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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Is Gaia there?


This is one of the first four or five I did -- but I still don't know if I believe in Gaia.

We're very complicated animals, we humans. Lots and lots of busy little cells all busily and mindlessly doing what they have to, just to keep us humans going. Our cells don't know about us: we know all about our cells, but our cells can never know about us.

Some animals aren't made of cells. School-kids are usually taught to refer to the bacteria and the blue-green algae as unicellular animals. After all, says orthodoxy, these things have a membrane round the outside, and lots of works inside, rather like one of our cells, so why not regard each animal as a single cell?

These days, some biologists prefer to call them acellular, without cells, for while the things aren't divided up inside by membranes, they're still divided. And as there are no cells, they must be acellular. But whether the parts are properly separated or not, they all do their own thing, keep the whole organism alive, and they never know about the organism that they make up.

Higher up the evolutionary ladder, we find the eucaryotes, things with their cells divided up, with membranes neatly wrapping up organelles such as the chloroplasts, mitochondria, and ribosomes, and so on. These parts all work mindlessly to maintain a larger organism of which they're part, but which they'll never know about.

These eucaryotes are interesting because some people think that the organelles inside them are really other cells that have been taken on board, given a home, and put to work. A sort of cellular All Nations Club, which might be just a bit too strong on cellular miscegenation for some people.

It seems that these cells nestling up together aren't just different species, they're probably even from different phyla. But these mixed foreigners don't know much about each other, and they certainly aren't aware of the higher order cell that they make, so we can at least hope that it's all right for them to mix.
Just in case, though, we'd better not tell that man from the Immigration Department. You see, our cells are all eucaryotic, so our cells are all these peculiar mixed-up things too. Your favourite shock-jock would flip if he thought his innards were all made up of cohabiting foreigners. Yuchhh!

I'm delighted with the idea that my multicultural cells are all independently doing their thing, unconsciously controlling each other in some way so that I can type these words, waddle off to the ABC, and blow air up my throat while contorting my face so as to make odd noises that other people will then understand. If Old Alf is listening, I'll bet he's contorting his face and making odd noises right now, too.

One of my favourite animals, unless they're plants, or are they fungi, I never can remember, is the slime mould. A slime mould is made up of eucaryotic cells, full of organelles, but these cells wander off, like so many ants at a picnic, to gather food, commune with nature or whatever, quite independently.

There they are, these cells, generally at peace with the world, when suddenly they all start secreting a chemical, a messenger chemical that says: "Let's get together!". So suddenly, they all gather, form an organism, and generally behave like any other multicellular organism. They form what we call a fruiting body.

And yet I'm almost sure that the slime mould cells are quite unconscious of what they're doing, and quite unconscious of the fruiting body that they become.

Just now, I compared the slime mould cells with ants, but I could also have compared them with bees, or some other social insect. Have you ever stopped to wonder if the ant's nest has some degree of self-consciousness, in the way that the larger vertebrates do?

Think about those ants that form nests and bridges by linking their bodies together: aren't they just like the cells of the slime mould? Could there be something about a colony of ants that makes it more than just the sum of its parts? In the fashionable parlance of the New Biology, should we look beyond Reductionism to Holism? Douglas Hofstadter certainly thinks so.

In his remarkable book, "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid", published somewhere around 1979, Hofstadter introduces a character called Ant Hillary, a decidedly self-conscious ant-hill, and explores this question at far more length than I have time for here today. You'll have to read the book.
By the time he's finished, though, you'll be convinced that an ant-nest can be an organism, just like a slime mould, but one step higher. Think about it: the nest is made up of ants, unconscious of the higher organism that they make, but that's not all.

Each ant is made of cells, all unconscious of the higher organism that they make, and each cell is made up of organelles, all unconscious of the higher organism that they make.

You could keep on going, down through the molecules, the atoms, the particles, the quarks, the sub-quarks, and so on, but let's agree on the organelle as the base-order organism. The acellular organism would also be a first-order organism: after all, we think that some of them became the organelles.

The eucaryotic cell is a second-order organism, ants, slime mould fruiting bodies and humans are all third-order, and a nest of ants, or bees, or termites, is about as close as we get to a fourth-order organism.
Maybe such things are still evolving.

The interesting thing is that each of these organisms, no matter what its order, behaves much like any other organism. So there's no logical or biological reason why there shouldn't be even higher-order organisms. The components would never be aware that they were part of a greater whole, but I suspect that if there were a fourth-order organism, of which we were not part, we would be aware of it, just as we know about the social insects.

And that, long-windedly, brings me to Gaia. James Lovelock proposed this idea about twenty years ago, in an article that I recall reading in "New Scientist". In its essence, this suggested that all living things form a self-sustaining and self-regulating system: the whole biosphere of the planet Earth is a single entity, said Lovelock.

As any good self-confident reductionist would, I told myself that he was nuts, and turned to the next article in that week's issue. Now, I'm not quite so sure about that: maybe there was something in it, after all.

The real problem with the Gaia hypothesis is that the loony green fringe has adopted Gaia as a sort of God-away-from-God, who'll one day come crashing down from that Great Ecology in the Sky, smiting the unecological, and tormenting the environmental sinners with plagues of nameless abominations, genetically designed to scald and viper through them, munching on their entrails, and generally leaving them as socially undesirable messes that you wouldn't want to invite round for a few drinks and a pleasant dinner.

Well, Lovelock did go asking for it a bit, what with giving his putative super-organism the name of a Greek Earth Goddess. That really got the neo-pseudo-theologists going. Gave them all a field day, you might say.

Yet whether he went asking for it or not, Lovelock didn't deserve dear old Isaac Asimov, who introduced his version of Gaia in the fifth volume of the Foundation trilogy or thereabouts. In my callow youth, I thought Isaac was a pretty hot writer, but in my callow middle age, I wish he'd stopped at the third part of the trilogy.

The good doctor's Gaia is a planet-full of people in telepathic contact with each other, where even the rocks get into the act and send small gritty thoughts to each other...and everybody else!

The bits of Asimov's Gaia might function as some kind of super-organism, but they'll never pass my test for super-organisms: the different elements of this Gaia all know about each other, and so Asimov's Gaia is a false one. While the elements of a super-system might be convinced of their own free will, I think it would destroy the system to have them aware of their own parts in that system.

Can you imagine what would happen if your cells all knew about each other, and about you? How long would it be before your Red Cells led a revolution? How long would it take for your Islets of Langerhans to secede? Or until your aqueous humour developed a sense of humour, and fed false images to the optic system?

Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis originally was based on the assumption that there had to be a willful, deliberate Gaia maintaining the status quo on the Earth, keeping conditions right for living things.
It was, he said, unlikely that the conditions necessary for life would have obtained long enough to let life flourish all this time. So something had to be doing something about our environment, or we wouldn't be here to talk about it. There had to be a Causal Agent.

Looking at it the other way, unless the improbable happened somewhere, there wouldn't be any place at all in the Universe where life could develop to intelligence at the third order level, or any other level, for that matter. Possibly we just drew the long straw, so that our system survived long enough for us to evolve.

We're here, so whatever unlikely things were needed to bring that about, they happened. End of theological argument. But even if you don't have to assume that there's some kind of fourth, or even fifth-order being, it's fun to contemplate what that being is like.

I mean, if we were all part of a fourth-order organism, would it be aware that we were self-aware? Or would we just be specialised sub-units in Gaia's view, a bit like nerves in a human? Not really self-aware, not as Gaia understands the term, but carrying definite elements of information.

Again, how would we let Gaia know that we're here and starting to suss out that Gaia is there? And how could we prove for ourselves that Gaia really exists? Would we disappear into a chronosynclastic infundibulum if we got into contact or dialogue with Gaia?

To get some idea of what Gaia might be like, let's look at the only fourth-order organisms that we can find, the termites, the ants, and the bees. They may be poor examples of the full potential of a fourth-order organism, but they're the best that we've got.

They're all quite ruthless about individual organisms, killing off the sick, just as we destroy cells in our body that are diseased. So if Gaia does exist, and we're part of it, then we should find our population under some similar kind of control. We shouldn't be able to have a population explosion.

Or would we? Don't we suffer from cancers, where, all of a sudden, one group of cells or another starts to multiply furiously? Could humans be a cancerous growth in Gaia's terms, rocketing out of control, threatening to destroy the whole intricate web that is Gaia? We seem to have overcome all of the natural controls that keep any given population of sub-units in check.

Well maybe not quite all of the controls: AIDS might have sprung up as a control factor, aiming to bring the cancerous human growth back under control. How's that for a wild theory? We get rid of smallpox, and Gaia substitutes AIDS to keep us in check?

Hmmmm, I seem to be getting onto the same wave-length as those who see AIDS as the wrath of God. Still, at least my speculation is based on the idea that maybe there's some useful purpose for it all, other than the chastisement of those somebody calls wicked.

Of course, all of this assumes some sort of rather deliberate and self-willed Gaia, directing its attention to curing imbalances, the sort of Gaia that the greenies look for, the one that will suddenly produce black flowers to warm up the earth, or whatever. And not even Lovelock argues for that sort of Gaia any more, so we'll have to explain AIDS some other way.

And I can't say that I really believe that there's any such thing as a Gaia that incorporates us and every other living thing: all of the other fourth-order examples that we can identify seem to be made up of genetically similar individuals of one species, so a multi-species Gaia seems just that little bit improbable.

Still, whether an all-human Gaia exists or not, it's an amusing and instructive thing to ponder over and speculate about. Are the electronic media, for example, the Gaian equivalent of hormones in the human body? If the signals reach other inhabited planets, would that make them the equivalent of pheromones? You can go on forever.

The beautiful part, though, is that, speculate as you will, we can never know if we're part of some higher-order grouping. With due respect to Dr. Asimov, it seems to be against the rules. But who wrote the rules, that's what I'd like to know.

Maybe, just maybe, it was Gaia.

Footnote, added 2014



Here's an example of a multi-species interdependence that might be a Gaia precursor in the future:  I knew about this when I wrote the talk, but there was a size limit.

Open forest grows on poor quality land in the Myall Lakes National Park on the east coast of Australia. Macrozamia plants in the forest are more often found associated with the Sydney Red Gum (Angophora costata) than with the more common Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis). The reason for this association has been shown to be at once both complex and delightfully simple.

Angophora trees are often very gnarled, with holes or hollows where branches have broken off, and termites live in these trees, where they hollow out the insides. Brushtail possums live in the hollows made by the termites. The possums eat the orange outside of Macrozamia seeds, and drop the partly eaten seeds around the base of their home trees.

The seeds germinate where they fall, and this explains the distribution of Macrozamia plants. The roots of the Macrozamia are able to 'fix' nitrogen, and so improve the sandy soil the trees grow in. The trees then grow better, providing more heartwood for the termites, who in turn make more hollows for the possums.



Thursday, 25 September 2014

Significant figures

This was one of my early radio talks, broadcast in about 1990, I think. 
 
High precision wombats ahead!
I have a peeve. It's been my pet for many years, and it doesn't look like going away. That being so, I don't see why I shouldn't try to share it around.

I got my peeve when I was quite young, about twelve or so. I used to wonder why newspaper reports of fires in America always seemed to mention damage that came to such odd amounts. Why were there so many fires costing four hundred and forty six thousand pounds, I used to ask myself. Then I found a table for converting foreign currencies, and the penny dropped.

Somewhere in America, a soot-stained and water-damaged Fire Chief had rasped out, through a smoke-filled larynx, his estimate that the cost was "a million dollars". Or maybe it was the jubilant and over-insured proprietor, secretly rubbing his hands at a successful outcome. Let's just say that it was the Fire Chief. I don't really want a defamation suit on my hands.

Eager reporters had seized on this figure of a million dollars, and scribbled it in their note-books, then rushed back to wherever they go to put things "on the wire". In distant Australia, a hack sub-editor sat, blue pencil in hand, eagerly waiting for a chance to earn his pittance by making the story seem more local.

In those far-off days, when my peeve was just a pup, we had pounds, not dollars, and one million merican dollars was four hundred and forty six thousand of our pounds. Plus a few odd shillings and pence, but even sub-editors could see that would be a bit silly. So four hundred and forty six thousand pounds it became.

The Fire Chief's "million" really meant something like "closer to one million than to half a million or one and a half million". So it would not have been an undue liberty to say that the fire damage had cost half a million pounds. That estimate would at least have been consistent with the level of accuracy that the Fire Chief had claimed.

So that was when I got my peeve. I just couldn't see how people could justify the spurious claims to accuracy that they made with their naive conversions. Not of course that it stopped when we went to decimal currency. The penny couldn't drop any more, and all over the nation, people had to settle for heaven sending zero point eight three repeaters of a cent down. That silliness eventually fell away, just in time for us to go metric.

How often have you driven along a country road, and seen a sign that indicated how far it was to the next petrol station? In the good old days, these signs usually said something like "One mile to the next Oilygas station". Stuck to a convenient tree, about a mile from the next Oilygas station, what do you think happened when we went metric?

You guessed it, the sign now tells us that the petrol station is located just one point six zero nine kilometres away!


I for one don't blame electronic calculators for all this. If those aids to laziness were behind these spurious claims to accuracy, we would have had one point six zero nine three four seven two at least.
That brings the accuracy level down to the nearest tenth of a millimetre, and with the sign needing to be changed every time the tree sways in the breeze! No, I don't blame the calculators.

Because if I did, that would not explain a recent iron man race, near my home, which was publicised as forty two point one nine five metres long. Funny, I thought: how do they stop the marker buoys from drifting around by at least a metre when the wind changes? I looked further, to see where the figure came from.

I didn't have to look far. The first leg of the race was a sprint of 195 metres. Everything else fell into place from that, because the next smallest unit was three point five kilometres. By now, I hope that you, the listener, will be adding, sotto voce, "to the nearest half kilometre". Or, if you are really sophisticated, you might even go so far as to say" plus or minus two hundred and fifty metres".

You see the fallacy, I hope. There were half a dozen legs to the race, all but one being guesstimated to the nearest half kilometres. Forty two point one nine five be blowed!

If the competitors had been blown out to sea by a strong wind, they would probably have been rescued 160 kilometres away from the coast. Why? The answer ought to be obvious by now: just ask yourself what is 100 miles in kilometres?

Maybe the real cause is a mistrust of rounded figures. They say that when Mount Everest was first measured, the surveyors came up with a height of exactly twenty nine thousand feet. "Nobody will believe that!" they said, and so they reported it as twenty nine thousand and two feet. That's the story, anyhow.

I suppose that the ability to see the wrongness of the false claims to accuracy comes partly from training. A friend who studied physics at University mentioned recently how frustrating it was to do ordinary practical work. She had calculated Joule's Equivalent, which was a nice traditional thing to do, and she had enjoyed messing around with the equipment.

What she didn't like was that she had to make allowance for all of the possible errors that might have crept in during the experiment. The end result of her measurements was something like seven plus or minus seventeen. Not very satisfying to somebody whose aim in life was to unravel the mysteries of space-time.

Nor could it have been very satisfying to Joule, when he first carried out his exercise. Joule's original apparatus is to be seen in the Science Museum in London, and it's much more complex than anything that young physics students use. Obviously, Joule spent a lot of time improving his level of accuracy, and he would have understood a thing or two about significant figures.

Still, when she is older, I expect my young student to have a peeve about the next petrol station being one point six zero nine kilometres away. Just like Joule would have done.

Sometimes, the temptation to pretend about accuracy leads to delightful silliness. My favourite example comes from a study that I did some years ago of readability formulae.

Readability is one of those things that people like to talk about, but not act on. It's far easier to say that something lacks readability than to write something readable. Writing readable material is an art, not a science, but it is an art which has been cluttered up with a whole load of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.
The mumbo-jumbo of the readability formula comes down to this: short sentences are good, long sentences are bad. Short words are good, long words are bad.

Sounds a bit like the chant of the sheep in "Animal Farm", doesn't it, but there it is. As the readability witch-doctors see it, reading passages have no intrinsic interest. The only things that determine readability are a few simple items like word length and sentence length.

The mumbo-jumbo workers have come up with various ways of combining word length and sentences length to calculate the age (or school grade) for which a piece of text is suitable.

One of the more popular examples of a readability formula was actually developed for use with Ugandans whose English was a second language, but it has been widely used on native English speakers around the world for years. The measure also has other faults that I shan't go into here. The method is dead easy to use, so who cares that it's probably invalid?

But that's a formula that fails because it was badly developed. The accuracy claimed is spurious, but it doesn't reflect a wrong use of significant figures. So my favourite failure among the readability formulae is one that falls short because it offends that peeve of mine.

Remember that each readability formula is supposed to find an age year or a school grade for which a piece of text is most suited. So what would you do with a formula for school grade which asked you to multiply the word length by four point five five, and add that to zero point zero seven eight times the sentence length, and then to take away two point two point two zero two nine of a grade?

I would have thought that four and a half times the word length, plus point oh eight times the sentence length, minus two point two, would have been fair enough. Accurate to the nearest nine ten-thousandths of a grade? They've got to be kidding!

Why did somebody engage in this silliness? I suspect that it was somebody after a Paper-Hanger's Delight, also known as a Ph.D.

Now a thesis can be a real slog. If it requires somebody to go and study things, to think about things, and create things, it can be extremely hard work. The alternative is to measure things, which is at once both scientific and easy.

It may not be accurate, but that's not the point. If it feels scientific, do it! The researcher has only to feed enough figures into a computer, and then press the button labelled "factor analysis", and out comes a dinky little formula. just raring to go. Or maybe the button labelled "Multiple Regression", or some other related button.

These methods have a common effect of producing multi-number factors which can be thrown into an argument (or the bin, for that matter, but they usually aren't), multi-number factors which can be thrown into an argument to produce the best available prediction of some other value. The problem is that they are only as good as the data that spawned them. If the data are even a bit wonky, then the last couple of digits in the magic numbers become something of a joke.

And speaking of jokes, I recall a Goon Show sequence which relied on the spurious accuracy principle. An expert gravely announces that a skull is, as I recall it, "one hundred thousand years old". There is a pause, while the audience absorbs this statement, and then Milligan and Sellers break into the least mellifluous version of the birthday song ever to be regularly re-played over the ABC. The ridiculous becomes apparent to all, each time it is played.

Even so, guides in caves around the world will state, in all seriousness, that "these caves are two hundred and twenty five million and thirty years old". If one dares to ask how they know this, they will explain that the caves were dated thirty years ago at two hundred and twenty five million years. It happened to me: nobody guffawed, nobody laughed, there was not even a hint of a snigger.

Without the Goons to point it up, the sense of ridiculous was lacking. Politicians know this, and they rely on it. Next time you see that a new bridge is going to cost one billion and fifty three thousand dollars, be a bit suspicious. The billion is a ball-park figure, that probably won't be within a Zurich gnome's cooee of the final cost.

The fifty thousand will be for bill-boards with politicians' names on them. The three thousand may well be there to cover the cost of free beer for the workers at the end of the job. More probably, it is there to make it look as though the whole lot has been carefully costed in incredible detail: the Everest measurement principle in living colour, as it were.

So who or what do we blame? I know that there are conservative critics of education who take delight in blaming the educational system. We find the Americans among them blaring forth things like "First we had old Math, then we had New Math, now we have aftermath!".

I don't believe the conservatives, nor do I sympathise with them. The conservatives' crime is as hideous as using unjustified significant figures. They are extrapolating from a biased perception, in a moving frame of reference, from too short a base-line.

I think the answer is a whole lot simpler. I think people have just taken far too literally the old sheepish adage that there is safety in numbers.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Crooked Mick and the MCC

I probably never told you about the time that Mick put together a team that beat the English at cricket.  You won't find it mentioned in Wisden, either, because the MCC paid a lot of money to get the whole thing hushed up.  Too embarrassing, you see.

What happened was that the Poms were taking a few days off on one of their tours of Australia, and some joker decides to take them out to the Speewah.  He gets them on a train to Bandywallop (the town was still there then), and loads them into the back of a truck, and hauls them out to the Speewah, where they go around, looking at things and generally expressing surprise.

Not as much surprise at first, though, until Flash Jack explains that what they thought was kangaroos in the home paddock was really rabbit fleas, being got ready for being set on the Speewah rabbits.  This was just after the myxomatosis was introduced out there, and so we was breeding these special fleas.  We didn't get in soon enough, though, and that was what finished Bandywallop, but that's another story.

"Haw," says one of the English players, looking at the fleas, "I suppose everything you do out here is that much larger than life!".  The rest of the Poms joined in making honking sounds that we sort of recognised as laughter.  Anyhow, the thing is, Lazy Harry was sitting over on a fence, and he says to them how we played a pretty larger than life game of cricket, too.

Well one thing led to another, and the upshot was that we agreed to have a quick limited overs match, Speewah vs the MCC.  We explained the special local rules, like what you do if a skied ball gets lodged in a mosquito, and how we used the dogs to fetch any ball hit for a six.  They thought that was a bit odd till we pointed out that the cricket field we used was the home paddock, and they saw how far across the paddock was.

"Haw, you don't get many sixes, then, do you?" says the first Pom, the one that started it all.  "No more than two an over, and that's only when Mick's batting," explains Lazy Harry.  By now the Poms reckon their legs are being pulled, and so they start needling us, trying to organise a side bet, just like Lazy Harry had hoped.  He might've been lazy, but Harry used to love easy money, rest his soul.

So Harry made all sorts of to and fro noises, and the Poms kept on raising the bet, and then they even gave us odds of five to one.  That was when I bought in.  "We'll take the bet," says I, "so long as you give us ten runs start."

"Haw," says the chief Pom again, "we'll give you ten runs start a piece, my man."  So I says nicely that no, thanks, ten runs for the team is all we ask, and I can see one or two of them starting to wonder if they might be in over their heads, all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Mick was out in the paddock, rolling a ten thousand gallon water tank back and forwards to even out the pitch, being careful not to spill any water out of it, because the Poms had two really good spin bowlers that tour.  Then he puts on his oldest pair of boots, and bunny-hops down the pitch, flattening out the corrugations, and there's a pitch as good as any they ever prepared at the SCG.

One of the Poms was watching him through binoculars, and I could see he was impressed with Mick's size.  And that was before I gently pointed out that he was looking through the wrong end of the binoculars.  Funny, when those Poms get a shock, they go whiter than those flannels they wear.

Well they turned out like a proper All-England team, and we turned out in whatever we had on.  We looked like something the cat dragged in, but so long as we had Crooked Mick in the team, we couldn't miss, especially with Flash Jack officiating over the toss.  Which we won, let me add.

Then we made our first mistake: Flash Jack and Crooked Mick were the openers, but they mixed up ends, and so it was Flash Jack that got the strike.  He was out first ball, clean bowled.  In that over, we lost seven players from eight balls, and Mick never got a look-in.

Then they changed ends, and Mick was at the crease.  The first ball that comes at him, he slams for all he's worth, but with us seven wickets for no runs, he can't risk getting caught, so he slams it into the ground, where it goes underground, bounces round a rabbit burrow, and pops out at the keeper's feet, right behind him.

Now I should mention that the batsman at the other end was Lazy Harry, so Mick knew better than to start running, or one of them would've got run out.  Next ball, he puts all his force into it, same thing happens, only this time, he broke the bat.

In all that over, he broke five bats, but he still managed to hit a six on each of the sixth and seventh balls, then he decided to take a risk with the last ball of the over.  So he hit it straight up into the sky, so high that he and Lazy Harry have time to shuffle through for twenty three runs.  They were safe though, because when the ball came down again, it was hot from re-entering the atmosphere, so the keeper got a hand to the ball, but screamed and dropped it, and retired hurt.

Still, there were only two bats left now, and the Poms protested that they wanted to have two bats to use in their innings, so Mick sent for a crow bar, and used that in the next over to score four fours, a six, and a single that kept him at the crease for the next over, and that set the pattern.  We declared at lunch with 473 runs on the board, all scored by Mick.

The first two Poms padded up, and Lazy Harry suggests that it would save time if the next five or so padded up as well.  The Poms were really looking worried by now, especially as they had twigged that Mick was going to bowl.  And worry they might.

Mick's first ball was slow and curly, and completely beat the England captain, who adjusted his cap and nodded to himself as though he knew what to expect now.  He didn't.  As Mick came in for the second delivery, the England captain danced down the pitch, just as Mick let fly with one of his fastest.

The ball reached the ground, burrowed beneath the batsman's feet, deflected off the claypan two feet down, and came out of the ground just in time to snap the middle stump.  I was keeping wicket, so I saw it all, but from square leg, which is where I always went for Mick's second delivery.  He got two more that over.

Well I would have to say that they were quite good batsmen, and Flash Jack bowled from the other end, looking for revenge, but he didn't find any.  In fact, one of the Poms came very close to a six, so they were clearly world-class batsmen.  Anyhow, he came close, as I say, but Mick was there, and took a superb catch, just inside the boundary.

Then Mick came back on again, and got three more, which put Flash Jack back in, and among the tail-enders, so he got his revenge then.  And that was how we beat one of the best England teams ever sent to Australia by the MCC.  Lucky for them that there were no journalists present, and the Speewah boys kept quiet about it, because they didn't like too much fuss and bother.

Mick could've played for Australia, you know, and I asked him once why he didn't.  He said that if he did, he would've had to go to England, and that didn't attract him, because his grandmother said it was a terrible place where all the convicts came from.  So he just played for the Speewah, now and then.


* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.


Friday, 12 September 2014

The last fox on the Speewah

Somebody asked me the other day about Crooked Mick using two axes at once when he was cutting fence posts.  Not possible, they alleged.  That just goes to show some people don't know very much about the way Australians look after their axes.  The standard timber-getter's demonstration involves putting spit on the forearm, and shaving all the hairs off, that's how sharp they keep their axes.

Crooked Mick did this trick once, for an admiring audience of city people who happened to be out visiting the Speewah.  (Taking them city folk out there in the first place was a mistake, but that's another story, one I'd rather not get involved in.)

Anyhow, after Mick had performed the trick for them, one woman gushes to him, "Do you always shave yourself on the face that way, Mr. Mick?"

Well, Mick looks her up and down, wondering why she called him that, because he was always just plain "Mick" when you talked to him, but she was obviously an ignorant city type, so he answered her patiently.

"No," he says.  "I use the back of the axe to shave meself."

She looks at that part of the axe, and says "But it's flat and blunt.  How could you possibly shave yourself with that?"

"Yersss," he drawls.  "Too right, it's flat, and just as well, or I'd cut meself.  I use the back so's I can drive the whiskers in and then I bite them off inside."  So saying, he performed this delicate operation.

First he drove the whiskers in, and then there was this awful grinding and crunching sound as the whiskers were mashed and mangled under Mick's molars.  Then he stepped to the edge of the verandah of the shearers' quarters, and spat at a nearby fence, just as a fox jumped over the top of the fence.

Well this surprised everybody, because this was the first fox ever seen on the Speewah, but the fox was even more surprised, as it instantly became the last fox on the Speewah.  Some of Mick's whiskers had been crushed to razor-sharp slivers, and these flew faster than the others.  Reaching the fox first, these slivers passed under the skin, and neatly separated the hide from the body.

As you might expect, the fox jumped into the air and then took off, leaving the hide standing in the air for just a moment, until the less crushed and heavier whisker fragments reached the hide.  Because these were so much heavier, the force of their impact drove the hide back into the fence, where they impaled it, perfectly stretched, against the fence.

Now I've seen the hide: it's still there, so you'll realise that when I say Mick's axes were sharp, I mean what I say.

The fox slunk away and hid in a swamp, but they say a mosquito came down in the night and swallowed it whole.  Maybe the mossies developed a taste for fox meat after that, but there never were any other foxes seen on the Speewah.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Speewah pumpkins

Then there was the time that Crooked Mick had been persuaded to work as cook once again.  I should point out that Mick didn't really enjoy cooking all that much, but it helped to keep the peace, and besides, it was bad for morale when Mick was shearing because he was so much faster than anybody else.  So when they could, the boys would try to talk him into cooking.

I was glad, because I was working that shed, and I wouldn't have got a look-in, me that twice out-shore Jacky Howe when he was in his prime, even when I gave Jacky first choice of sheep.  That was how sharp the competition was on the Speewah in them days.

Anyhow, Flash Jack from Gundagai was there as well, and he was helping Mick out.  I think he wanted to learn a few tricks of the culinary art, because by that time Jack was a reasonably good bloke with the pots himself, when he tried.  The day I have in mind, Mick gets Jack to take an axe down "to cut a dray-load off the pumpkin, and bring it back for soup".

I was there when he said this, just passing by the cook house, and I commented that it must have been a pretty good pumpkin if you could cut a dray-load off it.  Mind you, I didn't know then about Smiling Annie's special pumpkins, or I would have known that it was a pretty average sort of pumpkin.  Anyhow, like I say, I didn't know about those things then, but Mick let me down gentle.

"Yes," he says, "but there's a few problems with a pumpkin that size.  Why, just yesterday, I took a ladder down there to cut a load off the top where it's really tender, and I dropped me best axe in there."

"Annoying!", I says.

"Completely vexatious, in fact", he says.  I think I mentioned that Mick was a bit rough in some of his ways, but he had a way with the words.  "But when I climbed down inside", he continued, "it was nowhere to be seen.  There was another bloke that I found in there, and he hadn't seen it either."

"What was he doing in there?"

"Looking for a bullock team that strayed.  Anyhow, neither of us found my axe, and we never even saw a trace of the bullocks, all day."

"What will you do now?"

"I'll lower me dog down there in a basket tomorrow, and let him find them both, and bring 'em out."

Now that, I knew, would work, because a Speewah dog can do just about anything: remind me to tell you all about them some time.  But before I go, I should tell you about how Flash Jack got his start as a cook.

There wasn't any jobs going on Lignum Downs one year, except as a cook, and Flash Jack needed work, as his pants were beginning to go.  So he took the job, but one or two of the older hands know when to smell a rat, and so one of them asked him a trick question.  "What would you use an axe-head for when yer cookin' a galah?" he asks Jack.

"Easy," says Jack.  "You put an axe-head in with the galah, and when the axe-head's soft, you throw away the galah, and eat the axe-head, right?"

"No," says the bloke, looking around at the others.  "You eat the galah, don't you, mates?"

They nodded in agreement, but Flash Jack was ready for them.  "Not on the Speewah, you don't," he explains.  "If I'd known you meant sissified city galahs, of course I would've said that.  But as a professional cook, I work on the material I know best, whenever I can."

"Garn," says one of them.  "You can't cook.  Why, I could cook better than you.  Except sheep dip, and I reckon that soup we had last night'd kill even them Speewah sheep ticks you was talking about."

"So would I," says another, adding that he's not a bad cook himself, and then a whole lot of them chime in with the same claim, and one of them reckons he used to be a baker, and asks why hasn't Jack baked any bread for them, but Jack isn't fazed for a moment.

"I'll tell you what, then," says Flash Jack.  "We'll have a baking competition, and see who can bake the best bread."

Well they all agree to this, and then Jack pulls his trick.  "Seeing as I'm a professional cook, I'll be the judge and oversee what people are doing.  Then at the end, I'll take on the winner, and the runners-up can judge between us."

It's just as well for us that Flash Jack never took up politics, or who knows where we'd be now.  Of course, what he did was to watch the competitors, feed everybody on the winning entries, and then at night, he'd try out the recipes, and dropped his disasters in a hole.  He threw the first failure into a billabong, but all the fish in there died, so after that he buried the ones that didn't work.

By the time he had to take on the winners, Flash Jack knew all about baking, and he never looked back after that.  Except occasionally, when he felt a pang of guilt about all those dead fish, and the fish pie he'd made out of them, and the damage it could've done.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The art of the acerbic review

I have elected to stop posting acerbic reviews.

This decision is subject to recall at any time, but after reading this review in The Observer, I just don't think I can match it.

Mind you, TripAdvisor did think long and hard before they posted the follwoing review of the 'Elephant and Castle' in Chicago.

The background:
We were there in April 2011, it was bitterly cold and raining, and this place was just around the corner from the hotel.  Chicago has some marvellous nosheries, so we thought the standard would be OK.

How wrong we were:

The review:

Avoid this place like the plague if you have any experience of Britain. This is British for the Disneyland set.

The chips (they called them "fries", even while trying to exude Britishness) were soggy, the 'Union jack burger' was dry, they wanted to supersize my salad, the Guinness tasted as though it was watered, and while sold as a pint, felt quite small and light--and the worst was the muppet cashier who stood, less than a pace away, regaling a friend with tales of her uncle's sleep disorders, her dreams, and other delights, right through our meal. these details were all delivered in tones and at a volume that caused GBH to my left earhole.

The waiter was offended when I explained the paucity of the tip. I hope he had the gumption to pass on my complaints.

Run away! Find greasy spoon caff! Little Chef, come back--all is forgiven!

* * * * *

This meal did not get slammed!
I realised later that these people were so authentic that the Guinness was pre-poured, and served in a US pint glass, 16 ounces instead of 20.

I also got snarky with one Fish and Chip place at Port Stephens, but my comments weren't in the same class as the Quattro Passi review.

I also say nice things about deserving places, and you can see all my reviews here.

Among others, I liked these eateries and said so: Fez   RomeZagreb, Manly.

All things considered, I think I will keep saying nice things about good places while I finish the remedial classes in vitriol quaffing.

Friday, 5 September 2014

More falling standards

Some time ago, I posted a selection of newspaper fulminations about falling standards, some of them almost a hundred years old. I mentioned that in my last post, and that reminded me of something I had seen.

Here is another carry-on, in this case, taken from Scientific American, March 8, 1862, page 146. The introduction tells us that the piece was lifted from some other journal, and the context makes it clear the journal was British.

The Barbarism of Steel Pens.

I am aware, says a recent writer, that it may be very fairly said that if a man is green enough to be induced by any representations of seller or advertiser, to make his coffee with a windlass, and shave himself with a stone, the only verdict he can expect from an intelligent jury is "served him right;" but look at another invention, under the tyranny of which we all groan more or less, but which very few have the strength of mind to resist. 

Has not the curse of steel pens swept over the land until decent handwriting (sic!) is almost unknown? Do not ninety-nine persons in a hundred use steel pens, and has more than one out of the ninety-nine the effrontery to say he can write with them? Lord Palmerston was quite right—the handwriting of this generation is abominable; and as new improvements in steel pens go on, that of the next will be worse. 

The fine Roman hand of the last century has died out; the steel can’t do it. There is neither grace nor legibility in the angular scrawl that prevails now. Open any parish register of fifty years back, and see in what a fine legible hand, and scholar-like too in most cases, the parson of that day made his entries. Our present young parson, though he took a first-class at Oxford, and wears a most correct waistcoat, doesn’t do it, and couldn’t do it if his benefit of clergy depended on it.
The dropping of standards seems to be a perennial complaint! Yet all I can say is that when I meet young people, I find standards often higher than mine. Consider this case study from lunch last Wednesday:

I was talking with some bright 11-year-olds over lunch on Wednesday. In passing, I mentioned, in an off-the-cuff provocative line, the pleasure in eating deep-fried small fluffy animals.

As children of that age do, they loved the idea of being naughty like that but challenged me to explain why the fluffy animals needed to be deep-fried. This sort of challenge gets the creative juices going, because I had no back story, but I found one.

My first attempt was to say that the batter stopped the fluffy animals from tickling my throat when I swallowed them.

On mature reflection, I have now added a second line: that I enjoy battering small fluffy animals, and given that, I will now work on finding a third. If and when I do, it will find a place in the book I am doing at the moment.

But I wouldn't have hot there without provoking a challenge from bright young minds. Life on the edge is SO rewarding — unless you are a small fluffy animal.

Hmmm. I'm short and bearded.

Catch you later, because I feel a sudden but overpowering urge to shave.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Favourite books

Today, I responded to one of those chain-letter things on Facebook.  I had to name ten books that had knocked my socks off. I started reading when I was about four, and books were my constant friend and refuge as a lonely only child with parents who were really not cut out for the job of raising a child.

It worked doubly, because in my constant campaign to win their approval for anything I did, the only thing that they ever approved of was my reading, probably because it kept me quiet and out of the way.

They would order me to attend Sunday school at a church they never went near, just to get me out of the house. That was fine: for many years, I always took a book with me "to read on the bus".  If I had been at home, I would have been ordered to "do homework" or "study", but on my own, I could pursue interests and gain an education.

You see, I would go out the door at the right time, but most Sundays I went to a suitable bus shelter away from where I might be seen. I sat there, read and came home again at the appointed time.  My parents never knew that unless the weather was bad, I went nowhere near the terminal boredom they thought I was getting.

In my teens, I was kept supplied with books even though my local library charged sixpence a book for fiction, when I had a ten books a week habit, by a kind librarian who explained about the books with LF on the spine, meaning literary fiction. Those, she told me, were free, as were non-fiction.

Parents, and I guess librarians, have no idea what effects their actions will have.

I noted many more than ten books that knocked my socks off, but these ones made the most lasting impressions, at various times:

1.  Gödel Escher Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter;
2.  The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas;
3.  Finnegans Wake, James Joyce;
4.  The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins;
5.  On being the Right Size, J. B. S. Haldane;
6.  The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow;
7.  Freedom on the Wallaby, Poems of the Australian People;
8.  Beetles Ahoy! Ada Jackson;
9.  Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens;
10. While the Billy Boils, Henry Lawson.

There is a thread of radical social responsibility there, and also a deep interest in science, neither of which would have pleased my parents who were both conservative in politics and ignorant of science.

I wonder now if my choices were made as a way of kicking over the traces,

Those books made me a human who cares about science, justice and truth, but number 11, 'On the Shoulders of Giants' by Robert K. Merton made me care about communicating those ideals, even if four sociologists, who should have known better, once cited it as 'On the Shoulders of Grants'.

 I guess the authors needed a better proof roader. No, I'm sorry, I mean a better prof reader.

I know one thing: a smell checker wouldn't have picked that one up!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A pleasant lunch

Just back from 'Lunch with the Stars', an annual get-together arranged by the northern branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia.

I shared a table with students from Manly Vale Public School, who produced the most marvellous cake (highly unsuitable for men with white beards to eat!), based on two of my books.

Thanks, Mrs Poole and kids.

I met a large number of delightful young people there, and to those to whom I recommended looking for Julius Caesar, you are the ones I judged most likely to "get it". That is in the next entry, so scroll down a bit.

One of the themes I keep plugging here is the foolishness of prattling by older people about falling standards. There were none of those visible here, though admittedly, these were picked kids.  One question that I was asked and failed to adequately answer in the hubbub was a perennial: advice to young writers.

1. Write about stuff that you find interesting.

2. The 11 Rs: Read, Reflect, Research, (Ar)range, (W)Rite, Revise, Revise again, Read (aloud), Revise (once more) and Revise again, then Repeat. If you get more or less than 11, Remedial 'Rithmetic.


Two pages from my own notbook
3. Always carry a notebook. Leave the front four pages blank to add an index later, number each page, and leave a trail of breadcrumbs though the pages, so you can trace backwards or forwards.

Make your notes detailed enough so you can retrieve the thought years later. Make sure each page has a date and some sort of indication of what it's about.

Include full details of the source : title, author, page number and if it is a library book, which library it came from and the Dewey number.

This sort of detail takes time, but when you need it, it saves a huge amount of time.

4.  Write everything down.

5.  If, like me, you use spreadsheets to store ideas and quotes and notes, always use the same format, in case you want to merge data files later.

6.  Use the WC principle. That stands for Who Cares? If nobody cares, drop that bit, the fact, that sentence, that paragraph, that article, down the WC.

7.  Never be afraid to toss out the entire draft and start again, but always archive a few earlier drafts, just in case you lose everything.  I also keep key content files and a few drafts in a number of places:

* on the hard disc of my desktop (Windows/Intel) machine;

* on a USB thumbstick;

* on a stand-alone external hard-drive;

* in Dropbox, which immediately adds it to the three device below, but I also store it in the main files areas, independently of Dropbox;

* on my travelling Netbook, with a different build of Word and a different version of Windows;

* on my Macbook, on the principle that any Wintel-based nasty that gets the Netbook and the dektop will probably not clobber this; and finally

* on my Android tablet.

Yes, a waste of time — until the day you need it!


Monday, 1 September 2014

A very cross Caesarean section

This is a set of fables which I originally planned to go in Sheep May Safely Craze, one of the three books I am working on right now, but they are a bit too serious for that. The other two books are fairly serious, but that cannot be said of the work being developed under Project Mad Sheep.

*****



There was an Italian explorer in an area where, he was warned, the cannibals liked to eat Italians. Not relishing the prospect of a hot bath with relish, he took a beret with him, and wore it, passing himself off as Antoine, the French chef.

He told them the beret was what Frenchmen wore, so they would be protected from all afflictions.

The cannibals made him welcome, but one night, they produced a mummy in a toga, and when they unwrapped it, he saw that it was wearing a laurel wreath.

"Antoine", they said, "this is a very old Italian called Julius Caesar, and we were wondering if you could help us cook him.

Antoine (or Antonio, as he really was) found himself in a quandary. How could he cook a fellow-Italian?

Then he saw a way out. He took off his headgear and swapped it with Caesar's wreath.

The cannibals were curious. "What does this mean?" they asked.

"I come to beret Caesar, not to braise him."

*****

In his early days, Julius Caesar was captured by pirates who held him to ransom. He was offended by the low hovel he was cooped up in, but he was even angrier about the low price they put on him. He swore he would come back and hang them all, which he did, all except for a few of them who had fled to Egypt, then across to the Arabian Gulf, where they stole a boat and sailed for the Pacific.

When Caesar found out that there were survivors, he set off in pursuit. Thanks to a navigation error and bad winds, he was once again captured by pirates near what is now Vanuatu.

They took him to a small atoll where they had settled, but they remembered the earlier encounter and its upshot. They told him he would have pleasant accommodation and they would set the ransom high enough to meet his approval.

"You'd better," he snarled. "And I want one of those little houses over the water, not this nasty little hut on the land."

They explained that there were no burés free, but asked him to wait in the hut, while they worked out the ransom and saw what they could do about his sleeping arrangements.

When a man came in, looking like an accountant, Julius said "Well? What ransom have you set for me?"

The man shook his head. "I come to buré Caesar, not to price him."

*****

More news on Julius Caesar: he had a lot of eye trouble in Gaul, and called in a Druid to ask if they were using magic against him.

"We can't," the Druid answered. "It's against the Geneva Convention."

"What's that?"

"Something that hasn't happened yet," the Druid replied. "We do time travel, you know, but that could be handy. Now what's the problem with your eyes?"

"Double vision. One eye has an image higher than the other."

"Ah, there's a lot of it about at the moment. Has anybody punched you lately?

"Yes, Asterix got me with an upper cut."

"Yes, he does that. In that case, I think we might be able to help there, at a price. You'll have to leave Asterix alone..."

"Handy to have the excuse to stay away from him. Please do it."

The Druid explained that he would need to do some time travelling first, but he was back the next day, and Caesar had him ushered straight in, and the Druid wasted no time on ceremony.

"Well, Caesar, there are two solutions we can try. We can fit you with eye-glasses that bend the light like a prism and line your eyes up, or there were some quick dances that they will do in the Auvergne in the Auvergne in about 1700 years, and the jumping around could realign your eyes."

"I need a quick fix for this."

"Right, we'll do the two treatments in parallel. I'll send some chaps to see you."

An hour later, six serious Gauls arrived with black bags that looked more or less medical..

"Are you here to do the eye-glasses?"

They opened their bags and took out musical instruments, and the one that looked like Andre Rieu said:

"We come to bourrée, Caesar, not to prism."

*****

Apparently, when Julius Caesar was in Britain, he tried a Druidical remedy for baldness. The druids were as surprised as he was delighted when their secret mixture (worm ash, ground millipedes, dog droppings, boar's urine and scorpion oil in honey, drunk, followed by decorating the pate with a fried egg with onions) actually worked.

"We should have left out the boar's urine," said the Chief Druid. "It's a nice tipple, and that was a good year."

"Naah," said his scribe, "he doesn't like anybody else taking the piss."

"Right then," said the Chief Druid, who was all for a quiet life, but just then, Caesar arrived unannounced at the temple. For a moment, it looked as though the quiet life was over, but the Roman was quite affable.

"With all this hair, now I need some tonsorial gear."

"You what?"

"Shears, clippers, scissors, razor, comb—something to cut my hair."

The Chief Druid saw a chance to win favour. "I have something rather interesting, if Caesar would care to step into what we call our sanctum sanctorum..."

"We use the same term."

"Fascinating! Right, well we may have just the thing--come on through." With that, the Chief Druid led him through the curtains and showed him a large meteorite with a pair of shears embedded in them. "This could be a very good day for you, Caesar. These shears are called Excalibur, and we believe that whoever can withdraw them from the rock will be the rightful ruler of Britain."

"Naah." Julius answered. "I come to borrow scissors, not to prise them."

*****


Later on, Julius Caesar waged all-out cultural war on the Britons, with the aim of turning them all into Romans.

He called a meeting of his planning council to see what their progress was.

Music had been in the hands of a German auxiliary called Stockhausen, who explained that by introducing the Britons to the idea of using their lyres for percussion, he had reduced their number of workable instruments to almost zero. His new music had done the rest.

"Good," said Caesar. "What about poetry?"

A Scottish auxiliary called McGonagall raised his hand. "They were bringing in Irish mercenaries across in coracles to write nasty limericks. We sold them a load of used Delphic oracles and soaked up all of their boat-buying budget, then the oracles killed a lot of them because the oracles didn't like being put in the water. Just in time, too, given the themes they were exploring in the limericks, but poetry's under control."

Three other councillors broke in to talk about the themes in essays, pamphlets and plays, but Caesar waved them aside. "We'll deal with the prose stuff later. What about their cemeteries? We need to take control of those."

A Greek auxiliary named Charon chirped up. "They don't have cemeteries, Caesar, just barrows."

"What, you mean they wheel their dead around?"

"No, they call their burial mounds barrows."

"Right, we'll get to that in a minute, but think while we're talking about taking them over as sites for theme parks and public conveniences. Have we turned all the Druids' groves into temples?"

Crisis Graylingus (Chris Grayling to his friends, if ha had any), a sleek and nasty book burner, could stand it no more. "We need to talk about the prose and a couple of dangerous themes running through all the bodies or work, Caesar!"

"Later, Graylingus, later—I'll manage the agenda. Now, are the groves all converted?"

Graylingus subsided as an anonymous man at the end of the table replied. "All the groves have been opened up, burned, and covered with temples, Caesar."

"Good. That leaves just two items on the agenda." He gave Crisis Graylingus a stern look. "Now I come to barrow seizures, not two prose themes."

*****

After he killed Julius Caesar, Brutus was beside himself with remorse.

"How could I have done it?" he said the centurion who took him in. "I must have lost my wits completely."

"It'll be all right," the centurion said. "We'll put you in a witless protection program, and send you forward in time, so you can forget."

The centurion consulted his notes. "There's just one slot available, and that's as a music arranger for a chap called André Rieu. It's a severe drop in status, but you should have thought of that before you went stabbing people."

Brutus accepted the move, but it wasn't a complete success, as he explained to his case officer at his one-year review.

"It's not easy, this arranging gig" he said. "I thought they were onto me when they called my work Brutal Music. I mean, what's a guy to do? They asked me to do Verdi, and it's all about stabbing, and it showed in my music. Then they gave me Wagner, and there was that sword Gram, then there was a sword called Nothung and Wotan's spear—it was hell."

"You should have tried something lighter."

"I did. I worked up some of Sullivan's music, but they used it for a ballet called 'Pineapple Paul', about a grenade-throwing pope…"

"Never heard of it…"

"That's a relief, but enough people did. Anyhow I moved on to Strauss, which ought to have been safe, but the first piece they asked me to work on was…"

"I think I can see what's coming. 'Wiener Blut', right?"

"Yeah, Viennese Blood. It was like they knew about me, see?"

"Look," said the case officer, "you need a break. We'll send you to America and you can work on Sousa marches in Illinois. Just choose the titles carefully."

So Brutus went to Champaign, Illinois, to the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, where he asked for full access to their holdings.

"We usually just provide a couple of scores at a time," the librarian told him. "Can you work with that?"

"Not really," he said. "You see, I have delved into Verdi, I have excavated Wagner, I have sifted through Sullivan and I have mined the works of Strauss. Now I come to burrow Sousa, not to peruse him."

*****

That's all, folks — for now.