Well Beyond Pluto


The view from Sedna


Pluto used to serve as a metaphor for the back of beyond, somewhere so distant and obscure that it was hard to imagine anywhere more remote.  In ‘Not The Royal Wedding’, Leonid Brezhnev’s share of the wedding cake was described as the size of “a microbe’s frisbee seen through the wrong end of a telescope well beyond Pluto”.  Sadly, nowadays ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ itself approaches that level of obscurity.  Also nowadays Pluto has ceased to be quite as effective a symbol of distance and obscurity as it once was, for two opposite reasons. One is that it isn’t a planet any more.  The other is that it’s been visited and is therefore fairly well-known.  However, there are still places in the Solar System which are far more distant and obscure even than Pluto, which is one of the reasons Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Although it may be annoying from a nostalgic perspective, it does in fact make sense for Pluto not to be a planet.  According to the newer definition, a planet is a body whose gravity is strong enough to make it approximately round, orbits a star and has cleared its orbit of debris.  Pluto has not done this last bit, and the problem is not so much Pluto as that there are now known to be several other objects around the same size and mass which if they were also regarded as planets would strongly suggest that there are in fact hundreds of planets orbiting the Sun, which would mean being a planet was no longer special, or even meaningful.  One of the sad things about this is that there are no new planets.

As a child, I liked the idea of the Solar System being symmetrical.  There are four small, solid planets near the Sun, then an asteroid belt, then four gas giants, then Pluto.  I wanted there to be another asteroid belt plus four more small, solid planets for the sake of neatness.  At the time I believed in the “cigar” theory of the formation of the Solar System, which was the idea that another star had approached the Sun early in its history, pulled out a sausage-shaped projection, and that that projection had then condensed into the planets we see today, with the biggest one in the middle and smaller ones at either end.  This theory was popular in the 1930s but I think by the time I was born it had been rejected and people had gone back to the Nebular Hypothesis, as conceived by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century.  It would have meant that solar systems were rare in the  and failed to explain why Mars bucked the trend of increasing size, so this was addressed by supposing that Mars, Earth and the moon were all formed from the same original body, something which I still suspect is true even now because Mars is much less dense than the other inner planets, being about the same as Cynthia/the Moon.

Pluto was always problematic.  The existence of a planet beyond the orbit of Neptune was originally suspected because something seemed to be pulling on both Uranus and Neptune which altered their orbits and meant they were not where they were expected to be.  The trouble was, although astronomers did find something, for it to work as the cause of the orbital perturbations it would’ve had to have been made of something like solid iron.  At the time, Pluto’s mass was unknown because it would be another fifty years or so before its large moon Charon was discovered.  When Charon was found, the fact that it took about six days to orbit Pluto, or more accurately, six days for Pluto and Charon to move in two ellipses relative to each other, at a distance of about 20 000 kilometres, meant that both had to be mainly made of ices.  It just didn’t have enough “oompf” to pull Neptune and Uranus around.


It did in fact turn out that quite a few small worlds past Pluto still orbit the Sun.  These include Quaoar, Eris and Sedna, plus a load of others which just have serial numbers.  This diagram shows them in relation to the sizes of Earth and Cynthia/the Moon.  Eris is the one closest to being a planet, ignoring Pluto, and also the reason it was decided Pluto wasn’t a planet any more.  It’s about twice as far away as Pluto and around 2300 kilometres in diameter.  It has its own moon, but this doesn’t make it more like a planet so much as less like one, because what with the array of relatively tiny rocks orbiting several of these objects the implication is more that they can’t even hold themselves together and are just accompanied by fragments of themselves, as if they’re piles of rubble.  Pluto is slightly larger than Eris but Eris is more massive.  Anyway, this kind of redefined the concept of “the back of beyond”.


This is a view of our Solar System looking from the North towards the Magellanic Clouds, which are satellites of the Milky Way.  Earth’s orbit is too small to represent properly in this image, and the extra names are of southern constellations such as Dorado and Horologium, the Dolphinfish (not the Dolphin, which is a completely different constellation (and animal) and the Clock respectively, fairly obscure to those of us who look north into the sky at night and see Orion and the two bears.  Most of the larger visible orbits here are of Kuiper Belt objects, which include Pluto, Eris and in fact most of the other worlds on that chart.  Eris’s year lasts nearly six centuries, so it is indeed pretty distant.  The Kuiper Belt consists of thousands of objects, most of which are currently unknown, and bearing that in mind, it does provide the symmetry I craved as a child of there being a second, outer, asteroid belt, and also gives a pretty good reason for Pluto not being a planet.

A close look at the above image shows something quite remarkable on the right hand side: 90377 Sedna.  It can be seen quite clearly that despite that image covering about twice the width of Neptune’s orbit top to bottom, a distance it would take light almost a day to cross, only a small section of Sedna’s orbit is visible.

Sedna’s real orbit dwarfs the rest of the known Solar System:


Sedna takes so long to orbit the Sun that the last time it was in the current position the last Ice Age had yet to end, agriculture hadn’t been invented and there were still mammoths.  It takes 114 centuries to go round.  Compared to Sedna, Pluto is practically co-habiting.  Given that Sedna is unusually close to the Sun right now, there’s a further implication:  Sedna is very probably itself only one of a hundred or so worlds around the same size, orbiting way out in the depths of the Solar System in a region referred to as the Oort Cloud.  There’s a chance, of course, that it’s the only such object but if that’s so, it’s quite a coincidence that it just happens to be situated where it is right now.

Sedna is bright red, almost as red as Mars in fact, like many other objects that far out are likely to be.  Its surface is rich in tholins, alcohol-like substances with sulphur instead of oxygen.  Tholins can’t form naturally in the inner solar system, so any body high in them is likely to have spent a lot of time extremely far from any stars.  It also has methane and nitrogen on its surface, and is thought to be in the middle of a very brief two century long summer when some of its surface becomes gaseous and forms a temporary thin atmosphere.  And yes, there is water ice on its surface but it’s ice but not as we know it.  Speaking of which, it probably is heated internally by radioactivity, like many other worlds, meaning that it could actually have a water ocean inside, so it’s possible that even this place has life!

It has no known moons, and its surface is probably quite smooth owing to the fact that it spends most of its time so far out from the Sun that it rarely encounters anything else at all, so there are probably only very few craters on its surface if any, even early in the history of the planets when the inner solar system was relatively full of rocks hurtling about.  Sedna is so far out that a few of the closer stars to the Sun, such as Alpha Centauri, would shift visibly to the naked eye from one side of the orbit to the other, although of course it would take the length of written human history to go that far.  It’s also very cold, even though it’s currently the height of summer there right now, at about -261°C, cold enough to freeze hydrogen and meaning that there is only one possible non-frozen substance on its surface, namely helium, although since there’s nothing from which much of an atmosphere could form (apart from the occasional rogue molecule which just goes ahead and evaporates anyway), there wouldn’t be enough pressure for it to be liquid.  Liquid helium is of course remarkable because it has a form which flows uphill and can trickle out of small leaks more easily than larger holes.

Consequently, Sedna is a pretty good new symbol for remoteness.  However, even Sedna is lost in the vastness of the Universe compared to the nearest stars:


As can be seen from the caption, this shows its orbit from about four-fifths of a light year away, or about one-fifth of the way to Proxima Centauri.  At some point between here and there, similar objects to Sedna will inevitably exist but orbiting other stars, and they can also be far enough out that there’s a chance that other stars will disturb their orbits, though only quite a small one (about one percent over the history of our Solar System).

As well as all this, it’s still quite feasible that a very distant planet remains to be discovered orbiting the Sun.  If it exists, its year would last around fifteen millenia, it would be around ten times the mass of the Earth and two to three times its diameter.  Its orbit would also be quite elliptical, like that of Sedna.  The reason this may exist is that the orbits of objects out that far do still seem to be disturbed by something, and there’s a model of the early Solar System which requires an extra Neptune-like planet which was however thrown out of the visible part of the system early in its history.  If such a planet does exist, it could replace Sedna as a sign of remoteness, but right now, Sedna is surely enough.



The general frozen emotional state that obtains here, along with the fact that nothing ever happens, has recently focussed my mind strongly on the question of ice and the sheer quantity of it in the Universe.  The most common compound in the Universe is water, and most solid bodies in this Solar System are made mainly of ice, by which I mean solid water.  Almost all of space is frozen cold and much of it is made of ice.  Only tiny little oases of light and warmth, mainly around stars, exist, and we happen to live in one.  This gives us a biassed impression of the nature of the world, of water and of ice.

Here’s a table of the most common chemical elements in our Milky Way galaxy:


Of these, helium and neon don’t combine chemically with anything, so the most common substances other than elements are likely to be water, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and formaldehyde, with water way out in front, and this is what in fact seems to be the case.  The surface of Pluto is a good example of this.


I just asked Sarada what she thinks about Pluto and she said she was “baffled”.  It can’t remember if it’s a planet or not or why it’s not a planet.  It’s easy to get bogged down in this of course, but whatever else Pluto might or might not be, one thing it definitely is, is cold.  Its surface is covered in your bog standard ordinary ice, forming for example mountain ranges and structures called “penitentes” only known from Earth and Pluto and consisting of blades of ice crowded together and facing the sun, but also other ices including frozen nitrogen and frozen carbon monoxide.


The smoother-looking terrain in this photo consists of frozen nitrogen, which is referred to as ice, like most other substances which freeze below or at the freezing point of water.  I always find this odd because on the whole, substances which freeze above the freezing point of ice seem not to be ice-like, whereas those which freeze at or below that temperature do seem to be.  The sole exception seems to be mercury.  In fact I don’t believe this is entirely so, as for example calcite and quartz are clear, hard, crystalline substances so in fact there are other icy things about, but it still seems a slightly odd coincidence.

Rather strangely, towards the end of the nineteenth century a scientist called Hanns Hörbiger became convinced that most of the solid bodies in the Universe, including even stars, were in fact made of ice, and this was to become so popular that it was adopted as an Aryan alternative to the “Jewish” fire-based cosmology and the Nazis had to issue a statement saying it was actually possible to be a good Nazi and not believe in Welteislehre.  I certainly wouldn’t take it that far.  Taken as a whole, the most widespread ordinary matter in the Universe is clearly plasma, of which stars are made, but the fact remains that the most widespread compound in the cosmos is in fact water, and since liquid is not a state of matter the vacuum of space is very friendly to, most of that water will either be in the form of isolated molecules floating in space or ice.  This is good news for the idea that there is life elsewhere in space, although that might be expected to need liquid water to survive.

Ice is not just ice.  Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel ‘Cat’s Cradle’ envisaged a special form of ice he referred to as ice-nine, which melted above room temperature and turned all water with which it came in contact into ice, thereby bringing about the end of the world.  This turned out to be impossible, although it took a crystallographer a long time to work out that it was.  Nonetheless, there are in fact something like seventeen different kinds of ice, most of which are covered in this diagram:


From South Bank University – will be removed on request.


This covers some of the different types of ice. The vertical axis refers to pressure and the horizontal to temperature.  As well as these, there are glassy ices and hyperviscous water.

Oddly, as human beings the kind of ice we are likely to come into contact with noticeably are the boring old “Ice Ih”, which is hexagonal ice.  Snowflakes are made of hexagonal ice, hence their six-sided shapes.  Even ice in glaciers is hexagonal ice, in spite of getting squeezed enough far down that it becomes purely crystalline instead of having bubbles in it.  It’s still Ice Ih.  However, we do kind of come across other kinds of ice, notably cubic ice or Ice Ic.  The ice in the whispy cirrus clouds high in the troposphere is cubic, and forms from tiny droplets of vapour cooling to well below freezing.  Presumably this would mean it refracts sunlight differently.  In fact, cubic ice is not likely to be very common in that situation, most of it being intermediate between cubic and hexagonal, known as Ice Isd – stacking disordered ice.  This forms approximately triangular snowflakes!

Ice-skating appears to be another situation where we come across Ice-II.  Looking at the above diagram, there’s a notable “hook” where the melting point of ice drops below what we think of as freezing at high pressure, and it’s theorised that ice skates work by pressurising the Ice-Ih beneath them into Ice-II, causing it to melt.  To me this sounds unnecessarily elaborate and I have my doubts, but maybe.

By Kelvinsong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31404095640px-Ganymede_diagram.svg

One surprising thing about ice in the rest of the solar system is that the Ice-I that we know is in fact quite rare.  Ganymede and Titan are examples of large icy moons, and as can be seen from this cross-section, there’s a layer of ice which is both thicker than the Ice-Ih on the surface and is in fact tetragonal.  Zircon is an example of a tetragonal mineral, and this thick layer of Ice-VI is another.  Its melting point can be as high as that of candle wax and it can become Ice-II.  However, the most common forms of ice of all are probably Ice-VII and Ice-X, which are probably the main components of ice and water planets throughout the Universe, possibly including Uranus and Neptune.  Water planets are likely to consist of enormous balls of water, becoming ice in their depths, which becomes increasingly dense but not cold, possibly surrounding a rocky core.  They’re also likely to have an oxygen atmosphere, but ironically because of their very depth, they are unlikely to have salty oceans or much else in their make up other than fresh water and oxygen, and therefore no life, at least as known on Earth.  However, if the ice is sufficiently thin, it’s possible that volcanic eruptions are able to penetrate through them into the ocean, thereby providing the elements necessary for life.  Nonetheless, it’s these denser kinds of ice which are probably the main types of ice found in the Universe, and humans couldn’t come in contact with it because the conditions needed for it to exist would kill us instantly, being far more extreme than those at the bottom of the deepest parts of our own oceans.  These kinds of ice are as alien to us as the planets they exist on.  The fact that they happen to be frozen water is irrelevant.

Completely absent from this diagram are the glassy ices.  These are ices which freeze very quickly, for instance because they originated as a fine spray falling into a liquid gas such as propane.  They are glasses in the sense that they are effectively solid but not made up of crystals because those have no time to form.  There is also hyper-viscous water, which is toffee-like in consistency, can’t dissolve salt but dissolves the noble gas xenon easily, except that xenon is frozen at that temperature.

Strangely, none of this has any bearing on the “Inuit words for snow” myth.  Just on that subject, the idea that there are not many Inuit words for snow is also a myth, because most words in Inuit are only used once or twice and are usually unique, so yes, there are many Inuit words which refer to snow but this is misleading.  However, nor is it anything to do with the words for glacier ice such as “firn”, because again, normal human beings never encounter any of these kinds of ice and probably never will.

So anyway, I thought I’d share that.  Make of it what you will.


Fear Of Fearlessness Itself

“Flatness Of Affect” is apparently a phrase not in current circulation.  It’s used a fair bit in psychatric circles though, to refer to a frequently-encountered situation where there’s a lack of emotional expression, often associated with people diagnosed as schizophrenic.  Specifically, flatness of affect is lack of verbal and/or non-verbal expression of emotion in situations where an observer might expect it to be expressed.  For instance, people don’t laugh, cry, say they’re happy or sad, shout, swear and so forth.  It reminds me, in fact, of Dante’s frozen hellscape:


One of the perhaps surprising things about Dante’s Hell, in which there’s a lot going on, is that some of it is frozen over.  Satan is frozen up to his chest and keeps the Ninth Circle of Hell frozen by beating his three pairs of wings.  Everyone around him is frozen in contorted shapes and unable to move.  However, clearly they are experiencing the ultimate in suffering, since they are in the Ninth Circle.  This is flatness of affect, and is crucially different from the absence of emotion, which is of course apathy.

Mental illness is the classic state associated with this emotional blunting.  However, as well as being associated with mental illness such as the aforementioned schizophrenia in addition to depression, it tends to be attributed to non-neurotypical people such as those with autism, and can be brought on by medication such as anti-depressants.

For me, and the fact that other people don’t seem to mention it has led me to conclude that this is not a widespread experience, I tend to experience flatness of affect as part of a post-viral syndrome.  I’ve just been subject to a cough which has been doing the rounds here, and I still have that cough although things are improving energy-wise and in other ways, but right now I’m emotionally blunted.  I’m feeling things very strongly, but there’s no associated visceral sensations with these feelings, and I hate this with a passion, although of course a passion which is not expressed.  I last experienced this after a bout of ‘flu in the mid-‘noughties.  It’ll pass.

I presume there are other people who have this after a virus, and I sometimes wonder if it causes a spike in rates of people killing themselves, because although I’m not motivated to do so in any way, should I be so minded now would be an ideal time to do so.  I had to make what would normally have been a difficult phone call to a family member yesterday and it was unsurprisingly dead easy because of how I feel right now.

Currently my blog posts are being ignored for an unknown reason, and I’m sure this one will be too though on this occasion of course I don’t feel physically bothered by this.  However, should anyone feel moved to respond to this one, my question to you is:  do you get this too or is it just me?  If you do get it, why don’t you talk about it?

Stig’s . . . In . . . SPAAACE!!!


In order to demonstrate that heavy payloads can be sent to Mars, Elon Musk has sent his Tesla Roadster electric sports car into space with a mannekin in a spacesuit, Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on the stereo and DON’T PANIC written in large friendly letters on the dashboard.  Whereas I’m sure someone can come up with something dodgy about this, I have certain views about space travel which in my opinion annul that, but oddly enough I have been coincidentally thinking about flying cars of a different kind in the past few days, and it’s always nice when my mental machinations happen to mesh coincidentally with what’s going on in the outside world, or even outside it.

Elon’s car isn’t so much flying as orbiting, or at least describing a trajectory.  In order to fly, something has to move through a gaseous medium under its own power, more or less.  Flying crockery might be considered to have been launched across a room and continue under its own momentum, so maybe not, but flying is not floating, is what I’m trying to get at here.  I would say a flying saucer flies, a non-flying saucer is flung, a frisbee glides and a balloon floats.  Then there’s levitation.  The Tesla also rather reminds me of this.

By Camilo Sanchez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43739482Hyperloop_all_cutaway

Another Elon Musk project which comes to mind is his vactrain, the Hyperloop, although currently this is merely maglev – MAGnetic LEVitation.  There is, however, a way in theory in which a vehicle could move through a tunnel at orbital speeds without being magnetically supported.  Just as a satellite can orbit Earth above the atmosphere, there’s no reason in principle why an object couldn’t orbit it in a subterranean tunnel, provided that tunnel followed its orbit exactly.  This would generally mean an almost perfectly circular orbit in an evacuated tunnel following a great circle – the shortest distance between two points along the surface of a sphere – and such a mode of transportation would enable it to go from Britain to New Zealand in three quarters of an hour.  However, it would have to move incredibly precisely, although presumably course corrections could be achieved by attitude control of some kind.  Such a vehicle, though, would effectively be levitating, using gravity rather than magnetism, and it would need no further input of energy once it had accelerated to the appropriate velocity.  On a perfectly smooth planet with no atmosphere, it could achieve the same feat just above the surface, which the Apollo Command Modules approached sometimes, down to around 14 kilometres above Cynthia, although this is an extreme example as all orbited much higher most of the time.  It would also be possible to do the same in a tube above the surface of the Earth, and again it would need to be perfectly level.  On the whole though, it’s not a very practical method of transportation, the acceleration and deceleration would be problematic and you’d better pray it works perfectly or untold disaster would ensue, and not just to the occupants.


Flying cars are standard cliches in science fiction, but they also exist in reality.  As far as I know they never use antigravity but fly using the likes helicopter style rotors, propellers and jet engines.  This is partly because antigravity may not exist, although that would be a shame.  Flying cars, effectively small aircraft, use huge amounts of energy compared to surface vehicles.  In fact, even hovercraft and ekranoplans (ground-level aircraft which float using wings) use a lot of energy.  Actual levitation using antigravity may well be impossible.


An Ekranoplan


I’ve mentioned warp drive on here before, and oddly warp drive turns out to be a kind of panacea because it achieves not only faster-than-light travel, but also artificial gravity, antigravity, tractor beams and practically limitless energy.  For this very reason it seems too good to be true, but the fact remains that if any of the first four was every invented, it’s very likely that all of the others would quickly follow.  I don’t want to run over it again because it’s elsewhere on this blog, but all of them are possible if negative mass can exist.  It’s been suggested that  antimatter could have negative mass, and it would in itself provide a prodigious and very dangerous source of energy, but if this is so, I’d be surprised that it hasn’t been observed.  Therefore we should probably assume antigravity is impossible until proof of the contrary.

Two linked issues with flying cars are their method of propulsion and whether they’re self-driving.  Airliners are of course generally controlled by autopilots, so it seems feasible that a flying car could be too, and in fact it’s notable that autopilots pre-date the First World War.  They used gyroscopes, which could be seen as subtracting from the idea that they’re an early example of artificial intelligence.  Conversely, it could be understood as bringing the idea of homeostasis achieved via gyroscopes into the realm of AI.

What really preoccupies me about all this is the question of whether one could design a flying car as a giant insect.  Basically, just take a flying insect of some kind, scale it up and see what happens.  Could an insect-like brain control a large flying vehicle?


The question of scaling up an insect immediately raises two problems.  One is their method of respiration.  An insect breathes through tubes which penetrate her body, supplying it directly with a means of gas transport somewhat similar to blood vessels.  This is why insects are fairly small.  This goliath beetle is the bulkiest living insect, although there are longer ones:


This is the world’s longest stick insect.  Because all of her body is near the surface, it can get very large.  The same would apply to flattened insects to some extent.  The largest insects of all were the heron-sized prehistoric griffinflies, although they were only able to survive at that size because of the higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere at the time.

The other reason insects can’t easily be scaled up is that their hard skeletons being on the outside, particularly around their legs, would also have to be thicker and therefore heavier to support their weight, which would become impossible.  This doesn’t apply to the same extent in the sea because the water supports their weight, which is why crustaceans can be much larger:


There are hardly any sea-living insects though.

It would clearly be possible to build an anatomically accurate model of a beetle the size of a VW Beetle, wings and all.  The necessary muscles and other internals to keep it flying would take up the space inside, preventing it from holding any passengers and the materials used would probably need to be different.  Nonetheless it’s quite remarkable that a social insect such as a bee is able to do air traffic control near a hive so effortlessly with such a tiny brain.  Just as androids are plausible, the behaviour of insects, social ones in particular but also others, makes it practically certain that automated self-flying cars are possible.  Even so, the question arises of how much the biophysics of insect flight can be adapted, or the vehicles concerned are going to end up just a few millimetres long, making them rather cramped.


Cropped  from Sffubs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8272494


It’s commonly claimed that bumble bees can’t fly because they’re too heavy for their wings, but they go ahead and fly anyway. Although this isn’t literally true, it’s a neat concept for illustrating the difference between real life and academic abstraction.  In detail, the reason bumble bees seem to be unable to fly is that if their wings were stiff and smooth, as the mathematics did at the time, they wouldn’t be able to, but the reason they, like other small animals, can fly is that they push the air down with their wings which then forms a vortex and provides lift by pushing upwards under the wing.  Larger wings don’t need to do this.  However, bumble bees are very manoeuvrable and this is clearly down to what they do with their wings, and all that flexibility results from their nervous systems controlling their wing movements.  If that’s not included in flight, it’s probably not worth using an insect brain as a basis for flight at all, at least in our atmosphere.

In fact, brains capable of controlling flying passenger vehicles generally might have to be bigger than insect brains because it might just be harder.  Neanderthals had larger brains than the humans around nowadays, which may not be because they were more intelligent, though they may have been, but because they needed bigger brains to control bulkier bodies, among other things.  Neanderthal brains had larger visual and motor cortices, whereas our parietal lobes are larger than theirs.  Similarly, the greater difficulty insect-like robots would have flying in air could mean they would need more sophisticated ways of controlling their wings.  Flying as such is clearly straightforward, but perhaps not with flapping wings.  Antigravity is imponderable and there may be no answer to whether a flying car using it would need more processing power than an insect for that reason.


Praying mantis wearing 3-D glasses.  Photo by Mike Urwin


Nonetheless I still feel some of an insect’s brain would be salvageable to help fly a car.  One issue is depth perception, and here I feel a question needs to be answered.  It seems  insects can fly around fine without crashing into obstacles or each other even though they can’t judge depth the way we can.  Praying mantids have recently been discovered to see in 3-D, though only moving objects are visible to them in this way.  This fact was revealed by giving them 3-D glasses, and the results of the study are likely to be used to design simpler systems of vision for drones.

In fact, a drone would seem to be a good model for a flying car.  Living things can’t use separate parts easily, so whereas a sycamore seed can work fine as a helicopter because all of it rotates at once, passengers in a rotating helicopter wouldn’t do well.  Philip Pullman’s solution to this was to have the animals in one of his worlds grasp circular seeds and use them as wheels.  However, we have the luxury of being able to use more sophisticated technology and use four rotors on a drone, so maybe it could just be a large version able to carry people.  Such vehicles do already exist.  But an insect-like intelligent vehicle capable of carrying passengers would be gimmicky and unsafe, and probably quite bumblebee-like in that it wouldn’t be able to fly.  It’s nice to dream about though.


Storms Over ‘Africa’


Today’s the thirty-fifth anniversary of Toto’s ‘Africa’ reaching number 1 in the US although it took another couple of weeks over here.  The single has recently been slated very publicly by a writer in a rather peculiar manner, which annoyed me and provoked me into writing this, and also pondering the subject of idealism.  I’m not going to link to the video because I think he’s seeking attention for easy self-publicity and has hooked onto something which has become a classic.  He marks himself out as an iconoclast to some degree, although it’s also an easy target.

‘Africa’ is the most enduring of a number of ’80s pop songs about the continent.  Whereas it does to some extent have problematic lyrics, such as the reference to the drums and the magic African wise man in the first verse, and it can be contrasted with better songs which were around at the time, the accusation of racism, though correct, is both exaggerated and misses the point.

It’s said to be a distinctively white Western view of Africa.  Whereas this is undeniably the case and I can’t comment on Black or African interpretations, it isn’t that simple.  In particular, people take issue with the portrayal of the continent as primitive and generic, with the “wild dogs” and “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”, when in fact Mount Kilimanjaro is hundreds of kilometres away from the aforementioned area, apparently reflecting ignorance and the idea that everything outside the West is a thin line on the horizon as in ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue, but the song is meant to be figurative.

I have two big issues with ‘Africa’ being slated.  One is that a major criticism of Western commentaries on the continent is that it’s portrayed as poor, war-torn and racked with disease, famine and despotic regimes, and that more positive accounts of the landmass are subversive.  This is a difficult line to tread because both sides of this picture need to be acknowledged, as should the colonial past and therefore the role of European nations in bringing about this situation, along with current neoliberal neocolonialism.  No-one can deny that we Americans and Europeans have blood on our hands right now as we look at the devices in front of us with their metals taken from the Congo, where they fuel the civil war and doubtless provide vast profits for us and pittances for most of the Congolese.  However, there’s also an agenda of negativity in the news which seems calculated to make the world seem a hopeless and threatening place, with the media putting a spin on things to turn them into stories, stir up sensationalism and find the negativity in everything they portray.  This bias seems to operate without an obvious political polarity, at least superficially, but I presume something else is going on underneath which leads to that and depresses people and dissuades them from expecting their actions to have a positive effect on the world.

I hesitate to say this, but there is a sense in which Africa the continent belongs to us all.  That doesn’t make it appropriate to appropriate it, any more than it makes sense to regard Palestine as Israeli territory or Sweden as English, which are roughly equivalent in the legitimacy of their claims, but the fact remains that genus Homo comes from Africa.  All of our ancestors are African, and moreover Black.  The reason I’m uneasy about expressing this thought is that it seems to deny the distinctiveness of African and Black identities.  It’s similar in a way to the idea that everyone is female but some people become male in utero, which can easily be seen as erasing female identity, as can certain other things which I’m sure are in your mind right now!


Africa is of course very big.  The above image is taken from the True Size Of website, and is larger than the Lower 48 United States, India and China combined.  China is of course the second largest country and the US the fourth, even excluding Alaska.  This was borne in upon me strongly when I wrote ‘Here Be Dragons’ because I had to “move” Africa for Ancient World, and found that it’s the second largest continent, larger than either of the Americas.  If Cape Town was at the North Pole, Morocco could be as far south as the Caribbean, and London and Bangladesh are about the same distance apart as those two points.  Consequently, of course there is no one “Africa” from a cultural perspective.

By Y-dna data file – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=636518491200px-World_Map_of_Y-DNA_Haplogroups1

Africans, along with part of Asia, also have the most genetically diverse indigenous population, with seven main types of Y chromosome as compared to the five of Europe, one of which is also found in Africa, the four of the whole of the Americas and the one of Australia, meaning that if we were to regard ethnicity as purely genetic, most of the human world consists of something like seven different African ethnicities plus the rest of the world.  The idea of there being a Black race originating from Africa along with, say, Caucasians, East Asians and indigenous Americans is flawed, if we’re going to “go there”.  There is, genetically speaking, no such thing as a Black race.  However, this could again be seen as erasure, because clearly Black identity is important and to some extent unifying.

Toto’s probably fairly hamfisted description of Africa isn’t just about the people living in it, and insisting on restricting all discourse about the continent to human terms is speciesist and doesn’t respect the reality of the non-human physical world.  There is a huge landmass, consisting of desert, savannah, mineral ores, rainforest, biomes, the Olduvai Gorge and all sorts of other things.  There are humans living on it and the politics of the continent are problematic and controversial, and it’s our fault, but it’s narrow-minded to force people to talk only about the humanity or the political and development issues of the continent, and then accuse anything which ignores that to make a different point of being ideologically unsound.  To my mind, this is what the accusation that ‘Africa’ is racist does.  Trying to look past this is frowned upon and difficult to do, a problem incidentally which occurs in other ways when Africa is considered.  However, there’s another point to be made here.

‘Africa’ is only one of many pop songs referring to the continent at the time.  Another is Juluka’s ‘Scatterlings Of Africa’, which is by the way the least successful chart single ever in the UK, having reached number 100 for one week in 1983, while Toto’s record was still in the charts.  This single is a different matter entirely.  Juluka was mainly a collaboration between Sipo Mchunu and Johnny Clegg.  The former is a Zulu, the latter originally from Bacup in Lancashire but who moved to South Africa when he was six.  At first it looks quite dodgy that a white Englishman and an amaZulu, whose relationship with the apartheid regime was at first sight questionable.  Just to address that briefly, their Inkatha Freedom Party was opposed to sanctions against apartheid and the armed struggle, but it would be racist to regard all ethnic amaZulu as the same.  However, Juluka was in fact closely associated with the South African anti-apartheid movement and Sipo Mchunu introduced his own people’s folk music to the West through the single and the associated ‘Scatterlings’ album, to the extent that it had any commercial success.  As for Clegg, he was repeatedly arrested as a teenager for violating the Group Areas Act and fraternising with non-whites after curfew, is now honoured by the Order Of Ikhamanga, and is also known for performing with Nelson Mandela on stage.

However, the way ‘Scatterlings Of Africa’ was viewed by one of my friends in the 1980s was as a highly dodgy song which watered down native Zulu folk music and made it over-commercial, and he also viewed Clegg himself as a white interloper exploiting the group.  This strikes me as exceedingly unfair in the light of other things which were going on at the same time, which I’ll come to in a minute.  It also reflects the bird’s eye view which the youthful contingency of which I was part take of political issues.  In the absence of information about Clegg’s life and relationships, a snap judgement was made along the lines of “Black person good, white person bad”, and no further investigation was deemed necessary, with the result that my friend persisted in his prejudice.  It’s exactly these kind of broad brushstrokes which lead to lazy and, well, black and white thinking.


Having defended ‘Africa’ and ‘Scatterlings Of Africa’, you might think that Western music about Africa can do no wrong for me, but you’d be wrong.  A notorious example of this is Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’, which was rightly controversial at the time.  The problem is that in musical terms, ‘Graceland’ is actually excellent.  If you knew nothing about the story of how it was made, if it’s allowed to stand alone and out of context, I can’t fault it.  Unfortunately, the reason it’s that good is down to dodgy activity on Paul Simon’s part.  Trying to like it is rather similar to trying to watch a Woody Allen film in the full knowledge of what’s come out about the guy since, except that in Simon’s case it was known at the time.

‘Graceland’ is problematic for two reasons.  At the time it was made, many musicians, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg for example, were conducting a cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa.  More importantly, the ANC protested against it.  Also, the instrumental aspect of the album is said to have been ripped off the musicians who were involved in making it.  The accusation is that Simon would jam with the South African musicians in order to come up with tracks, then use the resulting music without giving them full credit, and that he basically exploited them.  There’s also an element of a white man going over to a foreign country and “discovering” music which has been there all the time to introduce it to the rest of the planet.  The annoying thing is, it’s actually a really good album.

There is, then, a degree of tension between how outsiders view Africa and how it appears on closer examination by outsiders or through the experience of Africans themselves.  ‘Africa’ may be dodgy, but it’s nowhere near as dodgy as the charity records of the mid-’80s and the associated movement to relieve the Ethiopian famine, and it’s here that things start to get complicated for me personally.

i ran the world t-shirt 1986 2016 30 mark west sport aid

Just in case you don’t remember, from 1983 there was a major famine in the Horn of Africa, which had combined political and environmental causes.  This was eventually publicised on the BBC TV news, triggering a huge charitable response from the public, mainly organised by Bob Geldof and Midge.  It involved two charity singles, global rock concerts, a sponsored fast and a sponsored run.  There was also a sponsored fast and a sponsored silence, the former organised by the Mormons.  Although I didn’t buy the records, I did take part in the silence, fast and run, and strongly felt it was the right thing to do along with millions of other people.  A brief personal aside:  the Ran The World T-shirt I bought on 25th May 1986 was the first item of clothing I ever bought.

Here’s a snapshot of my mind set from 1984-7:  I was looking forward to going to university so I could become politically active to defeat the Tory government, beat world hunger and help establish an environmentally sustainable world with justice and provision for all, where hardship, disease and war were all things of the past.  To this end, I supported Live Aid, took part in Run The World, went veggie and took part in an ever-growing number of consumer boycotts.  Later in that period I got heavily involved in Green politics and joined the Green Party and CND.  Going back to music, I have an abiding memory of my summer immediately before going to university, working in a strawberry field with ‘Harvest For The World’ going through my head.  At the time, there was a major grain mountain in the EEC (now EU) left uneaten and unsold while children in Ethiopia starved, which was a major reason for wanting the UK to leave the EEC.  All of this seemed like a single set of consistent issues to me at the time, with no contradictions.


All that changed in 1987, which was a political watershed to me.  My opinion shifted from a kind of Green libertarian socialist perspective to Green anarchism, and I became aware of the perfectly valid criticisms levelled at the Live Aid project by the Left.  I regarded my support of them as embarrassingly naïve.  To my mind, this is still the analysis I accept.  As with Chumbawumba’s LP, illustrated above, I concluded that the record companies had cynically exploited the enormous wave of public sympathy to cream off money from sales and increase profits, and that the musicians involved were personally implicated and motivated by the same amoral motives.

Isn’t life simple when you’re young?  How can we tell which perspective is closer to the truth?  The problem with this perspective is not that it’s inaccurate, and on the whole I don’t believe it is.  Rather, the issue is that it’s much easier to criticise from an outsider’s perspective than it is to build a better world actively.  Looking at any issue can easily lead one to the conclusion that it’s better not to do something because of the ethical impurity of getting your hands dirty.  The result is that the good, from a subjective viewpoint lose while their opponents win.  Analysis paralysis in other words.


Bringing this up to date, although I can’t pretend to be an expert on the psychology of trolling, it’s been suggested that one factor is that some of them actually have high standards!  One place this can be seen quite clearly is YouTube.

As you’re probably aware, I have several YouTube channels with around five hundred uploads, and am very familiar with trolling comments as a result.  What I’ve found, and given the many thousand comments I’ve received over the years it’s a fairly respectable sample size, is that positive or neutral comments come from accounts with uploaded videos, and negative comments are almost always from accounts with no uploads at all.  Nor is this just because people use disposable accounts for trolling because the accounts concerned often have user-created playlists on them.  I’m sure throwaway accounts are used, but very often these accounts genuinely seem to be the user’s main channel for that kind of reason.  Incidentally, this was clearly almost always the case on IMDB’s message boards, which might explain the abysmal moral standards of the people posting on them.

The hypothesis goes like this.  Users who primarily troll produce no positive content because they have low self-esteem, regarding anything they might upload as substandard, and judge others by their own very high standards.  This doesn’t rule out some of them being sociopathic or otherwise having a low degree of empathy, but to be as sympathetic as possible, which one should strive to do, the “high standards” explanation seems plausible to me.  Having said that, empathy probably does come into it because the people concerned may not create much themselves and therefore don’t appreciate fully the process and difficulties involved.  Some of them also admit to compulsively posting negative comments, which is interesting.

Applying that to political and social activity,  it’s all too easy to stand on the outside and criticise.  By no means am I defending the practical results of Live Aid.  I’m aware that a lot of the funds got diverted to buy weapons, disappeared into the pockets of the wealthier people or did get spent on food, but that food got eaten by soldiers rather than the starving.  None of that is anything other than appalling, of course.  But we mustn’t allow corrosive cynicism to stop us from doing things, even if we do need to think about them a little.

Right now, I’m thinking of Jonathan Dancy, a philosopher I knew at the time who was startlingly brought to my attention recently by an episode of the Netflix series ‘The Good Place’.  Jonathan is a moral particularist.  What this means is that he believes in ethical rules of thumb rather than principles, and that the people who do the morally best deeds are those who act on more flexible rules rather than stick to rigid legalism.  This is of course part of the message of Christianity as I understand it.

The trouble is that today’s internet is not conducive to such things, and polarises opinion while reducing people’s attention to each other.  People skim over what one types, and being a people, so do I.  They hear the deafening percussion of stridently expressed views, perhaps in the wee sma’ oors, rather than the calmer, quieter words of discussion which would help more people to get somewhere.

We hear the drums echoing tonight, while we should be hearing only the whispers of some quiet conversation.

The Songs You Hate To Love

It’s embarrassing to “go here”.

Back when they were popular, I used to like the Five Star single ‘Rain Or Shine’.  A friend of mine seriously castigated me for this, and I can understand why.  I think of them as teeny-boppers and that neither their music nor lyrics has much merit or originality.  They were also almost proverbially safe, to the extent that the police drama ‘The Bill’ once used them as a paragon of the least rock and roll band ever, just utterly innocuous and unthreatening.  Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely not a “Bad” thing.  Nor was Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’.

However, the fact is that I find all of this rather imponderable, because rather than engaging with the lyrics and melody of ‘Rain Or Shine’, what I’m really doing is mouthing the opinions of others without using my own judgement.

Is it actually possible to tell the difference between good and bad music?  Does some music have currency apart from its quality which inflates its value and other music have personal significance which transcends it?

Pop music’s very ephemerality tends to lend it to developing a kind of labelling function for particular phases and incidents in one’s life, which for personal purposes can give it such great significance that it doesn’t matter whether it’s any good or not.  In the case of Five Star’s ‘Rain Or Shine’, I liked it for whatever reason and that is now lost, and I strongly suspect it isn’t any good although I can’t tell, but its personal significance to me today is nothing other than being the song I was castigated and ridiculed for liking back in the mid-1980s.

But this post isn’t about Five Star.  It isn’t even about Lloyd Cole or Suzanne Vega.  It’s about T’Pau, would you believe?



Fair use justification, will be removed on request.


T’Pau are a big hair band from mid-’80s Shropshire with a loud female vocalist, Carol Decker, who are unaccountably (to me) named after Spock’s mother.  I expect there’s a good reason for the name but I have no idea what the story behind it is.  Their most successful two singles, both released in 1987, were ‘Heart And Soul’ (not to be confused with Sal Solo’s 1985 hit) and ‘China In Your Hand’.  At the time, to me they were a guilty pleasure in a similar way to Five Star.  I saw them as utterly low-quality and would’ve been ashamed to admit that I enjoyed their music.

It so happens that Carol Decker has unpopular opinions.  She once tweeted something which makes her easy to hate although in her defence many people say things in haste which used to be easier to forget.  Not that I want to defend her.  Maybe she is a bit of a monster in that respect, or at least has monstrous opinions, but she’s certainly not alone among popular musicians for that.  John Lennon in particular comes to mind and, in a different vein, also Frank Sinatra.  There seems to be no correlation between talent and character.  Many people would say she has neither, and if that’s representative of how she sees the world, it seems quite ironic that her band is named after a character from a show seen as having a groundbreakingly enlightened view of the Universe.  It so happens, though, that science fiction is in an odd way very relevant to one of their singles.

Non-free use rationale – low-resolution image of single cover used as cover art to advertise the product.  The official band site is here.

With cringes from various sources then, I want to look at my experience of ‘China In Your Hand’.  This single entered the charts in October 1987, just as I was starting the final year of my first degree, reached number 1 on 8th November, stayed there for five weeks and dropped out of the charts on or after 24th January 1988.  This has given it certain associations for me.

Firstly, it’s associated with the start of my final year as a student at Leicester University.  Anyone who’s been through the experience of doing a first degree which they expect to be their only one at a bricks and mortar academic institution will be aware of the degree of stress, encouraged by the communal atmosphere, which that year of life involves for non-mature students.  People are looking for jobs, considering whether they want to stay with their partners, and are generally afraid of being thrown out into a cold world where they’re going to have to fend for themselves.  They may also be about to lose a lot of their friends.  It will never be the same again.  I think to some extent this is no longer true, because universities are not as much of a haven from the outside world as they were in the years of full grants, and the likes of Skype and social media mean that the younger generation is now less out of touch with parents or their friends either during or after their first degrees.  Hence it probably isn’t like it was back then, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, at a guess.  It’s also less common to move away from one’s childhood home nowadays.  All of this marks this T’Pau single with a certain redolence to my mind.

Another aspect of it, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, is that it’s a kind of accidental Christmas record.  Not only was it number 1 at the start of December, then at number 9 in the Christmas chart, but it contains these coincidental lines in the first verse:

Told in a foreign land
To take life on earth
To the second birth
And the man was in command

This suggests a religious theme, and the mention of a birth seems to associate it with Christmas.  Although I think this is accidental, I don’t think I’m alone in having this association with the end of the year.  Since it is thus associated, at least in my head, it has a feeling of marking an ending about it, and being released at the start of my final year at Leicester, to me that strengthens the connection mentioned above.

Then of course, there’s the chorus:

Don’t push too far your dreams are china in your hand
Don’t wish too hard because they may come true
And you can’t help them
You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself
China in your hand

At the time I hoped to go on to do a postgraduate degree, which I didn’t start until 1989, so that was one of my dreams.  Another dream was that I would get a girlfriend.  Both these dreams seemed quite fragile and hard to achieve, and I know it’s corny but I did make that association with that song back then.  I just did, okay?

I didn’t take it further than that though, not back then.  It was just a song on the radio, and although hearing it since has brought back memories of that time in my life, it hasn’t ever meant that much to me.

Well, it turns out that there’s more to that song than I thought.  ‘China In Your Hand’ is not just the disposable slushily romantic mass-produced power ballad I believed it to be.  I still think it’s that as well, but remarkably it has another level.



Screencap of promotional video


Weirdly, this bit of apparent frippery is based on Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus’, which is a bit of an eye-opener.  It’s notably not based on any adaptation of ‘Frankenstein’ but on the novel itself, which I haven’t read.

This puts a new perspective on the lyrics, as does the fact that the single is a cut-down version of the full album track (extra lines in italics):

It was a theme she had

On a scheme he had

told in a foreign land

To take life on earth

To the second birth

and the man was in command

It was a flight on the wings

Of a young girls dreams

That flew too far away

And we could make the monster live again

Oh hands move and heart beat on

Now life will return in this electric storm

A prophecy for a fantasy

The curse of a vivid mind

Don’t push too far

Your Dreams are china in your hand

Don’t wish too hard

Because they may come true

And you can’t help them

You don’t know what you might

Have set upon yourself

China in your hand

Come from greed

Never born of the seed took life from a barren hand

On eyes wide

Like a child in the form of a man

A story told

A mind of his own

An omen for our time

We take a flight on the wings of fantasy

Then you push too far

And make your dreams reality

Yeah! china in your hand

but they’re only dreams

And you shouldn’t push too far

It makes a lot more sense in the full version.

I’m aware that this has come in under the radar because I’m effectively analysing poetry here, which is not something I feel comfortable doing, but there it is.  The “young girl” is Mary Shelley and the foreign land is Switzerland.  The dream is, I’ve long thought, oddly twofold.

‘Frankenstein’ is often seen as the first science fiction novel.  As such, not only does Frankenstein himself unleash a monster from his plan (more a “plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan” really, since he’s a mad scientist and the rationality of a plan is inversely proportional to the number of A’s in it), but also the author released a monster in the form of a whole new genre of literature.   Moreover, so did Percy Bysshe Shelley, because whereas I’m vaguely aware of ‘Adonaïs’ and ‘Ode To The West Wind’, the only way I could have avoided being aware of the novel would have been for me to live in a frozen wasteland for two centuries with no human contact, although not having read it I wouldn’t be able to provide any details of the plot.  Hence Percy Shelley himself effectively unleashed a monster.

Placed as it was at a particular crucial point in my life, when romantic and career prospects were about to pivot in a particular direction, the dreams I ended up attempting to realise were in fact pushed too hard and in a sense they did break like china in my hand.  To me, the salient point is that there were in fact at least two major aspects of my life which took a particular course over this period, and they took the form of overthought dreams brought clumsily into being.  It occurs to me further that I have a habit of doing this.  I’m often not careful what I wish for.

‘Frankenstein’ itself, I would conjecture, has feminist elements, and it’s interesting that Carol Decker wrote most of the lyrics because it suggests she felt an affinity with her much more august predecessor.  ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ brings up the issue of bringing a new person into existence whose actions are ultimately devastating, and in a sense the “monster”, who is of course not a monster because he didn’t ask to be created, is Viktor’s baby.  Also, the focus on the hideousness of the monster’s body parallels the problematic relationship patriarchy forces women to have with theirs.  I’m guessing here though because, as I say, I haven’t read it.

My own writing is also in the same tradition as ‘Frankenstein’.  Unlike the other dreams I shattered trying to realise at the time, my dream of becoming an author was definitely not pushed too hard, and in fact wasn’t pushed at all, with the result that it didn’t really happen until thirty years later.

To conclude then, maybe trashy songs aren’t really.  They get much of their non-trashiness from the fact that their very disposability often enables them to mark specific short periods in our lives, and they may turn out to have more significance even in their lyrics than we might imagine.  My recent enlightenment regarding this song in particular makes me wonder what else is out there.  Maybe ‘Rain Or Shine’ is actually a classic.  I can’t rule anything out any more.

Girlfriend In A Coma


Taking a break from my “way too much time on my hands” timeline, when I got to ‘San Junipero’, which I’ve already seen a couple of times, I couldn’t ignore its emotional “oompf” or the fact that Yorkie is my age and Kelly Sarada’s.  In order of episodes, it’s also the first upbeat story, but interestingly much of the fanbase want to spin it another way, and although that can be done Word Of God says it does have a happy ending.  Before I go into that, here’s the summary.

Apparently, a shy young woman, Yorkie, goes to Tuckers Bar in the beach resort of San Junipero in late 1987.  She meets and falls in love with the extrovert, fun-loving Kelly Booth, to whom she loses her virginity.  It soon becomes clear that San Junipero is a form of nostalgia therapy by TCKR which creates a virtual environment, that Kelly is 74 and has terminal cancer, whereas Yorkie is in her sixties and has had locked-in syndrome since a near-fatal car crash over forty years ago.  They get married and have themselves euthanised so they can exist permanently in the Cloud.  That’s quite an over-simplification, but I assume you’ve watched it or you shouldn’t have read this far, so you can fill in the rest for yourselves.

The thing about this one, for me, is that it’s slap bang in the middle of my reminiscence bump.  Psychologists believe that people’s older selves recall most from the decade between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and I turned twenty in 1987.  When I was nineteen, I deliberately thought to myself, “my life is happy now.  I know nostalgia can lead people to deceive themselves that they were happy at a certain time but this is the case now,” and resolved to remember that.  I still think that stage in life is more likely to be happy for most people, which is not to deny that other stages can be as good, or that it can be bad.  For Yorkie, it was bad.

Yorkie came out to her fundamentalist parents as lesbian when she was twenty-one and they took it badly.  This led to her crashing her car and developing Locked-In Syndrome.  Since her parents didn’t believe in euthanasia, she has remained alive, but locked in, for over four decades, meaning that although she’s now in her sixties she’s almost completely missed out on life and is also not used to much that ordinary life has to offer people.


Locked-In Syndrome is truly horrible.  It’s used later on with Carrie in ‘Black Museum’ and occurs when the arteries outlined in red which supply the pons and cerebellum at the base of the brain fail.  This often occurs because of a stroke but in Yorkie’s case can be assumed to have done so due to physical trauma resulting from the car crash.   It may or may not be total.  A victim may “merely” be tetraplegic, but in her case she can’t use the motor portions of her cranial nerves either, though her sensory nerves are still functional.  Horribly, this condition has probably been mistaken many times for brain death or irreversible coma in the past and many people have probably been killed while fully aware of what was going on.  It’s therefore understandable that San Junipero is Yorkie’s “life”.


Fair dealing under the Copyright Act 1988.  Will be removed on request.  From ‘Black Mirror’ series 4 episode 6 – ‘Black Museum’


I previously thought that Yorkie’s sanity could not have survived such an experience due to the stress and sensory deprivation.  The reality is complicated by the fact that locked-in syndrome has been used as a political football and is also influenced by wishful thinking.  There have been reported cases of people thought to be brain-dead who have turned out to have locked-in syndrome after decades.  However, this can sometimes be due to people interpreting autonomous reflexes and responses as purposeful behaviour and projecting what they want to be true onto inadequate evidence, which is completely understandable but means it probably isn’t true much of the time, and people are instead unable to let go of their loved ones.  It’s also used for propaganda purposes by people who are opposed to the right to die.  It should also be said that some severely disabled people similarly oppose the right to die because they have themselves wished to be dead and later changed their minds.


The device illustrated above is used by Carrie in ‘Black Museum’, and is a primitive way of addressing the problem, also employed by Starfleet in The Menagerie Part I, whose life support system only allows him to say yes or no by flashing lights.  However, I’ve already reviewed every episode of Star Trek TOS so I won’t be revisiting it right now – look at the link if you like.

I’ve also had a go at this myself, largely inspired by ‘The Diving Bell And The Butterfly’.

Fortunately for Yorkie, there has been a “comm” device which allows her to talk with her fiance despite her condition, which still leaves her many years during which she is unable to communicate, but maybe she’s resilient and managed to maintain her sanity over all that time.  Incidentally this also seems to date San Junipero as later than the middle story in ‘Black Museum’, as Carrie only has the above device, incidentally also manufactured by TCKR.

Here’s a fun naming chain here:  TCKR sets up St Juniper’s Hospital, where research ultimately contributes to the establishment of San Junipero, where there’s a bar called TuCKeRs.  But I digress.

Kelly herself makes two excellent points about the situation.  One is that her daughter and husband won’t be there.  This is a common objection to heaven:  how can you be happy knowing that your unsaved loved ones are in Hell for all eternity?  The other is the issue of eternal meaningless boredom.  These issues have also bothered me for a long time.  Her daughter Alison died at thirty-nine, before San Junipero existed, and has therefore irrevocably ceased to exist.  Nothing will bring her back, and Richard’s decision to let himself die due to her absence was one she strongly respected.  For Yorkie, everything is fresh and San Junipero is the life she missed out on, but Kelly’s life is behind her.  Having said that, her bisexuality was dominated by a single relationship and embarking on a commitment to a monogamous lesbian relationship is as new to her as it is to Yorkie.

All this is in remarkable contrast to ‘Be Right Back’, where the remarkably appropriately named Ash’s continued presence in Martha’s life prevents her from moving on from her loss, which is clearly unhealthy.  In ‘San Junipero’, loss is seen as something to be acknowledged and real as opposed to virtual.

From ‘Black Mirror’ season 3 episode 4 – ‘San Junipero’.  Will be removed on request.

Kelly also acknowledges her family by being buried with them, which raises the question of whether her existence in the Cloud is anything more than a similar memorial.  This is because of the problem of continuity of consciousness and identity which is also an issue for the resurrection.  We’re clearly meant to assume that Kelly & Yorkie in San Junipero are the same people as in meatspace, post mortem or not, and as with other such events in the series, this is not an unproblematic assumption.  It could, though, be used to illuminate the actual meatspace situation.  It’s a cliche, and also a myth, that after seven years the human body has turned over its matter completely, and crucially this is untrue of the nervous system, which many people would accredit as the seat of continuity of personal identity more than other systems.  However, it is true that the likes of water and electrolytes, which most of the brain consists of, flows constantly through the system and therefore that most of the brain does change, though perhaps not the most crucial components.  Having said that, we have gaps in our consciousness every night when we go through non-dreaming sleep, and they also occur during general anaesthesia and comas.  This leaves the idea of continuous identity dangling by a thread.  In a sense, every time we wake up we are new people delusionally believing we’re the ones we were yesterday.

‘White Bear’ is a useful contrast here too.  A contingency of the general public see Victoria Skillane as deserving of vigilante justice even though she can’t remember who she is or what she’s done, and the instincts of most viewers goes against that, although a minority agree with the fictional crowd.  Brooker seems to agree with the philosopher Derek Parfit that we’re our memories.  A related issue is the problem with the idea of the resurrection of the body – on Doomsday, doesn’t God just create a load of clones with the same memory who are to be judged for something other people did?  This is partly alleviated by the idea that the soul and body are separate but that idea is, perhaps startlingly to some people, arguably not a Biblical one.  Christians and Jews are probably not meant to be psychophysical dualists or idealists and not supposed to believe in a separate soul.

Kelly also raises the issue of eternal meaninglessness and boredom, to me the strongest argument against the desirability of an afterlife.  San Junipero carries no existential risks and consequently there may be no reason to strive, also a common argument against utopianism.  Moreover, sooner or later we bore of most things and need a change.  We’re aware that there’s a range of at least twenty-two years in the resort although it’s not clear whether each era is a steady state or if they transition into each other.  Tuckers transitions but the appropriately-named Quagmire seems to be stuck.  Eighty-five percent of the denizens are dead already.  As time goes by in the outside world, this can be expected to increase, and just as real people with dementia often seem to find themselves reliving their younger days, it makes sense to suppose that people here will be doing the same.

What I think this is, though, is an existence where people choose oblivion when they’re ready, and this applies as much to the physical world as the virtual one.  Kelly is completely free to choose euthanasia, Yorkie less so because of her parents’ beliefs, and similarly the virtual phase of their lives ends when they choose it, and I suspect that eventually everyone does in fact make that decision.  Even so, Quagmire is a realm of temptation – it even has a snake.  The stasis of the Quagmire is akin to Hell in a sense.  Thus people are still mortal, but they have complete control over their own mortality.


A related issue is, unsurprisingly, whether their marriage can rescue them from craving oblivion.  Quagmire is a place of meaningless sex and seduction which repels Yorkie and where Kelly seems never to have visited.  Can they discover in each other a love which never ends and therefore assures their immortality?  There’s certainly a desire to avoid losing each other, and maybe this will save them in the end, or rather, save them from the end, although the end may not be something worth being saved from.  I’d venture to suggest that love is what saves one from the Quagmire, which is interestingly reminiscent of the life portrayed in ‘The Lost Boys‘, a film whose poster appears in the opening scene.


Speaking of the opening scene, one of the first things Yorkie sees is Max Headroom.  I have to say that this is one awesome piece of referencing!  The obvious connection is with the ’80s themed diner in 2015 from ‘Back To The Future II’, but there’s another level entirely.  Yorkie was almost killed in a car accident back in ’87, which Kelly later re-enacts in what to me feels almost like a ritual of sharing Yorkie’s pain, although in a bittersweet way because in fact she’s invulnerable in the virtual world and can choose not to feel pain, and furthermore is snatched away just as Yorkie finds her after the crash.  Here’s a screenshot of the last thing Kelly sees before the crash:


Remind you of anything?  Maybe this scene from Max Headroom?


Max Headroom is a digitally resurrected avatar of Edison Carter, named after the last thing Carter saw before he died, the barrier he crashed into in the car park.  Yorkie and Max are both digital resurrections living in virtual worlds, associated with 1987.  I dare you to tell me this is a coincidence!  It is, however, audaciously obscure. Most people don’t even remember that there are two distinct Max Headroom series nowadays and just associate it with the Chicago broadcast intrusion incident if they know him at all.

People often say ‘Black Museum’ is overstuffed with references, and certainly it chooses to refer copiously to the rest of the series.  To someone who was about twenty in 1987, ‘San Junipero’ is at least as chock-full.  Having started with Max Headroom, I hardly know where to continue.  Perhaps with ‘Purple Rain’?


(When I am old, I shall wear purple).

There’s also the very obvious ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, which gives me to wonder when most people would twig what’s really going on, followed by ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, ‘Heart And Soul’ and ‘Addicted To Love’.  There’s even Terence Trent D’Arby’s ‘Wishing Well’, with the line “a wishing well full of crocodile tears”, one of three references to the reptiles in the series.


Other matters raised by the episode are the questions of maturity and age differences as a barrier.  Wes, whom Kelly spurns after a one-night stand, talks about his knee operations, another indication that he may not be as young as he seems, and regrets not getting into IT during “the first wave of computing”, which raises the question of what’s worth regretting.  Certainly this appears to be the result of his choice, unlike Yorkie ending up in a pseudo-coma, and at least he’s had a life.  Is maturity something you can lose?  The term “second childhood” seems to suggest so.  Incidentally, this raised a question for me.  We’re supposed to believe this place started as an effective therapy for dementia, and certainly the people stuck in Quagmire may be practically undead, as the ‘Lost Boys’ connection suggests, but what is the nature of the mind in San Junipero?  Clearly human consciousness can be completely emulated in the environment, since the physical counterparts of most people there have ceased to exist, and it appears to “cure” dementia for the purposes of the simulation.  Do the fresh memories map onto the physical brains after they’ve reached their five-hour weekly limit?  Or, are they stored for the next time they access the place?  The latter possibility implies a gradual transition from life into the afterlife and also something akin to a resurrection body, suggesting to me that trans men are going to have a ball, so to speak.  Presumably there’s no reproduction though.


Penultimately, it reminded me of Chris Conway’s ‘Superheroes Never Die’ from ‘Deep Space Love‘, which you should of course buy and give a listen if you haven’t already.  We see young and old versions of the same people, mainly Yorkie and Kelly but also others in the care home, and are made to appreciate particularly well that old people are just young people who have got old, and young people are just old people who haven’t got there yet, to state the very obvious.

Finally, though there’s so much more to say about this story, I never would’ve expected this to be able to rehabilitate songs I thought at the time were really naff, with the obvious exception of ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ itself because it’s by The Smiths, but which I might have sneakily enjoyed as guilty pleasures.  Brooker missed a trick here though.  By combining this story with the end of ‘White Christmas’, he could’ve achieved the ultimate Rickroll (go on, click on that, you know you want to).