Archive for September, 2008

Reversion to the mean

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Austrian politics drift, farcically, to the right. Apparently there is a coalition proposed between the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party, as the former neo-Nazis call themselves. This is the outfit that used to be run by Jörg Haider, against whose participation in government the EU announced sanctions; anyway, the party split, and he now has one of his own. The new party prefers to be described as “populist”, and as part of this they have proposed a tax policy which dserves to be more widely known. VAT on foodstuffs is to be halved, with the exception of twelve designated luxuries. Here are the foodstuffs which Austrian Fascists and socialists have united to agree are signs of wicked decadence:

  • Caviare
  • Langoustines
  • Pâté de foie gras
  • Lobster
  • Saffron
  • Truffles
  • Quail’s eggs (but not quails)
  • Snails
  • Oysters
  • Ostrich eggs
  • Crab
  • Prawns

Oh brave new world!

Moronic BBC story

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

clipped from the news site this afternoon:

To use a phrase that Ros thinks is the stupidest ever printed on a newspaper website, What do you think texting does to your driving?

The return of socialism

Thursday, September 18th, 2008
I have been saying for years that the FT was the best left-wing newspaper in Britain: just look at today’s issue which proclaims the end of Thatcher/Reagan capitalism. Just as New Labour, built on the rejection of Clause Four (for younger readers, a commitment to nationalise “the commanding heights of the economy”) implodes, the Financial Times welcomes the nationalisation of the biggest insurance firm in the world, and the leader asks whether such measures should not be permanent:
the reach and power of the state has been greatly extended. The Bear Stearns bail-out involved the Fed moving to cover investment banks. With the AIG takeover, it has moved into insurance. In the long run, policymakers must turn their minds to how systemically important institutions should be governed without creating over-powerful regulators, and whether any parts of the financial system might best be kept in the public sector.
Extraordinary to reflect that I have lived long enough to see communism die and then the capitalism that replaced it too; to see the nation state and the empire wither away in Europe, and now to return in Asia, and that I have managed to do this without getting very old at all.

Emmylou Harris

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Just a brief note to say that her current tour is great. The audience at the Hammersmith Apollo on Sunday was incredibly respectful and seated; the sound, where we sat, was lousy. But her voice was wonderful, the song selection imaginative, and the band superb. Lots of religious/gospel songs, the high spot being a version of John the Baptist, with the lead part played on a mandolin. Don’t ask me why the youtube clip I have linked to shows the banjo player when the mandolin is soloing and the mandolin player dropping his pick while the banjo plays. Perhaps the sound was even worse where that was filmed.

PS. It would be very wicked to point out that a bootleg of the previous night’s show can be torrented from Dime.

Old-fashioned journalism

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

I was taken to lunch at a good London club earlier this week and suddenly I can see the point of being rich (and male): champagne before the meal; pouilly fumé with the oysters and very nice burgundy with my liver and bacon, beautifully cooked. It’s easy to satirise this sort of hospitality as something cheap and somehow corrupting to both parties. I know one very principled millionaire who makes a point of taking journalists to a chinese place that offers excellent value for money. But the puritan view is so … narrow, don’t you think?

It is of course part of the sublimity of such a meal that nothing I learned at it could possibly be translated into the vulgar currency of stories, or even “tips”.

To be for a moment serious, I’m not sure that this isn’t a better way of doing journalism than gobbling sandwiches while chained to a terminal, rewriting ten or twenty press releases and wire stories a day and passing the result off as “news”. That is a fraud on the reader, a rather more serious crime than an imaginative expense sheet.

Good Rowan

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

I have finished my review, and am sitting on it for a night to decide whether it could not be softened or improved; in any case, here is a passage where Rowan is actually doing what he sets out to do and knitting together literary and theological criticism in simple and powerful prose:

Fyodor Karamazov offers to spit on his wife’s beloved icon, as if the lack of any visible sanction or punishment that would prevent him doing this is a demonstration of the lack of “real presence” in the image, but he has failed to grasp the fundamental factr-to which all Dostoevsky’s stories of desecrated images point—that it is in the nature of images to be capable of desecration, and that what makes images sacred is not some kind of magical invulnerability or supernatural protection but their capacity to retain in themselves the real energy of another world, transmitted into the world of isolated and death-bound agents. The icon is in this sense a “powerless” image, in that it is not safe from what history may do to it; the crucifixion of the fully incarnate image of God lets us know that. But a vulnerable image is not an empty one.
The way in which he overloads the idea of an icon here is really impressive.


Saturday, September 13th, 2008

One thing you can say for this election: it will certainly clear up any doubt about whether racism can swing the outcome of a national political race in America. I know that Harriet disagrees with me violently in my pessimism, but this ad seems to me a Willie Horton-type torpedo aimed at Obama’s campaign. The message is quite transparent: “he wants your children to be sexually active, and he’s black“. It’s very cheering to see the number of Americans who are really deeply shocked by this. As I say, we shall see if there are enough of them to win.

Passionato: avoid

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

I had a look this morning at Passionato, which ought to be a really good idea: a site devoted to selling high-quality Classical music without DRM from the catalogues of respectable companies (DG, Decca, and so on). Unfortunately, this good idea has become an absolutely horrid web site. It hard to navigate and heavy with reproductions of album covers. There is no obvious way to find all recordings of any particular work, though typing “Lizst piano sonata” will find the piano sonata in B minor; it will also find the Dante sonata as the second hit, even though it is an entirely different work, because it has piano and sonata and Liszt in the text.

Obviously what they have done is to scan or transcribe a lot of covers. One effect of this is that there are lots of badly coded accents that come out as blotches. A much worse effect is that on CDs with numerous composers or works there is only a very confused indication of which work any track comes from and none at all of who is the composer. When the MP3s are finally downloaded they turn out not to be tagged with the composer, and both Martha Argerich and Alfred Brendel have been tagged as an artist called NULL.

For this service, they charge – so far as I can see – the full price that the CD would cost in the shops. One is saved the time taken to rip them, I suppose, but if I rip CDs myself, I get them more accurately tagged from FreeDB than Passionato can manage, and I have a backup, too. There is certainly no reason whatever to buy Naxos stuff from them, since the entire Naxos catalogue is already available from Emusic, for a lot less money.

Rowan on God (I think)

Friday, September 12th, 2008

what I understand him to be saying is this: (I have blockquoted it, for as much clarity as possible, but the paraphrase is mine. Subsequent quotes are his.)

God is neither a fact amongst other facts, nor an explanation of any particular thing in the world as we encounter it. God is in this sense removed from the causal world entirely.

The facts of the world, taken as a whole, are unendurable (Ivan Karamazov) but the fact of the world is glorious. Somehow, by working with the glory, we can transcend, redeem the facts, even as we are part of them. This is what Christ showed. We have a purpose that is not our own and that often cuts painfully across it: the real — God’s — purpose for our lives is loving attention to the world in front of us.

The only alternative to such loving attention is the will, which leads to hell through solipsism because the distinctive quality of the will is that it uses things for its own purpose and not for theirs.

This makes a difficulty with God, of course: are we to imagine him having a will that uses us for his purposes? No, says Rowan: “Alyosha is right in refusing the idea that any particular suffering can be seen as a means to someone else’s purpose (even God’s).” On the other hand it’s not clear what’s left once we detach entirely someone’s value to God, which is their real value, from their value to themselves and other created beings. To say that God thinks a child with meningitis is infinitely valuable is very small comfort to the child, or to its parents. They would settle for its just being valuable enough for Him to save. Rowan sees this objection: “But what kind of creation is it that produces personal identities that are so valuable for their own sake or in their own right that their value is totally detached from whatever fate lies in store for them?”

I’m not sure, though, that I understand his answer, which is that “created subject mirror that gratuity of God’s own being; they exist so that God may delight in them and they in each other, although none of this is necessary for any goal.” If created beings exist “so that” God may do anything, that seems clearly to imply a goal; but if “none of this is necessary for any goal” then it can’t be necessary that they exist for Him to delight in them — oh my aching head! — start again: if God is perfection, then His delight must be the greatest delight there can possibly be; but in that case it cannot be increased by creating anything. So to that extent it is entirely unnecessary that anything should exist. At least it is unnecessary to God, which would tend to imply that it is not really necessary to us to exist since he is the only thing wholly real — a conclusion which seems to imply the necessary, eternal existence of my headache.

Reading and sleeping

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

I have made it almost to the end of the Dostoevsky book by getting up early and allowing myself to fall asleep while I read it, waking refreshed for another ten pages or so. Is this a sign of a weak mind overwhelmed? Certainly, the book seems to yield a lot more sense when read in this fashion. There are still some truly awful sentences, but a few real thoughts emerge clearly and provoke others in the reader, though I had better save them for my review. There is one important thing to be said in his favour, though: he is not only a good and penetrating literary critic, he makes you want to read and reread the books he is talking about, which is the first duty. There must be thousands of books on Dostoievsky which don’t leave anyone wanting to read The Devils.

But of course it is impossible to read it just as the work of a literary critic. It is also the work of an Archbishop of Canterbury, a man who has some power to put his beliefs into action. That fact leads to all sorts of troubling reflections.