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Friday, 31 May 2013

Maxwell's waves

Leaves on the water. James Clerk Maxwell.

So I'm stood on a sandbank by the side of the Kelvin, throwing stones in the water and making waves for my son to photograph, when he tells me I'm doing it wrong. "Too many splashes," he says. "Pretend you're a girl. Throw underarm."

Well I give it a go and I'm not very good. Whether it's lack of practice being a girl, or discomfort that macho walkers with big dogs can see me, I just can't land the stones in the right place for the composition he's aiming at. 

"What was that?" he demands, dropping the camera from his eyes and looking across unadmiringly. "There!" he says, familiar impatience with me rising to the surface, as he indicates a spot no more than ten feet away. "Can you see where I'm pointing?"

"I can see it," I tell him. "I just can't hit it."

"You couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo," he says. "Gimme the stones and I'll throw with one hand and take the photos with the other. You go stand under a tree and try to stay out of the shot."

So I stand under a tree and ponder the reversal of roles that age brings to parenting. There once was a time, not that long ago, when my word was law. 

Nah, that's not true. Little bugger always did more or less what he wanted. I remember him sat at the table at the age of three, for half an hour once, flatly refusing to say the one word that would release him, to get on with his life. Thrawn doesn't even begin to describe him, from the day he was born.

But at least there was once some recognition that, as the elder partner, I had some expertise that he hadn't. I taught him to cross the road when he was four, ride a bike when he was six and drive a car when he was seventeen. I had a role once. 

Now it seems my role is to get out of the way when he's being creative and to constantly remind him of things he's forgotten. Well not actually forgotten. It's just less effort for him to retrieve stuff from my brain than from his.

"So what's this all about again?" he calls, seemingly satisfied with his one-handed photography.

"I told you five minutes ago," I say, pulling myself off the tree and wandering across the sand. "We're looking for images to illustrate a lovely poem about James Clerk Maxwell."

"Who?"  he says.

"Exactly!" I say. "Only one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. And he belonged to Scotland. But nobody here knows anything about him. It's a disgrace."

"Calm down," he says. "You're getting the dogs excited. What did this guy do?"

"Unified electricity and magnetism. Proved light was electromagnetic radiation. Gave us field theory, which underpins all modern physics. Made the theoretical breakthroughs that led directly to relativity."

"Sounds quite a guy," he says. 

"He was," I say. "Einstein had a photo of him on his study wall. So our plan is to run a bunch of events and activities that will raise the profile of James Clerk Maxwell, until he's as well-loved as Robert Burns."

He studies me sceptically, while packing his camera in its hold-all and slinging it over his shoulder. "Lemme get this right," he says.

"On the one hand there's this handsome country boy who wrote wonderful love songs and broke women's hearts. On the other you've a bearded Victorian gent who invented electromagnetic field theory?"

"That's it," I say.

"And you want ordinary punters to be as crazy about both?"

"Yeah," I say. "What do you think?"

"I think you've as much chance of winning the women's shot put at the next Olympics," he says, striding off along the sandbank.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Ringo revisited

Photo of Ringo Starr to illustrate this story about drummers and age-gaps at Friendly Encounters

The longer I live the more I realise that facts change nobody's mind. So I shouldn't have been surprised that my masterly analysis of Ringo's drumming abilities failed to persuade young Chuck, but I have to admit my first reaction was disappointment. 

"I had hoped for better from you, since you claim to be a musician," I tell him, as we share a beer on the hotel terrace at a Richmond wedding reception, overlooking the happy couple being photographed in the gardens beside the Thames.

"I am a musician," he says. "Ringo was a lousy drummer to start with and he's not getting any better at the age of 100."

"I guess anybody more than ten looks 100 to a half-formed foetus," I tell him. "When do you go up to the big school, son?"

"I've been married three years," he tells me. "I'll be a father for the first time in August."

"Well, that's great," I say. "You have to pass a test to drive a car. You need a licence to keep a dog. But anybody out of short trousers can grab a woman and bring a bunch of new kids into the world."

"Quite right," he tells me, downing half his glass of stout and wiping the froth off his lips with the back of his hand. "But I wouldn't try grabbing at your age, grandpa. You'll sprain something. And you don't need dog licences now. They were abolished in 1987 because people weren't complying with the law."

"Well that's impressive for a five-year-old," I say, shaking my head when the waiter offers to top up my tall glass with fizz. "So you're a legal expert now as well as a drums critic?"

"It's what I do for a living," he says. "You're getting forgetful, pops."

This isn't going at all well, I tell myself, playing for time by taking a long pull of my own pint, a Hogshead ale from the Cotswolds that the groom's father has provided. "Lovely," I say, smacking my lips. "Light and floral with peachy notes and a malty, caramel sweetness."

He stares at me with mild distaste over his Guinness, then jerks his head in the direction of a table in the corner, jam-packed with legs, heels and fancy fascinators. "You might want to move to the girls' table," he says. "This one's for real men."

"I can see that," I say. "But not real musicians. The top drums magazine had a poll to find the 50 greatest drummers of all time. Where do you think Ringo came?"

"A hundredth," he says.

"Fifteenth," I tell him. "Just behind Ginger Baker and well ahead of guys like Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta and Gene Krupa. That's a vote by drummers for drummers. Guys who know what they're talking about. Not infants who drink Guinness so people won't notice the name-tags stitched in their collars."

Photos finished, the bride and groom climb the stone stairs from the garden and glide past us, headed for their honeymoon. "That was a great wedding," I say, draining my glass. "I've enjoyed our chat, young Chuck, but it must be well past your bed-time."

"I've got a few more minutes," he says, reaching round to get his jacket from the back of the chair. "Let me find your zimmer frame and take you across the road."

"I'll manage, sonny," I say. "Give me a call when you're tucked in and I'll come and read you a bed-time story."

"I'll look forward to that, gramps," he says, standing up and stretching. "Just as long as it's not Thomas the Tank Engine."

Friday, 17 May 2013

Sounds of silence

Image of a Carl Zimmer quote about viruses to illustrate this story about the Tao of viruses at Friendly Encounters
"I reckon viruses are like wasps," my son tells me, as we walk along a west end pavement, after a meeting in the Centre for Virus Research, looking for a cafe that sells something resembling breakfast, at two in the afternoon.

"Really," I say, pulling up my collar against the chill drizzle that has started falling and has already numbed my head. "Would that be the buzzing or the orange stripes?"

"Don't be stupid," he says. "Viruses are smaller than the wavelength of light. So they don't have any colour. And they sure don't make a noise."

"For an artist you have a fair grasp of physics." I say. "But what the hell are you talking about?"

"I figure if you don't bother viruses they won't bother you," he says. "Same as wasps. It's the Tao."

I push open the door to another glass and steel space and study the menu. "Hummus and pitta bread again," I tell him. "I'm cold, wet and hungry. What do you think? Let's eat."

"I think it's sheep-herder food from another country, sold to sheep in this one at silly prices," he says. "All I want is a fried egg roll. Why's that so hard around here?"

So I turn reluctantly away from the warm interior and stride along the street again, pondering the penetration of Scottish rain. It really is the wettest water in the world.

Next place looks no more promising, but I'm desperate, so I push open the door, weave a path past metal tables, and am astonished to read, high on the blackboard behind the counter, that we can buy, not just a fried-egg roll here, but one with a tattie scone in it, turning a light bite into a meal fit for hard labour in muddy fields - especially if you order two with black coffee, which my son now does.

I have nothing more strenuous than writing planned, so order one roll and a cappuccino, and the two of us take a seat by the window to watch the less fortunate getting wet. 

"Have you noticed how, soon as it rains, half the people on the streets pull out umbrellas and stroll along looking smug?" he says. "Where do they keep them - down their trousers? What kind of person carries an umbrella in their pants at all times?"

"The kind of person who is always prepared, unlike you or I," I tell him. "Cautious, sensible people who plan ahead, wait for the green man and join a pension scheme when they're still at school."

"Well, bugger them," he says. "I like rain."

"What does Tao mean?" I say. "You mention it often these days."

He shrugs and says nothing.

"Is that it?" I say. "Ten years of Tai Chi three times a week and that's the best you can do for explanation?"

He smiles and shrugs again. "You can't put it into words," he says. "Soon as you try, you're wrong. You're talking about a model, not the thing itself. 'Those who know, do not speak,' Lao Tzu said. 'Those who speak, do not know.' Then he left behind a whole book."

He raises a fried egg roll to his mouth and I give him a moment to appreciate the Tao of the tattie scone. "See that's a contradiction," I say.

"Nothing wrong with contradiction," he tells me. "Comes from thinking with words. All they do is create distinctions in your mind that don't exist in the world."

"Like between viruses and wasps?" I say.

"Right," he says. "Distinctions and contradictions aren't real. That's what koans - like the sound of one hand clapping - are about. The Tao is action, not words."

"Give me an example," I say.

"Well the Chinese are expanding into everything and a lot of folk don't like that. So they go, 'Hey China, you shouldn't be buying our banks.' And the Chinese just shrug their shoulders.

"Then they go, 'Hey China, we don't like you taking over our oil companies.' And the Chinese go, 'So?'

"Then they go, 'Hey China, leave our utilities alone.' And the Chinese go 'What you gonnae dae about it, pal?"

He leans back in his chair, takes a long sip of coffee and stares out the window at the shining streets.

"I had no idea the Chinese came from Govan," I say.

"Not many people do," he tells me.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Size matters

Two sizes of glass to illustrate this story about short people at Friendly Encounters
While we're on the subject of words you can't use any more, I heard one the other day in a context that was more offensive than the word.

"You can hire a midget to handcuff to the groom on a stag night now," Susan throws into the conversation in her living-room.

Carol laughs, but I don't think it's funny and say so. "a) that's terrible, b) the word 'midget' is offensive and c) how on earth would you know that?"

"My son's the best man for an old pal in two weeks' time," she says. "He's organising the stag night. Said he'd found this company online you could rent a midget from and a set of handcuffs."

"Is he going to?" Carol asks.

"I told him if he does I won't be at the wedding," Susan says.

"Being a short person handcuffed to a drunk in the company of other drunks who'd think that's funny sounds dangerous," I say.

"I think it might be," Susan says. "He says they've got rules."

"Like no throwing the midgets," Carol suggests.

"That's Rule 1," Susan says. "Then there's 2. 'Remember the word 'midget' may be deemed offensive by your dwarf',' 3. 'No spiking of drinks and 4. 'Remember your dwarf is a person and not an object.'"

"What a bizarre business," I say. 

"I know," Susan says.

"Speaking of short people, Ellen and I have split up," Carol says. 

"I don't see the connection," I say. "Ellen's average size."

"She is but the midget she caught me snogging wasn't."

Susan's mouth drops open.

"Can we agree on 'dwarf' or 'short person' please, for the rest of this far-fetched story," I say.

"It's not far-fetched," Carol says. "It's true. Except I wasn't snogging him. It was a misunderstanding. But she doesn't believe me and I'm dumped."

She looks genuinely upset, so I put her fertile imagination and love of storytelling to one side and park the doubts. "Tell us what happened," I say.

"Well we're out for the night in a gay bar and Ellen is at the other end of the room chatting to a cute chick with a star tattoo. I've got talking to this butch babe at the bar who is making me nervous. You know what happens when I get nervous."

"You do something stupid," Susan says.

"Always," Carol says

"What was it this time?" I ask.

"Well I reach to the side to put my drink down on what I think is a bar-stool beside me. I don't look because I want to keep both eyes on the risky chick."

"And?" I say.

"And it isn't a bar-stool," she says. "It's the bald head of a short person."

"Bloody hell!" Susan says. 

"Yeah," Carol says. "He goes 'Hey!' I bend down to apologise and the little bastard lobs the gob at me. Ellen looks across, sees us kissing, storms over and gives me hell. Big argument. I'm dumped."

"That's a sad story," Susan splutters, looking like the effort not to laugh is going to cause an injury.

"It's not funny," Carol says. 

"No it's not," I say seriously, and stand up. "Can I get you a drink, ladies?"

"Lager for me," Susan says.

"Same for you Carol, or are you moving on to shorts now?" I say, smartly sidestepping the cushion she throws at me.

Brain drain

Society for Neuroscience at Friendly Encounters

Wouldn't it be nice if brains came with a detailed set of instructions? Been using mine for longer than I care to mention, but I still have no idea what it's doing, most of the time.

I mean you buy anything these day, from a motor-car to a packet of cereal, and it comes with a manual in 40 languages. "Verser les corn flakes dans l'assiette, et puis le lait sur ​​les corn flakes."

But the most complicated machine in the world arrives in a box you can't open, without even a basic set of operating rules - like don't try scratching it with a knitting-needle through your ear.

So occasionally I get mine working like a well-oiled machine, but often it's more like the rusty old bangers you find in farmyards. And that's strange because if my pals were struggling at school I'd often pretend I hadn't got it either. Made them feel better and got on the teachers' tits at the same time, which was always a bonus.

Nowadays I do the opposite, using nods and smiles, as people speak, to conceal the fact that they could be talking Swahili, for all the sense it makes to me. In an earlier post I mentioned that my son and sister's chat often goes over my head. But I have to admit it's not just theirs.

Instead of ageing gracefully into the wise, fatherly figure I've been aiming for all these years, I seem to have matured into a moron, although I think that's one of the words you can't use now, because it's offensive.

It's a word, incidentally that comes from the Greek moros, which meant dull. Sharp was oxys, which is where oxymoron - sharp-dull, a contradiction in terms - comes from.

See, I know stuff. I just don't understand anything, anymore.

So when Diane sends an email that stretches to several pages and makes only sporadic sense to me, I panic at first, then phone a friend, a trusty translator, fluent in both Diane and Douglas.

"Explain it to me, Rachel," I beg, phone in one hand, small Highland Park in the other.

"Which part don't you get?" she asks.

"See where it says 'Hi'." I say.

"Yes," she says.

"I get that," I tell her. "Then the next sentence goes on for three lines and my brain goes blooey."

So she talks me patiently through the email, explaining the acronyms, reminding me of stuff I'm supposed to know, but have misplaced somewhere in the crinkles of my cortex, and after an hour a little light shines in the darkness.

"She wants my ideas for a proposal on engaging with science researchers?" I say.

"Yes," Rachel says.

"Why didn't she say so?"

"She did."

"Not to me she didn't," I say and a stray thought strikes. Maybe my brain isn't the problem. Maybe it's everyone else's.

"Let me run something past you," I say, sipping the sweet, slightly-peated malt.

"Will it take long?" Rachel asks. "I have dinner to cook in six hours."

"I'll give you the condensed version," I say. "Chat forums, blogs and emails have taught people to do a brain dump when they want to communicate. Quantity is what counts online. So where a newspaper article is tightly edited, anything online is a baggy, bloated bunch of bollocks.

"That means editing has been transferred from the writer's brain to the reader's, and mine just can't be arsed. What do you think?"

There's a pause before she speaks. "It sounds to me like another version of the two billion people are wrong and Douglas is right theory," she says, gently. "And what are the chances of that being true?"

"Roughly two billion to one against," I say, swallowing the last of the whisky. "But that's not zero, is it?"

Saturday, 11 May 2013


Image of Homer Simpson to illustrate this story about rants at Friendly Encounters
I began this blog with a post about trying to escape a rant from my son. But I actually enjoy a good rant, especially if it's verbally inventive and soars into flights of fancy. 

In this clip, McGlashan, a Scottish nationalist ranter, treats his agent to an entertaining tirade on how the Scots invented everything, then the English stole their ideas. "The English," he shouts. "We even invented them. We did. We took all the people in our country who were poofs or perverts. Or deviants. 

"Or bastards. Or girls. And we put them down south and said 'Right, you can be the English. You just stay there and we'll come down and kick your arse every now and again.'"

As this clip illustrates, a good rant is often accompanied by shouting and arm-waving, which is why some people dislike them, failing to find the humour and seeing only aggression.

So I'm driving my son back to his flat the other day, after meeting him at Tesco's, where the zombies got us, and a girl walks in front of the car, lost in her own earphone world, and forces me to stamp on the brakes.

It doesn't bother me any, but it sets him off on one. "What is it with young people these days?" he demands. "They walk out without looking and expect you to stop for them. It's insane."

"They don't know how dangerous the world is," I suggest.

"Well, somebody should've taught them," he says, as I start the stalled engine and head along Great Western Road, towards his flat. "Why do they expect everybody else to look out for them?" he demands.

"I'll tell you why," he continues without a beat. "Nobody gets to chastise kids these days. You have to reason with them, share their pain, persuade them of your point of view."

He draws a breath. "Send them to conflict resolution classes!"

By now we're stopped at the traffic lights just past Kelvinbridge and his raised voice and apparent agitation is attracting the attention of pedestrians, who look like they're wondering if he's about to explode or smack me around.

But this is not aggression and it's not directed at me. It's just good old-fashioned rantingness. "Maybe it's better to bring kids up like that," I suggest. "More enlightened than the traditional way."

"More enlightened?" he barks. "Are you mad? Do lionesses reason with their cubs, if they're getting too close to a big male? Do dogs consult the charter on the rights of the child if their pups are being a pain? No! They cuff the little fuckers and so they should. It's how kids learn. When I was a toddler, all cute and curly, crawling around your house, trying to eat sick, drink bleach and explore the electricity sockets, you didn't sit me down and explain human biology, did you? You smacked me."

"I'm not sure I did," I say. "It was a long time ago."

"Well you bloody should have!"

"You'll be telling me next that friendly neighbourhood cops should be encouraged to give kids a clip round the ear," I say, as we pull up outside his flat.

"Cops!" he shouts, seemingly oblivious of the young constable walking past on the pavement. "Don't get me started about cops! All they do is protect rich bastards from the people they've screwed."

"It's all right, officer," I say through the open window. "Care in the community - he's harmless."

"Get him off the street, sir, he's causing a disturbance," he says.

"I will," I say, taking his arm lightly and guiding him towards the door. "Let's get you inside and have a nice cup of tea."

"Tea!" he shouts, with a wicked grin the cop can't see. "Don't talk to me about tea. Those stupid bags don't have any tea in them. They're just dust, mouse-shit and spiders scraped off the factory floor."

I pat his arm for the benefit of the cop, who's still watching us. "Get inside, pillock, and put a sock in it," I say quietly.

"Socks!" he shouts, as I finally get the door open and shove him safely through. "Don't talk to me about socks!"

PS Alternative link to McGlashan. Catch it while you can, because Channel 4, who own the rights, have already blocked it at several websites.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

As dragons play

"You can't beat a nice cup of tea," Rachel tells me in Tchai-Ovna, the house of tea, overlooking the River Kelvin. 

"Yes you can," I say. "Tea's too dry. So is wine. I like my drinks wet, cool and thirst-quenching."

"So that would be beer," she says.

"Correct," I say.

"Tea is thirst-quenching," she insists, lifting the blue china bowl of oolong in both hands and sipping daintily."It's why it's the most popular drink in the world, apart from water."

"I've heard that," I say. "It's baffling."

"Two billion people drink tea every morning ," she says. "Two billion people are wrong and you're right?"

"Wouldn't be the first time," I say, taking a sip of my Dragon's Eye, the tea she's chosen for me. "How can liquid be dry?" 

"I know this," she says. "Give me a minute."

So I pick up the chunky menu and browse, while she dredges her memory. Dozens of teas are listed, each with its own story. Dragon's Eye, would you believe, is "a good quality tea to calm the nerves and sharpen the senses, while relaxing under an ancient, gnarled tea tree, as dragons play in the air with plumes of fire."

"Got it," Rachel says, bringing me back to earth with a bump - I always fancied myself as a dragonrider. "It's the tannins in the tea," she says. "They combine with stuff in your saliva to give that dry feel on your tongue."

"You learn something new every day," I say.

"Especially if you don't know much," she says, smiling to soften the sting. "Tannins combine with milk, if you put it in your tea, which leaves less to make your mouth dry."

"Fascinating," I say, slightly disengaged, since part of me is still up there, playing with plumes of fire.

"Am I boring you?" she asks.

"No, no," I tell her, and try to think of an intelligent question. "Would it be tannins that make wine dry too?"

"Yes and no," she says.

"See I've always thought that's a stupid answer," I say, forgetting to smile. "It must be either yes or no. Can't be both."

"That's because you crave certainty," she says. "You don't like fuzzy grey areas."

"Not true," I say. "I pretty much am a fuzzy grey area." 

"You are," she says. "But you need to open yourself more to uncertainty. Embrace ambiguity. It makes life interesting."

"I'll try," I promise. "Why yes and no about dry wine?"

"Yes, wine has tannins, especially red wine. No, that's not what they mean by dry wine."

My attention span is starting to struggle. But the dragon's eye has calmed my nerves and sharpened my senses. "Go on," I say.

"Dry in wine just means not sweet," she says. "All the sugar from the grapes has turned to alcohol. So you can have dry wine with any amount of tannins, or none - or sweet wine, come to that."

"Why are they there?" I ask, since she's clearly enjoying pulling this stuff out of her head.

"They come from the grapes," she says. "Lots of plants use them in their leaves and unripe fruit to stop getting eaten."

"But fruit wants to get eaten," I say. "It's how seeds spread."

"So the tannins get less astringent - softer - as the grape ripens," she says. "Also during winemaking, which changes them in lots of complicated ways."

"Well, well," I say.

"Lesson over,"  she says. "You know what I like most about tea? 

"That it lets you air your vast knowledge in public places," I say.

"Of course," she says. "But mostly that it's a thread of culture connecting me to a long line of tea-drinkers, right back through history. It's a civilised activity that brings people together in an oasis of calm, no matter how hard life is for them."

I stare at her over the china. "And I thought it was just brown stuff that feels like socks in your mouth."

"Would you like another pot of tea?" she asks.

"Yes," I tell her. "And no."

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Hard shell

Image of Lonesome George to illustrate this story about tortoises and dullness at Friendly Encounters

There are spells in any conversation with my son and sister that make my head spin. It's like when you hit a foreign language film, while channel-hopping, and don't realise at first. The lips are moving and sounds are coming out, but they don't make any meaning.

"As dull as what?" my son asks, over a pizza and pasta lunch, his mobile in one hand, thumb poised above the keys.

"Dishwater," Sis suggests.

"Too obvious," he tells her.

"Tortoises," she says, and he raises an expectant eyebrow.

"You always think they're going to be interesting," she explains. "Then they're not."

"How many tortoises do you meet?" I say, but they ignore me.

"You're right," he says to her. "They just sit there on the grass with their heads waving."

"And lift a foot every three hours," she says.

""Would turtles work?" he asks. "Less letters."

Helen sips her latte and considers. "Maybe," she says. "But they are quite interesting. One died recently in the Galapagos that was at least a hundred years old. They called him Lonesome George because he had no friends."

"I know how he feels," I say, but they ignore me.

"How about those immortal jellyfish?" he says. "Wouldn't that be good?"

"Great," she says. "When they start getting old they reverse the ageing and go back to being kids again."  

"Just living forever would be crap though," he says. "You'd get more decrepit every day."

"When you woke you'd wonder what else had dropped off in the night," she says.

"You'd be bald, deaf, daft and toothless," he says. "Till the end of time."

"Being old isn't that terrible," I say, but they ignore me.

"As dull as Tuesday?" Helen suggests.

"Not bad," he says.

"I like Tuesdays," I say.

"Mud?" she suggests. "Linoleum. Tax returns. Teachers. Politicians. Forms. Flies. Football."

"How about 'As dull as my dad'," I suggest, and for the first time my presence registers and they turn to study me.

"Perfect," he says and starts to text again.