Skunk Works

22 January 2011 by

I recently read ‘Skunk Works’ by Ben Rich, a former director of the Lockheed Martin special projects group.  He trained as a thermodynamics engineer and worked at the Skunk Works for about thirty years, being instrumental in the development of advanced aircraft including the F-117, SR-71 and the U-2.  He also worked on projects such as a stealth ship and stealth missiles.  It’s a very interesting book, particularly for those with an interest in aviation engineering.  His boss, Kelly Johnson, founded the Skunk Works and the book is a tale of the battle between Johnson’s ethos and the desire for their clients, ie the government, Air Force, CIA etc,  to suffocate the engineers’ creativity with accountability, micromanagement and security considerations such as men-in-black appearing everywhere and checking the engineers’ waste baskets for discarded secret documents and stamping everything, including the aircraft components with ‘TOP SECRET’.  Johnson followed his ’14 rules’ and insisted the designers were only the toss of a ball from the technicians building the aircraft.  He had a no-bullshit approach that enabled them to build incredible machines within only a year or two on shoestring budgets.  He felt that if an aircraft looks good, it is good, and he had a genius for the technicality of aeronautical engineering.  There’s much for modern society to learn from his commonsense approach.

The book tells of the fascinating interplay between the Cold War and the Skunk Work projects.  The U-2, and later the SR-71, flew over Soviet territory with impunity, photographing Soviet bombers and nuclear test facilities, serendipitously discovering in one case  a prototype H-bomb atop a tower only three hours before it was detonated.  The engineering challenges of these aircraft – the radar invisibility of the F-117 (radar cross-section of a ball bearing) and the SR-71 were astonishing. The F-117’s onboard guidance system, operating during the nineteen-eighties, was able to autonomously fly the plane to the target then fly it home, the pilot only needing to release the munitions.

After designing a high-flying, light and slow plane – the U-2, they turned their hands to a high-flying balls-out racing machine, able to outrun any missiles and enemy aircraft.  From atmospheric friction, the whole of the SR-71 airframe was baking hot, with only the crew compartment refrigerated.  Johnson tested this by putting a pilot in a cockpit locked in an oven.  The pilot survived.  The SR-71’s engines ran extremely hot, its afterburners running continually, therefore they had to find a lubricant up to the task.  To run at such high temperatures the lubricants they sourced were all inevitably almost solid at room temperature.  They were forced to design their own lubricant for the purpose.  Designed for many hours of operation at high temperature, when the airframe was at room temperature the thermal contraction of the panels caused fuel to leak from the tanks, therefore a special fuel was developed with additives making it almost impossible burn outside the engines.  The engineers initially wondered how they could build a mach 3 plane – did the materials and techniques exist?  There existed at that time only one poor quality source of titanium.  The titanium was harder than Lockheed’s tools, so Lockheed Skunk Works engineers created their own new techniques and tools.  Working with this new material, a technician wrote on a titanium panel with a pen, only to find the ink burning right through the metal.  From then on only chlorine-free ink was used.

The U-2 also seems to have been a very interesting aircraft.  At eighty-thousand feet its engine only produced 7% of sea-level thrust, and the aerodynamics were so precarious that when turning pilots often found that while the inside wing was stalling (the airspeed marginally too slow), the outside wing would experience turbulent instability, as its airspeed was too high.  Rubber seals on the U-2 began to perish, causing oil to be leaked dangerously across the pilot’s canopy.  It was eventually realised that this was caused by the ozone at the high operating altitude of the U-2.

The Air Force intended to buy squadrons of SR-71 interceptors, and scaled-up F-117 bombers, but these never came to fruition.  The Skunk Works built an unmanned missile – a sort of early cruise missile – capable of launch from a B-52, then flying six thousand miles across the USSR taking reconnaissance photographs, and back over the Pacific Ocean, where it would jettison the camera & film and guidance system for recover at sea.  The missile would then self-destruct.  In the main, the design performed very well, only failing during test flights owing to minor technical failures, however the project was axed by the Air Force before the Skunk Works could make the fixes.

It’s interesting to read about reasons for the lack of development of some of the projects.  The stealth ship (the ‘Sea Shadow’) required a crew of only four and was by definition low profile.  To a career-minded Navy officer, hoping for his own command, it failed to hit the right psychological buttons.  Officers wanted to command hundreds of men and to be at the helm of a large and impressive orthodox warship.  Navy brass said of a prototype stealth submarine:  ‘We would never build a submarine that looked like that.’   Similarly, vested interests within the Air Force top brass were wedded to the building of only traditionally powerful-looking bombers, like the B-1, forecasted to suffer 60% losses instead of the 10% losses of rather oddly angular shaped stealth bombers.

Given that all of these ground-breaking aircraft are now retired and have been replaced by only rather uninteresting conventional technology, it does seem, rather like the US space programme in the sixties, as if Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich reached forward and pulled two or three decades from the twenty-first (or twenty-second?) century back into the nineteen-seventies.  Where are the current operational eighty-thousand feet mach 3+ aircraft with radar invisibility?

The book also contains interesting testimonial pieces by various test and combat pilots of these aircraft, Cold War politicians and CIA spooks.

It’s well-written and quite compelling.


New Years Eve – Cordons Everywhere

2 January 2011 by

While some colleagues were at home with their families, I had received email instructions to report to the police station at 5.30pm New Years Eve.  I was timetabled for a pleasant week off work, but in reality my blessed week off was interrupted by my having to freeze my backside off for many hours under a mountain of heavy and badly-designed police uniform.

Standing outside the entrance to Piccadilly Circus underground station, the night was long, cold and tedious, interrupted only by a premature cheer rising from the city a couple of minutes before midnight then the sound of fireworks.  I couldn’t see the fireworks, but the narrow section of sky above me was stained red and the air was full of man-made thunder.

Everywhere I looked there were steel barriers cordoning the crowd into lanes.  I understood how confused the public must be – how the multiple cordons, formed into loops and concertinas, lacked any clues as to where people needed to go to find the underground station at the centre of this labyrinth.  The controlled zone almost seemed designed to create such an unpleasant experience for the revellers that they might be persuaded to spend the event at home in front of their televisions next year.

For three hours after midnight I was hemmed in on all sides by dense crowds desperate to get into the underground station.  If a fight had broken out there is little that police officers could have done.  We offered little more than a superficial presence.

I was pressed hard by a queue into the subway ten people wide.  The queue moved glacially and looped upon itself several times.  People joined it without realising it, later asking me “Officer, where is the queue to the underground?”

The head of the queue, descending below street level, was behind me on the other side of the steel barriers at my back, only yards away, and so confusing was it, with no signs and seemingly endless metal barriers, that these people also repeatedly asked me the same question.

Bizarrely, other nearby underground stations, including Green Park and Leicester Square, were closed.  Therefore much of the pedestrian traffic from Trafalgar Square made their way to where I was, so Piccadilly and Regent street were caught in the middle of a pincer movement, filled by thousands of celebrants desperate to get home.  I wonder which bumbling public servant could possibly have thought it a good idea to close key underground stations on the busiest night of the year.

After enjoyably celebrating New Year, people were now frustrated and miserable, and frequently attempted to jump the barrier.  I would then grab them and escort them back to their proper place in the queue.

Some tried my patience “Come on officer, just turn a blind eye and I’ll hop over.  You won’t even notice.  Go on, please, please…” and had to be firmly reminded that everybody else has to wait and so must they.  Outraging the people patiently queuing near me, a skinny white girl and her boyfriend hopped over the barrier when they thought I wasn’t looking.  I grabbed their arms and escorted them back through the barrier.  I held on to them until the queue had significantly moved on, costing them time instead of gleefully saving an hour at the expense of everybody else.  Angrily the girl told me “You fucking cunt” at which I explained to her “I might be, but at least I don’t have to look at one in the mirror every day.  Call me that again and you’ll spend the rest of the night in a cell.”  That changed her attitude a little.

There were a few tense moments, us being only a dozen police officers amidst literally thousands of revellers.  Standing there from 8pm to 4am, I lost sensation in my legs and my back hurt from wearing the heavy belt kit and stab-vest under my overcoat and that universal symbol of oppression – the high-visibility jacket.  I am a slim guy, but I literally resembled a bright yellow barrel.

One loud drunken idiot laughed inanely while wishing me a Happy New Year.  I returned his festive greeting but he continued drooling drunkenly at me. Half an hour later he passed behind me on the other side of the barrier, near the descent into the underground station.  Half an hour after that he again passed me in the queue.  “Shum-one…an offisher told mee to queue again…”

Before we deployed to the street, we were given our ‘Force-Feeding’ at New Scotland Yard.  ‘Force-Feeding’ is a witty police pun, presumably intended to lessen the offence of the filthy greasy slop we are expected to eat before Aid commitments.  After the ‘meal’ we given our instructions – told where to stand and what to do.

Given the ongoing concern with terrorism, we were also helpfully told that “Somewhere in the world there exists a group capable of exploding a bomb in central London.”  Amazing.  I could never have worked that out by myself.  Thank god the Met counter-terrorism unit exists!

The terrorism paranoia now justifies the modern desire of government to micromanage, so on New Years Eve what we have is a Central London suffocated by police cordons, with army vans on every street and police marksmen on the roofs.  It was very clear to me from the public’s confusion around Piccadilly Circus that the police presence simply made the going-home experience far worse for the New Years Eve revellers than it needed to be.  If there had been no barriers, effectively blocking the obvious pedestrian routes like plaque in arteries, I have no doubt that people would naturally have found their way into the subways, queuing orderly like the British are born to do.

Oh, but everything has to be micromanaged nowadays.

Not dreaming of a white Christmas

3 January 2010 by

I’m enjoying a white Christmas, quite different to those we used to know.

From Special

The time between Christmas and new year has always been a time of low stress, freedom but little accomplishment. Despite my failure to do anything, I do fantasize about writing a book or composing music or coding some clever bit of software. Instead I usually sit around, read books, play computer games, talk to people, go for walks and – this last bit is important – gaze out of the window. Of course, the truth is that I am accomplishing something, albeit almost without knowing it.

This year the view out the window has been superb. In previous years the Christmas light displays of my neighours have formed a pleasant enough sight. I have had to overlook the odd tasteless spectacle, such as the LED Santa who waves his arm up and down. He is highly amusing for two distinct reasons. The first is that his single arm emanates not from his shoulder, where most arms do, but from his groin, thus making it look like Santa has placed a mitten on his cock whilst having a festive wank. The second source of amusement is that the lights have different pattern settings, including one in which Santa has two cock-arms visible at once (lowered and raised) that fade in and out with great surrealism. In the main though, the street looks much better with the decorations: icicle lights dangling over doorways and trees sprinkled with little white lights.

These human attempts to make things look pretty and different are but a child ‘s paint daubs next to nature’s grand mastery of the art. Outside my house in Glasgow, during the night before Christmas Eve 2009, things were stirring, even a mouse, and particularly some noisy foxes. But molecules in the air were stirring less vigorously than usual as the temperature dropped to -8.5 degrees celsius (possibly less). I awoke at about 07:00 and noticed a distinct chill in the air. As is my ritual, I went to the window for a good gaze out over the houses, trees and distant hills, wondering whether they would still be generously coated in snow. They were. Not only that, they were now iced, quite literally. The extremely low temperature had caused the growth of ice-crystals on all surfaces and the transformation was breathtakingly beautiful.

The thin threads of a spider’s web at the front door was delicately thickened with ice. I grabbed my camera, opened the door and tried to take a photograph of it. In those few seconds the blast of warm air from inside the house (approximately 10 degrees celsius) caused every bit of ice on that web to melt and drip down to the steps below. Clearly it was much too transient and beautiful for a camera.

Over the next few days the temperature stayed just below freezing, except for a few hours around noon on Boxing Day during which all the frost melted and some of the snow. An eye fell out of the snowman that my son and I (mainly I) had made a few days before. My son was rather more upset when he saw that the nose had also fallen off. I cheered him up by pointing out that a) noses falling off are funny and b) the carrot had done well to survive the ravenous Rudolph a few nights before.

The temperature plummeted again during another night and the slush froze over, turning ungritted roads and pavements into very public ice-rinks. After several days of blissful indolence I decided that these were the conditions that were perfect for a long walk. My walking boots had proved themselves to be very warm and water-proof in many expeditions; they had also proven themselves as the worst items of footwear for use in wet or icy or otherwise slippery conditions. Undeterred, I put them on and gingerly stepped outside.

In this age of user-generated, web 2.0 content we can record our every thought and action and share it in unprecedented detail. My phone is very keen on recording my entire walk with GPS precision and then uploading it to the online vaults of trivia. Nature has a low-tech version of this: footprints in the snow. Every person (and their dog) who has been out walking in the last few days has left their movements delibly etched in the snow-clad landscape in even greater precision. Their dogs have kindly coloured in the landscape, indicating patches of snow which you should not eat. Like the google version, I find this record is very interesting, even though it apparently yields little information that’s of any real use.

But, to be honest, given the choice between interesting versus useful, my instinct is to go for interesting. I say that as if interest and use are mutually exclusive. I find quantum mechanics very interesting but isn’t it also useful? I’m writing this on a computer and you’re reading it on one – such a device is surely proof of the usefulness of interesting quantum mechanics? But, of course, for each crucial drop of “interesting” that’s gone into your computer, you’ve got to add gallons of “boring” to make it tangibly useful: management meetings, production meetings, other pointless meetings, shipment logistics, quality control, accounting, shuffling money around and so on.

Perhaps you disagree with me in my definitions of interesting and boring. That’s fine, it’s all very much in the eye of the beholder. Speaking as a keen beholder, it’s very important that my point of view is reasonably mobile, so that I can have some reason to appreciate the necessity of things I usually perceive as boring by getting glimpses of why they might be interesting. For this reason I need stretches of time in which routine is broken, tensions are relaxed and landscapes are altered. That’s what I accomplish during a good holiday and this has been a very good holiday indeed.

My escape portal

13 December 2009 by

I was sat in a pub with a friend and a friend of that friend. Some decent beer flowed freely, but only two of us provided the conduit for conversation. The third person, the friend of a friend, spent most of his time peering and prodding at his iPhone and only occasionally would he look up and drop in a comment. I thought that irritating, but he was an interesting, intelligent chap and was otherwise polite and pleasant.

Back then I had a phone that was a phone first and a web browser/email client/application host second. When it came time for me to take my technological leap forward I didn’t fancy letting Apple Inc set up a shop in my pocket, so I acquired a G1 phone running the open source, linux-based Android operating system.

The G1, or the iPhone for that matter, is definitely a small computer first and a phone second. It wasn’t long before I started becoming annoyed at incoming phone calls interrupting my reading of an email or web page. On one occasion I found myself silencing the person I was emailing; he was sitting next to me and had just asked for my email address. So, now that I own such a device, am I more sympathetic to people like that friend of a friend?

No, but with some qualification. Let’s switch to another scenario: a gathering involving extended family. Now – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this observation – it seems to me that the people with the least to say often say the most. For example, an elderly relative who no longer works and who no longer socialises outside the family will often dominate the conversation whilst younger folk who’ve been reading, working, thinking, travelling, socialising, romancing and more, will be reduced to emitting the odd pleasantry and dispensing safe, feeble jokes. You, like I, are probably picturing a Christmas gathering, the first half of which is likely to be dominated by “Hello, how are you? We haven’t seen each other since last Christmas” and the latter half by “Goodbye, take care, see you next Christmas.”

Perhaps the answer is to be bold and stride confidently into the content-lite conversation with an exciting account of recent interaction with the real world? Perhaps this will be sufficient to counter the reciting of something viewed on the TV last week, or the recollection of an event from several decades ago that everyone in the family hears at least once a year? My experience of doing this is not positive. The trouble with relating my experiences of the real world is that it takes a bit of context setting, because my view of the real world seems like an alien world to members of my extended family. I might as well try and outline the plot of my favourite Doctor Who serial. In fact, in sheer desperation, I’ve tried that too with much the same result. It’s quite inevitable that if any spark of real interest (at least to me) is raised in such a family gathering, it is quickly snuffed out by the rapid deployment of a wholly irrelevant remark whose purpose is to lead into another well-rehearsed or otherwise uninteresting thread of conversation.

So, how to escape? Well, at some Christmas gatherings I managed to sneak off upstairs and join the children playing on a games console. I found this and the banter surrounding the game far more enjoyable that what was going on downstairs. But, unfortunately, these children are now in their twenties and they too have to endure the experience of the family gathering as adults. Even more sadly, some of them now refer to the big company they work for (in some junior capacity) as “we” – a sure first sign that their horizons have begun to narrow and their real world is shrinking to encompass one institution, a family and perhaps a golf club. However, they at least have some contemporary experience of a real world that shares context with mine, and so sometimes a brief flicker of interesting conversation is possible. In the main, my escape route through the non-adult generation has been effectively compromised by the inexorable march of time.

Parading my baby son around and then handing him over for short-term cuddling to relatives offered an escape of sorts. I was now happily invisible, hiding in the blinding aura of the baby. Furthermore, if engaged in conversation, I could talk on a whole new common subject with much of the family. Alas, this escape was just a temporary one. Now that my son is 5 and the sole child in the gathering, he is expected to behave himself and accord with some neo-Victorian standards. The other day he was engrossed in playing an electronic game he’d recently received for his birthday when he ended up being told off by a great and normal grandparent for not properly appreciating the appearance of the carefully decorated Christmas tree. Perhaps in a few years he might suggest where the Christmas tree can be shoved, at which point I will ignore appeals to discipline him. Instead I will dance about the tree reciting If by Rudyard Kipling.
But, I digress. Let’s return to the question of how to escape boring, unstimulating social gatherings whilst at the same time attending them. The answer is – no prizes for guessing – my phone. I can read some literature, solve a puzzle, research local history, view my current virtual (but physical) prison from satellite imagery and generally leave the room in all but body and enjoy more stimulating company, possibly even with some long dead poet or author. But, wait! Have I not now become that friend of a friend? Are members of my family right to castigate me as I tickle and stroke my small, electronic friend?

Well, the answer would be yes if I had completely disengaged from the gathering, which of course is exactly what happened when I played computer games with the children. Now, if I was talking on the phone, or insulating myself from all ambient sound with headphones (listening to ambient music), or emailing at the dining table, then yes, I’d take a bit of castigation on the chin. But, as a rule, I will not answer my phone or check it for texts or emails at a dining table unless I am expecting an important incoming communication, such as an appeal for directions from a lost family member.

But, it is quite wrong to castigate me because I refuse to engage in conversations which would cause me pain of the mind, if they weren’t so mind-numbing. Instead, I have found a way of being physically present whilst retaining my aural sense and just enough mental capacity (only a little is required) to process and acknowledge the incoming, one-way flow of conversation that is being generated by a few people in the room. Even better, should something interesting actually happen in the room then I can emerge instantly from my real world and engage with it (the room being my non-real world); as yet this remains only a theoretical possibility.

Certain sections of what I’ve written above might seem like an endorsement for the latest must-have internet technology (sometimes still referred to as Web 2.0). But, alas, the complete opposite is the case. My phone, despite bristling with applications for dealing with text, sound, imagery and location information, is still a poor substitute for good face-to-face human interaction: a kissing app, as yet, is not one of the many features of my phone. In other words, our appreciation for new technology and the intangible benefits it brings are actually heightened by the lowering of genuine social interaction.

The industrial revolution made it possible for us to live far apart from our friends and family, but still visit them; the information revolution now allows us to virtually visit them on a whim. I look forward to a social revolution when all of that becomes more enjoyable and interesting and then I’ll be glad to put my phone away. Luckily I like looking forward to things and so that will keep me mildly satisfied for the foreseeable future, which might be my lifetime.

So I possess a little escape portal. Actually, it’s more than just a portal, because it allows me to transcend and partly occupy two worlds: the world that I want to be real, and the one that I might have to endure at any given moment. I’m very glad to have my little escape portal, but I’m very conscious that it encourages me to exist between worlds, as if in some sort of inverse purgatory that somehow keeps my immediate desires satisfied to the detriment of more fundamental needs.

Far Away Trains Passing By – Ulrich Schnauss

29 September 2009 by

Far Away Trains Passing By. I’m not sure I heard any of those trains, but I’m certain I heard the diesel engine of a relatively nearby one. You can always be sure of how close a train must have passed because it had to follow the railway track. Of course, it’s always possible that there was no train at all, perhaps you mistook some other machine for a train, such as a wood chipper?

Molfsee. A figure or perhaps some object comes from the distance, possibly a train. It follows one of many lines that disappear into the perspective projection of the 3D space. It then leaves again, guaranteed to return. And all this time it is surrounded by an ether, a maelstrom of black fluid full of the colours of darkness.

Nothing Happens in June. It is true. Nothing does happen in June except, of course, for June, which must therefore be nothing. Something generally happens in May and anything can happen in July, but nothing happens in June.

As If You’ve Never Been Away. As if! You have always been here, even when you were away, you were still here, and when you eventually do leave, you won’t go away.

A Million Miles Away. In a little under an hour you will have travelled a million miles relative to the Sun fixed amongst the firmament of the stars. You can’t perceive this, but this song should confirm to you that you are indeed a million miles away from your self of a little under an hour ago. S/he was well worth being I’m sure.

Crazy For You. Mostly, I’m insane for my own sake, or at most because others have driven me inside myself. So it is an immense honour that I should be crazy for you; you are a non-me person causing my grip on reality to weaken. Well done, you deserve it! But in all demented honesty, it isn’t really you that drove me crazy, but my love for you. You see, I’ve only just met you, but I built a strange loop in mind that represents you and it is that that is lovely; I truly love that strange loop. So my insanity is really a self-recursion that was triggered by our brief meeting, Melanie.

Wherever you are. Well I don’t know where you are now, I’m not entirely sure where my strange loop of you exists, except that it is in my mind somewhere, and mostly probably in my brain.

I see black and white images. I see old, disused buildings with arched roofs made from corrugated iron. There are large holes in the roofs and all the windows are broken and the buildings are partially dismantled – not demolished – but distmantled, partially. One large building has something to do with Ammonium Sulphate and Ammoniacal Liquor, whatever that is, I just don’t know. There’s a giant retort house here and an even larger one down the hill, though only the bottom of it is downhill, the top of it is higher than where we are on the hill and as there is nothing to go up here, it must be upnothing.

It is of course an old chemical works, now very old and disused. The landscape is so desolate in black and white and I’m in the future looking back and loving it. I’ve never seen it, but there it is, so vivid and tantalisingly difficult for me to see.

There was an old paper mill, now long gone too, with mill ponds, reservoirs, weirs, pipes and lades. An old cottage and a 1960s car – a Hillman Imp probably – are near the mill. An old man walks across a bridge. He is very old and remembers the mill in better times, he remembers the railway. He remembers sitting having lunch one fine, uneventful June day, looking down over the river, talkiing to his long lost friends.

It was a filthy dead river when he was a young man, but now he is dead and his state of filth of cleanliness is wholly irrelevant. The river is quite clean and alive and it remembers him and the mill, though there is nothing left of the river that he knew, at least not here; it is now dispersed in the oceans and in the skies and probably in every body of water on the Earth. Wherever you are.

Prologue Zero

9 September 2009 by

‘You shouldn’t have told him all that.  You know he’ll stay up half the night now, scratching your old-wives tales down onto those sheets of plant-crystal he hoards in his bedroom.’

‘Anigan, someone has to remember where we came from.  The virads destroyed our records, but while we still remember our past it should be recorded somewhere.’

‘Half the things you told him – they’re myths, stories told to children.  All he needs to know is that our ways have always been with cattle and horses.’

Zenira sighed and passed a flagon of tea to her husband and sat down at the bench.  In contrast with the stone and plant-crystal out of which they’d constructed their lodge, the table was made from lightweight alloy and was taken from the sub-orbital transit craft after the final trip back from the migration fleet in orbit.  No stains or food ever stuck to its flat matt surface.  Anigan had wanted to take as little as possible from the ship, but Zenira had managed to salvage a number of items of which the table was one.

‘My Cherished, let us not quarrel.  I’ve hardly seen you today.’

‘You’ve been tending the horses all day.  How is Astarte?’

‘Thank you for changing the dressing today, but I’m worried about her.  The leg isn’t healing and the infection is spreading.  I doubt she’ll walk again.  In a week I will end her suffering.’

‘The poor thing.  I’ll change her dressing again in the morning.’

‘It’s as if the animal knows what’s coming, and she’s as calm and accepting as ever.’

‘I had hoped that Fasano would one day take her as his mount.’

‘But the foaling is going well.  Next year we’ll have a new set of beautiful animals for the market.  He can take one of those, if he’s interested.’

‘He will start showing an interest soon.  He’s at that age.’

In the next room, ten year-old Fasano sat beside a dim lamp scratching markings onto a writing slab of plant-crystal.  He took a flint stylus and drew a line and a slightly uneven circle the size of his fist at one end of the line.  ‘Put the star here’  he said to himself out loud.  He scratched lines inside the circle, filling it in, then drew running outwards from it.

Next to the circle one hands-width along – a small circle, half the width of a finger.  Another hands-width along – a circle one fingers width.  Then another hands-width – another circle one finger wide.  A gap of three hands-widths he drew a circle three finger-widths across, then another hands-width along there was a circle two finger-widths along.

He went back to the fourth circle from the ‘star’ and scratched a stick man standing on the tiny circle.

Zenira watched Anigan put another plant-crystal log on the fire.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t see Anigan’s point of view.  The Oblivion occurred twenty years before, when virads had broken through the spam-filters of the migration fleet and infected every piece of technology with endless repetitive footage of interactive toodee and tridee AI.  It was a miracle that enough manual control remained to steer the migration ships into a safe orbit.

Lately, Anigan had sided with a growing fraction of the fleet who felt that perhaps the loss of all record of the past presented an opportunity to break from the burden of history and forge a new sense of self.  But he believed the horses must always remain.  Horses had always been at the core of their culture.

Water in the plant-crystal boiled in the fire.  Small fragments of crystal flew from the grate to the rug covering most of the room’s floor.  Within a few seconds the fibres around the debris started strumming like cilia, wafting the shards back towards the fire.  As they reached the edge of the textile, there was a series of tiny flicks, and the fragments were sent back into the flames.  A circular wave quickly flashed outwards from the centre of the rug, a resetting – a smoothing of the fibres.  The peristaltic rug was one other of Zenira’s indulgences, rescued from the ship.  Friends had bought it from Maverick traders and given it them on their wedding day.  Twice it began motioning items into strange shapes and had needed rebooting.  One time they had returned home to find it had rearranged the furniture.  Anigan had once reprogrammed the rug on her birthday – he dropped a bag of cereal on the rug and the grains rearranged themselves into the form of Zenira’s smiling face.

There remained however two small piles of crystal chips gathered up in the corners of the rug.  The rug would have to be reprogrammed.

Zenira felt that contemplating the loss of their past was more than she could bear.  It had been only six months since leaving the migration ships behind in orbit.  Her feeling of connection to their old home Lacaille was still strong, and she needed to keep that.  perhaps until some future time when her people had created some history of their own here.

Zenira and Anigan retired to bed and both quickly slipped into deep sleep.  The young boy could not sleep.  His excited mind filled with his mother’s stories about their people’s liking for travel and exploration and the evacuation of their continent.  Zenira had told him other older stories about the migration of humans across the spiral arms.  The stories had included mention of semi-mythical denizens not seen for millenia –  The Technicians, The Constables, The Mind-Sowers, The Vault, The Mavericks, The Chroniclers, The Rehistory Institute, a place called Nimbus.

Up on the plateau they were above the level of the nightly showers and as usual Fasano pressed his nose to the shutter and looked between the slats, watching for the light green flashes of the Ring-fragment meteors.  Pieces of the planet’s inner ring system regularly broke free and fell through the atmosphere.  Fasano studied the Ring, perpetually hanging in the sky but was never able to discern any changes in the Ring.

Fasano watched three meteors, but became bored until his attention was caught by one of the dark creatures waiting at the edge of the woods, in amongst the trees.  Never seen during daytime, and rarely during the night, the village folk never spoke of them, as if the people assumed their eyes played up at night.  The humans feared the woods, although those few people who claimed they had ventured into the forest also claimed that the forest creatures had not approached the humans.  The creatures would not enter the meadow and certainly would not cross it to reach the village.

Fasano was reminded of the strange illusion enjoyed by hi school friends.  The meadow running up to the forest-edge was flat, as Fasano could now see from his window, but as you approached the trees you started to feel as if the ground you walked was slightly tipping you forward – as if you were starting to walk downhill.  And yet – visually – the ground was clearly level.  The village, the meadow and forest all sat atop a plateau.

From the village a small hill in the forest was sometimes visible.  From one month to another the rocky protuberance would flatten to a low hemisphere, elongate into a long barrow, raise up into a lofty pinnacle or sometimes flatten out and almost disappear from view.  It also seemed to move, appearing every few days in a slightly different position.  Looking through eye-glasses, its surface never deviated from the appearance of a natural weathered rock face.  The village-folk dismissed the hill’s apparently Protean nature as an illusion and never bothered to discuss the matter.  It was one of the strange occurrences in the area taken for granted by local people.

Peering through the shutters of his bedroom, Fasano looked across the tree-tops but could see no sign of the hillock.  The world had no moon and the darkness wrapped itself tightly around the dwelling, apart from brief flashes of green meteor light.  Each momentary illumination seemed to reveal more dark creatures.  At least seven or eight – stationary.  Fasano had never seen this many of these strange denizens gathered.  They were usually solitary, going about their unknown business.  Fasano felt they were watching him.  Or perhaps studying him.

Twenty years previously, Zenira and Anigan’s people entered this planetary system and were surprised to find this world, with its nitrogen and oxygen atmosphere and a chlorophyllic ecosystem sustained by left-handed organic molecules – the same as those of their human bodies and the biological environments of the human race stretching back to the mythical Earth.  The other five planets in the system were either gas giants or their surfaces were too dangerous.  The fleet elders agreed to make landfall on this world and named it Brautigan’s World, after their chief navigator.  Once on the surface, it was apparent that the forests covering most of the continental land harboured unknown things.  The colonists spread themselves out across the planet, using the heavy lifters, high-altitude runners and hovercraft they brought with them from orbit.  But wherever settlements were formed things emerged from the deep forest and stood amongst the analogue trees, seeming to watch the people.

Fasano was only vaguely aware of the homestead’s door swinging closed behind him.  His mind was vacant and something was drawing him towards the woods.  He walked barefoot across the pasture and his unfocussed eyes drifted past the edge of the grass into the deep darkness amongst the analogue trees.

Whatever inhabited the woods had not showed up on thermal imaging from orbit.  The sheets of plant-crystal lay piled on the ground between the trees, littering the woods and although brittle, it was razor sharp, and hindered walking.  The villagers stayed away from the interior of the woods and only at the forest edge harvested the highly versatile plant-crystal.

Fasano had never before been inside the woods.  There was almost no light.  He slowly regained his awareness and became conscious of a faint blue glow from all around him.  His people had never sought augmentations of their senses, but as his eyes adjusted he perceived six or seven large shapes circled around him.  He presumed they were the forest creatures.  Each one was around half a horse-length and bulbous, but the darkness was too dense to discern any features.  The boy could not tell in which direction the homesteads lay.  Perhaps he had sleep-walked?  He tried to stand, but felt that he could not.  He felt surprisingly little disquiet.  The air was still and the only sound a quiet humming.  He sat propped against a tree, his hands resting on plant crystal fragments littering the forest floor.  He felt no malice from these beings – only a deep and almost infinite patience.

In the near-total darkness it was difficult to tell, but small objects seemed to be breaking off the ring of beings around him.  They fell to the ground and scuttled towards him.  This was when he felt his first pangs of disquiet.  Four or five hopped up on to his skin causing him to flinch.  He was afraid.  The small verminous fragments scurried over his skin until coming to a rest and clamping on to him.  There were perhaps dozens of these mouse-size objects on his head and body.  Hundreds of tiny pin-pricks were followed quickly by a sensation of calmness washing over him and he settled back against the tree.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but he became aware that the strange insectile objects on his skin had gone and he was along in the woods.  He stood up wondering which direction home lay.  A flashing blue light flashed into existence to his left.  It was moving away from him and he followed it.  Soon he was out of the woods and crossing the meadow.

Climbing into bed, Fasano noticed a grey powdery residue on the back of each hand.  Searching further on his body he found twenty or so grey powdery ovals on his skin.  They easily brushed clean.  He slept.

The following morning, having slept deeply, he remembered nothing of the night except a strange dream.

He had walked into the woods and sat by a fire talking with a mysterious journeyman.  The journeyman was old, very old.

‘Boy – more beer?’

‘No thank you sir.  Fasano had never before tasted beer.’

‘You see my shoes boy?  There – drying by the fire.’

‘Sir they’re just rags.’

‘I have come far but I cannot go further until they are mended.’

‘I would like to help, but I know nothing of working cloth or leather.’

‘My compass, you see it there, by my sleeping roll?’

‘Yes.  Is it also damaged?’

‘It is.’

The boy noticed then that all of the journeyman’s possessions were worn out and tired or broken.

‘I am tired and old.  Will you mend these things for me?’

‘I will do my best.’  And while sitting by the fire listening to the old man’s tales of faraway place, Fasano found he knew how to sew and weave and work metal.  He cleaned and mended the items for the journeyman.

That afternoon Zenira brought a fresh dressing and fresh water to Astarte’s stable.

The foal was standing beside Fasano.

‘Fasano, what did you do to her?  How…?’

‘I don’t know mother.  I was talking to her and stroking her leg.  I suddenly felt something change in her leg.  She was quiet for a bit then got up.’

Zenira examined the beast but could find no trace of the injury.

In time the foal grew larger and Fasano took her as his mount.  At first farmers brought their injured animals to him and he healed them with a few touches.  Soon people brought injured or sick relatives or children to him from far afield and asked him for healing, until he seemed to lose his power.

The symbols chattering quietly in the back of Fasano’s mind never completely left him and he grew to find it a reassuring presence.  Eventually while playing with his friends at the village school he gradually discovered that most of them were accompanied by the same quiet voices every moment of their days.

One morning Fasano was sitting on the porch holding a piece of plant crystal – the material harvested from the edge of the forest which he had played with, written on, used as fuel for the fire, every day of his life.

The white sheet was strong but brittle.  There was no grain.  It seemed almost like an extremely fine honeycomb structure.

The boy had the feeling almost as if the sheet was whispering to him, or perhaps as if he could read something in the crystal.  He could not see anything but he felt it, as he turned the sheet over in his hands.  And not just one thing, but an immense trove of information.  But the words were indistinct, just out of reach – and they were not words, but more like thoughts.

Fasano began rationing his handling of the crystal sheets, as they all began to pour information into his mind.  And he soon learned to control this flow of thoughts somehow stored in the sheets.

‘Mother, I often feel as if I can read something in the crystals.  Do you find that?’  he asked her one day.

‘Son, the sheets you write your stories on, you mean?’

He found that only to the other children had the crystal become so alive.

One morning Fasano decided to walk to the remains of the transit craft his parents had used to arrive, riding it down from the migration mother-ship.  He fastened a small wheeled barrow to Astarte and led her gently.  Ideas were almost bursting out of his mind – if he could find the raw materials, perhaps he could express some of these ideas to provide some relief.

It was a breezy dry day.  There were enough cloud-free gaps for Fasano to observe the occasional green scratches of descending Ring meteors.

The route took him across a moor and a wide grassland area until the land sloped down to the wide valley where the ship had landed.  He was thinking about all the strange new ideas that had come to him lately, when he had a strange sensation of voices conversing quietly but very rapidly in his mind.  They rose up suddenly and he slumped down on the ground struggling to control them.  After an indeterminate time the voices quietened and subsided into numbers, colours, symbols and shapes dancing, splitting, joining and interacting in the back of his mind.  The concerned horse was licking his face.

Lichen crusted most of the hull and vines were creeping all the way up to the sub-orb’s observation cupola above the flight deck.  Standing below the sub-orbital transit grey bulk, the chattering symbolic calculations in the back of his mind had quietened and he was almost able to ignore them.

He did not know what impulse had made him visit the ship, but on entering it he made his way straight to the ElectroWeak reaction core and started stripping out the fractal arrays and the boson injection system.  He carried these out through the EVA hatch and used a length of rope to lower them into his wheeled-barrow.  Following a power-conduit he found a small zero-point generator and removed that too.

There wasn’t a great deal of innate intelligence built into the substance of the transit craft – not like the migration ships his people had once built and used.  His mother had told him tales of the ships flown by people her grand-parents had traded with.  Enormous needles in space they had called Methuselah Towers, that flew within a whisker of light, far faster than the Ring meteors, and maintained their own gravity by constant acceleration, unlike his people’s migration ships.  The Ring-fragment meteors were the fastest objects Fasano could imagine.  She told him of other types of ship besides, that were used for travelling within the Spiral Arms.  Saddened by the limitation of the simple pastoral life of his parents’ people, Fasano often dreamed of having that kind of power – the technology to go anywhere, to explore the Galaxy.  His mother told him how his grandparents had lived in the thick of human civilisation, on a world near a busy intra-arm route.  During his mother’s life the migration fleet, seeking a new start, was forced to stray far from inhabited space.  They were now in a backwater, hundreds of light-years from even the most minor interstellar routes.  Fasano would probably never see a Maverick ship during his lifetime.

Fasano and the gentle Astarte together struggled with the wheeled-barrow back to the homestead.

Fasano took over part of one of the sheds and first built a power system to feed the homestead.  Finding a little time around his schooling and tending the horses, various strange technology took shape in the shed.  Fasano tried to show his father around the computer and imaging system but he wasn’t interested.  There were sensors, detectors and lasers.  Further trips to the transit sub-orb yielded more raw materials.

Fasano would invite school friends to the shed and they would discuss experiments and ideas.

The voices from the crystals began to seem as if they were the discarded thoughts or memories of something unseen – a being, whether dead or alive, with knowledge for which Fasano now thirsted.  He also began to feel that the endlessly flowing lines of symbolic calculations in the back of his mind were being fed back somewhere, or read by something – a being, an ancient being who needed their help.

Five years later the village had changed beyond recognition.  The buildings were encrusted with new technology; there were masts and powered vehicles; there was electricity and lighting, and hovercraft and aircraft had been restored to use.

One night not long after Anigan and Zenira had moved to the sea there was an astonishingly heavy thunderstorm.   Behind the blistering rain the thunderclouds were turned into eerie green lanterns backlit by the flashes of meteors pouring down from the Ring.

The following morning the symbols ceaselessly cycling through forests of thought were gone.  It was the first moment of cognitive peace experienced in ten years.

The forest was gone.  The remaining meadow ringing the homesteads led only to a deep crater miles across.  There would be no more plant crystal.  And crossing the ground from the homesteads to the crater’s edge, the meadow no longer seemed to run downhill, but was level – and everyone believed it had always been so.

But Fasano had foreseen the departure in the crystal sheets.  The sheets had told him of other things – the destiny of his people, that they would leave this world and travel, carrying out the intentions of the old one who had given them so much, but who had also needed them.

Life went on.  The village became a town, then the capital of the continent and within two decades it was the chief city on the planet.

A hundred years later Fasano’s people existed on a world of glittering technology yet they craved nothing other than to explore and to find other humans.  They bided their time until the right moment arrived for their departure.

Boxcars and Crossroads

16 August 2009 by

I’ve sometimes heard people talk of pivotal moments in their life when they turned down a particular path to some great event that changed them forever with an inkling of what was to come.
Often there’s a prelude, a setting of the stage that comes with the story and it’s often as enlightening as the event itself but forever shrouded in a certain melancholy. Perhaps it’s because all great events usually take the traveller from the valley to the foot of a new mountain and there’s a longing for simpler times before the climb begins.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky you have an intuition about these things…almost seen. If you do it means you take the time to pause for reflection and savour the moment before your climb begins. I’ve been lucky this way, but I never know it until I’m at the summit…
Final exams. School was always full of some test or the other and not really taken seriously by me or my friend Mike. We weren’t disinterested we were simply interested in other things than grades. Art seemed to be the answer. Mike was a far better artist than I but my art was “abstract” and this meant that you had an equal share of critics – 50% of people thought it awful because it lacked the feel of the renaissance and the other 50% loved to muse over the deeper meaning. There was a deeper meaning as far as I was concerned and that’s why I kept producing these large 8×4 ft abstract canvases with such alarming regularity. We’d stand in the hallway of our school, leaning against the wall looking at the latest installation of my work in the stairwell and wondering who it was that decided it lacked the wet wad of paper that had been thrown at it. The contribution had landed perfectly in the middle of the Peace Sign which struck me as a deeper meaning.
So yes, lots of amateur philosophy fuelled by teenage angst no doubt. We’d wonder from class to class with me carrying my guitar and Mike occasionally remembering our set of bongos we’d acquired from somewhere. I remember walking into my history class (favourite next to Art) and handing my guitar to the back of the room over everyone’s head – my teacher’s were very tolerant and the bullies that might have destroyed it seemed to like us so we were to survive.
This is all sounding somewhat idyllic I know, but it was. It was a fine time for me and my friend Mike who I’d practically grown up with. We listened to 60’s music constantly and when John Lennon died I remember another guy saying “so what, just another musician”. I didn’t feel anger at his insensitivity, I was bewildered as to what planet he must be speaking to me from and wondering how such a primitive species had obviously mastered interplanetary communication to such an extent that ANY shitwit could broadcast…..
I remember thinking too that what he said made me stop for a moment. My interest in the anti-war/anti-Nuclear weapons movement, 60’s music and Peace all seemed a bit superficial when I considered that although John Lennon’s passing, sad though it was, it wasn’t finely the point. Was I missing the bigger picture here? I thought I was. I remember thinking that I’d been very lucky to while away my days idly sketching, painting, smoking and playing my guitar while the big bad world was waiting for me to join it. It was starting to dawn on me but I dismissed it the way you dismiss that irritating ache in your side that develops into a crippling pain that your doctor later tells you was, a kidney stone…
Your young…. you get over reality quickly and I did too. I went back to sitting around the camp fire playing “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio…of all things…gad….but we were happy.
Then the day came. Senior year, final exams were done and we were effectively free. But I didn’t feel free. I didn’t know where to go to be perfectly frank! I left the school through the back entrance and into the heat of a sunny June day. Mike caught up with me and we stood in the parking lot watching all the other seniors jump into cars roaring off to parties. We were actually invited to one but declined and wandered down into town in the hope that the local store would sell us a 6 pack of beer. They did, thank god and soon we were standing in what would pass for a village green in England. There was a railway line immediately in front of us and we walked slowly towards it taking long drags on one of the few cigarettes we had.
Life was good. We felt good but not ecstatic at being free from school, oddly.
Balancing on one of the rails Mike looked down the line and said, “David, we could walk home from here you know”. I knew it was about 6 miles by road, but by rail it might be half that I thought. I noticed the blue Perspex of the bongos catching the Sun and looked at Mike standing there trying to keep his balance on the rail, “Let’s go Man” I said as I joined him on the opposite rail.
The Sun was beautifully warm, the sky cobalt blue, the sort of blue that when you look up you’re sure you can see straight into space. I was really happy, happy to be walking along talking to my friend, happy to have a cigarette in my mouth and the promise of a rationed beer at some point later in the journey, and happy to be heading home. But there was another element to it that I can see now but couldn’t then.
We walked along in the hot Sun talking about the things we always talked about. The undergrowth bore in on the sides a bit but it was certainly passable. The wonderful thing about that railway line on that day is that it was straight and we could just walk along without worrying about anything and talking. It was a long time ago now but I remember covering most of the subjects that used entrance Mike and I – all in that single journey. The renaissance – De Vinci in particular with his wonderful “Thick Air”, the Moody Blues, The Beatles, Joan Baez and of course UFO’s. There were countless other snippets now lost but my point is that it seemed to be a final reckoning of these things.
And there it was in front of us. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a “Box Car” up close and I’d certainly never been on one but after about a mile of walking Mike and ran into it parked on the tracks. As we walked around the edge to get by, trying not to get tangled in the undergrowth and disappear forever we noticed there was one more to get by…so we did, nope, one more….ok this place hasn’t been cut back in a while and we are now almost on our knees trying to get through the undergrowth. My guitar and Mike’s bongos are not making things easier and we’re getting slightly pissed off that our day is being ruined.
The dawn of invention that only falls on the youthful mind ordered us up on to the top of the next Box Car to take a break. This was quite cool in itself because not only had I never been on a Box Car but I’d never imaged I’d be climbing up the ladder on the back of one that I saw in all those old Wild West movies. Getting on top was ok and the adventure we felt was exhilarating but a cold sweat on a hot day is a bad sign….
That’s when we saw them – lined up and baking in the mid-afternoon Sun. As far as we could see, Box Cars, loads of them (and that’s allot when you’re 17). Mike and I didn’t seem to realise our predicament, in fact it seemed to add buoyancy to our mood and we started to laugh, smoke more and, although rationing it fairly, drinking more too and it seemed like a good time for a song.
There it began. My last day of childhood. We sat down faced with this insurmountable task – not being able to turn back, not knowing what lies ahead. We just sat down and started singing….now I know what I knew then. This was it – the perfect day.
Mike was very courageous, when he wanted to be. But not stupid so I trusted him when he said, “Come On! We can make the gap, just get a running jump”. Mike made the first jump quite easily and I timidly followed (not being of the courageous sort). We kept this up for about 20 cars and decided to take a break. There was novelty and it wasn’t wearing off. We clambered down the side of this box car in the middle of absolutely no-where and pulled the side door back to get inside out of the sun. We had a few smokes left, the bongos, guitar and, like nectar from the Gods – beer. Only two each, but beer nonetheless. We started to play some songs of the usual sort for us but what was really fantastic was the sound those bongos made in that box car – Man…sorry had to say it – Cool Daddy O’. It was good and we were having a blast miles from anywhere and we felt totally free.
With the break over we climbed back up on to the box cars and started to move North towards home. We had further breaks in the warm afternoon air of a box car but they became less frequent and we became more determined. As we ran across the tops of the cars our pace quickened and we became increasingly sure of ourselves so breaks weren’t necessary. We were making progress. Hours and miles rolled by in an instant and there we were – at the cross road.
In America a train line will cross a country road with no more than a couple of white plastic signs stuck to a post indicating the danger. That’s what the one that Mike and emerged onto looked like. And much like that crossroad the crossroad my life encountered that day was equally remote.
I’d come to the foothills of the mountain and I knew it.
Mike and I had another mile or so to get home. When we left the tracks to head up Emerald Drive to my house everything had changed in our talking to each other. It was all so subdued and reflective.
I’m sure he knew it too, my old friend – long lost now.
We did go our separate ways that sunny June day – me and my youth – never to cross paths again.
That’s the valley I look back on now from the mountain.

Blog 002

Unfree Generosity

10 August 2009 by

I have often wondered about the relationship between generosity and so-called free will. Certainly we all have ‘will’. But just how ‘free’ is it?

We cannot have free will, but only its appearance.  If I choose a course of action, for example to donate money to a beggar, I have run some sort of algorithm in the architecture of my mind and the giving of money has emerged as the solution with the highest value to me, in some perhaps intangible sense.  We may feel that we are choosing freely – and we are indeed choosing – but the ‘freeness’ of the process is obscured by the fact that we cannot observe the exact mechanics of our mental machinery.

Looking closer, there can only be two methods of selecting an action: (1) enacting an algorithm – i.e. some sort of decision process that weighs the possible outcomes, and (2) a random decision.   It seems to me that we are impaled upon these two horns – there is nowhere for free will to reside.  Let us look closer still.  It is hard even to see how a decision could be made randomly by a person.  The human mind seems unable to choose randomly, but still inevitably measures hidden factors and weights.

Let us consider when a person is asked for something and he makes a quick easy and cheerful decision to give of his time/money/etc.  Perhaps he has been asked to subscribe to the National Trust.  Should his apparent generosity be applauded?  Is he in fact being generous?  Certainly he should be admired if this gift was made ‘freely’, employing free-will.  But we know there is no such thing!  In fact, this ‘generous’ chap is merely following a line of least resistance within the architecture of his mind.  He does not even experience any sense of sacrifice.

Let us ponder now a second chap who is asked to subscribe to the National Trust.  He knows that he ought to do so, for reasons of ethics and conservation, preservation of beauty etc, but as he is of limited means he really does not wish to.  The issue raises internal conflict as there are other demands on his resources and he experiences discomfort and angst.  Nevertheless he signs up, but let us be clear that he has not agreed simply through weakness.  Now, this decision has taken time and was accompanied by a great deal of umming and arring and soul-searching and muttered ‘I really don’t know if I should.’  But despite his difficulty with this decision he has gone ahead and made the sacrifice.  Still there is no true free will here, as discussed earlier, but surely this second man has shown greater generosity?  Surely, as he has faced greater adversity in his decision he is more worthy of admiration than the first chap?

I would say yes.  However, conventional thinking seems to dictate that a person who gives grudgingly should not be felt to have been generous.  Whereas he who gives without hesitation must be considered selfless and generous.

It comes down, as ever, to most people’s thinking being lazy and only following well-trammelled lines.

Intriguing paths

27 July 2009 by

A path invites you to follow it. Of course, a path is not alive in itself, it is created by living things moving over the land; a path is a memory imprinted upon the land itself. Every creature that follows the path is reinforcing that memory.

Some paths have an obvious destination, such as the garden path to the shed. Other paths run through parks or forests and connect, fork and join with other paths. But one kind of path is very intriguing: a path that starts clear and distinct but then becomes smaller and overgrown, dwindling and fading until it disappears altogether into dense vegetation. The existence of such a path is all the more curious if it at no point does it branch from or join with any other path. Why does it fade then stop? Do people who followed the first part simply turn back, or do they end up taking different routes, creating a continuum of invisible paths? Even if one of these obvious explanations is the case, it is still interesting, is it not, that so many people embark on the path in the first place when they cannot know where it is it goes? If they did know, they would know it goes nowhere and so they wouldn’t follow it and so the start of the path wouldn’t exist. Such paths exist because of human curiosity – some of us have an innate desire to follow a path with an unknown destination.

OU summer schools

18 July 2009 by

As I start writing this, it is the first night of my last ever Open University summer school at Heriot-Watt. I’ve taught at this school for the last ten years and this pleasant, semi-rural campus echoes with many fond memories.

I walked through the sunken garden this evening and mentally listed every person I’ve worked with in my time here. Most of these people I remember with warmth, but there was the odd, inescapable, irritating character.

One person who was never irritating was Lloyd Trebello. He was my mentor in my very first year: enthusiastic, friendly and a great teacher of chemistry. I worked with him for the first three years. In the third year he was suffering badly from motor neuron disease and he wasn’t able to attend the following year. The year after that I heard he had died. I only knew him for three weeks in total, but I still often think of him, especially when at summer school.

The students generally have an insatiable desire to learn, and they learn in an atmosphere of freedom, civility, equality, respect and, well, fun. I don’t think there is a more ideal teaching experience and, if this is the last OU summer school I do, which is a distinct possibility, then I will miss it greatly. That said, it occurred to me that after ten years it has become familiar and easy and that perhaps it’s appropriate that I find another challenge. (It also occurs to me that this a load of crap.) But as I grow older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to realise that the most interesting challenges find me, not the other way around.

Madeline Bell is another person that dates back to my first ever school. I haven’t seen her for a few years now. She is always a group tutor, shepherding her group of 15 or so students through the week, from activity to activity, from lab to lab. I, in contrast, am always an activity tutor, almost always demonstrating the spectrometers in the chemistry lab as part of “Analysing our environment” more affectionately known as Activity B. Madeline is great fun and her groups are always lively, with trips into Edinburgh and raucous evenings in the sunken garden. She refers to me as Professor Dirty thanks to a pub quiz team name we once concocted.

The spectrometer; chromazurol S; daily tutor debriefings with booze; the bright sodium doublet; the pungent smell of the chemistry lab; the good food and hubbub in the refectory; late night antics in the sunken garden; chatting with folk in the lecturn bar; wandering about the campus; emptying out water from my leaky old Mercedes; the unpredictable but often vibrant atmosphere of the last night disco; trips into the centre of Edinburgh; the summer school song that must be sung clandestinely to avoid incurring the wrath of over-zealous senior OU staff.

As I write this last bit, I am home after my delightful last week at Heriot Watt OU summer school. The week was made so fulfilling by the students, as always, but also by many of the tutors, to name but a few: John Shone, Martin Wilkinson, Danny Paterson and Liz McGovern. Liz and I were thick as thieves and were determined to fill the week with charming nonsense, deliberate rule-breaking with a few moments of poignant seriousness. If I have to pick an event that will endure in my memory, it would be the “dance off” outside the union between the blue and yellow spots. Liz was the group tutor for the yellow spots and participated in the dance off to her group’s glee. The intoxicating high spirits of that contrast vividly with the next day’s melancholic bus ride off the campus and to Haymarket. How grim the real world seems next to the fantasy life of OU summer school.

Unfortunately, the OU is having to cut back on spending and all courses that aren’t “making a profit” are threatened with the axe. As such all OU science summer schools will be phased out in the next three years, with the exception of SXR103 at the University of Sussex. I find this shocking as OU students will be missing essential practical experience; a justifiable criticism levelled at OU science degrees at present. The problem isn’t isolated to the OU; across the country universities are considering slicing off their arms and legs for purely financial reasons.

The OU party-line is that ending the science summer schools is actually an exciting opportunity, as it can now innovate in virtual computer-based and home experiments and, possibly, day schools (though surely they’ll be too expensive). This is quite probably true, but these alternatives are not replacements for learning in the lab or in the field with instruction from experienced scientists. Science, after all, is ultimately based on our observations of nature and any science degree must respect that.

So, here’s to my ten years of tutoring and long may OU summer schools continue, with or without me.