thinking about

Thinking Inside The Box

I am something of a Tetris fiend. I could pack for England; were it an Olympic sport, Team GB would be sure to bring home a gold medal. As a party trick, I can pack a fortnight’s change of clothes, toiletries and all imaginable travelling paraphernalia into an overnight bag, and still leave space for the hotel towels on returning. When we were invited to go camping, where all the others required utility vehicles and trailers, and still couldn’t see out the rear window, they were amazed that I packed everything away in a medium sized family car with a clear rear view.

Yet, when it comes to packing removal boxes, I’m in a quandary. I know if I can lift a packed box without sensing I’m about to slip a disc or get a hernia, a professional shifter could manage it effortlessly. But what about the box itself?

I’m developing nightmare visions of all my valuable possessions hitting the street through the flappy bottom of a failed cardboard container. I try to moderate things but it seems everything I own has mass. Gaps in packing are anathema as I feel irked to have to pay out good money for men to transport air from one place to another, ten miles up the road. They already have air down there, they don’t need extra.

I guess I will have to hold my breath on the day, keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best. I’m sure it’ll be okay… 😬

Now, where did I pack my lucky rabbit’s foot?

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Think on: Does any cheese complement a tomato?

The UK’s popular, and probably populist, newspaper, The Sun, states, following a poll of its readers, that a fraction above 62% of them would vote Leave if there was a second referendum on Brexit. Quelle surprise, as they may say in Brussels.

Polls are silly and I don’t like them, so much so that I might respond to any in a mischievous and inconsistent way just to subvert them. Am I alone in this? Let’s take a poll….

Seriously, I wondered if any of our other esteemed papers had instigated their own agenda driven readers’ polls. I didn’t find any but stumbled across a YouGov analysis of different paperstypical reader. It was all pretty banal until I read,

“A Daily Mail reader enjoys eating cheese and tomato sandwiches…”

Now I’m not saying reverse logic can apply and that knowing your character traits can point you towards the appropriate newspaper but, really, is there any way I can pick up the Daily Mail knowing this?

In my world, sliced tomatoes have no business between two slices of bread anymore than say a sliced lemon does (by all means try one and let me know). But then with cheese?!

I know, I know, the pairing of Cheese and tomato, have history – but how on Earth did that happen?

As usual, answers on a postcard, please, as we used to say….


YouGov Poll on UK newspaper readerships (via The Guardian) – old news

Views on Writing: Catching the Light

Clive James wrote of writing that it was turning a phrase until it catches the light.

When I read – and when I write, though this is a late experience and I’m still on the nursery slopes – too often I’m not noticing the glint of light. This is made more obvious when I consider those times when the light appears brilliantly, and it’s as if something magical is happening. It’s quite often an opening paragraph or an introduction to something, and it’s usually quite simple, precise, colourful and concise.

Following a path towards an understanding of Reena’s Exploration Challenge this week, I googled the name Kosho Uchiyama Rōshi. He was a Zen Buddhist monk in 20th century Japan, a master of origami, and an exponent of zazen, literally “sitting”, a method of meditation devised by the Zen master, Eihei Dōgen.

I follow his name in turn and find this passage on zazen attributed to him,

“I have not visited many Zen monasteries. I simply, with my master Tendo, quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. I cannot be misled by anyone anymore. I have returned home empty-handed.

I quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. This is a phrase that catches the light.

Smorgasbord Me

Blogger BeetleyPete is currently showcasing some of his favourite followed blogs. It’s interesting to see what ideas bloggers have and I am inspired to give this one a go as it could be fun. (As I think it may be to promote authors, and as I am not one, I will just keep it to this place.)

The request is to write 100+ word responses to five of the 52 prompts listed. For an extra challenge, I dialled the Random Number Generator 1-52 to select the five questions from the list.

12. What is the one ambition that you still have not achieved?

I know the permanent answer to this is a peaceful departure. The old joke which tickled me on hearing went,

“When I die, I want to go like Grandfather, dying quietly in his sleep – and not like his passengers, terrified and screaming behind him on the bus.”

I wonder how we would be if we all knew precisely how and when we would die, whether it would be worse or better, psychologically. Of course, we don’t until near the very end and so we convince ourselves it’s best not to know, and so there’s hope. It’s difficult to view it any other way.

45. What is your favourite vegetable and how do you like it prepared?

I love veggies, and don’t really go in for favourites, but I will say Asparagus. They have to be fresh, and they cannot possibly be too fresh, which means growing your own. Once they’re cut, the sugars begin to starch up and they lose that desired sweetness. The season is quite short in England though, about six weeks, and then the plants need to revive and replenish. Fortunately, we used to grow them and will try to do so again soon.

We’ve tried all kinds of ways to prepare asparagus, and all sorts of dressings, but we always liked simple steaming, and a dollop of yellow butter and freshly ground black pepper over to serve.

They make your pee smell funny, that’s about the only downside.

3. Tell us about your craziest experience.

Looking down the list of prompts, I see this could also be the answer to question 14 because my craziest experience has to be a recurring dream. We all dream but the idea is that we shouldn’t remember them upon waking; this, I’m told, is the healthy option. As a rule, I can’t recall my dreams but during two, separate periods of my life, I have experienced troubling recurring dreams. The latter one in adult life, I can probably explain was triggered by stress. It’s the earlier one that’s a puzzle.

I had it from before I can properly remember much else of my life and came often up until the age of about seven when it completely disappeared. It was a very intense and abstract dream, beginning with just a long sensation of passing blindly along a passage or tunnel. Then suddenly, I’m aware of being in a room full of regular geometric shapes: pyramids, cuboids, cones and cylinders. I am perfectly still in this space though not calm. Then the dream ends. That I can remember this vividly after so many years adds to the mystery. I wonder if it has anything to do with the naturally forgotten experience of being born.

42. What is your favourite music genre and why?

I’ve had so many, I might have had them all. My most recent habit is Jazz though it’s a big field and I can’t say I love all Jazz. The thing I like most about it isn’t so much the composition as the instrumentation. I got into Jazz as an antidote to electric guitar bands, in particular Indie rock/pop which was indistinguishable from any other rock/pop to me. The sound of Miles Davis exquisitely soloing a muted horn was instantly attractive, as was a Joe Morello drum solo, an Oscar Peterson-Count Basie piano duet, and a Dan Berglund augmented double bass intro.

I’ve always loved Jazz, to be fair. I was brought up in the period when Jazz was the go to sound for incidental music on movies and dramas. It was in the air, as much as pop music is now – but it had no longer been youth music and so I had to get youth out of the way first and become educated. Now I like to hear lots of different music but I’d probably put Jazz top of the list.

5. If you were to become invisible for a day what is the one thing you would do?

I have a mischievous character and a healthy amount of curiosity – and I also live in a town which boasts about the excellence of its cctv security below its welcome signs – so such a thing could be like all the Christmases and birthdays happening at once. My immediate thoughts, however, are overwhelmed as to what I could do.

As a foodie, I may find myself in some unaffordable restaurant – unaffordable to me but not them – sampling my way through the menu. Maybe get into a West End show gratis.

I feel a lot of obvious things might actually be disappointing. Peeping into any person’s private life, for instance. I’ll probably stick with a bit of free grub.


inspired by and borrowed from Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

Back to Normal

“We just want to go back to some semblance of a normal life that everyone else has”
(Eric Van Balen)

Humans are conservative by nature; they love normal, they desire normal whenever life seems… abnormal. An excess of normal is often seen as being boring.

Normal is the rock on which we build successfully. Normal is the level base upon which we grow, from which we develop. Normal is sane. Normal is rational. Normal produces a healthy intellect, encourages imagination and innovation.

Normal is the calm before a storm, and the calm following a storm (unless on Jupiter where the storms have been raging for thousands of years. For a Jovian, that’s normal).

Normal is peacefulness, a time free of trouble and conflict, unless you’re a child born in Yemen or Syria where war is continuing. Fear is normal.

Normal is routine. A morning begins with fresh coffee, from a pot which has already been cleaned from the previous day’s use, the coffee jar not yet empty, fresh water in the jug, sugar in the sugar pot and clean mugs.

It’s getting ready for work at the right hour. It’s regular work. When I explained to my father-in-law that I worked freelance for short contracts, he was aghast. He’d told me, with some pride, how he’d been with the same firm for forty years. I have known people who started work after university and are still at that same company, the same commute to the same office, the same lunchtime routine, the same time going home. The way the company works, the way it likes to do business, has become second nature. That’s normal. Though in that time, they say they have seen changes. That’s normal.

Normal. Even the sound of the word appears to grind to a standstill.

If you’re an adventurer, if you’re a party goer, if you grab life by the balls, carpe diem, and all that, and you do all this, then that’s normal for you.

Normal is what we want unless that’s all there is, and then we want something else. And that’s normal too.


Written for Reena Saxena’s Exploration Challenge #68 – “Back to Normal”

It’s a train of thought piece which is how posts normally start though it’s not normally how I publish them.

A Personal History of Time in Four Objects

Early on, I had a bedside alarm clock: a round, wind-up thing with hands of luminous pale green painted on by poor factory workers, and who might have succumbed to disease and died before their time for their efforts. It seems a high cost to allow strangers to see the time without needing to turn on a light.

Someone then gave me a travel alarm clock. I had yet to travel and had no prior thoughts of doing so being, as I was, not quite ten years old. It seemed an odd contraption: the square body of a wind-up clock attached to the lid of a hinged box by another hinge, so that the three hinged parts could fold in and enclose the clock part. Opened out, it formed a triangle with the base of the box being the base of the clock. The alarm, I remember, wasn’t that loud. Perhaps it’s quieter where people with travel clocks go.

I bought myself a radio alarm clock. Some mornings it would wake me with the sounds of the show before the Breakfast Show; other times I’d be woken by static. The tuning was unreliable and the threat of it malfunctioning on important days kept me awake at night. Then the cat took it upon himself to chew the aerial off. It was just a length of wire hanging down and it must have aroused the cat’s curiosity and so he bit it off gradually by degrees. He never touched the mains cable which also hung down with it. Curiosity didn’t kill that cat, not that time anyway.

The personal tablet is the Swiss Army Knife of the age: if you need something doing, someone has probably devised an app to do it. For it, the alarm clock is a cinch. You can be woken by any number of pleasant or hideous ringtones, or you can choose your favourite song, but be mindful that this can become like Bill Murray’s morning in Groundhog Day; it’s probably better to select “random” from a given playlist. Or you can have the radio. You can have the radio broadcast out of Toronto, Timor or Timbuktu. Be aware that it’s likely not to be first thing in the morning there.


inspired by the brilliant History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (BBC)

The Upright Creator

Sue Vincent’s comment on The Name of the Cloud That Ate The Sun has me thinking about a creator and its motives.

The idea of God, the creator, of the Abrahamic faiths has Him creating us in his image. This is understandable as we readily create imaginary beings in our own image, or partly so. Intelligent alien life is usually bipedal, with limbs and a head on top with eyes and ears and a multi-functioning mouth – and many of them speak fluent English in an American accent. The popular idea of a robot is also a bipedal machine.

Given that bipeds came last in line, whether it’s creationism or evolution, what gives with all the other stuff which came before? Well, robots might be the clue. Getting the things to stand upright and walk. It’s not easy and with a lot of robotics, this is an unnecessary fancy but it doesn’t stop a lot of technicians struggling with the concept. They will succeed but more because of god than being good designers, I think.

But why would a creator be bipedal, being, as it were, out there in space and existent throughout all time? Why would it need to stand up when there is no up in which to stand?


image from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam

History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.


During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.


I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!


It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.

Worms and Casts

“A moth ate words

the pilfering visitor was not one wit the wiser

because he had gulped in those words.”


I had a thick head waking up this morning, the result of neglecting exercise, too much rich food, half a bottle of red before bedtime and mostly down to a cold I’ve been trying to ignore since Christmas Eve.

My eyes can’t stand to read or write, and my brain can’t bear to compute, but I need some distraction to relax and shift the ache. So I look at the Swiss Army Knife of a tablet by my side and wonder what else it can offer.

Podcasts! There’s an app for these which came pre-installed and at some point I must have selected some preferences as it’s lined up a series called The Essays, short audio pieces on Anglo-Saxon history. This is perfect because the gentle tone of an intelligent human voice can be soporific and the subject isn’t at this moment a matter of importance; I can tune in and out as desired, sipping occasionally from a tall glass of ginger and lemongrass cordial, mindful to keep my hydration up.

Actually, the podcasts proved to be very interesting and I love all those “Dark Ages” names; Bede, Egbert, Eadfrith, Ethelred, Athelstan. Why on Earth aren’t they more popular nowadays? Bladud?


The lines at the top are quoted from a podcast on Eadfrith, the Scribe. It takes the form of a riddle and inscribed on manuscripts as a warning against careless reading, the answer to the riddle being a bookworm.

As we close 2018, the Goodreads app tells me I’ve read nine books this year. Usually I average around twelve. In 2015, I entered a personal challenge to read twenty, which I achieved by the skin of my teeth but I didn’t look back on that as a good reading year. Occasionally I wonder with books whether less is more and even choosing one or two favourites to reread, again and again, would be better.

In the new year, we hope to be moving home and, as a designer, I’ve already begun sketching out plans including space required for our books. I’m looking at hacking some of those inexpensive IKEA Billy bookcases for the job.

The design involves comparing the available shelf space with what we have now, but I couldn’t help notice that though we’ve culled our library many times and kept only those books we loved, most of those have sat on the shelf, unread, for many years. Having a Kindle account means I don’t buy many hard or paperbacks now anyway, and a few of my favourites I’ve since picked up cheaply on Kindle.

Is displaying your books a bit of intellectual signalling, a boast, a pretentiousness?

I think it’s good to show that you’re a reader, to have a collection of books which you can identify with, much the same as having pieces of art around the place. But I should really try to read the ones I’ve shelved otherwise what’s the point?


The Essay Podcast: Eadfrith, the Scribe.

The World, AI and Memory (and a bit of telly)

An interesting piece on AI from Learn Fun Facts, a blog I follow.

Should we worry about the doomsday scenario of AI and robots taking over the world? Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe they’ll be welcome to it, once the devastating effects of climate change are realised.

My binging of the Walter Presents… archives of World telly drama from the All 4 app, continues. I’ll list a short appraisal below but the most recent drama was the brilliant Tabula Rasa from Belgium, though spoken in Dutch. It’s a nine one hour episode series, complete with no sequel – the kind I like. It has a clever plot with several twists along the way, and one big one midway which I doubt many viewers would predict. The opening titles are very stylish too, you sense you’re about to see something worthwhile.

Tabula Rasa is latin and translates as Blank Slate. In this drama, this is a metaphor for memory. Our protagonist suffers from amnesia following a traumatic experience. This means she fails to remember anything after the trauma very quickly and relies on keeping a notebook in lieu of a normal working memory. (This is similar to the guy in the film, Memento, who wrote notes on his body.) Whenever she needed to verify something, a person’s identity, for instance, she would rush through the pages of her book trying to find the relevant note or drawing.

This is, more or less, how AI data retrieval works, isn’t it? I mean, it’s more refined and therefore extremely efficient, but nevertheless the same. I don’t think anyone yet knows precisely how the human memory works – or doesn’t work, sometimes – how all that data is squirrelled away within the grey stuff. And it’s very energy efficient.

Imagine having to rely entirely on note taking for memory. Or, say, keeping a blog. In time, it would become enormous, and probably unusable. Long before then, you’d probably be chucked off WP for using up your storage allocation; you’d have to start paying and, in no time, bankrupt yourself.

What a marvellous instrument the old brain is. I ought to look after it.


A quick summary update of my Walter Presents.. viewing, most recently watched first,

Tabula Rasa (Belgium, 2017)

A woman suffering short term amnesia is a suspect in a missing person’s case, and probable murder. She is committed to a clinic where, with the aid of a notebook, she struggles to make sense of the situation and events from her recent past. A stylish and clever psychological thriller utilising several horror story tropes.

Blue Eyes (Sweden, 2014)

A political drama about the rise of right wing factions, both legitimate and terrorist. It’s general election time and the plot centres on two women, one a newly appointed civil servant finding herself in the middle of ongoing political corruption and the strange disappearance of her predecessor, the other a single mum who, wanting to avenge the murder of her activist mother, joins a new extreme right wing group. A good thriller.

The Mind of a Murderer (Germany, 2017)

Following the death of his family, a police detective returns to work as a new head of a city crime unit. His methods are unconventional and puts him at odds with his subordinates who themselves have personal issues which affect their work. The quirkiness of the chief character just about raises this drama above average.

Kabul Kitchen (France, 2014)

A not too outlandish comedy about an ex-international journalist, Jacques “Jackie” Roberts, who quits journalism to make money running a western style restaurant and bar in Kabul, during relative peacetime. His estranged daughter turns up unexpectedly as an NGO, and the local criminal boss decides to be his friend and equal business partner, but his problems don’t end there. A very entertaining double series carried admirably by the lead actor.

Norskov (Denmark, 2015)

A policeman returns to his economically impoverished hometown, recruited to clean up its high drug related crime. There, he reunites with two old friends, one serving as the town’s mayor and the other runs his own building contractor company. A brooding Scandi drama, slow at times, maybe, but deep enough.

Spin (France, 2012)

Les hommes de l’ombre, (the shadow men), the original French title is better. Three series of this political drama centred on the work of a spin doctor, his adversary and one time partner in business, and the assorted politicians he mixes with. Not much politics seems to happen oddly, it’s mostly about politicians climbing, and sliding down, their greasy poles. Nevertheless, good plots and well acted performances.

Tainted (Brazil, 2014)

A disgraced police officer finds work as a bounty hunter, working for an ex-colleague’s sideline business. Meanwhile, he attempts to find the evidence to clear his name and get back to living a legitimate life. So-so, macho cop kind of thing.

The Cleaning Lady (Argentina, 2017)

Conscientiously efficient professional cleaner, Rosa, is contracted to clean up an assassination scene by the local mafia. She does such a good job eliminating all the evidence, she inadvertently becomes the mob’s go to cleaner of choice, thwarting the efforts of the two detectives investigating their crimes. I thought this was going to be a comedy, but no, it’s completely straight. I quite enjoyed it too.


My other Walter Presents reviews can be read here.