Saturday, May 31, 2014

Are you an illusion?

Finished Are you an Illusion? and it continues to delight. Let me share some more gems, but it has also sparked some thinking which may be the subject of the next post:
  • (Quoting Roger Carpenter) the phonological way of looking at the brain...embodies a simplistic approach long abandoned in genetics...Where is not how; what we really need to know are not the locations of brain activity but the underlying neural mechanisms.
  • When we say that one thing accounts for or explains another we don't usually mean it is the sole cause. We mean it fills a crucial gap in our current explanatory scheme...the kind of explanation that we need depends entirely on which ...questions we think important at the time.
  •  The idea of a sole cause for thought has...been so confidently proposed lately that is seems important to pause here and understand why it can't work...For example, when Einstein...tries out a new approach to a problem, he does indeed need to have his brain in good order...but he needs just as badly to have in his mind the whole background that has made his previous calculations possible. And he needs to go on attending sharply to the work of continuing it...Your mind is not an optional spare part; it is YOU, considered as a thinker, feeler and chooser rather than just as a physical object. At least that is how things are in the present life...If they will be different after death we shall have to deal with that new problem when it arises.  Subjectivity, then, is not an irrelevance, not a shameful secret; it is the basic stuff of human experience.
  • The necessary conditions of thought can never be simple. They radiate out indefinitely in a hundred directions...Mental causes do not block or compete with physical causes. Both are needed and all are equally real. So there cannot be such a thing as a sole cause or a sole explanation.
  • Officially, scientific minded people today are strict materialists...But...in practice...if they are called on to deal with some non-material force - for instance with money, or curiosity, or bad temper...or market forces, or the law - they do not just complain that this force is unreal. Nor do they insist on translating it into the movements of neurons or, indeed, quarks...They simply treat it as real....their professed materialism is not serious..It is a convention...conventions like this...harden cognitive dissonance [and] institutionalise...pseudo-scientific humbug which is a crucial element in the myths that rule us today.
  • Darwin was suggesting that the wishes of hen-phesants - their inner thoughts and feeling as they watched their various suitors - had affected, and finally determined, the design of later generations. This thought is frightening when it comes to animals but even more when it comes to people...which is why TH Huxley's obviously mistaken epihenomenalist doctrine that our  thoughts do not affect our actions still has supporters.
  • The word teleology..does not cover just concious human purposes but the whole of function. Aristotle...never thought of it as arising from purposes of a creative god.
  •  Thus the real point and value of life is held to lie in its producing more life...much like those unlucky people who only know how to make money and never learn how to spend it...[But] in fact living itself provides us with plenty of reasons to go on doing it...Sociobiology's preference for supposed occult dynastic motives over obvious social ones is not a parsimonious way of thinking and neither, as it happens, is it Darwinian. In The Descent of Man Darwin argued strongly that we are no just a sociable species but are naturally more sociable...than any of our relatives.
  • Dawkins's claim that the universe contains "at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good" cannot be right...our own planet - which is certainly part of the universe - is riddled with purpose. It is full of organisms...As for good and evil some quite definite things are good and others evil for each of them...being put under water is fine for fish and bad for zebras...Value...is not an extra feature pasted onto the facts by human observers. It is a real emergent property of situations in the world.
There are so many more gems here (I'm only up to p87) so I'll have to continue in another post. Do read the book!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Emma Hubble in The God Particle, and more from Mary Midgley

Saw our very talented actress friend Emma Hubble in a new play called "The God Particle" last night. A two-hander rom-com sci-fi drama by James Carey it concerns a quantum physicist (Emma) and a new vicar (played by Nathan Stickley) who are drawn together and explore mysterious events around an Institute for Quantum Physics.  Emma is very good indeed and her career should really blossom.  James is also a friend of Elder Daughter who created the rather wonderful Think the Unthinkable and also worked with Miranda on Miranda Hart's Joke Shop and Miranda series 1 and 2.

Mary Midgley's Are you an Illusion? continues to delight and inform. Here are some more gems:
  • If I am looking down over a parapet of Westminster Bridge and say "Well, so this is the Thames," it is not appropriate for you to reply "No, actually you're wrong, that's a mistake people often make. These names that are given to rivers are a mere superstition you know. That's really just H2O with certain well-recognised impurities."
  • A microscope is a wonderful machine, but that does not make what is seen through it any more real than the things outside.
  • In an age when all intellectual disciplines are shrinking their scope to become increasingly specialised it is not possible for any single department of thought to expect to handle large questions on its own...we shall have to do it by combining several kinds of tool: several different methods belonging to different disciplines.
    Doing this need not involve a hopeless clash...Sometimes ...two incompatible approaches are combined within a single life... grown up citizens - often highly educated - can profess and apparently believe two or more sets of doctrines that flatly contradict each other...At some level we need to see these clashes as part of a process...so that the best elements of them can finally join to form something more harmonious. If however this dynamic dies... if the embattled person canonizes one of the contenders in a way that makes all change unthinkable - then the real trouble begins.
  • The profound respect for mathematics, and for physics as the earthly embodiment of mathematics...comes from Pythagoras...He...developed a meditative way of life in which...students could rise to an exalted concentration on the mathematical overworld...humans were called to leave the transience of nature and move away towards the stillness of eternity...At this point however there is...a problem. How is it that human souls, which are essentially mobile creatures, responding constantly to changes in the world, are akin to these dignified, rock-like unchanging ideals?
  • The doctrine also had another alarming effect...a bias against women. Both nature and the earth itself were viewed as female and therefore bad.
  • The suggestion that Justice itself and Pi should be viewed as kindred ideal entities is a powerful one that has led to much useful thinking. It needs, however, to be handled with much more care than it has often received.
  • Even though neurology is of enormous use for medical purposes...claims to use it to explain mental phenomena in healthy people are of very limited use.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Are you an Illusion?

Yesterday to the great Mary Midgley speaking at the RSA about her wonderful new book Are you an Illusion? In her own words: "This is a book about a remarkable gap that has opened up between common sense and today's scientific orthodoxy, centrally about the idea that science has shown that our inner selves are mere illusions. In an important sense (it seems) we do not exist."

She said she wrote it due to exasperation because these ideas [are not merely nonsensical but they] distract people from things that are really important in their lives. Minds effect brains in various ways.

It's also interesting that progressive magazines (like Mother Jones) are now running article about the differences in the brains between Democrats and Republicans.

I asker her whether she thought that the denial of self is really the denial of other people's selves. It's a bit like the famous "English Irregular Verb" (I am strong-minded, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool). No-one really believes that their mind doesn't exist, but it is quite easy to suggest that people of whom you disapprove don't really have minds. From which it follows that their thoughts and especially feelings are unreal and therefore not worthy of serious consideration. She rather agrees. It was interesting that Crick suggested that "you, your joys and sorrows....are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules" rather that "I, my joys and sorrows..."

The book itself is terrific. I normally highlight gems from a book and I don't think I've ever had so many gems so densely. I can't put all of them here and I'm only on p58. But here are some:
  • It does seem possible that this whole ill-fated campaign - this march away from direct experience - which received the name "modern" a hundred years ago, may already be beginning to lose ground somewhat in our culture. If so, I can only hope that, in however slight a degree, I may be able to help it on its way.
  • This myth pictures our world as a vast mass of physical objects that are being observed from a great distance by an anonymous observer through a huge array of telescopes...The whole process of observing and recording is called "Science" and is seen as constituting a central purpose of human life....What are the others? Weinberg does not say...he pleaded that such constructions [as the Superconducting Supercollider] should be built because they are "the cathedrals of our age."... He does not explain what congregation wants these cathedrals....And the trouble here is not just that few people understand this sort of physics...It is that - if the story we shall be examining...is true - even those people cannot want them because, essentially, they cannot want anything.
  • Knowledge is indeed wonderful and should be revered. Scientism's mistake..[lies] in cutting [science] off from the rest of thought, in treating it as a victor who has put all the rest out of business.
  • This idea of our own non-existence is a myth, not a solid scientific discovery. It is a recently proposed imaginative vision, one optional way among others of conceiving the world. And it really does not make sense.
  • (She quotes Nagel with approval) My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.
  • As we shall see, the central trouble is that the conception of matter has remained essentially unchanged since the seventeenth century, while the load of work it is expected to do has increased dramatically.
  • Unkind observers sometimes enquire who, in that case, actually writes the books that expound this doctrine? Do the brain cells really do this work on their own?
  • (Having quoted some nonsense from Blakemore about "The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions...") Thus if we want to understand why ...Napoleon decided to invade...Russia, what we need is not - as we might think - some knowledge of the political background and of Napoleon's state of mind, but simply facts about the state of his brain. 
  • How is this selficide supposed to relate to...selfishness as an evolutionary force...?  It also seems remarkable that Crick and his followers are quite satisfied with the reality of brain cells. Why do they not pursue their reductive course right down to quarks or electrons...?  In view of this hesitation we may reasonably ask, what is the actual aim of this reductive journey?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lee Buchheit and Sovereign Debt

Frantically busy. But went on Mon to lecture by Lee Buchheit to launch Soverign Debt Management which Rosa Lastra and he have edited.

The reason was that my occasional collaborator Marcus Miller has produced another playlet, Volpone: or The biter bitten about sovereign debt restructuring and I've put it in metrical form. It will be performed at a conference in Glasgow and this was a chance to present it to him.

Scene One: Arcadia in dire straits
Lee seems to be a great guy and clearly the doyen of his profession ("the Philosopher King of sovereign debt restructuring" according to the Wall Street Journal).  His lecture was about Sovereign Debt Sub Specie Aeternitatis (which is also the title of the closing chapter of the book) in which he rather surprised many members of the audience by suggesting that most of the government borrowing in the developed world was simply immoral - politicians piling debt on future generations for no good reason because they won't take tough decisions now. Amongst the many interesting points he made:
  • Piling on debt in good times severely dents a country's capacity to borrow on reasonable terms when they really need the money for some emergency.
  • The practice of having bonds repayable at a given end date seriously destabilizes the debt market because instead of having to take a view on whether a debtor will be able to repay the loan the creditor has to decide whether on a given date the debtor will be able to re-finance and this will depend on market sentiment. In former times government bonds were repaid in installments over the life of the bond and this is much better - but harder for the traders to price.
I bought a copy of the book and although this is not my field at all it is beautifully written. Let me give a flavour from an extract from Chapter One by Lee and his colleague Elena Daily
Documentation improvements will have no immediate basis point cost to the sovereign at the time of the restructuring; that is their charm. Their significance (and cost) may become apparent down the road.... Any feature that makes those instruments more difficult to restructure in the future...may then be regretted, but for politicians....the operative words in this description are 'down the road' and 'in the future'.
Sovereigns are sometimes advised to blend a drop or two of honey into the restructuring medicine...The problem, as always in these affairs, will be money. The sovereign must either raise the funds required...by suspending payments on existing loans from the very same creditors who will be receiving the sweetener...or borrow the money from an official senior source. The former smacks of pilfering someone's car keys and then offering to give them back to the owner in exchange for a ride to town. The latter requires a broad-minded and indulgent official sector lender prepared to use its taxpayers' money to raise the saccharine content of a settlement with private sector lenders.
 Delicious writing!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Prayer and the Martydom of Stephen

The Stoning of St Stephen by Rembrandt
courtesy Wikimedia
Stephen is hauled up before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – accused of blasphemous teaching against Moses and against God.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit , he tells the story of Israel, from Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, and how often Israel had rejected God’s messengers and his Law. He concludes:
Stiff-necked and un-circumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit – as you fathers did so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? They killed the ones announcing beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered – you who received the Law as delivered by angels, and did not keep it!”
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart , and they gnashed their teeth at him.  But being filled with the Holy Spirit and gazing up to heaven, he saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said “Look! I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!”  But they cried out with a loud voice and closed their ears and rushed with one accord on him, and casting him out of the city they stoned him; and the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And kneeling down he cried with a loud voice “Lord, do not hold this sin against them .” And saying this, he fell asleep
.

I was asked to preach this Sunday at Church and this was the first of the set readings. The other was John 14:1-14. Jesus is in the Upper Room talking to his disciples
 “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God, and trust in me. In my father’s house there are many rooms  if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also can be where I am. And you know the way to the place where I am going”.
Thomas said to him “Lord, we do not know where you are going , how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered “I am the way and the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known  me, you would have known my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘Show us the Father’?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own, but it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me because of the works themselves. Truly, Truly I tell you, anyone who trusts in me will also do the works that I’m doing ; In fact they will do greater than these, because I am going to the Father!  And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son . If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.


Wow! In the sermon I tried to explore three questions:
  1. What does Jesus mean by this?
  2. What did it mean in the life of Stephen?
  3. What does it mean for us?
Before we go any further there is just one point we should clear up. The NIV had three errors in its translation of this passage, two of which were corrected in the 2011 edition but they still have “You may ask”  instead of “if you ask”. This is simply wrong, the Greek is perfectly clear, every other translation I can find gets this right, and I’ve no idea why they do this.  All translations have their advantages and disadvantages but for anything difficult you should never rely on any one translation or commentary. (While we’re about it, the “me” is optional - two of the earliest MSS omit it as does the RSV and it may have slipped in through copying   and a few omit the whole of verse 14.)

25 times in John Jesus says ”Amen, Amen” “Truly, Truly I say to you…” The other Gospels simplify it to one Amen but there is good reason to suppose that this was what Jesus said when he wanted to emphasise something particularly.  Jesus language is often quite poetic, especially in John, and in Hebrew poetry you say the same thing in slightly different ways. (Your kingdom come – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven).

Jesus goes on immediately (v15) to explain this further: “If you love me you will keep my commands, and I will ask the Father and he will give you another helper to be with you forever” This other helper is the Holy Spirit, so that (v 20) “you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”  He goes on (Ch 15) “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

“my words remain in you ” means a lot more that simply remembering what Jesus said. It means even more than “you live by my teaching”.  The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). The sense is captured quite well by the hymn:
“Breathe on me breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.”
So when we ask “in Jesus name” we are able to do so because the Holy Spirit works within us to open our hearts and minds to what Jesus wants us to ask.   “In Jesus name” means when we are remaining in Jesus, in his love, as a branch of his vine, with the Holy Spirit working within us and helping us pray as Jesus wants us to pray.”

Which brings us to Stephen. When we meet him in Acts 6 he is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (v5) He does “great wonders and signs among the people” and his arguments for the Gospel are based on “wisdom and the Spirit” (v10).  He’s hauled up before the Sanhedrin and his face was like the face of an angel. He tells them the story of Israel and of God’s wonderful plan for rescuing creation through Israel and his Messiah, the Righteous One, denouncing them for resisting the Holy Spirit. When they heard these things they were enraged – the Greek is “cut to the heart” very like the hearers of Peter in Acts 2 but with a very different result.  Stephen is “Filled with the Holy Spirit” (v55). They rush on him, cast him out of the city and stone him.

And he prays . First he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”  He’s dying. He is in Jesus, Jesus is in him, and he is offering himself up to Jesus in union with him – just as Jesus offered up his spirit to the Father.  And he kneels and cries with a loud voice “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In Luke Jesus says “father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and later “Cries with a loud voice “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” But with Stephen the order is reversed. Everyone standing by would have heard his loud cry – certainly including Saul.

The immediate result was …. a disaster for the church. Acts goes on  “ A great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered…except the apostles…. Saul ravaged the church, entering house by house, dragging both men and women to prison.  Apart from anything else, the Jews were not allowed by the Romans to put a man to death. Complaints from the Christians to Pilate would have been very awkward for the Sanhedrin.  Better get these trouble-makers out of the way.

But those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8 tells of Philip (who asked Jesus “Show us the Father”) proclaiming the gospel in Samaria and to the Ethiopian Eunuch. There are now 40-45M members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Tradition tells that Thomas ended up in India – indeed I have an Indian Christian friend whose family can trace its descent to one of the Indians originally converted by St Thomas.  There are now 25-50M Christians in India. The population of Palestine in Jesus’ day was probably about 200,000. The Church at the beginning of Acts is about 120 people. Acts 9 has Saul “Still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” on the road to Damascus – and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Stephen asked Jesus. In Jesus name. And Jesus acted, and continues to act throughout history. Stephen in his lifetime never saw the results of his last prayers and witness, and so it often is with us. We must do our part, but only God sees the picture as a whole. Yet occasionally we catch a glimpse of part of it – and what a magnificent picture it is.

So what does this mean for us?
  1. Practice We must learn to pray in Jesus name.
  2. Resilience We must not be discouraged or, guilty, when our prayers are not answered the way we would like, even when we feel sure God wants what we want.
  3. Always. We ought always to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1).
Practice. Jesus makes it clear we should pray at least once a day and always pray to align our wills with God’s. “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We need to continually open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, continually mediate on his words so that we remain in him and he in us – so that his words remain in us.

Resilience. Prayer is not magic or a performance. God does not count prayers or weigh them – he listens to them. 

Even when we pray for something to happen that would be very good, that we are as sure as we can be is something that God wants, sometimes this doesn’t happen.  It can be agonizing. And we are tempted to think – it’s only human nature – “If only we had prayed harder”  If only we had been better people.  Well of course we can and should become better people and more prayer would always be good.  But Jesus does not say “if you are a very good person, I will do it.”  Jesus knows that every day we will have committed sins that need forgiveness.   Even the apostles had situations where they prayed for healing with no result (Mat 17:19+ Mark 9:28+)

Jesus himself prayed earnestly that he might avoid the agony of crucifixion.  God could have delivered him miraculously – just as John tells us Jesus avoided a fate similar to Stephen’s when he had enraged a crowd in the synagogue and they took him to be stoned.  Stephen could have prayed that he would be miraculously delivered, or acquitted, or indeed that the Sanhedrin would have been convinced by his eloquence.

Let us not forget though that God has miraculously rescued Jesus, and Stephen, through the resurrection. And  that those who we love who have died in Christ , where they remain in him and he in them,  as Stephen did, are said in the Bible to have “fallen asleep” because of the sure and certain promise of the resurrection.

Always. Jesus taught his disciples that they should always pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1 )

This is surprisingly difficult. I’ve been a Christian all my life and I find it embarrassingly hard to pray on a regular daily basis. Every Jew was expected at least to say the Shema:  “Hear O Israel, The LORD is our God The LORD is one.”   at morning and evening.  Jesus clearly expects his followers to pray at least once a day along the lines of the Lord’s prayer.  It’s important to set aside time to pray but it’s also good to pray in times which are not set aside. Apparently Justin Welby prays when he is running – and obviously at many other times too! Prayer is a bit like running – runners do it to make ourselves fitter and to prepare for the race, to use an image St Paul seemed to favour.

 Incidentally there’s a terrific interview with Justin after coming back from South Sudan and visiting the appalling massacres there, on YouTube. He says “We must be battering at the gates of heaven, remorseless and unceasing prayer. As we pray our minds and hearts are shaped by the wisdom and power of the Spirit of God, and as we pray we engage with God in the struggle against human evil.”

The race for which we are training is not in a stadium, going round and round in laps. It is a road race.  When Jesus says “You know the way to the place where I am going” the word he uses, odos means road or way.  Everywhere in the NT when we hear road or way the original readers hear odos and the original term for Christianity was “the way”. There are many runners ahead of us – Stephen is presumably the first finisher – and many behind us. And all who finish receive the prize – the laurel in Biblical times, the medal in ours.

So it seems to be rather like – a marathon.

To conclude, we need to pray: Practice, Resilience, Always, faithfully remaining, like Stephen, in the way, the truth and the life which is Jesus himself. 
Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

William Hague and Diplomacy

To the Foreign Office last night where my old friend William Hague (we shared an office briefly at McKinsey before he became an MP) gave an excellent talk about the launch of the "Diplomatic Academy" which is "a centre of excellence, offering a space for creative thinking, innovation and expertise at the heart of the [FCO]"

I vividly recall visiting the FCO under the previous government and being told by the then Permanent Secretary that they were very pleased to have been given 7 objectives which he proceeded to read out. Firstly 7 is too many, but secondly although these objectives were worthy.none even mentioned the UK National Interest.

Great also to see Sebastian Wood the excellent Ambassador to China.

It would be very depressing if we had an avowed atheist as PM - fortunately this risk appears to be receding as the polls move. the average of the last 5 polls shows a dead heat whereas one month ago they had a Labour Lead of 5%.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Patricia Hodge in Relative Values - Miranda's (almost) mother-in-law

Last night to see Patricia Hodge in the wonderful production of Relative Values at the Harold Pinter theatre. Not for nothing was Coward called "The Master" - it's a wonderfully crafted work which is also a satire on both the absurdities of the class system and the absurdities of utopian egalitarianism.

Patricia was absolutely superb, with impeccable charm, timing and diction. The great Coward plays have characters whose feelings are conflicted on many levels and the many layers of  "I know I shouldn't be feeling X, but I bloody well am" were beautifully done. Caroline Quentin was also outstanding as Moxie, revelling in her transition from Maid to Companion. It was fascinating that it was Rory Bremner's stage d├ębut. He's a remarkably talented and intelligent performer though one could see the transition from performer to actor almost before ones eyes. He said afterwards that this was the first night that it didn't feel like acting. And Leigh Zimmerman was terrific as Miranda Frayle the Hollywood Star (who also happens to be Moxie's younger reprobate sister).

We'd only met Patricia once before but since she's such a friend of both Janie and Miranda we went backstage and she was as delightful as we'd remembered. There was a bit of a delay since Princess Alexandra was in the audience (sitting a couple of rows in front of us) and she went to greet the cast on the stage. This meant that we had time to meet Patricia's step-daughter and Gloria Hunniford who were also coming backstage, and also to chat briefly to the Princess on her way out at the very cramped Stage Door.  Patricia was charm itself and we were soon sipping champagne. I was able to teaze her that she has now played Miranda's almost mother-in-law as well as Miranda's mother, and indeed she did once accidentally change her line "I am Peter's mother" to "I am Miranda's mother." and then had the wit to ad lib along the lines of  "Well, almost, when they are married, since I am of course Peter's mother".  We met and congratulated Caroline Q, Rory B and Leigh Z who all seem to be very natural and just a great company together.

A wonderful evening, catch the play if you can!

Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin and Emma Darwin

Michael Frayn talking to Emma Darwin
To the Society of Authors event on Weds where Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin were in conversation with Maggie Gee about their work as authors. Claire had been an undergraduate at Cambridge while Michael was studying Russian for National Service (alongside Alan Bennet) and he remembers reading her poems and thinking "if only I could meet girls with names like Claire de Laverner"!  They each married other people, worked for papers (Guardian for him, New Statesman and Sunday Times for her) became celebrated writers, and are now together, writing in separate rooms with a room of box files between them.

Claire spoke movingly about her lifelong love of Hardy (a 19th C writer and a 20th C poet) including his compassion on the German PoWs.  They both believe in the need for clarity for prose - it should be like a pane of glass. Michael said that often the characters help you along when you are stuck, and really do behave in ways you don't expect. He quoted the extreme case of the author of Fame is the Spur who clamed that he had no idea about the book when he started except a first sentence.

They were asked about being each others first readers. They are, though they carefully avoid showing each other their work in progress. It is a priceless gift for someone to read who will really care and understand and give honest feedback. Michael also has a NY copy-editor who is very good indeed.  He's also clearly an admirer of James Thurber, who also started as a journalist.

I asked whether Michael agreed with the famous dictum of William Goldman that "nobody knows anything" when it comes to success in the movies or plays. Very much so, he thinks it applies in any situation where you are trying to predict popular reaction. With both Noises Off and Copenhagen he didn't think anyone would perform them let alone go to see them. Whereas when he wrote a farce called Look! Look! everyone thought it would be a massive success - the great Mike Codron has no notes for him on the first read-through. Yet at the preview it was a corpse and despite nightly re-writes it remained a corpse.

Afterwards he kindly signed two of his books  for me - Spies and The Human Touch which I will read with great interest. I'd love to introduce him to Denis Noble - and succeeded in introducing him to Emma Darwin who was also there. Emma and I then went to the Cafe Royal for a delightful catch-up supper. We spoke of many things including our shared interest in cross-disciplinary innovation. She is such good news - and has a very exciting project which could in my view become one of the major feats of literature of the next decade. Let's hope so.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Pray that the pseudo-Christian killers in Africa may be converted to true Christianity

The scandalous situation in Nigeria where Boko Haram has kidnapped over 200 girls has attracted widespread international attention. A friend with strong contacts there claims that there has been a lamentable lack of condemnation of this outrage by the Islamic leaders in Nigeria. This is at least partly because Boko Haram doesn't hesitate to attack Muslims who oppose them - these attacks such as on the palace of the Emir of Bama and on a Mosque are of course condemned by Islamic leaders, some of whom have the courage to speak out against the wider movement.

But a disturbing report in The Economist on violence in the Central African Republic makes really depressing reading:
Fadi Madou was helpless when her six-day-old baby got sick and died. But had she ventured across a wooden bridge into Boda’s Christian district to look for a doctor, she, being a Muslim, would probably have ended up dead, too.
In the past year, the CAR has descended into horrendous ethnic and sectarian violence. First, a hotchpotch of mainly Muslim rebel groups from the north, known as the Seleka ...swept down to Bangui...After ... ten months, it too was forced out amid allegations of rampant human-rights abuses. Since then, mayhem has prevailed, though international peacekeepers ...have struggled to hold the ring.
After the fall of the Seleka government in January, Christian militias known as the anti-Balaka have behaved just as badly, retaliating brutally against Muslims and blaming all of them for the Seleka’s excesses. Thousands of Muslims have been randomly killed. Towns such as Boda, which had a mixed population, have been torn apart.
First, the fleeing Seleka militants sacked the Christian side of the town in January, but left the Muslim quarter standing. Then the Christians retaliated, killing ten Muslims in a day and causing hundreds of others to flee into the bush.
Now it's possible that there is a dose of Western Liberal Cringe in this and maybe the "Christian" militias haven't behaved quite as badly as the article says. But unless this article is an almost complete fiction it is perfectly clear that these so-called "Christian" militias are not Christian at all. Anyone who would kill a mother with a sick 6-day old baby for being of the "wrong" religion has completely forfeited any claim to follow our Lord and Saviour. According to the census 80% of the CAR population claim to be Christians, and protestant and pentecostalist groups are as strong as the Roman Catholics.  It is also a sobering thought that the worst genocide of the last 20 years occurred in Rwanda which was and is still an overwhelmingly "Christian" country.






Saturday, May 03, 2014

Yundi in London + deep complexity in neuroscience

From Douglas Fields' Perspective
Myelination of layer II/III pyramidal neurons of the
cerebral cortex with a long axon initial segment and
segments with variable lengths of unmyelinated axon.
On Thurs our friend Yundi was in London to give a private concert in Harvey Nichols. Sir David Tang introduced him and it was great to hear Yundi so close up. His final number was the first movement of the Schumann Fantaise in C which is also on his wonderful new CD - along with the Emperor. This performance was truly wonderful, even better than he was at the Festival Hall which is really saying something!  Get the CD it is amazing.

Yesterday we went to Cambridge to hear our younger grandson sing a solo part in Stanford's For Lo I Raise Up in his school concert. The stand-out performance was a string quartet led by a 15-year old called Patrick Bevan: really musical and someone to watch.

I've been meaning for a while to blog about the Tomassy et al. paper "Distinct Profiles of Myelin Distribution Along Single Axons of Pyramidal Neurons in the Neocortex" in Science. This strikes me as a very important paper in terms of making it clear, once more, that there is far more going on in the brain than the simplistic view of  "Neurons + Synapses" suggests. As I'm fond of saying, the brain simply isn't a digital computer. It is analogue and asynchronous and enormously complicated, and what happens can depend on the exact details of pretty much any part of the brain or blood supply. As I explored in the book Questions of Truth (Appendix B) even in computer models like NEURON tiny timing differences get amplified up exponentially until they will make the difference between a neuron firing or not.  This paper elucidates just some of the fascinating additional complexity that makes all attempts to recreate brains by digital means doomed to failure. This is not to say that such projects are without value - merely that they will not match the functioning of real brains.


So whilst I warmly applaud advances in Neuroscience (such as this, and the Allen Brain Atlas) it is ridiculously wrong to suppose that such things are "the first step to immortalizing the human biological soul." - to quote a comment post that is I think quite representative of much current thinking

PS I'm pleased to say that over 5 years after publication Questions of Truth is still in the top 100 on Science and Religion in Amazon.com.