You Lost Me At ‘Baby Shoes’

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A hundred years ago, when your defatigable blogger and his ex-wife-to-be were both students, the only ways to communicate across distances, like the sides of their Nottingham-York-Manchester triangle, were carrier pigeon, post, and telephone. And remember the last two were what might now be referred to as snailmail and landlines.

Being without benefit of columbidae and only able to use said phones in boxes situated in the Students’ Unions, much of our discourse was carried on in writing, posted regularly, though not in quantities that would furnish an epistolatory novel in the time of Richardson. But a certain volume was expected. Even by the standards of the time, Yours Truly was a compulsive correspondent. At one point, having written to all the friends and family I could think of, I actually picked a random name out of the Greater Manchester phone book and sent them an anonymous and chatty letter. I didn’t give my own name and address, and it began (if memory serves) “You don’t know me, but I’m in a letter-writing mood and have run out of people to write to.”

To this day I occasionally wonder how they reacted, and how soon it completely left their mind.

The thing is, that I was often severely reprimanded by my belovéd, should any letter be shorter than four sides of well-filled eight by ten. Even if she or I were due to take the transpennine train for a weekend of rumpy and, in a very real sense, pumpy, a few days later, a copious amount of waffle was expected. Even mothers and other friends might reply to a single sheet with, is that all you have to tell me?

(as an aside, the dear but sarky mater would react to any extended hiatus by sending a letter addressed To whomsoever finds this letter, and beginning: Do you have any information as to the health or whereabouts of a Mr David Lowe, my long-lost son …)

How things have changed.

My last dear heart, still so painfully missed, would reply to any e-mail of more than one short paragraph with a plaintive question as to why I had to go on at such length.

The abbreviation (appropriately) ubiquitously used to express such impatience is TLDRToo Long, Didn’t Read. It’s now an accepted dismissal, even of short stories, so I wonder how many goodreads reviews consist of just those four letters. Sorry Victor, sorry Lev Nikolayevich, those books of yours are far too long, can you give us a one-page synopsis? Actually half a page would be better.
Summarize Proust indeed.

Now, I don’t deny prolixity is one of my traits, and I know there are times when wallowing in the sounds of words is not helpful to communication (though at some times it’s essential to put one’s idea across). But I can’t be happy about this glorification of the attenuated attention span.

Having said that, who am I to blow against the wind (as Paul Simon says in that rather wordy song of his)?

This post is far too long already. Laters.

 

*Title: there is an unsubstantiated legend that Ernest Hemingway once proved he could write a story in just six words  — For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Bletherskite!

 

The Suspense is Killing Me

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When your humble blogger appeared on tv game show, Tipping Point, the witty intellectuals who follow the show on Twitter were quick to put up screen shots of him, along with insulting comments (as they do about most contenders, to be fair), including suggestions that I collect porn and should be kept away from small children for sexual reasons.

OK, I took it in good humour [humor] and gave as good as I got, replying to the claim that I have two terabytes of porn on my hard drive, with a simple, “Three!”

These accusations still sit on the twitter stream, without sanction and potentially harmful to me if seen and taken out of context by the ‘wrong’ sort of people (after all if a pædiatrician‘s home can be targeted by the ignorant…).

But my twitter account has just been suspended, and all because I tweeted,
Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire”.

This apparently breaches their rule that I should not give out personal information, without the express permission of the person involved.

Trouble is, Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire doesn’t exist. In fact Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire doesn’t exist either, which can be easily verified.

Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire is simply the name which I have used for decades now, in response to any rhetorical question, such as Who says you can’t have chips [fries] with every meal? or Who cares where Boris Johnson goes for the weekend? and so on.

In a similar vein of smartarsery [smartassery], I always used to carry a piece of string, six and a half inches in length, to produce, with a triumphant cry of Six and a half inches! when anyone said, How long is a piece of string?

Not big and not particularly clever, I admit, but I have used the response, Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire many, many times on Twitter and other antisocial media platforms for ages, with nary an issue.

The rule about giving out details is perfectly understandable, even on a site which happily tolerates downright lies, hate speech and random accusations of gross turpitude, but still this sudden suspension wracks me with questions, that the bland responses to appeals (we have reviewed and still say you’re in breach) do nothing to clear up.

Why has Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire suddenly become unacceptable after all these years? Has someone complained or has the algorithm that checks been updated?

How does one indicate that one is posting a made-up person or name, to avoid suspension? Must all such jocularity fall victim to the new puritanism?

Were there a real person called Mrs Gladys Weems (of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire or elsewhere), how would twitter know I didn’t have the aforementioned express permission to use her details? How could I log that I do, so I can once again and with confidence and impunity post the name of Mrs Gladys Weems of 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire?

If all they look for is a name and address, would one get suspended for a tweet saying Mr Sherlock Holmes of 221b Baker Street in That London?

It’s not a hill I wish to die on, so I will delete the tweet and get back to tweeting what I’m eating, as well as wielding the shining and good-humoured [good-humored] sword of truth among the haters and nutters on political and philosophical as well as gameshow battlegrounds.

If it must be so that I lay her to rest, a memorial service will be held for Mrs Gladys Weems once covid restrictions are relaxed. Please send floral tributes to 24 Acacia Avenue, Trowbridge in Wiltshire, marked –

if undelivered, please forward to
Twitter Headquarters
20 Air Street, That London

What are the Odds? [IV]

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Last week I was wittering on about having a number of dice that represent our chances of getting cancer — or indeed any illness, including Covid-19. The more dice, the more frequent the throws, the higher the chances of throwing the fateful number of sixes.

Just as one can choose to keep the number of those dice down, one is usually trying to manipulate the odds in life, in all sorts of areas. Skilled backgammon players will play apparently risky moves, as they try to place pieces such that few of the possible throws will benefit their opponent, and a wider range of the following throws will be to their advantage (giving the less experienced the uncanny but erroneous feeling that Lady Luck is not at all fond of them); likewise, we can take steps to minimise the chances of getting or spreading an infection, while keeping the levels of annoyance or inconvenience as low as we can.

In the case of our friend the coronavirus, we apply things we know, we check various sources about the latest scientific knowledge, and we make our moves based on that and what our fellow players (other people) are doing.

[Note that the conspiracy nutter’s do your research, sheeple! is not the same thing; that means, watch some fruitcake’s video ranting for an hour or more, with a few cherry-picked fact thrown in, but don’t then check alternative sources or actual scientific papers that might refute it.]

Firstly, load up the fact that it is a virus that first takes hold in the ACE receptors of the nasal passages, that it is carried in droplets, even aerosol sized, that we can pick it up off surfaces, some of which it lives on for a few days, etc etc, and that the larger the initial viral load, the worse we are likely to get hit. And of course that the older or sicker we are, the more likely it is that the outcome will be bad — though remembering we still know too little about the long term effects on those who seem for now to be unaffected or to recover fully. This all tells us what sort of quantities the covid dice come in and where to find them. So now we can take steps to tweak those odds.

Given the experience and outcomes in communities like, say, the Japanese, who wear masks habitually (and have done, especially in times of flu or other contagions, since the devastation of the 1919 pandemic), as well as the evidence and research regarding droplet and aerosol spread, it seems undeniable that wearing a mask, even a simple double-cloth one, will reduce my chances of catching it should it be in the air around me, will at least reduce the load I take in at any given time, and more importantly will reduce considerably the chances of me spreading it should I be infected but symptomless. And wearing a mask is no big deal, surely. It’s nicer not having to bother, of course it is, but once you get used to it, even a speccy-four-eyes like me can almost forget it’s there. On the other hand, in not-too-crowded places out in the open, it may not be worth the effort. Especially in windy places like Scotland.

Given our knowledge of the structure of viri, particularly that fragile fatty coating (and being aware that they start dying off as soon as they get out into the big bad world), it also seems obvious that making sure I wash my hands with lashings of soap when I get home and before I touch anything else, will reduce the number of the little bastards I bring into the flat. Again, a minor inconvenience, and one even a slob like me realises would be correct practice anyway. With many of life’s little nasties, particularly bacteria, I’m one of those who thinks you gotta meet a few to beat a few. But when the contagion could lead to much nastitude (two people of my acquaintance have died of Covid-19, both a little younger than me), and we still don’t know whether survivors will have lasting immunity, I think I’d like to chuck as many of those wee dice away as I can, if all it takes is a wash.

In the early days, I confess, I was wary of masking. And, for the same reasons, I still think there should be a caveat, with that and with washing. Just sticking your hands under a tap (faucet) and rubbing them together with a bit of soap would not be acceptable for a surgeon, nor should it be for us. Similarly, putting a mask over nose and mouth, only to fiddle with it incessantly, causing the possibly virus-laden fingers to come into even more contact with eyes, mouth and nose than usual, could cause more harm than good (to that extent at least, Trump is not totally wrong). So if we really want to reduce the odds, to beat Grim Reaper Bookmakers Inc, rather than playing into their hands by giving ourselves a false feeling of security (like my Dad’s old ‘law of averages’), we gotta do the thorough wash, fingernails and all, and learn to be mindful of not touching faces and how we wear and handle them there masks.

But we don’t need to get paranoid or neurotic about it. People in the media pointing out the simple fact that we have a highly virulent and potentially deadly thing going round aren’t scare-mongering, any more than road safety people are when they point out that being hit by a speeding vehicle can be very unpleasant. I’m not terrified into being careful about how I cross the street, I just like to keep those odds low by looking and all that shit.

[Incidentally it bugs me when people say you’re more likely to be killed crossing the street than … The statistics for folks being run over, include all the drunks, the nutters, the runners-for-buses and so on; the actual odds of a careful pedestrian being knocked down, much less killed, are far lower — not zero, I grant you, but not all that high. OK, moan over]

Another idea, no doubt put out there by the forces of nastiness, is folks saying, If masks stop it, why the washing thing? And if washing stops it, why do we need masks? Well, the gambler’s approach answers that, for those who might just be taken in by it. And some do seem to be, even letting it be used as an argument to ‘prove’ that the whole thing is a hoax; well, I think Ralph and David will be glad to hear that they aren’t actually dead, and maybe all the millions of people, like my paramedic and doctor friends, who have been keeping up the pretence, would be relieved to stand down. But if you think of masks, washing, distancing and all the rest as simply ways to keep the odds down to whatever level is comfortable for you, it makes sense that all measures have a contribution to make. I mean, why do we need brakes, seat belts and airbags, if each of them prevents traffic injury? Proves that nobody really gets killed on the road. Which is nice to know.

Now, I am aware that I am in a privileged position, albeit in a higher risk age-group. I have few friends, no partner, no offspring and what there is of my family live quite a way off, South of the Border, down Nottingham way. More importantly, I am not just a miserable old git, but a retired miserable old git; no job to worry about, a just-about-managing state pension and rent relief; so all this means none of the stresses of furlough, job loss or going to an office full of coughing party animals on crowded public transport (normally I actually miss travelling on the London Underground — less so these days). I do sympathise with more ‘normal’ folk, very much, but to me, that just makes it even more important to keep those dice down.

A final comment about odds. The whole thing can be kinda paradoxical. Until recently at least, here in Scotland and in other currently less blighted countries, the odds that anyone I pass in the street or in the supermarket actually has the virus secreted about their person is extremely low. And if we go about our lives assuming this to be the case, not bothering or being assiduous with distancing, masking and washing etc, it could quite rapidly (see earlier blogs and any number of antisocial media posts on exponential maths) escalate until everybody has it. But if we assume that everybody has it, it will continue to be the case that hardly anybody does.  Maybe it’s grasping that simple but contradictory fact that most people have trouble with. And that could be chucking dice at us, hand over feckin’ fist.

Stay healthy, people — if ye can.

 

 

What are the odds? [III]

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On a number of occasions throughout my life, the world of sport has been troubled by match-fixing scandals. I remember when the Liverpool goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar was accused of taking part in such activities for a betting syndicate. He was later cleared, but so many people seemed baffled. How can the goalie guarantee to change the result of a game (without making his cheating utterly obvious)? Even if he doesn’t quite reach a ball that he could have stopped, there are 21 other guys out there doing their stuff and ten of them might be pumping balls into the net at the other end, thwarting any desire to throw the game.

The point is that one man’s activities can’t guarantee any given result but they will change the odds. The change may only be slight, but consider this: when the bookies are offering ten to one on a certain outcome, it means they estimate the odds to be somewhat shorter than that, and set their price based on that calculation. the idea is to make themselves a profit but keep the bet tempting. Fine calculations made by highly experienced people allow them to avoid the poverty that my Grandfather would have taken as his cue to ‘take up gambling’. The professional gambler is always looking for the times when those calculations may be slightly out; and the crooked syndicate is always looking for ways to create that discrepancy. And over a period of time, a number of matches, that one man, allowing maybe one goal in every few games, can tweak those odds, so that unscrupulous people, betting, remember, thousands of pounds on each game, will come up with a sizeable — and illegal — profit.

OK, you’ve got the message now that your geeky blogger is fascinated by chance and probability and chaos and all that shit, so how does that apply to life, particularly in the area of health?

The first or the most prominent idea that has bounced around in the cavernous void I call a brain, is an analogy for that much-feared family of diseases known as cancers. We know that all occur when a cell of some type ‘goes wrong’ and becomes an immortal rogue, making multiple copies but refusing to die off. We know that certain lifestyle choices can make this more or less likely to happen. We most of us understand that other things like simply getting older can increase the chances too. The apparent increase in cancers is, at least in part, accounted for by the fact that more of us live long enough to have a go at it.

On the other hand, we are prone to letting anecdotal evidence bias us against understanding the real risk. We’ve probably all met someone who told us their grandfather smoked two million cigarettes a day, drank beer like a very thirsty and alcoholic fish, and ate ‘four fish suppers’ every evening (that’s ‘four bloody large portions of fish and chips’, for readers outside Scotland), and lived to be a very lively hundred and thirty-seven.

That’s because, as has been said in previous posts, we do not have an intuitive understanding of how probabilities work. Far more heavy smokers will, like my grandfather, have been carried off by lung cancer, despite having given up in his fifties, and even the fit granddad of legend will probably have started many a day coughing his lungs up too.

I can’t recall how or when the dice metaphor came to me, but basically it is as follows:

On the day of your birth, you are given a large(ish) quantity of dice. The bog-standard, six-sided chaps. Every day, you throw all these dice; if they all come up six, you have got cancer.

For the sake of the general metaphor, we can ignore things like the difference between developing one or just a few cancer cells (which we probably do often, only to have our immune system kick them out), and a cancer actually taking hold and getting on with the business of growing. And the exact number of dice would have to be worked out by medical statisticians. Just to put the idea across, let’s call it fifty dice, all of which need to be sixes for you to have a diagnosable cancer, that needs but may not be fully cured by treatment.

Now it’s obvious that the chances of throwing fifty sixes on fifty dice are pretty remote (roughly one in 800,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, if you care), so it won’t be something that needs to worry the new-born you. Needing a go at the milk bar or a change of clothing in the nether regions will probably take up most of your worrying time, and so it should. There’s plenty of time to develop more complex neuroses later.

The thing is though, that as life goes on, you keep being handed more dice. Simply getting older (especially in later life) is enough to give you a few more each year, but certain habits and occasions, like, indeed, smoking, or simply living in certain environments, with pollution, background radiation, and so on and so forth, will cause you to get more dice on your birthdays than folks with other habits or in other settings. Every few cigarettes or slices of smoked meat, there’s another of those damned cubes. Ingesting polonium particles due to having annoyed some politician somewhere, comes with a dumper truck full of the things, but most events and activities will add but a few. Yet they still mount up.

So each year, the number of dice you have to throw will get bigger, but here’s the thing — you still only have to throw fifty sixes to be stricken. Now I cannot be arsed to calculate any sort of tables or graphs to tell you what the actual chances are of throwing fifty (or more) sixes on x dice, and I’m sure you can’t either, but you’ll get the picture, I’m sure. Once you’re lugging around three hundred or more dice, the possibility of getting that tragic number could be a real cause for alarm. Of course, any gambler knows that the odds can be beaten and old Ned can indeed keep chucking six hundred smoking-related cubes onto the green baize table without ever quite clocking up the fateful minimum, but many others will be cashing in their chips at St Peter’s window while he does so.

But there is good news yet to hear, though the decent inn of death waits to welcome us, one and all — you can give some of those dice back. Just by quitting the coffin nails, my Grandpapa was reducing his stock little by little for a decade or two. By healthy eating and exercise, you can reduce the number that get added and even undo some earlier damage.

And there’s an important rub. Do you want to, and if so how badly? As one who is allergic to exercise and indeed most physical effort, I know I’m getting a few extra dice, but then I also know I don’t get the bonus set that ever having smoked would have won me. Among other mitigating circumstances, your honour, I do prepare a reasonably healthy diet from fresh ingredients most days. It’s all about balance. I can make an informed decision, however much I might regret it when that fatal fifty finally comes up and I feel its physical effects. But that decision seems so much simpler when we are young and throwing so few bones each year, the analogy’s equivalent of the perceived immortality of the young.

Like all analogies, I know this one isn’t a tight fit. But as a vague idea, giving me a picture to play with, the chance to think, ooh, that’s tempting but is it worth a handful of extra dice?, it has coloured (though maybe not had any beneficial influence on) my lifestyle decisions. As a miserable bastard, I have no real desire to prolong my life, I can’t deny that, but there are nicer ways of departing than those that a set of sixes can lead to, and that is also a factor for consideration.

 

So what of the current pandemic?

Next week, compadres.

What are the odds? [II]

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“Is this a game of chance?”
“Not the way I play it, no.”
[WCFields, My Little Chickadee (1940)]

My Dad had the popular belief in the ‘law of averages’. Not for nothing is the idea that a number must come up if it hasn’t for a while known as the gambler’s fallacy. It may have had something to do with his lack of success on the football pools, identifying and putting exes in the rows least favoured in past weeks. Sadly it may also have exacerbated his addiction to fruit machines that cost him his job in the 60s. Fair play to him for overcoming that problem by sheer willpower and rebuilding a moderately successful career thereafter.

I learned early not to follow that path, though one of the first programs I ever wrote was to fill in a pools coupon on that basis. In the second week, as it had little data and thus generated largely random choices, I didn’t bother to enter — annoyingly, because those random choices would have netted me the jackpot, something it never came close to doing again.

Sad and lonely though it makes me in general life, there is at least that one advantage to a love of probabilities and stats. I never fully assimilated the maths, but the concepts fascinate me. Ever since that first lecture when were shown that a room of 35 people has a better than 80% chance of including two who share a birthday, I’ve been hooked.

Also I love chaos and unpredictability (but never get me a surprise, I hate that; that’s different, cos you know what it is and I don’t and I hate being left out of a loop even with the intent of pleasing me yes I’m paranoid go away). My nephew went off to study physics, nervous about quantum theory, because he didn’t like probability. He now has an MA in nuclear physics, so I assume he got over that. Now I was geeky in many ways, but one thing I’ve never minded is randomness and chaos. I think I have reverse OCD; tidiness disturbs me (as you would know if you visited). More on that another day.

The more I read about stuff, the more a gambler’s view of ‘reality’ seems the right one. I think not in terms of out-and-out beliefs, but assessments of probabilities. I’m reasonably (say 99%) certain there’s no God, that the earth is an oblate spheroid and that the sun will rise tomorrow — and that my life will be just as shitty then as it is now. Other matters have different levels of confidence. And anxiety.

And so this leads me to use games and the devices of games in a metaphorical way to shine a light on life — sadly, not always illuminating the right bits.

As a lad, I was a swashbucklingly unsuccessful chess player. A bunch of us at skool tried our hands (ha ha) at bridge, and even had our own bidding system, designed to confuse opponents. Then we discovered that one of the rules of contract bridge is that an opponent may ask your partner what they understood your last bid to mean?! Wtf? So the joy of bidding two hearts to indicate that you have a playable hand but are void in the red romantics is gone if it lacks the intended element of bafflement. Not that this ever lasted more than a couple of hands anyway (a bid of one indicated one’s weakest suit; it is a viable and known system apparently, but not one that has ever found favour in the wider card-playing community).

Add to that the fact that one needs to remember what has been played, and I’m outa here. I don’t wish to count up the number of times I came close to serious injury, with exchanges like, “Why didn’t you play the king?” “I thought he might have the ace;” “You twat, I played the ace three tricks ago!!” At least I can see that I’m down to one rook, even if I can’t recall exactly how it happened (though I did start a kriegspiel club — chess where neither player can see the opponent’s pieces — of which more perhaps another day).

So I settled on backgammon. No need to remember what has gone before and no point in trying to keep a long-term strategy in mind, it was described by a medieval Moorish commentator as the perfect metaphor for life, where luck ruled our destinies but skilful play would still give better outcomes in the long run. A more sociable game therefore with opponents often up for a chat and a drink while playing, but worth a bit of thought — and my success at it indicates it is indeed a good analogy for my life (though I still think my phone app cheats).

 

It’s been a long and busy week, processing all those flash fictions, so I shall start applying this to life in part three. Bye bye for now

 

 

And the Winners Are …

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We regret to announce a delay in the production of What Are the Odds II. This is due to an excessive influx of entries to the Scottish Flash Fiction Awards, plus the announcement of the results of the Scottish Portrait Awards, for both of which (among others) your humble bloggist is admin wallah. Processing stories and payments from hopeful scribblers and dealing with correspondence from delighted and disappointed artists alike, is leaving little leeway to alliterate on here.

Should you be a writer of very short fiction, with six pounds to spare and a tale to tell in under 251 words, there is still time to get an entry in (I love making work for myself). Closing date Monday 31st Aug. Today we’ve already had entries from all over Scotland and as far afield as Dhaka and San Sebastian in Spainland.

Go to this link to read all about it.

And if you’re interested to see who won the Portrait Awards, with a sneak preview of some of the winners, like Ronnie Buddha here, go to

https://www.scottishportraitawards.com/

OK, gotta go, incoming flashers!

 

 

 

What are the Odds? [I] 

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My grandfather, John M Levy, was not a gambling man. Although he managed racecourses, and very successfully, for a living, he hardly knew one end of a horse from the other. Accountancy and business were his field, rather than the one the gee-gees were running round (though he had to be able to tell a soft going from a good-to-firm).
“I shall take up gambling,” he would say, “the day I see a poor bookmaker.”
A wise man, indeed. And I was wise enough to take this lesson on board. Whenever illicit gambling was going on at my school — I made sure I was the bookmaker.

And I’ve never been much of a gambler in the years that followed, being aware that my skill levels are not up to assessing the odds accurately, much less my luck up to winning. I’ve never paid poker or roulette; played in one backgammon tournament and crashed out quite early and bought but never won significantly on that ‘tax on stupidity’, the Lottery.

But as a bit of a maths geek, I am fascinated by the laws of chance, and have an appreciation of how the pro gambler is constantly looking for that slight glitch in the bookies’ odds. The only practical application of this in my life was a tendency to bet on Spain in international football tourneys. As el equipo famously underperformed on the big stage, the odds offered on them in Euro and World Cups were always between eight and ten to one, despite them having some of the best players, incredibly successful at club level (ie mainly Barça with a smattering of Real Madrid) from 2,000 onward.

Indeed, when I lived there, El Diario de Cádiz pointedly reported that Spain left the tournament due to a goalmouth miss by el milmilionario Raul (remember this was the time of pesetas, so billionaire is not quite as good as it may sound).

So in 2002, 2004, 2006 I dutifully lost ten quid at a time, but patience prevailed, and they won Euro 2008, paying out eighty pounds (plus my stake) leaving me fifty pounds up on the deal. Of course, after that the odds were never so good again, but the long game definitely worked.

But apart from that, not a gambler.

I was impressed at an early age by a radio talk given by grandson of Sigmund, brother of Lucian, humourist, broadcaster, writer, gourmet, member of Parliament and, it turns out, pædophile, Clement Freud. An inveterate and high stakes gambler himself, who had won and lost houses, and whose daughter, Emma, found in his jacket a huge bankroll from his last ever day at the races, he poured scorn on those people who would say, I only gamble with what I can afford. His response was that if you can afford it, you’re not gambling, merely buying some entertainment. And I can see the point. If I bet on a horse race, what was merely the pleasant but dull spectacle of some well-honed, majestic beasts running in a circle, becomes a nail-biting situation, even when it rapidly becomes evident that my horse is actually a donkey with only three legs and a wasting disease. And a bad cough. There is still the chance that the others will all fall down before they make it to the … oh; they didn’t.

But at the most I’ve usually only lost a tenner, and I’ve paid much more than that to enjoy a nice meal or a show.

I never quite matched my grandmother’s amazing talent of picking the winner every time — and then backing a different one (I was going to pick that one and then …), but still…

Which is why I rarely bet and never, by the Freudian definition, gamble. That way madness and destitution lies. And I no longer have such an income or savings that ‘what I can afford’ is a significant figure.

But, like I said at the start, probabilities and odds and all that stuff do fascinate me, and they apply in so many aspects of my word view. And what can all this have to do with  life and death and cancer, much less coronavirus?
I shall attempt to draw some spurious connections.

Next week …

Feather-footed through the Plashy Fen Passes the Questing Ape

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My name having somehow come up in inebriated fireside conversation, one of my schoolday failures to have a relationship, rang me out of the blue one day a decade and a half later, having got my Warwick phone number off my Dad. It turned out she was now married and living in a Lincolnshire village, the name of which brought back memories, because I’d never actually been there. And, another 35 years on, for reasons which I’ve already forgotten, it recently came to mind again.

I never had a particular reason to want to visit Barrowby. Prior to Nicola’s call, I knew no one who lived there and there was no special euphony to  the name — indeed, I just had to look it up on Moogle Gaps, having almost completely forgotten it.

On balance, I don’t regret never learning to drive an automobile. I suppose it would be a nice skill, even if I never owned a car, giving an extra option for special trips. Indeed, living in That London with la Frizada, who could drive, occasional rentals brought us much of the convenience and ‘freedom’ without the underlying costs, while keeping intact my tree-hugger’s soul and street-cred.

But it did mean that I couldn’t indulge my innate tendency to explore the literal side roads in the way I have spent my life doing with the metaphorical ones. An advantage of the single life is the ability to wander down any intriguing alley or leafy back lane, without a voice saying, where do you think you’re going? And there have been times, in Iggy Pop mode (I am the passenger …), when I’ve wished I could make similar but lengthier detours.

On trips to the Frizada-rellies up on the Norfolk coast, there were all those blobs on the map that called to me, from Burnham Deepdale and Snettisham, all the way to Kings Lynn (with its Hanseatic History and Washy proximity to my own birthplace, Boston). But always the answer was, when you learn to drive and share the duties, we can go any route you like; until then we’re going straight up the middle.

Ah, the romantic spirit is so rarely indulged, especially when housed in a lazy, useless and irritating husk.

The present writer having been born, as mentioned above, in Boston, but reared back in the ancestral homelands of Nottingham, his ‘rents made regular trips to their old haunts to meet up with old friends. Boston being an extremely friendly place (despite its current, Brexit-based reputation), they felt they had more connections from 4 years there than from the rest of their lives in ‘Nottnm’.
Certain features stay in the mind from those trips. The docks, with the timber ships coming up the Witham apparently across the fields and fens; the competition to be first to yell I can see the stump! (the tower of St Botolph’s Church in the centre of Boston, visible for many miles around); the lunchtime stopover in Grantham for breaded plaice and chips at Catlin’s Tudor Tearooms  (still there), where we would also stock up on Grantham Gingerbread — and also, probably for your blogger alone, just prior to dropping down the hill towards Grantham and the flatlands of Kesteven, the inexplicably wistful look along Rectory Lane, as we passed the signpost to Barrowby.
We never turned right of course. Part of me is still wishing he could (not politically of course; my recent drift towards anarcho-syndicalism may be worrying, but I won’t be moaning about workshy immigrants any time soon).

I relate strongly to Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop. The idea of small villages and towns, with ineffably quaint names, generates totally spurious images in the brain, their content fuelled by memories of the real places we’d visit on bicycles, the said old flame (well, when I say ‘flame’ …) and I and other chums: Wysall, Widmerpool, Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, and even some that didn’t begin with W.

Into my heart an air that kills, indeed, Mr Housman. Happy highways where, like you with Shropshire, I often didn’t go at all, but fantasised about.

And in the junction, the overlap of my lives in Warwick and the Great Wen, said Frizzy one would often drive us between the two, along the relatively quiet A41, off which many a road sign had me wondering what lives, what stories, what Midsomer murders were unfolding in places like Ludgershall and Middleton Stoney, not to mention Brill and Quainton.

But the one that always brought a poignant smile to my lips was a post between Bicester (pronounced Bisster, foreign friends) and Aylesbury, pointing down a quiet and unremarkable lane.

It read, and to this day still reads, Marsh Gibbon.

There’s probably a name for the condition that leads one to look for the unintended way of reading something. Like people who pronounce ‘bishop’ as ‘biz-hop’ or ‘male vocal’ as ‘ma-lev-o-cal’. Being a twat — that’s probably it. Like the warning sign on the stairs in a now-defunct Edinburgh pub

which to me was indicating the meditative equivalent of a naughty step, I couldn’t help but envision the lonely marsh gibbon (for the sign made plain there could be only one), a creature that had somehow adapted to an environment utterly unlike the one most associated with long-limbed arboreal apes.

The poor thing’s life history developed and became ever more real to me over successive visits, and I actually felt quite emotional as I stared down that lane, seeing it in my mind’s eye, loping ungainly over the tracks and tussocks of the Buckinghamshire wetlands (are there any Buckinghamshire wetlands?) in search of a mate or companion to assuage its existential solitude.

These days it’s all too easy. One can pop onto google (other apps and sites are available), and ‘drive’ down those side roads, see the well-kept houses, the flags of St George, the White Swan or the Greyhound Inn, satisfying the curiosity and killing all the magic stone-dead, somehow more effectively than any actual visit ever could.

But nothing will shake my conviction that, behind that tall hedgerow on Whales Lane, unseen by Google Smart cars and other unromantic drivers, a lonesome gibbon goes plashing by, eternally pursuing his hopeless quest for love.

Illumination

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Eek!
It’s the dreaded B200 error code. A blood-red message informs your tiresome blogger that his Canon Pixma ip7250 printer is (I translate roughly) nadgered, kaput, fucked.

This has happened before, and a simple fix was (eventually) found, but his short term memory has also been screwed up when Time took him down an alley and beat the crap out of him, so it’s back to square one of trial and error land.

Just like Job’s technical assistants (aka comforters), the web and antisocial media supplies a great many suggestions, hints and tips (including, could he but find it, the one he used howevermany years ago). All turn out to be in vain this time, from shutting the lid when the carriage is just over half way on its journey to the left (a bit like the Labour Party — oops, little bit of politics there), to removing the print head and soaking the ink out of it, which at least produces some nice art trouvée et raté (see previous blog post).

Most sites and Canon resources say it’s the printhead, take it to a repair centre, who will charge more than the cost of a new machine to tell you it can’t be fixed.

So, though there are a few more things to try (where did I put that mallet?), before biting the bullet of a new device, the options must be researched and considered.

The first issue is the fact that it’s almost impossible now to buy a good printer which is just a printer. Not all of us want our printer to come combined with a scanner, a fax machine, a trouser press and an uncle frightener (with or without extra string). Some of us like separate parts, not least because if one craps out, it’s still cheaper, not to mention less against the ecological grain, to replace only that what’s failed, with its tiny but valuable bits of Congolese rare metals. Comments online show this to divide opinion quite strongly (let’s leave it at that). And the scanner gets used maybe once or twice a year, the trouser press not at all (and I don’t got no uncles).

But the thing that most agree on is the scandalous cost of replacement ink, often equivalent to the price of the printer itself for every complete refill. Cheaper clones of ink cartridges are available of course, and pretty reliable they are too, but not only does using them void any warranty should one’s print head go splodgy, causing, say, a B200 error code, but it is said that firmware updates now regularly prevent the chips in the cloned cartidges from functioning.
Now, not only does your blogger believe this is a violation of consumer rights, he is also firmly of the opinion that chips should be restricted to the box of a fish supper.

He still has fond memories of his Pixma ip5000, the Rolls Royce of printers, five chipless ink cartridges, cassette or paper feeder, duplex, assorted photo sizes, and even the (little-used) ability to print on cds and dvds (remember them?). That needed a new print head once, which was bought from Chinaland and fitted with nae bother, but eventually various bits gave up the ghost and the new model was purchased. And it’s not to be denied it’s given sterling service for half a decade.

So anger, fear and trembling, not to mention a worried glance at the finances are the order of the day.

But it’s always instructive to think of the privations as much as the joys of olden times, whenever people moan about newfangled things (not that I’m suggesting the pricing of printers and inks is anything but a bloody scandalous ripoff).

People saying that e-readers will never replace real books, should transport us back to a time when folks were saying (quite rightly) that paperbacks are ugly, flimsy monstrosities that could never replace a beautifully bound hardback on fine, acid-free paper; and still further to the days when folks found printing too tiringly uniform to read, and bound books a distinct step back from the luxuries of a nice vellum scroll (where one could view different parts of a text simultaneously, table size permitting, which these ludicrous new ‘pages’ could never allow).

In fact, research in dusty attics of Tudor buildings in the market town of Blognawick, threw up the following letter, written in an almost illegible scrawl. Read it and think on.

To my lord Ambrose
Dear frend, it is with some dificultie I write to thee at all. I do heartily rail against ye privations of ye age, not leest in ye writing of lettres.
I am sure that thou wilt recal ’twas not so long ago one could obtain ye services of a monk or at least of a trainee scribe from ye nearbie Abbie, to produce a comely document in a faire hand. For but a few grotes more, illuminations and marginal illustrations could be added (though I conceed that some of ye younger brethren could add items rather too licentious for writing to a lady of breeding!). The better off amongst us, like yourself, could have such a scribe literaly chained to a desk in ones studie.
But in these benighted times, the services of a private scribe or secretary may appear cheap atte first — until one sees that one must feed their often voracious appetites, providing bed and board (and often bawd) into ye bargain! Worse still, the cost of the writing fluid doth outstrip even that of ye clerke, and needeth replenishment suspiciously oft times.
However, as thou wilt see in trying to decipher mine scriblinge, needs must.
I hope that this explains my recent negligence in writing to thee but I shall desist in writing more until I have such an one in mine emploi. Until then I send my best regardes to thee and thy esteemed household.
I blame that bastard Henry VIII!

Rats!

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Fail again, fail better [Samuel Beckett: Worstward Ho!]
You cannot lose if you throw the race [Adam Ant: Ants Invasion]

You’ve heard of objets trouvés, you’ve heard of art brut, and if you haven’t, you should have so, in the immortal words of Judy Holliday, look it up!
But you may not have heard of art raté, cos the term was only invented last week.

(that is your actual French: pronounce it ar ratay)

Yes, art raté, failed art. The sometimes fascinating and even better-than-intended pieces that can result when everything goes horribly wrong. Not just the art world’s equivalent of bloopers and out-takes, but, this being the art world, objects imbued with deep meaning and significance and redolent with fulsome opportunities for overblown bullshit.

This idea came about during a discussion of recent disastrous attempts to produce some 3d prints, based on Max Ernst’s chess set (see Chesses and Foods, May 13 2020).

A cheap, kit-form 3d printer, purchased two years ago, had initially produced no more than wee blobs of plastic. When eventually something resembling a pawn had been created, it was a lacy affair, not the solid, smooth entity it was meant to be. Giving up in frustration and muttering you get what you pay for, seemed to be the order of the day, not to mention the next 22 months. The machine sat on its table in the corner of the room, by the telly, a gloating memorial to excessive ambition meeting inadequate dedication and ability.

Well, a pandemic came to the rescue, bringing with it a natural need to find something to do other than writing the promised novel. Various articles were read, videos watched, the thousand and one possible settings considered and tweaked, and finally a few things vaguely and even more solidly resembling their intended aims were produced.

The conclusion reached was that a 3d printer, particularly a budget, knock-off, build-it-yourself 3d printer, is a good tool for art raté, mainly because, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s an utter bastard! Domestic 3d printing is still one of those things only geeks can master. They are in their element, tweaking a thousand and one settings in their slicing software, printer’s firmware and week-old underwear. For the casual user, even one with a forty-five-year-old third class computer science degree, they are a minefield, a generator of naught but frustration and foul language.

nonetheless its 2nd birthday was celebrated with cake

As soon as the user’s back is turned, the machine does something chaotic, due to overheated nozzle, insufficient extrusion or warping on an incorrectly heated bed (I know, it’s Finbarr Saunders on speed). Trying to print three pieces at once, for instance, resulted in two hollow bases and what looked like an ice cream cone from Bizarro World, when the nozzle became overfriendly with one that was coming loose from the bed. And the silver pieces that look about right, still look more like rough-hewn, brutalist, concrete creations, writ small.

But then a friend said she rather preferred the failures to the more-but-mainly-less accurate pieces. The differing levels of crapness also added to the feeling of futile striving. And thus, the idea of failed art was born.

As he might have mentioned already, your esteemed blogger has spent most of his too-long life bringing new depth of meaning to the term, ‘abject failure’. Apart from being reasonably competent in the kitchen, he has not really achieved anything of note, not having learned to drive, swim, skate, ski, play a musical instrument (who said ‘or write’?!). The only positive contribution made to the well-being of humanity is his failure to reproduce.

So you’d think he’d be a natural to pioneer art raté — but of course you can’t fail on purpose. Once one sets out to produce failed art, one is trapped in a paradoxical loop: successfully producing failed art is hardly a failure. What you have is just boring old art. Even subsequent accidents will be tainted by the fact that the idea of failure as art was lurking behind the original attempt at whatever one was trying to make.

So it seems that the only true art raté Yours Truly can ever produce, is that which was made before the concept entered his head. And therefore, here, for the first, last and only time (perhaps), is a magnificent piece of fucked-up art, symbolic of life itself, The Battlefield (grey hosts v motley crew) [J D Lowe, 2002]

 


My ideas of art guérilla (art done in public places with no way of knowing it’s meant as art) and art fortuit (accidental art) never really caught on, so no doubt art raté will sink without trace.

Which is itself a piece of performance art raté, I guess. A successful failure?