Four in the Morning

Here is a talk about coincidence. The coincidence of four in the morning, given by an American poet who seems to go by only one name, Rives (like a Brazilian footballer).

We are good at spotting coincidences. Even though they are just noise in the data, they leap out at us as evidence of eye-catching pattern. We like pattern and we tend to invest it with meaning when we see it.

Only this is not a coincidence, not a revelation of deep patterns revolving around us in the Cosmos. It is a loop, what they would call in Star Trek a temporal paradox: the end of the loop is also its beginning, evidence in this case of the singular persistence – and the approximative workings – of memory.

We do not remember, it seems, in a like-for-like series of correspondences of memory to past event. Rather, we approximate, forget detail, store narrativised versions of events, and so on. And yet, Rives’ experience reminds us, the raw data persists at some level. Rives is struck by the 4am poem because he has seen it before, where it formed a minor role in someone else’s story, so to speak. Now it is foregrounded, and all that is left is a sensation of familiarity, later confirmed.

In short, he does not remember it: he recognises it. Recognition is not the same as knowing something. It is knowing it when we see it. The pathways of retrieval have been eroded, but the island the pathway led to is still there, flickering dimly like an invisible star.

The odd sensation of recognition plays into fantasies we all have of total recall: that one day we might be able to access this vast repository of experience in all its raw immediacy. But that, I am afraid, remains a fantasy, just as the ignis fatuus of coincidence is a fantasy. Even so, I recommend you spend a little time in the Museum of Four in the Morning, here. And fantasise about powers of total recall.


Diocletian and His Cabbages

Last night I attended a concert given by a youth orchestra in London at the Barbican, and caught up with the conductor for a cup of tea just before (well, he is my brother). He founded the orchestra ten years ago, initially from students at two schools where he teaches music in South-West London; he then opened the orchestra to other local schools. They put on concerts three or four times a year, and tour for a week or two in the summer (last year they went to the Czech Republic; they have also toured in Spain, Italy, Poland, Croatia and elsewhere).

A5 flyer v4

Now, on their tenth anniversary, they were able to call back alumni of the orchestra, some of them by now professional players, and put on a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, a behemoth of the repertoire with full chorus, two soloists (soprano and contralto), off-stage bands, twenty horns, and so on. And very fine it was too.

My brother told me in passing that he has been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wherein he read a story of the Emperor Diocletian who, having abdicated the throne and taken up farming, was invited back during a period of particular difficulty. He refused, saying ‘if you could see my cabbages, you wouldn’t even ask the question’.

My brother was making the point that the rewards of life are not always what they seem. The children and young adults who play in his orchestra do not benefit because they are learning ‘teamwork’ or responsibility or whatever; they benefit purely and simply because it is an extraordinary thing to play in an orchestra, at the Barbican, in a symphony by Mahler. An unrepeatable experience, for most.

Sad then, to read of the erosion of the ethos of the liberal education as a good in itself (see here or here). My brother and I are of a generation that was able to attend university with no regard for the economic benefit to the country or the financial benefit to ourselves (as it happens, there was none). We were able to do this because it was free. That is no longer the case, and not only do students now get an education in the same way they might get a mortgage on a house, the universities are also expected to find most of their funding in the private sector, which will not unnaturally expect a return on its investment. In consequence, no one wants to study, or, worse, provide courses or do research in ‘unfashionable’ subjects. The market place will eliminate unsuccessful ‘subjects’ in a survival of the fittest. This is what efficiency means.

I see no evidence in society that we are better for this change in emphasis. We might even be a little worse. And while there will always be Diocletians turning their backs on the Empire to grow cabbages, it is sobering to remember that Diocletian abdicated on the eve of what Gibbon called ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’.

Wild Cambridge and the Dictionary

Many years ago my girlfriend’s sister came to visit us in Rome. She was from the Isle of Arran off the west coast of Scotland. We took her around the city for a couple of days, showed her some good bars, ate at some good restaurants; then, on the third day, rising as it were from her urban tomb, she could stand it no longer and went to the central station and somehow made them understand that what she wanted was a ticket to the mountains. She needed a bit of mountain air and open sky, it seems.


Robert Macfarlane, resident Cambridge writer, academic, and wild man, has adopted a word for a similar feeling he gets in the Cambridgeshire Fens – horizontigo – indicating fear or dread of the relentless horizontal of the Fens. Macfarlane is a mountaineer with roots in Scotland (his first book was a history of mountaineering), and says he sometimes feels the need, like my girlfriend’s sister, to run for the hills.

I do not feel the same pressure, but I do need to get out now and again, over the fields. A bit of sky and silence is never a bad thing. But a lust for the open air and an interest in nature, it seems, are now on the wane. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has removed a number of words relating to the natural world from its latest edition, to howls of protest from, among others, Robert Macfarlane, Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion. The words removed include acorn, beech, cygnet, fern, pasture and willow. They have been replaced with broadband, analogue, MP3 player, bullet-point and, ahem, blog.

I don’t know if the emendations to the dictionary are in part a marketing move – it is not the first time the Oxford University Press has generated such a reaction by pulling words, so to speak, from the language. Perhaps children really are more sedentary, less outdoorsy, then they once were. But I was always fond my my books and the indoors as a child; my interest in the outdoors, such as it is, came later and gets a little stronger as time goes by.

And anyway, who reads the dictionary these days?

Misanthropes and Jesters

It seems you can now find out which part of the UK you should be living in according to various personality descriptors such as extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. Neurotic birds of a feather, it seems, flock together.

So Cambridge is only 38% right for me. Why? I do not know. I am possibly not extravert enough (!?); or I am too open. I would be more at home – indeed, most at home – in Yorkshire, somewhere up near Skipton in a district known as Craven (when I clicked on my results and saw Craven in big letters, I thought that was my personality type). But even in my personal paradise of Skipton, my maximum expected life satisfaction, is only 44%. I may as well stay put I suppose. I would be least at home in Corby (25%), which at least I can credit. And so on.

The test is based on wide-ranging but evidently rather simplistic questionnaires. I never convinced by self-reporting of this sort. How happy am I at the moment? Haven’t a clue. Would you describe yourself as generally lazy? Neither agree nor disagree. And so on.

Take the test here.

A Misanthrope visits Corby - Breugel the Elder

A Misanthrope visits Corby – Breugel the Elder


In other personality news, Jeremy Clarkson has been fired from Top Gear for assaulting his producer, both verbally and physically. I have never been beaten up by my boss, but imagine it would be rather traumatic. The BBC seems to agree.

Many people (living, I must suppose, in places like Corby; or perhaps, just in Corby) disagree. They have come out strongly in support of the BBC’s resident jester. Over 1 million people signed an online petition demanding that he be allowed to stay (so perhaps not just in Corby), and a considerably number vented their rage on Twitter, most in the direction of the unfortunate producer, who is doubly cursed.

New Zealand News

Further to my post on eating camels, our Principal tells me that burying smouldering meat underground is commonplace in New Zealand, where it is known as a hangi (pronouced han’yi, near-enough). A hangi is a Maori technique, but there are similar traditions in the Cook Islands, where they are called Umu. Susan assures me that the Maoris traditionally enjoyed a hangi when there was human meat available – tribal enemy or white man, both were good. This is no longer the case.

A Maori Gentleman, by Charles Frederick Goldie

A Maori Gentleman, by Charles Frederick Goldie

Nowadays pork is substituted for your fallen enemy. The technique is the same as that used in Oman for cooking camel or New England for cooking seafood (the clambake). Dig a hole, put some wet stuff in (wet leaves, seaweed etc.) and the meat; cover and allow to steam.

Susan tells me there is nothing more delicious, unless it is freshly caught river trout eaten slapped on a portable grill and eaten with homemade brown bread and a beer. Sounds OK.


More New Zealand news. The cricket World Cup, held this year in Australia and New Zealand, is hotting up. New Zealand are one of the tournament favourites and have now reached the final, for the first time and after four previous semi-final appearances. In the final they will play Australia or India, the holders. New Zealand vs. Australia should be a spicy affair. No doubt there will be those celebrating with a hangi (if that is appropriate, I have no idea).

England have been in several finals, but have never won the World Cup. Perhaps Susan will be able to tell me what it feels like when she gets back from New Zealand (where she is now headed, via Japan and Sydney).

Treasured Possessions

A new exhibition opens today at the Fitzwilliam Museum, of ‘Treasured Possessions’ – curiosities from its vaults which are hard to categorise except as personal objects of devotion.

I sometimes ask my students which of their personal possessions they would take with them on a five-year space mission, if they could select only one. It proves a surprisingly tricky question to answer.

No one wants to say their laptop or their smartphone, even if that is the truth. Wouldn’t a five-year space mission in any case have machines that duplicated their functions? Some say photographs, but you would surely take digital versions of those. You don’t need to worry about clothes, I imagine. Are children your possessions? Certainly not. Pets? What then?

I would be tempted to take my teapot. I have a beautful hand-made jade-green ribbed teapot that makes enough tea for one person. It is an object of quasi-religious veneration. But would I be able to boil a kettle on a spaceship?

And on it goes. The truth of the matter is, I think, that the idea of treasured possession, like the idea of a collection (or books, of records) has taken a bit of a battering in recent years. I remember when I was a boy that my mother would occasionally bring out a rag-tag collection of objects of sentimental value which she kept secreted – a locket, small boxes, mementos of my boyhood, some jewellery which had belonged to her mother, and so on. That was a time when people’s personal possessions were relatively few, and were handed down, totemic items from the family vaults. Now we probably have too much stuff, all of it duplicated and replicated and branded, all of it bearing value other than sentimental.

It is highly doubtful that I’ll be showing my mother’s locket to my children and grandchildren; still more doubtful that I’d take it into space. Laptop it is.

Treasured Possessions runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 6th September. Entrance is free. 

Replaced by Machines

I read that Bill Gates is sad that he never learnt a foreign language. I guess he was busy.

...foreign language

…foreign language

He is now rectifying that oversight, or omission, or whatever it was (nothing so banal as a failure) not by taking lessons but by downloading a language-learning app, Duolingo. Duolingo is not unique as a learning algorithm, in that it creates a tree of knowledge. As you progress through your target language (I tried a bit of Spanish over the weekend) by means of simple repetitive tasks, you unlock further levels, further little nodes of knowledge which can take you down new paths, and so on.

It is nice to try something new, I suppose. Duolingo sets goals of time, gives pleasant little rewards as you move through a task. Perhaps it is the answer. However, the question remains, as always, why you would bother. Bill Gates must be fully aware that real-time translation devices are only a matter of a few years away – or, indeed, that they already exist, in the shape of Google Translate, an app that I was shocked to discover will translate text at which you point your camera with absolute simultaneity, if, admittedly, with the usual comical gibberish. The effect is not unlike looking through X-ray specs at another language.

Well, that is the way the world is going. I was reading an article by John Lanchester about robotics, and how it is not just blue-collar, repetitive labour that is at risk, but also a lot of white collar labour. He mentions a list of 702 jobs at risk from algorithms of one sort or another, where No. 702 is least at risk and No.1 is most at risk. Most at risk are telemarketers, apparently. At 698 are insurance underwriters. I haven’t seen the whole list, but Lanchester notes that writing is at No. 123. Much of the bald reporting on company results (quarterly profits, stock market performance, etc.) which appears in newspapers or online is already machine-generated.

This blog hasn’t got long before it’s written by robots then, for people using Duolingo. For now it’s just me. For a glimpse of the future, however, here is a short piece on the robots which fulfil your Amazon orders (some of the robots are humans, as it turns out).