Monday, 17 December 2012


Recently on Facebook I made available a small selection of desktop wallpaper I have designed; some are photographs by me or a detail of pieces of artwork of mine. I asked for input on the different screen sizes that people would like them to be and below are links to  jpegs based on people's replies.

Although they are free to download, use or pass on to friends, the copyright remains mine and anyone found selling them or using them within any 'paid for' product  may be subject to legal action. 

This is the first design; more designs are to follow over the next few weeks.


To download, click on your chosen screen size below, the picture will be loaded into a new window, then right click the mouse on the image and choose the menu option to save the picture.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Harlan Ellison, You Rock!

The great writer Harlan Ellison comments on those who want someone to work for free "because it will bring them publicity." It's relevant to every writer, artist, magician, etc that has ever been asked to work for free in exchange for supposed publicity. 

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Ebay's New Product Codes Feature

Ebay has many virtues but being consistent is not one of them. They have an obsession with tinkering and changing their listing requirements and features. One of the latest changes is that sellers should include a product code in their listings. This will enable Google Product search to find them and include them in searches. All well and good until you try to use the product code feature on Ebay's TurboLister software. Rather than simply including the product code in the listing, Ebay uses the code to find extra information it can include in the listing. This doubles up on a feature that Ebay TurboLister already has called 'find item specifics.' 

I use the 'find item specifics' as little as possible because the details it finds are nearly always inaccurate and mislead customers. The new product code feature has the same problem. Here is an example.

I wrote a listing for the book, Butler's Lives of the Saints and gave the ISBN, as is now expected by Ebay. In return, without my consent or prior knowledge, Ebay included information they had in relation to that ISBN. Their information has the wrong publisher and the wrong year of publication. The information obviously relates to a different edition and the contradiction is obvious in their own data. The edition I am selling was published in 1985. Ebay have added to my listing that it was published in 1999. They then confuse matters by also including the information that the book went out of print in 1996 - three years before they say it was printed. When a customer reads that information, what is he or she to believe?

In order to avoid customer complaints I have avoided using the 'find item specifics' for years and now I am going to have to avoid using the 'product code' feature as well. Though for how long I and other sellers will be able to do that I do not know. The sellers newsletter from Ebay explaining the new feature contains subtle hints that they want all Ebayers to use the new feature - and so, eventually, it may become compulsory.

If it does, it will be likely that Ebay is willing to accept the loss of a large number of its booksellers. They have a brash attitude when it comes to putting in place policies they know will not be liked. A few years back they more than doubled the fees for business sellers and their email notice that it was happening finished with a link to a page for business Ebayers to close their account if they did not like it. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Activities of Yesteryear

One of the interesting things about reading books from the past is the occasional surprise they provide. One book of ‘make and do’ activities, The Boy Mechanic, has making a glider for its first project. When I first read that I pictured a small boy with a toy glider, throwing it into the air and watching it fly away. No, no, no. The plans given were for a full size glider that a child could sit in, while someone else pushed it downhill to aid it take flight. I wonder how many parents today would allow their ten year boy to build his own wooden glider and try to fly in it?

A  book on chemistry, to be done by children at home, explained how to make chlorine gas and instructed the readers to sniff the gas to prove that it was odourless. That’s not something that would be encouraged today because it’s now known that inhaling chlorine gas causes brain and lung damage. Someone once told me that chlorine gas was one of the ingredients experimented with during World War One, when both sides were trying to find a deadly gas to send across trenches.

Thankfully, not all the activity books were dangerous. Professor Hoffmann’s Puzzles Old and New is an interesting read. Like modern books some of the puzzles are mathematical but more interestingly, there are sections on physical Victorian puzzles – some of which I’m tempted to make if I find time.

One that caught my interest is The Electric Ball. As with the salesmanship involved in a lot of Victorian products, the name is misleading; no electricity is involved. Here is Professor Hoffmann’s description:

“This … is a French importation. It is more of a game than a puzzle, though it may be presented in either shape. It consists of a hollow elbow piece, A B B, to which is attached a sort of miniature gallows, C C. From the middle of this projects a ring, D, and suspended from its upper arm swings a little piece of strongly magnetised iron wire, E.  A gilt cork ball, F, into which are thrust six little iron pins with their heads projecting, completes the apparatus.

The ball being placed on the open end of BB, the operator brings A to his lips and blows through the tube, endeavouring to force the ball upwards through the ring, and bring one or other of the pinheads into contact with the magnetised wire, E, when the ball will remain suspended.”

I immediately recognised this gadget when I saw the picture. During my childhood, a friend of mine had been given one of these by an elderly relative. When he showed the puzzle to a group of us, although we considered ourselves too old to bother with such childish trifles, we lost about an hour taking turns trying to succeed in getting the cork ball up through the hoop and attached to the upper section.

Some of the puzzles are still available as very cheap products. Some even are found in Christmas crackers. Somehow, even before the age of the home computer or hand held game consul, they lost their popularity. I think this is mainly to do with the fact that, along with being cheaply made which reduces their working quality, every single one I’ve seen is seldom provided with any written instructions – and those that do are usually lacking in description and sometimes are just inaccurate. Another factor which puts off a modern customer is that when they are well made and do have complete instructions, they’re made as a luxury item (usually of the finest wood) with a ridiculous price comparable to a computer game.

Such is life.

Monday, 21 May 2012

John Van Der Put's excellent reply to his act being stolen

Today John Van Der Put, aka Piff The Magic Dragon, posted this video on YouTube. It's an excellent rebuff to the man who stole Van Der Put's act.

I am told that the woman in the video who criticises the imitator looks like Kate Medvedeva, an accomplished magician, and so recognised the act as being an imitation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites contain a huge number of supportive comments and messages for Van Der Put, as well as a great deal of condemnation for Chekanyuk.   

You can find out more about Van Der Put at this link

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Stealing in Magic

John Van Der Put has spent many years building an act around his comedy magic creation Piff The Magic Dragon. Last year Van Der Put appeared on Penn and Teller Fool Us performing his act. Today on Facebook I saw a post from the The Magic Review Blog showing a video posted this month on YouTube. A 22 year old man from Kiev, named Andrew Chekanyuk has appeared on a television program called Surprise Me and he performs, almost exactly, all of John Van Der Put's act from Penn and Teller Fool Us right down to eating a banana while the judges talk. Below are two videos. One is John Van Der Put performing on Penn and Teller Fool Us and the second is Andrew Chekanyuk stealing Van Der Put's act (from 1 minute and 50 seconds into the video). I am not sure but I think the person who posted the video on YouTube is Andrew Chekanyuk. How on earth he thought no one would notice it was the same act as the video of Van Der Put, which has been all over YouTube for over a year, I simply don't know! If anyone can translate what Chekanyuk says in the first part of the video about this act, or provide more information abut him, it would be helpful.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Truly Remarkable Animations

This is a highly imaginative adaptation of the Victorian phenakistiscope method of animation. For a little more on the phenakistiscope click here. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Art of Misquoting to Butter Your Bread on Both Sides

As an adolescent I read many horror and science fiction books. One of the anthologists who enabled readers to enjoy stories from periodicals such as Weird Tales and other pulps was Peter Haining. His interest in the outrĂ© was such that he also wrote books on legends, folklore and suchlike. Recently I bought his The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook and A Dictionary of Vampires and A Dictionary of Ghosts. Prior to that, I was a teenager the last time I bought any books by him. Over the years I’ve sold on my copies of the anthologies by him (apart from the Weird Tales books) and kept his popular reference books for use in the study of folklore, superstition, etc. While not academic books, to me his books always appeared a cut above other popular press books on similar topics. Haining’s books appeared well-researched whereas the other books seem cobbled together from any old where.

There have been times when curiosity would inspire me to track down the sources quoted by Haining so I could read the original folklore or myth. My curiosity was aroused within minutes of beginning to read Haining’s A Dictionary of Vampires. I had flicked through the pages and saw Utukku being given as a type of vampire and the source of this information being from The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia by R. Campbell Thompson, 1903. Two things perplexed me. The first being that the folklore concept of vampires is, compared to other folklore on supernatural nasties that prey on human beings, a relatively new one measurable in centuries – whereas writings on other nasties go back thousands of years. There are recent publications, aimed at a teenage audience of vampire films, that claim that vampires are mentioned in ancient writings. The misrepresentation of ancient myths on monsters, ghosts and demons as being about vampires is not new. Montague Summers did as much in his books at the beginning of the twentieth century. But I admit I was surprised at the possibility of Haining doing that. I thought, perhaps, he had found something others had missed. I consulted my copy of Thompson’s two volume work for the quote given and felt a deep seated disappointment about a writer I’ve admired for most of my life.

Haining claimed that the Utukku of Egypt “is one of the oldest vampires of all and records of it preying on human victims have been found in some of the earliest papyrus scrolls.” Haining quotes Campbell as having written “The Utukku, or Departed Spirit, was the soul of a dead person who, for some reason, could find no rest and wandered over the earth lying in wait to seize upon men.” Haining goes on to describe their appearance as being “more like ghosts than beings of flesh and blood” and ends the entry on Utukku relating how to appease their searching for human blood.

Don’t bother looking for the quote given from Campbell; it doesn’t exist. Despite Haining putting it in quotation marks, the sentence is merely an inaccurate summary of a number of pages where Campbell describes a shortlist of demons and evil spirits, none of which are vampires. Also, Haining ascribed the Utukku to the wrong ancient race; the Utukku is not Egyptian and mentioned on papyrus scrolls, it is Assyrian and mentioned in cuneiform texts on clay tablets. What Campbell actually wrote of the Utukku is:

“The first evil spirit, utukku, was originally a spirit, spectre, or ghost, since it is once at least used of the Spectre of a dead man raised from the Underworld. This form of magic — necromancy — was a favourite method employed for looking into the future in the East in ancient times, and a remarkable instance of it occurs in the Epic of Gilgamish. The story runs that the hero Gilgamish appeals to the god Nergal to restore his friend Ea-bani to him, and his prayer is answered, for the god opens the earth and the utukku of Ea-bani rises up " like the wind," that is, probably a transparent spectre in the human shape of Ea-bani, who converses with Gilgamish. The same ideas and beliefs were current among the Hebrews, for when Saul goes to visit the "woman with a familiar spirit" at En-dor she brings up Samuel out of the earth, and he answers the questions which Saul wishes to ask. Among the Assyrians "Raiser of the Departed Spirit" was a recognized title of the sorcerer, and from this and the story in the Gilgamish Epic it is evident that such practices as necromancy were not uncommon. How far the utukku differed from the ekimmu (which is the proper word for a departed spirit) is difficult to say; it was a ghost or spectre that either lurked in the desert lying in wait for man, or it might have its home in the mountains, sea, or graveyard, and evil would befall him on whom it merely cast its eye.”

In other words an Utukku is, as Campbell calls it, an evil spirit. Notice there is no mention of any searching for blood or physically attacking anyone. So, in folklore, an Utukku is a malevolent ghost and not a vampire. Was this an honest mistake by Haining? Did Haining misinterpret Campbell? Sadly, the answer can be shown to be no by looking in A Dictionary of Ghosts by Haining under the entry for Utukku. Here Haining writes “The utukku was the name given by the ancient Assyrians to the ghost of evil intentions that lay in wait for unsuspecting travellers.” Both dictionaries by Haining contain further anomalies of a similar nature and they appear to have been consciously made, such as the Ekimmu which his book on vampires claims it to be a vampire and his book on ghosts claims it to be a ghost.

The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia by R. Campbell Thompson, 1903.
A Dictionary of Ghosts by Peter Haining, 1982.
A Dictionary of Vampires by Peter Haining, 2000.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The LaBaL, April issue is out now!

April's issue of The LaBaL is out now. For subscription details or to purchase a single issue contact the editor Al Smith at

Thursday, 29 March 2012


Well, in fact, the original title is A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published in book form in 1917 (but previously published in All Story magazine in 1912). This is the book that the film John Carter is based on. The links below are to copyright free editions provided by Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes

The readers of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are a varied species but they can be divided into two main categories (which in themselves contain sub-categories). One type simply enjoy the stories. They read them, watch film and television adaptations, and perhaps read some of the Holmes stories written by authors other than Conan Doyle.

Then there are the readers which play what is called The Game. They pretend that Holmes and Watson were real people, with Conan Doyle as literary agent of Watson, and that all the adventures really happened. They then spend a great deal of time and ink speculating on discrepancies in the stories, try to connect fictional places to real locations and so on. It is, for them, an entertaining intellectual and creative exercise.  Some of it is pure satire, as in the very first essay of this kind Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes by Ronald Knox published in 1911.  Others take it all very seriously, even to the point of writing biographies of Sherlock Holmes.

This 'Game' is the premise of the profuse notes to be found in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie S. Klinger. Klinger brings together the more sober and less contentious ideas that The Game has put forward over the last hundred years in this three volume edition of all of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. The first two volumes contain the 56 short stories across a total 1,878 pages. The third volume contains the four novels across 998 pages. The reason that the page length is so long is due to the amount of notes that Klinger annotates the text with, along with illustrations.

These sumptuous three volumes have a lot to be praised for; they truly belong on a collector's bookshelf. And yet, being a reader who does not play The Game, I would have liked the notes to include far more about Conan Doyle and that things which inspired his ideas or his relationship with his sleuth creation which, at times, demoralised him into perhaps not giving his best work in some parts. Klinger states in the introduction that such notes can be found in the Oxford Edition of Sherlock Holmes. Having consulted those notes, I think that they are so small compared to Klinger's that room could have been found for the same kind of information in his edition. It would have then been the first truly fully annotated edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Another criticism I have is that some of the illustrations are so very small, which is an odd thing to do when each volume is a large sized book and that most of the other illustrations are of a better size. Some of the photographs of the Victorian age are for some reason thus shruken, making them more of a token gesture towards being informative rather than a useful asset in the book.

Despite these points, these books still remain the best collected edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories available.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Davy Jones

One of my childhood heroes pasts away yesterday. Here he is in the video below, in the audition interview that led him to being in The Monkees.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Magicians on BBC1

Pete Firman recently gave an interview about the BBC series The Magicians. To hear the interview, click the link below. The link opens in a new window.
Radio Teasdale

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The LaBaL

The January issue of Al Smith's The LaBaL is now available. It contains contributions from magicians such as Chris Wardle, Paul Hallas, Walt Lees and Peter Duffie. The publisher now accepts payment through Paypal. Full details on prices and how to place an order can be found via the following link:

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Magicians, BBC1, New Series This Week

The second series of The Magicians airs its first episode this Saturday. The format is to be different; each show will be broadcast live. Barry & Stuart are still part of the team; joining them will be Pete Firman and American magician Jason Latimer. You can read about the new series at
and if you want to be in the audience during one of the later shows, there is still an opportunity to get free tickets from
The links will open in a new window.