I shaved off my beard for the first time since 2008 the other day. My wife sent me a link to this picture.
I think I’m going to grow it back.
On Friday I was walking from the train station to the supermarket via the shopping center and I saw an old school friend coming the other way. When we were at school we were good friends but in the intervening years we lost touch entirely. The only time I have seen him since was once a few years ago which resulted in a very awkward, stilted conversation. Seeing him walking towards me made me worry that I was heading for another awkward, stilted conversation. I immediately began weighing up my options, and saw that I had precious few. I could not take a turn as there were no turnings between us. I could not go into a shop as they were all closed. I could not turn around and walk back the way I had come as that would be a ridiculous thing to do.
I had one final option open to me. I could, as I have done in similar situations in the past, wait until we were reasonably close and then feign receiving a text message on my phone. A text message so absorbing and urgent and interesting that my attention was now solely directed at it and the world and all the people in it had become invisible to me.
But then I decided not to do that. These awkward situations keep cropping up and I wondered if maybe it was time to start facing up to them. In the same way that I am trying to be a better public speaker by actually speaking in public rather than becoming frustratingly mute or saying something woefully ridiculous, as has been my way for too long, I decided the right thing to do would be acknowledge him. Smile, maybe say hello. Stop and talk if that seemed the right thing to do. I would say normal things that normal people say when they encounter an old friend they haven’t seen for a very long time. I would not hide behind the thin facade of a fascinating text message.
But then as we drew close to each other he pulled out his mobile phone and didn’t seem to notice me at all.
Last year one of the most enjoyable things I saw on television was a show called Campus. Given how little television I watch (Match of the Day and, shockingly (and admittedly only very occasionally) Deal or No Deal) the fact that I consider this show to be one of the best might not seem to have any weight to it, but I honestly think it ranks very highly. Not quite as highly as Match of the Day, slightly higher than Deal or No Deal. No seriously, it was really very good. I was shocked (not literally shocked, shocked in that mildly indignant manner of someone writing a letter of complaint to Points of View) to discover that it might not be getting a second series. Viewing figures dwindled to an alarmingly low half a million. This is of course indicative of the decline of intelligent comedy and the human race as a whole. First no Campus second season, then no bees, then no us.
I’m rambling. The reason I mention Campus at all is one of the characters in it, the unexpectedly sexy math’s professor Imogen Moffat, had written a book about Zero. Every time the book was mentioned I thought about how much I want to read a book about zero. But of course this was an entirely fictitious book so the best I could do would be to imagine what it would have been like and pretend to read it in my mind. That is until I discovered Zero: the biography. A book which, as far as my fervent imaginings went, was essentially Miss Moffat’s fictitious book. I bought the audiobook version because I was desperate for something long and interesting to listen to at work on those long days when I am alone in a laboratory for seven and a half hours.
Zero begins with an historical account of the concept of zero, as well as the origins of the number and its place in mathematics. It then goes on to explain all the weird things that happen to maths when zero – and it’s twin infinity – become involved. The maths branches off into physics as that is where the practical applications, and alarmingly impractical side effects, of zero are to be found. The actual maths involved in the book is fairly easy to follow. The fundamental mathematical rule at play is that any number multiplied by zero is zero. A rule I can remember learning in school and that from then on had no impact on my life at all. The implications of this are then explored with tangible real-world examples used.
The journey of zero covers mathematical history, passes through philosophy and ends at physics but covers a huge amount of ground in between. The outcome of zero appearing in otherwise innocuous equations can be a little mind-bending with seemingly illogical conclusions arriving from perfectly logical processes but it is all explained with a manageable vernacular that allowed me to understand, even if I didn’t really understand.
Popped out for a walk this afternoon and accidentally ended up in the book shop. Now my pile of books to be read has increased by two and, as so often happens, they have rudely jumped the queue and landed on top. One of the books I bought is Inverting the Pyramid. I had been looking for a book that talks intelligently about football strategy for a while. My assertion that football is as intriguing and fascinating a game as chess tends not to be taken too seriously by people perhaps more familiar with this view of football players.
Another football book I enjoyed was Why England Lose, essentially an economists guide to football. I know that sounds very dull, and to be honest some sections of the book were as dull as it might sound, but it had one absolutely brilliant chapter. A full analysis of a single penalty shoot-out that covered statistical analysis of the players penalty taking habits and an account of some incredible mind-games. A lot of football books don’t excite me, I’m not really interested in the players and all the jazz that surrounds them. I have a long standing love of the strategies and tactics that are employed in games though and so I really like books like these and have done ever since I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with a very nerdy card as my frame of reference. Reading is really the only way I can indulge in this particular interest as most other football fans I know are just not interested in talking about it in this way. Sadly I have a habit of taking this masculine, physical sport and making it sound really, really boring.
I studied Spanish in school and one day I was trying to construct the correct sentence for ‘I play the guitar’. I said ‘Yo juego la guitarra’. Juego is the Spanish for ‘I play’ but is not the right verb to use in this context. I was corrected and told that just because in English we use play to mean playing a game as well as playing a musical instrument doesn’t mean the Spanish do too. I learned the verb ‘tocar’ as meaning to play a musical instrument and never looked back.
Today I discovered that ‘tocar’ actually has different roots. Rather than being a verb specifically for playing a musical instruments it is more literally translated as meaning ‘to touch’. This gives the act of playing an instrument very different, poetic flavours in these two separate languages. In English the use of ‘play’ imbues the act of playing a musical instrument with a sense of whimsy and fun. It is child-like, interactive, joyful and gleeful. The use of ‘touch’ in Spanish gives playing a musical instrument a very different quality. It is tactile and sensual. Touch brings with it a sense of physicality. I find it fascinating that two different languages can have such different flavours for the same thing. They both describe the same act, and probably these sub-textual definitions get forgotten as these words have such common usage. Probably without learning a little Spanish I would never have considered the double use of ‘play’ and never had the pleasure of discovering another poetic way of considering the act of playing the guitar.
It reminded me of a group of jugglers I met who insisted that you must never practice juggling, only ever play, which I think is a lovely idea. It also reminds me that jugglers have the best of all the collective nouns that I have ever heard. A neverthriving.
Aren’t words brilliant?