Sunday, 31 March 2013

Underground Design

Harry Beck's London Tube Map is one of the greatest pieces of graphic design of the 20th century. First created in 1931, it makes travel around the underground railway system so much simpler. Here's a pre-Beck map from 1908:

This gorgeous London Underground map from 1908.

Of course, many of the lines we now know hadn't been built back then. Here's the first Beck map:

Or this attractive 1933 version.

It's interesting to consider what we might have had instead. For example, here's what the map would have looked like if geographically accurate:

And the tube map as it would look if it was actually accurate.

And here's a lovely orbital version by Maxwell J Roberts:

A circular tube map.

There are some more fascinating (and humorous) variants at Buzzfeed.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

On Ancient Seas ...

I've just been for today's dog walk. It's still muddy as hell in places, the wind was bitterly cold, and there are still little pockets of snow in the shade but the dogs enjoyed it. Tiny Wookie Dog was wrapped up warm in her coat and Farty Dog just spends the whole time running anyway. The sun even came out for a while.

I walked over several grass fields spotting the ubiqitous red kites and wood pigeons but also a few wagtails and a green woodpecker. The next field belongs to a farm and has just been ploughed over leaving hundreds of chalk and flint nodules all over the surface.

I like to wander around looking for fossils. Wherever there's chalk there were once oceans as chalk is made from the decayed calcium of seashells. And, sure enough, I found a small piece of chalk bearing the imprint of something like a scallop. Sadly it was a bit crumbly and not really worth keeping. But it is proof positive that this area of Buckinghamshire was once, in antiquity, part of a warm, shallow sea that was teeming with life. Last year I found a fossil sea urchin in flint.

That's actually not my fossil - I gave mine to a local museum. But this one was found in nearby Great Missenden (about four miles away) by Stuart King. It's almost identical to mine although mine is a bit more brown.

They're not an uncommon find around here. I'm on the edge of the Kimmeridge Clay deposit; a vast band of Jurassic sedimentary marine clay that stretches from Dorset to East Anglia. But the fact that it's a common find doesn't make it any less special. When I kicked it out of the loose soil and wiped it clean, I was suddenly aware that I am the first human being ever to see this particular animal; that my eyes are the first to have seen it since it died something like 65 million years ago. Isn't that an extraordinary thought.

It also makes me once again wonder at the sheer blinkered ignorance (in the true sense of the word) of the evolution-bashing lobby. How can they dispute such solid evidence?

Friday, 29 March 2013

Mr Pretentious

Every so often some comedy gold turns up in the reviews section of Amazon, like the wine-tasting style reviews that you find under various brands of Methylated Spirits:

'The swally of choice for the most discerning of pallets is now available in bargain bucket style five litre flaggon. Gossamer of the Gods, with a purple tinge so alluring, one glance would make the artist formerly known as Prince artex the gusset of his silken dung hampers. With the addition of this new bulk pack, catering for all of the family's Barrettine needs is a sinch. I keep a couple of the old faithful 250ml bottles that I can now re-fill from this reservior of happiness and pop into the bairn's school lunch boxes every morning, whilst a recycled CapriSun pouch can be secreted inside of one's lollypop man's uniform with ease.'

'As with many things in the culinary world, public opinion of meths has been overly influenced by meth snobs, who will tell the less confident newcomers to this area, that unless it's Rustins or Barrettines, it's not worth drinking. But do not listen to them! Whilst undoubtedly the aforementioned companies have paved the way with their classic blends, the market is now larger, with many new companies (including this plucky up-and-comer from Poland) creating some perfectly acceptable, and on occasion spectacular, tipples. This particular vintage is the latter; it's heady bouquet is reflected with an initial wash of industrial cleaner flavours, with dark berry overtones, which then gives way to a refreshingly light and crisp citrus finish. Innovative barreling techniques have allowed Favorit to create this smashing concoction, which is tipped as an early favourite for my drink of the year (and at a recession beating £3.95 a litre. If you intend to match with food, then you will need to choose something that lives up the the complexity of its flavours, such as week old floor kebab, or half eaten rain-marinated bin wotsits, though I think it is best enjoyed on its own, so as not to take anything away from what is truly a magnificent liquor.'

But my new favourites are the pseudo-intellectual litarary reviews of the late Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men books by one 'Hamilton Richardson'. Wonderful stuff.

Get yourself over there and just search on any of the Mr Men books that you remember. You won't be disappointed.

Found by The Poke.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Cosmos - New video by Emperor Yes

Okay, here's the brilliant video for my good chums' Emperor Yes's new single Cosmos.

I love this tune. And, as anyone who knows me will attest, I spent most of the Autumn last year wandering around singing 'cu-ree-uuuuuuuuuuuusssss' to myself. The reason is that when Dan Schreiber and I were busy writing the Museum of Curiosity: The Live Heist show last year for the Natural History Museum, we did a lot of the work at House of Strange Studios in Docklands (it's also, incidentally, where I'll be recording the audiobook of Constable Colgan's Connectoscope soon).

HoS is run by Ash Gardner, Dan's best mate and lead singer of Emperor Yes. So, while we were upstairs agonising about whether to include Chan's Megastick or the Dracula Fish in our script, Ash, Hugo and Adam were downstairs rehearsing what would become Cosmos.

Incidentally, Dan does make a little cameo at the end of the video ... and was the unfortunate victim of the evil Wasps in their last video. Great fun.

This post is in 3D (Unless you have one eye)

You and I are luckier than most of the animal kingdom because we have stereo binocular vision. Our two eyes see the same thing from two slightly different viewpoints (parallax) which, when overlaid and sorted out by the brain, creates depth of field and distance.

For as long as photography and film have existed, people have been trying to achieve the same effect for entertainment purposes. In 1838, Charles Wheatstone invented an item called the Reflecting Mirror Stereoscope which consisted of a pair of mirrors placed in front of the eyes and angled at 45 degrees towards a pair of drawings of an object viewed at different angles. The effect was a very rudimentary version of 3D, but it is the same basic idea still used today. Wheatstone then asked photography pioneer William Fox-Talbot to provide him with appropriate Talbotypes. The trick was to take the photos from the same distance, with the same focus, but with a horizontal difference equal to that of the human eyes.

Parallax in action: Sit back and cross your eyes so the images overlap. Voila! 3D!
And a headache, probably. Image of comet Wild 2 (c) NASA 

Stereoview cards, using the new technology were available by 1852 and, within 10 years, the London Stereographic Company alone had sold more than a million. Indeed V Jenkins, a photography historian, says that the viewers were as popular in post civil-war America as televisions are today. By far the most popular subjects for stereographic cards were portraits and landscapes, though other genres included comics, disasters and, of course, erotica. The 3D peep-show cabinet was patented in 1857 in America, and would consist of a chronological set of stereoscopic cards attached to an endless belt turned by hand. It's not hard to see the progression that takes us from this to Piranha 3DD, 150-odd years later.

The first moving 3D images were shown using the Bioscope, invented by Parisian Optician Jules Dubosq. But the first person to display these stereoscopic moving images for a paying public was Emile Reynauld, another Parisian. He was the owner of the 'Theatre Optique' but his catchily named Stereoscopic Binocular Praxinoscope caused him no end of financial problems,and he ended up throwing the whole thing into the Seine. The popularity of stereographic images was such that when movies began to be made it seemed obvious that they would be soon shown in 3D.

In 1901, a Charles Francis Jenkins filed a patent for a system of creating 3D movies which is basically the same as that which is used today differing only in the fact that rather than red-green or polarised specs, he would have mechanical glasses that shut each eye off alternately. It seems that he never built his machine. Rumours abound that Hollywood is close to glasses-free 3D but, actually, it did exist in 1940s Russia. Moscow's Stereokino theatre used an ingenious structure of 30,000 evenly spaced copper wires on which the movie was projected forming a kind of 'perspective grill'. The problem was that you needed to sit in a very specific position to get the effect (limiting the available seats) and not move; even the slightest movement of the head meant a constant wriggle to get back to the right point. The theatre ran for 18 years though.

Stereo anaglyph of the same comet, also by NASA. You'll need those funny specs though.

Although today's polarised system of 3D was invented back in 1895 by British physicist John Anderton, it was the different-coloured lens system that first had its day.  The anaglyph (red-green) system was first used for feature films in 1922 for 'The Power of Love'. However, the breakout movie for 3-D was 1924's 'Plastigrams' which had no storyline, it just involved vignettes such as a baseball being thrown into the audience and a hose being pointed at the camera. One of the brains behind this work of moving picture brilliance, Jacob Leventhal, also invented the bouncing-ball thing that you see on karaoke machines. For one movie, Leventhal took the ingenious move of having two endings, one happy and one sad, which could be viewed individually through either the red or green lens. From that point on, 3D was here to stay.

That said, it does tend to come in waves. We had actor and magician Andy Nyman as a guest on the most recent series of The Museum of Curiosity and he's a big fan of historical 3D gimmickry. His theory is that the great 3D eras all correspond with perceived threats to the cinema; in the 1950s it was the arrival of TV, in the 70s it was video and, here in the present day, it's the Internet and digital piracy. Here are some interesting facts to consider:

The 1953 3D movie 'The French Line', starring a buxom Jane Russell was advertised with the tag line 'She'll knock BOTH your eyes out!'.

'House of Wax' was the first 3D movie to feature stereo sound. Its director, André de Toth wasn't able to enjoy the 3D effect as he only had one eye.

The most profitable 3D movie ever (by cost to takings ratio) was 'The Stewardesses'. This 1969 movie cost just $100,000 to make but made $27 million thanks to its promise to 'leap from the screen onto your lap

Like it or loathe it, 3D cinema is here to stay. Critic and film historian Mark Kermode has commented that there's been such a huge investment in recent years that Hollywood can't go back now.

So why all this talk of 3D? It's because I, like Andy, also have a love of gimmicky 3D. But my particular love is the View-Master.

Some of my collection. I have more ... lots more. And no life, apparently.
The old and the new. My Model B (1944-47) and my Model O (2000-present).

I have quite a collection now including a Model B (1944-47), a Model C (1946-1955), Model E (1955-1961), a Model F - which had a built in light source (1959-1966), Model G (1956-1977), Model J (1975-1994) plus a couple of novelty models from the 1990s. But it isn't the viewers that are the stars of the show here - it's the View-Master reels that they show that I love.

Extraordinarily, despite the View-Master being in constant production since 1939 until the present (and made by a number of companies including Sawyer's, GAF, VMI, Mattel, Ideal, Tyco, Fisher-Price) the reels have never changed spec. You can use the same reels in any model of View-Master viewer - how many other technologies can claim that?

This is why I have a fascination with View-Masters; they are a form of social history. The 'travelogue' reels take you all over the world, but also through time. I have reels showing London in the 1960s, New York in the 1940s and Berlin in the post-war 1950s. I have reels of events such as Elizabeth II's Coronation, the marriage of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly and the Moon landings - all in glorious 3D. I also have reels that reflect popular culture, TV and films in particular. Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, Thunderbirds, Batman (Adam West) and The Flintstones all look great in three dimensions. It also brings children's books to life: I have Aesop's Fables, and many nursery rhymes and fairy stories. Reflecting the time it was made, I also have an adaptation of Helen Bannerman's 'Little Black Sambo' - something you'd be hard pushed to find today.

I'm reliably informed that there is such a thing as View-Master pornography. However, I've never found any. The closest I have is a Brighton-based swimsuit contest from 1970 and a 'glamour girls' reel of topless 3D black and white lovelies from the 1950s. You can also have bespoke View-Master reels made from your own photos - although to be properly 3D you need to provide two parallax images or use a 3D camera.

What makes collecting View-Masters even more pleasurable is that they are cheap. You can pick up a set of reels - even very old ones - on ebay often for under a fiver. The viewers sell regularly for less than a tenner and, lets be honest, you only really need one good viewer. Even a brand new Fisher Price (current owners) gift set (viewer and a set a reels) will only set you back about £15. But there is something much more pleasurable, for me anyway, in the tactile smoothness and hefty rasp and clunk of a Sawyer's Bakelite Model E.


RCA Secret (No More) Auction

Well, the bidding is over and the big reveal has happened. All of us who took part in this year's Royal College of Art Secret Auction can now tell the world which ones were ours. Some people camped out overnight in the freezing sleet to get their bids in first.

Picture credit: Daily Telegraph

'An RCA spokeswoman counted 50 tents outside the site at Battersea, south-west London, on Friday night and said there were at least 300 people queuing when the doors opened at 7am on Saturday morning', reports the Telegraph here: 'But even those at the front were taking something of a gamble on getting their hands on a famous artist's work as the designs are all anonymous, with signatures on the back only being revealed after purchase.'

This is the 20th year of the RCA sale, and organisers hope it will raise more than £120,000 for a fund to support emerging artists.

Here are my three cards (and three bad puns) - Numbers 337, 1392 and 2272. Enjoy.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Tea cosies, goblins and pencils - this year's Diagram Prize Winners

This year's Diagram Prize for most unusual book title has a worthy winner:

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop by Reginald Bakeley.

Bakely beat off a strong shortlist of six titles that included Was Hitler Ill? by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann (Polity), Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts by Jerry Gagne (Foy’s Pet Supplies), How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (Melville House), God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis by Tom Hickman (Square Peg), and How Tea Cosies Changed the World by Loani Prior (Murdoch).

Philip Stone, the Diagram Prize's co-ordinator, said: "People might think this prize is just a bit of fun, but I think it draws welcome attention to an undervalued art. Publishers and booksellers know only too well that a title can make all the difference to the sales of a book. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has sold almost a million copies to date, while books such as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared perhaps all owe some of their success to their unusual monikers.”

The Diagram Prize was conceived at Frankfurt Book Fair by Diagram Group founder Bruce Robertson. It was first awarded in 1978 to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. I've written about it previously here, here, here and here if you want to read about some previous winners.

Congratulations Reginald!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Tractor Porn

In the evening I was flicking around between channels (as you do) and found a public access kind of thing all about old time Sussex country crafts and traditions hosted by an almost unintelligible farmer in a bad hat. It was hypnotic viewing ... and never more so than when a tractor enthusiast came on to show off his collection.

I kid you not. Doesn't it look like a kind of Babestation for lonely ploughmen? Phwoooaaar ... look at the balers on her.

Go on ... give Eddie a call now.


(Seriously though, this is the website that creates the TV content.)

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Doing Things In Public

On the right hand side of this blog, below the link for my diet blog, you'll see a calendar of events that I'm speaking at this year. My diary is filling up fast - but that's great! I love doing these speaking engagements and it's always a joy meeting people.

In the near future, I'm at QEDCon, sharing the bill with some amazing people like Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Helen Czerski, Adam Rutherford, Brooke Magnanti, Ben Goldacre, Rose Shapiro ... and many more.

Then, I'll be at the Hay Festival with the Unbound crew talking about my new book and a whole new way of publishing books.

At the Harrogate International Festival I'll be talking about crime and, at Latitude, I'll be discussing brains and thinking with pathologist Suzy Lishman and comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes.

In amongst that lot I'll be doing some Ig Nobel Prizes stuff, a new live chat show venture called '101 People to Meet before You (or They) Die' with Museum of Curiosity producer Dan Schreiber, and recording the new K series of QI.

Plus, there will be news about the launch of my new book fairly soon.

Life is never dull.

Monday, 18 March 2013

A Dead Bloke and some Living Blokes you should meet

After today's QI production meeting I walked to University College London to meet up with Dan Schreiber - producer of The Museum of Curiosity, Marc Abrahams from the Ig Nobel Prizes and several scientist chums. We're starting to scout for potential guests for the new series and, unlike QI where the audience expectation is comedians, we can have anyone we like on Museum, as long as they're entertaining and interesting. As the result we've had panellists as diverse as Leigh Francis (Keith Lemon), Buzz Aldrin, Neil Gaiman, Suggs, Dr Erica McAlister (curator of flies, Natural History Museum), Baron West of Spithead (ex-head of the Royal Navy), Suggs, Sir Terry Pratchett, Dr Alice Roberts, Brian Eno and many other brilliant people ... plus comedians.

Among those around the table was Dr Chris McManus (left) whose scientific paper 'Scrotal asymmetry in man and in ancient sculpture' is a classic. It garnered him an Ig Nobel (science that makes you laugh, then think) and an appearance on QI after a discussion of his paper. Puerile tittering aside, there is some serious science here about asymmetry and handedness.

The UCL is notable for having an 'auto-icon' displayed in a hallway. It's Jeremy Bentham, the great reformer and philosopher, who asked that, after his death, he be put on show. What you see is Bentham's skeleton, padded out and dressed in his clothes and sat on a chair. He had asked that the piece incorporate his actual head, mummified to resemble its appearance in life. However, Dr Southwood Smith's experimental efforts at mummification were, at best ... not good. He based his process on the practices of the indigenous people of New Zealand. This involved placing the head under an air pump over sulphuric acid and drawing off the fluids. Although technically successful, it did leave Bentham's head looking 'distastefully macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched taut over the skull'. The Auto-icon was therefore given a wax head and fitted with some of Bentham's own hair. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years on the floor between his feet ... but it became the target of repeated student pranks. It is now locked away securely.

After the meeting, Dan and I repaired to a pub to discuss another possible TV/radio project that we're hoping to pitch later in the year. We also talked about the first live show of Dan's 101 People to Meet before You (or They) Die show. It's an idea that we've kicked about for some time - you may recall that we tried a radio version back in May last year (you can listen to it here). With what we learned from this pilot, Dan has revamped the format and is now launching it as a regular series of live interviews with extraordinary folks.

The first one takes place on Saturday April 6th at the Conway Hall, in Holborn, London, and will feature Dr Jan Bondeson - an expert in such bizarre subjects as talking dogs, a bottom-stabbing 18th century villain and medical 'freaks'. Also on the bill is the aforementioned Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobels.

Do come along if you can. Details/tickets here.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Titanic Party Ahoy!

Happy St Patrick's Day to all my Irish chums!

And in the spirit of all things Irish, here's an interesting thing - I've been invited to International Colgan Day in September. Yes indeed, on September 14th, the doors of the Spa Hotel, Lucan, Co. Dublin (prop. Frank Colgan) will be thrown open for Colgans from all over the world to meet, greet and be utterly reliant on name badges. The event is the brainchild of one John Colgan, a genealogist who has spent years constructing the most accurate and complete history of the family. I'm going - hotel and flight booked. What larks!

The surname Colgan isn't all that common. It originates in the North of the Republic of Ireland and is an Anglicised form of Irish Ó Colgáin meaning ‘descendant of Colga’, a personal name based on colg ‘thorn’, ‘sword’. There aren't many famous Colgans; there's Jenny the novelist, of course, and there's US politician Chuck Colgan who founded Colgan Air Inc (which was bought out in 2012). I love the idea of a plane with my name on it.

I've met very few other Colgans who aren't immediate family so it will be great to pop over there in September and meet a whole bunch more.
Interestingly, through John, I discovered that I had a distant relative who travelled on the Titanic ... and survived.

E Joseph Colgan, 33, was born in Dublin around 1879. When he signed-on to the Titanic as a scullion (assistant cook), on 4th April 1912, he gave his address as 27 West Street, Southampton, and was due to receive a monthly wage of £3 10s. His previous ship had been the Majestic which was in service between 1890 and 1914 (Curiously, the White Star Line's replacement for the Titanic was also called Majestic, re-named from Bismarck). Unfortunately I can find very little more about him.

There were 421 men and women assigned to the Victualling Department on the Titanic. Of those, 322 were stewards who performed over 57 different functions in each class's dining saloon, public rooms, cabins and recreational facilities. Around 60 of them survived. Joseph was one of them and was rescued in lifeboat 13. Lucky for some, eh?

I shall raise a pint of the black stuff to him this evening.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Tips for Single Ladies 1938

Smile. Don't sit awkwardly. Wear a bra. Got it. 


Found at Sad And Useless

Friday, 15 March 2013

Secret Art

This evening I met up with artist Angela Lamb to go to the Royal College of Art's Secret Auction exhibition at their new building in Battersea. It's the second year that I've been asked to take part (Angi's done a few of them before) and it's good fun. What happens is that lots of artists - some final year RCA students, some jobbing artists, some very famous people indeed - get sent three postcards on which to create three original artworks. However, they must not be signed or give any overt indication of who did them. Then the cards go up for auction and, if you're lucky, you could get a Nick Park or a Maggi Hambling or a David Bailey for a song ... or you could pay way over the odds for one of mine. Poor you.

The exhibition looked great ... and seemed to go from largely empty space to being packed with people in just half an hour of opening.

You can see the full range of postcards from this year's auction here. Be warned though ... there are 2700 of them ... and some are very rude (not to say disturbing - I worry for the mental health of some of the exhibitors).

Bet you can't spot mine!

Ordos - Ghost City

In Inner Mongolia, in a district called Kangbashi, stands a city called Ordos. It features innovative architecture, and enough homes for a million people. And it is largely uninhabited.

Intended to have 300,000 residents by 2010, government figures stated it has had, at best, around 28,000. The streets are deserted.
The Kangbashi district is filled with office towers, administrative centres, government buildings, museums, theatres and sports fields - not to mention acre upon acre of middle-class apartment blocks and bungalows. A huge statue of Genghis Khan presides over Genghis Khan Plaza. Two giant horses stand there too, dwarfing him. The square is vast, flanked by huge and imposing buildings.
If you want to find a place where China's huge housing bubble has already burst, then Ordos is the place to come. The story started about 20 years ago, with the beginning of a great Mongolian coal rush. Private mining companies poured into the green Inner Mongolian steppe lands, pock-marking the landscape with enormous opencast holes in the ground, or tunnelling underground. Local farmers sold their land to the miners, and became instantly rich. Jobs burgeoned. Ceaseless coal truck convoys tore up the roads. And the old city of Ordos flourished as the money flowed in.
The municipality decided to think big, too. It laid out plans for a huge new town for hundreds of thousands of residents with Genghis Khan Plaza at the centre of it. But no one came.

The place is so empty most of the time that some urban skateboarders decided that it looked like the perfect place for an adventure. Here's their story: