And while Brazil is up

I found out yesterday that the drug lord of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s most prominent and largest hillside favela was killed last week, following a week of bloodshed between rival gangs and police within the shanty town. Luciano Barbosa da Silva, or Lulu, who ran a criminal system moving cocaine and other drugs from Columbia to all of Brazil and beyond, was shot to death at 26, an age and cause not untypical for males within the favelas of Rio to find their life ended.

I was in Rio last summer and visited Rocinha with a tour group that specialised in showing outsiders the reality of favela life. It was a highlight of my time in Brazil, in which I saw the enterprise and will that these people had to have to build their homes from scratch up a hillside, maintaining their utilities andsolving their own crises, be they blackouts, fire or whatever, using systems they cobbled together and the limited expertise they shared between them. The houses were good and solid – generally put together by manual labourer and builders using the left-over materials from jobs that were allocated to workers as a rewards – but the town, unplanned, had only a single winding road through its centre, with warrens of alleys providing the only movement. It wasn’t scary to be there, although I saw how it could be, and we visited schools and art-and-craft initiatives designed to keep kids learning and away from the lure of easy money as look-outs, and later runners for the drug gangs. We also heard a story of corrupt cops launching a robbery on the town post office, only to be repelled by the gangs rejecting this presumption onto their territory. There was some limited hope within that place, where people were poor but not starving and begging like I had presumed, where there were local doctors and commerce and determination, even if it was overcast by the awesome influence of the drugs and the gangs.

Now Lulu is dead, an event sparked by the invasion by the former Rocinha boss Dudu (Eduino Araujo), and a power vacuum is open for exploitation. Dudu is considered a particularly cruel gang boss with sadistic methods, and the residents see this as only a negative development: “The people here have been living in fear of Dudu returning”. While he is the catalyst for the current situation, the favela problem has not been adequately dealt with by successive administrations, while the school system fails over and over again, with underfunding leading to strike leading to erosion in any confidence in schooling the poor youth may have had.

I’m sorry that an ever-precarious situation just slid twenty feet closer to the edge.


A quick thought from “The Blues” before I lose it.

I was fascinated by how so many Blues lyrics are criticisms of the man dressed up as paeans to the woman: My baby don’t treat me no good; she take all my money, shirt on my back etc. It resonated with another cultural practise of relocated black culture, the capoeira of Brazil. According to some research of this ritual/dance/martial art it was a way for slaves to train themselves for defence against their masters, cloaked in the innocence of a dance pastime, complete with instruments and chanting. These trappings became deeply embedded in the practise, until they became essential to it (although subsequent developments have led to mutliple approaches to the practise of capoeira, notably the formation of the Regional school – more formal, more martial-arts like than the looser and more expressive Angola form). I’ve been playing capoeira myself for about seven months now, having first been properly exposed to it in Brazil in what I thought at the time to be a pretty gruelling session – now I realise they were taking it real real easy on us. I’ve since learned that this pretty little meme is actually disputed by a lot of capoeira historians. It appears implausible to claim that all the different components of capoeira – the berimbau, pandeiro and all the other instruments, the ritualistic elements and songs all arose simply as cover for its functional aspect of self defence. Besides, there is evidence that cultural expression like singing/dancing was itself repressed in any case. What capoeira seems to be is a curious amalgam of all its incongrous aspects, a game that is a fight, a fight that is a dance, a song that is a ritual. So in one sense the parallel is less striking than I could have claimed. Nevertheless was interesting for my white ass to see another example of the expressive means that were born out of being the powerless man in a strange land, and their common origins in ancient practises on a vast distant continent.

and you should see what’s for pudding…

We’ve had Freeview for a couple of weeks now, and ooh, do I feel the benefit. Eternal Digital TV and Radio in a box for one (modest) payment is a nice deal, and as both media got such bad reception on our standard aerial it has freed us to be a normal household, squaring our eyes and soothing our brains with on-air chat. Huzzah! On top of that we do get a few new channels, mostly bunk but some news, and the 2 digital-only ones from the BBC. BBC4 is really living up to my expectations at the moment, highlight of the past week being Martin Scorsese’s episode of “The Blues”, which managed to convey the significance of these early figures reverently but honestly, even for a novice like me.

Through last night’s viewing I stumbled across a format for a debate show unimaginable ten years ago: Dinner with Portillo. It’s a testament to the extent this man has transformed himself that he can be portrayed as the host of a meal for a disparate group of personalities, with heterogeneous political positions, nodding sagely and mediating between extremes rather than acting as one. Or at least, that’s how appears.

The show last night, ‘Education’, was purportedly about “the ethics of opting out of state education”, of whether it is defensible for people to send their kids to private schools, even if they are progressive and advocates of the state system. An interesting question to me, someone who went through private and state education, with good and bad tales of both. My mother was progressive; did she go against her ideals by allowing me to opt out of the state system? And if I were to choose the same for my kids in the future, where would that leave me? There are nuances, conflicts and contradictions in this decision that merit discussion, and did receive some on the program. Discussion of private education cannot go on without some recognition of the current state of the alternatives, and accordingly the talk opened into the problem of substandard state schools, the difficulties that minority kids face in bad schools in sink areas, the imperative felt by hard-working poor to propel their kids upward and give them the ladder that was never afforded them.

Unfortunately, as time went on, the nuances were swallowed up by increasingly heated partisan claims by a couple of state-haters, Melanie Phillips and Chris Woodhead. The latter used to run the school standards monitor OFSTED; both are columnists for right wing newspapers. The Daily Mail was our newspaper when I was a kid (don’t ask) and Phillips a regular in it, and one of the more regular stomach-turners: well articulated but brimming with vitriol and contempt for whatever her subject was. The whole point of the paper seems to be engendering in Middle England the sense that they are the most wronged species in all of Christendom, that variously the poor, women, immigrants (constantly) and state workers are lucky duckies, every one – and she has mastered that. Him, I know less of, but anyone, regardless of experience, who claims that state education will always failed, on the basis that we haven’t made it work over the past 30 years, is getting no gold stars from me. Bad boy, back of the class!

He proceeded to advocate the introduction of a voucher system for everyone, to spend on state or private education, and let the market improve things as the state isn’t capable. Prof Ted Wragg, education commentator, began to take him to task, as the only specialist defender of the state system who made any real input (Lisa Jardine, another UK professor, was billed as a ‘passionate advocate of state education’ but apart from her opening statements her input was fairly limited), at which point the Phillips ratched up the antagonism, accusing him of considering himself the only authority to make decisions about education (he didn’t), and then accussing him of shifting his story when he clarified what he had said. The debate had completely been reframed from whether we should feel guilty about using private education (which had been dealt with maturely, and generously toward those like guest Trevor Phillips who did use private education while still wanting the state to improve) to an argument that the state should subsidize private education and that the public should give up on trying to change state education.

How had this occurred? The makeup of the guests certainly contributed: Frances Gumley-Mason (an independent school head); Susan Greenfield (a peer and celebrity scientist who had very little to say despite her verbosity); Trevor Phillips (chairs the Commission for Racial Equality), on the show in part as a parent who sent their kids to private school; these people were never going to lambast private education. Introduce two media-savvy guests with a strong agenda to push, and make sure your two state defenders are both academics (allowing the elite and patronizing smear to be employed) and have some history in the system (Wragg has advised on some parliamentary commissions) and you can push and pull at the boundaries of the debate – except, of course, that a capable host will pull things back on track. Right?

Portillo was pretty restrained throughout, and I will readily concede that he was good in the format. If a charge was evaded or a question ignored, he would often pause proceedings and re-present it for consideration. He did this in a relaxed manner, and his shadow did not fall too heavily across the show. And yet he was quite prepared to let the show be hijacked by partisans with an agenda to push that was tangential to the proposed content. As I say, you can’t discuss private education without reference to state education and its limitations. But the discussion swept away from a discussion of the moral status of ‘buying’ a better future and to one too large for the program, on whether the state system is a failed experiment and the virtues of market driven services. Portillo seemed content enough with this, intervening at times but only to reformulate questions or push them further. The esperated Trevor Phillips took issue with this, well aware of what was going on, and bemused that brought on to discuss choosing private education he was forced into defending state education from these attacks. Net result is vouchers got heavy mention (if not true discussion), an expert pronounced state education a failure a few times; pretty good salvo for conservative education policy, all told. So I guess how good Portillo was depends on your perspective.

Scooby-Thru a Glass Darkly

I’m not about to go and see the movie, but this is damn funny:

“I just found myself puzzled, given the sorry reviews, by what the various critics had been expecting, and what kind of reviews they would have hoped to be able to write… (‘For the first Scooby Doo movie, they did the cartoon with live actors. This time they have thrown off the shackles of neo-realism, and Cassavetes-like, use the riders of the Mystery Machine to explore the inner monster within each one of us, making the statement ‘And I would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids…’ one that applies, unerringly, to us all — from the children we were to the monsters we have become….’ Or possibly, ‘In the latest film, Monsters Unleashed, Scooby Doo has become an idea, an abstract aspiration for Samantha and Eric (Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent ) as they walk the deserted beaches of an abandoned holiday resort, both ‘haunted’ by the daughter who, we come to realise, may be dead, or may merely have gone to live in Poughkeepsie, leaving behind only an empty and frayed dog-leash from her childhood…’)”

From Neil Gaiman.

Why Bloodless Coop? starts here….

I’m going to answer this poser by splitting it in two – why the name? and why the site? – and I’m hoping they will segue into one another without requiring a textual assault course.

I’ll begin with the name. Names don’t matter in the big scheme of things – this is my band’s desperate mantra – and yet I am drawn very much by sites that project a bit of colour with their particular tag. To be honest, this blog began a bit ass-backward with the name inviting me to find a use for it; poor punnage often finds its way into my songs and humour writing kind of cries out for it, but as it swam in my brain I developed an attachment to it, and began to find some reasons to consign it to a more permanent place. Namely, the blog that then existed, like its putative name, in the waters of my think tank – less swimming than swelling and threatening to burst out if I didn’t relocate it fast. So the reasons:

Firstly, it’s a place. I like the idea of the blog as a place. From the american street to Billmon’s bar to Harry’s Place, (and now I’ve found Utopian Hell) the conceit that these are places you visit with their own particular climate is one I find useful and value.

A nominally geographic description of blogtopia (and the wider net) is a pretty good level of description, for me at least, and one that that allows me to engage a bit more fully with the whole thing – we’re visiting sites for crying out loud, not melding with a concept. The concept of community on the web has got a whole lot better since the approaches have been a bit more embodied with a user-friendly sense of place, and I applaud that. Come visit the coop. See? It almost seems real.

I also find it kind of fun to imagine how various places might fit together – if you could imagine a blog neighbourhood, who would you find on the corner of your street? I’ll come back to that later. Suffice to say that if it were so this would not be near any gleaming megalopolis in the centre of town, infused by traffic and exuding class. You might find it halfway up the hillside, favela style, self made and while a little ugly, undeniably solid. That’s the aspiration, and for better or for worse, that’s the way my mind works.

Secondly, it’s a joke. Again, that’s the way my mind works. Funny is good, and even when you are being serious funny can be good. It might be redundant to claim Bill Hicks as a formative influence (even average Brit-flicks do it) but its true – I got into his stuff about 2 months after he died and he opened my mind to comedy as a weapon, comedy as an eye-opener, comedy as power. Clearly he wasn’t the first, or even best, in any of these senses; I’m even now hopelessly behind in my appreciation of the domain. Just that he got to me first, before Prior, Bruce et al. The best comedy can make my head hurt, see me chew the walls or cry. So comedy should be able to come anywhere.

Third, it points (in palsied jerks) at a political component. Just to spell it out I am happy to be considered left wing, liberal and progressive; I think it is disingenuous to put yourself on the fence when you know where your heart is on many social/political issues. If saying so denies me the moral high ground of saying “I’m a purely independent thinker, and I arrive at every decision on purely logical grounds” then so be it. (Must be a major achievement to have removed yourself from every assumption and bias that the real world [and the human mind] offers and proceed from a disinterested, god-like position – but hey, you said so, so it must be true.)

Having said that I don’t agree with left-wing consensus (there! That was the blogs first real joke) on everything, which is unremarkable, as no reasonable person adopts any stance totally uncritically. Where I differ I would typically argue that my position is more progressive, or aims to be. I’m prepared to be swayed on these things, as with anything, but expect a good few bouts first.

(also on reflection I should add that I freely take all the politics in my diet, rather than having some force fed to me; it may be that if I had to put up with SWP manifestos and cries of ‘splitter!’ I would scale down my affiliation. As it is, I think it fits me fine.)

Fourth, as a credo, it suggests that things should not be taken too seriously on the web. Flaming, pettiness and aggressive behaviour is often documented (and can come from either side of any dichotomy you care to throw up). That the internet has come to be a place for people to argue, persuade, pontificate, rhyme and joke is a good thing, and worth saving. Games of ‘who’s the troll’ are not. If I try keep myself civil, and give open invitation, I hope everyone will keep their game similarly high.

…continues here.

The question of ‘why the blog’ might be answered by coming back to the idea of the blog neighbourhood, a case of definition by comparison.

Of course, it isn’t the case that any blog topography, or blogography (I hope to god I didn’t just coin that) could be straightfowardly mapped onto a 2-D surface. If we were seriously looking for commonalities and differences in multi-dimensional space, I suspect we’d throw up our hands and despair (unless we were serious statisticians, in which case we would be having serious fun. Seriously.). This is as it should be – if this was just Echnide of the Snakes with less feminism (and as if I could write like her) then what would be the point?

But in the spirit of multi-dimensional blogography (ie the spirit of pure geekiness) here are the coordinates you might find me on, if you care to look:

Politics: Sure, progressive as mentioned, probably a heady mix of US UK and international. The reason for US being partly its undoubted pre-eminence in world affairs, partly that my blog-reading is heavily biased that way – if there is a UK Pandagon, then I haven’t found it yet.

Personal: I’ll try to keep this low, and only when relevant. This isn’t a venting system – I have a patient, doting girl all too willing to hear me whine. (In other words, watch this space.)

Comics: Like many blogs I have a strong interest in comics (none of my own due to meeting the devil at the crossroads and selling him my talent for dividends of my soul, which I blew at the dogs). Will link to online content. Will comment on comics and appraise other commentary. Will ponder Dave Sims insanity. Will pay ya soon Harry – just advance me a little more for the sure thing I got in race 2. Be a pal.

Science: As a scientist in training it occupies my mind a lot of the day. While the minutiae of research would bore anyone to tears (I’m misting up as I write this) there are topics that I think would be appropriate for general consumption. I will write up theoretical issues I think are cool (mainly in psychology), practical and ethical issues that I think non-scientists should be more aware of, and obviously science-tinged news is especially fair game.

Canoeing, swimming, killing – no, no killing. But pop culture and recommendations will get a look in. What, I think my taste is good – it must be true!

God bless us every one.


Just put up a link to a pretty average poster I did on ageing and temporal memory.

‘Pretty colours, but damned if I can zoom in and read the text!’

That’s ok with me; there’s no real butter on that bread.

By the way, if anyone is surprised that I’ve changed my speciality, well, tell me about it.

Pediatric Gastroenterology?

Before polymathy pt II: “sweet,sad”… and right? Hell no!

This post will continue and give some temporary closure to the topic I opened up a few posts earlier. Due to a trip 9 time zones away I have been shamefully derelict in my posting here – in part because this behemoth was half done and giving me hell for too long. As anovice, I’m learning that ambitious posts shouldn’t be left hanging until you know you can follow up. Learning….

To recap:

Resisting specialization is to pit yourself against an inevitability, ingrained in the world as deeply as money.

Aiding and abetting this unwelcome proposition is a deeper one: perhaps specialization is intrinsic to how we are able to cope with the world.

‘There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittle the world down to a more manageable size’ Suzan Orlean from ‘The Orchid Thief’, from ‘Adaptation’.

These “sweet,sad insights” that Kaufman finds so compelling are a little awkward. They could imply I’ve been painting myself into an unenviable position – fight culture and human nature – and you can’t be loving those odds.

I’m still taking the odds, and here’s why.

I think on one front we’re being misled. We think that to go places in life it’s vital to be at the top of whatever you do, and doing so requires unswerving dedication. The trouble is that often what counts as an acceptable life goal is driven by what is pumped over our horizons, into our living rooms, and may have rather less to do with what would make us happy, if we were to take stock a little.

On the other front, we have the more intimate sentiment of Orleans statement. I think this is, to an extent, driven by cultural motivations of the sort I’d like to unpack and pull apart (Front A). The idea that if you take more than one road you won’t get far enough along any of them; a sense that destinations matter whilst journeys do not.

But it goes further than this, to the concept of imbuing life with your own essence by choosing a prism through which to view it, a perspective to make sense of the world of, a personal culture within which to value things rather than a multicultural position in which everything is equally well and good and so more or less meaningless. I confess to feeling a strong identity with this, whether it be romantic self-delusion or no. I am sure for myself that the world is so extraordinarily complicated that it is essential to ‘make yourself a world’ in some sense, fashion an umwelt as some kind of starting point for inquiry (which includes re-examination of the central premises when appropriate).

However, I don’t feel that such a personal culture need be so narrow to propel someone into the study of only one thing, or the pursuit of only one kind of excellence (or, closer to my point, content with the pursuit of several competencies). For me it could and should be an outlook, but an outlook that is nonetheless broad. If it is a monoculture it should be wide and reflective.

This needs ending here, for now – I’m going to return to this from time to time to try and flesh things piece by piece. I guess the sign-off point to make is why this position isn’t superficial and obvious. Surely, one might ask, being great at many things is obviously better than being great at one thing? If you can study two things and excel then this outperforms studying one; a trivial point. But I would argue that this, which is pretty much the standing definition of polymathy, is a wonderful ideal to keep in mind. But in the real world we should be equally happy to consider ourselves as adequate, and improving, in a number of areas, even if the girl from your year at a school is top-dog because she’s been pursuing one from day one. I’m not a polymath, but maybe I’ll get there. If not, no regrets: how can you regret casting wide as well as deep?

Note to self

If you insist on playing air drums using a leaky pen, just know that after your rousing 4-tom finish you’ll be opening your eyes to Splatterhouse done in a blue period. Frailty, thy name is water-insoluble!

Before polymathy pt I : Callings are for priests and white rappers, right?

This is the first part of a (probably) 2-post essay on life, whether it happens to you

while you’re busy making other plans and if so whether your plans should have outlined contingencies dealing with that eventuality, perhaps using some kind of worm-hole embedded in the cover-sheet.

I went to a very driven school, and at an early age it drilled into us that distinction could and should be ours. Pragmatic and results orientated, their advice was more “reach for the cash” than “reach for the stars”, with the expectations that we should firstly excel in our exam results, then translate that into real capital, status and regard. This unswerving emphasis was tempered by my family; my mum firmly believed that money did not buy you happiness, and that success in whatever domain made us happy was the right kind of success. Once you found your special purpose you were set.

Despite this rosier formulation (and I thank god I had the mother I did) I spent a large part of my school life, and beyond, filled with misgivings about my future. The thing was, I couldn’t find a special purpose. I didn’t have one thing I was good at, or one thing I loved. There was no use in waiting for one to reveal itself either: my problem was not a dearth of options but an excess leaving me with a paradox of choice.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying I was great at everything. Clearly untrue – at school I sucked at languages (embarrassing when you are mixed race from an obstensibly bilingual background), found visual art totally beyond me and was generally clumsy. I’m also not suggesting that the things I was good at I was great at. My ‘problem’ was being pretty good at a number of things, enjoying them all in various ways, without a particular calling to invest myself in one at the expense of the others. This was a pragmatic and a principled aversion. On the one hand, I couldn’t face doing maths for three continual years and then throw the rest of my life into it. On the other, I didn’t see why anyone should have to do so. Why is it such a good thing to specialize, I wondered- why throw away the nuanced perpective afforded by a wider background?

I call it a problem, and problem it is, in many senses. We all know that from school onwards we need to be showing visible and directional progress if we have a hope of doing anything in our lives. I remember being warned before starting my PhD that if I was not to continue in academia, possessing it would actually be a hindrance as it suggests a lack of direction. Doing something productive isn’t good enough – it needs to be the exact right thing. I think you can see a sense of this in the 1/4 life crisis that’s being documented over the last 3-4 years; while some of this is down to free-riding and a lot more to the unattractive shape of the job market (telemarketing or charity street team representing ‘opportunity’ in the 21st C), I’m certain that people who like me are without a calling find themselves firmly on the pointy bits of a dilemma of choice. And stay there.