My new book is available on Amazon!

Hi all,

Now this post is coming over a year late but if any of you missed it, my second book and the sequel to “His Darker Eye” is available on Kindle.

Please check out “Fractured Foresight” here.

fractured foresight (website)

Farage’s Facts

farageI admire Nigel Farage. I really do. He’s the best politician I’ve seen in years: a straight talker, absolutely unflappable no matter what’s flung at him, a good-to-honest all-round bloke who has “the guts to say what we’re all thinking”. That last quote is key. It’s everywhere, from comments on news sites to Twitter to Facebook. I’m sure it’s even made it off the internet but I can’t be bothered to go outside to check.

Lately, the gutsy Mr. Farage had this to say about HIV and health tourism in the UK:

“There are 7,000 diagnoses in this country every year for people who are HIV positive, but 60 per cent of them are not for British nationals.”

“You can come to Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retroviral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient. I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world, but what we need to is put the National Health Service there for British people and families who in many cases have paid into this system for decades.”

Despite however the Guardian and Independent try to spin it, these are welcome words for many of us, yet another example of Farage telling us the cold, hard facts that the other party leaders are just too weak, too afraid or too left-wing to admit. Once again, I can’t help but admire Farage’s way with words. Everything he says sounds like simple common sense backed up by an unfortunate but hard reality.

I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that he’s a racist, convince you that the best thing for public health is to keep offering retroviral drugs to foreigners free of charge, nor am I going to throw endless barrels of statistics at you to convince you he’s wrong. Instead, I want to examine his straight talk and give it a gentle poke. I won’t twist or turn his words against him. How could I? After all, the fact of the matter is clear: sixty percent of positive HIV diagnoses are not for British nationals. If this isn’t damning evidence of health tourism in the UK then what on earth is?

But isn’t there something odd about that phrase: ‘not for British Nationals’. Not ‘tourists’ or ‘visitors’, but ‘not British Nationals’. And this is where Nigel makes a small slip: non-British Nationals includes migrant workers, students and other residents as well. In fact, it includes anyone who isn’t a British citizen, regardless of whether their income taxes or tuition (often three times the price of that for a British student) go towards paying for services in the country they live in. With almost 12 million foreign residents in the UK, that’s a hell of a lot of people, paying or not, to ignore.

But I’m sure we can forgive ‘straight-talking’ Nigel for this mistake. Despite a slightly misleading statistic, he’s still right about health tourism isn’t he? What about all those tourists popping over for a quick check-up before checking out with drugs that could have treated grandma’s breast cancer instead? What about all those students on fake student study visas? Surely they are accessing services they have no right to use?

Perhaps, but only if they stay for more than six months, which is how long you need to be in the UK before you can access HIV treatment on the NHS. Regardless of how sincere Nigel sounds when he tells you otherwise, there are actually safeguards against the misuse of public services. So many, in fact, that even hardline Tories supported foreign access to HIV treatment when it was proposed back in 2012, bringing it into line with all other infectious disease treatment.

Isn’t it odd that Nigel only gave us a figure about foreigners’ diagnoses of HIV rather than the figures of those who were actually treated? Also as a footnote, short-term study visas expire after six months leaving only the twice-as-expensive extended study visas for those trying to cheat the system.

The final strangeness thing about gusty Nigel’s facts is that he decided to use HIV as an example at all. After all, he could have chosen any illness, and didn’t he himself say that there was no difference in principle between HIV and cancer treatment?

Once again, I’m not going to claim that his using HIV as an example was intended to conjure up old bogeymen of race and sexuality, designed to scare you with an implied army of gays and blacks descending to the UK to infect us all with their ill-gotten illnesses. That would be insulting to your intelligence and, in any case, I don’t think you’re either homophobic or racist.

But what is slightly odd is that he chose an illness which, due to factors beyond any individual’s control, so drastically affects people from countries other than our own. I mean, that would be sure to artificially inflate the number of foreign residents diagnosed with it compared to British-born citizens. In fact, the only way he could have inflated it more was by using sickle-cell anaemia instead.

This is all rather troubling. Perhaps we should ask Nigel to clarify some of these points. If health tourism is real and prevalent  we should absolutely stop it before it’s too late. I’m sure he’s got some facts that prove it beyond all doubt. All these misleading errors were surely just unfortunate mistakes.

Of course, it goes without saying that none of this makes Nigel any less gutsy. After all, it takes some real balls to claim you’re straight-talking while lying through your teeth.

Perfection in Gender

A response to this.

Dear Inez,

Before I begin I should make the following very clear. I understand that you did not intend any offense and that your blog post was not a political statement or an assertion of concrete gender differences. You were very clear that everything you wrote was based on your own personal observations and musings and not informed by some agenda or scientific study. As such, you might regard my rather argumentative reply, driven by both my politics and my academic background, as misplaced.

However, no matter how tentatively and hypothetically your points were made, they undeniably boil down to the following:

  • Women tend to search for perfection in a romantic partner.
  • This is indicative of a lack of love for oneself.
  • A solution is for women to be more man-like in their attitudes towards love and perfection.

You were quite right in one respect, this most certainly would not go down well in feminism class. Despite your benign intentions you’ve expressed an attitude that, despite our best efforts as a society, is still endemic to many. Furthermore, it directly harms the eventual goal of gender equality. It is for this reason I feel compelled to respond, and hope to convince you of the above. After all, all hypotheses deserve a thorough investigation.

Let’s look at the first two points. It might surprise you to know that although I doubt their robustness I am not going to argue against them. In regards to these statements, my problem is with what you’ve left unsaid. Despite the fact that you’ve seen enough women searching desperately and futilely for perfection, presumably out of a deep dissatisfaction with themselves, at no point do you ask the question ‘why?’.

I hope to show you that this is a question of great importance and that not addressing it, especially when generalising about gender, is simply not enough. So, why is there such a marked disparity between the genders in the way they search for love? And why do many women lack self-love?

I take it that you don’t believe that these are traits inherent to the sexes. It would be a great disservice to all women to suggest that they are simply naturally predisposed to dislike themselves and seek out external validation, while men are happy to bob along merrily, choosing jobs, degrees and lovers for their own merits, secure in the knowledge that they themselves are perfect just the way they are.

But if nature isn’t to blame then there’s only one culprit left: nurture.

It should be obvious that there is a great divide in how the genders are portrayed in culture in general and the media in particular. From films to magazines to advertising, men are portrayed as confident and self-assured while women are offered a wide selection of methods to hide their imperfections. I could argue this point further but I think the following sketch from Mitchell and Webb says it best:

In any case, what’s more important than the mere existence of these stereotypes is knowing how they affect us. Many studies have shown time and time again that stereotypes affect our behaviour automatically unless we exercise careful and conscious control over them (Devine, 1989). This effect cares little for whether you’re a member of a marginalised group or not, or even whether you’re explicitly prejudiced. Whether you’re with them or against them or even if you are them: negative stereotypes affect your behaviour towards members of that group (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002).

What’s worse and more pertinent is that they affect our attitudes towards ourselves. Simply being aware of a stereotype can affect your performance on tasks you are perfectly capable of (Schmader & Johns 2003). In regards to gender, even if they’re skilled at something, merely being told that women are generally worse is sometimes enough to make them defer to a man (Foschi, 2009).

Although admittedly, it might appear that nothing I’ve said has anything to do with love and perfection, consider the following: what are the prevalent stereotypes of gender when it comes to relationships? What about beauty and self-confidence? Below are two adverts from the same parent company, one for him, one for her. I’ll let them speak to this point.

Given these stereotypes, would it be terribly surprising if there were a trend among women to seek out perfection in their partners, or that men would be so laid back in their search? Further to this would it be terribly surprising that women lack confidence in a world that constantly tells them that they should?

Now, given this context, let’s look at your proposed solution. For every woman who is too picky and insecure when looking for a partner there is an option: try and act more like a man. On the surface this seems like a good solution. If your own stereotype is getting you down, why not just adopt someone else’s?

Unfortunately, it’s harder than you might think. As damaging as gender stereotypes may be to both men and women, stepping out of them can be even more so. Women who adopt stereotypically masculine traits (read ‘confident and decisive’) are actively discriminated against (Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012). The very same traits that render a man more attractive in the eyes of others simply serve to make a woman less. Just for the sake of completion, it should be noted that the same applies men for feminine traits (Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Rudman, 2010), but honestly, the fact we have a monopoly on leadership qualities seems pretty indicative of who’s got it worse.

So, where does that leave us? Even if the women you see selfishly chasing after some unattainable notion of perfection in order to feel better about themselves were to rail against the societal conditioning that helped them down that path, if they were to stand up and act more ‘man-like’ for the sake of their own self-respect, it would actually be to their detriment in the eyes of their peers.

Does that mean they shouldn’t try? Of course not! They should rail away, stereotypes and society be damned! But the central point is this: blaming negative traits of your gender (or any group for that matter) on the individuals that make it is missing the point by a long margin. These maligned traits and behaviours are part of a wider problem that is up to all of us, women and men and everyone between, to fight against with every effort that we have. As long as confidence and decisiveness are seen as manly traits, and pickiness, perfection and self-hatred are seen as feminine traits, there is a serious infection at the heart of our culture.

It is that illness which should be at the centre of our focus, and not some passing observation that women should “man up”.

Thank you for your time.

References

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2002). The police officer’s dilemma: using ethnicity to disambiguate potentially threatening individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1314–1329.

Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Foschi, M. (2009). Gender, performance level, and competence standards in task groups. Social Science Research, 38(2), 447–457.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Rudman, L. A. (2010). When men break the gender rules: Status incongruity and backlash against modest men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity.

Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 165–179.

Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social …, 85(3), 440–452.

And the turtle swims on…

The Mended Drum was silent. Well, nearly silent. The brawlers had long since left, leaving nothing but splinters of chairs and tables lying in puddles of well-quaffed ale. In the tavern’s centre, a single table stood untouched.

Five figures sat around it, cast into shadow by the guttering candles above. Together they sat and stared at the object in the centre of the table: an hourglass, nearly empty, the last of its sand emptying with a patient hiss that filled the room.

One figure shifted, the crooked point of his grubby hat swaying, the word ‘Wizzard’ barely visible beneath the grime.

“How much longer?” he asked softly.

NOT LONG, replied a voice as heavy as the grave.

“That’s what you said last time!” snapped the figure to its right, her arms crossed firmly in front of her plain, black robe, “I won’t stand for it!”

I AM SORRY, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX, replied Death, THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO SAY.

Another figure leaned forward, his well-worn armour creaking around him. “Isn’t there anything we can do? Some…” he swallowed his distaste and said the word, “spell, some magic that could save him?” He turned to the final figure, who sat slumped in their chair, an untouched pile of peanuts on the table in front of them.

“Ook,” came the sad reply.

THE LIBRARIAN IS RIGHT. THIS IS BEYOND THE POWER OF MAGIC.

“There ain’t nothing right about it.” murmured Granny darkly.

The armoured man started forward. “What about you then!” he challenged the Reaper. “What was it that saved me? ‘Kwa’-something or other? Couldn’t you use that to-”

‘QUANTUM’ COMMANDER VIMES. AND NO. I MAY NOT. YOUR DEATH WAS NEVER CERTAIN. HIS IS. HE IS GOING TO DIE AND NOTHING CAN CHANGE THAT. Death’s cowl turned towards Granny Weatherwax who met his endless gaze with her own piercing stare. NOT EVEN ME.

Silence fell again and all heads turned towards the life-timer as the last of the sand continued to fall, its hateful hiss seeming to grow even louder. Two bulbs stacked atop each other, connected by a small channel. Simple and unadorned.

“It’s so plain,” said Rincewind absently, “I’d have thought it would have been…grander somehow.”

“Ook.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘just a man’? Without him we’d be nothing!”

“That’s a point,” said Vimes, slumped back in his chair, his armour even more rumpled than usual, “Has anyone thought about what happens to us?”

Rincewind’s eyes bulged with fear and realisation. “Oh by the gods!” He twisted in his seat, his hat swinging in a low arc that left a trail of dust and grime in the air behind it. “What happens to us?” he demanded of the Grim Reaper. “Do we just vanish? Is this the end?”

“No,” spoke Granny, uncrossing her arms and scowling at the sand as if sheer disapproval could stop its flow. “We stay. The disc turns and the turtle swims. We’ll be here long after he’s gone.” The spite in her voice made the very air tremble.

Vimes sighed deeply. “It’s not fair.”

“It’s not Right,” agreed Granny.

“It’s not just,” finished Rincewind.

THERE IS NO JUSTICE. said Death. THERE’S JUST-

“Eek!” screeched the Librarian, flinging a peanut hard at the grinning skull. It bounced off Death’s forehead with a soft crack and landed softly on the beer-soaked floor.

“No, he’s right,” placated Rincewind. He scanned the table, meeting his companions’ gazes one by one. “There’s just us.”

All eyes and eye-sockets turned to the life-timer for a final time. The last few grains were rattling in the top bulb. The flow of the sand had slowed to its final crawl.

“Well go on then!” bit Granny at Death, “You’ve got a job to do.”

The Grim Reaper bowed his head and stood. He reached out a bony hand and gently lifted the hourglass from the table.

FAREWELL. He said before leaving by the door. Of course, he didn’t stop to open it.

***

(From Sir Terry Pratchett’s Final Tweets)

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

Of Reflections

A broken mirror still reflects

Despite its shattered form

But faults and cracks stay ever dark

No matter how light falls.

 

It’s fractured, frozen, functionless

Yet ignorant in bliss

And does not, will not, ever see

Whatever is amiss.

 

Yet those who look upon it now

Seem scarred and brittle, broken.

Though whole enough, they cannot know

These cracks are not their own.

 

The eyes of others have their use

To spot one’s hidden flaws

But for God’s sake, please don’t assume

They’re just as bad as yours.

A Plea To Scotland

To all YES voters. Thank you. You’ve reinvigorated political debate and got us talking and caring about issues about which we’ve long been complacent. You’ve pushed Westminster to breaking point and extracted promises of change and devolution.

Now, please, listen to a plea from the rest of the UK and vote NO, not for your sake, but ours. Your grievances with Westminster are legitimate but they are not yours alone, they are shared by anyone and everyone hungry for change in the UK and there are many of us (even in London). If you leave now, you’ll cripple our chances at the change you seek.

If you stay, you’ll be granted all the powers Westminster promised and set the precedent for a new model of British government that takes the power from the elite few and gives it to those who know how best to use it. With your help we can push it further, acquiring similar powers for regions across the UK.

Fearful that Westminster will go back on their word? Don’t be. You’ll have allies everywhere, across the voting booths in the No campaign and across the border in England and Wales. We will fight with you and we will hold them to their word.

So please, vote NO and harness the spark you’ve awoken to fan a great flame that will start change across the whole of the UK and not just Scotland.

Also, I’ll miss you.

Book Exchange

I was recently challenged by a couple of friends to name the top ten books that influenced me the most. I found the task much harder than I thought it would be, not because I was spoilt for choice, but rather because I don’t actually read a great deal anymore. In the end, I had to reflect on my entire life to come up with the list below. As such it made sense to put it in chronological order rather than make any attempt to rate by preference.

1) The Norse Myths (no idea who compiled the edition)

I can’t remember how old I was when I received this thick, fancily bound volume from my grandmother, possibly six or seven. She herself had won it in a contest when she was young and had kept it carefully ever since. Due to my age, I didn’t quite understand that a book published and printed sixty years ago deserved careful handling, I just wanted to read it. Even now I retain my fascination with mythology and love the simplicity of the stories. They’re short, awe-inspiring and unashamedly brutal.  Not to mention the gods involved are always as badly behaved as the humans.

2) Small Gods – Terry Pratchett

Now, if this were a list of my favourite books, I could have easily put almost any Discworld book on this list. However, I’ve picked Small Gods because as a thirteen year-old, overly obsessed with thoughts of faith and religion, it was this book that neatly summarised the difference between the two for me. Turning classical mythology on its head, it is the tale of a man who guides a small and vulnerable god through the wilderness and together they achieve, not enlightenment, but mutual understanding.

3) The Drawing Of The Three – Stephen King

I’m a massive King fan. The fullness of every character he creates (whether they survive for an entire book or a single paragraph) astounds me, especially given how outlandish his subject matter is. Once again I struggled with which book to choose and was tempted to say ‘Different Seasons’ (which gave us ‘Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption’) but in the end, it had to be the second book of ‘the Dark Tower’ series. As epic journeys go, how better to start one than have a giant lobster permanently cripple your lead character?  After that, perhaps he can pull travelling companions through doors across time and space, all the while fighting against the mob, a disabled woman with a split personality and a psychopath with a fondness for pushing people into traffic. Only Stephen King could give us the above, while simultaneously creating four painfully real characters who we will want to follow for five more books until their journey ends.

4) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume

Hume is, without a doubt, my idol. His works have affected me deeply and I sing his praises to almost everyone I meet. Ostensibly, his ‘Dialogues’ are a dissection of the standard arguments for God’s existence, however, despite having put each in its place by the end, Hume can’t help but admire the wonder of the world and note within himself a desire to believe that it was designed. I suspect it was probably this work that made me decide to switch from philosophy to psychology during my undergrad. Having decided that my own beliefs were sound, Hume’s uncertainty, despite his reason assuring him that he was correct, made me question why it is that we believe what we do. This is something that still motivates my academic interests and my writing.

5) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

By the time I read this one I’d been a fan of Victorian England for most of my life. There’s just something about the aesthetic that I adore. With the addition of gentleman magicians and an increasingly surreal narrative, I remember thinking that Susanna Clarke had written a book solely for me. From her consciously affected prose, to her meticulously researched settings, to her boundless imagination, there was nothing about this book that I didn’t love.

6) Watchmen – Alan Moore

If I’m allowed to cheat and sneak a graphic novel into the mix it would have to be Watchmen. There is far too much to unpack and summarise, suffice to say that it gave me a whole new perspective on ethics, theology and the human condition. If you sneer at the thought of comics and superheroes, this is the book that will show you how wrong you are.

7) The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli

Despite it being a satire, I found much sage advice in Machiavelli’s slim volume. This is because although I’m a utilitarian of the Millian variety at heart, I struggle with the latter’s assertion that given the choice, humans will seek out the ‘higher pleasures’, referring to pursuits that will benefit society such as academia, literature, invention (often summarised by his ‘…better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’ quote). As it is from this principle that Mill derives social liberalism, I can’t help but think that Machiavelli’s brutal practicality might have its place, perhaps even supplanting Mill. In summary: If man is wise, reach for Mill, if he is foolish, reach for Machiavelli. The fact that I’ve included the latter on this list rather than the former speaks of my current opinion on the matter.

8) Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

This was given to me by my cousin in 2009, although I didn’t actually read it until 2012. After I did I was incredibly ashamed as, despite her sometimes off-putting political tone, Cordelia Fine does a fantastic job of dissecting the science behind biological differences in gender. Specifically, she demonstrates that the numerous claims that differences in performance and mental abilities between genders can be explained by differing neurobiology, are at best unfounded and at worst downright sexist. Having been lectured in gender by Simon Baron-Cohen, after reading this book I literally re-evaluated my entire worldview. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

9) The Complete Robot – Isaac Asimov

For someone who claims to enjoy sci-fi, I read Asimov far too late. But, better late than never. Whether long or short, funny or tragic, his stories are always engaging, thought-provoking and very, very human. Required reading for anyone who works in AI or fears a robot uprising. I merely wish that ‘The Bicentennial Man’ had received a better film adaptation.

10) Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

After a couple of years in the wilderness (well, Birmingham and Bournemouth) it was this book which reinvigorated my interest in academia. Kahneman gives a detailed but easily grasped rundown of how we think, in particular, the heuristics that bypass slow and methodical reasoning. I was so incredibly happy when reading this book as it reminded me that the question that had been bugging me for years (why we believe what we do) has an entire field dedicated to it. To give you an idea of how much I’ve been influenced, as I write this post, I’m a week away from rejoining that field.

Read well,

Mike

Chaos and Breakfast

Today I caught myself staring at a plate. Not a decorative plate you understand. It wasn’t some kitsch monstrosity slap-dashed with paint splotches in the vague shape of a flower, nor some painfully abstract sketch in an imitation of Miro, or even some sterile-blue china ready to crack at a misplaced whisper (all of which decorated our old lounge at one point or another). No, this was a simple piece of plain white crockery.

Minutes before it held my gaze it held my breakfast. Two rashers of bacon and an egg. That’s not my usual breakfast you understand. The bacon’s bought for a BLT that’s always more L and T than B, and the eggs are for chocolate chip cookies. However, I’d run out of milk the previous evening and hence had nothing to wet my muesli with but water, and I wasn’t trying that again anytime soon. As such, I was forced by circumstance and a lack of foresight to eat a manly concoction of protein and grease.

I ate absently, as I usually do, mind otherwise occupied by solemn fantasies and trivial ethics. In fact, it took me about an hour between finishing my meal to realise that my plate was empty. As you may have guessed, I’m not a morning person.

I took the plate to the sink and ran the tap, running a weak stream over the congealed brown and yellow left by pig-flesh and yolk. As I looked down to seek the sponge I saw that the excess dirt had drifted but had left a complex strata behind, stark shades of brown against the white. It was at this point I paused. The plate held flatly between thumbs and fingers, arms extended stiffly over the sink, my eyes were transfixed by the lines and curves that waxed and twisted on the dish’s surface, the by-product of my near-mechanical ingestion.

I swirled the remaining water around the plate, some of the shapes shifted and dropped, but most endured, showing me that this structure was somehow basic. It would not be so easily shifted. Like the coffee dregs at the base of my cooling cup, my mind slowly slugged into motion and I wondered why I was so captivated.  There was no particular reason to it, no prophet’s face appeared in the crumbs of bacon, no divine message, scrambled or otherwise, sprung from my egg’s remains. So what, then, had captured my attention?

As I reflected, I realised that I was searching for some pattern in the stains. I recalled the Miro plate from our old lounge (very out of place in a room of faux Victorian charm) and tried to dissect mine similarly, disassembling the abstract whole to search for lines and shapes of concrete certainty. I recalled the floral monstrosities (dabbed by someone who had once seen a Monet in a coffee table book) and tried to step back from the basic, disconnected daubs and search for a coherent whole from a distance. I traced the yolky curves to find the Golden Spiral, measured between the grease spots to discover fractals, I even examined the negative space of the white ceramic to see if the answer I sought was evident in absence rather than presence.

However, no matter what I tried, it all failed. Despite the fact that my mind, through both reason and heuristics, is designed to find order where it is and project it where it’s lacking, I could not find the faintest pattern in the utter chaos left by my breakfast. And yet, the unsettling notion that there really should be one weighed on my stomach as heavily as a full-English.

Then I realised that I was despairing over a dirty plate and wiped away the mess with a single sweep of the sponge.

The Blueprint Paradox

“Hey. Hey, wake up!”

Ben snapped from his reverie. “I’m awake! I’m awake. I wasn’t asleep. God Abbey, can’t a man rest his eyes once in a while?” He pressed the panel and the pod door slid open.

“Inside the Mark Three? The greatest advancement in the history of mankind since fire? You sure know how to pick your spots!”

He stood and pressed his hands into the small of his back. A satisfying series of pops rewarded him. Fogged thoughts tried to condense but dissipated. Perhaps he had been asleep. He shouldn’t feel this hazy. He looked at Abbey and saw her wide-eyed stare. “What is it?”

“No-nothing,” she stuttered, “You just look…well, terrible.”

He rolled his eyes. “Thanks. It’s been a hell of a week. You’re heading out?” He walked to the sink and washed his hands, rubbing off some ink that had made it onto his palm. Again, a thought tried to crystallize. He shook it away. If it was important it would come to him in its own time.

“Yeah,” Abbey replied, “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

Ben glanced at his watch and grinned at her. “Of course! It’s what we’ve been waiting for isn’t it? The public announcement of Project Chronos! A nice payslip from the MOD and worldwide fame as the creators of the first functioning time machine.”

“There’s no need to sound so happy about it!” she snapped.

“Oh come on Abbey, this again? They’re using it for crisis prevention, it’s hardly a weapon.”

“And how long until they turn it into one?”

Ben sighed. Déjà vu, he thought. How many times had they had this conversation? “I’m not getting into this with you again Abbey. In any case, it’s too late. The directors ruled on your appeal.”

He could practically see her shake as her rage waxed. Then, to his surprise she calmed abruptly. She nodded towards the door. They walked, Abbey’s low heels clacking sharply on the sterile, white floor.

“You’re right,” she sighed, “but for the record, I still don’t think we’re ready. We need to look at the cooldown period again.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh come on! We’ve been through this a hundred times. That’s why we have the protocols, for both the machine and the users. And anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s only thirty minutes, what could possibly happen in thirty minutes?”

She riled. “You’re talking about mixing time travel and amnesia. Temporary though the latter may be, anything could happen!”

“Look Abbey, we’re talking about trained professionals here.”

“But what use is their training if they can’t remember it?!”

“That’s not how it works and you know it. We’re only talking about a temporary disruption in their short to mid-term episodic recollection, that’s all. All semantic and procedural memory is left completely intact!  They’ll still be able to read the signs and warnings, open the capsule and if, on the negligible chance that our calculations are off and they touch down in hostile territory, they’ll have the training to deal with it. They’ve been training using the protocols you wrote since Dr Werner built the Mark One. They’re soldiers for Christ’s sake Abbey! They’re built to act without thinking!”

Abbey mouth shut, her lips narrowing to a line. “You know what I think about that. But their profession aside I still say it leaves them vulnerable.”

“Is this your closed loop objection? I thought we put that to bed. Or have you forgotten about the Erics?”

He jabbed a thumb to his left. Two men stood arguing, dressed in identical lab-coats with identical coffee stains, four gangled arms flailing for emphasis, pointed faces red with frustration.

“Arguing over their wife no doubt,” commented Ben.

Despite herself, Abbey snuffled laughter. “No, hah…ahem, no. I haven’t forgotten about the Erics. What I mean is hah, sorry. I still can’t believe he managed to clone himself.”

“It’s his own damn fault. If you’re going to travel an hour into the past, making sure you don’t meet yourself is a matter of basic common sense.”

“In any case,” said Abbey firmly, “the point is that the Erics only proved that closed loops are a danger. The blueprint paradox is only possible when we can split timelines.”

Ben’s forehead furrowed but he said nothing, hoping to bypass the oncoming lecture. Unfortunately Abbey spotted his blankness. She rolled her eyes.

“Don’t tell me that I’m going to have to take you through this on the whiteboard?”

“Hey, I’m only the neuro-engineer, you’re the brains behind it all!”

“You should at least know the basic paradoxes! Never mind, we’ll go in here.”

They entered the staff room. Abbey deposited her bag on a chair and approached the board. Ben found that he was famished and grabbed a boost bar from the fridge. There was only one left. Blueberry. He hated blueberry, he could always taste it for hours afterwards. In fact he was tasting it now just thinking about it. Unwrapping it he turned to see Abbey in front of the board, posed like a school ma’am, tapping her pen impatiently.

He bit into his bar and gestured for her to continue.

“Right. Let’s pretend that you’re a brilliant scientist.”

“Hey!”

“Oh grow up.”

She drew a long, right-pointing arrow. “You spend decades researching time travel and develop blueprints for a machine, which you then build.” She tapped the arrow’s head. “Here, you realise that you could enjoy this machine more if you were thirty years younger, so you travel back in time-” A long curve connected the end of the arrow with its start. “-and leave the blueprints for your younger self to find.”

Again, those foggy thoughts clouded Ben’s head. He pushed them away. This was hard enough to understand as it was.

“This creates a new timeline where,” Another arrow was drawn parallel to the first. “you find the blueprints lying about and build the machine with none of the understanding you developed over a long career of trial and error. You’re just following the instructions of a much smarter man.”

“Is that how you see me?” Ben asked through a full mouth, “crouching on the shoulders of giants?”

“Let’s leave your inferiority to Dr Werner out of this, rest his soul.”

“Rest his soul.”

The pen tapped again on the second arrow. “In any case, because you lack the understanding that anyone intending to travel through time should possess you mistakenly think you have to leave yourself the blueprints and so travel back in your own timeline, leaving them at the point you found them.” Another arc, connecting the end of the second arrow to its start. “Before going on your merry way.”

A crease fissured Ben’s forehead. There was something important here. He wished he knew what it was.

Reading his confusion, Abbey tapped the arc sharply. “Here’s the important part. You haven’t changed the course of events and so no new timeline is created. Young you comes along, finds the blueprints, makes the machine, goes back leaves the blueprints again and so on and so on. The only effect is that the first timeline-” Another tap. “-where you actually created the blueprints is aborted, vanished.”

“So the older me never arrives?”

“No. The only remaining artefact of the first timeline are the blueprints themselves.”

The fissure deepened. “I see…I think.”

Abbey exhaled with frustration. “It doesn’t matter whether you understand it or not. The point is there’s a threat of closed loops.”

“Alright. I’ll accept the threat exists. However, I’m still missing how this applies.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I’m not mistaken, the only thing that this whole scenario results in is the non-existence of one old man, whose new, younger self is much happier with his time machine.”

“But what about the blueprints?”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re trapped, Ben. Trapped in a closed loop, travelling endlessly through the same stretch of repeating time.”

“They’re blueprints Abbey,”

“Yes, but what if it happens to someone sent back by our machine?”

“You’re forgetting one thing, we’re not sending back inanimate objects, we’re sending live, more-or-less intelligent humans who are following your carefully written protocols. For them to be trapped they need to make a mistake. And not just one mistake, the same mistake over and over, never learning, never altering their actions in the slightest.” He took another bite of the bar.

“Which if they can’t remember the last thirty minutes is incredibly likely!”

Ben stopped chewing. Abbey was shaking, a frenzy overtook her.

“What if the Mark Three malfunctions? What if there’s an accident in the cooldown period? What if the “episodic disruption” as you call it turns out to be wider spread than we thought? If the pod is triggered before the end of the cooldown period someone could be trapped in a closed loop and never realise it, until perhaps they realise they’re growing old, or starving or not even then. They rejected my appeal, Ben but they’ll listen to you. Please, we need more time to work this out!”

Her voice rang through his aching head. The clouds swirled again, filling every cavity. “Alright, alright. I understand.” Ben shoved the last of the bar down his throat and raised his hands in submission. “Look, I’ll stay late. I’ll double and triple check the software and the impact controls. I’ll review the neurology data and tomorrow we’ll recommend to the directors that more studies are done. I can’t promise they’ll agree, the MOD’s pushing hard on them but…”

“Thanks Ben,” Abbey regained her breath. Her smile glowed. “It’d mean a lot. I’ll stay too.”

“No, you’ve put enough work into worrying about this. Go home, I’ll be fine.”

As Abbey slung her satchel over her shoulder and left, Ben sighed and reached for his coffee mug. He grasped the pot and poured a cupful. As he lifted it to his lips he again noted the ink on his palm. Whatever it was it could wait. No wonder he’d zoned out in the Mark Three, he felt completely drained.

Slowly, he made his way back along the winding corridors to the lab. He waved at the Erics who’d apparently solved their dispute and were leaving arm in arm, they didn’t see him. The biometric lock scanned him head to toe and buzzed. He drained his cup, placed it on the side and entered the pod. Sitting back in the low-slung seat Abbey’s words nagged at him.

“Trapped…endlessly repeating…”

He shook his head and touched the Mark Three’s interface. The panel flickered to life. The odds were astronomical. To be trapped you’d first need to make a mistake, ignoring all the protocols and warnings. His fingers tapped, dismissing the flashing windows and opening the console. Secondly, you’d need to travel back less than half an hour. Any further and your memory would recover before you could make the same mistake twice. He tapped at the buttons resetting the system to its defaults. Thirdly you’d need to…

The fog swirled. But this time it cleared on its own. His fingers froze in their tapping. Déjà vu. His memories stirred. He’d been out the door, at his car. Abbey had caught up with him, in one of her fits. He’d asked what was wrong, she’d explained. Drawn him back inside, used the whiteboard, pleaded with him. He’d agreed to check the system one last time before the directors told them to pack it up. He’d come in, sat down and…his eyes widened.

The pod door swung shut.

He pushed at it. It wouldn’t budge. He hit it with his fist, then his other, he hammered both on it and yelled.

“Help!”

A low hum sounded, slowly rising as the generators warmed up.

“No, no!”

He turned to the panel, frantic, tapping at the screen. It didn’t work. He was locked out. He pressed his face against the pod’s window and yelled again.

“Help m-” his voice choked as he saw his reflection. His hair. Usually he wore it high and short. It was nearly at his shoulders. His ears were completely covered. He looked down at his nails. They were long and white. How hadn’t he noticed? A noise ahead of him. He looked out and the bottom dropped out of his world. It was Abbey. He could see the tears in her eyes. He’d seen them many times before, even though this was the first time she’d ever cried in front of him.

“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed, “It’s gone too far. They won’t listen to me…or to you. But if you’re gone-”

“Don’t do it Abbey!” he cried through the glass. “We can work this out!” As he said the words, he remembered that they never worked.

“No! I’m sorry but this is how it has to be.”

Shaking her hand reached for the button.

Ben looked about him in terror. His thoughts were now as clear as day. He could remember every second he’d experienced. Every single repetition of these never-ending thirty minutes.

The panel flashed.

“5”

He looked up. Abbey had fled. He could hear her sobs echoing down the corridor.

“4”

He searched through his pockets.  For something, anything that could help.

“3”

His fingers brushed against something. He pulled it out. A pen!

“2”

He snatched off the top and scribbled on his palm. All he had to do was make one small change.

“1”

He finished writing. And smiled. This time would be different.

“0”

As the machine whirred and the world began to blur, he looked at the wet ink on his palm, the note reading ‘Don’t trust her.’ His smile faded. The note fitted perfectly over the smudge on his palm. Another mistake. The same mistake.

As the whirring reached fever pitch he closed his eyes. His mind began to fog, that precious clarity faded, even as he tried to grasp it. He focused on Abbey’s face. Perhaps if he could just remember that. Just remember. Remember…

“Hey”

His eyes opened.

“Hey, wake up!”

A voice. Whose? He turned. It was Abbey. Now what did she want? Didn’t she know that he needed to rest?

***

Abbey clicked her keys. Her car beeped in reply. Her eyes were red but the tears themselves had faded. She hadn’t believed she’d be capable. Hadn’t believed that she would do it. But when Ben had pulled himself out of the pod, eyes weary, hair wild and long, she’d realised that she already done it.

She climbed behind the wheel and hid her face in her hands.

It was for the greater good.

She repeated the sentence over and over. Without the lead engineer, the MOD would have to scrap the project. The Mark Three would be stored in a warehouse somewhere and Dr Werner’s legacy would be protected. Project Chronos would never begin or be twisted at the whim of those hateful warmongers. As for Ben…

There was a problem with the blueprint paradox, and closed loops. What happened when the blueprint had gone through ten loops, twenty, a hundred? What happened when its edges wore away, its diagrams bleached by the sun, the paper crumbled to dust? What happened when the blueprints could no longer be used to build the machine?

The key turned and the engine rumbled to life.

What would happen when Ben could no longer ignore his aging body? When his hair turned grey and his clothes wore to rags. Would he realise what was happening? Would he escape? Would the closed loop collapse aborting this timeline, freeing Ben to tell everyone what she’d done?

She didn’t know the answer. Couldn’t know. It was a problem for another time.

A Vicious Dog

A vicious dog attempts to maul you.

He attacks with savagery and a clear intent to kill but succeeds only in scratching your leg and terrifying your children. He then retreats to a kennel filled with puppies. He hides behind them. If you throw a rock at the kennel it will collapse and kill him. However, some of the puppies will die as well and any that survive might grow up to be just as vicious. Soon, the dog will try to maul you and your children.

You have a lot of rocks.

What do you do?

***

A vicious dog stands in front of you.

Every time you step towards him he growls with menace. Every time you step away he comes a step closer. His barks and snaps terrify your children. He pisses on your things and claims them as his own. Behind you is a brick wall. If you throw a rock at him he might be injured and back away. But then again, he might maul you and your children.

You have some gravel and pebbles.

What do you do?

***

A vicious dog stands right beside you. Another stands ten feet away.

They growl and snarl at one another. You try to walk away but the first just hides behind you. You approach the other but he just snaps at you. You are always right in the middle. The dogs’ growls are getting louder. Sooner or later, they will attack each other and you will be mauled between them.

You have nothing.

What do you do?

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© 2017 Michael Scoins