Saturday, 31 March 2012

The World of the future (as predicted in the 1960s)

And Mr Chalmondely-Warner's and Mr Grayson's version:



Here's something I did for the last QI Annual (H). QI writer Justin Pollard had the great idea of doing a 'What if?' style feature about the building of Stonehenge as a flat-pack item (there is a smidgin of truth to this idea - see here). He passed the idea on to me and I got together with QI supremo and all-round comedy genius John Lloyd and we created a little story involving wizards and giants and an explanation for the current state of the monument. So here it is:

If you reproduce this anywhere, please give us the appropriate credit. The official citation is:

Originally published in the QI ‘H’ Annual, the ‘Henj’ infographic was written and designed by Justin PollardStevyn Colgan and John Lloyd. Reproduced with the kind permission of QI Limited

Friday, 30 March 2012

The pursuit of crappyness - Revisited

Why is bad funny?

It just is.

As I've said in a number of previous posts, I am an avid collector of bad films, bad poetry, bad music and bad everything else. My study/studio is crammed with horrible pottery and ornaments found in charity shops. My iTunes directory is stuffed full of Mrs Miller, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, William Hung and Florence Foster Jenkins. I even managed recently to source the music that used to play behind ceefax on the BBC. I watch awful films like The Navy versus the Night Monsters, Sharktopus, Nude Nuns with Big Guns and the deliciously named Sex Mission. I love to take part in bad poetry readings. In fact, here's me reading what I consider to be the very worst poem ever written - A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials:

I reckon Stephen Pile got it right when he wrote:

'Success is overrated. Everyone craves it despite daily proof that Man's real genius lies in quite the opposite direction. Incompetence is what we are good at: it is the quality that marks us off from animals and we should learn to revere it.'

Pile started a club called The Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain to celebrate cruddiness but was then sacked from the President's post because his Book of Heroic Failures was such a big success.

If you want to read my previous posts on the joy of being crappy do read here (where you'll find a link to the late great Kenny Everett's Bottom 30 radio shows), here or here. Meanwhile, here are some of the worst album covers I've ever seen. You can see more here and here. Aren't they wonderful? Crappy is the new Cool.


My Pussy Belongs To Daddy

My lips are for blowing

Monday, 26 March 2012

What's Luck got to do with it?

I'll be doing another talk for Skeptics in the Pub on Wednesday 28th March at The Bootlegger in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire at 8pm. I'll be telling you all about 2006 - the very odd year in which I set out to see if there is a way to prove or disprove the existence of Luck. It took me the whole year to gather enough results to form any kind of a theory and I found myself doing very strange things in the name of 'science':

If that doesn't draw you in (and, let's face it, it probably won't), then I could mention that The Bootlegger always has a good selection of gravity-fed real ales from the nearby Rebellion Brewery in Marlow and OVER 100 bottled beers from all around the world. Plus, it's right opposite High Wycombe train station (Chiltern Railways) and just 40mins from Marylebone! And there will be a great crowd there from the Wycombe SITP group.

That's it. Sales pitch over.

A holistic supernatural review

I don't often write reviews because I generally don't read reviews. I like to watch/read/hear something and make up my own mind. It's always seemed to me that professional reviewers - and I know a few as friends - are just people with informed opinions and, therefore, their view is no more valid than my own. Admittedly, some of them have made films and TV and written books themselves and, certainly, they've built up a large mental storehouse for comparison purposes. But, when it comes down to it, films, TV, books, art etc. are 'good' or 'bad' depending on the individual viewer's perception. Almost every review I've seen of the John Carter movie has been negative and yet everyone I know who's seen it thoroughly enjoyed it. So who to believe? In just the same way that I can't say that a Gaugin is better than a Manet, I can't say that Coronation Street is better than Eastenders. Both have merits and demerits; all that I am entitled to say is which ones I like and which I don't.

Which brings me to two shows that have just finished their runs: Being Human series 4 and Dirk Gently series 1. This is not a review per se - more a flurry of observations about why both shows didn't quite work for me this year. In essence, the problem I had with both is that they seemed to have lost their essential qualities. Let me explain ...

When Being Human began, I thought it was one of the most interesting and original ideas for a comedy drama that I'd seen in years. A group of supernaturals - a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost - find each other and end up sharing a house while attempting to fit into human society. It's an inspired set up for a TV series. I met the show's creator, the very affable and talented Toby Whithouse (see my interview here), during the filming of series 2 and we talked about where the show could go. Obviously, he couldn't reveal too much but he said that he was looking forward to exploring as many facets of human behaviour as possible; to use his characters to challenge the concept of what it is to be human. There would be temptation, envy, lust, joy. He would write about the angst that parents suffer about bringing a child into a world where that child will always be under threat; whether to fall in love with someone who is immortal and who will watch you grow old and die; how to live alongside people who fear and hate what you are; how to be human. That is, after all, the name of the series and what distinguishes it from all of the other supernatural series on TV. Which is why, with series 4, I was disappointed by the sudden change to 'end-of-the-world vampire armageddon' story arc.

I will state categorically here that the change of cast was not an issue - the new people have slotted in beautifully and are every bit as entertaining and likeable as Annie, Mitchell and George were. It's the plot that I had trouble with. The War Child. The over-exposed Mark Gatiss 'Old One' character Mr Snow. Time travelling ghosts. In just eight short episodes it's stopped being about 'being human' and has turned into every other supernatural TV show/film from True Blood to Daybreak to Blade to Ultraviolet (the excellent TV series and the unrelated Mila Jovovich film). There were hints of this plot-line in the show's pilot back in 2008 where the original Mitchell (played by Guy Flanagan) was told by the original Herrick (Adrian Lester) that the vampire takeover is coming and to choose sides. That whole plot device was dropped for the revamped (sorry) pilot and series 1 and the show was all the better for it. Now, it seems, the vampire takeover plot has returned, for me, it's a big step backwards. I really don't want to see it drown in the sea of predictable supernatural cliches, especially when there is so much that can yet be done with the characters. Incidentally, the US Being Human is very good. It's taken a different path to the UK show but I love the ideas they are exploring there, such as their 'Annie' - Sally Malik - becoming addicted to possessing human bodies so that she can have a physical relationship. That's closer to what I think Being Human should be about than the UK show currently is. It was Being Human's originality that made it so wonderful and made me love it. I hope it gets back to that with series 5.

And then there's Dirk Gently ... which seems to have done exactly the opposite to Being Human. While Being Human has got too fantastic, Dirk Gently isn't fantastic enough. This is a show that demands big world-changing themes ... but it falls flat. Stephen Mangan is perfect in the role; he is Dirk. He's exactly how I always imagined the character to be and the always excellent Darren Boyd is great as sidekick Richard MacDuff. Yes, I know MacDuff's character is fundamentally different from the book but changes always have to be made when converting a book to a film or TV. They are different media and what works in one doesn't necessarily work in another. However, that isn't my beef.

Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently books are a showcase for the author's extraordinary gift for invention. The first book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, featured a time-travelling Cambridge Don (who, as many of you know I'm sure, was a recycled character from Douglas's aborted Doctor Who story Shada), an electric monk that believes things for you, a ghost desperately trying to get a message to his sister, an alien spaceship at the dawn of time that is responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, an impossible sofa and a very funny horse. We also get to see the effects on the history of poetry when Dirk becomes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Man from Porlock'. It's a work of genius. The second book, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, had Norse gods destroying airports, jet fighters turning into eagles and giant green-eyed, scythe weilding monsters rampaging about killing music executives. Even Adams's unfinished The Salmon of Doubt - which may or may not have been a new Dirk Gently novel - has the main character(s) travelling (in Douglas's words) '... through the nasal membranes of a rhinoceros, to a distant future dominated by estate agents and heavily armed kangaroos.'

So why, then, is the TV series so damned mundane?

The essence of Dirk is there with his unorthodox methods of working and his obsession with the interconnectedness of things. But where is the vision, the inventiveness, the fantasy, the sheer lunacy of Douglas Adams? Dirk should be saving the world by accident while looking for a lost cat, not solving everyday murders. Now, I do realise that budget comes into the picture. I also realise that the show will draw inevitable comparisons with Doctor Who and Sherlock. But, if that's the case, why bother making it? I know that seems a little harsh but if something won't work properly on TV then why do it? I would personally draw a parallel here to two recent radio series that have transferred to TV - Bleak Expectations and Dave Gorman's Genius. Both worked brilliantly on radio as 'radio has all the best pictures'; a lot was left to the imagination of the listener. In Bleak Expectations, writer Mark Evans could do whatever he liked. Anthony Head's character -Mr Gently Benevolent - was killed, came back as a ghost and possessed a pigeon, was then killed again and resurrected as a Frankenstein's monster-type creature and then later orchestrated an abortive Martian invasion. However, when the show moved to TV, Evans created a new, albeit very similar, show called The Bleak Little Shop of Stuff and it lacked all of the sparkling originality and madness of the radio show. It was just a Dickens spoof. And Dave Gorman's excellent radio series Genius, in which the British public come up with fantastic ideas and inventions, it was easy to simulate the Isle of Wight being made more symmetrical or a giant spike on a steering wheel instead of seatbelts to ensure people drove more carefully. The move to TV wasn't unsuccessful but a lack of budget - radio shows cost a fraction of the cost of TV shows - and a rubbish time slot meant that the BBC killed it after just two series.

That's how I feel about Dirk Gently. If you can't afford to do it properly then why bother doing it? Writing in the Metro newspaper, Keith Watson said, 'There was no disguising the fact that Dirk Gently was a five-star script being filmed on a one-star budget, making it look like a designer label knockoff when set against the production values lavished on Sherlock.' As I said at the start, I don't always agree with critics and rarely read them, but Watson has hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. Howard Overman - the chap who gave us the excellent Misfits - is the chap behind the TV version of Dirk. He's a very, very good writer and what he's given us is very, very good TV writing ... but it just isn't Dirk Gently. It's Dirk Gently Lite. I want full fat, outrageously fattening, over-the-top Dirk Gently because that's what Dirk Gently is all about. Instead we have something that looks like a slightly bizarre crop of episodes of Morse or Midsomer Murders.

Despite everything I've written here, I watched all of the series I've mentioned and enjoyed them. There were some great performances, brilliant writing and many classic TV moments. I will be tuning in to the new series when they happen. But I hope, in the meantime, that Being Human and Dirk Gently return to the roots that made them such phenomena in the first place. I fear that if they don't, they'll lose that originality and spark that made us all go 'Wow!' I also hope that Bleak Expectations and Genius return to the radio where they both belong and are both quite brilliant.

But then again, this is just my opinion and, therefore, it carries no more weight than yours. You may disagree with everything I've said.

Which is how it should be.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The other paintings in the set ... so far

These other two paintings I did last year involving children's book or TV characters thrown into unlikely scenarios. here we see Piglet as Conan the Barbarian and Major Clanger as John Connor, defending his world from the machines.

Am now working on a Captain Pugwash/Moby Dick mash-up and a portrait of Jabba the Hutt ... as Bagpuss. Watch this space for updates ...

Friday, 23 March 2012

New painting - Lord of the Rainbows

Here's the new picture I've been doing this past week. I like the idea of taking cosy children's book characters or beloved TV puppets and mashing them up with movies. What next I wonder ... Bagpuss as Jabba the Hutt? I was part inspired by some of my previous paintings but also by some doodles I saw a while back by the ever-excellent Warwick Johnson Cadwell, particularly his Rod, Jane and Freddy (and Freddy). I featured his Rainbow doodles on my old blog here.

This is quite a large painting for me being some 4 feet by 3 feet in size. The canvas began life as something quite different, however. It's always bugged me that I cannot get a likeness and, therefore, have never been able to do portraits. So I figured I'd have one last go at it and decided on a self-portrait. Here's how it went. In a word ... badly:

And so, last Sunday, after a last ditch failed attempt to fix it, I gave up. Out came the big brush and the dark lands of Mordor started to emerge from the canvas ...

The fun part is always imagining the shock on people's faces if, in the future, they ever X-ray the painting to reveal the crappy portrait beneath. But it won't be half the shock they'd get if they X-rayed this one I did last year ... 

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Anty Matters

Some great photographs by Andrey Pavlov of ants doing un-anty things. The full collection can be seen here:

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Of course you don't get f****ing wafers with it!

I hope this is real and not a viral. Wired magazine seems to think it's real and, if you click on the link, Jarno Smeets - the inventor and pilot - tells you all about it. Apparently, it's all based on the wing design of the albatross.

If it is, it opens a whole exciting new world of personal fitness, commuting and thrill-seeking.

I've always been fascinated by technology that borrows from Nature; let's face it, evolution has a 4 billion year head start on us when it comes to good design. For example, if you haven't seen them before, check out Theo Jansen's Strandbeests. I blogged about them here and provided a link to his TED talk. Meanwhile, his website (with lots of videos) is here. Here's just one:

And just recently, DARPA released video of their prototype Cheetah running robot. It's an extraordinary piece of kit:

While I'm always wary of any technology developed primarily for the defence industries, there is some interesting work being done in the area of leg-based transport. Visit DARPA here.

And, hopefully, some of you got the Monty Python reference.

Pluck me!

I love good design. I love ingenuity and ever-so-slightly-mad inventiveness. And I love technology that looks beautiful. So I love this alarm clock by Jamie McMahon.

Isn't it glorious? I could cope being woken by this. And it's tunable! Here's a short movie to give you some idea:

Monday, 19 March 2012

Just add ink

Beautiful photographs of ink dropped into water by Alberto Seveso. You can see more of his A Due Colori set here:

New Underwater Ink Photographs by Alberto Seveso photography ink

New Underwater Ink Photographs by Alberto Seveso photography ink

New Underwater Ink Photographs by Alberto Seveso photography ink

New Underwater Ink Photographs by Alberto Seveso photography ink

New Underwater Ink Photographs by Alberto Seveso photography ink

Friday, 16 March 2012

My new 2nd coolest thing I own

Having made contact with the NPL last week and discovering that I could get my hands on an electron tree/ Lichtenberg pattern ...

It's a thing of beauty. Still not quite good enough to beat Bone 37 though - still my Number One. You don't know about Bone 37? Then read all about it here on my old blog. It involves what is possibly the most famous dinosaur skeleton in the world ...

Maths numpty requires help

I'm not very good with numbers. I never was. I failed my maths O Level and, to quote a very old joke, I can just about count to 21 if I'm naked.

Saying that, I can do the basic stuff; the adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing. And I can work out fractions and percentages. But anything beyond that is a world of confusion and befuddlement for me. Which is why, when trying to work something out today, my brain got all hornswoggled. Here's my problem:

There are 36 possible combinations of numbers when you throw two dice:

1+1, 1+2, 1+3, 1+4, 1+5, 1+6
2+1, 2+2, 2+3, 2+4, 2+5, 2+6
3+1,3+2, 3+3, 3+4, 3+5, 3+6
4+1, 4+2, 4+3, 4+4, 4+5, 4+6
5+1, 5+2, 5+3, 5+4, 5+5, 5+6
6+1, 6+2, 6+3, 6+4, 6+5, 6+6

Mathematically, these are all different results because Dice A and Dice B could both land in one of six positions so there are 6x6 possible outcomes = 36. However, if we look at it purely from the point of view of someone playing dice, then there are only 21 numerical outcomes as 5+2 is the same as 2+5 to a gambler;

1+1, 1+2, 1+3, 1+4, 1+5, 1+6
2+2, 2+3, 2+4, 2+5, 2+6
3+3, 3+4, 3+5, 3+6
4+4, 4+5, 4+6
5+5, 5+6

So, if I wanted to throw a Seven, there are six possible mathematical possibilities:


But if I were a gambler at a casino, 1+6 would be the same as 6+1 as I wouldn't need to worry about which die showed which number as long as the total of both added up to seven. Therefore, there would be just three ways to throw a seven. So here's my question:

Mathematically, if there are six possible ways to get a seven with two dice and there are 36 possible combinations, then I have a 1:6 chance of throwing a seven.

But if I am a gambler in a casino and there are 21 possible combinations of two dice and just three ways of getting a seven, I have a 1:7 chance of throwing a seven.

Why aren't they the same odds?

It's always risky putting up a post like this and showing people just how dim I really am. But I'm never afraid to say 'I don't know' and I'm always willing to learn. So can anyone explain it to me please? Short sentences preferably. Brain. Hurty.

Postscript: Thanks to some very clear explanation by people replying to my blog and my heartfelt plea on Twitter I now understand the difference between mathematical probability and a gambler's odds. It's all a matter of doing the right sums.

It's reminded me of that old puzzle where three people go out for a meal with £10 each. The meal comes to £25 so the waiter puts £25 in the till, pockets £2 and gives £1 change back to each of the three diners. By asking each diner how much their evening has cost them (£9 each) and adding it to the £2 in the waiter's pocket we get a total of £29 and the question 'Where's the missing £1'. But it's based on a false sum just as the 1:7 chances of a gambler getting a seven is based on a false sum. The truth is that there is £25 in the till, £2 in the waiter's pocket and £3 between the diners.

Maths is so cool. I just wish my brain was wired up for it.

Same event, different perspectives

Yesterday's Wasabi Fire Alarm demonstration has been reported by several people who were there. Here's how Tom Whipple of The Times reported it:

Fire alarm that sets your lungs burning as well

Tom Whipple at the receiving end of the fire alarm that uses Japanese wasabi

There are, I suppose, things to be grateful for. First, that I was testing a wasabi-based fire alarm, rather than a rotten eggs or smelly socks fire alarm. Both were tried as prototypes. Second, that inhaling a fine aerosol of Japanese horseradish is considerably better than being burnt alive.

But neither of those thoughts occurred as the fiery spray hit my nose, made its way down my windpipe and entered my lungs. Doubled up, coughing and crying a little, my main thought was: “This is a very silly way to save people from fire.”

On that, however, I was wrong. The wasabi fire alarm is the winner of this year’s Ig Nobel award, awarded for discoveries that “first make you laugh, then make you think”.

Makoto Imai, the Japanese co-inventor, has installed a working model in the Science Museum in London and is taking it on a nationwide tour to coincide with British Science Week. In doing so he is demonstrating a solution to a deadly serious problem: how do you wake deaf people in a fire? “By delivering a stinging sensation to your mucus,” answered Professor Imai.

The Ig Nobels were created by the American writer Marc Abrahams in 1991 as a way of rewarding scientific research that happens to be funny.

Special commendations this year went to a study investigating contagious yawning in tortoises and another testing how decision-making is affected by the need to urinate.

In past years, Britain has done particularly well in the awards. “Japan and the UK are the only countries I know of where, if you’re eccentric, people are proud of you,” Mr Abrahams said. “In other countries, they want you to go away."

The wasabi fire alarm will be demonstrated at the Ig Nobel roadshow, which is in Edinburgh tonight, and tomorrow visits the University of Dundee, where Ben Wilson, a Scottish marine biologist and Ig Nobel laureate, will give a talk on his studies into communication in herrings via the medium of farts.

And there's a great write-up by Faraz Mainul Alam on his always entertaining Memoirs of a Defective Brain blog. He also provided me with this video:

Wasabi ... but, thankfully, no waaaaffer thin mint

Another fascinating day today starting at the Science Museum in London where I met up with Marc Abrahams - the brains behind the Ig Nobel Prizes - microbiologist Faraz Mainul Alam and Roger Highfield, author, broadcaster and former editor of New Scientist magazine and now the museum's head of PR.

We were there to meet inventors (and Ig Nobel winners) Makoto Imai and Hideaki Goto who had travelled over from Japan to meet various people and to present an example of their Wasabi Fire Alarm to the museum. Their research into 'what smells will wake you up' led to the discovery that a potent aerosol made from the pungent Japanese horseradish will irritate the mucus membranes to such a degree that you have no choice but to wake up. The practical application of this is a fire alarm for the deaf.

Here we see Hideaki Goto and Makoto Imai with their alarm, and Roger Highfield and the museum's Content Developer Jessica Bradford. It was also great to get a tour of the museum with Roger and see some of the newest acquisitions including one of the capsules used to free the trapped Chilean miners in 2010. Stephenson's Rocket, Model T Fords and moon rock ... what's not to like?

From the museum we went on to a couple of photo ops at a Wasabi chain restaurant and at Knightsbridge Fire Station where Tom Whipple, science writer for The Times, foolishly asked for a demonstration of the wasabi spray's potency ...

Then it was on to the Paramount for lunch and a meeting with one of my all-time heroes, Monty Python's Terry Jones. The restaurant is on the 32nd floor of Centrepoint - that huge tower block at the junction of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road - and, even in the muggy sunshine, the views were breathtaking. Rather like the wasabi spray in fact.

Myself with Terry and Marc. The wine had just started to flow.

Another good day. And some great content for a new book I'm working on.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Chew before swallowing

An amazing fossil find from Eichstätt, a town in southern Germany, now described by Eberhard Frey and Helmut Tischlinger of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe.


150 million years ago, a winged pterosaur called Rhamphorhynchus swooped low over sea to ctach a fish near the surface of a Jurassic ocean. But then a much larger fish - Aspidorhynchus - grabbed the pterosaur and pulled it under the waves. A fish within a pterosaur within a fish. Amazing.

Source: Frey, E. and Tischlinger, H. (2012) The Late Jurassic Pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus, a Frequent Victim of the Ganoid Fish Aspidorhynchus? PLoS ONE 7(3): e31945. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031945

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Wizard of Waltham Forest ... in a pub in Camden

The Wizard of Waltham Forest and Other Unlikely Stories from Stevyn Colgan on Vimeo.

My talk from 20th February at the Monarch, Camden, for Skeptics in the Pub. Critical thinking and smarter ways to tackle crime and disorder. Audio recorded by James O'Malley of The Pod Delusion. Slides by me.

Running time: Approx. 45 mins.

A better use for The Shard?

The future of urban farming is under construction in Sweden as agricultural design firm Plantagon works to bring a 12-year-old vision to life: The city of Linköping will soon be home to a 17-story "vertical greenhouse."

The greenhouse will serve as a regenerating food bank, tackling urban sprawl while making the city self-sufficient. Plantagon predicts that growing these plants in the city will make food production less costly both for the environment and for consumers, a key shift as the world's population grows increasingly urban—80 percent of the world's residents will live in cities by 2050, the United Nations estimates. "Essentially, as urban sprawl and lack of land will demand solutions for how to grow industrial volumes in the middle of the city, solutions on this problem have to focus on high yield per ground area used, lack of water, energy, and air to house carbon dioxide," Plantagon CEO Hans Hassle says.

The greenhouse is a conical glass building that uses an internal "transportation helix" to carry potted vegetables around on conveyors. As plants travel around the helix, they rotate for maximum sun exposure. Hassle says the building will use less energy than a traditional greenhouse, take advantage of "spillage heat" energy companies cannot sell, digest waste to produce biogas and plant fertilizers, and decrease carbon dioxide emissions while eliminating the environmental costs of long-distance transportation. And growing plants in a controlled environment will decrease the amount of water, energy, and pesticides needed.
The greenhouse, which will open in late 2013, is already serving as a model for other cities—Plantagon hopes to install the transportation helix technology in regular office buildings around the world, eliminating the need to build entirely new structures. The tallest models even have a name: Plantascrapers.

Check out Plantagon's YouTube Channel for more great videos of their designs.

Source: Julie Ma at Good Environment