Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 26 January 2013

Paint your spaceship

Yee-ha! There's gold in them thar asteroids - along, it is believed, with platinum and a host of rare minerals.

We took a step nearer to the realm of classic science fiction this week with the launch of this year's second asteroid-mining venture. One might be seen as eccentricity; two within a month start to look like a gold rush.

Deep Space Industries plans to launch three laptop-sized craft on asteroid flyby missions while its rival, the even more grandiosely-titled Planetary Resources, intends to send a fleet of small craft into Earth orbit, a posse of tiny prospectors looking for that elusive glint of something valuable in passing rocks.

It certainly makes a change from seeing asteroids merely as incoming missiles and a threat to humanity, though those of an apocaholic disposition might enjoy contemplating the potential risks of trajectory perturbation caused by mining activities.

While the economist sensibly points out that, should vast reserves of platinum be a) discovered and b) brought back, the resulting depression of the markets would affect the long-term profits of the operation, DSI's David Gump ultimately has his eye on higher things.

Mining metals in space and constructing spacecraft components in orbit would eliminate the need for materials to be brought out of Earth's gravity well at great expense. Even more conveniently, ice from asteroids and comets could one day fuel the next generation of space exploration.

Add in inventions such as the inflatable living module that can be shot into space compressed into a 7-foot tube and suddenly the visions of Arthur C Clarke, James Blish et al. don't seem so far away any more, though with advances in robotics, I doubt we will ever see independent space prospectors like the husband-and-wife team in Bertram Chandler's charming short story, 'The Half Pair' (which, incidentally, contains one of my favourite sci-fi quotes: 'Spaghetti and free-fall don't mix').

And with advances in carbon nanotechnology keeping pace, future generations may yet see the much-debated space elevator constructed on the moon or Mars. Perhaps DSI's Firefly craft and their larger Dragonfly successors will herald the beginning of a new age in extra-terrestrial activity.

After all, at the start of the Californian gold rush, who would ever have believed that some of that gold would one day be an essential component of the lunar landing module?

Friday 25 January 2013

"Speak clearly, if you speak at all...."

After chronicling Miss Safe's untimely dip in a Birmingham canal (previous post), I happened to catch a television interview in which she described the incident.

Watching it, I was struck by the fact that, though she is clearly articulate and intelligent, her speaking voice was surprisingly flat, nasal and undeveloped. The same, of course, applies to much of the population these days - since public recital fell out of fashion in most of Britain's classrooms, there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of speech in schools - but one might have thought a radio newsreader would prove an exception.

Still, I shouldn't be too surprised. It's something I've noticed on several recent car journeys; local news and traffic reports suggest that a good, clear speaking voice is fairly low on the list of priorities when choosing radio presenters.

I can see why it might not be deemed important for the actual entertainment broadcasts; Jeremy Clarkson once memorably described local radio DJs as sounding 'as if they're talking to you while someone is pushing Harpic up their nostrils with an electric toothbrush' in the hope of sounding wacky enough to attract the attention of any TV talent scouts who might be listening.

But the news and travel, the bit that's important to the thousands of motorists passing through the area, that should surely be delivered, if not in flawless Received Pronunciation, at least clearly enough to be understood by drivers over the noise of a car.

Instead, traffic announcers slur their words and mumble their script or - in the recent case of one female on a London station - giggle uncontrollably about something the DJ said and thus render half the information utterly incomprehensible; annoying if you're listening at home or in the office but downright infuriating if those details included the cause of the tailback you've just joined on the M25.

One traffic news presenter employed by an East Anglian radio station even has a definite lisp. While I'm all in favour of equal opportunities, I cannot imagine any circumstances that would make him the best possible candidate to read out information concerning Ipswich, Felixstowe and southern Suffolk, particularly in a context where road safety is concerned.

Perhaps it is all about equal opportunities; maybe these are the first tiny steps towards the dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 'Harrison Bergeron', set in a world where the US Handicapper General ensures that everyone is 'equal every which way':
The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn't clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen."
Or perhaps we have reached a point beyond irony, where radio presenters are chosen on the basis of how good they will look in the station's publicity shots and web pages rather than on the sound that will go out over the airwaves. Even on the outer fringes of celebrity, image, these days, is all.

Of course, I could be wrong; Miss Safe may merely have been developing a cold following her involuntary immersion or the studio microphones may have malfunctioned, but it does seem to me that the dulcet tones of the BBC's Charlotte Green and her like are gradually being replaced across the board by voices that lack clarity, resonance and that indefinable quality that makes them pleasant to hear and easy to understand.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Little Miss Safe and global catastrophe

The recent freezing weather has brought us a seasonal Darwin Award hopeful in the shape of Capital FM newsreader Laura Safe (no, really!), who this week provides a fitting metaphor for the state of our society.

Engrossed in sending a text to her boyfriend, Miss Safe walked down the steps out of Birmingham's Mailbox shopping centre and straight into a canal.

Fortunately, according to news reports, a gallant passer-by was on hand to fish her out of the icy water and she is none the worse for her ordeal - though I suspect her colleagues will be indulging in a certain amount of amusement at her expense.

Little has changed, then, since we reported the fate of the young man who ran into a tree while informing the world via twitter that he was 'running to work; very late'. It really makes you wonder whether Leg-Iron was right back in April and evolution is now operating in reverse.

In fact, given the way the young are now using their mobile devices as external hard drives for their brains and the Nanny State is doing its best to render obsolete any remaining survival instincts, we seem to be rushing headlong into Decline and Fall.

The popularity of texting means we'll probably hang on to our opposable thumbs, but thinking is rapidly being outsourced to the extent that we'll soon be needing constant electronic reminders to eat, sleep and go to work and an ever-watchful Nanny State to keep us safe.

Those of us who presume to take command of our own behaviour - 'I am the master of my fate' - will doubtless come to be seen as dangerous subversives and watched with suspicion, lest we contaminate the herd. All in all, if this is the future, then humanity is rapidly approaching its sell-by date.

That being so, one might argue that there is some modicum of comfort in big-budget disaster movies - at least for the apocalyptically inclined.

Conveniently, while researching a previous post, I stumbled across a video clip which enables the viewer to enjoy a generous helping of cinematic mega-disaster without having to sit through all the tedious human-interest stuff (though I do like the plucky Brits in 'The Day After Tomorrow', stuck in their bleak, woollen-clad, sepia-tinted time-warp).

Anyway, for those who wonder if our time is up and enjoy the odd CGI global conflagration, supervolcano or bolt from the heavens, here's a little mid-week treat (essentially 'Name That Tune' for apocaholics):

Saturday 19 January 2013

Leading horses to water

No, it's not burgers this time; we're in the normally hushed surroundings of the Dalkeith public library.

There are plans afoot, however, to shatter the calm on 2nd of February, which is, it seems, 'Love Your Library Day' in Midlothian.
A council has come under fire for offering free pole-dancing lessons and using books as tennis bats in a bid to encourage more people to use libraries.
Pole-dancing? How did that one get past the feminist lobby? Well, these days, apparently, it's 'empowering' for the dancers; in fact, it's virtually mandatory for a particular type of self-styled feminist.

In any case, in official statements, the council is describing the classes as 'fitness sessions', which puts them slap-bang into the 'healthy living' portfolio too - empowerment and exercise; it pushes all the right buttons for public funding.
Bob Constable, Midlothian Council's Cabinet member for public services and leisure [...] said, it was a "fun and interesting" way of encouraging more people to borrow books and try out local library service
Which perhaps says more about Cllr Constable's taste in leisure activities than we care to know. And it's not as if the pole-dancing - sorry, pole-fitness - is the only attraction on offer:
While guests swing on poles, local singers will perform and there will be sessions on novel writing. Books will be used as bats in games of "booky table tennis" sessions held through-out the day.
Since all of this is a clear bid for column inches, some opposition needs to be drummed up to create a sense of drama. Despite its assertion that the council is 'under fire', the best the Telegraph can offer is the chairman of the Library Campaign, who is either in on the publicity stunt or has that rare thing among lobbyists, a keen sense of humour:
Laura Swaffield, chairman of The Library Campaign, said that while pole-dancing was a novel approach to whipping up interest in local services, using books as table tennis bats was "just a step too far".
Quite right! What were they thinking of? That kind of thing that should be done only in the privacy of one's home, where books can also double as handy wasp-killers and coasters for hot coffee mugs (but don't tell the librarians).

But I have to admit one thing is puzzling me; if all the pole dancing - carefully described as 'for over-16s only', though it doesn't say whether that is to take part or to watch - does bring in a crowd, how likely are they to look around and say, "Och, while I'm about it, I'll just borrow a book or two"?

Surely no amount of gyrating on poles*, X-box challenges, head massages or - perish the thought! - 'booky table tennis' is going to change the way the good folk of Dalkeith view their public library on every other day of the year.

*For those wishing to see this for themselves, the guardian goes one better than the Telegraph, informing readers that the classes will take place between 1.30 and 3.30pm.

Friday 18 January 2013

"When this storm is over, we'll be in a new ice age."

My nearest town - a worthy modern-day successor to the Newgate described by Dickens in the heading of this blog - offers a variety of supermarkets.

As a rule, I avoid the biggest one; serving two notoriously rough estates, it has an unenviable reputation for violence and shoplifting - and in any case, the Spouse's habit of referring to it as 'the Ugly Bug Ball' means I can't get the tune out of my head for days after a trip there.

So, anyway, to yesterday morning, and a routine trip to one of of its quieter rivals in a nicer part of town; it became obvious as I neared the place, however, that normal rules were not going to apply. The queue to get into the car park stretched out past the traffic lights on the main road, at which point a significant proportion of motorists had decided to make it up as they went along.

Once in the line, there was no backing out - literally. Having fought my way through the melee to a parking space  (a task requiring the eyes of a hawk and nerves of steel), secured one of the few available trolleys and managed to lay hold of the groceries I needed, I made my way home and sat down with a restorative cup of coffee to catch up on the news before work.

Thus it was that, in due course, I found myself looking at the Mail's lead story, and all suddenly became clear: "Don't travel tomorrow" shrieked the headline, "Motorists warned to stay off the road as Britain faces six inches of snow"

The scrum at the supermarket probably included a fair few stampeding Mail readers, all intent on buying the wherewithal to see them through, judging by their trolleys, most of the next ice age. Meanwhile, A K Haart, who had a similar experience in his local Sainsburys, describes frenzied shoppers seizing vast quantities of potatoes and cake, presumably in fear of some kind of appalling carbohydrate crisis.

And, just to compound the problem, recent news of unexpected ingredients in cheap, own-brand burgers seems to have badly frightened the very shoppers most likely to be swayed by the Mail's frenzied predictions and sent them upmarket, making Sainsbury's this week's panic-buying venue of choice.

By yesterday evening, the lead story had changed; the new headline vaunted the results of the Mail's self-fulfilling prophecy in a rather long-winded headline accompanied by appropriate pictures:
Panic buyers strip shelves after Met Office issues blizzard alert for Wales as Britain braces for blanket of up to 12in of snow tomorrow
It's the Holy Grail of sensational journalism; cause the panic, then report in depth on its consequences. Just as Robert Peston's gleeful coverage of queues outside a single branch of Northern Rock sparked the national scramble that catapulted him to reporting stardom, the news story creates the news.

And the Mail is in its element, sending its readers out in their thousands to empty the shelves of the supermarkets rather than their own store cupboards - how many of us really don't have enough food in the house to see us through until the roads are cleared?

Even the more sedate Telegraph is getting in on the act, with live coverage of the '40-hour snowstorm' and an interesting insight into the mind (if you can call it that) of the panic-buyer. In the words of one shop assistant in the impenetrable wilderness of the Home Counties:
"One woman told me that all the TV forecasters and newspapers are predicting the country will be under a foot of snow and all the roads will be blocked by tomorrow.  
She said she decided to rush in and do a massive shop because all her friends were doing it, and if she put it off, there would be nothing left and she wouldn't be able to get here anyway through all the snow."
The rest of Europe must be laughing themselves sick; why do we make such a fuss about a few centimetres of snow? Does it really matter that we might run out of bread or potatoes for a day or so and have to eat rice or pasta from the store cupboard instead? Surely, once upon a time, we would have taken it in our stride; now it's a disaster of epic proportions, requiring suitably dramatic presentation.

Update: latest Mail headline - which nominally applies only to Wales, but when did reason ever stop the impressionable taking fright?
...public warned to stay inside and avoid all travel

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Awkward burgers

Well, we've all had our fun, but I wonder when the first writs will appear over the unexpected ingredients of the now notorious burgers.

The horse-meat contamination is bad enough - not that I have a problem with people eating horses per se; I just think it's vitally important that consumers can trust the information on food labels to be entirely accurate - but it's the pig DNA in 23 out of 27 burgers (and 21 out of 31 beef products) that is likely to have the more serious consequences.

Of course, if strict kosher or halal is your thing, you're hardly likely to be popping down to Tescos for a box of value burgers, or tucking into an Iceland steak pie.

But the way people have been jumping through hoops recently to avoid offending religious sensibilities might well encourage less scrupulous members of some religious groups to seek legal redress for being 'tricked' into consuming forbidden foodstuff - and lead the authorities into taking them seriously.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that one of the catalysts for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is said to be a rumour that the new rifle cartridges (which the sepoys had to tear open with their teeth) were greased with pork and beef fat, and that this had been done with the tacit approval of a cynical government wanting to break down their religious and tribal loyalties.

In the hands of would-be rabble-rousers, news like this could be a worryingly powerful tool.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

"Does the other one talk?" "Only when she lets me."

Did anyone else see this news story...
Chimpanzees have a similar sense of fairness to people, say scientists.
...and immediately think of this?

Saturday 12 January 2013

No man is one: learner in singular desert (6)

Veteran Guardian crossword compiler, Araucaria, this week chose the unusual medium of one of his crosswords to tell the public that he has terminal cancer.

I first encountered the work of the Reverend John Graham back in my socialist youth, when I cut my cruciverbalist teeth on - naturally - the Guardian's daily offerings, leading to a habit that has since consumed many idle hours.

Araucaria's crosswords were the pick of the bunch - the outward manifestations of a brain so stuffed with arcane knowledge and convoluted verbal dexterity that others paled into insignificance beside him. 

It's saddening to hear of his illness but greatly heartening to know that his immense brainpower has continued unimpaired into his 90s and he's not giving up yet:
Rev Graham said he plans to continues to creating puzzles for as long as possible.
"I'm not actually doing much else."
An extra toast this week, then, to Araucaria, with thanks!

Thursday 10 January 2013

Pass the blogroll, old chap!

Since the regular readership of this blog could comfortably hold a cheese and wine party in a lift - perhaps we should give it a try sometime -  it's not hard to spot patterns of behaviour among the visitors.

There are several who arrive on a post from the archives - presumably having set up a link somewhere - then go on to see what I have written since their last visit.

Many of these go on to follow several links from my blogroll, incidentally providing a reassuringly satisfying endorsement of my selection. However, one visitor in particular is baffling me.

He (or she) arrives on the same archive page every time and proceeds to click on a dozen or so links to other blogs from my sidebar, then leaves without ever looking at my current post - or, for that matter, anything else I have written. This has been happening almost daily for months.

This person presumably shares my predilection for sharp and witty writing by others, yet feels no urge to peruse any of my own creative efforts. I don't know whether to be flattered by this affirmation of my good taste or piqued that my own pieces obviously don't measure up.

I'm reminded of the story told about F E Smith, the earl of Birkenhead, who was in the habit of using the lavatory at the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall on his way to the House of Lords each morning. When a club Porter finally asked him to desist on the grounds that he was not a member, the Peer responded with a surprised, "Oh, is it a club as well?"

Of course, it doesn't matter in the least - in fact, I'm happy that my reading selection is obviously of interest to someone; that's what it's there for - but I can't help finding something slightly odd in the way this unknown visitor seems to be making a convenience of me and my blogroll.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Landlord, fill the flowing bowl...

...until it runneth over.

Yes, folks, it's another asteroid flyby tonight. This time, we'll be raising our brimming tankards to Apophis and lifting our tricorns in salute as it whizzes by 9 million miles away.

Even the most excitable of journalists can't work up much of a frenzy about that kind of distance, so there have been many column inches devoted instead to speculation about the closer approaches due in 2029 and 2036, some accompanied by gratifyingly lurid artists' impressions of the 275-m wide rock flaming into the Earth's atmosphere.

Though its picture is a relatively restrained telescope shot of the asteroid, the Evening Standard is leading the field for sensational headlines so far with
'Apophis, an Asteroid the size of a city block could hit Earth... but not until 2036'.
and, in case you missed the implications:
A 900 foot-wide asteroid - that could wipe out London - will make the latest in a series of close approaches to the Earth tomorrow.
This sweetly parochial view is supported by the assertion that the chances of a collision in 2036 are 'non-negligible', which sounds unfortunately like a low-calorie version of US references to a 'non-zero impact probability situation'.

Meanwhile, for those who enjoy the rather less overblown experience of real-live observation, SLOOH will be hosting live coverage starting at midnight tonight, when boffins from around the world will be looking for data to help calculate Apophis' future trajectory.

Here in the tavern, we're inclined to take a more relaxed view of things and simply drink a toast to disaster averted once more.

So, ladies and gentlemen,  please raise your glasses to the return of Apophis - and Confusion to the Puritans!

For tonight we'll merry, merry be
For tonight we'll merry, merry be
For tonight we'll merry, merry be
Tomorrow we'll be sober.

Monday 7 January 2013

That's very nearly an armful!

As various winter viruses take their toll on the population, blood donor numbers are down and stocks are running low.

The legalised vampires have put out a call for more of the red stuff, so if you're in the UK and you can spare an armful and an hour, now might be the time to do your good deed for the day, especially if you have one of the groups in short supply.

Sometime's it's worth being negative.

French toast

Well - I'm back!

Though it wasn't quite a trip to Mordor, the five hour queue for the Channel Tunnel in Calais on Saturday night was certainly an ordeal of epic proportions.

I sincerely apologise to those who turned up at the Tavern in my absence hoping for a brimming tankard of winter ale and a chat and found the place deserted, though I'm glad to see that the archives have had some visitors (some of whom were not looking for the Ryanair calendar).

Having spent much of the past fortnight away from the internet or much in the way of news, I clearly have a lot of catching up to do, though a cursory look around on my return suggests that it's pretty much business as usual, at least as long as the underclass, health fascists and politicians are concerned.

And since December 21st seems to have brought about neither the marked improvement in human understanding hoped for by some nor the spectacular apocalypse of the more lurid predictions, I have chosen this week to raise a glass to a Frenchwoman with enviably high ethical standards.
While most people celebrated New Year's Eve with parties and fireworks one pensioner in northern France spent the night alone in a locked supermarket. 
The 73-year-old woman felt faint at the store in Roubaix and went to the toilet but when she came out later she found the shop deserted and locked up.
Despite being trapped there until a manager arrived at 10.30 the following morning, she did not touch any of the food and drink in the shop because, according to television reports, she 'had not paid for it and there was no one to whom she could give the money'.

Though it may perhaps be unwise to put one's moral values above physical wellbeing, we salute her formidable integrity: madame, à votre santé!