Friday 31 January 2020

"... follow yourselves, not some ageing drain brain"

"And follow yourselves, not some ageing drain brain,
Who's quite content to go on feeding you garbage.
We're running on the spot - always have - always will,
We're just the next generation of the emotionally crippled."

Yes, alright, I accept it's happening. We lost, right? But I'm not going to get over it any time soon. Leaving the EU is a terrible, terrible mistake, an unparalleled act of national self-harm that is selling us out, and selling our children down the river. I wish I was wrong but I know I'm not, whatever those braying voices on the right of the House and their newsprint mouthpieces would have us believe.

So no, I'm not celebrating, quite the opposite. And if one of the ridiculous commemorative 50 pence coins should come my way, with its inscription reminding us of three things we've put at risk by leaving the EU, then I will be taking it out of circulation. Stupid and ridiculous, I know... much like Brexit, eh?


I have precisely zero interest in American football. I do, however, like the occasional moments of genius thrown up by adverts made especially for the Superbowl. I wrote once before about the brilliant Honda ad that imagined a sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. When such ad's work, they really work.

A shame, then, that when adverts of this type don't work ... well, at best they just grate. This year, Mountain Dew recruited Bryan Cranston, no less, to parody The Shining, all to peddle their latest sugar-free offering. I wanted this to be good. Certainly there's an attention to detail in the set recreation that I very much approve of. But the advert as a whole? Not so much, I'm afraid. See what you think...

An opportunity missed, I reckon. Also, I know Superbowl advertising is ridiculously expensive, but this might have been better if it had been longer, less rushed. Might...

Tuesday 28 January 2020

No longer "Live from Norwich..."

Nicholas Parsons has died. Growing up, I knew him from this (and wow, what a Proustian rush from the Anglia TV knight):

God, game shows used to be crap, didn't they? (Still are, some might say.)

But in later years, it was Just A Minute that endeared Nicholas to me, and millions of others. The perfect straight-man host, always willing to tee up the laugh for others to take.

A decent bloke too, by all accounts. RIP.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Essential viewing. Absolutely essential.

If you didn't watch Chris Packham's Horizon documentary 7.7 Billion People and Counting last night, well, you need to remedy that ASAP. It isn't always a comfortable watch, but then it isn't a comfortable subject.

The whole documentary is available over on the iPlayer right here, for another 29 days. Oh, and the Population Matters charity that Chris mentions (and that I once published a book in support of) is right here.

Monday 20 January 2020

Public service announcement

...because it is essential that you know this...

Our Friends in the North is available to watch, in its entirety, all nine episodes, on YouTube.

I know! Fantastic!

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Cross-pollination ... but not too much

Last month I wrote about the fact that I'll be cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats (LEJOG, in the parlance) in September. 980 miles in 9 days. Madness, right?

Some of you were kind enough to sponsor me - thank you so, so much. I have a colossal fundraising target attached to my place, which is going to be a challenge in itself, but it's for a terrific cause. If you're interested, you can sponsor me here - cheers.

Anyway, a lot of my waking time in the next eight months is going to be taken up with either cycling or thinking about cycling. And I might want to write about it, or keep records, or ... something. A blog would be the natural place for that. But, whilst interesting for me, it'll probably be very boring and more than a little nerdy for most.

All of which is my way of saying I've started another blog, especially for all that stuff, over at - if you're interested in bikes, you could take a look. Or maybe you just want to know why it's called "61-63". Whatever. This way, I can be a bike nerd without polluting this blog. I'm not saying I won't mention LEJOG here again (I almost certainly will, not least when sponsorship desperation inevitably kicks in) but I'll leave the lycra over at the new place.

Here's the late Pete Shelley's iconic Tour de France theme music then, because, well, why not?

Monday 6 January 2020

Nineteen in '19: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

17/19: Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

The blurb: Throughout his extraordinary career, Stephen Hawking expanded our understanding of the universe and unravelled some of its greatest mysteries. But even as his theoretical work on black holes, imaginary time and multiple histories took his mind to the furthest reaches of space, Hawking always believed that science could also be used to fix the problems on our planet.

And now, as we face potentially catastrophic changes here on Earth - from climate change to dwindling natural resources to the threat of artificial super-intelligence - Stephen Hawking turns his attention to the most urgent issues for humankind.

Wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating, passionately argued, and infused with his characteristic humour, BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS, the final book from one of the greatest minds in history, is a personal view on the challenges we face as a human race, and where we, as a planet, are heading next.

The review: well, in a minute. Because first, an apology. Despite the modest nature of the reading challenge I set myself, I failed. I only managed 17 books in 2019, not 19 as planned. This will be the last review in this series, and it's in arrears. Sorry, my bad, mea culpa, all the rest.

Anyway, the book. I may have mentioned before but when I was trying (and failing) S-level Physics in the Sixth Form, it was something of a rite of passage to read Hawking's most famous work, A Brief History of Time. Indeed, the consensus was that if you got past page eleven and still understood everything, well, you were doing okay. This, his last book, is a different kettle of fish - yes, there's some physics in there, but it's not going to give you a headache, honest. In fact, this is about as far from a book on theoretical physics as Hawking was ever likely to get. His introduction suggests that he wanted to collect his answers to the big questions he was most commonly asked, regardless of subject. Hence we get chapters on issues relevant to his specialism, such as "What is inside a black hole?" and "Is time travel possible?" but also on wider issues, such as "Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?" and "Should we colonise space?" Still science-y, and clearly the sort of question Joe Public would ask Hawking because, you know, he was a famous science guy. Ask anyone under 30 what three things pop into their head when you mention Stephen Hawking and they'd probably say wheelchair, speech synthesiser and science. Or possibly Eddie Redmayne.

And here's where my slight beef which this generally excellent book comes in. Hawking was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, and an absolutely brilliant theoretical physicist. His Amazon bio states that he "is generally considered to have been one of the world's greatest thinkers", and I can't really argue with that - the man's achievements were immense. But trying to answer questions like "Is there a God?" in just a few pages seems ambitious, and something Hawking was no better qualified to answer than anyone else. You might just as well ask me for my thoughts on the current state of women's tennis - I have an opinion1, of course, and you might like/agree with it, but it's unqualified. Not even Hawking, brilliant as he was, could prove the existence or otherwise of a god, but calling a book "Personal Opinions on the Big Questions" probably would have harmed sales.

It is only a minor beef though, for this is a good book, tackling big topics in an accessible manner. Much is made in other reviews of Hawking's trademark humour; well, it's not Monty Python but equally it's clear that some of this material has been given many times in public lectures, when Hawking would have to prepare answers to pre-submitted questions in advance. It's been honed, refined, polished, in other words. It makes for a very readable book and keeps the pages turning, even when you get to the occasional paragraph that you have to read twice to ensure your understanding.

It also serves as a fitting epitaph to a remarkable man - he was working on this right up to his death, and it feels like it (it was completed with input from his family and academic colleagues). Here was a man, perhaps aware of his advancing years, stating his case, once and for all: this is what I think, and why. He'd written his autobiography five years earlier, but this feels like a memoir too: a biography of ideas.

The bottom line: thought-provoking, illuminating and impeccably argued brief answers and big opinions, and the perfect way in which to sign off.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

1 Women's tennis is as good as it has ever been, and there are more players at a higher standard than ever before, but no-one is consistent enough to dominate in the manner of Navratilova, Graf, Hingis, Seles, Williams...