Personal Effects

Since my dad’s funeral, a little over a month ago, I’ve been responsible – as executor of his will – for leading the efforts to deal with the distribution of his estate. By necessity of the complexity of the case, we’ve had to draft some friendly lawyers, but there’s still been an awful lot to be taken care of by my sisters, my mother, my dad’s partner, and I, among others. Some bits have been easier than others.

TV Licensing, for example, have been particularly useless, as evidenced by this cheque.

Standard Life‘s pensions department, for example, made my dealings with them very easy: they explained exactly what they needed from me, exactly what they’d do with it, and how quickly they could act upon it. TV Licensing, on the other hand, seem to be working against me rather than for me, issuing me a cheque made out as it is to “Executor of MR P HUNTLEY”, which was subsequently rejected by my bank on account of being in the name of nobody at all. I suppose I could easily change my name in order to accept that cheque, but that seems like the wrong solution. Plus I’ve always felt like more of a “Dan” than an “Executor”.

For some reason, my dad kept his copy of the (rather thick) book “Internet Explorer 4 At A Glance”; a book whose necessity I would have questioned even back in 2001, when it was published.

I’ve begun packing up the contents of my dad’s house, too, so that they can be meaningfully distributed to whoever ought to have them. This leads to an inevitable clash, of course, between the lawyers and the local council. The former want us to remove as little as possible before they can appraise the value of the contents, which is relevant to the assessment of inheritance tax. The latter demand that the house be left unfurnished so that it does not become liable for council tax. In order to walk the fine line between the two I’ve been packaging things up based on their types: his vast library of transport books in these boxes, etc. And despite great efforts (such as the work it took to disassemble the rusty old trampoline in the back garden), it still feels like there’s a long, long, long way to go.

Ashes to Ashes (The Funeral of Peter Huntley)

Friday was the day of my dad’s funeral. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to see my blog post about his death, and a second article about the things that have been hardest, so far, in its aftermath. I’m not inclined to say too much, so I’ll be brief and let pictures, and a video, tell the story. As usual, you’ll find that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A convoy of buses arrive to deliver attendees to the funeral.

A remarkable number of people turned up to mark my dad’s passing on this sad occasion. I was genuinely surprised to see how many lives he’d touched (and to hear about a great many more from people who couldn’t make it). About 350 people struggled to fit in to the cramped crematorium, and many had to stand outside where – thankfully – there were repeater speakers.

The buses with digital display boards, provided by Stagecoach, had been reprogrammed to show my dad’s name and years of life.

My sisters and I were determined that this event would be a celebration of our father’s life. So rather than focusing on his tragic and premature death, we made every effort to commemorate his achievements and reinforce the lessons that we can all learn from his time with us. In a similar vein, we’d told everybody that we had the chance to that there was no need to wear black for this funeral: that people should wear what’s appropriate to them for their personal act of mourning and remembrance.

In memory of my dad, I wore his old-style bus driver’s license badge, as well as wearing both socks and sandals together, as he often would.

We’d hired a former minister, Ken Howles, to provide a (thoroughly secular, under threat of non-payment!) framework for the service, but we “rolled our own” so far as possible. Seven individual tributes and eulogies were given by people representing different aspects of my dad’s life: from my mother, from his partner, from the friend with whom he was walking on the day he died, from the managing directors of the company he founded and the company he last worked for, from the chief executive of the charity he was fundraising for, and – finally – from me.

(if you can’t view the YouTube video above, or if you want to share it with others, you can also view it on YouTube)

The contrast between the different tributes was stark and staggering, reflecting the huge variety in the different facets of my father’s life. From guerrilla gardening to trainspotting, lessons learned to tyres pulled, we collectively painted a picture of the spectrum of my dad’s life. The tributes given were, in order:

  • My mother, Doreen (watch), who talked about their adventures together as young adults and the roots of his career in transport
  • His partner, Jenny (watch), who shared the experiences they’d had together, and mourned for those that they would not
  • His friend, John (watch), who let us in on the things that they’d talked about during my dad’s final hours
  • Adrian, the managing director of the company my dad founded (watch), on his success in the world of transport consultancy, and working with him
  • A break in the middle to watch a video of my dad singing karaoke
A picture of the “Celebration of Life” order of service that we distributed at the funeral. Click on the picture to download the original (which includes a list of some of the charities my dad supported) as a PDF.


  • Kevin, the managing director of Go North-East (watch), on the subject of my dad’s recent career and influence on British transport
  • Gary, chief executive of TransAid (watch), announced the future creation of the Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, and thanked my dad and his supporters on behalf of the dozens of charities my dad helped
  • And finally, me (watch), contrasting all of the above by talking about what my dad was like as a father and a friend, and the lessons we can learn from him

If you can’t watch YouTube where you are, you can also read the full text of my personal eulogy here.

JTA serves butter pie, mushy peas, and hotpot – classic Lancashire comfort foods – to guests at the wake.

Afterwards, we held a wake at Grimsargh Village Hall which, on account of the sheer number of bus industry attendees, rapidly became a micro-conference for the public transport sector! It was great to have the chance to chat to so many people who’d worked with my dad in so many different contexts.

Mourners gather near the (convenient!) bar at Grimsargh Village Hall. I’ve decided: all wakes should have a bar.

Between hot food provided by a local caterer, cold savories courtesy of Jenny’s daugher Eppie, and a copious quantity of cakes baked by Ruth, there was an incredible superfluity of food. These two, plus JTA, Paul, and Eppie’s boyfriend James, provided a spectacular level of “behind-the-scenes” magic, keeping everything running smoothly and ensuring that everything happened as and when it was supposed to.

Among other things, Ruth baked biscuits in the shape of buses, decorated in the colours of the different routes that my dad rebranded during his time at Go North-East.

We set up a “memory book”, in which people could write their recollections of my dad. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but one of them stands out already to me as a concise and simple explanation of what we achieved at the crematorium that day. It reads:

“Great funeral, Peter. Sorry that you missed it.”

It was certainly a great send-off for a man who did so much for so many people. Thank you so much to everybody who made it such a success, and to everybody who, in the meantime, has donated to TransAid via my dad’s JustGiving page (or by giving us cash or cheques at or after the funeral). You’re helping his memory live on, for everybody: thank you.

My dad didn’t teach me to drive. But he did teach me to read a bus timetable. Thanks, dad. I love you.

Little Things

It’s all about the little things.

My dad died almost a fortnight ago when he lost his footing during a climb in the Lake District, and – since then – it’s felt like I’ve been involuntarily transplanted out of my life and into somebody else’s. I’ve only been in and out of work, and I’m glad to have done that: it’s added a semblance of normality to my routine. But most of my “new life” seems to consist of picking up the pieces of the jigsaw of my dad’s affairs and piecing them together into a meaningful picture.

An endless outpouring of sympathy cards adorn shelf after shelf in my dad’s house.

The big stuff is easy. Or, at least, it’s easy thanks to the support of my sisters and my mum. The big stuff isn’t small, of course, and it takes a significant effort to make sure it’s handled correctly: arranging a funeral and a wake, pouring over the mountains of paperwork in my dad’s files, and discussing what’s to ultimately be done with his house… those are all big things.

But the small things: they’re tough. The little things that sneak up on you when you least expect it. Last night, Becky and I were watching television when an advertisement came on.

We were both trying to work out what it was an advertisement for – perhaps some kind of holiday company? – as we watched a scene of a family (father, mother, and two teenage daughters) packing their bags and moving them into the hallway. The kids squeezed past their dad on the stairs and hugged their mother: “It won’t be the same, without dad,” said one.

The commercial was for life insurance, and it pulled a Sixth Sense (spoiler: Bruce Willis is dead the entire time) on us – the girls’ father wasn’t there at all.

That we happened to see that advertisement was a little thing, in the scale of things. But it’s the little things that are the hard ones.

Funeral’s tomorrow. I’d better finish writing this eulogy.

Full Stop

Update: the funeral will take place at 4pm on Friday 2nd March, at Preston Crematorium.

On Sunday, my dad died.

And honestly, I’m not sure what else to say. There’s nothing else left to say. It felt like my tweet – like all tweets – said too little, too. But I didn’t want to keep anybody in the dark about this tragic news, so… well…

As I mentioned in December, my dad had planned a sponsored expedition to the North Pole, this April, in order to raise money for TransAid, a charity about whose work he was passionate. As part of his training, he was up on High Street, a fell in the Lake District, with his friend John. There, he lost his footing and slipped, falling over a 200 foot precipice. He was discovered to be dead when the air ambulance arrived; almost certainly killed pretty much instantaneously by the fall.

My dad, doing what he loved the most: taking on the world and braving the elements.

Since then, I’ve been in Preston, where my sisters, our mother, my dad’s partner, and our friends have been trying to come to terms with this tragic loss, and to make arrangements for his funeral. We’re keeping busy, which is probably for the best, right now. I’d like to say thank you to everybody who’s sent cards, emails, or text messages: your thoughts and sympathies are really appreciated, and I apologise that there simply hasn’t been time to reply to you all individually.

My dad died doing what he loved: exploring the outdoors, walking, climbing, and pushing his limits, in aid of a worthy cause that meant a lot to him. He was in incredible physical fitness, and I’d always suspected that 15 years from now, with him in his 70s and I in my 40s, he’d still have been able to outpace me on a scramble up Helvellyn’s Striding Ridge.

I’m sad that that’s a theory that I’ll never be able to put to the test. I’m sad that my dad never lived long enough to see if he’d have any grandchildren. I’m sad that the world is so cruel as to deny us all those conversations left unfinished and those mountains left unconquered. I’m even sad that I’ll never again get an out-of-the-blue call from him on some Saturday afternoon because he  can’t work out how to use his printer, or fix his Internet connection.

And I still don’t know what to say. So for now, at least, that’s all.

Update: Added photo and funeral info.

The Death of Abnib

Next month, Abnib will die.

It’s been unmaintained for several years now, just ticking along under its own steam and miraculously not falling over. Nowadays, everybody seems to understand (or ought to understand) RSS and can operate their own aggregator, so there doesn’t really seem to be any point in carrying on running the service. So when the domain name comes up for renewal next month, I shan’t be renewing it. If somebody else wants to do so, I’ll happily tell them the settings that they need, but it’ll be them that’s paying for it, not me.

“But I still use Abnib!” I hear you cry. Well, here’s what you can do about it:

Option 1 (the simple-but-good option): switch to something better, easily

RSS aggregators nowadays are (usually) free and (generally) easy to use. If you don’t have a clue, here’s the Really Simple Guide to getting started:

  1. Download the Abnib OPML file (https://danq.me/abnib.opml) and save it to your computer. This file describes in a computer-readable format who all the Abnibbers are.
  2. Go to Google Reader and log in with your Google Account, if you haven’t already.
  3. Click Settings, then Reader Settings.
  4. Click Import/Export.
  5. Click Browse… and select the file you downloaded in step #1.
  6. Click Upload

Ta-da! You can now continue to read your favourite Abnib blogs through Google Reader. You’ve also got more features, like being able to not-subscribe to particular blogs, or (on some blogs) to subscribe to comments or other resources.

You don’t have to use Google Reader, of course: there are plenty of good RSS readers out there. And most of the good ones are capable of importing that OPML file, so you can quickly get up-and-running with all of your favourite Abnib blogs, right off the bat.

Option 2: switch to something better, manually

As above, but instead of downloading and uploading an OPML file, manually re-subscribe to each blog. This takes a lot longer, but makes it easy to choose not to subscribe to particular blogs. It also gives you the option to use a third-party service like FreeMyFeed to allow you to subscribe to LiveJournal “friends only” posts (which you were never able to do with Abnib), for example.

Option 3: continue to use Abnib (wait, what?)

Okay, so the domain name is expiring, but technically you’ll still be able to use Abnib for a while, at least, so long as you use the address http://abnib.appspot.com/. That won’t last forever, and it will be completely unmaintained, so when it breaks, it’s broken for good. It also won’t be updated with new blog addresses, so if somebody changes where their blog is hosted, you’ll never get the new one.

Goodbye, Abnib…

It’s been fun, Abnib, but you’ve served your purpose. Now it’s time for you to go the way of the Troma Night website and the RockMonkey wiki, and die a peaceful little death.

They Say that Programmers Never Die

They just gosub without return. That is, of course, a joke (with all due apologies to those of you to whom it means nothing), but there’s a kernel of truth in the saying. In their own way, programmers are like authors or artists in that their work can easily outlive them, and their unique and distinct style can be found in their creations: and in that created by those that learn from or imitate them.

This morning I was working on some legacy Perl code that holds together a part of a client’s web site. In particular, I was refactoring the code that displays dates and times in an appropriate format, as part of an effort to simplify the code after fixing a bug that would, under some unusual conditions, use the “pm” suffix for morning times (e.g. 11pm, when it means 11am). Under normal circumstances this would have been a simpler job than it was, but this particular piece of software has been passed from developer to developer, and (until it came into my hands) I’m pretty sure that none of them took the time to understand what their predecessors had done. Several different stylistic and semantic styles are used in the code, and several different solutions are used for the same problem, depending on who was in charge at any given time. In short, the code’s a mess, but the client is on a tight budget and can generally only afford to pay for the minimum amount of work, and not for the sweeping overhaul that the system so badly needs.

I came across a particular line of code, today (evidence, perhaps, of a previous developer looking into a related issue to the one with which I was tasked):

$leu_something .= $hour . " - " . $amorpm;

Even without the developer’s name embedded within the variable name, I could have told you who wrote this code because of its distinct style. Even this single line has a defining appearance of its own, to the trained eye. To illustrate this, consider that the line could equally have been written in any of the following ways (among hundreds of others, without even looking at the optional space characters and interchangeable types of quotation marks used), and would have functioned identically:

  • $leu_something = $leu_something .= $hour . " - " . $amorpm;
  • $leu_something .= "${hour} - ${amorpm}";
  • $leu_something = join($leu_something, $hour, " - ", $amorpm);
  • $leu_something .= sprintf('%s - %s', $hour, $amorpm);

Some of these methods have specific advantages or disadvantages, but all have the exact same fundamental meaning meaning. However, even from a glance I could tell that this code belonged to the former developer named Leu (and not any of the other developers whose names I’ve seen in the project) because of the style in which he chose to write it.

Non-programmers often fail to understand why I describe programming as being as much an art as a science. The work of a programmer has been compared to the work of a poet, and I agree with this sentiment. Even merely on a superficial level, both computer code and poetry:

  • Can be good or bad (by consensus, or subjectively).
  • Attach significant importance to proper syntax and style (you need the right rhyming pattern in a limerick and the right number of brackets in a loop).
  • Express a concept through the artistic use of a language.
  • When used to express complex ideas, benefit from creative and sometimes out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Often lose value if they are literally translated to another language.

Not only that, program code can be beautiful. I’ve examined code before that’s made me smile, or laugh, or that has saddened me, or that has inspired me. I shan’t argue that it’s on a par with the standard of spoken-language poetry: but then, programming languages are not designed to appeal to the pathos, and are at a natural disadvantage. Sometimes the comments for a piece of code can in themselves carry a beauty, too: or they can serve simply to help the reader comprehend a piece of code, in the same way as one can sometimes find guidance in the interpretation of a poem from somebody else’s research.

However, it’s possible to say things with code that one simply can’t convey in the same way, using a spoken language. To prove this point, I’ve composed a short haiku in the medium of the Ruby programming language. For this purpose, I’m defining a haiku as a poem whose lines contain 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. It’s an existentially nihilistic piece called Grind:

def grind(age = 0)
  die if age == 78
  grind(age + 1); end

Vocalised, it would be read as follows:

Def grind: age equals zero,
Die if age equals seventy-eight,
Grind (age plus one); end.

I enjoy the subtlety its use of recursion to reinforce the idea that every year of your life gives you a bigger burden to carry (and a larger amount of memory consumed). This subtlety does not adequately translate to a spoken language.

The line of code I showed you earlier, though, is neither interesting nor remarkable, in itself. What makes it interesting to me is that it persisted – until today, when I removed it – in this piece of software. The author, Leu, died several years ago. But there will exist software that he wrote, being read again and again by tireless machines on a daily basis, for years to come.

I wonder how long the code I write today will live.

Leslie Nielsen was admitted to hospital earlier this month

You: To Hospital? What is it?

Me: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

Sad to say, he died yesterday. The world has lost a fantastic actor and comedian.

Just a short post, here: the wedding this weekend was amazing, but I’ll be writing about that at a later point, once I’ve caught up on all the work and email I’ve neglected over the last week or so.

Dumping for Dummies

Ruth wrote:

Wow, it’s been nearly a month since I put finger to key for the sake of this old thing. In case anyone’s wondering, I was feeling hurt and a bit isolated due to the total lack of concern you all showed when I had my first taste of bereavement (with the notable exception of Bryn). I’m over it now though, so no hard feelings, huh?

Anyway, the very briefest of updates: Back from the Cropredy festival, tired, sunburnt and quite ill, but the music was fab and the company fabber. It was especially good to see Bryn and Heather again.

And so to the reason for breaking my silence. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the best way to dump someone. Obviously, ending a relationship is often going to be pretty hard on the other person, but I think there must be some ways of doing so which are more considerate than others. Here’s an example of a way which seems a bit bastardy:

A young couple have been together for just shy of two years. For reasons which we will assume to be sound, the girl decides to end it. She calls her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend and tells him “I don’t know if I love you as a boyfriend or as a person”. He tells her to cut the crap and just dump him if that’s what she’s going to do. She gets pissed off and hangs up. The next day, he logs in to facebook to update their relationship status, and discovers a message from a friend on her wall which says “Congrats! You and [guy she met on a latin course] were meant to be!”. He calls her and tells her he wishes they’d never gone out, then goes to a club with his cousin, gets drunk, causes a nuisance and gets beaten to a bloody pulp by four bouncers. He goes home, calls his sister in tears to say he thinks he must be cursed and his life is worthless, and falls asleep, bleeding, miserable and alone.

This, I think, would be a prime example in the how-not-to-do-it column, even if the dumpee in question wasn’t my little brother. It’s left me wondering if there is a way to do it that’s just a bit less selfish?

I haven’t often been involved in dumping scenarios, most of my relationships having fizzled out without the need for The Talk, and hopefully I’ll never have to get good at them. However, from my inexperienced position, it seems to me that the onus ought to be on the dumper to try and be honest, in so far as this is necessary to prevent the dumpee from making the same mistakes again, and to be as unhurtful as possible. They also ought to resist the urge to use bullshit lines, even if there is some truth in them. Cliches may be cliches for a reason, but you could at least do the person you’re telling isn’t good enough the courtesy of saying so in your own words. Finally, I think the dumpee needs to be willing to take it. Dumping isn’t – or shouldn’t be – easy, so if someone has taken the plunge, chances are that the decision isn’t up for discussion.

It seems to me that this is an area which is woefully under-represented in traditional etiquette. Given how many relationships end in one or both parties deciding to move on, perhaps it’s time that ‘Good Manners’ came to include how to tell someone to get lost in a polite way?

Part The Widget

Sorry I wasn’t able to offer you any support after your last post and during your bereavement. I’m disappointed in others for not helping, of course, but I’m more disappointed in myself. I hope you got the emotional assistance you needed.

Genuinely really sorry. Could post excuses, but I’m sure they’re not very good ones, so shan’t bother.

Part The Brother

In the cases where my relationships haven’t just “fizzled out,” I’ve more often been the dumpee than the dumper – in fact, I’ve only been on the “giving” end of a break-up once. In my experience at least, it’s harder to be the initiator of a break-up than to be dumped, although that’s possibly more to do with the circumstances than anything else (in the case where I was the dumper, I cared more about my partner than at any time that I was the dumpee).

In any case; at that time, I – like your brother’s ex- – lied. Not so well as she did: I explained that I was leaving her for somebody else (Claire), but I didn’t at that point expose that I’d been cheating on her. Why? Because I’d already upset her (and me) and I didn’t want to upset her further or risk sounding like I was gloating (“hey, and look what I got away with!”). Instead, I planned to talk to her about that later (which went a bit shitty for other resons, but that’s beside the scope of the story).

The bottom line is that, in my opinion, your brother’s ex- was unethical, but I can possibly see why she chose to do it the way that she did. I’d hope that in her position I’d do better (in fact, I’m pretty sure I would – I’ve learned a lot about relationships in the last five-and-a-half years). Moreover – in my mind – it’s not her fault that he got drunk and beaten up; that’s a detail that (while sad and upsetting) doesn’t actually change the moral validity (or, rather, invalidity) of her actions.

Still, I do feel sorry for your brother. I hope he’s getting by.

Part The Ways

Perhaps you’re right about relationships and etiquette, but it’s hard to say for certain. Every relationship is unique, and – even during the break-up – what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. It’s impossible to lay down a rule that says “when you break up with somebody, tell them exactly why and how long you’ve felt that way” because in the end there are relationships that will end better (cleaner break, happier parties, better ethics) if they are done in a different way (drift apart, white lie, outright lie, whatever). Unfortunately, at the point of the break-up the dumping party may well not care so much as they might once have what’s best for *both* parties, and may well be thinking more selfishly (“how do *I* want to feel out of this break up?”). And sadly, unethical as this may be, it’s their right to feel however they want, and it’s hard to tell them that they can’t…

…it’s a big emotional mindfield.

I’d like to think that if Claire and I were to split up, we’d make a good job of it. We’ve laid the groundwork, and talked about it, and we’re pretty good at talking about the status of our relationship with one another anyway. Moreover, we’ve got a healthy grip on the frequently-transitory nature of romantic relationships, and – while it sounds a little pessimistic – we find it’s a great way of keeping things in perspective. Of course, it’s impossible to say. Time – perhaps – will tell.

Ultimately, I’d just like to see people communicate better with their partners: feeling capable to talk about how they feel and able to be honest about what they think. It *should* be okay to say “I love somebody else more than you. How do you feel about that?” It *should* be okay to say “I’m only with you for the sex. But the sex is good.” It *should* be okay to say “I’d like to spend more time alone, but I’m not ready to commit to breaking up.” And it should be okay to say “No, that doesn’t work for me. Can we find a compromise? Or shall we call it a day?”

[sighs]

I’ll fix the world some other day. Far too much going on right now. If you want to debate any of this, drop me an e-mail or call me (haven’t heard your voice in too long anyway).

Love and hugs.

On My Grandma And The Nature Of Time, Space, And Models Of The Universe

I’d hoped to finish writing this post before my gran died so suddenly yesterday, but I guess I was a bit slow. I realised that there were so many changes of tense to be made to make the article make sense that it was actually easier to start again. So I did.

On The Nature Of Models

I have a certain model of the universe and the way it works in my head, just as you do in yours. Some people’s models are more complex than others, and some are more complex in different areas. A great example of model complexity comes from the usage of a car. A great number of people are able to drive a car – they know what pedals to press and what levers and wheels and switches to operate to make the car go faster or slower, to make it turn corners, to park it safely, and to turn on things like the lights, indicators, and windscreen wipers. The majority of these people do not understand – or need to understand – anything beyond the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine, or a car’s electrical system, or the algorithm used to determine if ABS should be activated. This doesn’t make them bad drivers: this makes them bad mechanic… but not everybody wants to be a mechanic.

A mechanic has a somewhat deeper understanding of the car. Technically speaking, being a car mechanic doesn’t necessitate knowing how to drive (although it probably helps with learning the trade and it’s certainly conventional). He knows that if it makes a particular bad noise to replace a particular part, and how to test different components. The car’s owner probably barely looks at the engine, except to appear manly by the roadside after a breakdown by opening the bonnet and staring at it without the slightest comprehension of what is actually wrong, and occassionally to check the oil or refill the water. But the mechanic knows how the car actually works, how the engine powers the wheels and how the mysterious gearbox actually works and why the brakes squeak on old cars and how to pad a bill.

The mechanic probably can’t tell you how the electromagnets in the centrally-controlled door locks or the light-emitting diodes in the dashboard actually work, because that’s into the realm of the physicist, and so on. We all have different models for different subsets of the universe, and the way that it works. And in particular, I’m about to talk about my model of the fundamentals of the universe as a whole.

A Model Of The Universe

My model of the universe is a particularly clinicially scientific one. Like about 4% of the world’s population, I am an atheist – I believe that there are no deities. I am, at the most fundamental levels, a determinist – I believe that with a good enough model everything could be explained and predicted, although I appreciate only one such model of the universe will ever exist, and we’re standing in it. However, my determinist ideas are so fundamental that the question of free will doesn’t really come into it: while, technically, I don’t believe in free will, I also don’t believe that it’s possible to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty either way, which makes my disbelief in free will a matter of faith, rather than of scientific reason.

My model is more simplistic than that of many theoretical physicists: I don’t claim to understand string theory, or spacetime curvature, or any number of other things. For day to day use, my model of gravity is Dan’s Simplified Gravitational Theory, which has one rule: “things fall down” (although at a deeper level, I’m quite happy with the idea that mass attracts other mass, and can comprehend orbits and expansion and stuff). But it’s a well-packaged and strong model without holes, and I’m a firm believer in it. It’s my belief that humans naturally build models in their head to explain the way the world works and make it more predictable. The “things fall down” theory of gravity is more than enough for a spear-throwing caveman to use to catch an animal to skin and eat, and it’s fine for me to go and play frisbee on the beach, but it’s not enough to put a man on the moon. To do that took some far more powerful models of the universe which had been refined by very clever people over hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

For a single paragraph, here, I’ll take what I feel is an intellectual high ground over many theists (particularly, right now, anti-evolutionists), and state that one thing I do like about my model is that it’s malleable by science. When we’re talking about fundamentals like those discussed above, it is, to some degree, a matter of faith and “what feels right” because it’s hard to prove either way whether free will exists, for example (and, in my mind, a pointless exercise anyway). But on other matters, scientific study can really shine. Like many people (atheists and theists alike) I believe that the universe began taking it’s current form after an event long ago called the Big Bang (which is a silly name, because it was neither big – depending on how you define it – nor did it make a bang). Scientists often talk about three key theories about what’ll happen at “the end” of the universe: the Big Crunch (whereby the universe falls back in on itself and collpases into a single, tiny point), the Big Freeze (whereby the universe keeps expanding forever), and a “sweet spot” in-between, and scientists are split on the three. There’s evidence for all three, and, as yet, no consensus. As a philosophically-minded individual, I like to hypothesise about the possibilities, and come to conclusions. My belief is that the universe will eventually collapse into a Big Crunch. It became apparent to me recently, however, through a thought experiment during a conversation, that I had failed to fully grasp a key concept of the Big Freeze and had dismissed it because of this. This lead me to a whole new re-assessment of the possibilities, in which I eventually still settled on the Big Crunch as being the most likely option, in my mind. My model (a loose model, in this case: I don’t think I have enough information about the Big Crunch to argue convincingly that it is certain, it’s just what I suspect) was shaken by new evidence, which caused me to re-assess my position. In this case, as it happens, I came to the same conclusion as before. Nevertheless, I feel that one of the strengths of my model is that it allows itself to be challenged, and broken, and re-assembled. Right; end of anti-blind-faith-rant.

Needless to say, my model does not have space for ghosts or spirits. While I appreciate that these things could exist, I feel that argument for them makes as much sense as argument for unicorns, fairies, aliens “living among us”, and God. I’ll certainly agree that “there are things beyond what we know,” and I hope that always remains the case (the world is full of mysteries, and that makes it beautiful): but I don’t think there’s any reason to jump onto superstitious beliefs to justify them.

So Where Does My Gran Fit In

So you’ve probably noticed the title of this article. Yeah; I’m getting to that.

In the days leading up to my grandma’s death, I’ve engaged in a couple of conversations with Claire about my gran’s beliefs and how they link in with this whole “models of the universe” thing.

For as long as I can remember, my gran would always talk about her children and her grandchildren in a particular way: “I love all of my children and my grandchildren,” she would say, “but Dan is the special one.” This singling out – this thinly-veiled favouritism – caused some embarrasment until it started becoming “just one of those things old people do,” like talking about the war or complaining about the forms of entertainment/dress/communication enjoyed by young people today. I spoke to my gran on a handful of occassions about what she meant by this strange statement, and she would explain: “You’re the one that I’ll talk to after I’m dead.”

As a young child, this filled me with a sense of both dread and pride: dread that “she could be right” (my godless, souless model of the world was not so hard-set as a child as it was once I’d realised that higher-level physics, philosophy, and psychology held a lot of answers that evidenced it) and pride that, if she was, I had been “selected” as the “special one” to receive the “gift” that she believed she had: the gift of talking to the dead.

Her spiritualistic beliefs, though, combined with my skeptical worldview, lead to some conflict. For example, one time I was talking to both my gran and my mum, when my gran was relaying how she intended to communicate with my from beyond the grave (or, as it happens, beyond the grate: she wanted to be cremated):

“You’ve got to look out for bad spirits,” she warned me, “But you’ll know that it’s me that’s talking to you because I’ll call you my little white rabbit.” [a nickname she had for me when I was very young, perhaps because of the intensely blonde hair I sported]

“But that won’t prove anything,” my mum, who is also an excellent skeptic, although I sometimes wonder whether her models are too concrete, and I argued, “Because I could now imagine I’d heard that. What you need to do, to prove that it’s you, if you’re right, is to tell me something that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise: something that you hadn’t told me before you died, but which we could later verify.”

It took a little while to explain this concept to her, and we gave her an example of some information that we didn’t know, but that she did and we could potentially find out after her death, if necessary. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said, and promptly told us the information. It seemed that she hadn’t quite grasped the concept at all. So, we had a few more drinks and left the conversation to finish another time.

My gran’s raving spiritualism rarely got in the way of anybody. Sure, she made me promise never to use a Ouija board (she had a particularly terrifying experience while using one and since decided that they were dangerous) and there was that one time she argued with her grandma about fireworks, upsetting my sisters, but in general, she seemed to appreciate that her beliefs were hers and not those of many others.

Models, Meet Grandma; Grandma, Models

And so we come full circle back to mental models, and my conversations with Claire. We were saying about how having such well-defined and rarely-challenged mental models of the universe as we do is, in a way, a boring stagnation. It’s rare, these days, for our models to be challenged by anything that can not be (very easily) explained, and that’s uninteresting (I disagree with Claire that it made the world boring, because there’s still plenty of mystery left that lacks any conclusive evidence whatsoever), and we came on, in the days before my grandma died, to discussing her curious prophecy that she’ll continue to talk to me from the afterlife.

And so, the skeptics that we are, we came up with a suite of experiments to help provide evidence for or against any voices that I hear, dreams I have, or whatever, actually being my post-death grandmother. I don’t believe it for a moment, but I wouldn’t be a very good skeptic if I wasn’t skeptical about my own beliefs, too. We came up with well defined hypotheses for different scenarios and sensible ways to collate information. It’s kind of interesting to develop experiments to test data that you never expect to obtain for a hypothesis you don’t believe in, but it’s the nature of science to question things, and, even if the only evidence so far is that “my gran said it”, our construction of a virtual laboratory in which to test a crazy theory (if the data is ever delivered) made a long car journey quite a lot more enjoyable.

And honestly; it’d be as interesting to prove as to disprove. Now all I need is to start hallucinating.