courses in its own properties around the UK on a wide variety of writing subjects. Course attendees spend a week in the company of fellow writers, living in beautiful rural surroundings, and receive motivation, guidance and knowledge from industry professionals. It can be a wonderful change from sitting in your room, pounding away on your keyboard with nothing for company but the radio. An Arvon course won't necessarily transform you into a writing demigod and catapult you into literary stardom like a flaming missile from a siege catapult, but it really benefitted me. The last course I went on was a graphic novel course taught by Bryan Talbot and Hannah Berry, which I chose on a whim. Since then, I've completed a graphic novel; an achievement I would have barely believed five years ago.
They even have house-martens! :-)
With respect to the Influence Idea, the presenter, Jim Al-Khalili, does discuss the existence of living things in a Universe ruled by entropy at around the fortieth minute of the programme. He and other contributors make the claim that the universe's random, disordered, chaotic behaviour has thrown up life by some act of chance. Unfortunately, they do not discuss how life, even if it had started in an act of incredible coincidence, continues to increase order in the universe in direct opposition to entropy. Apart from that bit of woolliness, it's a very well made programme and a fascinating exploration of the history of thermodynamics.
The problem of pain, in its simplest form was the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that "God" wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we'd have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in "either goodness, or power, or both."
It’s a tricky question. In a nutshell, it is: ‘If God’s full of love, why’s he put us here in a place full of suffering, misery and pain?’
There are lots of possible answers to this question but here's three popular ones:
- God is good and he wants suffering in the world for a good reason. Unfortunately, we can’t understand why because God purpose is beyond our limited understanding. In other words, we’re too stupid to understand why we have to suffer.
- We’re fundamentally bad; it's our own fault there’s suffering. We basically deserve what we're getting.
- God doesn’t exist and the universe is what it is because of physics. There's no Big Reason nothing to ponder. This is the materialist or atheist solution and is fully believed by such academic luminaries as Richard Dawkins.
Unfortunately, none of the above answers are particularly positive. In fact, they’re all pretty depressing, which doesn’t improve the lot of anyone who's already unhappy about ‘the problem of pain’ in the first place.
But there is another answer! Hooray! If the Influence Idea is correct, then we, as thinking minds, are separate to physical reality and influence physical reality in order to make Life happen, including the functioning of our own bodies. This is a scientific idea, grounded in fact and logic, so there's no need to actually believe anything in order to say, with confidence that God exists (a.k.a. Original Mind, Tao or Atum) and there's Life After Physical Death etc.
But if we don't originate in this physical reality and we can leave it, why are we all going through all the suffering that comes as part and parcel of living our lives? What's the point? An answer may lie in reading the reports of people who say they've temporarily stopped living their physical life and visited the AfterLife…
Such an idea leads to a simple but highly meaningful question; ‘what should we do to improve ourselves?’ Most of us would agree that we want to become better people during our lives, to be more courageous, more compassionate, more charitable, but how would we go about it? If we were in Heaven, we could perhaps ask God to transform us into ultimately lovely people… but there’s a problem with that. If we did that, we wouldn’t have improved, we’d have just been changed into someone else by another’s hand. This is where living a physical life full of challenges and difficulties starts to make sense. By living such a challenging life and succeeding in it, we have really improved as people.
But what if the film had been different? What if Rick had asked a Higher Power, five minutes in, to transform him into a wonderful human being? The net result would have been the same (freedom fighter escapes, woman is forgiven, man shows he cares) without a lot of talking, wearing of raincoats and singing of the Marseillaise. But such a transformation would have been rubbish, false, pointless. For Rick’s story to touch our heartstrings and stir our souls, he had to face challenges in that story. He had to resist the temptation of stealing Elsa away for himself. He had to face the option of wallowing in self-pity and bitterness, but instead rise above that and do the right thing and it was hard for him to do it; he had to reach down and pull himself into a good place. The challenges he faced were tough and we, the audience, didn’t know, until right at the end, which choice he would make but when he did make the right choices and become a better person, it meant everything to him and to us. It gets me every time. I practically blub when they sing the Marseillaise.
The same ise true of our own lives. Deep down, many of us want to become better people through our own experiences, our own choices and actions. Just as with Rick, we have to experience all sorts of challenges to be sure we are great people. A wise person would say that we don’t know how good we are until we are challenged; it is only when we’re challenged that we find out. We can’t just ‘talk the talk’, we have to ‘walk the walk’ to be sure.
This idea, that we are living physical lives to improve ourselves, has interesting consequences. For example, if Reality is a construction created by minds for personal improvement - a therapy environment - then the only things of real importance to us in Reality aren’t actually the physical things of reality at all - they’re just props. The only important thing in Reality is the state of our own minds. All extrinsic things like money, attractiveness, material goods etc are ultimately irrelevant and only of use if their presence helps us improve our minds. Anyone in Reality who is preoccupied with material things is akin to someone spending all their time playing a computer game because they're obsessed with amassing as many gold coins as possible. Such an attitude by game players often invites pity and ridicule but Reality is an artificial environment too, an immersive, affecting environment that we only temporarily experience.
It seems that Reality is the film 'Casablanca', only we don't know the ending. It is an immersive environment that we have all chosen to experience, from birth to death, and by doing this, by living our physical lives, we hope to rid ourselves of negative thoughts and negative reactions. Just as Rick had to face temptation, overcome bitterness and choose selflessness during the two hours of ‘Casablanca’, we are spending four-score-years-and-ten here because we want to achieve the same goals, only possibly with less raincoats…
p.s. Literally trying to live out 'Casablanca' is tempting too, but kind of dumb, but Woody Allen was very funny when he tried it in his film 'Play it again, Sam', which is definitely worth seeing.
'Quantum' is an excellent book and a first-rate chronicler of that tumultuous time in physics. It cleverly combines a thorough biography of quantum physics and the (mostly) men who developed the field, along with a strong human story, that of the ongoing tussle between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. Einstein may have developed Relativity and transformed our understanding of light, motion and gravity, but he was never happy with the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics. He refused to accept that there was nothing outside of our observation of reality, or that the presence of a fundamental particle could be no more than probability, or that the universe's foundations were impossible to know fully. In the latter part of Einstein's life, he watched the physics community move almost to a man to the Copenhagen Interpretation but he did not budge, making his life in physics both an astounding success and a bitter failure.
This year, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees is heading a ten million pound prize fund to help solve big problems that we face today. It is a project with a big media profile, organised by the Nesta charity. Here's five of the big questions they are hoping to answer:
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Don't they sound great? If we could use our cleverness and innovation and work really hard, we could answer those questions and help mankind.
But wait a second, this doesn't make sense, because we already know the answers to those questions. The problem seems to be that nobody likes the answers we already have. Before wondering why that is, let's look at the history of the Longitude Prize...
The original Longitude Prize was set up in 1714 by the British Admiralty to find an accurate tool for navigation over the open oceans. The lack of such a tool was causing great loss of life for British sailors. Without an accurate way to measure how far around the planet you were (as compared to how far up and down) it was easy for ships to lose track of their position and crash into rocks with tragic results. To stop this happening, the British Admiralty set up a huge prize of ten thousand pounds for someone to develop a tool for calculation longitude accurately. Famously, Harrison rose to this challenge and developed a timepiece (Harrison No4) that met the requirements of the competition. His watch was an engineering masterpiece and met the competition's requirements. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Admiralty weren't keen to hand over the money. In fact, they avoided paying out for years. Eventually, with royal support, Harrison received at least some of the prize money he so richly deserved.
The original Longitude story is a fascinating one. It was a historical and memorable competition and made perfect sense. Harrison's clock was one of the best ever pioneer's tools, helping people who were at the mercy of a dominant natural world. Climate change hadn't really kicked in at that time and Humanity at that time were still explorers, having little impact on their environment (relatively). Longitude was an admiral prize (literally!) to solve a genuine and sincere problem where mankind was at the mercy of the natural world…
But that's not the case now! The situation has completely changed in the last century. We're not pioneers in a forest any more, lost in its vastness, fearful of its grandeur and power. Instead, mankind's current relationship with the natural world is more like a crowd partying around a solitary small tree, swinging from its weak branches and pissing up against its trunk. We don't need a discovery to help us avoid the dangers of the natural world. The natural world needs a discovery to help it avoid the dangers of us!
The Longitude Prize should be awarding a prize to stop people being people. We need is a competition that will award a prize for people NOT manufacturing products, NOT having more babies, NOT taking loads of antibiotics,or NOT using vast amounts of water.
Instead, the current Longitude award wants a new invention that makes all our problems of excess go away, without us changing our behaviour, which is like developing healthier doughnuts for gluttons. They'll just eat more of them, you berks! Humanity is a spoilt rich kid who's told he can't have any more doughnuts because they'll make him ill. He's not happy with that and he offers ten million pounds to anyone who can create magical doughnuts that you can eat as many times as you like and never get ill. This new challenge isn't daring science, it's Willy Wonka.
Let's look again at the Longitude Prize questions in this light, with the knowledge that a) man and nature are now akin to a drunken party debauching around a small and feeble tree… and b) that humanity is acting like a spoilt brat.
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
Yeah, I want clean WATER for everybody, forever! No, you can't. Climate change is up and running and water resources are already shrinking fast. Projections made by governments and NGO's unanimously agree that water supplies will soon become so acute that wars will break out over control of what's left. To stop this, we need to urgently stop climate change by low-carbon lifestyles and a serious reduction in population. Only by doing that will we reduce the human impact on the planet and preserve our fresh water. We therefore need to stop burning fossil fuels and stop having babies. What, no sex or cars? Rubbish!!
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
Yeah, I want ANTIBIOTICS that will work forever! We can't if every time someone feels a bit snuffly, their doctor gives them antibiotics. We need to stop using antibiotics like they're paracetamol tablets. If we don't, common infections like gonorrhoea will becomes life-or-death events. What, no drugs when I want them, whatever my ailment? Rubbish!!
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
Yeah, I want to be mentally and physically healthy for the entire rest of my life and never get DEMENTIA! A lot of scientific evidence shows that eating less sugar, less animal protein, taking short fasts, exercising more and avoiding alcohol and tobacco can hugely improve a person's cognitive state in later life. This is a scientifically supported way to reduce the risks of dementia. What, I can't eat and drink what I like as much as I like, while sitting in my car? Rubbish!!
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
Yeah, I want everyone to have great FOOD forever! This is the same as the water question. Even if anyone comes up with a new super-wheat to increase yield, with no population control measures in place, the population will simply shoot up, stressing the environment further. Climate change is accelerating and that surge in population would only make climate change effects worse. There is one way to improve the diet of people; eating less meat in the developed world, as the rearing of livestock takes far more resources from the land than simply raising vegetables and grains. What, no steaks? Rubbish!!
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Yeah, I want to FLY around the world as much as I like! Air travel is a very energy-intensive activity. You cannot ferry large numbers of people through the sky without consuming huge amounts of fuel. For example, the fuel cost of taking one six-hour flight is equivalent to running a 1Kw bar fire continually for a year. The only way to reduce the environmental impact of flying is to do it less. Since much of modern air-travel is non-essential and climate change is a major threat, reducing all air travel to essential-flights-only would reduce climate change without major social damage. What, I can't fly to Brazil for the weekend? Absolute Total Killjoy RUBBISH!!!… OW! Did you just slap me?!
Charity sponsorship; it seems simple. Someone commits to doing something challenging. If they succeed, their sponsors donate money to a specific charity.
But wait a second... almost no one, nowadays, does something really difficult. They can’t, Health and safety would be all over them like a rash if they decided to walk a tightrope over the Thames while wearing ship chains, or wrestle a half-starved lion, or swallow a bucket of scorpions. No one nowadays can be allowed to risk their life, or even serious injury as part of a sponsored event. That’s perfectly sensible, but it means that all legitimate sponsored events are perfectly do-able by everyone who takes part in them. Not only that, but most modern sponsored events actually benefit the people taking part. Also, the events are usually enjoyable, as shown by the oodles of websites full of grinning faces standing around finishing lines and comments like ‘gosh, it was wonderful! I’m looking forward to doing it again!’ Therefore, in nearly all sponsored events nowadays, people are sponsoring other people to do something they’ll be really pleased they’ve done.
That’s odd, because if that’s the case, then, logically, I should be able to ask people to sponsor me to cycle to my town centre every morning and drink a FairTrade coffee while reading a magazine. It’s healthy, ethical and I’d be pleased I did it. I could even make it challenging and say I’ll have the coffee at precisely 11am every day. That would be really difficult to achieve! That would require organisation, persistence and a positive attitude. I think most people would respond badly if I asked them, but logically, it should be fine. For me, the ‘coffee at 11am every day for a month’ challenge is harder than, say, cycling 50 miles in a day. I can cycle a long way on a bicycle, but meeting a deadline every day for weeks on end is torment, so how does my ‘coffee at 11am for a month’ challenge look utterly ridiculous and frankly rubbish to others, but the easier task, for me, of cycling 50 miles in a day seem respectable?
I don’t know. To be honest, I’m confused about the logic of donating. If someone thinks a charity is worthwhile, why do they need to watch someone to go around the Isle of Wight in a wheelbarrow before handing over some cash? Surely, if a person thought the charity involved was valid and worthwhile, they would just donate the money regardless?
It gets weirder. What if, say, Jimmy Saville was still alive today and was running a marathon in support of a cash-starved children’s hospital. Would you sponsor him? My automatic response is ‘no way!’ since it’s now pretty clear he was a monstrous, repulsive, sexual predator. But he wouldn’t get the money I’d donated, the hospital would receive it. None of it would go to him. Would it still therefore be a positive act? I’d still be reluctant to do it, but who would I want to sponsor instead? Why would I need to sponsor anyone to push me to help out an ailing children’s hospital? Why I do I need to be woo'd by a celebrity and see someone run ten miles in a gorilla suit before I hand over some cash? It makes me look like I have to be entertained before I'll open my wallet, however important the cause.
Charities do need our money, but raising those donations by organizing events is a woefully inefficient way of raising money. A fundraiser once admitted to me that two-thirds of the money raised from the celebrity-endorsed event she’d help organize was lost the charity. The money was spent paying for advertising, catering, commissions, venue and so on for the event. What charities ideally need is for us to quietly pay them every month, without any ostentatious displays. That way, they can use nearly all the money donated to get on with their work. They’ll also know that they have a reliable supply of income, month in, month out - security and stability that will enable them to plan ahead and implement long-lasting beneficial projects... wait a second, I’m talking about a welfare state.
The logical conclusion seems to be to never sponsor anyone at an organised event. Instead, a far better act of charity is to set up a monthly donation to a organisation whose aims you strongly believe in.
For those that disagree with this conclusion, I'll soon be setting up a MustGive web-page for my ‘fairtrade coffee every day for a month’ challenge. Please give generously.
Cycle helmets; they're everywhere now. Almost everyone on the roads who's decked out in lycra and/or high-visibility clothing is wearing one of these turtle skeletons. At first glance, it makes perfect sense; you're safer wearing one that not wearing one and every cyclist in their right mind should wear one. This straightforward view is backed up by a Department of Transport study [that] found that cycle helmets worn correctly could prevent an estimated 10-16 per cent of fatalities.' Simple, eh?
But if helmets are that important, why aren't pedestrians wearing them? In my experience, I've had just as many close shaves while crossing the road than I have while cycling on it. The pedestrian crossing near my house, for example, is an absolute death-trap. If one side of the traffic stops for you on that crossing, DO NOT CROSS ALL THE WAY! YOU WILL DIE! You must cross half way and then stick your head out. From there, you can get a grandstand, front row seat view of the cars coming around the corner and travelling past you at high speed in the other direction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that you're an upright, bipedal bag of blood wrapped in some skin who's standing on some stripes, trying to get to the supermarket. Eventually, one of them stops or possibly screeches to a halt and you finally cross.
It's not just me. Here's a stat from a BBC website article:
Motorbikes win easily, but pedestrians aren't far behind bicycles. You think cycling is dangerous? It is! But only a third more dangerous than crossing the road!
There's another factor with the whole 'cyclist in a helmet' plan. It's called human psychology.
When it became compulsory for people to wear seat-belts in cars in Britain, this clear benefit was somewhat undermined because, on average, motorists drove faster if they wore seat-belts because they felt safer with them on. If you dress someone up like Robocop, they will try to smash through walls because they feel invulnerable. They won't say 'oh, that wall looks like it's got breeze-blocks and my Robo-suit is only tested on Victorian Brick. I'd better leave it be.' They'll have a go because they've got hydraulic arms and kevlar! You could call this the Titanic Problem; if the person in charge thinks they're very secure, they take bigger risks. We're also rubbish at accurately assessing what our technology can do for us; we just haven't evolved enough. We're like frogs who try to mate with plastic bottles. It looks good, it feels good, it must be okay!
Putting amphibians shagging polymers aside for a moment, there's yet another factor in wearing a helmet while cycling that undermines the safety benefit.
A fascinating cycling study found that when a cyclist wore a helmet, motorists gave them less room because the motorist unconsciously viewed the cyclist as being better protected. 'Oh, look, she's got a bird's nest on her head! I can cut her up without a care in the world now because the top of her head is protected by little weaves of high-impact plastic.' I have personally noted this problem while cycling with a helmet. Bizarrely, the most effective apparel I've found for warding off the attention of cars is a flapping jacket. They give you loads of room if you're wearing one; it's some sort of force field. This odd, as it means that drivers are like horses. Then again, drivers give horses loads of room too, rather than driving up close to them and shouting that they should get off the road and leave it to those who pay road-tax. Perhaps they feel kinship with them?
Human psychology therefore seriously undermines that 10% physical benefit while wearing a helmet. You might be a little better protected but your likelihood of being crushed like a bug has significantly gone up after putting it on. By comparison, pedestrians - who get killed almost as much as cyclists - only need to put them on when crossing the road. Why don't they carry one for their protection? Why are they being so irresponsible over their own safety?
Pedestrians, WEAR A HELMET WHEN YOU CROSS THE ROAD!
The makers - Blank on Blank - have created a series of animations, using audio recorded interviews with famous people. Their YouTube home page is here and includes some great example of how to create an engaging animation without the massive effort of drawing every frame from scratch.
If you liked that, you might like this. It's from the people at RSA animate. Their animations are another way to make an audio explanation visually engaging through animation. In their case, they've focussed on academic lectures rather than famous people.
April's nearly at an end and I'll write my monthly news report in the next day-or-so. I hope everyone's having a great Spring! :-)
We know of the existence of Denisovan Man because a scientist named Michael Shunkov from the Russian Academy of Science looked for interesting fossils in a cave in Siberia (named after a hermit called Denis). In the cave, Shunkov found an interesting sliver of a finger bone. He bagged and labelled the shard and sent it off for analysis.The results came back. The bone belonged to a hitherto unknown version of primitive man. This strain was genetically similar to ourselves and Neanderthal man but clearly separate. Excited by the news, Shunkov searched the cave for further evidence of this new species. He found a surprisingly large wisdom tooth. At first, he thought the tooth was too large to be Denisovan (or any proto-human) but the genetic testing carried out later confirmed it was also from Denisovan Man.
Scientists have carried out further genetic analysis and examination of these artefacts and have been able to work out what Denisovan Man would have looked like. They are confident that Denisovan Man had dark skin, brown hair and brown eyes. It is also likely that Denisovans were as hairy as Neanderthal Man, possibly even as hairy as their common genetic ancestor, Homo Heidelbergensis. It is also likely that Denisovans were large and robust, like Homo Heidelbergensis. As the article states: "[Homo Heidelbergensis] were big and robust guys, with body mass estimates around 100 kilograms”.
Interestingly, the Denisovan wisdom tooth also indicates that the Denisovans were large and powerful individuals. In fact, it is possible that they were larger than Homo Heidelbergensis. There is no reason why Denisovans could not have grown to be nine feet tall. This would have put a strain on their heart and other physical processes, leading to a shorter life, but the benefit it gave to survival may have outweighed this limitation. We - home sapiens - became group operators and tool users to fend off large predators. Denisovans may have evolved a different approach; to become large and powerful like gorillas to avoid predation by bears, tigers and other large carnivores. Built like this, Denisovans could have operated in small, family groups, consuming an omnivorous diet. They wouldn’t have had claws for protection, but their physical power and some crude weapons could have been enough to ensure their survival amongst wild animals.
Denisovans wouldn’t have stood a chance against Homo Sapiens. We would have wiped them out if they tried to compete with us. Their best tactic to survive on a planet inhabited by homo sapiens would be to avoid us whenever possible. If we came close, they would need to get away and, ideally, drive us off. Driving us off with violence would probably only result in their deaths. Denisovans would therefore benefit from some sort of non-violent repulsion, like creating a terrible stink. With this ability, and enough remote, wild terrain to lose themselves in, Denisovans could theoretically have survived on a planet dominated by homo sapiens
If Denisovans did develop these abilities (evasion of humanity, repulsive smell) then there’s a fascinating possibility, that they have not died out but still exist. There still are some wild and remote parts of the world in which they could still be living. The reason we haven't captured a Denisovan is that, unlike other rare creatures, Denisovans would be very adept at deliberately avoiding detection by humans. All a hunter would experience would be a dim shape, followed by a terrible smell and possibly the distant sounds of movement in the underground. If this is true, it would explain the stories of Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti etc. It would also explain why so many cultures in our past accepted and believed that an elusive, huge, powerful ape-man existed that avoided man and could emit a terrible smell.
Unfortunately, there can’t be many Denisovans left. Top predators need a large territory to survive and Denisovans would be no exception. If one was captured, people's initial disbelief would be followed by fascination and a mad rush to bag some more, rapidly followed by the realisation that there were critically endangered. Perhaps it's better if we do believe that Denisovans died out and Bigfoot doesn't exist; it's probably a lot safer to be a myth! ;-)
It was fun to do. I really enjoyed the challenge of creating a visual, iconic version of a organisation or endeavour (in this case, a voice-over company). It was also enjoyable laying out different versions and seeing how small changes can affect the impact of the design.
Fortunately, Alison was very pleased with the result and it is now her official logo. If you need some voice-over work done, you can contact her through her Facebook page and on her website (which is currently under construction).
Although I really enjoyed this graphic design project, I'm not sure I'd want to do it as a profession. I can imagine that some fee-paying clients might get very demanding and I can get tetchy even when helping my friends. I remember talking to a former graphic designer years ago and he did admit there was one pernickety client he'd have happily throttled. Luckily, I don't have to. Hooray! :-)
On Sunday 10th August, the Prudential Ride-London Surrey 100 mile charity event takes place on closed roads between Central London and the Surrey Hills. I'll be taking part, fundraising for the charity Population Matters, which works to educate, inform and support the aim of a smaller global population. Their mission, stated on their website is to:
'raise awareness of the cost to humanity and other species of unsustainable human numbers and promotes smaller families as part of a sustainable future'
I should be very visible on the day, as I'm planning to be wearing a big sign saying '100 miles without folding', along with the Population Matters logo. If you'd like to sponsor me, I have a JustGiving web page set up for donations. Wish me luck! :-)
Here are eight great graphic novels, in no particular order:
This was a big game-changer of a graphic novel from Alan Moore, the writer of V for Vendetta, when it first came out. It is a story about flawed, real super-heroes. They are dissected, in fact almost vivisected and in the process, they are made both complex and realistic; becoming flawed human vigilantes or cold, distant superheroes that turn out to be entirely alien to the people they try to help. Very much an adult book and a venerable classic of the genre.
This is an example of 'graphic novel as travelogue'. The author, Guy Delisle, spent time in North Korea while working from a French-Canadian animation company. While he was there, he drew this graphic novel diary of his experiences. It paints an entertaining, startling and quite disturbing picture of the North Korean totalitarian state. Since then, Delisle has written/drawn about Shenzhen (in China), Jerusalem and Burma. All those stories are accessible, funny, perceptive, warm and revealing.
Maus may be the most important graphic novel ever written, in terms of its legacy, its impact, its influence on other writers and its ability to make a horrific subject accessible and readable without every diminishing the tragedy of what happened. Maus, originally in two parts, is about the Jewish Holocaust, based on the author's father's memories of surviving those years. Spiegelmann made an inspired decision when drawing the story to make the characters anthropomorphic, to give them human bodies but animal heads. The germans are cats, the poles are pigs and the jews are mice (as far as I can remember). Its a must-read book (a term that's often over-used when reviewing works but is absolutely true in this case).
Joe Sacco, like Guy Delisle, has used the graphic novel genre as a tool for investigative journalism, to tell readers about what happened to the author when he or she was in that place, a visual diary that gives immediacy and focus to a time and place in our recent history. Sacco talks about the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo in this book, along with its horrors, tragedies, courage and, sometimes, high farce. It is a powerful story, eloquently told in Sacco's pared-down narration and clear, accessible artwork.
Blacksad is in more traditional territory for a graphic novel. It's a series of hard-boiled. fifties. detective-style stories very much in the mould of Raymond Chandler. The twist in this case is that the characters are anthropomorphic, i.e. human bodies and animal heads, just like Maus or Rupert Bear.
What elevates Blacksad above many run-of-the-mill graphic-novel murder stories is the sheer brilliance of the artwork. Guarnido was trained in fine art and has worked as a key animator for Disney in Europe. All the stories' frames are painted in watercolour. For beauty, dynamism, skill and atmosphere, they are without peer.
Does Shaun Tan do graphic novels? It's hard to say. They're not 200 pages long but they are visual stories, or sequential art. For me, the Red Tree is my favourite. It's a simple story that would appeal to children and adults and it is utterly beguiling. Each page is a large, single picture that creates a single emotion through an image. As the story progresses, the reader becomes lost in the tale, with its minimal but crucial text, until the tale ends with a low-key, resonant, beautiful finish. I get emotional just thinking about it. Highly recommended.
This is a graphic novel for youngsters (I would say 8 to 12 age group). High quality drawings, an engaging, dramatic story and there are five books to collect. The story tells of a family who move to a house in the country belonging to a deceased relative. The kids realise that there was much more to the relative than they expected. The daughter finds an amulet and is transported into a different land where dark forces are after the precious item now bound to her.
Amulet looks lovely, is lots of fun to read and is a great alternative for a parent wanting their child to enjoy graphic novels without, for example, having to deal with the somewhat dated style of Asterix (which I still have a soft spot for, but often deems wordy and tedious when I read it nowadays).
A visually striking, engaging, thoughtful and dramatic story about a young woman's life in Iran and her time in Europe. As in Sacco's work, the graphic novel format is again used to visually show a part of the world and a time in history that we don't hear much about in the west and about which we often have distorted and downright false views. Excellent.
There's no doubt that modern cosmology has several problems that it is current incapable of solving; here's a list of them below. The first two are mentioned in the article.
Boltzmann's 'Well ordered Universe' problem
Ludwig Boltzmann noticed in the late nineteenth century that the universe was in a very well-ordered state; in simple terms, it worked. The suns were stable and supplied energy, planets orbited them, supporting life. What confused Boltzmann was that he knew about thermodynamics and the Law of Entropy. It made no sense that a universe in which things always got more chaotic over time, it would be in this state after billions of years. It made no sense.
The fine tuning problem
The laws of the universe are extremely friendly to life. In fact, the ratios of the fundamental constants are incredibly, precisely, just right for stars and planets to form. If one or more of them were even a tiny amount different from their real values, we couldn't have atoms, never mind stars. Somehow, possibly by astonishing accident, our universe has just the right fundamental constants for atoms and stars to exist.
The baryon asymmetry problem
When the Big Bang banged, it should have produce equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. This is because, according to physics, the universe treats anti-matter and matter both equally. The only problem with this fact is that if the universe had treated them equally when it began, the matter and anti-matter would have cancelled each other out by colliding in a flash of light, leaving nothing but some radiation. Clearly, this hasn't happened and there is nothing in physics to explain why.
What's very interesting about this list of problems is that there is an answer that solves them all, that makes them all make sense. It is very simple:
The Universe is a construction
In other words, the universe didn't come into existence as a random event. The universe is a creation, made with a positive purpose and designed so that it is stable. That is why its settings (its laws, constants and ratios) are astonishingly fine-tuned so that suns and solar systems can form. That's also why our universe is filled with matter, whereas a universe that was created as a random event from nothing should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter.
The strange conundrum then becomes, if that's the only logical answer and it solves all the existing conundrums, why hasn't it been accepted and widely disseminated?
The reason, in a word, is materialism. The dominant belief in modern science at the moment is materialism. Materialists believe that only inert matter exists. Even our minds are not real. According to materialists, they are simply a sensory phenomenon, like a rainbow. Materialists only believe that our universe came about as a random event, an event without any bias, an event where there was no tendency or movement towards a particular goal. It's worth noting at this point that materialism is purely a belief; it is not based on any scientific evidence. Some scientists may think that science has proved materialism but there are many experiments made by senior scientists that negate this view. These experiments have been dismissed on spurious grounds because they don't agree with materialism. Ironically, it's a lot like the Renaissance Vatican priests refusing to look in Galileo's telescope.
In case someone is thinking that I'm making a case for religion, I'm not. The fact that the universe is a construction doesn't mean that it was made by God (or a god). The evidence doesn't indicate who or what constructed our universe, or how or why it was done. Our universe might have been created by a single entity, it might be a technological creation by an extremely advanced civilization, it might be a huge, collaborative, consensual illusion. The evidence doesn't help us work this out, but it sure is an interesting question.
If any readers would like read a related idea of mine, that also explores how life exists, please have a leaf through the Influence Idea. There's lots of attractive illustrations and pictures of famous scientists and some sheds.
I've sent the New Scientist magazine a letter about this cosmological conundrum, pointing out that all the problems they mentioned are solved if we accept that the universe is a construction. They've been very kind to publish my letters in the past, so it may turn up in the magazine at some point. Here's hoping! :-)
They have published my letter. Hooray! That is very good of them, as any scientific view that's even a little non-materialistic can get some serious flack. Thank you, New Scientist magazine.
A very interesting article appeared in this week's New Scientist magazine entitled 'Thank viruses for your skin and bone'. The article explains that many of the proteins that our cells manufacture are from genes originally found in viruses. More importantly, the proteins needed for cell fusion, for multicellular organisms such as ourselves and all living things, all seem to have come from viruses. This is a fascinating continuation of an earlier New Scientist article discussing the increasing importance scientists give to viruses in relation to cellular evolution. Felix Rey of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who headed up the work, speculates that:
Viruses may be responsible for the very existence of multicellular organisms. Viruses come and go between different cells, exchanging genetic information between them. "This makes me think that viruses have contributed enormously to the communication between cells, and to the appearance of multicellular organisms on Earth."
This idea has fascinating consequences, not only for our understanding of the natural processes of evolution, but of the possibilities for artificially guiding evolution. For example, if your civilisation existed for tens of millennia and you had advanced knowledge of genetic engineering, you could steer the evolution of life on another planet. As long as the target planet contained unicellular organisms, you could repeatedly send tailored viruses to that planet. These viruses would infect the remote cells, change their genetic code and gradually modify them to become multicellular organisms. You could continue this process, sending new viruses that deliberately alter and extend the genetic code of life on that planet. By doing this, you could make those primitive organisms more advanced, more varied, more sophisticated. You would be the overriding source of evolution on that planet.
Although it would be easier to do this to another planet in your solar system, it would be perfectly feasible to do the same trick to a planet around another star. As viruses are so small and relatively hardy, you could 'coat' them to allow them to be propelled by a laser beam. You could then point a laser at that star and insert a stream of virus packets into that beam. Although the vast majority of virus packets would be lost en route, a small fraction could reach the target planet intact. Once they were there, they could infect life on that planet. In the same way that a viral infection of our bodies can start with only a single virus particle, you would only need a handful of virus packets to successfully infect life on the alien planet to make the process work. Once they had infected life on the target planet, they would use the living organisms on the planet to create more copies of themselves and, by doing that, spread their gene-altering code to life on the entire planet.
It's interesting to think of the human race carrying out such a project in the future, when our level of technical understanding has reached a sufficient level, but a more pertinent question is; has this been done to us?
Logically, if a race reached such a level of advancement, it could accelerate evolution on the planets around its neighbouring stars. These planets would in turn develop until they had intelligent, technically advanced races who would also carry out such work. Instead of life around stars being a random event, rare in appearance, that develops slowly to a semi-random plan, you would instead have a viral, hot-housing, guided development of life spreading out exponentially across the galaxy.
If evolution on this planet, and possibly our own evolution as a species, had been influenced in this way, how would we know if it had occurred?
One way that we could work out that it had happened would be if the fossil record showed a sudden and very strange leap in evolution during a very short period, a change that could not be explained by any natural event on our planet. Interestingly, such an event did occur about one billion years ago. Our planet is about four billion years old. For its first three-or-so billion years, very little evolution went on. Our planet contained mostly single-celled amoeba, exactly the type of organisms that would have existed before these special viruses had appeared to kick-start multi-cellular activity. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye geologically - multi-cellular organisms appear in the fossil record and there is an explosion of evolution, leading to a variety of multi-cellular organisms such as trilobites. This became known as the Cambrian Explosion.
Was the Cambrian Explosion caused by alien tailored viruses kick-starting evolution on Earth? It certainly fits the facts. Unfortunately, I can see no way to prove such a theory. It has to stay as a piece of speculation.
By comparison, if a virus-filled laser beam had been fired at our planet in recent times, when we were sufficiently advanced to record the event, we could prove that it had happened. If such an event had happened when we were sufficiently advanced, it's possible to guess how it would have been recorded. Here's a rough description:
Observers see that a nearby star has abruptly changes colour (as a laser beam from it focuses on our planet). The star becomes 'fiery' (due the laser light being scattered by our atmosphere). The star turning 'fiery' is accompanied by the emergence one or more epidemics (most likely isolated to particular species that share certain biological similarities). Animals of certain species become ill, showing symptoms of viral infection, but most recover. The records talk of fear and awe of the fiery star and religious ceremonies are carried out in an attempt to placate the star's malevolent effect. Eventually, the fiery star returns to normal and people go back to their normal routines (but unknown to them, specialised genes have been added to the genetic code of one or more species, according to a plan developed by the civilisation living on a planet around that fiery star).
Sounds exotic and fantastic? Well, this is where things get really interesting...
A year-or-so ago, I wrote an article about a very strange series of events during our Classical Era. This was the laser transmissions from Sirius article. It put forward the strange but scientifically feasible idea that Earth received a laser transmission from Sirius in the first millennium before Christ. During that time, the star Sirius, normally a bright, white star in our sky, was reported by many different sources to have blazed a fiery red for years on end, during a period of centuries, and in particular that it blazed red towards the end of the Northern Hemisphere Summer, the origin of the phrase the 'dog days of summer' named after the Dog Star itself. During that time, according to multiple reports, the fiery star brought epidemics that affected men and dogs.
When I wrote that article, I couldn't understand why a transmission from Sirius would bring epidemics. Why would an advanced alien civilisation want to send us diseases? Rabies seemed the closest disease to the epidemics described; why on Earth would advanced aliens beam us rabies on a laser?
This strange evidence now makes much more sense, in the light of the new research on viruses' role in cellular evolution. The prime reason why the star Sirius turned 'fiery' all those centuries ago was specifically to send us one or more tailored viruses.
If that is the case, what viruses were sent Earth? What genetic codes were the virus designed to install and what species were they designed to affect? The reports from Ancient Greece make it clear that people did succumb to some sort of illness when the star flared red; they were astroboletus or 'star-struck'. What did the illness(es) they succumbed to do to them? Were our ancestors deliberately targeted by an alien civilisation from Sirius and infected with a gene-altering virus?
It sounds very far-fetched as an idea, but as far as I can tell, it is thoroughly grounded in solid science. Certainly, psychologically, it isn't an idea that'll be popular with most people. The possibility that evolution on our planet - including the evolution of our own species - has been guided by a remote alien civilisation makes us look like a bunch of lab mice. Very humbling!
There is one more strange consequence of this 'tailored viruses fired at planets to artificially guide evolution' idea. Perhaps the media outlets need to be buzzing with a shocking new development. Intelligent Design is now a scientifically viable idea; the only problem is that God's not involved at all, the job's been done by our Dog Star's Little Green Men… :-)
This post is about an article in today's Guardian newspaper that reinforces the idea put forward in those previous articles. The guardian article states that a US study of six-thousand people, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), concluded that:
High levels of dietary animal protein in people under 65 years of age was linked to a fourfold increase in their risk of death from cancer or diabetes, and almost double the risk of dying from any cause over an 18-year period.
This conclusion matches the scientific evidence quoted in the Forks over Knives documentary that a diet that contains more than 5% animal proteins significantly increases the risk of cancer. According to that scientific research, reverting to a diet low in animal protein can reverse the problems caused by the high-animal-protein exposure; the damage can be undone.
I'm hoping very much that Britain's heart disease and cancer charities respond to this mounting evidence and push forward campaigns to encourage people to reduce their animal protein consumption. As the NHANES study reported, a high animal protein diet can be as dangerous to a person's health as smoking.
The video is lots of fun and it does a good job of celebrating how many predictions such science-fiction authors as H.G.Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams got right about our modern world. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." :-)
For an example of this 'flipping', here's a letter I wrote to New Scientist recently which has now been published in their letters page:
In your recent article 'artificial tendons help you walk' (issue 2953, pg21), Yong-Lae Park and colleagues of Carnegia Mellon University made 'a robotic device with artificial muscles that could help people with cerebral palsy strengthen their foot and ankle muscles'. There may be another potential use for such robotic devices; helping ordinary people develop their muscles (get ripped) without having to actually move their limbs themselves. In the future, someone may simply climb inside a full-body version of the device and develop a bodybuilder physique without (literally!) lifting a finger.
For anyone keen to find new ways to come up with creative ideas for stories, I definitely recommend they try this 'flipping' approach. It has a Zen Buddhism element to it in the sense that you need to break out of the predictable way of thinking about a story, invention or place. Jokes and humour also follow this approach, flipping an idea around in such a way that it is interesting, but totally unexpected. It's also great fun!
Producing ideas this way can actually influence the future. The lateral-thinking ideas of science-fiction writers have inspired engineers to make the very items they conjured up in their stories. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the usefulness of orbitting satellites and Douglas Adams pointed out how Digital Audio Compact Discs might be rather useful for computer data storage. Perhaps someone will read my letter and in five-years' time, start a company that makes robotic suits that turn their owners from couch potatoes into muscle-bound Adonis's? I've no idea, but it's an interesting idea. :-)
February's been a quiet month for me. I've spent the time focussing on getting more of my graphic novel 'Prof Millpot and the Golden Web' done. It's ticking along nicely and the whole graphic novel should be finished in early May. It'll be great when the project is completed but, to be honest, it has been a slog to keep churning out the pages through this recent winter. I will be super-chuffed to have completed my first graphic novel, but that feeling seems a million miles away when you're sitting at the desk on a wet, rainy day, working on picture 745, knowing there's another 328 to go… But that's me just feeling sorry for myself, so I'll stop! Fortunately, the latest chapter of the story has involved a dark, foggy London so that's been pretty easy to render on the page:
That's all the news for now, apart from the fact that Spring is in the air in London and the daffodils are coming out. It's even stopped raining for a few days. Hooray! :-)
One fun thing about writing science fiction is looking at what’s happening now in the world and extrapolating. Sometimes though, you don’t need to extrapolate and come up with far-fetched ideas. Instead, you can work out what could already present but hasn’t been made public. This is science-fiction drifting close to a technical analysis; it's a fiction only in the sense that it hasn’t been proved. By comparison, science-fiction that speculates on a possible distant future is plausible fiction; it will probably never happen, but it’s still interesting.
This article is aimed at the former category and it’s to do with our moon.
Much has been written about the recent burst of activity in moon exploration by our planet’s major powers. The Chinese currently have a robot on the moon, nicknamed ‘Jade Rabbit’ which is attracting huge interest among Chinese citizens as it explores and analyses the moon’s surface. India is also investing large sums of money in visiting the moon and according to this Daily Telegraph article, both China and India plan to land people on the moon in the next ten years. The United States, who have already been to the moon, are talking about a new programme of exploration and there are reports Japan also wants to be involved.
An interesting question to ask is; why are they all doing it? It’s true that a country gains a lot of kudos if it completes a successful mission, but it’s a very expensive endeavour. According to this NASA website, it costs about $500,000,000 to send a robot to the moon. Another way of estimating the cost is per kilo of payload. According to some science websites, it costs about two million dollars for every kilogram you put on the moon. In other words, if you want to put a bicycle on the moon (probably a folding one), you’ll need to spend about twenty-million dollars. These prices don’t include all the efforts put into developing new technologies, the cost of failed missions and other related issues.
Along with the sheer expense, there is also the unedifying fact that the moon has already been landed on and it’s not an exciting place; it’s a dead, airless lump of rock. No nation is going to stay up into the small hours to see a robot land on the Sea of Tranquility. But there is a possible and very viable reason why the big nations of our planet, particularly the emerging superpowers, are racing to put robots, people and eventually bases on the moon, and it’s do with height.
In the history of warfare, height has always been of huge importance. Tribes soon noticed that attacking downhill is a lot easier, and more successful, than attacking uphill. Millennia later, as soon as people could take to the air, they used airborne craft to gain a new height advantage, bombing and strafing their enemy on the ground. When both sides had airborne craft, those craft that could climb higher gained a crucial advantage. The latest stage in this war of altitude has been the development of satellites for reconnaissance and communication, which all major nations now have. More recently the technology to knock out those satellites has been developed, with successful tests by more than one superpower showing they can knock out their own ageing or erratic satellites, and if push comes to shove, someone else’s. This satellite stage in the war of altitude is now a crowded, well-established territory. To gain a singular advantage, someone has to take the next altitude step; the moon.
A base on the moon has several strategic benefits. Firstly, it’s a super-satellite. There are a huge number of commercial and military satellites currently orbiting the Earth. They are extremely vulnerable, delicate devices. As popularised in the recent movie ‘Gravity’, there are so many satellites orbitting our planet that the destruction of just a few could release so much debris that a chain-reaction could break a huge number of the satellites currently in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. It is also perfectly possible, as mentioned earlier, for ground-based lasers and rockets to knock them out individually. By comparison, an installation of communication or reconnaissance equipment on the moon, protected by some sort of screen, would be far harder to knock out. The moon therefore becomes an ideal back-up location for military communication and reconnaissance hardware.
But this article focusses on a second and more dramatic use, that makes full and devastating use of the moon’s position as the ultimate high ground.
Earth is big and, as a result, it has a strong gravity. By comparison, the moon is smaller and has less gravity, roughly one-seventh of Earth’s. If someone on the moon wants to attack a spot on the Earth, all they need to do is to throw a moon rock hard enough to leave the moon’s weak gravity well. The rock will then pass into Earth’s gravity well and fall down it, finally striking its appointed target on the Earth’s surface. This process is like a giant on a mountain tossing a boulder on to a fertile valley below. This is a kinetic weapon, as the damage it causes is entirely down to the speed at which it strikes the target, due to the extreme height from which the object has fallen.
To make such a weapon work on the moon, the attacker needs ammunition - rocks - of which the moon has loads, and some means to toss those projectiles in a guided way, in order for them to hit their intended target. Previous science-fiction stories have explored this idea, such as Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, in which rocks coated in iron are launched from the Moon, at Earth, by an electromagnetic cannon. Although Heinlein’s book was a masterwork of speculative fiction, wrapping such rocks in iron as a way to propel them is a dated method and unfeasible. Iron is heavy and rare on the moon. There is a better alternative and it involves more modern technology, that of lasers and solar power.
To launch a rock from the Moon to the Earth, you need a) a power source of some kind for the launching and b) something that launches the rocks out of the moon’s gravity. The first requirement, power, can be supplied by solar power. The moon can receive the full intensity of the sun’s rays, uninterrupted, for long periods of time, making this an ideal spot for solar power generation.
The next thing needed is something to launch the rock. Lasers can carry out this task. A possible mechanism is as follows:
On the far side of the moon, a solar array is installed on its surface, along with a robot and several lasers. The solar array charges up the robot. The robot then digs a rock out of the lunar surface and places the rock in a harness hung from poles above the ground, placed in the centre of a circle of lasers. The robot retreats and the lasers, powered by the solar array, fire beams at the rock in the harness. The heat of the laser beams on the rock causes material on its surface to heat up and boil off. This emission of gases pushes the rock in the opposite direction to the gases it emits. Using this ‘action and reaction’ effect, the lasers ‘push’ the rock upwards, against the moon’s weak gravity. By altering the intensity of their beams and where they hit the rock, the lasers guide the rock upwards and entirely away from the lunar surface, accelerating it out of the moon’s gravity well. Once the rock is free of the lunar gravity, the lasers are turned off and the rock is left to fall down the Earth’s gravity well until it finally hits the intended target.
There are many practical benefits to investing in this type of weapon. It runs entirely from its own power source. It also has effectively limitless ammo. If it is placed on the far side of the moon, it is not even vulnerable to any Earth-based lasers’ attempts to disable it. It effectively becomes the most powerful catapult ever created, firing its shot from the highest-ever castle, behind the thickest-ever wall. Although the weapon’s location would make communication with it from an Earth-based command centre very difficult, the weapon’s computer could be semi-autonomous, or even receive its instructions from probes located further away from Earth than the moon, for example at one of the Sun’s Lagrange points, that have relayed instructions to it from an Earth-based command centre.
Is such a weapon on the minds of the super-states racing to explore and colonise the moon? I don’t know, but I would very be surprised if none of them have done a feasibility study. The idea isn’t new to science-fiction and recent developments in laser efficiency, solar power efficiency and robotics make it far more achievable than when Heinlein wrote about it, fifty years ago. Knowing what we do about human-kind, it's sensible to believe that one or more super-states will install such a weapon if they think it's worth the cost. Civilisation has followed a logical path for millennia and there’s no reason to think that will change, at least until natural factors bring it to a painful end. I think the moon will be a key piece in our next global war. Someone will establish a weapon on our moon and use this new high ground to devastating effect.
Note: Thinking about this again, a day later, I'm keen to check through some more of the technical aspects. For example, how big does a lump of rock that's travelled from the moon need to be to avoid being burnt up in Earth's atmosphere? This could be tricky to work out but I'll see what I can do.
'The Lost Emotion' is about the discovery of a lost emotion by a corporate researcher. In a future world where corporations can patent emotions, a gifted employee decides to seek out emotions lost to humanity. After finding what he can amongst the primitive tribes remote from civilisation, he stumbles upon an obscure piece of research. The science paper states that stimulating the muscles of a person's face can trigger an associated emotion for that person. For example, if someone makes a smiling face, they will actually feel happier as a result [this is perfectly true!]. To take advantage of this strange phenomenon, the researcher constructs a device that can stimulate any combination of a person's facial muscles. By systematically testing every combination of muscles on a test subject's face, he hopes to discover a muscle combination that will trigger, in that subject, a hitherto lost emotion. The researcher tests it on a young man, the narrator of the story. After many days fruitless testing, they discover a new emotion, one that profoundly changes the young man's viewpoint. Initially, the young man is overwhelmed by what he feels but, like Pandora's Box, this new knowledge brings all sorts of problems.
As ever, any and all feedback is most appreciated (but please don't swear too much… :-).