Thursday, December 23, 2004

The anthropic principle and the multiverse

If you hear an astrophysicist or some other bearded type suggest that there are multiple universes, you may quite reasonably wonder what possible reason they could have for speculating such a weird notion.

Well, the answer is that logic pretty much leads you to the conclusion that there must be many many universes (a ‘multiverse’), of which our universe is but one.

Here’s why.

A fine-tuned universe
The problems stem from what is known as ‘the anthropic principle’. Proponents of the principle note that our universe appears to be incredibly ‘fine tuned’ for life.

That is, the twenty or so physical constants that describe how the universe is physically put together – and which were decided at the Big Bang – are so well balanced that if any one of them was even slightly different, life as we know it would be impossible.

The physical constants include such things as the Newtonian constant of gravity, the elementary charge of an electron, the speed of light in a vacuum and the mass of a neutron.

If any of these things was different, sometimes by a factor of a trillionth of a percentage point, then we or any other life could not exist.

Given this fact, and given how easy it is to imagine things being different, we’re confronted with a devilish philosophical puzzle.

An intelligent designer?
It seems so unlikely that we could have just ‘got lucky’ with the values of the physical constants and the fine tuning, that some people think that the Universe must have been set up to allow for the existence of life. This is the anthropic principle.

The anthropic principle is sometimes used as evidence by people who believe in an Intelligent Designer, or God, who created the universe just so, in order that life, and specifically humans, could exist.

Most scientists and philosophers tend not to like this essentially religious answer to the problem. It’s too easy a get-out (well, we don’t know so we’ll just assume someone made it). And it leads to further questions: why would he make us so small in the scale of the universe? How could he exist outside of physical/time laws and yet interact with those laws? Where did the designer come from? Who made the designer, and who made the designer’s designer, and so on to infinity.

Brute fact, mathematics or multiverse?
So what are the more scientific responses to the problem? There are basically three ways of answering it (so far).

Brute fact
The first is just to accept that the fine tuning is a brute fact. Just like you accept a roll of double-six in a game of ludo. It’s just dumb luck and that’s that, and we couldn’t ask the question otherwise.

But the odds are so remote of the one universe having these properties just so to trillions and trillions of degrees, that most people don’t like that answer.

Mathematical law
The second is to suggest that there are sound mathematical reasons why the physical constants had to be as they are, so it’s not luck but necessity.

The problem is that we haven’t found these laws yet. And you’ve still got the problem that it seems remarkable that the laws just happen to dictate for an arrangement that allows for life.

The multiverse
The third way is to suggest that this is not the only universe, and that there must be many many universes, the vast majority of which are not fine-tuned for life.

If you imagine this, the anthropic principle vanishes at a stroke. If there are trillions of universes, it’s not surprising that one or two will be suitable for life. It’s no longer a question of luck, but of probability.

So we of course happen to be in one of the universes that is suitable for life. (That’s not incredible luck – we couldn’t ask the question if we weren’t.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Known unknowns and unknown knowns

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Thus spake US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And he was widely ridiculed, lampooned, mocked, pooh-poohed, railled-at, chaffed, derided and lambasted for it.

But I really like it. Once you get over the absurdity of the phrasing, there’s a really rather neat four-part matrix which can be applied when you’re planning a strategy for anything.

For example:

Suppose you are Rafa Benitez, the manager of Liverpool FC, and you have to play against Chelsea. So you’re planning your team formation and strategy.

1. The known knowns
First, you must consider the known knowns. That is, those items which are relevant to your planning, and of which you’re certain in the knowledge. That’s easy. Eg, you know that Chelsea are dangerous from set-pieces, so you practice them accordingly.

2. The known unknowns
Next, the known unknowns. These are the areas which you know you have to consider, but you’re aware that your information about them is incomplete. For example, you know that Chelsea will play a striker, but you’re not sure which one, as they have several good forwards each with their own unique strengths. So you need a Plan B and C for dealing with each accordingly.

3. The unknown unknowns
These are factors that you can’t possibly predict and which may take you by surprise. So you have to be ready to change your plans, expect the unexpected and be adaptable. For example, you might have your goalkeeper sent off in the first five minutes, requiring a complete tactical adjustment.

4. The unknown knowns
I don’t think that Rumsfeld actually included these, and it’s debatable whether they actually exist. But you could give this label to those snippets of information that don’t really form part of your planning, but could be utilised should the need arise. For example, Chelsea might be awarded a penalty in the game with their usual taker off the pitch. Up steps John Terry to take it, and you happen to know that he always puts penalties to the left-side. So you instruct your keeper to dive that way.

So there you have it. Donald Rumsfeld: not a senile mean old clown too lazy to sign condolence cards at all, but a logical and tactical genius.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Freedom with a sigh: Lord Byron and Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is the phenomenon where hostages or prisoners form a powerful relationship with their captors. This can sometimes become a real complicity, with prisoners actually helping the captors to achieve their goals or to escape the authorities.

But in fact we all suffer from a sort of Stockholm syndrome towards all of the restrictions in our lives. Generally speaking, human beings can’t handle too much freedom.

Restraints on our freedom are important for us to be able to function as sane human beings. And if these restraints aren’t real, we tend to make artificial ones. We are everywhere in chains. But we grow to love and depend upon our chains.

One of the themes of Jean-Paul Sartre existentialist novel Nausea is the idea that, if we could admit it to ourselves, each of us is free to do whatever we want. If we wanted, we could at any moment run naked down the street. Or punch a random person in the face, or jump off a cliff, or leave our families, or quit our jobs, or swear at the Queen etc.

But we’d also consequently have to accept full responsibility for our actions. Fear and anxiety (‘nausea’) in the face of this epic responsibility leads individuals to hide both their freedom and responsibility from themselves by lying to themselves. Sartre called this ‘self-deception’.

Leave the dice alone
There was a good example of self-deception in a scene in The Office. Talking to the confessional camera, Tim justifies his unwillingness to take a risk and leave the job that bores him thus (I’m paraphrasing):

“You roll a dice in life. And yes, right now I’m probably on a three. I could roll again and get a six. I could definitely be a six. But I might also get a one. Sometimes it’s better just to leave the dice alone.”

The Prisoner of Chillon
Lord Byron spotted this phenomenon some time before Ricky Gervais or Jean-Paul Sartre, and captured it perfectly his long poem, The Prisoner of Chillon. The poem relates the story of François de Bonnivard, a political prisoner held for four years in the dungeons of Chateau Chillon on Lake Geneva.

This is the last verse:

It might be months, or years, or days
I kept no count, I took no note-
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
And clear them of their dreary mote;

At last men came to set me free;
I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter'd or fetterless to be,
I learn'd to love despair.

And thus when they appear'd at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage-and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:

With spiders I had friendship made
And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill-yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;

My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:-even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

You can read the whole poem here.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

We Will Rock You (gently to sleep) (from Martin Pollard)

Brian May and Roger Taylor have just announced that they are going to tour as 'Queen' next year, with former Bad Company/Free signer Paul Rodgers as their frontman. All self-respecting Queen fans (is there such a thing? - ed) should be appalled, and here are some reasons:

1) Freddie Mercury was one of the greatest frontmen ever, and summed up everything Queen stood for (loud, camp, self-confident).

2) Although it's true that May and Taylor had an important role in the band, ask anyone about Queen and they'll think first of Mercury. They're also likely to think of his songs first and foremost: Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, Don't Stop Me Now, We Are the Champions, Somebody To Love. To many people, Queen IS Freddie Mercury.

3) John Deacon has no interest in being involved (presumably he has some self-respect).

4) After Mercury's death, May, Taylor and Deacon publicly announced that they would never again work as Queen (though they've broken this rule a number of times already).

5) It's clearly an attempt to relive the fame and glamour of their younger years, especially as none of them has had any success as a solo artist since Mercury's death. This may be acceptable for the Who, Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, but all the above reasons surely mitigate against Queen regrouping.

6) Brian May's hair still looks the same as it did in 1973. At 56 years old, he is clearly an old man wearing a wig, or a freak.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Homer's odd, is he?

From the Simpsons quote page:

Homer: Are you saying you're never going to eat any animal
again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal!
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful,
maaagical animal.

Homer: Here's to alcohol, the cause
of - and solution to - all life's problems.

Grandpa: My
Homer is not a communist. He may be a liar, a pig, an idiot, a communist, but he
is not a porn star.

Chief Wiggum: This is Papa
Bear. Put out an APB for a male suspect, driving a... car of some sort, heading
in the direction of, uh, you know, that place that sells chili. Suspect is
hatless. Repeat, hatless.

Lisa: Do we have any food
that wasn't brutally slaughtered?
Homer: Well, I think the veal died of loneliness.

As the Beatles are to pop music, so The Simpsons is to TV comedy. In terms of consistent quality despite huge quantity, it’s so much better than anything else that it almost doesn’t count.

Fermi’s paradox: Is there anybody out there?

A big place
It would seem logical that we are not the only form of intelligent life in the Universe.

After all, the Universe is a big place. In our galaxy alone there are some estimated 400 billion stars like our own Sun. And there are billions and billions of galaxies. And scientists think that many, perhaps most, stars have planets orbiting them. Which means billions and trillions of planets.

So given the maths, it seems improbable that there could not have been some, in fact, many thousands of planets with conditions suitable for the emergence of life.

Not only that, but there’s also been plenty of time for highly intelligent life to evolve many many times over. Homo sapiens only emerged about 200 thousand years ago, and already we’ve sent men into space. Our galaxy meanwhile, is over 10 billion years old.

So the chances are that there are many intelligent forms of life out there, and that many of them have had an enormous headstart on us.

Fermi’s paradox

But there’s a problem with this. A chap called Enrico Fermi worked out that it wouldn’t take very long (5 to 50 million years, which, relatively speaking, is a piddling amount of time) for a civilisation with modest rocket technology to colonise our entire galaxy. Or at least, to contact every planet in the galaxy.

So the question is: where are they?

That’s Fermi’s paradox: if, as seems mathematically probable, there are many lifeforms out there, why haven’t we observed them?

It’s a bit like the objection to the possibility of time travel. While Einstein and Hawking bend our brains with talk of wormholes and the space-time continuum, a very simple question remains unanswered: “if time travel is possible, then where are all the visitors from the future?”

Possible answers
There have been many attempts to answer Fermi’s paradox. These include:

1) The premises of the paradox are wrong: in fact, the conditions for the emergence of life are extremely rare and unlikely, so the aliens don’t exist
2) The aliens are here but hide themselves from us
3) The aliens were here but we don’t understand their signals or we missed them
4) The universe is so big that we just haven’t come into contact with them yet
5) They do exist but there’s no motivation for contacting us or colonising the galaxy

You can find out more about this on the excellent Wikipedia site.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Continuing Story of Pooh-Poohed Paul (from Martin Pollard)

Think of England welcomes its first guest contribution - a spirited defence of the reputation of Paul McCartney from none other than international-standard debater Martin Pollard.

All contributions on any subject will be considered for publication. Just email me.

Last year, Paul McCartney was rounded on by Yoko Ono (and a section of the British public) for changing some of the credits on his live solo album from "Lennon-McCartney" to "McCartney-Lennon".

Ono focused on the fact that the former was the most famous songwriting 'trademark' in the world, and at one point it was even rumoured that she would sue McCartney. The whole incident had the air of nit-picking and the reopening of old wounds. But it was more interesting for highlighting one important point: Paul McCartney continues to feel undervalued and underrated for his part in the most important band in the history of pop music. I, for one, sympathise.

Let’s look at the evidence. First of all, if it hadn’t been for McCartney, there would have been no Sgt. Pepper, no White Album, no Abbey Road. For the last 3 or 4 years of the Beatles’ existence he was essentially their musical director, encouraging and occasionally cajoling them to stay together, focus on their work and act professionally. Without this influence it’s almost certain that John Lennon and George Harrison would have gone off in an LSD-fuelled haze long before, and Ringo Starr, thoroughly disillusioned with the band and its members, would never have come back after walking out in 1968.

Secondly, McCartney has long suffered in the shadow of Lennon. This has a number of explanations, including the fact that he’s still alive (old rockers just aren’t cool) and that the Frog Chorus ever saw the light of day. McCartney was also more reticent about publicly destroying his bandmates’ reputation, while Lennon once dishonourably described him as just "the one who wrote Yesterday".

Lennon continues to benefit from a popular perception that he was a revolutionary figurehead. This is clearly misguided: he dithered between denouncing Mao Zedong and supporting revolution, speaking out against the Vietnam War and moaning about not being able to live in the United States, writing songs about peace and including a picture of Hitler on the front of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve. Lennon was just too cynical about the world in general to be a true revolutionary. But he did lie in bed with Yoko Ono for peace (something for which he was roundly derided at the time) and he recorded ‘Imagine’, a pleasant little tune whose occasionally nauseating lyrics are inexplicably idolised the world over. McCartney, on the other hand, tended to just get on with being a musician and songwriter.

Most importantly, McCartney simply doesn’t get enough credit for the songs he wrote for the Beatles. When the "McCartney-Lennon" story broke, he illustrated this perfectly with the anecdote that he had once gone into a school music room and seen a score for Hey Jude which credited the composer as Lennon. In fact, it's a McCartney number through and through, and was accomplished enough for Lennon not to alter a note of it, and later to say that it was his partner's finest ever work.

In the first half of the Beatles' career, Lennon is the composer regularly credited with being the more prolific and accomplished of the two. Nonetheless, the list of songs largely composed by McCartney would take some beating by anyone's standards: Can’t Buy Me Love, Drive My Car, And I Love Her, Things We Said Today, Here, There and Everywhere, Got To Get You Into My Life, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday. The last two have passed into the popular consciousness as two all-time great pieces of music in any genre: Yesterday being so original that its composer spent a long time agonising over whether he’d actually copied it from someone else.

By 1967, Lennon and McCartney were essentially writing their own songs, then getting their partner to help finish them off. This style of working is exemplified in a double A-side single that still gets named regularly as the best single of all time: Lennon’s trippy, multi-time-signatured Strawberry Fields Forever and the technical brilliance of McCartney’s nostalgic Penny Lane. Even so, Ian MacDonald, author of the fantastic history Revolution in the Head, claims that 1967-69 marked a steady decline in the quality of Lennon’s songwriting: a period in which he still managed to knock off Revolution, Come Together, Dear Prudence, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Sexy Sadie.

McCartney, however, was gaining more and more momentum, writing tracks for the White Album as diverse as Back in the USSR (which, ironically for Lennon, was championed in Communist Russia), Helter Skelter, I Will and the beautiful Blackbird. By 1968 he was almost single-handedly ensuring the band’s survival – he directed (and wrote the majority of) the classic B side of Abbey Road, including two of my favourites, Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money. When Let It Be was finally released in 1970 after the Beatles had split, it was the McCartney numbers – Two Of Us, The Long and Winding Road, Get Back and the title track – that really held the attention.

All of this is, of course, not to say that Lennon himself was overrated. His melodies, his lyrics and his voice all mark him out as a highly accomplished, instinctive musical prodigy. (Along with Starr, he was also able to act in the Beatle movies.) But if Lennon was a 'genius', then so was McCartney. Both had an equal role in shaping the Beatles into a band the like of which we have never seen again: one which wrote dozens of tunes that are instantly recognisable across the generations; produced 13 albums in seven years, at least five of which are acknowledged all-time classics; and sold 1.1 billion records but never 'sold out'.

The Respect for Paul Campaign begins here!

Unfairenheit 9/11 - a Hitch hatchet job

Christopher 'The Hitch' Hitchens (the former left-wing ex-pat columnist and film-maker, big pal of Martin Amis - not to be confused with his younger brother Peter Hitchens, a wilfully loathesome journalist with the Daily Mail) does an extraordinary hatchet job on Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11'.

The whole thing is well worth reading. See it here.

But here's his wrapping up, after he's pretty much taken the film apart point by point:

"...I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line.

But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft.

If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them.

By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.

At no point does Michael Moore make the smallest effort to be objective. At no moment does he pass up the chance of a cheap sneer or a jeer. He pitilessly focuses his camera, for minutes after he should have turned it off, on a distraught and bereaved mother whose grief we have already shared. (But then, this is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage."

Read the rest.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Anti Americanism

Now that casual anti-Americanism has become the number one pastime in Britain, I feel the time is right to come to the defence of our whooping, hollerin' cousins across the Pond.

Of course, anti-Americanism is far more prevalent in other downtrodden, hellish and backward parts of the world such as Iran, North Korea or France, but I can’t speak for them.

But I can speak about the climate in Britain in which to merely suggest that ‘I think America’s not that bad’ is considered morally equivalent to suggesting that ‘Hitler had the right idea’, and in which it is taken as read that Bush is no different to Osama, except that his IQ is lower.

Now I’m not suggesting that criticism of American foreign policy or American politicians is illegitimate. And I fully concur with the general view that Dubya has all the oratorical skills of a hotdog.

But I do object to the lazy thinking that allows otherwise intelligent people to utter such things as “all the yanks are just fat god-bothering idiots”. Here’s why:

Axe grinding
The US is the world’s richest, most successful, most culturally-pervasive and diverse country, and also its only superpower. Therefore, anyone with an axe to grind can conveniently grind it somewhere in America. For instance:

Euro secularists hate America because they think it’s all evangelical fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumpers who go into hysterics at a flash of Janet Jackson’s nipple.
Fundamentalist Muslims, by contrast, hate the US because they think it’s all Britney videos, strip clubs and gay pornography.

British right-wingers think the US is crazy because of the political correctness, Jerry Springer morality and burglars suing homeowners when they get injured while attempting a break-in. British left-wingers, by contrast, think the US is crazy because they put petty criminals in chain gangs and have no NHS.

Armchair history pundits who would rightly scoff at anyone hammering ‘Germany’ today for Hitler’s war crimes, are nonetheless quite happy to hammer ‘America’ today for Johnson’s actions in Vietnam.

Cynics who scoff at anything a politician says, and refuse to believe even the most modest claims made by Government ministers, are nonetheless willing to swallow whole any old conspiracy theory under the sun, so long as it is propagated by Michael Moore and it denigrates the ‘stupid white man’.

Europeans think the American ignorance of the geography of their continent is a hoot. “I met an American and she asked me “Which country is Belgium in? Is it near Madrid?” and so forth.

But ask yourself: how many Europeans could point to Iowa on a map? Or Indianapolis? San Antonio has a population of more than 1.2 million. Can you pinpoint it?

The root of all evil
It’s perfectly fine to hate some aspect of America or American culture. So wide-ranging is that culture that you’d have to have multiple personalities not to.

But the trick is not to get your particular gripe mixed up with an idea that all Americans are dumb scum and that America is the root of all the world’s evil.

Otherwise you quickly end up sounding like the Life of Brian:“Yeah, but apart from most of the books I read, films I watch, clothes I wear and music I listen to, and the websites I buy them from, and the software I use to look at those websites, and the employment of half the people I know….what have the yanks ever done for us?”

William McGonagall – the world’s worst poet

It is impossible to fake poetry as bad as that of William Topaz McGonagall.

McGonagall was a self-educated hand loom weaver from Dundee, who decided in 1877 that he had a vocation as a wandering bard. He embarked upon a 25 year career as a working poet, delighting and appalling audiences across Scotland and beyond.

His many public performances produced much unintentional hilarity, and his audiences routinely howled with laughter at his tragic poems, and pelted him with rotten vegetables and so on.

Nonetheless, he was quite oblivious to the derision which greeted his poetry, and in that respect I suppose he is a sort of forerunner to those poor deluded souls who appear in the early stages of Pop Idol, convinced that they are singing sensations and utterly dumbfounded and disbelieving when the judges inform them of just how bad they really are.

McGonagall’s poems are unfailingly written in a dreary succession of rhyming couplets, with certain endlessly repeated phrases, notably: “most wonderful to be seen”, and “the Silvery Tay.”

His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which encapsulates the essence of the man nicely, especially in its killer last verse. It is reproduced in full below, but really you can read any of his efforts, or his unintentionally hilarious autobiography, and be guaranteed a good laugh.

Meanwhile, I think my favourite verse is this one from The Ancient Town at Leith, just for the scrupulous and very unpoetic attention to numerical accuracy:

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,

They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

You can read everything he ever wrote here.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Dickens versus the Daleks

There are few things more quintessentially English than the expression “quintessentially English”, but one of them might be Simon Callow playing the part of Charles Dickens. Which he does a lot, and with more ham than Sainsbury’s.

(note: that's Simon Callow the Mr Beebe in Room with a View, not Simon Cowell the Mr 'Boo' in Pop Idol).

The Times today reports that Mr Callow is to don the wiry beard once more, but this time in the forthcoming series of Doctor Who.

Callow says: “Dr Who ends up in Cardiff in 1869, where Dickens is on a book tour, and runs into the writer, as you do. Together they battle an alien infestation.”

An intriguing prospect, but I can’t help wondering what exactly Dickens can bring to the alien-battling party. Granted, he could certainly be relied upon to come up with an extremely silly name for the monster, but what else? Some sharp social commentary, a few bon-mots and a slap-up Christmas dinner with all the trimmings?

The ups and downs



Which is why it always pays to be philosophical in life, even about football.

Illustrious ancestors #1 Posted by Hello

Saturday, December 11, 2004

How to read 'Ulysses'

Is Ulysses difficult?

Many people believe that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a difficult book. I was among their number until I read it.

It’s a long book certainly, but so was the last Harry Potter. It’s also an uneven book: there are some extremely obscure sections. But overall, Ulysses is not an impossible read accessible only to the elite and the very pretentious.

I know this because as part of my degree course I was required to tackle Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Now that is a difficult book, and after it, everything is a comparative doddle.

To illustrate, here is a random quote from Kant, which I have open before me:

“If we thereupon proceed to hypostatise this idea of the sum of all reality, that is because we substitute dialectically for the distributive unity of the empirical employment of the understanding, the collective unity of experience as a whole; and then thinking this whole of appearance as one single thing that contains all empirical reality in itself; and then again, in turn, by means of the above-mentioned transcendental subreption, substituting for it the concept of a thing which stands at the source of the possibility of all things, and supplies the real conditions for their complete determination.”

There are 668 more pages like that.

Now, here’s a random quote from Ulysses:

“In his broad bed nuncle Richie, pillowed and blanketed, extends over the hillock of his knees a sturdy forearm. Cleanchested.”

The great thing about Joyce is that you can choose a sentence at random from any of his books (except Finnegans Wake – which is, admittedly, a difficult book) at random, and you can guarantee that it will be unusual, original and completely free of cliché, but probably no more impenetrable than Shakespeare.

It will probably also be rather funny. Here’s the next one I chose at random

“The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hariylegged ruddyfaced, sinewyarmed hero.”

And here’s some famous lines:

From Chapter One (Telemachus):
“God! he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.”

From Chapter Four (Calypso):
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

From Chapter Seventeen(Ithaca)
“What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

How to read Ulysses
Here’s my tips on how to read Ulysses:

1) Don’t bother trying to decipher every line. If it’s too obscure, just skim over it. There’ll be another line along any second that you’ll perfectly understand, and which will make you laugh.

2) Read some notes, but don’t get bogged down in all the allegories, the parallel with the Odyssey and the academic layers. Just read it through for entertainment, then go back if you want to know about all the puzzles etc. The Oxford World Classics 1922 edition has loads of great notes.

3) If they're slowing you down, skip Chapter 3 (Proteus), and Chapter 14 (Oxen of the Sun). these are the most difficult chapters, especially the latter. Better to go back to them at the end, when you're more in the swing of things, than to let their obscurity frustrate you into giving up.

4) Have a few pints of Guinness handy.

5) Better yet, read it in Dublin with a few pints of Guinness handy.

Everything you could want on Ulysses, including the entire text, is avaiable at this excellent website: The Internet Ulysses.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Why Everybody Hates the English

Introduction - How to be hated with good grace; and a song of Patriotic Prejudice

Why the Australians hate the English

Why the Scottish hate the English

Why the Welsh hate the English

Quinglish Watch

A record of diverse items which are as quintessentially English as the expression ‘quintessentially English’.

Why the English weather is the best

The Quinglish character
The other is in the Albert Hall - Why do the English find Hitler inherently funny?
Worlds apart - the British versus American cuts of Pride and Prejudice
A grand week out - the world tour of the Isle of Wight and English stoicism
The Society for Hosting Dinner Parties in Silly Places - eccentric adventurousness
No Great Britain Day Please, We're British - Patriotism is how you live, not what you shout about
The Birkenhead Drill - extreme queuing

Quinglish activities

I could murder for a nice cup of Rosie Lee - a look at tea-drinking
The Top 5 Great British Things That Everybody Moans About In Exactly the Same Way Each Year But Which Never Change and Never Will
Gunpowder, treason and plonk - Guy Fawkes as an excuse for a booze-up
How do you make a cheese roll? - the Gloucester cheese rolling competition

Quinglish History
Never mind Nelson, what happened to poor Basto? - Trafalgar and man's best friend
History is what you can remember - a look at 1066 and All That

Mortimer's Miscellany - a review of John Mortimer in action, including a good after-dinner story which you may wish to pinch
The Life of Whiteley - a tribute to one of the great English professional amateurs.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Think of England Rules


Think of England welcomes all comments, disagreements, criticisms and arguments, and will endeavour to answer them all, but kindly asks that profanity, blasphemy and personal insults be kept to a minimum.

If in doubt, imagine that all debates be conducted not in the manner of rival football fans after a dozen pints, but rather in the civilised way of well-bred and well-fed gentlemen around the dinner table, after the cheese and port have been served, but before they retire to join the ladies in the drawing room.

Think of England will remove any comments considered unnecessarily rude and sweary, as its Mum may be reading.

All comments are emailed to me, so you can comment even on really old posts and reasonably expect a response.

2. Suggestions, contributions and commissions

Please email me any suggestions for posts. Think of England also welcomes any contributions.

I also write for money. If you would like to talk about commissioning an article, essay or even a poem, just email me.

All original material copyright Andrew Nixon. 'Brit' picture kindly donated by Duck of The Daily Duck.

Thanks to all those who helped in the creation of Think of England, and curses to those who hindered.

England Thinks

No Great Britain Day Please, We're British
Patriotism is how you live, not what you shout about

Signifying nothing
Celebrating the great British road sign, and the usefulness of the abstract

What was that about British cuisine?
The Fat Duck and the foodie revolution

Prohibition: the radical experiment that failed
Should hard drugs be legalised?

Saturday night's all right
A look at British townie culture

Those were the days, my friend
A rough guide to English football hooliganism, and how Rupert Murdoch killed it

Attack of the clones
Does everywhere look the same?

Woolly thinking and popular misconceptions

Iraq/ War on Terror/Bushitler Argument

A Confederacy of Dunces
A full broadside at the 'Not-in-my-name' brigade

Greens v America - the myth of Kyoto
Any way you look at it, we lose something - Guantanamo and the Great WOT Dilemma
More against the Confederacy - Ian McEwan speaks sense
Unfairenheit 9/11 - The Hitch does a very effective hatchet job on Michael Moore
Parris loses the plot - Matthew Parris writes the silliest thing in his career
What kind of fascist oppressive regime won't let a man experiment with the materials required for germ warfare in the privacy of his own dingy, corpse-ridden flat?
Another Green Teen World - celebrities and the anti-war movement

Jyllands-Posten Cartoon row

A plague on all houses - absolutely everybody is wrong
The harmony of civilisations - The WOT is not a War on Islam


State killing is for statists
In which a conservative argument against capital punishment generates a record number of dissenting comments

Just popping out to have my preconceptions challenged, dear - Modern art

Postcard poverty versus the McFuture

Vile habits
Should smokers get NHS treatment?

Defence against the dark arts of mumbo-jumbo
Francis Wheen's eloquent rants

Snake oil for the many, not the few
Prince Charles wants 'alternative medicine' on the NHS

Film thinks

The Importance of Being Sabine - Richard Curtis's next film

Worlds apart - the British versus American cuts of Pride and Prejudice

Sport thinks

Special feature: The Ashes - Summer 2005
A personal and very biased account of the Aussie tour of England

The Ballad of Zinedine Zidane
On World Cups in general, and 2006 in particular

The beauty of the ugly game
Why the football goal should never be cheapened

Run away!
Maradona versus the mediocrities

All black
The New Zealand rugby team and the spear tackle

Et tu, Ashley?
Football and loyalty

Remembering a fallen idol
The hubris of Hansie Cronje

Deep thinks

There is nothing useless to men of sense
Philosophising - and a pox on the tyanny of 'usefulness'

Fermi's paradox: Is there anybody out there?
If we're not alone, why is it so quiet?

The anthropic principle and the multiverse
Why there might be many universes

Contributions to The Daily Duck:

The story of the moral
Must morality have its origins in God?

The Wright stuff?
Part of the Duck's In Defence of Darwinism series: a critique of 'Intelligent Design' theorist Robert Wright

The Ignorable Berlinski
I attempt to bash another, more devilish ID theorist

Music thinks

Desert Island Discs
Read mine, and, since you'll never get on the programme, add your own

I said No, No, No
Impressions of Amy Winehouse

Dancing about architecture
How does music work?

The Emperor's Brand New Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat?
The peculiar genius of Bob Dylan

Last chance to see?
Ibrahim Ferrer and the Buena Vista Social Club

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Literature thinks

Frolic and whimsy
Gilbert & Sullivan and the unexpected rhyme

The chronicler of necrophobia
Philip Larkin's Aubade

Freedom with a sigh
Lord Byron and Stockholm Syndrome

How to read Ulysses by James Joyce
Five top tips for tackling the titanic tome

William McGonagall - the world's worst poet
The Bard of the Silv'ry Tay

English as she is spoke
The world's worst English phrasebook

The distracting devils
Thrushes, by Ted Hughes