What is it, I wonder, that makes hair migrate southwards with age? Is it because ageing nares can’t look after themselves and need extra protection that some old folk appear to have a rodent nestling up their snout? As far as I am aware science has yet to come up with an answer, though boffins have got their slide rules and calculators out to work out what actually does go on up there. One experimental report reads: “Measurements have been made of the anterior nasal passage and nasal hair of an adult caucasian subject, and calculations have been carried out using fibrous filter theory to determine the deposition efficiency for unit density spherical particles of diameter ranging from 1 nm-40 µm at three steady inspiratory flow rates. For particles > 5 µm, inertial and interception deposition on the nasal hairs was predicted to account for a measurable fraction of the experimentally measured nasal deposition, becoming significant for particles > 20 µm. Diffusion of ultrafine particles to the nasal hair was predicted to be appreciable for particles < 5 nm.” Well, they do say that you learn something every day.

dsc01189.jpg what’s that creature lurking in the undergrowth?
Whatever the explanation for their growth, nasal hairs are often made the butt of ageist jokes, as when the 5 year old wrote “When I go to heaven, I want to see my grandpa again. But he better have lost the nose hair and the old-man smell”. One woman who was hired as an administrative assistant won substantial damages form her employer after her boss had asked her to trim his nasal hairs for him. She pointed out, quite rightly, that such depilatory activities were not part of her job description. Naturally, the modern man cannot allow these follicular excrescences to flourish and the ‘Male Grooming Guide’ by one Shane Corstorphine has some excellent advice to get you started: ‘First things first, trimming unwanted nasal hair will not make them grow back thicker and faster. So relax and feel free to trim any nose hair that you are conscious of.’ (my emphasis) Could anything be more relaxing than feeling free to trim one’s unwanted nasal hairs? How, I wondered, did our world religions tackle this prickly question of hairs in the nose? The Buddhist code of behaviour for monks is quite specific on the matter:”Nasal hairs should not be grown long. (In the origin story to this rule, people objected to bhikkhus with long nasal hairs “like goblins”). Tweezers are allowed for pulling them out; by extension, scissors should also be allowed for trimming them. The Vinaya Mukha notes that nasal hair performs a useful function in keeping dust out of the lungs, and so interprets this rule as applying only to nasal hairs so long that they grow outside the nostrils.” So let any of the offending strands protrude and if you’re not careful you’ll be coming back in your next life as a chihuahua. Islam, showing the tolerance for which it is noted, is much less prescriptive: ‘Muslim law (Sharia) puts hair in three categories: that which it is recommended to remove (pubic and armpit hair), that which it is recommended to keep (the beard), and that which is not the object of any recommendation (foot, hand, back, nasal and chest hair).’ And where does Christianity stand on this? The Bible is deafeningly silent on the question, the only references to noses being in terms of putting rings or cords through them. Unless the Pope has issued an encyclical on the subject without my knowing, I would say that this is a serious failing of the church. Finally, does anyone know what a Bonto is? The Bonto is a new formal type of poetry devised by Edward de Bono for use on the net. There are, he says four lines in each poem.
“Rhyming is aa bb.
Syllables: as yet undecided (5, 6 or 7)

* First line: sets out some extraordinary behaviour. The more bizarre the better.
* Second line: gives the explanation for the bizarre behaviour.
* Third line: gives the result or outcome of the behaviour.
* Fourth line: provides some “philosophical” reflection on life in general but arising from the situation.”
For some reason, nasal hairs feature prominently in this new literary form:

I pulled my nasal hairs
To move myself to tears
Effort lachrymatory
Woe’s unsatisfactory
©Steve Smith & Edward de Bono Creative Team 1997

I plucked my nasal hairs
To beautify my nares
A tear wells in my eye
It’s sad to say goodbye
©Steve Smith & Edward de Bono Creative Team 1997

Wonderful thing, creative writing.


I was wondering the other day why people sing in the shower and whether more people sing there than in the bath. (Well, now Richard Dawkins has disposed of God and it looks as if the US friendly Iraqis will dispose of Saddam Hussein, what is there left to think about?) My own experience suggests it is the shower that wins- I admit to singing frequently in the shower but never in the bath. Reading in the bath, yes (which is something it is more difficult to do in a shower), daydreaming and drinking a glass of Chardonnay, plenty, listening to Wagner, too, but never singing. A search in Google seems to confirm my theory that more people enliven their shower with vocal renditions- 215,000 results as opposed to 11,300 for singing in the bath.
It appears, however, that singing in the bath has a respectable history, going back at least to Ibn Khaldûn, the philosopher, historian and politician, who was born in Tunis in 1332. In his major work, the Muqaddimah, he writes:
“Joy and gladness are due to expansion and diffusion of the animal spirit. Sadness is due to the opposite, namely, contraction and concentration of the animal spirit. It has been shown that heat expands and rarefies air and vapours and increases their quantity. A drunken person experiences inexpressible joy and gladness, because the vapour of the spirit in his heart is pervaded by natural heat, which the power of the wine generates in his spirit. The spirit, as a result, expands, and there is joy. Likewise, when those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.”

ibn_khuldun.gif Ibn Khaldûn

In my view, this is wiser than most of the Koran and it’s a shame that the North African sage is not followed more closely by Muslims today. Nice to think that while the peasants in England were revolting and the Popes of Rome and Avignon were locked in a bitter power struggle, Ibn Khaldûn, as well as being Prime Minister for Hafsid sultan of Bougie, was able to devote his time to daydreaming in the bath.
His explanation is certainly more appealing than the modern “scientific” one that the acoustics of a shower adds reverb and bass boost so that my out of tune warblings will sound like Pavarotti. I don’t think the people (sorry, person) in the shower cares what they sound like*. Others have speculated that it is about being naked with water running over our bodies, the result of some kind of chemical reaction that takes place when were are exposed to steamy water or simply that we have nothing else to do. I know that if I have an awkward letter to write or a decision to make there’s nothing like a shower to focus the mind. All of which leads me to have some sympathy for Australians after EnergyAustralia has started discouraging people from exercising the vocal cords in the bathroom. Apparently “non-essential activities” in the shower are adding 9.08 minutes to a normal scrub, and this is contributing to global warming, EnergyAustralia says. At the very least, they say, if you have to sing you should sing short songs, no complete acts from La Traviata, for example. When it comes to songs that last a long time the Lisu people must hold the world record. I asked the other day how long a song I was recording normally lasted and was told ‘one week, day and night’ (with alternating singers, though). Just as well there are no showers in Lisu villages. Not that I go along with EnergyAustralia, though. For a start how is itthat in China, one of the worst contributors to global warming, there is no tradition of singing in the shower and baths are practically unheard of? I believe that if world leaders spent a little more time soaking in their baths they might be better disposed towards one another as well as finding a solution to the problems of climate change.

showerradioset_1.jpg technology for the unrepentant ablutionary vocalist

* I might be wrong on this. One blogger has written: “When you go home and sing ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in the shower, you can elevate your own personal life to an art form. This can be very affirming.” And empowering, no doubt as well.

That’s it, I’ve had it with this coup. At first all was sweetness and light, now we get the iron fist underneath the velvet glove. Today the entrance to the houses was blocked by a whole posse of thuggish police, no doubt acting on orders straight from the top Generals. To get into our housing area you have two alternatives. One is to drive up the adjoining four lane highway for another half mile, do a U-turn then drive back another half mile. The muggins way. The other option is to cross the highway about 200 yards before our entrance and drive the wrong way up the highway for that short distance (yonson as they say in Thai). Since time immemorial (well, for the six years since the houses were built) the honest citizens (myself included) have made the sensible choice. Traffic barrelling down the highway know full well to expect this (or if they don’t to start with they soon find out). But today we have this bunch of fascist thugs hiding behind the hedge and nabbing everyone who chose to exercise their traditional right to flout traffic laws. Does ‘Thailand’ not mean ‘land of the free’? What has happened to our freedom, I ask? And, more importantly, where will this stop? Petty traffic violations today, microchips, finger printing before you can get in a karaoke bar and ethnic profiling tomorrow. Makes me feel like flying straight back to the UK …. well, maybe not straight away. On reflection, maybe not at all. With any luck, the cops will have gone by tomorrow.

Portrait of a cat

October 27, 2006

Is it possible to give a portrait of one’s pets without descending into anthropomorphism? Probably not, as the meaning we give to their actions relates to our own scheme of things. But since I grumble at wildlife programmes that are constantly referring to animals as being jealous, grumpy, happy, sad and so on, I’ll have to give it a go. All our cats have different personalities (or ‘felinalities’) and I’ll try and describe Miou’s without giving the impression that I can read her thoughts and feelings.
Miou owes her name to the call she makes before being let out of the house. We should probably have called her Diana as she is an expert huntress and often arrives at the house with birds, mice, shrews, lizards and once a baby squirrel. She’s also a considerable athlete, a fast runner and skilled climber of trees. She was the first to arrive, just before the death of our dog three years ago. There were several cats around our lane then and he used to chase all of them away, except Miou. She would just sit there looking at him, refusing to be frightened. He would bark once or twice, then make a few coughing sounds before giving up and just sitting staring at her. Soon they started to play together even slept curled up next to each other. On one occasion she arrived with a bird she had killed which she placed in front of him. Carrefour didn’t play with it. The following day she arrived with two dead birds one of which she placed in front of him and the other she kept for herself. Carrefour just watched her play with it. Like many female cats I have observed, she paws her prey, pushes it away, then jumps over it showing an impressive vertical take-off ability. When Carrefour died, Miou disappeared for two weeks and returned skinny and ill. Since then she has been a fixture although, unlike the other cats she tends to spend most of her time outside at night. That’s when she isn’t waking us up by jumping up at the bedroom window to be let in or miaoing at the bedroom door to be let out. Both day and night she tends to be in and out of the house all the time; when she isn’t fast asleep she is always on the move, climbing, or stalking birds. She is difficult to treat when she is ill as she resists any sort of medicine and scratches fiercely, once taking a sizeable lump of flesh out of our vet’s hand. She plays a lot with our male cat and they spend about half an hour a day licking each other. She is the only one who has learned how to open cupboard doors and when she isn’t sleeping in one, she will settle down on top of the TV or the car or under the basket we have to cover food. She supplements her diet of wildlife with any food that happens to be going as long as it is fresh and hasn’t been in the plate for more than a minute. She shows no signs of affection for humans, never allows herself to be stroked or comes and sits near you. If picked up, though, she does lie still for a few moments before struggling to get free. She has several times been injured by passing male cats, more so than our other females. That about sums her up as far as I can judge. Not being a cat psychologist, I hesitate to interpret further.


watch out, there’s a cat underneath

polymer creep

October 25, 2006

Read on another blog (can’t rememer which):
“I rarely get involved in discussions about the existence of God. Since I’m a Christian, I’ve obviously had that question answered to my satisfaction or I wouldn’t be pondering the Resurrection, and dealing with arguments about whether there really is a God is like being sent back to first year chemistry class after getting an advanced degree in the practical application of polymers.”

This reminds me of a student I once taught who was vainly attempting to complete a degree in English language. He turned in a paper which, amongst other things, was filled with elementary grammatical mistakes. When I told him that these were in part repsonsible for his low grade, he said “you can’t take points off for those, they’re first form mistakes’. It is possible to construct the most elaborate arguments and theories on the basis of flimsy premises. Cathedrals and sinking sands is an image that comes to mind. Polymer creep is another. Polymer creep is, apparently, progressive deformation under sustained load and is something, I understand, that polymers are subject to. It occurs to me that a lot of belief systems constitute a ‘sustained load’ which can often lead to deformation of simple thought processes. Me, I’m a strictly monomer guy.

I believe in my left foot

October 22, 2006

Strange article in the London Review of Books by one Terry Eagleton lambasting Richard Dawkins.

Starts like this:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.”
I like the ‘in one sense’; in another sense, to my mind the more sensible sense, they are the best-equipped to understand what theology is about since they have not surrendered their reasoning powers to a blind faith in God.
Eagleton, who is obviously a very clever fellow, develops his argument further:
“What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?”
Apparently unless you have you are not qualified to address the issues raised by theology. Measured by this yardstick I am hardly qualified to open my mouth on anything as I have read neither Mr Dawkins nor Harry Potter and the last time I read Aquinas I was only just out of short trousers.
Mr. Eagleton then turns to the reason-faith question.
“Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. ….Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain…. While faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.”
Sure, we all believe things we can’t prove for ourselves. I believe that the North Pole exists though I’ve never been there and that I’m in some ways intellectually superior to my cats. I even (against all the odds) believe in true, reciprocated love. But I’m pretty sure that either someone else can come up with good evidence for these things or that they fit the facts as I’m aware of them. So far any omnipotent omni-benevolent beings out there have been noticeably slow to make any signs in my direction.
It’s on this point that the very brainy Mr Eagleton really loses me, when he demonstrates the reasonableness of believing in God.

“Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”

I hope one day that someone will explain all this to me. In the meantime I will continue to exercise my mind on matters of more consequence like why my bike makes a funny scrunch scrunch scrunch noise every time I change gear.

self-belief restored-just

October 20, 2006

Recently, when observing my cats, I have doubted my own ‘fitness for purpose’. When I see how their feline skills outwit me at every turn, I wonder if I really am smarter than them. On occasions I have even called into question the sacred superiority of the human race. The cats spend the day sleeping on the most comfortable surface available or playing whenever the whim takes them. They come and go as they please; during the day I spend a large part of my time opening the door for them; at night they launch themselves at the bedroom window when they want to come in and disturb my sleep with their miaoing when they want to go out. They eat whenever they feel like it and whatever they like best. One will eat mackerel but not tuna, another the reverse; three of them will eat the local barbecued fish but only from one stall, where they stuff it expertly with herbs, coat it with salt and grill it to perfection. None of them will eat anything that has been in their bowl for more than three minutes. Periodically I call them all together and give them a stern headmasterly talking to, reminding them that only a short while ago they were scavenging for whatever they could find in the neighbours’ dustbins. I throw in a few tales of my own childhood hardships and privations, eating powdered mashed potatoes, not seeing a banana until I was seven etc. They listen politely but continue to sit stubbornly until their favourite food appears. Now there turns out to be one item that they all unite in relishing: gorgonzola cheese. I have to point out that this is not the sort of place where cheese can be had on every street corner. The few sources of cheese in town are surrounded by a thousand kilometres of cheese desert. Plus gorgonzola is one of  the most expensive. But as soon as I settle down with a piece they appear from nowhere, noses twitching, after which they locate the cheese, sniff it hungrily and lick my fingers until they are given a proper taste. Thank goodness none of them has yet sipped my 1996 Gigondas. While the cats are enjoying this life of unbridled leisure and luxury  I have bills to pay, jobs to do, people to avoid, emails to reply to; I eat when I can and have to plan where and when I am going out- because of the cats. Today, however, I realised that I am after all smarter than they are. They haven’t yet figured out that some doors open inwards.