Friday, October 30, 2009

Discuss 6

'I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.'
Isaac Newton after losing £20,000 in the South Sea Bubble.

Gordon the Beijing Duck

So Blair is stuffed. I presume Brown has been running around Europe telling people not to have anything to do with the man in his final act of revenge for the Granita Betrayal. In spite of his public support, a Blair presidency would be a Brown nightmare. Anyway, Blair's saving of Brown last June has turned out to be pointless. Brown couldn't or wouldn't deliver on his side of the bargain, the presidential cap with flames and eagles. More to the point, one reason for Mandelson's June support of Brown - the Blair elevation - has gone. What with that and the dismal performance of our economy, Brown is no longer a lame duck, he is ready to be eaten with spring onions, cucumber, Hoisin sauce and pancakes.

Bernie Madoff

I've been reading about Bernie Madoff. This has made me wonder why people who have a lot of money always seem to want more. I want more money. I think £10 million would suffice. But then, I suppose, I would, indeed, want more. I probably couldn't afford a decent yacht, for example. So, say, I have £100 million. I think that would be enough. But, reading about Madoff, I see that there is no limit to the amount of money people want. This is obviously competitive. With £100 million on hand, you will almost certainly find yourself surrounded by people who have more. More would buy you a bigger yacht, perhaps one with an attached submarine. This is pathetic, of course, but, at this level, I don't think the possessions are anything more than signals. The real point is the pursuit of the abstraction of numbers on a bank statement. This is also pathetic. There used to be a joke about rich people phoning their money every morning. This feels psychologically accurate, the abstraction of money has become more real than what it buys. One of the reasons for the values in the art market - and, indeed, the amount of art - is the intuition of some rich people that there's something a bit thin about the money abstraction. They could read poetry, but that's a dangerous step too far away from money as it costs nothing, or a bit if you actually buy the books. So they buy art which is a dream team - it offers non-monetary values and it is very expensive. Anyway, that said, I still don't really know why people with a lot of money always want more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Discuss 5

'Egalitarianism is possible only in small social systems. Once a medium gets past a certain size, fame is a forced move.'
Clay Shirky

Goats Etc

I have nothing to say so I shall merely observe that the great Jim Lovelock has said expecting humans to save the planet is like expecting goats to do the gardening. Well, good news, apparently, goats can garden very effectively. Meanwhile, over in the Sunshine State, welcome to Arnie's Acrostic. Impossible man to dislike, Arnie.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Discuss 4

'Well, the computer changes epistemology, it changes the meaning of 'to understand'. To me, you understand something only if you can program it.... Otherwise you don't really understand it, you only think you understand it.'
Gregory Chaitin

Miliband's Generalissimo

I am intrigued by David Miliband's argument for Blair's presidency of the EU. He has a motorcade factor apparently. I won't be given the chance to vote for or against Blair any more than I was given the chance to vote against Brown. Now - call me anxiety-prone - I do find the idea of unelected presidents in motorcades somewhat alarming. It has - how shall I put it? - bad associations. Perhaps, pursuing the boy David's logic, Blair should also wear a white uniform covered in gold braid, medals and a sash. An enormous generalissimo's cap with a gigantic badge involving flames and eagles would be good. I'm sorry I'll miss that great spectacle. I shall, of course, have been 'disappeared', having been rounded up, kept in the wonderful new Olympic Stadium for three weeks and then dropped from a helicopter into the Channel. Good times.

Discuss 3

'We can never say 'merely' for metaphors, because that is what all descriptions are; we can never state just what something is, we can only describe what something is like - that is, to describe it in terms of other things that seem to us to have similar properties - and then to consider the differences.'
Marvin Minsky

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Discuss 2

'Discontinuity is a manifestation of independent individuality and autonomy, Discontinuity intervenes in questions of final causes and ethical and aesthetic problems.' Nicolai Bugaev.

A Brush with Deaf

About four weeks ago I lost most of the hearing in my left ear. If I stuck my finger in my right ear, everything seemed to be coming down a bad telephone line. After ignoring this for about two weeks, as one does, I became aware that it was changing my life. I was avoiding crowded places and constantly shifting to get my right ear pointing in the direction of significant noise. I realised that I was becoming even more anti-social and was adjusting to a more locked in life, all on the basis of a loss of about a quarter of my hearing. Finally, I went to Bones. He gave me steroids which made me feel great but didn't work. Then, yesterday afternoon, came the consultant. In the morning I felt a strange movement accompanied by a kind of click in my left ear. I turned on Radio 4 and realised my hearing had returned. The consultant told me I was bloody lucky. What I had was Sudden Hearing Loss (I think I knew that). Nobody knows what causes it, though my man favoured a virus, and, in general, if it doesn't spontaneously remit within two weeks then you've got it for life. Mine remitted after almost four weeks. The good news was that it seldom returns. I'm telling you this for two reasons. First, I thought of that great headline. Secondly, the effect on my life of even such a minor handicap was so profound. Everything is so fragile - obvious I know but worth a reminder every now and then.

Discuss 1

I am, periodically, going to put various quotations on this blog. They will be taken from my current reading. I shall not comment. The idea is that you should. Each one will be headline 'Discuss'. It is possible this will help me with a book I am writing and equally possible that it will not. It is important you do not know the subject of this book. Here is the first.

'... regarding ourselves as complex machines need not diminish our feelings of self-respect and should enhance our sense of responsibility.' Marvin Minsky.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Damien Hirst

Jonathan Jones is angry about Damien Hirst. Well, yes, the paintings are, indeed, poor. Nobody, however, seems to have commented on the way Hirst chose to disguise this fact. He treated the Wallace Collection show as an installation. He decorated two galleries with his own wallpaper and arranged the paintings so that we seem to be looking at rooms full of pictures rather than the pictures themselves. It's as if he's implying that somebody else did these paintings or that he did them and he feels he must signal some ironic distance to make it clear they don't really matter in themselves, only as part of a single, more general statement. It's a weird effect, made weirder when I was there by some smart art walker explaining the significance of the pictures to an evidently rich but dumb bloke. I felt sorry for Hirst for the first time. As Jones notes, the conceptual, anti-craft mania of the nineties is now pretty much dead and he's flailing around for the next big thing. I also went to the Frieze Art Fair and most of the conceptual stuff was just a bore, something that got in the way of the paintings, many of which were, in fact, superb and startlingly cheap - it's still the conceptual stuff that seems to attract the high prices. But photography is the thing. Taryn Simon is a marvellous artist. A picture of a ski lift which I can't find online made me catch my breath. Poor Damien has never managed that.

Cheryl Cole

The Telegraph letters include some thoughts on the most inappropriate music to play for a funeral. Tony Hallam writes, 'Sir, My friend has requested 'Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus." Mr Hallam's friend is a genius. Nige, as I recall, has his funeral music thoroughly organised. This includes Bryn Terfel singing Schubert's Litany for the Feast of All Souls, which seems about right. He didn't mention Nellie, but I feel she will have been on his shortlist. For myself, I am undecided, torn between The Jayhawks' Smile, You'll Never Find a Nessie in the Zoo and Mahler's Das Lied for der Erde. But I think Nige suggested minimising the dynamic range for funereal purposes, so I suppose none of these quite qualify. Cheryl Cole unaccompanied would fit as she seems unacquainted with range, dynamic or otherwise. I have only just become aware of the lady and I gather she has issues. I can't imagine these would get in the way of her budding career as a funeral singer. Or at least I hope not.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Digital Theatre

In The Sunday Times I write about Digital Theatre.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Catholics are Coming

Good grief! Benedict's cunning Rock Cakes are tapping up our boys! Now this is what Oik Nick should be getting upset about. It is, after all, a back-door attempt to drag us into the clutches of Europe. Today a few vicars, tomorrow rabid dogs, Silvio Berlusconi and smells and bells in all things. But, then again, I don't suppose Neckless Nick much likes the havering Anglos. A touch of the Vatican lash could be just the thing.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Thanks to the pheasant fiasco, I missed Nick Griffin on Question Time. A pity, it sounded like fun. I'm interested in his fondness for the idea of the racial purity of the English. Racial purity is a laughable concept to anybody who knows anything about genetics, almost as laughable, in fact, as that creepy obsession with ancestry. Go back a few hundred years and everybody is descended from everybody else. Family trees are a joke and I reckon I should be King, but so, probably, should you. Anyway, claiming racial purity for the English is more than just laughable, it's insane. We are such hopeless mongrels, as Daniel Defoe pointed out with riotous good humour (thanks, Andrew). Of course, there's cultural Englishness, involving mild depression, good humour (again) and general bafflement, and I'm all for that. But this Griffin oik seems to have none of these qualities. He seems to think our natural condition is flying Spitfires and Lancasters. But we only do that when we are really pissed off and even then with great reluctance.

Philosophy and the Pheasant

My determination to post again is proving hard to sustain. I was going to discuss Galen Strawson's views on death, but, immediately, two things went wrong. First, I realised the essay was philosophy for the sake of it, a terrible thing. I remember Galen at Cambridge. He had immensely long and thick blond hair. I wonder if this affected his subsequent intellectual development. The second thing that went wrong was that Blogger told me I was suffering from an error called bX-9d2teg, which I then learned doesn't exist. It was my very own error. I ground to a halt. But then I realised I have long nurtured strong feelings about pheasants. I was at a grand London club last night and I made the mistake I usually make at such places. I ordered the pheasant. It always feels like the right thing to do. The bird was, as usual, disgusting. Pheasants are not made to be eaten. In fact, the only reason they are eaten is that treating them as food justifies shooting them. People shoot them because they are big, dim-witted and slow-moving birds. I don't believe anybody not actually blind or paralytically drunk has ever fired at a pheasant and missed. Were it not that they are so common, we would appreciate their exotic beauty and the gentle comedy of their desperately slow and wildly-flapping take-off. Pheasant shooters would then be seen for the cads they are.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Smith, Gladwell, Humphrys and the Empty Restaurant

Okay, okay, here's a blog post. I had lunch with my new friend Robert Rowland Smith yesterday. It was all perfectly postmodern, aided by the fact that we were, for most of the time, the only two people in the upstairs restaurant at the Groucho. All the 'specials' were just for us. Anyway, Robert was on Today this morning talking to the increasingly postmodern John Humphrys. (I'm worried about this word, postmodern. I'm reading Naomi Klein and she uses it to describe the neolibs and necocons. I can see what she means, but surely it fits more comfortably with anti-ideologues like me and Robert. Or perhaps not. Being postmodern, I don't know anything.) Judging by his blog post, Robert wasn't entirely happy with the way the interview went. He says, in response, '... what we need, in a world of increasingly narrow thinking styles, is to keep our minds open not just to new ideas, but new ways of knowing in general.' Having read that I came across this from Malcolm Gladwell - 'Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.' Well, I agree with Robert (he was a Prize Fellow at All Soul's so disagreeing with him takes preparation) and I don't agree with Gladwell, though if it's just a question of survival and making loads of wonga, then I guess Malc knows a thing or two. Robert's for open-minded generalists, Malc's for specialists. Being a generalist myself I don't doubt that our role is diminishing, but I don't get the assumption that being smarter means studying statistics, accounting, whatever. That, in my book, sounds dumber. In a sense, the whole point of being a journalist lies in not being a specialist and the whole point of our contemporary predicament is that we are surrounded by specialists - pundits - who, as we know, are almost always wrong about everything. Generalists may not get things exactly right but they seldom gets things exactly wrong. Anyway, I just thought I'd say that because people have been moaning that I haven't been posting and now I am.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Richard Wilson

In The Sunday Times I interview Richard Wilson.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mantel and Simspons

In The Sunday Times I interview Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize winner. I also review John Ortved's Simpsons Confidential but it does not seem to be on the web site. Ah, thanks, Johnny.