Thoughts on giving away the ending … or not giving it away

I am a lazy person. And I just sent an email to my niece Roz Watkins, who writes of crime fiction. Some of this email was personal and private, but a couple of bits seem to me to be worth recycling here, to save me the bother of having to think of something else to put here today:

I do so very much admire the writing you have been doing. The reason I don’t write about it more admiringly, and more often, is that in my part of the internet, we don’t fret about giving away endings! For instance, I am now reading a book about human evolution, to what extent human mental habits are genetically evolved, what sex differences are and are not, and so on. When writing about this book, I do not hesitate to quote any of the author’s conclusions that strike me as interesting. But if I reviewed a book of yours by discussing the convincingness of who finally turns out to have done the deed, naming the murderer, well, … that’s not allowed! So I need to learn a whole different way of writing about books like yours. Basically, I guess, you concentrate on the state of affairs at the beginning, and from then on keep it vague.

And, I realise that writing about famous books from the past is also not like writing about your books when they have only just come out. I’m not going to be denounced if I discuss the details of how Mr Darcy finally marries Elizabeth Bennet, because almost everyone who cares already knows what happened. If you don’t know how Pride and Prejudice ends and don’t want to until you’ve read it for the first time, then it’s up to you to avoid being told.

I think that the Pride and Prejudice point there is an especially good one. Great works of literature, almost by definition, are things we are allowed to discuss all aspects of, including the endings, without being accused of giving anything away. If I tell you the ending of Roz’s latest Meg Dalton book (that’s her lead detective), I’m breaking the rules. But if I reveal that Hamlet dies at the end of Hamlet, that’s okay. If you did not know this and wanted to be surprised by how Hamlet ends, that is entirely your problem. Which means that works of Great Literature become like some of the great facts of our culture, not that different from real events or real arguments about real events. We can freely discuss all aspect of the great works of literature with one another, definitely including the endings. And thorough discussions of great facts, especially how these facts turned out or ended, are, for me, one of life’s great pleasures.

This is one of the reasons I do like (some) great literature. It enables me to have thorough conversations with strangers. I think the social benefits of shared cultural objects are often missed. See also, sport and celebrities. It’s the universality of these experiences that bind us together as a society, however we may disagree about many other things, and for that matter about sport or celebrities.

Great literature is books that are celebrity books.

Another quota advert

Yes. Spent the day chasing details, and keeping half an eye on the Six Nations. In an empty Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the crowd was not missed much and Wales beat England. Oh well, it’s only a game.

So, another quota advert, photoed very recently, this time for an enterprise which, I am guessing, needs all the help it can get just now:

Something looked wrong about to me about this bike. The handle bars seemed like they had been turned round and are pointing backwards. Then I got it. They had been turned round. They are pointing backwards. Together with the front wheel that is attached to the handle bars.

The Cave website. I see there’s a cafe. Memo to self: Check it out when you know what stops.

What Steve Stewart-Williams said

When I first discovered Steve Stewart-Williams, I simultaneously started reading his book, The Ape That Understood The Universe: How The Mind and Culture Evolve, and enjoying his Twitter feed. I regularly link to the latter on Fridays, my day of the week for writing about and linking to stories and videos featuring non-human animals. But for some reason, I got interrupted when reading this book, and have only now got around to reading it properly. I am about half way through it, as I write this.

I am enjoying it because it says everything I already believe about how my species evolved into what it now is, but much better than I could say it. I am finding out, you might say, all the things I believe about evolution, and about the evolution of the human species in particular. I can summarise what I think of this book in the modern phrase: What he said. Or, even more briefly: That.

The central and recurring argument Stewart-Williams deploys, to explain why the contents of the human mind are just as much a product of evolution as the attributes of the human body, is the fact that all the other animals clearly have mental habits that must have evolved, so why should we humans, who are also animals, be any different?

Were we humans the entirely separate creations, quite unlike mere animals, that old-school Christians used to say we were, then for our minds to be entirely different from those of animals might make more sense. As it is, given that we are products of the same evolutionary process that made all the other animals, the “blank slate” notion of the human mind makes no sense at all.

One thing I did – not “learn” exactly – but hear for the first time from a scientist of human evolution, concerned the aggressiveness of the human male. Many human masculine characteristics have evolved not so much because human females like them, but more because other human males are intimidated by them. Males who defeat other males in competition achieve high status, and high status and the resources that accompany it are what human females especially like, rather than necessarily liking the particular characteristics that achieve that high status. Male aggressive characteristics are, metaphorically speaking, deer antlers more than they are peacock tails. They are at least as much for making human males into top dogs, so to speak, as they are for directly impressing the ladies. I can’t help noticing that some human females are impressed, directly, by male aggression. They like to watch men fighting, for instance. But others are very put off by such behaviour, and especially, of course, if it is ever directed against them.

Just about every lesson Stewart-Williams is trying to teach his readers is a lesson I had either worked out for myself, or something I had sort-of worked out, or something I understood the point of as soon as he said it. The above lesson, about how human male aggressiveness is more like antlers than like peacock tails falls into category three. I hadn’t worked that one out properly, but yes, as soon as I read this I knew it had to be right.

Dragons on the road map

Guy Herbert:

It’s the sort of #roadmap that has “Here be dragons” written all over it, isn’t it?

Yes. My part of Twitter is all: The politicians are tyrannising over us. I wonder. What if they are just scared? Of course, the second does not rule out the first.

Paul poster with shadow selfie

One from the I Just Like It directory:

I photoed this photo, somewhere out east (a photo photoed at the same time was of the Thames Barrier) ten years and seventeen days ago.

I like the movie. I like this advert for the movie. And I like how I inserted a shadow selfie into my photo, of the advert for the movie.

Gas works before lockdown ends?

I did quite a bit of writing today, but none of it for here, today. So, quota photo time, and again, it’s photoed in the well-lit dark with my Samsung Galaxy A40 mobile phone. I don’t know if gas work is what is happening, but that’s my bet, and if that’s right there is a lot of it about. I’m guessing they don’t like big rearrangements of the gas pipes when it’s freezing cold, as it was a week or two ago, but they want to get anything they want done done, before lockdown ends. And I further guess that this, at the junction of Warwick Way and Tachbrook Street was part of it:

I’ve been seeing gas work everywhere, like in Vauxhall Bridge Road. And are those smaller orange pipes also for gas. Guess: yes. (LAGER: No. See my comment.)

While wondering what verbiage to attach to the above photo, which I like simply for artistic effect and because of that sign about social distancing, I came upon this photo I photoed quite a bit earlier, at a spot I often shop at, where Horseferry Road does its big kink, where I often do very local shopping, and where I get my hair cut:

That’s definitely gas they’re working on there, because it says so. And it also goes on about social distancing, which at least fits with the social distancing sign in the first photo.

These annoying signs are becoming my most vivid recollection of lockdown, and it’s gone on for so damn long I can still photo more of them whenever I see them, as I surely will for quite a while.

Patrick and I finally did our Industrial Revolution podcast

In this posting here just over a week ago, I showed you all a pile of books, and said that if all went well I’d be recording a conversation with Patrick Crozier in which I’d speak about these books (plus the writings of Anton Howes). I had in mind how each writer provided a piece in the puzzle of how the Industrial Revolution came about, and that I was going to fit all these pieces together. Mass literacy, ideology, revolution, both political and industrial.

Well, last week, Patrick and I finally did manage to record this discussion, which was mostly a monologue by me with occasional queries from Patrick, and now you can listen to it, and read Patrick’s commentary and notes with more links, by going here.

The recording was a definite success in one way, which is that my voice functioned really well, better than I thought, about one month ago, that it ever would again.

The heart of my claim is that the Industrial Revolution had a lot more in common with the “other” revolutions, in places like France, Russia and China than is now usually supposed, in the following sense: The Industrial Revolution was also an ideological event. It happened because starry-eyed ideologists had a glorious plan for the betterment of mankind. Very long story very short: The plan worked, magnificently. But this is not a story which intelligent and educated people nowadays can compute. Revolution equals blood, chaos and a world that is the opposite of what the starry-eyed ideologists said it would be. What most educated people now seem to believe is that the Industrial Revolution happened by mistake, when selfish go-getters pursuing only the narrowest idea of their own selfish interests happened to have a huge but unintended collective consequence. I say that industrial improvement, even if not exactly the “revolution” that happened, was deliberate.

Between them, the writers I assembled and talked about explained all this, although it takes me to fit the various pieces of the story together, to tell it in full. Said he modestly.

And so on and forth, for over an hour. When this unbalanced “conversation” ended, I was disappointed, because of what I hadn’t managed to say. Basically I outlined a theory, but the way I told it, it was severely lacking in illustrative detail, as Patrick’s questions forced me to acknowledge. But listening again this afternoon, I was comforted by the fact that although that criticism stands, I did at least say some interesting things. I didn’t illustrate them, still less go any way towards proving them. But at least I said them, as best I could. Which is to say, I tried to.

LATER: I can’t make the comments system at Croziervision work, so I will have to put my embarrassing apology for saying that John Lilburne was executed here instead. I’m embarrassed. Sorry.

My problem was that I read all the books in the pile quite a while ago, remembered the broad outlines that I concluded from them and forgot most of the illustrative details and backup evidence. In this respect the delay doing this was unhelpful. I hope to be writing out, for Samizdata, the thesis I merely presented in this podcast and will then at least try to allude to rather more evidence than I did in this. But I promise nothing.

A House of Lords speech defending women and defending the English language

This bit of video, lasting just under ten minutes, which I recently came upon here, is surely likely to get a lot more attention than it’s got so far:

I like it because it is suffused with the very courtesy (a House of Lords feature) that he is asking for in the debate about trans rights. I am of the opinion that upholding trans rights should not be done by undermining the rights of women, as is the Noble Lord, Lord Hunt, or Philip Hunt as was. I am also of the opinion that Twitter mob bullying of anyone by anyone is to be deplored.

Will this speech prove to be a game-changer? I fear that this is a game that it will take more than one speech to change. But this speech is certainly, to use another common phrase of praise, a step in the right direction.

I’ve not looked at my Twitter feed since I watched this speech a few minutes ago, but I expect this to get many mentions there. If not, I just might break my Twitter silence. But like I say, I would be amazed if that were to be necessary.

LATER: Claire Fox, also in the House of Lords. says similar things, and tweets the videos.

Being offensive is not an offence and a public falsehood about the content of the law from a police force is worse than mere confusion


I, and many others, found this sign very offensive. Which means that it was “being offensive” and it broke its own rule. Some of those many others complained and Merseyside Police retreated:

Merseyside Police said it “apologises for any confusion this may have caused,” adding “hate crime is an offence and will not be tolerated”.

Any confusion? These people are there to uphold the law. The law as it actually is. How about apologising for making a very public, very clear and very false statement about the content of that law?

At least they got a very public kicking on social media.

A ball point pen for eight pence!

Here are two more photos photoed with my Samsung Galaxy Something mobile phone:

I came upon these pens while seeking something else, as you do. I then took these photos because what I was seeing reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Michael Jennings about why the cameras in things like my Samsung Galaxy Something mobile phone are so good. He said that when you are ordering up the cameras for a production run of mobile phones like mine, or for an iPhone or some such thing (Michael J has the latest iPhone (with which he now takes photos like these)) you’re talking about ordering a billion of the things, literally. When you are working on that sort of scale, then the economies of scale really start to kick in. A camera which would have cost five times what the mere phone costs now, if you sold it only to photographers, now costs only a dozen or two quid for my phone, or a couple of hundred for the latest iPhone. He’s not wrong.

Research and development for dedicated cameras has pretty much stopped about five years ago. All the effort now goes into making mobile phone cameras into miracle machines, and that’s really starting to be visible in the results.

I remember thinking, when digital cameras first arrived, that in the long run, cameras would have no reason to look like old school cameras, of the sort that had film in them. But at first they all did, because that was what people felt comfortable with. But now, that long run is starting to arrive. Cameras now consist only of a screen, and what is more a screen that can do a hundred other things besides photo photos.

And the above photos illustrate this same economies-of-scale which can fund mega-research-into-making-them-even-cheaper principle in action down at the bottom of the market, where they thrash out ball point pens by the billion. One pound for a dozen of them! Like I say in the title of this, that’s hardly more than eight pence a pen. And that’s after all the transport costs and retail mark-ups and goodness knows what else have also been paid. Amazing.

Shame they can’t make food and heating and rent that cheap. The one thing that never seems to get any cheaper nowadays is energy, aka the essentials of life. Are we due another human transformation, to go beside this one, when energy gets miraculously cheaper? Nuclear? Fusion? Bring it on.

That previous kink, I recently read in one of Anton Howes‘s pieces, was maybe made to seem more abrupt than it really was by the fact that there came a moment when they finally worked out how to extract and distribute energy on a serious scale, but energy remained quite expensive, hence the sudden kink upwards in the numbers. Actually, life had been getting better for some time, and didn’t suddenly get a hundred times better, merely about three or four times times every few decades.

Meanwhile, things like absurdly good cameras and absurdly cheap ball point pens don’t show up in graphs of how much mere money everyone is chucking around. Which causes people in a country like mine to underestimate the improvements of recent decades. These have not taken the form of us all having tons more money. No. What has been changing is the stuff we can now buy with the same money. Like my latest (mobile phone) camera, and like ball point pens. Provided you have some cash left over after you have fed and housed yourself and kept yourself warm (not everyone does), then life has got lots more fun, given how many and how much better are the toys and times you can now buy for the same money.

Life has not improved much for those who have fun only when the fun they get is too expensive for most others to be able to indulge in. But that’s a thought for a different posting.