Monday, June 04, 2018

The English Language

As everyone knows, William Shakespeare was a one for the words. In fact he is considered something of a specialist in that particular department — having reputedly had a vocabulary of some 17,677 separate words at his disposal.
Now the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, £750, Oxford University Press) contains 218,632 different words and this has got me thinking: imagine getting 12 Elizabethan playwrights together in a room. You could share out all the words in the dictionary between them and they'd each end up with more than enough to produce a decent lifetime's work. And here's the best bit: not one of them would be able to understand a single word written by any of the others. 
All of which gives me an idea: namely to frame this otherwhile evagation with such fienden cautel, meandriform tortuosity and wanhopely intertanglements that even keenly philologues won’t have the faintest clue as to what I'm on about. 

And while the most pertinatious might be forgiven for renouncing exigent or otherwise usitative obligements only to prove susceptive to pococurantish musardry — especially late at night, after a glass of wine or two — the rorty ribaldise that later survenes when, having thumbled the hirpled visure of semblesse, they eagerly forsake the embrace of Morpheous for the sweeter allures of Venus — well it doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Hare

Yesterday in the late afternoon, walking by the edge of the high fields above our village, I met with a hare, feeding on the rich new grass growing between the winding tractor tracks.

I stopped and stood motionless. The hare was around 20 metres away - tawny grey with blackish ears. It turned its head toward me and I expected it to take off, but instead it ambled towards me along the path, stopping to nibble at another clump of grass. Now that it was a little closer I could see that its ears were slender and though mainly black were edged with vibrant white. It held them folded down along its neck but on turning its head would raise them suddenly, as if flashing me a V.

It came closer. It was about 10 metres away. My first impression was that it looked young.

I know almost nothing about hares and though my entire hare awareness had grown infinitely richer all in the space of ten minutes, I had little idea of whether, for a hare, it was large or small. Maybe my sense that it was young had something to do with its innocence in not immediately registering me as a threat. In any case, I began to doubt my first impressions as its white underbelly seemed drawn down as if weighty with milk. Was it a nursing mother?

(Even as I write, I sense the hare experts - of which there are undoubtedly several amongst my readers - reaching for their keyboards)  

All this time, I had settled into a state of still immobility. I decided that I would not move whilst the encounter persisted. And she (because, by now, it seemed she was a she) came still closer.

When she was just five meters away she turned her head and I saw her perfect roundel eye.

Then she was walking towards me, high on her legs - almost like a small deer, I recall thinking - except for those amazing, slender ears, raised again in a V

And then what happened? I think it must have been me. I must have shifted a little, hesitated or something.

She turned and ran off down the path and into the field. There was nothing frantic or panicked about her exit.

It is a very strange thing - but it feels to me that I was the one who decided to end the encounter - and I don't know quite why.

I am coming to believe that the creatures with whom we share this world are conscious - not in the same way that people are, but each in their own way - distinct and wonderful.    

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On being no good at Yoga

I have known for a long time that I should get serious about yoga. Apart from the obvious health benefits (both physical and spiritual) there's the aesthetic appeal of composing one’s body into all sorts of interesting, attractive and impressive postures. And if that isn’t enough, there is the tantalising prospect— for those willing to undertake a rigorous regime of self-discipline — of attaining an elevated state of consciousness and even bursting through to full-blown spiritual enlightenment.

What’s not to like about it ?

The trouble is, I'm hopeless at yoga. I can't touch my toes; I can't even sit on a flat floor with my legs outstretched without toppling backwards. At the last yoga class I attended — and I have attended many over the years — I considered asking if I might do my exercises in a little curtained-off area, visible only to the teacher and thereby sparing my fellow participants the half-glimpsed sight of my lumbering efforts.

Of course, given even a modicum of serious application, all this would undoubtedly improve. At the yoga class the teacher advises starting every day with 10 or 15 minutes practice but on the first morning there is invariably something more important that needs doing; on the second I forget completely; on the third, I do 3 minutes and realise that it is nowhere near enough and then it’s too late. Best try again next week. This goes on for a week or two, after which I decide that I won’t go back to the class until I have cracked the problem of daily practice. After that it all goes rapidly downhill until the whole cycle starts again.

I believe it boils down to a problem with self-discipline (towards which I have a stubborn and perverse resistance). If only it were possible to practice yoga in a similar way to those Michel Thomas language courses. There, the advice is that you should not try to remember any of the words you are learning and on no account should you revisit lessons or attempt to revise. Now that's the kind of discipline that appeals to me. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to work when it comes to yoga.

And so —  though the day I have to ask someone to tie my shoelaces is still a little way off — I have come to accept that suppleness is a quality I am destined never to enjoy.

But then recently something interesting happened. As if reluctant to give up on the yoga business completely, I found myself wondering precisely why it is I am so bad at it. So for example, if I lie on my back with my arms out to the sides and let my knees fall to the right, I get a sense of tautness in my left upper arm. It’s a similar case with the other bits. It led me to develop a mental picture of my body as a complicated system of interlinked strings (frayed) and pulleys (seized-up) in which every part is linked in some strange and intriguing way to all the others.

These days, I find myself unable to resist spending a few minutes every morning on the matexploring the minute details of my incompetence.  

Monday, July 18, 2016


The thing that most frustrates me about people who support renewal of the Trident weapons system is their apparent inability (or unwillingness) to imagine what would happen if we ever came to use it. I may be wrong, but I picture them saying something fatalistic like:

"Well, we'll all be dead anyway - so it doesn't bear thinking about".

But it does bear thinking about; we have a responsibility to think about it.

And by no stretch of the imagination would everyone be dead after a nuclear exchange. The reality would be far worse than that - for around every ground zero there would be a series of zones within which every imaginable horror would be endured.

Just to bring it home: if a single Trident warhead was exploded over a major city (similar to London) there would be half a million fatalities but, more significantly, around a quarter of a million people would suffer third degree burns and of these, upwards of 50,000 would be children. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to picture the chaos and suffering that these numbers represent.

Bearing in mind that the UK National Burns Care Group currently defines a Mass Casualty Incident as one involving around 1000 patients, it is no exaggeration to say that injuries resulting from a nuclear strike, would overwhelm even the best-resourced medical services.

I for one am not prepared to support a defence policy that threatens to unleash an obscenity of this sort  - even in retaliation.

Friday, February 19, 2016

More fun with the smell-checker

One of my favourite comic writers - "the soles of whose shoes I am unworthy to lick" (to quote Eric Idle) - was Paul Jennings. Some of his best pieces were published as a collection called The Jenguin Pennings. If you have ever read any of these you might have noticed a certain similarity to the infinitely more humble offerings of your's truly. 

There's no secret about it; Paul Jennings is a great insulation. 

All of which reminds me of one of my favourite Jennings pieces. As is customary he starts with something quite innocuous before letting his comic imagination get to work. In this case he was learning to touch type and, in particular, typing the standard test phrase: "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". Forbidden to look at the keys, he inevitably made mistakes and then went on the analyse them for hidden, subconscious significance.  

Of course, the spell-checker gives the whole enterprise a turbot boat - or should I say a turbo boost - and so I decided to give it a try.  

Using Hamlet's famous soliloquy as the test piece, I typed it out as fast as I could with the spell-checker turned up to 11.

Here's what emerged: 

To be or not ego end; that is the quiet son  

And you see how, right from the word go, we're into some pretty deep stuff. That 'ego end' for example. What more profound way to talk about death?

Whether it is an oblige in the mind to suffer the Swiss and arrows of outrageous rotund 

This is more undoubtedly more difficult. 'An oblige in the mind' has something primitive about it - there are hints here of a subconscious compulsion, but quite what the Swiss have to do with it is unclear.  

Or to take absinthe and sea-dog trailers and by opening end them.  

Stranger and stranger. Despite the fact that a sea-dog trailer is exactly the sort of thing you might expect to come across after a dose of absinthe, it is utterly incomprehensible why you should want to open them and how that's going to help anything. 

This was clearly going to demand some serious analysis; I decided to try something simpler: 

Humpy dimply dat one a wall 
Humphrys dedumpty had agreed to a fall
All the kinda horse and all the makings men 
Couldn't pry Humply together again 

… which I am sure you will agree can confidently hold its own against the original.  

As to what it means exactly - I will leave you to decide.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is Life? 1

So, in response to the invitation that concluded my last blog as to which topic should be the 'first up' out of:

1. Buy-to-let
2. Identity theft
3. Bitcoin
4. What is Life?

I can now announce the result, namely that 100% of respondents opted for topic no.4

Readers: You say respondents. How many were there exactly ?

Three as it happens; but it doesn’t matter. What is Life? it is.

Of course, by life, we could be talking about any number of things.  I mean, there's life in the abstract poetic sense:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as  …..
Readers: Yeah, yeah — that's the one we want.

… then there’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Version ….

Readers: That one will do too. Whatever. Just get on with it.

But I’m not thinking of either of these.  No, I'm talking about life in the biological sense — what you see when you look at other people, dogs, trees, spiders, worms, flies. slugs and slime ... that sort of life.

Readers: Heaven preserve us.

And so the question is .... what is it exactly. What is life ?

(Some people, sensing an imminent plunge into something resembling a school chemistry lesson, might choose to get off at this point. If you are one of them then please don’t feel badly about it; it’s not like I’ll ever know. Just try to leave quietly without upsetting the others.)

I have been interested in this topic for a number of years. It would be reasonable to ask why.

Readers: Maybe — but do we really have to ? 

I could talk about the books I have read, about theories and scientific disciplines but that would be to miss the essential thing, which is  more to do with the sense of wonder we experience when we stand back and contemplate the mysterious world that surrounds us. And so it was in my case, initially through literature and film — and in particular, Stanislaw Lem’s book, Solaris and the later film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky — that I first caught a glimpse of the world seen as a stranger or innocent might see it.

In Lem’s story, the planet Solaris is so unfathomably complex that entire institutes are established, dedicated to the study of the bizarre and incomprehensible processes and structures observed on its surface. The consensus view is that the planet is effectively a single, sentient organism and, though this was some years before James Lovelock’s Gaia, it didn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see that Solaris might easily be taken to stand for our own planet. In the film version Tarkovsky takes this a step further, in making it clear how those who have experienced the planet firsthand are irrevocably changed by the experience — being left with the sense that things formerly seen as ordinary or commonplace have taken on a quality of profound mystery.

Then sometime later, I was watching a wildlife documentary in which a flock of white birds, filmed from above, was flying over an empty  landscape and I found myself thinking how Earth is a planet on which the basic building blocks of matter have mysteriously become alive to the extent that pieces can actually detach themselves from the surface and engage in all sorts of complex behaviours. In truth, Earth itself is a living planet - not just a planet with life on it, but a planet that is itself alive; seemingly unique among the other planets in the solar system; and, for all we know, in the entire universe.

In attempting to explain life, scientists — at least until recently — have had little to offer beyond the idea that, given sufficient time, the generation of a mind-boggling number of random combinations of molecules will eventually result in the accidental creation of one or more exquisite biological mechanisms, capable of self-organisation and replication.

Meanwhile, to people of faith, it is all down to the hand of God — it being utterly inconceivable that the rich tapestry of life could have come about by means of a mere lottery, however many rolls of the balls are allowed.

I find both of these views — which could respectively be labeled creationist and mechanistic — completely unsatisfactory, inasmuch as they regard the material world as oddly limited in its capacity to give rise to new forms and structures. In both scenarios, the laws of physics and chemistry are allowed to explain certain natural combinations: molecules, crystals — even amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) but it is as if, beyond a certain level of complexity, further structural elaboration is assumed to be implausible and something else has to be brought into play: either God or Dawkins’ blind watchmaker.

There is another alternative however: namely that it is in the nature of basic matter to assemble itself, first as simple and later more complex molecules, all the way up to the astounding nano-machines found in even the simplest cells and that this process entails a rich interplay of structure and environment — subject, all the while, to a number of simple rules. This is discussed in a recent book by Nick Lane: The Vital Question. As I have only a rudimentary understanding of chemistry, I have found the book fairly hard going and am still only around halfway through reading it, but it is inspiring to see the author explain how the fundamental processes found in the simplest bacterial forms of life might have come about almost inevitably, given the right environment.

Readers: so that’s what you spend your time thinking about … 

Well not all my time exactly, but yes - and for no other reason than that I find this stuff seriously fascinating. And what’s more, it raises all sorts of interesting questions — for example:

Evolution would appear to account for the ‘endless forms’ in which life manifests itself, but the underlying mechanisms governing replication, respiration etc are virtually identical in all living species - even the most primitive. How did such mechanisms themselves evolve and why are there virtually no traces of alternative designs ?

Readers: Why indeed ?

And is life on earth unique or does it exist elsewhere in the universe?

Readers: Yes — that’s a good one and what’s the answer do you think ?

Ah - we might have to leave that till next time.

Readers: What? There’s more ? 

Lots. We’ve barely scratched the surface

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year's resolutions

I don’t normally do these — resolutions that is — but this year one just sort of popped up, namely:

Get on with it 

It has the attraction of being fairly non-specific, while simultaneously addressing my main problem, namely a tendency to engage in wool gathering — which the dictionary defines as indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining.

Anyway, while my New Year’s resolution has broad scope (being applicable to everything, from tidying the cellar to being more sociable), for you dear readers, the fruit will be dished up on these very pages. I have a number of topics waiting in the wings, including:


Identity theft


What is Life?

… as well as a selection of lighthearted extracts from Horsley’s Over the Wall magazine.

If you have a particular preference as to which of these delicacies you would like to sample first, please let me know.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you a very happy (and productive) New Year

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Rugby, Geoff Parling and pressure

When it comes to rugby (and most other games for that matter) I’m a bit of a fair-weather fan. Years can go by without even the merest glimmer of interest on my part. But come the World Cup and all the razzamatazz that accompanies it and you’ll find me glued to the television. 
In advance of this year’s competition I even went online and brushed up on the rules, on the grounds that, along with the general spectacle: stadia, crowds, extravagant TV ads etc., it wouldn’t harm to understand a little of what was taking place on the pitch.
And there was an unexpected bonus when It came to the game itself — namely the TMO (or television match official) which, as you will no doubt be aware, is consulted at those moments in the game when the tangled mass of bodies reaches a density that is simply too bewildering for the referee to figure out. So what at first is a horrifying, wince-inducing, collision of massive, muscular bodies is transformed, through a series of slow-motion replays, into a graceful, balletic tumble in which arms, legs and torsos are gently interwoven and hands grapple desperately for the ball.
And though it was heartbreaking to watch England defeated by Australia last night, it was a short pre-match interview with England forward, Geoff Parling that spurred me to write this piece. The interviewer was asking Parling how he managed to cope with the pressure in advance of one of the biggest matches of his career. This is what he said:
“Pressure for me doesn’t apply to rugby in general; pressure for me is someone struggling to put food on the table for his family. In rugby, it’s expectation.”
Call me an old sentimentalist, but I liked that. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

2020 vision

I am finding the Labour leadership contest absolutely fascinating
You get a sense that the three sensible, moderate and realistic candidates are in a state of shock. Until a few weeks ago they were under the impression they understood how to do politics — it being essentially a matter of selling the electorate a well-formulated and attractively packaged product. And yet they now suddenly find themselves eclipsed by someone who looks like a geography teacher — for goodness sake.
The bit they really don’t seem to get is that, in reality, it’s not so much about Jeremy Corbyn as it is about an energy that is beginning to well up amongst ordinary people, a sense that things might be organised differently — not only more fairly, but more imaginatively and effectively. But, above all, it is the fact that people are talking to one another again that is most exciting. I have seen it and it’s real. It’s as if we have been in a deep enchanted sleep and now we are waking up — and not a moment too soon.
We have been duped, taken for idiots and sold the outlandish story that the processes involved in the concentration of monetary wealth are entirely natural and capable of delivering general wellbeing all round -- were it not for our sentimental attachment to older, less effective ways of doing things.
Except, this is not actually the story we have been sold. Though it might be an accurate summary of what is meant by neoliberalism it is a draught that is still too bitter to be taken straight.
Instead, we have the simpler story that says the country is like a household: if you spend too much you get into debt and debt leads to problems. So the most important thing is we have to stop spending and learn to live according to our means — austerity in other words. Much though we might be attached to the NHS, mutual societies, free education and the BBC, they are all simply too expensive.
This is a narrative that has been adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, by both main parties. To be fair, the Labour version has placed greater stress on the need to mitigate austerity’s harmful side effects, but the underlying premise has not been seriously questioned — at least not until recently, when we begin to see the terrible cost that this narrow ideology is exacting from a growing portion of the population. Children growing up in ugly and unsanitary homes; young people leaving university laden with debts; those starting young families unable to find anywhere to live; the elderly left to fade away in under-resourced care facilities
It needn’t be like this. With energy and imagination we can create something better.
In the last few days I have heard two of the three sensible, moderate and realistic leadership candidates say:
“I love the Party too much to see it … blah blah blah”
Maybe that is the problem: they have come to love the party so much that they have overlooked the fact that their job is to represent the rest of us.
Their line is that Corbyn will take us all back to the 1980s when the party — though not necessary everyone else — had a particularly hard time.
I remember the 1980s: we’re not going back there anyway; we’re going forward — to 2020.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Andrew's Liver Salts

To: GlaxoSmithKline
      Consumer Healthcare

Re: Original Andrew's Salts

Though I am only an occasional user of this product, I find it effective and always try to keep some to hand. All the same, the packaging of your product is without doubt one of the most extreme cases of bad design I have ever come across. 

I am talking about the plastic, oval bottle with the blue spoon attached to the lid. 

I am taking the time to write about this because I am genuinely fascinated by the process that led to such a design being dreamed up, approved and put into production. It's not simply a matter of not being good, it's more a case of taking bad design to new heights. In short, the person who designed this packaging is clearly something of an evil genius. 

Let's start at the top: 

Firstly there's that spoon that you have to snap off to use. It's too short for a start. As soon as the level of the contents is down to around 80% they can no longer be reached by the spoon – which is probably a good thing, as it is stored in an exposed position on the top of the lid and liable to get dirty. What's more, the way the lid opens makes it almost inevitable that you will place the tip of your finger in the bowl of the spoon just prior to using it – not a good idea. 

No, snap the spoon off and throw it away. It's worse than useless. To get at the contents you will need a very special kind of spoon. A teaspoon is too short. A desertspoon would be long enough but is too wide to use in the very awkwardly shaped container. No – you will need to get yourself one of those long-handled, teaspoon-sized spoons used in ice-cream parlours. You should keep one where you will be able to find it easily, in the middle of the night, when suffering from indigestion. 

The lid is not easy to use either. On the face of it, it looks OK. There's a little depression in the end and a projecting tab for the thumb – but I always find myself trying a couple of other ways first. It's a problem that starts with that spoon. The lid moulding presents two or three distinct profiles that each looks like it might the edge of the lid, together with intriguing tabs to try with your thumbnail.  

It is difficult to believe that such a simple piece of packaging can be so rich in surprises. For example, I was astounded to read on the label on the back of the container:  

See inside label for how to open and dosage instructions

Am I to take this to mean that there is a second label, inside the container that gives you instructions on how to open it ?

However, on the lower corner of the first label there is a triangular yellow tab bearing this amazing statement: 

Peel here but do not remove

On carefully peeling back the corner of the label I discovered there is a second, hidden label underneath containing, amongst other things, advice on opening the container and correct use of the spoon. This must be the mysterious inside label referred to earlier. 

All the same, as the advice is not to remove the outer label, I carefully lower it back in place. 

In this age of technological marvels, of incomprehensible machines and processes, of expert design and professionalism, it's encouraging to come across something so bad as to be almost brilliant. It restores my faith in the imperfection of human nature. 

Somewhere, in your organisation there is an exceptional individual, capable of the most bizarre and dysfunctional feats of design. If you are aware of any other examples of his (or her) work, I would be most interested to know of them. 


William Wormwood

... a week or two later I received a reply

Dear Mr Wormwood, 

Thank you for your letter regarding your disappointment with the pack design of our Andrew's Salts. We are proud of our reputation for high quality and are sorry that we have not met your expectations on this occasion. As we are continually assessing our products with regard to packaging etc. we are grateful that you have gone to the trouble of letting us know your views. 

Yours sincerely, 

[illegible squiggle

Breaking news: 

I note, on visiting my local pharmacy that the packaging remains essentially unchanged but that they have dispensed with the removable spoon. I like to think it was my allusions to the risk of bacterial contamination that prompted them to action. 

All the same, I would have loved to known more of that designer; I can't help fantasising that he or she was responsible the Dyson DC21: