A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: January 2014

What Is The Origin Of (42)?…



A parting shot

This phrase is used to denote a remark, usually derogatory in nature, which is made by someone just before they leave the scene.

One possible origin for the phrase relates to the Parthians who were a warrior tribe from the north-west of what is now Iraq. They were renowned archers and horsemen and their tactic of choice was to pretend to flee from the scene of the battle and firing their arrows whilst travelling backwards. This caused confusion amongst their foes and must have been a successful tactic because by the first century BCE they had control of territories stretching from the Indus to the Euphrates rivers.

The English intelligentsia were certainly aware of the warrior race and their tactics in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samuel Butler, for example, makes specific reference in 1678 thus, “You wound, like Parthians, while you fly, And kill with a retreating eye.” A Captain Mundy who was aide-de-camp to Lord Combermere during a shooting trip to India in 1832 describes their encounter with a tiger, “Out rushed a little cub tiger of about three months, and charged me so courageously that my elephant took to her heels. I made a successful Parthian shot with my favourite Joe Manton [shotgun], and slew my determined little pursue”, the first recorded use of the phrase Parthian shot. The phrase was used in a metaphorical context by the Times in April 1842. The Thunderer recorded, “They have probably enough dealt a Parthian shot to British interests, by setting the Nacional once more upon its legs”.

Whilst all this sounds plausible enough, the problem is that the phrase we use today employs the present participle of the verb to part rather than the adjective to describe the fearsome warriors from the Middle East. And this allows another (and it has to be admitted, more prosaic) theory the opportunity to raise its ugly head. A parting shot is first recorded by John McLeod, a surgeon on the Alceste, in his 1818 blockbuster, A Narrative of a Voyage to the Yellow Sea. “The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped”.

The phrase soon began to be used figuratively. The Quakers in 1828 in The Friend or Advocate of Truth record, “I think it would be much more becoming…, if you could separate without giving each other a parting shot. If you could but use this short sentence, “we cannot agree and therefore we separate.”

I would like to think that the parting shot owes its origins to the tactics deployed by the Parthians. After all, it was well-known long before the first appearance of a parting shot and the usage of a parting shot clearly reflects an assault on the other party on the point of departure. Alas, there is no evidence that the one owes its origin to the other so the similarity of phrases may just be a coincidence. Take your choice but I’m with the Parthians!



Amnesia Corner


My memory is falling apart. It came home to me the other day when I and a colleague (of similar age) were in a pub discussing some mutual contacts and when we came to recollect their names our minds went blank. Even more worrying was that after we had moved on to another subject one of us would interject, almost in a Tourette’s fashion, with the name of the poor sap we were trying to recall some while back. It was like that Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch where the contestant answers the previous question. This is all we have to look forward to!

But what is the cause of it all? Is it just old age?. Well, the clue to the problem, at least according to some research by University College London which is published in Neurology, is the environment in which this memory lapse occurred. Having studied the drinking habits of 5,000 men and 2,000 women aged between 45 and 69 over a period of 10 years, testing how well they think and remember things, their research revealed that heavy drinkers – frighteningly they define a heavy drinker as someone who consumes 4.5 units a day (hardly enough to get going, methinks) – began to suffer memory failures and deterioration in their cognitive processes between 18 months and 6 years earlier than those who drank less.

As I looked into my pint glass and reflected on this news, I happened upon some more research, this time on the effects of coffee on the old grey cells. Regular readers will know I enjoy an early morning coffee, lovingly prepared by Karen at the Moo-La-La on the London platform at Farnborough station. According to Michael Yassa from John Hopkins University in Baltimore whose research is published in Nature Neuroscience there is evidence that a cup or two of coffee could boost the brain’s ability to store long-term memories. Those who had a shot or two of caffeine after looking at a series of pictures were better able to distinguish them from similar images in tests the next day than those who had not had a cup of coffee by some 10%. That doesn’t sound a large margin but, hey what do I know? I’m not a scientist desperate to justify his public funding.  Yassa surmises that caffeine leads to higher levels of a stress hormone in the brain called norepinephrine which helps memory retention. It may be that a regular caffeine habit is beneficial to your overall health and keeps Alzheimer’s away.

So now I am really confused. Does the caffeine cancel the alcohol out? Or is the alcohol too powerful to allow the caffeine to work its magic? As they say, the more you know, the less you understand!

Hard Work



Twelve Years A Slave

To the moving picture house to see, along with 17 other brave souls, this widely acclaimed film which, to put it mildly, is a fairly harrowing experience. The film is beautifully shot and directed – there are some stunning and unusual camera angles – and boasts strong performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as the unhinged and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps, and Lupita Nyong’o as the put-upon slave Patsey. The film is unremitting in its portrayal of the hardships of slavery and the brutality of the slavers. The film, directed by Turner prize winner Steve McQueen (no – not that one) is based on Winthrup’s autobiography published in 1853 which relates how he was duped into leaving his comfortable home life in Saratoga, New York, to travel to Washington and then be kidnapped and, despite being a free man, sold into slavery. He was one of the few to escape this predicament and once he had established his true identity became a prominent anti-slavery campaigner.

Worthy as all that it is, there are a number of features of the film which I found made it a flawed piece of work. McQueen has chosen to portray events solely through the eyes and perspective of Winthrup which means that the film is poor on context. Some fairly crucial questions are left hanging in the mind of the viewer. Was Winthrup really an integrated member of the Saratoga society as we are required to believe? How and why did he actually get kidnapped? We assume he had something slipped in his drink. How extensive was kidnapping of freemen (and women)? Did his wife and family really accept him back with open arms as portrayed in the tear-jerking reunion scene? I’m sure if I had been absent for twelve years without a by your leave and explained it as having gone through a difficult period, TOWT might have asked the odd question. How did his wife maintain herself and family in the same home  during Winthrup’s absence? Why did she not give up on him and take up with another?

The more fundamental problem is that as lamentable and shocking as Winthrup’s predicament is, in reality it was no more traumatic than that experienced by tens of thousands of slaves uprooted from their villages in Africa (often by their neighbouring tribesmen), sold on into slavery, dispatched across the Atlantic in gruesome conditions and sold on to the white slavers. Unlike these thousands of poor souls, Winthrup had at least the prospect (distant as it may have been) of redemption which was not available to the legions of first generation slaves. Slavery was a ghastly, barbaric institution, practised for as long as man subjugated man. Of course, slavery in the Southern states of the US endured when other more “civilised” countries had abolished it and was the more reprehensible for that, but I can’t help feeling that McQueen is playing the white man’s guilt card here.

For all its faults, of which there are many, not least the slow pace of the film which makes it seem like 14 years a slave, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile and thought-provoking experience. Certainly beats Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge, to which I would otherwise have been subjected!





For us silver surfers – to my dismay this is the designation given to all over 55s who tinker around with the internet, smart phones and their associated software apps – the pace of technology can be overwhelming. No sooner have we got to grips with something then we find that their day in the sun is over to be replaced with the latest craze or must-have app. It is this constant and continual pace of change that makes me wonder how such enormous valuations can be put on businesses such as Facebook and the like whose rise and fall makes Icarus look like a slowcoach.

Take SMS, for example. Texting is now a firmly established method of communication and has even spawned its own version of the English language – textspeak – where TLAs (three letter acronyms) and phonetic spellings proliferate. It is hard to remember that it was only in December 1992 that Neil Papworth sent the first text message, wishing a colleague a Happy Christmas. But according to the firm of bean counters Deloitte, all is not well in the land of SMS.

For the first time since the introduction of SMS 2013 saw a drop in the number of text messages sent in the UK – from 152 billion to 145 billion. Hardly fin de siècle stuff but the doom-mongers at Deloitte predict that this year will see another fall and the number of messages sent may dip below 140 billion.

Why’s that, you might ask. Well it seems it is all down to the adoption of smartphones. It is getting more and more difficult to get a basic mobile phone – you know the ones I mean, the ones on which you can actually make a phone call and get fairly adequate mobile reception. Manufacturers are flooding the market with smartphones which boast an increasingly sophisticated array of features and apps. Some of the apps, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, replicate and improve the functionality of SMS messaging. Using them you can communicate with a number of people at the same time, share pictures and videos and punctuate your inanities with brightly coloured icons. Against this competition the prehistoric SMS is struggling to survive.

Resistance to the mania for apps is being mounted by the silver surfers. Although, by necessity in many cases, they are adopting smartphones, many are using them just for making calls and sending messages. In 2014, it is predicted, a quarter of older smart phone owners won’t download a single app. And globally, the number of SMS messages being sent is rising and predicted to continue to do so, reaching perhaps 50 billion a day from the current 21 billion.

This profitable cash cow for mobile phone operators is not going to disappear overnight but signs of its decline are emerging, not only here in the UK but also in the US.

Get ready for the next brave new world!


Enough Nafs



My attention was drawn the other day to the strange cult, if that is the right word, of the Malamatiyya, a branch of the Sufis. Central to their belief system is the concept of the naf. In their understanding of man’s spiritual anatomy the nafs are essentially the ego or lower self and are the source of all human evils such as lust, desire, fear, anger, idolatry and forgetfulness.

As the nafs were the source of human evil, the Malamati claimed that the more energy they put into satisfying these basic emotions and desires, the less energy there would be to assist the believer to advance their spiritual transformation. By transcending the nafs the adherent can start their journey to reach the summit of ruh, the ultimate union with God. In their view of human psychology the antithesis of the nafs were the sirrs and by subduing the naffs you would more easily allow the sirrs to order your moral behaviour.

So in terms of their daily conduct they set out to humiliate the nafs. They were always encouraged to claim blame and hold themselves in contempt. In this way their inner being would be kept secret whilst their exterior self was non-conformist and unruly. The Malamati practised intentional poverty and sought to pursue a despised profession – banking?. They could only take help if it was humiliating and only openly petition God if they were truly desperate. Poverty and asceticism itself was not enough. Openly advertising one’s poverty would allow the nafs to thrive on the admiration that others may have of your asceticism. Therefore, the only way to rid yourself effectively of the nafs was to practise asceticism secretly and to act in public in an unlawful way.

To illustrate the point the Malamatis point to a saint who was hailed by a great crowd when he entered the town. The saint, however, in order to escape the attentions of his would-be adherents started urinating in the public road. So aghast were the crowd at his antics that they quickly departed, no longer believing in his spiritual rank. But to the Malamati his very act of unlawfulness – pissing in the street – was the mark of his virtuousness.

Reflecting on all of this I can’t help thinking that there are more adherents of Malamatiyya here in Blighty than you might think. Just wander around our town centres any Friday or Saturday night and you will see groups of our yoof giving free rein to their nafs, urinating in the streets and vomiting in shop doorways. One can only assume they are well on the path to enlightenment and that their attainment of ruh is just round the corner.

It is only because we live in a culturally diverse society that we can make sense of what at first blush would seem to be just aberrant behaviour!

Meeting Jeremy


I gave a lecture to a group of visiting American actuarial students at the University College, London on the uses of alternative risk transfer by both insureds and insurers. Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, and it is good to know that we have something to contribute in explaining to would-be actuaries the world where, to paraphrase Tom Waits, they giveth with large print and taketh away with small print. I am available for bookings for other academic groups, weddings and bar mitzvahs – just contact my agent.

Anyway, whilst I was basking in the after-glow of studied indifference, the organiser sidled up to me and asked me if I wanted anything. “Yes”, I said, “I’d really like to meet Jeremy Bentham”.

Assiduous readers of this blog may recall ( that the great social philosopher requested that on his death his body be preserved and displayed at the Uni.  The truth be told, I’ve always fancied being stuffed and mounted (cue a host of Julian Clary jokes) but for some reason TOWT isn’t so keen. I guess the only chance of my wish coming true is if I outlive her. I have this fancy of being wheeled out to my local pub, to sporting events and when at rest I could be a repository for coats, hats and umbrellas and even, perhaps I flatter myself, a conversation piece at parties.

Such was my (temporary) elevated status that my request was acceded to and, I must say, the old cove looked pretty good even after over 180 years in his mummified state. Alas, no synaptic connections but that is not surprising as his head, which fell off was subsequently replaced by a wax mask. Legend has it that some Victorian wags used the original as a football. I was surprised that he was seated and that he was tucked away in the backwaters of the university in a temperature controlled display case. – no doubt to protect the innocent and to prevent the unwary from being startled by his presence.

Suitably encouraged that my aspirations were not as far-fetched as some may think, we retired to a local pub where I continued the pickling process which, doubtless, will make my future embalmer’s job that much easier!

Story Of The Week



We all love a bargain. Testament to that is the proliferation of pound shops and 99p shops which litter our high streets offering shoppers the opportunity to buy other retailers’ excess stock and last year’s models for the price of a coin of the realm. Shoppers in Wrexham must have thought they had died and gone to heaven when they realised that their local 99p store was knocking out everything at 50p to clear the shelves.

Cue pandemonium with some customers queuing for up to 2 hours for the privilege of paying for their goods. Worse was to follow when staff midway through the sale put the prices back up to 99p, even for those people who were stuck in the queues.

The ending of the sale in these circumstances did not go down well with the locals, tempers were frayed and four members of the old bill had to attend to calm things down.

Truly a sign of the times!.     


Crack-berry Addiction



One of the curses of the adoption of business of smart technology is the expectation on the part of employers that their workers are available 24/7. It is difficult to resist the temptation, even when you are supposed to be enjoying leisure time, to switch your Blackberry (or similar) on just to check what is going on. But research conducted by scientists at the Michigan State University and soon to be published in the ever-popular journal, Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, suggests, as most of us already thought, that this crack-berry addiction is not good for us.

82 upper-level managers (presumably holding senior jobs as opposed to just working on higher floors in a skyscraper) were asked to complete a survey over a two-week period and a further 161 workers across a wide spectrum of jobs were also surveyed. What the researchers found was that those who monitored their smart phones for work-related purposes after 9pm were more tired and less engaged the following day, as if they had had a night on the tiles.

It seems that part of the problem is that smart phones emit what is known as blue light which hinders the production of melatonin, a chemical in the body which promotes sleep. Usage of these devices late in the evening also stimulates the grey cells, making it difficult for us to relax, detach from the stresses and strains of our work schedule and prepare our body for rest and sleep. The problem is compounded because without an appropriate amount of sleep the body can’t recover and prepare itself to be operating at optimal efficiency the next day.

The study also went on to compare the effects of using other forms of electronic devices. Unfortunately (don’t tell your employers) they found that the use of laptops and tablet computers had a less deleterious effect than using smart phones.

There we are. When your boss asks you why you did not respond to that urgent e-mail they sent to you at 9 in the evening, you should say that their business is better served by you being in peak condition and so to achieve this state of perfection, you don’t touch your smart phone in the evening. You can cite this research – just see where it gets you! Alternatively, you could leave your smart phone at home, go down the local and have a skin full. When you crawl into work the next day the effect will be no different from the consequences of diligent smart phone usage out of office hours. You never know, you might just get away with it!

The Meaning Of Life – Part Twenty Four Of Forty Two



Why do we wake up just before the alarm goes off?

Have you noticed how you invariably come to just before the dreaded alarm goes off? It happens to me so often I feel I could dispense with the automated warning that it is time to get up but without that safety net there, I wonder whether I would come to at the right time. Why does this happen, I wondered?

Well, it is all down to your circadian rhythm which in turn is controlled by a group of nerves nestling in the centre of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. As well as controlling your body clock – when you feel wide awake and sleepy – it also controls your blood pressure, body temperature and your sense of time. Naturally, your body is most efficient when it follows some form of routine. If you are regular in your habits – go to bed at roughly the same time and get up roughly at the same  time – your body locks into that routine.

Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a protein called PER, the level of which varies each day, peaking in the evening and plummeting at night. An hour or so before you are supposed to wake, the level of PER rises (along with your body temperature and blood pressure) and in preparation for you awakening your body releases a cocktail of stress hormones and your sleep gets lighter and lighter. Following a regular routine means that  your body has prepared itself for your rising to coincide almost to the second to the time your alarm goes off.

That being the case, the worst thing you can do is to press the snooze button, turn over and have another ten minutes, tempting as it might be. Your body is primed to get up so delaying the process sends into a deep state of discumbobulation, hormones associated with sleeping interfering with the hormones preparing you to get up. Result – you feel groggy and have ensured that you will be starting the day in less than peak condition.

It seems that you can will yourself to wake up at a certain time – it is always a nightmare of mine when I have to get up especially early to catch a plane that I will sleep through. According to research conducted by the University of Lubeck and reported in Psychology Today, 15 volunteers were recruited to sleep in a lab for three nights. On one night they were told they would be woken up at 6am and on the other nights at 9am. However, the devious researchers woke them up at 6.30am each day. On days they thought they were getting up early the sleepers’ stress hormones started to increase from 4.30am. On days when they thought they were in for a lie in, the stress hormones hadn’t started to kick in and so when they were roused they felt groggy. The conclusion – our bodies start to prepare us for getting up at the time we think we are getting up.

And, finally, if you don’t stir before your alarm, you’re not getting enough sleep!

So now we know!

Pickled In Aspic



One of the reasons that our native tongue is one of the world’s pre-eminent linguae francae is that it is not pickled in aspic. It has proved to be wonderfully adaptive and ready to embrace neologisms and words and/or phrases from other languages. The language we use betrays its mongrel mix and all the richer it is for it too.

If you hop across la manche, you will find that the French or, at least, those in certain quartiers are very precious about the sanctity of their mother tongue. Indeed, there is a body called the Academie Francaise which is dedicated inter alia to halt the creep of Anglicised words into the French language. It was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 to protect the French language and to maintain the language that Moliere knew and loved. The Academie Francaise was shut down temporarily during the French Revolution but was reinstated by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The ancient institution caused a frisson of excitement last February when it appointed a Brit, Michael Edwards,  a poet, critic and literature professor, to its ranks. The academy members are known as the Immortals – there are forty of them and new members are elected by their fellows – and hold their post sine die. They are even against the French regional languages.

The Academie has raised its head above the barricades with a fierce onslaught on the growing use of the abbreviation, ASAP. The august institution claims that this innocent acronym seems to accumulate most of the defects of language that hides its contempt and threatening character under the guise of modern junk. Mon Dieu! They want its usage stopped pdq and offer as an appropriate and pure alternative dès que possible.

They also take umbrage over the growing usage amongst the sporting fraternite of the verb scorer as in il a score. They argue that there is a perfectly good French verb, marquer, which does the job and has been used in this context since the late 19th century. Other Anglicisms which have attracted their ire include flyer as in an advertising leaflet – they prefer feuille volante ,- cash – they suggest rather than payer cash, payer comptant – and digital which they associate with fingers and suggest that numerique is more appropriate.

More power to their elbow, I say. As long as they maintain this head in the sand attitude and preserve French in aspic, those of us blessed with English as their mother tongue won’t need to bother with their precious language. Vive la difference!