On Friday I went through a graduation ceremony for the first time. It was just for my creative writing certificate, but I figured that seeing as back in the day (when I first graduated) I was so full of anti-establishment attitude that I didn't bother attending, I might as well go along and enjoy it this time round.

And I got to wear the silly gear. Expensive enough to hire from Ede and Ravenscroft, but worth doing (so I told myself) just the once.

Being "gowned" was an odd experience. They're just clothes after all - if anything all you should feel is a slight sense of discomfort and embarrassment. I didn't feel either of those but was disconcerted to feel a change in demeanor sneaking over me.

I started to feel pompous, arrogant and self important. Why would a change of clothes make me feel this way? Luckily my "real" self was still overseeing everything and found this funny. I was able to laugh at the idea of me shouting "You! Boy!" or flying into an apoplectic rage at an incorrect Latin declension and flinging a board-rubber across the room. But what if I wore the things every day? Would I start to believe I was better than everyone else?

Judging from their behaviour that's certainly what most of the teachers in my school - or at any rate the ones who insisted on wearing their chalk-stained academic garb on a daily basis - thought. No wonder they were such arseholes if they had to wear the Robes of Power every day.

Then again they were probably arseholes anyway, and the sense of arseholdom engulfing me when I donned the aforementioned robes was merely my own behavioural association with the gear. It was much the same when I dressed up as a vicar when in a play - there wasn't much acting skill required, the moment I had the dog-collar and half-moon specs on I found myself channelling Derek Nimmo.

I wonder, though, if this means that certain items of clothing or modes of dress have a lot of power through generations of learned association? Does everyone run the risk of turning into reactionary old bigot the moment they put on a white wig and judge's robe? And what about a policeman's uniform - when you put that on do you instantly turn into a racist thug?

One would hope that there are positive examples of this phenomenon as well. Those selfless individuals who work in the medical profession - is their altruism given a boost by looking the part? And maybe this explains the nerd stereotype; if you want to be really good at computer programming it will enhance your skillset if you wear specs, gain weight, develop dandruff and cultivate a body odour that would fell an elephant at twenty paces.

It all comes down to pretending again. If you pretend to be something you aspire to be hard enough, then you may as well be it. And if a bit of costume helps you get into character then why not?

"Analogies prove nothing, that is quite true, but they can make one feel more at home."
How can you ever really know what someone else is feeling? Claiming empathy is all very well, but how can you know that what they call "sad" is the same as what you call "sad"?

At first glance this might seem to be the same problem discussed in the last entry, in which I concluded that qualia, the basic thingness of stuff, didn't actually exist, our experience of, say, red being linked to the wavelength of light hitting our retinas, our brains' processing of that data and any associations we have linked to it. There is no ur-red of which our experience of the skin of a tomato is but a pale reflection.

The reality of emotions may be a different facet of the same problem, albeit one with a different conclusion. It's much more difficult to put your finger on an emotion. Whilst Patient A can say to Patient B "That's red" and point at a tomato, she can't point at happiness. She can't measure its wavelength either. All she can do is describe it, but just like red it is very difficult to describe without referring to something else.

Emotions are also very difficult to describe without using other emotions, which is equally as unsatisfying. Unlike colours or other experiences there's nothing to measure and just like them when it comes down to it any verbal description is next to useless.

We still don't really know what emotions are. We know what can cause them. There are many causes; chemicals, both natural and unnatural; physical changes to the nervous system and, perhaps most importantly, external stimuli.

Something happens in the outside world to make us happy, sad or furious. What changes within? Our knowledge about the world and our position in it, meaning that the insanely complex and yet impossibly ephemeral human consciousness changes shape. When it comes down to it, emotions are how we experience the shape of our minds, of our consciousness. Just as when we've eaten too much pasta and feel fat and bloated, experiencing something can twist our selves into new uncomfortable shapes. The answer in both cases can be to go and lie down for a while.

Emotions are therefore far more likely to be a continuum rather than a series of discrete states; analogue rather than digital. Two people may both be feeling sad but it's very unlikely that they're both sitting at exactly the same point on the sadness spectrum. What's more, seeing as no two people are the same, they're probably not even on the same spectrum. Everyone has their own unique emotional waveband.

Empathy is on a hiding to nothing really. The only way you can be sure of what someone else is feeling is by being them; and if you are them you're not you, so you can't experience it. For all you know everyone else is pretending and you're the only one who actually feels anything. And in a way this is true; there is no-one else on your emotional spectrum. You are unique.

And so am I.

There is an old philosophical chestnut about seeing the colour red. How do we know that what I see as red is what you see as red? We may both call it red, and may be referring to the colour of tomatoes, blood and pillar boxes, but how do I know that what you call red isn't what I call green?

This is a simplified version of John Locke's Inverted Spectrum (I'm talking about the philosopher rather than the erstwhile passenger of Oceanic 815), a thought experiment in which we wake up one morning and find that all the colours in our sensorium have inexplicably reversed. Aside from providing the inspiration for a potentially interesting blues number ("Woke up this mornin'... Everythin' red had gone green / Yeah I woke up this mornin'... Everythin' green had gone red / Had green strawberry jam on toast for breakfast... Think someone's messing with my head...") there's no real reason why this should occur other than to introduce the reader to the idea of qualia.

Qualia (singular "quale") are supposedly the actual thingness of sensations in our experience, the actual painfulness of pain, the redness of red and the sweetness of sugar. These are things that are, basically, impossible to describe if we have to do so without reference to anything else. For example it's impossible to describe red without mentioning other things that are red.

Given that they're impossible to describe and impossible to detect but are nevertheless apparently real, some philosophers have chosen to use them as a final clinching proof that materialism is wrong, that there exists something other than just the body.

I'm not sure that they prove anything of the sort. Our personal definition of "red" (and how redness is therefore represented in our conscious minds) is bound up with our internal models of things that are red and the emotions we associate with them.

If the representation of red in the cortex can be associated with something measurable, an electrical charge in the nervous system, and this cortical charge can be shown to be stimulated by light of a certain wavelength then these are things that are knowable and can be said to be the same in two different people. But these are not qualia, the qualia fans claim.

However, as far as I am concerned, all that redness is can be defined as these measurable qualities in tandem with the mental associations we have. If we can't describe redness without recourse to something else, then it doesn't exist on its own. There are no qualia.

Imagine yourself waking up in the middle of Locke's thought experiment. Once you'd finished singing the blues, you might be moved to investigate your circumstances. You stare at the pillar box on the pavement outside your house. It looks different. It now looks like what only yesterday you referred to as green. You can dismiss the hypothesis that this is due to the nocturnal antics of a maniac with a pot of emulsion because all the buses driving past seem to have been affected in the same way, the contents of your bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup has gone green, and when you cut yourself shaving, green blood came out. You're living in a New Order song.

Nothing is measurably different though. You analyse the tiny electrical currents flowing through your brain, you make measurements of the wavelength of light bouncing off a ripe tomato. All measurements correspond with what should be red. The only thing that has changed is the actual thingness of the feeling, to coin a phrase. The quale.

Or has it? The only way you can tell anything is different is by comparing your current experience with memories of previous ones. However if someone's messing with your head it's just as likely or possible (in the imaginary worlds of thought experiment anyway) that it's your memory retrieval system that has been inverted rather than your sensorium. The effect on actual experience would be exactly the same...

Personally I think it's nonsensical to talk about redness in this way. I believe we all experience it in broadly the same way - it's represented in our brains as "the colour of tomatoes and blood with the following connotations..." As long as whatever is describable about it is the same, then it is the same. We are what we speak, and so is our experience of the world around us.

On the other hand I'm not sure we all experience emotions the same way, but that's a subject for another day.

There are some things I just can't get my head around.

One of them is talking about myself in the third person. Oh sure, I can do it if I have to (although I am at a loss to think of a situation in which I might "have to") but it makes me very uncomfortable and just feels wrong. I have no idea why this might be - some error of the wiring in my brain or bad learning? It certainly doesn't seem to bother some people. If anything they seem to rather enjoy it.

I can see how it might be useful as a way of dis-identifying with the past in order to learn from ones mistakes, but I'd find it uncomfortable doing even that. As for the "Old John's really looking forward to supper" said John syndrome... I just can't fathom it .

I would be an interesting subject for study, to see what kind of people do this a lot and what proportion of the population is happy (or at least not uncomfortable) doing so. I'd hate to think it was just me.

However, there is another thing I just can't do that definitely is quite common. The put down. Specifically, saying something in order to make the other person feel bad. I don't mean witty retorts or clever banter (which, by the way, I'm not claiming to be any good at either, I just don't have an aversion to them) but things said specifically to wound. That's not to say I can't upset people, I am capable of quite monumental acts of thoughtlessness, but it's never on purpose. Sometimes I just forget to take everything in to consideration before opening my mouth.

However, some people consider things very carefully. When they finally speak, the barbed remark has obviously been launched on a carefully computed trajectory and constructed for greatest devastation upon hitting its target. I couldn't do that. For a start I'm not sure that I could think up something devastating enough, but even if I could, I just couldn't say it. I worry too much.

By the way, I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm blowing my own trumpet here, saying what a marvellous person I think I am for not being able to indulge in the put down. I'm genuinely not, and think that the reason I don't "get" this is actually a deficiency on my part. In order to perform a devastating put down, I am sure one has to have an incredible amount of empathy. One has to know almost exactly how one's target feels, their strengths, weaknesses, loves and hates in order to calculate the yield for maximum effect. The mental and psychological skills required to put someone down are incredible.

Just think what could be achieved if such empathy was used for good.

When it comes to empathy, I just have to guess and a lot of the time end up frozen into silence by a lack of decision. I compensate for my lack of natural ability in this area by using my imagination. What might someone be feeling? Of course this means that a lot of the time I end up getting the wrong end of the stick and completely misinterpret things with perplexing and sometimes upsetting results.

There's one thing I still don't get though. Why would anyone want to make another person feel bad in the first place?

One day I hope to be asked "Where do you get your ideas from?" as it will mean that I have written a work of fiction that has impressed someone and is original enough for them to wonder how I managed to think it up. At the moment the only person likely to ask me that is myself and unfortunately I don't yet have an answer.

Any regular readers may recall that I previously wrote about different types of writers, the architects and archaelogists, and identified myself as a member of the latter camp. I discover the story as I go along; in many ways I don't "get" the ideas from anywhere, the ideas come to me. As I mentioned before it can be difficult to write short stories as an archaeologist; it can be even more difficult to write a synopsis.

This is a problem, because I need to write a synopsis, a summary for a piece of short fiction I am planning to write. At the moment it's not important what this actually is, suffice to say there's a deadline and a word count to be taken into consideration. This means that, unless I actually write the whole thing and then summarise it, I need to know what's happening in advance. I can't wait for the ideas to come to me during the process of writing itself, I need to seek them out and tag them ready for later use.

I need a new process. What's more I need to find a way of describing the whole story before it exists without becoming bored with it.

Yesterday I came up with a vague idea and a clever sounding title, but that was all I had. It wasn't even enough to hang a ten word description on, let alone a fully fledged synopsis. It was bothering me and I fell asleep last night fretting about it.

I then dreamed I was writing it. The dream was a curious mixture of me coming up with the ideas and transcribing them with the scenes being played out in front of me, fully dramatised. Of course there was also a lot of nonsense involved, but even during the dream I was able to dismiss this. At one point I even turned to someone and told them I had to get on with getting this down before I forgot it.

As I started to wake up I began to worry that I'd forget it once I came to full wakefulness; as it was some of the details were already becoming blurred and falling apart. Luckily I had my new toy by the bedside; I grabbed it and begun typing what I could remember into the Notes app.

The danger now is that when I come back to it, it will be laughable gibberish. As a child I once woke up in the middle of the night with a highly significant and portentous phrase echoing through my head, I scrabbled for a pen and paper to note it down before I fell asleep and forgot it. In the morning I found a piece of paper with "To Kings Vast" scrawled on it. Gobbledygook.

Let's hope the same isn't true today, lets have a look... Yes, it still seems to make sense.

Now to beat it into some kind of coherent shape.

Ironically in this information-rich era it seems to have become something of an obsession for people to not know certain pieces of information. I am talking about the manic spoilerphobes who go postal at the mere whiff of foreknowledge of something that they're planning to enjoy.

That's not to say I don't understand where they're coming from. Of course certain films are specifically designed to be enjoyed more if you don't realise that Bruce Willis is dead or that Kevin Spacey is in fact Keyser Soze. I just think that back in the day people didn't used to get nearly so wound up about accidentally finding out the minutiae.

When I was a kid I was in the enviable position of being able to read Doctor Who scripts in advance; in no way did I consider that I was ruining it for myself. The joy lay not in the details of the plot remaining hidden until the date of transmission but in the way in which the story was executed, in the acting, the direction and other stagecraft. In some ways I found that already having a basic grounding in the plot meant that I could appreciate the rest of the story all the more. Remember, these were the days before video recorders, and when it was gone it was gone.

What's more it seemed to take a ridiculously long time for films to get their first showing on terrestrial TV; 2001 A Space Odyssey was released in the cinema in 1968 but I believe that it wasn't until the eighties that it was finally shown on TV. On my birthday if I recall correctly.

I didn't always get to see the films I wanted straight away (if at all); often I had to make do with novelisations (which usually seemed to be by someone called Alan Dean Foster). Then too there were the fotonovels; comic strips formed from film stills. Due to the nature of the film and my relative youth it was years before I got to see Alien (1979); but I was able to enjoy the story both via Mr Foster's work and by standing in Forbidden Planet in Denmark Street reading the fotonovel for hours at a time. Both activities would be considered high treason by today's Spoiler Police.

There is of course far much more information floating about these days, and all just a click away. I suppose it is possible for people to accidentally find out important details about something in advance that they might not have otherwise wanted to, but has it occurred to them that instead of unleashing a torrent of abuse at someone on an internet forum that their interests might be better served by just... not looking?

I am missing the point of course. By not looking they're being denied an outlet for their rage. Internet forums are a marvellous arena for being incredibly rude to someone with no comeback, and the one thing that human beings seem to crave above almost anything else these days is being allowed to hate, getting the opportunity to be holier than thou, displaying righteous anger. In what better arena to indulge than in the backwaters of online discussion boards devoted to TV and film?

What's more, the artificial rules of No Spoilers are an ideal set of parameters for allowing unlimited flying off the handle. Advocates of the Unspoilt can claim that almost anything is a spoiler if they try hard enough. Unbelievably, the following example is genuine. Some years ago in a Usenet group devoted to the discussion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was gobsmacked to read one poster ranting about the fact that a scene in one episode was a "spoiler" for something that happened in the next one.

I shit you not. It had obviously not occurred to that fan that perhaps Joss Whedon had just wanted the audience to know certain facts at that point, that it was part of the story. No, they thought it was far more likely that he just wanted to wind up spoilerphobes for a laugh.

But deep in their heart even they probably didn't believe it. They just wanted an excuse to have a go because certain things that had been happening that season weren't to their liking and insulting their hero made them feel big for a few seconds.

Some fans are funny like that. They always hate the ones they love.

I am currently confined to my bed by a particularly annoying cold. It seems somewhat unfair that I am suffering at all; as far as flu jabs were concerned, I've had both the Swine and the Regular. Surely that should be the medical equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail Free card?

There's nothing that common about the cold. Sure, it's widespread, but there are so many different varieties that it should surely be considered as a family of diseases rather than just one. It may feel as if I've got yet another cold, but this is the first (and only) time I've ever come across this variety, hence it's virulence.

Good word that, Virulence. From the same root as Virus of course, the Latin for poison. It's quite a perfect description for them really; in many ways they are more akin to a poison than a parasitic organism. Should they even be considered alive? I've always thought not. There's certainly no method to their mechanism, they just bumble about until by pure chance they're able to infect a cell. More random chemical reaction than intent.

I now add my standard disclaimer that I am no scientist so please forgive any hideous errors from hereon in. I'm merely describing aspects of reality as they seem to me - I am very likely wrong.

Of course viruses must have arrived after cellular life had already evolved. There's no point being a lone rhinoviron if there are no noses and throats to infect. However, there's no harm either. They can just sit there, inert, outwaiting eternity. There will one day be noses.

In theory viruses are bound to happen. It's a measure of the vastness of the arena of life on Earth that such statistical flukes happen at all - a length of naked genetic material being able to take advantage of a host cell? However, once it's occurred once, evolution does all the rest.

Always thought of in a biological sense, evolution actually is a mathematical process. Survival of the Fittest or Natural Selection are just Things that Happen in complex systems. Just as it's probably inevitable that viruses will appear once there's life for them to exploit, so must it therefore probably be inevitable that life itself will arise given suitable conditions.

We've seen in recent years how common planetary systems actually are in our universe - when I was younger I remember scientists debating as to whether other planetary systems existed at all. However, now that we know they do and are common as muck, doesn't it seem likely that the universe is teeming with life?

We might wonder where the buggers are then. Statistically it's highly unlikely that we're the first so this means that either interstellar travel is impossible or sufficiently advanced civilisations lose interest in conquest and exploitation and are content merely to study. Even as we speak intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic may be regarding this Earth with academic eyes, and slowly and surely are writing their dissertations about us.

It is odd how sometimes we can get so wound up over nothing.


How often have you heard someone say that they're afraid of the dark or hate the cold? A visitor from another reality whose only experience of this one is our communication could be forgiven for thinking that these qualities, along with their cousin silence, were active, sometimes malignant, presences in our universe. Even some primitive human philosophers used to think of cold and dark as distinct properties, yins to the yangs of heat and light.

But of course they're not.

They're not anything, because they don't exist. Far from being the opposite of heat and light, they are simply their absence. If anything heat and light are the interlopers, streams of subatomic particles (or waves depending upon which side of the quantum bed you got up this morning) bombarding matter, buffeting it. This constant assault is the price we pay for being warm and for being able to see.

The natural state of the universe is pitch black and freezing, an infinite number of shapeless rocks turning over and over in the dark and cold. Forever. Here on Earth and, one assumes there on other inhabited worlds (of which I am sure there are many, planetary systems being ten a penny according to latest observations) the reality we experience of warmth, light and noise is a statistical blip.

However this means that hating the cold or being afraid of the dark doesn't make sense, not really. They don't exist. Perhaps we should learn to express ourselves differently? Positive thinking is a marvellous thing so I am told. How about I love the warmth and I am comforted by the light?

The fear of the dark is very real though. It's a fear of absence, and the real thing that we are afraid of is absence of self. Yes, I am talking about death again, cheerful soul that I am.

We, and intelligent life on other planets, are also a blip. Life, like light, is another interloper in the universe of tumbling rocks, an add-on, a plugin. However, it is a quality that has become aware of itself and is capable of feeling. What does feeling mean? Some materialists claim that it means nothing. However, even though I am nominally a materialist I can't quite believe that, although I'm not about to slip back down the slope into superstition and the belief in Weird Shit.

But perhaps it's true that death, like dark, cold and silence, doesn't really exist and is merely the absence of life. As I have discussed before, I'm not afraid of the fact that I'm not conscious right now in Australia or India, so why should I be afraid of not being conscious in 2075? It wasn't that bad back in 1955 before I was born; in theory this is the same thing. We are after all just talking about the absence of life.

However, "in theory" is all very well. The fact remains that I am still terrified.

University was a very different world. People there were, well, nice. After spending six years in the Arena of Bastards that constituted Highgate School, this was a revelation. My fellow students were now more interested in my opinions, in what I had to say than they were in making my life a living hell. Also there were girls there.

It took some getting used to, but I felt I could live with it. And I no longer had to address anyone as "sir".

The only real problem seemed to be getting to watch Doctor Who. There was a TV in the common room of each hall of residence, the trouble was though that you could end up running around campus only to find all the cool kids in each one watching the same show which needless to say wasn't Doctor Who. Due to the BBC's odd scheduling, at this time the programme was nearly always on opposite some alternative indie music slot on BBC2 or the new Channel Four - which of course was difficult to get bright young students to give up watching, no matter how many other sets at the university were tuned to the same thing.

Plus I always found it a bit embarrassing to have ask to switch over to Doctor Who, even if I had been to Longleat the previous summer. Were goths supposed to enjoy Doctor Who? And some of the other people also interested in watching were a bit... weird. I remember one of them (who was, shall we say, somewhat socially awkward - and remember it's me saying this) half losing his temper and switching over anyway in a childish fit of pique, much to the chagrin of the rest of the people in the room.

Luckily we had a video recorder at home, so I knew I'd get to see the episodes eventually.

I was continuing to enjoy the Davison years. Not only was Adric now dead, but girly-swot Nyssa had been found in an uncompromising position with a giant dog and had been left behind on a colony of space lepers. What's more there was a new companion, the cowardly red-headed schoolboy Turlough who'd spent his first three stories trying to kill the Doctor. Brilliant! And of course Tegan was still there, having by now been allowed to slip into something a bit more comfortable than her air hostess uniform.

My dad was still working on the show, although no longer being at home most of the time, I wasn't getting to read any of the scripts. I was aware that Peter Davison was on the way out - which seemed terribly soon - and that my dad would be scoring the fifth Doctor's final story. It was called The Caves of Androzani.

These days fandom either considers this one of the best stories of the classic series or thinks it's overrated (probably in a attempt to appear interesting and controversial). At the time I fell into the first of those two camps, and twenty five years later am still there. The story marked the directorial debut of Graeme Harper whose work must have so impressed the young Russell T Davis that he (Harper) was called back over 20 years later to work on the revived series.

Things on board had changed rapidly. Tegan and Turlough had departed in fairly short order and the Doctor was now alone with Peri, an American botany student whom Turlough had dragged half naked into the TARDIS during the previous story Planet of Fire.

The premise for Caves was fairly simple. The Doctor and Peri land on the planet of Androzani Minor, go for a stroll and blunder into a pathetic little local war, inadvertently infecting themselves with a fatally toxic chemical in the process. They then spend four episodes trying to escape from this Arena of Bastards with limited success.

And they are all bastards, make no mistake. This is why the Doctor has no interest in helping any of them, changing the set up or saving the planet. He just wants to get himself and Peri back to the TARDIS. End of story. The only character with any redeeming features is actually the chief antagonist, S&M harlequin Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable) who gets the hots for Peri (something which would become something of a repeated meme over the next couple of years of the show). He is also the only character aside from the Doctor and Peri with motives other than blind military obedience or capitalist greed. He just wants Morgus's head. Here. At his feet. Congealed in its own evil blood.

Seems fair enough to me. Morgus (John Normington) is after all, a particularly perfidious treacherous degenerate, a fescennine bag of slime with the odd habit of talking to camera and no compunctions about having the lift maintenance engineer shot just to cover up his own murder of the President. As someone once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few - couldn't the council back on Major just club together and have Morgus's head shipped to Jek by UPS, congealed or no? It would avoid a lot of unpleasantness.

Stotz (Maurice Roƫves), the chief gun runner who seems to be playing one side off against the other, is particularly evil. He's basically a psychopath who's capable of gunning down his employees and then laughing about it. The scary thing about him is that you can imagine him being quite witty and charming if you met him at a party back on Major; you warm to him despite the way he nearly pushes his idiot second in command Krelper (Roy Holder) over the edge of a cliff at knifepoint and then proceeds to force-feed him a cyanide capsule.

Or maybe you warm to him because of this; Krelper really is an irritating git.

There's an obligatory monster in the story, the Magma Creature, a poorly realised reptile that really lets the side down. Without this lumbering pantomime dragon the story would be perfect. There are plenty of human monsters to go around in this one. Still, as they say, it's the little flaws that keep a guy interested.

It all ends in a bloodbath. Or should that be mudbath? Amidst explosions and fireballs, the Doctor holds off his regeneration long enough to drag the unconscious Peri from the pile of dead bodies and back to the TARDIS. He doesn't have the luxury to take time out to go swanning off through the space-time vortex to stare moodily from a distance at all the friends he's had in this incarnation (although it would be fun to see him dancing a jig on the lip of the crater Adric left when he smashed into prehistoric Earth). He's too busy administering the antidote and saving Peri's life. Only when that's done can he relax, collapsing to the floor of the console room.

At the time I didn't want him to go - it seemed as if he'd only just arrived, but what could you do? Before my eyes he changed into someone slightly chubby with curly blond hair and far too much eye makeup. Someone who used his first few breaths to insult Peri. The new Doctor was obviously going to be very different.

You were expecting someone else?

Time for another metablog entry. I hope you don't mind. A major problem with writing this off the top of my head first thing in the morning is that I end up rambling. Not that there's anything wrong with rambling per se, but if I'm not careful I'll end up repeating myself as the themes, memes and mania that appeal to my mind push themselves to the fore.

Plus there are now enough of these entries to make checking through them all a far from trivial affair. If I suspect that I might have mentioned something on a previous occasion do I really have the time to read back through 70,000 words in order to avoid repetition and the subsequent enraging of the over-sensitive?

The other day I was convinced I'd already mentioned the popular meme that "every cell/atom in our bodies is replaced every seven years" more than once, but it took me ages to confirm this. And the practical upshot of all this tedious searching (and it was long-winded; the search function on Blogger couldn't help with that kind of thing) was just that I've now mentioned it a third time.

What's wrong with repeating yourself anyway? I am sure there are some stories, events, anecdotes or facts in our personal memory libraries that we're all fond of and enjoy telling. After all, as I've said before, you are what you speak. These stories are part of what makes us us. And yet there are some people for whom hearing something more than once is the worst thing in the world.

"Once upon a time, about three years ago, I found myself stranded on top of the Ghost Office Tower in the middle of the night and..."

"Yes. I know. You said. You already told me."
Snapped peevishly in a superior tone of voice. Implication being that by saying something more than once I am being the worst person in the world. More evil than a murderer and more irritating than having to pick stale chewing gum off the seat of your pants after sitting in a blob of it that some thoughtful soul has stuck to a bus seat. A put-down basically.

Well excuse me. Sorry to waste your valuable time telling you something more than once. I'm afraid my internal filing system's in a bit of a mess at the moment so unfortunately I can't access the records of every single conversation I've ever had with you. Twat.

Then the next week I'll get an aggrieved text from them asking me why I'm not in the pub at the agreed time when I quite clearly told them I wouldn't be able to make it this week. They forgot that all right.

There are limits of course. Repeating an anecdote or story over and over again within the same conversation is unforgivable (no matter how much you've had to drink). It's only a short step from that to "... and so I turned round and said ... and so she turned round and said ..." and then I'm afraid I shall have to call the police.

Before I go, did I ever tell you about the theory of The Question Machine ..?

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."
Much as I find the above quote amusing and intellectually appealing, I'm not sure it's entirely true. Of course on one level I'd like it to be because it would appeal to my vanity. It would allow me to take one of my flaws - a lack of confidence and surfeit of doubt - and turn it into a virtue. I'm scared therefore I'm smart.

But logically that's not acceptable. Even if it were true that the intelligent were full of doubt, it doesn't necessarily follow that those full of doubt are intelligent. All smurfs may be blue, but it doesn't follow that all blue creatures are smurfs.

The funny thing is that if I accepted the quote to be true and used it for self validation as described above I'd be indulging in an intellectual vanity, which could of course be considered confidence of a sort. A paradox.

And wherever we find a paradox we're probably missing something somewhere. Of course confidence can be seen as a symptom of, if not stupidity, then at least of a lack of consideration as to what the future might hold. A symptom of a lack of imagination.

Thugg the Caveman had a cousin called Grugg who was notoriously confident. He was famous for it. He'd rush out from his cave every morning whirling his bone club about his head and as like as not would return by lunchtime dragging the carcass of a sabre-toothed tiger by its tail. As far as Grugg was concerned he was unstoppable. He'd never been injured or killed so he couldn't imagine it happening. I am Grugg the Invincible! he would say three or four times a day. It didn't half get on Thugg's wick.

But Thugg couldn't bring himself to behave like that. When he closed his eyes at night he had nightmares about what might happen should he trip over in the middle of a sabre-toothed tiger hunt and get a tooth or claw stuck in him. He'd be horribly hurt. He might lose a leg and have to spend the rest of his days sitting in a pile of his own shit in the corner of the cave just like Zugg.

And worst of all he might die. As far as he was concerned, Being Thugg was an incredible gift from the universe which he was unwilling to throw away for the sake of Being Confident, no matter how much it impressed the cavegirls.

However, as far as those selfish genes were concerned, impressing the opposite sex is what it was all about. Whilst Grugg may have died horribly at the age of 22 in a messy sabre-tooth tiger related incident, he had impressed the cavegirls enough to ensure the human race was guaranteed a future supply of Gruggs. By inventing a new kind of flint arrowhead and a more efficient wheel all Thugg had managed was to become the first nerd. As well as providing Grugg's descendants with a better quality of life.

It's all changed now, and life is a lot less dangerous, so confidence is less likely to get you killed. Why should confidence be the preserve of the dim-witted? Of course the alarm bells of the imagination will still ring when we consider a risky stratagem, but the key to success is to listen to them, weight up the pros and cons and then just do it anyway.

Confidence is all outward appearance anyway, so can be faked, and if you're a good enough actor, pretending to be confident can be indistinguishable from the real thing.

For some reason I never kept in touch with anyone from school - bunch of sadistic bastards the lot of them (and that was just the teachers... aah). An unusual side effect of this state of affairs is that the people I've known the longest aside from my family are fictional. My oldest friends don't exist. Well not in this reality.

I'm not talking about characters in books - they're frozen in aspic going through the same motions again and again every time you thumb their pages. Even characters in long running series of books can't really be counted, partly due to the nature of the medium. Any recurring characters in an author's works (such as the Vampire Lestat who somehow contrives to become even more irritating every single time Anne Rice churns one out) are going to be central to the story and therefore we're almost always privy to their thoughts. Real friends are always seen from the outside and we have to guess what they're thinking.

Characters in novels, the important ones, anyway, are therefore not really our friends. They're our alter egos. Quite often they're obviously the authors' alter egos as well. Long running series of books seem to be a particularly ripe breeding grounds for such "Mary-Sues".

But I'm not talking about characters on TV and in films either. They don't count because behind every strong character is a jobbing actor who will be unwilling to get tied down to the same role for the rest of their natural (except for Adam Woodyatt). Eventually they'll either disappear or suddenly get a new face which always ruins it. The only exception to this rule is The Doctor who neatly sidesteps the whole issue by having his change in appearance written into the story.

I think the only fictional friends you can really have live in comic books. I'm not talking about Batman, Wolverine or any of their cronies in the DC and Marvel universes who are more archetypes than anything else and just like The Simpsons never age (for heaven's sake, Bart should be at least 30 by now).

I'm not talking about Judge Dredd either - even though he has aged with the reader he's hardly the sort of person you'd want to go for a beer with.

My old friends are two women who live in a Latina neighborhood in California; I've known them since we were all teenagers. Their names are Maggie Chascarillo and Hopey Glass. When I first met them they were spiky and cool, always going to see bands play and dancing around on the edge of the illegal.

Maggie was the quieter of the two who was likely to get drunk and start bending your ear about her problems. She had a tendency to overeat and despite her amazing engineering skills, always seemed to end up in dead end jobs.

Hopey was more scary and exciting. She played bass guitar. You could be guaranteed have a great time with her but there was always the danger that if you said the wrong thing you might find yourself on the end of a torrent of verbal abuse or a fist. It always was (and still is) very hard to tell just what was going on in her head.

I know what you're thinking, but there was none of that. They were just fun to hang out with.

Not that they would have been interested in any of that anyway... it was always difficult to know what they were really thinking, but rumour had it that they were lovers (or partners, to use modern parlance) although it was years before I was able to confirm that.

They had loads of friends who used to be around some of the time, principal amongst these being Penny Century (who all the men seemed to fancy) and the druggy witchy writer Izzy Ortiz.

Over the years we've drifted out of touch and then back in again as happens with real friends. Last time I heard from them Maggie had just turned 40 and was the manager for a complex of apartments in San Fernando valley, whilst Hopey was working as a teacher's assistant. I was shocked to hear that Izzy had died in a fire. I do wish they'd start using Facebook, it would make it far easier to stay in touch.

Out in the real world of course all these characters are the creations of Jaime Hernandez and they first appeared in a comic called Love and Rockets in 1981. I got issue 1 from Forbidden Planet when there was only one of them and it was still in Denmark Street. It was in the bargain bin at the back and cost 50p.

I've been buying it in its various incarnations ever since. Reading back issues (or more recently collections) feels more like reminiscing than revisiting these times, all adding to the sensation that Maggie and Hopey are particularly real fictional characters. Old friends. Despite the fact that their world does differ from this one in that it seems to contain a number of science fictional elements (that's where the Rockets of the title comes in) even if they're not always apparent. When I first met Maggie in the eighties she used to ride a hover bike to work and spent some of her time fixing spacecraft and robots.

I do hope I hear from them again soon and that they remain in my life for the foreseeable future. I quite like the idea of me as an old man reading a comic featuring the adventures of two old women.

You can catch up with 30 years of the lives of Maggie and Hopey
yourself in the enormous collections Locas and Locas II.

I don't go to the cinema as often as I'd like, but did manage to go and see Avatar 3D on New Year's Eve. This was only the second of the new wave of 3D films I'd seen, and the first one that was "live action" (in the loosest sense of the term as I'm assuming those big blue guys weren't real).

3D on this scale is certainly a spectacle. The first ten minutes or so I was constantly ducking the things flying out of the screen at me and marveling at the display, but after a while I settled down and got used to it - if anything it seemed to me that this is how all films should always have been, the screen a giant window into another world at the front of the hall. Although it may be true that 3D wouldn't be particularly essential to the plot of a romcom.

However when it comes down to it once the 3D, the comprehensive world building and the fantastic special effects are stripped away, the plot of Avatar itself is fairly basic (spoiler alert I guess). As one clever internet pundit revealed, it's basically blue Pocahontas in space.

One thing that particularly bugged me about the writing was how utterly irredeemably bad and one-dimensional the villains were. Sure, there were people and companies like that in our time, but is the human race really going to carry on behaving in that manner even into the mid twenty-second century?

Perhaps I'm being really naive, but I've heard rumblings in the scientific community advising that if we even discover as much as one living microbe on Mars we should give up our plans to go there and allow Life on Mars to develop naturally (or not). Despite climate change deniers - twats who think that just because we've had a little bit of snow, global warming doesn't exist - I think most of us are far more ecologically aware these days and get bothered about leaving the TV on standby, let alone wiping out an entire alien culture just to get our mitts on some magical Unobtainium.

So I'd hope that if we survive to the year 2154 it will be because this sort of behaviour has died out. I'd hope.

What exactly did they want the Unobtainium for anyway? I don't think it was ever adequately explained unless I was being distracted by some 3D at that point. Something to do with energy, wasn't it?

Still, if the humans in the film really were that evil, I'd be worried for the Na'vi. Sure, the natives may have kicked some human butt on the ground, but you can bet that the first thing those ex-marines would think of once back in their ships would be to take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Of course it's unsurprising given that James Cameron wrote and directed it that it feels as if it's taking place in the same universe as Aliens. Sigourney Weaver could well be playing Ripley's aunt or cousin (as well as reprising her role as Dian Fossey from Gorillas in the Mist) and I wouldn't be surprised if the Resources Development Administration was actually called Weyland-Yutani and was hiring in ex-Colonial Marines as its soldiers.

But whilst I'm indulging in crossover speculation and given the subject of some of my recent blog posts, I can't help but think that The Doctor would have been able to come up with a solution involving a lot less bloodshed.

He'd been the definitive Doctor for what seemed like forever and a whole new generation of fans had been growing up with him in the role. Then all of a sudden he'd changed and there was someone else in his clothes. Someone who looked far too young. Would the programme survive such a drastic metamorphosis?

No, I'm not talking about 1 January 2010. This was on 21 March 1981. A Saturday. I was a teenager, and the incoming Doctor was Peter Davison.

In theory we'd have to wait until January 1982 to find out what this new incarnation was going be like. Back then a ten month wait such as this was an eternity - just what was I going to occupy myself with in the meantime?

Well, there was always music. That was rather interesting in 1981. I'd become obsessed with Toyah, and there were any number of other fascinating bands around, such as Soft Cell, The Human League, Ultravox, Visage, Department S, Classix Nouveaux and countless other combos who, years later, would briefly become fashionable again on the soundtrack to Ashes to Ashes.

So what with the New Musical Obsession and the discovery of girls there was a very real danger that I'd forget about Doctor Who and grow up, just like everyone else pretended to be doing. Luckily help was at hand.

My dad was still at the Radiophonic Workshop and this time had been asked to write the music for three of the year's quota of stories, including what I thought at the time would be the first of the season, the oddly titled Four to Doomsday. In fact the titles had been getting steadily more adult for while now - no more Terror of things or Horror of things, or indeed things of Evil or things of Death.

Strangely, the script didn't seem to refer to the previous years events on Logopolis at all and cut straight to the chase. A little disappointing, but there you go. At least we were going to get to watch it being filmed, although this time we weren't to be allowed on the studio floor, having to watch instead from the observation gallery, a glass fronted box up in the rafters of the studio, looking down from what felt like several thousand feet onto the interior of the Urbankan spacecraft and, in one corner, the TARDIS console room.

It really bothered me that they seemed to be shooting things out of sequence. At first we were treated to a repeated display of the po-face Ancient Greek android Bigon showing the Doctor around and then Tegan progressively getting more and more hysterical as she tried to hotwire the TARDIS.

I had a bit of a surprise the following January when Four to Doomsday wasn't actually the first story of the season aired. Instead the first story was called Castrovalva, and picked up directly from where Logopolis had left off which I found much more satisfying narratively. There was even a mirror scene of the cantankerous diatribe Tom Baker had let loose on his companions in the latter, where new man Peter Davison gave them a pep talk to explain how valuable to him each and every one of them was. Even Adric.

What was even more surprising was that for reasons unknown, the BBC had decided to start broadcasting the series two episodes at a time during the week on adjacent days. Seemed odd, but any discomfort I felt at the series no longer being on the traditional "Saturday night" (so beloved of commentators who invariably start going on about the furniture) was more than offset by the fact that I was getting twice as much in a week.

So begun one of my favourite periods of the programme. This might seem odd given that my formative years Doctors were the fondly remembered Pertwee and Baker, but there was something refreshingly different about Davison, something I couldn't hope to put better than Steven Moffat did in Time Crash, so I won't. Plus I was generally having a miserable time at school and so the world of Doctor Who provided a much needed escape route.

I was also now of an age when I could follow all the nuances of the stories, even the rather cerebral and confusing ones by Christopher H Bidmead. This was stuff I understood and could conceivably imagine myself writing.

Plus there was Tegan. I've no idea why fandom generally complains about her these days. Back then, as an impressionable teenager, I thought she was great. She was the sort of character that nowadays people would describe as "feisty". Just like Rose, Martha and Donna, she had a family who appeared on screen (Auntie Vanessa, Cousin Colin and Grandfather Andrew Verney), although unlike Jackie Tyler at least Auntie Vanessa had the decency to get killed by the Master halfway through her first episode. Of course if the role was being created for the modern series they'd probably make her a kick-boxer or something; but even without that she still managed to knock Adric out cold. She was certainly far more interesting than her TARDIS room-mate, the psychic wet lettuce Nyssa. How come they had to share a room anyway? The TARDIS interior was huge.

So all in all for me the Davison years were something of a golden age. They even killed Adric off in the first year.

And I escaped from school and made it to university.

"If work were so pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves."
Mark Twain
Somehow I find myself already sitting here by the window at home with the daylight fading on the final twenty four hours of my precious time off. It doesn't seem fair somehow. It's almost as if I've hardly had any time off at all and yet simultaneously it manages to seem quite a while since I was last at work.

It's always the same at this time of year. One of my main problems is that the maximum time I can take off in one chunk is around two weeks which, what with the weekends, amounts to sixteen days in total. This might sound like a lot but in reality it's only just about enough time for my mind and body to recover and for me to start feeling even remotely human again. But then of course I only get to experience this refreshed feeling for one day at most before having to restart the whole cycle of running myself into the ground again.

That's the trouble with having a so-called "day" job, of course. It's relatively secure in one sense - you don't have to start worrying about whether you're going to be able to pay the rent or bills from month to month and can be reasonably confident that you're not going to find yourself out on the streets or shopping exclusively in Poundland this time next year.

However, the price you pay for this confidence is all your energy. You put so much time and effort into the nine-to-five that come the evenings and weekend you're far to exhausted to enjoy your life. This is largely due to the fact that you're never getting nearly enough sleep.

I'm not the night owl that once I was, but even so, I do notice a distinct difference in my sleeping pattern during the holidays. It's not that I'm going to bed any later (as my bedtime seems to have stabilised somewhat in recent years) but more that given the opportunity I sleep at least a couple of extra hours in the morning, during which time I dream with a passion.

This could conceivably be rather worrying if dreams are (as I suspect) the side effect of an essential mental filing process, semiconscious echoes of The Question Machine receiving essential software updates from the day's experiences. It means that I'm not getting in nearly as much dreaming as I should be and that if I'm not careful my brain will begin to glitch and I'll start finding it increasingly difficult to learn from experience.

So what's the answer? It looks unlikely that in the current economic and social climate any government any time soon is going to reintroduce the three day week, so I need to either start going to bed ridiculously early (and therefore sleeping the rest of my life away) or perhaps radically rethink my life.
"My young men shall never work. Men who work cannot dream, and wisdom comes to us in dreams."

All that talk of the Rockwell 8R that I indulged in last time reminded me of something I discovered way back then but never really shared with anyone until now.

The next model of calculator up from mine was the Rockwell 18R which was a very similar device except that it had the benefit of a memory. Imagine that. Only the rich kids in school had calculators with memories.

You'd have thought that what with my four function calculator being my proudest possession (aside from my clunky LED digital watch) I'd have treated it with kid gloves, but far from it. I was always obsessed with taking things to pieces. I'm not sure why - it's not as if prying the back of most machinery would have given me any insight into how it worked, but I used to do it anyway. Once I was convinced that if I swapped the connections for the aerial and the loudspeaker on an old valve radio I'd have built myself a radio transmitter.

Anyway, I pulled the front off my calculator and was surprised to find that underneath the smooth plastic of the 8R's fascia where the 18R boasted its coveted memory controls were the electrical contacts for two additional buttons. A couple of minutes' experimentation with a biro and a bit of poking around revealed that these were indeed the memory's STO and RCL buttons. Basically I had discovered that the 8R and the 18R were the same machine, and you paid extra for the privilege of the 18R name, for two holes drilled in the front and for a couple extra cheap plastic buttons.

I didn't quite see it like that at the time - I felt as if I was getting something for nothing; as if I'd discovered how to perform witchcraft. Since then I have always been convinced, even if only on some subconscious level, that there is always more than meets the eye to things, and that if you poke around long and hard enough you will discover secrets.

Other people must feel the same - I guess this is why Easter Eggs exist. In some ways the hidden memory of the Rockwell 8R could be considered as a very early example of the genre.

I never did discover anything quite so exciting again when pulling apart other technology that fell into my hands over the next few decades. I suppose in a very small way I did get into customising my very early PCs - adding hard drives and extra RAM - but it was shortly afterwards that I discovered it was the software that was important and that there was a whole new invisible world of intangible components I could pull to pieces to discover how they worked and then put back together again in new and exciting shapes.

I made a few elementary errors at first - deleting the file command.com in MS-DOS 3.3 for one - but after a while I started to get the hang of things, write batch files, design simple menu systems and so on (this was all pre-Windows).

However, aside from writing web pages, I've now stopped all that as well. I'm still an inveterate fiddler, but what I'm now messing around with are ideas and concepts, my mind, and its model of the universe, what makes me conscious and what makes reality real.

I do hope I don't accidentally delete something important.