Monday, 7 May 2018

Empty Vessels

It was almost 303 Kelvins today. For a British ‘bank holiday’, that seems to be a break with tradition. But it gave me the opportunity to do a little field anthropology, i.e. ‘people-watching’, which is an occasional hobby of mine. I was particularly interested in the behaviour of young human males when the weather is hot. Many of them appear to enjoy broadcasting their stupidity loudly to anyone in shouting range, by partaking in a curious activity that seems to have developed in sports stadiums. When gathered in groups, particularly when alcohol has been added to the equation, they will break into a chorus of something that could only in the most generous of terms be described as ‘singing’. It sounds more like an over-extended rendition of the first second or two of someone vomiting heartily.

This is strictly a tribal activity. I have rarely seen an individual participant, unless he was extremely drunk, and even when two are present, it’s not that common. The threshold number appears to be three. This has nothing to do with the ability to produce harmonies, and everything to do with the ability to produce the threat of harm. These hapless phenotypes are the walking embodiment of a genome fashioned in our brutal past, when beating one’s chest was the best way of finding a mate. To witness their ritualistic roaring is to play audience to the astonishing process of testosterone transforming into air vibrations.

Everything I’ve described above, of course, has been occurring for some decades (at least since the 1970s, I’m assured by my editor, who was there). However, a more recent variant has come to my attention. When the human larynx is unequal to the task of asserting dominance through sonic torture, those with enough credit or hard cash have the option of purchasing some form of internal combustion engine attached to either 2, 4, or (sometimes) 3 wheels — and most importantly of all, sporting 1, 2 or 4 exhaust pipes. Often these are modified deliberately to be as loud as possible, breaking asunder the peace of all and sundry for no better reason than to make the statement: I AM HERE. Yes, we know you are, and we wish you weren’t. Some of us go further, and wish you would crash and die.

I’ve speculated many times about the exact psychology behind loud exhausts. I’ve heard people say that large cars might represent subconscious compensation for inadequate genital scale — and based on this assumption, one possible conclusion is that guys with loud exhausts are secretly ashamed of their pathetic farts.

But perhaps the truth is much more straightforward. Perhaps they simply are pathetic farts.

Thursday, 3 May 2018


I’ve been away for a while. I’m sorry about that. The reasons are pretty complex, and involve a rather unexpected plot twist concerning the molecular biology of my body. I’ll attempt to explain.

As you may know, human proteins — and hence most human anatomy — are coded by DNA, which is a molecule whose basic geometry is a connected double helix (although the higher levels of coiling to which this is then subjected are quite beautiful too, in a fractal sort of way).

My biology, as you might have expected, is a little different. My species employs a more complex structure for its protein coding. It’s rather hard to describe, but try to imagine a double helix with a third strand running through the cenral axis. Instead of pairs of bases, I have triplets. This means that errors are more easily corrected because of the increased redundancy, which in turn makes me far more resistant to radiation damage. The actual bases come in seven types instead of four, and are grouped in fours instead of threes, theoretically allowing 2,401 different codons, though in practice there is extremely heavy redundancy in that part of the system, which, again, allows for very effective error correction. Of course, the vastly reduced mutation rate this promotes makes me  highly resistant to genetic damage, although it also means that evolution on my planet has been proceeding extremely slowly: it took over a hundred million of your years for my species to emerge from our non-sentient predecessors. It’s a good thing conditions on our world allow plenty of time and security for such extended prehistories.

But I’m getting a little technical, so let me cut to the chase: I’ve been ill.

It was something I never expected to happen. My cells are constructed from many of the same amino acids as yours, though not the same proteins (and of course I have a few additional tricks up my veins). Earth viruses cannot affect me because RNA means nothing to my biology and is ignored as an inconsequential irritant. The toxins from bacteria could cause issues for me, but I’ve not yet found any bacteria that can live in my body, let alone multiply there, so again, they are inconsequential. When I eat your food I can break it down into many of the components I need, but I have to supplement my diet with certain enzymes to ensure that I get those compounds that I can’t obtain from the food.

It turns out, however, that there is a substance here on Earth that can destroy one component of my cellular chemistry. The problem, for a long time, was that I didn’t know which substance it was. All I knew was what it was doing: it was disabling the biological systems in my cells that regulate the production of muscular proteins. The result, unfortunately, has been that I ended up looking rather deformed, and I’ve had to hide from public view so as not to scare the children. Oddly enough, most of the worst effects of this condition have occurred in my face and my arms, with the result that I took on an appearance similar to the cartoon character known as ‘Popeye’.

I briefly considered getting an anchor tattoo and a pipe, and earning some extra cash performing at festivals, but decided it was infra dig. Instead, I continued my research to attempt to find the source of this problem. It was getting quite hard to operate the controls on my molecular analysis rig with my chubby fingers, but I finally identified the culprit as a by-product of yeast. Yeast, of course, is a tricky little organism, and I hadn’t considered, at first, that it might be involved. It was only when somebody was discussing the brewing of beer on Twitter and mentioned Marmite that I realised I’d recently developed quite a liking for this strange stuff — and also that I would have to cut it out of my diet immediately.

I’m back to normal now: it only took about a week. I suppose if I ever want to go for that festival gig when times are hard, at least I know how to achieve it. I could even substitute a jar o’ the good old brown nectar for the more conventional can of spinach.

But regardless, I’m sure you can imagine that the phrase ‘it’s a Marmite issue’ has now taken on a whole new set of sinister overtones.