Tales From The Ridge

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


There was a valley. A wide, flat, ancient river valley. In the valley was a small town called Crick. Not far from it was another small town called Dram. The two towns farmed the flood plain and fished the river and mined the hills. Times were good; the people multiplied and the towns grew larger, until one day a thought occurred to the mayor of Crick.

"If Dram continues to expand," he thought, "They will soon attack us and take our farmland and fisheries and mines."

So he ordered his artisans to construct a defensive wall around the town.

When the mayor of Dram saw this wall he called his advisors to him.

"Crick has built a wall," he told them, "What does this mean?"

"They mean to attack us," his advisors told him, "Why else would they feel the need to prepare defences?"

So the mayor of Dram ordered his artisans to build a wall around the town.

"Only it must be bigger than their wall," he said, "We cannot afford to be seen to be weak."

When the mayor of Crick saw the new wall he called his council into an emergency session.

"Our worst fears are confirmed," he said, "Dram is preparing for war. We have little choice but to show our strength and respond in kind. Only deterrence can prevent conflict."

So he ordered his artisans to build another wall outside the first wall, but bigger and thicker than before.

The mayor of Dram was understandably concerned when news of the new wall came down to him from his watchtowers.

"One wall was not enough," he said, "We must build another."

And so time passed and walls sprung up around Crick and Dram like the layers of an onion, and each time, the people of the towns built houses between the old walls and the new walls, until the point was reached at which Crick's latest wall touched Dram's latest wall. At this, the mayor of Crick called for a meeting with the mayor of Dram.

"We do not want to go to war with you," said the mayor of Crick, "But we will fight if we have to."

"We don't want war with you either," said the mayor of Dram, "But we will fight if you force our hand."

"Why don't we simply not go to war, then?"

"I thought you wanted to attack us."

"No...I thought you wanted to attack us."

"Not at all."

They laughed and embraced like brothers, and jointly decreed that the ugly defensive walls be torn down and the stone be used to build a new wall around the outside of both Crick and Dram, to celebrate and signify the newfound peace and unity between the two towns.

And so they did.

A short way up the river, the mayor of Sill stood in his watchtower and looked at the new wall being built around Crick and Dram.

"This can only mean one thing," he said, and called his council to session.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

One sided conversations #3

"I'm getting a letter...it's an 'R' or a 'P'. Does the letter 'R' or the letter 'P' mean anything to you? How about 'M'? I'm getting an 'M'. Is there an 'M' close to you?"

"Your father, his name was Michael? Yes, that's what I'm getting. It's your father, it's Michael. OK, I'm getting a feeling that he passed over as a result of something to do with the head or the heart, am I right?"

"Cirrhosis? Liver, that's right, the liver, that's what he's telling me. Because he liked to drink, right? But he's telling me to tell you not to worry, he's not in any pain any more. Now I'm getting something about a trinket of some kind, something that was important both to you and to him. Do you have anything of his that you keep with you, a ring or a bracelet, something like that?"

"Exactly, that brooch, that's the one. Of course. That's what he's saying to me, and he's saying keep it with you and he will always be there. OK, now he's telling me he has to go, but don't worry because he loves you and he's fine, just fine."

"I know, I know. There's...no, I can't explain it. There's no explanation for it. It's just a gift I have."

Monday, January 23, 2006


I run. I run to nowhere and from nothing. I run simply to be running.

My heels scold the ground as they throw me forwards. No; not me, it is not me that is being propelled, it is the earth. I tilt my body and at my insistence the world itself slides beneath me. Faster and faster it spins.

I am like the wind. The earth billows out behind me like a streamer until my feet break free from the pavement and I climb up into the clouds. I soar through them and as I rise they burst into explosions of tears. Troposphere, up, stratosphere, up, mesosphere, where the very air is frozen, up. I am the wind.

And then...what? A sword in my side, lead weights around my ankles, a steel band fixed too tightly across my chest. I fall, dragged back by a jealous earth in an Icarian plunge, and I land.

Heartbeatheartbeatheartbeatheartbeatbreathegaspheartbeatheartbeatheartbeat. Breathe. Breathe, heart, breathe.

So, mesosphere this time. Not bad. Nearly. So nearly. But not quite.

Next time I'll make it. Next time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Oh Britannia

Neon lights the empire
Where the sun will never set
The Raj reborn in Bradford
With the hatred that begets
We swear at David Beckham
Red cross painted on our cheek
We don't vote, but we'll never miss
A Coronation Street
We'll give Sanjeev a kicking
When he's waiting for the bus
'Cos when he sings God Save The Queen
He knows more words than us
Oh Britannia, don't think that you'll never rule again
But please don't ask me how, my dear, and please don't ask me when

The lamb of god no longer
On these pleasant pastures seen
We burned him so that foot and mouth
Would not make us unclean
The dark satanic mills are closed
Jerusalem's not built
Now Chinese children make our shirts
Whilst we ignore the guilt
The Mersey's our clogged artery
The Severn is our vein
And though we all love progress
We just stay the bleedin' same
Oh Britannia, don't think that you'll never rule again
But not before you change, my dear, the hearts of Englishmen

An ancient, stagnant monarchy
Wrapped in our red-white-blue
The same Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
On the throne since '52
And whether they're for Labour
The Lib Dems or for the Tories
Cromwell's children seem content
Invoking faded glories
The English way, why are we
So afraid of being rude?
That upper lip stays far too stiff
When we're all being screwed
Oh Britannia, don't think that you'll never rule again
Just don't you hold your breath, my dear, you'll pass out in the end

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Turing tale

A funny thing happened at work today. When I got to my desk there was an e-mail waiting that said we all had to assemble in the conference room at ten sharp. So, come ten o'clock we were milling around in the conference room, buzzing with rumours, when the managing director walked on to the stage. He stood behind the glass lectern, tapped the microphone once, then began to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "Dear colleagues, it is with a unique mixture of joy and sadness that I ask you to gather here today, as I regret to inform you that one of your dearest colleagues, Bob Sanderson, is no longer with us."


"I know this will come as a shock to you, but don't worry. He has merely been switched off."

More murmurs.

"You see, Bob Sanderson was merely a computer program."

Murmurs growing into full-blown hubbub.

"And a very successful one at that. We programmed him with a few stock responses to work-related queries - you've all heard his 'Thanks [insert name], I'll pass that one on for Ray in accounts to action' line, I'm sure - and a number of vague day-to-day social niceties, and we were just amazed at how he seemed to fit right in. But the real masterstroke, we found, was programming him with an auto-forward function for e-mailed jokes and pictures of people hurting themselves in ridiculous ways. That was the icing on the cake. Did you never wonder why you never saw him? Why he only ever communicated by e-mail?"

Hubbub maturing into hullaballoo.

"So, that's the sad news. The happy news, though, is that after Bob's successful beta test CompuColleague v1.0 is now ready for roll-out, and will be taking over the Customer Care e-mail accounts. We're thinking of calling him Jeff. Oh, Barbara? Unfortunately this means you're out of a job. That will be all. Thanks for your time - back to work, people."

We filed out, back to our cubicles. Except for Barbara, of course.

So, it turns out Turing was wrong. Depressingly, in order to pass for human a computer has to display no real insight or intelligence, and only the most rudimentary of social skills.

Be honest, though: you're not that shocked, are you?

But anyway, did you see what those idiots in government have just done? What a bunch of idiots. And how about the game last night? That coach is something else, isn't he?

Dancing On Fly Ash is back up and running! Go and visit, you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

One sided conversations #2

"Never. They don't understand me there. I daren't go back."

"Because of the incident in the desert that time. I thought you knew about it - there's an article about it in the station's 'How Not To' file. Alright. I beamed down there, couple of thousand years ago this was, and I found this guy, all long beard and sandals, and I offered to help him help the rest of the world to, you know, take another step up the ladder. He got totally the wrong end of the stick - which isn't unusual - but of all the rotten luck they wrote a book about him, and I ended up in it as the root of all evil! Talk about a bad day at the office."

"I know, but the horns, the hooves, the tail...they're obsessed with appearances, you know what they're like. Every time I go down there, as soon as one of them sees me they run a mile. They could have the secret to cold fusion if they just stopped and listened. No, they blame me for everything, there's no way they're going to give me a second chance. So we have no choice but to let them get on with it on their own."

"It's not a disaster as such, I've got other planets in my portfolio. I'm still active in Fodgethith, Brao, Wyrgid and Pokmanok. And I'm going to introduce writing to a small hill tribe on Yan Griffan next week, I think they've evolved to a state where they're receptive. Losing Earth isn't so bad when you put it in perspective."

"Well of course they need our help. Look at the mess they've got themselves in without it! But what can we do? We can't change who we are. We're just going to have to give up on Earthlings and hope they stumble across improvement, peace and enlightenment without our help."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Cat in the box

I walked into the lecture theatre and took my seat. The lecturer tapped a dusty blackboard and began.

"Carrying on from last time, in the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics each system is associated with a complex Hilbert space such that each instantaneous state of the system is described by a unit vector in that space. This state vector encodes the probabilities for the outcomes of all possible measurements applied to the system. As the state of a system generally changes over time, the state vector is a function of time. The Schrödinger equation provides a quantitative description of the rate of change of the state vector. The Schrödinger equation is written aitch tee brackets psi ecks comma tee brackets equals eye aitch bar delta over delta tee psi ecks tee brackets, where eye is the unit imaginary number, aitch bar is Planck's constant divided by two pi and the Hamiltonian aitch tee is a self-adjoint operator acting on the state space. In non-relativistic quantum mechanics, the Hamiltonian of a particle can be expressed as the sum of two operators, one corresponding to kinetic energy and the other to potential energy. For a single particle of mass em with no electric charge and no spin, the kinetic energy operator is tee equals pee squared over two em, where pee is the momentum operator, which is defined as pee psi are comma tee brackets equals aitch bar over eye invert triangle psi are comma tee brackets. The potential energy operator is vee equals vee are brackets, where vee is a real scalar function of the position operator are. Putting these together we obtain aitch psi are comma tee brackets equals tee plus vee brackets psi are comma tee brackets equals square bracket minus aitch bar squared over two em invert triangle squared plus vee are brackets square bracket psi are comma tee brackets equals eye aitch bar delta psi over delta tee are comma tee brackets, where invert triangle squared is the Laplace operator. This is a commonly encountered form of the Schrödinger wave equation, though not the most general one. Does anyone have any questions at this point?"

I raised my hand.

"Is this British And European History From 1650 To 1850?" I asked.

"No," he said.

So I left.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Chronomether number six

I was hiding in the long grass eating humble pie for breakfast
You were standing there behind me with a smile straight out of Texas
Another day of viciousness, a safety razor daydream
The poor men talking tidal waves, the rich men talking sunscreen
So I walked up to the courthouse, pinned a cross to my lapel
Somewhere between the abattoir and the May Day carousel
I ignored her as she danced there in that suit of bleaching bones
Then forced myself to watch when all the good men threw their stones

Thursday, January 05, 2006

All I have is

"Who am I? This is not my body, my body was younger than this! What have you done with my body?"
"You were in a coma. You have been in a coma for ten years. See? Look at these photographs."
"That looks somewhat like me, but it can't be. I have no memories of it. I don't remember that bed, or all those tubes, or that machine."
"Nonetheless, that is where you have been. Don't you remember the accident?"
"I remember the accident, and then I remember talking to you. There is nothing in between."
"Like I said, a coma."
"I don't believe you. You doctors must have placed my brain in the body of an old man."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You took my brain and put it into an old man's body, and you converted my body into one of those mechs."
"There are laws against such actions!"
"All right then, prove that I am me."
"Prove I am who I am."
"I have watched over you for ten years - I know that you are you!"
"I have no recollection of lying here."
"You saw the photographs."
"They don't look like me."
"Yes they do, just without the grey hair and wrinkles."
"Exactly. This body has grey hair, the man in that picture does not."
"It changed!"
"Nonetheless, the man in that picture is not me. Or rather, he is me, and I am now in someone else's body."
"Listen, you're being irrational. You've been lying here every day for ten years. You may not remember, but I've seen you with my own eyes."
"But existence is not physical, it is memorial. If a man lives alone his whole life, away from everyone, when he dies can he really be said to have existed? If no-one knows he was there, was he ever there at all? You are not the same person as you were ten years ago, but you at least have ten years of memories to bridge the gap between that man and you."
"But I know you were there. You existed there for ten years, even if you don't believe it."
"Perhaps, but I'm not sure I trust you. If you would switch my brain to another body, then what qualms would you have in lying to me? How can you prove to me that I have been lying here unconscious for ten years?"
"I suppose I can't."
"So I am awoken into...what? Chuang Tzu said that he dreamed that he was a butterfly, and that when he awoke he was no longer sure whether he was a man who had dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly who was dreaming of being a man. Perhaps I am simply dreaming. Perhaps I will awake tomorrow back in my body."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The invasion

We are the last that we know of. There may be others out there somewhere, but I doubt it. They were that ruthless. There are fewer than a hundred of us left now.

They turned on us in the night. We weren't prepared. We'd spent so long aiming at each other that we hadn't noticed who the real enemy was. They moved among us at first, mimicking us expertly. We didn't see the stripes on the tiger, nor the lure dangling before the ragged jaws of the angler fish.

We're underground now, forced down in some old bunker connected to a mine shaft. It seems secure, but we just don't know. We don't know how determined They are to wipe us out, whether They're content to just let us huddle down here out of their way. Our thirst is slaked by mildewed condensation, our hunger staved off by mushrooms and thin gruels. I don't know for how long we can survive like this. One of the women is pregnant - I confess that I don't know her name - no-one yet has had the heart to discuss with her the fact that her baby will probably not survive. But I will not waste any more of your time.

This is not a plea for help; it is our epitaph. I end by wishing you luck if you are one of us and damning you to Hell if you are one of Them, for if you are reading this then we are probably already dead.