Archive for April, 2012

Flugtag for Denglisch

Our English language correspondent writes:

Apparently, the continuing growth of Denglisch has caused concern in Germany. Angst over Denglisch? Surely the zeitgeist favours schadenfreude, even in festschrifts. A common personal Gotterdammerung happens when, succumbing to wanderlust, a guy finds himself in a bauhaus bierkeller, nursing a weissbier – and also a friendly fraulein, who first says “Halt!“, but then whispers, “Vorsprung durch Technik, honeybunch“. Result: no more sturm und drang, but lots of eine kleine nachtmusik!




Command Dialogs

Three years ago, in a post about Generation Kill and Nate Fick, I remarked that military commands often need dialog between commander and commandee(s) before they may be rationally accepted, and/or executed.   Sadly, a very good demonstration of the failure to adequately discuss commands (or purported commands) in a complex (police) action is shown by a report on the UC-Davis Pepper Spray incident.  

Management textbooks of a certain vintage used to define management as the doing of things through others.   The Pepper Spray example clearly shows the difficulties and challenges involved in actually achieving such vicarious doing in dynamic and ambiguous situations.  And the poverty of Philosophy is not better shown than by the fact that the speech act of commanding has barely been studied at all by philosophers, obsessed these last 2,350 years with understanding assertions of facts.  (Chellas, Hamblin, Girle and Parsons are exceptions.)




XX Foxiness: Counter-espionage

I have just read Ben MacIntyre’s superb “Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies” (Bloomsbury, London 2012), which describes the succesful counter-espionage operation conducted by the British against the Nazis in Britain during WW II.   Every Nazi foreign agent in Britain was captured and either tried and executed, or turned, being run by the so-called Twenty (“XX”) Committee.   This network of double agents, many of whom created fictional sub-agents, became a secret weapon of considerable power, able to mislead and misdirect  Nazi war efforts through their messages back to their German controllers (in France, Portugal, Spain and Germany).

The success of these misdirections was known precisely, since Britain was able to read most German encrypted communications, through the work of Bletchley Park (the Enigma project).  Indeed, since the various German intelligence controllers often simply passed on the messages they received from their believed-agents in Britain verbatim (ie, without any summarization or editing),  these message helped the decoders decipher each German daily cypher code:  the decoders had both the original message sent from Britain and its encrypted version communicated between German intelligence offices in (say) Lisbon and Berlin.

This secret weapon was used most famously to deflect Nazi attentions from the true site of the D-Day landings in France.  So successful was this, with entire fictional armies created and reported on in South East England and in Scotland (for purported attacks on Calais in France and on Norway), that even after the war’s end, former Nazi military leaders talked about the non-use by allies of these vast forces, still not realizing the fiction.

One interesting question is the extent to which parts of German intelligence were witting or even complicit in this deception.   The Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization, under its leader Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (who led it 1935-1944), was notoriously anti-Nazi.  Indeed, many of its members were arrested for plotting against Hitler.   Certainly, if not witting or complicit, many of its staff were financially corrupt, and happy to take a percentage of payments made to agents they knew or suspected to be fictional.

Another fascinating issue is when it may not be good to know something:  One Abwehr officer, Johnny Jebsen, remained with them while secretly talking to the British about defecting.   The British could not, of course, know where his true loyalties lay while he remained with the Abwehr.   Despite their best efforts to stop him, he told them of all the German secret agents then working in Britain.  They tried to stop him because once he told them, he knew that that they knew who the Germans believed their agents to be.  Their subsequent reactions to having this knowledge  – arrest each agent or leave the agent in place – would thus tell him which agents were really working for the Nazis and which were in fact double agents.

Jebsen was drugged and forcibly returned to Germany by the Abwehr (apparently, to pre-empt him being arrested by the SS and thus creating an excuse for the closure of the Abwehr), and then was tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and probably murdered by the Nazis.  It seems he did not reveal anything of what he knew about the British deceptions, and withstood the torture very bravely.  MacIntyre rightly admires him as one of the unsung heroes of this story. 

Had Jebsen been able to defect to Britain, as others did, the British would have faced the same quandary that later confronted both CIA and KGB with each defecting espionage agent during the Cold War:  Is this person a genuine defector or a plant by the other side?  I have talked before about some of the issues for what to believe, what to pretend to believe, and what to do in the case of KGB defector (and IMHO likely plant) Yuri Nosenko, here and here.

 




Carnival of Mathematics #85

The latest Carnival of Mathematics, number 85, is now published, here.

As usual, the selection emphasizes posts about puzzle-solving rather than ones about structure and form, but that (unfortunately) is how most mathematics is.   Not the best part, but.  The best is about structure and form.

 




Black Fields Medallists

US journalist John Derbyshire has published a screed comprising racist advice to his son.  Among the tendentious statements contained in it is this one:

(5) As with any population of such a size, there is great variation among blacks in every human trait (except, obviously, the trait of identifying oneself as black). They come fat, thin, tall, short, dumb, smart, introverted, extroverted, honest, crooked, athletic, sedentary, fastidious, sloppy, amiable, and obnoxious. There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black saints and black psychopaths. In a population of forty million, you will find almost any human type. Only at the far, far extremes of certain traits are there absences. There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners. While this is civilizationally consequential, it will not likely ever be important to you personally. Most people live and die without ever meeting (or wishing to meet) a Fields Medal winner.

It is true that there are no black Fields Medallists.  There are also no women, of whom there are rather more in the world than the 40 million black Americans.   There are also no Canadians, no Spaniards, and no Poles among the winners.    This is particularly surprising given the major and disproportionate contribution that Polish mathematicians, for example, have made to mathematics and related disciplines.   And there are many more New Zealanders and Belgians than their populations would lead one to expect.  Perhaps the list of medal winners more reflects the knowledge and biases of the people awarding the prizes than the ability of the potential candidates.    Such a social construction provides a more logical explanation than what Derbyshire implies.  But of course logic is never a strong point of racists.
 



Comrade Bourbon

The Bourbons, in Talleyrand’s famous formulation, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.  Further to my speculations as to what Czechoslovakia’s last Communist ruler, Gustav Husak, thought about his life’s work after he was deposed, along comes an interview with Margot Honecker, wife of the last-but-one leader of the DDR, Erich Honecker.   This is apparently her first public interview since defenestration.

Friedler [her interlocuter] said that over the several days he interviewed her, Honecker, who during her 26-year tenure as education minister introduced weapons training to schools, and ordered every teacher to report all incidences of deviation by pupils from the communist line, remained bizarrely detached from reality and resolute in her defence of East Germany.

“Margot Honecker showed no remorse, or discernment, she expressed no word of regret or apology,” he said.”

Her dogged devotion to the cause is to be admired, although it might better be termed recalcitrance. 

In one of history’s great ironies, when the Honeckers were  pushed from office in 1989, they also lost their (luxurious) state housing and benefits.  Having spent both their careers as members of the nomenklatura, they were now homeless, and were forced to ask dissident Lutheran pastor, Rev. Uwe Holmer,  for help in finding somewhere to stay.  He and his family hosted them for several months.   Somehow, one cannot imagine Margot Honecker acting likewise, if the situation were reversed.

 




Faded colored notebooks

The Grauniad celebrates a half-century of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook by asking various writers what they think of it.  The book is appalling, and one hopes will be forgotten before another half-century elapses.  In her earlier novels and subsequently, Lessing is one of the best writers in English of any century – gripping narratives, superbly-judged choices of words, inviting and compelling voices, and a sharp observational intelligence.    The Golden Notebook, however, is our Doris off her game.  Self-indulgent, overly-long, poorly-structured, apparently unedited, it is a mis-mash of different stuff that looks as if it were put down once in a hurry and then, it seems,  never re-read.  To this reader, the book appears as some random ideas for a novel, or perhaps several, which were never reworked coherently:   Clip some jottings together, put a cover on them, and call it post-modern –  that should work.   If art really is the doing of all things with artlessness, as Piet Hein once said*, then this book lacks even an attempt to be artful, as if the author was taking the michael, or worse.

 

* FOOTNOTE:

There is but one art,
No more, no less:
To do all things
With artlessness.




Visitations to a writer

Recently-deceased Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, author of that subtle novel of political intrigue under totalitarianism, Pereira Maintains, writes about the visitation he received which inspired the novel, here.  How sad that the name of the brave Portuguese journalist whose death inspired the novel should be unmentioned by Tabucchi.

Dr Pereira visited me for the first time one September evening in 1992. In those days his name wasn’t yet Pereira. He still didn’t have distinct traits, he was rather vague, elusive, hazy, but he already nurtured the wish to be a protagonist in a book. He was only a character in search of an author. I don’t know why he chose me to tell his story. One possible hypothesis is that the month before, on a torrid August day in Lisbon, I too had made a visit.

I vividly remember that day. In the morning I bought the city’s daily newspaper and read an article about an old journalist who had died at the Santa Maria Hospital and whose remains lay in state at the hospital chapel. I shall discreetly avoid any mention of the deceased’s name. I shall say only that he was someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance in Paris, in the late 1960s, when he, a Portuguese exile, was writing for a Parisian newspaper. He was a man who had plied his journalistic trade in Portugal during the 1940s and 50s under Salazar’s dictatorship. And he had managed to ridicule the regime by publishing a savage article in a Portuguese newspaper. He naturally encountered serious problems with the police and was subsequently forced to choose exile.

I knew that after 1974, when Portugal returned to democracy, he went back to his country, but I didn’t meet him again. He wasn’t writing any more, he had retired, and I didn’t know what he was doing for a living. Sad to say, he had been forgotten. In that period Portugal lived the restless, convulsive life of a country that had rediscovered democracy after 50 years of dictatorship. It was a young country, led by young people. No one remembered an old journalist who had resolutely opposed Salazar’s dictatorship in the late 40s.

I went to view the remains at two in the afternoon. The chapel was deserted. The coffin was uncovered. The gentleman was Catholic, and they had placed a wooden crucifix on his chest. I stood beside him for nearly 10 minutes. He was robust or, rather, fat. When I knew him in Paris, he was about 50, svelte and agile. Old age, perhaps a hard life, had turned him into a fat, flabby old man.

At the foot of the coffin, on a small lectern, lay a register open to receive the signatures of visitors. A few names had been written there, but none I recognised. Perhaps they were old colleagues, people who lived through the same battles, retired journalists.

A month later Pereira paid his visit to me. I didn’t know what to say to him then and there. And yet I dimly understood that his vague self-presentation as a literary character was symbolic, metaphoric: somehow he was the ghostly transposition of the old journalist to whom I bid my last farewell. I felt embarrassed, but I warmly welcomed him.

That September evening I divined that a spirit drifting in the ether needed me to tell his story, to describe a choice, a torment, a life. In that privileged space which precedes the moment of falling asleep – and which I find most suitable for receiving visits from my characters – I told him to come back, to confide in me, to tell me his story.

He came back, and I immediately found a name for him: Pereira. In Portuguese “Pereira” means “pear tree”, and like all the names for fruit trees, it is a surname of Hebrew origin, just as in Italy the surnames of Hebrew origin are the names of cities. With this name I wanted to pay homage to a people who had left a great imprint on Portuguese culture and suffered the injustices of history. But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.

About my Pereira, however, I began to know many things. In his nocturnal visits he told me that he was a widower who suffered from heart disease and unhappiness. He loved French literature, especially Catholic writers between the wars, such as François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. He was obsessed with the idea of death. His closest confidant was a Franciscan named Father Antonio, to whom he shuddered to confess his heresy: he didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body.

Later Pereira’s confessions, joined to my writerly imagination, produced the rest. Through Pereira I located a crucial month in his life, a torrid month, August of 1938. I recalled Europe on the brink of disaster, the second world war, the Spanish civil war, the tragedies of our recent past. And in the summer of 1993, when Pereira – who had now become my old friend – told me his story, I was able to write it. I wrote it at Vecchiano, in two equally torrid months of furiously intense work.

By a lucky coincidence, I finished writing the last page on the 25 August. I wanted to record that date on the page because it is an important day for me: my daughter’s birthday. I felt it was a sign, an omen. The happy day of my child’s birth also gave birth – thanks to the effort of writing – to the story of a man’s life. Perhaps, in the inscrutable weave of events that the gods bestow on us, everything has its meaning.”

• Antonio Tabucchi died on 25 March 2012. This article about the writing of Pereira Maintains (Canongate) was translated by Lawrence Venuti.




Teaching children not to think

Suzanne Moore rightly criticizes the back-to-rote-learning-the-times-table fever that has so gripped this British Government and the chaterati generally.

We could ask writers about reading, but why listen to the likes of Michael Rosen when we can bang on about phonics, which naturally enough children must be immediately tested on as soon as they get the gist? According to the Daily Mail, a government initiative to test school literacy levels will see more than 500,000 six-year-olds asked to read made-up words such as “jound”, “terg”, “fape” and “snemp”. What a perfect way to symbolise our obsession with testing. We test nonsense when we could “gyre and gimble in the wabe”. We could get kids to do what they already do – imagine words. Sorry to bring this up, this awkward issue of imagination, but having observed 22 years of state education, I see its slow strangulation.

Of course, many are reassured by this return to tradition, an education in conformity, with its refusal to teach students how to code, source, verify and interpret data, and its division between arts and sciences when it is at this crossover that some of the best thinking is being produced. All this explains the continual cracks made at media studies, which is about learning to negotiate a mediated world through something other than 19th-century novels – mad, huh? But it is an exercise in sentimentality, not a design for living for now.

The current doublespeak means that free schools are not free at all. Intelligence, the ability to connect and create ideas, the so-called thinking outside the box – these things are hardly likely when the box itself is idolised. Far be it for me to advocate a return to actual free schools where my friends’ kids learned to make a dope table, but to purchase wholesale the idea that this return to “traditional methods” works for all is stupid. Evidence tells us otherwise. As a policy, it is more about what works for politicians than what works for children.

Our political class is indeed the pinnacle of smug regurgitation. Many are the products of the very best education, and what do they desire? Only to replicate what they know, not to transform the world. As our access to information widens, our education system could open up. Instead, it narrows itself to certainties that anyone with half a brain would have questioned a long time ago. Go to school, get a good job, don’t ask what it’s for. Freedom does not come from thinking by rote. Whatever they tell you.”