Friday, February 28, 2014

The great Mary Midgley at the LSE

To the LSE to hear the great Mary Midgley speaking with Ray Tallis and Jonathan Ree on "Understanding The Self", chaired by Danielle Sands.  They each spoke for 5-10 mins and then there was a dialogue and a Q&A.

Tallis' key point was that Neuroscience can tell us nothing about metaphysics.

Midgley raised the question of why people were denying the self. This was not the Buddhist approach. You can never say "X is an illusion" unless you have a convincing alternative explanation of what there is instead. Simply saying "brain cells" is vacuous - as if these were the only kinds of reality. Reality is terribly complex, like a great big cake which we can cut into at different angles. Humans are complex in this sort of way as well.

Ree struck at the myth that Copernicus, Darwin and Freud had dethroned the human self. But he encouraged people to think about the many related terms (self, consciousness, soul, will, personality, person-hood) and not seem them as a single package.

I made the point that the most damaging illusion is the colonial model of knowledge as a fixed world which we have to paint Red, Blue etc.. Knowledge has a fractal character - the more we know, the more we know we don't know. Everyone liked this.

Tallis in the Q&A explained why the Libet and John-Dylan Haynes experiments didn't deny the realities of the self or of freewill because all they show is that trivial decisions are foreshadowed by neural activity but the context is that people have freely decided to turn up and participate in the experiments. We are embodied but we are not just our bodies.

Midgley made the point that freewill is about serious choices and usually about effort. Suppose Einstein has some calculations to do and is told "don't worry, your brain cells will do these anyway". In fact it is now very clear that thinking can change physical objects, not just your neural connections but with suitable equipment movements of eg prosthetic limbs can be controlled by thought.  The self is the whole person and it is very important in most situations not to go around splitting a person up. A person is basically a unity, even though that unity can be messed up a bit.

I had a good chat with MM and got another copy of The Solitary Self signed for me: and I look forward with enormous interest to the publication on April 1 of Are you an Illusion?

Yesterday had dinner with William Hague who was on excellent form.  I also on Weds briefly met Gary Kasparov and had the pleasure of shaking him by the hand. Quite a week!


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Yundi on great form at the Festival Hall

To the Festival Hall last night to hear our friend Yundi's London recital. He started with the Schumann C Major Fantasie which is one of my all-time favourite pieces. I have explored, rather than played, the first two movements but can play the third tolerably well. Yundi's performance was both thrilling and fascinating. He brought out many aspects of the piece that I hadn't considered at all - and also made one conscious of the fact that it was written for Clara and (I presume) first performed by her.

We then had the Liszt "Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli" - a piece I didn't know at all played with great virtuosity - as befits Liszt - but also with the delightful filigrees brought out with great delight and finesse.  After the interval we had some piano arrangements of Chinese folk songs which delighted the (largely Chinese) audience. 

Then we were treated to the Appassionata. This is by no means my faviourite Beethoven Sonata but again a wonderful performance which brought out the intruiging sonorities and cross-currents. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling that the Schumann is an even finer piece - which goes to show that you can't grade composers in any simplistic way, and reminds me once more what a great composer Schumann was. 

There were tremendous applause and three curtain calls but Yundi was evidently very tired having only recently arrived from Beijing so alas no encore.

We then went backstage with our 4 guests (+ 3 of us) and it was great to see Yundi who chatted and posed for photos. He was then video-interviewed by the main Chinese News Agency and had to rush to sign records for the hundreds of ardent fans. The agency then interviewed me and one of our distingushed guests.  We were all rather tired so two of our guests (one of whom had arrived from Beijing that day) went home and we had a very light supper with the other two - a delightful couple who it was great to get to know better.  Just as we were going home we got a call saying that Yundi and entourage were having dinner in Chinatown and could we join them. I went along for a bit and would gladly have stayed longer but had to be up early the following morning.

It was great to see Yundi - catch the rest of his European tour if you can!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Misreading King Lear at many levels

Lear Central Cast at Curtain Call
Back from Cambridge Mass last weekend and then very busy work week. But yesterday we went to the National Theatre King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale (no kin).

There are some very fine actors in this production, including of course SRB who is amazingly talented. But I regret to say that this production strikes me as a really disappointing misreading of the play on many levels.

First and foremost they utterly mangle the verse.  Inserting ..... silly pauses ... just to ..... break the blank verse ..... up so that it .... isn't ...... heard.  First and foremost, Shakespeare was a POET. I doubt whether anyone who didn't know would realise that about 85% of the play is in verse.  Because they insert so many meaningless pauses they also have to cut lots of the text but still the whole thing runs for 3h30mins including the interval of 20 mins.

Secondly they decided that the pay is about "an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship" (see the interview with Sam Mendes and SRB in the programme).  But an absolute monarchy and a dictatorship are very different things. Since they have decided Lear is a Dictator and Dictators are Bad they play Lear as being so completely unreasonable that it is very hard to understand how or why anyone could love him (they admit this difficulty in the interview!) with the result that Goneril and Regan appear to be acting quite reasonably in curtailing his excesses so it's only when Lear goes out onto the heath that you begin to think he might be a tiny bit hard done by.

Again, although the initial "How much do you love me" scene is quite difficult to bring off you really need to get a significant level of sympathy for Cordelia. The set-up with each "contestant" having a microphone is not (wholly) unreasonable but Cordelia's asides, which are the first things she says and crucial to establishing her character, are delivered straight to the microphone and not asides at all. One key point seems to me to be that Cordelia is much younger than her sisters (Lear is meant to be 80) and presumably by a different mother, so that Goneril and Regan are her step-sisters.  They try to make Cordelia quite strong which is a good reading and could be made more of (she is after all leading an army) but they don't seem to me to follow this through. Another ridiculous mis-reading was to have Edgar stab Edmund whilst pretending to embrace him rather than fighting him in trial by combat.

As is I think often the case Kent, Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar were very strong - played by Stanley Townsend, Stephen Boxer, Sam Troughton and Tom Brooke respectively.  And it will be interesting to see what happens to Olivia Vinall the relative newcomer cast as Cordelia.

Nevertheless it is a wonderful play and I was glad to have re-engaged with the text after many decades (I don't remember when I last saw it).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hebrews was almost certainly written by a woman, probably Priscilla

An Icon of Aqulla and Priscilla
(from here but I don't know the original source)
I'm increasingly convinced of the hypothesis that Hebrews was written by a woman, probably Priscilla*. I can see no other plausible explanation of why it - alone of all the books in the New Testament - is not attributed to anyone.

Elder Daughter asked the very pertinent question of whether there is any evidence of female authorship of other books in the 1st Century.  It turns out that there was someone called Pamphila of Epidaurus who was a 1st Century author of a 33-volume history of Greece as well as an Epitome of Ctesias in 3 books; a number of epitomes of histories and other books: On Disputes; On Sex; and many other works. She was apparently a very loyal and devoted wife and based her books on conversations she had with her husband and their many guests. Epidaurus is less than 55km from Corinth which was where Priscilla and Aquilla lived.  There was also an attested female poet of the 1st Century AD called Suplicia and two such poets of the 1st Century BC, one also called Suplicia and the other called Elephantis.

It is widely thought that Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians in Rome and we know that Aquilla and Priscilla were Jews from Rome who had been expelled and settled in Corinth. In Acts 18 Paul goes to Syria "accompanied by Priscilla and Aquilla" and that Apollos "began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately." Note that in both cases Luke mentions Priscilla/Prisca first and when Paul sends greetings to them as "fellow-workers" he also mentions her first (in 1 Cor and 2 Tim).

I'm delighted to see that there is a whole book on this called Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews  (an extract is here) and that the author, Ruth Hoppin, seems to be still around. I'd love to email her but don't have her email address. There is also a nice article by her here.

* I developed this hypothesis independently but it goes back to the atrocious Adolf von Harnack who proposed in it 1900. The fact that he was wrong about so many things may have been one factor which had caused this idea to be suppressed.

PS I've added more discussion of this here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nicole Cabell in the Poulenc Gloria

To the Festival Hall last night to see our wonderful and brilliant friend Nicole Cabell sing the Poulenc Gloria. This is a really remarkable piece which I hadn't heard. Poulenc was a deeply committed Catholic and this is religion from the heart but with he deep wisdom of humanity. He said that he had in mind Cherubs with their tongues sticking out or monks playing football.

The Philharmonia Chorus was in tremendous voice and the sound in many places was truly overwhelming. Charles Dutoit was a complete master of this piece and his forces - the RPO played magnificently. Nicole was as so often really transcendent, getting deeply into the music and raising the performance to yet another level, higher and deeper. The soloist pleads, meditates, disconcerts - although a much longer role it reminds me a bit of the Mater Gloriosa in Mahler 8.

Afterwards her friends Alyson Cambridge and Quinn Kelsey also came backstage. Quinn couldn't stay because he's singing Rigoletto at the ENO starting today. Alyson is starring in La Boheme at the Albert Hall but this doesn't open for a couple of weeks so we were all able to go out for a drink and a bite to eat.

The concert last night was broadcast live so you can hear it on BBC iPlayer here. Meanwhile, do go to hear Alyson and Quinn.  Nicole will be back in the UK in March and April for concerts. Come on Covent Garden - book her for opera!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Fads and fashions in science can kill

From Peering into Peer Reviewpicture by  ERIC PALMA
A cluster of recent papers in Science and Nature have caught my eye and collectively draw attention to some of the problematic aspects of how science currently works.

The first paper is called "Modelling the effects of subjective and objective decision making in scientific peer review" by In-Uck Park, Mike W. Peacey & Marcus R. Munafò and done in Bristol and Bath, published in Nature.

The abstract is telling:
The objective of science is to advance knowledge, primarily in two interlinked ways: circulating ideas, and defending or criticizing the ideas of others. Peer review acts as the gatekeeper to these mechanisms. Given the increasing concern surrounding the reproducibility of much published research1, it is critical to understand whether peer review is intrinsically susceptible to failure, or whether other extrinsic factors are responsible that distort scientists’ decisions. Here we show that even when scientists are motivated to promote the truth, their behaviour may be influenced, and even dominated, by information gleaned from their peers’ behaviour, rather than by their personal dispositions. This phenomenon, known as herding, subjects the scientific community to an inherent risk of converging on an incorrect answer and raises the possibility that, under certain conditions, science may not be self-correcting. We further demonstrate that exercising some subjectivity in reviewer decisions, which serves to curb the herding process, can be beneficial for the scientific community in processing available information to estimate truth more accurately. By examining the impact of different models of reviewer decisions on the dynamic process of publication, and thereby on eventual aggregation of knowledge, we provide a new perspective on the ongoing discussion of how the peer-review process may be improved.
The first paras give a flavour:
"Current incentive structures in science promote attempts to publish in prestigious journals, which frequently prioritize new, exciting findings. One consequence of this may be the emergence of fads and fashions ... leading to convergence on a particular paradigm or methodology. This may not matter if this convergence is on the truth...However, there is increasing concern that many published research findings are in fact false1. It is common for early findings to be refuted by subsequent evidence, often leading to the formation of groups that interpret the same evidence in notably different ways2, and this phenomenon is observed across many scientific disciplines3, 4. There are a number of relatively recent examples of convergence on false hypotheses...Once established, these can become surprisingly difficult to refute6... Science may therefore not be as self-correcting as is commonly believed8, and the selective reporting of results can produce literatures that “consist in substantial part of false conclusions”9.
They then demonstrate that in a simple model, the consensus can converge on a false hypothesis. I'm not wholly convinced by the details of their model, but the phenomenon they are studying is certainly important.

The seriousness of this problem is underlined by two reports in Science: one reporting a controversy over a paper suggesting that defective research may have led to the deaths of 800,000 people in Europe due to faulty guidelines about the use of Beta Blockers.  The other showing that the NIH Peer Review process does a very poor job of predicting which studies are likely to have a high impact on practice.

In some respects this is a sub-problem of the bigger problem which is that people with different background worldviews can look at the same evidence and never converge. Atheists and Christians may be an example.



Sunday, February 09, 2014

Rosy Joshua in Theodora

Rosy bowing with colleagues after Theodora
To the Barbican last night with Daughter to see our friend Rosy Joshua sing Theodora. I had never heard this work (despite Daughter's second name being Theodora!) and it is a MASTERPIECE! I am so glad to have heard it for the first time in such an excellent performance - though I wish I'd heard it 30 years ago!

The English Concert was expertly conducted by Harry Bicket and Rosy's friend the great Sarah Connolly sung the relatively minor role of Irene - presumably to have the joy of singing with Rosy. Tim Mead sung the hero Didymus and Neal Davies as Valens the tyrannical governor ("President" in the libretto - I wonder why?). Kurt Streit stepped in to sing Septimus at short notice. The chorus was the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.

What can I say?  The performers were all first rate and inspired by some of the most sublime music ever written.  Rosy was as ever terrific - bringing out the true heroism and humanity of a heroine who can to late 20th century eyes seem a bit of a fanatic. The story is that Theodora, a Christian, refuses to worship the Roman Gods so Valens sentences her to be gang-raped by his troops. She would rather die and is rescued by Christian soldier Didymus who takes her place. She flees to safety, but when she hears that Didymus has been condemned to death in her place she returns, asking to be executed in his stead. Valens has them both killed. 

I said "late 20th century" advisedly because we are I think more sensitive to issues of conscience and to the horrors of gang rape now. Indeed Didymus says in his defence to Valens that it was no crime "to hinder you from perpetrating That // which would have made you odious to Mankind // at least the fairest Half."

Back to the performance: Valens was suitably villainous and curt, Didymus was very lyrical, Kurt Streit sung the relatively minor but pivotal role of Septimus superbly - torn between his duty as an Officer, his close friendship with Dydimus and his sense of justice - indeed in the main source, of which more anon, Septiumus becomes a Christian at the end.  And Rosy was triumphantly successful as the pivot of the whole piece, having just the right balance of principle and concern and a voice of radiant beauty.

Of course the real star of the show was Handel. He wrote this in 1684 and it was first performed in 1685 a few months before Bach died. Handel must have known of the ill-health of his great contemporary and it's possible that this could have influenced him to write some of the most sublime music he ever penned. The chorus "He saw the lovely Youth" about Jesus raising the son of a widow from death is completely stunning.

Most commentators heap contempt on Rev Thomas Morell who was Handel's librettist for this and at least 4 others including the undoubted masterpieces Judas Maccabeus and Jephtha. The programme notes here say he was "no poet.. insipid" etc.. But the fact that he was Handel's close collaborator and friend foe at least 3 masterpieces should give pause for thought!  A libretto doesn't stand alone but is in conjunction with the music. Morell was also an FRS and in fact his main source was a novella by his fellow FRS Robert Boyle who like many of the greatest pioneer scientists was a deeply committed Christian who wrote extensively on theology.

This was the penultimate stop in a tour of the US and Europe - you can catch this performance in Paris tomorrow.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Globalisation and the Common Good

How the system traps people on benefits
Effective marginal tax rates of 65-100%
from this excellent Spectator article
Very busy week.
  • Monday: business dinner
  • Tues: Chinese New Year dinner with Michael Gove as guest of honour - rightly emphasising to importance of building even closer links with China in education and research, a theme warmly welcomed by the Chinese Embassy official who also spoke.
  • Weds: very big dinner/party attended by (amongst many others) PM, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary, all of whom seemed in good form. It's great that the strong economic upturn in the UK is creating so many new jobs. I also introduced myself to Iain Duncan Smith to thank him and his team for their work in tackling the terrible problems faced by people on benefits who seek to better themselves - quite apart from anything else the current system traps them because if they work more than about 14 hours a month (on a minimum wage) they lose £1 of benefits for every £1 they earn until they have worked 65 hours, and then get further draconian marginal rates.This is a politically thankless task and fiendishly difficult to deal with.  Because of the strike I came by bike and thus had to decline offer of lift home from a minister friend - another minister friend also cycled home as I did. 
  • Thurs: another Chinese New Year reception and then to an LSE Lecture by Cardinal Peter Turkson the head of the Pontifical Academy for Justice and Peace. He spoke of the need to develop a new approach to economics and business that went well beyond a simplistic focus on GDP and GDP per capita to orient economies to the common good. He was also very interesting about the dialogue they are having with the leaders of the Mining Industry and about their work on The Vocation of a Business Leader (the pdf of their excellent booklet/vade mecum on this is here).
  • Fri: busy working day and then another Piano lesson - great although difficult to concentrate on the sublime and very difficult music of Brahms 5 minute after complicated emails to/fro clients.
Insofar as there is a theme in all of these it is probably globalisation and the common good. People say that globalisation has increased inequality but this isn't really true. It seems to me that globalisation has increased inequality within countries but decreased inequality between countries and globally. 30 years ago a Brit on benefits received more than a middle class Chinese worker (and most Chinese workers were peasants and much poorer than the middle class) whereas now the gap is much better. Though it is worth reflecting on the fact that the Average Teacher's Salary in China is still just under $18k (ppp adjusted).

The trouble is that voters care far more about inequality in their country (and specifically about the fact that people earn more than they do) than about reducing poverty globally.

If you calculate the GINI coefficient of the distribution of PPP per capita income between nations in 2012 (treating each nation as though it were a single "person") it comes to 0.71 which is very bad. If we remove Quatar and Luxembourg as outliers whose reported per-capita isn't real (most people who work in Luxembourg commute from outside the Grand Duchy) it's a bit better at 0.54. I'll see if I can find out what the situation was 10 years ago it was 0.59 and has been falling quite smoothly until a slight uptick between 0.502 in 2008 and 0.509 in 2009.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Janie Dee and Jason Carr in cabaret (with friends and a beautiful relative)

Janie in Cabaret mode
To the Phesantry last night to see Janie's Cabaret. She managed to get herself into a situation where on Fri she was rehearsing with Angela Lansbury for Blithe Spirit during the day, starring in Moving On in the evening and then doing Cabaret later. This was only possible because her very talented composer friend Jason Carr was able to do the first half.

Jason studied at the Guildhall and has written (at least) six musicals as well as music for over 40 plays and orchestrated Sundays in the Park with George and A Little Night Music amongst other pieces. We had some recondite songs from older musicals - "A Cow and a Plough and and a Frau" from the 1950 Arms and the Girl was particularly delicious* as well as many of his songs.

From his Six Pictures of Lee Miller we had a delightful song "I'm looking for a bear" inspired by a single paragraph about a retired French Trapeze artist,  and the haunting "Has anybody see Man Ray?" when Lee Miller is evidently confronted by her jealous ex-lover with a gun and pretends she can't recognise him because he's acting so differently from the way he'd always taught.  (Lee Miller was married to Roger Penrose's uncle!) There was also a song about reverse evolution from his The Water Babies - Kingsley was of course an early champion of Darwin's theories, one of the first UK clerics to embrace the fact that "God could no doubt have brought into being a ready-made world, but in fact the Creator had done something cleverer than that in making ‘a creation that could make itself’."

During the interval it transpired that the charming lady on the next table was Felicity Lott who is a friend of both Janie and Jason. I have long admired her work and it was great to meet her.

Then Janie came on and caressed the audience!  Her personality and brilliant singing and acting skills just shine through. No question of shouting into the mike - indeed for one song she dispensed with it altogether. Greeting perfect strangers at the front and old friends everywhere she gave masterly performances of wonderful numbers including:
  • I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.
  • Yes, Say Yes! explaining how she had managed to be triple booked (and done much better than Liza Minelli) 
  • QWERTYUIOP aka Copy Type (after which  "does anyone know who wrote this - apart from Nicholas, I know you know.....No? ... O OK tell them")
  • This Isn't Cassablanca by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James McConnel
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  • A Quiet Thing ("When it all comes true, just the way you planned, it's funny but the bells don't ring - it's a quiet thing") which she told in the context of a very moving story about getting her whole extended family together for Christmas while she was doing Hello Dolly.
We also had the great treat of her talented and beautiful daughter Matilda singing a duet with a young friend of Janies who had played her son in Shadowlands.

An evening to remember and savour. Sadly tonight is the last night - catch it if you can!

And definitely book up for Blithe Spirit.

* Some have said that A Cow and a Plough and a Frau is " the song often cited as the low point of her achievements"  Apart from being insanely catchy it's clear to any writer that it must have been inspired by reflecting on the strangeness of a language in which ow, ough and au can all rhyme (though of course flow, rough and tau don't rhyme at all).  And there is certainly a dig at the farmer's attitude to children, as well as the very fundamental line: "Things must be planned for my children’s children now" which I wish more people would realise.

You can hear the song on spotify - as for the lyrics, which I can't find on the web, judge for yourself:

If I had a Cow and Plough and a Frau how good would my life would be.
I’d make a home where I’d know my heart would rest
I could hitch the Cow to the Plough while my Frau looked on and smiled at me
Smiled and she dreamed of the dreams we loved the best

Dreams about a meadow rolling in the sunlight
And a field of clover for the pretty cow
Dreams about a baby laughing at a raindrop
How do you suppose a new world grows?

Starting with a Cow and Plough and a Frau it’s simply ABC
I’d plough more land if we had four children
We would expand if we had more children
Things must be planned for my children’s children now
All I need is a Cow and Plough and Beautiful Frau

The son and I would wake the lazy sky
On the hill we’d roam together
The son and I would help the day go by
After work we’d go home together

Starting with a Cow and Plough and a Frau it’s simply ABC
I’d plough the land with my seven children
We would expand with eleven children
Things must be planned for my children’s children now
All I need is a Cow and Plough and Beautiful Frau