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Christmas Is A Time Of Giving

All week I've been watching the birds in the frosty garden, goldfinches squabbling, thrushes and blackbirds bullying the bluetits (I am sorry to report); starlings bullying all parties, and all of them preferring the fastfood buttered crumbs to the healthy Wild Bird Seed Mix. Hm. Since they're here, and clearly hungry, I think I'm going to succumb to temptation and buy them some live mealworms for Xmas. It'll be fun. But today all change, rain and wind sweeping by my window. It must be a wild day further north, if it's like this in Sussex.

I see my entry in Aqueduct's review of 2012 looks outlandishly gloomy compared with some of the recommended reading etc provided by others. Oh, well, I'm not alone, and I can't help it anyway. My first study was history, fuelling a lifelong passion for "knowing where the bodies are buried". It's not my fault that so often, digging into what really happened in this world means that's what you're literally going to find. It's worth it, in my opinion, because along with those awful "distressing images" you learn that people in Sierra Leone, people in Argentina really are no different from you. Dispelling the ugly feeling that someone who's had her hands and feet cut off by her rapists is somehow another kind of animal, she can't be a young woman who thinks and feels, likes jazz, wanted to be a doctor... Another very good excuse is that I'm reacting against David Cameron's highly scientific social engineering by suggestion, (aka The Nudge Unit) telling me that the way to be happy is just to ignore the bad things. Just don't think about them!

"My colleagues and I have found that people tend to discount the relevance of undesirable information to themselves (such as news that alcohol is bad for your liver) but readily adopt good news (being told that red wine is good for the heart). So when smokers see warning signs on cigarette packets they think: "Yes, smoking kills - but mostly it kills the other guy." At the same when we hear the housing market is going up we think: "The value of my house is going to double!"Using brain imaging techniques we discovered that the tendency to discount bad news is related to how well regions of the frontal lobe are coding unexpected negative information.Now, you may think that discounting bad news can get people into trouble - for example, causing us to smoke more and save less. There is some truth to this, but it is also good for our mental health. Our research shows that the successful incorporation of bad news is related to depression. Discounting bad news, as most of us do, presumably allows us to keep a rosy view of the future, and while this view is not necessarily realistic it does keep us happy."*

Not to mention the new gospel in Downing Street: David Cameron's big plan to convince me that MONEY is actually all we need in life, and all we should strive for. Whereas "love" and "beauty" and all that has been overrated.

Ever had the feeling you were living in a thirties sci-fi story? Aldous Huxley couldn't have made this up.
And you are getting sleeeepy! sleeeeepy! Sleeeeepy!

Anyway, for the record, my best non-fiction (which means popular science about Mathematics, since that's been my drive for 2012), was Why Beauty Is Truth, Ian Stewart. Now joined by The Nothing That Is, Robert Kaplan. This book gets such grumpy reviews on amazon, I was almost put off. Don't be! It's wonderfully free-ranging, entertaining, discursive, a real "natural history" of the extraordinary development and apotheosis of a sign that just meant leave a space here, or, we haven't got any, in Babylon, long ago. The chapter on mathematical function is brilliant. I only worked through a very few of the examples, as I am so slow. But knowing that I, even I, could work through his examples gave me immense confidence; and respect for Kaplan.

For the record #2 I am so glad Price won the Turner Prize. She's proper. The other three nominees were, as is de rigeur I suppose, just purely nincompoops. Three different varieties of frolicking Art World nincompoops (IMHO)

Christmas is a time of giving, which is why I made sure to watch the Why Poverty series programme on the devastating truth about Humanitarian Aid In Conflict Zones, from Biafra to Kosovo. Wow. Seeing how it all went horribly wrong, gathered together in one place, is salutary, or indeed gob-smacking. We want to think that Aid Workers are better people than ourselves, that we can just hand them our money, and sigh with relief and get on with our lives. But they're not. They're just people like us: desperate to DO SOMETHING; plunging into action as a sedative for the awful pain of seeing so many bad things happen to the innocent and helpless; given iresistible license by mass support, and getting rightly fooled, abused, and shamefully prostituted by every warlord in sight, from Goma to Tony Blair and co in Iraq. Ah, well. The big charities have changed their model, so lets hope it won't happen again. Much.

Medecins Sans Frontieres came out relatively well, on the when you're in a hole stop digging meter, which is what I would have expected. And here's another few names for me to conjure with, at this magical time, right now. Anita Haidary, co-founder of Young Women For Change, Afghanistan (Do Not Send Money. Don't send money to anyone. Write a letter instead). Professor Jasmin Nario-Galace, of the campaign for a small arms treaty. Katherine Quarmby, investigating violence against disabled people. But there are so many of them, the people who refuse to close their eyes. The more you look the more you find. Good to know. And I'm feeling less sleepy already...

The keynote image, gloomy as my reputation, is a November oak tree, last Sunday, just outside Butcher's Wood, on the way to Clayton. More on the trees next post.

*this no doubt explains why the government's go-ahead for fracking, announced yesterday, spent very few hours on the BBC front page, and then vanished. It won't make gas cheaper. It involves horrible, devastating strip-mining all over your beautiful country, all in order to squeeze out a fraction more of the poison that's going to send your grandchildren straight to hell. Okay, this is all undeniable, it's true. But it will make our pals rich, and we like that. And anyway, see, it's gone! Just don't think about it, and everything will be fine!