Sunday, October 30, 2016

My Log 534 Oct 30 2016: I am lost in a miasma of scientific jargon, in the course of which one of my idols is revealed to have clay feet

For reasons that rather escape me --- since I have minimal interest in science or scientists --- I am reading the autobiography of Sir Peter Medawar, who, born in 1915, was brought up in Rio de Janeiro by a Lebanese father, educated at a British public school and Oxford, and became a leading scientist during the Second World War, winning the Nobel Prize “for medicine or physiology” in 1960.
The book is rather a strange one. It has three extremely lively opening chapters, one of which contains the best description I have ever read of the virtues of Oxford’s tutorial system of education --- one tutor to one pupil --- which I couldn’t help contrasting with what I read last week about Toronto University with its 90,000 students. 90,000!  When last I had heard about them, they were 40,000 and I had thought that  huge number. After these three delightful chapters he gets on to describing what he calls his “Early Research”. And it is here that as far as I am concerned the man could be writing in some foreign language of which I understand not a word.
Under the direction of men who have become famous figures in the history of science, Medawar began as a zoologist, and thereafter  successively describes himself as a tissue-culturist, working under a professor of pathology, and rooming with “a fellow-embryologist” who was studying the domestic fowl. In the succeeding pages he appears to have plunged into a bewildering variety of disciplines --- medicine, and various branches of biology among them, and of some of which one has the impression they were just emerging to stake their claim as a separate discipline  --- immunology, genetics, transplantation, various divisions of biochemistry, all of these just then breaking down into minuscule  specialties that for all I know, have probably  since been developed into full-scale fields of study in their own right.
Halfway through this bewildering recitation of mysteries he pauses to give a delightfully off-hand account of the 22 honorary doctorates he has won around the world, three of them in Canada, along with delightful anecdotes of the odd behaviour of what he calls his fellow  graduands --- a new word on me, like many others in his book. These include the sculptor Henry Moore, who, when Medawar asked him if he would say a few words to the populace on behalf of his fellow honorees, “turned fully round towards me, with his blue eyes blazing, ‘No, I bloody well would not,’ he said in strong Yorkshire, so I did not have to press the matter further.”  On another occasion he attended in a wheelchair, and Mother Teresa, “seeing this rather touching spectacle, walked over to me, and without further ado blessed me, not at all perfunctorily but in the deeply earnest way that I believe to be characteristic of her.” When Medawar told Tennessee Williams, also present,  what the saint-like woman had done for him, and inquired what he, Mr. Williams was going to do for him, the author responded, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. I’ll get you a drink.” It was already clear to all, comments Medawar gently,  “that Mr. Williams had fully mastered whatever feat had been necessary to secure drinks. When he had fulfilled his offer my wife drank at least half, which was only right.”
Another scientist said on the book cover that “nobody can match Medawar for verbal wit and dexterity,” which explains why I was ready to lay out the 50 cents it cost me to procure the volume. The man, between incomprehensible chapters of scientific jargon, can really write. Ever since I began to write for a living in 1945 I have been working at trying to express myself clearly, and it is always infuriating when one comes across some numbskull from some other discipline who evidently can write clearly without even having to work at it.
I relation to this, Medawar on page 64 explodes one of the myths I have lived by all these years. I have always named Bertrand Russell as my primary model in writing, because, I have told people endlessly, “He can make any subject comprehensible to any reader.”
Oh, yeah! Medawar writes of his delight in finding a book by Bertrand Russell “a man whom I had known only as an essayist and popular philosopher” (such a silky put-down, eh?), a book called Principles of Mathematics, of which “I still remember the first paragraph. He thereupon quotes said paragraph:
“Pure mathematics is the class of all propostions of the form ‘p implies   q where p and q are propositions containing one or more variables, the same in the two propositions, and neither p nor q contains any constants except logical constants. And logical constants are all notions definable in rerms of the following: Implication, the relation of a term to a class of which it is a member, the notion of such that, the notion of relation, and such further notions as may be involved in the general notion of propositions of the above form. In addition to these, mathematics uses a notion which is not a constituent of the propositions which it considers, namely, the notion of truth.”

Okay, I take it all back. Bertrand Russell cannot explain any subject  so clearly that it will be comprehensible to everyone. And all these years I have been falsely dining out, claiming a connection to him that exposes me as a fraud and a fake.

Of course, there’s always Shakespeare, with his wonderful use of concrete, short, snappy words and and common man’s language…..I’ll stick to him in future.

Monday, October 24, 2016

My Log 533 Oct 24 2016: Classic parable about the United States from the prolific pen of Walter Mosley, emerging as one of his country’s finest novelists

I have recently read a most extraordinary novel. At least, that is my opinion, although it is not shared by all of the quidnuncs, The New York Times having given the book a discouraging review, while The Guardian was enthusiastic. The novel is called Fortunate Son, and is written by Walter Mosley. The novel is a parable about racial conditions in the United States. Its detractor wrote that it began from a contrived situation, that it allowed its message to dominate its tone throughout, and that, generally, this theme so overlaid  and overweighted it that one could never believe that its characters were real. On the other hand, in its praise, the Guardian reviewer reached back to the great novelists of Victorian England, recalling even the richness of characters that  crowded Dickens’s books for an apt comparison.
 Mosley is a 64-year-old Los Angeles native of Jewish and Afro-American descent, who wrote his first book in 1990 at the age of 38, and has since written more than 50 works of a bewildering variety. He made his name as the author crime novels featuring a black hero called Easy (for Ezekiel) Rawlins, a black man of easy virtue, with a past in crime, who is trying to go straight as the janitor of a school. He seeks a quiet life, but has such a thorough knowledge of the black communities in Los Angeles, that when the police run into problems contacting or finding black people they want to talk to, they approach Easy and ask for his help. I have read half a dozen of the 15 Easy Rawlins novels, and they have one distinguishing characteristic: they never let the reader forget that in the United States black people live the sort of lives that white people can scarcely imagine. As he told The Guardian in a recent interview: “I’ve been writing about (police brutality) for 25 years. For 450 years, the police ran rampant on black individuals, black souls. They would attack them, beat them, kill them … if you don’t have a camera image, then you don’t know what is happenin’.”
To anyone who is the slightest bit drawn to crime fiction I recommend Mosley as probably the best in that crowded field. But he has more recently branched out into more serious work, and I notice his name now cropping up bracketed with other great American novelists of past and present.
Fortunate Son  begins with a young black woman, who was abandoned by her lover as soon as she declared her pregnancy, who gives birth to a gravely deformed child who had to be kept in one of those oxygen tents to be given even a slight chance of survival.  Every day the young woman sat by the contraption, talking to the little boy who couldn’t see or hear her, sitting until late at night, and thus attracting the interest of a doctor whose wife had died giving birth to a handsome, strapping blonde baby. He suggested to the young woman that the only chance her child had of surival was if she took him out of the hospital and wrapped her arms around him. The doctor began to give the woman a ride home, and this casual friendship developed into a love-affair in which the doctor accepted the woman with her baby into his home, repeatedly offering to marry her, an offer she refused, presumably because of her lower social status.
The two children, although so different, grew up with an indissoluble affection, an affection that underlay what seemed on the surface to be the total dichotomy between them. The white boy, Eric, was first in everything, top scholar, top athlete, every girl’s dream, whereas the black boy Thomas had difficulty keeping on his feet, was slow at learning, yet had his own method of finding out about the world by studying the small animals and insects in their back yard. He developed the habit of kneeling on the floor so as to meld with the world, and with his dead mother, who seemed to him to be still alive.
Neither boy felt fulfilled if the other was absent, but when their black mother died unexpectedly, the black boy’s biological father, who had never shown a smidgen of interest in him until this moment, appeared and demanded to be given custody of the child. Rudely, Tommy was thrust into the rigours of the poverty of Los Angeles, subject to a raging, alcoholic father, a man  consumed with bitterness at how his life had gone, which didn’t prevent him from leaving the child unfed for days at a time. Eventually the boy took to skipping out of school in his efforts to keep himself alive, creating for himself his own space, his own world in the back alleys behind his new home. He had always shown what his brother had considered an immense, mysterious  wisdom, a depth of understanding that his white brother stood in awe of, but now that wisdom was lost on the people around him, who, when he did not appear for school, casually wrote him out of the enrolment, leaving him to go his own way, wherever or that might be not being of concern to  them for more than a few moments. It is in this part of the novel that so many amazing characters appear, many of them women full of warmth towards their children, yet whose lives were overburdened by the hostility they had to suffer from the men in their lives.  
Inevitably, Thomas at a very young age realized he could make a living for himself by running messages for the local crime boss, and so he became a drug runner, as innocent of what he was doing as he could be, until that moment when the police bust up their gang, and thrust him into prison with a long sentence. When his sentence drew towards an end, he was transferred to a halfway house. One day he took a walk in the streets, and just never came back: he did not think of escaping, just of keeping going wherever his feet took him.
One day he called his former home, hoping to talk to his white brother, but the Vietnamese maid, herself scarred from her experiences in the war in her country, told him not to call again.
Eric, meantime, was having the problems of success. He came to believe that he was sure to bring misfortune to anyone he loved. He got himself involved in a tempestuous love affair, exerting a deadly fascination over a girl who knew he didn’t love her, but who couldn’t keep away from him.
The end of the book is perhaps predictable: indeed, as I read this telescoped version of the events, it does sound rather staged, yet such is Walter Mosley’s power with words that you simply can’t stop turning the page,  marvelling that anyone could dream up so complex a  situation and yet give it such life that one continues, agonized, to the end.

The reader is left wondering, which was the Fortunate Son?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Log 532 Oct 20 2016:A word of praise for RT, the Russian government’s lively contribution to our political discourse

When I wake up in the morning I turn on my television and my computer, and scan both to discover what’s been happening in the world. Of course, it is inadequate as a view of the real happenings, but with the new availability of online sources, I seldom fail to find something of interest.
On television I watch, interchangeably, BBC, AlJazeera and RT, and occasionally CBC, and recently I realized I watch RT more than the others. Of course, I know it is a network sponsored by the Russian government, but then so are the BBC and CBC government-owned, and AlJazeera is owned by the Emir of Qatar. It is only in recent years since I have become less mobile that I have taken to watching television, which I used to watch only for sports. I remember even before that when I prided myself on never having seen the CBC evening news, because I refused to watch it. In those days there was a little bit of me that responded to actions such as that taken by the veteran Montreal Star correspondent, James Oastler, who, when television cameras first appeared in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, would go and stand in front of the camera with his back to it, to make sure it couldn't operate.  
With the American election, RT has suddenly become newsworthy, as Hillary Clinton, whose Russophobia seems to be as powerful as the old Cold War anti-Communism used to be, has rather ludicrously linked RT with Wikileaks, and has accused her opponent of being a puppet for Vladimir Putin, with RT as their vehicle. This seems so silly to me that it has taken me some time to realise that she seems seriously to believe it.
So why do I watch so much of RT? Well, I think the reason is that the many opinion programmes broadcast by the channel provide a view of the world different from the prevailing Western ethos. It is only since I started to watch RT that I have become so very conscious of the unanimity of the Western view  delivered by the media with seeming unanimity in our so-called free part of the world. Of course, ever since I became a journalist in 1945 I have had a critical view of the politics of the press, which always reflect the interests of its wealthy owners. And it is undeniable that in the Western world the news agenda is dictated by the strength of the American interest.  For example, for years I have waited for some journalist interviewing the American president, or any other Western politician,  to ask him about Israel’s nuclear weapons, a subject that seems to be  beyond discussion, or even mention, anywhere in the Western world.
And the other thing is this: in the modern world the United States has arrogated to itself the right to attack other countries at will, without any declaration of war, and this has come to be accepted by the Western media as another unmentionable fact. Today the United States is at war in (or with, as we used to say about wars)  Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, and is going out of its way to provoke Russia and China. The recent first bombardment of Yemen by the United States has gone almost unremarked, although in the old days it would have been regarded as a declaration of war against Yemen. None of these countries can be said to pose any threat to the United States, and just what business it is of the United States to be charging around the world, killing and maiming local populations that do not sufficiently bend to its will, is something quite beyond me.
RT does irrite me from time to time because its very good programmes tend to attack every weakness that the U.S. shows to the world, while never attacking similar problems in Russia. But that is in the nature of the government-controlled beast. And it is far outweighed by its vigorous opinion programmes, and its staunch and for the most part convincing defence of the Russian attitude towards each of these conflicts.
In addition to all that, the network has attracted in the United States an extremely lively team of attractive, eloquent and apparently fearless young people to make its programmes among the liveliest available anywhere.  It has two young women who conduct interviews with a wide variety of world figures, and are personalities in their own right: Oxana Boyko is like a pit bull as she inveigles her guests into arguments, admitting her biases and those of the channel, but showing a really impressive background knowledge of the subjects under discussion. She is not content with simply interviewing someone: she wants to provoke them, and does so --- always with extremely polite deference to their opposing views --- two or three times a week. Sophie Shevardnadze, the grand-daughter of the former Soviet foreign minister who later became president of Georgia, is another phenomenon --- extremely beautiful, she doesn’t hesitate to use her looks as a weapon, but she is far from just a pretty face: she speaks five languages, and I have heard her fluently interviewing people in at least three of them. I never miss the programmes of either of these two.
The network has attracted veteran newsmen of a progressive bent, such as Thom Hartmann, with years of experience as a progressive commentator of American politics, who has a one-hour show four nights a week, Ed Schultz, a grizzled veteran of political battles over the years, whose nightly newscast is unlike any other I know because he not only presents the news, but hauls up opposing sides to argue with him over the meaning of the news. This reminds me of the mantra delivered by the late, great Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, who said that to hear some people talk, facts are lying around like pieces of gold, waiting to be picked up by an eager prospector.  “Such a view is evidently and dangerously na├»ve,” Cockburn wrote, “there are no such facts. Or if there are…they might just as well not be lying about at all until …the journalist…puts them into relation with other facts…Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel.” I wish Hillary Clinton could remember that calm wisdom when she is making her ridiculous Russophobic claims. An impressive presence every Saturday on RT is Chris Hedges, a man who has run the gamut of the press from his years as an international correspondent for the New York Times, to his position now as one of he leading voices in the U.S. dissenting from the current drift of politics in what he now calls the Empire.
RT even has a kind of echo of Jon Stewart’s mocking but pertinent attitude towards the news in Lee Camp, who runs an amusing  programme called Redacted Tonight, and they have in Gayane Chichakyan, an apparently fearless examiner of senior U.S. spokespersons in Washington. Overseeing a programme called Watching the Hawks --- “the chickenhawks and the warhawks” --- is a young man called Tyrel Ventura, the son of Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who became governor of Minnesota, and this young man, like his father, is compulsively watchable. There is even a half-hour interview programme by Larry King, that workaholic veteran who it seems can never stop talking.
In Britain, too, RT has established a lively critique of national politics, and that must surely have something to do with the decision of RT’s bank to close down all the network’s bank accounts in the country. If that should drive them off the air, then the loss is entirely that of television watchers especially those who appreciate a wide range of views, even those  that are regarded as unacceptable by the entrenched establishment who seem nowadays to have things more and more their own way.