Thursday, 19 October 2017


A weekend trip to a home furnishing shop led to my gazing at a display of artificial flowers – yes, you can now find fake horse chestnut branches, free of bleeding cankers, with spiky capsules and all. However, looking at the limited selection of roses, I thought to myself, “if you can’t make real blue roses, how come you can’t buy a fake one?”

Blue roses, something never found in nature, are desirable precisely because they are unattainable: in Chinese folklore, the idea of them are used to signify unrequited love, while in the western world, mystery, the impossible, and quests for the impossible are often highlighted by the flower. These ideas were formed at a time when the colour blue itself was very expensive, formed using cobalt or lapis lazuli, and featuring rarely until synthetic dyes were introduced in the 19th century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Blue Roses” depicts a man’s “idle quest” across the world to find the roses his love truly wants, despite being able to freely pick red and white ones – when he finally returns, she has died: “It may be beyond the grave / She shall find what she would have.”

So, if you have bought a blue rose, it will have been a white rose dyed blue, unless you have come across “Applause,” a rose cultivated after twenty years of research between the Australian company Florigene, and Suntory, its Japanese parent company, more of which later. It appears to be as “blue” as a blue greyhound – it is actually more lilac in appearance, and the research on producing a bluer rose is ongoing. In the meantime, “Applause” is on general sale as a luxury item, particularly geared towards a Japan, where “Ikebana,” its tradition of flower arranging, is taught in schools.

The strangest aspect of this rose is the presence of Suntory, as its company in the UK is known as Lucozade Ribena Suntory – in January 2014, it bought the drinks division of GlaxoSmithKline, minus Horlicks, which the British pharmaceutical company opted to keep. Suntory began as the name of a whisky, but now own brands such as Jim Beam, Teacher’s whisky, Courvoisier brandy, and Orangina. Suntory owns the vineyard Château Lagrange, in Bordeaux, where a high percentage of the grapes planet are cabernet sauvignon – delphinidin, the blue pigment in this type of grape, was transferred to “Applause.” Meanwhile, Suntory’s business as the exclusive Japanese bottler and distributor for Pepsi has made its way into the anime version of the manga series “Tiger & Bunny,” where its superhero characters receive on-screen sponsorship by real-life companies –  the character sponsored by Pepsi is named “Blue Rose,” which I have concluded is a happy accident.

Thursday, 12 October 2017


There are more than enough reasons to have a sense of burning injustice, and while there are bigger reasons than this one to feel something extremely unfair has happened, I am surprised I had not come across this one until now.

With the recent fiftieth anniversary of the start of BBC Radio 1, there are few people left who don’t know that The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain” was the first song played on the station, after a jingle, the theme for Tony Blackburn’s breakfast show (“Beefeaters” by John Dankworth), and the sound effect of Arnold the dog.

As told in the radio documentary “The Story of Flowers in the Rain,” which I heard last week – Tony Blackburn narrates the programme sounding completely unlike his DJ persona - the thunderclaps at the start of the song led Blackburn to choose it as the first record to play, while the lush musical arrangements, adding a pastoral setting to the song, were made by co-producer and violinist Tony Visconti, most famous for his run of albums he produced with David Bowie.

However, only two weeks after Blackburn’s first playing of the song, which had reached number 2 in the charts, The Move were in court, convicted of libelling the Prime Minister, and having all royalties for the song removed from them in perpetuity, never to see a penny from it.

I was shocked. Importantly, this wasn’t the fault of The Move itself, but rather that of Tony Secunda, their manager at the time. Secunda was fond of publicity stunts, including an event at Birmingham Fire Station to promote the band’s later single “Fire Brigade,” while sending out blackberry pie and champagne for “Blackberry Way.” For “Flowers in the Rain,” five hundred promotional postcards were printed, which decided to make use of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, “in flagrante delicto” with his secretary at the time, in order to make a point of comparison…

Wilson sued The Move for libel or, to be more accurate, he sued the band, Secunda, the record label, the illustrator of the postcard, the third party that arranged the printing of the postcards, and the printer. The Labour PM was represented in court by the Conservative MP and barrister Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, who successfully argued that Wilson had been subjected to a “violent and malicious personal attack.”

Finding in favour of Wilson, the postcard had a perpetual injunction placed on it – technically, this is still in place, so I can’t really show or describe it properly, although it is not beyond the ability of anyone to find an example of it – and all royalties for “Flowers in the Rain” and the B side, “Lemon Tree,” would be distributed to charities of Wilson’s choosing. These initially included Stoke Mandeville Hospital, birthplace of the Paralympics, and The Spastics Society, now renamed Scope – the latter charity had recently lost out on thousands of pounds due to a government tax change affecting a football pools it had been running. In later years, the British Film Institute, art galleries, the Variety Club, Bolton Lads Club and the St. Mary’s Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild have been among the beneficiaries.
Roy Wood with Nancy Sinatra, who
recorded a cover of "Flowers in the Rain"

I still couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Later, I found the documentary to which I had been listening had actually been for the fortieth anniversary of Radio 1, in 2007, but if the BBC were happy to have played it again, it must have meant the situation had not changed – in 1995, The Move’s lead singer, Roy Wood, took the Harold Wilson Charitable trust to court to reroute the still incoming royalties to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, but was told the original agreement could not be altered. It is unsurprising that Wood considered The Move to have received “a longer sentence than the Great Train Robbers.”

Wood was not interviewed directly for the documentary, but fellow Move band members Bev Bevan and Trevor Burwood were, and it felt that they had chalked up the whole affair as a bad experience, and moved on. Wood, as the songwriter, would understandably be less sanguine about it. Yes, most of the band had barely entered their twenties in 1967, but it was an action of their manager that caused the court case, leading to Tony Secunda’s firing by the band, which itself broke up soon after.

Wood and Bevan founded the Electric Light Orchestra, with Roy Wood later leaving to set up Wizzard, then become a solo act, while Secunda later managed T-Rex, Motörhead and The Pretenders, among others. English defamation laws were reformed in 2013, but only applies to cases from the start of 2014.

I still don’t know what to make of this, apart from feeling that this shouldn’t ever have happened – I have seen the postcard, and while it is attempting satire, its purpose as an advertisement for a record is almost in the background. Knowing none of The Move receive anything for any time I hear “Flowers in the Rain” make me want to avoid ever hearing it again, but Van Morrison still performs “Brown Eyed Girl” despite a similar situation existing for him, although his relates to the contract he signed at the time. I can only guess that, if everyone has found their way of dealing with it, and have moved on, then there is nothing more I can say.

Thursday, 5 October 2017


On 18th January 1994, the ocean liner SS American Star ran aground at Playa De Garcey, a remote, rocky beach at Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands. The ship, and the tug boat towing it, were caught in a hurricane, breaking the tow-lines, the crew on the ship later rescued by helicopter. It was hoped that the ship could be re-floated until, a48 hours later, the strong current broke the hull in half – six months later, the ship was declared a total loss. Becoming a popular spectacle for both sightseers and looters, the wreck of the American Star finally collapsed beneath the waves in 2013 – you can still see parts of it at low tide, but not on Google Maps.

The golden age of transatlantic travel between Europe and America spanned fifty years to the early 1960s – with planes reducing commuter trips from days to hours, cruising became the market for the remaining ships, and for the passengers that did not worry about time. Now, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the only liner built to withstand Atlantic crossings, but is still a cruiser for the majority of the year. Its cabins are much larger than the box-rooms that even first-class passengers had on the original Queen Mary but, when that liner was in service, it was not a destination in itself, at least in the way cruise liners are today. When the city of Long Beach, California, bought the Queen Mary in 1967, turning it into a tourist attraction and hotel itself, and many other plans that have been and gone, it has become an ongoing race to repair the ship - estimates produced by the city in 2017 put the cost at $300 million.

Capitalising on the nostalgia for liners like the Queen Mary, the American Star, launched in 1939 by Eleanor Roosevelt as SS America, was being towed to Thailand where, as one of the few liners of its vintage left, it was to have become a five-star floating hotel. As the flag-carrying official liner for the United States, it wore the flag, its name and stated country of origin across its sides once the Second World War began, warning prospective bombers that it was not involved in the war – once Pearl Harbor was hit, it was refitted as the troop carrier USS West Point, returning to civil life in 1947.

By 1964, SS America was out of time as a transatlantic liner. Holding only a thousand passengers and, at 723 feet, a hundred feet shorter than RMS Titanic, and three hundred less than the Queen Mary, its bigger sister ship, SS United States, took over its routes. Bought by the Greek shipping company Chandris Line, it was refitted as the Australis, a very popular cruise ship able to take over two thousand emigrating “Ten Pound Poms,” and occasionally other cruising tourists, on a two-week voyage between Southampton and Australia, via Rotterdam and Cape Town, before stopping off in Panama and Miami on the trip back to the UK. The two funnels of the Australis, in blue with the Chandris X emblazoned across it, are still seen on the ships of Chandris’ spin-off successor company Celebrity Cruises, although the front funnel of Australis, a dummy funnel used as both storage and to enchance the look of the ship, was found by one trespassing passenger, so the story goes, to have been storing potatoes.

Sold back to the United States in 1978 for an ill-fated voyage under its old “America” name – the new owners had done such a bad job refitting the ship, the US Public Health Service had given it a score of 6 out of 100 after it was impounded – Chandris bought it back for half the cost they sold it for, and ran it as the Italis for a few more cruises, cutting away the front funnel ahead of a refit that never happened. It later was left in port in Greece under new owners, renamed Noga, then Alferdoss, waiting to be rescued or broken up – the listing caused by a burst bilge pipe in 1986 was solved by cutting the left anchor, and dropping the right one. Finally, in 1994, the ship set sail for its final destination, although its final use was slightly different than intended.

If the American Star had arrived at Thailand, it is quite possible that its owners could be in the same costly predicament as Long Beach is with the Queen Mary. The Queen Elizabeth 2 arrived in Dubai in 2008, and has remained laid up ever since, although its owners have no plans to scrap it. There were calls for the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to be bought and preserved in Portsmouth Harbour, alongside the unique ships Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, but its sad trip to the scrapyard was quickly replaced by celebration when its replacement, HMS Queen Elizabeth, arrived in port. Nostalgia can be an expensive business, and if new uses can be found, while being able to pay for itself, that is fine. Ironically, the most glamorous of the American liners is now most famous as a wreck, making nostalgia for it far more vibrant than it could have ever been as a floating hotel.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


As someone who has owned a scientific calculator since school, I am very aware on how I don’t need to use most of what one can do any more – in fact, the simpler sums I need could often be done by my phone’s calculator app instead. However, the vestigial memories of trigonometry and matrices still in my mind from my Maths A-Level mean the need may come back, so I may as well be ready.

The scientific calculator was invented by Hewlett-Packard in 1968, with the HP9100A, a cash register-sized machine with a TV screen, no integrated circuits, and a five thousand-dollar price tag. Four years later, the HP-35 was designed to co-founder Bill Hewlett’s brief to fit the 9100A into his shirt pocket, becoming the first scientific calculator as we know it. In 1976, a later pocket model, the HP-65, became the first such calculator in space, in case the guidance computer on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project failed (it didn’t).

With more programming ability than most will ever need, exploring the functions of a scientific calculator can produce some interesting results. On my model, I can move between decimal numerals (your usual 0-9, also known as base 10) and other counting systems. For example, 666, becomes 29A in hexadecimal (0-9 then A-F, base 16), and 1232 in octal (0-7, base 8) – therefore, we have the Number of the Beast, the House Number of the Beast, and the PIN Number of the Beast.

However, the most interesting function there is on my calculator, and the one that produces many of the numbers we are asked to observe in everyday life, is “log,” for logarithm. In the simplest terms, logarithms are used to make long numbers easier to handle, by creating a relationship between an exponent number, and the number that exponent needs to be to raise the power of a base number to the value you want. You can make one thousand by multiplying ten together three times (10 x 10 x 10 = 103 = 1000). Taking 10 at its base, the logarithm of 10 is 3, because you needed to raise 10 three times (log10 1000 = 3) - likewise, the logarithm for one million would be 6, and 26 would be about 1.415. Using the “log” button on your calculator assumes base 10, the “common algorithm,” but base e (2.71828…), a pi-like constant in mathematics, is also used, denoted by the “ln” key on your calculator.

Logarithms are used to calculate earthquake magnitude scales, the pH scale to measure the acidity or basicity of water-based solutions, f-stops for camera shutter speeds, population growth, radioactive decay, carbon dating, and decibels for measuring the intensity of sound. In these examples, the figures on the scales presented to us in news stories, on water bottles and on cameras are easily explainable scales, created from exponentially growing numbers of abstract measurements – hydrogen ions per litre of water, ratios of focal length to a camera’s entrance pupil, and so on, situations where you just need a headline number to say, “oh, it’s that bit more.”

However, the headline figure should always be the starting point for your understanding. You don’t necessarily need to know that a magnitude 2.0 hurricane is thirty-two times more powerful than one of magnitude 1.0, multiplying by that amount with each full number, but knowing this brings clarity to the pictures of destruction that accompany the figures. The same can also be applied to interest rates on bank accounts and credit cards, and other figures that may feel abstract, encouraging an easier relationship with numbers.

That was always the intention with logarithms – they inspired the invention of slide rules, using a mechanical slider on a printed scale to make rapid multiplications and divisions, square roots, logarithms and more. However, the ability to enter the numbers you need would wipe out slide rules entirely, like when Bill Hewlett wanted the HP9100A shrunk into his shirt pocket…

Thursday, 21 September 2017


One hundred and one years ago, the Swiss writer Hugo Ball, with artists Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber and others, inaugurated the art movement known as “Dada,” at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Some Dada exponents found their way to Switzerland due to the upheaval of the First World War, and it was the horror of this conflict that fomented a rejection of the logic and values that led to it. Dada, purportedly taking its name from the word reached when a knife was plunged into a dictionary, aimed to effectively start again, making new connections with language, context and understanding, using college, cut-up writing, poetry, sculpture, theatre – anything can be Dada-fied, right down to Marcel Duchamp putting a urinal on its side, putting it on a plinth, signing it, and calling it “Fountain.”

Now, it is a little bit of a stretch to extrapolate this extreme version of rejecting one form of looking at the world in favour of another, and try and compare it to the current trend over fake news, alternative facts, left versus right, Marxism versus neo-liberalism, or common sense versus nonsense, but that never stopped anyone before. Therefore, I will say that the rejection of the perceived status quo in British and American politics, and the ideologies and acts that have followed it, feel like a kind of anti-Dada, or “jackanape,” to take another random word from my nearest dictionary. It does feel like, instead of reacting to the logic of those at the top, we are instead reacting to the strange and unpredictable sounds coming from the top.

The immediate problem with this kind of definition is that politicians, activists and conspiracy theorists are not groups that can have their title replaced with “artist,” or “jackanape artist,” because the artistic imperative is not there, unless they then comment on their own activities in an artistic way. However, either side can accuse the other of being a “stand-up comedian” if they think they are hearing rubbish. Even worse, you can call yourself a “performance artist playing a character” as a way of excusing outlandish thoughts and actions, as done by the lawyer representing arch jackanape artist and “Infowars” presenter Alex Jones. This description came about during a custody battle with his ex-wife, but yelling down a camera cannot be explained away later as a performance, if that is not how it has been presented.

So, the “jackanapes” is not something we have seen – yet. If we do, I have “soapberry” ready, another random word, for any possible anti-anti-Dada uprising. Artistic responses to politics will always come, but when politics feels like it sometimes defies interpretation, the question could then become whether it is easiest to oppose it, or bypass it, or ignore it, instead of interpreting it – if a single answer does arrive, I hope it can pick a better word at random than “soapberries.”

Thursday, 14 September 2017


The new Steve Jobs Theater may be, more than all the products Apple Inc. has made in the last forty-one years, the truest statement of its ethos as a business, embodied by its co-founder Steve Jobs. Above ground, it is a glass temple, inviting you into a gallery-like space – functional, designed with precision and simplicity, both organic and natural. The theatre appears similar to those Apple previously hired for its product launches, but it houses the most advanced technology to be found in a theatre.

Like its products, Apple’s theatre is not the first of its type, but is the best, the benchmark, the definitive experience: it is why, instead of competing with others in unveiling its products at technology shows around the world, Apple can be sure that, when they unveil a phone with face recognition and an all-over screen, the world will come to them.

Watching Apple’s launch last Tuesday, I could spot eternal Apple fanboy Stephen Fry in the audience, along with Pixar’s John Lasseter, whose company was once owned by Steve Jobs. However, I also saw their other co-founder too: outside of being a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” Steve Wozniak is not as high-profile as his friend was, but Apple is as much his company as it is Jobs’s. (A third co-founder, Ronald Wayne, sold his share to Jobs and Wozniak for $800 in 1978, but sold his company agreement with them at auction for $1.6 million in 2011.)

While Steve Jobs was in charge of Apple’s image, Steve Wozniak built the technology itself. Their breakthrough computer, 1977’s Apple II, had a Wozniak-designed circuit board, but a case (and marketing) commissioned by Jobs. One of the first true home computers, it was just about their only collaboration on an Apple product, and its development highlighted the differing approaches they had to computing: Wozniak wanted six expansion ports, but Jobs only wanted two. How the Apple II ended up with eight ports is beyond me, but Jobs wanted a straightforward, controlled user experience, and Wozniak wanted owners to play with their machine however they wanted.

Of course, Jobs’s vision eventually won out with advent of the Macintosh: beautifully designed but hermetically-sealed boxes, using proprietary screws, and Apple’s own interface, packaged and sold to emphasise how natural and easy it is to use. The hobbyist Apple II line, endlessly modifiable by its users, remained in use until Apple finally ended it in 1993, 8-bit technology completely overwhelmed by Macs and PCs, and even the 16-bit Apple IIGS, which had its processor clocked to deliberately run slower than a Mac. However, as Wozniak intended, a 1993 Apple II was fully compatible with a 1977 model, something no longer done, as any upgrades to the insides of an iMac require you to buy a new iMac.

Steve Wozniak left daily work at Apple in 1985, later finishing his university degree, bringing to market the first universal programmable remote control, becoming a school teacher, along with being involved in various other businesses and charities. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs was, and is, Steve Jobs, whose story is well known and often recounted, the company he founded with Wozniak now recast in Jobs’s image. Wozniak’s own words on the Steve Jobs Theater bears out what the Apple today is aiming for: “You can’t define beauty. It doesn’t have words. It doesn’t have numbers. You just kind of see it and you know it.”

Friday, 8 September 2017


Straight away, I can tell you I am not interested in exploring whether “political correctness,” from the name to the concepts involved, is a good thing or not. I predict that you may have already made your judgement upon hearing those words, in that order, based on the information, experience and opinions you have personally.

Instead, I am more intrigued about how the definition of “political correctness,” originally meant to signify something positive, has turned sour, both over time, and when anyone has reason to use it. For a term that tends to mean what the user wants it to mean, no wonder “political correctness” needs inverted commas around it.

There is no surprise that “political correctness” was born in the home of culture wars, the United States. Originally entering common usage to reflect how Communists were viewed as thinking their ideology was, politically, the correct one, it became co-opted sarcastically in the 1970s by the “New Left,” who looked at sexism, racism and so on with a reply like, “that’s not politically correct,” in opposition to more inclusive opportunities that can be viewed as ideologically sound. However, from the 1990s, “political correctness” was turned against even this by the political right, with the avoiding of expressing anything that could exclude or insult groups of people became viewed as another way of creating prejudices elsewhere. This is a very generalised version of the way the term has turned, but any more than this will risk switching myself off from my own writing.

In short, the battleground of “political correctness” is how to integrate groups of people that have, in various ways, have been socially excluded or discriminated against – women, black people, LGBT people, the disabled, and so on, all small groups that, ironically, would make a majority if taken together. However, acts of “affirmative action” will be at the expense of someone, somewhere, at some point, interpreted as someone at no risk of exclusion before, but now seeing their view of a fair and equitable situation change – no wonder it might rub some up the wrong way.

Inevitably, the search for new ways of describing a shifting society throws up descriptions of “political correctness gone mad,” the “thought police,” references to inflexible people as “Nazis,” society descending into “anarchy,” and accusations that “free speech” is being infringed. These are all terms that can be used, and defined, by both sides of the debate, to their own ends, usually by trying to exclude the other group. It feels like political debate in general run by the principles of Godwin’s law – the longer the debate goes on, the more likely someone will reference Hitler or, in this case, any of the above, in order to cut off, or win, the debate.

I have this, possibly misplaced, hope that people will wear of the debate, and just learn to get on instead. There is little worse than saying you are offended by something, without giving a reason why. The act of “political correctness” is only offensive if it is used to exclude people from a fair society, no matter what other terms are then bolted on to it. Good debate needs everyone to speak the same language to each other, and good society allows everyone to participate without pissing about over using language to exclude people.