Friday, July 31, 2009

Possible birthdays

We need to know our birthdays. The hospital, the Passport Office, all sorts of official forms and documents, identify us by our date of birth. Laws and allowances come into effect depending how old we are. Our age, the people in our year at school, the options we've got because of when we were born – they make us who we are.

The thing is, none of us remember being born. Our birthdays are a matter of faith.

Usually, we know our date of birth because someone told us, long ago. Usually it's a trusted person, who underlined the date with presents and cake and a party. That person might well have been there at the birth: the mum who pushed us out into the world, or whoever held her hand.

These people are primary sources – people who can speak with some authority on the subject because they were there at the time.

There are also secondary sources – people who didn't see the birth for themselves, but whose memories back up the story. The grandpa who remembers what he was doing when he was rung with the news. The friend who remembers the trouble she had having flowers sent to the hospital. They don't prove the date, but they don't contradict it. Their evidence lends weight.

There's also a whole bunch of documentary evidence, everything from the official birth certificate and hospital records, to a time-coded video and the cards – and these days emails and text messages – sending best wishes. Taken together, this evidence tells us when we were born.

But it's possible this could all have been faked. We don't know when we were born because we don't remember. It's possible the people who tells us what day it happened is making it up. It's possible the documents have been faked – the cards would be easy, the birth certificate harder but not impossibly. The woman who throws the parties each year and provides the presents and cake might not even be our mum.

(There are DNA tests to check things like that, but you'd have to already suspect something before you went for the test. That's a fun thing to suggest to your mother. And I know a few people completely surprised to discover they were adopted.)

Even if you prove this woman is or is not your mum, you still can't prove what day you were born on. It's possible there's some huge conspiracy, or just some huge mistake. It's difficult to prove a negative: whatever evidence you present, it's still always possible...

The best we can do is judge the available evidence. We might suggest ways to test it. We might point out the flaws in the evidence we've got, welcome others to scrutinise it, or just name the sources we're using. But after that, it's still possible we missed something out. All we can truly say is, “As far as we can tell...”

And that's just with our birthdays.

There are people who don't like this trust in evidence, the 'authority' of science or history. There are those who speak out against scientific theories, or in favour of medical treatments that the evidence peer-reviewed, double-blind trials doesn't support. There are people who say that certain events never happened or were the result of some god. There are vested interests involved, too: conspiracies, industries and individual egos who profit from belief in their statement. They're all very different, but they all stand against the weight of evidence with the argument, "But it's still possible...".

Like our birthdays, these things bound up in our what makes us who we are. Our science, our history, our medicine, our gods - they define us and our behaviour. So challenging - or defending - them can feel like a personal attack. (Sometimes its meant as an attack.) We should not try to cause offence, and we should make our case with a weight of evidence.

Nor is it enough to argue against a weight of evidence, “But it's still possible...”. It's possible there wasn't a Holocaust or Moon landing, or that homeopathy might work. But then it's possible I was born not in June but September. On Mars. And that I'm made of turnips. These possibilities also need to be backed up by evidence. Until then, they're just so much hot air.

We probably can't know anything for certain – there will always be the possibility of something else. And we should endeavour to keep open minds. But that is an argument in favour of evidence, not one for abandoning it.

We shouldn't just believe what we're told, or what supports our assumptions and desires, makes us feel better or safer. We should challenge our beliefs, however sacred. And we should challenge them with the weight of evidence. Because that's the only way we'll really know who we are.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"It's not fair!"

Via Jonny, I’ve been enthralled by the first, 50 year-old season of The Twilight Zone on DVD. It’s a much copied and parodied series, yet watching the run of 36 standalone episodes has been a constant surprise.

For one thing, having seen some episodes in my teens as stories, I thought it was all stories with twist endings. There are some good twist endings, but often we start with a twist that skews the ordinary, mundane world (and hooks us before the first ad break).

It is an anthology of quirky, one-off stories. Narrator Rod Serling explains in the three different title sequences (only one with the “doo-doo doo-doo, doo-doo doo-doo”), that the “twilight zone” is the realm of the imagination.

It quickly establishes some basic archetypes. There are protagonists battling the devil or fate who find they can’t cheat the rules. There are characters caught up in a dream world that turns out only too real. The show has been copied and parodied for five decades, so these moral set-ups feel familiar, almost cosy.

I’m not sure how much it invents these archetypes, but it’s weird seeing what feel such modern archetypes in stiff-suited black and white. “A World of Difference” must surely be ahead of the game. A man discovers his whole life is a film-set, the people he knows merely actors: a smart – and early – play on the conventions of television.

By the end of the season I was also spotting the same locations and sets. If I remember my tour of Universal Studios last year right, I think a lot of it’s set in the same safe all-American cul-de-sac as features in Desperate Housewives.

What makes the show so compelling, though, is not the familiarity but how it continually undermines the norm. It probes the cracks in the veneer of the everyday, and pokes the underlying sores and fears.

A lot of it’s about alienation. There are plenty of loners and misfits, and often no one believes the poor protagonist’s story. Figures of authority turn out to be villains – twinkly-eyed old men are really murderers, children having alarming powers. Or there’s the Doctor Who trick of making some everyday object the source of threat. In the genuinely spooky “The After Hours”, Anne Francis goes shopping with Autons.

Sometimes it seems to be sneaking in comment on the concerns of its day. There’s inherent paranoia – about the bomb and other people – in stories as different as “Third from the Sun” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. There’s the fear of the new frontier – space – in “Where is Everybody?” and “And When the Sky was Opened”.

The hairstyles and clothes betray the series’ age, and the “norm” it’s disturbing is one of wholesome nuclear families where married women stay at home. I’m not quite sure what’s even behind “The Lonely”, in which a prisoner marooned on a rock in space is given a robot girlfriend he then won’t give up. Is it about our addiction to gadgets, or our need for companionship to survive, or just some weird misogynist nonsense? (The robot girlfriend is Jean Marsh, who I’ve now got playing a house.)

“Time Enough At Last”, by far the best episode, sees a bookish Burgess Meredith the sole survivor of nuclear holocaust. The first half, before the bomb, is light and fun, with Meredith ignoring his work and wife just to carry on reading. The second half, as he wanders alone through the ruin of his town, is then all the more disturbing. The twist end – having found the library and no one can stop him reading, he then breaks his glasses – underlines the bleakness. It verges on profundity without ever being explicit, sci-fi addressing the fear of the age in a way ordinary telly never could.

The final episode of the first season, “A World of his Own” again follows a protagonist whose fantasy life turns out real, but also – for the first time – makes the series’ own format part of the story. But it fluffs what should be an excellent gag. When the protagonist exorcises narrator Rod Serling himself, it’s the first time we’ve seen, not just heard, Serling. It would have worked better if we were used to seeing Serling walk through the set of previous episodes, commenting on events. And when he’s banished he still narrates the show’s coda. The twist fails because a show that constantly warps the normal rules won’t warp its own conventions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Holes in our heads and other stories

"People are too often terrible advertisements for their own beliefs."

Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind, p. 357.

The Dr took me to see Derren Brown's magic show, Enigma, for my birthday back in June. Even before I'd read his book I suspected how some of the tricks might be done. Perhaps he wasn't reading people's minds, he just remembered which cards they'd taken; perhaps he used a loaded die...

I'd thought the book, Tricks of the Mind, would be a magic primer, detailing his card-sharpery and the mechanics of illusion. Indeed, Brown begins with a simple coin trick and a simple card trick. He explains misdirection and showmanship – at least as important as the simple “trick” of palming a coin or remembering a sequence of cards.

But he then goes on to explore all kinds of gaps in our cognition that can mean we’ll believe very odd things. In doing so, we learn how to use our memories better, how to hypnotise ourselves, and see how neuro-linguistic programming, psychics and other belief systems are able to ensnare us...

Brown tells us he uses a mixture of these techniques himself. He also tells us something much more important: that what he does is a trick.

The joy of magic, I think, is in knowing it’s a trick – a way of fooling our perception a given event. The performer doesn't really have psychic abilities or a way to sidestep physics. We just have to puzzle out how it was done. Brown talks about laying false clues to muddle the audience when they try to review what they've just seen. But even if we can't figure out how trick is done, we know there is an answer.

On that basis, it's easy to see where Brown's thinking overlaps with scientific enquiry. He's intrigued by NLP but cynical about its cult of personality and resistance to meet its great claims with evidence. Brown is a doubter, though he also talks earnestly about having previously been an evangelical Christian. There's a sense - one I sort of share - that he hates the thought of being fooled again.

He might labour the point, but Brown’s good at explaining why, if you have a proposition – that a certain chemical has healing properties, that the world works in a certain way, that there’s some kind of God – the onus is on you to prove the proposition is true, not for others to prove that it isn't. That's especially important if your proposition encourages some kind of action.

With the zeal of the convert Brown hopes to convince us to doubt. In many ways, Brown's book reminded me of Dawkins' The God Delusion – it's smart, it's lively, it covers a great deal of ground and it explains complex ideas simply. Yet the petulant tone makes it read as if written by a clever 17 year-old. It’s hectoring, ranty and the jokes are often forced. That can give the impression – in both books – that the author has all the answers, whereas the whole point is that we don't settle on easy answers.

Rather, Brown explains the strangeness of reality. In the section on lying, he explains how people telling the truth include all kinds of odd, incongruous details. (I'm reminded of Orwell on Charles Dickens and the genius of his “unnecessary detail”.)

On which point, though I've still not got to Ben Goldacre, I'm hesitant about m'colleague Jonny's review of it:
"Yes! That’s exactly what I already thought, but put slightly more clearly!"
As Brown and Dawkins both spell out themselves, a lot of science is counter-intuitive. In fact, one good test of a scientific theory is whether it confirms what the proponent already "knows". Brown has a whole section on "confirmation bias".

That in turn reminded me of Flat-Earth News by Nick Davies – and especially the bit on heroin use and the war on drugs, where policy seems based on comforting, fundamental beliefs and not on physical evidence.

In fact, Brown’s book has make me connect dots between all sorts of disparate stuff. I shall blog at some point on Father Christmas and on birthdays – two subjects much scrawled in my notebook.

Tricks of the Mind is then a primer not in magic trickery but in strange and wondrous reality. Despite the painful jokes and adolescent tone, it’s an extraordinary book.

Other recent reads:

Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
Loved this; intend to blog my notes. But then I said that about Flat-Earth News, too. Oops. So here’s the Telegraph’s glowing review.

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
A funny, provocative collection of leftie newspaper columns full of sharp one-liners. Not as heavyweight as the other stuff of his I’ve read, but more hits than misses.

The Ghosts of India by Mark Morris
Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with Ghandi. Mark explores the last complex and controversial days of the Raj, for ages eight and up. Plus there’s spooky monsters. I wish I’d thought of this.

Johannes Cabal – The Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard
Reviewed for Vector, but didn’t think that much of it.

Me, Cheeta by Cheeta and James Lever
Another birthday present, the autobiography of the chimpanzee who played Tarzan’s mate. I thought the joke might wear thin quite quickly, but it’s an often very funny read. Sometimes it’s funny because we read between the lines, sometimes because of Cheeta’s animal perspective. Cheeta’s last meeting with the aged Johnny Weissmuller is beautifully moving. What’s more, it’ll be hard to hear salacious showbiz tales without thinking of that ape.

Now reading Spies by Michael Frayn.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Frock vs Gun

More details on the day I’m doing in Manchester on 11 October about Doctor Who novels, for which tickets are now available:
“The event will explore the genesis of the range, the rise and fall of the New Adventures and their indelible impact on Nu-Who, the transition to in-house publishing and the future of the range now the programme is back on the air.

Weighty topics we will be debating include ‘guns v frocks’, ‘BBC v Virgin’, ‘past Doctors - what's the point?’, ‘roots of the TV revival - begged, borrowed and stolen?’, ‘bigger and broader - are the books the real home of Doctor Who?’ and ‘a question on canonicity - was it all a dream?’ Guests confirmed to date include Paul Magrs, Mark Morris, Mark Michalowski, Steve Lyons, Paul Dale-Smith, Andrew Cartmel, Daniel Blythe, Simon Guerrier, Martin Day, Trevor Baxendale, Paul Cornell and Gary Russell.”
It will be hosted by my new chum John Cooper, and David A. McIntee has just been added to the line-up. You might want to bring copies of the Bernice Summerfield Inside Story to get them signed by these luminaries…

Also of excitement is that you can now get a selection of Big Finish Doctor Who stories for a fiver, plus there’s a free download of a brand new Doctor Who story and some special offers in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine, and a free CD featuring the fifth Doctor and Daleks with this week’s Doctor Who Adventures (and also an inflatable TARDIS!).

Doctor Who and the Drowned WorldNone of the stories on offer are by me, so I shall add this cheeky plug for The Drowned World, which is out this month, too. Oh, and here’s a glowing review of the Iris Wildthyme boxset, of which “the highlight” is the “simple surreal jollity” of my story, The Two Irises. Hooray!

Meanwhile, I’m still all tied up in other stuff that cannot be spoken of yet – real life stuff as well as the writing. Got a thing to finish by the end of next week and then should be blogging more regularly. Have read a whole load of books and seen a whole load of telly with which to bore you at length…

But in the meantime, I’m fascinated by George Orwell’s blog at the moment, as he alternates between listing wild flowers spotted and chicken’s eggs laid, and the lead-up to world war. (In September, the outbreak of war will coincide with Pepys’s account of the fire of London.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just quickly

The new - free! - Big Finish podcast is a Bernice Summerfield special. David Richardson and Lisa Bowerman discuss all things Benny and, briefly, say how clever I am. Hooray!

Working manically on a few exciting things right this second. Wish I could say more. Soon. Oh yes, soon...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Grand Tour 2009

Busy, busy, busy. Lots of different bits of work on and about to go on tour…

Tomorrow morning I’m a guest at Faringdon Arts Festival, reading to children at Faringdon Junior School and then trying to answer their questions. Kids tend to ask more challenging, leftfield questions than grown-ups, so I’m more nervous than normal.

My bit is just for the school kids, but on Saturday afternoon proper TV writers of Doctor Who Paul Cornell and Phil Ford will be spilling their secrets to anyone who’ll listen. Miffed I’m going to miss that.

I’ll be at a guest at the Winchester Arts Festival on Saturday, at the library where I used to borrow Doctor Who books. Me, Mark Morris and Nicholas Briggs will be encouraging three sessions of school kids to write their own monstrous stories and explaining what makes a good monster.

At the end of August I’ll be at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – the centre of time and space itself, and location for Doctor Who and the Dimensions in Time – as part of a weekend of family activities. More details on what that will involve soon.

Over the weekend of 19-20 September, I’ll be at Regenerations in Swansea, flogging copies of the Inside Story. (How splendid that Gary Russell gets top billing above Derek Jacobi and Davros).

In October I’m hoping to do a thing in Manchester and possibly also in Leeds, of which more details soon. And then, at the end of October I’m at HurricaneWho in Orlando.

If you're able to make any or all of these, do come say hello.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Firemakers

In Reading, yesterday, there was the impressive sight of two geeks attempting a barbecue. I can do typing. I can do reaching things from shelves. Beyond that, I am pushing my luck...

First, there was an attempt to fix-up the proper barbecue to its gas cylinder. But there were two gas cylinders: one propane, one butane. Could we remember which one would evenly cook a burger and which would just explode? No. So we consulted the women and they explained, "The blue one".

So then we needed to fit a regulator to the butane cylinder. This helps regulate the amount of gas as it comes out, and stops the thing exploding. You attach the rubber hose to the regulator, then fit the regulator to the cylinder, and then fit the other end of the hose to the barbie. Easy.

We scoured the shed for the hose, bought especially for this purpose. Couldn't find it, so checked with the women. One of the women looked quickly into the shed and spotted it, right in front of us.

I managed manfully to fit the hose to the regulator. It's not easy, because the nozzle of the regulator is all notched and bobbly to make it impossible for the hose to slip. Or, indeed, fit on.

Then we tried fitting the regulator to the cylinder. Hmm. Except, as the internet tells us:
Gas bottles come in a variety of different sizes and, confusingly with different regulator fittings. The clip-on regulators used for barbecues are blue for butane, with a standard internal valve size of 21mm. Propane regulators are red with 27mm in internal size. That means that it is not possible to connect to a propane bottle using a butane regulator or vice versa.

Infomania: Barbecue gas - butane or propane?

Guess which we had.

So, Plan B. We had some disposable, "instant" barbecues in little foil trays waiting on standby. And, with a bit of sliced genius, put them on the shelf of the proper barbecue so it looked like we were doing this properly. Soon the barbie was going great guns, flames licking up into the sunlight.

And then we spotted a small error in our thinking.


With the help of a woman with tongs, we got the cardboard off before the whole thing exploded. And then managed to cook the food pretty well. Though I did manage to throw some sausages on the floor. And sunburnt my arms a fair bit. All of this achieved without recourse to any booze.

Ho hum. Think I shall spend the summer indoors, typing. Not that I've got all the much choice...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Free to those who can afford it

Free stuff! Issue 5 of Big Finish's Vortex magazine is now available for free. Pages 14-15 feature my diary of writing Dr Who & the Drowned World and include a fetching picture of me by the western-most fountain in Trafalgar Square. Readers will have no interest in knowing that I am wearing the same brown tee-shirt as I write these words now...

There's plenty of other excitements in the issue too, including interviews with authors of Dr Who & the Company of Friends, in which m'colleague Jonny Morris explains how he wrote the Doctor's new companion - Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. The Dr might even be swayed by a story in which Dr Who meets Lord Byron.

And how thrilling to see the Inside Story included in the release schedule. It is so almost real!

Also free - yes, free - is m'colleague Caleb's latest Podcast of Impossible Things, which this time reviews the Big Finish Short Trips range. As I blogged before, I owe a lot to those books which gave me my first professional break. The podcast includes a competition to win the last of the anthologies, Dr Who & the Indefinable Magic, which has one of my stories in it.