The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Under the blanket with three queens

I suppose that title looks a bit odd. I'll explain.

   I woke this morning with no energy at all. It happens sometimes. I can think, in a vague and haphazard sort of way, but not move without great effort. So here goes with the Hemingway stream of consciousness thoughts, only not so lofty as his.

   In short, I felt like Shakespeare's "shotten herring." [It comes from Henry IV Part 1, which we studied Senior year at high school, so that's how I know about the herring. That play really intrigued me, as I had no idea that kings and their mates could behave with so little decorum.]

   A shotten herring, by the way, isn't a herring that's been shot with a gun or anything; it's a herring that's 'shot' or pumped out all her eggs, after which she looks and acts as shagged I felt this morning, and she dies. I wasn't that far gone, but I was on a Shakespearean roll. The reference brought to mind Falstaff, and good King Harry's ripping into him; something about…fat-guts-Jack and "When didst thou last see thy knees?'

Sir John Falstaff
Oh all right then, I just checked, and it seems my bed-ridden brain did a conflation of separate bits. The lines are:
Here comes lean Jack, here comes bare-bone.
How now, my sweet creature of bombast!
How long is't ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?
To which Falstaff replies:
My own knee! when I was about thy years, Hal, I was not an eagle's talon in the waist; I could have crept into any alderman's thumb-ring: a plague of sighing and grief! it blows a man up like a bladder.

It's not a line to contemplate when you're about to get up and skip to the loo my darling, especially when your knees are fading dangerously out from sight.

   Anyway, the gluttonous old Falstaff led me to muse further on the Tudors and those who followed, and it occurred to me that ever since that time, England has been much better at producing queens of the realm than kings. Think about Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II.

   Now they were stayers. Between them, they've so far governed the empire, or what's left of it, for round 170 years, and still counting. That's more than one-third of the time of all rulers since Good Queen Bess, through the whole period when women's rights were not even on the agenda. None of them seems to have put a foot too far wrong, and have kept their heads [literally, in the case of the first Elizabeth – she would have lost hers had she not been a genuine Tudor] when things were at their bleakest.

   Take the current Queen. She dutifully produced an heir, bang on cue, though that hasn't turned out ideal, and a princess in second place to keep the papers occupied. That didn't turn out too well either, but I doubt the Queen's to blame. As Monty Python's grotty peasants in the Holy Grail insist, with gleeful and wanton anachronism, "it's the corruption inherent in the system".

   Royalty surely pays its way now. It's the greatest drawcard for tourism Britain has, and therefore pours millions of yankee dollars, yuan and yen into the country's coffers every day. 

   These days the Royals don't go around blowing it all, with armies and swords, fighting or eviscerating each other and torching houses; they just do it by mobile phone, which is a lot cheaper on the whole, and marginally less messy. They've turned out a better investment than they looked like being, thanks to a world of people with enough money and nothing more useful to do with it than to turn up on the Mall and stare through black steel bars at ugly buildings and real-life toy soldiers with incredibly tall, black, furry heads.

Oh, my only sainted aunt. For fifty years I've been reading Shakespeare, and only now has it clicked that there's a double entendre in the name "Falstaff".

   That's was it. I had to move. It was way past my knee-observing and morning pill-popping time. And yes, I could still see my knees, not that it's any of your business.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"A fragment of her soul" 1

"Sappho, who broke off a fragment of her soul for us to guess at." 
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning]

I have managed to get to this point in my life with remarkably few unfulfilled ambitions, which is fortunate under the circumstances. It comes as both a vague annoyance and a pleasure that I've acquired an unexpected new one – one that won't be fulfilled.

   The villain of the piece is someone I met not long ago. "Met" is a bit misleading, because we've never seen each other face to face and never will. Had we met, we couldn't have communicated in words, because I can't speak Greek and she no doubt would never have bothered to learn a primitive language like English.

   I've mentioned her before and this is all about the pleasure she's brought me. Her name is Sappho.

   For one terrible moment there, I thought that Ab Fab's Edina might have named her long-suffering daughter Saffy after her, but of course, as a product of her fabulous times, Saffy's full name is Saffron. Saffron Monsoon.

   Whew. That was a narrow escape. Not that I dislike Saffy – she's far and away the most likeable character in Ab Fab. I'm just happy she was named after a spice, not in honour of the most wonderful lyric poet I've ever read.

   At the online font of all wisdom (you know what), you can read what's known of Sappho, but she's an enigmatic character.

Image source
   Not all that much can be told about her life, but three highly significant life events appear to have happened. She seems to have married, produced a daughter and for some unknown reason was exiled from Lesbos. 

   Let me not muddy the waters further. Maybe, if this Roman copy of the lost Hellenic original is a guide, take something from it. I like to think it's just as she was, because the Roman sculptor has been more faithful to the Greek style than other Roman examples, but draw your own conclusions about her from the translation of her poems. They're practically all we've got, and it's only by great good fortune that we have them at all.

   Our other piece of luck, if it can be called that, is that we have a freely downloadable version of Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. An even greater good fortune is that this 1907 translation, by Bliss Carman, is beautifully empathetic. Tender, even, I feel; although to compare with the fragments in the Hundred Lyrics, I'd have to know the language of the era and life about 2700 years ago on the Aegean island of Lesbos.

   Sappho's poetry is sensuous and rich in imagery. She writes about women, men, children, nature and the seasons, the sea and the ships that come into port, the Lesbos capital Mytilene, gardens – her entire world. She writes passionately about love, the duality or ambivalence about sexuality in her poems captured so perfectly by Carman. I think in this regard her classical references to lovers contain clues, apart from the poetic themes themselves.

   I'd better give you a sample and not rabbit on too much.


In the quiet garden world,
Gold sunlight and shadow leaves
Flicker on the wall.

And the wind, a moment since,
With rose-petals strewed the path
And the open door.

Now the moon-white butterflies
Float across the liquid air,
Glad as in a dream;

And, across thy lover's heart,
Visions of one scarlet mouth
With its maddening smile.

You want one more? OK. Not all the poems mention rose petals as both of these do, but I thought one describing garments might appeal. It reminds me strongly of the Pillow Book, or the Tale of Genji, the Japanese classics of a millennium ago.


I recall thy white gown, cinctured
With a linen belt, whereon
Violets were wrought, and scented
With strange perfumes out of Egypt.

And I know thy foot was covered
With fair Lydian broidered straps;
And the petals from a rose-tree
Fell within the marble basin.

My unfulfillable ambition? I'll get back to it later. I do promise many more tastes of her poems, but here I'll concentrate on the slightly longer ones, not restricted to 140 characters. Some of you will know why. I can't stay out of it altogether though. This is about her and me!


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Einstein to kids

Of all scientists of our age, none can be more respected than Albert Einstein. Nor has any scientist to my knowledge treated children with greater thoughtfulness, trust and courtesy.

   I tried to imagine what went through his mind when he read this letter. The central question was a beautifully worded one that would undoubtedly have pleased him with its deceptive simplicity. "Do scientists pray?"

   Still, in doing so, he would need to take great care. He was speaking to children (and their teachers, no doubt, who would be eager to see how he would answer) who were brought up in a tradition very different from the one he left behind when he escaped the Nazis in Europe. This was a Christian Sunday school in an America that had been founded on an attempt to create a new world which left little room for compromise in matters of faith.

   Einstein was by birth Jewish, and his life's work as a scientist demanded honesty and a ceaseless search for truth. The scientist's job is to theorise, and then to explore the truth or falsity of a hypothesis. Anything less is a betrayal of science and personal integrity. His answer had to be applicable to all humanity, which meant respect for all the great religious traditions; of the East as well as the West.

   To me, his response, in just 150 words, is one of the great documents of this (no, last) century. It is not the least patronising; on the contrary, it is a lesson in humility and restraint. 

   He begins with a clear and concise declaration which would seem to be "No", but follows it with a necessary qualification relating science to faith.

   His final paragraph is a masterpiece. It is not an evasion or cop-out. The more science explores the universe, from its apparent totality as an entity right down to the Higgs Boson, the more it is obvious that humans, for all that they do know, have only the faintest understanding of the reality behind a world where nothing can be ruled out.

   That's as near the truth as we get, at this stage of human existence at least.


In my classes on religions of the world, I was often asked right at the start of the course: "What's your religion?" What I faced in responding has parallels to this, and I started writing about it.  I see I haven't finished yet, and that was nearly a year ago. Einstein took just a few minutes, I suspect. Oh well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fame, death and shock 2

Please read part 1 first! 
In case you're wondering, this isn't all about politicians or charismatic populist leaders. A brief mention of a couple more and we'll get to the business end of the story. Plus one I didn't think of.

   What about Che Guevara? No, not quite. Mao Zedong – the great Chairman Mao? He died at 82, no great shock. I walked past his wizened body lying in (parlous) state in Beijing in 1989, and don't remember great anguish in 1976 when he died. I do remember the doctored photos in of his funeral in China Pictorial, where the Gang of Four was obliterated spectacularly from official history, Mao's wife included. I'm not Chinese, so maybe I'm not qualified to judge anyway but I don't recall any great anguish and shock in the rest of the world.

   I can't elevate to anywhere near the status of JFK and Marilyn the deaths of tragic pop-culture figures whose untimely deaths sent a ripple rather than a tsunami through the world. Janis Joplin, Michael Hutchence, Amy Winehouse, and even the more fame-worthy Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson; they were all figures chewed up and spat out by fame, media, wealth, drugs and in some cases, I suspect, a sense of their despair – that they felt they had everything and yet nothing worth having.

   Steve Jobs (1955-2011)? Not quite. His death at 56 was not unexpected, and though he may have had more innovative brilliance to contribute had he lived longer, it's not quite the same. He doesn't quite fit my set of criteria, though the mourning was widespread. I suspect it was as much for his talents as for the man himself – maybe more.

   That leaves only two who stand out like beacons in my perception. I'm not sure which of them to put at the top.

   Diana, Princess of Wales, née Spencer (1961-1997). I have never seen such a vast outpouring of genuine and spontaneous public grief as at her death, and not just in Britain. The tragedy of what is known about her life only adds to the shock at the manner of her death. Comment here by me is superfluous, but we all remember those acres and acres of beautiful flowers sacrificed in tribute, as her mortal remains passed by.

   Lastly, there can only be one, and given my age you must surely have guessed it. John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE. John Lennon (1940-1980). Born, I see, on my mother's fortieth birthday.

   The strange thing is, I have no immediate yardstick for comparison with others on my list. The reason is that on the day of his murder, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was listening to the news on radio, and the Lennon item came up after several tedious reports on the wonderful things that Bangladeshi President, Ziaur Rahman, was doing to make Bangladesh into a great nation.

   Then followed just a brief mention of John Lennon's death. Maybe fifteen seconds of air time at the most.

   "Did you hear that?" I gasped to my friend. "John Lennon is dead."

   I got the feeling that John Lennon wasn't really on his radar.

   "The Beatles...."

   I gave up.

   It wasn't about the Beatles really. It was about the man, John Lennon, now lying dead in a morgue in New York, shot by a "disturbed man", creating with those bullets an emotional gap in the lives of so many people around the world. Mine too. 

   John Lennon wasn't just a singer/song-writer in a spectacularly successful pop band. He was John Lennon. And there I was in Dhaka, and it was just another day, cycle ricksha bells ringing and the incessant rumble of traffic all around. Why would it be any different for the auto-ricksha driver? Had his life ever been affected by one thing John Lennon had done? I doubt it.

   I took a long walk, past Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, the Parliament House, and thence to the reading room of the British Council Library. The overseas newspapers were full of the Lennon story. 

   One piece in particular, in the Straits Times (Singapore) got my attention. It was written by a young Chinese woman, and she poured her heart out over what John Lennon's death meant to her, there on the tiny island of Singapore.

   It was a beautiful story. If you happen to have in the magazine rack right there at your fingertips a copy of the Straits Times, probably 9 December 1980, please let me know. It said it all.

   So who did I miss out or insult, do you think? I'd love to know.

Postscript. When I write a blog piece, Tracey sees it for the first time only when she logs in, just like anyone else. This time, before posting, I was intrigued enough by the subject to talk with her about what her list would be.

Steve Irwin (1962-2006)
   She came up with one person I hadn't thought of; an Australian as it happens, who was regarded with considerable affection not only in Australia but much more widely, and whose death was reported throughout the western press. It's someone I would certainly have included had I thought of it first.

   If you don’t know him from the sketch, then there's not much use describing him or his bizarre death, is there? He can't be said to have had anywhere near the impact of some of the others, but worthy of inclusion, and a very sad loss to the world, I think.

Vale Steve Irwin (1962-2006)

Fame, death, and shock 1

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka. Why it's here is explained in Part 2
Nothing sends me to sleep faster than to mull over a conundrum, often of my own making. The one that's occupied my mind over the past few days has been: whose deaths do I feel have made the greatest impact on or shock to the world in my lifetime?

   There are a few criteria I had to decide on here. I'm not talking about those who have lived a full life and achieved greatness in some field. When they die, those are people whose lives we would 'celebrate'. I'm thinking of those whose deaths seem to have saddened people deeply throughout the world.

   So they'd have to be famous, for one reason or another. They'd had to have died before their time. That element of tragedy would be essential. Oh, and probably violently. Nothing adds to shock and newsworthiness more than violence.

   Are they people who, in my view, have been unjustly glorified, or only those I regard as worthy of the mourning heaped upon them? I'd have to include both. This dispenses with any need for moral judgments. If there's one thing that my thoughts on this exercise drove home to me, it's that prudish moral standards simply don't apply when it comes to public grief – but let's not get into that.

   Should I also include, on what I see as the dark side of humanity, deaths which seem to have pleased as well as saddened many people? Saddam Hussein and Obama bin Laden, for example. No, I've decided against that. My blog.

   Should I do it chronologically? Or in order of merit, as it were, with the greatest last, of course. One must build up to a climax. What I'll do is a mixture, so there.

   My first only just scrapes in on several counts. He was old, and I hadn't had my first birthday, but he did die violently and a huge shock wave travelled round the world when he was killed. I'm speaking of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the Mahatma.

   I'm not doing biographies here, merely tiny justifications for inclusion in my personal list. Few others have been more misunderstood (or wrongly spelled!) in the west than Gandhi, judged by people who don't have a clue about India and by standards that simply don't fit.

   In my final Honours in History at university, I did a year-long unit under the guidance of my academic guru, Damodar Singhal. He and his wife Devahuti were my mentors in every way and I've written about them elsewhere and with great affection. Damodar ran this unit, called India 1935-1947. It was just twelve years of history (theoretically), but ones so momentous for India that at the end of the course, I felt we'd barely scratched the surface.

   My point in mentioning this is that I studied, with great intensity, this paradoxical man – Gandhi, his life, philosophy and contribution to India and the world. Think satyagraha (non-violent non-cooperation) and leaders like Martin Luther King. 

   I have to include Gandhi.

   What about King himself? (1929-1968) He deserves enormous respect for his contribution to the hopes of minorities everywhere, not just African Americans. His brutal killing sent shockwaves of grief and anger through the world.

   Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) meets all the criteria. Admired, envied, misunderstood, cruelly treated like dirt at times, the mysterious circumstances of her death only add to her mystique and goddess image. I was just fifteen, testosterone coursing like fire through wherever it courses in adolescent boys, and there seemed no-one as beautiful and desirable in the entire world as Marilyn, and nor would there ever be again. Not while adolescent memories remain, at least.

   JFK. One warm November morning in 1963 round 6 am, my mother woke me, bearing tea and toast as she did daily before I went off to the dairy. She rarely swore, but she was outraged.

   "Some bast... swine has killed President Kennedy," she stormed. A child can't fail to be influenced by his mother's explosion of grief. As for most people in this country as far as I recall, Kennedy was even more godly than Menzies. (OK, Menzies was King Ming, but JFK was, in our little corner of the world, near to perfection incarnate. Or was.)

   So John F Kennedy (1917-1963) meets all my criteria too. Aged 46 when assassinated, at the height of his political career and personal popularity, lauded, lionised, and loved, his less savoury secrets still hidden from too much public scrutiny, it is hard to imagine his legendary status ever being dented too much. I'd dearly love to see the true FBI records, though – if they still exist. 

   The great irony in choosing these two is the link between him and Marilyn Monroe. I mean, the truth about them both, singly and together.

   I guess those of us hit by the media attention to these icons for half a century have our theories on their deaths. In the absence of clear evidence, mine are no doubt driven by my own prejudices and suspicions, and therefore worth no more than anyone else's.

   Robert F Kennedy (1925-1968)? Assassinated just two months after Martin Luther King. Although in terms of intellect and social conscience a better man than his murdered brother, the shock of high political assassination had worn off somewhat by the time of his death. But both are on my list.

   In case you're wondering, this isn't all about politicians or charismatic populist leaders. A brief mention of a couple more and we'll get to the business end of the story – the top two. And a candidate I didn't think of. You can read on, or save it till later if you're still interested.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sea, mountains, and a painting

Some bright spark once said, "There are two types of people: those who make lists, and those who don't."

   I think there are two types of people: those born or have lived a long time within sight, sound and smell of the sea, and those who have not.

   I have always been a sea person. I was born in a hospital on a hill within sight of the ocean, and the sea was never far away. In my first days of life in the afternoon sou'easters on the hospital's verandah, I would have absorbed the salt-laden air and integrated the ocean with my being. 

   This created my world of three elements – sea, land, and sky. Sea to the east, land in the western half of consciousness and the dome of sky above. Yin and yang, you might say; and, well... Jung. A new day began with the sun climbing out of the ocean, and it ended lost in the trees to the west.

   The sea always represented a psychological "out". I can't describe it any other way. It was limitless. Beyond the waves breaking on the sand, it stretched infinitely to the east until it met the sky in a perfectly straight line separating two differing blues. I don't know the painter's name for the right shades but everyone knows those colours. One surely must be Greek Blue.

   In my late teens, I used to paint pictures of that sea and sky; sand in front, breakers on a shoreline bordered by cliffs. They were always pretty much the same, on the grounds that you can't easily improve on perfection. The cliffs shouldn't have been there but I liked painting cliffs, so they occupied the same spot in nearly every painting, to the north and south of the ocean - a body of water which should probably have been either the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel. Don't ask.

   I put what I believed to be the best of these paintings on the lounge-room wall in my mother's house overlooking the harbour.

   The one thing it had in common with all the others of the same genre was that it was awful. How pained my artist mother must have been to endure its awfulness, particularly when she and all my sisters were much better at painting than I. Or when guests came and maybe thought the painting was one of her efforts. But no way would she hurt my feelings and take it down while I was living under her roof.

   Perhaps she should have put a sign under it: 


   I wouldn't have minded at the time. I would have taken it as a seal of approval, i.e., appropriate acknowledgment of a son's talents by a proud mother whose paintings graced many a wall round the country.

   My surf-and-sea painting did disappear without trace a few months later when I left to go to Brisbane for full-time university study. I never saw it again, nor any of the other monstrosities of its ilk, and I'm eternally grateful for the fact that they all must have gone to a good home at the garbage tip within 24 hours of the Datsun 1000 and the budding artist hitting the road for Brizzie.

   But I've strayed where I never intended. Back to the point.

   Although I have never lost this yearning for the sea, I've lived the longer part of my life away from the coast, up here on the New England plateau.  What I noticed most keenly when I first came here was that hills surrounded me completely. The eastern segment of my elemental triangle was gone. Sometimes I felt a kind of suffocation by this loss.

   At least in places like Armidale, we can drive off the edge of the high country to the east and be at the seaside in two hours. Psychologically, that's as close to home as I feel, though I've got used to the Tableland now and couldn't bear the humidity of long summers by the sea.

Sappho. c. 600 BCE
   These musings were brought back with great vividness to me by the "...violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho", whose poetry from 2700 years ago has an unmatched beauty and richness. The coastal dwellers, those who tread the white sands of the Australian beaches, will appreciate this more than anyone else:
Lo, where the white-maned horses of the surge,
Plunging in thunderous onset to the shore,
Trample and break and charge along the sand!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Infusiastic reprieves

My Avastin infusion came round again today. It happens in a three-week cycle.

   Today was different.

   The first treatment with this drug was in September 2010, when I was fading fast and expected to die in a short time.

   A cannula is inserted into a vein, usually on the back of the hand, and a dose is dripped into my bloodstream. It looks just like I'm having intravenous chemotherapy, but the drug Avastin is what's going in.

   It saved (extended, let's be more accurate) my life. Every month, the tumour had been getting more and more out of control, in spite of everything we and available medical science could throw at it. 

   Avastin halted in its growth, but this sort of tumour doesn't go away. It can only be slowed down – if you're lucky.

   A critical test before each infusion measures the amount of protein in urine. If the kidneys can't process it properly, it indicates that kidney function is failing. If that's so, then Avastin will only increase the damage to the kidney, with the inevitable outcome.

   Usually it doesn't matter, because the statistics show that the tumour will kill the person before the kidneys fail. But in my case, I've survived for far longer than the norm, yet each treatment brings me closer to the point where what saves me becomes what may kill me by another means. The graph will reach a crossover point, but stopping the treatment will allow the tumour to rebound, with lethal effect.

   Before every infusion I had no great concerns about the protein test, as it always registered an acceptable level. That was until June this year. On the last day of May, I fell heavily, and it resulted in a compression fracture of the spine, some bodily bruising and kidney pain.

   The next time I was due to have Avastin, the protein reading was unacceptably high. It's measured in plusses.
No + is normal. Protein is being processed.
+ shows some kidney failure, but by itself of no great concern.
++ puts me in the danger zone, and
+++ means treatment can't proceed.
That first reading after the fall was +++. I've blogged what happened as a result (see entry for Friday, 8 June 2012 3:00 PM), but the gist of the story is that the level fell to + and treatment has continued ever since, at that reading.

   So you can imagine that each protein test every three weeks, just before the infusion, is an anxious time for me. Not to be melodramatic, it's life or death. (If you think it's melodrama, then sit in my chair waiting for the protein test results come back. It's no wonder that my blood pressure reading is 20-30 above normal when they take it, just before the protein test.)

   Today, the protein reading was ++. I had the feeling it might be up.

   This meant a decision couldn't be taken by the staff at the hospital but had to be referred to an oncologist, usually mine. He was out of the country and unavailable. In this case, the decision was handed over to a second oncologist who didn't know me.

   After a rather excruciating wait, the decision came. The infusion would go ahead. Just as easily it could have gone the other way, probably with the recommendation to conduct urine testing similar to that just after the fall, to see if there was any beneficial difference.

   At best that would have caused a significant delay in treatment, enabling the tumour to reactivate further; at worst, a suspension, possibly permanently, of Avastin.

   That day will come. There is nothing surer. I'm grateful for the extension that Avastin has given me and I wish there were some way I could help protect the kidney more than I try to do using common sense.

   I used to whine when the nurse couldn't find a decent vein first time and had to try a second or third time. She had to today, but there was no whining from me. After getting the nod for the treatment, she could have prodded around for an hour till she got a vein with volume, and I wouldn't have cared about the series of bee-stings.

   So, this is my life. Every three weeks, it hangs in the balance based on a simple test, while I live in earnest hope that nothing else unpleasant happens any other day or night.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How to make a choice

We've all been in the position where we have to make a choice between two ways, or things. Some are difficult, because we can see the merits of both choices, or their disadvantages.

   But... we can't have both. We must choose – how?

   The easiest way is to flip a coin, or something similar. If you don't have one handy, there are even sites online that allow you a random choice!

   But, this leaves your decision almost completely to chance.

   You can still flip a coin and have a strong element of choice. All it requires is a quick, simple moment of real honesty with yourself.

   Next time you're in this position and it comes down to two choices, do this.

   Think carefully about what the two alternatives are, and choose heads for A and tails for B.

   Flip the coin.

   Unless it ends up on edge, which doesn't happen very often, there's your choice.

   Wait. No, not quite. This is the good bit.

   Because when it lands, you have to think honestly – the moment of truth – was I a tiny bit happy, or was I a little disappointed, when it came down that way?

   If you were secretly happy, go with it. But....

   If you felt a little pang, a tinge of disappointment, then you know.

   You really wanted the other choice – or, at least, would have felt happier with it.

   So go with that reaction. Forget the way the coin landed. It's now irrelevant. Your choice was there all along. Now you recognise it. Choose the one you were content with, and don't look back.

   Choices are things we have to make. If they're irrevocable, then I offer you one thing that's guided my life, particularly when I had (and perhaps will have) to make life and death decisions about my future.

   There are no right and wrong decisions. We will never know what the outcome would have been if we'd gone the other way. Maybe it seems we made a mistake, but who can say? All we've done is to think carefully about something, weighed it up on the basis of the best information we have, and chosen a path. With the benefit of hindsight, if it seems not to have been the best choice, and we're still alive, all we can do is learn from it.

   That's what has guided my life decisions. Not the flip of the coin when flipping the coin, but making a sincere choice and accepting its consequences.

   There's no rewind button in life. It goes only in one direction, and that's forward. That's actually what karma is, not that damn fool stuff about fate. All handing things over to 'fate' does is to weaken us, when we can and should accept responsibility when we have to make choices.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sharks and the cookie monster [final]

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sharks | cookie monster
We have many dear friends and those featured in this incident are as dear as anyone could have. Sometimes, one of the two, an excellent cook who, for reasons I don't understand, objects to being called a chefette, makes us dinner and delivers it to our place.

   She lived for some years in Thailand, and by means I don't know or ask extracted the true secrets of Thai cooking from a kitchen maid or two. Thus when we get a delivery from her of a Southeast Asian curry, we know we are in for a treat. She brings along herbal and any other accessories, with strict instructions on what to do with them to accompany the meal.

   To disguise her identity I'll call her Jacqui, an abbreviation of her full first name. Normally I would spell 'Jacqui' more casually, as she has never been one for pretence or pretension, but this spelling of mine should do the trick.

"Rock Cake" [i.e., Johnny Cake]
   Not content with supplying the main course, she threw in a container of rock cakes. Yes, strictly speaking they are not on the menu of any Thai restaurant. I don't know what you call them where you come from, but round Calliope they were known as Johnny Cakes. This settles the matter really given that Calliope spelling overrules all others including the OED, but for the purposes of this story I'll retain 'Rock Cakes' as the name, hereinafter referred to as RCs.

   Because she stayed for a cup of tea on the delivery run, the RCs became irresistible to us. Well, to me. I demanded one, which extended by the end of our afternoon tea to two. Look, I'm on a minimal dose of steroid, which I can't avoid but which has the unfortunate effect of keeping me in a state of permanent hunger, so don't blame me. Sheer greed has nothing to do with it.

   Next morning, I was much alarmed by my observation that only two of the rock cakes remained in the container. That's right. Two.

   I did some calculations. There had to have been at least a dozen RCs in the whole batch delivered. There are three people in this household.  Therefore, by morning, two suspects had scoffed eight RCs between them.

   Now that's sort of OK, given that an even allocation of RCs is four each. I wasn't that concerned about one of the suspects, but admit to a small fragment of doubt even there, on account of what happens to chocolate in this household.

   I did harbour more serious suspicions about the third member of the household, who on that day had done hours on an SES callout, apart from serious running and other exercise I won't go into but involve long periods of self-inflicted muscular agony. It also included ninety minutes of what he calls Tactical Defence but what his mother calls Mortal Combat.

   What I mean is, he comes home starving, eats the entire contents of the fruit bowl, a bucket-sized container of any cereal quaking fearfully in the pantry, has dinner and stays up late.

   There's where my suspicions of possible inequity lay – his late snack urgency after serious computing, including redesigning the inside of a fully functioning Tardis. Oh, you think I'm making that last bit up, don't you? You don't know him. I've seen it, and it's brilliant. In three dimensions, sound and movement, together with long explanations about the fourth dimension and its design effects on the interior of the Tardis.

   Anyway, I had no concrete evidence about the RC deficit, I admit, but I've seen what hunger does to him, and hunger in a 20 year old youth has no conscience, nor any concept of mathematics. It turns his stomach into a sort of Tardis. You get the picture.

   So all I had to go on was the evidence of two forlorn RCs huddled in a corner of their container. This was serious. I contacted the chefette Jackie Jacqui and she said there were fifteen RCs in the batch. She is a scientist of some note, and found no difficulty multiplying five by three rows.

   Fearing that a pre-breakfast raid by the same party might see the demise of the remaining RCs while I was on study duty, I penned this diplomatic note, and placed it strategically in the container.

Please note proper grammar

   As it turned out, my suspicions were without foundation. Both members of the household had done their calculations with precision and eaten the right number per person.

   But hang on. Fifteen, Jacqui said. One-five. There was something seriously amiss here.

   I contacted the male member (NOTE TO SELF: use other wording for the man of that house) of the Jacqui household to query the numbers and to make sure his wife wasn't off the planet on something else she'd slipped into her own version of the rock cakes.

   In return, I got this (slightly skittish, I thought) note from said husband, portions of which I reproduce below.

Dear Denis

So that’s where the rock cakes went.

It is my practice on Thursdays, when I am on a course, to not have lunch and I come home quite famished and have a pot of tea and whatever Jac*** has made to accompany it.

Yesterday as the kettle was boiling I started looking around to see what was there.  I saw the bowls on the sink so I knew that there had been some culinary endeavour.

Jac*** then appeared and showed me a container with what I can only say was a pitifully small number of rock cakes in it. After I had the statutory two there wasn’t much left.

She was a little coy about what had happened to the others but now I know.

While I am keen to come and see you both I am at least as keen to know if your mate Watto, or more importantly, his good lady wife, has been in to see you in recent times.

If you had any idea how good a cook Watto's wife is too, you would understand the significance of the last sentence. It definitely makes putting up with me worthwhile for him if we offer guests slim portions of this manna from Heaven (or Kentucky, Australia). Anyway, Jacquie's husband's note explains the missing last three rock cakes, which I can't seriously begrudge him.

   All good. Apologies for my unfounded suspicions to other members of my ménage. I ate my two rock cakes within hours, just to be sure there could be no further misunderstandings.

   And Jackie Jacqui? As I said to her, 'You, wonderful woman, are a legend in our mealtime.'

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Clayton's explanation

I suspended a series "Pants on Fire" even though there was an interesting discussion going on. It's not lost, but it caused me some stress because it was clear that, in order to clarify things in other forums where it has generated debate, I would have to spend more time and energy doing so than I was prepared to put into it.

   Leaving it on will only generate more discussion elsewhere that I'm not prepared to have right now.

   These two, time and energy, are in short supply right now. I am sorry not to have responded to some comments, but they are not lost. For the moment, I have other priorities on how I wish to spend my blogging time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sharks and the cookie monster 1

'You don't want the Sharks.'

   She was a young girl serving, (if that's the right word, which it isn't), in the shoe store, and she looked at me disapprovingly.

   'I don't?' I said, 'Why not?'

   It could be that I was in trackpants that had been in the wash two thousand times (and looked like it) and a faded top to match.

   She just looked at me. 'You don't.'

   OK, she looked like she'd just come out of the Brand New Krispy Kleen packet, not a brown curl out of place and the slickest footwear I'd ever seen, with everything in between in exactly the right spot, and I may not have seemed like someone who could afford the Sharks.

   'Bring me out a pair. Size 8.'

   I tried them on and they fitted like... well... a glove. Gloves. I don't know how I tied the laces, given that I take five minutes to do so at the best of times and not with a Miss Precious looking on, but they were no problem. I stamped about in them, similar to the way you kick the tires when buying a used car.

   Her disapproval was almost tangible, or would have been except that she kept a safe distance from my dishevelment as if it were contagious. The corners of her mouth turned down.

   'I'll take them.'

   She looked like someone who'd been forced to yield up a silk purse to, or possibly cast pearls before, a member of the hog family with an ear missing.

   Maybe that's how she makes all her sales to blokes a bit long in the tooth. The old fools can't stand the challenge to their authorit-air and she makes a whopping commission. I give her credit for not breaking character from beginning to end, though. And just possibly she could have been right about my choice.

   Then I woke up, needing to go to the bathroom. It was 5.35 am today. The dream was longer than that, but the remainder lacks any re-tale quality.

   Analyse that, you Freudian freaks!

   By the way, I don't have the faintest idea if there's a line of sports footwear called Sharks, but it's a great name, and I'll bet it's been done.

   I just checked. Bloody hell. Quelle dang surprise!

   And the cookie monster? It's coming. Gimme a break.

Sharks. Thanks, Stan Smith You're a legend.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Getting things a little bit wrong

Defenseless America 
by Hudson Maxim [1915]

This book has been sitting in my 'things to write about' file for a long time. I've included this excerpt from it here because it illustrates something all of you who look forward to decades of existence on this planet in the 21st Century must bear in mind: how impossible it is to predict a future when ideas are set in the past, and when you have no real concept of what influences change.

   This military man, pontificating earnestly about a future of which he could not conceive, is a beautiful example. If I were reading this in 1915, it would have seemed perfectly logical.

   Ironically, if he had published it in 1919 and not 1915, he would not have written many of the things he says here – well, not if he had any sense. Yet his view would have been very persuasive at the start of World War 1.

   The book is also fascinating and revealing about some fundamentals of the American military world view which have changed little in a hundred years, but that's another story.


Aviation makes a strong appeal to the imagination, and this fact, together with errors and misconceptions in the popular mind concerning the use and power of high explosives, has led to many strange predictions and weird conclusions about the destruction which dirigibles and aëroplanes would be capable of doing by dropping bombs from the sky.

Since the advent of aviation, many inventors have directed their energies to aërial bombs and bomb-dropping appliances. There have been, from time to time, fearful forecasts of the destruction of warships, coast fortifications, and large cities; for it was claimed that air-craft would be able to drop explosive bombs capable of wrecking the heaviest battleship and of blowing up coast fortifications and utterly laying waste cities and towns. It was predicted that the aëroplane would be able, with its bombs, to scatter armies like chaff before the whirlwind.

The hopes of those who have believed in such dire destructiveness of bomb-dropping from air-craft have been dashed to the ground, with the bombs they have dropped. Of course, aviators may drop any form of infernal machine which, on exploding, will mangle by-standers with fragments of scrap iron, but the effect must necessarily be very local.


There is probably no one subject about which there is more popular error than concerning the use and destructive effects of high explosives.

An anarchist once attempted to blow up London Bridge with two small sticks of dynamite, and succeeded merely in getting himself into trouble. At another time, a dynamiter entered the Houses of Parliament and exploded ten pounds of dynamite in one of the large corridors, with the result that it only made a hole in the floor and smashed a few windows.  

At Sandy Hook, several years ago, an experiment was tried with two hundred pounds of guncotton exploded against a twelve-inch plate, immediately back of which were placed a cage containing a rooster and a hen, and another cage containing a dog. The guncotton was hung against the plate and detonated. The effect upon the plate was nil. On examination, it was found that the dog and the two fowl had been made rather hard of hearing. That was the only noticeable effect upon the animals.

We all remember the test of the big, eighteen-inch Gathmann gun at Sandy Hook about twelve years ago, which threw a bomb containing six hundred pounds of compressed guncotton that was exploded against the face of a twelve-inch Kruppized plate. The first shot produced no visible effect except a yellow smudge on the face of the plate. It took three shots even to crack the plate and to shift it in its setting.

In competition with the Gathmann gun, a twelve-inch army rifle was fired against another plate of the same size and thickness and mounted in the same manner. The projectile contained only twenty-three pounds of Maximite. Yet, as the projectile penetrated the plate before the Maximite was exploded, a hole was blown through it a yard wide, and it was broken into several pieces.

These tests proved the effectiveness of even a small quantity of high explosive when properly confined, as by explosion after penetration, and the utter ineffectiveness of a large mass of high explosive when not confined or when exploded on the outside of a body.

Bombs carried by an airship and dropped upon the deck of a battleship may damage the superstructure a little, but they can have no material effect upon the ship itself, unless they are made heavy enough and strong enough, with the proper armor-piercing shape, and are dropped from a sufficient height to pierce the deck. Not unless the bomb can be made to penetrate an object before exploding can it effect much destruction.

At Santiago, the Vesuvius, with its pneumatic guns, threw several six-hundred-pound bombs, and exploded them on the Spanish fortifications, but the effect was wholly insignificant.

Several years ago, when the subway was being built, a dynamite magazine accidentally exploded in front of the Murray Hill Hotel. The magazine probably contained at least a ton of dynamite. A lot of windows were broken in the vicinity, some persons were injured, and a multitude badly scared, but the damage done even to the Murray Hill Hotel was comparatively small.

It has been predicted that Germany would send across the Channel a large fleet of airships and blow up British towns with the bombs that her great gas-bags might drop out of the heavens.

Now, at last, the much-vaunted and long-anticipated Zeppelin invasion has come, and what is the result? Four peaceful citizens killed, and about ten thousand dollars' worth of property damage.

Let us suppose that the Germans should send a fleet of a hundred airships to drop bombs upon the city of London, returning to Germany each day for a new supply; and let us suppose that each airship should carry explosives enough to destroy two houses every day, which would be far more than they could actually average. Yet, if this aërial fleet should be able to destroy two hundred houses a day, or say, roughly, sixty thousand houses a year, it would succeed in destroying just about the annual growth of London, for that city has, during the past ten years, built sixty thousand new houses every year.

The dirigible balloon has one signal advantage over the aëroplane in the matter of bomb-dropping. It can both carry bigger bombs and remain stationary and hover while it drops them. With the aëroplane, however, there is necessarily great difficulty in hitting underlying objects, on account of the high speed at which it must travel to sustain flight. In order to float, an aëroplane must travel about thirty miles an hour. Even at this speed, it is moving forward at the rate of forty-four feet a second, and as a bomb travels at the same speed as the aëroplane, except for the retardation of the air, it moves forward forty-four feet the first second, while dropping sixteen feet. The next second the bomb falls sixty-four feet and moves forward forty-four feet, and so on.
[...and on, and on, and on.]

Ah, the profound wisdom of hindsight we gain after a century of improving devices to kill people and blow things up. We're way from done with that yet. Cheer up. We can only get better at it.

Defenseless America is a free download in a variety of formats here. I don't expect a rush for it, but it has its moments.