I wanted to talk about the semiology of keeping a level gaze (yes, really) but I just don’t have the time right now.
Instead, let me share my favourite chip shop name. It’s not The Sea Cow, nor is it the yet to be named Rick Stein chip shop that will mark the man’s final and complete ownership of the town of Padstow.
The best named chip shop in my view is the grubby little place tucked under the bridge next to Waterloo station. It revels in the endlessly inappropriate and meaningless name of ‘Fishcoteque’. The absurd intimation of fun it offers gives me a laugh every time I see it.
I am looking forward to the second branch, which can only be called ‘Fishco Inferno’.
Computer users who started out in the 80s (and programmers of all stripes) will remember all too well John Conway’s famous Game of Life. I first saw it when it arrived as free software for my 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum, in about 1983. It was tantalising but deeply frustrating; the rules are desperately simple and yet it has almost limitless scope for complexity, if only you can find it.
Plenty of people have spent prodigious amounts of time teasing out that complexity-in-simplicity. It exists in its own semantic space of puffers, sparkers and glider guns. To some, these are forms that display key characteristics of living things; birth, development, complex interaction, death. The game has been extensively used as the tiniest of toy worlds displaying evolutionary logic.
If I couldn’t cope with Life (or, I suppose, life) I fear I’ve no chance with Avida, the evolutionary sandbox hosted by Caltech. It is available as a free download, so I’ll give it a try anyway, if only for the reassurance that proper science is forever beyond both my ken and my patience.
I have a tube of toothpaste that bears the warning:
Sealed for your protection
My God, what terrors could it contain? Must send for Quatermass.
I seem not to be doing that thing with links much at the moment, so time to catch up with some of the outside world.
Andy, fresh from provoking mass confessions to distract the Times (and taking paranoid readings in his stride), is in today’s Guardian talking about the pre-election protests in Spain.
While Andy was with the crowds in the middle of a terrible event, the rest of us seem to be getting by with walking amongst the imaginary.
Up in the Deep North it is walking with angels.
Kevan, meanwhile, is walking among zombies, and the things folk are remembering walking in a computer game version of the Barbican. I remember that too (the game, not the zombies).
Me, I’m toying with a basic distinction used for walking in crowds: people with earphones versus people without. The former require more defensive walking, of course. The latter respond politely to a sharp, well-timed, scrape of the shoe just before the overtaking point.
Can you tell I’m one of those aggressively fast walkers? Good.
For Mothering Sunday I went back to the small town in which I grew up. Winding down the High Street towards the river is always a time-shifting experience. Each shop front is a veil behind which lurks the hidden face of its childhood version.
This bike shop was once the chemist. What was once the butcher’s is now one of those peculiar petite clothes shops, the sort where there will never be another customer to keep the shopkeeper’s oversolicitous eye off your browsing. The monumental mason once sold carpet tiles. The sportswear shop was, well, it was a different sportswear shop.
Just as confusing are the shops that have not changed. The old-fashioned hardware shop and it’s offshoot over the road (selling an unsatisfying array of furniture oddments) are just as they ever were. The grocer’s has evolved into a late-opening convenience store by such tiny increments that it is no longer possible to accurately reconstruct in the memory any of its previous incarnations.
The biggest change since my last visit only suggests itself very slowly. Dotted all down the stretch of the town are almost half a dozen small boutiques, offering a service I am sure was never available in the town as I grew up.
My hometown has a full handful of nail bars.
I feel such a stranger.
Continuing our shared enjoyment of local newspaper headlines, the Southwark News today offers:
QUEEN OF THE NIGHT TO VISIT DULWICH
Excellent. That’s where she is then.
It’s funny, because only last week I saw Figaro and Don Giovanni arguing outside a chip shop in Camberwell.
I’ve written about cricket writers writing about Andrew Flintoff before, so this, to me, has a giddyingly reflexive feel.
After last week’s tumultuous demolition of the Windies, England are preparing for the second test. This gives both Derek Pringle in the Telegraph and Mike Selvey in the Guardian the excuse to write glowing reports of Flintoff’s maturation from being the blacksmith’s son to being the blacksmith himself.
Flintoff, as Selvey correctly deduces, has become the heartbeat of the team; the carthorse that also provides the gallops.
One phrase from Flintoff really caught my eye. In Selvey’s report, he says of the slip-catching:
“Well, we are holding on to a few,” he said. “With players such as the West Indies have, you can’t afford to give them two chances. It is something at which we have worked hard and emphasised.”
Did the farmer’s lad really say “something at which we have worked hard“? I detect the journalist’s punctilious syntactical manners at work here. It would just be too delightful if Flintoff is not only maturing into a cricketer of legendary proportions, but constructing sentences the end of which he knows at their beginning.
The man was standing just behind the Hampstead theatre, at the top of a scratchy plot of grass. He caught my eye because, at first, I thought it was Boris Johnson, the bumbly MP for Henley and part-time PG Wodehouse character.
It wasn’t him, although the combination of straw hair, Bunterish frame and bemused expression made the mistake forgivable, I think.
He was, ever so slowly, performing some Tai Chi. His pudgy arms ghosted around in pondeous arcs, then carefully stacked somethings in front of him. From the waist up he looked like a clubber in slow motion.
After about ten minutes of this, he let his arms fall to his sides one last time and leant back against the wall of the theatre. A few seconds later he’d grappled a quick cigarette into his mouth and was taking his first drag with obvious and deep relish.
Boris would have been proud.
Sun, rain, wind and thunder rarely arrive in the correct order, but they timed their arrivals and departures perfectly this weekend.
We were down in Cornwall, for once. Distance and ignorance had suggested that Bude would be a good base for the stay. It turned out to be a Cornish version of Swanage, all amusement arcades on the front and sorry excuses for cheerful eateries. Still, we pitched up in a clifftop hotel well removed from all of that, and from the desperately polite town beach. Instead, we had a full eye-span of slate sharp cliffs and surf surging endlessly up rocky corridors of pebbles. That, if you ask me, is a proper beach.
The sun came on the morning journey to Tintagel. The castle and the headland were quiet enough for us to stretch ourselves out on the grass and fall asleep under the faint warmth.
The rain came later: all afternoon, all evening and all night. Proper rain, the sort you’d pay extra for. Made for watching through windows in the hours after getting in from a long, wet walk.
The wind saved itself mainly for the walking. The sort of ebullient wind where, in the end, you decide that a hood is causing more problems than it’s solving.
The thunder came on Sunday, all the way from the West Indies, courtesy of strapping Steve Harmison, the Durham digger, skittling the Windies in one of the greatest spells of fast bowling of the modern game.
I sometimes feel that my journey in to work is a journey ever deeper underground. From the streets where I live to the moving tunnel of the train. Then into the real tunnels of the tube network. Then I’m disgorged at the other end almost seamlessly from underground into a building, from one capsule of chemical lighting to another.
Then, after the day’s work is done, back out and up, up, up to daylight.
I’m not talking about the bleakness of work or the clammy deadness of the city:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
These are old and valid emotions, but not what I’m trying to capture. I toyed with that flippant phrase used of work: ‘another day at the coalface’ to express that sensation of going in underneath. However, although the modern workplace is characterised by repetition periodically interrupted by bouts of panic, this is unimaginably remote from the reality of coalmining, which consisted of long bouts of discomfort periodically interrupted by bouts of mortal danger.
No, I think what I’m aiming for is the sense of the city as a formic organism; an inverted ant colony. If you tracked the movements of an ant colony you would see daily pulses of movement out from the climate-controlled brood centre of the nest. The daily pulse of human movement into the air-conditioned, totally covered, city would look spookily similar.
The city as a nest, or a burrow. Perhaps we’ve got it the wrong way round. Perhaps we actually live in the offices, and we only venture out into the hinterland to hunt and gather the resources we need: food, leisure time, sleep. We’re nocturnal animals, greedily rampaging through the countryside in the evenings to slake our rapacious need for space, for entertainment, for ‘freedom’. Sated, refreshed, the next morning we are able to return to the burrow, sit at our alloted stations in the great organism, and get on with the real business of living.
Battiest story for a long time:
A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists.
Dr Stephen Unwin’s jolly idea for the calculation starts with the assumption that there is a 50/50 chance of a divine being (but which one, may I ask?), and weighs the probabilities from there, taking into account everything from the existence of evil to miracles.
The attribution of such a precise number to a matter of faith should give a clue to what’s gone wrong here.
Theology will not submit to actuarial analysis.
Unwin is making, I think, a category mistake partly due to a hope that matters of belief can be quantified. The existence of evil in the world, for instance, is only proof of God’s non-existence if you think that there is no theologically adequate answer to the problem of evil, just as the existence of complex eyes is only proof of God’s existence if you happen to be a Creationist. Likewise miracles; if you believe that all alleged miracles have a natural explanation, this offers no weighting to the proof of God’s existence (or, perhaps, should weigh against existence).
This can make Unwin’s theological spreadsheet a good parlour-game fun if you fancy quantifying your own position on the scale. However, to pretend that it offers even the hope of an objective answer is hopeless. (To be fair, Unwin’s book is not yet out, and I would lay a fair bet that, unlike his publisher, he is careful to make exactly this distinction.)
The notion of making such a calculation is, I think, flawed from the start. Unwin is apparently making use of Bayes’ Theorem, which would allow him to calculate the probability of a contingent event, and a future one at that. Both of these are problematic, but it should suffice to explain the problem with contingency.
The calculation starts with an assumption that there is a 50/50 chance of God’s existence. In terms of the Bayes’ calculation, this means that there is a one in two chance that God ‘will happen’.
This, I’m afraid, is the category mistake. God is not a contingent event. God is, depending on your viewpoint, a necessary and permanent fixture, or a phantasm. In other words, God is either necessary or impossible. The only contingent is the amount of certainty you, as an individual, have in either direction.
As Above points to these maps of tube networks around the world that allow for size comparison.
I prefer the same site’s low quality jpegs. There’s altogether too much play available in the idea of ‘found art’. When art is created so as to appear found, does it carry the same meaning regardless? Is it more, or less, worthwhile; more, or less, interesting? Wisely, this site stays silent on the origin of the images.
It does seem amusingly as though the prime minister may have neglected to tell the Queen that ‘her’ Crown Prosecution Service is to be renamed the Public Prosecution Service.
This implies with, as Ogden Nash would have it, shoddy flim and flam*, that as the service’s job is to prosecute the members of the public, its job under the old title may have been to prosecute the Crown.
Ah, if only we’d realised before it was too late.
* I struggled to find a copy of the version of Nash’s poem to link to, so here it is:
In mortal combat I am joined
With monstrous words wherever coined.
‘Beefburger’ is a term worth hating,
Both fraudulent and infuriating,
Contrived to foster the belief
That only beefburgers are made of beef,
Implying with shoddy flim and flam
That hamburgers are made of ham.
Occasionally, but just possibly with increasing frequency, the predominantly solipsistic nature of the web gives way to something genuinely communal, by which I mean that it offers something for real world, not online, communities.
The brightest of these projects, in Britain at least, is probably mySociety.org, if you can forgive it the supersmooth name evidently conjured up by a wicked sabbat of scripters and online marketers.
Today mySociety has proudly announced the launch of Downing Street Says. This is the official transcript of Downing Street’s daily lobby briefings (as well as the PM’s press conferences), in blog form.
So now you can check for yourself that Tony really did say both that he cannot comment on Clare Short’s allegations (that the British government possessed illegal transcripts of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s private phone conversations) and simultaneously that ‘we and previous governments have never commented on intelligence except to say that this country always acts in accordance with domestic and international law’.
Apply your mind: the two statements are not necessarily contradictory. It is quite possible for the British government to have legally obtained transcripts which were first obtained illegally by a third party, for instance the CIA. On the other hand, the statement that the security services have not breached international law is no more than an untestable assertion. At what point is it permissible for a third party, such as the UN, to insist on testing such an assertion? Must there be proof of a breach, or can circumstantial evidence suffice?
This is not a totally idle question. No country willingly announces that it has breached international law, yet many countries (not least Iraq) do breach it. What is the quorum for a decision that a sovereign nation can no longer be taken on its bona fides? A UN resolution? A UN security council decision? George and Tony making a joint statement?
If none of this speculation floats your boat, you can still get the official line on Tony Blair’s night on a park bench.