Thursday, 4 August 2016

The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Up until this week, I knew Oliver Sacks' book "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" only as an excellent option when playing charades (book, 9 ( NINE!) words in the title, first word... ).

Turns out it's outstanding, certainly the best thing that I've read in some months. Sacks is/ was a professor of clinical neurology, and the book is nothing more than a collection of short descriptions of, and reflections on, a selection of Sacks' patients. What makes this collection so interesting is that:

(a) Sacks writes beautifully -- vigorous, visceral prose with an abundance of rich allusion and literary reference (but not to the point that his prodigious learning gets on your tits -- I'm thinking of you, Saul Bellow). More importantly, Sacks' writing is warm. It has a very human quality that speaks to the deep empathy that the author feels for his subjects; in this regard, it reminds me of how it feels to read Tolstoy.

(b) Sacks' patients are to a (wo)man deeply interesting and his discussion of their situations is moving and profound.... And has implications for the way all of us of our lives.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence: all of the patients in this book have a deeply unusual sense of reality -- in different ways, each patient has a "pathology" that affects a particular connection to the outside world in an extreme way. In studying this pathology, Sacks sheds light on aspects of our human condition that are so fundamental, we don't even realise they are there.

We all, for instance, occasionally make mistakes in our visual categorisation of the objects around us (is that object arse or elbow?), but now imagine if virtually all of your visual categorisations are wrong (as in the case of the eponymous hero of this book)? How do you relate to the world if you, LITERALLY, have been known to mistake your wife for a hat?

In trying to respond CLINICALLY to the travails of his patients, Sacks quickly finds himself needing to respond philosophically -- to contemplate, for instance, what it is about visual categorisation that is so vital in our lives, and how we might cope if we find ourselves without it. (Note: the patient in question has perfect vision, but is unable to effectively process the images that he receives....)

The story that most struck a chord with me (and I use that phrase deliberately) is a discussion of two twins who, though deeply mentally retarded, were able to perform certain prodigious feats of mathematics through mere contemplation (like finding 12 digit primes for instance). You should think "Rain man" (and, indeed, one of the incidents that Sacks relates involving the twins clearly inspired the matchbox incident in that movie)... but I must admit that that movie left me a little cold, whereas Sacks' discussion is truly profound.

In particular, as a mathematician, I was greatly moved by the twins' emotional relationship with numbers, with their activities as contemplators of numbers in some absolute way. On a shallow level, the twins' feats of computation are extraordinary.... but fundamentally rather robotic and unenlightening. Much more interesting is the way that, as Sacks describes, the twins see very profound beauty in (for instance) prime numbers, and they move a "landscape of number" that connects profoundly to their essential humanity (a humanity that is, by some measures, deeply broken).

In the course of Sacks' discussion, there are two particularly interesting passages. The first, below, is a quote from another author on the place of music in humanity's search for meaning. Sacks uses this as a departure point for a similar reflection on the place of number in that search -- and the second quote is from this reflection.

`Whoever is harmonically composed,' writes Sir Thomas Brown, `delights in harmony... and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed Lesson of the whole World... a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God... The soul... is harmonical, and hath its nearest sympathy unto Music.' (p. 204)
Quote 2:

('The philosopher seeks to hear within himself the echoes of the world symphony,' writes Nietzsche, `and to re-project them in the form of concepts.') The twins, though morons, hear the world symphony, I conjecture, but hear it entirely in the form of numbers.
    The soul is 'harmonical' whatever one's IQ and for some, like physical scientists and mathematicians, the sense of harmony, perhaps is chiefly intellectual. And yet I cannot think of anything intellectual that is not, in some way, also sensible -- indeed the very word `sense' always has this double connotation. Sensible, and in some sense `personal' as well, for one cannot feel anything, find anything `sensible', unless it is, in some way, related or relatable to oneself...
    The twins, I believe, have not just a strange `faculty' -- but a sensibility, a harmonic sensibility, perhaps allied to that of music. One might speak of it, very naturally, as a `Pythagorean' sensibility -- and what is odd is not its existence, but that it is apparently so rare. One's soul is `harmonical' whatever one's IQ, and perhaps the need to find or feel some ultimate harmony or order is a universal of the mind, whatever its powers, and whatever form it takes. Mathematics has always been called the `queen of sciences', and mathematicians have always felt number as the great mystery, and the world as organised, mysteriously, by the power of number. This is beautifully expressed in the prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography:
       With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.

These two quotes point towards an existential impulse behind the process of mathematics, and it is one that I find deeply reassuring in my day-job as a pure mathematician. I am frequently assailed with questions of the "why am I doing this?" sort.... pure mathematics can seem a deeply self-indulgent, rather pointless way to spend one's life... and yet perhaps it is also one of the most fundamental activities any human can undertake.

If I were a musician, would I be assailed with the same doubts? Perhaps, but I think it is more generally accepted that the making of music has a place in our struggle as humans to make sense of our existential condition... It is pleasing for me to hear Sacks asserting, too, the place of mathematics in this struggle.

And it is deeply moving that this affirmation emerges out of a contemplation of two deeply "broken" human beings; two human beings in possession of intellects that lack many of the basic functions we take for granted and yet that , in a very beautiful and dramatic way, shed great light on our place as humans in the universe.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Needy Dad?

I am in Nepal teaching maths for two weeks. I caught the train to Heathrow at lunchtime on the Saturday and by the time I arrived I was already missing my boys...

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students. We were walking home together from one of the classes that I had given, and we got to chatting about our respective lives. It turns out that he also has two children, and they are exactly the same age. We laughed when we found that out -- it was striking for both of us to meet someone from so far away, and with whom we shared something so much at the centre of our lives.

As we continued talking though, I realised that our parenting experiences are fantastically different -- Suresh is studying in Kathmandu, while his children stay at home with his wife in the village where he comes from. He used to go home every second week-end, but the journey is too taxing and he is currently going home only one week-end every month.

My first reaction to this was to reflect on how tough that would be -- to see one's children so infrequently, and to be constantly dealing with the sense of isolation that that brings. I have found these few days away from my children very trying and would hate to have to do this routinely...

As I mused more through that evening, though, another response arose inside me. I remembered a couple of incidents that had happened back in Wales in the month or so before I left: in the first I'd become furiously, insanely, completely irrationally angry when Anton had decided to go off with Katie one Saturday, after I'd been planning an activity for me and him and had organised my week-end around it... My anger scared and shocked him, and he said sorry later for going off with his Mum -- of course, he had nothing to say sorry for, while I had a LOT!

And then there's Joseph, who is struggling at the moment when asked what activity he wants to do of a week-end, or in the evening. This is particularly acute when he feels that by expressing a preference, he's giving priority to one person over another -- especially when those people are his parents. He's only seven, and he worries about hurting our feelings! I've told him numerous times that I don't mind at all if he'd rather do something with his Mum one evening, but I think he sees deeper than the words and knows that, in some sense, I do mind, of course I do...

What has brought us to this? I've always taken as a given that it's a good thing for a Dad to be hands on, to be involved and close to his children. I still believe this, but my discussion with Suresh and these reflections have given me pause: am I creating a situation where I seek affirmation from my children, where I am imposing a kind of guilt on them if they seek space from me?

This, clearly, must be avoided: all children need to find independence from their parents and this need will only grow greater for them as they grow older. I must not, even accidentally, derail their pursuit of independence; I must not saddle them with guilt for seeking what is essential.

Katie and I have talked many times about the need for us to be independent within our relationship: we cannot be all things to each other no matter how we try, and we need to be deliberate in seeking meaning apart from each other. That word "affirmation" crops up again -- if all of our self-affirmation comes from one place, we're heading for trouble: we can usually tell when we've got the balance wrong, because there's a rise in the narky conversations, the lingering pissed-off-ness, the resentment...

Well, now I realise (8 years in) that a similar principle needs to be honoured in my parenting. I cannot rely on my children for my entire meaning-making structure in life, and I need to be deliberate in finding separateness from my children, and letting them find separateness from me.

I'm going to end this reflection with a line from Khalil Gibran that Katie and I have reflected on many times in the context of our relationship. It seems that the wisdom therein is something that I need to attend to as a parent also -- I'm in a priviled first-world position where I get to spend more than a week-end every month with my children. Now I have to make sure that this time contains enough space for all of us to grow -- together, but also apart, and in love.

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow." From The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

Monday, 30 November 2015

Don't bomb Syria

I cannot believe that we are headed for another military adventure in the Middle East. The blood hasn't dried in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now we head out again.

I sent the following letter to my MP today. God knows if it will help.

Dear Wayne David,

I am one of your constituents - I live in Llanbradach. I am writing to

I listen to the radio incredulous that we are being led into yet
another military adventure in the Middle East, so soon after Iraq,
Afghanistan and Libya. Military action can only lead to yet more blood
shed, more bereavement, more widows and orphans, more anger and
resentment and chaos. Please, I beg of you, do all you can to ensure
that the proposed military action does not go ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Two things I learnt from a year in Costa Rica

At the start of 2014, I moved with my family to Costa Rica. A year later we moved back to the UK after a memorable 12 months. I learnt a lot of things in that time, but here are two that seem particularly important.

On immigration. This move to Costa Rica was EASY: I had a nice job lined up in a good university; I caught a plane straight there with my family; I had my papers all sorted; I had some money in the bank to ease the travails of moving; I was healthy as was all my family; we'd had plenty of time to prepare; I'd been learning Spanish but the university let me teach in English for the first six months; my wage might have been low by Western standards but it was pretty nice compared to your average tico; Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful place with great food, great beaches, great weather; a bunch of people at the university went out of their way to welcome us, make us feel at home, look after us, and give us advice.... But despite all that, this easy move was HARD.

Which is hardly surprising, because moving across the world to a new place is inevitably damn difficult. We had a load of times when we felt lonely, disconnected and abandoned; when we just wanted to flee screaming back to where we came from.

So now imagine what it must be like for those without all those advantages. People bang on endlessly in this country about all the immigrants swamping the country. It's bollox from start to finish of course. But even if it weren't, how bad must things be where they're coming from that they're prepared to move across the globe to some alien new land, where they will be received with suspicion, rejection and blame for all of the ills of the place where they find themselves?

A little empathy would go a long way.

On housing. Our housing in Costa Rica was a tale of two halves: for the first six months we were in a tiny two-bedroom flat with a piece of concrete outside and some razor wire; for the second six months we had a big flat with a magnificent garden.

What's interesting is that the two-halves experience of housing also made for a two-halves experience of parenting. In the first six months I shouted at my kids a lot. They were continually making noise in my ear just when I needed some calm; there was nowhere for me to go to avoid them; there was nowhere for them to go to avoid me. I ended up being a very angry daddy.

And I didn't even realise what had been happening until we'd spent our first month in the nice new flat. A whole month had gone by and I'd hardly needed to raise my voice. If things got hairy I just walked out the door into the garden, or kicked them both out and told them to play football for half an hour. Suddenly I was a good dad!

It made me realise just how much the state of our housing affects our quality of life. I want to be a good dad more than just about anything else in the world... but I just couldn't do it in that first place (and it wasn't even that bad; lots of Costa Ricans have it much worse). It made me realise anew that when governments and councils and powers-that-be short-change people on basic needs like housing, the effects are not just the physical discomfort of a shit place to live, but the damage of fundamental family relationships.

I have in my head a classic stereotype of a working-class mother screaming at her kids as she pushes a buggy down the road; I'm walking by in my middle-class bubble trying to be sympathetic but secretly, snobbily, disapproving. Well for six months, I was that mother. I don't want to blame all my bad parenting on living in a shit flat, but I know for a fact that it didn't bloody help. If I was a better person, my parenting would still have been OK... But unfortunately I've got to start from where I'm at, and it turns out that I find it hard to parent if I can't get away from my kids every now and then. Who'd've thunk it?

Sunday, 5 April 2015

From Heinlein's "Door into Summer"

The following quote is from Robert Heinlein's Door into Summer:

I thanked him and left with a really warm feeling. Mr. Doughty reminded me of a paymaster I used to have in the Army. Paymasters come in only two sizes: one sort shows you where the book says that you can't have what you've got coming to you; the second sort digs through the book until he finds a paragraph that lets you have what you need even if you don't rate it. (p. 85)
My new work place seems to have a few too many paymasters of the former kind...

(Incidentally, while Door into Summer is an enjoyable bit of fluff, it really doesn't compare to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which I rate as possibly the best sci-fi book I've ever read.) 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Visions of a university

I've just finished John Williams' Stoner, a truly brilliant novel. The protagonist, William Stoner, leads an apparently unexceptional life, much of it occupied with his work as a lecturer at a small university in the states.

Of course no life is really unexceptional; yet, at the same time, all lives have a mundanity, a prosaic-ness that art very rarely manages to capture - as soon as a life appears in a novel, for instance, it inevitably loses its mundanity and becomes something special through the act of being observed. This problem seems to me to be one of the major obstacles that novelists face when they try and write truthfully - J.M. Coetzee manages it brilliantly and here too Williams' story of this ordinary life is a triumph of truthful story-telling.

The story also holds a special resonance for me, given that much of my life is occupied with my work as a lecturer in a small university.

The quotes below are all from Stoner:

... Masters, holding aloft a hard-boiled egg from the free lunch as if it were a crystal ball, said, 'Have you gentlemen ever considered the question of the true nature of the University? Mr Stoner? Mr Finch?'
    Smiling, they shook there heads.
    'I'll bet you haven't. Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free weill and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful, They're just around the corner, in the next corridor; they're in the next book, the one you haven't read, or in the next stack, the one you haven't got. But you'll get to it someday. And when you do - when you do...'
    'And you, Finch. What's your idea?' He held up his hand. 'You'll protest you haven' thought of it. But you have. Beneath that bluff and hearty exterior there works a simple mind. To you, the institution is an instrument of good - to the world at large, of course, and just incidentally to yourself. You see it as a kind of spiritual sulphur-and-molasses  that you administer every fall to get the little bastards through another winter; and you're the kindly old doctor who benignly pats their heads and pockets their fees.'
   Finch laughed again and shook his head. 'I swear, Dave, when you get going -'
   Masters put the rest of the egg in his mouth, chewed contentedly for a moment, and took a long swallow of beer. 'But you're both wrong,' he said. 'It is an asylum or - what do they call them now? - a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incomptent. Look at the three of us - we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don't we? We know well...'
    '... We're all poor Toms, and we're a-cold.... And so providence, or society, or fate, or whatever name you want to give it, has created this hovel for us, so that we can go in out of the storm. it's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that's just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn't give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive - because we have to...
   '... But bad as we are, we're better that those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world. We do no harm, we say wheat we want, and we get paid for it; and that's a triumph of natural virtue, or pretty damn close to it.' (p.31)

Some remarks: I like this vision of a university! In particular, I like the explicit unworldliness of this idea of a university. It seems to me that a  university really should be a place outside the main stream of the world, a world where the struggle to survive imposes such dramaticrestrictions on conduct, on thought and on experience. I'm thinking of a world that encompasses the daily grind of the poor labourer through to the efficiencies and strategic-planning of corporate business.

Sadly, of course, I write this as universities (at least in the UK) move ever closer to business models, where the discourse of higher education explicitly treats students as consumers, universities as 'service-providers' and all the rest of it. There is some value in this kind of approach, of course - in the more classical set-up of universities (as described in Stoner) students laboured largely according to the whimsy of their somewhat-God-like lecturers, and if you got a bad one, God help you....

These days, professors do not wield the sort of absolute power that they once held and, in many ways, that is a good thing. The price of this change, though, is that academics now operate in a world of endless checks and balances, limited in their movements by a succession of evaluations and check-lists. It's not just the bad lecturers that are hamstrung, then - where once an inspirational professor could take her students on a journey of learning and discovery that could genuinely change lives, now one fears that such a journey would inevitably transgress the limitations the bureaucracy imposes and be swiftly curtailed.

One might argue the merits of the respective approaches to university life... What worries me about our current state is that the bureaucratic limitations I describe strike at the heart of this "unworldliness" described so beautifully in the quote above. And if (as I think I believe) this "unworldliness" is really at the heart of what a university should be, then this current obsession with evaluation and regulation may destroy the essence of the very thing it tries to preserve.

One more quote of an entirely different flavour; this one is self-explanatory.

He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the o Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living. (p.40)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

.... but Scotland votes NO

I'm pissed off about the result of the Scottish referendum. A glorious opportunity to truly change the rotten political system in the UK and it has been spurned. The clones in Westminster are well pleased, and the rest of us are stuck on the same old treadmill.

I mentioned in the last post that I think the press coverage has been poor. On an issue as open as this one it is ludicrous that all but one paper (the Sunday Express I think) has supported the NO campaign. Here's a bit of journalism that particularly pissed me off...

Over the course of the campaign a slew of articles outlined which celebrities were backing the NO campaign - David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Richard Branson (there was a video interview with the last on the front page of the BBC explaining why NO would be a catastrophe). My immediate reaction to hearing super-rich celebrities telling me what to think about politics is What the fuck would you know? As if Mick Jagger has the first notion of what life is like for an ordinary Scottish person.

This response didn't appear in the press of course. Just the usual fawning to these legends of music and business and God knows what else. In contrast, Andy Murry came out in favour of YES right at the end of the campaign  - apparently too late for it to be covered by the press which means I saw a total of ZERO celebrity endorsements for the YES campaign covered in the press.

And now, in the aftermath of the vote, this ridiculous article by Russel Fuller appears in the press explaining why Murray's support for a YES was a mistake and is going to make his life more difficult. The justification for this position seems a little confused but it seems that the big worry might be that middle England might not be as keen on him at Wimbledon. Which - obviously - should cause any man to eschew any political priniciples he might have and sell his soul to ensure the nodding approval of the strawberries-and-cream set.

What irks me is that there is absolutely no equivalent on the other side. Nobody has written any articles suggesting that Richard Branson should shut the fuck up with his moaning and just stick to being super rich without lecturing the rest of us how to live our lives. No, apparently, Richard's insights into the life of the ordinary Briton are always worth a listen... But woe betide the poor bastard who points in the opposite direction.

To compound the issue, Murray is having to cope with a storm of disgusting abuse from Scottish loyalists because of his comments. I have heard of no equivalent on the other side for this either (edit: actually, turns out there has been abuse from both sides)... In light of this, one wonders why a tennis journalist feels the need to stick the knife in too - I guess to make damn sure Murray does what the establishment wants him to do next time.

If I was Murray I'd stick to the saltire from here on and make damn sure there are no more pictures of me wrapped in the Union Jack.

Which last point, leads me to an addendum: the pictures of NO campaign revellers wrapped in the Union Jack truly sickens me. That symbol of imperialism and empire could never be acceptable, and I wonder at people who (apparently) are so dead to history that they can align themselves with it. It's a sorry day for Britain.

Postscript: 4 days after the Scottish referendum, the BBC reported again on Andy Murray supporting independence. Their article is entitled Murray regrets vote tweet fallout. The Guardian reported on the same issue with an article entitled Murray: no regrets over 'yes' support. An amusing divergence of headlines! My reading would be that the BBC are just desperate for Murray to regret something, anything... and they've lead accordingly. Talk about the news being moulded to suit an agenda...