Free will, as found in champagne drinkers and robots


(Drawing: Hallway, by Marcie Christa Shawn)

Have you ever wondered how the freedom of choice that humans experience could be programmed into a robot?  In my sci-fi book This Moonless Sky, the species who call themselves the Communicators (a translation of their own word ‘Stcho’s!s!s!,,a’sh!sh!’) had to do this to outfit themselves for space travel.  Travelling through space in biological form is completely impractical – the only realistic kind of interstellar space travel is all-machine.  After much experimentation, they managed to program their entire personalities into machine form.

In this scene, though, we see one of them, Yith, now aged around 70 million Earth years, in a younger, human form.  He and the other members of his crew had transported the narrator, Marrik, in cryogenically frozen form from Earth to a new planet.  For a few months at the beginning and end of the journey, Marrik was in his normal human form, and he and Yith took a liking to each other.  While Marrik was frozen for the 400,000 Earth years needed to travel the 40 light-years between planets (you can calculate this on a napkin yourself), Yith completely cryo-mapped the neural patterns in his brain and also used some of his genetic material, with modifications, to make a human body for himself.  He could see from Marrik’s brain contents exactly what Marrik’s perfect partner would look like – a young man a year or two younger than Marrik’s 17 years.  After about 7 years of accelerated production of a suitable body (growing and maturing it at about twice the usual rate), he transplanted a copy of as much of his personality as possible into its neural nets and – after at first being rejected, basically for being too perfect – succeeded in becoming Marrik’s boyfriend.

In this scene they are in a region of the new planet that has a transplanted African culture (there called tsKorabaatse or Fuolbah, here on Earth known as Fulani), talking to the local traditional chief, the modibbei.  He’s wishing them off on the next leg of their journey, and by chance in their conversation, the topic of free will and robotics comes up.

(Glossary:  the slang English neutral ‘they’ indicating a single person, either male or female, is replaced by the local English ‘sey.’)

***  *** ***

“To wish you good luck in the Qodra,” the moddibei said, “my only bottle of sQodravtse sparkling white wine – champagne from the mysteries beyond our borders.  To the success of your trip, toasted in this elixir.”

We each got a proper flute of it.  Apparently there was quite a royal glassware collection tucked away someplace.  The gentle snap of the fizz threw faint alfalfa honey up at my lips even before they met this loving wallop of one flavour after another, green grape to sugar-apple to something that almost wanted to become a blackcurrant but hovered on the edge and changed back to gooseberry.

“I love watching your eyes when you’re having something you really like,” Yith said.  “It’s like a movie.  First sip, five scenes, different drama in each one, all done in one loooong take, and cut!  Set up for second sip!”

“This is gonna be one of my favourite films ever,” I said.  “You should watch some of yours.”

“I will, don’t worry.  But watching you is more fun.”

“Yes, but now I’m all self-conscious; the movie won’t be the same!  I’m in a Dauw-Lewrou room now.”

“Ah so,” the moddibei broke in, “you claim to be naïve (I had indeed told him I was still green in sDiyyanantse [local part of the planet] culture) and yet you speak with knowledge about my predecessor and his room.”

He had a point.  Even apart from schoolwork, I was soaking up the culture of my new land at a rapid pace.  I guess anyone would.  I probably don’t even sound like myself any more when I speak English.  That planet is gone, baby.  The Dauw-Lewrou Room is a simple philosophical thought experiment that was suggested by one of the first moddibeis of Korabaas, who took the made-up name Dauw Lewrou.  The name means ‘on the moon’ in tsKorabaatse.   He knew perfectly well that he wasn’t on the moon, so I think he intended the name as a pioneering post-ironic jest.

… The room’s main feature was that it had nothing in it whatsoever, just a hallway entering in the middle of one end, and an identical hallway leaving from the middle of the other end.  In the rest of the room, everything to the left of the entrance hall’s opening portal was identical to everything on the right.  There was nothing to distinguish the two sides of the room.  The experimenter would then instruct a number of people to run into the room, run over and touch the side wall of their choice, and run out the exit hall.  When they got out, they could try to answer a question they weren’t prepared for – why they had chosen one wall versus the other?  Underlying this procedure was the question of whether at least some of the people doing this would make the choice of left vs. right entirely by a simple exertion of free will.

Medieval Earth people had contemplated a somewhat similar problem called Buridan’s Ass, apparently a satire of the philosophy of Jean Buridan from the University of Paris in the 1300s AD.  The donkey in question was supposed to be equally starved and thirsty, and placed midway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water.  It would not be able to decide which of the two equal temptations to turn its head to first, so it would die, in place, of thirst and starvation.

Dauw Lewrou’s room was considerably more complicated than this.  He thought it likely that a person would always be able to choose between left and right on seir first pass through the room.  Some people might have a prior policy of preferring left or right in such cases.  Others might be influenced by other prior circumstances, like being left-handed and preferring to pivot on their right foot.  And some might be influenced by momentary circumstance.  As the Book of Power recapped it: “For example, sey may happen to arrive in the room on a particular foot, and may use that foot to pivot toward the wall opposite it.  Or sey may arrive in the room with one shoe slippery or differentially worn, or with a dust mote in one eye, and may base seir departure from the middle on one of these tiny physical vagaries.”  Still, Dauw-Lewrou proposed that at least some people, if you tested enough, would arrive in the room without significant influence from any of these factors, and would have to make an arbitrary choice.  They would discover that they have a faculty capable of doing that.  Free will, you could call it, or the faculty of arbitration.

On the person’s second pass through the room, though, questions of self-reinforcement would come in.  In that situation, the runner remembers seir previous choice and has to decide to go with it or against it.  Let’s say, in the first pass, sey chose to go left.  Sey has now probably lost seir freedom to just choose right vs. left and has to meta-decide whether to go with ‘left like last time’ or ‘right unlike last time.’  The decision may then jump up to the next meta-level:  ‘should I have a constant policy about this and if I do, should it be for variety, consistency, or a feeling of randomness?’  And yet another level may come in: ‘do I need to think about all this?’  In zen terms, the person has lost seir pure ‘beginner’s mind’ and has become all complicated about the whole thing.  This tends to slow sem down and make sem awkward, perhaps even slightly annoyed.  If sey gets around the problem, let’s say, by making a meta-decision always to go left, seir freedom in the room has been given up completely from that point onward.  Can sey ever get seir pure free choice back?  It seems very difficult to do.  It may still be operating on one of the meta-levels, but you can’t see it in the room.  If you do statistics on people who are trying to make random choices – let’s say in picking numbers between one and ten –  you find out that they cannot succeed.  Mathematical randomness eludes them; they always have a bias.  But could a master philosopher or a mystic achieve this?  No one knows.

So here I was with Yith watching me, and having to decide how to react to my second sip of sQodravtse champagne.  Should I react like I react, however that would be, or should I react for him in some way, like exaggerating the variety of reactions per sip?  Should I try not to show a reaction?  My spontaneity was lost – the champagne movie was over.

Meanwhile Yith was grinning away.

“Yes, he knows all about your predecessor, moddibei,” he said.  “And Marrik, I can have just as much fun watching your Dauw-Lewrou movie.  You think too much.”

“He’s right about that last bit,” I said to the moddibei.  “I think Dauw-Lewrou built that blasted room just for me to get lost in.  Now I have no idea what to do when I take my next sip.  Poker face? Clown face?  Humphrey Bogart sucking it in with man-of-the-world wisdom?”

I sipped anyways and made a wince of pain and pleasure.

“I mostly just tasted my own thoughts, but the wine underneath them was great.”

“We won’t watch any more,” the moddibei chuckled.  “You can vacillate in peace.”

Yith gave me a big kiss on the cheek right there.  Even Saraa [the modibbei’s wife] reached around from two seats away and ruffled my hair.

You just never know where your charisma is going to lie.

Then Yith partook of his champagne flute and I watched him.  He didn’t look at me and took the liquid with the same alfalfa-honey sweetness that it must have greeted him with.  Despite his complicated age situation, there was also a trace of mischief in his eye as you might see in a teenager from Earth who unexpectedly finds himself sipping high-end champagne like a junior Rothschild.

“You don’t look as complicated as I feel,” I said to him.  “How do you stay simple?  Young body?  Communicator reasonableness?”

“Oh well,” he said. “We had to decide way back when about decision-regress.  You know, when you’re programming a machine to address opportunities and weigh advantages, you always need to deal with that stuff.  You get in a Dauw-Lewrou situation and you not only have to decide – you have to choose a moment to decide.  You may delay, you may ponder.  So you have to decide to decide.  Or again, maybe you think you should decide quickly.  You may have to decide to decide a certain way, like quickly, or decide to decide that, what the heck, it’s just a room, it’s not so important.  If speed isn’t important, what then makes you decide to decide at a given moment?  Clearly you simply have to decide to decide to decide.  So there you are at level three of decision regress.  And there’s nothing to stop you from going further up the stack of more levels of deciding to decide to decide to decide.  Well, your human brain has a built-in safety buffer about this, so you can only go to about seven levels of decision-regress.  The process uses a part of your brain much like the buffer that temporarily remembers phone numbers.  Just a few humans who have different brains lose the barrier – calculating geniuses who can do any arithmetic instantly but who have a hard time with decisions, and get stuck in fixed policies to arbitrate their arbitrat [I think he was referring to some kinds of autism].  For example, they may always have to have exactly the same schedule, and sleep with their toy in exactly one spot on the bed.  That’s because otherwise, their decision-regress is limitless. They also can’t handle the other big kind of decision-regress, deciding to let their self-fulfilling prophecy be engaged by another person’s self-fulfilling prophecy.  Your people say these special ones have difficulty with human interactions and they can’t understand emotions.  Actually, they can – they experience all the emotions themselves.  But you have to decide that another person’s emotion is valid and identifiable with your own, and that you should commit to it as a reality.  It’s a matter of faith.  Faith is the ultimate Dauw-Lewrou room of decision regress.  How do you decide to have faith in someone or something and at just what moment do you decide it?  Well, you see, we had to program ourselves as opportunitarian machines, so we had to solve all these self-reinforcement problems.”

I looked at the fuzzy-lipped, velvet youth who was giving me this exposition and restrained any appearance of doing a double-take.   Did the verbiage match the downy cheeks, the lightly wafting sandy-blond eyelashes, the slaty-green-blue irises that contemplated me with such obvious affection?  I guess I must know that he has all this stuff inside him, I thought.  Somehow, it doesn’t quite make him a stranger.  Something in there really likes engaging my arbitrat, that’s for sure.  I wonder if I can acquire further insight into it by deep kissing.  Topic for later.

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Our mechanical minds are very fast, but we still cut off our decision-regress at 677 levels.”

“So you decide to decide to decide to decide times 677?”

“Potentially. I mean, I’m human now, but I used to do that.”

“What made you guys decide on 677 levels?”

“It was an arbitrary decision made at the 676th level.”  Yith’s poker face wobbled into a smile.

Ach.  Communicator humour.  There’s really nothing like it.  Something somewhere in me had to giggle even though the joke was outrageously obscure.  At least, to a wad of meat like me.

“Can’t you just answer the question seriously?” I asked, with my smile broadening in spite of my objections.

Then he said something that I think may be quite profound.

“Marrik,” he said.  “There are some things that really can’t be taken seriously.”

*** **** ****

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Inspiression – Inspiration + Depression. Creative people, do you ever have it?


I have $800 in work-related travel costs that I should be writing a claim for instead of typing these words.  I’ve been putting off sending this expense claim in for weeks.  The charges were on my Visa bill, but I paid them with my own dwindling money supply – now I just need to get my money back.

For some reason, it’s like performing an auto-appendectomy.  Trying to fill in this little Excel sheet to claim these expenses arouses more avoidance than almost any prospect of torture.  If the British bastard from ISIL came along right now and offered to cut my head off for God, I’d probably say Allahu akbar and help him set up the cameras.  Any diversion will do.

This isn’t a new thing for me, and it’s not just about expenses.  The more dutiful and formulaic the action is, the more the kittycat inside my brain avoids it like a great big pill.  Applying for project money is another process that the kitty absolutely loathes, even though that sort of soft funding is the main source of lubrication for much of what I do these days.  Luckily, there are other people who can help work up those proposals – but expense claims must be done in eerie solitude.

I confess I once went from North America to Torino, Italy, as an invited speaker, and never got around to claiming my travel expenses.  The hotel room was prepaid, luckily, but the plane fare came out of my body and soul, my incomprehensible body and soul.

It’s always amusing to see how one’s self-help knowledge can do so little to assist one in these situations.  As someone with a long-pursued interest in psychology and philosophy, I’ve read many self-help books and could easily write one.  I understand bootstrapping and confidence so well that I could probably write the self-help book to end all self-help books, the ummah-al-self-help (that’s ‘mother of all self help’ for those who don’t procrastinate by learning to speak ISIL).  But there’s no literary kick, or even a comprehension kick, that can actually make the brain-cat take the brain pill.  It still says, gack, gack, gack, and spits it out.  It’s too primitive to be moved by knowledge.

When I was young, fear used to be a great motivator, but now I just look at dread and wave my tail.  A good part of my mind would rather starve than eat my medicine.

It makes no sense at all.

And yet, everything has to make sense somehow.  We wouldn’t do things if it weren’t for a reason.  So, out of all those self-help materials and studies and exhortations, I’ve drawn a sketch of what’s going on.

I call it ‘inspiression.’  That’s the fusion of ‘inspiration’ and ‘depression.’  My sudden insight is that creative people can be depressed, and yet not seem to be so, because they have sources of inspiration that are so strong that the hallelujah of creativity can cut through the depressive background.  People like me can be blazing comets of inspiration travelling through the void of the rest of their lives.  The rest of the cosmos can fall to primordial dust as long as the bright light moves forward.

I’m fine as long as I’m working on something that really inspires me.  I’ve written a science fiction trilogy – and a very optimistic one at that – and am half way through a non-fiction book on a topic that delights me.  I have scientific data that can be written up as papers I would be proud of, and I have no problem working on those things.  My problem is everything else, the attendant details, the slog of real life.  If I’m not right at the apex of making the world a better or more interesting place, I’m non-functional.

It’s as if your heart was great at pumping blood out, but your veins couldn’t be bothered to bring it back in.

Must one take drugs, these days, to treat ‘inspiression’?  Or is there a way to spontaneously recover and have a well-ordered, homeostatic life?  Do we need to have partners to nag us with common sense?  I have one who’s good for that, and I do it for him, too, even though I think we share different versions of this same mental health issue.  He’s virtually stopped working for pay and only has time for glorious, spectacular household renovations, funded largely by credit.  He’s an inspired man.

We need a new academic specialty in this world, a department of Inspiression Studies.  Maybe the right grad student projects could have saved Robin Williams and all the other illuminati – and here I mean the truly illuminated, not the conspiracy phantasms – who fell to suicide or drugs or alcohol or relationship tragedies, even though they could burn with enthusiasm and make us all laugh or cry.

I think this revelation should help those who experience inspiration to avoid fooling themselves about the reality of depression.  Although, again, to deal with that kind of embarrassing health issue is such a slog.  Kitty says no, no, no.

Testify, bloggers, if you have any experience of this.

In the meantime, I have an expense account to fill in.  God help me.  Allahu akbar.

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The Dog Denied Service – the Tragic Error of the City of Toronto


The city of Toronto, the place where my not-so-fat assets are currently seated, only has one major problem.  And it’s not the fact that our current mayor has smoked crack cocaine, acted like a Simpsons character in public, and peed in a parking lot after (allegedly) drinking and driving while being overshadowed by a police helicopter (whew!).

Our real problem is that we suffer from official mysticism about dogs.

We have a municipal bylaw that states that animals are not allowed in ‘food service areas.’  This has been interpreted to mean that your dog can’t accompany you into a restaurant, café, or bar.  Not even an outdoor restaurant patio that has sparrows and seagulls sitting on the unoccupied tables.  If a dog gets in, the owner of the facility faces a huge fine.  The reason for this exclusion is held to be hygienic.

Curiously, if your dog is accredited as a ‘service animal,’ it escapes being a hygienic problem.  It is allowed in any restaurant.  Since most ‘service animals’ are seeing-eye dogs, the bylaw in effect bans people from bringing any dog that is visible to them into a restaurant.  If you can’t see your dog, then it’s OK.

You have to love bureaucracy.

People are usually intimidated by health bureaucracies, and this bylaw is maintained religiously by one of those.  There is an official called the Medical Officer of Health who is the designated upholder of the idea that visible dogs are unacceptable sources of contamination in restaurants and pubs.  Challenge this person, and you could be subject to a deluge of morally indignant scientific bafflegab.  You would soon be put in your place as an ignorant fool trying to sicken the public.

In my case, though, this tactic is not going to work.  I have two qualifications that should help to keep me from losing my footing in any confrontation with moral-technical spew.

The lesser of the two qualifications is that I lived for several years in Europe.  There, dogs in pubs and restaurants do not pose a hygienic problem.  Isn’t that mysterious?  In Amsterdam, where I lived, neighbourhood pubs, which often serve meals and are called cafés, universally welcome dogs.  Most even have a doggy water-dish available to lubricate the thirsty companion animal.  If staff can’t find one, they apologize and deploy the best available plastic container.  Restaurants, distinguished from cafés by the presence of tablecloths, follow an interesting custom.  Your dog is probably welcome, but you need to ask first.  If the restaurant allows dogs, your animal is obliged to stay under the table.  Any dog too undisciplined to do that is not allowed entry.  This means that, as a Dutch person, you need to specifically train your dog in under-the-table staying so that it can go to restaurants.

I brought my late (that is, no longer existing) yellow Labrador dog over from Toronto to live with me in the ‘Dam, and he was incredibly grateful to be allowed into the café.  He was an exquisitely well mannered fellow – for which I’m obliged to take a portion of the credit – and he charmed both staff and customers.  As we walked along the street, if he felt thirsty, he’d use his nose to identify a café door, and then he’d sit down in front of it and incline his head to indicate a desire to go in.  Sometimes, if we were close to my planned destination, I declined his request and asked him to carry on just a little further.  This led to great hilarity amongst passersby.  ‘De hond wilt de kroeg in, maar de baas niet,’ one man chuckled lustily – ‘the dog wants to go in the pub, but the ‘boss’ doesn’t!’  It seemed as if my mischievous pet was egging me on towards alcoholism.

Dogs hate to give up their privileges.  The looks I got from mine after I moved back to Toronto and had to tie him up outside, even if we were right next to each other on opposite sides of a low patio fence, were heart-rending.  He was fully aware he had lost status, big-time.

For his sake, then, I had to ask the tough questions.  Explain to me, Dr. Medical Officer, how the same dog can be a health hazard in a Toronto restaurant, but not in an Amsterdam restaurant?  Or, for that matter, in a Parisian restaurant.  My retired next-door neighbour in Toronto spends up to a quarter of the year sitting in Paris cafés taking compliments on behalf of her fluffy white Havanese mini-dog.  Why don’t you treat her, Dr. Medical Officer, like a Canadian Typhoid Mary, and ban her from taking her disease-bag animal to restaurants abroad?

I had discovered an interesting clue as to what was going on while travelling around the Netherlands with my dog.  Most Dutch cities and larger towns feature one or more Irish pubs in addition to the conventional Dutch cafés.  Irish pubs, I found, universally banned dogs.  These pubs were owned by authentic Irish people, or at least, by some identifiable variant of my own native ethnicity – let’s call it ‘Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudget.’  The staff of these pubs didn’t say anything about health hazards when they saw a dog on the premises – they just gave the animal a dirty look and asked that it be taken outside.

This reaction suggested that the dirtiness of ‘dirty dogs’ depended more on the cultural background of the humans involved than on any objective problem.

Fortunately, I could look into that question further because of my second, and greater qualification for assessing the dog problem.  I worked for many years as the head of a division in the Canadian equivalent of a State Public Health laboratory – I was the chief fungus expert and also the acting head of the parasitology lab.  In reaching those positions, I’d picked up a broad general knowledge of just about everything that’s important with microbes, germs and Public Health.  Nothing that I knew about could explain the dog restaurant bylaw.  I did, however, have access to all the resources I needed to investigate the matter further.

One of the reasons we can live so easily with dogs is that they tend not to carry human diseases.  We can’t catch a cold or a flu from our dogs.  Or measles, or polio, or scarlet fever – you name it, dogs don’t have it.  Compared to small children, health-wise, they are clean, clean, clean.  One rare exception to this is that if a human somehow eats dog faecal matter – or let’s be frank, dog poo – then he or she is at a slight risk of acquiring one of the  tapeworms in the genus Echinococcus (the name means ‘spiny round thing’).  As some Mexican authors recently said in a report on two local cases, “Humans become infected incidentally through fecal-oral contact, particularly in the course of playful and close contact with an infected dog.”  Dogs that have the infection typically acquire it on the farm by eating raw organ meat of sheep, goats or swine infected with another stage in the parasite’s life cycle.

Needless to say, millions of people play with their dogs, and, in developed countries, exquisitely few of them become infected with a tapeworm during the course of frolic.  Even if this were to happen, however, it could hardly involve a restaurant.  Something about all those tippable tables, breakable drinking glasses, and so on, seems to mute the likelihood of owner-canine wrestling matches in the café.

The U.S. government, as its best-ever use of tax dollars, funds an online database of all medical literature, PubMed.  One can see in a few minutes of searching that no tapeworm case involving dogs and restaurants has ever been recorded there.

So I was stumped.  One day, at work, I straightened my tie and went down the corridor to ask our august Chief Medical Microbiologist, the late Chandrasekharan Krishnan, what he thought the dog ban was based on.  With a patrician twinkle in his eye, as befits a medical specialist in top management, he gave me a two-word answer:  “Pasteurella multocida.”

This is an uncommonly seen bacterium with a characteristic ‘mousy’ odour.  It is named after its discoverer, Louis Pasteur.  The species name, multocida, roughly translates as ‘mass murderer,’ suggesting the bug might cause problems – even though the name was rarely heard in the public health lab.

Looking into Pasteur’s serial killer, I saw that the victims are almost all chicken and geese.  The infection that it causes in them is called ‘fowl cholera.’  The bacterium, however, also lives in the mouths of most house cats, doing them no harm.  The majority of human cases are local infections around cat bites.  Rarely, in such cases, bacteria in the wound can mobilize further into the body and cause infections of the lymph system, the heart valves, or the brain.

A researcher with the engaging name A. Freshwater wrote the following synopsis in an abstract seen in PubMed:  “Approximately four to five million animal bite wounds are reported in the USA each year. Domestic companion animals inflict the majority of these wounds. Although canine bites far outnumber feline bites, unlike the dog, the cat’s bite is worse than its bark” (I love that line, particularly when I imagine the cat’s bark); “20-80% of all cat bites will become infected, compared with only 3-18% of dog bite wounds. Pasteurella multocida is the most commonly cultured bacterium from infected cat bite wounds.”

Pasteurella is less commonly associated with dogs than cats, but it can be found in the mouths of around half of the dogs tested.

Serious cases of pasteurellosis, where the Pasteurella is not just confined to a bite, tend to involve newborn babies.  Here’s a passage from another scientific abstract, this time by H. Guet-Revillet and co-authors from France. My comments are in parentheses.

“Among all 48 cases (of meningitis in children caused by Pasteurella reported between 1963 and 2013 worldwide), 44 % were newborns. An animal source of the infection, including 39 household dogs and cats, was suspected or identified in 42 of 48 cases (In fact, 14 cases involved patients with cats, 12 involved patients with dogs, and 7 involved patients with both cats and dogs). A traumatic contact between the child and a pet (in other words, a bite or scratch) occurred in 8 % of cases, and a vertical transmission from mother to child during birth in 10.4 % (yes, that’s right – the human mom herself carried the infectious bacterium in one out of every ten cases). Most of the time, the infection resulted from non-traumatic contact between the child and the pet, through licking or sniffing.”

What the authors neglected to say was that none of the cases involved a restaurant.  Nor does any known case of Pasteurella infection involve a restaurant.  The cases studied in France, where dogs peacefully go out for afternoon coffee with their owners, involved two much more dangerous environments – the family home, and the outdoors.  The authors had a clear take-home message for readers: “This rare disease could be prevented by reducing contact between infants and household pets, and by performing simple hygienic measures (in other words, washing hands) before handling babies.”  Clearly, every action that could possibly risk transmitting a Pasteurella infection is much less likely to occur in a café than in known places of elevated risk, like the family living room or the back yard.

My search for a microbial cause of the Toronto restaurant dog ban had come up empty.  And, in any case, having grown up in Canadian culture, I already had a suspicion as to what the source was.  Experience with the Irish pubs in the Netherlands suggested this suspicion was squinting down the right track.

Back in the 1850’s, the growth of English cities and the lack of attention to providing clean drinking water for poor people led to massive cholera outbreaks.  Famously, physician John Snow, the ‘father of epidemiology,’ linked the disease to the drinking of sewage-contaminated water.  One of the proofs of his genius is that he did this even though Louis Pasteur had not yet published the ‘germ theory of disease.’ (In fact, the germ theory was already around, but it was only known to apply to a fungal disease of silkworms).  Without a real understanding of how microbes did their thing, people in the mid-1800s had to make do with their ideas of which things were dirty in nature and which things were clean.  Intuitively, ‘dirtiness’ had two dimensions, which, in my reading of the situation, could be called ‘soil’ and ‘chaos.’  These two factors often worked together.  If you never washed your clothes, they would become soiled and stinky – that was ‘soil’- but your lack of washing reflected your own mental chaos.  You had to buck up, make an effort, and clean yourself.  Chaos was the friend of soil, and vice-versa.  Together, they caused unhealthiness.

Before real germ hygiene came along, then, the cultures of the British Isles and the worldwide English-speaking diaspora began to solve their public health problems through a roster of ideas that I call ‘Victorian hygiene.’  Dirtiness, in Victorian hygiene, included not just visible filth and bad smells, but also items Victorians intuitively associated with chaos, like clutter, sex, drunkenness and – dogs.  Dogs didn’t know enough not to roll in the dirt, and they deposited their excretions with wilful randomness outdoors.  Few dogs of the era were neutered, and they rutted in the open just as the Victorians were frantically lacing up their corsets, and campaigning to end teenaged masturbation as a morally fatal disease.  Dogs also fought, killed chickens, and generally acted like soldiers on campaign.  This was unacceptable.  Dogs were dirt and chaos.

In our good moods, then, we Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudgets worldwide adore our dogs, but when we’re getting serious about combating health risks, dogs are the equivalent of seething dunghills.  We are not influenced as we look across the ocean and see Dutch people sitting in cafés and scratching their dogs’ ears with one hand while eating their grilled North Sea sole with the other.  We don’t care how many elegant women bring their meticulously groomed white lap-beasties into the fancy boites of Paris.  No one is going to make us sick by putting the concept of dog – filth – together with the concept of food – must not be filthy.

The problem with Toronto, then, is that it’s still, at heart, a Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudget city.  Never mind that it’s the most ethnically diverse city in the world, where pulling together a couple of hundred Burundian Tutsis or Kirghizians or Nicaraguans for a political demonstration is easy.  The hundreds of thousands of continental Europeans who live here with us have not influenced us in the fundamentals of life.  We can abide a mayor who smokes crack, but there are boundaries that must not be crossed.

My ever-so-civilized new chocolate Labrador dog, tethered to a bike rack and looking at me big-eyed as I write this blog piece over a cup of coffee, is on the other side of Toronto’s most firmly entrenched public boundary.

In here, I’m sitting with my laptop in the 21st century.

Out there, he waits for me patiently in the 19th.

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Move Over Astrology: Divining Life through Colour (with poignant comments on the Ukrainian flag written many months ago)


This post extracts another piece from my novel This Moonless Sky.  In the extraplanetary country where the novel begins, the people don’t believe in astrology.  Their ancestors were transported to another part of the galaxy and, although the place they ended up is only around 40 light years from Earth, enough of the constellations have been scrambled to make our ancient Babylonian system seem like nonsense.  Also, they have no moon, as you can see in the book’s title.

But the human mind seems to need something like astrology, some all-encompassing, tongue-in-cheek mysticism that comments on personalities and tides of fortune.  On the new planet, some anonymous person, many years ago, came up with a system of divination based on colours.  You can look at colours that people like, colours that people wear, or colours in objects and symbols – they can all be interpreted with mystical skill.  Here, I explain, while sitting by a campfire on this other planet and writing stuff for you, how the system works.  At the end of my novel, there’s a big chart listing many colours and the significance that is assigned to them, but here I only tell you the meaning of the basic ones. You may begin to see that colours have a lot more to say than you ever thought.

The values assigned to the colours will seem completely arbitrary to you at first, but this is just the beginning.  The more competent readings you see, the more the meanings of the colours will pull together.  The meanings blend in the same way as the colours do, e.g., yellow and red blend to orange; ‘luck’ and ‘action’ come together as the happy spontaneous accident of humour. The spooky psychological depth of this system has never been explained.  The piece reprinted below only gives you a tiny foretaste of it.

**** **** **** **** **** ****

(tree frogs peeping in the tropical dark, the ocean waves lapping nearby)

While things are so quiet here, I can sit by the campfire in the firelight and make good on my promise to tell you about the half-colours. These are a weird part of sDiyyanantse culture that appeared out of nowhere, centuries ago.  (Pardon a couple of words from our local language that are explained in more detail elsewhere in the book).

The name “half-colours” was explained in a little introduction that was passed around with the original, anonymous, handwritten copies of the colour interpretation charts. I’ll give it to you straight; don’t take it too seriously. In fact, don’t take any of this too seriously. It’s not post-ironic, just somewhat goofy.

“A colour is an infinity; it has unlimited places and uses. Each colour is a deuheiktan [complete array of possibilities], and the deuheiktan of all colours is a deuheiktan of deuheiktans [this may sound like nonsense, but in fact there is a recognized mathematical concept, Georg Cantor’s ‘infinity of infinities,’ that loosely corresponds to it.] Nothing can be said that can grasp the wholeness of a colour, but if a partial reduction is divined within the colour, then a pattern emerges. The samskara’d [term from Hindu philosophy, here meaning ‘conceptually imprinted’] minds of all humans can be seen and read in the half-colours, the colours as reduced.”

Let’s look at a few basic half-colours:

Yellow:  Luck. Extension: Early inspiration, sense of being ‘on a roll’

Blue: Alluminance [‘bringing to light’ – early intuitive apprehension of things in their original wonder].  The deeper the blue, the more it bears a sense of philosophical ‘depth,’ the apprehension of natural law and fundamental structure. Deep navy blue is assigned the value ‘alluminance of dimensionality, profound realization’ and the extension ‘law.’

Red: Action

White: Receptiveness

Black: Passion, Extension: Commitment

Green: Spirit

Orange: Humour, Extension: Lively attractiveness

Purple: Consummation; Extension: Good production, orgasmic ecstasy

Pink: Acuity

Grey: Temperance

Brown: Creativity. Extension: Versatility, inspired service

More intergraded colours like ‘peach’ and ‘magenta’ are also assigned values. I’ll post the main table people use as an appendix at the end of this chronicle (see ‘This Moonless Sky’ in online booksellers or download free pdf of whole book at – click on ‘to download’ and then click away ad that comes up)

But let’s see what we can make of this so far.

Take the flag of the United States. How can we read it?

The red, white and blue in the U.S. flag are, or were, found in the flags of most serious empires and megacountries, such as Britain, France and Russia. Red indicates action, the powerful military, the expansion across the land, the vigour of economic growth. White indicates receptiveness, the open country of new settlement and opportunity, and the free admittance of thought in democracy. Deep indigo blue is a commitment to fundamentally correct law, order and deep understanding, and by extension, to science. Another country that used to have an extended international empire, the Netherlands, shares the same colours in three simple bands. Slovakia and Slovenia share the horizontal white, blue and red colour scheme of the Russian flag, but modify it with shield devices, stamping themselves with specificity that qualifies the universal principles announced by the flags. Perhaps they take the colours as pan-Slavic and use the shields to indicate their part of the greater unity. Both countries have ‘Slav’ in their names.

Canada, seeing itself less as a regulator of world order and world thought than the US or Britain, drops the blue and comes up with a flag that is red and white, dynamism and openness. Denmark also, somewhat on the sidelines of Europe, doesn’t appropriate blue to itself and sticks with red and white. Sweden is much more confident of its centrality in life, taking a cross of blazing yellow good fortune into a field of deep, all-knowing blue. Its lack of red suggests that it has no intention to spread this ennobled status beyond its borders. Political neutrality is natural. Hardy and rugged Norway, exposed on the open coast and looking out to rough seas, has thin crosses of civilizing blue and white set into a field of red action.

The Russian Communist Party, in making a flag for its revolution, replaced the white, blue and red of the Imperial Russian flag with a pure field of red, indicating the irresistible forward motion of the revolutionary vanguard. The workers’ good fortune intended by this process was indicated by the small hammer and sickle in yellow in the canton corner of the flag. A star drawn as a yellow outline above the yellow tools also indicated lucky auspices, but the star had to be filled with the red of the vanguard to keep its luck intact. Many would argue that, with neither law nor openness to restrain it, the Soviet flag was headed for trouble from day one. Russia, at the time I left the Earth, had put the white and blue back into its national psychology by re-adopting the Imperial flag.

Artistic and religious Italy replaced the stodgy legal blue of the imperial countries with spirited green. A country of geniuses cannot be restricted by indigo. The white of openness and the red of action stand there beside the green to make sure that the genius has both input and output. The indescribable insouciance of the Irish flag, replacing the red right-hand band in the Italian flag with orange – the half-colour of levity, laughter, partying, prosperity and personal charm – is both charming and frightening. Can they really pull it off? Spirit, openness and full-time joy? At least they didn’t add magenta, the half-colour of ‘exuberance, transport, creative obliviousness.’ I don’t know of any country that dared to have magenta in its flag. Qatar went for maroon, but this is a colour associated with beauty, faith and fulfilled promises, quite a different motif all in all. The flag’s intensity of accomplishment is muted with a white left border, connecting via a sawtooth pattern that interleaves sensitivity into the maroon.

In the flag of Saudi Arabia, the green of spirit makes up the main field, consistent with a country dedicated to worship. The only receptive white in the flag opens up within letters taken from the Quran, implying that elucidation and new beginnings should be reconciled with scripture before going any further. Another exotic flag is the flag of Germany, which starts off with black passion at the top, advances to red action in the middle, and then goes on to yellow fortune on the bottom. At first this seems like an unchecked tinderbox of enthusiasms ready to explode, but look closely and you’ll see that the yellow is by no means pure, but is more a gold colour, historically based on the colour of brass military buttons. Gold being the still sunny and lucky half-colour of ‘acclamation, welcome, honour,’ this tends to put the action and commitment to work in favour of all-out hospitality. Such an energetic and hospitable country could be the heart of Europe, as indeed Germany was at the time I left the Earth. The Nazi flag, by contrast, had no gold in it, but rather a field of red action around a circle of white. Inside the white was a swastika wheel of black passion angled to cut into the receptive space it sat in, like the blades of a combine harvester. This was strictly the flag of a war machine anticipating minimal resistance.

Ukraine – the sky blue of primordial discovery and the yellow of beneficent fortune. Rationalize it as the sky above the steppes and the gold of grain if you wish, but the half-colours know better. Did a country ever so eloquently proclaim its surprise and delight to be independent of the powerful empire next door?

I find this a lot of fun.

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The fascinating construction of a life. Book review of The 12-Foot Teepee by Marilyn Armstrong




Marilyn Armstrong is a widely read blogger on WordPress, and that’s how I became aware of her. I thought, ‘anyone who writes this well must have written at least one book.’ The 12-foot Teepee, in fact, is the name of the book and the basis of the blog’s URL,

Tempus fugit, especially for daily bloggers. Marilyn tells me, in correspondence, that she’s no longer quite the same person as the one who wrote the book. As a former resident of Jerusalem, though, she says she once lived near a place where archaeologists found “a Canaanite temple, on top of which (pillar on pillar) stood a Greek temple. On top of which (pillar on pillar) was a Roman temple. On top of which was – you guessed it, pillar on pillar – a synagogue.” No doubt today’s Marilyn stands pillar on pillar on the one who wrote this book, and I think that that keeps the book current. A life contains its own archaeology, and what is an autobiography (as I assume this is, in essence) if not a tell?

Protagonist ‘Maggie,’ as a child, was sexually abused by her father. That revelation is how the book begins. I worked for an LGBT newspaper in the 1980s and kept current on feminist and lesbian literature during the period when the magnitude of familial incest was first being disclosed to the world. I’ve read many dozens of accounts – brief, elongated, literary, plain, agonized, detached – by people who endured this experience. Also, I’ve read numerous complex bestsellers embedding the theme, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I noticed right away that Marilyn was somehow overcoming the saturation factor and writing highly readable text. Perhaps it was her style of writing – plainspoken enough to be nodded at by Hemingway, yet subtly full of craft. Her approach was fresh, and witty at appropriate moments. Perhaps there was some engaging mystery, too, in the enigma of her father as an inconspicuously, but almost incomprehensibly, evil man. I’m not sure if I would even have credited Marilyn with restraining herself from exaggeration if I hadn’t read M. Scott Peck’s monograph on such folk, People of the Lie. I knew that such individuals really do exist. In any case, Marilyn’s way of telling the tale with judicious truth but without a show of anguish, and without the jargon that is now often used in such accounts, made the difficult events completely readable.

The book then progressed through subtly interwoven anecdotes to the unveiling of related tales: the construction of a knock-off Sioux-style teepee as a project for self-healing and for spending quality time with a lively granddaughter; the concurrent battle with spinal problems and surgeons of greater and lesser competence; and the challenges of new-found poverty for Massachusetts people caught up in the tech bust of the 1990s. This all sounds daunting, not to mention rather random and terribly personal, but Marilyn makes it as vivid and coherent a piece of writing as you will find anywhere. She wins your heart. The feeling that you want things to go well for her (I don’t know her personally at all apart from a couple of emails back and forth among fellow bloggers) turns out to be a waterslide of suspense that runs you right through the book from beginning to end. She also integrates a spiritual journey from secular Judaism into Christianity that is neither dwelt upon nor glossed over – it has its time and place in the story – and it also arouses interest – regardless, I should think, of the personal persuasion of the reader. The bottom line, though, is that Marilyn is a writer who can captivate you with a tale of how her son pieced together PVC pipe sections to make wobbly teepee poles. I can’t imagine what topic she couldn’t make interesting.

I think that this book deserves more attention than it’s had. Marilyn is not sure that it does – she says in her email that she has, to some extent, returned to religious skepticism in recent years. Life has gone on. The tell has mounded up further. Where a church once stood in her psyche, a big community teepee for comparative religion and degrees of religious belief now stands, pole on pillar. Its architecture is newer than the book.

If you have a sense of discovery, though, you still need to know how it got there, and this book is the only dig that’s been done.

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Weekly writing challenge: Gonzo journalism. “My Dinner with Elsa”

I once saw a movie called ‘My Dinner with André,’ starring Wallace Shawn and André Gregory.  The whole movie consisted of nothing but a conversation over dinner in a restaurant.  You don’t need a snake-tongued Voldemort to pump the action when you have a dinner conversation that’s come alive.

Elsa’s 82, a literary agent and TV producer, long retired, still plugging books.  She has black hair that bobs down in a short pageboy; she looks like she stole a wig from Agent 99 of CONTROL.  Everyone she knows would know who that was.  She probably knew Barbara Whoever, Agent 99.  She knew everyone in publishing, television and film.  They all came to drink at her house.  Now she knows me, and I come to drink at her house.  Right now, though, we’re at a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto.  Her Jewish atheist roots have led her to a deep conviction that eating pork and shrimp in Asian restaurants is the right thing to do.  She’s flexible – today she’s after some cow, or phò, as they call it.  You say it ‘feuh.’  It’s soup of rare sliced beef with vegetables.  I’m having vermicelli with sugar cane stalks bearing balls of minced shrimp.  I bite the shrimp mince off the stalks, chew the sugar out of the cane and put the remnants in a discard dish.

“I never eat broccoli in restaurants,” she says, forking up a startlingly emerald-green bouquet out of her broth, “except in Asian restaurants.  They’re the only ones who don’t overcook it.  Everyone else makes it mush.  Thank God for Asian restaurants.”  Her eyes sparkle as she nibbles a lobe off the vivid vegetable.  I wince slightly.

“I know, I know,” she says, looking at the stainless steel fork embedded in the greenery.  “I just can’t get used to chopsticks no matter how hard my daughter tries to teach me.”

In Toronto, we’re semi-civilized.  We know that eating East Asian food with ‘doe cha’ – knife and fork – is like trying to play a Stradivarius with a comb.  All those metal things piercing the delectables.  There’s an air of medieval torture about it all. Elsa knows my views.  But she’s not afraid to be different.

“What about that partner of yours?” she asks, getting back to what’s really on her mind.  “Don’t you think he needs help of some kind?  Is he going crazy?”

My same-sex partner of 35 years has become increasingly eccentric, and is now officially an unemployed genius, spending much of his time in his bathrobe, hair frizzled, sitting at the computer revising Wikipedia articles on particle physics and modern math.

“I should put him in a show.  I know he’s brilliant and he’s certainly articulate, but what would he like to talk about?   He could talk about anything, but we need something he’s interested in.  And why is he working all night and then sleeping on the couch?  His hair looks like it has no luster, I’m worried about him. What can we DO for him? Don’t you ever tell him he should find a job?  He’s a creative person.  Why don’t you tell him that he needs to find something to accomplish with the rest of his life before it’s too late, which will be soon enough?”

“He’d find that a depressing thought.  Sure, I’ve tried to talk about those things with him, but he’s very touchy about them.  Doesn’t want to discuss them with me.”

“Doesn’t he have any friends he could talk things over with?  Someone he could talk with about his strengths, his weaknesses, what he really wants?”

She’s a friend of us both, but clearly she means someone closer to the proverbial bosom of companionship, whatever that is.

“He’s not really a ‘friend’ person,” I say.  “He has one friend, Valerie, but he doesn’t see her very often.  And my theory is that he never introspects, on principle.  I think he feels that if he did – if he started questioning in there – he’d look too deeply and make everything fall apart.”

“I know, that’s a problem, I can see it.  Well, maybe he needs to have an affair.  That’s an idea.  What do you think?  Would it be good for him to have an affair?”

I look at her.  She knows perfectly well she’s raised up this conversational tidbit with a big metal fork.  She looks back without a trace of tease.  The true literary person does the outrageous with grace.

I pick up her tidbit with my verbal chopsticks and ever so delicately put it into my discard dish.

“That wouldn’t really be his style,” I say.

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Traditional African circumcision (male) – my comment on ‘My small sin and a dead cock’ by GoldyLocks

Very witty post, and I hope a lot of people read it. It especially struck a chord with me because there is a whole section of my book ‘This Moonless Sky’ ( with a story line in which my characters get involved, by chance, in a Fulani circumcision ceremony for boys. Needless to say, I spent weeks researching every detail before I wrote that part – even though, since it’s sci-fi and takes place on another planet, I could have taken all sorts of liberties. Basically, one character decides to establish his courage by joining in the ceremony and being circumcised, even though he’s not Fulani, and another character, his friend, is appalled and tries to talk him out of it. What happens after that is unexpected.

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