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Phantosmia and marine diesel

Phantosmia and marine diesel

Phantosmia – what is it?

Phantosmia is essentially a nasal hallucination; you smell something continually, usually something unpleasant, that isn’t there.

In my personal case, that ‘something’ is marine diesel exhaust. As in ‘I’m standing a few feet downwind of the exhaust of a WWII battleship that’s just started its engine for the first time since the Armistice’ smell of marine diesel exhaust.

Because it’s a fairly rare problem, there’s no real treatment for it that doesn’t sound as if it got imported from the Dark Ages. Additionally, because it’s fairly rare, and apparently varies pretty widely, the literature on it is less than consistent.

No one really seems to have a clue why phantosmia occurs. They’ve put together a lot of commonalities, some of which (brain tumour, or Parkinson’s, anyone?) are pretty scary, and others of which (allergies, stress, depression, sinusitis) are at least generally non-fatal if treated. It’s rare enough that when I went to my doctor and told him I was smelling diesel fumes all day every day, he laughed and welcomed me to the big city.

But it stinks!

Luckily for me, my phantosmia seems to be stress-triggered (I’m working under the assumption that several years later I’d probably have noticed a brain tumour…), and so when my stress levels get to the ‘get the f*** out of Dodge’ level, I get marine diesel exhaust.

Also luckily, for me, marine diesel exhaust is annoying but it’s also a smell I grew up with, so a few days to a few weeks of it isn’t pleasant but doesn’t have me planning to jump under a bus. Strong scents (peppermint, or sharp berries, for example) can cut through it, as can actually trying to sniff something.

I’m working the theory that I get marine diesel stench under stress because at some subconscious level, I associate the smell of a boat’s engine starting up with moving somewhere new and different. Marine diesel exhaust wafting across the yacht was the prelude to getting the anchor up and going for most of my childhood. To appropriate a Monty Python line, it’s a nasal ‘Run away, run away!’ reaction.


Well, there’s not a lot. I haven’t found that saline spray does anything for it, and I confess to no real desire to have my olfactory bulbs removed – generally I have a pretty good sense of smell, I use it, and when I’m not on public transit, I even enjoy it.

I’m working on reducing my stress levels. It’s a project. It’s not a project that’s going awfully well, but I am chipping away at it, in my copious free time.

Whether getting rid of some of the stress will equal getting rid of phantosmia, who knows. On the other hand, lowering stress levels is a good idea in general.

English, the ‘universal language’

English, the ‘universal language’

Bordering on English

I’m seeing a lot of noise online recently about English, the ‘universal language’. And it makes me laugh.

I invite these optimists to try travelling from York to London in the UK and ordering a Maccy D’s. Come to that, try asking if you can wear thongs into a restaurant in Newcastle and in Sydney. I guarantee two very different responses, but I’d only bother standing by with a camera for one of them.

This is because English has several oddities out of the gate. It’s spoken widely, and suffers from all the inconsistencies normal to wide geographical spread. Put a Scouser and a Texan together at an open bar without an internet translator and watch the fun.

English is built from a smattering of Celtic overlaid forcibly by Latin, in turn overlaid by Saxon and then Norman French, meaning it takes part of its vocabulary from the largely Germanic North, and a lot of it from the Romance languages to the South.

Have a look at some untweaked Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400), the first person to actually write in English, rather than French or Latin. At that point in time, actually writing literature in English would be roughly comparable to someone now writing a work of philosophy in text-message shorthand…doable, but something of a freak of nature.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,

Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;

Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,

And in his tyme swich a conquerour,

That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,

What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;

He conquered al the regne of Femenye,

That whilom was ycleped Scithia,

And weddede the queene Ypolita,

And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,

With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,

And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.

The Knight’s Tale

Certainly you can unfocus your brain a little, and stare at it, and you can make it out without too much trouble. If you have some grounding in Classic Mythology, you can cheat and fill in any blanks (cheat. There’s another good word, etymologically. ‘To escheat’, a shortening of Old French ‘escheat’.) If you feel particularly technical, you can even take a red and a green pen and highlight the words that are clearly Saxon in origin, and which are clearly Latin / French.

Let’s take one of the words there (just one, in the interest of having a post that doesn’t equal a full-length novel). Let’s look at contree. Obviously, modern English, ‘country’. Or you could say ‘nation’. Or, hang on, what about ‘county’? Doesn’t ‘county’ have anything to do with it? Starting to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who have to actually learn this language the hard way? I do. You’ve already got two completely different words meaning pretty much exactly the same thing and a third that looks really, really similar.

Among other oddities from its mixed heritage, English has nearly twice the vocabulary of most languages, with most estimates pinning it at somewhere near 1 million words. Given that the majority of English speakers actually commonly use about 5,000 words of that, and even a highly-educated university graduate only about 20,000…that’s still a lot of variation for a second-language speaker to try to master.

For example: fish is a plural noun. Except when it’s not. Anyone want to take a stab at why and when you can actually say fishes? What’s the difference between a belfry and a belltower? Come to that, which English-speaking populations can you insult by calling them a bellend, and which will just look at you blankly?

As practical choices go, picking English as the ‘universal language’ scores a resounding E for effort. It’s hard to pronounce, regional dialects vary wildly, and the vocabulary is, if possible, more enormous even than the number of grammatical irregularities.

Of course, as far as writers go, that makes English a whole bundle of fun with occasional streaks of psycho. You can do nearly anything in English. (Well, you all knew I was going to end up talking about writing.) You can turn up ten or so synonyms for pretty much any word you care to use (or not use. That’s what synonyms are for.) And if you care to dig yourself into regional slang for some character colour…well, the Urban Dictionary is a writer’s boon there. If you weren’t planning on slang to start with, you’ll almost certainly end up wanting some after ten minutes in there.  Not to mention if you put any two grammar nerds into a bar with a pitcher of beer, you can get five different opinions on something as basic as when and where to put a comma (Oxford commas, anyone?).

Basically, English as a universal language is a moderately shitty choice. Why do I blaspheme? Well, because language, at its most basic, and basic is really what you want as a universal interface, is a means to communicate easily and clearly. Yup, really. I can lose most native speakers in three sentences if I make the effort. English has weird pronunciation, which varies wildly depending on region. It has a massively complicated grammar structure. And don’t forget that huge, doubled vocabulary. As far as simple, clear, universal communication goes…well, some of the Eastern writing systems might, possibly, throw more of a wrench in the works, but only by a whisker.

The art of war, or, the non-PC novel

The art of war, or, the non-PC novel

So you don’t agree with it. So what?

OffendedI see a lot of blogs, tweets, and statements about how offensive some people find books that contain (insert rant of choice here – bad language, violence, sex, religion … you name it). Look at this one again. People find a book offensive. To the point where they feel they can’t just put it down; they have to try and make sure that no-one else can read it either. Because it offends them so deeply.

Libraries are being told to ban books. Does this raise any concerns for anyone? Would it concern anyone more if I mentioned that these dangerous books include … Harry PotterThe Hunger Games? Huckleberry Finn?

I mean, we’re not talking about The Communist Manifesto here.  We’re not talking books that overthrew the worldview of the Western world, like Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, or even Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. We’re talking fiction books.

At this point I start getting little twinges of disaster scrabbling around my hindbrain. Here’s a pop quiz. Can anyone think of a period in the last 100 years when books, including fiction books, and literature with liberal, democratic tendencies and attitudes, and writings, e.g. Jack London’s Call of the Wild, were rounded up and destroyed to keep them out of the hands of the impressionable population?

Anyone? I’ll tell you. It started on 10th May 1933, when numbers of students and citizens decided that in the name of patriotism, some material was against the principles of their culture and ran the risk of sowing dangerous ideas in the populace.

But … but … banning books that shock or anger people from libraries is nothing like that!

Yes. It is. It’s exactly like that.

It’s an offence against free speech. It’s making someone else’s choices for them. And it prevents the spread of an idea. Even a stupid, fictional idea. After all, what starts with a ban on Harry Potter can, all too easily, spread to a ban on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. That one definitely contains some dangerous, shocking ideas to some under-educated percentage of the population.

So here’s the shocking thing about books. They’re meant to spread ideas. Think of every book like a little chunk of amber. Each contains a preserved idea, whether from yesterday or 2,000 years ago. Most of them are just beautiful things to amuse yourself with for a few hours. Others, still beautiful, contain the DNA sample that brings back the dinosaurs. It doesn’t mean you get to destroy the one you don’t like because you don’t like it. What if someone else decided that the idea you like, about the guy who walked on water, should be banned and destroyed, because it starts wars?

Year of the Pig

Year of the Pig

2019 is the Year of the Pig – what does that mean?

It’s that time in the year; Chinese New Year this year fell on 5th February, and it’s now the year of the Pig. My favourite place to stop for take-out has been handing out red-wrapped sweets like nobody’s business.

New Year lion

A lion dancing in the Vancouver New Year festival.

I happily participate in most festivals that involve food, bright colours, and excitement, so the Chinese New Year parade is a favourite. Vancouver Chinatown closes its main street for most of the day on the closest convenient weekend, and there’s music, lions, dragons, and firecrackers – and, when I go, usually a stop at a dumpling place, because as far as I’m concerned, diet is mostly ‘die’ with a prosthetic ‘t’ on the end. Mmm, dumplings.

So why is the Chinese New Year sometime around the end of January or early in February? Basically, the Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar. The exact date of the New Year will wiggle around compared to the Gregorian calendar because the Chinese New Year will always hit the date of a new moon, meaning it can occur pretty much any time between 21st January and 20th February in a given year.

Year of the Pig

Dragon dancing in the New Year festival.

This year is the year of the Pig, and in the Chinese zodiac, the Pig is the twelfth sign of twelve. It’s not generally considered one of the movers and shakers, as zodiac signs go; people born in the year of the Pig are reputed to be on the clumsy side, maybe a little fond of food and sleep – but, on the positive side, they’re not malicious, and can attract wealth. Unfortunately, people born a Pig are liable to have a fairly crappy time of it this year, with some job struggles, possible health trouble, no sizzling romance, and the promise that they’re going to need to exercise a lot of patience. (Help! How do I find out if I was born a Pig?)

Chinese zodiac signs are assigned based on the year you were born, rather than the month, and, if you want to get fancy, the signs also have five elements (Earth, Air, Metal, Fire, Water). So, for me, born mid-year 1981, I’m a gold Rooster, otherwise pronounced mostly considerate until someone crosses a line, at which point you fall over the fact that the Rooster is the most independent sign in the Chinese zodiac and they’re stubborn as hell.

A Pig year isn’t going to be all roses and sunshine for my sign, but it’s not set to be a proper bastard either. Last year was a Dog year, which was a bit evil for Roosters; small screw-ups turning into major gold-plated cock-ups (see what I did there?), minor health problems dragging on, and a decent chance of being in a perpetually bad mood. (…actually, that sounds oddly familiar.)

If you want to find out what your Chinese zodiac sign is, and what’s coming up for you in the year of the Pig, check it out and let me know in the comments!

Snow and escapism

Snow and escapism

Well, so, this happened this week. Generally, by February, Vancouver’s more about the cherry blossoms and rainbows. This February decided to remind us sissy Lower Mainlander types that Vancouver is, in fact, in Canada, and we should learn how to use a shovel like the rest of the country.

It looks a bit like an out-take from ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’ movie. Look, I’ve even got a lantern.

Until I was six, snow was something that happened to other people. I grew up in the Caribbean and southern Europe, and while sunburn was something that happened with tedious regularity, along with cockroaches taking over the bilges and jellyfish stings, snow was something I’d only read about. (Oddly enough, in  The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.)

I had my first encounter with snow when my grandmother was taken ill in mid-winter in the UK, and my mother packed me and the warmest clothes we had (not a whole heck of a lot, really), and took off to Brighton to look after her. We arrived at Gatwick in a snowstorm, travelled south in a snowstorm (me wrapped in Dad’s ancient down puffer vest that pretty much dragged the ground at that point), and arrived in my granny’s house to find that in her absence all the pipes had frozen.

To distract me from the fact it was debatably colder inside than outside, my mother decided to broaden my education with a quick overview of applied ballistics, took me outside, and tried to teach me to make snowballs so I could shoot back. Suffice it to say, six-year-old me thought this idea blew massive chunks, that I preferred my ice in drinks, and we could go home any time, thanks.

Sitting and researching topics ranging from harbour approaches to Trinidad to how to analyse blood spatter, it occurs to me that there can be few better methods of escapism from a spell of bad weather than writing, and looking at that satellite view of Trinidad with the snow piling up on the roof outside reminded me of that very cold day in Brighton.

Despite my co-workers’ occasional disbelief, writing is a fantastic exercise in escapism. I actually really do work a full day, drive home through Vancouver traffic (and while Canadians in person are some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met, the vast majority are shite drivers), and then often head upstairs salivating to write. Or edit. Or, as any author will tell you, perform that vital part of writing known as research (aka screw around on social media while waiting for the words to go).

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