Thursday, 24 October 2019

Where have all the Monsters gone?

Remember this?

Or this?

Seen much of Nessie recently?

Nope, nor me.

I was lucky enough recently to chat to the extraordinary Colonel John Blashford-Snell, explorer, inventor of white water rafting and Operation Raleigh, and Honorary Life President of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. John has travelled all over the world in search of cryptids and has been successful in finding the fabled Andean double-nosed dog and the almost legendary giant elephants of Bardia, Nepal. He even had a go at finding Nessie a few times, including one using sonar aboard an airship floating slowly over the loch, but he didn't find the monster. We didn't have time to discuss it in any detail and he had no firm conviction as to its existence but it did set me off wondering ... where have all the monsters gone? By coincidence, this cartoon panel appeared on the always excellent XKCD webcomic site.

And it's true isn't it? Once upon a time there was a proliferation of fuzzy, indistinct photographs of UFOs, lake monsters, ghosts, yetis, sasquatches and bigfeet, and bug-eyed greys. And you can understand why; cameras were awkward, bulky. You had to load film into them and set f-stops and shutter speeds. And you had to focus the damn thing. It's amazing anyone ever got a photo at all. But, these days, we nearly all have point and click, autofocussing hi-resolution digital cameras and we all carry them around with us. They're even built into our phones, laptops and tablets. So there should be hundreds of new Nessie photos every year. And that's not counting CCTV, webcams and satellites photographing every inch of the loch from space. If Google Earth can get pics of Loch Ness like this ...

 ... pics so close that you can actually see the ripples on the surface ...

 ... why can't it capture a dirty great monster? Or monsters. After all, it's unlikely that Nessie, if she exists, is a lone example of her species. There must be a breeding population of these things.

The oldest possible 'sighting' of Nessie goes back to St Columba in 565CE who went out on the loch to admonish a 'water beast' that had killed a fisherman. Even assuming there was only a breeding pair there at the time, you'd have a pretty sizeable population by now, some 1,400+ years later. And even if that population had been denuded by pollution or changes in environment, those changes have happened only in the last 300 years, so the loch should have been swarming with the wee buggers in the centuries beforehand. To add to the weight of evidence against, we must also take into account that the most common theory about Nessie is that she's a 'living fossil'; a plesiosaur or some other long-necked animal that we only know of through the fossil record. As far as we know, the last of the plesiosaurs died out, along with their cousins the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, during the K-Pg Extinction Event. So, if a few survived and bred, they've had 65 million years to breed and multiply. Wouldn't the loch be teeming with them now? And surely they would have spread out? Loch Ness does connect to the sea and there's lots more food out there than there is in the loch.

Now, I realise that some people will point to the coelacanth, a bony-limbed fish that we believed extinct for 65 million years that turned up, alive and well, in 1938 and say, 'Aha!' But the coelacanth is a deep water fish whereas the sea reptiles were air breathers like whales and seals and had to keep returning to the surface. Surely there would be more than just a few odd, poorly described or recorded sightings?


The sad fact is that much as I desperately want there to be living prehistoric animals, all the evidence - or lack of it - amounts to a big fat nothing. Even with brilliant photoshoppers out there, no good photos - allegedly real or outright fake - have turned up in ages. And it's not as if the public's interest has waned - you only have to look at the press response to James May's Skegness monster hoax in 2012 to see that.

But let's not give up hope eh? We're discovering new species every year, some that we'd thought long extinct. Who knows what may turn up? Sadly, I doubt it'll be a plesiosaur. It's more likely to be something small-ish like the recently discovered Lord Howe's Stick Insect, one of the largest insects on the planet and believed extinct since 1930 ... until a small population turned up in 2001 living under a single shrub on the small islet of Ball's Pyramid, the world's tallest and most isolated sea stack.

Meanwhile, don't get me started on UFOs, flat Earthers and little green men ...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Shake those Agitrons

As ya'll know by now, I love words. I frequently post lists of obscure words (like here, here and here) and, not long ago, I posted a list of words we might have been using if William the Conqueror hadn't conquered (the list is here).

I also love cartoons and if you put the two together you get strips, comics and graphic novels. Mort Walker was one of the great strip cartoon artists, most famous for his Beetle Bailey character.

But Walker was also a great teacher of the art of cartooning and someone who loved to play with language. In 1980, he wrote a deliciously tongue-in-cheek book called The Lexicon of Comicana in which he created names and bogus origins for all of the little graphic effects that cartoonists use in their work. Take, for example, the final panel in the strip above; the little clouds under the running soldiers are there to indicate movement. Walker called them briffits.

Here are some others:

Agitrons: wiggly lines around a shaking object or character.

Blurgits, swalloops: curved lines preceding or trailing after a character's moving limbs.

Dites: diagonal, straight lines drawn across flat, clear and reflective surfaces, such as windows and mirrors.

Grawlixes: typographical symbols standing for profanities, appearing in dialogue balloons in place of actual dialogue.

Hites: horizontal straight lines trailing after something moving with great speed; or, drawn on something indicating reflectivity (puddle, glass, mirror).

Indotherm: wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat; when the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.

Lucaflect: a shiny spot on a surface of something, depicted as a four-paned window shape.

Plewds: flying sweat droplets that appear around a character's head when working hard, stressed, etc.

Solrads: radiating lines drawn from something luminous like a lightbulb or the sun.

Squeans: little starbursts or circles that signify intoxication, dizziness or sickness.

Vites: vertical straight lines indicating reflectivity (compare dites, hites).

Every artist should have a copy and, I'm delighted to say, it's still in print. The book is brilliant and has been a constant joy to me since I first got my copy in 1985 in a now long-gone bookshop in London called Dark they Were and Golden-Eyed.

 Damn, now I'm feeling all nostalgic.

Add some lapsebeams around me.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Here we Tingo

The English language is a glorious hodge-podge of other languages, which is why it's pretty much the only language that needs a Thesaurus. There are multiple words for almost everything. And individual words can have multiple meanings.

Just the simple word 'RUN' has 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months researching its many shades of meaning. It's now out-run (ouch) the previous record-holders 'SET' and 'PUT'.

But despite this, there are many situations and things that don't have a single English word to describe them. And that's why I suggest we look overseas and embrace our foreign chums. They have many of the issues sorted. For example:

The Japanese term Age-otori means to look worse after a haircut, and Tatemae and Honne mean what you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively. Meanwhile, Arigata-meiwaku denotes an act that someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.

Backpfeifengesicht is how Germans describe a face badly in need of a fist, and Waldeinsamkeit is the feeling of being alone in the woods.

In the Phillipines, Gigil means the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute and in the Congo, an Ilunga is a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.

For the French L’esprit de l’escalier - usually translated as 'staircase wit' - is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it, and in Mexico, Pena ajena  is the embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation. 

On Easter Island Tingo means to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left.

However, it may be hard to get our tongues around such words. We suffer from the Japanese condition of Yoko meshi - literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language.

You can find many more in Adam Jacot de Boinod's excellent books, such as The Meaning of Tingo. Check them out here.