Category Archives: Science

A naked woman is surrounded and a child reveals the secret of immortality

Copstick Fleming - Photoshop by Fred Fletch

After a week or a couple of weeks of flu (it is difficult to know exactly) everything has returned to normal for me.

Probably.

Possibly.

Well, actually, I am not too sure.

My Grouchy Club co-host – comedy critic Kate Copstick – posted on her Facebook page: “I had a strange dream about John Fleming last night. He had a head of hair like Boris Johnson and we won a trophy which was made of glass and I filled it with water and it fell over and shattered … thoughts ?

One Fred Fletch visualised the concept (above) and I think caught the essential me.

Meanwhile, Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, kept me up-to-date with happenings in our North American Dominion. She sent me an email headed: NAKED FEMALE FOOT FOUND IN SHOP.

“It was attached,” Anna added rather disappointingly, “to a naked woman… A customer walked into a Wind (mobile phone sales company) shop in downtown Vancouver and spotted a naked woman’s foot on the floor sticking out from behind a counter. She called the police who sealed the Robson Street shop and, on further investigation, they found two men with the naked woman.”

Vancouver Naked Woman story

In Vancouver, armed police surrounded a naked woman…

Sergeant Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police said that, when his men arrived, they found the door locked but spotted a naked woman and a clothed man walking around inside. Neither of the individuals, he said, were co-operative and they refused to open the door for police.

The good sergeant said negotiators and an emergency response team were then brought in and officers were stationed outside the store’s front door, with guns drawn, while more officers were located in the alley by the building’s back entrance with rams, ready to force a rear entry.

Fortunately, after about an hour, the two men opened a back door of the building and they were arrested. Police then asked the woman to come out of the building, but she was “reluctant”. After some time, police were able to enter the building and escorted the naked woman out wrapped in a white sheet.

Why the police were wrapped in a white sheet remains unclear to me.

“She was unco-operative,” said Sgt Montague, “but she also appeared to be under the influence (of drugs) at this time.”

“As you know, John,” Anna further added – a little mystifyingly – in her e-mail, “this was an unusual case, as most of the feet found on this coast are neither alive, naked or female.”

Which brings me to Philosophy.

A couple of days ago, I went to Hay-on-Wye in Wales with musical comic Ariane Sherine, a woman for whom the term ‘multi-talented’ seems an extreme understatement.

Ariane Sherine in The Spectator

Ariane Sherine sniffed for The Spectator…

That morning, The Spectator had published a piece commissioned by them from her and, on the train from London to Hereford, a magazine asked her to do another piece for them within the next week which she sent to them within two hours. They were suitably impressed.

Ariane is an education. We were in Hay-on-Wye because she had been invited to be a panellist in the big opening debate of the 11-day How The Light Gets In “philosophy and music” festival.

I had never before heard the phrase “God of the Gaps” – in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence. She brought it up in the debate, which was titled The Weird and The Wonderful and discussed how, in Europe, belief in organised religion continues to decline as science advances; yet, strangely, interest in everything from ley lines to solstice rituals is increasing.

But it is not just Ariane who is an education. So is her 5-year daughter, whom I occasionally look after when Ariane is at gigs. I am now an expert on My Little Pony and the land of Equestria. But, more relevantly, I also watched an episode of cartoon series The Octonauts with her. It was about jellyfish.

The Octonauts

The Octonauts revealed the possible secret of eternal life…

As part of this particular episode, the Octonaut team was fascinated by an adult jellyfish which spontaneously turned into a baby jellyfish when (in this case) a sea turtle was chasing it… No wonder they were fucking fascinated!

It was said to be an ‘immortal jellyfish’ because, when it gets old, it can revert to being a baby again and thus, indeed, is immortal.

I was so amazed by this concept in the middle of a children’s programme filled with what appeared to be legitimate educational jellyfish information, that I looked up Wikipedia (always a place to check if something is true!)

I was astonished to find that there really IS an immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) which can, indeed, continue to live by reverting to an earlier stage of its existence and by repeating this process can continue indefinitely.

The immortal jellyfish

Immortal jellyfish may be fast taking over the human world…

According to Wikipedia, the immortal jellyfish is believed to have originated in the Pacific Ocean, “but has spread all over the world through trans-Arctic migrations… Turritopsis is believed to be spreading across the world as ships are discharging ballast water in ports. Since the species is immortal, the number of individuals could be rising fast. We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion, said Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute scientist Dr Maria Miglietta.”

Apart from the risk of our entire world being over-run by a rapidly-increasing population of immortal jellyfish, why is this not an ongoing major news story on the immortality and medical fronts? The billionaire bosses of the Silicon Valley cyber companies all seem to be turning their ageing eyes to slowing down or stopping the ageing process. Is there already some Google Jellyfish program in existence that I am unaware of?

Or am I still delirious from the flu?

Or has surreality become the new reality?

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Science

Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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Filed under Children, Movies, Politics, Puppets, Science, Science fiction, Television

Edinburgh Fringe: culture, crowds and bodily fluids plus British eccentricity

Bob Boyton at Scots book launch

After I eventually prised myself out of the clutches of sleep yesterday morning (I refer you to my previous blog), I ended up at the Scottish book launch of former stand-up comedian Bob Boyton’s novel Bomber Jackson Does Some, an extraordinary piece of work about which I’ve blogged before.

“I hope that one of the things I’ve covered in this book,” said Bob, “is the experience of being skint, which is often not reflected in literary fiction, although it’s almost always reflected in crime fiction. I think if there was a genre called ‘social realism’ any more, that’s probably where I’d place this book.”

I had no sooner left the cultural oasis of the Word Power Books shop, than I got brought back to earth with a bang by news from comedian Chris Dangerfield, whose Sex Tourist show is sponsored by a local Edinburgh escort agency.

A man fainted at the very thought of Chris Dangerfield’s show

“A man fainted halfway through my gig last night,” he told me, “just as I said This next bit is a tad gross – the joke being that the whole show had been a bit bleak up to that point. The story I almost told is actually about ‘a multiple bodily fluids accident’ but I had not even got into the details when this punter spasmed a little and fell off his chair. Commotion ensued, I quickly got help and he was revived with lots of fanning and lying down, which took about five minutes. He was then taken off and I continued with my show, making a point of getting everyone to agree what a rude and insensitive thing it was for him to do during my fantastic show, which still ended very well.

The queue for Chris Dangerfield’s comedy show at The Hive

“I’ve been turning people away every night due to too many people,” Chris continued.

Normally, I would treat any comedian telling me that with a gigantic pinch of salt, but I had seen his queues the previous day.

“I’ve had more than one management/agent,” Chris claimed, “ask me to recommend their paid shows at the end of my free show. I wonder if they would do the same for me?”

Phil Kay’s show, unbilled in the Fringe Programme, got ’em in

Chris Dangerfield’s show is on at the Hive, which is also where Phil Kay’s unbilled show has been running (it finished last night).

I failed to get in to see the show on its penultimate night, because it was so crowded by the time I arrived. Even Bob Slayer failed to get into the room that night – and he was staging the show!

“I rammed people in standing,” Bob told me, “then managed to sell four more tickets to sit in the sound booth. I called them ‘box seats’ and charged double.”

As for Bob’s own show Bob Slayer – He’s a Very Naughty Boy – well, he is not the sort of man who keeps to a pre-prepared script. So it came as no surprise when he told me: “I managed to get halfway through it today – the furthest I’ve managed by a long shot. Tomorrow I am going to start at the point I finished off today, as it’s an especially good bit.”

Ever the consummate professional, he added: “I am giddy with drink. Next week the real fun starts, though. Shall we burn down things?”

In Tim’s audience last night was Nicholas Parsons

Then I was off to see Tim FitzHigham’s Pleasance show Stop The Pigeon which, I guess, falls halfway between culture and anarchic English eccentricity. In his introduction, Tim said: “Other people just do shows. I get an idea and follow it through with the relentless commitment of a cartoon character.”

That pretty much sums him up.

You cannot not like Tim’s enthusiasm. His show is a romp and his facts near impossible to believe, even though they are all true. This year, it was about another unlikely adventurous bet he took on, this one involving pigeons, a very large cannon and a trampoline. But he also managed to admirably mention in passing the sadly-no-longer-with-us 18th century Farting Club of Cripplegate “whose avowed intention was to meet up once a week to poison the local atmosphere and, with their noisy crepitations, attempt to out-fart one another.

“But ask yourself who,” said Tim, “would want to live in the building next door to the Farting Club of Cripplegate? Let me tell you – this is true – the No Nose Club for gentlemen who had lost their noses in an heroical fashion.”

Tim, father to be, surprised by NHS

After the show, Tim told me he is to become a father again in October and he knows it will be a boy despite the fact the NHS is now barred from telling potential parents the sex of their future child.

“Well, that’s the explanation they gave to me, anyway,” said Tim. “The story goes that some woman – allegedly in Chelsea – was told the sex of her unborn child and decorated the nursery in either blue or pink – she spent an absolute fortune – and it turned out to be the wrong one so she sued the hospital for the cost of the nursery. As a result, the NHS are not allowed to tell you the sex of your unborn baby but, when they hovered the thing over my wife, my future son waved his dangly bits to the camera. So we do know.”

Tim was a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee last year and now (no connection, alas) has an up-coming ten-part TV series for CBBC.

“It’s tramsmitted in January,” he told me. “It’s called Superhumans and I fly all over the world meeting people with biological or genetic quirks which mean they can do extraordinarily weird stuff that the rest of us can’t do.

“So, for example, I flew to Iceland to meet a man who can withstand extreme cold. For some reason he is able to consciously control the hypothalamus in his brain.

“The hypothalamus regulates core body temperature and he can literally tell his core body temperature to go up and no-one’s quite sure how he’s doing it. So I challenged him to three challenges to try and prove how superhuman he is – or not. Because, if I can beat him, then the implication is he’s faking it.”

“Does this come under the heading of science?” I asked.

“It comes under the heading of a lot of fun,” said Tim.

And so does Tim.

When I woke up this morning, there was an e-mail from Bob Slayer sent at 3.03am. It simply said:

“Phil Kay was last seen in the Jazz Bar, killing time before his 5.00am flight back to civilisation, juggling chairs.”

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White people? You can’t tell them apart

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

One mantra for racists in Britain used to be:

“They all look the same to me.”

In 1986, I was in a group of people who went to North Korea. The local guide kept getting me muddled-up with another member of the group. We were all white Westerners and he had difficulty telling our faces apart. We all looked the same to him. It was particularly odd in this case because I had a beard and the guy he kept muddling me with had no beard. But he genuinely had trouble telling our faces apart.

So it was interesting at a Royal Institution lecture last night to hear Professor Bruce Hood say:

“Everything you experience is an illusion. There is a real world out there but everything you experience about that world is constructed by your brain.

“Babies up to the age of about one year can easily tell the difference between human faces, but they can also tell the difference between primates. Adults find these sorts of faces very difficult to tell the difference between because, as we experience faces, we get more clued-into them. and we store in our brains a representation – a model – of what a face looks like.”

To demonstrate this, Bruce Hood showed pictures of two similar-looking human faces and two monkeys’ faces. It was easy to tell the two men apart instantly. But we had to search visually to see that the monkeys’ faces were different.

According to Bruce Hood, after about ten months, babies retain the capacity to differentiate between human faces they see but lose the capacity to differentiate between primates’ faces.

Presumably this is because they see lots of different human faces but very few monkeys’ faces and the brain realises it will have to store more nuances of human faces because there will be more interaction with them.

The reason I mentioned being in North Korea is because that country is very isolated. North Koreans see very few Western European faces in the flesh. So, from my very unscientific experience in 1986, I suspect a lot of, if not all, North Koreans think “all Western Europeans look the same ”.

I presume that, the more multi-ethnic a country becomes, the less the sentence “They all look the same to me” is heard.

But what I find interesting is that, when I see primary school aged children in the street, they are starting to all look the same to me.

And policemen.

I think I am getting old.

Or people are slowly being replaced by clones.

Both options are equally worrying.

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Filed under Psychology, Racism, Science

In a brave new changing world, there is a season for killing Russian journalists

I was always crap at science in school. I used to regularly be bottom of the class in Chemistry. I once came next-to-bottom and the Chemistry master wrote on my report: “A fair attempt”. Shortly afterwards, he emigrated to New Zealand. This is absolutely true.

I was almost as bad at Physics, which I found excruciatingly dull. It was all facts and no ideas. Only much later did someone point out to me that, until relatively recently across the centuries, Physics and Philosophy were much the same thing, because Physics sets out to explain how the world works. If my Physics master at school had ‘sold’ the subject to me as that, I might have been interested.

When I was a kid, I used to think science and the Arts/showbiz were totally separate because the sort of people involved in one had a mindset totally different from the sort of people involved in the other.

Now the two have overlapped at the edges, with former D Ream keyboard-player Brian Cox (who ironically received a D grade for A-Level Mathematics) presenting serious BBC TV  science shows because he is a respected particle physicist with a professorship and is working on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I am going to the Royal Institution tonight, to see their Ghost of Christmas Lectures Past event which features not just scientific authors like Simon Singh but comedians including Robin Ince, Helen Keen and Helen Arney.

Which becomes relevant because, earlier this week, I was talking to Damian Counsell, one-time biomedical scientist who now builds websites (one of them for Helen Arney) and who, in another incarnation, is singer with sophisticated soul and blues band Covered.

He also built the website which Index on Censorship uses for its online news and commentary and has, more recently, been building a site for the International Federation of Journalists to store information which field workers have collected about “media conflicts” in Russia.

It includes a database of Russian journalists who have been threatened, attacked, or killed in “suspicious circumstances”.

Within the database, there are nearly 700 names of journalists – yup, that’s 700 journalists – whose lives have been threatened, including many whose lives have ended “prematurely” – these names go back to several years after the Soviet Union gave way to an allegedly less oppressive Russia.

“Of course,” Damian told me, “these suspicious deaths aren’t all the result of hits by offended members of the Russian mafia or thugs in the pay of corrupt officials.”

He tells me there are other, more mundane causes of violent, non-accidental, deaths among journalists. And apparently there is a season for increased deaths among Russian journalists.

“In winter,” Damian says, “when the weather gets bad and journalists – who are already keen drinkers – sit indoors too long drinking still more vodka, the drunkenness can lead to bloody and fatal pub fights.”

But the main problem, of course, is not pub fights. Ironically, the main problem is increased political freedom in Russia or, at least, the perception of increased freedom.

“When people come out from under the boot of a particularly repressive regime, as the Russians have,” Damian says, “there is often what is called a ‘crisis of impunity’.

“People think they have got immediate freedom of expression. They think that they can criticise the regime and criticise powerful people with no consequences. But, of course, they can’t. So they get threatened or attacked, and, too often, if they don’t get the message, they get killed… So 700 names in a Russian database.

“There are many ways a ‘crisis of impunity’ can emerge,” he says, “and it’s difficult to predict when such a transformation will lead to such a problem and when it won’t.  Mexico does not fit this template, but is a very dangerous place to be a journalist right now. It seems likely that the ‘Arab Spring’ countries will become even more dangerous for journalists, but, oddly – despite relatively high crime rates in general – South Africa is nowhere near being one of the worst places to be a reporter.”

When I was young, scientists were scientists. Comedians were comedians. Boy band singers were boy band singers. And journalists, by and large, did not get shot.

Or it seemed that way.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

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Filed under Comedy, Newspapers, Russia, Science, Writing

Alien lifeforms, empty schools and sexual promiscuity in County Kerry

The people I am staying with on the currently rain-swept Iveragh Peninsula in south west Ireland obviously (despite the weather) have a refrigerator.

On a shelf inside the fridge is a 1,000 kg block of cheese.

On the wrapper are printed the words “EC Aid White Cheese”. The cheese is supplied free to locals by the European Union. You just go along and ask for it and you are given it. No-one knows why, but no-one is going to turn down 1,000 kg of free cheese.

EC Aid is part of the European Community’s Development Programme which stems from the Cotonou Agreement. The central objective of the agreement is “poverty reduction and ultimately its eradication; sustainable development; and progressive integration of 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries into the world economy”. Quite how my two chums living in considerable comfort with two cars and five TV sets in Kerry fit into this no doubt admirable scheme and qualify with all the other locals for 1,000 kg of free cheese, I know not.

But this odd circumstance is, of course, not a solitary example of a wee taste of the bizarre here in Kerry.

The local newspaper The Kerryman (established 1904) carries a headline:

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‘ALIEN’ INVADER WASHED UP ON VENTRY STRAND

PHRONIMAS, deep-sea creatures that inspired the Alien movies because of their practice of burrowing into their victims, were discovered on Ventry Beach last week.

The discovery is believed to be the first time creatures of this kind have been found in Kerry and, according to head aquarist at Dingle Oceanworld Katie O’dwyer:

“Phronimas are a type of amphipod, related to crustaceans, such as crab and lobster and they live in very deep oceanic waters,” she told The Kerryman. “They find a Salp, a type of Tunicate or Sea-squirt, and they carve them out to create a ‘barrel’ which they then live in.

“However, scientific studies have found that the bits of the Salp that are left when the Phronima is living in them, are actually still alive.”

The Phronima still has to swim around but uses the barrel like a little dwelling; as the food and water comes through it.

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The Kerryman’s editorial then rages at:

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BIZARRE SITUATION OF TEACHER IN SCHOOL WITH NO PUPILS

While the east Kerry Scoil Mhuire National School in Clonkeen has no pupils and is due to be shut down in the near future, a ludicrous regulation set down by officials at the Department of Education meant that for the last three months the school’s principal still had report for work every day at a completely empty school.

Since September this teacher, who was willing and waiting to be transferred to another school, was forced to fill his days compiling logs and rolls for a deserted school and wandering the empty classrooms and halls.

That this situation was allowed to continue, and was arguably ignored altogether by officials at the Department of Education, while schools the length and breadth of Kerry cry for additional teachers is nothing short of scandalous.

It’s a damning indictment of the culture of spin that exists and our government and the officials involved in this whole outrageous fiasco should hang their heads in shame.

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and, in even more personal social news, The Kerryman reports:

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KERRY’S LOVE CHEATS IN A RUSH TO LOG ON FOR AFFAIRS

Infidelity is on the rise in Kerry. According to figures published by website ashleymadison.com, which is designed to accommodate people who want to cheat on their partners, there are a huge number of people in Kerry seeking to play away from home.

The site, which was launched in Ireland in 2009, now has 3,692 members in Kerry. This is one of the highest figures in the country outside of the major cities. According to the site about a third of these users are women.

Users of the site, described as attached people by the website, can use it to flirt with other people who are married or in a relationship through online chat services and message boards.

________________

The AshleyMadison site’s slogan is:

LIFE IS SHORT. HAVE AN AFFAIR.

Perhaps my blog yesterday about the “feckin” nuns cavorting on a local beach during their summer holidays was not as odd as I thought.

Life in Kerry is never dull and often unexpected.

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Filed under Education, Ireland, Politics, Science, Sex

In a future of 3D printing and graphene, nothing is safe from becoming outdated

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Nothing is safe from the future.

You know you have lived too long when you see entire technologies come and go.

I realised that when the fax machine became the trendy new piece of life-changing technology and then mostly disappeared, replaced by e-mails and scanners.

I realised that when I first went into a large department store to see notices that they no longer accepted cheques.

When I was a child, there were two dependable professions, neither of which – it seemed – would ever stop.

One was being a watch repairer and the other was working in a bank.

People – it seemed then – would always need to tell the time and would always need to access their cash over-the-counter in a bank.

But then along came electronic watches and now people check the time on their mobile telephones (as well as taking photographs and videos on their phones).

And along came through-the-wall machines in the high street, then internet banking and now the disappearance of banknotes themselves cannot be far off – to be replaced – it seemed a few years ago – by plastic cards although now – it seems – maybe to be replaced by mobile phones which can be used in conjunction with check-out technology.

Newspapers, magazines, books, hold-in-your-hand recordings of music – all are destined for a future dustbin not too far away.

Nothing is safe from the future.

A few weeks ago, on the BBC News channel’s Click programme I saw a report on 3D scanner/printers.

Today you can put a piece of printed paper into a machine and it can be photocopied exactly.

But the technology also now exists to copy in 3D.

You can put a 3D design into a computer as a file and send it to a machine perhaps on the other side of the world which will create the 3D object.

Technology advances quickly.

What can be done in one simple material today will inevitably be possible in other materials in the future. Say plastic.

OK – that can be done already. And there are various videos of 3D printing on YouTube.

There is talk of a “home-use 3D printer” market. People could use 3D printers to ‘print’ spare parts rather than buy then in shops or order them through the post. They could ‘print’ almost anything in 3D. Obviously there are current problems about machine size and keeping enough raw materials in the home for the ‘printing’, but these problems are not insurmountable in a few decades or less.

So, given that a plastic filing tray is quite a simple object which can be made from one supply of plastic, it would be possible to send a design from Sydney in Australia over the internet and a machine in a home in London would create it. Like a photocopy but in 3D.

If you could design an object that could be made entirely from plastic – say a mobile telephone – you could photocopy that in 3D.

Of course, maybe you could not create such a thing entirely from plastic now, but there is – as the joker lurking in the pack – graphene, billed as the new super material which will change the world.

Invented in Britain at the University of Manchester seven years ago, it conducts electricity and heat.

One of its co-inventors, Professor Konstantin Novoselov, says: “Because it is only one atom thick it is quite transparent — there are not many materials that can conduct electricity which are transparent.’

You could stack three million graphene sheets on top of each other and the pile would be one millimetre high. It is claimed graphene could lead to mobile phones you can roll up and put behind your ear. It is tougher than diamond; it is 200 times stronger than steel; it stretches like rubber but, it is claimed, a sheet of graphene as thin as clingfilm could support the weight of an elephant.

I wonder what military implications this has. A tank built of graphene using the new stealth technology design which merges it invisibly, chameleon-like, into the background? – The realisation of an ‘invisibility cloak’ on an impenetrable vehicle harder than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel?

But it is not too far-fetched to imagine a 3D printer which could print out a new computer, mobile phone or TV set in your living room. Or a new umbrella or hammer or self-assembly coffee table.

The knock-on effect would be startling.

There would be little need for the transportation of parts to factories.

A car could be assembled by a car maker by printing out the parts sent over the internet by the designers of the parts. Indeed, there would be no need to ‘assemble’ a car. You could print it out in a factory on a large machine from a single design file held on a computer anywhere in the world.

The need for road haulage would be decimated – indeed, vast swathes of air, rail and sea transportation would become unnecessary.

And, ultimately, most shops would become unnecessary. If you can transmit inanimate objects and print them out at home, you do not need to transport and retail the items in shops.

People would presumably still require food stores, but not stationers, bookshops (which are already out-dated), DIY stores, electrical shops, toy shops, most shops. Perhaps even clothes stores might become outdated because, in time, it would be possible to print out fabric clothes at home (and adjust the sizes to perfectly fit you).

Yes, there is a problem about homes having machines of a large enough size and storing materials with which to print large objects but, in the 1960s, computers filled entire rooms and had to be tended by many technicians. Now we hold them in the palm of our hand. And they talk to you.

I remember a time before iPhones could speak to you.

Nothing is safe from the future.

And no-one.

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