Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Now that I am old I have the great fortune to be able to watch afternoon television. The programmes  run in the afternoon are obviously cheap fare; either rubbish to punish the unemployed, or easy nostalgia to appeal to the older viewer. These programmes are innocuous enough but I am rather worried by the type of advertisement which predominates. I don’t mind the repeated ads for stair lifts and incontinence pads. This is fair enough, my time will come when I need these things. I don’t even mind the adverts for capital release – suggesting I’m gullible enough to give over my home, and all its value, for the short term fun of a holiday or giving a gift to my children. No, these are all fine. What annoys me are the repeated funeral plan adverts.

Advert after advert tries to worry me about the cost of funerals and urges me to buy a plan now so that I don’t have to worry about it in the future. Now, to tell the truth, I never really worry about the cost of my funeral. I can be pretty sure that the one person who will not be around to worry about that bill is me ! If I have money left when I die then this will be used to pay for my funeral. If I am so short of money that I will have none left then the last thing I should be doing is spending money on my future corpse. I obviously need that money now, use the money during your life to keep life tolerable or fun. Don’t waste scare reserves on the one purchase you will certainly never be able to enjoy.

This is the thing about funerals. They are about how the people who knew you, and are still alive, decide you should be remembered. They are not your choice. Sure, if you think you are so unloved that you are going to be put out in a bin bag with the garbage then it might be better to buy a plan and avoid the ignominy. But a better plan might be to behave better, become better regarded and thus secure some positive attention following your demise.

Funerals are for the survivors to express their sadness and to celebrate the life of the departed. They should choose how this is done. If they want to have a big event with much gnashing of teeth and wailing then that is their right, likewise if they want a low key affair then that too is correct. We hope that we will be missed because we hope that we were well regarded and loved. No amount of money will sort this problem other than perhaps by how beneficent you are during your life. So if you are really keen on preparing for your death and funeral look to how you are living not to planning your funeral. Imagine the terrible scene there could be if you bought a wonderful funeral, with black horses, banks of lilies, a marble mausoleum but there was no one there because you had been so miserable during your life and so self-centred that no-one really missed you.

Don’t buy a funeral plan, make a gift to a friend, help a family member in their time of need, or make a charitable donation if you are really concerned about how people will think on you once you are gone. Think that it might just be possible that this is a scam by funeral directors to get people to pay more and earlier for their services. They play on the elderly’s guilt; suggesting that we should give up our possession now as we really shouldn’t enjoy them, and also suggesting that we are a burden and we should be very careful that we stop being a burden when we die. Really saying, make sure, when you go, you leave no mess for us to clear up, no awkward bills or planning. Tidy up and close the door after you ! Sorry, I’m not doing it, I’m using all my money wisely and hopefully generously because, as they say, there are no pockets in a shroud.

 

The right dog for the right task.

The right dog for the right task.

I am very lucky that for most of my life I have lived with dogs and latterly I have tended to have two dogs at any given time. Just now I live with Cadi and Brân and I think it would be hard to imagine two more different dogs. Their differences are not most noticeable in the physical areas; one is small the other large, one female the other male, one a Border Collie and the other a German Shepherd. But rather they differ enormously in their characters. This means that they have very different aptitudes and I need to bear this in mind when we do things together.

Cadi is the Border Collie.  She is clearly the oznorbrains of the two. She is much quicker to learn things though not necessarily the more obedient. She is the dog we need if we are trying to do anything with the sheep. Her instincts are to gather and herd and despite our lack of skills she has developed into a good and useful working dog. We can send her into a field and following the judicious use some “come by” and “away” commands we can round up all of our flock. We have found that it is better to rely on her instincts of what is the best strategy for working with the sheep rather than our own – she reads them much better than we can.

On the other hand Brân would be of little value in this arena. His instinct is to hunt and oznoralthough he is very keen to get at the sheep this is rarely of any help. If you want to imagine his strategy then visualise a testosterone fuelled teenager showing off in front of a group of girls at a billiard table. Imagine him slamming that cue ball and sending all the other balls flying. This is Brân’s strategy, it may be helpful to explain Brownian motion to those who do not understand it,  but it has little to commend it in agricultural terms. Though he may have the word “Shepherd” in his breed name he seems to have little of this in his DNA.

This does not mean Brân doesn’t work.  Cadi is a useless guard-dog. If anyone arrives at the farm she is pleased to see them and offers to let them in and show them around despite how unsavoury or malevolent they may appear. Brân, however, is much more fussy. He only allows those he knows in. If you don’t have an invitation form us then Brân is not happy for you to enter. If he decides you are not invited  he  throws his 45kg at the gate and barks a loud  “keep out”. This is usually very clearly understood by people who call.

cof

When it comes to going for walks, often, I will go with both dogs. They like to play with each other, and it means they cover a great deal more ground than I do, thus they also get a great deal more exercise than they would have received if it had just been me an one dog. But it is not the case that I can take either dog for every walk. Some types of walking only really suit one dog.

If I am going jogging I need to go with Brân. Actually I prefer the welsh verb loncian to the  verb jogging. I feel loncian conveys more of a sense of clunky, dis-coordinated , uneven movement than jogging with its association with running and fluid movements. Cadi can not stand to watch me jog. She sees my wheezing, sweating and facial grimaces and thinks something is wrong. She starts to bark and jump up and down to warn me to stop and draws attention to the fool I am making of myself. So for jogging I take Brân. He paces effortlessly along side. His long legged, fluid strides, look easy and effortless and this seems his natural pace. The only problem is that when I look at his effortless grace it reminds me just how awful my own performance must look.

The other exercise I take is hiking. I enjoy this as it requires no equipment and I am lucky to live in an area which makesdav hiking glorious. There are trails and pathways which look as if they have not changed their appearance for hundreds of years. I also enjoy it as it requires no special clothing. I loath lycra and gym clothing. I have a body which needs to be hidden rather than seen. I do have bulges and curves but they are all in the wrong places, I curve out where I should curve in. My bulges are not rippling muscle but wobbly bits in the wrong place. If you wished to imagine my physique, and I’d advise against it, then think about making a model man with a potato for the body and four cocktail sticks for the limbs – there you have it. I enjoy hiking is it may, one day, shrink the potato but in the meantime I can wear camouflage clothing

When hiking I am best with Cadi. She won’t pester the sheep and she can be let to run free. She is also a better listener than Brân. I can have much deeper conversations with her as she understands a great deal more and there is no need to use “baby talk” in the conversations. She is the ideal companion as she will also help eat half of your sandwiches, even the ones I don’t like, and this improves the exercise as it cuts down the calories consumed. As they say, a calorie in the dog is a calorie less in me.

rhdr

 

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”

Henri Bergson

My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.

It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery!  I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting.  Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years?  I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.

I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness,  and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)

The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths.  Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.

I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a  Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.

There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.

5star

Dangerous Nonsense

It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtueand I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.

Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference.  I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been  pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.

The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.

This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.

For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.

In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight;  concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“.  Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.

Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to  a number of journals. As long as they wrote  including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published  in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).

These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.

 

I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-

“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

 

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

I write this review with some trepidation and feel that I should issue a word of caution to anyone who decides to read this. It is unusual9781784616496_300x400 that I review a book which I have read that was not in my mother tongue. I have commented on books that were in a second language to me, but usually I was commenting as a learner of the language and discussing the book from this standpoint. This time things are a little different.

I became aware of this book because it won the prose medal at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. Hearing this and because I have high regard for the author and her work I was eager to read it. I was also aware that there was a degree of hype around the book. Unusually there was quite a buzz on social media with recommendations coming from every corner.

The short story, or novella, is Manon Steffan Ros’s metier. There are few who are as able to condense so much emotion and thought into such well written small packages. Whether this is in her column, in Golwg, or through her novels, especially her contributions to the Stori Sydyn series, she is the master of the elegantly written but powerful piece. Therefore I was quite ready to go with the flow and believe the hype that I read.

This is the problem with the book. As I expected it is extremely well written; the descriptions of places are evocative and her portrayal of characters make them, and their relationships, come alive in the reader’s mind. No reader will forget the first description of Gwdig the unusual hare (I don’t want to give any spoilers so I will say no more) or the last description of Dwynwen. The writing is excellent, this is not the problem.

The writing style is simple and easy, very easy to read, and the story flows quickly. However, at times, it has the feel of a book from the Stori Sydyn series, as if it has been written for those reluctant to read or early in their lives as readers. It describes but doesn’t delve and this is disappointing. The hype, and the medal, lead one to expect more and this is a shame. This is not the author’s fault, but arises from inaccurate reviews and  from the medal process itself, as entries must be less than 40000 words. Also some of the literary references that pepper the story seem clunky and out of keeping. They have the feeling of being there to please the judges in a literary competition rather than as natural aspects of the story.

Read as science fiction, or a post-apocalyptic novella, it is enjoyable but rather lacking. There is very little science and this is not always correct, similarly with the self-sufficiency, this has not been developed accurately. In particular the scenes relation to animals, and their deaths, suggest that the author has little first hand experience of these events.

I therefore am uncertain on how to recommend this book. It is a good, if slight, read. Second language readers like myself will enjoy this and will find it useful. I am sure that many will enjoy it as a slim volume to while away an evening. But science fiction fans, or post-apocalyptic survivalists, are going to be disappointed, as I fear are many who are moved to purchase by the hype.

3-out-of-5-stars

 

 

 

‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.

These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.

This book is essentially a dual biography220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists  their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.

Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.

Hopefully this book will bring more the  modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to  view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.

4-out-of-5-stars


PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is  baseball and basketball.

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!