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When the Going Gets WEIRD

In the New York Times Daniel C Dennett reviews a book by Joseph Henrich called The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Sounds like an interesting book, and the review itself is engaging. I just wanted to note a few points.

First, we have the acronym WEIRD, which stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Apparently being WEIRD makes us weird, in psychological terms. Non-WEIRD and WEIRD people have differences that can be observed, measured.

I was intrigued by this quote:

To point to just one striking example: Normal, meaning non-WEIRD, people use left and right hemispheres of their brains about equally for facial recognition, but we WEIRD people have co-opted left-hemisphere regions for language tasks, and are significantly worse at recognizing faces than the normal population. Until recently few researchers imagined that growing up in a particular culture could have such an effect on functional neuroanatomy.

I wonder if this can apply on an individual scale: are people whose focus has been language less able to recognise faces? Answering just from within my own head, I’d say maybe? I’ve been what my Dad used to call a compulsive reader all my life, as well as being at least somewhat interested in writing, and I’m very poor at facial recognition. Bordering on prosopagnosia, I sometimes think (though far from anything like the poor woman in this story, who can’t even recognise herself in a mirror).

If my experience suggests that, I have counter examples right in my own family. My beloved and our daughter are both linguists, and both border (to my mind) on being super recognisers1, which is the complete opposite of me.

None of which tells us anything useful, except maybe that the ability to recognise faces, like many things, exists on a scale.

More interestingly, Dennett introduces (to me, at least) the delightful term ‘Occam’s Broom’:

A good statistician (which I am not) should scrutinize the many uses of statistics made by Henrich and his team. They are probably all sound but he would want them examined rigorously by the experts. That’s science. Experts who don’t have the technical tools — historians and anthropologists especially — have an important role to play as well; they should scour the book for any instances of Occam’s broom (with which one sweeps inconvenient facts under the rug).

Occam had a famous razor; why wouldn’t he have a broom as well?


  1. There’s a professional body of super recognisers. Who’d have thought? 

Term started today, technically. Coincidentally, 38 years to the day after my first term at Edinburgh started. I don’t have any classes till Wednesday, though.

Off we go, then, into this new adventure.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Books 2020, 22)

This is a book about history, biography, gender — and writing.

It’s presented as a biography of the titular character, who starts as the son of a noble family. It’s written for, and partly based an the life of, Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West.

Famously, Orlando’s gender (or biological sex) changes partway through the novel. She spends the latter part of it as a woman. She also lives for four or five hundred years — and presumably is living still. She’s barely got started by the end of the book.1

The interesting thing about the time difference is that he/she doesn’t experience the passage of hundreds of years, as far as we are shown. It’s like time passes at a different rate for her. She reaches the age of around 30, but the world has moved on through ages around her.

I enjoyed this greatly, and as I said a while back, it sparked some ideas and made me think of associations with Iain Banks. Which can’t be bad.


  1. Indeed she/he turns up in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, switching back and forth seemingly at random. 

How I’m Going To Master this Writing Lark

Announcing a big life change: I’m going to be starting a masters course in a couple of weeks. An MA in Creative Writing, at Birkbeck, University of London.

Nine Months in Slippers

How did you get here, Martin?” I hear you ask. Let me take you back to November last year. I lost my job. The reasons are obscure and not that interesting, but I had been working at SPIKA for only six months, and suddenly I was out on the street.1

If that had happened a couple of months sooner, I might have been studying all this time. I had been vaguely musing on the idea of doing a masters in journalism. I love to write, and I sometimes think that I kind of missed a calling.

I was too late for 2019, all the university terms having already started. So I did a bit of job hunting, but mainly took a break till after Christmas.

When this year that we had no idea was going to be so terrible started, I started looking for jobs, but I also kept thinking about journalism. I started a distance-learning course. Learned a bit of shorthand, and read up on some of the other aspects of the craft. A journalism MA, starting this year, was still on the table.

Then Coronavirus arrived.

To be honest, the lockdown didn’t change things that much for me: I was at home all the time anyway. But the jobs market, as well as the rest of the world, was affected. It’s easy to work from home in software development, but recruitment was down. I had a few interviews, but no success.

Then somewhere in there I decided that journalism wasn’t for me after all. There are aspects of the profession that didn’t appeal to me: newsgathering and all that side of it, essentially. I’d like to be a columnist or maybe a feature writer, but not so much a reporter. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a terrible time for journalism, with newsrooms laying people off and cutting back.

I kept looking for jobs back in software development. But after a bit, Frances said, “Why don’t you do a masters in your own field?” It was a good idea: it would be intellectually stimulating, and possibly improve my employability. I started looking at courses.

Computer science itself (I’ve never formally studied it), or one of the various data science options? Both had their merits. Either would have been interesting and mentally challenging.

But they didn’t spark joy, to use a tidiness-related term that seems appropriate. I looked at the course outlines, and they were interesting enough, but I could tell I wouldn’t have loved doing them.

There were other subjects, though, and one kept prodding my mind; one that did offer the prospect of joy, the possibility that I would love it.

Like I said, I love to write.

Choosing

Quite a few institutions offer creative writing MAs, in various forms. I applied to all of them. All the ones in London, anyway, and a few others that offer distance learning. Each needed a personal statement and a sample of writing. Every single one had unique requirements of the sample, in terms of word length and type of piece. Royal Holloway, for example (who rejected me), wanted a short story extract and, uniquely, a piece of critical writing. Most just wanted the fiction.

There were differences in the course titles, too. London Met’s was ‘Creative, Digital, and Professional Writing.’ Westminster’s was ‘Creative Writing: Writing the City,’ though they had closed entry for this year.

City, University of London has several. But the plain ‘Creative Writing‘ was showing a message to the effect of ‘Applications suspended.’ I emailed to ask if this meant that they were full for the year, and was told that no, they had suspended entry for 2020 because there wasn’t enough interest. So I applied for another one they have, ‘Creative Writing and Publishing.’ They got back to me after a few days and said the course was full. Seems to be a slight disconnect there, maybe?

I got offers from London Met, Kingston (by distance learning), and Birkbeck. Birkbeck were the only ones who interviewed me first (I still haven’t heard back from several, and Glasgow’s website was too broken to let me apply — and they didn’t reply to my query). And just today, Teeside, another distance learning one, offered me a place. Far, far too late. I shouldn’t criticise, though, since I was very late in applying.

For a variety of reasons I decided Birkbeck was the best of the offers, not least that I liked Julia Bell, the course leader, who interviewed me from her shed. Birkbeck is ‘London’s evening university.’ It was set up to provide adult education to people who are working. All the classes are in the evenings.

Why, and Why Now?

This is probably something I should have done thirty years ago, but we didn’t know about masterses back then. Well, I didn’t, anyway. And I don’t think creative writing masters courses existed at all.2 Anyway, as the saying more or less has it, the best time was then; the second-best time is now.

Will it help me be a better writer? I damn well hope so. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.

And Beyond…

What comes after this? In an ideal world I’ll make my living as a writer. I’m well aware how hard that is to achieve, though, so I might end up going back to programming. The best might be some sort of hybrid. We’ll see, but I’m not going to worry too much about it for the next year or so.

One thing I do plan to do is to blog about the course as I do it, so expect to see more here.


  1. Specifically Victoria Street, Westminster. It was a very convenient office for popping down to Parliament Square to protest illegal proroguing

  2. A little research tells me the famous UEA one started in 1970, so I’m wrong there. 

Ten days between posts? Good lord. What have I been up to?

I hope to tell you soon. Watch this space.

If the Prime Minister’s a Junkie, the Public Has a Right to Know

John Crace, writing his Guardian parliamentary sketch:

“If he was a decent man, he would apologise,” Starmer said. But Boris isn’t a decent man, so he didn’t. Instead he continued to rush on his run.

Any Velvet Underground fan immediately recognises that as reference to their song ‘Heroin’:

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

I don’t know if ‘to rush on one’s run’ is a common expression among heroin addicts, but John Crace has been there himself, so presumably knows what he’s talking about. Is he, then, trying to tell us something about Boris Johnson’s predilections?

Perhaps not; perhaps he just means that Johnson’s enjoying the high of parliamentary debate, of being in the chamber, of being prime minister. But since the rest of the piece is about what disaster PMQs was for him, that seems unlikely.

Is this one of those open secrets that everyone in Westminster knows, including political journalists, but no-one reveals, because it’s not the done thing, old chap?

I do hope not; but we should be told.

On Devs

Just watched the last episode of Devs. Several friends recommended it after I said “What shall we watch next?” a few weeks ago. The question was intended rhetorically, but they gave answers anyway, which was nice.

In terms of its pacing, Devs was likened to Kubrick. Fair enough. I saw some Lynchian overtones in it. Or sub-Lynchian, anyway. I enjoyed the journey, but was slightly disappointed with the destination.

Not, however, as disappointed as I feared I was going to be halfway through the last episode. I practically cheered when Lily threw the gun away. But then poetry-quoting Stewart fucked everything up.

Of course, as soon as you (the programme maker) introduce simulations, you (the viewer) can no longer trust that anything is “real,” so everything gets slippery and to some extent, what’s the point?

Where it disappoints, I think, is that Forest’s incorrect determinism-based view was not actually overturned by the ending. We don’t see him and Lily living in an alternative branch of the multiverse, but in a simulation that could be entirely consistent with his belief that reality proceeds on tram tracks — thereby obviating the guilt he feels for contributing to his wife and child’s death, and also gettig him off the hook in his mind for his complicity with his murderous ex-CIA security chief.

I found the first episode quite disturbing: the music was screechingly discordant and set my teeth on edge, and that creepy statue towered over everything. And the fact that the statue was still there, still creepy, at the end was confusing. Surely he’d only had it built because his daughter died? But in the sim where his daughter survived, it was still there and the company was still named after her. Only Devs (or Deus) the project was missing. Which suggests that he had named the company and had the statue built, not as a commemoration of his daughter, but because — I don’t know, really.

The other weird thing about the first episode was that, not having seen the cast, I spent the first ten minutes saying, “Is that Ron Swanson?” The fact that one of the first things he says was a complaint about government regulation feels like a clue. Nick Offerman does an impressive job of disappearing into the part, but he couldn’t hide his voice.

Still, I’ll never be able to watch Parks & Rec in the same way.

Also Katie, when explaining Devs to Lily, uses “reason” when she means “cause.” Her pushing the pen is the cause of it rolling across the table. The reason it happened is because she chose to push it. Reason (to me, at least) implies intelligence or at least sentience behind the action. Cause is the correct word to use when discussing cause and effect.

And when she asked Lily to name a truly random event, Lily should have said, “Nuclear decay.”

Last night’s pizza: the wee tables in the box were triangular! I’ve never seen the like.

Takeaway pizza with triangular support ‘tables’
Takeaway pizza with triangular support 'tables'