In 2011 global warming caused an iceberg the size of Switzerland
to break off the Antarctic Ice Shelf and begin drifting into the
open sea. I decided to raise funds to land on it and declare it a
After all, nobody owned it. And, given time, its climate will
change for the better as it drifts north into the warmer
latitudes. Continue reading
An international team of scientists is persisting in trying to connect with aliens living in outer space. This week the Seti team in California (Seti meaning “the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence”) announced it would carry on trying to make contact with Aliens despite calls for caution.
The “Alien-hunt facility” has almost 400 signal-detecting dishes in the mountains northeast of San Francisco.
It can transmit into deep space and receive signals.
The question is: what happens if we receive an intelligent message?
The astrophysicists have agreed on one thing: “Don’t answer it!” Continue reading
Some time ago, Tracey J Shors, professor of psychology in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Rutgers University in America wrote in Scientific American that brain neurons are constantly regrowing. The more you exercise your mind the more neurons you grow – even in old age.
Apparently exercising the brain is much like exercising your muscles. OK, you can’t do press ups with the brain but you can get it bubbling like porridge by thinking hard.
New neurons come and go so that if you sprout a bunch of them after some heavy thinking but afterwards revert to watching television while drinking beer the new neurons will die off from neglect.
I have always been interested in the brain and often pop upstairs onto my cranium and talk to the boys in the various departments.
After reading Professor Shors article I popped upstairs and knocked on a door labelled “Pondering Division” and entered (not that I have to knock of course – after all I own the place).
Everybody leapt to their feet and tried to look busy.
I gave a boss-like nod of acknowledgement to those assembled before asking the Head of Pondering (I call him, Hop),“Hop, how’s the neuron situation up here?”
“They’re coming in slowly,” he said. “Every time you write a column three more come tumbling down the chute. On the rare occasion you write about something intelligent or that is rather creative, a whole lot of them can come down.”
I told him about scientists experimenting on rats and pigs and finding that mental exercise keeps the brain constantly topped up.
Then it occurred to me: “Why use rats and pigs to gauge what makes humans tick?” Five or six shiny neurons come rattling down the chute.
Hop said, “What would you rather they use – earthworms?”
As my mind grappled with this question a single shiny ball rolled out of the chute and rolled across to the floor.
I told Hop about cognitive neuroscience – even as I pronounced this 20 neurons came bouncing out – and I told him about the imminent advent of brainchips.
I explained how one day I could have a chip inserted into my brain and then, without using my fingers, I could operate my pc while eating a hamburger with both hands. One’s thoughts alone could activate one’s computer which would instantly reveal what you were thinking.
“It worries me,” I said. “What if you are having a terribly private thought and the boss walks in and sees your screen – or, worse still, what if one’s wife walks in?”
An avalanche of little balls emptied into the room so that workers were skidding about on them.
HOP said, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”
Scientists dealing with neurons find that alcohol retards the growth of neurons and that physical exercise stimulates growth – though the neurons die if not used fairly soon.
We are born with countless billions but once a child starts passively watching TV or idly playing on a laptop for hours on end the neurons die and one becomes first a teenage turnip and later a parliamentarian.
HO HO HO.
It was some greeting, considering what I had gone through to get to the North Pole.
I stood there on the steps of Number One, Ice Street, exhausted. My compass, totally confused, was spinning.
My pemmican had run out at Ornskoldsvik and I had been forced to eat my mukluks (gently fried in olive oil with a little peri-peri).
Even as I stood on the steps of Number One my stomach was growling. It was White Fang, my faithful sled dog – I had been forced to eat him.
Here I was, with terrible indigestion, standing next to a brass plate inscribed “S. Claus, B.Com., MBA”.
I said: “Father Christmas, I presume?”
He said: “Ho ho ho.”
“I am from The Daily Bugle and I bring tidings from all journalists.”
“Ho ho ho,” he said.
He directed me through vast halls filled with the rustling of Christmas paper as the elves and pixies wrapped gifts for good little children wherever they may be
He showed me into an office where, behind the desk sat Dr Deng Xiaoping, PhD., M.Com.,Llb., MBA (Beijing).
He said, “I’m Santa Claus’s boss – chief executive of Toyland”.
I was taken aback.
“I was hoping to interview Santa himself,” I said.
“Out of the question,” said Xiaoping. “We are way behind schedule. It’s mainly Santa’s fault. He suggested Toyland held back its orders on toys from China in the hope the currency would weaken.”
“Ho ho ho,” said Santa, embarrassed. He then rushed off.
At this stage a fairy came in and offered me tea and then minced out again.
I said, “What I’d like to know is how does Santa get all these toys to boys and girls in one night?”
“By reindeer sleigh, of course,” he said, surprised at my question.
“This time of year reindeer have completed their migration and are just standing around eating moss. They welcome a winter job with a bit of travel thrown in. Our big problem is updating the lists of good kids on the computers. I mean, what’s a naughty kid anymore?”
In my day you were naughty if you walked through puddles in your best shoes. Nowadays kids knock off their parents to qualify for the orphans’ Christmas party. Yet child psychologists argue that this isn’t really being naughty so much as responding to negative sociological stresses aggravated by the pressures of the ‘me’ syndrome for which children cannot be blamed.
“And what’s all this ‘Ho ho ho’ stuff? Why is Father Christmas so inscrutable?” I asked.
Inscrutable? Even as I said the word it dawned on me – inscrutable! The Inscrutable Chinese… Of course! Father Christmas himself is a Chinese businessman in disguise!
The real Santa Claus had been kidnapped by the toy mafia in the Far East. It was my bounden duty as a newspaperman to tell the world.
Xiaoping, realising the secret was out, pressed a button on his desk and a gun-toting hobgoblin walked in and opened fire with lead-free bullets. I dropped where I stood, full of holes.
Suddenly somebody was shaking me by the shoulder. A huge pot-bellied man with a red track-suit and white beard was bending over me.
I realised I was still on the snow-covered doorstep of Number One. I had been dreaming – overcome by weariness and hunger.
Father Christmas said merrily : “Come in, my boy! Come in!
I was ushered into his warm home with its merry fire and smiling elves and pixies. A leggy Snow Queen brought in some mince pies and a cognac glass of genuine French anti-freeze.
I heard somebody saying, “Ho ho ho!” and immediately recognised the voice.
It was mine.
(For more of this try one of my e-books – you can also get them in paperback)
Psychologist Dr Niki Swart, speaking some time back at a civil defence conference said that in a disaster situation seventy percent of people become confused and panicky while 10 percent scream and cry and the rest become distanced.
I have personal experience of this. It happens every time we go on holiday which is when the entire tribe migrates down to the kwaZulu/Natal North Coast.
It is not that we want to avoid dishing out Christmas boxes back in Johannesburg to those 300 or so dustbin men who arrive in impis shouting “happeeeeee!” and armed with authentic-looking letters claiming they are indeed our municipal dustbin men.
Although, to be honest, that is partly the reason.
It is really to avoid hearing “Jingle bells, jingle bells” every time I go the shops.
But I have long realised how right Dr Swart was. My family, when setting out on a long journey, manifests the first two syndromes – confusion/panic and screaming/crying.
I tend to be like the 20 percent and become “distanced”.
We usually go down to the sea in convoy taking hours because there are so many females and females have bladders the size of eyedrop bulbs and this necessitates stopping every 20 minutes.
And then the younger ones want crisps and soft drinks so that they can mash the chips into the back seat and set the cans, once almost emptied, rolling under the front seats going downhill and rolling back going uphill.
Nowadays we rendezvous at dawn at the house of either one of my daughters where we reverse over suitcases and where we burst plastic bags.
The women tend to bring enormous quantities of food as if the North Coast is served only by a single trading store that sells candles, salt and paraffin.
“How can you have bought all this stuff?”
“It just looks a lot,” I am told. “In any event you should just see how much we left behind on the supermarket shelves.”
The scene is reminiscent of a dockside as an ocean liner prepares for the Far East.
“Who are all these people?” I cry.
But really, I know, because I recognise many of their faces.
Meanwhile every burglar south of Harare can see he has two clear weeks to clean out the house. My son-in-law says, “I just hope they’ll have time to clean out my garage too”.
On one occasion when my granddaughter was small, she spied a packed taxi pulling up and called to the people getting out: “You see this house? Well, Jesus is looking after it because we’re going on holiday.”
The drive is filled with people shouting helpful things like: “Aren’t you folks ready yet for Pete’s sake?”
“Oh no, whose are all these bags?”
“They’re yours,” I am told.
“Well, there’s the dog basket and a duvet in one…”
“Dog basket? I thought he was going to the kennels!”
Silly of me.
The scene changes to become reminiscent of the Grand Staircase on the Titanic. I slide into the phase Niki Swart describes as “helplessly withdrawn”.
Inevitably, irrepressibly, the convoy moves out, forsaking the agreeable highveld climate and the peace that engulfs the suburbs at Christmas and heads southeast towards the rains and the tropical humidity that lies ahead.
Health and safety officers in Britain are alarmed at the number of children doing adults’ work – illegally.
They found a 12-year-old operating a mechanical digger laying drives in Birmingham, and a 13-year-old girl working as a hospital receptionist. – Report.
Beryl (13) knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was too old for Selwyn (12), but then, she told herself, Selwyn was way ahead of his years.
Did he not drive a 32-ton mechanical digger which could, with one scoop, lift out a fair-sized cottage?
Indeed, had he not done just that – accidentally?
The problem was, Beryl said to herself as she examined her acne in the little mirror at Thornton Hospital reception desk, Selwyn was doing a man’s job – yet her parents refused to admit it.
Ok, so it was their cottage he had totalled. But still, it was no reason for them to go on and on about it for two whole days.
The telephone rang and Beryl chanted: “Thornton Hospital! How may I help yoo-hoo?”
It was a very excited woman on the other end. Beryl puzzled, removed the phone from her ear and stared for a moment into the earpiece. Then she said “What? I mean pardon, madam? You say your waters have broken?
“I think you need a plumber. Try the Yellow Pages.”
Beryl put down the phone in time to see the dragon-like Mrs Monckton coming down from seeing her husband in ward 6. The old lady waddled up to the reception desk and announced “Ernie is much better today. He says he’s dying to come home.”
“It’s the anaesthetic,” said Beryl, “it can’t have worn off yet.”
Beryl removed the wooden tongue-depressor she used as a bookmark and tried to continue reading Nancy Drew and the Arab Prince. But her mind was in turmoil.
There was the disco tomorrow night, and what to wear, and Bob’s invitation to his school dance.
Bob, now in Std 9, was working part time driving locomotives. His kid brother, too young to even climb on to one of those monsters, had to be satisfied working a signal box on Saturday mornings.
It was nice earning money, Beryl told herself, as she thought of all her friends who were either studying or in labour.
The phone rang again: “ThorntonHospitalhowmayIhelpyoo-hoo?”
It was a woman asking how it was that her husband, who was being treated for asthma, died of heart disease? Beryl reassured her: “Please, madam, if the hospital was treating your husband for asthma he would have died of asthma.”
Beryl saw young Doctor Harding walking past, nonchalantly swinging his stethoscope. She sighed a little sigh. He once did 10 tonsillectomies in an hour. Everybody said that wasn’t bad for a 15-year-old.
Her thoughts slipped back to her boyfriend, Selwyn. Maybe she thought, he would look older if his mother let him wear longs. But his mother wouldn’t buy him any until he learned to do joined-up writing.
It was fair enough. Selwyn had a little dyslexia but it was hardly a handicap. There was just the one incident where Selwyn had ripped up the drive of number 31 Oak Avenue instead of number 13. But everybody makes mistakes.
And, anyway, it was nothing compared with what Bertie Grimes did at the airport. But then Bertie was only 11 and, as the chairman of the board of inquiry said, at Bertie’s age, he should never have been put in charge of air traffic control.
I recently mentioned eating silkworms and I have since received some interesting new facts about them but, alas, no recipe.
One thing: if you eat them rest assured they do fall within the new “no carbs” diet.
Apparently if you catch 350 000 female silkworms – they are a doddle to catch being very slow – and empty their scent glands, you will end up with a tiny dab of greasy substance called bombycol.
It smells vaguely like leather. It is an alcohol. If you count, carefully, you’ll find it has 16 carbon atoms to the molecule.
Your sample should be just enough to allow you to weigh 0,000 000 000 000 004 of an ounce (roughly) – that’s about 0,000 001 of a picogram if you want to be pernickety.
Now wave it around in the near presence of a male moth and note how, like an Italian in a Gorgonzola factory, it becomes frantic with desire.
Even at 1km silkworms males can detect it.
Indeed, the male emperor moth is even cleverer: he can detect a female’s minute speck of a scent gland at 8km.
Yet, for all that, moths have a sense of smell only eight times better than a man’s. Note, I didn’t say “a woman’s”. A woman’s sense of smell is many pictograms more sensitive than an emperor moth’s. Believe me.
And, I’ve discovered, bee swarms have their distinctive smell and kill interlopers. In fact smell plays a vital role in the lives of all animals including humans.
I read of a study that indicated a young woman’s sense of smell is at times extremely acute and she is attracted by the smell of a man’s skin – especially the odour of a man’s palms. Try it chaps.
Herd animals, by rubbing against each other acquire a group smell and will instantly detect an interloper. Human are herd animals when you come to think of it (with a lot of predator thrown in) and, certainly, smell plays a part in our behaviour. Some community smells among humans are known to repulse other communities.
Yet body odour is a turn-on in many societies and has always been. When Henry IV was coming home from war he sent a message to Corisande de Gramont (whom he fancied), “Pray, do not bath”.
It makes you wonder what perfume, deodorants and after-shave are doing to our sense of smell and behaviour patterns.
There’s also the question of the way some animals spread their personal scent around. I am sure we once did that.
Dogs do it by lifting a leg against an object such a lamppost or tree.
Apropos of this, Farley Mowat, the Canadian biologist and author was sent by the Canadian Wildlife Service to study wolves in the Arctic. In Never Cry Wolf he tells how he pitched his tent and, each dawn, the wolf pack trotted past it, studiously ignoring him as he sat just metres away.
One day, when the wolves had gone off on their daily hunt, Mowat decided to mark his own territory just as the wolves do.
It took him the entire day to demarcate a modest area, and he had to drink litre upon litre of tea and water. Just for fun he usurped part of the wolves’ territory by peeing across their well-worn track.
The wolves came trotting back and when the lead wolf reached Mowat’s first mark it stopped dead, sat down and turned its head and looked squarely at him.
It then sniffed around Mowart’s entire demarcated area and, in a minute or two, the wolf left his mark, a couple of drops a time, on the outside of each of Mowat’s.
From then on the wolves religiously made a detour around Mowat’s territory.