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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hello darkness my old friend

You wouldn't expect Space to have a smell would you? Because there's nothing much there. That's kinda why it's called Space, isn't it? 

Well you'd be wrong. Space smells burnt. (At least it does in our neck of the woods. Elsewhere it smells of raspberries and rum, but that's another story.) 

We know about the burnt smell of Space because astronauts carry it back to the International Space Station on their spacesuits, when they've been outside. ”The best description I can come up with is metallic,” said Don Pettit. “It reminded me of pleasant, sweet-smelling welding fumes.”

To Alexander Gerst it had a combination of fragrances, “namely walnuts and the brake pads of a motorbike.” 

So what has the smell of Space to do with that photo of my younger son and myself at his Glasgow School of Art degree show, where his main exhibit was that elegant urn, painstakingly assembled from the walls of the room, which he'd pulled down and cut up into little bricks?

“Deconstructing GSA” he'd called it and I'd asked him what it all meant. I should have known better, his standard answer to “What does it mean?” being “It doesn't mean anything. It's art.”

After four years of being asked the question, his response has become dismissively minimalist. It's not easy to convey the sound he makes through the written word, but allow me to try. 

Stand up, shrug your shoulders, as he's doing in the photo, and say out loud “I don't know”. Now keep repeating the sentence, gradually removing all consonants, while retaining the vocalised intonation. 

What you're left with, if you do it right, is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. The substance has gone but the sense remains. It sounds like 'A-u-oh', and the vocalisation is roughly re-mi-do (D-E-C).

Got it? Now let's join up the dots. My smart son kept telling me, all the time he was at Art School, that science and art are far more similar than they seem. They are, he believes, two roads to the same, distant destination.  

I think I now agree with him. He as an artist and I as a scientist are both trying to comprehend the strange universe our mums shoved us out into, without handbook or roadmap, and it is far from easy. 

Some scientists suffer from an ossified certainty. They have acquired so much knowledge and authority that they've come to equate these with understanding. The best scientists know that's nonsense.   

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there,” said Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and a man not known for his modesty.

The correct response of any scientist or artist to the ineffably weird world we inhabit is not dogmatic conviction. It's the sound my son makes when I ask him what it means.

Space has a smell. It also has a sound. “A-u-oh” is, I believe, one of the fundamental sounds of the universe. It's the sound of space. 

It's the sound of art.

It's the sound of science.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Question of time

When workload is heavy, Friendly Encounters become less frequent. So we've enlisted experienced reporters to fill the gaps with short, topical news stories. (But remember what Walt Whitman said: "Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.")

Reports that David Dimbleby has turned into a hot-air balloon have been greatly exaggerated, say experts.

"He's not mature enough," said Dr Turnovah Newleaf, a biologist at Sussex University. "Metamorphosis into a hot-air balloon is part of the life-cycle of the Dimblebys. But David hasn't reached that stage yet."

His father Richard Dimbleby did his best work after the change, she added. "He used to float above Royal Weddings emitting a sonorous, incomprehensible rumble. It was very soothing."

Dr Phil McCracken, a Glasgow psychiatrist, said: "Close study by scientists resulted in the discovery of Dimbleby Waves. These led to a breakthrough in the treatment of mental disorders, when a machine was invented that could create the waves electronically."

Dimbleby Waves make humans feel secure, said Dr McCracken. "They bypass the bullshit deflectors in our brains. So hospitals use the machines to pacify disturbed patients who believe Britain is run by psychopaths."

Although David has not yet metamorphosed, the change is inevitable, said Dr Newleaf. "You might as well try to stop a caterpillar becoming a butterfly as a Dimbleby turning into a hot-air balloon. 

"It's his destiny."

A good deal of plain gibberish

  A MacDog by Will Brenner.
"You have to be nice to them," I try to tell my son, as he curses his computer for the tenth time in an hour. But he's not listening. Essay writing is always fraught at Blane Mansions, and this term it's worse than usual because the subject is postmodernism, which is quite frankly bollocks.

Here's what Noam Chomsky had to say on the subject. "A lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts, argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial or false, and a good deal of plain gibberish."

Chomsky knew a thing or two. But. 

And it's a big but.

Given an essay assignment on postmodernism you have to convince yourself, for the couple of weeks it takes to research and write, that these people are among the most profound philosophers on the planet. You have to engage with their arguments, such as they are. And you have to be especially nice to your computer. 

"Because it doesn't like postmodernism any more than you do," I tell my son. "So it's suffering too. If you want your computer to perform well, you have to treat it like ....."

"A woman?" he scoffs. "You're going to say I have to treat my computer like a woman, aren't you? That's the kind of shit you ageing hippies always say."

"I am not now and never have been a hippy," I say. "No I wasn't, unless you want it to interrupt you every five minutes to ask if you've put the dustbins out. To get your computer to behave, you have to treat it like a well-loved pet - like Katy here."

Young, smart, hyperactive, Katy is a large Alsatian who is still trying to decide if I'm a member of her pack or a dangerous outsider. She is convinced the answer is hidden somewhere in my groin.

"Gerrof," I tell her and she throws me a look of reproach from big dark eyes, turns her back on me and flops on the floor. 

"See what I mean," I tell my son. "You and Linda get the best out of Katy because you're consistently kind with her, but firm when you need to be. You react to your computer, on the other hand, the way I just reacted to Katy, and with the same result. It sulks.

"Let me tell you something," he says, having clearly had enough motivation for one morning. "When I'm trying to work at a computer I spend a fifth of my time working and all of the rest of the time trying to make the little plastic turd DO WHAT I TELL IT TO DO! 

"It's a good thing Steve Jobs is dead or I would feel compelled to take all of the hours I've spent swearing at this piece of shit Mac and use that time rowing to California purely so I could KICK HIM UP HIS CALIFORNIAN ARSEHOLE!"

He stops for breath and looks around. "Where is my computer, by the way?"

"Long gone," I tell him. "Shot out the front door in the middle of your rant. You won't see it again, I'm guessing. It's run away to join one of the bands of feral computers that have been rejected by humans and now haunt the echoing halls of skyscrapers, airports and mainline railway stations, stealing electrons and playing games with each other."

"Computer games?" he says.

"Nah. That's work to a computer. Football."

He grins. "Well if that isn't post fucking modern I don't know what is. Fancy a cup of tea?"

Friday, 11 December 2015

Cause of December flooding found

At times of heavy workload, Friendly Encounters become less frequent. So we've enlisted experienced reporters to fill the gaps with short, topical news stories. Here is the first:

The severe flooding that has hit Britain this month has nothing to do with climate change, says a prominent scientist.

"It's all Jeremy Corbyn's fault," said Dr Nikolai Moss. "This isn't politics. It's science." 

Rain forms around negative particles in clouds, Moss explained. "So all the negativity in the media about Corbyn is floating up into the clouds and acting as condensation centres for rain droplets."

Asked to comment, Richard Dawkins, the biologist whose brain is famously so big it can be seen from Pluto, was unimpressed. "I had never heard of Nik Moss so I looked him up," he said. 

"He claims to have a degree in climatology from the University of Auchinleck. But I was on a train once that went through Auchinleck and it's just a couple of crofters' huts in the Scottish wilderness. The man's a charlatan."

"If Nik Moss is a scientist, my arse is an ancient Greek philosopher," he added.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Jazz journalism

So I'm stood in a bar in Amsterdam, last Thursday night, drinking cloudy Belgian beer, courtesy of my old friend Iain, and chatting to the best drummer in the world.

I am. Honest.

Usually I tell people Friendly Encounters is not reporting. Grounded in a solid groove it takes off at times into flights of fancy. It's jazz journalism.

But not this week. The Steve Gadd in this week's story is the real Steve Gadd. The me is the real me. You can even see my head bobbing at the bottom of this video taken on the night and hear my cry of pleasure at the end.

Which is a strange sound for my body to make at a jazz gig. But I hadn't realised that's what I was listening to. I was so entranced by how Steve makes his drum-kit sing.

"This is great," Iain says at the break. "Every one of those guys is outstanding. I prefer rock to jazz, so it wouldn't have been my first choice. But very well organised."

It's a sentence no one has said to me before, so I take a moment to savour it. Then I replay some of the sounds in my head. And bugger me, he's right. Somehow I've filtered out one guy tooting a trumpet, another on keyboards and a whole lot of swing, syncopation and improvisation. My dad would have loved it. They'd even played Bye Bye Blackbirda song he used to sing us to sleep with, and a staple of jazz bands since the 1920s.

The knowledge I'm at a jazz gig doesn't dim my delight, as Steve and the band play half a dozen numbers, build to a drum solo, get rapturous applause and return for the encore.

"I could listen to Steve Gadd play anything, with anything." I tell Iain in the bar afterwards. "He could make great music by hitting a fresh cowpat with two sticks of celery."

"Or a four-cheese pizza with a couple of cucumbers," he says. 

Now I've read lots of articles trying to understand what makes Steve special. They talk about his wonderful feel, but they don't analyse it much. Having watched him play from a distance of 15 feet I can tell you there's at least three elements. 

He doesn't draw attention to his drumming. It's great music he's after, not the limelight. He works with the other guys in the band to create a groove so strong you could dance six inches off the floor on it. Then there's the dynamics. His are subtle, cool, sometimes surprising. They make you feel good. 

Then there's the space he gives to other players in the band. My lasting image is not of triple ratamacues on every available surface, the drumsticks just a blur. It's of one stick moving down, nice and easy, while the other comes off the skins, or more often the cymbals. The 'tssst' sound of a clipped hi-hat closing at the right point to make your spirits soar is quintessential Steve Gadd.

Iain is all for hitting the rain-silvered pavements at the end of the show, since we've a fair walk to the hotel and don't know the way. But the band's coming into the bar to sign T-shirts, so I spend 30 euros and get in line. 

The scary bouncer catches my eye and I look away, the schoolboy words 'It wisnae me' forming and dissolving in my head. Clad in a dinner suit two sizes too small for him, this guy is big, bulging and bald. He looks like a cannonball on a column of stone. 

Until some poor sap puts his arm around Steve's shoulders and tries to take a selfie. Then the cannonball moves in fast and plucks him off, using an arm like a ballerina's thigh.

At the end of the long table, Steve stands up and has a quiet word with the bruiser, suggesting maybe he shouldn't break the nice fans. So the next selfie, he just stands and watches, twitching slightly with frustrated force.

When I get to the front, I move along the table, getting signatures on my T-shirt, and having a wee word with each musician. "I noticed you smiling a lot when someone else was soloing," I say to Jimmy Johnson, the five-string bass player.

"I was enjoying myself," he says. "How could you not? These guys are good."

And then I'm there. Stood in front of a smiling Steve Gadd, who has signed my T-shirt and is waiting politely for me to say something intelligent. So he's clearly not a reader of this blog.

Thin and wiry, his tattooed arms look just like mine. If only they were. "Imagine you're giving one piece of advice to a young drummer who wanted to get as good as you," I say to him. "What would it be?" 

"There's no secret," Steve says. "Keep playing. Practise. Listen to other musicians. Keep it simple."

I hold my hand out to shake his. "Slip me some magic, Steve," I say and float back to the table where Iain is guarding my beer. Ten minutes later we're all leaving the bar and Steve is chatting to someone next to me. On an impulse I reach out and stroke his arm, an involuntary gesture my hand does to people I really like. He looks at me, smiles and holds his hand out again. I shake it and say goodnight.

I've had hot dates that didn't go half as well. 

The final impression that comes to me, as Iain and I wander in circles through the long night, trying to find our hotel using the force, the stars and our unerring sense of direction, is that Steve Gadd isn't projecting. There's no big star aura. Despite all that talent, he's a nice guy who seems to be taking it all in. It's like he's still learning at the age of 70. I love that.

"Keep playing," Steve Gadd said to me. "Practise.

"Keep it simple."

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why can't I come?

"So you're off to Amsterdam this week?" Al says, as we walk along Milngavie road, resist the blandishments of the Burnbrae and head towards his ice-cold bungalow in Bearsden

"Can I come?" he adds.

"You wouldn't want to," I say. "It's a Steve Gadd and James Taylor gig and you don't like either, far as I know."

"Who's Steve Gadd?" he says, which doesn't surprise me. Al has strong but not varied musical interests. He's into hard rock and gutsy guitars. He's a Hendrix fan. 

"Probably the best drummer in the world," I say.

"I'd go as far as Amsterdam to avoid listening to a drummer," he says.

"But you wouldn't fly there, would you?" I say. "You're scared of flying." 

"You know that's not true," he says, seeming peeved. "I'm scared of climate change. I don't believe anyone should fly anywhere."

"You think burning your passport will save the planet?" I say.

"You think not eating meat will save the animals?" he says, and it's a fair point. But I have an answer.

"You're right. We both are. It's the same principle. You decide between right and wrong by imagining how things would turn out if everyone did what you're thinking of doing - or not doing. If the world would be a better place, it's the right thing to do."

"Or not do," Al says. 

"Or not do."

"Listen," he says, grabbing my arm, as we turn into his drive. "Could you shut up a minute?" 

But I'm already in full pontificate mode, so he might as well wave a white hanky at a charging bull. "There's an alternative principle," I tell him. "The greatest good of the greatest number. Politicians use it to justify everything from benefit cuts to world wars. It's the source of all evil, because even the simplest dynamic system - as you and I know - can produce totally unexpected behaviour. 

"A world full of people is anything but simple. So believe your model, focus on ends and you can justify any means you like. That's not ethics. To be ethical you have to care about what happens to Mrs McGinty, three doors down, not to the aggregate of 60 million faceless units in a mathematical model that deludes you into imagining you can tell the future, when you're actually talking spurious, self-satisfied, evidence-free, unmitigated shite."

"Has the wee spring wound down yet?" Al says, when I stop to draw a big breath.

"Just about," I say, as we take a seat in his back garden and contemplate a vegetable patch the size of Hampden Park. Years of Al's tender care and scientific nutrition have given it sinister strength and an air of brooding menace

His broccolis are the size of village bus-shelters. The regimented rows of tall leeks look set to invade Czechoslovakia. 

"Just about," I tell him. "Has anyone wandered into your vegetable patch and never come out again?"

"Not yet," he says. "I think it might have eaten next-door's dog though."

"Any chance of a coffee before I get back to work?"

"Listen, what I was trying to say when you were off on one was this," Al says, five minutes later, placing two full mugs carefully between us on the wooden bench, dotted delightfully with bird-shit. "Isn't this blog supposed to be mildly humorous?"

"That's the idea," I say, sipping his black, acrid coffee and trying to tell my face it's nice.

"Well I've gone over this conversation in my head and it's mainly you on a moral philosophy rant. That's too serious for your readers, isn't it?" 

"Most of them," I say. "It wasn't the plan. I intended to talk about orgasms."

"Ancient history then," he says. "But why? Is there some topical science angle?"

"There sure is," I say. "Couple of Australian scientists have launched a study to find out why people fake their orgasms."

He shakes his head. "Pretty obvious, I'd say, even for Australians. Daft bloody scientists."

We sit in companionable silence for a while. 

"You ever fake an orgasm?" Al says, without looking at me.

"Nah," I say, staring straight ahead. "You?"

"I can't remember," he says and we sip our coffees, as the vegetable patch rustles ominously and a plane passes overhead, bound for who knows where.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Mr Demotivated

As I get slowly changed in the gym dressing-room (because the faster you undress the sooner the pain starts), I'm thinking about an article I read over breakfast that imagined aliens trying to understand Earth, by eavesdropping on the Internet. 

"What impression would they get of us humans?" it asked.

The answer they gave was that we spend our time on three activities - playing with cats, watching strangers doing strange things to each other, and getting into pointless arguments with wankers.

There is a fourth. 

Everywhere I look these days, some self-styled guru is trying to motivate me. "Why not go out on a limb?" the guru says. "That's where the fruit is." 

And, "The happiest people don't have the best of everything, they make the best of everything."

And, "What you do today can improve all your tomorrows."

The idea, I'm guessing, is something like this. The alarm sounds loudly, dragging you out of that recurring dream about Marilyn Monroe, three penguins and a tub of tutti frutti. 

Still fuzzy at the edges, you drag your weary body out of bed and open the curtains on a dreich October morning. Your back is stiff, your teeth hurt and a wee guy with a jackhammer is pounding your eyes from the inside. One glance at the bedroom mirror makes you recoil in horror, as a subhuman with six-inch ear hair stares out at you, without a glimmer of intelligence in his bloodshot, bleary eyes.

All you want to do is crawl back under the blankets. But a glance at Twitter bucks you up. "The measure of who we are," it says, "is what we do with what we have." 

That is so true, you say, and your heart lifts. Your tummy flattens. The sun peeps out from the clouds. Sparrows sing in the sycamore. You throw open the window and welcome the bright, new morning with a burst of Italian opera. Postman Jim comes round the corner and sings back up at you: "Nessun dorma. Nessun dorma. Tu pure, o, Principessa."

And damn it, you feel like a princess. 

Down the stairs you bound, eager to get to work on your new novel, about sex and climate-change, provisionally entitled The Windmill Position. 

But you can't resist another motivational hit. So you look at Twitter again. "Aim for the moon," you read. "If you miss you may hit a star." 

That's a bit astronomically illiterate, you think, starting to deflate slightly. You try another one. "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," you read. "The second best time is now." 

Your mood shifts. Instead of simply feeling you begin to think. You start to calculate. If the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time isn't now. Not by a long shot. 

The second best time was 19 years, 11 months, 30 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds ago. Unless it was a February. 

That's a bit of a discrepancy, you say to yourself. If I'm going to be motivated by deep-thinking thinkers I'd like them not to be innumerate. If the buggers can't do the sums why should I trust them with the philosophy?

And just like that your insanely cheerful bubble bursts. The miraculous motivator has lost his magic. It's just you against the world again.

As I get to this point in my thoughts, I reach the top of the gym stairs, spot Al in his usual position by the mirrored wall and walk on over. "Listen," I say and he puts the dumbbells down with a sigh. 

"What now?" he says.

I explain my sums to him then realise the discrepancy is worse than I'd thought. "Because the shortest unit of time is not the second," I tell him. "It's the jiffy. That's the time it takes light to travel the diameter of a proton."

"Really?" he says.

"Trust me, I'm a physicist," I say, doing some fast mental maths. "So what the guru should have said is this: 'The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The 210,240,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th best time is now.'"

Al shakes his head and gives my shoulder a sympathetic pat. "I hate to say this, son, but you need to get out more. It's not advice I'd ever take myself, but ..."  

He stops himself. "No, I can't," he says.

"Go on," I say. "I can take it."

"You need to find yourself a woman," he says, turning to pick up the weights and admire his manly muscles in the mirror again.