Friday, November 23, 2007


I went down to the remembrance service at the war memorial with my dad.

I’d bought my poppy a few days before from a lady poppy-seller outside the supermarket. She said, "I know your face. You write that column in the newspaper. Sometimes it makes me so angry I want to shout."

"Good," I thought. "Then I am doing my job."

I don’t normally go to the remembrance service. This is not because I don’t honour the sacrifices made by our service men and women in times of war. I am not a pacifist. I believe there are times when we have to fight to defend our values. It’s just that, as Will Self said that morning on the Andrew Marr programme, I don’t want to be party to a state-sponsored cult.

There are wars and there are wars. Some wars are just and some wars are not. The Second World War was a just war, being a struggle against fascism. We were on the right side.

Other wars are not so clear cut. Whose values, exactly, are we fighting to defend? In the case of the war in Iraq, more than a million Iraqis have died, and several thousand coalition troops, to defend the right of big American oil companies to steal the resources of that desperate, wounded nation.

In the case of the war in Iraq, in other words, we are on the wrong side.

The reason I went to the remembrance service this time was because my dad asked me to. This seemed like a great honour to me, to be able to stand next to my dad as the flags were lowered and he remembered his comrades.

It was a dull grey day but the sun came out right on cue just as the Last Post was sounding.

After the service we went to the British Legion for a drink, where I introduced him to Councillor Julia Seath. They began talking, and within a few minutes discovered that they had something in common. They had both been in Singapore, Julia as the daughter of a British Army officer, and my dad as a young rating in the British Navy.

They were chatting away happily about their memories of Singapore, recalling certain places, certain streets and certain landmarks, when their conversation suddenly became intense. They realised that they must have sailed over on the same ship. They were both on the same ship at the same time.

It was 1949 and the ship was the SS Orduna.

Julia said she remembered the seed cake they ate and that they used a special kind of soap to lather with as they had to wash in sea water.

This meeting wouldn’t have been possible without me. I’ve known Julia since I first came to this town and got involved with local politics.

It felt like a privilege to have been a witness to such a conversation.

Some things seem much more than just coincidence and I was glad I had accepted my father’s invitation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Free Horoscope Reading

I had my horoscope done over the internet the other week. The advert said: "Free Horoscope Readings". I filled in a form with all my details - my time and date and place of birth - and sent it off.

Some days later I got my reply. It came in the form of an e-mail which had a web link attached, with a security number. You logged on to the website, pasted in the security number, and got your "Free Personal Horoscope Reading."

"Dear Christopher," it said.

It was a very long text, mainly in blue, emblazoned with multiple capital letters, and with lots of words emphasised in bold contrasting colours.

"The other day," it continued, "when I was working on your Free Personal Horoscope Reading" – in bright red – "I had a SUDDEN BLINDING REVELATION about you."

"Oh dear," I thought, wondering what was coming next. Anyone who has to use capital letters and bright colours in such abundance is obviously on the make. It’s like they are shouting at you on the page, like someone suddenly leaping across a room and bellowing in your ear.

It said that there was going to be a very lucky turn of events in which I would become seriously, seriously rich and that all my dreams would come true. "This is an ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY," it said.

At some point the text said that it was IMPERITIVE that I continue reading to the end of the page.

Well you know me. I wasn’t believing a word of this. This wasn’t a horoscope reading, it was an advert. I was just waiting for the sting at the end. How much would I be expected to fork out for whatever service it was they were offering?

There were lots of free things on offer as part of the deal, like an ancient Egyptian Talisman, and a "Magnetised Photograph". This latter consisted of a photograph of the woman supposedly giving me all this personal attention, which she would specially "magnetise" for me so that when I rubbed it I would be in direct "psychic" contact with her.

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being in direct psychic contact with anyone with a tendency to shout at you in clashing colours and capital letters. It was bad enough on the page. Imagine if it was in your head.

After this the text started to turn nasty.

It was going on and on about psychic-this and spiritual-that, promising me all sorts of wonderful things, when it suddenly said that I had a choice in all of this and that it was imperative that I made the right choice.

"I know you have been unhappy in your life," the text went on. "I know you have been lonely and frustrated. I know you have been hurt."

It then promised me that if I made the wrong choices my life would simply get worse.

I saw the psychology of that. Everyone has been unhappy at some time in their life. Everyone has been lonely and frustrated and hurt. My "personal letter" was clearly a mass produced effort with my name added by the mysteries of digital technology, but the psychology of it was to touch elements in my life that we all share.

Fear and loss and loneliness, hope for a better future, love – of course – and dreams of wealth and avarice, who hasn’t dreamed about these things or feared them?

The text was now adding a threat to its previous benign inanity. It was saying that my life could get worse. Indeed, it promised that it would unless I took a certain course of action.

This is where the sting came in.

She was even now working on my personal horoscope which would give me precise details on how to cash in on the great luck that was about to descend upon me, while telling me how to avoid all the pitfalls. She didn’t want to be so crass as to talk about money, she said, but in the light of the GREAT WEALTH that was even now gathering itself to pour down upon my head…. Etc. etc. etc.

You can guess the rest.

There was a Pay Pal link though which I could give my credit card details. After that I stopped bothering to read.

We’ve all see letters like this of course, and I couldn’t really complain, having elicited it in the first place by answering an advert on a website. But it struck me that it was tantamount to extortion by threats and there are certainly some vulnerable people out there who could be taken in and possibly damaged by this sort of thing.

Maybe I should sue for damages? That way I could get that fortune my horoscope promised me.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Parallel Worlds

Imagine. Somewhere in a galaxy far, far away (as they say in the movies) there’s another you. This "other" you shares everything that you have. She has your past, your history, your family, your name, your body, your sense of identity, your dress-sense, your possessions, your sense of humour. She is identical to you in every way. She likes what you like. She not only thinks she is you, in a very real sense she is you.

She is sitting in exactly the same place as you are now, reading this blog, just as you are. She is wearing the same clothes. What’s the weather like outside? Well in her world the weather is exactly the same. If it’s sunny in your world, it’s sunny in hers. If it’s raining in your world, then it is raining in hers.

But at this point, maybe, things begin to change. You carry on reading this blog, intrigued, whereas the other you interrupts her reading after the first sentence and decides to go for a walk instead. Outside she meets someone she hasn’t seen in ages, who asks her out for a drink. A romance ensues. Later they marry and have children. The two worlds are beginning to diverge.

Small changes lead to greater and greater effects. So in your world you marry a completely different person, and have different children and sometime in the future, one of your children is responsible for a great breakthrough in medicine which saves large numbers of people from a major epidemic.

A war for resources that might have happened did not happen. People live who might not have lived. Some of these people are responsible for huge changes in how we go about our daily lives. And on and on like this, until the two worlds are utterly different from each other.

It is the "parallel worlds" scenario beloved of science fiction writers. You imagine a world quite like our own, but weirdly different in significant ways. So, for instance, in one episode of Doctor Who the protagonists believe themselves to be in London, only when they look up there are Zeppelins in the sky and the world is being ruled by a malevolent dictatorship. They realise they are in a parallel universe.

You think this is all just the stuff of fantasy? You are wrong. It is legitimate scientific theory. It is not only likely to be true, in all probability it is true.

The theory goes something like this: if space is infinite and matter is distributed evenly throughout then every possible scenario must be taking place in one part of the universe or another. So there’s not just one "you", there’s an infinite number of you, all diverging from the pattern at varying points along the way.

It’s like that trick you do with mirrors, reflecting a mirror in a mirror, till you get an infinite regression of mirrors disappearing off into the distance. An infinite number of Earths, going around infinite suns in solar systems exactly like ours. Infinite versions of the internet, with an infinite number of blogs by CJ Stone, all varying in an infinite number of ways.

Well I know it sounds far-fetched, but, according to the physicist Max Tegmark, in his theory of Parallel Universes it is the simplest possible explanation for how the universe actually works. Unless we imagine that the universe stops at some point and turns into something else - a kind of cosmic terminus-building with a big sign saying "Please Mind The Gap When Disembarking From The Universe"- then the best assumption is that it goes on forever; and if it goes on forever, then every possible story-line you can imagine is happening in some part of the universe or another.

As for that other you: she might have gone out for a drink tonight, but she missed reading a very interesting article instead.

And who knows how this might change the world?