Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Winter Music

With a High Pressure stuck firmly over the Ukraine pushing the incoming Atlantic weather systems 'up-and-over', we are having a spate of foggy mornings. The empty daytime skies allow the sun to raise ground temperature and then, with the fall of night, plunge it, in the early hours, into an icy bath.

Low flying crows punctuate the greyness with their coarse guttural utterances.

Warm milky tea, hot olive-oil-based-butter-substitute covered toast and 'Rip-the-sky's-corsets-off' (also known as Rimsky-Korsakov to the more effete) on the CD player.

I noticed a couple of days ago an urge - Russian 19th century symphonic - creeping up on me.


Strange I thought, how some national music styles fit so nicely with the seasons.

Winter is Russian.

Whether the snow and extremes of a Russian winter are reflected in the music, or, having spent many winter nights in the concert halls of Moscow, I associate the music with winter I couldn't say.

But one of those swirling, bum bum on the base drum, wind whistling first violins, sting-sting-woodwind tunes sends my imagination to -25 C, crunching through the snow near the 17th Century orthodox church in Bitsevski Park: Beard caked in ice, nose on the point of numbness, ears burning. Mad Russian pensioners in their underpants jumping through holes in the frozen surface of ponds. French and German soldiers, in retreat, freezing to death.

English music is summer.

It's a blue mis-remebered hills of childhood, wandering through empty green fields, playing in enchanted woodlands mixed with an adolescent, cold-white-wine-and-cheese-quiche, early-romance summer.

Once the Williams skylark ascends, or Elgar's enigma goes hunting - its 'Oh to be in England' open poetry season.

The French have a sort of summer - but they take it too seriously - its an urban-rush 'I'd prefer to be somewhere else' summer. They remember the little, unimportant things.

And once you are off into Spain - forget the seasons, hold on to your passions. Hot but sultry, immobile windmills to get angry at.

China does a wonderful autumn.

Like Chinese landscape painting Chinese music mixes an infinitesimal range of images moving quickly into focus - sometimes startlingly close up, then faintly distant. It's music that out-Picasoes Picaso - and did so centuries ago.

Rich autumn colours, fruitful, full of promise with that edge of death - the boy on the oxen has grown a long white beard and smiling, moves into the mists.

Spring I'm usually too busy to listen to music. And Russian springs are very short, English Springs too long.

(Now, which books go with the seasons?)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gone Batty

As this is the week the 'revisionist' James Bond film, Casino Royale is released, it is fitting I picked up off the shelf of my local book shop, Batman Begins: Definitely Revisionist!

I was looking for something light (I have a couple of broken ribs, a gap left by a smashed tooth and creeping tetchiness!) and there was a row of Batman films on DVD on offer. One of those would while away some of time I am in the painkiller-induced haze my life seems to be at the moment.

But which one?

Originally I was attracted by the cast - nearly all British, is the first thing I noticed. And anything with Michael Caine and Gary Oldman is worth a nod. And Morgan Freeman, even though he’s American, ain’t bad.

I haven’t seen many of the earlier Batmen films – the joke-filled, too self-conscious lightness of the one or two I had watched made them less appealing to me than they might ordinarily be – and there were childhood memories of a black and white T.V. series. Did I really have a cape and try flying around the avenue?

There was a period of my life when I got hold of some pretty good ‘comic book’ Batmen – the sort of illustrated book that was trying to break from the sickly, ‘holier than thou’ supper hero for children. I particularly remember one ‘very dark’ story but couldn’t name it for you.

So, good cast, I’m in the mood for entertainment, and not expensive – duly bought.

And wasn’t it a good choice!

Batman Begins is an attempt to put into the film series enough realism to make the character and the stories connect to a maturing audience, to an audience (I am tempted to say post 9/11) which is less convinced by a black and white, good guy/bad guy vision of the world and where shades of darkness flick across even the brightest of lives.

Key to the concept is realism – and reason. Why did Batman become Batman? What made him take on this job, and what are the consequences of assuming the role of Revenge Artist?

I think it is one of those strange paradoxes that the closer to reality the fantasy is, the stronger the hold the fantasy has on the imagination: We need enough reality to construct our flights of fancy.

And the writers, actors, director and designers seem to have taken this to heart in this film.

Stunning sets, extremely realistic visual effects, three dimensional acting all in a sort of heightened realism create a sense of ‘This-could-happen’ in an, ‘If the world were like this – and in places it is’ location.

Gotham City is New York/Chicago/Any City. It is not the whole world – much of the story takes the proto-Batman out into a real world and expands the horizons not only of the character, but the movie.

Batman is vulnerable – emotionally, and physically. Bruce Wayne is presented as a human and when he dons the cape, he loses something of that, becoming stronger by cutting off his humanity. It isn’t a metamorphosis, it is a reduction – it is the animal inside all of us – and that is the connection frequently made (for me) by the film – not the super human flight I tried as a child, but instincts and drives lurking somewhere inside my subconscious.

Christian Bale manages the transformations of character exceptionally well – he starts as a young man with one set of thoughts and ideas, goes on a journey into the wilderness, encounters a mentor who he ultimately has to destroy, and returns to a city to take on the role of Batman – a crusader very much based on the real crusaders of old: The knights who were not opposed to a bit of immorality, dodgy reasoning and rape and pillage.

The rest of the cast is almost without exception, (and, as you would expect with the British connection) perfect.

If I make the film sound too ‘intellectual’ or uninteresting, I apologise – it isn’t either of those things – it is a very well made, high production values, action movie – maybe not for the younger children, but one teenagers and older-agers can enjoy with a couple of cans and a pizza.

Now, when is the next episode out?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Creationist Techniques 1: Straw Men

I propose taking a look at some of the 'revealed' techniques I find in the 'Awake!' special Issue for September 2006: Is There a CREATOR? (Published by the Jehovah's Witnesses - and with a claimed print-run of over 32 million!)

In fairness to the very charming young men who frequently attempt to engage me in conversation, I must say the first page does say: "Jehovah's Witnesses believe the creation account as recorded in the Bible book of Genesis. However, Jehovah's witnesses are not what you might think of as creationists."

With this in mind, I intend here to look at one of the techniques used by the leaflet to counter the accepted scientific explanation of Evolution. The first is:

The Creation of Straw Men:

Did God Use EVOLUTION to Create Life? (Title, pg. 9)


WHAT IS EVOLUTION? One definition of evolution is "A process of change in a certain direction." However, the term is used in several ways. For example, it is used to describe big changes in inanimate things - the development of the universe. In addition, the term is used to describe small changes in living things - the way plants and animals adapt to their environment. The word is most commonly used, though, to describe the theory that life arose from inanimate chemicals, formed into self-replicating cells, and slowly developed into more and more complex creatures, with man being the most intelligent of its productions. This third notion is what is meant by "evolution" as used in this article.
(Box at bottom, pg. 9)

A straw man argument is based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position (Wikipedia). It can be a successful way of persuading people, but is not actually very truthful – the argument has not been countered, people have simply been persuaded.

So where is the straw in the examples above?

It is packed around the definition of Evolution.

Evolution is:

"In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions."
- Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986
(Quoted : )

Two things to notice:
1) There is no mention of the Origin of Life (or Creation if you take the religious view);
2) There is a clear distinction made between the Biological use of the word and other Scientific and everyday uses.

I suspect, judging from the first part of the ‘Awake’ definition, the writer of this argument is very aware of the slight of hand he (or she) is trying to perform here – No scientist would ever claim EVOLUTION created life – life, and its reproduction, needs to exist before evolution can take place.

I also suspect (but do not know enough to state more definitely) that those many members of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, as well as Muslims and Jews, who both believe in an act of creation by Divine Intervention and the theory of Evolution would be a little upset at the representation of their views in such a distorted way.

A second straw man is set up in the article: Is Evolution a FACT? (page 13)

The teaching of macroevolution rests on three main assumptions:
  1. Mutations provide the raw materials needed to create new species.

  2. Natural selection leads to the production of new species.

  3. The fossil record documents macro-evolutionary changes in plants and animals.

(The BOLD is in the original – and there is a note to point one, which I don’t reproduce.)

The biggest amount of straw here is in the third point.

The suggestion is that fossils, and only fossils, provide evidence for ‘macro-evolution’.

This is very far from the case.

Four major areas of evidence exist for evolution in general (including macro-evolution):

  • the Fossil Record

  • the chemical and anatomical similarities of related life forms

  • the geographical distribution of related species

  • the recorded genetic changes in living organisms over many generations.

(Quoted from: Evidence of Evolution).

By ignoring what is by far the larger amount of evidence, focusing on (what is perceived to be) the weaker and then challenging it, the article attempts to disprove, in the popular mind, evolution as a fact.

It is worth noting I think at this point that Darwin himself used the anatomical similarities between species as a major piece of evidence and to claim the argument for evolution doesn’t include anatomical similarities is downright misleading: But that is the point of a Straw Man – set him up, make sure he can’t fight back, then knock him down.

(Next time I want to look at the note from point one I refrained from quoting.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Magic of the Moment.

The Magic of the Moment.

(Or Funeral Music)

This wall, which, like the one in the silent movie, descended, didn't have a window frame!

I spent several minutes flattened under the wood and mud-brick, weighty completeness of it - glasses thrown off; wet dribbling down my left arm.

I am "somewhat blind" with my glasses on - living in a haze of a world - and almost totally sightless without. Before anything else, I needed to see.

I managed to haul myself painfully out, crawled around the floor feeling and searching for a bit, then descend the hill and asked for some help finding my glasses - goodness knows what the poor American Evangelists who occupy a house on the edge of the nearby village saw or thought at my appearance - but two pairs of eyes, one adult, one child, accompanied me back up the hill.

Glasses found easily, I thanked my saviours, declined to join them at their next church meeting, saw them to the edge of our land, and hobbled back into the weather besieged ruin I call my home.

Then I became aware of the damage - not to the buildings, to me.

Complete 'babiness and pathetic response' occupy me at the slightest sniffle or ache: Broken bones, dislocations and anything serious bring out the 'idiotic-valiant'.

The blood on my arms (both) was soon wiped away; the crushed ribs were more intransigent to treatment.

Fast forward to the early hours of the morning - attempts to lie down proving impossible, I am sitting up listening to Romanian, middle-of-the-night, radio, waiting for death or exhaustion to close my eyes.

Winds of Change

I recognise it instantly - I have long held it in my consciousness, having lived in Moscow for a time, and spent several very happy nights in Gorky Park.

And a revelation - that is the music I want played as my atheistic body chuggers along in its casket through the purple curtains on its way to cremation.

It could be a pain-heightened response, or comatosness – but a wave of understanding crashed around the song that night.

Nights are short in Moscow in August – a few hours only - and the hot days drift into warm nights.

The Moskva, a river not of greatness but of significance, sweeps through the city in a few wide meanders, traffic rushing along its banks at breakneck speed, even under the walls of the Kremlin.

Cross from the Kremlin near the old British Embassy, go upstream, pass the chocolate factory, along the riverbank near the New Tretchekov Art Gallery and you come to Gorky Park.

Soviet-Disney I like to think of it as (but then I think St Basil’s is Tsarist-Disney).

Gorky Park has long been favourite with the Muscovites – it has a sub-Blackpool (and safety-conscious-less) funfair, long winding walks along the banks of the river, food sellers, drink sellers, and lovers strolling. In winter paths are flooded and freeze for the lovers to ice skate arm in arm; in summer the sides of the dry paths fill with the ‘fluff’ from many of the trees and young men bend down to set light to this and amuse their lady-friends with the resulting ribbon of burn which rushes away along the edges of the path.

Many of the young men are soldiers, on leave, still in uniform.

It is an atmosphere perfectly captured in the Scorpions’ song – Winds of Change.

I walked those paths with Fiona, the only woman I think I could ever marry, at a time when the world was changing: Yeltsin had assumed power, Russia was opening up: Communism had fallen in name if not control; an optimism lit the faces of those young men and women out walking.

It was a moment of magic – a glory night.

We would buy a bottle (or three) of Stalin’s favourite sweet, red, Georgian wine; get some lethal outside-burnt, inside-undercooked shashliky, and go and sit in the mock classical temple, watch the river flow and talk - sometimes deep, sometimes trivial - until it was time for the last metro to leave (not long before dawn, on those summer nights).

The goose droppings never bothered us – but the green stains were difficult to remove from light coloured trousers.

For me, both lyrics and music encapsulate not only a feeling of personal value, but get right (as few songs do) the feelings of a time and of a people.

More than that, they represent all those ‘moments of magic’ in my life – from playing with my Dinky cars in the long, back-garden grass at Ryeburn Ave. as a child (with Steven Smith?) to walking with Cris and Don, the dog, through the forest in Sistarovat only to be surprised by the first family of Wild Pigs we’d any of us ever seen.

They are the moments which sustain us when despair and pain are creeping up – and I can’t think of any other moments I’d like to take with me through that curtain into the flames of oblivion.

I managed to snooze away the rest of the night, and the following morning, well, that’s another story.