Sauron’s Metallurgist

Can you imagine what it would like to have been Sauron’s metallurgist? Probably not an easy task I’d say. I can imagine it now, he gets called to Sauron’s chamber of evil one day.

Sauron: “Ah Thor Hammerthumb, so good of you to drop by.”

Thor: “You did summon me master.”

Sauron: “Of course, of course. But still … you know … it’s good.”

Thor: “Yes my Lord”

Sauron: “Sooo … those latest swords for the Orcs … pretty good from what I hear.”

Thor: “Yes my Lord. They do complain that the alloy is still too refined, not rough enough to be befitting of an Orc.”

Sauron: “It’s a burden we must all bear when we choose to work with the darker side of things.”

Thor: “Yes my Lord.”

Sauron: “I mean you should see the kind of mess they leave behind when I call them in here to order them to chase down some recalcitrant Elf.”

Thor: “Yes my Lord.”

Awkward pause…

Sauron: “I suppose you must find it trying having to dumb down your genius simply making the type of blunt weaponry they desire?”

Thor: “I serve as I must my Lord.”

Sauron: “Ah yes, of course, of course. And a fantastic job you do too!”

Thor: “Thank-you my Lord.”

Sauron: “I mean who can argue with the evil genius of crude brutality?”

Thor: “Not I my Lord.”

Sauron: “Undoubtedly. And yet …”

Awkward silence…

Sauron: “Thor, I was thinking of making some rings.”

Thor: “My Lord?”

Sauron: “You know, this whole send out the mass of Orcs and beat the crap out of everything … well it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but you know … sometimes I can’t help thinking that there might be more to life.”

Thor: “My Lord? You’re getting married?”

Sauron: “Married? What the hell are you talking about. No, it just came to me the other night. I’m going to make a bunch of awesome beautiful rings to give out to my enemies.”

Thor: “Well certainly Lord that would be a welcome change for my skills …”

Sauron: “You know, I thought I could give them out to each of the races that are my enemies.”

Thor: “Wouldn’t they be a little suspicious my Lord?”

Sauron: “I’ve got it all worked out. Even had my personal poet in to work out the marketing.”

Thor: “Yes but why would they …”

Sauron: (a faraway look in his eye) “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,”

Thor: “… be a little suspicious?”

Sauron: “Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,”

Thor: “Wait, wait, you’re going too fast, I need to know some details …”

Sauron: “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,”

Thor: “… yes but what sort of setting do you want …”

Sauron: “One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne”

Thor: “… diamonds, amethyst …”

Sauron: “In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

Thor: “… I suppose for you it might be 24 carat, but you know how rough you are on your armour, make it too pure and it’ll get marks on it …”

Sauron: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,”

Thor: “?”

Sauron: “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

(Silence descends on the hall and Sauron stands in majesty before his master metallurgist. After a pause …)

Thor: (clears his throat) “Well my Lord, that might be just a smidgeon outside my skill set.”

Sauron: (breaking out of his reverie) “What? Really? It sounded like a good idea to me.”

Thor: “You see Lord, mostly rings are kind of … you know … decorative.”

Sauron: “Hmmm …”

Thor: “I’m really good at decorative … can make all sorts of really pretty things that will make your loved one swoon.”

(Sauron just stares at him)

Thor: “But you know … when you think of like gathering, finding, binding and other -ing style words … it’s not really your normal ring territory. Loving yes … ruling well …”

(Sauron’s stare turns more icy)

Thor: (really quickly) “But maybe if I thought about it a bit more …”

(The stare softens a little)

Thor: (obviously thinking on his feet) “… yeah so, there’s finding … so we could put GPS into there somewhere.”

(A quizzical look appears on Sauron’s face)

Thor: “And, and, and there’s control … sooooo there must be some comms right … Bluetooth … no Wifi or maybe even some models with 3G … yeah 3G … how better to control someone than be able to get data on exactly where they are all the time?”

(Thor was starting to get on a roll at this point)

Thor: “OK cool, so maybe we’re not talking rings then. Maybe right … and you know, I’m just brain-storming here … but maybe we’re talking phones. Yeah phones.

(Sauron steps back and just watches in fascination as the inspiration unfolds)

Thor: “And you don’t just want control, do you, you want to bind them? So we need some sort of centralised mechanism that forces them to keep coming back for more.”

Thor: “A way to hook them and force them to bend to your will. Like … like … like … an App Store. Yeah an App Store! Somewhere that’s the only place they can go to get more features for this ‘phone’.”

Thor: “Which means it’ll obviously have to have a fully featured screen to make the apps addictive … and yes!”

(Thor thrusts his hand into the air almost startling Sauron as he observes the madness unfold)

Thor: “With an app store and good screen, we can get other people to do all the hard work of actually writing the apps that make the phone good for us! We can even charge them for the privileged of ‘selling’ their apps for them.”

(An evil grin spreads over Sauron’s face as he strolls towards Thor and places his arm around his shoulders)

Sauron: “Thor, Thor … while I could be angry that you have ignored my idea of a ring, at this time I’m disposed to be gracious. Please, come into my office, let’s chat more over coffee.”

And that’s how Sauron invented the iPhone.

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The Crosslaws

The bus seemed to hand in mid-air. In front of it stood a skinny teenager, cowering, his arms crossed in front of his face. It was a frozen scene, both the bus and kid as unmoving as the zebra crossing on which he stood, and yet it was obviously a moment captured in time. As per the laws of universal cartoon convention, speed lines trailing the bus demonstrated the momentum with which it was bearing down on the unprotected youth.

From a shadow emerged the agent. Wrapped in his trademark fedora hat and trench coat, collar turned up despite the heat (of course), he strolled to stand between the bus and its target. Having adopted his current look in the post-war twenties he’d stubbornly refused to refresh his image with the changing time. It made him immediately obvious to those who knew what to look for. He was Albert Feynman – Physics Cop.

Removing his cigar with a sigh, he flicked ash onto the road and said to the air, “OK Thelodious, I know you’re out there.”

Nothing happened. Despite time being frozen, Albert thought he saw a shimmer from the heat haze rising off the searing bitumen. If that were true, he’d have to make sure he talked with the guys from the convection department to ensure that the molecules were restored to their original position after this was over. If a butterfly flapping its wings in the outback could theoretically cause a typhoon in the China Sea, there is no telling what rearranged molecules during a temporal freeze could do. Probably nothing, but you just never knew – that was the thing about Chaos Theory.

He folded his arms and said once again, “Come on Thelodious. You know this sort of thing isn’t on.”

Waiting what seemed like an eternity, Albert was about to try again when from behind the bus stepped a tall slender man. Strolling deliberately in his pin stripped suit, hair immaculately plastered in place, he tried to appear nonchalant as he presented himself before Albert.

“Ah … Thelodious Rouge Tapus”, said Albert, “of course it would be you.”

“Who else”, said Thelodious indicating the zebra crossing, “it is my job. This is an emergency freeze to forestall a legislative breach by the bus.”

“And it is my job to stop you when you overstep you jurisdiction”, countered Albert. “This is a gross breach of protocol, even for a Legislative Cop like you.”

“Not at all”, protested Thelodious, “Australian Law clearly states that vehicles must give way to pedestrians on zebra crossings.”

Albert gave him a withering stare. “And yet,” he continued dryly, “you are still outside of your jurisdiction by taking this action.”

Thelodious stood his ground and radiated unrepentant resolve. He was a legal man and rules must be kept, otherwise what was the point? This wasn’t his first confrontation with Albert and it wouldn’t be his last. He was damned if the bus was going to flout the law on his watch by failing to give way.

Albert continued, “May I refresh your memory about our little tussle decades ago in the States? It was about pi I believe.”

“Indeed it was,” said Thelodious wincing slightly but refusing to expand on the incident.

In the yawning silence that followed Albert plunged on, “And if I recall correctly, the State Legislature had passed a bill to set the value of pi at four. Four!? I mean come on, four! What on earth, even three would have been miles better.”

“Four was an excellent value administratively speaking,” Thelodious interjected. “Being an even number it simplifies so many calculations. Think of the savings to be made.”

“But it’s not correct.”

“That’s why we changed it.”

“You can’t, it’s a physical constant.”

“Really?” insinuated Thelodious his temper rising. “Because of all your meddling, we didn’t get a proper chance to see how things ran with a value of four. Now we’ll never know how well it would have worked”.

“Oh yes we do,” growled Albert under his breath.

The agents lapsed into silence as they re-gained their composure. Around them the scene remained fixed. A cicada hung mid-flight in the bushes to the side of the road. Only centimetres behind it, its recently departed branch was in the process of being flexed down by a cat paw. It wouldn’t take long for the look of predatory intent etched on the face of its stalker to fade once time was restarted, the cat realising it had just missed its quarry.

Even then, Albert mused, the cat wouldn’t have time to experience its disappointment. By his calculations, the bus would strike the youth within 0.6 of a second. The wet thump of impact, the squeal of tyres and eventual screams from passengers would drive it away almost immediately. He turned to look at the youth and shook his head sadly at the waste.

Without looking away, he said, “So Thelodious what is your plan now? How do you get your outcome?”

“To be honest”, Thelodious drawled, “I don’t see that I have to do anything. Look at the situation as it stands, no laws infringed. Quite perfect as far as I can see.”

“How about the fact that time is no longer progressing?” asked Albert.

Thelodious glared. He loathed Albert and what he perceived as a self-righteous elitism from the other agent. “You and your onerous Physical Laws. What makes them so special?” he spat.

“They are reality,” explained Albert, “it is how the universe is structured.”

“And these Legislative Laws are how society is structured,” said Thelodious.

“And yet your laws change with society but ours stay fixed. Doesn’t that tell you something?” asked Albert.

“Only that we’re progressive and you’re not”, stated Thelodious smugly.

Albert realised that he was gritting his teeth and consciously forced himself to relax. The man drove him mad. He often felt that these debates got dragged down to a level of stupidity and then the other guy would be on his home turf and thrash him from experience. It was exhausting.

“So let me get this straight”, Albert said, “you’re protecting a progressive law that is defined and made relevant by the society in which it exists?”

“That’s right”, said Thelodious.

“And you’re happy for this to happen by time being permanently frozen, hence keeping the status quo?” asked Albert.

“Correct”.

“So wouldn’t that then render the dynamic operating culture from which the law was derived obsolete and make the law pointless?” reasoned Albert.

“Damn”, said Thelodious. He paused mouth open for a while, cogs whirring inside his mind looking for a way out. His jaw worked a few times as he started to say something only to stop and eventually gave up. “Fine”, he said, “restart time. Let the bus through.”

And let the kid be killed thought Albert.

When time started again, the youth was perplexed to be hit in the face by a warm ball of fur that turned out later to be a cat and not 10 tonnes of bus. Quite a good thing to be perplexed about in the scheme of things. The cat for its part never worked out how the cicada transformed into a human and vowed in its small catty mind to only hunt lizards in the future.
The bus driver was the source of much hilarity amongst his workmates whenever he told the story of the phantom zebra crossing boy. The mandatory drug test his boss insisted on came back negative however and he was cleared for further duty.

As Albert faded back into the shadows, he had to suppress a feeling that he might have done the wrong thing. If a few molecules of gas out of place could cause such big consequences, what was transposition of a cicada and human going to do? It didn’t bear thinking about – but that was the thing about Chaos Theory, you never quite knew what difference it would make. The boys in the convection department certainly wouldn’t be hearing from him on this one.

He’d be getting a call from his boss this evening though, of that he was sure. That prat Thelodious would see to it. Once the opportunity to uphold his Legislative position was lost, he could care less for the boy. Well too bad, his boss could be dealt with, right now he was off for a drink. He needed to forget this recent breach of protocol.

Alternate Lyrics to Electric Blue by IceHouse

ElectricBlueWhenever I used to hear this song on the radio I’d hear it incorrectly.  Instead of the lyrics ‘Electric Blue’ followed by a backing singer intro to the next verse, I would rather hear it as Electrical Toaster.  Made me wonder what the song would be like if it were actually about an Electrical Toaster.  Enjoy – listen to the youtube version while reading my lyrics.  🙂

 

If I open the grill, and put my bread in too,
Is it gonna burn my toast, when I walk to the loo,
Is it waiting until I turn away?
I realize everytime I don’t use you,
That it’s all up to you, Electrical Toaster.
On my knees, help me toasting,
What else would I do, Electrical …

Oh I had a dream, for a moment I believed it was true,
Oh I’d have given anything, just to toast without you,
Are you hiding somewhere behind my deep fry?
I realize everytime I don’t use you,
That it’s all up to you, Electrical Toaster.
In too deep, standing here waiting,
for my bread crisp true, Electrical Toaster.
I can see, can see that it maybe,
needs some heating from you, Electrical Toaster.
On my knees, help me baby,
Tell me what can I do, Electrical ..

(mandatory saxaphone solo)

Are you hiding somewhere behind my deep fry?
I just freeze, every time I can’t find you,
And I’m looking for you, Electrical Toaster.
In too deep, down in my cupboards,
As I’m searching for you, Electrical Toaster.
I can see, can see that it maybe,
Needs some heating from you, Electical Toaster.
On my knees, help me toasting,
Tell me what can i do, Electrical …
I just freeze, all my bread and I want you,
To defrost it as new, Electrical Toaster.
In too deep, down in my cupboards,
As I’m searching for you, Electrical Toaster.
I can see, can see that it maybe,
Needs some heating from you, Electical Toaster.
On my knees, help me toasting,
Tell me what else can I do, Electrical …
Electrical …
Electrical …
Electrical …

The Hyperbole Defense

730Good evening and welcome to tonight’s edition of the 7:30 Report. With the Australian Federal Election looming, we have with us representatives of the contending parties to explain aspect of their campaigns. Firstly tonight, we have the pleasure of the Minister for Finance.

Host: Welcome minister.
Minister: Thank-you very much.
H: Minister, you recently made the claim that the opposition’s policy costing have a budget hole of 29.3 billion dollars.
M: That’s right.
H: But their entire budgetary costings only add up to 17 billion.
M: That’s right.
H: How do you explain that?
M: They are completely unsuitable to manage our economy.
H: But minister, what you are claiming about their budget is not even possible.
M: I don’t follow you?
H: Well based on what you’re claiming, they’re missing a funding source for more money than they are actually planning to spend. How can they require a funding source for money they don’t plan on spending?
M: Obviously we’re taking into account debt repayments that they’re not aware of?
H: Really. So there has been debt incurred during your administration that isn’t a matter of public record?
M: Look, I’m using hyperbole. The point I’m making is that if they obtain office they’ll destroy the economy. We’ve been assured of that.
H: Oh really? By whom?
M: The Treasury office has officially costed their budget and declared it to have more holes than an asylum seeker vessel.
H: So why has the Treasury office issued a formal declaration that they have done no such thing?
M: Well it wasn’t a formal official declaration.
H: What was it then?
M: Well I hung around the car park of the treasury department and found one of their officials who confided over a cigarette that he didn’t trust the buggers. So it did come from an official.
H: If I may be so pointed let me ask, how does this claim of an official declaration not constitute a blatant lie to the Australian public?
M: I’m using hyperbole. When you look at me like that, it’s hyperbole. Look there’s big issues at stake here and we need to get our message across. I’ll bet you’ve complained that your bag weighs a ton before when it hasn’t really. It’s just like that.
H: Minister, thank-you for your time.

Host: We now turn our attention to the Shadow Minister for Immigration. Welcome minister.
Shadow Minister: Thank-you, it’s good to be here.
H: I’d like to ask you about your policy on boat people.
S: Ah yes, clearly the government has lost the battle against the toxic tidal wave of illegal invaders. We’ll stop the boats.
H: I think some people might describe them as asylum seekers.
S: Yes but we can’t afford to risk being seen as soft or we’ll be crucified by the media. That’s the first point in our 5 point plan to stop the boats. We toyed with the term illegal terrorists but didn’t want to be seen as racist so settled on illegal invaders instead. Tough but fair don’t you think?
H: I think some would say misleading.
S: Potato … Potaato
H: The second point in your plan is to buy back all the boats in Indonesia?
S: Yes, really clever isn’t it? Can’t cross the water without a boat right?
H: But couldn’t it be considered impractical?
S: No, that’s the beauty of it. When we get the boats, we get the fuel in them – boost to the economy. And some people still have wood fires so we can be green by chopping them up for heating.
H: I don’t really know what to say in response to that, so we’ll move on to the next point. You plan on sending intercepted boat people to be processed on the moon?
S: That’s right. No-one there to complain that we’ll be burdening any existing nation. Plus it’s way more extreme that those buggers in Government so we look better. Would you like to hear our final two points?
H: Are they worse?
S: Of course.
H: Then no thank-you.
S: Probably for the best. They’re pretty horrible. We have to do it of course for show, but everyone knows it’s all hyperbole. Then when the dust settles and all the hysteria dies down, we can pull back from the brink and discuss a real solution.
H: I don’t think the Government is planning no pulling back.
S: Good lord, you think so? That’s horrible.
H: Shadow minister, thank you for your time.
S: My pleasure.

Host: Finally tonight, we turn our attention to the minor parties. Welcome all.
Parties: Thank-youu … ank-you … you.
H: Can you please explain how you feature in this election in the presence of the two major parties?
P: Well it’s quite simple. Vote for us and we’ll promise you whatever your little heart desires.
H: Really, how do you propose to do that? Aren’t people’s interests often conflicting?
P: We’re not just one party. There’s a bunch of us so you’re bound to find something you like the sound of.
H: I see, so have you costed your promises?
P: Pfft. Why would we bother wasting our time on that. We’ll never get a large enough majority to be held accountable for our promises.
H: Makes sense. Thank you for your time.
P: Our pleasure.

That’s about time for our show this evening. I’m not sure that we’ve actually clarified anything of use to the voting public, but unfortunately that’s par for the course in a political campaign. Join us next week as we consult with medical experts on techniques to reduce bruising cause by bashing your head repeatedly against a rock.

Thank-you for watching and good night.

Fuhrer of the Sausage People

Sausage Trio, Mash and Cabbage with Onion Gravy

They would always turn up after midnight. Somewhere near the back of the store, between the racks of lamb, bulky beef legs and frozen chickens, they would appear marching in a conga line. Such a scrappy band of brothers, he often thought. Clothed in patchy woolen shirts and caps, always dirty, they would wind their way out onto the main shop floor ready for the nightly fun. In some ways they were a risk. Occupational Health and Safety would freak if they ever found out such creatures were in his shop, but nobody did random inspections in the middle of the night.

The best word he could use to describe them was munchkins. Small and impish, but not exactly delicate. They were far too plump to granted that complement, but as a result it was almost impossible to damage them. Their inbuilt layer of padding seemed to act like a natural shock absorber. All manner of falls and spills, which were a frequent occurrence, held no danger for them whatsoever. He’d once seen one fall all the way from the ceiling to the concrete fall and walk away with nothing more than an embarrassed grin.

They’d been trying to fit too much into the mincing machine in one go that night. With meat clogging the inlet, the crew had stood around arguing, casting accusations and gesticulating wildly when the plucky little fellow had decided to take matters into his own hands. Climbing up the shelving, he’d made his way via an astonishing sequence of steps and jumps to the ceiling fan above the grinding bench. With a flourish he leapt off, obviously intending to land on the blockage and add a little oomph to get it moving again. Unfortunately aim wasn’t his strong suit. The little guy had ended up missing not only the grinder, but the entire bench, pancaking himself with a soggy little squelch on the floor. Bursting into laughter, the rest of the crew had shared their appreciation for his effort, applauding with whistles and catcalls.

And that was the thing about these guys. For them life was all fun. Even when things went wrong, it all still seemed to work out. Misguided, act first think later impulsiveness was their modus operandi. He’d never really worked out what might have happened if that little guy had landed in the machine just as it spluttered back into life, although he had a hunch that it would have been fine. Munchkin sausage wouldn’t have been the special of the day as it were. Not that he could have called them that even if the unthinkable had happened. Munchkin was his description for them, they actually called themselves the Sausage People.

Their appearance one evening over a year ago had come as quite a shock. You don’t go around living life expecting a tiny race of humanoids to be living in your meat freezer. It just doesn’t happen. Well, he’d thought it didn’t happen, but when a conga line comes winding through between your feet, you’re not left with much of a choice are you? He’d been working hard that night, burning the midnight oil in an attempt to find a way to get his butcher’s shop back on it’s feet. The competition from the major supermarket chains was simply pushing out the small guys like him. So that first night that it happened, he’d staggered out the door, had a stiff whiskey and put himself to bed, chalking it all up to stress.

The following day he’d talked himself out of his delusion and bolstered enough enthusiasm to take another stab at his new flavours. But when the music had started again that night, he’d broken into a cold sweat. Refusing to look down at what he knew couldn’t be true, he’d held strong for a while but finally cracked when he felt something bipedal walking across his foot.

By the fourth night he’d had enough. The phantasms showed no signs of relenting and he had to find a way to stay in business. If imaginary creatures were going to exist, then he might as well immerse himself in the delusion. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

The Sausage People turned out to be masters of the processed meats. If it was ground up and shoved into a skin, then they could make it magical. Soon his little butcher shop had reinvented itself as THE purveyor of exclusive designer sausages. Tony’s Wurst Shop. He’d laughed himself silly over the genius of that name. The world was at his feet and the supermarkets just didn’t get a look in.

The best part of the situation was that the Sausage People loved it. For them, apart from slapstick stupidity and pranks, nothing could compare to the joy of sausages. Making sausages. Tasting sausages. Inventing new flavours. Refining the blend. It was their life and they doted over their benefactor who so kindly made the meat and equipment available.

Interestingly enough, another of their quirks had lead to his private nickname. Each night the routine of the conga line ended with a special ceremony of their own creation. Forming a circle around him, they would raise their hands in salute, arms straight out in front, thanking their friend for his goodness before scurrying off to their work. He never knew where they got it from, but it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi salutes from World War II.

Likening himself to Hitler was not an image that he wanted to propagate, but in his subconscious he couldn’t help but notice. So he’d found himself, in private moments only, thinking of himself as the Fuhrer of the Sausage People. A kind, beneficent shop owner perhaps, but definitely not a dictator. In fact, each night when the clock hit midnight, his shop became such a frenzy of activity that he had no more chance of controlling it than a hurricane. During those hours, his shop was not his but theirs. And he loved it.

 

The title comes from a little anecdote I heard about a poem of Robert Burns.  The poem is customarily read before the cutting of the Haggis and contains the line ‘Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!‘.  It was once translated into German and then independently from the German back into English and ended up as ‘Mighty Fuhrer of the sausage-people‘.  I’ve no idea if it’s a true anecdote, but it sparked my imagination.  You can catch the clip from the TV show QI where I saw it here.

Why?

I wonder what they would say if they knew? Would they ask me why – these people who flock around me?

It’s not me they are interested in. I am like a statue in Trafalgar Square, surrounded by pigeons, bustling and noisy, I play the role of scenery in their minds. My presence is simply a fact to be navigated and, if necessary, stepped on. They are as uncomprehending of my real purpose as a pigeon is of Nelson’s column and yet they flow thick around me, pressing in on every side.

I’m not sure why I came here at this moment, why I feel compelled to seek out their company. Is there some subconscious obligation within me to share in their condition, a hidden agenda of conscience pushing me to identify with them finally? It certainly doesn’t sound like me, well not as far as I’m aware. You could ask my psychologist if it mattered to you, but it won’t matter to me – not soon anyway.

I marvel that I have these thoughts, they are not my native territory.

My home ground is turfed with certainty. A flat track on which to run, unimpeded by the distraction of doubt, I don’t like to be way laid by wasteful self-reflection.  That is how I like things thank-you very much. Neat and compact, like a present wrapped for Christmas, perfect in the box, with well decorated trimmings and even a little bow. What point is there in breaking the perfection simply to find out what is inside?

With a little smile, I shake my head and refocus my attention on things more concrete and external.

Would they ask me WHY?

Surely they would – surely.  That is how most people are wired.

Built with a need to know the answers, at least when it affects them, I can see them in my mind’s eye pleading with me. “Please tell us”, they cry, as if understanding substitutes for salvation. “Please”, the tears rolling down their faces. “If there is any humanity in you, then tell us.” The stronger ones stand with fists bared, seeking to extract with physical intimidation what can’t be done with empathy, but the irony is that none of it would work – I really couldn’t tell them.

Yes, I know what you are thinking: that I actually mean I WOULDN’T tell them. That I’m small, a runt who was picked on relentlessly at school. A man built stubborn, spiteful and vindictive from his years of torment, and so I clam up to get revenge in a passive-aggressive refusal to satisfy their needs – but you are wrong. I mean what I said, that I really couldn’t tell.

You assume that I am like you. That it matters to me why the Agency sent me here. That it matters why I have been tasked with removing this planet.

In your mind will be horror at the destruction of their history, culture, families, arts and loves. Or relief at the cessation of their wars, crimes, greed and hates. To you, there must be a purpose – a purpose derived from something you value. It is something that is wired in.

To me these things have no value.

Love, war, culture, greed – these things mean nothing to me. I have no compulsion to care one way or another, what I crave is certainty. A certainty that the Agency provides with disciple and hierarchy, and what leg do you stand on to condemn me for it? From where to you get your built in values and the wiring that makes some things important and others not?

If they must have an answer then, it would be, “Because the Agency sent me”.

That is all I could tell them if they asked me, although I doubt that it would be enough. So why do I immerse myself among them at this time? To be honest I don’t know.

It is not long now.

I am good at my job.

I knew that this was a one way ticket.

Goodbye.

The satellites recorded that in the last moment before the end, he reached out. Grabbing the nearest person available, he wrapped them in the most intense bear hug he could muster. It was his first and last.

Is It Readable?

I was browsing Facebook this morning, taking advantage of Brisbane’s Ekka show holiday, when I stumbled upon an article shared by a friend.  It’s an infographic produced by The Guardian showing the linguistic standard of Presidential addresses over time.  The article titled ‘The state of our union is … dumber‘, implies that a simplification of writing style used over time in US Presidential speeches demonstrates a dumbing down – of what exactly I’m not 100% sure.

Presidents

Perhaps the Presidents themselves are less intelligent or educated?  Or perhaps it is the American public?  My suspicion however, is that the trend is more a deliberate strategy than an inevitable decline caused by stupidity.  A strategy meant to spread messages as far an wide as possible.

The factors involved will be complex for sure.  The people who were even allowed to vote in the first place have changed dramatically over time.  Originally there was no universal right and it has slowly expanded over time to include slaves, the poor, women and other ‘minority’ groups.  Now I don’t mean those groups are less intelligent, but almost by definition they would have (at least initially) struggled to achieve the same level of education as established voters.  Coming to grips with a broader voter base would have forced politicians to speak in a more universal manner.  It just doesn’t make sense for a politician who wants people to vote for them to speak in a way that goes over people’s heads.

I think this is probably the main reason for more straight-forward Presidential speeches.  In fact there is a science that has grown around trying to measure this simplicity.  It made me think, what is this measure?  And how does my writing measure up?

Turns out that there are a number of ways to measure how easy something is to read.  The one used in the Guardian infographic was the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.  It is a measure developed in 1975 for the United States Navy.  Kind of weird right?  Well at least I thought so at first, but the reason they wanted it was to test that their technical manuals could be understood by the people who actually run their expensive war ships.  They didn’t want to write stuff that didn’t help, so they developed this test.

What the test does, is to provide a number showing the grade someone needs to get to at school so they can easily understand the writing.  Have you ever wondered what people are talking about when they boast that their 5 year old is reading at a 10th grade level?  Well this is it.  It made me ask, “What level is my writing at?”.

Many word processing packages have this calculation built in, so firing up Word, I whacked a bunch of my short stories in and got a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for each.  I also gave a rough personal estimate of what Grade level I thought might start to appreciate the content included of the story.  That’s amazingly subjective I know, but I didn’t have time to get a bunch of school kids to read my stories and rate them – although that would be really cool (anyone?).  You can see the result below.

ReaderGrades

The big question is, what does it all mean?  Well I’m no expert (heck, I’ve only spent an hour at lunch reading Wikipedia), but here are a few thoughts.

  • If the complexity level (Flesch-Kincaid) is lower than the intended audience level then that’s cool.  It means that they can understand (unless they get bored – but I think the content itself needs to hold the attention).
  • If the complexity level is higher than the intended audience level then that’s probably a bad thing.
  • Some of the complexity levels seemed wrong.  The story ‘Albert Fienman – Physics Cop’ was one that my wife didn’t understand because she didn’t have the background in quantum physics that’s needed.  So the measure is about linguistic complexity but can be greatly affected by the actual subject domain too.
  • Shorter stories tended to result in a higher grade (or higher than I expected) and this is probably because the statistics that go into the formula require a longer section of writing for accuracy.  I also tend to think that shorter passages allow a reader to keep more complexity in their heads at once and still understand (although I have no idea if this is true or not)
  • The way to get lower scores is to have shorter sentences and words with as few syllables as possible.

The next question that came to mind then was, “How does this compare to literature in general?  I mean, I’m probably averaging a Grade 8 or less and most people in western society get past Grade 8.  That means I’m cool right?”  Well, here’s how a selection of my short stories stack up to other literature.  (Mine are marked with an asterisk on each side of the name if you can’t work it out).

Comparative

  • What this tells me is that on the whole, my writing is harder to understand than generally accepted novels.  Depending on my goals this might be good or bad, but if I want a broader audience then I need to work on simplicity.  This is something that my father and wife have both mentioned.
  • It makes sense that ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ has a negative score because it’s mostly read to children before they get to school.
  • It’s really interesting to note how J.K. Rowling seems to have grown her writing style with the growing age of her audience as observed in different scores for ‘The Philosopher’s Stone‘ and ‘The Order of the Phoenix‘.
  • I’d bet that most people would find my writing more accessible than Hamlet, so the formulas for complexity don’t take into account changing language.
  • I wonder if I’m bold enough to ever tackle Ulysses (and how does it compare to The Silmarillion)?

While the Fleish-Kincaid measure is widely used and built into word processors, not everyone agrees that it is the best.  The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh recommended using an alternate measure called SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) – man I love that name.  However, my summary is that this is a useful pointer of to how widely accessible writing is.  It cannot be taken verbatim because there are many other factors that affect it (e.g. relies on English language characteristics), but I probably should start to take more notice.

Out of interest, the grade score for this blog post is: 9.1 (not really what I was going for).  🙂