Saturday, 25 March 2017

Kahneman the key to Corbyn

There are books that teach you things you never knew. There are books that teach you things you’ve known for ages but never realised. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow does both.

Kahneman: powerful insights
One of the common mechanisms of the human mind Kahneman describes is the substitution of one, relatively easy question for another much harder one. He gives the example of a financial adviser who’d recently been to a motor exhibition and had been impressed by the Ford stand. He advised buying Ford stock.

The question he was trying to answer was “is Ford stock a good investment?” That’s a hard question. Answering it means understanding a stock’s future behaviour which, as Kahneman argues later, is essentially unpredictable.

So instead the analyst answered a much easier one: “how do I feel about Ford?”

That’s a way of thinking with which we must all be familiar in daily life. It seems to me to mark a great deal of the thinking of voters, for instance. They may be concerned about static incomes and rising uncertainty, but these are tough questions to which they find it hard to come up with answers. So instead they ask themselves “do I feel threatened by immigrants?”

That one many voters apparently have no difficulty answering in the affirmative. It, however, only leads to a further question: “how do I limit immigration?”

That too is impossibly difficult. So they answer yet another, much easier question. In the US, they answer “shall I vote for a maverick populist?” In Britain, the question is “should we leave the EU?”

It seems obvious to most of us that backing Trump or Brexit answers no question worth asking. Neither will be able to deal with immigration, in so far as immigration is a problem at all in the first place. And neither will reduce instability in work or raise wages: indeed, both are far more likely to make the problems far worse.

Answering the wrong question can give the wrong answer.

The same is true inside the UK Labour Party. There the question is “do we have a leader who can be elected Prime Minister?”

With a poll deficit of around 14-16 points as we approach two years into the parliament, it would be unprecedented for that to happen. Not impossible but owing more to the miraculous rather than the rational. That makes the question far too hard – not because the answer’s beyond us but because the answer hurts.

So supporters of Jeremy Corbyn answer different questions: “do Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas appeal to me? Would he be a Prime Minister after my own heart?”

Since his followers answer those questions in the affirmative, they insist on keeping him in the leadership. The evidence of a deepening gulf in the polls shakes their faith not at all.

The wrong question. Leading to the wrong answer. Just as Kahneman shows.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Misty's diary: ridiculous new bedtime arrangements

Oh, we had such a storm in a teacup here the other day.

The little dog was in a state. That’s the funny ginger one the domestics call “Toffee” though there’s nothing sweet about her when she catches your tail, let me tell you.

“They’re taking my home away! Where am I supposed to sleep tonight?”

She was always trying to get out,
but missed the pen when it went
The domestics were taking her pen apart. It was where she’d slept ever since she turned up and made our lives such hell.

Sorry. Luci tells me I shouldn’t talk that way about her. Ever since she turned up and added her special brand of charm and spice to our lives.

That means the same thing, by the way.

Anyway, she seemed worried when the domestics took her pen away. Though nothing like as worried as I felt she ought to be.

“They’re probably sending you away somewhere else. They’ve probably noticed what a pain in the backside you are. It took them long enough, after all.”

She gave me a look she probably thought was withering, but with those puppy dog eyes, she just can’t do it.

“Don’t be silly. They wouldn’t do that,” she said, but she didn’t sound sure.

“No, don’t be silly, Misty,” Luci jumped in, “of course, they’d never do that. You know how fond they are of you. After all, they even let you drive me off their laps. I’m sure they’ve got plans for you.”

“Just what I was saying,” I reassured Toffee, “they’ve got plans for you.”

It was great to see how little reassurance my words gave her.

Of course, I knew what their plans were. There was a time, back in the dim and distant past, so remote I can barely remember it, when things were properly ordered in our family. The dog of the time, Janka, used to sleep on the floor in the bedroom, and I slept on the bed. Well, the domestics did kick me out occasionally. I do like to sleep on things, and legs are great if you can’t get bellies. But the domestics would sometimes get shirty about my sleeping on them and boot me out.

Otherwise, I slept on the bed, and a very fine place it was too, for a cat who knows what’s due to him.

But then Luci showed up. She took my place! Imagine. A smelly, snivelling dog got my place of honour on the bed.

I could see what was going to happen with Toffee. They were taking her pen apart so she could join them on the bed too. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So now there's absolutely no chance of my ever getting back to my rightful place on top of the duvet.
Bedtime, these days
I still had to laugh, though. That little Luci has competition now. And Toffee, she’s a tough competitor. It’ll be interesting to see who gets the best position in the bed, up near the domestics’ heads, once things have settled down a bit.

Meanwhile, at least downstairs life is peaceful these days. No Toffee jumping up and down in her pen at the crack of dawn, clamouring to be let out. Now she can just jump up and down on the domestics and show them what a mistake they made when they chucked me out in favour of dogs. Kicking a cat out to let dogs in. What were they thinking of?

“See?” Toffee said, “they didn’t send me away.”

“No,” I agreed. “I never thought they would, more’s the pity. But I told you they had plans for you, didn’t I? And they did, didn’t they?”

I’ve never seen her at a loss for words before. It was fun to walk away while she was trying to work out an answer. And failing.

At least the new arrangements give me a little peace
And that's all I crave

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Opera: it's all Welsh to me

The promotional material for the Welsh National Opera (WNO) spring programme has turned up.

The WNO in Spring 2017
The companys staging Madame Butterfly. It seems the “much loved WNO production of Puccini’s tale of love and betrayal returns for limited performances”. I was a little disappointed. After all, they’re charging full price for the tickets, so it strikes me they could fully commit to the production. A limited performance? Count me out.

The WNO is the Welsh equivalent of the English National Opera (ENO), a fine opera company that stages its productions in English. 

Yes, you read that correctly. The statement applies to both companies. You thought the WNO might stage its performances in Welsh? Think again.

There are some 53 million people living in England. Tacked on to the northern end of the country, for now (at least until the next independence referendum), there are nearly 6 million Scots. Pretty much all the Scots speak English, or some dimly recognisable variant of it, and little else. Even within Wales, only about half a million of the 3 million people speak Welsh at all. 

It’s my belief that few even of those really speak it. They can probably pronounce Llanelli correctly, but I doubt they could give you directions in Welsh for how to get there (and why would you want them to, anyway?)

So, the WNO sings in English. And why does that matter? Anyone who answered, “so we can understand the words” can go right to the back of the class. No one understands the words in opera. That’s why they have supertitles, spelling out the words in a great banner above the stage.

And that helps? If you answered “yes”, you really aren’t doing well in this class.

Understanding the words in opera does nothing to improve comprehension. It merely replaces the question, “what are they saying?” by a still more baffling, “why are they bothering to say it?” In opera, it’s best to leave a desire for understanding at the door and just enjoy the music.

That works fine if it isn’t Wagner. Mark Twain, right about so many things, was spot on when he said that, “Wagner's music is better than it sounds.” I once went to a performance of the Ring cycle – the whole thing, four sessions, fourteen hours – and I can confirm Twain’s view.

I say “once” not just because it’s not an experience that I’ve been gasping to repeat in the intervening three or four decades, but because I was surrounded by people for whom it clearly wasn’t a joy to be indulged in only once. At the interval, they were all talking about how that year’s performance compared with last year’s (poorly, apparently) and reminiscing over great productions of the past, in some cases ten or more years previously. 

Wagner, apparently, doesn’t attract appreciation, but worship.

If you’re stuck, as I was, with appreciation, you’re in for a tough time. I spent the first couple of hours hoping for an aria to come along, and then the next twelve trying to adapt to the notion that none was going to, a sense fully confirmed when the final curtain fell.

Still. If they’d been singing in English I don’t imagine the experience would have been any less obscure for me than it was in German.

Why, I could have coped with Welsh and been no less enlightened.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

This ides of March and that one

The Ides of March, to quote Shakespeare, are come. And this year, 2061 after the murder of Julius Caesar that took place on that date – 15 March – it’s particularly apt to mark the event.

Julius Caesar, populist and autocrat
Sadly, we have indeed seen his like again.
Why? Because the assassination of Caesar was an attempt to prevent the conversion of Rome, and its growing empire, into an autocracy. The driving force towards dictatorship? Caesar, a populist who, though an aristocrat himself, had won himself a powerful reputation among the common people as a man to speak for them.

My problem is that I’ve never known who to sympathise with in that incident. There’s no doubt that Caesar was an opportunist, a narcissist and a budding tyrant. He had shown not merely his effectiveness in warfare but his ruthless cruelty, as he wiped out thousands of his defeated enemies, including women, children and the old.

Unfortunately, though the men who opposed him spoke for the Republic, it was nothing like the kind of Republic we’ve come to know and admire since the revolutions – notably in France and America – in the eighteenth century. Entry to the senate wasn’t by election but by appointment from within a wealthy elite. And even elective office was, in effect, bought by those who could win themselves the most short-term popularity with Roman voters.

Certainly, Cassius, Brutus and the rest weren’t fighting for any kind of democratic or popular government that we would recognise. They were trying to defend a system in which they represented the establishment, and which worked to protect their interests and power. It was a system rotten with corruption and principally focused on the needs of the wealthy.

Essentially, the assassination was the culmination of a battle between an autocratic Republican maverick reaching for power on the back of a populist wave, and a corrupt Republican establishment intent on defending its privileges. I can sum up my feelings in another line from Shakespeare: a plague on both your houses.

My main feeling, though, is a sinking one, at the thought that the choice is as poor today as it was 2061 years ago.

Still, today we have a better solution than assassination: we can vote for change. We just need a genuine alternative. Come on Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the United States.

And in Britain, come on you successor to Jeremy Corbyn – whoever you may be.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Arguing about black actors

There’s an entertaining transatlantic argument going on about whether it’s appropriate for black British actors to play African Americans.

Rather a lot of those actors have been working in the States. There they’ve picked up roles requiring an American accent, and have been performing them rather well. For instance, Chiwetelu Ejiofor playing the American free black sold into slavery in Twelve Years a Slave. Or David Harewood as a senior CIA executive in Homeland. Most remarkable of all, David Oyelowo playing that most iconic of figures, Martin Luther King, in Selma.

David Oyelowo in Selma
A Brit playing MLK? Horror. Heresy. Blasphemy
Among African American actors this development has, it seems, bred a degree of resentment. The Guardian quotes Samuel L. Jackson questioning whether Daniel Kaluuya was the right actor to play an African American in an interracial relationship, in Get Out.

I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.

The suggestion is that to play the African American well, you need to have experienced his suffering. Otherwise, you might be unable to express his being adequately. However, the Guardian quotes David Harewood as claiming that:

… he and other black British performers are able “to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities – and simply play what’s on the page”.

In other words, they act.

This reminds me of the conversation Laurence Olivier reportedly had with Dustin Hoffman, when Hoffman mentioned he’d stayed up three nights to prepare for a scene of exhaustion in Marathon Man. Olivier replied, “why don’t you just try acting?”

The story is probably apocryphal – it apparently comes from Hoffman himself, and he says his claim to have stayed up three nights wasn’t true anyway – but the point is a good one. You can actually play Martin Luther King without being Martin Luther King, or American, or indeed, I suspect, even black – if you’re an actor.

Another of Jackson’s Guardian comments caught my attention. He said of Kaluuya:

Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years.

It’s quite flattering to know that, among some African Americans at least, Britain has a reputation for being open on racial matters. Indeed, the suggestion that it has been for rather a long time. It’s almost enough to give Brits a smug sense of anti-racist superiority. At least, until we remember why those black British actors go looking for good roles in the States.

They just don’t get them in Britain.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Roman Britain? Why, for pity's sake?

There’s something strange about the notion of ‘Roman Britain’. So strange as to seem nearly incomprehensible. And never more so than when I travelled home to England from Rome on Friday.

That morning I had a couple of hours free before I set off for the airport. I decided to pack my coat in my suitcase and head out to find ‘I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza’, the pastry shop my wife discovered and was seduced by when she was out there with me in February.

This meant I was out of doors in a shirt and light pullover. Pretty soon, I was regretting that I hadn’t packed away the pullover too. It was early March but I was wandering the streets in shirtsleeves with a pullover draped comfortably if not particularly stylishly over my shoulders.

At the time of Roman Britain, Rome was certainly the most prosperous city in Europe, in the running for most prosperous in the world. And the weather was doubtless as glorious as it is now. Why would anyone want to go and stand guard on the Empire’s borders in fog-bound, rain-swept Britain?

These were thoughts that invaded me once the glow of homecoming with pastries from ‘Granny Vincenza’ had faded to be replaced by the duty – a pleasurable duty but a duty nonetheless – of walking the dogs. They enjoy their walks and I’m sure they cope with the rain. They even look quite amusing when they get soaked, whereas I suspect I just look bedraggled and a bit sad. Wouldn’t it be fun if we had some of the weather here that I was enjoying in Rome?

A certain charm when wet
I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone left Rome to go and stand guard in the fog and rain of Hadrian’s Wall, the Trump-like structure the Empire built against the weird and dangerous barbarians who inhabited Scotland then as now.

The truth, of course, is that few of them did. I imagine the officers would mostly have been younger sons of middle-ranking families, perhaps men looking to make a name for themselves in the legions in the hope of building a career later somewhere more promising and more comfortable. Even they, though, would I suspect have drawn a short straw.

Among the rank and file and the non-commissioned officers, there might have been a few Romans. But the majority were Germans. Tribesmen desperate in the ghastly, and even wetter plains and forests of northern Germany, who had worked out there were only two ways of enriching themselves: raid the prosperous empire west of them, or go over to it in the hope of sharing some of its wealth. The ones on the wall had made the wise choice of joining an army they couldn’t beat.

The orders on the Wall were probably given in Latin. I expect they were executed in German. I’m reminded of a young black colleague in South Africa, who explained to me that as well as English, he also worked in Zulu and Xhosa, but “naturally, I know how to take instruction in Afrikaans”. It was probably like that on the wall.

Hadrian's Wall: Trump-like structure
A failed last line of defence against the scary Scots
After the Romans left Britain, the Romanised Celts who took over clearly felt they could play the same game. They brought in more Germans, mercenaries, to help them fight the wars that broke out between their little kingdoms. But unfortunately, though they saw themselves as inheritors of the grandeur of Rome (one of them was probably the prototype of ‘King Arthur’), they didn’t have the clout of Rome. At its height, Rome probably only had between 15,000 and 20,000 legionaries in Britain, but they were redoubtable troops and the real fear for, say, rebellious German auxiliaries – maybe 40,000 strong – was that the legions could quickly be reinforced from the Continent by men who would exact a terrible vengeance.

The British kings didn’t have that deterrent force. When their mercenaries decided they didn’t want to go home, but preferred to stay, grabbing themselves some of the best land without so much as a thank you, and more likely with a blow, there wasn’t much the little kings could do about it.

And before very long the Celtic tribesmen, Romanised or not, found themselves either (a) dead, (b) pushed into Wales or (c) assimilated into the new Anglo-Saxon dispensation that had taken over the land. A large portion of Southern Britain had become England.

It occurs to me that this may be the root of the xenophobia so many Englishmen continue to suffer from and which fuelled the Brexit vote. Deep in our atavistic souls we feel that we are immigrants ourselves, outsiders who overstayed our welcome and took over. Some at least fear that the same thing might happen again, as we bring in Poles and Bulgarians to run our health service, our hotels and our trains, and worry that they won’t go home. After all, there’s a terrible risk that Johnny Foreigner may prove much better at those jobs than a lot of our own people.

We know what happened when we pulled off that trick against the original Brits.

Strange, though, isn’t it? After all, if I could choose between a balmy March morning in Rome and a wind- and rain-swept one in England, I know which would seem preferable. 

Believe me, I’ve had recent experience of both.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Italy the awesome

It’s a joy to be able to do spend time in Italy.

Not just because it was where I was born and every time I turn up in Rome, it feels a little like a homecoming, even though I left when I was thirteen.

Not just because you can walk around in shirtsleeves in February and March when in England we still need coats, and waterproof coats at that.

Not just because the setting for the work is often spectacularly beautiful – having come through Venice on the way here, I can confirm that it does rather edge it over my current hometown of Luton (even if Luton has the occasional gem, all the more precious for being so rare…)

Jewels of Venice and Luton
Poor old Luton has its own. Just not at every turn...
It’s also because it provides it’s a land of smiles, and not just smiles of pleasure at the beauty or the warmth, but smiles of simple humour. And humour matters.

I’ve recently been struck by the excessive use of the word “awesome” (or rather “ahsome”) by my American colleagues. It has to be said that my bright American boss did point out to me that we’re just as bad, in England, with the word “brilliant”. I thought that was a brilliant observation.

Places like Venice are, however, literally awesome. I’m using the word “literally”, like the word “awesome”, literally. They inspire awe, and awe is good. But I can’t help feeling that humour’s even better.

The meeting in Venice wasn’t actually in the old city but in Mestre, which is on the mainland opposite. The offices we went to were in Via Mestrina, which I believe means “street in Mestre”. It may just be me, but I couldn’t help smiling about that – it strikes me that all the streets in Mestre are mestrine, so how could the naming be anything but ambiguous?

Or do I mean multibiguous?

Still, that was only a momentary amusement. The real prolonged laugh came when we travelled back to Venice (we wanted a bit of awe, and staying in Mestre would have been a little flat).

Our train was due to leave from Platform 6, but as we reached to the top of the stairs, we saw the sign turn blank. We rushed back downstairs and saw that there was a train due on Platform 3, but when we got to the top of those stairs, discovered that the sign there was blank too. Fortunately, a helpful voice was making an announcement over the PA system.

“The 17:30 train to Venice is approaching platform 9.”

Down the stairs. Back up to platform 9. Just in time for a new announcement.

“The 17:30 train to Venice, scheduled to leave from platform 9, will now leave from platform 11.”

Downstairs. Upstairs. 

The sign proudly forecast the arrival of the train at platform 11 in a few minutes. Then it went blank.

From where we were standing, we could see platform 9 and the sign on it. “17:30 Venice”. It felt slightly Orwellian: “the train is leaving from platform 9, it has always been leaving from platform 9”.

Back on platform 9 we felt we were onto a good thing at last. It was 17:28. Surely it couldn’t change again?

It didn’t. 17:30 came and went. At 17:32 the sign went blank. Exactly as though the train had come and gone. Neither my colleague nor I had any memory of that happening. Nor, I believe, did any of the other passengers milling around on the platform. We headed downstairs to consult the signs in the underground corridor. The next train was the 17:43 from platform 3. Once more, we climbed the stairs to that platform.

As we reached the top of the stairs, the helpful announcer gave us some more, and invaluable, information.

“The train now approaching platform 6 is the 17:38 for Venice.”

It really was approaching – we could see it – so it felt like a safe bet for once. But time was short. We ran down the stairs, along the corridor, and back up on to platform 6.

Which, if you’ve been following this tale carefully, you’ll remember was the first one we tried.

The train stopped. We climbed aboard a little suspiciously, worried that it might pull back out the way it had come and dump us all in Udine. But no, it carried on down the track and into Venice, bringing us once more into the joy and wonder – and awe – of canals and palaces, gondolas and bridges.

But in the meantime, we’d had an experience that reminded me of, I believe, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. If I remember, there’s a scene in that classic film where a large number of passengers shift from platform to platform in a station, in response to a series of incomprehensible announcements, only to see the train eventually arrive at the platform they started from. Can you imagine the sheer joy and amusement of reliving a classic French comedy? And our experience lasted far longer than the film scene – no director would ever dare make it that long, worried that it might seem implausible.

It's not implausible in Italy.

Venice is just ten minutes by train from Mestre. Our rushing from platform to platform had lasted at least twenty. And I reckon the exercise we’d had was more than had we walked across.

Ah, Italy, Italy. Beautiful. Warm. Friendly. 


And inimitable.