I don’t camp. Unless it comes with room service. I haven’t camped frequently, hamdullah, but the occasions when I have are, curiously, etched into long term memory like a computer virus. After what seems like lifetimes of muddy English fields, or even enthusiastic European campsites with sinks and flushing toilets, I still ‘don’t do canvas’. Camping and it’s even uglier sister, caravanning, is for those who can’t afford the Marriott. It’s for those with that appallingly British ‘mustn’t grumble’ stoicism, determined to enjoy themselves in the teeth of a squall gusty enough to uproot marrows and lashing rain which systematically soaks everything whether directly exposed to the elements or not. On arrival, you discover with enthusiasm that there’s a kilometer or more to walk to find either a flushing toilet or a stand-pipe from which if you wait long enough in the queue, you can collect enough water to make a small pot of tea. Thanks. But, no.
The reason for all of this is that, by and large, British expats are hardy and longsuffering worldwide travellers, packing a clean pair of underpants, a toothbrush and a SpeedStick in hand luggage and grittily making do for the rest. They arrive in strange foreign towns, dusty and unshaven, find the nearest Y, play catch with the cockroaches, eat triple portions for breakfast to save the expense of lunch and, terror notwithstanding, travel by local bus and to hell with the risk of either fire or electrocution. They drink polluted water, reasoning that the fastest way to gain immunity is to expose oneself to the local bacterial fauna. This is travelling, it would seem. Tourism on the other hand, its gentler face, seeks to protect the visitor from the more unwholesome aspects of a foreign culture and just show them a good time, ferrying them en masse in a rum-sodden haze, from one ‘attraction’ to another. I suppose, to jeers and mingled boos, I am one of those who prefer the latter, minus rum. Marriott hotels worldwide are accessible from a Freefone number. To Omaha, Nebraska.
We live in iconic times. I have to say, this had been in the back of my mind ever since I saw “A Christmas Carol” in 3D, clapping, childlike with amusement, much as the first cinemagoers must have done when the characters’ words were heard, tinnily synchronised, adding new reality to the visual experience. Really, it was only a matter of time. With over fifty releases planned for movies in 3D, for the cinema and DVD/BluRay, the glasses makers have been a bit slow on the uptake. Especially here, where it’s not at all uncommon to drop 150KD or more on designer sunglasses. Wearing geeky cardboard frames that other people have worn, possibly many times, is mercifully to become a thing of the past, as frame makers have finally picked up on the notion that there’s a buck or two to be made here. These I thought particularly tasteful, if 70’s retro is your thing. The only problem to be overcome is when people forget that they are for 3D viewing and attempt to drive their cars wearing them. Given the quality of driving here, on the other hand, I doubt it’ll make much difference.
A friend used an interesting word in an email to me the other day. The word was “autarchism” which I confess I had to look up.
Autarchism (from Greek, “belief in self rule”) is a political philosophy that upholds the principle of individual liberty, rejects compulsory government, and supports the elimination of government in favour of ruling oneself and no other. Not a bad schema, one might suppose, particularly as it reminded me of an interesting snippet which I came across the other day. Apparently, in the UK, a child passenger in a car must “be restrained in a child’s car seat from the age of three to twelve, or up to 135cm in height.” Good grief, I know pensioners shorter than that. There is a fine of £500 – driver is responsible – if convicted and your kid is caught hanging out the window, as happens a lot here. The UK has turned itself into a nanny state and the election outcome the other day demonstrated its people don’t seem to have a clear idea of what kind of Government they want.
I was a fifties kid. I survived being born to a mother who smoked and drank while she carried me. She took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a tin, and didn’t get tested for diabetes.
My father painted my first cots with brightly coloured lead-based paint. I remember I used to suck the yellow off one end. I brought my mother presents of worms from the garden, having sucked them clean first. There were no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and I rode my bicycle in the middle of the road without a helmet. I fell out of trees, broke the odd bone and nobody got sued. I walked across roads to friends’ houses and knocked on the door or rang the bell or just threw pebbles up at the windows. Local teams had try outs and not everyone, especially me, made the team. Those who didn’t, like me, had to learn to deal with disappointment. Later, I hitched rides home if I didn’t have the bus fare and I was too late to walk four miles. Later still, I thumbed rides all over Europe, often with little clear idea of final destination. I once went to Yugoslavia. By accident. I was originally headed for Barcelona and the driver who picked me up just outside Paris was going somewhere else. I rode in vehicles without seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a farm lorry – especially a thousand miles from home – was a great way to get a suntan.
As a child, I drank water from the garden hosepipe, not from bottles, shared one soft drink with four friends from one bottle and nobody actually died. I ate cakes, white bread and real butter and drank pop with sugar in it, but I didn’t get fat because I was out burning calories all the time. I peed in the woods. I didn’t have an X-Box, a Nintendo, and for the early part of my childhood, TV. I didn’t have a mobile phone and neither did anybody else. So, if I got caught smoking in the shrubbery by a friend’s father there was no-one to call and I had to take my punishment like a man and hoped he wouldn’t tell my parents. The same went for the time we borrowed a friend’s father’s twelve-bore to go rabbit hunting. Police were less to be feared than parental wrath. We built go-karts out of abandoned prams, neglecting to include trivial and unnecessary additions like brakes. Frictional resistance in the bushes or an inadvertent soaking in the lime quarry prompted more careful design.
I had freedom, dealt with failure, celebrated success and learned responsibility. My generation has produced some of the finest and most inventive minds the world has ever known. We should spare a pitying thought for today’s kids, enslaved to interfering Governments, nanny states, seatbelts, Nintendo and Facebook. I wonder if they’ll do as well as us.
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. So runs the old Shaker song. But, simplicity, I think, is not so easily grasped and I’m therefore in agreement with George Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard. Objects have their own simplicity of function, but not of form. A cellphone has a very simple function, easily recognisable but with a highly complex structure. Asking ‘why does it work?’ is not the same as asking ‘how does it work?’ The former can be answered by saying ‘it works because I dial a friend’s number’, the latter by an initial discussion about microwave transceivers, all but unintelligible to anyone other than an expert in microelectronics. So, the complexity of the device is sufficiently intractable to obscure the simplicity of its function. A traffic flow system is at component level, a matter of interlocking straight lines, from journey beginning to end. In a complex system, weird stuff happens if its components continue to be allowed to dissipate energy, which is why people are late for work. A paradigm emerges where chaos seems inevitable and simplicity is lost. We don’t like this, as a species. We don’t like imperfections in our systems, we prefer that each system that we build works perfectly and if it does we can overlay it with another one. Looking at the bitrate map across the world is phenomenally complex, but a Google front end, on the other hand is simple and reliable, it works because I type stuff into the box.
Cathedrals and pyramids are built out of stones, but if the stones do not fit perfectly, the stones become a pile of rubble and the function of the cathedral is lost. I sometimes delude myself into believing that human psychological systems rely on all the components fitting together perfectly. When they don’t and mismatch occurs, a systematic dismantling may be preferable to a pile of rubble.
The image is of a Shaker chair.
This was too good to miss.
I do love Americans. When they get it right, the world listens, and when it goes wrong, it’s spectacular. A prominent Baptist minister and anti-gay campaigner in the US – he thinks homosexuality is a ‘disease’, with a wonderful, gauche naivete, hired a ‘bag carrier’ from an Internet site. His doctor advised him to take a travelling companion since he was unable to lift heavy objects. Just because he innocently went to “rentboy.com” it is presumed he might have indulged in fornication. Quite a leap of reasoning, I think. Let him among us who has never visited rentboy.com in order to find a bag handler cast the first stone, I’d say. I was going to link to the site, but thought that morally weaker readers might not be able to resist the temptation to access it and compare prices.
Everyone knows that I, too, enjoy spending time with sinners (mainly church-goers and loose women) but only of course to show them the error of their ways. Their gratitude makes it all worthwhile and the cash is incidental.
Of all the characters in A A Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” I have often been (I think unkindly) likened to Eeyore, the gloomy, pessimistic donkey, whose glass, far from being half-empty, has only a drop or two in it. Now do you see the likeness? The nearest modern equivalent to Eeyore is Marvin the Paranoid Android in “The Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whose legendary pessimism is almost contagious. It has been pointed out to me, I think most unfairly, that a more modern equivalent is Puddleglum from C S Lewis “The Silver Chair”. Puddleglum, the bastion of gloomy fortitude, is thought of as a bit of a wet blanket by the children, but he does have a few memorable lines…”Puddleglum’s my name. But it doesn’t matter if you forget it.”
This being so, I have been amusing myself by reading a few Talmudic parables in recent times. The Jews are experts on suffering, so it was rather like returning home.
Once, Rabbi Akiva was asked to explain why people afflicted with disease sometimes returned cured from a pilgrimage to the shrine of an idol, though it was surely powerless. His answer was the following parable: “There was a man in a certain city who enjoyed the confidence of all his fellow citizens to such a degree that without witnesses they entrusted deposits to him, with the exception of one man in the city who always made his deposits before a witness. One day, however, this distrustful man forgot his caution, and gave the other a deposit without a witness. The wife of the trustworthy man attempted to induce him to deny having received a deposit from the distrustful man, as a punishment for his suspicion; but the husband said: ‘Shall I deny my rectitude because this fool acts in an unseemly fashion?’ Thus it is with the sufferings inflicted by Heaven upon man, which have a day and an hour appointed for their end. (I have to say, I did like this part) If it happens that a man goes on that day to the idol’s shrine, the sufferings are tempted not to leave him, but they say, ‘Shall we not fulfil our obligation to leave this fool, although he has behaved with folly?'” Emperor Antoninus asked Rabbi how there could be punishment in the life beyond, for, since body and soul after their separation could not have committed sin, they could blame each other (so Jewish…)for the sins committed upon earth, and Rabbi answered him by the following parable: “A certain king had a beautiful garden in which was excellent fruit; and over it he appointed two watchmen, one blind and the other lame. The lame man said to the blind one, ‘I see exquisite fruit in the garden. Carry me thither that I may get it; and we will eat it together.’ The blind man consented and both ate of the fruit. After some days the lord of the garden came and asked the watchmen concerning the fruit. Then the lame man said, ‘As I have no legs I could not go to take it’; and the blind man said, ‘I could not even see it.’ What did the lord of the garden do? He made the blind man carry the lame, and thus passed judgment on them both. So God will replace the souls in their bodies, and will punish both together for their sins”.
How very comforting. You will try to remember my name, won’t you.