Monday 23 November 2009

Flood risks

Bad floods in the Lake District have dominated the news. One policeman directing traffic away from a bridge died when it collapsed into the swollen river. 1300 houses were flood damaged, and now 18 bridges are feared to be unsafe, disrupting the flow of Monday traffic.

By international standards this is a small disaster. It is not New Orleans. Far worse happens in the poor world, where thousands die, because warnings are late and buildings are fragile, and sometimes criminally unsafe. However, it is our little disaster, and it raises the general question as to what risks can be managed, and which must be simply endured.

No conceivable flood defences would have saved Cockermouth from the head high flood waters. Politicians do not want to admit in public that it would be cheaper to clean up after a flash flood than build walls round such towns. Better to let places suffer than waste money. Being flooded out of one's home is, somewhat surprisingly, highly traumatising despite no lives being lost, but this too can be set aside, and rightly ascribed to Fate.

Planning authorities have contributed to the problem, by letting houses be built on many flood plains: short termism at its worst. These same authorities and police forces have been quick to prohibit owners from return to shops that are palpably still standing, and closing off traffic from bridges till they have been inspected. Nothing wrong with that, you may say. We don't want another death on an unsafe bridge.

This goes to the heart of risk. No-one is allowed to proceed at their own risk. Obviously if you are an engineer and inspect a bridge and find a large gap in the structure, you are authorised to close it. However, why not allow people to cross bridges which have not been inspected, if they are willing to do so at their own risk? Similarly, why not let owners visit their destroyed shops in Cockermouth High Street at their own risk? Indeed, why not concede that adults can take risks?

Tuesday 17 November 2009

The Night Stalker’s face

The Metropolitan Police have just completed their longest ever hunt for a rapist, who attacked an estimated 200 elderly Londoners for over 17 terrorising years. An accomplished burglar, he staked out their houses to be sure they were alone, cut the telephone and lights, and broke in at night to shine a flashlight in their faces as they slept. Among the elderly women there were also 10 elderly men. He severely traumatised his victims over several hours, and also tried to form a relationship with them, pretending to be solicitous and friendly. He never left a fingerprint, but there were many sperm samples, from which it was possible to determine his DNA profile.

Gerontophilia is the technical and refined name for the condition, but it hides a lack of proper understanding as to why a man should be drawn to have sex with women who are past reproductive age. Leaving aside many fanciful theories, one can at least surmise that the individual has a distorted and probably delusional idea about the elderly, and about human relationships in general.

Who were the police searching for? The police photofit, released to the public during the hunt, showed a fine featured, apparently white man in a balaclava. If they were searching for such a person then it becomes less puzzling why he evaded capture for 17 years. By 2008 he was being described in The Times as having “light black skin”. It turns out the police took 3000 DNA swabs from “persons of interest” of whom many if not all were black men. Why this discrepancy?

UK crime reporting follows certain rules, intended to improve race relations. The race of a perpetrator, although known to the victim, and often to witnesses, is rarely mentioned. Given that racial minorities constitute roughly 8% of the population, knowing the race of the assailant reduces the suspect pool by at least 92%. It is slightly more than that, because the 8% contains different racial groups. Police had worked out from his DNA that the rapist was a black man from the Windward Islands, and were collecting voluntary DNA swabs, often encountering protests on the basis of racial discrimination.

What race was the perpetrator? The story was covered BBC TV News but nothing about the alleged perpetrator’s appearance was mentioned. This leaves the viewer in a confused state. Naturally, they want to see the face of the person who has committed these acts. They will have to wait for the trial. Only afterwards will we be able to discuss whether the search for this rapist was impeded by not being able to tell the public, very plainly, what he looked like in terms of his racial background, and gaining full cooperation in the volunteering of DNA swabs from people similar to him in terms of age, height and, yes, racial origins.

Monday 16 November 2009

What does music mean?

In the spirit of Twitter, at this very moment I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 13 in B Flat. It has changed my condition for the better, but I cannot tell you how it has managed to do this.

I was reflecting on this puzzle last Friday in the glorious Chapel at Trinity College Cambridge where the choirs of Clare and Trinity sang works by Purcell, Handel and Christopher Brown. Christopher Brown? More of him later.

How did music evolve? Some early psychological theories were that a rhythmic beat was useful in coordinating physical work, and singing was a way of getting individuals to move in unison, doing useful things. From that point of view, music is an elaboration of group cohesion, closely related to working and dancing. This seems likely, and on that basis one could start looking for musical centres in the brain.

Steven Pinker’s more recent view is that music is a by-product of our language system. It does not have any specific brain centres, nor any intrinsic meaning, but simply exploits the margins of linguistic communication. It is not essential, but simply a nice-to-have, in which brain systems designed for speaking and listening can also be titivated by an artful construction of sounds. It has its own “language rules”, but meaning is not one of them.

On this theory, music has an effect on us because it exploits a gap in our defences. It “gets to us” because it can arouse what seem to be meanings without having to commit itself to definitions.

Purcell and Handel certainly mastered this language of the emotions. Few contemporary composers can match them, and certainly not Christopher Brown, whose atonal composition produced at best serious expressions in audience, and at worst a wish to leave until Handel could take over. Brown was trying too hard not to please us, showing off a talent to jar the senses. The composer was also burdened by a long poem, which it would have been better for its author, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, to have got up from his pew among us and read aloud, without accompaniment.

Ode for St Cecilia’s Day is a joyful celebration of heavenly harmony. That evening we were uplifted by a great choir, and marvellous trumpeters. All the young soloists were fine singers, and charming with it. In his great work Handel relied on the sparse text of John Dryden, who should have the last word:

What passion cannot music raise and quell?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Gordon Brown gets the blame

The Bereaved can blame in three directions: themselves, perpetrators, and helpers.

A mother who loses her son in a war could blame herself for letting him join the army, blame the enemy, or blame anyone whose comfort fails to assuage her grief. The last category may seem unfair on helpers, and surprising, but it makes sense in terms of self preservation.

Self blame is punishing, which at any time is dreadful, and worse during the pain of loss. Blaming the enemy is curiously hard. The enormity of what they have done sometimes makes them impossible to visualise. They are beneath contempt, and sometimes have to be wiped from the memory for as long as possible. Helpers often catch late anger and rage at loss, because they are near to hand and incapable of doing very much, because they cannot bring back the dead. Their comments rouse hope, but any mistake dashes hope to the ground.

No wonder people run from the bereaved, excusing themselves by saying they probably want to be left alone. Why put your foot in it?

Hardest of all is to decide whether a politician who commits troops to battle, and then writes to the bereaved can be considered a helper or a perpetrator. If a perpetrator, then politicians could never sanction a war, which would be noble but might lead to the deaths of their own citizens. They would rightly be accused of failing to protect their nationals. We would probably all blame them then.