Sunday, 26 November 2017

Book review: The end of the liberal order? Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria, 2017

Two intellectual heavyweights debating whether liberal international order is on the wane. Ferguson argues it has been for about a century, whereas Zakaria argues it's still going strong and worth fighting for. At times the question seems academic: while Ferguson argues that globalisation has increased inequality, he doesn't dispute Zakaria's point that it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty - which made me think: if something's working, does it matter what?

But actually, it's important for deciding where we should direct our efforts and resources to further global peace and prosperity: into things like the UN and EU, or into beneficent, cooperative nation states.

It's an interesting debate, but the downside of a debate is that it doesn't come to a tidy conclusion like a typical book, but rather leaves the audience or reader to decide which argument won out. Yet with a typical book you can choose to disagree, whereas here I was left agreeing and disagreeing with both debaters on certain points, and essentially just wanting more.

But still, a decent way to spend two hours.

Friday, 20 October 2017

If I could code I'd ... #3

If I could code I'd...

Write a script for a way of doing a google search for a term plus a string of dates, that would open the results for each date in a different browser tab. (Thereby helping journalists etc find when something happened / is happening.)

...but I can't.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On creativity

I wrote here about how there are thought to be essentially only three ways in which several things can be related or connected: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause or effect.

Creativity is often talked about as making connections between disparate things. For example, Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996 that "Creativity is just connecting things."

But is making connections the only way we can be creative?

A recent article by Dan Jones in Nature, reviewing three books on creativity, suggests not - depending on what you define as a "thing".

In their book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Jones says, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt "trace the roots of creative thinking to three key mental skills: bending, breaking and blending".

Clearly blending involves connecting two things, but what about bending and breaking? I would say these don't, or at least not if we want to look at things in the most fruitful way.

As an example of creative bending, Jones cites architect Frank Gehry's warping of the lines and planes of buildings into waves and curves (see also Zaha Hadid). Now, you could frame this as connecting unbent buildings with any of a number of things that cause the building to bend, for example: mechanical stresses; the concept that curves are beautiful; or even, to get meta about things, the suggestion that bending is a key skill at the root of creativity.

(The bending doesn't have to be physical, btw: Jones also cites Einstein's bending of how we look at the fabric of the universe with his theories of relativity. )

But this seems silly: to say that something has been connected with the idea that it would be better off bent is an unhelpfully roundabout way of saying it was bent.

Likewise breaking, which Jones exemplifies with cubist painting, also seems better thought of as a standalone process.

So it does seem that creativity is not just connecting things, as Jobs asserted: it can also be purposeful, novel changing of a single existing thing.

Indeed, it seems to me that Eagleman and Brandt have (or perhaps Jones has) overlooked various other kinds of creative changing - for example, of colour, texture, size, proportion, orientation, stiffness and surface contiguity (say, whether or not something is perforated).

So are these two subsets of creativity (connecting and changing) exhaustive - do we now have a complete taxonomy of creativity?

Jones goes on to talk about another book, Mario Livio's Why?: What Makes Us Curious. This, according to Jones, says that curiosity, and subsequently creativity, is piqued by novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict. So what mechanisms does creativity piqued by these prompts act through?

It occurs to me that each of these four things can be not only properties inherent to a thing one is presented with, but also properties that one can oneself introduce to a thing. Could this introduction in itself be a creative act?

Clearly bringing something into conflict entails connecting it to something else, so that's already part of our taxonomy. But what about making something more novel, more/less complex or more/less certain? Can any of these things be done without connecting something to something else, or without changing it in a way that isn't better described as simply twisting, bending, snapping it, etc?

Is, say, the solving of a complex mental problem best characterised as a creative mechanism in itself or as an abstract form of straightening / unravelling - i.e. changing?

(Holy shit. I was going to ask whether problem solving might also be better thought of as an abstract form of rearranging multiple tangled strands, and that made me realise that not only can single things be creatively changed but so too - duh - can the connections between connected things. Hence that's a third type of creativity right there, or a combination of the two primary types, if you prefer.)

Likewise, can something be made more/less certain without adding or removing something else to or from it? (Removing might seem to be another creative category, but following my holy shit moment about changing connections in the above paragraph, I'm going to lump the removal of a connection in with other changes to connections, or bracket disconnecting with connecting.)

I'm not sure, and this post is getting a bit long, so let's end by summarising:

Creativity is not just connecting. Creativity includes changing, which is more than just bending, breaking and blending; it includes connecting, which seems to be limited to likening, bringing into proximity, and affecting; it includes changing connections or disconnecting; and it might also include other things.

To be continued...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Answering for Verhofstadt

The European Parliament's Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt, gave a talk at the London School of Economics on 28 September, on the future of Europe after Brexit. In the Q&A afterwards I asked him a question that he said was an "excellent" one he would return to later. He never did.

The question I asked was whether there was not a contradiction in the talk he'd just given: he'd said that the 48% of people who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum were "too large a minority to ignore", and then set out his vision of a deeper, more united future EU. I asked him how he could back the views of the Remain 48% while his vision seemingly ignores the views of, say, the 46.2% of Austrians who voted for the euro-sceptic Norbert Hofer in that country's 2016 presidential election. I also asked whether a more flexible, multi-speed EU might not be more democratic, given the breadth of opinion, and more robust to the ebb and flow of nationalism.

I would have been very interested to hear Verhofstadt's thoughts on this. But in lieu of his, here are mine.

It's not necessarily hypocritical to want to back the views of one minority but not another. Or rather, one could seek to back the views of every minority, but reluctantly decide one can't in a given case if doing so would be more damaging overall.

In the case of the Remain 48%, there's good reason for thinking that taking their views into account would actually better represent the desires of the biggest chunk of voters. The Brexit referendum was poorly designed, and told us nothing about the type of Brexit that Leave voters wanted. But we have good evidence from surveys to think that a majority of voters would like to remain in the single market, for example - a closer future relationship with the EU than the government is set to deliver.

I don't know much about the Austrian presidential election, but for argument's sake let's imagine that every one of the pro-Hofer voters would have settled for nothing less than Austria leaving the EU. In that case, backing their views would be less representative overall, since a majority of people voted for the pro-EU van der Bellen.

The alternative explanation is that Verhofstadt backs the Remain 48% and not the Hofer 46% simply because he thinks he knows what's best for everyone, and that the Remain 48% are right while the Hofer 46% are wrong. That might not be a stance he would be keen to admit to taking. If asked about it, he might dodge the question.

(It's interesting to contrast that hypothetical with the known stance of Theresa May, who is backing the most extreme interpretation of the narrow Leave victory even though she wanted a Remain outcome. She's neither taking on board the views of the 48% minority nor sticking with the courage of her convictions. Instead, she's hoping that by pandering to the extremists in the 52% even though she expects it to damage the country, she'll see off any challenges from within her own party. Her game is short-term personal and party politics, as opposed to what's best for the long term.)

That brings us to my second question. Whether a more rigid, united EU would be more or less robust to nationalist challenge depends on whether it would be sufficiently more effective to generate more additional positive feeling than the additional negative feeling that would be generated by ignoring the views of euro-sceptics.

I don't claim to know the answer to that question (unless you count this piece I wrote). Verhofstadt, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker do. That's why they're politicians. And in fairness to them, they all won elections. But then, voters' views change: time will tell whether Verhofstadt et al are right, and whether those who voted for them last time around will stick with them and their federalist stablemates in future.

Evolving bucket list, autumn 2017

[Numbers 1 to 40 written in Spring 2014. Numbers 41 to 96 and strikethroughs and comments on numbers 1 to 40 added 30 December 2015. First publication 30 December 2015.]

1. See Tool live. - They're touring in 2016, I think?
2. Visit Barcelona. - I expect it'll happen sooner or later...
3. Visit Iceland. - Do with someone as a couple?
4. Watch "1984".
5. Read War and Peace. - I read Anna Karenina instead; W&P can wait 20 years...
6. Visit New York City. - AAC?
7. Visit Venice and Rome. - AAC?
8. Visit Japan. - With whose money?! AAC?
9. Write a book. - But what, FFS!!!
10. Write a screenplay. - BWFFS!!!
11. Ride a motorbike. - Leave London and get a licence?
12. See Henry Rollins live. - He's touring in 2016...
13. Read one of Henry Rollins' books. - Let me save a few quid, then I'll do it.
14. Run my own business. - BWFFS!!!
15. Own a rock bar. - Leave London to do it?
16. Get married. - Ha. You kill me.
17. Have kid(s). - Should probably find a woman first. A keeper, I mean. See 16.
18. Watch Easy Rider.
19. Watch Dirty Harry.
20. Read Moby Dick. - Less keen now. I think it'd bore me.
21. Play a venue as a drummer. - Trying to join a band...
22. Shoot a gun. - AAC/Group?
23. Have a go at welly toss. - AAC/G?
24. Go to a football world cup game. - Eh. Whatever.
25. Meet Henry Rollins. - Christ, I need to find additional people to admire...
26. Visit South America. - Quit my job and do it? Wait 6 months? 12?
27. Visit Cuba. - See 26
28. Visit Vietnam. - See 26
29. Try a hallucinogen. - Less keen now. I like my sanity. Sort of.
30. Visit the highlands. - AAC?
31. Visit Ireland. Visit the rest of Ireland - AAC?
32. Visit New Orleans. - See 26
33. Be a radio DJ. - How?
34. Make a short film. - BWFFS!!!
35. Curate or programme a show or exhibition. - BWFFS!!!
36. Throw a throwing knife. - Or an axe? AAG?
37. Get over 1000 views for a single blog post. - Trying!
38. Own a car or motorbike. - Leave London?
39. Sail somewhere. - Haha, with whose money?
40. Visit Vegas. - See 26.
41. Play squash. - Unwrap the racket you've had for 18 months and find a friend who plays, you loser!
42. Get a short story published in print. - BWFFS!!!
43. Get a poem published in print. - Ha, you don't even read poetry!
44. Get a book review published in print. - Up your game, son!
45. Get a film review published in print. - Up your game, son!
46. Record an album. See 21.
47. See a million in my bank account (earned). Pounds, euros or dollars. - Erm... come back to me on this one.
48. Give blood. - Just do it, you useless shitsack!
49. Buy someone a present they really like, instead of your usual crap. - Erm... get to know ... people?
50. Design and build some furniture. - Leave London? No, not to build furniture. Give me a break! Take a woodwork class? Three years of them at school didn't achieve much...
51. Climb a mountain. - Any one will do. What's the nearest of the UK's big 3?
52. Climb Kilimanjaro. - See 26. Try not to be too big a tourist twat while you're about it.
53. Be in a good club for New Year's Eve - AAC/G. Not got long to do this one! Cos I'm 30 I mean, not cos it's Dec 30th.
54. Do a standup routine. - Whoa there! The most terrifying thing on two legs? But you aren't funny! Nick someone else's routine...?
55. Do some amateur dramatics. - Google some societies. Stop being a coward. Read a ... play? Read plays!
56. Get better at chess - Google some clubs. Improve online first? Clubs seem pretty unwelcoming!
57. See the northern lights. - Everyone else seems to want to! See 3.
58. Join a cult, just briefly. - Google "London cults?" Does Scientology count??
59. Live on a commune. - Not really compatible with most of the rest of the list, but sure... Does Scientology have any??
60. Go to another festival that involves camping. - Will never ever remember or be sufficiently alert to get Glasto tickets again. Play Glasto?! See 21.
61. Go to a festival in Barcelona. - See 2.
62. Go to Burning Man. - See 40.
63. Meet the President of the USA. - Build a really complicated clock??
64. Go to space. - May as well aim high... See 47.
65. Do something selfless. - Try thinking about someone other than yourself for two minutes??
66. Get an academic paper published. In print or Open Access online. - Get a PhD? Wait, maybe start with a Master's? BWFFS!!! Leave London?!
67. Walk across the roof of the O2. - Find out how much it costs. (£35. Not horrendous.) AAC/G?
68. Run up the stairs of a massive building, for or not for charity. - Start trying doorhandles?
69. Do an oil painting. - Google painting classes? Buy a pipe and slippers, granddad?
70. See a desert. - See 26.
71. See the pyramids. - See 26.
72. Read Homage to Catalonia. - Visit Bookmongers. Get some Amis too.
73. See Underworld live. - Start saving. AAC/G?
74. Do a driving holiday. - Take refresher lessons? Get a bike license? (No, saddle sore!) AAC/G?
75. Go canoeing or kayaking, whichever is easier on the back - AAC/G?
76. Try surfing! - See 26.
77. Live in a foreign country for at least 6 months. - Leave London? (Duh!) - Now?!
78. Collaborate on something. - Get good at something! BWFFS!!!
79. Get a mentor. - Join the ... circus? No. Approach older men in bars and ask them for life advice?
80. Be a mentor. - BofWFFS!!!
81. Run a marathon. - Keep checking websites for signup dates.
82. Try fell running. - Try not to fall on the fell. Find a fell. What's a fell?!
83. Own a nightclub. - See 47. Alternate with 15?
84. Try falconry. - Google it? AAC?
85. Take piano lessons. - See 47. Drumming would come first, FFS.
86. Visit Moscow and St Petersburg and Lake Baikal. - After Russia pulls out of the Crimea, stops killing journalists and dissidents and lets gay people live... Topple Putin?
87. Conduct an interview you're really, really pleased with. - Decide who you'd really, really like to interview. BWhoFFS!!!
88. Get a GOOD feature published in print. BWFFS!!!
89. Try skiing and/or snowboarding. - See 26.
90. Get fluent at German. - Keep hammering DuoLinguo? So dull! Move to Berlin?
91. Read Madame Bovary. - Bookmongers again.
92. Read at least the first volume of A la Recherche de ... - Bookmongers? The library?
93. Read Dubliners. - In German parallel text?
94. Get a dog. - Leave London?
95. Watch The West Wing and The Wire. - Scope some charity shops?
96. Think of something better than 95...

Christ, I'd better get cracking...
Pisspoor progress....

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Suffering for your art

"The power to resist makes the hero journey affective. And for the audience to undergo the hero journey, it's essential that the writer undergo the journey. That's why writing never gets any easier [...] you can't sing the blues if you haven't had the blues."
David Mamet, Three Uses of the Kife

"Each time a painter realised that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanied it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art [...] Every exceptional work was the result of a prolonged successful struggle."
John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Sunday, 17 September 2017

What do people do all day? #3

"Every day was just an absolute nightmare. I didn't have anything to do. Being an early riser meant my day was done and dusted by nine o'clock in the morning. There's only so much guitar you can play, so much shit TV you can watch. You end up just going to the pub. Boredom will kill you, man."

Liam Gallagher as interviewed by Cian Traynor for Huck magazine

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Brexit and the need to be dominated

In Three Uses of the Knife, Pulitzer-winning writer David Mamet's book on the nature and uses of drama in art, politics and life, Mamet makes the claim that people have a "wish to be controlled and to call such desire autonomy".

Possibly the assertion doesn't originate with Mamet - it sounds fairly Freudian - but that doesn't really matter here: what matters is that this assertion, although contestable, is plausible enough to explore in the context of Brexit, to which it has clear relevance.

Leave campaigners' highly effective slogan was Take Back Control - i.e. repatriate power to the UK from the EU. What Leavers appeared to be asserting in adopting this slogan was that the EU is insufficiently and too distantly democratic, and that by bringing lawmaking that affects the UK back within the UK, people would have greater say over the policies that affect them.

However, Mamet's assertion offers another way of looking at this. It suggests that the apparent democratic distance of the EU from citizens was abhorrent to Leavers not because it made the EU too controlling, but because it made the EU not controlling enough.

There's an argument to be made that the EU is actually more democratic than the UK. For example, the UK has an unelected second parliamentary chamber (the House of Lords), whereas both the legislative bodies of the EU are elected. But it's undeniable that the EU feels democratically distant: a far higher proportion of people can name their local MP than their local MEP, or the previous prime minister as opposed to the previous president of the European Commission.

So if people do indeed (subconsciously) want to be controlled, perhaps the EU isn't offering sufficiently identifiable control to satiate this need. And if people want to be able to "call such desire autonomy", then couching the Leave vote as a way of restoring independence was the perfect strategy.

Does this argument imply that Remainers are less subconsciously subservient than Leave voters? Not necessarily. Perhaps Remainers have an equal need for domination, but pinned their hopes on a different master: the EU.

A constant refrain of the EU institutions is that European nations are too small to compete for power and influence with the vast economies of the USA, China and India, and that only by banding together as the EU can Europe ensure its future seat at the global table. If this is true it almost by definition makes EU leaders more powerful figures than their European national counterparts, thus also making them better sadistic tyrants for our masochistic subconsciences.

But the Remain campaigners' slogan - Stronger In - as well as being less dynamic than Take Back Control (it lacks a verb), doesn't particularly play to this posited subconscious need. Unite for Strength might have been better, or perhaps Combine and Conquer.

Of course, EU leaders (unlike, say, Vladimir Putin) don't adopt the "strong man" stance, because they're afraid of provoking a nationalistic backlash. Mamet's theory, if correct, implies that this is a grave strategic error.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Murk outside; murk inside

The plot of the science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly incorporates drugs, undercover policing, surveillance, paranoia and betrayal. But it's the novel's humanity and melancholy that make it the masterpiece it is.

The novel is based on author Philip K Dick's experiences of the effects that drug use had on his circle of friends in 60's America. A list of the real-life dead and damaged in the novel's epilogue is the final nail in the coffin for drug use as escapism.

But the novel is also suffused with pessimism about life even for "straights" who haven't suffered the effects of drug misuse. Dick says in the epilogue that drug misuse is "a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence". So the novel also speaks about that ordinary human existence, and what it says isn't pretty.

Those people burned out by drug misuse in the novel become like "an insect that clacks and vibrates about in a closed circle forever. A reflex machine, like an ant. Repeating his last instruction." Burned out "heads" endlessly throw balls up in the air in futile attempts to juggle them, or forever fail to figure out how to wax a floor.

But how different is this from ordinary human existence? We straights also repeat the same actions over and over in futile hope of miraculously achieving a desired outcome that we never attain. We get shitfaced in the pub on Friday night. We go clothes shopping. We ditch our partner and find someone new. We read the next book. We visit the next country. Does any of it help?

The novel's main character, undercover cop Bob Arctor, hopes that surveillance equipment installed to monitor the people he's living with will do a better job of understanding them than they themselves can manage:

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. Into the head? Down into the heart? [...] I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk.

How clearly do any of us see ourselves? Aren't we all always searching for someone to explain us to ourselves, in the form of self-help books and tutorials and TED talks? And novels?

In this novel, dealers prey on or co-opt users for their own ends, and users similarly prey on each other. But capitalism more broadly is also implicated in the same process: Arctor muses that "Someday it'll be mandatory that we all sell the McDonald's hamburger as well as buy it; we'll sell it back and forth to each other forever from our living rooms."

How far removed is this from modern capitalism, in which person A convinces person B that they really need the sofa person A is selling, so that person A can afford to buy the new suit they really need that person B is selling? Or person C's cocktail, or person D's holiday.

The novel isn't proscriptive or prescriptive about any of this. As Dick says in the epilogue: "it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were". Nor does it offer an alternative coping mechanism to drug misuse or consumerism more generally. It doesn't pretend to have better answers. It's too honest for that.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Deadly urges

I have a thorn in my side. Not metaphorically, you understand: I literally have a thorn lodged in my side.

It's been there about 14 years. It's in my back really, but just at the point where my back starts to curve around, so I can legitimately call it my side.

How can it have been sitting there under my skin for all that time? Well, it entered with a lot of force: all the force my body had acquired in falling for about six feet.

What happened was this: I was exiting the block of flats I lived in in my first year of university, which entailed descending a set of steps. The steps had a wall or barrier at about waist height, and without any consideration, without any thought of how high the steps were or what might lie on the other side, I vaulted the wall - surprising myself as much as my two friends - and a short while later landed feet-, hands-, arse- and back-first in a thorn bush or two, with about a dozen punctures as a consequence. The thorn in my side went unnoticed at first, and then resisted persistent efforts to squeeze it out.

I wouldn't be writing about this if the incident had been a one-off, a youthful quirk or spasm never repeated. On the contrary, that occasion marked the first instance (as far as I can recall) of something I've since become intimately acquainted with: the near-irresistible compulsion to vault waist-high barriers between myself and a drop or otherwise dangerous location.

I don't know if there's a name for this specific urge. Google informs me that there is a name - the high place phenomenon - for the urge to jump from high points, but I don't get this feeling with heights in general: drops without barriers or with say 6-foot glass windows cause no such urges. It's only waist-high barriers, on bridges, steep slopes, buildings, metro platforms, etc, that bring it powerfully forth. Maybe I was a hurdler in a former life.

Hungerford bridge in London, which joins the popular South Bank cultural area with its more hinterlandish partner on the other side of the Thames, is one of my favourite spots because of its views of buildings like the Gherkin in The City, but I often have to avoid the edges or take firm hold of my consciousness when I'm crossing it because of what I might do otherwise.

The thorn incident is the only occasion I've actually succumbed to this urge, but if I ever do again it'll probably mark the last time I ever feel any urges of any sort, given the likely outcome.

Fireman, doctor, astronaut

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Lots of people struggle with this question, and it causes no small amount of anxiety. There's a lot of pressure to settle on an answer - first from our parents, and then from prospective and actual partners, who often want us to know what we want from life.

And not entirely without good reason: thinking about what you want from life early on is doubtless good for increasing the chances you'll study something relevant to your future career, and thereby not waste money, for example.

But the amount of pressure on people to answer the question, and the very ubiquity and acceptance of the question itself should be examined, I think.

It is, like much of what I've written about recently, a product of the West's dominant liberal humanist ideology. Hunter-gatherers didn't ask their children what they wanted to be when they grew up: if they were male they would be hunters; if they would be female they would gather (maybe not strictly true, but you get the point).

Hell, even in the early days of capitalism the working classes didn't ask their children what they wanted to be: it was accepted that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents.

Both of which might seem obvious, but why then is it taken for granted these days that we should want to be anything at all, in the sense of assigning ourselves a particular career-as-life-defining-characteristic?

Do infant chimps ponder how they will spend their time once they become adult chimps? Do the infants of indigenous tribes-people?

No. So why should we expect five, seven or even thirty year-olds to have the inherent desire to want to be accountants, surveyors or HR managers?

We want to eat, fuck and sleep. Beyond that it's just how we twiddle our thumbs until we die.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The banality of relationships

"I come rough, tough like an elephant tusk
Your head rush, fly like Egyptian musk
Aww shit, Wu-Tang Clan spark the wicks, and
However I master the trick just like Nixon
Causin' terror, quick damage your whole era
Hardrocks is locked the fuck up or found shot
P.L.O. style, hazardous 'cause I wreck this
Dangerous, I blow spots like Waco, Texas"
- Ghostface Killah on the Wu-Tang Clan song Bring Da Ruckus

More than once I've pondered whether noticing (and pointing out) a resemblance between two things is banal.

Rappers for whom everything is like something else are one example (although don't get me wrong: I think Wu-Tang are great), but there are also critics who attack someone for resembling something:

"[Michael] Gove sort-of looks like a fucking balloon animal or something doesn't he, he has that kind-of eerie air to him."
- The comedian Frankie Boyle talking about a British politician

I've also been guilty of it myself, as with this post juxtaposing paintings by Tiepolo and Mondrian.

But it turns out there are far fewer ways of relating two different concepts than I'd realised. According to the philosopher David Hume, there are just three: resemblance, contiguity in time or space, and cause or effect.

It's worth reiterating that, I think: there are only three different ways in which any two ideas or thoughts can be connected.

(Steven Pinker, in whose book The Sense of Style I learned the above, says linguists have identified about a dozen different kinds of connection, but that the extra nine or so are essentially just subdivisions of Hume's trio.)

So if I'm a rapper trying to inject some colour into my rhymes, I've only got three options.

Likewise, if I'm a critic examining something, I can only introduce ideas not inherent to the thing itself in one of three ways (unless I want my writing to be disjointed and incomprehensible; not so much of a problem with rap, admittedly).

Hell, even if I'm just making small talk with someone at work or in a bar, there are only three things I can do to keep my words from drying up, without abruptly changing the subject.

Suddenly I feel so much better about my shitness at chit chat: it's not only that I lack imagination, it's also that there are so few courses of action anyone can resort to!

Quite why society hasn't yet invented and embraced a device for generating topics of conversation at random, I don't know. Maybe that can be my gift to the world...

"I don't really know anything about cactuses ... Or the Spanish flu ... Or temperance ... Ah look, a flamingo! Did you know that science can't yet explain why flamingos stand on one leg? We do however know that they're pink because they eat algae ..."

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Alien sculptures

There's an otherworldliness to the Ron Nagle sculptures currently being exhibited in the Amended Testimony show at the Modern Art gallery near Old Street in London.

Each of the twenty or so small works on display comprises at least one pocked, sedimentary, blocky chunk suggesting a segment of rock or slab of construction, and most also have an amorphous, smooth, shiny blob dribbling or oozing somewhere on or near the crusty part.

Eight-Track Mind, the piece that most captured my attention, also has a shaft a bit like a tree trunk, of a similar or the same texture as the block - blocks, actually, since there are two in this work:

All of the pieces are otherworldly, but Eight-Track Mind is the apotheosis of otherworldliness, like something seen through a tear in the fabric of the universe.

The ceramic blob, which swells pregnantly and precipitously on the edge of the uppermost epoxy resin block, seems somehow sentient, as though malevolently purposeful.

Meanwhile the shaft, which has a hint of having been amputated, damaged but not destroyed, seems - perhaps because of its grey-black colour and the way it's lit in the exhibition from above and behind - strangely incorporeal, like a projection or digital image. It's an other-dimensional presence in this otherworldly tableau, which is monumental despite its small size.

These two parts of the piece seem to be interacting, or about to interact: the blob radiating a kind of cold menace; the shaft like the embodiment of some mystical force with no say over its own use or abuse.

I've never felt so transported by a sculpture, or been so transfixed - although not actually fixed, since the piece encourages you to move around and view it from every possible angle, to better appreciate the suggestive bulging tension of the blob, the weird, eye-fooling texture of the shaft, and the changing relation between the two as your vantage alters.

I didn't want to leave the exhibition, and after I'd left I wanted to return. It's like Eight-Track Mind really is an alien artifact, able to lodge itself in your consciousness. It's invaded mine.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Quotes #12 - Virtue

"Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing."
GK Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk, as quoted in Janet Malcolm's Forty-One False Starts

Quotes #11 Life

"Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"
Bladerunner, 1982

"You only live once,
And that's not guaranteed."
He's Gone, Doris Duke, 1969

Quotes #10: likes

"You should not feel guilty about coveting your neighbour's wife if she is better looking or more fun. You cannot really change what you like."
James Watson, Nobel-prizewinning biologist, as interviewed by Christopher Swann for the Financial Times (2004)

"It is in the nature of the mind that the more we cultivate and familiarize ourselves with positive emotions, the more powerful they become."
The Dalai Lama on Twitter, 2017

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Quotes #9: Art

"A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it. I want to have and to give access to feeling. That is the riskiest and only important way to connect art to the world - to make it alive."
David Salle in a letter to Janet Malcolm in her article and book Forty-One False Starts

"I can remember, for instance, waiting for a performance by Toscanini of the Eroica, say, and not being able to stop trembling while waiting for it, I mean trembling with nervous excitement, with pleasure, with what I think can only be described as a kind of sexual pleasure, though it's not directly that. And if you're interested in having experiences which will last you for a lifetime in the arts, you've got to do your damnedest to find your way to that kind of experience. How you do it I do not know."
Marvin Mudrick, Mudrick Transcribed, as quoted in James Wolcott's Critical Mass

Quotes #8: Humour(lessness)

But then, the defining characteristic of self-styled “voices of the people” is their total and utter humourlessness, which has its roots in a terror of being undermined.
Marina Hyde in the Guardian, writing about lowest-common-denominator populism

During the civil war people complained about Lincoln's funny stories. Perhaps he sensed that strict seriousness was far more dangerous than any joke.
Ravelstein, Saul Bellow

Quotes #7: the volume of liberal humanism

“I’ve always said to my kids, the hardest thing to listen to – your instincts, your human personal intuition – always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear.”

Steven Spielberg as interviewed by Tom Shone for the Guardian

What do people do all day? #2

 “Rather than make friends, then go off down to the soda fountain or go to where the kids would hang out, I would just go home and write my scripts and cut my films. I was pretty much isolated, but I had a hobby that I was obsessed by. I would come home from school and I would not go to friends’ houses to play. I would go to my bedroom and I would sit with my little editing machine.”

Steven Spielberg as interviewed by Tom Shone for the Guardian

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Quotes #6: Life

"One day, toward the end of a conversation I was having with the painter David Salle in his studio, on White Street, he looked at me and said, "Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn't begun yet?"
"I think I know what you mean."
"You know - soon. Soon you'll start your real life."
Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm

"Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans."
Cartoonist Allen Saunders

"This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time."
Fight Club

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A new existentialism

Images returned to Earth by the Saturn probe Cassini have been reminding people, before they scroll on to the next tweet, how amazing our universe is.

Saturn amazes us because of its beautiful rings, its size relative to us and its distance from us. But Saturn isn't even all that special: there are billions upon billions of other planets out there. It's the infrequency with which we think about Saturn, and the universe in general, that makes it amazing to us.

Things we encounter every day don't amaze us. Apples, for example, don't amaze us. Why? Their colours are beautiful, their shapes pleasing, their structure in some respects more interesting than a planet's, and their origins and functions certainly so.

Apples don't amaze us because we encounter them all the time: they "grow on trees" as the English phrase for something common and largely worthless goes. "Familiarity breeds contempt", as another saying puts it.

Fruits' sizes are less worthy of note to us, but that's only because fruits co-evolved with the animals that ate them (and thereby helped to spread their seeds): to something the size of a bacterium, an apple is as vast and unfathomable as Saturn is for us. An electron micrograph of an apple's surface is every bit as contoured, ridged and fascinating as a satellite image of a planet's surface:

For further inspiration, I've written before about how Tom Walker's Still Life With Exploding Glass takes a collection of familiar still-life objects, including an apple, and transforms them into something celestial:

Mall Galleries

My point of course has nothing to do with apples. It's that the existence of anything at all is amazing, but we forget because we're too busy trying to pay rent, get laid and stuff experiences into our mouths and eyes.

Well, we're in need of an ideology powerful and convincing enough to stop us trashing the planet, killing each other and ourselves, and going crazy with boredom once we've covered our basic needs to feed and fuck. Maybe wide-eyed awe at sheer existence would be a good one?

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A hierarchy of ideologies

I wrote previously about how I think developing a hierarchy of ideologies could help me decide what to do with my life. Here's a first effort at such a hierarchy:

  • If you really want it, go for it
  • Do what's best for the environment
  • Be excellent to each other
If they don't help:
  • If you haven't tried it before, try it
  • Do what would be most interesting
If still undecided:
  • Do whatever, but do something
  • Do whatever's cheapest

Hmm. I don't feel very inspired or empowered. Should I go for that promotion to a better paid, less fun job or stick with my current job, for example? 

None of the top three ideologies helps here. Of the second tier ideologies, the first suggests I should go for the job, but I suspect my current job is more interesting, which puts the second ideology in opposition with the first.

Both of the third-tier ideologies imply I should go for the promotion, but they hardly seem convincing. Why?

Reflection tells me I'm missing an ideology somewhere:
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Here's that hierarchy, version 2.0:

  • If you really want it, go for it
  • Do what's best for the environment
  • Be excellent to each other
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it
If they don't help:
  • If you haven't tried it before, try it
  • Do what would be most interesting
If still undecided:
  • Do whatever, but do something
  • Do whatever's cheapest / most profitable
Fundamentals 1 and 4 are in opposition: I don't really want the promotion but I do quite want a better salary and a new challenge; however, I also quite like my current job.

If you add in the lowest-tier ideologies, going for it slightly edges it over not bothering. That's probably why I've applied for the promotion.

This hierarchy seems to work better than the first: it explains my recent behaviour (I applied for the promotion). But I still don't feel very inspired...

Maybe I'm missing something else:
  • If you're not excited, keep looking
Hierarchy 3.0:

  • If you really want it, go for it
  • Do what's best for the environment
  • Be excellent to each other
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it
  • If you're not excited, keep looking
If they don't help:
  • If you haven't tried it before, try it
  • Do what would be most interesting
If still undecided:
  • Do whatever, but do something
  • Do whatever's cheapest / most profitable
What does this mean for my career? Accepting the promotion while not being excited about it would mean I'd have to keep looking for other opportunities, according to the above. But taking another job soon after the one I've applied for would mess my company around and therefore violate "Be excellent to each other". So I'd have to decide which I cared more about: excitement or being excellent. Which would depend on exactly how excited I was by this hypothetical as-yet-known opportunity...

So does hierarchy 3.0 work well in general? Have I cracked life? Watch this space...

Book review: Fucked Up Reader, 2017, Bryan Ray Turcotte

Forty years after the punk phenomenon, people still ask exactly what punk was and whether it died. They should stop, cos it really isn't all that complicated, the Fucked Up Reader shows.

The book contains some 300-or-so reminiscences from people who were right there at the heart of the scene - mostly in the US; a few in the UK.

So what was punk? It was a reaction to the bland, overblown, inaccessible music of the 70s, driven by kids with independence of thought and jumped on by kids who liked the aggression, adrenaline and escape. At its best it was DIY, exploratory, and challenging. At its worst it was derivative and dumb.

Is it dead? In itself, yes. But as an ideology, no. Punk was merely the latest new thing to challenge rigid old forms - it's just that it wore that challenge more explicitly than any new trend before or since. Pretty quickly punk itself became formulaic and got co-opted by the mainstream, but the punk ideology - which predated punk music - got taken up in diluted form by post-punk, hip-hop, grunge, garage, dubstep, grime, and whatever comes next.

For as long as there's something new and different left to be created, and someone out there fed up enough and bored enough and brave enough to explore it, punk survives.

Punk is dead. Long live punk.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Why want anything?

I'm in the process of trying to decide what I want from life, as I've written about previously.

I think it's an important thing for people to do, if the answer isn't readily apparent to them. But it occurs to me that maybe I also haven't given enough thought to the question of why I want to want anything at all.

I wrote in the post I linked to above that "I want to deeply want something." And obviously I want this enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about it and to have written about it at length. But why?

I think it must come down to my being a product of a liberal humanist culture, as I also wrote about, and to my still residing in such a culture. Early novels don't seem to indicate that this endless self-examination and search for fulfilment has been the prevailing condition for very long, for example. Nor does what I've seen of other cultures outside the liberal west.

Evolutionarily, there's no good reason for us to want things other than the essentials for survival and for being a functioning member of a society - people being social animals, who therefore (generally) have strong genetic and psychological motivations to be sociable.

Perhaps our biology does contribute: I've also written before about Christopher Lasch's assertion that people are anxious because we desperately want to recapture the blissful satisfaction of the womb. But this seems to be undermined by the seeming fact that other cultures aren't so relentlessly desirous, and Lasch also suggests that it's advertising and bureaucracy that keep us from being satisfied.

So it does seem that it's the culture I was raised in that is the reason I'm so keen on wanting something. A culture that asserts that to discover what's right we should search within ourselves for what we feel is right. A culture that endlessly seeks to drive us to desire things we can purchase. A culture in which everyone seems to like people "who know what they want from life".

That doesn't mean that wanting is bad: maybe liberalism is right to encourage desires. There are lots of things to like about liberal western culture, after all, like craft beer and the variety of books on offer.

And yet here I am, wondering what's wrong with me because I don't seem to want things as strongly as I should, and paralysed by uncertainty, while the planet overheats, empties of variety and fills up with waste owing to our relentless, unthinking consumption.

I suspect the answer, as with so much, will be: everything in moderation, including moderation.

Take my reading habits, for example. Books are probably my most conspicuous item of consumption after alcohol. I've written previously about how my love affair with books took a hit last year, and yet now I'm back reading almost as much as I used to. Why?

Well, I'm reading differently. Fewer novels, more journalism, more "self-help". I'm reading more discerningly. And reading is a sign of a curious mind, which surely has an evolutionary advantage (albeit perhaps only at the species level, since curiosity kills cats) and therefore an evolutionary drive.

And while I'm not saying we should necessarily always follow our urges (it's ill-advised with food, for example), doing so much of the time seems a reasonable way of avoiding frustration and dissatisfaction.

So reading gets a pass (mostly). But other things society wants me to want might not...

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Saving the best for last

Heaps of cheese, and double the pepperoni. This is how I like to finish a pizza: with a mouthful I'd be embarrassed to be seen with in polite company. Hell, this is how I like to finish all of my food: on a high, having saved the best for last.

Not everyone feels this way. Some people I know are happy to end a meal with the dregs: a dry bit of crust, a piece of carrot, the last of the rice with none of the sauce or chicken.

Fine, you might think: horses for courses. But now science says my approach is the better one.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari summarises some experiments conducted by the Nobel-prizewinning economist Daniel Kahneman into people's recall of their experiences, which concluded that:

Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the "peak-end rule" - it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average.

So if you have take a great big bite of the teriyaki salmon at the start of the meal but then end with the seaweed, you're going to remember the meal as merely decent. Whereas, if you have that great big bite at the start and then cap the experience with an embarrassment-inducing mouthful at the end, you're going to remember the occasion as a glorious, succulent, flavoursome feast.

Save the best for last, peeps.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Life: the tl;dr version

Yesterday I published a post about some thinking I've been doing about the question "What should I do with my life?"

It was a bit long, so I figured a tl;dr version might be helpful. Essentially, it boils down to this:

People should have a hierarchy of moral rules to live by, in the form of an ideology or - in my case at least - a combination of ideologies.

I recently re-watched the Aaron Sorkin-penned film A Few Good Men, and last night it occurred to me that this film is about exactly the same thing.

Take the following scene:

Here's the script, from IMDB:

Yeah, yeah, alright. Harold, did you 
assault Santiago with the intent of 
killing him?

No sir.

What was your intent?

To train him, sir.

Train him to do what?

Train him to think of his unit before 
himself. To respect the code.

What's the code?

Unit Corps God Country.

I beg your pardon?

Unit Corps God Country, sir.

The Goverrment of the United States 
wants to charge you two with murder. 
You want me to go to the prosecutor 
with unit, corps, god, country?

DAWSON stares at KAFFEE.

That's our code, sir.

Dawson says Marines have a code - a set of moral rules by which to live - and Santiago didn't follow it. And this code is even a hierarchy: the unit comes first, then the corps, then god, then the USA.

Tom Cruise's character is exasperated by this, but the moral of A Few Good Men is not necessarily that having a code is wrong - it's that this particular code is wrong.

Here's the script from almost the final scene, after Dawson and his colleague have been found not guilty of murdering Santiago, but guilty of conduct unbecoming a Marine, even though they followed a direct order:


We're supposed to fight for people
who can't fight for themselves.

We were supposed to fight for [Santiago].

That is: their code should have been: people who need help, the unit, the corps, god, country.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Religion for athiests, or: how to decide what to do with your life

The problem

What should I do with my life?

It's a question a lot of people struggle to answer, and one I've been thinking about intensely for about a year now.

My thinking usually goes something like this:

1. What should I do with my life?
2. What do I want to do with it?
3. I don't know. I don't seem to want anything much specifically.
4. How can I make myself want things?

Reading Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens catalysed this struggle for me, because it caused me to change the way I thought about a lot of things, as I wrote hereSapiens culminates in a question - one intended for everyone but particularly pertinent to those struggling with what to do with their lives: "What do we want to want?"

I've just now finished reading Harari's follow-up, Homo Deus. I was hoping it would tell me what I should want to want...

Introduction to ideologies

It didn't. But like Sapiens, Homo Deus did disavow me of certain notions and provide me with certain other notions. And as I wrote here, I've come to think that notions might be useful for reasoning. So maybe now I can answer my question...

"What should I do with my life?" is a values-based question, Harari says in Homo Deus. As such, it can't be answered by science, because the scientific method is not values-based.

Values are the province of religions, Harari says.

I think of myself as an atheist. But Harari doesn't use the word 'religion' the way most people do. For him, ideologies like capitalism and communism are religions, because their adherents "believe in some system of moral laws that wasn't invented by humans, but which humans must obey" - in these cases, respectively, that free markets are the best means of solving the problems of supply and demand, and that capitalism necessarily creates class conflict.

Liberal humanism, which says that people should do what they want to do, has been the predominant religion of the western world for the past couple of centuries, Harari says. This seems uncontroversial, except in his preferred terminology, so let's just use the term ideology instead.

So how does this help me?

Growing up liberal

Looking back at my four-step thought process, it's now clear that step 2 is a liberal humanist question: it presupposes that the best way of determining what I should do with my life is to ask myself what I feel. This is not a given: Christianity would respond to the question "What should I do with my life" with the answer "Follow the bible and serve god".

I've been raised in the liberal humanist modern west, and so I tend to think along liberal humanist lines - it's just that I've never thought of it in those terms until now. So let's see whether a more self-aware, deliberate use of the liberal humanist ideology can help me with my question...

Happiness is...

Liberal humanism says that I should do with my life whatever I want to do with it. But I don't seem to want to do much. Is that the end of it? Maybe not, because I do want some things: I want to deeply want something, for example. That isn't very useful, but what else do I want, even if only weakly?

Well, what makes me happy? A few things. Here are 50, in a list I made earlier. Fifty things seems like a lot, and yet I'm dissatisfied. Why?

Items 1 and 3 on my list are sex and love, and I'm single, and have been for a while. And I do want to not be...

Has liberal humanism has presented me with my solution? Should I just stop being single?

Not so fast. Stopping being single isn't easy. It takes a second person, for one thing. And as I said, I've been trying not to be single for a while now - almost as long as my last relationship, if you don't count a few brief exceptions. Plus I have had relationships, and they didn't stop me wondering what I should do with my life.

What does this mean? Should I forget about items 1 and 3 and try to get more out of other things lower down the list instead? Maybe... plus, women often say they like a man who knows what he wants out of life, so doing this might even help me find a relationship...

Problem solved?

Well, here I have to make a confession: although I haven't thought about all of this in terms of ideologies before, I have nevertheless had pretty much these exact thoughts before - hence the existence of the list. It's not rocket science, after all.

And yet I'm still unsatisfied. So what's going wrong?

In Sapiens, Harari says that happiness comprises pleasure and satisfaction, which seems about right to me. Looking at my list, two things strike me: first, the items on it aren't very varied; and second, it's pretty heavily weighted towards pleasure, rather than satisfaction.

This suggests I might need to to expand my sources of happiness by trying out some potentially pleasurable and/or satisfying things I've never done before - such as, say, knitting, skiing and taking heroin, off the top of my head; or, to gain satisfaction, knitting an entire onesie, winning a skiing competition and establishing a heroin-dealing empire.

Job done?

The limits of liberal humanism

Hold your horses. How should I choose which new things to try out? Liberal humanism says I should do what I feel like doing, but that hasn't worked very well so far: I've developed only a narrow list of likes.

Now what?

Liberal humanism has been the dominant ideology of the west for the past couple of centuries, and I'm a product of it. But other ideologies also exist, so maybe one of those would be more helpful?

Ideology soup

What other ideologies are there? Loads.

Another ideology that has been popular in the west for the past few decades revolves around the instruction "just say yes". The sports brand Nike, for example, has adopted essentially this ideology as its advertising slogan: "Just do it".

Whereas liberal humanism advocates carefully searching your feelings to determine what you should do, the "just say yes" ideology says you should first do something and then examine how you feel about it.

So should I ditch liberal humanism and adopt this ideology instead?

Well, "just say yes" presupposes the presentation of simple choices, like "Would you like a free Lamborghini?" And maybe choices like these are presented to some people quite a lot, but most of us are usually presented with either no choice at all or far too many options to make a simple yes/no response.

What else have you got?

A similar one to "just say yes" is the ideology that says you should do things randomly or semi-randomly. This isn't a common ideology, but it was explored to brilliant effect in the novel The Dice Man, in which the hero and his followers live their lives according to the roll of dice. In the novel it works pretty well to begin with, but sadly its adherents don't tend to stay out of prison or alive for very long.

Other ideologies that spring to mind are the "be a good son or daughter" ideology, which is quite common but doesn't seem to make many people very happy; the "be excellent to each other" ideology from the Bill and Ted films, which sounds good in theory but seems somewhat limited in instruction; and the "greed is good" ideology from the film Wall Street, which has been adopted by the UK's Conservative Party and is therefore too partial for me, as a journalist (wink).

Let's get serious. What if, rather than asking myself what I want, I should instead ask other people for advice? We could call this the "wisdom of crowds" ideology or the "mentor" ideology. This seems more promising. But who should I ask? And could I really bother them every time I need to make a decision?

It's not all about you, you prick

In the last sentence of the previous section, I expressed a concern for the welbeing of another person. And - flawed liberal humanist that I am - it has occurred to me previously that maybe what's important to me shouldn't be the only factor in my decision-making. Shocking, I know.

So should I ask other people not only what I should do for my benefit, but also for theirs?

Quite possibly. But - damn you, liberal humanist upbringing! - I don't seem to want to ask other people what I can do for them. I don't like other people very much, you see.

So am I stuck with a choice between the limbo of liberal humanism, some half-arsed mentor plan, or gritting my teeth and being altruistic?

Why people?

Liberal humanism has other faults than merely not being very good at making me happy. As Harari points out in Homo Deus, and as everyone except Donald Trump knows, liberal humanism has put planet Earth on a path to catastrophic climate change. People don't want this, but they don't want to forego long-distance flights and SUVs more than they don't want catastrophe. So unfortunately, what people want might drive us extinct.

At this point we should consider what makes for a good ideology. A few thoughts: it should ideally be relatively simple and memorable, so that you can adhere to it easily under pressure; it should be broadly applicable, so that it's as helpful as possible; it should be robust to attack from competing ideologies; and, if it is to be successful, it should probably enable its adherents to survive and reproduce so that it can propagate.

Liberal humanism has been very successful for quite a while, but it's now in serious danger of failing in this last regard. So what ideology would be best for preserving our species?

Well, hang on a second. Why should we care only about our species? Liberal humanism is causing not only catastrophic climate change, but also catastrophic biodiversity loss. If we're abandoning liberal humanism, why don't we reconsider the human part as well as the liberal part?

Failures everywhere

There's already a name for adherents of the ideology that does exactly that. They're called "goddamn hippies".

I kid, I kid. But seriously, it's not that simple. An Earth-centric ideology might be able to tell me lots of important things, like what holidays, modes of transport and foods I should choose, but it wouldn't be very good at telling me whether I should go to the pub or for a run on a Friday night, buy the blue shirt or the red, or learn French instead of German, etc etc. Earth-centric ideologies fail the breadth test.

And while it might not matter to the Earth whether I go to the pub or for a run, it might matter to my reproductive chances, so it should matter to me and my ideology.

So what if every ideology is flawed? Should I look for the least flawed, and make do?

An answer, at last?

Crucially, ideologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Harari tells us. Liberalism and communism are, for example - the former says people should do what they feel like doing, whereas the latter says they should do what their party tells them to - but both liberalism and communism are also humanist, in that they both aim to do what's best for people above all else (in communism's case, the collective of people, or the party - a party without people ceases to exist).

So rather than seeking the best single ideology, maybe I should seek the best combination of ideologies? What would that be?

That should probably be the subject of another post, because this one is already much too long. So I'll just put down an initial thought here.

Liberalism and communism both seem to be entirely compatible with humanism, which is possible because humanism is so generic - its only real tenet is that people should come first, which leaves lots of scope for sub-ideologies with more specific rules.

By contrast, the ideology most ingrained in me, liberal humanism, and the ideology that seems to have perhaps an equal or greater claim to prominence, Earth-centrism, are often incompatible. Any time I have a preference for an option that is the most damaging for the environment, my liberal humanism is going to be in conflict with my Earth-centrism.

That doesn't mean I can't incorporate both into a personal mix of ideologies, it seems to me. But it does mean that I'm going to have to choose which one should take precedence. This could be either through a cast-iron ruling that one ideology always defeats the other, or on a case-by-case basis, depending on the depth of my feeling and the contribution to catastrophe.

So far, so blah, you're probably thinking - "I already do that when I decide whether to order the burger or the falafel".

True, but I at least have never thought about life as a whole in such systematic terms before. And the construction of a personal hierarchy of ideologies, I'm fairly confident, could actually be a really useful way of deciding how to live...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Quotes #5: Voss, Patrick White, 1957

Voss is a brilliant novel, of the utmost insight into human nature and character-building. Here are some highlights:

The terrible simplicity of people who have not yet been hurt.

I would welcome dangers. One must not expect to avoid suffering.

To explore the depths of one's own repulsive nature is more than irresistible - it is necessary.

Few people of attainment take easily to a plan of self-improvement. Some discover very early their perfection cannot endure the insult. Others find their intellectual pleasure lies in the theory, not the practice.

Places yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace, all goodness.

As if to rot were avoidable. By moving. But it was not. We rot by living.

Perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.

I suggest you wring it [hope] out for yourself, which, in the end, is all that is possible for any man.

The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.

Mediocrity is not a final and irrevocable state; rather it is a creative source of endless variety and subtlety.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Life at any cost?

Wandering around Zagreb's bucolic botanical garden today, my gently roving eye fell on the tree in the foreground of this picture.
I noticed the pale yellow young stems just above the trunk, with their needle-like leaves looking very much like defensive weapons, which they may well double as for all I know, and it occurred to me just how much this species had had to differentiate from trees in mild, wet climates and environments lacking large plant eaters in order to find an ecological niche. 
The thick, gnarled bark of the trunk, plus the rigid self-censorship of the spikey leaves. So far from the unconcerned gentle reach and sweep of northern European trees.
I may have been anthropomorphising somewhat, but I was struck by how much carefree abundance this species had been prepared to lose (from a genetic ancestor that I assume had life relatively easy), and how much stressful effort it was prepared to exert, in order to live. 
Gone are the genes for openness and abundance, while genes for toughness and restriction have appeared or been ramped up. 
And trees can feel stress, as the garden's visitor information detailed: exotic trees have shorter lives in the botanic garden than they would in the wild, for example, because of the stress of the unfitting climate. 
What carefree genes have been cast off or turned down in humans during our evolutionary history, I wonder, and what aggressive and ugly ones amped up? And in future? 
What stunted creatures are we? 
And how powerful is the drive for life! 

If I could code I'd #2

If I could code I'd ...

Make a stitched-together, regularly-updated whole-world map of the UK Foreign Office's travel advice.

... but I can't.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Modern guilt

I published a post in January called Born into Debt, in which I wrote "just by being born, we're guaranteed to have a negative impact on the world", and asked whether millennial culture will be plagued by "the cringe of innate guilt" as a consequence.

If I hadn't published that post in January, I'd almost certainly be open to the accusation of having plagiarised ideas from this piece by Wilfred McClay in The Hedgehog Review, in which he says:

Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.

McClay makes the point that the situation is even worse than I'd realised: not only do we now know that we're causing terrible harm to the environment and to the victims of globalisation, we also through technology and globalisation and markets have a chance to do something to rectify that harm - as well as naturally occurring suffering - in some way, but generally don't.

His piece then goes off in a different direction to my short post: rather than asking whether guilt would be a prevalent undercurrent in millennials' culture, he suggests that it has led to the rise of victimhood-claiming and sin-shaming:

claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself

He then goes on to suggest that the insolubility of modern guilt might be a reason to revive religion, since religion has systems of absolution that modernity does not.

I'm not convinced, personally: I think rather that we should in fact each be doing much more to reduce the genuine reasons for our warranted guilt, up to a point - beyond which we should simply accept that nobody asks to be born and life is bittersweet, including in the sense that while we can all be forces for good, we're also inevitably all forces for bad sometimes.

Perhaps there could even be a positive to that: it might teach us all a little humility and greater understanding of others' flaws.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Book review: Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin, 1990

Don McCullin must have had about as many near misses, close calls and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god moments as anyone who ever lived.

As a war photographer for more than 20 years, he pushed deep into the heart of battle in the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Beirut, El Salvador, Iran, Afghanistan and other hellholes, as bullets and bombs rained down from all sides. He says in Unreasonable Behaviour, his autobiography, that war photographers face even worse odds than war correspondents, because photographers have to "get out in the field where the risks [are] infinitely greater". The number of war correspondents who die on the job throughout Unreasonable Behaviour illustrates just how big these risks are.

People die either side of McCullin in this book, as well as ahead of him and behind him. I didn't count how many, but he makes clear that his survival on many occasions was little more than dumb luck, as in this extract on Vietnam:

There was no security in any of the different methods of covering war. Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, was said to go flamboyantly into combat on a Honda, toting a pearl-handled pistol, while Larry Burrows, the brilliant English photographer who worked for Life magazine, was the model of professionalism and polite diffidence. Both joined the list of the missing, presumed dead.

So why did he do it? Why did he leave behind the safety of England - and his responsibilities to his wife and children - for the dangers and irresponsibility of war?

For much of the book you have only the surface-level morality for an answer: "Your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help"; "I wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people".

Indeed, in the middle third of the book, as the Congo gives way to Vietnam, which gives way to Jerusalem, which leads to Biafra, with a return to Vietnam, which leads to Cambodia, and so on and so on, with little personal narrative linking the segments, the reading experience starts to resemble the act of idly flicking through a photobook in a shop, clumps of pages at a time, finding interest on each page you land on but little coherence.

And during the recounting of some of the earlier wars, McCullin's writing is at times as a little detached and flat - the written account of someone better suited to visual media, if you'll forgive the easy analysis - as in the following, which is not for the faint-hearted:

We were cowering under our helmets when the American said, "Godamnit, there's an awful smell here." I noticed that this hole was not firm underfoot. Even though we were in sand, it was too soft. I looked down and saw a row of fly buttons by my boots. We were both crouched on the stomach of a dead North Vietnamese soldier and our weight had caused the stomach to excrete. Despite the shelling, we both leapt out and ran off in different directions, to find other bunkers.

But there are also hard-won and convincingly expressed moral lessons, such as:

We all suffer from the naive belief that our integrity is reason enough for being in any situation, but if you stand in front of dying people, something more is required. If you can't help, you shouldn't be there.

And finally on page 216 we gain a clear insight into why McCullin thrust himself time and again into the inferno:

I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I've lived, is like an incurable disease [...] I cannot do without the head-on collision with life I have when I am working.

And as the account creeps closer to the present day, the writing becomes increasingly affecting, to the point where at times I struggled to retain my composure wherever I was reading, as for example with McCullin's description of being held captive in prison in Uganda, not knowing whether he or his journalist colleagues will be the next ones to be led to execution by sledgehammer down the hall, or this, on the death of journalist Nick Tomalin in the Golan Heights:

When I got nearer, I could see no shape in the car. Perhaps he had been thrown out. I made my way to the other side of it and found him lying there. I tried to talk to him, so far gone was I with terror and grief, though there could be no doubt that he was dead. Picking up his glasses from the road, I ran back in the same eerie stillness.

But staggeringly [spoiler alert], the biggest, most powerful and affecting shock of all comes in the last few pages, after the takeover of the Sunday Times by Rupert Murdoch has seen the paper's weekend magazine replace hardcore journalism with more advert-friendly fare ("Lifestyles rather than life were coming into fashion on the magazine."), and after nature has started exacting a human toll on McCullin's loved ones that is even more harrowing than that exacted by man upon his fellow man:

I realised that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.

As the final few paragraphs tick down, you yourself realise that McCullin is not at all in a good way as he's writing, and that the book is going to end with this legend of British journalism crying out in lonely anguish from a very, very dark place:

[...] mostly I'm alone in my house in Somerset [...] the ghosts of all those dead [...]

By the time I finished, tears were streaming down my cheeks...

But fortunately the book was republished in 2012 with a new preface, and if you read that first like I did, you know that McCullin managed to extricate himself from his loneliness and pain and find new life again ("twelve years on, I am extremely happy").

One wonders at what must have happened when the final section of the manuscript landed on the editor's and publisher's desks - had they known what shape McCullin was in? After they read it, did they try to buoy him up before going ahead with the publication? Did they consider altering the ending?

It's an enormously surprising end to the book, but perhaps it was this ending itself that helped to bring McCullin back to the light: he talks in the preface of being "truly staggered by the response [the book] received".

Either way, Unreasonable Behaviour stands as towering testament to an extraordinary life, one that perhaps wasn't easy on McCullin's family, but which captured evidence of and brought to public attention the most inhumane acts and moments of suffering, while also revealing something of the kinds of people who are driven to take such risks to expose the truth.

"If y'know what's good for ye," I was informed, "y'll do as ye're told an' clear off."
I stood my ground and said that I had never cleared off at anyone's behest in all my life, and wasn't thinking of starting now.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Thinking about thinking

How do we think?

I'm not sure we really know yet. Certainly the amount of cognitive neuroscience that's still being funded suggests there's a lot left to discover. But we can say a few things at least...

Thinking isn't simple. For one thing, there are different kinds of thinking: consider the different sensations of catching something mid-flight, which requires a complex calculation but very little conscious effort, and trying to decide the best course of action in a complicated situation, which feels very labour-intensive. It's the latter kind of thinking or reasoning I'm going to focus on here.

Here's how reasoning feels to me:
  • First some subconscious part of my brain seems to inform my consciousness that there's a problem to be solved. 
  • Then I feel I somehow consciously generate a will to somehow apply reasoning, which then feels like it either works well or doesn't. 
  • When it seems to work well, I get a sensation like the problem is an amorphous blob, which I can probe with different ideas or tools, which themselves might also be half-formed, slippery things.
  • Some of these ideas seem to bounce off the problem without making an impression, whereas others seem to penetrate and reshape it, ideally making it feel smaller and simpler and closer to being solved, but sometimes making it seem bigger and more complicated. 
  • Eventually either the problem shrinks to the point that it appears to be sufficiently solved, or I decide to stop consciously applying my reasoning to it for the time being.
  • If I do decide to stop consciously reasoning, I do so knowing that my brain might make progress on the problem nevertheless, and reveal that progress to me at some unexpected moment, like when I'm in the shower or wiping my arse (another example of how thinking isn't simple).
But is that just me? Are there other ways of interpreting what thinking feels like, and even different ways of thinking? And - perhaps most importantly - can we improve our thinking by learning different processes or increasing the effectiveness of our ideas / tools or some other aspect?

Let's take a look at what some other people have said on the subject.

In How We Think, John Dewey says: "To many persons trees are just trees [...] with perhaps recognition of one or two kinds [....] Such vagueness tends to persist and to become a barrier to the advance of thinking. Terms that are miscellaneous in scope are clumsy tools at best [...]"

This suggests that terms - or words - might be important for thinking. Indeed, in Bright Earth, Philip Ball writes that some people have suggested the ancient Greeks had poor colour awareness because their language lacked basic colour words.

But words were lacking from my own bullet-point walk-through above. And in The Photographer's Playbook, Nathan Lyons quotes Jacques Hadamard's The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, in which Hadamard says: "Words are totally absent from my mind when I really think". Lyons also quotes Hadamard quoting Einstein making a similar point: "The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought."

Does this rule out improving one's vocabulary as a means of improving one's ability to think, contra Dewey? Humans' intelligence and our linguistic abilities are often considered to be some of our most defining characteristics; can it really be that they're so separate?

Well, Ball goes on to say that "There is no reason to suppose that our ability to distinguish colours is limited by the structure of our colour vocabulary. [For example:] We can tell apart hues to which we cannot ascribe names."

Surely what we can discern, we can also bring to bear mentally?

And Hadamard's quotation of Einstein continues:

"The entities [that] seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. [...] Words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage".

Here we have four terms - "entities", "elements in thought", "certain signs" and "more or less clear images" - that are used interchangeably, and which all, I suggest, refer to one thing: the ideas or tools I myself referred to earlier.

Combining Einstein and Ball, it seems there are elements in thought (ideas), which don't necessarily need to be named in order for us to use them.

However, if it is possible to improve one's thinking by increasing the number, variety or effectiveness of the ideas or concepts at one's disposal, we do need some means of finding new concepts. And while concepts might not have to be named to exist, anything that is named must surely exist, even if only in theory.

So even if words aren't themselves a part of thought, it does seem that increasing one's repertoire of named concepts - that is, one's vocabulary - might be a way of improving one's ability to think.

Where can we find new words? A dictionary would work, but wouldn't be very efficient: many words in it would already be known to us, or be merely (or mostly) synonyms of words we already know.

Whereas the Free Word Centre in London tweets a "word of the day", which the staff appear (justifiably, I think) to hope will be a word most people won't yet know. Some recent examples are:
  • Meliorism: the belief that the world can be made better by human effort
  • Meraki: to do something with soul; to put something of yourself into your work
  • Geborgenheit: the feeling of safety that comes from being with loved ones
So if on some occasion I find myself, say, struggling with my sense of self-worth, knowing these words I might reason that the best course of action is to:
  • Remind myself that perhaps the world can be made better by human effort;
  • Propose that this effort might be more rewarding if I put something of myself into it;
  • And grant myself the feelgood reward of seeing friends or family after my effort is complete.
Might I have been able to reason thus without knowing the three words? Sure. But without knowing the three concepts, or having at least a vague sense of similar alternatives? I think not.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Book Review: Pour Me, AA Gill, 2015

Pour Me is short as memoirs go: just 241 pages. In part that's because, as Gill says early on in it, the alcoholism from which he suffered in his twenties meant that "there was no film in the camera" for those years, and that earlier memories were also dissolved: "childhood, school, holidays, friends ... all seemed to be faded and incomplete".

Incomplete, but not erased entirely: Pour Me does cover some of Gill's childhood, as well as the time between when he managed to stop drinking, aged 30, and when he wrote the book, 30 years later.

Stopping drinking saved Gill's life, and after "thousands of hours of learning the wrong thing" - art, cooking, gardening, bartending - he finally "failed into journalism", becoming one of the best-known food and TV critics in the country.

So I'll borrow a description of journalism that Gill says he liked - "journalism is what will be grasped at once" - and come to the point: Gill was a fantastic and endearing writer, and he had an interesting life. What more can you ask from a memoir?

He could be brilliant, as perhaps best demonstrated by the section on the speech he gave to a room full of dyslexic schoolchildren (he himself was dyslexic), telling them that the English language was theirs to manipulate no matter what their school might tell them about their abilities. This echoed two transformative elements in his own life: the moment when he came upon his English teacher literally tearing apart books to show them who was boss, and a crucifixion painting that particularly moved him with its depiction of human suffering, which was made in the period of the Lutheran reformation.

He was also enviably insightful - something he attributed to his artistic training ("It made me look, as opposed to merely see"). Consider for example this, from page 2: "I wonder what the rest of nature makes of a lawn? Arrogant, snobbish, entitled, needy, effortfully polite, sober." Or this, on famine (he wasn't just a critic), a subject that sadly is timely again: "It isn't staring into the face of starvation that thuds like a blow to your heart, it is having starvation stare back at you".

His turns of phrase were up there with the best of them, and he was funny, and he was empathetic, having experienced loneliness and sickness and desperation by the gallon.

I'm using the past tense, because Gill died in December 2016, a year or two after Pour Me was published. Could that be another reason why the book is so short? I'm not sure: it wasn't clear to me whether he'd received his diagnosis of terminal cancer before the book was finished.

I suspect not, because I suspect he'd have carried on writing it until the end if he'd known it was coming, just as he did with his articles, the last of which was about his experience of dying on the NHS. But then the book is so dense with insight and tales told only in snatches that it could easily have been four times the size, and the final paragraphs are filled with finality: "I misused a life for 30 years and I had 30 more of a second chance that I used better, though not as well as I might."

Perhaps those tales are told only in snatches here because they have already been told elsewhere - in Gill's journalism, a compendium of which is due to be published this year. I'll certainly be buying that too, so maybe I'll let you know.