Sunday, 31 July 2011

the roadsweeper

It was a very hot day, typical of early summer in Hong Kong. I was sitting in a small store by the roadside, enjoying a cold beer and feeling grateful for the shade provided by the awning above my head. I was paying attention to nothing in particular—it was that kind of day.

Consequently, I didn’t see the roadsweeper when he first appeared. It was the old lady who owned the store who drew my attention to him when she walked across and handed him a bottle of Coke. I saw no money change hands, but then I didn’t see the transaction from the beginning. Nevertheless, it did puzzle me at the time: was it a gift, or did they have some kind of regular ‘arrangement’?

However, this problem didn’t occupy my mind for long. The arrival of the drink posed a problem of its own, this time for the sweeper. He was a very old man, or so he appeared by Western standards, with a wizened face burnt by the sun and a small, almost shrunken body. He wore a grubby, once-white singlet and a pair of khaki shorts that were absurdly too big for him. The rest of his attire reflected the influence of modern consumer-oriented technology on even the most menial residents of this self-proclaimed ‘world city’: in a word, ‘plastic’. He wore plastic slippers of the type that oblige the wearer to shuffle rather than walk, the type that can be seen all over the territory and that, though distinctly non-utilitarian, must have been based on some ancient Chinese design.

His hat was also an ugly piece of work. Clearly based on the design for the old-fashioned pith helmet that was once de rigueur for white men in the tropics, it too was made of plastic. The total effect was to make the old man look pathetic rather than comic, but the problem he faced fell squarely into the latter category.

When the drink arrived, he’d been holding a cigarette in his left hand and a bamboo-handled broom in his right. He accepted the drink in his left hand, but the continuing presence of the cigarette seemed to prevent him actually drinking. The solution seemed obvious to me, but the old man was clearly confused. Eventually, he set the bottle down, perching it precariously on top of a pile of empty bottles. He drew indifferently on his cigarette then proceeded to sweep up a pile of refuse that was revolting in its appearance. This debris had already been fashioned into a crude heap, and his efforts didn’t seem to make any difference to its aesthetic character. Finally, however, he was satisfied, and he set down the broom.

I was unprepared for what happened next. He suddenly opened the hinged lid on the top of his handcart with an ostentatious flourish, almost as if he was playing to an imaginary audience. In that moment, I realized the wrong that has been wrought on other societies by the spread of Western technology and ideals. Here was an old man, seemingly too dim to work out an elementary problem in permutations, obliged to wipe the arse of a society that, in all probability, despised him. No doubt he lived nearby, in some dilapidated hovel, investing, when he could afford it, in a government lottery ticket and generally hating the existence forced on him by his inability to adapt to change and an improved system of education.

He was an anachronism, as out-of-date as the stagecoach and the blunderbuss. In a society that had not been ‘forced’, like a hot-house plant, he might have been a village elder, but so that bloated businessmen can eat until their braces burst and their trousers fall down, so that elegant ladies can see their photographs in the society columns of local newspapers, so that thrusting young executives can fill their expensive apartments with all the best in imported furniture and objets d’art, this pathetic scrap of humanity cleaned the streets. The only thing that he retained was a sense of dignity.

He leaned against a wall, enjoying his drink and a break from the tedium of his work, quite oblivious that he’d made a contribution to the advancement of the human race after all. This was his moment.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Human beings have always looked for explanations, at least in recorded history. However, we can only speculate whether the earliest humans offered themselves any kind of explanation for a range of observable natural phenomena—a rainbow, thunder and lightning, rain and snow, floods, the wind, tides, day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, seasons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—but by the time of the first city-states, explanations were being offered, and accepted.

Unfortunately, these early explanations always seemed to involve supernatural entities, who were invariably capricious and/or malevolent, to be propitiated by any means available, including the sacrifice of fellow humans. Over the next few millennia, this crude stereotype became more sophisticated in its explanations, and in the range of categories, physical and psychological, for which it offered these explanations. These, in their new and more refined state, became widely believed, even though their acceptance did not depend on an objective analysis of the evidence, because none was offered. None was required. Unquestioning belief in the efficacy of the explanations was the sole stipulation. Later commentators would call this phenomenon religion.

Meanwhile, fed up with the obvious lacunae in the above explanations, groups of humans decided that knowledge is the key to explanation, and the only sure road to knowledge is through the application of reason. The best-known proponent of this viewpoint is probably Aristotle, who believed, inter alia, that the Moon is a perfect translucent sphere, because any other explanation for what he saw in the night sky would violate the dictates of reason. It is interesting to speculate on his reaction, should there be some way to bring it to his attention, to Galileo’s perfect rebuttal of this ludicrous assertion: if the Moon had been a perfect sphere, then the amount of light reflected by the centre of the disc would have been much greater than that reflected around the edges. Of course, Galileo had the advantage of the knowledge, gained by using a telescope, that the surface of the Moon is not smooth; it is covered in mountains and craters. This affords an explanation for what is actually observed, because an irregular surface reflects light equally in all directions, hence there is no discernible difference in brightness between the centre and the periphery of the lunar disc. It is ironic that Aristotle’s approach to explanation came to be known as philosophy, given that the word derives from the Greek philosophia, ‘lover of wisdom’. ‘Lover of guesswork’ would be a more accurate description.

Although these two systems for explaining the world we live in should have been mutually incompatible, and priests and sages should have regarded each other with deep suspicion, by the late Middle Ages in Europe they had come together to formulate a definitive explanation of, well, everything. The sage claimed that the Sun revolves around the Earth on philosophical grounds, while the priest averred that any other explanation contradicted the authority of his book of legends and was therefore false. The ancient Greek conception of the wheel as the ideal of perfect motion became official Roman Catholic doctrine, and the Church found itself committed to the ‘wheel of the heavens’. It was as if Ptolemy’s system had been invented not by a Roman citizen living in Egypt and writing in Greek but by the Almighty himself.

By this time, however, a third method for seeking explanations for natural events had begun to challenge this uneasy alliance, a method based on observation and measurement. This was the start of science, which really did offer an explanation for everything. At least, that is what its practitioners claimed to be able to do.

In the vanguard of this challenge was a Polish priest, Nicolaus Copernicus, who published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543. This book rejected the then current explanation of the movement of heavenly bodies, postulating that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than vice versa. Nowadays, we are apt to think of ‘revolution’ as meaning some kind of radical and possibly violent change, but this is a secondary meaning that the word acquired as a direct result of the work of Copernicus.

However, the bigger revolution, in progress while the book was being researched and written, was someone else’s fault. Martin Luther had decided to muddy the religious argument by insisting that you didn’t need a priest to explain things; you could work it out for yourself. There was just one snag. The book of legends was your research material. Meanwhile, the Counter-Reformation, an ultimately futile attempt to reassert the Catholic Church’s authority over its uneducated adherents, was kick-started in response to Luther’s heresy, and it was inevitable that Copernican cosmology would come under scrutiny.

Yet it was to be another ninety years before the heliocentric view faced a major challenge. In 1633, Galileo was hauled before the Holy Office of the Inquisition to explain the views that he had expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published a year earlier. Galileo thought, naively, that all he had to do was to demonstrate that Copernicus had been correct and everyone would listen.

He had reached this conclusion twenty years earlier, but he had judged that the time was not right for a challenge to the accepted order. Then, in 1623, a new and intellectual pope was elected, Maffeo Barberini. The climate seemed right.

Galileo had long conversations with the new pope, but he was unable to persuade him to withdraw or at least by-pass the Church’s prohibition of the Copernican worldview. Nevertheless, he believed that the pope would permit the new ideas to be assimilated slowly into the Church’s teachings, because this was how the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy had become official doctrine in the first place. He was wrong.

Perhaps Galileo should have noted the early behaviour of this extravagant pope. Barberini had bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon, a Roman-era building that had survived the Visigoths and the Vandals, to construct the Baldacchino, the preposterous canopy that towers over the papal throne in St Peter’s, an act of vandalism recorded by an anonymous wag in one sentence: quod non fecerunt barbari, fecit Barberini (what the barbarians didn’t do, Barberini did).

The trial of Galileo was a clash of principles: Galileo believed that the ultimate test of any theory can only be found in nature, while Barberini considered this to be an infringement of God’s right to rule the universe by miracle. The eventual verdict, that Galileo was ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and was thus required to recant, had one important consequence: the centre of gravity in the development of science moved to northern Europe, and no notable scientists worked in Italy for the next two hundred years.

Thus began the so-called ‘Age of Reason’, although it should be pointed out that ‘reason’ in this context differs from the original Greek definition of the term. The new paradigm was inductive logic: make specific observations or measurements, then infer a general explanation for the phenomena that are observed. Not all such explanations were sound: for example, the phlogiston theory of combustion, popular in the late seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth, did explain many of the observed characteristics of combustion, and it was comprehensively disproved only with Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in 1778.

New branches of science opened up in the nineteenth century, including geology, thermodynamics and genetics, together with a major theory that greatly upset the religious lobby: the theory of evolution by natural selection. And some apologists for religion remain upset, because it contradicts their own explanations.

The twentieth century saw even more developments in science, including some with serious philosophical implications. Schrödinger’s cat is a good example. This subject of a famous thought experiment ends up simultaneously alive and dead as a result of quantum mechanical effects. However, chaos theory is the concept that carries the greatest philosophical loading in modern science, precisely because its predictions are counterintuitive.

The tired old analogy of a hurricane in the Atlantic being caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rainforest does nothing to explain chaos, so a different category of explanation is required. And neither philosophy nor religion can provide it.

The ‘different category of explanation’ turns out to be art, and the visual arts in particular. However, it should be borne in mind that art provides an insight into the meaning of a given concept rather than what we conventionally think of as an explanation. After all, there are no words, and we are programmed to use words when constructing an explanation. The best insight into the nature of chaos can be found by examining the later paintings of Jackson Pollock, especially the ones that earned him the nickname Jack the Dripper.

Jackson Pollock, No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) [National Gallery of Art, Washington].

When news broke in 2006 that Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 had just been sold for $140 million, Britain’s Sun newspaper produced a painter and decorator who said that he could knock out a painting that was just as good for £19.95. It is unlikely that it would have been mistaken for a genuine Pollock, because neither the Sun nor the hapless painter understood what they were trying to poke fun at. However, it is possible to produce a reasonable imitation of a Pollock painting by employing what physicists call a chaotic pendulum to apply the paint to the canvas.

Pollock used household paints, which are much more fluid than conventional art pigments and can thus be dripped and flicked onto the canvas more readily from the sticks and caked brushes that he habitually used. Critics who despise Pollock invariably justify their dislike by pointing out that all these canvases were painted while he was blind drunk. What they don’t realize is that in getting drunk, Pollock was transforming himself into a human chaotic pendulum, although he probably wasn’t aware of this interpretation of his modus operandi.

Look again at Lavender Mist. It is not a random mess, although it may seem like it to the untutored eye. It is an illustration of chaos, which is not the same thing. If you understand this distinction, you are well on the way to understanding the fundamental truth about explanations: if you want to understand something, you don’t have to be clever; you just need the right explanation.

Friday, 15 July 2011

three-card monte

In the decades prior to their defeat by the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French ran a thriving colony in Quebec (‘New France’). However, administration from the centre was extremely casual: money arrived irregularly from the home country, and the colonial authorities were forced to improvise.

The model that they chose to emulate was that of Massachusetts, which in 1690 had issued the first paper money in North America. However, the only durable stock of paper available was playing cards, which had the dubious advantage of bearing the official government signature. These then became promises to pay that could be redeemed for gold or silver when ships from France finally arrived in the colony. Different suits were worth different amounts.

Unfortunately, as with regular paper money, if too many cards are dealt inflation results. In the final years of New France this occurred: need was immense, while the means for redemption were tiny. The purchasing power of the playing cards became vanishingly small, and this particular fiscal experiment ended in 1759 with the French defeat.

It is with some sadness that I report this story. Had it become standard practice throughout the world to use playing cards as money, then the recent activities of investment banks might have been more widely recognized as gambling earlier than turned out to be the case. It would also have been glaringly obvious that they were playing with a rigged deck.

In this respect, investment banking has a lot in common with the confidence trick known in America as ‘three-card monte’ and in the UK as ‘find the lady’, because the object of the ‘game’ is to identify which of three cards is the queen of hearts. If you see such a game in progress, by all means stay and watch, but on no account should you bet any money, because you are certain to lose. Despite appearances, it isn’t a fair game: the widespread encouragement to invest in mortgage-backed securities a few years ago merits a broadly similar description.

Three-card monte is usually played in a side street close to a busy area with a lot of people passing by on foot. The first thing you will see is a man standing behind an upturned packing case or cardboard box manipulating three cards and inviting spectators to put money on their ability to identify the queen. You should bear in mind that the ‘dealer’ is not alone. Some spectators will be ‘shills’, or accomplices, each with a different role to play in the perpetration of the scam.

At least one shill will be playing; he may be winning easily, or he may be losing outrageously. There is a reason behind these different strategies. In the first case, the appeal is to simple human greed; the second is a set-up for a second shill to make his ‘pitch’ to a potential ‘mark’, or victim. I always enjoy playing the latter, because part of the fun of watching a three-card monte operation is in identifying all the shills and listening to what they have to say. The most common angle is that they will point out that the game is crooked, but that they know how to beat it. I can see the appeal to vanity here: this offers a chance to scam the scammers. Of course, I always dip out when the question of putting down money arises. It is a pity that this strategy wasn’t followed by many employees of the big investment banks, who rushed to buy securities that offered exceptionally high returns with apparently little risk. With hindsight, it would be fair to say that they fell for both the appeal to greed and the appeal to vanity.

So how is it done? It is actually quite easy to follow the queen. However, when the dealer picks up the three cards, note that he must have two in one hand. A skilled card sharp can choose which of these cards to ‘throw’ onto the playing surface. The usual assumption is that he has thrown the bottom card, but if the two cards are being held correctly, it is just as easy to throw the top card. In other words, it is impossible, if the switch is done properly, to spot which of the two cards has been thrown first. So effective is this technique that even the shills may not be able to follow the queen, so a system of secret hand signals is needed to let them know its location.

What happens if the mark places his money on the correct card? Given that the golden rule in this type of con is that the mark is never allowed to win, how can this difficulty be circumvented? The usual tactic is for one of the shills, who will be aware that the mark has picked the correct card, to place a higher bet on the same card. The dealer then declares that he accepts only the highest bet in any given round of the game.

There are other tricks that can be employed, including the mystifyingly named ‘Mexican turnover’, which is an alternative method of dealing with the awkward circumstance where a mark selects the correct card. It, too, requires a degree of legerdemain. However, there is an interesting variant that I’ve seen being used in London that doesn’t require any such manipulation of the cards, although it is likely that the dealer can do so if required, because the three cards are always slightly curved around their long axes, which is a prerequisite for the standard throw described above.

In this variant, one shill will be playing, and he will choose the correct card to bet on each time. He can do this because he looks at the card first. Then he reaches ostentatiously for his wallet to take out some money, turning away from the cards as he does so. As this is taking place, the dealer brazenly swaps the queen for one of the other cards. Cue a second shill, who can point out to a potential mark how stupid the man must be for not keeping a finger on his chosen card while getting his money out. The mark is then asked to place his finger on the card while the second shill gets out his money.

And now comes the pitch: if the mark is prepared to match the stake wagered by the second shill, they can share the winnings. I cannot describe how the mark is relieved of his cash by this method, because whenever I’ve been in the position of the mark in this scenario, this is the point where I’ve always ‘made my excuses and left’. Older readers will recall that this was the standard form of words used by News of the World journalists in less prurient times as part of their exposés of illicit sex, drug dealing and other activities of which the newspaper disapproved, before it decided that it was more profitable in the long run to stay and watch. After all, whatever form money takes, there will always be some people who want more of it and who will not be deterred by the annoying detail that what they choose to do to get more of it might be illegal.

Monday, 11 July 2011

another eden

This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress, built by Nature for herself
Against infection, and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1.
I’d been trying for weeks to persuade a friend that he needs to take more exercise, and yesterday I was finally able to get him out for a decent walk. You might think that with the Lake District only a few miles to the west I’d have chosen a walk in the mountains, but I decided that a more gentle introduction was appropriate, opting instead for a walk linking historic sites on the east bank of the River Eden.

On the way to our starting point in the village of Little Salkeld, we were reminded of the awesome power that the river is capable of wielding. Bridges along this stretch of the river are several miles apart, and one of the most important carries the A686 Penrith–Newcastle road across the river at the village of Langwathby. The current bridge is a steel-framed Bailey bridge; it was erected in 1968 as a ‘temporary’ replacement for the original sandstone bridge, which is recorded in official documents from 1686 but which had been swept away a few months previously, in the early hours of Sunday, 25th March. A build-up of flood debris on the upstream side of the bridge is likely to have produced the pressure that would have been needed to bring the bridge down. As a postscript, I’ve listened to quite a few locals over the years who claim to have been ‘the last person across’.

From Little Salkeld, we followed a narrow lane that runs alongside the Midland Railway’s main line from Leeds to Carlisle until we reached the disused sidings of the Long Meg gypsum/anhydrite mine (gypsum is a soft mineral that consists of calcium sulphate and water of crystallization; anhydrite, a hard mineral, is also a form of calcium sulphate, but without the water). Mining operations commenced in 1885, and the mine was finally closed in 1976, but not before five million tons of material had been extracted.

Soon after passing the mine, the railway swings across the river and out of sight, and for the next few miles there is nothing but the tranquillity of water and trees, the buzzing of flies the only sound. However, there is one notable landmark:

Lacy’s Caves are a series of five chambers carved into a soft sandstone cliff that overlooks the river. I used to think that they were the work of mediaeval hermits, but the interconnectedness of the chambers makes that explanation implausible. They are in fact the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Lacy of Salkeld Hall, who commissioned their excavation in the eighteenth century. The reason for their creation is unknown, although they are known to have been used by Lacy for the entertainment of guests: the area was originally set out as an ornamental garden.

“The tranquillity of water and trees”.

A view north (downstream) along the river.

Looking upstream from almost the same point.

After a further two miles or so (the previous three photographs were taken along this section), the riverside path reaches a minor road, which we followed for a short distance until we came to a path that turned off through the woods. This one led eventually to the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Addingham:

This church is located about a mile south of the village of Glassonby. Addingham was originally an Anglo-Saxon settlement that adjoined its Viking neighbour, but the river dramatically altered its course in the fourteenth century, washing away the village in the process. The church was rebuilt, but not the village.

The final landmark on our circular route is Long Meg and her Daughters, which is the largest Bronze Age stone circle in the north of England:

Long Meg, which stands outside the circle, is the tallest stone in this photograph. All the other stones, many of which are no longer upright, are glacial erratics, but Long Meg is sandstone and probably predates the circle: it has several examples of megalithic art carved into its surface. Not surprisingly, there are many local legends associated with the circle. The best known is that it is a coven of witches that was turned to stone by a Scottish wizard. Another is that it is impossible to count the stones twice and come up with the same total each time (hint: there are fifty-one, although there may have been more at one time).

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

mind over matter

When I wrote The Colour of Money earlier this year, I neglected to provide any information on the origin of the word, mainly to avoid going off at a tangent. It is derived from the Latin word moneta, which was, in Roman times, a place where coins were struck. The English word ‘mint’ comes from the same source.

But how did a Roman mint come to be called a moneta? The explanation begins with the Latin verb monere, ‘to warn’. It turns out that facilities for minting coins were always located in a temple dedicated to Juno, a goddess whose alternative title was moneta, ‘lady who warns’. So where did this slightly odd sobriquet come from? This is the explanation provided by Cicero:
…on the occasion of an earthquake, a voice came from the Temple of Juno on the Capitol warning the people to purify themselves with the sacrifice of a pig.
It should be taken into account that early Roman copper coins frequently bore the likeness of a pig, so this invocation can be interpreted as an appeal for funds rather than as an exhortation to slaughter as many porkers as possible. It should also be borne in mind that the Romans used moneta to translate the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, from whom we get the word ‘mnemonic’, ‘aid to memory’.

It may simply be coincidence, but the Roman lady who warns and the Greek lady who remembers have the same two consonants, ‘m’ followed by ‘n’, beginning their names. And there’s a third, Minerva, whom the Romans borrowed from the previous occupants of Italy, the Etruscans. Minerva was installed in the Roman pantheon as the equivalent of the Greek goddess Athene, who was born out of the head of Zeus and who therefore symbolized thought or wisdom. Minerva is also loosely associated with pigs, in the Roman proverb ‘A pig teaches Minerva’, which is equivalent to the modern expression ‘don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’.

There are three other Greek ladies who play a part in this story: the three Furies, whose job it was to hunt down the breakers of taboos. One can surmise that the ancient Greeks were sensitive about mentioning these malevolent beings, because they gave them the name ‘Eumenides’, ‘well-intentioned ladies’. Notice that the m–n juxtaposition occurs here too. In this case, it is in a derivation from the Greek word menos, ‘meaning’ or ‘intention’.

So here we have four examples of female deities with names that represent types of mental activity: reminding, remembering, thinking, intending. And ‘mental’ derives from the Latin mens, ‘mind’, which is clearly cognate with menos. ‘Mind’, on the other hand, while containing the m–n juxtaposition, comes not from Latin or Greek but from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree. This suggests that proto-Indo-European had a word containing m–n with a similar meaning, a conjecture that is corroborated by the existence of the Sanskrit word manas, ‘mind or spirit’.

In fact, ‘mind’ has taken on a number of subsidiary meanings. So a speaker may say ‘mind that pothole’ as a reminder, ‘I mind it well’ when they remember, or ‘I have a mind to’ when they want to communicate their intentions. However, the part of this story that is the most difficult to explain is how the descendants of speakers of proto-Indo-European, coming from a culture whose principal god was male and where descent was reckoned in the male line, came to associate the process of thinking with female deities as they fanned out across Western Asia and Europe.

Could it be that the word ‘man’, the ultimate m–n word, originally meant ‘being who thinks’ and was not gender-specific? This is an attractive theory, albeit one with no evidence to support it, although this scarcely matters when a quick look around the modern world suggests that the definition no longer applies anyway.