by David on April 14, 2013

The film Compliance tells the hardly-believable but essentially true story of a sociopathic phone-pranker who, pretending to be a police officer, persuades a fast-food restaurant manageress to detain and strip-search a young female employee, then leave her to be sexually abused, under the direction of phoned orders, by the manageress’s middle-aged fiancé. It caused a little upset at Sundance, I’ve heard, but I found it a marvelously acted and beautifully shot, claustrophobic film that built quickly from mild humour to disbelief and offence then outrage and shock.

Compliance briefly offers Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience to authority  as some sort of explanation and makes a few references to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment  throughout; but I feel that the the real-life Kentucky McDonalds case , mildly fictionalised in the film, and the 70 or so other hoax calls of varying degrees of nastiness are unfathomable enough to demand an extra dimension of explanation.

Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds touches intriguingly on bizarre beliefs shared by relatively large numbers but I was reminded of psychoses shared on a smaller scale in the folie à deux, a syndrome where delusional beliefs may be shared with another person – or, more generally, the folie à plusieurs, known to DSM as the shared psychotic disorder. A startling example of the folie à deux is that of the twins Ursula and Sabina Eriksson who, among other things, deliberately and repeatedly hurled themselves in front of motorway traffic (the strange sequence of events is worth reading about for the sheer oddness).

In the film and in the real-life fast-food restaurant case the film lightly fictionalises it seems to me that the participants were doing more than obeying authority. They were sharing in a fiction that became gradually more incredible through the ratcheting demands of the hoaxer – but a fiction that was supported and maintained by the repeatedly tractable participants in the hoax. Halfway through the proceedings, the restaurant staff and even perhaps the principal victim were already suspending disbelief and supporting each other in a narrative that would have been preposterous to anyone who hadn’t been carefully prepped stepping freshly into their strange world.

These musings cause me to wonder then if some similar folies à plusieurs aren’t perhaps the stuff of our everyday lives. Perhaps we might expect to find our families and our workplaces relying upon this penchant for shared delusions and our willingness to maintain implausible fictions.

In the film the bubble is burst when a maintenance worker who hasn’t been at the restaurant all day is confronted with the horrifying consequence of the hoax and simply says ’No!’ Similarly, a few weeks after you’ve left a long-held job, say, the day to day urgencies seem very like a strange psychotic episode, and the hierarchies, demands and necessities of what was just a short time ago so terribly important suddenly vanish – not only because you’re no longer working at that particular job but because the delusion that that job and that company were so very vital and important is no longer being shared.

California, here we come

by David on June 17, 2012

Watchtower, Sierras

Fire lookout, the Sierras, California, 2004

It’s 8 years since I was last in California, although I’ve returned to the US frequently since. This year, in about five weeks time, we’re flying to San Francisco then taking a car up to the Redwoods, back down to Yosemite, across to the Canyons and back to the coast. It’s a long drive but we’ve managed similar distances on holiday and this time we’ve booked all the hotels up front so we won’t have to make a town by mid afternoon to be sure of getting a place to stay.

I think people in the UK have a view of the US as being largely urban, probably because of Hollywood. Even when a US movie isn’t set in a city it’s usually – with the exception of Westerns – a Texas Chainsaw or The Hills Have Eyes or Deliverance-style warning of the atavistic terrors of the wilderness. I’ve been in North Georgia and South Carolina and I’ve drifted on the Chattooga River, the locations of Deliverance and they’re all very pleasant. Whatever those movies are about, the more they keep city tourists away from the beautiful countryside the better.

Countryside is probably the wrong word to use for the vast stretches of wildness, desert, mountains, high plains and forests of the US that I’ve been lucky enough to explore. Countryside implies a comfortable Cotswolds-style stretch of greenery and lanes, stone houses and the odd thatched roof, and ‘National Park’ in the UK suggests a few miles  of rugged mountains or coastline with plenty of rural tea shops for refreshment. By contrast, National Park in the US would be a wilderness with visitors congregated around a helpful ranger station and perhaps dispersing a mile or so from it, leaving the rest of the enormous park to the few who bother to walk a little further, and to the wolves, bears and mountain lions.

male suspect, initially identified as Iranian, accidentally blew his own legs off There’s a shame…

by David on February 14, 2012

male suspect, initially identified as Iranian, accidentally blew his own legs off

There's a shame.

Thai police say male suspect, initially identified as Iranian, accidentally blew his own legs off in a series of blasts in the capital

Ow. Right arm seizing up. Might need that cortisone injection into my elbow. Halp!

by David on February 14, 2012

Ow. Right arm seizing up. Might need that cortisone injection into my elbow. Halp!

Cortisone shots — Comprehensive overview covers definition, risks, results of cortisone injections.

The comprehensive Russian Rulers podcast moves on to Stalin’s Purges. Part I. I was at least half…

by David on February 13, 2012

The comprehensive Russian Rulers podcast moves on to Stalin's Purges. Part I.

I was at least half-fortunate in falling in with a Trotskyist outfit when I went through the mandatory youthful left-wing radical phase so I never held a torch for Stalin. He was always the enemy.

I'm very happy to forgive people who made a similar but less fortunate mistake when young, people who found themselves accidentally associated with the Communist Party. It's when they're older and still yearn for the lands of the Stasi, the Trabant, the famines, the purges and the Gulag…then I have absolutely no time for them at all. No time for their willful arrested adolescence, their Che posters and crazy anti-Americanism. Idiots, the lot of them.

Interesting fact: the Soviet Union didn't increase total factor productivity at all during its entire existence. All its economic growth came from the consumption of more resources. By contrast, over the same period, a whopping 80% of the West's growth came from productivity improvements and only 20% from increased resource consumption.

Another reason why, if you're Green, you should embrace Western capitalism and run a mile from planned, non-market economies.

Also, I notice the Philospher's Zone podcast is on Michael Dummet, a philosopher I've only recently discovered…an expert on Frege who was terribly shocked and disappointed when he found out about Frege's virulent antisemitism. The host, Alan Saunders, is extremely knowledgeable (I think he has a PhD in Philosophy himself) and makes a very helpful host. Recommended.

Download past episodes or subscribe to future episodes for free from Russian Rulers History Podcast by Mark Schauss on the iTunes Store.

Guillaume de Machaut, it’s said, was the last great poet who was also a great composer. I think y…

by David on February 12, 2012

Guillaume de Machaut, it's said, was the last great poet who was also a great composer. I think you can hear the Arabic influence in much of his music; not this one so much – Douce dame jolie – but I like the tune…

The Reconquista had finished and the Moors expelled from Al-Andalus, but they'd been there for centuries almost up to de Machaut's time. The crusades had been going on for the previous few centuries, with consequent traffic between the Holy Land and the West. And of course Arab seafarers, merchants and pirates were always sailing around the Mediterranean (Lepanto was another couple of hundred years in the future). Byzantium had another century left before it fell to the Ottomans and it too must have been a fruitful source of Arabic musical influences.

Many of the old troubadour songs have a distinct feel of the Muezzin's call to prayer. I don't know enough about music to pinpoint exactly what it is that's been borrowed, but there's very definitely a connection.

This is rather good, isn't it.


L'amour courtois
Guillaume de Machaut : Douce Dame Jolie, virelai

The excellent Andreas Scholl singing an Anglo-Scottish traditional ballad, the gloomy and beautif…

by David on February 12, 2012

The excellent Andreas Scholl singing an Anglo-Scottish traditional ballad, the gloomy and beautiful Lord Randall, He's poisoned and soon to die:

Make my bed soon
For I'm sick to my heart
And I fain would lie down.

Traditional English Lute Lord Randall
Watch In High Quality:

A tentative stab at using textures

by David on February 12, 2012

A tentative stab at using textures

Happy Birthday, Mr Lincoln Because I’m running the @cdarwin Twitter stream I know when it’s his b…

by David on February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr Lincoln

Because I'm running the @cdarwin Twitter stream I know when it's his birthday; but I was surprised when I discovered that Abraham Lincoln was born the same day in 1809 as Darwin.

In 2006 I visited Hodgenville, Kentucky, where Lincoln was born, and the slightly odd Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, which sports a replica Greek Temple inside which is a replica log cabin. That same year I was in DC and visited the Lincoln Memorial, where King stood to make that speech and where the Gettysburg Address is inscribed on a wall in the portico housing the huge seated statue.

Though I admire Thomas Jefferson, I was a little uneasy on my visit to Monticello, his home in Virginia, because of the slavery issue; even then the guides skirted around it a little. it's confusing the recall that the man who wrote the words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

was a slave owner ( and don't get me started on the Sally Hemmings story, and the Monticello Association).

Lincoln is a less ambiguous figure. Critics have tried to suggest that Lincoln wasn't primarily concerned with freeing slaves, arguing that as a politician he had mixed motives and that he'd have settled for an agreement that left slavery in the South. But it was Lincoln who abolished slavery and so when he made speeches with fine, stirring sentiments we can be happy that he really did include everyone in his vision of the US.

The Gettysburg Address, a short speech apparently dashed off quickly, is a fine example of his oratory.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…

…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

and just for Europeans who might have slightly confused notions of US political history, I might point out that Lincoln was a Republican.

Useful. Unit testing Google App Engine web apps.

by David on February 11, 2012

Useful. Unit testing Google App Engine web apps.

A GAE application is run either by or in the production environment. This tutorial show how to write tests for GAE. We write the tests using the standard python unittest module, and f…