Friday, 26 February 2010

and you thought it was all over

Even though the date of Chinese New Year wanders up and down the Gregorian calendar over a range of about four weeks, it always seems to be cold in Hong Kong over the new year period, and this year has been no exception. However, instead of the usual two or three days of cold weather, this year it was cold and miserable throughout the first week, threatening to dampen any enthusiasm for the highlight of the annual celebrations in San Wai: the ceremony of the roast pig and the village dinner.

You could be forgiven for thinking that after the fireworks that would be it for yet another year, and so it was in most of Hong Kong: prices remained high throughout the week, especially in restaurants and food markets, and the territory was slow to get back to business as usual, as usual. And, according to tradition, it is imperative to get out of the house on the third day to avoid quarrels, which are believed to last all year if they occur on that day, but nothing of note actually happens, apart from the quarrels about where to go, given that it’s still a public holiday and almost nowhere is open.

However, San Wai’s dinner is always held on the eighth day of the new year and is a big occasion: it is held in the open air, hence the concerns over the weather, and this year there were thirty-seven tables, each accommodating between ten and twelve diners, some of whom will have been guests of village residents. And, remember, this is a Chinese dinner, which means in this case eleven courses, all cooked in the open; it is a mammoth logistical challenge, and after days of damp, dreary weather, it must have been a relief to the organizers to see the clouds lift and the temperature rise a few degrees.

The day starts with a ritual to bless the roast pig that the village purchases every year. It is a quasi-religious ceremony with incense, the burning of paper money and ritual obeisances at an impromptu altar (a table covered with red paper). My assumption is that the beliefs behind it are connected with fung shui, although when I declined to join in everyone assumed that it was because I’m a Christian, which I’m not. It appears to be based on a mixture of Taoist and animist beliefs, with rice wine poured on the ground as an offering to the gods. Last year, the ceremony was more meticulously observed, while this year’s ceremony was much more of an ad hoc affair that I thought was rushed through.

I suspect that one reason for the hurry was that this year the village had bought two pigs, one of which was promptly chopped up and scoffed on the spot in a most convivial atmosphere. The meat is very fatty, but the skin is crunchy and absolutely delicious, especially when washed down with a couple of glasses of beer. The second pig was also chopped up, after which portions were distributed to every house in the village as per tradition.

Preparations for the dinner went on all afternoon, and this year the organizers had booked live musical entertainment: not to my tastes, although I did enjoy the Cantonese opera singer. Backed by an electric trio of bass, drums and keyboards, she sounded better than would have been the case in a more traditional setting, and to my surprise she sang mostly duets, switching from the male to the female role with remarkable ease.

If you have any Chinese friends, you will probably be aware that they light up like a clown’s nose after only moderate consumption of alcohol, and moderation is not on the agenda on occasions like these. We were well supplied with both wine and beer. In addition to a toast as each dish comes to the table, groups of topers go from table to table proposing additional toasts. And everyone has a good time.

The highlights of the dinner itself were the deep-fried prawn balls and the eight ingredients stuffed duck. The number of ingredients in the stuffing relates to the allegedly lucky properties of the number eight, although I have to confess that I could detect only two: chick peas and lotus seeds. You will assume, correctly, that everyone is full by the time courses nine and ten arrive, which is why these are always egg fried rice and braised e fu noodles, or something similar, designed merely to fill up the unfilled.

By this time, everyone was fairly merry. Uncle Chu, a familiar and popular figure in the village, his face lit up like a Christmas tree, was dancing enthusiastically to the music, but when the glamorous Cantopop singer offered to dance with him (while continuing to sing), he shot up the stairs leading from the dining area (aka the car park) like a rabbit down its hole when a fox appears in the neighbourhood, clearly embarrassed.

The Spring Festival, as it is known in mainland China, continues until Sunday, but as far as San Wai is concerned that’s it for another year. Lung ma tsing san.

The ritual carving of the first pig.

The pig is chopped into bite-sized pieces; dipping sauces can be seen in front of the chopping block.

Thirty-seven tables are set out in the car park alongside the east wall of the village.

What remains of the last five courses, including the eight ingredients stuffed duck and the 'fillers'.

Friday, 19 February 2010

fireworks: a retrospective

You can probably guess, based on my previous post, that I like fireworks, but this wasn’t always the case. My earliest memory of this kind of thing was as a four-year-old on Bonfire Night (5th November) in 1950. My father had bought a box of fireworks, but I was too scared to go into the garden to see them being set off at close range and merely watched through the living room window.

However, throughout the 1950s my father always bought a big box of fireworks for Bonfire Night, and I gradually became more confident about watching—I even lit a few myself. I was never too keen on the ones with pretty colours though; I always preferred the ones that went off with a bang, the louder the better. By the early 1960s, the bangs were no longer loud enough, and I decided that I could do better myself.

After I’d splattered the ceiling of the living room with chemicals and burned a hole in the fireside rug, I was exiled to the garden shed, which became my own laboratory. All the neighbours knew what I was up to, because every so often they’d hear an extremely loud explosion, look out of their rattling windows to see a huge white mushroom cloud erupting over the shed and exclaim: “Dennis is at it again!” Or words to that effect.

In the current climate, amid fears about terrorism, it would be irresponsible of me to provide any further details. Suffice it to note that I’m writing about an altogether more innocent age, when a schoolboy making his own fireworks attracted no more than amused tolerance from the adults in the neighbourhood. Nowadays, a visit from the police would be the least I could expect.

After I left home in 1964, I paid no attention to either Bonfire Night or fireworks until Chinese New Year in 1982. This was the first year for what has now become a tradition—a fireworks display over Hong Kong’s harbour. I was working at the local Outward Bound School at the time, and the school had a sailing ship that could carry up to forty trainees plus crew. The director decided that it would be a good idea to take the ship into the harbour to watch the display, so we all had a grandstand view, complete with buffet supper and drinks. I’ve rarely had a better view since.

This scenario was repeated in 1983—as a treat for hard-working and underpaid staff—but with the appointment of a new and corporate-minded director in 1984, staff were no longer welcome: the ship still sailed round to the harbour, but now the passengers were local taipans and other dignitaries in a position to help the school. For many years after this, I never bothered to attend the displays, mainly because I didn’t fancy having to contend with the large crowds that gather on the waterfront. I didn’t start going again until about ten years ago and have missed only two displays since.

During this period, I’ve usually watched from somewhere along the Kowloon waterfront. The best viewing position is the walkway in front of the New World Centre (now being demolished because it was built at a time when there was a height restriction on building in Kowloon) and Intercontinental Hotel, but as mentioned in my previous post, you have to get there two hours beforehand or the police will not let you through. However, one year we watched from an apartment overlooking the harbour—it was being rented by a colleague of my wife. Not as much fun, but at least I could watch with a gin and tonic in my hand.

Another year, the cloud ceiling was so low that all the high shells were exploding in the clouds and therefore out of sight. This was the reason for missing the show in 2007: we didn’t bother to go, because the clouds were down to about 300 feet. We also missed the fireworks in 2005, because we were in New Zealand. In fact, we were there to evaluate that country as a place to live; that we eventually chose to return to Hong Kong was heavily influenced by the comments of a TV news reporter, who described Chinese New Year as “the world’s biggest party” (it isn’t a party) and Hong Kong in the morning of New Year’s Day as “like a ghost town” (it is in extremely bad taste to talk about ghosts at this time of year). We really didn’t fancy living in a country whose news media fed its citizens such ignorant drivel.

This year, I watched from the roof of the Royal Garden Hotel with a friend from Sydney who was a guest at the hotel. It wasn’t the best view I’ve had over the years, but the hotel had thoughtfully set up stereo speakers to relay the music with which the fireworks are electronically synchronized, which is broadcast on local radio and which added another dimension to the experience. It was mostly jaunty Chinese classical music, with one slow piece and a jazzed-up version of La Rejouissance from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.

You might be wondering how slow music fits something as fast and explosive as a fireworks display, but the designers had come up with fireworks that resembled waterfalls as they fell slowly back to earth: these were just one of five or six new effects that were integrated into the display this year. Others included two-stage starbursts that bore an uncanny resemblance to flowers and ones that featured spoked wheels or contained smiley faces.

At the end of the display, my Australian friend, who has seen Sydney’s new year fireworks quite a few times, said that it was the best fireworks display he’d ever seen, and I had to agree. I couldn’t help but think that the degree of control that the designers had over the raw power of the display, together with the way it was coordinated with the music, moved it from the merely spectacular to the truly awesome (using this word as it should be used). But with the Chinese and fireworks, I expect nothing less.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


I often say that the best time to be in Hong Kong is Chinese New Year—if you’re a resident. If you’re a visitor, it’s the worst time—everywhere (apart from the big hotels) is closed. The Hong Kong Tourist Board did initiate a New Year’s Day parade through the main entertainment district in Kowloon a few years ago, but this is Chinese New Year for tourists, and we don’t bother to attend.

However, the second day is different: we always travel into town for the New Year fireworks display over Victoria Harbour. The Chinese invented fireworks, and the only place that may conceivably put on a better display is Beijing. Hong Kong’s display lasts 22–24 minutes, during which time more than a thousand shells per minute will be fired up into the night sky from three barges moored in the middle of the harbour. The marine police, with their customary efficiency, maintain a strict exclusion zone in the central harbour for a couple of hours before the display is due to start.

You have to get there early if you want a good view, because up to half a million people will be lining the harbour on both sides. Two years ago, we found quite a good vantage point and had to wait more than an hour for the display to start. My younger son, Tristan, had never seen the display before, but when I asked him whether it had been worth the wait he agreed that it definitely was. Last year, our friend Barry from the UK was staying, and we wanted to get the best possible view, which meant a two-hour wait. You can judge whether it was worth the wait on this occasion by Barry’s comment after the fireworks had finished:

“That was bloody excellent!”

The people on Hong Kong side never learn though: the wind at this time of year is always from the north or northeast, and smoke from exploding shells will drift in that direction and obscure the second half of the display. And if you think that a fireworks display is a purely visual experience, think again. You might as well be watching it on TV, with a cretinous commentator repeating endlessly “Ho leng, ho leng” (‘very beautiful, very beautiful’). However, real aficionados will tell you that the feeling of pressure waves from the explosions hitting you in the chest is an integral part of the experience. You have to be there.

And when it’s all over, the crowds disperse in a remarkably orderly way. But we always go to Chung King Mansion for a curry after the fireworks. You may have heard of Chung King Mansion, and there is one rule that you must always follow: never use the lifts. The place is like a rabbit warren, and it is a serious firetrap. However, the Indian restaurant we go to is on the third floor, and we can walk up the stairs. My wife and I have been going there since the 1980s, and in those days we were usually the only customers, but the restaurant has now been discovered by local Chinese, so we need to get there quickly or risk having to wait for a table.

Finally, in my post for New Year’s Eve, I introduced you to the common greeting at this time of year: kung hei fat choi (‘may you be prosperous in the year ahead’). However, there’s an even better one, which I learned from my wife only today: lung ma tsing san (‘may you have the health/energy of a dragon or horse’). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have good health over great wealth any day.

Monday, 15 February 2010

a new year

Firecrackers had been going off sporadically all morning, and the local lion-dance troupe, which is always kept very busy on the first day of the new year, is running behind schedule. It is due to arrive at midday, but it is past 1pm before their truck finally pulls up outside the village.

The first order of business is for the lion to pay its respects at the village shrine, accompanied by the standard ‘musical’ ensemble of three pairs of cymbals, a gong and a huge bass drum. The drum is played using two heavy sticks, and you can feel it as much as you hear it. The rhythms are complex, slow at first but building in intensity, then fading away and building again. The lion’s steps are intricate and carefully choreographed, and in time with the accompanying rhythms.

Last year, my wife asked me whether we wanted to put out some ‘bait’ for the lion.

“What kind of bait?” I asked.

“Lettuce!” she replied.

“Lettuce?” I repeated, incredulously.

You need to know that the Cantonese for ‘lettuce’ is sang choi; choi simply means ‘vegetable’, but sang, apart from its meaning in this context, can also mean ‘new lease of life’. It is yet another example of the word association that is an integral part of many Chinese beliefs. Another is the avoidance of the number four, which sounds like the Cantonese word for ‘death’ (buildings often don’t have a fourth floor).

The idea is that you hang the lettuce high enough that the lion can reach it only by standing on its hind legs, which as you can imagine requires some acrobatic prowess by the performers. Our Friend Tom was the front end of a lion when he was younger, and he tells me that I’d have made a good rear end, but definitely not now: it looks far too energetic. Anyway, the lion proceeds to ‘eat’ the lettuce, but what would you expect to happen next? That’s right! If you try feeding lettuce to a lion, it is going to spit it out again, and this is exactly what happens.

The following photographs were all taken last year. I took more photos this year, but the weather was pretty gloomy, so this year’s pictures are not very good. And we didn’t have a string of firecrackers to start the proceedings. In fact, there seems to have been a shortage of firecrackers this year. Perhaps the local police have been on the case.

The village headman dots the eyes of the lion to bring it to life.

The performance begins with a full string of firecrackers, which takes almost a minute to finish.

The percussion band that accompanies the performance.

There are many kinds of lion dance. This one takes place on top of a large bamboo pole.

The performance is over, and the lion takes a rest.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

kung hei fat choi

Since the time of Emperor Wu Ti of the Han Dynasty (141–87 BC), acknowledged as one of the greatest of Chinese emperors, the Chinese New Year has fallen on the second new moon following the winter solstice, which means that in 2010 it will be on 14th February. And the usual signs of its impending arrival have been gathering for the past fortnight, starting with a gradual increase in the price of oranges, always popular at this time of year. In fact, a lot of prices go up: in some cases, traders claim that it’s their way of receiving lai see (the ‘lucky money’ that is given in red packets at this time of year), but given that, traditionally, lai see is given only by older people to those younger than them, this can be seen as the pathetic excuse for blatant profiteering that it is. And it doesn’t explain why the dim sum in our local restaurant have had $2 per dish slapped on the price; but increased custom (from non-regulars) does.

The supermarkets are also busier, and so are the temporary flower markets that spring up all over the territory, which do a brisk trade in peach trees of various sizes (the symbol of longevity), potted kumquat trees (the symbol of good health), potted chrysanthemums and cut flowers, mainly lilies and gladioli. Other popular goods on sale include tinsel windmills (for the children). Unsurprisingly, nowadays these have eight separate miniature windmills on a plastic frame, because eight is the lucky number in Chinese culture. And good fortune and the means for ensuring that it comes your way are an integral part of modern new year observances.

The weather was unseasonally cold for about three weeks over Christmas, which played havoc with the local peach trees. Although growers have a range of tricks up their sleeves to ensure that the blossom appears at the required time, this year I noticed that many local trees were sprouting leaves a week early (the blossom precedes the leaves). Not to worry: the trees will be bigger next year and will thus fetch a higher price (the trees that are ready are sold like Christmas trees, that is with the roots sawn off).

The flower markets open about two weeks beforehand, and stallholders make an obscene amount of money, judging by how much they are prepared to pay to rent a pitch for just a fortnight. However, if you baulk at paying the prices charged, you can always wait until about 5am on New Year’s Day, when the stalls close for the last time. Anything that hasn’t been sold is available at a small fraction of the original asking price. But nothing is free, of course: whatever remains after the knockdown bargains is trashed to ensure that it is beyond use.

However, a cheapskate like me has an even better solution. Don’t buy any of this surplus vegetation in the first place. There is certainly no chance that I’d be found in Victoria Park in the early hours of the new year, and even less that I’d be found at Che Kung Temple in Shatin or Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, which attract so many visitors eager to check up on their fortunes for the coming year that the police have to implement crowd-control measures. There is only one place that I want to be at midnight.

Although I’ve seen a lot of new year celebrations in Hong Kong over the years, last year was the first living where we do now, and I didn’t realize how much I still had to learn about how rural people mark the occasion. One thing you will never see in the city is firecrackers, because they’ve been illegal here since the 1967 riots. However, that’s clearly only a minor difficulty around these parts. How else could the ghosts of the old year be frightened away?

Our house faces a natural amphitheatre of hills, close on the left, slightly further away on the right and more distant straight ahead, and a single bang from behind the house comes back as five or six separately identifiable echoes. And there are a lot of villages behind and to the right of our house. And all of them set off huge quantities of firecrackers at midnight. Last year, we were caught by surprise when this happened: my first reaction was that it was another war game by the People’s Liberation Army, which took over the old British army base in front of the house in 1997. We’d seen such exercises (in daylight) for four days just before Christmas prior to some kind of demonstration that was put on for a group of visiting big hats, who arrived in black limousines for the show and disappeared as discreetly as they arrived, or as discreetly as it is possible to be when travelling in a convoy of large limousines. We didn’t realize at first that it had just turned midnight. The cacophony, complete with multiple echoes, lasted almost thirty minutes and was a lot more entertaining to listen to than a piece by Harrison Birtwistle.

So you will have to excuse me! It’s five minutes to midnight and I’m going up to the roof to take a seat. And, in case you were wondering, the title of this post is the traditional greeting at this time of year, expressing the hope that the coming year will be a prosperous one. Kung hei fat choi. Fat chance.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

cain and abel

As a child, I attended both Sunday School at the church where my mother was a member and Bible classes at the local Gospel Hall. In neither case do I remember any doctrine that may or may not have been attached to the stories I heard, but while this was happening I was also learning about Greek and Norse mythology at school, so it seems unlikely in retrospect that any kind of in-depth explanation of any of these stories was provided.

However, there was one story that even as a youngster made no sense to me: the story of Cain and Abel:
2 …And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.…

Genesis 4 (Authorized Version).
I simply couldn’t work out why God would show this kind of favouritism, which is not explained in the subsequent text. For example, the words attributed to God in verse 7 (“If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?”) suggest that Cain didn’t do well, but the reason for this is not made clear.

Hermann Hesse attempted an explanation in his novel Demian, the eponymous hero suggesting that Cain was feared by others due to his strength and that Abel was killed merely because he was the weaker of the two. However, this notion is simplistic and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

The mystery might have remained unresolved, but one day, a few years ago, I was reading about the Mongol invasions of China. What struck me in this account was how much the nomadic Mongols despised the civilized languor of the Chinese, whom they regarded as degenerate. This was the principal reason for the savage cruelty that characterized these invasions. And Genesis was being written at a time when outright conflict between nomadic pastoralists and arable farmers was endemic throughout the fertile crescent, while China suffered incursions across its northern and western borders so serious that it built a defensive wall in a vain attempt to keep the ‘barbarians’ out. The biblical account of ‘the promised land’, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, casually overlooks the fact that it was flowing with milk and honey only because it was already being farmed and is therefore nothing more than a cynical justification for seizing someone else’s land.

The meaning of the Cain and Abel story should now be clear. It is not a historical account; it is an allegory of that conflict, written from the point of view of one nomadic tribe. It is also clear that the ban on eating pork by that same nomadic tribe is not based on anything as mundane as health grounds, although pork is more likely to cause illness than other meats if not cooked thoroughly—pork had been and continues to be widely eaten throughout East and Southeast Asia. This prohibition is also a symptom of the nomad/farmer conflict. Nomads herd sheep and goats (or yaks and horses in the case of the Mongols), while the domestication of pigs, which are not browsers like the nomads’ animals, was achieved by settled farmers. Hence the nomads’ disdain for pigs and their meat.

However, although the Israelites were not very advanced technologically, they did have the nous to observe that cities are also the product of settled agriculture:
17 And Cain…builded a city. (ibid.)
The emergence of Islam, which also has its origins in nomadism, provides a close parallel to Judaism, not only in its proscription of pork but also in a requirement that animals for food be slaughtered in a way dictated by ritual and tradition. And this too can be traced back to nomadic roots: animals are not merely important to nomads; they are central to the nomadic way of life. But why should nomadism have any relevance in the twenty-first century? Why should what was once purely a cultural practice have become ossified over the centuries into religious dogma?

That question I am unable to answer, although ritual slaughter does at least accord the animal a degree of respect, something that is sadly lacking in modern factory farming, where trying to associate the red stuff stacked in shallow styrofoam trays in the chiller cabinets of supermarkets with a once-living animal requires a huge effort of the imagination.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

we’ve always done things this way

You will probably be familiar with the phrase ‘in a horse’s arse’, which although uncouth expresses disbelief or outright incredulity to great effect. For example, if I were to suggest that the Roman Empire had a negative influence on twentieth-century space exploration, you might reply in just this manner.

But before you do, consider this apparently trivial question: why is the standard US railroad gauge 4 feet 8½ inches? This does seem an arbitrary value. Or, to put it more colloquially, which horse’s arse came up with precisely that figure (quite a versatile metaphor, this one)?

If you’ve ever asked someone why they do something in a particular way that to you appears to be illogical, if not downright ridiculous, you’ll probably be familiar with the age-old excuse: “we’ve always done things this way.” And American railroads have always been built to this gauge. But why should this be the case? You should not be surprised to learn that the first American railroads were built by a handful of English expatriates, and that’s the way they’d always built railways in England.

So why did the English build their railways like that? It turns out that the first railway lines in England were built by the same people who built the pre-railway wagonways, and that was the gauge they used.

Which begs another question: why did the people who built the first wagonways use this gauge? Because they used the same jigs and tools that they used to build conventional road-going wagons, which had always used that particular wheel spacing.

Then why did wagons have this specific, and very odd, wheel spacing? Well, if they’d tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would have been broken by the wheel ruts on the many old and not well-maintained long-distance roads in England, because 4 feet 8½ inches was the spacing of those ruts.

At this point, you may be wondering who built these old roads in the first place. Imperial Rome built the first long-distance roads in Europe, including England, to enable its legions to move quickly to wherever they were needed. These same roads were still in use long after the Romans had departed. And the ruts in these roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or risk destroying their wagon wheels. The chariots were produced for an empire with a well-organized military capability, which meant that they were built to a fixed standard, which included the small matter of the wheel spacing. According to the original specifications for a Roman war chariot, they were to be made just wide enough to span the rear ends of two war horses, which turns out to have been exactly 4 feet 8½ inches, according to later Imperial measurements.

Which is where space exploration comes into the picture. When a Space Shuttle is sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters (SRBs), which are made by a company called Thiokol in a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed these SRBs would have preferred to make them bigger, but after they are manufactured they need to be transported by train from factory to launch site. And the line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs need to be able to pass through this tunnel, which is only slightly wider than the railroad track. And this track, as you now know, is as wide as two horses’ backsides. In other words, a major design feature of what is one of the world’s most advanced transportation systems was determined over 2000 years ago by a simple multiple of the width of a horse’s behind.

And you probably thought a horse’s arse was something insignificant.

Friday, 5 February 2010

near-death experience

Have you ever had a near-death experience? And I don’t mean one of those hallucinatory experiences where you are walking down a tunnel towards what is usually described as some kind of ‘heavenly’ light. I mean, have you ever been in a situation where, fully conscious, you’re convinced that your life is going to end in the next five seconds? I have. It happened like this.

I’d passed my driving test only two weeks earlier, and I probably didn’t pay close enough attention to advice that a friend had given me when I told him the news.

“Now you can start learning to drive.”

I was working in Holland at the time, and I was driving a company car on a motorway near IJmuiden. It was late at night, and it was raining. I came to a left-hand bend on which the indicated maximum speed was 70km/hr. With the naive arrogance of youth, I entered the bend at 120km/hr. Oh dear, to my horror, the car started to slide outwards. Before I’d had time to take in what was happening, the car was scraping along the crash barrier.

“Shit!” I thought. “How am I going to explain this to the boss?”

The car was then catapulted violently into the middle of the carriageway, where it did several pirouettes (anticlockwise, if I remember correctly). I think that this is when I started to panic.

But worse was to come. The car must have rolled over something rough, because it suddenly went into an end-to-end somersault. And that is when I said to myself: “Dennis, you’re going to die.”

Two or three sideways rolls and four or five seconds later, the car came to rest, upside down, in the fast lane of the opposite carriageway. I was still conscious. And unhurt, apart from a large bruise on my upper arm and a minor cut on the back of my head. There is a small irony here: this happened in the days when seat belts were not a standard fitting, but the car I was driving did have an airline-style lap belt. That morning, I’d complained that it didn’t provide sufficient protection. On reflection, I would say that saving my life is sufficient enough.

However, I must have used up half a lifetime’s worth of good luck to get out alive. I’m convinced that if it were possible to replicate the event somehow, I’d die nine times out of ten (at least).

For a long time, perhaps twenty years, I shuddered every time that I recalled this experience. But not the near-death part. The first thing that I was aware of when the car stopped rolling was the smell of petrol. The tank was leaking badly, and, although I was unhurt, my foot was jammed behind the accelerator pedal. I used to wonder how I’d have coped had the petrol ignited. I think that this would have been really pushing my luck.

And in case you were wondering, I was fired for totalling the company’s car. But I did take one positive lesson from the experience. I took my friend’s advice: never be satisfied with mere competence; always look to improve; always strive to be the best you can be at whatever you do. Anything less is a compromise. As far as driving is concerned, I’m still learning, forty years later.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

black magic

I have suggested in previous posts (Who’s Fooling Who? and Knowledge or Certainty) that a degree of mysticism attaches to modern theories in cosmology and particle physics, but these suggestions were thrown into sharp focus by an email that I received today from my son, who provided a link to an article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has been fairly described as the largest science experiment ever conducted.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this extremely expensive attempt to recreate the hypothetical conditions in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the LHC is a 27-kilometre circular tunnel beneath the Franco-Swiss border along which beams of protons are fired in opposite directions. The protons travel round and round, guided by massive helium-cooled electromagnets, and pick up more and more energy with each circuit, until it is time for them to collide.

If theory is correct (and, remember, this is all based exclusively on mathematics), the resulting collisions will be so powerful that the protons disintegrate, producing among other debris a particle known as the Higgs boson. Finding this particle will be regarded as conclusive proof of the so-called ‘standard model’ of the origin of the universe. Unfortunately, the LHC has been plagued by unanticipated problems since the beginning of the project, resulting in a series of delays to the intended start-up date. However, a short test run was eventually achieved in December, and the LHC is currently scheduled to start running at full power next month, but “two…respected physicists are now claiming that the much hypothesized Higgs boson might have a ‘backward causation’ effect to stop itself being discovered.”


The two scientists referred to in the article have published papers to this effect, and I’ve no doubt that these will be beyond my ability to comprehend, but if the above quote means anything, it is that a subatomic particle that has never been observed because it hasn’t existed since that first trillionth of a second has somehow caused the series of setbacks to the project, including one, last November, where a piece of a baguette had inexplicably become wedged behind high-voltage wiring, which seriously affected the ability of the cooling system to perform according to its job description.

I can’t help wondering whether this is a case of getting the excuses in early when the Higgs boson is not found. And I can’t help wondering why the Big Bang theory should be taken any more seriously than clairvoyance, fung shui, palmistry or a tarot card reading, all of which have the distinct advantage of costing their adherents considerably less than nine billion dollars.

Monday, 1 February 2010

more about gelgins

This post will make no sense unless you have first read Chaos Theory. For those of you who have already done this, you need to know that edited out of the earlier instalment was the information that there are three types of gelgin. Now read on...

So much for theory. Now meet Shunshelstinx and his two friends, who between them are three of the inkiest gelgins in the entire history of these troublesome creatures. Inky, that is, as in incomparably incompetent, or incalculably incapable. As understatements go, saying that they aren’t very good at anything is akin to describing the detonation of a thermonuclear device as ‘rather a loud bang’.

Shunshelstinx is a very officious sattvas with a prodigious memory for trivial facts and other generally useless information. For example, he can tell you what he was doing three years, nine months and twenty-seven days ago—and what he ate for lunch the day before that too, given half a chance—but in other matters he is so forgetful that he sometimes has to be reminded that his name is, well, Shunshelstinx. When he decides to lecture his friends on something or other—in other words, frequently—he invariably thinks that it will be necessary to provide some background information for his listeners so that they will not be confused when they hear what he really wants to say. However, by the time he has finished this preamble, he has forgotten the rest, so his friends are already confused. “Just what was he talking about?” they think. And they never do find out.

Sneedl’bodja is a rajas who can never resist the temptation to open a closed door, or someone’s refrigerator when they are not paying attention. Even for one of his race he is remarkably short-tempered, but when he does lose his temper, the result is a comic opera, a high-tempo, half-demented frenzy like a short-circuit in a fireworks factory, which neither of his friends finds possible to take seriously; in other words, he barks loudly and often but does not bite. Well, not much. And he is widely acknowledged to be a grandmaster of harangue, ridicule, invective and finely barbed one-line insults—and so he should be, because he’s had plenty of practice over years too many to count, especially with regard to the shortcomings, real and imaginary, but mostly real, and most of the time, of the third member of the trio.

This is Qumfl’quelunx, who from his elaborate but inelegant shoes to the tip of the feather in his ludicrously silly hat is a typical tamas, with all the showy vulgarity of a peacock—and the equivalent brain power, not all of which will be in use at any given time. Or, as Sneedl’bodja might say, not much of which will be in use. He is at his most cerebral when setting his friends little ‘poseurs’, as he calls them, unaware of the true meaning of this word. However, there is a difficulty. His friends are at least as likely as he to know the answer. And he probably doesn’t know the answer. He rarely does. But he does like to feel important, part of the team, and it is sometimes useful to know the question, bearing in mind that someone else may know only the answer. Or so he tells himself.

Shunshelstinx is the team’s ‘director’, as he styles himself. Self-appointed? Naturally. There to keep the team on the ‘straight and narrow’—the ‘direct’ approach, as the name implies. In other words, he’s in charge. At least he’s in charge—provided that he remembers that he’s in charge—during their escapades. It’s just that neither of the other two takes any notice of him unless they happen to agree with his ‘instructions’ in the first place. Much to his obvious annoyance. They should show more respect for such a ‘charismatic leader’. His description? Naturally.

However, Sneedl’bodja, who is by his own reckoning the most handsome of the trio and not at all vain, has never felt it necessary to accept any kind of advice from anyone, only pickled onions. And Qumfl’quelunx is much too stupid to recognize sensible advice, even when it grips his shoulder with bony fingers, slaps him briskly on the head with a wet fish, prods his podgy stomach with a pointed stick, kicks him sharply on the shins with hand-made concrete clogs and says ‘hello!’ in twenty-seven languages, only one of which is English. However, he is also lazy, and he does find it hard to decide for himself what he should do next. There are so many options—sleep, eat, snooze, eat, doze, eat—the permutations are endless, and it is so difficult to choose. In the end, or so his scheming mind concludes, it takes less effort to accept the decision of Shunshelstinx as to what he should do and then give no further thought to the matter.

At this point, you may be beginning to wonder just what talents Qumfl’quelunx does possess that can possibly be of any value to the team. After all, there’s no premium on the value of stupidity, as Sneedl’bodja is certain to mention if he hasn’t already. Actually, he’s the team’s sound effects expert, able to reproduce many sounds, from the squeal of the tyres of a speeding motor car as its driver suddenly realizes that he should have started to brake fifty metres earlier if he was going to have a realistic chance of safely negotiating the bend that he has just entered at much too high a speed, to the high-pitched drone of a death’s head squadron of homicidal mosquitoes flying in tight formation for a precision biting raid on succulent earlobes, to the high-pitched screams of a legless frog being tortured to death by the neighbour’s cat, with uncanny accuracy. There is a slight problem though: he has an annoying habit of using a completely inappropriate sound effect when called upon, the only effect of which is to confuse everyone involved.

All three live, with about a hundred other gelgins, in a network of ancient tunnels under a wood in one of the larger valleys of the English Lake District. However, no further clues to the precise whereabouts of this wood will be provided. And all place names have been changed for added confusion. After all, if gelgins were to disappear as a result of mindless persecution by ignorant humans, who else could we possibly blame when events failed to proceed according to some carefully prearranged plan? The local council?

It may be worth pointing out here that the changing of place names is not part of a deliberate policy of secrecy but in fact follows the standard naming system used by sheep for places in the Lake District. Most people will be aware that sheep cannot read, which makes human signposts quite useless as aids to navigation if you happen to be of a sheepish disposition. While this may seem like a statement of the painfully obvious, it has been made to pre-empt speculation about the possible reasons why sheep might know, or even want to know, where they are on the high fells. But know they do, although the reason for this may not be readily apparent.

It so happens that, many years ago, the gelgins learned that Lakeland sheep have quite a taste for dolly mixtures. Their owners never guessed this and therefore never fed them the desired sweetmeats. But the gelgins did know, and they did provide the dolly mixtures—at a price. The price was that in exchange for a supply of its favourite candies, a sheep was required to give the gelgin offering the sweeties a ride to a destination of the gelgin’s choice. It may have been a slow way to travel, but it is how gelgins have been able to move from one valley to the next without getting totally lost. All this takes place very discreetly, and the farmers who actually own the sheep are unaware of what is happening, because the only evidence of this odd practice is the occasional discarded liquorice allsort. You may believe that you know the difference between dolly mixtures and liquorice allsorts, and sheep certainly do, but some gelgins are sufficiently stupid not to be aware of this distinction, and they don’t realize that sheep detest liquorice allsorts as much as they enjoy dolly mixtures, which explains why they may try to feed liquorice allsorts to a sheep if dolly mixtures are not available. Naturally, the sheep spits them out.

In the recent past, there was a considerable network covering most of the Lake District, with strategically located waystations where the long-distance traveller could change sheep, and with carefully hidden caches of dolly mixtures to keep the sheep happy. But this network was expensive to operate—a journey by only a single gelgin from west to east across the entire district required hundreds of dolly mixtures and the services of as many as twenty-seven sheep. It should be the calculation of a moment to determine that such a communications structure would be unsustainable over time, and so it has proved. It is still possible for a gelgin with a large bag of dolly mixtures to go far, or even to go west, but the organized system of earlier times no longer exists.

Which is where the story begins, more or less. More waffle and less sticking to the point, that is. Ask Shunshelstinx. On second thoughts, don’t.