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Make Your World Bigger in 2016 #mywbpledge

25 Jan

‘And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’ – Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (You don’t? Seriously? Why not? Find me here: @ThatPaulCoxon) will know I have been talking about Discovery Channel’s Make Your World Bigger pledges (#mywbpledge) for 2016 quite a bit over the last month.

This is the second year for the Discovery campaign, having already inspired lots of people in 2015 to get outside and out of their comfort zones to do something incredible, something they would not normally do and something that they have always wanted to do. In short, people made their world’s bigger and, in 2016, the pledges are back, better than ever…

Here’s what Discovery Channel has to say about the campaign:

At Discovery we think there’s always more to know, explore and experience: life is about collecting moments, not things. Because every moment, insight and experience makes us grow.

Not just the big stuff, like exploring the limits of outer space, or the depths of the ocean. (Though we do that too.) But everyday stuff, like taking an alternative route to work. Talking to someone different in the office. Trying a new dish at lunchtime.

To try, succeed, fail. And move on, all the better for it.

Every day we go in search of surprise and wonder. It’s not just our job. It lies at the heart of what we believe and how we live our lives. It’s in our DNA.
And to the millions who share our view, come and join us. Make Your World Bigger. – Source

There’s probably something sitting unfulfilled at the back of your mind, something you have wanted to do for as long as you can remember, but haven’t been able to either because of time or money. If this sounds like you, why not make your pledge today, simply go on Twitter and tweet your pledge along with the Hashtag #mywbpledge.

Discovery will be taking the top 15 pledges and opening them up to a public vote with the top 3 pledges after voting set to receive £5000 to make their world bigger in 2016. You’ll need to be relatively quick though as the competition closes on Sunday 31 January.
Find out more about the 2016 campaign here: Make Your World Bigger in 2016.

The ever-increasing borders of our world

One of the things I am most grateful to my parents for is showing me, by inspiring me to read and travel, that the world is a huge place and that, if I wanted to, there would be opportunity a-plenty to explore it. They dearly wanted their son’s world to be bigger than theirs had been growing up and I’ll always be thankful for that. One of the many things my wife, Lara, and I have in common is a shared desire to see new sights and experience new things, which has meant we have been able to pursue experiences our parents could only dream about.

This desire to expand our horizons is a big part of how I see myself, truly an integral part of my DNA and has led us to some truly wonderful places and experiences all over the world, from volunteering to re-build medieval castles in the South of France to tours of the ancient temples on Bali, to the Mayan ruins of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and, most recently, the middle of a Manta Ray feeding frenzy in the Maldives. These are the stories, with associated pictures and video, that I hope one day will inspire our own children to make their worlds bigger and to be positive advocates for nature and the environment.

Even though we have seen so many far flung places, met so many wonderful people and done so many things that never cease to cause spontaneous smiling just by their thought, I too have a list of things that I have always wanted to do but so far have not managed to get round to, which brings me nicely on to my pledge:

My #MYWBPledge

My pledge is this:

In 2016, I’d like to find the opportunity to spend a few days swimming, free diving and filming up close with a pod of wild Orca.

This is something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I’ve had more the a few dreams involving being in crystal clear waters surrounded by a pod of Orca swimming all around and beneath me. These are my flying dreams.

I’ll be honest, swimming with Orca is something that I’ve always thought about in the same vein as a desire to visit the moon ie something that would be fantastic but astronomically unlikely (excuse pun) to ever happen to me. I thought it so unlikely when I recently penned my ‘Big Fish Bucket List’ I left it off, assuming it impossible. Space is the proserve of astronauts, swimming with Orca that of the marine scientist (infrequently) or so I thought, until recently.

Two documentaries, The Cove and Blackfish, blew the lid off the practice of keeping cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity. Venues such as Seaworld went from being viewed as harmless forms of entertainment to being seen as cruel (often grotesque) circus shows discarding animal wellfare in return for a quick buck. Consumers became more aware of opportunities to swim in the wild with cetaceans and eco-tour operators began to spring up in many locations to meet this need.

In the years after the release of The Cove, there have been thousands of eco-tour operators springing up to offer tourists and adventurers opportunity to swim with dolphins in the wild and on the animal’s own terms. Similarly, since the release of Blackfish a small number of the marine scientists who previously held the monopoly on swimming with Orca have begun to open their research trips up to small numbers of paying tourists affording them opportunity to swim in close proximity with the animal’s whilst helping to fund vital research. It is one of these trips I hope to join.

The questions everyone has asked

Everyone I have spoken to about my pledge has asked me the same question: isn’t this a bit dangerous? Won’t you be scared?

You’ll have probably noticed I’ve been careful to use the term Orca rather than Killer Whale, which comes loaded with some pretty heavy meaning. There is no escaping that Orca are a top Apex Predator, huge, fast and incredibly powerful. There are well documented accounts of Orca hunting and killing large sharks, but the staple of the Orca diet is much smaller prey such as Salmon and the like. There have been no attacks on humans by wild Orca and 99% of Orca aggression towards humans comes from captivity situations where there are likely extenuating circumstances.

While I would be cautious and respectful around such powerful animals I do not imagine being afraid and my pulse quickens a little just thinking about it.

The other question I’ve been asked is: Why now? That one is simple, last year losing Tristan and almost losing Lara made me realise how precious and short life is. Added to this, is the very real fact that Orca are critically endangered as a species, by the time we have children and raise them to the age where they might seek out their own Orca experience, there may not be Orca left in our oceans.

Some of you will be reading this and thinking: I could never do that, not brave enough. You’re wrong, we can each do a lot more than we think when we give ourselves permission to dream. My Mum used to say, you only regret the things you don’t do. Let’s make our world’s bigger and foster fewer regrets in 2016.

Can you help?

If you are a marine scientist working with Orca and think you might be able to accommodate me on one of your trips and help me to realise my dream of swimming with them, I would love to hear from you. Likewise, if you have had this experience and can give me some tips, get in touch.

Check out the pledges

Please take some time to have a look at some of the many pledges that people have already been making on Twitter, who knows it might inspire you to pledge to do something incredible this year. I have been really impressed by both the scope of challenges that people have set themselves and the reasons that have inspired them to do so. Read the pledges.

Okay, so you know the drill, if you don’t like these thoughts, maybe stick around, I have others.

We have a plastic problem Or let’s start with 1 thing #startwith1thing

24 Jan

By 2050, the volume of plastic in our oceans will have surpassed the volume of fish…(USA TODAY Article)

image

I’ll say that again: In 35 years time, there will be more plastic (that is definitely not supposed to be there) in our oceans than there will be fish (who definitely are supposed to be there).

If you ever encounter anyone who says humans haven’t really had too detrimental an impact on this planet, write them this fact down on a piece of paper, wrap it lovingly around a housebrick and beat them around the head with it until they fully appreciate the error of their ways.

It gets better, this estimate comes with the staggering qualification that it is based on humans not increasing the amount of plastic pumped into the oceans yearly. Already, there is a concentrated patch of plastic waste in the Pacific that covers at least (at least!) 700 000 square kilometres (Km) and that many researchers claim covers a space closer to 15 000 000 square Km. In short, we have a plastic problem in our oceans.

It’s quite easy to glaze over when big issues like the environment are discussed. More times than I could count, I’ve heard the reasoning: ‘what can I do? If big corporations and governments won’t curb their polluting, what impact can I have?’

While I have a little sympathy for this thinking and while it’s certainly a fact that big industry, corporations and governments need to act (and act quickly) to address the dire issues facing our environment, there remain things that we can do as individuals to help.

The recent documentary, Racing Extinction, showcased how by ‘starting with 1 thing’ individuals can make a huge difference to our environments. Check out the site here: Racing Extinction

One of the big plastic problems in our oceans comes from plastic microbeads, the tiny globes found in a range of products from tooth pastes, to detergents and face washes. Very few sewage plants were designed to filter these beads from waste water meaning about 95% will eventually reach our oceans. Once in the oceans, these microbeads are eaten by unsuspecting fish and, ultimately, end up entering our food chain. Although we already know this plastic is having a huge impact on marine life we can only guess at what effect it might have on us with increased exposure through the fish we eat.

Many countries (and some States in the US) have already moved to ban all products containing plastic microbeads and it is thankfully likely that a worldwide ban will be forthcoming over the next 5 years as many more wake up to the damage they cause. Until this ban comes in, why not start with 1 thing today and go through your products to see if you have any thst contain plastic microbeads and throw them out. In future, you could try and avoid products that contain them as there will always be alternatives.

Find out more about plastic in our oceans: The Story of Stuff – Ban the beads

I’ve also written this related post on: Why balloon releases are dumb

And this one: On why you should boycott captive Dolphin swims

Part of the reason the oceans matter to me are incredible experiences like this: On swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives

It’s better to light a single candle than to stand and curse the darkness.

Be still my beating (Twitter) heart

5 Nov

So Twitter is outraged this week…okay, I will definitely need to be more specific than that as Twitter is always outraged about something, but this week Twitter is outraged about Twitter. Specifically, the company’s decision to replace the favourite function, previously represented by a star icon with a like function, now represented by a heart icon. I know, right? Shit just got serious, I’m struggling to write these words through the sheer weight of my unbridled rage and hatred.

It was no secret that this change was coming. Twitter have spoken about it frequently for months and even tested the new functionality with a number of selected users but this still hasn’t stopped an outpouring of anger normally reserved for sex offenders and war criminals.

I’ve been watching the outpouring of anger and it seems to be emanating from three distinct groups, which I find interesting enough to warrent this post.

The Lads

Firstly, the lads – the Bros for my American and Australian readers – they object to the new hearts because a heart is just too effeminate.

I mean, Stars, now stars are manly, all that burning hydrogen and potential for vast supernova explosions, few things more manly than a star and they’ve been happily throwing stars around, like kebab meat at pub closing time on a Friday night, for years.

The lads don’t want to send other men hearts on Twitter, bit namby-pamby, innit? They largely only talk to other lads on Twitter and now they are stoically refusing to even consider the vast threat to their masculinity posed by a blood-red heart.

I have followers that I often engage with who have frequently favourited my tweets who I’m almost certain won’t now because a heart is involved even though the only thing to have changed is the icon. The mind boggles.

The Fauxmenists

If you are wondering how to spot a Fauxmenist, they have the word ‘feminist’ in their Twitter Bio but nowhere in their timeline will you find a single mention of female genital mutilation or any of the stunning injustices inflicted upon women around the world. Instead, you will find them shouting ‘don’t you f***ing #notallmen me’ ad infinitum at any men trying to engage them in reasoned discussions; or trying not to drown under the sheer weight of their Daddy issues; or misrepresenting the joke of Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt; or getting astrophysicists sacked for having lousy dress sense.

The Fauxmenists are outraged because the evil people at Twitter – who are obviously all men even though they absolutely are not, but hey, let’s not let facts get in the way now – have formulated a way for men, evil, evil men, to harrass them and invade their safe spaces with sexually loaded hearts. It’s basically tantamount to rape, is it not? (It. Is. Not)

The Fauxmenists think Twitter is already designed with the sole intention of facilitating sexism and the harrassment of women and the hearts are the straw that broke the camels back. They’ll now definitely be finding another social platform where they feel safer…but maybe tomorrow. Today they’ll be ignoring the fact Twitter has built in block and report functionality and screaming ‘don’t you f***ing #notallmen me’ ad infinitum.

The minority

The minority of dissenting voices on Twitter are those suggesting that the company have not really given thought to the way the previous favourite functionality and associated star was being used by them and many others.

They argue that they used the favourite function to bookmark tweets that they might want to come back to in the future and that it did not mean they necessarily ‘liked’ the content of the tweet. The fact that this neutrality of bookmarking with a favourite has been replaced with a more Facebook-esque like is, for them, a retrograde step. Fair enough.

Twitter is free

As none of us have ever paid to use Twitter as personal or business users (unless paying to promote tweets) I’m not terribly sure how useful it is to shout about Twitter not listening to our views about the product we use. If you genuinely don’t like it, then vote with your feet.

It strikes me as somewhat disingenuous to moan incessantly how terrible the environment is while you’re tweeting 100s of times each day and coming back every day. It’s basically like repeatedly punching yourself in the face and complaining about headaches as you go.

I just can’t find it in myself to be angry about stuff like this. I used to pay to play World of Warcraft, trust me if you ever want to see a company not really care about their userbase, check out the psychotic disregard that Blizzard have always had for their users. I didn’t complain much then either even though my grounds for doing so were fairly sizeable.

Paul’s guide to hearts

Still worried about the intention behind a heart, I’ve collated a few of my tweets on the topic into a handy guide. Hope it helps:

IF you wake up to find yourself unable to move while someone is knelt on you, brandishing a handsaw and trying to access your heart through your chest, this is sinister and reasonable to object to.

IF someone leaves a scrawled heart in their own blood (or any other bodily fluid, for that matter) on your windscreen this is also sinister and it is perfectly reasonable to worry about that person’s intentions.

IF someone sends you a family member or beloved pet’s heart in a box on Valentine’s Day, definitely bad and cause for concern.

BUT

IF someone hearts your last tweet it probably just means they enjoyed it and/or are bookmarking it to read later.

Still not convinced?

If you genuinely can’t abide the new Twitter hearts, they are causing you deep and enduring pain and you don’t mind a bit of code wrangling, well Gizmodo have a solution just for you, my sensitive friend. Here it is: How to replace Twitter’s dumb heart with an emoji of your choice

Eerie as the dreams of ghosts: Swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives

1 Nov

A boat tentatively works its way through the shallow reef system of the Maldivian archipelago. Two hours earlier, the same boat had been awash with the excited voices of its passengers. Now, no one is speaking, everyone is huddled beneath thick beach towels lost in their own thoughts or in the digital displays of a variety of underwater cameras. Every now-and-then someone gasps, but no one looks up, there’s no need, we know what they have seen, we saw it too and it’s still reflected in the wonder of our eyes.

Two hours earlier we had jumped off the boat into the deeper waters fringing the Maldives reef system. No more than 6 meters of water, this would still be the deepest piece of ocean I had ever swam in. Looking down through my mask I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water and how much I could see below: huge living coral gardens and shoals of fish of more species than I could name. The same fish had provoked wonder the first times I encountered them on our resort’s reef, here they barely register with me, I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for something…bigger.

We have been in the water for about 15 minutes before she materialized out of the dark blue distance, eerie as the dreams of ghosts. Mottled in a way that allowed her to blend well with sea water shimmering with ribbons of gold from the bright overhead Sun; she is quite close to where I am swimming before I realise what I am looking at: Manta Alfredi – The Reef Manta Ray.

The Reef Manta is the second largest of all Rays with wingspans approaching five meters when fully grown it is only just smaller than Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta, whose wingspans can reach in excess of seven meters. History first recorded Manta Rays as ‘Devil Fish’ due to their colossal size, physical power and truly alien appearance, however such a fearful moniker could not be less well deserved. All the Manta family are filter feeders, spending their lives grazing on tiny plankton and they possess a natural curiosity of swimmers, often seeking-out limited human interaction especially at feeding spots.

I have wanted to swim with Manta Rays for as long as I can remember and as the giant animal passed me for the first time, though a cliche, I had to remind myself to breath. Just as she was in-line with me in the water column, she turned on her side and curved back around, like a skilled sailor tacking on a stiff breeze, her turning circle was impossibly tight and she soon passed me on my other side. I truly have not seen a animal so graceful nor one that has left me so truly moved by allowing me to share her space.

People have asked me if I was afraid, being in such close proximity to such a big creature. Whilst it was unsettling, the first time I saw a Manta swimming directly at me with its mouth so wide open, I was not afraid. From my first encounter, I was overcome with a sense of calm that I rarely experience in waking life, something at once meditative and elating. My eyes had been welling for a while and had begun to fill the inside of my mask with tears. Even underwater, a smile so spontaneous spread across my face and water began to gush around the new gaps between my lips and snorkel, forcing me to surface, briefly.

Moments after this first encounter, having cleared my mask of tears, I slipped back beneath the surface and immediately saw the first Manta had been joined by four more. I watched as they formed into a near perfect circle about midway down the water column. Each animal maintained a distance of a couple of feet from the tail of the one in front and they swim in this strange pattern for a few minutes and then they dispersed, disappearing back into the dark blue; all except one. She stayed around to dance for us for a further 20 minutes.

The behaviour we had witnessed, research has shown, is a Manta feeding frenzy. The space in the centre of their circle was likely full of highly concentrated plankton, which the Manta were mercilessly devouring. When the prey was consumed, that was the point that they broke their formation to find better grazing elsewhere.

The remaining Manta treated our group to some startling aquatic manoeuvres. Sometimes she would hanging close to motionless in the water whilst at other times perform fast, impossibly-tight turns and barrel rolls showing both her grey back and her white, eight-gilled, tummy with black spots in the lower quadrants. These black spots are unique to each fish and used by scientists for identification purposes.

Eventually, she too swam away marking the end of my first swim with these stunning creatures as our tour guide began the near impossible task of getting a large group of dispersed snorkellers and free divers back to the boat.

Back on the boat, dripping wet and huddled beneath a resort beach towel My smile had lost none of its shine and I was crying again. This time my tears were for Tristan. Trivial as it may seem, the thought of never being able to have this experience with him immediately felt like hot steel through my heart. It still does.

Back at the resort, I got off the tour boat convinced that if it was possible I would make the trip again before returning to the UK. At the back of my mind I was wondering if doing it for a second time would turn out not to be as magical as the first time, I would be in for a very pleasant surprise…

Here is some footage from my first swim:

Two days later I was back at our resorts dive school, mask, snorkel and flippers in hand and my excitement bubbling, barely contained, beneath the surface. While the first tour had been hugely over subscribed, only six of us were booked to go on the second and I was the only proficient swimmer armed with an underwater camera. My excitement peaked realising that, if there were Mantas present, the chances of getting decent footage, something which had been difficult on the first trip, would be pretty good.

While our first tour had taken us to a more open water location due to the absence of Manta in the much shallower Hanifaru Bay, this time Hanifaru Bay was teeming both with plankton and giant, hungry, Manta. Even before stepping from the boat into the beautifully warm and crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, we could see manta wings breaching the surface everywhere we looked. What would follow would be the two of the most remarkable hours of my life.

As soon as I entered the water of Hanifaru Bay I was aware what made the day so remarkable. Everywhere I looked the ocean was teeming with just visible black specks of plankton, like a cloud of suspended underwater dust and the primary food source of Manta Rays. I soon became less aware of the plankton and more aware of the Manta Rays.

Everywhere I looked were Reef Manta, at least 20 animals, swimming in every possible direction and all specimens at the upper limit of their size range. Each animal that passed me was approaching five meters across from wing tip to wing tip. I didn’t know where to point the borrowed Go-Pro, that had been attached to my arm for the vast majority of our Maldives adventure, next.

For two hours each tableaux unfolded into the next and each more stunning that the one it proceded. Reef Manta swam within inches of me, sometimes taking me totally by surprise, passing directly underneath me so that their huge mass filled my entire field of view. Manta swam directly at me, mouths wide then at the very last second, when collision seemed an inevitability, they peeled off left or right, up or down showing almost unnatural control over their hulking body’s position in the water column so that, although close, we never came into actual contact.

I’m not sure how long I had been in the water enjoying the giant grace of the Reef Manta before I noticed something even bigger in the depths. A Manta had just passed under me and I was still looking directly down when I saw a fish with a wing span that must have been close to 7 meters, unmistakable as Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta Ray.

After spotting the first Oceanic Manta I noticed 3 more close by. They performed the same breathtaking maneovuers as their smaller relatives but performed their aquabatics much lower in the water column and much further from the people gathered above. I made several attempts to free dive and have a closer look but my initial spot would be the best view I had – most often, I would arrive at the bottom to see the rear of their vast disk and stubby tail disappearing into the blue. I saw enough to make me appreciate just what an incredible place Hanifaru Bay is. A truly unique location in that it allows for sightings of both species of Manta and often in huge numbers (reports of 200 animals around full moons are often repeated).

Our two hours in Hanifaru Bay flew by and it was with great reluctance, largely due to the presence of so many, still active, Manta, that we swam back to our boat and left the Bay when our guides called time. The next day we would fly back to the UK, it’s been two weeks since I was in the water with these beautiful animals and I still go misty eyed and distance when I think about the experience or watch back my footage.

Here are the Manta in Hanifaru Bay:

Intelligent Ocean Stewardship

Both species of Manta that I encountered in the Maldives are on the list of endangered and monitored species, both listed as vulnerable. Their slow reproductive rate and use in Chinese medicine makes them at particular threat from extinction. Although known about for some time, there is still a limited amount of data on migration and population numbers – especially in relation to the Giant Oceanic Manta – so the exact figures on species number are not known. It is reasonable to assume we may enter the next century without either of these majestic creatures gracing our oceans.

We’re probably at the tipping point right now (some will argue we have already plunged over the edge) where it might not be too late to do something. Our current relationship with our oceans is highly atavistic and is now becoming unsustainable. I believe, to maintain anything like the levels of aquatic biodiversity that we enjoy today we must adopt a model of intelligent ocean stewardship before it’s too late.

If you are in any way inspired by my accounts and videos of swimming with Manta and want to go and swim with them yourself I would highly recommend it, but do it as a Steward for our seas. This means do your homework, look for locations where Manta are protected, not exploited.

One of the reasons I have so much respect for the way the Maldivian People operate access to Hanifaru bay is that they allow swimmers like me access to such incredible creatures while maintaining an environment that Manta have visited for thousands of years and will continue to visit for millennia to come.

One of the big steps that has been taken in Hanifaru Bay is the banning of scuba diving which has been shown to have a negative impact on the migratory habits of both Manta Ray and Whale Sharks. This is a measure that is taken at many of the Manta and Whale Shark hotspots around the world and is intelligent ocean stewardship in action.

I want as many people, not just current generations but subsequent generations, to be able to enjoy the seas in the way that I have. Gone are the times we can pretend it possible to have these experiences and not give thought to how we impact on these, often fragile, ecosystems. It’s up to us. it’s always been up to us, the only difference is now it really is starting to matter that we each act as responsible ocean stewards. The future thanks you.

Learn to swim

It’s something that I have always taken for granted, from an early age, moving in water always felt as natural to me as walking on the ground. I have gone through life so far largely assuming every one I meet will be able to meet the basic requirements of a swimmer ie not drowning.

Being on a resort with predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Korean holidaymakers aged under 30 I was struck by just how many were totally unable to swim. If I had to estimate, I would say 90% of guests from these countries lacked even the basics of swimming proficiency, not sure if this is reflected in wider populations in these countries but stark contrast to the UK where I’d estimate the same number would show 90% with a reasonable level of swimming proficiency.

If you are reading this and you are not able to swim, what are you waiting for? If you are determined you are not going to learn to swim, but have children, please encourage them to learn. The (possibly irrational) fear you have of the water won’t be shared by your children and there is no better time for them to learn than while they are young.

Big Fish Bucket List

As I am getting older and more accurately aware of the fragility of human life I’ve been thinking about the things I want to do before I die. This list includes swimming with a variety of different fish and below is my big fish bucket list:

  • Whale Shark
  • Wild Dolphins (Captive Dolphins don’t count)
  • Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Manta birostris) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Wild Minke Whales
  • Oceanic Sunfish
  • Barracuda – April 2012, Riviera Maya, Mexico
  • Wild Stingrays (Southern Whiptail) – October 2015, Baa Atoll, Maldives
  • Wild Dugong
  • Great White Shark (caged dive)
  • Basking Shark
  • Wild Orca

Some links

Here are some links that you might find useful either to find out more about Manta Rays and their conservation or to plan your own trip:

Well that’s me done on this one, if you’ve swam with any of the above and have any tips on where and when is best to do the same, let me know and remember, if you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have others…

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If you could go back in time, where would you go (and why) #Backtothefutureday @History_hit

22 Oct "San Lorenzo Monument 3" by Maribel Ponce Ixba (frida27ponce) - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Lorenzo_Monument_3.jpg#/media/File:San_Lorenzo_Monument_3.jpg

This post is inspired by the following #backtothefutureday – what do you mean you haven’t seen Back to the Future? That pinnacle off 1980s film making – by Dan Snow on Twitter (@History_hit):

DanSnow

As soon as I read it, I knew exactly the places and times that I would go. Before I take you on a short tour of the history that I would visit, a quick note on time travel.

A lot of the responses Dan got were along the lines of: ‘I’d warn voters about the oil price crash following the Scottish Independence Referendum’; ‘I’d prevent the Great Wars’ (always amuses me describing them as ‘Great’, my Grandad fought in the Second and it wasn’t that great); ‘I’d kill Pol Pot.’ All tempting prospects, I will grant you, I’ve lost track of the number of times my wife and I have thought ‘If we could go back in time, get to the hospital sooner, would Tristan be with us today?’ Recent theories in theoretical physics have something to say about this.

In the Standard Model of Physics, Time Travel is allowed, at least in theory, if you create enough gravity you can force SpaceTime to bend back on itself and travel backwards in time along a Closed Time Curve (CTC), but inevitably you are going to run a high risk of creating paradoxes: banging your own Mum, killing your Dad etc these paradoxes, it is theorized, would lead to unfortunate things like the unmaking of the very universe, so not cool. For this reason it has always been suggested that Time Travel will always be impossible, even if technically possible. Stephen Hawkings famously threw a welcome party for time travellers on June 28, 2009, no one attended.

Last year, University of Queensland physicist Tim Ralph and PHD Student Martin Ringbauer proposed a new theory, that they partially tested suggesting that – as much as I understand it – Time has a built in anti-paradox mechanism born of Quantum Mechanics meaning you could go back in time, irrevocably change the past but return to the present to find nothing has changed. Any changes that you made, any paradoxes you create, may or may not endure in the multiverse but the present you will return to is the present you left. So there’s no killing Hitler (or your Dad), no banging your Mum to create the paradox of fathering yourself and, closer to home for me, no way to save Tristan’s life.

Kinda cool, huh? If you want to read more on that, here’s some further reading:

Nature: Communication – Experimentations in Closed Time Link Curves
Huffpo: New Time Travel Simulation May Resolve ‘Grandfather Paradox’

Anyway that’s not at all what this post is about, I just find it interesting. Here is, in Chronological order, the points of history that I would visit and why:

The Mystery of Potbelly Hill

In my earliest visit, I would take our time machine to the Southeastern Anatolia Region Turkey and the
rough period of 9130 BCE (Pre-pottery Neolithic A). On a mountain ridge rising out of a flat valley a group of Hunter-Gatherers are quarrying stone, huge quantities of stone. Why they are quarrying stone, what they used to quarry and why they began are not clear to us in 2015, but these hunter-gatherers will soon be using this stone to build a series of 20 stone circles consisting of at least 200 megaliths. I will drop in on these pioneers at 100 year intervals and watch the site become the first of religious sanctuary on the planet with successive generations continuing to build upon this site for 1000 years, until it is abandoned quite suddenly.

12 000 years after my first visit, the remains of this once mighty site will be uncovered by Klaus Schmidt and given the name Göbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill). Since its discovery, the site has totally rewritten our understandings of when humanity moved from a more primitive hunter-gatherer existence towards society in a form that we can understand today. Excavations continue at the site and create far more questions than we have answers about its builders and the purpose of their building. You can read more about Göbekli Tepe here.

A meeting with the rubber people

Having left Turkey and the mysterious ruins of Göbekli Tepe, now buried by the very people who built and inhabited it for 1000 years, I would take our time machine to Central Mexico and the states that are now called Veracruz and Tabasco. Here, we find another culture closely related to the early hunter-gatherers that first established themselves in the region around 5000 BCE. We do not know what they called themselves but history has named them The Olmec, meaning Rubber People.

Often referred to as the mother culture of Pre-Columbian Central American peoples, everything you probably think came from the Maya – the concept of Zero; the Mesoamerican writing system; the Mesoamerican Ball Game; the Long Count Calendar (of 2012 conspiracy theory fame); and even the very building of pyramids – all originated with The Olmec.

It’s the pyramids that I’ve brought our time machine here to see, you see they simply don’t exist anymore, with the notable exception of La Venta in Tabasco. In the early 20th Century, oil was found in both states and our modern hunger for black gold would lead to the destruction of priceless archaeology and forever rob us of a more complete understanding of Olmec Culture.

I would walk the paths betweeen the first pyramids ever to be built in Central and South America and marvel at some of the finest artisans the world has ever known work their wares in precious Jades, Amethysts and Obsidians; take in a match of their insanely violent ballgame in one of the first stadia ever built for sport and follow them as drought and environmental change would force them to move from capital to capital abandoning their previous monuments, often ritually sacrifing the stone back to the earth in the process.

Finally, around 500 BCE, in the last days of the Olmec Culture, I would follow in the wake of their emissaries from the Olmec Heartland along their well trodden trade routes across Central and South America. Here I would bear witness as they continue to teach their advancements to the Maya, the Aztecs and cultures too numerous to name from Southern Mexico all the way through to the Brazilian Amazon.

Paying my respects to ‘Oriens’

Next for our travel through time, I would like to bring our time machine back to the UK and a Villa close to the Roman town of Mancetter about 1600 years ago. This one is different, closer to home, I’ve brought us here to pay my respects. We are here for the funeral of a Roman child.Couirtesy of Archaeology Warwickshire

A little girl, her name lost to history, embalmed using Frankincense and buried with the wealth of a noble lady. Laid to rest in a beautifully worked, lead-lined, coffin with jet bangles on her wrists beside the family villa where she had spent her short life. Her parents grieve beside her graveside, 1600 years separate us, their tears fall from my eyes. Their pain, is now my pain. Her name is Oriens.

I was there when Warwickshire County Council’s in-house Archaeology Team, Archaeology Warwickshire, opened the lead lining of her coffin for the first time in 1600 years. Filled with silt, all that remained of a child so loved: two jet bangles, a few teeth and some bone fragments, everything else lost to the acidic soil she was buried in. I remain very proud to have been involved in giving her the name Oriens and being able to help tell her story to the world.

I wonder if her parents would take some solace knowing that in 1600 years time their daughter would be remembered, that she would have a legacy stretching far beyond their own.

We won’t linger too long by the graveside, we have more to see…

Not all romance with Byron and the Shelleys in Switzerland and Italy

Next, I take our time machine to 1816 and the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. where we are going to hang out with one of my favourite poets, Lord Byron, and some very notable friends.

To say we are joining ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byron at an interesting time in his life would be an understatement and a half. Having been the darling of English literary scene since the publication of the first two parts of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, Byron’s excessive lifestyle had finally caught up with him.

In the previous 6 months, He left/fled England following the rather public breakdown of his personal life. His wife Annabella had quite openly left him, taking away their daughter and was filing for a formal separation on the grounds that Byron was a lunatic who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his half sister Augusta Leigh with whom he was obsessed and that he had the unfortunate propensity for sticking his cock in anything that moved…all largely true. This is not even mentioning the fact he once tried to buy a 12 year old girl for £500. All these things came to a head, with his life imploding and debtors beating a path to his door, Byron decided a change of scenery was in order.

It was only a few months into his stay at Lake Geneva that Byron would meet and befriend fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – another one of my favorites – and Mary Godwin who would be soon to marry Shelley. At the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in June, Byron, the Shelley and Godwin with 2 companions were kept indoors across 3 whole days where they would entertain each other by reading out loud German ghost stories and composed their own. From this literary play, Mary Shelley would form the basis of her magnus opus, Frankenstein – A Modern Prometheus.

Byron rarely stopped still for long and I would follow him from Lake Geneva to Italy, where he would stay until 1823, fall in love with Armenian culture and write prolifically both poetry and none-fiction whilst having numerous affairs with married women in various cities across the country. I would be there when he founded the Liberal Newspaper with Leigh Hunt and Shelley and present at his debauched dinner parties before the dream ended with the death of Shelley in a boating accident in 1822. Two short years later Byron would also die.

This is one of my favorite Byron poems:

WHEN we two parted

In silence and tears,

Half broken-hearted

To sever for years,

Pale grew thy cheek and cold,

Colder thy kiss;

Truly that hour foretold

Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning

Sunk chill on my brow–

It felt like the warning

Of what I feel now.

Thy vows are all broken,

And light is thy fame:

I hear thy name spoken,

And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,

A knell to mine ear;

A shudder comes o’er me–

Why wert thou so dear?

They know not I knew thee,

Who knew thee too well:

Lond, long shall I rue thee,

Too deeply to tell.

I secret we met–

I silence I grieve,

That thy heart could forget,

Thy spirit deceive.

If I should meet thee

After long years,

How should I greet thee?

With silence and tears.

Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Hajj to Medina

From one legendary 19th Century shagger to another and now we take our time machine just a short jump forward to 1851 to join the company of one of my personal heroes: Sir Richard Francis Burton.

If there is ever want to feel like you haven’t perhaps done quite as much as you could with your life, take a look at what Sir Rich was known for: he was an explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to some, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages. Yep, I definitely need to spend less time on social media.

I would join Burton on his most celebrated expedition, completing the Hajj to Mecca and Medina. Although Burton had spent 7 years in India and possessed a highly evolved and intricate knowledge of Muslim culture, this journey was best described as ‘batshit crazy’ even for him. At the time, few Westerners had ever completed the journey largely because if you were caught attempting to do so, even if by some miracle you could convince your captors that you were a devout Muslim they would, in all likelihood, kill you. Burton was an avowed atheist and despite being attacked by bandits en route, managed to complete the Hajj (affording him the right to bear the title Hajji) using a variety of disguises that would not have seemed out of place in a Baldrick ‘cunning plan’.

It is often noted by his biographers that on return from his Hajj and on rejoining the British Army, Burton took the examination to be an Arab Linguist…and failed.

I can highly recommend reading more about Sir Richard Burton and the wiki page is a decent start: Sir Richard Francis Burton  it reads like someone who just got carried away making things up about themselves, only the vast majority of facts about his life are all 100% verified by contemporaries and if anything Burton was known for understating his achievements – presumably just to avoid all other humans feeling inferior.

So I hope you enjoyed my little jaunt through history.

What about you? Where would you go in history and why?

Remember: If you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have others…

Time To Embrace The Darkness, Rugby

12 Mar

On 1st February 2013, Rugby along with Nuneaton and Bedworth, followed the lead of Warwick and implemented a Part-Night Lighting scheme with 39,000 street lights switched off between the hours of midnight and 5.30am (Stratford and North Warwickshire will begin their own part night lighting scheme in April 2013). It’s all part of a Warwickshire County Council Plan to save a lot of money, but it is fair to say that it is not without it’s critics.

The lobby against Part-Night Lighting hinge their objections on the suggestion that such an action will have a detrimental effect on overall public safety. They fear that there will be an increase in thefts and attacks in areas without lighting….

Of course, it is a well known fact that all that stands between the average person and a random act of violence and/or public disorder is the presence of street lighting between the hours of midnight and 5:30 am. The streets will be awash with violence as people’s carnal senses enjoy their freedom from the conservative restraint of street lighting…but probably not.

Other places that have implemented Part-Night Lighting Schemes have not seen dramatic increases in violent attacks, muggings or rapes. As one of the estates affected by the switch-off, I can honestly report that there does not appear to have been a dramatic increase in cannibalism or a breakdown of the basic sensibilities of society.

No, In my humble opinion, Part-Night Lighting is a good idea, here’s why:

It saves the local authority a lot of money by not having to pointlessly keep lit street lights that aren’t really benefiting anyone. Why should you care about saving the local authority any money? That’s rather simple, the local authority does lots of groovy things that you, if you sat and think about it, will probably want it to keep doing for the foreseeable future, things like providing social care, looking after roads etc. In order to keep doing these things and make the savings Eric Pickles expects, local authorities have to stop doing things that are arguably a bit pointless. Lighting 38 000 street lights between 12 am and 5:30 am is arguably a bit pointless.

Also great news for anyone with a telescope and a love of the stars. Light pollution, mainly from fluorescent street lighting, blocks out so much; it’s why when you’re out in the countryside there appear to be far more stars in the sky. We’re lucky in Rugby to have a decent view of the heavens that is relatively free from light pollution, but the difference when the lights go out is both noticeable lovely. Find out more about the campaign for dark sky reserves.

Still not enough? The vital services saved? The beautiful tableaux of a pollution free night sky? No? Well it will also reduce carbon emissions by 3000 tonnes. 3000 tonnes! That means there will be at least 13.6 Polar Bears that won’t die…possibly, I’m never totally sure on the exact Carbon to polar-bear-not-dying exchange rate.

Dear Mr & Mrs Outraged Middle Class, Do Be Brief.

Alas, there is already talk of a review into the part-night lighting and I, for one, think that’s a shame. All too often ‘a review’ is cunning code for ‘we’re going to cave in to the ill-thought of views of the irate letter-writing middle classes.’

Make no mistake, the letter-writers will ruin it for everyone! They find themselves at such a loss of anything even approximating a life that their only recourse is to send angry emails to their local newspaper editor, their local MP, in fact anyone who is paid enough to endure their misguided prattle. If democracy no longer works it’s because this lot killed it.

The huge irony is Mr and Mrs Rabidly Outraged Middle Class don’t actually have any vested interest in lighting after midnight. They don’t tend to be in professions where there is a requirement for night time working and they are certainly not out and about in the street after midnight. They probably broadly agree with the idea of local authorities saving money too, they’d just rather that savings be found somewhere else other than the street lighting that they get no benefit from or the libraries that they haven’t used for years. They’re nimby hypocrites of the highest order.

I hope they don’t win here and we continue to embrace the darkness in Rugby.

Disclosure

In the interest of disclosure, I am employed by Warwickshire County Council, but these views are my views as a private citizen of Warwickshire affected by part-night lighting. As such, all these views are totally my own and not endorsed in any way by my employer.

I choose my words carefully and stand by them, but you know the score, right? If you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have loads of others.

#NaNoWriWee 26th and 27th January 2013

6 Feb

For those of you who don’t know, a couple of weekends ago I took part in #nanowriwee which was organised by Kernel Mag in conjunction with publisher HarperCollins. You can find out more about the event in The Kernel. Been remiss in not posting this sooner but life and being mortal got in the way.

The premise is rather simple: over a weekend, writers, journalists and miscellaneous creative types would come together and each try to write a novel in just 30 hours. It sounded crazy the first time I saw it advertised and, to be fair, it probably is. Received wisdom teaches us that great works of fiction don’t get written in 30 hours. A friend, a writer, described it as a fool’s errand, but I do like a challenge so I have now written a Novella-ish in 30 hours. I’m so pleased I did, it’s one of the most rewarding and fun weekends I’ve had. I wasn’t alone, 122 pieces of fiction, of varying length and style, were submitted from all over the world, by the deadline at midnight on the Sunday the 27th. I Wanted to share some of my experiences.

I decided not to venture out to London to write my novel at Kernel Mag HQ, instead choosing to write mine in our office at home in Rugby.

I have some regrets about not going to London, as all reports from those who did have been of a supportive and creative environment. I was worried I would be too easily distracted by others and not manage to finish the task. I was equally worried that my incredibly loud typing might have me thrown out and barred; anyone who has ever worked with me can attest to this, the keys have been bad, they must be punished. So I missed out on a part of the experience, but throughout the Twitter hashtag #nanowriwee provided ample support for writers taking a break from the slog.

You can read accounts from Shirley Ayres and Chris Brosnahan who were both at Kernel HQ over that weekend.

I’m certain I would not have been able to complete the challenge were it not for the support of my beautiful wife Lara. From 8am on Saturday morning until 10pm on Sunday when she went to bed I was taken very good care of, provided with endless cups of coffee and three meals throughout the day while ensuring not to offer too much in the way of distraction while being supportive of her, increasingly frazzled, husband. I’m a very lucky man, there’s no doubt about that!

So, what did I learn? (in no particular order)

I’m really rubbish at picking titles for novella: Singularity was chosen as title for my Sci-fi masterpiece towards the end of my 30 hours…not exactly my most inspired moment, Singularity was the name of the first chapter I wrote and therefore the name that Word picked to save the file under. I should probably come up with a) a better title or b) a better story for the title.

I learned that, no matter how much I might like it to be true, I did not think up the line: ‘Here I stand with the knife in my hand and now I understand why the genius must die’. That’s a lyric from the Iron Maiden track Edge of Darkness which I probably hadn’t heard for at least 10 years, but still managed to recall word-for-word with the exception of the source until post-submission.

There should be a name for a work of fiction that is longer than what can reasonably be termed a long story but a little shorter than what can be thought a novella. I quite like Novella-ish which feels quite a fitting description for my work.

I learned that writing for 15 hours a day, almost continuously, for two days is exhausting. I’m not overstating that in the slightest, it was far harder than I had ever appreciated. By Sunday night it had sapped every ounce of strength from my body, leaving my brain feeling decidedly like it had the consistency of a cheese soup. I’ve been reckless in the past, fun but reckless, I’ve gone quite long periods without sleep, but seldom have I been so tired. It took me the best part of a week, filled with much more sleep than I would usually have, to recover from the weekend; it’s been a long time since I said that.

I was reminded how much I enjoy writing, totally exhausting granted, but I loved every single moment doing it. Not since I was a student have I really had the opportunity to sit down and focus on a single piece of writing like I did over that weekend. Writing has always felt exhilarating to me; the excitement of crafting totally new worlds out of words, crackling with potential, The exhilaration of creating and completing such a work in such a short space of time remains, though tempered somewhat by recent events.

I learned that, despite my long-held suspicions that I had been a pretty awful student, I remembered most of what I’d been taught by David Morley and the other brilliant writers on the Warwick University Creative Writing Programme. I’m not sure whether I would have been able to get through the challenge without using some of their techniques. I shared this link before the event, but these writing challenges are a really useful resource.

I learned that if you are not going to go completely abstract and plan to write a traditional novella with a beginning, a middle and an end, it is advantageous to know what that ending will be before you start writing the final chapters.

I’ve learned that the story I just planned to tell in a weekend seems to have the legs to become a lot bigger over time, already written some material around the fringes of my submission.

Finally, I learned that although one day I will possess the prowess as a writer to convincingly describe sex between a man and a badly damaged android in a zero gravity environment, that time is not yet. Perhaps not ever. Seriously, sex in a zero-g environment, ponder that thought if you will.

Well done to Nero and The Kernel for organising a great event and congratulations to everyone who took part whether you submitted a piece or not. Same again next year!?

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