Miss Faustus

February 24, 2016

I tried to make a pact with Mephistopheles but he only wanted my body.

Parallel Evolution

December 25, 2015

I love bats. Bats, as you may know, eat moths. My wife is scared of moths. When a moth flies into the room, I have to chase it out. Chasing moths out of a room is tedious. Moths aren’t team players. Therefore I love bats.

But bats do raise a good question. Not literally of course, I mean they might but even if they did, we couldn’t hear their voices. Which is a shame, imagine the questions they may have, like “Why do the Bee Gees sing in such a low register?”.

Anyway, my problem is, how come bats evolved so similar wings to birds, completely independently of them? It’s not like they could just copy birds, that’s not how evolution works.

If you google that question, the answer is “parallel evolution”. But how does that work? I often find a good metaphor is the key.

Many years ago, in the nineties, a Belgian restaurant opened in the city I lived in, the very first one of its kind in the area. Their attraction was that they sold hundreds of different types of Belgian beer. Not only that, they had all the weird and often impractical glasses that go with each brand. It was a relatively posh place but even so the owners were understandably afraid of the ornate beer receptacles going missing. So what they did was, they took one of your shoes at the reception on your way in and you got it back on your way out. That wouldn’t stop your average thief, but it would stop middle-class people, and stealing an elaborate and probably impractical drinking vessel from a Belgian restaurant is the most middle-class crime ever, with the possible exception of lying about your religious habits to get your kid into a better school.

Yes, I truly believe that crime can be classified by social class. And that we kind of feel okay about it while you commit crime that befits your standing: a working class woman starting a bar brawl or an office worker stealing office supplies. This is why when the MPs’ expenses scandal spread to the Lords, I was screaming at my telly “You’re the fucking ruling class, don’t fucking claim 30p here and there or a hundred quid for a train journey you didn’t actually make, do some proper ruling class crime, get caught with a prostitute, have an elderly relative sectioned to get your hands on their estate, embezzle millions and then disappear without a trace!”

But not in a canoe.

All I’m saying is, before that Belgian place opened, if you woke up in the morning fully clothed, lying on your kitchen floor, with a pounding headache, no recollection of the night before and a missing shoe, there was only one kind of story that could’ve led to it. But now it could go either way.

And that, in a nutshell, is parallel evolution.


December 13, 2015

They say a little knowledge is dangerous, which is probably true, but so is any amount of knowledge, even – especially – complete ignorance.

The other day I was telling a friend how what we call mushrooms are only a tiny part of the fungal organism they belong to. We think the mushroom is all that matters because that’s all we see, but underground there are millions and millions of thin filaments called hyphae, which can grow into vast colonies, breaking down and metabolising organic matter in the soil. And at some point in their lifecycle they then grow a fruiting body, the sole purpose of which is reproduction.

So in essence what we have on our plates could be more accurately described as fungal genitalia.

And it was at this point that we were thrown out of the vegan restaurant.


March 18, 2015

Few may remember the long bygone era when watching a football match required going to a stadium, but times are ever changing and for some even watching a full game on telly feels slightly anachronistic. After all, why waste all that time staring at a screen nothing much is happening on, when you can go on Youtube and watch a plethora of short video clips (of varying production quality) that have all the action without the boring bits? At first these clips may seem dazzlingly random and arbitrary but there are distinct and recognisable genres.

Match highlights

Match highlights is the oldest and most traditional genre of all. In fact it isn’t even one genre, as there are the 30-60 minute long highlights, which is basically the entire match with stoppages edited out, then there are medium length highlights, these are slightly trickier to edit down to 1ö-15 minutes, but our focus is now on short highlights, featuring 3-5 minutes of action, maybe 6 if there was a goal fest.

Short highlights are notoriously hard to get right, it requires talent and experience. The main challenge being that if you only include incidents that end in goals, the result will contain as much dramatic tension as when you see a mechanic turn up to fix the washing machine in a porn movie.  We all know that in real life not all washing machine repairs end in anal intercourse (heck, most of the time your washing machine isn’t even fixed), we still have no doubts about the outcome when we see it happening on screen.

Some narrative has to be constructed then out of 10-15 well-chosen incidents – short highlights are definitely artificial constructions, which on a good day re-create a similar overall experience as the match itself. Heroes, villains, turning points and conflicts need to be created, a tough job even if you weren’t further constrained by a pre-recorded match footage. That’s why you won’t find many home-made short highlights on the internet, but the better professional pieces that you do find, deserve some admiration.

Goal compilation

Goal compilations are much more of a mixed bag, with them concentrating solely on the goals of a single player or team. I wouldn’t even try to extend the porn analogy to this genre, let us contend with the observation that goal compilations don’t even attempt to capture the feel and the rhythm of a football match. Yes, the rhythm, dictated not by the slow-mo footage we see but the thumping mid-tempo two-four time soundtrack.

In the world of the goal compilation there’s no room for the natural ebb and flow of football, everything has to be bombastic, mechanised, following the robotic tic-toc-tic-toc of the music.

Just how much power the backing music wields can be seen by comparing the video above to an example of the emerging scene of goal compilations set to classical music, like this truly wonderful piece highlighting the artistic skill of Matt Le Tissier.


Out of all the football clip genres this is probably the most recent and also the weirdest. What happens here is the total deconstruction of football: watch all the touches of a single player, and only that. Although it is very tempting to ascribe this to deliberate post-modernism, the probable explanation is more prosaic: Football Manager. FM is a perfectly fine and enjoyable computer game, but it can create the false impression that players are nothing more than a collection of abilities, skills and stats, all expressed in precise numbers. A team in turn consists of X number of players, and a set of meticulously crafted formations and training regimes.

Watching them in this context touch videos are bleak and deeply saddening: what you see isn’t just your ordinary cult of the hero – that’s been part of football since the earliest days –, it is a total denial of the concept of team.

Fuck knows, maybe it is all random after all.


January 30, 2015

The other day I was woken up by the doorbell ringing incessantly. I had a sneaky peek through the window and saw Richard Dawkins clutching a copy of The God Delusion.

So I pretended I wasn’t in.

β+ decay

December 14, 2014

Twelve of them were sitting smugly
protons of magnesium
When their noisy neutron neighbours
Broke the equilibrium.

‘Why should ye reign over us
with yer posh positive charge?’
‘It’s us doon here who are the keel
Of this wee atomic barge.’

One proton shouts: ‘By Jove, yes!’
‘I’ll no longer live a lie!’
A positron and a neutrino
Are flung out towards the sky.

Eleven protons sitting snugly
No-one breaks the tedium,
With twelve neutrons they have formed a
Nucleus of sodium.


November 20, 2014

They say there are no atheists on a plane that’s going down.

And for all I know this may be true. I’ve only been scared on a plane once. We were coming in to land at John Lennon Airport from the west, over the Wirral and the Mersey and it wasn’t the most stable of approaches,  high crosswind and lashing rain complicating things. The plane was wobbling and veering, sliding sideways and a lot of people were indeed praying. I stayed calm, fuelled by the confidence of my little knowledge (of the proverbially dangerous sort) of aviation, then I caught a glimpse of the waves about twenty feet below us and suddenly thought “oh shit” and the next moment we landed perfectly fine.

It made me think though, how prepared am I for an emergency? We, seasoned travellers (note how much more glamorous this sounds than “immigrants commuting between their two homes”) all sit through them with a studied face of boredom but apparently those safety demos are important because in the panic of a real emergency people’s brains turn to jelly. They can’t think at all, they flail around mindlessly and they can’t even remember how to unbuckle their seat belts unless it’s drilled into them.

Now I’m not saying atheism is right, just that it’s not a very good argument for religion to say that this is the point where people suddenly turn to God.


September 30, 2014

The new version of Windows is upon us, farewell Windows 8, welcome Windows …errr…10. The number was chosen because supposedly

…it resonates best for what the company would deliver across the breadth of devices.

…whatever that means. I mean, at least Linux kernel version names like Rotary Wombat or Brown Paper Bag are obviously nonsensical, but this just looks like the entire Microsoft marketing department suddenly forgot how to count. (Which happens more often in the corporate world than you’d think. So please donate generously.)

Meanwhile the busy gremlins of Unixland invented a new smiley:

() { :;};

It should be used when you hear a 25-year old joke that nobody actually got until now.


February 18, 2014

When a pilot hijacks his own plane, you know things have taken a trip to the weird side.

That’s exactly what happened recently, when an Ethiopian airliner was forced to land at Geneva airport, where it turned out it had been hijacked by the first officer. Not only that, he followed the process rigorously, even setting his radar transponder to the emergency code reserved for hijacking. Not even the Pythons could dream up something like this, they stopped short at flights to Cuba being diverted to Luton.

And just when we think this story is as absurd as it gets, there’s more. Because of this incident it came to light that the Swiss air force only intercepts unidentified planes on weekdays between 8am and 5pm, except of course for lunchtime.

Why stop there though? Outside business hours they could broadcast the following pre-recorded message on a loop on the military emergency frequency.

“Thank you for tuning in to radio 243MHz. Your intrusion of our air space is important to us. Unfortunately there are no fighter jets available to engage you at this time. If you’ve squawked the hijack code by mistake, please set your transponder to your assigned code instead and contact your nearest high altitude ATC station. If you want to speak to an operator, please repeat your incursion during business hours.”


October 24, 2013

Last night I dreamt that I was given a five-minute slot to do a stand-up gig. I went to watch someone but he got stuck in traffic and I had to jump in to kill some time until he arrived. But I had no material prepared, I’m not even a comedian, I kept saying to myself. And I’m really not.

So… I’ve decided to do a Stewart Lee impression. But I thought the best way to go about it is to make it sound nothing like Stewart Lee. Not just because I can’t really do impressions but also that’s what he’d do too. I know I’m writing this so you can’t… hear my voice… probably the best thing for you to do is to imagine a voice… that is nothing like Stewart Lee’s.

So in a way… this would sound more like Stewart Lee than actually sounding like Stewart Lee. Cos it’s what he’d do, it’s the sort of thing he plays with all the time. Well, not exactly this sort of thing but… similar things. And for that reason this could be funny. It really could.

It isn’t but it could.

Because what we find funny… is determined by mood and upbringing, right? Mood and upbringing. The comedian… the comedian doesn’t make you laugh, it’s you, the audience, who make yourself and each other laugh. The comedian’s job is simply to get you into the mood.

And pray that you’ve had an upbringing.

So just to give you an example of what I mean by mood and upbringing, I’m going to tell you a joke. And the joke goes like this: on a riverbank a fox and an otter share a joint. I… I have to admit, I feel a bit uneasy about this joke because it just… it can’t happen in real life, can it. I mean the fox… and the otter… how would such a thing even… how would they… you know, roll it and… it’s all wrong… but I had to go with this joke because this is the only joke I know.

So they share a joint but it’s the first time for the otter so he asks the fox how to do it. And the fox says, just inhale and keep it down for a long time. How long? Well, it’s difficult to tell but I’ll tell you what to do: inhale and then swim underwater to the other shore then exhale. So the fox takes a puff, the otter takes a puff too and sets off. After a couple of minutes a hippo pops up from under the water, and the fox panics: ‘Exhale, otter, EXHALE!’

Now this joke… this joke… imagine… if you were brought up in the knowledge that drugs were the handiwork of the Devil himself, right? You wouldn’t be able to find the joke funny at all.

In fact if anything, you’d find it terribly sad, the idea that this horrible blight on God’s creation has infected the hitherto pristine and clean animal world, who unlike us were believed to be sinless and the only reason they regularly kill each other in the most horrendous ways imaginable is simply that God’s mood … and of course upbringing… told Him that this was somehow… funny.

On the other hand, if you were… say… stoned, you’d find this joke absolutely hilarious. You couldn’t stop laughing. Granted, you’d find most things equally hilarious but that’d just make my job even easier. And that’s why I generally prefer my audience to be stoned.

And that feeling is usually mutual.

I… I’m being told he’s just arrived, so thank you and goodnight, you’ve been a lovely audience.