The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Orange Walking with Dinosaurs

Last week, working backwards:

On Saturday I saw 'Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular' at the SEC. This event - pretty much sold out, remarkable considering the competing family attraction of an Orange Walk in the city centre - was expensive but worth it on a when-are-you-ever-going-to-see-something-like-this-again? basis, thoroughly enjoyable, scientifically sound and educational at a sort of visceral level: it takes life-size animatronics to convince the reptile lobes of my brain just how big dinosaurs could get. They could get very big. I now know that in my bones.

Thursday evening's 'Mutant Scum' event turned out all right on the night, with over fifty people in attendance and a high standard of story and delivery. The best, and certainly the one that came closest to the brief, was Stefan Pearson's vernacular take on the problems (and solutions) of genetic testing having become a component of the social security interview process: 'Gattaca for neds', as he put it.

Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday I and Pippa joined a dozen or so SF and fantasy writers in the Blackett Lab of Imperial College for 'Physics for Fiction', an ambitious outreach event organised by Dave Clements. It was fascinating to listen to actual research scientists talking about their work, and quite a relief to me to find that New Scientist and the pop sci books haven't been misleading me all these years. Yes, Virginia, there is dark matter. Simon Bradshaw took photos.

Quotes of the day, from my notes:

'We don't have an inflaton.'
'Cosmologists do not like coincidences.'
'"Splotch" is a technical term.'
'You can divorce topology from geometry.'

- Prof Andrew Jaffe.

'Telescopes are cheaper than starships.'
'Imagine making a planet out of cigarette smoke.'

- Dr Mark Thompson

'You measure your career in three missions.'

- Dr David Clements

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In the Summer of 71 I spent some time studying and writing in the Imperial College Library. My strongest memory is of those horrid lifts with open doors, continuously going up and coming down. They fold and/or collapse at the top, go down somewhere, then open up again while reappearing on the ground floor. Since then I've been haunted by visions of me forgetting to step out at the top storey and getting crushed, collapsed, and folded.

They're called paternosters. I wish I knew why.
They freak me out too.

Paternoster - Scary enough that even an atheist would say an 'Our Father'? Though not what the Wikipedia page says.

In my case I suppose it would be an 'Avinu sheBashamayim', except I can't can't remember the rest of the Hebrew.

I remember these too - they were still there in the later 70s - but my vague memory is that they were at ULU (University of London Union, the students' union building). I suppose elf'n'safety culture has done for them.

This kind of connects with my mutterings on Iran, because the first time I was in the central London colleges was during a wave of student occupations against higher fees for overseas students. There was a sort of mass democratic London student assembly at ULU. Many of the overseas students at the university I was at (as a postgrad) were from countries like Iran, and were supportive but inactive because they were spied on (or feared being spied on) by their home country's secret police.

Later, in 1978 and 1979, the Iranian students bought stacks of revolutionary literature in Farsi and earnestly discussed politics with our exiles behind the table.

My guess would be that those lifts are called paternosters by extension of the name paternoster for the clubs anglers use to finish off fish once they've hauled them out; you can imagine a lift finishing you off the same way if you stuck your head in at the wrong moment. The clubs are called that because of the idea of a paternoster for the dying, giving quietus.

It actually reminds me of something my mother took advantage of in Algiers in the '40s. Another European woman was in a block of flats with a regular lift, but the doors were ajar and it didn't seem to be coming up. So the woman stuck her head in and looked down, only to be decapitated as the lift came down instead. Flats were scarce, so while everybody else who heard about it was still horrified my mother dashed round and snapped up the new vacancy.

BTW, if 'Avinu sheBashamayim' is from the Kadish, I have heard it's not Hebrew but Aramaic.

I have 2 comments. First, Mr Lawrence, I'm pretty sure that your excerpt means 'Our father [Avinu] who is in the heavens,' and those words are Hebrew, not Aramaic. Second Ken, something about fees. My undergrad education was in NYC between 60 and 65, at two colleges of the Municipal system (now called CUNY). Each semester cost me less than $20 (an administrative fee) plus books. And students could have come from Mars as far as the college's administrations were concerned (but not from the SU and Cuba). The introduction of fees in EU countries some years later disgusts me, period. The fees imposed on non-UK students seem to serve two purposes: to keep the poorer kids out (after all, they might wind up staying) and to soak the richer ones for as much as the UK government can get out of their parents.

'Telescopes are cheaper than starships.'

I don't fucking care. Nobody will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Keck telescope. And a telescope can't pick up a piece of dirt, turn it over, and mutter 'That's odd...'.

Paternoster lifts: one was operating in the Neues Institutsgebäude at the University of Vienna in the academic year 2001-2002, and I went over the top at least once.

Interestingly, one plays a important role in the plot of Heinrich Böll's short story DOKTOR MURKES GESAMMELTE SCHWEIGEN; the protagonist is in the habit of always going over the top of the lift every morning as he arrives at work, as what Böll describes as an "existential gym exercise" and a "breakfast of angst", that the character needs in the morning as others require coffee.

thanks for putting my mind at ease, Alex. I guess those lifts don't foid, as I claimed, since you are still around to tell your tale. OK, let's get back to something less off-topic.

My last line above was meant to imply that I'm a Jewish atheist and not familiar with Catholic liturgy. George Berger has it correct above. It was Hebrew and not from the Kaddish. As far as I know there's no Jewish equivalent to the 'Our Father', though the phrase is used in one or two blessings. If faced with one of these contraptions my response would more likely be "Oh sh*t!" rather than "Oh god".

My apologies to Ken for the tangent.

A friend took his son to see 'Walking with Dinosaurs' last year, and was impressed by it. Pretty clever how they do them, some like parade floats, others like Bunraku puppets. What's the Orange attitude on Evolution and Dinos?

Wow. I had no idea there were such lifts (or "elevators" as I've been brought up to call them). If Alex hadn't shattered the idea of collapsibility I would have been having nightmares about the magician's trick with the collapsing bird cage that kills the bird.

And on a really off-the-topic tangent, Ken, I just finished Newton's Wake and loved it. I've only one more of your novels left before I run out, so I hope the one about the girl and Georgia is soon to hit the press.

BTW, the paternoster in the Wikipedia article is the very one I used to use.

NomadUK - but this year we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's observations with a telescope?

And deservedly so. We're celebrating Galileo, not his telescope: the man behind the lens, who, no doubt, dreamed of someday visiting the places he was seeing, and would have been horrified at the lack of imagination, curiosity, and vision expressed by those who see no practical benefit in sending humans into space.

If I have to explain this to you, there's not much point in making the effort.

Like I said, Mark Thompson wasn't disparaging starships. As for sending humans into space - I suspect post-humans would be a lot happier than humans in space, no?

By the way, Al Reynolds said the most important astronomical instrument of the last thousand years was the spectroscope, because before that the stars were just lights in the sky, and after it they were things undergoing processes we could understand.

Sorry, I seem to have lost the comments where I thanked Ilorien for the kind words, said the Georgia book is out next march, and pointed JamesPadraicR to this for Orangemen and dinosaurs.

I agree with the comment about the spectroscope.

I'm probably just overly touchy about the manned spaceflight business; I just get so tired of hearing people whinging about how we should solve our problems here on Earth before we spend money on sending men into space, blah, blah, blah. It irks me most that this attitude seems to be prevalent amongst those whose political viewpoints I otherwise tend to agree with. Makes me want to smack someone.

Clearly people who hadn't read enough SF during their formative years.

Oh, and as for post-humans — well, maybe so. I'm less sanguine about our ability to successfully modify ourselves to such a great extent than I am about our ability to build the machines and habitats we normal humans would require. I certainly can't imagine whom I'd trust to design, test, and implement such basic modifications; nobody currently in a position to do so, that's for sure.

Maybe I'm just insufficiently visionary and curious. Or maybe I think Star Trek was basically right about the Eugenics Wars.

No, NomadUK. I think you are just being scientifically and technologically cautious. I like reading SF about posthumans (and AI) but am a notorious skeptic. Only the future will tell. I'm turned off by all the hype that's generated by posthumanists, both in fiction and what they sell as 'popular science' or 'futurology.' I'm jaded on this topic, since I've followed it from its beginnings and see few if any relevant results.
Ken, Al Reynolds' point about the spectroscope really excited me and started me thinking. I never thought of that. Good for him. I'm reading his House of Suns right now, and it's keeping a big smile on my face.

Imperial did indeed have paternoster lifts in one building. I know because I once placed posters in each cubicle and went over the top and under the bottom many times due to my inability to work out an efficient algorithm for the process.

Aargh - Ken without an icon is of course not Ken McLeod but another Ken entirely

I am almpst certain that it was the Library. I sat and read diagonally to their left, way on the other side of the main room on the ground floor. I never used them. Other memories are vague or false. The V&A nearby, some colonial museum in or near the V&A, and a science museum? As a Yank from NYC however, my most vivid memory is of the wonderful service that I, a mere 3-month visitor living in London, got from the NHS when I fell slightly ill. A visit to a main office in Charlotte Street (down the block from defunct Schmidt's), a quick referral and appointment (no wait), and me the next day at the doctor's surgery with a walletful of pounds to pay him with. Friendly, effective treatment followed by my astonishment when he told me to keep all those Pounds. When I asked why he sat me down and told me all about the NHS (with a shelf of Bertrand Russell's books behind him). I was instantly converted to what my then-countrymen still call 'Socialized Medicine' with a sneer. It's a damned shame to read about the decline of that once-great institution.

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