Friday, 31 October 2008

Double Dutch, Go Dutch and 'Top Nation'

I was thinking today about how words, phrases enter a language and for some reason are retained long after the reason for their original adoption has vanished.

Now for more than 1,000 years before the Second World War, Britain and, before 1707 and the Act of Union, England, were 'Top Nation'. More importantly, in maintaining that supremecy, there was scarcely a people on the planet that they hadn't been to war with at some time, at least once and very often a good deal more than once. Admittedly some wars were defensive but none the less the list is impressive!

From fighting the Romans alongside their Gallic cousins which forced Caesar's invasions of the island in 55BC and later 54BC, and again a hundred or so years later against Claudius; fighting the Scandanavians for control of eastern England; being overun by invading Normans (Vikings with a French accent) and returning the favour a couple of hundred years later by invading France almost continually for a hundred years or more; tussling with Spain and Portugal for control of the high seas; fighting each other for a right not to be ruled by a long haired pansy with a pointy beard; fighting the new born American nation for the right to rule and tax and annoying the French in Canada, along with the indiginous populations; waltzing into just about every part of Africa with loaded guns; Australia, New Zealand, India, China, the Russian Empire, Germany, Italy, Japan, Iraq. I think South America only escaped until the twentieth century because it took that long for corned beef to be invented.

It's easier to count the nations the Brits haven't been to war with; Switzerland, the Brits don't like cuckoo clocks and Emmental cheese is just holes joined together by rubber; Leichtenstein, the Brits missed it, it was so small; Luxembourg, while common in childhood, an interest in philately wanes in the adult Brit and few wars have been caused by arguments over the optimum size of the perforations between stamps; Belgium, too recent.

Now somewhere in the middle of that list (about 1750-70 or thereabouts), the Brits got into a spat with the Netherlands, again over who was going to be top nation, this time on the high seas. Now the Brits eventually won but not before the Netherlands' Navy had engaged in the rather daring and, for the Brits, humiliating maneouvre of sailing up the Thames to London. Now wars invariably throw up disparaging terms for the oppoents but in these enlightened times they are seldom if ever used. No one seriously calls Germans '****' or the Chinese, '*****' or '******' but the Dutch insults appear not only to have been retained in English, even in these PC times, but are, it seems to this penguin, not now seen as racial slurs.

To 'go Dutch' (for each party to pay for themselves) originally, in a time when men invariably paid for food and drink, was an insult. It was meant to show how mean the Dutch were. Does anyone think that now? 'Double Dutch' was an insult based on the incomprehensibility of the Dutch language to English speakers with its strange gutterals, doubling that incomprehensibility made 'complete nonsense'. A 'Dutch Uncle'was someone who spoke to you in a blunt, unsympathetic way and perhaps worst of all, the idea that Dutch sailors had to get drunk before they could fight, 'Dutch courage'. It's strange that these seem to have hung around.

Perhaps, in the end, it is that the Netherlands is such a small country and the Brits actually have forgotten that they were once at war with them over the trading empires. They don't even think that there might be racial overtones, they just think it's at worst mildly joshing.

It's a strange country, the Netherlands. Large chunks of it reclaimed from the sea (polders). Great swathes of the countryside are below sea level so that as you come in from the sea, you descend before rising to the central massif, which at 1.2m above sea level commands an awesome view of the dyke system, which is the only thing that stops the Netherlands from being permanently under water, a kind of latter day Atlantis, only smaller.

It is the only country in Europe which teaches 'finger in the dyke' technology to its children from an early age. Once qualified, they form a volunteer force of willing fingers on bicycles, ready to rush to any dyke in the vicinity which has a finger sized hole in it and to remain for as long as it is necessary until a grown up can arrive with a repair kit.

They are composed of distinct types of people. The pale, dour, round-faced Goudas who mainly live below sea level and the happy, cherubic and ruddy skinned Edams who make up the bulk of the population on the central massif. The capital is Amsterdam after which New York was named*.

Enough Geography! As we all know, history ended in 1945 when America became top nation so there is no point in continuing with any of this now. Sellars and Yeatman were right. Stop!

* New York used to be called New Amsterdam until the Brits made the Dutch settlers change it!

PS Has it ever occured to you that the Romans counted backwards? Be honest!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

A thing of beauty in a strange, loopy kind of way

Ah, Doug, what have you crafted in your spare time? So rich, thoughtful, thought provoking, a book as complex as its subject.

I have just finished Hofstadter's 'I am a strange loop' and it is, as all his books are, a lovingly made manifestation of the often silent musings on the nature of consciousness, mind, self, I. To argue, so eloquently, for the inevitable, emergent quality of consciousness from just a sufficently complex rag bag of neurons. To so subtly fuel my recent, inexpert ramblings. You may go peacefully and content from this life, Doug, whenever that may be, and, at last together with Carole once more, you may stand with Jorge Luis and feel no shame, only contentment that you matched his skill. To take the reader so far down untrodden paths, forever forking, with mere words, symbols, splodges of black on white. I think Borges will be proud to stand at your side.

Not only did the book stimulate my neurons but it also reminded me of other books which I now need to re-read to enrich my own musings on emergent phenomena, 'The extended phenotype' (Dawkins and definitely worth a post of its own), 'The quark and the jaguar' (Gell-Mann and tricky), 'Consciousness explained' (Dennett and, as always, simply brilliant. How can such an incisive mind work at 'Tufts University', which always sounds to this penguin like a campus for cuddly, red squirrels? The penguin should perhaps explain. In Britland, they used to have this road safety campaign for children, which was 'fronted' by a red squirrel. It was called the 'Tufty Club', Tufty being the name of the squirrel. Sorry Dan, I just can't help it :)

You see, what Doug has done, for this penguin, is to encapsulate in a single book (say 400 pages) a hugely diverse range of thinking on a lot of the things that this blog has been about. Evolution. The absence of (a need for) God. Who, or what, we are. Why we do what we do. Empathy. Cartesian dualism and why it is so misguided. John Searle and why he is such an arsehole. And from any one of the things listed, a veritable host of other things spring. That is truly a Borges-like quality and is to be admired, lauded in this poor, humble penguin's opinion.

And no, Doug doesn't pay me to write this stuff! Although if he ever does 'google' himself and comes across this blog, then US dollars will be perfectly acceptable, brown envelope addressed to 'The Penguin, Antarctica' should reach me. I know the postman :)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Richard Leakey, biodiversity and gloom

Came across an interesting article today by Richard Leakey. It seems that the South African government have now put elephant culls back on the agenda and seem set to reintroduce them (having banned them in the nineties). In one sense the conservation project with the elephants worked too well.

Now Leakey is a paleontologist. I may be doing him a dis-service here, and if so I apologise, but he's not a scientifically trained paleontologist. He learned everything from his parents, who worked the Olduvai gorge in Kenya for many years in the first half of the twentieth century and turned up Homo Erectus, Australapithicus Robustus and in no small way contributed to the knowledge of how rich the 'bush' of early human evolution was. Richard made his contribution to the knowledge about human evolution over a number of years during the 50's and 60's until going on to become Director of Wildlife for the Kenyan Government. (I have a suspicion he just does the lecture circuit now.) Now Leakey gained a bit of a reputation for being bull headed about his own theories of human evolution (I think he was just miffed over Johanson's discovery of australapithicus afarensis, 'Lucy', and the ensuing accolades) and about wildlife in general and it was interesting to see how the old tub thumper had mellowed :)

His article was suggesting that, perhaps, a cull might be necessary.

Now, obviously, as a non-human, I don't think humans have the right to manage the planet for their own benefit, which is, in effect, what the proposed cull is all about. Humans are encroaching more and more on elephant territory, as populations increase, and elephants are being forced into far smaller areas than can sustain them. This means that they end up destroying the area in which they do live to the detriment of other wildlife in the area and ultimately to themselves. If elephants cannot 'roam', they end up turning the environment into a desert and Africa has a big enough problem with desertification as it is!

What was interesting, perhaps much more than the article itself, which tried to take a balanced view, although I fear Leakey was gently sobbing as he wrote it, were the comments. They broadly fell into three camps. Those who reluctantly agreed with Leakey's analysis, those who were opposed to the cull for the same reasons that this penguin is - nothing gives you the right despite what you believe your God may have said in an unguarded moment, off the record, and those who had veered so far towards misanthropy that enforced sterilisation or 'human culling' were being put into the mix, although there weren't an awful lot of them who actually lived in Africa!

It seems to this penguin that this is just another example of the perennial problem 'Man' will always face . Most, if not all, of the creatures on the planet evolved to deal with situations in which man was not present. You are a recent addition to the daily roll call of species. Perhaps less than 40,000 years. Evolution, except in rare cases, does not move so fast. None of us, restricted to natural selection, as we are, can evolve fast enough to deal with you, with a few notable exceptions. The rat, the 'urban' fox, the magpie, although they are largely pre-adaptations. The niche they evolved into has certain similarities with the niches you create. And so they prosper.

But then how does man react? Is it possible to find a route through the morass you have created? In the end, this penguin thinks not. In the end, man will take the product of billions of years of evolution and turn it into little more than a concrete jungle punctuated by the occasional biodiversity theme park. One of the things that Ridley Scott left out of his version of 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' (Blade Runner) was the idea that only human constructed 'animals', using genetic engineering, were possible. Naturally occurring animals had long since died out. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where the narrator of the book thinks he has discovered a real animal, only to later discover it has a 'signature' of its maker. It is a dreary thought, but one which I think will come to fruition. Hopefully not in my lifetime, nor 'little Fricka's' but what an inheritance I leave my daughter and her chicks!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A miracle of electrons, the web and Hi Da'

Hi Da’

Sorry about the long gap between e-mails this time, but I’ve been a bit tied up.

I didn’t tell you in the last e-mail that the trip to town went fine, just like you said it would, know-all! Me and the boys had a good night out last Friday and it was, well as all nights “out with the boys” are. A little food, a little wine, well, quite a lot of wine actually, good conversation. No bloody women messing it up. Jay was a bit of a pain, especially towards the end; does he have to be so self-righteous all the time? And Pete (you know Pete, don’t you?) got the right hump with me, when I told him a few home truths. He thinks he’s so fucking perfect. He was having a go at Jay and I just told him not to be so bloody hypocritical and look in the mirror a bit more, he might find Jay staring back at him. As you can imagine that went down like the proverbial Lead Zeppelin! (Although I thought the metaphor was really good. I think John is rubbing off on me. :) Pete’s not spoken to me since, but it had to be said. Maybe I should have said it when everyone hadn’t been so into the Vino Collapso; Pete’s really sensitive after a couple of drinks. Oh well, I suppose he’ll get over it. And it was overall a good night!

There was a bit of a barney afterwards though, I think the local rednecks wanted to turn it into a proper fight, you know what they’re like, but, let’s face it, we were in no condition to mix it, although Pete wanted to. Hah, they’d have killed him! So we just let them have it their way, I think it was for the best, all round. I don’t like not standing up for myself, you know that, but there really wasn’t any point at the end of the day.

My interview went ok the day before yesterday. Lots of questions but, like you’re always telling me, I didn’t rabbit on and I kept to the point. The bloke seemed a bit put out at the end, I think, although I don’t think he was in a very good mood to start with, to be honest. But why have the hump with me? I didn’t ask for the interview, he did. If he didn’t want it, why drag me all the way there? I got the distinct impression that maybe it wasn’t HIS idea and he was miffed at having to get out of bed so early. Either that or his missus is witholding the conjugals. :) The trouble was that the others seemed to think that his bad mood meant that THEY could get all heavy an’ stuff so I had a bit of a rough ride afterwards. I had to go and see someone else as well up the hall, which I didn’t expect, but it was all pretty much the same. Bloody bureacrats, everything in bloody triplicate. Triplicate? Yes, triplicate, the second arsehole sent me back to the first one again. And if he had the raving hump before, well the second time……:)

It’s been a bit boring since then. I’ve thought a lot about what I said in the last e-mail and mostly wish I hadn’t sent it. I hope that it didn’t upset you too much, or if it did, you’ll forgive my foolishness. I realise now that a lot of what I said isn’t true. I know you love me in your own way (you just have a funny way of showing it sometimes :) and you only want what’s best, I do understand, honest, da’. I just think sometimes that I’m not made for times like these.

Occasionally I have wondered whether we children don’t just work out the paradoxes and the hang ups of our parents, you know, almost like reliving their life again. You get the kids to resolve your hang ups by having them live their lives and hope that it does you some good. Sorry, that was a bit psychobabbly wasn’t it and a bit too close to the last e-mail for comfort? Sorry!

There’s a queue and I have been here for nearly an hour now so I’ll have to finish up. There is so much more I would like to say, you know that, but maybe if everything goes ok in the next few days or so, I can come and see you? We’ll have a good old natter, like we used to. You know you used to enjoy them too, don’t kid yourself, you pig-headed old bastard! :)

I have to go now, it’s time.

Take care, look after yourself, (look out for me too! :) and I’ll see you soon, I promise.

Yes, it’s time. They’re bringing the cross…...

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Birth daze, bath days and a voice to shatter crystal:)

Joyeux Anniversaire!

Given what the last post was about, I thought it might be quite good today to talk about feedback. Now that's not what's left on 'comments', but feedback in a more general sense. Those of you who came of age in the late sixties/early seventies of the last century (you're feeling old now, I can sense it from here. Last century indeed! :) will know all about acoustic feedback. Jimi's recreation of the Vietnam war with six strings, a couple of pick ups and a Marshall amplifier, cranked to '11'. Blackmore's swooping, howling banshee of a Stratocaster as he swung it above his head by the strings, having previously disengaged the neck from the stock with the heel of his boot! (It's only four screws, big ones to be sure, but only screws!)

Now all that's happening here is that the sound wave generated by the speakers is allowed to arrive uninterrupted at the pick up (which is geared to 'pick up' the subtle vibrations of the strings and is normally shielded by the body of the guitarist). The 'pick up' picks up the wave form as vibration and feeds it back to the amplifier which emits it amplified again and so on. A closed loop develops which eventually after a little oscillation around a central point finally settles down down into a screaming wail at the limit of the amplifier's output.

A small digression. It used to be quite scary down the front in the early seventies. You had to be there within spitting distance, at least for Deep Purple gigs, because they would hire a couple of strippers posing as members of the audience to dance naked in front of the front row or the mosh pit, depending on the venue, during 'Wring that neck' or 'Space trucking'. Adolescent males, ay? Even worse was Keith Emerson lobbing knives into speaker cabinets to 'fuzz up' his Hammond organ or bringing out the bull whip which had the bass player, Lee Jackson, running for the far side of the stage :) Emerson actually got every rock band banned from London's Albert Hall for about three or four years by burning the 'stars and stripes' on stage during a perfomance of Bernstein's 'America' :) Good ol' Emo! Some people felt quite strongly about Vietnam then, even in Britland!

Anyway, a revenons a nos moutons, as they say. Normally mechanical feedback, as opposed to audio feedback, is handled by the central heating/air conditioning thermostat example, but I would like to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Douglas Hofstadter for the much more interesting, and scatological, example of the......... flushing cistern! Now, it's just an inlet pipe with a valve, there's a float attached to an arm which then controls the valve. The float's called a ballcock! You can tell plumbing was traditionally a male dominated craft, can't you?. As the water level falls in the cistern, the ballcock falls with it, opening the valve and allowing water to enter the cistern. As the level of the water rises the ballcock, being mainly air, rises with it and closes the valve at an appropriate point. We know this because we can take the lid of the cistern and see it in action. But what if we couldn't? Might we think the cistern might be 'conscious' or at least dimly aware of the water level? After all, it 'knows' exactly when to turn off the water to stop the cistern overflowing?

Of course no-one would seriously suggest a lavatory cistern is aware, it's an inanimate object and, as far as we know, sentience belongs only to animate objects, things that are 'alive', whatever that means.

Now a bacterium is alive but is it aware? An aphid? A fish? A lizard? Quite clearly, these have some concept of self and that which lies outside self, eg food, mates, rivals, predators etc but self aware akin to the way you are self aware? What about a dog? A cheetah? A howler monkey? A chimpanzee? Ah, now we're on much safer ground and not just because they are mammals too. They are relatively 'late' arrivals on the planet and come equipped with large brains relative to body size so it is not so difficult for you to think that there might be something akin to your consciousness in them as well. But what develops the brain? After all, brains are not needed for survival. The most successful 'animal' on the planet doesn't have one. The humble bacterium has colonised just about every niche on planet earth, including you, and it doesn't even have the rudiments of a brain.

Feedback develops the brain. Little if anything else is required except memory. As the brain and the body in which it resides interact with the environment in which they live, there is a constant and expanding series of feedback loops, wildebeest is good to hunt, lion is not. That chimp punched my lights out the last time I tried to groom him. This one didn't. That place is hot and burnt my foot. This place did not. Those animals which process this feedback in the most efficient and effective manner will have a greater tendency to survive in a competitive environment and will pass on those innate processing skills to their descendents.

Which brings me to my point. (And there was you thinking I'd never get there! Or I didn't have one to start with!) In one sense, the feedback loops supply our ego, our sense of who and what we are. No external force, no divine spark, no soul is required. If once we get the idea that we have one, an ego that is, and we did, survival makes this a necessity, a sense of 'this one' as opposed to 'that one', then the ever expanding feedback loops of life's experience provide all that we need to generate that indisputably existing I.

With the brains we have, as I does this, it impacts on my environment, and as I gets the feedback, I gets stronger, or at least the perception of I gets stronger.

So I rules.

From there it is but a small step to the realisation that you too have an I.

And your I, though less important, becomes tangled with my I and all the other Is and forms the surely wondrous I.

This truly is Darwin's Dangerous Idea!

The penguin is sorry that there is no Obelix and no 'petit' Idefix; no Tintin et Milou; no Lucky Luke; no Spirou, Fantasio et le Marsupilami, no 'mousse au chocolat'. Time has been short, much else has needed to be done and it is far to go, from here to there. The penguin hopes that the bouncing smiley suffices. :)

Saturday, 18 October 2008

"There is grandeur in this view of life...."

Now I know it must seem sometimes that I have something against religion. I haven't but when the most powerful nation in the world, in control of at least half of the nuclear weaponry on the planet, lurches blindly and so far into Christian fundamentalism, it worries me. It worries me a lot.

I read something the other day which made me think. A bit of Creation 'Science'.

Richard Dawkins has spent most of his adult life (after the 'Blind Watchmaker') railing against creationist science, sometimes obliquely and sometimes, as in the 'God Delusion' quite openly. Has any of it worked? Judging by what I read, nope!

I must point out here that I do not have a problem with creationism itself. I believe it misguided but I'm as entitled to my opinion as creationists are. What I have a serious problem with is the attempt to dress it up as science. To do so merely demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding (or deception, but let's be generous here) that these creation 'scientists' have about the scientific method.

Religion has been under attack, so certain fundamentalists think, from science for over three centuries. Poor Galileo Galilei, what infamy is laid at your door! The only way therefore, they think, to counter this attack is to use science itself to provide alternatives to the arguments. So far, all fine and dandy. However, they don't! They use a semblance, a simulacrum of the scientific method, which, if you're not careful, will easily dupe you into believing that this is, in some way, valid science. You see, what creation scientists attempt to do is to provide proof that 'modern' theory is false, and that God exists, using 'science'. They start from the assumption that Genesis is largely true in so far as it relates to the earth, man etc and work backwards from that.

I could do exactly the same thing with Tolkien's creation myth. Perhaps I will one day, if I ever have the time.

What they don't realise, or choose to ignore, is that the scientific method actually 'proves' nothing whatsoever and, more importantly, seeks to prove nothing. Its purpose is to do the exact opposite! Its purpose is to disprove hypotheses! You cannot prove that God exists using science, only disprove his existence! Fortunately, with a few exceptions, Dawkins being the primary, science does not see that a matter of faith is a good subject for a scientific enquiry. It is not amenable to a decent, practical experiment nor even to a rational argument leading to a tentative hypothesis.

No physicist worthy of the name will try to tell you that quantum mechanics is true, that the up quark exists, absolutely. What they will tell you is that the late nineteenth century, point particle model of the atom as 'planetary system' has to be wrong because it fails to explain a whole host of things from black body radiation to beta decay. These things can be explained with quantum theory. That doesn't make quantum theory true, just better at explaining things. It's the same with relativity. It isn't true in any absolute sense, just an awful lot better at explaining gravity in the presence of very massive bodies than Newtonian mechanics is. Relativity isn't true but Newtonian mechanics is, in a very specific sense, false, or, at best, simplistic!

Now the primary target for a lot of creation 'science' is evolution, mainly, I think because physics and chemistry are too 'hard', too much knowledge is required to start with. However, even here, they get massively confused. No one can deny evolution occurs, however dense you are. An example. (Oh, and just so we're clear here, evolution is change, it is not 'advancement'. There is a tendency towards increasing complexity over time but only because complexity has a tendency to beget complexity. Evolution is not a steadily ascending ladder. It's a myriad of lurches, up, down, sideways, in design space, in which some things work and others don't. What works, survives. What doesn't, doesn't!)

There is a bacterium, staphylococcus aureus, very common, about one in three of you are infected. In the years after the second world war, it was effectively killed, when it was necessary because your immune systems couldn't keep it in check for some reason, with antibiotics, penicillin, aureomycin, ampicillin et al. Fifty years on, what rampages through the wards of UK hospitals? What killed Rory Gallagher? Depardieu's son? MRSA! Methicillin (or multi) resistant staphylococcus aureus. The bacterium evolves! It changes! What killed it yesterday, will not kill it today! That cannot be denied by any sane, vaguely observant individual. No-one can deny what is before their eyes. Unless you want to deny reality itself! Or does God constantly create anew? An ever increasing number of slightly different staphs coming off the assembly line?

What creation scientists actually need to argue against is the believed mechanism by which a thing evolves. And why some creatures do and others don't seem to, or at least very much. But then that's all a bit more tricky, isn't it?

The theory of evolution by natural selection is probably, relativity and quantum mechanics notwithstanding, the best theory man has devised. As a way of explaining the diversity of life and its (importantly) continuing diversification, it has no serious rival. Those creatures which by a quirk of fate and genetics are equipped best to deal with current circumstances will survive, if in competition with others for finite resources, and will pass on that genetic equipment to their descendants. If the equipment fails because circumstances change or because the equipment becomes faulty, those descendants will also, ultimately, fail!

The basic genetics are well understood but it is difficult to test specifics, for example, why are leopard spots the shape they are? Why do giraffes have long necks? There is insufficient time available to us to run the experiment. However experiments are conducted with rapidly breeding insects, drosophilia, fruit flies, and random mutations do occur and some would seem to be advantageous. But we can also ask other questions.

Why are sunflower heads constructed in spirals? Because the genetics that makes them uses a Fibonacci sequence when making cells, causing a spiral. Why do animals; fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals all have the same basic body plan? Fluke? A lack of imagination on the part of the 'intelligent designer? Or a common ancestor? Tinkering with complex embryos at very early stages of development to generate a new blueprint is apt to go awry so other potentially successful 'plans' are never found once complexity sets in. Just a few when the organism is much less complex, when happy monsters are far likely, hence: radially symmetrical; laterally symmetrical; segmentation, building bodies joining identical bits together;colonies.

Why do the bones of the mammalian inner ear appear to be scaled down reptilian jawbones that mammals do not have? Coincidence? Or descent with modification? Why are humans born so early in their development and are then at the mercy of the vagaries of nature for much longer than other mammals? Divine whim? Or the fact that if they were born when they 'should be', according to normal mammal practice, their heads wouldn't pass through the pelvic opening because their brains are too big? Any baby that hung around for more than 9 months wouldn't get out and more importantly the mother would die. No more of that particular genetic quirk then.

Now you may not, may not want to, 'believe' that this a damn good hypothesis, but it has so far stood up to everything the scientific method can throw at it; from the peacock's tail to the development of altruism in humans, these things do have a 'Darwinian' explanation. They can be explained by natural selection. No one says it is the 'truth' just a good way of explaining things consistently. We can see that organisms procreate, we are living proof. We can see that offspring are like but not identical to their parents. We can see that sometimes a small difference in the genetic makeup can affect survival rates, even if the experiment is somewhat artificial and not one we intended to conduct (see MRSA above). If someone ever comes up with a serious scientific rival, we'll look at it. Does it explain things as well as or better than the neo-Darwinist synthesis? If better, then neo-Darwinism will go the same way as Ptolemy's astronomy.

Please, if you are going to replace evolution by natural selection with divine creation and call it science, give us something we can test, give us at least a stab at objective knowledge, give us a rational argument, not some blind obedience to a book cobbled together from who knows what sources. Give us just one tiny experiment we can conduct to attempt to disprove your account. If you cannot, if you do not, you do not have the right, cannot have the right, to call it science!

And ay, there's the rub!

The trouble is, if enough people think, are misled into believing, it is science and not faith then may the tooth fairy help us all! Faith has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else. Allied with pseudo-science who can know what might be in store? Well, actually, we do know. It's called the second world war. The holocaust. The gulag. The Ukrainian famine.

Thank you, Charles Darwin, for the title today.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The Whale, the whale and a rant

This is not a comment on 'The Whale', tho' it may seem so, but more a reflection on a state of mind and a very small piece of the sprawling ocean of a text that it is 'Moby Dick'.

Melville had done a 'tour' of 2-3 years on a whaler and was familiar with whales and whaling. It is quite clear from his writing that his knowledge could not have been derived purely from scholarly works, although some undoubtedly is. He also, it seems to this penguin, had a great love, as well as respect, for the whales he had hunted. These majestic and regal Leviathans of the deep. MG has been reading the book in tandem and he finished it today. I deliberately slowed my pace to match his, I have more time on my hands/wings, but leapt ahead at the final chase, one always wants to be first at the finish line, while he was marooned in a tunnel on the Northern Line!

We have exchanged emails about what we have read each day.

Now it is clear that humans, by and large, exceptions being the Norwegians and the Japanese and a few others, have accepted a burden of guilt about their exploitation of the whale and have tried to make amends for the slaughter in some small way. They slaughter no more. But, reading MG's emails made me realise, 'post moratorium', how difficult it is for humans NOW, as opposed to then, when it was written, to read Moby Dick. The novel exults at the murder of a fellow sentient creature! As soon as it becomes 'murder', how do you continue?

What I want to consider is the following final paragraph from 'Will he perish?'

"Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuilleries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah's flood he despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies."

For Melville, it was not possible to conceive of a whaling venture any different to that which he describes. Three or four years and forty whales, maybe. If you were French, significantly less! How could that possibly harm the species? However many whalers took to the hazardous task of confronting a seventy, eighty, ninety feet 'monster' in small boats with hand launched harpoons. No wonder he exults the courage of the whalers at the expense of the dignity of the whale.

Ah, but Herman, you did not, perhaps, almost certainly could not, envisage, then, the steam (and later explosive) launch of the explosive harpoon, from the very ship itself! No longer would the whale's survival be dependent upon the diminutive skills and strength of arm of the 'pagan harpooneer' and his oarsmen. All that was required now was a good aim from a safe distance. It is that which killed the whale! Melville speculated that even in northern latitudes, the whale could, would retreat to the ice, under the ice. And yet there are less that 300 North Atlantic Right Whales left on the planet. How wrong can a man be? And does the shade of Herman Melville gaze down from heaven and realise how wrong he was? I suspect so. It must make him weep. Terribly!

It is a sorry mess you have made of our planet, with your arrogance, your belief that we are here only for YOUR purpose. I wish you "God's speed". I have no wish to be a meal for an orca but how soon before penguin flesh becomes as tasty, and valuable, as the oil from a whale?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The End, Tales of Topographic Oceans, Rituals and a silly poem

It's over, the whale is at last conquered and stands broken and beaten on the shelf! I will make no comment at this time. The spermaceti must cool, be kneaded, be refined before the true beauty of this wondrous substance can be appreciated.

Nous sommes du soleil!

The one sided conversation - for Sarah

We are late!


Does it?


Take her!

So long!



ready to go out!

And a teeny bit of a proper one:

Move him into the sun.....
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

The penguin is weary, so very weary.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Page 550 , Ladies and Gentlemen, my next guest is...

We are in the final furlongs now. Tomorrow will see the white whale vanquished!

I had an email from MG this morning. I think that it's worth more than any comments a facetious and lame-brain penguin could make so I've just done a copy and paste job of the exchange..........

"Hi Penguin

Can I ask a favour? I want to hijack your blog for a day. It doesn't seem worth it to set up my own just for one post. Let me know?"


"I've just re-read your little piece about Havelock. You know you have my sympathy because I've already told you but reading it again made me think about something which I don't think I really understood before. My father died on a Monday morning. By Wednesday, with the paperwork completed and a funeral arranged, I was back at work. The funeral was still 6 days away.

Now you know I'm not that religious :) and I have avoided funerals all my life. I just thought they were excuses for a lot of wallowing in self-pity by the survivors and an excuse to resurrect long dead family feuds and grievances. I was in the pub on Wednesday lunchtime, with a couple of commiserating colleagues, when another colleague came in. Middle class pompous ass, but I was feeling generous :) "Are you going to deliver the eulogy?" asks the mcpa. "What?" "You know, the speech about their life etc."

I knew such things were done but it had not even entered my head. How do you write something like that? I hadn't a clue. That night I went home, sat in front of my computer and waited for something to happen. About 5 minutes later, something did and a stream of consciousness poured out. For about two hours. At the end of it, I had something, a first draft, but something nonetheless (and a very wet keyboard). I spent the next two evenings rewriting and rewriting and, at the end of it, believed I had something I would be proud to read at his funeral. And then I had a thought.

What was my mother going to think about paragraph 4? Now my mother isn't in any way religious but she has that strange respect for religion (well at least C of E), that some older people have, for what it's seemly and proper to do or say in its presence. Was I going to be able to get away with talking about it. Would she get embarrassed? Paragraph 4. My father. The hijacker! After much mental to-ing and fro-ing in my mind, I deleted it and over time the trash got emptied.

Every so often, I kind of rewrite that eulogy in different ways. I thought it was just about dealing with the grief when it wells up for whatever reason, empathy attack, something bad happens, they just tap you on the shoulder and whisper, "remember me?" but re-reading your post made me think that maybe there's another, more important reason. Deleting that part of the eulogy was one of my great mistakes and I've made a few, believe me! It so encapsulated the man that it should have stayed in. So I would like to make amends if I may. It will not be the same as was written all those years ago and is no doubt longer (for many reasons) but in essence, I think, it remains the same."

Of course!

"I have no idea whether my father was conscripted or enlisted in the army (just one more question I never asked) but sometime in late 1941 or early 1942 he was on board ship which had just set sail en route to Singapore. By the time they reached the Indian Ocean, Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and the convoy was re-routed to India, at that time part of the British Empire.

In peacetime, my father had been a Heavy Goods Vehicle driver, delivering soft drinks for Schweppes in very long articulated lorries/trucks, flat beds I think they call them. His skills therefore made him ideal for driving tank transporters which are very similar. These were used to transport damaged or broken down tanks back from the front and also to move them around at less cost.

Nothing much happened for about 2 years. They all just sat on their heels and played cards presumably. For them, there was no war, just rumours coming up from Burma. India is after all a big place! Now, they say, the better the army, the worse the food and at the time the British Army was good, very good! Add to that the problems the British always have in foreign, especially tropical, climes and you can imagine that it was an uncomfortable time for all concerned. Later mere mention of the word 'curry' was sufficient to turn my father green.

At some point late into the war but prior, I think, to the first push back into Burma to reclaim what had been lost, some Americans arrived, very well supplied. It all seemed so unfair to the British. In comparison to the British, the Americans were eating like lords! (Although I doubt the Americans thought so) After he'd been made Corporal, he hit upon a cunning plan to improve his company's lot.

He managed to subvert someone in the American camp. I do not know how. He would then be notified when a convoy of food or supplies etc was expected at the camp. He would take his transporter and another, both loaded with a tank and proceed to a narrow road, usually on a hill or mountain, that was on the route of that particular convoy. They had been there 2 years. They knew the surrounding area like the proverbial.

One transporter would be parked askew across the road, the tank demounted also onto the road, and one or more wheels removed from the transporter. The road would be absolutely impassable except on foot. My father's vehicle would be parked someways back down the road, would be made to look like it too had broken down, but it was somewhere where it could be passed by the convoy.

The convoy would pass and some minutes later, my father's vehicle would be 'fixed' and he would drive off after the convoy. Of course, it's easy to see what would happen next. The convoy has to stop, on a narrow road, and my father has come up behind them. The Americans were trapped! Neither forwards nor back. It was often the case that American truck crews would go forward to help 'repair' the transporter ahead. This was the cue for the British squaddies, hiding in the tank on my father's vehicle, to silently remove everything they could from the last truck in the convey and hide it in the tank, or secrete it onto the flat bed somewhere. At some point my father would saunter up to the lead transporter, offer his experience, everything would be 'fixed' and off everyone went to their respective camps. To the best of my knowledge, he repeated this a number of times.

What they had, and how much, determined how far it could be spread outside the immediate company. But, and this is the important thing for me, at no time did money change hands. Not one sou did my father ask for or make from his little 'enterprise'. Some time later the British Army latched onto what he'd been doing and, as the responsible NCO, in both senses, busted him back to private! They reversed that decision sometime later so he started it all back up again, although it didn't last long as they were back on the assault shortly after.

This sounds quite an insignificant thing in a way but it does, in a single episode, pretty much sum him up. Resourceful, altruistic, caring of the people around him and, best of all, up for anything 'just for the craic'! I cannot imagine a better type of father to have.

The original eulogy ended with:

'You have earlier heard the 23rd Psalm. George Herbert, a 17th century poet and clergyman, put a part of the opening lines thus: "While he is mine and I am his, what can I want or need?" I am my father's son, what more could I possibly want or need.'

Still true, I think."

The penguin will, actually, make one comment. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away? Cue music?:) MG had a little rant to me about his mother giving away his late father's war medals to his niece's young son. He does, with some justification, believe they are heirlooms for him and they are lost to him now, forever. But it's a bit late now, so........ In the same email he mentioned a diary his father started when they went back on the offensive in SE Asia and how he hoped that she had kept at least that and the newspaper clipping. The clipping is merely a photograph of his father in Burma playing 'Mother Goose' to a tank as it's winched onto the flat bed. The diary has relatively few entries, a few weeks at most. Mostly mundane things. The final entry is a note that his company had been ambushed by the Japanese and '....(I) had to bayonet a Jap in the eye'.

I think I too might stop this blog after something like that. We live, by and large, in privileged times. Oft times we are apt to forget this, I think.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Page 465 , Borges, who, that, which and Mugwump

Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian genius (my word) once wrote a biographical note about a blasphemous Swedish cleric/philosopher named Runeberg. Runeberg's blasphemy was to consider that the ultimate and only sacrifice for a redeemer to make for mankind was for him/her to willingly go to Hell for eternity.

For Runeberg Judas was the son of God!

Except that Runeberg was just something, not someone, to hang an idea on. Complete fabrication. Just like yesterday's Santa Claus story! So if there are any kiddies out there, I fibbed! Honest! Although I believe you CAN get high on fly agaric!

Do you ever wonder about the unconscious decisions you make, when you use language? And how they impact on how others then relate to what you say or write? Not so much the actual word you might use but the motivation behind the word(s) you do use? You see, Douglas Hofstadter's 'I am a strange loop' arrived today.

Now, Doug and I go ways back. All the way to 'Godel, Escher and Bach' but I don't mean on a personal level; I doubt he'd come here and I have real no desire to go to him, but I'm the only penguin/person in my little group who reads him. And, like Borges, I find his ideas endlessly fascinating. He's essentially a researcher in AI (Artificial Intelligence) with a special interest in the concept of 'analogy making' among sentient beings, whether they be human or penguins. Oh alright, he's not interested in analogy making in penguins but he might well be if he knew we could do it!

For me, it's hard to steel myself, gird my loins, man the barricades and not start reading it NOW. But Moby must take precedence. I have made a decision, I WILL stick with it. But tempting, oh so tempting......Like those Belgian chocolates......Just one!...........So I just dipped into it, once. Opened it at random and found a short little dialogue 'twixt two 'children' in which the subject of discussion was 'which/who'

And that got me thinking.

I suspect that DH may well expound upon similar lines, although he'll do it for 90 pages not one, but it is quite clear what the difference is. 'Who' relates to people and 'which' relates to everything else. Yes? You use 'who' when there is an 'I' or 'You' to refer to in there somewhere.

However it's not quite as clear cut as the 'usage' gurus would have you believe, is it? Often contained in MG's little emails are progress reports on 'Mugwump'. 'Mugwump' was a beaten up, stray moggie that his friend needed help with getting to the animal hospital a few months back and which, following a rush of blood to the head, he agreed to foster until a proper home could be found. The cat's still there. :) Whenever he writes about the cat, he uses 'who' as in 'Mugwump who lives with the fluff under the bed' or 'I have one of those cats who talks to you'. Now this, to me, clearly indicates that as far as MG is concerned, there is an 'I' inside the cat's head which is distinct. Whenever he talks about me, it's always 'the penguin who writes the blog', although there is perhaps a better case for the penguin 'I' than there is for a cat 'I'. When was the last time you picked up 'Of mice and men' by A Cat?

However, he would no more say "The cow who was in the field was eating grass' than you or I would. Now it would very easy to put this all down to that bane of anyone who wants to discuss animals sensibly, anthropomorphism. However, I don't think that it holds here, I think it goes an awful lot deeper than that.

Over the last couple of million years, humans have had to bond very tightly with their own kind for their own protection. The young are too weak and defenceless, the old too infirm, and with no tools, or only crude ones, adult humans don't deal very well with marauding large predators, whether terrestrial or marine. So they bond into groups with their own kind because there's safety in numbers. Either you reduce your chances of being picked for the lion's light snack or, as a group, you can beat the lion off if you all work together.

But there's a price to pay for that protection. It means that humans come with a highly developed emotional sense. The bonding has to be (a) instinctive, at least in so far as when you bond it is not a conscious thought, otherwise you'd never get around to it, :) and (b) you don't really have another mechanism for bonding with anything other than humans. So when you do bond, what you bond with is 'human', an 'I', whether the object is a cat, a dog, a child's dolly, you can't do it any other way. You just didn't get the mental equipment delivered at the right time and it comes out in your language.

Now, to some extent, the usage for 'who'/'which' also applies to 'who'/'that', when 'that' is used as a pronoun, but it's far more common for 'that' to serve as the 'who' pronoun, eg 'The person that I spoke to had brown hair' despite the fact that 'that' is just as impersonal as 'which'. However, I doubt anyone would say 'My partner, that has just come back from the shops, wants to talk to you.' No you'd use 'who'. But you would say ' the cat, that's just came out from under the bed, wants to go out' even when there is the same level on bonding going on as above. Interesting, no? It's almost as if there is a grading system going on and you are demonstrating the depth of the bond by the construction you use. Those very close to you are always 'who' but those a little more distant, but still close, could be either 'who' or 'that'.

You see why I find DH endlessly fascinating :) Four brief lines of dialogue = 1 blog post!

And Mugwump? Named after a hallucination of the central character in Burrough's 'The Naked Lunch'. Seemed appropriate at the time :) After all, he wasn't going to be around for long :) And he does talk. Not miaows, but he sits by the side of the bed and makes little chirruping noises, little squeaks when he's hungry, to wake MG up in the morning. Ah bless, Moko writ large once more!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Page 401, Sleighrides and red and white mushrooms

Oh my, how doth the mind move in so much mysterious ways, all of itself. Forsooth, 'tis a wonderment to me!

I never understood what the 'sleighride' was. Why would a song about ships, whales and love be a 'sleighride' and a Nantucket one at that? But then I read Melville's account of the Pequod's first encounter with a whale. The little open boats flashing through the scud, across the snow-white foam as the whale begins to sound, the harpoon embedded in its body and the harpoon's rope attached to the boat.

Now I understand! After all this time, I understand! Thank you Herman! If nothing else, I am truly grateful to you for this! The long slow plod, plod of this old nag has been worth it. Of little consequence, 'Nantucket Sleighride', but these things have a tendency to irritate in inverse proportion to their importance after a while, don't they?

Now, I have been accused in the past of failing to stay on topic with these blog posts. ;) It is, however difficult, when you have a brain the size of a small planet (and an ego to match). It's often not possible to stop the neurons firing in all their infinite, myriad ways. But sometimes discipline is good. Especially if there are nice, furry handcuffs and satin straps as well, maybe even a little paddle? :) Sometimes rigour needs to be maintained. Sometimes whimsy and fancy must be restrained for the greater benefit. Whether in or of a penguin or a human. So I shall now stay on topic........ sort of........... well perhaps...... it's all a little tenuous........ but nonetheless sleighrides will make another appearance, albeit fleetingly, and only at the end. When all that was, and is, mysterious is revealed and the veil is withdrawn with a flourish!

Ok, it's not quite up to St John but this is a family blog and we don't want to start mentioning the W***e of Babylon, now, do we? Lots of difficult questions from the chicks when you do that, I've found.
Besides, the four horsemen are just so depressing! Not at all like Roy Rogers and Trigger or the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Cartright family! Champion, the wonder horse!

Now I was going to talk about'Lieutenant Kije' by Prokoviev but the sleighride music in that has so been done to death for Christmas TV advertising by the Woolworths and Walmarts (same thing?) of this world that I can scarcely bear to listen to it any more. Does have lovely jangly bells though .

So instead, I'll talk about a mushroom, 'fly agaric'.

It's interesting, I can quite distinctly hear the sound of heads banging against keyboards, even all the way down here! :)


Fly agaric is a poisonous mushroom, although seldom fatal. It does, however, in small quantities, have hallucinogenic properties. I wouldn't recommend it as a substitute for LSD or mescalin but I guess if you're in the middle of nowhere, and fancy pretending to be Aldous Huxley for a couple of hours in the hope of writing 'Brave New World', anything is better than nothing. Now it's nice and common in Europe and very easy to spot. It has a white cap with red spots on it! Incidentally, the human connotation of red with 'stop', 'danger' etc is not your 'invention', nature was doing it way before you came along. You just hijacked it!

So where was I? Ah yes, fly agaric. Now sometimes animals eat them. They're probably the colour blind ones in the population (or they want to be Aldous Huxley) and if they don't eat too much, so that they become ill, they must surely start 'tripping', hallucinating, no? Now I don't know what a four legged ungulate would hallucinate about, but would flying spring to mind? It does for humans and it's so much easier than walking, ay? Especially if there's cold snow on the ground. After all our four legged friend 'knows' what flying is, it has seen birds, bats, insects. Not beyond the bounds of imagining, is it?

So, a bit later along comes a human, eats some fly agaric too. The human's hallucinations might be very pleasant but, as anyone who has ever had a bad one will tell you, bad trips are definitely high on the list of things you never, ever want to repeat. Just like having a few beers with Prince Charles, eating tofu or getting stuck for a few hours in a lift with a human after they've just eaten a chicken jalfreezi from the local 'Indian'*. So the human invents a little myth. A little cautionary tale. There is a man who tends the mushrooms and, moreover, the mushroom-eating ungulates. He wears a red coat and a red hat. He is warning you with his red apparel to stay away from the mushrooms. They are not good for all!

It's odd then, don't you think, that when the early Victorians were casting around for some way of spiriting presents into people's houses at Christmas to surprise the children, they should choose the myth of the acid-head mushroom keeper from Lapland and his herd of hallucinating reindeer?

You see, I said there would be sleighrides! And sleighrides don't come any better than that one!

"So, lead on Rudolf! Light the way with your nose! Fly Donner! Fly Blitzen! Prancer, Dancer, Dasher, Vixen, all will follow. Comet and Cupid will act as rear! Fly, reindeer fly! 'Twill be a long tonight, 'ere we return home!"

It is, of course, at this point that Santa tries to contact Klaatu and Gort on the intergalactic mobile, without realising that 'The day the earth stood still' was only a sci-fi film, not a documentary and stopping time, dead in its tracks, is actually not possible. At all!

It's why only the children of affluent parents get presents. There's not enough time to deliver one to every child and Santa is not above being on the receiving end of a little palm greasing, if the occasion warrants it.

* Footnote:
'Indian' as in Indian Restaurant, not native of Indian sub-continent nor a member of the Lakhota

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Page 333, warfarin and Shakespeare's sister

Poor MG! No wonder he topes so :) (That has nothing to do with sharks, by the way!) After a couple of months of too much work, too many representations, too many 'personal' issues', he finally gets a 'little success' last week and a colleague walks away without a racist label stuck to his back. So, he decides to sit down, have some fish (that much, at least, we have in common :) and perhaps a large cognac with his 'doppio' and then take the afternoon off, prior to working all weekend.

The first mouthful had no sooner left his plate on its brief but fateful journey to his mouth when the mobile phone goes off! After a mad scramble to get it out before Tommy Tucker's 'High heel sneakers' dies away, more news! His mother has fallen. Again! Now that's not fallen in the biblical sense. That's fallen, face down, where your nose hits the kerbstone first! Thankfully, a friend is with her and will take her to A & E (Accident & Emergency). Nonetheless, he still spends 4 hours in A & E, still needs to walk the dog and feed the cat because they are keeping her in overnight. And do the same, early Saturday morning. She's on 'warfarin', an anti coagulant, and there are dangers when the bleeding does not stop so they generally keep her in to be safe.......Funny how they feed rat poison to humans!

This means Friday afternoon/evening's gone, Saturday's gone and it's still work on Sunday! It seems I'm not the only one God has it in for!

Oh, she's fine. CT scan came back clear on Saturday afternoon! She's back home! Tho' she looks like she's done ten rounds with Mike Tyson!

It's funny, the first time it happened and he found her 'away with the fairies', with a subdural haematoma, on the living room floor. His abiding memory is not of the five hours 'on the table' , while they lifted chunks of her skull away from the 'bleeder', while they drained the blood, that refused to clot. Not of sitting in a gloomy waiting room with only instant coffee to relieve the pressure, in the same hospital as his father had died. And Rory Gallagher, the year before that. Not of the thought that, at that age, there is less of a chance that you wake up afterwards.

No, his abiding memory is of the cute, little, blonde nurse singing Shakespeare's Sister's 'Stay with me' in a voice of liquid crystal to his mother in 're-sus' before surgery! He says it's because it was so much better than the original, and so....... appropriate, but..........Male?...... Human? Yeah, that's what I thought too! :)

However, watch out, Maddy Prior, if that little nurse ever decides to switch professions, you could be in trouble!

I don't know if they still do, though they certainly used to, but they repointed the brickwork in London's sewers with mortar that was mixed with broken glass. They then lace the rat-bait, which the rats eat, with warfarin so that when the rats licked the waste fat from 10 million washing-up bowls off the sewer walls they would lacerate their tongues and pads and thus bleed to death. Seemed a heartless way to kill a pest to me. Doesn't really work either. There are still 6 or 7 times more rats in London than people, even allowing for the massive influx of Eastern Europeans in recent years.

It's quite understandable of course, foreign emigres congregating together in cities. They are isolated from the 'mother' country, language, culture and so seek each other out. A little piece of home in an alien country. Where MG lives, they're all Poles. So much so, that the local newsagent stocks Polish newspapers, the local convenience stores stock Polish food, the local bookshop now stocks books in Polish. He says that it makes life a bit more interesting, if a little bit disconcerting. You join the queue in the local supermarket and you don't hear English much. All the conversations going on around you are in Polish! Or Ukrainian. They've started to arrive in numbers now. Oh well at least it means a buoyant rental market!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Page 270, Owen Coffin and Felix Pappalardi

Oh Herman, beautiful prose but why so dense? It is slow, slow, slow, like wading in treacle, very nice but awfully hard going. Not that I have ever waded in treacle, mind, but you get my drift!

Reading about whales & whaling reminded me of the story of Owen Coffin. An unfortunate name for starters, to be sure, but the Coffin family were very big in Nantucket whaling in the 19th century.

What is strange is that I remember very distinctly why I know this story. I didn't just find it. Read it in a book. I went looking for it.

Back in the 1960/70s, there was a group called Mountain. (Guess what? They were at Woodstock too! - Wasn't everyone, daaahliiiing?) On their album, 'Nantucket Sleighride' was a song called 'Nantucket Sleighride (For Owen Coffin)'. At the time I assumed Owen was some drugged up roadie who'd died or something. It's a wistful little love song about 'little Robin-Marie' which suddenly erupts, instrumentally, in the bridge after the first chorus, before returning to the same wistful atmosphere of the introduction. Now it always troubled me because I never seemed to be able to 'get' the lyrics - they just didn't really make a lot of sense to me. So I thought: "If I know who Owen Coffin is/was, maybe it will make sense."

Owen Coffin was a 17 year old who, as was customary in the family in the 19th century, was set for his first journey aboard a whaler skippered by his uncle. Now as anyone who has ploughed their weary way through Moby Dick will know :), whaling voyages would last between 3 to 4 years at that time and although there was some communication between ship and shore, returning whalers would pass outgoing whalers and pick up mail to take 'home', you were pretty much signing up for 3-4 years of no contact with family, friends, loved ones.

Some months into the voyage, Coffin's uncle, on the hunt for Sperm Whales, was rammed by one. Yep, really! When you are as big as a Sperm Whale with a head like a battering ram, a puny, human, wooden ship is just so much target practice. Especially if you are bright enough to recognise a whaling ship when you see one and you are not keen on getting your arse, back or head punctured by a bloody great, barbed, knitting needle. Believe me, Sperm Whales are an awful lot brighter than that! Although not bright enough to realise that ramming ships on a whim, albeit one motivated by self preservation, (a) gets them a bad reputation for truculence and (b) a headache.

As the ship went down, the whalers took to the boats, presumably with what provisions they could muster at short notice. At this point, they are adrift on the open ocean with no means of communicating and at the mercy of the seas and pure chance, with a very hacked off Sperm Whale about. They were 'fortunate'. He/she had already decided that he/she didn't need another headache to go with the one he/she already had and had buggered off for a bit of sounding practice.

I doubt, though, that they considered themselves particularly fortunate. In small open boats, on the wide, open ocean, what chance had they of being seen by a passing whaler or merchantman? About as much chance as I have of seeing, first hand, what's inside Angelina Jolie's knickers - not an odds-on certainty then.

Some time elapsed, I can't remember how long and I can't be fagged to go and look it up. Anyways, the food (spam and hard tack, probably :) ran out. After a few days, everyone was getting mighty hungry and eventually, they had a little competition. Who could draw the 2 shortest straws. One to do the killing, the other to be killed, for food. Owen Coffin drew the shortest straw.

Despite his uncle's offer to go in his stead, Owen refused, little Owen was killed and eaten. Some of the crew were picked up after three long months on the open sea in open boats. Beggars belief, doesn't it? That will to survive?

Goodbye, little Robin-Marie,
Don't try, followin' me.
Don't cry, little Robin-Marie,
'Cause you know, I'm comin' home soon.

My ship's, leavin' on a three year tour,
Next tide, will take us from shore.
Wind-laced, gather in sail and spray,
On a search, for the mighty sperm whale.

Fly your willow branches,
Wrap your body 'round my soul,
Lay down your reeds an' drums on my soft sheets,
There are years behind us reaching,
To the place where hearts are beating,
And I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet.
And I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet.

(insert musical mayhem here)

Starbuck's, sharpenin' his harpoon,
Black man's, playin' his tune,
An old salt's, sleepin' his watch away,
He'll be drunk again, before noon.

(insert 'Leslie West restrained self indulgence' here)

Three years, sailin' on bended knee,
We found, no whales in the sea,
Don't cry, little Robin-Marie,
'Cause we'll be, in sight of land soon.

Fly your willow branches,
Wrap your body 'round my soul,
Lay down your reeds an' drums on my soft sheets,
There are years behind us reaching,
To the place where hearts are beating,
And I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet.
And I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet.

(insert more musical mayhem here)

I have no idea what reeds and willow branches or drums have to do with all of this, and Melville, so far, has been of no use whatsoever, but it did become a little clearer. And what a wonderful way to end a song! Not the mayhem, stupid boy, the lyric!

Who was Felix? Bass player in Mountain! :) And producer of Cream. And manager of the Yardbirds.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Tread lightly for you know not that which lies beneath your feet

Havelock has made his decision. One which he has deferred making for so long. Perhaps for me? Perhaps for Fricka? Perhaps for little Fricka and all those like her? Perhaps for the one chick which he tries to save each year? Perhaps for himself? Who can know? Who will ever now know?

He has decided that life without Myfanwy, finally, is no life. Whatever small compensations he could conjure for himself to assuage his pain, they are no longer enough, and he has chosen. Rather than a life without her, he will have unlife with her. And who dare challenge his choice? It is his, and only his, to make. It was always so.

I found him that morning, out by the test rig, dozing in the early morning sunshine. I didn't want to wake him but I needed him to keep an eye on 'little Fricka' while I wrote my blog. Laying my wing across his back, I felt him, cold and stiff. There was no warmth left in him. No charity. No love. No life.

Wherever Havelock may be, he is no longer here. No longer in the rookery. No longer by my side. What remained of my father was no more than empty, cold, dead flesh. Solid bone left rigid through the night. Stiff feathers useless, for protection, to insulate; there is no longer warmth to retain. The life has gone from that which was so alive. The penguin that was Havelock has departed and all that remains now is food for the bonxies.

There is a switch in every penguin. At certain times, you press the button and the penguin in front of you becomes a non-penguin. It is as simple as that! As every chick dies, its parents flip the switch and there is no chick, no to-be-penguin, no beloved, no heart's dearest, no tender fruit of your union. Just a husk, empty now, barren, a shell that once contained a penguin but contains one no more.

If the penguin is no longer a penguin, in what way are they different from the snow? From the rocks? From the concrete around the station? From the remains of half digested fish left by over-stuffed chicks intent on mayhem? In no way different. So we leave them. Where they lie. A stiff and frozen reminder of the price we will all be asked to pay. For life exacts its own cost for this life. A price for this joy, this excitement, this suffering, this contentment, which we all, penguin or human or orca, must pay, whether we will or no. Only by paying the real cost do we come to appreciate the value of what we have bought.

Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? When is not important. Only the inevitability of the final settlement remains.

We ignore them, these empty, lifeless urns, full now only of ashes. We cast them not a glance as we waddle from one side of the rookery to the other. After a few days, they are little more than feathers on skin, discarded remnants from an alien and bizarre haberdasher, just rags in scarlet drenched snow. Even the husk, now empty of the penguin that once was, becomes truly empty, a meal of guts and lights for a hungry petrel. Such is the life, and the death, here.

You would, I think, consider us heartless, cold, callous to so treat those we loved. Those we reared. Those we spent the long winter protecting; to the very limits of our endurance and sometimes beyond. Why else would we suffer, as we do, through the harsh winds, the freezing air, the hunger, if not for love? And, if for love, then do we not debase, besmirch, demean our love, in acting so? Is love so easily switched off? Like a table lamp? Is our love no more than a meal for the bonxies?

We do not love the husk, the empty shell, the ash filled urn. We do not love the feathers, the bones, the guts. We love the penguin. If the penguin has gone, what is there left to love? Except the memory?

And memory has no shell.

We buried him, Cozy, Sparky, Fricka and I. Beneath the test rig. All day we shovelled snow with our wings. It was not easy nor deep, but deep enough we hope to preserve him from the bonxies. That much, at least, is owed.

Never before. The rookery has been keening long into the night for three days now.

Little Fricka will not eat.

Little Charlie does not speak.

But tomorrow is a new dawn and, with each new sun, there is always new hope.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Page 155, Fleetwood Mac and small coincidences

I found this little gem in an old 1977 music mag:

"With a bit of luck, a few influential radio stations will pick up on them and, maybe then (no thanks to Polydor), people will discover exactly who Buckingham Nicks are. After that, who knows? There might even be a second album.

You never can tell."

Well, they never did get that second album deal but I doubt 'Rumours' would have sold 20 million copies if they had :) (MG says BN is one of the treasures of his vinyl collection. "I was one of the 'few', I got there first", he brags!) Actually he didn't, you don't have that 'Fritz' single, do you, clever clogs?

These cosmic coincidences always strike me as interesting. Musically, where would popular music be now if John had never met Paul and there never had been a lonely hearts' club band? Would it have still developed the same way? Or would all the tedious mediocrities just have disappeared up their own collective, talentless arsehole that much sooner? If Jimi had never met Chas Chandler would we ever have been able to witness (then or now) the apocalyptic 'star spangled banner' and would we now be forced to conclude that 'Going Home' was the highspot of Woodstock? (Actually it wasn't, Hendrix aside, Joe Cocker was, not bad for a Sheffield steel worker in a tie dye. Oh alright, it was Santana really but let's not get into an argument about it. It's definitely NOT Country Joe and the Fish! OK?)

Would Elizabeth and Robert's development as poets have proceeded the same way, would either have been so great, if each were not feeding the other's muse? Would we have 'The Divine Comedy' if it had been de rigeur in 14th century Florence for Beatrice to walk up to Dante Alighieri, standing forlorn on the corner, musing on his unrequited love, dreaming of 'Paradiso' and to politely ask: "You look like a nice boy, fancy a quick one?"

Would the whole course of modern European history have been changed had Adolf, Josef and dicke Hermann not got absolutely rat-arsed that night in 1921 in the bierkeller or the table had not been so thick in the Wolfsschanze in 1944? How would English history have panned out if Henry had not happened to have a fetish about six fingered hands and had not bumped into one? Would they still be Catholic? Is the Pope?

If Wilde had never met Lord Alfred Thompson would we have the 'Ballad of Reading Gaol?'

As Stephen Jay Gould points out in 'This wonderful life', were it possible to roll the tape back to the beginning and re-run it, things wouldn't turn out the same, it wouldn't be the same world, the same lives, would it? It couldn't be, could it? Too many other possibilities that could have happened, just didn't happen to the first time around but easily could on a re-run.

One of supreme attractions of quantum mechanics is that it enshrines that in one of the fundamental concepts of the theory - the uncertainty principle. You can only ever make a statistical statement about the probablities of an event, never have a certainty about the outcome. And that is one of the great joys of life. How dull it would all be if, like the God Emperor Leto, you had perfect prescience. You knew exactly what was around the next corner. You knew exactly what was coming. Everything was essentially fixed for all eternity.

This, I think, is why I can't get my head round omniscience. However you try to fudge it, omniscience is just that, all knowing. There can be no surprises however much free will you give the universe. And how boring would that be? If you were God, you'd have to change that bit of the contract, wouldn't you? Leto certainly did, tho' it cost him his life as a singular, thinking entity. Although the actual outcome envisaged for Leto, small sparks of individual consciousness, was, I thought, a neat solution to provide a 'happy' ending.

No, sometimes you may not like them, sometimes they may hurt you, but life's little surprises are what create and enrich this life! Enjoy them! And if you cannot enjoy the surprise, like being hit on the head with a mallet, learn from it! Find a picture dictionary, learn what a mallet looks like, duck when it appears to be on an impact trajectory with your skull. MG says that was the most valuable lesson he ever learned. He could never understand the headaches after hand chiselling wood. :)

Moby goes on, but, it seems, oh so slowly :( Ah well, it's not as bad as reading Proust, in French!

Something has happened. I cannot write about it now. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. We'll have to see.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Page 85, Little Fricka writes & Lunacy on the Aberdeen Express

Eh O! Ikkel Frikki ere. Da Da says I can say 'Eh O'. So Eh O, all u peeplees!

Ah bless! Chip off the old block, ay? She nagged and nagged and then nagged some more. For good measure, she threw in a bit of whining and grizzling, then nagged again. "Da Da, Pees." "For ikkle me, ikkle Fricki, pees." "Pees, I pwomise to be good, Da Da, pees, I use compootee?" "Pees!"

What can you do? Resist? Tell them to go and play with their friends? Tell them it's too complicated for chicks? That Da Da's busy? No, just give in! Just don't let her mother find out or there'll be hell to pay!

This post really follows on from yesterday's and, I think, makes a plausible stab for me at why this blog is, and why it is how it is. Not that this is particularly important in the great scheme of things but it troubled me a little so I thought about it. It's what penguins do. Judgement should be suspended on its plausibility until the very end :)

Odd thought this morning. I suppose it was probably prompted by little Fricka's pleading but a while back, just after Myfanwy died, I 'bumped into' somebody on the information superhighway. They used a wrong email address and got me instead of Tech Support. Now I was a little light headed at the time, I had been awake most of the night, unable to sleep because of the wind, and my reply was a little bit frivolous, tongue in cheek, even if I did solve their little computing problem.

Now for some reason, and I don't know why, there didn't seem to be anything to kick start it, an 'exchange' started up. Over the ensuing months, the exchanges, a couple of times a week, got longer and longer until eventually they were filling six or seven sides of A4, apiece. At times it seemed like a mutual support group. Each supporting the other through 'difficult times'. Moreover, from my end at least, they were becoming increasingly 'lunatic' and surreal to the point where, about halfway in, a glove puppet called Piglet, who could type but couldn't spell, suddenly appeared. He would make interjections in the text of the emails about my state of mind at the time, some true, some not, for which he was then scolded. Their replies then started to include special messages for Piglet about what a rotten bastard I was for treating him the way I did and offering moral support, usually in the form of 'wee bosies'. Eventually Piglet was sending emails all by himself about wild parties with Kanga, Roo, Tigger (who was always being sick down the back of the sofa) and the other toys while I was back out at sea.

Now there is something inherently childish about all of this, wouldn't you agree? Or perhaps child-like? Why would a fully grown, mature penguin engage in child-like dialogues with a person at about the same stage of mental development as the penguin? And why 'invent' Piglet in the first place? And why talk back to him?

Perhaps because when everything gets turned upside down in your life, there is a certain comfort to be had in retreating, for a very little while at least, each day, week or month, into a kind of child-like innocence where the world really is ok, daddy says it is, even if it's simulated. A way of forgetting your problems for a time but in a manner that allows you to reassure yourself that it's not really a retreat, just a wee dreamy doze in life's great afternoon and you'll be back on the case after your nap. For the penguin at least, writing those emails was often the only happy thoughts I had in the wake of Myfanwy's sad departure. Allowing, nay forcing, the surreal into every aspect of what you were looking at, riding to planet Pluto on a beam of starlight, bouncing 'off the wall', for just a wee while, an hour here or there, there was comfort to be had there, I think.

Sad, perhaps, but I still have most of them. As all of the long ones were sent as attachments, they were saved into their own folder at the time and like all good penguins, I understand the wisdom of the back up. When Myfanwy returns to scold me for not being the penguin she brought me up to be, and she does, often, I sometimes take comfort in Piglet's desperate cry for help, "The toys' party, the time machine and the dinosaurs in the bathroom" and the reassuring reply. :)

So, if they ever skidoo past this blog and catch a fleeting glimpse of the penguin on the ice, wave! Stop! The penguin would like to say "Thank you, arntie Jone!" Again. Properly.

You see, whatever we may believe, we all need crutches at certain times, perhaps all the time, even penguins. Whether they're moral, religious, financial, psycholgical or emotional, the need for them doesn't make us weak in any absolute sense but having them makes us so much stronger relative to where we would otherwise be.

I did say right at the very beginning that this blog would be my goad, my stick, perhaps even my carrot. Perhaps it's less of a goad or a stick now. You see what I realised back then, and had forgotten until probably 'Moko and the whales', is that even when the support's no longer needed and the lunacy largely disappears into a void, just doing it makes me feel better about all the shit that happens around me, audience or no. I will take some solace in that! Everything else is a welcome bonus.

And if anyone should think that I just made all of this up merely to illustrate that last point. No, the penguin has a long standing regret that he couldn't get so far north in the time available, and get to ring the millenium in on the big gate-bell on Hogmanay.

Ho hum, time to return to updating the breeding database. No it's late and I need to get back to little Fricka. I'll tell you about it some other time.

* 'wee bosie' = 'x x x' :)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Page 32, back breaking whales and cud chewing

I knew he would.

Shaky's already started complaining. "What is it with you and heavy books? You promised after 'Rising 44' that you'd keep them small, short! But then you said the same thing after 'Le ton beau de Marot', as well, didn't you? And you didn't, did you? If you think I'm standing here for a couple of hours a day with 'Moby Dick' on my back, then think again, sunbeam! Poetry's one thing but a bloody great big whale I don't need!"

Don't worry, he'll come round.........I hope. I would hate to falter, baulk, shy at the first hurdle for want of a penguin's back!

Windows, I've been thinking about windows recently. Not Bill's misconceived abomination. Not double glazed sashes. Metaphorical windows, portals into other places, other lives. What makes you open the curtains for the whole world to see what a mess your living room is in? What makes you roll up the blinds when you know that the one person you want to peer in and then gently tap on the door and offer to do the hoovering is never going to? Not in a million years! Why should the misplaced scatter cushions on the floor around your sofa be of any interest to anybody? And do you really want them tidied up? Even by them?

It's strange sometimes writing this blog. Fifty years ago, I would have had a pen, a little book. The book would be kept under the mattress and would see daylight only in quiet times, times of solitude. Times when gently remonstrating with yourself seemed productive. When rolling your life around the inside of your head seemed to make a kind of sense, in a nonsensical way. When sharing your thoughts, hopes, desires with no-one suited better than sharing with someone.

And yet now, what would once have been so personal, private, secret is now so public. Why? Arrogance? I hope not. A need to tell? Perhaps. But the whole world? I doubt it. A belief you have something of value to say? Scarcely and who'd listen, or want to listen, to a penguin anyway?

They say that every person on the planet is only seven or eight people removed from every other person on the planet. You never notice because you can never join up the dots seven or eight times on the trot, in the right sequence, to make the connection; but blogs sidestep all that don't they? They don't need the intervening steps. They allow you to pass the exam without showing all your 'working out'.

And what if the Elfin Queen should stop by? Curious that, perhaps of all the penguins on google, she might have known this one? In another life? Would she recognise herself? Would you want her to? And worse, what if someone merely thought that it was their face that was being reflected in the mirror, but it was only illusion?

Of course, statistically speaking, the dots still, in truth, have to be joined up; only now they must be joined by chance, happenstance, happy monsters.

But then chance created life and of all the improbabilities in the universe, that must surely be the most improbable of them all.

Of late my dear penguin, I fear you have ruminated too long on what was, what might have been, what can never be, what must never be. Fish, snow, ice, sea, orca, seal, penguins, these are life. The only life. Enjoy!

Whoops! That was just a bit too serious! Sorry!

There was an Irishman, an Englishman and a Frenchman in a bar..............

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Page 0, Primo Levi and a c**k up!

Give me a break! I haven't finished Hammett yet. It's amazing how you cannot imagine Sam Spade as anybody but Humphrey Bogart, isn't it? And Joel Cairo IS Peter Lorre. And Gutman IS Sydney Greenstreet. Iconic performances in what must have seemed at the time, a throwaway film.

Bit like Casablanca, I guess.

And I can't believe I've mis-spelt Sartre all the way through this blog! I mean it's like spelling Martin as Highdigger! I've corrected what I've found but there are no doubt others I've missed. Sorry Jean-Paul. Really, I mean that, I'm not just saying it. Sorry!

Strange, in a way, titling the last blog "Call me Ishmael". A hero, Alan Coren, English humourist, much indebted to S J Perelman, and author of the Idi Amin diaries, once did a piece on the misplaced comma. He used Melville's opening line, only in the piece it was "Call me, Ishmael". What followed was a short spoof of Moby Dick in Melville's style which revolved around Ahab's answerphone :). It used to be here but I cannot find it and memory is so unreliable...........

I left a comment on the previous blog which was the opening paragraph to 'If this is a man' by Primo Levi. Levi was an Auschwitz survivor, an Italian Jew, but a chemist not a writer, at least not initially. And yet in 'If..' he lays out in the most exquisite prose, a perpetual dilemma. Where does hope come from? How do you stay alive, want to stay alive, when: "To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze, from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement."

Does his faith help? It's never seemed that way to me. A belief that something so wrong could never be right? However twisted society becomes? I don't think so. So why, when he believes himself destroyed does he not only continue living but spends the remainder of his life writing life affirming texts? There is, must be, something in the human spirit which provides for all occasions, all adversity. I just wish I knew what it was. Perhaps it's what the English call 'bloody mindedness'. That perverse notion that when the brown, squishy stuff hits the round, twirly thing, you don't duck, you don't move out of the way, you just stand your ground. And then when it's all over, you smile sweetly at the fan and walk away, confident in the knowledge that you could beat the crap out of it now but you don't really need or want to, do you? You're better than that, aren't you? You survived, didn't you?

There is a somewhat sad postscript to all of this. Levi died after falling down the stairs of his apartment. What no-one knows is whether it was deliberate or an accident.

So many of the Auschwitz survivors felt guilty that they had survived!