Who do you think you know?

You know that Nigella Lawson?

No. You don’t. But I bet you could close your eyes and picture her if you tried.

You know her face, recognize her voice, and probably know at least 3 distinct facts about her.

The whole cocaine thing seems to have shocked people, because that doesn’t sound like something she’d do.

Similarly, if I made up ten different stories about David Attenborough, I would bet a year’s salary that 90% of people (including me) would agree on which stories were out of character for him.

Not something she’d do? Out of character for him?

These are people you’ve never met or even spoken to, yet you seem to feel you know them. At least a little.

Just as importantly, you see them on their own, seemingly looking right at you, and talking just to you. You, them, no one else.

And yet, they have never spoken to you at all, because, like public speakers or bands, they are talking to everyone and no one at the same time.

So, while in reality they have no idea you exist, it doesn’t feel that way. And now you feel like they might know you a little.

Now, think of the work colleague that you reckon you know the least.

You know, the one you’ve shared a room with 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years, but have never had an actual conversation with.

Could you say the same about this faceless, hapless coworker?

Could you repeat the above David Attenborough exercise with them?

Would finding out they did cocaine shock you?

No, no and no?

So, you feel no connection whatsoever with the person you’ve shared a small enclosed space with for years, while you feel you know the person you’ve never met, and never will.

Isn’t that really, really strange?

Why do we do this?

It made sense at the time…

I think we do it because our minds evolved to cope with life as hunter-gatherers and haven’t changed much since then.

I suspect our subconscious still works by applying rules of thumb that served us well previously:

  • If you see a face or voice repeatedly, this person is part of the tribe
  • If you’ve only seen them behaving a certain way, you can justifiably assume they behave like this all the time
  • If everyone else confirms this, you probably know their character
  • If this person you recognize is looking into your eyes and talking, then obviously (i) they can see you (ii) they know you and (iii) they are talking directly to you

Before TV, or theatre, or realistic paintings of individuals, the above assumptions were entirely reasonable – how could you possibly have a familiar face looking at you, or talking to you, unless you knew each other?

Obviously nobody (sane) consciously thinks that celebrities are talking to them individually – no one with a properly functioning mind would say:

Good point Nigella, I WILL ensure I use only the freshest of cantaloupes

or

You’re right David, it IS difficult to watch cheetahs being chased off their kills by opportunistic hyenas”.

But subconsciously? I think it’s entirely possible.

If modern society is made up of modern humans with decidedly un-modern minds, I think it likely that this explains the very existence of the celebrity (and maybe even the fictional character).

If you don’t agree, it doesn’t matter.

I know I’m right.

Brian Cox told me so.

- Kevin Morrison, copywriter

Weird and wonderful world

I have always been obsessed with the nature programmes of David Attenborough, and enthralled by their exploration of the weird and wonderful world that we live in. The sheer number of creatures that have yet to be discovered, and the beautiful landscapes which remain largely untouched by mankind, never cease to amaze me.

Therefore, it was Attenborough who sprang to mind when I recently visited Fraser Island, approximately 200km North of Brisbane off the East coast of Australia. I was fairly ignorant about what lay in store for me, initially thinking that we could just pop across in our rental car and explore the island at leisure. Wrong! Fraser is the biggest sand island in the world, with some of the sand dunes reaching almost 250m above sea level and going deeper than most deserts. This means that only four wheel drives are permitted or else you’ll get stuck – sometimes for up to four days according to our guide, as the tracks are one-way only!

Measuring 120km by 24km, Fraser Island is home to over a hundred freshwater lakes. In turn, forty of these are “perched” lakes, meaning they sit above the ground-water table; in layman’s terms, imagine a giant puddle gradually filling up with rainwater to create a lake. The water is essentially stagnant, but is still so clean that it acts as a natural cleanser for the body, while the lake sand is nearly pure silica. Each grain of sand can also be described as a miniature pearl, being almost perfectly spherical. For this reason, you’ll see tourists exfoliating their entire bodies whilst bathing, including their jewellery. I couldn’t help but join in, and can testify that it definitely works!

Fraser-1

Surprisingly the beaches are classified as highways, so jeeps can zip along at a speedy 80km/hr; a pretty weird sensation when you usually associate the beach with sunbathing, swimming and general relaxation. I wouldn’t dip a toe in here though, after being warned that tiger sharks often beach themselves trying to catch fish and have to aggressively wriggle their way back into the water, jaws gnashing. Thankfully we didn’t see any! I thought I spotted a white dolphin during the ferry crossing, but was informed it was more likely to have been a manta ray. There goes my aspired future career as a marine biologist!

Wildlife is diverse on Fraser Island, with the resident dingoes having become fairly accustomed to visitors, and often making themselves busy attempting to capitalise on BBQ leftovers. Their dog-like appearance is not to be taken at face value, however, as the young ones often try to gain “street cred” in their pack and can occasionally steal food or attack. Check out the claws below!

Fraser-3 Fraser-4

Fraser Island is also known for its coloured sands, comprised of 72 different shades – predominantly reds and yellows. According to Google the hues are caused by the leaching of oxides that coat each grain of sand, causing bands of colour.

Another “Fraser fact” for you – it is the only place on Earth where tall rainforest grows in sand. Some of the trees are over 300 years old, and reminded me of the Sequoia trees found in Yosemite National Park in California. They also have strangler fig trees, which essentially strangle another tree in their attempt to grow up to the rainforest canopy to reach the light. I didn’t realise that they often start as seeds dropped by birds in the tree canopy, so they occasionally germinate and grow their roots down the host tree as well as up! The host usually dies leaving a hollow central core, which can be fun to climb inside.

With more than 865 species of plants, 74 species of reptiles and 19 species of bats (!) recorded on the island, it truly is a mini Attenborough paradise – and is thankfully now protected as a World Heritage site. In the words of the great man, “people must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure.” I certainly do!

Fraser-5 Fraser-6

 

Camilla, Account Director

What makes a great story?

I’m a weirdo

I am.

I’m a weirdo because I love to revisit the same stories again and again.

I’m a weirdo because I watch the same films and read the same books over and over.

I’ve seen Aliens (1986) about 30* times, delighted in The Thing (1984), Predator (1987) and Terminator 2 (1991) around 10 times each and watched both The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Casablanca (1942) at least thrice.

I’ve also seen every episode of Bottom at least as many times as I’ve seen Aliens, but I’m fairly sure that’s not for the story.

Image

The two great heroes of the Hammersmith Iliad

And I’m even worse when it comes to books, because not only do I read, reread and re-reread the same novels and novellas, I sometimes do the same for specific scenes or chapters.

So I’ve been trying to identify what it is about these specific stories that keep me coming back and I’ve come up with a theory….

*I might actually be underestimating here.  It’s this kind of behaviour that makes my girlfriend mutter about me “being on some kind of spectrum”.

It’s all about betrayal

My favourite series of books currently stands at 25 novels and the same number again of novellas and short stories. Tens of thousands of pages, 9 years of work, 2 months’ worth of reading – and all entirely concerned with the events preceding and following one colossal betrayal, which largely destroys civilisation.

In fact, when I think of the specific books and passages I reread the most, they often feature the moment true colours are revealed, or describe the first confrontation between betrayer and betrayed.

Similarly (spoiler alert!), the plot of each film I mentioned earlier pivots around one or more betrayals:

  • In both Aliens and Predator the men are repeatedly and fatally back-stabbed by their superiors (the Company/Carter Burke, and Dillon respectively) resulting in their deaths
  • The entire premise of the terminator universe is that mankind builds an artificial intelligence which then immediately turns on its creators, deliberately instigating a nuclear holocaust
  • The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is entirely driven by cross and double-cross, as each character continually switches their allegiances, leading to that unforgettable Mexican-standoff scene
  • Part of what makes Casablanca amazing is the ever-present threat of betrayal and death, which never actually occurs (mostly because Rick acts honourably)
Image

Misunderstood

It’s everywhere

In fact, it’s not just me that loves stories of turncoats and traitors; once you start looking for it betrayal is ubiquitous in fiction.

Take Shakespeare:

Macbeth, the trusted friend of King Duncan, murders him in his sleep:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red


Julius Caesar
recognises his friend Brutus among his assassins:

Et tu, Brute?  (You too, Brutus?)


Hamlet’
s uncle ruminates on having murdered his own brother:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,

A brother’s murder.

Image

Are you sure it wasn’t you Macbeth?

Or what about Ephialtes betraying King Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae?

This legendary battle took place in 480 BC and saw King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans defend a narrow mountain pass against over 100,000 Persians. Leonidas and his 300 were unbreakable… until the deformed and corrupt Ephialtes led the Persian horde along secret shepherd paths, allowing them to surround and ultimately annihilate the Spartans.

Image

Hell hath no fury like an anatomically-impossible-human-being scorned

And then there’s the Bible. The single bestselling book of all time, and three of its most important stories are of horrifying disloyalty: Cain slaying Abel, Abraham preparing to sacrifice his own son and, of course, Judas betraying Jesus.

It could equally well be argued that these stories are actually to do with temptation, or being tested, or of ultimate sacrifice, but that doesn’t change the fact that each still involves one person trusting another and paying (or nearly paying) the ultimate price.

In fact, being that Christ’s rise and fall has been dubbed “The greatest story ever told”*, it seems that stories of betrayal grip us like little else.

But why?

*A slight oversell. I’d go for On the origin of species, or Guns, Germs and Steel myself.

Amateur/Evolutionary/Group psychology hour

Here’s my suggestion: What if we’re all born with an instinctual revulsion of betrayal?

If that sounds stupid, read the next paragraph. If it still sounds ridiculous, feel free to hunt me down and slap me.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that we are born “primed” to fear things like snakes, spiders and heights, because they were likely to kill us if we weren’t careful. Being that our survival has always depended on co-operation with others, could we also have an inbuilt fear of betrayal?

Image

You’re making Darwin angry.

If we do, then the reason betrayal is such a popular topic becomes obvious: everyone knows humans love scary stories (it’s why the horror genre exists).

Is that it?!

No, of course not.

Obviously I’m not suggesting that the formula for the perfect story is:

  1. Invent some characters
  2. Make sure absolutely everyone betrays absolutely everyone else
  3. Retire a millionaire

What I am doing is pointing out that betrayal features heavily in many of the world’s most popular stories, admitting that I certainly love plots that feature betrayal, and suggesting that there might be sound psychological reasons for why everyone does too.

But who knows, I could be wrong about all of this. Or lying.

Don’t trust me.

Or anyone….

- Kevin Morrison

Albertopolis

Image

This is an incredibly belated blog post, but hopefully its lack of presence in 2013 will make an entertaining start to 2014. Back in September, we were lucky enough to go along to the Royal Festival Hall for an afternoon of TEDx talks.

For those who haven’t heard of it, TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. TED is an absolutely brilliant resource and I would highly recommend checking it out.

Albertopolis was the first TEDx event (the x representing an independently organised form of TED) to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. The topic of discussion was how art and science fit together in the modern world.

The afternoon was as diverse as you can get, with presentations spanning live music, dance, and making clothes from kelp. The subject of this event was a fascinating one, and particularly relevant to healthcare communications, where it’s important for us to make this link between art and science to help people.

So, I’m sure you’re itching to know what happened on the day, so without further ado…

Nicholas McCarthy (click name to view video)
I read Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath a couple of months ago and this really resonates with Nicholas McCarthy’s story. Born without a right hand, he wanted to become a concert pianist. Rather than conceding defeat, he played his weakness as a strength and is now performs his passion, recently playing piano at the London 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony.

Jessica Thom
Jessica Thom’s talk was fascinating. Suffering from severe Tourette’s syndrome, Jess set up a charity called Tourettes Hero which celebrates the creativity and humour of Tourettes. Her talk was about utilising the powers you have to make change happen, as there are things we can control, and those we cannot. Rather than giving up, Jess turned what many would see as a disadvantage into a massive advantage.

David Braben and John Halpern
The popular games creator, David Braben, absorbed us in a talk about how rules can be beautiful, and John Halpern’s talk about cryptic crosswords was equally as engaging. It was a fascinating insight to how the human mind works. To paraphrase John, “Suppose you put your hand up in class and get the question wrong. You are far less likely to put your hand up again, in case you fail again. Crosswords allow you to fail again and again, until you succeed.”

This is crucial to creative output. Without risk-taking and failure, ideas will never rise above the mundane. John also talked about success, and how much better success tastes when you’re not expecting it. “The moment someone works out a cryptic crossword, there is joy!” It’s something I can really relate to.

Andrew Shoben
Andrew Shoben’s vanishing music box was incredible. Using the space within the Royal Albert Hall, he created a beautiful piece of music out of seemingly random questions, applying this assumed randomness to a music box style system. I’d recommend watching the video above reading this crappy explanation!

Sally Davies
I think if I was to take anything out of the afternoon it was Sally Davies’ talk, ‘the drugs don’t work.’ Sally is the Chief Medical Officer for England. She spoke about antibiotic resistance and the fear she has about it. Around 25,000 people die in Europe every year because of antibiotic resistance, which makes it a massive cause for concern. Considering the last major antibiotic find was in 1987, there is currently a ‘discovery void’ and we cannot continue the casual use of antibiotics. In my faux-naïf ignorance, I’d always believed I was safe, purely by limiting my antibiotic intake. I was both surprised and disturbed to discover that the antibiotic resistance can come from anywhere and can be out of your control. The way meat is treated (to plump it up) for consumption, often involves the use of antibiotics. Sally ended by saying the world needs to reacquaint itself with the simple concept of bathroom hygiene. I for one will give an earful to the next bloke I see leaving the bathroom without washing their hands.

Ryan Francois
Ryan Francois (great name!) described the evolution of the Lindy Hop and how four styles of the dance have amalgamated into one main style, purely thanks to the internet. I found his final comment relatively profound, about not letting creativity die. If things are just copied, original variants will die a death.

Roland Lamb
Roland Lamb ended by demonstrating an instrument he’d designed. His talk included a taster of the Royal Albert Hall’s monumental organ, followed by piano, keyboard and his instrument, the Seaboard.

All of the talks are available online so all is not lost if you could not make it to the event.

A Purrrfect Exhibition

learn-to-speak-cat

Thanks to everyone at PLBR for exhibiting some of my prints and originals in their Kensington offices. if you work anywhere else in Kensington Village, swing by and take a gander. Ask nicely if you can pop in as opposed to staring through the window though. This has the unfortunate effect of making the staff feel like they are residents of a zoo. That’s doubly so if you wave bananas and scratch your armpits. So cut that out… we know who you are.

Anyway, things have changed a bit since I was regularly freelancing there and working on briefs to promote eye drops, cancer drugs and the plight of the homeless. Back then I learned an awful lot about medicine and other advances in science, all of which I’ve now completely forgotten!

I’m now doing a daily ‘Learn to Speak Cat’ cartoon for the Metro newspaper and ‘Learn to Speak Dog’ for the online edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, as well as various other bits and bobs.

learn-to-speak-cat_exhibition

Do check out a couple of books I have in the shops or online, Learn to Speak Cat & Bad Dog, No Biscuit

They make ideal Christmas presents, although they are possibly not suitable for very young children or elderly people with a bad disposition. Or people who don’t like cats and dogs. Or indeed, people who don’t like cartoons about cats and dogs. Actually, I should probably stop giving you reasons not to buy these. It just demonstrates how rusty my advertising skills are.

Anthony Smith

Why are we?

Consciousness fascinates me.

How can a collection of cells, which aren’t self-aware, made of atoms, which aren’t self-aware, arrange themselves into a specific pattern, which somehow IS self-aware?

How can the same stuff that makes up earth and air and stars and steel create something that can feel?

Why do humans (and a few other species) suffer grief, and delight in certain tastes, instead of simply registering damage and consuming fuel, like cleverer versions of modern cars?

why are we-1

Eh?!

The technical term for such experiences or sensations is ‘qualia’.

Isn’t that a nice word?

Qualia.

Kway-Lee-Ah.

I might try to convince my sister that it means ‘More than one quail’.

Anyway.

We can build light detectors, microphones and touch sensors, but they don’t see, hear or feel – there’s no inner them that experiences things.

And the kind of awareness we’re talking about isn’t even unique to life – there’s virtually no chance that bacteria, plants or even many animals are self-aware.

why are we-2

Unlikely to produce good reflective poetry.

So what makes us different?

You are (bits of) your brain

Well, we know suitably complex brains somehow generate consciousness.  In fact, as far as humans are concerned, we even know which bits of the brain generate consciousness.

These brain areas have short, punchy, easy-to-remember names like “reticular activating system” and “intralaminar nuclei”.

(I love neuroanatomical names; even Frank Zappa wouldn’t call his kids ‘Intralaminar Nuclei’ and he has children called ‘Moon Unit’ and ‘Dweezil’.)

why are we-3

(Mostly)

How do we know these areas of the brain are necessary for consciousness?

Because people who have even a sugar cube sized lesion (1 cm3 of damage) in certain areas of the brain become completely, irrevocably, unconscious/unaware.  Similarly, experiments have shown that reversibly deactivating specific parts of the brain using strong magnetic fields results in complete cessation of awareness.

We know that consciousness is generated by specific parts of specific brains, but that doesn’t answer the question: why is red so red?

What makes tastes and sounds and smells feel the way they feel?

How and why do we have conscious experiences at all?

And how can ANYTHING physical, even complex brains, create these completely non-physical sensations?

This question is known as the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’.

There’s not a problem/It’s unsolvable/We’re not clever enough yet

Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Hard Problem of Consciousness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_hard_problem_of_consciousness.

It’s well worth a read, especially if you’ve had a drink and are feeling all profound, but I’ll summarise.

Currently the different schools of thought can be grouped into:

  • People who reckon they’ve made some inroads to the answer
  • Those who think we’re too thick to solve the problem, and that we need to evolve further or invent super intelligent computers to figure it out for us
  • Naysayers who deny there is even a problem to solve it, asserting that it simply seems like consciousness requires nonphysical features to account for its powers
I’ve figured it out Dave, but you won’t like it…

I’ve figured it out Dave, but you won’t like it…

The different theories about how consciousness ‘works’ are interesting enough, but the best part for me is that all the experts, from all the different fields, utterly disagree with one another – which shows that no one really has a clue as to the answer.

Hence this cracking quote:

Consciousness is the only major question in the sciences that we don’t even know how to ask.

How exciting is that?

This might be the single greatest mystery the universe has thrown at us.  Ever.

Think about that for a second.

We can ask questions like “Do Aliens exist?”, “Is there a God?” or “How might someone live forever?” pretty easily and at least imagine the kinds of evidence we would need to start answering them – be it close encounters, multiple miracles or someone who’s never aged a day since they met your grandfather’s grandfather – but when it comes to “why do I experience events at all?” we don’t even know where to start.

In fact, all of this mangles my mind so comprehensively that, if I could pick one scientific problem to be solved in my lifetime it would be this one.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

- Kevin Morrison

The filthy creative process

I’m constantly scribbling down ideas, adding them to a continuously growing ‘to do’ list. When ideas sit sketched on a pad, Post-it note or back of an envelope, they will invariably remain there, just ideas. I was given an opportunity to turn an idea into reality about a month ago after I saw a tasty looking competition on the Talenthouse website. The project involved designing an alternative movie poster for the book turned film, Filth.

Filth, written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, is a (insert thesaurus alternatives to filth) gritty and dirty novel whose anti-hero, a policeman, lives a sordid life in which his health and psychological state take a battering. My response to the brief was quite simple; to use bacon as a reference to the protagonist, Bruce Robertson’s, occupation (policeman/pig), his poor hygiene and the fact that he is constantly hungry.

As always I had a heap of ideas, many of which I brainstormed with a friend on a train down to Brighton (it’s always good to have a second mind on things). But like I said before, these were just ideas and at some point you have to commit to something. Ideally I’d intended to read the entire book and then tackle the brief, but with a week left and only 200 pages (of the 393) through, I had to create something. Spelling out FILTH in bacon seemed fun, tasty and, more importantly, it really nailed what the book (and film) is all about (well the first 200 pages of it anyway). It was also clean enough to show to the public.

Here was the outcome, which I cooked and photographed. If you fancy voting for it using facebook or twitter I’d be overjoyed.

If you’d like to know anything more about ‘the creative process’ give PLBR a shout.

Nicolas-Robinson-Filth-Poster-rgb

Here was the braindump of some of the ideas from the train:

notes_filth-1

And what contributed to the poster:

Image