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New(ish) Crime Writers, part 2

by Harry on November 23, 2015

Ok, here’s the second in my series on new-ish crime writers. This one might well already have hung up her boots – if so, it’s tragic. I twice tried to read that Behind the Scenes in the Museum book, and just couldn’t get anywhere with it. Then, in response to a much earlier thread, Jerry Dworkin suggested Case Histories, and then someone else did, and then my Monkees-appreciating neighbor did, but he actually had the book so… Well, that was it for several weeks. Kate Atkinson’s 4 Jackson Brodie books are, taken together, a single masterpiece of the genre. Each book weaves together two or more crimes, the connections between which are far from obvious, and in some cases just a matter of them crossing Brodie’s path. She is Hardyesque in both her complete lack of fear of, and her mastery of the art of, coincidence and her willingness –indeed her determinedness – to strain credulity, and Brodie is tough, lovable, screwed up, a little bit hard to take. Her writing is sublime – I can’t think of any crime writer who is better able to sustain suspense by taking you down an alleyway that you cannot imagine the point of – and which is far longer than seems appropriate – just where you are dying to see the next plot twist. She adores Brodie, but she also adores and crafts her other characters – Gloria in One Good Turn, and Reggie in When Will There Be Good News? are both brilliant inventions. As unafraid as she is of coincidence, she’s even less afraid of long digressive sentences, paragraphs, pages, even chapters. She’s a genius. Maybe we should have a ‘Kate Atkinson paragraph” competition closer to Christmas – if so, CB’s assignment is to do Kate Atkinson in the style of Molesworth.

So: two warnings and a tip.

Warning 1: I nearly put down Case Histories after a couple of chapters. One of the cases is so harrowing and gross that if you don’t trust her (I didn’t) you think she is coldly misanthropic. Trust me, you can trust her, she’s not.

Warning 2: once you are 1/3 of the way into Case Histories you won’t want to read anything else till you’ve finished all 4.

Tip: as with all good series you should read these in order. But, if for some reason you can’t, you can get away with starting with One Good Turn, as long as you then go straight back to Case Histories, and only then onto When Will there Be Good News (I know because my daughter ran out of reading during the trip in which I finished When will There be Good News?; I happened to have One Good Turn with me so she read that first, and it was, just about, ok).


Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?

by Harry on September 10, 2015

Here’s the text from which I gave a talk to our Geography Department’s welcome lunch for new graduate students, postdocs, etc, at the start of this semester. The charge was to come up with something that would be relevant to everyone in the room, and would be funny. A previous speaker told lots of Ole and Lena jokes. So…

Thank you for inviting me to talk. When I was asked to talk to you, I was stumped about what to talk about, especially when told that previous speakers were humorous. It ruled out Philosophy as a subject, and, really, ruled out explaining the Laws of Cricket, which is my second go-to. Anyone want to know about the subsequent career paths of all the cast of The Love Boat? Or the history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal? Or why I know anything about those subjects? No, I thought not.

So I thought I’d talk about something that you all should be thinking about right now, that is, teaching. You will all, or almost all, be teachers of some sort. Some will become professors, who teach graduate students and/or undergraduates and the general public. But every professional teaches – whether it is students, or clients, or co-workers, or mentees, or, sometimes, one’s supervisors. And typically, actual, well informed, high-quality, training in teaching is a low priority in research universities. So, I thought I’d talk about why it should be a higher priority, and how we could do it better (the training, and the teaching).

Since I am a philosopher, let’s start with one of my favourite sayings: “Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”. The declarative phrase in that sentence is true. And there is some good news, but also some bad news, in its truth.

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Can ESPN please bring Women’s Cricket back?

by Harry on August 20, 2015

Ok, I’m not going to go on and on about the Ashes. Just two things.

1. I got an email from the son of one of my dad’s friends the other day, saying he had heard that I knew how to watch cricket on tv in the US (he lives in DC —he also said he thought he last saw me on April 13th 1985, but that’s quite wrong, it was July 13th 1992, but there you go). YES. You can watch cricket for free on ESPN if you have apple tv, and at espncricinfo on the computer. It is wonderful—all the Ashes, lots of T20s and List A’s, from around the world—last fall, between classes, I could even watch much of the county championship match in which Lancashire narrowly failed to avoid relegation. And everything is archived for a while on ESPN through Apple TV, so you can watch hundreds of hours of cricket in a row if you want. (I had to pay $100 for the whole World Cup, and refrained from paying the $59 they were asking for the IPL only because I care too much about the quality of my teaching to risk getting sucked into the IPL near the end of a busy semester).

2. BUT! Last year ESPN carried women’s international cricket. The camera work was nowhere near as good, so it was sometimes a strain to watch it; but still, often worthwhile. But none of this year’s Ashes has been shown. Why? Am I missing something? Anyway, because of this, I cannot thoroughly evaluate Andy Zaltzman’s assessment that the single Test match was well worth watching. I can, though, say that Zaltzman, whom I find to be merely somewhat amusing comic, always manages to be thoroughly interesting and compelling when writing about cricket, and that whatever those of you lucky enough to have been able to watch that Test thought of it, his argument against getting rid of Tests for women is utterly compelling. (Just to add: I know Ian Healy’s comments about the wives and girlfriends was, maybe, unfortunate, but in mitigation he robustly defended continuing Tests for women in the recent TMS podcast). Anyway, why no women’s cricket on ESPN any more? How much can it cost?

The Political Classroom

by Harry on August 11, 2015

Steve Drummond has a great interview with Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy about their brilliant book [1], The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The study explores the way high school social studies teach controversial issues in the classroom, and uses extensive survey and interview data both to examine the ethical issues that teachers feel that they face. They look at how teachers decide which topics count as controversial, how teachers think about dealing with topics that are sensitive within the classroom (eg, how do you discuss the morality of same-sex marriage in a way that does not shut down debate, when you know that some students are closeted homosexuals?); and how do teachers decide whether they disclose their own views—and what do students think about those decisions? The empirical findings are fascinating: for example, students believe that teacher disclosure has no effect on their own beliefs, but think it has effects on the beliefs of their peers; and students in the same classroom disagree about whether their teacher discloses, but tend to approve of what they believe their teacher does with respect to disclosure (I’ve heard the authors refer to this phenomenon as “I like what my like-able teacher does”). The most fascinating case study is of a (brilliant, it seems to me) (conservative) evangelical teacher who works in a (conservative) evangelical Christian school, and really, deeply, challenges his students in ways that, for example, I doubt that many of the secular liberal students are challenged at my own institutions. But it is not just an empirical study—they deal subtly with the difficult philosophical issues of what the aims should be of teaching controversial issues and the ethics of disclosure, without being unduly prescriptive or judgmental. Although the book is about high school teaching, I think it is an invaluable resource for everyone at the college level who teaches about controversial issues, and would recommend colleagues who, like me, teach ethics and applied ethics classes, developing reading groups using the book. Here is my discussion from last year of whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their opinions to students. Anyway, this book is essential reading for anybody, at any level, who teachers controversial issues.

[1] Pretty full disclosure: As of a week ago Hess is Dean of the School of Education with which I am affiliated, and was previously Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, where I was, for most of that time, a Senior Program Advisor; McAvoy also worked at Spencer while I was an SPA there, and is now Program Director of the Center for Ethics and Education, of which I am Co-Director. I helped pull together deliberations about the content when the book was in progress, and read several draft. Also, I wrote the Afterword. Strangely, I recently attended the wedding of a recent UW graduate who was, when in high school, one of the 1001 students in the study (McAvoy presented about the study in one of my classes, and the said student, mentioned here, realised that she was a subject).

It looks like I’m going to be out 100 quid—when the first poll came out I bet my dad (a Labour Party member of much less long standing than lots of people assume, but, still, long enough that it would be entirely decent for him to vote in the election) that Corbyn would not win—that, once faced with the actual decision, people who say they would vote for him, would pull back. The latest yougov poll shows Corbyn winning on the first round, and Peter Kellner says “I would personally be astonished if Mr Corbyn does not end up Labour’s leader.”

Personally, I have found the newspaper reporting and media commentary about the leadership election entirely unenlightening. The frequent comparisons with the 1980s are idiotic: Corbyn does not represent, as Benn (who never stood for the leadership) did, a massive socialist movement within and outside the party that had been building for 2 decades. He also lacks any, let alone extensive, leadership experience in government or opposition: many of the people who will, apparently, vote for him, did not know who he was 3 months ago. Only 5 years ago the (more impressive than Corbyn) leftwing candidate was eliminated almost immediately in what was, effectively, a two-horse race between two candidates who shared a last name and were—in terms of the political views (though certainly not their political or leadership experience or abilities)—almost identically right of the center of where the party has traditionally been. I agree with the frequently made point that it is hard to see a Labour Party led by Corbyn winning a general election outright (though it might have a chance of increasing the number of seats, by eating into the SNP bloc in Scotland): but whereas in the 1980s plenty of people believed that if only it were left wing enough Labour could win the next general election, I don’t think anyone believes that this time. Brian Eno can plausibly say that “unelectability” is not an issue in this leadership race because, absent developments over which the Labour Party has no control (eg (an unlikely) further surge of UKIP support splitting the right-wing vote enough to deprive Tories of massive numbers of seats) it is so difficult to see any of the candidates (or, frankly, almost anyone in the Parliamentary party) leading Labour to outright victory, and not difficult to see at least two of the candidates being worse.

So. I’m not telling you who I would vote for (its many years since I was, briefly, a member of the party, and although the distinctly odd voting system seems to allow anyone in the world to vote, I’m not going to), and I’m certainly not telling you who my dad and step-mum will be voting for: but I am curious what it looks like on the ground, why people are voting for Corbyn, what people think will happen in the next 2 to 3 years, etc. Please be polite to one another in this forum—I don’t mind how rude you are to each other in party meetings, because I don’t believe for a second you will be as rude as people were in the 80’s).

BY the way: without gooogling, can you name the last time the the candidate who was unambiguously the most left-wing became leader? Its been a very rare event.

New(ish) Crime Writers, part 1.

by Harry on July 17, 2015

Ruth Rendell died in May. I never exactly loved the Wexford novels (I did love George Baker as Wexford on TV, though), but her non-Wexford novels were great, especially the mature Barbara Vines. I stopped reading her altogether in the late 1990s, only on the very sensible grounds that at some point I would have a lot of her novels to read (I started devouring them about 8 months ago, co-incidentally). She is the last to die of what I thought of as the post-Julian Symons triumvirate of great English crime writers—her, PD James, and Reginald Hill.

But in the past few years I’ve been discovering a host of fantastic successors to recommend to you [1]. Here’s the first.

William Shaw. Of my candidates, Shaw is the one you are most likely to have missed. I can’t even remember how I came across the first book She’s Leaving Home (UK title, inferior in my opinion: A Song from Dead Lips ). It is the first in a projected trilogy all set within a few weeks at the end of 1967 and beginning of 1968; focused on an Irish-English cop in his thirties with a female side kick (or, as my son sometimes confusedly calls it, ‘kick-butt’ about 10 years his junior. I just finished the second, The Kings of London (inferior UK title: A House of Knives ) and already find it hard to believe that Shaw will stop at three. Prerequisites for qualifying as a successor to the triumvirate are tight plots that, while complex, do not strain credibility too much, good characterisation, and fluent prose. Shaw does all that. But he also creates the feel of a world which is changing rapidly in ways that some of the protagonists only dimly understand: he is early-Mad-Men-like in his insistence on period detail. And Mad Men-like, for that matter, in both his portrayal of the casual sexism of the time, and of the interesting women who are the recipients of it. It takes a while—quite a while—to get used to his sparse, depressive, prose, but that is a key part of the immersive experience of reading the novels. As I’ve indicated, the first two books both have different titles in the US than in the UK (incredibly annoying!!) and for what it is worth, better the US titles are better (in fact, about half way through the first I wondered why it was not called “She’s Leaving Home”—and then found that, indeed, that was the US title). So be warned if you are buying—only buy each one, once.

An aside: also well worth reading is his other book, Spying in Guru Land: Inside Britain’s Cults, in which he does numerous things that no IRB would approve, is a very balanced assessment of cult life, and is genuinely illuminating about the Waco massacre.

[1] Warning: as will become clear later on, not all of these successors are English, I’m including Scots and Irish, and will include Welsh if anyone can either recommend a good Welsh one, or convince me that one of my candidates is, in fact, Welsh.

Nicholas Winton is dead

by Harry on July 1, 2015

Winton organized the Czech kinderstransport that delivered a total of 669 children bound for concentration camps to the UK, instead. He kept quiet about it until his wife found his records in the attic. He lived to 106, and died today, the anniversary of the train carrying the largest number of children—241—departed from Prague. BBC story here. Account of how he pulled it off here. He said that anybody would have done it.

Interesting video story:

Challenge to cynics:

Justice for Janitors Day

by Harry on June 15, 2015

Today is Justice for Janitors Day. Its the 25th anniversary of the police brutality in Century City that resulted in one miscarriage, numerous broken bones and serious injuries and, according the article linked, only 38 arrests: a a remarkable organizing victory. Congratulations to SIEU, and all involved for 25 years of sterling work!

I was one of the supporters of the striking janitors at the June 15 1990 demonstration. We’d held a demonstration a week or so earlier, just before the strike began, which was pretty rowdy but extremely good-humoured. To be honest, I’m not sure anyone anticipated the strike succeeding—if they did, I certainly wasn’t among them. The unprovoked, and quite extreme, police attack on the demonstration was probably key to victory: everything was televised, to the extent that when I went into my bank on the Monday, two of the tellers recognized me from the TV coverage, and commiserated (having demanded to see my injuries—half stripping in a bank is a little weird) and congratulated me on being involved in a cause they clearly supported. I believe the full story is that, having seen coverage on CNN Europe, a Danish union threatened secondary action against the company unless it settled, which it did, promptly, the following week. (The City of Los Angeles settled its lawsuit less quickly, because the Rodney King beating took place shortly afterward, and as I understand it all LAPD brutality suits were put on hold till that was settled). I know first hand that the attack was entirely unprovoked because shortly before the police went nuts one of the organizers had requested that I come to the front line, on the flimsy grounds that I was the only person they knew to have had prior experience of this sort of situation. Here’s a video about the event (I’m the overweight English-looking guy being dragged around at some point), with some reminiscences below the fold.

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Just off the presses: a new book I have edited with Michael McPherson on philosophical problems in higher education, The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (amazon)


Here’s the blurb:

In this book, philosopher Harry Brighouse and Spencer Foundation president Michael McPherson bring together leading philosophers to think about some of the most fundamental questions that higher education faces. Looking beyond the din of arguments over how universities should be financed, how they should be run, and what their contributions to the economy are, the contributors to this volume set their sights on higher issues: ones of moral and political value. The result is an accessible clarification of the crucial concepts and goals we so often skip over—even as they underlie our educational policies and practices.

The contributors tackle the biggest questions in higher education: What are the proper aims of the university? What role do the liberal arts play in fulfilling those aims? What is the justification for the humanities? How should we conceive of critical reflection, and how should we teach it to our students? How should professors approach their intellectual relationship with students, both in social interaction and through curriculum? What obligations do elite institutions have to correct for their historical role in racial and social inequality? And, perhaps most important of all: How can the university serve as a model of justice? The result is a refreshingly thoughtful approach to higher education and what it can, and should, be doing.

The contributors are Amy Gutmann, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Paul Weithman, Allen Buchanan, Erin Kelly, Lionel McPherson (no relation to my co-editor) and our own Chris Bertram.

I imagine CT readers will be particularly interested in CB’s excellent chapter on philosophical defenses of the humanities, and, I hope, in my and McPherson’s concluding chapter which outlines a series of philosophical problems in higher education that are not discussed in the book, but we think merit further discussion. A version of Amy Gutmann’s excellent chapter is online here.

I should say that we encouraged authors to concentrate on problems arising in selective settings, not because we think they are more important (we don’t) but because we thought that we would get better essays if people reflected on what they knew best. The essays are all written in a style accessible to undergraduates, and in my experience undergraduates find them very engaging, and are troubled by the questions they raise. We are hoping that others will take up some of the problems addressed and some of the suggestions we make in the conclusion and do further work on them.

One of the stupidest things I have done in life was not taking my dad up on his suggestion, when I was 18, that I go and spend some time living with his friend, hero, and mentor, Harry Ree, and act a sort of secretary for him. As a result, I never met Harry. Harry was an academic education scholar, of the very progressive variety who, later in his career (well, he was only slightly older than I am now) quit professoring, and went to teach in a comprehensive school. I knew, even then, that the regard in which my dad held him meant he was really, really, something, and it was only a combination of shyness, social awkwardness, and the general low-level depression that plagued me for much of my youth and early adulthood, that stopped me taking up my dad’s suggestion. I think about it now, reasonably often, having played the sort of role in younger people’s lives that dad would have liked Harry to play in mine. Idiotic really.

Until recently I assumed that Harry was, at that time, still bound by the Official Secrets Act, so I wouldn’t have learned much about his wartime activities. Not so! He, in fact, starred in School For Danger (aka Now It Can Be Told (youtube has the date wrong)). He began the war as a conscientious objector but then spent most of 1943 in occupied France, working for the SOE aiding the Resistance. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and at a celebration held at the Institute of Education my dad got hold of this, amazing, broadcast. I tried to put it up last week for the anniversary of VE Day, but the file was too large for CT and I only just figured out how to put it somewhere else – and anyway, there was a lot of other, less welcome, stuff going on that day. I think the BBC probably hold the copyright, so if they request me to I’ll take it down (but please, if you’re from the BBC, don’t ask me to take it down). It’s a tribute to the ordinary French people who lived, and those who died, fighting the Nazis in the small and large ways they could. It’s also a tribute to the men and women of SOE. I don’t know how difficult it is to give your life for a valuable cause. But I am pretty sure that, however difficult that is, it is even more difficult to live every minute knowing that you, and those who are risking their lives just by not turning you in, might be captured, tortured, and killed, any minute. It is 15 minutes of beautiful, inspiring, intensely sad, poetry. Everyone in who understands English should listen to it. Humbling.

Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on May 13, 2015

I’ve decided to unilaterally declare today “Viv Stanshall Day”.

I noticed last night that Radio 4 Extra is repeating Big Shot: A Trip Through the Canyons of Viv Stanshall’s Mind.

So I got very anxious about a student I’ve been teaching all year, who is visiting Madison from a UK university. I have taught her philosophy and helped her with her writing, and given her the best mince pies she has ever had and generally looked after her welfare. I even showed her that wonderful youtube clip of Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steele talking about Americans (I showed the whole class, they loved it). But—I had neglected her national heritage. Might she go home without having learned anything about Viv? So I sent her some videos:

Her response (timestamped 1.04am): “I am listening to these in the union with Gab and am trying not to just sit here laughing to myself!… My Pink Half of a Drainpipe – the bit about rice pudding. Just all of it really; wonderful, just wonderful. I am convinced I have seen the tigers one before, which was bloody funny…These have brought me much joy.” And I know she doesn’t lie because she hated the paper of mine that we read in class, and was quite uninhibited about saying so.

Tragedy averted. Maybe the now we have a majority Tory government at last, they will officially declare today Viv Stanshall day! Can’t I start a petition or something?

The interview I linked to last week, about our book Family Values provoked what, for both me and Adam, has been a somewhat bizarre, and occasionally disturbing, experience. The sequence of events seems to have been this. Some Australian journalist (Tim Blair of the Daily Telegraph) with a beef against ABC, the broadcaster of the interview, wrote an article/post lambasting ABC for broadcasting it. Then, Mr. Rush Limbaugh picked this up and, in turn, lambasted Adam for insanity and ridiculousness (quite to my irritation, he didn’t mention me at all). Then – well, I guess a mention on Mr, Limbaugh’s show is enough to get you a lot of publicity, and the right and ultra-right wing blogs took up the cause. We started getting invitations to appear on talk shows, and a slew of hate mail (almost all of it to Adam – the worst I got was one saying “your also a fucken idiot like your mate adam smith. pair of wanker fucksticks. simple. fuckoff idiot). NRO took it up, and that spread it further. As you might guess, once Mr. Limbaugh has hold of something, the white supremacists pick it up pretty quickly too, and one site (to which I will not link, because it is so repulsive) celebrated the 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by telling its readers that if the world had only listened to him, people like me and Adam would be silent.

Now, what did we say that was so insane and ridiculous? – what was it for which, according to one of Professor Althouse’s commentators, we should be shot?

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Kieran’s posts below, and the various discussions I’ve seen in the papers, and heard on the radio, have got my wondering: isn’t it rational for the Labour Party to split, now, before it saddles itself with a new leader?

Why should it do so? Well as many people have said, it is too right wing to defeat the SNP, given the SNP’s savvy (and in my view largely cynical) adoption of left-social democratic political positions that appeal to the Scottish electorate. But to have any chance of restoring its hold Scotland in the short term, it needs to become more obviously left wing than it dares to be, for fear of losing antsy English voters. Two, quite separate, parties (preferably with identifiably different names) might have a better chance of becoming a governing coalition. As it is, all three of the major English parties refrain from fielding candidates in one part of the Union—Northern Ireland. An amicable divorce might help, not hurt, the Labour Party’s prospects. And, simultaneously, help save the Union by giving Scots a prospect for an actual voice and real influence in government (eventually).

UK election open thread.

by Harry on May 7, 2015

3 seats in, all Labour in the northeast. Exit polls indicate meltdown for the LDs, but the Tories doing much better than they expected. Also that UKIP will be the third party in England and Wales in terms of votes. Speculate/Enjoy/Analyze away.

Swift on Family Values

by Harry on May 4, 2015

My friend and co-author Adam Swift was on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s show The Philosopher’s Zone yesterday (I think it was yesterday) talking about our book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. The podcast is here, and the website for that particular show is here. You can also here him on Philosophy Bites here. There’s much more to the book than the consideration of parental partiality on which these two interviews focus, but I can see why they are excited about that part of it. Listening to both broadcasts I was struck by two things—one, which I did already know, is how good Adam is at explaining a fairly complex set of ideas simply but without oversimplifying. The other, though, was how good (in both cases) the interviewers are. Good interviewers really know their stuff, and use it to prompt the interviewee, never showing off what they, themselves, know. This is a rare case where I know exactly how much the interviewer had to know in order to the interview well, and it is a lot! Anyway, enjoy it.