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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Don't judge a book

I dislike labels. I don't mean luggage labels of course, because they can be very useful, although how my bag flew on to Orkney, many years ago, while I alighted for submarine field tests at Wick Airport, leaving me to mingle for five days with spotlessly starched Royal Navy officers, in a shirt and socks so ripe you could make cider with them, I have no idea.

No, I'm talking about people labels. Twice recently I've been called autistic and I don't know what they meant by it. I'm not saying I don't know what the word means. I do, up to a point. I just don't know what these people meant when they used the word.

See the dictionary definition of a word almost never reflects exactly what people mean, for two reasons at least. 1) words are connected in our heads to a cloud of nuances, subtleties, emotions, assumptions, memories and prejudices - collectively called connotations - and 2) the connotations of a particular word in my head are never identical to those in yours.

Dictionary definitions on the other hand are all about denotation - the object a word points to. But the meaning of a word is much larger than its denotation, in the same way as an atom is much larger than its nucleus. And for a similar reason. A nucleus has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of electrons around it. A word has a fuzzy, shifting cloud of connotations. 

This is most obvious with snarl words such as "weed", "vermin" and "gook" that have almost no denotation but a dark cloud of connotation - which includes "You're bad", "I hate your type" and "It's good to kill you."

I suspect people now use the word "autistic" in a similar but milder way, with meanings that include "You're annoying", "You think differently to me" and "You are too logical."

So when I bump into my old pal Yarrum, a very smart guy who was told he had Asperger's many years ago, it gives me the chance to get some hard facts out of him.

"Hello, wise one," I say and just manage to bite off "How you doing?", a question Yarrum always answers in more detail than I can handle.

"Greetings," he says, studying my shoes.

"Buy you a beer?" I say.

"That would be unwise," he says. "The temperature is 26° and alcohol is a diuretic. Our brains could become dangerously dehydrated." 

"You could always pour the beer straight in your ear," I say, and he looks puzzled. "Coffee?" I suggest. 

He shakes his head again and taps his watch. "Not if you want to sleep tonight," he says.

"Listen, pal," I say, trying not to get exasperated. "I'd like to pick your brains and was hoping we could go somewhere pleasant to do it."

"How about the Botanic Gardens," he says. "It is pleasant there. We could sit on the grass."

"And look at scantily-clad women," I say. "Nice one."

"You said you wanted to talk," he says.

"We could do both," I say.

"There is some evidence that testosterone improves the cognitive functioning of the ageing brain," he says. "But that is a long term effect. In the short term it weakens intellectual focus."

"And that's the last thing we want," I say, as we head up Byres Road to the Botanics, where we park our bums on the greensward and I try not to look at women or straight into Yarrum's eyes, which he's found uncomfortable since we were boys together. 

Grass fails to grip me, so I'm struggling to know where to look, until a dopey bee bumbles into my forehead and falls to the ground between us. "Until the early 20th century they were called 'humble bees', I tell him, as we watch the creature check itself out with a shake of its back legs, a shimmy of its abdomen, and a little waggle of its diaphanous wings.

"That is interesting," he says. "No doubt owing to the noise they generate, rather than any presumed inadequacy of self-regard."

"Correct," I say. "Do you think I'm autistic?"

The silence stretches for longer than most people could stand. But I know how Yarrum works. If I speak again it'll send his train of thought back to the station. 

"I don't know," he says eventually. "It is a possibility."

"Gimme more than that," I say.

"Well, neurotypicals - 'normal people' - suffer from three impairments," he tells me. "One. They are unable to think independently of their social group. Two. They find logical or critical thought very difficult. Three. They cannot form in-depth special interests, other than in social activities.


He pauses and I wonder what's coming next. "Does any of that sound like you?" he says.

"It does not," I tell him. "None of the above."

"In that case you may have a brain wired in the way these herd creatures call autistic," he says. "Although the two sets - autistic and neurotypical - while disjoint, do not cover the whole space, and I must admit, from my own observation, I had formed a different working hypothesis to explain your personality and proclivities."

"You had?" I say, waving goodbye to the bee, who, flight-checks completed, has taken off in the direction of a fortysomething blonde with suntanned legs and a powder-blue top that matches her eyes. "What was it?"

"That you are an onanistic narcissist, with a nanosecond attention span, egotistical, self-indulgent tendencies and a cerebrum equipped with only the most primitive of poorly developed and unreliable executive functions."

"Wow!" I say. "Is there a word for all that?" 

He smiles but still doesn't raise his eyes to mine. "There is," he says.

"What is it?" I say.

"Wanker," he says.


More
"Good luck getting an opinion out of a neurotypical when you really need one."

Friday, 25 July 2014

If I had a hammer

"Let me explain the course of treatment if you choose radiation therapy," the unusually pleasant consultant tells me, and an old saying pops unbidden into my mind, because I'm pretty sure I'm going to get a similar, semi-scientific soft-sell for the alternative - which is surgery - when I see the next consultant in a few days' time.

"If you are a hammer everything looks like a nail" it goes, and it seems to me this is a problem with the NHS. Everyone's a specialist so no one's looking at the big picture.

In this case the big picture is me. So I take a keen interest in looking at it. I guess so should my GP and he is a capable guy, but he can't possibly keep abreast of the latest research into every treatment. So we're stuck with specialists who only see their small part of the picture, like art critics with the Mona Lisa's mouth.

But by now I've got to thinking about this hammer and nail proverb. (Or is it a saw, adage, maxim, aphorism, precept or dictum? Why are there so many words for pithy sayings in English, I wonder, but that's a question for another day.) And the more I ponder, the more I realise this one makes no sense at all. 

"If you're a hammer everything looks like a nail." I mean why would it?

If you're a bee everything doesn't look like a flower, does it? Exactly the opposite. You are better able than other animals to distinguish flowers from the rest of the landscape. That's what evolution does for you. If you're a lion everything doesn't look like an antelope, does it? Not unless you're a real dumpling of a lion.

"Did you hear what daft Lemmy did yesterday?" one of the lionesses says to her pal, as they laze in the savannah sunshine. "Only jumped a jeep and tried to rip its throat out. 'When you're a hammer everything looks like a nail,' he says to me afterwards." 

"What a putz," her pal replies, shaking her head. 

"Well I told him, I says, 'It's the females that do the hunting when you're a lion, son. The male's job is mating. Stick to your job.'"

"What does he say to that then?"

"Tells me again that if you're a hammer everything looks like a nail. Then wanders off to hump a tree."

The two of them shake their heads sadly at male stupidity, and survey the vast sweep of the savannah, as the sun sets slowly in the western sky.

And another thing. If everything looks like a nail to a hammer, where are its eyes located? In the natural world, if you live by attacking, your eyes are usually at the front, for better binocular vision and distance judgement. If you're a prey animal, they are more often on the side of your head, so you can spot attackers coming in from all angles.

A hammer is clearly an attacker so its eyes should be on the face. But the first hammer that evolved them there would have got a nasty, squelchy shock, while those with eyes on the sides wouldn't be able to hit a nail straight. It's a quandary for evolution and no mistake. 

So I can only conclude that sight is not a hammer's main sense. I'm guessing that like sharks, they use their sense of smell and touchas well as sight, to work out where the nails are and how fast they're moving.

But then what happens to our pithy proverb? "If you're a hammer everything looks a bit fuzzy, but nails smell and feel like nails" doesn't work well. It will never make the 50 most important proverbs list, that's for sure. But it is a lot more logical.

"So that's about all I can tell you," the consultant says, picking up her papers and tapping them sideways, with an air of finality, on her desk. "You should have all the information you need now. Is there anything you'd like to ask me before you go?"

"There was just one bit I didn't quite grasp," I say.

"Of course," she says pleasantly. "What was it?"

"The part from 'Let me explain the course of treatment,'" I say, and the smile on her rather attractive face turns to stone.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Laugh? I thought I'd never start

There was a time when the news that three naked ladies were headed to my house would have given me a thrill. But those days are gone and it's an inanimate garden ornament anyway, not living flesh, that I've been told is winging its way to me

Although that is an improvement, I have to say, on some females from my past, since a statue can't hide its heart of stone.

But all the same I do not want naked lady statues. I really don't. What would the neighbours think? Already I'm the suspiciously single guy at No 3. If some of their kids wandered into my garden, saw large naked ladies and went home and told their parents, I would become a pariah. They would put barbed wire around my house.

I would be ostracised - a word I've always assumed came from the same root as ostrich. Because they bury their heads in the sand or something. I hadn't really thought it through. So I looked it up and guess what? It's not ostriches. It's oysters

Now I can just hear what you're thinking. "I'm not a shellfish expert, pal, but I know oysters don't have a well-developed social system. So they can't ostracise each other. And even if they did, how upset is one oyster going to be if the other oysters stop talking to it?"

And of course you are right. As always.

So let me explain. The word 'oyster' comes from the Ancient Greek word for shell, which was ostrakon. And so does 'ostracise'. Why? Because the Athenians used to write the name of the person they wanted ostracised - which in those days meant banished from the city - on a piece of broken pottery, the word for which was also ostrakon because it often looked like a shell.

Incidentally, while we're on word origins, some folk mistakenly think the word 'vegetarian' is closely related to the word 'vegetable', which they imagine we eat all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last time I ate a vegetable was 40 years ago, when I mistook a Maris Piper potato for a deep-fried Mars bar and nearly choked to death.

This kind of verbal confusion is common in the language of a country like England, which was invaded many times during the Dark Ages, as well as the Slightly Lighter Ages that followed, by various foreign-speaking foes, including the Saxons, the Angles, the Triangles, the Jutes, the Hessians and the Woolly Jumpers, a savage Nordic race that rode on the backs of giant, genetically modified sheep.


The different meanings of the word "file" for instance - a grinding tool and a folder of information - came about because two different words, one German, the other Latin, became absorbed into the English language.  (This is true.)

In the same way the word vegetable comes from a Greek word meaning "repulsive inedible object", while vegetarian is derived from a Chinese pictogram meaning "irresistible sex god". (This is disputed.)

So it turns out the naked ladies are a practical joke and my friend hasn't really ordered them for me at all. What a jolly wheeze. I've always felt practical jokers should be lined up in front of a firing squad that pulls their triggers and little flags saying "Bang!" unfurl from their guns, and I go "Who's laughing now, pal?"

But the incident does get me thinking about how I can improve the appearance of my garden, and I decide that a water feature would make my pond more appealing. So I head off to the garden centre in search of a statue that is small, tasteful and extremely well clothed. 

Ernest Shackleton, kitted out for the Antarctic, with six string vests and a parka jacket, would be just the job. 

But how successful is my quest, Dear Reader, you will have to wait till next week to find out. 

Time and space have beaten us again.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Handsome head

Rachel is a big fan of shite. I don't mean metaphorical shite, like Noel Edmonds and the England football team. I'm talking about the genuine article that half our class smelled of when I went to school in Ayrshire, where every pupil was a farmer's son or a miner's daughter.

"It's packed with the nutrients plants need," she tells me, when I've been shovelling the stuff into holes around her vines for several hours in the Hampshire sun, and wishing someone would give me a word of encouragement, like they did with galley slaves in classical times, such as "Don't worry son, the first 99 years are the hardest."

Instead of which I get a dissertation on shite science, which I have to tell you is the last thing I need right now.

"The main nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, of course," she says.

"Why 'of course'?" I say, standing up, stretching my back and rubbing sweat from my brow, which is a mistake because my hands have been delving in the depths of manure, so I must look like Worzel Gummidge now.

"Because everybody knows that," she says, wrinkling her nose and stepping back a pace.

"I didn't," I say.

"You don't have a garden?" she says.

"I think I do," I tell her. "I can see it out the window when I'm writing. It has thick grass, tall trees, swoopy birds, jumpy frogs and a pond."

"If you went out there, you'd know about soil nutrients," she says. "Gardeners and farmers are always talking about them. It's like the four essential food groups for humans."

"My son says the four essential food groups are crunchy, greasy, salty and chocolate," I say.

"Your son talks bollocks," she says.

"It's why I like him," I say, scratching my ear. This is also a mistake, as a lump falls into it and the pristine clarity of Rachel's words gets muffled for a few minutes by manure. 

"Only one alien kicked the flaming pile of biscuits," she says. 

I nod and smile vacantly and she leans over and smacks my head, causing the offending lump to fly out my ear.

"Can you hear me now?" she says. 

"Unfortunately," I say. "Are you still talking shite?"

"Most of a plant's weight is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen," she says. "They get those from air and water. But they need other elements from the soil in smaller quantities.

"There's nitrogen to make proteins, phosphorus for photosynthesis and potassium for releasing energy, making starch and controlling water loss. They're called macronutrients, because plants need a fair amount of them. As they take them out of the soil, they have to be replaced. That's what farmers are doing when they spread fertiliser on their fields."

"So why am I up to my knees in cowshit instead of clean, odour-free, scientific fertiliser?" I say.

"Because plants need smaller quantities of ten other nutrients," she says. "Will I tell you what they are?"

"No," I say.

"Calcium, magnesium, sulphur, boron, copper, iron, chlorine, manganese, molybdenum and zinc," she says and draws a breath. "I thought that secretly you wanted to know, so I told you."

"Thanks, Butch," I say. "So manure has all those?"

"So has compost," she says. "But manure's easier to get your hands on."

"And get on your hands," I say, stretching my shoulders and holding my arms out wide, which causes a crow flying towards us to squawk loudly, do one of those cartoon air brakes and veer off to the next field. Rachel goes quiet and I can see the wheels turning.

"No," I tell her. "Forget it.

"Just till sundown," she says. "I'll get nets up tomorrow but the birds could do a lot of damage today." 

"I'm not standing in a field to frighten birds away," I say. "I'm a physicist not a scarecrow."

"Not from where I'm standing," she says. "I'll pay you in beer."

"How much beer?" I say, weakening.

"As much as you want," she says. "Plus dinner in the pub."

"It's a deal," I say, offering my right hand, which she studies like it's a small boy with a melting ice-cream, wandering around a nudist beach

"Shake on it," I say.

"I don't think so," she says and heads off down the hill. "I'll be back."

"I'll be here," I say, stretching my arms out wide and feeling, for the first time ever, that I've found my niche in life. 

"Come on crows," I taunt them. "Make my day."


More science

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Bouncing around

You know when you're trying hard not to mention something and it gets stuck in your head, and you're sure it's going to pop out of your mouth sooner or later and land you in big trouble? 

I mean like in Bridget Jones, where she's introducing her colleague Mr Fitzherbert at the book launch, and her inner voice keeps insisting it's "Mr Titspervert".

Well the first few minutes of lunch with my son and his girlfriend are similar, except the phrase I'm trying not to mention, as I told you yesterday, is "the postmodern philosophers Deleuze and Guattari". 

Now I know you're thinking that doesn't trip off the tongue, so how hard can it be not to say? But that's where you're wrong pal and displaying, if you don't mind my saying so, some ignorance of the workings of the human brain.

Because science has shown that consciousness lags well behind what we say and do. So a conversation moves too fast for conscious brains to edit and filter. We're on autopilot and the sensation of control is an illusion to make us feel we're not being bounced around the surface of reality, like a ball on a tame dolphin's nose. 

So what comes out of my mouth often ambushes me and lunch in the Alba Café is a struggle at first, which I survive only by shoving dry bread in my mouth, while the words "the postmodern philosophers Deleuze and Guattari" echo around my head like a loud shout of "bum" in a cave. (You must have done.)

But eventually it settles down and I start to enjoy myself. The move to Scotland has gone smoothly for Linda, and the two of them seem to be getting on well, working as a team and making things happen around the flat. Which is cool, I think, for an artist and a musician.

My son has always danced to an individual drumbeat, but he seems to have formed a great combo with a young woman who has her own unique rhythms. Sources of friction seem few, but once we've ordered plentiful portions of toasties, egg rolls, tea and coffee, Linda does mention one.

"For a beginner he is annoyingly good with a bow," she tells me. "Everyone thinks fingering is the hard part with cello and violin, because there are no frets. But that's just muscle memory. Ninety percent of what makes the music is in the bowing. 

"Normally it takes people ages to master. They're all rigid and they make an awful noise. But after I explained it, Dug got it right away."

"Why was that annoying," I ask.

She laughs. "Because I spent years being shouted at, desperately trying to get it right, then he just picks up the bow and has a better grip than me."

"Isn't it interesting that you've decided to move your arm before you're aware of it?" Dug says. "You can't affect the now with your conscious mind. But I think you can build it up, moment by moment, like turning a supertanker. So you do have free will."

"Not according to Gilles Deleuze," Linda says and my heart sinks. "He sees society as an organism in which we're all just components, with no free will or even identity."

I feel a bunch of words headed for the vocal cords and realise it's time for drastic action. "Don't you agree that rhythm is the heart of all music?" I ask her. "And the drummer the most important member of any band?"

"No," she says and without missing a beat makes one of the most patronising remarks I've ever heard, then laughs in surprise. 

"Without melody, my dear, there is no music."

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Walking a fine line

I once made the mistake of getting friendly with a keen gardener, who emailed me one day to say a large statue of naked ladies was on its way to me. 

I panicked when I converted its dimensions from millimetres to units I could visualise - what an old engineering pal called "white man's units", in a mocking way that would probably get him into trouble nowadays, though I don't think it should because he wasn't a racist. 

Just like I am not a sexist. Yet a quoted piece of word-play - "A woman's place is in the stove" - recently got me into hot water. Naively I'd assumed that my feminist convictions - I don't just want equality; I'd like females to run things - would have allowed me to quote something like that and have it recognised as humour and irony.

But I guess the problem is that real racists and sexists often play the irony card to get themselves off the hook. So the safe course is never to say the opposite of what you believe because somebody, somewhere will take it at face value and get the hump.

So let's back to the naked ladies. Except I do have another problem with irony and in particular postmodernism. My son's girlfriend, a very smart musician and cultural student, was talking about her thesis the other day, and it turns out the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari feature prominently.

When she told me this a rare event occurred - I didn't say the first thing that came into my head. Why? Because I had come across these guys before and believed their thinking to be as woolly as their pullovers.

You see in 1996 a physicist called Alan Sokal submitted to an academic journal of postmodern studies an article that was accepted and published despite being gibberish from beginning to end. 

It was an experiment, Sokal explained, to test the intellectual rigour of postmodernists by seeing if "a pastiche of fawning references, grandiose quotations and outright nonsense", clothed in pseudo-scientific language, would be accepted by them.

A few years later, in a book called Intellectual Impostures, Sokal dissected the work of prominent postmodernists, including Deleuze and Guattari, and showed much of it to be as devoid of meaning as his own hoax paper. 

All of which means I now have to walk a fine line between intellectual rigour and attacking someone's academic interests. It's a balancing act that comes hard to me. If my brain was Charles Blondin, the high-wire walker, it would long since have plummeted into the icy waters of the Niagara Gorge.

Rather than chewing the fat in a rational way I tend to beat people about the head with the bone. I really don't want to do that to my son's girlfriend and my first problem is I'm headed off right now to meet the two of them for lunch.

My second problem is I've run out of time and space, without getting to the story of the statues. 

So here's my suggestion. You wish my brain luck with its lunchtime balancing act. I give you the story of the naked ladies tomorrow. 

Have we got a deal?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The world was different then

The grumpiest character I ever interviewed was Nicholas Parsons, the genial host of Just a Minute. Try talking to that guy when you're not a celebrity panellist or an adoring audience member and see how genial he is. 

It took me an hour to pull the teeth that resulted in these 700 words, but it was fascinating stuff and maybe an 87-year-old - he is 90 now - should be permitted some tetchiness with strangers. 

Sent away by his father from his London home to an engineering apprenticeship on Clydeside, ("The world was different then. We didn't do as we wanted - we did as we were told."), Parsons managed to stick it out and serve his timeFor a 16-year-old with a stutter and a posh English accent, that's impressive. I'd have said impossible.

He attributes his survival in that tough environment to his ability to make people laugh - which surprised me, because he's better known as a straight man, first to comedian Arthur Haynes back in the 50s, and now to quick-witted panellists like Paul Merton. 

"You're not listening," Al interrupts my train of thought and pulls me back to a more pleasant present - a chat with my always amiable pal, a Harviestoun real ale and a macaroni cheese lunch in the Burnbrae Hotel.

"Sorry, I was thinking about Nicholas Parsons," I say. "But I heard every word you said. You discovered dry-rot in your big Bearsden bungalow and got fed up waiting for builders who never showed. So you tackled it yourself and now you've a large hole where your bedroom used to be - which you fell into it the other day when you incautiously stood on a joist and it broke into three pieces."

"I'm impressed," he says, guiding a large forkful of macaroni to his mouth and taking a swig of his lager. 

"Brain like a well-oiled filing cabinet, full of indexed folders," I say.

"Or an ancient attic, stuffed with cobwebbed garbage," he says.

"That too," I say. "But despite your total lack of building expertise you have no worries about finishing the job because, and I quote, 'It's engineering and I'm an engineer.'"

"Time-served with Rolls-Royce," he says. "Which means more to me than my degree. I could still strip a gas turbine, repair it and put it back together again."

"Beautiful machines," I say. "I never worked on one, but I got up close during a tour of their Sinfin site, when I was at Raynesway designing nuclear reactors. I was ten years with Rolls-Royce."

"I was five," he says. "Finished my time in 1971, when the economy was in a mess and there were no vacancies. I was so disappointed. Why Nicholas Parsons?"

"He's a time-served Clydeside engineer too," I say. "Just shows you. Engineering prepares you for anything."

"Precisely my point," he says. 

"When did you decide to become an engineer?" I say.

"When I realised I didn't have the charisma to be an undertaker," he says. "How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert?" 

"He looks at your shoes instead of his, when he's talking to you," I say, standing up and reaching for my jacket. "Excellent lunch, pal. See you next week."