28 October 2010

Quotes of the Week

This week's selection ...
Enlightened One
Enlightened One by martisimas on Flickr

Enlightened One
My staff pays the mortgage,
but the house is all mine ...
For the world is my oyster
... but tuna's just fine.
[Cool Hand Luke]

Any photographer who says he isn't a voyeur is either stupid or a liar.
[Helmut Newton]

What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.

Love is space and time measured by the heart.
[Marcel Proust]

26 October 2010

Here I Am

Having last week quoted the opening couple of lines from Roger McGough's poem Here I Am it seems opportune to post the whole poem as it isn't very long.
Here I Am

Here I am
getting on for seventy
and never having gone to work in ladies' underwear

Never run naked at night in the rain
Made love to a girl I'd just met on a plane

At that awkward age now between birth and death
I think of all the outrages unperpetrated
opportunities missed

The dragons unchased
The maidens unkissed
The wines still untasted
The oceans uncrossed
The fantasies wasted
The mad urges lost

Here I am
as old as Methuselah
was when he was my age
and never having stepped outside for a fight

Crossed on red, pissed on rosé (or white)
Pretty dull for a poet, I suppose, eh? Quite.

Now OK, one knows that here will likely be a degree of poetic licence and tongue in cheek, but it is interesting what one even might consider it important that one hasn't done (or would have liked to have done) in a lifetime.

So what would be on my list of things I've never done, and feel I want to have done? Hmmm ... well ... OK ...
  • Visit Japan, Iceland, Norway and Sweden
  • Discover that I'm entitled to a coat of arms
  • Had a lot more sexual partners (what a waste of the 60s & 70s not to have done!)
  • Had sex in a hot, sunny hayfield
  • Travelled on the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian Express
  • Not been depressed
  • Known what it's like to be female
Well there's still time to tick off some of those; better get going!

You can also check out my list of 100 Things to do Before You Die.

25 October 2010

The Season of Humbug

Bah! The season of humbug and sycophancy is upon us. No, not the looming presence of Christmas but the even nearer Remembrance Day.

The whole thing is a politically correct sycophant's delight. "Oh, you're not wearing a poppy?" – so you're not patriotic and don't care about those who were sacrificed in two world wars. Work for TV? No poppy, no job, it seems – even football pundits are made to wear poppies! If those who were sacrificed died for anything it was to free us from such tyrannies.

I’m not unpatriotic. Nor am I ungrateful to those who were sacrificed: much as I abhor the idea of war I concede it is occasionally necessary. I likely wouldn’t go as far as my father: a conscientious objector in WWII, who played just as valuable a part in the war effort by working on the land and in hospitals. And certainly not as far as my grandfather: a conscientious objector in the Great War but who volunteered for the RAMC as a stretcher bearer at the front; probably a whole lot more gruesome, and no less dangerous, than the lot of any cannon fodder squaddie. (I'm much prouder of my grandfather for this than if he'd towed the line and been cannon fodder.) But Remembrance Day, and everything associated with it, makes me sick.

While we’re here let us remember three other things about Remembrance Day:
  1. Many of the fallen in the Great War were sacrificed by testosterone-fuelled and blinkered senior officers (eg. Kitchener) who could not see beyond the old horrors of trench warfare. Yes the Great War was a war of technological change (tanks, aircraft etc.) but stagnant trench warfare wasn’t, as I understand it, a necessity. The senior officers were aided and abetted by the politicians who needed the war to protect the oil interests which Britain had in the Arab world. (See AN Wilson, After the Victorians)
  2. Remembrance Day is all about the two so-called world wars; there is no remembrance that I’m aware of for the fallen of the Boer War, the Crimean War, the Falkland’s War or the Battle of Hastings.
  3. There is also precious little recognition of those who didn’t fight but still contributed much (like my father and grandfather), nor for the many civilian fallen. Did these people not contribute and sacrifice much too?
Yes by all means let those who wish remember the fallen. But, as with all belief systems, don’t ram it down other people’s throats after the style of so much of Christianity. (Oh, I thought Christianity was supposed to be anti-violence?!) What is maybe worse is that the whole charade is so backward looking; it focuses on the past and almost yearns for the “good old days” to return – forgetting that the “good old days” were once known as “these trying times”. It’s like someone grieving for their dead child or spouse: sooner or later one has to come to terms with it and move on; go forward. But with Remembrance Day we don’t move on – it has been set in stone as forever sacred and gets an extra coat of gilding every year with poppies going on sale ever earlier (it’s become Remembrance Month, not Remembrance Day).

Stop it! Let go! Especially now there are effectively no survivors of those who fought in the Great War. Sadly though I suspect to be able to let go of the Remembrance Day sycophancy we will have to kill off the British Legion first; now there’s an organisation looking for something to do if ever there was one, and in Remembrance Day they think they’ve hatched a golden goose egg. By all means remember if you need to, but cut the sycophancy and the tyranny; let’s move forward.

None of this means I’m not grateful to those who fought (and in many cases died) to give me the freedom to write this. I just find the whole thing very sick and would rather we look forward as most of the fallen (having secured us “a better life”) would I’m sure have wanted. So I will not be wearing a poppy, making a donation or observing two minutes silence, whatever the day. Remembrance should be a question of individual conscience not some politically-imposed public tyranny. Bah! Humbug!

Pearl Necklace

Artist Leah Piepgras has created that essential piece of jewellery to wear to your next job interview.

As Peipgras says on her website:
Pearl Necklace is a seemingly amorphous cast silver shape on a chain that is actually an accurate representation of semen. It is a visual marker of chaos turned perfection through an act of beauty and lust. Pearl Necklace is a physical reminder of a fleeting moment of pleasure.

Even assuming you would pay $420 for the privilege, how many would have the courage to wear this to work let alone to a job interview? (Not that it to my mind hugely obvious what it represents.) I certainly wouldn't, but then I'm not into girlie jewellery – and I've never seen any equivalent to us chaps. What about it someone?

24 October 2010

Food for Thought

I came across the following a few days ago. I had to think hard to grasp exactly what was being said, but having done so I think the message is powerful. It relates to false life, as propounded on my Zen Mischief website. Sentimentality is a manifestation of false life, through false emotions. True sentiment ("what one feels with regard to something; mental attitude; an opinion or view as to what is right or agreeable; a mental feeling, an emotion; those feelings which involve an intellectual element or are concerned with ideal objects" – OED) is part of a considered reaction to and engagement with real life in the raw. There is a rather large difference ...
Sentimentality creates the CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] farm – the sentimentality that says we are too weak to bear the pain of knowing animals and watching them die. This is what turns our food into Styrofoam packages and allows CAFO agriculture, where animals are carefully hidden from our view, and the relationship of our purchases carefully concealed. Sentimentality allows us to care about the extinction of the preferred charismatic mega-fauna of our choice [...] but that we see no connection between our purchases, our acts and the habitat destruction of the animals in question. Sentimentality enables us to care about the child Pakistani-flood victim on nightly TV enough to send some money – but not enough to try and reduce the number of climate-related natural disasters by giving up some of our privileges. Sentimentality enables the patriotic fervour that allows us to not know how many Iraqi or Afghani civilians die in the interest of our national "greater goods." Sentimentality is the emotion that emerges from the condition of not knowing – and it is what you have left in a society that conceals at every level real knowledge. It too is both cause and effect – it permits great evil, and it facilitates lack of knowledge of the real.

Sentiment – love, anger, attachment, affection – real emotions – these derive from knowledge, and they can't be faked. And when you know things, the choices you make get more complex. The realities you live in get harder and greyer. Sometimes love means you have to kill something. Sometimes one love means that another loved thing get sacrificed. Sometimes you have to go against your feelings. But the only way that never happens is when you substitute sentimentality for real feeling.

We live in a world where sentimentality poses as real emotion, where we are often actively discouraged from understanding consequences, from developing real love for people and things, and from paying attention. It is easy to miss the distinction between the two entirely – because we have blurred so many things together.

[Sharon Astyk at Casaubon's Book Weblog]

21 October 2010

Quotes of the Week

This week's weirdos ...
Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.
[Bill Watterson]

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.
[Charles Schulz]

The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendour and its beauty ... Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness ... Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person ... The human body is not in itself shameful ... Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person.
[Pope John Paul II]

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
[Philip K Dick]

Here I am
getting on for seventy
and never having gone to work in ladies underwear
[Roger McGough, Here I Am]

19 October 2010

British Naturism

LadyGod1va has recently written about the opportunities which naturism currently has for expanding in the UK. You can read her complete post here and I would encourage you to do so as it is a well balanced and thoughtful analysis. That doesn't mean I agree with everything she says – largely because I view the world through my eyes and not hers, and there likely are no completely right or completely wrong answers: horses for courses and all that. So here are my comments, observations and opinions on a number of LadyGod1va's more salient points.
The problem I see in the UK is that there are far too many independent organisations supporting naturism through clubs, social gatherings, social networks, personal blogs, membership sites, holiday services and so on whilst there is a very small target audience who are openly able to enjoy the naturism life for various personal reasons or beliefs.

Can't disagree with that. Naturism is still populated by small enclaves of people hiding in the bushes, mostly out of fear. This has to change if progress is to be made. Naturism needs a single, powerful, voice representing the spectrum of naturist beliefs. As LadyGod1va says ...
The number of naturists in the UK probably grows or shrinks over the years in relation to the population numbers aged between 40-60 [...] We are enjoying the highest numbers of naturists in the UK probably because the population aged between 40-60 is the highest for a long time due to the baby booms of the 60s [...] I see it as now being the best harvest of suitable naturism candidates for the naturist organisations to increase their numbers.  However I don’t believe that it is being done successfully because there is just too much choice for what is still a limited number of naturists.

Yes there are a lot of choices, but I don't see this as a problem if everyone worked together towards a common goal. What I see is the wrong choices for many of the target audiences, or indeed no choice at all. Take our situation (and we can't be alone):

We are not really club people, so clubs don't appeal. We don't drive, which while it isn't usually a problem and is very eco of us, does mean we have a challenge getting to anything which is remote (in space or time) from public transport. This means we would struggle to get to a remote club, even if we wanted to. And late night swims (and our nearest swim is a late evening event) are impractical because of public transport schedules. We are not people for spending holidays roasting in the sun, so beach holidays don't greatly appeal. Which leaves us with ... not a lot!

So what do we want. Probably what a lot of other not very active nudists want. To be able to go nude in our garden and our local park/beach and to be able to swim nude at our local swimming pool (even if that is only once a month).

Living as we do in a small terraced house in an ethnically diverse area of London, garden nudity is a problem. Our garden is overlooked by neighbours who (due to age, religion and culture) are unlikely to be sympathetic to nudity; and screening the sunny spots in the garden from their view is difficult as they are right by the house. Because of the same puritanical attitudes amongst the local populous (remember ethnic and religious diversity) our local swimming pool is highly unlikely to offer even clothes optional sessions; and certainly not if only odd-balls like us ask for them. Would they be more willing if we were backed by a strong national organisation? Well who knows, but it couldn't be more difficult. The same applies to parks and beaches while the current ignorance of the law persists.

Which leaves us stuck unless or until there are some paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts in our brains (there must be other alternatives) as much as in anyone else's. But those paradigm shifts can be hard when, despite the actuality of the law, there is complete ignorance amongst the populous of what is allowed and frequent disregard of the law by the powers that be. [Photographers are facing a similar challenge at present over the anti-terrorist laws but are slowly winning because photography is a non-contentious and popular hobby and thus they collectively have a strong voice.]
There are many more naturists amongst the general public who just do not have any reason to join any club or organisation because their form of naturism doesn’t require it. [... A] greater number of females are opting not to have children until later into their 30s, these females are quite confident and go topless and some obviously go nude but mostly when on holidays, so why are they not more visible in the naturist circles? I would suggest the following to be the main issues;
1. Because being seen topless in the local park by anyone they know is likely to cause them embarrassment [...]
3. Lack of role models, someone has to make a start and others could follow.

Possibly true until there is a critical mass and "everyone is doing it".

That makes two key target audiences: the 40-60s and young couples and singles. Actually there is a third target audience (although maybe a more difficult one to win over): the late teens and students, who have surprising power and that all important rebellious streak – just as long as you can make it "the in thing". Get the young enthused and signed up and there's a future.
2. The UK naturist movement still have a seedy association with sexual activities and perverts of one kind or another.

I'm not so sure about the seedy sexual activities, though maybe LadyGod1va is right. But certainly the perverts wrongly associated with naturism is definitely a worry.
4. Lack of understanding of the law

It isn't just a lack of understanding but also attempts to erroneously enforce the law – see comments above.
5. Personal or religious beliefs

I don't buy this as a reason for nudity on holiday but not at home, except as a variant of number 1 above.
My fear is that with pressure from the USA, the religious righteous, influences from the Eastern countries, the UK naturism could suffer.

This, together with the legal position (see above) is to my mind the biggest stumbling block. And it is a battle which I believe is only going to be won by a strong, united and vocal national organisation. British Naturism (BN) is the obvious candidate to take on this role (as LadyGod1va points out) but it is still considered by many to be nothing more than a marginal player with a dubious past. In my judgement BN now has the will, and the willingness, to take on this challenge, but it doesn't (yet) have the critical mass and the muscle to be powerful enough. That will only change if one of two things happens: either everyone gets behind BN and takes it in the direction we want it to go, or all us naturists become individually and collectively vocal (regardless of what BN does) in the way that the photographic community are kicking back against erroneous attempts to curtail what they can do in public. Both are paradigm shifts; and paradigm shifts are hard to enable. And no, I don't have any magic answers; I wish I did.
There needs to be 100s of people like me, girls and boys who don’t need to go around demonstrating about lack of freedom etc. but just do it [...] If we are to encourage these people to try and do what they believe in without fear or reprisal, we need more than just clubs, web sites, social networks etc. [...]

They need the support of a credible organisation that has the respect of the country’s legal and political and ethical organisations [...] There needs to be more than just middle to old aged people making noises about naturism. There needs to be something more than what we have now. It is only through increasing the numbers that greater freedom will come.

Yes, although see comments on the photographic community above who are largely acting independently of (although supported by) their various national organisations.

However you look at it we need to act ...
If you support these views also, then you can help to tackle these problems [...] the best way to do so is to become a member of BN and let your friends know that you are a member (whenever possible), this will give you confidence that you are a member of an organisation that is focused on pure naturism and fights all that is unacceptable in naturism [...] if you are a member and you run into trouble, you have someone to seek support and guidance from [...] if you hold BN membership, you are more likely to be advised correctly and there would be someone who knows the law well enough to keep you out of trouble and media if necessary.

Yes absolutely. We allowed our BN membership to lapse many years ago, when BN lost its way and was riven by internecine wars. But we have recently rejoined because it was clear that in the current environment not only do we need BN but the movement now needs our support, and BN, having reinvented itself, are now up for the challenge.

You can find more about BN at www.british-naturism.org.uk where you'll find information on the benefits of membership and a membership form. What are you waiting for?

18 October 2010

Elf 'n' Shafty Mad

Dunster in Somerset is a picturesque and historic village whose castle and cobbled streets attract thousands of tourists every year.

Image: Drury Art

But guess what, children? Yes, that's right, the local councils have now decreed that the cobbles have to go, all in the name of the gods Elf and Shafty. They allege that several people have already been whisked away by ambulance this year having fallen on the cobbles. So they are proposing to replace the cobbles with "smooth surfaced roads".

It isn't just me that thinks this is a load of old cobbles either. The news item at Small World has several vox pop defending the cobbles and pointing out that they are a key part of Dunster's history and most people manage pretty well on the cobbles.

What I want to know is, why are (fairly flat) cobbles at Dunster not OK when other places appear not to have a problem? In all the time I've spent in Rye I have never seen anyone fall or be majorly incommoded by the cobbles – and Rye's cobbles are made of very round, and often widely spaced stones; they aren't nice and flat and certainly not suitable for "fuck me" shoes.

Pathetic is about the kindest thing I can say about this.

17 October 2010

Talking about Sex

I recently happened across About.com:Sexuality and specifically an item written by their lead expert Cory Silverberg in which he encourages us all to talk more openly about sexuality. I'm going to reproduce here (for everyone's convenience) the core of what he says:
One of the most difficult hurdles to get over when it comes to talking about sex (whether it’s talking with a partner, with a family member, with your therapist, etc.) is integrating it into your daily life. Sex talk is usually so loaded. Either it’s a scary thing about sexual difficulties, or you’re anxiously awaiting big time rejection, or there’s a blood test involved. Talking about sex is rarely casual fun. [...]

This [...] sex tip hopes to take you one step closer to this goal, by giving you the task of asking someone a question about sex this week.

These shouldn’t be skill testing questions, and they shouldn’t be asked in a mean spirit (designed to embarrass or coerce someone into talking about sex). They are questions designed to let people talk about sex, and also to get you more comfortable breaking the unspoken rule that you aren’t supposed to talk about sex.

Ask your best friend, or grandmother, or someone you just met. Be respectful, and consider the fact that for some people a question about sex could be traumatic, or trigger unexpected reactions related to bad sexual experiences. Choose wisely, but at the same time, try to take some risks in who you ask, and what you ask them.

If you’re stumped on what to ask, here are some of my favourite questions to ask random people:
Where did you first learn about sex?
When you grew up, what were the names you learned for your sexual body parts?
What was the worst sex you ever had? Did you ever have it again?
In theory, would you ever have sex with me? (Note: use this one with caution, and only if you want to know the answer.)

That last question is a bit of a joke, and goes against the spirit of this [...] tip, but it can have fascinating results.

The point of this exercise is definitely not to create stressful conversations, the point is just the opposite. As long as you’re pretty sure this is a welcome question, try to ask the question in the same way you might ask about the last movie someone saw, or where they got that great shawl they are wearing.

Now talking more openly about sexuality is a sentiment with which I have to agree. As I have written before (eg. back in February) I believe that more openness about things sexual and medical would be good for all of us in terms of both mental and physical health.

However I am aware that in asking us to discuss sexuality "head on" in this way Silverberg is setting us a huge challenge (for me hardly less than anyone else) given that explicit discussion of sexuality is still a huge taboo for most people.

I wonder how many of my friends are equal to the challenge?  Who's going to come out of the closet first? :-)

15 October 2010

From Youth to Paradise

I was reminded today of that lovely GK Chesterton poem The Rolling English Road.
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

What could better summarise the English countryside, the fun of youth and the eventual wisdom of age!

14 October 2010

Quotes of the Week

A rich vein of quotes this week. Here are some of the best ...
A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.
[Sir Barnett Cocks]

It is a primitive form of thought that things either exist or do not exist.
[Sir Arthur Eddington]

We [doctors] do things, because other doctors do so and we don’t want to be different, so we do so; or because we were taught so [by teachers, fellows and residents]; or because we were forced [by teachers, administrators, regulators, guideline developers] to do so, and think that we must do so; or because the patient wants so, and we think we should do so; or because of more incentives [unnecessary tests (especially by procedure oriented physicians) and visits], we think we should do so; or because of the fear [by the legal system, audits] we feel that we should do so [so called covering oneself]; or because we need some time [to let nature take its course], so we do so; finally and more commonly, that we have to do something [justification] and we fail to apply common sense, so we do so.
[MS Parmar, "We do things because", British Medical Journal Rapid Response, 2004, March 1 quoted in Imogen Evans, Hazel Thornton & Iain Chalmers, Testing Treatments: Better Research for Better Healthcare]

A wise man makes his own decisions; an ignorant man follows public opinion.
[Chinese proverb]

I am proud that our country remains the scourge of the oppressed. Freedom is once again on the march, as the good people of America join together to wave it goodbye.
[Craig Brown; The Lost Diaries]

Born to American-Indian parents, he spent his formative years in abject poverty in Ireland, nibbling on crusts in a tepee in the exclusive slum area of Limerick. Though there were no books in the family home, he occupied his childhood reading the tepee's assembly instructions over and over again, and in this way gained an unsurpassed command of the English language, as evidenced by his early Tepee Trilogy: Lay the Fabric Flat (1968), With the Long Side Facing Up (1972) and Now Set the Pole in an Upright Position (1975).
[Craig Brown; dust-jacket of The Lost Diaries]

Maturity is only a short break in adolescence.
[Jules Feiffer]

Marriage isn't a passion-fest; it's more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring non-profit business. And I mean this in a good way.
[Lori Gottlieb]

12 October 2010

Red Letter Day

Today is one of those days you never even think about. Then suddenly it's happened.

Today my mother is 95! I've never even really come to terms with the fact that she's 90. My father was in hospital on her 90th birthday (he died 6 months later) and we took her out for lunch. That doesn't seem 5 years ago.

OK, she's been in a care home since March. Until then she was still living in her bungalow and doing everything (yes, everything!) for herself with only a lad to do the heavy bits in the garden. She herself made the decision to move as everything was getting too much for her – not unreasonable at her age! She's very deaf, rather frail and isn't very mobile but mentally she's all there. She's still painting, drawing, knitting and reading, all of which she can do in her armchair – she's always had the philosophy that she'd rather wear out than rust out. I think after all these years she is enjoying having time to herself and having someone else do the donkey work. And quite right too – I think she's entitled to that at 95!

Mother at 92
Mum 3 years ago at Christmas

When I spoke to her this morning she was having a quiet day, enjoying the flowers and books we sent her. She's not a great one for parties, but unless I miss my guess the care home will have done something, if only make a cake for her! I'm sure we'll find out when we go to see her on Saturday.

My mother is the eldest of four sisters. The third sister died 12 years ago at 78. The other three are still going at 95, almost 93 and 86. I won't be at all surprised if she makes 100. And she still won't want a party!

Meanwhile, happy birthday, Mum and enjoy being 95 ... not many of us get that far nor do all the things you've done.

10 October 2010

Calendrical Numerology Event

I do sometimes wonder what some of the people one meets online are on. For instance today brings:
This morning saw 10:10:10 on 10/10/10. 101010101010 is the binary representation of 2730, which you will instantly recognise as a multiple of 42.
[Mark Wigmore @ Cix]

My life is now utterly complete!

Quote: Opinions

The man who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.

[William Blake]

On Homework

The following is from Scientific American of October 1860 (yes you did read that right!) and reprinted in the October 2010 issue. Methinks some of my friends out there may appreciate it!
Against Homework
A child who has been boxed up six hours in school might spend the next four hours in study, but it is impossible to develop the child's intellect in this way. The laws of nature are inexorable. By dint of great and painful labor, the child may succeed in repeating a lot of words, like a parrot, but, with the power of its brain all exhausted, it is out of the question for it to really master and comprehend its lessons. The effect of the system is to enfeeble the intellect even more than the body. We never see a little girl staggering home under a load of books, or knitting her brow over them at eight o'clock in the evening, without wondering that our citizens do not arm themselves at once with carving knives, pokers, clubs, paving stones or any weapons at hand, and chase out the managers of our common schools, as they would wild beasts that were devouring their children.

09 October 2010


Now here's something for the nosey and the magpies amongst us.

The Wellcome Collection in London wants your Things. Yeah not very specific is it! Well that's the point.
Henry Wellcome was one of the world's greatest collectors. On display in [the] Wellcome Collection you will find more than 500 objects from his original collection of over one-and-a-half million, spanning centuries and continents.

And now the collection is running a "community project" (my expression, not theirs) to add a modern perspective to this collection.

The project runs from just Tuesday 12 October to Friday 22 October. You are invited to go along between these dates (except Monday 18 October; the Wellcome is closed on Mondays) to give or loan a "thing" as long as it is smaller than your head. If you can't get there in person you can always send in a photograph of your "thing".

Alternatively you can go along just to gawp at the trash exotica other people have given.

But what should you take along? Well anything as long as it is no bigger than your head (there are a few other sensible restrictions like no explosives; see the terms & conditions) although the advice is to take a "thing" which has meaning for you. It doesn't have to be valuable, or beautiful, or collectable ... just something with meaning for you. And if that means you can't bring yourself to part with it then by all means loan your "thing".

This sounds like a fun project, much in the spirit of Keri Smith's How to be an Explorer of the World.

More details on the Wellcome Collection website.

Now to decide what I take along ...

"Things" runs from 12-22 October (except Monday 18 October) at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Opening hours: 1000-1800 (Thursdays until 2200; closed Mondays).

08 October 2010

Cooking by Internet

No, not an original title! And if you read the post called Cooking by Internet from Douglas Adams (yes, he who created Dilbert) I think you'll see it isn't quite so daft.

Adams is out to lunch (pun intended) but at the same time he's often fucking brilliant. This is so daft it is awesome.

As he says "Don't lie. You'd pay extra for it."! Hmmm...

Religion as a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Here's one of those longer quotes I mentioned earlier. I leave it here, without comment, for your consideration.
Religions are always stridently opposed to the world of the Supernatural. Alleged paranormal events represent competition for the miracles [aka paranormal events!] necessary to any religious belief system and thus compete for the allegiance and contributions of their believers […]

We can observe many members of society who appear to be intelligent and rational in the pursuit of their daily life. However, on Sundays they go to their church or temple. There they participate in incomprehensible and irrational rituals involving magic, prayer and other activities demeaning to their rational minds. Their rational mind tells them that a god does not exist and yet, there they sit and pray to him […]

[…] people tend to associate in communities of like-minded people. Believers restrict their circle of friend and family to other believers. They surround themselves with mirror images of themselves.

If people wear blinders successfully, then the young and naïve among them hear nothing but the desired belief. No reputable person in his or her sphere of life ever disagrees with or objects to the tenets of their common belief system. As time goes on, people in a mentally incestuous society consider it normal that all seemingly intelligent people believe as the community believes […]

[…] the believer sees non-believers as abnormal and undesirable. Thus, religious belief maintains itself through self-affirmation, insulation and demonization of non-believers.

[cliffkirtley at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/]

Quotes of the Week

It's been an odd week, apart from the fact I've been ill, with not many good quotes which are short enough for here, but lots of long ones. Maybe I'll blog the long quotes in separate posts later, meanwhile here are a handful of short ones.
James Joyce fans in Dublin spend up to 36 hours reading Ulysses aloud every year on June 16.
[Times; 29 September 2010]

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.
[Isaac Asimov]

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you actually don't know.
[Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]

Life is change that we don't attend to.
[Cory Silverberg at http://sexuality.about.com ]

Our experience of sexuality is inseparable from our experience of life.
[Cory Silverberg at http://sexuality.about.com ]

07 October 2010

Snailr Postcard

Yay! I'm one of the lucky recipients of a postcard from The Snailr Project, brainchild of Anna over at little.red.boat. The card arrived this morning having taken almost a month to get here from somewhere in Texas.

Anna's idea was that as she was doing a long (like 2 week) circular train trip round the US she would send random postcards to random volunteers to build up a sort of travelogue – except any one person got only one snapshot. In Anna's words:
One journey of almost 7000 miles, six new cities, eight trains, fifteen days, and every vignette, observation and fractured bitty-bit of the travelogue broken up and sent as status messages the old way. By postcard. To a bunch of random people who asked for one. Because travelling slowly is nice. And so is leaving a trail to see where we have been.

Anna used a standard postcard, so she could prepare them in advance and not rely on local supplies.  She then customised each card with description, drawing, or whatever along the way and posted them whenever a mailbox hove into sight.

He's the card Anna sent me from somewhere in Texas, just after they had been involved in a train crash on Friday 10 September!

Snailr Project Card

The caption to the map (which shows Anna's route in red and the location with a * and snail logo) says
the snailr project isn't injured. At all. Not even for insurance.

And the main text reads:
After the train had juddered to a sudden halt, and we pulled to a stop with one side half of a big, silver, grain truck (the front half) on one side of the train, the back half on the other, the rush around to find out who, if anyone, was injured, began. What a dreadful sentence. Sorry. Basically, we were ordered back to our seats and eight sets of people – first Amtrak staff, then paramedics, fire fighters, policemen, walked through the train asking if everyone was OK. They said they were. But half an hour later when people started talking to each other about later claims, all manner of injuries started appearing.

You can find Anna's pictures from the trip with some commentary at snailrproject.com and also on Flickr.

I'm looking forward to the book of the postcards of the journey!

06 October 2010


Having been laid up for the last few days with a nasty stomach upset I've been catching up on a bit of reading, and finally finished Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.  As it says on the cover, this is probably "the most important book you'll read this year", and that's if, like me, you're a scientist.  If you're one of those weedy, innumerate humanities types it is probably the most important book you'll read this decade.  Your life will never be the same again!

In the book Goldacre takes the lid off the way in which quacks, Big Pharma and journalists mislead and misinform (deliberately or otherwise) in order to sell their product to the gullible public who have no understanding of the scientific method or how to analyse, interpret and present data meaningfully.  Inter alia he digs the dirt on cosmetics, nutritionists, drug testing and the MMR vaccine scare, examining the way in which the data are misrepresented, misunderstood and outright fiddled.  Goldacre is a practising doctor as well as writing the Bad Science column (and blog) in the Guardian, so he knows whereof he speaks.

You'll get scared when I say he shows how we all misunderstand risk and the way it is presented, but don't be!  The book isn't technical, there's no nasty maths and lots of explanations and real life examples.  And only a small part of the book is about risk and statistics, although it is a recurrent theme.  You don't need any maths beyond the ability to do simple arithmetic.  Not only does Goldacre know his stuff he writes in a light readable style which keeps you engaged, incredulous and turning the pages.  Some of it is truly fascinating; some truly horrifying.

If there is one important thing to take from this book it is the way in which risk is not understood and is misrepresented – by most of us and by the media.  Indeed it is so important I'll run through it here using a simple example I've just made up.

BMX Jab Doubles Wobbly Cancer – Mothers Demand Ban says the tabloid headline.  Maybe the BMX vaccine does double the risk of Wobbly Cancer, but what does this really mean?  And are the mothers right to demand a ban?  BMX protects children against Cox-Strokers Disease, a nasty infectious illness which leaves 10% of those infected (boys and girls) either blind or infertile or both.  That's 1 in 10 of those who get the disease become blind and/or infertile, so for 1000 cases there are 100 children with their lives ruined. Cox-Strokers is endemic in this country with thousands of cases a year and the government insists every child is vaccinated before they start pre-school. But mothers want the vaccine banned because the preventative vaccine puts their kids at double the risk of Wobbly Cancer.  Should they worry?  How much Wobbly Cancer is there?  The data show that the likelihood of any child getting Wobbly Cancer is 1 in 100,000 per year.  BMX doubles that rate so for every 100,000 vaccinated children there would be 2 cases of cancer each year – or one extra case (remember there is one anyway!).  But if we don't vaccinate the kids for every 100,000 there will be 10,000 (or 1 in 10) cases of blindness and/or infertility.  Now you decide which risk you'd choose for your child – and whether the tabloids are scaremongering!

Even as a scientist I hadn't fully appreciated the significance of how risk was being (mis-)presented – and I'm supposed to know!  One thing this book has done for me is to stop me reading health and science articles in the mainstream media unless from a reputable science-qualified writer.  Better to keep up with science through blogs written by scientists who do understand and can correctly interpret what data and risk mean.

You really should read this book!

05 October 2010

A la recherche du temps perdu

I just must reblog this. Click the image to go to the full version.

It is a brilliant theory of time which complements my theory that time passes at a variable rate. Intuitively we know time passes at a variable rate. Remember how some morning you get up and go through your normal routine only to find you're 20 minutes late leaving for work? But the next day you do exactly the same and you're 15 minutes early? See, the passage of time is variable. Worse it is locally variable; ie. varies differently for me and you. Why can scientists not prove this? Because observing something is known to disrupt that which is being observed; the effect only happens if we're not specifically looking at it.

Well that's my crackpot theory anyway! :-)

Nobel Prize for Medicine

This year's Nobel Prizes are being announced this week. In general the Nobel Committee makes good decisions on who deserves recognition in the sciences and it isn't often that I would quarrel with their choice. I'm not really competent to judge when it comes to the Literature prize. And it seems to me the Peace prize is always something between the doings of the court jester and a political football.

The first of this year's prizes, announced on Monday, was the prize for Medicine which was awarded to Prof. Robert Edwards who devised (and with Prof. Patrick Steptoe developed) IVF.

I apologise in advance if my view upsets anyone (I know it will some) but this is one science award I will quarrel with. In my view IVF should have been strangled at birth.

I take a basically "egalitarian" view of our relationship with Nature: "Nature must be interfered with as little as possible. There are no safe limits so we must always show caution. Nature is fragile. Any risk is unacceptable." (OK like all these generalisations that is a slight exageration of the detail of what I believe, but I certainly tend more towards the "egalitarian" view than any other.)

In consequence I feel that if a couple are unable to have children naturally then Nature has some good underlying reason for this and perhaps we should not be playing God. To me IVF is not a step forward but something which we should not be meddling in; it is the medicalisation of a normal part of normal life. Not being able to have children isn't a life-threatening, debilitating or even disfiguring disease. Compare it with, for instance, on the one hand elective cosmetic surgery and on the other type 1 diabetes. (It is also the first step on the path to eugenics, but that's a completely different argument which we won't go into here.)

As such to me IVF is not something worthy of a Nobel prize. That is in no way to belittle Prof. Edwards' and Prof. Steptoe's undoubted medical and technical skills and their vision of how to solve the problems from which much has indeed been learnt. (For example, Prof. Steptoe was a pioneer in the development of laparoscopy as a surgical technique.) But just because we have the technology to do something does not mean we have to do it.

Prof. Edwards is on record as saying “The most important thing in life is having a child. Nothing is more special than a child." All I can say is that if he thinks that putting another mouth to be fed on this planet is the most important thing ever, well I despair. Where are his ethics? Where was his Ethics Committee? Oh, hang on, back in '60s and '70s when the work was being done there probably wasn't an Ethics Committee. Hmmm.

04 October 2010

Tube Strike Poetry

It's an ill wind ... at least today's tube strike in London means Noreen is at home (albeit working) on her birthday. Mind, she is currently out taking Harry the Cat the the V E T again. And it's wet here which is unusual for Noreen's birthday.

On the subject of the tube strike I just have to repost this from the BBC News website. I love the Liverpool poets, especially Roger McGough.

Poet Roger McGough has written two poems in response to Sunday and Monday's London Tube strike to mark National Poetry Day.

Millions face disruption during the 24-hour strike, which is in protest at plans to cut ticket office staffing.

The theme for Thursday's poetry day is home, and McGough suggests his lines may help commuters see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Liverpudlian poet presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please.

He was also a member of The Scaffold, which topped the charts in 1968 with Lily the Pink, and was an uncredited writer of some of the humorous dialogue on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine film.

Along with Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, McGough was one of the Mersey Poets and they published two best-selling volumes of verse during the 60s and 70s, having started out giving readings in Liverpool's clubs and cafes.

Here are his two poems:

A Striking Soliloquy

tu be

or not

tu be

Tube strike Haiku

trains that are side-lined

idling in rusty sidings

fear the knacker's yard

* * *

tunnels empty now

can see the light at both ends

birds risk a short cut

* * *

rails sleeping, dream of

a parallel universe

a new perspective

* * *

platforms yawn and stretch

enjoying the holiday

mice minding the gap

I must look at the Liverpool poets again; haven't read them for ages. They're brilliant!

02 October 2010

Ig Noble Awards

This year's Ig Noble Awards for wacky and improbable science discoveries were announced a few days ago. The awards are always fun and often thought-provoking. Here are this year's highlights. [As usual my comments in italic.]

Physics: Researchers in New Zealand found that wearing your socks over your shoes improves your ability to walk on ice.
[In what way is this not self-evident?]

Management: A mathematical study in Italy found that in some business situations, it is better to promote randomly than the choose the most qualified candidates.
[And you thought the corporate world worked on the basis of who was prepared to sleep with whom.]

Engineering: A team from the UK and Mexico found the perfect way to collect whale snot: despatch petri-dishes attached underneath a remote controlled helicopter to hover above the whale when it blows.
[Ingenious, no?]

Public Health: A study of bearded scientists working in microbial labs found that they carry along a hoard of microbes in their facial hair and may literally be taking their work home with them at the end of the day.
[Again how was this not self-evident?]

Chemistry: A team including BP were awarded an Ig Nobel for their studies over the summer of how oil, natural gas, and water interact.
[Yeah, the Gulf of Mexico makes a great summer field trip for the graduate students.]

And finally ...

Biology: A UK team discovered that fruit bats engage in oral sex to prolong their sexual encounters.
[And you worried about human sexuality!.]

You can find the complete list here.