Aaloo Andey: Satire with a bite in Pakistan

M Ilyas Khan at the BBC:

ScreenHunter_15 Oct. 26 12.32Aaloo Andey (potato and egg curry) is the first single from an underground band called the Bayghairat (Shameless) Brigade and the video has gone viral in Pakistan, with tens of thousands of hits on YouTube.

Its scathing lyrics take on taboo subjects such as Islamic fundamentalism and the Pakistani army chief in a way that no one has done before.

It also pours scorn on Pakistani society where ruthless killers – such as Mumtaz Qadri who killed a politician for his religious views and Ajmal Qasab the sole surviving gunman from the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks – are glorified as heroes by some.

This is a place, the song goes, where a Pakistani Nobel prize-winning physicist, Abdus Salam, is forgotten because he is from the minority, and much reviled, Ahmadi community.

Bayghairat Brigade are three young men with a sense of humour but also, clearly, with a sense of despair about Pakistan.

The potato and egg curry of the title is just a way of lamenting how Pakistani society dishes out the same old rubbish year after year.

But do the band members realise that they may have put their lives on the line?

More here. And here's the video:

OWS’s Beef: Wall Street Isn’t Winning – It’s Cheating

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

D46de7e669258111981a55aa5da100884fbbc2a2I was at an event on the Upper East Side last Friday night when I got to talking with a salesman in the media business. The subject turned to Zucotti Park and Occupy Wall Street, and he was chuckling about something he'd heard on the news.

“I hear [Occupy Wall Street] has a CFO,” he said. “I think that's funny.”

“Okay, I'll bite,” I said. “Why is that funny?”

“Well, I heard they're trying to decide what bank to put their money in,” he said, munching on hors d'oeuvres. “It's just kind of ironic.”

Oh, Christ, I thought. He’s saying the protesters are hypocrites because they’re using banks. I sighed.

“Listen,” I said, “where else are you going to put three hundred thousand dollars? A shopping bag?”

“Well,” he said, “it's just, they're protests are all about… You know…”

“Dude,” I said. “These people aren't protesting money. They're not protesting banking. They're protesting corruption on Wall Street.”

“Whatever,” he said, shrugging.

These nutty criticisms of the protests are spreading like cancer.

More here.

John McCarthy — Father of AI and Lisp — Dies at 84

Cade Metz in Wired:

ScreenHunter_14 Oct. 25 17.11When IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer won its famous chess rematch with then world champion Garry Kasparov in May 1997, the victory was hailed far and wide as a triumph of artificial intelligence. But John McCarthy — the man who coined the term and pioneered the field of AI research — didn’t see it that way.

As far back as the mid-60s, chess was called the “Drosophila of artificial intelligence” — a reference to the fruit flies biologists used to uncover the secrets of genetics — and McCarthy believed his successors in AI research had taken the analogy too far.

“Computer chess has developed much as genetics might have if the geneticists had concentrated their efforts starting in 1910 on breeding racing Drosophila,” McCarthy wrote following Deep Blue’s win. “We would have some science, but mainly we would have very fast fruit flies.”

According Daphne Koller — a professor in the Stanford AI Lab who still carries the torch for McCarthy’s orthodox vision of artificial intelligence — it’s a quote that sums up both McCarthy and his work. “The word that bests describes him is ‘uncompromising’,” she tells Wired. “He believed in artificial intelligence in terms of building an artifact that could actually replicate human level intelligence, and because of this, we was very unhappy with a lot AI today, which provides some very useful applications but focuses on machine learning.

More here.

An epic journey through the Arabian desert

Michael Dirda in Salon:

Arabian_sands_stewart_coverFor years I meant to read “Arabian Sands,” Wilfred Thesiger’s account of two punishing camel journeys during the late 1940s across Southern Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Now that I have, I can sheepishly join the chorus of those who revere the book as one of the half dozen greatest works of modern English travel writing. Thesiger’s other masterpiece, “The Marsh Arabs” (1964), is almost as good. There he describes the seven years during the 1950s that he spent living in the wetlands of Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“The Marsh Arabs” is enthralling, yet “Arabian Sands” remains the austere masterpiece, worthy of comparison with the classics of polar endurance, like Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” and with those roomy mansions of desert literature, C. M. Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta” and T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” While most travel writing today is essentially journalism, Arabian Sands is an epic poem:

A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm to the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

This is the stirring prologue to “Arabian Sands,” yet it already sounds a faintly elegiac tone, a recognition that an ages-old way of life is vanishing. As Thesiger writes, “I went to Southern Arabia only just in time.”

More here.

Particles Faster Than the Speed of Light? Not So Fast, Some Say

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

Anet“Does E still equal MC squared?”

So asks the Irish band the Corrigan Brothers in a new song, “Einstein and the Neutrinos,” that is the latest rollicking riff on news that shocked the scientific world last month.

A group of physicists from Italy claimed they had observed the subatomic particles called neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. That, of course, is the cosmic speed limit declared in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity in 1905.

If they are right — and the jury is still out — Einstein might have some explaining to do. Among other things, a neutrino or anything else that went faster than the speed of light could go backward in time.

Physicists, who are quite sure that in fact E does still equal MC squared — whatever may come of this experiment — have expressed skepticism. But that has not stopped the ghostly neutrinos, which can sail through miles of solid lead with impunity, from achieving a sort of pop culture fame not seen since 1960, when John Updike published a poem about them in The New Yorker:

The Earth is just a silly ball

To them through which they pass

Like dustmaids down a drafty hall

Or photons through a sheet of glass.

Neutrino time-travel jokes have proliferated on the Internet. Example: “We don’t serve faster-than-light neutrinos here,” said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

More here.

John Paul Stevens on Our ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice

John Paul Stevens in the New York Review of Books:

Stevens_1-111011_jpg_230x447_q85William Stuntz was the popular and well-respected Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard University. He finished his manuscript of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice shortly before his untimely death earlier this year. The book is eminently readable and merits careful attention because it accurately describes the twin problems that pervade American criminal justice today—its overall severity and its disparate treatment of African-Americans.

The book contains a wealth of overlooked or forgotten historical data, perceptive commentary on the changes in our administration of criminal justice over the years, and suggestions for improvement. While virtually everything that Professor Stuntz has written is thought-provoking and constructive, I would not characterize the defects in American criminal justice that he describes as a “collapse,” and I found his chapter about “Earl Warren’s Errors” surprisingly unpersuasive.

Rather than focus on particular criminal laws, the book emphasizes the importance of the parts that different decision-makers play in the administration of criminal justice. Stuntz laments the fact that criminal statutes have limited the discretionary power of judges and juries to reach just decisions in individual cases, while the proliferation and breadth of criminal statutes have given prosecutors and the police so much enforcement discretion that they effectively define the law on the street.

More here.

Using Light to Flip a Tiny Mechanical Switch

Adrian Cho in Science:

ScreenHunter_11 Oct. 25 11.20The feeble force of light alone can flip a nanometer-sized mechanical switch one way or the other, a team of electrical engineers reports. The little gizmo holds its position without power and at room temperature, so it might someday make a memory bit for an optical computer. Other researchers say it also introduces a promising new twist into the hot field of “optomechanics,” which marries nanotechnology and optics. “This a new paradigm,” says Markus Aspelmeyer, a physicist at the University of Vienna who was not involved in the research. “People are going to take a good look at this and use it in other schemes.”

Since 2005, physicists and engineers have been using light to set tiny structures vibrating and control their motion. Much of their effort has focused on using light to suck energy out of a vibrating beam or cantilever to try to achieve new states of motion that can be described only by quantum mechanics, extending the quantum realm to the movement of humanmade objects. In fact, Aspelmeyer, Oskar Painter of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and colleagues have managed to use laser light to “cool” a vibrating beam to the lowest energy state possible, the so-called quantum ground state, a key step toward achieving more complex quantum states of motion, as they reported 6 October in Nature.

Now, taking a different tack, Mahmood Bagheri, Hong Tang, and colleagues at Yale University have used laser light to pump energy into a tiny bridge of silicon, flipping it between two stable configurations—in effect, making a mechanical switch. The bridge measured 10 micrometers long, 500 nanometers wide, and 110 nanometers thick and was suspended about 250 nanometers above a glass chip. When researchers etched glass out from under it, the silicon expanded, so the bridge bowed either upward or downward, like a playing card squeezed lengthwise between your thumb and forefinger.

The trick was to use light to make the bridge shift between the two positions in a controllable way.

More here.

Raj Rajaratnam reveals the reasons he didn’t take a plea that could have saved him from 11 years in jail

Suketu Mehta in The Daily Beast:

ScreenHunter_10 Oct. 25 11.01It was 6 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2009, and Raj Rajaratnam, head of the Galleon Group hedge fund, was at home on his exercise bike looking out over Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, thinking about how many shirts he would have to pack for his trip to England that day. He was to go there to launch a $200 million fund to invest in the Sri Lankan stock market, in which he, the richest Sri Lankan on the planet, was the biggest single investor.

At 6:30 his doorbell rang. He answered it to find a number of policemen and men in suits outside. An FBI agent named B. J. Kang told him he was under arrest for insider trading. There were five other agents with him, come to collect Rajaratnam. They asked if he had a gun, if he had drugs on the property. For a moment he was afraid they would plant something.

As they led him away from his family, Rajaratnam says Kang told him, “Take a good look at your son. You’re not going to see him for a long time.” He added, for good effect, “Your wife doesn’t seem so upset. Because she’s going to spend all your money.”

More here.

The Brigadoon of the Conversation

by Alyssa Pelish

There was a time, oddly, when I very much identified with Alan Shore, the charismatic skirt-chaser of an attorney played by James Spader on Boston Legal. Not that I shared Alan Shore’s tastes for bespoke suits or cigars, let alone his highly cultivated predilection for women. My fellow feeling did, however, have everything to do with his absolutely mordant wit. As with the best wit, it had an economy and timing that thrilled me. (And it was, of course, all of a piece with Spader's acting that, in its purest, most enduring form, seems to rely on only the musculature of his eyes.) But Alan Shore’s wit, like his eternal bachelor of a character, was never quite matched. His remarks, cutting through the general babble of conversational convention, would typically hang in the air for a beat — while I would chortle and the characters on the show would either ignore, shake their heads at, or (most typically) take offense at them. Even his best friend, the aging rainmaker Denny Krane, was typically too near the precipice of senility (or his own lascivious preoccupations) to fully match Alan’s witticisms. That was just how the dynamic of the show worked — and it worked pretty well. But of all the staple characters — the bluster and senility of William Shatner’s Denny, Candice Bergen’s no-nonsense senior partner, René Auberjonois’ milquetoast authority figure, the expendable cast of comely junior partners — Alan Shore was really the one who had my empathy. Spader repartee

Alan Shore was (and probably still is) one of my favorite instantiations of what I think of as the solitary wit. This is the sort of person who is always at the ready with an epigram or an ironic aside. There's a detached elegance to their pith that places them above the pedestrian fumbling of ordinary conversation. But if honest-to-goodness repartee consists, at a minimum, of one wit’s thrust followed by another’s riposte, the solitary wit’s rapier is ever brandished but never met by another blade. Alan Shore’s predecessors, Oscar Wilde’s most epigrammatic characters must have pride of place in this. Although the dialogue of Wilde’s prose and plays is, in general, known for its incisive wit, it almost always turns on the solitary wit — for whom the world is his straight man. Think of the caustic bon mots dropped by Dorian Gray’s Lord Henry, which are never quite returned in kind by the more socially reserved Basil or wide-eyed young Dorian.[1] Even in The Importance of Being Earnest, which is adored for its comically mannered exchanges, Algernon is the only true wit. His every other line is a perfect epigram — but it's rarely ever returned in kind by the others.[2]

Read more »

Hippie-punching The Apple Genius: Was Smartass Steve Jobs A Dumbass For Refusing Early Cancer Surgery?

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Steve Jobs & appleA lot of people think Steve Jobs was not that smart after all. First diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2003, he waited a full nine months before he had a secret operation in July 2004. He put off the surgery advised by doctors, friends and family, and instead explored macrobiotic diets and other options, including going to “spiritualists.” When he finally agreed to the operation, his cancer had spread beyond his pancreas, hastening his impending death.

So what do you think?

What you think depends on one thing and one thing only: whether you are among those who've been very ill or not.

There is a huge chasm between the sick and the well, as big as the chasm between the 1% of rich people who run our country and the 99% who have no say and are at the mercy of the 1%.

It's about as big as the one between the quick and the dead. The quick have plenty to say about the dead, but the dead can't hear or talk back.

Number one: if you're well, the chances are good that you'll feel as ready to blame sick people for their illnesses and their choices about it, as Republicans are at blaming poor people for being poor.

Number two: if you're well, you have no idea what a person goes through who is faced with a life-threatening illness, and you can easily muster the arrogance to judge their choices.

Number three: if you're well, you're just plain lucky in your genes, environment and circumstances, and you'd do well to STFU when to comes to having opinions about others not so fortunate. You're a little like those arrogant men — Romney, Perry, Santorum, etc. — who think they have the right to decide for an entire gender, not their own, whether that gender should have a choice to abort a pregnancy or not.

Told of Jobs' choice by biographer Walter Isaacson, 60 Minutes interviewer Steve Kroft asked this question: “How can such a smart man do such a stupid thing?”

Read more »

How Cool Conquered the Western World

by Colin Eatock

ScreenHunter_05 Oct. 22 21.04According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the principal meaning of “cool” is “Moderately cold; said of a temperature which, in contrast with heat, is cold enough to be agreeable and refreshing, or, in contrast with cold, is not so low as to be positively disagreeable or painful.”

But of course there’s much more to it than that. The OED also tells us that the word, when applied to persons or their actions, can mean, “not heated by passion or emotion; unexcited, dispassionate; deliberate, not hasty; undisturbed, calm.” This is the sense that Shakespeare intended when he wrote, “Such seething braines … that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

Now let’s fast-forward to the dawn of the twenty-first century. On television, one trendy young man is angry with another. The other young man, it seems, has recently done something underhanded: he has lied, cheated or stolen (I don’t recall which). But our hero, Brandon, has uncovered the truth – and he bravely confronts his acquaintance about his low-down behaviour. “Trevor,” he seethes, summoning every shred of moral outrage in his soul, “what you did was not cool!”

Brandon could have said unfair, dishonest, hurtful – any number of things. But he was so offended by Trevor’s crimes that he delved more deeply, uttering most damning phrase in his vocabulary: “not cool.”

Trevor and Brandon are (thankfully) fictional characters, the inventions of scriptwriters. Yet they subscribe to the same Weltanschauung that hordes of young and young-ish people do today: cool is pretty much the best thing one can be. For many, coolness has replaced cleanliness as the worldly condition closest to God.

How did this happen? When did this happen?

Read more »

The Occupy Movement and the Nature of Community

by Akim Reinhardt

Community cartoonI’m currently at work on a book about the decline of community in America. I won’t go into much detail here, but the basic premise is that, barring a few possible exceptions, there are no longer any actual communities in the United States. At least, not the kinds that humans have lived in for thousands of years, which are small enough for everyone to more or less know everyone else, where members have very real mutual obligations and responsibilities to each other, and people are expected to follow rules or face the consequences.

One of the fun things about the project has been that people tend to have a strong reaction to my claim that most Americans don’t live in real communities anymore. Typically they either agree knowingly or strongly deny it, and I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful conversations as a result. But for argument’s sake, let’s just accept the premise for a moment. Because if we do, it can offer some very interesting insights into the nature of the Occupy movement that is currently sweeping across America and indeed much of the world.

One of the critiques that has been made of the Occupy movement, sometimes genuinely and thoughtfully but sometimes with mocking enmity, is that it still hasn’t put forth a clear set of demands. It’s the notion that this movement doesn’t have a strong leadership and/or is unfocused, and because of that it stands more as a generalized complaint than a productive program. That while it might be cathartic and sympathetic amid the current economic crisis, the Occupy movement doesn’t have a plan of attack for actually changing anything.

While I disagree with that accusation for the most part, there is an element of truth in it. However, to the extent that it holds water, the issue isn’t that the people involved don’t know what they want to do. Rather, many of them know exactly what they want. But they are nevertheless going through the careful steps of trying to assemble democratic communities before issuing any specific demands. And as we’re constantly being reminded these days, democracy is messy and inefficient, which is one of the many reasons why the founders created a republic instead.

Read more »

Close Miking Consciousness: Imaginary Experiments with Space, Place, Shapes & Mics

by Gautam Pemmaraju

In sound and music production, close miking refers to the practice of placing the microphone close to the sound source – from 1 inch to 1 foot – as opposed to distant or ambient miking. There are several kinds of microphone techniques, countless kinds of specialty microphones to suit a wide range of purposes, and given the sheer complexity of the human relationship to sound, the applicability of technology (in what situations we record sound and with what) assumes great import. It is a pretty vast creative domain and is shaped by the imagination of those at work. Close miking suggests here a greater intimacy with process and perception. In order to extrapolate more or finer detail, we go closer to the sound – physically, psychologically and metaphorically. It is through a more intimate engagement with sound that we then ascribe character to it – we discuss texture, tonality, timbre, colour, and taste even. We use every other sense to describe how a sound sounds.

One elemental way we can understand hearing is as a function of Signal to Noise or SNR (see this). When noise escalates or overwhelms, we instinctively adapt. Needless to say, in cities, with a profusion of countless impulses, signals and provocations, we are in a perpetual condition of negotiating this balance, whereby, we recalibrate, reassign priority, and in many ways, incessantly rehear our environment. We find ways to suppress background noise and achieve comprehension and intelligibility. What do we then hear in our heads as opposed to what we hear out of our heads? Such a question is inextricably linked to our broader, composite perception – it informs speech and vision. The McGurk-McDonald Effect (see this BBC Horizon video clip) underscores these complex relationships, whereby, when one phoneme was dubbed over the video of a different one spoken out, an entirely third one was perceived when the video was played back.

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Notes from a Nobody Comic Writer

by Tauriq Moosa

Finding a new love is not always a good thing. Having started with writing prose fiction, I drifted away since I found fiction to be too self-indulgent. But, recently, due to events beyond my control, I found myself loving the comics medium. Indeed, I want to create these beautiful things. The problem is, I am on the worst side of the comics medium: an unknown writer who can’t draw. Here, I look at why I think the medium matters, though and why I’m in love.

WritingI have been writing as soon as my wrists could hold up a pen and I (mostly) understood the purpose of words. I wrote stories as soon as those words could formulate into sentences. But I stopped writing stories when reality sucked out the marrow of fiction for me, when I studied something called “Literary Theory” that, instead of making me see The Craft as worthwhile, only showed me to be a self-indulgent buffoon. This was not the intention of the university course I studied; but intentions are irrelevant here. The best thing studying literary theory did for me was to make me realise why I should not be doing it at all. I was one of the top students in my graduating year, without attending a year and a half of lectures; I read none of the articles, studied none of the theorists.

This is not an indication of my intelligence (what little remains) but of the idiocy of (large parts of) literary theory. I won’t go into it here, nor is that central to my point. The only reason I mention it is for autobiographical purpose to indicate why I stopped caring and writing fiction. Indeed, I wrote two novel manuscripts before I was 20 and published several short-stories. Being a horror “aficionado” (which is like being a proud collector of dead kittens’ eyes), I tended to focus on the less accessible sides of reading. I liked that readers would have to adjust to a slightly difficult writing-style, that the stories were sometimes gory, but, more importantly, complex.

Or at least, I thought they were.

In reality, they probably are not. Nor do I think I am a particularly good fiction writer. Anyway, I decided to use my writing ability – which is not “ability” so much as an insatiable need to put words “on paper” – on more important, real-life matters. Here, I found that because I could mostly form coherent sentences, I could write and publish articles that people were interested in. Many were interested in the fact that I was, for example, an ex-Muslim who spoke about non-belief. This went into writing science and philosophy articles, until eventually I decided I should learn more. I then enrolled in a Masters’ course in Applied Ethics.

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The dog ate my homework

by Sarah Firisen

So let's talk about college. Or to be more specific, let's have a look at how prepared our children are go to college. And I'm not talking about their academic readiness, though clearly many, many words could be devoted to that. I'm talking about their work habits.

ScreenHunter_09 Oct. 24 10.16My 11-year old daughter, Anya, just entered middle school. If you're even an occasional reader, you'll know that my children go to a small, independent progressive school – the Robert C. Parker school. A conscious, intentional part of both the run-up to middle school in 5th grade and of 6th and 7th grade is to teach the children how to engage in independent study. The purpose of homework, which Anya didn't really get in any meaningful, regular way up until 5th grade, is less about what she learns, and more about how she learns to study. It's about learning to be organized enough that she makes sure she leaves class with all the information she needs to work at home; that she brings the right books and papers with her; that she learns how to prioritize the workload she has – start with the homework due tomorrow, not the work due in three days.

By public school standards, Anya's homework load is still light; if she doesn't procrastinate too much, she can usually easily get it done in an hour a night, and there are still nights when she doesn't have any. Anya, rather like her mother, isn't the most organized or tidy person; there have been some real struggles as she learns to make sure she has her school bag packed with the right materials at the end of the day. And then, she has to remember to take her homework back into school the next morning. But, week by week, she's making progress.

I remember when I was in school in London; it was a private school, but a large rather formal establishment, far removed from the philosophy of my children's school. When we forgot our homework or hadn't done it, we would have to wait outside the teachers' lounge (we weren't allowed to knock on the door) until another teacher walked by. We would then have to catch her eye (it was a girls' school and 99.99% of the teachers were female), and then plead “Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones, can you ask Mrs Smith to come out?) If we were lucky, Mrs Jones would see Mrs Smith and remember to tell her. I sometimes spent entire mid-morning breaks waiting outside of that teachers' lounge.

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How to Read Moby-Dick

Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times:

Moby-dick-jumpingIt’s a hard sell Nathaniel Philbrick has undertaken in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” The novel’s plot has been recycled for decades, inspiring films, radio dramas, cartoons, comic books, a television mini-series, a couple of heavy metal albums, a music video and a rap rendition. How many potential readers approach the masterwork of Herman Melville without already knowing the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale? Any? And why would such an overly exposed audience embrace a work of such heft, especially as almost every edition carries the added weight of ponderous academic commentary? “Moby-Dick” would appear to be one of those unfortunate books that are taught rather than enjoyed.

But who knows how many teeter in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, both drawn and repelled by the promise of edification? It’s the historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s intent to give those uncertain consumers a gentle shove toward the “one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.” He wants “you — yes, you — to read . . . ‘Moby-Dick.’”

More here.

The trouble with my blood

Will Self in The Guardian:

Red-blood-cells-007It didn't help that we seemed to be at the centre of a cancer cluster: one friend was dying of leukaemia in Hammersmith hospital, another was in the process of being diagnosed, a third had had half his throat and jaw chopped out. I fully expected cancer myself. To paraphrase the late and greatly pathetic roué Willie Donaldson, you cannot live as I have and not end up with cancer. There was the genetic factor to begin with, and then there's been the toxic landscape of carcinogens – the yards of liquor, the sooty furlongs left behind by chased heroin, the miles driven and limped for over a decade to score crack which then scoured its way into my lungs. The prosaically giant haystacks of Virginia tobacco hardly bear mentioning – being, in contrast, merely bucolic.

No, I was on the lookout for the crab – not a pair of lobster's claws. It was my wife who eventually sent me across the road to the GP, a shrewdly downbeat practitioner who in the past had declined to check my cholesterol levels or send me for a prostate-cancer biopsy, but now took one look at the human-into-crustacean transmogrification and sent me straight down to St Thomas's for a blood test. The results came within a couple of days, and when I saw him in person he confirmed what he'd told me over the phone: “Your haemoglobin is right up, and your white blood cell count is also elevated. I can't be certain but I think there's a strong possibility it's …”

I pre-empted him: “Polycythaemia vera?”

“Aha,” he said. “Been googling, have you?”

I conceded that I had.

“Well,'” he continued, “the Wiki entries are pretty thoroughly vetted – if you stick to that you're on safe ground.”

More here.