A wish-list of the top ten science fiction films as chosen by scientists, you say?
There it is, proving that even scientists watch Steven Spielberg blockbusters, and that they don’t seem any more intellectually demanding in their speculative fiction than the average punter.
Three of the films (Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris) would be on any well-considered list, but the rest are just the best-known sci-fi films. I found it dispiritingly easy to knock together a vastly superior top ten in a couple of minutes:
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
La Jetée (1962)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The list is a bit top-heavy with American b-movies (and, in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, its British equivalent) but I didn’t want to repeat anything in the scientists’ list.
It happens that your attention is grabbed by a misleading combination of signals. What’s interesting is how frequently this results in noticing something that is itself interesting.
A case in point. Spotting ‘Allais’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ in an article clearly signified, to me, Umberto Eco. There is Eco’s novel, for starters. Then there is my awareness that Eco has written frequently about Alphonse Allais, one of his favourite authors.
Well, as it turned out, the article recounted the curious observations of Maurice Allais in 1954, when he recorded the behaviour of a pendulum over the course of 30 days. This included a solar eclipse when, to his astonishment, the pendulum appeared to speed up slightly.
This, the ‘Allais Effect’, seems to run counter to the general theory of relativity, which has the anomolists hyperventilating with glee, and the scientists running to conduct experiments at every eclipse they can find, like this.
The latest evidence (warning: PDF) seems to be that the eclipse causes an almost instantaneous temperature drop in the air, which causes air mass movement significant enough to affect the pendulum. This isn’t, in and of itself, significant enough to explain the whole of the Allais Effect. On the other hand, the measurement of the Allais Effect is itself controversial, suggesting that, not for the first time, a solution may have been found for a problem that never really existed.
If I could send one headline back in time, it would be this:
THATCHER MAY FACE 15 YEARS IN JAIL
Nearly the end of summer, and the final Test is upon us. It’s been a wildly successful season for the much maligned England team, so now is very much the time to roll out the encomia before the good times roll to a halt.
Only one thorny issue continues to give trouble, aside from the miserable torrents of rain that will inevitibly disrupt the match. The question is: how best to follow the game?
It’s easy when you’re relaxing in the garden or in the car: you tune in to the immortal Test Match Special on the radio. Unusually for a sport, the television coverage for cricket is inherently inferior, unless you’ve taken refuge in a pub for an hour or so and just want to keep a lazy eye on matters as they evolve. The problem with the TV is that you have to watch it. With TMS you can actually get on with something else (such as painting a ceiling, as I will be doing tomorrow), radio burbling in the background.
For today, however, TMS is not an option. I could listen to it at work, but it would be more than a little rude, especially when people are trying to ask me questions. So the answer must be to follow the match online. This used to always mean the celebrated Guardian over-by-over report, with its deep wells of sarcasm and banter. However, like any such personality-led enterprise, it’s become a bit of a caricature of itself these days: one too many sessions kept afloat by discussions of 80s TV shows have led me more and more to the scorer’s delight that is Cricinfo’s ball-by-ball coverage. Here, behind the rigorously formulaic descriptions, lurk knowledgeable and keen cricket watchers. This makes it even more satisfying when a hint of passion creeps out, like the sun sliding out unexpectedly between black clouds. I await eagerly each proclamation of ‘good ball’, ‘close’ or, best of all, ‘Shot!’
Enjoy it while it’s here: the winter tours almost always occur overnight for us, meaning that, in the morning, you skip straight to the end of day score, missing out completely on the developing drama of the day’s play.
I’ve mentioned before the found poetry of the error message.
One of the software concoctions keeping me entertained at the moment is particularly prone to the odd snort of poesis. This morning it offered:
Uncaught galaxy exception
On second thoughts, this may not after all be a Miltonic tag for the cosmic misdeeds of Lucifer, but instead Professor Hawking’s latest workaround for black holes.
Splendidly, while I was musing the poetics of this crash, the computer upped the ante:
Crash within crash
Bravo, machine. It only leaves us to ask whether a crash that crashes means that everything’s all right.
This journal’s popular and long-running serial “Our Reasonable Media”, is temporarily interrupted for a special spin-off titled “Our Idiot Media”.
It’s not all change, though: it does feature our favourite overpriced free newspaper, the Metro. Like many papers, they chose to lead this morning with the story of the flash flood that hit the Cornish village of Boscastle, and which may have killed up to 15 people.
The ever-sensitive Metro picks a headline that hones in on the real issue:
WASHED AWAY BY JUST 2 INCHES OF WATER
Nice to see the newspaper’s subs parading their gleeful ignorance of elementary meteorology, just in case any of us remained in doubt. I was particularly impressed by the way that neither the horrible facts of the story nor the large picture of a torrent of water cascading down the streets gave the hacks any pause to consider that two inches might actually represent quite a lot of water.
If you ever think you’re having a particularly odd day, stop and consider a while the phenomenally (or perhaps phenomenogically) strange life of Philip K. Dick, professional questioner of reality.
This absolutely characteristic essay (titled ‘How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’) gives you a sense of how endlessly weird it must have been to be the man who, as he indicated himself, had two basic questions: “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?”
One of the most destabilising things about Dick was that, like Borges, he was an intellectual magpie: he read widely if not deeply. This allowed him to flutter down onto an idea, strip it out of context and reuse it in a way that had never been intended. The results were often logically unkempt, but always interesting. Watch him do it here:
In Plato’s Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?
Much of this particular essay is devoted to a serious of coincidences Dick experiences after completing one of his later novels, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He comes to wonder if he is actually living in AD 50, experiencing the events of the Book of Acts, and it is only the existence of Disneyland that reassures him that this is not the case.
The uncanny thing is, you quite believe him.
I don’t know who’s responsible for this online text of Arthur Henry Beavan’s 1901 charmer ‘Imperial London’, but, whoever they are, they’ve done a service.
Beavan can be acute:
I would remark that, topographically, Modern London is essentially Protean, and there can be no finality in its depiction.
He can be forensic, as with this description of a typical ’seamy’ London street:
The houses are chiefly one story, or at the most two stories high; the shops, small, and such as minister solely to the necessities of life: butchers’, who deal in cheap New Zealand mutton and inferior beef; fishmongers’, whose stock-in-trade is of uncertain age, with mussels and whelks, and every kind of dried fish well to the fore; pork-butchers’, and ham-and-beef shops, generally of superior size, and well patronized; “purveyors” of cow-heel and ox-cheek, of tripe and trotters, their windows innocent of provisions until the day’s “boiling” or “dressing” is accomplished, then overflowing with these popular dainties; fried-fish shops, very much to the front up to all hours of the night; and general-dealers, who sell anything from firewood to tinned salmon; public-houses, of course, but of a subdued order, with plate-glass, paint, and gilding waiting to be renewed.
He is tremendously a Victorian male. There are, for instance, separate chapters on ‘Utilitarian London’ and ‘Romantic London’. But, my goodness, by romantic London Beavan means that which is found in the romances (novels), so we get a guide to places found in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray.
Finally, Beavan is, to my surprise, the T-leaf’s friend. Consider this overhelpful note on the monetary habits of the Daily Telegraph:
Its advertisements - the life-blood of a newspaper - usually occupy forty-six out of a total of eighty-four columns of an ordinary twelve-paged issue; and it is an open secret that every day in the week, the trusted clerk, who, well-shadowed by a private detective, pays the cash receipts into the Bank, leaves the premises with a sum generally running into four figures.
A seamy side of Beavan you perhaps wouldn’t have anticipated. I note that he also published a book with the not entirely unambigous title ‘Birds I Have Known’.
To clear up any little misunderstandings that may be floating arund this blog:
First, I haven’t beaten the comment spammers. Damn their eyes. Further action will be taken.
Second, I may have given the impression that Andy’s Barcelona guidebook is very cool. Now I’ve seen it, I can confirm that it’s beautiful: a masterpiece of cunning design.*
Third, I would like to make clear that when Freddie Flintoff bowled Brian Lara round his legs (the shame) this morning I did not leap around the office shouting ‘you beauty!’ I only felt like doing so.
* Incidentally, a spotter’s badge to Andy for noticing that Erwin James (and his excellent, rather moving fortnightly column) have been quietly released from prison.
Andy is back on the alternately baking hot and soaking wet streets of London (for a while) and, look, he brings with him a very cool guidebook on Barcelona.
We had been wondering about the next holiday. This year’s excursion had taken us no further than the bottom of the next country down from here, which was pleasant and gastromonique but hardly adventurous. The next destination really ought to be somewhere more … exotic.
How about an expedition to the centre of the Hollow Earth with Steve Currey’s Expedition Company?
Reading the description, it’s hard to know how to refuse:
“This expedition will conduct scientific observations in the Artic that is hoped will resolve once and for all whether the hollow earth theory has any validity.”
Seems reasonable enough.
“Don’t miss this chance to personally visit that paradise within our earth via the North Polar Opening and meet the highly advanced, friendly people who live there. We are of the opinion that they are the legendary Lost Tribes of Israel who migrated into the North Country over 2,500 years ago and literally became lost to the knowledge of mankind.”
Ah. OK. (I do like that oxymoronic last clause, by the way. You always know you’re in the presence of madness when you’re told “literally nobody knows what I’m about to tell you”.)
As if to demonstrate how lost to the knowledge of mankind these tribes are, there is more detail:
“Within Our Hollow Earth at the City of Jehu, expedition members could take an inner earth monorail train to visit the lost Garden of Eden located under America on the highest mountain plateau of the Inner Continent. It is also the capital city of Inner Earth, according to Olaf Jansen. Perhaps in this City of Eden we can visit the palace of the King of the Inner World, as did Olaf Jansen and his father.”
Remember that ‘could’ in the first sentence, because here comes the itenerary:
Day 8 - Spend the day at the North Pole and even call home to talk to family or friends!
Days 9-11 - Start the search for the North Polar Opening to the Inner Continent.
Days 12-14 - Once found, travel up Hiddekel River to City of Jehu.
Days 15-16 - Take a monorail trip to City of Eden to visit Palace of the King of the Inner World.
Days 17-18 - Return trip back to City of Jehu on the monorail. We will then continue our journey through the North Polar Opening, on board the Yamal, for the return trip home.
Which implies, if nothing else, that the Palace of the King of the Inner World in the City of Eden takes group bookings. And, no, I don’t know why it’s a monorail, which does seem rather 70s.
To their credit, the organisers do carry a disclaimer:
GUARANTEES: By joining Our Hollow Earth Expedition, expedition members agree that there are NO GUARANTEES that this expedition will reach Inner earth. The expedition will make a good faith effort to locate the North Polar Opening and enter therein, but worst case scenario is that we visit the geographic North Pole, explore the region, and continue on to the New Siberian Islands. At all times the expedition will also be at the mercy of the weather, ice and sea conditions.
Like that phrasing. “At the mercy of the weather, ice and sea conditions”. Gives me such confidence.
My only surprise is that the expedition wasn’t organised by Voyages Jules Verne.
One curiosity I’ve noticed recently about running Rogue Semiotics is that activity doesn’t necessarily equate to visible activity.
There are several reasons for this. One is that, for reasons of family illness, I’ve been careering about the place rather more than usual. Thanks to the friends and shadow-acquaintances alike who have sent kind messages to me about this. They were all appreciated.
Another reason is that I’ve been spending a great deal of time fighting off the spam commenters. I reckon I must have deleted over a thousand comments in the last few weeks. So many, in fact, that I was finding that I was spending much more time maintaining the blog than writing it. Coupled with only brief snatches of available time, I was simply firefighting a fairly constant barrage of largely obscene spam, a nasty and tedious task with which most of us have had to come to terms. I won’t say that it put me off blogging, but it meant that every time I logged in there was a tiresome admin task to complete before I could even think about writing something.
Finally I got a chance to address the issue properly and, thanks to Yoz Grahame’s tips, I’ve made some changes that seem to have made a huge difference.
Ah, I can breathe again.
The third thing that has most definitely affected my blogging habits is the linkblog on the right there. You’ll find a lot of commentary being made about how the arrival of the del.icio.us bookmarking service has produced a throwback to the primordial state of blogging - link and comment. It’s largely true. The linkblog fills up with the ephemera, the passing fancies, the ‘oh look’ comments. It works like a motion tracker of our gaze as it wanders across the web (particularly since Kevan wrote his lovely extisp.icio.us visualisation tool for it).
It also means that I post fewer fleeting comments to the main blog, both because it’s so easy to post to the linkblog (click, write one line, click) and because it renders superfluous the making of superfluous comments just to justify what was, in essence, just a link to something interesting.
I hope, I really hope, that now that things have calmed down a bit for me, the number of proper posts to the blog will return to something a bit more like normal. But also perhaps ‘normal service’ will look a little different. It may be the wind has changed direction a little, and I’m just bending my body to meet it at a slightly different angle.
Idly flicking through these Google Hacks, I noticed that one of them is a gimmick for making Google finish your sentences for you.
Clearly, the only sentence worth getting it to finish was “The secret of life is…”
“the secret of life is a cellular automaton, devised by the British Library, in London) and the UK and the world. ECONOMY. John Wiley, Sons Inc. New York, NY, USA. portfolio. Press Corporation, ISBN did did did did did you see the gorilla? walk by run in.”
Somehow I always knew it would come down to that damn gorilla.