A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Hooptedoodle #331 - Zeno and the Comb-Over

Zeno of Elea is credited with being the originator of a number of famous paradoxes - of which Achilles and the Tortoise is probably the best known. I reckon Zeno was something of a one-trick pony - a lot of his repertoire was based around a single concept - the problem of visualising an infinite number of infinitesimal events. Once you've got the hang of that, his stuff is probably not worth spending much time on. At least not if you have as little imagination as I do.

 His Paradox of the Millet Seed may be described - and debunked - very briefly thus:

A single millet seed, when it falls, makes no sound; however, if you drop a ton of millet seed it will definitely make a noise. The implication is that a very large number of zeroes adds up to something greater than zero, which Zeno identified as obvious nonsense. Without getting into a philosophical discussion of infinity, this is flawed from the outset. When Zeno says that a single seed makes no sound, what he means is that we/he cannot hear it. There will be some disturbance of the air, even for one seed, so the point at issue becomes the threshold of human hearing, which, apart from anything else, varies from individual to individual. For example, you could drop a large iron bucket next to my mother and she would be unaware of it.

Achilles and the Tortoise is rather different, but again depends on the infinite divisibility of time and space. Achilles (who must have been a hustler) challenges a tortoise to a race, and gives the tortoise a start. By the time Achilles reaches the spot where the tortoise started, the tortoise will still be a small distance ahead. By the time Achilles has run this additional distance, the tortoise will still be slightly ahead. And so on - forever, says Zeno. Achilles will never catch him.

Where this puzzle falls down is that the infinite series of incremental distances during which Achilles fails to overtake the tortoise does not add up to the full race distance - it adds up to the point at which Achilles catches up with the tortoise. It does not require a celebrated ancient scholar to understand that there will be some point in the race at which Achilles catches up with his opponent, and that at all points before that he will not yet have caught him. After that, of course, Achilles disappears into the distance. The process of summing to infinity the decreasing steps only serves to mask what is obvious anyway, though it does raise the separate issue that Achilles would have to be careful to make sure that he didn't give the tortoise too much of a start, or philosophy as we know it would never recover.

A related, everyday paradox is that of the application of a simplified description to something which is really rather complicated. The example I have in mind is the concept of baldness. A man with no hair at all is obviously bald. A man with a lot of hair is not bald. A man with exactly one hair on his head is probably bald, but what about two hairs, three, 5374? - how many hairs does he require to stop being bald? The problem here is obviously one of terminology; "bald" is a rather crude on/off term - we really can't consider this seriously without some definitions and a lot of counting. For practical purposes, if someone describes someone else as bald, then they normally mean "the impression I got was that they didn't have much hair", which is not very precise but seems to serve for most everyday situations, without wasting too much time on the matter.

There are many such words - what is a "tall" person? Taller than average? Taller than me? Very unusually tall? There is a whiff of percentiles and survey data in there which is all a bit wearying, so we don't normally worry about it.



Enough. For today's post I only wish to consider the matter of baldness, so I guess we are in Zeno's millet seed country.

I visit my hairdresser every four or five weeks - five if it was cut very short last time. Normally a Thursday morning. My haircuts are quick and inexpensive, since I do not have much hair. Every time, we have the same discussion, as I glower in the mirror at the thinning section at the front - I ask her if she thinks it is yet time to get rid of that front bit. Not yet, she says - it is still hanging in there. If at any time I find that we are performing some trick to pretend that I have more hair than I really have then a klaxon will sound and we will stop and reconsider. Similarly, I have asked my wife to kill me if she ever finds me performing any kind of comb-over.

We'll be in touch
Reasons? Well, just personal baggage really. Mr Trump is a shining illustration of why we shouldn't do this, probably, but this train of thought is really triggered by the fact that today is the eleventh anniversary of my dad's death, and my memories of my dad are always dominated by the adventures to which he subjected us with his damned hair. If I must learn just one thing from my father, please let it be that.

Before anyone feels moved to offer condolences on this sad anniversary, please don't bother. My dad and I were never very close, unfortunately. He was a very clever man, but a very difficult, uncomfortable one. If it were possible to be given no capacity for empathy at all then he must have been close. With my dad, you could agree with him, and do what he said, or you could disagree with him, and fight about it, or you could do what I did, and move some hundreds of miles away, to get on with your own life. I don't feel bitter about any of this, by the way - everyone is different, everyone has to deal with things in his own way.

Eventually, of course, my parents became old and less able to cope, so they moved up to Scotland to be near me, which was the right thing to do, and I am happy to believe they enjoyed their last years up here together, and I certainly had to get involved in a lot of running around to help them, which is probably as it should be. My mum is still alive, and is now safely resident in a splendid little care home very close to my house, with which we are very pleased, but my dad's passing, though it was a shock at the time, meant mostly that my life suddenly became a lot more peaceful, and of course I got the opportunity to shuffle one more place up the queue for the Reaper.

Oh yes - the hair. When I was a little boy it became apparent that my dad was going bald. He must have been in his 20s. He had a bald patch on the crown of his head which he concealed by combing his hair over the patch, and keeping it in place with Brylcreem. All was revealed when he was sitting at the kitchen table, studying for his engineering exams - while his mind was elsewhere, he would wind a pencil into the long bits of hair, and tease them out to remarkable heights. Hey. My dad was baldy.

As the years passed, though most of this was out of my sight, this became more of a problem. By the time he moved up here, he must have had very little hair on top of his head, but he attempted to conceal this with the most complex edifice of hair from the edges. This was combed across from all directions - if you stood behind him, there was a strange horizontal parting above his neck, from which the hair headed upwards. These partings were all over the place, with hair heading in unnatural directions - the impression was that his cap probably screwed into place. He also was a devotee of Grecian 2000 dye - I don't know what shade he used, but the effect on his (presumably white) hair was of a vague nicotine stain - like pee-holes in the snow. And everything was cemented into place to combat the forces of gravity and weather with copious amounts of Harmony hairspray.

This progression does not seem to include my dad's shade
The cap was the life-saver, of course, but it took him ages to get ready to go anywhere, and he always had his comb with him.

What could go wrong?
On one occasion he had what was probably a mini-stroke - he fell into a flower-bed in his garden, and just disappeared. By the time the ambulance arrived he was indoors and sitting up and obviously recovering, but the ambulance could not leave until he had found his comb and arranged his hair. While they were waiting, the ambulance driver suggested to my mum that they might cut his hair in hospital, if only because of the impossibility of keeping it up to spec.

She, for the one and only time I ever heard, very quietly said, "Let's hope they cut it, and we can all get some bloody peace".

I'd never thought about it before, but she must have been required to help with this palaver. She must have washed and dyed his hair for decades - he certainly wouldn't have been able to do it all himself. She must also have cut it for him, since any self-respecting professional would just have refused. She was, in fact, an accomplice. Poor woman - presumably this was just to keep him happy.

I wonder what it was he thought he was doing? By this time, I guess it had just become a ritual (not unlike 50mm x 45mm MDF bases, I suppose), which had become somehow essential. Whom did he think he was fooling? What (to be blunt) did he think he looked like?

If my mother had been so inclined, or if he had had any friends (he didn't), then someone might have said, years earlier, that having a weird, nicotine-coloured pavlova on top of his head did not give the impression of hair, not to anyone, and that from the back, in fact, all this effort produced something not unlike a polar bear's arse. Not a worthwhile investment of time. Ridiculous. And all that combing and spraying while the world waited to go out for a walk was pointless.

Eventually, after a long and unusually healthy life, he started getting some angina problems. His medication was not very successful, he had periods of irregular pulse which were causing some alarm, and it was decided to take him into hospital in Edinburgh for tests. I was there when he left in the ambulance - once again there was something of a drama while he prepared his hair, but he was sitting up in the ambulance when he went.

The tests didn't go very well, and he was transferred to the Royal Infirmary, outside the south side of Edinburgh. While there he became ill, and then died, quickly and without much discomfort. All over. It was unexpected - a bit of a shock, to be sure.

The next morning I drove to the Royal Infirmary to sign the paperwork, and to collect my dad's possessions, which were in a couple of plastic carrier bags. His clothes, his spectacles, his shoes, his raincoat, his toilet bag, his cap, his wallet and the eternal comb. That seemed a bit weird - that's all you get back. I dropped the comb in the car park while I was stowing the bags, and I just put it in the litter bin. I was not going to waste any more time on that, thank you.

When my mum became too ill to live at home any more, I cleared her house. By this time my dad had been dead for nearly nine years, but his coiffure was still very much in evidence. All the armchairs and much of the bedding were stained with Grecian 2000 - very recognisable shade of Old Nicotine - and I found warehouse-sized cartons of Harmony aerosols in the cupboard in the spare room and in the attic.

And I bet he thought that no-one ever knew. Your secret is safe with us, Baldy.


  1. Your momther's remark to the ambulance driver was priceless!

    Best Regards,


  2. Classic.

    By the way, if a man utters an opinion in a forest and there are no women around to hear him, is he still wrong?

    1. I'm going to use a similar line in a best man's speech I'm giving on Thursday. The groom is getting married for the first time at the age of 52, so he's been blissfully unaware of how wrong he has been about many things for half a century.

  3. Many years ago I sat opposite a colleague who had a magnificent rug on the top of his head, which, when preoccupied with some Ministry conundrum, he used to idly scratch underneath with the stem of his pipe (that dates the story) and then sniff the result. It was probably the most disgusting thing I saw in my time as a Crown Servant. I can't now remember his face but do remember the pipe - it was one of those trendy 1970s Danish metal cooled things a Falcon I think they are called... Oh he had a goatee as well which didn't help.

  4. Having begun to lose my hair in my twenties, the best thing I did was to learn that I could just ask the barber for 'number two all over, please'…

  5. Thank you all, gentlemen. David - exactly the correct strategy - I intend to go for a Number Two myself (so to speak) as soon as the front bit passes its sell-by date. In my (very long) life I have never ever heard anyone laugh at someone's bald head, and many men choose to shave their heads now anyway. There has always been a lot of hilarity, however, surrounding hair-pieces and extravagent comb-overs. I cannot understand what the problem is. There was a time in the US, of course, when purchasing the most expensive toupee possible was considered very good flash indeed - don't see it myself.

  6. Well, I take after my Dad, the hair just gets thinner and thinner with no actual bald spots though the very crown is getting closer. Its a bit like slowly self-tonsuring.

    On my part I'd just let my hair do what it wants, I tortured it enough while serving queen and country, but my wife the dog groomer has free rein over what she does with it twice a year when she sets me down and picks up her VERY sharp pointy shears. After all, not only is she armed but she has to look at me and be seen beside me.

    1. I hope you get the health & safety film first. When I was a kid, the barber used to make young boys sit on a board placed over the arms of the chair. He also used to slap some stuff on your hair which set rock hard and smelled like a Turkish brothel - the height of sophistication. Can you still get a singe at the barbers?

    2. That sounds the same as my childhood barber...
      You could ask him for any of the hip and trendy styles you wanted and you always came out with a short back and sides and a head full of brylcreem... oh! and a red line across the back of your neck where he had used the clippers with maximum force to make the edge nice and straight...
      Oddly enough I still sport a short back and sides...

      All the best. Aly

  7. Sadly I have heard plenty of such laughter in years gone by - but these days I am no longer in the minority. At Salute the other week, I thought 'I am with my people..'
    The other best thing I did was buy a set of clippers for £15 - have not been to a barber in 20 years 😀

    1. Bravo David - I did the same (cheap clippers).. used them on the dog.. when the dog snuffed it I transferred ownership... :o))

    2. These clippers sound like the business - how do you avoid accidentally sculpting a picture of the Himalayas into the back of your head?

      I have a nifty little rechargeable trimmer for eyebrows and nose hair and stuff like that - I'm always worried in case it decides to disappear up my nose - OK so far. It wouldn't deal with actual hair, I think. I'll have to have a look online...