Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Banish the Burning Glass

Friday, September 6th, 2013

The concave glass walls of Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of  London focus sunlight so effectively that they melted parts of a parked car, a Jaguar XJ to be exact. Vinoly’s earlier building, the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, singed the hair of at least one visitor by the same mechanism. The fact that nobody in the City of London noticed this in the planning process is a very funny comment on the continued competence of our financial sector.

But the real story here is the glass building. I suspect Vinoly had no choice when he designed a glass-walled block, it is what companies and cities seem to expect. It is, they think, ‘modernism’. In fact, it isn’t. Of the great modernists, it is true that Mies van der Rohe favoured glass walls, but Le Corbusier didn’t and neither did Frank Lloyd Wright. If you close your eyes and think of the classical era of modernism, what you should see is white painted concrete rather than glass. However, the technology of non-structural ‘curtain’ walls, of reinforced glass and, latterly, of computer-aided design all made glass walls seem like the last word in modernity. The ensuing glass towers have become the dominant features in most of the cities of the world.

I am sure there are reasons – financial, environmental – why this should be, though my own experience of architects suggests they have a rare ability to provide almost any practical justification for what is, in reality, a purely aesthetic choice. There’s nothing wrong with that but, when it comes to aesthetics, glass is a limited and now entirely exhausted medium. Vinoly distorted his building with car-burning curves just to add a new twist (literally) to a rather routine office block. Nearby, at 122 Leadenhall Street, Richard Rogers has built his so-called ‘cheese-grater’ which gets round the tedium of glass walls with a strange shape, extravagantly exposed structure and exterior elevators. But the supreme London example of the glass tower is Renzo Piano’s Shard on the south bank of the Thames. This is the tallest building in Europe and it appear to be nothing but glass, even its shape and name signal that this is, indeed, a shard of glass and very little else but glass. It felt outdated before it was finished, the last building of the twentieth century, as Stephen Bayley put it, rather than the first of the twenty-first.

Glass, in short, has become a burden to cities, turning them all into the same city of jagged, twisted, burning, gleaming, sharp towers. From a distance, this is dull, from close-up it is worse. Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of among many other things, the London Olympic flame, explained to me exactly what was wrong with big glass sheets at street level.

‘A building landing on a street with such large singular components reminds human beings how tiny they are. They have very little of human scale and perspective and when you come up close there’s a sterilising effect. You feel you need to speed up to get past something like that.’

Glass, in short, is both deathly and dead. Designers of buildings on a smaller scale are now kicking the glass habit and, slowly, the street level is improving. But, above, the burning glass towers still threaten our cars and our souls.

Gravity: Post-Humanity in Tight Shorts

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity  – a ‘fall’ blockbuster as they say – is a post-human film. Its two stars – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – could have been played by robots. Clooney plays a standard non-threatening alpha male with a gruff manner and one minor character quirk – an urge to tell stories. Bullock plays her usual sweaty, scared but, when the chips are down, brave and competent woman in a life-threatening crisis. Algorithms for either performance would taken an averagely gifted geek no more than a couple of hours of programming. The plot algorithm would have taken him five minutes and, being a geek, he would have taken special pride in his specification of tight shorts for Bullock.

The story is an accident on a space shuttle which they must somehow survive and return to earth. ‘Gravity’ is a rather arbitrary title and, in fact, ‘stars’ is a misleading term for Clooney and Bullock. The real star is the kit – shuttles. space stations, re-entry capsules and so on. Finally, ‘director’ is an altogether absurd description of Cuaron’s role in this fiasco, unless directing entails the same shots endlessly repeated and the systematic elimination of all credibility and dramatic interest.

I can see the attraction of all the kit stuff and I can imagine being gripped by the film at the age of, say nine, but certainly not at the age of twelve. Still, lots of people seem to like it. Why? Because, I suppose, audiences are becoming more interested in machines than people. These two very good actors just phoned in two routine performances. We know, from the first minute, that one character/algorithm will survive and one won’t and, soon afterwards, we know which one it must be. What keeps us going (not me, I actually rose to walk out at one point but then felt an anthropological urge to stay) is the machinery, how it works, how it stops working and how it falls apart. Even I felt a more intimate contact with the Chinese version of Soyuz than I did with Bullock, shorts or no shorts.

Gravity, like so many things I have encountered, may represent the end of civilisation as we know it, but more likely it’s just a stupid movie. Don’t go and see it, you will only be encouraging them.

American Tales

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Staying at Mountain Village in the Colorado Rockies, I need to catch what the locals call the gondola but we would call a cable car to get down to Telluride. I start at about 9000 feet above sea level. The car first rises up to 10,500 feet and then falls 2000 feet to drop me downtown where the Film Festival is in progress.

For 13 minutes I skim through the ghostly aspens. I have not yet been alone. People jump into the cars together and then they talk. They tell stories about themselves and expect yours in response. I have drifted up in complete darkness with a retired Texan hedge funder who asked me if I knew Jeremy Clarkson and skimmed downwards with a local kid who wanted to study at the Royal Academy. One family from Philadelphia included me in a debate about the finer points of canyoneering and mountaineering. A lady explained something of the biology of aspens. Only once have I sat in silence – a high school girl and some college students were discussing their lives in terms far beyond my sphere of competence.

Meanwhile, Nige reminds me that it is 50 years since William Zantzinger received a six month sentence for killing Hattie Carroll, a casual, racist injustice that would have been forgotten but for the fact that it produced a very great work of art – Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, which was, as Nige says, ‘one of the first songs to reveal his talent in all its blazing glory’. Christopher Ricks told me he regarded it as was one of three perfect songs by Dylan, the others being I Want You and Sign on the Window.

What strikes me most about Hattie Carroll is its dazzling storytelling through the use of startling syntax and unexpected detail. You can read the lyrics for yourself, but here’s just one example – Carroll, sings Dylan, ‘Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane/That sailed through the air and came down through the room.’ This takes my breath away. That ‘down through the room’ is shocking in its oddity. It is obviously surplus to requirements – what else would it come down through? – but, somehow, it puts you right there at that fateful moment; you can feel the air disturbed by the cane’s movement on your face. I could go on…

The British tend to think of poetry as a matter of economy, of compression. Dylan, like Whitman, like America, sees it as an occasion for extension. And why not? Life should be extended. That’s what stories are all about.

It’s also what America, at her glorious best, is all about. Those gondola conversations will stay with me as evidence of a sweet, gracious, courteous, polite, curious, friendly, storytelling society. That is my normal experience of this country. Of course, I know the rest – the sentimental attachment to violence, a dim-witted respect for money, an appalling vulgarity, the creation of a vicious kleptocracy that is expropriating the wealth of the middle and working classes and now, probably, another unwise military adventure. But, strange as it may be, those things all become less not more apparent when you are actually here. What becomes most apparent is the urge to tell stories, perhaps because there are still remnants of settler/frontier society or – and I am pretty sure this is the most important factor – simply because it is  very big country whose wildernesses inspire a strong sense of place and home and a desire to celebrate that in stories.

The gondola tales are like poems, yet further occasions of extension and little moments of sweetness and grace. Hattie Carroll lives on, having changed the world for the better. This land is not my land but sometimes I wish it was.

One Cannot Live Quite Without Pity

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

In the early years of Thatcher I remember a conversation with a triumphant right-winger (a self-described bastard) in which he snorted with disdain about ‘people who care.’ I knew what he meant and I still do. On the one hand there is the whole caring industry, always seeking out new ways in which we must care; on the other hand there is the bloated welfare state with all its injustices and ineffectiveness.

Personally, being hyper-empathetic (or so I am told (critically)), I do a lot of caring, but I distrust any attempt to institutionalise the impulse, either by civil servants or the cast of Woman’s Hour. Yet, having drifted leftward, I can no longer tolerate triumphant right-wingers (aka bastards). That neo-con/neo-lib, anti-conservative generation has been proved wrong about everything of significance – primarily, wars and equality. They have some good points about welfare spending, but they have no right to make them because they persist in failing to condemn or act upon the financial industry’s multiple crime waves.

The first caring dilemma was caught, as it so often was, in the greatest of all sitcoms, Frasier, with a slogan for the Golden Acres rest home – ‘We care, so you don’t have to’. Turning caring into either an industry or a government programme runs the risk of relieving us all of the burden of mutual concern. In sending grandad to a nursing home, we are caring as much or more for ourselves than we are for him.

The second dilemma is abstraction. Can we care in the abstract – for all people – or do we need specific subjects? The first is a requirement of Christianity, the second of a certain type of realism. I am with the first because I agree with Dostoyevksy – ‘Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity’ – but I sympathise with the second, even though I have less and less patience with people who claim to be realists.

These thoughts came while listening to, you guessed it, Woman’s Hour in which, as usual, various people were demanding we care about certain other people. This sort of thing is as much of a contemporary luxury as designer luggage – I am writing this at Heathrow – and, often, as absurd. We were being asked to care about people who were suffering nothing more than the normal vicissitudes of the human condition, or, as they would now be called, ‘first world problems’. But, obviously, some vicissitudes can be soothed by people who care, so presumably they should be, assuming at least some cost-benefit analysis is involved and, assuming further, that the soothing did not do more harm than good – by, for example, encouraging the victims of said vicissitudes not to help themselves.

Of course, we now know of every, as it were, vicissitudee so we are subject to constant demands to make up our minds about whether we care. This may be a good thing. There need to be voices saying we should care to ensure that we don’t cease to care at all. I am, at this moment, caring about Syria because I suspect that whatever happens next will be even worse than what is happening now – the usual outcome when Tony Blair is keen to start shooting. I believe, in short, that the voices of those who demand we care are civilised voices. The demands may be annoying, impractical and absurd, but sometimes they aren’t. They belong in the marketplace of ideas. The anti-caring bastards had their chance and they blew it. They now don’t have a leg to stand on. Perhaps they need a carer.

Arianna, Anonymity and Freedom

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Arianna Huffington has decided to end commenter anonymity at the Huffington Post. Our conversation, she tells me, was ‘very important in my decision’. In my article wrote, ‘Somebody has to teach the internet companies some basic logic – anonymity and free speech are incompatible – and Arianna is in a position to do it.’ As many people don’t seem to understand this point, I had better explain.

Anonymity has been claimed by internet utopians as an aspect of free speech. This is the illogic to which I was referring. To claim freedom is to claim moral agency. It would be wrong to claim that a lion is free – though I understand the idea has a kind of sentimental, anthropomorphic charm – because the lion, lacking self-consciousness, is not a moral agent. When we use the word ‘free’ about humans, we do so in acknowledgment of our common humanity, the assumption being that others are like us in the sense that they can discriminate between right and wrong.

Of course, this is not always the case – psychopaths being the extreme example – but, without the assumption, much of what we say to each other would be meaningless. It is intrinsic to freedom, therefore, that we are identified.

Before the internet this was a fairly normal states of affairs. People, of course, could write anonymous letters or anonymously shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, but, overwhelmingly, communications were between people who identified themselves – either by giving their name or being present in person – as humans like you and me. (I am aware of the special case of whistleblower whose life or job may depend on being anonymous, but, if he is to be accepted, he must identify himself to the people to whom he is blowing his whistle.)

The internet turned anonymity into a new norm. People became accustomed to communicating with unidentified strangers. Sometimes robots would be involved, but, obviously, most of these communications would be with humans. However, these were a new type of human, a type whose moral agency was eliminated by anonymity. The exploitations of this perversion of freedom are all too familiar. They point to a future in which the very fact of moral agency will come to be seen as an encumbrance. There may be advantages to this state of affairs, but none of them will be freedom.

In short, only humans are free and they only attain freedom through moral agency, by asserting their place in the human realm. I cannot imagine any other coherent conception of freedom. To treat anonymity, therefore, as an aspect of freedom is an extraordinary perversion, a reduction of our humanity. I am proud to have helped persuade Arianna of this truth.

The ‘Mule’ and Madame X

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Madame X CropBritish and Irish women detained in PeruI can’t stop thinking about the hair of Michaella McCollum, one of the British drug ‘mules’ arrested in Peru. It is extravagant, absurd, a swollen cushion drawing unflattering attention to her long face and neck. As is that weren’t enough, she is wearing a tee shirt bearing the legend ‘La Vie est Belle’. She is doing everything she can to appear to be ‘living the dream’of youth. Fame is one necessary component of that dream, of course, and now she has that too. Perhaps she will find that consoling in the years ahead. It is all unbearably pathetic

But I can’t help wondering: how did she arrive at that hairdo? It is not casual; constructing the cushion and ensuring the strands below are tightened to uniformity must occupy a good deal of her time. It is, I am told, fashionable, though I have never seen one quite like it. I know the beehive had a resurgence in recent years, but this is not a beehive as I understand it. The style evokes, perhaps, the extravagances of some earlier age, a time when women were constructed primarily to be seen and were obliged to pursue ever more ‘unnatural’ methods. In fact, I now see why Michaella’s look rang a bell in my mind. She has some distant resemblance to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and, indeed, perhaps Madame X would have looked just as pathetic as Michaella in the hands of the Peruvian police.

I cannot explain why the young should ape the fashions of the Edwardian baroque other than to say that, bound, as they are, to a competitive wheel, they are statistically certain to recycle every look over time. That, probably, is why this picture resonates. It advertises the ignorance of youth, its failure to grasp the narrowness of its own world, the littleness of its concerns. This ignorance is usually touching, but, left to its own devices, it can, in an instant, become as pathetic as Michaella. La vie est belle, children, except when it isn’t.

Thomas Nagel: A Man with a Fine Chest

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

It is immensely satisfying to see Thomas Nagel writing in the New York Times today simply to restate the arguments of his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. (There’s something roguishly clumsy about that sub-title.) It is satisfying because the book was widely (and predictably) trashed by materialist neo-Darwinians, some even suggesting that Nagel, a great philosopher, had cracked or gone completely insane. And yet here he is, not bloody, not bowed, simply laying it all out again.

His broad point is that current science depends, as it did in the seventeenth century, on ‘subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.’ This, for me, is not a remotely contentious statement, though I discovered that, for others, it is when, in 1992, I published Understanding the Present which says the same thing. Nagel goes on to say that, as a result, current science is not equipped to account for consciousness. In this, he is supported by the odd way in which neuroscience is now reported. Sometimes we are told brain scans reveal the ‘causes’ of our thought, sometimes we are told the hot spots in the brain ‘are’ our thoughts. The first is concealed dualism – the greatest heresy in the current scientific orthodoxy – the second is meaningless. Few seem to notice this.

So we need a new type of science to study mental phenomena. In a paragraph worth quoting in full, Nagel outlines the ways in which people object to this idea.

‘The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention.’

This is so clear it makes me laugh. As Nagel points out, a) and b) are self-evidently false, c) is implausible and d) requires religious faith. In the circumstances his conclusion – that we need a new way of thinking about consciousness – is more or less forced upon the open-minded reader. And yet this, apparently, is heresy.

Reading the book I was reminded of something Pevsner said about walking up the nave of Ely Cathedral and then coming upon the great lantern over the crossing. The chest, he said, expands. Sadly we live, as C.S.Lewis predicted, among men without chests. But not Nagel, he has a very fine chest indeed.

Satyajit Ray’s Hey Presto!

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Nige, that most gifted reader, has been reading Willa Cather.01

‘It’s like a kind of close-up magic,’ he writes, ‘where you can see exactly what’s going on – nothing special, no tricks, see – and then suddenly… Hey presto!’

I know exactly what he means, having embarrassed my wife by bursting into uncontrollable sobs after seeing Satyajit Ray’s film The Big City.

As with Nige’s experience of Cather, you can’t see what Ray’s is doing until suddenly you realise he has done it and left you feeling better, worse and ecstatic at the same time. I still can’t remember the last – on its own seemingly innocuous – scene without feeling a gulp coming on.

Ray makes film seem like a natural phenomenon which is probably what Kurosawa, one of his very few peers, meant when he said, ‘Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.’ His films feel like a necessary part of the world which is to say they do not feel MADE at all. So, for example, the opening shot shows a tram’s pantograph running along its cable. Each time it reaches a junction it sparks. I saw the cable as the city of Calcutta and the sparks as its stories. There are other interpretations, but it doesn’t matter. The point is this is an artful image, but it is so right it does not seem to have been made by an artist, rather it was always there as an image waiting to be recorded on film. He rounds off the film with a shot of a light bulb. It’s all so simple and so true.

This says something about great art, that it is more a process of discovery than invention. Mozart noted this in a letter about his feelings when ‘thoughts crowd into my mind’.

‘Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so….Then my soul is on fire with inspiration.’

What is discovered is not simply the world as it commonly seems, it is the world as rendered by the artist’s medium.

‘Photography,’ said the great snapper Garry Winogrand,  ‘is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.’

Exactly. The Big City is how Calcutta looked filmed in 1953 – in fact, there is scarcely a single wide exterior shot in the entire film, but Ray’s Calcutta was a big place made by little intimacies.

It took me decades to understand any of this, to understand that great art is a whole way of seeing, not just an elaborated commentary. It is, in fact, quite hard to understand until, suddenly, somebody of the stature of Ray is in your face whispering ‘Hey presto!’ and it all falls into place.

Steven Pinker: Science and the Humanities

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I have now read this by Steven Pinker several times and I have managed to work out what I think about it. My thoughts come under three headings:

1)My agreement with one of its most important points – that some of the enemies of ‘scientism’ make serious mistakes, mistakes I have made in the past.

2)My suspicion about some of the claims Pinker makes. This is a relatively trivial point.

3)My conclusion that the article is, as a whole, trivial, subject to the reservation of my first heading.

So:

1)A typical mistake made by critics of scientism – and by me in the past – is to confuse science as a method and science as an institution, by which I mean a force in the real world. In doing so they persistently underestimate the achievement of science, usually resorting, as Pinker notes, to lists of good things which they immediately offset by a list of bad things – cure for polio versus Hiroshima, for example. But the big, the huge, achievement of science lies not in its institutional expressions – in its specific outcomes – but in its epistemology. It has created a new form of knowing which, whether we like it or not, whether we judge it as ultimately true or not, is fantastically effective. Any world view that simply sidesteps this point cannot, for the moment. be taken seriously. But, at the same time and as I shall show below, it is not as important a point as Pinker thinks it is.

2)This is, as I say, a minor point. Pinker evokes neuroscience and genetics as ways in which science is now entering territory previously claimed by the humanities. As far as I can see – and I am open to correction – they have made very little progress and it is premature to assume that, in their present form, they will. There are touches of triumphalism here which slightly spoil the essay’s tone.

3)This leads on to the big point – that Pinker’s essay is trivial. In essence, what Pinker as Candide is saying is: ‘In an ideal world, everything is ideal’. Or, to put it another way, he is engaging in what Popper called ‘promissory materialism’. This is a way of saying ‘it must be true so it is true’; ie it must be true that our contemporary science is right, so it is true. Or it must be true that the scientific method works, therefore it must at once be applied to human affairs or, indeed, the humanities.

What are missing from this are religion’s greatest insight – original sin – and any sense of the folly of what I shall call completablism. Original sin means, ultimately, that humans are capable of screwing anything up. Science as an ideal method is a noble aim but it is seldom achieved. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that it can be applied to the human realm.

“No sane thinker” Pinker writes, “would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe.”

But he does not seem to see the implication of this. Forget about something big like World War 1 and think about the little things of your life. Should I marry this person? Should I go for a walk? What colour should I paint this room? Science has nothing to say about any of these things. You may make some argument about, say, the meaning of colours and why you like them but that is to miss the point as it would not affect what you actually felt about the colour of your room.

This leads to completablism. This is the view that science is a necessarily completable project and that, therefore, it could indeed, one day, sort out your decorating choices. Even if it is, this is a dangerous idea since it propagates the view that it is completable now or imminently, whereas we can never know that. Communism killed many people because its proponents thought it was a scientifically complete view of the world.

If we never know where we are on this road to completion, then we have to treat science with caution because we might be more ignorant that we currently realise. Remember we know nothing about 95 per cent of the cosmos that seems to be made of dark matter and dark energy. If also we know that science has nothing of substance to say about human affairs, then the argument that the humanities must bow to – or perhaps I should say embrace – the current findings of genetics and neuroscience collapses in ruins.

In the light of all this, I think the real reason the Pinker essay is trivial is simply that it is a response to the arguments of others, people who don’t take science seriously enough. As result, Pinker’s view makes the same mistake as anti-scientism in that it confuses the method of science with the institution, with its place in the world. I take science seriously which is why the most important disciplines of all, the humanities of which the history of science is one important part, should study it with great care and concern.

Privacy: The Spavined Nag that Bolted

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

About a week ago I bought a device called a Securifi Almond from Amazon. I can highly recommend it but for one thing. A couple of days later I was phoned from America by Zafar Sayeed from Securifi Technical Support. Zafar was informative, charming and interesting; we must have talked for ten minutes. It was only when I got off the phone that I asked myself, ‘How the hell did he get my number?’ So I emailed Zafar and received the following response.

‘Since, you ordered Almond from Amazon and we are a seller there, we have gotten your contact details from Amazon. We always take special preventive measures to keep your information only up to us and use it only when it’s needed. We will ensure that you won’t get any unsolicited calls from us.’

This is, of course, a gross breach of trust by Amazon which suggests that many others have been given my details. It is the latest in a series of incidents in recent weeks that have warned me that I am out there in cyberspace in unacceptable ways. Sharks selling deals to get back my PPIs have my name and mobile number. I also got a call from somebody pretending to be from o2. Etc, etc. Perhaps this is harmless but, for me, it engenders a kind of neurosis in which one expects to be subjected to a hard sell at every turn. This makes life worse.

In anger I sometimes think I should do something about my information, but, of course, it is now pointless. Thanks to my obsessive web curiosity, the spavined nag known as My Privacy is a horse that bolted long ago. I could go off grid, but as Eric Schmidt warned us in his chilling book, that will in the future provoke the suspicion of the authorities, and, anyway, I could not do my job unless I wrote solely about being off grid.

And, speaking of Schmidt, a man of annoying glibness, I raised the question of privacy with him, pointing out that it was a vital and necessary constituent of freedom. He did not respond. The Mail then helpfully informed us how much he values his own, if not ours.

Never mind, as Schmidt well knows, all our nags have bolted and are currently being traded aroud the world. Of course, post-Snowden, the internet companies assure us their hands are clean when it comes to government demands for information. You can believe them if you like, I don’t, and, in any case, the fact that our information is held by companies whose over-riding responsibility is not to us but to their shareholders should be enough to prove that no information can ever be secure again. One day Google or Apple will be going out of business and selling their assets – you and me – to save themselves.

The young don’t seem to mind and perhaps I shouldn’t. But the possibilities are so appalling. Not the least of those is being found guilty of something in absentia by mathematics. Adjacency matrices are just the sort of dumb maths device that will scatter false positives like confetti and, one day, you will not be able to fly and not know why.

Loss of privacy makes us lesser beings, ‘men without chests’, if you like. But, sadly, we feel obliged to trade it away for neat little boxes like the Almond which, on a consumer note, really works well.