Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Sticky Monsters of John Kenn Mortensen

I was browsing through bookshops in London yesterday when I came across a wonderful little yellow and black book called Sticky Monsters.

It's a collection of monster doodles, all done on Post-It notes by a Danish children's TV producer called John Kenn Mortensen. I had to buy the book.

At once charming, creepy and downright weird, Mortensen's beautifully rendered pen sketches have echoes of W Heath Robinson, Munro S Orr and Arthur Rackham with maybe just a hint of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey thrown in for good measure.

If you get a chance to buy the book, do so. If not, visit Mortensen's blog here or his Tumblr here where he posts new pics regularly.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Goodnight all - from the Skeptical Bobby

It's been one hell of a ride.

Two years ago, I was boozily regaling my mate Sid Rodrigues with tales from my curious police career and, before you could say 'I want to believe!' Sid - creator of the Skeptics in the Pub network - had roped me in to do a 45minute talk at SITP Camden. Well, the Camden gig went okay ... and, next thing I know, I'm being asked to speak at QEDCon 2013, the biggest of all UK Skeptics meetings.*

As I was pretty much an unknown, they put me on first. But, as it happened, that worked in my favour as I played to a full house. All of the subsequent speakers had to share the audience with various panels being run in other rooms. Maybe that's the reason that my talk - The Skeptical Bobby - proved to be one of the most popular of the event; basically because more people saw my talk than other talks. That said, it did seem to go down well. I even got a standing ovation from Richard Dawkins himself although when he tweeted the same message - 'Superb talk at QEDCon by Stevyn Colgan. Intelligent and humane' - it proved to be a double-edged sword. My Twitter follower count suddenly leapt up by around 450 ... but around half of that number turned out to be Dawkins haters and I was trolled for several months. Eek.

What happened next was mad.

SITP groups from all over the UK started asking me to come and perform the talk in their town. And, as I was keen to get some exposure for myself and my book, I said yes to them all. Which is why, between April 2013 and March 2014, I gave this talk a further 76 times.

Well, I say 'this talk'; no two performances were ever quite the same. I have more than 30 years' worth of stories and experience to draw on and the talk often went off in unexpected directions. And it got longer. By the end of the run, it regularly topped 90 mins and I hit a spectacular two hours in Newcastle. People still seemed to enjoy it though. And I never got close to making a 45 minute talk last as long as Robin Ince can. The man is a genius.

I should perhaps explain that my talk was all about grass roots skepticism; about the need to question the world about us and not to accept things blindly or without evidence. I took the audience on an autobiographical journey through my childhood, explaining how I buggered up my school career and then joined the police for a bet; how my career in the police service went similarly tits-up because I fought against police procedures that I thought were wrong; how ultimately I was vindicated and became part of an experimental unit at Scotland Yard designing innovative ways to tackle crime and disorder; and how, thanks to a chance meeting with Douglas Adams, my whole life changed direction. As the posters said, 'If you want to know how lollipops can reduce anti-social behaviour, or how wheelie bins can prevent burglaries, or how a dog show can save lives ... this talk is for you.'

The Skeptical Bobby took me to SITP groups as far afield as Glasgow, Lincoln, Birmingham, Cheltenham ... in fact, the only two regions I wasn't booked by were Wales and my own native South West, which was a shame. I also performed at the Edinburgh Festival (where I broke my foot), Hay, Latitude, the Harrogate International Festival, Cornbury, Salon London, the Village Green Festival, Geekfest, CreatED and various British Humanist events. And I appeared on the Little Atoms and Skeptic Canary Podcasts, the Australian Skeptic Zone podcast, Josie Long's Shortcuts on Radio 4, and an episode of the excellent panel show Do the Right Thing.

On top of all that, I was also doing gigs to promote my book, appearing on stage in the Ig Nobel Prizes UK tour, acting as a judge for the Transmission Prize 2013, researching for QI and researching and writing for the Museum of Curiosity, and writing a new book. What a mad 12 months!

But all good things come to an end and the run is now over. In many ways I wish I could do more shows; I've already had people approach me to do more but I've had to be firm and say no. I'm sorry if you missed it but I simply don't have enough spare time now.

Doing that many shows in such a short time and in such a wide variety of venues has been a brilliant learning experience. And, who knows? I may go back on the road with a new show sometime in the future.

You can't keep a skeptical bobby down.

I'll end by thanking everyone around the UK I've met - the thousands of you! - for your hospitality and support. It's been a huge pleasure to do the talk and I'm genuinely honoured that you asked me 'round your gaffs.

*Should it be skeptics or sceptics? I was always taught that the British way was sceptic (hence my spelling on the Powerpoint slide in the first photo). However, many linguists insist that the K version is more accurate than the C as it's from a Greek word and they would have used the K. But you decide.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A Dead Duck of a Show

Last night was the first show of this year's annual Ig Nobel Prizes tour of Europe. It played to a packed lecture hall at Imperial College, London - a capacity audience of around 800 - and was gloriously funny from start to finish.

After an intro by Professor Sue Gibson, Ig Nobels creator, Marc Abrahams opened the show with a brief explanation of the prizes and a run-down of the most recent award winners. They included a team from Japan, China and the UK who got the award for 'assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice'. When the Ig Nobel Prizes ceremony was held at Harvard University last Autumn, several members of the team flew over from Japan to collect the award. Two were dressed as mice.

Another 2013 winner was a paper by a Dutch, British, Canadian collaboration which detailed two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. however, was the Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health, awarded to a team from Thailand, for the medical techniques described in their report 'Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam'; techniques which they recommend except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck.

The next part of the show involved the aforementioned Sue Gibson, me and several of my colleagues from QI doing 'dramatic readings' of papers submitted to the Ig Nobels. What this entailed was us selecting  a paper from a pile, scanning it for a few minutes and then going up on stage to read it out to the audience. After two minutes, a bell sounded for us to stop and we then had to take questions from the audience ... which were clever, funny and which we were completely unable to answer.

Here are the readers: Top  - Andrew Hunter Murray (with audience member who asked such a blinding question she was invited on stage), Anna Ptaszynsky, James Harkin. Middle - Dan Schreiber, Jack Burke, Molly Oldfield. Bottom - Sue Gibson, Anne Miller and me.

Then came a talk by former Ig Nobel Prize winner Dr Mason Porter on the mathematical modelling of bipolar disorder which, I have to say, may as well have been in Swahili. But it was hugely entertaining and the questions from maths experts in the audience were just as deliciously incomprehensible.

 As is traditional, the penultimate part of the Ig Nobels show is a reading from the works of William Topaz McGonagall, considered the worst poet of all time. And once again we were treated to a reading by Professor Andrew George, ex of Imperial College, and now Vice Principal of Brunel University.

The grand finale of this year's show was a mini opera, brand new and specially written for the Ig Nobels by composer Daniel Gillingwater. It was performed by soprano Sarah Redmond, with the cast of Andrew Walker, Dylan Suddaby, Katie Parsons and Marika Vissor, and music by the Edge Quartet with Shaun Thompson on clarinet. And Dutch biologist Dr Kees Moeliker on duck call. The piece was called ... The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera.

No, really.

It was introduced by Kees himself who told the story of how a dead duck and the award of an Ig Nobel changed his life. What he did, in effect, was give us a repeat of his brilliant TED talk, which you can watch here:

The opera was wonderfully funny and, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can watch it here on this blog. We did make better, closer recordings and we're going to try to edit them all together to make a definitive version. When that happens, I'll post it here. But here's a pretty good version to be going along with. Oh, and before you watch the opera, do download a copy of Kees' original paper. It's the libretto for the whole 15 minute piece and if you read it in conjunction, the whole thing will make a lot more sense! You can get it here.

When the idea of the opera was first mooted, Kees asked the composer about the creation and scope of his work. Daniel replied: 'I have set it for solo high voice, in this premiere performed by Sarah Redmond (playing your role, as witness and first [and only author]). The gender difference need not be an issue as you are an elegant and willowy specimen, much like Sarah. The scoring also includes clarinet quintet, and a vocal chorus of four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass punctuating the section beginning ‘Rather startled, I watched …’ which is the final vivace section of a pseudo Mozartian aria. The two male singers will also be portraying the mallard ducks in question, through the medium of contemporary dance. A tasteful re-enactment of the duck display, mixing flowing, poetic body movements and extreme sexual violence.' It was at that moment that Kees decided that he wanted to be a part of this great work and therefore offered himself as duck call performer, despite a complete lack of formal training.

The first night of the Ig Nobels was tremendous fun as always, helped along by a spirited audience who enjoyed it immensely. Roll on next year.

I leave you with a pseudo-'selfie' of Kees, Marc, Daniel, Sarah and about half the cast at the aftershow party. We may not get a million tweets on Twitter but I couldn't resist the photo opportunity.

Maybe the show is coming your way? The full schedule of the European tour is here.

All photos: Stevyn Colgan

Thursday, 13 March 2014

No Fog on the Tyne

Yesterday saw me taking a long train journey to Newcastle to deliver a Skeptical Bobby talk. I had a fantastic time, only slightly marred by being woken at 3am by a fire alarm and having to evacuate my hotel. Some arse had, apparently, hit the alarm 'for the craic'. Fuckwit.

I awoke the next morning bleary-eyed and to the announcement that heavy fog had descended over the UK. With the lyrics of one of Lindisfarne's greatest hits resonating through my foggy mind, I walked down to the Tyne ... to find it wreathed in beautiful spring sunshine. The Tyne, it seemed, was the least foggiest place in the UK that day. So, off I went on a walk around the city.

I'll freely admit that I had no idea that the Tyne Bridge was quite as high as it is. And there were people zip-wire jumping off it as I watched.

The city is a glorious hodge-podge of old and new and I walked out onto Bridge Street - actually an attractive cast iron bridge in it's own right - to get a view of both sides of the river.


The castle itself dominates the Newcastle side of the river and it sits uncomfortably under and beside the railway bridge with which the Victorians, with typical bullishness, barged their way through history into the 20th century. They also built the Literary and Philosophical Society building in Westgate Road on top of Hadrian's Wall. In fact, Victoriana is everywhere from the statues of pioneers like Stephenson and Grey to the tall gothic buildings and Queenie herself, apparently operating H G Wells' time machine. Or, at least, that's what her statue looked like to me.

I could spend all day posting photos of what a great city it is, especially when seen in lovely, clear Spring sunshine. But, instead, I'll leave you with a picture of a fat beardy bloke punching a plastic horse in leg-warmers and rollerskates outside a pizza restaurant.

A Geordie told me it was a local tradition.

I bet he was the same bastard who set off the fire alarm.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

My Toy Story: The Viewmaster

Here's a feature I wrote recently for Stuart Witts' excellent blog Stay Happy and don't Die. He has a regular item called My Toy Stories where he asks people for their memories of a prized and beloved item. Here's mine ...

Shelf of vintage Viewmasters


Words cannot quite contain my love for these glorious things.

I got my first Viewmaster in 1970 and I still have it; it was a fawn coloured Model G (1959-1977) with a set of circular ‘reels’ that allowed me to see the Apollo 11 moon landing in glorious 3D technicolour. I cannot begin to describe the thrill I felt at first viewing. Just a year previously, at the age of eight, I’d watched the actual moon landing, live on television, in fuzzy shades of grey and it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. Even now, at the starting-to-creak age of 52, I still maintain that it was probably one of the most momentous days of my life. Has TV ever broadcast anything quite so extraordinary since? The Viewmaster, and the treat of seeing it all again in 3D deliciousness was a second bite of the pie. I was hooked. I wanted to eat all the pies.

For subsequent birthdays and Christmases, everyone knew what to get me and my collection of reels grew and grew. My more enlightened relatives bought me reels that they knew I’d squee over; Star Trek, Thunderbirds and anything involving dinosaurs. Other, less well-informed rellies bought me geographical reels – the most prolific of Viewmaster subjects – but I didn’t mind. As a pre-pubescent Cornish boy who regarded visiting Plymouth was ‘going abroad’, it was quite mind-blowing to see the Grand Canyon and the Swiss Alps in three dimensions.

As my teenage years approached, other distractions pulled me away from the Viewmaster: school, music, girls…

Oh, incidentally, you’d have thought that the Viewmaster would have been the perfect medium for porn wouldn’t you? All those sticky-out bits in 3D! But there was none and, as far as I’m aware, there still isn’t. Erm… not that I’ve looked too hard. Erm. I assume that the technical difficulties involved in getting the 3D images processed and fitted into the reels were beyond the means of your average Ron Sleazy Enterprises. Instead we found ‘bush porn’ in the hedgerows and woods. Who did leave that there for us?

Anyway, my Model G and my collection of reels went into the attic and were almost forgotten about. Time passed and I moved to London and started work. I met a lady. We got married. We had kids. We bought a house. And then, when it was approaching my daughter’s 5th birthday, I was rummaging around in Toys R Us when I happened upon a Viewmaster. And what amazed me about it was that it looked just like my old machine, albeit slightly curvier and chunkier and a bright red in colour. I bought it immediately (with some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reels as I recall). And she loved it! She loved it just as much as I’d loved mine. It inspired me to dig my old 70s machine out of the attic and I discovered with glee that my reels fitted her spanking new Model L just as her reels fitted my Model G. That’s one of the brilliant things about the Viewmaster; the reels have never changed. You can watch a 1952 reel of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on a brand new 2014 Model O and you can watch a 2014 Ben 10 reel on a 1938 Benite plastic clamshell Model A. I can’t think of a single other medium that has remained completely unchanged while the machines used to view it have continued to evolve.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I now have all the pies. I have a pretty complete collection of Viewmasters; a representative machine of (almost) every model ever produced and thousands of reels. And I absolutely love them. I even got to share my enthusiasm with Stephen Fry, Alan Davies and some QI guests recently when, for the ‘Kitsch’ show, I let them borrow some of my early Bakelite model Cs and Ds to demonstrate that the US military once used them to train gunners in aircraft recognition. Oh yes, Viewmasters aren’t just for kids you know. Believe me, the panellists were all stupidly excited to play with them and were amazed by the wartime reels (also from my collection).

Stephen Fry examines one of Stevyn's Viewmasters

Alan Davies looks through one of Stevyn Colgan's many Viewmasters

The Viewmaster is/was the best toy I’ve ever had (Lego a close second, mind). You can read about historical events in books and watch documentaries on the TV, but seeing Berlin after the Blitz in high definition 3D really takes you there. Nothing beats seeing London in the 1950s in glorious stereoscopic colour. Nothing beats seeing terrible, inaccurate depictions of dinosaurs from the 1950s. The Viewmaster is history and travel and science and all your favourite TV shows and films presented in a completely unique way.

3D is much-maligned and horribly ubiquitous these days. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when it was magical. It certainly was to one nine year old Cornish lad. And, for him at least, it still is.

Stevyn Colgan's Viewmaster collection

To discover more about the wonder of the Viewmaster, visit the visual reference guide or the website of Mary-Anne and Wolfgang Sells, THE Viewmaster experts.

And if you would like to share your toy story, let @stuartwitts know via Twitter.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Secret Carpentry of Maskull Lasserre

This will bow your mind. It blew mine.

Canadian artist Maskull Lasserre takes everyday wooden objects and carves into them, creating the most extraordinary works of art. Look ... just a normal chair and an axe with maybe a bit of woodworm, right?

Look closer ...

... and closer still.

Amazing eh? Have a look at a few more.

That might seem like a waste of a perfectly good piano or axe to some but, according to Lasserre, his work is a demonstration of how once something ceases to be it becomes something else: ' When the remnants of life are imposed on an object, and that’s true especially with the carving work that I do, it infers a past history or a previous life that had been lived, so again where people see my work as macabre, I often see it as hopeful, as the remnants of a life. Despite the fact that the life has ended, at least that life had a beginning and middle as well, so often by imparting these bodily elements to inanimate objects it reclaims or reanimates them in a virtual way.'

Nope. Me neither. But I love the work.

See more here at Viralnova or his personal website here.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Slav to the Rhythm

Yugoslavia was once a beautiful country and a popular holiday destination before war tore it all apart. It's now sub-divided into the new states of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. But Yugoslavia didn't just have beautiful scenery. Oh no.

It had POP.

And it had LP covers to die for.