I just entered a competition the first prize of which is a journey into space.

I am under no illusions about winning, but it is nice to have these little possibilities hanging there in the back brain giving us cause to imagine just how wonderful would it be if only... Millions of people do the National Lottery every week for instance and the chances of winning that are far less likely.

So you never know, I might win.

And of all the things I really want to do, number one by a long way has always been leaving the planet, if only temporarily. I dream about space travel on a regular basis and am eternally disappointed in the non-arrival of the future that was promised us in our childhood. OK so we have a different future, an amazing one that we could never have imagined back in the seventies. The internet, a whole extra dimension, has been added to human experience in the most significant technological development since Gutenberg and yet...

It's not as good as space travel, is it?

Those of you who have been reading this blog a long time might recall a short entry about two years ago bemoaning the fact that the future had been stolen. I'm going to cover some of that ground again here, although going further than I did last time. But the story of my expectations of space travel go back a long way.

The competition I mentioned above is not the first one I've ever entered that had a fabulous almost mythical prize. Back when I was five or six there was a competition I entered (well, my parents entered it on my behalf) the prize for which would be a trip to Cape Kennedy (as it was then called) to watch the launch of the next Apollo mission.

I seem to recall it wasn't a piece of piss like the kind of competitions they have today. None of this Mars is (a) a planet (b) your mother's house (c) the Roman god of chocolate. The competition had loads of questions and was several pages long with very small print like a benefit application form. In a bid to make sure we answered everything correctly my parents even bought (me) a book called "The Language of Space" by Reg Turnill, a book I still have today.

Some of it makes interesting if depressing reading in retrospect, especially the chapter THE NEXT 20 YEARS IN SPACE. Skipping ahead ten years from publication:

1980
Space Shuttles, carrying 12 men each, expected to reach launch rate of 100 per year. Space Station module to be landed on moon as part of first permanent lunar base.
1981
Earliest possible date for U.S. manned mission to Mars - unlikely to be be achieved; but this could be the year that the Soviet Union launches an expedition. Saturn Orbiter to be launched.
1982
Mercury orbiter to be launched.
1984
Moonbase now built up to 25 men.
1986
Most likely date for first U.S. manned mission to Mars, using Space Station modules as crew quarters, with nuclear rocket stages (probably 3), and a Mars Excursion Module. Moonbase build-up reaches 50 men.
1987
Manned fly-past of Venus by returning Martian expedition.
1989
100-man Space Base in Earth Orbit.
These predictions were made in the heady post-Apollo days when the technical achievements depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey were considered a conservative estimate, but it's sobering to realise how little of this we have achieved even today - at least we managed Cassini and MESSENGER even if they were twenty to thirty years late.

At the time I believed every word of it of course; I knew it was going to happen. I was really excited about winning this competition as well. It was something big that was also going to happen. I built up all sorts of dreams and fantasies around it, including somehow sneaking into the Apollo capsule and stowing away to the Moon myself. I remember excitedly recounting the details of the competition to Mrs Kelly, a wizened dinner lady with a sour outlook on life. When I mentioned that my parents had helped me with competition questions, a supercilious look crossed her face.

"Well," she sneered, "You cheated then, didn't you?"

I didn't think I'd cheated. Besides, when I won my parents would be going to America with me, wouldn't they? The only thing that now stood in our way was the final question. A "tie-breaker" and we had to complete the sentence:

"I would like to visit Cape Kennedy because..."

In the most apt and original way. Eventually end my parents decided on "...it is the gateway to the stars"

In retrospect a somewhat cheesy answer, but I still live in hope that it will one day become true, despite July 2011 marking the date of the last planned launch of a manned mission from the facility.

If I'm lucky it will become true within my own lifetime.

Next time: Moon Mania

Increasingly these days I find myself waking up in the night and worrying about death. Worry is far too mild a word for it. Blind panic would be more appropriate.

Logically of course I know there is nothing that can be done to escape it. Intellectually I can be certain that the idea of an afterlife was only made up, initially to stop people going insane with fear and spending all their time in a blue funk instead of getting on with whatever it was they needed to do in order to be a valuable member of society and perpetuate the species. After a while the concept was adapted in order to control people and make them obey out of a fear of the quality of the place they would be allocated after shuffling off this mortal coil.

My fear is not this kind of fear, the fear of Hell. It's just the fear of Not Being. But I'm not quite sure why this fear is so strong. When I cease to be I will have ceased to be and there will be no me. There will be no me to know that I'm not there. I will be no more aware of the world after I die than I am of the world before I was born. And yet I am not afraid of 1960.

It's the arrow of time of course and the fact that to all intents and purposes we appear to be moving inexorably into the future. Accelerating even. Perhaps the world before the womb would be scary if I knew it lay ahead of me?

My fear makes sense. Fear of mortality is a magnificent advantage and can only be a good thing in the primitive hunter-gatherer world. The one who was the most afraid of death was the one who was the most cautious and therefore was the one who survived to have children who inherited this fear. Simple evolution means that the fearless have long since died out and as a result of the pure mathematics of the situation we are a race of beings running scared from our own skeletons. It's the dark secret of our success.

Fear is a marvellous evolutionary agent. Eventually in their own dim way people started to realise this, if only unconsciously. They built up an artificial set of rules and regulations around it. They called this rule-set "religion" and subverted the by now quite natural fear of death in order to control people. Don't steal that loaf of bread otherwise after death - which you are frightened of anyway - an even more frightening fate awaits you. Eternity in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of torture.

In this way the religious leaders unwittingly bent the engines of evolution and in extreme cases even started imposing imposed artificial evolution upon the species. Believe what we say you should otherwise we will kill you slowly on the rack.

But whilst fear of death might drive evolution, how does one explain death itself? How does that get selected for?

Defenders of the status quo, those who say that all things must die to make way for future generations, imply heavily that the death of the individual is good for the species as a whole. Whilst this may be the case - because without reproduction there would be no evolution and therefore no improvement - I can't see how dying could possibly be selected for in the evolutionary process. It stands to reason that any reproduction that happens has to be before death, therefore how likely a person is to die after that can have no appreciable effect on the survival of the species (although it would help if the parent survives long enough for the child to at least begin to fend for itself).

I suspect that the truth is that death occurs simply because life is a monstrously inefficient process and that machines this clunky will always break down sooner rather than later. Without help, DNA replication always results in frayed genes, and frayed genes mean that we macroscopic organisms will very probably die before we even get the chance to reproduce. And this is where evolution comes into play.

Telomeres are sequences of junk DNA at the end of a chromosome which prevent it from fraying and make sure that the precious sequences containing actual data are protected from damage as long as the telomeres last. Because with each replication they themselves disintegrate further and eventually run out, whereupon the damage moves onto the important genes and we begin to wither and die as mistakes are made.

Evolution had to guarantee that the telomeres were long enough to get the DNA's macroscopic host organisms (us) reproducing. So in fact evolution has been fighting death all along, making sure that we survive as long as necessary. Death isn't actually there by design - we are simply made as well as evolution could make us. But not to last.

As I have discussed before, I am sure there are ways around this.

I want more life, fucker.

Sometimes it seems that we will stop at nothing to find external reasons for avoiding doing what we really didn't want to do anyway. We know that we didn't want to do it but we tell ourselves that we would have done it nonetheless, if only it hadn't been for the thing with the stuff or the fact that the situation was thus.


Case in point. I ended up Not Cycling into work yesterday morning. The official reason (that is to say the reason I went snuffling after so I could hold it up in front of me like a Get Out Of Jail Free card or an FBI warrant) is that my current bike is a write off. Well, according to the Bike Doctor at work anyway when I took it to him for a checkup. Never mind the fact that I managed perfectly well to cycle home after this grim news or the fact that despite this I originally planned to cycle in yesterday as "one last journey" on the ailing bike.

The real reason was that I wanted to carry on reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem, large chunks of which I had been managing to read on the iPad Kindle app whilst on my way into work on the bus. Quite apart from anything else I was pleased that I'd finally managed to trick myself into getting on with some reading by doing it on a gadget. I didn't want to spoil the flow or break my concentration.

I had started reading Anathem once before when I'd bought the hardback but the problem was that my rucksack ended up just too heavy to carry. It could of course have been argued that this "I couldn't pick it up" reason was just another excuse and the real reason I didn't want to read on the bus was because I wanted to mess about on Twitter and play Angry Birds. There may very well have been some truth in that but when it comes down to it I do love reading and don't get the time to do nearly enough of it. The Kindle app makes it easier and more portable. Even now I am wrestling with myself internally as to whether to buy the new China MiƩville novel in solid or data form. On some level my old meatspace mind is arguing very strongly for the reality of material possessions and urging me to buy the physical manifestation. It's even suggesting that I can justify the space it will take up and the inconvenience of yet another material possession by getting a signed copy.

But this is of course just another excuse. Simply my mind thinking up a plausible reason for doing something that I actually want to do instead of what I really should be doing. I really should be conserving resources and cutting back on the amount of physical stuff I buy. I made the transition from CDs to downloads easily enough, I should be able to do it with books.

But, taking another step back and looking at the bigger picture, this whole explanation about me starting to read again and not wanting to interrupt the flow of that is nothing more than a particularly large, well thought out, complex - one might even say baroque - excuse for the fact that I didn't want to cycle in to work yesterday.

Because I am lazy.

That's what it comes down to. Plain, simple bone idleness. The problem with you, Limb, is that you're bone idle as the teachers used to say to me at school.

Perhaps I am. There were many reasons not to want to cycle into work yesterday morning:
  • I didn't like the idea of all that physical labour (pure and simple bone idleness on my part)
  • The bike was a write off (more of an excuse than a reason, but still worth mentioning)
  • I was afraid of falling off the bike, being hit by a car and breaking a bone or worse (physical cowardice)
  • I wasn't relishing the thought of the verbal abuse I was more than likely to receive at the mouths of pedestrians and motorists alike because if there is one thing these two disparate groups can agree on, it's that that hate cyclists (cowardice too but in this case mental cowardice, as I couldn't face getting upset and arriving at work in a seething internal rage after having had abuse shouted at me by a shaved gorilla in a metal box)
But these are all in varying degrees just further excuses. The primary reason is the first one. I am physically lazy.

Why is this? I am an adult, I know that in the long run physical exercise is good for me. You'd have though that by my age I would have learned the hard way that if something's worth doing then it's probably going to be difficult.

I've bought a new (well, second-hand) bike now. I have no excuse. Not only is it patently not a write off but I have to justify the expense by riding it into work and back. Every day next week.

If I do it often enough it'll become a habit, an addiction. Then of course the trouble will be getting me to stop...

There's nothing quite as interesting as one's own dreams but the downside of this is that there's nothing potentially as boring as other people's. However one interesting thing about anyone's dreams is that if they write them up before falling asleep they may find that this captures details which they then completely forget. The next time they awake from consciousness they won't remember them. At all.

This may be to do with the way consciousness divides up time between the long and short term memory. I suspect that the short-term memory consists of "today" or in other words the amount of time since the last sleeping. This is how we distinguish today from yesterday. Today is now, we are conscious and living on our wits; memory of things that happened earlier that day feel very different from the memories of things that happened the day before, even though the difference in time between them is negligible. The important thing is that they happened in this bit of life between two instances of non-self.

But the short term memory is volatile. Go to sleep and it gets wiped in preparation for the next bit.

I noticed this recently when reading over a dream I had written down on my Tumblr mini-blog. Whilst I remembered some things like the "huge ham-like hands" or the "beatific smile" other stuff like the "train carriage that refused to run over the squirrel" was as new to me. I didn't remember it and I couldn't picture it.

So how come we can remember the events of the day itself but not the details of the dreams preceding that day? It's clear why - dreams are side effects of memory processing - but how does this work?  Either the dreams themselves are flagged with a "don't bother filing this into long term memory" bit or the events of the day are flagged with a "file this tonight" bit. Which is more likely? Given that sometimes we do remember dreams for years I suspect it's not so much that these dreams fail to be flagged "do not file" but that they are so memorable or reach a threshold of emotional resonance that automatically triggers the "file this tonight" bit.

This means that there may be more than two kinds of memory, there may be three - long-term, short-term (disposable) and short term (permanent). Whilst the latter two are indistinguishable to the working brain during the course of the day, only the permanent short term memories are converted into long term overnight (generating dreams in the process, dreams which, if we remember them at all, end up as disposable short-term memories with a four-hour half life).

I do wonder though if when you pull an all-nighter the brain attempts to start filing the memories of the previous day anyway - halfway through Morning 2 during one of these abnormal stretches of time the events of the previous day do indeed seem like events of the previous day, i.e. as if they have already been transferred into long term memory even if only on a rough and ready basis. Whether the temporary short term memories have disappeared by this point I have no idea; what would be useful would be to perform an experiment whereby I (a) record the psuedo-events of a dreeam in detail (b) pull an all nighter and then (c) read back through the events over 24 hours later to see whether I can recall them or not or whether some have already been utterly forgotten.

Just as the sleep of reason produces monsters, being deprived of sleep for long enough produces hallucinations, which can be quite monstrous enough in their own right. This must mean that even though there might be some crude filing going on whilst awake eventually the brain can't cope and starts filing stuff in earnest and we start actually dreaming whilst awake.

These sleep-deprivation induced hallucinations are amongst the most convincing and high definition hallucinations I have ever experienced. And it is remarkable that they are induced merely by getting the brain to do something slightly different - no foreign chemicals have been introduced; this is your mind doing something it's perfectly capable of doing anyway.  Then again a hallucinogen such as LSD is merely a trigger - the chemical itself has no toxic effect as it's present in such low concentrations in recreational doses. All the molecules of lysergic acide diethyl-amide do is fit into molecular keyholes within chemical structures already present in the brain and activate something that perhaps is normally only activated during unconsciousness.

The imagination, the dreaming.

Remember when you were a child and some of the games you played were so real that you could almost see the fantasy worlds you were inhabiting? Time passes so much more slowly as a child and there is so much more to experience. So many more new memories to assimilate and pass from the short term to the long term. Perhaps this is why these involving children's games felt so real.

We were dreaming them live.

GILES IS A NAZI MOTHERFUCKER
These words were sprayed in two foot high white letters along the redbrick fascia of my school on a major trunk route through North London. I would imagine that tens of thousands of people saw this heartfelt statement, because even though the school authorities did their best to scrub away the obscenity, the letters remained visible as ghosts on the brick beneath the tall Victorian classroom windows for many years afterwards.

I often wondered about the motivation for this graffiti. "Giles" was the Headmaster and an inoffensive figurehead whom I always thought of as a bit like a cut-price version of a minor member of the royal family. I didn't consider such an ineffectual individual worthy of such bile. Furthermore the words had been written, so it was whispered, by a boy who had been expelled for some misdemeanour or other. I really didn't understand this. As far as I was concerned being at the school was a nightmare, the claustrophobic half-hearted-gothic buildings a hell on Earth, a hell that still haunts my dreams to this day. Surely expulsion was a blessing, not a curse?

Let me say that I am sure that in these enlightened days things are a lot better there. For a start the school now admits girls and their civilizing nature no doubt has made a huge difference. Furthermore these days you simply can't get away with treating the young in the way they were treated back then, the fear of litigation and accusation means that teachers now have to walk on eggshells.

But back then it was a different story. In the 1970s and 80s it was a male-only preserve of institutionalised bullying, physical assault and soft paedophilia.

The abuse started in the Junior School. I joined at the age of 10 so I had no idea what went on with the even younger boys, but in retrospect what used to go on during our sports afternoons was disturbing enough in itself.

The first thing that struck me as odd even at the time was the "No Underpants" rule. It was forbidden to wear underpants beneath your football shorts. Forbidden. This mean that when getting changed into our kit we were obliged to strip down to the genitals in front of one or two leering "Masters", all of whom we had to address as "Sir". I remember one boy's attempted justification of this frankly bizarre rule - something about the risk of falling over and mud shooting up your leg onto your y-fronts. I wasn't convinced. At the time it just appeared to be a pointless rule, in retrospect it seems to have been implemented purely to provide the staff with specialised erotic entertainment.

It was bad enough having to then spend what felt like a couple of days standing ankle deep in a patch of freezing mud and grass with no underwear whilst bigger boys kicked a large heavy leather sphere at you, but even when this ordeal was over there was no respite. Back in the changing room the Master who'd been in charge of the game would more often than not decide to warm himself up on the boys, sliding his large bony hands up their football shirts and grinning at the shrieking distress this caused. We then had to strip off entirely and all pile into a bath like a miniature swimming pool where the lukewarm water turned black with the mud from our legs whilst the Master stood by watching intently.

I am sure this experience has a lot to do with my adult dislike of sport in general and football in particular.

By the time we graduated into the senior school the teachers could no longer get away with this kind of thing quite so easily. However, as one door closed, another one opened.

The first thing we had to do in the mornings was go to chapel and spend fifteen to twenty minutes being bored by lukewarm religious claptrap begin spouted by the school chaplain and headmaster himself. After that we'd have five minutes to get to our classroom for roll call before finding our way through the maze of wood panelled passages through which Masters stalked in their dusty black gowns, to whichever of the classrooms in which our first lesson was due to take place. We had to go to them, they wouldn't come to us.

The tall chambers in which the classes took place were shrouded in gloom, the narrow windows too high to reach. Ancient radiators clogged with thick white paint emitted a dull intense heat and odd-smelling fumes which mixed with the smell of chalk dust and furniture polish to produce a unique odour which if bottled and sold would no doubt go under the name Essence of Despair.

It was the sarcasm that really used to get me down though.

It is a commonly held belief that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. However, strangely this information seemed to have passed all the Masters by because whenever they were delivering what I am sure they imagined were witheringly sardonic putdowns they acted so pleased with themselves. And yet the idea that they simply hadn't heard this common aphorism was simply too ridiculous to bear in mind. Come on, everyone had heard it. Even children at the school having withering sarcasm ladled out to them by the steaming bowlful by officious pricks in chalk dust stained dull green suits.

Sometimes of course the sarcasm wasn't a devastating enough weapon which is when they'd decide to use the board rubber as a projectile. Ninety-nine percent of the time they missed. For all their bluster and barking from the side of the athletics field they couldn't have hit a barn door.

Looking back now from the vantage point of the present it's clear that most of them were no-hopers, the only thing going for them a modicum of power over a collection of small boys. Having failed in all other arenas of life all they could hope for was the minor pleasure to be gained from scoring points over a thirteen year old child who was forbidden to answer back anyway or perhaps the vicarious thrills gained from lurking in the toilets trying to catch a glimpse of a young penis or three.

The oppressed hit downwards. Many of the more unpleasant pupils decided to vent their frustration at being bullied and abused by the teachers by themselves bullying and abusing the smaller and odder boys.

Unfortunately at the time I was both small and odd...

This week I started cycling into work again for the first time in ages. The weather had improved, it was no longer even remotely cold and I basically couldn't come up with any further ways of putting it off. Leaving early it wasn't nearly as bad as I feared it might be, but on the other hand it did remind me of something about the way my brain works.

During the cycle journey I am fully physically occupied. My brain is also very busy; calculating a trajectory here, making sure I obey the traffic lights there and ensuring I don't end up under a juggernaut due to a miscalculation whilst shooting round Vogue Gyratory.

However these activities don't entirely occupy the brain. Whilst they're not unconscious autonomic responses they are below the threshold of language, which means that throughout the journey my thought processes are racing and my internal madman is monologuing at a million miles an hour coming up with reams of subvocal garbage and the odd gem.

At one point last week for instance I spent about two and a half miles obsessed with the idea that David Bowie would do a cover version of "Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler?" changing the lyrics to "but he comes home each evening and he's ready with his bloody gun". This thought then led to my wondering about the exact nature of Mr Brown's employment. I assumed that him going off to town on the eight twenty one was a reference to him commuting. Seeing as the imaginary town of Walmington-on-Sea was supposed to be on the Kent Coast (somewhere along from Hastings or Bexhill) then even if the train service was better during the Second World War than it is now, he still wouldn't be in the office before ten am and that is assuming that he worked somewhere near Waterloo.

It seemed odd to me.

This is a fine example of the kind of old bollocks that my brain gets up to when the intellectual side is free from stimulus. Some people listen to their iPods whilst cycling, but I can't imagine anything more dangerous. I am such a cautious cyclist that I need all my wits about me and my ears, although a bit crap these days, are still a potential early warning system.

So free from any intellectual stimulus whatsoever my brain races like an engine that hasn't got a load and comes up with all sorts of stuff. This may be a useful and healthy thing to do from time to time and the fact that I find it enough of a novelty to write about indicates just how distracted we get these days by the constant stimulation of the multiple streams of data we have pouring into our heads.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no luddite and think that the information age in which we are living is a marvellous thing. The combination of the internet and the smartphone means that in theory the sum total of human knowledge is instantly available to us at all times - and this can only be a benefit to us as a species. However, these constant streams of data are supernormal stimuli, new ways to get hooked and I do think we need to take some time off occasionally. It is tricky of course but then again so is something else that's good for us - dieting.

Much as a sudden supply of food might encourage gorging and obesity after years of rationing and austerity, the data rich environment in which we now find ourselves means our intellects are at risk of getting unfit.

If we're not careful we're all going to end up getting very fat. Brain fat.