No man is an island

We are becoming more insular. It is not only Brexit, but that may not help. It is rather a matter that we are simply not listening to others or observing what they are doing; we are certainly not copying best practice.

I was very shocked, for example, to read an article today that was talking about the various vaccines in development around the world. Apparently, there are 150. We only hear of one and that, I am proud to say, has been produced in Oxford; it is based on a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein—which helps the coronavirus invade cells—into a weakened version of an adenovirus, which typically causes the common cold; indeed, alot of work has been done in a small building within the Chruchill hospital complex next to the Haemophilia department that I visited about 10 days’ ago. There was heavy security around the building, hence I have no photo.

A few weeks’ earlier, the trials were suspended because someone fell ill. We were told it was routine and soon we were told the trials were back on. Only this was not really the whole truth.

This is what I read today:

Preliminary results from this candidate’s first two clinical trial phases revealed the vaccine had triggered a strong immune response—including increased antibodies and responses from T-cells—with only minor side effects such as fatigue and headache. It is in phase three of clinical trials, aiming to recruit up to 50,000 volunteers in Brazil, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa. On September 8, AstraZeneca paused the trials for a safety review due to an adverse reaction in one participant in the U.K. The details remain unclear, though the company has described the pause as a “routine action.” After an investigation by independent regulators, the trials resumed in the U.K., Brazil, South Africa, and India but remained on hold in the U.S. as of September 23.

There might be political reasons for the delay in resuming the trials in the US. The US is trying to trial home-produced vaccines (by Johnson) and to establish vaccine distribution sites by November 1, 2020, just days’ before the Presidential elections. Nevertheless, the failure of the British press to record the US continued delay is alarming. There is no place for Nationalism in a Global health crisis.

I am hoping to write more about the British response to Covid in comparison to what other countries are doing. Much of this is about the way things are presented. (What Americans have started to call “optics”) It simply does not look good. Optics matter.

Dr Who and icons

I wonder why there is no punctuation to the title? Maybe, the reason is that it would be a toss-up between an exclamation mark and a question mark. There would always be debate. Dr Who? Dr Who! Dr Who

In the early 1960s, the exclamation mark was slightly over-used. Think Oliver! Blitz! and Twang! (Maybe, just over-used by Lionel Bart)

The premise of the lengthy Who series is that it is possible to move through time. This may not be scientific reality at the moment, but it is a great plot device and can be traced back certainly to 1895 and to HG Wells’ Time Machine. The book deals with something that was resurrected almost exactly in the 1980’s with “Back to the Future”. There is even a simplification of the idea of 4 dimensions. The 4th dimension is defined in both pieces as “Time” -a bit of a simplification mathematically and scientifically, but it makes for a great device.

This is what HG Wells had to say,
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.”

and this is the same scene in “Back to the Future”, There are two great “aha!” moments. The first is when Marty is told to accelerate to 88 mph in the delorean towards a billboard that will not be in the way in 1885 and the second is when Doc uses a railroad track with an unfinished bridge that will be quite safe in 1985.

I do not think Dr Who or The Time Machine was primarily devised to be about Time Travel. Time Travel was a way to get characters from one environment to another, a contrast of societies. Time Travel was more integral to the plot of “Back to the Future”, though, with all the stuff about two versions of teh same person in the same space at the same time.

In Dr Who, however, the Doctor travels in a machine that specifically recognises the link between time and space, the TARDIS. The TARDIS is an updated Wellsian plot device and an updated time-machine. Its spacial confusion is a nice nod to the hypercube of course.

Physics works on the assumption that there are 10 dimensions (this is necessary for understanding string theory). Maybe more. Certainly more, in theory. In fact, Edwin A Abbot anticipated Wells by about ten years when he wrote “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” where he describes the life of a square in a two-dimensional world. Later, the sphere and the square have problems interacting. Einstein talks about the 4th dimension as space-time.

The twighlight zone, or rather Rod Serling talked about a 5th dimension “beyond that which is known to man”. It seems a world of improbability but when we move to a higher dimension, we can look down on the jumbled mass squashed into 2d or 3d and untangle it a bit. It is like moving from the basic grid to a node view, or from moving away from a 2d graph to a 3d mockup.

In fact, art has been playing around with this concept for years. We understand the nature of linear perspective popularised in the renaissance but probably going back to, at least, the Roman empire of 70 AD Pompeii. However, the concept of inverted perspective that is central to the theology of the icon is probably much more interesting and can be traced back, I think, to as early as attempts in Pharoahic egypt, that is 20th century BC. We could call it art in bidimensionality, though arguably what happens in the Byzantine art of the 7th/8th century AD onwards is unique. It is a celebration of apparent disproportionality where objects and characters appear in a hierarchy of importance to, rather than of spacial integration in, a given scene.

my icon of St Timothy

As in Mediaeval art, there is a tendency towards the vertical line, symbolic of ascent to paradise. We see this beautifully also in the work of Ervind Earle who designed Sleeping Beauty for Disney in the late 1950s and who, in turn, said he drew on Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, Nicolaas van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, as well as Persian art and Japanese prints. But he certainly also drew on the Byzantine form. Earle left Disney before Sleeping Beauty premiered but it is his film and his vision on the screen.

Inverse perspective together with the two-dimensional axonometric representations it encourages is sometimes decried and often misunderstood. What it does, though, is to place the viewer within the concept of the picture. If the vanishing point is shifted from some way BEHIND the image (let’s say 3feet), and, instead, is the same distance IN FRONT of the picture, then the viewer must be contained in that image.

We have approached religious art as if we were a mathematician looking back from a 4th or 5th dimension at the limited reality constucted here. That is truly a sense of participating in a God-like view. I think it is probably one of the most brilliant inventions of modern art. It is, of course, a re-thinking of this tool that gives us cubism (that, for another day!). One day, I will demonstrate all this with some well-honed animation though I remember my efforts to do the same for the hypercube when I gave a talk to the physics’ department of my university about the physics of animation. (I was a bit shocked that so many of the students had no idea what I was talking about- whoops)

She Makes us Proud!

Here is a little film clip that I have waited a while to see!! It’s Julie Andrews singing the National Anthem at the 1948 Royal Command performance with Danny Kaye as I mentioned in my first film about the History of the Music hall. At some point soon, I hope, the sequel to that little documentary I was making will finally be finished and I will post that as well.

here is a link to the first part of my Music Hall history

and a relevant picture from that film of me talking about Dame Julie and Danney Kaye as well as her links with Ella Shields:

Kismet

There was a ridiculous attempt to re-stage “Kismet” a few years’ ago in the ENO. It is a shame that it went wrong because the original show and the Howard Keel film is wonderful in all ways. When the day is most dull, I find a few minutes of the old Vincente Minnelli film from the 1950s restores a healthy heart.

Even the wooden performance of the prince in the film is enchanting. “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.” There is plenty strange in that setting- a very strange cockerel in a bush, a strange white peacock and alot of strange fake grass. The prince is hardly out of place in the strangeness. Who cares! This is simply a glimpse at a 3d version of a persian minature. I am sure it influenced Richard Williams when he set out to devise “the thief and the cobbler”. After all, Williams also used a score overwhelmed by the crypto-Gerogian composer, Alexander Borodin (Бородин).

There was a reworking of the show called Timbuktu! with Eatha Kitt in the late 1970s. It kept many of the big songs, though it lost the song I think is best…

Kismet certainly influenced me in the early 1980s when, in Oxford, there was a production of “Hassan” by James Elroy Flecker. It was the first play I designed for the Oxford Playhouse and the directors (there were two of them) wanted lots of painted backdrops. It was a disaster and the only time I have witnessed the downing of tools by a cast who observed correctly that there were more of them on stage than there were audience in the auditorium.

I remember, though, working day and night in the workshop on a 30 foot painting representing a city slum. In fact, hidden in the slum was a magical golden palace so I sprinked a few peacocks and various fantasy clouds of blue and pink oozing from hookahs. While I was painting, one of my friends came by and I explained this was a picture of a slum. From then on, he assumed that I was so divorced from reality that I believed poverty was a thing of camp glitter. A few terms’ later, in the summer, I think, I designed “the Mikado”. I am still rather pleased with the design actually, and found a few drawings for it the other day. One of the features was a gauze frontdrop that fell half-way through the 1st Act finale separating Katisha from the chorus which was fun to paint and to see.

In the same term, I also designed a garden show of a greek tragedy by Euripides called ION. It was all in Greek with a pastiche of a hadzivakis score by a man called Clive Thomms. He was very talented and I have no idea what happened to him afterwards. I painted the ION sets in the cloisters at my college- it caused a bit of a stir. Later I recreated the look in the dining room of a friend’s house just outside Oxford. It must have been a bit dark- it was a recreation of Red-figure vase painting.

Otherwise, that year in Oxford was dominated by demands from a weary Canadian director for audition after audition of pieces he was proposing to direct in the Oxford Playhouse. I got very good at making cardboard mock-ups of the stage there. I think the list ran something like King Lear, Julius Caesar, Man of La Mancha, Samson Agonistes, Macbeth, the Rivals and Duchess of Malta. I miss those maquettes a bit. In the end, I had a basic model that I rebuilt again and again as desired. It was not until my second year that I started to get a good run of shows and then I was designing sometimes 3 or 4 plays a term and a good many more posters. By the time I got to designing Peter Pan, I think I had working lights on the model.

My favourite song in KISMET is “Not since Nineveh”. It is sublime. And “the fool sat beneath an olive tree..” is pretty good too. “Why be content with the olive when you could have the tree?” I love the irony of seeing the Caliph’s procession going back in the distance behind the main characters…This is simply Minnelli at his best and it is strange that Kismet is one of those films that is almost impossible to access today. Somehow, time has not favoured this classic.

Delores Gray from the film- Not since Nineveh

and another!

I remember seeing Delores Gray in the London production of “Follies”. She had quite a run of British action, appearing in The Good Old days and Dr Who but she also did a stint at RADA and the year she made Kismet, she also made “It’s always fair weather” a great Gene Kelly show. It is odd altogether. She makes “Kismet” sizzle. She is spectacular. In the past, I remember dismissing this film as kitch, but now I realise this is kitch with class. It is high camp as well as kitsch. There’s a good yiddish work (קיטש) by the way, so Shava Tova for today!

Any Questions?

I hate it when someone lectures me and finishes by asking if I understand.there is a relationship implied in that question and I do not like it.

So, it was a very depressing experience listening to Radio 4 this evening. There was a tone of righteous condescension which I felt was misplaced. The main culprit was the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan. I find it disappointing that people who lack the honour to offer their resignation should be so quick to tell us that students are cheats, that exam predictions are inflated and so on. This is a form of politics that has no respect at all for the voter.

It is also worth noting that Dominic Cummings, yes he of the trip to Barnard castle, was working in the education department with Michael Gove and therefore partly responsible for the foul approach. It is worth listening to the general tone of condesension that pervades the rose garden defence.

I am shocked that Boris should trust this man so much. I wonder if he talks down to Boris as much as he clearly talks down to everyone else?

I think this approach of talking down, doing down, condescending- is something that is running across society.

I was defrauded recently. I was cut off and still am cut off from accessing my bank, and no emails save to the CEO seem to get through at all. It took me a week to get the bank to pick up the phone and answer me and it was another week before anyone from the fraud department contacted me.

I have asked to interview the leader of the HSBC bank in the UK. I fear this is an institution in turmoil that has not prepared well for a crisis like COVID, and I would like to help. The length of time it takes to answer the telephone speaks volumes- I have routinely waited over 2 hours and then had the call disconnected. This is not customer service- it is chaos. The man in overall charge is called Noel Quinn and the UK head is Iain Stuart. I will report back here when and if this happens.

Meanwhile, when I was telephoned yesterday by an agent from the fraud department, his manner was unbelieveably unhelpful (I have his name: always get the name and write it down).  When I asked specific questions about the changes in legislation regarding fraud, he retreated into a sort of bluster and ended up quitting the call in a huff (and I thought I was the theatrical one).

So, let me explain about fraud in UK banks: I am not much the wiser, of course, but I think there is an organisation called the “APP Scams steering Group” and they, in turn, have come up with something called “CRM”. Essentially, this is there to investigate fraud. I am not sure how it differs from what existed before but it came into effect on 28th May 2019 and came under the admin of the LSB a couple of months’ later. In contrast to what I was told by the agent, some banks certainly interpret it as offering a full refund to victims and others do not. HSBC seems to be among hose who do not. The relevant line from the legislation seems to be here:

“Importantly, any customer of a Payment Service Provider which is signed up to the Code can expect to be reimbursed where they were not to blame for the success of a scam. A customer can be either a consumer, micro-enterprise or charity, as defined in the Code.”

It is very confusing- deliberately so?

The LSB appointed an advisory board which is chaired by Ruth Evans and consists of what are called industry officials and consumers- I am not sure whether the “consumers” are therefore bank customers or bank officials. Again, the information is deliberately vague but it all sounds grand and well-meaning. In the right hands, it probably is.

What this means in practice, though, is that the banks can sound very grand about what they are doing and, as in my case, when pressed for an answer, can fudge to the point of confusion because nobody really knows what was intended.

It is the same approach by the Government and Ofqual. Referring to Acronyms is a way to avoid explaining what you are talking about just as the double negative or the passive voice distances a rogue from any any direct access to the truth.

It is time to call out for some transparency – or should that be opacity? Surely we want something we can see: Solid facts anyway, something we can understand and something we can evaluate without an agent taking a grand-standing position above us and effectively saying, as Roger Taylor did the other day to the millions of students who felt aggrieved by the OFQUAL algorithm, that they “did not understand it”. Their problem, in other words (or rather in what his words must have meant- there is no other way to interpret them) was not the students were victims of an injustice, or a miscalculation but that they were stupid.

This seems to be the routine tone of people in authority at the end of the phone who have to take responsibility for a mess they have either created or inherited. Be it Virginmedia, HSBC, Sky, OfQUAL, or the Government – the line seems to be the same, that we are incapable of understanding them. That we are too stupid. We are after all, just the customer or just the public- in the case of the Government, we are just the voters.

Here is my point to Anita on the BBC 4 edition of ANY ANSWERS today:

So many important stories

There is so much to write about at the moment and yet the newspapers are focused on the most astonishing rubbish while the real issues are cast aside barely touched.

This morning, there was a debate about Boris on holiday and almost every channel in the UK managed to present the piece with a bias that was quite astonishing. While I am equally disappointed in Boris, he is not the story today and this nonsensical quipping takes the pressure off the real issue which must still be Gavin Williamson and his weasel determination to cling on.

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Outside the UK, Alexei Navalny appears to have been poisoned. That would be news enough and scary for everyone else but it gets much worse: a medical plane to take him for superior and probably life-saving treatment in Germany is unable to do its job as police and armed guards keep Navalny away from his family and effectively imprisoned in an under-equipped hospital in Omsk in Siberia. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Meanwhile, I had a chat with Steve Brookstein who was the first to win X factor last night and later I checked him out on youtube. I was flabberghasted at the nastiness of Sharon Osbourne and will certainly look at her differently from now on. Steve’s story is painful as was Rich Hatch’s (Rich was the first winner of the American Reality show “Survivor” and I have spent the last 12 weeks watching that show episoed by episode and then podcasting about it.). I begin to fear that the whole Reality tv phenomenon, which is certainly likely to continue because it is cheap to make, is shot through with a sort of nastiness that I cannot ever and will not condone.

I think the sniping about Boris on holiday belongs to the same genre. We should really remember the advice in the Disney film, BAMBI- “If you’ve not got something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

 

roger

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Open letter to university heads

Dame Nemat Shafik

The director

London School of Economics

Houghton street

London

WC2A 2AE

 

14th August 2020

 

Dear Director,

 

I am writing with some urgency in the wake of the disastrous A level results and the horrendous bias against students who come from non-selective schools that may have had a blip in recent academic performance and have, therefore, had their grades knocked back.

I hope, this year, that you will follow the example of Worcester College and take on those students who were predicted grades that would meet your requirements and whose teachers were confident they could be expected, in ordinary circumstances, to achieve them.

I look forward to hearing from you personally, in due course, and to celebrating the fact that the LSE, another great academic body with a bold history is ready to challenge a mighty injustice.

Now is not the time to wait and see what the Government will do. You will be judged by your actions and the lead you give in the next few days.

I would like to think that you are on the right side of history.

I am available to help in any way I can.

With best wishes and great respect,

 

Sincerely,

 

Professor TIM WILSON