Monday, 30 November 2009

wedgewords

A wedgeword is a word that can be inserted between two given words so that when split between those given words two longer words are formed, as in the following example: OUT(.......)LION. The wedgeword CRYSTAL when inserted between OUT and LION gives OUT(CRY.STAL)LION. CRYSTAL is therefore the solution. If more than one wedgeword is possible, only the longest counts as the correct solution. The number of dots does not indicate the length of the wedgeword. British English spellings apply. Now try these:

1: UNDER(.......)LIED
2: UNDER(.......)OUR
3: RAM(.......)HEM
4: FORM(.......)LED
5: HE(.......)HE
6: GRAM(.......)LING
7: INTER(.......)END
8: PEA(.......)OR
9: CAR(.......)ATE
10: CARE(.......)PET

Sunday, 29 November 2009

sleep

storm raging overhead.
still, he lies suspended,
cool in his cocoon of sleep.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

an asinine analysis

The global capitalist system as it currently operates encourages individuals, as well as corporations and countries, to spend all their time putting together their own private piles, around which they then proceed to erect tall fences with signs saying, in bold letters, ‘Keep off! This is mine!’ This is the unfortunate result of a system in which every material thing can be had if you can afford the price, from exotic, out-of-season vegetables to a trip to the International Space Station, and it is not a good use of finite and now rapidly dwindling resources, especially when the thing in question is neither necessary nor useful. This type of behaviour, this greasy pole of accumulation, can achieve only short-term rewards for a lucky few while sacrificing any prospect of long-term communal gains. And in the long run it is completely unsustainable. There is an appropriate word for this behaviour: avarice has all the right credentials to be that word, but there is another word that has an even stronger claim to be the right one to use here. Stupidity. Selfishness comes into the picture too, but that word merely underlines the stupidity of mindless acquisition: notice that the initial letters of the three words spell ‘ass’, which can be taken to mean whatever you like in this context, but one should not forget that the ass has been nothing more than a beast of burden throughout human history and is noted chiefly for obstinacy and not being very smart.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

silence (a fragment)

1
the silence is resounding,
  pounding
    like the rain
on a rooftop, echoing,
  glowing.
    twilight’s bane
is the shadow in the dark,
  remark:
    spectral light
criss-crossing across the sky,
  low—high;
    shades of night
closing in. a sudden fear:
  unclear
    higher ground;
uncertain haze descending,
  blending
    sight and sound.

2
silence is a swirling green
  fog, seen
    but unheard.
silence is a resonant
  green slant,
    slightly blurred.

3
flying, fragmentary mind,
  unwind;
    it is air,
it is emptiness. and all
  must fall,
    for there, there
on the mysterious height,
  a light
    (now intense)
burns. and then down, the last spark,
  the dark,
    the silence.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

another side of hong kong

Everyone is familiar with the popular image of Hong Kong—high-rise buildings, crowded streets, bustling markets, a spectacular harbour—but venture into the countryside and a different picture emerges. Apart from wild pigs, which are surprisingly numerous, and a few porcupines, there are no large mammals, but there is still a lot to see: particularly reptiles, insects and flowers. The following photographs were taken with a cheap digital camera, but what they lack in technical quality they more than compensate for in interest. All were taken in the Sai Kung area.


Mangroves are one of the very few plants with leaves exposed to the air that grow happily in seawater.


Competition for space is intense in the forests. This tree has solved the problem by growing atop a large boulder.


There are more than 200 species of butterfly in Hong Kong. This is Papilio palinurus.


Papilio rumanzovia.


This leaf-mimicking butterfly hasn't chosen a good place to settle.


However, this leaf-mimicking butterfly really does know how to hide.


The Hong Kong countryside is a noisy place. This cicada is one of the many reasons.


Back in the leaf litter, land crabs are also no slouches when it comes to camouflage...


...while in a nearby stream, two toads mate oblivious to the prying eye of the camera.


It was obviously too cold for this skink to run away.


Strangely, this large flower, the only one on the tree and very close to the ground, faced directly downwards and was very hard to spot.


Nothing is wasted in the forest. Here a bracket fungus is in the process of polishing off the last of a fallen tree trunk.


Meanwhile, back in the mangroves, it's low tide.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

chinese whispers

If you were to look up the entry for ‘China’ in Cassell’s Book of Knowledge, an eight-volume encyclopaedia published in London in the 1920s, you would find the following opening paragraph:
A book in China begins at the top of the last column on the last page and goes backwards till it ends with the first column on the first page. A dinner begins with fruit and sweets and ends with soup and rice. Men in China wear skirts, and women wear trousers. White is the colour for mourning, and brides dress in scarlet.…
Disregarding one or two slight inaccuracies (a dinner does not begin with fruit and sweets, and men have never worn skirts in China), the subtext of this passage is clear: ‘just look how these silly foreigners behave! Why can’t they do things correctly, like us?’ The times may have changed, but not the attitudes. In 2001, a group of Chinese residents in Britain complained to The Guardian, the country’s most liberal and presumably most enlightened newspaper, about the treatment of Chinese people in news stories. The nub of the complaint was that, whatever the context, any Chinese who appeared in a story was invariably described as ‘inscrutable’. This conception of the Chinese is so ingrained in the West that we may even fail to notice that it is a stereotype, and we would certainly overlook any idea that it might be insulting, in the same way that the quoted passage is insulting, because it conforms to the long-established tradition of the ‘mysterious Orient’, a far-off place where other rules apply. A place that exists only in the imagination.

A small and entirely insignificant part of that tradition is the Victorian parlour game commonly known as Chinese whispers, which is probably played seldom if at all nowadays. It involved passing a short verbal message down a line of players in turn, the object being to see whether the message reached the far end of the line ungarbled. Apparently, when played with the naive enthusiasm of the game’s originators it rarely did reach the end of the line intact unless the line or the message was very short, and one can imagine some anonymous fool, clearly struggling to come up with a rational explanation for the phenomenon, linking the changes in the message not to chance error but to something ineffably mysterious to do with China.

On the other hand, as has been known in horse racing for a very long time, blinkers often enable the wearer to see more clearly, to focus only on the important detail, and the long-forgotten coiner of the name ‘Chinese whispers’ may have been closer to the mark than he realized. In historical times, the Chinese rarely adopted anything from the West. In that regard, they may have been more inward-looking, more insular in their national philosophy, than even the English. But times change. Every country, even China, is now founded on a commercial and technological culture with its origins in the science of the West. A modern city is recognizably a modern city wherever in the world it is built.

Hong Kong is a good example. Viewed from a distance, it has all the trappings of a modern city—high-rise buildings, a fast and efficient subway system, streets choked with traffic—but when you look more closely you will find evidence of how the Chinese adopt and adapt ideas from the West. Take the eighteenth-century English barber’s pole as an entirely trivial example. Originally, it was painted in alternating spiral stripes of red and white, signifying blood and bandages in allusion to the barber’s secondary profession as a surgeon. This has now become the universal symbol for a hairdressing salon in Hong Kong, brought up to date in that modern poles are not wood but plastic, and they are rotated by electric motors rather than being fixed in one position.

The surprising aspect of all this is how far it is possible to depart from the original red and white stripes without affecting the recognizability of the sign. Red, white and blue striped poles are common, and poles with black and yellow or pink and yellow stripes occasionally appear. In addition to the standard stripes, blue or black and white chequerboard designs are also common. It would have been useful to have been in Hong Kong when such signs began to appear, but it does seem likely that the more radical departures from the original barber’s pole had as their models other signs in their neighbourhoods that had already made some modifications, rather than the original design. At this late stage, it is impossible to test this hypothesis, but a series of such causal links rather than a single change is the only plausible explanation for two of the most extreme examples of transmutation.

On the edge of Tsim Sha Tsui, the main tourist and entertainment district in Kowloon, there is a salon where the spirals are preserved, but as a thin black stripe alternating with a broad transparent one. This may sound prosaic, but what lifts this sign out of the ordinary is the line of closely spaced, dart-shaped asymmetrical triangles that is superimposed on the transparent stripe. These triangles are almost the width of the stripe in size, with the darts pointing in the direction of rotation of the pole, and they are an iridescent blue. However, within a quarter of a mile of this salon, another pole signals an even more radical departure from the original. This pole is bright yellow, with large green circular dots, the balance of the colours being roughly fifty–fifty. The only feature that this example has in common with the striped and chequered poles is that it constantly rotates. Were it stationary at all times, it would offer clues to no one as to its likely meaning or purpose.

The connexion of this phenomenon with Chinese whispers should now be obvious. It is merely a semiotic version of the game. And on this evidence, the Chinese would have been masters at the game that bears their name, because in making changes, serendipitously or otherwise, to a concept, they take great pains to preserve the essence of the message that they are trying to communicate. And so it is with barbers’ poles. Colour is irrelevant, with due respect to those unfortunate enough to have provided the blood that inspired the original poles. And geometry is also irrelevant. It is only necessary that a pole be rotating.

Now look at how the process works in reverse. How does a traditional Chinese idea acclimatize itself to a Western environment? How does it change, and how is it adapted to conform to Western norms? The obvious example is gunpowder. The Chinese invented the stuff, and for a thousand years they used it to make fireworks. For entertainment. Gunpowder finally made it to Europe in the thirteenth century, where it quickly escaped from the alchemist’s bench. And what did we use it for? Weapons of mass destruction.

If, therefore, we are prepared to concede that Chinese whispers, then we must also acknowledge that English shouts.

train spotting

I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I’m an ex-train spotter. I can understand why this pastime has had such a bad press though, but growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it did seem quite adventurous. Of course, I scorn with the rest of you the popular stereotype of the train spotter, although I assume that they do what they do because they have nothing more exciting to do.

Anyway, the incredibly banal object of train spotting is to see every single locomotive in the entire country and note down its unique number, but the idea of sitting on a windy station platform, waiting for those locomotives to come to you, does sound pointless. I think we can agree on that. However, we reversed the process. In other words, we spent a lot of time visiting the sheds, the depots where the locomotives were maintained, repaired and prepared for their next assignment. And we’d plan days away in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle to a tight timetable to get to as many of these engine sheds as we possibly could. We occasionally had official permits, but more often than not we were, in the ubiquitous slang of the time, ‘bunking’.

Bunking was fun, if occasionally dangerous, but you quickly found out which was which. I spent a fortnight in London in the summers of both 1960 and 1961, and for someone from the north, the sheds of the Southern and Western Regions of what was then British Railways were the main target. Armed with my Ian Allan shed directory, I found my way to Nine Elms, code number 70A. Now, I’d been informed by our local expert before I came to London for the first time that the sheds on the Southern had official gatekeepers. No problem. Just pretend not to notice.

“Hoi! Where d'you think you’re going?”

“In there,” I replied politely.

“No you’re not! Clear off!”

There was something about the smug, spoilsport expression that the gatekeeper leered in my direction that made me determine to get him back. Accordingly, I turned left as I came back out of the gateway. I kept on walking, always visualizing where the railway was behind the rows of houses that quickly blocked my direct view. I walked for perhaps fifteen minutes, taking every possible left turn to maintain proximity, before I saw an opportunity to get on to the railway. All I had to do then was to backtrack leftwards and I should be inside Nine Elms. Well, it turned out that I did have to cross a fairly busy double-track line and find my way through a large freight yard, but I finally reached the shed, where I excitedly wrote down the numbers of all the unfamiliar locomotives I found there.

Well, I’d accomplished the main objective, but now for the grand exit. Not the way I came, naturally, but by the main gate. The gatekeeper’s expression (where the bloody hell did he come from?) lingers still in my memory.

When I was growing up, although I didn’t realize at the time how quickly it would all disappear, we were still in the age of steam. We were excited by the new diesel and electric locomotives, mostly for their novelty value, but we never suspected that within a decade that would be it. British Railways was still building steam locomotives up to 1960, for heaven’s sake. Trying to explain the attraction of steam to someone who wasn’t there may be akin to trying to explain Lourdes to a non-Catholic, but I still remember a trip to Glasgow with a classmate in about 1959 or 1960. Although we didn’t know it, our shed directory was out of date, in that Glasgow had started to shut down its tram network, and we had only the old tram numbers with which to plan our itinerary. Anyway, everyone was incredibly helpful to two country boys just trying to get around. So helpful, in fact, that we received no more than a friendly warning from two members of the British Transport Police—we’d have been lucky to escape without a fine in some places—who encountered us walking carefully and methodically around Polmadie, 66A, the main shed for trains to the south out of Glasgow Central station. You always walked around a shed in a particular way, ostentatiously looking in both directions whenever you crossed a line, and making sure with your body language—we didn’t have the term then, but we had the language—that you were aware of the potential hazards, like the ash pits and the coaling tower. That was enough in most sheds for those working there to leave you alone.

And we did get to experience the trams, although I believe that the last of them were withdrawn no more than a few months after our visit. But the highlight of the trip was finding scores of tank and light goods engines, and even a few light passenger locomotives, built originally by the Caledonian Railway as long ago as the 1880s. To find examples of routine late Victorian engineering still doing an honest day’s work well into the second half of the twentieth century is something that I’m kind of pleased to have been around to catch a small glimpse of.

I once took my younger brother, Ian, around Gateshead (52A) on a Sunday afternoon during one of our family’s frequent day trips around that time to visit my grandmother in Newcastle. I was often detailed to look after him, but a gap of five and a half years did make it difficult to find common ground. Anyway, Gateshead was the main shed housing locomotives for the express passenger trains to Edinburgh and London out of Newcastle station. Its large complement of locomotives, most of which were normally resting on a Sunday, included several of Sir Nigel Gresley’s redoubtable A4 pacifics of the old London and North Eastern Railway, or ‘streaks’ as we used to call them, for obvious reasons if you’ve ever seen one. All were home that day. If your only experience of a locomotive is from platform level, you may not have tried to imagine what that same locomotive would look like from ground level. Shed level. Impressive, especially when you’re only nine years old, or possibly even younger, which is how old Ian would have been at the time. This is the only time I took him around an engine shed, but I believe that he still remembers the occasion. Rather vividly, as it happens.

One of my own earliest memories is of a visit to Carlisle in 1958, and my introduction to engine sheds. We’d heard about such places, specifically Kingmoor (12A), the old Caledonian Railway shed in Carlisle. We’d also heard about engine numbers beginning with a ‘5’. Well, we did find those semi-mythic engines with numbers beginning with ‘5’, six or seven of them, old CR locomotives but now with hessian sacks tied around their funnels, the universal symbol that they were condemned and would never again raise steam. Discovering, a year or two later, that others of their brethren were still being used in Glasgow was more than adequate compensation.

Anyway, one of Sir William Stanier’s pacifics, Duchess of Montrose, was coaling up for action, and the driver invited my companion and I up to the footplate as they worked the engine up and down the yard. But more was to follow. Without asking whether we wanted to or not, the driver then took us the mile or so to Carlisle’s Citadel Station, where he was scheduled to pick up a northbound express. That was the first and also the longest ride I ever had in the cab of a steam locomotive, and I was eleven years old.

It all seemed adventurous back then, but everything should be viewed in context. I wouldn’t want to try some of the things that people do for excitement nowadays, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate trespassing on the railway either, but things were different then. Now, even when there is no train, light engine or other moving part of the system in view, there is still a high likelihood that you will kill yourself. High-voltage electricity doesn’t ask you for identification. Back then, if there were no trains in sight, the only thing on the railway that could kill you was your own stupidity. We had some of that too.

a puzzle

Can you think of two nine-letter words that do not rhyme, but which can be made to rhyme simply by exchanging their initial letters? By the way, in case you were wondering, I shall not be pandering to the usual conventions by providing a solution to this conundrum, so if you are interested in finding the answer, you will have to work it out for yourself.

mind your language

Language is the tool that we use when we want to communicate our thoughts and ideas to other people. This is such an obvious statement, something that we take absolutely for granted, that we don’t bother to expend further thought on the subject. But that’s because we don’t realize that an important question is being begged: when we speak or write, how do we know that what we think we mean by our choice and ordering of words is what our listener or reader understands us to mean? How can we be sure there is no comprehension gap?

This dilemma extends beyond words to include gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication. In his capacity as vice-president of the United States, Dan Quayle was once asked what he thought of a prominent Latin American politician. The vice-president responded by extending his right hand with the palm forward and the thumb and forefinger joined to form a circle, which every American will tell you means top notch, first class, A1, or some more suitably convincing American idiom.

However, millions throughout South America knew exactly what Vice-President Quayle was really saying.

“Asshole!”

Nevertheless, it is with words that the real problem lies. Ideas don’t spring into existence fully formed, with pros and cons set out in a neat series of bullet points; they start as feelings, expressed inwardly in a way that scarcely uses words at all. Such instincts and intuitions allow us to look at an object or assess a situation and interpret it in a way that we immediately and precisely understand in our own minds, without using words. However, once we try to describe that idea or that sensation to another person, the only available medium for communication is words, perhaps reinforced by gestures and facial expressions. Unfortunately, it is impossible to write a book about what goes on inside your head, or even to describe to another what is going on at any given moment. The words simply don’t exist. So language, in the sense of a sequence of sounds or letters ordered semantically to convey meaning, is essentially a compromise.

You can go into a pub, order a pint of bitter and be certain that the barman will not give you a pint of lager and a packet of crisps. If you are a regular in the pub, the barman may pull the pint of bitter without being asked, knowing with the uncanny insight of the practised professional that we are all creatures of habit at root. However, this is communication at a very superficial level. If you try to express an opinion on the pint of bitter, the chances are that you will find yourself using words and phrases that you’ve heard someone else use in a similar context. How often have you heard a wine expert describing the bouquet of a wine in terms of oranges, lemons, blackcurrants, raspberries and sundry other soft fruit? It’s nonsense, of course, but the expert doesn’t have at his or her disposal the tools to be more precise. The bouquet may provide specific information to the expert nose, such as the variety of grape and the region where the wine was produced, but the expert is trying to describe what is essentially a personal reaction in words that someone else will understand. They do understand, but in a debased form. The fine details are lost. But it’s a loss that goes unnoticed by most people, because the expert never stops to think how well they might be communicating their thoughts, and their listeners merely take the words at face value.

Another difficulty is created by the fluidity of meaning of words and, especially, phrases. A phrase often changes meaning as a result of a misunderstanding, the differences between American and British English being notably fertile ground for such occurrences. A classic case is the now hackneyed phrase ‘to make the grade’. Not much room for ambiguity there, you will probably think if you’re British. It means ‘to reach the required standard’. Surely that’s obvious? But the phrase is actually nineteenth-century American railroad slang. When you recall that in American usage a ‘grade’ can mean what the British would term a ‘gradient’, you see that a wholesale change in meaning has taken place. For the engineer in one of those old wood-burning locomotives that finally tamed the American West, to make the grade meant to reach the top of a particularly tough incline. When it eventually escaped into the general population, it was as a vivid metaphor with the meaning of succeeding in a particularly difficult endeavour, but once the phrase had been dislocated from its metaphorical background, the force of that meaning soon evaporated. All that remains today is a cliché with only a vague meaning. The force of the original metaphor has been lost.

If all that was at stake was the continuing survival of a few hackneyed phrases, then there would be no problem. You can always fall back on the original words and eschew any attempt at metaphor. Unfortunately, the idea or concept behind some of the words that are affected by this change, which proceeds entirely from ignorance and a tendency to jump to conclusions, cannot be otherwise expressed in a single word. And as each word undergoes such a change, the language itself is diminished. If English is a toolbox from which a scrupulous communicator selects only the most appropriate implement, then we’ve just lost a tool, or had it blunted at best.

When a BBC journalist referred to the enormity of the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, he should have had precisely the right tool for the job. But ‘enormity’ is one of those words that has shifted in meaning, leaving behind a valuable descriptive word for which there is now no precise equivalent. As it happens, this report provides a perfect example of how promiscuous misuse of our language is having a damaging effect. So what did the journalist really mean? Although he might have been impressed by the sheer scale of the attacks, these were, above all else, examples of great moral wickedness, the meaning of ‘enormity’ that is still clung to by the dictionaries. However, most people now appear to believe that ‘enormity’ is the noun equivalent to the adjective ‘enormous’. It is true that both words derive from the same root, but the divorce in meaning was once almost total, the notion of size in ‘enormity’ referring only to the scale of the iniquity involved. The idea that something describable as ‘very large’ is being referred to is a recent invention born out of a careless disregard for the importance of meaning in communication. And did we really need to add to a mountain of synonyms?

In the end, perhaps the words are simply too similar in appearance to have avoided this confusion, because commonality of origin is not a problem. Nobody would claim any affinity in meaning between ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’, yet both derive from the Latin word for ‘law’, lex, with the Latin suffix -al. The difference is that ‘legal’ comes directly from Latin, while ‘loyal’ is from Latin via French. The similarity in meaning could have been retained, as has happened with a similar doublet, ‘regal’ and ‘royal’, which both derive from the Latin rex, ‘king’, but perhaps in the case of ‘legal’ and ‘loyal’ it proved possible to reassign ‘loyal’ to a new billet because there was a need. New words are required all the time, not only to describe new circumstances and new situations but also to replace old ones that have become debased through careless misuse. Meaning once shaped by hands wearing surgical gloves is now being moulded by hands wearing boxing gloves, with a concomitant decline in precision.

Exaggeration can also be a problem. To satisfy the needs of each new generation for its own cant, we are no longer able to describe something taken from a fable as ‘fabulous’, something out of a fantasy as ‘fantastic’, something that we might marvel at as ‘marvellous’, something that fills us with amazement as ‘amazing’. Each of these words now means little more than ‘I like this’. And as the process continues, something that fills us with awe will not be describable as ‘awesome’, and ‘brilliant’ as a word to describe something shining with an intense light will become obsolete.

“What do you think of that new night club in the town centre?”

“Awesome!”

“How was your holiday in Tenerife?”

“Brilliant!”

You see the problem.

For a reductio ad absurdum of this trend, we turn to the Chinese, who have been known to abandon meaning altogether. If you walk through the shopping streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon, it will not be long before you spot a few shop names that nobody in their right mind would dream of using in the heartlands of the English language. Perfect Corporation. Sincere Department Store. Treasure Restaurant. Grand Hotel. The Magnificent Company, if it exists, and it may well do, will be no more than a small office somewhere in one of the less salubrious districts of Kowloon with a desk, two chairs and, possibly, a secretary. Any idea of magnificence will be purely imaginary. To imagine otherwise is to miss the point. Language matters.

heaven central

The universe is vast, and in that vastness there are billions of small planets orbiting small and relatively stable suns in what might be called ‘the temperate zone’, the zone around a star in which water can exist on the surface of a planet in liquid form. Earth is one such planet. It is the presence of liquid water that sustains life here. The obvious question presents itself: is there life on any of these countless other worlds?

But before we try to answer that question, we need to determine the reason, if any, for the presence of ‘intelligent’ life on Earth. For many, there is no mystery: the planet, all of its minutiae and the human race itself were created by God. Fair enough! Let us accept this as a working hypothesis. The problem is that it doesn’t get us much further, because if God did create the Earth, why did he situate it in such a vast universe? And why would he create so many planets with a cosmic environment similar to that of the Earth? Unless….

One possible answer to the second question is that he also created life on all of the other similar planets. But what does ‘create’ mean in this context? The popular interpretation is of some kind of celestial magician who conjures living creatures, even entire worlds, into existence with a wave of his hand. But this overlooks one of the defining characteristics of God—his omniscience. He would know that if he merely created the appropriate set of conditions for life to evolve, life of some kind would evolve. However, he would surely want to monitor the progress of that evolution, which even for the supreme being would be a lot to ask. Think about it. Being omnipresent for billions of years without a break would be extremely tedious. How does he manage it?

Welcome to Heaven Central. Here, row upon row of closely spaced monitor screens, each attended by an angel at a keyboard, stretches away into the infinite distance. Each screen is crowded with meters measuring a range of performance indicators for each of the small planets created ‘in the beginning’. As you might expect, an unearthly silence pervades the scene. There is no idle chatter as each angel gazes intently at the eerily glowing screen in front of them, looking for any sign that something is going awry. One can imagine that they have been carefully briefed by the boss: what to look out for; conditions that require his immediate notification; that sort of thing.

Take global warming, for example, which is probably a major problem on all of the worlds where a dominant species has reached an industrial level of development. Being omniscient is extremely useful here. Even before the puny beings who caused the problem in the first place become dimly aware that the consequence of their carelessness is a climate that is changing in ways that are impossible to predict, God has seen the end result. Oblivion. But it is too late to rewind and repair the damage done. Unknown to the hapless inhabitants of the affected planet, a tipping point has already been reached, and while they continue to dither and bicker, arguing over who caused the problem in the first place, the species races downhill to its inevitable demise.

To enable him to avoid the tedium of long-term omnipresence and to put his feet up now and again, God has ensured that everyone knows how to spot a tipping point, a point of no return. And everyone knows that he must be notified immediately whenever any of his worlds has gone beyond the invisible barrier that astrophysicists call an event horizon. It could be global warming; it could be toxic waste overload; it could be overuse of finite resources; it could be overpopulation; it could be several different factors working detrimentally in unison. God alone knows. But why else would the monitoring angels be so diligent? And so quiet.

In a workplace where nobody actually does anything and nothing appears to happen, it is unrealistic not to expect a ripple of excitement to be generated whenever an angel notices that yet another remote world has tipped itself over the edge, unless, that is, such events are common. Given that we have direct evidence from only one of these worlds, it would be unscientific to dismiss this possibility out of hand, but let us for a moment assume that it is untrue and eavesdrop on such a scene.

Across the unmeasurable span of eternity, the monitor screens appear not to change. All movement on the meters is so slow that no mortal eye could hope to detect it, but the watchful angels do not miss a thing, even if they are in fact bored stupid. But one angel has just noticed that some key indices on her screen have been changing quite quickly recently, and she is wondering whether she should inform the boss. She glances up at the board above the screen. Terra (apparently, they still use Latin in heaven). Suddenly, a voice calls out:

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, dear! Look everyone. Another one’s cocked it up. That’s the third this aeon,” laughs the angel on her left as he glances across at his colleague’s screen. “Terra. Who had that in the last sweep?”

Scary scenario, eh?

However, what if God takes the long view? After all, he is God. What if that nice Mr Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is accurate? Unfortunately, we cannot expect any process whereby a planet corrects the imbalances forced upon it by short-sighted, small-minded creatures to be measurable in decades or even centuries. Or even millennia. But measure the future in tens of millions of years and we can see the big picture. It is only sixty-five million years since the final demise of the dinosaurs, and if we project that time span into the future, we can theorize that another species will have evolved to dominate the Earth. Homo sapiens will of course be extinct.

That species will have the opportunity, as H. sapiens has had, of fulfilling God’s plan. However, this is where the argument becomes annoyingly circular. Just what is God’s plan? Luckily, there is an alternative. Perhaps there is no God. Perhaps the human race really is in charge of its own destiny. Oh dear!