25 May 2006


We have been looking after sick animals for as long as I can remember. At one point in Weston - before we went to Portugal, so it must have been ‘83 or ‘84 - we found a seagull with a broken wing on the beach one evening as we were walking the dog. Jenny - the dog - was running around ‘chasing’ gulls, which really meant racing towards them at full tilt to make them scatter in a cloud of feathers and cawing. But this one gull didn’t move, and Jenny was clearly perplexed by the way it just sat there. We christened it Gertie and took it home, nursing it for several weeks. Gertie became like an exotic pet of sorts; we’d shut the dog inside the house and take it out into the garden, and let it potter around. As its wing healed, catching it to take it back indoors for the night became increasingly tricky. One evening it managed to hop over the wall onto the road, which was luckily quiet, and Les had to run after it trying to catch it before it got into trouble. Half way up the hill it managed to get airborne, and we were all sad but thrilled to see it go. I have a memory of the house opposite in the sunset, and a seagull stood on the chimney - my mother swore it was Gertie come to say good-bye.

After we came back from Portugal the was a dehydrated rook we looked after for a while, and lived in the outside toilet that we had. There was nothing else wrong with the fellow, but the summer had been unbearably hot, and the bird had clearly had a difficult time. To begin with it didn’t move around much when we went to in feed it, as it simply didn’t have the energy, but it soon built up strength and made it clear that it wanted its freedom.

And we acquired a kitten that was being tormented by some kids when my mother sent me out to take it off them, saying that it was ours. It turned out to be a real sweetie, and used to fall asleep in the hood of my dressing-gown. There’s a photo somewhere.

My mother acquired another cat when they saw a white thing motionless by the side of the road. On examination the found that the cat had got its head stuck in a tin can, which they pried off. Since then I’ve always crushed any empty tin cans…

But there's always a darker side.

Up in Cumbria, one of the cats went missing and I found her in the field next door, dead from rat poison, as far as we could tell.

And one evening I was out with a few friends - we were heading off to a pub to play pool or something - and the guys in the car in front hit a rabbit (or was it a hare?). I demanded we stop, and got out to look for the animal. Its back legs were broken, and a couple of us stood wondering what to do. The guys in the first car came back, joking about hitting a rabbit, until they saw how earnest I was becoming. Because by that point I was looking for the heaviest stone I could find…

I don’t know if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, just as I don’t know whether killing the nestling yesterday was the ‘right’ thing. I couldn’t leave either there to simply suffer and die slowly. I suppose I’m writing this now because of the doubt, although at the time I could see no other way out. But yesterday I knew that, if I did what I felt to be necessary, I would be haunted by that act for years to come, just as I can’t forget the evening of 15 years ago when I killed a rabbit with a stone. In the end, the best I can say is that even if I did the ‘wrong’ thing, I didn’t do it lightly.

24 May 2006


Was just walking home, and round the corner from where I live I came across a nestling in the middle of the pavement. A few metres ahead, a woman with a child in a pram had stopped to look at it too. She came back and we had a brief conversation about what to do with it. The fall seemed to have broken one of its legs, and it didn’t have the strength to stand, let alone fly. We agreed that it would have been better it hadn’t survived the fall. Eventually, the woman carefully picked it up in a paper tissue, and moved it to the side of the pavement where it wouldn’t get stood on accidentally. Then she left, saying that she hoped it wouldn’t take long. To die, she meant.

Me, I didn’t leave, but stood watching it struggle. Its mouth opened and closed soundlessly as it lay on its back stretching its wings. It tried to roll over, but only got as far as its side, one wing flattened underneath it.

I couldn’t just leave it there to gradually starve to death or be carried off by a cat. So I made my judgement, and did what I thought had to be done. I killed it.

12 May 2006

Cynical Optimism

With my recent forays into the Tool debate, I have been able to define my outlook on life a little more precisely. Years ago I used to say that I was a ‘cynical optimist’, which I defined as someone who had little faith in people, but who thought that things were so bad that it could only get better. That’s a fairly naive view, and I pretty much stopped classifying myself as such. However, after thinking about my intellectual and emotional response to the Tool debate, I’ve had to conclude that I am indeed a ‘cynical optimist’, but I mean something else by it now.

I know, matter of fact, that the majority of the population of the planet are morons with their heads inserted up their own flabby posteriors. Little else can explain religious fundamentalism, George Bush and the European Common Agricultural Policy, to name a few of my pet peeves. Anyone who reads what I write on this site will know that I have a very low opinion of the ‘general public’ and tend to make proclamations about ‘the end of the Enlightenment’ and its basic ideal of using reason to further humanity. I’m about as cynical as they come in that respect.

But that’s the head talking. It isn’t what I believe, but what I know. And the whole Tool debate has made me think more clearly about what I actually believe about people. And in that respect I have come to the unfortunate realisation that I’m an optimist.

When I meet someone, be it in person or on a forum, I immediately assume that they are as reasonable as I consider myself to be. I assume that we will be able to have a decent rational discussion, that we will find common ground, that if we disagree and I state my position clearly they will be able to come round to it, or identify the flaw in my argumentation that makes me reconsider. Sure, I have high standards, but I begin by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I’m imposing those standards on to other people, but I guess it’s impossible not to do so. But I don’t start out from a position of superiority. I don’t look down on others, who have to prove themselves worthy of my respect. Rather, I start out from the perspective that we’re all basically the same, and then the given individual either lives up to my expectations or doesn’t.

There's obviously a contradiction between these two perspectives. Practically what it means is that I am always surprised when I meet a complete idiot, especially if they are not merely dumb but offensive to boot. The cynical part of me ‘knows’ that most people are morons, but the optimistic part of me is shocked whenever I encounter an embodiment of that stupidity. And as such, instead of responding to an idiot by simply thinking, ‘Ah ha, another person I won’t bother to grace with my time’, I get angry that someone could be so stupid and start ranting. Meeting an idiot doesn’t so much confirm my cynicism as contradict my optimism.

I’m inclined to think that the tension between these two sides of my personality explains a lot about my behaviour in general. It definitely explains why I felt the need to respond to the many dolts in the Tool debate who took the view that “You suck if you think the new Tool album is anything but crap, because I know best.” The cynical side knows that this kind of comment is not worth the time it takes to read, but the optimistic side just had to fight back.

Tool, Flaming and Falsifiability

Well, I’ve been flamed and by, some definitions, engaged in a bit of flaming myself, over at Thought Mechanics. I do tend to take the bait, that’s true. But for crying out loud, all I wanted was a decent debate about the relative merits of Tool’s new album. But it’s reached the point where if I put up a post saying ‘come on, what happened to the debate’ I will have lost, in so far as that will elicit another response from the idiot Stefan, who will conclude that I have to have the last word, that I am a smart-arse trying to prove that I am smarter, and that he has won. So instead I will back off, because there is no longer any point. He will, of course, conclude that he has won because he has ‘shouted me down’ and I have given up. There is no possibility of 'winning' against - or countering, or responding to - such arguments.

Every viewpoint should meet the basic criteria of falsifiability. It should admit the possibility of counterexamples. If, as in the case above, everything that I do or say will prove my opponent right - in his view - then there is no longer room for any debate, and his view - not mine - is shown to be inadequate. Objectively speaking, he has lost. And I am not a smart-arse for saying so - it may be that I am a smart-arse, but for different reasons - because his argument has defeated itself.

I know that I argue in detail, at length, and that I try to do so persuasively. This does not, in fact, mean that I believe that I am right and you are wrong. One black swan will disprove the theory that ‘all swans are white’; I’m looking for the black swan in your argument, and hope that you will do the same to mine.

As far as the Tool debate goes, I’ll not go back until someone else has posted something worth responding to. In my last post I quoted Oscar Wilde:
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

Of course, this too can be falsified. It just seemed to encapsulate the general tone of the debate well…