‘I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it’.
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).Read More...
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.”
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:Read More...
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'?
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
"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."
“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.
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.
Top five markers for calculating evilness in Lord of the Rings
Number 5: Pipe smoking, beer drinking and general food quality
Always a good acid test. If a character smokes a pipe, they’re good. They may not be health-conscious but they’re pure in heart. Likewise with food. Evil people are incapable of appreciating quality food and will make food and drink that tastes awful; the logic of this is beyond me.
Number 4: Height
The taller a character is, the nobler they are. Elves are taller and nobler than men who are taller and nobler than orcs and goblins. There’s never any doubt in the film that Boromir will be the man that succumbs to the temptations of the Ring as he’s under six foot tall.
Number 3: Skin colour
The darker someone’s skin, the more evil they are. Elves are almost white, men are tanned and goblins and orcs are somewhere around dark grey or brown. The Haradrim and Southerners who side with Sauron are indubitably dark-skinned and even have curved swords to mark themselves as from a sub-tropical climate. It’s a wonder they turned up at all. Surely it would have been more sensible for them to stay to the South and let the Northerners get on with their in-fighting? It’s not as if Sauron would head south at any point, as major characters in fantasy sagas never leave the map.
Number 2: Attractiveness
The more attractive you are, the more noble and courageous you are. This is common to all American movies and TV programmes, and so it’s pretty much taken as a default, but it’s still worth mentioning. Even among hobbits, the most attractive character gets to be the hero.
Number 1: Dental hygiene
Yes, it sounds silly, but after much studying of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, I’ve realised that dental hygiene is absolutely the number one marker for evil-ness. Height may seem the most reliable choice at first glance, but it can lead you astray. Dwarves and hobbits are short but good and mountain trolls are tall but evil, thereby undermining Height’s usefulness. Attractiveness suffers the same problems. Gandalf isn’t exactly male model material - his nose is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle’s front bonnet - but he’s clearly super-good. Skin colour can be even more deceptive as an evilness marker, Elves are very pale and extremely noble but Gollum and Wormtongue are practically translucent and they’re both steeped in betrayal, avarice and in the latter’s case, aspirations to marry a taller woman. Clearly, skin colour reaches a ‘stay in the shade’ cut off point. Quite how the cave-dwelling dwarves avoided a problem that transformed Gollum is beyond me. Maybe they made it a rule to install full-spectrum lamps in their Grand Halls? It’s hard to say.
Dental hygiene is the absolutely rock-solid, reliable marker of goodness in ‘the Lord of the Rings' films. The worse a character’s teeth are, the more evil they are; it’s as simple as that. Note Saruman’s teeth in the film. It is astonishing that Gandalf didn’t spot Saruman’s corrupted heart sooner as it's blindingly obvious when we first see Saruman in Orthanc that he hasn't flossed in decades. Mithrandir, you berk, look at the man’s gum line, he's clearly succumbed to the forces of darkness!
Orcs’ appalling dental work can easily be overshadowed by their cataract-ridden eyes, unattractive noses and tendency to laugh inappropriately but their mouthparts are still very much their main fault. As a counter-example, Dwarves, though short and of middling attractiveness, have lovely teeth, indicating that even if you do dwell underground and have excessive body hair, you can still be a good person.
Some readers may point out that the evilness of orcs, goblins and trolls in the story is confirmed by their acts, but this probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Most of the hordes of orcs etc in the story seem to be acting under the mental influence of evil human wizards, which could easily get them acquitted on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Also, did you notice the look on the troll’s face in Balin’s tomb? The creature deserved sympathy, not hate, although I probably wouldn’t hug him. It isn’t a big step to conclude that the entire Lord of the Rings saga is a grudge match between wizards with every other race working as their mind-addled pawns.
There is also the problem in Lord of the Rings that many of the allegedly good characters in the story are able to kill large numbers of sentient creatures without any indications of emotional concern. This is not a good indicator of character and is closely associated with psychopathic tendencies. Possessing a ready willingness to stick sharp metal into someone else’s vital organs is not a good thing. Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, a man may be forced to do such a thing but he really should be affected emotionally by what he has done, whereas Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli seem to enter the battlefields of Middle Earth like jaded pest exterminators. For Pity’s sake, guys, the enemy might have halitosis and B.O. you could kill flies with, but they’re still clothed, sentient bipeds!
Was this weird view of personal character just a cinematic flaw? Did Tolkien personally have this attitude? Was this strain - or more accurately stain - of shallow racism in his book an accidental side-effect of a parochial upbringing or was it plain white-supremacy? I don’t know. The evidence is mixed. Maybe the best thing is to focus on the elements in the story that do show some humanity, for example:
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
Candy Crush has become an instant, unstoppable juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon. Since its introduction two years ago, the game has become the focus of obsessive analysis and sordid confessions. Journalists have openly declared themselves addicts, with more than a few admitting they have paid extravagant sums to play. They played on the train, at work, at weddings, while driving and during bathroom breaks (according to one anonymous web confessor, when she finally got off the toilet after 4 hours of play, her legs collapsed beneath her).
The ability of certain games to eat people has reached disturbing levels around the world. A recent BBC Storyville programme entitled 'Web Junkies - China's addicted teens' documented teenage Chinese men who have been placed into a detoxing camp by their parents to try to end their compulsive gaming addictions. These young men were playing immersive on-line action games in cyber-cafes for hours every day, in some cases all through the night. Watching the programme is both a fascinating and saddening experience.
1) 80 Days is an iPad game in which the player travels around the world as fast as they can in order to try and get back to London in 80 days or less, just as Phileas Fogg tried to do in 'Around the world in 80 days'. '80 days' has a wonderful visual style, mixing late victorian empire and steampunk and is cleverly balanced. It gives the player many different possible routes to take around the world. Players need to plan ahead, buying and selling items on the way that can either help them on their journeys or increase their wealth so that they can take more expensive but quicker forms of transport. Eventually, you learn enough about the routes to travel around the world within the time limit and often with a lot more money than you started, but that's okay because reaching that goal was lots of fun. As you can see from the image below, the artwork is excellent too.
2) Rymdkapsel means 'space capsule'. In this game, your job in this game is to develop a space station by moving resources around using your little rectangle people. Periodically, arrow things visit the space station and fire at your rectangle people. You need to protect your rectangle people against these attacks, but balance that protection with developing the station. I really enjoyed the sparse beauty of the station and the challenge of putting the place together while fending off the arrow threats. Again, like '80 days', the game comes to a natural end in that there is a main goal and once you achieve it, you're done.
3) Monument Valley is a puzzle game where you move a princess around perspective-defying buildings inspired by the works of M.C.Escher. The game has been flawlessly executed with an enjoyable score, elegantly simply controls and the visual fun of manoeuvering around impossible architecture. The game only has ten levels and you'll probably complete the whole game in a few hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
All three of these games, for me, are like a wonderful meal. You sit down with them and you look at them and you know that they've been lovingly made by people who are highly skilled and dedicated to producing something with mouthwatering contents, visual appeal and happy satisfaction. You tuck into them and enjoy the sensations, the feelings but you know that the experience won't last. After a few hours, it'll be finished and you'll have to get up, step away from the table and get on with your life but that's okay because you spent those few hours in happy enjoyment.
In that way, I think these games, the games that we eat, enrich our lives. They're short games that end, which means there are gaps between them, but this leaves room for anticipation, which can be more exciting than actually playing the game or eating the meal. Speaking of which, Wired magazine says that new levels of Monument Valley will be out soon. Yum yum! :-)
“It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.”
“It seems to me that for a person to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
For the last ten years, I’ve been an avid fan of the Tour de France. The drama of the event is intoxicating. Crashes, feuding, courage, bravery, loyalty, tears, blood, joy and every other possible emotion and calamity pepper its days like a television drama gone ballistic. If it isn’t a rider being catapulted into barbed wire by a side-swiping television car, who then finishes the stage, it’s a rider trying to finish the tour with a broken hip. If it isn’t a rider in tears of sadness because he has to retire, it’s a rider in tears of joy because he’s finally won that most coveted of professional victories, a stage in the Tour. Grown men weep and sport wounds that wouldn't be allowed on Casualty. Men fight, sweat and receive odd cuddly toys while standing on very impractical shoes. The Tour is a mesmeric spectacle.
The first name on the graph is of particular interest; Greg LeMond.
Greg LeMond was not only a brilliant professional cyclist but can be regarded as a benchmark for the kind of career an exceptional clean athlete can have. Exceptional bike riders have to be blessed with an exceptional cardiovascular system. As Greg himself freely admits, his genes gave him a wonderful opportunity to compete for the greatest cycling prizes. Someone with such exceptional natural abilities will shine as soon as they start cycling in earnest and LeMond was just that kind of rider. He was a phenomenon from his very earliest years in the sport, as described in this interview. He has one of the highest recorded VO2 Max levels (93) in history, which is an indicator of cardiovascular performance. He was coached by one of the all-time greats of cycling, Cyrille Guimard, and had access to the latest technology, and yet his Watts/kg value looks positively mediocre on the above graph of champions’ performances. It is only in 1999, when the Festina affair erupted and the French police were raiding pro-team's hotels that the performances drop back to something close to LeMond’s level when he won his last Tour de France.
I took two important pieces of information from this graph; one, that EPO gives riders a massive advantage and two, that a human athlete is highly unlikely to be able to significantly improve LeMond performance value of around 5.7 W/kg on a late eighties bike.
My next step was to check how much bike technology improvements since the late eighties could improve a cyclist's performance. The first useful fact was that UCI has restricted bicycle design in competitions, stopping major improvements in efficiency. Secondly, the bikes in the eighties weren’t that bad. They were made of quality steel and equipped with just as many gears as current bikes, making them only marginally inferior to today’s products.
I estimated how much changes to bicycles have improved performance by looking at a modern professional’s performance and comparing. I used Philip Deignan. Philip is a top-level cyclist riding for the Sky Team (Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins’ team). Sky have helpfully published his performance figures at the 2014 Vuelta here. According to a report I found on the web, Philip has a recorded VO2-Max of about 87, an impressive figure only six points or 6.5% lower than Greg LeMond's. According to Sky’s performance report, the maximum W/kg output Philip produced at the Vuelta in a 20 minute spell was 5.42 W/kg.
I now used that data to compare his ability on a bike in 2014 with Greg's in 1989. I could assume that a top-level pro on a 2014 bike with a VO2 Max of 87 produces a maximum power output in a multi-stage race of 5.42 W/kg; that's a ratio of 0.0623. Greg's ratio, 93 divided by 5.7, is 0.0613. Philip's ratio is therefore only a tiny increase on Greg's at 1.6%. The calculations showed, in a very rough way, that bikes haven't improved riders' performances much at all in 25 years. The two factors of weight and cardiovascular ability are still far and away the main issues for performance.
Knowing this, I decided it was safe to conclude that in any major stage race, the riders can’t naturally produce more than 5.8 W/kg or, being super-optimistic, 5.9 W/kg during a twenty-minute-or-so stretch. Performances over that range would indicate that the rider had somehow developed a body that went beyond all recorded limits. Not only that, but such a rider would have won everything from their very first pedal stroke and already be regarded as the greatest bike rider ever to have existed in time and space in this part of the universe. They’d probably finish each race by taking a small drink, waving to their fans and floating away on a magic cloud to their hotel.
With this very useful fact stuffed in my waistband, I inspected the performance of key riders in recent Grand Tour events. In this new era of clean cycling, with the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs well behind us, I could feel confident and assured that the cyclists zipping by on my goggle-box would have a power-to-weight value from about 5.2 w/kg to, in the case of an utterly amazing clean rider - 5.9 w/kg. Philip Deignan is definitely in that range, what about the rest of the Grand Tour peleton?
This is when a chill went down my spine...
This article on Cycling Tips website gives a very useful analysis of the performances of the major riders in this year’s Tour de France (2014), which Nibali won. The table at the bottom of the article is of particular interest. Here's my version of it below, with snappy colour coding of the values. Green is credible, brown is worrying and red indicates ability to levitate:
The numbers were very scary. In an attempt to calm my growing fears, I remembered that the graph of Tour successes in the nineties was stating overall averages on the Tour, so perhaps only the last column of this table was relevant. It was possible that the first results on ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’ might have been distorted because the climb was too short. Then again, ‘Risoul’ might also have been too short and ‘Port de Bales’ as well. Nuts, I thought, perhaps the Tour is much shorter than people think and it only looks long through the TV coverage, like some kind of lensing effect? Perhaps Dr Michele Ferrari’s formula (used in the graph) is wrong? No, wait a minute, I remembered, Dr Michele Ferrari is the notorious sports doctor that allegedly masterminded Lance Armstrong’s training and his medicinal supplemental product regime. Michele does seem to know what he’s doing, whatever he’s doing.
I remembered something else. Any professional rider on a three-week tour will produce their highest output in the early stages of the race. After that, the relentless miles, crashes, heat, rain and the labrador dogs wanting to sniff his front wheel while he cycles past at forty miles an hour will take their toll. His power diminishes as his blood wearies of the constant cardiovascular effort. It’s only when he gives his body a sizeable break to recover that he can function at full power again. This is an unavoidable effect and can only be stopped or reversed by drugs or an actual blood transfusion, which are both banned… and yet Vincenzo Nibali produced 6.09 W/kg on the Hautacam on Stage 18!
Could this be true? My thoughts drifted back to watching Nibali during a mountain stage of the Tour when I noticed that he didn't seem to be bothering to breathe. He behaved more like he was sitting on a sofa, rather than charging up a mountain. At one point, he seemed to be half-heartedly pretending to be breathing heavily on that punishing climb. Why would he do that? Riders are known to mask their exhaustion so as to prevent the opposition knowing that they’re fading but his hammy, brief pants were… well, pants. Surely, faced with top level opposition trying to out-climb him on a daunting mountain road, he’d actually have to breath heavily?
I’ve had personal experience of cycling at my limit up a mountain and I’ve got to say, the only conversation I was capable of making was grunting noises. If there had been a Neanderthal or a three-month-old baby at the other end of the mike, I’d have been all right, but otherwise, I might as well have been gargling my news. Human beings need to breathe heavily when cycling up a mountain.
Swallowing down a surge of terror, I wondered how long this strangeness had been going on. I looked back at last year's Tour in 2013. Had things been normal then or had something sinister already taken hold?
I read this fascinating article on the Outside Online website where experts examine Chris Froome’s performance when he completed the AX3 Domaines climb on Stage 8 of the 2013 Tour de France. He did the famous climb in 23 minutes 14 seconds which is the third fastest ever time on that climb and, most importantly, it beat times recorded when key members of the peleton were doped up to the eyeballs with EPO. Here's the list:
1. Laiseka 22:57, 2001
2. Armstrong 22:59, 2001
3. Froome 23:14, 2013
4. Ulrich 23:17, 2003
5. Zubeldia 23:19, 2003
6. Ulrich 23:22, 2001
7. Armstrong 23:24, 2003
8. Vinokourov 23:34, 2003
9. Basso 23:36, 2003
10. Armstrong 23:40, 2005
22. Porte 24:05, 2013
34. Valverde 24:22, 2013
Froome's time was faster than Jan Ullrich’s time in 2003. This was astonishing. Ullrich was described by Tyler Hamilton in his book ‘The Secret Race’ as one of the most impressive cyclists he’d ever encountered. Lance Armstrong admitted that Ullrich was the only other rider he feared. Ullrich eventually fell from grace after being found to have taken a shedload of performance enhancing drugs but in his prime, he was seen as a godzilla of a competitor... and Froome beat his best time. I wanted to look away, to shield my gaze from this awful truth, but I had to look. Chris Froome had beaten Jan 'my blood's like iron gravy' Ullrich’s best time going up AX3 Domaines and he produced 6.37 w/kg during that 23 minute climb. By comparison, Richie Porte's time of 24:05 seemed like an excellent clean time but not surprisingly, languished down in twenty-second place.
Here’s a quote from the article:
“Based on the proposed power curve in ‘Not Normal?’, the work of Antoine Vayer, a French journalist and former trainer for the infamous Festina cycling team, 6.37 w/kg for the 23 minute effort puts Froome well into the "miraculous" level of human physiology. This is a level of performance not seen in the Tour de France before the introduction of EPO. It is a level of performance that has all but disappeared following Operation Puerto and the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport.”
"His first two climbs are done at 320 and 322 watts and the final ride is 360 watts. This means on the final climb his power to weight ratio is 5.2W/kg. Those figures are where you expect that rider to be. If you compare Nibali to the other riders when they have been climbing, his figures are comparable. They're all ballpark, similar figures. None of those would stick out as spurious."
Run, Brad! Run Richie! Get out while you can!!!!!
The amazing Blackstone came to town when I was seven, and I saw how he came alive onstage and thought, God, I want to grow up to be like that! And I ran up to help him vanish an elephant. To this day I don’t know where the elephant went. One moment it was there, the next — abracadabra — with a wave of the wand it was gone! In 1929 Buck Rogers came into the world, and on that day in October a single panel of Buck Rogers comic strip hurled me into the future. I never came back.
It was only natural when I was twelve that I decided to become a writer and laid out a huge roll of butcher paper to begin scribbling an endless tale that scrolled right on up to Now, never guessing that the butcher paper would run forever.
Snoopy has written me on many occasions from his miniature typewriter, asking me to explain what happened to me in the great blizzard of rejection slips of 1935. Then there was the snowstorm of rejection slips in ’37 and ’38 and an even worse winter snowstorm of rejections when I was twenty-one and twenty-two. That almost tells it, doesn’t it, that starting when I was fifteen I began to send short stories to magazines like Esquire, and they, very promptly, sent them back two days before they got them! I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn. Then, during the late forties, I actually began to sell short stories and accomplished some sort of deliverance from snowstorms in my fourth decade. But even today, my latest books of short stories contain at least seven stories that were rejected by every magazine in the United States and also in Sweden! So, dear Snoopy, take heart from this. The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
They even have house-martens! :-)
The problem of pain, in its simplest form was the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that "God" wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we'd have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in "either goodness, or power, or both."
This year, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees is heading a ten million pound prize fund to help solve big problems that we face today. It is a project with a big media profile, organised by the Nesta charity. Here's five of the big questions they are hoping to answer:
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Don't they sound great? If we could use our cleverness and innovation and work really hard, we could answer those questions and help mankind.
But wait a second, this doesn't make sense, because we already know the answers to those questions. The problem seems to be that nobody likes the answers we already have. Before wondering why that is, let's look at the history of the Longitude Prize...
The original Longitude Prize was set up in 1714 by the British Admiralty to find an accurate tool for navigation over the open oceans. The lack of such a tool was causing great loss of life for British sailors. Without an accurate way to measure how far around the planet you were (as compared to how far up and down) it was easy for ships to lose track of their position and crash into rocks with tragic results. To stop this happening, the British Admiralty set up a huge prize of ten thousand pounds for someone to develop a tool for calculation longitude accurately. Famously, Harrison rose to this challenge and developed a timepiece (Harrison No4) that met the requirements of the competition. His watch was an engineering masterpiece and met the competition's requirements. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Admiralty weren't keen to hand over the money. In fact, they avoided paying out for years. Eventually, with royal support, Harrison received at least some of the prize money he so richly deserved.
The original Longitude story is a fascinating one. It was a historical and memorable competition and made perfect sense. Harrison's clock was one of the best ever pioneer's tools, helping people who were at the mercy of a dominant natural world. Climate change hadn't really kicked in at that time and Humanity at that time were still explorers, having little impact on their environment (relatively). Longitude was an admiral prize (literally!) to solve a genuine and sincere problem where mankind was at the mercy of the natural world…
But that's not the case now! The situation has completely changed in the last century. We're not pioneers in a forest any more, lost in its vastness, fearful of its grandeur and power. Instead, mankind's current relationship with the natural world is more like a crowd partying around a solitary small tree, swinging from its weak branches and pissing up against its trunk. We don't need a discovery to help us avoid the dangers of the natural world. The natural world needs a discovery to help it avoid the dangers of us!
The Longitude Prize should be awarding a prize to stop people being people. We need is a competition that will award a prize for people NOT manufacturing products, NOT having more babies, NOT taking loads of antibiotics,or NOT using vast amounts of water.
Instead, the current Longitude award wants a new invention that makes all our problems of excess go away, without us changing our behaviour, which is like developing healthier doughnuts for gluttons. They'll just eat more of them, you berks! Humanity is a spoilt rich kid who's told he can't have any more doughnuts because they'll make him ill. He's not happy with that and he offers ten million pounds to anyone who can create magical doughnuts that you can eat as many times as you like and never get ill. This new challenge isn't daring science, it's Willy Wonka.
Let's look again at the Longitude Prize questions in this light, with the knowledge that a) man and nature are now akin to a drunken party debauching around a small and feeble tree… and b) that humanity is acting like a spoilt brat.
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
Yeah, I want clean WATER for everybody, forever! No, you can't. Climate change is up and running and water resources are already shrinking fast. Projections made by governments and NGO's unanimously agree that water supplies will soon become so acute that wars will break out over control of what's left. To stop this, we need to urgently stop climate change by low-carbon lifestyles and a serious reduction in population. Only by doing that will we reduce the human impact on the planet and preserve our fresh water. We therefore need to stop burning fossil fuels and stop having babies. What, no sex or cars? Rubbish!!
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
Yeah, I want ANTIBIOTICS that will work forever! We can't if every time someone feels a bit snuffly, their doctor gives them antibiotics. We need to stop using antibiotics like they're paracetamol tablets. If we don't, common infections like gonorrhoea will becomes life-or-death events. What, no drugs when I want them, whatever my ailment? Rubbish!!
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
Yeah, I want to be mentally and physically healthy for the entire rest of my life and never get DEMENTIA! A lot of scientific evidence shows that eating less sugar, less animal protein, taking short fasts, exercising more and avoiding alcohol and tobacco can hugely improve a person's cognitive state in later life. This is a scientifically supported way to reduce the risks of dementia. What, I can't eat and drink what I like as much as I like, while sitting in my car? Rubbish!!
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
Yeah, I want everyone to have great FOOD forever! This is the same as the water question. Even if anyone comes up with a new super-wheat to increase yield, with no population control measures in place, the population will simply shoot up, stressing the environment further. Climate change is accelerating and that surge in population would only make climate change effects worse. There is one way to improve the diet of people; eating less meat in the developed world, as the rearing of livestock takes far more resources from the land than simply raising vegetables and grains. What, no steaks? Rubbish!!
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Yeah, I want to FLY around the world as much as I like! Air travel is a very energy-intensive activity. You cannot ferry large numbers of people through the sky without consuming huge amounts of fuel. For example, the fuel cost of taking one six-hour flight is equivalent to running a 1Kw bar fire continually for a year. The only way to reduce the environmental impact of flying is to do it less. Since much of modern air-travel is non-essential and climate change is a major threat, reducing all air travel to essential-flights-only would reduce climate change without major social damage. What, I can't fly to Brazil for the weekend? Absolute Total Killjoy RUBBISH!!!… OW! Did you just slap me?!
Cycle helmets; they're everywhere now. Almost everyone on the roads who's decked out in lycra and/or high-visibility clothing is wearing one of these turtle skeletons. At first glance, it makes perfect sense; you're safer wearing one that not wearing one and every cyclist in their right mind should wear one. This straightforward view is backed up by a Department of Transport study [that] found that cycle helmets worn correctly could prevent an estimated 10-16 per cent of fatalities.' Simple, eh?
But if helmets are that important, why aren't pedestrians wearing them? In my experience, I've had just as many close shaves while crossing the road than I have while cycling on it. The pedestrian crossing near my house, for example, is an absolute death-trap. If one side of the traffic stops for you on that crossing, DO NOT CROSS ALL THE WAY! YOU WILL DIE! You must cross half way and then stick your head out. From there, you can get a grandstand, front row seat view of the cars coming around the corner and travelling past you at high speed in the other direction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that you're an upright, bipedal bag of blood wrapped in some skin who's standing on some stripes, trying to get to the supermarket. Eventually, one of them stops or possibly screeches to a halt and you finally cross.
It's not just me. Here's a stat from a BBC website article:
Motorbikes win easily, but pedestrians aren't far behind bicycles. You think cycling is dangerous? It is! But only a third more dangerous than crossing the road!
There's another factor with the whole 'cyclist in a helmet' plan. It's called human psychology.
When it became compulsory for people to wear seat-belts in cars in Britain, this clear benefit was somewhat undermined because, on average, motorists drove faster if they wore seat-belts because they felt safer with them on. If you dress someone up like Robocop, they will try to smash through walls because they feel invulnerable. They won't say 'oh, that wall looks like it's got breeze-blocks and my Robo-suit is only tested on Victorian Brick. I'd better leave it be.' They'll have a go because they've got hydraulic arms and kevlar! You could call this the Titanic Problem; if the person in charge thinks they're very secure, they take bigger risks. We're also rubbish at accurately assessing what our technology can do for us; we just haven't evolved enough. We're like frogs who try to mate with plastic bottles. It looks good, it feels good, it must be okay!
Putting amphibians shagging polymers aside for a moment, there's yet another factor in wearing a helmet while cycling that undermines the safety benefit.
A fascinating cycling study found that when a cyclist wore a helmet, motorists gave them less room because the motorist unconsciously viewed the cyclist as being better protected. 'Oh, look, she's got a bird's nest on her head! I can cut her up without a care in the world now because the top of her head is protected by little weaves of high-impact plastic.' I have personally noted this problem while cycling with a helmet. Bizarrely, the most effective apparel I've found for warding off the attention of cars is a flapping jacket. They give you loads of room if you're wearing one; it's some sort of force field. This odd, as it means that drivers are like horses. Then again, drivers give horses loads of room too, rather than driving up close to them and shouting that they should get off the road and leave it to those who pay road-tax. Perhaps they feel kinship with them?
Human psychology therefore seriously undermines that 10% physical benefit while wearing a helmet. You might be a little better protected but your likelihood of being crushed like a bug has significantly gone up after putting it on. By comparison, pedestrians - who get killed almost as much as cyclists - only need to put them on when crossing the road. Why don't they carry one for their protection? Why are they being so irresponsible over their own safety?
Pedestrians, WEAR A HELMET WHEN YOU CROSS THE ROAD!
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.’
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?Read More...
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’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!Read More...
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.Read More...
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.