Archive for December, 2012

Transitions 2012

Some who have passed on during 2012 whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Graeme Bell (1914-2012), Australian jazz band leader
  • Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012), British-American musician (heard perform in Canberra in 1976)
  • Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), American musician (heard perform in Liverpool in ca. 2003)
  • Arthur Chaskalson CJ (1931-2012), South African lawyer and judge
  • Heidi Holland (1947-2012), Zimbabwean-South African writer
  • Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), Brazilian architect
  • Bill Thurston (1946-2012), American mathematician
  • Ruth Wajnryb (1948-2012), Australian linguist.

Eric the Red

Journalist Neal Ascherson recounts his first encounter with historian Eric Hobsbawm, who publicly insulted him as a new undergraduate at King’s College Cambridge in the early 1950s before Hobsbawm apparently even knew his name:

I lurched up a dark wooden stairway into a room full of chattering, laughing young men (no women, I noticed) and was handed more wine. Presently a lean, bespectacled man with fairish hair came over to me, with a few students drifting up behind him. One of them I vaguely recognised, an American, but I didn’t know his name.

Eric inspected me. A specimen, indeed.

“What’s that medal affair you’re wearing?”

“It’s my national service campaign medal. For active service in the Malayan emergency.”

Eric pulled back and took another look at me. Then he said, very sharply but without violence: “Malaya? You should be ashamed to be wearing that.”

I don’t think I said anything at all. I remember noticing the students around us, round-eyed with shock. Then I left the room, stumbling back down the dusky stairs, and out into the huge court where it was beginning to rain.

And the American?  Daniel Ellsberg!  Of course it was.  Of course.

I am reminded of that old joke about time being God’s way of preventing everything happening at once, while space is His way of preventing everything happening at Cambridge.

Famous first words

The Spectator magazine recently ran a competition asking for the opening paragraph of an imagined sequel to a famous novel.  One amusing entry, by Bill Greenwell, explained itself in just the first sentence:

Call me Moby.  Many moons ago — I have no idea how many — and having nothing better to do than bite off the leg of a raving lunatic, and head-butt a strange wooden contraption that was chasing me, I resolved to mooch across the expanse that I alone inhabit, singing a variety of sonic compositions. You may, doubtless, imagine my surprise when a lascivious invitation reached me from afar, together with jolly explanations of how I might beget another in my own likeness. Ah! that explained the sensation of longing deep within me, and the purpose of my mysterious, extensible truncheon. I accounted it my destiny to manoeuvre my belly that I might raise a modest family, one single offspring — and in so doing, discredit the monstrous accounts of my fellow creatures (for so they are) who sought to rope and pierce me. I would have a man of a time.

Bill Greenwell/Moby-Dick

Recent Reading 6

Hungarian torn flag 1956 in Budapest

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Patricia Anderson [2009]:  Robert Hughes:  The Australian Years. (Sydney, Australia:  Pandora Press.)  A fascinating account of Robert Hughes’ time in Australia before his permanent departure abroad in the middle 1960s, sadly undermined by very poor organization, poor writing, and sloppy editing.  Where was the editor when we learn of a 1958 play written by Hughes, in which the lead “roll” in 1959 is acted by an undergraduate John Bell (p.68)?  And where again when Major Harold Rubin, wounded in WW I,  is  “invalidated” from the army (p. 116)?  But the worst offence against the reader is the book’s poor organization.  Each chapter begins afresh, as if each was a separate attempt to dissect Hughes and his circle, sometimes ignoring what we’d read in earlier chapters, and sometimes assuming we’ve already read to the end the book (or we know what he did with his life afterwards).   A new viewpoint per chapter is not an intrinsically bad way to organize such material, but this attempt is poorly done, as if the writer or publisher had decided to skip the editing stage.   The book embodies a promising idea undermined by poor execution.
  • Rupert Sheldrake [2012]:  The Science Delusion:  Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry.  (London, UK:  Coronet.)  This is a superb book, from one of the great scientific thinkers of our age.   That Sheldrake is not so regarded by many other scientists is indicative of the closed-mindedness of contemporary science, much of it as dogmatic and un-sceptical as any religious cult.  The grand foundation of myth of western science is that every claim and assumption is open to contestation, and by anyone, but the actual practice of most modern science is profoundly opposite to such openness.   This book should be compulsory reading by every trainee, practising, and retired scientist.
  • Robert Holmes [2012]: A Spy Like No Other: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the KGB Links to the Kennedy Assassination. (UK: Biteback Publishing).  This book was most disappointing.  The author has no evidence for his claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB agent, not even circumstantial evidence.  His claim is based only the thinnest of speculation, about what some KGB people might have been doing talking with certain people they may have met at certain places they may have been visiting for certain purposes they may have had.   In addition, it is sad to report that someone could write a book about the Kennedy assassination without being familiar with much of the contested nature of the evidence on the ancillary events.   Thus, we know that someone calling himself Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City shortly before JFK’s assassination.   We don’t know for certain that this person was the Lee Harvey Oswald arrested in Dallas for that assassination.  Without that certainty, the main evidence for Holmes’ claim falls away.
  • Vladislav Zubok [2011]:  Zhivago’s Children:  The Last Russian Intelligentsia. (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Harvard University Press).   This is a fascinating and well-written cultural history of the Soviet shestidesiatniki, the people of the 60s, and the generation just before them, the people who came of age in the late 1940s and 1950s.   My only very small criticism is that Zubok focuses primarily on the literati, with much less attention paid to the matherati.   But that is a very small quibble on what is a superb book.
  • Anne Applebaum [2012]: Iron Curtain:  The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. (London, UK:  Allen Lane.)   This is a very fine and interesting book, although not about the subject of its subtitle.   A more accurate subtitle would have been The Crushing of East Germany, Hungary and Poland 1944-56.   The author appears not to have interviewed anybody in Czechoslovakia, for example, whose experiences of the imposition of communism and communist party rule were subtly different to those three countries.   Ending in 1956 means the author is not really able to provide a compelling explanation for Poland’s exceptional treatment by the Soviet imperium — why did Khrushchev give way in the Soviet confrontation with Gomulka in 1956, for instance?   But that is a small criticism of a fascinating book.
  • Charles Gati [2006]: Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. (Stanford, CA, USA:  Stanford University Press).  This is fine and careful account of the events leading up to and during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, by a someone who was present in Budapest at the time.  The book contains a thoughtful and well-argued political analysis of the alternatives open to each of the main actors during the crisis:  Imre Nagy and his supporters, his opponents, the Soviet leadership, and the American leadership.   It is clear from this analysis that the outcome could have been very different, creating in Hungary a socialism with a human face that would have been acceptable to and accepted by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR.   However, such an outcome may never have been ever possible with these particular actors and their personalities.  I had not realized, for example, how poor a public speaker Nagy generally was, nor how usually indecisive.  It was also fascinating to read of the many public protests sympathetic to the Hungarian revolutionaries that took place in the USSR following the invasion of Hungary.

Cyber hustling

Steven Poole has an interesting debunking of some prominent cyber-gurus in The New Statesman, “Invasion of the Cyber Hustlers”, here.  In it, he writes:

However, it doesn’t matter if cyber-hustlers are wrong about the present, because their brand value is more as wireless Nostradamuses.  The cyber-maniac ideates a perfect cyber-future and affirms at the top of his voice that it has already arrived, or is so vague about the date of its realisation that he could never possibly be refuted. The title of a recent Ted talk by Shirky is a beautiful example of such unfalsifiable cyber-augury: “How the Internet Will (One Day) Transform Government.”

I was reminded of this 1707 statement by French Prophet John Lacy I had earlier quoted:

They know not what to make of the Words, little time, speedily, shortly, suddenly, soon. They would have me define the Time, in the Prophecies of my ancient Servants. Yet those Predictions carried in them my authority, and were fulfilled soon enough, for those that suffered under them . . . I have seen it best, not to assign the punctual Times, by their Definition among Men; that I might keep Men always in their due distance, and reverential Fear of invading what I reserve, in secret, to myself . . . The Tower-Guns are the Tormenta e Turre aethera, with which this City I have declared should be battered . . . I have not yet given a Key to Time in this Revelation.”

Lacy was explaining to his followers among the millenarian French Huguenot sect in Britain why his prophecies had not yet been fulfilled.  (Source details here.)



Do we each have a soul that incarnates in different bodies over time?  Most scientists in my experience dismiss any such idea, like they do most everything they cannot yet explain.  But a true scientist would (a) keep an open mind on the question, while (b) devising a scientific test of the claim.   And here’s where things become difficult – and interesting.  Exactly how would one test the hypothesis of reincarnation?

If reincarnation occurs, then there is a connection between bodies in different historical time zones.  Yet there seems to be no way that such bodies could communicate their special connectedness to one another.  In the case that reincarnation occurs, is there some way for instance that I could communicate with my future self (or selves), and only that person or people, in a way that they could recognize came from me (their own past incarnation) and no one else?  Thus far, I have not been able to imagine such a communication channel or message.  It may be possible to design a message that is public and seen by all, yet is only understood correctly by a particular recipient, as with the signal sent by the USSR’s Strategic Missile Command to the leadership of the USA during the August 1991 coup.

It would seem that no such inter-carnate communication is possible between incarnations of the same soul.   Yet all the scientific tests of  the hypothesis of reincarnation I can imagine would require some form of direct communications between separate human incarnations of the same soul, in the case there was reincarnation.   Suggestions for experiments most welcome.


We keep books because they are personal souvenirs of the past – physical reminders of the feelings we had while reading them.  The same goes for concert programs and tickets for sporting events, which many people keep.     As more of our life goes online, we risk losing such souvenirs.  Only the online record itself may provide a long-term reminder of something, or someone.

On the other hand, the web makes it vastly easier to bring to wide attention something or someone who should be remembered.  In the early days of photography, photographers recorded memorable events, such as weddings and Presidential inaugurations.  Susan Sontag noticed that something changed as photography ceased to be only done by professionals and became a democratic pastime: the relationship between events and photographs switched.  Now events were memorable (and remembered) precisely because they had been photographed.   The web is effecting the same reversal, I believe.

I can record a person of great influence on my life, who would otherwise be entirely forgotten to history, or people whom I never met, but whose words and actions have affected mine, for example, the activist-poets Vadim Delone, or Robert Southwell.  I can record people who think differently to the verbal paradigm which so dominates contemporary western culture – the  matherati, say, or musical thinkers.   I can even use the Web to find and trace the genealogy of some of my own musical thinking, say, and then record for posterity these cross-generational networks of connections.  Since so much of written history is by definition written by people au fait with language-based thought, it is particularly important that minority, non-language thinkers are not forgotten. (Many more people know, for instance, of the writers of Japanese haiku poetry in the Edo period than do of the ordinary people who solved temple geometry problems, the Sangaku.)

The souvenirs I mention above are mostly personal, perhaps of little interest to anyone else.  The same became true of photographs, early in their adoption.  The Web also lets us record for posterity events and people of much wider significance.   Perhaps the best recent example I know is Normblog’s admirable and riveting series of Holocaust stories, Figures from a Dark Time.  Apparently not everyone agrees that this series is worth doing.  Let me add my strong opinion that this recording is both necessary and important, and we should all be very grateful for Norm’s efforts.  After 9/11, the New York Times published short obituaries of every person killed in the attack.    Although it may be too late, we should be aiming for the same in remembering the Holocaust.

Vacuum cleaners generating hot air

Apparently, British inventor James Dyson has argued that more people should study engineering and fewer “French lesbian poetry”.    Assuming he is correctly quoted, there are a couple of things one could say in response.

First, all Mr Dyson need do is pay engineers more than the going market rates, and he will attract more people  into the profession.   Likewise, he could give students scholarships to study engineering.   He, unlike most of the rest of us, has it in his direct personal power to achieve this goal.   I think it ill-behooves someone who moved his manufacturing operations off-shore to bemoan any lack of home-grown talents.

Second, no matter how wonderful the engineering technology or novelty of the latest, jet-propelled, wind-turbine-bladed vacuum cleaner, the technology will not sell itself.   For that, even the vacuum cleaners of the famous Mr Dyson need marketing and advertising.  And, marketing needs people who can understand and predict customer attitudes and behaviours, people who have studied psychology and sociology and anthropology and economics.  Marketing needs people who can analyze data, increasingly in large quantities and in real-time, people who have studied mathematics and statistics and computer science and econometrics.  Marketing needs people who can strategize, people who have studied game theory and military strategy and political science and history, and can emphathize with customers and competitors.   As Australian advertising man Philip Adams once noted, Marxists and ex-Marxists are often the best marketing strategists, because they think dialectically about the long term.

And advertising needs people who can manipulate images, people who have usually studied art or art history or graphic design or architecture.  Advertising needs people who can take photos and use movie cameras and direct films, people who have studied photography and cinematography and lighting and film and theatre studies and acting.  Advertising needs people who can write jingles and advertising scores, and play the music required, people who have studied music and song and musical instruments.   Advertising needs people who can build sets, acquire props, and obtain costumes, people who are good with their hands or who have studied fashion.   And, finally, advertising needs people who can write ad copy and scripts – often people have studied history and journalism and languages and literature and poetry – even, at times, I would guess, the poetry of French lesbians.

One reason Britain is a such a world leader in marketing and advertising, despite the long-term decline and poor management of its manufacturing industry,  is because of its many leading art colleges and universities teaching the humanities and social sciences.  The name of Dyson would not be known to households across the country and beyond without the contributions of many, many professionals who did not study engineering.


UPDATE (2012-12-01):  And if you are still wondering why more people studying engineering would not be sufficient for business success, consider this from Grant McCracken:

Culture is the sea in which business swims. We can’t do good innovation without it. We can’t do good marketing without it. And we can’t build a good corporate culture without it.”