Letters…

I have been thinking in recent times about communication, how we, as human beings, share complex ideas and emotions. Billions of words pass through the ether that is cyberspace from one to another of us every hour of every day. However, one in four of us at least have not received a handwritten communication, a letter, in other words, for over ten years. Which is really quite sad. Young men used to read Keats then shamelessly plagiarise his love letters as their own before sending them to fortunate, trembling, winsome young lasses.

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From Ernest Hemingway – a love letter to Marlene Dietrich.

Modern methods, although accurate, are mechanical, antiseptic, lacking any personal warmth. A neat emailed typescript is cold and rectangular, like a military order, friendly little emojis appended notwithstanding. “The battalion will advance” has so much more pitiless gravitas when it appears on a screen in formal Times New Roman than ever it could as a sweeping curlicue from a Montblanc on cream notepaper. Dropping a handwritten letter into a postbox carries weight. The physical heft of a letter gives the communication psychological ballast that email and texts don’t have. Digital communication is ethereal, almost ephemeral, throwaway and disposable, almost regardless of content and consequently lends itself to impulse and flippancy. No better proof is needed that a glance at the endless stream of tweets put out by the president of the United States. The moment they are released into cyberspace, the more scattered and insignificant they become. A letter, on the other hand, is tangible evidence that someone has put some thought into their writing. They’ve outlined, perhaps redacted and there have been several stages to the missive’s creation. To make sure the letter was received they did more than flick their finger over the ‘send’ button, the author had to take the time to get hold of an envelope, preferably matching, fold the paper with care and procure a stamp. They then had to check that the address was written correctly to ensure its safe arrival, put the lead on the dog and walk to the postbox. In short, a physical letter shows that someone took the time to give a damn. And that’s hard for the recipient to ignore.

Perhaps it’s a function of age, but I have found myself in recent times reaching out to people I knew years ago but with whom, as the axis of the years rolls forwards, I simply lost touch, as great ships do who slip their moorings and glide majestically away from each other, disappearing into a forgotten mist of antiquity as the Universe expands. Or, like travellers in airports who end up thousands of miles apart after sitting next to one another in Starbucks.

It took me a while, but I found him. We exchanged emails, the Bishop and I, a few times, crackling with awkwardness as if the ink had been too long dry on our former friendship. I heard his voice in my mind, vast, deep, always with a hint of challenge yet encouraging, as it had always been. Finally, I called him up. The sound of that familiar, changeless tone, with a huge, unfettered belly laugh, brought dew to my eyes and the years rolled up like a scroll. He was an Army officer, with a gift for leadership, that years later I knew I needed so much and how much I had learned from him yet never found the courage to tell him.

Perhaps I may even write to him. Not an email or blog post but a real letter, written with a fountain pen in strong, manly black ink.

“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls/For thus, friends absent speak.”

(John Donne, letter to a friend)

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Working Together

It’s been quite the week. A quiet man wearing a blue waistcoat  has steered the English football team to its best World Cup placement for decades, the London mayor has demonstrated pusillanimity of the first water by allowing an inflatable blimp depicting the President of the United States wearing a nappy (or, if you prefer, diaper) to float over the capital during his state visit and the British Cabinet go for an away day at Chequers in a flurry of speculation over who might have to walk home.

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Any blimp will do… (The Times of London)

The world is laughing at us – at least the Europeans are – since we seem unwilling, or, indeed, unable to come to any kind of workable consensus on how to leave our erstwhile bedfellows without making too much of a stink and without it costing the national debt of a small Caribbean island. While the British diplomatic head is buried in its hands, the rest are laughing behind their hands, since our Foreign Secretary has a particularly colourful turn of phrase from time to time. Describing the May Brexit option as being like ‘polishing a turd’ is an expression he might possibly have kept to himself. The Brexit strategy preferred seems to fall into the ‘cake and eat it’ camp which, mixing our food metaphors, is pie in the sky.  Jacob Rees Mogg, of course, takes a tougher stance. For example, he asserts that the UK does not want a hard border with Ireland, nor does Dublin. Brussels does. Article 24 of GATT, Rees Mogg points out, does not require hard borders of any kind between countries with contiguous frontiers that are in a free trade area and a customs union. Furthermore, he argues that there’ll be no money for the EU if there is to be no free trade. He is quite prepared to have a no-deal, in which case, Boris’ nicely polished turd will hit the political fan with some force. It might also hand the keys to No 10 to a bearded pensioner from Islington.

Leaving the competence of a football team and the incompetence of the British Cabinet behind, the real, can-do, nitty-gritty story this week has been the saga of the trapped children in an underground cave in Thailand. If ever was needed sound advice, high competence and flawless execution, it is here, not in Downing Street or on a Russian football pitch. One man has already lost his life and there may be others, such is the extreme risk involved. The fictional account of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher lost in an underground labyrinth in Mark Twain’s eponymous novel has a heroism about it that the Thai children must emulate as the waters recede enough to attempt an extraction from Tham Luang cave. The waters are murky and dangerous, and locals have described it as a ‘desperate ordeal’. Experts from all over the world have gathered to plan and execute a massively difficult operation deep underground. The team includes thirteen international divers and five Thai navy Seals – selected as being the best of the best to work with them. Reporters on-site describe even volunteer cooks who have turned up to feed battalions of helpers.

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A relative prays in the rain at the cave entrance. (Guardian Media)

My prayers go with them, along with countless thousands of others. If they pull this off, it will be a miracle.

Working together makes a football team, a Cabinet, or a team of international experts greater than the sum of their respective parts. Working together gets the impossible done, whether it is winning the match, agreeing to leave Europe with our dignity intact or rescuing trapped children.

 

On the Move

Kurdish migrants , Kobani

Today is World Refugee Day. Having left Paris for warm and welcoming Southern arms, I have some sympathy with migrant populations and I have nothing but admiration for the strength and courage of those who flee from war zones. This post came about because my Bing wallpaper today was a dynamic graphic of refugee movement since the turn of the century, produced by Carnegie Mellon. The graphic showed two obvious and frankly frightening trends – a massive unidirectional exodus from the war zones of Iraq, Syria and Libya, also huge numbers from sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East and even northern Russia, an inexorable funnelling to the Shangri-Las of Europe and North America.

Migrant evacuation Porte de la Chapelle, Paris

Migration pattern. The European section glows redder with time.

Setting aside any pedantry over what constitutes a refugee or a migrant, the sheer numbers involved and over such a short timescale have never been seen before. Nobody is moving to Nigeria or Mozambique. No floods of ardent Muslims are being welcomed in Riyadh, Kuwait City, Bahrain or Doha. The Promised Lands are now Germany, Sweden, France, and the USA and Canada, rich with decadence, grown fat on the wealth accumulated over generations, with enough to spare for the pitiable hordes, the new Ellis Islanders swarming like desperate locusts over increasingly porous borders.

Europe has no answers; it is sophistry to suggest that she does. In the UK alone, there are estimated to be well over a million illegals, defined in one of several ways – entering the country undetected in a clandestine way, such as being smuggled in on a lorry from Calais. Or, entering the country legally for a short visit, for work, study or family visiting, then simply overstaying their visa and disappearing into the ethnic population to which they belong. Thirdly, if an asylum claim has been denied, the asylum seeker may simply fail to leave the country, again melting into obscurity within an ethnic ghetto.

Britain’s rather murky colonial past rarely hands her the moral high ground – activities in nineteenth century India, for example, opened the floodgates to large populations, most particularly after the Second World War. People arrived, impoverished and hungry, from Pakistan whose citizens provided a ready supply of labour for the engineering and textile industries, also doctors and other medical personnel. These second and third generation British citizens are roughly the same in number as the undocumented illegals.

In 2017, Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society wrote a seminal work :“The Strange Death of Europe”. He explores two factors that explain why European civilisation as we have known it will not, indeed cannot survive. The first is the combination of mass migration of new and often highly fecund peoples – many young and often male –  into the continent together with Europe’s negative birth rates. This was the underlying motive behind Angela Merkel’s open door policy – new blood means new labour and tax revenues to take care of an increasingly geriatric population. We are not supposed to make mention of the fact that a disproportionate number of refugees are Muslim, nevertheless it is a fact and it should be borne in mind that blindly opening Europe’s doors to those whose objective is to create parallel societies within it is naive and foolish. Switzerland has just rejected a proposed law preventing mosques from accepting money from abroad, and compelling them to declare where their financial backing comes from and for what purpose the money will be used. According to the proposal, imams also would have been obliged to preach in one of the Swiss national languages. This kind of laissez-faire is unlikely to prevent further ethnic and religious upheaval since most of the money for new mosques comes from those with well-defined Salafist – or expansionist – agendas.

The second factor Douglas Murray describes is “the fact that… at the same time Europe lost faith in its beliefs, traditions, and legitimacy”.  These two ideas cannot be separated, one is responsible for the other. He holds up a flat, brutal mirror to her soul , exposing her as she plays fast and loose with modern values acquired at great cost, allowing the infidel hordes to just roll over her. She has become too exhausted and guilt-ridden about the colonial past she once fought so fiercely to develop and is now the great, obese albatross that would sink her under the weight of her own historical sins. I would add a third. Europe has not just lost her way in terms of historical religion, but there is now at her core a void, a black hole which engulfs culture, opportunity and the ethics of hard work as her galactic namesake devours stars.

It was not so very long ago when a failed harvest meant starvation right here in Europe; indeed in some parts of the world, it still does. We don’t make as many things to sell any more, we hawk our expertise, our services, our intellect, and we take our pleasure where we can, but the wave of accelerated consumerism, buttressed by the tidal pull of gigantic Amazon warehouses, on which we so precariously ride, unfailingly ends in economic disaster. Then, it is we who will be the new economic migrants. But, by then, there will be nowhere for us to go. 

Mind the Gap

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Mind the Gap

A number of people predicted disaster as the two biggest kids in the world met up in Singapore for a little playfest the other day. Donny the Cheeseburger King met up with Kimmy the Basketball Fan, who has a really, really deep voice, so he must be past  puberty, I think. After Donny’s recent beasting at the G7 – somebody accused him of being ‘a toddler who put Lego in his mouth’ – everybody said “It’ll end in tears before bedtime. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.”

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Donnie gets a beasting from Auntie Angela and friends.

Turned out the kids got along famously and agreed that a few of the toys were a bit dangerous and Kimmy offered to stop with all that. Donny even suggested later on that the beaches up North were great, a missed real estate opportunity, even though he’d only seen missiles being fired from them. Which was nice. I can’t wait to see the plans for the Pyongyang Trump hotel, spa and golf course. Why am I talking about this today? Early this morning a train slid off the rails in the southwestern suburbs of Paris. No, I live in the west, quite a way away so I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Before dawn a landslip caused by heavy rains led three carriages of a Paris suburban train to slide gently off the rails and nearly overturn, slightly injuring seven people, according to France’s transport minister. Was that a train wreck? No, not really. This, on the other hand, was. In October 1895 a train crashed through the wall at Montparnasse and partially tumbled to the street, producing the most iconic picture of a railway accident in history. The cause? Both mechanical failure and human error. Most things are. As long as everybody minds their manners in the media and allows the children their wee moment of glory, chances are there won’t be a repeat of the second of these. Let’s hope so, shall we?

Bad Enough

People keep telling me I ought to write a book. But, am I nasty enough? And, will I need a morality clause? Just in case my work offends someone?

Screen Shot.jpgMany of the great and not necessarily good, in all fields of creative, scientific or mathematical endeavour seem not to have been ‘nice people’ in the usual sense. Unassuming, amiable types, attuned to the frequencies of their fellow-man, seem not to be so very numerous amongst those who excel. Perhaps to be able to create anything extraordinary makes one just a little bit of an outlier, a tad abnormal, and it is thus hardly surprising if creative types were not rather odd in other ways, too. Why would one expect an Einstein, a Bach, Pushkin or Dostoyevsky to be just like the man next door who dutifully mows his lawn and is pleasant to the postman and to those walking their dogs? Work which tends to get remembered, quoted and widely read is often the product of peculiar ways of thinking, so we might expect such people to be unusual in other ways, too.

Screen Shot 2.jpgLeo Tolstoy was the son of a rich landowner, losing both his parents when he was still a young boy. He was brought up by his aunts and was privately taught at home until he was sixteen when, as a wild and undisciplined youth, he entered Kazan University to study languages and law. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn”… He wrote about his youth in a small book, published in 1882. “ I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labour of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So I lived for ten years. Fortunately, he was self-aware enough to turn his life around and after a profound spiritual awakening became a paragon of social kindness and virtue in his later years. After the phenomenal success of Anna Karenina, he gave most of the profits away to local beggars, to the absolute consternation of his wife.

Screen Shot 1.jpgIsaac Newton, whose cosy little anecdotes about apples that remind us all about gravity was an irascible, mean-spirited and vindictive man, not the rosy-cheeked, bewigged individual our teachers portrayed him to be. Cold, calculating, cunning and quick-tempered, he argued bitterly with contemporaries Leibniz and Hooke until their deaths. He was described thus in a biography of 1995: “Newton did not marry. He did not, with a single brief exception, form any warm friendships. Though generous enough with his time and money when he had both to spare, he did not give with tenderness – either to relatives or acquaintances. He lived the extraordinarily narrow life of a dedicated autodidact, hardly ever travelling outside London, Cambridge, or his father’s rectory at Woolsthorpe. He was not given to lightness of manner, nor did he show any capacity for self-irony. When angered, he became unbalanced and, it must be said, vindictive and petty.”

In his defence, he may have been on the autistic spectrum or a sufferer of bipolar disorder. Though his personality didn’t endear him to almost anyone at all, it served his career remarkably well; ruthlessness is a surprising bedfellow to success. In his later years he became Master of the Royal Mint and hanged people for counterfeiting, deaf to all entreaties for clemency. As a good Christian, he prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and one poor soul was not only hanged but disembowelled under his orders.

Roald Dahl, the much beloved children’s author, had a strange, stiff, Nordic childhood, beset with loss. He was beaten at Repton, perhaps by the man who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Queen Elizabeth in 1953. In adulthood he was appallingly promiscuous, by modern standards a racist, sexist, a bully and a liar. He was also one of the world’s most successful children’s writers. It’s not hard to imagine Dahl breaching his morality clause, especially with a Twitter account.

Being a good person, or even a tortured individual, isn’t the same thing as being a good writer.

The seraphically beautiful Virginia Woolf was once described as a genius whose mind, according to one of her biographers ‘acted in a way in which ordinary people, who are not geniuses, never let their minds run.’ She suffered a mental breakdown – perhaps an early bipolar episode – in the same year as her mother died, at thirteen years old. When she was fifteen, her surrogate mother also died. We might charitably suppose that this so scarred a sensitive adolescent that her subsequent behaviour was at least understandable. She was, it seemed, capable of extreme nastiness, snobbery and antisemitism. Her rival, Katherine Mansfield, was dismissed as “a civet cat that had taken to street-walking”. She objected to her mother-in-law’s “Jewish voice” and observed that her husband, Leonard, came from a family of “nine Jews, all of whom, with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned, without the world wagging one ounce the worst”. She drowned herself in 1941.

The list goes on and in no particular order of depravity: Patricia Highsmith, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, was an alcoholic and an antisemite, Philip Roth was sexist, or at the very least, anti-feminist, William Burroughs was an occultist, a junkie who accidentally shot his wife in the head; she died shortly after. His subsequent wrestling with guilt and self-loathing was apparently the fuel for his creativity. The poet Philip Larkin is now widely viewed not just as racist, misogynist, porn-addled, two timing, alcoholic, foul-mouthed and viciously right-wing, but also, for good measure, just dreary. A morality clause would have deprived us of The Talented Mr Ripley, American Pastoral, Naked Lunch and The Whitsun Weddings. Unfortunately, nasty people make great art.

But good, and great, writing (or any art or science) isn’t the special preserve of the cads, the mountebanks and the rotters; not every author is Harry Flashman in disguise. Having a “beautiful soul” doesn’t shut down all talent, even genius. Chekhov and Keats were good, brave and noble men, along with many others.

Screen Shot 3.jpgThere seems to be a thin blue thread of childhood dysfunctionality running seamlessly into adulthood that so many highly talented people suffered from, also, no doubt, so very many others whose accomplishments were more mediocre. Those who know me well will catch a faint resonance here. Adults often spend the rest of their lives trying to patch the gashes in their souls, the great gaping gunshot wounds suffered in early years. Shall I write a book? Perhaps. Not sure I’m bad enough. Yet.

Virtual Images

Jacques Lacan (April 13, 1901 to September 9, 1981) was a towering figure in Parisian intellectual life for much of the twentieth century. Sometimes referred to as “the French Freud,” he was an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis. His teachings and writings explored the significance of Freud’s discovery of the unconscious both within the theory and practice of analysis itself as well as in connection with a wide range of other disciplines. I frequently wonder if the virtual worlds of Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and all the rest have psychological parallels from which we can learn and Lacan was a man before his time. Reading and commenting online as frequently as I do reveals the dark side, snarky tweets and abrasive social media commentary, the shadowy flipside to otherwise socially well attuned personalities.  Who we are online is the painting in the attic, the mirror crack’d from side to side. We drink Agatha Christie’s poisoned cocktail every day and things we dare not say in the real world we have no compunction in dumping into cyberspace – the bottomless well, slowly filling with the world’s bile.

We have access like a mirror image to our own black arts and sometimes use them inappropriately, as children examining their own reflection.

Screen Shot.jpg‘The Mirror Stage’ describes a pivotal stage in ego formation: the recognition of one’s own image in a mirror. Jacques Lacan theorised that the child, in apprehending his own reflection in a mirror, is captured by that image, seduced by its apparent perfection, its immeasurable potential. A child is endlessly fascinated by their own likeness in a mirror in a way that they are not when shown a photograph of themselves. The mirror image exists in a separate domain to its originator. Reflected, it deflects. Howsoever the child may try, they cannot delete or ruffle the image. It feels no pain when she beats it. I look more knowingly, as an adult, with adult eyes, yet the image unforgivingly projects my own feelings pitilessly back to me. Of itself, it feels no envy, no isolation, no love, no hate. It feels nothing, except what I project upon it: my own fears – of ridicule, contempt, my own yearning, even love. It appears to see the arrow that has missed the mark, the aspiration unachieved, the weakness and failure to do better. Does it see my sins as I see them? It weeps when I do, it laughs in synchrony with me. When I post on Facebook, or blog, it is, as it were, a paradigm of the mirror, suited to volatile outbursts of anger, love or other strong emotions. It is a virtual, imaginary space where normal sanctions do not apply and conflictual emotions vie for supremacy. I am allowed to be enraged, deviant, uncaring and immoral within my self-created vortex. When I write, I am speaking to a screen upon which I have projected something of my own, my own literary libido or lack thereof, of individuation of self, my creative juices smear its surface, dirtily. The image in the mirror is cracked, reflected by a thousand shards. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, the image speaks: “you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” Whether someone reads it subsequently is initially not relevant. Sometimes, we – I and my imaginary readers – may aspire to be a community but usually it is as a large, ill-disciplined family, shackled pitilessly to the algorithms of personalized advertising to which we offer infantilised and hopeful complaints, appeals for validation and affirmation to Mama whom we neither know nor understand.

 

 

 

 

Even Archbishop Michael Curry, who went spectacularly off-script at Harry and Meghan’s wedding yesterday reminded the two billion or so hearers of his message that ‘…fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and e-mail and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other.’ Nobody laughed, because it’s true.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “the discovery and harnessing of fire was one of the great technological discoveries of human history”. Reprogramming, replace ‘fire’ with the Internet and the virtual image is complete.

Taking his words entirely out of context, let us invert the metaphor. Today is Pentecost Sunday. Let the fire fall. Let’s try to be less ‘socially dysfunctional’, kinder, willing to touch instead of instant messaging, drawing a curtain over the mirror images, Faustian bargains all, the Dorian Grays we try so hard to hide.

Perfect and Complete

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“and the winner is…”

It’s been a pretty momentous week in Israel, apart from the unapologetically sunny Netta, complete with Minnie Mouse ears made with her own hair (a Photoshopped version of them on Bibi Netanyahu is doing the rounds on the Internet) winning Eurovision – the competition is only eight years younger than the State of Israel itself.

Seventy has always been significant, even before the seventieth anniversary of her founding. After the universal flood, seventy nations were named in Genesis 10. Jacob – renamed Israel –  and his family were seventy in number when they went down into Egypt. Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, Israel was held captive in Babylon for seventy years and Daniel speaks of seventy weeks of years, all of which have been fulfilled except for the seventieth week. A “generation” or lifespan is seventy years. Seventy scholars allegedly translated the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint. And so on. The numbers themselves probably carry no significance but it’s interesting to see how often the number 70 appears, numerologists suggesting that its meaning is derived from seven (representing perfection) and ten (representing completeness and God’s law)

I am a day late, but Monday, May 14, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of Israel becoming a nation. May 14, 1948, was the day some suggest that God decided he would once again bring His people to the land He promised to them as their permanent home. On that day, 11 minutes after declaring statehood, President Harry Truman was the first to recognise the new Jewish nation, later apologising that he had left it so late. Under a Muslim Shah, Iran, surprisingly, was the second, which today given its burning genocidal ambition to wipe Israel off the map is quite surprising.

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Somewhat overcome.

“We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel” – so spoke David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv on May 14th, 1948, to rapturous applause and tears from the crowd gathered at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The ceremony yesterday to open the US Embassy in Jerusalem had a similarly spine-tingling sense of history as a palpable sense of triumph, excitement and resolve pervaded the speeches.

A moment in history

But, for the Palestinians, that day, seventy years ago, was a catastrophe.Yawm an-Nakba as they call it, resulted in the exodus of more than seven hundred thousand Arabs, who either fled or were evicted to neighbouring Arab states, as well as more than 200,000 internally displaced persons, who remained within the borders of Israel, but were unable to return to their properties once the Israeli-Arab war was over.

War is atrocious and in its fog, few can escape blame. In October 1948, Eilabun, a predominantly Christian village, was captured by the 12th Battalion of Israel’s Golani Brigade. Following the town’s surrender, the commander of the Golani troops selected a dozen residents and had them executed. The village was then looted, and all property confiscated, while most of the town’s residents were sent to neighbouring Lebanon. Harsh indeed, but what seems to have been left out of the narrative is the underlying circumstances and people are left to draw monochromatic, black and white conclusions. Prior to Israeli troops taking the town, the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) had set up a base there and killed two Israeli soldiers. The ALA gunmen and local inhabitants of Eilabun then paraded the severed heads of the Israelis through the streets of the town. It was not common for the nascent Israeli army to target Christian towns, but what happened in Eilabun made it an exception. Interestingly, the original inhabitants were permitted to return one year later in 1949 as part of an agreement between Israel and the Patriarch of Antioch.

But even in less exceptional cases, Israel is reluctant to accept allegations of genocide like those tossed about by various politicians and Western pundits. The government maintains, against other revisionist narratives, that it had no official policy of expulsion targeting local Arabs in 1948. Israel’s narrative is clear:  local Arabs were not expelled, but many did flee as a result of being ordered, cajoled or convinced to do so by their leaders or the leaders of Arab states who wanted to make room for the invading Arab armies and when the overthrow of the upstart Jews was complete, the armies would withdraw, releasing the land back to its owners. So convinced were they that they were going to win, the Arabs had no strategy for what might happen to all these people if they didn’t.

But even if they did leave, as many rich Arabs from Haifa and Jaffa did, for example, why does Israel refuse to let them come back to their property? The reason is simple: the original 700,000 Palestinian refugee population has mushroomed – in various refugee camps in neighbouring countries – and is now ten times greater, some seven million people (the actual refugees and their descendants). Together with the Arabs now living in Israel who make up some 20 percent of the population, Israel’s government is well aware that if everyone returned, the Arabs would then become a majority, bringing about the end of the “Jewish” state, which was the whole point of its creation.

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All quiet on the Western Front – for the moment.

According to some historians, during the War of Independence in 1948, Arab inhabitants of Israel were promised total equality in the new state if they remained neutral. However, if they fought or fled, they’d be considered a potential threat, a fifth column. It’s not hard to understand why the Israelis view the prospect of hundreds of thousands of legal but hostile residents with so little enthusiasm. The recent strategy of Hamas massing tens of thousands of people on the Gaza border in the hope of pushing aside the security fence and invading Israel by sheer weight of numbers has an ironic chill to it.

Postscript. The fury and outrage of the international community over the deaths and injuries of the rioters at the Gaza border has resulted in ambassadorial recall, UN condemnation, calls for proportionality and, bizarrely, Dublin City Hall flying a Palestinian flag in solidarity. Social media is awash with allegations of apartheid and occupation. Ten million dollars has allegedly been spent, however,  by Hamas in massing tens of thousands of people at the border, many will have been financially incentivised to turn out – intelligence suggests $14 per person or $100 per family. I am coming more and more to the conclusion that as the crisis deepens, and the possibility of wider conflict becomes more of a reality, everyone is going to have to pick a side.

 

 

Big Data

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This is the Internet

IQ tests are a crude metric. They rely on the ability to reason which of four or five answers to a particular, often quite limited problem, happens to be correct. Dependent on how many correct answers are scored, a number is assigned which carries meaning. But, an IQ test only measures a few key variables, and does so with remarkably little data. It cannot measure emotional intelligence, sense of humour, personality type or any one of a hundred variables which define us uniquely. It cannot measure whether what we read is true or not; it cannot distinguish between pornography and art. It is the difference between limited artificial intelligence and general AI. Limited systems are closed and numerical, such as computers learning to play chess, or crunching numbers to find available flights or using real-time routing software on a map,  general systems are poor at screening “undesirable” content on Facebook’s pages – they just aren’t very good at the requisite subtlety and discrimination, so, for the most part, humans still have to do it instead. Which is, I suppose, something of a relief, SkyNet won’t be going self-aware any time soon.

Of the dozen or so most valuable public companies in the world today, over half depend substantially on data-driven automated scaling, using relatively few real people – great news for their shareholders – since this makes them profitable beyond all dreams of avarice, for example, WhatsApp (monthly userbase, over 450 million) was sold to Facebook for 22 billion (yes, billion) US dollars, which will buy a freshly brewed Starbucks for every man, woman and child on the planet and pay off the national debt of Albania with the change. Artificial intelligence and “big data” enables these digital companies to grow in unprecedented ways.  Facebook, Amazon and similar companies are now reaching more customers with more personalised experiences than any others that came before them, which is touted as a huge advantage over previous, cruder advertising content. But this comes at a price. Alarmingly, Facebook uses phone-contact data as part of its friend recommendation algorithm and it is possible to download one’s entire phone records from them, which is deeply worrying. Most users are blissfully unaware of the sheer quantity of metadata that Facebook and others harvest about them and use to provide targeted advertising. While data collection is technically “opt-in,” in Messenger, for example,  opt-in is the default installation mode for the application, not a separate notification of data collection. Facebook has never explicitly revealed that the data was being collected, and it was only discovered as part of a review of the data associated with the accounts. Those problems hinge on Facebook’s various uses of automation that only inconsistently involve actual human judgment. Content-suggestion algorithms, which place a premium on user attention, have been shown to systematically amplify shocking and extreme material, including fabricated or misleading news. Facebook’s lightly-screened ad sales – which they described later as a ’technical failure’ allowed Russia-linked buyers to spend as much as $150,000 to try to influence US politics, and made it possible to run racially discriminatory housing advertisements. And this is possibly the tip of the iceberg. I wonder how much digital meddling has gone on between the Russians, the Chinese and the North Koreans. The North Korean change of heart over nuclear weapons came about with quite remarkable speed. I wonder why…
We have all experienced what happens if, for example, just for our own amusement, we explore the cost of a weekend in Prague, we are then bombarded with advertising seeking to either sell us airline tickets or discounted rates on tourist sites in the city. Even places we visited years ago occasionally surface with hotel deals.  Most of us, setting aside the irritation of such unwanted advertising,  have a trouble-free experience with social media and protective algorithms work well in most cases. However,  the instances where their systems fail – referred to as “edge cases”  – have proven deeply troubling to the public and regulators. And technological solutions may not be achievable before the broader idea of digital scaling itself is undermined, along with a global economy whose future is increasingly premised on it. For example, it was discovered that Google’s YouTube Kids app, touted as a safer destination than the main site, was displaying disturbing conspiracy videos to children. That same day, Facebook admitted that Cambridge Analytica had improperly harvested the data of what turned out to be millions of its users, and an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona. Uber has been operating at a massive loss for years and investors have continued to feed it cash largely on the premise that the company will become as profitable as Amazon once it masters the technology of self-driving cars and eliminates the cost of drivers, which the company founder believes to be an ‘existential priority’. Edge effect failure, death being the most spectacular example, undermines the whole concept and Uber could come crashing down incredibly fast. As an update, Uber’s ‘edge effect’ worries are not just confined to driverless cars; a Jewish diplomat in Chicago was ejected from an Uber in Chicago for answering a phone call in Hebrew. The driver threw him out in the middle of a busy highway.
I sometimes ask myself: is there a limit to the amount of useful data that can be collected about me, so that machines can predict with almost total accuracy what I am going to buy next, where I am most likely to go on my next trip, what medical conditions I will suffer from and so on. I very much hope that the cost of collection will outweigh the benefits that might result. I’m a subversive little creature, along with most of the rest of the seven billion or so data mining possibilities on the planet and I will take steps to hide, screen or otherwise mislead the number crunchers who want to know the size of my soul. I may never own a self-drive car – indeed if ownership will then be the right word, but as the old protest song said “die gedanken sind frei”.

The Joy of Words

Francis Bacon once wrote ‘It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.’ Why this is an ‘error’ is a question for advanced Baconians, which I am not. We kind of like writing  about or hearing the good stuff about ourselves, as well as about the rest of the world, and most people think that it’s good for us to hear and pass on positive thoughts, comfortingly reinforcing our sense of bien-être, or well-being. But, more foreign phrases anon. Meanwhile, confirmation bias, for those who don’t know, refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s worldview, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts it. We get uncomfortable when confronted with cognitively dissonant ideas. As a regular commenter on the pages of the Times of London, this is a self-evident truth which one sees every day. Political leaders have their online detractors and those who cannot argue a point successfully usually write a stream of vituperative bile, often about people who own golf courses or wear beards, or more recently, have wives old enough to be their mothers without much reference to any factual content.
On a parallel, not altogether unconnected thread, Messrs Macron and Trump recently met in what some are calling the ‘dandruff diplomacy summit’ which turned out to be quite the touchy-feely lovefest. I rather wonder if they were overcome by a distinct frisson of ‘hygge’ – the last word in joy.
 Speaking of which, as my tongue descends into the nether regions of my cheek, hygge is really quite passé, apparently, all its little books notwithstanding. The Danish term, which means “a feeling of great smugness that you are not in fact Swedish”, was all the rage for a while. Not any more. It has been superseded by the Norwegian ‘peiskos’ which refers, apparently, to that rather cosy feeling one gets when sitting by a roaring fire, or the Dalmatian ‘fjaka’, which means ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’.  My other half will simply look bewildered at this point since such a state is entirely beyond her comprehension. The Croatians believe it can actually cure diseases. I can say this with perfect certainty since I know nobody who is capable of correcting my Croatian, but since I read it in Croatia Week, it must be right. Excellent. Here are a few other words from different countries, shamelessly plagiarised from the Sunday Times. These words have no English equivalent, but they are all suggestive of bien-être.
From France, we have ‘etranger-plaisir: the feeling of contentment occasioned by pretending not to understand when a foreigner is asking you for directions. Since Paris is full of impatient Chinese and grumpy Parisians, the contentment level on the Champs-Elysées shifts up a notch when a busload of Oriental tourists disgorges near the Arc de Triomphe.
 Germany has lots of words which are just joined up fragments of others, such as ‘sudetenmarschierenfreude’ meaning the warm feeling of national wellbeing occasioned by annexing the Sudetenland. Variants might be polenmarschierenfreude, frankreichmarschierenfreude and so on, dependent on one’s degree of wishful thinking.
 Spain has ‘ladoza’ which is the pleasure gained by going back to bed at eleven in the morning and not resurfacing until dinnertime.
 The Scots have an accent as thick as treacle and even those who actually speak the same language are often quite uncomprehending when asking for directions on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. The phrase ‘seeyousestitchthatjimmie’ is a feeling of intense satisfaction when you have just stoated someone between the eyes on licensed premises in the east end of the city.
 Greece has the ubiquitous ‘gamoforous’: the delight experienced in not paying your taxes and in Italy the rather unlikely ‘bambinificio’ is the adolescent pleasure experienced by fully grown men in eating ice creams while wearing sunglasses and riding around on mopeds.
 Japan’s rather formal ‘ken-shi-yorokobi’ is apparently a bewildering sense of euphoria that occurs just before you ceremonially disembowel yourself. Not altogether tempting. There must be less painful ways to get high.
 Russia has few words to express satisfaction of any flavour, except the grim kind which revels in the capture of one’s next door neighbour for selling secrets to the Americans. There is, however ‘yadernoy-radost’, literally ‘nuclear joy’, which is a warm feeling of satisfaction that occurs when you have made an enemy of the state light up like a Roman candle through the covert application of plutonium. OK, I made that one up but ‘radost’ is Czech for ‘glee’ so, hey, close enough.

The Vocabulary of Genius

Being quite good, or even, moderately bad, at most things one attempts  is either a cause for commiseration or an art to be celebrated. My mother used to remark in that particularly snide fashion that sticks like Thai rice in the bowels of memory, in the rare moments that I crept into her consciousness: ‘Jack of all trades’ – then, very quickly, with the trademark sniff – ‘master of none.’

For centuries, cultures have wagged their heads at the generalist – he of the non-specific, butter thinly spread over the entire slice of bread: “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned the Chinese. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one - hunger.”
Not very ambitious thinking, you’d have to agree. Not quite the vocabulary of genius.
I once wrote a piece praising the joys of mediocrity; sometimes I rather wish I hadn’t. So sorry for the slip into narcissism – who else will toot my flute but me? Being interested in lots of different things doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t particularly good at any of them, in fact, quite the reverse. Many of the world’s most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman – he played a mean bongo – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci – his helicopter blueprint actually helped when the real thing came along five hundred years later.

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, what about these?  Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell …is there a collective noun for  polymaths? Learning or indeed developing original ideas across academic domains is like travel, it broadens the mind. It seems to then act as a lightning conductor to attract left-field kind of thinking, a probing intellectual workup in the subject’s particular specialism at that time. Newton confirmed the inverse square law for gravitation – twenty years later he wrote a book on optics.

Modern polymaths go against the grain. They capture half an idea at the water fountain, gleanings from cast aside conversations; they build atypical, asymmetric patterns then – and herein lies genius – develop them in the arid space where competition is weak. Elon Musk is primarily an engineer, like half the Stanford graduates who work for NASA. Had he just concentrated on that, he’d be just as well-off as an average NASA high flyer. However, he was able to use his business training as well, hence Tesla and SpaceX. An image search turns up thousands of images of the man, not his achievements, so a gift for self-publishing is a helpful addition. Plus getting stupidly rich.

Being a Jack of at least a few trades seems like quite a healthy option. Being retired often leaves a black hole of guilt – perhaps I should go and learn Icelandic, just because I happen to  have time to do so. (Perhaps I should clean the guttering instead.) I used to spend a lot of time thinking about mathematics and physics – these days, I think about literature, theology, art, music and even poetry sometimes, none of which will, alas, make me rich or extend my Icelandic vocabulary. Nevertheless, what fun to trace out the beauty in the twinkling mathematics of Euler, or the symmetrical, Persian carpet perfectionism of a Mandelbrot set. That satisfaction of completeness where circles become squares. Yes.