Essays in Idleness


That’s funny

My title this morning comes from Sir Alexander Fleming, and is one of several of that gentleman’s sayings which appeal to me. It might be taken as the Scots equivalent to, “Eureka!” It was what he uttered the morning he noticed that some fungus had killed off one of the staphylococci colonies he had left on a bench in his notoriously messy lab, when he went on holiday. (The others were unharmed.) Within the month he had isolated the “mould juice” that is known to us today as Penicillin.

As he recalled much later, “I wasn’t planning to revolutionize medicine that morning.” But so it goes.

That discovery was made in September, 1928. It would have been useful in the Great War, when Fleming served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and battled the idiots (field surgeons) over their counter-productive treatments for sepsis, but ah well.

As luck wouldn’t have it, Fleming had unknowingly repeated the work of a certain Ernest Duchesne, whose brilliant thesis long before the War had been ignored by the Pasteur Institute in Paris, because he was young and a nobody. Some millions of deaths might have been averted, but there ye go.

We live in a culture of “research” and “planning.” I’m not against honest research (which is rare), but mortally opposed to “planning.” The best it can ever achieve is defeat, when its ham-fist efforts fail to prevent some beauty, truth, or good from emerging. Countless billions, yanked from the taxpayers’ pockets, and collected through highly professional, tear-jerking campaigns, are spent “trying to find a cure” for this or that. When and if it comes, it is invariably the product of some nerd somewhere, with a messy lab.

Should it be noticed at all, more billions will be spent appropriating the credit to obtain rentier status, or more likely, suppressing it for giving “false hope.” The regulators will be called in, as the police are to a crime scene.

For from the “planning” point of view, the little nerd has endangered billions of dollars in funding, and thus the livelihoods of innumerable bureaucratic drudges. That is, after all, why they retain the China Wall of lawyers: to prevent unplanned events from happening. But glory glory, sometimes they happen anyway.

We could go through my mental file of similar stories from the scientific trenches, then wander more generally afield through the corridors of modern “education.” But not inside my daily word allotment.

I think of Benson Snyder, the psychiatrist once in charge of hand-holding (“human relations”) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About the time I was coming of age he wrote a saucy tome, entitled, The Hidden Curriculum (1970). It told what it takes to get ahead in places like MIT: the kind of institutional gamesmanship which, far from encouraging learning, drives the genuinely talented away, and makes the world safe for the credentialled.

I think of beloved old J. M. Cameron, who took me up as friend, mentoree, and “unregistered student” at Saint Michael’s College, back in those days. I once asked him directly, after he had been driven out by mandatory retirement, if there was anything all his best students had in common. He answered directly, “They were all self-taught.” In subsequent conversation I received a few mould-juicy anecdotes about how unwelcome they were in the universities, and how quickly most dropped out.

I think the reason our universities were so easily captured by the Leftist filth, was that they had already become institutes of planning; as opposed to education, which is risky and hard and in the fullest Platonic sense, personal.

My privilege

Among the signs of our time is a poster mounted by a local “educational” institution. (One must use this term very loosely, these days.) The headline reads: “Check Your Privilege,” and in case you don’t know what the long word means, a definition is offered:

“Privilege: Unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”

Naturally, one then wonders what the author means by “unearned,” “access,” “social,” “power,” “membership,” “dominant,” and “group.” But that’s only a beginning.

The graphic design is professional, slick, expensive. Underneath this frankly Orwellian statement, we have a “black list” (quite literally, white type reversed from a black rectangle) resembling a Canadian election ballot. There are nine entries, which the viewer is invited to mentally check off:

[  ]  Able-bodied physically and mentally
[  ]  Access to education
[  ]  Christian
[  ]  Cisgender
[  ]  Heterosexual
[  ]  Male
[  ]  Native English speaker
[  ]  Canadian citizen (at birth)
[  ]  White

The list pleased me greatly. I scored nine out of nine!

And here I’d thought I was just some impoverished old git, or rubby-dubby, drummed out of his hack-writing livelihood for sporting “politically incorrect” views, then pestered by leftwing cyberskunks trying to shut me out of the Internet, too.

I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to learn that I am superior to these people in every possible way.

Of waminals in themselves

It is instructive, sometimes, rather than tell people what they mean by a word, to ask them. A good example was from my younger son, whom I took on walks, when he was little. (Now he is turning thirty!) His term was waminals. A good father would correct this to “animals,” but I was a bad father. I decided that I preferred waminals, and to this day I retain the prejudice. Animals to you, gentle reader, are waminals to me. The point isn’t really arguable. Animals are; and waminals are just like them except, different.

I assumed, at first, that my boy meant wanimals as opposed to vejtabuls — the animal kingdom of beasts large and small, as opposed to the vegetable kingdom of fwowers, pertatoes, twees, and the like. But then I asked. He meant everything that has legs and walks. Thus to my lad (who is Down syndrome, incidentally), a bider (“spider”) was a waminal, but a fish was not — nor a worm, nor a snake, nor a bird except when landed.

An amphibian, such as a frog (we shared a phoneme for this) was a waminal when out of water but a fish when in. The same for crocodiles. A bird was a waminal, but not in flight. Then it became a burd. Bipedes, such as humans or cats (when batting at things dangled from strings), were as acceptable as quadrupedes. (I’m told the plural is “quadrupedi,” but I don’t care.) Ditto, hexapedes, at least in principle. Of octopedes, he began to express doubts, but only once I told him that, unlike biders, the average octopus likes to stay under water. (We’d seen biders that knew how to walk on it.) Of centipedes, he did not want to know.

He had no concept of evolution by the age of six, and I was careful not to give him one. Instead, he freely accepted metamorphosis. This was especially obvious in the case of ducks, which may mutate from animal, to bird, to fish, at will, and within a few seconds.

I asked him about angels. This he considered to be a new category. “Angles are angles, dad,” he explained, with a theological confidence that left me in awe. And this, just as a fwower is a fwower is a fwower. Some things don’t change, the way my boy could, into a fish. (He won many swimming medals.)

More generally, in the child’s ontological reasoning, a thing is what it is, so that even a duck remains a duck through innumerable transformations. Thus, categories aren’t so important. What kind of duck might be, however, because that is about the duck.

The concept of what is and isn’t an insect had no importance to him at all. And this because he had no concept of “bugs” as a nominal category, only of bugs as an action, a verb. Indeed, as a bloody nuisance. But one should be wary of Wolf Biders, in themselves. It is true, they can both amble and jump (and so might be classed with kangaroos), but the significant point was, they might bite you. Moreover, if they were very large, they might chase you down, then finish eating you entirely. (Here I must admit that I had given him some wrong information about the maximum size of wolf spiders, in the course of a tallish tale.)

Of course animals are scary, or potentially scary, but that is part of the attraction: they are real. The idea of being captured by a Giant Grackle made smaller grackles the more fascinating. Whose babies would they fly away with? He had thought this through, but in a way not quite intelligible to me, because his category for “babies” did not, for instance, include eggs. When I told him there is a baby inside each egg, he took it for a revelation.

“How does the baby get inside?”

It was a good question. I couldn’t answer it. I might have said something stupidly reductive and false, such as, “the mommy makes it.” But my son would have seen right through that. It was eggs, not eggshells, he was asking about.

The outer shell is just so much calcium carbonate, formed to an incredibly high standard of engineering, with countless thousands of precisely gauged pores; the exterior, when decorated, with sublime art. But that’s the easy part. The hard question begins at the cuticle underneath, and grows until it becomes unimaginable. It is about the baby inside. How did it get there?

(By a miracle, of course!)

And there are so many questions, that a child has asked. As we grow older, we forget what they were.

Of joyful aloneness

There is no hydrophonic array, up here in the High Doganate, nor have I access to any elsewhere. The kitchen sink sometimes gurgles in an interesting way, but I find no fish in it, nor other signs of life above the microscopic scale. At least, no living fish, for I have overlooked several that were defunct. I think particularly of a tilapia which I dismembered recently. (Perhaps “filleted” is the nicer term.) It sang no songs, made no comments. It started from frozen; it never had a chance. But ah, to be an oceanographer!

I have never had a whale to tea, nor a porpoise, nor any other of that clade. Exigencies of space and altitude are such, that I have neither had the pleasure of those very low-frequency sounds when an ice berg scrapes along an ocean floor; nor the distant “bloops” of underwater ice-quakes; nor the mysterious “upsweeps” of presumed seismicity. I have heard not even one submarine vulcanogenic whistle, up here. Just the gurgle as the dishwater drains.

Hippiesque friends would sometimes import the whale sounds on audio tracks, into their home entertainment centres. Or sometimes, other undersea noises. These were typically “save the whales” types, which is to say, environmental tourists. Even killer whales tend to be shy, when they are not being psychopathically aggressive: either way one should leave them alone. When a marina customer gets attacked by one, I think we should rescue him. We must show some loyalty to our own species. Still, I can see both sides.

I loved travelling, and travellers, in my prime; yet always hated tourists. The person who will immerse himself in the foreign culture, sketch, and try to speak a little of its language, always seemed admirable to me. The true Western visitor is an amateur of anthropology — an “Orientalist” in the smear of the last generation of leftist smuglies. But tourists are mere pleasure seekers. They act only as ambassadors of our post-Christian consumerism. Let me extend this analogy to the voyagers on seas.

Very well, I am being unreasonable. I often am.

The first thing one should seek is discomfort. It is the reliable path to a little understanding. Love is, I hold, the great teacher; but pain is the great teaching assistant.

Among the more intriguing icons of pop science audio is a whale that no one has ever seen. It is known as the “52-hertz,” for it sings above the pitch of any other whale. No one knows what species, either: for it has, as it were, the coloratura of a blue, but the timing of a fin whale. It has been tracked for decades across the North Pacific, and moves just as a whale, and entirely unlike an extraterrestrial object. It may travel a few hundred miles in one season, several thousand in another to Alaska then south, but can’t do bilocation. No one can know how (being a whale) it can hit those exhilarating notes, in the lower range of a tuba.

Were it seeking a mate, it has yet to find one. Perhaps it is deaf, as some deaf mutes suggest. It has been called the “loneliest whale in the world,” but I see no reason to credit this. I am not saying that a whale can’t be subjective, or might even be able to feel sorry for himself — which would not be a sin, in a whale. But loneliness is such a human presumption.

With equal authority let me aver that God endowed this “freak” whale with this wonderful voice, so that God could hear it from on high. And from the deep, it replies in joy.

I’ll be a Welshman

“If all our medicines were thrown into the sea, it would be better for us, and worse for all the fishes.”

The motto, I believe, is from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior, not to be confused with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior. That is to say, the doctor and author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, and not the jurisprude. My mama, who was the daughter of Oliver Wilbur Holmes (and the illustrious Annie Graham!) liked to quote it. Now, she was a nurse, indeed a ward matron, and knew whereof she spoke. Avoid medication, she advised, and moreover:

“Never put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.”

She had other bonmots, but they were more eccentric. The general purport was, leave well enough alone, and be patient in waiting for the heat death of the universe.

Another word for this is, “conservative.” As I have pointed out myself, the more one knows about a subject, the more conservative one becomes towards it. Conversely, the less one knows, the more liberal he becomes, and inclined to embrace “progress” and “reforms.” Even a Communist may prove a very conservative stamp collector, once he learns something about philately. It’s only economics he knows nothing about.

This is a universal principle. Everyone knows something about something, and is very backward on that which he knows. The one exception may be journalists, who know nothing about anything, and are therefore liberal all round.

Now, what has this to do with Welshmen? Very little, I suspect. But it is Saint David’s Day (a.k.a. St Taffy’s) though the fact isn’t mentioned in my Saint Andrew’s Missal. And here I am in your presence again, after an unwanted holiday, during which I passed through the various rings of cybernetic hell. I promised to be back by the first of March, and here I am with dragons: Bwahaha!

I will take the Dydd Gŵyl Dewi for a name day, though truth to tell, I was not named for a Cymri, but for King David of Alba, in the 800th year of his decease. (I would mention the Psalmist, but have no dates.) Everyone should have a name day, which is why it is so important to name your children after Christian saints, not stars of stage and screen. Too, one should try to spell them properly, in at least one language.

And everyone should be allowed some self-indulgence on his name day.

Truth to tell: I’m a little dazed after my recent experience of this world in which, “everything is changing.” Hence the incoherence of my philosophy today (with apologies to Al-Ghazali). But my main point stands, and pray for all the fishes.