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.”
The first issue of the magazine is free, which is partly to get people interested, but also because some of its contents has already appeared on this website or in other publications. I couldn't really ask people to pay money for material they've already read! :-)
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.
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.
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).
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! :-)
'the more milk people drank, the more likely they were to die or experience a bone fracture during the study period.'
“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.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
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.”
"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."
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.
“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.”
They even have house-martens! :-)
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."
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 novel is about 210 pages long and is almost all drawn pages, apart from a small glossary in the middle. Once I've tidied up a few final bits and bobs, the next step in the process will be to find a publisher. Hopefully, I'll be able to report on that in the next few months.
My next major project will either be a novel or an animation, or possibly both in parallel.
I've also added a new article on the influence idea website. That one's about the strange correlation between the Influence Idea's description of the creation of the universe and an Ancient Egyptian book's description of the same event.
Next month's news should be exciting as I will hopefully, catastrophes aside, have finished 'Prof and the Golden Web'. Yay! \o/ :-)
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! :-)
'raise awareness of the cost to humanity and other species of unsustainable human numbers and promotes smaller families as part of a sustainable future'
It's looking good. I won't tell you why that Catholic congregation is staring blankly at the viewer; you'll have wait for the book to come out.
This month, I've also popped two more small articles on the influence idea website. The first one explains how the influence idea isn't syntropy. This was an odd article to write and a lot of readers won't be interested, but I've added it in for thoroughness's sake. I needed to write it because some Italian scientists contacted me, saying the Influence Idea was a form of syntropy and I had to explain to them that it wasn't. There's also a new article on the site in response to Matt Ridley's assertion that the quandary of life overcoming entropy is explained by the closed system argument - that organisms turn energy into order. I point out in my article that this theory is flawed as energy does not produce order, only more vigorous activity. Waves can pound more strongly on a beach, but that won't make it any more likely that sandcastles will appear.
To be honest, neither of the articles are particularly exciting, but if any readers are keen to study the Influence Idea and how it stands up against competing theories, those articles are for you.
That's all for March. Enjoy the Spring! :-)
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."
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).
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.
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.
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! :-)
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.