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The Gone-Away World

I just finished reading The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway’s first book. Colin pimped it heavily to me for quite a while, and I even read the first chapter of his copy last year, but I only now got my own copy.

It’s sort of a sci-fi book about the apocalypse and war and hazmat truckers and identity and reality and pancakes, but it’s really hard to describe when you try it like that, so instead I’m just going to quote the narrator’s discourse on sheep from chapter five:

A war zone is a bad place to be a sheep. It’s not a good place to be anything, but sheep generally are a bit stupid and devoid of tactical acumen and individual reasoning, and they approach problem-solving in a trial-and-error kind of a way. Sheep wander, and wandering is not a survival trait where there are landmines. After the first member of the flock is blown up, the rest of the sheep automatically scatter in order to confuse the predator, and this, naturally, takes more than one of them onto yet another mine, and there’s another woolly BOOM-splatterpitterslee-eutch, which is the noise of an average-sized sheep being propelled into the air by an anti-personnel mine and partially dispersed, the largest single piece falling to earth as a semi-liquidised blob. This sound of its concomitant reality upsets the remaining sheep even more, and not until quite a few of them have been showered over the neighborhood do they get the notion that the only safe course is the reverse course. By this time, alas, they have forgotten where that is, and the whole thing begins again. BOOM.

The first corollary of this is that sheep are a nightmare if you’re trying to construct a perimeter defence, because they can end up cutting a path right through it and leaving themselves in pieces as markers showing the cleared route to all comers. For this reason, many military officers now order a mass execution of unsecured sheep when fortifying a position, incidentally incurring the deep displeasure of local shepherds and creating yet another group of grumpy, armed persons who will shoot at anything in a uniform. Knowing this, George Copsen has taken a pro-sheep position, in the vague hope that Baptiste Vasille or Ruth Kemner will begin the ovicide (which may or may not be the official word for a killing of sheep) and suffer the consequences. So far, it hasn’t happened, and a kind of steely cold war of livestock has developed in which we drive sheep toward the other forces in the hope of triggering a slaughter, and they drive them at us with very much the same in mind. An unofficial book is being made on which area commander will snap first, and the betting heavily favours Ruth Kemner, who is apparently something of a scary lady.

The second corollary, which is more interesting in an academic sense, but utterly irrelevant in the real world, is that sheep surviving for a prolonged period in a heavily mined area will gradually evolve, and left long enough would develop into more intelligent, combat-hardened sheep, possibly with sonar for probing the earth in front of them, extremely long legs for stepping over suspect objects and large flat feet to distribute pressure evenly and avoid activating the fuse. A warsheep would be a cross between a dolphin and a small, limber elephant.

The sheep currently surrounding us have not yet had time to evolve physically, and in the meantime have evolved behaviours and coping strategies instead. They follow humans quite precisely, walk slowly and the flock unit has been replaced by a loose-knit affiliation of individual sheep carefully watching each other for signs of suddenly flying into the air and getting spread all over the place. Some have started walking in single file. Loud bangs no longer scare them, or possibly they have gone deaf, and there is a sharp, alert feeling about them which suggests they know exactly where they have just stepped and can retreat along their own hoofprints quite readily. The march of progress has reached even unto the sheep of Addeh Katir.

Read this book.

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An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces

The winner of the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for physics was for a paper published in volume 33, issue 6 of the journal Applied Ergonomics. The paper, written by seven researchers in Australia, is titled “An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces.” Here’s the abstract:

Some occupational health and safety hazards associated with sheep shearing are related to shearing shed design. One aspect is the floor of the catching pen, from which sheep are caught and dragged to the shearing workstation. Floors can be constructed from various materials, and may be level or gently sloping. An experiment was conducted using eight experienced shearers as participants to measure the force exerted by a shearer when dragging a sheep. Results showed that significant changes in mean dragging force occurred with changes in both surface texture and slope. The mean dragging forces for different floor textures and slopes ranged from 359 N (36.6 kg) to 423N (43.2 kg), and were close to the maximum acceptable limits for pulling forces for the most capable of males. The best floor tested was a floor sloped at 1:10 constructed of timber battens oriented parallel to the path of the drag, which resulted in a mean dragging force 63.6N (15%) lower than the worst combination.