Friday, 26 February 2010

Flamenco - Maria Pages

I search in vain for reviews of the current flamenco season at Sadlers Wells - other than Clement Crisp being his usual self in the FT. There are reviews of minor plays that will be forgotten before they even close, but nothing of Eva Yerbabuena's Lluvia or Maria Pages' Autoretrato. What stops the critics seeing it? Is it the frocks? Can't they take the singing? Maybe the audience is the wrong kind of people (the kind who go to Spain for their holidays, not Tuscany)? Is it because they would lose credibility across the dining tables of north London if they said "frankly what these flamenco gals are doing is much more fun and interesting than the latest Arts Council darling"? I suspect the answer is a big YES to that one. If anyone suggests that it is because flamenco is flagrantly heterosexual and modern dance and classical ballet is, well, for those of a more delicate disposition, they would probably get into trouble with the thought police.

Flamenco is a genre with its conventions, and yet it is strong enough to absorb influences ranging from Keith Jarrett (channelled by the pianist with Rafaella Carrasco) to modern dance (Eva Yerbabuena) to John Mclaughlin (via his work with Paco de Lucia) and the Cuban music scene. Plus these guys have to make a living at it without funds from the National Lottery.

Anyway, in the end, do I care? The fans loved Maria Pages on Wednesday and so did I. Her castanet playing was awesome, the footwork fancy, the rapping fun and the whole show a delight. Given the choice between that and Swan bloody Lake, I know which I would take - even if it does mean the 341 bus to Waterloo afterwards.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

I Get A "Recognition"

I have been trying not to write about work recently, mainly because it would turn into one long rant about the utter idiocy of our IT department and its outsourced support. This is a major, major bank which does not officially provide or support Oracle, Business Objects and SAS. About which I have spoken.

Our section had an Awayday recently, in the Seven Dials club in Covent Garden (they don't seem to have a website.) It was the usual mixture of "here's how the numbers are" and "bonding by fun" which usually has me reaching for the phone to call in suddenly ill, but this time was actually reasonably bearable. I got to meet a number of the new guys on the team who are due to start soon, and scarily young and bright they are too. As well they should be.

Modesty forbids me to describe the spontaneous round of applause that greeted my presentation on business-as-usual activities in the management information team, but then I did tell a good story vividly.

At the end of the day there were some "recognition" for people who had done above and beyond the call of nine-to-five, and for once I found myself agreeing with the choices: all went to people who were good soldiers, as such things should. Except one. Which went to me, for finally getting all that software to work on the Bank's machines. Which I did not do as a good soldier, but bitching and moaning all the way (which come to think of it, is how good soldiers behave, if Generation Kill is as accurate as they say).

Given that I was in the doghouse a year ago, this isn't bad. My appraisal for last year was "Met Expectations" which is better than it has been for a while. The thing is this: I'm still the same old me. I'm doing pretty much what I always do. It's the managers that have changed. Now they are giving me stuff that can be done, instead of the mission-impossibles that the previous guys came up with.

Here's the take-away: if you set your people up for success, they will probably succeed; if you set them up for failure, they will surely fail.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Why There Should Not Be An Adjustment Disorder

Reading Petra Boynton's blog, I see that the APA are taking comments about the forthcoming fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-V to the masses. In psychiatry this weighty tome has roughly the status that Halsbury's Laws of England does in the legal profession. Most important, if your particular screw-up doesn't fall into a DSM-IV (the current edition), your insurance company is not going to pay out for your treatment.

There's a thing called Adjustment Disorder. You have this if you become overly depressed, anxious or start behaving oddly within three months of a stressful or traumatic event, carry on doing so for at most six months after the event stops, and for that time have difficulty coping with work and life. If the event goes on and on (the boss is a bitch), the condition is chronic. If you go on being depressed, anxious or behaving oddly for six months after the boss moves on (or whatever) then you have something more serious. This looks okay, but...

You can hear the bullies lining up now, can't you? Your employer sacks you with no money - hey, get drunk on the day, curse them, let it go and move on. If you fall into a depression, that's you having an adjustment disorder and has nothing to do with them. They aren't responsible. Or your wife cashes you in, taking the house, kids, half the pension and maintenance. Adjust little buddy, no moping for you. It happened, move on and get on with your life. If you can't, it's not her fault, it's yours, because you have an adjustment disorder. It's all about what counts as over-reaction: who decides that? For the people who hand out the harm, that would be any sign of depression or reduced functioning at all; for the poor bloody victims, that would be all the blues they can feel. Your co-dependant friends would indulge you and your colleagues at work would get irritated if you came in the next day still moping.

Now compare this with the symptoms for a major depressive episode. To have one of these, you need at least five of the following nine symptoms, which must manifest for most of the day: 1) feeling sad, blue or depressed; 2) a loss of interest and pleasure in things you used to do; 3) significant changes in weight and appetite; 4) significant problems sleeping; 5) agitated or lethargic body movements; 6) feeling fatigue at least once a day; 7) low self-worth and inappropriate guilt; 8) persistent difficulty concentrating; 9) thoughts of death or suicide. The symptoms must persist for a two-week period and must include one or other of the first two. But here's the catch, which most casual readers of DSM (if there could be such a thing) miss: if you're hauling your ass out of bed, making it to work, paying the bills, baby-sit your brother's kids, keep the larder and the fridge full and even making it to the gym a couple of times a week, you don't qualify for being depressed. You qualify as feeling like crap and needing a change of life, but not as depressed. Because you're functioning, and if you're functioning, a psychiatrist can't diagnose you as crazy.

Notice that all these symptoms are as "objective" and "observable" as anything about human behaviour and psychiatry ever will be. Weight is objective, so is the time you wake up or the number of hours before you fall asleep; you get to report if you're feeling sad and anyone can see if you don't get as excited by football as you used to, can't concentrate or are dragging your sorry ass around the place instead of being spritely. No-one can impose their ideas of what's "normal" on you, though they can take a swig of denial and say that it's not as bad as you're making out. Imposing their denial is not imposing their values.

Many people criticise the DSM for what they see as the creeping medicalisation of normal behaviour. They have in mind the famous definition of ADHD as "behaviour that irritates primary school teachers". But that's the clue: it's the teachers, social workers, GP's and parents who medicalise the actual boisterous boy, not the DSM-trained psychiatrist, who is most likely to say "he's a boy, and you want him to behave like a girl?". There's a context to the DSM - it's for psychiatrists, not "councillors" or "therapists". On a daily basis psychiatrists see people who are severely fucked-up, people that we never see. They get the context and know what the words mean, we don't.

The real criticism isn't about medicalisation, it's about the use of social norms in psychiatry. It's that use of "overly" in the definition of Adjustment Disorder. It's maybe in the whole idea that we should "adjust" to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune at some rate that optimises our social and economic effectiveness while maintaining a facade of feeling humanity. I once read an account of children's attachment to their mothers. It was based round how the kids reacted when Mommy left them at the nursery. "Appropriate adjustment" was when the kid cried for a little - just enough to show it was missing mommy but not enough to be a nuisance to the teacher - and then went to play with the other kids. Too much crying was unhealthy, running straight off without missing mommy was unfeeling. That isn't psychology, it's manners at best and competitive parenting at worst: look at my appropriately-adjused child.

Being screwed-up is one thing, but not fitting in with the straights and normals is another. No-one is under an obligation to do that.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dumb Security Questions #2354

The other day I had to call Mastercard to let them know I was going to spend some money on my card, so they didn't automatically block it when someone tried to put the price of a second-hand car through. (That happens all the time with credit cards - which have computer routines to highlight alleged suspicious spending.)  I keyed in my credit card number, the three-digit code on the back and my date of birth. The young man who eventually answered had my details in front of him, but insisted that I give him my name and address and if I there were other people who could use the account. Then he asked me how much I had spent in Foyles a month ago.

Huh? If he'd asked about how much I'd spent at Richer Sounds around a month ago, I would have known. I don't buy electronic kit that often (it was a Sony BDPS 760 and an excellent purchase it was as well, plays well with my Sony Bravia flat-screen and gives new life to DVD's, but I digress). I read over a hundred books a year, most of which I buy in Foyles or Blackwells, so I buy books "all the time" and no more remember what I bought for how much than anyone else would remember what they spent in Sainsbury's a month ago. Maybe it would have been a memorable thing for that young man to have bought books in Foyles in the Wicked West End, but not for me. (In fact on the date he mentioned, I think I bought Being and Nothingness and Being and Time for stock, as reading Hegel's Phenomenology has given me a taste for some heavy continental stuff.) So since I flunked that, he said I'd failed the security question and he couldn't go on.

In the end, it turned out that Cargiant don't take Mastercard, so I called my bank and explained the situation, and they gave me an extra £2,000 on my overdraft, which was enough to pay for the car on my regular debit card.

This does not count as "working out all right" because there's still a silly young man out there who thinks that you can remember what you spent at Sainsbury's three weeks ago. And he may block your card if you don't get it right.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Eva Yerbabuena's Lluvia

It's the annual Sadlers Wells flamenco festival - tonight was Eva Yerbabuena's amazing Lluvia performance. The comments on the Sadlers Wells website do not do it justice. It is quite simply one of the best things I have ever seen on a stage in any genre. I don't think I've ever seen a group of performers work so seamlessly: the intensity never dropped. With a first half that was modern dance with a flamenco edge, and moments like a cantore singing his heart out and making no sound, it's simply unlike any flamenco you will have seen. There's nothing on it on You Tube yet, so just try a look at this earlier Solereas...

Every part of her troupe is strong, and the band are so good they almost vanish into the music they are making. If you have nerve seen Yerbabuena, you need to. She's simply one of the most creative artists working in any medium or genre today.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Roissy in DC

There are few times I've read or heard something and thought: what are you doing inside my head? One is Rands' essay on Nerds. Another and more recently was looking at the Roissy in DC blog. I'm a little less proud of this one, as Roissy, who is at a guess a decently good-looking thirty-something DC-based professional, has an attitude towards women and the dating / mating game that resembles an earlier me at my more bitter. The guy has had a lot of bad experiences and it shows.

When I was a young lad back in the 1970's, girls were looking for two things: husband material, and quick flings. Here comes a perverse piece of girl logic that I've had confirmed several times: girls choose bastards or losers to have quick flings with because then they don't need an excuse for the early exit. If they choose a nice guy, they have to explain why they left him. "Because he was a cute fuck but not husband material" is not an acceptable answer - nice guys are supposed to be husband material. As a result, "nice guys" tend to get short shrift in the dating market - and all those unrelieved hormones turn bitter after a while. Bitterness is never gracious, so it never reads well.

Roissy and I have something in common. Both of us from an early age decided that we were not doing marriage. There are many reasons why not, but my favourite is that a perceptive boy looks at how much fun Dad seems to be having being married and draws the appropriate conclusion. This is the sort of thing that comes out in body language and behaviour. Well-balanced girls looking for marriage take one look and don't see the body language they saw in their father (who liked his marriage) and so no more approach us than a vegetarian would a butcher shop. This leaves us with the girls whose Daddies didn't get much fun out of their marriage: they recognise our body language and it's familiar, so they come our way. But the whole thing is doomed to failure from the start. The girls get upset because we're not up for commitment, but we're all they can get, because the well-balanced boys who want marriage don't see in those girls the body language they saw in their mothers (who liked their marriages).

The harsh truth is this: people from happy marriages marry people from happy marriages, the rest are left with each other: a rag-bag of girls and boys with various hang-ups, fears, traumas, resentments and suspicions. The girls don't want to be miserable like Mom, and the boys don't want to be trapped like Dad; maybe there was some sexual abuse in childhood; maybe you were the misfit and teased by the normals in Junior school; maybe you fell in love with whoever and they laughed at you; maybe you just weren't born with confidence the way most people aren't born able to do double somersaults and five years of peak adolescence left you with bitter hormones. In one of the rare denial-free brain zones, the boy knows this and the girl knows this and neither of them like it: they have a choice of being single, or settling, or divorce.

There is one thing Roissy gets right without saying it. Adults have sex with each other because they want to, not because it's a way of getting someone to marry you or fix the plumbing. Those women who make their sexual favours conditional upon the man doing this or that or whatever else give the rest of their sex a bad, bad name. He's right to resent it but wrong to express it.

The next time a woman runs a number on you, Mr Roissy, don't play the game: say something polite but meaningless (and I mean as empty as "I really don't know what to say to that, but, Sandra, it's been really nice meeting you, and have a good day tomorrow"), excuse yourself and leave. Right then, right there. Women who play games are not happy people and you don't need them, anymore than they really need you. This doesn't make the bitter hormones any easier to take, but nothing does that.

Friday, 12 February 2010

If you have to "go along to get along", you're in the wrong place

There's an old New York proverb: "first you go along, then you get along." First you prove you belong, then the good things start to come your way. The price is that you have to ignore the bad stuff that your benefactors do, pretend to believe things you think are not true, and behave and speak in ways that strike you as wrong, pretentious or undesirable.

Does it seem that everyone else does it all naturally? They don't wince when they use the latest pretentious catch-phrase? (My current bete noir is "a call to action" when they mean "something we should do"). They believe that people who earn £10 / hour should be loaned upwards of £5,000? Or whatever it is? You begin to think they must be faking it, and maybe if they can, then so can you.
You can't. They aren't faking it. They believe everything you think is nonsense. They believe what they are doing is worth losing family time for. This is their life: it's who they really are. It may be hard to believe, but it's true. They are where they fit in.

If they went where you feel natural, they wouldn't fit in. They'd feel like they were faking it.
There is no guarantee that there is anywhere you will feel natural, nor, having found it, that it won't go bust after a couple of years. But you have to keep looking.

Going along to get along is corrupting and it's a trick that can only be worked for about ten years before you go off the rails in whatever manner you choose: drink, drugs, women, fast cars, gambling, divorce, heart attack. If you don't, you wind up withdrawing from everything and everyone around you at the weekends so you can recover for another week in spiritual hell. Personally, I think that's worse than booze and heart attacks.

The really irritating thing is that there are people who can live with exactly what it takes to win the beautiful wife, the daughters at Godolfin and Latymer, the six-bedroom house and the senior partnership in a top four law firm. It would kill you, but they do it as naturally as breathing. Hey, no-one said the right place for you was somewhere you would get rich.

If you feel like you're "going along to get along", you're in the wrong place.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Wednesday - Winter Cold Day One

I woke up this morning and tried to get out of bed. My body wondered if I had any other dumb ideas I wanted to try. I thought about going to work and it stopped me halfway through. I dozed, finished reading Zak Smith's We Did Porn, which is fascinating, dozed, read this month's Esquire, made ham sandwiches, dozed, listened to the Keith Jarrett Solo Piano: Bremen / Lausanne concerts, dozed, read some of the Roissy in DC blog, made a soup of celery, green beans and Borlotti, watched a couple of episodes of Dirt series one, wrote this and now I'm going to bed. Because tomorrow's dumb idea is waking up at 05:30 to catch an early train to Chester. Which I'd like to do.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Richmond Lock

What I really meant to do that day my car got flooded was take some photographs from Richmond Lock... this is looking at it downstream from the Richmond side

... with a close-up of those seagulls - do you notice that all seagulls look exactly alike? I suspect that seagulls are the particle creation operators of a bosonic field.

This is the river side of the Old Deer Park. At the other side is Richmond Swimming Pool and in the middle are football pitches and a couple of weeks a year the Circus pitches there.

Looking upstream to Isleworth. The river goes round the corner towards Kew.

Don't ask about the car. The insurance company wants to write it off - which means I will have to find another £3,000 or so in addition to buy another second-hand runabout. Ouch.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Two Common Statistical Mistakes About Marriage and Sex

In the previous post I said that every survey on the subject found that men had more sexual partners than women. I also implied that everyone bought this. It is, of course, impossible unless you think that men have a lot of sex outside the country, and women don't, or, of course, that a lot of men have homosexual affairs. Because it takes two to tango - so for every man having sex, there has to be a woman. So women have as much sex as men - over a large enough population. So if British women aren't having as much as British men, somewhere there's a country where women must be reporting more sexual partners than men. Except there isn't. The standard comment is that women might under-report and men over-report, but consider the effect of doing that for these options: (1-2, 3-5, 6-9, 10-15, 15+). The effect would be very obvious. You would also assume that the clever statisticians who analyse these things would have corrected for that. My favourite explanation is that there are a small number of women who pass through an intensely promiscuous period - but they are under-represented in the sample, which also don't capture just how many partners they had. You may live in a more prosaic world.

The other one is the divorce rate. There's a figure of 1 in 3 that's been going round forever, which comes from the fact that for a long time there were about 100,000 divorces and 300,000 marriages a year, which looks like 1 in 3. Except that divorces come from the pool of married people, and marriages come from the pool of single people. So you can't just divide one by the the other. National Statistics report that in 2008 the divorce rate was 11.2 per 1000 married people, with the highest cohort rate for 22-29, where 26 per 1000 married women got divorced. The marriage rate (for 2007, 2008 not available at time of writing) was about 20 per 1000 single people. In case you're wondering, in order for everyone to be married at thirty-five, given they can start at sixteen, the marriage rate would have to be a bell-ringing 71 per 1000. In 2006, half the men in the country were single.

I think marriage stats are fascinating. Start here for a comprehensive pdf and here for some directions from National Statistics.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Britain On The Couch

Oliver James is a celebrity psychiatrist with a private practice amongst the upper echelons of London's professional classes. I've no doubt his work in prisons, hospitals or wherever brings him into contact with people we would rather see dead than want to make better. He's well-read and knows his pop culture. I've no doubt he's a good man and convivial company. This much is obvious from his book Britain on the Couch.

His thesis is that between the 1950's and to the present, Britain has become a more uncertain, anxious, depressed and rancourous place. His reason is that we have weaker roles, especially around the family and marriage, and we make and are forced to make by television and magazines, far more comparisons with other people - which usually doesn't make us feel good about ourselves. Britain is a low-seratonin society, serotonin being a chemical that makes the body work better and is generated by being in higher-status roles, the lack of which makes you depressed and injections of which do wonders for previously glum vervet monkeys. Being low-income doesn't help much either, and he notes that especially since the 1980's the low-income got less and the better-off got more. Low income depresses, and depression lowers serotonin.

I'm not disputing the figures and I'll assume the anecdotes are real. What I'm disputing is the significance of those figures and anecdotes, and the idea that it was better in the 1950's. Or 1850's. Or classical Athens. Many of the anecdotes turn out to be about people who are suffering from alcoholism, drugs or psychiatric problems - either their own or someone else's. Once booze, drugs or mental illness creeps into the gene pool, you have to assume those are the primary causes of any odd behaviour, rather than anything more literary or cultural. Many of the studies are based on observation and self-reporting via questionnaires. The reliability of these can be judged by the fact that they invariably show - when used to ask - that men have more sexual partners than women. Everyone buys this one, along with the one about one in three marriages ending in divorce (because there are about 100,000 divorces a year, and 300,000 marriages). Anyone who buys either of these for more than five minutes - as James does - should stay out of the policy analysis business. The increase in divorce since the 1970's does not argue that people are more picky about marriage. It argues that they always were bad judges of good partners, married too young and changed too quickly and, of course, just plain got tired of each others' acts - only after the Divorce Reform Act 1969, they could escape their bad judgement and misery more easily.

James cites a number of studies suggesting that people who have suffered a serious misfortune make themselves feel better by comparisons with people even worse off: they amy have AIDS, but at least they don't live in Chad. But that's not why people say these things. When two people with the same misfortune meet and talk, how they talk, what they say, the emotions they can share, are totally different from what they can say - and want to say - to the ignorant who haven't been there and don't know. The "at least I'm not in Chad" comment is a stock response - like saying you're happy when that nice man with the clipboard asks you. It's also a brush-off, a way for the knowing to avoid having to deal with the ignorance of the unknowing, and for the unknowing to signal that they aren't handing out any sympathy. More speech than you think is to close off unwanted conversations, and more conversations than you might think are unwanted. There is no point talking to people who haven't been there and don't get it - you may as well be talking Uzbek in Marseille.

Citing pop culture is always tricky, because more and more, pop culture is about itself. There is a lot of gender rancour in pop culture - especially women being rude about men - but that doesn't mean women are actually being ruder about men, it means editors like it and comedians can make money from it. Throughout history a greater number of women than we think have disliked men and held them in contempt - it's just that now they can get a newspaper column out of it. What's changed isn't the reality, it's the Daily Mail.

There's something about the Fifties, if you were born in them, which both James and I were. The decade is preserved in black-and-white photographs, a time when working men wore suits on a Saturday, trains were drawn by steam engines, the roads were often empty, the lorries were small, the shops local and women in long coats went walking with toddlers in duffel coats. There's an innocence in those photographs - not a moral, social, sexual or personal innocence, but an economic one. Most people worked for the big nationalised industries or long-established family firms. Outside inexcusable practices around the docks and farms, most jobs for the lower-middle classes and above were going to last as long as they wanted. And if they got fed up with the boss, they could get another one. And of course the money was good and there was less to spend it on. That's the innocence of the 1950's. If it was so wonderful, the Sixties would not have happened. But it wasn't, and they did.

If you're in the psychiatry business, it must be tempting to want to know why people fall apart and why so many of the people you see are so miserable and confused. A decent person would want to help them and a psychiatrist dealing with ordinary cases of neurotic unhappiness must believe that they can help. But it isn't quite like that. Everyone has cracks in their soul, either from birth or being brought up in Britain by British parents. You do. If you are lucky, nothing will happen to you that makes those cracks turn into a break. If it does, you will find yourself as a client of Oliver James - if you're lucky. If it doesn't happen to you, it will happen to someone else. James is always going to have clients. The number of unhappy, crazy and downright evil people (these are technical terms of folk psychology) may change, but it never becomes zero. Most people lead lives that vary between ordinary unhappiness and moderate joy, never quite reaching the heights or plumbing the depths. They never meet Oliver James and so they don't figure in his world-view.

Monday, 1 February 2010

How You Don't Want To See Your Car

So I went to see A Prophet at the Richmond Filmhouse Sunday lunchtime. On my way back to the car, I was greeted by this sight on the south bank...

.... which made me wonder what I was going to see on the north bank.

Ooops! My car way further down the road. Which there was no way of getting too right then (3:30pm) because the pavement is under water. By the time it had receded, about 4:00pm, and I got back, it looked like this...


And that's after the water has receded. I opened the door and found about three inches of water inside - the level must have come above the sill. The engine started and I drove home with water sloshing from side to side when I turned and from front to back whenever I accelerated or braked. That's not covered in the Driving Test. And no, the water doesn't fall out the bottom of the car once you reach dry land, because in modern cars the underpan is pretty much waterproof. So I spent a good hour scooping out water, pressing the carpet, scooping out more water and getting frozen hands. All of which I took in reasonable spirits - unlike the way I'm going to take the insurance company's handling of it. To judge from the clueless questions and comments I got, no-one has ever claimed on some minor flooding before. But that's for another day.