Subscribe by RSS

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Small, off-duty, Czechoslovakian traffic warden

One of the benefits of being middle-aged is that you've spent enough time on Earth to have bumped into some of your boyhood heroes. 

I had two - Kenny Dalglish, our greatest ever football player, and Jocelyn Bell, the Glasgow Uni physics graduate who discovered the pulsars while still a postgraduate student at Cambridge. 

I met them both, the latter in the men's changing rooms at the gym, the night before a Scotland game, the former in Astrophysics tutorials we were delivering jointly for the Open University.

No hang on, it was the other way round, I think.

There was a third boyhood hero I haven't met yet. But I will this week. The photo kinda gives it away. It's Kryten from Red Dwarf and we're interviewing him on Thursday.

Now I know what you're thinking. "Kryten is a fictional character, son. You can't interview fictional characters." You might even be wondering if the solitary, self-denying life of a writer has finally unhinged my brain.

Well no, not yet. The actor who played Kryten is called Robert Llewellyn, and here's what he said when asked if he'd chat to us for our Three Minute Engineering project.

"What a wonderful idea and I'd be happy to offer my two-penneth, with the reminder that I'm not an engineer, I've just met a huge number of them and admire what they do.

"Thursday is the only day I'm free next week and I'm at home in the Cotswolds, so we could meet up in the morning. How about here: ---- Very nice place, parking nearby."

Judging from his blogLewellyn is a very good guy, although a lot less adept at ironing than Kryten. So I'm looking forward to the meeting, but probably won't ask him to iron my shirts. It gets harder all the time to find anybody who will.

Once we've done the work part, I plan to sneak in a small request that Robert do a couple of Kryten lines from one of my favourite scenes. I don't expect he gets asked that kind of thing more than six times a day.

So that's about it for this week, dear reader. I'll let you know next weekend how it went. What's that you say? How can Kryten have been a boyhood hero of mine when the first episode of Red Dwarf aired in 1988? 

Well yeah, you got me. He was actually my sons' hero. They were big fans and we used to watch the series together, comfortably ensconced on the sofa at my house, after their mum and I separated when they were 10 and 11. Nice memories.

Just one thing more. After Jocelyn Bell and I worked together our trajectories went in different directions and in 2007 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

I suspect it's just slipped somebody's mind, and there might be one in the post, but I've received no awards since the age of 11, when I got an Honourable Mention in the Burns Day poetry competition.

Dame Douglas has a nice ring to it, don't you think so?

PS I did have one more boyhood hero, as regulars here know well. If you read this, Ringo, gimme a call.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Man plans and god laughs

I've always found life too random and unpredictable to do much planning, and I also feel it's tempting the gods to say exactly what you'll be doing three weeks on Tuesday, at 4 in the afternoon.

An old pal from a Muslim background is convinced that if god exists, he's more likely to be playing practical jokes and yanking our chains than answering our prayers. He calls it the Cosmic Joker Theory and it makes sense to me.
So you have to be careful not to give Him any excuse. I mean the guy is omnipotent. Have you any idea how powerful that is? He gives you a playful punch on the arm and you'll come out in great, big bruises, I'm telling you.

But despite all the evidence, lots of people pay no heed to the cosmic joker and are convinced they can plan their futures in considerable detail. Take Joanne for instance.

"I've decided to use maths and science to find a man," she tells me, after I've bumped into her for the first time in a while, and we've gone to the College Club for a coffee and a nice muffin. (I was tempted to write that it's a while since I've been muffed so I'm looking forward to it, but you don't come here for cheap gags like that.)

"You're going to use maths and science to find a man?" I say. "Where did you see him last?"

She shakes her head. "Not a man I've lost," she says. "A man I haven't found yet."

I struggle for a second. "Ah, got you. Dating. Relationships. Eliminating the trial and error that normal people find fun. You mentioned this last time we met. When was that, by the way?"

"Tuesday 6 May, 4.30pm," she says. "We had coffee and pizza slices in Little Italy on Byres Road."

"How do you do that?" I say.

"What?" she says.

"Remember exact times, places and events. I hardly know what I did yesterday, never mind three months ago."

"I see it," she says, tapping her temple. "In here. Time is a huge, spirally 3-D object." 

She stirs her latte gently. "It's all twists and turns, it's useful occasionally and it makes very little sense to me."

She smiles. "Which is pretty much how I see men."

"So why do you want one?" 

"Kids. I'm into my 30s now."

"So it's a good dad you're after?"

"Good dad, life partner, grass-cutter, tyre-changer. The usual package."

"Love?" I say.

She makes a noise with her nose that would have been a snort in someone less feminine. "Tried it," she says. "Didn't like it."

Which is exactly what someone recently said to me, when I asked if he remembered Muffin the Mule. "Forget crude muffin puns," I sternly tell myself. 

"Love is a cheap trick your mind plays on your body using powerful drugs," Joanne says. "I don't do drugs."

"Isn't that a teeny bit too scientific?" I say.

"You can never be too scientific," she says. "The love drug is called dopamine.”

"I've heard of it," I say

"It’s a chemical your brain creates so you don’t have to remember important stuff, like eating and having sex," she says. "Makes you feel good when you do them, so that you want do them again. But listen to this."

She taps me smartly on the knee with the back of her teaspoon. "Pay attention," she says.   

"Ow! I'm not one of your students, you know."

"Sorry," she says. "But this is good. Addictive drugs and dopamine are closely connected. Cocaine releases dopamine to slosh around your brain. Heroin makes your brain cells think it is dopamine. So both make you feel good and want more. So does love." 

"So what's the thinking woman's alternative to the love drug?" I say.

"Game theory," she says. 

"You go to football matches and chat up fans?"

"It's a branch of maths," she says. "You don't know anything, do you?"

"I know that using science to pick a mate is daft," I say. “The mathematics of love? That’s like the grammar of welding, the linguistics of linoleum, the geography of emotion, the ...

"Put a sock in it," she says. "You think your way is better? How does that go again? Chat, kiss, love, live, leave?"

"Better than sums, chums and tedium," I say. "We all need some spark of uncertainty and excitement. Not everything can be reduced to equations, you know."

"Yes it can," she says, gathering her papers together and standing up to leave. "I'll show you, next time we meet."

"What happens if you find Mr All Right I Guess, and he doesn't like you?" I say.

"He will," she says with total confidence and heads for the door. 

As I watch her leave, I realise how tempting this must be for the cosmic joker, so I say a wee prayer for her. "Our father which art in heaven be nice to her, pal. You're not nearly as funny as you think."

He doesn't answer, of course. Hardly ever does these days. Out tying people's shoelaces together, I expect, or creating daft animals like the duck-billed platypus on other planets.

What a comedian.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Face it, pal

So I'm walking across the grassy square, headed from the Kelvin Building to the James Watt Building, where we're set up to interview research engineers for our Three Minute Learning project, and I'm thinking they've got some unimaginative names around the Uni, because basically it's just guys who worked here and done good.

I wouldn't complain, mind you, if there was a Blane Building. Or a Blane Wing. The Blane Flowerbed. The Blane Corner of the Quadrangle Where The Sun Never Shines. Actually I'd be quite pleased with the Blane Toilets.

At least you'd be remembered. I can see two guys in the distant future, reading the news off the inside of their eyelids, while a matter transporter effortlessly extracts their urine.

"Who was this Blane then?" 

"Guy who invented the toilet."

"Thought that was Thomas Crapper."

"Urban myth. It was Bogger Blane."

So anyway, this middle-aged couple gets in front of me on the square, with that mixed air of ingratiation and "they shall not pass" that tells you strangers want directions.

"Could you point us to the Hunterian Museum please?" the man asks, with a smile that lulls me out of the wary alertness that's been my constant companion since the old days in special ops with the SAS.

"Of course," I say, then start to doubt myself. "Uh ... go to the corner there and turn right. Then take the .. ah .. second entrance on the right and you'll see a lift ..."

"Do I look like I need a lift?" the female tartly interrupts me.

"Yes you do, not to mention a lesson in good manners," I say to myself but not to her, contenting myself with amending my directions so she ends up in the anatomy museum, with the other well-preserved penises.

"See you annoy everybody, even strangers," Susan tells me on the phone later, when I'm looking for sympathy in all the wrong places. "You've just got an annoying face, I guess." 

"That's faceism," I say.

"You mean fascism?" she says.

"No, faceism. The belief that you can tell all you need to know about a person from his face."

"Surely that would be facism," she says.

"Technically yes. I inserted the 'e' to reduce the chance of confusion with fascism."

"Didnae work," she says. "You should try harder."

"At what?"

"Making your face less annoying. You could shave, for instance."

"Then it would annoy me," I say. "I'd look in the mirror and go 'who the hell is that?'"

"Smile more often then," she says. "People respond to smiles even if they're fake. They can make you feel better too." 

"Tried it," I say. "Folk usually ask where I'm feeling the pain."

"I give up," she says. "No, hang on. I've thought of a foolproof way to make your whole head look less annoying."

"Good stuff," I say. "What is it?"

"Put a paper bag over it," she says and hangs up the phone.

Small talk, big ideas

"You know those TED talks?" my son says, as we're sat in the little sun-trap at the back of the Drake Bar, surrounded by the social pariahs who smoke, and no doubt raising our own risk of both skin and lung cancer, but it's really nice out here on a warm day with a cool beer, so we're taking the chance.

"Yeah," I say. 

"Some of them are great," he says. "But others, I have to tell you, are bollocks from beginning to end."

"I never watch them," I say. "I got the same problem with inspirational lecturers as stand-up comedians. Your job is to sit passive, like rows of rats in a cage, until it's time to make the right response - either gee! wow! yeah! or ha! ha! ha! I can't do it for more than five minutes before I get desperate to leg it. If I want to be amused and inspired I'll do it to myself, thanks."

The pleasant scent of small cigar wafts past and I ask if he's ever tempted to go back on the cigarettes, especially since his girlfriend, who recently moved in with him, smokes roll-ups.

"Not really," he says. "It was hard to stop and I like to keep fit these days. I enjoy the smell though."

"Me too," I say. "A lot of ex-smokers and fag fascists don't. Hitler hated the smell of cigarettes. So did James VI. I think that tells you all you need to know."

"Does me," he says. "So I'm wandering aimlessly around the TED website and I come across this interesting-looking article. 'How to turn small talk into smart conversation.'"

"You do that all the time," I tell him. 

"But I'm always willing to learn," he says. "So what they're saying is too much chat goes nowhere because we take the easy way, by mirroring what the other person says. For instance: James: It’s a beautiful day. John: Yes, it is a beautiful day.

"'John has followed the social norm', they tell us. 'But he’s also paralysed the discussion and missed a moment of fun.'"

"So what should he have done?" I ask, taking a large swallow of my Williams Brothers beer.

"What indeed," he says. "I'll tell you and I'm not making this up. John needs to practice the art of disruption, they say, and move the dialogue forward, like this:

"James: It’s a beautiful day. John: The weather was just like this when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor - if that actually happened."

"You're kidding me," I say. "Gimme another of their examples."

"Sure," he says. "Beverly: It’s hot today. Gino: In this dimension, yes."

"That's not smart conversation," I say. "That's what we writers call a non-sequitur. From the Latin 'non' meaning 'non' and 'sequitur' meaning 'sharp tool for pruning plants'."

"It won't move the conversation forward, either," he says. "Let's try it. I go, 'Looks like it might rain later.' You go?"

"Frogs, worms and golf balls have all fallen from the sky at some time. And you go?"


"Exactly," I say. "Well done for conveying three question marks with one facial expression, by the way. Nah, I'm with you. TED is twaddle." 

"Excuse me," a fair-haired youth at the next table leans towards us. "I am foreign exchange student, just come to Glassgow. Is zis English language you two are using, pliz?"

"Language is a human convention and a metaphysical reality that happens to be physically uttered," my son says, and the poor guy looks baffled and turns back to his beer.

We need to talk about TED by Benjamin Bratton.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Stone-age males

You need to be fast and agile to get the seat facing the door in a restaurant, especially when two of you try to do it at the same time.

"Why are you sitting on your son's knee?" Linda asks, as I struggle to pull my customary suaveness back into shape. 

"It's a guy thing," I say. "The world is dangerous and unpredictable. A man's job is to protect the women and children."

"From a short, gay waiter wearing specs?" she says. "If he gets out of line I think I can take him."

"No, he's right," my son says. "You just don't know what's going to come through the door. You need to be ready. I'm not comfortable with my back to it either."

"It's evolution," I say. "All the stone-age guys who sat with their backs to the cave entrance got eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. So it's instinct now. It's also why I walk on the outside of the pavement when I'm with someone." 

"All the stone-age guys who walked on the inside got run over by buses?" Linda says.

"You can mock," I say. "But one day you'll be glad of those protective male instincts. You'll be sitting in a pub going, 'La la la, rabbit, rabbit, rabbit' and my son will spot a psychopath or a rabid dog and whisk you and your six kids away in the nick of time, because he's alert and facing the door, and you'll realise I was right all along."

"When that happens I promise I'll come and visit you," she says. "I'll bring you flowers, remind you who I am and say, 'I'm sorry, I should have treated your thoughts with more respect. When you had some.'"

The waiter returns to take our order and I plump for the carrot cake and cream, with a cappuccino. "Don't you want a meal?" Linda says, ordering the chicken tikka masala for herself.

"I've another MRI session this afternoon," I say. "Which involves lying still for 40 minutes in an enclosed space. Curry is contra-indicated."

"So is shrapnel from your old war wound," my son says. "Those magnets are powerful. There's been some terrible accidents with iron and steel objects in MRI rooms."

"Just what I want to hear right now," I say, sprinkling brown sugar on my cappuccino froth. "I can feel the metal plate in my head starting to vibrate. Change the subject please."

"Fair enough - you know how nobody can go two minutes nowadays without a text, a tweet or a facebook post?" he says, and we both nod.

"I think it's catching," he says. "I don't do any of that shit, but my attention span's getting shorter. I go into rooms now and forget why I'm there. Even the bathroom sometimes."

"Everybody does that," I say. "Especially in our family. Always been high levels of dopeyness in our family - combined with intelligence, which confuses people."

"Yeah, but I'm doing it more than I used to," he says. "I think it's the hundredth monkey effect. I'm picking up this short attention span from people all over the world, with their fingers on their mobiles and their heads up their arse."

"I think the evidence for the hundredth monkey effect has been discredited," I say. "But something kinda similar has been proposed by leading physicists, such as Lee Smolin. He reckons if time is real, the laws of physics can't be constant. 

"So instead he suggests a principle of precedence - if something happens often it'll tend to happen again. After a time that looks like a law. But there's always the chance of a totally unexpected event."

"Like a sabre-tooth tiger coming through the door of the Pond Hotel and biting your head off?" Linda says.

"Correct," I say.

"Well why didn't you say so?" she says. "It all makes sense to me now. If it's physics it must be true. I'm sorry, I should have treated your thoughts with more respect."

"My dad used to say sarcasm was the lowest form of wit," I tell her.

"Was that when you were all sat around the fire in your cave with your backs to the wall?" she says, pulling her tasty-looking tikka towards her and pushing her luck.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Do unto others

Something must have planted the seed in my mind, when I was a boy, that I would like to be a lumberjack, but I have no idea what it was. The lumberjack literature is sparse, while TV in those days consisted of Andy Pandy, a couple of coronations and a posh newsreader giving the Empire version of events, every hour on the hour. 

I guess I must have got the notion from old films, probably starring John Wayne, and it can't just have been me because Monty Python's Lumberjack song gets its laughs by subverting the ideal of a rugged man with muscles, pitting himself against hardwood. 

"I cut down trees, 
I skip and jump
I like to press wild flowers
I put on women's clothing
And hang around in bars."  

I never did figure out how to become a lumberjack and it's probably just as well, I'm thinking, as the unwanted branch of the maple tree I've been hacking off in my garden gives way unexpectedly and belts me on the leg, causing cuts, bruises and several contusions. Whatever they might be.

"Must have been saw," Al says afterwards, over a beer in the Tickled Trout. "Listen, son," he says, leaning over and prodding me in the chest. "Engineering is about planning for failure. You got to anticipate and avoid.

"You, I regret to say, have a poorly developed sense of danger. You'd have been dead long ago if you'd gone in for lumberjacking. Crushed to a flat wet stain on the grass by a hundred tonnes of falling timber." 

"Not at all," I say. "I recognise dangers. I have a healthy respect for heights. I'm scared of women."

"Women and heights?" he says, taking a pull of his beer, then wiping his lips with the back of his hand. "What about really high women?"

"I have nightmares about the Statue of Liberty," I say.

"Suppose someone said you had to abseil off Venus Williams's forehead ..."

"Couldn't do it."

"... and they'd give you a thousand pounds."

"Nope," I say. "Not for a million."

"Missed opportunity," he says, shaking his head. "Closest I ever got to being a lumberjack was whittling."


"Whittling," he says. "Carving little pieces of wood into artistic shapes with a sharp knife."

"Why's it called whittling?" I say.

"After Frank Whittle, the man who invented the jet engine," he says. "It was his hobby as a boy."

"Really?" I say. 

"He started with penny whistles then got ambitious," he says. "Made a full-scale model of Mae West's bosom from a piece of driftwood when he was 15. Then he whittled the world's first jet engine out of balsa-wood in his bedroom. It caught fire and burned a hole in the carpet, so his mum took his knife away. Unlike you, though, he persevered with his dream and the rest is history."

"What do you whittle then?" I say.

"Wood from the old door to my sitting-room," he says. "Took it off when I was doing up the house. I carve it into animals - dogs, cats, otters. I've liked otters since I read Ring of Bright Water."

"Sheep would be easier," I say.

"I don't think so," he says.

"Door into otters?" I say. 

"As you'd have them door into ewe," he says.

"Well, I got to get back," I say, finishing my beer and bursting into song. "I chop down trees, I wear high heels, suspenders and a bra. I wish I'd been a girlie, just like my dear papa."

"Don't be a plank," Al says, as we emerge blinking into the summer sunshine and head for home.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Don't judge a book

I dislike labels. I don't mean luggage labels of course, because they can be very useful, although how my bag flew on to Orkney, many years ago, while I alighted for submarine field tests at Wick Airport, leaving me to mingle for five days with spotlessly starched Royal Navy officers, in a shirt and socks so ripe you could make cider with them, I have no idea.

No, I'm talking about people labels. Twice recently I've been called autistic and I don't know what they meant by it. I'm not saying I don't know what the word means. I do, up to a point. I just don't know what these people meant when they used the word.

See the dictionary definition of a word almost never reflects exactly what people mean, for two reasons at least. 1) words are connected in our heads to a cloud of nuances, subtleties, emotions, assumptions, memories and prejudices - collectively called connotations - and 2) the connotations of a particular word in my head are never identical to those in yours.

Dictionary definitions on the other hand are all about denotation - the object a word points to. But the meaning of a word is much larger than its denotation, in the same way as an atom is much larger than its nucleus. And for a similar reason. A nucleus has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of electrons around it. A word has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of connotations. 

This is most obvious with snarl words such as "weed", "vermin" and "gook" that have almost no denotation but a dark cloud of connotation - which includes "You're bad", "I hate your type" and "It's good to kill you."

I suspect people now use the word "autistic" in a similar but milder way, with meanings that include "You're annoying", "You think differently to me" and "You are too logical."

So when I bump into my old pal Yarrum, a very smart guy who was told he had Asperger's many years ago, it gives me the chance to get some hard facts out of him.

"Hello, wise one," I say and just manage to bite off "How you doing?", a question Yarrum always answers in more detail than I can handle.

"Greetings," he says, studying my shoes.

"Buy you a beer?" I say.

"That would be unwise," he says. "The temperature is 26° and alcohol is a diuretic. Our brains could become dangerously dehydrated." 

"You could always pour the beer straight in your ear," I say, and he looks puzzled. "Coffee?" I suggest. 

He shakes his head again and taps his watch. "Not if you want to sleep tonight," he says.

"Listen, pal," I say, trying not to get exasperated. "I'd like to pick your brains and was hoping we could go somewhere pleasant to do it."

"How about the Botanic Gardens," he says. "It is pleasant there. We could sit on the grass."

"And look at scantily-clad women," I say. "Nice one."

"You said you wanted to talk," he says.

"We could do both," I say.

"There is some evidence that testosterone improves the cognitive functioning of the ageing brain," he says. "But that is a long term effect. In the short term it weakens intellectual focus."

"And that's the last thing we want," I say, as we head up Byres Road to the Botanics, where we park our bums on the greensward and I try not to look at women or straight into Yarrum's eyes, which he's found uncomfortable since we were boys together. 

Grass fails to grip me, so I'm struggling to know where to look, until a dopey bee bumbles into my forehead and falls to the ground between us. "Until the early 20th century they were called 'humble bees', I tell him, as we watch the creature check itself out with a shake of its back legs, a shimmy of its abdomen, and a little waggle of its diaphanous wings.

"That is interesting," he says. "No doubt owing to the noise they generate, rather than any presumed inadequacy of self-regard."

"Correct," I say. "Do you think I'm autistic?"

The silence stretches for longer than most people could stand. But I know how Yarrum works. If I speak again it'll send his train of thought back to the station. 

"I don't know," he says eventually. "It is a possibility."

"Gimme more than that," I say.

"Well, neurotypicals - 'normal people' - suffer from three impairments," he tells me. "One. They are unable to think independently of their social group. Two. They find logical or critical thought very difficult. Three. They cannot form in-depth special interests, other than in social activities.

He pauses and I wonder what's coming next. "Does any of that sound like you?" he says.

"It does not," I tell him. "None of the above."

"In that case you may have a brain wired in the way these herd creatures call autistic," he says. "Although the two sets - autistic and neurotypical - while disjoint, do not cover the whole space, and I must admit, from my own observation, I had formed a different working hypothesis to explain your personality and proclivities."

"You had?" I say, waving goodbye to the bee, who, flight-checks completed, has taken off in the direction of a fortysomething blonde with suntanned legs and a powder-blue top that matches her eyes. "What was it?"

"That you are an onanistic narcissist, with a nanosecond attention span, egotistical, self-indulgent tendencies and a cerebrum equipped with only the most primitive of poorly developed and unreliable executive functions."

"Wow!" I say. "Is there a word for all that?" 

He smiles but still doesn't raise his eyes to mine. "There is," he says.

"What is it?" I say.

"Wanker," he says.

"Good luck getting an opinion out of a neurotypical when you really need one."