Saturday, March 28, 2020

101 Things #82 - Magic Moments

I am a fairly realistic, down-to-earth sort of bloke. I may tut-tut with irritation when there are extensive delays on the tube but I accept that these do happen now and then. I tend to carry an umbrella on most days, however sunny and settled the weather may appear. I take no heed of advertisements for casinos, on-line gambling or the national lottery because I know that the odds of success are against me.

Consequently, as I continue to add to my compendium of the pointless or risible bucket-list suggestions of others, which is known in these parts as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, it is the work of a moment to consider worthy of inclusion the proposal found on A Backpackers Tale website to


Expect magic in each moment.


By magic I think we can rule out some fast-talking, dinner-jacketed smoothie who deftly shuffles a pack of cards in one hand whilst relieving you of your watch with the other. In this context it surely denotes an element of wonder, joyful surprise and a keen pleasure in some unforeseen turn of events. There is nothing wrong with hoping for something special, sure, but I would like to muse for a while on the word "expect".

We all assume the sun will rise tomorrow. We base this on the experience of the human race since time immemorial and on upon scientific understanding of the nature of stars. The probability of a sunrise is so enormously high that we can safely base our entire existence upon it. This is a good use of the word "expect". Another is that a train, already visible to us on our smartphone app as having left a nearby station, will shortly arrive in beautiful Ruislip to permit some quality commuting.

We may also expect there to be rain later in the day; this is never certain especially here in the UK where a highly complex weather system makes precise predictions hard. For this reason forecasters will often give a probability to their forecasts.

Expectation is borne out of experience and knowledge. If we have none, then we have no basis to predict anything. The cliche "expect the unexpected" is singularly unhelpful; we may be able to imagine all sorts of outcomes but we cannot expect anything until we have something to go on.

On these grounds, since "magic" is something utterly out of the ordinary, it is pretty damn unreasonable to try to expect it at all, never mind in each moment. We may glimpse it in the face of a loved one, or in a child giggling helplessly at at something we find quite ordinary, we may shiver with pleasure at a multi-coloured sunset over a sweeping landscape or tingle with the last bars of a stirring piece of music; all of these things are, probably, what our good backpacking friends intended to be denoted as magical and all of them are special precisely because they are are rare and arise only in special circumstances. Were we to expect them to occur in each and every moment we would be sorely and continually disappointed.

I contend that only the deluded would expect magic in each moment. The intelligent and rational expect the ordinary - that whatever happens will be roughly in line with the probability of it happening, that magical moments will occur infrequently and often unpredictably and that it is precisely this rarity that makes them special, worth savouring at the time and memorable ever after.

Thus I have no intention of expecting anything other than the normal. I may cherish the hope of the special, of course, but hope and expectation are different animals and should not be confused. I hope that you will be enthralled and delighted by this series of anti-bucket-list themes but I do not expect it.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

101 Things #81 - Slapping Those Hands

There are bucket-list ideas that are highly specific and need effort to achieve - such as running a marathon. There are ideas that are a little woollier but still have a reasonable rationale - such as befriending an older person. And there are those really daft notions that are probably included to make up the numbers for those trying to find 101 things to do before they die and are stuck after listing the first 63. This piece examines one of these. It was suggested on the website Get Off The Couch .

I'm off the couch, thank you, and have no intention whatsoever to

Spend a day giving high fives to everyone you see.*


What I shall do instead is to add this to my still-growing, now four score in number, series 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

There were no high fives when I was young. Indeed, there were none for much of my adulthood. Stealthily, without fanfare, this form of social interaction has become acceptable and commonplace. This article, A Brief History of the High Five by Jessica Bloustein Marshall, seems fairly helpful in establishing how the high five become enmeshed within our culture.

If the high five has a value, it is to celebrate a worthwhile achievement. A cricketer scoring successive sixes perhaps or a sales manager acknowledging a new monthly sales record. It should be used sparingly so as to have a real meaning. But we find people high-fiving on the least pretext, and now, here is the ultimate expression of pointlessness, the idea that somehow you will have achieved something memorable if you do it all the time with everyone you meet during a day.

I wonder what the good folk of beautiful Ruislip would think were I to stroll down High Street extending my hand and waving it in the face of all who pass. The young mother with a child on one arm and pushing a pram with the other - will she gladly let go of one to rap my knuckles? The elderly couple moving slowly toward the supermarket, the traffic warden with his beady eye on a Range Rover, the group of teenagers engrossed with their phones - will any of these extend a hand to share a moment with me? Do I dare start high-fiving a couple of schoolgirls or will I instantly face a charge of sexual harassment?

I suppose one could try simply offering a high five to all-comers. This way only volunteers would be involved. But clearly this would not achieve the objective of "giving" high fives so must be disregarded. As to "a day" - what on earth does our couch-bound advisor do all day that makes this sort of activity worthwhile? Presumably he does not drive a taxi or a train; he is unlikely to be a policeman or a coastguard. A scientist carefully carrying radioactive fluids in a testtube is not, I venture, going to risk dropping it and melting his shoes just because a grinning colleague is sticking out a paw to be rapped. And as to the man at the controls of the crane on the building site, making minute adjustments to the five ton load being swung high out over the street - best left well alone, I dare say.

In any case merely looking at a stranger is more social interaction than most of us care to do, and in the wrong neighbourhood, can be positively dangerous. Even in the right neighbourhood there is likely to be a far amount of sideways glances, averted gazes and possibly crossing of the street when an enthusiastic high-fiver is spotted. I must admit that were I to encounter someone doing this, I would be narrowing my gaze, ensuring my wallet was safely buttoned up and putting a hand on my portable umbrella (always useful as an emergency club) just in case. And by extension, if others feel the same way then who am I to put them under such pressure?

 &-&-&-&

* This article was, of course, written some time before the present medical emergency.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

101 Things #80 - Disporting in the Drizzle

I have been building up my little collection of ideas to avoid for some time now. Most of them have been culled from websites full of earnest advice to others about the goals that should be inspiring them to action. I am equally earnest in my desire to be the bloke on the sidelines proudly and ostentatiously not doing whatever it is that is being proposed, whilst adding the recommendation to my justly famed anti-bucket-list index 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Today's piece brings together suggestions that may be found on many bucket-list websites, usually without any explanation as to why they are worth considering. Personal Excellence reckons you should walk or dance barefoot in the rain. BucketList.org is a trifle bolder and opines that you should kiss in the rain. The common denominator here is pretty obvious and therefore let me state my rejection of any suggestion to

Do stuff in the rain. 

I blame Gene Kelly. The musical Singing in the Rain made getting soaked seem romantic and cool. Countless movies have since featured couples smooching under a light shower, or running in slow motion through glistening drops, the female shaking her hair seductively whilst her admirer gallantly lends her his raincoat or extends a protective umbrella.

Let us first deal with the barefoot business. We do not go barefoot normally because city streets are hard and often plastered with noxious substances. Feet are delicate and hurt woefully easily, a really poor design flaw in homo sapiens. Stub a toe and it will throb for a ridiculously long time afterward. Striding out shoeless in the countryside is little better. There are stones, mud and uneven ground to negotiate. We may be fine in smooth grassy fields or on beaches, and some climbers like to scale rock faces unshod, but these are really rather special circumstances. Furthermore, walking through wet fields is not particularly pleasant, being on the beach in a howling gale with the sand being whipped up is a no-no and few climbers would want to try to scaling wet, slippery rocks with the rain soaking their clothes and masking their vision.


How about kissing in the rain? 

Pic: clipart.email

Why? Why make this a bucket-list objective? If you fancy a kiss, go for it. Waiting while the sky darkens and the temperature drops, and your partner starts worrying about missing the train or being late for dinner, seems utterly futile. Equally if it has began pelting down and you are both doing up your raincoats and dashing for cover, suggesting a quick snog while her hair gets utterly ruined is unlikely to earn any brownie points. Frequently the rain in these parts can become torrential, if only for a few moments, but quite enough to soak through trouser legs and shoes.

When I am presenting awards at the 2040 Ramblings Festival, and the interviewer asks me to list some of my greatest disappointments, I will not be musing about that chance I had to plant a quick peck on the cheek of a casual acquaintance during a cloudburst in Ruislip High Street.




Sunday, March 22, 2020

101 Things #79 - Pick a Card

Today's little diatribe, as part of my now-maturing-nicely series of rejections of the bucket-list ideas of others, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, has probably the longest title of the set. So step forth, the author of Daring To Live Fully.com as we unveil your notion to

Create a set of cards with inspirational sayings on them and leave them in random places for strangers to find.


Actually, others have also proposed this particular idea but that does not make it any better - consider this odd variant from Get Off The Couch:

Leave an inspirational message on a sticky note
 in a bathroom or public place

Let us first clear some of the undergrowth before going for the jugular [Rather confused metaphors there: Ed]. I don't know what a "random" place might be. Wherever you might happen to be is somewhere definite and results in your choice of having gone there. Even if you find a way to be somewhere unexpected (perhaps by jumping into a taxi and telling the cabbie to "Just drive, mate, and here's £200 to be getting on with") then you still have to place your cards. If you drop them in the street you are merely littering. If you leave them on pub tables, they will be used as beer mats. If you hand them out to passers-by they will avoid you with the same disdain we all give to unwanted charity collectors and religious enthusiasts. Resorting to pinning them in phone boxes will mean associating with a very different class of cards and will undermine the image you are trying to create.

Incidentally, you will have to go somewhere you are unknown, otherwise it is possible that the people finding your cards will not be strangers. If they recognise you, or your handwriting, you will find yourself all over Facebook with derogatory postings such as "That nutter from number 38 is doing another of his stupid bucket-list stunts again".

Anyway, let us suppose you are in a new location and have found places to secrete your messages - amongst the romance section in some library, perhaps. You can stand with your back to the cameras and the cool quizzical glance of the librarians as you fumble the cards inside the front cover of Lord Jasper's Marriage, The Mistress of Muldoon Manor and She Got What She Wanted1.

Now we have reviewed the difficulties inherent in genuinely placing our cards randomly amongst strangers, let us turn to the nub of the gist - what are these so-called inspirational messages with which they are to be inscribed?

Are we meant to be recycling the ideas of others or using our own? If the former, then how derivative and boring. And how arrogant, to assume that we have the right to thrust notions in front of others in the first place. They may already be familiar with the constructs in question and might, for very good reasons, wish to reject them. If so, reminding them does not make for a good deed but for a stupid one. More likely the ideas will be utterly trite or utterly unworkable. Ideas such as :
  • See the beauty of the world in every flower. 
  • Smile at strangers to make their day. 
  • Go placidly, and the rest of all that bollocks.2 
  • Do not ask for credit as a refusal often offends. 
  • Please remember to take all of your personal belongings with you when you exit the train.
  • A stitch in time saves having to go to the menders on the corner who are always shut. 
  • Don't put off to tomorrow what you can find some mug to do today. 
  • What goes up must continue going up if it is moving at escape velocity.

Surely you must come up with some inspiration of your own. Aha, but if you were truly inspired then you wouldn't be looking at other people's bucket-lists for ideas, would you? Got you!

The world is full of people telling everybody else what to think. It is ridiculous to add yet more woffle to the pile. Stick your inspiration on a website or something, by all means, so that those in search of enlightenment can find it. Leave the rest of us alone to browse through Sir Henry and the Scullery Maid in peace, please 3.

Footnotes:
1. I am not sure if any these titles exists. I would be happy to knock one or all of them out for a reasonable advance. 
2. The first two words are from Desiderata by Max Erhmann. The rest of the sentence is by Ramblings of Ruislip and is strictly copyright  © 2020 so see my lawyers if you wish to quote it.
3. This one is for a rather restricted market.

Friday, March 20, 2020

101 Things #78 - Meter Cheat

Humans possess both the imagination and the understanding that there will be a future time when which they will continue to exist. These two factors mean that we think about what we will be doing in the future and, perhaps, plan for it. Many find satisfaction in contemplating the various deeds that they will essay.

A few find equal satisfaction in declining to do those deeds. You may number me amongst the decliners and one such deed, promulgated by Choosingfigs.com seems to me particularly unworthy of being contemplated. I shall therefore add

Feed an expired meter

to my own anti-bucket-list, a catalogue of non-performance objectives that goes by the name of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

I suppose that by "meter" is meant parking meter; it is easy to forget that not long ago there were no such things and instead everyone was familiar with the electric meter. These devices took coins and many a novel featured the impoverished protagonist having to "feed" the meter with his last shilling or face a night sitting in the dark.

Pic: BoomBoxDeluxe, on YouTube

Pay as you go meters are still widely used but the feeding with coins is being replaced by electronic credit card payments. A curiosity of the old meter design was that some of the dials that recorded electricity use read backwards, as can be made out on the rightmost of the dials in the left hand panel of this picture. This could easily result in false readings, and still does to this day. But I digress.

I expect that the really exciting, memorable and epic bucket-list item intended by ChoosingFigs (do they eat any other form of fruit?) is to stick a coin into one of these:

Pic: The AA

Now there are still some points to clarify. Must there be a vehicle parked on the meter bay? Must it be your vehicle or is the idea that you help out a stranger? But the cruncher is this - do you do it knowing that traffic wardens are around or only when the feeding may be done with impunity?

I think that feeding the meter on a empty bay is a tad pointless, although of course it permits a passing motorist to have a freebie (a sort of Monopoly moment, if you will). Equally it is hard to see why you should be proud of bailing out an offender, someone who has wilfully abused the parking rules and who in any case will never know why their meter appeared to be faulty.  No, if this is going to be something you can boast about to the lads down the pub then it has to be your vehicle and there has to be a risk, i.e. your car is parked on a meter that has moved into the red, the man in the high-vis jacket and cap is making his way down the street and his little book of tickets is in his hand.

Casually, you saunter out and look around nonchalantly. Nobody would think that you were eyeing up the warden out of the corner of your eye. You admire the fashions in the charity shop window, check the temperature displayed outside the chemists. The warden turns his head to inspect a vehicle nearby. Now is your chance! The coin is ready in your hand. You swing around, deftly insert it and are moving away whistling even as the warden glances about suspiciously. He has left it too late. Your vehicle is parked legitimately and there is no shred of proof as to your misdeed. Well done!

The mood of euphoria will not last. Was it worth it? What, after all, have you achieved?  Are you really going to go home and tick this one off your bucket-list? Will you lie awake gazing contentedly up at the ceiling going over the events of the day? - the selection of parking bay in the first place, the hanging around waiting for the first period of time to expire, the surveillance until the warden appeared round the corner, the practised flick of the wrist that inserted the coin - so many rich memories, right down to when you finally drove off leaving a devil-may-care ten minutes of time left for all comers.

I cannot, no matter how hard I try (which is not a lot, to be frank) see any of this as worth commemorating. In fact it is hardly even worth mentioning it in casual conversation. Would it really go like this?

"Morning, Sam. Guess what? I fed an expired parking meter yesterday and got away with it!"
 "You didn't!"
"I ruddy well did"
"Never! You old dog, you. Oh well, can't stop, I'm just off to run a double marathon and then I'm taking the Orient Express to Istanbul and coming back by balloon but the moment I touch down I'm going to be calling you to hear more about your wonderful exploits"

I don't see it going it this way. I think this is one little infringement that can safely be ignored.


.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Corona virus crisis

All the pieces currently being published for the series 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die were written well before the current emergency.

Of course, many of the activities I describe and deride are not possible at the present. It is my fervent hope that the time will speedily come when we return to normal. In any case, I shall go on publishing as if nothing had happened.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

101 Things #77 - Serious Eating

From time to time I amuse myself by following, on YouTube, the exploits of a few intrepid young people who undertake food challenges. These invariably take the form of eating as much as possible of a certain food, or set of dishes, within a set time. I covered the fascination of fiery peppers a short while back but in this piece I have picked on up a suggestion found on the website called Bucket List Journey. They think that everyone should, at least once in their lives,

Order one of everything on the menu.

I am not prepared to have this as one my life goals. Indeed, I have no intention of ever even trying it and instead shall add this to my seemingly-interminable series, known in the better parts of Ruislip as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die

What menu? That of a small local restaurant or that of a national chain? Maybe a cafe or the palatial dining room of a grand hotel? It's a bit vague. It would need to be one that is not too huge - for example a typical Indian restaurant will have a lamb course in a dozen different sauces and maybe a choice of five heat settings from Korma to Vindaloo and beyond. That's 60 dishes before ordering the equivalent in chicken, prawns, duck and all of the side dishes and vegetarian mains. Plus bread. Plus rice. And don't forget the popadums. This, I think, can be ruled out on grounds of sheer impracticality.

However it is possible to find menus sufficiently restricted that it is feasible to order and attempt to eat one of everything. Indeed, this is one of the standard approaches of one of the guys I keep an eye on, who has a channel on YouTube called BeardMeetsFood. He likes a pretty wide range of food and is happiest scoffing the entire menu of a pizza joint or a pub, literally eating a full portion of each individual dish available. Here he is enjoying a Christmas dinner.

Pic: Screenshot from Youtube

Now the point is that Beardy (real name Adam), aided by his supportive wife Lindsey, does this for a living. He has trained himself to be able to cope with enormous quantities of food - 12,000 calories at a sitting is not unusual - and keeps his body in trim. How he does this I don't know. If I were to eat just a quarter of one of his typical meals I would be violently ill.

Of course, the good folk behind Bucket List Journey have been rather cunning in their proposal. There is nothing about actually eating anything - to mark this one off as a bucket list done, all that is needed is to order the food, confirm to the staggered waiter that yes, all fifteen main courses and ten sides are wanted, and don't forget the desserts. Or the starters. But that doesn't seem much of an achievement since it merely involves spending a bit of money. Surely a serious effort has to be made to nosh the lot and obviously the noshing needs to be done by just the one person. Bringing in the local rugby team after a hard morning's training is not fair.

We are left with a simple conclusion. For the ordinary bloke, like me, to attempt to order a load of food that I could not possibly eat is a repulsive idea. I'm not even going to go into the morality of it.  It is not going to be something I would ever look back on, wistfully, wishing I had attempted it. Kudos to those who can and those of us who cannot will cheerfully do something - anything, really - instead.  Now, then, what's for lunch?

Monday, March 16, 2020

101 Things #76 - Give us a Song

We're about three quarters the way through this excoriating set of pieces devoted to debunking the bucket-lists of others, known to a select few as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. A good time to look inwards and clarify my position on one of the most important cultural expressions of the day. I will not now, tomorrow, or at any conceivable time in the future

Perform karaoke.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary Blog (and other sites as well) the word karaoke is a compound of two Japanese words and means "Empty Orchestra". The empty bit refers to the missing vocal track on a recording and of course this is supplied by the person who sings the lyrics to the backing of a recording.

I suggest that an alternative meaning is the orchestra who empty, meaning the bar as soon as the karaoke starts and, for the twentieth time that night, someone croaks out My Way or I Will Survive.

The problem with karaoke is that it is really only fun for the singer. They are in the limelight, everyone has to watch them and can do little else, given the volume of the backing track (apart from quietly stealing away, obviously). It doesn't matter if you can't hold a note, indeed it doesn't matter if you cannot hit any note. The words are probably displayed on a screen so you won't have the embarrassment of forgetting them and at the end there will be a loud cheer from anyone left because that is what you do at karaoke sessions.

I don't much like poor renditions of popular songs and I actively dislike much of the repertoire of karaoke machines. If I was to cheer at an event it would be with relief that the noise was over. I have no illusions about my singing voice and refuse to inflict it on anyone else, and certainly not in the name of fun. It would not be fun for me.The stuff I like is not found on karaoke machines.

What this means is not only that I utterly refuse to perform karaoke but will do all in my power to avoid being anywhere close to a performance. Instead I suggest a new art form which I intend to call smyltnes gebregd efenlæcung1, or smygebfencung for short. Just as karaoke is for people who cannot sing, so smygebfencung (doesn't it just trip deliciously off the tongue?) is for people who cannot do mime but have always, passionately, wanted to don skimpy black clothes, paint their faces white and pretend to be inside a box.

 At a smyg ..., oh sod it, let's call it sge, at an sge session  someone from the audience comes up and struts about in absolute silence pointing at things and pulling funny faces for about twenty seconds. Then they return to their seats, with the audience observing a silence as rigorous as the would-be mime,  and everyone can get on with enjoying the rest of their evening. It costs absolutely nothing, apart from a very modest set-up fee2, will not assault your ear-drums or inflict moronic lyrics on your brain and it can be done anywhere without any equipment or preparation. I commend it to you.




Footnotes:
1. Taken, of course, from Anglo-Saxon and many thanks to Old English Translator for help
Smyltnes - silence
Gebregd - movement
Efenlæcung - imitation

2. A small licence fee will be levied by the Worldwide SGE Fund (President: RR Commuter) but don't worry about that, it's all covered by the Terms and Conditions.As they are in Anglo-Saxon (Ruislip dialect), you will need to purchase our translation as well for a really modest, given the lavishness of the binding, extra fee payable well in advance.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

101 Things #75 - Disney Extravaganza

Followers of this series of jeers at the cherished bucket-list ideas of others will be used to the main thrust of it by now. Newcomers may be unaware that I am building a veritable encyclopedia of disdain called 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. The suggestion being vandalised today was found on the website of the clearly much-travelled Aussie on the Road.  I am not, under any circumstances, going to

Visit every Disney Park.
Every Disney Park? I have no intention of setting foot in any of them. However our standards are high here at Ramblings and so we have researched the matter in order to know just what it is we are walking away from. We have:
  •  Disneyland Resort - Los Angeles 
  • DisneyWorld - Orlando 
  • DisneyResort - Tokyo 
  • Disneyland - Paris (well, nearish to Paris)
  • Disneyland - Hong Kong 
  • Disney Resort - Shanghai 
  • Aulani, Disney Resort - Hawaii 
  • And there are four Disney Cruise Liners, (calling in at Neverland, Treasure Island, Cair Paravel in Narnia and Davey Jones' Locker, no doubt), and Adventure Club and other holidays. 
Good luck to Aussie on the Road in wading through that lot. It means travelling right round the world and spending some real money. And in each place you will encounter people wearing costumes of cartoon characters who will wave a lot, and then you can queue for yet another roller-coaster ride before queuing for an ice-cream or to see a film.

I am sure kids love it all. I am not a kid. I am not and have never been taken with Mickey Mouse or any of the stock Disney characters. I dislike intensely the way that many great children's stories, such as Alice in Wonderland, have been turned into loveable non-contentious cartoons.I don't want to walk along recreations of places when the original can be explored instead. I don't want to look at magic castles when there are plenty of stupendous examples of the real thing, here in the UK.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

101 Things #74 - Teetering on the Edge

Readers! Have you been following this seemingly endless series of related pieces called 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die? If you have then you will be familiar with the concept. I take an idea (often found on the internet) commending an activity as worthy of being your bucket-list and debunk it. Sometimes I take note of a common practice or belief. But today you are getting two for the price of one as I cunningly merge recommendations from two websites.

 Bucket List Journey reckons you should try jumping off a cliff. Backpacker's Tale is a little more cautious, opining that you should go cliff jumping anywhere it is safe. I don't care how many people are in favour. I am not going to

Jump off a cliff (safely or not).

I don't swim. This makes it fairly obvious why I shall be the bloke standing on the beach watching others hurtling over the edge of the heights above. Even if I did, I have a problem being too close to any drop, as you will know if you encountered my little piece about decorating. And a dodgy back so thumping down from a height, even into water, is not appealing.

As to the whole business of four seconds of "Hey, everyone look at me, I'm falling a hundred feet" followed by the long dull trudge up the path to do it again, forget it. I do hope that Bucket List Journey man takes note of the sensible attitude expressed by the Backpacker. Indiscriminate plunging into unknown waters does seem a trifle headstrong. A reasonable depth of water, absence of rocks, sharks and crocodiles and a benign current are all called for here, surely. Otherwise you may as well climb the nearest handy scaffolding and aim for a small bucket of water far below, and get it all over with, without the risk of months of painful and expensive treatment in a foreign hospital:-

"I am so sorry, señor, but you can no longer afford the anaesthetics. Or a bed. But fear not, señor, my friend Miguel has a very nice shack near the cement works where we can continue your treatment. Perhaps another time you will not venture over the Death Leap Cliff, huh?"

Of course, if we define a cliff to mean any sort of natural drop we might manage to defuse the whole plummet-to-your-doom situation. On the other hand it probably does need to be a bit more impressive than a diving board height.

I can happily live out the rest of days without shedding one second of regret that I never fell off a cliff. Admiring them from below, fine. Gazing out over the view from the top, absolutely fine. Managing a profitable little ice-cream stall for those struggling on the way up, just the ticket. But I am not going to take a running jump, no matter much how my detractors might plead.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

101 Things #73 - Bye-bye Body

I have had some harmless fun examining one or two recommendations found on the Lifelot  website on the subject of bucket-lists. You will not be surprised to learn that I have selected another which I think is worthy to join to my festering heap of rejected ideas, known to the world as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. The notion getting the custard pie treatment today is to

Experience an OBE (Out-of-body experience)

It is as well that the definition of OBE was supplied by the originator otherwise I would have been pondering how I could experience being an award given to reasonably meritorious citizens, as well as long serving senior civil servants. I suspect frock coats and top hats might have entered into it.

No, what we have to deal with is the age-old idea that the mind is somehow an entity that exists independent of the body in which it functions, and therefore can continue to function when no longer within the body and then can return to that body so that the owner can, by consulting his memories, conclude that his mind has made observations that his body did not make. Such a free-ranging mind seems not too dissimilar to the popular conception of a soul, although you will also find people who promote mindfulness and the like speaking about body, mind and soul so now we have perhaps two bodiless entities that each encapsulate our personalities and everything we know.

This however is not the right place to go into the heart of one of mankind's most cherished beliefs, survival of something resembling ourselves after death. What I really want to explore is how a mind can experience anything at all on its own. Scientists, such as Douglas Hofstadter1, have advanced some fairly detailed models of how the mind emerges from the ceaseless interactions of billions of neurons in the brain, each chemically bound to its neighbours and influenced by signals from the body. These models debunk the ancient ideas of the "I" who sits somewhere behind our eyes and looks out on the world and who constitutes the immortal part of our selves. It follows that any claims for OBE's need to be proven and some reasoning given for how the "mind" can move, experience and remember anything when the thing that is doing the moving, experiencing and remembering is not actually able to do any of these things independently.

The OBE state does not have eyes or any sensory organs because these are all separate organs within the body. How then does one "see" in this state? The usual stories are about people floating above their bodies and looking down to see themselves. I cannot tell how you distinguish this from simply imagining it . Floating up a bit more and reading the registration numbers of aircraft passing by, that would be a bit more interesting. And if the mind is out of the body, does that mean the body is brain-dead? If not, does that mean your mind has effectively split in two so that there are now two sets of memories that then have to be merged back into one in a sort of database synchronisation?

My scepticism is really about the mundane nature of reported OBEs (usually from patients in near-death experiences). They always say that they seemed to be hovering just above their bodies, watching the medics trying to bring them round. Why not hover outside the cafe and see what the doctors are having for lunch? What about drifting down to the football stadium and catching up on the Rovers? I am not being facetious here [Seems like it to me: Ed] - If one is really out of the body and free to float around why not move at will through the world (and why not the entire universe?). And since the patient knows he is being resuscitated why bother to look on where there are countless other things to do?

Is it all a delusion based on the patient envisaging himself at a critical moment?  And why is the OBE always reported as being floating above the body? Not sideways, not looking up from the basement (or maybe thirty feet below the ground)? You might as well glue a mirror to a stick and hold it up over your head if looking down at your own body is really the only thing that ever happens in these cases and then you can spare yourself the tedious business of being thumped in the chest and having electric shocks.

Apart from being rather too close to death than I care to contemplate right now, the only other way to have an OBE seems to be to follow some meditative discipline, usually associated with  Indian or eastern religions. There is no guarantee this will work. Again, I have to ask, if it is possible, what do all these out-of-body minds actually do? Once up there, floating, what happens then?

I shall not be holding my breath waiting to have an OBE (or is this where I am going wrong?)

-&-&-&-&-

OBE Believers - Do you dare take the Ramblings Challenge?

Here is the Ramblings challenge. There is a small brown leather-bound case on a shelf in my study. I will gladly pay anyone who has had an OBE and who can tell me what is inside it the grand sum of money that is currently in my wallet (and you should be able to tell me what this as well.)
There we are. Entirely fair. Use your mental powers to find out where I live, park outside, float your mind free and into the house and it should be the work of but a moment to determine these two elementary pieces of information. No complaints about it being dark - you won't be using your eyes to see anyway, will you?

Terms and conditions apply and can be scrutinised by floating your mind to the top shelf in my study where you can rummage through some piles of paper if you really have nothing better to do.


Footnotes:

1. see  Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and Metamagical Themas but make sure your brain is well screwed in before you start because easy going they are not.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

101 Things #72 - Becoming Crusoe

As I write these little pieces, debunking the suggestions of others as to what constitutes valid and exciting bucket-list objectives, I have found a couple of the most outré on the website of Tomas . The casual idea of about building a multimillion dollar business empire was one we had to put down. In rather similar vein, I think I am happy to add to my pile of rejects, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die the notion that one should

Buy an island.

I am not clear if one has to have pocketed the proceeds from one's multimillion dollar business before buying the island or whether the island comes first. Perhaps it is while roaming its lonely beaches and gazing mournfully out to sea from the top of the low hill in the middle, wondering where the hell the rowing boat with the food has got to, that one has the fantastic idea that will guarantee the success of the business.

Obviously if you are a multimillionaire, then buying an island is as natural as the luxury yacht, private chef and Van Gogh in the drawing room. For a few million pounds you can be lord of a sun-drenched Greek isle or an atoll in Tahiti, or perhaps a wee slab of heather and mountain in the Hebrides.

There are even specialist agencies that sell islands and will arrange for clients to visit. But if you are in the happy position that private flights are laid on for your trip to the other side of the world just so that you can purse your lips, tilt your head sideways and say thoughtfully "That sand will have to go" then you have really passed beyond the bucket-list stage. Your aspirations can all be attained at the drop of a cheque tap of an banking app.

Without some sense of challenge the bucket-list becomes a mere shopping list and ceases to be of much interest. Why should the ordinary commuter on the platform want to own an island? For a start and almost by definition they are hard to reach. Maybe in Finland where islands outnumber people by two to one, or up in the Canadian north, it is easy to live close to one. Here, for example, is a charming little place we spotted near Helsinki on a Baltic cruise

Pic: One of mine

 
 For the rest of us, the prospect not only of flying somewhere but then renting a car for a long drive, then engaging a local fisherman and hanging on grimly to the sides as the gales whip the waves over the gunwales - and then arriving and having to unpack and defrost the freezer and get a fire going and all the rest of it because of course nobody has been near the place for months - and then reversing the procedure a few days later when you want to go home ....

I would also worry about the practical aspects. The weather closes in and you are marooned. Your power supply fails. You hear strange footsteps outside at night and the nearest help (police, vets, whatever) are many hours away, assuming you can contact them anyway.

A natural counter to all this pessimism is to opt for nice little island on a lake where there a lots of other nice little islands and a town on a highway just a few hundred metres away. A bit like the one in my picture, perhaps (although it is still a hell of a sweat going for a pint of milk in the morning). But where is the fun in that? You might as well buy a country home on the mainland. Surely the whole point of an island is the remoteness, the isolation, the limitless views in all directions and the liberating feeling that you really all master of all you survey.

 I propose to be practical. There is no point in aspiring to own an island (at least an island worth owning, as opposed to a lump of mud in the Thames Estuary that is only visible at low tide) unless you have a considerable amount of ready cash to spend both acquiring it and on the wherewithal to furnish it and to travel there in comfort. And if I was in that position then I would not bother to have a bucket-list at all. As I am not, this idea can be filed away under 'U' for utterly pointless.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Misleading Tweet of the Day - Gatwick Express

This may or may not be the start of a new series.

I present to you, plain and unadorned, a tweet as it appeared on my tweetline or whatever it's called today.  Before you read my comments, study the whole of it and consider what it is trying to convey.

If you take the time to read it then it informs of delays to the railway service between Brighton and Gatwick (and poor old Eastbourne as well). If you simply scan it lazily, letting your normal perceptive skills take charge, then you will focus on the 60% of the whole that is composed of a picture. A picture of delays, of anxious passengers looking hopefully up at departure boards, perhaps of a harassed traveller running to an airline boarding gate that is about to close, all driving home the key message that there are problems?

Not a bit. We see, cunningly pictured in a nostalgic black and white, a couple strolling insouciantly (I think that's the mot juste) along the platform. No doubt their train has arrived on time and they have in mind a leisurely check-in, a drink in the bar, a pleasant flight and who knows what in a seedy backstreets hotel in Rotterdam afterwards? She thinks he's leaving his wife at last. He is juggling her and another girl friend in Rotherham as well as his long-suffering wife who thinks he's off to yet another boring sales conference. Little do either of them know that a sinister duelling-scarred man in a black cape is also on that platform ...

Ah, as usual, my imagination has run away with me but you see the point? A picture may be worth a thousand words but in this case those words are utterly misleading. I have forgotten all about the delays. My musings about Simon and Kath (not forgetting Deirdrie in Rotherham and Glenda in Sidcup and the mystery man1) have diverted me from the key issue, that there are delays on the Brighton line. Never mind, I don't use that line so I couldn't really care less. But if it was you, you were in danger of missing a flight and were panicking about how to reach Gatwick in time, would this artfully staged photo (comprising most of the message, let me remind you) make you feel that the Gatwick Express people:
a) cared about your journey?
b) cared only about projecting a misleading image of themselves?

Footnote:
1. Could this be the long awaited return of Count Indesit Ariston de Dietrich?

Thursday, March 05, 2020

101 Things #71 - Waiter, There's a Fire in my Mouth

Do you enjoy burning the roof of your mouth off? Is it fun to gasp for breath, with a scorching sensation running down your throat? Do you find that having stinging pains throughout your digestive system and out the other end enhances your day? If so, the proposal found on the Life Listed website that you should

Take a bite into the hottest chili in the world

is definitely one to add to your bucket-list of items you wish to achieve. For my part, I am happy to add this to my still-expanding anti-bucket-list that is laughingly described as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. 

Chilis (or chillies, for us Brits) enhance the flavours of many dishes. Eating them raw is different. The active ingredient - capsaicin - reacts with the taste buds and skin and even tiny quantities of it are enough to have a violent effect. There is really no reason at all to want to eat them raw, apart from the dubious pleasure of taking part in a contest. These have become popular in recent years, fuelled, of course, by the internet and it is easy to find footage of people making fools of themselves in public as they try to be the last person still eating.

I was a on a flight to Tibet many years ago with Pakistan International Airways. They took a long time to give us any refreshment, and of course that was after the usual endless hanging around at the airport and then waiting to take-off, so when a plate of food finally arrived I tucked in ravenously . I thought the large green thing by the side of the rice was a vegetable. I ate it whole. It was a chili. I then had quite a long time to regret my impulse.

That chili was a pretty mild one, of course. The hottest chili in the world is a different order of magnitude. The authorities seem to concur that the Carolina Reaper is the hottest; it is about 1,000 times as hot as whatever it was that I ate all those years ago (measured in terms of the amount of those vicious chemicals in each bite).

The chemical formula for capsaicin is C18H27NO3.Nothing exotic in it, just the amazingly common elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, the building blocks of all life. But it is not just potentially lethal in this form, it really is - read this unnerving article on Mens Health.com if you still fancy a quick nibble.

A bucket-list item ought to be enjoyable, at least in retrospect. There is nothing pleasurable in the idea of biting into a Carolina Reaper. If others wish to try then good luck to them (and to those who have to be close to them afterwards). This one goes into my reject pile.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

101 Things #70 - In Praise of Friendly Bombs

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now ...

Sir John Betjeman 

If you have been following these columns in recent months you will know that I am writing little pieces on the theme of "I'm not doing that". They are building into a set known as 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die. Quite a lot of the inspiration comes from other people's bucket-lists, the achievements they actually wish to be able to tick off and say "I did that".

This piece, however, returns to a theme explored in one of my first outings, the less pleasant parts of the surrounding towns to beautiful Ruislip. We blasted Hayes; now it is the turn of the vast slug-like excrescence guarding the approaches to London from the west. I shall use the good offices of my friends at Google maps to present a kind of pictorial essay to explain why I shall not be numbered amongst those who may

Enjoy Slough. 

Sir John was ahead of his time, as always, in his 1937 short poem, of which the first lines are quoted above. Before I give you a glimpse of what it is like to drive around this place, consider the following supporting evidence
  • My car was stolen last year. It was later recovered by the police. Where was it found, the thieves having abandoned it? Slough.
     
  • Facebook believes that Ruislip is part of Slough, even though it is nearly 10 miles away and in a different county. This geographic vandalism has gone unchecked despite the protests of many residents including myself. We can only conclude sinister forces are at work. 

Now have a look at one of the most desolate town centres you can imagine. Not poor, not run down, in fact, it is a prosperous town, well placed in the thriving Thames Valley corridor. But utterly soulless, devoid of any attractive architecture, any sense of harmony or belonging to a particular time.

The huge double carriageway that bisects the town effectively relegates pedestrians to being second class citizens. And look at the last picture where each building is a different style and a different height, and we see it from yet another wide road that isolates anyone on foot behind a wall of traffic.

What a welcome to the shopping centre

Concrete brutalism

Sod you, pedestrians

Lovely view, eh?

Town centre? Near enough.

Just urgh! At least this is on the road out toward Ruislip
 I am not going to express the hope that you enjoyed looking at these pictures, but if I have persuaded just one person not to visit expecting to see a quaint old Berkshire town oozing history and charm, my work will not have been in vain.

Monday, March 02, 2020

101 Things #69 - Seeing the Unseeable

Most of my little pieces on the theme of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die are about fairly straightforward aspirations - exotic places to go, unusual activities to try out - and my take on them is to explain why they do not represent anything that interests me. Quite different is the topic for this episode for we are venturing into the realm of science and the suggestion made, presumably in good faith, by the website Pick Your Goals, is to

Witness a supermassive black hole.

I am certainly not pouring any contumely on the thinking behind this notion. The very idea of black holes was a mere philosophical curiosity until just a few years ago when the implications of Einstein's theory of gravity became better understood, and then observations of the behaviour of certain stars and entire galaxies confirmed the reality.

A black hole represents the triumph of gravity over all other natural forces. Created by the collapse of sufficiently large stars at the end of their lives, the matter implodes until the gravity is so strong that nothing can move away from it and anything that gets sufficiently close will be caught and added to the singularity - the impossibly dense and impossibly small object at the heart. By impossible I mean that the current understanding of physics can not say what is going on there - real stuff goes in and nobody knows what becomes of it. Included in that stuff is light.

Light moving toward a black hole will curve around it and may curve directly into it. It will not emerge. The black hole itself generates no light because there are no electrical processes possible that would generate photons. Therefore we cannot "witness" one, whether it be supermassive or rather tiny. There is effectively nothing to witness.

Ah, you may be thinking, did they not show a fantastic photo of a black hole quite recently. Yes, they observed the light curving and bending right round a black hole and produced one of the greatest scientific pictures of all time, as I noted at the time and here is that remarkable image again.



But this is the light bending round it - you see just blackness - the utter absence of light or any other radiation - in the place where the singularity lurks.

I would dearly love to say that I have witnessed a black hole but it would be nonsense, a little bit like saying you have seen someone's face from just observing their shadow. I am going to, reluctantly, have to move this idea from "to do" status to "don't bother".

Friday, February 28, 2020

101 Things #68 - Downhill in Anger

I'm all in favour of a degree of robustness in sport. A football player does not politely ask of an opponent if he would be kind enough to surrender possession of the ball - he barges into him, skilfully trips him up and is appealing to the ref that he was the one fouled even as the other player begins rolling over in agony.

Equally, it is accepted that, just as the fast bowler begins his run up, the batsman awaiting a 95mph delivery might cast an aspersion on his parentage and mental ability.

I do not see how this sort of attitude can possibly extend itself to individuals enjoying themselves on ski slopes, where courtesy and respect for the movement of others is important in maintaining safety. Thumping into someone else when you are both hurtling down La Chavanette is asking for a broken leg and a lawsuit. I was therefore bemused to find that a recommendation for one's bucket-list of achievements worth savouring, from the website Esquire, was to

Toboggan, aggressively

and I am very happy to include this in the fast-maturing compilation of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, a friendly compendium of achievements that hold not a smidgeon of interest.

I did a wee bit of tobogganing in my reckless youth, just enough to know that the effort in slogging up a slope in order to sit in a little tin can and plummet down again was barely worth it. Also that control of the toboggan was limited to tugging on a bit of rope. It was supposed to be the steering (or the brake, or the rudder or something) and did nothing at all. One went in one direction, downwards, until either overturning in a snow drift or stopping with a jolt when the ski slope turned into a car park.

Thus it is clear that "aggressive tobogganing" must be something like this "Oy, you! fatty, yes, you with the silly red pom-pom hat. Why don't you get your stupid great arse and your pathetic tin bucket out of my face and leave the slopes to the grown-ups, alright?"

Is that aggressive enough? I don't think I would care to try this, except perhaps on an elderly lady who had to be helped down off the ski-lift. I value my teeth. On second thoughts, as I also value my dignity and my reputation, this is one form of physical endeavour I shall happily eschew.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

101 Things #67 - Saying It Like It Is

A little while ago I added to my popular index for cultural refuseniks, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, some disparaging words about the ghastly phrase "End of". Today another verbal irritation is under the spotlight as I determine to avoid, at all costs, to

Use the phrase "Just saying".

You see this little horror on discussion boards such as Facebook. Here is a real example, edited to preserve anonymity
Bad car collision on the way to [place redacted], wouldn’t be surprised if they close the road, just saying
Yes, I wouldn't have been surprised either if that particular road was closed, it is standard practice after a bad collision to close the road and ensure any evidence is collected. What extra was imparted by the "just saying"? Is the contributor trying to distance themselves from the collision?

"No it wasn't me, honest, I was walking past the jewellers at the time carrying half a brick and yes, the window did get smashed, but it was a pure coincidence. Just saying"

It does seem to establish some sort of moral superiority over anyone else who makes a comment. You might have seen the collision, perhaps were involved in it or maybe you are one of the council workers called out to clean up, but the person who reported it is entirely above such considerations. They are "just saying" that it happened.

There is a certain nasty similarity with "end of". It shuts down discussion in a passive-aggressive way. "Nothing to do with me. I'm just saying it, that's all." It is at once humble - "I'm only saying it, you know, just expressing my opinion" and arrogant "You can't tell me I'm wrong, I'm just saying it" and therefore irritates in two ways at once.

In fact, it is irritating in a third way. It adds nothing whatsoever to whatever it is appended to. You can remove it without changing an iota of the sense. It is as helpful as going "erm" before saying anything but at least the erm tells you that the speaker is readying themselves. "Just saying" always gets stuck on the end when the speaker has already made their point. In some circumstances it is akin to telling the other people in the dialogue that they have wasted their time in paying any attention to the speaker, a little bit like adding "just my little joke" or "pardon my French" after you say something that might be offensive.

I have pondered for some time on some witty response that could be employed on social media to counteract the menace without success. If any of my readers can come up with something devastating that would leave the just sayers reeling with shame I would be most grateful to learn about it.

Monday, February 24, 2020

101 Things #66 - The Benefit of Clergy

It's a lovely day today. I have no household duties and commuting is no longer a daily necessity. Mrs C. has decided to take herself off to the National Gallery, as is her wont, but the exhibition she intends to visit is not one that grips my attention. I decide to have a look at what others feel is worthy of their time, the items that go on their bucket-lists, and see if I can conquer my natural cynicism and do one myself.

What shall it be? Yes, of course, the one that all aspirants to a lifetime of achievement will treasure and fondly remember years later. I shall become a Man of God.

Mind you, having stated it as baldly as that, it does feel somewhat uncomfortable. In fact, now I come to think about it, it seems utterly wrong, ludicrous and risible. I shall explain why this notion is worthy of never being achieved and that it truly belongs in my anti bucket-list set 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die and consequently why I shall defy the recommendation from Bucket List Journey to

Get Ordained

There is a certain social cachet in being a signed-up religious professional, no doubt. At any street accident, one can push through the gaping crowds with the helpful cry "Let me through, I am here to save this man's soul" and then, when the press arrive, it will be your beaming face that makes it to the front page. You will be given first choice of the chocolate biscuits at social gatherings. You can wear long flowing robes, affect a thick bushy beard (sorry, not for the ladies) and smile benignly at passers-by. People will ask for your advice and benedictions. They may even wish to confess their sins - and who knows what you may learn as a result.

How does one go about becoming ordained? To the dedicated bucket-lister, no problem at all. One finds an appropriate internet vendor and purchases a certificate. For example, you can join the Universal Life Church, hand over $29.99 and look what you receive in return:
  • Ordination Credential (Minister License)
  • 1 ULC Wallet License
  • 1 Black Clergy Badge
  • 1 Parking Hanger
  • 1 Minister Window Cling
  • 1 Press Pass-Parking Placard
  • 1 ULC Bumper Sticker with symbols
  • 1 Minister Bumper Sticker

Not only a certificate to hang on the wall and a mini version for the wallet but free parking. This alone must justify your seeking out your calling in this way. You can park anywhere you like - on a double yellow outside the supermarket, say, - and when the wardens come round you merely indicate the hanger or placard or bumper sticker, accept their stammered apologies and make some sort of sign over them1 before driving off leaving them still kneeling on the pavement.

But why pay anything at all? Here's a certificate that looks totally believable which I knocked out in my shed, with a little help from this site and it didn't cost me a bean.





 Rather spiffing, no? I could therefore tick off this one from my bucket-list, if it were ever on it in the first place. And that is the reason why this form of 'ordination' is utterly without worth. You can have all the fancy certificates, parking hangers (what is that, I wonder) and bumper stickers you like, you can declare yourself to be a Cardinal, an anti-Pope, a Grand Enlightened Master of Solomon, a Chief Rabbit or High Priest & Archimandrite of Great Cthulhu, perhaps all of them at once if you have a really large certificate, but it means nothing.

Of course our friends at Bucket List Journey might have meant a real ordination - spending years studying the religion of your choice, learning ancient languages, writing scholarly essays on abstruse matters of theology, debating weighty matters of morality with your peers and working at a congregation, school or mission, before finally you receive an affirmation of your elevation to the ranks of the confirmed clergy at a ceremony in front of your fellow worshippers. Somehow, given the dedication and work that is required, not to mention some sort of suitability for this role in the first place, I don't think so. I think they had in mind the strange laws of the United States of America by which anyone can call themselves a minister of religion and thereby solemnise marriages and the like. All you really need is a certificate and people have to call you 'Reverend' - by law! Isn't it fantastic? Yes, it is. Is is worthy of our respect? No.


Footnote
1. I know the sort of sign you are thinking of and you disgust me. Put your thought to higher things.

-&-&-&-&-

Special enlightenment offer to our readers

If you would like to impress your friends and earn the genuine respect of your fellows, enrol today in the Ramblings All-purposes Way. Look at the amazing benefits:
  • A certificate (sent as a digital photo).
  • Have an entire galactic cluster named after you, or your pet. Click here for full details.
  • Be inscribed for ever* in our Book of The Gullible.
  • Instantly be put in touch with Nigerian bankers, IRS prosecutors, Amazon Prime administrators, bank security teams, computer security experts and vendors for London Bridge who will all phone you with very important information and advice.
Warning: Your immortal soul may be in peril if you fail to take heed of the Terms and Conditions, especially the clauses about keeping up your monthly subscription to The Way.

*Or until they close us down

Saturday, February 22, 2020

101 Things #65 - Going for Broke

As you may know, if you've glanced over this column in recent months, I have been building up a register of activities, aspirations and achievements [Nice alliteration: Ed], all of which I utterly refuse to attempt or even to contemplate undertaking. I shall stop when I have reached 101 of them and for this reason it is named 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Usually I link the topic to a single website that is promoting it but there is a bonus today because I have cunningly merged suggestions from two bucket-list proponents - Aussie on the Road and Life Listed. One thinks that playing the casino in Las Vegas is a good idea, the other plumps for Monaco. It doesn't matter. I am not going to

Gamble in a casino (no matter how glamorous the setting).


First a true story. Many years ago, young and fairly strapped for cash, I crossed America on a camping trip with a small group. Our route took us through Reno in Nevada; like Las Vegas, a town dominated by gambling. We visited a casino. I decided to risk $1 on a likely looking machine. It took dimes so I exchanged my note for coins and placed one in and pulled the lever. The dials spun and I lost. I tried again. And again. And repeated until the whole lot, my entire stash of dimes, had gone.

 I know how, in popular literature, a gentleman behaves having incurred financial ruin at a casino. He smiles, orders drinks all round, gives the croupier a tip and saunters out, hat at a jaunty angle, to contemplate the waves crashing on the rocks below. But I am not that sort of gentleman. I knew in my aching heart that I would never see that dollar again. Aware of the cameras, I did not commit any acts of violence or make obscene gestures. My face a mask, I determined that I would henceforth never gamble in a casino again and I never have.

There is no reason not to enjoy visiting the great hotel complexes of Vegas or the elegant surroundings of Monte Carlo. What rankles is the idea that gambling in a casino is worthwhile. The machines are exactly the same wherever you are so, if you like losing cash, why not go to your local pub and play the slot machine there? You will lose wherever you play but you will spend a lot less on the journey and the accommodation. Should you have some skill at card games, particularly poker, your trip may be more profitable but, if that is the case, you don't need this one on your bucket-list because you will already be doing it. As for roulette and all the "systems" that are supposed to help you beat the house, consider that if any of them really worked, then the casinos would cease to be in business.

Forget about the glamour of the casinos. They are designed for one purpose and it is not a pleasant one. Watching ranks of dead-eyed gamblers mechanically jabbing at buttons while lights flash and sound effects blare out is only of interest to social psychologists. You may deal me out.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

101 Things #64 - Name That Star

It is the morning of your 110th birthday. The King1 sends a telegram. The staff in your nursing home bake a special cake. A fresh-faced reporter from the local paper comes to see you.
"Tell me" she asks eagerly "What was your greatest achievement?"
"Well, young lady" you say, as the wonderful memories flood back "They named a star after me, you know"
"Wow. A whole star? Fantastic. What did you do to deserve that?"
"Ermm ... I paid for it on the internet and received a certificate"
"Ah" says the crestfallen reporter "Been so nice meeting you but I've just heard that a dustbin has blown over in a freak 8 mph wind so I have to be off"

And this, dear reader, is why the notion posited by a contributor to Pinterest that one should

Have a star named after you

goes smoothly and without regret into my anti-bucket list compendium
101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die.

Stars are named by international convention. They are not named after people, apart from rare exceptions such as Barnard's star. You cannot simply point to a glittering dot in the sky and say "That one, that one there, it shall be forever known as Zelda Potrezebie III".

What you can do is to pay to have your name recorded on a list and to receive a few bits of rubbish to display on your shelves. The list is one kept by the vendors, there is no meaning to it at all and as anyone can start a list of stars and sell them, there can be any number of people all thinking that the same star bears their name. It is a con to which the old fashioned hucksters who used to sell London Bridge to unsuspecting tourists would doff their hats in respect.

Here, just for example, is the blurb on the World Star Register website if you select, not just any old star, but a supernova (you will note, in passing, that they don't understand the difference between a star and a constellation)
Name one of the brightest stars in the sky, a Supernova star. You can choose a constellation or allow us to select one for you. Included with your lovely presentation box will be a 20mm Swarovski® Star crystal, the Swarovski® star has a hole size of 1.4mm so can be worn on a thin necklace, or hung as a pendant near to a window.
Your star name and its coordinates will be entered into the World Star Register™ for eternity, and available to locate anytime via our online database, with a physical copy published in the British library.2
You'll also receive all the required information to locate your supernova star in the night sky, and your gift will arrive packaged in a presentation gift box to keep all your documents safe.
.....
Rated 5.00 out of 5 based on 1 customer rating (1 customer review) 


Your crystal and pendant and other tat will cost you a mere £129 in this case.

I love that glowing rating, based on a massive customer response of one whole vote, but the silliest bit is "Your star name will be entered into the World Star Register for eternity". Eternity? Not just a rather long time but for all time and beyond, an infinite amount of time. I wonder how they can be so sure.

Whatever they may mean, as it is pretty unlikely that this business and its register will be around in thirty years (based on normal small business life-cycles), and absolutely certain it will not be trading on Earth in about 3 billion years when the sun swells to become a red giant, I think we can cheerfully dismiss this claim as garbage however tongue-in-cheek they may claim it to be.

 It is a bit of fun, of course, to have a glossy certificate and a presentation album and some crystals and things. But you do not end up with a supernova, or an ordinary star, named after you in any meaningful sense. And to have this as a bucket-list achievement fails on two counts - it doesn't work and it merely involves sending some money off. There is nothing to feel good about and, as our little vignette at the head of this column suggests, bugger-all to be proud about  and that is why I steadfastly refuse to do it.

 -&-&-&-&-

 Readers: Forget all this nonsense about having a star named after you. That is so 2018! Impress your friends by having an entire GALAXY in your name. Yes, a swirling mass of up to 400 billion stars*, plus huge amounts of dust, dark matter and possibly advanced alien civilizations, will bear your name not only to the end of time in this universe but in all other universes that may come after. Simply pick one of the galaxies shown in this photo (and every dot is a galaxy) and send us your chosen name and just £493.

Pic: ScienceMag.org

Terms and conditions apply for most of the rest of eternity and, for just £150 extra, can be sent to you in a presentation album bound in genuine faux-Morocco with a red tassel on the outside and a certificate that shows you alone are the owner of that particular copy of the T&Cs.

* No refunds can be made should your selection be of a dwarf galaxy with only a lousy few million stars.


Footnotes:
1. Surely Her Majesty's long and distinguished reign will have terminated by then
2. The British Library receives by law a copy of all books published in the UK. This is not in any way a sign of official approval.

Monday, February 17, 2020

101 Things #63 - The Mystique of Minerals

This series of pithy and somewhat derogatory comments on the sort of things that others have on their bucket-lists generally considers specific recommendations. From time to time I avert my eyes from the breathless excitement of "50 dangerous sports you must try before they ban them" or "100 places you have to visit before you die because they look really nice on Instagram" and ponder matters of social behaviour. Under the microscope today, and definitely worthy of a place in my anti-bucket-list, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, is
.
Believe in the mystical power of crystals.


You see them at any craft fair or in "new age" shops. Naturally occurring crystals of minerals and salts to which are attributed powers of healing, or of restoring energy, or of improving mental well-being or in finding love, or just about anything you want, really. Some sellers will explain that there is no scientific basis for any of these claims; others keep quiet about it, but all persist in pushing the idea that "ancient" knowledge proves that crystals are good for you. They cover themselves by using weasel phrases like "It is said that" or "Crystal are claimed to ...".

Here, by way of example, are a couple of quotes lifted from the Healthline website.
 Jasper
This smooth crystal is known as the “supreme nurturer.” It’s said to empower the spirit and support you through times of stress by preparing you to fully “show up.” It’s claimed to protect you from and absorb negative vibes while promoting courage, quick thinking, and confidence. These are traits that are extra helpful when tackling important issues — which is exactly what this stone may be good for.
Obsidian
An intensely protective stone, obsidian is said to help form a shield against physical and emotional negativity. It’s also said to help get rid of emotional blockage and promote qualities of strength, clarity, and compassion to help find your true sense of self. For your physical body, it may aid in digestion and detoxification while potentially helping reduce pain and cramps. 

 Well, where's the harm in that? I shall tell you. The constant drip-drip of "claimed" and "said" gradually builds a conviction in the gullible that there must be something in it. The little disclaimers are said once, the assertions that really there is something going on, even if nobody can explain what it is, are made constantly.

I wonder how obsidian helps in "emotional blockage". If I was wearing one the next time my football team go down to a 2-1 defeat, with the winning goal scored in extra time, would it help me let out some primal yell of despair? Or will I simply let it all out by writing something nasty on the message board?

And how, exactly, does it assist in digestion? Does it increase the strength of one's stomach acid? I'm sure every pharmaceutical company in the world would like to know that one because so far it certainly seems to have passed them by.

Of course we all want to avoid negative vibes, whatever they may be. Sounds simply dreadful. It would be interesting to observe precisely how a lump of jasper can "absorb" them and how, indeed, they are measured in the first place. A vibe is some sort of waveform, is it not? Does it radiate at the speed of light? Does it interact with the electrons in the jasper in a series of quantum mechanical exchanges of photons or what? Again, many eminent physicists and all businesses in the energy sector would be desperate for a piece of this action, should it exist. Presumably one could plug one's jasper into a suitable charger, give off some really unpleasant negative vibes and bingo! There's another four hours on your phone battery.

According to a website called Law of Attraction Crystal Healing is used to treat people and their energy system, by placing the crystals on and around the body, which can help to draw out any negative energy. Yup. And what is "negative" energy? Does it mean anything that makes us unhappy or is there some connection with the negative charge on the electron (a scientific term and not a value judgement on the little particle's state of mind)? How does the crystal know that you are unhappy and how does it absorb the unhappiness?

Don't bother looking for an explanation on any of the sites selling crystals because they simply assert that negative energy exists and that crystals can deal with it. Of course if people choose to believe in crystals then they may feel better when they wear them due to the placebo effect, and I am not knocking this as such; the trouble is that to make it work there has to be a belief in the first place and that belief can only be there if rational thinking is removed to make way for it.

The "crystals as healers" notion is fine if treated as an amusement or a fashion but worrying if any credence is put on the ludicrous claims for it. In an age of growing uncertainty and displacement, we should put our trust in our brains and believe that which can be articulated, tested and reviewed openly, not unsubstantiated (and unsubstantial) claims issued by people who, (and this is purely an amazing coincidence, surely), happen to selling the very products they say are so wonderful.

There is one crystal form that I can assert really does provide a feeling of well-being. A chunk of ice in a glass of whisky.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

101 Things #62 - I call upon... er, who are you again?

Do you like disrupting social events to which you were not invited? Are you a confident, loud-mouthed and fairly strong individual? Then the ludicrous suggestion found on the website Lifelisted is one you may wish to add to your bucket list of things you wish to achieve. And while you are doing it, I shall be quietly adding it to my own collection of non-achievements that future generations will honour with the name of 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die

The recommendation under review is to

Give a toast at a stranger's wedding.


Let me first clarify those personal characteristics of a speech-crasher [I'm not even going to bother to look this one up, it's obviously made up: Ed] that I listed above.
  • Confident - Clearly someone who hesitantly advances to the front, asks the Master of Ceremonies if they can say something if it's not too much trouble, tries to claim the microphone and then stammers uncontrollably is not going to deliver a toast before being forcibly ejected. 
  • Loud-mouthed - When they cut off the amplifier then only the vocally powerful will be heard above the hubbub of guests asking each other "Who the hell is he?" 
  • Fairly strong - Some of the more alcohol-fuelled and enthusiastic of the groom's pals are likely to enjoy themselves seeing how many can pile on top of you - your toast will be muffled fast unless you can stand up for yourself

We have established that only a select few can really aspire to do the stranger-toast business but of course we must first examine why on earth anyone would want to do it in at all, before considering how one might bring it about and what this toast might amount to.

Why?


It is a stranger, or to be more precise, two strangers whose festivities are to be interrupted. The mystery toaster has no reason to like or dislike them, indeed nothing is known about them. They might belong to a strange religious cult whose faith requires them to remove the tongue of any who speak out of turn, so wearing running shoes could be a useful precaution. Or they could be from two long established families of expensive litigation lawyers and your financial ruin is guaranteed the moment you open your mouth.

Be that as it may, there is no reason for their carefully thought-out order of ceremonies to be disrupted other than the personal gratification of the interrupter. And, unlike the vast majority of bucket-list items that have been disparaged in these columns, the pleasure of said interrupter comes at the expense of the interrupted, who must look at one another with raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders, at the very least.

What is the nature of the pleasure that the speech-crasher derives from her performance? Is it the thrill of holding an audience, playing with their emotions, inspiring and enthralling them with the drive and passion of the unscheduled toast? Seems pretty unlikely, given the circumstances, and the puzzled shouts of "Who let this idiot in?". It must be the selfish desire to annoy others and to be the centre of attention, the attributes in fact of your typical dictator. Is that a worthwhile trait to aspire to?

How?

Let us consider how one might end up on the dais facing a bemused audience of celebrants. Weddings may be advertised in the traditional way of the banns in church or announced in the small ads of a paper but it is less usual for the reception to be known to any but those attending. How does the speech-crasher select a target? Do they drive around looking for cars bedecked with ribbons or listen for the bells? Perhaps they stand around outside registry offices. Then comes the tricky part, finding out where the do is being held. Awkward enough to grab one of the wedding guests, hold them with your glittering eye and regale them with a terrible tale of the seas1 but child's play to saying "Excuse me, I'm just a totally innocent passer-by, where are you all off to now and can I please tag along?".

Perhaps the experienced crasher haunts the hotels and private function rooms that often host weddings. They wait till there is a crush of arrivals, infiltrate them (saying "Haven't you grown?" to a sulky 10 year old playing with her Wii will establish credentials) and hand over some gaudily-wrapped box (contents: half a brick) with a smile and "Please put this somewhere safe, it's rather valuable". The bride's family can assume they are with the groom and vice versa. There's bound to be a big sign outside saying something like "Ferdinand and Isabella warmly welcome family, friends and hangers-on. Drinks reception in the Torquemada suite" so bluffing is pretty easy.

Of course, there is no place for the crasher on the table plan. They must eat and drink as much as they can during the reception while smiling at everyone and milling about where the throng is thickest (People looking at someone on their own who is squinting awkwardly and furtively checking out the exits is not what is wanted). Then there is the difficult transition as the guests are called in to dine and somehow the crasher must evade the queue and find a quiet place to lurk, where no waiter will look them over suspiciously, and where Great-Aunt Catherine will not peer at them through pearl-handled lorgnettes before announcing to her companion "This must be Algernon's youngest, I always thought he would come to a bad end, Mavis come over here, you won't believe who's here, how he has the nerve to show his face after that incident with the bulldog I cannot imagine".

The first two courses have been served, the guests are drinking heavily and are happy but not yet fighting drunk, the bride has not yet slapped her chief bridesmaid nor has the groom's mother exchanged angry words with her brother's ex. The best man saunters to the fore, coughs unpleasantly into the microphone and the toasts begin. The time has come. As soon as there is a pause the crasher must take charge, beam at all on the top table and seize the microphone with a flourish
"Happy Couple, honoured guests, reverend sirs, my lords, ladies and gentlemen2 if I could just have your indulgence for a second there's a couple of things I must share with you about Ferdy...."

What?

Yes, what are those couple of things? What can actually be said once they are eagerly awaiting some juicy titbit to savour with the profiteroles? The crasher does not know these people. They certainly don't know or want to know Great-Aunt Catherine who is grimly regarding them as she beckons her rather muscular nephew over from his table where he has been showing his younger cousins where he keeps his stiletto. Here we are at the very climax of the whole speech-crashing business, the reason for donning a dinner suit, polishing one's shoes and obtaining half a brick from the builders' merchants down the road to put in the fake present. There may be only have a few seconds before the microphone is recovered, some rugby players practise a maul over the interloper's recumbent form and the doors to the wet street are opened prior to him being heaved out to fall heavily onto it.

"Um, ladies and gentlemen I give you the bride and groom" and with those squeaky words the crasher can make a bolt for it, scattering the waiters and several portions of fresh fruit salad, dodging the beefy grasp of the nephew and the champagne bottle slung at them by a remarkably accurate great-aunt recalling her days of throwing the javelin for her county.  He squeezes through the doors, He races down the street. It is over. He can tick off an utterly pointless bucket-list objective. What a shame he had to leave his coat behind, a coat that, he suddenly remembers, has got his train season ticket, iphone and house keys in the inside pocket. And it's raining.

-&-&-&-

Is the game worth the candle? Will you glory in the anguished postings on Facebook the next day as various of the guests accuse others of having smuggled you in and Great-Aunt Catherine declares a jihad against Cousin Victor and all of the Warwickshire branch? Or, given that your identity is unavoidably compromised by the possessions inadvertently left behind, must you forge a new one and sail for South America as a deck-hand at once?

I am happy to renounce any intent to gatecrash the matrimonial bliss of others and strongly suggest that you do, too. If the lure of the wedding is still strong, then why not put on some old clothes, cover yourself in soot, get a big black brush from those builders' merchants and do your Dick van Dyke impersonation instead. Everyone will be happy, you get to kiss the bride and the bridesmaids (best avoid Great-Aunt Catherine) and may even be tipped handsomely for bringing luck to the happy couple.3 

Footnote
1. Thank you ST Coleridge for helping me raise the literary level
 2. This is the traditional preface to a toast in the UK but of course these days it might well begin "Yo, dudes, how's it hanging?"
3. You'll probably be tipped even more for steering well clear of the happy couple in their expensive clothes, but don't forget to throw in a few "Gor bless you sirs" at the right moment.