Unreal Nature

March 7, 2009

The Vestigial Tail of the Déjà Vu-er

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:21 am

Not too long ago, Felix Grant had a post on his blog, Déjà vu, all over again, that was about repetition, redemption, and trial and improvement. Ray Girvan followed that with a post on his blog titled, Déjà view, that was about literary treatments of time loops  and various efforts of people to use such loops to learn from their mistakes. After reading both of these interesting posts, I was feeling a bit left out, but I couldn’t think of anything useful to add. However, now that Dr. C made his contribution to the subject, Deja Vu All Over, summed up by the central text in the post, CLICK PICS TO ENLARGE THEM,  (which I find to be deeply profound) I felt I had to do something or those three might ask me to turn in my secret decoder ring.

After deep cogitation, I realized that there is in fact one important part of my life that is an over-and-over-and-over kind of thing: toast. You may remember, from a previous post of mine, that I am the goddess of toast. (When we have a power outage, I have found myself standing in front of the toaster mournfully pushing the little lever up and down.)

It so happens, by perfect coincidence, that I found this essay (untitled as far as I can see) in Cultural Notebook in Prospect magazine (March 2009) by Sam Leith*. He is describing what it’s like to drop your freshly buttered toast on the floor:

… An inspection confirmed it. Butter side down. The laws of exchange had dictated that exactly what the toast lost to the floor in melted Anchor, it gained in cat hair. Meanwhile, on the Today programme in the background: tumbling interest rates, collapsing banks, cities in flames. Everything that could have gone wrong, it seems, just did.

This — the juxtaposition of toast and Today — was as close as I’m likely to get to a religious revelation. Very few of us ascribe our larger problems to the workings of metaphysical agencies, you see. Global warming is, our theology has it, our own fault. The collapse of the banking system, similarly, can be pinned on nothing more unearthly than a planet of variously greedy, misguided, imperfect people. And yet — if you are anything like me — you believe, sneakingly but firmly, that your small misfortunes are the result of a personal campaign of persecution by the Ineffable. You don’t believe in anything so grand as God or the Devil. You believe, rather, in the karmic equivalent of a parking warden hovering by a meter. It even has a name. You call it Sod’s law.

Sod’s law is what remains of our determinism. It is the atheist’s reflex concession to magical thinking — a vestigial tail of the vast eschatologies of our recent past.

I wish I could get away with quoting the whole essay, but I’ll have to make do with two further extracts:

… A novelist can have characters who are magical thinkers, or antinomian fatalists, or who believe they make their own destinies. But what the characters think is irrelevant: the novelist can’t create characters to whom something actually happens accidentally. Real, malevolent bad luck is confined to the outside world.

… Toast may give us some clarity. When I was ten, I remember being glued to an edition of Tomorrow’s World in which the presenter interviewed some scientists who were doing systematic work in this area. Hundreds and hundreds of times, these scientists, in white lab coats, were toasting bread, buttering it, and pushing toast from the edges of tables. Splat, another piece of toast would go. Butter side up, or butter side down. And the scientists would solemnly make a note on one side or another of their clipboards.

As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. In the course of researching a book, I recently stumbled on an abstract of a 1995 article that appeared in the European Journal of Physics. And it argued that, yes, toast will tend to land butter side down. Or, to put it more precisely — modelling toast as “a thin, rigid, rough lamina” (which is how I make it, too) Robert AJ Matthews discovered that on falling from a plate or table of average height, “gravitation torque induced as the toast topples over the edge of the plate/table is insufficient to bring the toast butter-side up again by the time it hits the floor.”

But here’s the interesting bit. Only falling from a table more than three metres high will the toast manage a complete rotation and thus be more likely to land butter side up. Yet we will never eat from such tables because, Matthews explains, the formula giving the maximum height of human beings (to which the height of our tables is inexorably connected) contains no fewer than three of the “fundamental constants of the universe.” So, this Prometheus among men concluded, “toast falling off the breakfast table lands butter side down because the universe is made that way.” And there’s an end of it. We predestinarian pessimists were right all along. The facts of the universe are Sods. Which also means that if you have the misfortune, like most of us, to be non-fictional, your toast will always taste a little bit of cat hair.

I don’t see why “there’s an end of it.” Why can’t we make our tables three meters high? It would require a considerable use of step-ladders, but I think it would be worth it to get out of all this déjà vu-ing.

Read the whole essay. I’ve left out a little bit in the middle that is good. [ link ]

* Once again — in this case because of the style of the humor — I found myself wondering if this piece was pseudonomously written by someone I know, but if you look at the picture of Mr. Leith, you can see it’s probably not. Felix is wrinklier.





  1. What is this Sod’s Law tripe? Its MURPHY. Thank you. Why do you think God made Guinness?
    The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy’s law are not hard to find. For example, an American newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio printed this verse in 1841:
    I never had a slice of bread,
    Particularly large and wide,
    That did not fall upon the floor,
    And always on the buttered side.[1]
    (^ Huron Reflector (November 23, 1841), reprinted in Shapiro, Fred R., ed., The Yale Book of Quotations 668 (2006).)
    Clearly authored by Murphy himself!

    On the other hand, it is clear that a human has to be involved in order to invoke this violation of the holy law of determinism. Humans are clearly the fly in the ointment (or butter, if you will.) This brings in deep, philosophical machinations that, clearly, can only be administered by the mermaid.

    I’ll stick with bagels. They behave. (the intrinsic density of cream cheese is not sufficient to induce quantum mechanical gravitational relativistic torque of Land of Lakes on Bunny Bread)

    Comment by Dr. C. — March 7, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  2. Tripe … that’s sort of pre-dung(rumen, reticulum, omasum — sounds like a religious incantation …). Always with the dung-eating.

    Bagels! You’re a torus eater!
    [nodding thoughtfully, knowingly]

    Mister, there’s your problem right there. How do you, Mr. There-Is-No-Free-Will, choose where to begin eating a torus?

    Chicken of the Sea

    Comment by unrealnature — March 8, 2009 @ 6:46 am

  3. It is elementary, my dear Watsonis, at the beginning.

    Comment by Dr. C. — March 8, 2009 @ 8:43 am

  4. You will please clearly indicate said “beginning” on your bagel by drawing an axial cross with a #2 pencil at the precise location of it.

    Comment by unrealnature — March 8, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

  5. I never had a slice of bread,
    Particularly large and wide,
    That did not fall upon the floor,
    And always on the buttered side.

    Aha. One of many many parodies of the equally glooomy chunk of Thomas Moore’s The Fire-Worshippers:

    I never nursed a dear gazelle,
    To glad me with its soft black eye,
    But when it came to know me well,
    And love me, it was sure to die.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 10, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  6. You’re a torus eater!

    I always find them a bit fiddly; I don’t like the hole, so I have to carefuly eat round it and throw it away. French Gruyère is even worse.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 10, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  7. I hope you recycle.

    Comment by unrealnature — March 10, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

  8. I would say that someone liked to litter except the old refrain echoes in my ear:

    “I was never fond of kitty litter but I positively despise litter kitties.”

    Comment by Dr. C. — March 11, 2009 @ 10:01 am

  9. I hope you recycle

    No. Compacted, they actually help empty landfill, and of course generate electricity.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 11, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

  10. ” … they actually help empty landfill, and of course generate electricity.”

    [whistling softly in alarm]

    Man, it’s a good think you didn’t eat any (or maybe you did, once?)

    Dr C has been eating them for years!

    The info I can find says that, upon ingestion of bagel holes, they will do one or both of the following:

    * migrate to the brain where they cause all kinds of “strange outbursts of humor” and “stuck ion gates” resulting in “pinko-commie ultra-liberal attitudes and behaviors. Upon removal of the bagel hole, patients reverted to neoconservative personalities.”

    * pass out of the rectum resulting in what I can’t really describe — it looks sort of like Dr. Strangelove riding his missile, but this patient is riding a tripe sausage. [Correction: it was Major T. J. “King” Kong who rode the missile — in the movie, Dr. Strangelove.]

    That’s so sad. I don’t think we should tell Dr. C.

    Comment by unrealnature — March 12, 2009 @ 5:40 am

  11. I concede that bagel “holes” are probably black and need to be confined to the trash (tripe) heap. And, I agree, us pinko-commie ultra-liberal types have holey brains. However, I would ask you to consider the inside of a bagel. These torae are the power plants of the future. Just take a gander at this beauty

    Comment by Dr. C. — March 13, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  12. At the inevitable risk of being the first to mention it, this conversation appears to be orbiting (like the stars around the black hole at the galactic centre) around an invisible unmentioned meme: image.

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 16, 2009 @ 5:51 am

  13. [looking innocently at Ray while munching my toast-with-no-holes-in-it]

    Phero-memes? And fusion?

    Comment by unrealnature — March 16, 2009 @ 11:43 am

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