Royal wedding weirdness

Interesting to see that the crown Prince of Bahrain has said he won’t be coming to the Will&Kate wedstravaganza because he doesn’t want the political situation in Bahrain to be a ‘distraction’ from the wedding. Because news stories about the arrest, beating and torture of political dissidents might be an unnecessary turd of realism in the candy-floss.

Perhaps he came to this decision spontaneously; it seems likely that there was some diplomatic pressure being exerted behind the scenes by the British government. Still, the Saudis are coming, so the government clearly doesn’t feel there’s a fundamental conflict between fairytale weddings and brutal human rights abuses; it’s not a question of morality so much as timing.

The guest list actually makes rather interesting reading. A lot of it is very predictable — friends and family, some British political bigwigs, various religious representatives. Where I think it gets interesting is the foreign guests, who basically fall into two categories: royals and the Commonwealth.

Prince William will one day be head of the Commonwealth, so it makes a quirky kind of sense that St Lucia gets an invitation ahead of, for example, the US or France.

But the royals category does make me just slightly queasy. All royals, from whatever country, seem to automatically get an invitation because, what, royals should stick together? Is that really what we think? Do we really think that it’s more important to extend this courtesy to the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, a man whose family have not been heads of state since 1945, and whose country doesn’t even exist anymore, than to, say, the President of France? or Ireland? or Germany?

As I’ve said before, I’m a sort of pragmatic royalist by inclination. That is, I know that the monarchy is anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic and anachronistic, but I think it’s mostly harmless; and given the political melodrama that would involved in getting rid of it, on balance I’m inclined to let well enough alone. But there’s nothing like a royal wedding to bring out the republicanism simmering under the surface. It’s the symbolism of it, the idea that a title inherited through blood is somehow more special than one which is given via the democratic will of the people.

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Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

This is a book about mimicry and camouflage; principally in nature but also in human use — i.e. the military. I heard about it because it won the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011, and the subject sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s certainly pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t help that I was familiar with many of the examples already.

My other slight gripe is that it spends a lot of time using examples of mimicry and camouflage as a way to shed light on deeper ideas about evolution. Which is, obviously, a valuable exercise, and not in itself a Bad Thing. But I’ve read loads of stuff about evolution already, thank you, and so reading yet another explanation of evo-devo is not enormously exciting. I would much rather have been reading about extra examples of strange and curious animal mimicry.

So, you know, a good book; but I am not its perfect audience. Still, if nothing else it introduced me to the jaw-dropping amazon leaf fish pictured above.

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi

The Land Without Shadows is my book from Djibouti for the Read The World challenge. There are a few options available in French, but Waberi seems to be the only choice in English. Having read a few underwhelmed reviews of his novel, In The United States of Africa, I thought I’d try this collection of short pieces.

It seems to be broadly true that Francophone literature from Africa is much more overtly ‘literary’ than the English-language stuff; more playful, more given to formal and stylistic flourishes. Which says something about the influence of French culture and French academia.

Some of these are fairly conventional short stories, others are more like essays or parables or long prose poems. They add up to a sort of portrait of Djibouti — the land without shadows — both in the present and historically.

It’s quite inventive and well-written, but the plain truth is that it never really held my attention. Shrug.

» Djibouti is © Stéphane Pouyllau and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Scary research

Genuinely terrifying:

Researchers [in Israel] looked at 1,112 rulings involving requests for parole (or for changes of incarceration terms) presented to eight judges. They heard cases daily, interrupting for a morning snack and lunch.

The odds of an inmate receiving a favorable decision started at 65%, first thing in the morning, then steadily dropped until the snack break. If the judge heard eight cases in the morning, the average success rate for the last one was 25%. If the judge heard 12 cases, the average success rate for the final one was 0%. Favorable rulings popped back up to 65% when the judge returned, then slid again until lunchtime. The same pattern appeared post-lunch.

The authors could find no other factors that might explain the pattern beyond the hearing’s timing, relative to the food breaks. They had no direct measure of the judges’ mood.

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, via the WSJ, via bookofjoe.

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Why I hate the Pre-Raphaelites*

When I was at university I overheard a conversation when someone said:

I just don’t understand how you can say you like both the Pre-Raphaelites and Vermeer.

It has stuck with me ever since. It’s just a perfect one-line bit of art criticism. It always seemed like it ought to make a great parlour game†: ‘I just don’t understand how you can say you like both x and y… fill in the blanks.’ But actually I’ve never been able to find a pair which seems as perfect as Vermeer and the Pre-Raphs.

Vermeer basically painted accurate pictures of his own time and place; carefully composed, tidied up and idealised, perhaps, but realistic, small scale, domestic. The Pre-Raphaelites‡ chose to retire to a silly fantasy world of knights and maidens which avoided the difficult complex reality of the nineteenth century — but avoided the difficult complex reality of the medieval world as well.

And Vermeer is sensual but austere; sensual in his representation of surfaces, textures, light and shadow, but stylistically austere in his classically perfect compositions and controlled, precise brushwork. While the Pre-Raphaelites are the opposite: stylistically they are lush and decorative, but the result is bloodless. Their paintings are full of decorative young men and women posturing and looking glamorous, but it’s all surface. There’s no flesh to it, not a whiff of filth.

In one of Aldous Huxley’s early novels, which are satirical portraits of London bohemia, there’s a character called Casimir Lypiatt who sees himself in the Renaissance tradition of painter-poet-thinkers, full of bombastic rhetoric about Art and Beauty and moral significance. Not everyone is as impressed with him as he is:

‘Number seventeen,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘is called “Woman on a Cosmic Background.”’  A female figure stood leaning against a pillar on a hilltop, and beyond was a blue night with stars.  ‘Underneath is written: “For one at least, she is more than the starry universe.”’  Mrs Viveash remembered that Lypiatt had once said very much that sort of thing to her.  ‘So many of Casimir’s things remind me,’ she said, ‘of those Italian vermouth advertisements.  You know – Cinzano, Bonomelli and all those.  I wish they didn’t.  This woman in white with her head in the Great Bear….’ She shook her head.  ‘Poor Casimir.’

Presumably Huxley, writing in 1923, was not thinking of the pre-Raphaelites. But that description is brutally spot on.

Vermeer took the small and mundane and made it something hypnotic; the Pre-Raphaelites took a grand mixture of ideas, ideals, myth and history, and made a lot of pretty posters.

* OK, maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong. But, you know, linkbait innit.

† Actually, thinking about it, a truly dreadful parlour game. A mildly interesting intellectual exercise, maybe.

‡ Yes, I know, I’m lumping them all together in a rather lazy way. But although the exact details varied from painter to painter, and some were better than others, I think the broad argument applies to all of them.

Kate Middleton confirmed into the Church of England

According to sources close to Miss Middleton she chose to be confirmed because of her own personal journey into faith rather than because of the Royal Family’s role in the Church of England.

Yeah, right.

I suppose it’s not actually impossible that she happened to have a religious flowering just in time to marry the future head of the church, but let’s just say the timing invites scepticism. Still, it’s probably harmless enough as religious hypocrisies go.

This, though, seems a little optimistic from the religious correspondent of the Times:

This is good news for the people of Britain. It is thrilling to think of what might come of Miss Middleton’s public commitment to her faith, and of the ways in which, through good works as well as faith, she will go on to use her position to contribute to the common good.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the royal wedding, but I don’t think Kate Middleton is the celebrity endorsement which is going to fill the pews.

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Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

Birding again

The glorious summery weather is back, and I had a good day of birding today, just out of London. On the spring migrant front: masses of chiffchaffs and blackcaps, the odd willow warbler, a single swallow. Also treecreeper, nuthatch, buzzard and so on, but the bird of the day was bullfinch. To capture my immediate, pseudo-spontaneous reaction, here’s the tweet I posted at the time:

Wow. Bullfinch. What a genuinely incredible bird. I must try to see it more often.

And seriously, a male bullfinch in peak spring plumage is as beautiful as any bird I have seen anywhere, including barbets and toucans and hummingbirds… it is a proper cracker.

That’s not my picture, obviously, apart from anything else, it certainly wasn’t snowy today… but what a gorgeous beasty.

So, it was a lovely day out. The sky was blue, there was masses of blackthorn covered in bright white flowers, I saw about seven or eight species of butterfly*. Tasty.

And I was amused to find this on the pavement near my house:

Apparently the local drug dealers are sufficiently well organised these days that they sell their product in cute little cannabis-themed bags. I had no idea. The bag still smells of weed; oh the nostalgia. It almost makes me want to roll up, tune in and drop out.

* Definitely Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Orange-Tip; and I think Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell.

» The photo Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) male is © Steve Garvie and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Um, what?

Just got this text from O2, the company which provides both my mobile phone service and internet connection:

We’re happy to tell you that your tariff New Allowance will offer browsing as well as text at £15 starts on 09/04/2011.

I rely on this company for much of my ability to communicate with the world. The fact they can’t make their website run properly or compose intelligible automated messages to their customers: this does not inspire confidence.

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Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

Of course no non-fiction book these days is published without a subtitle; this one is Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.

It is a book with a particular argument to make, that tax havens are a Bad Thing. And it does a good job of making it engaging and readable, considering that it is, in the end, a book about international tax law and accountancy practices. It traces the historical development of the current system and illustrates it with plenty of colourful anecdotes about individuals along the way to keep it interesting.

Among the notable points it makes:

Tax avoidance is just one part of the problem. Offshore jurisdictions also allow businesses to avoid regulations and other legal obligations. And perhaps most significant, they provide layers of secrecy.

And of course it’s not just multinational businesses and wealthy individuals that benefit: it is also central to the workings of organised crime and government corruption. The secrecy in particular allows huge amounts of money to flow out of the developing world via the bank accounts of corrupt officials — amounts of money which apparently completely dwarf the aid moving in the other direction.

Not all of these jurisdictions are literally ‘offshore’. There is a single building in Delaware which is officially the corporate headquarters of 217,000 businesses, including Ford, GM, Coca-Cola, Google and so on. In the case of Delaware, the appeal is the very corporate-friendly legal environment. The City of London and Manhattan have also worked hard to turn themselves into tax havens in their own right.

The City of London is central to all this — it’s not a coincidence that so many of the key tax havens are parts of the old British empire: Jersey, Guernsey, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. And the Bank of England, which I always thought of as a rather staid, conservative body whose main concern was economic simplicity, turns out to have been the most significant lobbying arm of the the City to the British government.

Interesting stuff, generally. The only reservation is that this is a very one-sided account about a subject I know nothing about, so I can’t easily assess how fair or accurate it is. And there are times it suffers from when-your-only-tool-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail syndrome; suggesting that financial secrecy doesn’t just contribute to but more or less causes ALL the world’s problems.  You get the feeling that if you asked him why your soufflés kept collapsing, he would say it was because of the laxness of trust law in the Cayman Islands.

Nonetheless, he does make a pretty convincing case that lack of financial transparency is an important contributor to many of the world’s problems; it may not cause them, but it certainly enables them.

» As seen on Google street view, that is 1209 North Orange St, Wilmington, Delaware. The legal home of 217,000 companies, including Google itself.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

This is the Werner Herzog documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings in France. It was definitely worth seeing, but mainly, I think, for the incredible paintings themselves, rather than anything Werner Herzog brought to the project.

It is probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen, because although I’ve seen photos of the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, the photos tend to flatten out the image; you get very little sense of the highly irregular shape of the cave walls and the way that the paintings are shaped around the contours of the rock. The 3D film really did make all the difference and was very effective.

Which is an unusual view for me, because I basically think that 3D is a rubbish technology. In most circumstances it’s little more than a gimmick, and it seems to be technically rather bad anyway: I find that it looks unnatural and exaggerated, it’s often slightly shimmery or glitchy, it doesn’t work properly if you tilt your head to one side, and it tends to give me a headache. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m wearing prescription glasses under the 3D ones, but that seems to be a lot of downside for very little upside.

Even in this film, I think it would have been better to save the 3D for the places where it really mattered — i.e. looking at the cave paintings. An interview with a paleontologist sitting in an office does NOT need to be in 3D, thank you very much.

And even in the scenes inside the cave, it became clear that some of the film had not been filmed in 3D, but faked up as 3D in post-production. This was particularly egregious in a scene where two scientists were standing in front of a cave painting and talking about it, and something looked very weird; I suddenly realised that when they had faked the 3D, they had cut out the two figures rather carelessly and cut out a big chuck of the surrounding wall as well; so there was a big blob of cave wall which was in completely the wrong visual plane, floating in front of the wall around it.

Such technical gripes aside, the paintings were beautiful and fascinating. And there were all sorts of snippets of fascinating information, like the great scratches on the walls which had been left by cave bears sharpening their claws. Or the two stags painted on top of each other which carbon dating revealed were painted 5000 years apart. I mean, really, 5000 years! What does it mean that there was such staggering cultural continuity?

I was also interested that there was no sign of human habitation in the cave; presumably they used it as a ritual site, or something. It’s all guesswork, of course. There also no humans among the paintings, apart from one image apparently of a woman’s pubic triangle and legs, similar to the famous ‘Venus’ figurines. And no pictures of birds, incidentally; it’s all big game: cave bears, cave lions, horses, antelope, woolly rhino, mammoth, hyena, aurochs.

Of course we have so little of their lives to draw on, so what does survive gains enormous, inflated importance. The paintings are the most vivid connection we have to those people 35,000 years ago, and so we can’t help having them as central to our idea of their lives; but we don’t know whether they were similarly important to the people who painted them. The film did show a few objects found at other sites of the same period that provide a few hints at a broader life; Venus figurines, animal carvings, and most extraordinarily a flute which had been meticulously reconstructed from over 30 tiny fragments of ivory. But mainly we are left with a lot of stone tools and the cave paintings. Anything made of wood, or gut, or hide is long gone, let alone the stories they told, the music they played, the food they cooked.