Thursday, 20 October 2016

Kids in museums

An article in aeon by Brian Switek deplores what he sees as the infantilization of natural history museums. The desire to attract children inevitably introduces a childish ambience. Plus children of course.

Whenever I visit a natural history museum, especially if I’m intent on seeing the dinosaurs, I try to arrive early and race over to the exhibits before the school groups and strollers are set loose upon the floor. And I’m not alone in my concerns. As I’ve chatted with other museum-goers, the same lament has come up over and over again: as a culture, we’ve been steadily nudging natural history museums to become more like theme parks or the cartoonish restaurant chain Chuck E Cheese’s. (As Tiffany Jenkins has pointed out, the same problems plague today’s anthropology and art institutions as well, not to mention aquariums and zoos.) If visitors leave with even a chunklet of new knowledge, it’s a win.

As a paid-up curmudgeon I should agree with this but I don't. If museums manage to compete against Pokémon it's a win.

Museums were originally meant to be places of inspiration, literally the ‘seat of the Muses’. In our 21st-century interpretation, however, we expect them to function as providers of kid-oriented entertainment more than anything else.

Maybe so but on the whole they were not particularly inspiring. Inspiration was mostly imported by visitors, at least that's my memory of the museum experience. Do adults learn much from museums anyway?

One needs a fair amount of background knowledge to make the most of museums. Attracting kids may encourage a few of them to go away and acquire it. Not many perhaps, but at least as many as in more sedate but also duller times.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Drownded on Titanic

Part of a gravestone at St Mary's church, Tissington. It records the death of Frank Richard Allsop aged 43, a saloon steward on the Titanic.

Mr Frank Richard Allsop, 43, came from Devon England. When he signed onto the Titanic he gave his address as Obelisk Rd, Southampton (elsewhere recorded as Woolston, Hampshire). His sister, Mrs H. McLaren was a stewardess on the ship. 

Frank's death is recorded on his father's gravestone as his body was not recovered. 'Drownded' seems to be a dialect word, never particularly common although I've heard it a few times.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Our car has been nagging us for ages about getting it serviced. Yesterday we finally had the job done which stopped it flashing up a warning and treating us to an imperious beep every time we started the thing. It makes its own decisions too. If I switch on the windscreen wipers it turns the headlights on as if to say “you should have thought of that”.

Windows 10 nags me about all kinds of things. It keeps telling me that my copy of MS Office is out of date and do I want to upgrade? Although oddly enough, ever since I left a comment somewhere about moving to LibreOffice the nagging stopped for a while. Spooky that.

For some reason YouTube thinks I could be a fan of Abbott and Costello. I’m not and never was, but perhaps it thinks I should be to comply with my profile. Perhaps it’s a micro-nag. It will all become more pervasive of course - nudging and nagging.  

Monday, 17 October 2016

Whatever compromise we choose

It is a terrible dilemma in the life of reason whether it will sacrifice natural abundance to moral order, or moral order to natural abundance. Whatever compromise we choose proves unstable, and forces us to a new experiment.

George Santayana - Winds Of Doctrine Studies in Contemporary Opinion (1913)

As I sit by the fire and savour freshly-brewed coffee I detect a distinct personal fondness for natural abundance. It seems to be widely shared fondness if all those folk waddling around Derby are any guide. The human psyche has an abundant fondness for abundance.

In which case Santayana’s spectre of a new experiment in moral order looms close and large. Not the simple moral order of our forebears but a more modern, less rational version of compulsions and prohibitions. We see it already; we see it everywhere. A vastly growing tick-list – not something terse and reliable handed down on tablets of stone.

I sip my coffee again, pondering the moral order of a light supper

As the Clinton crone casts her spells
As the Middle East burns
As bloody Blair limbers up on the touchline
As May carefully sips her poisoned chalice
As the EU wallows in its ordure

As whatever compromise we choose proves unstable.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Times They Are A-Changin

It is not necessary to fathom the ground or the structure of everything in order to know what to make of it. Stones do not disconcert a builder because he may not happen to know what they are chemically; and so the unsolved problems of life and nature, and the Babel of society, need not disturb the genial observer, though he may be incapable of unravelling them.

He may set these dark spots down in their places, like so many caves or wells in a landscape, without feeling bound to scrutinise their depths simply because their depths are obscure. Unexplored they may have a sort of lustre, explored they might merely make him blind, and it may be a sufficient understanding of them to know that they are not worth investigating. In this way the most chaotic age and the most motley horrors might be mirrored limpidly in a great mind, as the Renaissance was mirrored in the works of Raphael and Shakespeare; but the master's eye itself must be single, his style unmistakable, his visionary interest in what he depicts frank and supreme.

Hence this comprehensive sort of greatness too is impossible in an age when moral confusion is pervasive, when characters are complex, undecided, troubled by the mere existence of what is not congenial to them, eager to be not themselves; when, in a word, thought is weak and the flux of things overwhelms it.

George Santayana - Winds Of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion (1913)

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Spitting out the bait

A delicious feature of the internet is what it shows us about the public arena - it isn’t chock full of people with a superior intelligence as we were once led to suppose. Looking back to earlier times, that assumption feels culpably naive, but in spite of cartoonists doing their best we were too naive about people in the public eye.

One problem is an obsessive mainstream focus on drama coupled with distaste for depth or contrarian viewpoints. Depth and lateral thinking are not easy to sell so the mainstream doesn’t bother. This makes for an extraordinary level of dishonesty, misinformation and outright lying. Has it always been so? Perhaps, but the lies and misinformation were less visible because less easily checked. In which case the internet is draining a vile and ancient swamp. Whether or not it continues for the longer term is another matter – probably not.

Browsing the internet is nothing like reading a newspaper in the bad old days. Reading only one newspaper and perhaps the occasional magazine now seems absurdly limited and old fashioned. Comparable to going on holiday by stagecoach armed with a brace of pistols in case of highwaymen.

No longer do we have to take newspaper stories on trust. We compare, contrast, research and trawl through additional information. This usually adds complexities and caveats which have been glossed over, ignored or actively denied by the mainstream. Which leads one to wonder how mainstream the mainstream media really are these days.

Some unknown proportion of mainstream readers must be folk who barely believe a word of what they are reading. They are assessing the mood of the day, not to pet their beliefs but to hone their talents for articulate ridicule and contrarian argument. Clickbait it may be, but how many clickers take the bait and how many do it for the simple pleasure of spitting it out again?

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Our dumb intelligentsia

Adam Perkins has an article in Quillette - Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong. Nothing we don’t know but a good summary of how the intelligentsia screws things up as a result of being too detached and insulated from the culture they purport to understand and diagnose. I'm not so sure about the wisdom of crowds, but the piece is worth reading.

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities.

But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’.

It all seems painfully obvious, a natural consequence of social detachment. Stimulus and response. Without the stimulus a competent response becomes difficult or impossible. Crowds may experience the stimulus where the intelligentsia do not. 

We have plenty of expressive language to nail the problem but language isn’t much of a stimulus either, not if it doesn't conform to expectations and comfort zones. Reason is rarely a reason to change one’s mind so we are perpetually saddled with influential people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk as one pithy cliché puts it. No point telling them though.