Replacing Petrochemicals

This image has been posted on Twitter as a replacement for this older list:

Both of these are attempts to illustrate that petrochemicals are indispensible. There is a problem with the second list because it’s out of date, although how old exactly isn’t clear. I’m guessing it’s 1990s CE because it mentions DVDs. The second is actually more interesting and detailed than the first. It also overlaps with a period in my life when I spent considerable time working on a project I refer to as the “Steady State”, which has influenced a lot of my writing, including my novels ‘Replicas’, ‘Unspeakable’ and ‘1934’. This puts me in an unusually good position to respond to this list.

First some backstory. I’ve been interested in Green issues since the early to mid-’70s and consequently much of my thinking in this area is oriented around this kind of issue. Some time in the 1990s, I was gifted a large single-volume encyclopædia which covered all sorts of areas, including an extensive survey of technology and industry. This, I feel, did a good job of breaking industry at the time into categories which covered these fields very efficiently and completely without leaving many gaps. Since at the time I was training to be a herbalist, I was substantially interested in the field of pharmacology, which I was later to study as part of my course. It was also possible to extend the approach taken within herbalism applied to pharmacology to other fields. Ultimately I was able to produce a fairly rudimentary but very broad corpus of information as to how more ecologically sound practices could be introduced across the board. This was ultimately to form the basis of several of my fictional undertakings.

I call this the Steady State with reference to Fred Hoyle’s cosmology. Hoyle held the very influential mid-century view that the Universe was eternal and infinite, but also that space was constantly expanding. Since this would ultimately lead to a situation where the galaxies were so far apart that they would be invisible to each other, he posited the notion of “continuous creation”, which is the idea that a very small quantity of matter springs spontaneously into existence in practically empty space. It’s been said to amount to the equivalent of a single atom of hydrogen per volume of space equivalent to the Empire State Building. Up until that time, the Steady State Theory was the best-supported cosmological theory available. It appeals quite strongly to me, as you may have noticed from the many times I’ve mentioned Hoyle on this blog. However, it’s long since been refuted and replaced by the Big Bang theory. Hoyle himself seems to have cloven to the idea long after everyone else relinquished it, and as such it’s one of several examples of a distinguished scientist refusing to give up their heterodox views in old age. Another example is Lord Kelvin, who insisted that Earth was only a few hundred million years old because of how long it would’ve taken to cool down, ignoring the heating action of radioactive decay which allows it to be æons older than that.

Albert Einstein was an early exponent of the Steady State Theory, although he quickly rejected it. Hoyle arrived at it in 1948, very close to the middle of the twentieth century. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1964 made it difficult to maintain as opposed to the Big Bang Theory, but even by the time I was reading about cosmology in the early 1970s, many scientists were still presenting it as a viable alternative. It would be fair to say that it was basically gone by ’72, which fits my narrative better so I’m going to say that.

Another influence on my view was the film ‘Pleasantville’, in which a brother and sister find themselves thrown into a black-and-white 1950s television show with the expected attitudes. The idea of ’50s America is such a stereotype nowadays I don’t need to repeat it here, but the point of interest for me in this film is that it parodies the insistence on creationism in schools through what it calls something like “the steady state theory of history”, that is, that as TV series often “press the reset button” at the end of each episode, from the perspective of their protagonists, everything stays the same.

It’s difficult to write stories set in the future because change is constant and this can make them seem dated very quickly. If, however, the author can contrive some kind of artifice rendering technological and consequent social change gradual or static, and in particular generate a retro atmosphere, this can be circumvented. This can be seen in some of Wyndham’s work and also in John Christopher’s Tripods series. Many people are also quite attached to this mythicised period of the mid-twentieth century, and literally speaking the middle third of that century was a 12 175-day period stretching from 3rd May 1934 to 2nd September 1967. In my novel ‘1934’, the dates appear to be looping between those two dates endlessly, although in fact they aren’t. There’s a reason for this based in the “Steady State project”: if you want a technology and culture to persist indefinitely, given current scientific and technical know-how you can only really maintain things at mid-century levels. As soon as you introduce something like, say, semiconductors, it complicates things and the question of sustainability arises, not because such technology is essentially unsustainable so much as because there is a lag between the development of technology for use and how to address that technology in terms of cradle-to-grave processes such as reuse, recycling and the sourcing and extraction of new materials. Ironically, this actually means that sustainable technology is easiest to imagine in the mid-century setting even though that time is associated with much poorer environmentalist consciousness. It should be noted, however, that although the kind of setting and lifestyle available does look like the 1950s, it isn’t backed up by 1950s-style processes. It’s just that the older techniques employed can only be pushed so far before they become impractical.

In any event, this long-term project of mine did result in an imaginary world where it would be much more feasible for this civilisation to continue in the long term without much technological change. Taking herbalism as an example, it’s possible not only to use herbal remedies themselves but also to extract biochemicals from plants, and in fact animals although this would present ethical problems, for the treatment of a wide variety of conditions, and although it would itself be unethical, for example, not to use antimetabolites for cancer, the consumption of petrochemicals would still be dramatically reduced by taking this approach.

Therefore, I’m able to plough through lists like the ones above and suggest alternatives, which end up whittling down the use of petrochemicals considerably. An eighth of fossil fuel use is in the form of petrochemicals, so this is far from a trivial contribution. It should also be noted, first of all, that although much petrochemical activity uses mineral oil as a raw material, the actual compounds in that oil need not be sourced from that substance itself since it’s fairly straightforward to produce aliphatic hydrocarbons from fixed vegetable oils by saturating them and removing them from the glycerol to which they are usually attached. Although they are in fact from mineral oil, they needn’t be.

Here we go then. There will now ensue a long list:

  • Toothbrush: for some of my life, toothbrushes have consisted of wooden handles with replaceable wooden heads, whose bristles have been made of plastic. Although this plastic, which could of course either be recycled or made from plastic synthesised from vegetable sources. In order not to get repetitive, I’m going to talk about toothbrush bristles in some depth here.

There is first of all a glib, easy option, which is however entirely unacceptable due to not being vegan. This is in fact a recurring theme, which I will address now. Because I’m considering older technology, much of it was unfortunately based on the exploitation of other animals, and it probably doesn’t need saying that there will inevitably be many sources of bristles from various mammals. However, in order not to be absolutely monstrous we must ignore this option and instead explore the possibility of plants. Unfortunately it’s difficult to comment on the possibility of plant sources for bristles because their actual origins seem to be closely-guarded secrets. Bamboo is a common claim but it isn’t clear if this refers to the bristles themselves. I’ve found various registered trade marks referring to the bristles, meaning that I can’t give a definitive answer to the question of sources.

  • Safety goggles: This is fairly general in the sense that it may not apply to all the ends to which these are applied.  However, it seems clear that they could be made from toughened glass and perhaps use rubber seals.  When I say “rubber”, I’m referring to the biological product which can be made from various sources of latex including, for instance, dandelions.  There aren’t going to be many air miles involved considering the plethora of local sources all over the land surface of this planet.  The principles involved apply to glasses of both the sun and eye varieties.
  • Lipstick: One possible response to this is that lipstick is simply unnecessary, but I’d be hypocritical to say that.  It can be made from shea butter and coconut with beetroot and turmeric as colouring.  Although I haven’t tried this, doing so might not answer the question of practicality as I don’t have that particular capacity.
  • Planes:  These should of course be used as little as possible in any case.  Where air travel is unavoidable, the question of airships arises.  Work is being done on electric planes.  My prejudice tells me that this is unlikely to be very successful for large planes for a very long time, if ever.  With the availability of video calls, it seems there is less reason than there used to be to travel by plane.  I have to hold my hands up here and say I have been on a plane four times, but each time it would’ve been time-consuming but possible to have made the same journey by train, were it not so expensive.  Hence this is a kind of government policy thing rather than a necessity to fly everywhere, and this raises a secondary issue or some might say the primary one: a lot of this depends on government or MNC-level infrastructure and logistics change, which is one answer to that situation when someone comes up to you and says “have you got a car?” or whatever in order to point out hypocrisy.
  • Contact lenses: I  would say first of all, as a spectacle-wearer, that I dislike the idea of  contact lenses, don’t accept their necessity and point out the existence of laser eye surgery, which I admit I’m not willing to undergo because of the risks.  Glass contacts exist, of course, but the cornea can’t respire if they’re used.  To be honest, the whole idea of contact lenses is quite disturbing and also potentially dangerous as it ends up inhibiting one of the reflexes used to test for brain death.  I honestly think we can do without contacts entirely and wouldn’t miss them, although some people might want to alter the colour of their irises relatively safely.
  • Smartphone: In the older list, it just says “Phone”.  There are a few issues here.  I do have a smartphone.  When I bought it, I was under the misapprehension that it was refurbished, but unfortunately it was new.  There are of course absolutely massive ethical problems with the materials used for smartphones, largely centred on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Add to that the influence of social media and excessive screen time in general, whose latter is to be fair partly a moral panic, it seems a bit like a garnish to talk about the petrochemical side of things, but there are still ways to address the use of plastics, which I doubt is the only issue.  Even so, a smartphone case needn’t be plastic.  It could be metal, wooden or xylonite.  This last is a kind of plastic-like material of which old dial telephone cases used to be composed, and is heavily vulcanised rubber, that is, rubber (biological product) treated with sulphur.  Sulphur too is found in biological materials, so the fact that it crops up here doesn’t imply that it has to be mined.
  • Laptop: Most of what applies to smartphones also applies to laptops, but on a larger scale.  Considering the exterior of this laptop as an example, the case is made of aluminium (which incidentally is not easy to produce in an environmentally-friendly way but is easy to recycle), the keyboard and screen of plastic.  Since this particular laptop display is not touch-sensitive, there’s no reason other than fragility that it shouldn’t be covered in ordinary glass.  Computer keyboards have a long and dishonourable history which includes sheets of rubber, but also much nicer ones which this device lacks, usually but not inevitably made of plastic.  Printed circuit boards, incidentally, can be made of cork or arrays of cuttable metal tracks in some kind of matrix which needn’t be plastic.
  • Rubber gloves: Well, they’re rubber so. . .
  • Crayons:  Very similar to lipstick.  Basically coloured wax, and by no means something needing to be made from petrochemicals.
  • Helmet: I don’t know enough about helmets to comment on this.  However, even if there is a residual quantity of products which absolutely require petrochemicals for construction, as opposed to recycled materials or plant-derived hydrocarbons, the fact that the rest don’t reduces consumption drastically.
  • Washing machine:  just want to point out that although labour-saving devices are good, there used to be such a thing as a “copper”, consisting of cast iron and copper, and that the motor which rotates a washing machine barrel is also made of copper wire and iron, so the question arises of where exactly the petrochemicals come in and whether there’s a way to reduce them.
  • Ski jacket: This is rather general.  Presumably the issue is insulation rather than the outer fabric or lining, which can clearly be replaced.  There is an insulating material called kapok, the seed material from a couple of species of cotton relatives in the Malvaceæ, which applies very broadly to various stuffing and insulation uses in this list.
  • Wind turbine: A wind turbine is a windmill, basically.  I presume this refers to strong light-weight material used in their construction, but clearly that isn’t absolutely necessary to generate wind power.
  • Dentures: Xylonite and apatite (the mineral from which bones and teeth are made).
  • Fitness tracker:  I’m a bit of a Luddite.  I have,so far as I can tell, no use for such a device but I suspect the answer is similar to that given for smartphones.
  • Yoga outfit: This is a bit complicated.  I started doing Yoga in the early 1970s and for most of the time I have not worn anything like this to do it.  I feel there is a marketing ploy going on here.  On the other hand, there are practical benefits to compression wear for exercise connected to circulation and protecting muscles from low-level injury.  Also, there’s the psychological effect of sunk costs, a process from which the likes of Under Armour and Lululemon benefit, that if you invest that much in garments you might be more committed to continuing to exercise.  There’s also the issue of self-consciousness and exercising in a group.  This is all a bit of a mess of issues which raise social and ethical questions outside the matter of petrochemical use.
  • Shampoo: There is no need at all for petrochemicals to be used in shampoo.  Saponins and saponifiable fixed oils render them completely unnecessary, and these are widely available.
  • Headphones: This calls to mind early radio operators and possibly telephone operators operating in the last decade of the nineteenth century, whose headphones may not have been up to much but presumably did not include petrochemicals.  They probably did include leather though.  In turn, this indicates a long chain of decisions made where petrochemicals were routinely used or considered as an option.  Nonetheless they clearly don’t need them.  They’re basically telephone handsets, which again are made from carbon granules, xylonite and copper wiring.
  • Garden hose: Made of rubber.
  • Syringe: Can be made from metal, glass and ceramic.
  • Running shoes: Mine are made from rubber and canvas. These are unfortunately important.  Running shoes are much more important than all other running kit put together, and running is an important form of exercise.
  • Carbon-fibre bicycle: Originally made from rayon, later from polyurethane and tar.
  • Toy blocks: Wood.
  • Electric piano: Basically a musical laptop.
  • Kayak: These were very obviously made from something else originally.

I just want to reiterate what recourse can be made in the absence of other options because it bears repeating more clearly, and also how we ended up in this situation.  It’s notable that from the other list, many of the uses are now obsolete for one reason or another, and many other uses are undesirable, for instance the golfing-related examples.  As time goes by, we may find we no longer need the uses on this list as much as we currently do, or at all.  One example is air travel.  This is becoming increasingly unimportant as the likes of Zoom take over, and 3-D printing may also mean that transportation of small components becomes less important while retaining the use of the raw materials, but the raw materials themselves could be replaced with non-mineral analogues such as polylactic acid.  It isn’t so much that we have to use these materials as that we’ve become addicted to them as a society, and that the research and development has tended to go in the direction of using them.  The mere contingent fact that we might need petrochemicals currently does not mean we necessarily cannot produce these products in any other way.  It just means the work hasn’t been done.

Clearly it would be a huge industrial upheaval to change the actual raw materials for all such products.  Fortunately this is not immediately necessary.  Because we have oceans, for example, full of plastic, we already have quite a lot of these raw materials available to us already.  We do of course have the problem of the energy input needed to recover those materials.  Besides that, we also have the ability to produce identical compounds as are currently produced by the petrochemical industry without actually using mineral oil, because we can produce long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons from the likes of vegetable oil and wax.

To conclude, we have gotten ourselves into a mess, but we can get ourselves out of it if the will is there.

James Herbert’s ‘The Fog’ – A Spoileriffic Review

This review is here rather than on Goodreads because I am rubbish at not revealing spoilers. I was once sitting in the cinema with my brother waiting for a film to start, and just as the lights went down, I blurted out the ending and ruined the whole experience for him. Funnily enough, one way of looking at James Herbert’s ‘The Fog’ is that it’s about what would happen to society if we all just followed our immediate impulses and intrusive thoughts, largely motivated by anger.

BE WARNED, THEREFORE: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN WHAT FOLLOWS.

It’s been said that there are three genres of excess in literature: pornography, melodrama and horror. Of these, melodrama seems to be largely out of fashion, although it’s possible that EastEnders constitutes this. Pursuing this thread, it’s also possible that Jeremy Kyle served a similar function. Viewers of those two programmes sometimes need to have their lives thrown into contrast with other people’s fictional or manipulated lives which are even worse. Even ‘The Simpsons’ has had this rôle in the past. Porn and horror are generally looked down upon and possibly read in secret by people who are ashamed of doing so. They’re considered qualitatively to be the bottom of the barrel in writing, although porn is sometimes relabelled erotica. I could turn this whole post into advice about how to write non-objectifying pornography but I actually wat to focus on horror.

I was twelve when I read James Herbert’s ‘The Fog’. I’d already read ‘The Rats’ and ‘Lair’ by that point, the last being newly published. I never actually owned any of his books up until about a week ago, when I bought the subject of this review. They come out of a time in my life when I was trying to fit in with boys, in the layer of nastiness and bigotry which sits across male childhood just before the onset of puberty. I feel like this layer is self-sustaining and operates like a standing wave in male development, and also that some men never emerge from it. It also seems to be sustained by schooling and it’s pretty damaging to everyone, whether one is inside or outside that demographic. It’s about cruelty, prejudice and in-group identification and is violent and aggressive.

In terms of writing and other creative work, this age corresponds to porn and horror. One thing to say in favour of horror is that it at least distracts from porn, except that there can be pornographic elements to horror. I’ve mentioned Alan Frank’s ‘Galactic Aliens’ before on this blog, which it took me a long time to get until I realised it wasn’t so much supposed to be science fiction as space horror, and was aimed at this age group. ‘The Fog’ is one of those books I attempted to read in order to break out of my science fiction ghetto, only to find that in an odd way it was kind of science fiction itself.

Skill in writing is still required to horrify and disgust the reader without forcing her to put the book down or throw it across the room. It isn’t enough to horrify alone: it needs to be horrifyingly fascinating, so you can’t look away. Stories are sometimes described as “car crashes” or “train wrecks”, but our worse sides are often brought out when we witness disasters such as these and can’t look away. It isn’t good to encourage this tendency, but maybe fulfilling this urge to experience horror outwith rather than within reality helps prevent this. Rather than attempting to defend this, I’ll just dive in and talk about the book.

Here’s the plot. A quiet Wiltshire village’s peace is disrupted by an apparent earthquake which injures and kills a number of residents and also seriously injures our hero John Holman as he drives through the settlement. It also releases a fog which turns out to drive air-breathing vertebrates violently insane, including humans. Unsurprisingly, the story focusses on the last. The story is structured as a series of increasingly deranged vignettes as the fog is blown towards London and climaxes with its arrival and its effects on millions of people, as Holman and the government try desperately to prevent more deaths. It becomes clear that the fog is in fact a pathogen created at Porton Down, though not explicitly blamed, and disposed of irresponsibly, although Porton Down scientists are also trying to neutralise the threat. Towards the end, it’s suggested that the fog might actually be sentient and purposeful. It’s ultimately destroyed when it enters the Blackwall Tunnel and is blown up with explosives and blocked in by concrete.

There are a number of interesting diversions along the way. My favourite is when one member of a lesbian couple who has just separated because her partner has gone “straight” decides to drown herself in the sea off Bournemouth, then changes her mind, only to find that the entire population of the town, 158 000 people if I recall correctly, has decided to do the same. There’s also a scene where the deputy head of a private school who abuses children (and is apparently gay) is massacred by the said children and has his penis chopped off by the caretaker. It’s all pretty graphic, and succeeds in its aim to shock and grab the reader. In the meantime, a pigeon-fancier gets attacked and killed by his birds, a poacher is trampled to death by cows and so forth. Holman’s girlfriend, Casey, is also driven mad by the fog and tries to kill him, then a misunderstanding by the police leads to him being arrested for assaulting her. She later goes on to kill her step-father, who attempts to rape her.

I read a review of the novel which said something like “if you try really hard, you’ll notice all the political incorrectness”. For me reading it in November 2022, it was more a question of trying to suspend my disquiet at the dodginess of quite a lot of it so I could get on with enjoying it. This all went over my head in 1979. I can’t really breeze through the rest of the book without mentioning this, so I’ll put it here to get it out of the way.

The most prominent issue is the relationship between Holman and Casey. Casey is very passive and I got the impression that she’s simply handed over from one paternalistic carer to the other, i.e. from her step-father to her boyfriend. On the other hand, she does stab her father to death with a pair of scissors when he makes sexual advances on her and also tries to kill Holman, both while under the influence of the fog. However, everything she is and does is described with reference to relationships with men and tends to be sexualised. There are maybe three sex scenes in the book which I skipped because I don’t like them and find them boring. I hope they didn’t add to the plot but I’m pretty confident they didn’t. There is, though, another way of thinking about this. There may well have been quite a few women with internalised misogyny in mid-1970s Britain whose character and approach to life were this undeveloped simply by living in such a patriarchal society.

Another issue is homophobia. Herbert conflates the deputy head’s homosexuality with his pædophilia, and in the case of the lesbian relationship, one of the partners is “cured” of her lesbianism by being with a man. This, though, raises some issues. Although these are both unrealistic stereotypes, there isn’t any reason to suppose that there are rare exceptions where these things do apply. I find the homosexuality/pædophilia confusion annoying and defamatory but in the case of the lesbian relationship I can see that one of the partners might turn out to discover her bisexuality, and I actually found that chapter to be quite sympathetically written. I think the problem is of selecting particular situations and portraying them as if they’re the rule. The question of the time it was set in is complex because attitudes and consequently psychology were very different at the time. I am of course overthinking this.

Herbert expends a fair bit of effort justifying the situation through what seems to be more than mere technobabble. ‘The Fog’ is yet another example of a story which I enjoyed and was happy to find myself enjoying a non-science fiction novel, only to find out that it was SF after all. This has happened with Iain Banks in a more general sense and also Kurt Vonnegut, and is a tendency I can’t explain in myself. There seems to be something about the style of certain genres which appeals to me while also suiting itself to sci-fi. This might be to do with shallow characterisation, and on that matter I will defend stories with cardboard cutout characters to the hilt because I’m concerned that a mythos is artificially constructed around the way protagonists behave in mainstream literature which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and forces us all to act inauthentically. This may not always be so of course. Besides this, there is a sense in which ideas replace characters in this kind of writing, and yet the poverty of imagination not directed towards characterisation and relationships in mainstream fiction is rarely addressed.

There is a very real sense in which the fog is the main character in the novel. It’s described as having agency, and Holman suspects that it has a will of its own. However, this is only hinted at. There’s also the question of the disease process leading to the violent behaviour involving the pathogen colonising the human brain and replacing the neurones. It’s better understood, though, as a kind of psychological force bringing out the worst in people, or rather exposing their more aggressive impulses. In a way, the fog can be seen as obscuring presumed subconscious violent urges in us all, or as paradoxically revealing them. Is it partly about not being able to trust ourselves to be good? Intrusive thoughts are like that. We often have the urge to do something appalling and wonder what it says about us, but what if we acted on those impulses? Are there people who have started to walk across bridges and simply thrown themselves off them to their deaths on a whim?

It says something about Herbert’s apparent view of human nature that the aggression and violence often takes the form of wish fulfillment. He seems to see civilisation as a thin veneer under which base impulses seethe and through which they attempt to push. The colonisation of the brain by the pathogens doesn’t seem to add something new so much as remove a shield. Then again, the transformation is reminiscent of zombies and also rabies, and the two are linked. To an extent, Herbert’s book is “our zombies are different”, and it has similarities to, for instance, ’28 Days Later’, particularly after the fog reaches London, but one difference is the maniacal laughter and amusement the infected exhibit. They’re having fun as they kill and rape. In fact, some of them are just having fun, as with the enormous orgy in London. The fog and their behaviour also tempts those who are not directly infected. Holman feels lured towards the nucleus of the fog in a siren-like manner and also wants to join in with the orgy, although it’s only a momentary whim. It’s about people succumbing to temptation as a form of wish-fulfillment.

‘The Fog’ is of course not the only work of fiction to use clouds, mist and fog prominently. There’s also Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’, Fred Hoyle’s ‘The Black Cloud’, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, Olaf Stapledon’s gas attacks early in ‘Last And First Men’ and the Martian attacks depicted millions of years later in the same work, and the foggy moor in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’. The variants seem to be: fog that is inert but contains supernatural threats, inert fog concealing natural threats, active malevolent natural fog and active malevolent supernatural fog. ‘The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader’ has the Dark Island, both dark and shrouded in mist, where dreams, including nightmares, come true, so in other words a supernatural fog. Sarada has just suggested the Dark Island is the Dark Night Of The Soul, a spiritual crisis on the way to the Divine. Stapledon’s Martians are clouds of microörganisms communicating telepathically to generate a hive mind, and are therefore closest to Herbert’s version, which is interesting because of the similarity between their works ‘Fluke’ and ‘Sirius’. Hoyle’s Black Cloud is linked to his panspermia and Steady State theories and is a vast superintelligent interstellar cloud that blots out the Sun and threatens life on Earth simply because it doesn’t realise there can be planetary life. It sees that one way or another, clouds and fog serve as powerful metaphors for what’s hidden and often what we hide from ourselves, and they are often seen as alive or purposeful.

Herbert followed ‘The Fog’ with the more supernatural ‘The Dark’ but I haven’t read that yet.

My Jupiter Ace

Hoarding tends to be frowned upon. Of course, to the hoarder, it seems entirely sensible and “normal” to engage in the practice others describe in this way. Aristotle had something to contribute to this. He was the apparent inventor of the concept of the “happy medium” (which I think turns up in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ but I may be misremembering). That is, virtues are the ideal position between two pairs of vices. Courage, for example, is between cowardice and recklessness. However, the happy medium is never exactly halfway between its corresponding vices. Courage is more like recklessness than cowardice for example. Likewise, tidiness is going to be closer to one thing than the other. Most people seem to see it as more like obsessive over-neatness where you can’t do anything for fear of causing a mess than slovenliness. To my mind, the happy medium is closer to messiness. Somebody writes psychiatry textbooks and manuals, and those people are likely to normalise their own methodical tendencies, which could manifest as excessive neatness, and therefore regard untidiness as problematic.

Now don’t get me wrong. It is problematic, and it’s also much easier to become untidy than it is tidy. Nonetheless, a couple of observations will be made at this point by that nebulous genetic subject which makes them appear objective by using an impersonal construction. One of them is that I collected old copies of the ‘Radio Times’, not to be confused with the ancient Greek philosopher Θεραδιοτιμης, for six years until my dad got annoyed with the clutter and had me throw them out. I doubt it was exactly six years, but at four dozen editions annually over half a dozen years that’s a couple of gross, and since each one costs £7.50 on Ebay, that’s over two thousand quid’s worth of magazines. I also still have a fair number of ‘2000 AD’ comics from 1977, which are worth a fair bit. I do not believe it was the right decision to throw these things out.

This brings me to the subject of this blog post: the Jupiter Ace, which I’m always tempted to call the “Joobrrace” due to the fact that it’s one of those terms you can use to practice rolling your R’s. I should point out first that the term “Jupiter Ace” has actually been used for two completely separate things. There’s the computer illustrated at the top of this post and there’s a band which had a minor hit in 2005 called ‘A Thousand Years‘. Although this is slightly confusing, I’ve long thought that the sleeve design for this single would work as the cover illustration for a computer manual:

Given the appearance of the ZX81 manual, can you not just see how this would work really well?

Leaving the band aside though, once upon a time, there were a lot of home computers, all unique. Each one had a personality of its own and was usually incompatible with all the others. They did, however, tend to have standard interfaces. I first paid close attention to microcomputers in 1981, and up until that point I’d made various assumptions about them which turned out to be untrue and, to me, rather startling. I had assumed that they would all use the programming language Pascal or something else. I was very surprised to find that they nearly all used BASIC. As far as I was concerned, BASIC was just a language for people just starting out in programming and wouldn’t be used on “proper” computers. This was in fact so on mainframes and minicomputers around this time. The languages I was familiar with, such as Algol-60, COBOL and FORTRAN, were a lot more popular on those, so I just assumed that those would be used on microcomputers, in ROM, so that they would boot into a development environment-like program which would then let you put lines of FORTRAN, say, in and compile and run the program. As I said, I assumed that Pascal would be the favourite because to me that language seemed to have a kind of contemporary vibe to it at the time. It was being pushed fairly hard, but initially, like BASIC, was intended as a language to teach programming rather than having serious use. In particular, the idea behind Pascal was that it should be structured – that the code could be read and planned easily and methodically, with blocks and control structures imposed on the user. By 1981, it had started to fall from grace because this very approach to structure restricted its flexibility. I’m not going to get all technical on you here because that’s not what I’m getting at, but in general I tended to be confounded by programming languages as they were presented because they didn’t seem to have any facilities for using things like sound and graphics, or even interacting with a CRT-style display, because they were designed for a world of punchcards and teletypes. It was all rather puzzling.

There were a few exceptions. For instance, going way back to 1975, IBM had introduced a desktop computer (not a micro as its processor occupied an entire board) which ran APL, “A Programming Language” based on symbols rather than words of which I happen to be a fan due to its lack of language bias and terseness. An APL-native micro also existed in the early 1980s, and APL was used to do the exploding and rotating Channel 4 station ident in 1982. The more expensive business machines also had no programming language firmware and the user would have to purchase a programming language as an additional piece of software, so the situation wasn’t just that BASIC was universal. There were also some home micros, such as the Microtan 65, which could only be programmed in machine code, and others which would boot into a “monitor”, which is a simple program with single letter commands for manipulating and viewing memory contents, and executing machine code programs either loaded or typed in by the user, as a series of hexadecimal numbers.

The standard practice of using BASIC in firmware on home micros usually went further than just the unextended form of the language. It was usually Microsoft BASIC, often in an extended form which constituted a de facto standard. There were other versions of BASIC, used particularly in British as opposed to American home computers, such as Sinclair BASIC used in the ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum, and BBC BASIC, which began on the BBC Micro and Electron but was later adapted for use on IBM PC clones and other machines such as the Tatung Einstein. It was also possible to buy alternative programming languages such as FORTH. And of course the mention of FORTH brings me to the main object of today’s discussion: the Jupiter Ace.

Clive Sinclair was apparently not a particularly easy person to work with. Shortly after the ZX Spectrum had been designed, a small number of employees, possibly just two, left the company to found Jupiter Cantab, apparently retaining their intellectual property on certain aspects of that phenomenally successful computer, and proceeded to design, manufacture and market a radically new machine, the Jupiter Ace, in autumn 1982. The hardware of the computer in question was not particularly special. It comes across as a cross between a ZX81 and a Spectrum, though without colour or true high resolution graphics. However, the really unusual thing about the Ace was that instead of having BASIC in ROM, it had FORTH. This is a highly idiosyncratic language with two distinctive features. Firstly, it uses Reverse Polish Notation. Instead of “2+2” it uses “2 2 +”. There is a structure in memory in most computers called the stack, which is a series of consecutively stored numbers originally used as addresses in memory to which a program will return. In FORTH’s case, a number typed will be placed on the stack and a “word”, such as “+”, will expect a certain number of values on that stack and operate accordingly, often depositing its own result on the stack for future use. Secondly, words are defined by the user instead of programs, consisting of other words, so for example, squaring a number could be defined thus:

: SQUARED
DUP * 
;


“DUP” duplicates the number on top of the stack, “:” opens a definition of a new word, in this case “SQUARED”, and “;” closes it. Thenceforth, typing something like “9 SQUARED” would put 81 on top of the stack and so on.

Advantages of FORTH include structure and speed. The standards at the time didn’t include floating point numbers, but the Ace had a few proprietary extensions which allowed them. They could’ve been defined by the user, but since the stack has to contain ordinary floating point values, it makes more sense to extend the user interface to recognise any series of digits with a decimal point as a floating point number. Unlike the BASIC available on most home micros at the time, Ace FORTH didn’t support text strings in an easily-used way, but it did have arrays and a text buffer and again, it could be modified to allow them.

The Jupiter Ace did very badly. Although it was an interesting device, it was let down by the absence of colour and poor sound. Although the keyboard was similar to the Spectrum’s, this was fairly normal for the time, but because it couldn’t have the Sinclair system of entire keywords being produced by a single keystroke, this meant it was in much heavier use, which made its cumbersome nature much more obvious. It comes across very much as the kind of computer which might’ve been produced in the late ’70s, though in a much better case, with better interfaces and a superior keyboard, such as the TRS80 Model 1 from 1978. Consequently, Jupiter Cantab went bust and sold off their remaining stock to Boldfield Limited Computing, which in turn reduced the price from £89.95 to £30. This happened in 1984.

Another thing which happened in 1984 was that Safeway opened a branch in Canterbury for the first time, leading to my first paid job, as a cashier at the age of seventeen. I was paid £1.41 an hour, which was a huge amount for me at the time. This was before minimum wage, but prior to that I’d only had a pound a week. I lost the job after only twelve weeks due to my unassertiveness. For instance, I was on the “9 Items Or Less” (sic) till but couldn’t bring myself to turn customers away if they brought whole trolleys of stuff, and I didn’t want to ask for extra change so I ended up paying people in pennies. However, in that time I succeeded in amassing enough cash to buy a Jupiter Ace, so around October time I received one, and at the same time I bought a 16K RAM pack to upgrade the memory to 19K. I can’t remember how much that cost, but the initial outlay would’ve been about twenty-one hours work.

Unlike most people who bought an Ace, although I found the FORTH interesting I actually got it as an upgrade. My previous computer, a 16K ZX81, which my father bought the whole family, was the absolute cheapest available computer at the time. It was ingeniously designed to be as cheap as possible, and that design rendered it rather atypical as a computer. For instance, to this day computers use the ASCII character set, although nowadays this is a subset of the much larger Unicode which includes most of what you might ever want to type, although I find it inadequate due to things like its lack of Bliss symbols, which I use extensively in writing. The ZX81, though, only used sixty-four symbols, including twenty-two graphics characters used to draw Teletext-style pictures, and it lacked lowercase letters and a lot of the usual graphemes such as “@” and “\”. It also defaulted to black text on a white background and had an unchangeable white border, and in its 1K version barely had enough memory to display a full screen of text, so it would skip the memory for lines less than thirty-two characters long. The screen also didn’t scroll unless you included an instruction to in the program, when it would scroll a single line, and the cursor for input stayed at the bottom of the screen. There was also no sound. However, because Sinclair had a fair bit of financial oomph behind it, they were able to design a large custom chip which did everything the computer needed apart from processing programs and storing information, and to this day I find this very impressive, because the total chip count is only five:

This is the kind of achievement which is impressive because of the limitations the available technology imposed upon the designers. It’s similar to the helical scan mechanism on a VCR in a way, in that only that inspiration even makes it possible.

By contrast, the Ace had a full ASCII character set with redesignable characters, single-channel pitch-duration sound, a proper scrolling screen and a white on black display like a “proper” computer. It also had slightly more memory. However, Jupiter Cantab were a tiny and impoverished company, so small in fact that their turnover, not adjusted for inflation, actually overlapped with my own turnover as a herbalist in the ‘noughties, though over that period sterling had halved in value. It’s remarkable to contemplate that the size of the company was less than one order of magnitude greater than our partnership. One practical consequence of this was that they were unable to have the kind of custom chip designed and produced for them which gave Sinclair the advantage with the ZX81 a year earlier and had to resort to discrete logic. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but I want to make the observation that this is a good example of how poverty is expensive. Instead of employing one chip, Jupiter Cantab had to use many:

Those smaller components on the right hand side of the board are mainly doing similar jobs to the large chip on the left of the ZX81’s, but there are many more of them. They also need to be soldered onto the printed circuit board, and it makes the design of the board more complex. This makes the whole computer more expensive to make, and unlike the Sinclair computers, only smaller numbers of components could be purchased, making them more expensive per unit. On the other hand, unlike the ZX81 and Spectrum, the Jupiter Ace is not really a “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” product because they didn’t have the option to make them cheaply. There are, even so, clear signs of cost cutting. The sound is produced using a buzzer rather than a speaker, which seems to be identical to the Spectrum. An odd design decision exists in a number of British micros, where rather than routing the audio via the TV speaker, a separate loudspeaker or unfortunately a buzzer was used on the motherboard, and I don’t know much about the design but that seems to me to add to the cost of the hardware while interfering with the quality of the sound.

The chips involved were bought off the shelf and are available to the general public even today. In order to replace a ZX81 ULA, the large chip on the left which does “everything” (it actually does less than the discrete logic on the Ace board because much of the work to put the older computer’s display on a TV is done via system software) has to be replaced by another large chip that does “everything”. With an Ace, there is a “right to repair” as it were, because all that need be done is for the malfunctioning chip to be located and replaced by another, very cheap, integrated circuit. In fact it’s still possible to build an Ace today from scratch with pretty basic equipment. It’s possible also to build a ZX80 in the same way, and since a ZX81 is, functionally speaking, just a ZX80 with different firmware, that can be done too, but not with only five chips and a simple motherboard.

The personal significance of the Ace to me, as a milestone in my life, is that it was the first durable and substantial product I bought with my own money. This landmark would for many people be followed by increasingly impressive and expensive things rather rapidly, ramping up over less than a decade to the likes of a car and a house. This never happened for me for reasons I can’t explain, and in fact if I knew why my life considered in such terms failed so badly, the chances are it wouldn’t have done. It’s probably connected to neurodiversity and mental health issues, but in any case it means this very cheap product bought nearly forty years ago has more sentimental significance to me than most others. I have now succeeded in buying a second-hand car, although I can’t drive so it’s for Sarada, and for most people this is the kind of thing they manage to do by the time they’re in their early twenties and they’d be able to drive it themselves. Hence the kind of failed product the Ace is reflects my own sense of failure in life.

There’s another, rather similar, aspect to this. I always tend to back the loser. Probably the most obvious example of this is that I’m a Prefab Sprout fan. This band is known mainly for a novelty song, ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’, which is about a band known mainly for a novelty song. It’s unintentionally meta. There are other aspects of their career which are like this. For instance, the lead singer and songwriter Paddy McAloon once penned and sang the lines “Lord just blind me, don’t let her innocent eyes reminds me”, and proceeded to go blind suddenly as he drove along a motorway. Fortunately he survived. Anyway, there would have been a point, back in 1982, when Prefab Sprout released ‘Lions In My Own Garden’, then some other band, maybe Lloyd Cole And The Commotions or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, had their own debut singles released, and somehow I get into the first and only to a limited extent the other two. Granted, most of this is down to the fact that most undertakings are unsuccessful, but for some reason my interest in something seems to be the kiss of death. Prefab Sprout and the Jupiter Ace computer were both critically acclaimed and enthused about with good reason: both were unsuccessful. I could name all sorts of other things which have a similar trajectory and about which I was quite keen at the time. What does this mean?

All that said, there is a sense in which the fortunes of the Jupiter Ace have now changed. Like the Radio Times, they are now a lot more valuable than they were when they first came out. They can go for more than a thousand quid each now. The trouble is, mine doesn’t currently work. I also suspect it’s fried, but it may not be. This is where something unexpected may come to my rescue.

I am, as you probably know a philosophy graduate. Most people say that it’s an excellent qualification for flipping burgers but in fact it isn’t because like many other people, I examined arguments for veganism while I was studying and became vegan as a result, so the burgers in question should probably be veggie. However, it is in fact useful in various ways, one of which is that you get to understand symbolic logic and Boolean algebra. There are various reasons for this, such as helping one understand the foundations of mathematics and distinguishing between valid and invalid arguments, but in any case logic is central to philosophy. While I was studying the subject, another student found that applying a particular technique to the design of digital circuits helped him simplify them and use fewer components. In general, there happens to be an enormous overlap between philosophy and computing. After the department was closed down, the logic and scientific method subsection of the department merged with computing, and as far as I know survives to this day.

One practical consequence of this is that I have no problems understanding how computers work, at least simple ones such as this, and a possible consequence of that is that it might even be possible for me to repair it and sell it. I should add, however, that mere knowledge of how the logic circuits, for want of a better word, work still leaves a massive chunk of ignorance about electronics in general. I do know why the machine is broken. It’s because the polarity of the power supply was reversed, meaning that current flowed in the wrong direction through the circuit, thereby damaging at least some of the components beyond repair. What I’m hoping, and I’m not terribly optimistic about this, is that the voltage regulator was destroyed but protected everything else. However, the cost of the components is such that it would still be cost effective to replace everything on the board, thereby ending up with a working Ace, since they sell for such a high price. This is, however, a philosophical issue because it amounts to the Ship of Theseus paradox. If everything which makes up the Ace is replaced by something else with the same function, is it still an original Ace? What does that mean about the value?

There’s something out there called a Minstrel:

This is an updated Ace. It costs £200 but has 49K memory rather than 19K and seems to be able to use USB storage. I don’t know much about it, but I am aware that it works with newer televisions. One of the differences between the two boards, other than the larger memory chips, is the absence of the silver and red Astec modulator, whose function is to interface with a conventional CRT television. Unlike many other cheap computers of the time, the Jupiter Ace had the rudiments of a monitor interface available without modification, although the signal needed to be amplified, and nowadays a modulator just gets in the way because it means you have to have an old-style TV as well.

Although it’s tempting to attempt to upgrade this computer I am under no illusions regarding my abilities and it would be good if I even ended up with a working model at the end. It would be interesting to know how much a non-working Ace would go for, but clearly a working one would be worth more.

This is the plan:

  • Ensure a good connection between the Ace and a CRT TV via a cable.
  • Use a ZX81 power supply to turn it on.
  • If it doesn’t work, replace the voltage regulator.
  • If it still doesn’t work, replace every component until it does.
  • Sell it.

Right, so that’s it for today. I was going to talk about nostalgia a bit but I’ve probably bored you senseless.

Blue Ice

Science denialism didn’t begin with tobacco. It goes back centuries. However, there was a time before science had much influence on how those nominally in power ran the world, or perhaps those decisions based on science were in no way routed through the general public. However, attempts by tobacco companies are notable in that they pre-date climate change denial and other attempts to go against established findings and represent a concerted effort on the part of a particular lobby group. Anti-vaccination and creationism are also fairly venerable, and preceding all of these is geocentrism versus heliocentrism. Nonetheless, a particularly interesting example was found in Hanns Hörbigers Welteislehre or Glazial Kosmogonie, which has a peculiar history perhaps illustrative of how badly things can go awry. Parallel to this, and less significant but still interesting, is the mid-century Central European fixation on cream cheese as a panacea, but I may not be able to turn up much evidence for that.

Hanns Hörbiger (1860-1931) was an Austrian engineer by profession who was quite competent and successful in his own field. His company still exists today and there was nothing wrong with what he did. He designed the Budapest rapid transit system and increased the efficiency of steel production. All that was absolutely fine. The oddities emerged when he attempted to move into astronomy. He seems to be almost forgotten today, which in a way is a good thing except that what happened is something we should probably learn from.

Some time around the 1890s, Hörbiger was observing Cynthia through an amateur telescope and noted that it seemed quite white and was also very rounded. He concluded from this that it was made of ice rather than rock. He also had a dream about an elongating pendulum which broke when it got past a certain length. Hence he inferred (interesting use of the word “hence” there, and also “inferred” come to think of it) that gravity had a finite range equivalent to three times the distance between the Sun and Neptune, Pluto being unknown at the time. It is true that people sometimes have dreams which answer scientific questions. This, though, was not such a dream. It makes connections which simply aren’t there, and Hörbiger proceeded to conjecture further without reining his thoughts in with observation.

Ultimately, Hörbiger constructed a completely different view of the Universe and astronomy than consensus science held. In a way, this is fair enough as at the time the dominant Steady State model was to be considered obsolete over the course of the twentieth century CE, so it was competing with a theory which has now also been rejected. However, that model had been carefully pieced together from the evidence available. Not so with Hörbigers Welt Eis Lehre.

Hörbiger posited that there was once a supergiant star in the constellation of Columba, the Dove. A smaller star, surrounded by a thick layer of ice, collided with it and rather slowly evaporated away into space, where the steam gradually froze into icebergs. Some of these fell into the Sun, and are continuing to do so, causing sunspots and also forming cirrus clouds in our atmosphere. Some others become hailstorms as they fall directly into the atmosphere. He also held that our Solar System had two types of ice: fine ice, deposited on Mercury and Venus, shed from the Sun as it evaporated the stars which fell into it, and further out in the Solar System there was a bulkier form of ice which made up the gas and ice giants. Earth lay in what we would now call the “Goldilocks Zone” between the two, where it was possible for a habitable planet to form. Space in general was said to be filled with rarefied hydrogen, which caused drag on the objects within it. This resulted in Earth having had a series of moons which gradually spiralled in towards us until they crashed on the surface. The previous time this happened, he maintained, was recorded in ancient myths and legends such as the Flood myth and the tales of Götterdämmerung and Ragnarok. Also, Atlantis was involved. This last bit may sound a bit vague, but Hörbigers book is almost eight hundred pages long, so it’s hard to find stuff in it. His followers produced weather forecasts based on his views.

Most scientists regarded these views as complete rubbish. That said, they do have a kind of freshness and appeal to them in being quite different from conventional astronomy of the time or since. Also, there are minor truths within them, such as the fact that most of the interstellar and interplanetary medium does indeed consist of hydrogen, the dominance of water ice in the Solar System and the recognition that there are different types of water ice found in different locations, as well as the idea of a Goldilocks Zone. In fact, although I never took WEL, as it’s often abbreviated, completely on board, I did go through a rather worrying phase when I couldn’t convince myself that it was false because no spacecraft have ever reached the stars so we only have their light to go on. There are, though, very good reasons why it cannot be true. For instance, to be visible from Earth the blocks of ice would have to be so massive that they would actually become stars, and their distances can be determined from how they shift against background objects, so it is in fact impossible for this state of affairs to exist, and clearly it does not obtain for the inner Solar System.

So far this sounds like a mildly entertaining story about the ignorance of people in the olden days. Unfortunately, it’s anything but that. As already mentioned, most scientists rejected WEL. For instance, it was pointed out that the mathematics of the system didn’t work. Hörbigers response was that mathematics wasn’t necessary to his theory because it can be observed to be the case, for instance through the delay between a red hot lump of iron coming into contact with ice before it melts. Hörbigers theory became popular with the general public and he was unconcerned about whether scientists could be convinced because that wasn’t needed for it to be accepted. The Hörbiger Institute was founded after the First World War. Its approach was to disrupt lectures and meetings held by mainstream scientists and send hate mail to those who disagreed with their teachings. They made films, broadcast radio programmes and published a monthly magazine to promote the theory, ‘The Key To World Events’. All this sounds quite familiar, with the likes of trolling on social media, YouTube videos, podcasts and the confrontation of disaster victims and the bereaved by disaster trolls like Alex Jones. The approach we might think of now as novel was in fact practiced around a century ago. There was no attempt to engage with scientific discourse in the usual manner. It was more to do with manipulating public opinion and attempting to provide a meaningful belief system in the vacuum created by doubts about Judæo-Christian religion. And unsurprisingly the emphasis there was on the “Judæo-” bit, because this was the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Party was on the rise.

In a further move, reminiscent of Nietzsche to some extent, Hörbiger maintained that rays from the current moon would awaken the human race spiritually, transforming some humans into superhuman demigods who would command respect and obedience from the Untermenschen. This chimed with the esoteric Nazi school of thought known as Ariosophy, which included the idea that an ancient Aryan civilisation would soon return and the Æsir, the ancient Nordic deities, would once again walk the Earth. This was seen as a new, vibrant and spiritually-integrated, that is, holistic, unified science which replaced the Jewish science of their predecessors, and the failure to get WEL-related research published in mainstream academic journals was simply because of Jewish gatekeepers.

Although the Nazis did issue a proclamation reassuring the public that it was not necessary to adopt WEL to follow the Nazi path, Hitler and Himmler both accepted it. The Third Reich used WEL theories for agriculture and astrology. They wanted to reject the bulk of preceding scientific theory as Jewish and replace it with unified science which would also become the official Nazi religion. There are similarities between Hörbigers view and Nordic mythology, for instance with the idea of Midgard standing between Niflheim and Utgard paralleling Earth in the Goldilocks Zone, and the idea of cold and ice stimulating vitality as the origin of life and the myth of Auðumbla, the divine cow, suckling Ymir the frost giant from whom the world was formed. This is radically unlike Middle Eastern creation myths such as those found in Genesis, and is seen as replacing them as suspect and in fact worthless due to their Semitic origins. The Nazis also approved of the idea of Hanns Hörbiger becoming the Führer of science in a hierarchical arrangement corresponding to that of the political Führer, perhaps with a kind of mystical revelation of scientific knowledge arrived at without the scientific method being needed at all.

This, then, sounds like a footnote to history. However, bearing in mind the various attacks on climatology, biology and maybe even economic theory by the Tories and the Republicans, along with other right wing parties, we have a situation where people who seem mainly to have degrees in PPE aim to make apparently scientifically-based proclamations and base policies on these crude misunderstandings and distortions of science. It has long been demonstrated that the claims are not so. In fact, even in the area of economics the European Research Group’s recent mini-budget, which couldn’t be called a budget because that would’ve involved a feasibility study, has done an excellent job of refuting their economic theory by crashing the economy. And that was actually supposed to be something Philosophy, Politics and Economics covered, so far as the title of the degree was concerned. In other areas, the connection with reality is non-existent. That crash we’re experiencing is, if anything, based on an approach closer to reality than the likes of their approach to climate change. But they won’t rely on evidence to push these things through. They’ll just appeal to emotion, distract people from the real enemies by talking about refugees and so on. Their approach is not only morally bankrupt but transparently obvious and completely pathetic, and far from being novel was tried a century ago by totalitarian regimes.

We know it doesn’t work. They’ve done an excellent job since 1979 of proving to us that it doesn’t. Therefore, it must change. They have nothing, now, to support their claims but bluster and an attempt to stir up hatred and prejudice. Surely we’re better than that?

Is Cyberspace Haunted?

Loab – An explanation may be forthcoming

I may have mentioned this before on here, but there used to be a popular “spooky” non-fiction book called ‘The Ghost Of 29 Megacycles’. This was about the practice of listening to static on analogue radio and apparently hearing the voices of the dead. A similar technique is known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which is a more general version of the same where people listen out for voices on audio tape or other recording media. It’s notable that this is a highly analogue process. It’s no longer a trivial task to tune out a television or radio and get it to display visual or produce audio static so that one can do this. Audiovisual media nowadays are generally very clean and don’t lend themselves to this. One saddening thing to me is that we now have a TV set which will display pretend static to communicate to us that we haven’t set it up properly. It isn’t honest. There is no real static and in fact it’s just some video file stored on the hardware somewhere which tries to tell the user there’s an unplugged connection or something. You can tell this because it loops: the same pixels are the same colours in the same place every few frames. I find this unsettling because it implies that the world we live in is kind of a lie and because we haven’t really got control over the nuts and bolts of much technology any more. There’s that revealing temporally asymmetric expression committing oneself that the belief that in that respect the past and future are qualitatively different. It is important to acknowledge this sometimes, but can also bring it about via the force of that potentially negative belief. However, the demise of the analogue has not led to the demise of such connections, although it long seemed to have done so.

Most people would probably say that we are simply hearing, or in some cases seeing, things which aren’t really there in these cases. Others might say, of course, that this is a way to access the Beyond, so to speak, and interpret the voices or other experiences in those terms. If that’s so, the question arises as to whether it’s the medium which contains this information or whether the human mind contacts it directly via a random-seeming visual or sonic mess, having been given the opportunity to do so. Other stimuli grab the attention to specific, organised and definite details too much for this to happen easily. There’s no scope for imagination, or rather for free association.

Well, recently this has turned out no longer to be so. Recently, artificial intelligence has been advancing scarily fast. That’s not hyperbole. It is actually quite frightening how rapidly software has been gaining ground on human cognition. Notable improvements occur within weeks rather than years or decades, and one particular area where this is happening is in image generation. This has consequences for the “ghost of 29 megacycles” kind of approach to, well, I may as well say séances, but this is going to take a bit of explaining first.

Amid considerable concern for human artists and their intellectual property, it’s now possible to go to various websites, type in what you want to see and have a prodigiously furiously cogitating set of servers give you something like that in a couple of minutes. For example, sight unseen I shall now type in “blue plastic box in a bookcase” and show you a result from Stable Diffusion:

That didn’t give me exactly what I wanted but it did show a blue plastic box in a bookcase. Because I didn’t find a way to specify that I only wanted one blue plastic box, it also gave me two others. I’ll give it another try: “A tree on a grassy hill with a deer under it”:

The same system can also respond to images plus text as input. In my case, this has let to an oddity. As you know, I am the world’s whitest woman. However, when I give Stable Diffusion’s sister Diffuse The Rest, which takes photos plus descriptions, such as “someone in a floral skater dress with curly hair, glasses and hoop earrings”, it will show me that all right, but “I” will be a Black woman more often than not. This is not so with many other inputs without a photo of me. I get this when I type it into Stable Diffusion itself:

This is obviously a White woman. So are all the other examples I’ve tried on this occasion, although there is a fair distribution of ethnicity. There are worrying biasses, as usual, in the software. For instance, if you ask for a woman in an office, you generally get something like this:

If you ask for a woman on a running track, this is the kind of output that results:

This is, of course, due to the fact that the archive of pictures on which the software was trained carries societal biasses therewith. However, for some reason it’s much more likely to make me Black than White if I provide it with a picture of myself and describe it in neutral terms. This, for example, is supposed to be me:

The question of how it might be addressed arises though. Here is an example of what it does with a photo of me:

You may note that this person has three arms. I have fewer than three, like many other people. There’s also a tendency for the software to give people too many legs and digits. I haven’t tried and I’m not a coder, but it surprises me that there seems to be no way to filter out images with obvious flaws of this kind. Probably the reason for this is that these AI models are “black boxes”: they’re trained on images and arrive at their own rules for how to represent them, and in the case of humans the number of limbs and digits is not part of that. It is in fact sometimes possible to suggest they give a body extra limbs by saying something like “hands on hips” or “arms spread out”, in which case they will on occasion continue to produce images of someone with arms in a more neutral position as well as arms in the explicitly requested ones.

In order to address this issue, it would presumably be necessary to train the neural network on images with the wrong and right number of appendages. The problem is, incidentally, the same as the supernumerary blue boxes in the bookcase image, but in most situations we’d be less perturbed by seeing an extra box than an extra leg.

I have yet to go into why the process is reminiscent of pareidolia based on static or visual snow and therefore potentially a similar process to a séance. The algorithm used is known as a Latent Diffusion Model. This seems to have replaced the slightly older method of Generative Adversarial Networks, which employed two competing neural networks to produce better and better pictures by judging each other’s outputs. Latent Diffusion still uses neural networks, which are models of simple brains based on how brains are thought to learn. Humans have no access to what happens internally in these networks, so the way they are actually organised is quite mysterious. Many years ago, a very simple neural network was trained to do simple arithmetic and it was explored. It was found to contain a circuit which had no connections to any nodes outside that circuit on the network and was therefore thought to be redundant, but on being removed, the entire network ceased to function. This network was many orders of magnitude less complex than today’s. In these cases, the network was trained on a database of pictures ranked by humans for beauty and associated with descriptions called the LAION-5B Dataset. The initial picture, which may be blank, has “snow” added to it in the form of pseudorandom noise (true randomness may be impossible for conventional digital devices to achieve alone). The algorithm then uses an array of GPUs (graphical processing units as used in self-driving cars, cryptocurrency minint and video games) to continue to apply noise until it begins to be more like the target as described textually and/or submitted as an image. It does this in several stages. Also, just as a JPEG is a compressed version of a bitmap image, relying in that case on small squares described via overlapping trig functions, so are the noisy images compressed in order to fit in the available storage space and so that they get processed faster. The way I think of it, and I may be wrong here, is that it’s like getting the neural network to “squint” at the image through half-closed eyes and try to imagine and draw what’s really there. This compressed image form is described as a “latent space”, as the actual space of the image, or possibly the multidimensional space used to describe it as found in Generative Adversarial Networks, is a decompressed version of what’s actually used directly by the GPUs.

If you don’t understand that, it isn’t you. It was one said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it, and that suggests I don’t. That said, one thing I do understand, I think, is that this is a computer making an image fuzzy like a poorly-tuned television set and then trying to guess what’s behind the fuzz according to suggestions such as an image or a text input. This process is remarkably similar, I think, to a human using audio or visual noise to “see” things which don’t appear to be there, and therefore is itself like a séance.

This seems far-fetched of course, but it’s possible to divorce the algorithm from the nature of the results. The fact is that if a group of people is sitting there with a ouija board, they are ideally sliding the planchette around without their own conscious intervention. There might be a surreptitious living human guide or a spirit might hypothetically be involved, but the technique is the same. The contents of the latent space is genuinely unknown and the details of events within the neural network are likewise mysterious. We, as humans, also tend to project meaning and patterns onto things where none exist.

This brings me to Loab, the person at the top of this post, or rather the figure. The software used to discover this image has not been revealed, but seems to have been Midjourney. The process whereby she (?) was arrived at is rather strange. The initial input was Marlon Brando, the film star. This was followed by an attempt to make the opposite of Marlon Brando. This is a technique where, I think, the location in the latent space furthest from the initial item is found, like the antipodes but in a multidimensional space rather than on the surface of a spheroid. This produced the following image:

The phenomenon of apparently nonsense text in these images is interesting and more significant than you might think. I’ll return to it later.

The user, whose username is Supercomposite on Twitter, then tried to find the opposite of this image, expecting to arrive back at Marlon Brando. They didn’t. Instead they got the image shown at the top of this post, in other words this:

(Probably a larger image in fact but this is what’s available).

It was further found that this image tended to “infect” others and make them more horrific to many people’s eyes. There are ways of producing hybrid images via this model, and innocuous images from other sources generally become macabre when combined with this one. Also, there’s a tendency for Loab, as she was named, to “haunt” images in the sense that you can make an image from an image and remove all the references to Loab in the description, and she will unexpectedly recur many generations down the line like a kind of jump scare. Her presence also sometimes makes images so horrendous that they are not safe to post online. For instance, some of them are of screaming children being torn to pieces.

As humans, we are of course genetically programmed to see horror where there is none because if we instead saw no horror where there was some we’d probably have been eaten, burnt to death, poisonned or drowned, and in that context “we” refers to more than just humans. Therefore a fairly straightforward explanation of these images is that we are reading horror into them when they’re just patterns of pixels. We create another class of potentially imaginary entities by unconsciously projecting meaning and agency onto stimuli. Even so, the human mind has been used as a model for this algorithm. The images were selected by humans and humans have described them, and perhaps most significantly, rated them for beauty. Hence if Marlon Brando is widely regarded as handsome, his opposite’s opposite, rather than being himself, could be ugliness and horror. It would seem to make more sense for that to be simply his opposite, or it might not be closely related to him at all. A third possibility is that it’s a consequence of the structure of a complex mind-like entity to have horror and ugliness in it as well as beauty. There are two other intriguing and tempting conclusions to be drawn from this. One is that this is a real being inhabiting the neural network. The other is that the network is in some way a portal to another world in which this horror exists.

Loab is not alone. There’s also Crungus:

These are someone else’s, from Craiyon, which is a fork of Dall-E Mini. Using that, I got these:

Using Stable Diffusion I seem to get two types of image. One is this kind of thing:

The other looks vaguely like breakfast cereal:

Crungus is another “monster”, who however looks quite cartoonish. I can also understand why crungus might be a breakfast cereal, because of the word sounding like “crunch”. In fact I can easily imagine going down the shop, buying a box of crungus, pouring it out and finding a plastic toy of a Crungus in it. There’s probably a tie-in between the cereal and a TV animation. Crungus, however, has an origin. Apparently there was a video game in 2002 which had a Crungus as an easter egg, which was a monster based on the original DOOM monster the Cacodemon, who was based on artwork which looked like this:

Hence there is an original out there which the AI probably found, although I have to say it seems very apporopriately named and if someone were to be asked to draw a “Crungus”, they’d probably produce a picture a bit like one of these.

It isn’t difficult to find these monsters. Another one which I happen to have found is “Eadrax”:

Eadrax is the name of a planet in ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ but reliably produces fantastic monsters in Stable Diffusion. This seems to be because Google will correct the name to “Andrax”, an ethical hacking platform which uses a dragon-like monster as its mascot or logo. An “eadrax” seems to be a three-dimensional version of that flat logo. But maybe there’s something else going on as well.

There’s a famous experiment in psychology where people whose spoken languages were Tamil and English were asked which one of these shapes was “bouba” and which “kiki”:

I don’t even need to tell you how that worked out, do I? What happens if you do this with Stable Diffusion? Well, “kiki” gets you this, among many other things:

“Bouba” can generate this:

I don’t know about you, but to me the second one looks a lot more like a “bouba” than the first looks like a “kiki” instance. What about both? Well, it either gets you two Black people standing together or a dog and a cat. I’m quite surprised by this because it means the program doesn’t know about the experiment. It doesn’t, however, appear to do what the human mind does with these sounds. “Kiki and Bouba” does this:

Kiki is of course a girl’s name. Maybe Bouba is a popular name for a companion animal?

This brings up the issue of the private vocabulary latent space diffusion models use. You can sometimes provoke such a program into producing text. For instance, you might ask for a scene between two farmers talking about vegetables with subtitles or a cartoon conversation between whales about food. When you do this, and when you get actual text, something very peculiar happens. If you have typeable dialogue between the whales and use this as a text prompt, it can produce images of sea food. If you do the same with the farmers, you get things like insects attacking crops. This is even though the text seems to be gibberish. In other words, the dialogue the AI is asked to imagine actually seems to make sense to it.

Although this seems freaky at first, what seems to be happening is that the software is taking certain distinctive text fragments out of captions and turning them into words. For instance, the “word” for birds actually consists of a concatenation of the first part, i.e. the more distinctive one, of scientific names for bird families. Some people have also suggested that humans are reading things into the responses by simply selecting the ones which seem more relevant, and another idea is that the concepts associated with the images are just stored nearby. That last suggestion raises other questions for me, because it seems that that might actually be a description of how human language actually works mentally.

Examples of “secret” vocabulary include the words vicootes, poploe vesrreaitas, contarra ccetnxniams luryea tanniouons and placoactin knunfdg. Here are examples of what these words do:

Vicootes
Poploe vesrreaitas
contarra ccetnxniams luryea tanniouons
placoactin knunfdg

The results of these in order tend to be: birds, rural scenes including both plants and buildings, young people in small groups and cute furry animals, including furry birds. It isn’t, as I’ve said, necessarily that mysterious because the words are often similar to parts of other words. For instance, the last one produces fish in many cases, though apparently not on Stable Diffusion, but here seems to have produced a dog because the second word ends with “dg”. It produces fish because placoderms and actinopterygii are prominent orders of fish.

It is often clear where the vocabulary comes from, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t constitute a kind of language because our own languages evolve from others and take words and change them. It can easily be mixed with English:

A flock of vicootes in a poploe vesrreaitas being observed by some contarra ccetnxiams luryea tanniouons who are taking their placoactin knunfg for a walk.

This has managed to preserve the birds and the rural scene with vegetation, but after that it seems to lose the plot. It often concentrates on the earlier part of a text more than the rest. In other words, it has a short attention span. The second part of this text gets me this:

Contarra ccetnxiams luryea tanniouons taking their placoactin knunfg for a walk.

I altered this slightly but the result is unsurprising.

Two questions arise here. One is whether this is genuine intelligence. The other is whether it’s sentience. As to whether it’s intelligent, I think the answer is yes, but perhaps only to the extent that a roundworm is intelligent. This is possibly misleading and raises further questions. Roundworms are adapted to what they do very well but are not going to act intelligently outside of that environment. The AIs here are adapted to do things which people do to some extent, but not particularly generally, meaning that they can look a lot more intelligent than they actually are. We’re used to seeing this happen with human agency more directly involved, so what we experience here is a thin layer of humanoid behaviour particularly focussed on the kind of stuff we do. This also suggests that a lot of what we think of as intelligent human behaviour is actually just a thin, specialised veneer on a vast vapid void. But maybe we already knew that.

The other question is about sentience rather than consciousness. Sentience is the ability to feel. Consciousness is not. In order to feel, at least in the sense of having the ability to respond to external stimuli, there must be sensors. These AIs do have sense organs because we interact with them from outside. I have a strong tendency to affirm consciousness because a false negative is likely to cause suffering. Therefore I believe that matter is conscious and therefore that that which responds to external stimuli is sentient. This is of course a very low bar and it means that I even consider pocket calculators sentient. However, suppose that instead consciousness and sentience are emergent properties of systems which are complex in the right kind of way. If digital machines and their software are advancing, perhaps in a slow and haphazard manner, towards sentience, they may acquire it before being taken seriously by many, and we also have no idea how it would happen, not just because sentience as such is a mystery but largely because we have no experience of that emergence taking place before. Therefore we can look at Loab and the odd language and perhaps consider that these things are just silly and it’s superstitious to regard them as signs of awareness, but is that justified? The words remind me rather of a baby babbling before she acquires true language, and maybe the odd and unreliable associations they make also occur in our own minds before we can fully understand speech or sign.

Who, then, is Loab? Is she just a collaborative construction of the AI and countless human minds, or is she actually conscious? Is she really as creepy as she’s perceived, or is that just our projection onto her, our prejudice perhaps? Is she a herald of other things which might be lurking in latent space or might appear if we make more sophisticated AIs of this kind? I can’t answer any of these questions, except perhaps to say that yes, she is conscious because all matter is. What she’s actually doing is another question. A clockwork device might not be conscious in the way it “wants” to be. For instance, it’s possible to imagine a giant mechanical robot consisting of teams of people keeping it going, but is the consciousness of the individual members of that project separate from any consciousness that automaton might have. It’s conceivable that although what makes up Laion is conscious, she herself is not oriented correctly to express that consciousness.

A more supernaturalistic explanation is that Midjourney (I assume) is a portal and that latent space represents a real Universe or “dimension” of some kind. It would be hard to reconcile this idea with a deterministic system if the neural net is seen as a kind of aerial for picking up signals from such a world. Nonetheless such beliefs do exist, as a ouija board is actually a very simple and easily described physical system which nevertheless is taken as picking up signals from the beyond. If this is so, the board and planchette might be analogous to the neural net and the movement of the hands on the planchette, which is presumably very sensitive to the neuromuscular processes going on in the arms and nervous systems of the human participants, to the human artists, the prompt, the computer programmers and the like, and it’s these which are haunted, in a very roundabout way. I’m not in any way committing myself to this explanation. It’s more an attempt to describe how the situation might be compared to a method of divination.

I’ve mentioned the fact there are artists involved a few times, and this brings up another probably unrelated concern. Artists and photographers, and where similar AIs have been applied to other creative genres the likes of poets, authors and musicians, have had their work used to train it, and therefore it could be argued that they’re owed something for this use. At the other end, bearing in mind that most of the images in this post have been produced rapidly on a free version of this kind of software and that progress is also extremely fast, there are also images coming out the other end which could replace what artists are currently doing. This is an example of automation destroying jobs in the creative industries, although at the same time the invention of photography was probably thought of in a similar way and reports of the death of the artist were rather exaggerated. Instead it led to fine art moving in a different direction, such as towards cubism, surrealism, impressionism and expressionism. Where could human art go stimulated by this kind of adversity? Or, would art become a mere hobby for humans?

The Queen Is Dead

Since the death of my father, I haven’t posted here much although there has been a lot going on in my life worthy of comment. There was the funeral, the probate, a holiday near Scotland, a visit to an old friend near Cambridge, our son going to the States and moving out. I’ve even worked on a post about Satan. However, none of it has yet persuaded me to set digits to keys until now.

The quote is, slightly paraphrased, “anyone’s death diminishes me”. I’ll start with my father’s and get on to the Queen’s later, as the two are, for me, psychologically related. My father was radically unlike me in many ways. He was a lifelong Tory, an atheist and quite aggressive, and also very good at making money. He worked in nine-to-five jobs for more than forty years until his early retirement at the age of sixty. By contrast, I am very left wing, with the proviso that I think it would be nice if a catholic economy was feasible but I don’t think it is, very peaceable and a depressive and anxious person, strongly theistic and religious and appalling at making money. Ironically, I’m the one with my own business and he was the one who worked for an employer. So there is a clash of values, beliefs and a vastly different skill set. All that said, we did have a few things in common, such as our apparent neurodiversity and interest in science and maths. He was also notable as being one of the two non-deaf people I’ve ever encountered with absolutely no interest in music, which places him apart from almost everyone in the hearing world.

Even so, his death is a loss to me. In many ways other children’s loss of a father is bound to have openly upset them far more than this seems to have affected me, but it’s not true to say it hasn’t done that at all. That man who read all those hundreds of books in the bookcases downstairs, derived a big enough income to buy a large house in rural southeast England with his largely mental labour, gained a degree from the Open University, published academic chemistry papers, was the metrication officer for his workplace and sat on International Standards Organisation boards for drawing instruments, is now reduced to a pile of ashes in a casket and a large amount of water and carbon dioxide in the water cycle and biosphere. This is a surreal and major landmark in my life, not least because, as I’m sure you can relate to, the death of any person is a memento mori.

The Queen’s death is also a reminder of one’s own mortality, as is anyone’s. Like my father, the Queen had little in common with me. She was a billionaire for a start. In particular, it has to be noted that I’m republican. I don’t believe in the monarchy as a political system, constitutional or otherwise. However, I am only quite weakly republican, mainly because I don’t think the existence or otherwise of the monarchy has much bearing on British politics. A situation where we had a figurehead president, like Ireland’s for example, wouldn’t really be that different to the situation we have now. It doesn’t really matter to me if laws are assented by a president or a monarch. Nor do I consider the monarchy to be particularly expensive compared to other things the government spends its money on. I also think it would be difficult to end the monarchy, because even if it officially ceased to exist, the people involved would still be in the minds of the public and be thought of as holding the positions they currently do in law, unless there were a major groundswell against them. However, I would prefer a republic. I just don’t think it’s really worth our energy to achieve one. I also say this in full knowledge of the plausible claim that the monarchy secretly has a hand in drafting our laws. I’ve discussed the actual issue of the monarchy in political terms elsewhere on this blog.

None of this has any bearing on the emotional import of the situation. Just as my father was largely opposite to me in values, beliefs and character, and I have much to resent him for, so was the Queen in many ways the polar opposite to what I think is best for the country.

I’d like to illustrate what I mean with reference to bloodsports.

I used to go hunt sabbing every Saturday and sometimes on Boxing Day. I strongly object to foxhunting, and of course the Royal Family has been heavily involved in it. I expended a lot of energy in doing what I could to disrupt foxhunts non-violently. Many friends of mine were passionately involved in this action. At the same time, there was an animal rights stall in town on Saturdays. After a few years, it occurred to me that if a single carnist individual, say in her early twenties, was persuaded to go vegan by the actions of the animal rights people by the Clock Tower in Leicester, that single success would be likely to save the lives of more vertebrates than a whole lifetime of hunt sabbing. That is a very low bar to clear. Imagine five hundred days on that stall and one person being persuaded in all that time. In the meantime, five hundred days of freakishly successful hunt sabbing would save fewer than a thousand animals. In other words, it isn’t primarily about the animals or animal rights, but class struggle. Appalling though foxhunting is, the motivation of many hunt sabbers seems to be to ruin the enjoyment of the sadists who pursue the uneatable, and notably the thousands of anglers who go down to the canal on a regular basis and cause immense suffering to large numbers of fish generally, but not always, carry on unchallenged, because they’re not upper class, and somehow this is supposed to make it better? I think hunt sabbing is a worthwhile thing to do, but I can’t get on board with the class envy aspect of it. The common juxtaposition of a rough sleeper kipping down next to a lavish portrait commemorating the Queen’s death speaks volumes, but do you really think if we were a republic that guy wouldn’t be there? Not if it wasn’t socialist.

British socialist groups on Reddit are unsurprisingly anti-monarchist, and of course I’m also anti-monarchist. However, a lot of the posts are particularly focussed on the monarchy rather than other things about which socialists might be expected to care, and I find it a distraction. It’s similar to the focus, either from a supportive or oppositional stance, on trans issues: what are we not discussing or campaigning on while we’re talking about those? Yes I’m against the monarchy, but really, does a country like the US or France really seem more socially just than this one? How much difference would it really make to most people if we were a republic? It seems to me that the animosity expressed towards the ultra-rich bloodsportspeople who are nominally running this country is not really about achieving a better world.

There’s a rather disconcerting prelude to Owl City’s song ‘Galaxies’, which is about the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in the form of a sound clip from Ronald Reagan’s speech on the matter. The associations many left wingers of a certain generation have with that despicable individual make this seem quite distasteful, but when it comes down to it, all he was doing was acting as the Head of State and speaking for the nation about a tragedy, and since he was a Hollywood actor, he was actually quite good at it. The associations, I presume, do not exist for Adam Young, since he was only two when Reagan left office. It could have been Walter Mondale speaking for the nation and the situation would’ve been the same, because the president, overtly politicised though the rôle is, also speaks on behalf of the country in a non-politicised way. Our own head of state is covertly politicised but can do the same thing.

I have recently lost a parent, my father. Those two words refer to an office which to some extent transcends the characters of the people involved, and it’s the same with the monarch, because a monarch is often the Head of State. The Queen’s head is on our notes, coins and stamps. Her initials are on the post boxes and the throne. In France, Marianne used to have the same function and in the US there’s the eagle and the Statue of Liberty. Our symbols of nationhood are oddly mixed. One of them happens to be a real person, but there’s also a unicorn, Scotland’s national animal, and a Turkish-Greek bloke killing a dragon. People are unlikely to get worked up about the unicorn but they have been known to take exception to a supposèdly animal-loving country having the slaughter of as magnificent a beast as a dragon as one of our symbols. That’s probably fictional (I suspect it’s based on a watering hole with a crocodile living in it, but that’s another story), but it’s still a figure representing the country, which is also what the Queen was. Unlike George or the unicorn, she could actually speak and interact with the people.

‘Out Of Africa’ is a film which annoys me because I get weepy about the death of Denys Finch Hatton, an upper-class big game hunter, at the end. The reason that happens, apart from the clever emotional manipulation of the people involved in making the film, is that we are all human and we cannot help but be moved by such things. That’s rather specific for me, but it will probably be someone else for you, another fictional character. This is the same kind of phenomenon as I experienced the other day when Sarada came home and I said I should do an emergency big shop just in case the Queen died, and found myself, to my amazement, choking up slightly inside. It does annoy me that I’m more influenced directly by the Queen’s death than my father’s in this way, and is cause for concern, but in fact I wasn’t just crying for the Queen but for all my losses, and the losses others have recently experienced, and I haven’t had that many, and for the very general experience of bereavement as part of life for us all. I felt the same thing more recently when I heard people sing “God save the King”. And I am absolutely not a monarchist. It isn’t about that. It isn’t even about specific respect for the Queen and King, except insofar as they are human and therefore worthy of respect, a respect moreover I wouldn’t confine to humans.

Diana comes to mind here. To us at the time, the reaction to her death seemed quite fake and excessive, but we had friends who had been more affected by the AIDS crisis than I was, and really, I was affected quite enough by it thank you, who were authentically touched because of her challenge to the stigma. Right now, although I’m getting on with my life, I do actually feel quite affected by it, so I’m on the other side of the situation this time. This is probably because of recent bereavements experienced at first and second hand.

In fact, the people on the other side this time are responding to her death just as much as most other people as a symbol. For them, she and her heir represent everything that’s wrong with this country, and that’s a fair take, but for me that is inauthentic. I don’t generally believe individuals are politically influential as such, but simply end up in the positions they are and have their behaviour determined by economics. The monarch before her didn’t even get to decide when to die: he was, it’s said, in a sense killed by his doctor so that the news could make the papers the next day. I don’t think there’s a much clearer demonstration of how little freedom he had, and the freedom of a monarch is if anything more restricted than that of the average well-off middle class person. I can’t generate the degree of animosity some other people seem to feel towards the over-privileged, and to pretend I felt that would be dishonest even if I talked myself into thinking that’s really how I felt about her death or her as a symbol. I just don’t.

When it was common practice to write cheques, many people had the experience of accidentally putting the wrong year all through January and having to cross it out. Even though that year was Anno Domini, now often referred to as “Christian Era”, writing that year, or getting it wrong on the cheque, didn’t imply they were Christian. It’s just the dating system we use here in the West, with a few exceptions such as on Jewish tombstones, for the Islamic calendar and Julian dates. This, for almost all of us, is what the Queen’s death is like. It means we’ll soon have the King’s face on notes, coins and stamps, “C iii R” on any new post boxes, QCs will become KCs and people will be singing “Send him victorious”. All of this is odd and disconcerting, and will take some getting used to, not least because most of us weren’t even born the last time it changed. But for my mother, this is her fifth monarch. A person born on 11th April 1471 who lived to be eighty-eight would have seen ten monarchs, for instance Thomas Carn of London, who lived to be 107. We are relatively exceptional in British history not to have seen multiple kings and more rarely queens even in our fairly long lifetimes. This alone makes it exceptional and historic, and just as it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or not when you cross out the wrong year on a cheque, nor does it matter if you’re monarchist or republican, or for that matter anarchist, if you recognise this as a disconcerting historical event. I would of course acknowledge fully that this is a great time to bury bad news, but there’s more to it than that.

There are also specific sadnesses resulting from the fact that we had a Queen. Although it’s a birthright rather than a position one could work to reach, I don’t believe it was any bad thing that generations of girls grew up with the knowledge that the Head Of State was a woman. We also had a situation where a young woman in her twenties became Sovereign in contrast to all the relatively old male presidents and dictators around the world, and eventually became older than them all as well, so there were two lengthy periods in her life where she was demographically exceptional in two ways at once. She has now been replaced by the rather less exceptional, and this is not to malign him for characteristics he can’t do much about, man in his seventies. We’ve ended up, just now, with a much less remarkable figurehead in that respect, and this will probably be the case next century too. Next Christian century.

It’s said that the most common dream people have in this country has been the Queen coming to tea. A third of the British population has had this dream, including me. This happens without respect to the political beliefs of the people concerned: you can be a red-blooded Communist and have this dream just as easily as a true blue Tory. The details also tend to be similar. It’s all the more remarkable that I’ve had it because I never drink tea, so for me the beverage is just something I make for someone else and I don’t partake of our national identity by either being a monarchist or having a nice cup of tea and a sit down. But there it is, because in this dream both the Queen and the tea are symbols of national identity which exist even in the minds of non-nationalistic republican coffee-drinkers. Also, for a long time as a child, and I don’t think I’m unusual in this respect either, I associated the Queen with my mother. I used to think they looked similar, for example. Given this perhaps comforting significance, it makes sense that people might wish to deny the less palatable aspects and allegations made against the Royals, regardless of their veracity.

I never met the Queen although I strongly suspect I once met her son, now King. Other than the fact that she’s head of the Church and I am C of E, I don’t feel the need to pay obeisance to her or the King in a visceral or profound way. However, if I met the King under different circumstances than I actually seem to have met him in (everyone needs a break sometimes), I would follow the usual etiquette as I understand it simply because it would be embarrassing not to, it would probably make him feel awkward or angry as a person one to one with me, and there’s not really any need to do that.

All that said, yes, Scotland and England should both be republics, but this has got nothing to do with current historical events, and 2022 will go down for me as the year my father and the Queen both died.

Operation Unicorn

In case anyone wants to know, these are the plans for the next few days following the Queen’s death yesterday. This is just copy-pasted, not my own work.

D-Day

In the hours after the queen’s death, a “call cascade” will take place informing the prime minister, the cabinet secretary (Britain’s highest-ranking civil servant) and a number of the most senior ministers and officials. The PM will be informed by the queen’s private secretary, who will also tell the Privy Council Office, which coordinates government work on behalf of the monarch.

Internally, the day will be referred to as “D-Day.” Each following day leading up to the funeral will be referred to as “D+1,” “D+2” and so on.

The royal household will issue an “official notification” delivering the news to the public.

A call script for departmental permanent secretaries outlining how to break the news to their ministers, seen by POLITICO, instructs them to say: “We have just been informed of the death of Her Majesty The Queen.” Ministers will be told that “discretion is required.”

Ministers and senior civil servants will also receive an email from the cabinet secretary, a draft of which reads: “Dear colleagues, It is with sadness that I write to inform you of the death of Her Majesty The Queen.”

Upon receipt of this email, flags across Whitehall will be lowered to half-mast. The aim is that this can be done within 10 minutes.

In an exercise undertaken several years ago, Downing Street raised concerns that this would be impossible as it does not employ a flag officer and was not certain there will always be somebody present who is able to lower the flag. One No. 10 official warned the prime minister’s team risk public anger if an external contractor has to be called in and the flag can’t be lowered quickly. The issue is now believed to have been resolved, according to a government official.

In a sign of the times, many of the immediate plans relate to social media. The royal family’s website will change to a black holding page with a short statement confirming the queen’s death. The U.K. government website — GOV.UK — will display a black banner at the top. All government departmental social media pages will also show a black banner and change their profile pictures to their departmental crest. Non-urgent content must not be published. Retweets are explicitly banned unless cleared by the central government head of communications.

The royal family will announce plans for the queen’s funeral, which is expected to be held 10 days following her death.

The prime minister will be the first member of the government to make a statement. All other members of the government will be instructed not to comment until after the PM has spoken.

The Ministry of Defence will arrange for gun salutes to take place at all saluting stations. A national minute’s silence will be announced.

The prime minister will then hold an audience with the new king, and at 6 p.m., King Charles will deliver a broadcast to the nation.

At the same time, there will be a service of remembrance at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. The prime minister and a small number of senior ministers will attend. The service is planned to appear “spontaneous,” according to official documents seen by POLITICO.

D-Day+1

At 10 a.m. on the day after the queen’s death, the Accession Council — which includes senior government figures — meets at St. James’ Palace to proclaim King Charles the new sovereign.

Hundreds of privy counselors, including the PM and senior ministers, will be asked to attend, with gentlemen expected to don morning dress or lounge suits with black or dark ties. No decorations are to be worn.

The proclamation will then be read at St. James’ Palace and the Royal Exchange in the City of London, confirming Charles as king.

Parliament will meet to agree on a message of condolence. All other parliamentary business will be suspended for 10 days. MPs will give tributes in the House of Commons.

At 3:30 p.m., the prime minister and the Cabinet will hold an audience with the new king. Ministers will be told not to bring their spouses.

D-Day+2

The queen’s coffin will return to Buckingham Palace.

If the queen dies at Sandringham, her residence in Norfolk, eastern England, her body will be carried by royal train to St. Pancras station in London, where her coffin will be met by the prime minister and cabinet ministers.

If she dies at Balmoral in Scotland, Operation UNICORN will be activated, meaning her body will be carried down to London by royal train if possible. If not, Operation OVERSTUDY will be triggered, meaning the coffin will be transferred by plane. The PM and ministers will attend a reception to welcome the coffin.

Proclamations will be read in the devolved administrations. Tributes are likely to continue in parliament.

D-Day+3

In the morning, King Charles will receive the motion of condolence at Westminster Hall.

In the afternoon, he will embark on a tour of the United Kingdom, starting with a visit to the Scottish parliament and a service at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

D-Day+4

King Charles will arrive in Northern Ireland, where he’ll receive another motion of condolence at Hillsborough Castle and attend a service at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.

A rehearsal will take place for Operation LION, the procession of the coffin from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster.

D-Day+5

The procession from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster will take place along a ceremonial route through London. There will be a service in Westminster Hall following the coffin’s arrival.

D-Day+6 to D-Day+9 

The queen will lie in state at the Palace of Westminster for three days, in an operation codenamed FEATHER. Her coffin will lie on a raised box known as a catafalque in the middle of Westminster Hall, which will be open to the public for 23 hours per day. Tickets will be issued for VIPs so they can have a time slot.

On D-Day+6, a rehearsal will take place for the state funeral procession.

On D-Day+7, King Charles will travel to Wales to receive another motion of condolence at the Welsh parliament and attend a service at Liandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.

This period will see government departments absorbed in an immense amount of preparation for the funeral. Documents seen by POLITICO show that, while the government overall believes it has capacity to successfully deliver the funeral, the work required will be huge, and specific concerns have been raised about potential challenges.

The departments facing the greatest difficulty are the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Department for Transport.

The Foreign Office is tasked with arranging the arrivals of heads of state and VIPs from abroad, with concerns also raised about how to arrange entry for significant numbers of tourists into the country should the queen die during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Home Office is responsible for security arrangements, and the government’s National Security Secretariat and intelligence services will be on high alert for any increased terror threat.

The Department for Transport has raised concerns that the number of people who may want to travel to London could cause major problems for the transport network, and lead to overcrowding in the capital.

In a striking assessment of the scenes that could unfold, one memo warns of a worst-case scenario in which London literally becomes “full” for the first time ever as potentially hundreds of thousands of people try to make their way there — with accommodation, roads, public transport, food, policing, healthcare and basic services stretched to breaking point. Concerns have also been raised about a shortage of stewards for crowd control purposes.

The prime minister and the queen have agreed that the day of the state funeral will be a “Day of National Mourning.” This has also led to planning issues. The day will effectively be a bank holiday, although it will not be named as such. If the funeral falls on the weekend or an existing bank holiday, an extra bank holiday will not be granted. If the funeral falls on a weekday, the government does not plan to order employers to give employees the day off — the documents say that is a matter between employees and their staff.

D-Day+10

The state funeral itself will be held at Westminster Abbey.

There will be a two minutes’ silence across the nation at midday.

Processions will take place in London and Windsor.

There will be a committal service in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and the queen will be buried in the castle’s King George VI Memorial Chapel.

Why Isn’t It “Platinium”?

The majority of chemical elements have names ending in “-ium”. In British English, we also have “aluminium” as opposed to the American “aluminum”, but we also have “tantalum” and “platinum”, so oddly the usual “-ium” ending has a couple of exceptions, as is common with spelling, grammar and word formations. The periodic table generally shows the order of discovery in how the names are formed. The older elements tend to have less regularly-formed names such as “phosphorus” and “antimony”, then after a certain point several half-hearted attempts to regularise them (e.g. “hydrogen”, “nitrogen”, “oxygen”) ensued, but it’s all rather haphazard.

The individual groups sometimes have some kind of order imposed on them. All the halogens, even the transuranic tennessine, end in “-ine” and no other element does. All the noble gases except helium end in “-on”, but this is rather spoilt by the names “carbon” and “silicon”. In a way, it makes sense that helium should have a different ending because it isn’t a typical noble gas, having only two electrons in its sole orbital as opposed to eight, as the others have. Incidentally, the noble gases are easy to contemplate in physical terms because they all consist straightforwardly of single atoms with regularly increasing weight. Oganesson, which is a transuranic noble “gas”, has a melting point of 52°C, but it can’t really exist in bulk. It would, I’m guessing, be a non-metal and therefore an oddity being so heavy and yet not a metal.

There have been two systems of nomenclature for elements which are either not yet discovered or unfamiliar. One of them imposed Sanskrit numeral prefixes, though only “eka-” and “dvi-“, i.e. one and two. This was where there were gaps in the periodic table, so for example gallium was originally called “ekaäluminium”, or perhaps “ekaäluminum” because the predicted metal hadn’t been discovered yet. This system is obsolete as all the holes in this portion of the table have now been filled. There is also the issue of what happens towards the end of the periodic table, where new elements have been discovered on a semi-regular basis. This system uses Greek and Latin numerals as prefixes for “-ium”, as in “ununoctium” for oganesson, but the numbers are chosen so as not to produce ambiguous abbreviations. They consist of the atomic number in decimal and yield three-letter symbols rather than the more usual two- or one-letter ones, which makes sense because these elements don’t meaningfully participate in chemistry owing to their instability. It would of course be possible to name all the elements in this way, producing a word like “nulnulhexium”, or possibly just “hexium”, for carbon, and “septoctium” for platinum, but this is unnecessary. One thing which somewhat bothers me about these names is that they use the decimal base rather than something which seems more fundamental such as hexadecimal or binary, or perhaps a base which matches the length of the sequences in the periodic table itself, which would give the elements systematic names matching their groups. They’re not as neat as they might villa .

The ending “-um” is clearly straightforwardly from the Latin neuter second declension, and there are also the “-on” endings from the same Greek declension. It seems to have connotations of “inanimate thing” in this context, so for example gallium is “Gaul thing”, i.e. the thing named after the country of France. There doesn’t seem to have been the kind of drive to neutrality which exists in astronomical naming. For instance, the constellation Scutum used to be called Scutum Sobieskii, but the second part was dropped, I presume because it refers to Poland, but polonium is still called that. This location naming business has led to the Swedish village of Ytterby, population 3 000, giving its name to no fewer than four elements (ytterbium, terbium, yttrium and erbium) due to the discovery of a dark, heavy rock in the area. Other elements are named after Stockholm and Scandinavia in their own way (holmium and thulium) for the same reason, and there’s also scandium. This seems disproportionate.

You will be aware though that the majority of elements ending in “-um” have an I before that ending, so the question arises of why there are exceptions. Aluminium is the oddest one of these because it varies according to American and British usage. The metal was discovered by Humphry Davy by electrolysis from alumina, which is aluminium oxide, and he originally called it “alumium”. In 1812, he changed the name to “aluminum” but this was difficult to maintain because of its lack of conformity. It got adopted by the general public in the US but not by American chemists, whilst in the Commonwealth it was uniformly “aluminium”. Canada, though, uses “aluminum”, as it’s generally more American than the rest of the Commonwealth, and also more American than Ireland come to think of it. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recommends “aluminium”.

Even so, there are four other elements like this, namely molybdenum, lanthanum, tantalum and platinum, and these always use that form. All of the other “-iums” always use that form too. Platinum was the first element to be given a name ending in “-um” officially after discovery, so it could be that the convention of inserting an I was yet to be established. All of the elements discovered prior to it ending in “-um” in Latin have no I: plumbum, aurum, argentum, ferrum, hydrargyrum. However, “zinc” is cadmiæ. Hence there are two other questions. Firstly, why did they start sticking an I in in the first place? Following that, why are there later discoveries without an I? Molybdenum was discovered before they started putting it in, and the first one with an I is tellurium. Tantalum was named long after it was discovered and lanthanum was discovered quite late. It’s distinctive in that like actinium it’s the name of a whole series of similar elements. Tantalum is presumably called that because Tantalus wasn’t called “Tantalius”.

Hence it does make sense, historically, that platinum has no I. Platinum has strong symbolic value compared to the other platinum metals, which are relatively obscure, being used, of course, for the platinum anniversaries and the jubilee, the only one in the history of any of the home nations, so it’s appropriately rare. It also turns up in platinum discs and platinum blond hair. There is, however, no “Platinum Age” or a platinum medal. The latter is easy to understand, since it would involve disrupting an established system and render previous gold medals invalid, and the older version of the age system was thought up before platinum was known in the Old World. It was, however, known in the New, being found in river deposits in South America before the Christian Era. It’s one of the densest and least reactive metals, has a very high melting point and is very hard. In spite of all these qualities, pre-Columbian artifacts made of platinum do exist, such as a mask and jewellery, occurring in present day Columbia and Ecuador.

Platinum is actually the most widespread platinum metal. Osmium and iridium, the heaviest elements of all, are not widely found on the surfaces of planets because they sink to the centre during their worlds’ molten phases. However, being an even-numbered element, platinum is more abundant than some of the others by virtue of that alone. Palladium is considerably rarer and osmium and iridium are mainly associated with their density rather than their use as precious metals. Osmium is the rarest precious metal of all, and also the densest, and is used in alloys to make pen nibs and in electron microscopy. It slowly oxidises in air and the fumes it gives off can cause blindness and lung damage. Iridium is well-known as the sign that non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out by the Chicxulub Impactor, as small celestial objects do not exhibit the stratification of larger ones due to their low gravity and often low temperature. Ruthenium, rhodium and rhenium are also platinum metals. They’re all useful as catalysts, famously in the case of platinum itself. The anticancer drug cisplatin contains it, and works like most anticancer drugs by interfering with DNA replication.

It may be just me, but I consider platinum blond hair as gendered in this culture. I’ve never been a fan of fair hair, on me or others, in æsthetic terms, but the technique for producing the effect is academically interesting.

Of course, the reason I’ve chosen to blog about this today is the fact that it’s the Jubilee, but I wanted to do so in a way which didn’t partake of any controversy between royalist and republican sentiments, so here it is.

Two Flowerings And A Cousin

Here at chez zerothly, the mornings are currently filled with the bongs and bings of Duolingo as Sarada and I vainly and not so vainly, not respectively, attempt to learn two distantly-related languages. Sarada is having a lot more luck than I am, or rather, she’s making progress much more rapidly. I am plodding, and as I advance through the lessons the number of mistakes I make grows steadily. I feel in no way on top of my learning, and that’s unusual for language learning for me, although not in any way a surprise in this case. Sarada in the meantime has a degree in French and is learning a closely-related language which she’s already made progress in through evening classes. As far as I can tell, the sum total of her efforts with respect to learning this language right now consist of Duolingo. My efforts consist of listening to radio stations in my language and watching the TV news in it. There probably isn’t much difference in our degree of motivation, but whereas she’s not putting as much time into it as I am, she’s getting a lot further a lot faster.

Both languages are Western European Indo-European KENTUM languages. I’ve been into the classification of IE languages before on this blog, but to cut a long story short, here’s a quick summary. The Indo-European language family is the largest and best-researched language family and consists of languages originating in Eurasia from Ireland and Portugal through to Bangladesh, extending into the Arctic Circle and across Russia. Particularly in Europe, there are only a handful of indigenous tongues which are not members. The family consists of three divisions, one much smaller than the other two and completely extinct, namely the Anatolian languages which include Hittite and were so ancient they were often written in cuneiform. Of the other two, one is probably a more genuine division than the other: KENTUM and SATEM, based on their words for “hundred”, which reflect sound changes in the two main branches. Although KENTUM languages tend to be more western in origin than the SATEM ones, the easternmost subfamily of all, completely extinct now for over a millennium, is Tocharian and is KENTUM. The SATEM group is probably not closely bound and likely reflects the languages which simply didn’t descend from the one which underwent the KENTUM changes rather than having a common ancestor beyond Proto-IE itself

I’ve covered all of this before. Among the KENTUM languages, as I count them, and this is not actually the official way they’re counted nowadays but I do this based strictly on the word for “hundred” which may have been altered by other influences, the branches are Illyrian, Tocharian, Celtic, Germanic and Italic. The sole surviving Illyrian language is Albanian, but there are likely to have been many others spoken in the Balkans which were never written down and just died out. I don’t include Greek because its word for “hundred” isn’t like ours, and I seem to remember that linguists often group it and Armenian together. However, the Armenian word for “hundred” is “հարյուր”, and I think you’ll agree that doesn’t look much like ours, beautifully written though it be. I am, incidentally, aware of the peculiar history of Armenian but I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

I’ve taken old written examples of each branch of the KENTUM languages and compared the vocabulary. I found, perhaps surprisingly, that the two closest seemed to be Latin and Gothic. This is a little misleading as history is, literally in this case, written by the winners, and the Albanians, Tocharians and Celts definitely didn’t turn out to be the victors in the long run. The Tocharians were so long gone and utterly eradicated that nobody even remembered they’d existed and they were only unearthed because they lived in a desert area of Chinese Turkestan where their documents were preserved by the conditions. The Albanians are the sole survivors who seem to have clung on because of living in an isolated mountain kingdom which nobody wanted and was in any case pretty inaccessible. As for the Celts, well . . .

On the SATEM side of things, Baltic and Slavic are evidently rather close to each other, and also influenced Germanic because the people speaking these languages didn’t have much respect for what philologists were going to do in fifteen centuries’ time, and therefore didn’t realise they weren’t supposed to speak to their KENTUM neighbours. In the KENTUM case, two subgroups are particularly close to each other, or rather, they’re closer than the others are, and also closer to each other than they are to the others. These are Italic and Celtic. In a late nineteenth century edition of Cassell’s Etymological Dictionary, a book I studied very closely as a child before I got a copy of Skeat as an Xmas present, Italo-Celtic was considered a single branch on the family tree rather than two.

Both the languages Sarada and I are currently learning, or in my case trying to learn rather unsuccessfully, are Italo-Celtic. Sarada is picking up Italian quickly and I am slogging away unfruitfully at that nasty grandparent language known as Gàidhlig. Sarada has on a number of occasions asked me why I’m bothering, considering it’s such a huge effort and such a minor language, to which my answer is that it’s an endangered language and part of my heritage. I’ve been into this before on this blog. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, wonderful, beautiful or anything else, but the fact is that it’s on its last legs and deserves to be preserved. To compare, there are more than three dozen native American languages with more speakers than Gàidhlig and I’d never suggest that they should be allowed to die out, so here I am learning this language whose term for spider translates for some reason as “wild stag”, and in other circumstances I’d find that picturesque and charming but to be honest my immediate reaction is “Just why on Earth‽”. But this unlovely tongue is the one in which my surnames are, and what kind of rootless fool would I be if I couldn’t even pronounce my own name? So I’m stuck with it, and as you’ll know if you’ve been reading this blog, I consider myself obliged to learn the sodding thing. This is in no way a slight on the Gaels, which would be weird and self-hating to some extent anyway, though I consider myself a White Northwestern Eurasian above everything else (or a NW European if you want to be parochial about it). To be fair, I’m not a huge fan of English either due to things like its weird vowels and diphthongs, overuse of the word “do” and only having one word for “you”, but I honestly can’t say I actually prefer Gàidhlig as a language.

There’s considerable doubt about the validity of Celtic as an identity, but whatever is true, there are a maximum a few thousand speakers of each surviving spoken Celtic language, which are divided into two halves, P-Celtic and Q-Celtic according to how they treated proto-IE “KW”. P-Celtic survivors comprise Welsh, Cornish and Breton, plus a few words adopted into a now-extinct Siouan language called Mandan. The Q-Celtic languages are Gàidhlig, Irish and Manx, which form a linguistic continuum interrupted by the ingress of Scots and English into the southwestern part of what became Scotland, although a P-Celtic language was also spoken there. It must also be mentioned that all surviving Celtic languages have mysterious similarities to Afro-Asiatic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew which have never been explained, and again I’ve been into this before.

All that said, this isn’t what I’m going to focus on today. Rather, the activity of learning Gàidhlig just as Sarada is learning Italian has highlighted the possibility of Italo-Celtic as a division of the KENTUM branch of IE, and in fact if you go back far enough they’re remarkably similar, particularly if you take out the bizarre Semitic tendency in Celtic.

The Italic languages are peculiar in that they’ve flourished twice. They’re the only example I know of a language group which developed into a whole range of spoken languages, all but one of which died out, only for that sole survivor to become another whole range. That was of course Latin, and its descendants the Romance languages, including Italian itself and also Catalan, Provençal, Romanian, French, Castilian and various others. Traces of the older Italic languages still exist in Italian dialects but the only one to emerge and spread from the Italian peninsula was Latin itself. The others were Oscan, Umbrian, South Picene, Faliscan, and possibly Ligurian, Sicel, Nuragic, Raetic and Venetic. There were also other less-closely related languages spoken before the founding of Rome on the peninsula and associate islands, including the unclassified Etruscan, which was definitely not IE but whose actual allegiance can’t be traced definitively, and also Illyrian languages and Greek, as well as Punic, an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in North Afrika. The actual Italic speakers had migrated southward from the trans Alpine region, and this is where the Celtic connection becomes apparent.

The area north of the Alps was Celtic at the time, insofar as the Celts ever really existed in their own right, so either the speakers of the Proto-Italic language were in contact with the speakers of Proto-Celtic or they actually were the speakers of Proto-Celtic, id est they were actually the same language. I’m going to use Latin spelling here as I write the numbers from one to ten in Proto-Italic:

oinos, duo, tres, quettuor, quenque, sex, septem, octo, novem, decem.

Here’s the same in Celtic using the same spelling:

oinos, duau, tris, quetuares, quenque, suexs, sextam, oxtu, navam, decam.

I’d say these are close enough to be in the same language spoken in different accents. Proto-Celtic has a more archaic flavour to me, and the presence of the A’s in “navam” and “decam” give them a kind of Sanskrit flavour –  नव (nava) and दश (daśa) being the same words in that language. That doesn’t mean the rest of the two languages were as similar. For instance, even now some Q-Celtic uses a dual number – a form like the plural but for when there are two of something – but Italic has never had that, although it has traces such as “ambas/-os” in Castilian for “both”, and of course similar traces exist in English. That said, the languages are unusually similar.

You might be wondering how this can be reconstructed since this was all going on rather a long time ago. The answer is that Italic languages did in fact often have a written form, having alphabets derived from Greek, usually via Etruscan which was the high civilisation on the peninsula at the time. Each actually had a different script. Consequently it can be seen that there are a number of similar languages which have certain things in common and one-way processes can be identified. Italic is not puzzling in this respect. Celtic is somewhat more confusing, because the only surviving Celtic languages are the ones spoken in the British Isles and Breton, which is descended from a British Celtic language, and those only date from the first millennium CE in written form. There are older examples but these tend to be rather limited, consisting of short inscriptions. On the Iberian peninsula, five scripts existed which seem to have been derived directly from Phœnician. They tended to be syllabaries rather than alphabets, i.e. one character per syllable. Elsewhere, Celtic languages actually used Italic scripts, which considering they were in the same area is unsurprising but it illustrates the close contact between the two groups.

Turning to more general vocabulary, similarities are sometimes obscured by semantic drift, id est, changes in the meanings of words, as for example happened with our “silly”, “nice” and “gay”. For instance, the Proto-Celtic word for “snake” is “natrixs” but the Latin “natrix” means “water snake”, the Proto-Italic word being “anγwis”, which became the Latin “anguis”, which now means “slow worm”, and later the word for eel, “anguilla”. The vocabulary is in both cases also, unsurprisingly, both less “Latin” and less “Celtic” in character because it retains words from PIE which later disappeared and may also have picked up words from the Germanic tribes living nearby. Hence Latin “filia” for daughter is a replacement for a word closer to “daughter” which in Oscan, for example, is “futir”. Even so, various words are quite close or identical:

Proto-ItalicProto-CelticEnglish
tututhou
iseshe
quesquiswho
quidquiswhat
nenenot
aliosaliosother
anγustosangusnarrow
tenuistanauiosthin
virosvirosman
matermatirmother
paterφatirfather
piscisφescosfish
cocudog
palma (palm)φlamahand
auzisausosear
cordcridiomheart
canocanetising

There are many more examples, and this is not cherry-picked, although the words are from a core vocabulary which tends to change less than average. What I have done is ignore vowel length and adjusted both sets of spelling to a kind of classical Latin standard, which brings out how similar Proto-Celtic and Latin really are.

However, it’s uncontroversial that Proto-Celtic and Proto-Italic are related. This is already established. A proper study would compare it with the successful Germanic branch of the KENTUM group. Fortunately this can be done. Here are the numbers from one to ten in Proto-Germanic:

ainaz, twai, þriz, fedwor, fimf, sehs, sebum, ahtou, newun, tehun.

These are, as could be expected, somewhat similar to Italic and Celtic but don’t have the uncanny affinity shown between those two. As for the list above, the Proto-Germanic version looks like this:

þu, iz, hwaz, hwat, ne, allaz, anguz, þunnuz. weraz, moder, fader, fiskaz, hundaz, handaz, auso, herto, singwaną.

In this case, though, the words selected are synonyms whose alternate forms are not found, and as Germanic language users ourselves we can spot some of these, such as “allaz” and “anguz” for “other” and “narrow”, both of which already existed in Proto-Germanic in recognisable forms as “anþeraz” and “narwaz”. This doesn’t happen so much with Proto-Italic and Celtic. Germanic is distinctive in having a large number of words not closely connected to other IE words. Apparent examples here are “hand” and “sing”. But it could still be that Germanic is simply the outlier and Celtic and Italic developed along more typical lines. Except that this isn’t so.

As well as the similarities between words, the two languages also share other features not found in Germanic or any other IE languages. For instance, the superlative, expressed in English by “-est”, and similarly in, for example, Greek, is expressed in Italic and Celtic using an ending based on “-isṃmo-“, as in Italian “fortissimo” and Old Irish “sinem” – “oldest”. The subjunctive mood of the verb is descended from the proto-IE optative (“would that it. . .”) in both cases, which is highly unusual. The genitive uses an I in its ending in both cases too, and there are several other grammatical similarities. Again, these could be primitive features which survived in Italic, Celtic and nowhere else rather than direct connections between the two, but something like the adaptation of the optative to the subunctive isn’t an archaism or that mood would have been like that in Sanskrit, for example, and it isn’t.

The hypothesis became popular from the 1860s and was attacked successfully by the Harvard linguist Calvert Watkins in 1966, so it could be that my attachment to the idea is anachronistic. The problem is supposed to be that the features held in common each connect only one Italic and one Celtic language, and not the same pairs at any point. This is interesting for another reason. Celtic languages are fairly well-known for falling into two subgroups: P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. Hence the Welsh for “five” is “pump” but the Irish equivalent is “cúig”, and the Old Irish for “son” is MAQ, later “mac”, but the Welsh word is “mab”. For a while it was thought that this division merely occurred in the British Isles, but it turns out that continental Celtic languages were also divided in this way. Something similar happens in today’s Italic languages with, for example, the Romanian “patru” for Italian “quattro”, although this development occurred after Latin split up. It also, though, took place in the older Italic languages. Oscan and Umbrian use P where Latin and Faliscan use QU. Hence a weird division can be made among Italo-Celtic where Q languages include Italian, French, Manx and Irish, among others, whereas P languages include Breton, Welsh, Oscan and Umbrian, reflecting a tendency in the entire group for this to happen, as it has in Romanian for example. However, all these similarities don’t mean that Romanian and Welsh have a common ancestor in Oscan, and likewise some of the other tendencies might follow from a pre-existent state which trends in that direction. It’s similar to the phenomenon where both English and German started off with a long I pronounced “ee” and a long U pronounced “oo”, which however became “ai” and “au” independently: min – mine/mein; hus – house/Haus.

Nonetheless, I’m not writing this with the courage of my convictions and that long list of identical and very similar words is hard to discount. This part of western Eurasia can be simplified into a series of peninsulas. There’s Scandinavia in the north, the main part of Western to Central Europe further south and the separate peninsulas of Iberia, Italy and Greece stretching into the Med. The Greeks and Illyrians occupied the last and are not so relevant to the situation. The Germanic peoples originate in Scandinavia, a peninsula which provides an obvious stronger separation from the others, and the characteristics of our languages clearly show the influence of the Uralic languages, for instance in the absence of a separate inflected future tense. It makes sense that Germanic languages would be the outliers in this respect. Then, further south lie the Tumulus and then Urnfield Cultures of the Bronze Age, itself followed by the clearly Celtic Hallstatt Culture. The peoples of the first two of these came to radiate south into Iberia and Italy, but there was a period during which the Etruscans dominated in Italy and only later came to cohabit with the Italic-speaking peoples. These clearly came from the north, trans Alpine region, and the Alps clearly constitute a barrier between the Italics and the Celts. What seems to have happened, or might have anyway, is that the Italo-Celtic speaking people north of the Alps and also spreading into Iberia got separated from the Italic speakers of Italy, and the languages started to diverge, but it clearly makes complete sense that the Urnfield Culture, lasting from 1300 – 750 BCE, or put another way, the five and a half centuries before Romulus and Remus, spoke a group of dialects which were ancestral to both Irish and Portuguese, as it were, along with everything therebetwixt.

These two branches fared very differently. Italic languages kind of triumphed, although most of the first season became subsumed into Latin dialects, and in the form of Latin came to dominate first much of Europe and then the wider globe, such as South and Central America, the Philippines, the former French colonies, and indirectly in the form of English with its extensive French borrowings. Celtic had a very successful period during which it was spoken in the British Isles, Gaul, Iberia, Central Europe and Anatolia, but was then eclipsed by first Latin and then Germanic, leaving it spoken only in Brittany, Ireland and the west of Great Britain and nearby islands, although it did also reach Nova Scotia and Patagonia in the end, in small communities. The grammar of the two halves today shows almost nothing recognisable in common except for things like the occasional letter I in unexpected places in Q-Celtic, but the vocabulary is still faintly connected. This, however, is unclear because of the influence of the Church, leading to loanwords from Ecclesiastical Latin. The Celts are also outside the Empire. The languages were spoken and finally throve best where Latin was not spoken. Their distribution was complementary, and this complementarity followed class and ethnic divisions as well as geographic ones.

The Tumulus Culture is named after the practice of interring bodies in mounds of earth. This practice seems to have spread from the Kurgans of the area north of the Black Sea, named after similar structures, who are widely believed to be the original Proto-IE speakers, so it makes sense that these people would’ve been speaking the common ancestor of Celtic and Italic languages. Their successors, the Urnfield Culture, are named after their tradition of cremating their dead and burying them in urns in fields. If these people were indeed Celts, there may a direct line between this practice at the Cremation Act 1902, which legalised crematoria in Wales, England and Scotland. This act was passed after a famous test case where in 1884 an eccentric Welsh medical doctor, Dr William Price, cremated the body of his five-month old son on a funeral pyre and was tried for it. He was re-enacting a Druidic practice in doing so and was cremated himself a few years later in 1893. Hence our current practice of widespread cremation in Britain may be directly descended from the Urnfield Culture.

At this point, I should make it clear that I know practically nothing about archæology, so I’m venturing well beyond my comfort zone here and you should take what I’m saying with a larger than usual pinch of salt. I should also point out that I don’t in fact know why Celts are not considered an ethnicity beyond a very sketchy idea that they are generally just what the Romans and Greeks thought of as the “not-we’s”,which can’t be quite true or it wouldn’t explain Germans.

The idea that the Urnfield Culture is the original Celtic culture, or Italo-Celtic, is only one of several competing theories about the origin of the Celts. There are also “central” and “western” theories. The western theory is that Celtic languages began along the Atlantic coast and were used as an auxiliary language between traders. This then spread eastward. This is interesting because it seems to imply that the areas where Celtic languages are currently spoken were close to their original territory. The idea of Atlantic Europe is anthropological and in current terms includes Portugal, the British Isles, Northwestern France, the Low Countries, the hinterland of the German coast, Jutland and Norway. Interestingly from a British perspective, it has a Southwest-Northeast orientation like divisions on our own island. It used to be claimed that there was considerable genetic unity among the humans of this area, but in the case of the British Isles any sign of this is obscured by the presence of the R1b haplogroup, of which I have a subclade. This originated from the Yamnaya in the Copper Age, who were what used to be called the Aryans. That is, they were the original PIE speakers. They’re the fair-skinned lactose-tolerant people who tend to occupy Europe.

The “central” theory is that Proto-Celtic arose in Gaul and radiated thence, which makes it easier to account for the similarities in ancient Celtic languages over a large area. It also means that the Celts began close to Italy, which means the Italo-Celtic hypothesis can be maintained more easily.

One thing I haven’t done here is mention the ancient Celtic languages much. The oldest known written Celtic is Lepontic, found in Cisalpine Gaul from about two centuries after the foundation of Rome. There are also Celtiberian, Gaulish, British, Galatian (spoken in what became Turkey – it’s been disputed whether this is a truly Celtic language), Noric and Gallaic. Celtiberian in particular is of interest here as it’s a Q-Celtic language which seems to be ancestral to Irish and therefore also Manx and Gàidhlig, confirming the origin story of the Irish that they came from Spain. There’s actually a fair amount of continuous text available in Celtiberian because of the Botorrita Plaques, which are bilingual Latin and Celtiberian law codes dating from the fifth century Anno Urbis Conditæ. This is a fairly raw transliteration of one of the plaques (the language did not use the Latin alphabet):

trikantam : bergunetakam : togoitos-kue : sarnikio (:) kue : sua : kombalkez : nelitomnekue [: to-ver-daunei : litom : nekue : daunei : litom : nekue : masnai : dizaunei : litom : soz : auguaresta[lo] : damai : uta : oskues : stena : verzoniti : silabur : sleitom : konsklitom : gabizetikantom [:] sanklistara : otanaum : togoitei : eni : uta : oskuez : boustom-ve : korvinom-vemakasiam-ve : ailam-ve : ambidiseti : kamanom : usabituz : ozas : sues : sailo : kusta : bizetuz : iomasekati : [a]mbidingounei : stena : es : vertai : entara : tiris : matus : dinbituz : neito : trikantameni : oisatuz : iomui : listas : titas : zizonti : somui : iom : arznas : bionti : iom : kustaikosarznas : kuati : ias : ozias : vertatosue : temeiue : robiseti : saum : dekametinas : datuz : someieni touzei : iste : ankios : iste : esankios : uze : areitena : sarnikiei : akainakubosnebintor : togoitei : ios : vramtiom-ve : auzeti : aratim-ve : dekametam : datuz : iom : togoitos-kuesarnikio-kue : aiuizas : kombalkores : aleites : iste : ires : ruzimuz : Ablu : ubokum

Gallaic was spoken in Gallicia north of what is now Portugal. Only the occasional word has been recorded, but there are traces in placenames in Galicia and Portugal. This is somewhat complicated by the Celtic Britons who settled there after the fall of Rome, although their influence was minor. Galician and Portuguese both have some Celtic vocabulary, which is presumably from Gallaic.

Gaulish is well-attested. There are more than five gross Gaulish inscriptions and French has more Celtic loanwords than any other non-Celtic language has. It had essentially the same vowels as Classical Latin and the main difference in the consonants were the presence of velar fricatives “kh” and “gh”, and the affricate “ts”. It had seven cases, including the instrumental which had been lost in Italic but does exist in Germanic. Unlike the living Celtic languages or Latin, word order was subject-verb-object, like English. Gaulish is also quite close to British itself. The general impression given by Gaulish is that it’s basically Latin with different words and endings, it not having any of the peculiarities one tends to associate with the surviving Celtic languages such as the confounding periphrastic approach, unusual syntax and consonant mutation. All of that appeared later. Latin and Greek are only distantly related to each other but their general approach to grammar is very similar. The same approach is found in Gaulish.

There are said to be more living speakers of Celtic languages today than there were in Roman or pre-Roman times, so in a way this is their heyday, if that’s true. I think it probably helps to know that there’s a host of lurking cognates to Romance words in Gàidhlig even though the spelling is, though to some extent justified, really annoying. I’ve decided, sight unseen, to reproduce the above list of cognates in Gàidhlig once again, in the form of a table with Italian and English equivalents:

ItalianGàidhligEnglish
tuthuthou
lui, essoehe
chiwho
chewhat
nonchan eil(is) not
altroeileother
strettocaolnarrow
sottilecaolthin
uomofearman
madremàthairmother
padreathairfather
pesceiasgfish
canedog
manolàmhhand
orecchiocluaisear
cuorecridheheart
cantareseinnsing

This isn’t very promising, I have to say. I don’t know how Welsh fares here, although I get the impression it’s less peculiar than Gàidhlig. At least the spelling is clearer.

To conclude then, I wonder if the Romance languages had been as marginalised as the Celtic whether they would have changed in equally peculiar ways. I now realise how little I know about Celtic and the Celts, which may in fact not really have much in common, and I also don’t know why it’s often denied that there is even such a thing as Celtic identity, and what political significance that idea has. And finally, after looking at all this evidence and making a cursory attempt to test it rather than seeking confirmation bias, I definitely accept that Italo-Celtic is a valid grouping of IE languages, more closely bound than either is to Germanic or Illyrian, and that in the late Bronze Age they were a single language with dialects, in close proximity to other languages which were related but not mutually intelligible with it. And I don’t know why anyone would claim the contrary, but then I’m not a linguist.