13 December 2005


When I was at university, one of our lecturers (who was described as a ‘philosophical skinhead’ by one reviewer) held a seminar on Xeno's paradox of infinity. The discussion went something like this:

Student (doing the presentation): A ball bounces an infinite number of times, and so never stops.
Rocky (for ‘twas his name): No, a ball bounces an infinite number of times, and then stops.
Student (becoming agitated): That’s not right; the concept of infinity involves not stopping. That’s why it’s infinite.
Rocky: No, it doesn't.

This went on for two hours. As the bell went, Rocky asked the student: ‘What do you mean by the term “infinite”?’ The student explained. And Rocky replied: ‘That's not what I mean’, and left.

We, poor astounded students, swore violently and took ourselves off to the pub to drown our sorrows in Guinness, cursing his name.

Two years later, I realised what he was getting at. The word ‘infinite’ is a negation, and we commonly assume that it is the negation of the word ‘finite’. But it is also the negation of the word ‘definite’. Rocky was using the second sense, and was saying that a ball bounces and ‘in-definite’ number of times, then stops. No paradox; no contradiction. If someone had actually challenged him on the definition of the term, we could all have retired to the pub a lot earlier and sung his praises instead. Needless to say, it’s one of the few things I remember about my philosophy degree.

07 December 2005

The Waiting

Today was a day of Waiting.

Waiting for a package is a nightmare for me. I got notification from Amazon two days ago that the thing had been sent. So it is possible that it will turn up today; and so my entire day revolves around the wait. I can’t go to the corner shop and get a pizza, in case the post comes while I’m out (no bad thing, actually, because I had a vegetables and pasta instead). The day went through, I think, four distinct phases:

8:00 - 10:00 Breakfast. No way the post will come that early, but the anticipation starts mounting.

10:00 - 12:00 Too early, but possible: I hear an engine in the street, and I almost leap to my feet; but then I look at the clock and remind myself that it is still too early.

12:00 - 14:00 Optimal time. Every vehicle which passes could be the post, and the number of times I stop whatever I’m doing and listen intently before sidling over to the window to check is ridiculous. At one point I even go downstairs to ostensibly check the postbox - well, perhaps the bell has broken overnight, and the postman (it’s usually a man) has left a card saying I can collect the package from the station. I leave the door to the hall open, so that the postman can come inside and call, which he’s been known to do.

14:00 - 16:00 Cooling off. I have to go to work at 16:00, so if the post hasn’t arrived by then, I won’t get the package before tomorrow, even if he does leave a card. So during this period I brace myself for the inevitable disappointment of not getting the goodies, having spent an entire day waiting with baited breath.

Then, suddenly, at 15:55 - I’m about to put my shoes on - the doorbell rings. I leap to my feet, grab the keys, and hurtle down three flights of stairs. I can see the postman through the glass; I open the door, and see he’s holding a package from Amazon - and he says:

"Can you take this for the guy on the bottom floor?"

Oh well, tomorrow is another day. I can’t wait.