Monthly Archives: March 2014

Book Review: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

When I read the Very Short Introductions (VSIs) they can fall into a few categories. They might be on subjects I know well, where I am seeking a refresher and may wish to critique how well the subject has been communicated (as was the case with Mathematics) or they may be on subjects that I know little to nothing about (as was the case with The Roman Republic). Literary theory falls very firmly in the latter of these two categories.

If someone had asked me beforehand to give either a one line synopsis of what I thought literary theory was about, or write a paragraph or an essay, I would have been wholly unable to do so. I read it because I wanted to find out what it was all about, to continue my daily battle against ignorance by means of self-education. It was also noticeable for the fact that it was one of the very early VSIs to be published, this being number 4 in the series. For contrast, one of the more recent ones I read, on Robotics, is number 330. So this seems to be some way foundational to many later VSIs, as indeed I recongised the titles of others in both the names and the topics covered here.

As with many VSIs, this is not necessarily a simple introduction. As I started reading it, it dawned on me just how alien literary theory is to me. Indeed, it was, and remains, difficult to define. The author tries to be more general and talks just of “theory” as a subject in itself. Now this is very far removed from either the common notion of theory as conjecture or hypothesis as well as being different from the more scientific view of theory (see here for more detail).

Having attempted to define “theory” Culler moves on to the question of “what is literature”. Here, the answer, to a non-expert in the field such as me, seems obvious, but wary of a kind of hubris of ignorance, I gave it a go. That said, Culler does seem to unduly pedantic, though the link between literature and language is interesting enough.

There follows a short chapter on the relation between literature and cultural studies. Here, we really get to see that what Culler is doing is presenting topics that are covered by literary theory rather than examining in any depth various schools of thought. There is a list of schools of thought listed in the appendix and these are referred to at various points throughout the text.

Of these topics, probably the most interesting was on ‘poetics v hermeneutics’ as hermeneutics is a topic I’ve encountered in theological readings. This serves a gateway to the rest of the book (which rumbles on in a similar tone) about how we read things.  For example, if we read Midnight’s Children, is it a book about a group of children born at the same time or is it a story about the history of India? A close reading will render the former while a more metaphorical stance will lead to the latter. So if we ask “what is it really about?” then we have no single answer.

One thing that I gained a lot from was a discussion near the start of the book about the wide-ranging nature of literary theory and how it just doesn’t seem to end. He puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time, been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.

Similarly, some of the schools of thought seem to indicate the opposite of a close reading, but more of a ‘reading through’ a text. For example, I recall a discussion with one atheist (I forget who it was, sorry) who said they loved reading the epistles of Paul because they liked to read into them Paul’s personal psychology. It was a comment that stayed with me, but which made little to no sense. While I would disagree with their view that Paul’s writings are “nothing more” than a way of reconciling his own personal guilt at the murder of Stephen, Culler’s work here has allowed me to see why some might think that a legitimate way of reading a text – in other words, by basically ignoring what is being written and imposing upon a text one’s own worldview.

So, while I may disagree with many of the views that are elucidated in this work, Culler’s own thoughts are well-hidden behind his citation of the thoughts and works of others. So it is really with them that I disagree (and I unwittingly have already done this with my take on a Marxist view of history) rather than with Culler. It is not at all the clearest book I’ve read in the VSI series, but it seems that that may be because of the muddy waters of the subject, rather than any obfuscation on the part of the writer. It’s a tough read, but for an outsider to the subject, it is a window to a whole new world. One that may be explored, all in good time.

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The squeezed middle?

Used under creative commons license. Image by 'Images of Money'

Used under creative commons license. Image by ‘Images of Money’

Wednesday sees George Osborne deliver his latest budget speech. Some of it he announced on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show, other parts may well have been leaked by the time you get round to reading this (I’m writing this on Monday night).

In his appearance on the Marr show, aside from being fed his lines by the host who had earlier in the show demonstrated a clear and distinct partiality with regards to the Scottish referendum on independence from the rest of the UK, and aside from the fact that there was no serious or penetrating scrutiny given applied to the Conservative party policy, making the Marr Show little more than an extended party political broadcast for the Conservative party; aside from all that, I was struck by something Osborne said as part of his prepared speech.

Whilst speaking of personal taxation, Osborne spoke of the increase in the personal allowance that has taken place since the coalition came into power in 2010.

Before coming to that point though, I would like to note two things: One, the rapid increase of the personal allowance was a Liberal Democrat policy, not a Conservative one. It was a feature of the coalition agreement that the Lib Dems insisted upon. It was one of the few areas where the Lib Dems led and the Conservatives followed.

Secondly, I would add that it is probably the best thing the coalition government have done. I am in favour of lifting the lowest paid out of personal taxation. Ideally, the personal allowance should be at a level whereby no one is taxed whose net pay would not be enough to reasonably live off. The measuring of how much that is a complex matter and one that I shall not address in this blog post.

But the point that struck me was that Osborne was proud that it was reducing the amount of tax paid by the middle-to-high earners. Without getting too personal here, I will say that in my current job, on my current salary, a small part of my tax is paid at the 40% rate. This is an important point. The media will often talk about those who pay the 40p rate (i.e. 40p in the pound, but I prefer percentages for clarity) but they fail to mention that only the uppermost part of someone’s salary is paid at that rate. There is still a significant chunk that is paid at 20%.

As someone who is counted as a middle-to-high earner, am I pleased that the amount of tax I pay is being reduced? No.

Nomatter what your political persuasion, one should face up to the economic fact that we have both a large debt and a large deficit, both of which need reducing. The two essential ways of doing this are to increase revenues or to cut costs. The current government’s plan has, for the last few years, been to cut both revenues and costs, but to cut costs at a much faster rate, through their austerity plan.

Many more voices than just mine will testify to the great damage that the austerity programme has done, with people losing their livelihoods and even their lives as a result of it. In other countries, such as Greece, it has been taken to a more extreme level but has merely resulted in mass unemployment and has failed to live up to its promises.

So while some cuts are necessary (and here I would rather cut spending on Trident and other weapons of mass destruction rather than removing the safety net of social security which is relied upon by many in their hour of need) the more obvious and sensible measure is to increase revenue. Anyone who has studied economics at any level will be familiar with the idea of elasticity of demand. That is, the more you charge for product, the less demand will be. But how much demand falls off in proportion to how prices increase is measured by its ‘elasticity’. Luxury goods have a high elasticity, whereas necessities have low elasticity. Take train tickets for example. Many use trains to get to work. If the price gets bumped up by 5% we don’t get the choice to not go to work. We are forced to swallow it, increasing the revenues of the train companies.

When it comes to tax, part of modern right-wing ideology is that tax is highly elastic. They love to tell us that increasing taxes will deter rich people from coming to country (hey, that’s one way to curb immigration!) or force people to leave. In France, when they raised taxes, a few high profile people did choose to leave the country. But did it cause a reduction in revenue that crippled the country as the austerity measures did to Greece? No.

The truth is taxation is inelastic. This gives rise to the possibility that, as train companies have exploited commuters, governments could exploit all its citizens by unfair taxation. But what is fair? Surely it is in answering this question that differences between left and right become apparent, especially when we consider what our priorities are. Right-wingers such as George Osborne see fairness in prioritising that people keep as much of their gross pay packet as possible. Left-wingers such as me prioritise ensuring the dignity and the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

For me, as stated once, but to reiterate the point, tax becomes unfair when the net income after tax is not enough to live on. If you have more than enough to live on, then you have enough to be taxed upon. Note that even if there was a flat rate of 40% (which is much higher than the actual effective rate of tax paid by those whose pay comes into the 40% band) then any individual would still keep more than half of their pay packet.

We also need to consider the seasonality of life. For some of my life I was in state education and not earning a salary, not paying taxes. At other times I have been unemployed and had to claim job seekers’ allowance in order to pay for my rent and food. At times like these, I was net taker from the state. At present, I am a net contributor. If I were to take a simplistic, conservative approach, and demand that I only pay tax for the services I use, then I would pay much less tax than I do now. But what about those who are currently in a season of being net takers? The young, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled? It is to support them that we need a section of the population to pay more tax than the cost of the services the latter use. It is a recognition of this that makes me despise the term ‘the squeezed middle’. I am not squeezed enough.

To turn a phrase around a little bit, I would say: First, to each according to their need. To fund that, from each according to their ability. This is where I think our priorities should lie. The idea of tax for tax’s sake is as wrong as it is to try to separate the payment of taxes from the provision of centrally provided services.

So please George, let’s get priorities straight. For those who are out of the tax system, let’s ensure that there is a living wage paid to those in work, and a firm support net for those who aren’t. For those who are paid in excess of they need to live on, please tax us more. We can afford it.

Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

First he studied quarks. Then he battled quacks. Now he looks at quirks.

From the outset, one gets the impression that this was great fun to write. Maybe it was even more fun to write than it was to read. The basic premise is that a lot of the scriptwriters of The Simpsons are highly scientifically literate and that throughout the many years that the show has been broadcast there have been a number of gags that rely on an understanding of maths.

Singh has spoken to a number of the creators of The Simpsons in order to ascertain whether the theories of some of the earliest discussion boards on the internet, like some UseNet groups were right when they analyzed various episodes, as well as to get an insight into the creative process that goes into creating one of the most successful television programmes of the last 25 years.

What then proceeds is an exploration of some of the more fun aspects of maths. Those who have read a lot of recreational maths may struggle to find much that is new here, but what is presented is done so clearly, with great humour and evident enthusiasm. One will not be surprised to find discussions here on prime numbers, pi and Fermat’s last theorem. To those familiar with the concepts, this is like meeting an old friend in a bar. You may have heard their stories before, but they are fun to be around nonetheless.

For me, one of the most interesting chapters was on sports statistics. I’ve been aware for some time that some sports teams have used statisticians to try to bolster their results, but have had little more insight than that. Singh gives us a nice overview of the subject here, under the heading of ‘sabermetrics‘.

Some of the links between the maths and The Simpsons can be a bit tenuous at times. Some other reviewers have commented on this, but I wouldn’t be too critical on this point. The book is more about maths than The Simpsons, with the latter being a springboard from which Singh dives; and rather elegantly at that.

Yet The Simpsons isn’t the only springboard used. Approximately 2/3rds of the way through, we start to look at another of Matt Groening’s creations, Futurama. The book, though, keeps the same format and uses this to look at a greater range of issues, which was possible because Futurama was ostensibly more sci-fi than The Simpsons.

In this part of the book, we get treated to one of my favourite tales from the history of modern maths: the meeting of G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, talking about 1,729 (though Singh fails to note that if you get hold of a mathematician’s debit or credit card, 1729 would be a good guess for the PIN!). If you haven’t heard of those two people or the number 1,729 means nothing to you, then please do buy this book.

Although the book is excellent, it does have a few flaws. It triggers one of my pet hates of using what is euphemistically known as ‘American spelling’ or in more plain terms, it is littered with typos. Though the subject is an American show, it is written by an English author with an English publisher, so one would have hoped for correct spellings. Though that might be levelled at the book’s editor, there is one critique for the author, and that is a bizarre dichotomy he tries to draw between science and maths, as though the two were somehow different disciplines. One might demonstrate with this quote from page 45: “…scientists have to cope with reality and all its imperfections and demands, whereas mathematicians practice their craft in an ideal abstract world.” As a mathematician, this is a view I profoundly disagree with, not least given the very simple fact that mathematics departments are typically located with the faculty of science at any university. It was certainly was at my alma mater, where I recall Simon Singh once gave a guest lecture while I was an undergraduate.

I’ve followed the fortunes of Simon Singh for a few years now. His books on Fermat’s Last Theorem (which crops up here) and on code breaking have both proved popular and critical successes. In recent years though he has been the subject of libel proceedings and has become something of a world-weary figure after his long legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association and his subsequent work in libel reform. Early on in the book I got the impression that this was a book to signal that he had moved on and was now back to enjoying work and that this was a breath of fresh air. This impression was deepened after a sly reference at the start of the book notably using the word ‘bogus’ that had gotten him into so much trouble in the first place. If there was any doubt, though, it would be thoroughly dispelled in the acknowledgements at the end of the book where he takes time and space to thank those who have supported him and his campaigns.

It’s a coda which indicates the more serious aspects of science to which the main content of the book is the joyous, trivial flipside. I look forward to seeing what he writes next. If it is as good as The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, it will be well worth a read.

It’s just a theory

Last week I was a watching a repeat of an edition of Horizon which was looking at the idea of what was around before the Big Bang. For UK readers, it may still be available on iPlayer and would highly recommend watching it. It features a few of my favourite scientists: the physicists Neil Turok and Lee Smolin and the mathematician Roger Penrose. Those who know me well may recall that for my master’s degree I studied Roger’s twistor theory under the supervision of one of Roger’s former students.

The programme featured a variety of views from these and other scientists about a controversial notion. I’m familiar with Roger’s view, conformal cyclic cosmology, from reading his work, Cycles of Time. The other views I had heard before (not least from when the programme was first aired) but was less acquainted with.

One post I saw on Facebook read as follows: “So watching Horizon about the Big Bang, and loving the fact that scientists clearly have not got a clue about the universe started. Mmm…

One of the comments below stated: “Most of science is all theory and guess work!

These two combined rather got my hackles up. I chose not to enter into a debate then and there but rather think about it for a few days and write something up the following weekend (which, at 9:31pm on a Saturday night, I am now doing).

The first comment

The phrase that I object to here “have not got a clue”. Cosmology may be a relatively young science with much of the universe still to explore, but the notion that there isn’t a clue simply flies in the face of the evidence.

After the discovery of galaxies and the measures of their redshifts allowed for us to realise that we live in an expanding universe. This has been backed up by numerous astronomical observations and, to the best of knowledge, no observations have been made that falsify the idea of the expanding universe.

The idea of the Big Bang (a term originally used as a derisory attempt to discredit it by the steady state advocate, Fred Hoyle) was then developed by ‘turning back the clock’ and asking: if the universe is expanding, then in the past it was smaller, but how far back does that go.

The serendipitous discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Penzias and Wilson was the nail in the coffin for Hoyle’s steady state hypothesis. It also tied in neatly with the developing theory of the Big Bang.

To date, it is the best theory of how the universe came into being. It accords with the best available evidence and has been studied in great detail in papers published in peer-reviewed journals – the gold standard of scientific epistemology. (Though it should be added that it’s not foolproof, as recently attested)

That doesn’t mean our knowledge and understanding is perfect and complete. If it were, there would be no need for further analysis. A lack of understanding is not a cause for abandonment or of making presumptions, it is a cause for further study. The Big Bang theory has its limits and the Horizon programme probed at some of these limits, asking important questions. If it turns out that another theory will be needed in order to give more details into the universe’s origins then it must take into account the evidence to date.

To take an historical example, Einstein’s general relativity recast Newton’s earlier work. The formalisms look quite different, but if one starts from Einstein and make some simplifications, one can rederive Newton. But Einstein had to start with Newton. Newton’s work was necessary to begin with. It seems unlikely that the more ‘obvious’ formalism would be overlooked and that someone could have come up with the more sophisticated theory. Yet Einstein didn’t overthrow Newton. The former built upon and refined the latter.

The case may be the same with the Big Bang. If a new theory is needed it will need to incorporate the evidence gathered to date. It would likely have an element which, if simplified, would result in something that looks like the formalism of the Big Bang. It’s doubtful many  people would understand it at first. But the lack of understanding is not a good reason for rejection. It should be quite exciting.

This is why I reject the idea that “scientists clearly have not got a clue about the universe started”. We have many clues. We have a coherent and consistent model of how it came about. It’s not complete, with some aspects as yet not understood. The work of the cosmologist is to try to bridge that gap in understanding.

The second comment 

So then, with that in mind, what about the second point?

“Most of science is all theory and guess work!”

First, we have the appalling grammar to deal with. Is it all or is it most? It can be difficult to judge tone in a written text (goodness knows what you make of my tone on this blog sometimes!), especially in one so short, but I read this is a statement not made by someone well-versed in science but rather as a condemnatory statement.

One of the key words here is “theory”. It is an example of where words which have fairly precise, technical meanings are also used in colloquial English. For another example in a different context, see my take here on the use of ‘complex’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines theory as “1. an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain something. 2. a set of principles on which an activity is based.” A footnote adds that it is derived from the Greek theoria which is translated as ‘speculation’.

This is the more common use of the term, and represents an unscientific viewpoint. That is not to say it is an inferior viewpoint in any way. It’s just a use of the term that is not context-specific. Contrast it with this, from Encyclopaedia Britannica: “a systematic ideational structure of broad scope, conceived by the imagination of man, that encompasses a family of empirical (experiential) laws regarding regularities existing in objects and events, both observed and posited – a structure suggested by these laws and devised to explain them in a scientifically rational manner.”

I would paraphrase this as: a framework of understanding, based on observation, by which reality is modelled.

However you prefer it, the scientific theory is a lot more than speculation. For that we would generally use the term hypothesis or conjecture.

But this brings us back to the comment. We test what we want to find out, in other words, what we do not know. Science tends to come in two parts: theoretical and experimental. I’m much more of a theorist. The work of the theorist is to develop the models, usually mathematical, and develop them into a coherent system which first of all agrees with all known observed data and secondly makes new, testable predictions. Depending on what area of science one works in, one will have different standards of evidence. Mathematics is the most precise of the sciences, where the only evidence accepted is that of proof. It’s a watertight logic. In physics, such proof is hard to come by. But physics is extremely rigorous, with 5-sigma being the level of certainty required before announcing a discovery . The use of this was well documented at the Large Hadron Collider in two recent instances: 1) the discovery of the Higgs boson and 2) the possibility (later explained) that a particle had travelled faster than the speed of light.

The latter point makes for an interesting case study in the scientific method. The apparent result would, if true, have contradicted a century’s worth of physics. That was not a reason to either throw Einstein out of the window or to reject the experiment as a hoax. It demanded to be taken seriously. It was the fact that Einstein’s relativity has been tested numerous times and that the framework which is established by that theory is one that we use everyday (e.g. for satellite navigation) that made a possible falsification a prospect that was at once thrilling and threatening. Had it been wrong, how would the body of evidence that supports it be accounted for?

I could go on even more. But I hope I’ve made my point.

Yes, science is theory, but that’s how it works. In the development of our theories there are hypotheses made. These are not random guesses flung out, but are the result of disciplined work. Once those hypotheses are tested they might be rejected or incorporated into the current theory. We have a lot of clues as to how the universe began and what goes on within it. We don’t know everything, and that is why research continues.

Book Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Sometimes there are books you should read at certain ages. On the Road is a book that should be read by those in their teens or early twenties, particularly as a follow up to Catcher in the Rye. I’m into my 30s now yet have only just got round to reading it. I have been vaguely aware of something known as the ‘beat generation’ and have an idea of what it is, though it’s more of a feeling that a precise description. But it’s a generation which Kerouac sits in the middle of and which this book went some way to define.

Told in the first person from the perspective of Sal Paradise, we travel across America several times with a raggedy bunch of friends, stopping over at times in San Francisco, Denver and New York, amongst other places. His most regular companion is Dean Moriarty. If you read around the book you can quickly find that Kerouac modelled his characters very closely on his friends, with Sal Paradise being little more than a non-de-plume for Kerouac himself.

From the start of the novel and pretty much throughout, the thing that struck me was the rhythm of the prose. Normally, unless a book is written phonetically (e.g. the dialogue in Under The Greenwood Tree) I tend to read with my own as the narrator; my own inner monologue. But reading this, I couldn’t do that. I was sucked into thinking in an American accent, very reminiscent of film noirs where the hero would do a voice over while they drive a car with exaggerated hand movements that would normally render their driving unsafe.

Yet whilst having that image in my head, I also had the impression that it was written out quite quickly, with Kerouac being hunched over a typewriter, in a grubby white shirt with his sleeves rolled up, no tie and cigarette hanging out of his mouth, bashing away at the keys along with the rapid rhythm of his soul.

One could barely say the book has a plot. Or if it does, it is little more than: Group of people travel around and a few things happen to them. But that would do injustice to the book. It has a great heart to it and it gives an impression upon the reader. Seeing the world through Sal’s eyes, friends drift in and out and are valued in the time we spend with them, but it is no great loss to move on to the next city.

Sal’s main travelling companion, Dean, is something of a wild one. To me, the difference between them is the heart of the book which has to be understood in its time and in its place. Written in the 1950s, portraying life in America in the 1940s, this a post-war generation. It is a story of a group of people, seemingly fatherless, who are trying to express their freedom at the dawn of a new age whilst haunted by the memory (rarely mentioned explicitly) of the second world war. This is the “beat generation”. They are beat-up because of the time in history in which they live, they are upbeat because of the hope for the future and they are dancing to the beat of the jazz clubs.

All these factors tug in different directions. And no one is more torn than Dean. At first he comes across as a free spirit, but as the book progresses we see beneath his youthful enthusiasm for the zest of life and we see that he cares little for other people; life is just there for kicks. I got the impression that Kerouac wanted to be Sal, but that he felt he might be Dean, using the book to test the waters to see which he was most like and where their roads may lead. Ultimately, Kerouac’s early death may indicate that this is a prophetic book.

However you read it, it will leave a sense of something lingering with you. How you describe that, might it be the beat? Might it be jazz? Might it be youth? Or is it as Dean refers to it, as IT.

Church: a simple act of generosity

Christians can be very opinionated people. You probably think the same of me, and you’d be right. One topic, among many, that we have an opinion on is “what church/Church should be”. This may be phrased as “what church/Church should do” or “what church/Church should look like”.

The questions that we ask say a lot about us. So there’s no really “neutral” way of asking such a question, as it inherently betrays what we think the answer may be.

While we can all have our pet theories about the answer, I was struck by something incredibly simple on Sunday. Our housegroup leaders were going to be away this week, so a couple of people from the housegroup just said “why don’t we just meet up anyway?” We exchanged phone numbers and fixed a time and place. It wasn’t complicated, just an act of friendship, despite the fact that, being quiet, it’s fair to say that few people know me, fewer still know my name. For someone else to open their home and invite me is an extraordinary act of generosity.

Such acts are not the be all and end all of what it means to be church, but we can all start somewhere. If we take just one aspect of the parable of the dishonest manager as our starting point, especially

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much

Within the church, we have loads of opportunity to serve each other. I wouldn’t suggest that this is the sole or even primary purpose of the church. But it provides a great practice ground where we can learn to be generous to one another so that, as we grow in maturity, we can be more generous to our neighbours (in the Good Samaritan 0r Good EDL member sense).