Monday, June 27, 2016

Churchill in Pictures

     Martin Gilbert. Churchill: A Photographic Portrait (1974) Published in the centenary year of Churchill’s birth, this combines a well-done selection of pictures with citations from Churchill’s letters, speeches, and books. I hadn’t realised how completely political Churchill’s life was: the hiatus between his early career and the recall to leadership in 1939 loomed much larger in my imagination than it really was.
     Churchill was a complex private man, and a simple public one. He loved his wife and children, there are hints of his friendships, his pastimes, and his religion, and how his public life sometimes made him regret the anxiety he caused Clementine. Publicly, he was Burkean conservative from beginning to end. He believed that the role of government was to maximise the freedom of the individual, hence that government must ensure that a decent life, free from want and fear, was essential. For how can someone be free when his whole waking life is focussed on where the next crust of bread is coming from? But he also opposed Socialism, which he believed to be the path to tyranny. I don’t think he reflected much on the inconsistencies of his political principles. He was a practical politician, and a very good one. His leadership during the Second World war was a major factor in the Allied victory. He willingly exposed himself to danger, visiting with the civilians whose streets had been bombed to bits, and the troops during a brief respites from battle. This encourage people to trust him, as well as giving him a direct impression of how the war was going.
     He made mistakes and enjoyed successes, he made both wise and silly decisions, he influenced the direction of events. For that last reason alone this book is worth a look. That it also gives us an impression of him as a human being is a bonus. ***

Another Serving of Interviews

     John Mortimer. Character Parts (1986) A follow up to In Character, and just as good. Mortimer had a list of standard questions, but willingly departed from the list if an answer suggested further conversation. The effect very often is that I would like to talk to these people myself, that they would be good dinner companions.
     As in the first book, I get the impression of a complete character with every interview, although rational reflection reminds me that I’m getting a performance. Two performances, actually, Mortimer’s and the interview subject’s, and very convincing ones. Still, some of the subjects seem to me nicer people than others, more aware of their own vulnerabilities, less sure that they deserved their successes, even while they sought them. Lauren Bacall, for example, or David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham. Others have arrived at some certainty about their place in the world, such as Graham Leonard, Bishop of London, whose lack of doubt is dangerous, or Lord Hailsham, First Law Lord, whose certainty about his ability to reason prompts him to change his mind when a question suggests a different take on a problem.
     I think both of these collections are wonderful historical resources. They also allow a wallow in nostalgia. I knew of almost all the characters Mortimer interviewed. But even those who were new to me reminded me of the 70s and 80s, a time when I took many things seriously that now seem to me have been mere bubbles on the surface of the river. ***

Friday, June 24, 2016


52% voted to leave, 48% voted to stay, 72% of eligible voters cast ballots.  So 37% of eligible voters wanted out, 35% wanted to stay, 28% didn't vote at all. Pre-vote polling indicated that Leave supporters were disproportionately older, male, white, working class and rural, while Remain voters were disproportionately younger, female, ethnically mixed, professional class and urban.

Historically, older voters are more likely to vote than younger ones. The polling showed a slight margin for Remain (the UKIP leader actually conceded a Remain victory before the votes were counted). Thus, even a small difference in percentage of voting on either side would affect the outcome. Which is apparently what actually happened. The BBC map showing the distribution of votes supports that analysis, I think. In several urban constituencies that voted Leave, the margin was as narrow or narrower than the national vote. Scotland voted to stay, but there were places where the vote was as narrow as south of the border.

So we have a profoundly disunited Britain that has put itself on the outside looking in.

It’s a given, I think, that the UK will not thrive economically outside the EU. The warnings that trade deals are off and will have to be renegotiated are real. England’s major export has been financial services. Without the ease of access to the EU, that value has hugely diminished. Other countries will be only too happy to supply those services instead. Its industrial base has shrunk, and like that of other developed countries has either been displaced or bought out by foreigners. That’s both good (it’s part of a multinational, global industrial complex) and bad (there will be less incentive to keep operations in Britain).

Politically, Britain will continue to be part of NATO and other international organisations, but its partners will, quite naturally, view it with a combination of disdain and suspicion. Disdain for the failure of the current leadership, and suspicion of the coming nationalist, inward-looking cadre that will attempt to fulfill the empty promise of reconstituted British greatness. But national greatness isn’t like orange juice: you can’t just add emotion and stir.

Socially, Britain is in for violent and bloody times. The Leave vote will encourage the racists and bigots, who will see it as permission to attack immigrants and other groups that they blame for all that they see as having gone wrong since the Second World War.

And will it even be Britain much longer? Scotland voted to remain: the SNP leader has already said she will introduce legislation to enable a Scottish referendum to leave Britain. That will embolden the Welsh separatists, too, and Lord only knows how the Northen Irish will react.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Movers and shakers no more

     John Mortimer. In Character (1983) Collection of interviews of important, influential, and interesting people, first published mostly in the Sunday Times. Mortimer has the knack for getting people to talk frankly about themselves, and knows how to assemble the quotations that reveal and illuminate character and life. He’s an engaged interviewer, more than willing to give us hints of his own reactions and impressions.
     We end up believing that we know these people. We certainly know them better than we knew them before, but are Mortimer’s versions of them the real thing? That’s a pointless question: a person is their interactions with other persons. Mortimer’s willingness to give us his side of the interplay convinces me that we get an accurate record of what was done and said in that interview, even if obviously edited. What I make of these people is up to me; but in every case where I had prior and alternative knowledge, my impression of those people was enhanced and clarified. I’m left feeling that I would like to spend some time with any of these people, politicians, novelists, journalists, bishops, actors, artists, etc. I’m not sure whether I would have such a good time as Mortimer had, though.
     It’s also a record of its time. Many of the interviewees are now at best semi-remembered. The interviews remind me of the politics that seemed important at the time, and 30-odd years later, they show that some problems are as difficult to solve as ever, not because they are insoluble, but because the attitudes and values that cause them continue to prevent action. We humans are an irrational animal. As often as not, irrelevant feelings and wishes interfere with the ability to accept reality, and to fix what can be fixed. ***

For cat fanciers.

     [Quantum Books] Cats: A Pocket Companion (1998) A nice little reference book illustrating many breed of cats, with data about origin, conformation, colours, personality, etc. Useful in a limited way, well produced and printed, no typos. A “gift book”, found in a secondhand shop. It confirms my feeling that mixed-breed cats (for which we don’t have a word) will make the best pets. The effects of cat fanciers’ tastes on breed looks and conformation is looking to be as bad as on dogs. As near as I can figure out, our Alex was an American Shorthair and Siamese cross, mostly. He was a good cat. **

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Talks about Shakespeare in 1960

     B. A. W. Jackson, ed. Stratford Papers on Shakespeare (1960) Given at the Shakespeare Seminar organised by McMaster University’s Extension Department. I don’t know if the experiment was repeated. The participants are listed, almost all of them are women. Teachers mostly, I would guess. I think they got their money’s worth.
C. J. Sisson (in his day a noted Shakespearean) discussed King John as an Elizabethan history play, outlining Shakespeare’s selections from Holinshed’s Chronicles and arguing that the play amounted to propaganda for the Tudors. Of course. King John has always, I think, mattered more as propaganda than as history. Sisson reminds us that the modern veneration of Magna Carta would have made no sense to Elizabeth. I’d go a step further: anyone suggesting a modern interpretation of it would have risked losing his head.
     John Cook gives some apposite and cogent remarks on music in Shakespeare, using his experience as a theatre composer to explain how Elizabethan players used music, and to argue that modern productions need modern music. Agreed. His slighting references to movie music betray a blind spot: movies aren’t theatre in another medium, so music plays a somewhat different role.
     RCMP Sgt R. A. Huber, an expert in forensic handwriting analysis, gives a cautious “probably Shakespeare” as his verdict on who wrote the extant manuscript pages of The Boke of Sir Thomas More. Sisson’s afterword adduces content and style as support for what he regards as a clinching argument that we do indeed see Shakespeare at work here. I don’t know enough to either agree or disagree with his conclusions, so will stick with Huber’s “probably”.
    In Shakespeare the Writer, Sisson presents a rather too bardolatrous study of Shakespeare’s lost years, arguing that he must have been writing scripts for quite some time before envious rivals bothered noticing him as an upstart shakescene, a valid and important point. He traces Shakespeare’s development as a writer and dramatist, arguing that Shakespeare’s plays increasingly were about character: Hamlet is about Hamlet, he says. True enough, but that’s not enough. Hamlet’s despairing The time is out of joint, O cursed spite that ever I was born to put it right announces the theme of the play. It’s the disconnect between Hamlet’s sense of himself and of his times that’s kept the play relevant for four hundred years. It is indeed “about” something, the alienation caused by an increasingly human-constructed world.
     I’ve seen many Shakespeare plays more than once (Hamlet at least 12 times on stage and screen), so I found Robertson Davies’s after-dinner talk the most congenial. He says that he’s enjoyed Shakespeare more the more plays he’s seen and the more often he’s seen them. Exactly. Sisson’s treatment of the plays as literature tends to misss the point: they’re scripts, and a script must be acted just as a score must be played.
     An uneven but interesting collection. Out of print, but if you like Shakespeare, it’s worth looking for. ** to ****

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Life And Times of Agatha Christie

     Martin Fido. The World of Agatha Christie (1999) I bought this book because the photos in it looked good. Now that I’ve read it, I’d recommend it to any Christie fan as a very good summary of her life and work.
     Fido uses the coffee-table book format to present carefully constructed snippets of information that add up to a complete picture of Christie’s life, and a fairly good summary of her work.  He’s a fan, but not a blindly idolising one, and reminds us that Christie was capable of producing duds. He notices her political naivete and casual racism, which contrast with her basic kindness and decency, suggesting that she didn’t reflect much on some aspects of life. We learn that she was an accomplished musician, that she took her work seriously, that she aspired to serious fiction as Mary Westmacott, that she and Max Mallowan had a happy life together, and that religion for her was a matter of faith, not rules and rituals.
       Well selected photos, but not enough of them. The date means that more recent adaptations aren’t treated. Too many typos, the kind perpetrated by over-reliance on spellcheck. There’s a more thorough Life of Christie hiding in this slim book. Recommended. ***

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bad boys and other fun stuff (book review)

     Cornelia Ostabrauck, ed. Das Kleine Wilhelm Busch Album (n.d.) Includes Max und Moritz, those terrible boys whose pranks damage humans and kill animals. Their demise is not mourned. Plus a handful of other Busch faves, including Der Virtuos: Ein Neujahrskonzert, which reminds me of Gerard Hoffnung’s music cartoons. It’s quite likely that Hoffnung knew Busch’s work and was influenced by it. Busch has fallen out of favour in some quarters because of his combination of physical fantasy and psychological realism. He know that humans are not only imperfect but often intentionally evil. A nice little gift-book, about 5cm square, I have no idea how I acquired it. If you haven’t encountered Busch’ work, you can find it on the Gutenberg Project.***

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Goon for Lunch (book review)

     Harry Secombe. Goon for Lunch. (1975) Secombe played Neddy Seagoon on The Goon Show, his tag line was It’s all rather confusing, really. These pieces, written for Punch and other magazines, make up a glimpse of an autobiography. He grew up in Swansea at a time when children spent as much time as possible out of sight and hearing of grownups. He was in North Africa and Italy for most of the War, and didn’t like it. But he did meet Spike Milligan there, and they ended up doing skits together, which  helps explain the Goon Show.
     The pieces are mildly funny, they recount small injuries and large confusions. I enjoyed reading them, both for the reminders of post-war England and for Secombe’s company. He was a nice chap, on the evidence. His Neddy Seagoon is not far removed from himself. In Italy, he and a comrade were almost blown up removing an unexploded bomb from a house in a village that had been recently vacated by the Germans. His comrade believed the bomb was a dud. It sounds like a Goon Show incident. I suspect that the craziness of War fed into a lot of Milligan’s scripts.
     The book is out of print, but worth a search. ***

History of the World: Lots of pictures, no maps..

     National Geographic Society. Essential Visual History of the World (2007) A nice fat little book, well printed, reasonably well researched, lots and lots of standard illustrations. Arranged chronologically by “era”, with two pages per entry, which reduces history to unconnected chunks of events. And not a single map, which reduces its usefulness by about 80%. Pity. *

Monday, June 06, 2016

Stratford Mosaic

     Gerald Jaggard. Stratford Mosaic (1960) Jaggard owned The Shakespeare Press, an antiquarian book shop on Sheep Street which he inherited from his father Capt. William Jaggard, who compiled the first Shakespeare bibliography. Peter and I visited his shop at least once. Besides the books, there were many memorabilia; it had the air of a museum.
     This collection of memories is an odd mix. It focuses on the Shakespeare Club and its role in developing the Birthday Celebrations, as well as some remarks on the first Memorial Theatre, the fire, and the new Memorial Theatre. He tells of the Gower Memorial, the Fountain in Rother Street, and the Mop, an annual fair that I remember with affection. He ends the book with brief memoirs of Marie Corelli, Sir Archibald Flower and Capt. William Jaggard.
     Jaggard was himself a member and later the Secretary of the Club, which gave him access to the minute books. His selection of highlights shows how the Club’s focus shifted slowly from enjoying their common admiration for Shakespeare (and good food and cigars at the annual banquet) to promoting Stratford as tourist town. As a record of some of the behind the scenes events, it’s a valuable resource. I’m not so sure about it as a history or as an impression of Stratford. Jaggard meticulously and repeatedly records all the honorifics and professional qualifications of the people he mentions. His bardolatry several times goes over the edge in self-satire. He waxes romantically and lyrically clich├ęd when describing Stratford as a beauty-spot. According to him, Sir Archibald Flower was man of pure civic virtues, with no warts at all. And of course Shakespeare is the Immortal Bard of Immortal Memory, etc.
     An amazing performance. My grandmother gave it to me. It mentions two of my ancestors, John Morgan, stationer and book seller (my great-grandfather), and F. C. Morgan (Uncle Peter), Librarian and Curator of the Hereford City Library. Jaggard's brother Geoffrey contributes nicely turned verses describing the streets of Stratford, most of them decorated with pleasant drawings by D. R. Mathews (uncredited). Published by Christopher Johnson (London), which I suspect was a vanity house. I found nothing about it online, but several copies of this book are available. If you are a fan of Shakespeare and Stratford, you could do worse than add it to your collection. **½

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Cells are computers, organisms are fractals

     Cells are computers, organisms are fractals

Some notes towards a concept. I’ve long thought that the notion that a neuron as an on-off switch was too simplistic. These notes represent an attempt to produce a better notion. 2016-06-03 & 05. WEK.

The metaphor of DNA as blueprint is misleading. Better: DNA is a program guiding the assembly of proteins. Better yet: It’s the operating system, since it’s RNA that produces the proteins. But if DNA is a program, then the question is, How does it execute? The answer: like any program, at any given time some part is running, the other parts are silent. A program can also trigger other programs. The operating system controls how multiple programs run, it allocates memory and CPU time, access to video and audio subsystems etc. A “call” from one program will stop or start some part of another program. An “interrupt” will cause (re-)allocation of memory, access to subsystems, etc. DNA starts and stops protein synthesis, turns genes on and off, analogous to OS controlling program execution. So the cell is a computer

Recent research shows that inputs to the cell “turn genes on and off”, analogous to calls and interrupts controlling how a program runs. The genes control the functioning of the cell. Exactly how is complicated, but the general pattern is chemical feedback loops. A substance increases, which triggers or stops gene expression, which results in a series of reactions, which cause that substance to decrease, which stops or triggers gene expression, and the cycle repeats.

A neuron responds to the chemical environment outside it by adjusting its internal processes. These processes control gene expression. The feedback loops within the neuron determine the types and quantity of neurotransmitters emitted at the synapse with the next neuron in the circuit. Since both type and quantity of neurotransmitter vary depending on the inputs to the neuron, the neuron is computing the output. The concept of a neuron as simple on-off switch is inadequate.

But a cell is an odd kind of computer. The relation between input and output depends on the internal feedback loops. A given substance may be implicated in two or more feedback loops, which means that the neuron is topologically a net. The computation of the output depends on the topology of the net of chemical reactions, which happen both simultaneously and in sequence. That makes the cell a parallel computer.

More precisely, the cell is a net whose topology varies over time as the chemical feedback loops cycle between limiting states and intersect with each other. Thus, the cell cycles through a series of topologies. It’s a self-modifying net.

The concept of a self-modifying net applies to assemblies of cells (tissues), to organs, and to the organism as whole. The organism too is a complex system of feedback loops. Mathematically it’s a chaotic system: it tends to maintain itself within an envelope of states (the attractors). Illness and disease move the system outside the envelope, and recuperation is a return of the system to the dynamically stable cycles within the envelope.

Conclusion: An organism is a multi-dimensional net of feedback loops. Its topology varies over time at many scales, which implies it’s a fractal system.

The Cavalier in White (mystery)

     Marcia Muller. The Cavalier in White (1988) Joanna Stark, partner in a security firm specialising in museums and art galleries, finds herself sucked back into the business when a client’s murder ties into the theft of a Frans Hals painting, Cavalier in White, stolen from a gallery owned by her friends. Much conversation, a second murder, family secrets and the past come together in a nice melange of entertaining characters and plots. The novel often reads more like a Harlequin romance than a mystery. Muller’s Sharon McCone tales are solidly in the PI tradition; this book dances on the borders of the two genres as if Muller couldn’t make up her mind which one she wanted to write. There was one more Joanna Stark novel which I haven’t read. This one is OK for a few hours pleasant entertainment, but only a diehard Muller fan would want to keep it. *½