Friday 24 February 2012, 15:58

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Both individuals and societies tell themselves stories to simplify and make sense of the messy chaos of reality. It is naive to think that it is possible to live without the protective bubbles these stories create. But sometimes the stories can become terribly limiting and trap us, and prevent both individuals and whole societies from moving on into another kind of future.

One September night in 1945 three British mathematicians and astronomers went to see a new film at a cinema in Cambridge. It was called Dead of Night. It was a series of ghost stories told by a group of people gathered together in a farmhouse. The stories are linked by a device of a central character who is convinced that he has experienced the whole situation in the farmhouse before. In the end he murders another of the group - but then wakes up from this terrible dream.

That morning the telephone rings, he is invited down to the farmhouse, and the whole story, or dream, starts all over again.

The scientists loved the film, and they sat discussing its circular structure. One of them suggested that it could be the model for how the whole universe really worked. That, although the universe was expanding, it was also constantly renewing itself - to maintain itself in a steady state.

Out if this came what was called the "Steady State" theory of the universe. It was going to dominate scientific thinking for the next twenty years, and it would also make one of the three scientists very famous.

He was a very difficult and argumentative man called Fred Hoyle - and the story of what happened to him and his idea is odd and funny - and also shows how science can often add a spurious certainty to the stories that modern societies tell themselves.

I also want to tell the story of two of the men behind the film Dead of Night - because both of them were convinced that the certainties of the post-war years had trapped Britain in a narrow bubble that was preventing it from seeing the world as it really was.

And we may still be in that bubble.

Fred Hoyle was one of the first scientists to become famous on television and radio. It was because he told a dramatic story about the universe - about how amazing it is, and the extraordinary discoveries that astronomers like him were making.

Ever since the 1920s scientists had realised that the universe wasn't static - it was expanding. There was a furious dispute about what this meant. One group of cosmologists said it meant that the universe had begun with an enormous explosion. Hoyle thought this was ridiculous, and he derisively gave his opponent's theory a name. He called it "the big bang" on a radio programme in 1949.

Hoyle thought this idea was silly because it meant that everything that now exists in the universe would have had to have been created in that one explosive moment. Hoyle believed that the universe had no beginning and no end - and that fiery stars throughout the cosmos were continually creating new matter that filled up the universe as it expanded.

And in 1948 Hoyle published a paper that was more than just a piece of scientific theory. It amounted to a new philosophical description of the universe, and it captured the public imagination. Two years later the BBC invited Hoyle to give a series of lectures on the radio, and millions listened to his dramatic vision.

Underpinning it was Hoyle's belief that mathematics has an objective truth to it - but that truth is something that we as humans can only dimly perceive. What astronomers were starting to find, Hoyle believed, was just a tiny part of something truly awesome. A giant mathematical plan to the universe that we will only ever understand a tiny part of.

Here are bits from a couple of films the BBC made about Hoyle and his ideas. He is obviously a very difficult character, but he has a great way of expressing himself. I love his description of what human beings are like when faced with the mathematical plan of the universe. They are, he says, like "fish a mile or two off Yarmouth". They can glimpse Yarmouth, but they will never come near comprehending it properly.

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The most dramatic part of Hoyle's theory was the way it challenged our concept of time - that all things must have a beginning and an end. Hoyle dismissed his opponents' belief in the big bang as being a simple reflection of the deep human desire to see everything in the world as stories.

In another BBC programme he put it bluntly:

"The reason why scientists like the "big bang" is because they are overshadowed by the Book of Genesis. It is deep within the psyche of most scientists to believe in the first page of Genesis"

And the reason that the film Dead of Night had such an effect on Hoyle was because it too has no beginning and no end.

Behind that structure were two fascinating men in the British film industry of the 1940s and 50s who consciously wanted to challenge the happy stories that post-war Britain was telling itself.

They were Robert Hamer and Alberto Cavalcanti. Not only in Dead of Night, but in other films they made, Hamer and Cavalcanti both set out to puncture what they saw as a naive, simplistic vision of human beings, and of society, that had emerged in post-war Britain.

Both Hamer and Cavalcanti were intellectuals of a generation that had been profoundly shocked by the second world war. Not the second world war that we remember today as a simple story of the triumph of good over evil. But something profoundly chaotic, a moment in history when all the comforting stories fell away and millions of people faced a dark and frightening chaos. What that generation learnt was that when that happens anything is possible. It is terrifying because it leads to unimaginable horrors, but it is also exciting because there are no boundaries and you can do whatever you want.

Much of that complex view of human beings was forgotten or hidden away at the end of the war. But I think it came back in some of the films - those made in America in film noir, and in Britain above all with the films of Robert Hamer.

Robert Hamer was a sardonic, disillusioned man who worked as a director at Ealing Studios. In contrast to the happy, naive output of Ealing - like Passport to Pimlico - Hamer was blunt about his ambition. He told the wife of Ealing's head of publicity:

"I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other"

Hamer directed the section of Dead of Night where a man is given an antique mirror by his fiancee. When he looks into it he sees another, older, room that begins to possess him. It turns him into a violent, depraved man, and he tries to kill his fiancee. It is the story of the overwhelming power of madness and destructive passion. And order is only restored at the last moment.

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But Hamer's masterpiece was a film he made two years later in 1947 - called It Always Rains on Sunday. It is a wonderful, powerful film. The central character is Rose, she had been a barmaid in a pub in Bethnal Green, but now she is married to an older man. Then suddenly her old lover Tommy turns up. He is on the run from prison and he pleads with Rose to shelter him.

Rose loves Tommy and she deceives her family - hiding Tommy in the upstairs bedroom.

The film's power comes from the intense mood it creates. Rose, played by Googie Withers, beautifully expresses the feeling of numbed desire that then breaks out in the dark, claustrophobic rooms of the east end house when she smuggles Tommy in. Passion that smashes through all the naive fantasies of post-war Britain.

But Tommy is not good - he loves Rose, but he is also brutally interested in his freedom, and Rose finds herself betrayed. All the stories have been torn away - both happy family life, and passionate love. She tries to commit suicide, is saved and returns to her family that has now become a prison.

It is impossible to give a proper sense of the film from a clip - you really have to watch the whole thing.

Michael Balcon, who ran Ealing studios, didn't like all this complex pessimism, and he stopped many of Hamer's future projects. I really like the one which was going to be the story of a young man who gets falsely accused of murder, is tried and is acquitted. But in the process he has become intoxicated with being in the news headlines, so he decides to commit a murder in order to experience it all over again.

Hamer made one other masterpiece - Kind Hearts and Coronets. On the surface it was a jolly comedy, but underneath Hamer wrote it as a vicious black satire about how a horrible lower middle class couple lie, cheat and murder their way to the top of British society. They have no goodness as characters - yet Hamer makes you like them, and root for them.

And then Robert Hamer became a self-destructive alcoholic.

I have stumbled upon a wonderful programme the BBC made in 1977 which tells the story of what happened to Hamer. It is a monologue done straight to camera by Pamela Wilcox. She was the daughter of another British film studio boss, Herbert Wilcox. In the late 1950s she met Hamer and fell in love with him, and they started living together.

By now Hamer drank all day. In 1960 he was given one last chance, to direct a film called School for Scoundrels, but he collapsed on the set. He and Pamela Wilcox then started living an extraordinary life, both of them were drinking heavily and bit by bit they fell into their own private hell.

Wilcox tried to escape - only to find that she fell further into what she describes in the programme as "limbo-land". Like the heroine of It Only Rains on Sunday, she found herself without any comforting stories, facing only the terrifying chaos that is existence.

It is a really moving story - and she tells it very vivid way. You can see how annoying and self-destructive she must have been. But you also really like her and get caught up in her story.

I have cut the beginning where she tells of her time living in Hollywood in the early 50s. It picks up when she discovers that her American husband has a lover - and she returns to England.

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The vivid story that Fred Hoyle told about the universe not only caught the public imagination but it also promoted the idea that mathematics was somehow the key to understanding everything.

Hoyle had a mantra that he repeated in all of the programmes he appeared on:

"If there is a god, then Mathematics is God. The basic laws of physics, insofar as we have any concept of god, is God."

What Hoyle meant by this is that the science of mathematics was not just a construct projected onto the stuff of the universe - but that the pattern of order that physicists and astronomers like him were uncovering was mathematical.

It was a very powerful idea - and many other disciplines turned to mathematics in the post-war era to try and give themselves a power and dignity that they felt had been missing from their "science".

One of these was economics - and out of the economists' attempts to "mathematicize" their discipline would come another great story of our time. The conviction that the economy could be organised in such a way as to achieve its own "steady state".

In the 1930s most economists didn't bother with mathematics - except for a few numbers in tables. But after the war an economist called Paul Samuelson decided to take the mathematical methods developed to study the laws of thermodynamics and apply them to economics. It was an extraordinary move - because what Samuelson said was, that just as a thermodynamic system seeks to achieve equilibrium, so too does an economy.


Samuelson called it the "Ergodic Hypothesis", and the image he gave was of the economy as being like a giant pendulum - that wherever you started its swing from, the pendulum would always want to settle back on the same fixed point. To put it in his language, the ergodic hypothesis was:

"a belief in a unique, long-run equilibrium independent of the initial conditions"

The simple phrase "initial conditions" is the key - because it means that whatever you do to the system, or whatever turbulence hits the system, it will always want to return to the same stable position. In other word - history doesn't matter. Again there is no beginning and no end. There is just the equilibrium - just like the steady state of the universe. And the economists' job was to help the economy achieve that equilibrium.

It had an enormous effect on political ideas about how to manage economies in the 1950s. The theories were further simplified so it became a technocratic dream that promised the politicians an economy that would expand but would also remain stable.

A few dissenting voices in the 50s said this was a pseudo-science. That what people like Samuelson were really doing was telling stories about the world in mathematical form. But the substitution of numbers for words seemed to make the stories more valid.

Here is an extract from a film from the Pandora's Box series that I made about the history of those economic experiments in 1950s and 60s Britain. It begins with an economist called Bill Phillips who built a giant computing machine run by water to demonstrate how to make an economy expand, yet not run out of control.

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In 1961 the Steady State theory began to fall part. The attack was led by Fred Hoyle's sworn enemy - a Radio Astronomer called Martin Ryle. Where Hoyle was stubborn, Ryle was angry, sometimes so angry that he was made to work in a different building in Cambridge from his colleagues to avoid violent arguments breaking out.

In 1961 Ryle gave a press conference proudly announcing that he had discovered pulsating things called quasars far out in the universe. This proved that the steady state theory was wrong, he said, because if it was correct then qasars should be everywhere - not far out in the distance receding from us.

And then, four years later, came the killer blow. A couple of scientists in New Jersey called Penzias and Wilson had started picking up a hissing noise on a giant radio antenna that they were using. At first they thought it was the pigeons inside the antenna, so they went out and shot all the pigeons.

But the hiss continued, and they finally decided that they were picking up something much bigger. It was called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, and it was a faint glow of radio light that seemed to fill the universe.

This kind of radiation had been predicted by the big bang scientists because it was the radiation left over after the early stages of the universe's formation. Now it had been found, and their theory conquered the scientific world.

This is their big radio antenna, after the pigeons had gone.

But Hoyle didn't believe it. He accepted that the radiation raised serious questions, but he wasn't convinced that the big bang was the answer. He thought that the scientific establishment were like fish two miles off Yarmouth believing that they now understood what Yarmouth was really like.

To express his anger Hoyle wrote a TV drama series for the BBC called A for Andromeda. His aim was to show how scientists, and the politicians they entrance, can become possessed and corrupted by what seems to be a pure mathematical theory.

A for Andromeda tells the story of how astronomers pick up radio signals coming from outer space. They decode the signals and from them learn how to build a giant computer. The computer then electrocutes one of the scientists - Christine, played by Julie Christie. But it then recreates a perfect clone of her.

The hero - John Fleming - becomes convinced that the computer is being used to take over the earth by the aliens who sent the signals. But none of the other scientists see this. Then the government becomes obsessed with the computer because it seems to answer all their needs. It starts to run their defence systems - and then it offers to run the country's economy, and make it a rational system.

So Hoyle's hero - who was a model of Hoyle himself - has to save the world.

All the episodes have been lost except for one, the fifth out of six. It is very much in the model of John Wyndham science fiction, but Hoyle's fury burns through, especially in the passionate speech of his hero as he sets out to destroy the computer. It's great - and it was very popular.

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The most frightening section of Dead of Night is the story of the ventriloquist who becomes possessed by his dummy. Michael Redgrave plays the ventriloquist called Maxwell Frere who has a dummy called Hugo - and the film follows Frere as he descends into madness. Hugo becomes a vicious, horrible and cruel figure that seems to control his master. At one point Frere says quietly to a rival ventriloquist: "You don't know what Hugo is capable of".

The director of this section was Alberto Cavalcanti. He was originally from Brazil where his father was a mathematician. But in the 1920s Cavalcanti had gone to Paris where he became deeply involved with avant-garde filmmaking. Then in the 1930s he came to England and worked in the early documentary film movement.

Like Robert Hamer, Cavalcanti thought that the British had a dangerously false vision of themselves - a twee artifice of forced jollity. He expressed this most powerfully in 1942 in a film he made for Ealing Studios called Went the Day Well? It tells the story of how a group of Nazis, disguised as British soldiers take over a beautiful English village.

The films starts as a piece of war propaganda. The nazis are vicious and sadistic. Then the villagers start to fight back, but instead of being noble and kind they become even more violent - and what's more they start to really enjoy it.

Here is a brief clip, but it will give you a sense of what Cavalcanti was up to.

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Cavalcanti later said of the people in the film: "People of the kindest character, such as the people in that small English village, as soon as war touches them, become absolute monsters"

His point wasn't the simple oh-dearist lament that "people are bad", it was that humans are very complex, and that they have all sorts of dimensions and capacities that the simple stories leave out. For Cavalcanti, and many of his generation who experienced the second world war, post war Britain was possessed by a false and shallow cheerfulness.

In the story in Dead of Night the ventriloquist is possessed by the opposite. His dummy is a dark, bitter, destructive character that for Cavalcanti represented the dimension of human beings that was being brushed under the carpet and suppressed.

What Cavalcanti was saying was that just because we fought a good war, it doesn't necessarily mean we are good people.

In the 1990s I made a series called the Living Dead. The first film was about how that complex and extraordinary experience that many people lived through in the second world war was wiped away and forgotten immediately after the war. And how it was replaced by a simple story of the Good War.

The film argued that we are still possessed by that simplistic myth of goodies and baddies - a myth that subsequently has been the main driving force behind humanitarian interventions from Kosovo to Iraq and Libya. That myth says that if we liberate the people from their evil oppressors, then they will automatically become like us - good people.

Here is a part of the film. It begins with the story of the film that the American prosecutors showed at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 . It was called the Nazi Plan, and helped create the idea of the Good War. Set against this is the personal experience of some of the Americans who had fought in the war. One of them is a very interesting man called Paul Fussell who went on to become a well-known writer and critic in post-war America

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And economics was rapidly becoming another central part of that simplified post-war world.

In the early 1970s there was a terrible battle between the man who had bought mathematics into economics - Paul Samuelson - and the free-marketeer, Milton Friedman.

Friedman said that Samuelson's mathematical models - that showed governments what to do to make their economies stable - were completely useless. Samuelson had been promoting something called the Phillips Curve which had been created by the same Bill Phillips who had built the giant economic water machine.

The Phillips Curve showed, Samuelson said, that if governments let unemployment rise then inflation would inevitably fall. Unfortunately it didn't. In the 1970s both unemployment and inflation went rocketing up, and none of Samuelson's followers could explain why.

Milton Friedman said that the solution was simple. Governments should stop trying to manage their economies and other than controlling the money supply they should just let things rip. This became the cornerstone of Mrs Thatcher's policies in the 1980s, which culminated with the deregulation of the financial markets in the City of London in 1986 - which was called the Big Bang.

Unlike the cosmologists and their Big Bang, the free market economists still believed that this explosion would lead to a stable equilibrium.

They had a simplified, mathematical vision of human beings as creatures who logically analysed everything in the market, and then reacted as if they were computing machines. Few people at the time said that this might be an area that maths didn't really have anything to do with, and that the scope of equations like the Black-Scholes model - which made derivatives trading predictable - might be very limited.

Here is a montage of the TV news reports leading up to the Big Bang in the City in 1986. It's a great picture of the old world that was about to be swept away - and the new one that was coming. Plus a wonderful early example of fear journalism - promoted in a very funny interview by a detective from the Fraud Squad.

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But in the 1970s the mathematics behind the cosmologists' theory of the Big Bang started to lead to some very weird places. The man who caused the problems was Stephen Hawking.

Hawking had begun his work as a cosmologist by studying the big bang. He looked at black holes - they are what happens when a star collapses in on itself. Thus they are a sort of reverse of what is supposed to have happened at the origin of the big bang.

In the 1970s Hawking showed mathematically that black holes were eating information. Put simply this meant that stuff in the universe was disappearing into the black holes. Under the theories of quantum physics this was impossible, and lots of other cosmologists got very angry. But Hawking's mathematics were so good that no one could disprove it.

It was called The Black Hole Information Paradox.

Hawking's argument had massive implications. As he himself pointed out - it meant that there was no certainty any longer in the universe, it undermined the whole idea of cause and effect, and you couldn't predict the future with any certainty, or even be sure about what had happened in the past.

It was pretty bad.

So lots of other cosmologists set out to destroy Hawking's proof. They were led by a man called Leonard Susskind who publicly declared war of Hawking. It led to a wonderful, vicious scientific battle - and a few years ago Horizon made a film about the thirty year War of the Information Paradox.

The proof that Susskind finally comes up with is extremely odd. It involves accepting that if you as an individual fell into a black hole - it would look to those watching you from outside as if you had been torn to pieces. But in reality you would still feel as though you were you - even though you had been stretched around the edge of the black hole to become a two-dimensional version of yourself. Just like a cinema film.

You begin to wonder whether the mathematics isn't leading the cosmologists to tell stories that are far odder than any science fiction. I particularly love the scientist who explains that there are trillions of black holes throughout the universe. He says there might even be black holes inside his own head.

Here is a part of the Horizon programme.

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Meanwhile things hadn't been going very well for Fred Hoyle. He had been appointed the head of the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge, but he was so difficult and argumentative that he was forced to resign. He then turned his back on the scientific establishment and went to live in the Lake District - where he continued to write science fiction with his son who was a national pistol champion.

But Hoyle still managed to fascinate the BBC - and he persuaded them to make a ninety minute film about his ideas, and dramatise one of his stories. The drama is truly one of the worst things I have ever seen on television - so I thought I would show part of it.

A beam from outer space has made time slip on earth. But in some places it makes time go forward, while in others it goes backwards. Time has effectively disintegrated and two scientists move separately through this dislocated world until they both end up in Mexico - but a Mexico way in the future.

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Hoyle also put forward even odder scientific ideas. He said that he had proved that intelligent life on earth had originally come from outer space - in the form of bacteria carried on meteorites. When other scientists attacked this - he became even more convinced.

Hoyle had succumbed to the thing he had attacked other scientists for back in the 1960s - he had become possessed by his own stories. He had become a fish that thinks it knows what Yarmouth is like - and Hoyle's vision of Yarmouth had turned out to be a very strange place indeed.

Coincidentally, at the very same time, the BBC made an episode of the Holiday Programme about Great Yarmouth. It was presented by Joan Bakewell. No fish, however good their mathematics, could have ever imagined this.

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Meanwhile Hoyle's enemies - the proponents of the Big Bang theory - had been trying to deal the fundamental problem with their theory.

What came before the Big Bang?

And out of this has come a new idea in recent years which is called The Big Bounce. This says that before the initial explosion there was a contracting universe just like ours which collapsed in a Big Crunch, and then exploded out again. What this implies is a cycle - with the universe exploding out, contracting and then collapsing until it explodes - and starts all over again.

Which is just like the structure of the film Dead of Night.

You have the funny feeling that you have been here before.

And since the economic crash of 2008 Britain seems to be returning to an older form of society and politics.

I'm told on reliable authority that the servants at Chequers feel more at home today than they have for a very long time. The cycle has returned to its conservative origins.

Maybe it was all a dream.


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    Comment number 1.

    I was reading this the pub today and really liked it.

    Galileo said back in 1661
    'Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.'

    I think the big crunch idea is contradicted by the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating (members of research teams got the noble prize this year)

    Sean Carroll did a great talk about modern ideas for what might have happened before the big bang

    I don't believe that just because something can be described mathematically that means it is simple and cold, maths can be used to understand things much more complex and beautiful than what its used for in schools :-).

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Another great piece and thanks again.

    It seems that we create stories and systems to deal with the unknown. The unknown is always scary. That is the evocative power and existential appeal of horror films. We are scared of the dark because it accommodates the unknown. However, when we turn the light on there is rarely anything there to be frightened of. Although, by transposing that metaphor on to larger human and cosmological mysteries, maybe I am making the mistake of seeking a comforting ‘truth’ which may not be true at all. So, cyclically, I’m back to the beginning, the unknown. Oh well, we muddle through as long as we avoid apophenia, dogmatism and hubris.

    Also, despite Ryle taking credit for the discovery of quasars, as you probably know but didn’t have time to go into, it was actually the keen eye of Jocelyn Bell that spotted the phenomenon. When she pointed out her find to Ryle’s team the fear of the unknown caused them to conclude that the regular pulsations indicated an alien intelligence. There was a bit of a panic.

    Thanks for reminding me of Went the Day Well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Ealing horror vs cosmology mash up...

    Perhaps noticing the repetition or the cyclical nature of in vogue mindsets does represent some sort of new uniqueness of closing in on the "truth" or at least "a truth".

    The way in which many of us try to explain reality through the analogy of film and mass media is something that is becoming apparent to me. It is a language we all understand. AC uses it well even if its a stretch.

    The character in Dead of dead of night also has the sense of repetition as he approaches the house in his car. A for Andromeda of course was aped by the latter film species which perhaps highlights how this analogy language of using films may itself be a trap as ideas in films are often repetitions of earlier ideas. In a way we are limited in expressing ideas of reality through the limitations of a language that hangs on these cultural co-ordinates.

    To break free and head off into a new plane of understanding that no longer shares cultural co-ordinates with previous ideas trapped on some overly mapped 2D plane of existence requires imagination and creativity. Does re-synthesising [repeatedly oh the irony] old media into new meanings via a sort of quasi-intellectual analysis meet this criteria? I think it does as it has inspired me to make this observation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I always enjoy reading this blog, sort of like Zizek's film crit but without all the Lacanian/Hegelian cobblers. I would recomend John D Caputo' " Radical Hermeneutics " - an attempt to re-establish an original difficulty and address Eleatics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other."

    This quotation from Robert Hamer could describe the American TV series "American Horror Story" whose first series aired in most countries in November 2011 and whose second series will broadcast in Australia in March 2012. The show is about a troubled family that moves into a house haunted by ghosts. Anyone remember the Amityville Horror?

    Funny, I was on another blog forum today discussing the importance of teaching geography in schools and I recalled the quotation about war being God's way of teaching Americans geography. I looked up information about that quotation, how old it was and who first quoted it, and sure enough discovered that the 19th century writers Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce both came up with very similar observations.

    The United States has repeatedly invaded or infiltrated countries around the world since the 1800s to install "democracy", only for that so-called democracy to wither into dictatorship and repression: Nicaragua (1909 - 1933), Haiti in 1914, Greece in the late 1940s, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in the 1950s, Australia in 1975 and possibly 2010, Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991 and 2003, Kosovo in the 1990s, Libya in 2011. In nearly every country, there's a pattern: the US aids politically conservative or right-wing forces directly or indirectly and when these win, the Americans leave everyone to sort out the mess left behind.

    After the Cold War, the Americans continued to build up their military in spite of the lack of an enemy their own size. No matter - they have found a new one: terrorism. According to Chalmers Johnson in his book "Dismantling the Empire", the US navy still uses strategies based on the assumption that it will fight ... the Japanese Imperial Navy.

    Possibly the US insistence on fighting anyone and everyone not conforming to the American way goes back to the days of the American Civil War, the wars against the native Amerindians, perhaps even the revolutionary days of fighting the British. Perhaps this insistence goes back to the founders of the early colonies in New England in the 1600s when people fleeing religious persecution and violence saw no contradiction between wanting freedom to worship, to own land and practise their culture and denying the same freedom to the native peoples.

    And if the bureaucrats at Chequers feel times are familiar again ... what times are those? What older form of society and politics is Britain returning to ... one before the 1940s, that denied social welfare to the great bulk of the population and in which a class-based hierarchy without upward social mobility reigned supreme?

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    Comment number 6.

    Try reading this at 3am when you've just got in from the pub. Blimey.

    The end of the Wilcox video is just beautiful.

    Haven't got time for a long comment but it made me think of certain things.

    - Nietzsche and eternal recurrence, and how this idea is ambiguous - it could be devastating or liberating
    - Where that idea comes from, its history
    - The similar ambiguity of chaos/freedom as Ad mentions - and what Wilcox says at the end of her vid
    - The idea that the way we experience the world is within the concept of 'time'.
    - The post where Ad mentions the politician who took mescaline - and how he describes the experience, particularly I think he says 'like months of uninterrupted bliss' and time perception.

    I don't have unifying theory (pun intended), just thought I'd throw these out there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Great post. However, I think there's a problem with the Stephen Hawking video. It cuts out after 3 minutes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Joan Bakewell's manner is ridiculous. (I found out so much scandal on 'dippy' Lady Antonia Fraser, Adam. It's interesting, but it's so bad that it sounds sensationalist and the only mood to come out of it would be that of the Daily Mail)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Great thoughts from a great thinker.

    The effect of religious ideas on science is clear - would there even be a quest for a 'theory of everything' without the concept of God?

    It seems to me that some involved in science are making the same mistake as some who follow religion - convincing themselves that their is an absolute truth, and their way is the only route to it.

    Part of this is fuelled by the language used - as far as I am aware, science has never proven anything. This is actually one of it's great strengths: things are constantly being re-evaluated in light of new observations. But it also means that everything currently held to be 'true' is in fact merely in the state of not yet being falsified.

    I would also argue that science does not explain; it describes. And like any language, the words are not the thing itself. As someone once said, you don't get wet from the word 'water'.

    There also seems to be a prevailing fallacy that if something can't be measured, it doesn't exist.

    For anyone interested in the political aspects of the article, I'd heartily recommend reading Naomi Klein's 'The Shock Doctrine' (the film is not a patch in the book).

    As for the models of the universe - I don't understand why no-one has proposed a version where things are accelerating away from each other because we're all heading towards a centre that's receding faster than the speed of light - rather like a series of ping-pong balls that get further apart as they float towards a waterfall.

    Super-massive black hole centre, anyone?

    Though I guess this could be seen as a variation on the 'big crunch' model . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A slight bit of confusion here. There was a school of economic thought in Britain that came down from Keynes that did not accept the ergodic hypothesis and largely saw economies as tending toward instability. Indeed, we ran an article by the leading proponent of these theories in the US about why Samuelson's ergodic hypothesis is incorrect and dodgy:


    In the clip from Pandora's Box you interview Charles Goodheart. Goodheart also adheres broadly to this view of the economy, as did many of the British Keynesians that tried to use fiscal measures to manage the British economy in the post-war years. What they were trying to do was use government policy to maintain stability -- a stability they thought otherwise did not exist.

    This is an enormously important distinction as it bears directly on the contemporary debate about what should be done post-2008. Anyway, otherwise this was a great piece. Thanks.

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    Comment number 11.

    Sorry Adam, I found this one a little hard to follow. I read all your blog posts, but this one has stumped me a little.

    Surely Friedman and Samuelson were alike in some ways - they both believed in mathematical models to explain how the economy works, and human rationality? Except, Friedman believed the models showed the 'invisible hand' of the market was more powerful that active paternalistic government intervention? It reads slightly differently to that in my view.

    Keep up the great work though, I'm always made to think!

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    Comment number 12.

    Adam, do you know what that 90 min TV film by Hoyle was called? I think I recognised the late Tony Doyle as one of the actors but neither a search of him or Hoyle on IMDB came up with anything that looks like it, I'd guess it was made sometime from the mid to late 70's?

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    Comment number 13.

    Good to see the Event Horizon again been a while. Once tried putting it together with the Least Event and wound up with watery custard. Hawking looks like top dog because so many were either: fault finding or trying to peck him apart like rabid ducks.
    Want to find out if he's right try, observation of the edges of vortices in mountainous regions. "Once upon a time there was a disgruntled scientist." Thank you

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    Comment number 14.

    @ Philip Pilkington:
    I got a print-out of that Paul Davidson article. From what I can understand of it (which isn't much), Davidson is saying that the ergodic presumption never was useful in economics and in macroeconomics especially where there is uncertainty about the future.

    Even in the article though there seems to be an assumption of households and firms acting "rationally" - this is towards the end of the article where Davidson refers to managers making or deferring "look before you leap" decisions. We know though that managers aren't "rational" - they're influenced by emotion, inner needs such as the need to impress their bosses, extrinsic needs such as earning commissions and delusions that if they beat the market before, they can beat it again - so even in situations where the future is unknowable and Davidson predicts managers would defer "look before you leap" decisions, his prediction can't always be trusted as a rough guide. In particular, we can't discount the influence of the herd mentality in which managers and investors make certain investment decisions because everyone else is doing it and no-one wants to be different.

    Alas, Keynes never had to deal with markets where price movements are no longer "orderly", at least not since Alan Greenspan became the Clinton government's financial czar in the 1990s and that government went ahead with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 which had separated investment and commercial banks, allowing investment banks to take over commercial banks and plunder their deposits. (And of course that period was dominated by a belief that mathematical concepts like game theory combined with technology and cybernetic networks could stabilise financial markets, an area Adam Curtis has already covered in Episode 1 of "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace".)

    @ AC: If at all possible, could you do a post on the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff and his discoveries that became the basis for the theory of Kondratieff waves or cycles? The man's life itself is fascinating - he was punished by Stalin for his work - and the cycles themselves (lasting 40 - 60 days) dovetail with expansions and stagnations in national economies and the global economy. If you can devote the time and resources, that'd be greatly appreciated!

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    Comment number 15.

    Ack, a mistake! Kondratieff cycles last 40 - 60 YEARS, not days!

    Kondratieff cycles also dovetail with trends in technological innovations and their associated revolutions and relate somewhat to demographic changes and people's life cycles. Wikipedia has a good article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kondratiev_wave

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @ NausikaDalazBlindaz

    I would think that Davidson is talking in very rough terms. Keynes and those after him did notice the funny effects that speculative bubbles can have. In fact, Keynes' whole theory of investment behavior looked like something you might find among the post-modernists:


    Keynes and his students largely thought of the economy as being governed by the 'animal spirits' of investors. What they mean by this is, well, basically what you say: emotion, drive, will etc. Nothing rational per se.

    What Davidson is talking about in the above article is the fact that we cannot act rationally in the face of a wholly uncertain future. And so we must take our bearings from somewhere else: again, emotion, will, emulation etc.

    Most importantly, the rejection of the ergodic hypothesis leads Davidson and other of Keynes' students to pretty much reject mathematical modelling and also reject any notion of 'equilibrium'. This is why the distinction is so important to Curtis' work although I feel he has yet to address it. Once equilibrium and (most) mathematical modelling is gone, you're left with something very different from the sort of thing that Curtis portrayed in The Trap via John Nash or in All Watched Over... regarding computers in harmony.

    Instead, you're cast into a rather volatile world of uncertainty, violent shocks, deep depressions and potential inflations. No more equilibrium.

    As for Comrade Kondratieff he strikes me as a modern day crank. He took the old neoclassical idea that you could forecast accurately and applied it to disequilibrium rather than equilibrium. Where the neoclassicals saw a benevolent God ruling over the capitalist system, Kondratieff saw a malign devil. But, according to him, the devil's actions are just as predictable as any God's given that you 'know' the 'hidden formula'. I do agree though, he did lead a fascinating life and would make for a good story.

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    Comment number 17.

    Is it me, or is this slightly premature, and pornographic?


  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    17, no it's an informed assessment highlighting the probable Israeli capabilities and indeed also a lack of capabilities, behind a whole bunch of political rhetoric.
    And what does it have to do with this blog?

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    Comment number 19.

    The idea that "It is deep within the psyche of most scientists to believe in the first page of Genesis" is a very true fact and very true of the majority of political ideologies and western philosophy. John Gray writes about it in his book Straw dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Even atheists who are fanatically against the idea of a divine being subscribe to the view that humans are separate from the animals and we can elevate ourselves to a better place and way of life. The idea that we can someday reach a utopia and cast our base animal instincts aside is an idea born out of Christian theology that the animals were placed on earth for the humans.

    whereas just like the three men at the cinema realised there is no simple black vs white, good vs evil way to life. civilisation, the creation of wealth and the advances in technology may one day rid the world of poverty. But underneath the thin veneer that is the civilised world lies tens of thousands of years of un-civilised history that every now and then shows itself in our modern civilised selves.

    John Gray is an interesting author to look into if anybody found this article interesting.

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    Comment number 20.

    @ theartteacher2, SONICBOOMER:

    I suggest that Israelis, or the Israeli government at least, also live in a bubble of their own making, in which among other things they must remain ever vigilant against a new Hitler and Nazi Germany or some version of what they represent, and must always get rid of them by force and violence if necessary, whatever the long-term cost to themselves and to others. This bubble not only traps Israel, in that it prevents the country from acknowledging the Palestinians' suffering and reconciling with them, and by extension with other countries in the region, but draws other countries like the US into it and traps them as well. The bubble also has the effect of encouraging a siege mentality to the extent that Israel has built separation barriers between itself and the Palestinians so that both Israelis and Palestinians live in the world's largest open-air ghettos.

    The Palestinian conflict and its misrepresentation in the Western media hide another reality which is that Israeli society itself is highly racist and has discriminated against Israeli Jews of Mizrahi and Ethiopian ancestry for a long time. Mizrahi Jews are those Jews who came from North Africa and other Arab countries to settle in Israel in the 1950s and whose mother languages are Jewish forms of Arabic. The actress Ronit Elkabetz who may be known to fans of French and Israeli films is a Mizrahi Jew from Morocco.

    I used to know a musician whose parents were both of Iraqi-Jewish ancestry. His father died quite young of a brain tumour. He'd grown up in Israel in the 1950s and apparently children of Mizrahi Jews recently arrived in Israel were subjected to X-ray treatment for scalpal ringworm. Most such children were Moroccan Jewish so I have no way of knowing if my friend's dad had undergone a similar treatment. There have been rumours also that in those days many Mizrahi Jewish children were kidnapped by Israeli hospital staff and adopted out to Ashkenazi Jewish couples; the real parents were told that the children had died and received death certificates. Years later, when the children would have turned 18, the parents received notices of military call-up for these children.

    There is much, much more I could say here but what I have said so far is already highly controversial - it suggests that in the 1950s Israel wasn't immune to the eugenicist impulse and feared its own "blacks" - so I won't be surprised if this comment gets erased. I'm keeping tabs anyway on what the BBC moderators eliminate of mine; I get to make a profile of them!


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This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

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