Friday, 19 December 2008

Friday night telly

Just been watching Peter Kay's Britain's Got Some Extra Pop Factor... and Then Some (his parody of X Factor and the rest). He only went and did my Stephen Hawking on Hole in the Wall gag!

And they're having a pop at Facebook ("Friendface") on The IT Crowd. Good ol' Channel 4.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

F******k it

I still don't get it. Or rather I get it, but I don't 'get' it. I'm talking about Facebook again. I just don’t know why people rave about it and feel the need to update their profile every 6 minutes. I can see that it can be useful for sharing photographs and the like, but other than that it seems to me to be a bit of a waste of time. Having said that, I guess some would argue much the same can be said for blogging…

The reason Facebook has resurfaced in my psyche is that yesterday I received another Facebook “friend request” by email. I get these every so often, sometimes from people I know and sometimes (more often) from complete strangers. I usually just delete them but this one was at least from someone I have met (but only once or twice so does that count as a “friend”?). I clicked on the link to go to the dreaded Facebook site. Turns out I have 51 friend requests that I haven’t yet confirmed. Oh dear… I hope no-one has taken offence. Although given that most of them are people I’ve never met then f**k ’em.

That seemed a little harsh didn’t it? But I was just taking a leaf out John Parkin’s book. It’s a great book. Or at least a book with a great title... it’s called F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way (published by Hay House). Rachel has bought it for a friend for Christmas so I had a flick through it (I'm secretly hoping she might have got me a copy for Christmas too!).

The idea is that sometimes we just need to say “f**k it!”. We need to realise that much of the time (perhaps all of the time?) things just aren’t worth getting stressed about. According to Parkin, saying f**k it encapsulates much of the philosophy of Eastern wisdom (given a nice Western vernacular spin!). There is a website, where you can read more, buy a f**k it chocolate bar (or say f**k it and buy a whole box), and even book yourself a place on a f**k it holiday in Italy! They also have a page on, ahem, F******k.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Weird science

Today I finally submitted the manuscript for an edited book called Anomalous Experiences. It's a collection of papers that were originally presented at a conference called Developing Perspectives on Anomalous Experience in June 2005, and covers research on unusual experiences ranging from out-of-body experiences, alien abduction experiences, haunting experiences, and ESP. There were plenty of times over the last three years that it looked likely that it would never happen so I'm very pleased that it's finally been done. It's due to be published next year.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Please don't judge me!

I have used this blog to confess something before. I've got to do it again. I'm not proud, but I have to get it off my chest. I really hope you won't judge me. Promise me you won't judge me?

It happened on Saturday evening around 5.30. I'm not proud but... I watched Hole in the Wall. Look I said I'm not proud.

You've not seen it? Then let me try to describe it to you. Two teams of "celebrities" (if you watch it you'll understand my use of the quotes) compete to avoid getting knocked into a pool of water by a wall moving towards them. Now here's the thing... there is a hole in the wall. The only way to avoid getting knocked into the water is to assume a pose that matches the shape of the hole. And that's it! It is quite spectacularly awful television. But, and here's my only defence. It is strangely watchable.

When the guests have no chance of making the shape, it becomes even more watchable. Like when Vanessa Feltz, clad in bacofoil jumpsuit, wouldn't fit through any of the holes. Should be interesting next week when the guests are Stevie Wonder and Stephen Hawking.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Jesus vs. The Beatles

In one of my earliest posts last year I noted that some folks had claimed to have gone and found the coffin of Jesus, and that film-maker James Cameron had made rather bizarre comparisons to the Beatles. It brought to mind John Lennon's comments, made back in 1966 at the height of Beatlemania, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Last week a Vatican newspaper finally forgave Lennon for his remarks. It's good that it only took them over 40 years to forgive him. Christianity in action.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Can dogs tell the time?

Dogs are remarkable creatures. To realise this, you only have to watch one cleaning his own... well, you know what I'm talking about. But can dogs tell the time?

The reason I ask relates to a rather long story surrounding a small dog, called Jaytee, who was apparently able to reliably predict when his owner would return home by going to wait for her by the window in his flat (well, it wasn't "his" flat, it was the flat of his owner's parents). The seemingly impressive thing about it was that the moment he went to go and wait by the window coincided with the moment that his owner, Pam, began to return home. Pam might have been at work or shopping in town several miles away, but as soon as she headed for home Jaytee would go to the window to wait for her to return home. Jaytee's amazing "psychic" ability was even caught on camera by an Austrian television crew. They filmed what Jaytee was doing at home at the same time as filming his owner Pam in the town centre a few miles away. A split screen showed Pam and Jaytee side by side. About six seconds after the TV presenter (or researcher/producer type person) tells Pam that they are about to head home, Jaytee gets up from where he was lying (by the feet of Pam's mum who was sat on the sofa) and meanders over to the window! I think the Austrian TV clip dates from around 1994, and in the mid-late 1990's it was shown a fair old bit on various TV programmes. When it was shown on The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna, we were told "he does it every time Pam goes out!". So maybe Jaytee really was psychic! Maybe all dogs, indeed all animals, are psychic?

One of the problems with jumping to such conclusions from just one short film clip is that there could be other explanations for what we saw. Most notably, we were only shown what Jaytee was doing at the moment that Pam begins to return home. What was he doing during all the other time that his owner was out? Does he spend all the time up to that point snuggled up to Pam's mum's feet? Once he has gone to the window to begin waiting for Pam, does he stay there until she arrives home? Both of these things are kind of implied by the short clip, but we would need to see a record of his behaviour for the entire time that Pam is out to come to this conclusion. I'm not sure if anyone has ever actually looked at the rest of the Austrian film to discover what Jaytee is doing at these other times.

That aside, the researcher who did most of the research with Jaytee is Dr Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist by training. In his book Seven Experiments That Could Change The World, Rupert suggested that dog-owners could quite easily test the notion that dogs (or at least their dogs) are able to reliably predict when their owners are to return home (something that many dog-owners report to be the case) by conducting simple experiments. For example, the owner could vary the times and means by which they would return home to determine whether this influenced their dog's ability to predict their homecoming. One person to have a go at doing this was Pam Smart, a woman living in Ramsbottom in Lancashire, with her pet terrier Jaytee. Her parents (with whom she typically left Jaytee when she went out) had noticed for some time that Jaytee appeared to reliably predict when Pam would arrive home by going to wait for her by the porch window of their ground floor flat (next door to Pam's own flat). After seeing an article about Sheldrake's research and his interest in dog's who seem to know when their owners are returning home, Pam conducted a few of her own experiments by returning home at different times and by different means. Jaytee seemed to still know when Pam was heading home by taking up his place by the window at the appropriate time. Rupert Sheldrake went on to conduct his own experiments with Jaytee and, as we have seen, eventually the folks at an Austrian television company showed up and recorded Jaytee's uncanny abilities.

All this led to sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman carrying out his own investigation of Jaytee. And this is where I come in. At the time, I was working as Richard's research assistant while I was studying for my PhD. Rupert visited us at the University of Hertfordshire to look at our experimental set up to investigate the feeling of being stared at (another one of Rupert's seven potentially world-changing experiments). I remember saying to Richard, "Just don't let's get involved with the psychic dog!".

Next thing I know we're driving up to Ramsbottom to conduct our own experiments with Pam and Jaytee. Good to know that my opinion counts for something!

And who says science can't be glamorous?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Galaxy Song

I don't know why it's taken this long to link to this clip from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, but here you go. Helps put things into perspective...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Fat, bald and Jewish

Alexei Sayle seems to be popping up here and there on the telly again, nearly 30 years after he surfaced as the first compere of the Comedy Store in London and became one of the leading lights of the 'alternative' comedy circuit. He's done a fair bit since then, including presenting a few TV series, writing a few novels, and pissing off the people of Liverpool.

All that aside, I still remember a couple of his one-liners that date from his TV series Stuff:
My ambition is to have more money than sense. I've got £8 so I'm half way there.
And the brilliant:
Is it fat, bald, and Jewish in here, or is it me?

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The kicker is in the final line. Knowing the difference. When I mentioned the Serenity Prayer at the Skeptics in the Pub earlier this year, a guy in the audience shouted out that the prayer is used at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I looked over to see who had called out and saw him stood at the bar next to three empty pint glasses. I doubt he's still a member.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


Here's the trailer for the Wisdom Project movie. Keep an eye out for the chimp woman.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Chimp woman

I recently came across something called the Wisdom Project on the Apple website. It was a project led by filmmaker and photographer Andrew Zuckerman in which he photographed and interviewed 51 famous people who were over 65 about life, etc. The famous names included for example Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Billy Connolly, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford. The interviews are edited into an hour long film.

As I was watching the trailer for the film the other day with a friend, one of the talking heads that appeared was Dr Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is a reknowned primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist. For almost 50 years she has studied the behaviour of chimpanzees, having arrived at the Gombe National Park in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1960, where she established the Gombe Stream Research Centre. She was one of the first people to observe chimpanzees using tools, something that had hithertoo been considered to be a uniquely huma trait. In 1977 the Jane Goodall Institute was set up with a mission statement to "advance the power of individuals to take informed and compassionate action to improve the environment for all living things". In 2002, Jane Goodall became a UN "Messenger of Peace", and in 2003 she was a made a Dame of the British Empire.

As soon as she appeared on the Wisdom Project trailer, my friend noted, "Isn't she the chimp woman?". Half a century's dedicated service to research, education and conservation encapsulated in just two words: chimp woman. At first, I thought that's hardly fair is it? To simply refer to her as the "chimp woman" after all she's done. But then I thought quite the opposite. If you get to the point where you have been so successful at what you've done in your life that someone can just immediately recognise you as the chimp woman then you must have done something right.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Happy Birthday!

My son, Ross, turned 4 today... Happy Birthday Ross!

Ross is a particularly amazing little boy. He was born 11 weeks prematurely and has had plenty of medical issues to deal with in his short life so far. He spent the first 5 months of his life in hospital, and is still on oxygen now. Ross is also autistic (or at least he "scores on the autistic spectrum") which effectively means he doesn't seem to understand language. He is blind in one eye and is very short sighted in the other. Oh, and he hardly eats.

The most amazing thing about Ross? He seems to be one of the happiest little boys I know. He's often laughing to himself (about what I have no idea!) and jumps up and down or does a little dance when watching a favourite DVD or listening to music he likes. He's in his own little world, but he seems to like it there.

I don't know if he'll understand it's his birthday today. And I don't know if he'll ever be able to read this, but happy birthday Ross! We love you to bits.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

There's probably no God...

Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. Not my words. The words on the side of the atheist bus:

It would seem that there is a campaign to get atheist advertisements on the sides of bendy buses in London. And the world's favourite atheist, Prof Richard Dawkins, will match all donations made to the campaign. Or rather he'd match all donations up to £5,500. The campaign has been hugely successful... they reached that target within hours. At the time of writing, the total raised so far is over £115,000! You too can donate money by visiting

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

From Trisha to Oprah

Last week I was interviewed by someone writing an article for O magazine, the Oprah Winfrey magazine. He was in Los Angeles, where it was apparently 93ºF, I was in Knutsford in Cheshire, where it was pissing down. The article is going to be about "chance encounters" and so I talked about how I felt we generally underestimate the role that seemingly chance encounters play in determining our life paths, and that we should embrace the fact that "chance" plays such an important part in our lives (the flip-side is that we need to also recognize that we often do have control over things that we sometimes see as beyond our control). Hopefully he'll make some sense out of whatever I was babbling on about. I believe the article is due to appear early 2009.

Just a few months ago I took part in Trisha's radio show, and now Oprah!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Happy Birthday!

A year ago today Freya (a.k.a. Fritz, Bella Boo, Baby Jesus, Bum Lord...) was born. Happy 1st Birthday Freya!! We love you to bits!

We had a little party to celebrate. Thanks to everyone who came. Special thanks to Birgit and Dave for the help, Sandra for the cake and Keith for the other food. Oh and Billy... sorry about the balloons.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


Speaking of ghosts... as I kind of was in an earlier post, I was recently interviewed for an article on 'haunted' Liverpool for the October issue of the magazine You can access this via the website (there is a link in the top right corner of the homepage the last time I looked) or you should be able to go to it directly by clicking here. The article, under the heading "GhostBusting", appears on pages 21-23. See if you can guess why I quite like the article...

Monday, 6 October 2008

J. K. Rowling in it

Stop press: J. K. Rowling is really, really rich! It would appear that J K Rowling is the world's best paid author. She earns around £3 million a week. No? Really? Who'd have thought it? She sells zillions of books in practically every country around the world, shares in the profits of the films made of said books (which have apparently made more money than all the James Bond films put together), and then there's all the merchandising. Next they'll be telling us that research confirms that bears do indeed shit in the woods.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Blimey! What a pass!

I read last week that England rugby player, Jonny Wilkinson, has become a much happier person since reading about certain aspects of quantum physics (Schrödinger's cat in particular) as well as becoming more involved with Buddhism. Good for him.

I was reminded of Jasper Carrott's comment years ago when he read that former England footballer and England coach, Glenn Hoddle had become all religious. The newspaper headline read "Glenn Hoddle finds God!". The title of this post was Carrott's retort.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Let's Make a Deal

Long before Sir Noel Edmonds* wasted hours upon hours, but making shedloads of money, opening boxes in Deal or No Deal, there was a US show called Let's Make a Deal. This included a far less drawn out affair in which contestants chose one of three doors. Behind one of the doors was a prize, such as a car, whilst behind the other doors lay nothing. Once the contestant had made his or her choice, the show's presenter, Monty Hall, would then open one of the doors that had nothing behind it and ask the contestant if they would like to change from their original chosen door (which remains closed) to the one remaining door. And that was it.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But it lay the basis for one of the most talked about mathematical 'problems' of recent years. The question was, should the contestant stick with their original choice or should they change their mind and choose the other door? Does it make a difference? Which would you do?

It became known as the 'Monty Hall Problem' and the perhaps surprising and counter-intuitive answer is that you should change doors. By changing doors, your odds of winning the car double, from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3. You might think that changing doors would make no difference, but you'd be wrong. You might even think that it would be better to stay with the door your first chose, as at least that way you are less likely to feel regret if you end up not having chosen the winning door: Wouldn't it be worse if you changed your mind and found that the door you had first chosen was hiding the car all along? You would feel as though you almost had the car in your hands and then lost it. But the statistics say you'd be wrong not to changed your choice. If you stuck with your original choice you would halve your chances of winning the car!

I'm wondering if there are similar statistical surprises hidden in Deal or No Deal? Or is it just Noel Edmonds randomly opening boxes hour after hour?

*As far as I'm aware, Mr Edmonds is not a Knight of the Realm, nor are there any plans to make him one. It's just that I think he deserves one. Not for Deal or No Deal. God no. I'm referring to his sterling efforts presenting Multi-Coloured SwapShop back in the 70's. If he managed to swap a pair of roller skates for scalextric once, he must have done it a dozen times.**

**Speaking of which, if anyone has any scalextric track they would like to swap for, well, a pair of roller skates then put your details in one side of a postcard...

Thursday, 18 September 2008

One day you'll be dead

[This article is due to be published in a new magazine called Haunted. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Will Felix.]

Some weeks ago, a certain Mr Felix rang me up to tell me he was planning on publishing a new magazine (yes, the very one you now have in your hands). He was looking for people to write for the magazine who were credible and authoritative on all things paranormal. And so, he contacted me… to see if I knew anyone who was credible and authoritative on all things paranormal. As I couldn’t think of anyone who fitted the bill, we agreed I could write something instead. And here it is.

By the way, I’m sorry if the title of this article sounds a little harsh. And I hope it isn’t too morbid to be talking about death (although I guess morbidity and death kind of go hand in hand). And I really hope that this news hasn’t come as too much of a shock to you. But it’s true. One day you’re going to be dead. You won’t be here any more. You’ll just be a memory in the minds of those who you have left behind. It’s a sobering thought isn’t it? And for many people it can be sufficiently motivating to encourage them to get off their backsides and get on and start doing the things they always told themselves they would do before they died. And these days there are plenty of books that will tell you all the places you need to see and all the things you’re supposed to do before you die. So I’m not going to do that. (Suffice to say that visiting Stapeley Water Gardens really should not be on anyone’s list. Don’t be fooled by the title… it’s just a garden centre.)

Instead, I want to ask the question of what it is you’re going to do after you die. For some of you this is probably an odd, if not meaningless, question. What am I going to do after I die? Not much. Very little in fact. I might even be so bold to say I’m going to do nothing at all. And I think this is a very understandable response, and the reason that many people regard their lifetime as a finite period in which to do all the things they want to do, as there isn’t going to be any second chance.

But for many of you (in fact possibly most of you given that you’re reading this magazine!), this might be a question that is reasonable to ask. There are a number of possible answers you might opt for. You might be taken with the idea of taking your place in Heaven (or maybe even somewhere warmer?) Or the whole notion of reincarnation might be more up your alley. You could come back as a dog, or a flower, or even just come back as yourself again and try and get it right next time (although that one just seems to be rather lacking in imagination to me…). Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll come back as a ghost and haunt people.

Now, if we’re to entertain the possibility that death is not the end. If we are to consider the hypothesis that there is another kind of existence waiting for each and every one of us after we shuffle off this mortal coil. If there really is some kind of afterlife, then I’m not so sure that the idea of spending eternity (which I gather is quite a long time) haunting a draughty old castle or an underperforming public house is that appealing. Why would anyone want to spend their afterlife doing that?

Some ghosts, it seems, like to make their presence felt by moving or throwing things around or by making banging or rapping sounds. Strictly speaking, paranormal researchers like to separate these phenomena from other types of haunting which are usually associated with apparitions. Instead they like to refer to these as ‘poltergeist’ phenomena (‘poltergeist’ literally means ‘noisy spirit’). Whilst some parapsychologists feel that these kind of effects, if genuine, are more likely to be explained in terms of some kind of ‘psychokinetic’ (literally ‘mind movement’) ability among the living, there are those who prefer the noisy spirit interpretation. And it would seem that some of these effects can actually be quite subtle. A student of mine recently described to me an apparent poltergeist experience in which it seemed that something or someone caused the TV remote control to move from one arm of the sofa to the other. Spooky. Again, though, question has to be why bother? Is that really the best use of being able to transgress the known laws of physics and prove that there is an afterlife. You’ve just had your Near-Death Experience, although in fact it was your Actual-Death Experience because you don’t come back from this one and after travelling down the tunnel towards the light you have passed away and you have reached your ultimate resting place. But instead you actually realise you’re able to communicate with the living and make it known that you continue to exist in some kind of spirit world. So what do you do? You move the remote control from one end of the sofa to the other. Brilliant. I’m sorry but if that’s what the afterlife is all about, then I’m not impressed.

The other option, it seems, is to let everyone know that you’re still around (in some kind of non-physical spirit reality) by actually telling them this news. For this, you’ll probably need to find yourself a decent medium who will be able to pass on your messages. And that could be easier said than done. A good medium is actually quite rare (some would say non-existent!) as many (some would say perhaps all) who claim to be mediums are either charlatans or are deluded.

But if you do manage to communicate with one from the ‘other side’ then please try to make any messages that you are sending through as clear and as specific as possible. It must be very frustrating for those genuine mediums (ahem, if there are any…) to receive and pass on messages that are intended for “somebody whose name begins with ‘B’, or ‘P’, or could it be ‘T’…? Barry? Harry? Carrie?, etc.”. That’s no use to anybody really, is it? All that does is make the medium look, well, a bit silly. No, if you can, try to be as specific as possible. Why not give first names and last names? An address or two would be really good too, perhaps even a date of birth. That would give the sceptics something to ponder over. Oh, and if you want to try and prove that you’re real by telling the medium how you died then you’ll have to do better than clutching at your chest, “He’s clutching at his chest… he’s saying it’s his chest, he’s finding it hard to breathe…”. Would that impress you? No, again you need to be as specific as possible. Why not tell us the time you died? Or where you were when it happened?

Perhaps I’m asking too much, but let’s make an agreement now. When we are dead, if it turns out there is an afterlife we’ll make sure the people we have left behind know about it. Deal?

Now, where did I put that remote control, I’m sure I left it on the end of the sofa…

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

A new word?

We've been doing something called 'Yogalates' recently which is where you do yoga poses while drinking a cup of milky coffee. It's actually a mix of yoga and pilates, and is the concoction of an Australian woman, Louise Solomon. I just wanted to ask, has anyone else ever used the term or ever heard the term "gaze adristy with the eyes..."? It's that word 'adristy'. She seems to use it to mean a soft focus, but I've never heard it before. Is it an Australianism?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Yin and Yang of Choice

As I mentioned in a previous post, called you get to choose, it seems to be rather important to realise that we always have choices. In another post, I linked to a YouTube video under the heading go with the flow. The way these ideas link together is captured poetically in the following excerpt from the book Profound Simplicity by Will Schutz:
The principle of choice describes the reality that I am in charge of my life. I choose it all, I always have, I always will. Because, at bottom, the world is simple, there are paths in the universe, a natural flow that makes my choice, simple and obvious. I discover these natural paths when I am open and receptive, when I sense what is inside and what is outside my body. As you and I acknowledge our self-responsibility and as we open ourselves to the paths, we flow together. Our paths are harmonious and we create a joyful community and society.
Will Schutz, Profound Simplicity (1979, p. 78).

Monday, 16 June 2008

I think it's about time I blogged about the film Back to the Future. Indeed, the film itself is about time. Or time-travel. In fact, I think it is about much more than that. It's my favourite teen movie of all time. I was 14 years old when it came out and I saw it at the cinema

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Twenty Past Two

Ray, a friend of mine who works at the same University as me, has a son who writes a blog at I only just looked at it this week for the first time. I like it. A couple of things that caught my eye were Flat Life, a 10 minute animated short, included here:

and Dreams:

Flat Life shows how much each of our lives are connected with other people's lives, and Dreams shows us there's more to life than simply meeting other people's expectations.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Talk to Trisha

Or rather listen to her... you can still listen online to the radio show mentioned below by clicking here. I gather it will be available until Sunday 15th June, after which it will be replaced by Trisha's next show! Our bit begins about 1 hour 16 minutes into the show, so if you want to you can skip the (frankly depressing) part with the woman who has written a book called No-one Wants You: Memoirs of a Child Forced into Prostitution (an undoubted best-seller with a joyous title like that).

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A Life Less Meaningless?

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed from the list over on the right that an event called "The Big Hope" is currently underway at Liverpool Hope University. This Global Youth Congress, involving several hundred delegates from over 50 countries, is the University's main contribution to the year-long celebrations in Liverpool as European Capital of Culture 2008.

When the organisers were preparing this event I was one of a number of people who were asked to lead a 'strand'. This would involve leading some kind of activity for a small group of 10-15 delegates throughout the week that would ideally lead to an outcome of some sort. Inspired by the strap-line that appeared on the cover of the University's prospectus, For a life with more meaning, I proposed a strand called simply 'Life with more meaning'. The idea would be that we'd work to develop materials for a short course that encouraged 'young' people to explore the big questions in life such as why are we here, how do we decide what to do with our lives, what it's all about... all the interesting stuff!

This weekend the delegates, from far flung places like Kosovo, Belgium, Tibet, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Yorkshire (!), have been out and about armed with camcorders filming video-diaries and conducting interviews with people about the meaning of life! Yesterday, four of us took part in a radio show talking about what we'd been up to. So if you're really interested you can listen to the show on-line this evening at CityTalk FM on Talk with Trisha (yes, the Trisha!) between 8pm and 10pm UK time. I think our bit features in the second half of the show.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Feed Me

I think I might have just added an RSS feed. I can't be too sure, but I've just done something through FeedBurner and now there's an icon over on the sidebar that strongly suggests that I've added an RSS feed. Or something. For those of who understand what this means, I hope this helps. For those of who don't know what I'm talking about, I think it means you can somehow subscribe to this drivel. Or something.

What you readin' for?

Bill Hicks used to talk of a time he was eating in a waffle house ("I'm not proud, I was hungry...") on his own reading a book. The waitress comes over, chewing gum, and asks "What you readin' for?". "Wow, I've never been asked that", he replies, "Goddang it, you stumped me. Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? I guess I read for a lot of reasons but one of the main ones... is so I don't end up being a f**king waffle waitress."

I often find that I read several books at once. That's because I'm not very good at actually finishing books and so I start reading another book before I finish the first one. At the moment, I have about 4 or 5 books on the go. I think the one I started reading first (I can't be sure as it was a while back!) was Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution by Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin (hence the recent Bill Hicks references, though I've been a Hicks fan since I was a student). I then picked up, and started reading, a book called Profound Simplicity by Will Schutz from a second-hand book shop in Devon. Half way through that I borrowed The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead by Marcus Chown from my dad. This one is a library book so I'm feeling that it's this book I should aim to finish first but, as it tries to explain quantum vacuums and gravitational mass, it's taking me a while. Dad's had to renew it three times already.

The other books on my bedside table, with bookmarks indicating where I'm at, are Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness by Mihaly Czskiszentmihalyi (that's got to be a made up name, right?) and New Age Living: A Guide to Principles, Practices and Beliefs by Paul Roland (another library book). For the record, just to prove that I can actually finish a book occasionally, I've just read (to the end!) Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett (frontman of the Eels rock band and son of Hugh Everett III who was the quantum physicist who came up with the idea of Parallel Universes!) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, a novel written from the perspective of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome. Both highly recommended.

I'm hungry. Waffles anyone?

Friday, 23 May 2008

My Name is Freya

Who am I? I have an answer to that eternal question... it would appear that I'm Freya. Not the answer I was expecting, granted, but an answer all the same. I discovered my identity this week when I took my baby daughter (who is coincidentally also called Freya...) along to Rhythm Time. Within minutes of arriving I had a sticker stuck to my chest announcing I was Freya! So there you have it.

I was the token dad there but I did my best to join in and to not feel like a complete pillock. I think I just about managed it. I definitely enjoyed it more than Lorraine seemed to. Lorraine was the helper who passed around and collected in the drums, tambourines, shakers, etc. for the babies to play with. She was also supposed to sing along with the songs and generally keep the atmosphere on an up. Instead she sat to one side looking like her cat had just been run over (maybe it had).

It turned out that this was Lorraine's final Rhythm Time, as she was about take up a new job as a clinical research nurse at the University of Manchester (the obvious career progression). I can't see her being missed.

By the way, a word of advice. If you ever find yourself going along to something like this, remember to take your sticker off before you go to the supermarket. Otherwise you will look like a pillock.

Monday, 19 May 2008

The Second (and Last) Run

Note to self: Do NOT register for Great Manchester Run next year. Repeat, do NOT register for Great Manchester Run next year. Thank you to everyone who supported me (both this year and last year!) by donating money to BLISS. Your support really is appreciated (and you can still donate money by clicking on the widget over on the right!). But I won't be doing it next year. There has to be easier ways to raise money for charity.

I surprised myself and ran the whole 10 km. Whereas the week before I had stunned the audience with my rather unique rendition of "Walk, Don't Run", this week all I could think was "Run, Don't Walk". And I did, for 59 minutes and 38 seconds. Three minutes slower than last year, but at least I did it in less than an hour.

Today my legs are aching so much it would probably take me 59 minutes and 38 seconds to walk to the kitchen and back. So no more running.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The First (and Last) Concert

Last weekend saw my debut public performance on the guitar. It was awful. So bad that it's taken me a week to even think about writing about it. When I mentioned it to Rachel this morning, she referred to it as the "guitar fiasco". And she's supposed to be my number one supporter!

As some of you will know I took up learning to play the guitar last year and signed up for weekly lessons with the Yamaha Music School. Every so often the school organises a concert for the students as an opportunity to 'showcase' their musical skills for friends and family. I said I'd play something, and opted for playing "Walk Don't Run", an instrumental written by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith (and apparently a hit for both the Ventures and the John Barry Seven). As it was the first piece in the Guitar Encounters Book 2 (yes, Book 2... be impressed!), and we'd been learning and practising it in class for what seemed like ages, it seemed the obvious choice. By the morning of the concert, last Sunday, I think I could play it pretty well, even though I do say so myself. With or without the backing track.

In the afternoon, we battled through a torrential downpour to the community centre where the concert was to be held. I was already feeling nervous, but as we went in to the hall, I became really nervous (possibly even more so than before the Skeptics in the Pub talk!). A quick look through the programme revealed that my slot was about half way through the proceedings, which meant about another nerve-wrangling half-hour of waiting but at least I could get a feeling of how good the other performances were before me. That didn't help. They were all really good, and what's more we're talking kids aged between about 6 and 12 years old here. (For the record, I'll be 38 next month.) They would each just get up, go to their instrument of choice (which was mainly the piano but there were a few guitar players), play their piece, and return to their proud parents in the audience. I was hoping for a few cock ups. Just one or two that made enough of a mess if it to lower the audience's expectations. No such luck. They were all pretty much note perfect. Gits.

Before each student's performance we were given a bit of background about the performer: "As well as playing the piano Sara is 8 years old and likes football and maths...", "Tommy, aged 6, is fluent in Spanish and German, and has a black belt in Aikido...", "Emily, 12, has a degree in Nuclear Physics and has built her very own particle accelerator in her back garden...". You get the idea.

My palms were sweating. Just two more to go then it would be my turn... Marc with "Minuet by Mozart" (show off), followed by Cara with "The Camel" (should be interesting), and then Matthew with "Walk, Don't Run". I felt sick. From the other side of the hall, Vernon, my guitar teacher who would introduce me, looked over and mouthed "are you okay?". He could probably sense my nervousness by the fact that my face was now almost the same colour as my green t-shirt. I looked back at him and shook my head.

Marc concluded his near perfect rendition of Mozart's Minuet. Vernon walked to the front and announced "Next we have Matthew...". Eh? What about Cara? Where's Cara? I was looking forward to hearing Cara play "The Camel"! Cara must have bottled it. Either that or she was unable to make it because her Karate lesson had ran over. Either way, it was now my turn. I took to the stage, sat down and picked up the guitar. Vernon continued, "...this is Matthew's first time playing guitar in public, ever!", "...and I'm very, very nervous!" I quickly added. As if it wasn't already obvious how nervous I was, "Oh, and I like football but I don't like maths".

After what seemed like an age, the backing track kicked in. This was it! Now the first note was fine. I think as first notes go it was faultless. I had nothing against the first note. It was the second note and the vast majority of all the notes that followed that seemed to cause the problem. (As Eric Morecambe once noted: "...I was playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order!"). Once I'd missed the timing on the second note it went from bad to worse. I might have hit the occasional note after that but probably more by fluke than by design. It was indeed a guitar fiasco.

As the backing track came to an end, the very sympathetic audience gave a cheer and a round of applause. They were probably just pleased it was all over. Either that or they were being sarcastic. I went back to sit next to Rachel in the audience who, along with my mum and dad who had come along to give support, said she was very proud of me. She was probably just pleased it was all over. Either that or she was being sarcastic.

The rest of the concert I could actually enjoy now that my bit was out of the way. The guy on after me, Daryl, was perhaps even more nervous than me. But then he was even older than me. Which goes to show that it's adulthood that seems to bring out the performance anxiety in us. Still, Daryl held it together better than I did. His "Theme for Young Lovers", though a little nervey, was very good. The highlights of the concert were Charlie Powell, with is own composition (a Jean-Michel Jarre type keyboard fest) and Andrew Wignall, with a superb rendition of "Le Onde" on the piano. Both aged 16 or so, they were as confident as anything, and I mention their full names here so that when they become famous you can say you heard it here first.

All in all, a good concert apart from the contribution from the guy with the green face who liked football but not maths. It was his first concert, but I think it will also be his last.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Mud, Glorious Mud

The British summer just might save us from the Ugg. I'm not talking about the warm weather actually putting girls off wearing the fur-lined boots. No, I don't think that's possible. I'm talking about the mud. Hopefully by the end of the summer, all Ugg boots in existence will be forever ruined by the muddiness of the summer festivals. We can but hope.

Very Special K


Monday, 5 May 2008

The Last Lecture

I think my dad might be psychic. A couple of days ago he was asking me about the guy who did the book The Last Lecture. "The one you blogged about..." he said. "Er, I haven't written a blog about him... yet. I was thinking of writing a blog about him" I replied. In fact, I had been watching Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture" on YouTube that same day, and here I am writing a blog about him. So, my only conclusion is that my dad must be psychic.*

I had come across the book The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeff Zaslow in a book shop a couple of days before. I hadn't bought the book, nor had I even considered stealing it, but I did scan the inside front cover. It was inspired by an actual lecture given by Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007 which was part of a lecture series in which University professors are invited to give a lecture as though it was the last lecture they were to give. What would they say to their students in their last ever lecture? For Pausch this was more than a conceptual exercise. He had been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and was told by doctors he had months to live. As far as he was concerned this really could be his last lecture.

My friend Simon at work the next day alerted me to the fact that the lecture was available on YouTube having heard an item about it on the radio that morning. So, having now watched the lecture, I thought I'd embed it here for you guys (note: it's about 76 minutes long... short excerpts are also available on YouTube). It's called "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams":

Having been given only a few months to live, Randy Pausch is still with us. His website is here, where there is also a link to updates regarding his progress.

*It turns out my dad had confused Prof Randy Pausch with Prof Robert Solomon about whom I have blogged. I still think he might be psychic.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Oops I did it again!

Oh dear. I've done it again... I seem to have gone and registered to take part in this year's Great Manchester 10K Run. You would have thought I might have learned my lesson from last year, but apparently not. That's me in the picture trying to look all smug after dragging myself around 10 km of Manchester's City Centre last year. Forced smile, you say?

It is, of course, all in a good cause. As with last year, the charity I am running for is BLISS, the premature baby charity. Since last year's run, I became a father again to a cutesy little girl, Freya, who was 5 weeks' premature. Fortunately, Freya did not need to go into the special care baby unit, but many premature babies do need such care. For example, my son Ross was born 11 weeks' premature and needed to be in hospital for the first 5 months of his life. BLISS campaigns for improvements in neonatal care and supports parents.

If you would like to donate a quid or two (and I'd be eternally grateful if you did), please click on the 'Donate' button on the image to the right of this page (I believe it's called a 'widget') to go to my justgiving fundraising page!

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Just last month he wrote a piece for The Guardian newspaper. The full article can be read here.

It's Just a Ride

The world is like a ride at an amusement park.
And when you choose to go on it, you think that
it's real because that's how powerful our minds are.
And the ride goes up and down and round and round.
It has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly coloured,
and it's very loud and it's fun, for a while.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time,
and they begin to question - is this real, or is this just a ride?

Bill Hicks 1961-1994

Thursday, 6 March 2008

A Metaphor for Life?

Over the past couple of weeks I have given three talks on the subject of luck and destiny. Actually, I gave much the same talk three times to different audiences under a slightly different title each time. The only person to sit through all three talks was Rachel (sorry Rach!). To be fair, I did make some changes each time, adding bits and dropping other bits as appropriate, so I think even Rachel would agree that the third talk was probably the best of the three.

Anyway, the first and the third talks I had known about for some time. The first was a talk as part of the Invited Speaker Series at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I had been invited to give a talk by Professor Chris French, head of the APRU, who I have known for around 15 years (!) and with whom I came close to studying for a PhD before starting my PhD on the psychology of luck at the University Hertfordshire. The third talk was at Liverpool Hope University, where I have worked for the past eight years or so, and was part of the University's Foundation Hour programme. Foundation Hour is held 1-2pm each Wednesday and is an opportunity for the University's staff and students to come together and listen to an inspiring and uplifting talk (!).

The second talk of the three, however, was a last-minute arrangement. It was for a group called 'Skeptics in the Pub', which meet each month in London in (no surprises here...) a pub. I was asked to stand in for a speaker who was unable to make it, and so I agreed. For some reason, I was really nervous before giving this talk. And I mean really nervous. As it turned out, it seemed to go fine. However, the reason I mention it here is because of an email I received a day or so after the talk from someone who had been there, and who had subsequently taken a look at this blog. He, like me, had only recently started to learn to play the guitar, although he's now been learning for about 4 years. In his words (and I'm hoping he won't mind me including them here):
Congrats on the guitar lessons. I'm 33 and started guitar when I was almost 29. Stick with it - it gets better after a year or so. Eventually there's a shift when you stop feeling like you're playing catch-up to the demands of the tune, and instead suddenly you really feel like you're driving each note. It's the coolest thing.
Not only did these words reassure me that learning the guitar gets easier after a year or so (and I am finding this), but they also made me think of them as a possible metaphor for life... that is, there comes a time where you don't feel as though you're going through life trying to keep up with the pace being dictated to you by others ("playing catch-up to the demands of the tune"), but instead you start feeling as though you're in control of your life ("suddenly you really feel like you're driving each note"). And when that happens, like the man says, it's the coolest thing.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Luck Doctors

It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that I actually have a PhD ("oooh... get him!" I hear you cry). Believe me, it sometimes still surprises me. But 10 years ago I was awarded a PhD by the University of Hertfordshire, thereby becoming a "Dr". Perhaps even more surprising was the topic of my PhD... luck! The full title was Perceptions of One's Own Luck: The Formation, Maintenance and Consequences of Perceived Luckiness. A bit of a mouthful, I know, but PhD titles are supposed to sound clever and obscure, aren't they?

It was a study of the 'psychology of luck', and examined people's beliefs about luck and explored the psychological differences between 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people. Lucky people were those people who felt that seemingly chance events tended to work out in their favour, whilst unlucky people were those who felt they tended to work out against them. The aim of the project was to discover why some people believe themselves to be lucky whilst others believe themselves to be unlucky. Do these people really lead very different lives? And if so, is there any psychological reasons why this might be the case? Or do 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people actually lead rather similar lives but differ in the ways in which they make sense of the events that happen to them?

The research was the brainchild of Dr (now Professor!) Richard Wiseman who, in collaboration with Dr Peter Harris, had obtained a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organisation that supports research in a variety of areas. I was employed as the Research Assistant working on the project, and took the opportunity to register for a PhD at the same time with Richard and Peter as my supervisors. Together, we interviewed and collected other psychological data from self-perceived lucky and unlucky people for over three years.

The picture that emerged was quite remarkable. Lucky and unlucky people, on the whole, were very different from each other. For example, while lucky people tended to be far more optimistic, and more extraverted individuals, unlucky people were more likely to be anxious and experience depressed mood states. Moreover lucky and unlucky people differed in the extent to which they remembered the positive and negative events in their lives, and also in the way they interpreted events. Lucky people found it easier to remember events they considered lucky than unlucky events, and were more likely to label events as lucky in the first place. This latter point is nicely illustrated by following little experiment:
Imagine you are waiting to be served in a bank when an armed robber enters and fires a shot. The bullet hits you in the arm.
How lucky or unlucky would you regard this event? We asked people to rate the event (along with other events) on a scale from -3 (very unlucky) to +3 (very lucky), and found that there was a wide range of opinions regarding the luckiness of events such as this. While some people consider this event to be unlucky, others consider it to be actually rather lucky. In both cases, the judgement of how lucky or unlucky the event is made by imagining how the event might have been different from what happened. For example, those who consider the event to be unlucky can easily imagine a scenario where the bullet might have missed you altogether and so see it as being rather unlucky to have been hit by the bullet. Meanwhile, people who see the event as lucky are imagining a situation where the bullet might have hit you in the chest causing much more damage, perhaps even killing you. By comparison, a bullet in the arm is actually quite lucky. This just goes to show that an event is not necessarily lucky or unlucky in itself, it becomes perceived as such by the person making the observation. What was particularly interesting was that lucky people were more likely to rate the event as lucky while unlucky people were more likely to rate it as unlucky.

As I say, it is now 10 years since I was awarded a PhD for my contribution to this project on the psychology of luck. In the years since then my interest in this topic faded somewhat as I pursued other lines of research. In the meantime, my PhD supervisor, and the instigator of the 'luck project', Richard Wiseman, went on to conduct a whole lot more research on the psychology of luck which culminated in a best-selling book called The Luck Factor (Arrow Books, 2004) in which Richard identified four main principles that could "change your luck - and your life"!

The funny thing was that by the time this book was published I had developed a healthy lack of interest in whole 'luck' research. If anything, I was probably one of the most cynical about the ideas presented in this book. It was one thing to identify the various differences between self-perceived lucky and unlucky people, but another thing to suggest that you could change your luck by changing the way you think!

What is perhaps even funnier is that, not only am I now finding myself being drawn back to the ideas talked about by Richard in The Luck Factor, but I am also becoming convinced that Richard has barely scraped the surface. I've got a feeling that there could well be plenty more to discover about the psychology of luck, fate and destiny!

Sunday, 10 February 2008

How To Be Free

I hope my brother isn't reading this. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't want him to be 'free'. In fact, quite the opposite, which is why I bought him Tom Hodgkinson's book How To Be Free for Christmas. The only thing is, I haven't actually given him the book yet as I haven't seen him since before Christmas.

However, this has given me a chance to have a flick through the book myself (taking care not to crease the cover of course!) and it's full of some worthy advice. For example, in a chapter called 'Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises' Hodgkinson urges us to forget about the idea of chasing a career, but instead encourages us to find our vocation, our calling, which should be something that you enjoy doing as well as earn you a living:

We have a duty to look into our hearts and discover our vocation, find our gift. Once we have done this, we will find that other parts of our life follow quite naturally... ... And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as you possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. (p. 48-49)

I like that idea. And it makes much sense. If you want to find out what you really want to do with your life, then I guess taking a little time out to discover what this might be is something to be encouraged. This sentiment continues in another chapter called 'Cast Off Your Watch', in which he urges us to... er, cast off our watches and stop being a slave to time:

Do less. Add space. Cut down on your scheduled visits and meetings to an absolute bare minimum to make way for the more enjoyable and life-affirming 'things that just happen'. When you let things happen to you, life starts happening too. So, allow giant gaps between appointments. Allow giant gaps in your life, because your life is in the gaps. (p.81)

All good stuff, and reminds me of the immortal words of John Lennon who said that 'Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans'. But then again (as Tim in The Office notes) John Lennon also said 'I am the Walrus, I am the Egg Man', so who knows what to make of that.

Still, Tom Hodgkinson's book contaains some good advice. Just don't tell my brother. Not yet anyway.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Garroping Gourmet

One of the themes of this blog is that nothing is random. I guess this post just might be the exception to prove the rule. This morning, while watching Saturday Kitchen on the BBC, I got talking to Rachel about the Galloping Gourmet who was a TV chef from my youth who used to run on to the set, jumping over chairs, and would cook a meal for himself and a member of the studio audience.

As I couldn't remember the guy's name, I turned to our friend Google. It turns out he was called Graham Kerr (I had been saying he was called Robert something...). Anyway, our other friend YouTube provided us with a few clips from the show. It was the clip copied below that I found myself laughing out loud at for some reason, and so I include it here. It lasts about 9 minutes, but it was the first few minutes (after the titles) that had me laughing.

Uggly boots

I think I've got to get myself a pair of Ugg boots. They are clearly the footwear of choice this season. Last year it was Heelys, but this year it's the Ugg. Every third person seems to be wearing a pair. But am I the only one who thinks they look ever so slightly like slippers for the infirm?

Friday, 8 February 2008

But I'm not the only one

If my life is one long dream, then are you just a character I've dreamt up as part of that dream? Or are you dreaming your own dream? In which case, am I simply a character in your dream? Whose dream is this anyway?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

You may say I'm a dreamer

The protagonist in the film Waking Life (I still haven't seen it yet, only the clips on YouTube) is portrayed as being in some kind of 'lucid dream' type state as he goes on his journey seeking the opinions of various people on the meaning of life. Whereas in a 'normal' dream, you are effectively the passive observer or experient of the dream sequence, in a lucid dream you become aware that you're dreaming and you are then able to control the dream.

I can't say I've ever had a lucid dream (not that I can remember), although I gather it is something you can train yourself to do. As I understand it, part of this training involves asking yourself at various points during your waking life, "am I asleep or am I awake?". The idea is that you will eventually start asking yourself this question in your sleep when you are dreaming, thus raising the possibility of becoming aware of yourself dreaming.

Some people think that your whole life can be regarded as one big dream, and when you die you awaken from the dream. From this perspective, imagine what it would be like to live your waking life as a lucid dreamer... first you become aware that you're dreaming and then you realise you can control the dream. Imagine that.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Full Circle

Just to show that these not so random thoughts on life really aren't completely random, but that there really is a pattern to all this, it's worth pointing out that our friend Professor Robert Solomon probably wouldn't have taken up Philosophy if it hadn't had been for Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of 'eternal recurrence'.

When Solomon was a medical student at the University of Michigan, he seemingly stumbled across a crowded lecture hall in which a professor was delivering a Philosophy lecture in which he was discussing Nietzsche's idea of 'eternal recurrence'. Solomon was apparently so moved by the lecture and this idea in particular, that later that day he approached the Dean of the Medical School to transfer from Medicine to Philosophy.

Nietzsche at the movies

Who'd have thought it? It would seem that the movie Groundhog Day is putting some of the ideas of 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche at the heart of its plot. In the film, TV weatherman Phil Connors lives the same day over and over again. At first, he regards this as something of a curse: having to live the same day, a day he didn't enjoy, again. Eventually, after experiencing the days events repeatedly hundreds, if not thousands, of times he slowly discovers the positive aspects of reliving the same day again and again.

Well, it seems that Nietzsche took this idea very seriously. He suggested a thought experiment in which you considered the implications of living your life over and over again. That is, at the moment you die you go right back to the very beginning and do it again. And again. And again. This idea of 'eternal recurrence' is much the same as Connors' experience at Punxsutawney, though he lives only the one day again and again rather than his whole life (would that be better or worse?). The whole point of such a thought experiment is would you embrace the idea or regard it as the most horrible thing you could imagine?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

It's Groundhog Day!

Every year, on February 2nd, the world's media (or rather a small proportion of it) turns its attention to the small town of Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, USA. In particular they go there to observe a character called Punxsutawney Phil. Phil is a groundhog. But not just any groundhog... Phil is a special groundhog, because legend has it he has an uncanny ability to predict how long winter is going to last. According to his very own website,
"At sunrise, Phil will emerge from his burrow at Gobbler's Knob, and his handlers will announce whether or not Phil has seen his shadow. If Phil sees his shadow, legend has it that we can expect six more weeks of winter weather. No shadow indicates an early spring."
Back in 2001, one guy, an economist, even undertook some kind of analysis of Phil's forecasting data and concluded that over the years he had been around 70% successful and predicting either an early or late Spring.

That's all very well, but the thing that actually interests me about this rather strange tradition is the 1993 movie Groundhog Day that's based around this rather quaint annual event. In the film Bill Murray plays TV weather forecaster Phil Connors who who is assigned to cover the event for something like the third or fourth year running. Connors is, to say the least, fairly cynical about the whole thing and can't wait till the piece is done so he can get the hell out of Punxsutawney and back to civilization. The trouble is, a blizzard means that all routes out of Punxsutawney are blocked and so he has to stay there for a second night. The next morning he is woken up at 6am, just like the morning before, by the same song on the radio (Sonny and Cher's I Got You Babe). He initially thinks that the local radio presenters must have simply forgotten to change the script from the previous morning, but slowly as he goes about his day he realizes that he is actually living the previous day again. It's still Groundhog Day! Eventually the end of the day comes again and he's back in his hotel bed (because just as with the previous day a blizzard prevents him from leaving town). At 6am the next morning he wakes again to the same song on the radio! And so it goes on... every morning he awakes only to relive Groundhog Day. Imagine that! Imagine having to live the same day over and over and over again. Once the realization sets in that no matter what he does, Phil Connors is going to relive the same day again and again he even tries a variety of ways of killing himself... only to find himself waking up at 6am on Groundhog Day to the sound of I Got You Babe. There's no way out.

Eventually Connors resigns himself to the fact he is going to have to relive Groundhog Day ad infinitum, and so starts throwing himself into his recurrent daily activities. By doing this he finds he actually enjoys having the opportunity to relive the events of the day again and again and discovers that he can learn from his earlier encounters with the day's events. The question is, will he ever live to see the day that follows Groundhog Day or is he destined to remain in this day for ever?

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Are we awake?

My drive to and from work is this week more illuminating than usual. As I navigate the traffic on the M6 and M62 I've been listening to a series of lectures on Existentialism (as you do). I'm now on lecture 4 of a series of 20 lectures by Professor Robert Solomon that are entitled "No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life". Solomon was, until his sudden death of a heart attack last year, professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and was by all accounts a very highly regarded scholar and speaker on this topic. And I can see (or rather hear) why. His delivery is rather downbeat and fairly matter-of-fact, but he makes the subject matter very accessible and relates the ideas he discusses to everyday life.

To give you an idea of his style, below is a short clip from YouTube that's taken from Richard Linklater's film Waking Life. It's actually a kind of animated version of Solomon as the film uses something called digital rotoscoping to create its unusual effect. I'd really like to see all of this film but it seems to be only available in NTSC format (still, there's plenty of excerpts from the film on YouTube). Anyway, the clip gives you an idea of Solomon's approach.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Special Delivery

The reason I am up at 6am is the same reason it has been more than three months since I last posted a blog. On the 18th October 2007, I became a father again. The baby (let's call her Freya, because that's her name...) made an appearance 5 weeks early and so caught us by surprise! Just 4 hours separated the immortal words "I think my waters have broken..." shortly after midnight and the arrival of our beautiful baby girl in the early hours of the morning. After the initial shock and denial ("You sure you haven't just wet the bed...?"), I think Rachel and I made a pretty good team. Cool, calm, and collected was the impression I was trying to give as Rachel tried to tell me what I should pack in her hospital bag from her vantage point of the toilet.

All was going well apart from the fact that I couldn't seem to get Rachel to leave the safety of the bathroom in order to get her into the car. She was far too busy making sure there were no excess foodstuffs in her stomach (we're talking both ends here...). An hour after I had first phoned the hospital and been told to bring Rachel in, I phoned again to explain the allure of the bathroom and was advised to call for an ambulance. As I dialled 999, I realised that I had never dialled 999 before, which I guess is a good thing.

I explained that Rachel seemed to be in labour (she was now experiencing contractions a few minutes apart) and that I was unable to persuade her into the car to get her to the hospital. The man on the other end of the line assured me that an ambulance was on its way and stayed on the line until it arrived. "Whatever you do...", he instructed, "don't let her sit on the toilet!" Now he tells me.

Another half hour passed before the ambulance arrived, at which point I think I relaxed knowing that Rachel was now in safe hands. Only the previous morning, at our first (and as it turned out our only) antenatal class Rachel and I had talked of our plans to have the baby at home. But that idea had involved a birthing pool, relaxation CDs, and candles. Not me being instructed over the phone what to do if the baby's head appeared in much the same way as the guy in the Airplane movies is talked through landing the plane!

We arrived at the hospital at around 2.30 and were taken straight to the delivery suite. From here on, things progressed quickly. Rachel was an absolute star (she even told me she loved me between contractions!). For a few moments, when the doctor and midwives seemed to think that things weren't progressing quite the way they would have liked, there was talk of an assisted delivery. But it seemed that the sight of the doctor in his mask and gowns brandishing a pair of forceps was enough to give Rachel the extra push (as it were) and within minutes we were the very proud parents of a gorgeous little girl, born at 4.23am weighing 5lb 10oz.

I know I am just a little bit biased, but she is absolutely gorgeous. If you don't believe me, look here. Cute, eh? She now weighs more than double her birthweight and is now generally sleeping through the night till around 6am. After her feed this morning she has gone back to sleep as has Rachel, but I was wide awake so I thought I'd take the opportunity to post my first blog since Freya was born.

To my sleeping beauties. x