The Best Christmas Ever!

In the run up to Christmas most of us today are wondering what we are to find under the tree. Will it be a Brompton Folding Bike, Tom Tom Golfer, or iPad? we ask.

Charles Dickens, maybe writing a 'thank you letter' in 1842, (The year prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol).

Charles Dickens, maybe writing a ‘thank you letter’ in 1842, (The year prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol).

Some of us have childhood memories of receiving unwanted, or disappointing, gifts and then having to laboriously sit and write thank you letters to our relatives who had dutifully purchased and packaged them.

In my home town the Christmas service was one of the few occasions when the drafty and decaying church was full, and even though cold and uncomfortable there still seemed to be something warm and comforting about singing familiar carols in the company of other towns-folk.

We had fewer presents in those days and, looking back, their quality seems basic compared to those of today. Maybe it’s my fancy but our imaginations seemed better then, for it was us that imbued objects with life, rather than the designers who today animate them with computer chips and other technology.

Even so, with the exception of construction kits, most gifts left me cold, or confused.

Why had I been given a water rifle that killed nothing, whilst I lived in a society that proclaimed ‘Thou shalt not kill’, but expected me to point it everywhich way and shoot what ever I could?

Why was my mother so horrified when two neighbours dressed in their Sunday best appeared at the fence shouting: ‘Stephen, shoot us, shoot us’. The bolt action on that toy could send a painful water jet thrity feet and I complied to their request with alacraty.

“Mum, Mum”, I yelled excidedly running into the kitchen, “I’ve just shot two old ladies and a dog!”

When, like most small children, I once crushed a bug the act immediately filled me with revulsion and self-loathing. I no longer wanted to eat meat, but since Christmas was all about greasy geese, or turkeys crammed both ends with sausage meat and other stuffing that was an impossibility.


Br’er Rabbit

Many years later I met Adrian Slack, a true British eccentric, who at the age of five declared himself vegetarian because he couldn’t bear the burden of eating Br’er Rabbit and his friends. His father, a stern man if Slack’s account is true, demanded he change but Adrian stuck to his guns and never ate flesh again. Later he was to become Britain’s foremost expert on carnivorous plants.

In these dark days I take comfort in knowing there are such men as Adrian Slack, although sadly he is no longer with us. Satish Kumar, the ecologist and Editor of Resurgence also comes to mind. When a young man of twenty five he learned that Bertrand Russell was going to jail as a result of his demonstrating for peace. Russell was ninety at the time.

The young Kumar suddenly asked himself what he was doing idly drinking coffee in India when Bertrand Russell at his grand old age was prepared to be jailed because he saw the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a terrible thing. He and a friend set out from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi to walk to the four capitals of the countries with nuclear weapons. With no funds they managed in two years first to reach Moscow, then Paris where they went on to London and met Bertrand Russell.

He bought them first class tickets on the Queen Mary to New York and from there they walked to Washington D.C. The whole trip was made as a pilgrimage and without funds. People helped them at every step of their journey as the passed through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and on through the former Soviet Union to Moscow. The same occurred when they travelled west from Moscow visiting the Poland, Germany and onto Paris. The French helped them to reach England.

As a young man I knew nothing of this, and instead simply pursued my self-interest. I was rather like the character Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. When one day Bridget attempts to make intelligent conversation with him by casually asking: ‘What do you think of the situation in Chechnya?’ he retorts: ‘I don’t give a fuck, Jones’.

My life, as a human being, began when in my early forties the career that had nurtured me for the first half of my life dropped away together with wives and children and a little more money than I possessed. I was sad, and frustrated, of course but also with the losses came a liberation. I returned for a while to the town where I grew up as a child. My contemporaries had aged, where I by comparison had not. A few had died along the way victims of the dark side of counter-culture, but many were pleased to see me and more than a few helped me to find my feet.

It seemed right to celebrate Christmas then because the nativity is more than the simple tale of a baby born in humble circumstances, it’s also the story of wise men and simple working folk coming together to revere the birth of something pure. Indeed some claim the whole story is based on earlier myths that have their roots in astronomy where these tales denote the the vernal equinox moving out of one constellation and into the next. In the case of the nativity this represented the passage from Aries, (the Ram often appearing as a symbol in the Old Testament), into Pisces – the sign of the fish which early Christians used as a sign of their faith and which today still appears as bumper stickers, lapel badges and the like to serve the same purpose.

I loved the way that old town celebrated community, be it Christmas, Easter, or an autumn fair. In some senses the place feels as much my physical self as these fingers with which I now type.

The difficulty I have with Christmas is that it’s marred today by consumerism and gluttony. It’s difficult to admit this because to do so invites accusations of being a ‘scrooge’, but Scrooge’s problem wasn’t that he did not agree with Christmas but that he failed to acknowledge the importance of anything in life apart from the acquisition of money. In this sense there are many more Scrooge’s in the world today than in Dicken’s time even if they celebrate the Yuletide.

If I had to choose a year to mark the beginning of the modern Christmas, I would undoubtedly set upon 1843 for it was then that Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ appeared for the first time and a young civil servant named Henry Cole set upon the idea of the commercial Christmas card as a way to stimulate the Uniform Penny Post. This service had been set up by Rowland Hill three years earlier but had failed to ignite the public imagination. Cole would later come up with the idea of The Great Exhibition, which resulted in the building of The Crystal Palace.

The World's First Commercial Christmas Card.

The World’s First Commercial Christmas Card.

Christmas cards were an overnight sensation, and continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until the decline of postal mail due to the Internet.

To have experienced the sense of optimism that fuelled the Christmas visions of Dickens and Cole must have been like taking L.S.D. Back then the effects of industrialization, especially pollution, were largely unknown and manufacturing seemed to herald a powerful, energetic, future. The mechanized slaughter of two world wars was yet to occur, and science was making inroads into curing disease, especially by reinventing effective sewage systems that kept waste out of drinking water.

The trouble is that this industrial dream turned into such a nightmare that we shifted our manufacturing base abroad so those in other places could wallow in the mire, and in exchange sink us in a sea of plastic Barbie Dolls, My Little Pony’s and this year’s ‘latest thing’ to make our children happy for ten minutes. Do you remember the ‘Cabbage Patch Dolls’?

Remarkably there are psychologists employed by manufacturers whose job it is to devise ways to entice children to make the lives of their parent’s hell unless they buy some God awful thing, or another, from the company catalogue. A society that rewards people for setting children against parents is not one to which I wish to belong.

Scrooge celebrates Christmas with Bob Marley, 1843.

Scrooge celebrates Christmas with Bob Marley, 1843.

This year we intend to mark Christmas modestly. It’s a relief to know that there will be no mince pies, pudding, fowl, or much more food than we usually consume. These days I rarely drink, and when I do enjoy it less and less. I will reserve it for when travelling by motor coach at night when a flask of whisky is an aid to slumber.

I continue to send stuff through the postal mail at different times of the year, because I want to and not because of any kind of seasonal obligation.

For the first time in memory I look forward to Christmas.

May God help the rest of you ;)

A Rant About Health and Education in Rural Turkey

After last night’s storm the air was clear. I went onto the bedroom balcony and looked down into the pool. There was a dead body floating on the surface of a foot, or so, of murky water in it. The body was face down. I could not see the face, nor make out the gender and unlike in the case of Gatsby there was no gunshot wound, or sign of a struggle.

‘Damn’, I thought, ‘this means trouble’, and trouble was the last thing needed today because since precisely two o’clock the previous afternoon my head throbbed as a result of sharing my daughter’s childborne illness, a gift from her school where there is an epidemic of coughing, nausea and sickness.

The village doctor is overwhelmed. But it’s partly her own fault because she insists on excusing children from their education one day at a time. When sickness goes on for three days she sends kids to the State Hospital where they can see a proper doctor who is better at making excuses.


How come in a family where most meals are wholesome, and study is encouraged our child got sick? It’s a totally state-induced phenomenon. She won’t use the school toilets because there is no toilet paper and they stink. This isn’t an oversight, it’s because the headmistress refers to the children as belonging to the families of peasants and thinks this is why they stuff the plumbing with whatever they can in attempt to strike a blow against the system.

My sympathies are with them. Ever since our daughter started school our lives changed for the worse. Teachers ask us how we manage to have such a bright, sociable and keen child? It’s not difficult, and a good start is to not think of her as a peasant, even though we choose to live in the countryside.

Holding your wee is a common cause of urinary tract infection. Lots of children hold their wee in our village school, and so there’s lots of urinary tract infections.

The African-American author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) described systems perfectly in his spiritual work ‘Dem Bones‘.

“Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone
Shin bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.”

Unfortunately in bureaucracies little seems to be connected to anything else. The lack of proper sanitation arrangements in the lavatories at the school penalizes those who conform to the values of civilized toiletry, whilst scoring a victory for ‘the peasants’.

The ‘peasants’ are revolting simply because a system that sets homework tasks that last from two to four hours most nights means that in order to have a life they cannot comply with those demands. This in turn means that they see themselves as failing, and get called out by teachers who, in turn, regard them not simply as ‘peasants’ but also ‘ignorant peasants’.

No wonder they kick back whenever they can!

Our worthy doctor, she of the one day note, could be taking up the issue of the problem with the school’s toilet facilities, after all it has become a public health issue and the cost in her time and medicines, subsidized via the government health care system, would seem to warrant it, even if the health and comfort of those ‘peasant children’ under her charge is considered unimportant.

It is as if, to quote James Weldon Johnson:

“Ezekiel disconnected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel disconnected dem dry bones,
Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones,
Now hear the word of the Lord.”

The trouble is, however, whilst many claim to hear the words of the omnipresent and omnipotent Lord, who in turn, appreciates all these connections within creation the Lord for some reason finds it impossible to intervene. Professor Stephen Hawking expressed it thus:

“While the rules of the universe may have been ordained by God . . . it seems that He does not intervene in the universe to break the laws” (Black Holes and Baby Universes, p. 98).

No doubt our doctor, and the head of the village school feel that in the absence of a God capable of intervention it would be remiss of them to attempt to do more to come to the aid of those whom they are paid to help? Perhaps it’s more than their job’s worth? I wouldn’t know? Maybe it’s simply that the Lord ordained that doctors and head teachers in our part of the world are plain stupid . . . but I know that this is not the case, for both are doing their best whilst neither knows what to do.

The problems are systemic. No one is really to blame, except perhaps God who made a universe in which he finds it impossible to intervene. To be more constructive Nabi Avci, who holds a PhD in communication studies from Anadolu University, and is the Minister of National Education needs to take steps to reform the entire education system so that it raises the self esteem of students and teachers alike.

As I type the body is removed from the pool. A helpful man from the local council, a worker rather than educated doctor or teacher, did it. He understands corpses in pools are health hazards, and that health hazards are the responsibility of all of us. He did not complain, or refer us elsewhere but took action. No doubt our headteacher would have thought of him as a peasant yet to my mind he was today far more helpful than she and perhaps should be taking lessons from him.

Homicide is not suspected. We don’t know how the cat came to be in the pool just that its ninth life came to a wet and undignified end there.

Must You Still Dress For Power And Success?

I’m unsure whether I was first attracted to ‘Power’ or ‘Success’. Both were books written by Michael Korda before he became the Editor in Chief of the publisher Simon & Schuster of New York. Korda makes a big thing of being the nephew of Sir Alexander Korda, who did much to found the British motion picture industry, although he was Hungarian. I am unsure why he does so, because his own achievements are just as impressive – but there you are, even the greatest among us may be overshadowed by flamboyant relatives.


Power: How to get it and how to use it‘, and ‘Success: How every man or woman can achieve it‘ today seem dated. They are written for the business heroes of the 1970s, who were executives rather than entrepreneurs. I still have copies of both books, but sadly not here so I may refer to them as I write, but rather in my study in Istanbul where I rarely spend time and even more rarely write.

Stephen Potter, wrote of similar matters in a humorous way. SupermanshipWhat I remember is that Korda’s books were illustrated with cartoons that may just as easily have been printed in Potter’s somewhat tongue in cheek works on the same topics over a decade before. Lifemanship, Gamesmanship, Oneupmanship, and Supermanship could never be taken as seriously as Korda’s work, but they too contained elements of truth about the kinds of Games People Played back in the 1960s and 1970s.

So why am I writing today about these old books?

Well it’s because they are all about image making, and how you project yourself into the world. They suggest ways to show your status, and make the most of your history and family, even if you were born into poor, or modest circumstances. For Potter and Korda life was a battleground to be fought with every individual encountered, often through guerilla tactics if their written words are to be believed.

None of the books really helped me. At the time I acquired them I was in the wrong business for sporting a Cartier Tank Watch to impress boards of directors. It’s true Korda recommended that, as a Brit, my watch should be silver and thin – which it was until foolishly I decided to buy the kind of thing that Sir Dirk Bogarde might have worn whilst blowing up a bridge in wartime Crete, you know all dials and buttons. But truly, I doubt that sporting the wrong wrist watch did anything to dent my career.

A complications wristwatch, created for the promotional video for Photography and Psychoanalysis.

A complications wristwatch, created for the promotional video for Photography and Psychoanalysis.

That said, when I seriously sought promotion I bought a couple of really good suits, some tailored shirts and silk ties for use in interviews, and when I finally got the job I desired I continued to improve my wardrobe so substantially that one of my bosses referred to me as the best dressed man in the borough.

During the last ten years as a beachcomber sartorial elegance hasn’t played any part in my life. Like as not you would find me wearing flip flops, Crocs, or rubber boots. Often in shorts, and T shirts bought from the market life was simple and I was content. From time to time people would come upon me and take pains to show themselves to be superior, in wealth, or taste, or influence, and if possible all three, but their antics left me untouched. Besuited or T Shirted I am essentially the same naked individual underneath.

One such fellow remarked casually that if I went to China I could probably get a job teaching English as a foreign language. A few days later, and much to his chagrin, he met one of my students from Istanbul to whom I had taught family therapy just a few years earlier. “I had no idea you were a distinguished teacher”, he said apologetically. I was bemused at how without changing anything about my appearance, or demeanour, the behaviour of my neighbour had completely turned around.

Something similar happened to me this week. I have been filming some interviews and for the first time in many years was sporting a tweed suit. Suddenly a young chap gravitated toward me at speed across his bar. “Oh Stephen”, he exclaimed, “It’s you – I saw a distinguished looking man in a suit”, he meant a man in a distinguished looking suit, “and wondered who it might be!”

The very next day he introduced me to an acquaintance as ‘a reklamci’, which roughly translates as ‘Don Draper‘. Prior to the incident with the suit I was not held by him to have any profession at all, which is rather the way I like it. Nevertheless, this week I have experimented with smartening up my act, and lo and behold, I find that how you dress does impact upon how people treat you.

Sir Noel Coward once asserted that the way to success in any endeavor is to dress like an stock broker. He, of course, had superb sartorial taste – but he also had considerable talent. My belief is that dressing isn’t a matter of fashion, but rather of marking out who you intend to play in the game of life. Make no mistake if you fail to manage your own self image, others will accord all kinds of unwelcome projections upon you. How you deal with them is your affair ;)

Is University Education A Good Thing?

Just William Never Cared For School

Just William Never Cared For School

On the eve of my first day in school I announced to my mother that I could ‘see no point in it’ and that I wanted to go ‘straight to work’. She informed me that I had to go to school, and especially so since my father was the school attendance man, and anyway school would teach me many useful things that I would need in life.

In my opinion she was wrong. It’s true that I learned to read and write, but I could just as easily have learned to do that at home. The same is true for maths.

Ayen Qureshi, who is just five years old, recently became Microsoft’s youngest qualified computer specialist having successfully completed a course designed for university graduates. There are also six year old children who have passed this course. They taught themselves, and when stuck asked their parents for help.

Education, as we know it, is a fairly modern activity. It did not come about due to altruism on the part of the educated classes, but because a level of basic education was required of foremen and higher managers as the Industrial Revolution took shape in the late eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Colonization also played a part, for once again people overseas needed to keep in contact with families and employers before the invention of the Internet, telephone, or telegraph.

Prior to the eighteenth century, and especially prior to the Reformation, education was largely carried out within the church, which in turn was at odds with Newton’s ideas about a mechanically governed universe. It was due to Newton being born in England, where the official religion was a Protestant church, and therefore at odds with Rome, that enabled his ideas to take hold here. It may be argued, were this not the case then, industrialization would not have started in the United Kingdom for industrialization requires both a mechanistic view of life, unfortunately this includes people, and sufficient physical laws upon which to calculate matters such as the power of steam engines, and the velocity of shuttles flying across looms in factories.

Merchants, of too, always required some education and gentry were not untutored. Eton College was founded in 1440, but not as a place where the sons of landowners were to be educated but as a place awarding scholarships for the education of those who would go on to Christ’s College Cambridge and most likely sing as choristers. The church was, until the Industrial Revolution, very much a profit-oriented concern as well as providing medical care, for the poor, and scribes to the rich – thus keeping church officials aware of important state and commercial information.

There was absolutely no reason for the bulk of the population of the British Isles, or anywhere else come to that, to be educated prior to industrialization, and as industry becomes more digitized in our century some of the powerful elite may wonder to what extent people need to be educated, and to what levels, today? Education means trouble doesn’t it? Wasn’t Marx an educated sort of a cove?

Ayen Qureshi may be the youngest qualified Microsoft Specialist, but his ability to acquire such skills is shared by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who today is known as a philanthropist because he gives away millions of dollars to worthy causes. These are largely replaced as he sleeps due to the way wealth accrues more and money once the financial system is primed beyond a certain level. To lose this advantage you have to dissolve your money across several generations – and maybe throw some of it at politics, as has happened to the Rockerfeller fortune.

An ASR-33 Computer Terminal, similar to the one Bill Gates used to program in his teens.

An ASR-33 Computer Terminal, similar to the one Bill Gates used to program in his teens.

Gates, and some of his friends, were able to access a General Electric mainframe computer via a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal purchased privately due to some mothers raising funds for the computer club at for Lakeside School, Seattle. He, and his friends, were around thirteen years of age at the time. Gates graduated from school and went on to Harvard College, from which he dropped out in 1974 when he decided to form his own company.

Gates’s contemporary, Steve Jobs was born to graduate parents in 1955 and subsequently adopted. His natural parents wanted Steve to receive a college education and after school Jobs attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. There he studied calligraphy, but dropped out after six months. For the next two years he was to continue to attend classes at the college in subjects that interested him, even though he wasn’t officially a student.

The writer Hunter S. Thompson was at Columbia University auditing a number of courses. A student who audits a course does so for the purposes of self-enrichment and academic exploration with no hope of being graded, or obtaining any type of credit. He, and Jobs, discovered it’s one of the best ways to learn.

Another successful writer who failed to graduate, but ranged widely through university was Evelyn Waugh, whose chosen university was Oxford. His unfortunate tutor C.R.M.F. Crutwell the Dean of Hertford College, Oxford from 1920-25, was to find namesakes scattered through Waugh’s early novels usually as unflattering characters.

Going back further in time we discover that the Reverend Engle, who was charged with the education of a young Thomas Edison found him to be “addled” and after just three months of formal education kicked him out of school. Edison recalled later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” His mother taught him at home.

Edison was perhaps in his day what Steve Jobs was to our generation – more an entrepreneur than inventor, someone with a knack of knowing what people want and the ability to gather around him a talented team who would enable his companies to provide it.

Larry Ellison does not like to be number two, but although incredibly successful, (thought to be America’s third richest with an estimated net worth of $28 billion), he tends to be eclipsed by Gates’s wealth, and Jobs’s innovation, (Jobs was worth $10.2 billion when he died). Like Jobs and many before him, Ellison dropped out of college – he is perhaps a super-achiever in this respect because he did so not just once, but twice. The first time was from the University of Illinois, and the second the University of Chicago.

Elon Musk is a South Africa-born, Canadian American business owner. His ambition is to travel to Mars and he started SpaceX, which sells rocket technology to NASA in order to be on the forefront of space exploration. He also is chairman of SolarCity, which pumps more solar powered electricity from rooftops back into the U.S. grid than any other company. He was one of the co-founders of PayPal but today is perhaps best known as the owner of Tesla Motors, which is struggling to revolutionize, and rejuvenate, the American automobile industry.

Unlike the others I mention Musk obtained two graduate degrees, and only dropped out of college, albeit after just two days, when he moved to California to begin a PhD in applied physics at Stanford.

Nicola Tesla, whose name was adopted by Musk for his electric cars, had no university education but after working with Edison went on to found his own company and register a number of patents. Every one of us owes him. Alternating electricity (A.C.), that companies use to distribute electricity from the grid was his idea. Edison’s system that sent more dangerous direct current (D.C.) was a considerable fire risk. His patents are truly diverse in topic, and even included a vertical take off aircraft registered between World War I and World War II.

It goes without saying that our England’s Richard Branson eschewed university education in favour of doing his own thing. Some say this was because his dyslexia would have precluded academic success. It certainly didn’t prevent him amassing a personal fortune of 4.9 billion dollars.

I could go on . . . Hemingway . . . David Ogilvy, (founder of the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather); Claude Hopkins, (probably the world most successful copywriter), Writer Jack Kerouac; John Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations but managed to get into art school; Helmut Newton, who never went to university but instead had a thorough apprenticeship; David Bailey, who had enough of being an apprentice after eight months and went into business for himself . . . oh this is too boring to continue!

The point I’m struggling to make is that if your child is laboring under a weight of unnecessary homework, rigorous academic demands, and pressures inflicted by mediocre people in salaried jobs do your best to encourage them. Never, ever, put them under pressure to conform, or complete repetitive unnecessary work. Don’t fret over their grades but rather wish them full happy lives. Do your best to give them strong moral, but not judgmental, guidance, and if they have an just one exceptional, inspirational idea – mortgage your house and back them to the hilt, they could well be the best investment you ever make.

Featured image photo credit: agaumont via photopin cc

Two Writers And A Big Mac!

Based of figures obtained from the web site ‘Calorie Count‘ you would need to type for one thousand and fifty hours in order to burn off the calories consumed when you eat a ‘Big Mac‘.

Le Big Mac

‘Le Big Mac’

That’s a lot of typing. An average professional typist types usually in speeds of 50 to 80 wpm. It is measured in “Keystrokes per hour,” or KPH. Many jobs will require a certain KPH, often 8,000 or 10,000. This works out at 2,500 words if the average length of a word is five characters.

Calculated on this basis Ernest Hemingway could have typed ‘A Farewell To Arms‘ in two thousand five hundred hours, on the energy of swallowing just forty point four Big Macs, (which include cheese).

Fortunately the world was never to read a Big Mac fueled Hemingway novel. It wasn’t until 1967 that Jim Dellgatti, a Pittsburgh based MacDonald franchisee made the first of these iconic cheeseburgers. Hemingway missed this opportunity by ‘passing-over’ in 1961, a full six years before the Big Mac debuted. Unfortunately for him electro-shock treatment had already been invented, and psychiatrists had pretty much fried Hemingway’s brain by the time of his death.

An article published in The Daily Telegraph in October, 2009 collates some research, which suggests that had Hemingway typed a novel on a diet of junk food the result may not have been much different than if he had attempted to write whilst under the influence of electro-shock.

Electric typewriters had been around since the beginning of the last century. Remington and IBM both had models on the market from the 1930s onward, but it was the IBM Selectric, introduced in the year of Hemingway’s death, that took the world by storm.

Hemingway wrote most of his later works on a Royal Quiet Deluxe, which was first introduced in 1939 and for two decades it was considered the acme of typing perfection, at least by writers. Hemingway would stand an pound into it at his Havana home throughout the thirties, but ‘A Farewell to Arms’ was created on an earlier machine.

When Hunter S. Thompson sought to hone his writing skills he copy typed every word of ‘A Farewell to Arms‘. He did so in order to enter into Hemingway’s process, claiming that every writer has a unique rhythm just as one pianist will interpret the notes of a musical score differently from another.

I don’t know what typewriter Thompson used when he reproduced Hemingway’s manuscript, but we do know that he created much of his own work on the IBM Selectric.

Shaky Science Reveals How You Too Can Type Yourself Thin!

Perhaps surprisingly, for those of us who have typed using both manual and electric typing machines, there’s no evidence that someone burns any less energy typing on an electric typewriter than on an old manual machine, such as the Royal Quiet Deluxe. In theory, however, they should.

A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1958, titled ‘Metabolic Demands as a Factor in Weight Control,’ proposes that: A 5-foot-3, 120-pound typist used up 88 calories per hour operating a mechanical typewriter compared to 73 calories per hour on its electric counterpart. Assuming six hours of typing per day, that means 450 fewer calories burned per week. If all else stayed the same, a pound would be gained every 10 weeks, or five pounds a year.

The research also points out that standing uses more energy than sitting, and so we may conclude that, at least when he was working, Hemingway who preferred to type whilst on his feet, would have been a slimmer leaner author than someone like Hunter Thompson who preferred to type whist seated. This, of course, is/was not true.

Both Hemingway and Thompson were writers who owned typewriters and shot themselves, but there is no evidence that typing, or being published inevitably leads to suicide. Similarly, there is no data that proves that typing with an electric keyboard will make you fatter than your 1950s counterpart. It just feels right to believe so!

What about Thompson’s assertion that every writer has his own rhythm, and you need to hear the sound that his keystrokes make?

Today it is easier to do so than ever. There is a small program called ‘Jingle Keyboard‘ which comes with its own ‘typewriter’ and other sounds. For those who are particularly keen to emulate the writing experiences of their favourite authors files containing the sounds of the IBM Selectric,  and the Royal Quiet Deluxe  may be downloaded from Field Precision Software Tips.

Mac owners tend to be forward thinkers, and doubtless eschew retro-programming their hardware.

Happy clicking :)

What’s the fuss about Fracking?

Barnett Shale Drilling - image David R. Tribble, Creative Commons 3.0.

Barnett Shale Drilling – image David R. Tribble, Creative Commons 3.0.

Frack (alt frak) verb: to inject liquid into (a subterranean rock formation, borehole, etc.) at high pressure so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.

“Millions of gallons of water are needed to successfully frack a single well”

To extract (oil or gas) by injecting liquid into a subterranean rock formation, borehole, etc., at high pressure.

“The industry has begun to frack natural gas from shale deposits”

Sanitized replacement for ‘Fuck’ used on ‘Battlestar Galactica’.

“Why the frack are we doing this?”

You may well ask! The fact is that fracking isn’t simply about injecting water down a hole in order to bring oil to the surface. The chemical composition of fracking fluid is complex and includes many toxic components mixed in forms that do not occur naturally underground. These are potential time bombs for the water table, but are required to prevent pipes from clogging, to lubricate, to penetrate shale and other rock formations, and a host of other applications.

People argue that since fracking chemicals get ‘buried’ underground there is no need to make a fuss. Fracking must be good mustn’t it? Fossil fuels, and especially oil reserves, are now in decline – but we need oil not simply to power our automobiles, locomotive engines, aircraft and boats, but also as the raw material for the plastics that form computer keyboards, car-tyres, the polyurethane soles of our shoes, garden furniture and paint. Indeed when you look around any average room with an educated eye you are likely to find that petrochemicals have been used in the manufacture, delivery cycle, or to fuel, virtually everywhere you look.

It’s not simply that the petrochemicals industry is frightened of losing its grip as the number one force in energy production, but rather that in our post-modern age what looks like mahogany is probably some kind of block-board covered with a plastic laminate. In short, for years we have been living in a pools of processed oil disguised as either traditional, or new wonder miracle construction materials. Take all that away and life becomes very different – and that is the fear.

Some, who have experienced the effects of fracking on their lives, claim that it’s the technology itself that changes lifestyles. They would argue that it isn’t progress to despoil farmland, or pollute sources of drinking water – resulting in the poisoning of fish and fire hazards in those kitchens where highly inflammable natural gas escapes from taps along with what was once potable drinking water.

It’s easy, from far away, in boardrooms and government committees to dismiss the complaints of people such as Pat Farnelli, from Dimmock, Pennsylvania, who claims everywhere you look there is now a fracking hydraulic well. Her water now bubbles and hisses suspiciously, rather like Perrier. She is one of the lucky ones. Her water does not ignite. So is Pat just another ‘NIMBY‘?

Might it not be worth a little fizzy water if we can still transport commodities from exotic locations and in doing so keep prices low? Is not ‘progress’ littered with the corpses of those too lacking in foresight to go with the trend. It’s inevitable so why give Fracking a second thought?

Ron and Jean Carter’s water went bad a month after fracking commenced. It contained ethane and propane. A representative of the drilling company asked them if they could prove that the drilling had caused the contamination.

Norma Fierontino’s water well exploded on New Years Day, 2010. Her neighbour Debbie May’s water turned brown. She was advised not to drink it, bathe in it, wash clothing or dishes in it, or for that matter do anything else with it. She hasn’t!

Much oil and gas fracking fluid does surface and must be disposed of. Naturally there are guidelines for doing this, but human beings don’t always behave responsibly. There are reports of this material being dumped illegally onto fields and into streams. The stuff is very toxic. Some workers have received chemical burns to their hands and faces.

So far my examples have come from a small pocket of Pennsylvania, maybe these events are simply symptoms of a local environmental disaster caused by poor management on the part of the drilling company?

Mike Markham and Marsha Mendenhall hail from Colorado. Brown water comes out of their tap. The State claim that there’s nothing in it that can harm their health, but the couple buy their water from 40 miles away just to play it safe, of course that could be because the same stuff that comes out of their tap is inflammable!

Amy Elsworth, also has flammable water. Rene McClure developed headaches before discovering that she has chlorobenzene in her water, which just perhaps might be significant. Weston Wilson, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, reveals that an EPA report confirmed that toxic substances were being injected underground, but a panel of seven who made the final decisions had within it five people who had interests in fracking going ahead. The panel rejected the EPA warning stating that fracking posed no risk.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005, the result of 100 million dollars worth of lobbying by the oil and gas industry, contains a loophole making it legal for fracking companies to drill and inject toxic materials near residential water supplies. It is a unique piece of legislation in this respect because it circumvents The Safe Drinking Water Act, of 1974. President George Bush Jnr. apparently ordered that no further investigation into this matter was to be made by the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s not just that these chemicals can give you testicular cancer, and lots of other nasty conditions too, but rather that they affect wash-day Monday. Out in Wyoming Rhonda Walker was doing the washing when it turned black. She and her husband Ron sued the gas company that was drilling near their home and settled for $21,000 and installed a reverse osmosis filtration system. Unfortunately, they discovered to their cost, that this process does not remove glycol ethers from water. As a result Rhonda has suffered painful neuropathy, and a great deal of expensive medical treatment, such as spinal taps. Their neighbour Lewis Meece also found his water polluted but as the gas company was not prepared to take any responsibility he decided to drill a fresh water well. It exploded and natural gas came out of it for over three days until it could be safely capped. Government statistics say the over three million cubic feet of natural gas escaped into the atmosphere. When Lewis runs the flame from a blow torch over his water the glycol ether bonds forming a film of plastic.

As if this were no enough, whole landscapes where there were once picturesque glades and beauty spots have been destroyed. In some places the changes have occurred in as little as a day after contractors moved and began creating the infrastructure required for drilling. To set up any and make ready for production requires between 150 to 200 truckloads of stuff, and this is before any toxic material is pumped underground to commence production. 400 – 600 tanker trucks are necessary to start that process plus 25 trucks for hydraulic fracture sand, and for flow back water removal 200 – 300 truck loads, which means that half the toxic chemicals that go down also come back up.

Flow back water sits in reservoirs prior to being hauled away. Here, of course, some of it may seep away, this causing further pollution to the water table and at the same time polluting the atmosphere with noxious gasses. In order to reduce the volume of fluid that needs to be shipped out the fluid is spayed into the air so that the water content evaporates. Of course all the toxic materials are also atomized as a result of this process, and these both deplete the ozone layer and at the same time fall back to earth as toxic acid rain harming people, plants and animals alike.

When gas comes out of the ground it has to be separated from impurities. This is done in a mini refinery at the drill-head. The refinery heats up the gas to 212 degrees Fahrenheit and boils off any water, which is then vented as steam into the atmosphere. Various naturally occurring toxins such as toluene are also vented with the water vapour causing further pollution.

The first preliminary study of the health effects of gas drilling was based upon Garfield County, Wyoming. Seven heath researchers from the University of Colorado found acute problems in the toxic emissions from gas development. Many people in Garfield County have severe health problems. We don’t hear about these issues because when members of the public settle with gas companies a non-disclosure agreement usually forms part of the settlement. It’s difficult to sue a rich company in any country, and no less so in the United States. The law also takes years to grind through its procedures so many of the plaintiffs suing large companies may die, for want of expensive medical care if they don’t settle. This process leads to secrecy so that news of what is happening is confined to discussions by specialists in technical reports, or government committees held in camera. In other words, we the people don’t really how fracking has impacted the lives of others.

Dee Hoffmeiser not only suffered the symptoms of toxic poisoning, she was unfortunate enough to have a rig explode near her. The storage tanks caught fire. Several other members of her family started suffering from symptoms such as bronchitis.

Dr. Theo Colborn is a distinguished scientist and former Department of Environmental Protection advisor. She has too many accolades to list here. She says, “Every environmental law written to protect public health is ignored”. She claimed in one interview the kinds of problem people exposed to pollution due to fracking include: dizziness, headaches, leading to in just a few years irreversible brain damage. “Your extremities, especially your arms and legs expand. The pain can be excruciating.”

Workers, and those living in the neighbourhood of fracking sites are exposed to the toxic chemicals giving rise to these kinds of symptoms. Your taste and smell deteriorates over time removing your ability to detect danger through smell, or enjoy freshly harvested food, as if such a commodity were possible near a fracking well.

The companies have succeeded in hiding what they are doing by using proprietary cocktails of chemicals to inject into the earth’s crust. They have no obligation to disclose what goes into any single product, and so no agency is charged with monitoring what they are doing. It’s a beautiful ‘Catch-22‘.

According to a 2014 report by the American Chemical Society the contents of the fluids involved in fracking raises several concerns about fracking fluid ingredients. Out of nearly 200 commonly used compounds, there is very little known about the potential health risks of about one-third, and eight are toxic to mammals.

In some marshy areas gas can be collected in an upturned funnel and ignited. In other streams rising bubbles may be lit with a match. Imagine the effect that fracking would have on the geology of England’s Somerset Levels, but this is just one area of England that may soon have its own fracking wells and the concomitant kinds of disturbance described above.

And, of course, the water supplies cited are private wells and boreholes located on people’s property. In England we get potable water from our taps courtesy of our local water authorities, so what’s the problem? Unfortunately, we don’t have a national water network so in the event that a major reservoir is affected, and if it is it will be for a long time if not for ever, it is impossible to use water from other locations to provide relief.

Robert Gatliff, director of energy and marine geoscience at the British Geological Survey warned that Britain will need a thousand of successful shale wells a year meet demand. He bases this statement upon the amount of oil extracted per well-head in the U.S.A., which presupposes that the process in England will be no more efficient than those in America.

You might think, all the examples I’ve cited come from America where they are all nutters and corporate greed is known to overwhelm the average citizen – but we’re British and far more sophisticated, Magna Carta and all that!

Just as in the U.S. it all seems a done deal. On September 26th the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said it will press ahead with proposals to simplify underground access for oil and gas developers despite the objection of 99 percent of respondents to a consultation.

It’s hardly surprising that so many object. Aside from the financial implications for landowners there’s a small matter of the risk of earthquakes. According to a report in ‘New Scientist‘: “A magnitude-2.3 earthquake occurred on 1 April, followed by a magnitude-1.5 quake on 27 May, 2011. Both occurred close to the Preese Hall drilling site, where Cuadrilla Resources was using fracking to extract gas from a shale bed.”

Similar concerns about the increase in earthquakes in the USA, and their connection to fracking are reported on, as well as on U.S. Government web sites such as the United States Geological Survey.

A statement from the the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change said: “New laws will now be passed giving automatic access for gas and oil development below 300 meters and a notification and compensation scheme will be run by the industry on a voluntary basis.

“It is essential that we make the most of home-sourced energy and start exploring the natural energy supplies beneath our feet. As the cleanest fossil fuel shale gas provides a bridge to much greener future.”

The Conservative energy minister, Matt Hancock, said: “These new rules will help Britain to explore the great potential of our national shale gas and geothermal resources, as we work towards a greener future – and open up thousands of new jobs in doing so.”

Well he would, wouldn’t he?

*much of the information in this post was originally revealed in the award winning documentary film ‘Gasland‘.

Painless Dentistry: ‘A Shamanic Journey’

My legs were bleeding when I returned from the stables today. I’m working with a vibrant Swedish riding instructor who is determined to bring me up to standard in the shortest possible time. She constantly shouts: “Steve use the legs, more legs, more, come on Steve more legs, legs, legs, and then the whip”.

For the first time in my life I feel like an athlete in training. Indeed, I’m having a ball.

In the background, waiting to take over when basic training is complete another energetic young woman waits in keen anticipation. She is an specialist in dressage, indeed I’m riding the horse upon which she has won some national championships.

These two young women have helped me find confidence that I would never have dreamed that I possess, but my new found courage didn’t start with them but rather with a beautiful dentist.

Last year my young daughter decided that she wanted to have her teeth checked over. I didn’t think it necessary but her mother Irem, who is always losing bits from her teeth, thought a check-up would be wise so we got a recommendation and went off to see a local dentist.

He was a rather feeble looking old chap, quite benign but the sort who revels in reading bad news in serious newspapers and then complaining about it.

I was feeling rather proud of my teeth because I rarely visit dentists, the previous time was around twenty years ago when someone almost succeeded in knocking my front teeth out, but that is another story. Anyway in the spirit of family camaraderie we all had our teeth inspected. Naturally I was pretty confident in the result so you can imagine my surprise when the score came out:

  • Irem: “One filling”
  • Amazon: “Three fillings”
  • Me: “You need to see a proper dentist, possibly in a hospital”

Yes, you read that correctly. My teeth were so bad that Dr. Death refused to consider treating me, which was somewhat a relief because I didn’t fancy the great depressive’s pork sausage-like fingers in my gob anyway!

Time passed, and a few of my teeth started to wobble. My father lost his bottom four front teeth at about my age. He had a plate that always chaffed his mouth so he would take it out into his workshop and grind bits off with a Black and Decker drill. From time to time the denture would collapse under his care and he would have to return it politely exclaiming:

“These bloody teeth you sold me are no good.”

To which his long suffering dentist would reply: “What the hell have you been doing with them?”

After a few months of attempting to ram my front teeth back into their sockets by biting on a plank of wood, Sarah Arrow  asked me to appear on a Google Hangout and discuss web site illustration. In the run up to the show Sarah and her co-presenter Ola Agbaimoni commented upon the gap between my two top front teeth. This gap has always been something of a matter of pride because as a boy it meant that I could spit further than most other children because I could squirt saliva through it like a water jet.

Ola thought it made me look like Terry Thomas, but then she was dressed like Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, so I could easily find it in my heart to forgive her. On the other hand looking at my face up close on the screen did make me wonder about my teeth. They looked strangely crooked, and frankly dead!

Then at the opening of an exhibition of photographs I hosted earlier this year a young dentist had taken the trouble to drive a couple of hours to view my work. My wife introduced us and I instantly fell in love with her, and as you know love conquers all. Of course being of sound ego I knew at once that my love was reciprocated.

She had come with her brother, who proudly told me that his mother was a dentist too. “Oooh, I’m not interested in your mother”, I retorted, perhaps a little too impulsively for his liking.

Eagerly I grabbed her by the arm and introduced her to relatives, friends, and colleagues as ‘my dentist’. I meant it to, because I knew that even if I had to endure the kinds of physical pain that ‘Babe’ the central character in Marathon Man, played by Dustin Hoffman, unlike him, I could just lay back relaxed secure in the knowledge that whatever pain is love is a greater force. Think of the pain of childbirth chaps and you will understand instantly.

I arranged for a lengthy course of dental treatment so I could see my beloved frequently. The surgery was so far from where I lived that I brought my wife, not as chaperone but in order to share the driving. The whole experience was divine.

Upon arrival, for my first appointment, my lovely dentist made me a delicious cup of Turkish coffee, with a little lokum through which to suck it.

“We are friends”, she said in a way that made my heart pitter pat, and then smiled, which made it pitter pat even more.

“Let me take your photograph.”

She clamped my head in a kind of plastic box and a few moments later a dreadful picture of a skull appeared upon her computer screen. It was like something from a horror movie.

“Very good”, she said. “Steve, I will need to remove all of these teeth”. She pointed at the four teeth at the bottom and front of my jaw. “And these”, she added, indicating three teeth opposite at the top, and this one pointing to one further back.

Her enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t wait to get down to it.

“We will be spending some time together”, she smiled. My heart went pitter pat again, and she invited me to take a seat in the dental chair.

“Open up, so I can take a look. Don’t be shy”, she smiled at me lovingly. My heart went pitter pat again, as I looked into the pupil of her hazel eyes.

“First I’m going to ask you to bite on this”, she said, proffering a horseshoe shaped implement covered with pink, and slightly malodorous goo. She shoved it into my chops and I bit as instructed. “Oooh”, she squealed in apparent delight, “One of your teeth has already come out – look!”

And it had. It stood proud and erect in the pink stuff.

Upon seeing this I immediately started to feel faint. It was not that I was scared, but merely that all the blood had deserted my brain.

“Are you O.K.?”, my dentist inquired with some concern. “What did you have for breakfast?”

The trouble was that in my infatuation I had forgotten if I was supposed to eat, or not, prior to undergoing a local anaesthetic. And what if she wished to use laughing gas?

I hadn’t eaten, or drunk, anything at all and now, mysteriously, the sight of my bloody tooth stuck on a horseshoe covered in what appeared to be ‘Bubble Yum‘ had caused my blood sugar to fall in an instant.

Suddenly we were not alone.

Within thirty seconds the dentist’s mother, a dental nurse, and a doctor from across the road were in attendance and urging me to drink a carton of orange juice, which proved to be a very welcome relief.

Everyone looked in my mouth and said how wonderful it would be. They were very keen, rather like architects when calculating how much money will need spending in order to renovate an old building.

“Ooooh, you look better Steve”, my dentist purred and I was relieved to find that my heart could still pitter pat despite having minutes before nearly collapsed completely.

“I am just going to give you some anaesthetic – here – and here – and here – here – here – here – a little here – and here – here – and some more here. Can you feel anything?”

My brain had difficulty in focusing, but I could still feel my mouth.

“Yeppsth”, I repled, “I can sppifth fill ewefinink”.

“Good”, she said pulling out the first tooth with what looked like a chromium plated plumbing wrench.

“Am I hurting you?”

What could I say?

“Nophth at all”, I curled my mouth in what I imagined to be a smile, but probably looked more like Bell’s Palsy.

A third tooth dropped into a surgical tray. She was really getting into her stride now. I studied the area around her eyes. She looked incredibly focused but there was still a softness both in the muscles to the left and right of her eye lids, and in the iris itself, which appeared to jump when she realized that I was reaching into her with my gaze.

I heard the fourth tooth drop. It sounded like a wheel nut being dropped into a hub cap. Love and anaesthesia, a good combination I mused.

“You may wash your mouth out now”, she said. The spittoon filled with blood. I rinsed my mouth again, and more blood bled. More blood later I lay back for the second half, expecting that now she would pull the top teeth, but instead first another horseshoe filled with gloop was forced between my jaws. Fortunately, no teeth came away so I was not obliged to faint again.

I washed my mouth to try to get rid of the taste of gloop, but failed to do so.

And then something remarkable happened. It was to become a regular feature of my dental treatment. The mother appeared, and started to treat me.

After remarking that my mouth was ‘very beautiful’ she whisked out the three top teeth faster than James Butler Hickok shot Davis Tutt.

Wild Bill Kickok vs Davis Tutt

Wild Bill Kickok vs Davis Tutt

From that moment on my mouth became a battle ground by which mother and daughter would negotiate and fight for control. Imagine trench warfare with my bleeding gums as the lines and my open mouth as no man’s land and you will get the picture. Every few minutes one of the pair would work on their side of my mouth, but as they did so each could not resist a foray into the territory of the other.

It seemed at times as if they were spraying the inside of my mouth with fire hoses, that is when not chizzling away at remaining teeth with angle grinders.

After a while the mother’s own patient arrived and my Dentist and I were alone together once more. “You look very handsome”, she said. I smiled at her forgetting that my mouth was full of rinse, and anyway my lips no longer functioned properly. Blood and water dribbled from my chin soaking my gown, penetrating through to the shirt underneath. I must have looked pathetic, but believed myself to be both brave and resolute. A warm smile was returned because of this.

I was a little concerned because I was due to appear on local television a few days after my appointment, and imagined that I would have to do so without any teeth that would be visible. Imagine my surprise when during the next hour mother and daughter manufactured a set of temporary bridges, which I would wear for the following six weeks.

All too soon it was time to leave. Nearly four hours had passed in the chair. Half of my mouth had even started to function again, and normal speech was restored.

There was blood everywhere. It was on the floor, around the spittoon, on the operating lamp above my head, and of course all over me. But there was something primeval about the experience too. I felt as if I had been involved in a shamanic journey in which, at least for a while, my dentist and I bonded at a deep fundamental level. The blood was part of that, and so perhaps the fact that the mouth is perhaps the second most intimate part of the human body. I could never have felt the same with Dr. Death.

And now, thanks to the loving spirit of my young dentist and the wonderful support of her mother who over the weeks was thrilled to put her fingers into my mouth, I was able to face my fears and overcome them. I count the experience I describe here as a transformation, it has helped me in ways that I cannot fully describe and many of which I’m sure I have yet to discover.

Certainly, it has prepared me for learning to ride – for in this, as in dentistry, I have sought out strong powerful women as my guides because I know for them I will always deliver my best. I am very happy with my new teeth, but no longer spit well.

As for my Swedish riding instructor, she has promised to appear in my dreams shouting ‘legs, and whip’. I went to bed early yesterday evening in anticipation of an active night, but sadly she stood me up.

Why you should avoid shoes with molded polyurethane soles.

One of the advantages of having multiple homes is that you can equip each with items of clothing suitable to each location, and therefore travel with the minimum amount of luggage -

or so I thought!

But, imagine my surprise when on a trip to Istanbul I took a virtually brand new pair of sandals from the wardrobe and found the soles disintegrating within a few minutes of walking. It wouldn’t have been so bad had the shoes not held up well when I got into the car. They only stated to disintegrate when I strolled from the car park through the arrivals lounge at Ataturk International Airport, to meet my daughter who was in-bound from London.

Polyurethane Polymer Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikipedia

Polyurethane Polymer Creative Commons 3.0 via Wikipedia

My feet feel funny, I thought, and looking round I found a trail of black breadcrumb-like rubber marking my route. Within minutes the heel dropped from one sole, and moments later the entire sole cracked on the other foot.

Everyone was looking at me.

Naturally I thought this a freak occurrence, and bought some new footwear at an airport store post-haste.

Fast forward a few days and I’m off to visit Sultan Ahmed Mosque, in another pair of two year old rarely used shoes. Just as we started to approach the entrance once again I felt that now familiar crumbling of the soles beneath my feet. Yes, there was a tell-tale trail down the street!

Another new pair of shoes later I find myself at the cobblers. ‘Oh’, he informed me, ‘All shoes do that. You have to wear them, or they will fall apart.’

Now, I must say, that I think there’s something rather peculiar about the idea of shoes that disintegrate when they’re not being worn, and like to fall apart when stored at room temperature in a dry cupboards. After all my leather-soled shoes from earlier times never crack, or disintegrate in the same conditions. Of course, they slip like hell, especially on ice, but no matter – my head might require vinegar and brown paper but the soles of my feet will be adequately protected!

Fast forward a year and I’m off to talk business with the mayor of our local municipality. It’s going to be a sensitive meeting. I had to fight, and use lots of influence to arrange this appointment. I’m the first person to officially visit him after his re-election, and unbeknown to me, after someone attempted to obliterate him and his family in a rain of automatic gunfire over the weekend. He does not look happy, and when I look behind me I note that my feet have left a trail of black debris across the red carpet leading into his office. The heel of one of the most formal shoes that I had available at the beach house has separated itself from the sole, and is proudly attracting his attention from an expensive looking kilim before his desk.

I wondered if Sir Elton, or Victoria Beckham, who must own far more shoes than me, ever experienced this kind of blight?

The mayor did not invite me to be seated, and in the circumstances I can’t blame him.

So why do the synthetic soles on contemporary shoes disintegrate when they are not used?

Apparently shoes with a molded polyurethane (PU) sole is prone to a form of deterioration called “hydrolysis”, especially in coastal, humid areas, when not worn. But when you wear them pressure on the soles squeezes out the moisture, which would otherwise insidiously break apart the foam-like structure. So it’s possible for a pair of unworn or barely worn shoes to disintegrate. It’s probably best not to purchase last year’s fashion, or if you must have them re-soled and heeled at once as a precaution!

I guess PU disintegration is good for ecology, and also shoe manufacturers. The moral though, if you are into shoes then best buy some with leather soles, or limit the size of your collection.

Hunter S. Thompson and the Universal Life Church

Hunter S. Thompson graffiti by Thierry Ehrmann in the Abode of Chaos museum, France.

Hunter S. Thompson graffiti by Thierry Ehrmann in the Abode of Chaos museum, France. (Creative Commons 2.0)

My interest was piqued a few years ago when Phillip of Amos, a biker, introduced me to ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs‘.

In the year of its publication a reviewer from ‘The New Yorker‘ wrote of its author: ‘Hunter S. Thompson is a freelance writer from San Francisco, Aspen, and points east. His research on the Hell’s Angels involved more than a year of close association with the outlaws – riding, loafing, plotting, and eventually being stomped. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he began writing as a sports columnist in Florida. He started his first novel while studying at Columbia University in New York City. Since then he has worked on newspapers and magazines in New York, San Juan, and Rio de Janeiro. His articles have appeared in The Reporter, The Nation, Esquire, and Rolling Stone.’

You may be excused from assuming that any writer as precise as Thompson must have completed a college education but, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Thompson left college in his own time, and in his own way, after extracting all that he felt academia could offer him.

Before writing hum off as a lazy grifter, at least in comparison businessmen like Jobs and Gates, it’s worth noting that in order to hone his writing skill he used a typewriter to copy F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway‘s A Farewell to Arms in order to learn about the writing styles of the authors.

It wasn’t that Thompson failed to graduate, or finish a degree. He was at Columbia University auditing a number of courses. A student who audits a course does so for the purposes of self-enrichment and academic exploration with no hope of being graded, or obtaining any type of credit. It’s one of the best ways to learn.

The Universal Church Modesto

Thompson’s ‘alter-ego’ Raul Duke describes himself as a “doctor of journalism”, and his Samoan attorney, loosely based upon his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, who was not Samoan but considered himself a Chicano, he refers to as a Dr. of Law in the groundbreaking novel ‘Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas‘. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the two friends both ran for office as sheriffs, enjoyed taking drugs, and got themselves into trouble with the law on a number of occasions. It may be completely serendipitous that Acosta, who Thompson described as “a powerful attorney and preacher” attended Modesto Junior College, which even today is just six minutes drive from the Headquarters of The Universal Life Church.

It was from The Universal Life Church that Thompson would obtain his ‘famous’ doctorate. Today you may be ordained by them free of charge simply by completing a form on the Internet. For a doctorate a ‘donation’ of up to 100 bucks is required, and you may even have to complete an examination consisting of multiple choice questions.

In the 1960s and 70s many became ordained, via mail order, because they thought being a minister might keep them from being drafted into the U.S. forces and sent to war overseas. It didn’t, nor were there any tax advantages to being a ULC minister except for the Church itself whose tax status varied from year to year sometimes preceded by court litigation with the authorities.

Other Universal Life Churches

Today various branches of the ‘church’ claim to be its headquarters, and whilst none explicitly deny the legality of ordinations by the others the Universal Life Church based in Boca Raton, Florida is explicitly Christian in its doctrine.

This was clearly not within the spirit of the original Life Church, (which was later incorporated as The Universal Life Church), founded by the Reverend Kirby Hensley. He was raised in North Carolina as a Baptist. He was illiterate, but very intelligent. He created his church in 1959 and taught that everyone’s beliefs should be respected and welcomed. The congregation met in his garage.

The Boca Raton church, today, claims to be the original Universal Life Church because the term is a rough translation from fourth century church literature. Usually this is translated as Catholic Church.

Universal Life Church Doctrine

The doctrine of acceptance by the Universal Life Church is, to my mind, a simple, beautiful and revolutionary idea. Others must think so too because, in addition to Hunter S. Thompson, the number of ULC ministers is thought to number more than 20 million since it was formed, with as many as five thousand applying for ordination every month.

The Church will ordain anyone, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion of birth, or current beliefs. Even Atheists believe in something they claim. Naturally Pagans, Wiccans and members all major and minority religions are welcome to apply for, and will be granted, ordination because the Universal Life Church maintains that each of us is ordained by God, and it simply recognizes that fact. I’m unsure Atheist ministers reconcile this, but so what?

Hensley maintained somewhat tautologically: “Every living person is part of Universal Life,”

In case you’re wondering who are the kinds of people to make up his 20 million strong clergy the following notable members are listed by sources. Some names may surprise you:

Sir Richard Branson, Conan O’Brian, Ian McKellan, Lady Gaga, Sharon Stone, Glenn Beck, Sammy Davis Jnr., Billy Gibbons, Hugh Heffner, Goldie Hawn, Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Barbara Streisand, Jonny Carson, Vikki Carr, Cyd Charisse, Abbe Hoffman, Nicole Riche, Courtney Love, Paul Newman, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Jeff Probhurst, Tori Spelling, Mae West, Doris Day, Joan Rivers, and more recently Robbie Williams and Russell Brand.

Many join simply to be able to officiate at weddings. If more people were to take on the Reverend Hensley ability, to revere life rather than to argue dogma, to accept others as they are and attempt to ‘save them’ either for Jesus or from Allah, and make an honest buck whilst doing so, wouldn’t the world be a more cooperative, constructive, peaceful place?

And why shouldn’t ordinary people start a church that bears witness to people’s ordination? The Reverend Hensley was illiterate and did so, but then The Prophet Mohammed was also unable to read or write yet is the example to follow according to one of the world’s most popular Holy books.

You could argue that no-one should be qualified to perform marriages, other ceremonies, or administer spiritual comfort, without rigorous training.

Local government officials performing marriage ceremonies have no such training, publicly funded funerals may, or may not have priests officiating, and as for spiritual comfort is not all comfort in the final analysis spiritual in essence?

When was the last time you told a guilty secret to a sympathetic listener? Did doing so not bring as much psychological comfort as had you confessed your sins to a priest? The Church of Medieval times certainly believed that sins could not be forgiven without confession to your parish priest, but then the same church licensed pardoners who were charged with selling spiritual remedies in order to finance Church projects, such as hospitals and the building of the Vatican.

The Ordination of Ministers

The ordination of Church of England ministers, until relatively recently, required a university degree, but most ministers read classics and did not study divinity at all until the begriming of the twentieth century. Today the Church doesn’t require such an education but instead a panel of advisers to a Bishop must be satisfied that candidates have provided evidence and can fulfill various qualities of faith, vocation, and mind. These are set out in ‘Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England‘.

The processes for becoming ordained within Episcopal Churches in the U.S.A. are no more rigorous, and, although exceptions may apply, are likely to be similar to that for The Episcopal Diocese of New York.

A key difference between ordination by the Universal Life Church and that of a mainstream church ministry are that whilst both The Universal Life Church and Episcopal Churches require applicants to have a vocation, the former sees this as a vocation for Life and the latter for Christianity. This important distinction gives rise to a requirement that priests of the Episcopal Churches not only be Christians, and therefore suitable for office within an Episcopal ministry. The process, as we all know, isn’t infallible. It’s difficult to obtain statistics on the numbers of priests arraigned in the U.S. or Britain, and numbers are inflated by those ministers arrested at protest demonstrations where their actions may be illegal, but morally sound.

The Universal Life Church, in most of its various factions, also differs from most other Churches providing ordination via the Internet. There are others, and it has its imitators, but the Life Church founded by Kirby Hensley is undoubtedly the original. It sees all religions as equal and ministers may celebrate whatever calls them. Buddhists, Moslems, and Zoroastrians are welcome as ministers within the Universal Life Church, except that other Universal Life Church based in Florida which requires ministers to be of the Christian faith.

Propoganda image from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Propaganda image from The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Pastafarianism and The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to which many atheist devotees of Professor Richard Dawkins are members, claims: ‘Satire is an honest, legitimate basis for religion. Satire relies on truth to be effective. If it’s a joke, it’s a joke where to understand the punch line you must be conscious of underlying truth.’

Part of that truth looks suspiciously like Avaidaism, or Monistic Idealism if you like? This proposes that consciousness, rather than matter, is the ground of all being and therefore events precipitate into consciousness giving rise to form with a background history, and potential future. It follows from this that ultimately nothing is provable, although there is an Institute of Noetic Science that attempts to conduct, and correlate, research within such a philosophy.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Creed of Creationism, states:

“We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.”

This and other illustrative metaphors are published in The Church of the Spaghetti Monster’s holy book: ‘The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster‘, collated by the church’s founder Bobby Henderson. A number of academics write in praise of the work:

“If Intelligent Design is taught in schools, equal time should be given to the FSM theory and the non-FSM theory.” –Professor Douglas Shaw, Ph.D.

“Do not be hypocritical. Allow equal time for other alternative ‘theories’ like FSMism, which is by far the tastier choice.” –J. Simon, Ph.D.

“In my scientific opinion, when comparing the two theories, FSM theory seems to be more valid than classic ID theory.” –Afshin Beheshti, Ph.D.

You may ask how can you be a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you don’t literally believe in a Monster?

According to the web site you can. ‘For the same reason that many in other religions don’t literally believe their scripture, you can be a Pastafarian without being a True Believer of our scripture. In other words, do you know Christians who don’t take the Bible literally – but who consider themselves True Christians, nonetheless? So do I. In fact, True Belief is not often a requirement of religion. Most religions are comprised of a group of people with similar – but not exact – world views. Pastafarianism is no different in that regard.’ To be a member then is to be a seeker of truth, and to be ordained as a minister by the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster requires no more than $30.00 and a PayPal account.

Pastafarian ministers may be able to marry people in some U.S. states, although I could not find any reports of such weddings. It has been formally recognized as a true religion in Poland, albeit on a technicality in procedural law. When approached from a position of rational analysis it stands up against most religious dogma because, of course, this is what it was designed to do.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was launched in a groundbreaking open letter written in 2005 addressed to the Kansas School Board, who had decided youngsters would be educated in a solely Christian Theory of Intelligent Design, ( a.k.a. Creationism).

Since then individuals in several countries have adopted the ‘religion’ some going so far as insisting on wearing vegetable colanders on their heads when posing for official photographs to be used on passports and driving licences, claiming it to be religious headgear.

A Pastafarian Minister in religious headgear, official driving licence.

A Pastafarian Minister in religious headgear, official driving licence.


Hunter Thompson Satirizes Academic Elitism

In a sense, when Hunter Thompson styles himself ‘Doctor’, based upon a degree, let’s face it, purchased from The Universal Life Church he is satirizing academic titles. Thompson raises two figures at academic institutions that require students to take out crippling loans to fund degrees bought not simply with time and labour, but also thousands of dollars.

I suspect, however, that in the main he sought to annoy those tight lipped, self-important professors who not only seek to make a safe buck, but also put everyone else down as they do so. Where the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster lampoons conventional religions, by creating a labyrinth of philosophical/ethical problems through which to trap their adherents Thompson draws attention to the moral lassitude of institutions offering legitimate of academic credentials by parading a false doctorate on the covers of his works. It is brilliant stare, for those intelligent enough to look beyond Thompson’s self-interest.

Thompson’s action is so different from, for example, David Geffen the billionaire businessman and one of the founders of the animation company Dreamworks who lied and said he graduated from UCLA when he applied for a job. Geffen never needed fake, or any other, qualification to make his fortune. Recently he said in an interview for Fortune Magazine that “Look, I’m not setting an example – But it’s an idiotic thing that you have to be a college graduate to be an agent – Did I have a problem with lying to get the job? None whatsoever.”

Thompson’s lampooning is also different from the actions of author John Gray, who wrote ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus‘. His doctorates are from Columbia Pacific University which was an unaccredited non-traditional distance learning school in California, and Governors State University in Illinois, who awarded him an honorary doctorate, after he delivered their commencement address in 2002. Another ‘doctor’ of limited credentials is Joe Vitale, who features prominently in ‘The Secret‘ and obtained a doctor of metaphysics from The University Of Metaphysics a distance learning, unaccredited theological school operated by the International Metaphysical Ministry. You can read Dr. Vitale’s dissertation here. All are undoubtedly talented writers – although arguably less so than Thompson, but display their ‘doctorate’ status for reasons other than to satirise academic qualifications.

Dangers of Using Degrees Obtained from Diploma Mills

John Bear the world’s ‘leading authority on Diploma Mills‘ writes: “It is like putting a time bomb in your résumé. It could go off at any time, with dire consequences. The people who sell fake degrees will probably never suffer at all, but the people who buy them often suffer mightily. And – particularly if their “degree” is health-related – their clients may be seriously harmed.”

In the brilliantly crafted work ‘The Curse of Lono‘, Thompson hints that his use of the suffix ‘doctor’ is placed before his name to indicate his penchant for dispensing mood altering drugs. David Geffen, John Gray, or even Dr. Joe could never be so accused.

I’m sure that Thompson would have loved Amy Long, the founder of The Universal Life Church Seminary. She aims to provide some ‘deeper’ training for ministers. Back in 2005 she wrote: “I’m trying to improve the image of ULC”, and set out to create courses, some lasting several months for those interested.

Thompson would no doubt think that attempting to “improve the image” of the ULC totally misses the point. Their image is just fine. They sell joke degrees. They are good at selling joke degrees and their joke degrees have a great reputation. They don’t take themselves seriously and don’t wish others to do so, except perhaps those who are getting married.

In case you are wondering I am not ordained by any organization, mail order, Internet, or otherwise. Once you go down that route life is justified in placing a crown of thorns upon your head.

Horse Sense: The Art Of Living With An Open Heart


Many people talk about the importance of planning, but when it comes to life changing events I find that the biggest don’t seem to be planned at all.

Take for example the chain of events that today finds me learning how to ride a horse. At 64 riding seems a pretty daft thing to do, after all I could easily fall and break my hip or sit down too quickly and squash my testicles; yet today I find myself in the saddle making a complete prat of myself. It’s my second lesson. How did this come about?

Unlike most who take up riding I held no love of horses nor, as a child, did I have any yearn to ride. When I was four my mother sold our house when Dad was out working and we had to rent a flat for the remainder of that year. Then I watched my father give apples to our landlady’s pony. He encouraged me to try, and told me to breath up the beast’s nose. All that seemed to do was to make the thing want to bite me and when I dodged out of the way it would hit me in the eye with a glob of spit.

Back then horses were for me rather like the prospect of school – when I grew up I would avoid both like plagues. And so I did until one day during my twenties as an organiser of summer holiday activities for troubled children I found myself at a riding stable supervising a party for a trek. I learned two things that day:

  1. Aggressive children have a greater fear of horses than mine
  2. Horses have their own agendas, are stronger than humans and are quite prepared do what ever is necessary to get their own way

Years past without me thinking about riding and then I found that I had fathered one of those girls who are illustrated in cartoons by Norman Thelwell.

I hoped that it was a phase; that being led around a field on a Shetland Pony when she was three would satisfy her life’s equestrian ambitions. It didn’t and slowly she moved to riding once, or twice a year, to every week. This was no mean undertaking because commuting to the nearest stables involved a total of three hours on the road, eating out, waiting for a horse to become available, or put on its makeup or whatever it is that delays horses from making their entrance, and ensuring when they do they are regarded as grand.

In those years we encountered lots of different riding instructors, and please don’t tell them I shared this with you, but quite a few of them were a little, I shall put this diplomatically: ‘funny in the head’!

John Wayne

John Wayne, Image Public Domain via Wikimedia

But then who am I to write thus? My legs are killing me right now, I can hardly walk, and when I do it’s like John Wayne. And, can you believe this? – we actually got so pissed off with our weekly commute that we MOVED HOUSE to be five minutes away from the stables.

Little Miss Thelwell now rides every day, and you should see the antics that go on when I go to watch her. There are grown men standing in the saddle, waving their arms around like windmills, whilst little children of just six, and seven years gallop past them as confident as Comanches attacking a wagon train.

You won’t catch me making a spectacle of myself like that, I mused one day whilst sipping a glass of gin and tonic. But then fate turned the knife when my daughter wanted to give a carrot to a two year old she hopes to ride one day. Next door I discovered a grand old man, who was once paired with riders from the national team and now rarely gets what he considers a proper outing.

He reached out from his stall, gave me a shove with his nose before snotting all down my shirt. We became instant friends. Every day for a month I secretly visited him with apples and carrots after my daughter’s lessons.

During that month I found and read a copy of what, in 1995, the Daily Telegraph referred to as ‘The hottest book of the year’. It’s called ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and, even for someone brought up on Jane Austin, Dickens and Shakespeare, I thought Nicholas Evans wrote pretty evocatively. Through his writing, and with a little observation of what went on in the arena, I slowly became able to talk knowledgeably with ample women in jodhpurs as they called in from Europe, Russia, or even more locally from Istanbul, which is only 700 km away. During these moments my mind wandered to the novels of Jilly Cooper, who once wrote: ‘I love the long grass coming up to meet the willows’, which is innocuous save for the fact that she penned it.

By now I was in big trouble, my carrot guzzling friend took to kissing me. He found ways to take my fingers into his powerful jaws, but never champ down with his teeth. He looked at me balefully and I became hypnotized by his hazel eyes. I sought to discover what was going on in that enormous skull. It seemed to contain an alternative universe of such great dimensions that it might take several lifetimes to explore.

His owner put it to me more simply. One day her words confirmed my suspicion. “He is a very old horse who thinks he is still young”. The phrase resonated, for that’s pretty much how many people think of me – no wonder the beast and I share such an affinity.

Last week we made a plan, which I think was his intention from the outset. I would spring him from retirement. The cost of putting him to work is that I now must learn how to ride him. We’re not doing too badly, but I must still look pretty comical.

Unfortunately today our lesson coincided with a visit by a coach load of European journalists. If one day you find yourself eagerly anticipating having a tooth extracted, and in the waiting room discover a magazine with an article featuring a picture of an elderly man standing in the stirrups of an old horse waving his arms like a windmill, then you’re probably looking at a photograph me.

Did I consciously plan any of this? No, certainly not but there is a lesson here. It’s not necessary to plan everything in life if you can live with an open heart and respond to those around you, even when some of them are not even of your own species.


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