Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Puritanism and What it Does to Us

Britain seems to have become a deeply puritanical place. And deeply hypocritical, too, although they usually go together and people prefer not to notice the latter. In fact hypocrisy is more or less general and we try not to notice.
I say that Britain is especially puritanical because anything that can be used to move popular condemnation of anyone, is so used. Politicians know that, rather than looking petty and spiteful, they will be regarded as strong and demotic.

The press follow them partly because they are no different, and partly because they know it sells to the public.
It is much more than the racism industry, much more than the broader 'offence' industry. These have been created deliberately. It is a general thing. Anyone who does or says or thinks anything heterodox or unauthorised or surprising to the hearer will be skimmity-ed, pilloried, publically and gleefully humiliated by spineless creatures filled with loathing, burning envy of those able to think and brave enough to be free, and the act of hounding out of their job, their house or their sanity of people who are not like them will be applauded as something good. It is easy to make people base and foul, and it has become the accepted thing to be. Ghastly. Spain is less horribly putrid in this respect.

In Britain, which is influenced in these matters by the USA, in ways spread only, I think, by the contact most people have with its popular culture, and to some extent by interference between their media and academics, there is a constant shifting of the moral quicksand, and a constant vigilance for the first one to miss a step. It is not surprising that people should take their own values to be, if not universal, at least basically right and accepted by a majority. It isn't even surprising that people should pose as thinkers in newspapers and on television and demonstrate exactly the same ignorance. But that it is rarely challenged by those who should know better is surprising indeed.

I think in the media the desire to be thought orthodox trumps everything else; truth, analysis, information, usefulness, interest, intelligence, are not important. Most articles are opinion, even those claiming to be news, and they are mostly an exercise in saying what they think their readers, or such of them as they consider their judges, want to hear. They contribute very little to real knowledge or understanding.

The moral culture that Britain thinks it lives in is more relaxed about many types of sexuality and the ways it sees other people, and it is proud of this fact. But there is no real goodness in people's position on this, it is just what they have been told they should believe. Even so, it probably makes Britain a better place for homosexuals or blacks to live in. However, in other respects social constraint is much tighter than it was 30 years ago. The important point is that deviation from the norm appears to be policed much more strictly than it was. It is this sense that Britain is more puritanical than it was.

I suppose it is natural to think that 'we' are continuing to discover moral rightness, and are morally superior to the people of a generation ago, but someone who is about to commit that stupidity to print should really think hard enough about it to realize that it is rubbish.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Reading the American Election

I haz had ice-cream
The blog Neuroself, written by Peter Freed, who is, I think, a psychiatrist as well as a psychotherapist, is always interesting for anyone who is fascinated by the human mind. He has live-blogged the US Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, and very interesting it’s been. He has been looking at the body language to try to learn about the state of mind of the candidates and, as or more importantly still, to try to predict how the audience will react to the paralinguistic communication. Most of what was said wasn’t especially interesting or memorable in itself, but the behaviour of the candidates, the impression their bodies left, will be remembered and may influence voting. (I didn’t watch any of the debates, I’m quoting my sources.)

I am not American, do not live there, do not expect whoever wins to invade Britain or Spain, or to solve the world’s economic problems- the rest of us will do that, eventually- so it is for me only of sporting interest who wins and who loses. Neither of them impresses me. They both look like politicians to me. Different types of politician, very different, but politicians nonetheless.

I don’t know Peter Freed’s politics, if he has any. He appears to be doing a clinical analysis with no partisan intent. In italics are his comments, all from the final debate between Obama and Romney on the 22nd inst.

It’s common wisdom in psychotherapy and policing alike that the willingness of someone to talk depends on the autonomic nervous system status of the questioner.

I wish he had clarified in what sense the correlation goes, and how it works. Also, why it was relevant here.

3. Mouth moistness: blood (and plasma) moves to muscles during high sympathetic tone. It moves to the internal organs and mucus membranes in parasympathetic tone. Mouth dryness is therefore a sign of sympathetic tone – whoever’s mouth is dryer is losing.

I could have done with more explanation of that as well, but there is enough to know what is happening when one or other changes tone in that way. What he doesn’t quite say, but I assume to be true, is that in contests like this, each combatant is aware of how the other is feeling. They both know who’s winning and who’s losing.

4. Sentence complexity: sentence complexity is governed by the prefrontal cortex, which orders, sequences, and prioritizes ideas. PFC is turned off during stress – the neurons literally have cortisol receptors that depolarize them during stress. This forces the organism back on tried and true evolutionary strategies. Sentence complexity is therefore a marker of parasympathetic tone.

This is absolutely fascinating. It is simply a physiological explanation of the fact that it is harder to think when under stress. But it gives you something quantifiable to watch for.

And do they look at their opponent first or second? In primate fights monkeys don’t look at other monkeys unless they want aid.

Humans, of course, do the same. In confrontation, they look only at the opponent if they are confident of beating him. If they look around, they aren’t happy.

Obama has the forced, memorized facial expressions of a natural beta.

'Obama is a beta.' If I were a journalist, that would be my headline. But I am not interested in creating truth, rather in finding it (today, at least). I don’t wish to put words in Peter Freed’s mouth. He has made a technical interpretation of an observation of a particular gesture at a specific moment, nothing more. But I find it easy to take it as a general truth about Obama. He is a beta male, one of those who benefit by their ability to serve the leaders. They may become leaders themselves, but unless they can win, or inherit, alpha status, they are only surrogates, allowed to front for the real leader, by his gracious permission.

Many political leaders are mere figureheads, bureaucrats, with no real ability to lead. Obama is not Gordon Brown, or that Belgian chap with the glasses, but he isn’t an alpha male. Romney, perhaps.

Romney is raising his eyebrows frequently as though teaching in a caring way a young mentee. This is the behavior of a benevolent elder. Obama does not raise eyebrows as though teaching – but rather when surprised by his own ideas. This is the behavior of a talented student. In split screen, Romney seems to be higher status.

Hmmm. He knows his primatology. I wonder if Obama does.

In the split screen look at Obama’s flat forehead as he gazes at Romney. This means that cranial nerve 7 is not animating the face with nonverbal dominance signals. This studied eye contact, not automatic. I still say he’s feeling submissiveness signals from his limbic system, hypothalamus, feeding off Romney’s confidence, despite cognitively rejecting Romney’s legitimacy.

More fascinating insight into the physiology of primate confrontation and social hierarchy. This was, undoubtedly, a brutal, bloody battle. Both are fighting for something which probably means more to them than their lives, at least at that moment, and they have to convince a huge, unpredictable audience that they should live and their opponent die. The stress of these occasions must be enormous. It is only the preparation of the candidates, who have been doing this all their lives, that stopped them from screaming at each other like guests on Jerry Springer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another Return to the Maestro

Yes, I have done this before, but it makes as much sense now as it did then (not a lot, probably):

Four years ago, when I first trespassed on the presence of the man who was to become my blogging Maestro, I was as a schoolboy before his headmaster's study door, or even more like a priest's apprentice, newly rescued from the orphanage, sent to perform sacrifice at the feet of the idol.

A sense of my inadequacy filled me from spinning head to chilly feet, passing through a pounding chest, a face alternately red and white, a stomach churning dangerously, and knees that trembled so violently they could barely keep me standing. I saw myself from afar, an object of horror in my own eyes, appalled that one such should dare to enter that place. I would have turned and run, but my legs weren't up to the effort.

A 9th degree Technoratus, no less, the most highly transcended figure of that great celestial blogosphere of which most of us know nothing, preferring to believe that this poor thing we send our thoughts out into is all there is. A man, a being rather, so supremely pure that he did not blog in the way that we might understand it; he had no keyboard, no modem, no material connection to the world of the mundane blogger whose life consists of tapping out his idlest thoughts in the belief that someone, somewhere, cares what he has to say. No, the Maestro blogged in the purest, most spiritual way, entirely within his own mind, and his web site was the infiniteness of time, the gaps between the stars, the silences we mortals create by our inability to fill them, his readership the perfect and perfected creatures that inhabit those places.

Despite the gulf between us, he received me as great men do, as though I were the one doing him the favour, as though he had waited years for this moment, as though there were something he could learn from me.

'Maestro', I breathed, my forehead to the ground, so overcome I could barely even kneel, 'I would blog.'

The words were spoken; I had violated that place, the purity of the air that man respired, by my presumption that I could, in any way at all, be like him. I awaited death, which I was sure by them was the only possible punishment, with something approaching satisfaction.

'Then blog, my son. To blog is to live. To blog is to be. To blog is to become one with the universe.'

'How can I blog, in the truest sense, Maestro? I mean Blog, not merely blog?'

'You refer to readership, my son, stats.'

'Er, yes, Maestro. For it is written that a blog that goes unread is like a camel's armpit unbitten by fleas.'

'So they tell me, yes. You need a niche, my son, something only you can talk about in a particular way. What do you have to tell people about?'

'Hedgehogs, Maestro,' I replied, 'I am the goto man for reliable hedgehog news.'

'Hmm,' mused the Great One, 'not bad, but perhaps a bit too niche. Chuck in a bit of passionate and crudely analysed politics, and some whimsical humour. It'll help the hedgehogs along. Then go with whatever is making you think, whatever makes you feel strong emotion. Use words wisely and well, and transmit, my son, that feeling to others. Someone will listen. Be yourself, and don't take yourself too seriously because, lets face it, my son...'

Once he'd started he got up steam and went on like this for some time. I took note of everything he said, and have tried to be a good disciple. When he had said what he had to say he stopped and dismissed me, saying,

'Go out into the world and blog as I have taught you to blog. Return in four years and I shall weigh your worth.'

Those four years are nearly gone, and I must make my way once more to the Presence, and account for the use I have made of my Maestro's teaching.

I could lie, of course. Since he lives in a cave near the top of a particularly inhospitable mountain, and communciates only with those beings that inhabit the spaces between the lower level orbits of the hydrogen atom, the chances of him knowing my site stats are fairly slim. Or I could tell him I use the pseudonym Old Holborn or Guido Fawkes. But it wouldn't feel right. So I shall go to him bearing the truth, perhaps the greatest gift there is. And just in case, a box of the finest Belgian chocolates, which melt the hardest of hearts.

Wish me luck. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

By Popular Demand

Or what passes for popular demand around here. That biped who thinks he owns the place and gets in the way when I'm trying to eat isn't exactly setting the world alight, is he? Maybe he should realize that people are more interested in cute hedgehogs than turgid ramblings about half-digested politics, or 'philosophy' as he likes to call it.

Anyway, he's let me have another go so, as, unlike him, I do know what the public wants, here is me doing stuff that I do. Mostly I run around randomly, like a an over-wound piece of clockwork (the bidped's words;  I see myself as moving smoothly and elegantly through my domains), stopping regularly to stick my nose in the air and chase down something edible. Then I go crunch. It's a comfortable life in some ways.

That furry thing is a bit disturbing sometimes, look at that evil eye, but I know how to keep him in his place.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On the fourth birthday of this blog, I raise a glass to the prickly chap who inspired it, and makes occasional contributions. I raise another glass to all those who have read it at some point, and a further glass (it’s ok, they’re only small ones), to everyone who has taken the trouble to comment.

Last year at this time I attempted to reflect on why I blog. I didn’t arrive at any firm conclusion, except that I like doing it. I can’t add much to what I said then. I sometimes wonder why I spent hours writing and re-writing a post intended to crystallise my thoughts on some more or less profound topic, when it might be read by fewer than a hundred people and not receive a single comment.

It’s my graffiti wall, I suppose. I can scrawl whatever I like here, I can choose my crayons freely and let the ideas flow, and I can choose whether or not to argue about what it means or if it was worth it.

So having little to add to last year’s musings, I raise yet another glass to some people who have played a role in shaping, in some way, my little sandbox:

I thank NickM, of Counting Cats, for teaching me not to be afraid of the recursive asterisk.*

I thank Vincent, the Wayfarer, for regularly pointing out my lapses into negativity and intellectual laziness. The lesson still isn’t entirely learnt, but I now construct posts with a greater awareness of who might be reading them. And a clearer idea of why I write them in the first place.

I thank Dr. Rao, who thinks I’m a Professor of Indology and still sends me updates on research into the Indus script which I am, to both his and my disappointment, not competent to evaluate.

I thank CNN, for linking to me about three years ago as a supposed expert on Bolivian politics and sending my readership numbers through the roof for a couple of days (all I’d done was read a selection of the Bolivian press and turn it into a report for the Anglo-Saxon public, something you would have imagined they would be doing themselves).

I thank an anonymous user of reddit for linking to my recent post on Heikegani and also sending the stats through the roof. (Note to self: find out what reddit is and how it works).

I thank Charles Crawford for accidentally getting me into the Independent in rather confused circumstances

I thank Mark Wadsworth for teaching me the little I know about money, and for patience in the face of stupid questions.

I thank Tim Worstall for taking the trouble to answer my economically innocent questions in an intellectually meaningful way.

I thank the world, for being interesting enough to think and write about

*I would also thank him for teaching me to write fun and interesting posts**, but he has been unequal to the- extremely difficult- task.

**Not that he knew he was trying to do it, of course.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Sky is a Canvas

The sky is too great, too apparent, too compelling a canvas not to have drawn the attention of the greatest of artists. And what we see drawn on it is too powerful, too vivid, too varied, it imitates the range of human emotions and experiences so closely, yet so enormously, that it can only be the work of an artist. It can express calm, quietude, the love of beauty, anger, terror, despair, new life, authority, madness, dizzy colour, soul-destroying blackness. We recognise it all and feel it, respond to it all, more strongly, more broadly, than we respond to those same feelings within ourselves. The sky can tell us what we are and what we feel, it can tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know.

The sky can tell stories, and not just our own stories. Is it possible that the clouds have no narrative? Do they move about, around one another, heap up, disperse, attack each other, cover and reveal the sky, collide, stream and curl away to nothing, take on the colours of flame, anger, hatred, love, jealousy, the Virgin Mary, the deep ocean, the Jamaican sand at noon, the boiling, melting of a volcano, the gently mixing shades of a quiet river, the darkness of doom, all to no purpose? Can it mean nothing?

There are many stories to be read in the sky, stories told by the great artist who wrote painted them there. But I have never been able to read them. It should be possible. Not easy, but possible, to read the stories in the sky and to know that they are true.

The sky is a great canvas, and the artist is the observer.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Circles and Cycles

This is undoubtedly the strangest thing that has ever happened to me…

One of my little schemes for paying the mortgage is to train people to speak in public. A surprising number of people need this skill, and a lot of them don’t realize until they make fools of themselves. Candidates for the oral part of civil service exams, young employees wanting to impress the boss, salesmen who need to stand out at a conference, people running for public office, they all want help, and some of them call me.

It’s mostly academics and professionals, and it’s mostly in English, although it doesn’t have to be. The techniques are different when you are not using your mother tongue, but the basic problems and skills to be practised are the same.

One man who trains with me is a doctor, who is sometimes required to address congresses and other demanding audiences in English. He is a good communicator in many ways, but his English is not quite up to some of the tasks he undertakes, and  so together we seal a few of the cracks and give him a little extra confidence.

This doctor, who we shall call Santos, for no particular reason, doesn’t live in the small city which I adopted some years ago and which has, in turn, adopted me. He works at a small hospital in a town some 20 miles away, and lives about another 20 miles beyond that. Nevertheless, he thinks it worth his while to drive here twice a week after work to learn and practise with me.

Not long ago he was asked to give a talk, in English, on some aspect of emergency procedure. A gathering of medical and administrative personnel from around Europe had been invited so they could show off our new teaching hospital, and they wanted something didactic, dramatic, bloody, and theoretically useful. It had to be worthwhile for the doctors to sit and listen to it, but it also had to convince them that the non-medical people present would learn from it. It had, in short, to be professional, clinical, smooth, it had to look and sound good. His sponsors were looking for a performance, of which the practical benefit was only a part.

He had decided the topic by the time he spoke to me about it. He wanted to explain how to do an emergency tracheotomy, which is nicely dramatic and bloody. I questioned him in detail about the likely audience, which should be the starting point for any speaker, but is often forgotten. We discussed the language and terminology he would need, ways of structuring the text, styles of presentation, and how to fit it all to the time. And he went away to produce a draft.

The next day we looked at it, I corrected it, we discussed the pronunciation of certain difficult but essential terms, and removed some difficult, non-essential words. You don’t want to spend half the time worrying about whether your attempt at some key word is going to be taken off the bat. We trimmed it a bit, I reduced it to a larger number of smaller conceptual units- the difference would be more in his mind than in the text itself, but it makes a difference- and he went away again to make a final version.

When it was ready and he was happy with it, we did a dress rehearsal, in which I was the audience. Reading from a sheet gives great confidence to the speaker, but it can very easily distance the speaker from the audience. To read as though speaking ex tempore in one of the skills they come to me to learn.

His performance was superb. He is, I am certain, a fine doctor. He brings competence, responsibility and hard work to everything he does. He had practised diction, delivery, interaction, he was aware at all times of the speed and intonation of his voice and he never forgot that he was there to tell people things that they wanted to hear. Even without the slides- he had prepared a bit of visual support, but we decided for the run-through it wasn’t worth setting anything up; pressing a button every so often wasn’t going to affect him in any important way- it was gripping. I pronounced him ready to face his public.

We cut to the following Saturday morning. I was walking in the country, as I do. Just outside the city, as I passed an isolated and apparently abandoned house, I heard a form of screech. My expert ear immediately identified it as a young female Homo sapiens expressing strong emotion. But this was not the strong emotion produced by seeing a friend approaching, or hearing about what A said B did with C in the broom cupboard, or noticing a lovely pair of boots in a shop window. It was a different kind of screech, and it that made my blood run cold. Something was very wrong, and there was no one else about.

I ran around the corner of the building. There were two girls, in fact, both about 12, one bent over, screaming, the other on the ground, twitching horribly. The screaming girl grabbed my arm and managed to say ‘she can’t breathe… she can’t breathe…’ I had expected to find a wild animal, a big dog or a wounded boar, perhaps, or a man attacking her. I would have known what to do. I might have done it badly, but I would have had a plan. This was beyond me.

I dropped down beside her. No, she couldn’t breathe. She wasn’t wheezing, asthmatic, drunk, drugged or anything like that. No air could enter her lungs. None. Why not, I asked the friend. She had been licking a kind of gobstopper when she laughed and sucked it in, and she fell down. I had to do something very, very fast. But what?

I had dialled the emergency number almost as I heard the first scream, and I gave the phone and the GPS I carry to the friend, and told her what to tell them. The girl’s eyes were turning red, and the rest of her blue. The words Heimlich manoeuvre swam before my eyes. I could feel the ball in her throat, it felt big and hard and a long way down. I sat her up as best I could, squatted behind her and tried to squeeze her firmly just below the diaphragm. Even if I’d known where the diaphragm actually was, the sweet wasn’t going to move. It was too firmly lodged.

The word tracheotomy swam before my eyes. I knew how to do one, at least in theory. But does she need one? She needed something. The ball wasn’t coming out and she couldn’t breathe. Oddly enough, it was the face of the friend that cooled my brain to the point where it could do something like thinking. I saw in her face what I should have seen in the choking girl’s: in 30 seconds she would be dead, and I had to save her, because I was there. The logic of children can be compelling. Her friend could not die, because that sort of thing doesn’t happen, and as I was the only adult there I would be the one who would save her. I could see it in her face and so it had to be true. I took the phone and heard a distant, commanding voice which sounded a little like mine that I was about to perform a tracheotomy and the ambulance crew should be ready to treat the consequences. And I went to work.

The principle of the tracheotomy is very simple. If the windpipe is blocked and air can’t enter, and you can’t unblock it, then you make a hole belong the obstruction, keep it open with a tube, and the patient breathes once more. In the rucksack I always carry when out walking or riding I carry a large number of things, on the grounds that you never know. I took out the first aid kit, a small hunting-knife, a lighter, and a ballpoint pen.

I thought back to the lecture I had heard. Dr Santos was a very good performer indeed. When we had done the rehearsal I was more interested in the sound of it, the interaction of the speaker with the audience, the use of the voice and the eyes, the length of sentences, the authority of the speaker, with the performance as a whole, rather than with the content, but it had got over. It was there in my head. Despite the lack of slides, I could picture every detail of the operation as it should be performed. I could see the folds of muscle I had to use to navigate, the cartilage I must avoid, the point I had to find where the bleeding would be minimal and the introduction of the tube easiest. There was also some stuff about severing the flesh in several stages to avoid the larger veins and the isthmal gland, but dismissed it as fussy and irrelevant. I put the blade of the knife in the flame of the lighter and prepared to act.

All of this took much less time than it takes to tell. Disturbing as it is to watch a young girl die before your eyes as you prepare to slice open her windpipe- and believe me it is absolutely bloody terrifying- everything changes when you have a plan, a purpose. You become calmer, at least calm enough to act. You think of nothing else. Time moves slowly but smoothly. Your responsibility is no longer to save a life that is draining away as you watch- a daunting job to thrust upon anyone- but to plunge a knife through flesh. That, you think, I can do. Easy, no problem. This is done and dusted.

The details are blurred, for which I’m grateful. But it was messy. If you’ve ever cut uncooked meat with a knife, or prepared a rabbit for cooking, you’ll know how hard it is. The flesh slides away from you and refuses to be controlled. When you have 10 seconds to make the cut this can be quite nerve-wracking. But the knife went in. It reached the place it had to reach, and went no further. It avoided major arteries and other vital organs. By the purest of chance, I should think. I pushed the sleeve of the biro through the hole, and she breathed.

It sounded like nothing on earth, it looked more like death than the convulsions and the blue skin, but oddly enough it was the sound of life being grasped, firmly, by a hand that wanted it badly and would get it. It became stable, still not anything like normal, but stable, and her eyes opened. She seemed to see me.

Her friend, who had breathed little more than she had in the last two minutes, fell half on top of me, and then completely on her, and cried. A relaxed, uninhibited kind of crying. Her tone told me that her friend would recover. I knew it because she was breathing. The friend knew it because she could read the other’s mind, and understand those parts of the universe that understood what was and what would be. The girl’s face at that moment was beyond my understanding.

What I do know is that nothing I have ever felt in my life is comparable to the moment when I knew she would live. It was simple relief. The obligation to do something so momentous was over, and it been successful. I could relax. No more than that. I didn’t know the girl. If I hadn’t passed by just then I would have read of her death in the paper and not batted an eyelid. But I was there. I did it. And it felt good.

She was conscious when the ambulance turned up, still breathing strangely, but conscious and calm. She didn’t know what had happened to her, and she felt some discomfort, but she could see her friend’s face which told her she was ok, and she was with people who knew what they were doing, so she would be fine. The ambulance crew cleaned her up, stuck tubes in her, and took her away. They wanted to take me with them, to treat me for shock, but I said no. I was ok. I was more than ok. I felt terrific. They even had the courtesy to congratulate me on the competence of my butchery. I knew they were lying, but what the hell.

Which lasted a couple of miles. I had to sit down by the path, call a taxi to take me home, and consider the matter with the help of two large Scotches (in Spain, large means biiiiig). It’s just life, I was managing to persuade myself. The poor girl will have a nasty scar, which she will hate me for, but she’s alive. It all worked out right, because by the purest chance I had just learned the basics of the exact technique she needed. Sometimes life works like that. It ended well. Be happy about it.

That afternoon I got a call from Santos, the doctor, my student. Of course, that was the day he was giving his lecture. He would be calling to tell me how it went. But no.

He never gave that lecture. He was in my little city, at the hospital. He had been about to take the stage when the call arrived. His 12-year-old daughter had suffered some kind of attack while visiting a friend. She had been given an emergency tracheotomy, which had saved her life. I wished him the best, her a swift recovery, and finished the bottle of whisky.