Monday, 30 June 2014

Want to be the Doctor's companion? Go on a hairdressing course first!

Want to be the Doctor's companion? Go on a hairdressing course first!

By Marjorie Fitzsimmons (as told to backwards7)

When people find out that I used to be one of the Doctor's time-travelling companions the first thing they usually ask me is whether I can get them Davros's autograph. The answer is I can't, no matter how much you beg or plead: At one time Davros and the Doctor were in business together. That professional relationship turned sour many decades ago and the pair no longer communicate, except through their solicitors.

From there the conversation moves on to any encounters that I may have had with Daleks. Sometimes I am asked whether a Cyberman has ever attempted to upgrade me. There is a certain type of individual who always wants to hear about the Zygons. I have learned from past experience that it is wise to steer clear of these people. Every once in a while I meet someone who is a bit surly and evidently jealous of my time with the Doctor who will make a rhetorical comment along the lines of “I expect it's all screaming and running down flimsy corridors, isn't it.”

Addressing each of these points in turn:

(1) I have only ever encountered one Dalek. Her name was Gemma and we met at a fĂȘte in Winchester where she was running a cake stall. She apologised profusely for the behaviour of her species in the past (“It was our grandparent's generation - we're not all like we're portrayed on the BBC”). I, in turn, apologised for the negative stereotypes of Daleks perpetuated by the media. Contrary to what the BBC might have you believe they cannot make a robotic eye-stalk spontaneously emerge from the centre of a human forehead.

In fact, outside of Earth, the Daleks are better known as a race of accomplished plumbers. The sink-plunger appendage common to most models is a symbol of this proud tradition. Gemma gave me some excellent advice on the installation of a downstairs lavatory. She was delightful company and we have kept in touch by email ever since.

(2) In the event of you meeting a Cyberman it is highly unlikely that they will consider you worthy of being upgraded as there is a very stringent person specification. Those wishing to make the transition from human to post-human entity must first undergo a succession of rigorous interviews and aptitude tests. The few who are successful must sign a consent form, after which there is a three month cooling off period prior to the upgrading process.

(3) The flimsy corridors are very much an invention of the Doctor Who television series, which I will discuss in greater detail in a moment. During my four years with the Doctor, the only occasion when I can recall running screaming down a corridor was when my friend, Colleen, and I were racing to catch the last space bus from Mars Base Delta back to the Earth's moon. As I recall the corridor was of sturdy construction and did not wobble when touched.

When I look back on my years as a reluctant time traveller, I realise that I actually spent very little time on alien worlds immersing in the culture of the inhabitants. The thing that I remember doing the most was tidying up the Tardis and taking care of the doctor who, while he may be a genius, retains the emotional intelligence of a toddler. This is a man well over 1000 years old who still believes that he can iron a shirt simply by waving a sonic screwdriver at it.

Fanciful theories abound as to why the he chooses to travel with mostly human companions. The truth of the matter is that he needs someone to cut his hair for him and, in his opinion, Earth has the best hairdressers. Despite his high IQ he seems unable to grasp the fact that not everybody on my home planet is born with innate hairdressing skills. He would be far better off selecting a companion who has trained in the profession rather than picking up people at random off the street. By way of example, I am not a hairdresser. I am a 54 year old music teacher from late 20th century Durham, England.

My first few months in the Tardis were spent tiptoeing my way around the Doctor's tantrums, provoked by me cutting his fringe unevenly, leaving one sideburn slightly longer than the other, or because the colour I had dyed his hair was no longer to his liking. He once yelled at me for three days straight because I had picked his hat up off the floor of the control room and placed it in his wardrobe where it wouldn't get stepped on.

Eventually I learned to stand up for myself:

“BUY SOME FUCKING PROFESSIONAL HAIRDRESSING SCISSORS!” I once yelled at him. I don't usually swear but I was at the end of my tether.

When the Doctor wasn't ranting and raving he would often descend into petulant sulks during which his part in our conversations would be reduced to monosyllabic grunts at best. It was during one of these huffs that he attempted to abandon me in 14th century France which for some reason had been occupied by Sontarans.

The Doctor has many vices and bad habits. In the past he had accrued significant gambling debts. To pay off the money he owed, he sold the rights to his image to the BBC who continue to produce a children's television show loosely based around events in his life. These stories are always airbrushed in a manner that makes the Doctor look good. In many of the events that inspired episodes the he was undoubtedly the aggressor. I was once told by a previous companion that he went through a phrase of throwing rugs and tablecloths over Daleks so they couldn't see where they were going, before pushing them into ladies changing rooms.

This cruel streak was still very much in evidence when I travelled with him:

All my life I had been haunted by a childhood memory of a mean old lady pushing me into a puddle. I later discovered that the old lady in question was me! The Doctor had pointed out a small child and claimed that she was an Auton – a sentient plastic being controlled by the Nestene Consciousness. If I didn't go over and push her into a puddle immediately she would probably strangle a kindly policeman. Needless to say none of this was remotely true.

The Doctor eventually returned me to England 20 years after I had left on the day of my sister's funeral. By this time I had also been declared dead; something that continues to cause me problems with my state pension. I am also in dispute with a former friend over the ownership of my pet tortoises, which she has looked after ever since I went missing.

Fortunately I am able to earn a small income as a public speaker and as a guest at Doctor Who conventions. I also do charitable work where I go into schools and warn impressionable young ladies – the type the Doctor seems to favour these days – of the dangers of getting into a blue box with a stranger.

He is not a terribly pleasant man. 

His real name by the way is Kevin Michael Edwards.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Flying Ant colonies were grounded during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Flying Ant colonies were grounded during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Ant colonies in Hackney were ordered to forgo their annual nuptial flight during the 2012 Olympics under threat of military action, according to leaked documents.

The flight which takes place every year during the summer has been described as a cross between the Notting Hill Carnival and a bacchanalian Club 18-30 holiday. Scantily-clad, winged ant queens are pursued by gangs of males across the capital's skies where they engage in spectacular group sex before descending upon the city and establishing new colonies in more desirable postcodes.

However the flight was deemed a high security risk by games organisers and was prevented from going ahead in a secret court hearing. According to documents seen by this reporter the military were under orders to use Rapier High Velocity ground to air missile batteries, stationed on the roofs of tower blocks around the Olympic site, to shoot down any colonies who strayed into the airspace over the Olympic park.

Corporal Henry Moore said: “It was felt that an opening ceremony that included both her Majesty the Queen and home-grown grime artist Dizzee Rascal might present too tempting a target for dissident ant colonies. Therefore we decided to err on the side of caution.”

Ant community leader David Chapman said “The nuptial flight is the second-most important date on the ant calender after ant Christmas which we celebrate in September. Instead of taking to the air my winged colleagues were forced to march in single file to predesignated colony sites, under the cro-magnon gaze of G4S security personnel.”

He added:

“It was particularly galling since ants supported the Olympic bid only to be be informed at the beginning of 2012 that they would be ineligible to compete in any of the events.”

Ant worker Kevin Titman expressed regret at the decision to ground colonies:

“I look forward to flying ant day as an opportunity to get mildly intoxicated with my mates on some sex pheromones and engage in some good natured airborne shagging. You can imagine how annoyed we all were when told by organisers that we were going to do a sponsored walk instead. I spent all year making my winged costume. I am trying to sell it on Ebay if anyone is interested.”

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Our Sunken Summers

Our Sunken Summers

Words and pictures by Mark Sadler

(This is a work of fiction)

For two seasons, stretching from May to late August, I worked in a small factory making beanbag toys – lizards, snakes (cobras), crabs, lobsters and starfish. It was a four-man operation made possible by an EU grant that was supposed to help stimulate business on the island. Typically these ventures shut up shop as soon as their funding was cut. That is exactly what happened in this case.

After work ended, at around midday, Ralf and I would drive in his battered car to the next bay along from Playa de Santiago. We would park on the verge right up against the crash barrier, climb out through the passenger side door and change into our swimming trunks by the roadside. The road was not particularly busy and so it was rare for somebody to drive past. The inlet was usually deserted - the wide grey spread of a stony beach mostly cast in shadow by the looming rock walls on either side. There was concrete pier that ran along the base of one of the cliffs. At the far end there were some neglected buildings that had once been a fish cannery.

Around this time of day the choppy waters surrounding the island were a brooding multi-faceted sapphire blue, lined with brilliant white waves that scrolled neatly across the surface. Ralf and I would walk out until we were up to our waists, then point ourselves at the headland with the intention of rounding it and swimming back towards the town. Sometimes when I turned my head to the right, with the waves slapping me in the face I would see, through a veil of salt water, the mountain goats superimposed against the sheer cliff face as if they were suspended in mid-air and the mass of rock behind them was incidental. For some reason it became important for me to spot as many as possible and count them. More often than not my obsession resulted in me swallowing mouthfuls of salt water and fighting off a coughing fit while I struggled to stay afloat.

As we rounded the spur of land the waves became rougher and the currents were more complex. There was always a point when I felt as if I was no longer fully in control of my own destiny; if the ocean were to catch me in this weak moment it might slam my body against the rocks, or spirit me into open water.

Ralf and I were young men and we were both strong swimmers. After we had circumnavigated the headland we would turn away from the blank horizon and head for shore: A young beach made up of large smooth pebbles that were almost too hot to walk on. We staggered out of the ocean suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue, the waves exploding behind us in exaggerated clouds of white spray. As the foaming water withdrew between the cracks there would be a rattling sound as the loose stones jostled against each other.

The beach cafe was a shack located at the end of a short rutted track, adjacent to a small banana plantation. It was a ramshackle structure. The foundation was a square courtyard consisting of low, brightly-painted cement walls shrouded in a thick layer of dust. A makeshift system of poles supported a corrugated iron roof. Animal sculptures fashioned from re-purposed engine oil cans dangled from the ceiling. Usually a Cafe Del Mar CD would be playing on repeat on a portable stereo system..

When he saw us the owner, Eluterio, would bring out a tray with a couple bottles of Pepsi. He would prise the serrated caps off in front of us and place a drinking straw in the neck of each bottle; the pressure from the rising bubbles would gradually force them upwards until they were jettisoned and would fall onto the table. I would pay him with money from a zip-locked pocket in my trunks that was supposed to be waterproof but wasn't. He would dry any notes that I gave him by laying them flat on the bar.

In the beginning, after we had finished our drinks we used to swim back the way we had come. We even did it in the dark a few times. After a while though it felt safer to walk back along the road. For us it was a ritual – a thing that we did together as friends.

The reason that I am telling this story today, on the 21st June, is because Ralf is gone, 3 years just past, and I think this time next year Eluterio will be gone too, as he is very ill. 

He also had a private ritual which I will describe to you:

Every December 21st he would select one of the pebbles from the beach – one that was large enough to fit in the palm of his hand with his fingers spread almost flat. Behind the counter of the bar he would paint the stone yellow. When it was dry he would add the black spidery outline of a sun.

Later he would set the stone on one of the low walls of the cafe. It would stay there all winter. On the evening of Midsummer's day he would come out from behind the bar. Without ceremony he would leave the cafe absent-mindedly snatching the pebble from its resting place as he passed by. He would walk with it down the beach until he was almost level with the shoreline. He would stand there for a few minutes as if in contemplation. Then he would hurl the stone silently and with great force into the breaking waves.

I once asked him how long he had been at the cafe. He told me “21 years this summer.”

Strewn across the seabed around Playa de Santiago lie the scattered memorials to summers past laid there by a man who has watched them come and go.

RIP Ralf – We see each other! 


Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cock-blocked by the Bilderberg Group

Cock-blocked by the Bilderberg Group

It was the evening of April 20th, 2007, when a secret cabal of powerful men and women made a brazen attempt upon my sex life.

I was working as an MEP and used to visit the European Parliament in Brussels on a fairly regular basis. On the date in question I had attended a debate on a redrafted section of a trade bill that had been passed the previous year, but had been found lacking in certain key areas.

The vote had been time-tabled as a Schedule-C hearing and so should have been held in one of the chambers in the C wing of the parliament building. However, because the parliament was in such a state of disarray, the reading of the proposed amendment ended up being heard in the large conference room on L wing.

In these situations it is quite common for MEPs to confuse the scheduling code with the location of the vote, and indeed that is exactly what happened to me on this occasion. I got it into my head that I was attending a Schedule-L hearing, taking place in the C wing. At this point I must stress that I was not the only MEP to make this mistake. Anyway, I ended voting for something completely different to what I thought I was voting for. A consequence of this error is that I am partly to blame for the tomato ketchup that you buy in stores not tasting quite as good as it used to.

On my way out of the parliament building I bumped into Larson Ljungborg – a Swedish MEP who, for reasons best known to himself, has always referred to me as “Giles”. We spoke for a while and he mentioned in passing that the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group were rumoured to be in town.

The Bilderberg Group, if you are not familiar with them, are a loose-knit consortium of leading politicians, academics, industry and media figures, who meet occasionally to discuss the direction of world affairs, with the goal of fostering strong relations between North America and Western Europe. The composition of the group – the fact that it includes so many powerful and influential figures - along with its somewhat clandestine public image has led many to believe that it is a manifestation of a shadowy world government who secretly control all aspects of our lives from behind the scenes. There are even some commentators who go so far as to claim that the members of the group are not human, but an alien race of star-faring lizards. Why an advanced reptilian species who are capable of shape-shifting and traversing the black void of space would choose to assemble at a hotel in Watford, England, as opposed to meeting on an orbiting space craft, or communicating via telepathy, is beyond me.

I soon forgot all about my conversation with Larson. It was a Friday night and I was a single, middle-aged male bureaucrat in Brussels. The world was my oyster.

I had heard through the MEP grapevine that Annie's Bar offered the best opportunities for meeting with a member of the opposite sex. Upon my arrival I immediately spotted a very attractive dark-haired woman perched on a stool by the bar. Her dress resembled a sheet of black satin draped artistically over her statuesque form, in such a fashion that it seemed as if the slightest sudden unchoreographed movement might dislodge it and send it sliding to the floor in a shimmering pile. As I approached she plucked a peanut from a small silver dish that had been placed on a padded paper napkin on the bar in front of her. She raised the small morsel to her red lips tilting her head away disdainfully, as if in open contempt of the human act of eating.

I immediately hit her with my best line:

“The old testament of the bible is very specific in regard to the number of nuts that one may consume between sunrise and sunset. Eating nuts after dark is considered a sinful and wicked practice.”

She turned to face me, her body smouldering with derision, and yet behind that pretence I sensed a flicker of interest.

“Peanuts are legumes.”

We bantered back and forth like this. With me drawing parallels between biblical verse and modern European trade laws while she sipped her Martini and affected studied boredom. Finally my bladder rudely interrupted our conversation and I was compelled to make my excuses and adjourn to the men's room.

When I returned to the bar a few minutes later the woman was gone. Perched on the stool she had previously occupied was an overweight man dressed in a suit. I enquired as to whether he had seen a girl in a black dress and if so where she had gone, but he ignored me.

Growing ever more frantic I posed the same question to the barman.

“I guess she went home, bro,” was his vague response.

Had I imagined her? This vision of female perfection who had seemingly been erased from the memories of the staff and patrons of the bar. I ordered another drink while I scanned the thinning crowds for signs of my elusive quarry. When she failed to reappear I decided to call it a night and return alone to the banality of my hotel room.

The following morning I met Larson in the main dining room. We talked about our respective evenings. It transpired that he had drunk a little too much vodka and had been cautioned by the police for urinating on a statue of Jules Bordet. When I described my unusual encounter at Annie's Bar, he was incredulous:

“You failed to pick up a woman at Annie's! Joseph Merrick - the elephant man himself - could not fail to score in that place.”

It was at this point that his face formed itself into a solemn expression. He placed a reassuring hand on my forearm as if in support:

“My friend. If what you have told me is true and you left that bar alone last night, then it was because somebody there wanted you to leave alone. Somebody powerful.”

Maybe it was the cold milk I had just poured over my Weetabix but I felt my blood chill. Could my failure to hook-up with the beautiful woman at the bar really have been the outcome of a conspiracy? And if so who were the likely architects?

It was in that moment that I recalled the conversation Larson and I had shared the previous day, in which he had told alerted me to the presence of the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group in Brussels. Had this consortium of the world's most power individuals colluded with one another in an attempt to cock-block me? What would they stand to gain from such a brazen attempt upon my sex life? Was this an isolated attack or just one of many other attempts that had gone unnoticed?”

I pondered these questions on my journey by Eurostar back to St Pancras station but found no easy answers.

When I returned to my office in Brussels the following week there was a message from Larson requesting that I call him immediately.

His line was engaged all morning. When I finally managed to get in touch with him he informed me that Annie's Bar had been closed down for violations of the health and safety code. Around the bar area the inspectors had found evidence of reptilian DNA that belonged to no known species of reptile.

“You did not hear this from me,” he said before abruptly terminating the call.

No sooner had I put the phone down it rang again. Assuming that it was Larson I immediately grabbed the receiver.

There was no voice on the other end of the line but I could detect the faint sound of a person breathing. After about 30 seconds there was a clicking noise as my phantom caller hung up.

(Jeremy Goosegroom OBE, as told to backwards7)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Even the ionised ghost of Niels Bohr was confused

(New Scientist magazine did not accept my explanation as to why fridge magnets will sometimes lose their power and fall off. I am re-posting the piece here so that future generations of scientists may learn from it.)

The creature attacked without warning, claiming its first victims in the dead of night.

The following day Professor Gregg Bart, of The Pershore Institute of Speculative Physics, entered the kitchen of the flat where he lived alone to find his fridge magnets, along with the pieces of paper they held in place, in disarray on the floor. The fallen magnets had lost their 'stick' and he replaced them with a new set. However, a few days later the same thing happened.

“It was around midnight. As I lay in bed I could hear them hitting the tiles,” he recalls.

Could it be poltergeist activity? Or perhaps it was yet another act of protest carried out by a pair of highly-intelligent laboratory mice, both harbouring strong anarchist tendencies, who had recently escaped from their quarters and moved into the wall-space.

As is the case with many of life's problems, the answer turned out to be what scientists like to call a” four chalkboard solution,” drawing on branches of physics so obscure and complex that even the ionised ghost of Niels Bohr does not fully understand the underlying mathematics.

It fell to Brad Romers – an Artisan Materials Physicist at the Pershore Institute to deliver the bad news to his colleague: Bart's fridge had turned magnetic vampire. From here-on the damned appliance would gradually leech the magnetism from any object that ventured within a few inches. If left unchecked, it would eventually destroy everything magnetic that its owner had ever loved and cherished.

Initially Bart suspected that his friend was playing a practical joke on him:

“I made some glib remark about buying more steaks,” he says.

His attitude changed after Romers attempted to revive the drained magnets in a Warrington-Goodwin field generator. After a week only one showed a faint charge. The remainder had experienced what is termed “magnetic death.”

“They had effectively been reduced to really lousy paperweights,” says Romer.

So what had caused the onset of magnetic vampirism in Bart's previously benign refrigerator?

Unfortunately there is no proper way to answer this question without making reference to the Hollander Lattice, carelessly named after the man who it discovered it - Professor Colin Holander. (The additional 'l' was added by accident. As a consequence of this error another Professor Colin Hollander, whose main field of study is the reproductive cycle of newts, is often given credit for Holander's work and has accepted awards on his behalf which he refuses to give back.)

The Hollander Lattice is a structured field that extends beyond a magnetic object. Where two magnetic objects bond their lattices interlock to create a Picker Exchange - a closed energy transference loop in which an alternating charge cycles between the two conjoined articles.

Magnetic vampirism occurs when the picker exchange desynchronises, leading to an inequality of transference and allowing one partner in the lattice to dominate the other.

An attempt to manipulate and control an uneven picker exchange was recently undertaken by bored viola students at the Belle Isle Conservatoire in Detroit. The end result was a "terrifying" instrument that “bellows discordant music at you” according to the movement of magnets sliding up and down a harmonic scale.

Worryingly magnetic vampirism has been shown to be on the rise. In 2013, Powell Fridge Magnets saw 60% of the company's value wiped off their share price amidst concerns that their sole product might become unviable in the future.

As for professor Barts' vampire fridge?

“It turns out that the Pershore Institute has a lot of equipment that needs to be demagnetised,” he says. “I have a small pile of it on my kitchen floor. It makes it hard to reach the milk.”

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A conversation with someone who works in marketing regarding a new range of crisps

A conversation with someone who works in marketing regarding a new range of crisps

backwards7: “These are clearly badly-crushed Roast Beef flavour crisps. In common with all crisps in this flavour bracket they taste absolutely nothing like roast beef.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “We like to think of them as a deconstruction of the traditional Roast Beef flavour.”

backwards7: “So what you seem to be telling me is that you plan to sell broken crisps – what the general public more commonly refer to as crumbs. And you plan to do this at an unusually high mark-up at retail.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “We like to imagine that when our customers open a bag of our crisps they embark upon a journey where they piece together our product and make their own story. That's one of our advertising slogans: “Make your own story.” For multi-packs we plan to substitute the word “saga” for “story” so as to better sum-up the epic nature of sitting on a settee and eating six packets of crisps, one after the other.”

backwards7: And people will 'make their own story' by shovelling handfuls of greasy crumbs into their mouths and chewing them until they form an homogeneous potatoey mush?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Our market research clearly shows that customers want to play a more active role in shaping the end product.”

backwards7: “In this instance by using their teeth, tongue and saliva.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Exactly.”

backwards7: Moving on, I see that you are keen to use the word “artisan” in association with your product. I get the impression that we both have very different ideas as to to what this word means. For me an artisan product is something that is hand-crafted and made with reference to a traditional set of skills and techniques that have been passed-down through the centuries, from generation to generation. I think stone masonry would probably fall into this category.

“Based on my previous conversations with your colleagues in marketing, your definition of “artisan” is a small amount of something placed inside rustic packaging, with the name of the person involved in the manufacture written somewhere on the exterior (e.g. these crisps were hand-cooked for you on Tuesday by Derek). For this you charge 10-times what one would usually pay for a similar non-artisan product.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Well, I think our company is artisan in the aspirational sense, rather than making any tangible claims towards artisan status for our products.”

backwards7: “So you're saying that while you aspire to make artisan crisps, you don't actually make them in a manner that employs a high level of skill or craftsmanship?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Hmm? ...sorry my mother just texted me. Can you repeat the question.”

backwards7: I was just remarking that this artisan pose you're adopting seems to be nothing more than superficial brand positioning.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: (furiously texting) “Yes. Yes, totally.”

backwards7: I also understand that you are unhappy with “Roast Beef” as a flavour description and are angling towards something more exotic.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “The group-feel on this is that 'Roast Beef' is too evocative of the 1970s, and not in the good way that might appeal to young men with unusual facial hair, who listen exclusively to gramophone records and ride penny farthings to their IT job on the Silicon Roundabout.

“When we were throwing the idea ball around the office yesterday afternoon the best description we came up with wa: Hoisin-glazed beef in a red wine reduction, served with baby parsnips and a warm red onion marmalade. That was a joint effort by me and the rest of the creative team.”

backwards7: It took all five of you to come up with that?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Yes, after a few false starts.”

backwards7: “You see I think if you added chargrill flavour enhancers then you might just about get away with calling this product “Pan-seared Steak” flavour. But there's a point where you're just taking the piss. These deep-fried shards of thinly-sliced potato carry none of the aromas and textures that one associates with traditional-English/Asian fusion cooking. So I think that you need to go away and rethink that, or you could just go away.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “We're also very keen to promote the fact that are crisps are hand-cooked.”

backwards7: “This is another problematic area: When you say hand-cooked I imagine boiling sunflower oil being poured into cupped hands, into which thin slices of potato are added and then deep-fried a few at a time. None of this strikes me as particularly hygienic. I think the main issue is that, at this temperature, the oil is liable to fry the flesh of the cook. So the end product would be a combination of crispy human skin and deep-fried potato.

“There's also an ethical issue: How will your customers react to the knowledge that the person who cooked their crisps is a patient in a burn unit, facing skin-grafts and extensive rehabilitation in order to regain the lost function in their fingers?

“I think when you say 'hand-cooked' what you mean is that the potato was added manually to the fryer by someone who then stares down at their trembling reflection in the boiling oil, in the same manner that one might gaze into the black abyss of the human soul. But that isn't really 'hand-cooked' is it, so you probably need to come up with a better description of the process.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: On my gap year in India I met a sadhu who cooked me a banana curry in his hands. It was delicious.”

backwards7: “Were the crisps that I've just eaten hand-cooked between the palms of an Indian mystic? Because I can see roast beef flavour being problematic for a Hindu or an ethical vegetarian.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Nigel's grandparents are from India and he's a wizard in the kitchen.”

backwards7: “Just to confirm, you're referring to the same Nigel who operates your potato slicer and runs your company's social media account.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Yes.”

backwards7: “Does Nigel cook the crisps in his hands in the manner I previously described.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “No.”

backwards7: “Well then.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: There was a thought that we could call them 'Kettle chips.'”

backwards7: Are these crisps made in a kettle?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: Well actually it's more of a series of stainless steel tubs.”

backwards7: “Okay, we can cross that one off too.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: On the packet we'd like to include a blurb outlining our company philosophy. Just a bit of zany text that mentions music festivals and social networking and apps. We also want to include some childlike drawings that we've paid an advertising firm to do on our behalf. And we want a QR code that can be scanned by mobile phones or tablets. It will link you to a video of a folk song we've written about product. It's like a kooky version of Mumford & Sons, played on a ukulele.”

backwards7: I'm beginning to understand the logic of selling pre-smashed crisps. Because if I was confronted by any of what you're just described, my immediate reaction would be to punch the packet as hard as possible.”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “Okay, so based on what we've discussed, as far as names go I'm thinking: Colonel Rupert's One-Month-Aged Sirloin Flavour, 00-Gauge Potato Slices.

backwards7: “Sorry, who's Colonel Rupert?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “He our brand mascot. We imagine him as an officer in the war... who invented crisps.”

backwards7: “Which war?”

Executive in charge of Crisp Taxonomy: “I don't know... the first one?”

backwards7: “Oh, for fuck's sake.”

Monday, 9 June 2014

A history of the pathology lab at Southend Hospital (Part One)

In the sight of the board of trustees Dr Harry Stemmle prepares to 
shoot a platelet off the head of his 9 year old colleague – Dr 
Richard Mast.
A history of the pathology lab at Southend hospital

The current incarnation of the lab was established by Royal appointment in 1517 making it, to this day, one of the newest pathology departments in the United Kingdom. It was initially used by King Henry VIII to test the blood of his subjects for signs of treachery.

In this modern era it is unthinkable – repugnant even - that any provincial hospital would carry out investigations to objectively gauge the treacherous disposition of a patient. Samples requiring this test are instead dispatched by courier to a special laboratory in London where they are analysed by trained Beefeaters who have taken a blood oath to protect the Monarch. 
The department is haunted by the ghost of an older pathology lab dating from Roman times. At the stroke of midnight the Roman lab briefly superimposes itself over its successor, filling the space with the sights and sounds of marching centurions, gladiatorial games, and the voices of Cicero and Julius Caesar.

The Romans put their analysers in different places so it's very easy to get confused,” says Edna Pathologist, whose family has worked in the lab for over 400 years. “That's why we generally take a break around the witching hour, although sometimes we do allow school parties who are studying Roman history to come in and talk to some of the ghosts."

An attempt to exorcise the Roman lab in 2011 led to it re materialising in the front room of a bungalow opposite the hospital. The exorcism paperwork has since been revoked by the council and the lab has returned to its previous location. 

The wainscotting in the biochemistry lab was added by the estate of Sir Robert Morgan in 1997, this being stipulated in his last will and testament, with appropriate funding for the project being made available by his executors. Although to a layman the wooden panelling appears to be aged mahogany, it is, in fact, sticky-backed plastic with a faux wooden veneer. Closer inspection will reveal sections where the strips have been laid unevenly resulting in wrinkling or a mismatch in the pattern.


A herd of roe deer roam the microbiology lab. These timid animals are rarely sighted and, for the most part, will confine themselves to the depopulated area near to where the cupboards are.

A hospital gamekeeper culls sick and elderly animals. In the future there are plans to re-introduce wolves to the area as a natural method of population control.

Every November 1st the hospital makes a

symbolic gift of an adult deer to the Chief Executive who ceremonially pardons the animal and releases it into the car park, near the Carlingford


Southend is the only hospital in the UK with a trauma centre dedicated to the treatment of antler injuries.

In 1771, consultant haematologist - Dr Harry Stemmle – became the first person to unsuccessfully shoot a single platelet off the head of a fellow consultant, using a bow and arrow.

The Anti-Coag Department is located within a small pocket parallel universe where blue objects appear slightly bluer than in our own world. To compensate for this pan-dimensional quirk in the colour palette, staff wear special contact lenses.


(Right click on pic and 'view image' to enlarge text)

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Science hooligans

(I have written a poem on the delicate topic of hooliganism in science)

Science Hooligans

Science hooligans
demonstrate the action
of gravity, momentum
and air resistance
on a solid object
with a hurled brick.

Science hooligans
graffitied Einstein's
theory of general relativity
on the side of a train
bound for the
Newtonian stronghold
of West Acton.

Science hooligans
reanimated the
dessicated carcass of
Jeremy Bentham.

Science hooligans
work out ways
to magnetise things that
don't want to be magnetised
such as lettuce
and the football pundit
Adrian Chiles.

Science hooligans
wait until it's dark
and Adrian Chiles is asleep.
They cover him with spoons
and metal objects
and attach him to a
girder on the Forth Bridge

Adrian Chiles
makes £500 in one hour
as a magnetic spoon-man sculpture.
He donates the money
to the local air ambulance fund
and wins the Turner Prize.

He never comes down
from the bridge.

“I am art now,” he says.

ITV send a film crew
to record his thoughts
on the forthcoming match
between Crewe Alexandra
and Gillingham.

“Adrian is in our thoughts.
We hope that he will
come down from the
bridge soon,”
says Lorraine Kelly
from a sofa in the ITV
studios in London.

She fixes the camera
with a concerned expression
before moving on to talk about
the friendly bacteria
who live in pots of yoghurt.

Science hooligans
have peer-reviewed
your current relationship.

Science hooligans
say your methodology
is flawed:

The evidence gathered from the
Large Hadron Collider
does not support your hypothesis
that you will still be with
Gemma this time next year .

Science hooligans
found the creationist magazines
under your mattress.
and the watercolour drawing you did
showing Noah shaking hands
with a dinosaur.

Science hooligans -
always out to push the boundaries 
of universal laws
and break down paradigms.

Science hooligans
will not drop their test tubes
and Bunsen burner
and lie face down on
the ground.

Science hooligans
are unable to form
ionic bonds
with the metallic elements
in a standard
police-issue bullet.

Science Hooligans
are mostly dead
by the age of 24.

Pour a forty of
sulphuric acid
on the curb
for science hooligans,
keepin' it theoretical.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Goldilocks and the 20 million-year-old fossilised porridge

Goldilocks and the 20 million-year-old fossilised porridge

Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism? I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable.” 
- Richard Dawkins

At the Institute of Rational Scepticism in Bluemore, California, Professor Mary Jane Hart is explaining to a class of visiting kindergarten children why the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears probably never happened.

“The fossil records clearly demonstrate that the kind of anthropomorphic bears your parents and teachers have told you were encountered by Goldilocks were a dominant species 20 million years ago during the Ursidean Era. These bears lived in small family units in forested areas on the European continent. They had the technology to build houses and simple furniture but had no electricity and were reliant on wood as a source of fuel. It is likely they were anatomical omnivores supplementing a diet of raw meat with staples such as porridge.

“Unfortunately this particular species of bear went extinct millions of years before the emergence of modern humans. The only way that a girl called Goldilocks would have encountered the three bears in the story would have been as an archaeologist excavating one of their ancient settlements.

“Trust me on this. Over millions of years even the hottest porridge you can imagine eventually turns stone cold and fossilises. Nobody here would want to eat fossilised porridge would they? That would be yucky.”

In the audience a couple of the children start crying. Another, who is in the early stages of 'having an accident,' has to be hastily scooped up off the floor and carried in outstretched arms to a nearby bathroom.


Later, in the institute's Media Capsule, the Founder and Director, Tim Archard, explains in detail the long-term goals of the organisation:

“I felt the time was long overdue to wage war on the pseudoscience of fairy tales that have been granted free-reign in the classroom. Children need to recognise that the issue of world hunger will not be resolved by a magic cauldron that is apparently capable of churning out an infinite supply of porridge. That just doesn't make any sense in the context of our understanding of how the universe works. Our government should stop frittering away resources searching for this fabled artefact and instead redirect the money towards funding the agricultural sciences.

“Take another example: With the exception of a study carried out by Morey and Morey in 1987, which we think was based on flawed methodology, there is no credible, peer-reviewed research proving that a kiss from a handsome prince will awaken a girl from a toxin-induced coma. Even if the princess has somehow remained in a state of miraculous physical preservation, 100 years of unconsciousness would likely result in extensive cognitive impairment, rendering her unable to walk, communicate or even recognise basic concepts. That's even before you touch upon the ethics of kissing an unconscious, and, in all probability, mentally-impaired woman.

“For decades fairy tales have helped to a foster in our culture an erroneous belief that in moments of extreme peril we can rely upon the timely arrival of a saviour galloping over the horizon to rescue us. People have actually lost their lives waiting to be saved by a handsome prince or a woodcutter instead of telephoning the emergency services.”

Archard maintains his goal is to stem the tide of resources that are wasted as a direct result of an unquestioning belief in the authenticity of fairy tales. He cites the millions of dollars that were recently spent researching a report that assessed the risks posed by giant cloud castles to aircraft and space missions.

“It beggars belief that serious studies are being carried out in this area when all the evidence shows that giants inhabit a networks of caverns at the earth's core, and will only emerge during the time of Ragnarok when they will join the wolf Fenrir in his battle against the gods. Until then the only danger they pose to humanity are the earthquakes that they occasionally cause whenever they stomp around.”

In 2011, the institute sought to publicise its mission by offering a one million dollar prize to anybody who could replicate the feat performed by the fairy godmother in Cinderella and transform a pumpkin and some white mice into a crystal carriage and a team of horses. So far over 5000 applicants have taken up the challenge.

“Nobody has come even remotely close to altering the organic structure of a pumpkin in a way that resembles an ornately-gilded crystalline lattice,” says Archard. “The nearest that anybody has come to manipulating the DNA of white mice into something resembling a horse resulted in a quartet of rodents the size of houses terrorising Chicago. I don't reckon we'll be parting with that money any time soon. In fact I confidently predict me and that cash will live together happily ever after. At least until I exchange some of it for a yacht.”


Back in the Education Centre another Mary Jane Hart-led 'Introduction to Rational Scepticism for the Under Fives' class is in full swing:

“Okay hands up anyone who can tell me what's wrong with the story of Little Red Riding Hood.”

“The wolf ate the grandmother,” shouts one girl with perhaps a little too much confidence.

Professor Hart ponders this response for a few seconds.

“Sure, from a human perspective it's definitely wrong to kill and eat another human being. What you haven't taken into account is that wolves don't have the same highly-developed system of ethics, morals and laws as human beings. So actually your answer is quite blinkered, narrow minded and xenophobic. Now can anybody tell me what is wrong scientifically with the story...”

In the audience a child starts to cry.