Dinner Party

July 24, 2009

All insomniacs have strategies for trying to fall asleep when they cannot. Counting sheep might work for some, but I don’t have any in my bedroom, so I play other mind games instead. Last night I was trying to compose the guest list for the ideal dinner party.

There is some debate as to what the ideal number of guests should be. Four are clearly too few; you need a sufficient variety of opinion to make for spirited conversation. Ten is too many—the party breaks up into sub-parties all following different agendas. So it must be six or eight. Why the necessity for an even number? If the sexes are evenly divided, there develops a sexual frisson which enlivens the party, and nobody feels left out. So lets settle on eight.

Who should they be? I won’t be attending my own party except in the capacity of a fly on the wall, listening, so we need to fill eight seats. Oh, I forgot to mention that the guests don’t actually have to be alive; you are allowed to pick anyone who has ever lived, and they will appear at the party in the pink of health. Here is the list I came up with last night:

1. Richard Feynman. Originator of the theory of quantum electrodynamics and winner of the Nobel prize for Physics. But he isn’t coming to discuss physics– this was a man of many parts, he played the marimba (I think) in a Brazilian marching band; wrote a percussion ballet which was performed in New York, Richard Feynman taking part anonymously; wrote the wryly humerous series of autobiographical essays What do you care what other people think; worked at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project; served on the Commission of Enquiry into the Challenger disaster, where he was the one to figure out what had gone wrong. He’s also a teetotaller so I must remember to lay in a case of coke.

2. Bertrand Russell. Philosopher. It was his thought experiment on the provability or otherwise of a hypothetical teapot orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that finally convinced me that religion is bunk. But I want him to come because he said this in Analysis of Mind:

We desire many things which it is not in our power to achieve: that we should be universally popular and admired, that our work should be the wonder of the age, and that the universe should be so ordered as to bring ultimate happiness to all, though not to our enemies until they have repented and been purified by suffering.

 3. Margaret Thatcher. Any woman who can rise from being a humble grocer’s daughter to the highest position the land is evidently an extraordinary person, especially taking account of the paternalistic times in which she did it. Having lived in England during her reign (any other word is far too weak), I developed an enormous respect for her. At our party she certainly wouldn’t mince her words and her presence would keep the others honest.

4. Richard Dawkins. Biologist and thoroughly civilised human being. The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene have to be the definitive works on evolution for non-specialist readers. His reverence and love for life shines through his works and I would love to hear how he interacts with our other guests.

I don’t know who numbers five through eight will be—I fell asleep. Perhaps I’ll think of them tonight. Who would you invite?

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Space Plumbing

July 22, 2009


 Space station toilet breaks down

The main toilet has broken down on the International Space Station (ISS), currently home to a record 13 astronauts, Nasa said.

BBC News 20 July 2009


ISS:  Houston, we have a problem.

CAPCOM:  What now, ISS?  We have problems down here too, you know.  The espresso machine is screwed again, for the second time this week.

ISS:  I sympathise, really I do, but this problem is serious.  It’s kinda delicate, I don’t know how to say this, you know, gracefully, but we have experienced malfunction of our Human Waste Processing and Disposal Facility.

CAPCOM:  Oh, God.  Not the HWPDF again.  Have the Russians been using it?  Last time they put something disgusting in and we had to get a plumber up.  The callout charge put paid to half our budget.  What’s happening?

ISS:  Well, um, nothing goes down.  It just sits there, hovering.  If you don’t close the lid real fast it floats right on up out.

CAPCOM:  Stand by, ISS, we’ll get someone on it.


CAPCOM:  Come in ISS.  Do you copy?

ISS:  (Sound of coughing) Roger, Houston, loud and clear.  The smell’s getting kinda bad.  Any news?

CAPCOM:  Plumbing wants to know if the fan’s working.

ISS:  What fan?

CAPCOM:  The one inside the toilet that sucks the stuff down into the pipe.

ISS:  How does that work?  Wouldn’t the shit hit the fan?

CAPCOM:  Of course the shit hits the fan.  (Sigh).  It’s supposed to.  The fan pulls it into the pipe and chops it up.  You haven’t got any gravity there where you are, you know.

ISS:  Ok, I understand.  How do I find out if the fan’s working?

CAPCOM:  You stick your head into the toilet and see if you can hear it.  Its supposed to make a sort of whirring noise.  If you can hear it it means the strum box is blocked.  If it’s that, you have to stick your hand in and clear it manually.

ISS:  Roger wilco.  IVAN!  Little job for you.  Go stick your head in the toilet and see if you can hear anything.  CAPCOM, what happens to the shit after it’s been chopped up?

CAPCOM:  That’s classified.  But, since it’s your last trip and you’re a buddy I’ll tell you.  A machine  adds some chemicals, presses it into casings and you guys recycle it.

ISS:  What do you mean we recycle it?

CAPCOM:  You know, first thing in the morning, before work.

ISS:  What?  No! Not…not the sausages!

CAPCOM:  Have a nice day.  Over and out.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 South Africa License.