Sunday, 4 May 2008

I am supposed to be writing a sitcom.

My friend Ed has just announced to the world, or that part of the world which is on F*c*b**k, (Gosh, that looks unexpectedly rude when you asterisk out the vowels) that he has seen 'more otters than you can possibly imagine'. Naturally, I scooted over to his page to leave a message with the funny joke that he shouldn't be too sure of himself, because I can imagine ten otters... only to find not one but two people had already got there. Well, I suppose it's quite an obvious joke. Plus my friend Ed knows a lot of comedians, both in the literal sense and the sense beloved of sarcastic policemen. However, I would like to point out that my two rivals used the numbers six and nine as the number of otters they could possibly imagine, both of which I think are slightly less funny than ten otters. Because it's a round number, and so sounds like a number I've genuinely reached by testing, not just one I picked for a joke, whilst still being hilariously low. But I didn't reach it by testing, of course. I just picked it for a joke. And that brings me to my sermon for today.

How many otters can you possibly imagine? Because if I say I can imagine a million otters, I'm obviously lying. I can't really even imagine a million pounds. I know what it could buy, but I can't imagine an actual million actual pound coins. Still less otters. They're famously harder to imagine than coins. Now, a thousand pound coins I think I can imagine. I can certainly imagine a thousand page book. But I don't think I can imagine a thousand otters. But then, what are my criteria here? To qualify as being imagined, do I have to be able to imagine each individual ottery face, and be able to distinguish in my imagination young Tasmania the Otter from Old Uncle Winchelsea the Otter? (I'm assuming here that otters use broadly the same naming system as Wombles.) No, I don't think so. I think I just have to be able to imagine what that mass of otters would look like, how much space they would take up, and how cross they'd be about it. I can imagine eight otters around my dining table, for instance, but I can't really imagine a thousand otters. My guess is that that's about a double decker bus full, but I can't imagine whether that's a tightly packed RSPCA nightmare of a bus, or whether the otters are lounging in relative comfort. (Remember they can sit under the seats as well as on them. And in the aisles).

Now, the ADC Theatre in Cambridge seats about 220, and I reckon I can imagine that full of otters. (An otter on every seat, that is. They only sit under them on buses. I mean, come on, they have to be able to see the stage). This is good - let's ramp it up. The Garrick theatre in London has a capacity, so Google tells me, of 656... but with regret I must admit I can't really imagine that full of otters. I mean, I can... but if I'm honest with myself, I'm just imagining the theatre, filling the stalls with otters, and then mentally clone brushing those same otters into the dress circle and upper circle. I'm not even certain I'm imagining the otters at the back of the stalls. I'm just imagining 'a theatre full of otters'. And now, confidence crumbling, I'm beginning to doubt my feat of imagination with the ADC. Did I really imagine 220 otters? Even the ones at the back, and the sides? Or am I just imagining 220 seats, and then tacking the word 'otters' over the word 'seats'? Hell, can I even imagine one otter? Let me check. Right, I've checked, I definitely can imagine one otter. He's called Barney, he's slightly over medium size, and he has a white mark on his muzzle where a larger otter named Velasquez snatched a trout from his mouth. From this we can draw two further conclusions: 1) I can imagine two otters. 2) The Womble naming system is not invariable amongst otters.

So. I'm confident I can imagine those two otters and their struggle to come to terms with that terrible summer's day when Barney's trust in Velasquez was forever shattered; but shifty about those 220 otters enjoying a patchy but basically competent student production of The Duchess of Malfi. So, maybe the thing to do is avoid any helpful framing device like a theatre or a bus or a netball team, and just imagine an increasing number of otters in a blank white void. No, that's too depressing. I'm just imagined Barney there alone, and it's breaking my heart. I'll imagine them in my garden. Ok. One otter. Check. Two otters. Will Barney ever forgive him? Three otters. Easy. Four otters. Piece of cake. Five otters. Yep. Six, seven, eight - yes. Nine, ten, eleven. I think so, yes. Twelve otters... ... ... ... ... no. I can't imagine twelve otters. Not really. When it comes right down to it, I'm just imagining six otters twice. And if I don't break it down into sub-groups like that, it's basically no different from my image of eleven otters. Come to that, I'm not sure my eleven otters were that different from my ten. What about my ten from my nine? No, there is a difference there. That's interesting. Because that seems to suggest that the number of otters I can possibly imagine... is ten. Ladies and gentlemen, it was funny because it was true.

I think Ed probably did see more than ten otters. I shan't bother leaving a message.


Anonymous said...

John, even the mentally challenged could see that this subject has got under your skin but you otter be getting along with this 'ere sitcom.

The number of otters can only be calculated by the amount of free fish present at any one time. Please divide by two, take away one of the larger fish and carry over any of the bones left behind.

Until that time, can I suggest that you temper your passion for the multiplying 'Lontra canadensis', turn your attention to the sitcom and keep an eye out for my bloody pigeon ...

Stu (the Seneschal)

Anonymous said...

I saw 25 otters.

Hope that helps,

Anonymous said...

What is otter?

Anonymous said...

There are some quite good ways of visualising large numbers of things, though obviously that does depend on how well -- and in how many dimensions -- they tessellate, and you're going to have a tougher time if you insist that they're living things which you can imagine are twitching or worse still foraging.

If you imagined coins emblazoned with otters rather than otters, this will help greatly:

If you were quite a long way from a million Red Army-trained otters, this is what they'd look like:

Mating otters might be more memorable.

If you actually want to imagine many otters pure and simple, I'd suggest you think in 2D grids: if you can imagine a shelving unit with 10 shelves, and five pairs of mating otters on each shelf, then voila, you have a hundred of the blighters. Put five of those otter-shelves side by side, and you've got a thousand. Now you just need to install ten such 'full otter wall arrays' in each of ten rooms in a large flat, being part of a 5-story mansion block with 2 flats per floor, and you comfortably have a million rutting otters.

Fairly easy now to imagine ten of those mansion blocks side by side, ten streets worth of the same, and ten such neighbourhoods in a medium-sized town, and -- providing you can still zoom in an out mentally to see individual otters in flagrante (and I can) -- then I think it's fair to say you're really imagining a billion otters.

Which is quite a lot of otters.

And 288-375 days later, you'll have a lot more.

A good way, incidentally of imagining very large amounts of money uses a related scheme: think of a house worth a million pounds -- a modest Victorian terrace in Cricklewood, say. Now walk past it. Well long did that take? 2 seconds at full stride? So that means you can walk past around 30 in a minute = £30m. So it would take you a little north of half an hour to traverse a billion pounds. So Bill Gates' fortune would take a very long day's march down a 40 mile long Victorian street.

It's not obligatory that you imagine otters conjugating within the houses you pass.

The US economy is worth $14 trillion a year, so depending on the exchange rate, you could just about hike it at Victorian terrace speed if you walked unstintingly and with sisyphean stamina.

Anonymous said...

It's a bit of a trick question actually. The secret lies in imagining the otters SEPARATELY, in a series, as you started to do with Barney and Velasquez, rather than all assembled in the one place. Give each otter a different name/marking/skill/nationality/creed/hat and over the course of the week you'll find you've imagined well into three figures.
I have internet so was finally able to hear "apparently". Just now. How good it is! And you! A very finely nuanced duck voice. I too would have chosen it had I been a critic.
Oh and what is the Womble naming system? I mean I knew there had to be one, but what is it?
Congratulations again.

Anonymous said...

I think that if we confuse otters and ducks on this particular post, we could be running a very real danger of inter-breeding and, hence, naturally buggering-up Darwin's initial idea.

As they say in Romania: "Nu ştim a preţui apa decât atunci când iyvoru-i secat" ...

I have no idea what it means but it the bus conductor sounded pretty convinced.

Anonymous said...

Otters, utters, udders, adders and Doctor Oetker. It be a good blog. Very interesting readings. If you have need of interior shutters look noe furthre.

John Finnemore said...

That's some cracking commenting, people. I'm proud of you. At school they used to tell me it was only my own time I was wasting - see how I prove them wrong! A particularly masterly and professorial piece of work from you, A.I.A.S.T.B.W - thank you! You're absolutely right - it's the zoom in and out function that's the key to successful mass otter imagining. And yet... I'm still not sure I'm comfortable with saying I have imagined otters which I haven't yet imagined. That is, when I present Ed with my imaginary city of a billion copulating otters - Good Lord, what an odd sentence - and he says, ok, tell me about the female partner on the third shelf down, immediately behind the door, in the second back bedroom of Flat 7A, in mansion block G of Sector F of the Honeysuckle district (the most tweely named of all the districts. The others are named after tanks), will I be able to do so? No - I can zoom in on her, assuming me to be a cad, and no respecter of a young otter's privacy, but it will be for the first time. So I was not imagining her when I said I was. I could not tell you, as Simon so rightly puts is, her name, nationality, marking, skill, creed, or hat. Though if she and her gentleman caller are really getting stuck into it, one hopes she's removed her hat.

In other business: Simon - glad you enjoyed the show, thanks for listening! And the womble naming system, as I understand it, is that when Wombles come of age, they choose a name from Great Uncle Bulgaria's atlas. What they call one other before that, I cannot tell you.

Stu - surely inter-breeding is at the very heart of Mr Darwin's notion? Though not, admittedly, between otters and ducks.

Dr Oetker - ...Yes.

Anonymous - An otter is one of those fridges with an ice dispenser on the front. That's what I've been imagining, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Heelio. Me am Little Johnny Chuckle-toord. I once done seen a fox scalpel-balling a widgeon.

John Finnemore said...

Yeah. Stop it now.

Anonymous said...

Just because I got there first with the otter imagining... and I said 'at least 9' - come to think of it it could have been 10 but I wasn't sure due to imagined rocks being in the way.

hakan altan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rufus Hart said...

I am disappointed with myself, I can only imagine on-line oh! There's another! One big and lumbering and deep, chocolatey brown, the other small and bouncy and nutmeg coloured. David and Brian. Two more otters for you right there ^.^

...but does that count for everyone else? I mean, if we all got together and told each other about the otters we were imagining, does imagining other people's otters count, or not?

...Badgers are better anyway...

RH said...

*on- oh!

Lara said...

It's great to see that even when you aren't writing a sitcom even though you're supposed to you are kind of writing a sitcom...

Gaia Fay said...

This is brilliant. But whenever I imagine otters, they're all over St Mary. I blame Cabin Pressure for this.
"I don't care how hypothetical it is, I am not having a live otter in the flight deck!"
What a brilliant episode :')

Anonymous said...

A am so thrilled by the fact that you wrote this three years before Ottery St. Mary, and actually used much of the same wording in the episode.

My hero.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but how many otters can you imagine that look like Mr Cumberbatch?


Nicole said...

I love that some of this post ended up verbatim in Ottery St. Mary. Fantastic.

Emily Hope said...

Ah, the birth of an ottery legend.

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Anonymous said...

I love how a fair amount of this is word for word Ottery St Mary. All my imaginary otters are surrounding St Mary with gifts of haddock. I love Cabin Pressure :)

Unknown said...

Listening to Ottery St Mary made me really begin to question my ability to imagine a of cardinal number of any kind! I think I can imagine an otter.... but at the end of the day, I'm only telling myself that I can imagine an otter! Once self speculation enters into imagination, you begin to realise what a fragile concept it is!

I'm going to simply choose not to trust numbers. :D

Anonymous said...

I imagined 14 otters once, using the Separate Otters method. Now, if I try again, I can j-u-s-t get it to 20. Ish.
They look quite odd (esp. the one in green socks) in their little neat lines there, as if they're in a small child's counting book... This should be how we teach our kids to count! OTTERS!

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