Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More on Limitless and Surrogates

Red wine is my NZT; a couple of glasses and things really do start becoming so much clearer. The trouble is that somewhere between glasses three and four these new powers mysteriously vanish. As noted yesterday, Limitless had me flinching a little at the notion of what I might have achieved already in this life if I had been able to maintain my lucidity levels permanently at the one glass of vino levels.

It also reminded me of another excuse I have for underachievement: I could never sign off on a concept as sloppily concretised as this one was. If an outline idea for a narrative were to occur to me, say one along the lines of Limitless or Surrogates, I'd need to think it all the way through, to make sure there weren't any obvious holes in it and to make sure as well that my story at least attempted to explore all the more interesting implications therein.

Hollywood scriptwriters seem to have collectively opted out of this sense of responsibility / accountability. What exactly does NZT do, for example? Is it improving neural connections, memory, deductive reasoning or all of these things? Eddie can learn a new language in days, but he can also deal with some subway punks simply by accessing his recollections of Bruce Lee movies. Yet no matter how good my visual memory is I'm never going to be able to play tennis like Raffa Nadal just by watching him on court. Nor indeed could Nadal practice his own serve by viewing repeated playbacks under the influence of NZT. These are physical memories, not visual ones.

I imagine that whoever wrote Surrogates might have been hanging out in SL or World of Warcraft one day and thought to himself, what if the avatars were made of metal and latex instead of 0s and 1s? It's not a bad concept, but the plot that has been built around it is so perfunctory that one finds oneself seeking scraps of entertainment behind it in the production design and in the few occasions the director has been left with to showcase the sociological ramifications of the situation.

As for me, I'd have got stuck on the thought that physical avatars would transform a city of 10m individuals into one of 20m.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Limitless (2011)

I felt much the same way about Limitless as I felt about Surrogates: here you have an intriguing TV sci-fi concept trapped within a dumb big screen format. It's hard to add much to Roger Ebert's conclusion - that here's a movie about a pill that allows you to access the 'missing' 85% of your brain, that's only really using 15% of its own - but I will add that there were parts of the film that struck me as existentially unsettling. Maybe it's my own nagging sense of under-achievement, or perhaps it was the fact that we never get proper resolution of the rather crucial issue of whether NZT has turned Eddie into a pyschotic killer as well as facilitating his ability to pre-cog the market and hold conversations in Cantonese with the waiters at his local Chinese restaurant. Bradley Cooper seems oddly well cast as Eddie Morra, a bit of a creep both on an off the medication, and emblematic of a movie that seems unsure whether its halcyon presentation of the American Dream is desirable fantasy or disturbing satire.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The 10,000 Year Explosion, How Civilisation Accelerated Human Evolution

There is more genetic variation within human groups than between them.

This statement has always struck me as less of a hard scientific truth than a hazard warning, an expedient intellectual Here Be Dragons. Surely it was only a matter of time before the 'controversial' thoughts it was planted to ward off would be being thought again?

Cochran and Harpending appear to give it short shrift. There's a similarly sizeable variation within dog breeds than between them, but does that mean that the differences between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are 'skin deep' too?

Their book sets out to inform us how, far from arriving on an evolutionary plateau, our first modern ancestors to break out from Africa were about to embark on one of the most accelerated phases of human biological change. Through a process of genetic introgression they began by stealing some genes from the European natives, the Neanderthals, an exchange which the pair believe may have kick-started the sudden leap-forward in artistic and technological capabilities which ensued.

Yet it was the advent of agriculture which heralded a whole new set of selection pressures, such as new diets and disease risks. Cochran and Harpender duly map the spread of lactose tolerance to the ascendency of the Proto-Indo-European language and show how new patterns of social organisation favoured alternative heritable psychologies.

So far so credible. Indeed I have a great deal of sympathy for the book's broad analysis, it's just that some of the detailed explanation is at best flimsy and at worst blood-pressure raising. This is a complex web of may haves and could haves, with the occasional must have thrown in for good measure, and one is never quite sure how the dependencies work. In other words, how long a string of may haves is holding up that must have.

We're told that humans who have been growing stuff for longer have had more time to hard code an understanding of the underlying economics into their wetware. So, it's hardly surprising, we're then informed, that 'Amerindians' find it harder to get their heads around the benefits of neo-liberalism when it comes to wealth generation.

Aside from the gobsmacking political bias behind this little hypothesis, everything we know about the Maya surely gives the lie to any notion that America's indigenes are somehow congenitally soft-headed when it comes to numbers. The Maya might have domesticated corn rather later than Europe's classical cultures had access to wheat, but it was the Romans, ingenious as they were, who had to make do without a zero, wasn't it?

I take no issue with the data showing that Jews of European origin win more Nobel prizes and score higher in IQ tests than any other distinct group of people on the planet. But Cochran and Harpender's explanation for how this state of affairs might have come about is also neither quite good science nor good history.

Yes, the Ashkenazim were a closed community forced by their host culture to specialise in finance and management. But how exactly would the selection pressure have worked in practice? Unless the less brainy Jews were somehow more prone to die off before marriage, or indeed were comparatively less likely to marry, then the whole process would depend on the cleverer sort having more children than both the intellectually-mediocre and outright dumb, something which we know to be generally counter-factual from contemporary research. (It also rather depends on intelligence being something that is passed down the male line only!)

And as ever with these retrospective arguments from natural selection, I can all too easily concoct an alternative model of my own: in the middle ages Christian education was controlled by the Church and the most promising pupils would naturally have been siphoned off into a profession which would (mostly) take them out of the procreation business. So instead of the Jews getting smarter, the rest of Europe was steadily becoming thicker!

Anyway, as ever the real problem here is the term Evolution itself. We might be able to move beyond seeing Great Danes and Chihuahuas as only superficially different, but which one is more evolved? While Cochran and Harpender are surely right to question the conventional wisdom of human evolutionary stasis, can we really say that the various detectable adaptations to the multiplicity of different environments that human beings have taken up residence within over the course of the last 10,000 years, are qualitatively the same thing as the series of species transformations which occurred before the emergence from Africa?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Super Mario

It's Cup Final Saturday and more than three times the population of Antigua Guatemala is right now seated inside Wembley stadium. Stoke are playing tight in the first half, obliging several Manchester City players to try their luck from long range.

One of these is the notoriously petulant Italian Mario Balotelli, he of the inflated ego and white Maserati. In September last year he was at the wheel of his other car, an Audi R8, when he was involved in a minor accident. Police at the scene were somewhat intrigued by the discovery that the footballer was carrying 6000 Euros on his person. Balotelli's explanation? "Because I'm rich."

Perhaps Super Mario keeps a big wad of cash in his pocket to satisfy a need to perform random acts of generosity. For it was only recently that he handed a homeless man one thousand pounds outside a casino.

Last week Balotelli's social work was in the news again. When asked for an autograph by a young fan outside City's training ground, he in turn asked the lad why he wasn't in school. Upon learning that a bully was making formal education a living nightmare for the autograph-hunter, Balotelli drove him and his mother to the school, where he set up a face to face confrontation with the headteacher and the alleged bully. Handshakes of conciliation were effected and Balotelli climbed back into his Maserati and drove off.

Born to Ghanaian immigrants Balotelli was given up to foster care as a young boy. Now his parents want him back. Balotelli's explanation? "Because I'm rich."

Monday, May 02, 2011

Patriot Games

Americans get to be patriotic almost every day — though days such as today afford opportunities to turbo-charge the experience.

Guatemalans get to be patriotic essentially once a year, though there's often a bit of leakage into the rest of September, and results notwithstanding, flags may also be waved enthusiastically when the national soccer team takes to the pitch.

For us Brits the opportunities are generally more spaced out, though this may not be such a bad thing. Part of the 'problem' is that sporting endeavour is as much a force for division as it is for shared celebration. Guatemalans can get a periodic extra patriotism fix from an international soccer fixture, but at such times we Brits find ourselves partitioned into our composite inner nations: English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, the latter identity inherently packaged with deeper, darker divisions.

Almost none of the sports that are followed in number in Britain provide much of an opportunity for waving the Union Flag. OK, there's tennis, but how many cathartic moments of national triumph has that delivered in living memory? Right, none.

Hence the value of last Friday's small family gathering. We can't win the World Cup together (or indeed terminate our national bogeymen with extreme prejudice) but when it comes to cavalry and choirboys, who is there to match us?

It's easy to be a cynic and a killjoy, when you're on your own. Had I watched the Royal Wedding on TV back in Guatemala, I might well have found myself blowing raspberries at the screen. But back here in Blighty amongst friends and family, the shared meanings started to actually mean something. Both my parents are in their eighties and this may well be for them their last experience of the rituals that have periodically renewed the mystical nation. In such company there's enough history in the air to prevent downer adjectives like 'outmoded' from springing so readily to mind.

And this time everyone really did want a fresh start. Maybe it's wrong to seek a deeper meaning in the absence of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from Friday's guest list, but given that certain petty old scores were rather obviously being settled (Earl Spencer in the economy class queue outside the Abbey for instance), one might also suspect that a grander score was also being settled with the New Labour decade in which, in spite of its thrilling surge of prosperity, one also witnessed the nation losing its bearings in a number of potentially disastrous ways.

As a (former) medieval historian I can tell you that 1200 years of historical continuity isn't something to be sniffed at. Our history and our sense of it is the glue that keeps the whole thing together, but over the past couple of decades there were worrying signs that even that couldn't prevent a creeping process of un-glueing.

Guatemala has an almost disconcerting lack of national heroes in its historical narrative. There are a few big characters lurking in the chronology, but no-one who really epitomises a particular set of values.

Contrast Venezuela with its El Libertador, from whom all sense of modern political legitimacy appears to derive. Mexico on the other hand has not one, but a whole collection of symbolic personages in its past, less a pantheon than a Homeric melee of warring men and women, each of whom stands for a certain ideal of what the nation ought to be, and many of whom died in conflict with each other. There, resolution is seemingly deferred, but here in the 'United' Kingdom, the very name of the ultimate political unit suggests an end to the ruckus.

It has been fascinating to follow A History of Celtic Britain on the BBC over the past month, not least because of the way Neil Oliver has gleefully revised the pervading assumption that the only British history that really matters is English history, and that anything else is essentially an unpleasant after-effect of the Romans' failure to finish the job.

Oliver consistently refers to 'our island' (well, it's only been an island for around 5000 years) and 'the British' whilst describing events pre-dating the incursion of the Anglo-Saxons by half a millennium or more. Yet he was game enough to submit his own ancestry to the swab test (as I too have done) and discovered that whilst his mitochondrial DNA has led a relatively secluded existence since Neolithic times in the Scottish islands, his father's genetic inheritance points to a trail of men drifting across Eastern Europe. And hence the warning that there's no really such thing as a discreet identity on this sceptered isle.

Anyway, whatever anyone else thinks about the pomp and pomposity of Wills and Kate's big day, it has been a real pleasure to experience the concomitant coming together first hand in London.

Revolutions rarely do away with healthy institutions. In almost all the cases I have studied, the ancien regime had come to the end of its particular line both politically and economically before the crowds emerged to deliver the coup-de-grace. It strikes me that most modern westerners, should it fall to them to participate in one of those rare 'clean-sheet' moments of history, are unlikely to include a monarchy in their new constitution. So, on paper at least, many of us Brits are indeed republicans, and yet remain convinced that the monarchy, even when populated with oddball and even vaguely unsavory characters, is the very spine of our history and the only real excuse we have for waving the flag.