Friday, 30 December 2011

Some pictures

I've uploaded some pictures to Flickr:

click the picture for more


Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Melbourne Airport International Departure Lounge

yes males are power
but women are greater still
such is all we are

I think it was 1997 that I first came in contact with the work of the artist Akio Makigawa. I came across a lone sculpture.

(here's some more shots, different angles)

I stood and looked at it for a while as one typically does when studying a work of art. I walked around it. I looked at the whole trying to "grok" it. I looked at each of the parts. I counted them - 5. Hmm, i thought, like the first line of a haiku.

What did it mean? What was the artist trying to say?

Let's look at the parts starting with the top piece.

When it dawned on me what it was the whole sculpture then resolved itself into something that is quite remarkable not because it's a cool piece of art but because it is making a statement so hilariously "in your face" and RUDE! Oh yes "rude" as in sexually explicit and very pornographic.

Oh my God! I laughed out loud right there in the airport. People hearing me must have thought I'd gone a little mad from travel fatigue. How on earth had he got away with it? It was so sexually explicit that surely people would object?

Here's the "deconstruction" for you.

The top piece is a scrotum and erect penis.

Not just erect but piercingly penetrating.

There it sits crowning the rest of the sculpture as if claiming the ultimate greatness of males.

But wait! Upon what does this expression of male power rest?

Upon that which is yet more powerful still - woman. Balanced precariously and oh so painfully on the knee of a woman telling you that not only is male power dependent on the support of women but also that our ultimate weakness is to be kneed in the balls by she who is the basis for all our power. We are powerful yes but we are at the excruciating mercy of our women.

You've heard the expression "a woman sits on a fortune"? And you know the one "worth the world"? Well think of those when you see what the woman is sitting on - a sphere. That sphere is in fact the whole world.

Below comes a cone - with the open end upward - this is the statement "that which is above is the essence of that which is below". The box below is the entire universe.

Man, woman, male power, female power - that is the whole universe.

As you can imagine, once I had it in my head that I understood clearly what the sculpture was, I sought affirmation from others. I approached a number of the various shop attendants and asked them what they thought of the sculpture and what it might mean. Never even noticed it. I asked a number of fellow travelers. Nope, no idea, not interested.

Every time I passed through that lounge I'd go and look again. I'd ask travelers and airport staff. I'd even try and help people to "see" it. Nothing. Ever. Nobody was ever interested and nobody ever looked - it was just another meaningless sculpture with no purpose but to add some more glitz to a sterile place.

Well, maybe I was wrong and it had no meaning whatsoever - it's "just art" and can "mean whatever you want it to mean". Hah! No way because you know what happened next?

I turned up on one of my trips to discover that the lone sculpture had been joined by three others! Cool!

Here's one:

Notice that the woman is now laying face down with the man perched on her bottom. She is still resting on "the world" which instead of a sphere is the letter "W" (for "world").

I leave the other sculptures for you to discover and examine but you will see that there can be little doubt that my interpretation is correct.

Isn't it hilarious?

It's worth a trip to Melbourne just to stand there and look at these wonderful open expressions of human sexuality standing stark amidst the hundreds of unseeing and uncaring travelers who pass them every day.

Makigawa was a clever Japanese man who wrote haiku with objects. Beautiful, simple, and there for you to find enlightenment if only you are mindful enough to see.


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christianity in a nasty world

Seems to me that a fundamental aspect of human nature is the belief that we inherently need the "carrot and the stick".

Whether this belief is innate or is the product of indoctrination I have no idea. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

The funny thing is that this sort of belief is incredibly irrational because it only applies to "other" not to self. I will explain with some anecdotes.

I used to travel the world quite a bit and i was a heavy user of taxi cabs. Knowing my way around and knowing some of the cues that marked a driver seeking to distract me I was frequently aware of when we deviated from shortest routes. Being that I'm a talkative sort and a student of religion I'd often asked or guessed (from hanging icons etc) the religion of the driver. I got it in my head that the only drivers that tried this trick on me were either Christians or Russians (I will explain). Not Muslims, Israeli, Buddhists or anyone else (including atheists). Hindus? I’m still deciding there but they have a decidedly Christian feel to them. After a while I got into a habit of asking drivers before I got into the cab what religion they were. If they told me that they were Christian or I detected a Russian accent I would close the door and look for another cab. Application of this rule of thumb has resulted in me almost never having to get into an argument with drivers seeking to divert from best route. Note that this rule of thumb does not work in places like Vietnam where almost every person will scam you given the chance.

(Side track on Russians - I suspect this was mostly about timing - I'm not sure - but most of the Russians that tried to scam me had escaped from the terrible post-Glasnost era of Russia where millions starved and survival rates above niceties such as morals. Habits formed in such conditions die hard).

Next. In every case where I have been severely stolen from the perpetrator has been a self proclaimed Christian - and this usually in areas with low proportion of practicing Christians. I'm talking about professionals - financial advisers, accountants, businessmen - you name it. It has got to where I have another rule of thumb - if a person ever tells me that they are Christian (without me asking) then I flag it as an indicator that there is a high probability that the person is not to be trusted whatsoever.

Don't ask me to explain it - I have lots of ideas but nothing concrete - these are just rules of thumb that apply in my life and in the places I spend my time. It might be about me - maybe I have a face that Christians and Russians see and interpret "schmuck" - who knows.

My favorite guess is that Christians have a belief system (as opposed to other religions which are primarily action (or ritual) and not belief) and that at some level they understand that this belief system permeates their world such that if they employ the strategy of cheating (a la prisoners dilemma) they will outperform others.

In other words, a world of "believers" is a world ripe for cheaters. Look at the USA for proof of that - a nation of believers being ripped off constantly by self proclaimed Christians.

I believe that the carrot and stick (heaven and hell) does not stop people from behaving badly. I believe that it is how much fat there is in the land (a la Solzhenitsyn) - in a land rich in milk and honey everyone can afford to be nice. The tougher things get the more likely people will choose not so nice paths to survival. Those who first adopt cheating in environments that are deteriorating are most likely to outperform. Those who cling to fading belief systems for safety fall further and further behind until at some stage they too abandon their rules of morality. When this happens you have a world of dog eat dog chaos.

Those religions that are “archaic” and lean towards very harsh application of Law (ie heavy use of the death penalty) find fertile ground in places that have degenerated into chaos. We all want a safe place to live and raise our kids. In a world of lawlessness the sheriff who comes in with the six-gun and Winchester rifle and systematically guns down the bad guys is a world we all recognize though even this archetype has been stolen by the God-less Christians in their attacks on the poor peoples unfortunately living on top of vital resources like oil.

I can understand those who so fear what seems to be coming to our world that instead of following the path that seemed to be forming since the time of Nietzsche – ie towards universal atheism – they are retreating into what they falsely believe is a place of safety: “God”. The more the world showers harshness upon them the more they desperately seek safety in the pictures painted by those who can profit from their fears and the more those who need them for their power profess their Christianity.

At some stage the nakedness of their “God” will be impossible to deny. At that stage people will turn on each other as they move from one extreme to another. When this happens there will be no salvation until civilization has collapsed far enough that the imposition of very harsh law (probably taken from another “book”) is imposed at the point of gun or sword or spear.


ps. Note that must be said - some of the most beautifully spirited people I have ever known are Christians. Simple, quiet, humble and not proselytizing or making a big deal of their belief - just living a life of goodness as defined by their belief.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Flippin' Houses

When everybody watches prices heading for the moon
The urge to buy is like the piper man has played his tune
And all of us rush in and borrow every cent we can
Why be too late? It's mad to wait! Let's buy it off the plan!

Flippin' houses, Flippin' houses
Flippin' Flats in Condo Heaven
Let's all buy six or seven
We'll all be millionairs!

Some clever banker figured out a way banks couldn't lose
They'd make a it on the fees each way (and land-laws they'd abuse)
They'd bundle, tranch, get tripple A's and boast their quality
And bet against the very shit they sold to you and me


The US housing bubble crashed and trillions disappeared
Economists they scratched their heads and thought it all quite weird
Old Greenspan he'd backed down from pressure when he'd caught a wiff
While "housing crash" Rubini cried and so did Peter Schiff


The Old World followed soon enough and Iceland crashed and burned
Then all the PIGS they followed suit and so their bonds were spurned
The Euro? Well i guess it's dead good riddance i suggest
Until they each go separate ways what madman would invest?


And China? What a total joke! Their madness trumps us all
They bid up prices none could pay and now we watch them fall
The engine of the world it seems is headed down the drain
And everywhere and everyone will join them in their pain


But we'll be right mate here in Aus - we're different don't you know
Our land is better land than theirs our thinking's not so slow
You can not lose investing in our city CBDs
And even world depression will not bring us to out knees

Flippin' houses, Friggin' houses
all my dreams are shot to hell
all my money's gone as well
worth shit are all my shares

Monday, 12 December 2011

Unix geeks get all choked up

I'm a long time Unix geek. Cut maybe a million lines of C in my life on *nix boxes.

This history of the development of Unix for me is poignant.

Ken Thompson types as Dennis Ritchie looks on in 1972,
shortly after they and their Bell Labs colleagues invented Unix.


Sunday, 11 December 2011

Science Books 2011

It's always great when someone does the leg work for you.

Finding good books to read might be easier than it was but it's still better if someone you know has a brain hands you a book and says "here read this".

Check it out

Confessions of a Science Librarian


Saturday, 10 December 2011

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Nine Mile Walk

This is not my story but i liked it so much i decided to copy it - enjoy.

Original from here:

The Nine Mile Walk

by Harry Kemelman (1947)

I HAD MADE an ass of myself in a speech I had given at the Good Government Association dinner, and Nicky Welt had cornered me at breakfast at the Blue Moon, where we both ate occasionally, for the pleasure of rubbing it in. I had made the mistake of departing from my prepared speech to criticize a statement my predecessor in the office of County Attorney had made to the press. I had drawn a number of inferences from his statement and had thus left myself open to a rebuttal which he had promptly made and which had the effect of making me appear intellectually dishonest. I was new to this political game, having but a few months before left the Law School faculty to become the Reform Party candidate for County Attorney. I said as much in extenuation, but Nicholas Welt, who could never drop his pedagogical manner (he was Snowdon Professor of English Language and Literature), replied in much the same tone that he would dismiss a request from a sophomore for an extension on a term paper, “That’s no excuse.”
       Although he is only two or three years older than I, in his late forties, he always treats me like a schoolmaster hectoring a stupid pupil. And I, perhaps because he looks so much older with his white hair and lined, gnomelike face, suffer it.
       “They were perfectly logical inferences,” I pleaded.
       “My dear boy,” he purred, “although human intercourse is well-nigh impossible without inference, most inferences are usually wrong. The percentage of error is particularly high in the legal profession where the intention is not to discover what the speaker wishes to convey, but rather what he wishes to conceal.”
       I picked up my check and eased out from behind the table.
       “I suppose you are referring to cross-examination of witnesses in court. Well, there’s always an opposing counsel who will object if the inference is illogical.”
       “Who said anything about logic?” he retorted. “An inference can be logical and still not be true.”
       He followed me down the aisle to the cashier’s booth. I paid my check and waited impatiently while he searched in an old-fashioned change purse, fishing out coins one by one and placing them on the counter beside his check, only to discover that the total was insufficient. He slid them back into his purse and with a tiny sigh extracted a bill from another compartment of the purse and handed it to the cashier.
       “Give me any sentence of ten or twelve words,” he said, “and I’ll build you a logical chain of inferences that you never dreamed of when you framed the sentence.”
       Other customers were coming in, and since the space in front of the cashier’s booth was small, I decided to wait outside until Nicky completed his transaction with the cashier. I remember being mildly amused at the idea that he probably thought I was still at his elbow and was going right ahead with his discourse.
       When he joined me on the sidewalk I said, “A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.”
       “No, I shouldn’t think it would be,” he agreed absently. Then he stopped in his stride and looked at me sharply. “What the devil are you talking about?”
       “It’s a sentence and it has eleven words,” I insisted. And I repeated the sentence, ticking off the words on my fingers.
       “What about it?”
       “You said that given a sentence of ten or twelve words—”
       “Oh, yes.” He looked at me suspiciously. “Where did you get it?”
       “It just popped into my head. Come on now, build your inferences.”
       “You’re serious about this?” he asked, his little blue eyes glittering with amusement. “You really want me to?”
       It was just like him to issue a challenge and then to appear amused when I accepted it. And it made me angry.
       “Put up or shut up,” I said.
       “All right,” he said mildly. “No need to be huffy. I’ll play. Hmm, let me see, how did the sentence go? ‘A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.’ Not much to go on there.”
       “It’s more than ten words,” I rejoined.
       “Very well.” His voice became crisp as he mentally squared off to the problem. “First inference: the speaker is aggrieved.”
       “I’ll grant that,” I said, “although it hardly seems to be an inference. It’s really implicit in the statement.”
       He nodded impatiently. “Next inference: the rain was unforeseen, otherwise he would have said, ‘A nine mile walk in the rain is no joke,’ instead of using the ‘especially’ phrase as an afterthought.”
       “I’ll allow that,” I said, “although it’s pretty obvious.”
       “First inferences should be obvious,” said Nicky tartly.
       I let it go at that. He seemed to be floundering and I didn’t want to rub it in.
       “Next inference: the speaker is not an athlete or an outdoors man.”
       “You’ll have to explain that one,” I said.
       “It’s the ‘especially’ phrase again,” he said. “The speaker does not say that a nine mile walk in the rain is no joke, but merely the walk—just the distance, mind you—is no joke. Now, nine miles is not such a terribly long distance. You walk more than half that in eighteen holes of golf—and golf is an old man’s game,” he added slyly. I play golf.
       “Well, that would be all right under ordinary circumstances,” I said, “but there are other possibilities. The speaker might be a soldier in the jungle, in which case nine miles would be a pretty good hike, rain or no rain.”
       “Yes,” and Nicky was sarcastic, “and the speaker might be one-legged. For that matter, the speaker might be a graduate student writing a Ph.D. thesis on humor and starting by listing all the things that are not funny. See here, I’ll have to make a couple of assumptions before I continue.”
       “How do you mean?” I asked, suspiciously.
       “Remember, I’m taking this sentence in vacuo, as it were. I don’t know who said it or what the occasion was. Normally a sentence belongs in the framework of a situation.”
       “I see. What assumptions do you want to make?”
       “For one thing, I want to assume that the intention was not frivolous, that the speaker is referring to a walk that was actually taken, and that the purpose of the walk was not to win a bet or something of that sort.”
       “That seems reasonable enough,” I said.
       “And I also want to assume that the locale of the walk is here.”
       “You mean here in Fairfield?”
       “Not necessarily. I mean in this general section of the country.”
       “Fair enough.”
       “Then, if you grant those assumptions, you’ll have to accept my last inference that the speaker is no athlete or outdoors man.”
       “Well, all right, go on.”
       “Then my next inference is that the walk was taken very late at night or very early in the morning—say, between midnight and five or six in the morning.”
       “How do you figure that one?” I asked.
       “Consider the distance, nine miles. We’re in a fairly well-populated section. Take any road and you’ll find a community of some sort in less than nine miles. Hadley is five miles away, Hadley Falls is seven and a half, Goreton is eleven, but East Goreton is only eight and you strike East Goreton before you come to Goreton. There is local train service along the Goreton road and bus service along the others. All the highways are pretty well traveled. Would anyone have to walk nine miles in a rain unless it were late at night when no buses or trains were running and when the few automobiles that were out would hesitate to pick up a stranger on the highway?”
       “He might not have wanted to be seen,” I suggested.
       Nicky smiled pityingly. “You think he would be less noticeable trudging along the highway than he would be riding in a public conveyance where everyone is usually absorbed in his newspaper?”
       “Well, I won’t press the point,” I said brusquely.
       “Then try this one: he was walking toward a town rather than away from one.”
       I nodded. “It is more likely, I suppose. If he were in a town, he could probably arrange for some sort of transportation. Is that the basis for your inference?”
       “Partly that,” said Nicky, “but there is also an inference to be drawn from the distance. Remember, it’s a nine mile walk and nine is one of the exact numbers.”
       “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
       That exasperated schoolteacher-look appeared on Nicky’s face again. “Suppose you say, ‘I took a ten mile walk’ or ‘a hundred mile drive’; I would assume that you actually walked anywhere from eight to a dozen miles, or that you rode between ninety and a hundred and ten miles. In other words, ten and hundred are round numbers. You might have walked exactly ten miles or just as likely you might have walkedapproximately ten miles. But when you speak of walking nine miles, I have a right to assume that you have named an exact figure. Now, we are far more likely to know the distance of the city from a given point than we are to know the distance of a given point from the city. That is, ask anyone in the city how far out Farmer Brown lives, and if he knows him, he will say, ‘Three or four miles.’ But ask Farmer Brown how far he lives from the city and he will tell you ‘Three and six-tenths miles—measured it on my speedometer many a time.’ ”
       “It’s weak, Nicky,” I said.
       “But in conjunction with your own suggestion that he could have arranged transportation if he had been in a city—”
       “Yes, that would do it,” I said. “I’ll pass it. Any more?”
       “I’ve just begun to hit my stride,” he boasted. “My next inference is that he was going to a definite destination and that he had to be there at a particular time. It was not a case of going off to get help because his car broke down or his wife was going to have a baby or somebody was trying to break into his house.”
       “Oh, come now,” I said, “the car breaking down is really the most likely situation. He could have known the exact distance from having checked the mileage just as he was leaving the town.”
       Nicky shook his head. “Rather than walk nine miles in the rain, he would have curled up on the back seat and gone to sleep, or at least stayed by his car and tried to flag another motorist. Remember, it’s nine miles. What would be the least it would take him to hike it?”
       “Four hours,” I offered.
       He nodded. “Certainly no less, considering the rain. We’ve agreed that it happened very late at night or very early in the morning. Suppose he had his breakdown at one o’clock in the morning. It would be five o’clock before he would arrive. That’s daybreak. You begin to see a lot of cars on the road. The buses start just a little later. In fact, the first buses hit Fairfield around five-thirty. Besides, if he were going for help, he would not have to go all the way to town—only as far as the nearest telephone. No, he had a definite appointment, and it was in a town, and it was for some time before five-thirty.”
       “Then why couldn’t he have got there earlier and waited?” I asked. “He could have taken the last bus, arrived around one o’clock, and waited until his appointment. He walks nine miles in the rain instead, and you said he was no athlete.”
       We had arrived at the Municipal Building where my office is. Normally, any arguments begun at the Blue Moon ended at the entrance to the Municipal Building. But I was interested in Nicky’s demonstration and I suggested that he come up for a few minutes.
       When we were seated I said, “How about it, Nicky, why couldn’t he have arrived early and waited?”
       “He could have,” Nicky retorted. “But since he did not, we must assume that he was either detained until after the last bus left, or that he had to wait where he was for a signal of some sort, perhaps a telephone call.”
       “Then according to you, he had an appointment some time between midnight and five-thirty—”
       “We can draw it much finer than that. Remember, it takes him four hours to walk the distance. The last bus stops at twelve-thirty A.M. If he doesn’t take that, but starts at the same time, he won’t arrive at his destination until four-thirty. On the other hand, if he takes the first bus in the morning, he will arrive around five-thirty. That would mean that his appointment was for some time between four-thirty and five-thirty.”
       “You mean that if his appointment was earlier than four-thirty, he would have taken the last night bus, and if it was later than five-thirty, he would have taken the first morning bus?”
       “Precisely. And another thing: if he was waiting for a signal or a phone call, it must have come not much later than one o’clock.”
       “Yes, I see that,” I said. “If his appointment is around five o’clock and it takes him four hours to walk the distance, he’d have to start around one.”
       He nodded, silent and thoughtful. For some queer reason I could not explain, I did not feel like interrupting his thoughts. On the wall was a large map of the county and I walked over to it and began to study it.
       “You’re right, Nicky,” I remarked over my shoulder, “there’s no place as far as nine miles away from Fairfield that doesn’t hit another town first. Fairfield is right in the middle of a bunch of smaller towns.”
       He joined me at the map. “It doesn’t have to be Fairfield, you know,” he said quietly. “It was probably one of the outlying towns he had to reach. Try Hadley.”
       “Why Hadley? What would anyone want in Hadley at five o’clock in the morning?”
       “The Washington Flyer stops there to take on water about that time,” he said quietly.
       “That’s right, too,” I said. “I’ve heard that train many a night when I couldn’t sleep. I’d hear it pulling in and then a minute or two later I’d hear the clock on the Methodist Church banging out five.” I went back to my desk for a timetable. “The Flyer leaves Washington at twelve forty-seven A.M. and gets into Boston at eight A.M.”
       Nicky was still at the map measuring distances with a pencil.
       “Exactly nine miles from Hadley is the Old Sumter Inn,” he announced.
       “Old Sumter Inn,” I echoed. “But that upsets the whole theory. You can arrange for transportation there as easily as you can in a town.”
       He shook his head. “The cars are kept in an enclosure and you have to get an attendant to check you through the gate. The attendant would remember anyone taking out his car at a strange hour. It’s a pretty conservative place. He could have waited in his room until he got a call from Washington about someone on the Flyer—maybe the number of the car and the berth. Then he could just slip out of the hotel and walk to Hadley.”
       I stared at him, hypnotized.
       “It wouldn’t be difficult to slip aboard while the train was taking on water, and then if he knew the car number and the berth—”
       “Nicky,” I said portentously, “as the Reform District Attorney who campaigned on an economy program, I am going to waste the taxpayers’ money and call Boston long distance. It’s ridiculous, it’s insane—but I’m going to do it!”
       His little blue eyes glittered and he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue.
       “Go ahead,” he said hoarsely.
I REPLACED THE telephone in its cradle.
       “Nicky,” I said, “this is probably the most remarkable coincidence in the history of criminal investigation: a man was found murdered in his berth on last night’s twelve-forty-seven from Washington! He’d been dead about three hours, which would make it exactly right for Hadley.”
       “I thought it was something like that,” said Nicky. “But you’re wrong about its being a coincidence. It can’t be. Where did you get that sentence?”
       “It was just a sentence. It simply popped into my head.”
       “It couldn’t have! It’s not the sort of sentence that pops into one’s head. If you had taught composition as long as I have, you’d know that when you ask someone for a sentence of ten words or so, you get an ordinary statement such as ‘I like milk’—with the other words made up by a modifying clause like, ‘because it is good for my health.’ The sentence you offered related to a particular situation.”
       “But I tell you I talked to no one this morning. And I was alone with you at the Blue Moon.”
       “You weren’t with me all the time I paid my check,” he said sharply. “Did you meet anyone while you were waiting on the sidewalk for me to come out of the Blue Moon?”
       I shook my head. “I was outside for less than a minute before you joined me. You see, a couple of men came in while you were digging out your change and one of them bumped me, so I thought I’d wait—”
       “Did you ever see them before?”
       “The two men who came in,” he said, the note of exasperation creeping into his voice again.
       “Why, no—they weren’t anyone I knew.”
       “Were they talking?”
       “I guess so. Yes, they were. Quite absorbed in their conversation, as a matter of fact—otherwise, they would have noticed me and I would not have been bumped.”
       “Not many strangers come into the Blue Moon,” he remarked.
       “Do you think it was they?” I asked eagerly. “I think I’d know them again if I saw them.”
       Nicky’s eyes narrowed. “It’s possible. There had to be two—one to trail the victim in Washington and ascertain his berth number, the other to wait here and do the job. The Washington man would be likely to come down here afterwards. If there was theft as well as murder, it would be to divide the spoils. If it was just murder, he would probably have to come down to pay off his confederate.”
       I reached for the telephone.
       “We’ve been gone less than half an hour,” Nicky went on. “They were just coming in and service is slow at the Blue Moon. The one who walked all the way to Hadley must certainly be hungry and the other probably drove all night from Washington.”
       “Call me immediately if you make an arrest,” I said into the phone and hung up.
       Neither of us spoke a word while we waited. We paced the floor, avoiding each other almost as though we had done something we were ashamed of.
       The telephone rang at last. I picked it up and listened. Then I said, “O.K.” and turned to Nicky.
       “One of them tried to escape through the kitchen but Winn had someone stationed at the back and they got him.”
       “That would seem to prove it,” said Nicky with a frosty little smile.
       I nodded agreement.
       He glanced at his watch. “Gracious,” he exclaimed, “I wanted to make an early start on my work this morning, and here I’ve already wasted all this time talking with you.”
       I let him get to the door. “Oh, Nicky,” I called, “what was it you set out to prove?”
       “That a chain of inferences could be logical and still not be true,” he said.
       “What are you laughing at?” he asked snappishly. And then he laughed too.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Why I Don't Dig Buddhism

These are my comments on "Why I Don't Dig Buddhism" posted by John Horgan on Scientific American.

I’ve been brooding over Buddhism lately, for several reasons. First, I read that Steve Jobs was a long-time dabbler in Buddhism and was even married in a Buddhist ceremony. Second, a new documentary, Crazy Wisdom, celebrates the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism here in the U.S. in the 1970s. Third, Slate magazine, for some reason, just re-published a critique of Buddhism that I wrote eight years ago, and once again Buddhists are berating me for my ignorance about their religion.
Pop: As a Buddhist I can tell, from just this that any supposed study you have made of Buddhism must have been incredibly shallow. I will elucidate as I go on.
I’m a sucker for punishment, so I thought I’d try to explain, once again, my misgivings about Buddhism, in this heavily revised and updated version of my Slate essay (which was put through an especially tortuous editing process). Here it is:In 1999, a flier appeared in my mailbox announcing that a local Japanese-American woman would soon start teaching Zen at my hometown library. If I believed in synchronicity, this flier’s arrival would have seemed a clear case of it. I had just begun researching a book on science and mysticism, and I had decided that for the book’s purposes—and my own well-being—I needed a spiritual practice.Superficially, Buddhism seemed more compatible than any other religion with my skeptical, science-oriented outlook. The Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman once told me that Buddhism is less a religion than a method for fulfilling human potential, a method as empirical in its way as science. Don’t take my word for anything, Buddha supposedly said, just follow this path and discover the truth for yourself.
POP: As any Christian scholar might tell you your above words indicate one thing quite clearly: you are a very typical 70’s style “New Age Christian”. Your values and world view are Christian yet you feel that you need to cherry pick what suits you so that you might convince yourself that you are following your spiritual path for good reasons defined in every way by you. Very self deluding.
So I started attending meditation sessions in the basement of my town’s library, a castle overlooking the Hudson and finally the chapel of a Catholic monastery (where some of my classmates were nuns, who seemed much nicer than the ones I remember from my youth). I learned more about Buddhism by reading books and articles, attending lectures and conferences and, most of all, talking to lots of Buddhists, some famous, even infamous, others just ordinary folk trying to get by.
POP:  For a start, you can not learn any “Buddhism” from books – you can only learn about people’s perceptions of Buddhism. Even reading the whole of the foundation doctrine documents will not teach you anything about what Buddhism is. Even asking Buddhists is likely to take you a long way from the path because as Buddha might have explained to you, had he had the time or inclination, people vary enormously in their ability to understand the way. Hence Buddha’s teachings, like those of other great leaders like Jesus, were aimed at different levels of education, intellect, tenacity, age, background etc. For example, the 8-fold path is not so easy to understand even if you read many explanations because it is not made, like the 10 commandments, of negatives – of “don’t”s – it is made of positives: “do”s. This was for so very many of those who came to listen to him just far too hard. He simplified things for those: the rules of Śīla which are all “don’t”s.
Eventually, I stopped attending my Zen sessions (for reasons that I describe in detail elsewhere). One problem was that meditation never really tamed my monkey mind. During my last class, I fixated on a classmate who kept craning his neck and grunting and asking our teacher unbearably pretentious questions. I loathed him and loathed myself for loathing him, and finally I thought: What am I doing here? By that time, I also had serious intellectual qualms about Buddhism. I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than Catholicism, my childhood faith.
POP: Again, this proves a point made above – you never left the path of Christianity. You were trying to prove to yourself that your acceptance of your true faith was based on the thing that you have come to doubtingly believe should be the basis: rationality. This screams to me your Catholic upbringing – it’s is archetypical of a Catholic. You were fooling yourself – classic cognitive dissonance – on the one hand you wanted to keep the faith that the world around you was telling you was flawed and therefore not worth following while on the other you wanted to prove to yourself that whatever you chose based on this imposed necessity for rationality would be sound in your own judgment – in other words you were pretending to yourself that you might find the “truth” knowing full well that the only truth you would ever accept would be the one you have locked away in your heart so that your very confused mind would not tear it apart. It’s call “conflicted”.
One of Buddhism’s biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn’t invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.
POP: Here is now the proof of what I have said above. You see you overly attack the thing you have been led to believe is the basis for why you should abandon your Christian faith – you call it clap-trap (I am not in any way saying it is or is not clap-trap). This is the crux of the matter. You desperately want your Catholic faith but you, being the coward you are (and not different to many), will not allow yourself to defend your faith because you need it to be “rational” and if it is based on “God” then it can’t be rational. Here’s some news for you from a student of ancient Hebrew – the “God” you have painted a face on (thus breaking the second Commandment) is not the “God” that Moses taught about. So, instead of trying to understand the “clap-trap” you had been led by the very same mixed-up popular (ie lowest common denominator) masses to reject (being the fickle, lazy coward you are), you instead, and of very clear purpose, went out to shoot down every other version of “God” you could find. What’s more, your investigations there were even more shallow than the investigations you made of your own faith’s foundations. Then you have the gall to try and lead your readers to believe that you have actually studied! What a totally dishonest spiritual investigator you are – and I mean that with all the love a Christian might offer.
Those who emphasize Buddhism’s compatibility with science usually downplay or disavow its supernatural elements (and even the Dalai Lama has doubts about reincarnation, a philosopher who discussed the issue with him once told me).
POP: Again, this is so very shallow. You have defined Buddhism by your own need to be something really simple so that you can hang your tortured spiritual need on it. There’s no investigation of what the facets of Buddhism might be, it’s history, the various levels of practice based on such obvious factors as education, demographics, proximity to source doctrine, nature of Buddhist doctrinal establishment (the list is long).

You are demanding that “the thing that people follow for a multitude of reasons starting with upbringing” MUST be rational IN YOUR JUDGEMENT before you can accept it as worthy of being followed by you. Sir, you will never satisfy this need. Consider this simple truth – for all of religions it is the same – to find “salvation”, though in all followings it is a path of unending hard work, it is but like stepping through a door to start. It is that simple. You sir are standing outside in the corridor having left the room of your own faith because YOU allowed others to convince you it was unworthy of a “rational” being and are now kicking at various doors and deciding they too are flawed based on the very reasons you allowed yourself to believe your own is flawed. Shallow. Cowardly. LAZY.
The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, when I interviewed him, compared meditation to a scientific instrument such as a microscope or telescope, through which you can glimpse spiritual truth. This analogy is bogus. Anyone can peer through a telescope and see the moons of Jupiter, or squint through a microscope and see cells divide. But ask 10 meditators what they see, feel or learn and you will get 10 different answers.
POP: As you will get 10 different answers to anything you ask of 10 people – consider the old story of the blind men and the elephant. If you are asking others what the elephant looks like you are not experiencing the elephant for yourself.
The Buddha and all of his most advanced followers ever since his time will tell you that for the most of us meditation is a goal to try and achieve but we will never achieve it – the best we might do is give opportunity for our children to learn it – maybe one will have what is necessary to become someone who gains depth in this direction but for the most of us the practice is just way way too hard and too demanding of our time and frankly, because we do not get wiz-bang instant gratification from our attempts, very unlikely to survive many attempts. This is as true for those in Buddhist countries as it is for us except at least there the average lay person knows that there is merit in the attempt just as there is merit in the attempt to be a good Christian in our cultures.
Research on meditation (which I reviewed in my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, and which is usually carried out by proponents, such as psychologist Richard Davidson) suggests how variable its effects can be. Meditation reportedly reduces stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, too. Some studies indicate that meditation makes you hyper-sensitive to external stimuli; others reveal the opposite effect. Brain scans do not yield consistent results, either. For every report of heightened neural activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the left parietal lobe, there exists a contrary result.Moreover, those fortunate souls who achieve deep mystical states—through meditation or other means—may come away convinced of very different truths. Shortly before his death in 2001, the Buddhist neuroscientist Francisco Varela (a friend of Trungpa) told me that a near-death experience had showed him that mind rather than matter constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. Other Buddhists, such as the psychologist Susan Blackmore, are strict materialists, who deny that mind can exist independently of matter.
POP: And here, you look for the one seed of Buddhism that you think might be worthy of your conflicted Catholic acceptance and based not on personal experience but cherry picked “data” you finally give Buddhism the coup de grâce. Yes you are the wise Soldier of Christ decked out in your sword of the cross and your white robe. Oh please (Catholic) God, see what I have done in your name – I have slain the heathen – please welcome me back to the fold. Son, the door has been ever open to you.
Blackmore looks favorably, however, upon the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. “Where, exactly, is your self?” Buddha asked. “Of what components and properties does your self consist?” Since no answer to these questions suffices, the self must be in some sense illusory. Meme theory, Blackmore contends in The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 2000), leads to the same conclusion; if you pluck all the memes out of a mind, you will have nothing left. She even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.Actually, modern science—and meditative introspection—have merely discovered that the self is an emergent phenomenon, difficult to explain in terms of its parts. The world abounds in emergent phenomena. The school where I teach can’t be defined in strictly reductionist terms either. You can’t point to a person or classroom or lab and say, “Here is Stevens Institute.” But does that mean my school doesn’t exist?
POP: This is worthy of little comment other than it might be paraphrased as “look, I really did research this” and “look, gee, this is as confusing to me as quantum physics so just in case I might look like a fool I better give it a few words”
I snip out the lashon hara that follows and jump to the final nasty little dishonesty of yours:
[snipped]I have one final misgiving about Buddhism—or rather, about Buddha himself. His path to enlightenment began with his abandonment of his wife and child. Even today, Tibetan Buddhism—again, like Catholicism—upholds male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. To me, “spiritual” means life-embracing, and so a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is not spiritual but anti-spiritual.
POP: And here we are finally, you not only have kicked in the Buddhist door of your corridor trap and put your foe to the sword but now you have to claim the moral high ground and twist the knife. Sir you are a cad of the lowest form. Your dishonesty and your Christian warrior bravado are not worthy of a true Christian. You break so many commandments of both Moses and Jesus here that I do not know where to begin. Judge not lest ye yourself be Judged.
Buddha was a man and all men are flawed. When you have walked in other’s shoes then you have the opportunity for compassion not the right to judge.
The rest has also been snipped – it is of so little worth except for the last quote:
“If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.”

The proof of my assertions rings so clearly here – you, the warrior of Christ did meet Buddha on the road and you duly slew him.
Sir, the man you met on the road was the last vestige of goodness that might have been in you – you did slay the child that might have found the wonder of something beautiful.
I doubt that you will ever be spiritually happy – you will hang about outside the door of your own besmeared faith refusing to go in and you will find fault in all other men’s faiths for this reason or that. There is a saying that “you can not find the bull riding on its back” but you my dear friend have not only leapt off the bull but have castrated it and yourself and then slain the bull and flung its entrails on every path leading to the scene of your crime.
I’d recite for you some Buddhist doctrine but what would be the point?
The Peak Oil Poet

(try this: breaking three breaks one and two)

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Land of Skinny People

Dedicated to Julie Thomas and John Quiggin



Once upon a time there was a land of skinny people. There were tall skinny people and there were short skinny people and in between there were skinny people who were not short but also they were not tall. The men were skinny and the girls were skinny and though there were never so many children at one time all of those were skinny too.

There were also some dogs and some cats in the land of skinny people. The dogs and cats were really very skinny. They were even skinnier than the skinny people.

Now the reason that all of the people and the dogs and the cats were all skinny was because the land of skinny people and skinny dogs and cats did not have a lot of food. It was not that the land was bad, no, the land was not so bad at all. It was not because there was no rain, no, there was enough rain. It was not because there was not enough fertiliser, no, there was enough fertiliser. The reason that all of the people and all of the cats and the dogs were skinny was because the land of skinny people had lots and lots of skinny people and lots of skinny dogs and skinny cats.

Now you might think that being as everyone was so skinny and all the dogs and all the cats were so skinny that they would all be quite unhappy but this was not the case. In fact, surprising as it might sound to you or to me, the people in the land of skinny people were all quite content. I guess it must have been because, as little as there was, there was enough. There was never enough to waste. Sometimes some people might even go to bed without having supper but all in all they got to have enough to eat so they could do the things they had to do which was mostly growing things to eat, talking about things to eat, talking about how to cook things they did have to eat and talking about how they might get together and share what they had so that none of them would go to bed without their supper.

It’s an interesting thing about humans that when women get to be too skinny they stop having babies. That is why, as many people as there were in the land of skinny people, there were not so many children because you see it was only when there was a little bit more, just enough, so that a woman might get just that little bit less skinny, that she might be able to have a baby. It was a good thing too because the land of skinny people really did not need too many more skinny people and it certainly did not need too many more skinny dogs or skinny cats who only survived because they were quick enough and wily enough to not get caught by skinny people who might be particularly hungry.

The skinny people of the land of skinny people were very careful with the food that they grew and the fish that they caught and the eggs that they collected from the chickens that were particularly skinny for the simple reason that they were forever having to outrun the skinny dogs and the skinny cats and the skinny people who would like to eat them. The skinny people were so very careful with food that their whole language was filled with words that were all like different shades of the only word we have that is similar: thrift. They had a ‘thrift’ word for being thrifty with rice and one for being thrifty with leafy vegetables and even one for being thrifty with leftover cabbage.

You might say the skinny people of the land of skinny people were thrifty. That would be accurate. It would be accurate like saying that the ocean is wet. It would be accurate like saying that skinny people who waste food would be considered insane. In fact the word for ‘insane’ in the land of the skinny people was like our word ‘spendthrift’. To say that a skinny person from the land of skinny people who wasted food was a spendthrift would be like saying that the ocean is wet. You get the picture.

One of the skinniest people in all of the land of the skinny people was a tall skinny man call Slim. He wasn’t the skinniest person in the land of skinny people. In fact, the skinniest person in the whole of the land of the skinny people was his brother Stick.

Slim and Stick did not have any land of their own to grow rice on or to steal eggs from skinny chickens. They had left the narrow farm that belonged to their skinny mom and skinny dad so that their mom and dad could take care of their very skinny sister Willow. It was rather noble of them it is true but it might also have had a lot to do with the fact that because there was so many of them for such a small piece of land there was really not enough food for them all and Slim was so often hungry that one day he stood up from the kitchen table that was as bare as his father’s head and said:

“Right, I’m off. You comin’ Stick?”

Of course, the people in the land of skinny people did not speak English so you will have to make do with the poor translations that I am forced to make if I am to relate this story to you.

With not more than a tummy-rumbling grunt of agreement Stick too rose from the kitchen table and followed Slim out the door and out into land of the skinny people.

They wandered all of the land of skinny people. If you can believe it they became even skinnier than they had been before. They tried running a little show: “the skinniest person in the whole land of skinny people” but there were not so many people who were happy to give food to someone just to look at another skinny person no matter how skinny he might be. They tried working all sorts of jobs but the fact is there is not a lot that you can do for people who already do everything they can to get enough to eat. Though they never starved (skinny people would never allow that) they were always very hungry. One day Slim stood up from the side of the rather narrow dusty road that they had been sitting beside and said:

“Right, I’m going home. You comin’ Stick?”

And with that they turned their rather skinny noses in the direction that they thought was home. But it wasn’t.

They walked for quite some time until it started to rain. It was not your normal land of the skinny people rain which was usually rather thin. It was a particularly heavy rain and the drops were so big and there were so many of them that they felt to Slim and Stick like rocks.

Slim and Stick ran to get out of the rain and in running they ran right off the road and right into a forest of tall slender trees that were so thread bare that they provided no shelter. They ran through the forest crying “ouch” and “ow” and all sorts of other words that are the same in English as they are in the language of the people of the land of skinny people. They ran blind and they ran so hard that they burst through an unusually thick hedge and found themselves suddenly in the dark. It wasn’t raining rocks. It wasn’t even raining the usual thin rain of the land of the skinny people. In fact, it was not raining at all. It was dark and it was dry and there was something else – something different. Something so different that very soon their heads were spinning with the something that was very different to anything they had ever experienced in all the land of the skinny people.

It was the smell of food.

It was not just the smell of food like the smell of a bowl of nice hot rice that has just been set upon the table. It was not even the smell of food like a bowl of nice hot rice AND a nice fresh boiled egg that has just been set upon the table. It was the smell of all the food they had ever eaten in all their lives multiplied over and over so many times that…

They ran blindly into the cave for that’s where they were. They were in a cave that no skinny person from the land of skinny people had ever seen before. In fact there was not even one skinny person in all the land of the skinny people who could even dream of a cave like the cave that Slim and Stick had just discovered.

They ran and they ran until the wonderful smell was all around them and then they fell to their knees and reached out in the dark with their skinny little hands until they found something. It was soft but not too soft. They each pulled at what they had felt until they each had in their hands something that smelled so good that the best dinner you ever had in all your life would smell like old dishwater beside it. And then they ate.

To say that they ate really does not describe what they did. Eating is what well fed people like you and I do when we sit down to dinner of roast chicken and beautifully roasted potatoes with thick gravy and lots of freshly picked steamed peas with mint and butter and those lovely little crusty loaves of bread. They ate like only the skinniest people in all the land of the skinny people could eat when they were starving and when they had found what Slim and Stick had just found – a cave that opened up into a cavern so huge and so long and so wide and with so many more side caverns that really it might have well gone on forever – and on every inch of the floor and on every wall in all of the vastness of the caverns there grew a mushroom that was like no other mushroom in all of the world for it was the mushroom of the gods and it had been set in the cavern to grow by the gods of long long ago so that they might snack whenever the urge took them. But being gods they just seem to have plumb forgot that the mushrooms were still here. I guess it must have been the bushes at the mouth of the cave. I suppose gods can loose things too.

Well, after they had eaten what you can well imagine was the very best meal of their whole lives, Slim and Stick were feeling rather good. It’s a particularly curious attribute of these mushrooms that even if you stuffed yourself with them you would not feel at all drowsy. In fact Slim and Stick were feeling better than they had ever felt in their whole life. Slim stood up and spoke into the dark:

“I’m off to swap some mushrooms for some lamps and oil. Comin’ Stick?”

With that they removed their threadbare shirts and fashioned them into bags which they filled with mushrooms and then they headed off to the nearest village.

They found a little tinker’s shop that was run by a skinny man and his skinny wife. Slim reached into his bag and tore off just a little morsel of mushroom and held it out to the skinny tinker and said:

“Here, try this.”

As the tinker reached out to take the morsel of mushroom the aroma reached his nose and his eyes popped open like two saucers and his nostrils flared and the saliva started to drip from the corner of his mouth. He snatched the piece from Slim's hand and it instantly disappeared into his mouth. A huge smile lightened up his skinny little face and for a moment it actually almost didn’t look skinny at all because it was the face of the happiest tinker in all of the land of the skinny people.

As you might imagine, it was not so hard for Slim to negotiate a very favourable deal to both parties. Slim and Stick wandered off with a nice new leather bag filled with lamps and fish oil and firestones. The last they saw of the tinker and his wife they were fighting each other over two large mushrooms.



Slim sat in his beach chair overlooking the ocean sipping his frozen coconut and mushroom margarita. Life was very good. One of the beautiful young girls playing on the beach turned to him and called but he just smiled and waved and thought about how lovely and plump she was. He looked around with a deep feeling of satisfaction. There was not a single skinny person in sight. Every person he could see including the many children were nice and plump.

Twenty years had passed since Slim and Stick had discovered the wonderful caverns that had changed the lives of every person in the land of skinny people. Now it was a land of happy smiling plump people. Everyone had enough to eat. The caverns were so productive and the mushrooms regrew so quickly that the land of skinny people had changed its name to “the land of plump people”. Even the language was changing. The young people who had never lived a life of austerity had stopped using words for “thrift”. The idea that one should save and be careful with food made no sense to them at all. Many of the older people would shake their heads and warn that no good would come of all this waste but as there seemed to be no limit to how much food could be had from the caverns the young people just laughed at the old people and told them that the world had changed and that “things are different now”.

The population of the land of plump people had grown rapidly. There were so many carefree young children that a visitor to the land would never have thought that the long history of the land of plump people had mostly been of thrift and skinny people.

Slim and Stick had become famous of course. At first they had tried to manage all of those mushrooms by themselves but it had not been long before the job became just way too big and so they had given up their control of the mushrooms to a newly formed government of extra plump people who were happy to take over the job. The government then awarded them special status in the land so that no matter where they might go they would be greeted with the dignity and respect that was due to the two marvellously clever men who had changed the land of skinny people into the land of plump people.

Yes the land of skinny people, sorry, the land of plump people, had changed. Things were different. Everything that they had believed about life, the world and food just did not apply anymore. The very nature of the people had changed and was changing even more every day. With all the wealth that came from the wonderful mushrooms the land was sprouting with schools and institutions and buildings that were larger and more grand than anyone in the land had ever known.

There were some things that were not so nice about what was happening though. When everyone had been skinny, though there had never been more than just enough, the people of the land that had been the land of skinny people but was now the land of plump people would be careful not just with food but with each other. But with there being no longer any need for thrift there seemed now also to be no need to care for anyone. Everyone could care for himself or herself and if there was anything they needed, well, then they could go to the government and they would be provided for. The old people shook their heads at that too but of course any words they uttered were laughed into the mushroom smelling wind by the young people of the land of skinny people that was now called the land of plump people.

Slim looked up the beach and noticed a small group of rather plump men walking in his direction. He could see that Stick was with them. That meant they must be government men because Stick (who had acquired the nickname “trunk”) liked to spend his time with government men and give advice on the care and harvesting of mushrooms. He was quite an expert in the field (or should I say cavern) though, as even he would concede, there was nobody in all the land of plump people that used to be called the land of skinny people that knew as much about mushrooms as Slim.

As the men approached something began to niggle at a small corner of the mind of Slim. As they got closer and closer the niggle became a waggle that went form niggling that small corner of his mind to a waggle that was waggling bigger pieces of his mind until his whole mind was being shaken by something that he not seen for a long time. The look on the faces of the government men and the look on the face of Stick was the same look and it was not a look that filled Slim with happy feelings. It was a look that filled him with fear because the look WAS the look of fear and as everyone knows fear is a very contagious affliction.

Stick led the rather plump government men to stand before Slim and block his view of the ocean.

“There’s a problem at the caverns Slim. You comin’?”

They made the journey to the caverns in one of the new marvels of the land that had been known as the land of skinny people but was now known as the land of plump people. It was like a carriage but instead of a skinny horse or a skinny ox to haul the carriage it had a magical device that consumed mushroom juice to turn the wheels. Not only did it make travelling long distances as easy as sitting by the beach sipping coconut and mushroom margaritas but the exhaust it produced was sweet and wholesome.

After a few hours of travelling that were only slightly hampered by the many carriages that were zipping back and forth along the road they came to the great commercial and industrial complex that now surrounded the caverns. Slim was very impressed with what he saw. There were mighty buildings everywhere and the sound of industry and people working filled the gaps in the air that would otherwise have been filled with the aroma of mushrooms.

Stick and the government men had spent some time during the journey to provide Slim with the most recent production figures. They were very impressive. They were now harvesting so many mushrooms that there was enough to export to neighbouring countries. This provided the land that had been known as the land of skinny people but was now known as the land of plump people with what had been come to be known as a “trade surplus” and a “current account surplus” meaning that people in the neighbouring countries wanted mushrooms more than they wanted the things that they produced in their own countries. Things were very good indeed.

Their carriage was greeted at the inner gate to the caverns by a large troop of soldiers wearing their finest dress uniforms and carrying the latest in defence technology that had been bought from one of the neighbouring countries. As Slim stepped out of the carriage they came to attention with a shout and the stamp of feet and raised their weapons in salute to Slim and to Stick and to the government men.

Stick led them all through the gate with barely a glance at the soldiers. He headed off towards the entry to the caverns at a brisk pace and, though Slim had no trouble keeping up, the rather plump government men were soon huffing and puffing and lagging behind. Along the way Slim could see a steady stream of people and carriages going back and forth from the caverns with loads of mushrooms or tools or building materials. It was a very busy place indeed.

At the mouth of the cavern there was a huge iron gate with razor wire and another troop of soldiers dressed in their finest uniforms. They all stamped their feet and shouted and raised their weapons in salute as Stick hurried past them with Slim close behind and the rather plump government men now straggling behind.

Stick kept going. Through the first cavern he and Slim had found twenty years ago that was now festooned with lights and platforms and machinery for cutting and hauling mushrooms. Through the next cavern that was much the same. Through another and then another and on and on into the depths of the mountain until he suddenly stopped.

Slim caught up and stood beside Stick. Stick turned to Slim and then turned back towards the cavern and then back towards Slim. Slim turned towards the cavern and looked. Two things became apparent to Slim at the same time - the smell and the colour. The smell, he now realised, had been growing as they had approached this cavern but here it was very strong. It was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell like a dog that was dead and had been lying on the road in the sun for some time was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell like the smell of a lot of people who liked beans a lot was not a nice smell. It was not a nice smell at all. The smell however was not what now took all of Slim’s attention. What took all of Slim’s attention was the sight in front of him. Where all of the previous caverns were filled with the sight of the golden mushrooms covering the floor and the walls, here the sight was of black things that Slim only knew had been mushrooms because he knew that they could not be anything else. They looked like little piles of what would look very much like what comes out of the back end of a black cow if what came out the back end of a black cow was the same colour as the cow. The walls dripped with black goo and all of the floor was covered with little puddles of black goo and from all of the black goo there came the horrible smell.

The rather plump government men came up behind and gathered while Slim walked around amidst the smell and the blackness dipping his finger into this pile of goo or that pile of goo and raising it to his nose as if expecting that he might find one pile of smelly black goo that was not as offensive as all the piles of smelly black goo appeared to be.

“What happened?”

All of the rather plump government men started to speak at the same time but Stick raised his hand and told Slim of the discovery.

“It was fine just last week when they opened up this new cavern for production but when the first team came to harvest they discovered that some of the mushrooms had turned into smelly black goo. They called me and by the time I got here the whole cavern was like this. We have a team of brick layers ready to seal it up but I thought that you should come and have a look first.”

Slim stood looking at the terrible sight of beautiful golden mushrooms turned into smelly black goo and wondered what could be the reason for it. Then he started to think about what it might mean if this happened to other caverns. Then he started to feel that feeling you feel when you think you are going to die and you think that all of your children are going to die and that all of your family and friends are going to die. Fear. It rose within him and was so overpowering that it made him want to run and hide from the sight of beautiful golden mushrooms turned into smelly black goo.

“Seal it. NOW!”

He turned and led them out of the cavern and looked around for the brick layers. He spotted them sitting in a corner smoking dried mushroom skins and he rushed to them waving his arms and screaming “get to work! Get to work! Seal that cavern! Go. NOW!”

The men sprang to their feet and ran past him cowering from his fear and his rage. They rushed to the task and in a blink they had laid the course-work and started on the first line of bricks.

Stick and the rather plump government men stood nearby while Slim stood over the brick layers egging them on with “faster, faster. FASTER!”

Suddenly Slim froze. He straightened. He turned and started walking away from the mouth of the cavern of smelly black goo. He walked amongst the golden groves of mushrooms in the cavern they were in bending and looking and examining and sniffing until suddenly he fell to his knees with a long wail.


Stick and the rather plump government men rushed to where he knelt. There on the ground before him was a little pile of smelly black goo.

Slim stood. He was shaking. He turned and walked past Stick and the rather plump government men and returned to the brick layers. They stopped working and gathered around him while he pointed to the entrance to the cavern they were in and gave instructions. The brick layers gathered their tools and went to the trolleys of bricks and started to push them towards the entrance. Slim followed them and Stick and the rather plump government men followed him.

Very soon the bricklayers were hard at work laying bricks and Slim was wandering amongst the golden mushrooms again. He spent a long time checking every mushroom in the cavern and when he seemed satisfied there was no smelly black goo he went and sat near the brick layers. Stick and the rather plump government men came and sat with him. The rather plump government men talked amongst themselves of the problems of government which were all about foreign loans and exchange rates and illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries. Stick sat silently by Slim and they both watched the brick layers.



Slim stared off into the distance his mind full of the sorts of thoughts you have when you have recently thought about things that filled you with fear. His mind was no longer racing but rather it was numb and the occasional thoughts that would knock on the door of his mind would get no answer and thinking that there was nobody home would go their own way. Every once in a while he would come back to earth for long enough to glance at the brick layers before drifting off again into that state that we experience after we have been subject to “flight or fight” taking over our bodies.

It was while he was drifting in and out of this state of tired numbness that he noticed the eyes. He was staring unseeing off into the darkness in a corner of the cavern when he realised that something was staring back at him. Two bright golden stars were there in the darkness and they were staring unblinking into his. As his attention focused on the eyes he could see that they were in a small black face and that the small black face was hanging beneath the black body of a bat. He saw all this without once breaking the intense stare that he and the bat were sharing. As he looked deeper into those stars of golden brightness everything else around him seemed to fall away and melt into nothing until suddenly he realised that he was no longer in the caverns. He tried to look around but he could not break his stare not even to blink. Though the eyes held him he could see enough to realise where he was. All around him stretched the land that had been known as the land of the skinny people but was now known as the land of the plump people. As his awareness opened out he realised that all about him were the people of his land. He could hear them and he could even smell them. Though they seemed far away he could sense them all and every one as if they were sitting with him in a quiet room. But they were not quiet. They were all shouting and many of them were screaming. They were shouting and arguing with each other and as he understood that things were not well in the land he realised that there was also fighting. All about him were people in turmoil and as he listened he could hear what they were yelling and screaming.


 Called a chorus of voices.


Cried another group.

Slim realised he was shaking. It did not feel like fear but it was annoying. The eyes held him with their intensity and brightness while all around him people were fighting and raging and screaming. He could see that there were groups of people waving big signs with words on them that were the same words that they were shouting. He suddenly realised that they were all fighting and arguing about mushrooms. There were no longer enough mushrooms to go around and one group of people was calling for the other group of people to tighten their belts while the other group of people was calling on the first group to tighten theirs and share what they had with the rest. The first group of people were rather plump and Slim could sense that amongst them were the government men and the soldiers and other groups of people who were part of the grand industry of mushrooms while the second group were not quite so plump but were a much bigger group of people. He recognised his family – his little sister grown up and hugging a child to her breast and two others to her legs – his father leaning on a cane and his mother holding an empty rice bowl. Thousands of people. Millions of people. And they were all calling for more mushrooms while the government men and the soldiers were calling for control and for everyone to tighten their belts. The noise of them rose like a storm all around him.

Slim was shaking violently now. The eyes were holding him and the noise of the people was engulfing him and all the while he was shaking. He felt himself asking the eyes “why” but the eyes just shone brightly and devoured him with their intensity until with the noise and the shaking and the piercing of his soul Slim cried into the night.


“Slim! Wake up! Slim”

“What? Huh?”

“Slim wake up. The rain has stopped. We can go now.” It was Stick and he was shaking Slim by the shoulder.

Slim came awake. The dawn light was sneaking through the bushes at the mouth of the cave and falling on his face. He looked around for the eyes but he knew that they were gone. It had been an incredible dream. He pulled his skinny body from where he had fallen asleep and stood.

He moved towards the mouth of the cave.


“Yes Stick?”

“What’s that smell?”

i was inspired to add a space bat after reading John Michael Greer

(if you liked this story you might also like The Model)