Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Eat, Think and be Entertained

There's a side of London the tourists don't see; a sub-culture of evening salons, tiny intimate comedy gigs and shows where people come together to drink, eat, laugh and learn. I've been to a few recently, and even spoken at a couple, so I thought it would be nice to do a little round up of some of my favourites.

Firstly there's Science Show-Off and Museums Show-off, both the brainchild of comedy geek (or geeky comedian) Steve Cross. I wrote about the shows here in August after doing a spot at one of them. Steve describes them as 'a chaotic open mic night for scientists, science communicators, science teachers, historians and philosophers of science, students, science popularisers and anyone else with something to show off about science'. And that's how it works; around 10 speakers get up on stage and sing the praises of some aspect of science or museums and the funnier they are the better. I've seen presentations on the preservation of human skin, bizarre and downright cruel Victorian Valentine's cards and all manner of other brilliant subjects. Although regularly staged in London, these shows do pop up in other cities too so click on the hyperlinks above and find out if there's one near you any time soon. Or why not contact Steve and arrange one?

Of similar intent but with very different subject matter, we have Simon Watt's Ugly Animal Preservation Society and Iszi Lawrence's Z List Dead List. Both are about championing the underdog. In Simon's case it's those creatures that, through no fault of their own, are considered uncharismatic enough to never be chosen as the logo for an animal charity; animals like the blobfish, the pubic louse and the hairy anglerfish that deserve your love just as much as the fluffy pandas and annoying meerkats do.

Iszi's shows, meanwhile, champion people that history has forgotten unfairly and who deserve greater recognition; people like Mary Tofts who fooled polite Georgian society with her rabbit trick (I'll say no more - look her up) and the Reverend Robert Hawker who invented Harvest Festival but also dressed up as a mermaid to freak people out. Like the Show-Off shows, the format is very simple - a bunch of people get up on stage, one at a time, to extol the virtues of their chosen beast or person - but the final result is hugely entertaining. Again, follow the hyperlinks above for dates and venues.

New kid on the block is Historic Punch organised by Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, caricaturist Ade Teal and History Vault magazine founder Rebecca Rideal. The shows, hosted by Black's Club in Soho (itself a place steeped in bawdy history), see historians giving forth upon a theme. The most recent I attended was themed around 'over-indulgence' and featured talks by Time Team's Professor Francis Pryor who told us about Neolithic hedonism, Dr Lucy Inglis who talked historical drug addiction and Dr Matthew Green who gave us a taste - literally and figuratively - of life in the Georgian chocolate houses.

I say literally as we got to taste the kind of hot chocolate that people like Cosimo de Medici favoured; bitter, dark, thick and laced with things like ambergris, musk and spices. It is an acquired taste, trust me. Incidentally, Matthew also runs Unreal City Audio that does fantastic historical tours of coffeehouse London and Fleet Street. Well worth a visit.

Salon London is a well-established cultural monthly showcase of specialists from the worlds of science, the arts and psychology. The overarching theme is getting amazing ideas - some new, some old - out to a wider public. It has, in fact, now spawned the annual Transmission Prize to reward the person that Salon, Salon attendees and a judging panel consider to have done the best job of 'delivering big ideas, well communicated' in the previous year. Hosted by the wonderfully enthusiastic Juliet Russell and Helen Bagnall, the shows have drawn in a staggering range of talent including Dr Aarathi Prasad, Clare Conville, Damian Barr, Julian Baggini, Marcus Chown, Natalie Haynes, Dr Phillipa Perry, Ella Berthoud, Dr Stu Clark and Tracey Thorn. It's always a treat. And Salon also does shows in Harrogate as Salon North and at the Latitude Festival.

Last but not least, I must mention Skeptics in the Pub, a national and now international form of grass roots informal get-together for critical thinkers. Created by Sid Rodrigues just a few years ago, there are now SITP meetings all over the place. And, while most involve nothing more challenging (or brilliant) than people sitting around discussing interesting topics while drinking beer, many put on talks by guest speakers and the circuit boasts some real heavyweights like Prof Richard Wiseman, Dr Simon Singh, Robin Ince, Robert Llewellyn and Jon Ronson. Do check the link above to see if there's one near you. If not, start one!

So, there you go. A round-up of just a few things you might like to attend if you live in or near London or, in some cases, elsewhere in the country. All of these events will make you laugh and think and laugh again. Plus you'll be socialising with real people rather than the little avatar pictures that appear on Twitter and Facebook. And, as most take place in pubs and bars, you'll be keeping the British pub alive too.

What's not to like?

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Weekend Wonders #8 - Oh January ... don't go! Don't go!

This week's column from the Sunday People by yours truly ...

January wasn’t always the first month of the year. The Romans originally used a 10 month calendar that started on the 1st of March and didn’t quite have enough days to fill the year. A leftover from this silly state of affairs is that the tax year starts in April and the names of our months don’t make sense any more.

We all know that words beginning with ‘oct’ usually relate to the number eight – octopus, octagon, octave etc. So, logically, October should be the eighth month, shouldn’t it? Of course it should. And, under the Roman 10 month calendar it was. Consequently, September was the seventh, November the ninth and December the tenth. The introduction of a 12 month calendar – by adding January and February – bumped everything up a couple of months. These two new months were created somewhere around 700BC by King Numa Pompilius.

However, in those days, the calendar followed lunar months (the word month comes from Moon, of course) and 12 periods of 28 days didn’t fit within the 365 day year. Even with two new months it was still too short and the seasons all started moving around. A major rethink was needed. So Julius Caesar stepped in and redesigned it, creating the Julian Calendar. It was better but still not quite right and it took a further tweak by the Vatican under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to bring us to the familiar Gregorian Calendar that we still use in the West today. It isn’t perfect, but it’s not likely to change much from now on.

The Anglo Saxons called January Wulf-monath because it was the month when packs of hungry wolves would descend upon the villages.

Make sure you lock the cat flap …

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Three Trapped Tigers - New BeatCast Studio Sessions EP

A new three track EP by my good friends Three Trapped Tigers is now available to download through Bandcamp. Pay a quid, pay a tenner - the more you pay, the more you support new music. And now is a good time to latch on to these guys ... a certain Mr Eno has seen their worth and may be involved in their second album this year ...

Here's the Bandcamp link to all of the currently available Three Trapped Tigers goodies.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Weekend Wonders #7 - Get Branded

This week's Weekend Wonders column from The People:

Have you ever wondered why Ebay is called Ebay? Or why ASDA is called ASDA? Everyday speech is studded with brand and company names: yet most of us probably don’t know their origins.

Boots the chemist was founded in 1849 by John Boot who opened a herbalist shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham selling home-made remedies. Boots now owns and runs its own laboratories and discovered the painkiller Ibuprofen.

DIY store B&Q is named after its founders Richard Block and David Quayle. You can buy MDF (medium density fibreboard) flatpack furniture there, which is stronger than the old chipboard stuff they used to sell at the now defunct MFI stores. Incidentally, that didn’t stand for ‘made for idiots’ as some wags claimed. It was Mullard Furniture Industries.

Haribo is named after the first two letters of inventor Hans Riegel’s names and his home town of Bonn, Germany. Coca-Cola gets its name from the coca leaves and kola nuts that were used in the original formula. Pepsi, meanwhile, is named after the digestive enzyme pepsin.


Häagen-Dazs means nothing at all; the name was simply made up in 1961 by Reuben and Rose Mattus who thought it sounded exotic.

Waitrose is named after founders Wallace Waite and Arthur Rose, and ASDA – now part of the larger American Wal-Mart group of companies (named after founder Sam Walton) – began life in Leeds, Yorkshire in 1949 as Associated Dairies and Farm Stores Ltd. However, in 1965, it merged with the Asquith chain of supermarkets and adopted the name Asquith Dairies, hence the name ASDA.

Oh, and when Pierre Omidyar found that he couldn’t get the domain name echobay.com (the name of his company) as it already belonged to Echo Bay Mines Limited, he bought what he considered to be the next best option.

Ebay.com wasn’t a bad choice.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sea Pig. Love Pig.

I've spent the week looking for fascinating LIVING things for the new L series of QI. And, while doing so I came across an animal for which I can find no L connection ... but it's brilliant, so I had to put it on my blog. Say hello to the sea pig.

Sea pigs Scotoplanes globosa are a kind of sea cucumber. The name Scotoplanes has been around for a long time. The genus was discovered and described by H. Theel in 1882 as part of the famous HMS Challenger expedition reports.

They are often characterised by having little legs that come off the bottom surface like you see here (above). But some species are slimmer and have longer legs, like here:

Scotoplanes live in the abyss. That's not just a little deep .. that's the deepest part of the ocean on the flat oceanic plains. Its not unusual for sea pigs to be collected from over 6000 metres down; that's about 3.7 miles.

Scotoplanes don't just occur individually either. Collections and observations of these animals show that they often number in the hundreds. Early trawling records have recorded some 300-600 specimens per trawl.

Like a lot of other deep-sea sea cucumbers, Sea pigs are deposit or detrital feeders. That is, they feed on the fine nutritious scum and goo that falls to the bottom of the seafloor from the top of the ocean (marine snow). They feed on them with the ring of tentacles that surrounds the mouth.

Want to know more? Check out the Echinoblog website (where I stole chunks of this text from).

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Weekend Wonders #6 - Rock and Rowf!

This week's Weekend Wonders column for the Sunday People:

The first ever Blue Peter pet was a mongrel called Petra who made her maiden appearance on the show in 1962. It was also her only appearance. It was only revealed in the 1990s that Petra did, in fact, die after that first show (the cause was unknown) but, to avoid upsetting the programme’s young viewers, producer Biddy Baxter scoured pet shops to find a similar looking replacement and no one was any the wiser for thirty-odd years. Petra Mk II stayed with the show until 1977 and had a number of puppies including Patch, who also became a Blue Peter pet.

The show takes its name from an International Maritime Signalling Flag. The Blue Peter is a dark blue square with a smaller white square set centrally within. If hoisted from a ship in harbour it means ‘All aboard – we’re about to set sail’. However, if hoisted at sea by a fishing vessel it means ‘My nets have got snagged on something’. Nautical references abound on the show. The programme’s logo is a stylised sailing ship designed by TV artist Tony Hart and most commonly seen on the much-coveted Blue Peter badges awarded to children and adults who have achieved something special. And the theme music is an old sea shanty called Barnacle Bill. Over the years, it has been arranged by a number of musicians including film composer David Arnold, the performers from the West End show Stomp and composer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield.

Incidentally, the word petra means ‘rock’ in Greek. Which is why petrified means ‘turned to rock’ and petroleum means ‘rock oil’. Petra is also the name of a city in Jordan that is quite literally carved into a rock face. It’s probably best known to you as the temple where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail.

I wonder if he got a Blue Peter badge for that?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Kitsch me Quick

Tonight's XL episode of QI revolved around Kitsch and it was a fun show to do. I got to show off some of my personal collection of Viewmaster 3D viewers on the big screens and even let Stephen, Alan and the panellists fondle a few of them.

In case you were wondering exactly what they could see on the military training discs, here's a sneaky peek.

These were produced in sets for training gunners in aircraft recognition. I have a whole set of them. It's hard to show you exactly what you can see through the viewer (and I certainly can't replicate the 3D) but I've put a disc on my scanner and it'll give you an idea:

I also did some 'reworkings' of two famously kitsch paintings for display on the big screens. Sadly, we weren't allowed to use them for the show as we couldn't get clearance but there's no harm in putting them here on my blog I assume. So, here's Stephen as Frederick Dielman's The Widow ...

And Alan as Vladimir Tretchikoff's iconic Chinese Girl.

If you're not familiar with the originals, here they are:

I was sad to learn that Monika Pon (nee Sing-Lee), the lady who modelled for Chinese Girl has recently died. One of my Twitter followers is good friends with someone who had Monika as an aunt. Even sadder is that, as far as I can see, no newspaper has acknowledged the fact.

Tretchikoff''s image may be kitsch but it's an iconic work and, at its last auction in March 2013, it sold for just short of a million pounds ($1.5 million - £982,050). It's going back to South Africa where Tretchikoff lived and worked. Meanwhile, the painting lives on in popular culture; you can see it at the top of the stairs in the parochial house in Father Ted. It can be seen adorning the living rooms of Richie and Eddie in Bottom and of Bob Rusk, the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 film, Frenzy. It is in several Monty Python TV episodes, it's in the apartment of Ruby, Shelley Winters' character, in Alfie (1966), and it's in the Mick Jagger movie Performance (1970). It is also featured in the 2013 music video for the song The Stars (Are Out Tonight) by David Bowie, in which the painting hangs in Bowie's living room, as well as being the cover image of Chumbawamba's 1990 album Slap!

So RIP Monika Sing-Lee - the Mona Lisa of kitsch (You can read interviews with her here and here and watch one here).

All copyright lies with the respective owners who, I hope, will see that these were done with much love, appreciation and respect for the original paintings. I will, of course, remove them from my blog if requested to do so.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Motorcycle Gorgeousness - the sculpture of Edouard Martinet

Many artists create art exploring the interplay of the natural and mechanical worlds, and some do so using found objects — but we’ve not come across any who combine the two to create such striking and innovative animal sculptures.

Edouard Martinet has created a menagerie of sculptures including birds, fish, insects and even a frog from found car and bike parts that are remarkably accurate representations. A dragonfly’s wings are made from sections of a wire fence while a red ant has marbles for eyes and an abdomen made from a motorcycle headlamp.

Martinet does not shy away from the scrapyard origins of his creations, even going so far as to place brand logos on to his sculptures. This nod to the manufactured origins of his work only further prove the skill in piecing together such individualised pieces.

A personal favourite is an oversized wasp climbing into a giant glass. It takes a long hard stare to recognise the antennae are arms from a pair of spectacles, the eyes are old watch cases and the legs are made from bicycle chains.

The insects are his strongest works here largely because of the intricate nature of their construction and their scale. Martinet’s sculptures are remarkable works of art and need to be seen up close to recognise just how impressive they are.

Words by Tabish Khan at the Londonist

Edouard Martinet website here

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Sign Post #3

Back in July last year I shared some of my favourite signed books with you here. I'm very, very lucky in that I get to meet a lot of quite well-known people and getting a book signed is a nice way to remember that moment. I posted a second batch here in November.

I have a LOT of signed books now - over 300 - and they are, for the most part, not worth a great deal as they are signed to me. But this was never about money; it's the joy of having a record of meeting fascinating, funny and brilliant people. Here's a third batch, starting with my copy of Hate Mail by my good chum Mr Bingo.

I should probably explain that Hate Mail was one of those extraordinary ideas that come to you when drunk. Bingo had a big pile of vintage postcards that he'd bought on a whim at a market. Now they were taking up space and he wanted some spending cash. And so, for £40, he offered to send anyone an abusive original illustrated message on one of those cards. The scheme was a huge success and a book of the best examples followed (examples here). You can get one for yourself here. I love what he drew in my book. Bastard.

This is what Jon Ronson wrote in my copy of Them:

And this is Buzz Aldrin. Need I say more? What a guy.

And, lastly, some books by big heroes of mine that are, sadly, no longer with us:

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Weekend Wonders #5 - The Jedward Wide Web

This week's Weekend Wonders column for the Sunday People:

John and Edward Grimes – better known as Jedward - were born on October 16th 1991 … which means that they are about the same age as the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee posted the very first webpage on the very first website on August 6th 1991 – just 23 years ago – but it has grown at an extraordinary rate ever since. It’s difficult to say exactly how many webpages currently exist but, according to Netcraft.com, in December 2013 there were 861,023,217 active websites online. It follows, therefore, that there must be over a billion webpages currently live. There’s a lot of e-mail too. It’s been around longer than the World Wide Web and the first electronic mail was sent as long ago as 1971. However, the form of e-mail we recognise today only started appearing when the World Wide Web opened up our ability to connect to each other.

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, some 20 million e-mails will be written and sent. A report in 2012 by Radicati.com revealed that we send 144.8 million e-mails per day worldwide and that 28% of an average office-based 40 hour working week is spent reading and answering them … despite the fact that 65% of all e-mail traffic is spam.

1991 also gave us the first game featuring Sonic the Hedgehog (Jun 23rd), and the first Starbucks coffee shop which opened in May of that year. We saw the demise of the KGB and Pan Am, and we said goodbye to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (Oct 24th), Theodor Geisel aka Dr Seuss (Sept 24th), French crooner Serge Gainsbourg (March 2nd) and Freddie Mercury (Nov 24th). All of which means that, in all likelihood, Freddie Mercury never visited a webpage in his lifetime.

And Jedward are not quite as mature as Sonic the Hedgehog.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New Year Painting Sale

I sold a few paintings last year but I need to de-clutter some more and the money is always needed. Anyone want a cheap original acrylics painting or two? If so, mail me: stevyncolgan@me.com or Tweet me: @stevyncolgan.

Note: If you can collect or I can deliver to you in London or locally (South Bucks), no problem. If not, please add £10 contribution towards postage and packaging.

Arr! Pod - 20" x 16" x 0.75" - £50

I was Brave Today!  - 16" x 12" Box Canvas - £50

Lord of the Rainbows - (Large!) 39" x 27.5" box canvas - £100

The Greendale Chainsaw Massacre (Postman Pat's Bloody Day) - 20" x 16" x 0.75" - £50

Friday, 3 January 2014

Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

Hello! And welcome to this first blogpost of 2014. And I'm going to do something controversial; I'm going to diss Isaac Asimov.

Okay, I'm not really; I have massive respect for the man.

But an essay of his from 1964, predicting what life will be like in 2014, has been doing the rounds the past few days on Twitter (read it in full here) and lots of Facebookers, Tweeters and bloggers have been quoting from it, and loudly proclaiming how accurate Asimov's predictions were. And I have to take some issue with this I'm afraid.

Asimov was an extraordinary visionary, a great scientist and a wonderful writer. But it seems to me that hero worship of the man has led many to only see what they want to see in his essay, just as people who believe in the efficacy of horoscopes interpret the predictions in ways that suit their needs. For example, he starts by saying that 'men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button. Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight.' Oh really? If anything there's been a move to embrace nature with many people moving out to the country if they can afford to. And those choosing to live in the city have driven the renewal of green spaces and a general move towards reducing traffic pollution and allowing as much natural light into a house as possible. It's no secret that it's the houses wit the views that cost the most. 'Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.' No, they're not I'm afraid. Who wants to live underground? 

He starts to hit a few home runs by suggesting that 'gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.' I can't argue with that. However, he suggests that 'kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals,' heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be 'ordered' the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning.' There are days when I wish he'd been right. But he wasn't and, in fact, the preponderance of cookery shows, baking shows and grow-your-own shows suggests to me that we're still a race of people who like to cook and entertain.

He then says that 'robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.' I guess that all depends on what you define as a robot. If he means a humanoid companion, he's right. But we employ thousands of robots for everything from building cars to handling radioactive materials. They are quite commonplace. He does however, rightly predict that 'It will be [...] computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the 'brains' of robots'. Credit where credit is due.

Next: 'The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by- products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. And an experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014.' I'm afrain not, Isaac. But he does suggest that 'Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas'. We are moving in that direction, hopefully.

When it comes to transport, he jumps right off the tracks: 'There will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air a foot or two off the ground.' I so wish he was right! I was promised a hover car by people like Asimov when I was a child. They still aren't here or even close to being here. The idea that we'll be able to skim along on 'four jets of compressed air so that the vehicle will make no contact with either liquid or solid surfaces' is very enticing. As is the idea that 'Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets'. I wish.

He says that 'much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with 'Robot-brains' that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.' We are moving slowly towards that kind of technology but I strongly suspect that very few drivers will be happy to relinquish complete control. Then, 'For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the center) will be making their appearance in downtown sections. They will be raised above the traffic. Traffic will continue (on several levels in some places) only because all parking will be off-street and because at least 80 per cent of truck deliveries will be to certain fixed centers at the city's rim. Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches, and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be one of the city's marvels.' Sounds great. Hasn't happened.

Can you see what I'm saying now? I am really not out to attack Asimov in any way. He was a true visionary and had some amazing ideas. And he got a couple of things right. But to say that he predicted the future accurately just isn't ... well, accurate.

'Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books'. Well, that could be taken to be a prediction about the internet and the use of tablets, laptops and smartphones. But, if anything, we've moved away from sight-sound communication. Yes, we have Skype and Facetime etc. but the majority of personal communication is written rather than spoken. There are more emails, tweets, Facebook updates, Whatsapp and Snapchat messages sent than phone calls made I'd suggest. How often do you make a phone call these days? And how often do you do it with the video turned on? Asimov gets it right when he says that 'Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth' but oh so wrong when he says that 'you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies. Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space.'

His grimmer predictions are also wrong. 'In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.' Okay, so he underestimated the world population (currently 7.1 billion) and over-estimated the US population (314,000,000). But the mega-cities he predicted haven't happened. Nor has 'increasing penetration of desert and polar areas'. And his predictions that '2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral' are completely wrong, as is 'Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be 'farms' turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which "mock-turkey" and "pseudosteak" will be served.'

His prediction of massive overpopulation leads to this interesting paragraph: 'There are only two general ways of preventing this: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A.D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85. There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect.' I'm not sure that's happening. In the affluent west people are choosing to have fewer children due to economic reasons or because they are simply 'too busy'. If anything, the campaign for voluntary euthanasia is gaining ground.

He ends with: 'The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction.' I guess that's true to some degree, particularly if you include computers as 'machines'. But he then suggests that 'The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine. Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!'

Enforced leisure! What a thought. Like Asimov, many futurologists predicted a world where we'd have more leisure time ... but none of them pointed out the real-world fact that you still need money to enjoy that leisure time. 'Enforced leisure' in 2014 means unemployment, homelessness, bankruptcy, depression and having to go to a food bank. And, because more of us are living longer, the money is needed for longer. Pension funds are decreasing and we now have to work until we're 70 before the state will pay us a penny. 'Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.' Boredom is not the issue that is driving people to seek psychiatric help. It's capitalism. It's not being able to keep up with the Joness, it's money worries and a media-fuelled and jacked-up fear of all kinds of nonsense from paedophiles to invading hordes of immigrants to just about everything giving you cancer.

(I love this spoof newsreel)

Asimov didn't predict that 1 in 5 relationships would begin online or that the online dating industry would rake in around $1,249,000,000 per annum (stats here). He didn't predict the global storehouse of information that the internet has created. He didn't predict the staggering rise in obesity and online gambling. He didn't see the rise in alcoholism, drug dependency and other health problems. He didn't see the reliance on fossil fuels, the rise of religious extremism or the increasing gap between rich and poor.

All of which goes to prove that making predictions about the world in 50 years' time is never going to be easy. If I tried to guess what life in 2064 will be like (I won't be there to see it) I might get a couple of things right but, chances are, no matter how informed I am, most of what I'd predict will prove to be wrong. The difference between me and Asimov, however, is that I won't have hordes of fans trying to make my predictions 'work'.

Asimov was a genius. But we should celebrate what he achieved, not pretend that he always got everything right. That does him a great disservice I think. And I believe that he'd find the real world of 2014 infinitely more fascinating than the one he envisioned.


As I was typing this, the media revealed Sir Norman Foster's proposed 'sky cycle' plan where cyclist would have bespoke travelways built on an elevated road system that is affixed above the existing rail network.

It's about as far from Asimov's atomic-powered hovercars as you can get. Full story here.