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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Numbers Stations

There’s been quite a bit of interest lately in the so-called Numbers Stations. These are bizarre transmissions on shortwave radio frequencies mostly consisting of mechanical voices repeating groups of numbers interspersed with odd snatches of tunes and electronic noises. They were noticed during the 1970s and were generally thought to be non-secure transmissions by intelligence agencies to their operatives in the field. Since then the number of Number Stations has increased enormously. Are they hoaxes, radio pirates or, indeed, intelligence traffic? there’s plenty of speculation but the plain fact is that no-one knows but they’re a fertile ground by the paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists. If you want to hear the sort of weirdness that had most of us terrified through the days of the Cold War then listen to some of these sites:
Or try Google

Saturday, April 16, 2005


I don't want to appear to be giving too many plugs to BBC Radio but as I have more than a passing interest in words and music it's always part of my soundscape. Here's a link to a discussion on the art of the pun:
The presenter is the excellent poet Michael Rosen.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


IS THERE a place in the brain where metaphors are understood? A study of patients with localised brain damage suggests there is.

Vilayanur Ramachandran and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego were intrigued by four patients who were mentally lucid, fluent in English and highly intelligent, but could not understand proverbs.

When one of the patients was asked to explain the adage "all that glitters is not gold", for instance, he completely missed the metaphorical angle, replying that people should be careful when buying jewellery.

All the patients had damage to part of the brain called the left angular gyrus. This lies at the intersection of the brain's temporal, parietal and occipital lobes, which process tactile, auditory and visual information respectively. The findings were presented at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society this week in New York.

From issue 2495 of New Scientist magazine, 16 April 2005, page 18

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Gardeners' Question Time

I know most people use their Blogs to moan about something or other but I resolved to keep positive and cut out the whingeing. There is something which I feel I have to get off my chest, however: The BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/) is an excellent organisation that produces some very fine and thought-provoking radio programmes including “Thinking Allowed” with Laurie Taylor , “The Material World” ( excruciating puns and quips amid the science and technology) with Quentin Cooper and most of its comedy shows on Radio 4, not to mention Lucie Skeaping on Radio 3. Nevertheless, the charge of dumbing down is proved with such backbone programmes as “Gardeners’ Question Time”. GQT used to be inspirational and aspirational. It dealt with double digging the allotment, top pruning an orchard, clipping the yew hedging. It made use of strong chemicals and back-breaking toil. It wasn’t anything we would engage in but it set a bench mark for all gardeners. It was heroic. “This is what proper gardening is about.” it said. Now what do we get but vine weevils on house plants or pot plants for the patio? It’s all so damned trivial we don’t care any more. And Fred Loads and Bill Sowerbutts and Professor Alan Gemmell are no doubt turning in their double-dug graves.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Welcome To The Future The first story of the Boy from the Year 2000

Jimmy woke up with a start. He lay there with his eyes closed and tried to recall why today was meant to be so special. And then he remembered. It was New Years Day! January the First . It was a New Year, A New Century and a New Millennium. It was the Year Two Thousand. As his eyes flicked open he was already scrambling out of bed. He stopped. And then whooped with delight. Folded neatly over the end of his bed was his new suit. He’d never worn anything like that before but it slipped on easily. It was the most comfortable thing he had ever had to wear. It seemed to be warm yet cool, delightfully soft and of the brightest silver colour he had ever seen.
He rushed to the window and flung back the curtains and gave a little gasp. The cars were all gone and in their places a row of gleaming metallic hovercraft were lined up neatly next to the pavement. Somebody had been busy over night! And as he looked around his jaw dropped even lower. Arching up above the whole town was a great plexiglass dome through which the sun shone brightly and the blue sky and fluffy white clouds rolled by. Through the plexiglass in the far distance where the aerodrome used to be he could see a red plume of fire as a silver cigar shape hurtled upwards. it was followed every few minutes by others until the blue sky was crisscrossed with their white smoke trails. They had started work on the space station already.
Jimmy ran downstairs. His mother and father were already there, both wearing their silver suits. “Morning Jimmy!” boomed his father “Welcome to The Future.” His mother kissed him on the top of his head. “Why, Jimmy, I do believe you’ve grown over night. And if you want to keep on growing you must eat your breakfast.” They laughed and then she motioned him towards the table. Jimmy was a little taken aback to see that all there was on his plate were two pills, one green and one purple. “Is that breakfast?” quavered Jimmy. “If I’ve read the packet correctly, yes. But I suppose it could be supper or Sunday Lunch” They laughed again. Jimmy swallowed the tablets and was astonished to find that they did indeed taste like breakfast. And a very delicious one at that. He closed his eyes and savoured porage with honey, bacon and eggs and waffles all washed down with what seemed to be tropical fruit juice.
Suddenly Jimmy noticed the new computing terminal in the corner of the room. It was a large silver box with red blue and green lights winking on and off. “It will allow us to find out any piece of information that we need including bus time tables and what’s on at the cinema.” Said his Father proudly. “Crumbs” said Jimmy, “That must have cost a pretty penny.” “Not a penny!” Laughed his mother. “Twenty Credits.” You’ll have to get used to the new money but it’s quite simple. A hundred Units to One Credit. All the money in you savings account will have been changed over automatically.”
“Look,” said his father pointing to a large glass plate on the wall, “We’ve even been supplied with a new televisor screen. “Crikey,” said Jimmy, “Can we turn it on?” “We shouldn’t really watch until this evening but I’m sure no-one will mind as today is so special.”
The televisor screen glowed and hummed for a few minutes and then an enormous colour picture nearly three feet across came into focus. It was someone talking. The Prime Minister! And he was talking to them.
“Welcome citizens! Welcome to The Future. As you can see, our operatives have been busy over night. I expect you can understand now why we asked you all to go to bed early last night. There was a lot to do. It’s not quite finished but we’re a good way there.” Jimmy’s parents smiled at each other and nodded.“You’ll be glad to know, however,” the Prime Minister went on “ That as from today, all disease has been eradicated from the world, peace treaties have been signed in all wars and airships and hover trucks are delivering much needed supplies to poor people all over the world. Naturally, today is a holiday for everyone.” Jimmy whooped with joy and his parents smiled and nodded “And all the operatives will be having the rest of the week off for working so hard. As this is The Future there won’t be a great deal of work to do but you will find plenty of money in your bank account even if you are at a bit of a loose end. We have made sure there are a lot of libraries, museums, bathing pools and other leisure activities. I suppose, that there won’t be very much for me to do either as there are no more problems to solve, so join all us politicians by the bandstand in the park and I’ll buy you all an ice cream. Toodle oo.” And the screen went blank. Jimmy smiled. The Twenty first Century was indeed a marvellous place.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sika Deer Thugs

Once the rutting season is over the stags in the forest have nothing to do but loiter about in groups like gangs of young males on street corners the world over. Last week somebody dumped a Ford Escort in one of the clearings and, although its 4 miles from the nearest road it has gradually been stripped down and broken up. This morning I surprised a group of half-a-dozen stags hanging round the wreck. They were a miserable looking bunch with broken and missing antlers and scruffy coats giving off an altogether shifty and disreputable air. After they had sloped off I wondered what they might have done with the rather nice alloy wheels

Entangled Electrons

For some time I’ve been writing a piece that includes references to developments in particle physics. The trouble is that things move so quickly in the sub-atomic world (Ha ha) that as soon as you begin to get a fuzzy outline of one concept, another one rises up even more bizarre and mind-boggling. This week it’s entangled electrons - an apparent gift for sci-fi writers. Look them up in New Scientist if you don't believe me.


Last night the BBC took the brave step of showing a two hour live remake of the iconic 1950s drama “The Quatermass Experiment”. Apparently, it’s 20 years since the BBC last broadcast a live drama and over that time, television has lost the art of live drama broadcasting and modern audiences miss the immediacy and excitement of this form.
On this occasion the programme makers were able to use 21st century technology with lightweight cameras and lighting while still keeping the majority of the 1950s script with only the minimum of updates. We did indeed get a sense of the tension and excitement with one or two fluffed lines and someone falling over the set. Crucially, this added to the enjoyment rather than detracting from it. If anything, the weak link was the script which, at times, seemed laboured and wooden although it did allow for more expansive and unusual character development than would be accepted by todays writers used to snappy one-liners and stereotype characters. Altogether, a courageous and worthwhile experiment which ought to be developed with new writing.