Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Fran...
Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Francisco, on tour promoting the 34th Discworld novel, “Thud!”, in a book signing organized by Booksmith. This was before the 1 1/2 hour chat – Pratchett arrived early and, with grudging efficiency, settled down to sign some books beforehand to get some of that out of the way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an apocryphal story of an eminent lecturer (some say Bertrand Russell) giving a lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the centre of the Home Galaxy, the Milky Way, when someone objects and states that the earth is a flat surface, balanced on the back or a turtle.

The lecturer questions what it is that the turtle is standing on, and the objector states that the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle. The lecturer asks what the second turtle is standing and gets the answer “It’s turtles all the way down“.

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It’s always struck me that the objector’s argument is paralleled by the lecturer’s own argument. The moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the Home Galaxy, the Home Galaxy orbits the Local Cluster of galaxies. It’s orbits all the way down.

Of course the lecturer’s world view is a lot more sensible than the objector’s world view, wouldn’t you say? Well a confirmed sceptic would be dubious about both claims, but the man in the street assuming he wasn’t by chance a turtle believer would probably side with the lecturer.

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the current view of the universe as espoused by the lecturer is fairly recent in historical terms. Sir Isaac Newton and his near contemporaries (both in Britain and elsewhere) cemented the physical view of the world as the paramount paradigm. Again it’s worth noting that Sir Isaac and co did not completely ditch the mystical view of the world. He was very interested in alchemy for example, though this could be considered to be a rational belief at a time when the field of chemistry was still relatively immature.

Sir Terry Pratchett took the turtle theory and ran with it in the Discworld series of books. What would life be like on a world shaped like a disc, carried by four elephants, on the back of a gigantic turtle? This is the basic premise of Pratchett’s books, which I enjoy immensely.

P Elephant
P Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, sort of, such a world cannot be ruled by the laws of physics, so it is ruled by the laws of magic, which seem parallel the physical laws in some ways. Pratchett’s Discworld clockwork is run by magic, not by physics. Indeed one of the characters muses on the magical laws and wonder whether or not there might be “another way”.

Threading the Discworld books and the Discworld universe are certain key characters, the first of whom is the failed wizard and professional coward Rincewind, from the first Discworld book “The Colour of Magic”. Rincewind’s quest for a quiet life is forever dashed by circumstances which often result in Rincewind escaping from some life-threatening situation or other by the skin of his teeth.

Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The ...
Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rincewind’s case is watched over by Death, who describes himself as an “anthropomorphical manifestion” and who looks after a room full of “life-timers”, huge hour glasses containing the sands of a person’s existence. When the sand runs out, Death appears to the person and with a sweep of his scythe cuts the person’s lifeline. What happens then varies, but usually the person or soul travels over a dark plain.

Rincewind’s lifetimer apparently looks as though it was constructed by a glass blower with a bad case of the hiccoughs, and Death has ceased to wonder when Rincewind will die, but merely retains a “professional interest” in Rincewind’s exploits.

Death (Discworld)
Death (Discworld) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thousand words cannot do justice to the inventiveness of Pratchett’s Diskworld. It is peopled by trolls, dwarves, werewolves, vampires, heroes (professionals of course), wizards, witches, talking dogs, a smell with its own personality, druids, priests, gods and godesses and many many other characters.

Over the series of books the geography of the Diskworld as are some of its physical (or maybe that should be “magical”) properties. The geography is centred socially in the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, and physically by the Hub Mountains (home of the Ice Giants and “Dunmanifestin”, the home of the rather down market major gods of Diskworld).

The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last ...
The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last Hero , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is, as can be seen from the above to be a complex one, interleaving and referencing many well-known myths and legends which Pratchett weaves into enthralling parodies of the originals.

For example, the heroes that Rincewind and others encounter are mostly bumptious self righteous individuals who seem to possess very little in the way of intellect. They win because they are heroes and heroes always win in the end, not because they are shrewd campaigners.

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An exception to this model of hero is Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde. These ancient heroes are shrewd and survive because they have decades of experience in not dying. The overcome a bunch of martial arts experts by using there experience by not being there when the martial arts experts makes a move.

Pratchett references all sort of myths, legends and stories and often delves deep into the roots of the myth. He traces the roots of the “Father Christmas” myth in the book “Hogfather” back to one bloody version of the possible roots of the myth.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...
Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His coven of witches who appear in several books harken back to Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth and also to other witch myths, such as (supposed) pagan myth of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Shakespeare of course, like Pratchett is tapping into earlier myths.

The adoption of the alternate reality scenario allows Pratchett to tap into all these myths and legends and to mix and match them with similar myths and legends and put them up against present day society. There is for example the Last Continent of XXXX, obviously a reference to current day Australia, the social problems of immigration, typified by the Dwarves who are mild mannered at home, but who turn into drinking, carousing menaces singing about gold when they immigrate to Ankh-Morpork.

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Pratchett’s strength were to be able to draw on all these myths and legends and to build engaging stories around them. Even if you don’t know the legend, you can enjoy the characters and the story, and recognise the parallels with the real world.

You can enjoy the stories of the three witches turning the tables on card sharks who try to take advantage of three little old ladies, for example. Or the invention of surfing by the Burser of the Unseen University when the faculty find themselves offshore of the Last Continent (aka XXXX). Or sympathise with Death when he becomes disenchanted with his role as an “anthropomorphic manifestation” and takes a holiday.

Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen Unive...
Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen University Diary 1998 , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You do all this while enjoying the marvellous stories. RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. You will be sorely missed.

Phone amnesia and other things

English: Phone Box
English: Phone Box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Unfortunately I wrote this but forgot to publish it. Which is ironic given the title of this post. I will publish this week’s post shortly]

I suffer from phone amnesia. At least, that’s what I call it. Here’s how it works, or rather, doesn’t work. I answer the phone and talk for any amount of time. I put the phone down and my wife asks me who was on the phone. Often I cannot recall. I literally cannot recall who I was just talking to.

If I mentioned the persons name in my conversation, my wife will ask what “person X” wanted. Very often I will not remember at all what the point of the call was. The effort I make to remember is almost painful.

English: Village Pond and phone box
English: Village Pond and phone box (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve noticed that it is often the case people don’t recall what the point of the conversation was, and on the contrary if the person who takes the call wants to tell someone about the call immediately they will have no problems.

So it seems that when we hang up the phone we also hang up our recall at the same time, sort of like filing a letter away. A few minutes later we may remember the call and what it was about. If we’ve trying to remember what it was about, it comes as a great relief!

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I appear to have a more extreme version of phone amnesia, but it seems to me that many people have this issue to some limited extent.

This all started me thinking about quizzes and recall. I like quizzes and do them all the time. What constantly surprises me is the answers that I know, in subjects which I have no interest in. I recently knew the answer to a question about women’s fashion, a topic which doesn’t interest me in the least.

Shell Quiz
Shell Quiz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another example was the question about the date of some historical event. I’ve never been good at history. I can’t remember dates, you see. But I knew the correct answer to a history question, the answer to which was a date! Of course I can’t now recall the question or even the quiz. All I can recall is that I was astounded that I knew the answer.

Yet if another history question were put to me, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to answer it. But I could be wrong about that just as easily.

Horn of plenty (4239161486)
Horn of plenty (4239161486) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that my brain is storing information about things that I have no interest in and I don’t recall even hearing, but for some reason a part of my mind decides to remember stuff.

If I try to memorise something, it means reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the information until it sort of sink in. It’s like parading the information in front of my mind until it can’t help but remember it. We sort of bore the mind into remembering the information.

English: Memories of Friday Wood I am sure the...
English: Memories of Friday Wood I am sure the pool to the right of the photo is where I drank from a spring as a child. The landscape has changed so much with the growth of secondary woodland that one can’t be sure. I remember the water bubbling up through the sand and running down the slope (behind the photographer) into a boggy bit that is still there hidden now among young trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And all the while the mind is remembering fleeting facts that we barely notice as they flit by. Facts that are of little real interest to us.

Of course memories are not reliable. I “remember” something that happened to one of my sisters when she was small. Her push chair rolled down a small slope and crashed into the barrier round a small flower bed in the park. Over the other side of the barrier was a pond, I was worried that she would fall into the pond.

English: Burton Agnes Ornamental Pond
English: Burton Agnes Ornamental Pond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I visited the spot many years later I was astounded. The flower bed was there and so was the pond. The distance between the barrier and the pond was such that she could never have fallen into the pond after hitting the barrier unless she was moving at a huge speed. Also there were no paths sloping down to the flowers and pond. The paths were all definitely up the hill.

It’s likely that there were some real events which led to me having this “false memory”. It may be that my sister’s push chair did roll away some time, or maybe my parents suggested that the push chair might roll away if I didn’t hold it tight. My mind could have turned the memory of the suggested event into a memory of the event as if it really had happened.

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My mind obviously built a worst case scenario around the event and associated it with somewhere that I knew. It altered a few details, the long hill down to the barrier and the pond, the narrow distance between the barrier and the water. It’s much more exciting that way, and “exciting” seems to be more memorable.

Back to the phone amnesia. When I do remember what the phone call was about (may be hours later), I can recall most if not all of the conversation, not word for word, but in general gist. It seems that the information was stored in memory, but the links to it were missing.

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This is similar to old feeling that something is “on the tip of your tongue”. You know (or believe) that the information is there, but you can’t access it. I expect that much of the time the memory is not there, and we only remember the times when it is recalled at a later time. That “tip of your tongue feeling can be very strong though.

It appears that our minds have memories of events (or pseudo-memories of events) and also memories of memories of events. The links between the two can fade out or maybe not be created properly in the first place, so that we can remember that we have a memory of something but we can’t access that memory, and the memories of memories of events are more easily accessible. It’s like a sort of unreliable index to the rest of the book that comprises our memories.

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The rest of the memory book, the actual memories, can be fact or fiction or both (like any biography or history book), which makes life interesting in so many ways. Every couple have had conversations about events that have happened to both, and in some cases the two people might be talking about different events, so different are their memories of it.

The Phone
The Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)