TED Talks: Douglas Adams on parrots, the universe and everything

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet is made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other. This is not strictly a TED Talk, but is included on their website.

Here is the late, great Douglas Adams, talking about his expeditions to observe endangered species – the Aye-aye in Madagascar is the first – that became a BBC radio documentary, called Last Chance to See, and then a book of the same name. He speaks exactly as you would expect of the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A delight to listen to, and a reminder of the unique mind the world lost when he died in 2001.

Zen and the Art of Recycling

I’m all in favour of recycling as much stuff as possible. I’m also lazy. Given that the nearest recycling bins are behind Tesco, five minutes walk from the flat, this means I recycle assiduously but none of it gets turned back into useful materials.

As part of my Yuletide present to the world…no, that’s not true. Because someone is coming over tomorrow to look at my leaky shower, and the rotting boards beneath, I decided to have a purge of the accumulated recycling, which covered almost half the floorspace in the bedroom.

I’m brilliant at making plans, scheduling things, making charts and timetables. Think of me as Arnold Rimmer, with his revision plan for the astronavigation exam. My plan involved getting up 6:00 am, taking all the recycling out in the morning, and having a thorough clean-up of the flat in the afternoon.

It did not turn out that way.

I slept late, faffed away the morning, and didn’t get out with the first load until early afternoon. Six loads later – 28 plastic bags full of tin cans and milk jugs, plus a little paper and glass – and the afternoon gone. Still most of the paper left.

You know, I learned something today, in my best Stan Marsh voice. It’s not what you do, but how you do it that matters. First trip out was horrible, gale force gusts of wind from the loch, so the milk jug bags were like sails holding me back – three men overboard and I didn’t go back to rescue them. I chose a different route next time. Even so, I was sliding into a fetid mood. But a startling thought occurred to me – why not try to enjoy this?

Which meant not rushing, walking at a steady pace, paying attention to my surroundings, and being one with moment. Well, no, didn’t manage the last bit, but I did focus on the act, and listened to the clank of the cans and crash of the glass. I tried to be there, rather than furiously thinking of something else in the hope that the present task would magically go away. Sometimes it worked.

And then it got dark. In Tesco afterwards, there was a child singing Jingle Bells on a loop, which gave me a warm feeling, while at the same time being glad I wasn’t her dad.

I’ll put the remaining paper in the trash.

For no other reason than I like it, here’s the Arnold Rimmer song.

“I see scenery; I see beauty; I see opportunity.”

These are the immortal words of Seattle advertising executive, Darren Bruce, on gazing over the scenic and beautiful waters of Lake Washington. The “opportunity” of course is to introduce floating billboards in 14 ft high sections that can be joined together for a 192 ft long panoramic vista. He plans to tow them behind a boat, so not just one section of the view will be blighted, but everywhere will be subject to the equal opportunity despoliation. Lucky Lake Union is also on his list of civic improvements. Amazingly, there’s no law against this. You can see the King 5 news report here.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get away from advertising crap in cities, a relentless visual assault that disrespects architecture and cityscapes. What’s that you say? Advertising is essential for marketing products? And so it is, but there’s more than one way to get your fingers into a consumer’s wallet. I give you that bastion of capitalism, Forbes, with an article on how Sao Paulo banned billboard advertising 5 years ago and has not looked back since. Companies have turned instead to digital advertising, a leap forward that Forbes appears to applaud.

The visual pollution of advertising billboards is not inevitable, merely convenient, and a source of income for the likes of Darren Bruce. I am hereby putting him on the short list for a seat on Golgafrincham Ark B, along with the entire useless third of the population. (You all have your own lists, I imagine). Notice how the stars are going out above urban areas? That’s the Mutant Star Goat coming to eat you, Darren Bruce, so get packed and on board while you can.

10:10 No Pressure

The short film, 10:10 No Pressure, was withdrawn the day after it first appeared, due to a negative reception from the press and MMGW deniers. I provided a link to it in my original 2010 post, which has of course gone dead. Wikipedia said:

No Pressure is a controversial 2010 short film produced by the global warming mitigation campaign 10:10, written byRichard Curtis and Franny Armstrong, and directed by Dougal Wilson. Intended for cinema and television advertisements, No Pressure is composed of scenes in which a variety of people in every-day situations are graphically blown to pieces for failing to be sufficiently enthusiastic about the 10:10 campaign to reduce CO2 emissions. The film’s makers said that they viewed No Pressure as “a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python or South Park”. Before its release, The Guardian described it as “attention-grabbing” and “pretty edgy.”

I agree, and hate censorship, so I dug up another link for you to enjoy.

Aftermath: Population Zero & Life After People

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of what would happen to cities and the natural world if human populations were drastically reduced. I’ve had to be content with moronic Sci-Fi Channel disaster movies, where a plucky American nuclear family somehow survives with their values intact. When I lived in the US, I would videotape the movies and then fast forward through the glutinous emotional scenes to the bits where everything gets destroyed and the subsequent urban wasteland is explored.

Aftermath, a Canadian documentary, goes one better. (The American version is Life After People). It’s based on the idea that the whole human race disappears in a split second, describing what would happen as the natural world struggles to cope with our accumulated pollution. No plucky, badly-acted nuclear families emoting their way through the abandoned cities of Paris, London, Berlin, and New York. On the downside, there is a certain lip-smacking narrative tone that seems to relish our extinction, as if the human race were wholly a Bad Thing. It isn’t, and I have no doubt that if dolphins, whales, elephants or anything else were to develop intelligence, they would screw things up just as royally in the process. That said, it was addictive viewing.

I’ve just watched Life After People, produced by the History Channel for an American audience, but with a British narrator. There are some interesting differences. It makes no mention whatsoever of the effect of a power shutdown on industrial plants, full to the brim with polluting chemicals. Aftermath points out that these would have disastrous short term ecological effects.

The other suspicious omission relates to nuclear power plants. Life After People merely say that they would automatically go into “safe mode,” without specifying how that was possible. Aftermath talks about how spent nuclear fuel rods need to be kept under flowing water. Back-up diesel generators take care of this for days or weeks, but when the diesel runs out the pools will overheat, releasing huge amounts of radiation. They do spend some time at Pripyat, the city built to serve Chernobyl, as if to make the point that it’s Commie engineering and our nuclear plants are so much safer. Without ever explaining how the “safe mode” thingy works, or mentioning nuclear plants again. So I  suspect the History Channel’s corporate sponsors don’t want people thinking about that sort of thing. Censorship or self-censorship – it’s equally disgusting. Here is Life After People for comparison.

Happy Dibnah Day

In honour of the legendary Fred Dibnah, steeplejack extraordinaire and world-class eccentric. Here, in dear old Blighty, we used to produce people like this at industrial levels of output. Now, alas, eccentrics are becoming an extinct species. I blame it on the Tories.

Actually, it’s just a pathetic ploy to introduce a funny video about factory chimneys, given that I can’t think of anything else to write about. Even so, Fred’s a hero in my book. Henceforth, let every February 13th be Dibnah Day. If you’re still flummoxed, here he is sizing up a job.