Thanks, thumb!

I was chopping vegetables when the knife slipped and made a small but deep gash in the top of my right thumb. Quick action: disinfect, slap on sterile plaster, cover with waterproof finger stall, carry on cooking. Except that without my invalid thumb which responded with sharp pain to the slightest touch, things had become rather difficult. Didn’t know thumbs were so important, I thought, but then of course,  monkeys and apes apart, only we humans have thumbs we can bend across our palm, enabling us to hold things, write, paint, cook and carry out innumerable tasks from vegetable chopping to the finest art work. One might claim that without the human thumb civilization would still wait to be established, since  all  other members of the animal kingdom have to use their paws, claws, teeth, beaks and tentacles to cope with infinitely simpler tasks.

To spare my sick thumb I started using my left hand and was embarrassed by its clumsiness. But then it has never had a good press. The left-hand path is that of black magic. Less ominously, when I was a child and broke or dropped something, my mother invariably accused me of having two left hands. Now I just wanted a single competent one, even if I had to bring it up to – ouch – scratch. But how?

Minimal research yielded plenty of advice. I was to draw simple shapes – circles, triangles, squares – with my left hand, then write down the alphabet with both small and capital letters. Wear my watch on my right wrist for two weeks. Throw and catch a table tennis ball with my left hand, and finally  use a tin opener and a corkscrew with same. To master these skills was to yield the additional bonus of simulating my imagination and creativity, since hands and brain hemispheres are diagonally connected, and the dictatorship of right-hand-left-brain needs to come to an end.

Oh dear. What I wrote with my left hand might have been the work of a young monkey with learning difficulties. To cheer myself up, I moved my watch to my right wrist –  but invariably looked at the left one every time I wanted to check the time. As for using a tin opener with my left hand, I didn’t even try after attempting to peel an apple with same: the apple won with ease – or should I say hands down…

Back to theory, the last refuge of the impractical. I discovered that nearly 80% of humanity is right-handed, the rest left-handed, except for a tiny minority that is ambidextrous. And this isn’t exactly new: on the skeletons of our remotest ancestors the right shoulder and arm are always stronger than the left, suggesting that the cavemen threw their lance or boulder from that side. Even language confirms this distinction: “right” is positive in its several meanings, while left is negative. This is especially true in Arab countries where the left hand deals with physical functions and therefore is regarded as unclean.

I was beginning to feel sorry for my left hand. As if it weren’t enough that it can’t write properly or catch a ball, it’s also supposed to be inferior. But then, by way of instant consolation I found a new report claiming that the number of left-handed people is growing rapidly and many of them are outstandingly gifted, successful people. Perhaps, as usual, Nature will have the last word, and if the proportion of enviable left-handers increases sufficiently, their reputation will also improve.

What a wide horizon has opened up over and beyond my chopping board!  The temporary uselessness of my sore thumb notwithstanding,  sometimes it’s quite rewarding for the kitchen knife to slip.

 

 

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DIY – or rather not?

I have a soft spot for Google. The very name is endearing – to me at least it smacks of the nursery, belonging to a slightly battered  favourite toy. More importantly, the programme itself is the greatest ever time-saver and tracker of references, providing information for which in pre-Google days (feels like the last Ice Age) one had to traipse to the reference section of the nearest Public Library and painstakingly dig out the needed data. So I follow all news concerning Google with interest, which is how I came across the following information (quoting from memory):

Google’s voice-activated Assistant Duplex can carry out entire phone conversations by itself. This technology has been worked on for many years and is still being developed, to help consumers do daily tasks, such as booking hair appointments or making restaurant reservations.

Eh? But surely consumers have been coping with those tasks ever since hairdressers and restaurants have existed, or more precisely since we’ve had telephones. What difference will it make whether I or Duplex books my much-needed hairdo? Actually Duplex could make a total mess of this simple task, as – unlike I – it can’t check other entries in my diary. The whole idea is a no-brainer, and to hear that many years of hard work have been invested in its development sounds depressing. “Mountains are in labour, a ridiculous small mouse will be born,” Horace wrote over 2000 years ago, and a better metaphor could hardly be found. Are there no other tasks for our awesome technological skills to carry out?

But perhaps I should scrutinize the true motivation behind the invention of Duplex. And the first thing that springs to mind is that according to C.G.Jung, the human being’s greatest passion is idleness. Now it’s safe to assume that Jung knew what he was talking about, but even so his view is confirmed by a somewhat downbeat text I once saw in a collection of international folk wisdom:

“It’s better to sit than to stand, better to lie down than to sit, better to sleep than just lie down, better to be dead than just asleep.” Well, that seems a trifle drastic and we can safely ignore it. What remains is the lasting love of idleness – workaholics, please stop reading – and its immediate result: the need to find someone or something that’ll do the necessary work instead of us. To achieve that should be enough for the average idler, but there’s the added pleasure of superiority, of having Duplex – or Alexa or the increasing army of electronic slaves – to do our bidding.
The more I ponder this, the less attractive we people sound, even if having electronic slaves instead of human ones sounds a great improvement. Also, the principle of “use it or lose it” chimes in a warning. Just imagine, if we gradually transferred all useful activities to Duplex-style electronic assistants , becoming unskilled in the process, and one day the global supply of electricity would run out (as we are told it will ), we would quickly perish from sheer helplessness. Which might be a chance for the Duplex lot, boosted by Artificial Intelligence, to take charge of the world.
But hang on! All that passivity and idleness is only half the story.  Put against it the lasting popularity of DIY in home and garden, the innumerable brave and often calamitous attempts to make one’s personal world a better place, and the gloom begins to rise. Personally I’m immune to any such ambition but still  remember my amazement when a highly erudite friend boasted to me of his greatest ever achievement – replacing some cracked tiles in his bathroom. The way he sounded, he might have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it’s time for me to revise my set of values.
So here we are, passionately idle and passive on the one hand and hyperactive and creative on the other. No advanced version of Duplex will ever combine those two opposites. We are a crazy mixed-up lot, and I just love it.

 

A Quick Tour of the Place Below

Did he or did he not deny the existence of Hell? The controversy about the official opinion of Pope Francis may still be going on – I’ve lost track of its progress – but it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I was vividly interested in the subject, although not for religious reasons. History of Art was one of my subjects at university, and when it came to selecting a subject for my dissertation, I chose the various depictions, both verbal and pictorial, of the underworld and particularly its infernal region. This was partly a reaction to too many sugary Madonnas and Babies, preferred by my professor, but mainly a rebellious wish to explore a fairly unpopular subject.

The first thing I discovered was that climate determined the prevalent temperature of Hell. In hot countries it was unbearably scorching, but up in the far North Pohjola was a dark, terrible and forever frozen place of icy despair. Ancient Greece chose a moderate climate for an underworld that wasn’t particularly hellish; indeed, its worst feature was the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, its best (in my view) Lethe, the river of oblivion, washing away all memories and, by doing that, healing all wounds.

Continuing my search in Southern Europe, Dante’s Inferno with its nine concentric circles of torment almost made me abandon my project: it was so perfect, so superbly organised and all-embracing that it seemed futile to move beyond it. It offered a rich menu of sins – lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery, which, except for heresy, are still practised today, and each variety was illustrated with poignant real-life stories of the sinners who were stuck there for all eternity. But then I realized that it was enough to read the morning paper with a special focus to find gorgeous current examples of those sins. Clearly, lust was behind the inappropriate behaviour of more or less eminent men reported almost daily (sorry, chaps, women can’t catch up with you here, and this gender gap has to be treasured), gluttony cum greed was behind the wave of obesity hitting us, wrath and violence were the parents of conflict, fraud fed the financial pages of the press, and treachery wasn’t hard to find, for instance in politics. But since we live in a secular society, the “sin” bits don’t come into the story; neither does the fear of ending up in Hell.  There are other fears – ending up in prison, going bankrupt, becoming a social pariah, losing foolishly one’s  celebrity status and so forth, but somehow these lack the dark glamour of one’s individual version of the infernal region.

My project suddenly grew wings with the discovery of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter of superhuman imagination. His depictions of Hell can be studied endlessly without solving the multiple puzzles of his symbols. Little wonder: it seems clear that Bosch was playing a double game, painting images that were outwardly acceptable to the Church authorities and his wealthy patrons, but hiding  behind them was the message of the medieval Cathar heresy. Once I entered the world of Bosch, there was no need for much else…years later I still haven’t solved his intricate, beautiful puzzles and go back to them every time the current world becomes dreadfully colourless.

Yes, Hell is a subject of endless fascination. Still plenty to explore in its depths. And it comes as a let-down to remember the much-quoted dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the peak intellects of the 20th century. He simply said, “Hell is other people.”

 

 

The Joys of Junk Mail

I hesitate to admit it, but sometimes junk mail, spam and otherwise, has a weird charm which the proper official kind lacks. It’s the sheer outrageousness or touching stupidity of some “cold call” e-mails that I find refreshing, especially because they tend to come in waves, bearing similar contents. Perhaps there is a secret hub somewhere in cyberspace that sends these waves; at any rate they come and go fast enough to remain entertaining. Some time ago it was the onslaught of the Nigerian Widows, all of them passionately religious and oh, so generous, offering me half of the fortune left in a British bank by their careless late husbands, if only…. Resisting them was fun but disappointingly easy.

Next came – repeatedly – an apparent, genuine-looking appeal from a close friend’s real-life friend, stuck abroad penniless after a mugging, begging for an instant loan to get her home with her small child. This might have been a successful identity theft, had I not known that the real person was about 20 years too old to have a small child.  Impostors should be good at research.

But recently the tide has turned. Instead of asking me to get someone out of trouble, I’m being inundated with generous offers. Several heads of recruitment are so impressed with my background (my what?) that they offer me impossibly tempting jobs – working from home, getting huge salaries, ample time off, and so forth. The fact that they know precisely nothing about me doesn’t make them less keen; reading their comments on my non-existent qualifications makes me wonder whether I’ve been underestimating myself all my life. What a pity that the last thing on earth I want is a job.

And now it’s a deluge of Gift Cards that’s hitting me, from well-known firms that apologize for having overcharged me or just want to thank me for my custom over the years, notwithstanding that I’ve never-ever visited their shops. “We’re giving you this awesome surprise”, one e-mail from a well-known chemist’s chain declares, although the prospect of two free pieces of soap does not fill me with awe. ( “Awesome” seems to be the latest linguistic import from the USA, used with abandon – and a total lack of judgement.)

My Gift Cards remain unclaimed. I’m trying to give away stuff instead of acquiring more. But oh, what joy to receive these bits of harmless nonsense, interrupting my real everyday work.

If nothing else, they remind me not to take that real work, or myself, too seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

Get moving, Quintus!

To give him his full name, it was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed Cunctator, “the delayer”, and he was a Roman statesman and general who lived around 280-203 B.C. His masterful delaying tactics during the second Punic War worked well against Hannibal’s dreaded forces; in fact they were the earliest known form of guerrilla warfare. This makes him sound quite a fearsome character, yet his surviving statue shows a handsome, gentle looking young man, holding his chin with one hand while presumably pondering what to delay next; contemporary records describe him as being mild mannered and slow-spoken, despite holding huge power.

Now before you begin to wonder what on earth this noble character  of 2200 years ago has got to do with us here and now, let me admit that his monumental lack of urgency has made him a living presence for me, unfortunately in a totally negative way. Almost daily some news item sheds light on an urgent problem affecting us all, together with a suggested official solution to be introduced – some time in the future. The latest example of this concerns the alarming obesity epidemic spreading in this country. According to official figures, one in five children arrive in primary school being obese or overweight, and – worse still – one in three leave primary school in that condition. The serious health risks of obesity are well known; it is a contributory factor to all major diseases from heart disease to cancer, and is therefore the No.1. candidate on the list of preventable baddies.

Prevention immediately  becomes a practical task if we contemplate the dietary disaster that makes the nation fat, the evil effect of the Junk Food Industry that turns out nutritionally empty but calorie-rich rubbish, made tasty and tempting by the galaxy of chemicals politely known as “food cosmetics”. Advertising brainwashes the public to buy and eat the stuff; only a few British schools have recently begun to teach children about healthy eating.

But at last our decision-makers have woken up to what’s going on around the nation’s expanding waistline and seem to be shuffling into action. According to a recent announcement, the relevant Government department has instructed food manufacturers to cut calories by 20% – by 2024. To do this, we are told, would slash costs to the NHS by £45 billion and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths. Terrific – but for Heaven’s sake, why wait for six years to hit the target? Why this desperate lack of urgency that would make Quintus the Delayer smile with happy recognition? Surely this timetable won’t inspire food manufacturers to start improving their output in a hurry?

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in 1955, states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if I were a food manufacturer and knew that I had six years to make my calorie-rich junk product healthier, I wouldn’t do a thing for five years or so. After all, according to another “law” by some anonymous sage , “If you wait until the last minute, the job only takes a minute to do.”

The art of delaying has a language of its own, lavishly used in official communications. “At the earliest opportunity”, “in the foreseeable future” and suchlike should act as alarm bells, warning us that again there is no hurry and therefore no fast result involved. Of course there is no reason why we as individuals shouldn’t become awkward and try to speed up events. I’ve done it many times, failed in 40%. succeeded in 30% and at least got things moving in the remainder.

And, being of an impatient disposition – sorry, Quintus the charming Cunctator- I’ll continue to fight unnecessary delays wherever they crop up. There will be plenty left for others to cope with.

,

 

 

Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.

 

 

 

Seven Reasons to Dislike January

It’s far too long

It’s named after Janus, that singularly unattractive Roman god whose two faces, looking left and right, only appear on coins – did he have no body? He was the god of beginnings, of doors and gateways, provider of the first hour of the day, but looking at his grumpy old face I personally wouldn’t feel like beginning anything new…

The first fortnight is schizoid – partly hung over, partly hyperactive because of the sales

The cold/flu epidemic reaches new heights

Snow and ice cause schools to shut down, creating extra problems to parents already exhausted after a very long break

It’s a favourite time for boilers and radiators to break down and/or leak

Bills arrive in bunches while long overdue cheques don’t.

The only comfort comes from the motto engraved in King Solomon’s ring: “This too will pass”.