Friday, 31 March 2017

Minor success in the battle against testosterone blindness

Testosterone blindness is a notion to which my wife introduced me decades ago.

That’s “introduced” in the widest possible, not to say euphemistic sense. You’ll understand what I mean when I tell you that testosterone blindness is the deplorable condition which prevents a man finding the sports bag that he has absent-mindedly, and inappropriately, left on the dining table.

A slightly modified variant prevents him seeing the pile of washing up that might usefully be done while his wife is out, to say nothing of the child who needs his nappy changing/his face washing/helping with his homework. It does not prevent the man in question finding the remote control that allows him to tune into the international rugby match taking place that afternoon.

It’s a sad affliction without, it would appear, hope of a permanent cure for those touched by it. That, however, doesn’t stop women trying to treat it, by forcefully expressed pointers towards the location of car keys, the floor that needs mopping or the child who needs taking out.

That form of treatment is like chemotherapy: it sometimes feels as bad as the disease it’s intended to cure and it leaves scars.

It was, therefore, a wonderful curative to have a little counter-experience today. Just before heading for Glasgow airport and a flight home, I received a message from my wife: “if you have time, please collect me some Occitane Lavender hand cream and a Refreshing Aromatic deodorant.”

I was at the airport early so time wasn’t a problem. I made for the Occitane corner in the Duty Free shop.

“May I help you?” said the pleasant woman who was standing by the shelves.

I explained my need.

“Ah, yes,” she said as she started examining all the shelves in the left-hand section of two dedicated to the products. She went through them all and then turned to the right-hand section, perusing them thoroughly from top to bottom. When she’d finished, she turned to the little island behind me which I hadn’t noticed before, and which had two sets of three shelves full of more Occitane products.

All to no avail. Neither of the products was on display.

“We don’t stock the entire range,” she explained apologetically, “I’m sorry.”

“Glasgow,” I began to think to myself, unjustly as it turned out. For my eye was caught by some tubes with purple labels.

“Hang on,” I said, “isn’t that lavender?”

I picked one up and examined it more closely.

“Oh, look,” I said, “it’s hand cream.”

“So it is,” she said, “now why should it have been there?” she went on, making me think of nothing so much as my frequently-voiced complaint, “Good Lord. I could have sworn I’d taken that upstairs/hadn’t left it there/had already put it in the car.”

“Now,” I went on, “I need a woman’s deodorant.” I thought perhaps I could find an acceptable alternative to “refreshing aromatic”.

I bent down to look at the little group of such deodorants, down near the floor. One caught my eye.

“Oh, look,” I said, “fraicheur aromatique. That sounds a bit like refreshing aromatic, doesn’t it?” Indeed, as I lifted the little bottle I saw that the English was printed underneath and confirmed my translation.

“Why, you’re right,” she said, in a near whisper. 

She sounded humble. As well she might.

Testosterone 1, Oestrogen nil
For we had just shared a moment that was exceptional, if not unique: a one-off triumph of testosterone vision over oestrogen blindness.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

I have always depended on the cordiality of strangers

Often it works out well. On Sunday, we took both dogs to Ashridge Forest, one of the more magical places in the three counties Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Making up for quite a lot of places of the other kind.

For Toffee, not yet seven months old, it was a matter of sheer delight. I think she had never previously encountered such a medley of smells. She ran through mile after mile of forest with her nose trailing along the ground for most of the way, as she revelled in the experience.

Sharing the joys of Ashridge in the spring
After giving the dogs their treat, we headed to the National Trust cafĂ© which does an excellent line in homemade meals and cakes (not of course that we indulge in the cakes). The place was full – it took me twenty minutes even to get to the front of the queue, making me more grateful than ever the existence of a Kindle app on my phone – so we ended up sharing a table with other people.

By good fortune, we found ourselves opposite to women of Indian extraction, with whom we got into a pleasant conversation. We agreed about how awful racist objections to Muslim dress are, how desperate a state the Labour Party is in under its present non-leadership and how appalling it is that Britain is planning to leave the European Union.

It really is depressing watching someone self-inflicting a major injury. Especially when it’s your country.

I was amused that one of the women complained that she was constantly losing credit cards.

“How irresponsible is that?” she asked, I assume rhetorically, “what’s more irresponsible than losing credit cards?”

“Using them?” I asked.

“That’s what husbands are for,” she patiently explained, “to make sure you always have credit on the card.”

Her husband was clearly a different kind from my wife’s. With us, I was always the one running up the credit card bills. It was my wife who spent twenty-five years trying to train me to understand that my life would be a lot less stressful and a great deal more comfortable if I stopped treating “credit” as though it were “funds”.

These days I’m convinced that losing my credit cards would be a lot less irresponsible than using them. But it was fun meeting someone who took the opposite view. Especially in as glorious a setting as Ashridge.

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.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Stephen Hawking identifies another black hole, called Corbyn

The possessor of one of the most formidable minds of the world today, Stephen Hawking, has joined the growing chorus of Labour supporters calling for the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to resign.

“I regard Corbyn as a disaster,” he told the The Times newspaper, and “I think he should step down for the sake of the party”.

Stephen Hawking sees politics clearly as well as physics
Hawking is one of the leading experts on black holes. No wonder he sees the black hole into which Corbyn’s taking us. Many voters share his vision but not, unfortunately, most Labour Party members: an Election Data poll of members found that he would be re-elected leader if he had to stand again today.

They’re clearly not reading the evidence of approaching disaster the same way as the rest of us, including Hawking.

As is well known, Hawking is a long-term sufferer from Motor Neurone Disease. This led to a fine transatlantic interchange in 2009, when Republicans opposed to Obama’s healthcare reforms made the bizarre claim that the NHS would have regarded Hawking’s life as “worthless” because of his disabilities and refused to treat him. As Hawking replied, “"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS.”

That’s particularly relevant today, faced as we are by a new Conservative budget. It continues the seven years of austerity that we have already had and which have had no impact on the scale of the country’s debt, which keeps climbing to peacetime records. Another group of people has now been attacked, this time the self-employed who are being forced to pay higher national insurance contributions.

This explicitly breaches a pledge made by the Conservatives in the run up to the last election under two years ago.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has found some additional funds to back the ‘free school’ initiative, in reality a most expensive form of schooling, for which the results have been at best mixed. Education desperately needs funding but not in this unnecessary way.

Meanwhile, even the police and prison service, generally the parts of the public sector least abhorrent to the Conservatives, are creaking at the seams, unable to act effectively against smaller crime or control the prison population.

What’s most terrifying, though, and must be particularly hurtful to Hawking is that there is no attempt to address the desperate financial crisis facing the NHS. Two thirds of English hospitals are running at a deficit. Accident and Emergency services are struggling, and frequently failing, to cope. Waiting times for operations are on the climb again, having been brought down to acceptable levels – eighteen weeks maximum – by the last Labour government.

Why is this being allowed to happen? The Conservative majority is wafer thin. With a half-way effective opposition, it would have to think carefully about continuing to undermine the NHS. It would have to wonder whether it could get away with breaking its election pledges.

None of that applies if the opposition has an ineffective leader, leaving it incapable of mounting an effective resistance to its rule. Labour is reduced to meaninglessness under Corbyn, seen by too few as an alternative Prime Minister. The Conservatives could even, as has been rumoured, hold an election shortly and trounce him. Why would they do that? They may be bold enough to feel they can count on Corbyn refusing to step down, on the grounds that he’s had too short a tenure, encouraging Conservative hopes that they could thrash him again five years later.

In February, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, held a 17 point positive rating: 53% of respondents to a survey by Ipsos MORI were satisfied with her against 36% who were not. The same poll found Corbyn had a 38 point negative rating: 24% satisfied and 62% dissatisfied.

If you’re tempted to object that polls get figures wrong, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the UK they tend to overstate not understate Labour support.

The Election Data poll of Labour members meanwhile tells us that 51% of Labour members think Corbyn is doing well, against 47% who think he’s doing badly.

It feels to me as though the gulf between voters and Labour Party members is as wide as I’ve ever seen it. No wonder people like Stephen Hawking feel things are heading in a catastrophic direction.

Sometimes I have a nightmarish vision in which backing for Corbyn continues to fall until there are only 300,000 supporters left. Sadly, they are precisely the 300,000 Corbyn supporters who dominate the Party and keep him in office. Giving the Conservatives all the encouragement they need to break their pledges and decimate public services vital to us.

The police. The prison service. Education.

Above all the jewel in the crown, the service that matters so much to Hawking, the National Health Service.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Familiarity breeds belief

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

The words are Daniel Kahneman’s from his Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Both a young friend of mine and one of my sons had repeatedly urged me to read this excellent book, but though I started it twice, somehow on each occasion I let other things take over and gave up before I’d got far.

Now, however, I’m making good progress and delighted by the insights it provides me, not least the sentiment I’ve just quoted.

Daniel Kahneman.
A Nobel-prize winner I should have paid attention to earlier
There’s an old principle that I’ve always believed, that the truth is often the best thing to tell, if only because it’s the version of events you know best so you’re less likely to get it wrong and end up contradicting yourself. The truth is easy because it’s familiar. It took Kahneman to point out the converse: if it’s familiar, there’s a serious risk you’ll take it for the truth whether it is or isn’t. As he points out, you don’t even have to repeat the entire statement to convince someone of a falsehood.

People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true.

We all know that mechanism from within ourselves. Someone tells us a piece of news, and if our first reaction is, “I’ve heard that” then not far behind will be the notion, “it must be true”. If we reflect on the information more carefully – the slow thinking, or “System 2”, of Kahneman’s analysis – we may well reject it, but our first reaction is to believe what we’ve already heard. And how many people go to that analytic phase? As Kahneman points out, System 1, the intuitive reaction is easy; System 2 is effortful and difficult.

Incidentally, I’m making no claim to superiority here: these are statements about all of us – I know that System 2 thinking is as laborious for me as for anyone, and Im as inclined as everyone else to go with System 1 gut feel if possible.

So, say it often enough, and a proportion of the US electorate will believe that Barack Obama was born outside the United States. The evidence is strongly against that belief, but analysis of evidence is a System 2 activity. Even less considered is the seldom-mentioned view that it’s irrelevant anyway: the US Constitution doesn’t require candidates for the presidency to be born in the States, only to be born American. So John McCain could run, though he was born in the Panama Canal zone, and George Romney (father of Mitt) could be a candidate too, in 1968, despite being born in Mexico.

Again, absorbing that information requires System 2 behaviour.

Now consider the Fox News announcement that the attacker at the Quebec Mosque was himself a Muslim. The suggestion was that the six worshippers killed and the nineteen wounded had been targeted by a Muslim terrorist.

The story was untrue. The killer was a Canadian known to the police for his extreme right-wing views. Fox eventually admitted as much and deleted the item. By then, though, it had spread like wildfire across social media.

Would you be prepared to bet that this false story, made familiar by repetition, is now disbelieved by everyone?

Trump, whose favourite news channel is Fox, is emerging as a master of this kind of disinformation. Faced with the refusal of the scandal which may, in time, sink him – his campaign’s contacts with Russia, a story that feels like a new Watergate – he has hit back by accusing Barack Obama of having wiretapped Trump tower. 

Repeatedly hit back.

Trump has offered no evidence for his claim. Indeed, despite having decried unsourced stories himself, he has given no source for it. But evidence and awareness of hypocrisy are System 2 activities.

I don’t know what will come of the accusations. There have been some authoritative denials already but someone may emerge with some supporting information. It doesn’t matter. The story’s out there. It’s being repeated. It’ll become familiar. Many will see it as true. Not just about Obama, either: this is part of a flow of apparent information which will ultimately leave many with the feeling that any opponent of Trump’s is devious or even evil.

The converse also applies. Trump keeps telling us how much he’s achieved and how well his administration is running. In reality, there have been no achievements and the administration is chaotic. Again, it doesn’t matter. His claims will be picked up. They’ll become familiar. They’ll be believed.

There’s not much that’s funny about the post-truth age. But at least we can be grateful to Daniel Kanehman for exposing the mechanisms by which it works.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Luci's diary, on the Toffee affliction

I’m not sure I get that little dog Toffee. She’s fun to play with and all that, but hey, she’s weird. She has all these strange habits I just can’t get my head around.

Like she never stops eating. And she’ll eat anything. I mean, even bits of wood and coat toggles. Well even if she doesn’t eat them, she gives them a thorough chewing.

But then really good things she just doesn’t like. Popcorn, say. 

Human number 2 has this thing about being fair. So he always gives a bit to me, a bit to her. She jumps up and down to make sure she gets her bit. Terribly enthusiastic. “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” she seems to be saying. But then she just sort of rolls her piece around her mouth and quietly drops it out on the ground. .

Human number 2’s just as keen on “waste not, want not” as he is on fairness, so he always picks up the bits she drops. And gives them to me. They’re still perfectly good popcorn bits, after all, so why would I be worried? And it means I get twice as much as I was going to.

It was the same with the best thing to eat of all. Banana. It’s just so awesome. I can be upstairs in the bedroom but if one of the humans peels a banana downstairs, I’m down like a shot. I reckon I can hear a banana being peeled anywhere in the house, or even at the end of the garden.

But Toffee does the same trick as with the popcorn. Wants her share and then spits it out. So I get a double share.

Or, rather, scratch that, that’s how it used to be. Until just today, just now. She’s just been gobbling all the banana human number 1 has been giving her. And not spitting any of it now. I know it means I’m still getting my share, but since I thought I’d get hers too, it feels like I’m getting only half a share.

Why does she do that? Change her mind like that, I mean. I liked the way she felt about banana before, for kibble’s sake.

She changes her mind quite a lot, actually. Take being gutsy, for instance. She used to be scared of nothing. She’d go up to strange humans and say hello to them. To strange dogs too. Hey, big dogs even. It used to terrify me, though it made me feel a bit guilty. It made me feel I had to go up to a few humans myself, even if I only knew them a bit. Ones I didn’t know at all? Oh, no. Wouldn’t catch me going up to them. And big dogs? You’ve got to be joking. Won’t catch me going anywhere closer to them than gives me a damn good start if I had to make a dash for it. 

Toffee didn’t care though. She’d try to make friends with anybody.

Then suddenly, just a couple of weeks ago, she went right over to the other extreme. Got completely terrified. Well, I understood it a bit. She got playing with a couple of big dogs and they ran her down. Of course. That’s what big dogs do. Big, clumsy oafs. She got trampled.

Served her right, really. Taught her a lesson, I reckoned. But it did more than that. She got nervous about everything. A dog barks anywhere near the park (not even in the park) and she high-tails it for home. She terrified human number 1 once: Toffee went running up the road towards home and nearly got squished by a car.

But anything sets her off. A noisy car. A man dropping a plank. A flock of birds taking off (well, that scares me too, but she’s much worse than me). She gets her ears back, head down, and makes a break for somewhere she thinks is safer.

So the humans have gone back to keeping her on a lead when they walk us. Which is quite funny. Because she hasn’t worked out that, if you’re on a lead, you’ve got to walk the same side of a lamp post as the human. It’s so hilarious when they end up on opposite sides.

What? What? What’s wrong with this side of the lamp post?
One time it happened with human number two and a big tree. He went round one side, Toffee went the other. The human started chasing after her, following the lead, and calling her. So of course she went chasing him, the other way. Both of them running round the tree, always on the opposite side of each other, with the lead between them.

“Stay, Toffee, stay,” he kept calling.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Toffee yipped back.

I just sat and watched. It was “enthralling”, as Misty would say. But I kept quiet and didn’t laugh, because “you mustn’t mock the afflicted”, like he also says, though he’s always mocking everyone. 

In any case, who are these afflicted he’s talking about?

Perhaps it’s human number 2. He does seem to be afflicted by Toffee.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

There's nationalism and nationalism

While on a visit to Llanelli in South Wales, I found myself chatting to a pleasant woman who had spent some years working in bookshops.

“The worst thing about the London-based salesmen for the publishing companies,” she told me, “was that they didn’t want to come down to see us. One of them even said they only delivered to the mainland.”

It’s an interesting notion. Because, you see, Wales isn’t in fact an island separate from England.

OK. So where's the sea between England and Wales?
The conversation reminded me of one I had decades ago with a Welsh lawyer. A fluent Welsh speaker, he’d built quite a practice in a rural area providing legal services to farmers and others whose English was poor.

“We’re always talking about nationalism in this country.” 

We were in Wales at the time and there was, indeed, a great deal of talk about Welsh nationalists who were on the rise and, in their most extreme manifestation, had even taken to torching Welsh cottages owned by absentee English proprietors.

“But,” he went on, “I don’t think it’s Welsh nationalism that’s the real problem. It’s English nationalism.”

He was on to something, it seemed to me. After all, Welsh, Irish or Scottish nationalism might be the ones that made the most noise, but what they were noisiest about was the need to resist an arrogant and overbearing England, intent on treating them as second-rate citizens with no specific needs of their own.

Why, even the iconic British red postboxes had been emblazoned “E II R” since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. However Scotland, part of her realm, had never had a first queen of that name. For the Scots, the present queen is “E I R”.

A trivial matter? I’m sure it is in itself. But symbols matter and Symbolically the postboxes proclaim “Scottish history doesn’t matter. It’s been subsumed into English.”

How English history subsumes Scottish
Both sides of this divide are nationalistic. But there is a difference: Scots and Welsh nationalists, and their Irish predecessors who successfully achieved independence for their nation, are speaking out in defence of rights denied. The English nationalism is an empowered variety, proclaiming its own entitlement to deny rights to others.

It’s that kind of rampant, ugly nationalism whose rise around the globe is so worrying today. It’s bad in Britain. Here English nationalists, ironically supported by the Welsh on this occasion, inflicted Brexit on the entire population of the island, and the six counties of Ireland that are attached to it. It has become ever clearer that the hopes on which that movement based itself are entirely unfounded, not just illusory but self-delusory: there will be no savings to plough back into cherished national institutions like the NHS, despite the deceiving promises of the Brexit-backers; there will be no repatriation of control, but deepened dependency on others, such as the US, without Britain even enjoying the limited say in the making of their policy that it had in the EU; and, it has now been admitted, there will not even be the kind of reduction in immigration Brexiters had hoped for, such is our need for foreign labour to keep our society moving.

However, that only means that Britain will suffer for Brexit. Damage may be inflicted on other countries, but it will be relatively minor.

In the US, however, we have a team in power that has explicitly adopted the slogan ‘America First’. It sounds noble but in reality it means ‘everyone else a (distant) second’ (which, it has to be said in passing, makes it particularly ironic that Brexiters are looking to the US for national salvation). And the worst of it is that Trump has his finger on the button for an unimaginably powerful force – a huge nuclear stockpile.

On top of that, to ensure that in future the America he wishes to put first wins its wars, he’s looking for a large increase in military spending. To achieve it, he’s prepared to cut environmental protection and foreign aid, because he prefers dominating the world to keeping it habitable, and things it makes more sense to bomb people than feed them.

Refusing to deliver books to a part of your own country on the insultingly false belief that it’s an island is bad enough. It’s only the start of the harm that nationalism can do. It can go far further, hurling a nation into regression as Brexit will do, or worse still, jeopardising the future of the world as Trump now threatens.

Ugly and unpleasant, rampant, empowered nationalism turns out also to be dangerous.