So. Farewell then, Harriet the Tortoise

Harriet the Tortoise has died at the age of 175.

During the recent celebrations for her 175th birthday, her keepers at the Australian zoo put her longevity down to a “stress free life.” However, existence was not always easy. After being brought over from the Galapagos (perhaps by Darwin?) she was unfortunately designated male, and had to spend a hundred and twenty five years being treated as such.

The ignominy of this administrative error must have been especially acute for Harriet, because Tortoises are a sign of the feminine in some cultures. A colleague of mine has an ambition to visit the Yunnan province in China, to search for the feminine symbols carved onto tortoise shells (with, she writes, “the express blessing of the tortoise, of course”).


My statistics programme tells me that someone from North Carolina visited my website yesterday, after typing the following into a search engine:

Robert Sharp for Congress

Nothing provokes as much introspection as your own personal homonym achieving something. Somewhere in America, some guy, some two-bit yahoo has manoevered himself enough, so that a place in the US House of Representatives is now a realistic proposition! We do not know each other, and yet he jeers at me from accross the Atlantic.

I have been top of the Google rankings for my own name for a while. There was a time, a year ago, when a State Supreme Court judge, one Robert Sharp Bean of Oregon, challenged for the top spot. He is dead though, and mentionings of him online seem to have tailed off somewhat. Thanks to WordPress, I remain comfortably top the billing, every time I check. Now, however, I need to watch out for this new kid-on-the-block, this Robert Sharp for Congress fellow, to ensure he makes no play for my crown. Who does he think he is?

Fact: You, dear reader, have searched for your own name in Google.

Of course, you will deny it. I will not believe you.

So tell all. How did knowledge of your homonyms, your name-alikeys, make you feel? Superior, or inadequate?

I confess, Robert Sharp intimidates me. He’s all ‘project management’ and user testing. I take comfort from the fact that he develops Windows Longhorn, and thus totally off my Venn diagramme of Possible Worlds. I wouldn’t want Rob Sharp‘s job although he’s clearly done well for himself. I would like Robert Sharp‘s job, though most of his portfolio is rather parochial. Robert Sharp, on the other hand, just gets on my nerves, and needs a better website.

I would love to have met Dr Robert Sharp, who was pretty cool in a geeky way. But he’s dead too. Most of the other Robert Sharps yeilded by Google are mainly priests and scientists – earnest fellows. I feel we might have something in common. Besides our name, that is.

No Sharps
No Sharps at Gatwick Airport. Photo by yrstrly


Don’t forget Rob Sharp, features writer at the Independent. Irritatingly, no-one has asked if we are one and the same person yet, so I can’t claim credit for his output. One day…


The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
Matthew 6:22-23

Dr Crippen, the NHS Blog Doctor asks if there are any volunteers who will donate their body to medical science. Dissecting a human body is invaluable experience for medical students’ understanding of their primary place of work, but apparently there is a decline in the number of people making donations.

I mentioned this at a small gathering yesterday. Once people had overcome my social faux pas of mentioning human dissection while eating, it was interesting to hear people’s views on the matter.

Most people in the group could not stomach the idea of being chopped up. I find this this attitude rather… immature? Or maybe it is lack of imagination, failing to conceive a world in which you no longer play a part. The body will be dead by the time it happens, so there is no sense in imagining what it might be like to be subjected to the student’s knife. The act of donation is part of your existence. The act of dissection is not. Furthermore, dead bodies are all, ultimately, either burnt or digested: A distgusting thought if one imagines it happening to oneself, but an unavoidable destiny nonetheless. For the squeamish, I would imagine a clean and clinical dissection would be a preferable post-mortem journey. Of course, the destruction of the body during burial or cremation does not occur with a group of teenagers looking on. Perhaps there is a dignity in dissolving to your original carbon atoms in private.

A more positive consensus on the subject of organ donation. Everyone had a card, with various boxes ticked. In the case of four of the group (all women, I noticed), the one box they had declined to tick was the eyes. While they were fine with donating something trivial like a kidney, and even something as poetic as the heart, they would rather keep their eyes to themselves. This, the consensus claimed, was because while other organs are hidden away, “you can actually see the eyes.”

Perhaps they had remembered the old saying “the eyes are the mirror to the soul” and considered that taking the eyes would somehow be removing something more than a cornea. I had not considered this before, and in this materialistic, aetheistic culture, their attitude caught me by surprise.

Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is quoted as saying, Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter). I found that and the quote from the New Testament via

FOUND launch album

You know your brain is fried when you cannot even muster a meta-blogging post, about how you cannot summon the energy to have an opinion about the issues of the day.

[photopress:fnd027_sutherland_gav.jpg,full,alignright]Thank goodness, then, that I’m off to be entertained at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club, where promising local band FOUND are launching their album. They’ve already been on MTV with their single Mulokian, and if their next release Static 68 doesn’t get some TV play time, I’ll be annoyed – I spent 3 hours on a concrete floor filming a timelapse for the video.

Visit FOUND at MySpace, listen to their hilarious podcast, or enter their fantastic colouring in competition. I know I will.

Extra time, then penalties

Hearts vs GretnaAn afternoon of concentration, watching both the Scottish and English FA Cup Finals simultaneously. Both games were very exciting, end-to-end affairs, and the parallels were many – Red versus White; an under-dog versus a giant; extra-time; and finally, Goliath beating David on penalties.

Last year’s English final also went to extra time and penalties. Then, it was a necessary end to a frustrating final. This year, however, both shoot-outs were testimony to exciting games. Had the stakes been lower, we might have seen the under-dogs fight with less vigour, the favourites more relaxed, and a result determined in 90 minutes. The penalty shoot-outs are a symptom of both teams trying that extra bit harder.


I caught a mouse on the street this evening. I spotted him hopping over the cobbles outside my local pub. Initially, I gave chase merely for the excercise, never expecting to catch something so nimble as a wee mouse. However, the streets are well maintained in certain parts of Edinburgh, and there were no nooks or crannies for him to escape down. He moved left and right along the curb, but over a long distance could not match my stride, and I always overtook him. Eventually, I was able to wrap my claws around the mouse, and engulf him in the prison of my palm.

It is strange to feel another creature’s heart beating so fast. He bit me a couple of times on the finger, but my grip only tightened. He soon learnt to keep still and take deep breaths.

Back in my flat, I deposited the mouse into a tupperware box and covered the top with pierced tin-foil. I added a small piece of bread to the box, and then sat back, in silence, to watch my new guest.

I have to say, it was rather awkward. He clearly felt uneasy in his new surroundings and did not care for the food I had provided. He just sat there panting, occassionally breaking the monotony by jumping up to the roof of his accomodation in a frantic bid for freedom.

Thinking ahead, it soon became apparent that going to bed would be difficult, knowing that a small rodent was in distress in my hallway. Lacking a hamster wheel or one of those plastic rolling balls, it became obvious to me that the entertainment from my new pet would be limited, and I soon resolved to release him into my back garden.

I took the plastic box down the stairs, and peeled back the foil. The mouse hopped out in an instant, and made for the door that led outside. The lighting in the tenament stairwell is pretty poor, and I did not actually see him slip out… but he was gone, and I was relieved that I was no longer responsible for the creature.

I was left with an empty tupperware box and the scrap of bread. Having no use for the leftovers, I pulled open the back door, and threw the bread out onto the steps that lead out into the yard. As the bread landed, I noticed a flash of black and white in the darkness: The cat from next door, out for a stroll.

Update 7th May: I was chatting to a couple of friends about this last night. They pointed out that my actions were “Really. Weird.” I’m beginning to agree with them. Why chase a mouse? Why, on God’s earth, take it home? I honestly cannot account for my actions. Interestingly, all the comments below seem to be totally credulous…

Amnesty Category

I’ve inaugurated a new category, a place to put letters to administrations around the world, on behalf of Amnesty International.

Since I’ll be writing about five or six letters at a time, I don’t want all the posts to show up on the front page, bumping everything else off. Instead, I shall write a digest/round-up post which can act as a sign-post to the most recent letters.

I’ve used a plug-in category_visibility by Keith McDuffee, to achieve this technical trickery.

The next step is to redesign the category template to include a reference to Amnesty’s highly effective candle logo.

Upgrade to WP2

I’m ashamed that it took me so long to upgrade to WordPress version 2. I’m not as much of an ‘early adopter’ as I would like.

I am pleased to say that my templates ported across properly, and the site looks exactly the same as it always did. No ambitious spring clean here.

I don’t think that either of my readers will need to update their RSS feeds.

Encounters with souvenir sellers: scene II

Sigiriya: More ancient ruins. This time, a castle high on rock, built by a paranoid king who had killed his father and lived in fear of his exiled brother.

Down at the foot of the mountain, an old man approaches. He carries a single item for sale, what appears to be a wooden book. The other pedlars have not shown me anything like it, so I am a willing audience when the man offers a demonstration. It turns out to be a box with secret compartments, and one must pull back secret panels to open them.

It is clearly hand-made, from solid wood, and I recognise the guard-stone patterns carved into the sides. It is a quirky item that I may not find again, so I make up my mind to have it, there and then. But at what price?

Now don’t worry, I have done plenty of bargaining in my time. I once spent a full forty minutes arguing over a stone rhinoceros with a woman by the roadside outside another UNESCO site, the Great Zimbabwe monument. I eventually bought it for eighty Zimbabwe dollars, and broke the horn a day after purchase when I threw my bag into the back of a truck. In recent years however, the idea of haggling fills me with a certain unease. To make a fuss over what amounts to only a few pounds is surely petty. It is, after all, the kind of money that, in the average British pub, I can send through both my digestive and renal system and piss away in under thirty minutes. It is, after all, above the average daily wage for many of the people I encounter. Surely the benefit of the bargain must fall on their side, and not mine?

And so, as we begin to discuss the price, my heart is not in the game. He suggests over four thousand rupees, cheap if I had found the same item in a shop in the UK. All I have to do is hesitate for a short while, and this drops to three thousand. Passive, rather than pro-active bartering has won me a discount.

I consider that I can afford this amount, and that my group have already begun to climb the steps to the ruined castle, so I hand over a few of the many green notes in my wallet and make off with the book. The wood is thick and varnished. The carving has a tactile quality. It will look good on my shelf, and I begin to imagine the times I shall point it out to friends who visit, and tell anecdotes about Sri Lanka. It is a worthy artefact, and I shall treasure it forever…

Around the next boulder, I am accosted by another vendor, holding another secret book. It is exactly the same as the one I have just slipped into my satchel.

“Sir! Sir! Look, a seecrit book! Come see, only two thousand rupees!”

My heart sinks. My own purchase, once destined to take prime position as a genuine piece of take-home Sri Lankan culture, is devalued in an instant. I have paid over the odds. By the time I have descended the mountain, I have been offered other examples for for fifteen hundred. My scowling and reluctance to purchase is once again taken for passive bartering, and the price has dropped to a thousand. By the end of the day, I will have overheard an offer to one of my friends for five hundred.

The fact that some other pale tourist has bought the same thing for a cheaper price bothers me, haunts me into the evening. We haggle because of this pride. Never mind the money in our wallet. Never mind paying over the odds to a ragged old peddlar. Even if he is laughing at my naivety (and surely, by the Lord Buddha, he is laughing), I can write off the difference as a charity. The real dent to my ego is that I have lost out relative to the other tourists. And – make no mistake about this – they will remind me about this for the rest of the day, and probably tomorrow too.

I guess the crippling need for value for money, down to the last rupee, is a universal trait. Too many holiday conversations revolve around how much he paid for this, or how much she paid for that. Are we getting a good deal at our hotel? How much did the flights cost? Hearing that we are paying less for our hotel room fills us with secret glee. The news that someone managed to get a flight for fifty pounds less will threaten the entire trip. We need to confirm that we are having as good a time as everyone else. We search for a constant endorsement of our every action. Instead of enjoying the holiday – souvenirs, hotel rooms, flights – on their own merit, we judge them relative to what other people have done.

“These shoes were on discount … How much did you pay for your house? … We haggled down the price of our taxi … We found a delightful guest house that no-one else has been to … Our seats were upgrade … pray do tell me, how was your steak? It looks rather over done from this side of the table … “

Every day in Sri Lanka (as in Edinburgh), tourists take photographs of land-marks, duplicating a million photographs of the same scene, carbon-copies of which exist within a hundred thousand photo albums world wide. Of course, we want to remember the scene, its history and its beauty… but we could do that by purchasing a post-card or a professional print. But the problem with paid-for pictures is that they do not endorse the holiday in a way that personal, amateur snaps do. Our own pictures (with our gormless, pasty mugs in the foreground) are proof that we went there, and thus proof that we had a great time, had our value for money.

As, indeed, are wooden souvenir boxes with exotic carvings. Just don’t tell anyone how much you paid for them.

Solipsism of the present

I’ve been reading A Defense of Nonsense, a rich essay by the fantastic G.K. Chesterton. Forgive me if I quote at length:

There are times when we are almost crushed, not so much with the load of evil as with the load of goodness of humanity, when we feel that we are nothing but the interiors of a humiliating splendour. But there are other times when everything seems primitive, when the ancient stars are only sparks blown from a boy’s bonfire, when the whole earth seems so young and experimental that even the white hair of the aged, in the fine biblical phrase, is like almond-trees that blossom, like the white hawthorn grown in May. That it is good for a man to realize that he is ‘the heir of all the ages’ is pretty commonly admitted; it is a less popular but equally important point that it is good for him sometimes to realize that he is not only an ancestor, but an ancestor of primal antiquity; it is good for him to wonder whether he is not a hero, and to experience ennobling doubts as to whether he is not a solar myth.

We are both descendants and ancestors of a longer history than we care to imagine. But we have a great advantage over a historical past and a hypothetical future – We exist. This undeniable superiority inspires in us a certain arrogance. Human nature provokes a solipsism of the present, where our actions are deemed obviously more important than anything people have already done, or may do in the future. Perhaps this feeling wanes when one becomes a parent, and you are no longer a peak in human evolution, merely another worn link in the chain.

As I have said before, before, there are times when I feel as though we still exist in some kind of kooky pre-enlightenment era, where nonsense prevails and in the future historians will ridicule us for our narrow mindedness. We have invented the technology to harvest power from the sun, yet our system somehow deems it more appropriate to spend billions on securing a worryingly finite oil supply, instead of at least optimising the solar harvest. Some people genuinely believe that they – and their land – have identities that persist outside their own mind. Others spend millions on make-up, and millions more on make-up remover.

What sort of ancestor do we want to be? At present, it looks like we are set to become nothing more than a mad old grandfather. Full of incoherencies and self-contradictions, he talks about things that do not matter. He might have been interesting once, but now he sits in the corner, ignored.