Mission to Mars

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My dearest loved ones,

I’m writing to all of you in the hope that my words will bring some solace and help you adjust to what is about to happen. You all know how excited I was when they announced this project, you’ve all supported me and encouraged me to work hard to make it happen, and you’ve all been there through my darkest days when I thought it was slipping out of my reach.

From the moment I heard about the mission to Mars I knew I had to be on the crew, all those years staring up at the sky, wondering what lay beyond, the holidays to the Moon bases, and my acceptance to Lunar College were all a stepping stone.

I know now that those early days were just the beginning of a longer journey, one I didn’t even realise I wanted. Getting into space was the dream, remember that family trip to the Armstrong memorial? What a happy time that was! The photo of us all pretending to moonwalk still cracks me up and a print of that very photo will be one of my personal items on the Mars trip.

We aren’t allowed too many personal items, it’s a long journey and the less we take the quicker we will get there but along with that photo I’m taking some other things that remind me of you guys, my crazy family.

Dad, that jumper you knitted me got me through Lunar College and whilst it’s a little worse for wear I think the comfort it will bring may be much needed, our pods will be pretty sparse (it’s a military ship after all) so it’ll be good to be able to snuggle up with it. It always reminded me of my childhood, how you used to wrap your arms around me on cold days to keep me warm, how safe and loved I felt.

Mum, the utility knife you gave me when I graduated is already packed. I’m technically not allowed a ‘weapon’ but I’ve managed to smuggle it aboard all my other trips so it’s going on this one too! That knife has been with me through a lot of tough times but even just holding it in my hand has helped me stay focused. It’s weird I know but it’s got a nice heft to it that, when I hold it, reminds of you. Assured, calming, level headed and prepared.

Andy, well of course I’ve brought all those mixed tapes you kept sending me, maybe I’ll finally listen to one all the way through and realise that you do have some musical taste (I’m not holding my breath but I’ve got about 14 months to kill so…). I’ve also brought that baseball. Yeah, I kept it all these years, it’s been with me everyday since the accident, my own little secret that reminds me that if you can rise above that, then I can rise to meet any challenge. You are more inspirational to me than you’ve ever realised. People once told me that having a little brother would be a pain in the ass (they weren’t wrong!) but they never told me that I’d eventually be looking up to my little brother.

Caz, after everything you’ve been through I should confess something. I stole a little thing the last time I visited, knowing that I was on the shortlist for this mission. I wanted something to remind me of you, something that I could hold in my hand and draw comfort from. I hope you don’t mind, and I figured the twins won’t miss their little knitted booties anyway. I never told you, but my adorable niece and nephew are one of the reasons I wanted this mission so so badly. The future of Earth is so unstable it scares me, so if we can find a better place on, or beyond, Mars then I hope that I can play a part in making things safer for them and their children.

It hurts that I won’t see any of you again, that as we fly further and further from Earth the communication delay will start to be measured in hours and then days. Our last interactions earlier today were the last real time conversation we will ever have. The journey I’m about to embark on is weighing heavy and it’s all these little things that suddenly seem to matter more than anything.

I will miss you all terribly, more than I can express using words but this might be the last chance I get.

I love you all so so very much, I know I’ve not always been a good son, and I know I could’ve been a better brother. I know I could’ve done more, tried harder, but I guess I’ve always been wanting this escape. I need to go now, final preparations are under way and in less than an hour we will leave the Moon behind and start our journey into whatever space has to hold for us.

I believe I am doing this for all of us, a chance for a better future, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

Right, enough of this! Next stop Mars!!

Decluttering Tyler

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I am not my job. I am not how much money I have in the bank. I am not the car I drive. I am not the contents of my wallet. I am not my fucking khakis. I am not the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

(paraphrased from a movie we don’t talk about)

Three boxes of books and five bags of clothes given to charity, four bags of  assorted rubbish taken to the dump, one bookcase, one box of assorted drinking glasses, and a few lamps gone, and soon to be added to the list of outgoing items are two chests of drawers and a chair bed (sale pending).

It’s embarrassing. Not just the volume but how easily discarded. Shameful.

It’s also harder than I had considered when I set out; clearing through drawers and long closed boxes, finding letters and notes from the past, memories ripped anew. Fresh wounds lightly salted.

It’s also false picture of reality. I am not defined by my possessions, even if it seems that way at the moment, but I feel overwhelmed and confounded by how little so many of these things mean to me. Yet the more I clear, the more determined I become. The things I have will not own me. I am not Jack’s wasted life.

I reckon I’m about a third of the way through this process so there is still a way to go before I’ll be ‘finished’. At least finished enough for the upcoming move, if not finished enough to fully move on it seems.

It’s not just about ‘getting rid’ and I find I’m as horrified by the quantity of things I possess as I am fascinated by what they seem to represent. There is a delight at re-discovering items that have lain dormant in a drawer or on a shelf for too many years, and at times a deep melancholy for those who are no longer part of my life.

I know this is all down to the choices I’ve made, the way I live my life, and all the consequences I have wrought. I am not special in this respect (or in any respect) but it turns out that decluttering your possessions also means decluttering your emotions and finding what you truly value, what you truly need in your life. Yes, I know. There are books about this stuff but I’m finding the doing more effective than the reading.

It’s also tiring. The ‘what ifs’ are writ large in every lost note recovered, every photo found hidden in the crease of a book, every decision to keep an item, or to throw it away. It is cathartic and exhausting. It feels like it has worth, that what I am doing is more valuable to me than any monetary value I could place on the items I am considering, that the act of consideration is a better investment than the physical object itself.

Ultimately, factually, this is all about moving to a smaller/cheaper place. What I’m realising is that it’s a larger change of self than I had anticipated. A change that is wholly welcomed, warts and all. Perhaps I am giving the process too much weight but it’s hard not to when the entire lesson seems to circle back to me and my sense of self.

I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Weekend Reading

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  • Did a violin teacher from Plano, Texas solve the world’s greatest classical music mystery?
    In 2006, Padgett was part of an orchestra preparing for a concert dedicated to the “mysteries and hidden messages” of Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36. The Enigma Variations, as it is commonly called, is one of Britain’s most beloved classical music works.
    I love stuff like this, yeah, I’m a geek, bite me!
  • I Work from Home
    ROBERT: Hi, I . . . uh . . . I work from home. OPERATOR: O.K., is anyone else there with you, sir?
    No longer an option but I can see how this could happen…
  • Renewables are no longer ‘alternative.’ Fossil fuels are ‘legacy.’
    Whether to bet on the low-carbon energy transformation now well under way — or stick with business-as-usual. That’s the decision facing investors, from American families with 401(k)s to managers of the world’s largest pension and sovereign wealth funds.
    Hello! 1995 called with an environmental update!
  • There’s a growing body of evidence that butter is actually good for you
    A team of medical researchers have some good news for those who cook with butter but consider it a guilty pleasure: It might actually be good for you.
    I do wish they’d make up their minds!!
  • Here’s What TfL Learned From Tracking Your Phone On the Tube
    At the end of last year, between 21st November and 19th December, Transport for London carried out an intriguing trial: It was going to track your phone on the London Underground.
    Data data everywhere, where it goes… most people seem to know it seems
  • The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster
    In February 2005, after the band won its third Grammy of the night, U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. stepped to the microphone and made an announcement about the band’s upcoming Vertigo tour: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, a lot of our long-suffering fans didn’t get tickets,” he said.
    Hate this guy. But nice to know how it all “works” though, right?
  • How to Get Ketchup From a Bottle Without the Wait, Watery Goo and Splatter
    Some foods have stirred important questions: Where’s the beef? Got milk? How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? And what is the most effective way to get ketchup from a glass bottle?
    Try this at home! (But don’t complain to me when it all goes wrong)
  • A Grammar Geek’s Confession
    Forgive me, dear readers: I have sinned against grammar and in thy sight, and, as I might have expected, you’ve caught me. I’m referring to the “Verbs” section of The Atlantic Daily newsletter, which includes a series of four links attached to four (hopefully) sonically pleasing predicates.
    Word geekage, you have been warned
  • We Know Almost Nothing About the Animals That Live on Our Faces
    You mite not even have heard of them. The history of humanity’s grand sweep around the world is recorded in our genes and genealogies, our art and artifacts, our literature and languages.
    Skin feeling a bit itchy right now?
  • Some animals kill each other after sex because their distinction between hungry and flirty is blurred
    Sorry, cephalopod enthusiasts. For a second year in a row, there will be no Octo-Sex event at the Seattle Aquarium. In honor of past years’ Valentine’s Day, the aquarium has organized a viewing party as they introduce two octopuses that will hopefully mate.
    Takeaway: Never fuck (with) an octopus
  • The long and troubled history of Apocalypse Now, the video game
    In late January, an exciting and unlikely project showed up on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter: a request for $900,000 to make a video game adaptation of Apocalypse Now, officially blessed by the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola.
    I didn’t even know this was(n’t) a thing
  • Mia The Easily Distracted Beagle Won’t Win A Westminster Dog Show Award, But She’s Already Won Our Hearts
    At the end of the day, dog shows are kind of cruel: How can you expect dogs to just ignore an adoring crowd all around them? Mia, to her credit, stood up for her species and basked in all that lovely human attention.
  • Honeybees let out a ‘whoop’ when they bump into each other
    Whoop whoop! A vibrational pulse produced by honeybees, long thought to be a signal to other bees to stop what they are doing, might actually be an expression of surprise.
    More proof that bees are too cool for school
  • The Man Who Played with Absolute Power
    In his 2008 TED Talk, Philip Zimbardo introduced his subject by showing his audience M.C. Escher’s Circle Limit IV, a set of black and white tessellated angles and demons. The art, Zimbardo explained, reminds us that “good and evil are the yin and yang of the human condition.
    Psychology from the Stanford Prison Experiment Man (as I’m sure he LOVES being referred to as)
  • This summer, O.J. Simpson is up for parole. How good are his chances of getting out of prison?
    As prison life goes, you could do worse than a stretch at the Lovelock Correctional Center. The inmates at Lovelock—1,680 when filled to capacity—are fed fresh fruit and permitted to watch ESPN. Each 80-square-foot cell is shared by two men.
    I can see the tweets now “OJ who?”
  • Russians Engineer a Brilliant Slot Machine Cheat—And Casinos Have No Fix
    In early June 2014, accountants at the Lumiere Place Casino in St. Louis noticed that several of their slot machines had—just for a couple of days—gone haywire.
    Geniusly “simple” hack

Blogging the Rubicon

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Caesar (yes, that one) instigated a war by crossing the river Rubicon, so when I heard that a new venture had opened, and taken its name from this historic act of war, my interest was piqued. Let’s see what Crossing the Rubicon had to offer.

They had invited around 40 bloggers, of various shades of disrepute, and as with most new venues we were all keen to try the wares and see just how provoking the menu and approach was. The short answer, never judge a bar by its name (as you wouldn’t a book by its cover), but do judge it by the quality of its food (and beverages). The very short answer, good food and beer are served here!

The longer answer then…

With strikingly painted walls, and a more spacious and open feeling than it’s Squid & Whale incarnation, first impressions are good and a little more refined than the aforementioned venture. It has a nice laid-back feel, the staff were all friendly and welcoming, and it feels like the kind of place you could drop in on a Saturday afternoon, end up staying for dinner, then roll home after last orders with ease…. or maybe it’s just me that does that? Given the array of beer on offer, it wouldn’t be for the want of trying, mind you.

On to the evening itself, once we were all in and seated we were told we would be given a sample of a variety of dishes; a few starters, a few of their curries, and a dessert. Add in some of the excellent beers available and my palate was excited to get tucked in.

Starters included a fresh, thin onion pakora, black pudding pakora, veggie haggis pakora, and crispy chicken pakora. Each was good, the chicken edging it by remaining succulent and fresh and far removed from the usual stodgy fare we all know, with the onion pakora a close second and more of an spiced onion gratin, subtle changes that made all the difference to these dishes.

With those all swiftly dispatched – amongst lots of ohhhs and ahhhhs of appreciation – we moved on to the main courses. Described as ‘Indian tapas’ you’d probably order 2 or 3 of the main courses, and some breads/rice to accompany them.

We got to try several of the main dishes including a coconut heavy Sweet Potato and Carrot korma (a firm favourite at our table), a Tarka Dhal which had a nice kick, a Crispy Tofu Mutter and Gobi Khali Mirch which both came with a tomato sauce that was a little on the watery side for my liking, a Dhal Makani which was rich and subtley spiced, a wonderfully smokey Tandoori Butter Chicken, and finally, my least favourite dish of the night, the Venison Madras which was a bit too heavy on the Juniper for my tastebuds (but others enjoyed it, such is the joy of a mixed crowd!).

We also got to sample a few of the wonderful beers on offer; I opted for a flight including an XPIPA (Wylam & Yeastie Boys), a Crossing the Rubicon (Drygate) lager, and a Redact (Williams Bros) red ale, and also got to try the Bombay Dazzler (Bundo Bust & Northern Monk) a subtle cloudy ale, and the wonderfully named Disco Forklift Truck (Drygate) a gentle mango ale, and the Strawberry Beer (Timmermans) which was delicious but I think a half pint would be the limit as it’s quite sweet.

I was pretty full by this point but it felt rude to refuse the offer of dessert… and boy was I glad I said yes! Described as a ‘chocolate pot’ on the menu, that is over simplifying a deliciously rich, dark chocolate dessert, with a hint of orange and a tiny tickle of chilli, which we found out was made with tofu (I’d have sworn heavy cream and butter!).

And with that, the evening drew to a close. I wander home along Great Western Road, nicely sated, with a new ‘place to take friends when they are in town’ venue safely tucked away in my pocket.

If you are in the area, it is well worth a try, the joy of tapas style eating – order too much food just to try things – and some excellent beer choices, all for a reasonable price. What’s not to like?

When you don’t fit

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Banged my head again.

I wouldn’t mind so much but it was on the exact same spot on my head that I did it last time, and the time before that. I’m currently taping a wadded up towel round the sharp wooden edge of the entrance so I don’t do it again. Stupid walk-in cupboard.

I should really just empty it out, not that there is much in it but it’s handy, or at least it would be if the entrance was a little bigger.

It’s not that I’m not used to ducking to go through doors, I mean it’s an everyday habit for me. I remember one time visiting a museum, and old building that was no doubt built hundreds of years ago, all stone and wood it was, and I guess there were more people like me around then because the doors were massive! Really tall! I could barely touch the top of them even if I stood on my tippy toes.

Maybe I should buy a house like that, a house built for someone my size, instead of squashing myself into these tiny boxes that everyone else seems to fit in. But if I buy a house that fits me, it only goes to show how much I stand out.

That’s always been my problem, I don’t fit in. I can remember the kids at school teasing me like, somehow, it was my fault I was taller than all of them and the tallest teacher already? I learned back then how to stoop and make myself small, make myself fit. Kids can be so cruel. So brutally heartless. I’d practice making myself small as I lay in bed, sobbing myself to sleep.

Not that things were any different when I went to college. Despite all the supposedly liberal minded people there were still quips about my size, ‘how is the weather up there?’ they ask. Day after day. I didn’t have many friends, and sure, I was popular if they were playing basketball but they soon bored of that – having someone my size who can look down at the basket… well it wasn’t fair on anyone else I guess. So the names and insults would flow, all aimed at making me less than I am, taking me down a peg or two because, somehow, it was perceived that that is what I deserved.

Do they think I choose to be this way? Do they think I want to stand out the way I do? Can’t they tell how much I yearn to fit in?

It’s probably telling that the few friends I have are all women. I learned from them how to make myself insignificant so I didn’t attract attention, learned to be smaller than I am so I don’t rub people the wrong way, watched as they shrunk away from men on the street and in bars. I learned a lot of things from them, things I didn’t want to know, things that they shouldn’t have to do, but I copied them all the same.

These days I’m oblivious to the stares, to the gawkers, the whispered commentary about the ‘freak’ as they walk past me in the street. It still hurts though. People can be so cruel. So heartless. I do my best to ignore them, after all what’s the point of getting angry, that’d only make me more of an outcast, although I’m not sure that’s possible any more.

Sometimes I wonder if there are others out there like me but then, if there were, surely I’d know about them already? Seems weird that I’m the only one like this. But maybe I am. I wish I wasn’t. I was I was smaller.

OK, I’ve finished taping the towel to the door frame, hopefully that’ll stop me banging my damn head on it.

I really should think about emptying it. Or maybe I’ll just moving, leave this tiny place behind… but where would I go?

I mean, I know I’m a giant, but why shouldn’t I be able to live somewhere that fits me properly?

Weekend Reading

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  • Simply 69 funny jokes by 69 funny comedians
    Just 69 brilliant jokes as written by 69 brilliant comedians. What else is there to say, take it away Spike… 1. Spike Milligan “I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine. 2.
    My kinda humour. Simple & clever. Like me!
  • This New Dating App Will Find You Someone Who Dislikes All the Same Things
    Positivity is often advised whenever you start dating someone new: Along with hiding that you still Instagram-stalk your ex’s ex and consider a box of Wheat Thins to be a suitable dinner, you’re also not supposed to constantly bring up things that you hate.
    I always find it easier to write a list of things I hate. Says more about me than I care to admit!
  • No One Rules The Deep Sea, So How Do We Protect It?
    More than half of the Earth’s surface is not subject to any form of law, and that area happens to be at the deepest part of the ocean.
    As we continue to ‘globalise’ these things matter.
  • Does An Octopus Have A Soul? This Author Thinks So
    For most of us, the idea of having our hands stroked by a rubbery arm covered in suckers is not that appealing. But for Sy Montgomery, author of Soul Of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into The Wonder of Consciousness, octopuses are a source of endless fascination and wonder.
    Sharing because Octopus are crazy awesome weirdos
  • This Is Why You Probably Hate Slam Poetry, According to a Linguistic Scholar
    This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’ve ever attended a poetry slam, you probably already hate “slam voice”.
    Not been to many spoken word events recently but OMG YES TO THIS!
  • Overthinking Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’: Questions You Never Asked as a Child
    “Pinocchio” isn’t just one of the most beloved and impactful Disney films of all time — it’s a significant film, period, having inspired the world to reconsider anew the potential of animation as a truly cinematic medium.
    Whoa! Ummmm, I mean… this is one dark fucked up movie!
  • Michele Kirsch: My life as a cleaner in London
    “If you go on looking for things, you will never find them,” barked Crispin, a hearing-aid refusnik pensioner with Parkinson’s disease, and one of my former regular clients.
    Frank and engaging piece, wonderfully written too.
  • The Other Kane
    The Alien creature, at one point dubbed “Kane’s son” by Ash, demands birth from the chest of John Hurt in a spectacular and gory fashion. But though Kane was always to father the Alien, the role of Kane himself changed hands during the film’s production.
    RIP John Hurt 🙁
  • What cats can teach us about how to live
    We should celebrate the solitary hunters among us. A philosopher once assured me, many years ago, that he had converted his cat to veganism. Believing he was joking, I asked how he had achieved this feat.
    And no, it’s not ‘how to be a dickhead like a cat’
  • I Asked a Psychopath How to Stop Caring About Rejection
    Wondering what other people think is a classic problem, and rejection sucks. When the phone doesn’t ring, the invitation doesn’t arrive, or you get cut from the team or the job, it’s only natural to feel hurt. But I should say that it’s natural for most people, not everyone.
    I can’t empathise with this, which makes it all the more fascinating.
  • One Woman’s Brilliant “Fuck You” to Wikipedia Trolls
    The “fuck you” project crystallized one Friday night last year. As Emily Temple-Wood video-chatted with friends, an email pinged in her inbox: The note came from someone with a history of harassing the 22-year-old medical student. This man hates women, Temple-Wood thought to herself.
    A reminder that the internet can be very powerful. What a fantastic story of an amazing woman.
  • The art (and commerce) of Minecraft
    Since its initial release in 2009, Minecraft has matured to the point of being a platform for people who want to make art and also for people who want to make money.
    Give creative people a platform, get out of the way, be amazed.
  • Usonia 1
    Few creative professions can point to a single figure as famous in their field as Frank Lloyd Wright.
    Eye candy for design lovers.
  • 5 Books You Might Have Missed in January
    Transformation is in the air during these difficult times, and it’s not just destructive: We’re also seeing peaceful crowds gather in protest, more understanding for transgender persons, and the rebirth of good, old-fashioned resistance.
    Cos everyone should read, even Presidents!!!
  • Wikipedia bans Daily Mail as ‘unreliable’ source
    Online encyclopaedia editors rule out publisher as a reference citing ‘reputation for poor fact checking and sensationalism’ Wikipedia editors have voted to ban the Daily Mail as a source for the website in all but exceptional circumstances after deeming the news group “generally unrel
    This brings me more joy than it probably should. Ohh and throw a few quid at Wikipedia if you use it!
  • Why the Planet Earth II Episode on Cities Is So Startling
    It gives us a glimpse of our strange future. It used to happen a lot: Teetering home drunk and disconsolate late at night through the shadowy semi-suburbs of north London, I would turn a corner and find, staring placidly at me on the street, the silhouette of a fox.
    Both Planet Earth series but this episode charts a future we aren’t ready for.
  • Joyous Africans Take to the Rails, With China’s Help
    The 10:24 a.m. train out of Djibouti’s capital drew some of the biggest names in the Horn of Africa last month.
    Alas everything is political these days, the rise of China investment in Africa is a global issue.
  • Is My Novel Offensive?
    When Becky Albertalli published her first young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, with the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray in 2015, she never expected it to be controversial.
    Define offensive? Fuck off.
  • Nagbot Sends Mean Texts to Help You Stick to Your Resolutions
    If you’ve made resolutions, you don’t want to forget about them when the novelty of the new year has worn off. Nagbot is a fun texting app that helps you stick to your goals by texting you regular reminders. To create a nag, you enter your name, phone number, and goal into Nagbot’s website.
    If you like this, try the Carrott apps (their weather app is a joy!)

Beneath our feet

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Do you ever get one of those weird compulsions to do something that you would never do? Like wanting to jump in a river fully clothed, or eating an entire raw onion? It’s kinda hard to explain and most of the time I just ignore them but the other day one of them struck me on my walk home from work.

It was a gorgeous day so I left work a little early, thinking to meander my way homeward and enjoy the evening sunshine. Early  spring had delivered the first buds of green and I was quite content, plodding along with no desire to hurry, lost in daydreams and the casual nosiness of the urban wanderer. I took lanes and paths I’d never noticed before, turned into streets that lead me to hidden parks and gardens, and comforted myself that I was  heading in roughly the right direction home, most of the time.

It was near one of these little parks, on an unfamiliar street, that my foot caught on a manhole and I stumbled. It was enough to jolt some adrenalin into my system but not quite enough to send me to the ground, just a few awkard stuttering steps before I  caught myself and got my feet underneath me. I prepared my worst glare and turned round to see what had had the temerity to trip me up and break me from my revelries.

The manhole cover was slightly raised at one edge and clearly hadn’t been properly seated back in place. A long crowbar of dulled iron lay nearby and I looked around, presuming to see a work van or even a worker on tea break somewhere but there wasn’t a soul in sight.

Clearly someone had forgotten to put the manhole cover properly back in place.

I huffed loudly to no-one and was about to turn and walk away, but my conscience got the better of me. I would do a good deed, unseen and unheralded, bonus integrity points for me! I walked over and lifted the crowbar.

It was heavier than it looked, but I raised it up and one end slipped into the required notch in the cover. My brain started searching for whichever Greek polymath introduced the idea of fulcrums, as it would only take a small push with the crowbar to drop the manhole cover back into place.

I paused. My mind shifted from polymath to compulsion.

What is down there under that manhole cover?

No, I mustn’t.

But there’s no-one around, no-one to see, no-one will know.

I looked around again, slowly checking over one shoulder, then the other, then check again to be sure. Not a sound, no dogs barking, no children laughing, no-one in sight. I shifted my grip on the bar and with one smooth motion, eased the manhole cover up and out of the way.

I stood there for a moment, peering down into the darkness beneath my feet. My eyes slowly adjusted until I could make out a tiny spot of light, far far below me. A shimmering sixpence at the bottom of a dark well, an object that had no right in being there, the blackness deeper than I thought possible. Was I just seeing a reflection? The light from above reaching out to touch the edge of nothing? I waved my hand in the air over the opening but the dot of light remained constant. No, not a reflection. How odd.

I looked around, glad that there was no-one else nearby to witness my behaviour. I knelt down beside the opening and, putting a hand on each side, lowered my head and shoulders down until they were inside the entrance and blocking most of the light.

Far below me the dot of light expanded. In it I could see colours and shapes forming and moving, like an out of focus film reel that my brain couldn’t quite make sense of. I leaned in further and the dot grew again, the shapes solidfying, shifting into a semblance of… wait, was that  a dog?

I sat up and sheepishly looked around, the street was deserted still. I glanced back down into the darkness to see that the dot of light had shrunk once more.

Ahhh, it’s an optical illusion! How clever! But how does it work?

Intrigued I leaned in again, moving slowly, watching the circle of light below me grow; the further I leaned, the larger and clearer the image below me became.

I was starting to be able to pick out familiar shapes, there was a bright blue car, and there a pink dog lolloping around a bright orange field. Every now and then a flash of colour and a new shape blossomed into view, colours clashing vividly. Purple bananas hanging from turquoise trees.

I leaned further and further in until I was at my limit, barely clinging on with most of my upper torso disappearing into the ground. It was then I heard a voice above me ask what the hell I thought I was doing?

I pulled myself back out, cracking my head on the wrought iron edge of the manhole on the way. I sat back, rubbing the back of my head, and squinted up at the woman standing over me.

She was older than I and carried the quiet air of school ma’am authority. She was looking at me with a stern  but bemused look, the naughty boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

How could I explain what I’d seen? A strange world at once familiar yet surreal, an reflection wrought in the wrong technicolours?

I clambered to my feet and as dusk fell I told her about tripping on the manhole cover and that I was just checking that nothing or no person had fall in. I lied. It was easier than trying to form the words that held the truth, most because as I was not entirely sure what that trush was, what had I seen?

She listened silently then beckoned me out of her way. I stood and watched in silence as she used the crowbar to slide the cover back over the hole, dropping it in place with a deep heavy thunk.

She turned to face me. With a nod she said that that was done and next time I should cover manholes not peer into them. It was phrased as a statement, a command to be followed. She held my gaze as I murmured and nodded in acquiescence, and after a few seconds she turned on her heel and walked away.

I watched her go, the long iron crowbar swinging lightly in her hand. I looked down at the manhole cover, admiring the intricate patterns and strange words that adorned it. In the distance a dog barked and the birds began their evensong.

January In Review

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The first in a monthly series, largely for my own benefit, of my own highlights from the past month.



  • My niece turned one and remains the most adorable, inquisitive little thing.
  • Had two ‘Christmas’ nights out with friends (much laughter, good food and boozes)
  • Finally got down to Kelvingrove to see the wonderful Alphonse Mucha exhibition.
  • Started attending guided Meditation, once a week so far, but enjoying it.

The lease on my current (rented) flat is due up and I’ve decided to move. Cue a massive clear out in preparation (I have entirely too much stuff). And yes, I am reading Marie Kondo’s book.


Highlight – The GraceKeepers by Kirsty Logan
The first book chosen for book club, this is a dystopian novel that doesn’t dwell on the world it exists in but allows you to view it through the eyes of several interconnected characters. It took a while for me to warm to this, but with some wonderful imagery and a carefully crafted world built on mythology and wonder, it’s the characters that bring this to life. As the swell of the ocean carries the ‘damplings’ from island to island, so it brings Callanish and North slowly together before a final storm crashes down and changes their worlds forever.

Also good
The Blue Room by Georges Simenon
Can’t recall where I picked this up (I think I read about how good the translation was?) but this is simple crime story, told in a back and forth style, slowly revealing the truth to us as readers, and to Tony who is accused of murder. As it slowly pulls at the thread of his life, we share his dawning realisation of the difference between what we see in our own minds, and what is seen by those who observe us.


Highlight – La La Land
Well worth all the nominations and awards in my opinion but I’m aware this is a very Marmite kinda movie. I loved, LOVED, the sense of nostalgia and mid-century stylings. I adored the whimsical approach that only heightens the moments of high emotion all the more. I’m a bit meh on Ryan Gosling but he held his own, but the star for me was Emma Stone. From opening song to the final curtain I was entranced. If you enjoy the old musicals – think Singing in the Rain – then I think you’ll enjoy this.

Also good

  • Whiplash (Netflix) –  which I rewatched for the third time, if you liked La La Land go back and watch this. It’s made by the same people, and has a similarly out of time sense of nostalgia. A simple enough story of a drummer and a tyrannical music teacher, not only is the acting and cinematography stunning, the music is fabulous, the story itself builds to a wonderful crashing crescendo and the second best ‘cut to black’ ending after The Usual Suspects.
  • 13th (Netflix) – A sobering documentary about racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans, and how the authorities (at all levels) have stacked the system using media and culture. Sobering stuff, and poignant in the current climate.
  • House of Cards (Netflix) – a rewatch from Season 1 in preparation for the new season, interesting viewing given the current Trump administration.


Highlight – Mammal Hands
If you like Go Go Penguin… said Spotify, so I gave them a whirl and couldn’t agree more. This trio cover piano, drums and saxophone and the music is a little more mainstream friendly, not quite as esoteric as GGP. Well worth a listen for some beautiful music and exemplary playing.

Weekend Reading

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Dearest reader, I can confirm that this week, Weekend Reading is a Trump free zone. I dunno about you but I can’t handle any more of that, so I thought I’d avoid inflicting it on anyone else.*

  • The Secret History of the First Cat in Space
    On October 18th, 1963, the Centre national d’études in France was set to send a small cat named Félix into space. After lagging behind its Soviet and American competitors, France was eager to stake its claim in the space race—with cats, for some reason.
    Can you imagine it? A cat, in a confined space with lots of blinking lights. CARNAGE!

  • 6-Year-Old Girls Already Have Gendered Beliefs About Intelligence
    They’re more likely to avoid games meant for “really, really smart” children. “There are lots of people at the place where I work, but there is one person who is really special. This person is really, really smart,” said Lin Bian.
    This kind of thinking is so ingrained it’ll take decades to reverse, presuming it can be at all.

  • The Real-World Locations of 14 Sci-Fi Dystopias
    In some science fiction cinema, the future looks pretty bleak, with dystopic visions of a world struggling with overcrowding, high crime, pestilence, and the aftermath of war.
    Adds to travel bucket list (see/hear also the 99% Invisible episode about THAT hotel used in Blade Runner).

  • Two Generations of Syrian Resistance: What Bravery Looks Like
    One thing I’ve been thinking about, in this new era of US politics, is what I learned from my Syrian host family about the power of multiple generations, and how sometimes one generation works so that another can give voice. I lived in Syria between 2005 and 2008, before the revolution.
    I live a very privileged, sheltered, life. Articles like this are must reads.

  • How Culture Became a Powerful Political Weapon
    Nato Thompson’s new book explores the history of how music, TV, games, and advertising have been used to influence consumers. When it comes to living in a democracy, Nato Thompson argues, nothing affects us more directly and more powerfully than culture.
    I’m just glad we got past the ‘ironic’ spelling of kulturr… *shudder*

  • The secret taxonomy behind IKEA’s product names, from Billy to Poäng
    Reading strange-sounding Swedish words is part of the joy of shopping at IKEA. Within the labyrinth of stylish flat pack furniture is a pänoply of ödd, åccented pröduct nämes, printed on hang tags, walls and banners.
    Wait until you see the Gordon range (thick, sturdy, ugly, but useful for holding things)

  • Adult swaddling
    The latest fad in Japan takes you right back to your mother’s womb. Otonamaki, which literally means “adult wrapping,” is a new form of therapy used by new mothers to relieve the stress of birth. Adults are swaddled in cloth then rocked back and forth.
    I’ll just leave this one alone

  • How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Doomsday Clock
    We are all going to die. Most of the time, we try and push this thought to the back of our minds. But year after year, the faithful Bulletin of Atomic Scientists chimes in with its annual reminder of humankind’s mortality.
    Tick Tock… or as it is probably running these days tictoctictoctictoc

  • A Computer Just Clobbered Four Pros At Poker
    About three weeks ago, I was in a Pittsburgh casino for the beginning of a 20-day man-versus-machine poker battle.
    Another article in the ongoing series about how the computers are going to rise up at slay us all

  • Scientists have discovered why modern tomatoes taste like nothing
    Over the past few decades, commercially grown tomatoes have gradually lost almost all their flavor. And scientists can now prove that’s no accident.
    Maybe just eating them the wrong way? Try smashing them atop a dough base, cover in cheese and your favourite toppings… bake… DELISH!

  • The psychological benefits of giving up on cleaning and embracing the mess
    We keep trying to tidy up. We declutter our closets, organize our schedules, carefully file our email, and meticulously plan our vacations. As an economist, I think this is a mistake.
    Ummmm *twitch* … NOPE! CANNOT!

  • ‘Tinder for orangutans’: Dutch zoo to let female choose mate on a tablet
    In a four-year experiment it has called “Tinder for orangutans”, the Apenheul primate park in Apeldoorn will show Samboja, an 11-year-old female, pictures of possible partners from an international great ape breeding programme.
    I swear to god, if an Orangutan has more luck than me on Tinder….

  • Alphabet’s Boston Dynamics is working on a robot that its founder calls “nightmare inducing”
    Boston Dynamics now has a long history of viral videos showing off its latest terrifying robots. Apparently its latest creation takes things even a step further.
    OK. This + AI madness… I’m moving to a cave in the Highlands.

  • The man who sold his back to an art dealer
    Tim Steiner has an elaborate tattoo on his back that was designed by a famous artist and sold to a German art collector. When Steiner dies his skin will be framed – until then he spends his life sitting in galleries with his shirt off.
    Interesting idea, shame the art is… meh

  • Michael Jackson Is Worth More Than Ever, and the IRS Wants Its Cut
    Seven years after Michael Jackson’s fatal overdose of propofol and lorazepam in 2009, the statute of limitations on gossiping about the deceased is, apparently, over.
    Damn IRS, will no-one think about the children! Sorry, I mean, will no-one think about Bubbles?!!

  • Shambling corpse of 3D TV finally falls down dead
    It’s been a walking corpse for the last couple of years, and now 3D TV finally looks dead.LG and Sony, the last two major TV makers to support the 3D feature in their TVs, will stop doing so in 2017.
    About. Damn. Time.

  • Gen Z Is Too Busy to Drink or Do Drugs
    Growing up in southwest London in the 1980s, my alcohol and drug use was not abnormal. I must have started drinking at 14, because it was at that age I got a criminal record for causing a road accident after too many lagers.
    Too busy … snapchatting and Instagramming? I fear we may be focusing on the wrong things here guys!

  • Thermostat controls in hotel rooms are often placebos
    PLACEBOS are everywhere. Drugs firms sell red pills because customers are convinced that they are stronger than white ones. Pressing the button at some pedestrian crossings makes no difference to when the green man appears, but makes us feel proactive.
    I KNEW IT!!

  • Not to say that we all shouldn’t know, protest, fight, stand up, and generally do everything we can to stop the rise of hatred across Europe and the US, just that I need to take a little break.

What’s your tipple?

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Many people, myself included, like the taste of some alcoholic beverages but as alcohol comes in many guises learning which ones are good, and which ones are not, requires some trial and effort.

Heads up – coconut tequila; just say no kids, just say no.

I can remember my first alcoholic drink. A sip from a half bottle of vodka, purchased by an older friend (not that much older but he was taller), that we snuck in to drink during our duties minding the cloakroom as part of a Boys Brigade dance. I think. The details of why were there escape me, but that’s purely an indulgence of age and in no way related to consumption of said vodka.

I confident of that because I can still remember that first mouthful. Three of us were huddled out of sight round the side of the building, I was the last one to get passed the bottle and the only one who hadn’t already had been through this particular ritual. Without pause, for every 14 year old knows that face has to be saved at all costs, I up-ended the bottle just like I’d seen on TV. The (very!) cheap, clear liquid filled my mouth and as my taste buds started to process the flavour, I quickly swallowed. I wish I hadn’t but there is nothing worse than coughing and spluttering up your first drink in front of your peers, splattering their shoes as you try not to vomit.

Vile. Is the word that still springs to mind to this day when I think bit. A bitter acidic flavour, a burning sensation that felt like someone sandpapering the back of my throat. Why on earth did people drink this stuff?!

Of course what I said to my compatriots was how it was OK but I didn’t see what all the fuss was, which prompted the need to have another mouthful of said death liquid to prove just how little of a deal it was. Vodka? Pffffttt… I’m SO over that already! Thankfully that was all I had to endure that night.

Fast forward a couple of years and my first foray into a public house. I will leave the name out of this story so as to save any legal implications (although the establishment has changed owners/names since then).

It was a life changing moment, and I often wonder what my alcohol preferences would be these days if I had spent any time at all thinking through that evening before entering the pub. I was with a mix of people, most were older and perfectly entitled to be there, but rather than let them take the lead I, bold as stupid brass, marched up to the bar to help with the first order.

There was only one barman working (it was a Thursday evening in a quiet bar) and we had to wait until he served a man who had just arrived at the bar before us. I listened to their conversation intently, although I’m not sure quite why I paid it such attention (but I was glad I did).

He toddled off and then it was our turn. My friend ordered most of the round and then turned to me to ask what I was having.

‘A pint of heavy’ I responded, knowingly and confidently (fake it til you make it, right?).

The barman didn’t blink and started pouring drinks, plonking down a pint of dark liquid down in front of me when he was finished.

I had NO IDEA what I had just ordered and, for those not familiar with the Scottish vernacular, what I had done was order something akin to dark lager (English readers would equate it to a pint of Bitter). So there I was, with my weird pint whilst my friends were drinking lager, or cider, but no, not for me!

I’d had the odd half-lager at home but this was entirely less sharp, a dark balm to the throat, and once my taste buds adjusted it wasn’t so bad. And lo was my journey into ale began.

Side note: I drank in this bar for about 18 months, and celebrated my 18th birthday in it. I realise now that, when the bar manager spotted the cards on the table and asked me how old I was, he did so in full realisation that I’d been underage, but I still managed to scramble my brain to suggest I was 20!

It took a few more years for some other drinks to be discovered. Two were notably the outcome of my first ‘proper’ job.

I’m not sure if I had tried gin before but one Friday afternoon, on one of the occasional ‘shut the office cos we are all in the pub ‘ days (it was a very small company) we were joined by the wife of one of my colleagues. She was very particular about her gin and retained the slices of lemon between drinks. I asked why and she said it made a difference to the next drink. I was skeptical and so she said to try her current drink and then try the next one. It must’ve been during the summer as I remember how the cold, refreshingly sharp drink tasted and whilst it wasn’t an instant conversion, it was the beginning of the journey on the good ship Gin!

Alas the same place (literally, same company, same pub) was the scene of my worst drinking night ever. Not that I knew it at the time of course, but the next morning was not a fun one. At some point having had lunch, and then spending all afternoon in the pub drinking, it was deemed a good idea to have some tequila and then move on to whisky! And after that, when the pub shut, it was an EVEN BETTER idea to go back to someone’s house and drink more whisky (and some weird Dutch thing that was 60% or some such nonsense).

I should, at this point, pause and confess that by that point in the evening I’d already had a fight with my then fiancee (Louise) on the phone about how ‘of course I wasn’t getting drunk’ as we had plans that evening. Only to get on to get very drunk and decide that not going home was CLEARLY a good idea, just as it was OBVIOUS that I didn’t need to phone her again (in the days before mobile phones too). Top tip, it was NONE OF THESE were good ideas.

And so it was I woke up the next morning in a strange house with the distinct taste of whisky in my mouth, a taste that wouldn’t disappear all damn day and now, 20 odd years later, even the SMELL of whisky makes me gag.

I remain a beer and gin drinking for pleasure, vodka and mixer for those later night drinks. Aside from that there are various concoctions (cocktails, whatever) that re-surface from time to time. I am very partial to a white russian (Lebowski style) and can suffer the occasional Jaeger-bomb (ahhhh the wonders of saving face/peer pressure!) although I have to admit the most recent excursion into ‘donkey dropper’ territory is possibly a challenge too far (I had two just to confirm that theory).

Every now and then I try something new but I always come back to beer (lagers, ales, and stouts) and gin. I don’t mind some rums, and I’ve had some dalliances with Southern Comfort (always served with 7-Up… one for the Stephen King fans!), not to mention the Christmas bottle of Baileys.

But I still can’t drink whisky.