Monthly Archives: January 2005

Yodeling for pleasure

Elton Britt, one time holder of the 'world's fastest yodler' record
Lots of infectious laughter in Sandy Toksvig’s programme about yodeling on Radio 4 last weekend. The thesis: yodeling cheers you up. I can’t help but agree. My iTunes library contains 28 songs with the word ‘yodel’ in the track name (‘Yodeling Hobo’, ‘Swiss Yodel’, ‘Yodeling Cowboy’, ‘The Whipporwill Yodel’ and so on… Please don’t judge me – I had a difficult childhood). I can’t yodel (can you?) but I’m adding it to the list of things I’d like to learn how to do when I’m old (I suppose I mean ‘older’).

This file will, predictably, be overwritten by next week’s show so drop me a line if you’d like an MP3.

Evidence Schmevidence

Pols of various complexions have embraced something called ‘evidence-based’ policy lately. Evidence-based policy is supposed to be more rational, closer to the cool, double-blind, statistically-valid world of scientific experiment (the phrase comes from medicine).

The evidence so far, though, is that evidence is always going to come second to cheap political ‘hot buttons’. The evidence: the Government’s clever-looking, income-linked fines – which promise to hit the criminal rich with larger fines than the cheeky chavs – is an almost perfect clone of a failed policy the Tories called ‘unit fines‘ in 1992. Kenneth Clark quietly dropped the policy in… er… 1993 when they were shown to be unfair, unpopular and unenforceable.

Will Labour’s unit fines survive the upcoming general election campaign? Unlikely. I’ll bet you a tenner the scheme is buried by Easter. The evidence is pouring in, though: politicians can’t adapt to the more open, networked, media-saturated, post-democratic era that produced the desire to ground policy in reality in the first place. Cheesy political posturing will persist. Real evidence will continue to be ignored.

Sounds from another world

360 degree composite of Saturn's moon Titan from about 8km during Huygen's descent
No point taking a microphone to space. No sound in a vacuum. In thirty years of increasingly hyper-real media coverage of space exploration we’ve never, ever heard space. Just those crackly radio transmissions across the void (and all those made up noises in Sci-Fi movies). That’s what makes these sounds, the first ever recorded on another world, so mind-blowing.

The picture is a 360° composite taken during the descent at about 8km from the surface. There are many more images at the ESA’s Cassini-Huygens web site.

Podcasting Saturn

You’ve got to love Radio 4’s brilliant Cassini-Huygens total immersion radio experience. Listen to this lot and you’ll know about as much as a grown-up with a day job should reasonably know about Saturn and the extraordinary Cassini-Huygens mission . There’s a Real stream of an excellent half hour documentary called Running Rings Around Saturn that went out last week and, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll find an hour of extended interviews with the three principle scientists interviewed for the programme, one of whom, John Zarnecki, has been working on the mission for the whole of its 17 year life.

Cassini-who?

First image of Titan's surface, 14 January 2005
It’s midnight GMT. What are you watching? On Channel 4, Jackie Stalone is out of the house. On BBC 2 Cassini’s baby Huygens (after a 3 billion kilometre flight) has arrived on Titan’s surface. I learn from the Open University’s terrifically enthusiastic coverage that that surface is hard – perhaps clay or frozen snow. Photos during Huygens’ descent suggest there may be an ocean and water courses, sonar says there’s some high cloud, surface images show boulders or snowballs. Holy shit.

The bit that, as usual, humbles me most: the scientists who have worked for 17 years for a two-and-a-half hour mission. Right now, they’re skipping around the ESA‘s control room like my kids. The guy who spent twelve years working on the force meter (an instrument whose working life, now over, amounted to one twentieth of a second) says the data so far shows a surface like ‘creme brulee’ (crunchy on top, soft underneath). The imaging guy is desperate to get back to the 300 or so pictures Huygens was able to return via its one working radio channel – so far he’s seen only ten. I’m speechless, really.

Xmas toys: good and bad. Number 2 – The Playmobil Airliner

The extraordinary Playmobil Airliner
Engineered like a Mercedes, the Playmobil Airliner is really a parent’s toy. Everything snaps together with the kind of satisfying click that only the Germans can manage. The thing comes with a tiny plastic and steel tool that looks like it belongs in the boot of an SL. The interior has cup holders with stacking cups and a proper, scary-looking German stewardess. The design is spartan European and hyper-detailed – nothing is half done, flashy or unsatisfactory. Playmobil is Lego for anal retentives (although, I suppose, Lego is Lego for anal retentives…). Anyway, less is more.

Take my wife…

Juliet (who is my wife) is blogging Celebrity Big Brother entertainingly over at bird.co.uk (right now she’s struggling to find the words to sum up Germaine’s departure) and she’s asked me to let you know that there is an alternative to the kind of meagre, dry stuff you politely put up with here at bowblog.

Xmas toys: good and bad. Number 1 – Geomag Panels

Geomag panels
How’s this for topical? A Xmas entry in mid-January! Every year we buy a small mountain of toys for our children and about half of them turn out to be total rubbish. Of the rest, though, several always turn out to be real gems and I feel it’s my solemn duty to let you know which ones have kept me the kids amused in the critical post-Xmas fortnight and which are already down at the hospice shop.

We’re already Geomag fans round here (they seem to have a cult following and many imitators) so we were pretty excited when they launched a line of little plastic panels in various shapes to snap into your magnetic constructions. These panels are very simple but really add to the pleasure of assembling the fantastically chunky, snappy, clicky Geomag rods and balls into pointless geometric shapes.

This is an impossibly satisfying toy, providing the kind of fingertip pleasure you just can’t get from Stickle Bricks. The plastic-coated Geomag rods are North-South magnets that you ‘stick’ together or join using shiny, nickel balls to form intricate, self-supporting, 3D structures. These panels allow you to give your skeletons lovely translucent walls and edges and fins and windows. Neat.