Sunday, 30 November 2008

Robocop on a Unicorn: An Unlikely Combination?

Some Internet memes are fairly simple to figure out, even though they may give you the occasional strange dream. The dancing hamsters, rickrolling, the Numa numa dance. These files may have been propagated on the internet without the proper health warnings but at least they were fairly straightforward to figure out. Then, occasionally, one comes along that really gets heads scratching – precipitating a global cascade of dandruff that will keep L’Oreal in business for years. So it is with one of the latest – Robocop on a Unicorn.

Yes, that’s right. A unicorn. And Robocop. An unlikely combination, all said and the reasons for the combination should realistically be kept close to the chest but no doubt a certain Doctor Freud would have a lot to say about it – as have, indeed, the denizens of he internet.

Is there greater meaning in the marriage of the two symbols, one ancient the other modern, or is this simply an irresistible combination that induces a chuckle (or an indignant splurt of the morning coffee) before the viewer moves on to the next banal but entertaining web page? What could Mr Rokne and his cohorts be getting at? Is this new net phenomenon visual spam or a profound statement about the times in which we live?

Well, first there is the sublime combination of the names. A unicorn gets is name from the Latin – ‘uni’ meaning one and ‘cornu’ meaning horn. Ah! So, one might imagine that Robocop derives his name from a similar classical root. Well, not quite. The word comes from as recently as 1921. Karl Capek, a Czech playwright of the early twentieth century was writing a play featuring manufactured humans, created to be servants in the future (eastern European satire never got so fine).

He looked at Latin origins for the name of his machines and discovered that labori (from labor – to work) just didn’t have the same ring. His brother suggested the Czech word ‘robota’ meaning, literally, horribly hard work or drudgery. Had he stuck with the Latin etymology we may well have ended up with Laborocop or something akin to that.

So far, so good. The origins of the word cop are a little older – but not much! Around the year 1700 the word ‘cop’ entered everyday English usage and it meant to catch, capture or get a hold of. It showed up in print about a hundred and forty years later and came to define one who combats and contains felons a little while later. It is not, as many people believe, an acronym for “Office On Patrol”.

So, even the origins of the two words have a delicious dichotomy! The fantasy version of the Actress and the Bishop, perhaps! We have the coming together of the RoaU which is dichotomous enough you may think. Then take the fact that their names are themselves a bipartition of elements which are mutually exclusive from each other and your head may begin to hurt a little.

So why bring the two together in forms of this kind of imagery? Does Robocop have a purity that is unattainable, that being the purity of the law? Or has he been lying about his son all this time and is in fact still virgo intactus?

Perhaps they share some personality traits that bring them together to fight crime. They are both essentially good but misunderstood, selfless but solitary. Both have a mysterious beauty about them and generally speaking can only be captured by foul means. And of course, both are the stuff of legend, one ancient and pastoral, the other contemporary and urban.

Some people have spoken about the imagery of RoaU representing a resurgent United States, which is quite a hoot considering the origins of this meme are Canadian. Others have started serious discussions about the theology behind the imagery. Yet more are using the various pictures for their X-Box avatars. Whatever the real meaning behind the pictures, people will make their own minds up and create their own legends.

Perhaps the real reason is dichotomy, after all! Two such unlikely friends are bound to cause a stir! Or maybe, just maybe, this is just a bit of fun, which like anything has the potential to do – just got a little out of hand?

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Queen Bee - Not As Royal as you may Think!

The Queen Bee is a remarkable insect. Here, follow the life cycle of the queen, from the egg to the end. You may be surprised at some of the things you find out!

This is an example of a Queen cell. The conditions in the hive have become right for a swarm and when this happens the old queen lays eggs in to queen cups. These are larger than the normal cells in to which eggs are laid and have a vertical orientation, while the normal eggs are vertical. Swarm cells will hang at the bottom of a frame within the hive. When an “emergency queen” is needed (otherwise known as a supersedure), then the cells are built out from the face of a frame. These queen cells may look like a super-sized peanut but they hold something in side much more precious than a nut!

Workers will “decide” that they want to swarm for a number of reasons. As the population of a hive increases it gets rather cramped and a new hive is often needed. For the hive to function a new queen will be needed to populate it. In order to maximize the survival of a new hive, often a number of queen cells will be constructed. When the newly hatched queens emerge they will fight to the death. The winner will then destroy any unhatched queen cells and the swarm will begin. The workers above are beginning the construction of a new queen cell.

A cutaway of a queen cell shows the alien being developing within! It is not difficult to see where some Hollywood movie makers get their inspiration from! There is not a huge amount of time between the laying of the queen egg and that queen itself starting her own enormous family. The egg will hatch three days after it is laid and the larva grows and molts after that. On the eighth day the queen cell will be capped and the pupa stage will begin. The virgin queen will emerge on around the sixteenth day and take flight three to four days later. She will start to lay eggs herself from around the twenty third day. Amazing!

One of the reasons that the queen cell is so much bigger than a normal egg cell is that the queen has an enormous abdomen. This is a biological necessity – she is destined to become an egg laying machine. Spot the blob of blue paint on her thorax – something that beekeepers do to quickly locate the queen among her minions. If one of her daughters leaves the tank in a swarm, then they can take tens of thousands of bees with them. This will involve about five kilos of honey taken along for the ride. The beekeeper will usually remove queen cells – as they obviously don’t want to lose all that honey – often to an empty hive of their own.

The virgin queen that survives will fly to what is known as a “drone congregation area”. She will mate with around a dozen drones and store the sperm in her spematheca. This is an organ designed to receive and store sperm until it is needed. It is more often than not the place where fertilization occurs as well.

She has a small window of opportunity here, though! If she does not mate within a few days then she will become a “drone layer”. As she will have no fertilized eggs that will spell the end of the colony. In very rare cases, something called thelytoky has been known to happen. This is where worker bees will lay the eggs of a new queen themselves, thus saving the colony. This is restricted to a few species, such as the Cape bee.

Do bees make a noise other than buzzing? Yes – and it is known as piping. This is produced by virgin and mated queens at certain times. The virgin pipes as she comes out of her cell. Once she has mated she may do it for some time afterwards as well. If you imagine a child’s trumpet, then you have a fair approximation of piping and it is audible to the human ear outside a hive! People argue as to its reason but most see it as a kind of battle cry. It is created by the flight motor (the wings, however, do not move when piping occurs). Others believe that it is a rallying call to workers and the best piper will get the most drones to follow them.

Many people believe that when bees swarm they are at their most dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true in reality. A swarm of bees is actually a fairly docile affair because, after all, they have no hive to protect at the moment, so what would the point be in stinging people. That said, it is best to be careful – especially if you are wearing primary colors – and stay clear. Nature is best left alone in these circumstances!

This can also be done artificially. As you can see, however, it is a process that involves great care and a deal of equipment. However, just as in the artificial insemination of mammals, this will ensure that the next generation the queen reproduces it exactly the one that the beekeeper desires. This will help eradicate pests such as mites (see below) and ensure some good honey in the process!

A common mistake amongst non apiarists is the assumed fact that the queen directly controls the hive. Effectively, however, her duty is as an egg making machine. She can lay bout two thousand eggs a day in the spring. This amounts to more than her own weight in eggs each day. Surrounded continuously by workers, she needs for nothing. They give her food and take her waste away. They will also collect a pheromone which they then distribute to stop workers from starting queen cells.

This very close up of a queen bee shows one of its greatest – and smallest – enemies. The bee mite is an external parasite that attacks honey bees. It attaches itself to the bee’s body and sucks out its hemolymph. This is the blood analogue that is used by bees as they have an open circulatory system. Unfortunately the mite is more than just a pain in the neck. It can spread a host of viruses, including “Deformed Wing Virus” (does what it says on the packet) and the arrival of mites in a colony can often spell its demise. Scientists believe that the mite may contribute to the Colony Collapse Disorder (otherwise known as CCD) that is spreading throughout the United States.

Often a new queen will emerge from the hive already badly infected with mites. Here, if you look just behind the eyes, you will see some light orange bumps. These are the mites that have already sentenced this particular queen to an early death. The mites have been kept at bay by antibiotics for twenty years or so. Unfortunately, this can make problems worse by producing a strain of mite that is resistant to the antibiotics.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Absolutely Bonkers for Conkers

The stuff of nightmares, perhaps? This rather spooky take on the conker looks as if it may have come from a horror film. “The Trees Have Eyes”, possibly? The thought of wandering all lonesome through a wood on Halloween would be even spookier if these things were taking a look at you! Run, run!

Some people have slightly dirty minds. Others can’t get the wild thing out of their minds for a second. Let’s think about which category you fall in to. If your mind produced an ever so slightly dirty image when you saw the above harmless horse chestnut, then you probably fall in to the latter.

Autumn school yards in the UK are littered with the pulverized carcasses of conkers that have lost the ultimate fight. A hole is drilled though the conker and a string attached. Then, one small boy (small girls usually being far too sensible to take part) holds his conker at arms length. Another small boy takes a swing with his own, the aim being to smash his opponent’s conker in to smithereens. If it doesn’t happen, the other contestant has a turn. This follows until one of the conkers greets oblivion. If the conker has previously smashed five others, then with this it is known as a six-er. And so on!

Conkers are usually gathered from the ground, even though some collectors will try to throw stones in to the branches of the horse chestnut tree to try and get some juicy looking specimen they have spotted. However, although the casing may look large, big conkers are often not the best to use in competition. If you are an alien with god-like powers, however, getting that particular conker down from the upper canopy is no problem whatsoever.

Ah, but Mr Ambassador, you are spoiling us! Some people believe that conkers are edible, but horse chestnuts and chestnuts are not to be confused with each other as if they are the result will be a nasty stomach ache. It is difficult to resist them, though, when they are presented so temptingly!

If you are of a slightly artistic bent then why not try to create your own conker people? A little ingenuity and imagination go a long way. With the credit crunch tightening wallets at the moment, why not follow the instructions here to give your children those Christmas presents they never dreamed of! Or just pile hundred up at the base of their bed and tell them to get on with it!

If you are of an even more artistic bent, you can try your hand at the construction of a conker web. A tradition in some parts of the USA, these can them be made in to wonderful mobiles that will enhance your living space. Or make you look like an impossibly aging hippy. Take your pick!

Autumn can inspire in many ways. Pity the child who finds this conker – it would be almost as large as they are! It would probably propel their opponent in to the upper atmosphere if it were ever used! Of course, this is a carving of a conker but it would amaze any young children (or adults) who were gullible or innocent enough to believe that this giant fell from a tree!

There is no denying, however, that a conker is a thing of beauty. From when they open from their casing and are shiny and new, to when they are old and more than a little shriveled, the conker is for many people a wonderful thing, one of the signifiers that Fall has arrived.

Ah, we love a little political correctness gone mad! In some parts of the UK, local authorities have banned the playing of conkers in their schools and work places. This has inevitably led to a backlash amongst conker lovers who have formed their own political campaign to legalize conkering! Only in the UK!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Whatever Happened to the Buffy Actors? EVEN MORE

James Marsters

Spike, possibly the best loved Buffy character of them all (including the lead) was an incredibly hard act to follow for the California-born Marsters. As well as getting to kick lots of creature-of-the-night ass, he also got to get deep down dirty with Buffy, giving her what the rather buttoned-up Angel could never! So, how did Marsters follow up Spike?

He spent some time (two performances) on stage in London in an abridged version of Macbeth (2005). Lots of blood and guts but sufficiently away from Spike to perhaps let people know he was also a serious actor.

He co-starred in PS I Love You along with Gerard Butler, Hilary Swank and Kathy Bates in 2007.

Then came the TV. He played Brainiac in the TV series Smallville. This proved hugely popular among sci-fi fans but perhaps even better (for them at least) were his three appearances in the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood.

In this he played the omnisexual Captain John Hart and received huge praise for his role, even though it was, literally, just Spike with a laser gun. However, his first meeting with Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood team led to a number of raised eyebrows - not to mention a fair number of grean with jealousy viewers - below!

Other TV has included Without a Trace, Andromeda and Cool Money.

Recently he played Ted Bundy (above) in a TV film The Capture of the Green River Killer in a Hannibal Lector type role. He will also be seen in 2009 as Buzz Aldrin in the ITV produced British drama Moon Shot.

Most fervently anticipated though, is his live action portrayal of Lord Piccolo (below) in the long awaited version of the manga based Dragon Ball series – shortened to simply Dragonball. Oh yeah, Lord Piccolo is the villain. Quel surprise!

Emma Caulfield

Sent to wreak revenge on Xander for cheating on Cordelia, Anya turned in to his love interest for the remainder of the series. The Anya demon turned human was pretty much a one trick pony in the TV series, so what did actor Emma Caulfield do next?

Like other members of the cast, she stuck with a similar genre and had initial success. A 2003 number one box office smash Darkness Falls (for which she won a Face of the Future gong) was followed by a series of forgettable TV roles. These included an episode of Monk, two episodes of Robot Chicken and a couple of TV movies. Apart from these paltry offerings, Ms Caulfield seems to have slipped from the radar.

So, with a rather wry look on her face, we say good-bye for now to Emma and the rest of the cast of Buffy. Some have fared better than others, but we can only hope for one thing: that whatever their professional lives lead to, they achieve personal happiness. After helping bring us Buffy The Vampire Slayer for so long, what else could we wish them?

Answers on a postcard!

Whatever Happened to the Buffy Actors? MORE

Anthony Stewart Head

Best known before Buffy in his native UK as the romantic lead in a series of hugely popular Nescafe coffee ads, the role of Giles enabled Head to have an extended sojourn in the USA. Returning to the USA he has had a variety of roles which have enabled him to somewhat shed the mild-mannered librarian image. Just a little.

His best known role since leaving Buffy has been as the role of the Prime Minister in the hugely popular – and often grotesque - comedy series Little Britain. He also had enormous fun playing the twisted alien scientist, Doctor Frank N Furter in a stage revival of the Rocky Horror Show.

Throw in a guest appearance in the massively popular new series of Doctor Who where he played Headmaster Mister Finch in the episode School Reunion. This ‘Head’ is one with a deadly secret. Altogether, you have an actor who has kept himself in public view with a number of roles.

His most recent role has been that of King Uther in the (again, hugely popular) Saturday evening prime time fantasy series Merlin. It is hardly a demanding role for this popular actor – he spends most of his time shouting in a kingly manner – but one which keeps his resume nicely up to date!

Alyson Hannigan

As Willow she was the thoughtful one, the considerate one – the quiet one. For an actor it was certainly one of the roles which had true character progression and as such it might be assumed that an actor who has proved her versatility so thoroughly in one role might go on to much greater things.

Her first major film role was in My Stepmother is an Alien, opposite Seth Green (who played Oz in Buffy) but when a certain vamipre series beckoned, Hannigan leapt at the chance to play Willow. Since then, she has done surprisingly (or perhaps disappointingly) little to convince audiences that she was, after all, the one Buffy Teen who showed real crossover promise. She went on stage in 2004 with Luke Perry in the stage adaptation of When Harry Met Sally (above) but did little to garner a reputation as a serious actor when she appeared in the American Pie series of films (below).

She has made occasional appearances in the Veronica Mars ‘noir’ TV series but perhaps is best known today for her role of Lily in the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, (below) now in to its fourth season. Lily is probably the most morally inclined of the main characters and intensely dislikes people not being true to themselves (even though she has been know to fall in to that trap!). She finds it easy to make and sustain platonic friendships with both sexes. Sound familiar anyone?

Nicholas Brendon

With a less than impressive pre-Buffy resume (bit parts in Married with Children and Children of the Corn ‘Trois’) it is easy to imagine that Brendon would disappear after his stint on the best TV horror show for kids but also excellent for adults that was The Slayer. His character, Xander, was included for all the hapless geek boy Buffy worshipers out there but in later seasons the character matured and almost became an action hero himself!

Brendon got off to a promising post-Buffy start, landing one of the leads in Fox’s sitcom Kitchen Confidential. Although thirteen episodes were made it was pulled after only four because of low ratings. He spent some time on stage in LA in 2006 with Noah Wyle and made a TV movie (Relative Chaos - below) in the same year with his Buffy co-star Charisma Carpenter.

Brendon has had various spells in rehab due to alcoholism. However, this year he has had a small part in the vampire feature Blood on the Highway and has recently finished filming The Portal – a supernatural horror film in which the protagonists discover (you’ve guessed it) a portal to another dimension.

Charisma Carpenter

With parents who chose one of the most ridiculous names of the planet for their offspring, was it any wonder that a screen career beckoned for the young Charisma? Playing Cordelia must have been a relief because at least she had a name that was approaching normal – and some of the best, bitchy lines in the show! After leaving Buffy she did a sting with Angel but was written out in the fifth season. So, what happened to our Charisma next?

Like Seth Green, Carpenter has bounced from one guest role to another. She appeared in the Josh Kirby…. Time Warrior (last picture in this section) series of straight to DVD movies. Then, she went on to do four episodes of Miss Matched, three of Charmed (below), eleven of Veronica Mars and two of Big Shots respectively.

She has appeared in three episodes of Greek, playing Tegan Walker (below).

A lifetime of day time soaps beckons, we reckons!

Want to see what happened to Spike and Anya?