Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Culture fail?

Last night I went to see Noises Off at the Old Vic. I've seen the play before, back in the time long time ago when I used to go to the theatre a lot.  I think that it was Cambridge amateur theatre which irrevocably broke my enjoyment of the form, and now I go about once every five years, just to check if I'm missing something.

This revival of Frayn's classic farce has got impressively positive reviews.  I suppose it's just the sort of comfort food people want in this uncertain period.  It made me smile quite a few times, and even laugh once or twice.  This was a profoundly alienating experience given that the people around me were in the almost continuous throes of uncontrollable fits of laughter.

I would be prepared to accept that I'm lacking something about certain sorts of audio-visual entertainment.  I can't suspend disbelief in actors.  I can't watch them mess about without thinking, is this really a way for an adult to earn a living?  I'm very over-sensitive to people who love themselves too much while also needing constant, forceful validation from outside sources (a psychological condition not unknown in academic circles also).  I suppose it's an unfair assumption about what actors are like, but I can't quite get past it.

But anyway, in my experience, if you want to laugh out loud watch the episode of New Girl where she decides to have have sex with her boyfriend.  If you want to sit in a cramped hot space wondering what you're missing, the theatre as an art form is by no means dead.  And why not -- the exploration of alienation and cultural disjunction is a popular theme in modern art.  Hurray! (And it beats reading another Chuck Palahniuk novel.)

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jean de la Valette and the Anglicans

I went to visit the Museum of the Order of St John.  The Order of St John, aka the Knights of Malta, is about the only military order of the middle ages that it's sort of OK to like.  For one thing they mostly concentrated on running hospitals rather than killing people, and (in a way that seems unusual for a male order) they emphasised service to the sick.  I've heard it said, and I don't know how true it is, that they were open to the medical skills of people from other faiths, particularly Arab surgeons, who were relatively advanced at this point.  And apparently as part of their policy of honouring the poor and sick they fed them off silver rather than wooden platters, thus inadvertently stepping up the hygiene.  They are supposed to have done OK at helping people get better.

Also there's the semi-legendary Siege of Malta, when Jean de la Vallette and a handful of indomitable knights held out against tens of thousands of attackers, including the whole Ottoman fleet and the frightening Janisseries, at a time when the Turks seemed pretty invincible and a Turkish conquest of Europe was a serious threat.  The contemporary rhetoric was very xenophobic and anti-Islamic, but essentially no one wanted to be conquered by the Turks, and the Knights were prepared to sacrifice everything with little support to defend the vital strategic point of Malta.

Unfortunately the museum, which is in Clerkenwell, turned out to be a bit disappointing, or maybe just interesting in a different way.  It's essentially an illustration of what the Victorians could do with a good story, some old buildings, and an inflated sense of their own importance.  I joined on a guided tour, which I slightly regretted, because although the guide was lovely and very interesting, she said enough odd things that it was hard to know how seriously to take her.  These were only small things and hard to put one's finger on, though I remember her pointing at a picture and telling us it was given by the people of Malta when it had a big sign on it saying it was acquired for the museum by the Art Fund; and she said that Queen Mary Tudor reinstated the Order in England but it failed again when she came to a sticky end -- I wondered if she was thinking of Queen Mary Stuart (e.g. of Scots), but then again I think Mary Tudor did die of flu, which could be described as sticky in a way.  So generally, the sense was of a huge heap of history, rather confused, and it was hard to pick a way through it.

But I think that what happened was this: at some point in the nineteenth-century someone bought up an old pub which occupied the gatehouse of the priory of Clerkenwell.  This was about the only monastic building left except for the Church, which was also bought up, though maybe later.  Clerkenwell had been the English headquarters of the Knights of St John, until the priory was dissolved in 1540.  I think the buildings were bought up and a supposedly "revived" English Order of St John was set up some time before it all kicked off in terms of what's visible there, but basically by the end of Victoria's reign the revived Order was in full swing and heavily associated with the royal family. (They were, to be fair, doing some pretty admirable stuff that resulted in the volunteer St John's Ambulance which we have today.) Queen Elizabeth II is titular head of it today, and one of her relatives is actual head. They have come up with enough ceremonial and busy-work to make Oxbridge colleges look like informal modern places.

But all the actual things you see there are Victorian and early Edwardian reconstructions.  They took the pub buildings and filled them with wooden panels and old paintings people bought up and gave to them.  They received quite a few donations from the 'people' of Malta.  (Was this a dig at Rome, where the actual continuing Order of St John was based?)  They painted up the coats of arms not just of the English priors before the Dissolution, but of post-Dissolution French or Italian heads of the Order of St John, which survived on the Continent untouched by Reformation, even though these heads would have abominated the English church as heretical, probably almost as bad as the Turks. They have nice things that enthusiastic Edwardians gave them which unfortunately turn out probably not to be as relevant as first thought, like the Weston Triptych (from the school of Rogier van der Weyden).  The church may have been quite nice but it was bombed flat in the second world war and rebuilt afterwards.  The twelfth-century crypt survives and is full of religious bits and pieces acquired in the early twentieth century, including two rather nice tomb effigies from completely different places, one of them actually from Spain, and a bit of stone from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, acquired during the British Mandate.

A lot of what we look at in the Middle Ages and think of as forgery can be more easily understood in the Victorians as over-enthusiastic reconstruction.  Sometimes I think we give the Middle Ages a hard time for their attitude to truth when we're so busy having fun with the past ourselves.  And I don't mind it -- it's just that I think that in the Museum of the Order of St John the story is not so much about the medieval Order but about what the Victorians got up to with it.  That would have been an interesting thing to learn about.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Future is a Disappointment

says my AI lecturer, talking about how he read Isaac Asimov's I Robot as a kid, and now iRobot is a company that makes ... extremely limited robotic vacuum cleaners.  (They don't clean well but combined with cats they make a pretty good youtube meme.)  He's lecturing right now about whether computers can achieve consciousness.  I've got my fingers crossed for no.  I think the moral and legal ramifications would be tedious.

By the way writing this in the lecture isn't bad behaviour on my part, it's live-blogging.

If he allows questions at the end I will ask how on earth he thinks we'd identify machine consciousness given that people aren't agreed on how conscious animals are.  The tests for animal consciousness are terrible, and often turn out to be culturally-specific for humans, like the thing where you put a dot on a person or animal when they're not looking and see if they remove it when shown themselves in a mirror.

He just said "a real mouse is surely conscious in some sense".  Hmmm.  Oh scientists, you are just too vague.  That's how the future has disappointed me.  He says it's conscious because he doesn't want anyone to torture it.  But I used to feel like that about my teddy bear.  (I still do, a bit.)

Now he's talking about creating zombie mice.  This is pretty cool stuff really.  They're not going to bother to think too hard about what a mouse is, they're just going to try to make one anyway.  I think that's one of the things that's likeable about the sciences, the optimism.  But it is a bit wierd to find myself thinking of the humanities as the practical branch of knowledge, and the sciences as unrealistic, naive.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Unit testing coverage statistics...

...are getting me down, so I'm cheering myself up with more Pet Shop Boys.  Here's Sexy Northerner:

and here's How I Learned to Hate Rock and Roll, which starts:
Someone states the obvious
Someone sneers at all you love
Someone preaches ugly manners
excluding some, including me
which is great because I love the criticism that rock is basically insufficiently polite.  Hurray for politeness!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

I love you Pet Shop Boys

Format, the Pet Shop Boys' new album of B-sides, came out on Monday, and my copy arrived from Amazon today.  So far I have listened to the first three songs, and they are all brilliant.  Here is one of them, a very simple sad love song.  I don't think anyone does simple sad love songs like the Pet Shop Boys.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


I like this new M.I.A. song, and the video involves stunts with not-flashy cars.

Saturday, 4 February 2012


The London Underground works by everyone on it acting as though there is no one else anywhere near them, even when (or especially when) they are jammed together so tightly that there's no need to hold on to the rails because there's nowhere to fall over into.  Every now and then what seems like a group of people just trying to get from one place to another suddenly displays some striking act of callousness.  It's not just the complete lack of sympathy for anyone who wants to kill themselves.  The other day someone was taken ill while I was on the District Line.  This was in the same carriage as me but at the other end.  I couldn't see very well but he looked in a bad way, collapsed on the floor and finding it hard to breathe.  The people near him pulled the emergency cord and asked around for a doctor.  The people near me were disgusted at this, furious at the delay to the journey, and kept asking why the man was not just moved onto the platform so that the rest of us could go on.  It was pretty revolting.

There's another sort of callousness in Devon.  A couple of weeks ago my mother mentioned to me that there were large numbers of baby rabbits around because of the unseasonably mild weather.  They won't have survived this cold snap.  I suppose that if they died above ground they will have been eaten by scavengers, a sort of windfall for the badgers, foxes and buzzards.  If they died below ground I expect they will be decomposed by smaller organisms, and the nutrients from their body might make it into plants and get back to the mother rabbits who put so much wasted biological effort into producing them.  People who live in the countryside are often far from sentimental about nature; when you spend a lot of time with nature you notice that nature is often pretty nasty.  In a way the human city callousness is almost preferable to this immense efficient use of death.

Friday, 3 February 2012


I've definitely broken my resolution to spend an hour a week in a museum or other cultural institution.  But I'm not going to abandon it, just try to keep it when I can.  So this afternoon I went to the Wellcome Institute to see their exhibition Mexican Miracle Paintings.  These are little paintings given to churches in thanks for miracles or answered prayers: freedom from prison or an unjust accusation, restoration of a long-lost son or a herd of goats, rescue from bandits or from death in battle, preservation in a train accident or lightning strike, recovery from an almost fatal wound or a scorpion bite, escape from flooding or a collapsed mine.  There are a lot of pictures of operating theatres and lots involving mothers and babies; in one of them a mother gives thanks that her daughter's baby has been acknowledged by her son-in-law.  They were commissioned by ordinary people, or maybe even made by themselves, I'm not sure, and they have quite long inscriptions explaining what happened.  I particularly liked one that started:
In Matehuala on 7th January 1937, Juan Hernandez became so drunk that he completely lost his senses, to the point of walking into the mountains where he passed out all night.
This was put up by his wife in thanks that he didn't die from the subsequent illness, but stayed alive to support her and her son.  It sounds like the start of a short story.

It made me want to commission a small painting to say thanks for something.  I'm not sure what, since my life has been happily free of dramatic injuries, and I've never been kidnapped by bandits.  Maybe I should commission a small painting being thankful for that.  But if you do have a more striking tale, you can leave it on the Wellcome website and they might get an artist to do a retablo based on it.  I don't much like the ones they've had done so far, because they're not really in the tradition.  But it seems like an interesting thing to do in conjunction with the exhibition.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A few little things

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Summary of Lord Lyttleton's 'Advice to a Lady':
Be plain in Dress and sober in your Diet;
In short my Dearee, kiss me, and be quiet.

Stooshe have released a single called Love Me which is a de-ruded version of their song F*ck Me.  They start off with simple word substitutions like "Your play's fine but I ain't got the time" but towards the end they run out of invention and one of them just shouts "explicit" at particular points.  This quite a good way of dealing with rude words in songs, I think.

These break dancers are fantastic: