Monday, 28 February 2011

Also pop

I haven't posted anything about music for a while.  When I first saw that Lady Gaga's new video is seven minutes long I thought "not again" but actually I really like it.  Lady Gaga is just excellent.  The new song may be a bit Express Yourself-y, but if she wants to pay tribute to Madonna wouldn't you rather she did it through the medium of song instead of by snogging her at an awards ceremony a la Britney?  Go Lady Gaga! The video starts with a unicorn, but you might want to skip the next two and a half minutes if you don't fell like watching Gaga writhing around in stirrups with a vaguely gnostic voiceover about good and evil.

Plus I first came across her on popjustice, who likened her to Madonna back then.

February: what I read in it

A combination of short books and sleepless nights means I've read rather a lot this month.  Here are some of the things:

1. Penguin Mini Modern Classics.  I do like the idea of these little books which allow you to sample the works of authors you might not otherwise read.  Sometimes trying something new or something you'd normally avoid pays off and you make a wonderful discovery.  (E.g. Javier Marías.)  Unfortunately for Penguin's marketing people I always associate those silver-grey covers with work that's well written but mildly revolting.  That's how I feel about most of the stuff written in the first half of the twentieth century: it's theoretically quite good, yet somehow mildly revolting.  I suppose the period is just too unsympathetic, close enough to be shameful but far enough away to be incomprehensible, full of rich flappers and Bright Young Things, Bloomsburyites wearing nothing but embroidered sweaters indulging in orgies of self-regarding intellectualism, fascists who wanted someone to put the boot in, naive hubristic communists who thought communism was going to work, the masters upstairs and the servants downstairs, women smothered in domesticity, and endless young men shipped off to the slaughter.
Anyway, here are the ones I read:
F. Scott Fitzgerald (free with my dad's Telegraph): rich Americans drink a lot and feel sorry for themselves, often in Paris
Henry James (free with my dad's Sunday Telegraph): same sort of thing but with less drinking and more snobbery.  These James and Fitzgerald stories hold no surprises for anyone who has read any of the authors' other work, and I wouldn't have bought them.
Robert Musil: revoltingly vivid
Shirley Jackson: a bit predictable and insufficiently interesting though, again, well-written
Donald Barthelme: a bit revolting but I admit it's amusing and unusual.  So Barthelme wins.  Maybe one day I'll see a collection of his stories in an otherwise unappealing selection of second-hand books and buy it.

2. George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (1. A Game of Thrones; 2. A Clash of Kings; 3. A Storm of Swords (1. Steel and Snow, 2. Blood and Gold); 4. A Feast for Crows)
If you've never read any big fantasy and are wondering whether reading something in this genre would make you a more rounded individual, then I think these are the books I would recommend.  (Or maybe Robin Hobb's Assassin trilogy.)  They are very easy to read.  The quotation from the Graun on my copies says "Its ambition: to construct the Twelve Caesars of fantasy fiction, with characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias".  And there are also recognisable episodes from English medieval history mixed in.  Good reading. If you want something just a step more intelligent then go for K. J. Parker's Engineer trilogy.  The plus side with Hobb and Parker is that they have actually finished things off, while Martin, who found his fourth volume getting so large that he split it into two volumes based in the south and the north of his world and then only published the south one before getting massive writers' block, hasn't published any of this series since 2005.  He has three more volumes to write to finish off the story -- he does actually apparently have a whole story arc in his head, which is encouraging, it won't just go on for ever.

3. Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy (1. Fever and Spear; 2. Dance and Dream; 3. Poison, Shadow and Farewell).
These are very good books, really very good books indeed.  They are about a Spanish man who moves to London after he splits up with his wife.  He goes to a party in Oxford hosted by a retired professor whom he had got to know when teaching at the University some years earlier.  This professor persuades him to work for another of his guests, a man called Bertram Tupra, who heads a small and very secret government agency which advises on people's characters and likely behaviour.  The books are very intelligently done, with an elegant but complex structure.  I can see myself returning to them in a few years.  A quotation on the back of my copies likens them to the work of Proust -- saying they are "as addictive as Proust" which is an interesting way to put it, though I suppose Proust is pretty compelling.  It's a good comparison, although Marías doesn't have Proust's toxic qualities, not so much the unpleasant unceasing snobbery as the foul treatment of Albertine, which made me spitting mad when I last read it.  (Not that I read Proust frequently, I've read the whole thing twice, in translation of course, and I don't think I ever will again.)  But Marías has the same aphoristic tendencies, the same long trains of thought, and the same ability to involve you in relatively small things.  And the same revisiting of something already covered in a way which makes you rethink it, like the bit (I think in the volume called Sodom and Gomorrah) where Proust suddenly retells the events he's just recounted but with lots of added lesbianism.  Or that sort of retelling is a bit like Lawrence Durrell too.  Anyway, in short, Your Face Tomorrow is very very good.  But I would not advise trying to read the volumes separately, they are three books in the same way that the three volumes of Pride and Prejudice are separate books, e.g. not at all, in fact I think it's really seven short volumes.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Alpaca weaning

Yesterday we weaned last year's baby alpacas.  The way we do this, generally, is to take the babies off to the paddock at the back of our house, while leaving their mothers with the main female herd.  The babies miss their mothers for a few days -- it's important that they can't see the field where the others are -- and then settle down.  The mothers seem if anything rather relieved to have them gone.

Here's my dad catching Jemima, about whose traumatic birth and frisky first day I blogged back in August.  She's actually a tad smaller than we'd like, and my parents were worried that her mother stopped feeding her too soon.  I don't know whether difficult births are linked to that.  She didn't seem very bothered to be caught.  The funny thing here is that Gertrude, who is not Jemima's mother, was in a very pugnacious mood that day, and kept sticking her head in my dad's face as if asking for a fight.
Gertrude wants to be boss -- look how she's treading over my dad's boot
Now we have the five babies running round in the paddock with three of the youngest, wimpiest males, whom we brought down from the male herd to keep them company.  Because alpacas are herd animals they seem to like having other alpacas or even other animals to keep an eye on.  Our last chickens were completely free-range, and the alpacas liked to herd them away from the edge of the paddock.  My parents caught the babies today to start halter training, and the three boys went with them and kept a close eye on everything.  I might put up some video of them all if it stays sunny.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Perspective, and animals again

The problem with science is that after school you only ever encounter it via journalists.  And I'm afraid that there are a lot of things wrong with journalism, for example that idea of an "angle".  But I'm not quite a good enough person to go out there and really try to learn things properly from scratch, journalism-free.

Not that science in school is that great either.  I used to get so annoyed in Physics lessons, which were potentially about the most interesting things ever, but where the lesson plans were basically ten minutes about something, forty-five minutes saying it again more slowly, and then twenty minutes saying it again just in case anyone still didn't get it.  It was another of those instances where you realise that school is at least as much for learning to sit still and listen politely as for learning about the supposed subjects of the lesson.  And it's true that sitting and listening politely is an important skill for adult life.  Nonetheless, what we were told was more or less true, even if Newtonian physics falls apart when you get to a small scale.

The things that have been really bugging me are to do with consciousness, intelligence, and the brain.  I don't blame Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian for this, but it is sort of his fault for raising my expectations.  Some of his columns in the series "This Column Will Change Your Life" are quite interesting examinations of what human brains are actually like.  And I've been thinking a lot about that for a variety of reasons, one of which has to do with faith, and the idea, constantly expressed, that it's faith versus reason.  I have this sense that faith and reason are both subsets of something much bigger, but I don't know what to call that bigger thing, and my thinking on this is really unfinished.  I still haven't read Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind, though I am definitely going to, perhaps for Lent, but maybe she'd call the bigger thing "mind", I don't know, and if she does I don't know if I'd agree with her.  I'm not sure that we really quite know what reason is, even though we talk about it a lot.  (This is another place where I'm being lazy because it occurs to me that philosophers might have some interesting debates going on about this.)  But the human brain is a really fascinating thing.  The easiest thing to ask a computer is something like what is 28 times 317.  But this is one of the hardest things to ask a human brain.  (It's 8876, by the way, I just worked that out completely in my brain without paper but it took me a minute and a half, three minutes if you count that I did it twice to make sure.)  Yet it's a huge feat for a computer to play a basic parlour game.  I have no choice but to use my brain to view the world.  Every single thing that seems to me to be out there is really in my head -- I think I'm looking at the dome of a blue spring sky right now, but it's really all inside the inner curve of my skull.  So I'd like to know more about how it works, especially since, basically, I am constantly being accused, openly or by implication, of misusing it by believing in God (often by people who think they, in contrast, are using theirs entirely correctly, with all the implications that involves about what a brain is for and what sorts of duties we might owe it).

But the problem is how fantastically naive all this stuff is.  I read 59 Seconds by Robert Wiseman, which sells itself as cutting-edge peer-reviewed scientifically-proven insights into the human mind.  And it was full of things "proving" that people are more likely to agree to your request if you touch them on the arm, and suchlike.  Now, I intensely dislike being touched on the arm, and although I try not to resent it because intentions are more important than deeds, deep down I feel that it's an attempt to dominate me by moving into the personal space that is mine.  If you touch me on the arm I will instantly forgive you -- it's a reflex action, I'm afraid, and that's your favour right there, not the one you were asking from me.  Now, of course that particular set of studies was done in America, perhaps in an area where cultural mores are different from here.  Throughout Wiseman's book studies done in vastly different cultures are merrily treated as equivalent.  But let's imagine that an English study got the same result.  Now imagine that you've met me.  (I know some people read this blog who have met me.)  "I could really do with getting Rebecca to help me out by doing a few supervisions", you're thinking, or some equivalent favour.  "I know what, I'll make sure that when I ask her I touch her on the arm, like Professor Wiseman advises."  If you've met me I expect you may have realised that I am not an arm-touching type.  Even if you hadn't noticed, I bet you've got a sense that different people react differently to arm-touching.  If you like, you can disregard this distinction, now that you know that Wiseman's advice about arm-touching is that you should just go for it.  This is the sort of science that makes people stupider, not more intelligent.  It decreases our understanding rather than broadening it, and it's all impeccable in terms of being based on peer-reviewed research conducted according to scientific methods.  It's the advice that Wiseman draws from the research that's at fault here, not the research itself, but it's still pretty disappointing stuff in terms of understanding the mind.

Another one that annoyed me had to do with Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin apparently had a political opponent.  Franklin asked as a favour to borrow a very rare book from this man's library, which was granted, and this made a friendly connection between them.  Wiseman interprets this as meaning that to get X on your side you should get X to do you a favour.  It may be that we do tend to feel warmer towards people we have helped or looked after in some way (haven't centuries of gender politics involved that idea?) but it seems like a terrible oversimplification of the Franklin episode.  It's a delicate compliment to ask to borrow a book, it flatters the book owner on their intelligence and taste, it implies that both parties know that knowledge is more important than politics.  But it seems a bit troublesome to draw from this the idea that asking to borrow a pen during a committee meeting will make the pen's owner feel all fuzzy towards you, instead of just thinking you're a disorganised nuisance.

I was driven to the conclusion that novels are probably the best answer we have at the moment.  Read War and Peace and you'll understand how Natasha comes to run away with Kuragin even though she's in love with Prince Andrei.  I'm not saying it's necessarily impossible for cognitive science to get at that particular problem, just that it's going to take a long time.  And any novelist or short story writer could get dozens of different possibilities out of that Franklin exchange.

The thing that reminded me of all this was this fascinating article about monkeys and self-doubt.  Whenever you read something like this it's hard not to see it as a sort of double-edged experiment -- the scientists test the monkeys on something, while the scientists are themselves tested on their ability to come up with experiments.  In this one monkeys were given a series of pictures to react to, and three different possible options to choose.  For two of those options the consequences varied according to the picture the monkey had been shown; the same response would produce either a treat or a pause depending on what the picture was.  However, the third option consistently produced neither, and if the monkey pressed it then he or she could move at once on to the next picture.  The fact that these monkeys sometimes chose the third option when they knew it definitely wouldn't get them a treat, but would move them more quickly into a situation where a treat would be available, does suggest that they were aware when they weren't sure what answer the monkey-researchers were looking for.  (Though it doesn't necessarily mean that this is *self* doubt, it could be monkey-researcher doubt -- "Ah," thinks the monkey, "this is one of those middle-of-the-range pictures, and I have noticed, oh bringer-of-food-to-monkeys, that you aren't very consistent when it comes to pictures like this, so let's skip on to get something where you'll find it easier to understand that it's time for me to have a treat".)  I think this is fascinating.  I think it gives an interesting insight into both humans and monkeys.  But I'm not so sure about the bit where a contrast is drawn between New World and Old World monkeys.  That two different groups of monkeys react differently in the same situations is interesting.  But there's so much evidence that lots of animals have rudimentary culture, in the sense of things that they learn from each other which lead to slight differences in behaviour between separate groups, that it seems like the previous experience of both sets of monkeys would be pretty relevant here.  How far are they from a wild existence?  A wild monkey, which probably knows hunger and glut, might have a different attitude to waiting from a monkey which has always been given a reasonable amount of food at the same time each day.  Maybe the New World monkeys were more trusting, or in less of a hurry -- maybe the scientists haven't yet come up with the test that provokes New World monkeys into expressing doubt.  Maybe the New World monkeys were more hopeful about training the researchers better -- "I keep telling you that pictures like this belong with the first set of pictures not the second, and even though you don't listen, and pictures like this still seem to confuse you, I'm not going to give up on you, oh bringer-of-treats-to-monkeys, I know you want to give me a treat, and if I persist I know you'll understand me eventually." I'm not being entirely facetious here -- I think there was a definite equivalence between the times when we would shout "wait" to Elly, thinking that the fool dog had forgotten what wait meant, and the times when she would, essentially, shout "give me some of that delicious cheese you're eating" and get increasingly frustrated by our inability to understand that she would like some delicious cheese, both of us forgetting that understanding and compliance are not the same thing.  Anyway, basically, I think the monkeys come out of this one looking pretty good as personages who know what they want and know how to get it, while I remain to be entirely convinced by the more extravagant claims of the researchers, especially the claim that this is a big leap forward for understanding human cognition.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Animals and attentiveness

I am animal-less at the moment, plus today I met my cousin's excellent puppy Buddy, and these things have been making me think about the soothingness of pets. A lot of the debate that goes on about animals, at least the debate I encounter, has to do with animal rights, and concentrates on ideas of damage. I wondered if anyone reading this blog has come across stuff written about domestic animals as a benefit to humanity beyond their production of food-stuffs, fibre, or crop-fertilising manure. I don't want to say animals as 'friends', because I think using the human term sounds a bit eugh, but I suppose that's not far off what I mean. Take the riding for the disabled programs that you find all over the country, or the PAT dog thing. Or that man who recently found that horses were incredibly good for his autistic son and wrote a book about it. I know there have been studies where people with pets have had better blood pressure, or such, but I'm assuming that the benefits of pets are essentially mental or spiritual or however you describe the non-physical you. I'd be really interested if anyone knows of something in the realms of theology, philosophy, or psychology that looks at this.

For one thing, it annoys me when people, both pet-owners and pet-sceptics, treat pets as replacements for people. People are complicated and spending time with them involves taking into account huge webs of obligations and connections which are totally absent with animals. Animals force you to be quiet and consistent, to be gentle and calm and to have a sort of honesty in your movements, and this feels refreshing. People are more challenging and make you use your brain differently.

Me (two years) and my puppy (two months)
On the other hand it seems that finding animals comforting is not the case for everyone. I grew up with pets -- our dog Peggy was partly my mother's twenty-seventh birthday present but also partly for my second birthday. I didn't have a brother yet, so Peggy and I used to share things. The point where my mother stopped making me lovely stuffed toys was when she sewed me a pretend polar-bear-skin rug, complete with carefully-made stuffed head, and I immediately swapped it with Peggy for something squeaky. And when I was a bit older Peggy was an excellent listener too, attentive and without the implications of talking to adults. I also rode a lot when I was young, which is great for realising that the human--animal relationship is not a master--slave thing but relies on mutual trust and kindness. So on the whole I find animal company rewarding. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, grew up with potentially life-threatening asthma, and her animal allergies trigger this. She hasn't spent much time around animals as a result, and of course cats being cats seek her out from great distances as if deliberately trying to make her wheeze. I hadn't realised quite what a difference this made until I told her the other day about my scheme for making shoppers slightly more relaxed by offering them the chance to pat donkeys, and she said that on the contrary this would make her agitated.

So if this is a subjective experience then maybe that would get in the way of its being written about by psychologists, theologians, and philosophers. But if, when I say that I think being around domestic animals makes me a slightly better person by training me to be calm and to concentrate on gentleness and consistency, that rings a bell with anyone in something they've read then I'd be interested to hear about it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

How to buy books cheaply

I went to London recently and did lots of good stuff. One of the things was visiting the Book and Comic exchange by Notting Hill Gate tube station, at 14 Pembridge Road. It's worth popping by if you're in the mood for paperbacks and are in the area -- actually I made a special trip out there from paperback yearning. If you have books to spare you can get credit for them, or even cash money I think. They have a policy of discounting stuff quite aggressively until it makes its way down to the basement, where everything is 50p. I spent the best part of an hour there and still didn't quite get round the whole of the basement, let alone the ground floor, which has rather more serious stuff in it. I bought 11 books, three of them from my amazon wishlist (which is the definition of a good rather than an impulse buy), for a total of five pounds fifty. Hurray! I had to smuggle them into the house past my mother, who thinks that people who want to keep lots of books ought to have their own house, and she does sort of have a point there.

At the moment I am reading George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. It's Big Fantasy, with a cast of thousands, and legends and back stories by the dozens, and it slips down very easy. It's a nice contrasting break from my Ismail Kadare and Javier Marías marathon.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Birds singing

Today is the day when the birds start to sing, and I wrote a guest post about it for the Parker Library blog.  I'm particularly pleased with the closing phrase, for which I channelled Jerry Springer's Final Thought mode.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Aunting: a hard bit

When my brother first told me that my sister-in-law was pregnant I was very excited.  "I'm going to be the mad aunt!" I said.  "Yes," he replied, "yes, you are."  (My nephew has two other aunts on his mother's side.)  Unfortunately it seems that today I am also the depressing aunt.  My little rat, Osith, died last week.  She was the last of my rats, and I have forsworn pets until I have sorted my life out.  I miss her; she had a cheerful character, and it was amusing to watch her impose her will on the humans around her despite the disparity in size.  One of her most endearing characteristics was how she treated my little nephew.  A lot of domestic animals (cats sometimes excepted) have this patience with babies and children.  My mother as a kid used to ride a horse renowned for its wildness.  She would get up on it bareback and fall off every time they went round a corner, and the horse would stop and wait for her to scramble back on, while the same horse with an adult, competent rider was almost impossible to manage.  And our dog Peggy, who was partly my second birthday present, was always immensely tolerant with me and my brother.  Anyway, Osith didn't mind if my nephew was a little unpredictable in his two-year-old way, but would sit waiting for him to stroke her, and then make happy teeth-chattering noises when he did.  My nephew likewise showed well in her company.  He understood that he had to be gentle with her.  He would stroke her and then look at me and laugh, and stroke her and then look at me and laugh again, and then perhaps do a little happy dance before stroking her again.  It was hard to persuade him that she had had enough treats, in the same way that it's often hard to persuade him that he's had enough treats.  We have him here every Monday because his nursery is full, and when he sees me he immediately puts out his arms to be picked up, and then says, with toddlerish imperiousness, "Rat!"

So today I have been showing him where she used to live, and telling him that the rat is gone.  He says "Rat gone.  Uhoh.  Bye bye rat."  But he isn't sure about it, so he keeps asking me again.  It's making me melancholy.  He won't remember her, of course, though I did get my brother to take some video of them together so maybe that will survive for him to watch later.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Medieval golgotha

This carved skull is part of the "golgotha" preserved in the church at St Andrews Cullompton.  This is the church where my parents go in the evenings -- I sometimes go with them but I usually leave it at one church service per Sunday these days.  The church in the sense of the people is very different from the church in the sense of the building: the former is lively, modern, concerned with spirituality rather than aesthetics; the latter is very old, full of memorials to past generations, truly beautiful in a number of styles which harmonise despite spreading over centuries.  Maybe what they have in common is a presence in the community.  The huge tower of St Andrews can be seen all over Cullompton, and the people of St Andrews do a lot of community work in this rather troubled and shabby mid-Devon town.  I think it's fair to say that I love them both, and it saddens me that the people don't love the building much.  In the evenings they often hold the service in the church hall, so as not to be distracted.

Anyway, maybe some time I'll post properly about the building, which is really very beautiful, but I just thought I'd put up this one striking picture.  It's the middle of a single massive oak trunk, carved in the late middle ages.  In medieval art Golgotha, the place of skulls, was often symbolically represented as the place where Adam's skull was buried, so making a link between humanity's fall and its redemption.  That's Adam's skull there, and you can see the socket where the cross would have gone.  There are also platforms on either side which presumably held statues of Mary and John the evangelist.  The statues are long gone, obviously, but the base remains.  It's held to be a unique survival.  It was placed above the rood screen, apparently, for the congregation to look at.  Now that only the rough ground survives, carved with skulls, pelvises, and other bones, it's quite a morbid object, but when it was entire those skulls would have both emphasised the terrible scene above and been a counterpoint to its meaning.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Another good thing I read last month

Another thing I really enjoyed last month was Henry Chadwick's Life of St Augustine. Because I read it on my kindle I can paste in here a few of the clippings I took as I read.

Augustine was still in process of discovering that ordinary churches are not places where half-educated fools imagine they worship God while the wise men are in a country villa studying oriental mysticism and Plotinus.
Loc. 624-25

But Augustine has no fear of the natural sciences. Rather his fear is of theologians, orthodox in intention, who try to treat the book of Genesis as a source-book for science without realizing the very different purpose of the sacred book. Like Mani, they merely end in writing bad science and bring discredit on their faith. By pursuing science our minds may grasp everything in heaven and earth, but still remain baffled at the problem of human nature and destiny (AO 4. 6. 7-9. 13).
Loc. 964-67

'Educated Christians like myself', he wrote to Simplician (DS 1. 2. 22), 'expect God's grace to prefer people of greater natural ability, higher standards of behaviour, and superior education in the liberal arts. In fact God mocks my expectations.'
Loc. 977-78

He felt it to be a characteristic of Christianity that the basic essentials of its gospel are plain to the simplest mind, yet that its ramifications are of such complexity that a lifetime is nothing like enough to master them, even for the most gifted intelligence (E 137. i. 3).
Loc. 1307-9

Demosthenes once replied to someone asking him the three first principles of oratory that they are first, Delivery, second, Delivery, and third, Delivery. The Christians say the same of Humility (E 118. 3. 22). The incarnation is rejected where it is offensive to that pride to which it is God's answer.
Loc. 1430-32

The Manichees thought the evils of this world too massive to be explicable by the free-will defence. They saw evil in conflicts of interest. They thought Neoplatonic talk about evil as non-being would quickly change if you put a scorpion into the philosopher's hand (an argument which Augustine thinks unfair to the interests of the scorpion, which has its due place in the beauty of a diverse world).
Loc. 1586-88

Let him have the last word: 'I should wish no one to embrace all my teaching except in those matters in which he has seen that I have made no mistake.... I have not followed myself in everything. I think that by God's mercy I have made progress in my writing, but not at all that I have reached perfection.... A man is of good hope if the last day of his life finds him still improving' (DP 21. ss)
Loc. 1772-75