David Attenborough: A Fossil of Our Time

A week ago, I sat in an audience waiting for the arrival of a British icon in Chiswick Business Park. The place was packed out, the air fizzing with anticipation – for who? Sir David Attenborough.

Edited David Atteborough2

Funny how a man of 87 years could create such an excitement – the only other time I’ve witnessed such a thing was at a guitar show where people queued for an autograph from Jim Marshall, the famous guitar amp creator. It’s strange how a crowd buzzes over such an old person, something that doesn’t often occur in this Western world obsessed with the young. But let’s face it: Jim Marshall is a music legend and therefore automatically eternally cool. David Attenborough on the other hand…works with animals. Okay, maybe he’s done a little bit more than that.

As soon as he bounded in, waving at the audience and bouncing onto the stage to be interviewed, I got it: I understood why people like him rise from the crowd and do great things. It’s his positive energy, his enthusiasm. The chair was stationed so that his back was turned to the side of the audience where I sat, but like a true professional, he directed every answer to the entire audience – actively turning around to speak to us all. And though his voice – instantly recognisable from his career of voice-overs – has its iconic, husky tone, he nevertheless spoke so vibrantly, he barely needed his microphone. I felt like I was having a personal audience with him. And so enthusiastic – as enthusiastic in his mannerisms as Jack Black – gesticulating with his arms like one of the many primates he’s filmed in his life.

His interview took us on a journey back in time. He actually began his career with a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. In 1952, he started work at the BBC after applying for a job as a radio talk producer, which he didn’t get, before his CV was noticed by Mary Adams who was head of the Talks department – basically the factual TV department. He became producer for the department, and eventually landed his first role as a presenter when Jack Lester, the then presenter for Zoo Quest an animal collecting programme – became ill and David was made to stand in at short notice. The rest is, of course, history.

His stories of TV in the old days fascinated me the most, as a worker in the industry, and with parents who also once worked at the BBC in the 60s and 70s. When Attenborough first began presenting, everything went out live. There was no technology back then to pre-record anything. The schedule itself was a very interesting concept, as back then not many people had TV sets (until the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when many people rushed to buy televisions just to watch the televised ceremony). He explained that around 6pm, BBC television broadcasting shut down for a couple of hours, for fear that housewives would be so locked into watching it they would forget to put their children to bed!

Attenborough has many titles and awards, and is the only person to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D formats (bring on 4K). He was asked what he felt was the biggest change in the industry. His response was when cameras became electronic during the 80s. Before then, cameras (especially  studio cameras) were huge – giant things that need a group of people to wheel them around. But the technological advances in cameras meant they became more stable and reliable, smaller, and easier to manage. To him, this was a major evolution in technology.

His legacy lasts because he plays a part in so many fields – the natural world and TV. What of the future? He believes that his style of nature presenting, what is known as traditional “blue-chip” programming, is on the edge of extinction. Nowadays, nature programmes have more of an adventure feel: the presenters are Indiana Jones-esque, getting into the thick of it – like Attenborough does himself, but there’s more of a hands-on and not to mention wild and dangerous value. Attenborough himself said that animals are relatively easy to read (with their emotions like aggression and calmness readable by any human’s sixth sense), and that he has always found animals to be calm. The scariest creature he has ever faced is a human being wielding a gun.

And the future of the planet?

Edited David Atteborough

 

We need to stop overpopulating. In his words,

“Either humans need to control the population, or nature will end up doing it for us.”

How does Attenborough propose we curb overpopulation? He said that people like him are part of the problem – old people are living longer these days. But more than that, the countries where overpopulation is a problem are the countries where women are not educated and have little control over their own bodies. If we educate women in these countries, it’s likely that the population levels will fall, as women in countries that encourage them to be educated and have more control over their bodies are less likely to have so many children.

His interest in nature began as a child, when he collected fossils and specimens. Just as this inspiration has carried on well into adulthood, where he is still so fascinated by breaking open a fossil, like an ancient tomb, and being the first human to set eyes on a creature that hasn’t been seen since it became fossilized millions of years ago, so we too will continue to look upon the museum of his life and career in awe. So many of us in Britain have grown up with David Attenborough. He’s so warm and friendly on television, he’s like an old family friend. No doubt that one day the country will inevitably be in mourning over him, but he will be cherished and continue to live on as a fossil of our time. Such is life.

International Women’s Day: Hypatia

I first came across Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora.

Agora-Poster

Based in Roman-ruled Egypt, the film centers around the raging disputes between the main religions of the day –  Judaism and Christianity, and ends with the death of Hypatia, a Greek philosopher. Essentially, it is suggesting that ancient religions allowed no place for philosophy or science and in fact divide us as people, though this concept may have been made stronger for the sake of the film plot.

Hypatia sprang to my mind as someone to write about, because for a start, women were not really regarded as equals in Ancient Greece or Rome. Hypatia lived in the later stages of the ancient world, around 350-370 AD. But as an aristocrat of her day, money allowed her to thrive in a man’s world.

She was a mathematician (the first known woman mathematician) and philosopher, and as the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she taught many male students on these subjects – based on law rather than nature – making her a woman apart from her time. One scene in the film that has stuck in my mind (probably out of shock value), that apparently did happen in real life, is when one of her suitors makes a pass at her (suggested as Orestes in the film though this is not historically true), and she gives him her menstruation rags, saying there is nothing attractive about carnal knowledge. As to the rest of the film, it’s probably fair to say that history has been somewhat distorted.

Essentially, her eventual death resulted from rising tensions between the Christians and Jews. Or rather, the situation was used to get rid of her. Orestes was the governor of Alexandria at this time, and Cyril was the Bishop of Alexandria, and both became more furious with each other’s actions. Although Hypatia was widely held highly and with virtue by most men, it was because Orestes came to her for council that Cyril cited her – an untrustworthy pagan- as the reason for his and Orestes’ inability to get along, which amounted to the wider conflicts between Christians and Jews in the city. Really, he was jealous of her – jealous that people came to her for her wisdom, and that a woman could hold such a power as wisdom.

One report by Socrates Scholasticus states that after Cyril spread these rumours, she was kidnapped by a mob of Christians, stripped naked in a church, and attacked with roof tiles, before her body was torn limb from limb. Another report says that her body was dragged naked through the city. Along with many others, she was made a scapegoat for the conflicts, and it was because she was such a strong female figure, that she was seen as much of a threat as the other men.

Olympics Through the Ages

Yesterday, I read in an article in The Guardian that the  winner of the men’s 5000m race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics would have beaten the winner of the men’s 1500m race in 1908. They took this fact from a report created by researchers in the House of Commons, which also said that the winner of the women’s marathon in 2008 would have beaten the winner of the men’s race in 1908 by half an hour.

Interesting stuff.

It seems we are becoming superhuman – or godlike, if you will, like the Ancient Greeks. We (and I use the word “we” as opposed to “they” when I reference athletes as it makes me feel good about myself) just keep getting faster and stronger and breaking each other’s world records. We can’t help but push ourselves. So how did we get like this, and why weren’t we like it in the past?

A number of reasons:-

– money. People didn’t have the money for training regimes – especially women for obvious reasons in the past (on a side note, women have only been allowed to compete in all categories at the Olympics for the first time this year – the final sport being boxing. Strangely, there are still some sports that don’t allow men, such as synchronised swimming. Also, in the old days, people not deemed to be of a civilised origin had to compete in separate events i.e. in 1904, those from colonies such as Africa, out of fear of later revolts against the dominant world leaders and empires, were only allowed to compete in so-called “athletic events for savages”. Fast forward to the black power salute of the 1968 Olympics, and even to today with such programmes as Survival of the Fastest and race and genetics still play a very prominent role in modern Olympics).

– two world wars got in the way. Ducking bombs whilst out jogging is obviously too distracting.

– regarding jogging – although the term jogging has been referenced since Shakespeare’s day, with a slightly different meaning of “slight, quick movements”, it never really took off until the 1960s/1970s and in those days was called roadwork, something mainly used by athletes. My point is that the idea of keeping fit – jogging regularly being a main part of modern day fitness regimes – wasn’t really a habit of the general public until the second half of the 20th century. Yes, people did exercise, but it generally consisted of flapping your arms and legs around.

(Club swinging – a discontinued Olympic event)

Fitness regimes of athletes were probably not as hardcore as today’s athletes either, and they didn’t push themselves like others today. The idea was to ease your body into fitness, not pummel it into it. For example, you can chart the progression of the star jump – originally a simple stretch waving the arms up and down in the Victorian times, through to the Edwardians where the movement had progressed to doing the same action but holding weights as well, and finally towards the twenties and onwards where jumping becamed involved – forming the star jump. So in the old days, people did not have as deep an understanding of the human body as we do today. Nor did early modern Olympians have the same kind of diets. Or drugs. Or rather sport enhancing drugs we use today – past generations were also known to have taken drugs as I will describe later.

In terms of overt fitness or muscle tone, muscle-building is one thing that has been around since the late 1800s, promoted by the likes of Prussian Eugen Sandow with his Grecian Ideal, but his look was probably considered that of the other, and was not the norm. Yet, the Victorians and Edwardians did generally get into more outdoor sports and leisure activities, like cricket. This led to such games in the 1908 Olympics as the popular sport of pedestrianism.

This was basically long distance walking brought about by the Victorian love of the great outdoors. But we aren’t talking a simple 3-hour race. Though they loved the great outdoors, this sport was gruelling and repetitive, as outlined in this article stating how one six-day pedestrianism race took place in one sports ring. Six days! That meant walking round and round and round and round… In fact, some people found the exercise so physically challenging, they often cut their thighs to relieve muscle tension. It’s easy to see why even Victorian athletes took drugs for pain relief in those days. As pharmacies were more relaxed during Victorian times, and were generally still experimenting themselves with many types of drugs, athletes would chew coca leaves, and take cocaine, strychnine and alcohol. However, this was all banned by the 1908 Olympics.

But still, the muscles we see in the Olympics today were a little less recognisable in the old days – a bit more deflated and, well, flabby. Roll back the clock to the Ancient Games, and there is an obvious difference.

1896 saw the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. The Ancient Olympics didn’t actually take place in Athens, but in Olympia, beginning in 776 BC and continuing every four years (known as an olympiad) around the time of the summer solstice. Any free man from any country and state could compete as long as he spoke Greek, but women couldn’t attend. There were a few differences between the Ancient Olympics and the modern Games of around the turn of the 20th century. My first point regards muscles. Look at these Ancient Classical Greek artefacts:

The Ancient Greeks tried to model themselves on the Olympic Gods in body and in mind – hence their gymnasiums and games such as the Olympics, and also through studying all different subjects. The Olympics was a religious event dedicated to the gods – mainly Zeus and Hera. Of course, we can’t expect that every Greek looked like the two bronze Riace Warriors above (not least because elements of these figures just don’t make sense: muscles are over-defined, and they are actually missing their coccyx bones. Though they seem highly realistic, they are still works of art and emphasize the supposed perfection of the Ancient Greek body), but perhaps many of the athletes did.

I always remember my Classics teacher at school telling us that when sculptures like this were first discovered, the people laughed at the muscle definition, simply because they didn’t realise these muscles existed.

Ancient Greeks did also compete in the nude, if not to prove they were men and legible to enter the Games, but also to show off their fine physiques. In the old days, there were fewer events, but these included things like the 192m sprint race, which involved contestants running down a straight, or a stade as it was known – the length of the stadium, round a wooden stake, and back down the straight they came down to the starting line.

On this vase, showing such sprinters, there is obvious muscle definition, so we can only determine from all of these artefacts – regardless of artistic licensing – that they must have been very fit in the Ancient Games.

Another event was the pankration – a fighting sport with an anything goes kind of attitude, except it didn’t allow biting or eye-gouging. These men were obviously bulkier.

And of course chariot racing – dangerous and bloody. Prizes for the various Panhellenic Games, which the Olympic Games were a part of, involved a gift of whatever was the symbol for that event (for the Olympics, it was an olive wreath, known as kotinos), and a lot of public recognition – and much partying!

One event I always found intriguing was the ancient technique for the long jump, part of the pentathlon.

They did it from a standing position (even in the original modern day Olympics they did the long jump from a standing position) and held weights, swinging them backwards and forwards before taking a leap. Apparently the weights pulled them further forward and steadied their landing.

Here are some modern games that are no longer practised:

Tug-of-war

Yes, the tug-of-war. A very British game, which would explain who came first in all three places in 1908: Gold went to the City of London Police, Silver to the Liverpool Police, and Bronze to the Metropolitan Police “K” Division. I wonder if this event would ever have made it to the Games if Rome had in fact held them as intended, and not Britain who stepped in when Mt Vesuvius erupted on April 7, 1906. As of this year, Britain will be the only country to have held a record of three Olympic Games – 1908, 1948 and 2012. At the 1948 Olympics, Germany and Japan were strictly prohibited from entering.

I did a tug-of-war once with loads of other local children, and I remember being pulled forward along with the rest of my side so fast that I tumbled over onto a topless man with a massive beer belly who was lying out on the floor. I lost my balance and sat on his beer belly twice. Yes, tug-of-wars remind me of sunny, summer days – not that we’ll apparently see much of that at this year’s Olympics, which will be another record for Britain: it is due to be the wettest Olympic Games in history (most events will be wet t-shirt competitions – wahey!).

Archery

In this picture, we see the British women’s archery team who won all lead position. This may have been due to the fact that Britain was the only nation to have a women’s team…

The Plunge/Swimming Obstacle Race/Underwater Swimming

The Olympics used to feature a whole host of swimming events which you can see being relived here by Sports Relief on the BBC. My favourite is the obstacle race which involved such things as swimming under a boat and climbing up and down a pole.

Delivery Van Driving

In the 1900 Olympics in Paris, this was an unofficial event as part of the World Fair. In fact, there were all forms of motor racing at this event, including a taxi race, 7 seater car race, 2 seater car race… the list goes on.

And a few more  that have gone out of fashion over the years:

Live pigeon shooting

Rope climbing

Long distance horse jumping

Poodle clipping

Solo synchronised swimming

Club swinging (as pictured above)

Hot air balloon racing

It seems the older modern day Games had a much more lighthearted feel. I for one am going to propose a slippery pole competition for this year’s Games – if it’s not too late.

 

 

“And Odysseus Devised a Horse…to Ruin the Trojans’ Online Game of Angry Birds”

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. I’ve had a lot of viruses on my computer as of late ( for your information, never install the free software Converter Lite – it is malware). Most of us know what viruses are in terms of animal diseases. When I think of a virus I remember drawing strange diagrams at school. Lock and key diagrams, right? Maybe I’m getting it all confused with other molecules and diagrams. Anyway, I had to reinstall my computer because of this virus. Shame we can’t reinstall ourselves when we get ill.

A computer virus is “a software program capable of reproducing itself and usually capable of causing great harm to files or other programs”.

The oldest computer viruses weren’t considered viruses at the time, and were simply known as self-replicating computer programs. The Creeper virus, written by Bob Thomas, is the oldest known purpose-built virus which, during the early 1970s, sprouted through the ARPANET (an early version of the internet – the world’s first operational packet-switching network) on the TENEX operating system.

Honestly, I completely understand the technical stuff I just wrote, and this diagram, but I just can’t be bothered to explain it to you technophobes, so I won’t. But I really do understand it.

The Creeper was self-replicating, like a virus you and I can catch, and it caused the following message to appear:

I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!

The Reaper program was designed to get rid of the Creeper.

After that, other viruses came along, such as the Elk Cloner in 1981 which was written by Rich Skrenta, and was the first virus to appear “in the wild” or outside of the lab it was created in. It attached itself to the Apple DOS 3.3 operating system (yes, that’s an Apple virus not Microsoft, believe it or not).


And of course, most of us have experienced the Trojan horse programs, so-called because they sneak into your computer like the soldiers of Ancient Greece who infiltrated the enchanted walls of Troy by hiding inside a large, wooden horse that was wheeled inside the city, and who went on to win the Trojan war (you can read about it in Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Odyssey. Translate them yourself from Ancient Greek or Latin, if you like. Or you could just watch the film Troy). Trojan horses don’t duplicate themselves like a virus does, but it is designed to steal secret information from computer users. As people shared more software during the 80s, so too did the Trojans and viruses spread – like blood seeping from the wound of a Trojan soldier as he exhales his final breath, the stars in the night sky shining in his darkening eyes (that simile was for you, Homer).

And a worm? A worm doesn’t need human interaction for it to spread, and a single user’s computer is capable of sending out a multitude of worms to many people in one go. The first known worm came about in 1988, when Robert Morris’s worm took down 10% of computers connected to the internet of that time.

I remember one of the first times I used the internet, or the World Wide Web more correctly. It was during a Geography or Science lesson at school around 1998/1999, and although we had a few computer rooms at school, there was only one tiny room with about ten computers that were linked to the internet. I think you had to pay to use the internet access outside of lessons. I distinctly remember being on a website in this lesson I was in, and thinking: what is this? I read the text on the web page, and then when I realised I could click on it and highlight it, I thought I could perhaps edit it too, and tried to type over it. Didn’t work. I didn’t really understand what the point was – I had the Hutchinson Multimedia CD-ROM to do my school work back then.

I can remember how it looked – when internet pages were simple framesets with large clumps of text in an array of font colours (black, red or blue) and tiny images. I think of it now whenever I click onto a webpage these days that has some faulty coding language and so doesn’t load properly. It looked a bit like this:

I’ve noticed that for some reason, bed and breakfast owners still use websites that look like this.

Without launching into a full-scale history of the internet and the World Wide Web, my brief post on computer flu history ends here.

History Summer Summer Summer Time

These are sunny days, and whether you are lucky enough to be spending them somewhere fitting, like by the sea in Whitstable, or camping in a field in Cheddar – wherever you are, I thought I’d give you some interesting historical facts to do with the summer. Just to bring the chilled out feel down a notch. Nah, only joking – I’ll try to keep things light.

1. The bikini was released in May 1946 by Louis Réard. Shockwaves rippled through many nations at this two piece bathing suit. The two-piece had already been around for a while, and was labelled “the world’s smallest bathing suit”. The thing that made the bikini different was that it revealed much more of the torso, including the belly button and so was less repsectable than its predecessor. It therefore became known as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit”. In fact the only woman who would model it was the lady below, Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer.

 

The bikini was named after Bikini Atoll, an island in the Pacific Ocean that is part of the Marshall Islands. This was a picturesque island – until 1946. This was the year when America decided to detonate an atom bomb there, and on its fellow islands in a series of tests named Operation Crossroads. They moved all the indigenous islanders to another local island and tested a bomb on their homeland of Bikini Atoll. When they moved everyone back, people began to get ill, so the island was deemed uninhabitable. The bomb test occurred on July 1st, 1946. The bikini garment was unveiled four days later.

So, not too mood dampening so far (just ignore the bit about islanders getting ill and their homeland being written off). It may or may not surprise you to know that Operation Crossroads is not the only nuclear testing America has done. Nor is it the only country to have done it. Watch this video, if you have the stomach for it:

2. BOY: I didn’t ask for any sauce.

ICE CREAM VENDOR: I didn’t put any on it.

Lines from my all-time favourite comedy The League of Gentlemen (the scene is where an ice cream vendor has a nosebleed over a boy’s ice cream).

I typed in “the best ice cream in the world” into Google, and it gave me the above picture. It also gave me a couple of other pictures, but I don’t think I should post them on here. People with children, you may have to up your internet censorship for your children, by including “ice cream”. Seriously.

So, who invented ice cream? Wihout even researching, I thought the Romans. Must be. Or the Greeks, then the Romans copied them and made ice cream a big hit. One source suggests that ice cream has been around since the 4th century BC, indeed with the Roman Emperor Nero ordering ice from the mountains and then topping it with fruit. So when did the “cream” bit get involved? 600 years later, King Tang of Shang in China is known to have mixed ice and milk together in various ways. Obviously these are noted examples, because it was the leaders that ate these ice related foods, but it may have been more common than that in those archaic days.

Since then, ice cream has been developed in terms of its ingredients and flavours all over the world, with the Americanised “ice cream” (previously “iced cream”) becoming the most prominent in the Western world. I’ve had ice cream in various places around the world: on Lido, the beach-goers island by Venice, there is an ice-cream vendor (or properly termed gelato – it’s made differently) on every corner. With all different flavours. I managed to get one down my throat whilst trying not to pass out from the heat (Mid-August is NOT a good idea for holidaying in Venice if you are allergic to the heat like me. My half Mauritian blood doesn’t help. As I tell people, I am half Mauritian, but I am also half white Londoner); in Berlin, they make flowers out of ice cream:

and in Barcelona, they expect a tip.

3. Pimm’s

Pimm’s has become synonymous with the British summer. This was a gin-based drink mixed with herbs and quinine in its earliest form, and is now a brandy based drink (the difference being that gin is either distilled from juniper berries, or distilled alcohol grain mixed with flavourings and herbs, and brandy is distilled from wine.) This early form of Pimm’s was made by James Pimm as an aid to digestion. Alcohol, along with other drugs, were often used for medicinal purposes up until the first part of the twentieth century. Nurses would often administer brandy to patients in hospitals in the old days. James Pimm was from Newnham in Kent (go Kent!), the son of a farmer, and he moved to London where he became a shellfish monger and the owner of an oyster bar, which led to a chain called Oyster House.

Today, we associate Pimm’s No. 1 with the sunny weather, and the company obviously markets this product towards barbecues and beach parties. There is also a Winter Pimm’s Cup that is drunk hot with apple juice, and indeed, there have been various “cups” developed over time, some of which have been phased out due to low demand (see above image). Interesting how the company directly generates its revenue through marketing its products to fit a particular season.

4. Finally, I cannot write about the summer without commenting on Whitstable, the once scruffy seaside town where I was born and bred. I was literally born there in my parents’ house; you don’t get much more shellback than that.

Whitstable is a very old fishing town. Not as much fishing as there used to be, nor as many boats in the harbour. It’s famous for oysters, though the Whitstable Oyster Festival always occurs in July, which is strange as the oysters aren’t in season that time of year (only in the months with the letter “r” in the name), so instead they bring over a load of Irish oysters. Still, the festival is great. If you like nothing more than salty shellfish, singing bearded men, blacked up morris dancers and big smelly St Bernard’s dogs then Whitstable Oyster Festival is the place. Whitstable is known to have had the first passenger train line, and the first train bridge though other places have claimed this. The line was called the Canterbury and Whistable Railway, but often nicknamed the Crab and Winkle Line. Today, the Crab and Winkle line is a footpath/cyclepath that follows much of the original route between Canterbury and Whitstable.

People say the best thing about Whitstable is the sunset on the beach in the summer. Some also say the sunrise, though I’ve never actually seen the sunrise on the beach – just in the street after very late nights.

And here is the Old Neptune – an old pub on the beach that was a filming location for the film Venus featuring Peter O’Toole. Neptune, a Roman god, was known as Poseidon to the Ancient Greeks, and was the god of the sea. He was father to Polyphemus, the cyclops that Odysseus and his men, held hostage by the one-eyed giant, famously blinded with a giant stake.

And there I finish – with a photo of a sunny evening night. No doubt the sun would have just dipped beneath the horizon in sunny, old Whitstable as I post this. If you’re there, enjoy it for me.