Noises Off

July 24th, 2013

Woody Allen once wrote a comic piece about visiting a mime performance and despairing at his inability to understand what was going on whilst all around him the audience roared with laughter. I felt a bit like Woody Allen as I tried to fully enjoy Noises Off at the Grand Theatre Leeds last night.

I did enjoy certain aspects of the play – the athleticism of David Bark-Jones as Garry (he even does a pratfall down a flight of stairs), the distracting curves of Thomasin Rand as Brooke, the clever play on plays by the author Michael Frayn and the sheer professionalism of the whole cast, but I knew that what I enjoyed was only a fraction of what I could have feasted on. What I really needed was a film of the play with perfect sound and a remote to rewind the furiously fast sequences – because it was incredibly fast paced. And here lies the problem; none of the actors were amplified in any way and so a lot of the best line were lost in the breathless frenzy. Part of the problem was that once a cracking line had been delivered the laughter from the front of the audience obscured the line for those of us further back in the audience. Or perhaps my hearing isn’t so good.

Over time these missing bits of vital information about the plot derailed my understanding of the second act which literally and visually, takes place behind the scenery of the ‘actual’ play. As the off stage actors have to maintain silence whilst the ‘actual’ play is being performed, the incredibly involved personal interactions between the actors are mostly mimed and I was in my confounded Woody Allen element – who was jealous of whom, who else needed the alcohol hidden from them, why were various people fighting and over what?

The final act is in front of the scenery again and it is the performance of the ‘actual’ play where everything goes disastrously wrong. What struck me about the whole premise of farce is that the suspension of disbelief can be maintained to such er, farcical levels. Some of the scenes were so far removed from any universe of reality that I actually asked myself ‘why am I going along with this make-believe?’ I can only assume that the exuberance of the performers was such that it was impossible not to subscribe to their version of reality.

This is not a play that you can just go and see and expect to get full value for money for, you have to study it first; it works on so many levels and the action on stage is so dense that you can’t take it all in with one visit. I suspect the real joy of this play is in seeing different productions of it and finding something new in it with each viewing.

The full house demonstrated that this might be the case or perhaps its sheer reputation preceded it – indeed, that was why I wanted to see it – and for many people it was their first time in seeing it, so my few quibbles about being hopelessly lost in the plot isn’t going to make any difference to its popularity.

Recommended.

‘Car Journey Theme Park’

June 5th, 2013

As many family excursions mostly consist of sitting in a car watching featureless motorway go by I had an idea for a new theme park.

The theme park is actually a car park that has wrap-around screens for each parking bay. The screens show city centre car journeys of places like Paris and London for fifteen minutes. The impression then, is of a car journey but with interesting scenery. When the ‘ride’ is over the cars simply shuffle along to the next bay which shows a different location.

This would save time and pollution and make people feel comfortable in familiar surroundings. Anyone want to fund the scheme?

Ding Dong! Democracy is dead!

April 13th, 2013

DingDong

I’m told over a million people marched through London demonstrating against the Iraq war. The war went ahead. The peoples’ voice was ignored.

In the same way, a song has been chosen by a certain group of people in Britain to express their opinion about the death of a former Prime Minister. What these people want to do is to buy as many copies of this song (but the profits go where?) as it takes to force it into a position on a national music chart. By doing so, the BBC will be obliged to play it. This will be a huge joke on the part of the song buyers and a huge embarrassment on the part of the establishment. The important point to stress here is that the BBC will be forced to play the song.

Except they won’t. This is the lie of democracy. In exactly the same way that the Greek people were denied their right to democracy and vote against austerity measures, the people of Britain are being denied freedom of expression because those in power have arbitrarily decided against it.

Again, the important word here is arbitrarily; just as the rule of law has to be applied across the board for it to work, any set of rules has to be respected by all parties otherwise the game is rigged.

And the game is rigged. Just look at the banking frauds. The law is not being applied evenly, in fact, not at all, in the banking sector. It even allows former banking chiefs to judge themselves and impose their own punishment (if they choose to). But even this is not enough for some bankers, they want to change the law retrospectively so that there is absolutely no chance of them being brought to account.

If the ruling regime can make the rules up as they go along then democracy is a sham and it is impossible for the ruled to ever exert their will.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha*

March 9th, 2013

The recent death of Hugo Chavez spawned a veritable plague of news articles in the Mainstream Media about the man and his life. Most of the obituaries and reports followed predictable patterns—the capitalist press reviled the man and his reputation and the left wing press praised his humble origins and the benefits that he brought to the poor of Venezuela (I’m generalising here).

So, an unbiased member of the public being told all this has a dilemma (assuming that they access more than one news outlet)—how do they interpret such seemingly contradictory stories? Was he a good man, a despot or what?

Here’s a little true story that distils the problem.

One day at work I was looking at a book that had a picture of a lion feeding on its kill. The angle of its front leg was such that it was easy to imagine that leg as a human arm pinning down the carcass. Almost thinking out aloud I remarked to a co-worker at this similarity and extrapolated how the theory of evolution could come about. This co-worker (who I knew to be a Christian) then revealed his fundamentalism and said that actually, in the books he owned, creationism was the true explanation for the variety we see in the natural world.

As I had been educated in a secular school, science and the scientific method was my dominant frame of reference for checking the veracity of any theory. This only worked of course, if the subject matter lent itself to such a method. Even then, it appears that quantifiable results can be disputed within the scientific community. So simply quoting one book against another doesn’t really help if you’re trying to drill down to any sort of truth.

And as soon as the discussion enters a realm of subjectivity, then the fragile model of the scientific method becomes useless. Economics, for example, is often seen by most people as some kind of science due to the number of university courses available and government advisors mentioned in news reports. The reality is that economics is far closer to religion than it is to science and politicians have ‘faith’ in different belief systems whether they be the teachings of Keynes or Hayek or whoever.

Which system is best is impossible to verify due to the complexity of human society and the massive ambiguity of what ‘best’ means. But that doesn’t stop those people who benefit the most from a particular belief system from promoting that version of the religion, especially if they have the means to do so.

I have long since realised that in the game of news reporting merely deciding which story to report is a political act—one story is more important than another based on which criteria? Even a seemingly ‘neutral’ story immediately runs into trouble once the bare facts are given. The Hillsborough story for example, is that 96 football fans died in a crush. But as soon as the obvious question of “why did they die?” is asked, the propaganda begins.

Propaganda is designed to promote one idea over another and it is conducted most fiercely by those who have the most to gain (or lose) from an idea being accepted.

I said the story about my co-worker was a true one. You don’t know whether it was true or not; I know it’s true because I was there but you just read it here as a story and so if I was duplicitous for whatever reason, I could say that it was a true story even though I made it up. I would do this because it might discredit a rival idea which threatens my belief system.

Coming back to Chavez, I’m told by the media that this person used to exist (I never met him so I don’t even know that basic fact for sure). I’m also told that he believed that the moon landing never took place (what is this information supposed to tell me?). Some stories claim that he was a revolutionary who helped the poor and other stories that he wrecked the economy. Some stories claim that he brought a huge number of people out of poverty.

The one thing that I can be certain of from these stories is that someone, somewhere is frightened of what Chavez represents —and that is all that I can really divine about the man.

Ultimately, propaganda is about preserving or acquiring some kind of privilege. The media is a battle ground of ideas and, like any other human invention it is a continuum of extreme positions. Rational, unbiased reporting is simply one extreme position in the scale of things, like the ideal that everyone is born equal and has equal rights. From my personal experience, encountering extreme positions in the real world is extremely rare.

Here’s my thinking … Apparently, the unbiased news is that Venezuela has huge oil reserves (so I read). The world is addicted to oil (I know this because I have to use it myself). Having oil therefore, is a privilege for those addicted to it. Who gets that oil is down to a battle of ideas first. Then, if lobbying doesn’t work for the more powerful groups who are bidding for it, a physical battle usually comes second. My guess is that the West somehow needs to ’save’ the people of Venezuela from people like Chavez. How best to do that?

*Sounds great. If only it were true.

Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

March 7th, 2013
Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

I made a pact with the Playhouse: to go and see Doctor Faustus on a complementary ticket but in return, blog about it. I did the deal but often, these pacts turn out badly.

In some ways, it reminded me of being back at school, the play would only make sense to me if I were studying it line by line for A level English.

I never studied Doctor Faustus at school, although I knew the story of course – a man sells his soul to the devil – so the archaic language at the start of this production filled me with foreboding. The English language from the 16th century is impenetrable for a 21st century inhabitant which is why close study of the text is required (and possibly why the programme has a complete transcript of the play). There was even Latin thrown into the mix as Faust attempts to raise a demon with his incantations (which immediately made me think of what Harry Potter and its pig-Latin might invent in such a scene: “Murdochus appearum” perhaps?).

I managed to roughly follow the arguments of Faustus with Mephistopheles as he decides whether to sell his soul or not. Unfortunately, the logical fallacies involved set me off on my own train of thought and I wondered what would happen if the feuding neighbour of Faustus also sold his soul at the same time and they came to diabolical blows – who would have precedence, is there a hierarchy to evil, or does human ingenuity still have a part to play in such matters?

For me, the one unexpected moment in the play occurred here (spoiler alert) when the first manifestation of the demon wriggled from beneath the bed covers in a truly disturbing manner. If only the entire play had been produced along these horror lines, I might have been genuinely moved.

Fortunately, the new additions to the play written by Colin Teevan were in modern English and were set in modern times. This meant I could relax my concentration on the language somewhat and enjoy the writing and the performances instead. These additions were cynical, comic and topical in their tone and suggested that the production was falling between two stools – the gothic horror of the original and the scatological slapstick of the modern. Given a choice, I would have much preferred that the play had opted for the latter direction as it simply made it more relevant. The throwaway sideswipe at the bankers, for example, selling their souls to Mephistopheles suddenly came alive with genuine moral evil and injustice.

I also found that the old stories from the past suffered from our moral progress today. Mephistopheles’ story of his beloved girlfriend being traded like a trinket amongst the court circle didn’t invoke the same sort of sympathy that it might have aroused in the 16th century. It simply made me appalled at the attitude towards women at the time.

During the interval, Phil Kirby gave me some information about Marlowe himself and to be honest, I found this information a lot more interesting than the play; to be an atheist during the time that Marlowe was alive must have been as dangerous and isolating as a politician today declaring their interest in paedophilia. I wanted to learn more about the playwright as a result.

Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors? There is successful theatre out there, I’m sure of it. For many young people today their theatre of choice is the arena hosting a favourite band whose songs no doubt, speak to them intimately. Add to this the thunder, lights and pyrotechnics on the stage and you have an emotional charge to reckon with. Yes, in that context I can see how such a performance can move an audience.

So, did Doctor Faustus move me? No. Was it entertaining? Yes, mildly.

Not so much Mephisto then as ‘Meh’.

Breaking in America

January 11th, 2013

As the Bettakultcha debate about mainstream gathers pace this Gentle Ihor’s Devotion track suddenly seemed prescient …

12 Breaking America

5 things you need to know …

December 19th, 2012

1. Be able to count. How else are you going to be able to differentiate between the top 10 of things or the top 1000 of things? Apparently one of these sets has more urgency than the other.

2. Learn to read. Nearly all top ten lists (or whatever number) are written down somewhere so if you can’t read you won’t be able to spot these all important nuggets of information.

3. Understand the concept of reductionism. Breaking things down into smaller numbers and simpler components makes you imagine that things really are that simple.

4. Never learn from your mistakes. If you did, you would know that headlines about ‘top five things’ etc., are just link bait to some trashy, meaningless numbers game.

5. Sometimes, real lessons can be found in the most stupid of things …

A universal language

September 28th, 2012

This precipitated this tweet by Jon Beech.

Beechtweet

Later, in the bath, I reflected on the implied criticism of the tweet and found myself in interesting territory. What is wrong with a universal language? If everyone has their national language but their second language is always English, what is so bad about that? You could travel to most places in the world confident that you would find someone who spoke enough English to communicate with.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not precious about the English language (although I am grateful that it is my first language which saves me the trouble of learning it) I could comfortably contemplate Mandarin as being the universal language.

A universal language has been tried before; Esperanto which tried to preserve everyone’s national pride by  bastardising most of them and in so doing pleased no one. Unfortunately it simply wasn’t useful enough in the real world.

In the global economy of today it pays to learn the languages that will give the most return on your investment. If I was to spend the time and effort in learning French I would only be able to use it productively in France (yes, yes, I know that in certain parts of Canada it would be useful). I could speculate that in ten years time Mandarin might become the global language but that predicates on so many precarious economic factors and its inability to adapt itself easily for digital use argues against it.

No, you learn the language of current global usage. If the dominant language is English then so be it, that is what you will learn. I am aware that Spanish speaking peoples outnumber English speaking people but the truth is that the spheres of influence in the world use English as the first language.

But I digress. My point is that a language is not a currency, it is not an ideology foist upon a defenceless people by some superpower. It is a tool, like an axe, which can be used for many purposes, some good, some not so good.

One of the few examples of a universal standard that I can think of is 16mm film, still in use today. This was developed by the Nazi’s to aid their propaganda machine. So successful were they in establishing the medium that at one period during the sixties and seventies, you could take a 16mm film anywhere in the world and you would be able to find a projector to show it.

But 16mm film is just a medium, it is not an ideology. Anti-fascist films can be made on it too. Language is just the same.

Incidentally we have gone backwards in the technological ease of showing moving images. There are so many formats and protocols for digital video that if you take your .MOV file burned on a dvd, chances are it won’t play on someone else’s branded laptop.

The orbit of health

September 21st, 2012

I’m going to make a prediction here which hopefully, in decades to come, some astute researcher might point to and show that I anticipated a medical breakthrough by a good slice of time.

Of course, I’m just guessing but it’s a guess based on empirical observations and extrapolation.

As far as we can tell the entire universe operates on basic laws and thus conforms to predictable behaviour. Out of these laws has resulted our solar system with many planetary bodies orbiting the sun. There are countless other such solar systems in the universe.

Here on the earth we have life forms that regulate their life cycle based on the rhythms of the moon and the orbit of the earth around the sun. On a smaller level, insects are more profoundly influenced by electromagnetic forces than gravitational ones. Gravity and electromagnetism are elemental forces that have existed since the dawn of time and indeed, possibly shape time itself.

It makes sense therefore that humans are influenced by the more subtle consequences of these forces as well as the more obvious ones. My assertion is that we are influenced by them on a much more profound level than hitherto appreciated.

I have noticed that during my years on this planet I have been visited by various minor afflictions that are cyclical in nature, seeming to flare up every few years. Naturally I tried to discover if there was a contributory factor or factors which could explain the flare up but neither me nor the doctors could find any. By improving my general health overall – by observing hygiene rules, avoiding processed food, exercising regularly etc. – I have managed to minimise the affects of these cyclical ailments. However, there are still certain subtle manifestations in my general well-being such as my mood which seem to ebb and flow in some kind of cycle irrespective of anything I do.

Unfortunately I have not kept a record of the intervals of these phenomena nor the severity of them so I can’t prove in any epidemiological way that there is a regular ‘orbit’ of them.

We are made of star stuff so it makes sense that our organisms bow to the forces of the universe. Our biorhythms might one day be as predictable as the tides of the oceans.

On the origin of gods

August 10th, 2012

Hand-print-in-cave

In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins the question is asked ‘Where do gods come from?’ but no answer is given.

Every human society around the world has some belief about a spiritual afterlife. Why should that be the case? If it is universal then presumably it cannot be a human quirk developed by accident and dependent on some special configuration of circumstances. This suggests that we are hard wired to develop a belief system or at the very least evolutionary inclined towards adopting this strategy. Here is my attempt at an explanation.

In his book The End of Forever, Darryl Reanney suggests that a belief in an afterlife was necessary to counter the negative impact of self awareness in consciousness. As consciousness developed in our species we inevitably realised that we as individuals would die one day – using intelligence to plan strategy will inevitably pose the question “what happens to us?” No other species has this knowledge, they all live in the moment. I am confident of this assertion because of the reasoning I will give later. If you are aware of your own mortality then this can produce a profound negative feedback loop in your thinking. If you’re going to die anyway, what is the point of doing anything significant or of planning too far ahead? Evolution ‘encourages’ species to develop and adapt to the environment and to ultimately replicate themselves. If we keep reflecting on what is the purpose of it all then, there is a danger that we will find no purpose and ’shut down’ in our consciousness preventing its further evolution.

As an experiment in evolution, consciousness is a hugely dangerous adaptation. For it to develop fully it needed to have a fail-safe mechanism for avoiding the downsides of self awareness.

In mathematics, the appearance of infinity in any equation is an abomination to the mathematician as it produces unacceptable results. In human consciousness the opposite is true; the finite is unacceptable. The realisation of our own mortality is an abomination for our consciousness, therefore the concept of an afterlife has to be created to avoid this finality.

Our species can now continue with the process of procreation using the powerful advantage of higher consciousness safe in the knowledge that there is a purpose for doing so.

In my opinion, Richard Dawkins‘ exploration of a god concept missed two crucial elements to its development, namely, art and drugs (particularly hallucinogenic drugs). To a lesser degree, language is another key component in the origination of an afterlife.

It is my contention that any species that produces art will have a concept of an afterlife, this is why I am convinced that although a species such as the elephant has self awareness, it does not produce art, therefore it has not made the leap into higher consciousness that allows it to extrapolate its own inevitable demise. The footage of elephants fondling the bones of other, recently dead elephants suggests that they are on the cusp of such an awakening. Incidentally, the ‘art’ that some elephants have produced has been shown to be the result of their handlers subtle signals and not any spontaneous expression from the animal.

So what is art?

Art is the demonstration of creativity. It is the leap of consciousness from merely observing the environment to manipulating it. Art has power. It is no accident that Islam forbids the representation of humans and animals.

The cave paintings from Lascaux tell us a great deal about the significance of art and narcotics.

What is not widely known about the cave paintings is that many of the pictures are difficult to interpret because of the curious marks that accompany them; mostly dots obscuring the image beneath. There are also zigzags and semi circles. It has been suggested that these marks represent the visual effects produced by certain narcotic substances. Whether the paintings were done under the influence of these narcotics or the visions were remembered and then reproduced is unknown. But here is the holy trinity for the origination of religion: art, narcotics and language.

Art is an attempt to make a connection with that being depicted. In the case of the Lascaux painters, the beasts that they observed and hunted. Art is creating something out of ‘nothing’ – the colours come from dirt, minerals, plants, insects. The representation of the animal from these basic, fundamental ingredients is a god-like act. It is not difficult to extrapolate from that realisation to the idea that a much larger artist created the world in just such a way. Art is creation, as is god. This connection can be verified by witnessing the hand silhouettes of the artists from thousands of years ago. I find these images disturbing because the art does what it intended to do – to reach out through time in an immortal salute and to defy death. I shiver at their timeless question; who was this person?

The predominance of human and animal sacrifice in many early belief systems points to an obsession with mortality and an afterlife.

The role of narcotics in helping to develop the idea of an afterlife is equally easy to understand. Anyone who has taken any kind of drug will know of its power to provide an alternative view of reality. For a human being (and indeed many other species) this window to another reality is hugely attractive. Again, nearly all human cultures have been shown to use narcotics in one way or another. Why do humans crave an escape from the one reality that they are familiar with? Perhaps we are back to the unacceptable ‘reality’ of our own mortality. Whatever the reason, the drug experience allows us to extrapolate to the conclusion that there must be other dimensions that are yet to be discovered.

The Lascaux artists were probably viewed as shaman or interlocutors by their fellow tribespeole. Vocalised language allowed these shaman to communicate the content of their visions to others. The story of another world that exists beyond our knowledge must have been so easy to believe and the story was then  corroborated by the language of art.

The paintings themselves at Lascaux are not easily accessible for the casual observer, they are deep within a cave system. This suggests an early development of the concept of sacredness or exclusivity for the ’seeing ones’.

How does this help from an evolutionary point of view? My guess is that those tribes with a strongly developed sense of an afterlife would co-operate more with each other and have a stronger sense of community. Crucially however, it would allow the investment of resources and time for bigger projects such as stone circles, calendars and burial mounds. These would help the future generations to have a better chance of survival. Here could be the very foundation of civilisation itself. A large scale meeting of tribes would increase trade, ideas and knowledge. This would give the group a greater resilience to future hardships when compared to godless humans who operated without this network.