Monthly Archives: March 2010

Songs of Praise

Last night I gave a talk at Bristol’s Skeptics in the Pub where I demonstrated that our experiences can be easily misled. I showed the hilarious alternative lyrics video of Carmina Burana that I managed to download before the spoil-sports who own the copyright made YouTube take it down. After the talk, Dr. Suzi Gage told me about Adam Buxton’s reinterpretation of “Songs of Praise” and so I am posting them here for your entertainment while I get on with some serious work. Now I know why Dan Dennett likes singing in his church choir – Enjoy!

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Filed under General Thoughts

Body Snatching For Blackmail, Ransom or Sale

A Romanian man was arrested today for vandalizing the tombs of three Cypriot archbishops. Apparently he had issues with the “church and holy ground.” Although it initially looked like he had removed the remains of one the archbishops, it turns out that the body had been reburied elsewhere. This arrest comes just months after the theft of the corpse of former President Tassos Papadopoulos. The body was recently recovered as it had been reburied in another grave. Three men have been arrested and although the motive is not known, there is speculation that this body snatching may have been motivated by an attempt to ransom the body to the family. This reminds me of the conviction of the three animal rights extremists back in 2006 who dug up and stole the body of Gladys Hammond, the mother-in-law of a farm owner who bred guinea-pigs for animal research.  Their plan was to hold the corpse as ransom to blackmail the farm owners.

Fetal Skeleton for sale in New York's Evolution

If you are not used to corpses, there is something deeply disturbing about bodily remains. Last week, I visited the bizarre “Evolution” store in Soho, New York. Evolution has been issued a special license by the New York State Department of Health, as a Nontransplant Anatomic Bank. This authorizes Evolution to store and distribute human skulls, human skeletons, and individual human bones, for medical research and/or health professional education. When I was there, they had human skeletons of everyone from fetuses, babies, children right up to adults. They had a veritable menagerie of animals that were stuffed, plastinated, made into purses and even freeze-dried.

I have not planned my own disposal yet, but I hope to leave no tangible trace or anything worth putting up on eBay. (Actually eBay does not allow the sale of these items). On the other hand, I did really enjoy my visit to Soho and so maybe spending the afterlife in a New York loft apartment as a coat rack may not be such a bad fate.

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Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

New York Was Awesome

As I write this blog, I am in Newark International Airport on the final return of my Spring visit to the US where I schmoozed at conferences, visited dear friends, gave a bizarre seminar at Binghamton and ended with a public lecture in New York at the New York Academy of Sciences sponsored by the Nour Foundation.

I had a terrible time getting to Binghamton as Delta Airlines in their wisdom had decided on a policy of not holding flights for connecting passengers. So I missed my flight and spent a sleepless, smelly night in the same clothes in a horrid airport in Detroit. No doubt many of you have had similar experiences so I am not about to bore you with another diatribe against US domestic travel. By the time I got back to New York city, I was really grateful just to be back in a relatively large city.

So finally the public lecture in New York. The word “awesome” has lost its impact in today’s language full of superlatives. Anything appears to be awesome in today’s vernacular and so when I was told that my talk at the New York Academy of Sciences was going to be ‘awesome,’ I naturally assumed this meant that it would be better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Ground Zero from room Mar 2010

The Nour Foundation put me up in Millennium Hilton near to the academy. I was not prepared for the fact that this is bang smack next to Ground Zero which came as a complete shock. I had visited the Twin Towers just months before the 9/11 attack and so for me this was an poignant emotional experience. The porter who took me to my room told me all about the project to rebuild and how the hotel had also had to be repaired but when he opened the room curtains, I stared down in stunned silence on to the reconstruction project lit up at night with arc lighting and an army of workmen beavering away all through the day. Apparently they have no schedule to stop work.

The base of each tower is clearly visible, as these will become square waterfalls that fall inwards. The combination of the height, the proximity and the visible reminder of the structures where I had spent some time back in 2001, hit me with an unexpected sense of sadness. When I was there, I remember lying on my back in the plaza to take a photograph of the two towers rising up into the sky. I have lost that picture which is probably a good thing. Standing there in my hotel room, looking down on all that remained, triggered all the images of that terrible day – the smoke, the falling bodies, the brightness and the footage all came flooding back. This is what psychologists call flashbulb memories. I can’t imagine what it must be like for New Yorkers who were actually there.

This is where I gave my talk

I was so exhausted following my Detroit exploits that I crashed radically. When I awoke, the day was bathed in brilliant sunshine. New York never looked better. I was due to speak that night so the first thing I did was to find my venue. I found the address on google maps but at the street level I simply could not find the address. I was looking in the wrong place. It turns out the the New Academy of Science occupies the 40th floor of the skyscraper that is right next to Ground Zero. When I got to the floor where I was due to speak, I was dumbfounded.

The Manhattan skyline looking uptown from where I was speaking

Here is the view from the New York Academy of Sciences on a bright spring day. It was truly awesome.

The venue was fully booked, the talk went great and we sold all the books for the signing. My host Richard Rass from the Nour Foundation was absolutely charming and gave me a great introduction. I was not only high in the sky over New York but having an unbelievable evening. The word ‘awesome’ might be over-used but for me New York was truly awesome both in the sadness and elation I felt on the same day.

It doesn't get much better than this!

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Filed under book publicity

Say It Again Sam

"Give me more awe, Bruce"

I will be away for a couple of weeks in the States so here is my post about my brief film star experience earlier this week.

Four of us turned up to begin filming a pilot on a freezing early March morning earlier this week in Leigh Woods near Bristol. Apparently, this is the norm in the film business so as to capture “the light.” The only thing I thought we would capture was frostbite. Still, I was motivated and excited to be on my first proper shoot. I even had some of the lingo of “piece to camera,” “cut-away” and other terms that I had picked up in my limited media experience though I expect that the director, cameraman and soundman were smirking each time I tried to sound familiar with the proceedings.

It’s funny but you know you are on a proper shoot when the camera is very big and there is a man holding a microphone boom. I have done a couple of tv interviews before but have always been a bit disappointed that the equipment looked a bit inadequate. Even “The One Show” episode that I recently recorded which is being broadcast in August later this year seemed a bit flimsy. However, the camera on the shoot in the woods was big and heavy. I was also suitably impressed when Mark the cameraman told that me it cost the same as a Porsche, was the latest in digital technology – better than 35mm, but most importantly, the same type of camera had been used to make my favourite sci-fi film in the last year, “District 9.” Now, I felt like a real actor.

I had spent the weekend rehearsing my lines. There were only six of them but they had to be absolutely tight. The first line was supposed to capture the viewer’s attention, “YOU – believe in the supernatural!”  It was to be delivered direct to camera (oh dear, there I go again) with a finger pointing accusingly at the imagined audience in very much the same way in the famous US army recruitment poster showing Uncle Sam pointing directly at you.

We went for a first take that seemed fine. I had set aside the whole morning as requested but figured that at this rate, we should be finished in half and hour. Three hours later, I was still jabbing my finger at the camera and telling it that it believes in the supernatural. This had now been shot from umpteen different angles, with umpteen different tones of voice, and another umpteen different facial expressions. And each time, I got further and further away from the sense of me speaking English. Have you ever noticed that if you say words over and over again, they seem to lose their meaning? In fact, they often don’t seem like real words at all. With each repetition, you begin to question whether you can still speak English, as the utterances become increasingly gobbledygook.

When words seem to become nonsense with repetition, it is a phenomenon called “semantic satiation.” It’s like gorging on the meaning triggered by the sound of the word until you can’t take anymore. The same happens with the written word. That’s why sentences can sometimes become harder to understand each time you read them. Words that you know must be real, cease to make sense and spookily become nonsense. In fact, repeating myself over and over again that morning had an increasingly corrosive effect on my sense of reality. I was ceasing to be Bruce, but rather a puppet caught in a tangle, having to repeat moments of time over and over again. I was becoming depersonalized.

Some actors play themselves over and over again. Humphrey Bogart was pretty much playing Humphrey Bogart in every film he made. I doubt he bothered trying to portray a different character and maybe that’s exactly what the studio wanted. But other great character actors, recognizable by first names alone, such Laurence, Bobbie, Johnny and Meryl can become someone entirely different. I am no expert in acting but after my brief experience this week, I have a newly found admiration for those people who can suddenly become someone else so convincingly. Maybe it’s easier with big budgets and big cameras to capture the best angle. You don’t have to repeat lines over and over again. But when you do – you can get a real sense of the self that becomes unreal. This is why so many novices freeze when a camera is stuck in their face and they are expected to “be normal.”

Anyway, I saw the final product yesterday and was absolutely thrilled. Mostly because the guy in the film seemed so unlike me. That’s the wonder of film.

And yes, I know….Humphrey Bogart never uttered those famous words, “Play it again, Sam.”

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Filed under In the News, supernatural, Television

UFO Sightings to Become Ex-Files

What is the Ministry of Defence Hiding?

So far, it has been somewhat of a bumper beginning to 2010 for skeptics in the UK. First bomb dowsing is exposed and banned, then we have the recommendation to remove homeopathy from the National Health Service, Simon Singh’s libel case brought by the British Chiropractor  Association is gathering positive momentum (against the bone manipulators!) and today I learned that the Ministry of Defence will destroy reports of UFO sightings in the UK.  This move follows up on the decision to shut the British UFO investigation unit and telephone hotline.

Is it due to a drop in reported sightings? On the contrary, sightings have been increasing steadily in recent years according to a former MoD employee who used to work in the UFO unit. It would seem that the MoD are fed up having to respond to Freedom of Information requests from UFO hunters. On the other hand, that might just be the cover story….

I hope this sweeping rationalism does not go too far. Otherwise I will have nothing to blog about. There again, that’s the nature of belief… the more you try to remove it, the stronger it becomes!

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Filed under In the News, Newspaper