Monday, October 31, 2016

Treat... Or Trick?

“I hear your Oliver’s off school again this week.”

Alice Potter leaned on the front fence and Julia found herself wondering if it would support the weight.  She’d been hoping to get down to the village shop and back without encountering anyone she knew.  Oliver’s condition still seemed so utterly improbable that it was a source of deep embarrassment to her.  Not to mention her anxiety regarding some of her ten-year-old son’s proclivities since his unfortunate affliction had become manifest.  “Yes, Doctor Goody has contacted the Head.  It’s all in hand.  I’m sure they’ll be able to do something about it quite soon, and then he’ll be right as rain in no time.”

Alice gave her a somewhat hard stare.  “That’s as may be, but I’ve been hearing one or two rumours lately and it all sounds a bit…  you know…”

Julia glanced nervously back at the newly constructed shutters that blocked off all daylight from little Oliver’s bedroom.  “I…  I’m not sure I know what you mean, Alice.”

“Well,” said Alice, delighting in Julia’s discomfort.  “I don’t want to mention bats, but…  there’s been some quite peculiar sightings in the village these last few nights…”

Julia straightened her back and, posture adjusted, spoke as assertively as she was able.  “Alice Potter, that is utterly ridiculous, if you don’t mind my saying.  It is true that we were completely unable to remove the costume after Trick or Treat night, but we are firmly of the belief that a simple surgical procedure will entirely eliminate the problem.”

“I’m only saying.  I just hope you’re right, Julia.  We don’t want anyone else complaining about bite marks on their necks, do we?”

Julia hastened to the village shop, her mind in turmoil.  It was her husband Adam’s fault.  He’d insisted they buy the costume.  “Now that is serious value for money,” he’d said, but she’d felt from the start that such an elaborate costume should have gone for a much higher price.  Oliver had been thrilled when he’d put it on.  It was only when he’d started speaking in a strong Transylvanian accent that they’d suspected anything was amiss.

The ‘bite marks’ to which Alice had referred had indeed been inflicted by their son, on at least two villagers who had refused him the requisite treats.  He’d made surprisingly quick use of the rather fearsome set of fangs that came with the costume.  At this point Adam and Julia had stepped in quite firmly and informed him that Hallowe’en was at an end as far as he was concerned.  They’d tried to get him to apologise, but all he’d done was hiss loudly at his victims.  It had all been quite disconcerting.

More so when they found that the costume, along with the fangs and the black and white body paint, appeared to have fused to his body.  They’d had to put him to bed, dressed as he was.  Then, next morning, they’d had to search for him when they found the bedroom empty.  He’d eventually been located cowering timidly in a large trunk down in the cellar.  He seemed to be under the impression that, exposed to any form of sunlight, he would be reduced to dust particles.  It was at that point that they called for the services of Doctor Goody.

Julia was conscious of suspicious eyes watching her as she purchased a litre of milk and a few pounds of frozen beefsteak for Oliver to suck at as it defrosted.  No doubt the likes of Alice Potter had been spreading unpleasant and malicious rumours.  The sooner Oliver could undergo the required medical procedures and have himself extricated from that shroud of obscene cloth and shiny plastic, the better.  Then and only then would the whole business blow over.  At least, she reflected as she left the shop, it was a blessing that they hadn’t gone for the werewolf costume.  All that matted, blood stained fur.  Very unhygeinic.

As for ‘Vlad’s Morphsuits’, they’d be hearing from Adam’s solicitors in due course.

Meanwhile, at the rear of the The Bullshitter’s Arms, there appeared to be something of a carpentry and outdoor crafts workshop under way, as two burly men took turns to carve a piece of four by four into a large and very sharp stake.  A number of the remaining gentlemen were preparing burning torches to ignite, as dusk came to an end.  Whilst indoors several women distributed crucifixes and garlic.

It was distinctly possible that Julia’s blithe optimism was built on somewhat shaky foundations.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Dodgy Reg

Dodgy Reg

“I think this room is bugged,” says dodgy Reg, scratching his unruly beard before returning to the construction of a twig thin Old Holburn roll-up.  This doesn’t surprise me.  Reg is obsessed with conspiracies.  There is no doubt in his mind that it was the CIA who assassinated John F Kennedy, that the moonwalk was a Hollywood fake and that a small cadre of mega rich people known as the Illuminati control every political decision made across the entire world.

“Oh give it a rest, man.  Why on earth would anyone want to bug my living room?”

“On earth?”  He lights up with a battered old Ronson.  I get a brief whiff of lighter fuel, before he breathes out a pungent cloud of rolly smoke.  “You’re not thinking outside the box, my friend.  E.T.s may well walk amongst us, Richard, and if they do they’ll have connections in the highest of places.  Mark my words.”

I throw up my hands.  “Reg, I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.  Let’s just stick with you explaining to me why on-  Why anyone would go to all the effort of bugging my living room.  I mean, what would be the point?”.

“You’ve been on marches.  You’ve associated yourself with one or two radical causes in your time.  You’re on the records.  GCHQ, they’ve got your name, your details, your photo…”  He gestures with the roll-up throughout this speech, rhythmically prodding the air as if running through bullet points in a presentation.

I recline in my armchair, feeling somewhat smug.  I’ve heard this sort of guff from Reg on more occasions than I can remember.  He’s a sweet enough guy, in many ways, providing you can get him off this topic.  “That was years ago.  I had hair then.  There’s no resemblance to the bald old git I am now.”

He leans towards me.  His stare is intense.  I’m already starting to think that a brief ‘let’s not go there, eh, Reg?’ would have been my best response.  I’ve probably only got myself to blame for this onslaught.  “But you are on the internet.  Photos on Facebook, yeah?  They can update, no problem.  And you use a mobile.  Weren’t you listening when Edward Snowden told us all what was going on?”

“Okay.  Take your point.  But I don’t have any ‘extremist’ connections.  Don’t think I ever have had.  So why should they have any interest in me whatsoever?”

He’s tapping ash into his empty coffee mug.  I realise I’ve neglected to provide an ashtray.  Oh well.  It’ll rinse.  He’s wearing a thick, lined check shirt and ridiculously skin tight jeans – and there’s not a lot of hygeine goes on below those clothes.  One of the laces on his trainers is rainbow coloured, the other black.  “I’m not saying you’re top priority, Rich,” he says.  “I’m not saying there’s a guy somewhere with a pair of earphones listening in right at this moment.  What they have is algorithms.  That’s how they do this stuff en masse.  All you have to do is use a few key words, in an email, or a phone call, or even sitting here in this room, and your rating goes up a notch.  Few more.  A notch or two more.  Eventually, yeah, someone’s listening.”

“Alright – the network stuff, I can see that.  But how do they get a bug into my living room?”

“Didn’t you tell me you had BT Connect in a few weeks back?  Were you watching the engineer every minute?  Did you know exactly what he was doing?"

“Actually, Reg, her name’s Heather, and she was a real sweetheart, if a bit over-chatty.”

“She might not even know she’s doing it.  But that’s just one way.  You leave your windows open in summer when it’s hot?”  I nod.  “Right.  So you’re not in the room.  Drone flies in through your window, pops a little device under your coffee table.  Flies out.  Job done.”

“That, mate, is pure and utter paranoia.”

I get the intense stare again.  “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Eventually I nudge him off-topic.  A mutual pal we’re both concerned about.  Some dubious dealings by the local council.  I enjoy talking with him about stuff like that.  He’s knowledgeable.  He’s a friend.  Another coffee, another roll-up and he’s on his way.  I open the window to clear the whiff of Old Holborn, muttering to myself in the process.  “Drones.  Bloody hell!  What next?”

I get to thinking about a film - 'The Conversation' - I saw, years ago, in which Gene Hackman plays a bugging device technician.  They have conventions, these buggers, displaying and selling the latest devices, seminars on technique, all the business.  Hackman gets involved in some complex plot threads, conscience tweaked, concerned that his own work will result in a murder.  At some point he realises that he himself is being bugged.  The film ends with him demolishing his own apartment in a desperate search for the device.

I remove the pile of books, magazines and the empty cups from the coffee table.  When it’s cleared, I pick it up, turn it over and have a careful look.

Just in case…

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

3.14159… The Transcendental Periphery

3.14159…  The Transcendental Periphery

In our time, the term ‘awesome’ is over-used and trivialised.  It has become at its crudest a mere term of approval.  Much of the reality in which we generally agree we are living remains, however, truly awesome.  Sheer physical scale can overwhelm us.  On Earth we have the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas and the Aurora Borealis; we have earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes – sights or events whose magnitude reduces us to a sense of insignificance.  Look beyond our world, to the massive star which gives us energy and enables life to exist, yet which would incinerate any form of life which so much as approaches it and will eventually do the same to much of our solar system.  Look at the vastness of the distance between that star and its nearest neighbour, and then at the uncountable multiplicity of stars beyond.  That sense of insignificance blends with sheer incomprehension.

And yet ‘awesome’ can be found within us.  The human brain with its approximately one hundred trillion synapse connections.  The fact that our fragile bodies are constructed from atoms which, if split, could unleash the power of nuclear weapons.  The complexity of coding in our DNA which patterns us - and all living things – to be what we are.

In fact, ‘awesome’ lurks in every direction.  Including mathematics.  Back in the 1980s I was introduced to a book by Douglas R. Hofstadter titled ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’, in which the author looked at the paradoxes explored by those three and others in what he called ‘strange loops’.  These he found in the self-referential.  Think of the words: ‘this statement is false’ – which can neither be true nor untrue.  Hofstadter, in his 725 page ‘mental gymnasium’ (as the New Statesman reviewer described it) traces these loops through Godel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’, Escher’s impossible graphics and Bach’s extraordinary canons.  It was a book that enhanced my sense of the conceptual wonder to be found in the mathematical frameworks that appear (albeit incompletely?) to underlie all of existence.

Pi, it seems to me, stands as an epitome.  It is the ratio of the length of a circle’s circumference to that of its diameter.  That part is reasonably comprehensible, even to a non-mathematician such as myself.  It doesn’t matter what size the circle may be, the ratio is constant.  The name ‘Pi’, after the Greek letter, was coined by an English mathematician, William Jones, in 1706 and was probably meant to stand for the word ‘periphery’.  Pi is often inaccurately represented as 22 over 7, or 3 and one seventh, but when attempts are made to capture it with greater precision, the wonder begins…

The figure 3.14159, quoted in my heading, is more accurate, but in truth the decimal points continue, ever diminishing, and seemingly have no end.  Computing has vastly improved our ability to calculate it.  The record in 2015 ran to 13.3 trillion digits, and still no finality in sight.  This apparent infinitude results in Pi’s identification as an ‘irrational number’.  But the irrationality also extends to the nature of these digits, which never once repeat periodically.  Though they cannot be described as truly random, say the mathematicians, there are no appreciable patterns or sequences of repetition as the digits unfold.

Pi is also described as ‘transcendental’, which – in a mathematical sense – means that it exists but cannot be expressed in any finite series of either arithmetical or algebraic operations.  So, if you try to express Pi as the solution to an equation, the equation – like the decimal – goes on forever.  It transcends the power of algebra to display it in its totality.  That is awesome.

But there’s more.  There’s a mystery, in fact.  Pi doesn’t in any way actually need to have these apparently infinite extensions.  It has been calculated that an expansion of Pi to a mere 47 decimal places would be sufficiently precise to inscribe a circle around the visible universe that doesn’t deviate from perfect circularity by more than the width of a single proton (ie: less than an atom).  Now remember: it has been calculated to 13.3 trillion decimal places!  So why?  Why is this seemingly simple ratio of such an apparently infinite nature at all?  Perhaps if we ever understand that, we’ll understand a lot of things a lot better.

Because Pi is everywhere.  Any natural circle you see, for example.  The discs (to us) of the moon and sun.  The head of a sunflower.  The pupils of our eyes.  In ripples, waves and spectra.  The rainbow.  Anything with circularity involved: the double helix of DNA for example.  Weather patterns, hurricanes, whirlwinds…Mathematicians calculate formulae for all sorts of natural phenomena, and so very often Pi is part of the notation – but at this point I begin struggling to grasp, and have to take things on faith.

No wonder the circle is the core motif of mandalas.  If infinity is bound into its make-up, what better shape to contemplate in states of meditation?  The Sanskrit word ‘mandala’ itself can be interpreted as meaning ‘circle’.  So once again we find, although we must always be wary of jumping to conclusions, that our ancient philosophies seem to touch on concepts which we think we are only now discovering.  Yes: here we go again – re-inventing the wheel.

It is said that the universe itself is circular in its nature.  I cannot claim to understand this idea with my intellect, but it appeals to me greatly.  If you were somehow able to travel far enough so that you crossed the entire universe, you would end up back at the place where you began.  What a trip!

And perhaps still those decimal points would be continuing, trillions and trillions more of them.  And those formulae that never end, because they can never quite get to the bottom of Pi.

Think about it.



Sand mandala of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion, created by monks of  Tashi Lhunpo monastery on a visit to Shaftesbury, summer 2016.  Photo by RF.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Forgotten Things

Forgotten Things

I want to celebrate the tiny forgotten things…
The coin in the pocket that slips through the hole
Nestles in the fabric of a jacket for years
Noticed perhaps as a momentary lump of discomfort

The tickets to concerts that couldn’t quite be thrown away
Set aside by some loving impulse in a tin, a box or an envelope
The location of which cannot now be recalled…

I hesitate to mention these things…
By drawing attention to them, I change their nature
& I do not want them celebrated in the light of such exposure
I want them celebrated
In corners, in the dirt at the back of drawers
In dust and in shrouds of cobweb
Not thought of
But there
Holding some aspect of reality together

I want to celebrate them, then…
The scraps of paper with their notes, their lists their doodles…
The pen that doesn’t work, languishing in detritus at the bottom of a bag…
The dry corpses of woodlice beneath the bed…
The tiny empty bottles that still contain the ghost of a scent…
The old jacks & wires that had some function in a sound system somewhere back in some bejewelled day…

Long may they languish
&, like these rare words of mine,
May they be unearthed
Not in a bright blaze, not with any fanfare
But in moments of contemplation
Of divine idleness

When we see between the lines…