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Sunday, 31 August 2014

You've no idea how hard it is

Growing up with an English mum, a Scots dad and a gran who spoke with a Shropshire accent but attended the United Free Church, I was bound to be confused as a boy. It's surprising how normal an adult I've turned out to be.

One lasting effect was that the certainties of the Catholic church have always appealed, though they seem to demand great faith combined with suspension of disbelief. 

A bit like quantum mechanics but with better songs.*

So when Susan starts explaining over a beer what it's like to be a Catholic, I prick up my ears. "We used to have to go to confession," she says. "I was a good girl so I'd make stuff up. 

"I'd go 'Bless me Father for I have sinned it has been one week since my last confession.' And he'd go 'Yes my child carry on.' And I'd go 'I've been cheeky to my Mum three times'. And he'd give me two Hail Marys and an Our Father and I'd come out and say my prayers and that was it, done and dusted."

The autumn light slanting through the window sheds little sunbursts from the rim of my glass. So I shift in my seat to see her eyes more clearly. You can learn lots from people's eyes. "Suppose you'd done worse stuff than cheek," I say. "Would you just get more prayers - is that how it worked?"

"Yes, but it was a bit random," she says. "One time the monks came and took confession and I told Father Martin the usual stuff and he gave me a whole Rosary." 

Her widening eyes tell me how shocking this is. "That is so shocking," I say, sipping my beer. "What's a Rosary?"

"I forgot you're an ignorant proddy," she says. 

"Buddhist please," I say. "Ignorant Buddhist."

"Whatever," she says. "The Rosary has dozens of prayers and takes half an hour to get through. The worst part of being a Catholic, though, was the poor souls in Purgatory. You'd to pray to get them into Heaven. I used to lie awake at night wondering if I'd stopped too soon and left one dangling half in and half out."

I start to laugh then see she's serious. "That worried you?" I say.

"It still worries me!" she says. "Forty years later."

I pat her shoulder. "They'll be in by now," I say. "Someone will have given them a hand up, or a ladder. Relax."

The tension at the corners of her eyes eases. "So anyway, Mary has a novena she's been saying every night for people with problems," she says. "It's a set of prayers in a wee book. She has this favourite she bought years ago and when she got it home found the pages were all out of order. So she calls it her Twisted Novena."

I smile at the thought of Mary and her efforts to make things better for the people she loves, as well as those she doesn't. No question where she's headed when she leaves this world.

"You're included since you got your diagnosis," Susan says, which gives me a wee warm glow. "But she's now got so many people to say prayers for, she can hardly get to bed at night. She talked to the priest and he told her to leave it to the Holy Spirit to figure out who to help first."

I open my mouth and she puts her finger up. "No smart-arsed remarks about the Holy Spirit please," she says.

"I was only going to ask how He decides," I say. "Probably tosses a coin. That's what I'd do."

She shakes her head sadly. "You're going to the Big Bad Fire, son."

"I know," I say. "The Wee Free minister told me that, many years ago, when he caught me smoking behind his church. Harsh, I'm sure you'll agree, but it taught me a valuable lesson."

"You stopped smoking?" 

"I stopped going to church."

*Wee scientific pleasantry there, so apologies to my non-physicist readers. You have no idea how hard this is, when half your followers are intellectuals, while the other half just want knob jokes. 

Nick Clegg has more or less the same problem.

Friday, 29 August 2014

That's what I call a superpower

The ability to tell if someone is gay is one of those senses - like sixth and common - that I would like to possess but never have. 

Although come to think of it, that's not quite true. When I was young I used to reckon I could tell the orientation of any woman I was chatting to. If she didn't fancy me she was a lesbian, for sure. That kind of thinking teaches you a valuable lesson, as you get older and more sensible. There's loads more lesbians than you thought.

So when the particle physicist Brian and I, just back from CERN, get chatting at the airport taxi rank, and sharing a little personal info for a change, his look of incredulity, when I ask about his wife and kids, puzzles me at the time. Only later, when a colleague tells me he's gay and living with a guy, do I understand it.

But how was I to know? He's not camp, which in any case is quite weakly associated these days with being gay, and he has never chatted to me about his partner.

So a bit of gaydar would be useful, I think. If only to reduce the number of times a day I make a twat of myself. But if someone were to offer me a power I don't possess, there's another I'd choose first.

It's none of the usual stuff like telepathy or super-strength, because there are too many stories where the hero gets one of those and it goes horribly wrong. Take The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, a film I went to see with my boyhood pal Ronnie, and I'm sure you can guess what two 14-year-old lads were hoping for from a title like that. 

Well we were disappointed, I can tell you. As a budding scientist I should have known X-rays pass through skin as well as clothes. Skeletons all around the hero was bad enough, but at the climax of the film he sees an evil eye watching us all from the centre of the universe, reckons it's the devil and blinds himself to stop the visions. It wasn't a load of laughs.

The only good thing about the evening was that Ronnie and I saw nothing to encourage us to do stuff that would make us go blind ourselves.

So none of that for me, thanks. No, the superpower I'd really like is the ability to hear, five minutes ahead, what someone's going to say. That would be great in lots of ways. You could Google a new topic and gain a reputation for being super-smart. Better still you could use it to think up good come-backs for situations like this that happened yesterday.

I'm stopped at the lights and the car at the head of the line gets impatient and goes through on red. The next three follow him like sheep but I wait. So the guy behind me sits on his horn. I see him going demented in the mirror, waving his arms around, turning puce and shouting rude words at me, but I refuse to budge.

Eventually we get the green light and I go. Next set of lights the apoplectic one, close to a major vascular episode, rolls down his window and screams, "It's not green! It's not green! What colour is your handbag, pussy?"

Five minutes later a reply pops into my head, "Same as your wife's pyjamas this morning, dog-breath." 

A third benefit of five-minute-warning ears, and the clincher for me, is that they'd stop me saying the first thing that comes into my head. This gets me into trouble every day and it's getting worse.  

I'm pretty sure if I don't get this new superpower, then one day soon I'll be rubbing a lamp and a genie will pop out and tell me I have three wishes. 

And I'll go "Bugger me".

Monday, 25 August 2014

Love drugs

The Square, Glasgow University
So despite provoking the cosmic joker by her insistence that she can plan her life to the last detail, Joanne survived another week and we met again in the College Club on Friday morning.

“Falling in love is a form of drug addiction," she says, getting right into her pet theory, as we sip coffee and stare across The Square to the house where Kelvin lived. 

"I told you about dopamine and the connection with heroin and cocaine last week," she says. "Well listen to this. Another drug made in our bodies creates warm feelings and helps keep people with one partner. It's called oxytocin.”

"I've heard of it," I say. "It's claimed that people with autism don't produce enough, so they're giving them oxytocin nasal sprays. My pal Yarrum reckons that's just trying to get everyone to conform and follow the herd." 

"He could be right," Joanne says. “My objection is a bit different. I don't want what I do and feel decided by chemicals, even if it's my body making them."

"Why not?” I say. “Surely they're Nature’s way of forcing you to do the right thing, even when you don’t know what that is? The small part of Joanne’s brain that’s conscious can't be better at making decisions than the rest of her brain, body and emotions, honed by millions of years of evolution.”

“Yes it can,” she says.

“That’s not science. It’s arrogance.”

“Who do you think those drugs, instincts and emotions, honed by evolution, are for?” she says.


“Wrong,” she says.

“Who else is there?”

“My kids."

“You don’t have kids," I remind her.

“Correct,” she says.

“So you’re talking bollocks," I say.

“I'm not,” she says.

"So what are you saying?" 

“That I'm descended from a long line of ancestors that goes back to the first living things on earth – a bunch of single cells drifting aimlessly around the ocean.”

“Like scientists at a party?” I say.

“I don’t know much about those ancestors," she says. "Except that every one did something really well. You know what?”

“Skateboarding. Taking penalties. Doing impressions of Mao-Tse-Tung. Gimme a clue.”

“Having kids that survived long enough to have kids, who survived long enough to have kids, who survived long enough ….”

“If you were an old Jukebox I’d kick you," I say.

“That is evolution," she says, waving her coffee for emphasis and spilling some on my leg. 

It's not too hot but the wetness is uncomfortable, so I dab at it ineffectually with a napkin. "Sorry," she says. "But pay attention, will you?"

"Watch what you're doing then," I tell her.

"Everything about us got they way it is by small steps," she says. "Little changes from mum and dad to the kids. Each step did one of three things. Helped them survive long enough to have kids. Helped them find a mate. Or helped their kids to survive and have kids, who survived long enough to have kids, who … You get the idea?”

“Some time ago," I say. "What I don’t get is the point.”

“It's obvious," she says. "I’m happy with the drugs in my body helping me survive. But I don't like the other two.”

“What’s wrong with helping you find a mate and having kids that do well?”

"Sounds fine, doesn't it?" she says. "But it's all about finding the kind of mate that means the kids do well, so that the genes get carried into the future. There’s nothing about making me happy. Or the kids. It’s all about shooting genes into the future.”

“I see what you’re getting at," I say.

“You should," she says. "What if my genes and drug-fuelled emotions team me up with Gorgeous George, who gives me smart, sexy, long-lived kids, then runs off with Sonia, the Swedish masseuse and makes me miserable, the bastard?”

“Would they do that?” I say.

“They sure would," she says. "If my mate makes me happy that’s incidental to evolution. It only wants the kids to do well. And the genes they’re carrying. My happiness is incidental to them. But it’s not incidental to me. It's very important to me.

She dabs her lips with her napkin and jumps to her feet. “So you know what?" she says, lifting her folder and turning to go. "Evolution can just sod off. I’m interested in my future. Not the future of a bunch of big daft molecules.”

"What are you going to do then?" I ask her back. 

"Tell you next week," she throws over her shoulder and she's gone.

"Good god man, she's energetic," says Alexander, the lecherous, long-haired philosophy lecturer, leaning over from the next couch.

"It's in her genes," I say.

"I noticed," he says.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Aye, robot

This week I have mostly been meeting robots.

We were due to chat to Red Dwarf's Kryten, as I mentioned last weekend, in the person of actor Robert Llewellyn, and I'll get to that in a minute. First I have to tell you about Professor Dikcarver, the Harley Street surgeon who plans to use his pet robot to remove several parts of my anatomy that I'd rather like to keep.

So he's sat behind a desk the size of Ayrshire, wearing a suit that even to my uneducated eye looks like it cost more than my last three cars, and he's telling me all about the operation and using a plastic model with lifelike, but not quite life-size, dangly bits, to illustrate which parts I'm going to lose and how much fun it'll be without them, and I got to admit he is impressive. But then I ask about costs and he makes an airy gesture with the back of his hand to wave the grubby topic away from him.

"Speak to my secretary," he says. "I take no interest in money."

I do so and the bottom line is that it's £25,000 in used bills in a large brown envelope as soon as you like, pal. So there's food for thought and I will keep you posted on my fundraising efforts. In the meantime all contributions to Blane Mansions, Killearn will be gratefully received.

But what's so wrong with the NHS, I hear you say, and I'll tell you. You can't get robot-assisted prostate surgery on the National Health in Scotland, only in England. If you're Scottish and want the robot it costs you an arm and a leg. So not only will making love be difficult after the operation, but if you even try to cuddle a woman, you'll fall on your arse.

I know my readers are a knowledgeable crowd, keen for all the facts, so let me give you the skinny on the prostate robots. They are used all over the world nowadays - except for viewers in Scotland - in a range of minimally invasive surgical procedures, most commonly hysterectomies and prostatectomies. Shorter procedures, faster recovery and better outcomes are the benefits. 

The machine is called a da Vinci robot, after the Italian creative genius Leonardo Robot, who invented helicopters and the Mona Lisa. We'll get one in Scotland eventually, maybe even next year, but if you fancy being used as practice by a bunch of macho surgeons with a brand new toy, good luck to you, son.

At this point I should get to the interview with Robert Llewellyn, which took place in a posh café in Cirencester and lasted two hours, during which he and my Glasgow Science Festival colleague got outside a small shitload of pain aux raisins, washed down with girly lattés, while I stuck to manly black coffee.

This led to a discussion about whether Robert is gay. In his youth people kept telling him he was and just hadn't realised it, he says. He was long-haired, pretty and had lots of gay friends that he really liked, because they made him laugh. "The thing is I fancied women," he says. "Mind you my son did once write, 'Gayest dad in the world', in the dirt on my electric car."

More from our entertaining chat will follow soon - and even more at our Three Minute Learning resource, which I won't link to again as we're getting lots of subscribers and I don't want to spend the rest of my life, however short once da Vinci gets his manipulators on my fleshy parts, doing endless admin.

So what about the photo up above showing what it's like after the operation, I hear you say. It seems to suggest that I will not only emerge unscathed and dashingly handsome, but will also be able to suavely dip a smiling woman. I am looking forward to that.

On the few occasions I've tried it in the past it has ended badly. Women can be surprisingly heavy for their size and once you get them into the position in that picture there is no way to get them up again, with a dodgy back like mine. So after a while you just have to drop them on the floor. 

That kind of thing puts a strain on a relationship, I can tell you, especially if the floor is made of concrete, and these experiences have taught me a valuable lesson that I'm going to share with you now, because this blog is educational and not just mindless entertainment.

Women don't bounce.

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?

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.