The path not taken

“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…


How to spot a comet


Anyone who’s even vaguely acquainted with goings-on in the night sky knows that at the moment Comet NEOWISE – brightest comet since the last Bright Comet – is visible (just) with the naked eye, in the North-West in the evening twilight, and the North-East before dawn.

I’ve been around for long enough to have been promised Kohoutek  (1974), Halley  (1986), and McNaught (2007) none of which exactly came good with the promise of actually, you know, shining in the night sky, in a Hemisphere near me. Or on the one occasion when they did (Hale-Bopp, 1997), I was living in rain-soaked, brightly-illuminated Glasgow city centre without the means to get to a rural dark sky devoid of clouds.

But this time it looked as if I was in with a chance of spotting an actual comet.

Viewed from as far North as our house, NEOWISE is circumpolar. That is, it sits day and night in the Northern skies going round and round the Pole Star and never setting. The only things that stop you seeing it are daylight (between about 3:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m.), clouds (depressingly common here, though not as much so as in Glasgow), and other sources of light (street-lighting and the like).

NEOWISE also had the good grace to stay around for long enough to give the Average Brit a chance of at least one clear evening in which to try and find it.

We picked our clear evening, on Thursday.

We set off to the local playing field, which offers reasonable darkness (for urban surroundings like ours) and a view to down within about 5 degrees of the Northern horizon. The instructions I’d read said the comet should be visible from (and I quote) ‘just after sunset’.

Of course all we saw in the hour after sunset was twilight, and no actual astronomical objects at all – not even the brightest of the stars.

But our house boasts a North-facing attic Velux window, high enough up that our front garden trees block the nearest streetlight and the view extends down to the horizontal. We stationed ourselves there, complete with cushions to lean on, at about 10 p.m., and waited.

It wasn’t until after half past that my daughter spotted the first star. It was so faint that it could easily be mistaken for an illusion. The only way either of us could make sure it wasn’t one was by not-staring at it in such a way that it didn’t appear to move. Strangely, looking just to one side of it made it appear more distinct – something to do with how the various receptors (rods and cones) are arranged on the retina of the human eye.

Here’s my problem – the one which means that, though I have a degree in ‘Physics with Astronomy’, I am no astronomer. NEOWISE is best viewed – or at least found – using binoculars. I can’t use binoculars. I have no stereoscopic vision, and I use glasses with very different prescriptions for the 2 eyes. And before you ask, using a typical telescope with glasses is pretty hit-and-miss too. My chances of spotting anything in the night sky, binoculars or no, are minimal. I am also, though, astronomically stubborn. And so is my daughter (who has perfect eyesight).

So we stayed, gazing philosophically out at the sky and at our streetscape, the occasional post-lockdown reveller, and the low bar of cloud between the North and North-West horizon, watching stars appear one by one, until after midnight. We talked, sporadically (the best conversations are always sporadic), about all sorts: The research she’s doing, music (complete with lyrics), the smell of the evening air…

At half past midnight we decided that the low bar of cloud was going nowhere, the comet was most likely hiding behind it, and we’d call it a night. The weather forecast gave clouds by dawn, so it wouldn’t be worth our while getting up in 3 hours’ time to try and catch NEOWISE as it rose beyond the horizon fug again.

However, the sky is clear tonight…

(Picture not mine, of course. It’s from the i newspaper)

The plot thickens


It’s that time of year when the garden and the Allotment are dressed in their best.

The Chard is taking over the world:


The cherry tree went completely bananas:


We’ve even had our first walnut (For a 5 year old tree at our latitude, that’s quite something!)


Currnts and gooseberries – this year’s and last – will combine in a new departure for the homw-brew:


And finally a follow-up to the mystery seeds in 17th May’s post – a Neural Miner has begun to show:


Redemption on ice


A man and a woman have been pulled over at the roadside by their local police.

To complicate matters further – at least for the man and woman in question – they are black.

The burly copper asks, ever so seriously, if they are aware of some obscure motoring infringement they might have made. It’s a belting hot Continental Summer mid-day and you can practically feel them sweating.

You might have seen the video.

Just when you think something awful’s going to happen, the second policeman produces two ice-creams – one each for the driver and passenger – and says it’s against Highway regulations to be driving without ice-cream.

The woman literally screams with laughter and as she and her passenger accept the proffered ice-creams the conversation becomes a little more natural – but only just – between more laughs. At which point I’m left thinking:

  1. Isn’t that a Happy Ending!
  2. But…

Now then. I’m not fully au fait with the past record of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s finest. Are they generally known as a friendly, approachable bunch, or do they have some ‘issues’ in their past (or worse, their present)?

And if the latter, or if – heaven help us – someone like Chicago’s force should try a stunt like this, what are we to make of it?

Meanwhile, I write my fiction. And in among the characters I’ve created is someone whose past deeds are dreadful but who has – quite literally – had a change of mind (this is sci-fi, after all). His ‘new’ character craves forgiveness from a past victim – or at the very least wants the said victim to trust him enough that they can carry out a scheme which both would want done, together.

How is one to write the new, ‘reformed’, character believably? Or in fact any ‘reformed’ character under more normal circumstances?

Because a writer of a tale involving ‘redemption’ has to deal with this dilemma: if the character changes too little, are they forgivable? And if they change too much, are they ‘credible’?

I think this little vignette shows a way.

Let’s imagine two police officers who have genuinely abused their power in the past take it upon themselves to imitate our two Nova Scotians’ cunning stunt.

Although their intentions may be laudable, and they are doing no-one any direct harm this time round, they are nevertheless putting themselves in a position of massive power over their ‘victims’. And in that way, although they look – and believe themselves – reformed characters, they still want to exercise power. In that one crucial dimension, even though they’ve gone from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, deep down they haven’t changed.