Monday, May 31, 2010

Seven year hitch.

"Rye," the name of the town where I've lived for the last seven years (almost to the day), is one of the answers in today's New York Times crossword puzzle.

The definition is "seedy loaf."

It's not every day you get a clue that's tailored to your own life.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Second Lennon addendum.

Just another "I lived through it" reminiscence. I recall an egregious BBC Radio 1 morning deejay introducing the first airing of  "Give Peace a Chance" in 1969 and proving for all time his terminal unhipness when, in puzzled tones, he credited it to the "Plastic One Band." And by the end of the record, nobody in the booth had corrected him, so he repeated the misreading. (Even at thirteen, I'd already read about Lennon's new venture in the Record Mirror.)

To be rivaled by those awful pretentious announcers on New York's classical radio stations, who clearly don't know what they're talking about either. (Who uses words like "concertized"?)

Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" is famous, not only for providing the tune for Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" but also for inspiring the dancing hippos, ostriches, and crocodiles in Disney's Fantasia. But it didn't stop one announcer from blithely introducing it as the "Dance of the House." Now, a dancing house . . . that's something I'd like to see. . .*

Worst overblown-pretentious-can't-get-enough-of-listening-to-myself-saying-foreign-names moment ever. The female announcer (who could never resist pronouncing "Bach" without that clearing-of-the-throat final phoneme) book-ended  a broadcast of Barber's Adagio for Strings with a little mini-quiz: which movie is the piece strongly associated with? Answer: Oliver Stone's Platoon. But why did "Platoon" have to be pronounced -- twice -- as if it were a contemporary French word, for God's sake? What a lune.

*This year's "Dancing With The Stars" was won by former Pussycat Doll, Nicole "Jai Ho" Scherzinger, partnered by number 27 Acacia Avenue, Tenafly, NJ.

Lennon addendum.

Possibly my favorite joke . . .

John Lennon is playing his guitar one day, when he notices a beetle scurrying across the floor in front of him. He leans forward and says [and here's where I get to do my flawless scouse accent], "Hey, little beetle, did you know we named our group after you?"

And the beetle looks up and replies, "You called your group 'Cyril'?"

Friday, May 28, 2010

In my life, I've loved them all.

Yup. The Fab Four. Those lovable moptops from Liverpool.

This blog is an exception for me. Otherwise, I'm a social networking ignoramus. I rarely use facebook, I don't text anymore, and I have never tweeted. But it seems to me that the fodder for most e-traffic is a constantly revolving cast of Kardashians and Gagas and Lohans and Biebers and Britneys and Bowersoxes, all accelerating toward their sixteenth minute while every ounce of flab or hint of ribcage gives birth to another gossipy webpage. (Somebody explain: who is Snookie and why should I care?)

If we'd had those media in England, in 1963, there would have been one topic only: The Beatles. No others need apply. But all we had was the steam radio, black and white television, and the tabloid press, and it was barely enough to contain the exploding phenomenon of Beatlemania.

You had to be there. John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- that habitual order meant something -- weren't merely the zeitgeist, the right band at the right time to fill the vacuum of the recently discovered "teenage" market. (Kids with money? Who knew?)  The music was astounding, of course, and they were articulate, funny, irreverent, interesting, attractive. But tot up the other innovations.

That first British number one hit, "Please Please Me" might have been "How Do You Do It" if the Beatles hadn't held firm on recording songs they'd written themselves, virtually unknown in those Tin Pan Alley days. That second album, With the Beatles, broke new ground with its arthouse portrait on the cover, not your grandmother's portrait of the artist. Elvis had made movies, of course, but who had ever seen a film like Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night? (I complain frequently about the tedium of my home town, the London suburb of Hounslow, but I swell with pride that the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence for A Hard Day's Night was filmed within its confines.) In the words to "Help!" and "Norwegian Wood," didn't John Lennon beat Joni Mitchell to the personal confession in song?

And when the screaming got too loud, they retreated with unlimited funds and time to EMI's recording studios, forging new sounds and concepts and techniques that led -- a mere four years from "Love Me Do" -- to the pinnacle of 1967's Sergeant Pepper, with, incidentally, more extraordinary cover art and another innovation with the printing of lyrics on the record sleeve. It goes on.

Who remembers Jimmy Nicol? He was world-famous for two weeks in 1964. Ringo Starr came down with tonsillitis -- front page news, naturally! -- and Nicol, a session drummer, was drafted to replace him. Beatles fans hated him for not being Ringo. Then Ringo returned, every second of his recovery and brief convalescence chronicled by the press. (Thousands of fans had clamored for his discarded tonsils; I thought it would be clever to ask for his stitches.) The tabloids showed one last shot of Nicol, walking away alone toward obscurity, and suddenly we all felt sorry for him and wished we'd been kinder during his fortnight of fame. That was the state of Beatlemania in Britain. There have been teen idols since, but nothing that subsumed everything in the culture.

Of course it has an effect, even though they flourished as an intact quartet for only eight years, and had dis-banded by the time I was fourteen. For me, those iconic lives played out in real time in the daily newspapers, the denouements then unknown -- the shocking death of Brian Epstein, the controversial MBEs, the soul-searching -- mine, I mean -- following the "more popular than Jesus" remark, the retreat to and from the Maharishi in India, the morphing hairstyles, the hint of drugs, the rise and fall of Apple, the rise and rise of Yoko. (I remember press coverage of a pre-Lennon Yoko, protesting the banning of her film "No 4," also known as "Bottoms.")

Lennon's words, in his two books of surreal poetry and episodes, still infect my vocabulary -- "Come out the cow with glasses." ("I'd smashed him with a brick.") Apart from Prince Charles, John Lennon is my only good impression. (Honestly, I can't even do Christopher Walken.) Beatles songs were the first music I played when I learned guitar, and they provided the first chord sequences I stole when I started to write songs myself. I had a massive poster of a crew-cut, Plastic Ono Band-era John sporting a "People for Peace" armband on my bedroom wall.

They epitomized a time I knew as childhood. The opening riff of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is my madeleine in linden tea. And when, ten years after their whimpering breakup, I snapped on my bathroom radio for the news, only to hear of a murder on New York's Upper West Side, I stood in the shower and wept.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Made the bus in seconds flat . . .

I guess the point about my bus witterings was that, prosaic though it seems, the family's dependence on public transport may well have had effects on my psyche that went well beyond the inconvenience of an afternoon.

If we'd had a car, would I have clamored for teenage wheels instead of still going with my parents on weekend social calls, the bored only-child, surrounded by dull middle-aged chatter? And would my own car have brought more independence, more adventure during those early years, made me a cooler dude and a fraction less repulsive to the fair sex? If I'd seen my same-age cousins more often than once or twice a year, would that have lessened the barely understood but palpable sense of otherness, inauthenticity that went with adoption? Am I more or less patient, more or less punctual, more or less risk-averse because of the rarity of the Routemaster?

Perhaps you can think of the way certain aspects of your culture, seemingly minor, may have left permanent fingerprints on your life. For example, I'm sure that living in an apartment until I was 19 (and from age 26 to 47) could have been another crucial "polymeme." (I'm sure that's the wrong word.)

But for me, far more than the transportation issue, one single cultural phenomenon predominates:

The Beatles.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Afoot in West London.

What set me off on my multi-meme hunt (see previous entry) was a Discovery Channel documentary I downloaded about the great Routemaster-model London bus, the red double-deckers with the open rear platform, which required both a driver and a conductor. They were introduced into the world round about the time I was; and they began to be taken out of service when I left England for what turned out to be a permanent home in America. (Although the last one held on until just a couple of years ago. And this week, London mayor Boris Johnson introduced a new Routemaster, a futuristic reinvention of the classic.)

As a child, I seemed to spend half my life on Routemasters. Because of my father's profoundly limited vision and my mother's "nerves," we never owned a car, nor could we have afforded to run one anyway. I didn't acquire my first car -- a ball of rust held together by the remains of a  Fiat 128 -- until I was 22, and I never owned any vehicle during the twenty years I lived in Manhattan. (Can't blame me for global warming.)

So I was thinking about all the ways public transportation shaped my early life -- and not merely that I retain an enthusiasm for bicycles and trains (sometimes in combination) shared by many of my countryfolk.

For a start, journeys always took longer -- half an hour for a car driver was half a day for the bus traveler in the London suburbs, and I'm sure many potential outings to moderately distant parks and other sites may have been abandoned on the drawing board. I didn't see my cousins in neighboring towns very often, because we couldn't just leap into a waiting automobile and "pop over" for half an hour; to cover the five miles or so, it required at least two, maybe three intersecting bus routes and a level of planning equal to Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

And then there was the walking, the slow trudge from the inconveniently distant bus stop, often in the dark and past my bedtime because of the inconveniently elusive bus, half-asleep on my feet and rhythmically chanting "every step we take is a step nearer home." (But it made me an indefatigable walker, especially whenever I explore a new city.) And, of course, the waiting, in the damp chill of English winters, eyes fixed on that distant vanishing point along the road, where the bus would eventually appear. Or not.

When I was a teenager, the bus shrank my curfews, limited my range, cramped my style as a budding ladies man. Well, that and the acne. (Long train rides encouraged reading, though.) And I grew up without the typical male passion for the car, to the point where if you asked me now which car I'd most like to drive, I'd probably take my beloved seven-year-old Toyota nerdmobile minivan -- the Starship Minnie, only the second car I've actually owned -- over any Porsche or Stingray. (Unless a Bugatti type 41 Royale was on offer, of course; I'm not a complete wuss.)

I could go on. (And on and on and on.) I could mention the aesthetics of the world-renowned screen-printed posters on the London Underground, the elegance of its humanist typography. But you get the idea. A dependence on public transportation starts as just one cultural choice -- not to have a car -- but it's a prime example of how that single need can spread out through so many aspects of your early experience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's all about meme.

When I was a college student, one of my tutors (for primate behavior, if I recall) was Dr. Marion Dawkins, who was then married to Richard Dawkins. At one tutorial, she mentioned that her husband was writing a book, which he was thinking of calling The Selfish Gene, but he was up for other suggestions. (I guess my offering of the The Pecksniff Perplex* didn't make it, even to the acknowledgments** section of Dawkins's breakthrough bestseller.)

In this work, Dawkins coins the term "meme," which means a unit of culture, such as a song or a catch-phrase or a religious belief. That irritating "wazzup!" thing from the beer commercial is a meme.

So far, so good, but now I'm launching myself onto the ocean of my ignorance. I know there's also a term "polymeme," but I'm not sure if this or any other coinage from psychology or sociology captures something I've been thinking about recently -- the lasting and multi-faceted impact on our lives of certain cultural phenomena, of certain key features of our experience.

We recognize the effect of life events and aspects of our upbringing on our psychological development: early childhood experiences, relationships with parents, powerful religious or nationalistic influences. But what about cultural issues that may seem trivial by comparison, and yet gain inordinate power in our lives because they add up to more than one mere meme, because they transcend any single cultural definition?

I'll give you some examples. Next time.

*I thought hypocrisy was a richer description of self-interested altruism in nature rather than mere selfishness, you see, and Pecksniff, from Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit was, with Moliere's Tartuffe, the paradigm of hypocri-- . . . oh, never mind. But think of the extra sales you'd have made with that title, Richard. You could be famous by now.

**Dawkins did include a general thanks to all the students who'd made suggestions, but that's not sufficient recognition of my brilliance. Even though I haven't been publishing myself, I've collected a few acknowledgments over the last two or three years, in books and on CDs and on websites. A good friend suggested that I should make this my goal in life, to gather as many acknowledgments as possible, even if I hadn't done anything. I could approach total strangers and demand a nod, just to see how many I could amass, a vast literary in-joke.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ba-boom, ching!

As a 9/11 memorial, the powers-that-be of Rye are building a gazebo near the town square, a recreation of the "bandstand" that stood on a nearby site one hundred years ago.

Ahem . . .

"My [insert name of family member] is so stupid."

("How stupid is he/she?")

"He/she's so stupid that when she heard they were getting a gazebo for the park, he/she said, 'That's crazy! Why don't they get two and let them breed?'"

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dose of the clap.

Look, I know this makes me sound as if I'm ninety, but when I was a kid, there were certain rules about modesty. We were even told -- in classroom elections for example -- that you never vote for yourself. In a gesture of goodwill and sportsmanship, you vote for your opponent, and pray that he or she votes for you, or else you'll look pretty silly.

Probably the chief among my many guilty pleasures is live, televised award shows. The more stuff that goes wrong, the worse the musical numbers, the more embarrassing the acceptance speeches, the better I like it.

But I am sick of the sight of actors applauding themselves during the nominations.

Don't do it. Look pleased or mug for the camera or adopt an expression of completely fake humility or take the opportunity to whisper to your companion that you're out of half-and-half at home, as if you're not currently being viewed by millions of viewers . . . I don't care. But drop the hands for a few seconds. (And don't use the excuse that you're on autopilot because you can't hear the announcements.)

Same with people getting ovations at the beginning of, say, Saturday Night Live. Yeah, you may be applauding the band. You may be humbly deflecting the favor by congratulating the audience (though I don't know what for, they only just got there and they didn't even have to pay for their seats). But don't. When they're clapping you, keep your hands away from each other.

Everybody got that? Don't make me come up there.

And I hope Barrack Obama voted for John McCain.

(Hey, my Google blogger spell-check didn't recognize "Obama." Suggested "Alabama" instead. "McCain" got through. Hmmmm.)

It's so hard to get good service these days.

In an attempt to get the young gentlemen away from the TV, I set up our badminton net in the back yard, and we've all been trying to improve our game. This starts with drill in the correct pronunciation. (It's not "badmitten," what's the matter with you Americans? And while we're about it, the all-England tennis championship is played at Wimbledon -- I once lived there -- not Wimbleton.)

I used to be quite good at badminton -- allow me my moment of immodesty, I didn't get many sports genes beyond the ability to run fast in a more-or-less straight direction* -- but my immediate need these days is figuring out which strength of reading glasses gives me the best view of a rapidly approaching shuttlecock.  (My late brother, on the other hand, was a very good amateur player.)

For Primus and Secundus, the priority is getting good returns going. For Tertius, however, the ability to connect the racket to the shuttlecock is, so far, elusive. Even during service. A little frustrated, despite our giving him five service attempts each time, he disappears from the game. Five minutes later, he emerges from the house with a bottle of Poland Spring and a cat glove puppet and announces that "for your entertainment," the cat is going to sing the alphabet while he drinks the water.

When you allow for the fact that the cat can only say the syllables "me-ow," it was a pretty good attempt.**

*Actually, I'm not bad at croquet. I once duplicated the pool/snooker "jump shot" with a croquet mallet on the pristine lawn of St. Anne's College, Oxford.

**Which reminds me of the story of the two cats watching a game of tennis, and one turns to the other and says "My dad used to be in that racket."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Barking up the wrong tree.

Back to genealogy. As I said (well, wrote), my adoptive family's bloodlines, flowing through the Beechey family tree, were always an irrelevance to me, something I realized at a very early age. But why did I jump so eagerly into research on the birth family, if that halving of the DNA with each generation quickly whittles away your connection to each forebear?

Overcompensation, possibly. The healing power of a pathway out of the genealogical bewilderment. Some atavistic sense of ancestor worship that overclouds simple logic. But there is also the mathematical fact that, while you may only have a tiny, irrelevant fraction of any one of your 4th great-grandfather's genes, when you add up the contribution of all 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents on that pedigree chart, it comes to 100%. Including the branch back through the Irish seafarers, of which I'm very proud.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't interested in the adoptive side of Beechey and the maternal Goddard. Although my adoptive parents lived, when I was born, in a dull London suburb -- less than ten miles from Hyde Park Corner as the crow flies (and the Underground crawls) -- it was clear that they never thought of themselves as Londoners the way I did. They had moved toward the city from the rural west, a migration from the tiny country villages that now flank Heathrow airport, and their farm-worker parents had been born even further away, in the true English countryside.

I discovered that my mother's father, Charles Goddard, had forged his way to the city as a young man after an argument with his family, whom he'd left in the delightfully named Wiltshire village of Winterbourne Bassett. A few years before she died, I took my mother to visit her ancestral home, which she'd never seen.

The village is charming, just three miles due north of the great stone circle at Avebury. There's only a scattering of homes, but the parish church is peacefully isolated, with elaborate memorials to a branch of the (nonfictional) Baskerville family. As we wander through the churchyard, I see what I'm looking for -- a weather-beaten grave has the name "Goddard" (and if memory serves, the name and dates matched what we knew of Charles's younger sister).

I call my mother over, and silently point out the inscription. She reads and smiles.

"Well!" she exclaims. "Isn't that a coincidence!"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A curmudgeon writes.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I listened to Cream and Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The first rock concert I ever went to was Deep Purple at the Royal Albert Hall. (The first public performance of "Strange Kind of Woman.") My Dad, who was born in 1918, loved the Beatles, but I remember him accusing me of attempting to destroy the needle on our Dansette Bermuda when he heard the feedback on a track by the Nice.

As an older teen and an adult, my tastes shifted more to classical music, but that includes a healthy appreciation for some 20th century atonal and dissonant pieces.

So with that loud and progressive pedigree, I always wondered what on earth my kids could possibly deliver that would make me screech -- in the time-honored fashion of all parents -- "you call that noise music?"

I found it. Have you heard Justin Bieber's mind-bogglingly monotonous and whiny "Baby"? It sounds like someone's stuck a Casio drum track onto a British police siren and played it back with the treble knob turned  up to 11. If the melody used a fourth note, I must have missed it. Not even a guest appearance by Ludacris can redeem this.

See, in my generation, we just removed the tasteful refinement from popular music. Today, the tendency seems to be to eliminate any discernible talent.  (When did we dispense with requiring, oh, I don't know, a voice for a singing career?)

Due credit to my boys -- this mediocrity just happened to pop up on Nickelodeon between the reruns of Full House that they're currently glued to. Although I'm not sure their current devotion to this celebration of 80s adolescent hairstyling isn't just as suspect. (Personally, I'm watching reruns of The Avengers on Netflix. Class. Chemistry.)

Tales from the City.

The New York Times has a regular feature on Mondays for readers' anecdotes and observations, some of them highly entertaining and some of them terminally banal and self-serving.

My favorite ever was the story of a young woman, dressed like a punk, who had hailed a cab. She was about to step into it when an older woman in business attire slipped in front of her and started to climb in instead.

"Excuse me," says the punk politely, "but don't you think it's rude to take my cab?"

The older woman barely paused. "Hey, this is New York," she sneered. "You gotta hustle."

Whereupon the punk grabbed her, dragged her out of the cab, and threw her and briefcase onto the sidewalk. Then she went off in her cab.

For sheer chutzpah in cab-claiming, you can't beat an event from my days at Citibank. A colleague of mine had just secured a cab on Park Avenue for a lunchtime trip, when she heard, "Young woman, I'm sure you weren't thinking of taking that taxi ahead of me."

It was the booming voice of an older woman, a formidable harridan who spent her time as a corporate gadfly, who had just emerged from the Bank's annual general meeting and was a good twenty yards back. My colleague was so stunned by the blast of sheer authority that she meekly stood aside, waited for the woman to waddle over, and then held the door open for her.

My own tale -- which I never submitted to the Times,  but there doesn't seem to be a statute of limitations -- happened about twenty years ago. I was walking on the Upper West Side on a Sunday afternoon, past a small restaurant that was disgorging brunchers. Two women, possibly mother and daughter, were discussing another woman they'd clearly just dined with.

"And she had such a lovely voice," said the older lady.

"Well, she is a ballerina," replied the younger.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What you gon' do with all that junk?

The editing of the novel continues. I wrote a long while ago of the novella-length document containing all my random notes, which needed to be raided before each chapter. Now the first draft is done, I went back to see if there were any plot points, dialog snippets, or observations that I'd missed.

No. Apart from a list of potential chapter titles, all puns on the word "sin" (the village where the murder takes place is called "Synne"), everything left -- now shrunk to ten pages -- is largely superfluous, including a set of insulting anagrams of the character name "Finsbury the Ferret" that I decided not to use. But there could be some ideas there for other novels.

"Fresh butt refinery" was my favorite.*

*Also "shifty burnt reefer," "bent fruity freshener," and the appropriate "feisty fur brethren."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Under the Whale.

New York's magnificent Natural History Museum does overnight sleepovers, and thanks to Secundus's boy scout membership, we were able to sign up the whole family for the event. It was originally scheduled for February, but one blizzard and two postponements later, it defaulted to the Mother's Day weekend.

Although I was a little disappointed that the exhibits didn't really come to life, like in that movie, it was great fun -- lots of activities for the kids, including a visit to the wondrous butterfly conservatory and a flashlight scavenger hunt through the dimly lit dinosaur galleries. And then we bed down on cots in the Hall of Ocean Life, under the lifesize blue whale, like displaced hurricane victims.

Wisdom and experience has taught me that on these communal sleeping expeditions, your best friends are a set of earplugs. Alas, the best that the drugstore had to offer weren't good enough to shut out the deafening snores of the dad just two cots down from me, and it took a while to fall into a fitful sleep.

Well before the morning wake-up call, I find myself being prodded severely. "You were snoring," hissed the mem-sahib, clambering back to her cot. I pantomime my identification of the true culprit and lie there grumpily till the lights come on, not sure whether I'm more offended by the interruption of my hard-won slumber or the wrongful accusation.

She's lucky it was Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Load of Pollux.

Talking of twins, I told you I was an astronomical ignoramus. I paid more attention during this evening's dog walk and ran to the atlas when I got in. The two stars that smiled on me and Leila yesterday were Castor and Pollux, the brightest stars in the constellation Gemini.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's that again?

Here, a free sample, in case you didn't get time to do the Wiki:

"When identical twins reproduce with a pair of siblings, the resulting children are more related than half-siblings but less related than full siblings (they are genetically equivalent to 3/4 siblings) although they are legally double first cousins."

Somebody up there likes . . . me?

Last night, I was walking the dog at about 10:30 p.m. The moonlight was making a few wispy clouds stand out, a couple of shades lighter than the dark sky. As I climbed a hill toward an area with fewer trees, I could see two brighter stars immediately in front of me -- they might have been Deneb and Vega, but I'm pretty clueless about astronomy.

While I watched, a straggle of cloud drifted below the two stars, and briefly took the form of a crescent before floating away. That formation was visible only for a few seconds and only to someone in my position. So the sky gave me my own personal smiley face.

I could use that. (Unless it was meant for Leila. Who is a good dog and deserves the sky's blessing.)

Further up the family tree.

So I've been researching my family tree, a subject that is utterly fascinating to everyone on the planet, with the exception of those people who aren't me. It's an intriguing insight into one's roots -- I can go back more than 14 generations to 17th century Sussex on one particular, well-researched line. Or I could if there wasn't a strong suspicion that one rude forefather not too far back along this branch was illegitimate, making his father's ancestry a moot point. (I guess it was his mother who was the rude one.)

But because I'm living in America, I'm almost entirely dependent on the internet and the online availability of English census data going back to 1841 and the official register of births, marriages, and deaths from 1837. Online parish records are patchier. That's what's so useful about the websites that try to link you with other researchers, by spotting common names in your published family tree.

And last weekend, I made contact with Vicky in Manchester, England, because of our shared ancestor, Jeremiah Chadwick (1807-1890), my great-great-great-great-grandfather. Now, I'm particularly interested in this twiglet of the tree, because it contains just about the only direct forebear I've found with any claim to fame: Jeremiah's son Richard Sheldon Chadwick (1829 - 1892), who was a traveling lecturer, spiritualist, phrenologist, and a published poet. Vicky is descended from his sister, Mary, and because she lives where Jeremiah spent his days -- he was a revivalist preacher at the Manchester Mission -- she may have some insights into his life from local research.

But what brings compound interest and heritage together is this whole business of consanguinity -- roughly how many of your genes can you expect to share with someone else in your family? And it's back to the power of those pesky exponentials, only in reverse.

You get exactly half your DNA from each parent.* So your consanguinity with your mother or father, son or daughter is 50%.**

Every step on the family tree halves it. Grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and half-siblings: 25%. Cousins, great-grandparents, great-grandchildren: 12.5% or one-eighth. And so on.

Thus, while I'm more than delighted as a matter of family history to have obtained a signed first (i.e., only) edition of The Pleasures of Poetry, the Purgatory of Poets and other Poems by Richard Sheldon Chadwick, "The Teetotaler," from 1848, it's with the knowledge that we two literary men (and I use the term very, very loosely, in both cases) have only 3.125% of our genes in common. No bragging rights there. And I certainly didn't inherit his apparent aversion to alcohol.

So I attempted to calculate my relationship to Vicky. It's actually easier than you might think -- bear with me. First cousins share grandparents, second cousins share great-grandparents, etc. See the pattern? You count the number of "greats" and "grands" in the name of your "most recent common ancestor." The number is the degree of cousinhood. Simple.

But if you get different numbers, that's where "removal" comes in. In this case, the lower number is the degree of cousinhood, and the difference between the numbers is the removal. So Jeremiah, being my 4th-great-grandfather, gets me a score of 5 (4 greats + 1 grand). But Vicky has only 4; she's one generation closer to the esteemed Jeremiah. (She's younger than me, but clearly her branch wasn't in such a hurry to reproduce over the years.) Thus we are fourth cousins, once removed. Her new baby, born on Valentine's day this year, shares a birthday with 11-year-old Primus. They are therefore fifth cousins, once removed.

By contrast, the Queen of England is first cousin, 14 times removed from her namesake, Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

What does it mean? Well, in terms of consanguinity, you start with that first-cousin score of one eighth. Every additional degree of cousinhood is two more steps on the tree, which quarters the number. Every degree of removal is only one step, so that only halves it. It turns out that Vicky and I have less than one-thousandth*** of our genes in common. Or 0.09765625%.

If we ever meet, I'm not expecting any family resemblances.

That's the power of reverse compound interest. For the two Queen Elizabeths, it means -- mathematically -- that only one gene in 65,536 is the same due to inheritance along the most direct line. (Which wasn't the line of succession, incidentally.) Since the current thinking is we don't have more than about 30,000 genes, that means Q.E.II is much more likely to have the same genes as Q.E.I because of sheer random chance than because of descent. Primogeniture, my arse.

And that's when it struck me. In my meager research to date, I've been concentrating on my pathway back through my direct ancestors, branching with each generation and thus doubling the amount of research, despite the dwindling records. What about all those bits that go out to the side, like your great-grandfather's sister's family, the stuff that serious researchers bother about? Did my great-great-aunt -- just a first name in a box, gleaned from a census form -- marry a Beechey? Did she have a daughter or a granddaughter who married a Beechey?

In other words, could the line back to my adoptive family be shorter than I'd ever imagined? Could I unknowingly have a greater level of consanguinity with a living Beechey than I do with that far, distant ancestor who happened to plug my birthname, Russell, into the line?

And, by the same reasoning, could those elitist Mayflower madames be more closely related to their dry cleaners or their doormen than to any 1621 pilgrim to these shores? I do hope so. This is, after all, America.

Which is all just an excuse to send you to this mind-blowing Wikipedia page about cousins. Skip the stuff I just lifted and get down to what happens when a set of half-siblings marries another set of half-siblings. Somebody's actually worked this out!

*Doesn't mean you take after each one evenly. Each time a sperm or egg cell (a gamete) is formed, it grabs only half of the parent's chromosomes. It's a random process. You may have sprung from an egg that has a huge batch of dominant genes, easily overwhelming your dad's submissive ones, so you take after your mother more. Lucky you. But then there's all that jumbling and mutating to deal with in the process as well.

**It's 50% for siblings, too, but that's even more of an assumption. Because of the randomness issue (see previous footnote), any two gametes produced by the same person have, on average, about half of their genes in common. But in practice, two gametes from, say, a father could potentially have many more than half their genes in common, or hardly any. This means the actual consanguinity between siblings can vary enormously. For example, the Olsen twins aren't identical twins genetically, but they clearly share enough of the genes that govern their looks and sizes to get away with playing the same character on Full House.

*** One in 1,024 to be exact. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

And I thought the Blue Book was for old cars.

As a poor, working-class kid growing up in the London suburbs, one of the things I loathed about England's class-ridden society was that I was expected to show deference to certain other human beings solely because their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother had bonked Charles II.  Not that we saw that many Earls on Hounslow High Street, you understand, but there was that whole Royal Family, "God Save the Queen" thing.

Not expecting the revolution anytime soon -- nor having the guts to foment it -- I came to America, where I thought class would be different, and of course, it is. (Race replaced it years ago.) But even in New York City, where ill-gotten, ill-spent wealth whips breeding any day, there can still be that elitist, social register, Blue Book, Four Hundred undercurrent.

Who cares if you're directly descended from one of those English puritans escaping religious intolerance who stepped off the Mayflower and proceeded to be instantly intolerant to anyone in the Massachusetts Bay colony who didn't share their precise religious beliefs. After 20 years of Manhattan living, I find a phrase springs easily to my lips (along with "Fuhgeddaboudit" and "I'm walkin' here!"): "What, you think you're better than me?" Or a little more mildly, "Yes, but what have you done?" It was Samuel Johnson who said that, in terms of justifying questionable behavior, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." I'd add that "It's all in a good cause" comes in right behind it.

There's an odd kind of reverse snobbery, though, that may be equally noxious -- and I 've had these conversations: "My great-grandfather stepped off the boat on Ellis Island with nothing but his hat-blocking wrench, so what gives these immigrants the right to think they can just waltz in here. . .?"

Yes, but what have you done?

Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Well, of course I do, for God's sake. Proud as I am of the (somewhat peculiar) name Beechey -- spellable in 47 different ways, even without turning me into the adverbial "Beechley" or other close variations -- it signifies for me only the profound love and estimable values of my adoptive parents. Otherwise, in terms of heritage, race, bloodlines, breeding, ancestry and ancestors, it's as immaterial as a nom de plume or a wife's married name. Whether Sir William Beechey, portraitist of George III and Nelson and about the only famous Beechey*, showed up in my family tree was an utter irrelevance, since I could claim no share of his DNA. (Incidentally, he doesn't.)

Because I was the first to grab "" as a URL, I often receive emails from Beecheys scattered around the world asking if we could possibly be related. (There's quite a contingent in New Zealand, and I had a request from South Africa.) And I have to explain regretfully that "Beechey" is just a label for me and point them in each other's direction.

So my own ignorance of my genealogy probably made me a little more intolerant of anyone who claimed some special privilege because of their descent, whether it's the right to think their grandfather's rise from poverty reflects on their own character or whether it's the right to ascend to the English throne and be called "Your Majesty." Your family tree, your family history is, of course, fascinating and well worth knowing and preserving. Your ancestors' achievements are a source of pride, but they don't make you important.

But now, making up for lost time, I've been researching my family tree on the birth side -- I'm a concatenation of the Russells and the Huggins.** And next time I get on this blog, I'll explain why this inverted-snobbish tantrum and yesterday's truly tedious diversion on exponentials have come together in my life this week. (They feature in the book, too, for similar reasons.)

If there's anybody awake out there, that is.

**Hugginses? Huggins's? I'm only definitively opinionated about possessives. Plurals puzzle me.
***Meaning I have high hopes for my kids.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Einstein was right.

Albert Einstein was once asked what he thought was the most powerful force in the universe. He replied, "compound interest."

And it's true (of course it's true, you condescending git, bloody Einstein said it) that exponential growth -- compound interest being a type of exponential growth -- can produce effects that are utterly counter-intuitive. Like that old Indian story about the sage who beat a king at chess and asked as his reward "merely" for a grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, etc. The king thought he'd gotten off lightly, but by the time he'd reached the 64th square, there wasn't enough rice in the kingdom to meet the demand.

(I put this story into This Private Plot. In more detail. You'll have to wait.)

It's like the betting tactic called an accumulator, where you place all your winnings from one horse race onto the next, and so on. The Economist once had an article (which I couldn't find before writing this, so the details are fuzzy and probably fabricated) that calculated what would have happened if you'd started with a dollar in the 1920s and, by good fortune, switched your accumulated investments at the beginning of every calendar quarter into the sector of the economy that was going to perform best during that quarter -- gold, or real estate, large-cap stocks, etc. Of course, the final number was some ludicrous sum, probably greater than GDP of the entire solar system.

And, of course, nobody did it. Because nobody can reliably predict the economy, especially economists. If they could, they wouldn't stick around being economists. They'd be Grand-Dukes or Hugh Hefner or something. Anything but an economist. Even a mystery novelist, and we don't make any money.

The Economist followed this up with an alternative calculation -- what happens if you switch your accumulated earnings into the sector that was the best performer in the previous calendar quarter? In other words, if your investment strategy is, like most people's, just a little reactive. You can't predict the future, but you move as quickly as you can to catch the rising tide. It's once a quarter -- surely the trends will keep going just for a few weeks more?

Uh-uh. In this scenario, if I recall, you end up with a net loss over the years. Or perhaps about a hundred bucks, the price of a Starbucks coffee in, oh, 2012. In other words, if you hear about a good-performing investment, it's already too late for you.

Now with this in mind, suppose I'm a shyster (not too great a stretch). I pick, say, 1,024 likely millionaire investors and write them a letter, boasting of my prowess at foretelling investment performance. (Why 1,024 and not a round 1,000? Pay attention.) And to prove it, I'll predict which way Apple's share price will go by the end of the week. But to half of those investors, I say it'll go up; the other half get a letter saying it'll go down.

At the end of the first week, in which Apple has increased in value, I forget about the 512 investors who got the "Apple goes down" letter -- and they'll forget about me long before the next scam -- and I send the other 512 another letter. Again, one half get the upswing prediction, the other half the downswing.

Well, you see where this is going. After just six weeks, I'm down to a mere sixteen potential investors. Ah, but those sixteen people have just watched me predict, with uncanny accuracy, the performance of a leading stock for six weeks in a row. So by now, they've probably taken the bait, and I can stop -- I don't even need to go the full ten weeks that would bring me down to my last surviving (but hugely impressed) millionaire.

Hang on, why did I get started on this? Oh yeah, that exponential growth thing also works in reverse. Numbers get smaller very quickly if you keep halving them, instead of doubling like the chessboard conundrum. From about a thousand* investors, we're down to a mere sixteen in only six weeks, and only one remaining if I'd gone for ten weeks.  But the point about my shysterdom is that, somewhere along the journey -- likely, long before even six weeks are up -- I only need one or two of those astounded and greedy millionaires to hand over their fortunes to me to, er, manage, and it's next stop Bimini.

(Where is Bimini? And do they have extradition orders?)

And that's what I want to write about: family trees. But another time, because this is quite long enough.

*It was 1,028 because it's an exponential of two.