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Saturday, 26 February 2011

Everybody Needs a Geek

My elder daughter phoned me the other evening.

“Papa, I have a problem, I think my computer’s broken.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Windows won’t start.”

“Have you got a recovery CD or DVD or something?”

“?”

To be fair, she bought the laptop around four years ago in Spain and quite a lot has happened in her life since then, including a move to Germany. But no, she couldn’t remember doing anything like making a recovery back-up – something you’re advised to do, somewhere in the heap of paper you got when you bought it; guarantees, directions for a quick start, users hand-books in 37 different languages for 6 different models, etc. Nowadays, where operating systems are usually OEM versions, you don’t get installation CDs any more.

“Papa, there’s another problem …”

I make some kind of encouraging noise.

“My term paper, it’s about two thirds finished and …”

“It’s on the computer.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I suppose you haven’t done a copy … onto a USB stick, or something … maybe sent yourself an e-mail regularly with the newest version of the paper as an attachment …?”

No, she hadn’t. I can’t blame her. We all know that computers can crash, most of us who’ve been around a while longer can tell all sorts of nasty stories about broken computers and lost files and work that had to be done all over again. And we all know, in theory, about the importance of backing up our files but, be honest, when was the last time you did so? Come to think of it, when was the last time I did? If you like, you can take this as a friendly reminder and do so as soon as you’ve finished reading this.

“Right,” I said, frantically thinking. “There’s a good chance that you’ll have to give up on the computer. The main thing is to try to get the files. I’ll see if I can get in touch with Marcel tomorrow …” This would take a bit of organising; my daughter lives in one town, I live in another, Marcel in yet another. They’re all not that far from each other, but still …

However, a little while later, she phoned me again to say there was no need to call Marcel. Through a friend of hers, she’d already organised a geek of her own.

Geek: A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. … Originally, a geek was a carnival performer who bit the heads off chickens.” 

The key phrase here is technical skill. While there was a period in linguistic history (and perhaps cultural and sociological actuality) where the terms geek and nerd were often used interchangeably, today nerd has a much larger component of social incompetence whereas the term geek is more neutrally used for people with technical competence, especially those in the computer area with skills in both hard and software.

Apart from the distinction between geeks and nerds, a further qualification is necessary – the difference between real geeks and wannabe geeks. There are, unfortunately, quite a few of the second category around and one should be extremely wary of them. Wannabe geeks tend to talk loud and long in company about technical, particularly IT subjects. They use a lot of jargon and frequently boast of their prowess. Although some of the members of this group may, through a process of painful trial and error, actually have succeeded in doing some of the things they pontificate about to their own computers at home, it is not advisable to let them near yours. Otherwise, the resultant state of your computer can turn out to be an object lesson in the dangers of believing people who suffer from inflated views of their own competence.

Marcel is my geek, a real bona fide geek and his friendship and goodwill are extremely important to me. He’s a trained IT electrician and works with computers for a living. He is one of those people who genuinely enjoys his work and, being also immensely friendly and obliging, is always prepared to drop round when I have some kind of computer problem that I can’t sort out on my own.

His obliging nature, as those of us who know him better agree, can lead to him being exploited. Being with him at parties over the past few years, I have the feeling that people have started to treat such IT specialists the way they treat doctors; “Oh, you work with computers! … [Oh, you’re a doctor!] … I’ve been wondering whether I can put a new graphic card on my mainboard … [I keep getting this peculiar pain here …].” By the end of the conversation, more often than not, he’s promised to drop by some evening and “have a look.”

For that reason I try not to call him (about computer problems) except when it’s absolutely necessary. In the past couple of years, we’ve got into a pleasant kind of habit where he comes to visit with his wife and kids on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon a couple of times a year – when I can manage it, I usually try to have my daughters and grandson there too. After we’ve had coffee and cake, and the girls are happily talking and the children contentedly playing together, he usually gives the computers a quick going over. He always has a CD case with lots of useful software in it, for example (“Just ignore it if it tells you it wants to look for on-line updates, because then you’ll have to buy a licence.”), or other creative ideas to “optimise” things. The last time he was here, the annoying Windows 7 Starter OS on my younger daughter’s netbook underwent a miraculous transformation to Windows 7 Home Premium inside ten minutes (No, I won’t tell you how, I’m sure you’ll understand I’ve got good reasons not to – let’s just say it was a miracle and leave it at that). But I know that if I get into real trouble I can call him – often we can get the problem sorted out on the phone.

The whole business with my daughter showed me once more how dependent we’ve become on computers (and the internet) for all sorts of things in our everyday life. In the past twenty years or so, a revolution has been sweeping the world – and it’s not over yet. But dependency also brings its own problems, because we tend to organise our lives more and more on the basis of the assumption that the things will always work and we start to encounter major problems when, for some reason, they don’t.

So knowing a competent geek has become as important as having an auto repair shop you can trust. You know, the kind of place you can go to when you have a problem with your car where they don’t immediately start shaking their heads and muttering all sorts of Cassandra-like phrases about possible, costly, time-consuming replacement of large components where you start to wonder if you’re dealing with someone with that Scrooge McDuck syndrome, the dollar signs becoming visible in their eyes. How are you supposed to know whether these guys are telling you the truth? Maybe all that really needs to be done is to change a small part, something that will only cost a few euros and can be done in five minutes.

I’ve been lucky in that respect too. Though it took me a couple of years to find them, I’ve found a small, independent place to deal with my car where the two owners will actually explain to me what’s wrong – in comprehensible, layman’s language – and will frequently tell me things like, “We could replace that with a new part and that would cost you a lot; but one of our guys has to go the scrap-yard this afternoon anyway and he can pick a good used one there for a fraction of the price – if that’s all right with you …” These guys have understood what doing good business is really about; they keep me as a satisfied customer and I recommend them to others.

And I’m very glad I’ve got Marcel; my geek and – much more importantly – my friend. I know that if I’d called him he’d immediately have been prepared to help my daughter with her problem. But her geek was already working on it.

The diagnosis wasn’t good; the hard drive was wrecked. But he managed to save the files all the same. And she’s quite happy with her new Sony Vaio laptop. She figured it was about time to buy a new one anyway and she’d had some money put aside.

It’s white.

Women!


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Project Guttenberg II: The Minister Remains

A few hours after I published my last post about Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German Minister of Defence made a speech before a meeting of Christian Democrats in the town of Kelkheim in Hesse. In it he admitted that he had made “grave mistakes” in his dissertation. He had spent the weekend examining his thesis once more. It was possible that in one place or another he “had lost his overall view over his sources.” It was, however, his own work and therefore he had to accept the responsibility for the “stupidity” he had produced.

He would therefore renounce his doctoral title and had already informed the University of Beyreuth of his decision. This decision was painful for him, he went on. The fact that portions of an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung had found their way into his introduction was “embarrassing.” “I am a man with mistakes and weaknesses and I publicly acknowledge my weaknesses,” he went on, stating that he wanted to apologise to those he had offended with respect to his dissertation.

He further stated that he would continue to carry out his office as minister with all his strength and then quipped, “I didn’t come here [this evening] as the Minister for Self-Defence.”

Zu Guttenberg is being backed by his party colleagues, including Chancellor Merkel; the general tenor of their position is that his job is to be a government minister and not an academic, so that with his decision to relinquish his doctoral title the issue is basically closed.

Comments from the University suggest that, while they welcome the minister’s decision, it is up to them and not to him to decide whether the recognition of his doctorate should be withdrawn. They will examine the case and make their decision in due time.

So, zu Guttenberg thinks that admitting that there were “grave mistakes” in his thesis and therefore giving up his doctorate is sufficient to deal with the matter. And Merkel, whose party lost an important election in Hamburg last Sunday and thus is not prepared to relinquish one of her most popular ministers, finds his decision “good.” The opposition will howl but, as long as the minister has the backing of his own party, he seems likely to continue in office.

It is very hard to believe that all the plagiarisms contained in zu Guttenberg’s thesis were the result of honest mistakes, particularly as in many of the passages in question a number of words and phrases were slightly changed, which makes the author’s claim that he had simply lost his overall view of the sources ridiculous. This copying, pasting and amending on such a scale cannot be seen as anything but intentional. It is cheating – pure and simple.

Apart from being a blow to his vanity, giving up his doctoral title costs zu Guttenberg nothing. He does not work in the academic area, where such an action would have cost him his job. In a country in which a refuse collection worker can be summarily fired for taking a child’s bed, which was put out on the pavement, home rather than bringing it to the incinerator, his attitude seems supremely cynical.

The whole affair shows that basic moral character no longer plays any role in the fitness of a minister to hold office in Germany. In a number of discussions with Irish friends about the abysmal lack of responsibility shown by Irish politicians over the past few years, I have given the example of many German politicians who have accepted the consequences of personal mistakes and resigned their positions – the most notable being Willy Brandt in the seventies. I will no longer be able to use this argument.

I wonder how German parents are now supposed to make clear to their children that cheating is wrong. At the end of my last post I expressed the view that the German political class would not risk losing the last vestiges of moral authority they had and that therefore zu Guttenberg would be told to go. Obviously I am still far too naïve.


The quotations in this post are taken from two articles in Der Spiegel from February 22, 2011 (http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,746886,00.html http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,746888,00.html)
The translations are my own.

Picture retrieved from:

Monday, 21 February 2011

Project Guttenberg: Did the Minister Cheat?

The project looked promising; a Bavarian Chancellor, for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic, in 2017. For Bavarian Christian Democrats, drinking beer in the many Bierstuben in the Free State and reviewing their prospects, it was something that should have happened a long time ago; after all, Bavaria had been firmly under the control of their party since the foundation of the Republic and they had always delivered a solid Christian Democrat majority in federal elections.

But that was where the problems started. Always sensitive to local patriotism and the “special position” of the former Kingdom of Bavaria within the German Federation, the Bavarian Catholic Christian Democrats had, at the time of their founding immediately after the war, decided not to become part of the federal Christian Democrat Party (CDU) but instead to found a “sister party” for Bavaria, the CSU; in permanent alliance with their federal counterpart yet still a different, independent entity. It gave the Bavarians more local autonomy, but served to somewhat diminish their influence on a national level.

But now they had a candidate, one whose prospects would be so attractive that the larger federal party would have no choice but to accept him as a common candidate. Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

In 2017, Angela Merkel would be sixty three years old. She would either have finished her third term as Chancellor (twelve years) or would have been voted out of power four years earlier – in which case she wouldn’t be playing a role anyway. Zu Guttenberg would not yet be forty six. Hell, the occasional enthusiastic Bavarian Christian Democrat could enthuse (after drinking another couple of beers), if Merkel wasn’t particularly popular towards the end of the present legislative period in 2013 and looked tired of the job, “K.T.” could even challenge her then! After all, he’s already by far the most popular minister in the government. But no, on reflection, it would probably be better to wait till 2017. Baron zu Guttenberg had so many optimal qualities; they would keep well for another four years.

Indeed, zu Guttenberg seemed to have sprung fully formed from a PR designed résumé. He is the scion of an old Bavarian aristocratic family, dating back to 1178 and imperial barons since 1700. His grandfather was a politician in the fifties; a great-granduncle had been executed for his involvement in the July 20 1944 plot against Hitler. Since the end of the Kaiserreich after World War I, German aristocrats have no special privileges, but are allowed to keep and carry on their titles and Herr zu Guttenberg is still addressed by courtesy and tradition as Herr Baron in his home town of Guttenberg in Bavaria. Germany is, in many ways, still a conservative society with abiding respect for tradition and hierarchy and titles are seen as important – a subject I shall return to presently.

Having graduated from High School, zu Guttenberg did his military service with the Gebirgsjäger, the elite and tradition-rich mountain infantry brigade, finishing with the rank of reserve sergeant. He then proceeded to study politics and law at the universities of Munich and Beyreuth. In 2000 he married Stephanie, Countess of Bismarck-Schönhausen, a great-great-granddaughter of the Iron Chancellor.

After a brief period working in various areas of the family’s business interests, zu Guttenberg was elected to the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) in 2002, at the age of 30. A fluent English speaker who had spent some time representing family interests in New York, he became quickly known as a foreign policy expert. But it was only two years ago that his career really took off.

Having spent a few months as General Secretary of the CSU, Merkel appointed him economics minister in February 2009, at the height of the financial crisis. Though the measures being implemented at the time were general cabinet decisions and most of them had originated in the Finance Ministry, zu Guttenberg quickly showed that he had an excellent media presence and an ability to market himself well. By the middle of the year, opinion polls were already describing him as the most popular member of the cabinet. After her election win in autumn, Merkel made him her Defence Minister.

K.T. is the dream of every PR man. Good looking, well built, his gelled hair always immaculately combed back, you can imagine him drinking vodka martinis with James Bond. The glasses he wears only serve to give him that slight intellectual look favoured by Indiana Jones. His wife is blond and beautiful and is active against the sexual abuse of children. He’s an aristocrat with that quality all the really good aristocrats have; the common touch. He’s the first German Defence Minister to call the involvement of German troops in Afghanistan for what it is – a war. In a number of well publicised actions, he’s portrayed himself as a hands-on boss of the Bundeswehr, prepared to kick ass and take names. Whether his ass kicking has worked and whether the right names have been taken are questions that more serious observers have asked – but we don’t want to get petty, do we? It has all worked very well in the popular media.

The Guttenbergs
His wife was involved last year in a TV show in which men with possible paedophile tendencies were enticed to meetings they had arranged on-line with teenage (13 and 14 year old) girls, only to find that the girls didn’t exist and that the meetings were being filmed. Yes, I know, a little bit tacky, of dubious effectiveness … but it went down well with the viewers. Last autumn she joined her husband on a visit to the troops in Afghanistan (emphasising that she was paying her own way); they took a popular talk-show host and his team with them too and did a show there for the troops. There were murmurs from some more serious commentators, but these were dismissed as “typical lefties” and that action played well to the gallery as well.

No doubt about it, Herr Doktor Freiherr zu Guttenberg was a rapidly rising star. Up to last week. Then …

I’ve only just mentioned the “Doktor” for the first time. From around 2000 onwards, apart from all his political and family commitments, K.T. was working on his doctorate as well. A busy man. In 2007 he submitted his thesis with the title, Verfassung und Verfassungsvertrag: Konstitutionelle Entwicklungsstufen in den USA und der EU [Constitution and Constitutional Contract: Stages of Constitutional Development in the USA and the EU] to the University of Beyreuth and was awarded a doctorate with the highest distinction, summa cum laude. From now on, the baron had the right to call himself “Doctor.” I mentioned that Germans take titles seriously; if you’ve managed to get two doctorates you will be called Herr or Frau Doktor Doktor (seriously!) and, in their rather formal use of their language, people will often be accorded their position or job description as a kind of title (e.g. Herr Vorstandsvorsitzende [Mr. Chairman of the Board], or Frau Schuldirektorin [Ms. Headmistess]). In politics, academic titles are highly regarded and three quarters of the present German cabinet have doctorates of one sort or another.

Last week, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, a professor of law in Bremen was looking at zu Guttenberg’s doctorate and did some, as he put it, routine testing. He googled some parts of the text he was wondering about and, lo and behold, he got results. Fischer-Lescano found eight passages in Guttenberg’s dissertation which, he claims, had been copied from other sources without attribution. The “Copy-and-Paste” affair, as the press are gleefully calling it here, had begun.

The internet is a wonderful thing. A wiki group has formed online, with many willing helpers, and they now claim to have found evidence of plagiarism in 247 of 407 pages of the thesis. This figure is almost certainly too high, but the group has promised that by this evening they will be far advanced enough to publish an interim report, independently reviewed, of passages which have been copied from, or are extensively based on external sources without attribution.

There seems to be little doubt that zu Guttenberg took some short cuts with his dissertation. What remains mysterious is that he never seems to have reckoned with the possibility that somebody would find this out. Couldn’t he imagine that a doctoral thesis from someone of his prominence in the political arena (an area where one does not solely have friends), particularly when it was awarded a summa cum laude, would, sooner or later, come under closer examination? Or has he so far succumbed to that chronic sickness of politicians – complete disconnection from reality, exacerbated by boundlessly overinflated ego – that he really believed he could get away with it?

Despite what non-academics might be inclined to think, writing a doctoral dissertation is not rocket science – except for rocket scientists. 95% or more of it is simply soul-destroying, slogging hard work. Personally, I broke off my academic career before the threat of doing a doctorate had really loomed on the horizon, but, having seen many friends struggle through it, it was not something I was remotely looking forward to during the years I considered staying in the academic area. You have an insight, a discovery which you research and which you and your mentors feel is suitable for a thesis. And then you set down to a couple of years of hard work reading everything anyone has ever written which is remotely related to the subject you have chosen and then you set down to write it up in around five hundred pages of good logical argument, making sure that you cite correctly, that you use footnotes to refer to the ideas and arguments of others you have used and hoping that you haven’t missed anything important. It’s like mixing enough cement and concrete to build a house with a spoon and being awarded the title is, more than anything, a formal recognition that you can actually do this.

Even some of the first paragraphs in zu Guttenberg’s Introduction to his thesis are allegedly copied from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung (one of Germany’s most respected quality newspapers) by an author called Barbara Zehnpfennig, published in 1995. It can only be described as mind-boggling; in his introduction, in which he lays out his fundamental insight and arguments on which the whole dissertation is based, zu Guttenberg copies from someone else (and that not even an academic publication). What can he have been thinking?

In the past few days the suspicion has been murmured that K.T., pressed for time by his many other commitments yet determined to achieve his title, took a well-travelled but obscure and potentially fatal road; the use of a ghostwriter – perhaps to write portions of the thesis, which he himself then reviewed and integrated into the final work. It would explain a lot. In particular, it would explain why the minister didn’t realise that many passages weren’t “clean,” because it was his ghostwriter and not himself who had taken the shortcuts and made the mistakes.

As yet the minister has been defensive. Initially calling the accusations of plagiarism “abstruse,” he then went on to admit that he certainly made mistakes (implying that this is something that happens to nearly everyone in this area) but that the thesis was all his own work. However the opposition have scented blood and the calls for his resignation are growing louder. The University of Beyreuth, which awarded the title is reviewing the thesis anew and has given him until the end of next week to present his considered position. In the meantime, he has stated, he will desist from using his doctor title.

I see his position as being very difficult to defend. Worldwide, every student knows that if you are caught cheating that’s it. You’ve failed, without any recourse. Defenders of the minister are arguing that we should wait for the university to report, that everyone has a right to the presumption of innocence until guilt has been proved. The piquant point here is that, only a few weeks ago, zu Guttenberg, as Minister for Defence, suspended the captain of a naval training ship on which a cadet had died under mysterious circumstances, before a formal investigation had been carried out, and this decision – another sign of political decisiveness and consistent action in the view of K.T.’s supporters – was controversial. The old culinary adage about using the same sauce for geese and ganders readily comes to mind.

The majority of Germans still don’t think that zu Guttenberg should resign. The most popular daily paper, Bild, which sells on the basis of lots of pictures (including a few of almost completely naked models) and short articles which are – let’s say – not terribly intellectually challenging, and which as always been a fan of the handsome aristocrat, advised him last Friday, in its own understated way, to “Scheiss auf dem Doktor [Fuck the doctorate]!.The paper is playing to the German equivalent of Sarah Palin’s “Joe Sixpack,” a not insignificant group in every society. But, personally, even if only a fraction of the plagiarism accusations are true, I think he’ll have to go.

Professor Peter Landau, the former dean of the law faculty at the University of Munich, said today that the regulations of the University of Beyreuth leave them with no choice but to deprive zu Guttenberg of his title. At the latest, should this happen, Chancellor Merkel (who herself holds a doctorate in physics) will tell him to go (if he hasn’t tendered his resignation by then). The shining aristocratic star will simply have become too big a liability. If this does not happen, then the German political class will have lost the last vestiges of moral authority they still possess. And, even as cynical as I often am about politics, I don’t think they want to risk that.

It looks like Germany and the world will have to wait a while longer for a Bavarian Chancellor.


February 23: Since publishing this essay, matters have taken a new twist. Therefore I have written a sort of continuation.


March 1; The minister resigned this morning.

I nearly put up Patsy Cline singing "Your Cheatin' Heart," but then decided in favour of Freddie!

 

Sources J:
The facts cited in this essay come from a number of articles in English and German available at http://www.wikipedia.org/, http://www.zuguttenberg.de/, as well as various reports published by http://www.spiegel.de/ between February 16 and 21, 2011.

Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 18 February 2011

Time

As I have mentioned a number of times here before, I earn my living nursing patients who need intensive or continual care at home. Recently I was assigned a new patient, where I will spend most of my working time in the foreseeable future.

Salvador Dali - La Persistencia de la Memoria
The man in question suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has been on a respirator (with a large extra helping of oxygen to boot) around the clock for the past year. Because his life is completely dependent on the machine, somebody has to be there all the time and because his wife goes out to work, our nursing service is present for around eight hours daily (the costs are covered by the German public health insurance).

It is shamefully easy work – almost money for nothing – partly because of the personality of the patient involved. He’s a taciturn, rather unfriendly character, who is not interested in mobilisation, conversation or any kind of special activity. The compromise he has reached with his illness is to lie in bed watching TV. All day. As long as I check on him every hour or so, help him wash and shave in the morning, bring him his meals, occasionally use the suction machine to relieve bronchial congestion and offer him something to drink every now and again, he has no desire for anything else nor any wish for my company. So I spend most of my working day in the living room next to his bedroom, reading, surfing the web or writing – as I am doing now.

If you’re not well able to occupy yourself, of course (something with which I fortunately have no trouble), it can be very boring, which is one reason why many of my colleagues don’t want to work here. You can very easily get the feeling that you have huge amounts of time on your hands, time which can then seem to move very slowly indeed. How my patient experiences time is something I can only guess at; he’s not particularly communicative and I doubt if we shall ever attain that level of conviviality necessary to exchange views on such philosophical topics. Apart from anything else, he has a tracheotomy tube, which makes speaking very difficult for him – though this need not be an insurmountable barrier to rich communication, as I recently described in my post about Hannelore.

If I were in my patient’s position, with his attitude, I think I would find time very tedious – an endless progression of minutes and hours in a very small, monotonous life. Time would become something to kill, as the saying goes, an activity which would have to be continuously repeated. But he seems, in his own way, to have achieved his own compromise, found his own solution, regarding the subject. Reflecting on this, I was reminded how much our particular subjective situations effect the way we experience time.

As one of the fundamental categories of existence, time is actually something very difficult to satisfactorily define. Reflecting on God, eternity and time in his famous Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (not a source I often quote!) sums up the problem quite well

For what is time? Who can readily and briefly explain this? Who can even in thought comprehend it, so as to utter a word about it? But what in discourse do we mention more familiarly and knowingly, than time? And, we understand, when we speak of it; we understand also, when we hear it spoken of by another.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not …

I’ll come back to the philosophers a little later. Scientists have also concerned themselves extensively with time; as a fundamental category it plays a central role in every variety of the subject, but is a particular interest of theoretical physicists, from Newton, through Einstein and Planck, to Hawking. For Newton, time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which things occur in sequence and little more needs to be said about it. While the Newtonian view is perfectly adequate for ordinary, everyday use, the work of Einstein, by postulating the speed of light as a constant, showed that everything else – including time – was relative and dependent on the position of the observer. His relativity theories postulate a spacetime continuum in which space and time are intertwined and, under particular circumstances, subject to dilation. Following the Einsteinian model, for example, time moves perceptibly more slowly for someone travelling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light than for an observer at (apparent) rest, leading to a situation where for someone approaching the speed of light time scarcely moves at all (from the point of view of the observer). Quantum physics suggests the theoretical possibility of multiple time lines, while Stephen Hawking suggests that time itself – in any sense we can reasonably talk about it – is a function and result of the Big Bang.

I am not a physicist and thus promptly apologise to those who understand much more of this than I do for this terribly simplified and bastardised description of an extremely complex area. What I find interesting is that such modern scientific models of what time is have certain areas of convergence with the way a number of philosophers have considered the subject. Both Einstein and Planck, each in their own way, emphasise the central role of the observer in their arguments and in doing so suggest that our modern scientific thoughts concerning time are not all that far removed from the views of the great Immanuel Kant on the question.

Kant’s philosophy is not easy to read, he has a dense, voluminous style which often leads to the situation that, having read a number of pages with strenuous attention, you realise that you haven’t understood it and, with clenched teeth, have to go back and read it again. Part of this is because his way of thinking is, on first glance, so counterintuitive (to use a contemporary philosophical buzz-word) that it takes serious attention to follow him. It’s worth the effort, though.

Kant’s philosophy has the perceiving subject at its centre. In The Critique of Pure Reason, he describes time (as well as space) as a fundamental given structure of the way we perceive things, an a priori intuition which makes our sensorial experience comprehensible in the first place. Time is an irremovable part of the framework through which we organise and make sense of the raw mass of stuff we experience, perceive and even think. Seen this way, there is something essentially human about it, as human as our bodies, which we see in two related ways; something that we have and something that we are. Time too is something that we have – the only thing we all have equally, twenty four hours of it every day – but it is also something that we are; beings living, thinking and acting within our own human experienced framework, one dimension of which is time.

Theoretically of course we know that time moves on steadily (at least in the Newtonian terms in which we experience it in ordinary life) with every tick of the clock. That, in a very obvious sense, time progresses objectively forward is something that becomes clear to everyone, at the latest when one misses a bus or a plane. But this obvious fact says very little else about time that is important. In our real lives, we actually experience time as something malleable, something which we can influence and which influences us, something with which we are continually in a dynamic relationship.

It also displays another characteristic of a relationship, in that – just like a partner – it doesn’t always do what we want it to do. In moments of tedium, of difficulty it seems to slow down, to drag interminably; in moments of happiness, of joy, of ecstasy it all too often shifts into top gear, racing on despite our best efforts to slow it, to savour every wonderful moment.

So we talk about time as something we have (or don’t have enough of), something we can save, or waste. If we feel the need, we can even spend a lot of money to have so-called experts teach us how to manage it, as if it were a wild animal, constantly threatening to escape from its cage and wreak havoc in our lives. Of course, what such people teach, if they are any good at what they are doing at all, is not time-management but rather self-management.

For we are, finally, beings in time, and we cannot really step outside the temporal aspect of our nature. Even when we talk or think about “timeless” states, using terms like eternity, we can only define them in terms of time, which is an irreducible part of our experience, our being (the great German philosopher, Heidegger, in his monumental work, Being and Time, leaves his own question, “Does time itself reveal itself as the horizon of being?” [p.437, London, 1962] unanswered). In the end, we can only speak of time as we experience it, and that very experiencing of it is itself categorised by temporality.

This, of course, puts time, or at least our perceiving and experiencing of it, back into our control – to an extent anyway. How we experience time, what we make of it, is up to us – it is a result of the choices which we make, with which we exercise our freedom. This freedom may be, usually is constrained by all kinds of external factors, what has gone before, choices we have previously made, etc., but the possibility of it always remains.

When it comes to time, the present moment, the now, is all that is real anyway. The past may have brought us to here, but it is gone; the future will be, to an extent, determined by the choices we make now, but ultimately there is only now, this moment, and this one, and this one, a continuous succession making up the flow which we experience as life. Each moment new, a new instant to experience ourselves and our lives, a new opportunity to make choices, to choose our future which, in turn, becomes the new now.

Even for my unhappy, misanthropic patient. He has something many others, hustling their way through the hectic and stress of their lives, often wish for, all the time in the world. This may seem heartless, for with his illness he does pay a high price for it. And his illness, of course, means that there are many things he cannot do with all that time which is now available to him. But there are also many other things he could. He chooses not to. It is his life, his choice, his time to do with (within the limitations I have described) what he will. If he chooses to spend it all watching TV and feeling resentful at his fate, that is his choice too. And perhaps his subjective experience of his own time is not as tedious as I imagine. Somehow, I don’t see us discussing the subject in the foreseeable future …



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Monday, 14 February 2011

A Year of Attempted Essays

A year ago today, I started this blog. Although it was an idea I’d been playing with for quite a while, the decision to actually do it was taken quickly. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d just checked my mails and then, almost on a whim, went to blogger.com and had the whole thing set up in less than half an hour.

One year and eighty two posts later, this first anniversary is an opportunity to take stock. According to the counter you can see to the right, the site has had over 30,000 hits in that time; in fact, according to the statistics with which blogger.com supplies me, the number is over 36,000.

36,000 readers in a year? That would be nice! Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat more modest. Examining the statistics I have more closely, I have to admit that – entirely by accident – I’ve done a couple of things right; at least as far as the hit, and therefore the overall internet ratings (in the top quarter million sites in the world, according to Alexa) are concerned.

The first fortunate choice was the name of the blog. I called it Attempted Essays because I wanted to explore the Essay as a particular form of writing. As a form it has advantages because it is very loose, but for me it involved the aspects of dealing with a particular theme in a personal manner, coupled with a certain attention to writing, style and form. Recently I came across some reflections by Aldous Huxley on the subject and was relieved to find that he sees it much the same way as I instinctively did:

By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly as can a long novel ... Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. 

The essays I have posted here in the past year have touched all three of Huxley’s poles though – in common with him, I may add – the fewest fall into the third category, and what he calls poles are (in my case and indeed in the case of most essayists) more to be seen as tendencies rather than hard categories.

What I had forgotten on choosing the title was that the essay is also a form of writing with which millions of students have to struggle daily and that most young people nowadays have access to the internet. So, when I look at the “search key words” which blogger.com helpfully supplies as part of the statistics, I regularly find phrases like “essays about the American dream,” or “essay on early risers.” Then my heart goes out to those young sufferers who, out of ingenuity or despair, have resorted to the world wide web as a resource for homework help and can only hope that they have the intelligence and capability to rewrite what they find in their own style, for they should not forget that teachers too have computers and that most of them are just as capable of using Google as their students.

But, astonishingly, the largest number of hits are the result of another phenomenon, one with which I had not reckoned at all – people’s attraction to pictures. Three of the four most popular posts (Depression, The American Dream, and Hippies, Hair and the Baby Boomers all with thousands of hits) are nearly always clicked onto as a result of Google searches for pictures. Now, I only started to put pictures in the essays as a means of lightening things up a little and improving the presentation and very few of them are original to me; I have found them just like those thousands who find them on this blog by searching the web. This fact makes me feel something of a fraud but, on the other hand, friends have assured me that I should relax about this and see it the way one would see advertising. You put up a sign to get people to enter your shop in the first place and, for every hundred that come in, maybe five or six will actually buy something. That’s the way things work and, as my daughter commented recently, in terms of internet rankings, a hit is a hit – it doesn’t matter what the people who came to the site were actually looking for.

In fact, in terms of popularity, the site has really only started to develop in the past couple of months. The first major thing that happened was that Chris Jenkins, a virtual friend of mine (and an awesomely talented web guy), reposted something I wrote in September on reddit.com, and the result was nearly 7,000 hits in the space of a few days. That got me to thinking about my number of visitors a bit more and I started spending considerably more time surfing the blogosphere and making contact with other bloggers.
 
It has been a very fruitful experience. I freely admit that there is an awful lot of crap out there in the blogging world, but there is also a cornucopia of great talent and wonderful, creative people – many of whom I have got to know in the past year. They visit my site and often post comments, I visit theirs and do the same. You can see some of my favourites listed here on the right.

In my opening piece I promised, “I will try to stick at it, if only because, in my experience, people don’t tend to continue to visit web-sites where nothing happens for weeks on end.” This was a promise made to myself as much as anyone else – and as much a challenge as a promise. In the course of the year, I’ve found a rhythm where I try to post something new every four days or so. At times this has made this blog into something of a tyrant; a monster lurking in a corner of my life which demands regular feeding. But anything decent I have ever read about writing emphasises how important discipline is for the whole endeavour. When once asked about how he wrote, Stephen King (who has produced many millions of words in his career) answered, “one word at a time.” It’s not very productive to sit around waiting to be enticed and seduced by a Muse, the only way to write – if you feel that this is something you want to do – is to actually sit down and do it.

In the course of the past year, I estimate that I have produced around 120,000 words for this blog, about as many as are contained in an average sized novel. Of course, writing a novel is a very different kind of project and one I don’t (as yet) feel is imminent. Although the experience I have gained in the past year – particularly the experience that it is actually possible to write so much in addition to working full time and living a pretty full life with other priorities and interests – has me thinking a little more seriously in that direction.

For now, I will go on writing essays and posting them here. Because it’s, for the most part, fun. Because I still have ideas. Because I’m still driven to test my own limits, to see if I can do it better, to produce something that I think is good. There’s stuff I’ve posted here in the past year that I’m not particularly happy with, but there are some other posts which, in my own humble opinion, worked pretty well. Where I managed to produce something that I was proud of, even when I reread it later.

And, after I’ve excluded all the picture searches, all the results of internet searches which weren’t what people wanted (even excluding those genuine hits on that one post about “the other 9/11) my efforts here have been read up to ten thousand times in the past year. That is something which continually awes and humbles me. To those who visit my blog regularly I extend my sincere thanks and hope that I can continue to produce essays interesting enough to keep you coming back here. If you’re new here, welcome and why don’t you take a little time to look through the archives? Behave the way you would in a good bookshop – take a few books from the shelves and have a look inside!

There are many who claim that the joy of any kind of creative endeavour is the act of creation itself. There is a lot of truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of it is the process of sharing it with others, in giving them pleasure, in – let’s be honest about it – winning their approval too. For in every artist who exhibits a picture, every musician who performs publicly, every writer who publishes anything, apart from the joy in the creation and the personal belief in what they have produced and their desire to communicate, there’s something more basic, more primitive; that little girl or boy jumping up and down, shouting, “Look at me, look at me!” And hoping that the world will deliver responses like, “Oh yes, aren’t you wonderful!”

I’ll finish this with another quotation from the great Aldous Huxley, also taken from the Preface to his “Collected Essays” quoted earlier:

But “please do not shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.” Doing his best, selon ses quelques doigts perclus, to make his cottage upright say as much as the great orchestra of the novel, doing his best to “give all things full play.” For the writer at least, and perhaps also for the reader, it is better to have tried and failed to achieve perfection than never to have tried at all.

P.S. It has become part of the form of what I post here to finish with a piece of music. Feel free to listen to it or not as you will; I only want to explain that I see the music as a part of the essay I’m attempting. You may sometimes have to think about the connection but, I assure you, it is there, somewhere, even if only in a line or two in the lyrics. Some readers like to switch the music on before reading the essay – a good idea, I find. I would place the YouTube video at the start of the post, but this would mean that it would always be the image featured when the essay is shared on social networks or linked on other sites and that would, in my view, misrepresent the sense of what I’m trying to do here.
I would often like to post other music versions, but there’s a major war going on in Germany between most of the big record companies and Google (as owners of YouTube) over royalties, which means that an awful lot of stuff just isn’t accessible here – at least not by conventional, approved means! And sometimes the live recordings which are available have a charm all of their own …


Pictures retrieved from:

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Mad Men: Advertising Illusions

As a rule, I’m not someone who is a great follower of TV series. Back at the end of the eighties I watched Golden Girls and Alf, but Friends and Ally McBeal passed me completely by and I’ve felt no great urge to watch Sex and the City, Lost, ER or Desperate Houswives. Come to think of it, I did watch Twin Peaks on a repeat and thirtysomething – or at any rate most of them. Which basically describes the problem I have with series in general. Maybe it has something to do with my somewhat puritanical Catholic background, but I have never felt comfortable cancelling anything else because I wanted to watch something on TV and any thoughts I had of watching a series usually capitulated before the ordinary chaos of life, where guests, or something to do with work, or a sick child, or an evening out made a regular evening TV appointment impossible. And although I am by no means technophobic, I admit to my membership of that vast club who found programming a video-recorder, if not impossible, certainly more trouble than it was usually worth.

But life goes on and technology advances. A while ago, my daughter gave me a box with four DVDs and the recommendation that they were well worth watching. And so I came to Mad Men. And was enthralled.

For those who do not know it, Mad Men is a series which revolves around an advertising agency on Madison Avenue (hence the title), New York in the 1960s, and particularly around the life of its creative director, Don Draper. It is the first basic cable series in the US to have won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series – and it has done so for the past three years running. In Germany, only the first series has been as yet aired, and that on a relatively obscure public service channel after midnight, which may explain why I hadn’t picked up on it at all.

So where do I start? Perhaps by limiting this essay to comments about Season 1, as it’s the only one I’ve (as yet) watched completely – I am currently in the middle of the second season. But this also serves to give me a particular personal context, for the first season of Mad Men takes place in 1960, the year in which I was born. Which served to have me watching it fascinated at the manifold ways the world has changed in my lifetime, half a century.

That year the pill was first approved by the FDA in the USA, Cassius Clay won a gold medal at the Olympics, Coronation Street was first broadcast, the USA sent 3,500 troops to Vietnam and JFK was elected president. The Kennedy/Nixon election contest is one of the themes running through the first season of Mad Men, with the Sterling Cooper agency strongly Republican and, in fact, doing some work for the Nixon campaign.

It is a world which, to me, seems infinitely far away now. The world of the agency is completely male dominated; the (white) men are the movers and shakers, coming into work and handing their coats and hats to their (female) secretaries, whose jobs are to keep their bosses happy by doing whatever is necessary – which may include sleeping with them. Everyone smokes massive amounts of cigarettes, everywhere, though the first reports of the health dangers of tobacco smoke have appeared and Sterling Cooper is engaged in dealing with the potential problems arising for their client, Lucky Strike. Booze is the second mainstay of working life, high octane spirits at that.

There is, however, far more to Mad Men than carefully researched fidelity to the historical reality. This is a multi-layered artistic endeavour with an impressive amount of depth to it, which is all the better for the fact that its makers are confident in presenting all kinds of impressions, comments, observations, statements in a subtle, understated, often fragmentary way. The fact that they intentionally use different scriptwriters and directors is certainly a strength. The costumes and props are impeccable. The music, whether originally composed or contemporary choices, always fits. Unusually for TV work, the series has a strong cinematic feel to it, the makers using mostly dolly cameras rather than steadicam or handheld techniques. Matt Weiner, the man whose brainchild the project is, has a very sure hand and nearly everything about it just works.

There’s all the sociological stuff, the exploration of the accepted paradigms of post-war America with their inherent manifold contradictions and their brittle fault-lines, many of which will be exploded during the sixties; a decade which moved from Doris Day to Led Zeppelin, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Acid at Woodstock, from nuclear families in suburbia to free-love communes in Haight-Ashbury. Themes like the role of the suburban Mom, the social impossibility of being homosexual, blacks being so far down the social ladder that, even when they’re present, they’re practically invisible, the role of Jews in American society, stereotypical class and role snobbishness, even littering are all … touched on? … shown? … explored? …

This is where one really begins to see the artistic quality of the production. Mad Men passes on the opportunity to make trite judgements, to structure the presentation of issues in order to guide the viewer towards a judgement, formed by sympathy and antipathy for the particular characters involved, moulded by the way the story is told so that the observer will reach a definite conclusion. You understand the motivations and situations of all those involved, with their particular points of view, limitations and prejudices and then, just when you think you’ve got a character sussed, they say or do something which surprises you, rattles your view of them.

This fascinates me because, on another level, I don’t believe that such an approach is possible. Telling a story is always, in some sense, manipulative, because the storyteller is always presenting her or his own vision(s); imposing his or her own structures on the raw mass of people and events which are selected and shown in a particular way, building dynamics and dramatic threads, connecting them with each other, weaving them together to achieve … what? Some kind of unity at any rate. I won’t go into this much farther, because it would involve moving into a discussion of themes brought up in contemporary philosophy and theories of criticism, structuralism and deconstruction (Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) – themes which are obtuse, difficult (and boring!) enough within the academic context to make me pretty sure that this is where I want to leave them.

Lucky Strike advert, 1951
The key to getting a handle on Mad Men is, in my view, to look at the overall context in which the series is set; the world of advertising. Advertising defines and influences our world in so many ways that we are barely aware of many of them. According to Wikipedia, around $500 billion was spent on advertising last year. The figure is unsourced and almost certainly far too low given that the top three companies alone, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and L’Oreal between them spent $19.27 billion (figures for 2009). But even this figure is around the same size as the U.S. defence budget – by orders of magnitude the largest in the world.

We can hardly imagine a world without advertising. I remember a personal “Ah-ha!” experience I had when I visited Moscow in 1988 and took the Metro one evening to go to the theatre. Moscow’s subway is extensive and the major stations in the centre are large, monumental even. It took me some time to realise what I found so strange about them; there were no advertising hoardings, no products jumping at me from every corner, promising me satisfaction, happiness, belonging, contentment – all the subliminal demanding and caressing to which we are continually subjected. I loved it. I also have no doubt that things look very different there today.

A simple, naïve description of advertising would be to say that it is a matter of bringing your product to the attention of potential consumers. But it is far more than that, as we all somehow know. It has to do with playing sophisticated, subliminal chords on deep strings in our human natures, strings which have origins in the emotional, pre-rational, even animal parts of our minds. It is about our hopes and our fears, our relationships and identities; our dreams and pictures of ourselves, touching them, activating them, manipulating them. As Don Draper describes it in the final episode of Session 1, “the most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.” But in this defining moment for the series, a sales pitch Draper is making for the Kodak Carousel which doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, he follows on deeper into the heart of what advertising does:

“…in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.” 

More cynically, perhaps, it can be seen as the same mechanism which drives the old funfair barker, the three-card-trick man; “Roll up, roll up, roll up, Step right this way, folks …” It’s selling us an illusion, a pig in the pole, making a promise which cannot be fulfilled but to which we are as addicted as the junkie is to his fix – your deepest longings stilled, satisfaction guaranteed and never mind Mick Jagger.

Don Draper himself is an icon of what the series is about because he himself is, in fact, an illusion, a con. Early on we are confronted with the mystery of his carefully hidden past and as the series unfolds we learn that his whole life and career is based on a stolen identity – a supremely cynical apotheosis of the American dream of “the self-made man.” At his own very centre there is an enigma, an existential emptiness, but out of this emptiness he acts and creates himself and on the basis of this illusion makes a very “real” reality. He suffers under his internal contradictions but is unable to resolve them. While he can be deeply cynical about life (“You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one.”), he has his principles and, if he doesn’t always stick to them, he manages a lot more moral authenticity then many of the other characters, particularly his immediate boss and mentor, Roger Sterling.

“What you see is what you get.” This is the big lie at the centre of advertising, because it encourages you to see things you can never get – or if you do get them, they quickly loose their attraction. It feeds on awakened, unfulfilled expectations because once that existential itch has been created you’ll go on scratching it, go on looking for new lotions to ease the irritation.

I’ve already referred to the Rolling Stones and their thoughts on Satisfaction. In another song Jagger and Richards tell us, “You can’t always get what you want, but … sometimes you might get what you need.” With Mad Men it’s not easy to define what you’re getting but, having watched it, I’m sure that, whatever it was, it certainly scratched quite a lot of itches I had. And that, dear reader, is a recommendation.


Pictures retrieved from:

Sunday, 6 February 2011

That February Feeling

According to the calendar followed by my Celtic ancestors, spring has begun. Traditionally, the feast of Imbolc (one of the four great days, along with Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain) was celebrated on February 1 or 2 as the beginning of spring, and so I learned it in school. In Ireland the Church had succeeded pretty well in christianising it under the feast of St. Bridget or Bríd. On the surface anyway.

St. Brigid's Cross
Bridget is a fascinating and amorphous character. Historically, the Christian tradition describes her as a woman of noble birth, possibly a direct convert of St. Patrick, who founded a double monastery (one for men, one for women) in Kildare. A woman of evidently strong character, she seems to have had the local bishop, Conleth, well under control. Veneration of her spread rapidly so that she is considered as the second patron of Ireland (after St. Patrick) and was often called “the Mary of the Gael.”

As is common with saints, and given the Irish love of stories, all sorts of legends grew up about her, many of which found their way into various hagiographies (Lives of the Saints) so beloved of medieval Christians.

But that’s only half of the story. There was also a Celtic goddess called Brigid (the spellings are interchangeable) and it has long been assumed that many of the legends associated with the Christian saint are simply baptised versions of the older pagan myths. Scholars argue happily about Brigid/Bríd and the whole Celtic pantheon; while there are many medieval sources (particularly Irish ones), there are practically none from the original believers. And, of course, it is not even easy to talk of “the Celts” as such, as there were hundreds of different groups, tribes and nations who are generally described under this category all over Western Europe – all of whom had their own traditions, legends, languages (even if related) and varieties of religions. There is a probable relationship between Brigid and the Britanic/Gallic/Iberoceltic Brigantia.

Behind all this, however, there seems to be a common nexus of themes involving the goddess, the coming of spring and the return of fertility to the earth. The Feast of Brigid (Imbolc) is associated in many parts of Ireland and Scotland with the Cailleach, the Hag, who is an important figure in folklore and possibly originally depicted one of the aspects of the goddess. This idea is taken up by modern neo-pagan groups, particularly the Wiccans with their depiction of the Triple Goddess, Maiden/Mother/Crone. A common theme is that February 1 is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intends the winter to last for a while yet she makes the day fine and sunny so that she can gather plenty. If the day is rainy and foul, this means that the Cailleach has preferred to sleep rather than collect more sticks and that therefore winter will soon be over.

When Europeans emigrated to American they seem to have brought elements of such legends with them, so that the traditional Candlemas Day, February 2, became Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil, spotting his shadow on a fine day and bolting back into his hole for another six weeks sleep, could well audition for a job as the Cailleach’s pet.

All of this shows that the old Celts (or Scotii as the Romans called them) of Ireland and Western Scotland were keen observers of nature and larger weather patterns. From a more scientific meteorological perspective, the length of winter and beginning of spring in the British Isles and Northwest Europe have a lot to do with the strength and position of the masses of chilly arctic air positioned over Scandinavia and their interplay with milder, wetter low-pressure cyclones sweeping in from the Atlantic with the Gulf Stream. If the Scandinavian high pressure area is still strong, winter still reigns and the chances of cold, clear days at the beginning of February are higher. If, on the other hand, the Atlantic storms are stronger, the cold air is pushed back north-eastwards and the (relatively) mild, wet windy spring is at hand.

All of this was unknown to me when I was a boy. What I remember is a feeling of incredulity on being told that spring began on February 1. Having to go to school on dark mornings through cold, pelting rain, I inclined to the opinion that February was the very epitome of winter; dark, dreary and somehow hopeless. In November and December there was at least Christmas to look forward to. By the time February came, you had the feeling that winter had been there forever and would never end, the evidence of snowdrops and crocuses notwithstanding. The old Saxon name for the month is Solmonath, which means Mud Month, and it sums up well, I suspect, what most of us feel about it.

It is the month when our energy levels are probably at their lowest, which probably also explains why so many of us succumb to colds and ‘flu around this time. Our immune systems have been worn down by cold and damp and lack of sunshine, we are more inclined to depression and just being fed up.

Of course, in the developed world, we still have it a lot better than most of our ancestors. February was formerly that month where it finally became clear just how much of the previous harvest was left and whether it would last until the first spring crops would become available. Cows were no longer giving milk and the chickens weren’t laying. It was the time when portions finally became smaller, when bellies became leaner and when the fasting season of Lent for most people was as much a product of the exigencies of existence as the privation of piety.

But basic human optimism is hard to keep down completely, and people made a festival out of necessity by throwing aside all thoughts of prudence, survival and decorum and celebrating Carnival before the Great Fast of Lent began. Carnival usually takes place in February unless, as is the case this year, Easter falls so exceptionally late that Ash Wednesday won’t be upon us until March 9. And, perhaps reflecting the slowly stirring fecundity and randiness of nature (or as Tennyson more delicately and eloquently put it; “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” [Loksley Hall]), our medieval ancestors, starting with Chaucer, decided without any historical reason whatsoever that henceforth a minor Roman martyr called Valentine should be the patron of romantic love. More probably because they were so pissed off with February that they decided they had to do something to cheer things up a bit. The economic existence of card-makers, florists and chocolatiers was thus eternally secured.

A note on the “Brigid’s Cross”, pictured at the beginning of this essay: While Christians naturally claim its form and there is an appropriate legend regarding St. Brigid and this cross traditionally woven from rushes, many Wiccans also use the cross in their rituals and as decoration and claim that it precedes Christianity and that the Christian cruciform symbolism is coincidental.


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