Sunday, 28 September 2008

On holiday with Stanley

So here's a strange associative chain, and it actually did happen as I describe it.

Catching up on a few of my favourite, and not so favourite blogs (yes, I do read some such, driven by a kind of perverse fascination) I reached this conclusion: some very good blogs, by my definition, have no awards, or just a few. Some of those in the other category bristle with awards. Odd.

On this basis I clearly rate my own two blogs since they have, between them, the grand sum of zero awards. On the whole I'm content since I have no great desire to be told that I cheered someone up or made them smile or have become their best mate. (Please don't ruin my day by giving me one now).

Well this reciprocal festooning with awards leads to the first, rather uncharitable, association - mutual masturbation.

Now I have led a chaste life and have never indulged in same-sex mutual masturbation (you will notice that some qualification is needed). On the other hand I did go to a boarding school and was able to observe the impact of pubescence on certain individuals. And, yes, a certain amount of masturbation did take place. If any was of the mutual variety, then I am happy to say that I did not witness it. The solitary was handled quite well however, and before you say it, the pun was unintentional. (A psychologist writes: "puns are never unintentional". To which I respond "just who the eff asked you?").

Back to the point (yes, yes, still unintentional). Rather than masturbation being furtive and embarrassing, a system seems to have evolved such that after 'lights out' those who were thus inclined would engage in masturbatory races, the winner announcing the fact to the assembly. I must stress that this was still rather chaste - no sharing of beds or anything like that, and all under cover of darkness.

Now where was I during all of this? Fortunately I was a year younger than my contemporaries, the consequence of asynchronous educational systems in India and South Africa, and I was not early off the pubescent blocks. Thus I was able to lie in the darkness wondering quite what all the fuss was about.

Which association brings me to my friend Stanley Maloney. Stanley was not intellectually gifted, so he was a year older than most of us, and thus two years older than me. However what God had taken with one hand he had given with the other; Stanley was exceptionally well endowed, the lot topped with enviable quantities of pubic hair. It will not surprise you to learn that he was a frequent winner in those nocturnal races.

Stanley was a good chap to be friends with. He was very strong, and had a quick temper, and for some reason chose to be my protector. He wore a ring which took the form of a skull with two prominent ruby eyes. He told us that it was useful in fist fights. No one rushed to find out if this was true.

So to holiday. Stanley asked if I would like to spend the summer holiday with him. Well, yes, delighted. He lived on the South Coast, a wonderful stretch of South African coastline south of Durban, in a village called Amanzimtoti. My grandmother, who was in charge of me when I was not at school, agreed, and I was sent packing with a fiver.

If someone asked me to describe the holiday in one word, the word would be "formative". The list goes something like this:

- learnt to smoke (unlearnt it as soon as I left, mind)
- had my first french kiss. Boy was that a surprise. My first thought was to say "excuse me, but somehow your tongue has slipped and become lodged in my mouth", but her enthusiasm robbed me of the power of speech. Up to then my model for kissing was provided by Hollywood movies, where the hero and heroine would press their faces together and lips were definitely tightly sealed
- went to my first revivalist meeting, in a big tent. After a Church of England upbringing, this was, if you will pardon the expression, a revelation
- discovered that you could lick the sides of railway trucks transporting molasses and get a sweet taste for free
- was offered a shag in a small tent. It would have been my first - well, for God's sake, I was only 12. She was even younger than I was, poor soul. I fled
- bobbed about in the ocean on a tractor inner tube, in an area notorious for rip tides and shark attacks
- set out folding wooden chairs in the local movie house so we could watch the film for free. I can remember it still, called "Dive, dive, dive", about submarine warfare
- made lots of money, or it felt like it, by collecting discarded bottles and returning them for the deposit money
- taken by Stanley to the ring shop so I too could buy a skull with red eyes

One of my uncles arrived mid-way through the holiday to check up on me (he lived in Durban, so not a long drive). Years later he described his alarm and consternation at the circumstances in which he found me, and the total lack of supervision of our activities. Turns out I was staying with dysfunctional and impoverished white trash.

Ah, the innocence of youth. If the circumstances of the Maloney family were unfortunate, then I was unaware of it. On the contrary, I remember the holiday as blissful, at a time when a little bliss went a long way.

So Stanley, wherever you are, you did cheer me up and you did make me smile, and this is for you.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The lottery of life - you're a winner

Here is something that I find really strange. Probably the strangest thing I can imagine. See what you think, and if I've got my logic wrong, let me know.

When I was a child I assumed that the three of us (my two sisters and me) were inevitably the children that my parents were going to have. I am the youngest. I often wished I was in fact the oldest. But I always thought it would be "me" whatever the birth order. It just felt inevitable; my parents would have a boy, and the boy would be me.

Of course I now know that isn't the case. If, in my family, a son had been the first born, he would have been the result of a completely different sperm and egg union, and therefore a completely different person complete with his own ego, self awareness and so on.

In fact if "my" particular egg cell and "my" particular sperm cell had not got together, I would never have existed. This I am taking as a given. I base it on evidence such as each of my sisters, each of whom is the result of a different egg and sperm cell, is clearly a person in their own right, and I have no access to their awareness or identity, or vice versa. Had my parents copulated an hour earlier or later even on the same occasion, a different brother or sister would have resulted (bar the absolutely cosmic coincidence of the same sperm cell winning the race anyway).

We get to some startling (at least startling to me) conclusions. Given an egg cell and 300 million sperm cells are present at each act of successful union, any one of 300 million completely different people could have resulted. Each of whom would have had their own ego and awareness.

But wait.

A woman releases something like 400 eggs during her lifetime. A man releases something like 20 thousand million (yup, twenty billion) sperm cells during his life time. So a couple, between them, represent the potential for 8 trillion different people or about as many stars as you would find in 80 galaxies. Every one of whom would have had their own mannerisms, own eye colour, own laugh, own consciousness and own identity, if only "their" union had taken place and therefore they had been born. Of course, the same 8 trillion : 1 are the odds against you or me being born.

So we are extraordinarily lucky, and unbelievably improbable winners in the lottery of life.

But it gets much spookier. If you followed and accept the logic so far, then the same odds applied to your parents. If either of them had not won that lottery too, you wouldn't be here either. Or if they had been born, but teamed up with different significant others, which is actually highly probable, then you wouldn't be here either. Remember, it is a specific pair of cells that gave rise to you; any other pairing doesn't count.

And the logic goes back and back - grandparents, great grandparents and so on.

And so on? Just exactly where do you call a halt? It seems to me that if two rather hairy primate ancestors had not had a quicky 5 million years ago I wouldn't be here either.

Why stop there? I may be able to convince myself that if the DNA in a dividing bacterium a billion years ago had arranged the split differently, I wouldn't be blogging now.

And my last question - where exactly are my poor, unrealised, less lucky, 8 trillion siblings? Who never existed before, had one brief chance of existence and lost, and will never exist in the future.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Peeking beneath the Diary skirts

I am often asked: why the Diaries and where does the inspiration come from?

Well, to be more accurate, I am never asked, but I thought I'd attempt some kind of answer all the same.

My overarching ambition is to make sense of the universe. I know I won't, but the speculation is fun.

I think there are three big questions.

(1) Why is there anything at all? I don't think existence is inevitable, so why is it all here? And where did it come from? My own guess is that just as +1 and -1 add to nothing, so our universe has its negative mirror image which came into counterexistence just as ours did, so as to balance the books. And I suspect will both collapse back to zero together.

(2) Why is there consciousness? It is weird and not inevitable either, and not necessary for complicated life. For example, I don't really think that wasps are conscious, but they have pretty complicated lives. Nor is it confined to humans as anyone who has made eye contact with an animal will understand.

(3) Is there a God? I can answer this one at once. Of course not, at least not the God of the bible. If we can think it up, then it almost certainly does not exist. Haldane was right. The universe is not stranger than we know, it's stranger than we can know. Ergo, any God we can conceive of is plainly wrong.

I guess this is where the Diaries come from. What kind of entity might run the universe?

Well, problem the first is one that it is not of the universe. He (we'll stay with the masculine thingy) may have created the universe and everything in it, but (by all accounts) did not create himself at the same time. So he was "somewhere else" at the time the universe came into being. And when I say, came into being, I'm taking space and time too, not just matter. Now if he's not of this universe, that is, outside our spatial dimensions, and outside of our time, he's going to have a lot of problems interacting with it.

Let's get this straight; we're talking physics here. When the Red Sea parts, there's an awful lot of pressure on water molecules trying to establish their level again. If they don't then there is a counter force. Not a cosmic "Don't you dare, 'cos I say so". No, it takes the expenditure of energy, in this universe, to hold water back.

Then there's the whole problem of the consequences of intervention. I mean, you can pray that plate tectonics go on hold for a while, so you and your family don't get drowned in a tsunami. But think about the buckling of the Earth's mantle that happens elsewhere as a result, and the innocents who get killed there, so you do not.

No, there's not a sodding thing that God can do that won't have horrendous counterconsequences.

Which means that prayer must go unanswered (which, I suspect, is pretty well the experience of all of us).

Note that none of this is a disproof of God. He may well exist. I don't think so, but I'm not anti-religious. My father-in-law is a clergyman, so there. In fact, if you are determined to believe in an all-powerful entity you can't be proved wrong. The world and universe could easily have been created in the last millisecond, and we with all our memories with it (and the fossil record too etc etc).

But my goodness, why would anyone bother? And that is a good question. So we could praise Him? I think He should get a life.

The thing that always puzzles me is why people think that God is good. We might jolly well hope so, but where is the evidence? Take nature. I'm afraid the "All things bright and beautiful ..." model just doesn't hold water. The Victorian view of "Nature red in tooth and claw" has it about right. Fact is, it's pretty horrid. There is not a prey animal that dies of old age. Sooner or later it gets torn apart. There is not a predator that doesn't die of injury or starvation in it's turn.

Creationism? Intelligent design? Give me a break. For every intelligently designed butterfly there is an intelligently designed tape worm.

It is the appearance of design and order that has folk thinking about designers and, well, benign and wise fathers. Alas most people don't grasp how, with enough time, very improbable things can not only happen, but become inevitable.

Remember that thing about monkeys, typewriters, and the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, I've done the calculation. If we treat upper and lower case letters as different, we have 52 of those, plus some punctuation, let's call it 60 things for convenience.

OK, so how unlikely is it, selecting letters and punctuation at random, to come up with the four characters "The ". Well, the number is 60 raised to the power 4, which is just a whisker under 13 million to one or about the same as winning the UK National Lottery. Extend this to a five letter word plus space like "Hello " and the odds become 46 billion to one. So you can see that the complete works of Shakespeare are not going to pop out of the monkey factory overnight.

But factor in infinity. Prepare for strange things. For given infinity, not only has the complete works of Shakespeare actually been generated this way, it has been generated, wait for it, an infinite number of times.

As I understand it the universe is not actually infinite, but who knows? However, it has been around for a long time, and will be around for a long time yet. And that means that strange things can happen. For example, the dinosaurs vanished about 65 million years ago. If you had been around since then (not a long time in Earth terms) and bought a lottery ticket a week, as a lot of folk do, you would have won the lottery about 200 times by now.

Of course evolution is not random, though I'll skip the logic for that now. However, it is fed by small random mutations. That is where the argument about odds and time becomes important.

Anyway, after enough rambling to bore even me, my conclusions are these:

- We may have been created by God, but the chances are he is "hands off" and has to be.
- He is not hugely preoccupied by the thought of being praised by a bunch of naked apes who do, actually, not look at all like him.
- He is not hugely preoccupied by sin or virtue.
- Having created the universe and the laws that drive it, he just kind of lets it go, and maybe has a look now and then when bored out of his skull.
- He is more than a little paranoid, and often wonders about where the f*ck he comes from and wonders how many layers of deity exist above him and in what kind of infinite regress.

I'll leave you with this, which I think is fun, and should put us in our place:

From William Goodhart's play Generation:

The Soul of Man,
Despite his pride,
Is rather odd,
A toy balloon
Blown up by God,
Or, strictly speaking,
The air inside,
And that is leaking.

Monday, 8 September 2008


I once had a book called "Food for Free". It is somewhere in our boxes, and I hope it will surface again one day. It lists things you can find and eat such as watercress, mushrooms and nuts. For free. An idea that I find attractive to this day.

You have to be careful though. For example you can get liver fluke from watercress if the stream flows through fields where sheep graze. And mushrooms scare a lot of people, for very good reasons. Some of them are absolutely lethal.

Here in France you can, in principle, take a fungus to your local pharmacy, and they will identify it for you and tell you if it is safe to eat. In principle. The last time I tried this the pharmacist turned to the only other customer in the shop and asked "Qu'en pensez-vous?" (What do you think?). Slightly defeated the purpose I decided, made my excuses and left.

That doesn't mean that I don't find and eat wild mushrooms. It just means that (a) I consult one (or more) of my four mushroom books and (b) I tend to go for things that are unmistakable.

Which leads me on to supper.

I was walking through the local woods when I found a beefsteak fungus. It is a bracket fungus and it looks like this:

It is called a beefsteak fungus because it looks remarkably like meat. When you cut it it even bleeds a bit. All this is rather disconcerting for a vegetarian, but anyway. I took one third of the fungus, thinking that I would in this manner not piss the fungus god too much, but on my way home I realised that, since the fungus is a parasite on the tree, I had probably displeased the tree god as well. Oh dear.

The photograph above is one I found on Google Images because I hadn't taken my camera with me. However the following is of the actual fungus and you can see (have a click) just how like meat it is.

That's a proper dinner plate, so you can see these things are big. I sliced it up ready to fry:

And fried it:


You will remember I like to go for fungi that are unmistakable? Well the clincher for beefsteak fungus is that it has a slight taste of lemon on the finish. Taste that, and you are home and dry.

In passing, another fungus that comes into the 'unmistakable' category is the unfortunately named "Trompette de la Mort" or Trumpet of Death. It is brown/grey/black and trumpet-shaped, so you can see the point. Still, I often feel that the poor thing could do with a better agent, since it too is delicious. Photo when Autumn arrives.