January 29, 2010

The sort of news you'd never read in the Daily Mail

I am sure there are plenty of people who are positively salivating over the prospect of moaning about the London 2012 Olympics going over budget or being behind schedule or the logo isn't what they expected - all of which will be held up as representative of everything that is bad about Britain.

I'm not one of them.

Like moon landings and the Angel of the North, the Olympics are one of those beautiful things that are impossible to quantify in monetary terms, because the kind of benefits that come from something that inspires and unites your fellow human beings simply cannot be measured. They're worth every penny.

So, a year or more ago, when I heard they needed 70,000 volunteers to help make the London Games and the Paralympics a success, I went online to put my name down. Hold on a minute, they said, and explained that they're not starting the recruitment process until this year. But you could register an interest, which means getting emails, from time to time, to keep you up to date.

I've just received the latest email, which revealed something that should be headline news on every media outlet in the country, but isn't - because not many people are interested in reading good news, and even less in reporting it. I haven't read today's Daily Mail, for instance, but my guess is there's not a word in there about 280,000 people already registering.

That's already four times what they need - and they haven't even begun the process properly yet. We are talking about than a quarter of a million people who are prepared to travel to London and probably try to find accommodation at their own expense - just for the privilege of working and not getting paid for it.

My email also explained what is required from volunteers - going to a selection day and interview, attending at least three training sessions and then making a commitment to do at least 10 days' worth of volunteering. In other words, it's a big commitment.

Of course, when they get to hear about what's involved, some of the 280,000 will have second thoughts. But not many, I bet. The more I hear about it, the more determined than ever I am to be there.

910 days to go.

The world's most beautiful model

There was an unmissable programme on the National Geographic channel last night. Unmissable for me, at least.

It was all about the Taj Mahal. Any programme about probably the world's most beautiful building is going to be worth watching, but I tuned in because the Taj is the subject of one of our most cherished family heirlooms.

Now, I am hopelessly attached to so many inanimate objects that I really should have some kind of therapy, but our model of the Taj Mahal is very high on up the lists of things I would grab if the house was on fire.

It's probably not worth much - maybe a tenner, if that. In fact, the glass dome it sits in is probably worth more, but I've always had an affection for it - even before we owned it.

It used to belong to Julie's great aunt Em, and when she died (in about 1984) it was passed to her nephew, Julie's father. And when he died in 2006, it was the first thing we asked the rest of the family if we could have. He always knew how much I liked it, anyway.

Funnily enough, we used to own one that was very similar, except it didn't have a dome. We spotted it in a so-called antiques market about 20 years ago. But within a couple of years, Julie dropped it while getting it down to clean, and it broke into a thousand pieces. Our current one is made from the same substance, which I think is probably gypsum, and it looks like it was probably mass produced for some cheap tourist trade.

The one we have now is not exactly in perfect condition. Not only does one of the corners have a large crack, which has been roughly glued, but each corner has been nicked off so that it fits inside the dome, which proves that the dome wasn't made for it (or vice versa). We don't care.

The programme was a bit disappointing. It was one of those hour-long documentaries that could easily have fitted in half an hour, and it made no attempt to investigate or explain what it is about the building that makes it so attractive. Is it the proportions? Is it the way it reflects the light? What?

Probably the most disapointing thing about it is it revealed that people have been banned from visiting the Taj because of security fears, although this ban seems to have been lifted since the programme was made.

It goes without saying that I'd love to go to India and see it in person one day, but for now the model is a more than adequate replacement.

January 27, 2010

Chris Evans for President

I had the pleasure of listening to a whole hour of Chris Evans's newish breakfast programme on Radio 2 this morning, which has confirmed my already strong conviction that he has a finer brain and a more cheerful personality than nearly anybody else I can name.

The irony here is that, in the band I play in, me and Dave the guitarist have a running joke about us being forced to take up playing live music in a band because we don't have the vast experience and special training necessary to be DJs. Otherwise, we'd be running a disco. I mean, it must be really difficult to press a button and make a CD play...

But Chris Evans does much more than that. As my brother rightly observed, he is so enthusiastic that he presents the show like it's the first time he's ever done it. His choice of music is excellent too - all chosen because they are either interesting or because they are designed to get you out of bed with a smile.

What's really good about him, though, is he is so quick, so there is instant interaction with newsreaders, traffic news presenters and anybody who phones in, including kids. This is where his skill really shines through, because I have interviewed kids - not for radio but for newspapers, which is easier - and I know it's almost impossible to get anything out of them, but he manages it every time and never puts them down. Nor anybody else. He's just so sincere.

What clinched it for me was what he said a few months ago, when I was listening to his tea-time show. A woman wrote in and said she'd been a big fan for years, but her husband had always thought he was a bit of a plonker, until recently.

"Well," said Chris, "he's right. I did used to be a bit of a plonker." And he meant it. For somebody so successful, he is genuinely down-to-earth and modest, and I'm looking forward to reading his autobiography soon, which Julie has nearly finished and already recommending.

So if Chris Evans stood for President, I'd vote for him. Indeed, there are only two other people who I would consider voting for instead. One is Stephen Fry and the other is Rolf Harris.

January 24, 2010

How not to report an earthquake

I'm not sure if anybody else has thought about this, but it really bugs me the way the media report earthquakes.

As soon as earthquakes occur, you can guarantee that all the media channels will be running stories about "sniffer dogs" - usually British ones, who have been trained to help rescue people from collapsed buildings. And just as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow morning, it won't be long before you get at least one (and probably a handful) of stories about people being pulled from the rubble after days of being "buried alive" under a building.

Of course, this is good news, but it's only a very tiny fraction of good news compared with all the bad earthquake news, so hardly qualifies as news at all, especially as it happens after every single earthquake. It's just trivialising a grave situation. What's worse, though, is these stories are moved to the top of the bulletin when, really, the true awfulness of the disaster and what the rest of the world is doing (or not doing) to aid the situation is far more important and much more interesting, and should therefore be given priority.

In a similar way, millionaire film stars and billionaire record producers organising charity appeals and benefit records - partly to bolster their own egos and public images - is also a gross trivialisation. The amounts they raise are a fraction of what's needed, but give the impression that buying a record somehow solves something. It doesn't. If anything, it blocks further aid by giving a false impression to some people that a solution has been reached. Worse still, it provides an excuse for us to think that we've done our bit.

The worst exploitation of the pulled-from-the-rubble scenario I've ever heard, though, was on a BBC programme I was watching, this morning, called The Big Questions.

Nicky Campbell hosts this "series of questions on moral, ethical and religious debates" - and pretty interesting it can be, too. Although it can be a vehicle for people with some pretty selfish religious views, who do not deserve a platform, it is usually balanced, and was today, because there were several humanists and atheists invited on to debate the questions, which included the provocative "Does the earthquake in Haiti earthquake prove God doesn't exist?"

It seemed that many of the religious people there were united by the idea that the earthquake was some kind of test of faith - although it wasn't quite clear what kind of test the babies who died in the quake had undergone or whether up to 200,000 had been slaughtered just so God could test the faith of less expendable people like us in rich countries.

But the whole debate was blown out of the water for me when a lady from a scary-sounding organisation calling itself the Evangelical Alliance said there was evidence of "the voices of the believers" in Haiti - because one lady had thanked God that she was pulled from the rubble alive. From this, apparently, we can deduce that "God is with them" and "the faith of the people of Haiti will be strengthened".

As terrible as the earthquake was, Haiti has an even bigger problem: poverty. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and this is at least partly due to the violent reign of 'Papa Doc' Duvalier from 1957 to 1971, which caused a 'brain drain' and a withdrawal of foreign (especially American) investment, from which it has never recovered.

And as one of the guests on The Big Question pointed out (it was Terry Christian, of all people), very few states recognised Papa Doc's government (and they even succeeded in providing common ground between neighbours Cuba and the USA, who both cut off diplomatic relations). But one state did recognise him. It was the Vatican.

January 22, 2010

Merry Christmas

We joined our friends for the traditional post-Christmas Christmas dinner tonight - at the Toby Carvery. And what a pleasant evening it was, too.

There were crackers, 'secret Santa' presents and what could prove to be the only other roast dinner I will eat this year, apart from the one I am anticipating on December 25.

I am not a fan of traditional Sunday roasts on account of my genes give me literally zero appetite for all those horrendous cooked vegetables, such as carrots, cauliflower, sprouts, parsnips and - evil of evils - swede. My plate was saved by nice roasted half onions - the only other cooked vegetable I can stomach, apart from peas and spuds.

January 21, 2010

The wasp factory

It's not very often that you get a picture of a wasp with snow in the background.

This one suddenly arrived up in the loft here, where I have my office, looking slightly groggy and presumably facing imminent death, as soon after I opened the window to let her out.

How did I know it was a 'her'?

It was only after Googling - to find out why there was one around, so early in the year - that I discovered she must have been a queen. I might have suspected this because she was slightly larger than you might expect a wasp to be, and it turns out that all worker wasps die during the winter, and only the queen hibernates. Somewhere up here there must be a small, golf ball-sized hibernation cell, made out of pulped paper (wasps can't produce wax like bees).

They like to hibernate in lofts, apparently, although insulation and central heating often wake them early, whereas they are supposed to come round in the spring. So, even though there's snow on the ground and even though it can be pretty cold up here after my fan heater blew a fuse, she got all her timing wrong and has no hope of making it to March or April to set up her new colony.

Most people will say this is a good thing, but for some reason I have a soft spot for wasps - partly because I haven't been stung by one for about 40 years, and also because, as I understand it, they do more good than harm, being excellent at eating unwanted bugs in the garden. When you see them up close, their heads also look rat-shaped - another animal I like.

My main reason for liking wasps, though, is because they seem such a beautiful example of evolution in action.

January 17, 2010

No dismembered trunk of a man in his late fifties

I have had a complaint - from Sean, of all people - that this blog has not been updated for ten days.

That's because I am feeling a bit like Ralph Melish at the moment, on account of nothing happened (Ralph Melish was the subject of a Monty Python sketch, which you can hear on YouTube, brilliantly delivered by Michael Palin).

Of course, it's not quite true that nothing has happened, just nothing out of the ordinary to warrant a single entry. The snow disappeared in a flash; me and Julie had a nice day out, shopping and doing not a lot in Reading, and came home with a new bath sheet and towel; and our band got to play at the Kingsdown Inn (last night), which was easily our best ever performance, and everybody there seemed surprisingly impressed.

I proved, once again, one of the annoying truths about drumming, which is: you can practise for hours, but it doesn't matter how well or how badly you play because nobody watching knows the difference, unless they see you drop your sticks. I was on a hat-trick, having dropped a stick in each of our last two gigs, so was very relieved not to drop one this time.

I chickened out of playing the proper drum part to Go Your Own Way (by Fleetwood Mac) which is difficult because it's unconventional, but sort of redeemed myself by making it up as I went along, which is, in itself, a skill - and still didn't drop a stick.

Another thing to report is we (me, Julie and Holly) did a long (55-minute) walk tonight which should be the first in a series that we are trying to do regularly to try to get fitter. During this I noted an interesting fact about vertical blinds and their relationship to human behaviour that I will share at some stage.

Geek alert: The Simpsons character Hans Moleman was called Ralph Melish when he first appeared in the programme, in honour of the Python sketch.

January 7, 2010


Apparently, it was "the wrong kind of snow" for making a proper snowman today, so Holly made a snowcat instead - a kind of sculptural snowman derivative. But we all liked it.

January 6, 2010

Get my drift

After a few false starts, the snow has finally arrived in Swindon, forcing snow geeks and incurable snappers to click into action...

..and looking even lovelier in late afternoon...

January 5, 2010

Family likeness

It's about time I started uploading some of Holly's art which, for a 15-year-old, I think is damned good.

Her latest school assignment was to draw a self portrait while wearing a hat - something that I would have found very difficult at her age. The result, above, is a pretty good effort in its own right, even though she never was satisfied with the eyes.

But the best thing about it is it is actually a really good likeness, which is difficult enough with somebody else's face and surely a hundred times more difficult with your own (although I've never tried).

Hopefully it will make her more confident about her art, because her main failing is she is too conservative, when, of course, the world's greatest artists became great by bending and breaking rules, not conforming to them. It's hard to be bold when you're 15.

Eye, eye

I suppose I had more reason to read The Eye (which I have just finished) than most people, what with being hopelessly colourblind, having recently suffered the trauma of a torn retina, and because I do a great impression of Mr Magoo when I haven't got my contact lenses in.

I also read it because I have become fascinated by evolution just lately and wanted to put to bed the crazy notion that the eye was somehow 'proof' of the existence of a superior power, on account of something as perfect as that could only be a gift from God.

The book certainly did put that to bed - on two main counts, starting with the fact that there is evidence of the eye having evolved countless times over the course of the world's history, and in countless ways.

And the main conclusion from Simon Ings's often illuminating book is that the human eye - and all the others that God is supposed to have made - are all massively flawed and therefore a very long way from perfection. If anything, it is a primitive poor relation of that vastly superior organ, the brain. If God made the eye, he must have had an off-day, and evolution is still working on it.

What Ings does best is point out that the eye only provides very limited information and leaves the brain to fill in the giant gaps, which it does with incredible dexterity, massively and rapidly reprocessing to create an impression of what the eye would have seen if was anywhere near as efficient at capturing light as, say, a digital camera.

Only a tiny fraction of the viewpoint can be in focus, and yet the brain creates the illusion of a perfect picture, all the time performing its greatest trick, which is keeping a constant, self-levelling image in front of us which makes perfect sense. And before it does that, of course, it has to turn everything the right way up because the eye can only 'picture' it upside down.

I also learned something about colours, which is a subject that has always interested me, being colourblind. It has always been obvious to me that we all see colours with varying degrees of accuracy - colourblind or not - but The Eye neatly explains how our experience of colour depends as much on the way the brain compares different colours entering the eye as in the incredibly speedy way it recognises colours by analysing tiny fluctuations in the wavelengths of different rays of light.

The downside to the book is that it is at pains to tell the story of research into optics, spending too much time on what turned out to be erroneous theories and not always setting the proved ones far enough aside from these to make conclusions clear.

Then again, there are still plenty of things we don't understand about the eye, and at least I know much more than I used to.

The icing on the cake

...talking of being colourblind, I once wasted half an afternoon going around the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, trying to work out what, if anything, was special about Van Gogh, and coming to the conclusion that although I couldn't see it, it must have been something to do with his use of colour.

But even I can see that this Van Gogh cake (as seen on Forgetfoo) is undoubtedly the best icing job ever.

January 2, 2010

Cosy Cottage

My New Year's football resolution for 2010 (a World Cup year, of course) is not to let my expectations get too high.

After all, since 1966 ithe big question is not whether England will win the World Cup again after all, but what new method they will come up with to ensure they disappoint everybody in the long run. We've had bizarre injuries to crucial players, stars getting themselves sent off at key moments, bad refereeing, comedy defending, Hands of God, and my favourite: putting a Swedish con man in charge of our best team for years, even though he turned out to know almost nothing about football management. Or maybe it'll be that old banker again: getting all the way to the penalty shoot-out and putting the ball in row Z of the stand.

Swindon Town are also looking far too much like a team who could fulfill their potential for my liking - because experience tells me there's no point in getting too hopeful. They've never been any good at penalty shoot-outs, either.

Today I followed them to Fulham for the third round of the FA Cup - one of the few truly great football traditions left intact in the money-grabbing, success-at-all-costs capitalist game that it has become (yes, we're looking at you, Manchester City fans).

I must admit that I probably wouldn't have gone today if it wasn't for the fact that it was an excuse to have a day in London with my friend Steve, who is over from Sydney. We had a nice walk around the sights and stopped for bangers and mash in a pub before going to the match. But I'm glad I went, even though Town lost 1-0.

It was nice to be one of 6,000 noisy, good-natured and appreciative Town fans who gave their team a big ovation at the end for working really hard and - best of all - trying to overcome their in-form Premiership opponents by playing good football.

Although we just didn't have the same invention in front of goal that they had, we matched them on the rest of the pitch and had something to cheer when our goalie saved a second half penalty. It was just asking too much for us to snatch an equaliser at the end, which we probably deserved, but 1-0 is a creditable achievement on a ground where Manchester United were recently thrashed 3-0.