A Prolonged History of Stephen Hawking


History will presumably be his judge (if there’s enough of it left for that to happen), but on the whole, from this perspective Stephen Hawking, who has just died, seems to be one of the most important physicists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  His death, though a sad loss, is also one of the least sudden deaths ever because he was given less than a year to live way back in the 1960s.

I first came across the guy in January 1977 when he appeared on Nigel Calder’s ‘Key To The Universe’ documentary.  At that point he didn’t have the speech synthesiser and could just about speak for himself, although it took him a very long time to get things across.  More specifically, he was on the programme to talk about Hawking Radiation, which was one of his major discoveries and which I’ve mentioned on here before.  Just briefly (the link is of course most verbose), the event horizon of a black hole “glows” very faintly indeed with radiation because virtual particles and their antiparticles are generated on its surface but one of each pair is too close to the black hole to escape, meaning that they don’t cancel each other out, which is what happens elsewhere in the Universe, and the accountancy of the Universe requires that the black hole loses mass in the form of those particles which escape their fate, meaning that over a ridiculously long period of time, large black holes “evaporate”.  Small black holes also evaporate but over a much shorter period of time, meaning that the theorised tiny black holes which may be created in particle accelerator experiments are no threat to the existence of the planet because they disappear almost instantly via the same process.

I have to be honest here and confess that I don’t agree with certain of Hawking’s pronouncements.  For instance, he was very concerned about the threats he saw as posed by extraterrestrial intelligence and AI, which I don’t think can constitute a problem, although I won’t go into that here because it seems inappropriate right now. On the other hand, his insistance that we colonise space I agree with 100%.  He clearly was a bit of a media star, but I won’t hold that against him either because of the inspiration he constitutes in various ways.  Nor will I hold the apparent keenness on publicity and celebrity he seems to have had against him, partly because I’m faintly aware of how the media can take their image of you and market it beyond your control, and also because I don’t see why he shouldn’t have enjoyed it, given his contribution to science.


This book is of course available from all good High Street bookshops, but quite significantly also from libraries, and it’s here where I get a bit annoyed on Hawking’s behalf.  It seems that if you calculate the ratio between sales of books and loans from libraries, this book is one of the least borrowed compared to purchases.  This is thought to be because people either start reading it and give up or they use it as a kind of showy “trophy” book advertising how apparently intellectual and intelligent one is rather than one which people actually read and understand.  And this is odd, because in fact it’s a very accessible, lucid, readable book and not even a particularly long read, strongly suggesting that people don’t even try to understand him.  Maybe they’re just intimidated by the idea that his ideas are complex.  This particular take on it brings to mind his own life.

After his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease (incidentally the terminology of this illness differs between Britain and the US – specifically Hawking had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), as I said he was expected to live less than a year, but he clearly defied expectations.  There was nothing physically wrong with my maternal grandfather over most of his life but he still died younger than Hawking.  It’s tempting to think that this is a case of mind over matter but to be honest I don’t know why he lived so long.  If that’s so, the effect of his self-belief and determination is the opposite to the effect of self-doubt which seems to stop many readers understanding his book, which unsurprisingly is only one of several.  On the other hand, the idea that this is what happened could easily be exploited to portray other disabled people as malingerers or faking it, and we should guard against the likes of this conclusion.  To be honest I have no idea why he lived so long.

Hawking chose a public identity based on his synthesised voice.  Although it was presumably state of the art at the time, technology has since moved on and today’s voice synthesisers for the disabled plainly do a much better job of copying the human vocal tract than his did.  However, since he was so strongly identified with the character of his machine, he chose not to change it and owned it as his voice.  So strongly is the sound associated with him that it has inspired the likes of ‘MC Hawking‘, because unlike most people’s voices, his can easily be copied exactly and has very much become his own voice.  This raises the question of what counts as natural.  As tool-users and cultural entities there’s a sense in which we are all cyborgs, and whereas Hawking’s voice may make that more obvious, the same is true of all of us to some degree.

Hawking is also apparently currently in the Hexagonal Phase of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy‘ as the voice of the Guide itself.  He has also appeared in ‘Star Trek TNG’ as a hologram, which as soon as I saw it made me wonder exactly when he would die.  Well now we know.  I may be wrong about this but I seem to remember that the android Data eventually took up his position at Cambridge although this may well be incorrect.  Apart from that, he appeared in ‘The Simpsons’ and, I’m sure, many other TV series and films, and of course in ‘The Theory Of Everything’, whose has currently been sitting on the table next to me for months.

The Theory Of Everything itself is of course the goal beyond the Grand Unified Theory, an attempt to explain the four forces of physics as merging into a single force at high energy, unfortunately so high that it’s difficult to test.  These four forces are electromagnetism, the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravity.  Electricity and magnetism were unified long ago when a scientist noticed that a compass needle was attracted to a wire through which an electric current passed, leading to the invention of electronics, including the more obvious loudspeaker, microphone, dynamo, generator, electric motor and a whole array of other devices, which makes me wonder, perhaps naïvely, what other kinds of devices could be created if the other forces are united in a useful manner, although it’s not about the technology so much as the lofty goal of the science.  Since I’m vaguely aware that scientists refer to the electroweak force nowadays, well, something is going on, and of course Stephen Hawking’s name is associated with the phrase ‘The Theory Of Everything’ since he popularised it in the book.

Hawking has, unfairly in my opinion, been used as a symbol of masculinity separating mind and body.  Whereas it’s true, as he himself said, that theoretical physics is one of those pursuits which physical disability is less of a barrier in pursuing, towards the end of the ’80s there was a tendency to view his work as rational and detached to a fault.  Although I agree to a considerable extent that even natural science is socially constructed and has patriarchal elements, this specific idea amounted in my opinion to ableism, although to be fair it was before the idea of intersectionality was popular.  This was several years before the Sokal hoax paper ‘The Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity’ was published, when social constructivism in a cultural theory style was at its height.

Having said that, I’m fully aware that Hawking was a product of his time and place like all of us, and that he had a certain reputation in terms of relationships which probably wasn’t entirely admirable, but today is not the time to repeat those.

I don’t believe in the Great Man Theory Of History of course, and I’m sure that in the absence of Hawking’s career, someone else would’ve come up with the theories he in fact did.  Nonetheless, the fact remains that history chose to use him as the channel through which we learned of these ideas, and as such, and for other reasons, his life deserves to be celebrated.

I’ve had to rush this out, so it might be a bit slipshod but I couldn’t leave this uncommented upon, so here it is.  I have other thoughts about him which I haven’t expressed here, but this will do for now.  Nobody’s perfect.


Jupiter’s Travels


This is from the Pioneer Plaque, which is a pair of identical plates attached to the first starships, Pioneers 10 and 11.  Specifically, this is the diagram of the planets of our Solar System, stretching along the “bottom” of the plaque.  The symbols next to them are binary numbers indicating the distance to the Sun from each planet.  Even in the forty-five years since the plaque was attached to the probes, science has moved on.  Most obviously, Pluto is indicated on the right hand side as a planet when it’s no longer recognised as such.  Also, Saturn alone is shown with rings although all four gas giants are now known to have them.  Four sizes of body are shown:  the Sun, the solid surfaced bodies from Pluto to Earth, the two “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune and the larger gas giants Saturn and Jupiter.  This obscures the fact that there’s a trend in the masses of the bodies concerned.

Ignoring the Sun, the diameters in kilometres of the nine “planets” as shown here can be represented on this bar chart:


The general trend is of an increase in size up to Jupiter, then a decline to Pluto.  Although Pluto is no longer considered a planet, the trend also applies to Mercury up to Neptune.  Mars, however, bucks the trend.  It’s smaller than expected.  If Ceres, the largest body between Mars and Jupiter, is included, this trend continues because it’s even smaller than Pluto with a diameter of about 1000 km.

Jupiter is the key body.  The Solar System has been described as consisting of the Sun, Jupiter and assorted debris.  It dictates the positions and sizes of the other planets and bodies through its gravity.  If an object orbits the Sun twice every time Jupiter orbits it once, Jupiter pulls on it every two orbits.  It will then be shepherded into an orbit which will only rarely be in such a situation.  Other bodies in that orbit will also be yanked out, and a clump will develop where collisions are more likely, leading to the formation of a larger body.  This can be seen easily if the periods of the asteroids in the main asteroid belt are plotted:


Looked at in another way, the orbits of some of the major asteroids illustrate the same effect:


The empty regions are known as “Kirkwood gaps”.

Gravity can also repel.  If an object feels the force of another, it will effectively fall towards it, causing acceleration, but if it does accelerate it will be free from that pull and will enter another orbit further from the object.

Hence Mars could be smaller because Jupiter has cleared the area around it and left less material from which it could form, although it’s also less dense, and close in density to Cynthia/the moon, suggesting to me that both might be the result of an ancient collision with us which smashed off the outer, lighter layers of our planet.

The sizes of the planets are also influenced by their proximity to the Sun.  More substances boil away closer to the Sun and in colder regions of the Solar System, the atoms and molecules move more slowly and can’t escape from the gravity of the planets concerned.  This can be seen in the fact that the four inner planets are so much smaller than the others, or so I thought.  It so happens, though that things are not that simple.

Jupiter’s year lasts 11.86 of ours.  In other words, we’re orbiting the Sun almost twelve times for every once Jupiter goes round it.  To me, this suggests pretty strongly that the rocks, ices and gases making up this planet were formerly in chunks orbiting the sun once every twelfth of a Jovian year (361 days), that it yanked them out of the way and this provoked the formation of the body which became the Earth-Moon system, and possibly also Mars.  We wouldn’t be here if Jupiter wasn’t there.


Jupiter is also seen as the liver of the Solar System, i.e. the part which deals with threats to it.  This seems to be true.  Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into it in 1994 and it seems to be good at cleaning up the Solar System and saving us and the other planets from getting bombarded with asteroids and comets a lot more.  This is reminiscent of the liver’s function of detoxifying and inactivating substances in the body which would otherwise be problematic.

Then there’s the question of exoplanets.

Exoplanets are planets which orbit other stars than the Sun, in other words “planets”.  Right not it’s not clear how typical our own Solar System is, but what is clear is that other star systems are often very different from this one.


There was a kind of “phoney war” in the discovery of planets beyond our system where a number of other stars were thought to have planets orbiting them which turned out not to be, including Barnard’s Star, Epsilon Eridani, 70 Ophiuchi and 61 Cygni.  The idea was that as stars move through space they and their planets move around a common centre of gravity which leads to them having a wiggly line.  Embarrassingly it turned out that the wiggly line was created by the lenses in the telescopes being taken out and polished periodically, and put back in slightly differently, meaning that all the data represented was the work schedule of the lens cleaners.  These spurious “planets” were “detected”, however, using a valid method, which can be illustrated using the Sun and Jupiter.

Jupiter is around five times as far away from the Sun as Earth is.  It’s also thousands of times her mass.  Although it’s easy to think of planets as orbiting stars, that isn’t exactly what happens.  In fact, planets and stars orbit a common centre of gravity, whose location is determined by their relative gravitational pull and distance from each other.  Although this does in theory give astronomers a way of detecting exoplanets, the telescopes used to detect the supposed planets circling Epsilon Eridani and the like weren’t accurate enough to pick up on the slaloms the stars would’ve been doing.  The advantage of this method is that it ought to be able to detect solar systems seen “from above”, as it were.  From the side, i.e. in the orbital plane of a particular planet, all that could be detected would be a slight deceleration and acceleration, which in this respect would be harder.  However, this very change can be detected using a different method.


The Doppler Effect is the well-known compression of waves which occurs when a source is moving towards the observer, accompanied by the stretching of waves as it moves away, usually illustrated using a fire engine,  the note of whose siren drops as it passes.  This also occurs with light, which is bluer if a star is coming towards us and redder if it’s receding.  There’s an urban myth about a court case where someone says they missed a red light due to the Doppler Shift, but it was pointed out that if this were the case the vehicle would have to be millions of miles an hour over the speed limit.  Nonetheless it is possible to detect very subtle shifts, and this is one way planets are currently detected.


Another method is transit.  Imagine an enormous luminous white Transit van in space, about half a million kilometres long.  Ignore for the time being that it would quickly collapse into an enormous steel sphere fifty times the size of Jupiter.  Orbiting that van is a planet.  When it passes between us and the van, it blocks some of the light, but the van gets visibly brighter to us when the planet passes behind it.  Replace the van with a star and you have the transit method of planetary detection.

This method introduces two biases.  Firstly, it can only detect planets whose orbits are close to being “edge-on” to us because only they can pass between us and their stars.  Secondly, consider the transit of Venus.  This takes place something like twice in two hundred years and Venus being very small compared to the Sun only involves a very slight dimming.  Most planets detected by this method would therefore have very small orbits and therefore orbit quickly, and would also probably be very large, which would increase the chance of them blotting out starlight.  These are the “Hot Jupiters”.

By Yves LC – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32689895HD188753-hot-jupiter-1

Hot Jupiters are unlike any of the Sun’s planets.  They are the size of Jupiter but the resemblance practically ends there.  The above picture is an artist’s impression of a planet in the triple star system HD188753.  Although it may not exist, it’s typical of other Hot Jupiters which do, such as Bellerophon, a planet in the 51 Pegasi system.  When Bellerophon was discovered in 1992, it turned theories of solar systems upside down.  Up until that point, solar systems had been expected to be like these computer-simulated examples:


Rather like Ann Elk’s theory of the Brontosaurus, planets were expected to be small at one end, much much bigger in the middle and small again at the other end.  Planetary systems including Hot Jupiters can’t be much like this, and there are a lot of them.

Hot Jupiters are horridly torrid.  Bellerophon is typical in that it orbits 51 Pegasi once every four days.  Their atmospheres can have clouds of vaporised iron in them and it can constantly rain glass shards sideways at the speed of sound.  Some of them are also “puffy planets” with very low densities.  The least dense planet in this solar system is Saturn, which is around two-thirds as heavy as water.  Some puffy planets are less than a quarter the density of water.  This is because they’re so close to their stars that they’re boiling away into space.

It might be even worse from the viewpoint of the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe.  These planets are thought to form way out in the colder parts of their systems, then adopt highly elliptical orbits as they move towards their suns, then those orbits get rounder.  As they’re common, this could be a typical sequence of events in a star system, and it’s hard to imagine that such a situation would leave any smaller planets around.  We might be facing a situation where the normal solar system is one where a massive planet starts out orbiting at a considerable distance from its sun, helps Earth-like planets to form, then comes crashing into the inner solar system, rips them apart, slings them out into deep space where they freeze or causes them to plummet into the star and vapourise.  One thing they don’t do, incidentally, is capture them as moons because they’re so close to their stars that they can’t win the gravitational tug of war involved.  It all sounds a bit grim.

That said, it may not be.  A rival theory states that these planets form in inner solar systems and stay there.  Even if they don’t, computer models predict that as they hurtle towards the sun, they drag the icy chunks further out into the inner system and cause them to mix with chunks there, forming planets which are both rocky and high in the likes of water.  Also, the system used to detect planets works best for this kind of planet, meaning that even if they are the nightmare they initially seem to be, it might just mean that there are a load of more “normal” planets out there in systems like our own.  Literally, then, it may not be the end of the world.

The reason I’ve been considering all this is that I’m now wondering if there could be star systems containing both Hot and normal Jupiters.  That is, could there be a situation where there are two giant planets, one orbiting the star in less than a week and the other taking about twelve years?  Also, could there still be Earth-like planets in such a situation?

I’m going to start by imagining a solar system rather like ours except for the presence of two Jupiter-sized planets, one at 3.5 a.u. (an a.u. or “astronomical unit” is the average distance of Earth from the Sun), which is near the middle of our asteroid belt, and another at 5.2 a.u. where Jupiter is now, and that the star they orbit is identical to the Sun.  Since this is early in the history of this system, the other bodies are dust, chunks of ice, rock and so forth.  No other planets have formed yet.

As time goes by, the more distant planet, which has an unstable orbit, is pulled into the inner solar system, bringing any icy moons it might have and scattering debris throughout the area closer to the sun.  The other planet stays where it is.  After millions of years with a highly eccentric orbit between 5.2 and, well, let’s say a distance which would give it a four-day year, which is around 7 million kilometres, it settles down in the closer orbit, leading to an enormous quantity of water vapour and gases being driven off.  Hot Jupiter orbits are thought to be highly inclined – they are not at the same angle as the other planetary orbits in their solar systems.  Some of them even orbit backwards.  However, since they do it in a few days, they still cross the orbital plane of other bodies frequently and are therefore likely to move things about and cause clumps and later planets to form.  It also seems likely that these planets will have their fair share of Hot Jupiter debris raining down on them as they form as well as being made up of a mixture of ices and rock (assuming they aren’t carbon planets, which is another story).

Beyond the inner giant’s orbit there are resonances at six days, eight days, twelve days, sixteen days and so forth.  At the same time there are resonances created by the outer giant at eight years, six years, four years and so forth.  Since the inner one is closer, it would have a stronger influence on the region of the system where Earth is in ours, although less frequently as it’s passing in and out of the plane and is only in a couple of locations separated by 180°, which are also probably stable.  This means that the actual gravitational influence may be quite insignificant, although there is of course the butterfly effect.  Therefore the main consideration appears to be the outer giant and this system is basically compatible with an Earth-like planet, although probabaly one with deeper oceans and less land unless it was also small.  It seems that the choice would be between Earth-sized ocean planets and planets smaller than Earth which have lost much of the excess water and gas but retained enough for life as we know it to thrive.  We could be looking at a system with the following planets:

  1. The Hot Jupiter.  The size and mass of Jupiter, orbits the sun at a steep angle about twice a week.  This planet also visibly dims the sun and is visible from the habitable zone as a disc.
  2. A Venus-like planet.  Not very interesting.
  3. A planet the size of Earth but completely covered in water.
  4. A smaller planet which nonetheless has managed to hold on to some of its water and gas, giving it an unexpectedly thick atmosphere for its size and continents and seas.  Colder than Earth with high mountain ranges and lots of desert.
  5. A Jupiter-like world.

There’s also an asteroid belt, as you’d expect, and two smaller outer planets like Uranus and Neptune.

Overall, this sounds like a feasible star system.  The surprise is the fourth planet, because it seems to have more water and air than it would have any right to expect.  It also has a spectacular sky, with two small moons orbiting close to it, a sun regularly eclipsed by the Hot Jupiter and a somewhat closer cold Jupiter which is therefore brighter and may have clearly visible moons.

I don’t know if this could really exist, but it seems there are possibilities for writing fiction based on this, and it occurs particularly to me that the fourth planet is almost Barsoom, though not so ideologically unsound.


‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, also known as ‘The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’, which I presume pleases Lynne Truss, and further known as H2G2, has entered its Hexagonal Phase.  Anyone who reads this blog will know that I’m a massive fan generally, so it would be remiss of me to fail to mention that BBC Radio 4 has once again got the hang of Thursdays and started to broadcast the sixth series.

There’s a big “but” hanging over what I’m about to say:  it’s really not good.  It is what Douglas Adams once described as “perhaps on the lower side of excellent”, referring that time to his sketch pilot TV programme ‘Out Of The Trees’, which also involved the end of the world and had Simon Jones in it.  One of the distinctive features of H2G2, maybe unappreciated by some aficionadas of the phenomenon, is that there is often little continuity between the different versions, of which I’m guessing there are about a dozen.  There’s the original (and best?) radio version, the LP/cassette. the TV, the books, the stage play, the computer game, the comic book, the illustrated book version, the scripts and the film version.  Back in about 1980, my English teacher said he didn’t approve of Disaster Area because they weren’t in the radio series.  However, Adams himself made the decision to break continuity constantly between versions, though not within each version, and so in a sense the discontinuity is canonical.  Consequently it probably wouldn’t be fair to complain about any break in continuity with the Hexagonal Phase.

This series is based on Eoin Golfer’s attempt at a sequel, ‘And Another Thing’, which continues the tradition of using quotes from the story as titles.  In this case, ‘And Another Thing’ refers to a thunderclap occurring after the end of a storm, like someone saying something way after admitting they’ve lost the argument.  That’s quite an appropriate title, because it was written and published after Adams’s death as a continuation of the story.  The only trouble is, Adams wrapped the story up pretty firmly before he died, and the only trouble with that is, he did the same previously at least twice, so in fact continuing the plot when it’s not supposed to be is in keeping with the story.

I read ‘And Another Thing’ soon after publication.  My feelings towards it are similar to how I feel about the film, and the same applies, I think, to the radio series.  Although I dislike most of what’s been done with, or perhaps to, the ideas, I also feel that they were absolutely done in good faith by people who were big fans of the original work, so in a way it’s hard to dislike them.  They do fail, and in my opinion very badly indeed, but I’m also very aware of the love that’s clearly been put into them.  It’s just that the love is rather like Arthur’s love for Trillian:  it misfires and doesn’t seem appropriate.

It should also be said that people rewrite H2G2 at their peril because the originals have such a cult following that for many of them, possibly including me, any further adaptation or continuation is doomed to failure.  However, I don’t really know why this would be.  Two other examples, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, seem to do fine with multiple authors even though the classic stories are of such a high standard for their genres.  Nor can that simply be explained by returning too soon, because Kingsley Amis, for example, started writing continuation stories only four years after Ian Fleming’s death.  Although I’m not really a fan of James Bond, I have a kind of appreciation of the writing in a similar way to my appreciation of Eminem – I think both are pretty dodgy politically but recognise that they are effectively a form of genius, in a strange and obscure way.  I dislike but admire them.

Hence “too soon” isn’t a valid criticism either.  Maybe the Hexagonal Phase fails because it’s too memorial, in a similar way to Asimov’s attempts to link the continuity of the Robot and Empire stories.  One of the big problems with Isaac Asimov’s later novels is that they read like reheated leftovers of his glory days.  To be fair to Asimov, he may have been pressurised by publishers, and perhaps fans, to write in this vein, and it’s notable that whereas most of his first hundred published books were novels, most of his second hundred were non-fiction, and in fact his non-fiction is excellent, particularly in terms of making difficult subjects accessible.  Possibly the same thing has happened with both Eoin Golfer’s book and its radio adaptation.  The organisations involved may be trying to wring out the last few drops of a previously successful franchise, banking on the idea that the fans of the older stuff will lap up almost anything.  Well, as such a fan, it feels very much like a betrayal of the memory.  It stuffs way too much “good bits” from the previous series, and references to them, into the new version, which makes it no longer fresh and kind of appealing to an imagined “trainspotter” mentality not shared by the majority of the fanbase.

Douglas Adams once complained that his fans wanted “good bits” to be put in to his work which he disliked, and commented in the middle of one of the novels that the last chapter was a “good bit and has Marvin in it”.  The whole of Golfer’s approach to this is like that.  Then again, I hate to slag him off too much because he clearly loves the existing material, and I share that love.

That’s my rather vague hatchet job on the series then.  Having said all that, I also feel it has some redeeming features which probably say more about me than the quality of the series itself.  Probably through the use of audio and music, it manages to maintain something of the atmosphere of the original.  It’s also in the same medium as the original – a series on Radio 4.  It also uses much of the original cast.  It’s gone back to its roots.  The dedication to Susan Sheridan, the first Trillian, now deceased, at the end was also touching, and this is why I can’t hate the film, the Hexagonal Phase or the book.  Although they clearly have a massive impersonal machine pushing them to destruction, their hearts are also in the right place somehow.  This can also be seen in the film, where Stephen Fry narrated the Book.  Fry was a friend of Adams and although the material he had to work with was often poor, or at least out of keeping with the feel of the original, he clearly didn’t just phone it in.  He is, I think, partly motivated by his love for the author.  This kind of thing happens all the way through the posthumous manifestations of the series, and almost against my better judgement it stops me from hating these poor-quality echoes of the original.

In conclusion then, I’m aware that I seem to have bypassed the actual content of the Hexagonal Phase in what I’ve just written, but my verdict is this:  it’s really crap, but done with the best of intentions, and maintains something of the feel of the original, though not in terms of the plot, setting or characters so much as the cast and production, so I can’t hate it.

The Not The In All Order Necessarily Right Words Right

I think I got them all in, although a “but” probably wouldn’t go amiss.

A couple of posts back, I mentioned something called “Reverse Polish Notation” or RPN.  I don’t know why it’s called that, but it’s a particular order in which numbers and operations used to be entered on, for example, Hewlett-Packard calculators, and also apparently one of the Sinclair models.  It also turns up in the FORTH programming language.

In normal circumstances people generally think of maths in terms of the likes of “2+2=4”, or to be more algebraic, “x+y=z”.  This is called “infix notation”, because the operators occur between numbers, constants and variables.  RPN doesn’t do that.  Instead, it uses a concept known as the “stack”, onto which numbers are placed like blocks in a game of jenga.  Only the top few values on the stack are accessible, but it means the above expressions would be more like “4 2 2 + =” and “z x y + =”.  Note, incidentally, that these are statements with the value “true”.  If it were just “2 2 +”, the value would be 4, but the equals sign here is just as much an operator and gives the value “true” if the top two values are equal and “false” if they aren’t.  This is the normal way programming languages proceed.  They may have a separate assignment operator or not distinguish between the two, but the equals sign is different in a statement like “LET X=2” than it is in “IF X=2 THEN Y=X+1”.  It’s a verb.

If you think of numbers, variables and constants as nouns and pronouns and operators as verbs, this phenomenon also applies to ordinary spoken and written languages, and not only to verbs but also to other parts of speech such as what we might call “prepositions”, while noting that “pre” means “before” or “in front of”.  In a statement like “Horses kick people”, there is the subject (“horses”), the verb (“kick”) and the object (“people”).  Other things can also happen with sentences but that’s enough to be going on with for now.  On the whole, these are abbreviated as S, V and O, and the word order of various languages around the world can be classified into the following patterns:  SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OVS and free.  Of these, SVO and SOV are the most common and although there are more SVO than SOV languages, the difference is said to be statistically insignificant.  SVO is like “2+2” and SOV like “2 2 +”.

Examples of SVO languages include English, most Western European languages (with some exceptions in most of them, which I’ll come to), Finnish and Mandarin Chinese.  The majority of the world’s population therefore speaks using “subject verb object” most of the time.  Obvious exceptions exist for anyone who speaks, for instance, German, French or Spanish.  German swaps word order after an initial word and puts the infinitive at the end of the clause, among other things, and French and Spanish put object pronouns before verbs.

The reason French and Spanish do that is that they’re descended from Latin, which also put object nouns before verbs, because Latin was an SOV language on the whole.  South Asian languages such as Hindi and Gujurati are also SOV, as are Japanese and Turkish.  It’s a popular word order which is usually also accompanied by another phenomenon where prepositions are not used, but rather postpositions.  That is, rather than saying “the dog ran after the carrot”, one would say “the dog the carrot after ran”.  Latin uses prepositions, but like many other languages tends to change the endings of nouns and pronouns to indicate position in this way, and as such could be seen as using postpositions too.  Even English has a postposition in a sense, the Saxon genitive, or the “-‘s”/”-s'” suffix, which effectively means “of” but in the opposite order than one might expect.  Related languages such as Afrikaans and Dutch sometimes separate that suffix and turn it into a genuine postposition in the form of “se” and “z’n” respectively.  English used to do the same by putting “his” after the noun, regardless of gender, but this trend died out centuries ago.

A third possibility is VSO.  This is rarer, but occurs in surviving Celtic languages such as Gaidhlig, Irish and Welsh, and also in Arabic and Hebrew.  Gaidhlig and Irish are oddly similar to Hebrew and Arabic in certain ways, though apparently completely coincidentally, which adds to the oddness of languages which are already rather unusual. I would expect a few English speakers who have done voluntary service overseas to have come across VSO languages.  It’s the third most common word order.

This leaves the rarest three combinations regarding fixed word order, which are VOS, OSV and OVS. VOS occurs in Malagasy, the remarkable native language of Madagascar, and in view of the fact that I went on about Africa a lot recently I should probably mention that Madagascar is said to be the poorest of all African nations.  Moving on from that, partly in the spirit of not wanting a country to be defined simply in those terms, Malagasy is actually related to Hawai’ian, Maori and Malay rather than other African languages, being in the Austronesian family, which has the widest of all geographical distributions for the pre-European expansion era.  The final two are rare.  OSV occurs in the isolated Warao, spoken in among other places Venezuela.  OVS is the opposite order to English, and was thought for a long time by Western linguists not to exist at all – there was believed to be something about the human brain which made it impossible for such a language to come into being.  However, it turns out that there are such languages, including the Carib language Hixkaryana, spoken in Brazil, and likewise Apalai, which is spoken nearby.

The unusual OVS word orders cropping up in South America, beyond the fact that they are so unusual, should be no surprise because the languages of South America are often or usually unusual.  This is probably due to the fact that indigenous South Americans are the people who have wandered furthest from human origins in East Africa over many thousands of years.  South America is in that sense the most remote part of the planet in human terms.  Other unusual South American languages include Piraha, a language about which I feel somewhat suspicious but which allegedly has no abstract concepts at all and a very restricted number of speech sounds including a raspberry.   It might be as people say, but I get the impression that all of that might be a joke played by the Piraha on Western linguists because it’s unusual in so many different ways.  Besides Piraha, South American languages tend to lack conjunctions, so they have no way of expressing “and” for example.

The final order is free.  With this there is no preference at all for any order of words, and instead of indicating their role by order, other features do that job.  Sanskrit tends to be like that.

It’s the SOV languages which tend to dictate other features of grammar and word order.  As such, it makes sense to think of SOV languages as almost the natural and original human languages, although of course there’s no evidence to back this up.  Certainly it appears that either logic or the human mind almost “wants” to speak using SOV word order and I can easily imagine that if you were to choose a random group of people from the Old Stone Age, it’d be a fair bet that they would be indicating position by either changing the ends of words or putting other words after them and sticking verbs at the ends of clauses.  Incidentally, although those two features correlate they are by no means universal.

A couple of other possibilities regarding what might be called “prepositions” also exist, in the form of “infix” and “circumfix” forms.  English does the latter itself, in the form of the “preposition” “for X’s sake”, which is in fact around the thing concerned.  Sumerian apparently did this a lot, although I’m not familiar with it.  Infix notation is of course the positional version of SVO, with the equivalent of the preposition in the middle of the word.  Whereas I can’t think of an example of exactly this in English, there is something similar in our mutation plurals such as “teeth” and “feet”.  The postfix version of these would natually be “tooths” and “foots”, and in Old English the genitive and dative (rough equivalents of “of” and “to” respectively) did this in the singular – fot became fet and toþ teþ.  Hence it can happen, although I don’t know how widespread it is.

Conjunctions also come into this.  Thought of in terms of formal logic or programming, conjunctions are more like verbs than nouns or pronouns, as they do things to the truth values of the statements they link.  The Latin –que, Sanskrit ca and the less usable Old English ge…ge… are all related.  In the case of the first two, they are a way of expressing “and” which occurs after the list of things to be conjoined.  The Old English version is placed before each item, but is likely to be descended from a similar arrangement given that the other two languages, which are somewhat related, approach it in that way.  In Ancient Greek the same idea uses “και”, which is just like “and”, occurring between items, and in modern Romance languages the original Latin “et” tends to be used in various forms, except in Romanian, the usual exception which employs și, from the Latin sic, meaning “thus”.

There is an important concept in logic and Boolean algebra referred to as “expressive adequacy” or “functional completeness”.  This is the idea that any possible truth-value based relationship between two statements can be expressed using a certain set of operators, or in linguistic terms conjunctions.  One example is that any set of relationships can be expressed using various combinations of “both … and … ” and “not”.  There are various other combinations, but the ultimate pair is “NAND” and “NOR”.  Another way of expressing “NAND” is with the phrase “is incompatible with”, but it’s more often described as like “not both…and…”.  You can get all sorts of expressions out of these, such as “is identical to” and arguably “if…then…”, and there are fancier connectives such as “but” and “therefore” which amount to the same meaning as others, in this case “and” and “entails”.  Being a philosophy graduate, I spent a lot of time having to write something similar to “therefore” in essays and eventually came up with a very long list of different ways of writing constructions identical to “therefore” which came in handy later.  This also raises the question of how much you actually need to understand a subject to produce a meaningful-seeming essay on it which is in fact just a set of processes applied to words.  For instance, an ion exchange column is a device which works by swapping atoms which have either lost or gained electrons.  That statement is almost guaranteed to be true, I got away with it once in a chemistry exam, and at the time I had no idea what an ion exchange column was.  All that was necessary was that I spelt out the definition of what an ion was and exchanged the word “swap” with “exchange”.  This is strongly reminiscent of the issue mentioned earlier of the difference between a mediaeval blacksmith who happens to produce a PC case which is then presumably handed down as an heirloom until someone makes a 386-based motherboard or something and the spectre of the ZX Spectrum floating around in the Platonic world of forms waiting to be discovered.  I strongly suspect there are two sets of disciplines, one of which can be completely faked just by re-jigging sentences and logical structures in language without understanding anything else, and the other of which involves real insight and wrestling with the real sense of the matters concerned.  I’m not sure which is which, but it isn’t the same as practice versus theory as I’ll show later.

Getting back to word order, we are accustomed in English to conjunctions which are either prefixes (“is not…”) or infixes (“and”, “or”), but there’s no logical reason why that should be so.  In general the uses of logical operators which serve either as prefixes or suffixes, particularly the latter, makes life a lot simpler, though possibly also more confusing.  “P and Q” becomes “P Q NAND P Q NAND NAND”.  The complication of having to mix operators and operands (nouns and pronouns or clauses, in this case represented by P and Q) can be dealt with by taking the concept of the stack seriously and allowing the order of objects on that stack to be duplicated (DUP) and exchanged (SWAP) among other things, using a series of words which exist in FORTH.  To illustrate using this example, “P Q NAND DUP NAND” allows the separation of the different “parts of speech”.

Another aspect of this is that the words involved needn’t just be conjunctions.  If everything is being considered as either a noun-like part of speech or a verb, including positional words and conjunctions, the division between words which just seem to be doing donkey work with phrases, like “and”, “or” and the like, and those which have apparently strong semantic elements, like “implies”, “compatible” and many others, breaks down.  The above “sentence” “P Q NAND DUP NAND” can be rephrased as “P is compatible with Q” and the rather simplified sentence “P is incompatible with it not being the case that Q and Q is incompatible with it not being the case that P” expresses the same idea as “P and Q are identical” or “P if and only if Q”.  All of this can be achieved by mixing formal and natural languages in this way and considering their preferred word order, and it also suggests that there is a logical justification for SOV languages to be like that.

In fact, the preferred word order in most languages puts the subject before the object and only a few exceptions put them the other way round.  In conjunction with this, the clause structure which expresses “if P then Q” is always that way round rather than another, at least in its simplest and most widespread form.  It is in fact not difficult for it to be the other way round, but I think this provides a clue as to why things are this way round which is also connected to the fact that verbs and conjunctions are not as different as might at first be imagined.  My hypothesis is this:  cause precedes effect, and we think of implication and entailment as causation (although oddly it isn’t).  This provides a kind of conceptual prototype for the idea of the verb, which means that we are wont to think that subject will precede object.  After all, to a casual listener “If P then Q” seems to mean the same thing as “P entails Q” and “P implies Q”, and then beyond that “P causes Q”, “P makes Q” and, very generally, “P does Q”, and consequently almost all languages put P, which is S, before Q, which is O.  Hence SVO, SOV, VSO but only quite seldom VOS, OSV and OVS.  Notably, the only languages which seem to manage OVS as the norm are spoken in an area where conjunctions are absent from many languages.

Finally, I want to come back to the question of practicality.  It might be thought that the kind of subjects where one can simply produce answers to exam questions by textually processing the questions to manufacture answers without really grasping what one is doing would be highly theoretical, and also that this kind of approach would only work in situations where there’s a degree of “floatiness”, such as philosophy.  However, I don’t think this is so, for two reasons.  Firstly, as I’ve shown, words like “and” are compatible with more semantically meaningful words such as “compatible”, although of course this is still quite abstract.  Secondly, though, this can be about more than just words and concepts.  When you’re designing a circuit board for a computer, it can be very useful to realise that your circuit can just reuse the same chips for different purposes at a delay or that a whole array of complicatedly connected components can be replaced by a single wire, as a computing student once told me can be done using De Morgan’s rules (never mind what those are right now, but they’re connected).  One can then go on to generalise this to the likes of hydraulics or perhaps traffic flow and it becomes seriously practical.

The question, therefore, which is frequently near the front of my mind is, which subjects can you just sit back and manipulate without understanding them, and which ones actually involve understanding?  Any thoughts?

Stick Insects And Non-Scorpions

First of all, some eye candy:

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96161Nepa_cinerea01

This probably appeals more to me than you.  It’s also a water scorpion.  A water scorpion is, however, not a scorpion but an insect.  More specifically it’s a water bug, bug not just meaning insect but a specific order thereof.  As a child I spent a lot of time poking around the likes of rivers, lakes, woods and the family compost heap and met lots of animals.  Encountering a water scorpion was, however, particularly exciting for me.

There are also water stick insects:



I’ve never seen one but like water scorpions they’re native to southern Britain.  In this case, they’re definitely insects and they’re definitely stick-shaped, although they’re not officially “stick insects”, i.e. phasmids, a group of animals including both stick and leaf insects.


Land stick insects are herbivorous and often reproduce without mating.  They have seed-like eggs, even having the bit where the seed is attached to the plant on one side.  We used to keep stick insects and I found it extremely stressful.  They have a habit of escaping and hiding under things, which presumably helps them survive except that it doesn’t when there’s no food for them.  I once heard of a child who set up a stick insect distribution business and I can easily see how that would work, although as an adult I might think of it as a bit like a pyramid scheme.  You have lots of stock you can’t accommodate so you sell it to people, who then have the same problem and pass it on.  Kind of a problem with abundance, although at least you don’t end up buying masses of inventory because this particular animal reproduces very fast on its own.  This brings to mind an alternate economic system where the goods you need “breed” on their own, creating a surplus from what you’ve initially bought, which would to some extent be neat but would probably result in your home filling up with spoons in the end, and of course the spoons will have eaten all the other cutlery so it’s not good, though better if you’re veggie.

By Franco Andreone – see authorization – http://calphotos.berkeley.edu, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5172445Dermophis_mexicanus

Mention of vegetarianism brings to mind the ethical issue of companion animals.  I think I might be a bit heterodox in this respect because I think it’s okay to keep animals whose environment can be entirely simulated.  This applies to the two species of “pet” we kept before the children grew up:  stick insects and Triops.  Probably the best animal to keep in this way in terms of individual interests would be a caecilian.  These are blind, worm-like amphibians which live in stagnant fresh water.  Unfortunately there are ethical problems with them at species level because they tend to be taken from the wild.

By Sandilya Theuerkauf – Photo by Sandilya Theuerkauf, Wynaad, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=720559LeafInsect

Back to water bugs (though this is a leaf insect).  I mistook my first water scorpion for a leaf.  I’m pretty sure there’s some mimicry going on here and it’s an interesting example of the “as above, so below” principle mentioned elsewhere.  Phasmids are generally either leaf or stick insects.  Similarly, water bugs, inter alia, include leaf-like water scorpions and stick-like water stick insects.  Though not closely related,  these are all hemimetabola – insects with no pupal phase.  This lot of insects also seems to have a greater propensity to reproduce without mating compared to the likes of beetles, butterflies and the rest of the insects, in the holometabola, which do have pupae.

By Evanherk at nl.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=872592320px-Carausius_morosus

The big difference between the water and land versions of these insects, which I should stress again are not closely related although the land ones are to each other as are the water ones, is that terrestrials are herbivorous, disguising themselves as their food, whereas the aquatic ones are predatory, disguising themselves as either scenery or other animals’ food and thereby able to pounce unexpectedly.   Water stick insects are thus more like praying mantids than stick insects, with forelimbs able to swat their prey, and again mantids are hemimetabola but not closely related to either land or water stick insects.  Hence it’s parallel evolution, or considered as a water mantis, convergent evolution.

Water scorpions can give you a nasty nip with their forelimbs just as real scorpions can, but they can’t sting – the “tail” is a snorkel, as it is for the water stick insect.  They are yet another example of how evolution somehow turns up example after example of scorpion and lobster-like animals at the drop of a hat.  It even does it in the sky in the form of the constellation Scorpius, which is pretty local as apart from our stellar neighbourhood it probably only looks like a scorpion from this Solar System, although it’s possible that other star patterns look like them from elsewhere in the Milky Way.

That’s fresh water then.

By Shiva shankar – Taken at karkala, Karnataka as a praying mantis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=244227531px-Praying_mantis_india

Stick insects and mantids are found natively in France but don’t reach to the British Isles, so real native land stick insects, sadly, are absent from these islands.  I can’t be sure, but going back before the latest spate of ice ages, which began 800 000 years or so back, Britain was not only part of the continent but also not either covered in ice or tundra, so I imagine that up until that time there were native stick insects here.  Going further back, the climate was a lot warmer and the only thing preventing them from being present would probably be that they had yet to evolve.  It turns out that they have existed since before the last time the continents broke up, so I would expect it to be practically certain that they used to live here.  Whatever else is true, they live here now in the Southwest, like a lot of other things, due to having escaped from captivity and thriven. Presumably climate change will encourage them to spread.

Then there are pseudoscorpions.

By Cristina Menta – Cristina Menta (2012). Soil Fauna Diversity – Function, Soil Degradation, Biological Indices, Soil Restoration, Biodiversity Conservation and Utilization in a Diverse World, Dr. Gbolagade Akeem Lameed (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-51-0719-4, InTech, DOI: 10.5772/51091. Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/biodiversity-conservation-and-utilization-in-a-diverse-world/soil-fauna-diversity-function-soil-degradation-biological-indices-soil-restoration, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36735784Pseudoscorpion_-_Soil_Fauna_Diversity

These are actually closely related to scorpions themselves.  The first time I saw one, in the compost heap, I thought it was the ghost of an ant come back to haunt me for my cruelty to ant nests in the past.  They have no stings of course, but they do have claws.  In that sense they’re more lobster-shaped than scorpiony, although they’re closer to the latter.  The fact that they don’t live underwater is, well, not the main point but something I’ll come to in a minute.

Pseudoscorpions tend to be phoretic.  This means they hitch rides on other animals such as flies, which probably indicates how small they tend to be.  They’re also known as “book scorpions”, as some of them eat booklice, which creates a neat little ecosystem in libraries of the relevant vintage.


At some point in the past I have mentioned sea scorpions.  These no longer exist, having become extinct in the Permian, probably at the end of it like almost everything else that was alive at the time.

By ДиБгд – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=577626421141px-CampylocephalusDB117

I’m not going to be that thorough about these, but the largest sea scorpions were also the largest ever arthropods, being larger than adult human beings.  They were also related to horseshoe crabs (which are not crabs) rather than scorpions.  The above animal is the last ever known sea scorpion.  With the one above it, neither are particularly typical in shape, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’ve ventured into obscurity here.

In fact I haven’t, because among other things back in the day earwig nymphs (baby earwigs) looked like sea scorpions.  I used to imagine that these cute little animals, whose photos seem to be rather hard to find, were in fact tiny sea scorpions even though I knew they were extinct and they clearly lived on land.  Like the other insects I’ve mentioned here, earwigs are hemimetabola.  They hatch out looking very like adults, although most are wingless even if the adults have them, and simply ecdyse (shed their skin) a few times as they mature.

I’ve since moved away from Kent and now live in the East Midlands.  Clearly I was much more focussed on wildlife back then than I am now, but even so one of the saddest things about living in this part of Britain is its low biodiversity.  I don’t know why this is so or if it’s partly illusory that it’s as bad as it is relative to Kent.  I left over thirty years ago and it could just be that the living environment has deteriorated over that time.  Further north, into Scotland for example, there are more exotic animals and other organisms such as lichens because it’s relatively unspoilt, although it has its own issues such as conifer plantations.  Further south, the climate is milder, meaning that more energy is going into it from the sun and the soil may be more nutritious.  It’s also closer to the continent so it was easier to re-colonise after the last ice age.  As far as I can tell, the East Midlands has a combination of the worst factors.  It’s more densely populated than upland England, it seems to have a lot of farmland which is not conducive to wildlife, though that’s just a guess, it’s relatively treeless, although the National Forest may be helping there, and the climate isn’t as good as the South.  Hence although in general I like living in the Midlands this is my one regret.

Compassion For Conservatives?

Ttigger warnings: rape and murder :-(.

By Tenebrae (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33886644Kelsey_Grammer_May_2010_(cropped)

There’s a sense in which individuals are of no consequence.  Consequently, I am not a fan of celebrity culture, because it doesn’t interest me and more importantly it seems to distract people from real issues.  Maybe that helps them.  Perhaps, like religion, it’s another example of “the heart of a heartless world”, and being religious myself it’s evident that I can see the point of that.

There is, though, a contrast between individuals as influential people in historical events and individuals as people to whom we have obligations.  I don’t think, for instance, that Margaret Thatcher is a significant person because events in the US turned up Ronald Reagan in a similar role, although being a woman, certain other events had to happen for her to become Prime Minister.  However, as far as her policies concerned, she was like most other politicians a mere actor, or perhaps manager.  However, there’s also the question of someone’s significance on a personal level to the people around them, and that’s entirely different, because nobody matters less than anybody else.

By Edwina_currie_nightingale_house.jpg: Brian Minkoff- London Pixelsderivative work: Hurdygurley (talk) – Edwina_currie_nightingale_house.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14841672Edwina_currie_nightingale_house_cropped

One very influential event in my life occurred when I went on a demo against Edwina Currie at about the time of her comments about northerners dying of “ignorance and chips”.  I happened to be at the front of the crowd when she stepped out of her car and found myself face to face with her, and in that apparently confrontational situation I was rather startled to discover that I simply thought of her as another human being, not some demonic creature or the hate symbol she had previously been to me.  Not that I condone in any way her politics or attitude, but the point was that she was impossible to hate.  Nor is it her, or the talent some politicians undoubtedly have of ingratiating themselves to people.  It’s simply the face-to-face confrontation of two human beings meeting each other and realising they are both people.  Or at least in my case it’s my own confrontation with that reality.  I clearly can’t speak for her.

This brings me to Kelsey Grammer.  Sarada has doubtless revealed to any of you who also read her blog that we’re currently re-watching ‘Frasier’ from start to finish, which is quite a marathon exercise, particularly because we’re not binge watching.  At some point I for one will probably also watch the whole of ‘Cheers’.  Dr Frasier Crane is an urbane psychiatrist forced to live with his rather more down-to-earth father Marty and his Mancunian carer Daphne, with whom his brother Niles is in unrequited love.  If you grow to love a character, it gets difficult to hate the actor playing them.  It’s also not good to hate someone just because of their politics, and in the case of Kelsey Grammer that might be very inappropriate.

I’m now going to engage a little reluctantly with someone’s personality and politics,  mainly in order to illustrate how I think these things may work in Kelsey Grammer’s case.  Unusually for an actor, Grammer is a Republican and a Trump supporter.  In normal circumstances this would make him abhorrent to me, at least at the distance of however many thousand kilometres between him and me there are.  I also have to say that I know practically nothing about him because, as I said, I’m not into celebrity culture in any way, so I have little interest in reading his memoirs or what people have to say about him.  I listened to him on ‘Desert Island Discs’, which made an interesting show and also illustrated that he does, as ‘Frasier’ suggests, have an excellent voice for radio, but even so I’m not an expert on his psychology or character.

One thing I do know about him is that he’s had a tragic life.  In particular, his sister was gang-raped and murdered, his two half-brothers died in a diving accident and his father was murdered when Kelsey was only thirteen.  Since that time the actor has had some involvement in the parole hearing of his sister’s murderer and is unsurprisingly still deeply affected by the traumatic experiences in his formative years.  Also unsurprisingly, he lost his faith in God for some time, which is worth noting because of his conservative political views – theism and conservatism don’t always go together, even in America.

As I say, I know very little about Kelsey Grammer, but it occurs to me that someone whose father was murdered and whose sister was gang-raped and murdered might have certain views regarding wrongdoing and retribution which are both authentic and informed by their own experience.  He appears to be socially liberal, for instance approving of same-sex marriage (which counts as liberal in today’s unaccountably pro-marital climate, but that’s an issue for another blog).  Unfortunately this may not extend to being pro-choice, but I don’t have the heart to slag off the guy given what I’ve learnt about him.

Homophobia is another example.  If a man has been to a single-sex private boarding school, many outsiders would see it as having screwed them up in various ways, but one of these is that they may have become homophobic as a result of being sexually abused by older boys.  Such an experience may in fact be common among boys in various situations, and it doesn’t necessarily make them homophobic, but when it does, although it is a generalisation and doesn’t apply to sex between consenting adults, the origin of the prejudice should be accepted.  It’s not okay to dismiss someone who has gone through such a traumatic childhood as merely homophobic and therefore persona non grata.

The problem is that two of the ways of looking at this contradict each other.  On the one hand, one can look at someone’s life experience and conclude, sympathetically, that it’s no wonder they’re, for example, homophobic or believe in capital punishment without necessarily agreeing with them.  However, in the very act of disagreement one may be displaying one’s ignorance.  This is close to “no uterus, no opinion”, but the problem is that whereas being pro-choice is generally perceived as left wing or liberal, and is informed by experience, being in favour of capital punishment or somewhat authoritarian government is generally seen as right wing, but may also be informed by experience.  Why take one seriously and not the other?

Another celebrity example that springs to mind is Kenny Everett, for whom incidentally I can’t find a free image.  This iconoclastic gay DJ and comedian was of course also a Tory.  I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it’s connected to his support for pirate radio and opposition to the establishment state-funded broadcaster for which he worked.  It was however odd to witness his support for a government which extolled Section 28 – the requirement for schools to be at least passively homophobic in ethos.  Again, not being a celeb kind of person I may have missed something here.

Naturally a lot of what I’ve written here is held together by a gossamer of assumptions and closer examination and a bit of research could cause it all to fall apart.  However, there are also examples from acquaintances which seem to support the view that personal experience, which should be respected and taken seriously, is often a factor in the formation of political views, whether someone is generally left or right wing.  I am so sorely tempted to demonise the other side, but such a situation probably doesn’t win people over.  The corollary of that is that my own opinions also need examining, and the idea that ones political allies would disapprove of an isolated opinion will probably often be a factor in deciding what one thinks, but it shouldn’t be on the whole, although there are occasions where priorities and compromise have to come into play in order that one does not become a political party with a single member.  In general though, we have to take each other seriously across the political divide and recognise that, privilege notwithstanding, we need to try to have some kind of dialogue where we can honestly say, “I’m listening”.

“Doors Opening” . . . “Doors Closing”

For some reason there seem to be a lot of films and TV dramas with lifts (elevators) in them nowadays, or maybe it’s the fact that more recently there’s been a voice involved and that makes it more noticeable.  I’m talking, naturally, of the lines “doors opening” and “doors closing”.  I don’t know if the voice involved is of a real person, but if it is they could probably retire on their royalties, rather like the “Mind the gap” guy, whom I am probably misremembering as Tim Bentinck.

It’s easy to construct a dramatic moment around “mind the gap”.  Someone doesn’t mind it and gets killed or injured.  Something like this was done recently in ‘Casualty’ where a pregnant person got a skirt caught in a train door although it didn’t quite go in the expected direction.  Where are Bucks Fizz when you need them, eh?  A practical use for decorative clothing.

Back to lifts though.  The enclosed space of an elevator is quite an opportunity for low-budget stories which exploit claustrophobia and don’t require extensive props, so it makes a lot of sense to use them on the telly, but lifts have also been protagonists.  Fit The Seventh of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ broadcast on Xmas Eve 1979 a few months after everything went wonky, has the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter in the Megadodo Publications building on Ursa Minor Beta.  These devices “bear little resemblance to the winch-operated, maximum capacity eight persons” lifts in the history books.  Galactic civilisation has in fact forgotten the stairs, although they do get re-discovered before the Vogons destroy the Earth.  In the meantime, lifts, who are now sentient, have had to grapple with the relative meaninglessness of their lives where they just go up or down, although they have also experimented with going sideways.  Incidentally, I don’t honestly see why it would be such a huge problem for lifts to move horizontally as well as vertically, although it would probably mean larger gaps between the floors of buildings or dedicated lift corridors.  This is one of the things I expected to happen in the future as a child that never did, but I can live with the disappointment.

Sirius Cybernetics Elevators also have “defocussed temporal perception”, which means they can see the future.  This enables them to arrive as soon as passengers get to the doors, in order to prevent social interaction.  It’s an interesting idea that the length of a particular entity’s “now” might be longer and more indeterminate than someone else’s, but like a lot of the secondary phase of “Hitch-Hiker’s” this is treated as a somewhat disposable idea and not explored again after Fit The Seventh, which is a shame.  Presumably a lift only being able to move up or down would have limited influence on events compared to a more flexible being, although clearly it could make people miss appointments, which could have huge consequences.

Douglas Adams was originally inspired by a job in a hotel where the lifts seemed to have their own will because they were automated and visited every floor at night.

By Pauli Rautakorpi – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46171401NS_SC-MP-2_die.jpg

This brings up the potentially very boring idea of the elevator controller, and it’s at this point that I realise I have to issue a correction to yesterday’s post.  I claimed that Sinclair’s Mk14 computer used an 1802 processor, which was quite a weird component.  Well, it didn’t.  In fact it used a “scamp”, or SC/MP, Simple Cost-effective MicroProcessor, also known as the National Semiconductor 8060.  The reason for my confusion is that to me, the 8060 is also bloody weird, though not as much as the 1802.  It’s also been into space a lot less.  the 8060 is quite frustrating because it only has a twelve-bit program counter which loops round in spite of having a larger address space, and is also odd because its pins can be reassigned to do different jobs, so it’s all quite irritating due to it having been made difficult to exploit its full potential.  Anyway, the relevance of the 8060 here is that it used to be used in elevator controllers, so the image above is, in a sense, a genuine picture of the brain of a Sirius Cybernetics Happy Vertical People Transporter.  In fact, Adams was working in the hotel at about the time when 8060s were being used to control lifts, so this could be the very mind of its own possessed by those lifts and the inspiration for the clairvoyant lift later included in the classic radio series.  Presumably it isn’t overpowered for such a purpose.

Nonetheless there is a sense of, well, empathy when I consider computers which don’t achieve their full potential.  I used to feel this way about arcade machines.  The poor old eight-bit 6502, Z80, 8080 or whatever would sit there year in year out running the likes of Space Invaders or Pacman when it could be doing all sorts of other exciting things like simulating a psychotherapist or drawing a wireframe teapot.  As time went by, games became incredibly demanding of their hardware and the balance was redressed to some extent, but there was also the irritating “busy work” of the user interface, where most of the now astonishingly powerful multicore superscalar Intel processors’ nous was spent driving a largely frippery-based load of trinkets known as the Windows Explorer shell.  This seems strangely appropriate when one considers that many of these machines now resided in offices where people did equally pointless and unfulfilling jobs, and consequently there is a sense in which the lift on Ursa Minor is all too realistic.  It also has links to Golgafrincham middle management.  It’s easy to imagine a complex voice-based user interface to a lift which can understand fully what the passengers tell it to do, explain in detail what’s going to happen, recognise individual fingerprints on the buttons in order to allow a voting system, but utterly fail to do the going up and down bit due to being lost in its own internal musings.  This is what computers seem to have become.

In a non-comedic production aiming at realism, lifts are for now confined to a few basic functions.  They allow characters to “exit, stage left”, they can break down and trap people for dramatic effect and they can provide an enclosed environment for specific private interactions between protagonists.  At some point, real lifts might become more sophisticated and other types of events might take place in them.  In humorous, creepy or sci-fi situations they can already do these things.  There used to be a series on YouTube called something like Elevator Moods, which very imaginatively used the setting of an elevator in various ways, but it seems to have been deleted.  They can also turn up in the form of CCTV footage of the last few minutes of a murder victim’s life, as they did recently in J K Rowling’s ‘Strike’.  Sadly this is also too often where they appear in reality.  Lifts are also fruitful for modern day locked room mysteries, sexual tension, mysterious disappearances, heroic escapes and many, many more.

Leaving all these aside, lifts present me with a difficult issue.  When they first found their voices and appeared on ‘t telly, they seemed to be part of the furniture to me.  They were props which fulfilled the kind of function mentioned above, and that was fine.  After a while though, I started to wonder if I was missing the point.  Doors opening and doors closing are of course really obvious ways of illustrating new or missed opportunities and perhaps new life stages.  I’m sure this has been done and I probably have picked up on a few times where the writers intended that to be so.  However, after a while I entered my current stage of elevator interpretation, which is not so useful or sensible.  I am now unable to watch any show where an elevator says “doors opening” or “doors closing” without being tempted to interpret the incident as referring to an opportunity which is taken or passed up on.  I have reached the Lift Event Horizon.  I am confident that not every single example of lift doors opening or closing provides any kind of symbolism, although it is helped on its way by the fact that it often serves as a convenient way of getting characters in and out of scenes, but I cannot now tell when it is or isn’t because I see this non-existent pattern everywhere.

This seems to be a feature of how I approach creative works, and I don’t know what to do about it.  Most people seem to have some kind of sense of when to stop reading significance into things and deciding that a cigar is just a cigar.  For some reason I seem to lack this entirely.  There is an additional problem, illustrated by the story of Abraham’s three visitors in Genesis chapter 18.  Incidentally, for now it’s not important that this is a religious reference.  It’s more about the Bible as a set of literary works.  When I first read this story, it really seemed like a reference to the Trinity although since it was in the Hebrew Bible there must be many people who have never read it as such, and many would also argue that the Trinity isn’t even a biblical doctrine.  Therefore as I got older I decided I was over-interpreting.  It then turned out that this interpretation does in fact exist among Christians and is even quite popular.  Nonetheless, to me it definitely feels like overinterpretation.

What am I supposed to do with this?  I find that I read way too much into things, but sometimes when I decide I’ve done that it emerges that other people often have the same reading, meaning that I can’t trust my judgement or anyone else’s.  There are no hard and fast answers in this kind of thing of course, but here I am, stuck in a lift, unable to get the doors to close on this trope.