A haunted house and hidden truths in our ancient past

A while ago, I wrote a blog article about a very strange but memorable experience I had one night, when it seemed that I was helping the spirit of my deceased nephew overcome his fear at the circle of white light waiting for him. Yup, it sounds weird even now and I’m tempted to put the whole experience down to being a bizarre dream, except for the fact that the dream occurred pretty much exactly after the moment he suffered his sudden, unexpected and fatal aneurism. I wrote that article only after much thought, because I was unsure that it was an appropriate thing to do in such tragic circumstances, but eventually I decided to write publicly about what I experienced because I think it’s crucially important that we talk about such experiences. Unfortunately, in our modern Western World, such experiences are regarded as delusions or signs of madness. This view is not only out of step with most of human history, it is also unscientific. As I've described in my book ‘How science shows that almost everything important we’ve been told is wrong’, it is scientifically impossible that only physical things exist, since Life cannot exist in the Universe without an external, non-physical organising influence. Without that influence, Life could not continually work directly against Entropy and would cease to exist. The impossibility of Materialism was openly stated by many brilliant, Nobel-Prize-Winning physicists but after the Second World War, this viewpoint was effectively banned.

I'm therefore keen to explore non-physical phenomena scientifically. As part of this exploration, here's a very strange experience I had a few years ago. Read More...

Hostage Crisis: Earth!

This article is partly a review of a very interesting book called; ‘The Missing Times: News media complicity in the UFO coverup’ by Terry Hansen and it's also about a very strange idea that bubbled up in my brain after reading the book.

Firstly, I'll talk about Hansen’s book. ‘The Missing Times’ focusses on how the extremely large number of compelling UFOs incidents that have occurred worldwide in the last seventy years have been covered up and ignore by the U.S. media. The book does a very good job of investigating this issue and how local news is filtered to remove such stories before it reaches the major media outlets, but the book is also a very good study of the more general matter of how any topic that is frowned on by the establishment is covered in the mainstream media (i.e. television, film, books, newspapers etc). As Hansen shows, using exhaustive and detailed references, the major U.S. televisions channels, film studios and newspapers and the ones here in the U.K. all follow a very narrow line of what is and what isn’t eligible for print/broadcast. It is a filtering mechanism that Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore would certainly agree is present. Read More...

Free speech, war crimes and money

For several weeks now, the Guardian newspaper in the UK has been lambasting Ken Livingstone for publicly mentioning that Hitler helped Zionists in the early 1930’s. According to the comments of many Jewish commentators, they think that by talking on this matter, Livingstone is encouraging a belief that Zionism and the Nazis were somehow in cahoots. They are, as a result, asking that Red Ken be expelled from the Labour Party.

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Personally, I think those Guardian commentators need to remember a famous comment by Voltaire:

‘I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it’.

In other words, we must value free speech more than eradicating unpleasant comments. Free speech doesn’t just refer to the right of people to say popular things, it is a right for people to say whatever they want to say. Some jewish and secular people in the U.K. may be offended by Livingstone’s comments but he is stating a well-documented historical fact; Hitler did do a deal in the early 1930’s that helped Zionists settle in Israel. Whatever the implications are of this event, it did happen.

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It is extremely important in this country that people are allowed to openly make comments, even if the factual basis of those comments are disputed by some, without fear of serious punishment. Noam Chomsky ended up in a scandal when he said that a Holocaust denier should be allowed to speak without being criminalized. When others told Noam of their shock that he would ally with such a view, Chomsky patiently explained that he did not agree with what the man said; he was standing up for any person’s right to free speech, whatever he or she says. When censoring become legitimised, or laws are brought in that reduce human rights, those laws are inevitably used in the wrong way. When the U.K. government recently introduced a law allowing government departments to snoop on people, they loudly stated that the law would only be used to combat terrorism. Six months later, it was found that local councils were using to it to spy on families suspected of giving the wrong home address for school placements! This is clearly a minor misuse of such powers but there are other, much darker effects. Once censorship and human rights are eroded in a country, for any reason, that society inevitably becomes a dark, oppressive place.

Climate Change, humanity and a tomato

Three months ago, I was short-listed in the New Philosopher magazine for my article about luck but I didn't win. The new issue is out of the magazine but unfortunately I didn't make the short-list this time with my offering on the subject of 'Nature'. To be honest, as far as I can tell, the odds are stacked against you if you're not Australian, as they seem to dominate the short-list every time. Never mind, it's all good practice. Rather than let the article disappear into the ether, here it is:

The word ‘nature’ has multiple meanings. For example, it can mean as the entire natural world, earth’s ecosystem. Alternatively, it can refer to a person’s fundamental way of behaving, their nature. As a result, when someone thinks of ‘nature’, they could be thinking of our planet’s environment or human behaviour in general. What’s more, they might even be thinking of something quite mundane, something that possesses the magical property of life, like a humble tomato, a physical manifestation of the wondrous process known as ‘nature’. Read More...

Cognitive Dissonance and tin-foil hats

In Dean Radin’s book ‘The Noetic Universe’, which I recently reviewed, the author describes a fascinating psychology experiment with a doctored pack of playing cards. Here’s the description, taken from the book:

A classic experiment by psychologists J.S.Bruner and Leo Postman demonstrated that sometimes what we see, or think we see, is not really there. Bruner and Postman created a deck of normal playing cards, except that some of the suit symbols were color-reversed. For example, the queen of diamonds had black-colored diamonds instead of red. The special cards were shuffled into an ordinary deck, and then they were displayed one at a time, people were asked to identify them as fast as possible. The cards were first shown very briefly, too fast to identify them accurately. Then the display time was lengthened until all the cards could be identified.

The amazing thing is that while all the cards were eventually identified with great confidence, no one noticed that there was anything out of ordinary in the deck. People saw a black four of hearts with red hearts. In other words, their expectations about what playing cards should look like determined what they actually saw. When the researchers increased the amount of time that the cards were displayed, some people eventually began to notice that something was amiss, but they did not know exactly what was wrong. One person, while directly gazing at a red six of spades, said; “That’s the six of spades but there’s something wrong with it - the black spade has a red border.”

As the display time increased even more, people became more confused and hesitant. Eventually, most people saw what was before their eyes. But even when the cards were displayed for forty times the length of time needed to recognise normal playing cards, about 10 percent of the color-reversed playing were never correctly identified by any of the people!

Why psychopaths and secret clans rule us all

2016 has been an interesting year, to say the least. As the year is coming to a close, I thought it would worth thinking about possibly the most important even of the year; the election of Donald Trump to become President of the United States. Many people in the Western World have been appalled at how far Donald Trump has risen, considering his alleged traits of poor attention span, callousness, continual lying, shallow misogyny, racism, homophobia, incendiary militarism, etc. It's interesting to note that such traits are linked, in psychology circles, with sociopaths and psychopaths.

The term ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ effectively mean the same thing; a person who has effectively no empathy or compassion for others. When many people think about psychopaths, they immediately think about serial killers. It is true that the two are closely linked. Psychopaths have such poor internal mental activity that they can only gain stimulus from intense external experiences. This need, combined with almost no compassion, gives rise to the serial killer behaviour, as the psychopath craves the intensity of a violent act and sees no reason not to carry it out. Read More...

New Philosopher Magazine short-listed article

Just a quick note to say that an article of mine on the subject of Luck was shortlisted in the latest New Philosopher magazine writing competition. I entered the competition because I enjoyed the recent issue of New Philosopher on the subject of Nature. Not surprisingly, the issue was dominated by climate change but it was very refreshing for the contributors to speak candidly about the subject. Unlike many popular magazines and newspapers, the articles in New Philosopher were direct, thoughtful, imaginative and knowledgeable.

Anyone who has read my recent non-fiction, popular science book How Science Shows (that almost everything we've been told is wrong) will find a lot of the article's content familiar but it does have a unique twist, and it's shorter. Here's the article:

‘Luck’ by Adrian Ellis

Most people would like to be lucky; they’d wish that random events such as a lottery draw would swing their way and give them a windfall. They’d love to know that when they’d meet their future soulmate, they’d not - in the inimitable words of Alanis Morissette - then ‘meet his beautiful wife’. But everyone knows, at the end of the day, that the world is ruled by random chance. What happens is entirely beyond a person’s control and is simply pure chance.

Oddly enough, science can show us that the very opposite may be true. To explain this, we’ll need the help of a warmongering ex-Hungarian with a penchant for memorising telephone directories, a deeply uncertain cat and a man with a very large moustache. Read More...

The sad world of conspiracy theories

This week, there have been several articles in the media, including the Guardian and the New Scientist magazine, discussing the worrying problem among members of the public to believe in conspiracy theories.

It is a worrying problem that so many ordinary people develop the belief that the official story of many major events is untrue. In a bid to try and end this unfortunate trend amongst so many members of the public, I will explain, using deductive logic, what really occurred two major, conspiracy-theory-ridden events.

Two events have particularly become embroiled in conspiracy theories in recent years. The first event took place during the tragedy of 9/11; the crashing of a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.

A Boeing 757 is a large, passenger aircraft. It’s about fifty metres long and forty metres wide. An example is shown in the above photo. On that fateful day, a 757 crashed into the side of the Pentagon building in the United States. Emergency services were called and fire crews worked to put out the flames from the impact, as shown in the accompanying photo.


Viewers may note a strange problem with the above scene, in that the Boeing 757 passenger plane seems to have disappeared. Not only is there no Boeing, but there isn't even any signs that a Boeing landed. A Boeing 757 is a very large aircraft and when one crashes, it leaves a very big mess. Its wings do usually disintegrate, due to them being hollow and often full of fuel, but its engines and particularly its tail section usually remain intact, especially when a plane hits the ground at a shallow angle, as in the Pentagon event. The accompanying photo below shows such a crash (it's a different model of plane, but you get the idea).


George Monbiot and Logan's Run

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has had a huge effect on global feelings about our future on this planet. The slight warm, fuzzy feeling that the Paris Climate Agreement gave people - which was an event big on holding hands but small on legally binding targets - has gone.

A good example of such gloom is an article in the Guardian newspaper this week from George Monbiot. George’s article is headed with a still from the film ‘The Road’, based on the brilliant but extremely depressing novel by Cormac McCarthy, which describes a post-collapse USA, freezing cold and inhabited by roving bands of violent cannibals. George makes it clear that the combination of Trump and his team, plus the far right surge in Europe, combined with climate change and the dwindling life in our over-worked soils, makes for a very grim future. He ends his article by saying:

“So the key question is not how we weather them [the problems listed so far] but how – if this is possible – we avert them. Can it be done? If so what would it take?” Read More...

A dream of a circle of light

A while ago, I wrote a blog about my dreams. Just in case anyone’s confused, they weren’t dreams about scoring a Premiership goal or going to bed with Princess Leia. Instead, they were dreams which seemed to have been designed to help me stop being violent, constructed to stop me reacting violently when being teased, annoyed or intimidated. I realised, as a result of those dreams, that I should think; ‘are my actions making the situation better or worse?’ If someone says something rude to me, then me grabbing them and throwing them against a wall (in my dreams, mark; I don’t do that in real life) will have only made things worse. I might feel justified in doing it but that’s irrelevant. All I’ve done is changed the world from one rude person (him) to one rude person (him) and one violent person (me), which is a clear step down. That doesn’t help the world at all.

Since that blog article, I haven’t written anything more about my dreams but earlier this year, I experienced a particularly significant dream and that is the subject of this article.

Four months ago, while I was asleep in bed, my sleeping mind became aware of that I was in a pitch-black, empty place and that someone else’s spirit was close to me. In fact, that spirit-individual had somehow come to me and was holding me tightly. I initially thought that it was some kind of attack and wrestled with this visitor. The visitor appeared dark and shadowy. He (for he felt masculine) was shaped like a person but he had no face. His arms were strange; it was as if dark smoke was constantly rising off them, like a strange sort of fire with only the dimmest of dark blue flames. I continued to wrestle with this dark visitor. I became angry and defiant and demanded that he yield. Then, I had a sudden moment of awareness of what I was doing. I had his arm in a lock and I immediately released it. I held his arm and shoulder in a friendly way and I said ‘let’s stop this. It is stupid. I don’t want to fight with you. We can be friends. Why are you here? You don’t have to do this. What is the matter?’ Read More...

Alternative 3 - the current situation

A fortnight ago, I blogged about the very interesting UK ATV 1977 pretend-fact documentary called 'Alternative 3, with its pretend-serious message that the power elite of our world have known for a long time that our planet was heading for global environmental collapse. What's more, they have been planning what to do about it. After much thought, they came up with three alternatives:

Alternative 1: A drastic reduction in the global, human population.

Alternative 2: The relocation of a fraction of humanity into underground bases and subterranean cities.

Alternative 3: The establishment of human colonies on the Moon and Mars.

In the rest of the previous blog article, I explained that the programme makers of Alternative 3 insisted that it was meant as a fictional programme. I do believe them but in truth, that's unimportant. What's now important is the question; 'Are Alternatives 2 & 3 in that programme actually underway?' Let's investigate… Read More...

Alternative 3 - fact or fiction?

‘Alternative 3’ was a British television programme broadcast by Anglia Television (ATV) in 1977. It was planned to be broadcast on April 1st that year but due to scheduling problems, was eventually broadcast in June. Its original broadcast date was a big clue to its actual nature. ‘Alternative 3’ was designed and written as a spoof, as a fictional story posing as a serious science documentary.

The programme begins by investigating a British ‘brain drain’, a mysterious exodus of leading British scientists and engineers who are leaving the country, supposedly to take up lucrative new posts abroad, but are never seen again. Some send back regular postcards but when the relatives try and visit the places abroad where the persons are supposedly living, they discover that their loved one is not living there at all; their correspondence was faked.

The programme then moves into an even more sinister area. Senior scientists in the UK admit to the investigative reporters that mysterious but extremely powerful groups at the top levels of government have worked out that the Earth is heading for a climate collapse due to the greenhouse effect (note that it is in a programme broadcast in 1977). These groups have concluded that in the next century-or-so, only a small fraction of the current human population will be able to live on Earth’s surface, due to the climate collapse. Read More...

Planet Nine and the end of our last ice age

Today's Guardian newspaper reports on a new twist in the theory that a massive ninth planet exists in our solar system, travelling in a very long (17,000 year) orbit around our sun. At the beginning of this year, astronomers put forward the idea that a massive planet, a little smaller than Neptune, was causing the strange orbits of objects in our Kuiper belt; the remote region at the edge of our solar system (only beaten by the even more remote Oort Cloud).

This week, the researchers explained that the existence of such a planet also explained the strange tilt of our sun in relation to our known planets. This new supporting fact makes the 'Planet Nine' hypothesis (not planet ten as pluto is officially no longer a planet) much more convincing. Here's the video explaining what they've found:

The reason I'm blogging about this, apart from it being really interesting new science, is that it could be the missing piece in the strange events at the end of our last ice age. About 12,000 years ago, according to the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, our planet was showered with a large number of meteorites. These meteorites caused huge wildfires, threw up a lot of soot and dust into the atmosphere and cooled the planet for many years. In my book, 'how science shows…', I point out that Plato's ancient dialogues ‘Timaeus’ and 'Critias' - the source of the legends about Atlantis - also talk about a 'declination of the bodies' in the sky and a corresponding conflagration on the Earth in very ancient times. In one passage, the Ancient Egyptian priest states:

“There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt. Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals.”

Up until now, the reason that our planet was bombarded by asteroids in 10,000 BC was unknown. I therefore had to speculate in the book as to its cause, but this latest research about Planet Nine could be the missing piece of the jigsaw.

It is likely that Planet Nine, if it does exist, is currently at the far side of its orbit, which would explain why astronomers haven't spotted it. If this is correct, then Planet Nine would have entered our solar system around 10,000 ago (approximately), the period of the Younger Dryas impact event. What's more, the arrival of a massive planet in our solar system, travelling through our Kuiper Belt, would understandably throw a lot of planetoids and asteroids out of their normal orbits. These objects could then have plunged into the inner solar system and bombarded our planet. It all fits together very well. If the evidence is correct, then the Younger Dryas Impact Event did happen in 10,000 BC and it was caused by Planet Nine's arrival in our solar system.

This theory also leads to a very strange possibility; that Zechariah Sitchin's theory about a mysterious extra planet, Nibiru, that he states is written about in the Ancient Sumerian records, may not be as far-fetched as it seems. I haven't studied his work in detail so I can't comment further, but it is another possible area of interest.

Fascinating stuff! :-)

Nuclear weapons and a natural disaster

As a change from the recent blogs about the ‘psi earth’ story idea, I thought it would be good to talk about another topic that’s been in the papers this week. In the U.K., our Parliament recently conducted a debate in whether or not to renew our Trident nuclear missile programme. Britain currently has a small fleet of submarines carry many nuclear warheads which will cost around £200 billion over the next twenty years to upgrade and maintain. The arguments for and against the continuing of this trident missile fleet are roughly:

Against: They cost a lot. We’re more likely to be attacked if we have nuclear weapons. It’s wrong to use nuclear weapons. One could go off accidentally with disastrous effects (start a war, kill people, fill a large area with radioactivity). They’re actually an outdated weapon system and modern developments in drone technology means that nuclear subs can be watched by underwater schools of drones all the time and sunk immediately in a war situation before they could launch anything.

For: They’re a deterrent. We feel safer. We continue to be a major power in the world. We’ve got a big stick.

The British government voted clearly in favour of keeping Trident going. Many people in Britain agree with keeping Trident as they do agree with all the items in the ‘For’ section listed above. It also seems to be the case, in the eyes of many people, that there won’t be a nuclear war because the nuclear powers of the world won’t fire off their weapons unless they’re invaded. Logically, since no one in their right mind would to invade a nuclear powered country, nuclear war will never happen. This view seems solid but it misses an important scenario, which is the subject of this article. Read More...

The Florence Baptistery Enigma

One of the most important buildings in Florence, Italy, is its Baptistery. As the name suggests, this is where all Florentine Catholics were traditionally baptised, which was the case right up until the nineteenth century (when there were simple too many Florentines to make the process practical). The Baptistery is an octagonal building and is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style, at the very beginnings of the Italian Renaissance.

The Baptistry is famous for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors. These doors are special because they are decorated with intricate relief sculptures. In particular, the East doors of the building are decorated with a series of reliefs by Lorenzo Ghiberti. These are ten in number and they illustrate scenes from the Old Testament. Their quality of craftsmanship is so high that Michelangelo once referred to them as ‘the Gates of Paradise’. Read More...

Excellent short video about exponential population growth

Here's an excellent video explaining the perils of exponential population growth:

It might be tempting to think that human population growth isn't as extreme as the one described in the video. Unfortunately, it is. Here's a graph of human population levels in the last ten thousand years, courtesy of Wikipedia:


Dreams and non-violence

As a change from writing about climate change (which can get pretty depressing pretty quickly), I thought I'd report on something on a completely different tack; my recent strange dream adventures and the effect they've had on my mind. For readers who are now super-excited that I'm now going to talk about my experiences of hallucinating goblins, I'm sorry, it's not as fun as that but it is still very interesting. Here goes…

One benefit of writing full-time at home in the last few years is that I've been living a healthier life. For example, I haven't been going to the pub several times a week and I've been sleeping a lot better, which has enabled me to pay more attention to my dreams. I’ve noticed in recent years that they are not random, surreal events as many people seem to think dreams should be. Instead, I seem to have two types of dream events. The first type is where I converse with various people. In these type of dreams, I’m literally just hanging out, chatting with one or more people. These people can include people I currently know, people I’ve known in the past or people who I once knew but who are now dead. It’s a relaxing and fun experience.

The second type of dream I've been having is where I am in a contrived scenario. What's more, these scenarios seem to have been created as challenges for me, as situations in which my negative traits are highlighted and exposed. In other words, events will unfold in the dream scenario that cause my negative behaviour (e.g. indignation, anger) to come to the fore. For example, in the dream I’m in a deserted village and I’m armed. I know that someone's told me that the ‘enemy’ is in the village and they’ll kill me if they get a chance. I haven’t actually seen this enemy, never mind seen them armed, but I know that someone on my side has said they are armed and dangerous. I skulk around and see figures moving through the buildings. One of them pops his head up and looks at me. The cross-hairs of my gun settle on his forehead. I have a moment to decide and I shoot him. Read More...

Learning from the past

In this week's New Scientist magazine, there's a section in the Letters page discussing the recent article on Mankind's exploration of Mars. One of the letters is from me:

In your article on colonising Mars (Issue 3021, 16th May 2015, pg39), the writer Rhawn Joseph states that 'our cosmic biological destiny is to go forth and multiply'. This isn't a scientific idea but a religious one, originating in the Bible (Genesis 9:7) as part of God's covenant with Noah. It's also woefully short-sighted. The destiny of a dominant, tool-using species that multiplies unchecked in its environment is ecological collapse, something we're now seeing here on Earth. We need a new cosmic destiny for the next four thousand years, one where we don't run away from our problems. How about 'stay, stabilise and save'?

I wrote the letter because I was unhappy that a 'ultimate fact' was being placed in the article that was not only non-scientific but non-sensical. 'Go forth and multiply' makes sense if you've just had your population decimated by a cataclysm and you need to restore healthy numbers, but it doesn't make any sense once your numbers start to overwhelm your environment. Strangely enough, the story of the origins of 'go forth and multiply' includes both problems… Read More...

Our science fiction future

As promised in the previous blog entry earlier this week, here's my prediction of our science fiction future

1) We're all going to die.

This isn't much of a prediction, as no one lives forever. I'll try and be a bit more specific.


2) Climate change is going to wreck the environment of our planet and the global population will be reduced from seven thousand bazillion people to a bus queue by the end of 2200 AD


Galileo and Remote Viewing

A week-or-so ago, I wrote a review of Dean Radin's book 'Supernormal', in which Radin describes a huge body of research by qualified scientists that show that what we often refer to as 'ESP' effects are real and quantifiable. The research in the book leaves the reader with an unavoidable conclusion; that the idea that the universe is a physical, solid place that is unaffected by mental influence and can exist independently of observation is not just scientifically incorrect, it's plain wrong. In other words, 'materialism' is bunk.

Interestingly, the book's logical conclusions can also be deduced from the Influence Idea. The Influence Idea is relatively simple and can be summed up in one sentence: the only way that Life can exist and flourish in a universe governed by Entropy is for there to be an external, non-physical organising influence acting upon physical reality. Read More...

Climate Change and Killer Robots

This week's New Scientist magazine includes a letter of mine on the subject of Killer Robots. It was triggered by an article in a recent New Scientist magazine issue in which international bodies agreed that we shouldn't make fully autonomous, lethally armed robots. Instead, any robot that could kill should be controlled in some way by a human. Here's my letter:

"In your article on the moral dangers of autonomous, lethally armed robots, Peter Asaro says "most people now feel that it is unacceptable for robots to kill people without human intervention." (18th April, p7). The moral reasoning behind this view is intriguing. How is sending a programmed, armed robot into an area designated as 'enemy occupied' any worse than, say, bombing the area from ten thousand feet? In fact, the level of precision and the amount of human judgement involved in target selection with the robot would be arguably greater."

"There is an even stranger moral angle. Someone who is ordered to go and kill strangers in a war can suffer severe emotional trauma and other mental distress as a result. In the future, there may be societies that decide, on moral grounds, to delegate all killing of the enemy in their wars to fully autonomous robots so as to protect their citizens from such emotional trauma. In that unnerving scenario, the robots wouldn't be seen by those citizens as devils, but heroic guardians."

The second paragraph connects with another topic; how climate change will change our world, both environmentally and politically, in the next century. Read More...

'Supernormal' book review and Influence Idea thoughts

The purpose of this article is to review a book, but I thought I’d chat some more about the Influence Idea and 'Reality is Light' before the review, as they are connected. Just a quick note: The links in the following paragraphs connect to the larger articles I’ve written about these ideas, available elsewhere on this website, so feel free to switch to them if you'd like a fuller explanation.

To start off with, I'll explain the Influence Idea again, briefly. It's surprisingly simple. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything in our physical universe becomes more disordered over time; this is called Entropy, but something strange is going on because Life becomes more ordered over time. Life grows, develops and reproduces, constantly increasing order in the universe. Since Life exists in the universe, and is clearly acting entirely against Entropy, and Entropy governs all physical things in the universe then, logically, Life must be being created and maintained by a non-physical, positive, organising influence originating from outside physical reality.

Greek myths, stars and the Method of Loci

Just a quick note to say I've added an article exploring a fascinating possibility; that several of the Greek myths were actually Method of Loci stories designed to memorise facts about star systems. Fun! Here's the start of the article:

Greek myths are fascinating. They’re also very popular. Lots of movies and books are still being created, based on Greek myths. These modern celebrations have kept those myths alive for new generations, which is great, but have you ever read the original text of a Greek myth? They’re terrible to read! Here’s Apollodorus’s version of part of Hercules’ Labours:

“As a tenth labour Hercules was ordered to fetch the kine (cattle) of Geryon from Erythia. Now Erythia was an island near the ocean; it is now called Gadira. This island was inhabited by Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirhoe, daughter of Ocean. He had the body of three men grown together and joined in one at the waist, but parted in three from the flanks and thighs. He owned red kine, of which Eurytion was the herdsman and Orthus, the two-headed hound, begotten by Typhon on Echidna, was the watch-dog. So journeying through Europe to fetch the kine of Geryon Hercules destroyed many wild beasts and set foot in Libya, and proceeding to Tartessus he erected as tokens of his journey two pillars over against each other at the boundaries of Europe and Libya.

The above section is actually the interesting bit. The full text of this Labour goes on after this, and on, and on. Hercules pursues errant cattle and defeats various foes, creating an entire second half to the story that is thick with odd names, places and actions. Why was this story written in such a dull way? It’s tempting to say that the Ancient Greeks were dull writers but they weren’t. Many of their writings are fascinating and engaging, so what’s going on here? Read more

Clockwork minds

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the potential threat of A.I.; the danger that robots and artificial intelligences could become sentient, accelerate in intelligence and destroy humanity. Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have all warned of this threat. Musk is even pledging millions of dollars to study and plan against this outcome. It seems pretty weird that these guys are talking about the threat of A.I. rather than climate change, whose existence is very, very well supported with evidence and which will become highly dangerous to humanity, but there you go.

How real is the threat of rogue A.I.'s? Can one really become sentient, accelerate in intelligence, form its own agenda and take over the world, destroying humanity in the process? Read More...

SETI and sci-fi expectations

The New Scientist magazine's letters page this week includes some more discussions about SETI and alien contact. This topic was discussed a while back and I wrote in about it, but there's always something new to add. This week's discussion includes my response to an earlier letter on the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences:

In your letters page (21st Feb 2015) John Bailey concludes that since we haven’t been bombarded with self-replicating alien robots or seen huge heat signatures in space, there probably aren’t any advanced civilisations in our galaxy. He seems to think that advanced races will have a ‘more is better’ philosophy, but climate change is showing us that a ‘less is better’ philosophy is the only intelligent long-term strategy. If this is correct, then the more advanced a race is in the galaxy, the less visible they’ll be. It’s the quiet ones that are clever, not the shouters.

John Bailey's expectation that advanced alien civilisations will be huge, star-spanning confederations with big, powerful ships and zillions of self-replicating robots is, I think, because of how they're currently depicted in mainstream fiction. We pick whatever seems cutting-edge and exciting at the moment - nano-technology, robotics, ion-drives - and multiply them by a thousand or a thousand million and, voila, that's your advanced alien civilisation. A century-or-so ago, H.G.Wells came up with the idea of Cavorite, a substance that could negate gravity. Using this discovery, two Englishmen travelled to the moon. From a scientific point of view, Cavorite is just as believable as a warp drive or a hyperdrive but it's now seen as quaint, silly and unscientific. I'd bet that self-replicating robots will be seen as just as daft in a century's time.

Reality is Light

I've popped a new article in the 'Strange Science' section called 'Reality is Light'. This article puts forward the interesting idea that reality is nothing more than a changing pattern of electromagnetic radiation. If this is true, then subatomic particles and their accompanying forces are not real, but are simply useful ideas for predicting how this pattern of light changes.

The article then discusses another interesting possibility, that gravity is not a force as such, but instead is a hidden property of light that causes all light paths to reduce in scale over time. I've talked about bats in caves to help communicate this idea, but I haven't drawn any illustrations, so it is a bit dry.

The last part of the article puts forward another idea, that if gravity is the scalar reduction over time of the light pattern that is reality, then the assumption that gravitational mass and inertial mass (known as the Equivalence Principle) may not true for stars, due to their role as massive light creators.

There's a very good chance that my article is tosh, but it's still fun to speculate! ;-)

The Great Pyramid and 2787 BC

For the last few years, I've been working on an ancient mystery story. Its first incarnation was a non-fiction book called 'The Golden Web' but after some feedback, I realised that early version was too dense and convoluted to appeal to many readers. Instead, I've been creating a graphic novel about the same subject using the same researched material, evidence and ideas. This graphic novel is currently entitled 'The Great Secret'. It isn't yet complete. When I do complete it, I'll be looking for a publisher. I'll post any news of that progress when it occurs.

As part of spreading awareness of the graphic novel and the ideas contained within it, I've posted an article on this website about a key piece of evidence that I unearthed while researching the story. As the title of this blog entry indicates, the key piece of evidence concerns the Great Pyramid and the year 2787 BC, when a crucial celestial event occurred. For a full explanation, do please read the article.


Evolution and tailored alien viruses

Just a quick note to say that my article 'Evolution and tailored alien viruses' is now available on the website here. This article is in the first issue of Visiting Alien magazine but as that magazine is now on hold, I thought I'd put it on the website for easy access.

The article puts forward a strange but perfectly possible idea; that evolution on Earth has not entirely been guided by random mutation, as Charles Darwin explained in his theory of evolution by natural selection. Recent studies in microbiology and genetics indicate that our genome, our DNA library, is chock-full of old virus code. Viruses work by infiltrating the DNA machinery of cells and they can insert their instructions into cell's DNA. There is scientific evidence now that the very basic features of multicellular life have come about not by random mutation but through the action of foreign viruses.

My article puts forward the possibility that evolution on Earth may have been guided and accelerated by tailored viruses sent here from planets orbiting other stars. For more info, check out the article.

Spotting Evil in 'Lord of the Rings'

This Christmas, the final instalment of Tolkien’s 'The Hobbit, the Battle of the Five Armies' is coming to UK screens. I’ll be going. I'm not really going because it’ll be an amazing film to see - this current trilogy has been a case of spreading a very small amount of butter across a very large slice of toast - but because it’s Peter Jackson doing Tolkien and I'm a Tolkien fan.

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:

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:

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.

Am I eating the tablet game or is it eating me?

A lot of us play computer games. There's a huge array of games out there to cater for nearly every taste, from blood-spattered sadistic violence (huge market) to organising parties. Recently, I've noticed, after quite a few hours, that the games I've played seem to fall into two categories.

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.

Fortunately, I think there are a second group of tablet games that work in a very different way. These are the games that we eat. What I mean by that is that there are games that are skilfully made, beautiful to look at and most importantly, only last for a limited amount of time. Here are three great examples of such games:

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! :-)

Nietzsche and Casablanca

In this month's Brainpickings, there's an interesting article about the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, who was a rather clever bloke but not particularly modest, as shown in these quotes from one of his letters:

“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.”

In between making statements about his own incredible importance, Nietzsche did make some interesting comments about life, people, morals and society. One point he made was that he thought it was vital that people's lives contained hardship. This wasn't because of some streak of sadism. Instead, Nietzsche said the whole point of life was to face and overcome difficulties. Each and every one of us, he believed, has to encounter difficult challenges, agonising decisions, trial and tribulations throughout our lives. That is the only way that we can truly achieve and succeed. Nietzsche writes:

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.

The peloton has been invaded by body-snatchers


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.

In recent years, the Tour de France and other major races have been dogged by the revelations and subsequent confession by Lance Armstrong that he doped in order to win most of his Tour de France victories, if not all of them. Lance also wasn't particularly nice to the honest people who told reporters and the police that he’d cheated, but that's all in the past now. Nowadays, the saga of Armstrong’s deception can be seen as a traumatic but cathartic transition from a time of systemic doping to a new era of clean racing. We can look at what happened before with sadness, but we can look ahead with clear eyes to a new era of clean racing performed by honest man...

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 f
or 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.

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...

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,

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!!!!!

Arvon is medicine for writers

It can take a long time for a writer to become successful. Neil Gaiman recommends that an aspiring writer needs to knock out 120,000 words or more before he or she will reach a competent level. For some, it can take literally decades. Here's Ray Bradbury's wonderful description of his struggles:

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.

For those of you who are working to become science fiction writers, Arvon are running a science fiction course next month, tutored by Simon Ings and Liz Jensen. Simon is the editor of 'Arc' science-fiction magazine, the digital magazine developed by New Scientist. 'Arc' has played a huge part in my science-fiction writing development and so I'll be forever grateful to Simon for that help. It's taking place at Arvon's Totleigh Barton site, in the beautiful county of Devon.


They even have house-martens! :-)

Reality is Casablanca

In this week’s Brainpickings - a web site dedicated to interesting articles about writers and writing - there is a very interesting article about C.S.Lewis. Lewis is the famous author of books such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. He was both an author and a Christian philosopher. In the article, focussed on his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, Lewis poses a fundamental moral and spiritual problem:

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…

In previous centuries, there have been reports about this other realm from people that had temporarily died but then reawakened in their bodies (known as an NDE or Near Death Experience), but these were sketchy and anecdotal. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and solid research, we have several recent, comprehensive studies to draw upon. I personally recommend the books ‘Heading towards Omega’ and ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’, which are both written by highly experienced doctors and academics.

In both books, many people who survived NDE events report what they experienced and the testimonies are highly consistent. Almost all the survivors report that the after-death realm is an absolutely wonderful place. They state that our physical lives, by comparison, are just awful, full of pain and constraints and suffering and problems. Physical life, according to the NDE subjects, is actually even worse than we think it is; it’s only the fact that we’ve forgotten how wonderful the inter-life realm is that makes Reality for us even remotely bearable. Crucially, the NDE survivors also add that we have all willingly decided to live our physical lives because we believed that the experience would benefit us.

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.

In the classic film ‘Casablanca’, the hero Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, faces all sorts of challenges and choices. Eventually, by the end of the movie, he becomes a better person. In the film’s climactic scene [plot spoiler], he surprises Elsa by telling her that she should leave with Victor Lazlo and not run away with him. He still loves her but he realises that she’ll only be truly happy if she gets on the plane with another man. If she doesn’t, she’ll regret it, maybe not today but soon and for the rest of her life. It’s a famous scene and a famous line and it’s meaningful; Rick has turned the corner, walked away from bitterness and anger. He has acted selflessly and improved the world.

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.


What's the logic of… the Longitude Prize 2014?


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?!

What's the logic of… cycle helmets?


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?


Is Bigfoot Denisovan Man?

A few weeks ago, the New Scientist magazine published a very interesting article about Denisovan Man. Denisovan Man is similar to Neanderthal Man. They are both offshoots, like ourselves (Homo Sapiens) from an earlier common ancestor, Homo Heidelbergensis.

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! ;-)

Bound: An outdoor game


Many years ago, I was on holiday at the seaside and, being an eleven-year-old boy, I was desperate to play some sort of outdoor game. I only had a tennis ball, and so I needed a game that two people could play with only a ball, a flat surface and some marked lines on the ground (ideal for the hard sand of a beach). After some intense cogitation, I thought up the game Bound. I persuaded my family to play it and it worked very well, with lots of fun being had by all.

Rather than let the game disappear into the nebulous mists of time, I thought it would be good to post a full description of the game so that other people can play it and hopefully enjoy it too.


Evil, Shiny, Trendy, New Eco-Bag

This week, I’ve been looking for a new laptop bag. I do have two older laptop bags but one’s too small for the new laptop. The other one is a messenger bag with fabric so heavy-duty, it rubs the bejeezuz out of my corduroy jacket when I’m carrying it over-the-shoulder. To avoid my jacket sharing the same fate as a summer shirt that died at the hands of that bag, I though it was time to buy something new.

Being an environmentally minded bloke, as well as an advocate of workers’ rights, I wanted to try and buy something that might tick at least one of those boxes. After browsing the web, I found a bag made from 100% recycled PET plastic from bottles. ‘Hooray!’ I thought, ‘this looks good and is environmentally responsible. I can buy with a sound conscience!’

But after another minute’s thought, I changed my mind. I realised that, for me in England, a recycled-plastic laptop bag made in China is about as environmentally responsible as a solar panel on an oil rig. Read More...

Save the planet for entirely selfish reasons

Climate Change reached a milestone this year. The atmosphere measuring station in Hawaii recorded a global CO2 value of 400 parts per million. The planet hasn’t had that much CO2 in its atmosphere for millions of years. Typhoon Haiyan has just stormed through the Philippines, the strongest storm ever recorded and recent measurements of the Pacific Ocean show that it has warmed 15 times faster in the last 60 years than at any time in the last ten thousand, which is a bit like sticking your aquarium on top of the radiator.

The fact that the developed world (who are doing nearly all the CO2 generation) are carrying on with their day with minimal attempt to reduce their fossil fuel use, in spite of all the evidence of climate catastrophe, is like passengers on a runaway train checking the lunch menu. People! This train is out of control and heading downhill! We’re all going to die and leave our grandchildren orphaned if we don’t do something! No, I don’t care that the steamed mullet is off this week! Neither do I think it’s spiffing that our increasing speed means you’ll get to the next stop quicker! We’re accelerating towards a hairpin bend and will soon be plunging down a mountainside in a ball of fire and twisted metal! No, I am not being negative! No, we cannot assume the railway company is going to fix the problem in the next quarter of a mile by remote bluetooth diagnostics! We have to do something ourselves! Read More...

Forks over Knives documentary

Forks over Knives’ is an American documentary that explores the effect of reducing the animal protein in a person’s diet and the health benefits that can give. On the face of it, you might think it would be a polemic pushing an ethical eating agenda but, in fact, it has a very different message. Although the contributors to the documentary do discuss animal welfare, the message they impart is about human health. The documentary explains that there is extensive scientific research that shows that a diet that contains more than 10% animal protein carries a large increased risk in cancer. I checked for supporting scientific evidence for such a bold claim and found that there is a lot of evidence supporting that view. Here’s a useful link at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Read More...

Are we sheep?

The Lord is my Shepherd. When I was growing up, I heard this a lot. At the time, I thought it was a warm and loving idea; that the Creator of the Universe and Source of Endless Love was watching over me, guiding me, leading the way. Nowadays though, I think it’s an awful idea. We’re not sheep! We’re not dumb herd animals, incapable of living independently, thinking independently. Humanity is made up of intelligent, strong, courageous people who can take a stand and go their own way!… I think.

But is that true? Are we all actually better than sheep? Or are we really weak, herd-like animals that just think we have the qualities of free will, independent thought, compassion, the courage to take a stand, to treat everyone equally, to use power responsibly? To try and answer this, I though I’d gather together a group of famous psychology experiments that delve into such questions. These experiments give a picture of how we actually behave in certain situations, rather than how we’d like to think we behave. With their help, I’ll work through the list of human qualities mentioned above and give a score for each one. The score will be the percentage of people who actually succeeded in showing these positive qualities in controlled situations; It’ll be like a sort of human qualities assessment test. I’ll then tot up the results and see humanity’s score. Off we go... Read More...

Kit will save us!

Back in the 1960’s, when skirts were short and architecture was Lego-like, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and engineer, came up with the idea of a Dyson Sphere. The idea was straightforward; a sun gives out lots of energy but planets only get a fraction of it. What if you built a sphere entirely around the sun and made the inside surface of that sphere like a planet? That way, you’d have an enormous area of land to use which would all be getting sunshine. You could house a squidgillion number of people that way. Sorted! The idea was intriguing, memorable and cropped up in a slightly altered way in Larry Niven’s very successful science fiction novel ‘Ringworld’.

The idea also cropped up more recently in a
New Scientist magazine article. The article’s author reported attempts underway by scientists to find Dyson Spheres out there in the Milky Way. The logic of the article was as follows: By the laws of probability, there should be many advanced civilisations out there in our galaxy. If there are, some of them should have built Dyson Spheres (or similar enormous engineering constructions) in order to house their expanding populations and help their expansion through the Galaxy. There should therefore be Dyson Spheres out there, encasing stars; it’s just a case of spotting their heat signature, shape, E/M emissions etc. Read More...

The Freezing Gaze People

In the New Scientist magazine this week, there’s an interesting article about black holes. Black holes are a fascinating object in the cosmos, being the collapsed remains of giant stars that have gone supernova. Because the stars were so huge, when their material collapses inwards due to gravity, the centre becomes so dense that it can no longer stay as matter and becomes a singularity, a strange theoretical entity. Gravity is so intense in a black hole that if light falls into it, it can’t get out, which is why they’re black.

The problem scientists are finding with black holes is that the physics (and maths) of a black hole doesn’t fit with the physics (and maths) of the universe. These problems are really extensions of a still bigger problem, which is that physicists have developed two important theories to explain reality; Relativity, which explains the largest scales brilliantly and Quantum Physics, which explains the smallest scales brilliantly. The only problem is that the two theories aren’t compatible. Black holes, being a place in the universe where the largest becomes deeply involved in the tiniest, not surprisingly are a source of much consternation; they’re like huge cosmic signposts saying ‘YOU’RE MISSING SOMETHING IMPORTANT!’.

A Planck length of time

Science fiction writing is fun. You get to combine scientific and technical knowledge (interstellar travel, subatomic physics, TCP/IP networking, ant behaviour, you name it) with a large dollop of imagination and bingo!, you’ve got a story. Well, nearly. You also need to be perfectly happy sitting in a room, on your own, for umpteen hours, with little to show for it… “What have you been doing?” “Writing.” “Can I see it?” “No.” “Is it good?” “Dunno.” “Will it be published?” “Don’t know.” “Right… how long have you been doing this?” “For about two-thousand hours.”

With that in mind, I enjoyed this quote from the Nobel prize winning physicist, Max Planck:

“New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.”


Science warp at the BBC

Science is brilliant. I love the fact that a scientist doesn’t give empty opinions, but bases them on factual evidence that he or she always supplies along with his or her opinion. Also, that if someone else gives an opinion that the scientist knows to be false, the scientist will explain why it’s false and offer up the evidence to support their view. When this is combined with a desire to educate and inform, such as often occurs on the BBC, the results can be hugely praiseworthy.

Something though seems to have gone horribly wrong with the BBC’s balanced reporting of scientific information this week. Their most popular video article concerns ‘the five second rule’ for food dropped on the floor. In it, Sophie Van Brugen, with the help of Dr Ronald Cutler, sets out to discover if the following rule is true, that ‘if you pick up food dropped on the floor within five seconds of it falling, you’ll be safe’. It’s a popular idea, as illustrated above from the wikipedia - ‘five second rule’ entry. Read More...

Schrödinger’s Shed

I thought I’d take a quick change of tack, before starting chapter 2 of ‘Prof Millpot and the Golden Web’, and draw/write an illustrated science book called ‘Schrödinger’s Shed’. Click on the banner link to read the article. It’s challenging but fun! (I think). I’ve tried to make it visually appealing, easy to read and pitched at a reader with some scientific knowledge and a lot of natural interest in the world.


Santa Claus will soon be back to eat children

Santa’s one weird dude. Putting the logistical nightmare aside of visiting every child in the world in one night, we’re still left with the prospect of an old man turning up on a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer to climb down your chimney and give your children presents.

Where did this folk tale come from? Well, in the spirit of lazy recycling of old web articles, I thought I’d stick in a previous December blog entry. It’s from an article I wrote a few years ago on the big guy in the red suit. Here goes… Read More...

Interstellar laser transmission and Sirius

I read a very interesting article in the New Scientist this week; it was an interview with Geoff Marcy (pictured), partly responsible for discovering many of the exoplanets we now know about. In the article, Dr Marcy explains that he's switching from exoplanet discovery (planets orbiting other stars) to SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He feels that he's done what he wanted to do with the exoplanet work and wants to 'roll the dice' and take on a long-shot SETI subject.

Dr Marcy believes that if alien civilizations do exist, some must be sufficiently advanced to be communicating between stars. To do this, they would logically use lasers, since lasers enable tight, focussed, information-rich communication. We on Earth have been sending out lasers and radio waves into space for a while now and Dr Marcy suspects that alien civilizations may target us as a result. As he states in the interview: 'maybe they are studying us with their own lasers, for whatever reason, and we should be looking for that. And that's what I plan to do.'

The reason I'm mentioning this is that, based on the evidence I uncovered in my book 'The Golden Web', such an event may have already happened.

Quantum of Solace rant

It’s coming, filling the horizon like a great dark storm cloud with a massive advertising logo stuck on the side. The new James Bond movie is out this year and I’m dreading it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a huge fan of Bond movies my whole life, from the dark weirdness of Dr No, through the snazzy kit and cool style of Goldfinger, all the way to the visual panache and charisma of Goldeneye. I even like Timothy Dalton’s ‘The Living Daylights’, which, if you give it another go, is a really enjoyable action movie. But I hated Quantum of Solace. I hated it with vengeance. For months afterwards, I made voodoo Quantum of Solace dolls and stabbed them repeatedly with home made stilettos (which originally referred to a thin dagger by the way, rather than women’s shoes). I cursed the name ‘Quantum of Solace’ aloud on moonlit nights in the centre of standing stones, hoping for demons to do my bidding and remove it from reality, or alternatively a Chthulhu-like beast to come from another dimension and suck every square inch of its footage into the nether voids of space. Either would do.


A feudal royal visit and london 2012

I’ve been trying to get my head around the Olympics this summer. On the one hand, it’s a wonderful opportunity for London to shine, for British people to show their enthusiasm for sport, hospitality and good cheer, and on the other hand it’s as though the whole event is a state appearance by Pageant Obsessed Fascist Overlords. Due to diplomatic considerations, Londoners have been told to be friendly and supportive and not mind the ruinous bill, masses of stone-faced guards and total lack of access to any events unless they’re willing to sell their house to attend.

I am planning to attend one event, the Olympic road race, but this is only possible because the competitors are travelling around an eighty mile loop and the organisers probably assumed it was too costly to try and charge everyone in South West London fifty quid to stand on their own street corner.

Overall, it’s weird. Why would any city decided to spend eleven billion pounds to find out who can throw a stick the furthest? Or who can run in a straight line the fastest? Even if it’s supposed to be a recreation of the Ancient Greek Olympics, they all took part naked and no one was on a BMX. The connection is pretty tenuous.

But I've now realised what's going on. Possibly because of some deep unconscious previous life regression, or the chance of being incarcerated without access to a lawyer for a month, I can see that the London Olympics is basically a medieval royal visit. Everything is the same. In the medieval event, once every few years your town and its castle is visited by the crown; a bunch of unelected, violent freeloaders and all their hangers-on. The boss of your area kow-tows to them and breaks the bank feeding them, housing them, lavishing them with gifts and generally treating them like royalty, which is what they are. The years of lean living that are going to follow such a visit are quietly ignored. Talking about that is plain un-patriotic.

Amid frantic construction and rising budgets, the visit approaches. Some years are worse than others. If the crown is unpopular, there’s talk of plots, potential assassinations and other shenanigans. Some of them might be real threats, others would be concocted by the crown themselves with the plan of fingering a particular religious minority or foreign power. You’ll either get dragged into a real plot or fingered for a non-existent plot. Either way, it’s red-hot poker time.

You watch the king arrive and try not to shake too much. It wouldn’t be so bad if you actually got a look at the king when he was in the castle, or got to nibble on a roasted lamb-shank, but you may as well nibble your own leg. If fear of assassination was in the air, there’d be soldiers around the castle and on the roads ready to kill anyone looking suspicious. The highways would be cordoned off, the guards out; best to hide inside a hollow log for the duration of the visit.

There are some differences between London 2012 and a crowd of fat, jewelled people stuffing their faces while watching an archery event. For example, there may be an aircraft carrier moored on the Thames this summer; that’s way more impressive than a catapult. London 2012 has also got a very memorable logo and lots of plastic memorabilia. You never saw anything like that in the fourteenth century! Apart from that, there's... er....

Turnip, anyone?

The joy of ceremony

I wrote a short story recently for Arc magazine. Part of it contains a futuristic pastiche of listening to a record player:

"I did try, once, to get away from technology, move away from the latest kit. I took a therapy class; they called it a 'record player' class. Weird. They had this collection of 'vinyl records'. Have you heard of them? They're black discs made from alcohol and tree sap that had been carved so that a needle makes a sound when it's dragged over them. Very ethnic. Anyway, a group of us sat down in a room and then one person put one of these black discs on a sort of potter's wheel. She lay a moveable stick on the disc and music came out of vibrating cones that were standing nearby. We had to sit, in silence, while the device played four songs, one after the other, with no breaks. It was just audio and we couldn't stop it, or watch an accompanying video, or change anything. It freaked me out!"

Probably, in forty years time, people will regard a record player as a piece of history, a relic in the attic that about as likely to get used as a wooden tennis racket. If they do, they might be missing a trick. I think there's another angle to the record player; a very important one. When you listen to a record player, you have to sit down and listen to some music for twenty minutes and do nothing else. It's almost a form of meditation, at least in comparison to flicking between songs or flicking between channels or talking on the phone while paying for the groceries and herding your children and moving your trolley out of the way of someone else who's also talking on the phone...

I remember when I switched to storing my music on iTunes and an iPod, many years ago. I was over the moon; I could listen to music immediately. I could select from my entire music library at the click of a button. I listened to lots of songs that I hadn't bothered with, songs that had languished in albums that I was no longer interested in sticking on my record player or loading into my CD drawer. It gave my music library a new lease of life.

There was, though, a downside to this digital immediacy, a downside that became clear to me recently when I was at a friend's house. He has a large record collection and, one morning, he suggested we listen to U2's 'The Joshua Tree'. I agreed. I sat down on his battered sofa while he made some coffee. When it was ready, he handed me a cup, then walked over to his record cabinet and slid the album out. He took the record out of its sleeve and passed me the gatefold album. I looked at its atmospheric cover, large enough to fill my vision, then opened it up and gazed at the interior art; Anton Corbijn's photography of four moody blokes in a great expanse of desert and mountains. While I read the lyrics to 'Running to Stand Still', sipping the coffee by my side, my friend carefully placed the record on the player, took out a brush and carefully wiped the record's surface. When the surface was clean and clear, he put the brush away, turned the stereo on and let the valve amplifier warm up. Once it was ready, he put the needle on the record, sat down in his armchair and, together, we listened to side one.

That is so slow! And you have to listen to all four songs! But it isn't a bad thing, is it? A huge part of the enjoyment is that it's a ceremony. It unfolds at its own pace. You can't hurry it. What's more, you don't want to hurry it because the pace of it, the focussed, singular quality of it creates a bubble of quality, a short piece of sanctuary time. The process also gives that bubble structure. You don't just sit somewhere for half an hour, listening to four songs. That would feel like a gap, a lull. The record player ceremony is an event, with its own components and atmosphere and value. I touched on this idea in my article 'How owning a DVD ruined my evening'. The Record Player Ceremony is a little like the Japanese Tea Ceremony, perhaps not as rigidly structured but it shares, I think, the same ethos. They are both a structured period of time that can create a state of mind different to everyday life.

The Record Player Ceremony also used to be part of a larger process. You didn't just download the MP3 file from a remote internet server. You went to a record shop, with its atmosphere and smells and eclectic staff and fascinating customers. Inside, you browsed while listening to the music playing in the store and you bought your album and held it in your hands and slid the record carefully out. You looked at its shiny, scratch free surface and your head filled with the anticipation of listening to it, sharing it with your friends and losing yourself in the music it contained. The lack of immediacy wasn't a problem because it created anticipation and that can not only make the upcoming event more exciting but often be more exciting than the actual event itself.

I miss that. I think a lot of young people now probably miss that too. This might explain why vinyl record sales are actually increasing, and have been doing so for years, reaching a six year high, with a 55% increase last year and an almost fifteen-fold increase over the last twenty years. That's great to hear.

Let's enjoy the ceremony.

Imagination and a duck

Coming up with ideas for stories can be tricky. They seem to take their time popping into one's head. They can't be hurried, they just go at their own pace. There's also the question of believability. Is this story idea believable? Is it strange enough for a reader to stick in their mind, draw them in, excite them? Or is the story idea too strange? Will the reader just dismiss it as ridiculous; 'that can't have happened'! The whole process can go very weird when you decide you'll have to write something that you know isn't correct because the real situation would be impossible for a reader to believe. Instead, you choose something that you know isn't true because it's more believable. You write a lie because it's the one that sounds true, while the bizarre actual events have to be put aside.

For example, a few years ago, my mum heard some strange noises from outside her front door. It sounded distinctly like quacking. She opened the door, stepped out into the street and looked around. There was no one there; there certainly weren't any ducks there. She heard the quacking again. This time, she realised, it was coming from somewhere close to her head. She looked up at the hanging basket she'd hung beside the front door. The quacking came again, from inside the basket. She went back in, got her step-ladder, came out and climbed up on it. This is what she saw:

There was a duck nesting in her hanging basket. She looked at the duck. The duck looked at my mum and quacked, looking quite relaxed and pleased with herself. Mum climbed down off the step-ladder, went back inside and left the duck to get on with her day.

Not long after, the duck's eggs hatched. There was now a duck and several ducklings sitting in a hanging basket right next to a busy road.

This is, quite patently, ridiculous. Why on earth would a duck nest in a hanging basket by a road that's on two bus routes! The nearest patch of grass is a hundred yards away! But she did.

Eventually, it was time for the ducklings to leave. They jumped off the hanging basket on to the street. Fortunately, mum and a helpful neighbour shepherded the duck and her ducklings to the river nearby, stopping all the traffic in the process.

Isn't life weird?

Doctor Who: Season six and my Tarditis

I've written another article for a Sci-Fi Now competition (I am doing proper writing projects too but I think it's good practice!). This one is a review of Doctor Who: Season 6. Here it is:

It was near the end of Doctor Who season six that I knew I'd developed Tarditis.  Read More...

Sci-fi now competition: 'The film that scared me the most'

Sci-fi now are running a competition asking for people's recollections of their scariest movie. Here's my contribution (now on the sci-fi now site here):

It was The Thing.

That wasn’t the scariest part. The Thing was scary, very scary, but the scariest part was that it was my first experience of watching a scary movie with my mates.
I say mates; looking back, I’d be hard pressed to think of a definite example in which any of them acted selflessly on my behalf. It never seemed to be like ‘Stand by Me’ in which the youngsters band together and face down fears and dangers because they love their friends. It was more like a prelude to The Road. They’re friendly and want your company but you realise that if they get hungry enough, it won’t be ‘you go! I’ll stay and fight them off!’, it’ll be ‘what’s the big deal? We only want your left leg.’


The film 'Star Wars' is really about... conception!

I loved the first ‘Star Wars’ film, I still do. I don’t think any film will ever have as profound affect on me as that movie. A big part of its influence was because of its timing. It came out when I was seven years old; a skinny kid living in suburban london who loved fantastic ideas and stirring stories. I wanted something big and awe-inspiring and slick and glorious and grandiose and absurdly naive. Read More...

The AV referendum - it's still bugging me

Last week, for the first time in my entire adult life, myself and the rest of the people of the UK got the chance to chance their electoral voting system. The change available to us wasn't exactly earth shattering; we were able to choose between the current system (first past the post - you put an 'x' beside your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes gets a seat in Parliament) and AV (you get to rank your choices on the voting slip). AV wasn't much of an alternative. There are better voting methods out there like Single Transferrable Vote or STV but that was what we got.

And then two thirds of us (or at least the half of voters who actually turned up) said 'no' to AV. WHAATTTT????? Read More...

Carry a Rubber Ball. Make it part of your healthy lifestyle!

It's driving me nuts, that Benecol margarine spread advert on the radio. It's the one where they interview various people who say that they changed their lifestyle because they were worried about their health. They explain how they started exercising and avoiding unhealthy food and, along with all that, they had some Benecol margarine. Straight after saying that, they say their cholesterol levels went down and they'd recommend anyone else taking Benecol. So Benecol reduces cholesterol? Does it? Does it my backside! Read More...

The power of 'up to'

The biggest advertising strategy of the last twelve months (or more) has, I think, been the use of the phrase ‘up to’. It’s everywhere now in sales signs and adverts. ‘Up to 50% off!’, ‘Up to 70% off!’. You’d think that most people on seeing these signs must say to themselves ‘well, that doesn’t mean very much’ but retailers clearly don’t regard that as a problem. Based on how much it’s being used, companies in the U.K. seem to think it’s a sure winner for improving their sales. They’re confident that telling people that at least one of their five thousand items in stock will be 70% off in the upcoming sale, even though that single item has probably all the desirability and functionality of owning a deranged skunk, is an actual winning formula.

Are we missing something here? Are these companies, with their skilled and experienced staff, pointing us in a new direction? If using ‘up to’ is such a gold mine, should we be trying to use it in aspects of our own lives? Maybe the power of ‘up to’ can be used in our emotional relationships?


Navigation and the Ladies Internation Rescue Organisation

It’s always a good thing for men and women to find ways to understand each other better. If done properly, good male/female communication can, in particular, save the bloke from endless arguments, cold silences and comments like ‘that’s stupid’, ‘you’re not listening’ and sentences beginning with ‘my mum was right...’. To help improve this, I thought I’d write a short article about navigation.

Imagine that you’re in your car with your dearly beloved - your lovely female partner without whom life would be an empty wasteland of loneliness and poor personal hygiene. You’re both in the car on your way to an important social event, a place that you both will reach in time, if all goes well, but there’s not a lot of room to spare. You’re driving along and you spot a side street. You realise that if you head down that side street, there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up on a road you know that’ll take you to the destination quicker. ‘Ahah!’ you think, ‘I’ll take that shortcut and I’ll have improved my knowledge of the area, speeded up my journey and my dearly beloved will be really grateful. We’ll be at the wedding/christening/graduation ceremony with time to spare. Hooray!’

I have three words of advice to give at this point:
Don’t do it!


Santa Claus is coming to town. (Scream!)

Santa’s a strange guy. I was watching ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ yesterday and I was fascinated by the character of Santa Claus, so wonderfully played by Richard Attenborough. Who was this guy with his white and red outfit, black boots, white beard and twinkling eye? Why would people start to think that someone would come down their chimney at night and give their children presents? It’s a strange double standard for modern parents to have: ‘Don’t ever take sweets from strangers, go with them anywhere or let them into your house!’ ‘But mummy, what about Santa Claus?’ ‘Oh, him, that old, bearded guy? That’s perfectly okay. You should let him climb down the chimney and sneak into your rooms at night. In fact, make an effort to leave food at night for him just so he’s in a good mood.’ Dodgy guy on the street, stay away; stranger entering your rooms through the chimney at night, give him a mince pie!


The Utter horror of the 'three for two' offer

I was in Waterstones today to buy a present for a relative. I had a rough idea what I was after and went straight to the appropriate section. There, stacked neatly on the shelf, were two books by John Lindqvist, the writer behind the hit Scandinavian film ‘Let the Right One In’, which I think is currently being remade in America on the grounds that the original is full of foreigners who talk funny. They’ve also shortened the title to ‘Let Me In’. I guess this is because a) no movie about Vampires should ever refer to them as ‘The Right One’ or b) Five words in a title is too long. Since ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ are incredibly popular and are stuffed full of blood sucking creatures of the night who somehow retain tender romantic feelings while their souls sit writhing in the nethermost depths of hell, I’m guessing it’s mostly about the title length.

Film tie-ins aside, I picked up the two books by Lindqvist that I wanted. Sorted! I could go home and have a cup of tea. Then I spotted something. Sitting prominently on the front cover of both books was a sticker marked ‘3 for 2’. Oh. That’s good, I thought. I have two books I want. I can pick up a third for nothing. I looked around casually. There were lots of ‘3 for 2’ books on the tables around. I’ll definitely want one of those.

The only thing was, each one I spotted I didn’t want.


A simple guide to how homeopathy might work

Note: This is a long blog entry. If you'd like to read it as a pdf document, click here.

Extra note: This long blog entry now has its own web page here.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to get very worked up about homeopathy. They make comments like ‘if it’s only water, we can throw it in the sea and make everyone well!’ or ‘it’s just a placebo, you’re all being fooled!’ or ‘it’s quackery and should be banned!’ or ‘burn them! Burn them all and their test tubes and little boxes with ground up plants! Burn them!’ Perhaps I’m getting a little exaggerated on that last one but you get the idea.

The thing is, homeopathy does seem to work, at least for some people. Now, it is certainly possible that their improvements may be down the placebo effect; that the psychological effect of them taking a medicine has cured them rather than the medicine itself. The placebo effect does also work. The only problem with this idea is that vets have used homeopathic remedies on livestock with success. It’s hard to imagine the cows getting better through the placebo effect.

So if it’s not psychological, what is it? A sensible first step is to understand the rules and theory of homeopathy. With that under our belts, we can then start to investigate how that procedure and theory might fit with what we do know about how the body works.


How owning a DVD ruined my evening

About five years ago, I was sitting in my flat, glancing through the television guide when I noticed that 'Indiana Jones and the last crusade' was on television, wednesday 8:30pm to be precise. What was even better was that it was on the BBC so there wouldn't be any adverts. Brilliant! I thought. I made a note of it and planned to get some snacks in, get back from London in good time, settle down and enjoy the movie.

Then a grim truth hit me. I already owned an 'Indiana Jones and the last crusade' DVD. There was no need to wait until wednesday evening. I could watch it whenever I liked.

I was completely deflated. Weird, isn't it?

The treadmill conundrum

We now have a Conservative government in power in this country (give or take a very strange attempt at a Liberal Democrat party). As a result, there’s lots of comment in the news about ‘reducing inefficiency’ and ‘getting the work-shy to do their fair share’ and other such political statements. It’s got me thinking about an idea I had ages ago to try and come up with a social setup that could be successful at encouraging everyone to do their fair share.

To try and reason out how this could be done, I thought up a fictitious room. In it, a group of people would be standing on a treadmill. They would run on the treadmill and thereby generate power. To keep them going while doing this work, food and drink would be given to them at regular intervals while they ran on the treadmill. This, in a very simple way, could represent a society. People work together to generate output and receive sustenance in return. Read More...

Lycra louts and trouser suits

Here's a personal favourite, resurrected from the pre WordPress crash days. Enjoy!

One phrase that has puzzled me in recent years is ‘lycra louts’. It is used regularly and with a fair amount of emotion but I really don't know why. I can understand ‘lager louts’ since drinking lots of lager can make the best of us into anti-social idiots. But why do people demonise cyclists wearing clothing that reduces chafing? If anything, you’d think it would be the opposite way around. The cyclists without the lycra would be the menace. If I cycled for four hours in damp underwear that had been rubbing itself against my sensitive areas with all the delicate softness of a cheese grater, I would scream and shout if someone got in my way. But it’s the opposite. Read More...