Monday, 31 March 2008

What it is to be a bat

Well what is it? Not like a bat but a bat. It's unknowable, yes? Unless you're a bat.

It's funny writing this stuff because, from what I can gather, you lot 'hear' the words in your head when you read and write, as though you are talking to yourself or the page is talking to you. What's strange is that although I can write it and read it, I can't speak it and mostly can't understand spoken English. Just the odd phrase like "Will you shut that f**king door, it's f**king cold in here!" You hear that a lot! I can really only understand and manipulate the written word. Can you imagine what that is like? Even remotely? Can you know what it is? The symbols totally divorced from the sounds?

It's like when I'm swimming away from a dolphin pod. I can see and 'hear' the sea, other penguins, the dolphins but in what way does the dolphin see me? It can 'see' me the way I can see it, it has eyes like mine, but how does 'clicking' me change the way it sees me, if it does. You can never know, can you?

It, of course, doesn't stop YOU trying but in the end, you're just talking about humans with a thin veneer of behavioural research about animals layered on top, aren't you?

Does that change the way you read this?

I only mention this because it's not as difficult for us penguins to learn written English (or French, or German, or Latin or 'Scandanavian' in my case) as you might think. We actually have quite a rich language of our own. We don't have a larynx, nor teeth, nor a nice fat tongue to articulate the range of sounds you can but we have pitch and tone and volume and body posture and you'd be surprised at how rich our language can be, when you combine all these things together. We often have to go round the houses a lot to grasp the meaning of an English word, long adjectival phrases, many changes in pitch and tone etc, but we usually manage it.

Well, I couldn't do this otherwise now could I?

I also want to apologise today for some of the things I said during the first blogs I posted. Not for the content, I hasten to add, but for the tone. When I first started this, I didn't think anyone would be interested in the views of a penguin. So I made them a bit more 'human'. I regret that now. Either the penguin has something valid to say or he doesn't and pretending to be human, or being human, is not to be encouraged. So I apologise and trust I have made amends since.

I found the cupboard where they keep the flares, only it's 'combination locked'! Oh well, I'll just need to look for where they've written it down because they will have! Cozy will just have to be patient. Miracles are routine, the impossible takes just a little longer!

Sparky is still crowing, sort of, but I'm not that bothered. I really did want him to succeed and I'm so glad he did it not by being some 'super penguin' but just by a little fortuitous knowledge. One does have to admire his perseverance though!!

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Locks, kiwis and humble pie

You probably wonder how I get to type this stuff, not having a computer. Well, I use one of the workstations in the research centre. Most of the time the researchers are out and about and, generally, they leave the door open. Burglary is not something we have over much of a problem with here, being 60km from the sea and the only access for your lot is by helicoptor. And of course the researchers trust US! We're only penguins! Sometimes they do lock the door if a gale threatens and they don't want to come back to a station full of snow but it's one of those keypad things. You punch a few numbers in and the door opens.

Now you'd think that would be tricky, wouldn't you? Not at all for a penguin who's read Feynman. They did it in the world's most 'secret' project in 1944/5 and they're still doing it! They write the thing down and leave it all over the place in case THEY forget it. Same with their computer passwords, especially the newbies! Post-it notes on the side of the monitor, password written on the blotter or on a piece of paper inside the drawer. And these people claim to be intelligent!

It's just as well really because it meant I got to show Sparky the kiwi film last night after they'd all gone to bed. I made him watch it ten times, one after the other. I kept pointing out to him that evolution had not equipped the kiwi with useful wings. Trying to fly could only end in tragedy. In the same way, evolution had not equipped Sparky to do two complete corkscrews in air. I thought at the time he had taken my point but later, and all through the night, all you could hear was the sound of Sparky crash landing in the dark behind the bluff.

Spent the morning with Havelock, timing Cozy down the chute. Because I had the egg on my feet, I waited level with the end of the chute, holding the stop watch. Cozy would call as he dived into the chute, Havelock would start the timer (takes two of you when you have no opposable thumbs) and stop it when Cozy left the end. We did ten runs without lube and then smeared Cozy's belly with lube and did another ten runs. Tomorrow I have to work out from the speed differences how long Cozy should delay before entering the chute after the two penguins in front of him have started off to get the effect he wants. Should be fairly easy, I think.

However I was a little puzzled by Cozy's cryptic comment as he left to waddle his way back to the rookery. "I don't suppose you can lay your wings on a flare or two, can you?"

The rest of the afternoon was spent watching from the edge of the rookery as some of the other penguins practiced their moves and trying to get the lube off the underside of our wings where we'd smeared Cozy with it. There is still a bit of work to be done for some of them but they are getting there. However my heart sank when about an hour before sunset, Sparky waddled to the top of the chute. Havelock just closed his eyes and laid his beak on his breast. I think Sparky's failed double corkscrews just remind him of what HE can never recapture.

As Sparky left the end of the chute and slammed his wing down hard right, it was as much as I could do to keep my eyes open. It is never easy to watch a friend so constantly fail - the lump in your throat refuses to move for soooo long. Only he didn't! Two complete corkscrews and a perfect belly landing!

He calmly got up and waddled back to the top of the chute again. You could have heard a snowflake settle on my head. He executed the same manoeuvre again, perfectly. As he picked himself up, he looked in my direction. Waddling towards me, he started to scratch his arse. When he was a wing length away from me, he pushed his wing against my nostril and said very calmly, "Smell that and weep! Clever clogs!" As he turned to leave, he mumbled to himself, "Kayaks, eskimo rolls, you just have to use both wings, one up, one down."

I just bet you're p**sing yourself with laughter, aren't you? How wrong could I be? Sparky showed him! Well, you're wrong! I was right! Just a little bit less right than I usually am!

Anyways, Sparky came to apologise about an hour later. He said he was just so pleased with himself he couldn't help crowing but I think he was more apologising for the awful smell that was still rising in pungent waves from his wing tip. After I'd moved a little upwind of him, I asked him how he hit on the solution. "It was strange," he said. "I was waddling back up to the top last night after my zillionth attempt, waving my wing up and down, trying to get that little bit 'extra', when suddenly, I remembered something from a survival book I'd read ages ago. It had these little pictures of someone righting a capsized canoe. The trick was to push your paddle back the way you had come to keep you rolling in the same direction and so do a complete circle. I don't know why I remembered that particular book or why I thought it would work but it just seemed a solution to roughly the same kind of problem. I tried it. It worked."

I just hope he doesn't start thinking triples!

It just goes to show what's bubbling around just below the surface of what eventually becomes conscious thought.

Ambition, belief and corkscrews

Strange thing ambition.Now I know there's no development without ambition. I know that believing in yourself, believing you can do it, is more than half way to achieving the nigh impossible. It's just it's never seemed that important to me. It always seemed to me that to be the best today was to doom yourself to being second best tomorrow and one day's glory never seemed to justify the cost. Just try your best and if someone's better, well, that's just life!

Looking at Sparky today made me even more certain that I am right. Sparky is supposed to go second in line down the chute during the 'performance'. First down is Stingo. As he leaves the chute, he pushes down hard right with his right wing and executes a complete corkscrew (a twist) to land belly down some forty metres away. Sparky is to perform the same manoeuvre only hard down left. But no, Sparky wants to go third. Only now he'll do two corkscrews!

Air is much less dense than the sea and our wings, while ideally suited to propelling us underwater, do not have the surface area to allow us to 'push' against the less dense air hard enough to induce the speed of rotation necessary to complete two complete turns. Sparky has been at it all day. He believes if he can do it in water, he can do it in air. He has landed on every part of his body except his belly! He must be black and blue under all that fat. And he has successfully demonstrated that two complete turns are not possible, however great your ambition; the laws of physics are against him. His only comment as dusk started to loom was, "Tomorrow's another day."

As I write this, I can see him through the window, propped up against Havelock and my egg. If Havelock moves, Sparky will fall over, rest assured! We'll try and make him see sense tomorrow. It's only a gag for the newbies, after all. Not worth killing yourself for, I would have thought.

Read a strange little short story this morning by Murakami. One of those tales where you have absolutely no idea what the author's driving at, not even the wrong idea, just no idea at all! Oh well, some you win and some you lose. That's why I watched Sparky fight his losing battle with his evolutionary heritage, however despairing it made one feel. As Sparky tumbled for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about Darwin, Dawkins and a little bit further down the line, Daniel Dennett.

Now I've got a lot of time for Dan, although the books weigh heavy on the penguin in front. His application of evolutionary theory to the development of consciousness and freedom all seem quite sound to me. A lot better than a vague belief in a soul or something. I've got a lot of time for the 'multiple drafts' model of consciousness as well. Lots of competing 'drafts' going on in your head at the same time, all trying to come out, until one wins! Well as I was thinking this, what pops into my head? (Besides how nice a small fish would be.) I suddenly thought I knew what Murukami might have been driving at. I'm probably wrong but why seven hours later, when I wasn't thinking about it at all, did I arrive at a tentative solution? Multiple drafts?

Strange thing your brain, my brain too!

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Sturm und Drang

That's storm and stress to you non-German speakers. Storm blew in from the west two days ago. Complete white out! Even the keenest of the newbies didn't dare venture out of the station. They even took the sled dogs inside!

It was a time when being a penguin seemed like the last thing on earth you ever wanted to be. The guys on the winward outside were only kept in place by the weight of the rest of the rookery. If anyone had dared leave the 'huddle' they would have been swept away, low centre of gravity or no low centre of gravity! Being on the leeward was no better, you couldn't open your eyes without the pupils getting rammed into your sockets!

Fortunately, from the gang's point of view, it was a straight nor' wester so the test rig was pretty much protected from the worst of it by the bluff, they're round there now clearing the new snow off of it. We'll have to try and come up with a way of protecting it, I think. If we get a storm where the wind shifts direction every other second, the bloody thing will get buried. Ah well, no matter, we haven't come this far down the evolutionary road to be overly concerned with the kind of weather that has you running for central heating and hot water bottles.

It was a bit annoying that you couldn't read though. Sparky in front of me tried. The 'Dolphins of Pern' was last seen heading south east into the interior at about 120kph. Probably the best place for it. 'Moko' writ VERY large indeed! But you kind of get used to that sort of thing. I'll just order another copy from Amazon on the station's account.

What? Where else did you think we got our books from? The turnover's quite high in the station, people forever coming and going, and supplies only come every few months or so. So when they unpack the books, they just think some newbie who's just left ordered it and stick it on the library shelf anyway. It's not their money after all!

S'funny, while the wind was whistling around my ear openings, I started thinking about something I found a while back. It was this:

"Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter in iosltioan, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

Now I have my own ideas about what is going on here, which is at a slight variance to what is stated and I thought I would try it out on a non 'native' speaker whose English was nonetheless very good. She had no problem either. But curiously, the same statement had been translated into her native language and she found that much trickier to read.

Now I think that if you give the English sentence to an English speaking six year old (assuming they started to learn to read at 4-5 years old) they would have problems. After about 7ish, they'd be as good as an adult. It would be interesting to know if that is true or not. Perhaps I need to find a teacher of young children willing to co-operate with a penguin on some original research. Let's face it, it would have to be better than some of the stuff they come up with down here!

Monday, 24 March 2008

Veni, Vidi, Vici!

Hardly any wind today, makes a change, so the gang set about practising. Sparky, as always, went first. A little tail shake, a little dive into the chute. He must have been doing 60kph when he shot out into clean air, wings extended. Went for 45 metres in what can only be described as a 'power glide'. Awesome! The flurry of snow as he skidded to a halt! Jean Claude Killy would have been proud!

Also managed to get the 'lube' out of the station yesterday. I'm just glad they're mostly Brits at the station. It means they get supplied from the UK. It's an awful lot easier getting a tube of KY out under your wing, undiscovered, than the bl**dy bottles of Dr Johnson's the Americans use. Mind you, I was surprised at the variety of 'items' in the good Frau Doktorin's cupboard, fair made my eyes water! Well at least I now know what the lube's for! And all this time, I've been thinking electric toothbrushes............

Spent most of the day milling around on the periphery so I could watch the gang. By the end of the day they'd all got the basics off pat. Sparky said it was so like swimming in the sea, just faster. It was more a 'mental' thing, he said, rather than physical. It was so much easier to get it right if you just 'believed' you were in water, not air. Tomorow they start on the tricky stuff. I also have to find a stop watch for Cozy. He needs someone to time him with lube and without. No, I've told you, all in good time.

Most of the newbie Brits went off on their skidoos this morning. It's a kind of ritual every year. One of the experienced researchers gathers them all up and they go off to Scott's base camp. Paying homage, I think they call it

Funny sub species, the Brits. Now, as a whole, homo sapiens are about as arrogant as orcas, maybe even more so. Always so superior, always demonstrating how wonderful they are. How they can damn or save the planet whenever they like. But the Brits? They're emabrrased about being successful. No, honestly! The only real historical date the Brits remember is 1066. Why? Because King Harold Godwinson whipped the arse off the invading Vikings at Stamford Bridge, having marched his army 200 miles in a couple of weeks? No! They remember it because three months later they FAILED to do the same thing to the invading Normans! They don't remember the year, but they do remember that day and month when someone FAILED to blow up their parliament. They go and pay homage to a man who FAILED to get to the South Pole first. Why?

Does anyone remember Crecy? Agincourt? Do they remember the year of Trafalgar? Nope! But they'll tell you when the Yanks landed on the moon. When D-Day was (mostly Yanks, just a few Brits). So what is it about losing that attracts the Brits so much?

Is it really about 'playing the game', win or lose? Or are they so embarrssed by the bloody mess they made by being successful, empire, Rhodesia, Pakistan, Israel etc etc that they want to forget all that and concentrate on being losers?

I know you're just dying to ask so...................Yes, had a toboggan down the test rig this afternoon! Only one, mind. I have responsibilities! Truly awesome. Now that was so much closer to what I imagine flying to be like! Dream on, Kiwi!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

What's wrong with hair? Or feathers?

All prepared for the first practice run today. Well, Sparky tried. The wind today has been horrendous! Poor Sparky, all over the place! Started off well. Picked up a fair bit of speed but as he left the chute, the wind caught him! Sent him cloaca over apex for about 30 metres! It's just as well we have this big layer of fat. Could have been serious bone damage!

So, we just watched the Brits eating their eggs, It wasn't too difficult to work out what they were thinking, I've seen what's on their computers. They bit the top off then scooped out the filling.....with their tongue! The look on their faces!

After about ten minutes, Frau Doktorin Gerhardt picked one up and, well she taught those Brits a thing or two! I should point out that I've changed her name to the correct one. I thought you lot might not understand 'Doktorin' the first time around (it's the feminine of Doktor) but now you know who/what I'm talking about............

Anyways looking at her wrapping her tongue around the egg's creamy filling, her little moustache bobbing up and down, got me thinking. In a lot places around the world women shave. Now I don't mean beards here. But they seem to remove hair from their armpits, their legs, their top lip and sometimes even from those sensitive little places. (Blokes too, judging by what I've seen on those computers in there!)

But you seldom see a woman with shaved arms! Now I wonder why that is? What is acceptable about forearm hair that isn't when it comes to armpit or leg hair?

Now if it was just shaving, maybe, I'd not worry overmuch but from what I can gather it involves wax, sugar water, machines that pluck the hairs out, ie PAIN! Why on earth would you do that? And having done it, why not go the whole nine yards and do your forearms? Weird, huh?

Hopefully the wind will die down a bit today and the gang can get some practice in. Just need to remember to steal some of the good Frau Doktorin's 'lube' before I leave. Don't ask! All will become clear in time.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Eggs, nails and a fairy story

The gang finished the chute late last night. We're going to leave it for about 36 hours so that it really hardens off. We'd prefer it if the end didn't collapse. Look a bit silly doing a 60kph belly flop!

The whirlybird thing arrived today with supplies. Oh boy, you should have seen the Brits jumping up and down when they unloaded a crate marked 'Cadbury's Cream Eggs'. I thought they were going to wet themselves! About the only one who didn't seem excited was Frau Doktor Gerhardt. Mind you, the last thing she should eat is chocolate. The only difference between her and an orca is that her teeth are slightly smaller and she doesn't have a fin on her back. She might not be the same colour either but since I've never seen her naked...........

I wonder if you think it as funny as I do that you can mix up two quite distinct things. On the one hand, you're all solemn about the death of your saviour and on the other, you stuff your maws with chocolate to celebrate the rebirth of nature. Don't you think that's a little weird?

We don't have religion. Well, there's the 'thundering penguin' but no-one goes around worshipping him. We just think he's a really cool dude. He'd be a myth if some researcher hadn't snapped him one year. I'll tell you about him sometime. As I say, we don't have religion, we're too busy trying to stay alive, what with orcas, seals, the weather etc, to worry over much what might lie beyond the veil. But you lot? You've got more religions than I've had fishes. And they're all as barking (that's mad to you) as each other.

At this time, there's a whole gang of you celebrating the fact that some human got nailed to a tree for saying how good it would be if everyone was nice to each other. Oh come on, get real! Why on earth would anyone do that? Why would anyone get nailed to a tree for saying that? Even Stalin would find that a little over the top! And why blame someone else for doing it? I mean, the Romans did it but you blame the Jews (another crackpot religion), how sensible is that? Oh, I hear you say, the Jews couldn't do it themselves because they didn't have a death penalty, so they had to get the Romans to do it! What?

"Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone!" Isn't that a quote? From whom? And what were they doing? Got it in one! Trying to stone someone TO DEATH! So if the Romans did it, they sure as hell weren't acting as proxies! I have little idea why anyone would want to nail someone to a tree but sedition seems as good a reason as any, given your culture.

Oh, and someone did cast the first stone. Mary!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

A close shave

Nearly had a disaster this morning! One of the newbies decided to go for a walk round to the other side of the bluff! Even in its unfinished state the test rig would have given the whole game away! Fortunately, Stingo was on watch.

Now there's a big sign in the research station which says "NO CLOSER THAN 3 METRES, EVER!" 3 metres being the closest any researcher or visitor can get to a penguin unless the penguin approaches them, which of course we never do. What no-one remembers in there is why. They think it's because we get frightened!

About 6 years ago, they had this French newbie. First day out, he approaches Bertie. Now Bertie takes pride in his appearance, some say obsessively so, forever preening he is. Well the newbie's dressed in a bright red ski jacket, yellow and green jumper, blue shirt and plaid overtrousers. Bertie's so shocked at such sartorial inelegance that as the newbie comes towards him, he faints clean away! Ever since then, there's been the 3m restriction. If only they knew!

So the newbie approaches Stingo. Gets to three metres and stops. He moves to one side to go around, Stingo moves as well, all the time eyeballing him! The newbie moves to the other side, Stingo tracks him. This went on for half an hour before the newbie gave up and mooched back to the station. To be fair, this sort of stuff happens all the time. It doesn't occur to any of the clods that we actually have real motivations, instead of instinct, for what we do!

Found the research I was looking for and, yes, he was timing me! Fastest he clocked me over snow was 51kph with an average of 44.6kph - you can see why I like doing it! Now I reckon that on ice, we'd best factor in at least 25% faster, less friction. By my calculations, that makes the ramp around 12.5-15 degrees up from the horizontal. We'll lose about 6% of the momentum at take off but should still have enough for the piece de resistance. Just had time to make a little paper template that we can 'sight' through to get the angle right before the researchers started coming back.

The gang are all now busy pushing snow like there's no tomorrow!

We don't have money, no need for it. We get everything we need or want without it. Besides where would we keep it? No pockets, no handbags and the nearest bank or cashpoint is in South Africa or the Falkland Islands, depending on which way you swim. We don't gamble either, well except at sea. Daily. For our lives. But I suppose that's different. We don't have much concept of numbers either. 1, 2, 3 then it's 'lots'.

So I wonder how do you deal with one indivdual who personally loses £2,000,000 (c$4,000,000) gambling or someone who loses £3,700,000,000 (c$7,000,000,000) of their employer's money or a bank (a bank, for Pete's sake, they hold YOUR money!) which loses £20,000,000,000? Do you know what those numbers mean? What 20 billion means to you? Can you convert it into fish, like how big would the shoal be? Do those numbers have remotely any meaning for you or are you just as impotent as us? You may be able to count to infinity but ultimately, it's just 'lots', isn't it? So in the three cases above, there's no difference is there? You just think there is.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Test rig and sloppy behaviour

Went and had a quick look to see how the test rig's coming along. Nice, guys! Basically, they're building a penguin shaped 'chute' from the top of the bluff to about two thirds of the way down. The gang are lying on their backs pushing snow with their feet into the middle to form a ridge and lying alongside while Cozy jumps belly first onto the top which makes the chute - a bit like a miniature 'Cresta run'.

Now Cozy is less a penguin and more the most efficient protein to fat converter you'll ever meet. I think it's a metabolic disorder but Cozy says he just loves fish! He's a bit taller than most of us but, boy, is he fatter! He's more orca than pengiun. By the time we come to the end of the season, Cozy's about as fat as most of us are at the beginning of the season!

The idea is that after Cozy's jumped all over the chute, the snow will be so well compacted, it will turn to ice overnight.

The difficult part comes tomorrow when they have to make the slightly 'upturned' end to the chute. The reason it's so difficult is that it's got to be upturned enough to give them enough altitude from the ground when they leave the chute to do what they plan but not so upturned that they go too far to the vertical. We have such a low centre of gravity, see, and they'll just crash land a couple of metres away.

My job this afternoon is to see if I can find the research one of the newbies did on my early morning toboggans down the bluff last year so I can get some speed estimates. He had a stop watch so I think he was timing me. I then need to work out what the optimal angle for the upturn should be. It's sometimes a disadvantage to be the only penguin who knows how to use a computer!

What makes little things niggle? You know the kind of thing. You lot get divorced because he squeezes the toothpaste tube from the middle or she always loses one sock every time she does the washing. You get what I mean? Mentioning Anne McCaffrey the other day made me go and re-read the dragon rider books. They're an easy read and fairly light on the back of the penguin in front. I was towards the end of the fourth book when it suddenly dawned on me why I hadn't re-read it for a while. It so infuriated me the last time!

One of basic premises of the stories is that the riders and their dragons bond 'mentally' when the dragon hatches and the bond is so great that if the rider dies, the dragon suicides. (Ah...bless). So as the series develops characters, the riders and the dragons, a particular dragon is always linked to a particular rider. So why at the end of the fourth book does a character (and his dragon) who features prominently in the third book suddenly gets assigned another rider's dragon? That's just sloppy, either the author or more importantly her editor!

I'm not a perfectionist, nor do I never make mistakes, but if you go to all that trouble to 'subcreate' another reality, why spoil it by not paying attention? I just hope someone corrected it in later editions.

Don't know why it annoys me so, though.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Per ardua ad astra

I was going to tell you about the gang's plans today - has to be the best they've come up with since they did the 'Rocky Horror Penguin Show' about five years ago. However in the best novelist's tradition, I'll keep you hanging on for a while. Suffice to say that not only is it ambitious, hence the title today, but they've got to build a 'test rig' on the far side of the bluff, out of sight of the researchers, so they can practise. At the moment, all they have is a vague belief that it's all possible and that THEY can pull it off.

So I'll tell you a little bit about Havelock instead.

Penguins are not generally monogamous for more than one year. That's not to say they can't be, but after everyone returns to sea, you lose touch and it usually isn't the same the following year. So you pair up with someone else. After all it's only a quick shag ( or 100) prior to 4 months of unmitigated isolation with not even a hint of "how's yer father".

Well, Havelock was pretty much like everyone else until............Myfanwy. There's not a penguin alive now that remembers the day that Havelock met Myfanwy and Havelock doesn't ever talk about it. But something happened. For eight years, every year, Havelock would wait on the edge of the ice shelf for Myfanwy to show and show Myfanwy would. Havelock would skypoint like only Havelock can and they would gaily waddle and toboggan their way to the rookery.

Seven chicks they raised, all still here. Then in the eighth year Myfanwy did not return with food when she should have. Havelock tried to keep the chick alive but in the end it became so weak that it fell easy prey to a skua. Havelock has not bred since.

Rumour had it at the time that she was was taken by a marauding leopard seal only metres from the ice. Well I suppose the seal had young to feed as well.

So every year, Havelock hauls himself up onto the ice and marches the long march to the rookery. He helps out, minding eggs, passing on the wisdom of old age, telling tales in the gloomy days when the wind whistles around your ears and the wait seems never ending. Until about 10 days before the eggs are due to hatch. I've no idea how he knows. Then he leaves and returns to the sea.

He returns a couple of weeks later with a full crop of fish and seeks out one of that year's 'Havelocks'. He knows that it's only one chick of many but I think it eases the pain in his gut!

Havelock has been been a true friend to me for as long as I can remember but I suppose that's to be expected .............................. as Myfanwy was my mother.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

An enforced day off

The station had the day off yesterday, only the newbies were out. The rest were shut up inside downloading porn off the internet and w**king themselves silly all afternoon so I couldn't get inside to use a computer. What? You thought I had my own computer? Where would a penguin get the cash to buy one? Where would I plug it in? A workstation would look pretty stupid bang in the middle of the rookery, now wouldn't it? Alright, I could lie down and use a laptop but I think even a macBook Pro might find it a little cold down here at this time of year.

It's funny, this rookery being all male and the station being all male, except for Frau Doktor Gerhard, who unfortunately from their point of view is gay! Evolution has equipped us for six months without sex in the freezing cold, we don't even get the urge. It's a pity humans evolved along a different path. The stuff those guys have on their computers. Makes my eyes water sometimes!

Anyways, went and had a little toboggan down the bluff yesterday. No doubt some newbie is already thinking fame, glory, professorships etc having seen for the first time a penguin careering at 40kph down a hill in the snow and then laboriously waddling back up to go and do it again. Ah well, just wait until he sees what the 'gang' have got planned!

After I swopped places with old Havelock I got to thinking about the book I'd just finished. Now Davies is very pro-Poland. Polophile? No, that's a 'mint-lover'. Polonaisophile? No, 'dance-lover'. Bugger, no dictionary. Well, anyways, you get my drift. So despite being a good little historian, as historians go, he can hardly restrain his fury at Stalin's betrayal of the Home Army in Warsaw nor the Western Allies ineffectualness in persuading him to do something, anything. Harsh as it may sound to Europeans, the more you read about Uncle Joe (Stalin), the more like Mother Teresa Hitler seems. Hitler, Franco, Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun are just not in the same league. So why does a species that goes "ah bless" at stories like Moko and the Whales line up behind an individual who makes an orca seem the very epitome of kindness and polite behaviour? I don't really think you could've evolved that much in fifty years! Oh I know all the reasons, had to defeat the Nazis, facism was evil, didn't have any choice etc etc etc. But by the thundering penguin, Stalin?

Oh, and if you thought I was a little bit too sweeping about you and your insatiable urge to get into the water with dolphins. I was chatting with Cozy yesterday who's just finished Eragon - rubbish he says, Anne McCaffrey crossed with Tad Williams (not even Tolkien!). Very popular he says it is, I mean you guys even want to talk to imaginary animals!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Ah....bless. Moko and the Whales.

Spent the morning with 'the gang', the non-breeders. It's funny, I don't know why they don't stay at sea, it gets pretty boring here after a few weeks. Nothing much to do but scratch your arse and read books. Anyway, there's a long standing tradition that the non breeders have to do something for the 'newbies'. The newbies are those graduate students, fresh off the boat, here for some 'original' research into us lot.

We came up with a few ideas but we're all going to sit on it a while and see what else we might come up with, there's no rush after all. Last year was great! The 'gang' did the conga every day, at exactly the same time, all the way around the outside of the rookery. After about 4 weeks half the rookery was snaking around kicking their legs out! They nearly wet themselves at 'Nature' and 'Scientific American' when the newbie submitted his paper about 'previously unseen mating rituals of emperor penguins'

Anyway I promised you dolphins and whales.

So, did you all go "ah bless" at the tale of Moko and the two whales? Well I didn't! I'm not saying that it wasn't all a bit cutesy but from my perspective it's just another two predators out there. We have enough trouble as it is with Mr Dolphin's cousin, Orca, round here to feel any kind of sentiment for either dolphins or sperm whales. Even if the whales are pygmy ones, they're still big enough to bite your bum off. Rorquals, fine. I like rorquals. But the toothed whales? Too much like orcas for my liking.

Talking of Orcas, Havelock tells a great story about how some killer whales who were wave hunting him and a seal on an ice floe - they swim around creating waves so you end up getting washed off the floe by the waves - washed them both off only to put them back on the floe and do it again. They weren't hunting, they were teaching the youngsters how do it, he said. Havelock says it was the luckiest day of his life and he's never, ever having lunch with a seal again!

But little Moko got me thinking. A big part of the story centred around the dolphin's 'conversation' with the parent whale - almost like it was saying 'follow me'. And oh, how you'd love that to be true!

Humans are social animals, they don't like being alone and, like penguins, seek out others at every opportunity. That's all fine and dandy and to be expected. So why on earth do they have this raging desire, as a species, to want to socialise with other animals? And they do! A big part of the dolphin's attraction is that they are intelligent, seem to have ways of communicating with each other and humans think they sense a 'culture' there too. Humans would just love to get in the water and talk to the dolphins. Same with ET. Obsessed with communicating with aliens, you are. Hands up if you're part of the SETI network! Why?

What on earth would you say to a dolphin? What possible topics might you have in common? Sea water's wet and salty? Having a shag is nice? That's about as far as it goes, unless you're into sushi without wasabe. What possible meaning could the transubstantiation have for a dolphin? How would you start explaining the current economic downturn in the US? What would Shakespear mean to a dolphin?

(Actually, nothing. I know. I tried discussing Macbeth with a bottle nose once, he just told me to push off or he'd bite my bum)

Finally finished 'Rising' by Norman Davies, about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 - and that's the Home Army rising not the one in the ghetto the year before. Just as well really, because Shaky in front was starting to get a bit tetchy, 650 pages is a lot of weight on your back. Need to find something slimmer for the next one. Aristophanes, perhaps?

Ah well, it's Saturday tomorrow so I can have a bit of a 'stand in'. Maybe get Havelock to mind the egg and go for a bit of a bellytoboggan down the bluff, we'll see.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Thugs and mindless violence

Another day, another researcher with a notebook. I scratch my arse, he takes a note of when I do it, how long I do it for, with which wing I do it and whether I smell my wing tip afterwards.

One of the great things about evolution is that even if you don't have what you need, nature can always co-opt something to make up for the lack. Take hands. We don't have them so reading books is always difficult. You keep dropping them! Especially thick ones! But we are very social and hardly agressive at all at this time and invariably what happens is that another penguin will be close enough in front of you so that you can rest your book on his back and stop it falling with your chest. You then just turn the pages with a wing/flipper. Neat, huh? You just have to pay attention when it's time for everyone to shuffle round and move closer to the middle or the periphery.

Now I don't normally read newspapers much. It's all so depressing. War, famine, repression, Keira Knightly etc. It does make you a little out of touch with what's going on but I'm usually miserable enough without adding to it. Today, for the first time in ages I picked up a newspaper to see what delights the UK's Chancellor had served up in yesterday's budget. Usual stuff. Beer, wine, spirits, cigarettes, cars...all up! As I was flipping through, I came upon a story of a small gang of youths who had beaten up a young man and kicked his girlfriend to death for seemingly no other reason than they were dressed differently.

Now that coming on top of the previous night's reading (the behaviour of Soviet troops towards German women during the assault on East Prussia in 1944 in Davies' account of the Warsaw uprising, truly harrowing) made me think. How come I've never met anyone remotely like this? Nor can I recall having met anyone who's met anyone remotely like this.

I don't understand violence, I once tried to hit someone, in self defence, when I was eleven - I missed! I can honestly say that I have never intentionally hit anyone, even when four sheets to the wind. I can see circumstances where violence is a 'natural' option for men (or women): self defence; real anger; alcohol fueled frustration etc and while I wouldn't condone it I can sort of see why. But mindless thuggery? Kicking a defenceless woman to death? Where do these people hide during the day? Can people get so disturbed that another human being is no more than a football? But more importantly, if they are so disturbed, why does nobody notice anything until the brown squishy stuff hits the round twirly thing?

It quite obviously isn't a modern phoenomeon. I just wonder whether the same mentality of turning the 'Nelson eye' to gang rape and 'reverse' crucifiction in East Prussia by officers who DID know better doesn't apply here - the psychological disturbance is noticed just no-one does anything about it. I really hope not but I remain to be persuaded.

There was a nice story in the paper today about some whales and a dolphin but I'll leave that until tomorrow, mainly because there are a few misconceptions to be corrected about the 'ah bless' nature of the story.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Copyright, Stage6 and olga

The weather's starting to get a little worse down here now, the wind's picking up a bit. Taking your turn on the outside is starting to become more of a chore, especially on the windward side. Oh well, no matter, it's not usually for very long. Funny though, how no-one cheats, everyone takes his turn even when the weather gets REALLY bad. Well, except Havelock, but he would if we let him!

Talking of whingeing minnies yesterday made me go and look for a site that got taken down a long while ago - it's still not back up.

I assume that Stage6, a file sharing site for DivX movies, fell foul of the movie/DVD industry. Now I'm all in favour of copyright protection, I support the work that bodies like the Creators Rights Alliance, the Federation of Copyright Theft etc do. If I write something for money and sell it to someone on a 'one time only publish' arrangement, I don't expect them to go repurposing or syndicating that, and making money, without paying me - they're getting two things for the price of one. In the same way, if someone's sitting in a shed with banks of DVD burners (or in a big factory in China), ripping my latest movie and selling it down the pub for £5, I'd want them stopped.

But file sharing isn't like that, is it? The industry wants us to believe that money's being lost, profits are nosediving, jobs are disappearing. Sorry guys, the people who download this stuff wouldn't BUY it and just as importantly they're not selling it! They're happy to accept poorer quality from a free download because they either have more important things to spend money on (like food, rent, drugs etc) or they don't have the money. Remember 'home taping is killing music' from the seventies? It didn't and never could. The albums I taped were ones that were not so 'special' that I'd spend my hard earned cash on them.

If the industries would give us a 'sale model' we want, we'd happily pay for it. The success of the iTunes store is testament to that, at least with regard to music. Oh, and have they missed the advertising point (the porn industry certainly hasn't and where porn leads, the rest eventually follow). Of the stuff I downloaded from Stage6, I have bought a copy of everything that IS available - it was cheap enough and the quality is better. If I could have bought a copy of the video for Palmer's 'Addicted to Love' (Donovan), I would have, but I can't so I'll make do with a not so good copy ripped from MTV (the video has a certain resonance which has nothing to do with the actual content).

However that's really not the issue, they'll change or they won't.

What really got me was when they closed down OLGA (the site I went looking for - On Line Guitar Archive) for 'copyright infringement'. OLGA was a file sharing site for guitar tablature (tabs). For you non-guitarists, tabs are transcriptions of music but instead of having all those tadpoles hanging on fishing lines, the notes are displayed on a symbolic guitar. They tell you where to put which finger onto which string (of 6) to make the note and they do it in sequence. So if you follow it through you can clearly see how to play a piece of music without being able to read conventional notation.

Now by the letter of copyright law, it's an infringement, but in the spirit? It was a way of sharing knowledge about how to play guitar by people who were probably a lot better at playing than you and who didn't mind giving you 'guidance', much as a guitar tutor would, but without charging you! So, if I go to my guitar tutor and say "I'm having trouble working out the chord sequence for 'Tears in the rain' by Joe Satriani and my tutor listens to my BOUGHT copy of the track and says 'ah yes, you've missed the G7Dim5....THERE' that's ok, but if I, or anyone else actually writes it down and puts it up on the web, that's copyright infringement!

That closure so angered me (you can tell, can't you?). The real infringement occurs when I play it in public and I don't tell anybody it's by Joe and I don't pay Joe for performing it - ah but that's such a much more difficult target to hit, ay? And besides, am I taking revenue away from Joe? Who would the audience rather hear? Joe or my mangled version? No Contest.

At some point, the grasping fat cats will work out a way of making money out of file sharing and they will stop this pointless legal activity. Until then, only the lawyers win!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Language. What's going on?

Tried the Kiwi's trick off the Larsen Ice Shelf this morning. Only 300m but......I have to say it didn't feel a bit like flying, well it didn't feel a bit like I imagine flying to feel. Maybe I've got a bit more imagination than the Kiwi. What did Buzz Lightyear say? "We're not flying. We're falling with some control.' Or some such. No, it's ok, I didn't hurt myself (much). I managed to keep my beak pointing to the water from about 100m down and we're a lot more streamlined than kiwis. Just a bit of a sore head, that's all. Now a 'belly flop', that would have been painful!

Funny thing language. (Well it would be I suppose, being invented by humans) I was reminded of this because finding the kiwi film only came about because I was looking for an alternative site for the 'Do penguins fly?' animation after the whingeing minnies closed down the 'Stage 6' DivX site and, after I found it on youtube, the kiwi was in the list of 'related movies' so.......

Anyways, it got me thinking about the unstoppable rise of the one adjective/adverb dialogue. No, I don't have to spell out exactly what adjective/adverb I'm talking about, lets just call it f*****g or fg for short, this IS a family blog, but its almost like we'll have to invent a new part of speech because adjective/adverb doesn't really describe it anymore. It used to have meaning, it meant you were angry, hostile, agitated. "The fg trains's late again." "Don't fg push me!" Now, it's just inserted in front of any old noun or verb and conveys absolutely nothing. Perhaps in the future the 'F' part of the OED will just be 10 volumes big. Every single noun will start with 'F' as the noun and the adjective get joined together, forever, as one word. Can it be stopped? It seems such a pity. English, with Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, Asian, is such a rich language. All those nuances of meaning, the subtle differences between words that all fall under one entry in a thesaurus.

So why did I think about that?

Oh by the way, I did not ignore my parental responsibilities when I dived from the ice shelf. (A) I knew I could do it - we used to do it as a dare before I reached breeding age and (B) I left the egg with 'the old one', Havelock, who, too old to breed, still joins the rookery every year and helps out where he can, although he's now too old to take his place on the outside.

So, the reason I thought about this is because the French have this thing about trying to control their language. It goes by the name of 'The French Academy'. They try to ban things like 'le weekend', 'le picnic' etc and it just never works!

The original French animation is called 'Stupide question 1. Les pingouins volent-ils?' You don't need much French, if I tell you 'volent-ils' means 'do they fly' to get the gag. Unfortunately, according to the Academy, they do! All the time! Because contrary to the animators' belief and probably most of the French nation's, 'pingouins' does NOT refer to penguins!

Some etymology. Penguin is thought to derive from the Welsh for 'white head' and was probably first applied to the 'Great Auk', a flightless northern seabird, now extinct. (It went the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, a victim of a man-made holocaust.) Unique among auks, it had white patches on its head and the name was extended to the whole auk family which DO fly. When (English) sailors first encountered penguins in the southern oceans, they looked and behaved like great auks so they called them 'penguins'.

The birds are in no way related (they just fill a similar ecological niche and so are similar morphologically) and the English ended up reverting to calling 'auks', auks and 'penguins', penguins. The French, however, had a problem. They just didn't call the whole group 'pingouins', they called a specific auk 'le petit pingouin' (the little penguin) which interestingly enough is known as guillemot in English (a corruption of little 'Guillaume' - which is French for William) so the Academy decided all southern 'pengiuns' would be called 'Manchots'. Did it work? Well the animation title says it all! As does 'Le Pingouin' by Picasso

So you can't control it by diktat! Are we linguistically doomed? Probably. But if you have kids, make them aware that fg in front of every noun is unnecessary. Not because it's obscene and refers to things we Anglo-Saxons like to keep behind the bedroom/car/garage door but because there are so many other words that you could use!

Oh and just in case you might think I'm avoiding it because I think it's rude, obscene, taboo etc etc etc

FUCK, FUCKING, FUCKWIT, Situation Normal All FUCKED Up, FUCKED Up Beyond All Recognition:-)

I just hate people debasing MY language!

Monday, 10 March 2008


What's a penguin with too much time on his flippers to do? Exactly what everyone else does, start a blog! I'm not sure how regular this will be. Can I generate one idea a day? Can I generate one idea a month? When will I get time to fish? We'll see................

Interesting little film,Kiwi. What seems strange is how it seems to be an animation version of a Necker cube. There are seemingly two separate interpretations which are essentially at 180 degrees to each other and you can't hold both in your head at the same time.

On the one hand we have a pathetic little obsessive/compulsive bird who spends its life creating the illusion, note it's only an illusion, that just once it will fly....and it kills it. Why didn't it just get a life?

On the other hand, we have a single minded little bird who simply won't let its dream of flying die, however impossible it seems and it (almost) succeeds. Is that inspirational? A lot of people seem to think so. And after all, we don't actually SEE him hit the ground.

Does the bird cry in sadness half way down because it sees its own death or in joy because it's realised its dream and so, what harm in death? Don't you just love it when we get all serious like this. IT'S ONLY A CARTOON, for Pete's sake!

From what I can glean Permedi the animator seems to have used the first premise as the basis of the 'story'. He seems attracted to the psychologically challenged. His first animation, 'Pony' was about a seriously disturbed little girl........

So where does the second interpretation come from? Did Permedi put it in, consciously or unconsciously and if the latter, well done! It's always good to produce something that you never intended, thatta way lies Art!

And if not?

Perhaps, we just don't like to think that interpretation one could apply to anyone or the kiwi, though it does often, so we just invent something suitably uplifting to make US feel better and ignore the very real problem of mental health? Dunno. Probably reading far too much into this but, as Borges pointed out, art lies not in the object but in the interaction between the object and the spectator (citation needed)

The nice thing about being a penguin is that I don't have to go through all that rigmarole of nailing trees to the side of the cliff. Down here, there's just ice and ice and ice and...........makes it all a lot easier!