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Haven’t you got better things to do?

The Lad of the Lamp

Well I spent a pleasant week or two at the castle, recovering from some germs, and pursuing a rigorous programme of beer testing. Also, clearing out junk, sweeping, repairing and polishing various things including a lovely old brass paraffin lamp. If you are old enough to remember the 1970s, electricity had not been invented then, or was briefly made illegal, I forget which, so lots of people grew to love the cosy glow of a paraffin lamp, accompanied by the cosy glow of your house when the lamp set fire to it.

I polished up this lamp, hoping there might be a genie inside, or a djinn, but there was not a djinn, or genie, so I did not get to make some wishes. It got me thinking about what my wishes might be though. I would probably wish for:

  1. A super cosy house in the country, preferably close to my Mum, with a garden for growing vegetables, marijuana etc, and next to some woods and a little stream. And the house would have a library for all my books, plus crackling log fires, a fully-equipped workshop for hobbies, big kitchen, guest rooms so my friends can visit, and lots of comfortable armchairs for reading Patrick O’Brian novels in. I know that is a lot but I would also like a Lotus sports car parked outside, if possible a convertible in British Racing Green, for going to the shops in, or booming down country lanes in the sunshine.
  2. Being my own boss where I do not have to turn up to some place for work every day, but can still earn money using my main professional skill (swearing at computer screens), but decide what I want to do and when to do it, or if I just want to take the day off and look at some interesting wildflowers, or stare vaguely out of the kitchen window. And if I turn up 15 minutes late to work, my boss (still me remember) will take me aside into his office and say “You’ve been consistently late to work every day this week. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay in bed a bit longer, and just start whenever you feel like it?” Or give me a performance-related bonus, of some crisps.
  3. Obviously an infinite number of further wishes, which the people in stories mysteriously never ask for, which just shows that people in stories don’t think things through properly. “You did say anything, right? So that would include more wishes, or another genie / djinn / cursed monkey paw. Hop to it!”

Looking carefully at this list though, I see I already have the first two, and the third is kind of an optional bonus which I do not really need, but I believe in rationally maximising my benefits in case someone is crazy enough to offer to grant me wishes. So things are pretty good at the moment basically.

The broad margin

I gave up Facebook and Twitter for Lent, which was interesting. I thought it would be harder than it actually was - once I stopped checking those sites for a couple of days, I forgot about them. I thought it might give me more time for doing interesting things in real life, and also result in more writing on this blog.

My business Twitter account was taking up quite a lot of time, because I use it to try and make as many connections as possible, and that results in wading through a lot of crap (and, to be fair, making people wade through a lot of my crap). Letting that lie fallow for a few weeks doesn’t seem to have done me any harm - and I have put more time and effort into the business blog as a result.

I read the article in today’s Guardian entitled Giving Up The Internet with some amusement. Mark Hooper writes:

I swapped Facebook updates for lengthy phone calls (often via a phonebox; 50p gets you nowhere these days). I read more, I cooked more, I wrote a few postcards (and managed to forget to leave enough space for the stamp). I drew. I went on long walks. I drove to Hastings and ate chips on the beach… But, most of all, I did nothing –and it was great. I could physically feel my head rising above the water again as the stream of information subsided.”

I don’t suppose anyone on their deathbed will be wishing they’d updated Facebook more; in fact, I’m finding my day more than filled with wonderful things, chief among them Nothing. These famous words from Walden sum it up:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.”

The salt of the earth

Salt of the earth” is one of those canned phrases that we chuck around without really thinking about it. It’s usually a compliment. But have you ever actually tried putting salt on the earth? It’s a great way to completely screw it up. Nothing grows if you put salt on the earth. So describing someone as “the salt of the earth” is like saying “Wherever they go, they create a barren, poisoned wasteland”.

The phrase, like many other good soundbites, originates with Jesus. But what did he actually mean by saying in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13), “Ye [disciples] are the salt of the earth”? Incidentally, he also told them, “Ye are the light of the world,” which makes an odd contrast with John 8:12 (“I am the light of the world.” Which is it Jesus, make up your mind.)

First of all, in New Testament times salt was very valuable. It is a terrific preservative, and makes things taste great. Just think of bacon! Whether or not salt was worth its weight in gold, it was economically pretty important for most of human history.

One of those things that everyone thinks they know is that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (hence the term ‘salary’). This is not true, or at least I don’t know of any evidence for it. If you think about it how would that actually work? You bring a wheelbarrow to work on payday and take it home piled high with salt? Wouldn’t it be more useful if they paid you salt one week, then some fish and chips the week after, so that you didn’t end up with just a house full of salt?

There are those who argue that Jesus was using the metaphor of salt in its preservative sense. The disciples are charged with preserving the Earth, being the guardians of the world and keeping it pure. This is not very convincing. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed that the world as we know it would shortly come to an end (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” - Mark 1:15), so why would he charge the disciples to preserve it?

Presumably Jesus did not mean the phrase as an insult, so what did he mean? Another suggestion is that he meant it in the sense of salt being a fertilizer (which it is, in small quantities). The disciples should nourish and fertilize the seeds of Jesus’s message (and Jesus was keen on seed and planting metaphors).

This seems more plausible, but there is a problem. Salt is only good for the earth in tiny quantities. Too much kills the plants and renders the soil useless. So was Jesus saying that there should only be a small number of disciples, and that a large following would poison his message and damage the world? Not likely. Alan Kreider explores the salt metaphor in an essay called Salty Discipleship and quotes Paul Minear as saying “The extreme variety of interpretations… indicates the absence of any decisive clue to its original meaning.”

One further suggestion is that Jesus was referencing the fact that salt was a symbol of God’s covenant with his people, thanks to its being a mandatory addition to animal sacrifices (“And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt” - Lev 2:13).

Jesus was a great one for quoting Scripture. He seems to have an Old Testament quote for every occasion, though he frequently adds to or changes the message of the passages he quotes (“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth [Lev 24:19-20] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” - Matthew 5:38-39)

So it seems at least arguable that Jesus meant to say that the disciples were like salt in the sense that they were an essential part of his sacrifice. Jesus, after all, is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and says in Mark 9:49 that “Every one shall be salted [preserved] with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.”

Alternatively, maybe Jesus just really liked salt.

More Asterix books

Don’t miss these great titles, coming soon:

The Green Hornet

Some people like cars, and some do not. If you are in the second, mistaken category and you do not want to know the result, look away now.

This is my Lotus Elan which gets all the love and attention I would otherwise lavish on a girlfriend (assuming she was small, green and noisy, and drank petrol). It is not an exact analogy (for example I did not usually wash my last girlfriend in the car park, and then buff up her bodywork with wax polish), but still it is a deep and serious relationship which none may put asunder.

There is a prevailing assumption that anyone driving a sports car, especially a convertible, must be a rich wanker. I try to dispel this by being extra courteous to other road users, letting old ladies cross, showing people my bank statements, etc but it does not always work. Basically people are going to be a bit envious of someone driving an awesome car, and well they might be.

Unlike some high-performance cars the Lotus is happy to toodle around all day at sensible speeds listening to Classic FM and pausing for old ladies. Then when you merge onto the motorway a mere blip of the throttle transforms this car into a rampaging beast, pushing you back in the seat and deafening you with the high-pitched turbo whistle and the deep, fruity blatter of the exhaust.

Like all Lotuses it is immensely light. It is built of fibreglass over a steel monocoque chassis, and the light weight in combination with the turbocharger makes it accelerate like a racing motorbike. The suspension is low and stiff, and the steering precise, so that this car loves nothing better than twisting country roads and tight cambered bends.

Its one Nemesis is the speed bump, which taken carelessly can produce a horrible scraping sound and, eventually, a new exhaust. Still I would never trade it for any other car; it looks great, sounds great, goes fast, and can carry up to 3 bags of shopping.

I heart my Lotus.

Believing in nonsense

The wonderful James Randi, speaking at TED in 2007, takes a lethal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills before proceeding to berate fake psychics, fake mediums, fake homeopaths, and all of the other charlatans and con artists who make money from the vulnerable, the grieving and the sick.

Cheque it

It is rarely enough that I write a cheque, it feels like a special occasion, like signing a Declaration of Independence, or abolishing nuclear weapons. So when I do I write it out all fancy. I like to think it impresses the people on the other end.