Monday, 31 March 2014

Owens Field, Islington

Owens Field is a really small park about a hundred yards from the Angel, Islington, near the City and Islington College Centre for Applied Sciences. These photographs make it look larger and more pleasant than it really is.

There should probably be some comment about the value of urban spaces here, but the thing is, right across the road is a bunch of flats that look like this...

... and no amount of greenery is going to make that a heart-warming sight to return home to. We are not talking "leafy" anything here. But then I've never got the attractions of North London.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Piccadilly Circus Sunday Morning

Sunday 15th March to be exact. About 09:00. I love London first thing in the morning. This is what I see on the way to the gym Sunday. At the weekend the streets are empty until around 11:00.

Looking down Lower Regent St to St James' Park; count the traffic lights on the Circus; the famous illustrated advertisments; the view up Regent Street. Notice the lack of traffic. Even buses.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Here's A Plan

For the next six weeks, until my birthday, I will live simply. I will:

go to the gym every day except Saturday;
get as close to the reducing diet as I can;
get as close to eight hours’ sleep as I can;
read books I want to read, not books I think I should read;
watch my way through the box sets in the evening.

Let’s just live it.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Red Flag of "Man Flu"

I had a very nasty cold towards the end of the month that took me out of commission for a day. As a result I heard a male colleague tell me a story about one of the senior female managers in The Bank. Seems she had asked some guy how he had been, and he’d related an honest tale of feeling like shit with a cold while carrying on working, and she had said “Sounds like you’re taking it like a man”, to which he had said “Thank you” and she had replied “I didn’t meant that as a compliment”.

Man flu.

I hear that phrase and such stories very differently now. My first reaction now was “There’s a reason that woman is single”. She is, and there is.

When women say “Man flu” - and they all do - they may be doing so for a number of reasons, and none reflect well on them. Invent one that makes them look good and let me know…

… I’m waiting…

Okay. Got the reason you think makes them look good? Hold that thought for a moment.

It really doesn’t matter what’s going on in her head when she says ‘Man flu’. It only matters what men hear when she says it. (That’s how to make communication work: you need to understand the other person well enough to be able to say the words that they will interpret as meaning what you mean. Women are lousy communicators: they assume that men should “understand them”.) Some men hear contempt. They hear her being a smarty-pants. They hear her doing grrl-power, they hear “women good, men bad”. They hear another silly girl prattling. Some, of course, think: “What a strong woman, yes, she’s right, men are such pathetic whingers”.

(If you’re a man and thought that, you’re a gender traitor. If you’re a woman and thought it, see the final paragraph.)

Men do not talk sneeringly about “woman flu”. Or any other female condition. The female manager’s remark was a charmless, cheap put-down. I really don’t care, and neither should you, why she said it.

So the next time a woman says “man-flu”, keep her on the “might bang” list if she’s there, but strike her off the “possible partner” list. She has no respect for you or any other man.

Last desperate defence? “Lighten up, it’s just a joke”?

Like a pie in the face: funny only to the person throwing it and the people watching. Spiteful.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Five Tear-Fests

Over at Jeff Goldblum’s Laugh, they have a list of five movies guaranteed to set loose that self-pity that’s straining at the leash and bring self-indulgent tears to your eyes. Didn’t agree with one of them. But I know what they mean.

At number one is this song from Rent. Wrecks me every time.

Then there’s a film I cannot watch again. Ever. You want the bit between 1:00 and 4:00, where Alan Rickman comes back from the dead to comfort a grieving Juliet Stevenson. You really need the set-up first, in parts 1 and 2 of this to get into the state of mind.

I have no idea where Stevenson got those tears from, unless within herself, from the memory of some irreplaceable loss of the kind that one can only learn to stop awakening, because it is never going to go away.

There’s the end of Blue is the Warmest Colour.


How many times have I left a social occasion where I felt totally unconnected with everyone, especially since there was a someone I wanted to be connected to? How empty and hollow it feels to be talking to the people there? The moment of decision to leave, the slight hesitation as I pass through the door, and then the turn into the empty side street, the cigarette, the firm pace taking me away. As she approached the turn, I was thinking “Don’t walk down that street, don’t do it” and when she did, I teared up in the darkness of the Renoir. I had to rush back into the West End and eat ice cream and cake and coffee. The rest of my day was a mess.

There’s the end of Mahler’s Second. You do need to sit through the whole thing, which meanders and wanders and seems directionless for a long time, until the last ten minutes, when it starts to build, and in the final two minutes, he reaches into your chest and crushes your heart. (Don’t skip to then end, or it won’t work)

I first heard this at a Prom, up in the Gallery, and when the organ and the bells come in, I just thought “Good God above, how is music like this even possible?”. Not quite as articulate as that at the time, because the hairs were standing on the back of my neck and there was a bloody great lump in my throat.

Which brings me to the last one

Yep. Mastersingers. I saw this at the ENO and teared up in two places. First when that overture (the single best piece of music ever composed for orchestra) ends, the curtain rises and the choir starts. And then, of course, at the end, when the Boy gets the Girl, having overcome all the small-town silliness in-between. I swear people all around me were wiping their eyes.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Songs With Flutes

Songs with flutes are special. Many are by Traffic or Jethro Tull, few were made after 1970. The flute is, in the context of rock / pop / dance, a jazz instrument, and dropped out when the influence of jazz was no longer felt in rock music. All these songs are slightly wistful, elegiac, outside, and that’s what the flute did.

The uber-song with flute is of course


followed by anything by Traffic, of which I offer this especially stoned example


This is so famous that the flute itself is in some kind of Hall of Fame museum


And if you haven’t discovered After Bathing At Baxters, listen to this and then You Tube the rest


and while we’re doing San Francisco psychedelia, let’s throw in


and some good solid stuff



Monday, 10 March 2014

Intuition, Imagination and Philosophical Methodology by Tamar Szabo Gendler

(I’m commenting on this book because it took two weeks out of my reading time and was painful. It turned out to be one of those books with which I disagreed on so many levels that I had to set out how and why.)

Perhaps the single most interesting thing Professor Gendler says is about his inability to process the following sentence from an imaginary novel: “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing: after all, it was a girl”. The poor guy blows a fuse at this. Exhibiting a phenomenon he calls “imaginative resistance”, he refuses to imagine a world where killing a girl baby would be the right thing to do. Which is kinda odd, because that would be this one. Killing baby girls because they are girls is standard operating procedure in many cultures, some of which have colonies in the UK and the USA. And a sentence like that is to be found in many feminist dystopias. Most of J G Ballard’s mid-period novels open with a shocker like that. Its function is exactly to push you out of your imaginative rut and accept the imaginative world they going to set up. (He has a similar problem with Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden” he can imagine that there are or were white men who felt like that, but not that that’s the way they should have felt. He’s very PC is our good Professor.)

In one approach to explaining what knowledge is, we take knowledge to be what people know, and knowing to be the primary epistemological act and state. Knowing is believing things for which we have evidence and which are true. It is definitive and certain - because it is true. Knowledge is something people have (though that may be species-ist, of course), and dies with them.

In another approach, knowledge is something that people can have, but exists in some sense independently of knowers. Knowledge can be forgotten, and re-discovered. It is held in books, photographs, academic papers and other media, and also in people’s memories. It can be learned and understood. It does not have to be true, but it does have to be our current best attempt at the truth.

In the first approach, the key mental act is believing. Knowing is an honorific term for those believings that are of true things. Believing is so fundamental that all propositional attitudes are taken to be shades of believing. Which of course gives us a problem when dealing with counterfactuals such as thought-experiments and imaginative fiction. Do we “believe” a thought-experiment, and if not, what are we doing? These are the questions Gendler sets out to examine some answers to.

There are two little problems with the project. The first is that those answers are irrelevant to an epistemologist. Epistemology is a normative discipline, as is Logic. It’s only a philosopher’s job to tell us how we do think, so they can tell us to stop thinking like that as it will only get us into trouble.

The second is that mental states have no relevance to understanding how we think. That may seem odd, but consider that mental states are exactly like the states of a computer while it does something. Two computers may be in very different states and be doing the same thing (because they have different operating systems, hardware architectures and so on). It’s what the computers are doing that matters, not the exact disposition of 0’s and 1’s inside them while they are doing it.

The emphasis on ‘belief’ is a hangover from religious and tribal law and society. The priests and witch-doctors didn’t give a hoot what went on in your grandfather’ head, but they did care that he acted in such-a-way and said specific things on specific occasions. If they said that he did not ‘believe’ they were talking about his behaviour, not his mental state. At some point, probably when someone invented souls, belief-as-behaviour was associated to belief-as-state-of-soul and thence to the “mind". The point of ‘believing’ was and is commitment. You were going to fight for the tribe and the church, you were going to trust the tribal elders and your relatives, and of course, you’re going to wave the flag of whatever political causes have insinuated themselves into your chosen academic pursuit. (cough *Climate science* cough)

(The real reason so many Anglo academics have a problem with Popper? Popperians don’t commit, as the core of his approach is the demand that you specify in advance the conditions under which you would abandon your theory / belief. But if you’re going to get an academic gravy train running, everyone must commit.)

If you are a believer in belief, then thought-experiments and fiction, make-believe generally, is difficult to describe and incorporate into your theory of knowledge. If you believe that belief about the world must be at heart rational, then instincts are even harder to incorporate. Or you banish instinct and make-believe to a nether world of irrationality, and accept that, at times the irrational can guide us despite itself.

One example Gendler takes is Galileo’s famous thought experiment whereby a light and a heavy weight are tied together by a strap and dropped. According to Aristotle, heavier weights fall faster. How fast does our assembly fall? Try working out some of the alternatives: as fast as the maximum, the average, the sum. None quite hold together.

The argument is a rhetorical trick. His audience were a handful of literate Florentines and the scholars of the Catholic Church. These were ingenious, practical, commercially-minded and for all intents and purposes, atheist, men. Faced with Galileo’s argument, they knew very well Aristotle’s ideas could be saved. But at the cost of ever-mounting complexity. The only assumption that sounds neat is that, in fact, all objects fall at the same speed, mod air resistance. It’s not a physical argument at all, but a methodological one.

Gendler thinks the argument is about physics, and wonders how can an argument about an imaginary situation affect our beliefs about the real world. How can that even be legitimate? This drags him into horrible problems, which can all be avoided the moment we accept that we don’t believe a darn thing, but use the assumptions that work best for us. Until they don’t. Then we try some different stuff until we find something that works. (That attitude, of course, suits people with a knack for problem-solving, extemporisation and generally winging-it. That’s a minority and getting smaller.)

If this was phenomenology, I wouldn’t mind. I’m partial to a bit of phenomenology. But it isn’t. It’s an attempt to systematise stuff that really isn’t. In the final chapters he discusses a mental state he calls “alief”. These are propensities to behave in such a way that is automatic, arational, action-generating, affect-laden and prior to anything else we learned. He says that he hasn’t run across this idea anywhere before, which is odd, because regular people call these, “instincts”. Aliefs are, however, a translation of instincts into the language of belief, a kind of “propositionalisation” of instinct, if you will. The trick can be turned, and Gendler turns it, but should we coo and applaud?

Some things make sense. Usually because they have been designed by men to make sense. The rest may not be random, but it sure was a mess cobbled together in a hurry. Thus the human mind. It does the job, but how it does, is, like the making of laws and sausages, something we would sleep better for not knowing.

Trying to habilitate instinct as a belief-related process, and hence a quasi-cognative one, is right up there with ego-psycho explanations of promiscuity. Not because it’s post-hoc, but because it is trying to find pattern and sense where there isn’t any. Galileo’s argument was a trick, and a good one, not an attempt to exploit some subtle state of mind which validly allows reasoning about imaginary situations to influence our beliefs about real situations. Heck, most people don’t allow reasoning about real situations to influence their beliefs about real situations. The process Gendler wants to describe would happen, if it happens at all, in a very small number of minds, mostly, one suspects, minds with tenure.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Three Reasons for Reading, and One for Quitting Half-Way Through

In February I spent two weeks grinding my way through a collection of essays in contemporary epistemology. I could have read at least three novels or pop non-fiction books in that time. And enjoyed the experience. It felt like a wasted month, especially compared to January. Why did I do it? Well, I’m a philosopher, and every now and then I should read some recent stuff. The only thing I got out of the experience was a resolution that I was only going to read the big names from now on.

Why do we read? For useful knowledge, as when I read a software product manual; for interest, as when I read about Renaissance warfare or the life and paintings of Gustav Caillebote; for guidance and ideas, as when I read books on problem-solving or game; to understand more about the world I live in, which is what the pop non-fiction does; or for entertainment, as a Jasper Fforde; or for that mixture of entertainment and information that happens when reading classic fiction, as Moll Flanders.

And there’s another reason: to challenge myself. That’s why I read lecture notes on Algebraic Geometry, or attempt the Phenomenology of Spirit (again), or now or books on modern art back in the Never-Minds. (I read Henry James when I was far too young on the same basis: it would be good for me. And while I found The Portrait of a Lady a huge drag, The Ambassadors and Roderick Hudson stay with me as excellent reading experiences.)

Finally, because I’m interested in art and literature, I read some books because they are legends in and of themselves. Why on earth else would anyone read Ulysses? I’m reading Maldoror, started and finished Proust, and banged my head against The Man Without Qualities, for this reason. I have read and forgotten many nineteenth-century novels on that basis. Call that duty reading.

Books are a way of getting knowledge that you would never get in life. A way for their writers to share experience, thoughts and knowledge, their fantasies and stories, with their readers. I choose books based on what it seems to offer, and most of the time, I’m a pretty good judge of a book from a few samples. Sometimes I get it wrong. When I realise I’ve got it wrong, I don’t throw the book away. I grind it out. Maybe I should be more willing to throw it out. After all, I spend as much on a meal, and that gets thrown away after twenty-four hours. And the point is that I could be reading something that entertains or informs me, and I’m not. I’m wasting time.

So what do I do in March? What I really want is something that’s absorbing enough to stop me looking out of the window during the commute. Start reading, and, OMG it’s time to get off the train! That’s always worth having.

Monday, 3 March 2014

February 2014 Review

I was doing fine right up to Saturday 8th. I got food poisoning. I don’t know what happens when you get food poisoning, but I lost three kilos. Also a night’s sleep. For at least twelve hours I wondered if I would ever be well again. It’s very, very noisy. You do not want the details. All I could do Sunday was drink very small amounts of Dioralyte. I was back at work on Tuesday. I missed Spin class. That was it.

I got a cold on the evening of the 25th. When you get a cold, it creeps up on you, and you spend two weeks being pathetically sniffy and a bit slow. That’s because you have a lousy immune system that can’t get rid of the virus. Step inside my body. At 20:00 I was okay - a little burpy, but that can happen. At 22:00 I was ready to fall asleep, and at 23:00 I was sitting up in bed because my stomach was churning and I was hot and couldn’t breath well if I lay down. You don’t want the recordings of me coughing and retching at 01:00 in the morning, and I’m pretty sure the neighbours didn’t want to hear it either.

When viruses land in your body, you have no beach or air defences worth a damn, and a few guys with pitchforks to fight them off. The virus lands, takes possession and stays there until it gets bored and moves on. When it lands on me, IF it gets past the beach defences and the anti-aircraft missiles, there’s a kinetic response. Drones are launched to provide reconnaissance data. Special forces track the the virus, ready to light it up with lasers. There’s a naval bombardment of Cruise missiles lasting about forty minutes. Every one of those things hits home. Then there’s two hours of air strikes by B2s, F117s and A10’s. The follow the armour and infantry. All this gives me a huge fever. I can’t lie still, sit still, stay awake, fall asleep, or even breathe much. By 04:00, it’s all over. The fever breaks and the virus is DEAD. Expelled. Burned. Trashed. I get a short break while the bodies are burned and the enemy materiel is taken into stores. Then the engineers move in. There is a throat to be soothed, a stomach to be fed - carefully - ribs to be relaxed after all the retching, sleep to be caught up on and waste material to be removed.

I was back at work Thursday 28th. I missed Yoga that evening. That’s all. You would still be whinging about not feeling up to it.

Also, I spent way too long reading Intuition, Imagination and Philosophical Methodology by Tamar Szabo Gendler, which I will discuss in an Amazon review at some point. I made good progress with the Comte de Lautremont’s Maldoror, until the fever put a stop to it and gave it some bad associations which will wear off after a while.

So here’s the inventory: I saw Out of the Furnace, Dallas Buyers Club and Monuments Men at Cineworld, Rough Cut on Curzon Online, Only Lovers Left Alive at the Curzon Soho, and Everybody Street at the ICA. Plus some jazz documentaries on You Tube. I saw the Pina Bausch 1980 at Sadlers Wells.

Sis and I had supper at Les Deux Salons, and my friend from Utrecht and I had a pizza at Jamie’s in Richmond and supper at Picture.

I upgraded my iPhone 4S to iOS7 (slow, I know), and my Mountain Lion Air and Snow Leopard MacBook Pro to Mavericks, getting an extra 2GB of RAM in the Pro first. Thanks Mr Cook, I now have two up-to-date Macs. I tried Ubuntu 12.04 on my Asus, which worked okay, but guys! It gave me an error message when I tried to install Chrome. That’s just bad packaging. No. Stop it. I’d love to move to a Linux, but I don’t want to get involved with OS clutter like that.

I had the kitchen planners in to measure up, mutter and give me a quote, which I’ve thought about and will accept as soon as I feel clear enough in the head to trust myself. And I ordered half-a-dozen A1 picture frames, which turned out to be a bit of drama, resolved by the driver offering to leave them in my garden shed.

The advantage of an inventory is that it can dispel the feeling that “last month really sucked, and I was sick all the time”. I wasn’t. I missed one Spin class, one Yoga class and one weight-training session. That’s it. Everything else got done.