Monday, November 30, 2009

Discuss 18

'In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings.'

Geoffrey Hill

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Buy Crunchies

Will Hutton is right, the takeover of Cadbury by Kraft would be a disaster. Kraft makes some of the nastiest foods in the world and Cadbury makes the Crunchie which should have three Michelin stars. The Americans can't make chocolate. The Hershey bar tastes like vomit. The loss of Cadbury would thus make our lives absolutely worse, like the takeover of Boots. Ah, but it's the free market. Yes, but we're not the market, Wall Street is. Buy boxes of Crunchies now.

Tallis, Hill, Astaire and the Glory of the Right Brain

Anyway, I've been having a very right brain few days. This, somehow, precluded blogging.
It all started a few days ago when I was about to post but then made the mistake of listening to Spem in Alium. This always has the same double effect. First, it makes me wonder if any of the music written in the next 450 years was worth the trouble. This feeling can last for several days. Secondly, it always sounds different to the point where I frequently have to check if I've put on the right track. This is puzzling because the work, though a 40-part motet, is actually quite simple. I can't explain this but it may be something to do with the way Spem seems to just happen rather than start and stop. It is also the strongest argument for religious belief I have ever heard, stronger even than Bach.
Then I made the further mistake of reading Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love. This is England now. Not much more needs to be said.
Finally, after reading that essay of Stanley Cavell, I watched some Fred Astaire movies. The solo number in Top Hat which ends with him miming the execution of the entire male chorus line is a modernist masterpiece. Like many of Astaire dances it starts and ends with a walk, making it clear that his art is an eruption into life. Dance is exalted walking.
That and pesky work is why I haven't been able to blog.

Warming and the Tyranny of the Left Brain

In The Sunday Times I write about global warming and I discuss the left-right brain divide with Iain McGilchrist

Monday, November 23, 2009

James and Browning

As I don't have anything to say today - or, rather, too much - I am relying on the words of others. I picked up Henry James's English Hours at the weekend. It has an essay on the interment of Browning in Westminster Abbey. First it made me laugh:

'A good many oddities and a good many great writers have been entombed in the Abbey; but none of the odd ones have been so great and none of the great ones so odd.'

Then it made me laugh and cry:

'Just as his great sign to those who knew him was that he was a force of health, of temperament, of tone, so what he takes into the Abbey is an immense expression of life - of life rendered with large liberty and free experiment, with an unprejudiced intellectual eagerness to put himself in other people's place, to participate in complications and consequences; a restlessness of psychological research that might well alarm any pale company for their formal orthodoxies.'

Henry James eh? Sometimes it does exactly what it says on the tin; sometimes it doesn't.

Discuss 17

But leave it now, leave it; as you left
a washed-out day at Stourport or the Lickey,
improvised rainhats mulch for papier-mache,
and the chips floating.
Leave it now, leave it; give it over
to that all-gathering general English light,
in which each separate bead
of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands
as revelation.

Geoffrey Hill, from The Triumph of Love

Sunday, November 22, 2009

For PZ Myers 3: Ross and Phoebe

It had crossed my mind to stop posting and hand over this blog to the commenters. They seem to be doing a better job than me. But perhaps I'd better straighten a few things out. Please note that at the end of this post P.Z.Myers will still be a jerk and I still won't be.
I was in the middle of writing on Friday when I noticed, as if for the first time, a habit of mine. For pace and economy I often set up a point of view without reservation or comment from me. Thus, for example, 'Hitler was right. Arnold Bonkers says....'. This seems to confuse people. Furthermore, I tend to write hybrid pieces - typically about 20 per cent column and 80 per cent news feature. The latter involves transmission of information, but not for the purpose of illustrating my own approval of disapproval of something or other. This further confuses people. On top of that, I had to shorten the Darwin piece that all this fuss was about by about 40 per cent at the last minute. It happens. This required me to tighten up my economy and pace habit even further. This definitely confuses people.
To be clear: I have no problem with the plausibility and coherence of a Darwinian explanation of the development of the eye. Indeed, to be honest, I don't care one way or another: it's not on my agenda or within my realm of competence, though I do regard myself as free to report the views of those who do find it unconvincing. On the other hand, I think Darwinism has become, in some hands, unhealthily imperious. It is presented as explaining everything. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is always said to be true because it must be. But, since we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain, this, for the moment, is an assumption too far.
Ten years ago, had I raised questions about Darwinism I might have been amiably dismissed by Darwinians as wrong or, perhaps, a touch eccentric. Indeed, I dimly recall an episode of Friends from that period in which sweet, scatty Phoebe challenges pompous, irritating Ross on the subject of evolution. Ross, in the end, retreats and Phoebe gets on with her sweet, scatty life, convinced she has won. It was Ross that was being satirised. Our sympathies were entirely with Phoebe. Doubtless today the swivel-eyed Myers mob would be firing off bile-laden letters of protest.
The big point is that, since that episode, ideology has migrated from politics to religion and science. This is bad for religion and very bad for science.
The minor reason it's bad for science is it generates public confusion and mistrust. So, for example, mention intelligent design and the likes of Myers will be hurling abuse. But I gather from reading John Gribbin's superb exposition In Search of the Multiverse that ID is, in fact, a perfectly respectable hypothesis among some physicists - the designer would not be a deity but a more technically advanced civilisation. So the world is 'designed' then? 'No!' howls Myers; 'Maybe,' murmur the physicists
But there's a bigger reason than that. Treating science as an ideology, an occasion for polemic and abuse, and anathematising those who dissent is profoundly unscientific. It is an attitude that will, in the end, damage not just science itself but science as a public institution. Science is, as Thomas Nagel put it, a 'view from nowhere', it is a method, not a posture towards the world. It assumes - and, indeed, attains - the possibility of a superhuman perspective. As such, it is a profoundly admirable and magnificent achievement of the human intellect. But it is only one such achievement. When science aspires to be anything else - ideology, for example - it is prone to delusion, fantasy and intolerance.
That is where we now are, a dangerous place where people set up web sites that abandon mere explanation and promote science as an ideology, as, in effect, an opinion held with such ferocity that all dissent must be crushed. This phase, I hope, will pass. But I am beginning to have my doubts.

Sendak and Cyberspace

In The Sunday Times, as Spike Jonze's film of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are opens, I, write about children's movies and I discuss censorship of cyberspace.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cameron's Sports Bra

I've had a lot of emails complaining that my Sunday Times article on Cameron's intellectuals wasn't on the ST web site. Now it is.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For PZ Myers 2

Regular readers may not be aware that, as a result of a mention by Andrew Sullivan, my For PZ Myers post has attracted many comments from the US Bile Belt. (Thanks, incidentally, to Peter Burnett whose analysis of Myers' debating style caught Andrew's eye.) Many of the bileists points out that I resorted to cheap abuse rather than engaging with Myers' points. This is true and has evidently freed those who loathe me so much to resort to the same tactics. I didn't take Myers on in detail because I don't have the time and I honestly don't believe he is capable of understanding a certain nuance of my position, which is, in truth, all of my position. As I said, I took part in the filming of a Dinner with Portillo last night - BBC4, probably in January. The subject was science and its place in the world. Though half the people at the table seemed to be on my side - this never normally happens - I did notice that there was one argument I could not get across. At one point I snapped at Portillo for being 'deliberately perverse' in not getting it, but, in fairness, he had to get a lot of other material into the recording. Finally, there was one glorious moment when Sir Mark Walport seemed to get it and, having been highly suspicious of my presence, suddenly realised he also agreed with me. The point is not especially difficult, but, somehow, I can never quite put it across persuasively. I will not try to do so here and now as I am working on a project that is, in effect, a new way of saying it. Anyway, go and check out the bile, it's all good.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Girly Boy Threat

Oh no! Never mind, as ever The Onion is on the case.

Discuss 16

'An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness has come about, reflecting, I believe the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.'

Iain McGilchrist


I watched the Brazil match. I know, I know, it was an England second team and we 'held' them to 1-0, but even so. Brazil were not just better, they were fundamentally better. Looking back, they've always been fundamentally better. It doesn't matter if the manager's not so good or the team is not quite their best, they play football in an entirely different and more effective way. This has been true for at least fifty years. How is it possible? It must be semantic. The word 'football' has a different definition in Brazil. I wonder what it is.

The Dinner Party at the End of the World

I lead a sheltered life. I had no idea, for example, that the world will end in 2012. Happily Roland Emmerich is on the case. It's all down to the Mayan Long Count calendar apparently. Or, maybe, it's due to the approach of the planet Nibiru. NASA has issued a detailed refutation, but, of course, this clear evidence of a cover-up only confirms the impending apocalypse. The Institute for Human Continuity disguises its web site as a film promotion but that was plainly forced upon them by the men in black helicopters who don't want us to know. It will be a great relief. Humans have become boring. Dinner parties are all the same, I spent one recently staring at the appalling wig of the man opposite - think dead squirrel coloured with Garnier Nutrisse Roasted Coffee B2. Why can't people just be bald and have done with it? Yet, ever the optimist, I have high hopes for this evening when I shall be taking part in a Dinner with Portillo for BBC4. The discussion will be in response to the question, 'Can scientists be morally neutral?' Why they should want to be morally neutral I can't imagine, but there you go.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fukuyama and Sports Bras

For reasons that are unclear my articles are appearing sporadically or late on the Sunday Times web site. Last week's Fukuyama is now here. This week I explain the place sports bras are playing in David Cameron's election strategy but it doesn't seem to be up yet

Friday, November 13, 2009

Two More Reasons Why It Is Necessary to Love America

1)Frank Fairfield - check out these three vids.

2)Stanley Cavell - especially when he writes about Fred Astaire.
'From the pas de deux of the men, Astaire moves into a trance-like solo, quasi-dancing, quasi-singing in which his realization that he has found his way (back) to dancing strikes him as having found his feet again, as having re-found his body, and his ecstasy is such that when, in his twirling or reeling through the arcade, he comes across a coin-operated photograph booth, he happily manoeuvres his body in it so as to have the picture taken of his feet or shoes (strictly, the shine on his shoes).'

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Discuss 15

'... the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.'
Albert Einstein

On Not Being a Gentleman

At the end of his column in the Telegraph, Toby Young tells the story of a man named Bill who gained a poor degree at Brasenose College, Oxford, and was classified by the university's appointments committee as 'not quite' meaning 'not quite a gentleman'. The Bill in question was William Golding who went on to become Brasenose's only ever winner of the Nobel prize. Would the then commitee have changed its mind knowing he was to win the Nobel? Obviously not. Being a gentleman is not conditional on such fripperies. On the other hand, a contemporary committee would be very unlikely to classify anybody as NQG, the term is just too class-laden. This is interesting. I have always been absolutely certain that I am not a gentleman, but I have known a few (Nige is one) - which is just a way of saying I believe in the idea. But what is the idea? Well, as a class distinction, it is somebody who, for example, eats pheasant, has a close relationship with his tailor, takes the weight on his elbows, treats non-gentlemen and women with unwavering courtesy and kills his enemies with immense regret. The pheasant apart, it's a nice package but too specific for me and, in the world in which we now live, it is no use as a defence of the gentleman. Most people will go through life never meeting such a person and, in any case, quite a lot of people who fulfil all those criteria turn out to be absolute swine. After some thought, I have come up with the one qualification that fits men of all classes, though not all creeds. A gentleman is not a fanatic. A fanatic, in this sense, obviously includes militant atheists and creationists and anybody possessed of vulgar certainty, but it also includes those who are fanatical about behaviour. I once wore black suede shoes to a London club and one member told this story for weeks afterwards. This is fanaticism. I would like to think this makes me a gentleman, but I am, alas, prone to red mists of fanaticism, though I never actually believe in this mist. I am working on it, however, and, in time, I hope to be able to look Nige in the eye, gentleman to gentleman.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I wept watching the two minute silence at 11am. I always do. There is something about the First World War that makes my hot tears spurt. Some years ago I visited the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. I went in touristy/aesthete mode - 'Lutyens, good, sometimes great architect. I ought to check this one out.' That didn't last the length of time it took me to get out of the car. For some reason, this object doesn't photograph well. In the brick, the Portland stone and in the sad, sad wind it overwhelms. Lutyens was a genius when he drew this. I know of no greater memorial. I wept continuously and uncontrollably. Go there.

Discuss 14

'Florensky saw a relationship between the naming of 'God' and the naming of sets in set theory: both God and sets were made real by their naming. In fact, the 'set of all sets' might be God himself.'
Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor

Freakonomics and Professor Nutt

Being, in general, unable to listen to myself on radio, I didn't hear last night's Night Waves. As a result, I don't know how much of the conversation I recorded earlier with Steve 'Freakonomics' Levitt was broadcast. Anyway, the first thing I did was pick him up on a line in Superfreakonomics - 'Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work - whereas economics represents how it actually does work.' I said such statements made me reach for my revolver. He reeled at this slightly so I modified 'revolver' to 'water pistol'. The point was lost until, later, I brought it up again and explained what I meant. He had the grace to agree it was a fair point. What I meant was that economics, like any other discipline, is not how the world works, it is a view of how it works. Relegating morality - or art or religion or philosophy or psychology or biology or any number of things - to some secondary category which is, somehow, less real is absurd. These are as much facts in the world as financial transactions or particle colliders.
That is why I'm on the side of Alan Johnson in the Nutt affair. Being preoccupied, I paid no attention to this flurry beyond noting that nice Mr Johnson finally seemed to have acquired a spinal column. I know the legal status of drugs is important, but it is an issue that has never grabbed me.
Then I saw Professor Nutt on television saying something about scientists providing the facts, implying that politicians dealt in some lesser currency. I fumbled for my revolver before remembering, once again, I do not own one. Nutt, who seems to be a hard case, appears to think that there is a realm of 'facts' to which only science has access and conclusions drawn from this realm should be unquestioningly obeyed. He is confused.
Science is a very specialised undertaking. Its methods do, indeed, provide privileged access to certain kinds of knowledge. But they do so by limiting the scope of that knowledge. If the Large Hadron Collider throws up a Higgs Boson, it will be a great and fascinating triumph. However, I don't expect it to have any impact whatsoever on how I shall vote at the next election. In the human sciences, perversely perhaps, I expect even less. Freakonomics is a brilliant and entertaining discipline and that tells much better and more persuasive stories than macroeconomics, but it suffers from the same embarrassing problem. It cannot, as Levitt acknowledged, make reliable or useable predictions. It must, therefore, restrict itself to being a commentary on the world competing with many others.
Nutt's facts may be a slightly different matter, perhaps a touch more exact. They may play a large part in political decision making. But they must compete with other facts that, for the moment and, perhaps, for ever, cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. Facts also happen outside the lab and resigning scientists may be a sign that even this government is, occasionally, capable of governing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brown's Condolences

As Nige says, the condolence letter unpleasantness makes one feel sorry for Gordo. Keep this up and he'll win the election on a pity vote. It does prove my own point about the ability of the media to make any war other than the most explicitly defensive almost impossible to conduct. This has been an issue ever since Vietnam, of course. During the Falklands, we dealt with it by imposing ruthless media control. This would now be impossible. This raises the question: what is possible? Brown hasn't got an answer - and neither did Blair - which is why he so flagrantly evades the issue at every opportunity and why we seem to be burdened with a succession of very low quality defence secretaries. Spinning violent death is beyond the spinners.

Naming the Erection

I can exclusively reveal that the Cambridge University Library is to be renamed the Durex Library. The venerable condom maker seized this golden sponsorship opportunity when it was pointed out that the building had been called 'this magnificent erection' at the opening ceremony. In my days under the library's sinister, threatening shadow it was assumed this had been said by George V. Now, it seems, the words that ensured the Durex deal were spoken by none other than Neville Chamberlain.

The Existence of Asperger's

Simon Baron-Cohen complains about the possible removal of Asperger's Syndrome from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. Asperger's is not regarded as sufficiently different from classic autism. The APA book defines mental illness for the world and, crucially, for insurance companies. This has always been an alarmingly subjective business. As Baron-Cohen points out, it is not yet possible to define a mental illness in terms of its causes, only in terms of its symptoms and symptoms, especially mental ones, are slippery things. I am not, to my knowledge, mentally ill. But I have just been reading Melanie Klein - brilliant - and she seemed to nail me on a number of counts. In fact, I suspect she nails most of us. That amounts to a character study, not a diagnosis, and no treatment is required, certainly not prolonged encounters with Gabriel Byrne. Yet, doubtless, I could get hold of the APA 'bible' and find something wrong with me. At the other end of the spectrum, however, lies Asperger's, a real and terrible condition. But there it is, symptom-defined like everything else and subject to the kind of re-ordering to which Baron-Cohen is objecting. Mental illness remains a curiously weightless conception.

Design a Building for Me

A magnificent response from Uncle Dick Madeley to my request for architectural assistance. I find the distant hills strangely moving.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Discuss 13

'The universe looks like a put-up job.'
Fred Hoyle

Design a Building for Me

Will Alsop has asked me to draw - my drawing is about as good as my skateboarding - a building for an Italian magazine feature of some kind. It has to be a multi-purpose building. I would like suggestions and drawings, but I don't know if you can put those in comments. Preferably these will not be completely stupid, though somewhat stupid is probably okay.

Afghanistan 2

From where I'm sitting, I don't think it's possible, honest or meaningful to have an opinion about Afghanistan. It's not going well, our people are dying in a dubious cause and the Karzai government is corrupt; on the other hand, it sounds like a good idea to kill Taliban and withdrawal would be a regional catastrophe. I could stick a pin in 'fight on' or 'withdraw' and then get all columnistic about it. But why?
Anyway, I just heard this soldier on the Today programme. He drew attention to the standard, withdrawalist statement about the conflict - 'Of course, I support our troops, but I don't support the cause.' The soldier said the troops supported the cause and the best way to support them was to do the same. In other words, the engagement of our troops is co-extensive with the cause.
Now it's easy to question this argument by generalising it. Would a German have been right to support the SS guards at Auschwitz because they were 'our boys'? Well, no. But our troops are not SS guards and our rulers are not Nazis. We should be able to allow ourselves a reasonable degree of confidence that somebody, somewhere, has thought long hard and humanely about this deployment. Most don't because of contemporary mistrust of the motivation and wisdom of politicians and because of the intensity of the media focus. By historic standards, our casualties in Afghanistan are light, but each one is given maximum emotional impact.
Once we would have believed our cause was just on principle - simply because we are who we are - and, to some extent, the Americans still do this. Now we can't unless we are able to identify a clear case of national security. Brown knows this and his primary argument is that fighting the Taliban will keep the terrorists off our streets. This seems unlikely.
The point is that neither a universal cause - we are fighting for justice and democracy - nor a patriotic one - it will be better for these people if we, the British, sort this out - has any traction. Supranational bodies like NATO or the UN provide some cover but unity always seem to crumble when the going gets tough. This raises the question of whether we can fight any wars at all, any, at least, that are not immediately defensive of our home territory. Perhaps, you may say, that's a good thing. But I wonder.

Discuss 12

'I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.'
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How Did New York Get Nicer?

Simon Heffer sticks to the view that it was Giuliani and Bratton's zero tolerance strategy that made New York a nicer, safer place. In Freakonomics Levitt and Dubner deny this, saying the drop in crime had already begun, there had already been a police hiring binge, crime was dropping everywhere not just in New York and this - their killer counter-intuitive argument - was a result of the legalisation of abortion. Poor single women started aborting future hoodlums. I don't know which side I'm on. The improvement in New York since the seventies when I first went there is certainly spectacular. London is now a more alienating city. One question would be: is the improvement in New York solely a function of the falling crime rate or is there some other force at work? The city feels better in all kinds of ways, not just because one no longer feels one might be mugged. Perhaps this is a knock-on effect or perhaps the zero tolerance strategy drew the citizens together, gave them a communal purpose, in some intangible way. This would, of course, be reinforced by 9/11. Anyway, I don't know and I'm recording a discussion with Levitt for Radio 3 on Tuesday, so perhaps I ought to make up my mind.

Read Nick and Weep

Great piece by Nick Cohen. He's absolutely right, MP's expenses has become a distraction from proper City regulation. I presume health reform is distracting the Americans from the same goal. Nick rightly mentions Larry Summers as one of the Americans standing in the way of bank reform. It is worth noting something Summers said in 1991:
'Spread the truth - the laws of economics are like the laws of engineering. One set of laws works everywhere.'
Dolly Parton said it cost a lot to look as cheap as she did. Equally, it takes a lot of education to be as wrong as that, Larry. Anyway, in case you were wondering whether the City boys were working on the next ruinous scam - yes they are. Of course, bonuses are back up there and, in New York, the bankers have even jumped the queue for H1N1 vaccine. This time it's much more fun because there is less competition and more cash to play with thanks to quantitative easing. This is what it sounds like, a laxative. Assuredly, the bitch that bore them is in heat again.

Haneke - Fukuyama

In The Sunday Times I interview Michael Haneke. I also interview Francis Fukuyama twenty years after his End of History essay appeared - however, I can't, for the moment, find the link.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Discuss 11

'The concentration on violence - riots, assassinations, uprisings, and civil war - valuable in itself for understanding how such things happen and what might be done to hinder them from happening, as well as for showing to what red hells our sightless souls may stray, gives a misleading picture of religious conflict by representing it in its most pathological forms. There are profounder matters at work than mere unreason, to which, after all, all human enterprises are subject, not just those concerned with the Meaning of Life.'
Clifford Geertz

For PZ Myers

Read Michael Ruse in The Guardian now. There, bracing wasn't it? I note there are 1,000 plus comments. The ones I read were all anti-Ruse and pro-Dawkins. But Dawkins is a very context-sensitive meme. In The Telegraph the comments would probably be pro-Ruse and anti-Dawkins. I note also the appearance of this character P.Z.Myers. I've never read him before but I now discover he once did me over - 'How stupid are the editors and managers who keep paying for his badly written lumps of self-contradictory fatuousness?' Okay, I'm prepared to accept that I may be wrong about everything - I wake up every morning thinking just that - and PZ may be right, but 'BADLY WRITTEN'! Coming from this sub-verbal sack of shit that's a bit rich. I mean just scan his stuff. 'Badly written lumps' needs a bit of work, PZ, if you really want to nail me on grounds of literacy. 'Sub-verbal sack of shit' is so much better, no? PZ knows as much about prose as I do about angling (which is, in fact, slightly more than usual because I'm getting to sleep by reading Carl Hiaasen's Double Whammy) and he has an ear that would be made of tin if it weren't made of lead. Intellectually, of course, he's beneath consideration, but I won't go there. I'm with Napoleon on the subject of PZ - 'Never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake.'

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Comment Moderation On

Sorry comment moderation is now fully on. I was attacked again, this time by Supra Shoes, estimable footwear I don't doubt.

Discuss 10

'Moderates by definition have no principles.'

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Attaining Recoherence

Dear God! I was just thinking I had a moment to blog and this drops into my lap. We can use quantum entanglement at the macroscopic level. Who knew? The mind reels. Our problem is that 'entanglement thus foils entanglement, a process known as decoherence.' But we may be able to recohere or, rather, prevent decoherence. It's all I ever wanted to do. Perhaps they'll have recoherence sweat lodges in Scotland or weekends in Hampshire or, for the very busy, an awayday in Godalming. It beats aligning your chakras any day.
Don't you just love physicists? Well, no, of course not. But they can be just so damned interesting. Physics is a room full of Peter Mandelsons.
PS It just struck me that, if any of this is true, everybody is wrong about everything.

Discuss 9

'That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the state of nature, the state of art of an organised polity.'

Spam Attack

I was hit by a Spam attack last night - 250 comments, mainly about Ugg boots and Nike trainers. I felt dirty all over. I have now set comment moderation for all posts older than 14 days.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Discuss 8

'For all of which, the complexity of our minds, or of our behaviour, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether our cognitive architecture evolved under selection pressure. I do think it's remarkable that nobody seems to have noticed this.'
Jerry Fodor

Discuss 7

'One of the most annoying things about the modern world is that it is so much less simple than it used to be.'
Bertrand Russell

In Treatment

I just heard a 14-year-old Pakistani boy on the radio. His entire family had been killed by a bomb. It made me think of In Treatment. I know people who are addicted to this TV series which consists solely of (fictional) psychotherapy sessions conducted by Dr Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). We see successive sessions involving the same patients. Only one of these - the young gymnast - seems to me to be ill by any imaginable definition. The rest are just screwed up within normal parameters. They turn up just to talk. This makes it hard to see what good Weston is doing. How would he/they know they'd been cured? And why expend so much time and intellect on people who seem to be functioning as well as anybody else? I am not addicted to In Treatment, but I keep watching in a state of sick fascination.
That Pakistani boy will probably need therapy but he won't get it. Weston costs $150 an hour. This point is, I know, pretty dodgy. The boy may suffer Sudden Hearing Loss and he probably won't get much help with that either. I am as spoilt as Dr Weston's patients. Except that I was definably ill. To be confused, angry, mildly paranoid, delusional or depressed is not to be ill, it is to be conscious. To treat these states as illness is to believe in some other, ideal mental state in which they vanish. Unconsciousness would seem to be the only such state. This is delusional and absurdly self-indulgent. I suspect this is why I found the perpetually psycho-analysed Woody Allen so objectionable.
I'm not being fair to therapists, of course. In Treatment is just a TV show and, doubtless, my suspicions of the process probably say something nasty about me (Adam Phillips, a brilliant man, once nearly trapped me with that one but I veered swiftly away). Furthermore, the idea of psychotherapy is fascinating. I see it as medicalised Henry James. He, also, would be no help to that boy.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Citizen Kane

Yesterday I saw Citizen Kane at the BFI. It was the first time I had seen it on the big screen. My previous view of the film was that it was amazing, technically superb and, as an American myth, tremendously potent. Yet, for the most part, I found it unmoving, even meretricious. On the big screen, my reservations were refuted and, immensely moved, I kept tearing up. The point is, I realise, the theatricality of the piece. On the small screen this is lost or it strikes a false note; on the big screen it makes perfect sense and the characters, previously a touch de trop, were seen as florid creatures trapped within the confines of the medium, like the caged animals in the newsreel shots of Xanadu. The central drama of the film is not Kane, of course, it is the reporter's progress through the story. He is the audience's surrogate and guide and it is he who, just before the glorious final tracking shot, drops his professional mask and, having attained wisdom beyond yellow journalism, undermines the payoff by saying whatever Rosebud was it would tell us nothing about the real man, it was just a piece of a jigsaw. Thus the burning sledge becomes everything and nothing. Kane is still not the greatest ever film, but it is up there.
I note, incidentally, that Spielberg bought the sledge for $60,500. To which news, Welles responded, 'I thought we burned it.'

The X Factor

'You should see it,' said my wife, '15 million people watch it.'
'But,' I protested, 'they are 15 million bad people.'
I watched it. Here are my observations.
1)The oiky estate agent presenter should take out a restraining order against his tailor.
2)The instrumentation was sluggish and horribly arranged and the miking was so bad that the sound stage was utterly flat making it an effort to hear the singers at all.
3)'Cheryl Cole' wore a dress from the wardrobe department of the original series of either Doctor Who or Star Trek. Simon Cowell's haircut was redolent of the Mercedes G-Wagen, very flat-sided. The function of the latter was to pass through narrow gorges; I cannot imagine the function of the former. His cleavage was unwise.
4)The other judges presented as severely bi-polar.
5)All the singers I could hear were flat.
6)Amusingly, the twins John and Edward were accused by Cowell of being flat. As they were performing Queen's monotonous chant We Will Rock You, the charge of being 'flat' seemed beside the point. They were the only act that managed to overcome the sound stage problem.
7)None of the singers understood phrasing. Or melody. Or rhythm.
8)The conceptual problem of the show is that it makes the performers pathetic supplicants - before the judges, the voters and the coaches. It is impossible to be a supplicant and command the stage. The twins pulled it off.
9)All the dramas involving the judges were patently rigged. The whole thing was cynically manipulative to a degree I would not have believed possible.
10)The 15 million viewers are not bad. They are cattle.